Tomato watermelon + feta salad

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I know I shouldn’t complain when summer finally comes to Chicago, but where are all the 90 and humid days? It’s been a rainy one (which makes my herbs happy), and we’ve had maybe five days above 80 (which makes the SO, who is perpetually hot, happy). But after a particularly frigid/snowy winter in Chicago, I feel like we’ve been cheated out of the hot, dry summer we deserve–as if the weather should operate by some karmic code.

Maybe it will come to its senses in time for a sweltering August. Either way, this cool, colorful salad is dedicated to my dream Chicago summer–when it’s so hot and sticky that all you want are chilled and icy things, when the very idea of heating the stove or oven is laughable.

You may have noticed that the photos in this post are far prettier than my normal jerry-rigged, iPhone-filtered shots. I’m now shooting my food pics with a Sony a6000 (care of the SO!). I just have to learn how to use it.

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Tomato watermelon + feta salad
serves 4

Ingredients

    1/4 watermelon, seeded and cut into 1-inch cubes
    4 large tomatoes, sliced into wedges
    Juice of 1 lemon (a few tablespoons)
    1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
    3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
    1 tablespoon minced fresh chives
    4 ounces crumbled feta cheese
    A handful of crumbled feta, plus a few torn mint leaves and chives, for garnish

Method: Combine the watermelon and tomatoes into a large bowl.

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In a separate small bowl, combine the lemon juice, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste. Add the mint and chives to the dressing, and whisk to combine. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed.

Pour the dressing over the melon and tomatoes and crumble in the feta. Toss gently to combine.

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Pile the salad onto a large platter, and top with additional feta and torn herbs. Serve immediately.

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Filed under Salad, Vegetarian

Mama’s baked beans

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I’ve been eating my mama’s baked beans every summer since I can remember. Laced with ketchup, bacon, diced celery and onion, never was there a more perfect partner for Dad’s barbecue chicken thighs (or really anything grilled).

“So how did you come up with these?” I asked Mom a few weeks ago when I finally got around to learning how to make them.

“It’s your mom’s recipe,” Dad replied, smiling proudly.

“No, I think I got it mostly off the Great Northern beans can,” Mom deadpanned.

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This prompted a somewhat lengthy discussion of recipes from a jar/can/box, which Mom and I agree have become far too underrated among the younger generation of foodies. The truth is, big brands have big test kitchen budgets, meaning any recipe you get from a can or jar has likely been tested extensively and should be reliable.

Not only that, but this is one of few recipes in the world I would truly consider fool-proof. There’s very little prep and no pre-cooking required. Everything goes into one dish and it bakes for about 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp. If you want more bacon, add more. If you like it sweeter, bump up the brown sugar. If you prefer thicker baked beans, cut back on the ketchup. In other words, don’t overthink this one. It’s kind of a non-recipe.

Happy 4th, guys. <3

Mama’s (Great Northern’s) baked beans

Ingredients

    2 cans Great Northern white beans
    1/2 cup finely chopped white onion (about 1/2 a medium onion)
    1/4 cup finely chopped celery (about 1 large stalk)
    1/2 cup ketchup
    1/4 cup brown sugar
    Black pepper, to taste
    3 strips smoked bacon, cut into lardons

Method: Preheat the oven to 375F. Empty the contents of both cans into an 8″ by 8″ baking dish. Add the onion, celery, ketchup, brown sugar and a few grinds of black pepper. Stir to combine.

Top the beans with the bacon pieces, and slide the dish into the oven. Bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes until the beans are bubbling and the bacon is crisp and golden brown.

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Remove from the oven and let sit for about 15 minutes before serving.

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Filed under Baked items, Side Dishes

Things I wish I’d thought of

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I could start a whole blog dedicated to this concept–there are so many recipes and products I come across that feel as though they could have been a half-baked idea in the back of my brain at some point (shrimp cocktail-flavored potato chips?).

Then again, I’ve never been a full-time recipe tester. As a food industry journalist, I’ve mostly been at the other end of the pipeline, waiting for the physical manifestation of innovative food concepts to be spit out onto menus or in the form of consumer packaged goods so I can determine whether they are indicating the start (or end) of some trend or another.

