On A New Weekly Segment: Cooking With Friends

I’m super excited and thrilled to announce that I will be doing a weekly “Cooking with Friends” segment that I will be doing with my Maid of Honor, Alex! Each week, we will be cooking the same dish and we will be recording/FaceTiming together as we work our way through a recipe, changing it up for our own tastes and seeing how it all comes out at the end! And who knows, there may even be bonus Cooking with Friends: Local Edition, as I have definitely been asking some of my more baking savvy friends to help me with my lacking baking abilities. We are still working out the kinks and logistics, but it’s happening! Keep an eye out for the first session sometime in January or February New Year!

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On Christmas Parties & First Christmas Trees

I don’t know WHY I bothered trying three different grocery stores, but when it came to finding party sized samosas, spring rolls, and spanikopita, ONLY TONY’S HAD SOME! Seriously?! Ugh, and I think I may have posted about Tony’s when I was making Empanada’s and how Tony’s was the only place that sold the premade empanada wrappers…so I hereby solemnly promise, on my honor, that I will only go to Tony’s for all my International food needs. If this promise seems repetitive, my apologies, but sometimes a good reminder can go a long way. But Christmas is my favorite time of year because this is when Frankie and I throw our only party of the year, and it’s definitely a highlight! We also go ALL OUT! I mean, we’re taking catering from Spiro’s up in Waukegan, a special cocktail, a pony keg of Spotted Cow, appetizers made by yours truly, and some appetizers not made by yours truly because I have spent whole parties in the kitchen cooking and cleaning up, and sometimes, not making everything yourself is okay, especially if it means getting to spend more time with your guests, am I right?!

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This year’s menu looked like this:

Drinks: Make-Your-Own Moscow Mule’s (using antique spirit pumps filled with Tito’s, the Dog Lover’s Vodka), Spotted Cow (purchased from Tenuta’s Deli in Kenosha; their price for the keg was exceptional, even though I think their deposit is a little steep, but you get that back as soon as you return the empty keg, so only a temporary hurt on the credit card), and access to other spirits that our guests may prefer if beer and Moscow Mule’s don’t sit well with them.

Appetizers: Baked Brie with Blackberry Jam & Apricot Jam (now, these are SUPER easy to make on your own at home, BUT I happened to find two of them premade from Jewel, for a little less than I would have paid to make it from scratch, so I thought, what the heck! And most grocery stores should sell the premade bakable brie in the special cheese area), my famous Bacon Wrapped Jalapeno Poppers, standard cheese tray that included gruyere and white cheddar cheese with water crackers, and spanikopita (purchased frozen from Tony’s), chips & two kinds of salsa (pico & blended). I also had some frozen vegetarian spring rolls & Tostino’s Pizza Rolls for any 2am hunger crunches too, but ended up not needing them! And yes, I did say 2am. This year, most of our guests left at 2.30, and the final guests left at 3.30 I believe, so I guess everyone enjoyed themselves!

Dinner: Catering from Spiro’s: Make Your Own Italian Beef/Bomber’s complete with dipping au jus, bread, sweet peppers, and giardiniera; Cathy’s Baked Chicken (always a favorite and can be stripped from the bones to be made into a casserole or soup afterwards; Greek Salad; Mostaccioli (penne & red sauce). This is where we splurge the most, but it’s worth it to see everyone happy and full! And the key for us is to start saving for our party starting January 1st of every year. Also, no joke. We put a little bit away every month and whatever we have at the end, that’s our entire party budget!

Dessert: Funfetti Cupcakes (a normal addition) and Gingerbread Sheet Cake Bites with Stabilized Whipped Cream made by Ed (he had them cut into bars, but we thought bites would be better for a larger group, and then we topped the whipped cream with just a sprinkling of cinnamon), and this was an AWESOME addition that may become tradition after how well it went over with everyone! I even plan to take a crack at this myself over new years with my new Kitchen Aid Mixer, which was a fabulous Christmas present from my future in-laws, and I cannot WAIT to try that sucker out! (Recipes are linked.)

