Easy baked flautas (taquitos)

I think the first time I had flautas, I was in my early twenties (which is longer ago than I want to believe).  It was over dinner with co-workers at a Mexican restaurant; our boss had taken us out for a holiday meal near year-end.  The main things I remembered about that meal were the excellent frozen margaritas (the kind that came out of a machine, very much like a slushy) and the delicious flautas.  I'd never had them before and was smitten with the crunchy, meaty, and cheesy bites of what is essentially a rolled up taco.  They went very nicely with the frozen margaritas but since I'm not much of a drinker, it's the flautas that stayed with me most.
Whether you call them flautas or taquitos, they're basically small rolled tacos, filled with meat and cheese, commonly fried to give them an irresistible crispness.  You might know you can find them in the freezer aisle at the supermarket.  I used to stock my freezer with ready-made flautas and occasionally heat up 2 or 3 to have as an evening snack (after dinner), with a soda!!  I was young and "wild" once upon a time.

I don't know when I gave up eating flautas.  The time right after my son's birth and the early years after that are a little bit of a blur to me, to be honest, and everything was reset in many ways.  But I often find myself telling people I love flautas even though I rarely eat them!  Mexican food, which I always think of as "fun" food, is something I want to get to know better beyond making quesadillas and having occasional taco nights at home.
Eating at Mexican restaurants is certainly a fun way to learn more about the cuisine but sometimes you have a great meal and other times, you end up a little disappointed.  That happened recently when I thought I'd finally introduce my son to flautas; when we tasted them, they were disappointing (sadly lacking in flavor and cheese) and he probably had to wonder why I keep saying they'd be so good.

If you're like me, you're often tempted to try to make for yourself the things you like to eat or foods that you remember fondly.  So this was my stab at flautas.  This homemade version couldn't be easier, in my opinion!  I took Giada De Laurentiis' recipe, which includes a genius shortcut filling made with: shredded rotisserie chicken, prepared salsa (that's the genius part!), cheese, and a little seasoning.  But instead of frying the flautas like she does, I decided to simply bake them in a 425 degree oven for about 15 minutes or so.  
I tell you what...these satisfied my flauta fix!  The fellas loved them and my son tells me they were far better than the ones we had at the restaurant.  There's no reason not to make them - they are fast, easy, and no-mess (not to mention, lower calorie and better for you) when you skip the frying.  With the Superbowl coming up, I know we're all thinking about finger foods and fun foods.  I think these definitely fit the bill.



Oatmeal crepes

Admittedly, these crepes were a bit hard-fought to get on the table but it was worth it.  I found them a bit tricky to flip but once I got the hang of it - letting the pan gets nice and hot, and allowing the crepe to fully cook through before flipping - I managed to serve these oatmeal crepes for a weekend breakfast.
Weekend breakfasts and brunch are special, no matter what we're eating.  That time around the table is something I look forward to all week!  And I love trying something new so I can talk about it here.  This time, I thought I'd make oatmeal crepes.  We all know and love crepes but I was especially drawn to this recipe from Lidia Bastianich that incorporated oat flour for a little touch of nuttiness and texture.  
I made oat flour by simply grinding old-fashioned oats until very fine (almost powdery) in a processor.  This addition of the oat flour, with regular all-purpose flour, is what sets these crepes apart (and what likely contributes to them being more tricky to handle/flip).  Additionally, fresh lemon zest adds a great pop of citrus flavor.  With the lemon, these crepes pair nicely with jam.  I tucked strawberry jam into some and filled others with Nutella.

As with others crepes, these are perfect little holders for the fillings you tuck within. Texturally, these stand out with the slight nuttiness, along with a great crispy edge. With the liquid in the recipe being water, they are fragile.  I may have lost a couple of crepes in the making but they were so tasty, my husband wished I'd saved the scraps and allowed him to have those, too!



Cauliflower fried rice, and the beauty of mixing things up

There was a benefit of going through our recent kitchen renovation that I wasn't expecting.  It forced me out of my routine and, surprisingly, I kind of liked it!
Cauliflower fried "rice", with chicken, peas, and scrambled eggs, makes a great hot lunch
I'm big on routine and I'm loyal to things I like; basically, I'm pretty cautious and unadventurous.  Even when it comes to food, I stick to much of the same things. I generally eat the same things for breakfast and lunch (a bit less so when it comes to dinner but even that can be predictable) but when the kitchen was out of commission and I had to wing it, I was forced to mix it up.  Instead of a big roasted sweet potato and veggies for lunch on repeat, I was eating a sandwich, or having a soup & salad, grabbing sushi, or digging into some Vietnamese spring rolls I picked up.  I was at the Whole Foods prepared food buffet a lot but I still got variety and, overall, I nixed the old routine and ate different things.

