Fresh and Cheesy Nachos with Shrimp and Avocado

Call it Nacho Night – You Deserve It

Homemade Cheesy Nachos with Shrimp

I confess: Foodie I may be, parent I certainly am, and health-minded … almost without fail – but there is always a time and place for nachos. We can all do with a little cheesy nacho goodness from time to time to balance out a healthy diet, to dig into with our hands, and to wash down with an ice cold drink. And as a heaping platter of chips goes, this one is relatively, um, light. Is it possible to call nachos healthy? Where there is a will, there is a way.

This recipe for fun food isn’t as decadent as you might think. On the nacho scale of goop and weight, it scores relatively high on lightness and freshness. Sure, it’s layered with the requisite melty cheese (as any bonafide nacho plate should). Otherwise, it is not bogged down with mounds of meat, cream, and beans rendering its nest of chips soggy and heavy. Instead, there’s a generous helping of plump garlicky shrimp, and a colorful smattering of chopped fresh vegetables and herbs, such as tomato, onion, avocado, and cilantro, layered throughout the chips in the spirit of a deconstructed salsa.

The point is that these nachos are tasty, more-ish finger food, inviting interactive, family-style dining. And we can also all do with a little fun and togetherness when it comes to sharing our food and eating. These nacho score top points for that.

Shrimp Nachos

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves 6

Shrimp:
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound medium (21/25) shrimp, shelled and deveined

1 large ripe, but not mushy, avocado, diced
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

8 to 10 ounces salted tortilla chips
4 cups grated sharp Cheddar and/or Monterey Jack cheese
3 scallions, white and green parts separated, thinly sliced
2 jalapeño peppers, stemmed and seeded, finely chopped
1 small red onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 large vine-ripened tomato, cored and seeded, diced
1/2 cup cilantro leaves

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, cumin, and red pepper flakes, and stir until fragrant, about 20 seconds. Add the shrimp in one layer and cook until pink and just cooked through, turning once, 2 to 3 minutes. (It’s ok if the shrimp are a little under-done. They will continue to cook in the oven.) Transfer the shrimp to a plate lined with a paper towel.

2. Combine the avocado, lime juice, cumin, salt, and pepper in a small bowl and gently stir to coat.

3. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Spread half of the tortilla chips in a 9 by 13-inch baking dish or sheet pan. Sprinkle 1 1/2 cups cheese, half of the white scallions, half of the jalapeños, and half of the red onion over the chips. Spread the remaining chips over the top and sprinkle 1 1/2 cups cheese over the chips. Scatter the remaining white scallions, jalapeños, and red onion over the top. Bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and the nachos are hot, 10 to 12 minutes.  Remove the pan from the oven and turn on the broiler.

4. Arrange the shrimp over the cheese. Sprinkle the remaining 1 cup cheese over the shrimp. Transfer to the oven and broil until the cheese melts, 1 to 2 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven and scatter the avocado, tomatoes, green scallions, and cilantro evenly over the top. Serve immediately.

Chipotle Braised Pork Carnitas

Getting Piggy with Carnitas:

Chipotle Braised Pork Carnitas

Now that it’s summer, it’s time to dig into spicy, meaty, two-fisted pork carnitas. Carnitas are perfect party food. They are fun to assemble and messy to eat, best washed down with a cold beer while eaten outdoors. What could be more fun?

The key to carnitas is to let the meat cook low and slow until it’s fork tender. In this recipe, the pork braises in a smoky, citrus-infused beer broth that imbues the meat with flavor and spice. The cooking process takes several hours, but it’s relatively hands off, simply requiring the occasional turn. The biggest challenge will be the wafting aroma of the simmering pork, which will surely test your patience. Hang in there. You can do it.

The final step is optional but highly recommended. Once the meat is shredded, arrange it in a baking dish or grill pan, toss with some of the basting juices and grill or broil at high heat until the meat begins to caramelize. Pile the meat on tortillas with salsa, guacamole, or your favorite fixings, and you are good to go. (Just remember the napkins.) If you have any leftovers, use the meat in sandwiches or loaded on homemade nachos the next day.

The pork can be grilled, which will keep the heat outdoors on a warm day, or it can be cooked in an oven. If using a grill, then brown the meat on the grates before transferring to a deep grill pan or grill-proof Dutch oven with the braising liquid.