Decorations: Honest to goodness, almost EVERYTHING came from the Dollar Store. No joke because honestly, people don’t come to your parties to analyze your decorations or wonder if it’s Crate & Barrel or Pier 1. They are there to spend time with the people who matter in their lives and just be joyful! So I firmly believe that any home can look beautiful with a budget, and while I hesitated with revealing my secret, I actually am really proud of what I have put together in years past, which is why they keep appearing in years future, and why I decided I wanted to share! The potpourri, Dollar Store. The red candles on my wine glasses, and the wine glasses themselves, Dollar Store. The fake garland, which I think I will replace with something juuuuuust a little nicer next year, Dollar Store. Most of the bigger ornaments, Dollar Store. The small ornaments, Walgreens (yup, you read that right, Walgreens) and I add to them every year for about $20…each year the patterns change, and if they can be integrated with some of the setups I already have, done deal. And all the other decor we’ve accumulated over the years were from mine & Frankie’s family, and some are even Christmas gifts! My rule of thumb is that you should be able to use what you have to decorate your house without breaking the budget. I think the only things I splurged on where the gold & silver plates for the wine glasses, which I bought at Target for $12 each I think? But if you find something similar for less, do it!

The big kicker this year was that Frankie & I got our very first Christmas tree together, and it was a momentous occasion! Sure, it’s not enormous, but it was perfect for our apartment and the space we had to work with! And using all the ornaments we’ve received from friends & family over the years, including a large set of straw stars made in Haiti by Frankie’s mom, we were able to really deck the tree out! And on top, well, that’s  Frankie special from our favorite Urban General Store, Enjoy. If you haven’t been, definitely go next time you’re in the Lincoln Square area! They are one in a million for all things interesting and unique, and I mean, you can’t find a more unique tree topper than this one!

And that’s it! Another Christmas party for the books, and a great anticipation for next year as it will be the first Christmas party that Frankie & I will throw as a married couple, which, can I just say I am SO excited about?! EEK!!! But if you’d like to share your own decorating hacks or favorite appetizers to serve! I’m always looking for new ways to keep our parties interesting and would love to hear what you do! Hoping you all had a Merry Christmas, and a very Happy New Year! — Cooking Maggie

On Roasted Garlic Chicken and ACTUAL Polenta

Recently, I have been dealing with a polenta craving that stemmed from my grits craving from over a month ago that I never satiated because of Mac n Cheese Fest, which frankly satiated my regular craving for cheese for over three weeks. But that’s when my cravings started to kick back in, and frankly, the idea of grits, albeit delicious, just weren’t really reaching the exact note that my craving desired. So, I turned to the Italian cousin of grits: polenta.

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I have only attempted to make polenta once, about two or three years ago, and I did it so horrendously that I just never attempted to make it again. My mistake? I bought the wrong kind of polenta for the kind of polenta I was trying to make. What I wanted was creamy, and what I bought was the prepacked sausage roll of precooked polenta that only required a quick fry in a skillet or bake on a sheet pan. What I should have bought was course corn grits (aka. Polenta), and what I also didn’t know was what brand I needed to be looking for get exactly what I wanted. Enter Bon Appetit, and their recipe for Polenta Cacio e Pepe and their article on baked polenta, which included a feature of Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (also known as Polenta). Seems like an easy enough mistake, right? Okay, maybe that’s me or I really need to invest some time into researching my local grocery stores better…

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But now that I’ve made Polenta again, and this time made it the right way, I think I actually prefer it to grits! (I also really want to try the baked polenta recipe that was on Dinner: A Love Story’s blog.) This recipe was out of this world delicious, and surprisingly light! I will just quickly note that I ended up adding a little more salt & pepper to it (the power of “to taste”), and I think I added a couple more teaspoons of butter to smooth it out a little as well, but definitely added a pinch or two of S&P, stirred, tasted, then added more if it needed it, so don’t feel pressured to stick with the amounts listed on the recipe.

