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I tend to do a funny thing with excess food that’s taking up too much space. I turn it into something else and then move it from one place to another. From fridge to freezer. From pantry to freezer (um, hello bean stash.) From fruit bowl to pantry. It’s more of a shifting of the problem than eliminating the problem, but whatever. I’m doing something and it’s not going to waste.

Recently I found myself with an excess of fruit. Again. It’s a frequently occurring problem. I’d picked up a bunch of rhubarb with no plan (no plan = frequently occurring problem #2) and it sat in the fridge for a bit. I also had a few containers of raspberries, over purchased for a holiday cake. I often over purchase as I’m a terrible at calculating how much I’ll need and I don’t like to run out midway. It’s less stressful to deal with an excess of fruit later than to run to the store at 2am to buy more. Trust me. So here I was, again, finding a use for excess fruit but this was an easy one. I’ve said before and I’ll happily repeat myself … raspberries + rhubarb is the superior combination. They are meant to be together. So was it to be tarts? Ice cream? How about a small batch of jam? Yes, why not jam?

A small batch moves quickly, which was important because I was short on time, and the method couldn’t be easier. Equal parts fruit to sugar. My raspberries and chopped rhubarb equaled 380g so I tumbled them into a bowl, added an equal amount of sugar and some fresh lemon juice, gave it a stir and popped it in the fridge. Two days later I brought it to a boil, cooked for just over 10 minutes until it gelled and poured the bubbly red mix into 5 little jars. Easy. Sunshine on toast. And the problem has now moved from the fridge to the pantry. Success. Ish.

I read a nice little description in a marmalade recipe by Master Preserver Camilla Wynne on how to tell when you’ve hit the proper gelled/cooked state. On a plate that’s been in the freezer for 10 minutes, place a small spoonful of the jam and pop back in the freezer for 2 minutes. Retrieve the dish, then give the dollop a nudge with your fingertip. If the surface wrinkles like a silk shirt on the floor on Sunday morning, it’s ready. Otherwise, continue cooking for a few minutes before trying again. Doesn’t that conjure up exactly what to look for? Bravo Camilla.

STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: EASY LIKE A SUNDAY MORNING. I’ve recently started composting and have become hyper aware of my food waste. Had I waited until I had a stretch of time, these lovely fruits would have gone into the bin so I’m pretty damn pleased I turned this into something lovely and delicious 30 minutes before my dentist appointment. I squeezed it in when I could. While my jam shelf is packed, it’s easier to deal with than a full fridge so I’m calling victory. My morning toast appreciates it. Plus I can always gift a jar and people will think I’m wonderful. They don’t need to know the real back story. Victory x 2.

other jams: Wild Blackberry JamRhubarb Beer JamApricot JamTomato Chile JamTexas MarmaladeBlood Orange Marmalade, Small Batch Spiced Plum Butter

things to do with jam: Simple Jam TartOatmeal Jam BarsThe CBJ (grilled cashew butter, cheese and fig jam sandwich), Baked Brie with Savory Fig JamJam ThumbprintsJam Streusel TartsSavory Jam ThumbprintsMarmalade Yogurt Cake  

thirteen years ago: Chanterelles & Fresh Pasta

twelve years ago: Sour Cherry Cobbler

eleven years agoSweet & Spicy Beer Mustard

ten years agoSour Cherry Slab Pie

nine years agoHungarian Cherry Soup

eight years agoGuinness Crème Anglaise

seven years ago: Carrot Green & Parmesan Bites  

six years ago: Pineapple with Lemongrass & Lime Leaf Syrup

five years ago: Salmon Rilettes

four years agoGreek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

three years ago: Pan Con Tomate

two years ago: Fresh Pita Bread

last year: Peaches, Halloumi, Mint Vinaigrette,  

RASPBERRY RHUBARB JAM

380g fruit = 5 small 4oz jars

Base recipe:

1:1 fruit to sugar

5% the weight of the fruit in fresh lemon juice (this helps the set)

My batch:

165g fresh red raspberries

216g chopped rhubarb

380g sugar

19g fresh lemon juice

  1. In a large bowl, combine the fruit, sugar and lemon juice, Stir to combine at refrigerate 1-3 days. If you remember, give a stir once or twice a day.
  2. When you’re ready to cook the jam, place your jars in a large pan with at least 1” water to cover. Boil for 10 minutes.
  3. Drain and remove the jars from the hot water and turn upside down on a clean kitchen towel. Slide the rings and lids into the hot water and put the lid on the pot.
  4. Placed a small ceramic plate in the freezer.
  5. Meanwhile, in another pot, bring the fruit mixture to a boil of medium high,
  6. Continue boiling the mixture, stirring frequently to prevent scorching, cook until the surface is glossy, the mixture clings to the spatula and the bubbles are large, rhythmic and a little mesmerizing. Test the set as noted above – place a bit of the frozen plate and return to the freezer for 2 minutes. Give the chilled jam a little nudge with your finger and if it wrinkles a bit, it’s ready. If not, boil for another 5 minutes and test again. My small batch was ready in about 12 minutes.  
  7. Turn the jars right side up, remove the rings and lids from the hot water and let drain on the kitchen towel. 
  8. Fill the jars, leaving ½” headspace. Wipe the jar rims clean with a damp paper towel, place a lid and ring on top and fasten the ring. 
  9. At this point, you can water bath process in boiling water for 10 minutes or turn the jars upside down on a wire rack for 2 minutes, then turn upright and let rest at room temperature, undisturbed, for 24 hours. Regardless of method, check the next day to make sure the jars have sealed. Any unsealed jars should be refrigerated and consumed within 2 months. Sealed jars can be kept at room temperature for up to 1 year.

It’s melon season in Southwest France and I’m crying that I’m missing it. They’re incredible – a variety called charentes with a deep orange flesh and a fragrant sweetness that I’ve never experienced anywhere else. So so good. When I visit, I’ll make a point of buying several at the markets and the farmer will carefully select and mark them – 1, 2, 3 – based on what order to eat them. Amazing. My dear friend Bill often makes a simple melon salad with a bit of piment d’esplette, olive oil and sea salt that is so great. I think he once pickled the melon which was also fantastic.

Speaking of melon salads, a friend got married a few weekends ago and the food was outstanding – shout out to Maison Cuisine. There was a salad on the dinner buffet that really tickled my fancy and reminded me of Bill – melon, red onion, cucumber with the delightful addition of candied ginger. I made a quick note in my phone for later (one never knows where you’ll find inspiration), grabbed another cocktail and danced the night away.

I can’t really get great melons like those in France, more’s the pity. Sometimes, for a short week or two, something similar might be at the farmers market but for the most part, it’s rather bland cantaloupes. Sad. My plan was to take one of those mediocre grocery store cantaloupes and see if I could zhuzh it up with some of these flavors, inspired both by Bill and that wedding salad. I bought one and that was the plan but then I did something typical. I forgot about that melon. I overcommitted myself and never quite got to it. But something amazing happened as it sat on the counter. That damn thing ripened to an amazing sweetness. Sure it was just this side of turning but holy hell was it good – sweet and flavorful and wonderful. Better than when I bought it, most certainly!

The combination of sweet melon, cucumber, red onion and those surprise bits of ginger with a bit of lemon juice, mint and a hint of spice was outstanding. Crunchy, cold, refreshingly wonderful, it’s another one for those too hot and too tired to cook kind of days. I had originally thought of adding some honey to bring up the sweetness but my lackadaisical attitude took care of that and I didn’t even need it. If your melon isn’t quite up to par, maybe add a little honey. Or just forget about it on the counter for a week because that apparently works too. 

