Sam Sifton’s Middle-School Tacos

We are counting down the days until the end of my son’s elementary school career. 😦 His 6th grade Graduation- a.k.a. “Moving Up” ceremony- is next Tuesday. So… it’s the perfect time to share this recipe for a popular Middle-School lunch! I’m getting him ready for his next chapter. ❤

The recipe for these “Middle-School ‘Gringo’ Tacos” was featured in a New York Times article titled “The Case for Hard Shell Tacos,” contributed by Sam Sifton. They were a wonderful upgrade from a taco kit. 🙂 I used ground turkey instead of ground beef, decreased the chile powder and red pepper flakes, and doubled the garlic. We topped them with grated cheeses, sour cream, guacamole, shredded iceberg lettuce, and chopped grape tomatoes. I served them with refried beans on the side as well. Great.

Of course, my kids absolutely loved them! Then they informed me that their school lunch tacos are served in soft tortillas. Funny. Maybe that’s an elementary school thing? We’ll see! 😉

Time: 30 minutes

For the Meat Filling:

  • 2 tablespoons neutral oil, like canola, peanut or grapeseed
  • 1 medium-size yellow onion, peeled and diced
  • cloves garlic, peeled and minced
  • 2 pounds ground beef or ground turkey
  • 1-2 tablespoons chile powder
  • 1 tablespoon ground cumin
  • 2 teaspoons kosher salt, or to taste
  • 2 teaspoons freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 2 teaspoons smoked paprika (or substitute hot or sweet paprika)
  • 1/2 to 1 teaspoon crushed red-pepper flakes, or to taste
  • 1 cup chicken stock or beef broth, low-sodium if store-bought

For Serving:

  • 12-18 hard taco shells
  • refried beans, optional

Topping Suggestions:

  • grated cheese (I used both cheddar and Monterey Jack)
  • sliced jalapeños
  • chopped tomatoes
  • shredded lettuce or cabbage
  • sour cream
  • guacamole
  • lime wedges

  1. Heat oven to 425 degrees F.
  2. Place a large skillet over medium-high heat, and add the oil. When it begins to shimmer, add the onion, and cook until softened and starting to brown, approximately 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Add the garlic, and cook for a minute or so to soften, and then the ground meat. Cook until it starts to brown, stirring and chopping with a spoon to break up the meat, approximately 5 to 7 minutes. Pour off excess fat, leaving only a tablespoon or two in the pan.
  4. Add the chile powder, cumin, salt, pepper, cornstarch, paprika and red-pepper flakes, and stir to combine.
  5. Add the stock or broth, stir, bring to a simmer and cook uncovered until the sauce has thickened slightly, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.
  6. As sauce cooks, place taco shells (on a taco rack, if possible) on a sheet pan, and toast in oven until they are crisp and smell nutty, about 2 to 3 minutes.
  7. Serve a few tablespoons of meat in each taco, along with whatever toppings you like.
  8. Serve with refried beans on the side, if desired.

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Turkish-Spiced Halibut Skewers With Yogurt Sauce

Many people grill year-round, but our grill hibernates during the winter. 😦 Thankfully, it is unseasonably warm here this week (Yay!), so I am going to share a couple of belated grilling recipes.

This first recipe is an adaptation of a Turkish dish typically made with local swordfish and fresh bay leaves. This version, from David Tanis of The New York Times, uses firm-fleshed halibut with thinly sliced lemons and onions. The fish is only marinated for an hour, grilled, and served with a wonderful and fresh cucumber-yogurt sauce.

We ate the skewers with hummus, warm naan, Israeli couscous, and steamed spinach on the side. If grilling season is over for you, this dish can easily be replicated using a broiler. Great!

  • 1 ½ pounds boneless halibut or other firm-fleshed fish
  • coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ teaspoon cumin seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
  • ½ teaspoon coriander seeds, toasted and coarsely ground
  • ½ teaspoon paprika
  • pinch red pepper flakes
  • 1 small red onion, thinly sliced
  • 1 small lemon, thinly sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced, plus 1 garlic clove, grated or smashed to a paste
  • 8 bay leaves
  • ½ cup olive oil
  • 1 cup plain yogurt (I used Greek yogurt)
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1 small cucumber, about 2 ounces, peeled and diced
  • 1 tablespoon chopped mint
  • 1 tablespoon chopped dill
  • 1 tablespoon chopped parsley

  1. Cut halibut into large chunks of equal size and thread onto skewers. You should have 4 kebabs weighing about 6 ounces each.
  2. Lay them in a shallow dish. Season on both sides with salt and pepper.
  3. In a mixing bowl, put cumin, coriander, paprika, red pepper flakes, onion, lemon, minced garlic and bay leaves. Add olive oil and stir together.
  4. Spoon mixture over fish skewers and leave to marinate for at least 1 hour.
  5. Put yogurt in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper, then add garlic paste, cayenne and cucumber.
  6. Mix mint, dill and parsley together, add half to yogurt mixture, and reserve the rest. Stir to combine. Set aside.
  7. Heat a grill or broiler. When it is hot, cook skewers for about 2 minutes per side, until just opaque. (Leave some lemon, onion and bay leaf clinging to fish, so they char a bit.)
  8. Transfer to a serving platter. Sprinkle with remaining herb mixture, if desired. Serve with yogurt sauce on the side.

