simple dinners: go-ahead-and-make-it risotto, healthy (!) buffalo chicken salad

I haven't been around much in the past week or so. The kitchen hasn't been churning out much of note, thanks to an incredibly busy work schedule, a weekend trip, and some disgusting weather that has me just wanting to curl into a ball on the couch and not think about cooking. And trying to grill in the rain is just no fun. Believe me, I tried it last night.

Sometimes we just get busy and life takes over, and one of the first things to go out the window is dinner. So I'm going to throw out a few suggestions for simple dinners that can be made even when you don't have much of anything in the house and just do not have the time or energy to hit up the grocery store.

One of my favorites is risotto. And I know what you're thinking. Um, risotto? An easy, I-don't-want-to-cook meal? Well, truth is it might take a little longer than tossing a Lean Cuisine into the microwave, but it can usually be made with things you have in the pantry and it's certainly comfort food. Risotto, to me, is like the dinner equivalent of Cream of Wheat cereal. Filling, stick-to-your-ribs, and just really freaking good.

Ever since I've stopped being so anal about my risotto, it's tasted better! I read in Everyday Food that, contrary to popular belief, you DON'T have to stir the damn thing until your arm falls off, and that miraculously enough, the addition of your salty tears to the thickening rice is not a required ingredient. Who knew?

Simple Weeknight Risotto for Two

1 cup Arborio rice (don't try this with Uncle Ben's Steam-in-Bag. It won't work. I promise you.)
1 carton chicken stock (You'll want at least 3-4 cups, although you may not use it all.)
1/2 a medium yellow onion, chopped
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 cup grated parmesan cheese
Olive oil
Salt and Pepper

1. Coat the bottom of a medium saucepan with olive oil, and saute the chopped onion until tender. Meanwhile, in a small saucepan, heat your chicken stock.
2. Add the rice to the onion and oil, stirring until rice begins to look translucent, about 2 minutes.
3. Add the wine to the rice and onion mixture, and stir until wine is absorbed (if you don't have wine, just use a little stock).
3. Add roughly 1 cup of warmed chicken stock. Stir into rice over medium-low heat, and then let sit until most of the liquid is absorbed. Stir occasionally.
4. When the first cup of liquid is absorbed, add another and repeat Step 3. Continue doing this until rice is at desired consistency - it should be soft and tender, but still retain it's shape and a bit of a bite.
5. Stir in most of the parmesan cheese and about a tablespoon of butter.

At this point, you can pretty much throw in whatever you like. I like to caramelize some zucchini, add some baby peas, and then stir that all in at the end. For some protein, add chopped cooked chicken or some sliced prosciutto. Or, toss in a few different types of mushroom (I like maitake). It takes a little bit of time, but it's a simple recipe and it's so worth the effort.

I made this Monday, and simply heated some frozen baby peas to add to the mixture. Simple, easy, and filling. Also, a terrible picture, but you get the idea.

Another favorite, and a go-to lunch meal for me, is Healthy Buffalo Chicken Salad. I know, I know, this sounds like an oxymoron. And if you've ever been the lucky recipient of a Buffalo Chicken Salad (which, irritatingly and incomprehensibly, is often labeled on menus as a "Buffalo Chix Salad"), you've no doubt been confronted by strips of crunchy, deep-fried chicken, in a salad heaped with shredded cheese, creamy and chunky blue cheese dressing, and enough fat grams to even make Paula Deen surrender in agony.

My version, friends, is much much better. And I find it to be a good cure for the "I want chicken wings!" blues. These strike me frequently. MUCH too frequently.

Healthy Buffalo Chicken Salad for Two

8 oz. raw chicken strips, cut into 1-inch chunks
1 oz. block Maytag blue cheese
2-3 cups greenleaf romaine lettuce
1/4 of a red onion, sliced thinly
1/4 cup carrot matchsticks (which I buy precut, 'cause I'm lazy, but you can feel free to chop up a carrot or two yourself. Overacheiver.)
Frank's RedHot Buffalo Wing Sauce

1. Coat a small saute pan with olive oil or cooking spray and saute the chicken over medium-high heat. When chicken is almost cooked through, add about 2 tbsp of Wing Sauce and toss to coat. Let chicken cook in sauce until cooked through.
2. Meanwhile, chop your romaine into bite-size pieces. Place in bowl with carrot matchsticks and sliced onion.
3. Drizzle wing sauce over the veggies as your dressing.
4. Crumble the blue cheese and scatter liberally over the salad. Top with cooked chicken.

Because you're not using "dressing", this salad wins lots of points for healthfulness. And because you've got the creamy hunks of Maytag blue, you won't miss it at all. If you must, add a little bit of olive oil or red wine vinegar to make the salad feel less naked, but I confess to being the biggest dressing freak in the world and I don't think you need it. I just don't!

This salad clocks in at 4 Weight Watchers Points, meaning you can enjoy it with a nice hunk of bread, some soup, or even a glass of wine. Why not?

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