Chipotle Beer Braised Pork Carnitas

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: about 5 hours
Serves 6 to 8

1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon sweet paprika
1 tablespoon chili powder
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 (4 pound) boneless pork shoulder, excess fat trimmed
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
6 garlic cloves, smashed but intact
1 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 cup Mexican beer
1 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup chipotle chiles in adobo sauce
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon brown sugar

Accompaniments:
Warm flour or corn tortillas
Guacamole
Salsa
Fresh cilantro
Sliced green onions

1. Heat the oven to 300°F (or prepare the grill for indirect cooking over medium-low heat, 275 to 300°F).
2. Mix the cumin, paprika, chili powder, sugar, salt, and pepper in a small bowl. Rub the spices all over the meat. Let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. (Or refrigerate for up to 24 hours, and remove from the refrigerator 30 minutes before cooking.)
3. If using the oven, heat the 1 tablespoon vegetable oil in a large Dutch-oven over medium heat on the stovetop. Add the pork and brown on all sides, turning as needed, about 8 minutes. Remove the pork and pour off the fat. (If using the grill, brown the pork over direct medium heat on the grill grates, and pre-heat a grill-proof Dutch oven over indirect heat while the pork is browning.)
4. Add the garlic, onion, beer, orange juice, chipotles, lime juice, and brown sugar to the Dutch oven. Bring to a boil over medium heat, scraping up any brown bits if on the stovetop.
5. Add the pork to the pot. Cover the pot with a lid or aluminum foil and transfer to the oven (or transfer to indirect low heat on the grill). Braise the pork until fork tender, about 4 hours, turning every hour or so.
6. Remove the pork from the braising liquid and transfer to a cutting board to cool while you reduce the sauce. When cool enough to handle, shred the meat. Place the meat in a baking dish or grill pan.
7. Boil the braising sauce over medium-high heat until reduced to a sauce consistency, 8 to 10 minutes. Strain the sauce, and drizzle some of it over the shredded pork (the pork should be lightly coated but not wet).
8. Grill or broil the pork at high heat until the meat begins to caramelize, 2 to 4 minutes.
9. To serve, spoon some of the pork in the center of a tortilla. Top with guacamole, salsa, fresh cilantro, and scallions. Roll up and eat.

Paella on the Grill – Recipe and Tips

Fire up the Paella Pan (and the Grill) for Father’s Day

Father's Day Paella - on the Grill

Father’s Day is around the corner, so get ready to fire up the grill and break out the big guns – or in this case, the big paella pan. Paella is always fun to make and of course, to eat. It’s a perfect way to feed a crowd and your family, and the best way to make it is over a fire. When it’s ready to serve, simply plunk it down in the center of the table and let everyone dig in. Family-style eating doesn’t get better than this, which is a perfect way to celebrate Dad.

Myriad versions of paella exist, depending on region and taste, but there are specific ingredients to use and techniques to follow for authentic results.

The pan:
Think wide, low, and flat. The key is to spread the rice in a thin layer, so that as many grains as possible are in contact with the bottom of the pan. This will ensure not only contact with the aromatics (soffrito) but the desired crispy bottom (socarrat) of the cooked paella. Paella pans are easy to find and affordable. I purchased my 15-inch pan for less than $30. Alternatively, a very large cast iron skillet will do the trick.

Rice:
Short grain rice will absorb the liquid, remain relatively firm during cooking, and crisp – long grain rice will not. Use short grain rice, preferably Spanish Bomba or Valencia. Risotto (Arborio) rice may be substituted, if necessary. Note: Depending on the rice, cooking times may vary slightly.

Soffrito:
An important blend of sautéed aromatics, typically onion, garlic, and grated ripe tomato, is used as a base to flavor the rice. It’s important to sauté the ingredients until the moisture from the tomato and the wine evaporate and the soffrito thickens, and let it deepen in color to build flavor.

Stock:
If possible, use a homemade stock, chicken or shrimp stock are ideal, although a good quality store-bought chicken stock is a fine substitution. A key step is to add a generous pinch of saffron to the stock to infuse a subtle perfume and a burnished golden-red color.

Socarrat:
This is the holy grail of paella, the coveted crispy bottom that forms in the pan while the paella is cooking. To achieve this, a few techniques are imperative. Do not overload the pan, or the rice will not be able to dry out and will not crisp. And, most importantly, do not stir the paella once the rice is spread in the pan and topped with the proteins. You will know if the rice is crisping when the paella begins to make crackling sounds. This is the sure-fire way to know when the paella is ready, so be sure to wait for the “snap-crackle-pop” before you remove the pan from the grill!

