Chicken Pastry Pockets

Long time no see, my faithful foodie followers! We all know that sometimes life happens, yes? Hopefully, since the last time we’ve all been together, you’ve had delicious food encounters, been adventurous in the kitchen, and perhaps found a new favorite food. I’ve had a lot going on in my kitchen, and I’m looking forward to sharing it all with y’all. The dish for this particular entry was born of my constant search for something fun and different to do with chicken breasts. One night, a search through my fridge turned up puff pastry and Laughing Cow cheese wedges. I thought to myself, “Surely I can combine these things for something delicious!” A quick Google search showed me that I wasn’t crazy and provided a template for my adventure. Now I bring my adventure to you: chicken pastry pockets!

Chicken Pastry Pockets

Chicken Pastry Pockets (adapted from: Pepperidge Farm Puff Pastry recipes)

8 – 10 ounces skinless, boneless chicken breast
4 wedges Light Mozzarella, Sun-Dried Tomato, & Basil Laughing Cow cheese
1 clove garlic – minced
7 basil leaves – chopped
1 sheet puff pastry – thawed
1 egg
splash of water
Seasoning of choice for the chicken
Olive Oil – no more than a tablespoon

1. Take your chicken breast and put it on a cutting board, cover with plastic wrap, take a flat-bottomed implement, and then pound the chicken breast until it’s all one thickness across. I don’t go for a particular dimension, just something that is uniform. My implement is a drink muddler, but use whatever you have…a heavy drinking glass, a meat mallet, or a heavy skillet.

Flattening Chicken
2. Season your chicken breast on both sides with your chosen seasoning. I went with Greek because the flavors go well with the cheese.
3. Pre-heat your oven to 400 degrees.
4. Preheat your skillet by placing on the stove turned to medium-high heat, or 5 out of 10. Add your olive oil, and let it heat up for 2 – 3 minutes.
5. Add your chicken breast and cook about 3 minutes on each side. You don’t want or need to cook it through as there will be more cooking time in the oven. You are browning it and just starting the cooking process.

PreCooking Chicken
6. In a bowl, combine the cheese wedges, minced garlic, and the chopped basil leaves.
7. On a clean cutting board, place your puff pastry sheet, and begin to gently use a rolling pin to roll it out and make it a little thinner, and extend the edges.
8. When you remove the chicken from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes (perhaps while you finish step 7) before you chop it or slice it into small pieces. Don’t worry if there is an undercooked section in the middle.  The chicken will finish cooking in the oven.

Cut up Chicken
9. Score your puff pastry sheet into quarters. Spread your cheese mixture evenly onto each quarter. Just eyeball the amount. Add the chicken pieces on top.

Chicken Pastry Pocket Collage
10. Carefully, pick up each quarter’s edges and fold/tuck them over and on top of each other until all the edges and corners are folded up. Pick it up as a bundle and place it on a parchment paper lined or greased jelly roll pan, seam-side down.
11. In a clean bowl, beat an egg, add a splash of water, and then brush your mixture over the pastry pockets so they’ll bake up a lovely golden brown.

Chicken Pastry Pockets Collage
12. Bake for about 12 – 15 minutes. In my oven, I check them at 10 minutes and rotate the pan to ensure even browning. As always, when you take it out of the oven, give it a minute to cool before you eat to avoid scalding your tongue!

I hope you enjoy these as much as folks in my home have! I believe that you could substitute the flavor of Laughing Cow cheese for a tasty variety in your pastry pockets, but so far I’ve stayed with the tomato and basil option. In terms of leftovers, they do keep for the next day or two and microwave at work just fine. The puff pastry will lose its crunch. But it will still have the deliciousness you had from the day before.

Golden Brown Pockets
Let’s chat about puff pastry for a moment or two, shall we? I’ve heard on Food Network and seen several recipes that talk about keeping puff pastry in your freezer as a kitchen staple. I agree that is a handy recipe ingredient, and fairly versatile as well. However, let’s be real that puff pastry is not an economical ingredient, really. I cringe when I buy it, and I don’t buy it often. Lately I’ve been using crescent rolls as a substitute for puff pastry in a lot of recipes, although I have not yet tried it here. Crescent rolls are less expensive and so far seem to work just as well, although they are a little flimsier, in recipes where I’ve substituted them. For a while, my grocery store stocked crescent roll sheets instead of the triangles. The sheets don’t require as much manipulation, and that made them easier to use as a substitute. I’ve wondered about pizza dough and its efficacy with this particular dish. It might turn out to be somewhat like chicken calzones. If you try it, let me know!  Even with these options, I do think that puff pastry is worth the splurge, now and again.

