Sweet Potato and Sage Orzotto

I didn't share a single Thanksgiving recipe with you guys. As a matter of fact, for nearly the entire month of November I was MIA. I could make a bunch of excuses about how busy I've been at work, or that my parents were in town, or that I was responsible for a lot of the Thanksgiving meal we all had together.

Or, I could just share a post-Thanksgiving, we-need-to-use-these-sweet-potatoes-soon dish in this "orzotto." My heart was set on sweet potato risotto, but guess who's out of risotto rice? Orzo works as a great risotto substitute in a pinch; since it's a pasta it's just about as starchy as Arborio rice (risotto rice). The trick is in the very slow cooking with very hot broth, allowing the orzo to fully absorb the last addition of broth before adding more. A touch of sage and a touch of Parmesan, and maybe you will want to serve this on Thanksgiving next year, and not just to use up whatever raw ingredients you have left over from the big day.

You will need:

2 tablespoons butter
1 medium sweet potato, peeled and chopped into small cubes
1 small onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups dried orzo
3 cups hot chicken broth
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 tablespoons chopped fresh sage
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large saute pan over medium heat, melt butter. Add sweet potatoes, onions and garlic and cook, stirring frequently, until all have softened. Add orzo and toast for 2-3 minutes.

Gradually add the hot chicken broth one cup at a time, waiting after each addition until the orzo has fully absorbed the broth and stirring constantly.

Once all broth has been added and orzo is tender, season with salt and pepper, add cream, parmesan and sage. Serve immediately.

One Giant Cookie

Even though this is just one cookie, this is so not a cookie for one. Jenny over at Picky Palate would like you to think it's a cookie for one. It's a cookie for four or five, Jenny.

You can easily turn this one cookie into four individual servings by simply splitting up the dough as you would with any other cookie recipe. Either way, it's freaking amazing and you should really give it a shot, and not just for the novelty of pulling one giant cookie out of the oven.

You will need:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 tablespoons packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons beaten egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons creamy peanut butter
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/4 cup Reese's Pieces or M&Ms

Note: how do you measure out  two tablespoons of egg? Simply beat the egg in a bowl, then measure out two tablespoons and discard the rest. Couldn't be easier!

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl whisk the butter and sugars by hand until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla, mixing until well combined. Stir in peanut butter with a wooden spoon, then add flour, baking soda and salt.

Mix until not quite combined, then add the Reeses Pieces or M&Ms, then mix until combined.

Scoop one giant cookie (I used an ice cream scoop) or 4 large indiviudal cookies onto a baking sheet and bake for 18-20 minutes for the large cookie, or 8-10 minutes for the individual cookies, until cooked through. Let cool on baking sheet for 10 minutes then transfer to cooling rack.

Queso Fundido

It doesn't happen often, but tonight I really didn't want to cook. It was the first really cold night (read: cold for Nashville) of the season, this is my busiest time of year at work, and I'm trying to keep things as simple as possible at home.

But when I can't scrape away a little bit of my day to daydream about food, I come home from work and stand in my kitchen uninspired. Nothing sounds good. Then I get cranky and Josh starts calling out the items in our fridge and freezer. Nothing sounds good. I get crankier. Bless that man.

This was actually his suggestion, though it had just happened that it was already on my 30 by 30 list from September (which I still haven't started on, save for this accidental tick off the list, but I have 2 years, right?).

Unfortunately I got a little carried away with the jalapenos, and my lips are still burning as I type this. Next time I'll use a can of green chiles and a different cheese (probably Chihuahua). We are fortunate to live in a melting pot area of Nashville, so I sent Josh to the Latin store up the street for Asadero cheese. He came home with Oaxaca, which was delicious but didn't work well for melting.

If you don't mind doing some chopping on a weeknight, this comes together relatively quickly and is delicious wrapped up in soft flour tortillas; equally so with a fork.

You will need:
3 cups of shredded asadero cheese
1 cup of shredded Monterey Jack
1 can roasted green chiles
1 small onion, cut into rings
1/2 cup of Mexican chorizo

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

Break up the chorizo and cook it in a skillet until it’s done, about five minutes. Cook onions in sausage grease until translucent and add chiles until just heated through. Lightly grease a medium-sized cast-iron skillet or a casserole dish and add the cheese. Top with the crumbled, cooked chorizo, cooked onions and diced chiles, and cook for 15 minutes or until bubbling.

Spoon onto tortillas. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Homesick Texan.

Chicken and Dumplings

Food. We're obsessed as a society with it, aren't we? Taking pictures of it, posting our dinners to Facebook. There's even a "food" setting on my new camera.

Some food, however, is hopelessly unphotogenic. Some food is downright ugly. Here's a great example of some ugly - but comforting and filling - food. No matter the lighting I put this in, no matter the angle I took the pictures from, chicken and dumplings is just not pretty. But it is fulfilling and warming on a cold evening, a throwback to the days before Facebook, when food didn't have to be styled or angled just so, or anything but delicious and satisfying.

Everybody loved this. The dumplings are chewy but fluffy. The stew, rich with homemade chicken stock and a twinge from a splash of dry Sherry. And it only got better on the second and third day, as the dumplings and chicken soaked up the flavors from the stew. I'm not sure how well it would keep beyond the third day as it didn't stand a chance in my house - I had to wrestle away the last serving from Josh just to get this ugly picture.

You will need:

For the stew
1 store bought rotisserie chicken, skin discarded and all meat shredded
Salt and black pepper
4 teaspoons vegetable oil
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
6 green onions, chopped, all parts
1 large yellow onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
6 tablespoons all-purpose flour
1/2 cup dry sherry
4 1/2 cups chicken broth or stock
1/4 cup whole milk (do not use anything other than whole)
2 bay leaves
1/4 teaspoon herbs de provence or dried thyme
1 cup frozen green peas
3 tablespoons minced fresh tarragon leaves

For the dumplings
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 teaspoon table salt
1 cup whole milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted

For the stew: add butter to a Dutch oven and melt over medium-high heat. Add the green onion, yellow onion, andsalt and cook until softened. Whisk in the flour to make a roux, then whisk in the sherry, scraping up any browned bits. Stir in the broth, milk, thyme/herbs de provence, and bay leaves. Cover and simmer for about 20 minutes.

Add the shredded chicken to the pot and stir to combine. Discard the bay leaves. Simmer again, uncovered, for about 15 minutes.

For the dumplings: Stir the flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and salt together. Microwave the milk and butter in a microwave-safe bowl on high until just warm, about 45 seconds. Stir the warmed milk mixture into the flour/cornmeal mixture with a wooden spoon until incorporated.

Return the stew to a simmer, stir in the peas and tarragon, and season with salt and pepper. Drop golf-ball-sized dumplings over the top of the stew, about 1/4 inch apart (my pot was too small, so they were pretty much crammed in there - they were fine and didn't clump together). Reduce the heat to low, cover, and cook until the dumplings have doubled in size, 15 to 18 minutes.

Chocolate Pumpkin Cake

Aside from the obvious link between October and pumpkin season, there's another great reason for slipping some pumpkin into your baked goods this year. It's extremely low in calories, and canned pumpkin can act as the "fat" in many recipes, replacing butter and oil. Try making boxed brownies with pumpkin: to one box of store bought brownie mix, add a can of pumpkin and nothing else, and bake as directed on the box. Bet you'll never know the difference.

Of course, when you slather a pumpkin buttercream over the cake, you've pretty much negated any benefits to replacing butter and oil with pumpkin inside the cake, but outside of this lovely season, how many other times of the year do you really feel like digging into pumpkin anything?

Ah, autumn. The great justifier in orange sweets.

For the cake, you will need:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 14-ounce can pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), 2 tablespoons reserved for buttercream
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice

For the pumpkin buttercream:

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons canned pumpkin
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
5 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and lightly flour a 9×5x3-inch loaf pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then the buttermilk and vanilla. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt together and add to wet ingredients. Stir pumpkin in with a spoon until well-blended, but do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 to 15 minutes, then flip onto a plate for further cooling.

