Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos

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During the holidays, most of us attend multiple gatherings. Chances are at least one of those parties will be a potluck dinner. The first time I made a dish for a potluck was during my first Christmas living in New York City. My department at the Associated Press had a holiday gathering. I decided to make nacho dip.

I started with taco meat, then added cheese. I should have stopped at that point but I kept adding things. By the time I was finished it contained a number of ingredients including black olives and shredded lettuce. I thought it tasted good, but it looked like yellow-grey cottage cheese with random chunks throughout. It was more of a goop than a dip.

I took it to the party and the only person to try it was the one known as “the crazy old man” in the editorial art department.

My culinary skills have improved since then and for this recipe, I create a potluck dish made in a slow cooker. It’s a spicy shredded chicken mix that can be filling in a soft taco or eaten alone like a chili.

I made these for the first of many Christmas parties this year. They went over well and I actually had some leftovers that made for a couple of tasty lunches. I really like this kind of cooking – throw it all in a pot and let it go. These kind of recipes are perfect for the holidays. While it cooks all gift wrapping and even a couple other dishes can can be made just in time it to be ready for the party.

I really love crock pot tacos. A modest amount of meat combined with a few other ingredients can go a long way.

These were perfect for the party. There were two different nacho dips placed right beside them. It wasn’t long before I saw a couple of guys smother their tacos in the nacho dip, completely ignoring the sour cream and shredded cheese intended as the garnish. It doesn’t take long for a couple of hungry dudes to get inventive at a potluck – especially when there's beer around.

Eat well, cook often ...

Makes 40 tacos; 4 hours, 30 minutes
5 lbs Chicken breast, boneless
1 can Tomatoes, diced, drained (28 oz)
1 can Black beans, rinsed (15 oz)
1 can Corn, drained (15 oz)
1 C Onion, diced
1 C Tomato sauce (15 oz)
2 JalapeƱos, sliced
2 Tbs Chili powder
1 Tbs Cumin

Assemble and cook
Place chicken, tomatoes, black beans, corn, onion, tomato sauce, jalapenos, chili powder, cumin, salt and pepper to taste in a slow cooker and mix together. Cook on high for 4 hours.

Shred chicken, serve
Remove chicken from pot and shred with a fork, then stir shredded meat back into mixture. Serve on flour tortillas and garnish with cheese and sour cream.

Italian Meat Lovers Pizza

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I was at the store recently and I noticed a package of salami in the cold meats section. In an instant I had a craving for a grinder that features salami, pepperoni and ceasar dressing from a local restaurant named Brevins.

(I recreated the sandwich here last summer.)

For some reason it occurred to me to try and make a pizza out of the sandwich. The secret to the grinder is the ceasar dressing - it just seems to compliment the cold cuts and adds an extra level of seasoning that literally make your mouth water.

Over the last couple of years I have made a number of gourmet pizzas and it seems as though the sauce, more than any other ingredient, determines the entire flavor profile of the pie. Traditional pizza sauce would have made this a normal meat lovers pizza. The ceasar dressing really changes it and adds a tasty and unique flavor that helps this pie stand out from the usual slice.

I have to admit that hot ceasar dressing wasn’t as potent as the cool dressing on a sandwich or salad. The flavor is still good, It just didn’t have the punch that it seems to have when used in combination with fresh and crunchy lettuce.

If I were to make this again I would add the dressing and some shredded lettuce after the pie came out of the oven. This would make it more of an open face sandwich. Before doing that though, I think I would just jump in the car and head up to Brevins, the pizza was tasty but there isn't a sandwich, or pizza for that matter, within 20 miles that compares to their grinder!

Eat well, cook often ...

Make 2 12” pizzas; 30 minutes
Divide ingredients over 2 12” pizza crusts
1 C Ceasar dressing
3 C Mozzarella cheese, shredded
(Reserve small amount for final layer)
1/4 lb Pepperoni
1/4 lb Salami
1/4 C Ham diced
1/4 C Onion & bell pepper, diced

Assemble and bake pizza
On pizza crust layer ceasar dressing, most of the mozzarella, pepperoni, salami, ham, onion and bell pepper and then the remaining mozzarella. Bake in a preheated 425° oven for 7 to 10 minutes or until cheese is melted and bubbly.

Chocolate Coconut Candies

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For three full weeks I have labored in the kitchen armed with a stack of recipes from my Aunt Suzy on a quest to make as many holiday treats as possible. It’s been a great learning experience because I don’t make many sweets or desserts.

Last Saturday, I found myself drooling over a skirt steak at the grocery store like a hungry dog waiting under a table at Thanksgiving. As I cooked it up later that evening, I found myself on cloud nine – just giddy to be making something savory. That’s when I knew I had to end my treat making adventure, I had hit the wall, completely burned out on sugar, chocolate and peanut butter.

I have saved the best of Aunt Suzy’s holiday treats for last though. These candies feature a rich and sugary center wrapped in chocolate – like an edible  Christmas gift. I’m thankful to have great cooks around me like Aunt Suzy, her recipes have given me a treat making boost, and I feel like I just completed a class in creating desserts.