While the puff pastry may balance it out calorically, I do appreciate that Laughing Cow cheese is a healthier alternative to cream cheese, which is what I saw commonly used as a binder in this type of recipe on the web. Plus it comes already flavored! In terms of your additional flavor boosters (here, the garlic and basil), I think you could vary it as long as you stuck with the theme of the cheese. If you wanted, you could chop up some sun-dried tomatoes or other Italian herbs. If you were using the Garlic & Herb Laughing Cow cheese, any complimentary herbs could be used with a clove or two of garlic. Should you venture out into the Queso Fresco & Chipotle, I still think the garlic clove would be a good idea with perhaps some peppers of your choice. A little Mexican oregano would also be appropriate, I think. There are so many possibilities for flavor additions!

I know that so many of us eat chicken frequently and are thus constantly in search of creative ways to serve up new chicken dishes. I hope this has inspired you to try something new in your home with just a few ingredients that you might not have thought about combining before. The prep goes quickly, and it’s incredibly tasty every time. Let me know how you like it! Happy eating!

Nutritional InfoChicken Pastry Pockets Ingredients per pocket
Calories: 474
Fat: 28.7 g
Carbs: 29.3 g
Protein: 21.3 g
Calcium: 9.7 %
Iron: 11.9%

Pasta Carbonara

One of my criteria when I go out to eat is to order a dish that I can’t, or won’t, make at home. Why spend the money on a dish that I can likely make for less money with a higher degree of ingredient control in my own home? Do any of you all have this rule, also? Every so often, I will take a dish that has previously been deemed “out of my league” and tackle it at home in the hopes that I don’t have to wait to go out to eat in order to enjoy its deliciousness. Spaghetti carbonara was one of those dishes that was always deemed out of my league. Cooking eggs with carryover heat to create a sauce? I was skeptical, at best. I’d seen some shows on Food Network on how to make it, and I’d eaten plenty of plates of carbonara from local Italian restaurants. I was content to let the professionals tackle such a complicated dish. But then, one day, I just decided I would not be bested by eggs, cheese, pasta, and heat. Y’all, I’m here to tell you a secret. Listen closely. It isn’t all that complicated. Here we go!

Pasta Carbonara – Serves two

4 ounces pasta – I like linguine, personally
4 eggs: 2 whole and 2 yolks
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic
8 Kalamata olives
1/3 cup diced onion
2 – 4 cups chopped spinach (I only had 2 cups this time, but I wish I’d had more.)
1 tablespoon of oil or butter (for cooking the onions – your preference)
Basil or parsley leaves for garnish if desired

1. Put a large pot of water on to boil for your pasta. Salt the water liberally as this is your only chance to season your pasta. A Food Network chef once said, “The water should taste like the ocean.”
2. While the water is boiling (and doesn’t it always seem to take forever??), dice your onion, drain, blot, and chop your olives, and grate your cheese.

3. Heat a skillet over medium heat. I typically use 5 out of 10 on the dial on my stove. Add your butter or oil, and let it heat up for a minute or two. Add in your onions, turn the dial down to 3 or 4, and let them sauté until they reach your preferred level of softness.
4. Usually while my onions are cooking, my pasta water is ready. Add your pasta and cook it for the time given on the box. This is semi-critical for the remainder of the recipe. I suggest you set a timer to keep you on track.
5. Crack your whole eggs into a bowl. Carefully crack the eggs you need to separate over the sink and separate using your preferred method, adding only the yolks to the bowl. Add the cheese and beat well. It will be thick, and this is okay.
6. Chop the spinach, and check on your onions to make sure they aren’t burning – just sautéing and even caramelizing just a bit.

