Butler’s Orchard Pumpkin Festival

October 9th is James’ birthday and we’re in the midst of the annual multi-celebrations for this special day.  That’s what happens when you’re as beloved as this gentleman.

In addition to having friends over for dinner, James and I had decided to go on a food adventure – apple-picking, which neither of us have done.  Unfortunately, the orchard we had decided to visit had already harvested all their apples by this weekend but was hosting a “Pumpkin Festival” throughout October, where both pumpkins and red raspberries could still be picked.  Knowing that there would probably be a lot of families there, we decided to go anyways.   We’re both children at heart and often find ourselves at family-friendly places like museums and zoos because a) they’re mostly free here in D.C. (thank you, Smithsonian!) and b) we love to learn.  We also find ourselves having many philosophical conversations about parenting.  Since we have 3 new babies in our families combined, we talk about babies and families and parenting a lot.  I guess not the worst thing in the world for two young adults considering having our own family someday.  (James is turning 29 and I’m about to be 30.  Are we young adults anymore?  …Please do not answer this rhetorical question….)

When we arrived, and paid our $11 per person, we found that while this festival was probably a highlight of the Fall for most children, there was not much we could do.20141004_143434

We did enjoy some delightful Fair food: James had a hot dog with BBQ beef on top and a lemonade big enough to swim in.  I’m experiencing some pretty intense acid reflux from my gallbladder removal, so I enjoyed some delectable butternut squash and apple soup.  It was most likely made with chicken broth, which imparted a delectable savory-saltiness to counterbalance the sweetness.  I loved it!  There were tons of delicious treats to be had: apple cider donuts, caramel apples, soft serve ice cream, but alas, another sad fact of getting older is that we knew better than to spoil our appetites when we had pulled pork, mac and cheese and peanut butter layer cake waiting at home for us. 20141004_143152

We visited the petting zoo and enjoyed that quite a bit (we’re a little bit obsessed with the idea of having a pig as a pet.)20141004_145540After watching delighted children enjoy games and hayrides for a while, we exited the festival in search of the raspberry picking.

This was definitely our favorite part of the Butler’s Orchard experience.  James could remember a time when he went blueberry picking as a young child in the dead-heat of summer, but I had never done anything of the kind.  We boarded a wagon pulled by a tractor and went through a silly little “haunted” forest where there were some pretty hilarious displays of gravestones, ghosts and goblins.  The forest opened up to the raspberry fields.

You may have noted from other posts in this blog that I am trying to get more berries into my diet.  They’re low-calorie and their bright color suggests that they’re full of disease-fighting antioxidants.  Also they taste amazing!  So I try to eat them in my yogurt every morning.  A great way to start my day with fruit, too.

Raspberries are incredibly expensive, even in season, so I don’t eat as much as I’d like.  They also spoil very quickly at home, so they’re not very convenient, and therefore I hardly ever buy them.  However, they’re my favorite fruit, hands-down, and James said we couldn’t pass up this opportunity.

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All raspberry bushes!

It was a fantastic experience!  I wish I had taken more pictures, but we were a little bit rushed because we were having company for dinner.  First of all, we were given absolutely no instruction on how to pick the raspberries.  You get on the wagon, they drop you off in the field and that’s it.  We noticed that some berries had turned black and shriveled, while others looked plump but were white.  We assumed that we should stay away from these.  We concentrated on the bright red ones like you’d find in the store.  When you pull the raspberry from the bush, it pops off without a problem, and there’s a small, snow-white core that stays on the bush.

I know now why these berries are so expensive.  You can see from the pictures that the raspberry bushes are huge (practically as tall as me), and very green, meaning there aren’t many raspberries on each bush.  We are picking at the end of the season but you really need to look for the berries – some bushes only had one or two ripe berries left.  James and I picked for about 15 minutes and had about 3/4 of a pound of raspberries to show for it.  The harvest must be incredibly time-consuming for big distributors like Driscolls, explaining why raspberries can sell for $4.50/8 oz.  I paid about $3.75 for my 3/4 lb., which was practically a steal!20141004_154022

It was a short-lived adventure, but one we’d love to try again.  Learning where your food comes from is an eye-opening experience that makes me appreciate the journey of my sustenance.  If you can, I suggest going out to discover one of your local farms and what activities they might offer.

 

Banana Oatmeal Muffins – “I’m crazy about fiber”

Two years ago, I moved to Washington, DC to be closer to James.  I got a new job at a company that had a few similarities to my old, beloved position at the Walnut Street Theatre: a casual office with almost all young people my age.  And yet the Walnut had become my home – I knew everyone and felt comfortable being 100% myself, letting my freak flag fly, unleashing my passion for my work and my love of theatre.  The Walnut staff was truly my family.  So when I moved to this new job, I was completely terrified to be in a new place and didn’t find making friends easy.  There was a lot of talk about getting drunk at parties, which is not my thing, and… there was no theatre.  Theatre folk are a special breed of loud and gregarious people and I felt lost without the flamboyant, boisterous personalities.  I was feeling pretty lonely.