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But then the question becomes, what to pair with it? Ragu goes great with polenta, but since I’m now hunting for a better ragu recipe, I thought maybe best to try something a little different. Chicken perhaps? And then it hit me. About a year ago, I tried this recipe from Food Network, and it was UNREAL how good it was, and for the life of me, I can’t remember why I didn’t bother cooking it again sooner! All you need, about 2-3 heads of garlic (note the word heads, plural, not cloves), some rosemary, about 4 chicken breasts, and that’s it. Sear, roast, serve! It’s that quick and that easy, which I seem to be all about this holiday season especially. Not only are you getting a really tender chicken, but you’re getting the flavor punch of roasted garlic that you can double as a toast topper alongside the chicken! And who doesn’t love a little garlic toast? Spritz a little olive oil on top, and just, oh my gosh, enjoy that moment. And dare you EVEN try to sprinkle a little kosher salt on top?! STOP IT! However, if you are not a fan of garlic, then this chicken recipe is not for you. Instead, I would do a simple baked chicken, or maybe a balsamic glazed chicken, but if you’re game on for garlic, then get ready to fall in love with it to a whole new level!

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I will also note, that if you think this is a little on the heavy side, it honestly wasn’t, which I’ll admit, I was surprised about. I was expecting these dishes together to be rich, but it was just heavy enough to fill me up and allow some enjoyment of roasted green beans, which I felt added a little brightness to the plate! Simply throw green beans (topped with olive oil, salt, and pepper) into the oven at the same temp you’re cooking your chicken, and let them sit for about 10 minutes, stir them up, then roast for another 10 minutes. Then VOILA! Easy peasy! And I felt they were a fantastic accompaniment to the cheesy polenta and herbaceous chicken! So if you’ve been itching to try polenta, this is definitely the way to do it! Spread that delicious holiday cheer ya’ll! — Cooking Maggie

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Polenta Cacio e Pepe from Bon Appetit

Garlic-Roasted Chicken from Food Network

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On Slow Cooker Beef Ragu

Ragu seems like the easiest thing in the world to just throw into a pot and leave it alone right? Wrong. I have since learned that you should REALLY research any ragu recipe you find because some are going to say “simple and flavorful” and they’ll tasted like bland meat…gross. Well, as it does sometimes happen to even the best of us (or at least, I hope it does), I found a dud recipe…and I found it somewhere I wasn’t expecting, which is incredibly disappointing. True to my word, I’m not going to name or badmouth the blog I found this recipe at because that’s just not the kind of cook/blogger/person I am, BUT what I am going to do is share how I “Cooking Maggified” it.

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Now, last I checked, Ragu is a meat based sauce…and when I was making the dish I had planned on, it seemed like I was making pulled beef over a beef sauce. There was crushed tomato, and beef broth (which in my opinion doesn’t add much in terms of flavor, which is why I prefer stocks over broths for almost anything that calls for it), but no tomato paste to thicken it, there was HARDLY any seasoning, I mean, what was the deal?! I went into it skeptically, and I came out of it with my prediction confirmed. It just wasn’t where I knew it could be, so, when in doubt, improvise. I threw it all in a pot over the stove, and started to build up the flavors I felt it lacked. Onions, more garlic, a lot of pepper (and just a pinch white pepper for an added punch), more salt, oregano, parsley, basil, marjoram. I basically took this sad sauce and treated it like a shredded meat Bolognese instead of my normal dual-ground meat mixture.

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The results were FAR better than I could have hoped for, and the dish was saved and savored by all! Phew! I was for a moment worried I had just wasted 1 1/2 pounds of perfectly good flank steak! But I will say, at the end of the day, I still really prefer my Bolognese and me thinks I don’t plan to divert very far from it in the future. Why fix something that’s clearly not broke? (You don’t, silly woman!)

