- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 22, 2005

Winter is the time to warm the house by preparing a nourishing meal and visiting with friends. Invite some folks you haven’t seen in a while for dinner. No need to dash in and out the door to the grill, for dinner will briefly cook in the oven.

The star of this menu is fresh salmon. You pan-roast it with baby spinach leaves (pre-washed, of course, so there’s no need to rinse) and coconut. The pan juices are so delicious that you won’t want to waste a spoonful.

Serve the salmon and spinach on top of steamed jasmine rice to sop up all the liquid. Savor it all with chopsticks and a spoon. If you prefer an intense coconut flavor, use coconut milk instead of cream. For a lighter touch, use chicken broth rather than cream and add 1 teaspoon of freshly grated lemon zest.

For dessert, another great recipe emerges from the oven. This three-layer cake brings together peanut butter and chocolate.

Sandwich chunks of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups between the cake layers, and scatter more on top. You can also bake the cake with chunky peanut butter, or peanut butter with chocolate in it, in place of the smooth kind. With a cup of coffee, this cake is a terrific way to end the meal.



Five time-shaving hands-off meals from your oven: You’re in the house but you don’t have time to cook. Just prep these meals and let the oven do the work for you. For best results, use a heavy Dutch oven with a lid.

• Pot roast. Coat a boneless chuck roast with flour, salt and pepper. Sear on both sides in a little oil in a heavy pan, arrange peeled onions underneath the roast, then cover and cook slowly at 300 degrees for about 3 hours.

• Chicken and gravy. It’s cream-of-mushroom soup like mom used to make. The recipe is on the can of soup. Brown chicken breasts in a little oil or butter, then add sliced fresh mushrooms, a can of soup, a can of liquid and seasonings of your choice (pepper, bay leaf, etc.). Cook slowly, covered, at 300 degrees for 2 to 3 hours. For company, stir in a tablespoon or two of sherry at the end.

• Pork chops and gravy. Same as above, selecting lean, trimmed pork chops no more than 1 inch thick. Check the chops after 30 minutes to see if they are cooked through.

• Vegetable soup or chili. Brown the meat on top of the stove, add the veggies and broth, then cover the pan and place it in the oven to simmer at 300 degrees for 3 to 4 hours.

• Tender roasted chicken. Season a cleaned whole chicken with salt, pepper and olive oil. Place a peeled onion or half a lemon in the cavity. Roast at 425 degrees until the chicken has browned all over. Reduce the heat to 300 degrees and let it cook slowly until quite tender, about 2 hours.

Oven-roasted salmon with spinach and coconut

The preparation time is 15 minutes, and the cooking time is 9 to 12 minutes.

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 pounds salmon fillets, cut into 6 pieces (5 to 6 ounces each)

½ teaspoon seasoned salt

1 (5-ounce) bag baby spinach

1/4 cup heavy whipping cream

2 to 3 tablespoons sweetened flaked coconut

Pour olive oil into a large ovenproof skillet and heat it over medium-high heat. Season the salmon pieces with the seasoned salt on both sides. When olive oil is hot, add the salmon and cook it until lightly browned, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Remove salmon from skillet, and set it aside.

Add spinach to pan juices in skillet. Pour cream over spinach and sprinkle coconut on top. Place salmon pieces back in skillet on top of spinach; place skillet on center rack of preheated 400-degree oven. Bake salmon until it is opaque and juices are bubbling, 7 to 8 minutes. Serve at once. Makes 6 servings.

Triple-decker peanut butter cake

The preparation time is 10 minutes, the baking time is 18 to 20 minutes, the cooling time is 25 minutes, and the assembly time is 10 minutes.

CAKE:

Vegetable oil cooking spray for misting the pans

Flour for dusting the pans

1 (18.25-ounce) package plain yellow cake mix

1/3 cup smooth peanut butter

1/3 cup vegetable oil

3 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla

FROSTING:

38 bite-size Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

4 tablespoons (half a stick) butter, at room temperature

1/4 cup smooth peanut butter

4 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted

About ½ cup warm milk, divided

2 teaspoons vanilla

Lightly mist three 9-inch round cake pans with vegetable oil cooking spray, then dust them with flour. Shake out excess flour. Set pans aside.

Place cake mix, peanut butter, oil, eggs and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Add 11/3 cup water, then beat with an electric mixer on low speed until blended, 30 seconds.

Stop machine and scrape down the side of bowl with a rubber spatula. Increase mixer speed to medium, and beat 2 minutes longer, scraping down side again, if necessary. Batter should be well-blended. Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, smoothing it out with a rubber spatula. Place pans on center rack of preheated 350-degree oven side by side, or, if oven is not large enough, place two on center rack and the third pan in center of the highest rack.

Bake cakes until they spring back when lightly pressed with a finger, 18 to 20 minutes. Check pan on highest rack first, as it will bake most quickly and may need to be rotated to a lower rack while it bakes. Remove cakes from oven; place on wire racks to cool for 10 minutes. Run a dinner knife around edge of each layer and invert each onto a rack, then invert them again onto another rack so that cakes are right side up. Allow cakes to cool completely, 15 minutes longer.

Meanwhile, place 28 of the peanut butter cups in the freezer for 15 to 20 minutes so that they will be easier to chop, then finely chop them and set aside with the whole peanut butter cups.

For the frosting, place butter and peanut butter in a large mixing bowl and beat with an electric mixer on low speed until creamy, 30 seconds. Add 2 cups confectioners’ sugar, 1/4 cup milk and vanilla, and beat on low until mixture is combined, 30 seconds.

Add 1½ cups more confectioners’ sugar and remaining 1/4 cup milk, and beat frosting until it is smooth and spreadable, 30 seconds. Then increase mixer speed to high and beat, adding remaining ½ cup of sugar a little at a time until frosting is thickened and fluffy, 1 minute longer.

To assemble the cake, place one cake layer, right side up, on a serving plate and spread some of frosting over top. Press half of the chopped peanut butter cups into this frosting, distributing them evenly. Place a second cake layer, right side up, on top of first. Spread some of the frosting over top. Press remaining chopped peanut butter cups into frosting.

Place the third cake layer, right side up, on top of second layer, then frost the top smoothly and generously. Frost side of cake with smooth, clean strokes. Place remaining whole peanut butter cups decoratively around edge of cake. Store cake in a cake saver or under a cake dome at room temperature for up to 1 day or in the refrigerator for up to 4 days. Makes 12 servings.

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