Falling into Autumn: Butternut Squash Stew

By Michael Araj

Despite the hot heat, fall has arrived with its abundance of autumn squashes and warm flavors, not to mention the colors. This warming stew keeps quite a while and increases in flavor the longer it melds. While it’s not a quick meal to cook during the week, it’s a great Sunday prep meal, freezes well, and can be eaten throughout the week.

As always, the first step is to get all your ingredients in place, or mise en place. This helps prevent me from looking like a chicken with its head cut off in the middle of my cooking since everything is ready to use.

Now it’s time to start cooking! Let’s heat up some oil and start cooking down the jalepenos, garlic and peppers!

Now time for the squash – the ultimate feel of fall. When you add the spices, after a few minutes, your kitchen should smell like a combination of all the flavors.

Time for the tomatoes and to cook down the squash since it will take less time than the beans to cook.

After the squash is mostly cooked, we add the beans, finish cooking the squash and then reduce the liquid.

Now we can enjoy our finished stew and celebrate the colors outside with those inside our bowls!

BUTTERNUT SQUASH STEW

Ingredients:

  • 1 tsp jalapenos, minced
  • 1 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 4 bell peppers, diced into ½ inch pieces
  • 1 pound butternut squash, peeled and diced into 1 inch cubes
  • 2 tbsp chili powder
  • 1 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • 2 28 oz cans of diced tomatoes
  • 1 can kidney beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can pinto beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1 can black beans, drained and rinsed

Directions:

  1. In a large pot, heat two tablespoons of oil over medium high heat. Once hot, add jalapenos. Cook until fragrant, approximately 30 seconds. Add garlic. Cook until fragrant, approximately another 30 seconds.
  2. Add bell peppers and stir well – this will prevent the garlic and jalapenos from burning. Cook approximately 4-5 minutes until peppers are softened slightly.
  3. Add the squash and stir gently to incorporate. Add the spices and stir again. Cook for approximately 10-15 minutes on medium heat to bloom the spices.
  4. Add the tomatoes and stir gently to incorporate well – there should be a fair amount of liquid from the can which should also be incorporated. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Cook covered for approximately 25 minutes.
  5. Check on the squash – it should be softened but still not fully cooked with some resistance. Once at this point, add the beans. Cook another 15-20 minutes, covered.
  6. Check the stew and taste. Adjust seasonings as needed and desired. Cook another 10-15 minutes, uncovered, so that the stew thickens.
  7. Serve immediately or let cool then store – the flavors will meld the longer they are together. Serve heated, garnished with chopped cilantro and a lime wedge if desired. In the alternative, top with chopped parsley and finishing salt.

Sliders: Sliding into Comfort

By Michael Araj

The burger. Is it the perfect food? It’s hand held, it’s meaty, and it’s topped with salad on it half the time (yes, lettuce, tomato and onion counts as a salad in my book). It is the ultimate blank canvas. The ultimate piece of art.

We made sliders for the Superbowl this year (along with the chicken wings), and they did not disappoint. We used the buffalo sauce from the wings recipe as well as a condiment with some fresh mozzarella. This recipe allows you to innovate and improvise as much as you want. Going Whole30? In one of the photos, you’ll see that we replaced the dinner rolls for butter leaf lettuce, and replaced the cheese and buffalo sauce for a tomato salad on top.

So give this recipe a shot and create your own piece of art.

Ingredients:

  • 1 ½ pounds fresh ground beef (we used bottom round that we ground ourselves, you can use store bought but we highly recommend grinding your own or buying from a reputable source).
  • 2  tsp Italian seasoning (we made our own – dried oregano, basil, thyme, garlic powder, cayenne powder; mix them together and play around with measurements to make it the way you like!)
  • Salt and pepper
  • ¼ cup buffalo sauce
  • 8 slices fresh mozzarella

Directions:

  1. Mix the ground beef with the Italian seasoning, salt and pepper, but do not overwork the meat. Formulate into 8 patties, approximately 2 inches in diameter. Push your thumb into one side of each patty in the middle to make an indentation.
  2. Heat a cast iron pan on medium high heat with a little olive oil. Once hot, working in batches, cook the patties 5 minutes on each side for medium doneness. After flipping (only flip once), add the mozzarella after 2 minutes into cooking the second side).
  3. Let drain on a cutting board or other surface and let rest for 10-15 minutes so the juices can reabsorb.
  4. Meanwhile, cut dinner rolls in half (toast if desired). Spread the buffalo sauce on each side of the roll. Add the patty (with the melted cheese) and formulate your sliders. Serve immediately.
  5. Be creative – don’t like Italian spices? Stick with salt and pepper and build a regular slider with ketchup, mustard, mayo and all the usual veg. There’s no wrong answer here – it’s what you like!

A Lotta Frittatas

Leftover Turkey Frittata

By Michael Araj

Leftovers. Some people love them, others cannot stand them. One thing both groups have in common, however, is figuring out what to do with them. Sometimes, when you’re on day three of some leftover turkey, you just crave a little spark to what was already a good dish.

Enter stage left: the frittata. That magical souffle like breakfast, brunch, or dinner dish that breathes new life into familiar flavors. We had some leftover turkey breast from a dinner (used in the recipe below) but most any leftovers work. Have some leftover risotto or pasta? Not uncommon to see those in Italian breakfasts in similar fashion. Pot roast? Might have to adjust which cheese you use, but still doable.

The reality is the frittata, in many ways, is a blank canvas. The egg and cheese additions transform the leftovers into something new. The way the eggs rise in the oven make the frittata almost light and fluffy. This frittata recipe is not traditional as it is completely baked (usually, one will start out on the stove and finish the dish in the oven) for a more convenient touch, making it great for weeknight dinners. After all, when is brinner ever wrong?

Ingredients:

  • 6 eggs
  • 3 tbsp milk or half and half
  • ¼ cup shredded cheese (the type of cheese will depend on what leftovers you are using; we used parmesan and Havarti here)
  • ½ cup diced leftover turkey breast
  • Salt
  • Pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease a tart pan or ramekin (if you have small ramekins, you can make individual frittatas) with butter or nonstick spray.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk the eggs thoroughly. Whisk in the half and half, salt and pepper.
  3. Fold in the remaining ingredients.
  4. Put the mixture into the tart pan and put into the oven on a baking sheet. Bake for 30-35 minutes until a toothpick or knife comes out clean from the center (as though you were baking a cake).
  5. Let cool for about 10-15 minutes. Either serve in the tart pan or run your knife along the outside edge of the frittata and flip onto a plate, garnish and serve.

Feeling Crabby? She-crab Soup

By Michael Araj

There is a restaurant local to where I work that serves She-crab soup every Friday for its special. While She-crab soup, of course, is in itself special, nobody seems to agree on much about it, what should (and just as importantly, should not) go into its preparation.

The orange tint of most of the she-crab soups that are made come from the crab roe addition to it; however, this can be difficult to find due to crabbing laws and geography depending on where you’re located. Some people add crumbled hard boiled yolks to imitate the texture, others find this sacrilegious.

One thing almost everyone does agree on is that there is something comforting about a seafood bisque-like soup that invokes images of warmth, comfort and sunshine. Below, you’ll find our own recipe for crab bisque. We used Maryland blue crab and seafood stock that was leftover from our Paella recipe. We substituted the traditional grated white onion for shallots for a more mild taste and added the addition of fragrant garlic to enhance the crab meat.

One area you cannot go wrong with any seafood bisque is to add a teaspoon of sherry or other dry white wine to your serving bowl which will add a depth of flavor to the soup. As always, bon appetit!