I'm now convinced that I don't have a sweet tooth. I love a tasty dessert but I just don’t crave sweets. I got so burnt out on making holiday treats that I HAD to cook something savory. I just lost all motivation to cook. I learned a lot making all the recipes that Aunt Suzy gave me but I was tired of treats.

Immersing myself in sweet treats for the last few weeks has given me enough knowledge to improvise. Simple techniques like using cake mix as a base or corn syrup to create a gooey filling with peanut butter chips is invaluable to me.

One of my resolutions in 2013 is to make more desserts. Even though I'd rather cook meals based around the perfectly cooked flesh of animals, I will start throwing in the sweet stuff on a regular basis.

Eat well, cook often ...

Makes 60; 45 minutes active, 2 hours cooling
1 C Butter (2 sticks)
2 lbs Powdered sugar
1 bag Coconut flakes (14 oz)
1 can Condensed milk
2 bags Chocolate chips
1/2 bar Paraffin wax

Make coconut balls
In a bowl, mix together butter, sugar, coconut and condensed milk until well incorporated. Shape into balls about the size of a walnut, place on cookie sheet. Insert a toothpick into each ball and refrigerate 1 hour.

Coat, chill and serve
In a double boiler melt chocolate chips and paraffin. Dip coconut balls into chocolate, return to cookie sheet and refrigerate another hour or until chocolate coating has hardened. Remove toothpicks and serve.

Peanut and Toffee Clusters

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This recipe is actually a modified recipe of my own from two years ago, it still qualifies as an Aunt Suzy Holiday Treat because it was adapted from a recipe of hers. The only change is the toffee bits, the original recipe calls for mini marshmallows.

Two years ago I substituted the marshmallows for candy corn while making a Halloween treat. For Christmas, I thought what the heck, why not try toffee. It worked well, in fact, so well that I think the toffee bits make this treat a cut above the candy corn or marshmallow versions.

After making this I thought that this is the type of mixture that becomes the inner layer of a candy bar or the heart of a delicious treat made by a chocolatier. In the future, I’m going to modify it a little and mold it so that it can be coated with another layer of yummy goodness – or be the center layer of some type of decadent desert. All this treat making has got my wheels spinning. It’s only a matter of time before I put out some original treats of my own.

This is the second time I have posted this recipe. I made it available previously to go along with a story that ran in the Fort Wayne Journal Gazette about my blog.

Here is a link to the story.

Eat well, cook often ...

Makes 30 treats; 2 hours 30 minutes
1 lb Vanilla candy coating
1/2 C Creamy peanut butter
1 1/2 C Dry roasted peanuts
1 C Crispy rice cereal
1 C English toffee bits

Melt candy coating, stir in peanut butter
In a microwave or a double boiler melt the vanilla candy coating, once completely melted stir in peanut butter.

Stir in peanuts, crispy rice cereal and toffee
Take mixture off heat and stir in peanuts, crispy rice cereal and toffee bits until well incorporated.

Scoop and cool
In tablespoon-sized scoops, place mixture in clumps on cookie sheet covered in wax paper. Makes about 30 treats. Put in a cool place for 2 hours to let candies set completely, then serve.

Homemade Thin Mints

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This is one of the many recipes I have been making over the last two weeks that are straight from the archives of my Aunt Suzy. When I picked this recipe out of a pile of hand written cards I thought it would be super simple. Once I had assembled everything to begin making it I became suspect.

Melting chocolate chips without another agent like wax or heavy cream results in a frosting-like texture rather than a runny texture. This doesn’t effect flavor but it makes it much more labor intensive. My apprehension was warranted. When the chocolate was melted down it was to thick to dip the wafers. I had to spread it on each one individually. I cursed and swore at the 60-plus little cookies as I topped them. Aunt Suzy would have washed my mouth with soup if she had been there.

I didn’t think they were right for Behind the Bites until they cooled and I ate one. They taste just like Girl Scout Thin Mint cookies, and if your not paying attention, you’ll eat them like they were potato chips - it’s worth the work.

As I mention in the introduction, I got this recipe from my Aunt Suzy. On the bottom of the card it was written on, it said “TV, Sandra Lee.” This meant that she got it while watching TV and had decided to jot it down. The recipe on the card called for two bags of chocolate chips and a tablespoon of butter and peppermint extract for each bag.

I was alarmed right away.

A tablespoon of any extract will pretty much blow any other flavor out of the water in a batch of this size. I looked up the original recipe online. The extract amount was a typo from Aunt Suzy, it called for just a teaspoon per bag of chips. It also said to melt the chocolate and pour it over 24 wafers instead of dip them, Aunt Suzy must have felt like pouring the chocolate would have been a waste, and I kind of agree.  One bag was enough topping to spread on 60 plus vanilla wafers.

There were challenges for me in making this treat when it came to a nice runny chocolate, but one things is for sure - these do taste just like Thin Mints. If you're a fan, you must try this as a holiday treat. Just be prepared to spread the topping on 60 little cookies.

Eat well, cook often ...