That brings me to the latest edition of Things I Wish I’d Thought Of, salt and vinegar potatoes. Full disclosure: I wasn’t always a salt and vinegar chips gal. My husband has loved them for years, but until recently, I always thought their flavor was too overpowering. (I suspect the age-related dulling of my palate is partly to thank for my change of heart.) Now I love them. That astringent acidity that coats your lips followed by a satisfying, salty crunch. A heavenly chip.

This potato recipe comes from Bon Apetit, and it’s ridiculously simple. Cubed Yukon Golds are simmered in water and distilled vinegar to infuse the flavor before they’re browned in a skillet and finished with a sprinkling of chives and vinegar. Add a fried fish fillet and you’re in biz.

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Sea salt and vinegar potatoes

Ingredients

    2 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
    1 cup plus 1 tablespoon distilled white vinegar
    Kosher salt, as needed
    2 tablespoons unsalted butter
    Freshly ground black pepper
    3 tablespoons chopped chives
    Flaky sea salt

Method: Combine the potatoes, 1 cup vinegar and about a tablespoon of salt in a medium saucepan. Add enough water to cover, and bring to a boil. Cover and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes, until fork tender. Drain and pat dry.

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Melt the butter in a cast iron or other heavy-bottomed skillet over medium-high heat. Add the potatoes and another sprinkling of salt. Cook, tossing occasionally, until crisp and brown on all sides, 15 or 20 minutes.

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Drizzle the remaining tablespoon of vinegar over the potatoes. Serve immediately, sprinkled with the chives and a few teaspoons of flaky sea salt.

5 Comments

Filed under Side Dishes, Vegetarian

Poblano rajas

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I’ve been taking a conversational Spanish class on Monday nights at a Cuban restaurant in my neighborhood for the past few months. Over wine and bread with garlic oil, we clumsily discuss our rutinas diarias, fines de semana, trabajo, etc. Inevitably, the conversation almost always reverts to what we cook and where we eat.

This is my favorite part of the class for many reasons. Being a food person, I find the idea of achieving food fluency in two languages incredibly exciting. But we students all have pretty limited vocabularies when it comes to food, compounded by the fact that our teacher is from the Dominican Republic, so she is accustomed to a completely different set of ingredients than we are in the States. Trying to explain what a chive is in not-your-first language to someone who’s never seen a chive is pretty funny, sort of like playing Taboo.

“Es como una pequeña, flaca cebolla verde” (It’s like a small, skinny green onion), I said. Sensing I wasn’t getting anywhere, I tried to explain that chives look a lot like blades of grass, except I couldn’t remember how to say grass in Spanish.

During another class, my classmate was describing what she’d planted in her neighborhood’s community garden–carrots (zanahorias), lettuce (lechuga), parsley (perejil), and beets…Hmm, como se dice “beet”?

We spent the next five minutes trying to explain in broken Spanish what a beet is to the confused teacher before someone finally gave up and looked it up on Google Translate.

“Remolacha!” my classmate cried.

“Ohh, sí, sí, remolacha–I know what this is,” my teacher replied. Then she added with a laugh: “Sí se puede!” (She uses this phrase when any of us struggle with a nagging pronunciation, verb tense or translation, which is quite often.)

The class is humbling to be sure, but also a lot of fun. Plus, now I find myself translating foods to Spanish under my breath in the grocery store.

That brings me to today’s recipe and mini vocabulary lesson: poblano rajas. Rajas in Spanish literally means strips–and strips of blistered poblano chiles are the stars of this meatless taco filling, along with charred onion, garlic, oregano, Mexican crema and Monterey jack cheese. You’ll find some recipes incorporate little cubes of potato as well, but I like rajas best when they’re all about the chiles.

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Poblano rajas
serves 3 or 4, adapted from Bon Apetit

Ingredients

    1 pound large fresh poblano chiles
    1/2 an onion, cut in half and sliced into 1/4-inch strips
    2 large garlic cloves, minced
    1 teaspoon dried oregano
    1/3 cup Mexican crema or sour cream
    1/4 cup shredded Monterey Jack cheese
    Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
    Warm corn tortillas, for serving
    Red onion, minced for garnish
    Whole fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish
    Additional crema, for garnish
    Lime wedges, for garnish

Method: Heat the gas grill to high or preheat the broiler. If grilling, put the chiles directly on the grill. If broiling, put the chiles on a baking sheet. Roast the chiles, turning occasionally, until blackened all over and soft.