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: PROCRASTINATION FOR THE WIN! If you can’t find a good melon, maybe plan ahead for this one. I can’t guarantee that a mediocre melon will turn into a great one after a week on the counter but it can’t hurt to try. 

thirteen years ago: Tart Tips & Tart DoughSour Cherry Sorbet

twelve years ago: Betty’s Pies exploring Minnesota

eleven years ago: Sweet & Spicy Beer Mustard

ten years ago: Bastille Day Bomb PopsSour Cherry Slab Pie

nine years ago: Spicy Pineapple PaletasHungarian Cherry Soup

eight years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

seven years ago: Blender Gazpacho,   

six years ago: Blueberries & Cream PopsiclesBeef Bulgogi & Rice Cake SkewersThai Grilled Coconut Rice & Banana

five years ago: Salmon Rilettes

four years ago: Greek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

three years ago: Strawberry Mascarpone Galette

two years ago: Pico de Gallo White Bean SaladSimple Summer Fruit Tarts

last year: Sorrel (Hibiscus Drink)

SUMMER MELON AND GINGER SALAD

serves 4-6

I like a bit of spice in this mix; it goes so well with the sweetness of the melon and the herbal notes from the mint. In the spirit of my French friends, I used piment d’esplette, a mild ground red pepper from the Basque country but can be hard to find. In its place, Aleppo pepper is nice but also may be a challenge to locate. That delightful Mexican spice mix, Tajin, is great or, taking a tip from Cooks Illustrated, use a mix of sweet paprika and cayenne.

1 cantaloupe, peeled, halved, seeded, and cut into 1 ½” chunks (6 cups)

½ red onion, thinly sliced

½ English cucumber, halved lengthwise and sliced thin

1 generous tablespoon candied ginger, sliced into thin batons

¼ cup fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon mild honey, optional

1 teaspoon piment d’esplette (or dried Aleppo pepper, Tajin or ¾ teaspoon sweet paprika + ¼ teaspoon cayenne)

½ teaspoon sea salt

¼ cup fresh mint, chopped

  1. Taste your melon: if you’re lucky and it’s very sweet and flavorful you can skip the honey. 
  2. Combine red onion and lemon juice in large bowl and let sit for 5 minutes. 
  3. Stir in piment d’esplette (or spice of choice), salt and honey if needed. 
  4. Add the cantaloupe, cucumber, candied ginger and chopped mint; stir to combine. 
  5. Transfer to shallow serving bowl and serve. Salad is best eaten the day it’s made.

I haven’t been cooking much for myself lately. It’s been all work recipes all the time and then scraping something together from the leftovers. I’ve been laying low, depressed and dismayed at where we are as a country with a low simmering, building anger. If one more white CIS males tells me it will be ok, I will punch him. It’s not OK. It just isn’t. I keep thinking back to 2018 when someone dismissed my concern over his presidential choice and lectured me that everything will be fine, there are checks and balances, blah blah blah. I expressed my doubts then, was summarily shot down and lo and behold, I was proven right. My concerns were real and justified. It was a classic deflection to avoid a difficult discussion, a be-quiet-little-lady response meant to make me feel small and ill informed. Except I am neither small nor ill informed. Because here we are. In the last weeks, I’ve lost autonomy of my own body, our country is veering into extreme religious rule, our courts are now politicized and there was a mass shooting 30 minutes from my house. Another one. We can’t go to school, we can’t go to church, go to a concert, watch a parade or grocery shop or go to a movie without a lingering fear we might die. We’ve become numb to it all and I don’t like it one bit.

In the meantime, I write postcards for pro-choice and sensible gun control candidates, I volunteer escort at a women’s clinic when I can and I try to get through the days. And I guess I have to eat. Yes, I am steering this difficult topic to food because as much time as I spend thinking, talking and writing about food, it hasn’t been providing the usual levels of comfort. That’s concerning. I don’t feel like cooking and I don’t feel like eating.

My savior? Much to my great great surprise … bagged salads. And that’s what I choose to talk about today. Bagged salads. Weird topic, definitely, but I it’s about all I can handle right now. In general, I don’t care for lettuce (what’s the point?) and I really don’t care for pre-bagged salads. They always look sad and droopy and the flavor combinations are surprisingly boring. However … I have noticed that Trader Joe’s bucks this trend and carries some really interesting and delicious mixes – not just in the greens but the dressings and crunchy add ins too. There’s texture AND flavor. Bravo TJ’s. It’s about all I can handle these days – bagged salads and frozen appetizers. 

