Mexican Beef and Rice Casserole

You guys!!

I am pretty sure this is the very first recipe that I took creative liberties with – and it’s pretty damn good!

Way back in like 2000 or 2001, when I was first learning how to cook, the only cookbook I had was your standard Betty Crocker cookbook.  There was a recipe in there for a Mexican beef and bean casserole, but at the time I hated beans.  So I thought hey, maybe I could sub out the beans and use rice instead.  I wasn’t entirely sure how to make rice on my own, so I used a box of Rice-A-Roni Spanish Rice.  But other than that, I followed the recipe and was so excited about how it turned out.

Mexican Beef and Rice Casserole

Because it turned out really good!

Spicy beef, tender Spanish rice, gooey cheese – does it get any better than this?

This recipe makes great leftovers.  I always make a full batch of this so I can have leftovers for lunch at work for a couple of days.

Mexican Beef and Rice Casserole

1 lb ground beef, browned and drained
1 box Spanish flavor Rice-A-Roni, prepared according to package directions
1/2 cup salsa
8 oz can tomato sauce
2 tablespoons chili powder
1 cup of shredded cheese of your choice
Cooking spray

1. Heat oven to 400 degrees F. In the same large skillet that you prepared the Spanish rice, add the browned and drained ground beef, salsa, tomato sauce, and chili powder. Stir to combine well.

2. Spray an 8×8 casserole dish with cooking spray and pour the beef and rice mixture into the dish. Spread evenly and flatten with the back of the spoon.

3. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove the casserole from the oven and add the shredded cheese. Put back in the oven and bake for 5 minutes longer to melt the cheese. Remove and serve promptly!

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Slutty Grilled Cheese

Does anybody else out there know the term, “food hug”?

My friend and I use this term to describe the situations in which we are so stressed or angry or frazzled or crazy that we want to EAT ALL THE FOOD, ALL THE UNHEALTHY-FOR-ME FOODS, ALL THE SLUTTY FOOD because it’s the only thing that will make us feel better.  And we usually try to talk each other out of going off the rails like that – “don’t do it, you know you just need a food hug, it will go away”.  But sometimes you just need a food hug so bad….

And that’s how this grilled cheese was born.

For whatever reason, I was super stressed at work one day recently, and I wanted a food hug so bad… And I couldn’t get out for lunch so I had to eat whatever I had brought, which was decidedly NOT a food hug, so by the time I got home I was extra-jonesing for a food hug.  And we were just having boring old grilled cheese for dinner (hello, totally-packed-kitchen)…. until I decided to completely slut it up.

Slutty Grilled Cheese

Do you know what really knocks this grilled cheese out of the park?  Bread and butter pickles.  They just add a tang to all the richness and it somehow goes really well together.

So next time you need a food hug… you probably have a lot of these ingredients on hand… whip this one up and take a bite and feel better instantly.

Slutty Grilled Cheese
Makes 1 sandwich (yes, ONE)

2 slices sourdough bread, panini bread, or your favorite grilled cheese bread
2 slices yellow American cheese
2 slices Cooper Sharp American cheese
2 slices of bacon, cooked to your liking, cut in half
2 slices beefsteak tomato
6-8 slices bread & butter pickles
2 eggs, cooked sunny side up or over easy (runny yolk FTW)
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise (optional, but why would you not?)
Butter for buttering the bread

1. Butter the bread as you would any other grilled cheese.

2. Heat a skillet over medium heat as you would if you were making grilled cheese like normal. Place both slices of bread, butter-side down, in the skillet. Place the slices of yellow American on top of one slice, and the slices of the Cooper Sharp on top of another slice. Cook gently, browning the bread, so that the cheese begins to melt. If necessary, cover the skillet so that the heat can circulate around the top of the cheese and help it melt. Be careful not to burn the bread. (Unless you like that, ew.)

3. In the meantime, in a separate small skillet, cook your eggs as desired. When done, turn the heat off and cover to keep warm until the sandwich is ready to assemble.

