Sides Trio: Creamed Spinach, Sticky Carrots and Tater Tot Gratin

We have all most likely used a portion of this pandemic/work from home/isolation time to explore some new hobbies or interests. Maybe you have picked up cross stitch, put together a puzzle or know the entire Netflix library by heart? I’ll admit: my biggest new hobby has been birding, a somewhat common one to people spending more time in their backyards. We’ve also been working on our back porch, and that new outdoor ceiling fan makes bird watching in the backyard all the more enjoyable and relaxing. I mean, aren’t birds just the cutest?! (Aside from my loyal silver lab, Sadie, obviously)

By the same token, many people seem to have ignited or revived an interest in cooking. I love this! Will and I rarely go more than a couple days without working in the kitchen together and this extended time at home has given us opportunity to fine-tune some of our recipes. Lately, I have turned a good deal of my focus on to a subset that sometimes doesn’t get the attention it deserves: the side dish.

Sure, we can enjoy that can of green beans, a nice side salad, boiled or grilled corn on the cob, or make potatoes mashed, baked or french-fried. But every now and then you gotta add some variety to that plate. Today I want to share with you a few of my newfound favorites – a creamed spinach that will get everyone asking for more greens, sticky carrots that are so simple and flavorful (if you think you don’t like carrots please give this a try!), and a super fun tater tot gratin that is just as super easy to throw together.

What are your go-to sides and your favorite new all-stars?

Creamed Spinach

  • 1 pound fresh leaf spinach (or one pound frozen, defrosted)
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Red pepper flakes – to taste
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 3( ½ )cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz crumbled blue cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using fresh spinach, cut or tear the leaves into strips. Don’t be too technical here – sometimes I just leave the leaves whole. They are going to massively cook down as you.  If using frozen spinach, work in bunches to squeeze all the excess water out of the spinach using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer.  Set the spinach aside.

Pressing the liquid out of frozen spinach

In a large skillet melt the butter and saute the garlic and onions, cooking on medium high for 4-5 minutes or until onions begin to soften. Add the red pepper flakes and season with salt and black pepper. 

Add the prepared spinach to the skillet.  If you are using frozen spinach, separate any clumps of spinach as you add the whole pound in.  If you are using fresh spinach, add the leaves by handfuls, letting the spinach cook down a bit before you add more. 

Once the spinach is incorporated, add the nutmeg into the skillet and season again with salt and black pepper.

Add the flour and stir it into the spinach. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is a bit nutty – this helps ensure you won’t have any raw flour flavor.

Toss the flour around so it cooks just a bit

Add the half and half and cook until just below boiling, stirring often. Reduce the heat and stir in the mozzarella, cream cheese and blue cheese. Cook for 6-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened, stirring occasionally.

Stir in Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.

Grated or shaved parmesan works great!

For an added touch, broil 3-5 minutes in an oven-safe dish.

Sticky Carrots

  • 1 ½ – 2 pounds medium-sized carrots, peeled
  • 1-2 T butter, diced
  • a few bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper black pepper

Chop the carrots into about 2-inch lengths – this is where big, thick carrots work better than smaller ones – you can use the smaller, but you may have more difficulty getting them to “stand at attention” for the remainder of the recipe. Stand the carrots up in a medium saucepan so that they are standing snug next together. You can see I didn’t completely fill my saucepan here – just make sure all the carrots stand up and are fairly sturdy.

Once your carrots are packed in, tuck the bay leaves between them – just slide/wiggle them in between several different places. Place small pats of butter on top of the carrots and season the whole saucepan well with salt and pepper. If a couple pats of butter fall down into the pan, no worries! You’ll still get the benefits of the butter as the carrots cook.  Carefully add enough water to come halfway up the carrots and put them on the heat. 

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.

Take the lid off and let the liquid reduce until there isn’t any left, about 20-30 minutes. 

A couple of my little soldiers fell down – all good!

Let the carrots sizzle gently in the remaining butter for about 5 minutes until the bottom of the carrots are sticky-brown. 

The bottom is sizzling and getting brown & delicious!

Carefully turn them out onto a plate and serve.