While cake is cooling, prepare buttercream. Cream butter in a bowl until smooth on medium speed. Turn off mixer and add half of powdered sugar. Turn mixer on lowest speed to combine (otherwise powdered sugar will fly all over your kitchen). Turn mixer off and add second half of sugar, beating on low until combined. Add vanilla and milk and mix on low speed until completely combined. Stir pumpkin and pie spice in with a spoon until blended.

Once cake is completely cooled, spread buttercream on thick with an offset spatula or butter knife. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Panzanella Salad

Panzanella, while generally a summer dish during the height of tomato season, is also a great way to use up the last of early fall's puny tomatoes.

From what I understand, the dish was created for using up day-old bread, though typically I purposely buy a loaf of fresh bread specifically for making Panzanella and dry it out in the oven. It's basically a deconstructed bruschetta - tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil - just about any typical Italian ingredient is welcome here. I keep meaning to try it with chunks of salami and pearls of Mozzarella.

You will need:
1 loaf crusty bread (Italian or French)
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
2 pints cherry tomatoes or 8 medium tomatoes, cut into chunks and seeded if you have the patience*
1 small red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced or grated
6 ounces Parmesan, grated  
3 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic or white wine vinegar
Handful basil
Handful parsley
2-3 hours before serving, prepare tomatoes. If using whole tomatoes, place chopped tomatoes into a strainer fit over a bowl. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Add onions, garlic, basil and parsley. Place in the refrigerator and let tomatoes drain for 2-3 hours.
Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Cut bread into 1-2 inch cubes and arrange on a sheet tray. Drizzle on 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Toss bread cubes to coat and place in oven for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool.
Meanwhile, remove tomatoes from fridge and adjust seasonings if necessary. Discard tomato juices. Add oil, vinegar and Parmesan and toss to combine. Once bread chunks have cooled, toss bread with tomato mixture. Serve immediately.

Cheesecake-Stuffed Strawberries

It has been well-documented that my favorite thing to do, any day of the week, any hour of the day, is cook. I've become known as the one who will never show up empty handed to a get-together and will never let you leave my house hungry. But I also have a tendency to be a "behind-the-scenes" cook - meaning when guests arrive I have been so busy cooking that I usually don't have anything for them to help me with.

So when I received a text from my friend Missy, an aspiring home cook herself, simply stating "I have a recipe I want to do with you," I was thrilled that not only would I get the chance to try something new, I'd get to try it with my girlfriends and hang out in the kitchen for a couple of hours. What could be better than that?

These strawberries may have been better than that. They're incredibly simple but I would imagine people would think you spent a lot more time on them than they actually take. Add a couple of friends, a bottle of wine, and some finger foods and it sure beats a night out - with no money spent and without fighting for a parking spot!

You will need:

2 lbs strawberries, trimmed and hulled
1 8-ounce brick cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup crushed graham crackers
Mint leaves, for garnishing (optional)

Wash, trim and hull strawberries to create a bowl in the center of the strawberry. If you want to stand yours up (which I recommend as it's easier to fill and present), slice off about a quarter inch of the bottom of the strawberry so it will lie flat. Dry strawberries and arrange them on your serving plate.

In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese (make sure it is very soft), powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Stir until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. Spoon cream cheese mixture into a piping bag (or Ziploc bag with a corner snipped off) and fill strawberries until the cream cheese just crests the tops of the strawberries.

Add the crushed graham crackers into a small bowl. Immediately roll the tops of the strawberries in the graham crackers, coating the cream cheese, and return to serving plate. If desired, garnish each strawberry with a mint leaf.

30 by 30

On my 27th birthday, I challenged myself to lose 28 pounds by my 28th birthday.

I almost did that. I'm still 9 pounds away, but what's 9 pounds after 19?

Today is my 28th birthday, so it's time for a new challenge.

I'm hopping on the bandwagon of 30 by 30 challenges. That is to say, by the time I turn 30 I will have baked/cooked/made all the following semi-ambitious dishes. 95% of them are fattening, but I'm thinking that by starting with a 2-year lead time, I can make one per month (doubling up closer toward the big 3-0) and consider these fattening, ambitious dishes a monthly treat.

In no particular order, I will attempt:

1. Fresh pasta
2. Lobster rolls
3. Duck (suggestions on how to prepare welcome)
4. Fried calamari
5. Bananas Foster
6. Mozzarella cheese
7. Candied bacon
8. Spanakopita
9. Filled cupcakes
10. Queso fundido
11. Lemon meringue pie
12. Soft pretzels
13. Cured meat (thinking pastrami, salami, or chorizo)
14. Potato chips
15. Guiness chocolate cake (made brownies, same thing).
16. Sticky buns
17. Croissants
18. Graham crackers
19. Flavored margaritas
20. Chocolate pudding
21. Potato bread
22. Crepes
23. A whole fish
24. Naan
25. Beef Wellington
26. Buckeyes
27. Gnocchi
28. Fried yeast donuts
29. Empanadas
30. Clam chowder

Specifying "by 30" may make it sound like I'm freaking out about turning 30. I'm really not - I still have two solid years of my twenties to be a twentysomething, dumb at times if the situation warrants. By 30, I hope to have children, and some of these recipes will be great to have under my belt by then. Needless to say, I'll be blogging along the way in an attempt to hold myself to these challenges.

Cheers to my twenties!

Texas-Style Queso

The past few days, I've been quarrantined at home with the worst cold I've had in years - mainly because I actually haven't even gotten sick in almost 2 years. I knew once it happened it would knock me flat.

So when Josh asked for a "savory snack," my comfort food cravings immediately turned to thoughts of cheese. I whipped it up in minutes, but that's not to say it hadn't taken me several attempts over a few years to get it right the first time. I refused to use Velveeta. Heavy cream just made more of a macaroni and cheese-type sauce. One day I spotted the oft-ignored can of evaporated milk that had been hiding in the pantry since who knows when, and thought I'd give it a shot.

The secret all aloig was the evaporated milk. Who'd have guessed?

You will need:

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 teaspoons flour
1 tablespoon (or more, depending on taste) chopped green chiles
1 tablespoon chopped jalapeno pepper (seeded if desired)
2 tablespoons chopped white onions
1 small Roma tomato, seeded and chopped
6 ounces evaporated milk
4 ounces cheddar and/or Monterey Jack cheese, shredded
1 teaspoon chopped cilantro
Dash ground cumin
Dash cayenne pepper
Hot sauce to taste
Salt to taste

In a small saucepan, heat vegetable oil over medium-low heat. Once oil is shimmering, add chiles, jalapenos, cilantro and onions, and heat until soft but not browned. Whisk in flour to make a light roux, then pour in evaporated milk. Heat until bubbling, then remove from heat and stir in cheese. Add chopped tomatoes, cumin, cayenne pepper, hot sauce and salt. Serve immediately.

"Splendid" Salted Caramel Ice Cream

I started picking up inklings of Jeni Britton-Bauer late last fall, when a local coffee shop here in Nashville started carrying her artisan ice creams flown in from Ohio. While I never made it over to the coffee shop and subsequently stopped thinking about artisan ice cream through the winter, in early spring I read that Jeni was opening her first store outside of Ohio in - you guessed it - Nashville.

Shortly thereafter, Josh decided on a whim to buy me an ice cream maker.

A few weeks later, I saw Jeni's book in a store in New York City, with recipes for her signature flavors.

Then, my good friend Krista managed to get to Jeni's before I could and proceeded to rave about it.

That was the last straw - the universe wanted me to have Jeni's in my life, damn it, and who was I not to take heed? I bought the book.

The book, aside from the fact that it's a page turner if only because you cannot wait to see what crazy combination Jeni teases you with on the following page, is outlined by season so you can make a point of using the freshest ingredients possible. In addition to ice creams, the book includes recipes for sorbets and frozen yogurts, as well as for ice cream cookies, cocktails and sundaes. It is comprehensive and gorgeously photographed, and judging by the first one I tried, the recipes themselves are foolproof. The ice cream froze as solid as you'd find it in any scoop shop, which can sometimes be difficult to acheive at home. The pure flavors of caramel and sea salt blasted through the custard, as well as a surprising taste of pure butter - even though there is no butter in the recipe. I am still amazed that I made this quart of amber heaven, but I did - and I'm ready for round 2 with Jeni at my side.