7. With about 2 minutes to go on your timer, turn your heat down to low (I go with 1 or 2 on my dial), add your spinach to the onions and mix them together. The spinach will cook and wilt a little bit. You can cook it higher or longer if you prefer your spinach to be more wilted or cooked. I do not. Add your olives just at the last minute, and toss them around.
8. When the timer goes off, drain your pasta, and then add it to the pan of veggies. Gently stir to mix it all up. Now you can choose your level of bravery and comfort. Officially you can turn the heat off and proceed, or you can leave it just barely on low. It’s up to you.
9. Once your pasta is all mixed up with the veggies, add your cheese-egg mixture, stir like crazy, and don’t stop for a good 90 seconds – 2 minutes. Keep stirring! For a split second, you may think it resembles something that might want to be a scrambled-egg pasta. Keep stirring, and something magical will happen as it transforms into a creamy, cheesy egg sauce for your pasta. It will be pale yellow/light white and well combined when all is said and done.
10. Transfer to a plate, top with your desired garnish, and enjoy your impressive feat.

Pour the sauce mixture into the pasta pan.

Stir and keep stirring!

Whip it around the pan!

Fold, turn, rotate, and keep stirring!

Don’t be shy now. Keep it up!

Soon and very soon you’ll have pasta sauce!

How ’bout them apples? It’s pasta sauce!

A few recipe notes: This is certainly not a traditional carbonara. Traditional carbonara is simply the pasta (which ought to be spaghetti to stay within tradition), the egg/cheese sauce and a crispy pork product like pancetta or bacon. The cheese should be Parmesan if at all possible. However, I first made this recipe for Meatless Monday, and I wanted to balance out what I assumed to be a high calorie/fat content with some vegetables and to add some additional flavors while removing the bacon. In my carbonara research, the “experts” and purists were emphatic that cream did not belong in a carbonara recipe. Nonetheless, there are many recipes out there with cream in them. My thought, however, is that there is already a CUP of cheese and FOUR egg yolks in this recipe. Do we really need cream? I think not, friends. Let us show some restraint somewhere. 🙂 Last note, I’ve mixed my sauce and pasta both over heat and off heat. For my current, personal comfort level, I prefer to mix it over the barest level of heat, but I’m also sure that the one time I did it off heat, my boyfriend and I survived without contracting food-borne illness. So maybe one day soon, I’ll graduate to full off-heat mixing.

Since I’ve clearly made my peace with a non-traditional carbonara dish, I do encourage you to experiment with variations of your own pasta carbonara. To me, this dish is simply begging to be experimented with, be it with pasta type, different kinds of veggies, or various kinds of crispy pork bits. So far, I’ve made my carbonara with combinations of kale, spinach, onions, shallots, garlic, tomatoes, Kalamata olives, green onions, bacon bits, and broccoli. The combination I gave you above is my preferred Meatless Monday combination. I did really enjoy the crispy bacon bits the one time I had them, but they aren’t a deal maker for me. The green onions are also really nice on top. A word of caution about the tomatoes, if you choose to try them: they will make your sauce much looser than you might anticipate. As they are made up of so much water, it’s hard to get it all out before you cook them; they will release their liquid into your skillet, and thus, it will end up in your sauce which will be a little thinner and a little pinker than you were ready for. Just a heads up. I’d love to know what combination of vegetables you use in your pasta carbonara!

If you are unused to separating eggs, let me offer you a few tips. First of all, you do not need any special kitchen gadgets to separate eggs! And this is serious business coming from a lover of all kitchen gadgets. Your clean hands or the egg shells will work just fine. Some folks prefer to use their hands to separate the egg, cracking it and pouring it into their hand over the bowl or sink, depending on which part you need. You can let the whites run out between your fingers, leaving the yolk behind. Alternatively, you can carefully crack the egg in as close to half as you can get and then, leaving the yolk in one half of the eggshell, let the whites run out over the edges. Gently shift the yolk to the other half of the yolk, and the rest of the white will run out; if you do this maybe 3 or 4 times, you will get a white-less yolk.

Sometimes the yolks break and that’s okay.

