Monday, October 20, 2014

Chicken Sausage & Tortellini

This is a typical conversation that happens somewhere between 3-7 pm, almost every single day:

"So what's for dinner?"
"I don't know."
"What's in the fridge?" (usually in reference to what type of animal proteins are thawed and ready to be cooked)
"Umm, there's some ___"
"What are we going to make with that?"
"I hadn't really planned on anything."
"Hmm, what can I make with ___ without going to the store?"

Sometimes the "without going to the store" factor works out in our favor, and other times it does not.

Today, the protein du jour happened to be some of Aidell's chicken mango sausage.  When I heard that was the thawed meat, it called to mind an old recipe I had picked up from one of the cooking demonstration stations at good ole H-E-B in Texas!  Sure enough, I still had it in my recipe box.  I pulled it out and decided I was going to sort of follow this recipe as a "skeleton" recipe and make it my own.

So, here we have it, folks!

Larena's Chicken Sausage & Tortellini

Prep time - approximately 20 minutes, makes approximately 5 servings

  • ~20 oz rainbow tortellini - cheese
  • 1 package of Aidells chicken mango sausage, sliced in ~3/4-inch thick slices, or whichever chicken sausage you prefer
  • 2 teaspoons caramelized garlic slices with the oil, or use 3 cloves of fresh sliced garlic
  • 1 Serrano pepper, diced
  • 1/2 cup olive oil, divided - 2 tbsp for cooking sausage
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • 8 large basil leaves, sliced into 1/2 inch wide strips
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tsp King Cajun - Cajun cream sauce spice
  • Red chili flakes and/or cayenne pepper to taste

  1. Cook the tortellini according to the package instructions. Since you will be finishing the tortellini in a large skillet, be sure to only use the lowest cooking time listed on the package. Be sure to stir occasionally and not hard boil it too long to prevent the tortellini from bursting open.
  2. As soon as you toss the tortellini into the boiling water, put the 2 tbsp olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. (stir the tortellini!) Saute the sausage, garlic, and Serrano pepper until the sausage is lightly brown. Use some tongs to flip the sausage so both sides of the slices get a nicely browned edge. (stir the tortellini!) Cook for 4-5 minutes.
  3. Once the tortellini has finished boiling, strain it and add the tortellini to the skillet, add the remaining olive oil, and stir to distribute evenly. Add the Cajun cream spice, basil leaves, and cherry tomatoes. Stir again to distribute evenly, and then top with the freshly grated Parmesan cheese.
  4. Garnish with a few red chili flakes and/or cayenne pepper according to your spice preference.
Optional ingredients: fresh sliced mushrooms and/or ~1/2 lb uncooked & unshelled/deveined shrimp added at the same time you cook the sausage, garlic and Serrano pepper.

For the nutritional values of this recipe, you can log it through the My Fitness Pal application.  Just search for "Larena's Chicken & Sausage Tortellini."  Disclaimer: this nutritional value calculation is just an estimation.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Larena's Borracho Beans

When my father asked my mom's dad if he could marry her, my grandfather had a few questions for my dad.  You see, my grandfather knew that my dad wasn't going to pursue riches or any sort of fancy lifestyle, and he knew that wasn't something my mom was looking for either in life.  He knew my mom wasn't a gourmet chef (after all, she was only 16 at the time!), but she also knew how to make cheap, simple meals in order to make ends meet.  Most of all, my grandfather wanted to make sure my dad would take happy, willing and able to care of my mom for the rest of her life.

He asked my dad "Will you be okay with just eating beans and cornbread every day?"
My dad responded with "Absolutely!  I LOVE beans and cornbread!"

Yeah, I don't think he quite understood my grandpa's point...  haha!  Grandpa was aware my mom knew how to make beans and cornbread, and he knew my parents' budget was going to be pretty tight and meals weren't going to be very extravagant.  My dad didn't really care.  He was raised by a single mom in Texas for many years, so beans and cornbread were A-Okay by him!  Living on a meager budget was not going to be a big problem for him, and it wasn't going to be a problem for my mother either.

My dad was born and raised in Texas.  My mother was born and raised in Texas.  My brother and I were also born and raised in Texas.  Where we grew up, beans and cornbread were a staple food!  You could go to H-E-B and buy bulk pinto beans for drastically cheap prices, and guess what?  You just bought an excellent source of a cheap protein that could feed your family for days.  Beans are incredibly cheap, and they can be delicious!  Nowadays, my dad can make a pretty fantastic pot of beans.  It's one of his specialty dishes!