You will need:

2 cups whole milk
1 tablespoon plus one teaspoon corn starch
1 1/2 ounces (3 tablespoons) cream cheese, softened
1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract (I used vanilla bean paste)


Make sure the bowl of your ice cream maker has been frozen for at least 24 hours. Do not remove from freezer until the moment you are ready to spin the ice cream macine.

Mix about 2 tablespoons of the milk with the cornstarch in a small bowl to make a smooth slurry.

Whisk the cream cheese and salt in a medium bowl until smooth.

Mix the cream with the corn syrup in a measuring cup with a spout.

Fill a large bowl with ice and water.

Heat the sugar in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat until it is melted and golden amber in color. Remove from the heat and, stirring constantly, slowly add a bit of the cream and corn syrup mixture to the caramel: it will fizzle, pop and spurt. Stir until well combined, then add a little more and stir. Keep adding the cream a little at a time until all of it is incorporated.

Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the milk. Bring to a rolling boil and boil for 4 minutes. Remove from the heat and gradually whisk in the cornstarch slurry.

Bring back to a boil over medium-high and cook, sitrring with a heatproof spatula, until slightly thickened, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat. If any caramel flecks remain, pour the mixture through a sieve.

Gradually whisk the hot milk mixture into the cream cheese until smooth. Add the vanilla and whisk. Pour the mixture into a 1-gallon Ziploc freezer bag and submerge the sealed bag in the ice bath. Let stand, adding more ice as necessary, until cold, about 30 minutes.

Pour into frozen canister and spin until thick and creamy. Freeze in the coldest part of your freezer until firm, at least 4 hours.

Recipe and method copied from Jeni's Splendid Ice Cream at Home.

Vanilla Bean Marshmallows

For a few years when I was very young, right before we moved to and stayed in Texas, my family lived in a tiny town in Massachusetts. I don't remember a whole lot from those days, but when I went to college in Rhode Island I visited often with a family that used to live down the street from us when we lived there in the late 80s. New England, specifically Rhode Island, Massachusetts and New Hampshire, remains one of my favorite places on earth. After all, it is what introduced me to quite possibly my #1 flavor combination: marshmallows and peanut butter.

My mom somehow found out about this winning combination sometime before I started school, and opening my lunch box to find a Fluffernutter (marshmallow fluff and peanut butter sandwich) was like finding gold to a kindergartener. Once we moved to Texas, the kids would gawk at my funny-looking sandwich with raging jealousy. "What is THAT?" How did they not know?

I would later find out that Fluffernutters were a New England thing, but of course that's all changed now - Fluffernutters are no longer a well-kept secret among New Englanders, and the flavor combination can be found anywhere. But, naturally, I had to make my own. It only took me 23 years since my first bite of Fluffernutter to get around to it.

You will need:

3 1/2 envelopes unflavored gelatin  powder
1 cup cold water
2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup light corn syrup
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 large egg whites or reconstituted powdered egg whites
1 tablespoon vanilla bean paste

In the bowl of your stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, pour 1/2 cup cold water and 3 1/2 packs of gelatin. Let sit while you make the sugar mixture.

In a medium pot combine sugar, remaining water, corn syrup and salt. Heat over low heat and whisk until sugar is dissolved, about 3-5 minutes. Turn heat up to medium and let sugar come to a boil. It will bubble up quite a bit - do not let it overflow. Let it boil for 8-12 minutes, until it reaches 240 degrees F (measure with a candy thermometer).

Once mixture is at 240 degrees F, turn off heat and gently pour it in the mixer over the gelatin with the mixer on low speed. Once all of the sugar has been added, turn the mixerall the way to high and beat for for 6-8 minutes. It should grow in size and be white and fluffy. About 3-4 minutes in, add the egg whites to a separate bowl and beat until stiff peaks form. with a hand mixer. Once stiff peaks are formed, add egg whites and vanilla bean paste to the sugar/gelatin mixture and beat until just combined.

Pour marshmallow mix into the 9 x 13 pan. You will not be able to get it all out of the bowl, but I found it helpful to spray a spatula with cooking spray. Dust powdered sugar on top and let sit to firm up for 3-5 hours.

Once firm, turn the pan upside down on a cutting board to release marshmallow rectangle. Cut them into pieces. I found the easiest way to do this was with a pizza cutter.

Every blog I read about making marshmallows warned of the ridiculous stickiness, the impossibility of getting the whole mixture out of the bowl, the difficulty of removing the marhsmallows from their resting pan. I experienced none of these fiascos, but you must follow these precautions:

1. When you think you've used enough powdered sugar and corn starch on the bottom of your resting pan, you haven't. Use more than you think you could possibly need, then add some more.

2. Pam cooking spray is your best friend. Spray your spaulta, spray your knife, spray your hands.

3. A stand mixer is essential. It is a work horse and it will not let you down. Turn that baby all the way up and let it go. I don't know if I can honestly suggest trying this without one.

Adapted from How Sweet Eats.

Vanilla Preserved Strawberries

I hesitated to post this, given that I've done something similar in the past with strawberry jam. I won't lie and say that these preserved strawberries are leaps and bounds different, but they're different enough that I think they're worth a try. Plus, they're less labor-intensive than jam.

The canning bug bit me last summer and I was practically writhing in anticipation of summer's fresh produce so I could get a move on already. There's nothing prettier than a stack of homemade jams and pickles in crystal-clear jars, and the ability to give away to friends what was just ripening in your backyard the day before brings a feeling of community, of old-timey nurturing.

Or, some might say, perhaps I just glorify food too much.

Obviously these preserved strawberries can be used in many ways that strawberry preserves can; they just come out of the jar in whole, plump pieces that break and smoosh under the slightest pressure from a knife.
And, as I learned today, they add a little something to a ham and blue cheese wrap - something summery and just sweet enough that other condiments simply cannot achieve.

Note - I used powdered pectin on a whim, but looking back I would have left it out. If you want to use it for a jammier texture, add about a tablespoon.

You will need:

2 pounds strawberries, hulled but left intact
3/4 cup sugar
2 tbs lemon juice
2 vanilla beans, split and cut in half

If you are canning the strawberries, prepare your canning materials. This recipe yielded two pints.
Place the strawberries and sugar in a heavy, large pot and turn heat to medium. As the strawberries simmer they will release their own juices - once this happens, pour in the lemon juice and add the vanilla bean.
Allow the strawberries to come to a boil, and the second they do, remove them from the heat. If you're not preserving for later, let them cool slightly, then store in a glass container and refrigerate.

If you are preserving, ladle the strawberries and juice into canning jars, being sure to include one half of a vanilla bean in each jar. Leave 1 inch headspace and process for 15 minutes in a water bath canner.

Ricotta Bruschetta (with Homemade Ricotta)

It's going to be really, really hard for me to buy a tub of Ricotta cheese at Publix ever again.

Admittedly, I am a snob about buying stuff in the store that I can otherwise make at home. Cheese, in its difficulty and artistry, is not something I deemed practical or probable for this home cook. But this cheese....oh, this cheese. It's so creamy and light that it doesn't even taste like cheese, but by comparison, it's clear that the plasticky glob that comes from a tub was certainly not the way Ricotta was meant to be enjoyed.

Comprised of 3 ingredients and salt, it's versatile enough that we ate it  in the following ways: off a spoon, piled on untoasted bread with homemade blackberry jam (more on that later), and as pictured, slathered on warm bread, drizzled with garlic olive oil and topped with home grown cherry tomatoes and basil.

For the ricotta, you will need:

3 cups whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 - 1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (not bottled)

In a medium sized heavy pot, heat milk and cream over medium-high heat until it reaches 190 degrees. Ideally you would hitch a candy or deep dry thermometer onto the side of the pot, but I dropped the probe of a meat thermometer into the pot and it worked just as well. As soon as the milk reaches 190 degrees, take off of the stove and add lemon juice. Stir it gently a couple of times, then leave the pot alone for 5 minutes.

