A Veggie Melt That’s So Tasty You Won’t Even Care That It Kind Of Falls Apart When You Eat It

 

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No substitutions are allowed for this sandwich. Switch out the Colby Jack for cheddar? You wouldn’t dare. Use a pita instead of pumpernickel bread so the filling stays intact? Blasphemy. Leave out the sprouts? We can’t be friends anymore.

Seriously, I’ve tried doing all of those swaps and it’s just not the same. The worst experiment was making over-stuffed closed-faced sandwiches instead of smaller open-faced ones. Going Dagwood-style is a guarantee that you will end up with a large glob of avocado/veggie goo plopping onto your lap. Even with the open-face, no matter how you stack the veggies or even layer in some extra sprouts for grip between the tomatoes and cucumbers, eating this sandwich is kind of like playing Jenga with your food. You’re never quite sure if the next bite is going to make it fall apart or not. I need J. Kenji López-Alt to fix my veggie melt problems.

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I dunno, maybe I just have some serious cognitive dissonance going on here and I’m only convincing myself that this sandwich is top-notch because, well, I wouldn’t keep making it and going through the hassle of tucking runaway mushroom slices and pepper strips back under the cheese if it weren’t exceptionally good, right?

But really, when you have tangy, toasty pumpernickel bread… Some tomato-on-mayo action… Summer-ripe peppers and cucumbers… Sautéed mushrooms for extra umami… Let’s not forget the avocado…. A healthy handful of sprouts for crunch… And a delicious cap of melty cheese to top it all off… How could it not be worth the messiness? The only way you could go wrong would be by wearing white while you eat it.

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Note: If you’re only planning on making 1 or 2 sandwiches at a time, still cook all of the mushrooms and peppers in advance. Everything else can be freshly prepped as needed.


A Veggie Melt That’s So Tasty You Won’t Even Care That It Kind Of Falls Apart When You Eat It

makes 8 open-faced sandwiches, serving 4

  • 1 Tbsp. olive oil (maybe more)
  • 1 container (8-10 oz.) cremini mushrooms, stems removed, caps sliced
  • 1 large garlic clove, minced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced lengthwise into thin strips
  • 8 slices pumpernickel bread
  • 2 medium to large tomatoes
  • kosher salt
  • 1 medium cucumber
  • 1 avocado, mashed with a generous pinch of salt
  • a couple of thin slices of red onion
  • alfala sprouts
  • 8 slices (about 1 oz. each) Colby Jack Cheese, each cut diagonally in half
  1. In a medium skillet, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and sauté until they’ve released their juices and the juices have mostly evaporated. Add the garlic and stir until just fragrant, about a minute. Spoon the mushrooms into a bowl and return the skillet to the burner.
  2. If the pan is dry, add a little more oil. Add the red pepper strips and sauté until tender and bendy.
  3. Turn the over to 350º and toast your bread while you prep the other veggies.
  4. Cut the tomatoes so you have 8 slices that are about 1/4″ thick. Cut each slice in half diagonally. Sprinkle with salt and let them hang out on a paper towel while you finish prepping.
  5. Slice the cucumber crosswise into 3″ logs, and then lengthwise into 1/8″ slices. Then, cut the slices in half again lengthwise to make strips. Sprinkle these with a little salt too.
  6. Crank the oven up to broil. Take the toasted bread and spread each slice with a little mayonnaise. Top each with 2 halves of sliced tomato, and then alternate the cucumber and pepper strips on top of the tomato. Carefully spread the mashed avocado on top of the cucumber and pepper, and then layer on the mushrooms, pressing lightly so that they stick to the avocado. Finish each sandwich with a little bit of sliced onion, a generous mound of sprouts, and 2 halves of Colby Jack. Use a sharp chef’s knife to cut each sandwich in half diagonally. This is important. If you leave the cheese slice in 1 piece and try to cut the sandwiches after they are toasted, putting a knife through the melted cheese will take down the sprouts and make a landslide of your carefully layered veggies.
  7. Place the sandwiches on a baking sheet and broil until the cheese melts. Serve immediately.
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Baked Onion Rings

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Who wants to turn on the oven when the temperature is threatening triple digits and the humidity makes it feel like a sauna outside even after the sun goes down? I do, if it means making these onion rings. Because they are totally worth it.

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I like saving the best things on my plate for last, and the onion rings always get eaten after the sandwich. So forget meal-planning around the entrée—I have made these onion rings probably oh 5 or 6 times in the last month, and I’ve been doing the grocery shopping according to What Goes With Onion Rings Besides Regular Burgers. Shrimp rolls? Check. Turkey burgers? Check. Patty melts? Check.

