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TODAY

Saturday, May 25

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Andrew has written about a group of friends called the Movie Dictators in the past. There are around 16 members who take turns picking a night once a month to show two movies to the group. The host picks two movies, decides on a theme, makes food, arranges props or costumes, and nobody finds out what the movies are until just before the DVD or videotape gets popped into the machine.

This weekend was our turn to host and we were delighted to foist two movies we'd picked up at a truck stop in Indiana on our friends. They cost us $3.33 each so we weren't exactly expecting mind-blowing cinema. But we did know that bad films would cause our friends to work up quite a hunger. Watching bad films makes you hungry. It's all that groaning and shouting at the television, I think.

Our theme was "Braaains! But no zombies." And while I had the urge to track down some sweetbreads and make our friends eat them, I knew that there was no way that I was going to eat them myself. So to go with our movies — The Brain That Wouldn't Die and The Mind Snatchers — we decided to pick out foods that were good for keeping your brain healthy. I knew that leafy greens were good as was dark chocolate. But I also knew we'd need to come up with something more to keep this group of hungry movie fans from eating us alive.*

So we did our research and came up with a list of healthy foods. As we were discussing beta-carotene and anti-oxidants and a slew of vitamins I began thinking about these movies again. And I realized that we were going to need at least a few dishes that were comfort foods to help everyone get through the second movie. (Christopher Walken, as weird as he is, isn't enough to carry a bad film.) So we created a list of foods that were either "smart" or "not so smart."

On the "smart" list was a side of smoked salmon (which we did ourselves — I'll pass along information on smoking foods in a future column), baked chicken tenderloins rolled in organic cereal, sauteed spinach, fruit salad, fruit smoothies and chopped fresh veggies. On the "not so smart" list were macaroni and cheese, tuna-noodle casserole and all of our purchased and potlucked desserts. Today I'll share recipes for the sauteed spinach, baked chicken tenderloins, cheater-way macaroni and cheese, and tuna noodle casserole that is just like mom's.

Sauteed Spinach
I hated spinach growing up as a kid. It wasn't until I was at a friend's house who served up some pumpernickel-rye bread and store-bought spinach dip that I began to second-guess my disdain for Popeye's other true love. But it was still more than 10 years before I got the desire to cook it myself. I had grown to accept fresh spinach in salads or on bagels. I'd gotten used to it when it was chopped up and cooked with artichoke hearts and turned into a tasty dip. But I'd had enough cold portions of canned spinach put onto my plate with the admonition that "You're not leaving this table until your plate is clean" that it took a while to eliminate my gag reflex when thinking of cooked spinach. But I'm glad I got over that. And this is the simplest way to prepare it at home. I would suggest purchasing a salad spinner if you're going to make spinach at home. I swore against it for a long time but I'm delighted that Andrew grew annoyed with my stubbornness and came home with one. It's made so many food preparations significantly easier. And since spinach grows in sandy soil, you're going to need to either spend time rinsing and then shaking dry each leaf, or you can wash and spin a batch easily and quickly.

You'll need:
2 pounds of fresh spinach leaves
3-4 tablespoons of olive oil
3 cloves of garlic, minced
1 medium onion, sliced
1/4 cup of apple juice, chicken or veggie broth, or water with a little flavored vinegar added (balsamic or sherry)
salt and pepper to taste

Begin by breaking off the stem just below the leaf. If you have small tender leaves that are smaller than your palm, you can skip this, but the larger the leaves grow, the woodier the stem. If the leaves are really large, tear them into pieces and place everything in your salad spinner. Once the spinner is half full, fill it with cold water and swish everything around. Drain and repeat. If the water is still darkened or gritty the second time, do it a third time. Spin the spinach dry. Place a large skillet over medium heat. Once it gets to temperature add the olive oil, garlic, and onion and stir. Once the onion has cooked until translucent, pile on the spinach leaves and add the liquid. You'll likely have an over-full skillet, but don't worry. Just add your lid and let it sit for 2-3 minutes. Stir it with a wooden spoon, re-cover and let it cook for another 2-3 minutes. This time when you lift the lid you should notice that the pile of greens have decreased in size by at least half. Toss again and cook for another 2-3 minutes. Now when you take off the lid you should see a smallish pile of greens in the center of your pan. Tear off a small corner of a leaf and taste before seasoning with salt and pepper. The good thing is that you'll get at least 12 servings from this but each serving is about 1 large spoonful of cooked spinach.

