Friday, April 30, 2010

Braised Romaine Lettuce Hearts

Three romaine lettuce hearts per package turn up all the time at my local 99c only Store. That's a lot of salad (see my Cesar Chavez Salad, here) and I seldom use all three hearts, and the guilt of tossing any away is too much. But I found a delicious romaine recipe, from The New York Times Dining & Wine website section, that uses up those extra hearts. I'll be returning to this recipe many times, and if you try it, you will too.

Simple and a breeze to prepare, just slice a head of romaine in half lengthwise, saute in butter or oil for a few minutes, then finish off by braising in vegetable stock for 15 minutes. That's it. Romaine lettuce is slightly bitter, but braising brings out a mild cabbage flavor, and makes for a handsome presentation on your plate.

You can use a whole head of romaine from your local market; just discard any discolored outer leaves. The NYT recipe called for carrots and lemon juice, but I left them out - you can leave them in, of course. Click here to read their version.

This recipe is for my vegetarian friends.

Ingredients (serves 2-4)
  • 2-3 romaine lettuce hearts - you can use a large untrimmed head as well.
  • 1/2 cup of vegetable stock.
  • 2 tbsp. of olive oil or butter.
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Slice romaine lettuce heart (or heads) in half, lengthwise. Trim away any brown leaf edges. Thinly slice off brown stem end (don't cut off too much or the romaine leaves will separate from head). Heat oil or butter in large pot or skillet over medium heat, and saute halved romaine cut-side down. Do not turn over until lightly browned, about 5 - 10 minutes. Then turn over, sauteed side up, and add stock. Bring to a low simmer, cover, and cook on low heat for about 15 minutes until tender. Add more stock, as needed, if it cooks away. Finish off by uncovering and reducing stock by half.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Fish Veracruz (Green Olives & Tomato)

99 cent and dollar frozen packages of fish are perfect for single servings of this most expensive Mexican restaurant seafood entree. Traditionally made with red snapper, any firm fish will do. The other ingredients are the dollar store staples of green olives, and diced, crushed or whole canned tomatoes. A pinch of dried oregano and a bay leaf complete the flavorful seafood Latin dish.

It is all about the sauce. I've had Red Snapper Veracruz at many local Mexican restaurants in L.A. -- well a small taste, that is, this being my wife's favorite (she usually gives me a couple of spoonfuls). I like the complex combination of sour, salty green olives and the citrus, sweet tomato, sharing the plate with a flaky fish fillet.

I've bought 4 oz. frozen packet of mahi mahi, tilapia, tuna and salmon at 99c Only Stores, and $1 packages of the same in the frozen cases of regular chain grocery stores. Now that comes out to $4 per pound, not the best deal but fine for a single serving -- when I buy fish I always get huge fillets, too much for a serving, so this forces me to cut down. Four ounces is enough.

It is a quick, easy and delicious dish. The version I made used chopped whole tomatoes that were on the verge of turning - too soft for a salad, but great for a sauce. I had to add a 1/4 cup of liquid - but you can use canned tomatoes, it will taste the same, plus it will be plenty saucy.

Ingredients (single serving)
  • 4 oz. fish fillet - any firm fish including: mahi mahi, tuna, salmon, swordfish and tilapia.
  • 1 small can of tomato - chopped, crushed or whole (whole are easy to break apart once heated through). Okay to use one large fresh tomato - will need to add 1/4 cup of water, stock or white wine.
  • 1/2 jar of green olives (about 12 whole) - drained, with or without pimento. Roughly chopped.
  • 1 tablespoon of lemon juice from bottle or fresh - optional.
  • 1 tsp. chopped garlic from jar or fresh.
  • Pinch of oregano and one bay leaf.
  • A little chopped jalapeño for some heat - optional.
  • 1 tbsp. of olive oil for sauteing fish
  • Salt and pepper to taste.

Add 1 tbsp. of oil to a pan and brown one side of fish over medium/high heat (if fish has skin, brown on that side). Don't cook all the way through, you will finish steaming it in the sauce. Set aside.

In the same pan add chopped tomato (fresh or canned) with liquid. Add green olives, lemon juice, oregano and a bay leaf. Scrape bottom of pan to get flavorful brown bits mixed into sauce. Place fish fillets on top of sauce, browned side up. Cook over low/medium heat about 10 minutes, or until liquid is reduced by half. Add stock or white wine if using fresh chopped tomato.

Rice is an excellent accompaniment to soak-up the Veracruz sauce.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Bacon Bits - VIDEO

My shortcut spin on this Italian pasta classic will have you digging into a steaming plateful in 10 minutes. And my outre entree will never be taught in culinary colleges -- you can only learn it in The 99 Cent Chef's kitchen of hard knocks!

Watch my 99 cent creative take on Spaghetti alla Carbonara in my latest cooking video for the simple step-by-step directions. It doesn't come cheaper than this, and my new pièce de résistance is outrageous enough to fit into my blog of recipes perfectly!

Typical Carbonara main ingredients are eggs, pasta, black pepper, grated parmesan cheese, and Italian bacon (pancetta or guanciale); kind of like an Italian-style breakfast entree with spaghetti.