Crab Bisque

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup seafood stock (preferably homemade, but can use store bought)
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • Salt
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp flour
  • 1 pound crab (preferably blue She crabs, but other varieties will suffice)
  • ½ teaspoon cayenne
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • Sherry or other dry white wine
  • Chives for garnish (optional)

Instructions:

  1. In a pot, place milk and stock. Bring to boil then reduce to simmer. Keep mixture on simmer while working on the soup.
  2. In a large pot, melt butter on medium high heat. Once pan is hot, add shallots. Stir frequently until translucent, approximately 3-4 minutes. Add garlic. Cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
  3. Add flour and stir regularly until flour turns brown and bubbles.
  4. Add the hot milk/stock mixture into the soup pot with the flour, stirring while adding. The mixture will start to thicken.
  5. Add crab. Continue to simmer for approximately 10-15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the liquid is thickened.
  6. Turn off heat and stir in the heavy cream. Adjust seasonings to taste. Let sit for 3-4 minutes to allow the flavors to meld.
  7. Add a teaspoon of sherry to each serving bowl and ladle soup. (Alternatively, add 3 teaspoons of the sherry to the entire pot. If you wish to avoid alcohol, substitute with apple cider vinegar). Garnish with chives. Serve immediately.

Just Winging It

By Michael Araj

With the big game on last week, our family continued a long-standing tradition where my father would watch the game, and my mother and I would cook several appetizers for dinner to see which one of us would win our wager. A coffee table is as good as any for comfort, and last week was no exception.

On the menu? Well, like most of America, one dish above all others is a constant on our table for the Superbowl and that’s wings. My mother’s and I’s wager extended beyond the game this year as we each strove to make the best wings possible to determine the best approach. Our efforts resulted in a delicious tie, but either of these recipes will be a win with your family.

Buffalo Sauce:

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup of your favorite hot sauce (I prefer Crystal)
  • 4 tbsp butter
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • ¼ tsp salt
  1. Combine all ingredients and bring to a simmer. Simmer for approximately 15 minutes or until butter is melted and ingredients have had time to meld.
  2. This can be made ahead of time. If you’re making this ahead of time, let cool and then refrigerate.

Baked Buffalo Wings:

Ingredients:

  • 15 wings (drumettes or flats – I used a combination), cleaned and wing tips removed
  • 2 cup flour
  • 1 tbsp salt
  • 1 tbsp dried thyme
  • 1 tbsp dried oregano
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  • Buffalo Sauce (recipe above)
  1. Overnight, place the wings on a tray and place in the fridge. This will help remove moisture from the exterior of the wings and aid in making them crispy.
  2. Take the wings out approximately 30 minutes before making this recipe so that they are at room temperature. Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. Meanwhile, combine the flour, salt, thyme, oregano, cayenne together thoroughly and using a shallow pan or a plastic bag, dredge each of the wings until the wings are well coated with the flour mixture (shake off excess). Discard any remaining flour.
  4. Get a rimmed baking sheet and place a wire rack on top of it that is oven safe. Grease the wire rack and add the wings to the rack.
  5. Bake for 40 minutes and then flip the wings. After flipping the wings, increase the temperature to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Bake an additional 25 minutes, or until there is an internal temperature of 165 degrees Fahrenheit in the wings.
  6. Once the wings are done, take out of the oven. While hot, toss the wings in a bowl of the buffalo sauce coating as much as is preferred. However, keep in mind that the more sauce you use, the less crispy the wings will be.
We found out after the fact that we didn’t have tartar sauce but this sweet chili sauce also went well with the pungent spices of the Old Bay seasoning.

Fried Old Bay Wings:

            Ingredients:

  • 15 wings (drumettes or flats), cleaned and wing tips removed.
  • 2 cups flour
  • 3 tbsp Old Bay seasoning
  • 1 tsp cayenne pepper
  1. Take the wings out approximately 30 minutes before making this recipe so that they are at room temperature.
  2. Heat up canola oil in a cast iron skillet (filled approximately 1/3 of the way and not more than ½ way) for frying. The temperature should reach 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
  3. While the oil is heating, combine the flour, Old Bay Seasoning, and cayenne together thoroughly; using a shallow pan or a plastic bag, dredge each of the wings until the wings are well coated with the flour mixture (shake off excess). Discard any remaining flour.
  4. Once the oil is heated, fry each wing about 12-14 minutes, flipping half way through. Work in batches so as not to overcrowd the pan. If you put too many wings into the oil, the temperature of the oil will decrease leading to soggy wings. Soggy wings make people sad. Don’t make soggy wings.
  5. Once the wings are cooked, move them to a plate lined with paper towels so as to drain the excess oil. While hot, sprinkle some Old Bay onto the cooked wings so that it will adhere. Be careful though as Old Bay tends to be salty.
  6. Move the drained wings onto a serving platter, serve with your favorite tartar sauce and celery. Serve immediately.