One morning, in the office kitchen making instant oatmeal, a very nice co-worker tried to chat up the shy new girl.  “Makin’ oatmeal, Bonnie?”, he asked.  “Wow. So many people in this office eat oatmeal.  I can’t remember the last time I ate oatmeal.”20140814_202533

Bolstered by his kindness to reach out to me, I replied with honesty.  “Oh yeah, man.  I’m crazy about fiber.”

Which lead this very nice chap, who I have had many good interactions with since, to laugh awkwardly… and leave the room.  Great way to make friends, Bon.

Despite this, I’ve never been one to shy away from the subject of fiber and its immense health benefits.  Yes, yes, fine, fiber affects your bowel movements.  In a good way!  Like Taro Gomi famously told us “Everybody poops” and fiber can fix lots of unpleasant digestive problems like diarrhea and constipation.

But beyond that, fiber is like magic.  It can help to prevent lots of diseases like cancer and heart disease and keeps you fuller than white grains, so you eat less and maintain a healthy weight.  But my favorite thing about a lot of fiber-rich foods?  It tastes great.  I’ve been subbing out pasta and white rice for whole grains like farro & barley and I’m so much happier for it.  They’re full of fiber and lend an interesting flavor and texture to my dishes.  Not that I don’t love some white food now and again, but if fiber-rich food actually tastes better – why go without?20140825_120441

The biggest problem I’ve found is with baking.  Baking is an exact science and experimenting with baked goods can be hazardous for the amateur cook – you can end up making something inedible and waste a lot of hours and ingredients in the process.  Replacing white flour in a recipe pretty much changes everything about the chemistry and I’m still learning about how exactly baked goods work in the first place.

However, I knew the internet would have my back.  I scoured the internet for a banana bread (because I had several frozen bananas in my freezer) with a whole grain flour to try.  The best recipe I found, with absolutely no white flour at all, was on Honest Fare and utilized lots of ingredients I had on hand: rolled oats, yogurt, low-fat milk.  I adore banana bread and I adore oatmeal – put together, they must be heavenly!20140825_120540

I tried the recipe exactly as Gabi describes (well, without the addition of walnuts or raisins) and it turned out pretty great – but the muffins weren’t as moist as I would have liked.  I still spread a little butter on them to reach the mouthfeel I wanted, which defeated the purpose of a baked good that I could enjoy AND feel good about eating.

So I thought a lot about the ingredients and considered increasing the yogurt or the milk but, in the end, decided to up the bananas in the recipe from 2 to 5.  Why 5?  Because I had a container of 5 smashed up bananas in the freezer.

The result was a little disconcerting because I needed to bake my muffins longer but was never able to insert a knife in the center of a muffin that came out clean.  Fortunately, this resulted in cooked-through but insanely moist muffins.  They did not seem to rise very much at all but the taste was delicious.  A baked good full of fiber that you can dig into for breakfast or a snack knowing you’re doing your body good: life is full of surprises.20140825_120504

Banana Oatmeal Muffins

  • Servings: 18 muffins
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Adapted from the recipe “Yogurt Banana Oat Muffins” on Honest Fare

Wet Ingredients:

  • 1 and 1/4 cups rolled oats
  • 1/2 cup plain, low fat yogurt (I used 2% Fage)
  • 1/2 cup low fat milk (I used 1%)
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (I used Turbinado sugar)
  • 1/3 cup grapeseed oil
  • 5 bananas, mashed
  • 1 beaten egg
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract

Dry Ingredients:

  • 2 cups oat flour (made from 1 and 1/2 cups ground rolled oats)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup walnuts
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Procedure:

  1. Preheat oven to 400ºF
  2. Combine all of your wet ingredients, including rolled oats and sugar.  Let the rolled oats soak in the wet ingredients as you prepare the dry ingredients.
  3. Pour 2 cups of rolled oats into your food processor and pulse until they’ve reached a flour-like consistency, about 25 pulses – takes 60 seconds!
  4. In a separate bowl, combine the oat flour and the rest of the dry ingredients.
  5. Pour the wet ingredients on top of the dry ingredients and gently fold the mixture together to combine.
  6. Spray your muffin tins with nonstick spray (or similarly grease) and fill each muffin bowl 2/3 full with batter.
  7. Bake the muffins for 22 minutes.  At 11 minutes, rotate the trays 180° and switch the racks of the trays.  A toothpick will probably not come out dry when inserted into muffins – these puppies are moist!

UPDATE: On January 23, 2016, I made these muffins again with 1/4 cup sugar and thought they tasted just as good.  The extra bananas add quite a bit of sugar to the original recipe I adapted.  Also, once I had processed the oat flour, I threw in the walnuts for a few pulses so that the pieces would be smaller for these small muffins.  Worked like a charm!

Pictures and random annotations:

Frozen Bananas: Let’s talk about these bananas, shall we?

When I first made this recipe, I used two frozen bananas, as described in the original, still in their skins.  What an experience!  Although the bananas were perfectly safe and delicious, this process was super gross.