Set a fine mesh strainer lined with a few layers of cheesecloth over a large bowl, and pour the mixture into the strainer. Let the curds drain for two hours, then either eat it immediately or store in the refrigerator in an airtight container until you're ready to serve it.

To make the bruschetta, you will need:

6-8 slices of bread from a loaf of Italian or French bread
2 cloves of garlic, thickly sliced
Small handful fresh basil sprigs, 1 teaspoon reserved and chopped
12-16 cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
Pinch salt and pepper

Heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil in a microwave safe bowl for 30 seconds in the microwave. Immediately add the garlic, chopped basil, salt and pepper and put back in the microwave for 10 seconds. Let steep for 5-10 minutes, then brush each side of the bread with the garlic oil. Place bread slices under a broiler set on low, watching very closely until the bread turns golden brown, then flip and brown the other side. Remove and let cool for 5 minutes. Top each slice of bread with a smear of Ricotta, 3 cherry tomato halves and a sprig of basil. Drizzle with remaining garlic oil if desired.

Ricotta recipe from Smitten Kitchen.

Black and Blue Berry Cobbler

When I was 16 with my first taste of freedom in the form of a driver's license and a car, and heavily influenced by the Food Network (which was just gaining ground), one summer night I told my mom I was taking over dinner. I remember it vividly: we were having my and my brother's mutual friend Jeff over for dinner, and I would make chicken cordon bleu, salad and raspberry pie. After an awkward exchange with an ex-boyfriend at the deli counter, I ventured to the frozen aisles for my raspberries - the thought of buying fresh raspberries, in July, in Texas, never entered my mind. Figures. I'm also 99% sure I used a frozen pie crust.

My chicken, while tasty, was laden with toothpicks and dinner became an adventure as everyone compared the amount of toothpicks by which their chicken was fastened together.

The pie, however, was probably doomed to begin with. Had I known the joy of seasonal produce, and had I been working with a recipe (I didn't need one because I was a genius, after all) my pie wouldn't have required the exorbitant amount of sugar I doused it with. Of course I was convinced that it would be glorious and perfect, but I watched in disappointment first as the raspberry juices puddled all over my plate, and again as confused puckering, mirroring my own, spread across everyone's mouths. "I can't decide if it's too sweet or too tart," I wondered aloud.

"It's both," my dad and Jeff answered in unison.

I think I waited until college before I attempted another pie.

Fortunately, cobblers are much more forgiving. A biscuit topping instead of two crusts prevents any sogginess of the bottom crust, and what better way is there to showcase plump summer berries?
For the biscuit topping, you will need:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
9 tablespoons very cold butter, cut into pieces
1/3 cup boiling water

For the filling, you will need:

2 tablespoons corn starch
1/4 cup cold water
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2-3 cups fresh blueberries
2-3 cups fresh blackberries
1/2 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

To make the topping, whisk together the dry ingredients. With your fingers or a pastry knife, cut in the butter and work through the dough until the flour resembles coarse crubms. Add the boiling water and stir until a sticky dough forms.

Combine all of the filling ingredients, making sure to coat all the berries well (the mixture will appear to be a bit watery). Pour the filling into a 10" deep dish pie plate or cast iron skillet and drop spoonfuls of the dough to cover the top (do not spread the dough over the berries).

Bake for 25-30 minutes or until topping is crisp and golden brown, and berries are thick and bubbly. Cool for 10 minutes before serving.

Adapted from Cooking for Seven.

Wine-Soaked Grilled Portobella Mushrooms

I have been off on a whirlwind culinary adventure in New York City, the first of at least a hundred trips to New York in which I was in total control of where I went, what I ate and how late I came home. "Home" in this case was my uncle's house, which used to be my grandparents house, which is also the house my dad grew up in. It's been in the family for 40-odd years and while I'm always grateful to consider it my "New York House," the limitations I'm generally under are...stifling.

When I was in college and living in Rhode Island, I'd spend my Thanksgiving breaks with my grandparents. Though I was itching to get out into the city (it was the heyday of Sex and the City, after all), my worrisome Italian-Catholic grandmother would wring her hands and cross herself just in anticipation of all the horrible things that could happen to me on the subway trains. As I got older and my leash was loosened inch by inch, I would venture to the city only after being dropped off at the 7 station, and with my cell phone at my ear every 20 minutes. Of course I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going, so I'd often wind up in a semi-untouristy restaurant in Times Square, irritated knowing there was so much more to see. Ultimately I'd decide it wasn't worth it, and would head back to Queens, but not before a phone call to warn my grandfather that I'd need to be picked up at the station in approximately 35 minutes.

I miss my grandparents. They're still all over that house and the scent of my grandfather overwhelms me with nostalgia every time I step through the front door. But I have to say that I don't miss being any younger than I am now, without license to go where I please and be considered an adult. And look, I made it back to Tennessee in one piece. My grandmother, somewhere, is sighing with relief and probably thanking Jesus personally for my safe return.

Underneath this recipe for grilled portobella mushrooms, which are tied to this post inexplicably save for the fact that it was the first meal I prepared after being waited on for 4 days straight at various NYC eateries, is the full list of everywhere and with everything I stuffed my face while there. Do check them all out next time you're in the big city...if you're allowed to leave the house, that is.

You will need:

2 large portobella mushroom caps
1 cup white wine
1/2 cup dry vermouth or sherry
1/4 cup olive oil
Splash white vinegar
3 garlic cloves, smashed and roughly chopped
Small handful fresh parsley, chopped
Small handful fresh basil, chopped
Small handful fresh chives, chopped
Salt and pepper

Wipe the mushroom caps clean with a damp paper towel. Remove the stem and discard. To remove the gills, scrape them out with a spoon.

Combine all ingredients in a medium bowl and whisk to combine. Let mushroom caps sit in the wine bath for up to an hour. Add salt and pepper before grilling over a low flame, cooking until softened.

NYC Eats:

119 7th Avenue, Manhattan
Classic macaroni and cheese, cheeseburger, fries, Mojito, side of pretention.

Lucy's Whey
Chelsea Market, Manhattan
Grilled cheese sandwich, sea salt and beer-pretzel caramels.

Eleni's Cookies
Chelsea Market, Manhattan
Chocolate cupcake with pink buttercream.

Magnolia Bakery
401 Bleecker Street, Manhattan
Magic bar.

Pop Bar
5 Carmine Street,  Manhattan
We came here once a day - I had a mixed berry sorbetto popsicle, a vanilla gelato popsicle dipped in hazelnuts and dark chocolate, and a coffee gelato popsicle dipped in hazelnuts and milk chocolate.

Dean and Deluca
1150 Madison Avenue, Manhattan
Everything bagel with cream cheese, strawberry-rhubarb juice.

Corona Pizza
5123 108th Street, Corona, Queens
Slice of Rustica pizza and garlic knots.

80 Spring Street, Manhattan
The most perfect Mojito I've ever had, steak tartare, moules frites, strawberry-rhubarb crisp (best meal of the trip).

Southern Hospitality 
1460 2nd Ave, Manhattan
Fried pickle chips, champagne-St. Germain cocktail (classy, no?).

Brooklyn Brewery
79 N 11th Street, Williamsburg
Wheat beer.

Blue Bottle Coffee Co.
160 Berry Street, Williamsburg
New Orleans coffee, s'more.

220 Waverly Place, Manhattan
Harissa falafel sandwich, fries with saffron aioli, brown sugar lemonade.

MoMA Cafe 2
11 W 53rd Street, Manhattan
Hearts of romaine salad, foccacia, too much of Angela's fontina polenta (sorry girl).

Zucchini Bread

If you're like me, you have zucchini plants multiplying at a rate you couldn't possibly consume without hating zucchini by next summer, and you're resenting your decision to "just plant two" because one couldn't possibly be enough, right? You try to give them away, but for some reason everyone but you is privvy to the squash-spitting plant's overpopulating tendencies and all your co-workers offer a polite "no, I've got my own, thanks."