Tater Tot Gratin

  • Half of a 28-ounce bag of frozen tater tots
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ½ tsp thyme, chopped
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • ½ cup parmesan, grated
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 425. Coat a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray. Pour the tater tots into the baking dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the flour until combined. Whisk in the milk and grate the garlic into the saucepan. Not sure how to grate the garlic? A microplane is going to be your best friend here. Simply take a peeled garlic clove and rub it back and forth across the small grooves of the microplane. The garlic will be a little juicy and release a ton of flavor, really blending well into the cream sauce.

Add the thyme, salt and cayenne. Simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the parmesan.

Carefully pour over the tater tots.

Cooking the tater tots well before adding the cream sauce allows them to hold up a little better and provides a bit of texture

Broil the dish until browned, 3-4 minutes.

Topped with green onions or chives.

Just the recipes:

Creamed Spinach:

  • 1 pound fresh leaf spinach (or one pound frozen, defrosted)
  • 4 T unsalted butter
  • 1 medium onion, minced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • Red pepper flakes – to taste
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • ½ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
  • ¼ cup flour
  • 3( ½ )cups half-and-half
  • 1 cup mozzarella cheese
  • 4 oz cream cheese
  • 4 oz crumbled blue cheese
  • ½ cup grated Parmesan cheese

If you are using fresh spinach, cut or tear the leaves into strips.  If using frozen spinach, work in bunches to squeeze all the excess water out of the spinach using cheesecloth or a fine mesh strainer.  Set the spinach aside.

In a large skillet melt the butter and saute the garlic and onions, cooking on medium high for 4-5 minutes or until onions begin to soften.

Add the red pepper flakes and season with salt and black pepper. 

Add the prepared spinach to the skillet.  If you are using frozen spinach, separate any clumps of spinach as you add the whole pound in.  If you are using fresh spinach, add the leaves by handfuls, letting the spinach cook down a bit before you add more. 

Once the spinach is incorporated, add the nutmeg into the skillet and season again with salt and black pepper.

Add the flour and stir it into the spinach. Cook for 2-3 minutes until the aroma is a bit nutty.

Add the half and half and cook until just below boiling, stirring often.

Reduce the heat and stir in the mozzarella, cream cheese and blue cheese. Cook for 6-8 minutes or until mixture has thickened, stirring occasionally. Stir in Parmesan cheese and stir to combine.

For an added touch, broil 3-5 minutes in an oven-safe dish.

Sticky Carrots:

  • 1 ½ – 2 pounds medium-sized carrots, peeled
  • 1-2 T butter, diced
  • a few bay leaves
  • sea salt
  • freshly ground pepper black pepper

Chop the carrots into about 2-inch lengths. Stand the carrots up in a medium saucepan so that they are standing snug next together.

Once your carrots are packed in, tuck the bay leaves between them. Place small pats of butter on top of the carrots and season well with salt and pepper.  Carefully add enough water to come halfway up the carrots and put them on the heat. 

Bring to a boil, then turn the heat down to medium-low and cover with a lid. Simmer for about 20 minutes or until carrots are tender.

Take the lid off and let the liquid reduce until there isn’t any left, about 20-30 minutes. 

Let the carrots sizzle gently in the remaining butter for about 5 minutes until the bottom of the carrots are sticky-brown. 

Carefully turn them out onto a plate and serve.

Tater Tot Gratin:

  • Half of a 28-ounce bag of frozen tater tots
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 T flour
  • 1 ¼ cups milk
  • 1 garlic clove
  • ½ tsp thyme, chopped
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • Pinch of cayenne
  • ½ cup parmesan, grated
  • Green onions or chives, chopped

Preheat oven to 425. Coat a 2-quart baking dish with nonstick spray.

Pour the tater tots into the baking dish and bake for 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, melt the butter in a small saucepan over medium heat.

Whisk in the flour until combined. Whisk in the milk and grate the garlic into the saucepan. Add the thyme, salt and cayenne. Simmer until thickened, about 10 minutes.

Off the heat, stir in the parmesan.

Carefully pour over the tater tots.

Broil the dish until browned, 3-4 minutes.

Topped with green onions or chives.

Cilantro Lime Chicken and Rice

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This dish has quickly become one of my favorite easy summer dinners.  Who doesn’t love a one-pan-wonder?!  As a bonus, this dish can easily be a vegetarian option or a side dish by omitting the chicken and using veggie stock in place of the chicken broth.