I put the bananas in the refrigerator to defrost and thankfully on the bottom shelf – when I picked them up they were limp and had leaked a brown substance all over the bottom of the fridge.  Gross.20140814_204238 20140814_204358

I cut the tip of banana off and squeezed the fruit into the bowl to combine with the other wet ingredients, along with all of the gross brown liquid that came out of them.

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The bananas will be brown on top, but that familiar cream/yellow on the bottom. Everything is edible.

When I tried this the second time, I used a container of five mashed up bananas that I had frozen.  I similarly defrosted them in the refrigerator overnight, but they were much easier to work with and incorporate into the batter.  I recommend mashing the bananas before you freeze them, but probably best to freeze them in 1-2 banana portions.

Ground oats:

Some illustration to show you just how you’ll want those oats to look.  Also see video for how long you should pulse.

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Combining ingredients:

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Wet ingredients on the left, dry ingredients on the right
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Combined!

Filling tins:20140825_102053 20140825_101641

MOIST muffins – see how the knife was never quite clean when inserted and removed.
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Bonnie Mac and Cheese

The time has come.  It’s been years of pain, discomfort and embarrassment avoiding high fat food due to the 2 centimeter-sized gallstones in my belly.  But finally I can share with you all – I can eat cheese again!  Pain free!!!

It took about 6 weeks until I was finally ready to try cheese again.  The gallbladder surgery makes you feel funky and it takes a while for your body to figure out how it should digest again.  But at a rainy beach weekend with my girlfriends, I dared to say “No it’s okay – I’ll eat the pizza.”  They were terrified of what might happen to me (nothing that would be inconvenient for them, thank goodness), but we went ahead and ordered the pizza.  I went ahead and ate the pizza.  And then … NOTHING HAPPENED.  Which is the point!  No hot flash, no sweating, no cramping, no needing to lie down.  I could enjoy that pizza and that’s all.  Pure bliss!  (It was really good pizza with arugula and prosciutto, too, a fitting way to enter back into cheesedom.)

But enough about pizza I got in Rehoboth, let’s talk about cheese we can enjoy together.  If my title is any indication, as soon as I knew I could make cheese, I immediately bought some extra sharp cheddar and made the greatest cheese dish on earth: mac and cheese.  Cheese sauce.  Pasta.  Heaven.

One of my favorite things about cooking is watching ingredients turn into something else.  Which I know sounds “DUH”, but I don’t mean roasting a tomato, although that is amazing.  I mean taking cream and whipping it into fluffy clouds or beating together a batter that becomes cake (Reenie Cake, naturally.)  Well the Mac and Cheese recipe I’m about to share with you is another one of those – you take butter, flour and milk to create a thick, velvety sauce before your eyes that just needs cheese added to it. It’s amazing.

The recipe comes from my favorite cook book Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks by Linda Carucci.  I’ve given this book as gifts to many aspiring cooks because it is exactly what it promises – simple, easy-to-follow advice to make extremely stunning and impressive food.  Linda had me cooking risotto and cheese-stuffed chicken breasts very early into my cooking endeavors.  And she taught me so much about food and cooking that I’ve applied to many recipes of my own.  God bless you, Linda.

I make this recipe exactly (almost) as Linda describes and she turns fancy french cooking into something possible for this amateur here.  We’re going to make a roux, add milk to make a béchamel sauce and add cheese to make a Mornay Sauce.  Sound scary?  It’s not!  But it is weird

When you start to add the milk to the roux, the mixture seizes up into a big clump, so you need to add more milk quickly and keep stirring.  My only complaint is that Linda doesn’t describe what happens when you add milk to the roux.  She only says “Have faith and continue to add the milk.”  Rather ominous.

So in order to help you visualize this recipe, James, angel that he is, filmed the entire progression for you and helped me edit this video into true perfection.  This will allow you to see all the various stages so you, too, can achieve homemade mac and cheese glory.  I am here to serve. (THANK YOU, JAMES!!!)

This recipe asks you to be stirring almost constantly for about 15-minutes, which I really love.  It’s a simple recipe, but you’re really earning that creamy sauce, putting lots of love and effort into the dish.  You feel very accomplished when it’s done – and you SHOULD.  You just made homemade mac and cheese!  You’re the bomb.

Ready, Get Set – BONNIE MAC AND CHEESE!

(I do require that you refer to the dish that way from now on.  In honor of my struggles.  I think I deserve it.)

The following video will show you the progression of the sauce.  Specific times for each step are indicated below.