Apparently there are 1,357,039 other bloggers (rough estimate) who are also thisclose to the edge of similar zucchini-induced madness. If I were more creative this weekend and less pressed for time, I would have stepped outside the loaf pan and come up with something more enticing than zucchini bread, but hey - it took the biggest, honkingest zucchini out of my present squash collection and I got to use my fancy new julienne peeler in the process. Of course between the three of us we couldn't finish the whole loaf, so now those same co-workers who refused my raw zucchini offerings are munching on the spoils anyway.

I found this recipe to come out a little on the dry side. Next time, I'll reduce the flour slightly and will also grate the zucchini as specified instead of julienning it - I'm curious as to whether the julienned strips released less water than the grated would have.

You will need:

2 eggs, beaten
1 cup sugar
1/3 cup brown sugar (packed)
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 cups grated fresh zucchini
2/3 cup melted unsalted butter
2 teaspoons baking soda
Pinch salt
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
1 cup dried cranberries or raisins (optional - I did not include)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, mix together the sugar, eggs, and vanilla. Mix in the grated zucchini and melted butter. Add baking soda and salt, then the flour, a cup at a time, incorporating completely after each addition. Add the cinnamon and nutmeg and mix. Fold in the nuts and dried cranberries or raisins, if using.

Divide the batter equally between 2 buttered 5 by 9 inch loaf pans, or pour into one by loaf pan. Bake for 1 hour (check for doneness at 50 minutes) or until a wooden pick inserted in to the center comes out clean. Cool in pans for 10 minutes. Turn out onto wire racks to cool thoroughly.
Adapted from Simply Recipes.

Homemade Hamburger Buns

As much as I like to make bread and as often as I would rather make something at home than buy it at the store, I generally have no issue with storebought bakery bread. Yesterday, though, Josh propositioned that I change it up a little, and find a recipe for burger buns and make them at home. Why not?

I turned to Annie's Eats, which I can usually count on for a pretty dead-on version of any homemade store-bought item, and once again, I wasn't let down. Unfortunately, I screwed them up the first go-round.

Generally I like to measure flour in weight, not volume. So not really thinking about it, I measured out 24 ounces of flour (3 cups). It was only after my dough turned rock-hard that I realized I'd done something wrong - volume and weight are not always exactly interchangeable. Oh well. Next time I'll do the research first. I wound up having to go to the store anyway for more bread flour and briefly considered the stupidity of the situation...I was at the store, so why didn't I just pick up a pack of burger buns?

I forged ahead though, and after deflecting the snarky "you sure come here alot" comment from the grocery cashier, I quit trying to be cool and actually followed the recipe on my second attempt. The dough came together and rose flawlessly. The buns themselves were airy and crisp, and substantial enough to hold up my drippy early summer cheeseburger.

You will need:

3 tbsp. warm milk
1 cup warm water
2 tsp. instant yeast
2½ tbsp. sugar
1½ tsp. salt
1 large egg
3 cups bread flour
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
2½ tbsp. unsalted butter, softened

Egg wash (1 egg plus 1 tablespoon water), for adhering sesame seeds

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the milk, water, yeast, sugar, salt and egg. Mix on medium speed to combine. Add the flours to the bowl, and mix on medium speed until incorporated. Add the butter - make sure it's completely softened to avoid chunks of butter throughout the dough.

Switch to the dough hook and knead on low speed for about 6-8 minutes. This is a sticky dough, so don't add extra flour. Instead, flour your hands and transfer the dough to a lightly oiled bowl. Turn the dough to coat all the dough in oil. Cover with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until doubled in bulk, 1-2 hours.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or a silicone baking mat.  Turn the dough out onto a pastry mat, then divide the dough into 8 equal parts with a chef's knife.  Gently roll each portion of dough into a ball and place on the baking sheet, 2-3 inches apart.  Cover loosely with lightly oiled plastic wrap and let rise again, 1-2 hours, until nearly doubled.

Set a large metal pan of water on the lowest rack of the oven.  Preheat the oven to 400 degrees with a rack in the center. Brush the tops of the buns lightly with the egg wash and sprinkle with sesame seeds.  Bake the buns about 15 minutes rotating halfway through baking, until the tops are golden brown. Do not overbake! Transfer to a rack to cool completely. Split and serve with your favorite burger.

Recipe from Annie's Eats.

Baked Ziti with Mini Meatballs

My neuroses surrounding events and parties and all they entail may officially be getting out of control.

This is why. All this, plus 40 different lists of things to buy/do/bake/cook, is party central. Am I hosting a dinner party? My parents' anniversary? Not quite...it's Alyssa's 9th birthday in a couple of weeks, and judging by everyone's surprise that there will be 1) a theme, 2) homemade paper goods and cake, and 3) a massive spread of party foods, I may have gone a little mental.

But you know what I say? I love the kid. I love her like she was my own. You love your kids too, I know this. But perhaps you didn't get your degree in Event Management, then after being unable to find a job in said field, rely on the occasional kid's party, work luncheon and Christmas dinner to fill up that cavernous space inside you that can only come from not doing for a living what you truly, truly want to do.

I'll tell you...that space hurts a little. So Alyssa's party is not only for her, and for the family and friends that will be joining us, but yes, it's for me too. Just tell me to shut up when I complain that I've run out of room in the fridge to house my spread the night before the party.

What that has to do with baked ziti, I don't know. It was a quick weekend meal when the party planning had gotten into full swing and I was looking forward to starting my paper crafts for the party (I made her banner myself).

You will need:

1 pound dried pasta shapes, your choice
28 ounces prepared Marinara sauce, homemade (recipe follows) or store-bought
1 pound shredded Mozzarella cheese
1 14-ounce container of Ricotta cheese
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
2 cloves minced garlic
Small handful fresh basil, chopped
Small handful fresh Italian parsley, chopped
2 pounds mini meatballs (recipe follows)

Boil pasta according to package directions. Drain, and pour into a casserole dish. Immediately pour Marinara sauce and stir to coat each noodle.

Combine Ricotta cheese, Parmesan cheese, minced garlic, basil and parsley in a bowl with salt and pepper. Dot over the top of the pasta and meatballs, and swirl into the sauce with a spoon.

Nestle prepared meatballs throughout the casserole. Sometimes I do neat rows, other times I just toss them in. You just want to make sure that every spoonful will have a few meatballs when the dish is served.

Top with shredded Mozzarella cheese and bake at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is brown and bubbly. Serves 8-10...or 3, with plenty of freezable leftovers.

Homemade Marinara Sauce

Olive oil
2-3 cloves minced garlic
1 medium onion, diced
1 large can (28 ounces) crushed tomatoes
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes
Chopped fresh basil
Chopped fresh Italian parsley
Dried oregano
Salt, pepper and sugar to taste

In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat olive oil over medium heat. Once oil starts to shimmer, add chopped onion and stir. Cook until the onions are translucent, then add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes.

Pour in the crushed and diced tomatoes. Fill up the 14-ounce tomato can with water and add to the pot. Stir to combine, cover, and allow sauce to heat to bubbling. Once it has started to bubble, reduce heat and add basil, parsley and oregano. Season to taste with salt, pepper and sugar.

Occasionally I'll add about 4 ounces of red wine at this point, but it's completely optional. Cover the sauce and cook over medium heat for a minimum of 30 minutes - but cook it over very low heat all day if you can!

Mini Meatballs

Olive or vegetable oil for browning
2 lbs ground meat (I like a combination of 80/20 beef and ground turkey)
1 egg
1/2 cup breadcrumbs
1/4 cup grated Parmesan or Romano cheese
2 cloves garlic, smashed
Small handful fresh parsley, chopped
Small handful fresh basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

Note: start with the given measurements – you can always add more later. Once your mixture is combined and your oil is hot, make a tester meatball and adjust the seasonings to your taste (I usually add more cheese and salt).

In a large bowl, combine ground meats, egg, cheese, herbs and salt and pepper.

Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the smashed garlic cloves and heat gently, both to brown the garlic and infuse the oil slightly. Once the garlic cloves are browned, remove from oil and chop to add to ground beef. Combine well – it helps to use your hands instead of a spoon. Get them dirty!