These combinations gave me a rare moment of inspiration as I mustered up the energy to make something refreshing and crunchy, with a minimal amount of cooking. Just a lot of chopping. Something about wielding that big knife felt really good. It’s sort of Vietnamese and maybe a little Thai, with a coconut milk based dressing spiked with lime juice, ginger and my favorite, makrut lime. That last one may be tough to find – try a Thai leaning market. I bought a little plant this winter and have been happy to have a supply of fresh leaves nearby but I have a stash in the freezer too just in case. I’ve been eating a lot of shrimp because they defrost and cook quickly and I don’t have the brain space to plan too far out. The vegetables are bright and crunchy and hold up pretty well and sure, it veers into slaw territory, but I really enjoy that crunch. And right now, the goal is just to breathe and get something on the plate. This works.

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR. BREATHE AND FIGHT LIKE HELL. Maybe chop up a bunch of vegetables – wielding a big knife is therapeutic and makes you feel like a boss. Or just buy an interesting bag of salad but don’t be complacent about what is happening in our world. Don’t. At one point, America was the great experiment. No longer. Get involved. Write for Postcards to Voters. Pay attention. READ. Get your news from trusted news services and read it, don’t watch it. TV News is entertainment – don’t forget that. Read in depth coverage from publications that adhere to ethical standards of reporting and the classic elements of journalism in America. If they’ve won a few Pulitzers, you’re on the right track. And for crissakes VOTE. 25% of the population is holding us hostage by counting on our laziness and disinterest. Don’t stand for it. 

thirteen years ago: Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies

twelve years ago: Big American Flag CakeSour Cherry Cobbler

eleven years ago: Strawberry ShortcakeSweet & Spicy Beer MustardLife in Southwest France

ten years ago: Spanish Sunday Lunch – Patatas AioliStrawberry Hibiscus PopsiclesFarro Tabbouleh

nine years ago: Passionfruit Chiffon CakeBBQ Baked BeansHush PuppiesTin Roof SundaeWatermelon Aqua FrescaRhubarb Beer Jam

eight years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

seven years ago: Onion Rye Berry BreadRadish ButterSlow Roasted Spiced Pineapple  

six years ago:  Sedano e Pomodori (Braised Celery and Tomato)Pina Colada SherbetOrange Julius with Strawberry and Pineapple variations)Chicken Shawarma Pocket SandwichRoasted Cherry Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

five years ago: Michelada Style ClamsGrand AioliSalmon Rilettes

four years ago: Greek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

three years ago: Strawberry Mascarpone Galette

two years ago: Raspberry Rhubarb Streusel TartGinger Mint Lemonade Base

last year: Mexican Seafood CocktailSorrel (Hibiscus Drink)

GRILLED SHRIMP SALAD WITH COCONUT DRESSING

Serves 4

When grilling shrimp, I always skewer them. Makes it easy to flip quickly and avoid overcooking. Chasing loose shrimp around the grill is no fun. If you don’t have makrut lime leaf, skip it. Nothing else quite duplicates that flavor and the dressing is still pretty good without it.

for the dressing:

1 cup full fat coconut milk

1 teaspoon honey

2 tablespoons fresh lime juice

1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger

1 large makrut lime leaf, finely diced

1 tablespoon vegetable oil

1 teaspoon Vietnamese fish sauce

1-2 small fresh red chilies, finely diced or ¼ teaspoon crushed red chili flakes

for the salad:

1 pound large raw shrimp, peeled & deveined (21-25 count)

½ head napa cabbage, thinly sliced crosswise, about 4 cups

½ medium English cucumber, halved lengthwise and thinly sliced 

½ medium red bell pepper, cored, seeded, and thinly sliced, about ½ cup

1 medium carrot, shredded or sliced into thin batons, about 1 cup

¼ small red onion, thinly sliced, about ½ cup

¼ cup roasted salted cashews or peanuts, roughly chopped

2 Tablespoons torn Thai basil leaves

2 Tablespoons torn mint leaves

  1. The night before: In a medium jar, add the dressing ingredients and shake to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed. Refrigerate overnight to allow the flavors to meld. Shake before using.
  2. Pour about ½ cup of the dressing into heavy Ziploc bag. Add the shrimp; turn to coat and refrigerate for 30 minutes. 
  3. Thread the marinated shrimp onto metal or wooden skewers and preheat a grill to medium high. 
  4. Grill the shrimp until opaque and just cooked through, a few minutes on each side. Alternatively, use a stovetop grill pan or sauté over medium high. If sautéing, add a bit of oil to the hot pan first.
  5. In a large bowl, combine all the vegetables, nuts and most of the basil and mint. Toss with the about ½ cup dressing, just enough to lightly coat, reserving a tablespoon or two to drizzle on top.
  6. Add the grilled shrimp on top, drizzle with the reserved dressing and garnish with some additional basil and mint.