Mac and Cheese

  • Servings: Possible to serve 6-8, depending on how willing you are to share...
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Adapted ever so slightly from the “Macaroni and Cheese Variation” written by Linda Carucci in Cooking School Secrets for Real World Cooks

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb. medium shell pasta
  • 6 TBL unsalted butter (I use salted butter and adjust the salt at the end)
  • 5 TBL flour
  • 3 cups milk (I have always used 1%, but I’m sure whole milk would be delightfully decadent)
  • 2 cups (.5 lb) shredded extra sharp cheddar cheese
  • 2 tsp kosher salt plus more for pasta water (with salted butter, I ended up using 1 tsp at the end)
  • A few shakes of hot sauce or 1/4 tsp of cayenne pepper

Procedure:

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.
  2. Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.
  3. In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.
  4. Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)
  5. Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add. (0:42)
  6. Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time. (2:45)
  7. When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays in tact, without filling in.) (4:05)
  8. Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)
  9. Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired. (6:00)
  10. Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

Procedure with Pictures and Anecdotes

  1. Boil water in a large pot, add salt and pasta and cook until al dente.

I cooked my pasta almost as soon as I came in the door from work, far before I was making the cheese sauce.  When the pasta was fully cooked, I drained and coated with the lightest coat of olive oil I could manage, to keep it from sticking.

This isn’t usually recommended, because the olive oil covers the natural starches brought to the surface of the pasta when cooked, which helps grab onto the sauce.  But as far as time management is concerned, I found this much easier.  I like to cook my pasta in my largest pot, which gives it room to move around in the water while cooking, but it also takes a long time for the water to boil – sometimes 15 – 20 minutes.

The pasta cooled to room temperature, but when the hot cheese sauce was poured on the pasta, the dish  was heated back up again.  I found this tactic much easier than cooking the pasta and making the sauce at the same time, because the sauce needs your full concentration.

I enjoy using Medium Shell pasta, because the sauce gets stuck in the shells like delightful little bowls of cheese sauce.  Mmmmm…

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2.  Measure out all of your ingredients and grate your cheese.

Mise en place (everything in its place) will be your friend.  Again, the sauce will take your full concentration for those 15 minutes.  Be prepared!

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You can use any cheese in this recipe, although cheddar is most traditional.  Just make sure to do a little research on which cheese is a good melting cheese.  Not all cheeses melt well and can become stringy or clumpy.  Here’s a good article with a couple suggestions – I really want to try smoky gouda next.

3.  In a 3 qt. pot, melt your butter.

You can use a larger pot, but I think that a 3 qt. pot should be your minimum.  You’re doing a lot of whisking and stirring and a smaller pot could cause sloshing of hot liquid onto your feet!  Not fun.

Cut your butter into tablespoon-sized pats first, for quicker melting.20140808_201456

See video for visual of steps 4 through 9.

4.  Add your flour and whisk together roux for about 2 minutes. (0:23)

This will cook the flour in the butter, for added flavor.

5.  Add the milk 1/4 cup at a time, mixing in between.  The mixture will change texture several times as you add.  (0:42)

6.  Continue to add milk 1/4 cup at a time until the mixture turns smooth.  Add all remaining milk at this time.  (2:45)  (This actually happens at 1.25 cups, but I read the recipe wrong – ha!  I added all the milk at when there was just 1 cup left.  Things still turned out fine.)

7.  When the milk is combined, switch to a slotted spoon and stir in a figure-8 motion (3:24) until you’ve reached the napé stage (when you can draw a line in the sauce on the back of the spoon and it stays intact, without filling in.) (4:05)

8.  Add your cheese, about a 1/2 cup at a time, and stir to combine in between each addition. (4:15)

9.  Taste your sauce (careful, it’s hot!) and add salt and hot sauce as desired.  (6:00)

I think the hot sauce is clutch in this recipe, but I didn’t add it when I made this video because the dish was made for two dear friends who are also new parents and hot sauce is not for everyone.  I, personally, add the hot sauce and  pour the hot sauce over the mac and cheese when it’s on my plate.  The hotness cuts through the rich cheese sauce with delightful contrast.

10.  Pour your sauce over your cooked pasta and serve or store.

20140808_20391020140808_20392320140808_204114Oh yeah, girl.

 

Protein, fiber, fruit!!

I’m not getting enough fruits and vegetables every day.  This is just a fact.  So I’m attempting to get a serving of fruit or veggies in with my breakfast, which is usually just carbs – cereal, or toast with peanut butter. Protein, yes.  Fruits, no.

I started mixing Fage yogurt (discovered in Greece, now obsessed) with blueberries & honey but realized I was missing out on fiber.  Blueberries have a lot of fiber for their size and texture, but I wanted a bigger punch in the morning.  Gotta get in 25 grams a day, so I gotta start strong!

I checked out the breakfast section of Trader Joe’s and found roasted flax seeds – I bought an enormous bag of flax seeds for under $4 and put two tablespoons in my yogurt this morning.  4 grams of fiber, 3 grams of protein, plus Omega-3 Fatty Acids which are apparently really important for the body and our body cannot make them – so we must eat them!  I first discovered flax seeds in a multi-grain corn chip and they are really delicious – nutty, sort of like sesame seeds but… heartier, I want to say.  (I’m gonna get better at describing flavors, I promise.)  I’m very glad they are now living in my refrigerator.

