Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Greek Orzo Salad

This pasta salad is the side dish for the amazing Greek entree that I created last week: Chicken Souvlaki w/ Tzatziki sauce. I actually was just going to post the chicken and save the orzo salad for the cookbook (it's actually a round two recipe for my Stuffed Peppers! Good stuff will be in that book!). However, I ventured onto twitter today and saw that Barilla Pasta is requesting that folks share their pasta salad recipes. Since I'd just finished this one, I thought I'd go ahead and post it because I think this pasta salad should definitely be featured. 

Whether you're serving this with other Greek Food or not, this is a winning salad! It's summertime fresh with the veggies and dill and all of the colors will really brighten up your table. Enjoy this one and look out for the other recipes shortly!

Greek Orzo Salad

Ingredients: (makes 4-5 side servings)

1 Cup Barilla Orzo
3 tbsp evoo
1tbsp white vinegar
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt & pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
8-10 grape tomatoes, halved
1/2 English cucumber, diced (medium sized)
1/4 cup red onion, minced
2-3 tbsp fresh dill, roughly chopped
2/3 cup feta cheese, cubed


Fill a medium sized pot 2/3 of the way full with water, place over high heat and bring water to a boil. Add a generous pinch of salt, then the pasta and cook according to package directions. When pasta is al dente, drain and add to a medium sized bowl. 

While pasta is cooking, whisk together oil, vinegar, mustard, salt, pepper and garlic powder in a small bowl. Pour over warm pasta, then add tomatoes, cucumber, onion, dill and stir to combine. Top with feta and enjoy. This is even better when allowed to chill in the fridge.

Friday, July 11, 2014

Easy Crock-Pot Pulled Pork

Of all of the recipes I've ever written and posted on this blog, I'm thinking this one has the least ingredients.  Just a handful in fact, and that's because I got some serious help from Trader Joes.  I purchased their BBQ/Coffee rub with the intention of trying it out on steak, but then, when I decided to make pulled pork for my 4th of July cookout, it was put to good use sooner than planned.

See, I've made pulled pork in the crock-pot before.  I've tried a couple different recipes.  One where I've made my own rub (meh).  Another time, I simply seasoned the pork with salt and pepper and threw it in the crock-pot with 1 liter of coke (tried and true southern method I found on the net).  Both times, the pork came out fork tender, but I must say that when I made it this way, using the TJ's rub, it was tender and flavorful.

I believe that the flavor not only came from the rub but the onions and garlic I decided to add as well as the fact that I seared the meat first before adding it into the crock-pot.  Also, I didn't use as much liquid as I did when I used coke, because I remembered how much liquid the pork produces on its own.  These subtle choices resulted in excellent pulled pork that got rave reviews at my cookout!  And whenever I get raves, I always feel compelled to share the recipe.  This one is definitely full proof and definitely "semi-homemade."  Like I said, I added fresh onions and garlic to a store bought rub AND I also bought the barbeque sauce (Sweet Baby Ray's for the win!).  So literally anyone can make this.  It's cheap and easy! It would be perfect for your next cookout.  Feed a crowd on a dime!

Ingredients: (feeds 6-8)
5 lb bone-in pork shoulder or pork butt
1 extra large white onion or 2 medium onions
4 cloves garlic
½ cup Trader Joes BBQ Rub, or your favorite (McCormick Packets are great, purchase 2)
1 ½ cups chicken stock or broth, divided
¾ cup vegetable or canola oil
2 cups store bought barbecue sauce, plus more for serving


Preheat cock-pot to low.  Slice the onion and arrange on the bottom of the crock-pot.  Roughly chop the garlic cloves and sprinkle over the onion.   Pour one cup of the chicken stock over the onions and garlic.

Next prepare the pork by placing it on a large plate or cutting board and trim off any access fat.  Rub half the spice rub into one side of meat, flip and rub the other half of the spices into the other half of the meat.  Be sure to cover every inch with the spice and press onto the sides as well.

Allow the rub to set while preheating a dutch oven or large cast iron skillet to  high.  Add in the oil and then gently add in the pork.  Sear for a few minutes or until a golden crust has formed.  Then rotate until browned on all sides.