Transfer the chiles to a large bowl and cover them with plastic wrap. Let them steam for about 15 minutes. Peel most of the charred skin from the chiles and remove the seeds. Cut them into about 1/4-inch strips.

Heat a large dry skillet over medium high heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, until softened and slightly charred, about 7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute. Add the oregano and about 1/2 cup water and simmer until the onions are tender and the water has evaporated, 5 to 7 minutes. Season with a sprinkling of salt to taste.

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Add the chiles and cook until the flavors meld, another 5 minutes. Remove from the heat, and stir in the crema and cheese. Add a spoonful or two of water if needed if the sauce feels too thick. Taste for seasoning and adjust as needed.

To serve, spoon a few tablespoons of the rajas into a warm tortilla. Top with onion, a drizzle of crema and cilantro. Squeeze lime juice over top, and serve immediately.

2 Comments

Filed under Dinner ideas, Vegetarian

What my mom taught me

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Mother’s Day is nearly upon us. As I scramble to come up with a halfway decent gift (remember when we could get away with handmade cards and coupons for hugs?), I keep thinking about how much my mom has shaped my food philosophy and nurtured my love of cooking. So I thought I’d share a few of the lessons I’ve learned about food, cooking and life from my mom, Madeline.

  • Cooking dinner for people means you get to be the first one to have wine.
  • Don’t fear any recipe/dish/ingredient. The worst thing that will happen is you fail, which isn’t so bad because you can always just make eggs or order pizza.
  • Don’t waste food. Even leftovers. Even if you don’t like eating leftovers. Same goes for withered lettuce (pick it out!), moldy cheese (cut it off!) and expired milk (smell it first!).
  • Restaurants are great because you don’t have to clean the dishes.
  • Cheese omelets are just as good for dinner as they are for breakfast.
  • Eat fresh fruit and vegetables every single day. No matter what.
  • Don’t overcook fish! (She’s from the East Coast.)
  • If someone at your table doesn’t ask for seconds, they probably didn’t like the food.
  • If you can make a whole meal in one pot, you’ve succeeded.
  • Food is love. You should say this one aloud every day, because it’s absolutely true.

Love you, Mama. Thanks for making me want to be a cook. (And yes, you’re still getting a real gift on Sunday.)

5 Comments

Filed under Food writing

Because we need one more excuse to eat grilled cheese

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Guys, did you know that April was Grilled Cheese Month? Truth be told, I had no idea until late last week, when a large, heavy box addressed to Marge Hennessy arrived in the mail.

“Marge?” I thought aloud. This must be from someone in my blog family. Turns out, it was. My friends at Kerrygold USA had shipped a few blocks of their milder cheeses along with their rich Irish butter in celebration of this yet-unbeknownst-to-me holiday. So I figured this was as good a time as any for a little grilled cheese testing.

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I’m not a real prescriptivist when it comes to grilled cheese. All I really require is a bit of crunch (properly grilled bread), a lot of ooze (sufficiently melty cheese) and a hint of tang (either from natural cheese funk, a smear of mustard or even a little shaved raw onion).

The most crucial part of making grilled cheese is to get the heat just right so the cheese melts and the bread toasts at about the same speed. I’ve found that a cast iron pan over medium-low heat, plenty of soft butter on both sides, and several flips of the sandwich seem to do the trick.

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My favorite melting cheeses are: Fontina, Gruyere, young/sharp cheddar, mozzarella and Kraft singles (ain’t no shame in it)! My favorite accent cheeses are (don’t overdo it!): goat, blue, grated Parmesan and aged cheddar.

From there, I love all kinds of additions, from avocado to bacon, fig jam and apples slices to roasted tomato and blistered peppers. But like pizza toppings, I’ve found that a little goes a long way when it comes to grilled cheese add-ons.