Paella: The One Dish Wonder

My parents decided to throw a dinner party last weekend, and while my mother and I discussed what to serve, paella came to mind for several reasons. It’s filling, it has great flavor, and while not difficult to make, it appears a labor of hard toil.

Few things on a table are, perhaps, as awe inspiring as a paella. This Spanish dish steeped in rich history and even richer flavor is the ultimate comfort food. With versatility of ingredients, you can really make this into whatever you want it to be and your guests will be impressed.

Paellas come in lots of shapes and sizes, though a traditional paella also has chorizo instead of chicken. Because several of our friends coming to dinner do not eat pork for religious reasons, I substituted the chorizo for chicken thighs. You’ll also notice that this recipe is meant to serve a lot of people – it’s easily scaled down. We had 12 adults and six children, and this recipe easily would have served another four to six people.

The recipe also calls for saffron, a key ingredient and worth the expense. However, a similar color (the yellow of the dish comes from the saffron) can be obtained from turmeric, but this will cause a different taste to the overall dish.

If you do not have a paella pan, a cast iron skillet makes for an ideal replacement due to the even heat distribution at the bottom of the pan – you want the bottom of the rice to be toasted, almost charred at the bottom. This is considered the prized part of the paella.

Herb Blend (used below):

  • 3 cups cilantro, chopped
  • juice of 3 lemons
  • 2 tbsp garlic, minced
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  1. Combine all of the ingredients thoroughly. This is used in the paella recipe below but can also be used as a marinade for other dishes like baked chicken.

Paella (Chicken and Seafood):

Ingredients:

  • 2 tsp saffron
  • 64 oz seafood broth
  • 6 cups water
  • 4 tbsp olive oil
  • 16 chicken thighs, bone in
  • 3 onions, diced
  • 6 bell peppers (orange, red, yellow), diced
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 tbsp Hungarian paprika
  • 3 cans diced tomatoes (14.5 oz each)
  • 8 cups Arborio rice (uncooked)
  • 1 bottle dry white wine
  • Herb mixture (recipe above)
  • 2.5 cups frozen peas
  • 1 pounds mussels, previously cleaned and open mussels discarded
  • 1 pound little neck or cherry stone clams, previously cleaned and open clams discarded
  • 1 pound U-31 to U-40 shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • ½ pound U-21 to U-25 shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • 1 pound U-6 to U-8 shrimp, cleaned and deveined
  • Juice of 2 lemons
  • ½ cup cilantro, chopped
  1. In a large pot, bring seafood broth and water to a simmer; add the saffron. Keep on simmer while preparing the paella until needed.
  2. Salt and pepper the chicken thighs.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a large paella pan (if you do not have a paella pan, a cast iron skillet will work but adjust the measurements for the size of the pan) on medium high heat.
  4. Sear the chicken thighs on each side until golden brown, approximately 4-5 minutes per side.
  5. Remove the chicken thighs and set aside for later use.
  6. Add the onions and some salt. Sauté for 3-4 minutes. Add the peppers and cook another 4-5 minutes.
  7. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute.
  8. Add paprika and tomatoes. Cook down another 2-3 minutes.
  9. Add rice, distributed evenly initially. Cook 3-5 minutes or so, stirring frequently to coat the rice and toast it.
  10. Add the one and de-glaze the pan.
  11. Add the chicken back to the pan. Stir in the peas and herb mixture.
  12. Bring broth to a low boil. Once broth is halfway absorbed, nestle the shellfish into the rice. Cover the pan, either with a lid or foil if no lid fits.
  13. After approximately 10-15 minutes, take off lid and discard any unopened shell fish. The rice should be mostly cooked at this point. Do not stir the rice as the bottom needs to caramelize – this is considered the most prized part of the paella.
  14. Add the shrimp and cover again.
  15. In about 8-10 minutes, uncover. Shrimp should be opaque (if not, cover again until cooked).
  16. Turn off heat now that everything is cooked. Squeeze the juice of two lemons over the dish and garnish with sprinkle of cilantro (optional) for garnish and flavor. Serve immediately.