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But for kicks, I’ve included rough estimates for the ragu—I was panicked and didn’t think to even write down my amounts, but I added about as much as I would normally add for my bolognese anyway—and have relinked my post on my Bolognese recipe! I hope you enjoy one (or both) of these and let me know which one you prefer! I’ll also happily take suggestions on bettering the ragu recipe as it currently stands right now (a different kind of beef cut perhaps? Rump or round roast maybe?). Perhaps even a little red wine to spice things up? Another experiment for another day! – Cooking Maggie

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Bolognese [From Scratch]


Slow Cooker Flank Steak Ragu

Ingredients:

  • 6 garlic cloves, kept whole, but smashed
  • 1 ½ pounds flank steak
  • 1 28 oz can crushed san marzano tomatoes
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 tbspo tomato paste
  • 2 bay leaves
  • 2 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 large handful of finely chopped basil (plus more for topping)
  • 1 tsp marjoram
  • 2 tsp dried oregano
  • 2 tsp dried parsley
  • 1 pinch of white pepper
  • Salt and Pepper (about 2 tsp salt, and 1 tablespoon pepper to add at the end, and extra for seasoning/rubbing the meat)
  • Pasta of choice (I used pappardelle)
  • Parmesan for topping

Instructions:

  1. Pour in everything except the beef, salt, and pepper. Give it a good stir until all mixed together.
  2. Season the beef with salt & pepper, rub it in and give your meat a little massage to prep it for the slow cooking process. Transfer to a 5 or 6 quart slow cooker and nestle it in the juice until covered (you can cut the beef up if you are having trouble fitting it in).
  3. Cook for 8 to 10 hours on low or 6 hours on high. When done, discard the bay leaves and thyme sprigs, and shred the beef in the pot. Add salt & pepper to pot, and stir, adding more to taste.
  4. Cook the pasta of choice according to package directions. While pasta is cooking, take some of the meat sauce and add it to a pan, get it nice and hot. When pasta is done, add desired amount to the pan with the meat and stir for a good minute.**
  5. Serve with fresh basil & parm and eat!

**If you want a looser sauce, add about ¼ cup of the pasta water to the pan (you can also save all the pasta water too if you want to add water to each reheating/serving.

On Baked Apples (aka. Rainy Day Away Apples)

My apologies dear readers for the delay. This season has been a busy one, but with Christmas only a week away, and all of my gifts now safely in transit or arrived at their various locations, I am able to finally breathe and get back to a more normalized schedule! Oh, and did I mention I was in New York City just a couple weekends ago to see Stephen Colbert live for Frankie’s birthday?! Because I was in New York City just a couple weekends ago to see Stephen Colbert live for Frankie’s birthday!! AND I GOT TO SEE BOBBY FLAY!!! AHHH!!! (Okay, that’s my one alotted school girl squeal out of the way.) But boy oh BOY was that a show to remember! And if you like Colbert and watch both Thursday, December 7th and/or Friday, December 8th’s episodes (we got to be the audience for both days, which was an added OH MY GOSH!! moment), Frankie & I are sitting FRONT ROW all the way to the right (right in front of Stephens desk)! And we’re somewhat coordinated/matching: me in a green sweater dress with maroon tights, and Frankie in his Christmas green plaid shirt with maroon khakis. And then we walked almost 28 miles total over the course of our one day in the city eating and drinking our way into food coma happiness! And before I forget, all the spots we ventured to are up on my recommendations page—while I would love to write more about the spots we ventured to, I have neglected some of my drafted blog posts for too long, so I had to prioritize, but feel free to comment/ask questions about the spots listed if you’d like to know more! Now, with housekeeping out of the way, onto this yummy little nugget!