What are some of your favorite summer dinners?  Leave me a comment with your thoughts!


Cilantro Lime Chicken and Rice

  • 1 pound chicken, cubed (omit for vegetarian, side dish)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 15 oz can black beans , rinsed & drained
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro chopped
  • 2 T lime juice , freshly squeezed

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large saucepan, saute the chicken in EVOO over medium heat until browned.

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Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.

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If you are going for the vegetarian or side dish options, start here!  It helps if you have a couple serious sous chefs to prep for you 😉

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In the same pan, add more EVOO if necessary and add the garlic. Saute the garlic for a couple minutes, just so it starts to toast a bit. Add the rice and do the same, stirring it around and toasting it a bit.  Look at the grains, when the outside “coat” starts to become more transparent and you can see the inner germ a bit, you are good to go!  I use this same method when making Spanish rice, it just preps the rice a bit and gives it just a bit more of a nutty flavor.

Stir in the chicken/veggie broth and bring to a boil.

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Reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the rice is cooked through.

Remove the skillet from heat and toss in the chicken (if using), black beans, cilantro and lime juice.

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Taste, adding more salt/lime juice as needed, and serve!

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Try this one out this summer – I promise it will make your menu rotation!


Full Recipe

Cilantro Lime Chicken and Rice

  • 1 pound chicken, cubed (omit for vegetarian, side dish)
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 cup rice
  • 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
  • 15 oz can black beans , rinsed & drained
  • 1/2 cup fresh cilantro chopped
  • 2 T lime juice , freshly squeezed

Season the chicken with salt and pepper.

In a large saucepan, saute the chicken in EVOO over medium heat until browned.

Remove the chicken from the pan and set aside.

In the same pan, add more EVOO if necessary and add the garlic.

Saute 1-2 minutes.

Add the rice and toast for a couple minutes.

Stir in the chicken broth and bring to a boil.

Reduce the heat, cover and let simmer for 15-20 minutes, until the rice is cooked through.

Remove the skillet from heat.

Toss in the chicken, black beans, cilantro and lime juice.

Taste, adding more salt/lime juice as needed, and serve!

Beef Stroganoff

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Baby, it’s cold outside! We just blew past those fall-like temps into the frigid winter of Gulf Coast Texas.  For a couple days at least 😉

While our winters may not be as brutal as our Northern friends, or last as long, the chilly outside still calls for warm dinners inside. In our house, that typically means either a slow-cooking something on the stove or a quick, warm, filling dinner before dark falls. This one fits the latter.

This recipe is adapted from one a friend shared with me years ago – back when we were just college babies learning to fend for ourselves. We didn’t add mushrooms and if we had there surely wouldn’t have been good wine to flavor them with! This beef stroganoff is time-tested and one I’ll happily make, good wine in hand and fond memories of friends in mind, for many years to come.

Here’s to you, Becca!

What recipe have you held on to for years?  Tell me about them!


Beef Stroganoff

  • 12 oz egg noodles
  • 6 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Worcestershire
  • 4 T flour
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • salt & pepper black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to boil.  Salt the water fairly generously and cook the egg noodles until al dente.  Set aside.

Let’s talk mushrooms for a minute:

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To start, mushroom storage.  If you purchase prepackaged mushrooms, leave them in their packaging and place them in the fridge.  If you purchase bulk mushrooms, don’t worry about cleaning them first, just place them in a paper bag and stick them in the fridge.  This allows them to breathe a bit and stay firmer longer – plastic grocery bags can cause them to fade quicker.

To clean your mushrooms, avoid running them under water. Mushrooms retain moisture like a sponge, giving them more will prevent the mushrooms from browning nicely and give more of a chewy texture to them once cooked. Instead, use a damp paper towel and brush off any excess dirt.  Slice or chop them in similar sizes so that they cook up evenly.

Finally, don’t crowd the mushrooms in your pan and wait a bit before salting them.  Give your fungi some room to groove as they cook so that they saute and brown rather than steam.  Salt will bring out the moisture in the mushrooms, which is true for any veggie.  With mushrooms though, you want them to retain the moisture for a bit so that, again, they brown rather than steam. I’m willing to be that those that don’t care for mushrooms have had ones that lean more towards the steamed, flavorless side of cooking.  Let’s avoid that!  Mushrooms are like a sponge, right?  They’ll take on some of whatever flavor you give them but you want to give them a chance to develop their unique nutty, earthy flavors first.