Baked Chicken Tenderloins
2 pounds of chicken tenderloins, or chicken breasts cut into strips
2 eggs
4 tablespoons of flour
1/2 teaspoon of pepper
generous dash of pepper
generous dash of ground chile powder
sprinkle of dried mustard
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
6-8 ounces of cereal flakes crushed into small pieces, but not ground into dust

Preheat your oven to 400° F. Set up three shallow bowls or pie plates on your counter. At the end of these dishes set up a baking sheet or large baking dish that has been lightly greased or oiled. In the first bowl crack the two eggs and beat them with a fork until they're slightly bubbly and well-combined. In the second dish combine the flour, pepper, chile powder, mustard and garlic powder. Stir this with a fork until everything is well combined. Pour the cereal crumbs into the third dish. If you've purchased tenderloins that have been pre-trimmed you'll want to keep a paring knife nearby so you can trim off any bits of tendon or unwanted fat. Now, make one hand your "wet" hand and the other your "dry" for the purposes of this next part. Having one hand for dry ingredients and one hand for wet ingredients will keep you from getting a web of dough and crumbs stuck to one hand.**

Pick up your first piece of chicken in your "wet" hand and place it into the flour. Using your other, "dry" hand, sprinkle the flour over the piece of chicken. Grab a floured portion of the chicken and drag the meat through the flour until it is covered. Shake off any excess flour and place it in the egg mixture, being careful not to get your fingertips wet. Using your wet hand, dip the chicken in repeatedly until it is covered. Hold it up and let all extra egg slide off, and place it into the cereal crumbs. Using your dry hand, sprinkle the crumbs over the chicken then roll it around in the dish so it's fully covered. Place it on your greased baking sheet. Repeat this process until all of the chicken is covered. Place the baking sheet in the oven for 10 minutes. Using tongs, flip the chicken over and put it back into the oven for another 5-7 minutes. This should be enough time for the crumbs to brown and for the chicken to cook through. If you're unsure, cut into the middle of the largest piece of chicken to check its doneness. Serve with barbecue, ranch, honey mustard or any other dipping sauce you might enjoy. These can also be frozen for up to two months in freezer bags after they're cooked, and they're usually a hit with kids.

Cheater Macaroni and Cheese
8 ounces of macaroni noodles (or small shells or similar sized and shaped pasta)
1 16-ounce jar of Alfredo Sauce (like the one from Dell'Alpe)
1/4 cup of milk
1/8 pound of shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 pound of shredded edam cheese
1 teaspoon of garlic powder
1/8 pound of shredded parmesan

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Remove the lid and stir in the pasta. Cook it about two minutes less than the package dictates. Pour it into a colander to strain it. Pour the noodles into a large mixing bowl. Pour the remaining ingredients (except for the parmesan cheese) onto the top of the noodles and use a strong-handled spoon to stir everything together. Once all of the noodles are coated, pour the contents of the bowl into a casserole dish. Smooth it out with the back of your spoon and sprinkle the parmesan on top. Bake in the oven for about 20-25 minutes or until everything is warm and bubbly and and the cheese on top has browned. If the cheese doesn't brown, switch to the broiler for a minute or two, watching it constantly until the top browns but doesn't burn.

Just-Like-Mom's Tuna Noodle Casserole (as long as your mom cooked like Betty Crocker)
8 ounces of dried macaroni noodles or pasta
2 stalks of celery that have been chopped
1 small onion that has been chopped
2 tablespoons of olive oil or butter
2 tablespoons of flour
1 11 ounce can of cream of mushroom or cheddar cheese soup
3/4 cup of milk
1/2 teaspoon of ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of ground mustard
1/2 teaspoon of garlic powder
1 9 ounce can of tuna that has been drained and broken apart
1/4 cup of grated parmesan cheese
1 cup of plain potato chips

Preheat the oven to 350° F. Bring a large pot of water to boil over high heat. Remove the lid and stir in an 8-ounce package of pasta or noodles. While the water boils and the noodles cook, chop the onions and the celery. Heat a saucepan over medium heat on another burner. Add the olive oil, celery and onion, and stir until the onions turn translucent. Now add the flour and stir continuously for about 2 minutes. Pour in the soup. Fill the can about half-way with milk, slosh it around and then pour it in (easy way to get out of dirtying a measuring cup). Now add all of the spices and cook over low heat until the soup is combined and the spices are blended. Remove from the heat and stir in the tuna. Cook the noodles just a minute or two less than the package directions request, strain them and pour them into a mixing bowl. Pour the contents of the saucepan over the noodles and stir until everything is well-combined. Now pour this into a greased casserole dish and cover with the parmesan cheese. Crush the potato chips and sprinkle them over the top as well. Place in the middle of the oven for about 20-25 minutes or until the contents are bubbly and the topping has browned nicely. If the contents are done but the top hasn't browned, switch to the broiler and turn it on for just a minute or two, watching constantly. Aside from a few extra spices and substitutions, this is the recipe from the Betty Crocker Cookbook my mother gave me when I moved out.

This food, along with snacks, should serve 10 or so friends a good dinner. Especially if those friends are agitated because you've made them watch bad movies on a sunny afternoon.

*I'm sure you've figured out by now that I have a huge geek streak.

**I learned this wet hand vs. dry hand technique while watching an episode of Alton Brown's "Good Eats" program on the Food Network channel recently. It's so obvious and so simple that I literally smacked my forehead because I'd never thought of it myself. I still maintain the belief that if you are a budding cook and want to learn how to cook (as opposed to how to make a recipe) you should pick up I'm Just Here for the Food. It's full of diagrams and charts and while it has recipes, the emphasis is on technique. So even if you never follow a single one of his recipes, you'll learn why and when you use specific techniques.

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