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The first time I made this, it was maybe the second week of my Graduate program, and I was a complete newbie to Chicago on top of feeling, well, a little homesick. How many of us, in times like these, have turned to food to help abate those bottomless cravings for home? And naturally, that’s where I turned as well. One of my favorite desserts to eat is Apple Crumble, and especially during the winter time, this was the most comforting thing to dig into while snuggled on the couch with White Christmas basically playing on repeat on our TV all season long. But given that it was the apex of summertime, and the last thing I really wanted to do was bake myself alive in my studio, or try and finish an entire casserole of apple crumble by my lonesome. So instead, I decided to miniaturize the recipe and remove the casserole dish entirely. May I present, mini baked apple crumbles!

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Now, what makes this dish so easy is the lack of equipment that you need to use. Granted, I’ve now lived in the city for about six years and have since found myself owning an apple corer (very helpful) and a melon baller (slightly helpful, but I don’t really ball melons on a daily basis, so it’s a tool I don’t use as much), but you can EASILY cut/core/scoop out your apple with a paring knife and a spoon. Then after that, mix up your crumble (I usually use a knife because it won’t get as much filling stuck to it), pack them in, and bake the apples for about 20 minutes, which I think is the sweet spot between overly soft and not soft enough. You can cook it for a little less if you don’t like super soft apples, or a little more if you want it softer. And then voila! It’s warm, it’s sweet, it’s tart, and it’s just oh so good! Oh, and did I mention how easy it was to make? I’m realizing that the more complicated the recipe, the less likely I am to make it, especially during the week, so here is to easy and delicious!

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Sorry again for the delay, but definitely keep an eye out for future posts in the coming week regarding Christmas Cookie making (with a guest appearance by none other than Momma Sully!) and the best baked garlic chicken you’ll ever have! Oh, and some Cooking-Maggie-fied Ragu Pappardelle! It’s all in the works, I PROMISE! OH, and I have some exciting developments for the blog in 2018, so keep an eye out for that announcement as well!

Wishing you & yours a very Happy Holiday! – Cooking Maggie


Baked Apples

Ingredients:

  • 3-4 apples, cored & sliced in half
  • ¼ cup melted butter
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/2 cup flour (I used whole wheat) or gluten-free ‘flour’ of your choice
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (or white sugar with date syrup or molasses or agave syrup)
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • pinch of salt

 

Instructions:

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F
  2. Remove some of the inner apple, leaving a little center hollow
  3. Mix remaining ingredients together in a large bowl
  4. Fill all apples with the mixture, covering the tops.
  5. Bake for about 15-30 minutes, depending on preferred apple softness, until golden brown/apple swells.

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On Take-Out Noodles at Home

Let’s talk easy peasy lemon squeezy, and by that, I mean Chinese Take-Out Noodles at home courtesy of Bon Appetit Magazine!. No phone calls, no internet orders, half the price of takeout, a ton of leftovers, and just as easy as going through the process of placing an order and waiting around, and I can almost guarantee that it will take less time to get on the plate than any delivery service.

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The twist is the following: instead of Udon, which was part of the original recipe, we used Soba noodles, which both of us preferred. The second was that we did a side by side tasting of the homemade sauce from the magazine’s recipe and bottled yakisoba sauce that Carly fell in love with when she lived in Japan teaching English for two and a half years. My last addition to the homemade sauce version was a sprinkling of Portuguese Fermented chile flakes, which seemed to be a new addition to the chile section of Savory Spice!

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The results? Well, they honestly tasted exactly the same, and while the yakisoba was a little stickier/thicker than the homemade sauce, both were equally delicious and enticed us to a second helping as well. I think it also just goes to show that a little corner cutting doesn’t hurt anyone! This is going to be a recipe I will return to whenever the day has been too long and I’m on the fence between ordering out and just whipping this up (of which the latter will always prevail)! Here’s to taking out at home! — Cooking Maggie


Better-than-Takeout Stir-Fried Udon with Pork from Bon Appetit Magazine

**Note: Udon replaced for Soba Noodles

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