Spinach Artichoke Soup-your favorite dip as a soup!

Most restaurants have a version of spinach artichoke dip on their menu. It is usually really cheesy and gooey, and delicious, but it’s also loaded with fat and calories. It shouldn’t be a meal, but it’s so good, you can’t help yourself, and you keep going back for more and more….and more. Well tonight’s dinner was a version of this favorite recipe that was just as delicious, and light enough to eat a whole bowlful without feeling too guilty! It was a very fast recipe and it got thumbs up from the whole family tonight.

Two tips for you: First, I always have cooked chicken breasts in my fridge or freezer. I buy a big pack of them, season them well and roast them at 425º for about 20 minutes. I chop them and put them in little ziplock bags to add to lunchbox salads which makes morning lunchbox packing for my teenage daughters a breeze! I used 2 cups of my chicken in this recipe, but you could also substitute rotisserie chicken if you prefer.

Also, the recipe calls for leeks. If you don’t have them, you can use onions, but the leeks really add a great flavor. Leeks push up through the ground and because they have many layers, they often have grit and dirt in between the layers. An easy way to clean them is to cut off the dark green part and the root end, then slice them in half lengthwise and then thinly slice them. Put them into a large bowl of cold water and really swish them around, separating the layers. Remove the leeks from the water by scooping them from the top, DON”T DUMP THE BOWL! The grit and dirt will sink to the bottom of the bowl and your leeks will be clean.

Spinach Artichoke Soup
Adapted from Cuisine at Home Soups, Stews and Chilies

1 c. sliced leeks*
1 Tb. minced garlic, about 4 cloves
2 Tb. olive oil
2 c. shredded, cooked chicken
1 can quartered artichoke hearts in brine (not marinated)
2 Tb. flour
1/2 c. dry white wine
2 1/2 c. low sodium chicken stock
1 1/2 c. whole milk
1/2 c. cream
6 oz. package of fresh baby spinach leaves
1/2 c. grated Parmesan cheese
Salt, Pepper, Hot Sauce

Saute the leeks and garlic in olive oil over medium-high heat. Cook until the leeks are soft, about 3-4 minutes. Add the chicken and artichoke hearts and saute for another 2 minutes. Sprinkle the flour over the top, stir in and cook for another minute. Deglaze the pot with the wine and cook until it is almost evaporated, scraping any bits up from the bottom of the pot. Add the stock, milk and cream and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer and add the Parmesan cheese and the spinach. Season soup with salt, pepper and hot sauce to taste.

Per Cup: 257 calories, 14 gm. fat, 15 gm carbs, 3 gm fiber, 17 gm protein.

If you are concerned about the fat content, omit the cream, and you can use 2% milk.


Pork Tenderloin with Poached Plums= YUM!

As much as I try to fight it, fall really is here and the kids are back to school, and we have begun the crazy, hectic running around schedule that most American families share. Between our son’s soccer practice that ended at 5 and our daughter’s dance rehearsal that started at 6, we were able to sit down to this incredibly delicious dinner that was done in about 30 minutes. It was a fast and easy recipe that is so beautiful, it’s nice enough for company!

I found this recipe for a class that I taught at our local Cornell Cooperative Extension that focused on quick recipes using seasonal ingredients. People usually think of apples as the quintessential fall fruit and the perfect pairing with pork, but at this time of the year, plums are bountiful, really juicy and delicious and they make a perfect accompaniment to the pork. The poached plums alone are fabulous and I made extra so that I could have some leftover to eat for lunch today! YUM!

Pork tenderloin is a wonderful quick cooking dinner for a weeknight. The technique is simple which is to heat your pan until it’s really hot, use a drizzle of a neutral oil, such as canola, season your tenderloin well with salt and pepper and then sear it for just a minute or two on each side so it gets nicely browned and then finish it in a hot oven where the heat circulates around the meat instead of just the direct heat of the skillet. (Note here, make sure your skillet is oven-proof so that you don’t melt your handles or ruin your pan! Every kitchen should have at least one large pan that can go stove-top to oven. Another note: DON’T try to brown meat in a non-stick skillet, it won’t work effectively and you’ll end up with gray meat! ) Allow the pork to sit on a cutting board under a loose tent of foil for 5 minutes while you get everything else ready to allow the juices to redistribute before slicing it.