Start rolling your meatballs. Of course you can make them whatever size you like, but for this recipe I like them to be about the size of a large gumball – which would equal about a tablespoon of the meat mixture. Roll them into balls and place them on a plate until you’re ready to fry. When you’re ready to go, raise the heat to medium-high and add them to the pan. If you think of your skillet as a clock, I like to start at the 6:00 position and work my way around clockwise so I always know which meatball I started with, and thus needs to be turned first. Keep them about an inch apart so they brown evenly. Do not disturbe them and in about 2 minutes, they will be browned and ready to flip with tongs (they may not be cooked all the way through, which is fine - they'll finish cooking in the oven). Work your way around the pan the same way you put them in - first in, first out.

Drain on paper towels, add to ziti and sauce, top with cheese and bake.

Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake

I don't usually jump on a recipe - often, I'll see something online and let it bounce around in my head for a while before I take the time to cook whatever it may be. But having only recently acquired a bundt pan, it seemed meant to be that I would happen upon this Chocolate Chip Bundt Cake when I had a bundt pan to break in, when I was on vacation, and when Alyssa, the ultimate connoisseur of all things chocolate chip, was in my midst.

This recipe was actually adapted from a fruit and nut cake batter by Dorie Greenspan, only as Bridget over at The Way the Cookie Crumbles pointed out, the ingredients are quite similar to what a classic chocolate chip cookie would call for, so why not replace pears and walnuts with chocolate? Alyssa had multiple pieces over the weekend, so I would certainly classify this one as kid-friendly.

You will need:

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 sticks (8 oz.) unsalted butter, at room temperature
2 cups (packed) light brown sugar
3 large eggs, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk, at room temperature
1 cup semi sweet chocolate chips
Confectioners' sugar, for dusting

Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350º F. Butter a 9- to 10-inch (12 cup) bundt pan, dust the inside with flour and tap out the excess. Whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Working with a stand mixer, preferably fitted with the paddle attachment, or with a hand mixer in a large bowl, beat the butter and sugar together at medium speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 1 minute after each addition. Beat in the vanilla. Reduce the mixer speed to low and add the flour mixture and the buttermilk alternately - add the flour in 3 additions and the buttermilk in 2 (begin and end with the dry ingredients). Mix only until the ingredients are incorporated and scrape down the bowl as needed. With a rubber spatula, stir in the chocolate chips. Scrape the batter into the pan and smooth the top with the spatula.

Bake for 60 to 65 minutes, or until a thin knife inserted deep into the center of the cake comes out clean. (If the cake looks as if it's browning too fast, cover the top loosely with a foil tent.) Transfer the cake to a rack and cool for 10 minutes before unmolding, then cool to room temperature on the rack.

When you are ready to serve, dust the top of the cake with confectioners' sugar.

May Daring Cooks Challenge: Gumbo

As a (nearly) life long Southerner, I was ashamed to admit that I am certainly not a gumbo conoisseur, either in tasting or cooking. My roux could have cooked longer (I've heard stories of cooks standing over their roux for an hour plus), I used frozen okra (did you know that "gumbo" means "okra"?), and I did not serve my gumbo with rice, but corn bread. However, Josh brought the large crock pot full of gumbo to a work function the following morning and by the end of the day, the crock pot bowl was quite literally scraped clean.

Our May hostess, Denise of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need from creole spices, homemade stock and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

You will need:

1 cup (240 ml) (230 gm) rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup (240 ml) (140 gm) (5 oz) flour
2 large onions, diced
1 chicken (3 ½ to 4 lbs.), cut into 10 pieces
2 tablespoons (30 ml) (15 gm) (½ oz) store-bought Creole spice blend
2 pounds (2 kilograms) spicy smoked sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
1 tomato, seeded and chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
3 quarts (3 liters) Basic Chicken Stock (recipe follows), or canned chicken stock
2 bay leaves
6 ounces (175 gm) andouille sausage, chopped
2 cups (480 ml) (320 gm) (11 oz) sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch (15mm) thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
1 tablespoon (15 ml) Worcestershire sauce
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Tabasco, to taste

Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables.

Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning.

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes.

Add the onions. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the onions into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes.

Add the sliced smoked sausage and stir for about a minute.

Add the celery, bell peppers, tomato, and garlic, and continue stirring for about 3 minutes.

Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally.

Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.

Add the chopped andouille, okra, and Worcestershire. Season with salt and pepper and Tabasco, all to taste.

Simmer for another 45 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and serve in bowls over rice.

Challenge post here.

Linguine with White Clam Sauce

I have no witty stories or anecdotes for this recipe - I just happened to remember a can of cherrystone clams in my pantry, and Josh wasn't going to be home for dinner (meaning I didn't have to prepare a side of chicken to fulfill his daily meat quota). I grew up on red clam sauce, but this evening I wanted white. That is all.

I've never made white clam sauce before and honestly wasn't terribly sure where to start. After a quite a bit of trial and error and fixing some mistakes I made along the way, I was quite pleased with this different, satisfying, meatless weeknight meal.

You will need:

4 ounces of dry linguine or fettucine, cooked according to package directions, 1/4 to 1/2 cup cooking water reserved
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons chopped onions
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 can cherrystone or other clams, minced, juice reserved
1 ounce dry sherry
2-3 tablespoons sour cream
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
Parmesan cheese, salt and pepper, to taste

Heat butter and oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Once the butter has melted, add onions and cook until translucent. Add garlic and cook for another minute until it begins to soften. Sprinkle flour over the top, and whisk until smooth. Pour in clam juice and sherry, increase heat to medium-high, and continue to whisk. Add pasta water and sour cream based on your preference: if you like your sauce thicker, add more sour cream. If you like it thinner, add more water. Season to taste with salt and pepper, sprinkle in parsley and right before serving add in minced clams.

Drain pasta and add to pan, toss to coat. Top each dish with parmesan cheese. Serves 2.

Homemade Dog Treats

I often mention the two-legged people I live with, but I've neglected to mention the other occupants of this house:

Wowzer (on the right), is the manliest dog you'll ever meet. He is fiercely protective of his home and his people, and ripples with muscles and testosterone. However, the tutu he's rocking in this picture is representative of the prissy, whiny-baby side that emerges when he refuses to get his feet wet during a rainstorm, and especially whenever Josh leaves a room.

Dizzy is a fluffy bundle of spunk who believes wholeheartedly that it's ok to plop in a stranger's lap and that everybody she meets must have her slobbery kisses. She is easily frightened by the mildest of noises and runs to the opposite end of the house when any of the following items appear: a roll of packing tape, a blender, or Josh weilding an electric drill. Despite that, she holds her own when Wowzer attacks her in play and can let loose with some grown man-sized, wall-shaking belches when she's finished her kibble.

Like any other dog, these two won't leave my side when I'm in the kitchen. I could only imagine their delight when I pulled these treats out of the oven - not only were they going to get a taste, but the whole tray was just for them!

You will need:

1/2 cup of peanut butter
1/4 cup honey
1 tablespoon olive oil or melted unsalted butter
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup all-purpose flour

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Whisk together peanut butter, honey, oil and chicken broth. In a separate bowl, combine flours and oatmeal. Mix dry ingredients into wet ingredients. Place dough on flour dusted surface. Roll or press dough out to about 1/4” inch thick.

My dogs are 10 and 15 pounds, so I used a small cookie cutter to cut out cookies. If your dog is bigger, you can use a bigger cookie cutter. Roll out leftover scraps and cut out as many as possible (or freeze extra batter for another time). Put cut out cookies on a parchment lined baking sheet. Bake for 14-16 minutes. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before feeding to your dog. Cookies will keep for up to two weeks when properly sealed.

Homemade Cream of Mushroom Soup

It's no secret at this point that I can't stand buying readymade items at the grocery store that I could just as easily make at home. I just won't do it, especially in the case of canned soups. I mean, just look at the ingredients (if you really can call them ingredients) on the back of a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup. Modified food starch, monosodium glutamate, soy protein and less than 2% of milk? Why bother putting that junk in your body when you can have something that not only tastes better, but consists of 5 ingredients that you can purchase without having to Google to find out what the heck they are first?

Ok, I'm done ranting. I understand the convenience of canned soups, especially for casseroles...but if you happen to feel like giving it a shot yourself, here's what to do.