If you are cooking for one, this is a great dish for that as it scales easily. Just adjust your eggs at one egg and one yolk per person and a half cup of cheese per set of eggs for the sauce. Past that, it really is all about your vegetable preference. When I’m making it just for me and not for my blog, I’m less likely to measure and just to eyeball instead. Maybe it’s a little extra onion-y and garlicky that night, but if it’s just me, who cares? I encourage you not to care either. Throw caution to the wind, and go with what your taste buds tell you sounds good!

Leave me a comment, and share what veggie combinations you have tried or are planning to try. I’d love some inspiration myself, and it is always good to share the foodie love with others. Good luck and don’t be intimidated; you can do it! Happy eating!

Nutritional content: per serving
Calories: 643
Fat: 43.3 g
Carbs: 49.8 g
Protein: 38 g
Calcium: 79.2%
And that’s without the bacon or pancetta, y’all! I may never put bacon in it again!

Mexican Lasagna

Recently, I have begun exploring the world of Twitter as both a student affairs professional and a food blogger. It’s quite fascinating, really. One of the themes that comes across the Twitter-radar every Monday is the concept of a meatless dinner. It’s tagged as #meatlessmonday and seems to be gaining quite the following. One of my goals this year was to explore more vegetarian eating, so this seemed like a perfect way to dabble and expand my repertoire of meatless recipes. Truthfully, at first I was intimidated. I could only think of about two recipes, and they were variations of beans and rice. Not very exciting, I know. Then I remembered Mexican lasagna, and my heart leaped for joy. I used to make this all the time, and as life sometimes happens, it just fell off the radar. Ladies and gents, boys and girls, children of all ages, it is back on the radar, and I am happy to share it with you for your own Meatless Monday enjoyment!

Mexican Lasagna [adapted from Healthy Cooking for Two (Or Just You!)]

1 can black beans (14.5 oz)
1 can diced tomatoes (14.5 oz)
2 teaspoons minced garlic
chopped green onions (Perhaps 2 – 3 stalks. Mine were very long and made a scant 1/4 cup.)
chopped cilantro, to taste (for some, this may be none)
1/4 cup diced green chiles
1 cup Monterey Jack cheese
1/2 cup cheddar cheese
1/2 cup sour cream (I used low fat.)
2 teaspoons cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder (less if you are using strong Penzey’s chili powder)
6 corn tortillas

1. Empty black beans into a colander, and let drain while you are preparing the rest of the ingredients. The original recipe said to rinse them. I didn’t do this either time I made the recipe and cannot tell that my choice negatively impacted the dish. Feel free to rinse them if you wish.
2. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
3. Open and drain about half the juice from your can of tomatoes. Then in a non-reactive bowl, mix the tomatoes, minced garlic, chopped green onions, cilantro, green chiles, cumin, and chili powder. Stir well to combine.

Tomato Goodness Mixture

4. Grate cheese.

Honestly, I rarely measure cheese.

5. Stir/whisk the sour cream to make it airy/light and easily spreadable.
6. In a non-stick pan (I recommend using an 8″ pie pan – despite what is pictured below), spread a small amount of the tomato liquid. You are just looking for a thin layer to cover the bottom of the pan. Put one whole tortilla down and break one tortilla in half to make it fit and cover the remaining space. Spread some of the tomato mixture on top, making sure to cover the edges. Spread about half of the beans on top of the tomato mixture. Top with about half of the Monterey Jack cheese.

7. Repeat the tortilla-tomato-bean-cheese layering process. This should use up your beans and Monterey Jack cheese.
8. Top with your final set of tortillas and the remainder of the tomato mixture.
9. Gently plop and spread the sour cream on top of the tomato mixture. I do mine in sections. It will be messy and imperfect. This is okay. Sprinkle your cheddar cheese on top. It is important to cover the edges of the tortillas with tomatoes or sour cream or cheese or any combination. If left uncovered while cooking, they’ll dry out and be bad eats.

Cheese on Top - Oven Ready

10. Put the pan on a jelly roll pan to catch any drips or cheese melts down the side of the pan and slide into the oven for 15 – 20 minutes until the cheese is gooey and melty and things are bubbling around the edges. When you take it out, let it sit for 5 minutes so it can cool. Otherwise, if you try to eat it immediately, it will be boiling-lava hot and take off the inside layer of your mouth. Not good.

Right out of the oven!