For this grilled cheese test, I made these four sandwiches:
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  • Fontina + Kerrygold Skellig sweet cheddar
  • Fontina + Kerrygold Skellig sweet cheddar w/ avocado & grainy mustard
  • Kerrygold Blarney Castle (gouda) + Kerrygold aged cheddar
  • Kerrygold Blarney Castle + Kerrygold aged cheddar w/ roasted cherry tomato + shallot

All the sandwiches were made with the same bread, Tuscan pane from Labriola. I love this bread for grilled cheese because it has a fairly neutral flavor; soft, slightly cobwebby interior; and not-too-crunchy crust. If you can’t find it, good old white bread or Pullman loaves work really well for grilled cheese, too.

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The runaway favorite for the tastiest classic grilled cheese was…(WAIT FOR IT) fontina + sweet cheddar.

The fancy (AKA Margeified) favorite was gouda + aged cheddar with roasted cherry tomato and shallot.

I guess that because Grilled Cheese Month is over, I’ve technically failed you. But I prefer to think of this post as a win due to all the grilled cheese eating that it allowed to happen. Plus, now you have a whole year to test out grilled cheeses in preparation for April 2015.

2 Comments

Filed under Kitchen basics, Sandwiches

Smoked blue pasta with broccoli and walnuts

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Every time I talk to my sister, we spend at least half the conversation on food. “What are you having for lunch today?” “What did you put in your fried rice?” “What should I get on my pizza?” “Why am I always hungry?”

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Not only are we just 14 months apart in age, we also have incredibly similar palates and food philosophies.

Here’s a little taste:

    We both require starch at every meal to feel satisfied. (Read: salad with no bread is not a meal.)
    We feel compelled to eat a fresh fruit or vegetable at every meal. (Well done, Mom.)
    We eat omelets for dinner at least once a week.
    We can’t eat smoked salmon when we’re hungover…but we can always eat oysters.
    We will almost always take savory over sweet (especially if that savory item is pickled, cured or made of cheese).

That said, this pasta dish is dedicated to Mad. It satisfies several of our requirements for a perfect dish, per the descriptions above. Plus, no one–and I mean no one–loves blue cheese as much as my sister.

Smoked blue pasta is very simple to make. The key is to give each ingredient a little extra love to get the most out of it: roasting the broccoli florets till just singed; toasting the walnuts; and most importantly, tossing in a few ounces of blue gold, aka smoked blue cheese. If you haven’t tried it, it is heavenly stuff–albeit pretty expensive. Luckily, you don’t need much to reap its funky, smoky benefits. The moment the cheese hits the hot pasta, it starts to melt and mingle with the starchy pasta water to create a lovely, thick sauce.

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Smoked blue pasta with broccoli and walnuts
serves 3

Ingredients

    1 bunch broccoli (about 1 1/2 pounds)
    Extra virgin olive oil, as needed
    Red pepper flakes
    Kosher salt
    Freshly ground black pepper
    1 pound spaghetti or bucatini
    2 ounces walnuts, chopped
    1 large shallot, diced
    Zest of 1/2 lemon
    5 ounces smoked blue cheese, crumbled into small pieces

Method: Preheat the oven to 425F. Cut the broccoli into bite-size florets (and the stem portion into about 1/2-inch cubes). Arrange the broccoli pieces in a single layer on a large baking sheet. Drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and a generous sprinkling of salt and pepper. Toss to coat.

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Roast the broccoli for 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp-tender and starting to brown. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Cook the pasta in generously salted water (it should taste as salty as seawater), just until al dente.

Meanwhile, toast the chopped walnuts in a large pot over medium-low heat until they become fragrant, about 5 minutes. Remove and set aside.

Turn the heat up to medium. Add a few tablespoons of olive oil to the same pot, along with the shallots and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Saute for 4 or 5 minutes until they soften and start to caramelize. Add the roasted broccoli and toss for about a minute. Turn the heat off, and stir in the walnuts and lemon zest.

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Turn the heat back on low, and add the al dente pasta, about 1/4 cup of starchy cooking liquid and a drizzle of olive oil. Sprinkle in the blue cheese and toss everything together with tongs until combined and the cheese starts to melt. Taste for seasoning, and adjust as needed with salt and pepper. Heap the pasta into deep bowls, grind a little pepper over the top and serve immediately.

7 Comments

Filed under Dinner ideas, Pasta, Vegetarian, Weeknight cooking