As an addition to my yogurt, I consider them a BIG win.  I would actually say they brightened my yogurt, which isn’t usually a word I would use for seeds.  But where yogurt and blueberries can have very flat flavors, flax seed’s roasty flavor and crunch raised the game.  Healthy and delicious – now we’re talking, people.

I would have thought Flax Seeds would be very expensive, but not at my dear Trader Joe’s.  Seriously, have you not tried TJ’s yet?  What are you waiting for?  Unbelievable prices, interesting products, and they treat their employees so well that everyone who works there is going to make you smile.  You know you want that.

 

Spicy Peperonata – and a Pepper Problem

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This is one of those recipes that I’ve held onto for years and years and years.  While we’re on the subject of colorful fruits and veggies, this could not be a more perfect recipe to try.

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I think perhaps my favorite thing about this recipe is the dressing of lime juice and mint – a divine combination.  I thought the mint would “cool down” the hot pepper in the recipe, but that is not its role – it complements the spice in a very sophisticated way, balancing instead of counteracting.  It’s absolutely worth going out and buying mint.  (Or if you have mint in the garden, well, you’re just a badass, aren’t you?)

There’s just one teensy, weensy catch with this recipe: the spicy pepper.  Seems easy, no?  But this recipe calls for a poblano, which is a larger, much milder pepper than your jalapeno but with a similar dark green color, that often looks a bit collapsed.  Like so – poblano-chili-pepper

They’re a fairly common pepper, yet I have found that  a lot of grocery stores (especially my beloved Trader Joe’s) has limited variety in peppers.  Oh, they’ll have your various colors of bells (which is also helpful in this dish!), but beyond that you’re out of luck.  So what’s a girl or guy to do?

When we made this recipe about a year ago, we went to a store with a large variety of produce but with dismal labeling and couldn’t find the poblanos.  We found one that looked like a poblano, but it was labeled as a very hot pepper, and we didn’t want that.  Then there were these bright, lime green peppers that were a similar size to poblanos.  And from what I thought I had learned about peppers, the bigger they are, the milder they’ll be.  So I was certain that these would be fine and James, like the good and faithful man that he is, believed me.  Poor James.

After we sliced up all the peppers and threw them in the pan, we started to clean up because the recipe is practically done at this point (another bonus!)  James started to cough and couldn’t figure out why – he thought he just had something in his throat.  But then I started coughing, too – my eyes were stinging and water would not give me relief.   We’re both rather sensitive to chopping onions, which has resulted in quite a bit of drama in the kitchen, but this was different – and it was permeating the entire apartment.  That’s when I realized – the pepper I chose was not mild at all!  Indeed, it was so hot that it was sending its capsaicin molecules flying into the air and choking us both.   Capsaicin is the chemical compound in hot peppers that produces that burning feeling so many people enjoy.  When your pepper starts to affect you before you’ve actually begun eating, you know that pepper is going to pack a punch.

The resulting meal was outrageously hot.  We tried serving it with sour cream to cool the burn, which it did, but it really was not the meal we had intended.  If you love super hot peppers, then go ahead and try a different pepper in this recipe.

For me, I’ll continue to seek out the poblano, although the heat level will vary a bit every time.  Peppers are living things, after all, subject to lots of environmental differences that will change the way they grow.  In the case of the recipe pictures below, I made a special trip to Whole Foods which does a great job of properly labeling their produce and has a greater variety than Trader Joe’s, thus finding a poblano with just the right amount of subtle heat.  If you’re lucky enough to live by a Wegman’s, they also do a great job with labeling and even specify the hotness of each pepper – not to Scoville-scale specificity, but they give you a general idea.  Also, if you live by a Wegman’s, COUNT YOUR BLESSINGS AND NEVER MOVE.  That place is paradise.

Versatile, you say?  Oh absolutely.  We served the peperonata over chicken and farro but you could serve with anything – pasta, polenta, grains, toast, over eggs, over steak – even all by its lonesome.  My only regret this time is that I didn’t double the recipe: we went through it fast.

The recipe below I tweaked from Bon Appetit because I found their dressing to be incredibly oily.  I would just add a dash of extra virgin olive oil and increase if you like.  In my opinion, the lime juice is the real key ingredient in the dressing.

Spicy Peperonata – serves 4

Ingredients: 

  • Olive oil (I prefer extra virgin, but you could go extra virgin in the dressing and a cheaper oil for pan frying, if you prefer)
  • 2 TBL fresh squeezed lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons chopped mint
  • 1/2 tsp ground coriander
  • 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, thinly sliced
  • 1 red bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 yellow bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 fresh poblano chile, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 medium red onion, sliced
  • Salt and pepper

Process:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and coriander.

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

Process with Pictures and random anecdotes:

1. Juice your lime, chop your mint, and combine with as much extra virgin olive oil as you desire.  Season with salt, pepper and ground coriander.