IMG_8370The main reason the onion rings are baked and not fried is (confession) I’ve never deep-fried anything in my life and the thought of it kind of terrifies me. Dropping food into a vat of scalding hot oil just sounds like an awesome way for me to get annoyed at trying to maintain the proper temperature, set off the smoke detector / scare the crap out of the dog, and inevitably burn myself with spattering. Coordination isn’t my strong suit, and although I’m pretty adept at quickly jumping out the way when I accidentally drop the chef’s knife that I was holding two seconds ago (it was just in my hand! how did it fall out?!) (this seriously happens about once a week), deep-frying presents a new and uncharted territory of ways to injure myself.

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Coating the inside first and then pressing more to the outside helps avoid gloopiness.

Also, I generally try to keep home-cooked meals on the healthier side. I mean, let’s not totally fool ourselves—these onion rings are still cooked in a slick of oil that I wouldn’t call “scant,” and we’ve basically taken a plain vegetable and beefed it up with a nice layer of refined carbs. But rich food is more enjoyable to me when I don’t know the details about what all is in it. I’ll gladly take French fries, hollandaise sauce, and milkshakes when I’m eating out, but I’d rather not make them at home because then I can’t be as blissfully ignorant about exactly how much oil / butter / ice cream went into them.

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Ready for the oven.

So, I tried making these baked onion rings after deciding that getting an occasional fix with the fried kind from the dive bar up the street just wasn’t cutting it. I wanted a non-fried version I could make at home. I was lucky and they turned out pretty great on the first attempt. Now all I have to do is figure out what sandwich to accompany them next… Tuna melt anyone?

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Note: Use peanut oil like it says. It has a high smoke point and won’t burn easily. Also use a yellow onion like it says. I tried sweet onion and it turned out too mushy, and the yellow onion completely mellows out with cooking. I’ve never tried making more than 2 servings of these at once since I am usually just cooking for myself and my husband, but I imagine that you could double it pretty easily and use 2 baking sheets, rotated halfway through.



Baked Onion Rings

serves 2

  • 2 Tbsp. peanut oil
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion (cut crosswise)
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/2 c. plain dry unseasoned breadcrumbs
  • scant 1/4 tsp. table salt
  • 1/4 tsp. sweet paprika
  • 1/8 tsp. onion powder
  • generous pinch of garlic powder
  • a few grinds of fresh black pepper
  1. Pour the oil onto a medium baking sheet. (The more tarnished and darker, the better.) Place in the oven, turn the oven to 375°, and let the pan and oil get hot while you prep everything else.
  2. Cut the onion crosswise into 1/2″ slices and separate out the rings. I usually get 2 slices out of half an onion, and it makes plenty of rings for 2 people.
  3. Place the flour in a bag. (I use a plastic grocery store bag.) Add the onion rings and shake until evenly coated.
  4. Place the egg in a shallow bowl and whisk to blend.
  5. Place the breadcrumbs and all of the rest of the ingredients (salt through pepper) into a different shallow bowl and stir to blend.
  6. Take one flour-coated onion ring and throughly coat it with the beaten egg, then thoroughly coat it with the breadcrumb mixture. (This part is kind of a pain, but starting with the bigger rings—while there are more crumbs—seems to help. I also find it easiest to use my left hand for the egg part and my right hand for the breadcrumb part.) Place the prepared ring on a cutting board.
  7. Continue step 6 until all of the rings are coated.
  8. Using an oven mitt! remove the hot pan from the oven. Use a spatula to spread the oil around evenly. Place the onion rings on the pan, return to the oven, and bake for about 6-8 minutes. Flip, turn the heat up to 400°, and bake for another 6-8 minutes. Enjoy immediately.

Creamy Gnocchi with Braised Chicken and Winter Vegetables

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After the holidays (or a vacation), do you ever eat so much heavy food (or junk) that you come home and just crave vegetables? I do. But come on, it’s so cold out there that I’m walking the dog in two pairs of pants, a scarf, and a knit hat on top of the hood of my hoodie, with my gloved hands shoved inside the fleeced-lined pockets of my down coat. I know that I can’t keep counting mashed potatoes and corn pudding as my only vegetables, but a cold romaine salad with mealy winter tomatoes and waxy cucumber slices isn’t going to cut it either.

