Baked Tomato Basil Risotto

So, Take Home Chef...I told you it's inspiring me! Last night we had a baked, tomato basil risotto with roast chicken and tonight is my very first homemade cream of potato soup! Hopefully an equally tasty, yet healthier version (with barely any cream). We'll see ;)

I was trying to come up with a way to use the leftover roast chicken yesterday and all I could think about was the "Neely's Get Yo' Man Chicken." It's one of my absolute favorite dishes (which...I know I say about a LOT, but when I crave this, I need it) in which you cook chicken in a bath of tomato sauce on the stove top. What gets you is the combination of herbs and spices--they create a very strong flavor that is truly addicting, which is obviously how it got its name! The story is that Pat Neely was won over by this, his very first meal cooked by his wife, Gina. Since my chicken was already cooked, though, I needed to come up with something else. Normally I eat this with rice (as the recipe states as well), so I figured I could easily turn it into a tomato risotto and simply shred up the roast chicken to mix in, which is exactly what I did.

Whenever I try to create my own recipe, I try to use another as a foundation...it makes me a lot more comfortable because I feel I'm less likely to fail. I find this method enables you to be incredibly creative and, eventually, find that the base recipe is no longer necessary!

So, I looked through every cookbook I own that could possibly have a tomato risotto recipe. I have one go-to cookbook for baked risotto, which is Martha Stewart's Favorite Comfort Food. I enjoy just looking through the book at the photos of all my favorite comfort foods, but it's also a very good source! It's my go-to for pancakes as well and I have never...never had better pancakes in my life. Never!!

Anyway, I like to take her recipe for "Baked Sage and Saffron Risotto" and use it as a base for other baked risottos, simply removing the sage and saffron. I find that it's never failed me when it comes to creaminess either. Baked risotto will likely never be as creamy as a traditional stove top risotto, but if you cook this slightly lower, it does mimic it more as opposed to simply resembling a baked rice.

However, that recipe wasn't quite good enough for the tomato sauce idea, so, instead, I used one in Patricia Wells' Trattoria. In her recipe for "Baked Risotto with Tomato Sauce and Pecorino," she combines her tomato sauce with the traditional chicken stock, something I wouldn't have considered, though it makes perfect sense. This is essentially what I took from her recipe since I was missing other key ingredients. I found that I have no hard Italian cheeses, whatsoever (not even a backup supply of Parmesan, *gasp!), and also was out of chicken stock! In a pinch, I simply omitted cheese completely (which is healthier, thank you) and replaced the chicken stock with beef stock. About four ounces short of what I needed in stock, I added just a bit of Burgundy to even it out :) 

I have to say, this dish was exactly what I was looking for. Once the risotto was finished, I quickly heated up some of that leftover roast chicken and threw it (chopped up) into the rice. My one qualm is that the flavor of the chicken didn't quite marry with the flavor of the rice; it was too plain! Had I been making chicken from scratch (as I likely will next time), I one hundred percent would cook the chicken in the tomato sauce, like the Neely's. 

What's great is that you can bring in as much (or as little) tomato flavor as you like. If you find you'd have preferred more, mix in a little extra sauce at the end. Then, next time, add more sauce initially. When I usually make the Neely's recipe, I do mix the sauce into my rice, so you may also prefer a plainer risotto with the sauce on top! I always encourage your own experimentation :)


Getting Amped to Cook

Like I said in my last entry, I've been pretty bad about cooking lately. An issue beyond the cold, dark weather and my fatigue is my small kitchen! It gets cluttered up with dishes so quickly and that's just uninspiring. Obviously I need to learn to keep the kitchen up better and plan meals ahead of time, like I had started months ago...

But today, I've found an additional remedy :)

Billy's been at work all day and, I, bored...tired...and hungry, decided to watch some online Food Network television. We don't have cable, so I've gone nearly a year and a half without my beloved Food Network. FINALLY I discovered, last week, that Hulu has some of its shows online! Today, I've discovered even a couple more cooking shows on Netflix, with far more potential episodes to watch :)

Currently, I'm going through TLC's The Take Home Chef, which many people might remember! A chef, Curtis Stone, goes to the grocery store searching for someone who will allow him to come back to their home and cook a meal for their significant other/family/friends. What I like about it is that these are very doable meals and you get to see everyday people, so much more like you and I than a television chef (even the rich housewives!), working in the kitchen. I could really watch anybody cook, but there's something even more inspiring about being able to relate more to the person...being able to envision their real, home kitchen (rather than an incredibly well put together studio kitchen) as your own and imagining the same exact possibilities.

Also, as always, it's made me so hungry for so many different foods that I never consider on my own. Just seeing something being made can be really inspiring. Perhaps it's just me, but when I see someone cooking or eating a meal, I want that for myself! Even seeing a character just snacking on something particular may encourage my craving (and we're talking far pre-pregnancy). So, watching someone cook on television seems to be having a really great effect.

I'm quite excited! I also hope that, moving into our new home, I'll be even more inspired because of the new environment...just getting to start over again from scratch. The kitchen isn't really any larger, but it's the possibilities of a completely new setup and being able to create a better environment that I'll actually want to spend time in that's so wonderful.


Steak: A Quick-Cooking Meat for Last-Minute Meals

I am exhausted...ALL...THE TIME. As most know by now, I'm nearly fourteen weeks pregnant and though I have had no symptoms whatsoever (no morning sickness, no mood swings, no cravings, no increased appetite--though mine was large enough as it is--no real weight gain!) I am far, far beyond fatigued during all hours of the day. Being awake is exhausting! Apparently even a peach-sized baby can tire you out.