Hi. It’s been a while. My professional life has been incredibly busy and has sucked up so much of my recipe creativity, leaving little left for other things. I’ve been running on empty and leaning heavily on cooking tried and true favorites, generally just trying to get through the days. Aren’t we all? It’s full on survival mode. But I came up with something a few weekends ago and thought I’d share.

It all stems from my spare freezer, the one friends call my ‘magical freezer’. It is a bottomless pit of stuff, a giant magical mystery box full of things I buy with a purpose and forget. Leftovers from various projects. The overwhelming abundance that my little garden plot produces late in the season that I can’t deal with in the moment. Gifts from generous friends. Client samples. Oh so many client samples. Every once in a while, it needs an aggressive purge and that time had come.

I made a cherry pie for a holiday BBQ and knocked out 8 cups of frozen sour cherries. Boom. In digging out the cherries, I found a box of frozen spinach and a thick round of cream cheese dough. Couldn’t remember their original purpose and it didn’t really matter anymore. I could turn this into something. Rifling through the fridge, I unearthed some fresh dill and mint, a half container of feta and a jalapeno; all leftovers from an earlier recipe project. Hmmm. Some sort of spanakopita-ish hand pie thing was starting to come to mind.

And then there were the beans. Oh lord, the beans. I have a bit of a problem, thanks to the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. Every quarter, six pounds arrive and while I really enjoy receiving them, I’ve acquired quite a back stock. It’s just this side of alarming. (Is bean hoarding a thing? Lordy.) One look at that shelf and I made a vow to kick up my bean eating immediately. (In fact, I cooked up 1 ½ pounds this morning. No time like the present.) So anyway, while I was digging around in the freezer, I found a small bag of cassoulet beans, cooked with big ideas and no time to execute. Story of my life. Could I put beans in a hand pie? Why not? Use those suckers up. So that’s what I did: made a spinach/herb/feta/white bean filling and stuffed it into thin rounds of tender, cream cheese dough. Baked until golden and crispy, they were delicious. Even better with the leftover tzatziki I happened to have. The magical freezer delivers yet again.

Now I realize with this god damn heat, turning on the oven seems like the worst idea in the world. If, unlike me, you have A/C it’s probably not an issue but maybe bake in the morning before things get too fiery. Or freeze them unbaked and finish off later. Not that I’m advocating for re-stuffing the freezer but they are awful nice to have on hand for a quick snack.

STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: OH THE SATISFACTION. Taking seeming random things found in the depths of the freezer/fridge and turning them into something wonderful is a great feeling. Making space in my damn freezer feels even better.

thirteen years ago: Cajun Ginger Cookies

twelve years ago: Strawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream

eleven years ago: Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie; Lard Crust

ten years agoRicotta Cheesecake

nine years ago: Greek Meatballs

eight years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

seven years ago: Eton Mess

six years ago: Julia’s Braised Cucumbers

five years ago: Cream Soda Sherbet

four years ago: Lemon Sour Cream Pie

three years ago: Strawberry Mascarpone Galette

two years ago: Chorizo & Cornbread Strada (Savory Bread Pudding)

last year: Refried Beans

WHITE BEAN SPINACH FETA HAND PIES

Makes about 1 ½ dozen with a 4 ¼” round cutter

If you don’t feel like making a dough, purchased pie crust, puff pastry or phyllo work too. Look for one without palm oil, and preferably all butter or olive oil. Trader Joe’s usually stocks good stuff at reasonable prices.

for the cream cheese pastry dough:

8 Tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature

4 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

¼ cup whole milk

1 ½ cups + 2 Tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour 

½ teaspoon kosher salt

egg wash: 1 egg well beaten

for the filling:

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 medium onion, thinly sliced

2 tablespoons chopped jalapeño, about ½ of a large pepper

2 large garlic cloves, minced 

1 10oz box frozen spinach, defrosted

1 tablespoon fresh dill, chopped

1 tablespoon fresh mint, chopped

½ cup cooked white beans (cannellini, northern, tarbais)

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

¾ cup crumbled feta

  1. for the pastry dough: In a standing mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the butter and cream cheese until smooth and well combined.
  2. Add the flour and salt and mix on medium until crumbly and the butter/cream cheese is distributed throughout the flour.
  3. Add the milk and mix on medium until the dough comes together.  
  4. Divide the dough in half, lightly sprinkle with flour and roll between two sheets of parchment paper or plastic wrap to a smooth, even layer about 1/8” thick. Repeat with the other piece of dough and refrigerate until firm, at least ½ hour. The dough can rest in the refrigerator up to one day or freeze up to 3 months and defrost overnight in the refrigerator.
  5. Cut rounds with a 4 ¼” cutter and place on a parchment lined sheet pan. 
  6. Continue rolling and cutting, rerolling the scraps. Place the rounds in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes while you prepare the filling.
  7. For the filling: heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium and slowly sauté the onion with a pinch of salt until very soft and lightly golden brown, about 20-30 minutes.
  8. Add the jalapeño and garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 1 minute. Remove from the heat.
  9. Squeeze as much water out of the spinach as possible then spread out on a double layer of paper towels (or a tea towel) and squeeze out some more. Remove as much liquid as you can.
  10. Roughly chop the spinach, and place in a mixing bowl with the sautéed onions/jalapeño/garlic, dill, mint, beans, salt and pepper. Once completely cool, stir in the feta, taste and adjust salt and pepper if needed. The filling can be made 2-3 days ahead and refrigerated until needed.
  11. To shape/fill: Preheat the oven to 375°F if baking immediately. Beat an egg to make the egg wash.
  12. Working with 3-4 pastry rounds at a time (keep the remaining pastry rounds in the refrigerator until needed), brush the edges of one half with the egg wash.
  13. Place about a heaping mound of the filling in the center of each round (about 2 tablespoons). 
  14. Fold dough over filling and press to close. 
  15. Either crimp the edge with a fork to seal, or turn the edges of the dough over itself to form a sort of rolling crimp. (The hand pies can be frozen on a sheet pan until solid then transferred to a Ziploc bag for up to 2 months. Egg wash and bake directly from the freezer adding a few minutes to the baking time. Write the baking instructions on the bag with a sharpie to make things easier.)
  16. Place on a parchment paper lined sheet pan, brush with egg wash.  Continue with the remaining rounds and filling. 
  17. Bake until golden brown, 20-25 minutes, rotating the pans halfway through baking. Cool on a wire rack.
  18. Serve hot or room temperature with a complementary sauce if desired, like tzatziki or a roasted red pepper pesto.

When did fruit salads fall out of favor? Exactly when did they universally become a bowl of underripe cantaloupe, watermelon chunks, tasteless strawberries, hard pineapple and red grapes? What happened to those intricately carved watermelons that looked like baskets or whales filled with fresh, flavorful fruit and the judicious use of a melon baller? Remember when you could order a fruit salad on a restaurant menu and it was good? As a kid I used to make really elaborate fruit salads, prettily fanned out on a plate in mosaic patterns with a bowl of berry yogurt in the center for dipping. I haven’t done that in years. I think it’s time to reclaim the damn fruit salad.

I have an abundance of peaches at the moment, the result of my brilliant idea to get a summer subscription of Georgia peaches. They are wonderful, truly wonderful, but I can’t seem to get through a shipment before the next one arrives and that’s created a bit of a backlog. First world problems, yes, I know. I’ve made ice cream and sorbets, a pie or two and last night a really wonderful salad with salty cheese and a mint vinaigrette. A delight. The best fruit salad I’ve had in a long, long while.