If you prefer it spicier, you can up the chili powder or add more green chiles or add fresh peppers. I made this twice and just happened to have the green chiles on hand the second time around. I am definitely going to try adding more the next time I make it. That’s why you won’t see them in the picture below, though. The first time I made this, I didn’t drain any of the juice from the tomatoes because the original recipe directed me not to. I didn’t remember whether or not I had from when I used to make it, so I went ahead and followed the directions. However, although the lasagna was still delicious, it was quite runny, and I didn’t care for all the extra liquid in the dish. Draining about half the liquid the second time around really did improve the integrity of the dish, in my opinion. You are welcome to try it both ways to see which you prefer. It is your kitchen, and you are the boss of it, after all. You could also swap out the kind of beans if you don’t like black beans or didn’t have them in the pantry. Mozzarella would be an agreeable swap for Monterey Jack.

I understand that for some of my friends, cilantro is an anathema, which does make me a little sad. However, for those of you who are practically in love with it like me, let me offer you a tip or two on chopping cilantro and herbs in general. First of all, I’m a bit of a cilantro purist in most cases. I don’t particularly care to eat the stems, without good reason admittedly. I think they carry the same cilantro taste as the leaves. I just don’t want to eat them. Unless the whole bunch is going in the food processor, I will take the few extra moments to pick off the leaves and toss the stems. However, don’t feel like you have to do this. It is probably easier to just chop the stems and all. If you are like me and are anti-stem, you now have a bunch of loosey-goosey leaves all over your cutting board, so now what? Well, dear reader, so glad you asked. Gather, bunch, and scrunch those leaves into a tight little pile under your fingers. Very carefully so as to avoid your fingertips, slice through the pile, moving your fingers back as your knife slices its way through the pile. At the end, either rotate the pile 90 degrees or your knife (whichever is easier), and slice again.

It will be a little messier this time through, but you’ll still get most of it chopped through a second time. Anytime I’m chopping herb leaves that are big enough to stack, scrunch, or roll, this is the method I use rather than chopping individual leaves. It works less well with smaller leaves like thyme, but you can still gather them into a pile and run your knife through, right to left, and it will do a fair chop job. Don’t be afraid to restack and cut again if necessary. I’ve also found that storing my herbs in either a container of water or a damp paper towel lengthens their life in my fridge. I put the plastic produce bag on top of the cilantro to help protect it from being banged up while in the fridge, too. No sense in letting your herbs go to waste if you can help it, right?

Meatless Monday is not a new concept at all. Much like many fashion trends make a reappearance many decades later, this food trend seems to have made a resurgence on the food scene. Way back, back in the days of World Wars I and II, there were national endeavors lead by Herbert Hoover, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Harry S. Truman to reduce our meat consumption in an attempt to aid the war effort. In 1917, New York City hotels managed to save about 116 tons of meat in just one week. That’s a crazy amount of meat, y’all!! In 2003, Meatless Monday was brought back as a public health initiative in conjunction with Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health’s Center for a Livable Future. There are environmental, financial, and health benefits to going meatless, even once a week. You can check some of them out here, but reducing your consumption of meat reduces the carbon footprint of your grocery bill, reduces the amount you spend on meat which can be some of the most expensive items in your cart, and can potentially help curb obesity. Those sound like pretty good reasons to give a try to me. Every little bit helps in all those areas. You can check out this website for more information and recipes.

When you make Mexican lasagna for one or two with the recipe above, there are definitely leftovers which is fine by me. You could wrap individual portions in plastic wrap, then freeze them for a later date. Me? I just pop the portions in the fridge for lunch later in the week. I microwave it for about a minute, perhaps a smidge longer, and it’s delicious eats at the office. Yes, please! I end up having Meatless Monday dinner, Meatless Tuesday and Thursday lunch, and it’s all quite delightful. I hope this recipe encourages you to give Meatless Monday a try. And if you don’t want to wait until Monday to eat it, I don’t blame you. Have a meatless whatever day you like. It is your kitchen, you know. 🙂 Happy eating!

Nutritional content: 1/6 of the pan – makes 6 servings in an 8″ pan
Calories: 257
Carbs: 26 g
Protein: 13 g
Fat: 12 g
Calcium: 20%
Fiber: 5.5 g
Iron: 5.4 %