Grill it!
It’s important for the pan to cook over an even heat source. A grill can accommodate the size of a large paella pan, unlike many stovetops. Plus, the fire will add a smoky backdrop to the dish. And finally, Father’s Day really wouldn’t be replete without turning on the grill, right?


Grilled Paella

Active Time: 1 hour
Total Time: 1 hour, plus standing time
Serves: 6

4 plum (Roma) tomatoes, halved lengthwise
4 cups chicken stock
1/2 teaspoon saffron threads
1 pound boneless chicken thighs, cut into 1-inch pieces
Smoked sweet Spanish paprika
Salt
Freshly ground black pepper
1 pound large (16/18) shrimp, shelled and deveined, tails intact
Extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces Spanish chorizo, cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices

1 medium yellow onion, chopped, about 1 cup
3 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 cup dry white wine

2 cups paella rice (Bomba or Valencia), rinsed

12 to 16 mussels, scrubbed and beards removed
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
Lemon wedges for serving

1. Grate the tomatoes, cut-side down, on a box grater. Discard the skins and transfer the pulp and juices to a small bowl.

2. Bring the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the saffron and keep warm over low heat.

3. Place the chicken in a bowl and toss with 1 teaspoon paprika, and then lightly season with salt and black pepper. Put the shrimp in a separate bowl and toss with 1/2 teaspoon paprika, and then lightly season with salt and black pepper.

4. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat. Preheat a 15-inch paella pan or large cast iron skillet for about 10 minutes.

5. Add 1 tablespoon oil to the paella pan. Add the chorizo and cook until the chorizo is golden brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes, turning as needed. With a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a bowl. There should be rendered fat from the chorizo remaining in the pan. If not, add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Arrange the chicken in one layer in the paella pan and cook until colored on both sides, 4 to 6 minutes, turning as needed. With a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to the bowl with the chorizo. (The chicken will not be cooked all the way through at this point.)

6. If the pan is dry, add 1 tablespoon oil to the pan. Add the onion and sauté until softened, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the garlic and 1 tablespoon paprika and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the grated tomatoes with juices and the wine, stir to combine, and simmer, with the lid closed, until the liquid evaporates and the mixture thickens and darkens slightly, about 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the rice and 1 teaspoon salt and stir to coat. Pour in the broth, stir to blend, and smooth the rice in an even layer in the pan. (Do not stir the rice after this point!) Arrange the chicken and chorizo over the rice and drizzle any accumulated juices from the bowls over the rice.

7. Cook the paella, with the lid closed, until about 3/4 of the liquid is absorbed and the rice is exposed, turning the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking, about 15 minutes.

8. Nestle the shrimp and mussels (hinge-side down) into the rice and continue to cook, with the lid closed, until the shrimp are cooked through, the mussels have opened, and the rice is making a crackling sound, 10 to 12 more minutes, turning the pan occasionally to ensure even cooking.

9. Remove the paella pan from the grill and discard any unopened mussels. Let stand for 5 minutes. Sprinkle the parsley over the paella and garnish with lemon wedges. Serve immediately.

Porcini and Rosemary Crusted Lamb Chops

A little magic mushroom dust does wonders to your meat (not that kind of mushroom, silly):

Porcini and Rosemary Crusted Lamb Chops Recipe

You want these mushrooms – namely dried porcini mushrooms – in your kitchen. They keep indefinitely in your pantry, and can easily be reconstituted for use with pasta, risotto, soups, and sauces. Or you can simply blitz the heck out of them and turn them into dust.

Porcini mushroom dust is a magical elixir, fragrant with umami-rich aroma and flavor, and a gorgeous ingredient to add to rubs and marinades. Its earthy smoky flavor melds beautifully with garlic and herbs, such as rosemary and thyme, and is an excellent complement to meats, such as beef and lamb, when used as a rub.

While dried porcini mushrooms are pricey by the pound, the good news is that you don’t need a lot to make this rub – all you need is a half-ounce. When the mushrooms are dried, their flavor intensifies, so a little goes a long way. Other dried mushrooms, such as shiitakes, may be substituted, but in terms of flavor, the porcini is best. I use a spice grinder to blitz the mushrooms before mixing them with the rub ingredients, for a pasty consistency. If you don’t have a spice grinder, you can use a mini-food processor, with slightly coarser, results.

Note: If the dried mushrooms are slightly spongy and not entirely crisp before grinding, then cut them into 1/2-inch pieces, spread on a small baking tray, and place in a 300°F oven for 10 to 12 minutes. Remove and cool to room temperature before grinding.