The peaches are not my only abundance problem right now. The mint in my garden plot is rather plentiful. No, that doesn’t quite adequately describe what is happening. My mint is a beast that requires an aggressive trim at least twice a week to beat it into submission. I’m constantly looking for things to do with it as one cannot live on mojitos alone (news flash). I love mint + peaches so I dug up a vinaigrette recipe I haven’t made in far too long. A bunch of mint, bright lime, a bit of honey; it is lovely and exceptionally good with summer stone fruits. 

Anyway, I was thinking some salty feta would be a nice addition but a trip to the farmers market had me throwing a favorite cheese into my bag from a WI vendor called Brunkow. I just call it “Brunkow Cheese” but technically it’s a ‘juustoleipa” – a mild, salty, firm, sort of bouncy cheese from Finland that holds up to heat. It reminds me a lot of halloumi or the Greek kasseri. You grill or pan fry to get a toasty crust and a melty center. If you can find this type of cheese in your store, by all means use it, otherwise look for the more readily available halloumi or kasseri as it essentially works the same. Toasty melty salty cheese, mint and peaches are a wonderful combination, especially on these hot days when you really don’t feel much like eating anything.

STRESS BAKING THERAPY FACTOR: COOL RUNNINGS. I’m not even entirely sure what I mean by that but I’ve watched 1,764 hours of Olympic coverage in the fist six days and the Jamaican bobsled team is on my mind tonight. Weird, I know. But really, I think the gist is it’s hot and I don’t feel like eating a damn thing and yet, this salad went down really well. Fresh, bright, easy and refreshing; it’s all that summer food should be.

additional peach recipes: Roasted Peach Sour Cream Ice CreamPeach Buttermilk Ice CreamPeach SorbettoPeach Frozen CustardPeach Blackberry CobblerGinger Peach Hand PiesPeach PandowdyPeach CrostadaBourbon Peach Rugelah

twelve years ago: Tart Tips & Tart DoughSour Cherry Sorbet

eleven years agoBetty’s Pies exploring Minnesota

ten years agoLife in Southwest France

nine years agoBastille Day Bomb PopsSour Cherry Slab Pie

eight years agoSpicy Pineapple PaletasHungarian Cherry Soup

seven years agoGuinness Crème Anglaise

six years agoBlender Gazpacho  

five years agoBlueberries & Cream PopsiclesBeef Bulgogi & Rice Cake SkewersThai Grilled Coconut Rice & Banana

four years agoSalmon Rilettes

three years agoGreek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

two years agoStrawberry Mascarpone Galette

last yearPico de Gallo White Bean SaladSimple Summer Fruit Tarts

PEACHES, HALLOUMI & MINT VINAGRETTE

Serves 2-3

Ripe, juicy peaches are pretty important for this one. This would also work well with nectarines, plums and probably even apricots. I might even consider plump, sweet cherries. I sometimes also like a sprinkle of Tajin on the peaches, that lime-chili-salt stuff that is weirdly addictive (I use Rancho Gordo’s version.)

for the mint vinaigrette:

¼ cup roughly chopped fresh mint (10g)

3 Tablespoons lime juice

1 Tablespoon white wine vinegar 

1 Tablespoon honey

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1/8 tsp coarse ground pepper

⅓ cup extra-virgin olive oil

for the salad:

2 ripe peaches, pitted and thinly sliced

½ pound halloumi or kasseri (or juustoleipa cheese if you can find it)

Optional additions: arugula, Tajin (or cayenne)

  1. For the vinaigrette: add mint, lime juice, vinegar, honey, salt and pepper in a blender and process until smooth-ish.
  2. With the blender on low, drizzle in the olive oil and run until emulsified. Taste and adjust the seasoning if needed. It will be on the thin side. Set aside until needed. Vinaigrette is best within a few hours but will keep refrigerated for a few days though the freshness of the mint tends to fade a bit over time.
  3. For the salad: Leave the cheese in big pieces so it’s easier to handle, one or two pieces.
  4. Preheat a grill or or a dry non-stick pan over medium to medium high then cook the cheese until lightly browned and crusty on the outside and warm and melty on the inside. If in doubt, go with the lower temperature as the cheese will brown very quickly on a higher heat before it gets soft and melty on the inside.
  5. Cut the warm cheese into pieces.
  6. Divide the peaches and warm halloumi between two plates and drizzle a spoonful or two of the vinaigrette on top. 
  7. If desired, top with a sprinkle or two of tajin (or a pinch of cayenne) and a sprig of fresh mint. For more of a salad, placed the peaches and cheese on a bed of arugula.
  8. Serve immediately while the cheese is warm.