You don’t need to grind coriander fresh by any means – but I have a spice grinder that I never use, so I figure, why not?
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In order to measure fresh herbs, I just take the appropriate measuring spoon out and use it to estimate how much herb I need to chop.  By no means does herb measurement ever need to be exact!20140714_174219

2. Slice your bell peppers and onion to about 1/4 inch in width.  Slice your poblano peppers to 1/8 inch in width, to spread out that peppery goodness.

You can compare sizes here: 20140714_181823

Make sure to use the tops of your peppers as well!  Once you slice the top off, the stems and pod of seeds can be very easily detached from the flesh of the pepper.  No need to waste an inch!20140714_180638 20140714_180937

3. Season your chicken breasts with salt and pepper.  Heat some more oil in a frying pan to medium-high heat and add your chicken.  Caution – this is a splattery process!  Get your chicken breasts crispy golden and cooked through.  Remove from the pan.20140714_184335

4. Add your peppers and onion to the pan.  Move the veggies around to coat with the existing oil in the pan.  Add some more oil until all veggies are lightly coated.  For a cooking process like this, it’s best that the oil distribution is even so the heat conduction is even and everyone cooks at the same time.20140714_184316

4. This process takes about 10-15 minutes.  Stir often until the veggies are limp and reduced in size by about half.20140714_185712 20140714_185724

5. Mix in the lime/mint dressing and serve atop chicken breasts.

20140714_193621 20140714_193628 20140714_193633 20140714_193639

 

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Blueberry Crumble Bars – delicious and … nutritious?

20140704_094254

I’ve long been an advocate that just because you may have put butter and sugar into a fruit dessert, that doesn’t CANCEL OUT the fruit goodness and nutrition.  You just have to admit to yourself that, yes, there’s butter and sugar in there, too.  Mmmmm…. delicious butter/sugar combo…

Since it’s the glory days of summer, when the farmers markets are piled high with colorful delights, I decided this is as good a time as any to try to pack my diet with all the colors of the rainbow, since this will then give me a variety of naturally occurring vitamins, minerals and antioxidants.

I’m not a doctor or a nutritionist and the amount of information about nutition on the internet is astounding, befuddling and sometimes downright alarming… and alarmist.  Since my Mom was diagnosed with cancer, I’ve been doing a lot of research about cancer and good health and good nutrition.  Soon after my rampant research began, I’ve made a habit at looking at the website before the headline of the article and only reading from sources I find legit and trustworthy, such as Mayo Clinic, government entities or lauded universities such as Harvard or Princeton.

This can be frustrating, because I find the more trusted sources don’t have definitive answers – because there aren’t many, especially when it comes to food.  What doctors have come to a unanimous decision about is that our diets should be filled with whole fruits and vegetables, which not only pack nutrients but fiber and are low in fat & calories which we know lead to obesity.  So I figure getting a colorful variety can’t be hurtful, even if the hype about antioxidants is untrue or exaggerated.  Plus it’s fun and so preeeeeeetty.

(To check out some articles on antioxidants, check out How Stuff Works, National Institutes of Health and Harvard University.)

When doing research about the proposed health benefits of certain vegetation, I learned that blueberries, due to their very deep blue hue, are regarded by some as the most antioxidant rich fruit out there and also incredibly rich in fiber.

Well, how very fortuitous!  I just happened to make a successful batch of Blueberry Crumble Bars for the 4th of July which is, quite possibly, the easiest dessert I’ve ever made, and now look – it’s healthy, too!  😉  Cookie BARS give you huge bang for your buck.  Plus blueberries are at their cheapest right now since they’re in season.

I’ve come to worship at the temple of Smitten Kitchen, a famous blog that all bloggers hope and aspire towards.  Deb takes the time to make everything perfectly for her readers, and we’re so appreciative.  I’ve written out her recipe below and then followed by pictures and description of how it worked when I made it.  Got a BBQ, birthday party or baby shower to go to?  Make these in no time and earn some serious baking cred from your friends.

Blueberry Crumble Bars (ingredients were not changed, but the method was adapted ever so slightly for our convenience.)

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 cup cold salted butter (oops, wait, I did change that – you know how I love salted butter!)
  • 1 egg
  • 1/4 tsp salt (yep, I added salt, too, like a rebel)
  • 4 cups fresh blueberries
  • Zest and juice of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup white sugar
  • 4 tsp cornstarch (I saw some commenters say that they used flour and it worked out fine for them)

Process:

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor.

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogeneous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer.

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until pan is cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.)

Process with Pictures

1.  Preheat your oven to 375ºF.

2.  Mix blueberries, lemon zest, lemon juice, sugar, and cornstarch together in a bowl.  Set aside.*  20140703_194744

*I have found the addition of lemon juice and sugar (even just a tablespoon) to fruit salad to be a secret weapon – it elevates all of the flavors and begins to macerate the fruit, creating a delightful sauce that is great for spooning over cakes like Reenie Cake.  Just saying.

