Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Credit Crunch Dinners: Chili Three Ways

Considering how easy and inexpensive chili is to make, you would have thought I would make it much more often. Not only are beans extremely cheap, they also taste great and pack a huge nutritional punch. And chili has to be one of the ultimate credit crunching meals. It just stretches so far - I made a fairly small batch a few nights ago and had more than enough to enjoy it for several meals afterwards.

The first night, I simply served it as is, garnished with some shredded cheese and chopped raw red onions for a bit of color and crunch. I used a recipe I found here that called for a crockpot. What a great idea! Why had it never occurred to me to make chili in a slow cooker before? I think I am still on the hunt for the perfect chili recipe for my tastes, but the crockpot method was a real winner.

The next night, I transformed some of the leftover chili into Chili Cheese Nachos. Using a recipe I found here as a guide, I added some refried beans with mild green chilies to some of my crockpot chili leftovers and heated it up. I then poured that over some tortilla chips, sprinkled cheese over the top, and baked at 400F for about 5-10 minutes, until the cheese was fully melted. I then garnished the nachos with some jalapeno slices and sour cream.

Meal three was just Chili Dogs, steamed hotdogs with some of the chili-refried beans mixture spooned on top, and garnished with red onions and brown mustard.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Lasagna Dinner with Peach Cobbler for Dessert

My daughter had a friend sleep over this weekend, so I decided to make my standard, easy lasagna for dinner. This is one of those simple recipes I can make without really thinking about it, and it generally seems to please anyone who tastes it. It makes a ton of food, but the remaining servings freeze beautifully. I normally would have made my own sauce for this, but I wasn't feeling up to making it this time, so I tried some bottled sauce by Emeril Lagasse; about 1 full jar is plenty for this recipe.

I start by parboiling the noodles, which is simply dipping them into boiling water for a few minutes until they become pliable. I then set them out on cooling racks while I get the rest of the ingredients ready. It costs a lot more to buy the "no boil" lasagna noodles and I have found that if you simply use the ordinary dry lasagna sheets, they sometimes can rob too much moisture from the rest of the recipe. Parboiling them doesn't take very long at all, the noodles retain their shape enough to lay them straight in the pan without tearing, and the lasagna comes out with the correct balance of moisture.

This particular version of lasagna is more the Italian-American style, meaning there is no bechamel sauce as would be more typical in true European versions. The filling is simply a mixture of ricotta cheese (or in a pinch you can use well drained small curd cottage cheese), some chopped parsley, some freshly grated Parmesan cheese, and some shredded mozzarella, bound together with an egg or two and seasoned with some garlic, salt and pepper. I then layer the parboiled noodles, some meat sauce, and some of the filling, then top it all off with some slices of provolone or mozzarella cheese, cover tightly with foil, and bake for about 45 minutes. After baking, I allow the lasagna to rest while I heat up some garlic bread in the oven. The resting period allows the lasagna to settle and cool slightly, so you don't end up scalding your tongue or having gloppy cheese oozing all over when you cut into the slices. You can find my Lasagna recipe already posted here.

My local grocery store had huge, gorgeous Georgia peaches on sale this week, so I decided to try out Paula Deen's recipe for Fresh Peach Cobbler. There seems to be quite a difference in the types of cobblers you get, depending on where they are served and who makes them. Some versions have the filling on the bottom, and a cookie like dough is placed on top of the filling in small rounds. Other versions have a somewhat wetter batter-like topping that gets haphazardly dropped on top of the filling, almost like dumplings. Paula's version starts with the batter on the bottom, with the filling set on top. As the cobbler bakes, the filling sinks and the batter rises, producing an almost cake like topping. It was very good, not too rich, just right. And what a difference it makes using fresh peaches. This made just a small family sized cobbler, which was perfect.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I was in the Mood for Muffins

I recently discovered Betty's Kitchen and her very nice collection of simple, easy recipes. When I saw her video demo of Cracklin' Oat Bran Muffins, I knew right away that I had to give them a try. Cracklin' Oat Bran cereal is very crunchy, as if you bashed up a crunchy honey & cinnamon granola bar. I've always kind of liked it, although I have never actually eaten it as a breakfast cereal, but rather as something to nibble on for energy in a snack mix. Using Cracklin' Oat Bran as an ingredient in a muffin sounded really clever and definitely something I wanted to test out.