4. When the cheese on the bread slices looks sufficiently melty, slide both slices out onto a plate. Assemble in the following manner: swipe mayonnaise on top of the yellow American cheese. Lay bacon slices on top of the Cooper Sharp. Lay tomato slices on top of the bacon. Lay pickles on top of the tomatoes. Slide your eggs out of the skillet and on top of the pickles. Flip the slice of bread with the yellow American and mayo on top of the eggs. Hold tight, and slice in half. Now eat it!

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Fresh Ricotta Toasts

So like.  Did y’all know you can make ricotta at home?  And that it’s better than almost anything you could buy at a store (unless you have access to some mom and pop Italian market that makes it fresh)?

It’s true.  And it was SO easy to make, that of course I immediately had to make it again.

In the interest of full disclosure, the recipe for the ricotta itself is not mine – it’s Smitten Kitchen’s.  And I love her, and so much of her food, and her cookbook is glorious.  So I will not post her recipe here – I’m not sure what is good or bad Food Blog Etiquette but I like to avoid charges of plaigiarism where possible – but I will link you to it, and I will tell you about my experience with it, so here, go here and get the recipe and then come back here to see just what you can do with fresh ricotta (hint: it’s more than lasagna, stuffed shells, or baked ziti!)…

Ok, so now I’m assuming you’ve gone and come back and are ready to talk about making fresh ricotta.

How about that direction where you have to heat the milk and cream to 190 degrees F?  Did that freak you out a little bit?  Or was that only me?

I get panicked about cooking things to a certain temperature.  WHAT IF THE TEMPERATURE GOES TOO HIGH?!  WHAT IF IT NEVER REACHES THAT TEMPERATURE?!  WILL I RUIN THE WHOLE DISH?!  WHY IS THE RED INDICATOR SO HARD TO READ?!  WHY CAN’T I STEP AWAY?!  Internal dialogue assaults me frequently.

In my defense I suppose I was also freaked out by it because I had literally JUST (as in, the day before) packed up my candy thermometer and shuttled that box off to my mom’s, so I was without a proper temperature gauge.  Until I remembered I kept my meat thermometer out.  So I improvised.

Yes, I stood at the stove and held the probe in what I believed to be the center of the pot as the milk and cream warmed up together, and waited for it to reach 190 degrees F.  My arm was tired.  And I was pretty hot by the time it was all over.  But hey.  Some people suffer for beauty; I suffer for food.

If you don’t have a food-grade thermometer at all and have to guess at when to take it off the heat, I would advise against making this.  Just go get a food-grade thermometer.

So anyway.  I made this for a little event that we have with our friends a few times a year that we used to call “that thing where we get together and make a bunch of food and pig out”, but on this specific occasion we decided to call it “Slutfest”.  After all, the whole concept of “slutty food” came from these friends.  So yeah.  Every few months we get together and make a bunch of food and pig out.  Our friend Geoff is a total whiz in the kitchen.  He’s the kind of chef I wish I could be.  He does not follow recipes, he just tosses a bunch of things together and it tastes amazing.  We, on the other hand, are more recipe followers, though we have been known to improvise once in a while as well.  Geoff is just amazing at it, so I let him do that while I just try and find a recipe or two I’ve been dying to make and try out on some people.  To give you an idea, on this particular night Geoff whipped up a cheese fondue, homemade onion rings, and cheeseburgers made with beef filet roast scraps (the parts of the filet roast that you wouldn’t cut into steaks – he ground those parts up and made cheeseburgers out of it – HEAVENLY).

So for the first Slutfest of 2016, I chose to make this ricotta.  I didn’t think much about what to ‘top’ it with, because to me ricotta spread on toasted bread is just fine like that.  But after seeing how easy it was to make, and how DELICIOUS it was, I had to invent new ways to eat it.

As we were stuffing ricotta-slathered bread into our faces all kinds of ideas popped into my mind about what else could go on top.  Below you’ll find the recipes for what I found to taste amazing in my recipe testing!