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No, when I crave vegetables in the winter, I want winter vegetables. I want something warm and hearty, not something that I feel like I should eat just because you’re supposed to eat vegetables. I can’t get excited about the same light and refreshing things that I would choose during the summer. And I want to look forward to my food, even if I am making a conscientious effort to include more veggies in it.

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So, the pantry part of this dish came from some leftover butternut squash chunks and a bag of carrots, some frozen chicken thighs, an opened container of mascarpone that was mostly full, and some sage and parsley that had I picked before the frost finally killed it off. I rounded out the vegetables with mushrooms (because cooked mushrooms are delicious), parsnips (totally underrated and so good), and broccoli (mostly because I’m a big fan of broccoli but partly because I was motivated by a deeply-rooted and overwhelming conviction that Dinner Must Include Something Green (thanks, Mom)).

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Sage in the garden on a foggy morning.

I used pre-packaged gnocchi since I’ve tried and failed several times before to make home-made gnocchi; the kind that comes in a vacuum-sealed package is way easier and quicker, and maybe I’m just not too picky about my gnocchi because I’m a sucker for anything that’s like a dumpling / pierogi / potsticker.  All of the vegetables are braised with the chicken thighs—it’s a bit of a pain with the timing because they cook at different rates, and you don’t want your broccoli to be mush while your carrots are raw, but hey!, at least it’s all cooked in one skillet—and tossed with the gnocchi in a lightly creamy pan sauce. It’s a one-dish meal that doesn’t need any sides, except maybe a glass of wine.

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Note: You will need a 12″ skillet with a lid. This dish is best eaten the day it’s made; if you have leftovers, add an extra splash of chicken broth before you reheat them.  Also, my package of gnocchi claimed it was 3 servings, but with everything else that’s added in here, it easily serves 4.


Creamy Gnocchi with Braised Chicken and Winter Vegetables

serves 4

  • 8 oz. cremini / baby bella mushrooms
  • 2 medium parsnips
  • 2 medium carrots
  • 1 generous cup of 1/2″- 3/4″ cubes of butternut squash (about 6 oz.)
  • 1 medium-large broccoli crown (about 6 oz.)
  • 1/2 Tbsp. butter
  • 1/2 Tbsp. olive oil
  • 4 smallish boneless, skinless chicken thighs (about 3/4 lb.), trimmed of excess fat
  • kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 Tbsp. minced fresh sage
  • 1/4 c. dry white wine
  • 1 1/2 c. chicken broth, divided
  • one 17.5-oz. package of gnocchi (I used De Cecco brand)
  • 1/4 c. half-and-half
  • 1/4 c. mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
  • chopped fresh parsley for serving
  1. Prep all of the vegetables. You are going to add them to the pan at different times, so—except for the carrots and parsnips—keep them in separate bowls. Wash and stem the mushrooms, and pat them dry; quarter them if they are small and cut them into 6 or 8 pieces if they are large. Peel the carrots and parsnips and cut them on the diagonal into 1/3″ coins. Separate the broccoli crown into bite-site florets.
  2. Heat the butter and olive oil in a 12″ skillet over medium-high heat. Pat the chicken dry and sprinkle it on both sides with salt and pepper. When the pan is hot, add the chicken and cook until browned on both sides, flipping once, about 3-4 minutes per side. Remove the chicken from the pan, place on a plate, and tent with foil.
  3. Add chopped mushrooms to the pan and cook until they release their juices and the juices have mostly evaporated, about 5 minutes total.
  4. Add the garlic and sage and stir for 30 seconds to 1 minute, just until fragrant, then pour in the wine and scrape up any brown bits. Boil for 1 minute.
  5. Return the chicken thighs and any accumulated juices to the pan, and also add the carrots, parsnips, and 1/4 cup of the chicken broth. Turn the heat down to medium-low, cover, and braise for 5 minutes. After the carrots and parsnips have cooked for 5 minutes, add the butternut squash to the pan, stir, put the lid back on, and cook for 15 more minutes. Then add the broccoli, stir, put the lid back on, and cook for 5 additional minutes.
  6. While the  vegetables are braising, cook the gnocchi according to the package directions, drain, and set aside. Meanwhile, in a small measuring cup, combine the half-and-half with 3/4 cup of the chicken broth. In a different cup, whisk the flour into the remaining 1/2 cup of broth.
  7. After the broccoli has cooked for 5 minutes, remove the chicken, place it in your serving bowl, and shred it with 2 forks. Pour the half-and-half / broth mixture into the pan and also add the mascarpone cheese. Turn the heat up to medium-high and stir until smooth. When the liquid starts simmering, add the flour/broth mixture and stir until thickened. Add the whole thing to the serving bowl, dump in the gnocchi, and toss gently to coat everything evenly. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and serve immediately. Top each serving with a small handful of parsley.