In Betty's recipe, two cups of this cereal get soaked for about 20 minutes in milk. The softened mixture then gets stirred into a quick, extremely easy, and very tasty muffin batter of self-rising flour, a little sugar, an egg, and a very small amount of oil (the recipe is in the link above). They puffed up into nice tall, golden domes, making them look very appealing. The outside crisped up just a bit more than I would have personally liked, but the interior was soft and pillowy and oh so tasty. For a healthier muffin, these really worked out well.

They tasted so rich and buttery, but there is not actually any butter added to the recipe, just a little canola oil. If you don't have any Cracklin' Oat Bran, I think you could easily substitute crunchy granola or break up some granola bars. I will certainly be making these again. These even passed the I'm-getting-older-so-now-I'm-suddenly-picky daughter test, although she did suggest adding some chopped apples next time.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Zucchini Pineapple Tea Loaf

I have fond memories of eating zucchini bread as a child. I remember clearly the first time I ever tasted it, sitting outside in my neighbor's yard on a sunny day. I was handed a gorgeous slice of bread that tasted more like cake, with a cinnamony cookie-like scent, speckled with nuts. I can remember how the sunlight made the tiny green flecks of the zucchini look like emerald chips scattered across the bread. It was delicious and I was from that moment on, hooked. Zucchini bread had entered the ranks of my favorites foods on earth. Sadly, since I was very young at the time, I was not quite at the age where I was comfortable demanding recipes, and in fact, was probably not even cooking much yet without the assistance of my grandmother or mom. If mom ever pried the recipe out of my neighbor, it has probably been lost, as I can't remember mom ever making it.

I tried a lot of zucchini bread recipes, enjoying many of them, even though none quite matched that first slice in taste. I had finally found a recipe I liked a lot, enough to repeat making, and for a while, that was "my" zucchini bread recipe. But then I moved next door to a bubbly, friendly decorating student named Tobi. She also loved to bake and offered me a zucchini bread baking challenge. She bet me that hers was better, and I was up for it. I was a winner either way, with two loaves of a favorite treat to test out. I baked my then favorite recipe, she baked hers. And well, one bite into hers and I knew she had a real winner. It was so moist and tender, and the color was beautiful. The secret to its moistness and flavor was crushed pineapple. She very kindly shared the recipe, and a long-standing friendship was started.

So here I give you Tobi's Fabulous Zucchini-Pineapple bread:
(makes 2 loaves)

wet mixture:
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
2 cups shredded zucchini (leave the skin on)
1 cup canola or sunflower oil
2 tsp vanilla
2 cups sugar
1 (8 ounce) can crushed pineapple, drained

dry mixture:
3 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking powder
1 1/2 tsp cinnamon
3/4 tsp nutmeg
1 cup chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 F and have ready two 9x5" sized loaf tins, lined with parchment paper.

In a large bowl, thoroughly mix together the wet ingredients. In a small bowl, mix together the dry ingredients and the nuts. Combine the two mixtures together, stirring with a wooden spoon only long enough to combine everything together, leaving no dry patches. Overmixing will make the bread flat and tough. Pour the bread batter into the prepared pans and bake for about 1 hour to 1 hour and 10 minutes, or until a toothpick tests clean when poked into the center. If the bread is browning too much, tent with foil.

Allow the loaves to cool completely in the tins. If you try to take them out too soon, they will fall apart into a pile of moist crumbs. If you can stand to wait even longer, this bread tastes better after being chilled overnight.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Cooking with Melissa: Yummy Shrimp Linguine with Roasted Broccoli

Since moving back to the US, I have had a dire lack of really good and fresh seafood, which strikes me as highly ironic. Florida is so very much in contact with huge bodies of water, it just seemed natural to me that fresh seafood would not be hard at all to come by. Unfortunately, at least in this area of Florida, I haven't found a great source for fresh fish yet. I am still on the hunt, and I am certain I will track down something, I am even keeping cooler bags in my trunk just in case I spy something while out exploring. Shrimp, at least, is one of the few fish items I have always found acceptable after freezing, so Melissa's Lemony Shrimp Scampi and Linguine jumped out at me and cried make me, make me!