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Simple Barbecue Sauce

I hate to admit it, but I initially dismissed this recipe when I read it in the New York Times- it seemed too simple to be good. I thought this despite the fact that I have FOUR different types of paprika in my spice cabinet and smoked paprika is not only my favorite, but is the secret ingredient in this sauce! When it was posted as a “most popular recipe, ” I had to try it. 🙂

We ate it over chicken thighs with potatoes, corn, and summer squash casserole on the side. What a meal! The original recipe suggests that the sauce should be thinned out if painting the meat while cooking and serving the full-strength sauce along with the cooked meat. This recipe is from the New York Times, contributed by John Willoughby. A simple and perfect summer recipe.

  • ⅔ cup ketchup
  • ½ cup cider vinegar
  • ¼ cup brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons pimentón (smoked Spanish paprika)
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  1. Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, bring to a simmer over medium heat and cook for 5 minutes.

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Coke-Brined Fried Chicken with Biscuits & Gravy

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Springtime brings the obvious pleasures of green grass, flowers, fresh air, eating outside, etc. But every year at my house, we also have a little house finch who builds her nest (with her significant other) next to our door. She sits there so sweetly. She sings. She drives our cat crazy! 🙂

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We also usually struggle with Canadian geese all over our lawn… but this year our yard has been claimed by a duck couple.  They walk side by side in conversation completely fearless of the real homeowners! They swim side by side on our pool cover. Such a nice change from the geese. I am assuming we will be welcoming ducklings soon. 🙂

Another springtime event in my world is my husband’s birthday dinner. It requires a lot of thought (on his part), a lot of cooking (on my part), and usually a lot of indulgence. This year was no exception! But, I am going to have to tell you that it was really really good.

My husband grew up in Charleston, South Carolina and has a real love for southern food. It’s just hearty and comforting – and good. 🙂 After he decided on his wish list menu, I searched far and wide for the perfect fried chicken recipe. This Coke-brined version was adapted from Willie Mae’s Scotch House in New Orleans, Louisiana by way of John Currence of City Grocery in Oxford, Mississippi via the New York Times, contributed by Sam Sifton. (Credit needs to be paid when credit is due!) The Coke tenderizes the meat but also results in deep-mahogany brown, sweet, super-moist chicken. I modified the recipe to use boneless, skinless chicken thighs- of course! Delicious- and the leftovers were wonderful cold as well.

My husband’s wish list menu also included biscuits and gravy, macaroni and cheese (a side dish in the South!), caesar salad (yes- there was actually something green), and vanilla bean birthday cheesecake. (I mentioned it was an indulgent meal, right?) I made the fabulous giant biscuits I had made in the past for Fried Chicken Biscuits. Why mess with perfection? The milk gravy recipe was adapted from The Pioneer Woman.com. Yum!

This dish is the “grand finale” of my chicken thigh “festival”!! (for now, anyway…) Happy Birthday, Mr. Brookcook! 🙂

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Yield: Serves 6 to 8

For the Coke-Brined Fried Chicken:

For the Brine:

  • 5 cups Coca-Cola (I used 3 12-oz cans)
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 10 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 4 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
  • 4 teaspoons mild hot sauce like Sriracha, Crystal, Texas Pete or Cholula
  • 10 to 15 boneless skinless chicken thighs

For the Seasoned Flour:

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 tablespoon kosher salt
  • 2 teaspoons ground black pepper
  • 2 teaspoons smoked Spanish paprika
  • 1 ½ teaspoons garlic powder
  • 1 ½ teaspoons onion powder
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper

For Frying:

  • 3 cups peanut oil
  • 1 cup lard, optional, or replace with peanut oil

For Serving:

  • Hot sauce, optional
  1. Make the brine: Combine cola, salt, thyme, garlic and hot sauce in a large glass bowl and stir until the salt has dissolved. Add the chicken thighs, cover and refrigerate 3 to 5 hours. (Longer will break down the meat.)
  2. Make the seasoned flour: In a wide, shallow bowl or pan, combine the flour, salt, pepper, paprika, garlic powder, onion powder and cayenne.
  3. Heat oven to 350 degrees. Put the peanut oil in a large heavy-bottom pot or Dutch oven over medium heat until it reaches 375 degrees on a candy thermometer. While the oil heats, remove the chicken from the brine and pat dry. (I did this in batches.)
  4. Dredge the thighs in the flour and shake to remove excess.
  5. Working in batches of 2 or 3 at a time, carefully lower thighs with tongs into the hot oil. The oil temperature will plummet when the cold chicken goes into the pan; turn up the heat and carefully monitor the temperature. Cook for approximately 3 minutes on one side, 3 minutes on the other, and then a final 2 minutes on the first side. Remove to a wire rack over a paper towel-lined baking sheet to drain.
  6. The juices should run clear when the chicken is poked with a knife. If necessary, transfer the browned chicken to a baking sheet and bake until the internal temperature reaches 180 degrees on a instant-read thermometer. Serve hot or at room temperature with hot sauce, biscuits, and gravy, as desired.

For the Biscuits:

  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon sugar
  • 1/8 teaspoon baking soda
  • 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour, plus more
  • 3/4 cups (1 1/2 sticks) chilled unsalted butter, cut into pieces
  • 3/4 cups chilled buttermilk
  • 1 large egg, beaten to blend
  1. Preheat oven to 375°. Pulse baking powder, salt, sugar, baking soda, and flour in a food processor. Add butter and pulse until the texture of coarse meal with a few pea-size pieces of butter remaining.
  2. Transfer mixture to a large bowl. Mix in buttermilk with a fork, then gently knead just until a shaggy dough comes together.
  3. Pat out dough on a lightly floured surface until 1¼” thick. Cut out biscuits with a 3” biscuit cutter, rerolling scraps once.
  4. Place biscuits on a parchment-lined baking sheet and brush tops with egg. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes (on convection) or up to 30–35 minutes.

For the Milk Gravy:

  • 3 T fried chicken pan drippings
  • 2-3 T all-purpose flour
  • 1-2 cups milk (I used 1 percent)
  • coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  1. In a small skillet over medium-low heat, add pan drippings and flour. Whisk immediately. It should be smooth.
  2. Keep stirring until the mixture begins to brown, 2-3 minutes, scraping the bottom of the pan.
  3. Whisk in 1 cup of milk. Cook until desired thickness is achieved- adding more milk if desired.
  4. Season with salt and pepper.
  5. Cut biscuits in half and pour gravy over the top to serve.

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Chicken Goulash with Biscuit Dumplings

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This dish was HOT. Super spicy. I was so excited to get my hands on both sweet and hot Hungarian paprika- and then even more excited to find a dish (Food & Wine Magazine’s “Best One-Pot Dish” no less) that incorporated hot paprika. Well, I don’t know if my paprika was just too fresh…

I am a fan of spicy food, but my family had to slather this spicy gravy with sour cream in order to eat it. :/ A lot of water was consumed as well. :/ I thought that the sour cream in both the sauce and the biscuits would temper the heat- or by eating each bite along with part of a fabulously moist and tender biscuit would be enough…

BUT- after saying all of that- this dish was so wonderful it definitely deserves to be made again. Smell- AMAZING. Biscuits- AMAZING. I would modify the recipe by using 1 tablespoon of hot Hungarian paprika along with 1 tablespoon of sweet paprika next time. This recipe was adapted from a Food and Wine “staff-favorite” recipe, contributed by Grace Parisi.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

  • 2 pounds skinless, boneless chicken thighs, cut into 2-inch pieces (I used 10 thighs)
  • coarse salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
  • 5 T cold unsalted butter, cut into tablespoons
  • 2 T extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken stock
  • 1 cup sour cream (I used light)
  • 1 large yellow or white onion, finely chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, finely diced
  • 4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 T hot Hungarian paprika (I would substitute 1 T sweet for half of the hot next time)
  • 3/4 tsp caraway seeds
  • 1/2 tsp dry thyme or 1 tsp fresh thyme leaves
  1. Preheat the oven to 425°. Season the chicken with salt and pepper and dust lightly with flour.
  2. In a deep ovenproof skillet (I used enameled cast iron), melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in the olive oil. Add the chicken and cook over high heat, turning once, until browned on both sides, 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the chicken to a plate.
  3. Meanwhile, in a food processor, pulse the 1 1/2 cups of flour with the baking powder, 1/2 teaspoon of salt and 1/4 teaspoon of pepper. Pulse in the remaining 4 tablespoons of butter until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  4. Whisk 1/2 cup of the stock with 1/2 cup of the sour cream and drizzle over the dry ingredients; pulse until a dough forms.
  5. Add the onion, bell pepper and garlic to the skillet and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 3 minutes.
  6. Return the chicken to the skillet. Stir in the paprika and caraway and cook for 30 seconds. Add the remaining 2 cups of chicken stock and 1/2 cup of sour cream and stir until smooth. Add the thyme and bring to a boil.
  7. Scoop twelve 3-tablespoon-size mounds of biscuit dough over the chicken. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake for about 20 minutes, until the sauce is bubbling and the biscuits are cooked. If biscuits are not golden, turn on the broiler and broil for about 2 minutes, until the biscuits are golden. (I omitted this step.)
  8. Serve the goulash in bowls, spooning the biscuits on top.