The only funky ingredient in the recipe is the star anise. It can be tricky to find in the local grocery store, but you may be able to find it in an Asian grocery or you can easily order it online like I did from Penzey’s Spices. It has a strong anise flavor which is not something that I like on it’s own, but when steeped in things like red wine, it adds are really complex and delicious note without tasting like a black licorice whip.

This got a thumbs up all the way around our dinner table last night and I hope you enjoy it too!

Roast Pork Tenderloin with Poached Plums
(adapted from Bon Appetit 2007)

6 sweet firm red or black plums, about 2 pounds, quartered, pitted
2 cups Pinot Gris or Viognier
1 cup dry red wine
2 whole star anise*
cinnamon stick
1/4 cup plus 1 1/4 teaspoons sugar, divided
2 cups low-salt chicken broth
5 fresh thyme sprigs plus 1 teaspoon finely chopped thyme, divided
2 tablespoons chopped shallot

2 1 1/4-pound pork tenderloins
3 tablespoons olive oil, divided
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme
Chopped fresh chives

For Plums:
Combine plums, white wine and red wine, the star anise and cinnamon stick, and 1/4 cup sugar in heavy large saucepan; bring to boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Reduce heat; simmer until plums are tender, about 20 minutes. Transfer plums to platter. Strain wine mixture.
Return strained liquid to same saucepan. Add broth, thyme sprigs, and shallot. Boil until mixture is reduced to 1 cup, about 25 minutes. Stir in 1 1/4 teaspoons sugar and chopped thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

DO AHEAD:Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover plums and sauce separately; chill. Bring plums to room temperature; re-warm sauce over medium heat.

For Pork:
Preheat oven to 400°F. Brush pork with 1 tablespoon oil; sprinkle with thyme, garlic, salt, and pepper. Heat remaining 2 tablespoons oil in large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add pork and cook until brown on all sides, turning often, about 5 minutes. Transfer skillet to oven, and roast pork until thermometer inserted into center registers 140F, about 20 minutes. Remove skillet from oven and let pork stand 10 minutes tented with foil. Cut pork crosswise into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Serve with poached plums and sauce. Sprinkle with chopped chives.

*Available in the spice section of some supermarkets and at specialty foods stores and Asian markets.

How to avoid the hypnotic draw of the neon Drive Thru signs or the Tale of a Busy Mom!

In addition to being a mom and a personal chef, for the past 25 years of my life I have also been a speech pathologist. I worked in schools for several years before having children and once our second daughter was born 14 years ago, I found a position with a small agency where I remained until this past August. It was a perfect job that allowed me great flexibility to be home with my kids most of the time, and as they got older, it gave me time to start my chef business. In August I parted ways with my employer and for the first time in a long time was looking for another job. As most of you know, the job market is tough, even for teachers and therapists, and so I am still looking, but meanwhile I am filling a two month maternity leave in a local school district. It is a full time job 8-3:30, Monday through Friday.

I realize that a great majority of people do this and more each and every week, and I will go on record as saying that I have always had a great respect for working parents, and even more now as I am experiencing the crazy, hectic schedule and the physical exhaustion that accompanies working full time and managing a busy family of five!

After a couple of weeks on this new gig, I completely understand the hypnotic draw of neon signs saying “Drive thru” and “Pick Up Window” that seem to get brighter and more intense at say…5 pm while driving home to figure out what to feed the family! I get it! I really do! BUT…. I also know how important good nutritious food is for me and for my family. I know how much better it tastes to eat a home cooked meal AND I know that even with this new chaos in our lives, there IS a way to make it happen without collapsing on the floor in exhaustion or being chained to the kitchen after arriving home!