I was never a very big fan of refried beans, but if you put some borracho beans in front of me - oh, it was ON!  I grew up on beans and cornbread, especially during the winter months.  Since my father was in the construction business, the winter season was usually less prosperous because people were saving up money for the holidays and then recovering from the holiday spending.  People weren't able to spend the money on getting the house fixed after taking a big financial hit at Christmas!  Throughout the year, my mom would buy staple foods that wouldn't spoil so that we could be sure to have plenty to eat during the months when income was a lot lower.  

These old, ingrained habits are largely why my pantry is so full all of the time!  At any given point, you can almost always find things like beans in my pantry!  But please, don't show up at my house if a zombie apocalypse happens :P  (In other words, I am not worried about anyone showing up at my doorstep looking to ransack my pantry!)  When I set out to make these Texas style borracho beans (translation: "drunk beans") the other day, all I had to buy was an onion, cilantro, canned tomatoes, a lime, and a garlic clove (I had one, but I wanted a fresher one).  I spent about $5 at the grocery store to make this meal, and it made a very large family serving!  I had the rest of the stuff sitting in the pantry (or fridge - bacon, bell pepper and jalapenos).  I always use the dried chicken granules to make my own chicken stock, and I always use whatever bottle of beer is leftover from previously hosted gatherings.  It is a delicious and cheap way to feed large parties of people!

Also, please note you can use a crock pot to make these beans, though I recommend using an enameled Dutch oven.  I do recommend doing steps 1-2 in some sort of enameled Dutch oven or other large pan on the stove (for at least 30 minutes) before you put it in a crock pot.  It will save you a lot of time, and you really should soak the beans for at least 4 hours.  If you have a large amount of time, you can put all of the ingredients together in a large capacity crock pot and just leave it overnight or in the morning before you go to work.

As I discussed in a previous post, if you are concerned about the alcohol in the beans, please look at this link.  Since you will be simmering the beans for over 2.5 hours, there will be less than 5% of that one bottle of beer left in your beans.  5% of the 5% of alcohol by volume in an average beer leaves you with about half of the alcohol in an Alcoholics Anonymous-approved "Near Beer"!  When you divide that out into how many servings this dish makes, the amount of alcohol is almost negligible.

Larena's Borracho Beans

1 lb dried pinto beans, washed (and “sorted” to ensure there are no rocks mixed in)
Water (no salt) to soak the beans
2 quarts chicken stock
1 ½ tbsp of Salt Grass Spice (if you don’t have it, use salt/pepper to your taste, and add about ¼ tsp paprika)
2 cans Mexican style stewed tomatoes, cut into ½” pieces
1 white onion, diced
6 cloves garlic, minced
3-4 bay leaves
¼ cup pickled jalapeno slices, cut into half-slices
1 ½ cup (approximately) of chopped fresh cilantro, including stems
1 – 12 oz bottle/can of a dark beer (or a Mexican beer such as Dos Equis, Corona, Negro Modelo, etc)
3 slices of bacon, cut into ½” wide slices (or salt pork, bits of ham from ham hocks or sliced deli meat, etc)
½ of a bell pepper, diced  into ½” pieces
1 tsp mesquite flavored liquid smoke
1 ½ tbsp dried oregano
2 tsp dried basil
1 tsp cumin powder
¼ tsp cayenne
½ tsp garlic powder
2-3 tbsp of tomato paste (to taste)
a small squeeze of lime juice
Additional salt/pepper to taste

  1. Soak the beans (covered) overnight, or for at least 4 hours.
  2. Drain the beans, and refill the pot with enough chicken stock to cover the beans with approximately 2 inches of chicken stock (you may need to make additional stock, depending on the size of your pan).  Season with the Salt Grass spice (or salt/pepper/paprika if you don’t have any of the 7-spice).  Cover and bring the beans to a boil.  Once it has started to boil, reduce the heat to medium low, re-cover, and cook for 1.5 hours.  Stir your beans occasionally to prevent the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pot.
  3. Once the beans have finished their main cooking process, add in all of the remaining ingredients and stir well to combine and distribute the ingredients.
  4. Continue to cook the beans, uncovered, for 1 hour, or until the beans are nice and tender.
  5. Taste the beans and add some additional salt or pepper if necessary (I add approximately 1 more tsp of pepper if I am using the Salt Grass steak spice).
  6. Optional step: you can crush the beans just a little bit with a potato masher or a meat tenderizer to thicken the liquid.  I prefer to just cook out some of the additional liquid instead!  The beans will be quite forgiving if you keep stirring and cooking them, uncovered, at a low setting.  Just keep an eye on them and don't let them sit for more than another hour or so.