Porcini and Rosemary Crusted Lamb Loin Chops

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes, plus 20 minutes drying time if needed
Serves 4

1/2 ounce dried porcini mushrooms
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh rosemary leaves
1 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
8 lamb loin chops, each about 1-inch thick

1. Finely grind the mushrooms in a spice grinder. Transfer to a small bowl and add 3 tablespoons oil, the rosemary, 1 teaspoon salt, and ½ teaspoon black pepper and stir to blend.
2. Coat the lamb on all sides with the rub and let stand at room temperature for 30 minutes.
3. Preheat the oven to 375°F.
4. Heat 1 tablespoon oil over medium-high heat in a large ovenproof skillet. Add the lamb to the pan without overcrowding. Cook until brown on both sides, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer the skillet to the oven and cook to your desired doneness, about 8 to 10 minutes for medium-rare. Remove from the oven, tent with foil, and let rest 10 minutes before serving.

Grilled Salmon with Kale and Quinoa

Grilled Salmon Skewers with Kale and Quinoa Salad

Yes, you can grill all year. I often use my grill as my second oven and fire source for cooking meats, chicken, and fish, no matter the weather … well, usually. Sometimes, I admit that I can’t bear the thought of stepping out into frigid temperature or a downpour to quickly char-grill my dinner. So I turn to my oven broiler for (nearly) the same charred results. This is how I prepared these salmon skewers.

Whether you use your oven or the grill, this healthy meal is bright and satisfying. I use my go-to marinade for the salmon. With a balance of bright citrus, sweet chile heat, and piquant mustard, it hits all the flavor categories, and provides a welcome bite to cut through the buttery richness of the fish. The salad is another go-to favorite, where I massage the kale leaves – you’ve probably heard of this method by now. In case you haven’t, massaging the tough leaves helps to tenderize them, so that they are slightly softened, but not limp, while taming their earthy flavor. It’s really a must for kale salads, and can often be done well ahead of serving without the risk of wilting, thanks to the sturdiness of the kale leaves – and it’s a brilliant prep trick for salad.

You might wonder why I skewered the salmon, especially since there’s nothing else threaded on the skewers with the fish. I do this so that the salmon, which is cut into large chunks, has more surface area and corners, that are exposed to the grill. This ensures that there will be lots of crispy charred bits all over the salmon, which in my opinion is the best part of this recipe.

Grilled Salmon Skewers with Kale and Quinoa

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: about 30 minutes, plus marinating time
Serves: 4 to 5
Special equipment: Pre-soaked bamboo skewers

2 pounds salmon filet, skin and pin bones removed, cut into 1-inch chunks

Marinade:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons soy sauce (or tamari)
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
1 tablespoon sweet chili sauce, such as Sriracha
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

Salad:
1 small bunch curly green kale
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
Salt
1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 cup chopped cauliflower florets
1/2 cup cooked quinoa, room temperature
1 medium carrot, coarsely grated or shaved
1 small red chile pepper, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro leaves, coarsely chopped
2 tablespoons fresh mint leaves, coarsely chopped, plus extra for garnish

1. Place the salmon in a medium bowl. Whisk the marinade ingredients in a small bowl. Pour over the salmon and stir to coat. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
2. Remove the tough ribs from the kale and tear the leaves into bite-size pieces. Place in a large bowl and drizzle with 1 tablespoon oil, the lemon juice, and season with 1/8 teaspoon salt. With your hands, toss and rub the leaves to thoroughly coat for about 1 minute. Let stand at room temperature.
3. Whisk the remaining 2 tablespoons oil, the vinegar, 1/4 teaspoons salt, and the black pepper in a small bowl.
4. Preheat the oven broiler.
5. Thread the salmon on the skewers and discard the marinade. Arrange the skewers on a grill pan and place on the top rack under the oven grill. Grill until cooked through and well marked in places, about 8 minutes, turning the skewers once.
6. While the skewers are grilling, assemble the salad. Add the cauliflower, quinoa, carrot, chile pepper, cilantro, and mint to the kale. Drizzle with the dressing and toss to coat.
7. To serve, spread the salad on a platter or individual serving plates. Top with the salmon skewers and garnish with additional mint.

Condiment Spotlight: Green Olive Tapenade (with Oven Roasted Salmon)

The Green Olive Tapenade is a keeper.