Tonight I ran into one of my neighbors, also a teacher and busy mom, in the grocery store on the way home from work. She jokingly asked what WE were having for dinner as she was trying to figure out what THEY were having for dinner. And it got me to thinking that maybe I should share some of my techniques for those of you struggling to “do it all!” Do we still order a pizza once in a while, you bet! And yes, even at the chef’s house, we have breakfast for dinner on occasion when the best laid plans fly out the window, but with some planning ahead, a couple of great kitchen tools and strategies, we can all eat better at home! So for the next few weeks I’ll share whatever tips I can along with some simple recipes that my family loves, and hopefully yours will too!

Tonight’s strategy? Ask for everyone’s input! I started this tradition many years ago when I got in a rut or got bored with what my palate was thinking of for dinner. I ask each family member to think of 5-7 dishes that they would like to eat at dinner time. Not only does that give me a nice selection of approximately 20 dishes (there are always overlaps between the kids), but it really cuts down on the upturned noses at the table. I asked them all for there lists this week and so far here is my working list in no particular order:
*Pasta Fagiole
*Cider Braised Chicken
*Salmon Burgers with Ginger
*Steak Fajitas
*Turkey Lettuce Wraps
*Fried Chicken
*Grilled Steaks
*Lamb Chops
*Homemade Pizza
*Chicken Noodle Soup
*Chicken Pot Pie
*Tilapia with Chile Lime Butter
*Beef Stew
*Pulled Pork
*Linguine with White Clam Sauce
*Shrimp Scampi
*Turkey Burgers with Wasabi Mayo
*Chicken Parmesan
*Mexican Tortilla Soup
*Pizza Supreme Soup

That made my life much easier already! With Thanksgiving and Christmas looming, we might not make it through them all, but it really helps me to organize a monthly menu. That’s right, I said MONTHLY!

When I make a monthly menu I always leave a few days blank for leftovers, to use up some things that we have, to try a new recipe that sounds delicious or if we have a crazy night and the plan becomes a joke…

And tonight our dinner utilized another of my favorite tips that I’ll talk about later….stocking the freezer! I had ground turkey ready to go and I was able to whip up a batch of our favorite Asian turkey lettuce cups!
Happy weekend!

Dinner from Federal Hill with love!

When I take off for a few days to a new place, I am always looking for something fun to bring home. My 11-year old son always asks if I’ve brought something for him, and he’s usually non-plussed with my foodie finds, wishing instead for a toy or a trinket, but I think this time, even he liked my souvenir!

A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of going on a great foodie tour of Providence, RI with a few of my chef friends. We met early on Saturday morning on a gorgeous sunny day to tour the Italian neighborhood of Federal Hill with Chef Cindy Salvato.

Chef Cindy Salvato

Chef Salavato was an instructor at Johnson and Wales for many years and she was a wonderful guide for our tour. She had recently had knee surgery so she soldiered along on crutches, God bless her, and she shared with us the rich Italian culture of this small neighborhood on the hill that is full of gems! We got great information, enjoyed great humor and fabulous food tasting, and had a perfect tour guide! I highly recommend checking out Cindy’s tours if you are ever in Rhode Island.

We began at Antonelli’s which I posted about last week ( the little store on the square where you choose your own live chicken) which is where I got my fresh quail eggs. Then we moved on to Tony’s Colonial which was a fabulous little Italian market. It’s not a huge place, but the shelves are just full of wonderful little Italian gems. Artisanal pasta in all different shapes, rich tuna packed in oil, herbs, spices, incredible olive oils and balsamic vinegar, olives, jams, tomatoes… you name it! There was a deli counter with beautiful homemade “take out” and sausages and cheese. Oh it was wonderful!

Chef Salvato taught us about choosing REAL Italian ingredients that hold a special certification, Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or D.O.P. It’s not authentic unless it says D.O.P. on the label! We had an interesting discussion about San Marzano tomatoes and how even if the can says “San Marzano” they aren’t the real deal unless the D.O.P. symbol is on it.

Look for the D.O.P.!

Some of the SM tomatoes used by the Foodnetwork chefs are NOT the real deal, but are SM TYPE tomatoes that are grown in Florida not Italy. Be careful out there! (By the way, Wegmans has a store brand of San Marzano tomatoes, and they are indeed D.O.P.! That’s why we love Wegmans!)