I normally use a couple slices of browned and crumbled bacon because it's convenient, and bacon fat enriches any pasta dish. However, those are a lot of calories, and real Bacon Bits are already cooked, so most of the fat is rendered out, thus making my Carbonara lighter.

I've been buying my Bacon Bits, pasta, and eggs at my local 99c Only Stores lately. These budget items come cheaply at most any regular market. I can get 2 servings out of one 2.8 ounce package of Bacon Bits. I've been eying Imitation Bacon Bits but have not had the guts to use them yet - The 99 Cent Chef has standards, too!

This is a rich-tasting dish when you add a raw egg to hot pasta. The trick is to assemble it all in one pan and bring it right to the table before the egg scrambles.

You pour a couple of tablespoons of hot pasta water into the spaghetti with Bacon Bits and finish it all off, add a beaten raw egg, black pepper, and parmesan blend. The egg mixture thickens into a decadent sauce, coating the spaghetti, studded with crunchy bacon pieces. *If you are worried about using raw eggs, I have an alternative method at the end of this post.

This is a versatile dish with many variations. I have added sauteed garlic, red or yellow bell pepper, and onion. Frozen green peas add color and extra flavor -- they thaw out when you add the hot pasta water.

If you have an Italian deli nearby or a well-stocked meat market, you should try Italian pancetta at least once; you only need a couple of slices for this dish. It looks like bacon, but it's dryer, leaner, with flavorful curing spices.

So, check out my latest recipe video and get cooking! It is a simple and delicious dish.

Spaghetti alla Carbonara with Bacon Bits - Video
Play it here. The video runs 4 minutes 31 seconds.

Ingredients (one serving)  
  • 1/3 package of spaghetti - cook per package directions. I usually shave off a couple of minutes of cooking time for pasta al dente.
  • 1/2 package of Bacon Bits - real bacon, not imitation. Okay to use a couple slices of cooked bacon.
  • 1/2 tsp. of black pepper - fresh ground if you have it. 
  • 1 egg per serving - for a richer sauce use 2 egg yokes.
  • 4 tablespoons of grated parmesan - I used real parmesan from the jar, but if you have a block of parmesan to shave, all the better.
  • Water for boiling pasta - reserve 1/4 cup of hot pasta water for the sauce.
Bring one pot of water to boil for pasta. In a small bowl, mix one raw egg with 2 tablespoons of grated parmesan, and about one teaspoon of black pepper. Whisk together until well blended. Set aside until final assembly.

Add pasta to boiling and salted water. Cook pasta while preparing the rest of the carbonara -- I usually shave off a couple of minutes of package directions boiling time for pasta al dente.

(If you like real big pieces of bacon, then saute up a couple slices instead of bacon bits. You can drain off the grease, or leave a tablespoon or two for flavor.)

In a large pan over low/medium heat add bacon bits to heat through. When spaghetti is done drain (reserving some of the pasta water) and add to bacon bits.

Add 2 tablespoons of hot pasta water to spaghetti and bacon bits.

Finally, pour in the egg and parmesan mixture. Mix well and allow to heat through for about 30 seconds - careful not to make scrambled eggs. The egg mixture will thicken with the addition of hot pasta water.

It is ready to eat with a final tablespoon sprinkle (or more) of grated parmesan per serving. (If you are using freshly shaved parmesan, then add it as a topping when ready to serve.)

For 2 servings, just double everything - maybe go with a whole package of spaghetti and one whole egg and two egg yokes, for a richer sauce?

* If you are wary of raw egg, it's okay to drop a separated whole egg yoke into boiling water for 30 seconds (or longer.) When pasta is done and parmesan is added, finish the dish by adding the poached egg yokes on top.

99 Thanks to my friend Pete for the camerawork. Be sure to check out his outrageous videos by clicking here; and his funny sports blog is just a click away, here.

Click here to view or embed from YouTube.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Mexican Charro Beans

Charro Beans are pinto beans on steroids. It's a spicy and hearty dish that sings with the addition of leftover Easter ham, tomato, onion, garlic and jalapenos. Anytime I spy this side at a Mexican restaurant I get it. And it's simple to make with easily attainable budget ingredients.

Beans are the cheapest protein and the other ingredients cost below, or near, a dollar a pound. And this side dish becomes an entree when you serve it over a bowl of rice.You can make a large pot of pinto beans if you have the time, or just grab a 15 ounce can, and with a few flavorful additions, it's a winner of a dish.

Ingredients (2 servings)
  • 1 15-oz. can of pinto beans. Double amount of ingredients below if you use a larger can.
  • 1 whole tomato - chopped
  • 1 ham steak - leftover Easter ham, or a six-oz. steak. Cut into medium/large chunks.
  • 1-2 whole jalapenos per serving - from can, jar or fresh. I like to use whole jalapenos - believe it or not, they are less spicy than chopped (in which seeds are exposed). Use less if chopped.1/2 onion - chopped1 teaspoon chopped garlic - fresh or from jar. Salt and pepper to taste.1 tsp. oil, or ham fat.