You will need:

2/3 cup vegetable oil (or melted butter)
2/3 cup flour
1 cup chopped mushrooms
3/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
3/4 cup milk
Salt and pepper to taste

Heat the oil in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium heat. Once oil begins to shimmer, add mushrooms and stir. Whisk in flour and stir quickly for 1-2 minutes, until the resulting roux deepens in color and the mixture starts to thicken.

Slowly pour in stock and whisk until combined. Continue whisking as mixture thickens - when it coats the back of a spoon, pour in milk and season with salt and pepper. Reduce heat to medium low and stir occasionally until ready to use.

I usually pour any leftovers into a Mason jar and keep it in the fridge for a couple of days, but it's at its best hot off the stove.

Spicy Chocolate Chip Cookies

Man, has it been dull around here lately.

Not that there hasn't been plenty to do - birthday parties, Predators games, lunch dates and deadlines continue to punctuate everyday life - but dinner? It's not been much to write about. In fact, it's been downright sad.

For the last week and a half, Josh has been on a fruit and vegetable detox which allows minimal protein and no sugar (I say Josh has been on the detox, but I have been too - only I lasted 6 days and he's still trucking along). The cravings for so many bad things I never typically want were overwhelming and I had to get back to my normal way of eating. So here we are out of the gate with good, old fashioned chocolate chip cookies - only these cookies aren't as classic as they appear. Along with chocolate chips, they are studded with chopped sweet and spicy pecans from Trader Joe's and kicked up by cayenne and cinnamon in the batter.

The detox helped me lose 5 pounds, but these cookies helped me to feel normal again.

You will need:
2 sticks unsalted butter
2 1/4 cups bread flour
1 tsp kosher salt
1 tsp baking soda
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 cup white sugar
1 1/4 cup brown sugar
1 egg
1 egg yolk
2 tbsp milk
1 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup Trader Joe's sweet and spicy pecans, coarsely chopped

Melt butter, waching closely, until it begins to brown. Do not allow to burn! Add to mixing bowl. In another bowl combine flour, salt, baking soda, cinnamon and cayenne.

Add sugars to mixing bowl with butter. Cream butter and sugar on medium speed. While mixing on medium speed, add eggs, milk, and vanilla. Slowly add in flour until well incorporated.

Stir in chocolate chips and pecans with a wooden spoon.

Chill dough for at least 24 hours, up to 36 (trust me on this one).

The next day, preheat oven to 375° F. Grease your cookie sheets or line them with parchment paper. Place cookies about an inch apart on baking sheets, and bake each sheet 8-12 minutes or until golden and puffy.

Adapted from Alton Brown's "The Chewy."


I've contemplated posting my guacamole recipe several times, but always dismissed that notion, assuming everybody has a go-to guacamole recipe. Not so, I learned over the weekend. A friend told me she gets that guacamole is inclusive of avocados and tomatoes, but beyond that, she's lost. I thought maybe there are others like her, so far it be it from me to keep my guac a secret.

You will need:

6-8 Hass avocados, halved, pit removed
4 tomatoes (try not to include any seeds)
Half a medium red onion, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, ribs and seeds removed, diced
Handful cilantro, chopped
1 teaspoon cumin
Juice of one lime
Salt to taste

In a small bowl, combine tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, cilantro and lime juice. Season with a little bit of salt and set aside for at least 20 minutes. Then, strain the mixture to remove as much excess water as possible.

Spoon each half of avocados into a medium mixing bowl and break up gently with a fork. I like my guac chunky, but if you prefer it smooth, mash it to the desired consistency either with a fork or a potato masher. Add cumin and salt and mix well. If you're going for chunky guac, you want to mix as little as possible to keep the avocados from getting too mashed.

Gently add the tomato mixture (aka pico de gallo) to the avocados and combine. Adjust seasonings as necessary.

Grapefruit Honey Yogurt Scones

I have always been a grapefruit lover. I'm sure my initial introduction to grapefruit was partially influenced by the fact that my mom! let me! sprinkle sugar! on my breakfast!, but it stuck with me. I plan on coercing my someday-children into an early grapefruit adoration the same way.

Unfortunately my someday-children won't be able to witness a true grapefruit enthusiast in action in their early days of grapefruit consumption. My grandfather could eat a grapefruit like I'd never seen and likely will never see again. A product of his wartime and Depression-era generation, Grandpa was very mindful of waste, and cleaned out every grapefruit half he ate (one half every morning) down to the rind. Every shred of flesh was meticulously scraped away with a ridged grapefruit spoon and consumed, his clean rind shells never failing to fascinate (I liked to turn them inside out like rubber poppers when nobody was watching). To this day, I can't eat more than the inner sections, juice, and whatever I can scrape away of the edges without puckering as the flesh becomes more and more tart - and all of that after a teaspoon of sugar, still.

Either I picked up the wrong bag of grapefruit last week (I wanted the red Rio Star and got the pink instead) or grapefruit season is already over. While they're not my favorite, I decided to take a page from Grandpa and use what I had. I thought scones from Joy the Baker would be a good place to start.

You will need:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons honey
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold
1 Ruby Red grapefruit (or in my case, an unwanted pink grapefruit), zested and segmented
1/2 cup plain Greek yogurt

Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 425 degrees F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside (note: I thought I could just spray a sheet pan, but they stuck a little..parchment would be best).

In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Zest the grapefruit and combined zest and granulated sugar on a clean cutting board. Rub together the zest and sugar with the back of a spoon or a plastic bench knife. The sugar will be a pale orange color and smell of grapefruit. Measure 2 tablespoons of the grapefruit sugar and whisk into the dry ingredients. Save the remaining grapefruit sugar for topping the scones just before baking.

Segment the grapefruit next. Slice off the bottom and top of the grapefruit, then use a sharp knife to cut away the peel and pith of the grapefruit, exposing the pink grapefruit flesh. Remove the inner core membrane from the peeled fruit, then use your fingers to peel away the white membranes surrounding each segment. Set segments aside.

Dice cold butter into small chunks and add to the dry ingredients. Using your fingers or a pastry knife, break the butter down into the flour mixture until butter chunks resemble a coarse meal (like biscuit dough). Add the honey, yogurt and grapefruit segments. Toss together with a fork until all of the dry ingredients are moistened by the yogurt and honey.

Turn the scone dough out onto a lightly floured pastry mat. Pat into an 8 inch circle, about 1 inch thick. Use a knife to cut the dough into six scone triangles - first cutting a cross, then an X. Place on the prepared baking sheet. Lightly brush the tops of the scones with milk or buttermilk, and sprinkle generously with grapefruit sugar.

Bake for 15 to 17 minutes, until golden brown on top and firm but soft in the center. Allow to cool on the pan for 10 minutes before serving.

Chicken Caesar Sandwiches

"You have to leave the kitchen while I make this - I can't share the secret ingredient with you," I told Alyssa as she hovered near me, watching my every move as I prepared dinner for some friends that were joining us later that evening. Lesson learned: telling a kid that a secret ingredient lurks within their coveted salad dressing opens the floodgate to a handful of silly guesses.

"What is it? Is it limes? Poison? Dog toenails? Fish?"

She had guessed fish correctly, but there was no way I was going to let on that tiny, oil-packed anchovies are the key to her favorite Caesar dressing. And they really, really are - if you can't get past the anchovies and are tempted to skip them, don't. Use anchovy paste if you must, but their flavor is absolutely essential!

You will need:
2 chicken breasts (I used a precooked rotisserie chicken from the store)
1 clove garlic, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh flat leaf parsley, chopped
1-2 anchovies in oil, drained and diced, or 1 tsp anchovy paste
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1½ tablespoons lemon juice
½ cup mayonnaise
1 loaf Italian or ciabatta bread, or 4 Italian or ciabatta sandwich rolls
Romaine lettuce leaves, washed and dried
Shaved Parmesan cheese
Cooked sliced bacon (2-3 slices per sandwich)

Slice chicken breasts into thick slices and set aside.