Once completely seared, quickly transfer meat to the crock pot, placing the meat on top of the onions.  Then, use the remaining ½ cup of stock to deglaze the pan, scraping up all of the bits from the bottom.  Pour the stock into the crock pot, cover and cook on low overnight or for 8-9 hours.

Once cooked, transfer meat to a bowl or deep container.  Pour everything from the crock pot into a strainer to separate the juices from the onions.  Discard the juices, add the onions back to the pork and using two forks, shred the meat.  Mix in the two cups of BBQ sauce and serve with buns, coleslaw and additional sauce.  Enjoy!  

Meat removed from crock-pot.

Strained juices.

Used 2 forks to shred the meat. Though I barely had to. So tender!

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Summer Sides, Soups and Sweets!

Happy 4th of July to you all!  I don’t have any new recipes to share, unfortunately, but I do have news! I’ve enrolled in an online writing camp for the month of July called Camp NaNoWriMo.  It’s an online writing community that gives you the tools and support you need to reach your goal of writing 50,000 words in 31 days.  I learned about NaNoWriMo from Meg, my good friend from graduate school, who participated last November to write a novel, which is actually what the writing community was created for.  But lucky for me, they’ve created a camp in July where they invite you to work on any project that you like. 

I’m finally working on my cookbook and this project has perfect timing because I am off for the summer and though my business Popcorn Queens keeps me very busy, what I’m learning from this experience is that you can get so much accomplished in a single hour.  Or, as the "writing sprints" that we’re encouraged to participate in have taught me, in just 15 minutes you can type a lot of words.  So I’m finding the time somewhat effectively, but this is only day 3.  2,535 words so far 47,465 words to go.  I’ll report back at the end of July and post any significant dishes on the blog throughout the month.

In the meantime, I decided to share some of my favorite summer recipes today in case anyone needed inspiration.  Another thing I learned while working on my cookbook is that I have so many recipes on here.  I never thought I measured up to other food bloggers but this is my 66th post and about 50 of them have been recipes.  Regardless of what anyone else is doing, I think that’s a lot!  It’s time for the cookbook.  Anyway enjoy the Sides, Soups and Sweets!

My Summer Sides

I sent this to my Aunt’s 4th of July cookout last summer because I couldn’t go.  Halfway through the day I got a text: “Your Slaw is a hit! It’s almost gone!”  I have to admit this dish is a labor of love (slicing and dicing a ton of apples) but it’s so refreshing and healthy, your guests will appreciate it!

My roommate told me that one of her co-workers had her dying lauging because she was complaining about how much she hates the 4th and what she hates the most: Potato Salad!  It sits out, gets runny and gross, I get it.   Make this German version instead!  Mayo free, best at room temperature and has tons of flavor.

Wont say too much about this except, like my Apple Slaw, my family really loves it.  My Mom even asked me for the recipe yesterday.  Corn is just one of those vegetables that everyone loves and grilling it, only makes it better.

My Summer Soup

This recipe has been in my family for years and I just love it.  I’m even planning on making this in the next couple of weeks because it’s HOT out there!  Another refreshing, healthy option for you all!

My Summer Sweet

I like this recipe for the summer because well, pineapples are tropical right?  (even if they come out of a can) Also there’s no icing.  It can sit on your outdoor picnic table for hours and you don’t have to worry about them.  Plus, Pineapple Upside Down Cake is a crowd favorite on the low.  I never knew until I made these how many people rank it as their favorite dessert.

Please make one or all of these during your holiday weekend or any time this summer!  And Share! Share! Share! (@the_single_cook on Twitter & IG -- The Single Cook on FB)

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

April's Eatin'

I'm down in Florida visiting my best friend. Before I came down, she told me that she wanted to take me on a food tour. Amazingly enough, I've never been on one so of course I was game. She sent me a link to MiamiCulinaryTours.com and out of the 3 or 4 options, we both agreed that the Little Havana Food Tour was the one. We both love Caribbean cuisine and judging from the tour's description, we were going to learn just as much about Cuban and Cuban-American culture then we were about the food. So $56 later, (minus $10 w/ the offer code TWITTER) we were all set for a day of food and fun. 