It was good to change things up and I realized I didn't need to eat the same things all the time.  In fact, it's fun to do otherwise!  So I'm making a conscious effort to mix things up a little - particularly my lunch, which means eating something other than roasted sweet potatoes and veggies - at least 2-3 times a week.  To that end, we come to this recent lunch I made for myself: cauliflower fried rice!   
Okay...let's talk about this phenomenon of subbing carbs with non-carbs.  Cauliflower has been out there - think mashed "potatoes" and pizza crust.  While I love cauliflower and cook it (either steaming or roasting) often, I haven't been attracted to this idea of using it for fried rice and whatnot.  Maybe to my mind, you don't mess with something like fried rice, which is a sacred comfort food to me.  Plus, it sounded like a lot of work!  I don't know about you but the whole idea of processing a big cauliflower before even getting down to making the dish isn't all that appealing.

So there were 2 reasons why I decided to make and try cauliflower fried rice after all. One, I discovered prepared riced cauliflower.  You can now find it in the grocery freezer aisle, though you might have to dig around in a few stores (so far, I've had luck finding it at Whole Foods and only one other supermarket.)  And knowing I have this shortcut is a huge motivation because even if I do take the time to make my own cauliflower rice by breaking it down in a food processor, it would likely be something I'd only do once.
Secondly, I was watching The Kitchen last weekend when I saw Katie Lee make this fried "rice".  She started with ginger and garlic and that is exactly how I love to start my fried rice - I think the grated ginger totally makes it.  The dish looked delicious and I saw how easy it would be with the prepared cauliflower so I was on a mission to find it and make the dish.
I'll finally cut to the chase.  Not only does this look like "real" fried rice, it tastes like it.  Is the cauliflower rice exactly like actual rice?  No, it's not.  It's a bit more moist and holds a bit of a crunch (though it's tender) than rice would but the flavors you associate with fried rice - in my case, the ginger, garlic, soy sauce, sesame oil... - are all there and frankly, it is all very similar and familiar in your mouth.  The fried rice was delicious!  It made a great lunch and I can tell you that I will definitely be making cauliflower fried rice again and often.  I simply used leftover rotisserie chicken this time and I have been craving shrimp fried rice so that's up next.
If you've been on the fence about trying cauliflower fried rice like me, pick up a bag at the supermarket and give it a try.  This turned out to be a great food/ingredient discovery for me in 2017!  There is definitely a beauty, and benefit, to mixing and shaking things up a bit.



Chestnut and mushroom ragù

Happy New Year! 

I hope things are going well so far in 2017!  I'm happy to step back into this space after taking a little break.  It means things are back-to-normal - the kitchen makeover has been completed!  It took about a month and while there were a couple of inevitable snags along the way, we're very happy with the outcome.  Now...after all the dust, the fuss, and the cleanup (special thanks to my husband who did most of it!), we're simply enjoying the result.
Despite the somewhat relentless string of colds and viruses my family and I seem to be coming down with this winter, we've managed to stay functional and to hold on to our appetites.  So I've been pretty busy in the kitchen since we've been up and running again, making up for lost time and comforting ourselves with home cooking. Taking a break and changing things up is good (I feel a renewed energy in the kitchen) but it's amazing how quickly we got tired of take-out and restaurant meals, and how much we missed simple home cooking!

I've been able to cook since New Year's eve so I've had a good amount of time to load my family up on our favorite stir-fries and rice dishes; we've enjoyed a few lingering pancake breakfasts and I even got to make some Christmas cookies that I didn't get a chance to whip up before the holidays.  While we've generally been sticking to family favorites, I got a chance to try a new recipe in the form of this ragù I'd like to chat about today.  
You might expect a meat sauce when you hear ragù (and doesn't anything "ragù" sound especially appealing in the wintertime) but this one is made with chestnuts and mushrooms, and these two ingredients truly are the stars of this dish, which comes from Lidia Bastianich.  I have been watching Lidia's PBS cooking shows for many, many years and her food - especially, her pasta dishes - are always mouthwatering and calling my name!  And this particular dish - this chestnut and mushroom ragù she made and served with spaghetti on the show - really had me swooning and running into the kitchen at the first opportunity!

It may be my love of chestnuts, or my general partiality to anything "ragù", which in turn conjures up pasta, that had me itching to try this.  It's easy to make with a handful of ingredients (aside from the headliners, you need only a few other mainly pantry ingredients) and you end up with this unusual "sauce" that's deliciously earthy yet slightly sweet from the chestnuts.  
It's satisfying and hearty but light at the same time.  It's not only great with pasta (I paired it with pappardelle) but also excellent as a side with meat (because you have the mushrooms and some carbs in the form of the chestnuts), as a topping for bruschetta, or frankly, eaten all on its own!

I hope you're eating well so far in 2017 and I wish you many happy meals with loved ones around the table this year!



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