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Grilled Chicken Thighs with Chile-Yogurt Sauce

One of my friends has been teasing me about my fondness for chicken thighs!  I have several chicken thigh recipes to share and was initially trying to separate them with other posts… you know, to not get teased… 😉 Well, I decided to post them all consecutively instead- as a chicken thigh “festival” of sorts! 🙂 They are so versatile and tasty. Enjoy!

This quick and simple recipe results in super moist and tender chicken. The sauce provides the spiciness, so the heat level can easily be adjusted – or omitted (gasp!)- to taste.

We ate this delicious chicken with warm naan, Turkish Bulgur and Vegetable Pilaf, as well as grilled peppers, tomatoes, and red onions on the side. This recipe was adapted from a Food and Wine kebab recipe, contributed by Jimmy Bannos, Jr. of The Purple Pig in Chicago. Great!

  • 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons sweet paprika (I used Hungarian)
  • 15 boneless chicken thighs, trimmed of excess fat (for kebabs cut each thigh into 3 pieces)
  • 1 cup plain Greek yogurt (I used fat free)
  • 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon cayenne
  • 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • coarse salt
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • lemon slices or wedges, for serving, optional
  1. Season the chicken with salt and pepper.
  2. In a large bowl, whisk 1/2 cup of the olive oil with the paprika. Add the chicken and toss to coat; let stand at room temperature for 15 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, mix the yogurt, lemon juice, cayenne, crushed red pepper and the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Season with salt and black pepper and mix well.
  4. Light a grill. For kebabs: Thread 3 pieces onto each of 8 skewers. (We grilled the thighs whole.)
  5. Oil the grate and grill the chicken over moderate heat, turning occasionally, until golden brown and cooked through, about 10 minutes.
  6. Transfer the skewers to a serving platter and serve with the yogurt sauce and lemon wedges.

Note: The yogurt sauce can be refrigerated overnight.

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Shrimp with Fresh Corn Grits

We eat Southern Shrimp and Grits every year on Easter- it reminds us of our time in the beautiful sunshine while we lived in Charleston, South Carolina. It’s such a flavorful dish that isn’t popular here in New York. This year we branched out and ate this dish on Easter Eve… such a break from tradition. :/ Still wonderful! 🙂

The fresh corn in this version puts it over the top. SO good. The grated corn in the grits makes them thicker and the sautéed kernels sprinkled over the top provide wonderful texture. This recipe is from Bon Appetit, contributed by Dawn Perry. I added more fresh corn and garlic to the topping as well as sharp cheddar-gruyere melange cheese to the grits. Festive & Amazing!

Yield: Serves 6

  • 5 (small) ears of corn, husked
  • 2 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 1/4 cups whole milk
  • 1 cup grits (not instant)
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1-2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese (I used a sharp cheddar-gruyere blend), optional, to taste
  • 5 T olive oil
  • 4 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 to 3/4 teaspoon dried oregano
  • ½ to 3/4 teaspoon hot smoked Spanish paprika or ½  to 3/4 tsp. smoked paprika and a pinch of cayenne pepper
  • 2 pounds large shrimp, peeled, deveined, tails left intact
  • chopped fresh chives, for serving

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  1. Grate 3 ears of corn on the large holes of a box grater over a medium bowl, catching as much juice as possible; set aside. Cut kernels from remaining 2 ears of corn into another medium bowl; set aside.
  2. Bring broth, milk, and 1½ cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Reduce heat so liquid is at a simmer and gradually whisk in grits. Simmer, whisking often, until grits are very tender, 20–25 minutes. Mix in butter, cheese (if using), and reserved grated corn; season with salt and pepper.
  3. Fifteen minutes after you have added grits to saucepan, heat oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Cook garlic, oregano, and paprika, stirring, until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add reserved kernels and cook, stirring occasionally, until golden brown and beginning to pop, about 3 minutes.
  4. Add shrimp and cook, tossing occasionally, until cooked through, about 4 minutes.
  5. Serve shrimp and corn over grits topped with chives.

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