Throughout the entire 2.5 hr tour, I photographed everything. The food and anything else I thought was interesting. The pictures are below and all I can do is hope that they captured this amazing experience! 

We met our tour guide on Calle Ocho (8th Street) in a contemporary art gallery (one of many in Little Havanna now). We checked out the amazing art and then we were taken to our first stop: El Pub. After we walked past the little window (for coffee to-go) and a huge food counter (for the regulars) we were escorted to a long table in the dining room. Above us, the World Cup was playing and then little shots of Cuban coffee were put before us. Our tour guide said this was the perfect introduction to Cuban Culture. Then came the food! 

First course was Empanadas filled with ground beef and onions. Our guide made a point to tell us that they are handmade from scratch and even though empanadas are really from Argentina (I kind of want to confirm this) they are very popular on Calle Ocho and in Cuban cooking. These were quite tasty! 

After the empanadas, out came our 2nd dish. She said the name a few times and I wish I had written it down, though let's be honest, I probably would've butchered it anyway. But I do know they were Tostones or green plantains filled with chicken. The chicken was cooked in spices with a little tomato and onion. It was quite different but delicious. After eating these I wish I had Guy Fiere privileges because I wanted to go into the kitchen to learn how to get the plantains to form into these little cups. Quite the mystery. 

After El Pub we walked a few doors down to another authentic Cuban restaurant for one of the most famous Cuban dishes: The Cuban Sandwich. I've eaten this sandwich a few times but never like this. On the tour we got "The Midnight Sandwich" which was the Cuban but with a sweeter bread. See just like any other Cuban Sandwich this one had roasted pork, ham, cheese, pickles and mustard. But we were told that this version was created for the cigar makers who would get off work at midnight. They would be hungry and looking for something filling but with some sweetness since it was dessert time. Well a chef created the Sammy you see below and it became so popular that people started asking for it this way; the "midnight" way. I wasn't expecting to like it but it was quite good. The bread reminded me of potato bread and it somehow worked with the other ingredients. 

After eating ALOT, it was the perfect time to take a break from food and explore the other cool things Little Havanna had to offer. The first was a real cigar factory. 

This gentleman Pedro Bello Sr. gets to sit outside of his well known cigar store because he is the holder of the Crystal Leaf Award; the most prestigious in the cigar industry. Mr. Bello is treated as a tourist attraction while his son and grandson continue to hand roll cigars inside. 

Not sure if this is his son or grandson but man he was hot. (I'm a sucker for a nice smile)

After the cigar shop, we walked through Domino Park which was set up for the elders in the neighborhood to play...you guessed it! Dominoes! And chess. The integrity of the park is upheld by a few rules that include: no gambling, no drinking, no weapons, just to name a few. So hustlers were not welcome, just men and women who truly enjoyed the game. 

Now, we were told, it was time for dessert! Our guide took us to a traditional Cuban bakery for a delicious sweet pastry (didn't get the name of this one either) filled with a Guava jelly. She told us this pastry is usually eaten for breakfast, amazingly enough, and the even more popular version has cheese mixed in with the filling. I would love to try that kind but this...it was perfection! 

We left the bakery and ended up in a fruit stand/juice bar. We were given a juice pressed from Cuban Sugar Cane to wash down our pastry. It's pictured below. I was surprised to find it sweet but not too sweet and therefore quite refreshing! 

The fruits available came from Cuba and other parts of the Caribean and South America. A couple folks on the tour purchased some and a few even got  coconut water to go.

Last but not least we ended up in Azucar Ice Cream Shop (azucaricecream.com) for one more round of dessert. This stop on the tour was a bit different from the others. The shop hadn't been open for decades, there was adequate seating and credit cards were accepted. However, this shop is on Calle Ocho because a Cuban-American woman named Suzy Batlle opened it after working in business for years to honor her Abuelita (or Grandmother). Her Grandmother had a passion for creating ice cream flavors with Cuban influence and Suzy wanted to share this deliciousness with the masses. Bless her! 

The flavor I ended up with was Cafe con Leche which, interestingly enough, was topped with Oreos. One word: phenomenal! 