To make the Caesar dressing, combine the garlic and parsley in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse until finely minced, scraping down the sides as needed. Add the anchovies/anchovy paste, mustard, lemon juice and mayonnaise. Process until smooth and well blended. Adjust seasonings to taste if necessary. Refrigerate the dressing if not using right away.

Slice the bread in half horizontally and toast if desired. Spread both cut sides of the bread lightly with the Caesar dressing. Layer the bottom half of the bread with the romaine leaves, then top with shaved Parmesan, cooked bacon slices, and sliced chicken. Place the top half of the bread on top. If using a loaf of ciabatta, slice the assembled sandwich into individual servings. Serve immediately.

Adapted from Annie's Eats.

Bread Pudding Cups

I committed at the last minute to bring something for a company bake sale yesterday, knowing I wasn’t going to have much time that evening for baking. A fussy dessert was out, and whatever it was I wound up bringing had to be portioned into individual servings for a bake sale. What to do?

When I went home for lunch, my answer was right in front of my face. I still had half a pan of bread pudding from the weekend in the fridge and decided in a moment of brilliance what I was going to do. Mini bread puddings portioned out in muffin cups! And I would only need to pick up a few things from the grocery store. I had no idea how they would bake in muffin cups, but they held their shape wonderfully and stood at room temperature both overnight and through the bake sale without issue. To top it off, they were delicious and raised money for a good cause.

You will need:

1 pint cream or whole milk
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 bag semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped walnuts (optional)
1 loaf (12 ounces) Italian bread, torn into small pieces
1 package King's Hawaiian Rolls, torn into small pieces

In a large bowl, combine cream or milk with eggs and whisk. Add vanilla, salt, sugars and melted butter and whisk until combined. Pour in chocolate chips and walnuts, if using, and stir to combine the mixture. Add bread and using your hands, toss the bread cubes until all are coated. Be sure to distribute the chocolate chips and walnuts throughout the mixture as they have a tendency to sink to the bottom.

Line 2 12-cup muffin tins with muffin wrappers and evenly divide the bread pudding mixture among 20 of the cups (the mixture should mound over the top of the cups slightly). Bake in a 350 degree oven for 15 minutes or until the bread is golden and the chocolate has melted. Allow to cool and remove from muffin tin. Serve warm, cold or at room temperature - but they're best warm and gooey.

Tortilla Española

I make a lot of lists. Recipes to blog, things to buy at CVS, songs to download, movies to add to Netflix, decorating ideas. Problem is, I lose them and nothing gets accomplished. They get stuffed into my purse, I change my purse frequently, and I don’t find a list from December until March. This morning I was reminded that I was supposed to buy Q-Tips on December 18th.

Fortunately, my never-ending list of recipes to conquer remains an internal one, and when external events align so that one of them actually has a chance to materialize, I scratch it off my mental list and move its physical recipe into my stuffed-to-the-gills recipe book. This past week my mom was kind enough to send me a supply of chorizo, a spicy and smoky Spanish sausage she can sniff out a quality link of no matter where in the country she may be. I do not possess this skill and need to hone it pronto – because the one recipe I dared to try with perfect chorizo in my possession needs to be made over and over again.

Tortilla Española, often referred to as a Spanish omelet in tapas restaurants, brings to mind fond memories of helping my mom in the kitchen as a kid. As it requires thinly sliced peeled potatoes and paper-thin onions, Spanish pimentos and the elusive chorizo sausage, it is a bit of a labor of love. It also requires a midway flip, which I won’t deny intimidated me. My dad was always my mom's flipper. Josh is my flipper.

You will need:

4 small to medium potatoes, peeled and sliced with a mandolin (1/8 inch thickness)
1 medium Spanish (white) onion, sliced with a mandolin (1/8 inch thickness)
5 eggs, beaten
2 tablespoons diced pimentos
4 ounces hard Spanish chorizo, diced
Salt, pepper and garlic powder to taste
Olive oil

Soak potato slices in cool water to prevent discoloration. When ready to cook, remove potatoes from water and press dry with a cloth, removing as much water as you can. Heat a 10 inch cast iron skillet filled with 1/2 inch olive oil over medium-high heat. Rub some of the olive oil into the sides of the skillet as well. Once oil begins to shimmer, add dry potatoes and cook until potatoes soften, but do not allow them to brown. Remove cooked potatoes to a plate and season with salt and pepper. Add onions to oil and cook until translucent but not brown. Remove and cook chorizo until hot but again, do not allow to brown. Remove chorizo to the plate with potatoes and onions.

Add diced pimentos to beaten eggs and season with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Once potatoes, onion and chorizo have cooled a bit, add to egg mixture. If needed, add a bit more olive oil to the skillet and pour in egg mixture. Do not disturb until eggs begin to set, then run a knife along the outer edge, and with the edge lifted, tilt and swirl the pan to distribute some of the uncooked egg on top toward the bottom and sides. Do this a few times until the top of the mixture is no longer runny. Loosen the bottom of the mixture with a spatula, being careful not to break or tear the omelet. Place a well fitting plate on top of the skillet and quickly flip the tortilla onto the plate, then quickly slide the tortilla back into the hot pan. Cook for 1-2 minutes, then remove from heat and slide back onto your serving plate.

Serves 4.

Skinny Lasagna

I wasn't suprised to learn that my favorite go-to lasagna recipe was not Weight Watchers approved. Oozing with melted Mozzarella, whole fat ricotta and bursting with pork sausage, the 30 points per serving calculation seemed about right, if not less than I expected. My mission was clear: make over the lasagna to satisfy my craving and not manage to blow my entire day. This won't be a regular thing, but being that it was my first made-over recipe, I've provided the nutritional data at the bottom of the recipe as well as the total Weight Watchers points (Points Plus) per generous serving.

For the sauce, you will need:

2 cans crushed tomatoes
1 medium onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 carrots, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 lb chicken sausage, casings removed (I like Trader Joe's Formaggio & Vino)
Bunch basil, chopped
Small bunch parsley, chopped
1 cup dry red wine
1 tablespoon white sugar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
Red pepper flakes to taste

For the lasagna:

18 half-sheets lasagna or 6 full sheets
2 cups light Ricotta cheese
4 tablespoons Mascarpone cheese
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 cloves garlic, grated or minced very finely
Small bunch basil, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste
¾ bag of baby spinach (whole)
1 ½ cups reduced fat Italian shredded cheese blend, or equal parts reduced fat Mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses, shredded

To make the sauce, heat olive oil in a dutch oven or heavy pot over medium heat. When hot, add onions and carrots and cook until onions are translucent, stirring frequently. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Add sausage and cook for 4-5 minutes. Pour in wine and reduce slightly, about 5 minutes. Add crushed tomatoes and simmer gently for 15 minutes before adding the basil and parsley. Season to taste, cover and cook on low heat for 6-8 hours.

In a medium bowl, combine Ricotta, Mascarpone, egg, garlic, basil, salt and pepper and mix thoroughly. Set aside.

To assemble lasagna, spoon enough sauce to line the bottom of a ceramic or glass baking dish. On top of the sauce, fill with one layer of pasta sheets (you may need to break some pasta sheets to completely line the bottom of the pan). Make sure that all the pasta is touching sauce – since the pasta is not pre-cooked, it will need to soak up the sauce to soften. Spoon a thin layer of sauce over the pasta sheets. Add a layer of spinach. Add tablespoon-size drops of Ricotta cheese blend over the spinach, about 9, and spread to cover spinach. Sprinkle ¼ cup of the shredded cheese mixture over the top and repeat with a new layer – adding in order sauce, pasta, sauce, spinach, Ricotta blend and cheese. Complete three layers and top the lasagna with remaining sauce and shredded cheese.

Cover with foil and bake immediately in a 375 degree oven for 40 minutes, until the sauce bubbles. Remove foil for the last 10 minutes to brown the cheese. Allow to rest for 10 minutes before serving. Lasagna can also be made ahead of time and stored either in the refrigerator or in the freezer until ready to bake. If baking from frozen, add another 10 minutes to the cooking time. Serves 10.

Nutritional data

Per serving: 403 calories, 42 carbs, 14 grams fat, 24 grams protein

Weight Watchers points plus: 12.6