Green Olive Tapenade Topping on Roasted Salmon

I’ll be honest. The real star of this salmon dish is the green olive and almond tapenade. No offense to the salmon, which is sublime as always and a no-fail simple, healthy meal. But, frankly, it’s the tapenade I want to talk about: it’s positively addictive with a briny brightness that complements the buttery rich salmon. It’s also versatile. Not only is the tapenade a worthy accompaniment to grilled fish (halibut is also a good contender), it’s a great stand-alone starter spooned on crostini or sprinkled over pizzas, pasta, and grains. The good news is that this recipe makes a generous amount of tapenade, so you can refrigerate the leftovers. Then you will have extra to smear on a slice of bread or swipe a carrot stick through. You might even find yourself eating it straight up from a bowl with a spoon. I’m speaking from experience.

Recipe: Roasted Salmon with Green Olive Tapenade

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: about 40 minutes
Serves 4; Makes about 1 1/2 cups tapenade

Tapenade:
12 ounces pitted green olives, such as Castelvetrano
1/2 cup almonds, toasted
2 anchovies, drained
1 large garlic clove
2 teaspoons capers
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Salmon:
4 (6 ounce) salmon fillets, pin bones removed
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for garnish
Juice of 1/2 lemon, plus 4 lemon wedges for serving
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

1. Make the tapenade: Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and process to a coarse paste, without letting it get mushy. (The tapenade may be stored in the refrigerator for up to three days.)
2. Heat the oven to 350°F. Arrange the salmon in one layer in a roasting pan, skin side down. Drizzle with 2 tablespoons oil and the lemon juice. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Bake in the oven until the salmon is just cooked to your desired doneness, about 25 minutes for medium, depending on the thickness of the filets.
3. Transfer to serving plates and top each filet with about 2 tablespoons of the tapenade. Serve with a lemon wedge.

Greek Tomato and White Bean Stew with Feta and Ouzo

 A splash of Ouzo and a sprinkle of feta add Greek inspiration to this hearty vegetable stew:

White Bean, Kale, Tomato Ragout with Ouzo and Feta

I love hearty vegetable soups in the winter. They are quick to prepare and non-judgmental when it comes to emptying the vegetable drawer in the refrigerator for a healthy dinner. One of my favorite stocks is Italian inspired and tomato based, sometimes with a splash of wine, and often with a rind of cheese added into the mix to exude delicious umami flavor while the soup simmers. I’ll then finish with beans or grains and handfuls of winter greens which wilt in the simmering stock just long enough to soften without discoloring. For this soup, I tweaked my favorite method and took a detour further south to Greece for inspiration. A splash of Ouzo (a Greek anise liqueur) amplifies the fennel in the soup and adds an extra layer of flavor that rounds out the tomatoes’ natural acidity. Rather than submerging a rind of cheese in the stock, I sprinkled feta over the soup for garnish. I must say I was pleased with this little detour, and I hope you are too.

Greek White Bean Stew with Tomato, Feta, and Ouzo

Active Time: 35 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Serves 4 to 6

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large yellow onion, chopped
1 fennel bulb, thinly sliced, fronds reserved for garnish
3 garlic cloves, chopped
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 cups dry white wine
1 (28-ounce) can Italian plum tomatoes, with juices
1 1/2 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for a vegetarian option)
2 to 3 tablespoons Ouzo or anise liqueur
1 bay leaf
2 teaspoons granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 bunch lacinato kale (or chard)
1 (15-ounce) can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
Crumbled feta for garnish

1. Heat the oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add the onion and fennel and cook, stirring, until the vegetables soften, and the onion is translucent without coloring, about 5 minutes. Add the garlic, oregano, thyme, and red pepper flakes and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomato paste to blend and then add the wine. Simmer until the wine is reduced by about one-third, about 2 minutes.
2. Add the tomatoes, chicken stock, 2 tablespoons Ouzo, the bay leaf, sugar, salt, and pepper. Bring to a boil, and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Partially cover and simmer 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. Taste for seasoning, and add a little more salt or another tablespoon of Ouzo if desired.
3. While the stew is simmering, remove the tough stems from the kale, stack the leaves, and slice crosswise into thin ribbons. 
Stir the kale and white beans into the stew and cook until the kale wilts, stirring frequently, 3 to 4 minutes. If the stew is too thick, top off with additional chicken stock and adjust the seasoning as necessary. Ladle the soup into serving bowls and serve garnished with crumbled feta and the reserved fennel fronds.