Cindy also talked about the pasta making machines that make the pasta we consume here in the US and that the mass-produced pasta is fed through Teflon coated die so that the surfaces are smooth, but “artisanal” pasta is made with old fashioned bronze dies which are rough and give the pasta some rough surface area for the sauce to cling to. Sure enough, looking at the pastas at Tony’s they were rough and a bit craggy.

So on to my dinner connection to Federal Hill. After the tour, I went back to Tony’s Colonial to do a little shopping and came home with some great artisinal pastas including a bag of artichoke pasta! They are beautiful little green leaves of pasta flavored with artichoke. MMMMM!

A shrimp scampi-ish dish with an addition of sauteed shallots and a good handful of fresh basil was the perfect foil for my little artichoke leaves. The pasta cooked to perfectly al dente and had the mild earthy flavor of artichokes that really complimented the sweetness of the shrimp and the tart, bright lemon. The underside of each leave was mottled and bumpy which did hold the delicious lemony shrimp infused sauce…OH YUM! It was a 20-minute dinner from start to finish and so very satisfying! Luckily there is some left over for my lunch today!

In the end, it wasn’t a t-shirt or a plastic New England lobster that my son had hoped for, but the whole family enjoyed my little gift from Tony’s which of course is the whole point of bringing home a souvenir, right?

If you can go to a great Italian market, buy some artisanal pasta and check out the difference that the rough surface makes, but if you only have the brand name pasta, either way, you’ll enjoy this recipe!

Shrimp with Garlic, Shallot and Lemon over Artichoke Leaf Pasta
Serves: 6 servings
3/4 pound artichoke leaf pasta, orichietti or other flat shaped pasta
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 shallots, thinly sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley leaves
1/3 cup fresh Italian basil, chiffenade
zest of one medium lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
¼ c of dry sherry or dry white wine
1/8 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes

Prepare pasta per package instructions. Meanwhile prepare shrimp. Season shrimp with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened, about 2 minutes, then add garlic and saute for 1 minute. Add the shrimp and saute until the shrimp have just turned pink, about 3-5 minutes, stirring often. (Don’t cook the shrimp until they are done as you will finish cooking them with the pasta!) Remove from the heat, add wine or sherry, return to the heat and cook for one minute to cook off the alcohol. Then remove the pan from the heat and add the parsley, basil lemon zest, lemon juice, lemon slices, and red pepper flakes. Toss to combine. Keep the pan in the wings…it’s not done yet!
When the pasta is just cooked, drain it, reserving some of the pasta water, and add it to the skillet with the shrimp. Toss and continue cooking for one minute until the pasta is coated with the sauce and cooked to al dente. Add a bit of the pasta cooking water if needed to “loosen” the sauce if the pasta seems to absorb it quickly.

Always serve your pasta on a platter or a very shallow bowl so that the sauce doesn’t puddle to the bottom! Enjoy!


Quail eggs, from bird to plate. A story of my dinner!

Dinner tonight was a real French bistro meal. Fried quail eggs with runny yolks atop a salad of mixed greens dressed in a fig vinaigrette with some blackberries and raspberries. A couple of slices of toasted buttered baguette and dinner was ready!

This dinner was very special tonight because of the story of my quail eggs which had their start over 300 miles from here in Providence, Rhode Island.

There was another fun gathering of personal chefs, this time in Providence. On Saturday morning, we did a walking foodie tour of Federal Hill, a great Italian neighborhood with much history and fabulous foodie finds! Our first stop was Antonelli’s market, where you can choose a live chicken to have butchered for dinner!

First stop, Antonelli's!

Yes, you really can choose your chicken ALIVE!