For a nutritional value breakdown of this recipe, you can find it on My Fitness Pal by doing a search for "Larena's Borracho Beans."   Disclaimer: this nutritional value calculation is just an estimation.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Beef Minestrone Soup

Soup.  Buttered saltines.  My little panda bear Chinese soup spoon.  My Care Bears TV tray.

During my childhood, these were the things that made my lunch on sick days.  Sometimes it was just lunch on a cold day.  Sometimes it was just lunch when mom wasn't feeling up for making a whole big deal out of lunch.

I don't know how she did it.  She managed to butter (okay, it was probably more like Imperial margarine spread) those saltine crackers and splay them out so that only one side of the cracker would be sticky but not too sticky to have all of the crackers stick together.  That sort of mom-prepared-meal-perfection is still endearing when I think back about it.

Progresso Beef Minestrone soup was my favorite "go to" canned soup when I was a kid.  It had all of the beans most kids wrinkle their nose at - lima beans, kidney beans, garbanzo beanscannellini beans, and peas.  I loved them all!

Then Progresso switched to only doing the minestrone soup without beef.  I was so sad!  But, I put on my big girl panties and learned to love the soup without beef.  Then at least a decade ago, they completely changed the recipe altogether.  They switched up the broth and the pasta.  They switched from a long ditalini pasta shape to a short penne shape.  *In my best sad little girl voice* It was not the same.

I've had lots of this new recipe of minestrone soup over the years, and I would long for the old recipe every time I had it.  Then one day I decided I should make some homemade minestrone soup for myself!  This is what I came up with.  Enjoy!

Special note: it can be made in a crock pot, though it will take a bit longer.  Just make sure you brown the beef and onions in a small covered skillet first.  You can experiment with it, but I recommend cooking the ditalini pasta for the last 20 minutes, if not longer, in the crock pot.  It can also stay on low simmer for much longer than an hour.  The longer it stays on simmer, the more the flavors will bloom.  I highly recommend an enameled Le Creuset Dutch oven to make this recipe.  Le Creuset pots are great in that they only need to run on very low amounts of heat to get the job done consistently.  They are *not* cheap, but one will last you a lifetime, and I have never had problems with cleanup.  It's pretty difficult to burn things in an Le Creuset pot if you maintain a low temperature.

Larena's Beef Minestrone Soup
·        1 lb of stew meat (beef)
·        Salt (to taste)
·        Pepper (to taste)
·        2 tbsp. of olive oil or coconut oil
·        1 small onion, diced
·        ~6 cups of vegetable broth (or chicken broth), or ~2 14.5 oz cans to start, 1 extra can after pasta is added
·        3 tbsp. of tomato paste
·        1 ½ tsp. Herbs de Provence
·        ½ tsp. basil
·        ½ tsp. oregano
·        2 bay leaves
·        1 cup of green beans, ends snapped off and pod snapped in half (fresh, not canned)
·        2 cups of cannellini beans (soaked overnight, or frozen or canned - drained)
·        1 cup of garbanzo beans (soaked overnight, or frozen or canned - drained)
·        1 cup of red kidney beans (soaked overnight, or frozen or canned - drained)
·        1 cup of lima beans (soaked overnight, or frozen or canned - drained)
·        2 cups of diced fresh Roma (Italian plum) tomatoes, or canned
·        2 medium sized carrots, peeled and sliced, large discs cut in half (yields ~1 cup)
·        2 large stalks celery, diced
·        1 small russet potato, peeled and cut into ½ inch cubes (approximately 1 cup)
·        a pinch of dried red pepper flakes
·        1 tbsp. of lemon juice
·        2 cloves of garlic, chopped or crushed
·        ½ - ¾ cup dried ditalini pasta or other small pasta (macaroni, shells, etc)
        Optional ingredients: 
·        2 tsp. of Salt Grass spice (no need to add additional salt/pepper aside from seasoning the beef if doing this step)
·        ½ tsp. cayenne

1.    Pat the stew meat dry with paper towels, and season the beef with salt and pepper according to your personal taste.
2.    Using an (enameled, preferably) cast iron Dutch oven, put the stew meat and onions on low-medium heat. Cover and brown the stew meat in the oil and onions, stirring occasionally.  This will take approximately 45 minutes to an hour on low-medium heat.  The onions should be “sweated” and soft and translucent, and the beef should be nice and brown all around the outside.
3.    Combine all the remaining ingredients in a large stock pot or saucepan (except for the pasta), mix well, and simmer for about 2 hours. 
4.    Add the ditalini pasta, stir and simmer for another 20 minutes.  If the soup doesn’t have enough broth for your taste, add additional soup stock or water if you are out of soup stock. 
5.    Remove the bay leaves, and enjoy! This soup can be kept warm if covered and the heat is reduced to an extremely low level.  It can also be frozen or refrigerated for a second round.