But before settling on that flavor we were told that we could try as many as we wanted and I swear I tried all that were available (about 24 each day) or close to it. Though as you can see from the flavor list, she has created TONS of unique combinations that places this shop far above the average. 

All in all, my first food tour exceeded my expectations. I was inspired in so many ways and it only made me want to do more. I'm hoping to continue this "April's Eatin'" portion of my blog with more food tour and restaurant experiences because any good cook has to get out there and eat! 

Friday, June 13, 2014

My First Cooking Competition


It's been ages since my last post, and I do have some recipes on the way, but I thought I'd take to my blog to share my experience participating in my first cooking competition.  This post is long, but it's the whole story! From start to finish. The good, the bad, and the tasty!

When I saw the email calling for cooks and chefs to compete in the Eat for Charity Event in DC, hosted by the American India Foundation, I knew I had to apply.  They basically were looking for someone just like me: amateur chef with a signature dish who wants to see how good their food really is.

Well that was me all right, and even though I knew that my Shrimp & Grits (pictured right) were definitely considered my "signature dish" and had to be my competition dish, I thought hmmmm "Shouldn't I make popcorn?" I mean, in case some of you don't know, I have a Gourmet Caramel Popcorn Business that needs to be promoted and I was not sure Mama Popcorn Queen would approve of this.

But then I quickly remembered why I chose to go into business with my Mom.  Even though she's tough and wants me focused only on Popcorn Queens, she still knows me better than anyone and she knew that I had to do this.  "Go ahead and apply," she said, "Just try to figure out some way to promote the biz."  And that was that.  I filled out the application and on May 15th I was sent an email saying I'd been selected as a contestant.  At that moment, I had no idea what I was getting myself into.  I just knew that I had been chosen and I wanted to win.

As we got closer to the competition (taking place on June 7th) more and more details about the event were shared and I got more and more nervous.  Here were the most nerve racking ones:

  • No cooking allowed on site. No hot plates, no refrigeration.
  • Each contestant had to prepare 150 small plates for 150 people.  Yikes!
  • You had to present your dish to 3 judges, 2 of which are well known chefs in the DC area, the other the owner of a Gourmet Food Market in Dupont Circle (There's your popcorn connection Mom!)

As much as these tid bits of information scared the crap out of me, I decided to embrace them as challenges that real food competitors face.  As I came up with my budget, shopped for 150 people, and planned how I was going to make a dish like Shrimp & Grits OFF SITE, I remembered all the episodes of Top Chef I'd watched where curve balls were thrown at the "cheftestants." I told myself, you always wanted to do this April!  Step. It. Up. 

Two days before the event, I did my shopping at BJ's and my Mom found a great deal on Shrimp at Sysco (6 lb boxes at $8.50 a lb).  I was so excited about this deal, I forgot to ask her if the shrimp were cleaned.  I guess I assumed that they would be the "easy peel," deveined shrimp that clearly I've been spoiled with.  So the day before as I was doing my planning, I figured 1 hour would be enough time for peeling shrimp. -- BIG Mistake.  And I guess my subconscious picked up on this because the night before the competition, I had a horrible dream that everything went wrong.  I wont bore you with the details but I will say that when I woke up, I was so glad I woke up.

Right after my nightmare, I texted my Mom and told her about it.  She gave me the best reply:  "That's just the devil.  You're going to do great," she said. "Just don't go there expecting to win, go expecting to do your best."

It was exactly what I needed to hear, mainly the last part, which I repeated constantly in my head all day.  Especially when my friend Erica and I get to the kitchen, only to discover that the shrimp are not cleaned.  12 lbs of Shrimp that have to be peeled AND deveined.  I put Erica on it while I prepped other things but as we approached the 90 minute mark on the shrimp (remember I'd factored an hour) I had to jump in there and help.  And can I just say, as a side note, deveining shrimp is hands down the most tedious and disgusting job in cooking. #thatisall

Once we got the shrimp done, we were clearly behind schedule but I worked hard to get back on track.  Things were looking up until the point where it was time to cook my grits.  I was cooking them for 150 people and therefore had to use a huge pot.  The one I chose was tall as opposed to wide and what happened was, the grits on the bottom cooked so quickly and lumped together while the ones on top were still "raw."