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If you have a mushroom-loving family, you can most certainly start the mushrooms in a larger skillet and once they are beginning to brown, add the ground beef and cook it all together in the same skillet.  Just remember, you want to give the mushrooms a little time to brown up before salting them. I live in a house divided – one of us says they do not like mushrooms.  It’s okay, we can’t all be perfect 😉 I’m willing to go with it on this one though – I kind of like the presentation of having the sauteed mushrooms on top of the stroganoff rather than all mixed together.

Back to the recipe! In a medium skillet, cook the mushrooms in just a touch of olive oil or butter. Once the mushrooms begin to brown and release their liquid, season them with salt and pepper. Reduce the heat and let the mushrooms continue to cook as you move on to the beef. I may be biased… but a splash of hearty red wine never hurts here.  You know the rule though – make sure it’s a wine you would drink as the flavor intensifies as it cooks. Worcestershire sauce is also a nice addition to the earthy veggies.

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Saute the onions, garlic and ground beef in a large skillet over medium heat.  When the meat begins to brown and the veggies soften, season the pan with Worcestershire, salt and pepper to your liking.

If your ground beef was fairly lean, add a tablespoon or so of butter to the pan. Add the flour and stir to absorb the fat and cook the flour a bit. Stir in the beef broth and cook until slightly thickened, about 5-10 minutes.

Stir in the sour cream and check your seasoning, adding salt and pepper as you like. Let the stroganoff simmer until heated all the way through.

Spoon the stroganoff over the egg noodles and top with mushrooms.  Enjoy!

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Full Recipe

Beef Stroganoff

  • 12 oz egg noodles
  • 6 oz fresh mushrooms, sliced
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 3-4 cloves garlic, chopped
  • Worcestershire
  • 4 T flour
  • 2 cups beef broth
  • 1 cup sour cream
  • salt & pepper black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil.

Cook egg noodles in boiling water until done; drain.

In a medium skillet, cook mushrooms in just a little olive oil.

Once the mushrooms release their liquid and begin to brown, season with salt and pepper.

Saute the ground beef, garlic and onions in a large skillet over medium heat until the meat begins to brown and the veggies soften.

Season the meat with Worcestershire sauce.

If the beef was fairly lean, add a couple tablespoons butter to the skillet.

Add the flour and stir to absorb the fat and cook the flour.

Stir in beef broth and cook until slightly thickened, about 5-10 minutes.

Stir in the sour cream,  season to taste with salt and pepper.

Continue cooking until sauce is hot all the way through.

Serve sauce over egg noodles and top with mushrooms.

Greens

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My appreciation for greens has definitely developed over time.  I didn’t really grow up eating them down in South Texas, I’m talking wayyyy South Texas, and surely didn’t know how to cook them.  After a couple… interesting attempts in cooking greens (ask my sister about her misadventure with red pepper sometime!) and finding a couple places that I now must always order them (looking at you Max’s Wine Dive) I have created a recipe that works for me and Will.

You caught that, right?  This recipe is what works for us.  Greens aren’t very “technical” but more of a process that you feel out until you find what you like.  We prefer a tangy, spicy batch of greens so there is quite a bit of vinegar and some dried peppers here.  When it’s all said and done there is typically a shot of Tabasco or pepper sauce shaken over the top of the bowl.  You can also play with the fat base by swapping out the bacon for pancetta, ham hock, leftover turkey legs from Thanksgiving dinner, or skipping it all together for a vegetarian option (in which case you would sub the chicken stock for veggie stock as well).

So how do you like your greens? Let me know what tricks you have when cooking them or the places you like to order greens.


Greens

  • 1-2 bunches of any green – collard, mustard, turnip
  • 3-4 strips bacon, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • chicken stock, up to 1 quart
  • 2-3 T apple cider vinegar
  • 1-2 T Worcestershire sauce
  • red pepper flakes
  • 2-3 dried peppers, such as chile de arbol
  • 1-2 T sugar

Rinse the greens well, as they are often pretty gritty.  An easy way to do this is to simply fill your kitchen sink with cool water, chop off the very base of the greens to separate the individual leaves, then submerge the leaves into the water. The grit will fall to the bottom of the sink while your clean leaves stay at the top.