Shrimp was even on sale, for $4.99/pound, and her recipe only required 3/4 lb, so I was already off to a good start. As luck would have it, broccoli, lemons, and linguine were also all on sale, so this meal was definitely not only fitting the theme of her "10 dollar promise" on the show, but my budget was pretty happy about it too ;) All of the remaining ingredients were kitchen staples, so I was in and out of the store very quickly.

I started heating the water for my pasta while I prepped my ingredients. I can tell you right now that "easy peel" on a package of frozen shrimp is a slight misnomer. The shells have a slit cut into them, so that you can peel it apart and remove it faster than if you had to make the slits yourself. This only ended up saving a minimal amount of my time, as every single shrimp still had a nasty black sandy vein. This has to be one of the most tedious and miserable tasks in cleaning shrimp. It took ages. AGES. And I still had to butterfly each shrimp afterwards! Grr. Needless to say, my pasta was completely cooked and waiting for me by the time I even started the shrimp stock.

While the shrimp stock was bubbling away, I decided to get my broccoli in the oven. It was very simple - drizzle each stalk with olive oil, add some seasoning, then roast for 15 minutes, flip over, sprinkle on a touch of Parmesan and roast a little longer. (Melissa's recipe said another 5 minutes, next time I am going with 10). I have to say that this part of the meal was its shining star. What a wonderful, delicious, easy to make side dish. The broccoli stalks looked gorgeous and roasting them made them taste like a snack, something you want to pick up with your fingers and nibble on the sly. I think I have a new favorite way to serve broccoli. The recipe can be found here.

The shrimp and sauce took almost no time at all to cook. Once the stock was finished, it was just a matter of sauteeing the shrimp briefly, removing them from pan, adding the sauce ingredients and letting the sauce reduce down. I refreshed my slightly dried out linguine with some boiling water and added it to the sauce, which it happily drank up. The shrimp, sauce, and pasta all get tossed together and then it is finally ready.

It turned out delicious, although I think the shrimp would have been better served if they had been cooked at the very last minute in a separate pan, as they were perfect when I first removed them, but got cold and almost overcooked while sitting in their own steam waiting on the sauce reduction. This is a good recipe with great flavor, but I think I will still go back to my usual and much simpler go-to scampi recipe, which is every bit as good and does not require quite as many messy and time-consuming steps.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Putting my own spin on traditional Manx Bonnag

I have been hosting a two month long culinary tour of the British Islands & Ireland over on and this week's stop is the Isle of Man. Not the most well known of the islands, recipes for Manx cuisine are pretty hard to track down. One of the more famous and traditional dishes Manx food is known for is the Bonnag, a sweet bread that although it may resemble an Irish Soda bread, really tastes nothing like it. It has a smooth, crisp crust with a light, soft interior. This is a true slicing bread, and it tastes great toasted and served with some whipped butter and jam.

I researched quite a few different recipes floating around the internet on various Isle of Man websites, and decided to come up with my own version, which I tested using American measuring cups (which measure by volume not weight). I had noticed a bit of disparity from recipe to recipe in the amount of flour to use, which I suspect had a lot to do with people confusing the amount of ounces to use when converting from Metric to Imperial.

Some recipes call for just a plain bread, without fruit or spice, but I had some dried cranberries I needed to use up, so I opted for a berry studded version. It turned out really nice, tender and delicious. Sweet without being too cakey sweet. Perfect with a cup of tea.