As I was scraping these large lumps of grits off of the bottom of the pot, I literally thought I was going to cry.  It was 10 minutes past the time we were set to leave and I was feeling like I had to start the grits all over! Then, God stepped in.  Right when I was on the verge of a break down, the owners of Ravioli Revolution came into the kitchen.  (I guess I forgot to mention that Popcorn Queens rents a commercial kitchen that is shared with other food entrepreneurs) The guys came in and were instantly curious about what I was making, since it wasn't popcorn.  I told them but confessed that the grits were a disaster and it was looking like I wasn't going to make it.

"April!" one of them said to me "Grits are just like polenta, you have to whisk em! You can't be stirring the grits!"  He was right.  Any other time I've made grits, I've had a whisk but not this time.  "I don't have a whisk big enough for this pot! I don't know what to do!"  Then he said the magic words: "I have a big whisk in my station.  You're welcome to use it as long as you put it back."

My friend Erica runs over to grab the whisk, she comes back and it was like the clouds parted and the sun shone again! THIS WHISK was exactly what I needed (and just fyi I couldn't even find the whisk they gave me online, this one doesn't do it justice but will give you an idea).  I pulled the trash can over, dumped the big lumps into it and whisked my butt off until the grits were as close to perfection that I could get them.  Erica and I quickly loaded up the car.  We were about 20 minutes late but we were on our way.

We arrived at the venue Mad Momos (pretty cool place) and it was a race to get set up and begin serving.  As I was unpacking, people saw the shrimp and a crowd began to gather right away; good sign! Once I was ready, Erica and I had an assembly line going and started serving our plates.  I got amazing feedback on the dish and after several hours of what felt like hell, I finally started to have fun.  I realized, while serving, that even though cooking is hard work, I really love to do it because I love the joy food brings people and the conversations that come from it.

A guest and his plate. I did 150 of these!

When I had a spare moment, I went around and tasted some of my competitiors dishes.  I got a little worried, but I remembered what my mom said and I knew I had done my best work.  And really, so had everyone else so I knew there was a chance that I wouldn't win, but my friends and brother were there to vote for me and I even had quite a few strangers tell me they voted for my dish for fan favorite! yay!

My sous chef Erica and I toasting it up at the end.
All the compliments and kind words really felt great but at the end of the day, I didn't win and yes I was disappointed but I learned so much.  I learned that I can cook for large crowds. I learned that I do have what it takes to compete.  And I learned that you have to have support to be successful in cooking (and in anything really).  I don't know what I would have done without my friend Erica, my Mom, my Ravioli Revolution Superheros and of course my friends and family that came out to support me.

Overall, I didn't get a win but I'd definitely be selling myself short if I said my first cooking competition wasn't a success!

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Shrimp & Pesto Pizza

I read in a Martha Stewart Home Living issue that cast iron skillets are the perfect medium for making pizzas at home. Now even though I am a pizza fanatic, I never really thought about making my own pizzas until I read her article and then discovered that my local grocery store sells pizza dough. So I picked up some dough and decided that homemade pizzas had to happen. I may not have a pizza stone or even a pizza roller but I had a skillet and pre-made dough so I was set!

But then I kind of forgot about the dough and realized it's expiration date was approaching right before a snow storm. I didn't have time to run out and get what I needed to make my favorite kind of pizza (margherita) so I decided to just use what I had on hand. I discovered some store bought pesto right next to a bag of shredded mozzarella. Seemed pretty legit. But what would I top it with? I opened the freezer hoping to find some chicken or sausage but all I had was shrimp. When I thought about shrimp and pesto, it sounded good to me so I got busy. The results?? Well you see the picture! It was so simple and delicious, yet unique. Plus I got lots of assistance from the grocery store so this pizza came together in minutes, making it the perfect weeknight meal! Do try this!

Ingredients: (serves 4)
1lb store bought pizza dough
3 heaping tablespoons store bought pesto
3/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 lb raw shrimp, peeled, deveined (if large, give them a rough chop)
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, for brushing and sautéing 
Salt and pepper, to taste
Red Pepper Flakes, to taste

Special Tool: Cast Iron Skillet

Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Once oven is hot, place your cast iron skillet in the oven to warm up (this step is optional but will help create a crispy crust) While skillet is heating, sprinkle shrimp with salt and fresh cracked black pepper and, in a small sautéed pan, cook shrimp in a tablespoon of olive oil for just a few minutes on each side (barely cooked through). Remove from heat and set aside. 