For the nutritional values of this recipe, you can log it through the My Fitness Pal application.  Just search for "Larena's Beef Minestrone Soup."  Disclaimer: this nutritional value calculation is just an estimation.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Gigante Beans by Any Means

When I try new foods, I'm often surprised at how fantastic they are.  Gigante beans are definitely one of those foods!  The first time I tried them, they were cooked Greek style.  I was thoroughly impressed!

A few months ago, one of my friends asked me if I was familiar with them and if I knew where to find some in bulk.  I was familiar with them, but I had no idea where to find them.  After at quick Google search, I figured out I could find them here in Seattle at Big John's PFI near the International District.  If you are a foodie in the Seattle area, you simply must go visit this store!

Low and behold, there they were - $4.99/lb for gigante beans.  Score!  The cheapest I could find them online was for $5.99 per pound plus shipping fees through Amazon .  Alternatively, I just purchased several pounds of them from Big John's and went home.  Now what?
After doing some searching for similar recipes to the one I had previously eaten, I pieced this recipe together.  I have to say it was superb!  It is definitely being added to our "cycle" of foods we make every so often.  Though it does take a bit of time, it can be broken up easily by soaking overnight, cooking them in the pressure cooker the next evening, and baking them the next day.  Or it can all be done one weekend afternoon.

This recipe can be easily doubled.  It yielded about 6 servings.  Alternatively, you could probably easily double all of the other ingredients in the recipe (except for gigante beans) and it would still be quite tasty.

1 lb dried gigante beans (soaked overnight, or at least 4 hours)
Water to soak the beans
Water to cook the beans in a pressure cooker
½ large onion, chopped (about 1 1/2 cups)
½ orange bell pepper, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
½ red bell pepper, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1 – 14 ounce can diced tomatoes, preferably Italian seasoning
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 large carrot, sliced  into 1/2 inch discs, big disc pieces cut in half or quarters
1 stalk celery & leaves, chopped into 1/2 inch pieces
1 chicken bouillon cube, crumbled
1 tablespoon ketchup
1/3 cup coconut oil (or olive oil)
1/3 lb bacon, chopped (or 6 oz. bacon and 6 oz good quality pork sausage, cut up) (optional)
Ground pepper, to taste
Hot water to cook the beans in the baking dish
1 tablespoon fresh dill, minced
¼ cup (approx.) of crumbled Feta cheese


  1. Cook the pre-soaked beans in a pressure cooker, with enough water to cover by one inch, for 20 minutes.  Depending on the style of pressure cooker you have, only count the 20 minutes once the pressure cooker has begun to whistle at regular intervals (for mine, this is about 3x a minute using a 5 lb weight).  Once the 20 minutes are up, turn the heat off the beans and leave them in the pressure cooker, undisturbed, for 2-3 hours before proceeding with recipe.  (Note: if you do not have a pressure cooker, cook the beans with 3 cups of water for every 1 cup of beans in a heavy saucepan with a lid.  Bring to a boil, reduce to a simmer and then cook them for 45 minutes to an 1 hr 30 minutes, depending on how fresh your beans are.  You might have to add cooking liquid if cooking for a long period of time.  I would suggest letting them sit in the water, covered, for at least 1 more hour after they are done cooking.)
  2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees farenheit.
  3. Strain the beans and pour them into a large glass baking pan.  Note: it is okay if the beans are still a little firm at this point, but they should be plumped up quite nicely.
  4. Combine all of the remaining ingredients, except the dill, and mix well.
  5. Pour in enough hot water to cover beans by 1" in the baking dish.  Note: If the baking dish is not deep enough to cover the beans, pour enough water until it reaches 1“ from the top.  You only want to cover the beans 1” above where they originally came to in the pan before you added the other ingredients.
  6. Place the baking dish in oven and bake for 1 hour 45 minutes.  If you prefer to have your beans more tender, check the beans for the consistency after the 1 hour 45 minutes time is up.  If you want them to have a more tender texture, cook them for an additional 30 minutes.
  7. Stir the dill in, and bake for an additional 15 minutes.
  8. Remove the baking dish from the oven, and serve in bowls. 
  9. Top with a few crumbles of Feta cheese in each bowl, and enjoy!

For the nutritional values of this recipe, you can log it through the My Fitness Pal application.  Just search for "Larena's Gigante Beans."  Disclaimer: this nutritional value calculation is just an estimation, and it is based off 6 servings.