Manx Style Berry Bonnag (somewhat based on a version found here)
(makes 1 loaf)

2 tsp lemon juice
1 cup milk (I used skim milk, any is fine), scant, plus a bit extra for brushing the top later
3 cups all purpose flour (plain flour), plus extra for kneading
1 cup sugar
1 tsp baking soda
1 pinch salt
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
1 cup dried cranberries (or any dried berry)
1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 F (175 C)

Pour lemon juice into a measuring cup, then fill to the 1 cup line with milk. Do not stir! Allow to rest for 10-15 minutes. It should thicken a bit. Meanwhile, mix together the dry ingredients (except the dried berries), then rub in the butter until it has been fully incorporated. Stir in the berries. Make a well, then pour in the vanilla and the milk mixture, stirring just enough to combine everything, leaving no dry patches. If you overmix, the dough will get pretty tough, so try to be gentle.

Take a look at your dough.. it should be still quite soft and a bit wet, but it should not still be a gloppy batter. If it is, then add a bit more flour until you do have a mass you can actually scrape out of the bowl into a ball. Drop the dough ball onto a lightly floured surface, then sprinkle a bit more flour over the top of the dough. Dust your hands with some flour while you are at it. Knead very, very gently - just a few times - over handling the dough will make it terribly chewy and dense. Put the dough into a greased 8" round cake tin and slash the top with a knife, making an X. Brush the top with a tiny bit of milk.

Bake for about 45-55 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean and the loaf is golden brown and sounds hollow on the bottom if you tap it. Allow to cool for 30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Baking the Bake-Off: Project 2 Kiss Me Cake

For the next installment in my Baking the Bake-Off project, I tackled the second winner, from way back in 1950, which was an orange coffeecake called "Orange Kiss Me Cake." This recipe sounded very promising, as I usually love coffeecakes (any excuse to dunk something into coffee...). When comparing my old thrift shop find Pillsbury Bake-Off cookbook and the online version of the recipe, I was very happy to see that this time, there had not been any changes to the ingredients (barring the suggestion to use butter or margarine instead of shortening). Pillsbury's site has assumed today's home cook will use both a food processor and an electric mixer, so they updated the instructions somewhat, which I did find both appropriate and helpful. The main change being that in the original version, you were instructed to hand grind a whole orange, nuts, and raisins together. Thank you Cuisinart for the 2 minutes this step took! I can't imagine having to hand grind those ingredients.

One part of the recipe that stuck out at me was the use of an entire orange. Many citrus based based recipes do call for using the zest and juice of a fruit, but in this recipe, after juicing the orange, the instructions in both versions say to grind up the entire remaining rind and pulp. I hesitated here. Haven't I always been instructed to be careful when zesting? To not dig too deeply down into the bitter white pith hiding beneath the luscious orange colored part of the peel? This recipe seemed to call for the entire thing, pith and all, the only suggestion was to remove the seeds. I decided I wanted to be true to the original recipe, and despite my strong inclination to just scrape off the zest and dig out the flesh, I did as instructed and dropped the whole thing into the bowl of my food processor, added the nuts and raisins, and hit the switch. The smell was wonderful, a strong earthy orangey aroma.

The rest of the cake was pretty straighforward - all of the batter ingredients get mixed together and poured into a large 9x13" pan, baked, then the warm cake is drizzled with the orange juice and liberally coated with cinnamon sugar and nuts. Then there was agonizing hour long wait for the cake to cool and for the juice to setttle into the cake. I plucked off a nut in anticipation. I brewed coffee. Tick Tick Tick.

Finally the hour was up and I could taste the cake. My daughter surprisingly loved it, which I had not expected since she had wrinkled her nose at the Chocolate Orange Drizzle Cake I had made a few months ago. I liked it, could see why it won.. it was a brilliantly economical recipe, and very very moist. Personally, this cake was a bit too orangey flavored for me, in the way orange soda is too orangey and sweet. I could have done with less potent orange and more cinnamon and nut. Or perhaps use grapefruit or lemon .. or maybe even key lime instead, with macadamia nuts.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Discovering a Classic: Red Beans & Rice

You would think that after having lived in several different states in the Southern US, I would have at least tasted the classic Red Beans & Rice before. Growing up in the Northeast, this was not a dish I had been familiar with as a kid. It was not served at home, and I can't recall ever seeing it on a menu. Even when I eventually moved and lived in the South, I still don't remember seeing this advertised on many restaurant menus, unless it perhaps was part of some horrible buffet line on a theme night. If I had tasted it at all, it had not left an imprint on my taste buds and certainly had not been homemade. I think this is more of a home-style dish anyway, not really the sort of thing you would normally even expect to find on a menu. It is inexpensive to make, comforting, and so very easy to prepare. And it is really very tasty. I honestly don't know how I spent my life without it until now.