Fresh Ricotta Toasts

Start with:
1 recipe fresh ricotta
1 baguette, sliced

Top with:
Minced rosemary + gourmet sea salt
Any other flavored gourmet salts you may have
Poached eggs + arugula
Slow-roasted tomatoes + basil leaves
Balsamic strawberries

1. Toast the baguette slices in a 350 degree oven for 10 minutes.

2. Slather the baguette slices with the fresh ricotta.

3. Assemble as desired!
My favorite of these ideas ended up being the balsamic strawberries. It was surprisingly sweet and amazingly delicious.
My favorite simple preparation is the minced rosemary + gourmet sea salt. This is how they serve it at one of my favorite restaurants, The Dandelion.
For ricotta toasts that take a little more effort and are more small-meal-like rather than snack-like, go for the poached eggs + arugula or the slow-roasted tomatoes + basil.

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Sloppy Joe Cheese Fries

Listen.  When I started this blog, I felt like food creativity started coming at me from a hundred different directions.  And one of those things that popped in my head was ‘sloppy Joe cheese fries’.

I’m not sure if I’d ever seen them on a menu before or something, but I know for sure I hadn’t made them before.  And they sure as hell sounded good.

But I don’t even really like sloppy Joes.  Not the Manwich stuff anyway.  So I went on a hunt to find a yummy homemade sloppy Joe recipe, and I landed here.  Can I just tell you how positively heavenly my kitchen smelled when I made this?  This sloppy Joe recipe was SO GOOD.  It was meaty, tomato-ey, tangy, smoky… it was everything you want a slutty sloppy Joe to be, but it was PALEO.  I will definitely be making this recipe again soon!

So what I did was I made a full recipe of this and portioned it out for my husband to take to work for lunches.  And I used one of the portions to make a single serving of these cheese fries and – omg – they were so good.

This would be a great dish to make on a family movie night or for a party with friends. Get creative with the toppings too!

Sloppy Joe Cheese Fries

1 recipe homemade sloppy Joes
1 recipe chipotle cheese sauce
1 bag Ore-Ida extra crispy golden crinkles
Sliced scallions, for garnish

1. Prepare the sloppy Joes, chipotle cheese sauce, and French fries according to recipe directions and keep all warm until ready to assemble.

2. To assemble: Place the French fries onto a large serving platter. Drizzle the fries with some of the cheese sauce. Top with as much sloppy Joe mix as you desire – don’t feel pressured to use it all, as any leftovers are excellent the following day! Drizzle again with cheese sauce. Top with sliced scallions if desired. Serve and devour!

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Chipotle Cheese Sauce

This cheese sauce has been tweaked and perfected quite a lot over the years, but it wasn’t till last year that I started adding chipotle to it to spice it up a bit.

Prior to adding chipotle, I would add dry chili powder, pepper jack cheese, regular Tabasco, and sometimes even pickled jalapeno juice to give it some kick.  None of those really satisfied me, though they were all fine in their own right.  But once I discovered chipotle Tabasco, I realized I’d finally hit upon the perfect flavoring for cheese sauce!

I use this cheese sauce on many things, but most notably nachos (of course) and cheese fries.

I found that I reference this recipe a lot in many of my other recipes, so I decided to create its own post for easier reference in the future.  But feel free to use this creatively in your own dishes!

Chipotle Cheese Sauce

3 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/4 cups milk, warmed for 2 minutes in the microwave
Salt and pepper to taste
1 1/2 cups shredded sharp or medium cheddar cheese
1 1/2 tablespoons chipotle Tabasco sauce

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add flour and whisk quickly to combine. Allow to cook for about 2 minutes. Whisk in the warmed milk, whisking constantly until it thickens. Once it thickens, lower the heat to low. Season with salt and pepper as desired. Add shredded cheese and whisk gently until completely melted. Finally, add chipotle Tabasco sauce and whisk to combine. Feel free to add more or less to your heat preference. Use this cheese sauce to top anything you’d want to top with cheese sauce!

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If you don’t know by now, I’m from Philly – land of the cheesesteak, land of the soft pretzel, land of Wawa, land of Tastykakes.