Smoky Roasted Broccoli

 

Lesson learned: It's hard to make cooked broccoli look appealing.

Lesson learned: It’s hard to make cooked broccoli look appealing.

I consider myself lucky to have a husband who likes cooking and is good at it. We take turns cooking dinner on a weekly basis, and sometimes we argue about whose week it is because we both have recipes picked out that we want to try. But I can’t really get annoyed because my husband is insisting that it’s his turn to cook. Or complain if we eat late because he’s perfecting his pepperoni pan pizza with a home-made crust. Or get grumbly because I have to fit into a dress for a friend’s wedding in a couple of weeks and he made some amazing short ribs and mashed potatoes that I’m having a hard time resisting seconds of. Unfortunately, not whining has never been my strong suit, but honestly, our sharing of dinner duty is a pretty great situation.

The only real problem happens if one of us doesn’t check the fridge very well before we go grocery shopping, because sometimes we buy produce that we already have. This is how we ended up with two large bunches of broccoli this past week. Fortunately, I have a new favorite way to prepare broccoli.

I first tried making broccoli like this after having a something similar in a restaurant while traveling over the summer. It was tender but still had some tooth, and it was a little charred—in the good way— in some spots. I think only the florets were served in the restaurant, but in my version, I use the whole broccoli: both the crowns and the stems.

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I haven’t fully embraced the “crisp-tender” phenomenon for vegetable cooking, because sometimes they still taste raw to me. If I want that sort of flavor, I’ll probably just eat the raw vegetable. And I’ll admit I’m not averse to Southern-style, cooked-til-they’re-army-green vegetables. For this recipe, I wouldn’t call anything crisp, but nothing is mushy. The stems are first cooked separately from (and for significantly longer than) the florets, so that they take on a texture like most any other roasted winter vegetable. The florets are steamed/boiled for a very short time, and then seasoned. I use powdered onion and garlic, which I tend to avoid, but they work well here, plus they’re simple. Smoked paprika is also added, and let’s be honest, smoked paprika makes everything better. It is like the bacon of spices. Finally, everything gets put under the broiler for a few minutes, until the florets get just a little bit blackened.


 

Note: My bunch of broccoli yielded about 1 1/2 cups of stems and 5 cups of florets. You might want to add more or less seasoning and/or olive oil depending on how big your bunch is. Also, I cook the florets in a small amount of water in a covered pan because it’s quick, easy, and there are fewer dishes to wash, but you could also steam them in a steamer basket. 

 

Smoky Roasted Broccoli

serves 3-4

  • 1 large bunch broccoli
  • 2 Tbsp. olive oil, divided
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt, divided
  • 1/8 tsp. onion powder
  • 1/8 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/4 tsp. smoked paprika
  • freshly ground pepper to taste
  1. Preheat the oven to 400º.
  2. Trim and peel the broccoli stems, then chop into about 1/3″ chunks, discarding any tough or woody pieces. I start cutting from the part of the stem that was closest to the crown, and if I reach a part where my knife stops slicing easily, I don’t use the rest. Toss the chopped stems with 1 Tbsp. of the olive oil and 1/4 tsp. of the kosher salt. Add fresh pepper to taste. Spread onto a baking pan and roast in the middle rack for about 20 minutes, or until nicely browned. Stir every 5 minutes or so. While the stems roast, prepare the broccoli crowns.
  3. Cut the crowns into florets. Fill a medium saucepan with water to about 1/2″ depth and bring it to a boil. Add the florets, cover, shake a couple of times, and cook until tender. This will happen very quickly, in only about 3 minutes, maybe fewer if you like your broccoli on the crisper side. Drain the broccoli well, then place it in a bowl and toss it with the onion powder, garlic powder, smoked paprika, remaining 1 Tbsp. olive oil, and remaining 1/4 tsp. kosher salt. Add freshly ground pepper to taste.
  4. After the stems have finished roasting, remove the pan from the oven, crank the heat up to broil, and put a rack directly under the broiler. Spread the seasoned florets in the pan with the stems. Once the broiler has preheated, place the pan back in the oven for a few minutes, until the florets have just started to blacken. This took about 6 minutes in my oven. Remove from the oven and adjust seasoning if needed. Serve hot.