There are several ways to make this dish, but here is the way I prepared it:

Red Beans & Rice (somewhat based on Goya's recipe)
(4 servings)

2 tsp olive oil, approximately (most versions call for more, but I was happy with this amount)
1 small onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)
2 stalks celery, diced
1 small red bell pepper, seeded, diced
1 pkg Hillshire Farms cooked smoked sausage (I used turkey sausage, as it is less greasy and I like the taste), sliced into rounds) or a few cups of diced ham chunks
1-2 (15 ounce size) cans red or pink beans, drained, rinsed well, and drained again
1 packet Sazon Goya seasoning (I used the Cilantro & Annato flavor) or about 2-3 Tbsp Creole or Cajun Seasoning
1/4-1/2 cup unseasoned tomato sauce or passata
1/4-1/2 cup water
3-4 cups hot cooked rice

Heat oil in a large skillet, then add the onions, peppers, and celery. Saute for about 5-10 minutes over about medium-low heat until the veggies have softened up somewhat. Add the sausage slices and allow to cook about 10 minutes, until the meat has fully heated through, or in the case of the sausage, until it looks like it is covered with droplets of water. Add the beans, tomato sauce, water, and your seasoning blend of choice. I like the Sazon Goya blend because it gives a nice color and flavor without making it taste too salty. Allow this to simmer over low heat for another 10 minutes. Mix the sauce with hot cooked rice and serve. Simple, easy, yummy.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Sometimes.... Cookies are Required

I believe there are certain times in one's life when cookies are required. One such time is when you miss someone you love, or that person is unwell and you want to give him or her a huge box of comfort. My grandma had a stroke recently, so she most certainly qualified for a gigantic box of home baked cookies on both counts. I had already been planning to make some cookies as a birthday gift for my best friend, so I decided to have a massive baking day to send them both some home baked hugs and cheer.

First on my baking list had to be some form of Chocolate Chip Cookies. I have a few favorite recipes I turn to for this quintessential and universally loved cookie, sometimes adding coffee for a mocha flavor, or peanut butter in place of some of the butter for a really rich nuttiness, or stirring in other crunchy bits such as dried cherries or walnuts. This time however, I stuck with a basic plain chocolate chip recipe I have made several times before, and just used really terrific chocolate, Ghirardelli 60% bittersweet baking chips. The recipe I used can be found here.

I also made a huge batch of my favorite Spice Cookies which are crispy on the outside like a gingersnap, and chewy on the inside. The scent of these cookies baking is so amazing! The dough is heavily laced with a mix of ginger, cloves, cardamon, cinnamon, and nutmeg. As these bake, your whole house smells as if you live inside a gingerbread castle. I have the recipe posted here.

My stepmom has a really good Oatmeal Raisin Cookie recipe, so I made a batch of those as well. It was only after tossing in a huge handful of nuts that it occurred to me that my grandmother might not want nuts in her cookies. I tried to recall ever being served anything at her house that contained nuts, and while my head was filled with images of pound cakes, rice pudding, and lemon meringue pie, I could not recall a single treat my grandmother has ever made for me that contained nuts.

Then again, perhaps she thinks I dislike nuts, and therefore never made anything that contained them for me. I used to have a slew of so-called childhood food allergies, which included nuts, although to be very honest I ate them on the sly all the time and never once got sick. I knew full well why the doctor thought I was "allergic to nuts" - my great grandma and I had polished off two massive bags of family-sized peanut M&Ms in one day and that would make any kid sick.