Heat oil, or ham fat, in a pot. Add chopped onion and garlic. Over medium heat, cook until soft, about 5 minutes. Add a can of beans, along with the liquid, and half of the chopped tomato (save the other half for the end), to the pot. Add ham and a couple of whole jalapenos (if you can't take the heat it is okay to leave out jalapeno and add it to one bowl at a time). Bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for about 15 minutes until liquid is reduced by half. Just before serving add the other half of the chopped tomato. Serve over rice, as a side, or on its own.

If you are cooking a whole pot of beans, then add four times my ingredient list, after beans are done. Cook an extra 15 minutes until ham, tomato and jalapeno is heated through. Add some extra fresh chopped tomato just before serving. I normally cook beans with onion and garlic, so the dish has plenty already.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Pita & Scrambled Eggs

Regular egg sandwiches are made with a fried egg; but what if you want scrambled eggs? Too messy, as scrambles eggs tumble into you lap as soon as you take a bite of your sandwich. Well the Chef has a solution, and it is to scoop your favorite scrambled egg recipe into a warm pita. No egg-spillage here!

It is safe enough to carry in the car. Now I would not normally recommend you eat and drive (just click here to see my precautionary PSA video on "Eating & Driving"), but my Pita & Scrambled Eggs is an exception. It is neat and deliciously portable.

I make my scrambled eggs with sundried tomatoes and sauteed mushrooms. Use your favorite ingredients - how about a little cheese in your scrambled eggs? Then stuff the pita with lettuce, tomato and mayo?

Looking for a laugh with your Pita & Scrambled Eggs? Click here and here for two Coffee Comedies of mine.

Whole Wheat Pita Bread has been turning up at my local 99c only Store, so I always have some on hand. It is a budget item you can get at any grocery. Warm them on the grill as you scramble your eggs.

Ingredients ( 2 pita pockets )
  • 1 whole pita spit in half
  • 2-3 eggs
  • 4 whole button mushrooms - sliced
  • Sundried tomatoes with oil - about 2 tablespoons, sliced.
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • * 1 tbsp. oil for sauteing mushrooms if you are not using sundried tomatoes.
  • Other options include: cheese, spinach, cooked bacon and sausage. Just use your favorite scrambled egg recipe.

For a mushroom/sundried tomato scramble: Add sundried tomatoes with oil to a medium hot pan and saute mushrooms until soft, about 5 minutes. Begin to heat pita bread on grill or in a toaster - pita just needs a slight brown, it is thin so it will heat up quickly. And pita pockets will open easier (without tearing) when warm.

Next separate 2-3 eggs from shell and add to mushroom/sundried tomato mix. Scramble egg mixture until done.

Open each pita and fill with cooked scrambled eggs. You can add mayo, lettuce and tomato to your Pita & Scrambled Eggs.

Make the Chef's breakfast pita your own by cooking your favorite scrambled egg recipe!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Red Potato Salad with Chickpeas

I have to thank my neighbor Lori for the addition of chickpeas to a classic potato salad. I went over the other night to use their fax machine and caught her preparing dinner. While I sat at the kitchen bar drinking her husband Bob's Guinness beer (as he hooked up the phone line), I saw her dump a can of chickpeas into her mayo-based potato salad. She noticed my stare and offered a sample. It was great! She said chickpeas (or garbanzo beans) add a nice crunchy texture to typical soft fare. I couldn't agree more, and what a tasty chintzy addition - you know how I like to use 99 cent (or less) cans of garbanzo beans!

I like red, white or yellow potatoes -- they are firm and hold together better than russet potatoes. This recipe is mayo based, but you can add chickpeas to a German-style mustard, oil and vinegar dressed salad, as well. If you have a family potato salad recipe, by all means use it, just drain a 15 oz. can of chickpeas and add them -- you'll get an extra serving or two!

Ingredients (serves 4)
  • 4 - 6 red, white or yellow potatoes - I like the skin on, but you can peel.
  • 1 15 oz. can of chickpeas (or garbanzo beans)
  • 2 boiled eggs.
  • 1/4 finely chopped onion
  • 1/2 stalk of celery - optional, but chopped finely it adds more crunch.
  • 2 - 4 heaping tablespoons mayo - add a little at a time and stop at desired creaminess. Okay to use vegan mayo.
  • Salt & pepper to taste.
  • Water for boiling potatoes and eggs.

Submerge potatoes in a pot of water and low boil for about 20 minutes. Potatoes are done when pierced easily with a fork. Set aside to cool enough to handle. Boil eggs in small pot water for about 10 minutes. Remove and set aside to cool.


Finely chop celery, onion and peeled boiled eggs. Add to a large bowl. Roughly chop potatoes, and add them to the same bowl. Drain 15 oz. can of chickpeas, then add. Season with salt and pepper (I add an inordinate amount of crushed pepper in mine). Scoop in mayo a tablespoon at a time, mixing lightly until desired creaminess is reached.


If you have a favorite family potato salad recipe, try adding a drained can of chickpeas.
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