Here in New York state, I cannot fathom the health department allowing such a wonderful thing, but here in Providence, this store has sold live chickens for years. We entered a small store front that had a glass case with fresh chicken, eggs, another small case with some vegetables and a few shelves of snack foods. Not too much for a grocery store, but then again, it’s not what people come here for. While we were talking with the woman behind the counter, a family came in: mom, grandma and twin girls who looked to be about four years old. They politely walked behind our group and went through the curtains at the back of the shop which really piqued our interest. We followed the little group into the back room and it was truly amazing! The room was full of cages with groups of chickens and quail, ducks and I think even some rabbits, a group of men killing and butchering the birds to order and a group of about 15 people who were waiting for their dinner!

While I really couldn’t watch the actual killing of the chickens, it was fascinating to watch entire families, even small children, choosing a couple of live chickens, having them weighed, killed, plucked and butchered for them to take home in a matter of minutes. These folks KNOW where their dinner is coming from! These kids KNOW that chicken does not come sani-wrapped in styrofoam packages. It was really incredible, and to be honest, I didn’t stay long in the back room, because while I love the freshest of the fresh ingredients, watching it all was a bit overwhelming for me. I wasn’t raised a farm girl, that’s for sure!

When we went back to the storefront we learned that nothing goes to waste with those birds. Yolks (undeveloped eggs) are taken from the insides and sold in deli containers to boil into soups, feet are sold, and of course, the fresh meat is butchered and sold to customers.

I returned after the rest of our tour to get a container of quail eggs because I knew I had to bring them home for my family to try! They are so small and pretty and when you crack them to fry them up, they are just downright adorable!

A tiny bowl of tiny quail eggs!

7 eggs fit in my 10\

And so ended the eggs’ odyssey from Providence, RI to my plate here in Rochester, NY! They were delicious!

And the winner is?! Chicken Cacciatore

In our house we have an ongoing battle about birthday dinners. Not between our kids, but between my husband and I. When I met my husband over 20 years ago, the man ate nothing but fried foods and pizza. He confessed that as a kid he was a picky eater and that he didn’t actually learn to eat spaghetti with sauce until he was in college. He was a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Yes, I still married him, and thankfully his palate has grown considerably since those days, but when it comes to birthday dinners, he always asks for his childhood favorite: meatloaf and mashed potatoes. Now let me tell you, as a kid there were three foods that I wouldn’t eat, that would cause me to sit at the table until bedtime because there was no way I was eating them and they were- liver, stuffed green peppers and MEATLOAF!

Oh how I hated that heavy brick of meat. Why you would do that to ground meat when you could make meatballs in sauce, or even a good old hamburger, I could never understand; and while I have learned to make a meatloaf that my family loves, and even I can eat and enjoy, it would NEVER be on my list of birthday treats!

For me, every year on my birthday I asked my mom to make Chicken Cacciatore (Pollo alla Cacciatora) which simply means chicken cooked “hunter style.” It is a rustic braised chicken with onions, green peppers, mushrooms, tomatoes and a bit of wine. We always had it with spaghetti or linguine, a crispy green salad and some crusty bread and it is still one of the best meals I can imagine.
The nice thing about this meal is that it is so simple to put together that it’s great for any time of the year! It isn’t my birthday but it’s time for my favorite meal! I hope you enjoy it! (By the way, it freezes beautifully so I always make a double batch and freeze some for a dinner on a different day!)

Chicken Cacciatore
1 3-4 lb.package of chicken pieces, dark, light or combination of both
Olive oil (several tablespoons)
2 large sweet onions such as Vidalia, cut in half and then thick slices
2 large green peppers, thick dice
3-4 cloves of garlic, minced
1 lb. Crimini mushrooms (Baby Bellas) halved
2-3 Tb. of tomato paste
1/4 c. red wine
1 15 oz. can of tomato sauce
1 32 oz. can of diced tomatoes in sauce
1 Tb. dried basil
1 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 c of grated Parmesan cheese