Anyway .... I decided at the last minute to leave out the oatmeal cookies from my Grandma's box and only sent them to my best friend, who as it turns out loves nuts in his cookies but isn't terribly fond of raisins in them. /sigh

Luckily, I also tried out a new recipe for Lemon Crinkle Cookies that made up for the whole raisin-nut faux pas. Like the spice cookies, these were crispy and crinkly on the outside, chewy on the inside ... only these have a soft ribbon of delicious lemony goodness in the center that magically appears while baking. You can't quite see it well in the photo, but the outside is covered in glistening coarse white sugar. These were incredibly scrumptious and I really wished I had made a double batch.

Oh, and in case you were all wondering, my dad sent word that my grandmother is doing quite well. The women in my gene pool are a bit like rubber bands - we tend to bounce back from medical adversity really well. She made a full recovery after her stroke, and is back to her usual self, with no loss of any of the things you normally would associate with such a traumatic event. I know it would be quite romantic to think the cookies had some special powers, but actually she made this recovery before a single cookie had been baked.

And as for my best friend.. he loved the birthday cookies, even polishing off all of the oatmeal cookies, raisins and all.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Souper Sundays: Pear Gazpacho

For this week's Souper Sundays event, hosted by Deb at Kahakai Kitchen, I decided to make Pear Gazpacho. I can vividly recall the first time I ever tasted this unique soup. I was sitting outside in the backyard of my friend Vicky's beautiful farmhouse rental in the outskirts of Bonn, Germany. It was unseasonably hot, but not unbearably so, and an absolutely beautiful bright and still sunny summer evening. All of the food served was delicious, all prepared by Vicky and her husband at home. One of the stand-outs was this unusual version of the classic Spanish cold soup, gazpacho, which Vicky served in tiny shot glasses garnished with a dollop of crème fraîche and some tiny slivers of fresh basil. It was so refreshing on that hot day and so pretty and elegant.

This is not at all a traditional version, it is only gazpacho in its resemblance to the original, a mere nod towards Spain. In fact, it is quite possibly Vicky's own creation. When I asked if she would share the recipe with me, I remember her blushing slightly, as if apologizing for its simplicity. It contains only three ingredients, plus seasonings and garnish. This went over very well with the women at the party, not so much with the men. When I made this at home, my daughter liked it, but also added "I don't like so many herbs in my soup."

Pear Gazpacho (based on my friend Vicky's recipe)

1 (15 ounce) can pears in juice, undrained
1 (15 ounce) can diced tomatoes, seasoned with basil, oregano & garlic
fresh basil, cut into chiffonade strips
crème fraîche or sour cream, to garnish
salt and pepper, to taste

Puree the pears and tomatoes together in a blender. Add some fresh basil and pulse to blend. Season to taste. Chill several hours until cold. Serve in shot glasses or bowls, garnished with a dollop of crème fraîche or sour cream, and a few extra strips of fresh basil.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Cooking Along with Melissa: Salmon Fishcakes Supper

As you may remember, last week I tried out some of the recipes from the new The Next Food Network Star cooking program on Food Network, $10 Dinners with Melissa D'Arabian. Since I'd had a reasonable amount of success last time, and simply because I am really enjoying the show so far, I decided to make her next menu as well this week. She prepared something I already am very familiar with, Salmon Fishcakes, which I make pretty much any time I have leftover salmon. To accompany the salmon fishcakes, she made some oven roasted asparagus and an orzo pasta side dish. As always, Melissa promised that everything would be fairly inexpensive and easy to prepare. While I am not quite as concerned about the ease of a given recipe, I am always concerned about the cost, especially these days when constantly reminded of how many other people out there still need a decent job. And after all, the entire premise of the show is to prove that you can serve 4 hungry people a nice meal with a budget of just $10.