Make 60 to 65 small cookies; 1 Hour
1 bag Chocolate chips (11.5 oz)
1 Tbs Butter
1 tsp Peppermint extract
1 box Vanilla wafers

Make coating
In a double boiler heat chocolate, butter and peppermint extract until completely melted, stirring often. Keep over low heat until next step is finished.

Coat cookies, cool and serve
Place a dab of peppermint chocolate mixture onto wafer and spread to cover top. Place on cookie sheets lined with wax paper and let cool completely, then serve.

Salted Peanut Chews

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This is the second of “Aunt Suzy’s Holiday Treats.” Like the first, it features a base made from a box of yellow cake mix.

It would be easy to measure out all of the ingredients and mix them together, but the convenience of opening a box and being done with that part is hard to resist, it saves time and eliminates the risk of screwing up the measurements. The mix combined with the butter and egg results in a sugary-rich cookie-like base that provides a decadent foundation for the layer of mini marshmallows and peanutty topping. Overall, this treat is pretty much amazing, kind of like a home-made candy bar. Awesome!

I never would have thought to use a cake mix like this. I’m glad I’m sticking with the original recipes while making these treats – just to see how the individual ingredients effect the final dish. I’m starting to see that by using a different cake mix, melting chip and/or nut this treat could be transformed into a number of delicious snacks similar in make up but totally different in taste. There will be many more sweet treats here at Behind the Bites in 2013.

After making the first few of Aunt Suzy’s treats I have a hundred ideas of how I could create a custom-made treat. So far, the mystery and intimidation of deserts is really fading away. I have to admit though, my sweet tooth and desire for sugar hasn’t changed. I’ll take a medium-rare ribeye over any desert, anytime. I ate as many sweets as I wanted as a kid and never developed that desert-craving that so many are effected by. Don’t get me wrong, I love a great desert, I just don’t get cravings for them. I do however get cravings for grilled or fried food, which can be worse for your health than a sweet tooth. Have your Twinkies, I'll take a steak and fries!

Eat well, cook often ...

Make 32 treats; 30 minutes active,
2 hours cooling
1 box Yellow cake mix
1/2 C Butter melted
1 Egg
3 C Mini marshmallows
1/4 C Butter
1 Pkg Peanut butter chips (10 oz)
2/3 C Light corn syrup
2 tsp Vanilla extract
2 C Dry roasted peanuts
2 C Crispy rice

Make crust
In a bowl, combine cake mix, butter and egg until a thick dough forms. Pat down flat into a cake pan and bake in a preheated 350° oven, until light golden in color, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add marshmallows
Top with mini marshmallows and return to oven for 3 to 4 minutes more or until marshmallows are puffy and slightly golden brown. Remove and chill in refrigerator for 10 minutes.

Make topping, spread, cool and serve
In a saucepan over medium heat stir together butter, peanut butter chips, corn syrup and vanilla until chips are melted and mixture is creamy smooth. Stir in peanuts and crispy rice cereal. Spread topping over marshmallows and crust, refrigerate until cooled completely. Cut and serve.

Cherry Coconut Pecan Squares

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Recently I turned to one of my elders for some direction on holiday treats. I don’t make many deserts, so I thought the best way to learn was to seek the culinary expertise of my Aunt Suzy, a certified sweet treat Jedi.

I made two visits to her kitchen where she allowed me a small glimpse into her recipe archives – hundreds of recipes contained in binders, boxes and books that, combined with her experience, is a treasure trove of cooking knowledge. I emerged from my visits to her Mecca of cookery with a pile of recipes to make over the next few weeks for Christmas. Some are traditional, others are not, all are unique and 100 percent delicious.

This recipe is the first of “Aunt Suzy’s Holiday Treats,” It was written on a piece of stationary and calls for a frosting mix that hasn’t been sold on shelves since the 1970s. (I found a substitute from the original manufacturer.) The dish utilizes a cake mix and pre-made filling, making it simple to create and I challenge anyone who creates it to eat just one.

I’m amazed at the little bits of information I’m able to pick up making sweets like this. I know I will be using the cake mix foundation from this recipe again, it really makes for a rich base to pile other sweet flavors onto.

This treat reminded my of cherry cheesecake, it was so rich and the cherries really cut through the rest of the yummy flavors. The crunchy coconut pecan topping added nice texture and is the perfect compliment to the other layers. This treat is a must try, it’s easy to make and packs a delicious flavor.

Eat well, cook often ...

Makes 32; 45 minutes cooking; 2 hours cooling
1 box Yellow cake mix
1/4 C Butter melted
2 Eggs
1 Can Cherry pie filling
1 C Coconut flakes
3/4 C Brown sugar
1/2 C Pecans chopped
1/2 C Flour
3 Tbs Butter

Make dough for base
In a bowl mix together cake mix, eggs and melted butter into a ball of dough, then press into a prepared 9” x 13” baking pan.

Make topping
In another bowl mix together coconut, brown sugar, flour and pecans until well combined, then blend in butter with a pastry cutter until well incorporated.

Assemble, bake, let cool and serve
Spread cherry topping on dough base, then sprinkle coconut pecan topping over cherry filling. Bake in a preheated 350° oven for 30 to 35 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely, 2 hours. Cut into squares and serve.