3.  Combine sugar, baking powder, flour, cold butter, 1 egg and salt into a food processor20140703_193733

4.  Pulse until the mixture looks clumpy (or just let it rip until the mixture is homogenous, like I did, which also turned out fine.)20140703_19490920140703_194929

5.  Estimate about half of the dough and pat into one layer on the bottom of a 9″ x 13″ pan (be careful of that very sharp blade in there!)20140703_19560220140703_195555

6.  Pour entire blueberry mixture onto the dough layer. (D’oh!  No picture.  Don’t worry, it wasn’t that exciting.)

7. Crumble the remaining dough onto the blueberries as a top layer for an ever-so-rustic vibe.  Gently pat the dough down to give the bars some help.20140703_20001320140703_200027

8.  Bake for 55 minutes until the top is delightfully golden.  (I’d start checking on their golden progress at 45 minutes, since all ovens are different.)20140703_21010820140703_210131

Daytime pic!  Gorgeous, darling!
Daytime pic! Gorgeous, darling!

9.  Cool the pan on a wire rack until cookies are cooled completely.

10.  Cover pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate.  (I went with overnight, but I bet 2 hours would work.)

11.  Cut into shapes and sizes of your liking!  (I found that cutting the bars just a little more difficult than I an anticipated.  After cutting the shape and size you want, but before removing from the pan, I recommend sliding a butter knife under the bars to loosen from the pan.  That helped the pieces come out completely, with nothing sticking to the bottom.) 20140704_09353220140704_09352120140704_09420020140704_09440820140704_09425820140704_094254

 

 

Summertime! Roasted Herbes de Provence Tomatoes

Y’all, it’s officially summer and with that comes so many beauteous realities: warm weather, summer vacations, holidays galore, and as much sunlight as you could ever possibly want.  But, probably most importantly, it means summer produce.20140629_185400

For me, my absolute favorite summer jewel at the farmer’s market is the tomato.  Coming at you in all different sizes, varieties and colors, your possibilities are truly endless.

The tomato season varies by region, of course, but here in Washington, DC the tomato season starts in July and stretches until the end of September.  Of course, you can get tomatoes all year round, but I’ve found that once I tasted a tomato that was truly in season, it was hard to go back.  It’s not that they’re bad in autumn, winter or spring, just… bland.  They don’t really add anything to the party.  Smaller varieties like cherry tomatoes still have great flavor in the cooler months and are a great alternative.  (Bonus: explode your brain with this genius way to cut cherry tomatoes all at one time!)20140629_195220

But today I’m talking about big, beefy beauties in all their glory.  The tomatoes featured in this post are not necessarily at peak perfection: you can find bright-red lovelies in the store or at your farmers market just slightly later in the season, but I couldn’t help myself.  Farmers markets are a GREAT place to find tomato variety – grocery stores often feature the smaller kinds and vine-ripened tomatoes, but the markets will have heirlooms, which vary in color and size and shape.  These can be really fun to play with and add unexpected colors to your favorite tomato recipes.

I’m obsessed with summer tomatoes and eat them as often as possible in this delectable season.  And raw is wonderful, but I love them best roasted.  Even the slightest bit of heat will bring out the complexities of a tomato’s flavor.  During the summer, I buy 10-12 tomatoes at the beginning of the week and roast two every single night I’m home.  And gobble them up all by myself – James hates tomatoes.  I don’t understand how that’s possible, but frankly, more tomatoes for me.20140629_194734

As I prepared to write this post, I realized that roasting tomatoes is incredibly easy, but there are a number of tips to keep in mind so that you can enjoy true tomato nirvana.

Head Amateur Tips for Roasting Tomatoes

Use the right tools:

When I cut tomatoes, it requires two knives: the paring and the serrated.  I know, as soon as I did it last night I thought to myself: UGH this will turn people off!  But I hope you don’t let it.  When you think about it, cleaning tomato juice off two knives takes about 60 seconds total. And it is worth it.

Use your paring knife to cut the core out of the tomato.  Just stab in by the core, about 2/3 of the way down, and work in a circular motion around the stem, tilting your knife into the center so that the removed core is a conical shape.  I usually need to remove the knife and then insert again to slice the bottom off the cone so it can be lifted from rest of the tomato.20140629_18545620140629_185410

Then use your serrated knife to cut the rest of the tomato.  The tomato’s skin is unique – it’s just tough enough to be difficult for a chef’s knife unless you have a super-quality, super-sharp chef’s knife.  I do not.  Cut your slices THICK – a regular-sized tomato yields about 4 thick slices.20140629_18550420140629_185536

Season well:

My preferred seasonings, the ones I use every single night, follow:

  • Herbes de provence
  • Coarse sea salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • Roasted garlic olive oil

Herbes de provence is a mix of a hella ton of different dried herbs that are indigenous to the Provence region of France.  The mix is exquisite and will transport you right to the Mediterranean coast, elevating every dish it touches.  The key, I think, is that the blend includes lavender, which lends the most distinct flavor.  It’s perfect mixed into breading for chicken, seasoning on steak, sprinkled on popcorn and, of course, melding with the glory of tomatoes for a heavenly dish.  20140701_175213

The mix is a bit more expensive than other herbs at the grocery store (by $1 or $2) but it’s so versatile, it is absolutely worth it.  I buy mine in bulk at Penzey’s Spices and it lasts me for months.20140701_175001

Herbes de provence loves garlic and will show off its peak flavors when “blossomed” in a little fat.  For instance, when adding to popcorn, heat up your butter or olive oil on the stove and add the herbes de provence for 2-3 minutes.  The flavors will sing!  When adding to the tomatoes, I rub the herbs between my fingers as I sprinkle.  The rubbing can release oils in the dried herbs and makes them more flavorful.