Off to the market I ran.. well erm ... ok I drove. Running to the market is something I blissfully could do in London, not in the sweltering heat of Florida. Ok fine, so I never actually ran.. but I did quite often walk to the market at least. Anyway.. my first stop, as always, was the produce department. Melissa did mention that the asparagus called for in her recipe might be pricey when it is off season, but would fit her $10 meal budget when it is fresh and in season. Florida only seems to have two seasons, nearly endless summer and something less humid than summer. Does this mean my asparagus was going to be cheap? Nope, $2.49 a pound and a tiny bundle weighed over a pound, so the asparagus was bypassed for some much more reasonably priced and very fresh looking broccoli. I decided I would simply steam the broccoli as usual and just add the vinaigrette Melissa had used on her asparagus at the end. This worked out ok, but neither my daughter nor myself were huge fans of the flavor of the vinaigrette with the broccoli.

I already had some Orzo in the house that I had dragged with me all the way from London, and all of the remaining ingredients for this dish were standard items I always have in my kitchen anyway: lemon zest, chicken stock, basic seasonings, garlic. The only thing I needed to buy for it was the fresh thyme, since I no longer have a fresh herb garden to randomly pluck from like I did back in the UK. /sigh. Well, at least this was not pricey, and honestly I am certain you could substitute whichever herb you like as long as it is colorful and fresh. The orzo, just in case you didn't happen to tuck some into your bags upon leaving London, did indeed fit the budget - it was about $.99 for a whole box, and you only use 3/4 cup in the recipe for 4 servings.

Next stop was the canned foods aisle for a tin of canned salmon. I was really very hesitant about this ingredient, since I don't usually like it canned. When I make my own version of fishcakes, I use up whatever leftover fresh fish I had made the night before. However, Melissa had pointed out that the canned salmon was very inexpensive and would taste great in her fishcakes. I decided that if the same tin Melissa had used was on sale, I would give it a try. I stood before the rows of red tins and glared at the little sale card. I could have chosen the smaller pretty pink cans of de-boned and de-skinned salmon, but they were more pricey, and I was trying to stick to the spirit of the tv show here. So I dropped the red Alaskan on sale salmon into my cart and mentally groaned at the thought of having to pluck out all the nasty bits of slimy skin and brittle edible bones. Does anyone besides the family cat ever actually eat those bones anyway? /shudder.

As for the orzo recipe, the remaining ingredients needed were all staples in my house, a potato, a small onion, some breadcrumbs, basic seasonings, a bit of mayo, a little Parmesan, Dijon mustard, bacon. The thought of a bit of bacon and potato mixed into my fishcakes filler sounded very appealing to me, not to mention I had a half bag of potatoes as well as some leftover bacon to use up in my fridge at home.

The entire menu, barring the 20 minutes I had to spend plucking bones out of my canned salmon, really came together very quickly and with great ease. The fishcakes were very straightforward - mix everything together, form into small patties, roll in some seasoned breadcrumbs and pan fry in what seems to me to be an excessive amount of oil. My usual recipe for fishcakes requires only a tiny bit of oil. I really don't think you need you need 1/2 cup, 1/4 cup total was fine and even then, I'd still use less next time.

Despite my misgivings about the canned salmon, these little cakes were flavorful, and filling. I thought the bacon in these was wonderful. I would make them again, but I would definitely prefer to use leftover fresh salmon or, if I really wanted to stick to canned fish, I'd try them with albacore tuna in water. I think smoked haddock would also be marvelous in this particular recipe. If you'd like to try out Melissa's recipe, you can find it here.

As for the side dishes, I was pretty happy with how the orzo turned out in general. Melissa had described it as having an almost risotto-like consistency, a bit creamy and smooth, only using pasta instead of rice. I'm not sure I'd quite call it creamy in the same sense, but it was definitely a different and tasty way to serve orzo, an ingredient which I have usually relegated to the role of a soup noodle. In this recipe, the orzo gets cooked in chicken broth that has been flavored with some fresh garlic and hot pepper flakes, although there was absolutely no heat at all in the finished dish. You could easily add any sort of seasoning you prefer to this, and just keep the same method of simmering it slowly in the stock to give it that smooth texture. The recipe for the Orzo with Thyme & Lemon Zest can be found here.