Add to that the fact that it's winter in Michigan--the most glorious season of all! (Sarcasm). It's cold...it's dreary (though I do enjoy dreary, seriously this time)...and it's dark by five o'clock, which means it feels like bedtime, not dinner time. I get home from nine hours at the office and do not feel energized enough to cook. Not only am I tired from work, my twenty minute drive, and the increasing darkness, but I'm tired because I'm starving--it's a neverending cycle and always has been. When I get too hungry, I get tired, which means I don't want to cook, which means I don't get to eat...which leaves me hungry...and tired! And crabby ;) This is pre-pregnancy too, so imagine how bad it is now.

So, I've had to come up with a solution. Today starts my new routine of making loads of leftovers that can easily be reheated and of resorting to delicious quick-cooking meals, which brings us to STEAK. Sweet, juicy, tender, quick-cooking steak :)

Growing up, I loathed steak. I really am not a beef eater (I think hamburgers are so unappetizing unless made with turkey--and even then, only homemade because restaurants just don't do it right!) and I especially wasn't as a child. My mom had to cook multiple meals because my brother and I were so picky. I definitely was not ever going to touch beef of any kind--not even meatloaf covered in ketchup. A few years ago, though, I finally grew up and decided it was up to me to break my terrible habit and start trying foods that I used to hate and may love now. Enter steak. I love it!!

Billy and I keep a decent set of steaks in the freezer (along with loads of chicken), but my problem (our problem, really) is that I can't ever remember to take one out to defrost. So, I come home from work and there's no fresh meat to cook. I'm not about to put something frozen in the oven; I just think that's a sin...so we have to deal somehow by either eating pasta or sandwiches...or ordering out (gasp!).

Today was like any other day--no thoughts of taking out meat before work (or last night, which would have been better). I knew that I wanted to hit up Whole Foods after work so I could pick up a chicken (we only have two drumsticks and a load of wings left), but my intention for that was to either poach it whole or roast it (to have plenty of leftovers for situations just like this!).

While at the store, I noticed a beautiful section of perfectly crimson, on-sale beef. Most cuts were geared toward slow roasting, but two were perfectly fine for a quick meal (as I discovered by phoning my mom, hehe)--exactly what I needed as I was more hungry than usual! So hungry, in fact, I resorted to devouring an overly sweet Zimmerman's candy bar in the car along with a couple huge squares of super dark chocolate filled with salted caramel (I am not a candy eater, but I was desperate!). I decided to go with the sirloin tip steaks as they were more than half the price of the New York Strip (and these are already expensive because they're organic). This was incredibly, incredibly exciting. 

The first thing I did after getting out of the store was text Billy to let him know I picked up some meat and he'd have to start the potatoes while I drove home. It was perfect timing! He could get the potatoes going the entire time I was on the road. Then, when I arrived home, it would only be a matter of minutes before dinner was finished. These are some of my favorite meals. I mean, steak is incredible, so of course that's an automatic fave, but it's really an indulgent meal for me because we don't eat it often. So not only is it super fast, but a real treat.

Steak Diane. A previous meal because I was too hungry to take time to photograph this one :)
The point of this entry is to appeal to those of you who don't like to cook or don't have time to cook. Yes, steak is a little more expensive than chicken, but it's fast and you can likely afford to eat it (especially non-organic) at least a few times a week! If you don't want to wait for a side to cook, think about leftovers. I always try to cook more than I need because then that's less for me to cook later in the week. Last night, Billy helped make some mashed potatoes and we purposely made enough so that there's a second meal's worth. So, if Billy weren't going to be home before I was tonight, we could have easily reheated the mashed potatoes to go with the steak. Beyond that, you could always just put a snack with it--grab some bread, top it with a little oil, some herbs, maybe a little cheese (and pop it in the oven to toast up while the cheese gets melty) and you have an instant side of crostini--or just have steak and chips!

Either way, when you're in a hurry, remember that you can have the most delicious dinner in ten minutes or less. For a little inspiration, I've included a marinade/sauce recipe after the jump...because I think making your own will not only help you feel accomplished but taste a whole lot better than anything you find in a bottle! And it requires barely any extra effort or time, I promise.


Aunt Ann's Macaroni & Cheese

I have tried many, many different recipes for homemade mac and cheese, none with results that I've liked. The cheese sauce never seems to be smooth enough; somehow, the texture is always off. Of course, for years and years and years I've been obsessed with my Aunt Ann's mac and cheese. Anytime it happened to appear at a gathering, I'd be ecstatic...still am! To me, the texture is perfect, the flavor spot on, and the breadcrumb topping? The perfect addition! A little sprinkling of toasted breadcrumbs to so many smoother dishes can make a world of difference--pasta (even a simple pasta without a creamy sauce and without baking like a casserole) and risotto are two of my favorite dishes to top with crumbs. You wouldn't think they'd go well together, but it's really wonderful.

Despite eating my Aunt Ann's version for so long, though, I never got the recipe until recently. I just kept looking for the next best thing! Finally, it's here :)


What You've Been Missing

I have done plenty of cooking, plenty of photographing, and no posting! Life has just been too hectic with the holidays. Today, my major plans are part relaxation, part massive re-organization of my apartment (since we could be moving in less than two months!), so, I've decided to give you a little teaser of all the recipes I have to catch up on!

Chocolate Peanut Butter Cake
Apple Cranberry Linzer Tart
Cranberry Sugar Pear Tartlets
Big Apple Pancake with Fig Gelato
Orange-Chocolate Chip Muffins, Jam-filled Muffins, and Citrus Scones 
Sesame Cookies and Toffee
Berry Trifle Shooters
Chocolate Indulgence Shooters
Lemon Trifle Shooters
 I've also made a few savory creations, such as pastas, mac & cheese, risotto, and the best homemade hash browns you'll ever try, but the photos don't do them justice, so you'll have to settle with these sweet confections!
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