Misson Ribs: Oven Styled

The final product – the roasted ribs are at the forefront while the steamed ribs are furthest away. Garnishes of parsley bring some green to the dish and echo with a parsley salad that can be served with heavy barbeque to cut through the richness of the meat.

Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. I had intended to spend this weekend making a number of beef and vegetarian dishes as dictated by a fairly new habit I had formed in creating a twitter poll to dictate my food experimentation for the week. However, that was before the 8 inches of snow covering our yard and the emptied out grocery store shelves.

I started digging around and found some St. Louis style pork ribs, and a friend of mine had just had a conversation with me earlier in the week about her rib woes. Despite many trial and errors, she just could not seem to make her ribs tender.

I decided to try to methods to these ribs to see if I could assist in this problem (I even took notes, which, as many close family and friends would tell you is an exception rather than a rule in my cooking). I prepared one way using a steaming method, while the other slab, I prepared using a roasting method.

There are many decisions to make when making ribs: pork or beef, membrane or no membrane, dry rub or wet marinade. There are endless possibilities and even more preferences. Personally, I prefer a dry rub on pork ribs. I believe keeping the membrane intact, while making for slightly tougher eating, leads to a moister and more tender finished product.

Below, you will find the recipe for the dry rub as well as cooking instructions for both methods.

Dry Rub Recipe:

  1. Combine the above ingredients thoroughly. Store in spice cabinet if not in use.
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • 3 tbsp smoked paprika (I used smoked here because I did not have access to my smoker due to the weather; if you opt to smoke the ribs, which we will discuss in a later article, you can use regular paprika)
  • 3 tbsp chili powder
  • 4 tbsp cumin
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 tbsp cayenne pepper (less for lower heat, more for higher heat)
  1. Combine all ingredients thoroughly and store in spice cabinet when not in use.

Steamed Ribs:

  • 1 slab St. Louis ribs, pork or beef
  • Dry rub (see recipe above)
  • Apple Cider Vinegar (approximately 2 cups)
  1. Cover ribs with dry rub on both sides until well coated. Do this at least two hours ahead of time or leave in fridge overnight for stronger flavor.
  2. Preheat oven to 225 degrees Fahrenheit. Let sit at this temperature for at least 20 minutes so that the oven can conduct the heat.
  3. Place ribs in a pan on a roasting rack. Place the apple cider vinegar beneath it (not touching) and cover with foil. Place in oven for 4 hours.
  4. Remove foil and increase temperature to 350 degrees for 15 minutes to put some color on the ribs and caramelize the brown sugar on the ribs. Reserve the liquid. Cut ribs into servings (every 2nd or 3rd bone).

Roast Ribs:

  1. Follow steps 1 and 2 of the Steamed Ribs. Instead of a roasting rack, line a rimmed baking sheet with foil paper. Place the ribs on it and cover with foil. At this point, follow steps 3 and 4 of the Steamed Ribs Recipe.

The Journey Begins

Welcome to our Table

“You can’t go wrong with simple comfort food. It’s also about ease. Some cook to impress. I cook for people to enjoy the food.” ~Al Roker


This simple quote by Al Roker highlights what, for me, all cooking should encompass. While presentation is a wonderful thing and certainly something we will discuss in our journey together, at the end of the day, the levels of flavor and taste will always eclipse a beautiful presentation. The best pairing for this symphony, however, is great company and that, too, we will discuss here – the art of entertaining, whether it is a small dinner with friends to a larger gathering of celebration.

So join us on this magical journey of kitchen experiments, tried and true methods, and exchanging of ideas to make your table laden with extra comfort.