We love our Philly food, especially the cheesesteak.  What I love about the cheesesteak is that you could ask 50 different people what their favorite cheesesteak shop is, and you would probably get about 25 unique answers.  As for me, I really love Jimmy G’s, D’Alessandro’s, and Ishkabibbles.  No, I don’t like Pat’s, or Geno’s, or even Jim’s.  Tony Luke’s used to be my favorite but since embarking on my cheesesteak adventure (search #cheesesteakadventure on Instagram), I have eaten so many delicious cheesesteaks that I never knew existed!  I have a bunch more on my list to try too!

Anyway.  Sometimes you just want to make one at home.  And I finally have perfected a recipe to my liking.

What are my secrets?

First – you gotta use Cooper Sharp American cheese.  I LOVE Cooper Sharp.  I love it on turkey sandwiches, egg sandwiches, grilled cheese, cheeseburgers – anything.  It’s great on cheesesteaks.  If you can’t find Cooper Sharp, regular American cheese will do.

Second – you gotta use a cast iron skillet.  It will sear your beef really well.

Third – you gotta use an authentic Amoroso’s roll.  I know they are pretty local to Philly so I’m not sure how far away you can get them – but if you can’t get them, make sure you find a nice soft Italian roll.  It should not be as firm as a baguette.  It should be hoagie length – about 10-12″ in length.

Fourth – you gotta let the cheese melt real good on top of the beef, and then sort of toss it all together to spread all that cheese throughout the steak chunks.  This is my number one pet peeve with cheesesteak shops is that they don’t do this.  The typical way they put together a cheesesteak is: they slice the roll open, they lay the cheese into the roll, then they flip the roll with the cold cheese upside down onto the hot cheesesteak meat on the griddle, and let it sit there for a minute.  Then they take their big spatula and slide it under the meat, put one hand on the upside-down roll, and in one swift motion they flip it all upright, so that now the beef is sitting on top of the cheese.  Well that’s great and easy, but now you only get cheese on part of the meat!  It is so much better when they flip the meat around and let the cheese get all melty into it.

Anyway enough with that.  On to the recipe!

Makes 2 stuffed cheesesteaks or 3 average cheesesteaks

1 lb skirt steak
Salt & pepper
Cooking spray
4-6 slices Cooper Sharp cheese
2-3 Amoroso’s long Italian rolls
1/2 yellow onion, diced (optional)
Ketchup and mayo for topping (optional)

1. Slice skirt steak against the grain (as if crossing a ‘T’ against the grain) in very thin strips. Think shavings. If necessary, you could lay the skirt steak pieces onto a cutting board and stick them in a freezer for about an hour to firm it up to make slicing/shaving easier. Spread all the shavings across the cutting board and season liberally with salt and pepper.

2. Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Spray lightly with cooking spray. When the skillet is hot, add the diced yellow onion and saute until softened, just until the dices begin to brown around the edges. Remove from pan and set aside.

3. Turn the heat up on the skillet to medium-high. Add the skirt steak. Let it sear, then start pushing it around the pan to brown it on all sides. Once the meat is browned on all sides, turn the heat down to medium-low, and separate the meat into the number of cheesesteaks you will be serving. Push them into a long oval shape, so that you can scoop from the skillet to the roll easily. Once the meat is separated, add the diced onions to the top of the desired piles of meat, and place 2 slices of cheese on top of each little pile. Cover the skillet to let the cheese melt.

4. While the cheese is melting, slice the rolls open and scoop some of the bread out to hollow the roll out a little. At this point, if you’re adding ketchup and/or mayo to your cheesesteak, you can do so on the roll.

5. When the cheese is finished melting, using a large spatula, begin folding the meat over the cheese over and over to distribute the melted cheese throughout the meat. When distributed to your liking, scoop out of the skillet and onto your prepared roll. Cut the sandwich in half and devour promptly!

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Better Burrito Bowls

You guysssssss.

If you’ve noticed, I’m SO sorry for my absence.

If you haven’t noticed, it’s cool.