A quick note on the greens: any green will work.  For this recipe, I found both mustard (picture on the left) and collards (pictured on the right) that looked good, so I used a bunch of both!

Leave your knife tucked away for now and just tear off the leafy greens from the stems, trimming the leaves into strips and leaving some small stems.  The easiest way I have found is to fold the leaf in half over the stem and rip from the base of the leaf up towards the top.  Once the whole leaf is removed from the stem I just shred the leaf up a bit. Will’s not a fan of the stems, but I like a few so as I tear I may leave a few of the thinner stems in the mix.  As the greens cook, the stems leave a little “bite” to the dish.

Give the greens another rinse in cool water just for good measure then set them aside to dry a bit as you proceed.

In a large, heavy pot saute the bacon. Or the pancetta.  Or brown up the ham hock/turkey leg a bit, letting some of the meat fall off into the pot.  If you are skipping the meat on this one, drizzle some olive oil around the pot to get your veggies started sauteing.  Once your fat of choice starts browning, toss in the onions and garlic and season with black pepper (add salt if not using meat).  Saute until the veggies are tender.

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Working with a handful at a time, add the greens to the pot.  They will start to release water and shrink up as they cook down.  Stir and add more handfuls until all the greens are in the pot.

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Cover the greens with chicken/vegetable stock.  Depending on how many bunches of greens you started with this may take up to a quart of stock. Add a healthy splash of apple cider vinegar.  I also like to add a tablespoon or so of Worcestershire sauce here for a little depth of flavor and color. Season with salt and pepper and add your heat – red pepper flakes and/or dried peppers.  I like both.  I add about a teaspoon of red pepper flakes and 2-3 dried chile de arbol.  Play around with the heat, but remember 1) that we like spicier greens and 2) that the spice will develop as the greens cook so you may want to start on the lighter side and add as you go.

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Add 1-2 tablespoons of white sugar.  This will help to balance some of the bitterness of the greens.

The stock is now developing into what is called pot liquor (or sometimes spelled pot likker).  Bring the pot liquor up to a boil, then reduce the heat to a simmer and put a lid on the pot.

Simmer for an hour or two, tasting the pot liquor as it cooks, adjusting the seasoning and vinegar/heat levels to your liking and checking the tenderness of the greens.

The greens can continue to cook as long as you like until they reach your desired tenderness.  On average, I typically cook them for a couple of hours.

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What do you like about greens?  Are you a tangy or a spicy greens lover?  What do you do with your leftover greens? Leave me a comment with your opinions – and stay tuned for a great greens leftover recipe!


Full Recipe

Greens

  • 1-2 bunches of any green – collard, mustard, turnip
  • 3-4 strips bacon, chopped
  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2-3 cloves garlic, minced
  • chicken stock, up to 1 quart
  • 2-3 T apple cider vinegar
  • 1-2 T Worcestershire sauce
  • red pepper flakes
  • 2-3 dried peppers, such as chile de arbol
  • 1-2 T sugar

Rinse the greens well, often they are pretty gritty.

Tear the leafy parts off the stems, trimming into strips and leaving some small stems.

Set the greens aside and let them dry a bit.

In a large, heavy pot saute the bacon.

When the bacon starts getting some color, toss in the onions & garlic.

Saute until the veggies are tender.

Working a handful or two at a time, add the greens to the pot, they will start to release water and cook down.

Stir and add more handfuls until all greens are in the pot.

Cover the greens with chicken stock.  Depending on how many bunches you started with this may take up to a quart.  

Add a healthy splash (a couple tablespoons) of apple cider vinegar and/or Worcestershire.  

Add salt & pepper, red pepper flakes and dried peppers to your taste.  *Keep in mind that the spice will develop as it simmers, so you may want to go light on the heat at first.

Add 1-2 T sugar to balance the bitterness of the greens.

Let the stock, aka pot liquor, come up to a boil and then reduce the heat to a simmer and put a lid on the pot.  

Simmer for about an hour or two, tasting the pot liquor as it cooks and adjusting seasoning to your preference.

The greens can continue to cook until they are as tender as you like them.