Then, on a cutting board, roll out your dough into a circle about the same size as your skillet. You can use a rolling pin if you have one. I didn't so I used my fists to press it out. 

Right when you're ready to assemble your pizza, remove the hot skillet from the oven (using a pot holder of course). Brush the pan with about a tablespoon of olive oil, and place the dough into the pan, pressing it out to the edges of the pan if necessary. 

Then use the back of a spoon to spread the pesto onto the dough leaving about an inch around the edges for the crust. Next, sprinkle the mozzarella cheese over the pesto, but don't get heavy handed. You want a thin layer of cheese and you even want to see some of the pesto peeking through. Next arrange the cooked shrimp over the cheese in an even layer and sprinkle red pepper flakes over the entire pizza. Brush the crust with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil, place the pizza into the oven and bake for 20 mins. 

Remove the pizza from the oven and, using a spatula and tongs, gently move the pizza from the skillet to a cutting board. Immediately cut the pizza into 8 slices using a pizza roller or sharp knife and serve!

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Stuffed Chicken Breasts

This recipe for Stuffed Chicken Breasts came about one blah weeknight.  I was too tired to really cook and planned to simply grill some boneless skinless chicken breasts, throw them on a salad and call it a night.  But once I discovered the goat cheese and peppers in the fridge, (both of which I probably would have added to my salad anyway) I decided to use them to stuff the chicken.

My dinner came out great and because I felt like it was such a simple and delicious way to transform chicken breasts, which everyone always has on hand, I decided to send the recipe to Ebony.com.  Click HERE to view the recipe or scroll below to see the process.  When I took the pictures, I was actually trying to do a Roulade or roll the breasts around the filling.  But that was kind of a disaster so the next time around, I stuffed the breasts as the directions explain.  Enjoy!

Ingredients: (makes 4 servings)

·       ¼ cup, plus 2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil
·       4 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts
·       ½ Red Bell Pepper, sliced
·       ½ Small Red Onion, sliced
·       2 Cloves Garlic, minced
·       Salt & Pepper, to taste
·       Oregano or Italian Seasoning
·       Paprika, to taste
·       4 ounces Goat Cheese or Feta Cheese


Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Make the filling by sautéing the red bell pepper and red onion in 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat for about 5 minutes.  Sprinkle veggies with salt and pepper to taste, a few pinches of oregano and stir to combine.  Then, Add the minced garlic and cook for 30 seconds more.  Remove filling from the heat and allow to cool.

Meanwhile, season both sides of each chicken breast generously with salt, pepper, oregano and paprika.  Then, insert a pairing knife into the thickest part of each chicken breast and slice lengthwise until you have made a 4 inch long and 3 inch deep pocket.  You want to be able to lift and fill the pocket, but not completely split the breast in half.

Now the pepper mixture should be cool enough to handle. Divide it into 4 portions and do the same with the goat cheese or feta.  Then, stuff each chicken breast with a portion of the pepper mix and top with a portion of the cheese.  Try to press the mixture into the pocket leaving nothing hanging too far out.

Side Note: Another cooking method for this recipe, as you see pictured above, is the roulade where you roll the filling inside the chicken breast.  However, if you do this method, I would suggest using toothpicks to hold everything together because all of mine fell apart, except for the breast that's sliced and pictured.  Oops!

Heat the remaining quarter cup of olive oil a skillet (can be the same one you cooked the veggies in) and when the oil is hot, gently add in each breast and sear for 5 minutes or until brown.  Using tongs and a spatula gently flip each breast over and sear for 5 minutes more. Transfer the breasts to the oven to finish cooking (about 12 minutes).  Remove the chicken from the oven and allow to rest for 5 minutes.

Serve each breast whole or for dramatic presentation, use a sharp knife to make 2 inch slices at an angle.  Then, fan out the slices when plating.  I served my breasts with a lightly dressed salad, keeping the dinner carb-free yet satisfying.