So I am finding out very quickly that getting a house ready to put on the market is no freakin’ joke.  Since early January, I have spent part or all of every single weekend packing stuff I don’t need to use on a daily basis, cleaning rooms and closets, organizing rooms and closets, storing stuff at my mom’s house until we figure out what to do about a storage unit, donating perfectly usable stuff to Goodwill, trashing whatever is left, AND, somehow, managing to find some time for myself and my family, even if it means we at least make sure we eat dinner together.

Needless to say, cooking for the blog has somewhat fallen to the wayside at this time.

As if putting my house on the market is not stressful enough, I have also managed to land my absolute dream job.  At first I didn’t find this stressful at all.  DREAM JOB!  YAY!  But as I began to give notice throughout my firm, I was surprised to find out how many people seemed genuinely sad at the news of my departure.  There were those I knew would not be doing a happy dance, but I didn’t expect so many sad faces.  I suppose when you work under an evil boss who’s made you feel worthless and stupid and not valuable in the slightest, then on some level you start to believe that about yourself.  I really just thought most people would say “That’s great, good luck to you” and send me on my way.  But countless people have laid a (good-natured) guilt trip on pretty thick and told me that if I ever want to come back, to give them a call and they’ll make sure I have a spot.  What a difference a year makes, huh?  If this new job came along a year ago I would have skated out of there so fast – and nobody at all would have been the least bit surprised.  But the new regime has really turned things around, to the point where it was really hard to make the decision to leave.

I am really excited about the new gig though.  I’ll be doing the work I already love doing, PLUS learning some skillsets in a field I’ve been dying to get into – which would be work I would REALLY love doing.  The prospect of expanding my skillset and my career has been exciting enough that I have barely even realized that I will also be making more money.  Money is as big a motivator for me as it is for anyone, but it takes such a backseat in this instance, because I am so stoked about the work I’ll be doing.

So yeah, the typical response I get at this point is, “What are you thinking?!  Starting a new job, selling your house, buying a house, all at the same time?!”  And I have to shake my head in response.  I OBVIOUSLY HAVE NO FREAKING IDEA WTF I’M DOING, because when you put it like that, it DOES sound scary.  All I can say is that it all just feels right; I have no gut instincts or hesitations in the back of my mind about anything.  So it must be the right time for all of this to take place.  In the words of a dear friend, I am “ripping off the band-aid” – it certainly feels that way!

But anyway.  I anticipate being able to create a few recipes for you next week in between some final rounds of packing, and post them, but then I imagine I will be on hiatus until my life settles down a bit.  Stick with me.  And you can always see what I’m eating on Instagram.

Let’s talk about these burrito bowls.  That are seriously better than Chipotle’s.

I don’t really understand the frenzy that surrounds Chipotle.  I mean – I will give them credit.  The food is good, it tastes fresh, the guacamole is very good, but to me it’s just another place I could grab a healthy-ish meal.  It’s a better alternative for me than a salad place because fuck salads.  But there aren’t many around me, plus the whole food-borne illness thing, plus people, really, let’s look at the ingredients, because with a little effort you CAN do it better on your own.

Everyone always raves about the cilantro lime rice.  And yes, I love cilantro lime rice.  But people, you know what’s in cilantro lime rice?  CILANTRO.  LIME.  AND RICE.  You can make this at home.  You don’t need to pay Chipotle $10 or something for a burrito bowl when you can make this stuff at home.

And their guac?  Mine is good too.

Now – I’ve been trying to eat less meat lately.  (Why?  I don’t really know other than it’s just something I want to do right now.  No particular health reason, no particular diet reason.  Just, hey, let’s see what life is like if I eat less meat.  I’m not trying to lose weight, I’m not trying to become a vegan, or even a vegetarian, but can I eat a vegetarian-style diet and still be satisfied?  Let’s find out!  It’s a curiosity thing.)  So these burrito bowls are just rice + beans + veggies + slutty toppings.  You can very easily add any kind of Mexican-spiced grilled chicken or beef (here’s a recipe I’d recommend if you want to go that route), or even use that to swap out the beans.  Treat this recipe as you are treated at Chipotle – pick what you want to put in it, and make it your own.  What I’ve got here is just what I would ask for if I went to Chipotle myself!