Heat a few teaspoons of olive oil in a heavy stockpot over medium-high heat. Season the chicken pieces with salt and pepper and brown them a few at a time (don’t crowd the pan) on both sides. As they brown, remove them to a platter. They won’t be cooked through, just nicely browned. (This tastes so good with the skin left on the chicken, but I usually remove the skins to reduce the fat and dust them in flour seasoned with salt, pepper and garlic powder.)
Once the chicken pieces are browned drain most of the fat out of the pan and add the onion and peppers, saute them until they are soft and a little browned, add the garlic and cook another minute until fragrant and then remove the vegetables from the pot. Add another drizzle of olive oil and add the mushrooms. Cook them for 3-4 minutes until they start to turn golden brown and then remove them from the pot.
Add the tomato paste and allow it to cook for a minute or two, then deglaze the pan with the wine (or a splash of chicken stock or water) and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Add the chicken and vegetables back to the pan and add the tomatoes and the tomato sauce. Season with salt and pepper and add the herbs. Place the cover of the pot on leaving it cracked open 1/2 inch or so and bring the pot to a simmer. Simmer on low heat for 45 minutes until the chicken is cooked, sprinkle in the cheese and simmer for another 5 minutes.

A pot of yummy!

Very tasty! As a matter of fact it’s what’s for lunch for me today too!

Crispy, Cool, Spicy and Delicious! Asian Lettuce Wraps with Spicy Ground Turkey Filling

Well, basketball season has ended and we are moving really quickly into baseball and softball season here in our home. I love this time of year, mainly because softball/baseball season means SPRING! Summer can’t be far behind!
So tonight for a quick and easy dinner we had Asian Lettuce Cups filled with Spicy Ground Turkey and Veggie Fried Rice. We love PF Chang’s version, and I have tried many versions to replicate them without loving any of them. This recipe while different from PF Chang’s is equally tasty! Kids love these because they are finger food and can be a bit messy which is half the fun!
I rarely buy iceberg lettuce because it just doesn’t compare nutritionally to greener greens, and it really lacks flavor, BUT it is super crunchy and cool which makes it the perfect lettuce to form cups for the filling. I always think of my mom when I clean iceberg as I slam the head on the counter to get the core to break away from the leaves. Sometimes it takes a few whacks and my family thinks I am a little crazy!

The filling can be made with either ground chicken or ground turkey
and can be warmed easily in the microwave for kids who need to eat at different times. The whole family loved them which makes it one of those great recipes that make family dinners fast, easy and delicious! Enjoy!

Asian Lettuce Cups with Spicy Ground Turkey Filling
Adapted from California Sol Food, by the Junior League of San Diego and shared with me by my chef friend Margie Mackenzie of Nutmeg Kitchens in Portolo, California. Thanks Margie!

1 T peanut oil or vegetable oil
3 T minced red onion or shallots
2 T minced garlic (I used minced garlic from a jar)
2 T grated ginger root
1 1/2 lbs. ground turkey
4 T low sodium soy sauce
1 T Chile Garlic Sauce (or slightly more if you like spicy foods)
1 tsp. fish sauce ( optional)
1 cup chopped fresh cilantro (about 1/2 large bunch)
1/3 cup chopped peanuts (optional — especially for braces wearers!)
1 head iceberg lettuce
Chop onion and set aside. Peel ginger root, then grate with the large side of a cheese grater, and chop garlic if using fresh garlic. Heat the oil in a large non-stick frying pan, add onion and saute about 2 minutes, then add garlic and ginger root and saute about one minute more.
Add ground turkey to frying pan (with a bit more oil if needed) and break apart and spread out with turner, then add soy sauce, chili garlic sauce, and fish sauce if using. Cook until the turkey is brown and crumbling apart, and the sauce is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes.

While turkey cooks, wash and chop fresh cilantro to make 1 cup. Remove the core end from lettuce, separate leaves, and wash in salad spinner and spin dry (or wash under running water and dry with paper towels.) Chop peanuts and put in small bowl to serve at the table.

When turkey is done, add chopped cilantro and cook 1-2 minutes more. Serve filling and lettuce leaves in separate bowls, with chopped peanuts in another small bowl. Each person takes a lettuce leaf, fills with desired amount of turkey mixture, adds chopped peanuts, and then eats the mixture from the lettuce cup.
I fold the lettuce cup over when I eat it, so it’s kind of taco-shaped, but some people like to wrap the lettuce around the filling like an enchilada. However you do it, it’s delicious!

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