Coarse sea salt – I don’t know why, but I think that coarse sea salt has a different flavor than fine sea salt.  It’s a little brinier, more akin to the sea.  The coarseness also adds a tiny crunch.20140701_174920

Freshly ground pepper: I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: pre-ground pepper is great, I’ve used it for years and I still use it occasionally, but the fresh ground pepper opens up the oils in the peppercorn for an entirely different flavor.  I can’t live without it now.20140701_174851

Garlic-flavored olive oil pro tip – don’t get botulism:

For years, I was making my garlic oil at home.  You take a head of garlic, de-skin the cloves and cook them very slowly (starting with cold extra-virgin olive oil on low heat) for about 20-30 minutes or until the cloves are the loveliest golden-brown.  I’d eat the garlic cloves with a little salt and pepper – exquisite.  Then I’d store the oil in a plastic container at room temperature.

I stopped this practice when I didn’t have my own kitchen for a few years (it does make your house smell like garlic, which I love, but apparently not everyone does), and about a year ago I tried it again.  For whatever reason, I decided to store it in the refrigerator.  When I looked at it next, the oil had thick white growths in it, which looked rather threatening.  I looked it up and, lo and behold, the bacteria spores that cause botulism can occur and thrive in garlic oil – the less oxygen, the better for them.  Geez – who knew something as simple and delightful as garlic oil could be that dangerous?  I mean honestly – BOTULISM?  I had been afraid my oil had spoiled, I was never expecting that!

(Apparently the chances of actually harboring botulinum spores in your oil are quite rare, but it freaked me out enough never to try it again.  Here’s a pretty helpful article that shows ways to make oil at home with the proper precautions.)

So, I buy my flavored oils now, if I’m not going to use my homemade garlic oil at once.  I like to buy flavored oils and vinegars in a small store called Olio and asked them why I got the weird growths in my oil – and why it doesn’t happen with their oils.  They said their oils are flavored with a complex centrifuge process, so that no pieces of the garlic are actually in the oil when it’s bottled for you to buy in the store.  You can also buy garlic oil in grocery stores pretty readily, but I’ve found the oils at this specialty store more delicious.  There are lots of these Olive Oil Tasting Stores near urban areas – Alexandria, VA has two!

With tomatoes in mind, you can also use garlic powder or garlic pieces, but garlic burns easily and I don’t like to risk it: garlic-flavored oil for me, all the way.

Slow and steady wins the race:

Roasted tomatoes take a surprisingly long time.  That’s why when it’s tomato season, I start my tomatoes as soon as I come in the door: shoes off, oven on.  Preheat the oven to 400ºF, cut and season your tomatoes and get them in the oven.  The tomatoes take about 45-55 minutes to roast to perfection.20140701_18025920140701_18542620140701_185431

I know – it’s a long time.  But the taste – OH THE TASTE – makes all your waiting worth it.  I recommend trying this recipe when you have a day off and can accomplish other things while the tomatoes roast.

I usually end up eating my tomatoes after I’ve eaten the rest of my dinner and it’s the perfect ending.  You’ll notice that parts of the tomatoes have been become black – the black part is actually caramelization and may be the most delicious part.20140629_195751

I like to roast the tomatoes in a non-stick pan with a very good coating (not covered in aluminum foil) to savor all the juices and each blackened bit, which can often get caught in the ridges of the foil.  The very good coating is for ease of cleaning – just a quick wipe with a soapy sponge is all it takes.

The uglier, the better:

We, as humans, are drawn to beautiful things and tend to shrink away from produce that looks wrinkled or with unfamiliar blemishes.  With tomatoes, however, embrace the ugly.  Vine-ripened tomatoes will not necessarily be beautiful, shiny spheres, but can have strange lumps and hardened beige scales.  Heirloom tomatoes can take on 3 colors in one fruit and be so lumpy they look alien.  Fear not!  The stranger they look, the riper and more flavorful within.

Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
Ugly tomatoes courtesy of cc-calendula.blogspot.com
SANTA SWEETS UGLY TOMATO
Courtesy of yumsugar.com

 

Piled high on a plate, the tomatoes will release delectable juices as they cool.  Sop these up with a piece of foccacia or sourdough – or lick them right off the plate.  No judgement coming from here.20140629_19515320140629_201815

At the very least, I encourage you to go enjoy tomatoes in any way this glorious season.  It’s almost like discovering these versatile little fruits all over again.  Bon appéit, mes chéris!20140629_195200