So yeah – you make the cilantro lime rice.  You heat up the beans.  You slice and saute the veggies.  And you top and stir and shovel into your happy little mouth.  It’s THAT easy.

What I truly love about this recipe is that it is GREAT for work lunches.  I think I’ll start a series on the stuff I eat at work for lunch.  I have been pretty creative over the past couple of years for what to bring to work for lunch.  Eating lunch in downtown Philadelphia can range anywhere from $7-15 or more.  If you can take a few hours on a Sunday to cook a batch of something delicious, you’ll be fed for a few days at least.  This recipe in particular makes enough for 4 lunch-sized burrito bowls (which I would say is maybe just over half the size of a Chipotle burrito bowl – which letsbehonest is TOO BIG).  You can very easily double it to make more, or even 1.5x it to make just a little more.  I made a 1.5x recipe when I made it to photograph it for the blog, and my husband and I each had enough for 3 lunches for the week.

And obviously you can go the other way and halve it so that you have dinner for two.

Better Burrito Bowls
Serves 4

Cilantro Lime Rice
1 cup dry California brown Basmati rice (we like Lundberg), or other brown rice, prepared according to package directions (see note)
Chicken or vegetable stock to prepare the rice (see note)
1 large handful minced cilantro
1 lime, cut in half

Sauteed Veggies
1 large red bell pepper, sliced into strips and then in half again
1 large green bell pepper, sliced into strips and then in half again
½ red onion, sliced into strips
Cooking spray
Taco or fajita seasoning

Other Bowl Components
1 can black beans, not rinsed or drained
1 recipe pico de gallo
1 avocado, cubed, cubes tossed in lime juice to keep from browning
Guacamole for topping, if desired
Sour cream for topping, if desired
Shredded cheese for topping, if desired

1. Prepare brown rice according to package directions. This typically takes 40-50 minutes, so this is plenty of time for you to get everything else ready! When the rice is finished, season very liberally with salt and stir to combine. Taste to see if it’s salty enough. Then add in the cilantro, and squeeze one half of the lime over the rice. Stir to combine. Taste to see if it’s cilantro-y or limey enough for you. I like a lot of lime, so if you’re like me, you’ll probably end up squeezing the other lime half over the rice as well. Keep warm.

2. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Spray liberally with cooking spray, or drizzle sparingly with a light flavorless oil of your choice. (I use coconut oil spray, and probably spray 2 layers all over the pan.) Add the peppers and saute for about 5 minutes to give them a head start over the onions. Add the onions. Season with 1-2 teaspoons of taco or fajita seasoning, as your palate desires. Stir to combine, and as the vegetables soften, turn the heat down to keep them from burning. You want them to be like fajita veggies – not too soft, but not too crisp either. Keep warm.

3. Pour the black beans into a small saucepan and warm over low heat. Keep warm until ready to assemble bowls. Note that when assembling, you should use a slotted spoon to drain the beans before adding to the bowl.

4. When everything is finished cooking, begin to assemble your burrito bowls. Spoon ¼ of the rice, ¼ of the beans, and ¼ of the sauteed veggies into a bowl. If preparing for lunches at work, stop there. You’ll want all the warm stuff in one bowl, and then you’ll pack the cold toppings in other bowls to take with you to work. If you’re preparing this to eat immediately, you can proceed with topping as you desire. Then feel free to stir it all up and shovel it in your mouth toute suite.

Regarding the rice/stock :: for whatever reason, brown rice always takes more liquid than what is called for on the package, at least for me. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve got a gas stove that cooks hotter than electric, or maybe I don’t know what a simmer is, but in general, this particular brand of brown rice (Lundberg) takes a little more stock than the package calls for. For 1 cup of dry rice, I use 2 cups of stock (the package calls for 1 1/2 cups of stock). Speaking of the stock – the recipe is good with chicken OR vegetable stock, I’ve made it both ways. I prefer stock over broth, as it’s more flavorful.

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