I ordered some takeout from a new-to-me Afro-Caribbean restaurant the other day – Cocoa Chili. The food was great – chicken yassa and plantains – but on a whim I threw a drink into my digital cart. A glass of sorrel. It was described as “refreshingly cool hibiscus flower beverage steeped with Caribbean herbs and spices and sweetened with cane sugar.” I was thirsty, I like hibiscus, it sounded good and I am always up to try something new.

Boy, was it ever good. How have I not had this before? Until very recently, sorrel to me has always been a tart, citrusy green herb that grows like crazy in my garden plot. I never knew it was also what some called hibiscus. I’ve cooked with dried hibiscus flowers but knew them more so by the Mexican name, flor de jamaica, not sorrel and have enjoyed hibiscus drinks in Mexican taquerias but it wasn’t like this. There was a spice flavor here I very much enjoyed. How have I not crossed paths with sorrel drink? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it a time or two but was likely thinking of the green herb, so I glossed over it time and again. Big mistake. This stuff is delicious. Cold, lightly sweetened, a little tart, a little floral with this haunting spice note. Clove? Allspice? Cinnamon? Ginger? What was that? I had a bunch of dried hibiscus flowers leftover from some project so I fired up google. I had to figure this out.

 

I learned sorrel (or sorrel drink, zobo or sobolo) is popular in Caribbean and African countries and the specifics of the recipe vary slightly. Every recipe starts with dried hibiscus blossoms (or sometime fresh if you’re climately blessed) then warm baking spices are added – cinnamon, allspice, ginger, star anise, cloves and peppercorns are all possibilities. Some might add citrus; I saw versions with orange, lemon and/or limes. The mixture is brought to a boil then left to steep anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 days when it is then strained and sweetened. It reminds me a lot of mulled wine and like that beverage, it is also consumed frequently around the holidays. Most commonly enjoyed cold over ice and it’s not uncommon to add a jigger or two of rum. Rather festive, I must say.

I’m not sure what spices Cocoa Chili use but I decided on fresh ginger, a cinnamon stick, a few allspice berries and some cloves. Because the hibiscus is rather tart, I decided to skip any additional citrus. I put the ingredients into a pot, covered with water and brought the mixture to a boil. Steeping time varied, anywhere from 30 minutes to 4 days. After reading all sorts of thoughts and opinions, I opted for a long steep time – 3 days in the fridge – partly because I felt the spices needed some time to impart their flavors but also because that’s what worked for my schedule.

After 3 days I strained out all the solids, and opted to sweeten with a simple syrup rather than straight sugar. I have very unpleasant memories of childhood Kool-Aid pitchers with a sugar sludge in the bottom that never really quite dissolved. Simple syrup is just easier and you can taste the sweetness level to determine the tart-sweet balance relatively quickly and easily. 

I poured an ice filled glass and sat back. Lovely. Just lovely. Bright and refreshing, a little tart, a little sweet with delicious hints of those baking spices. I love it. As an added bonus it’s absolutely gorgeous; a nice vivid dark reddish pink. Many consider this a strictly holiday drink but I think it is perfect for hot summer days. A splash of rum would be welcome and I think tequila would be quite nice too. Over the pandemic I enjoyed quite a few wonderful hibiscus margaritas. They will be even better made with this

So as these super hot days stretch out, maybe grab a bag of those hibiscus blossoms at your Hispanic or African market or even the Hispanic aisle at your regular grocery store, dig out some spices from your stash and brew up a tub of this delicious, vivid liquid. You won’t regret it.

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: FEET UP EASY. This isn’t really overly difficult; it just takes time. Hands off time to allow those flavors to develop. Start it early in the week and you’ll be drinking easy by the weekend. Curiously enough, hibiscus is known as “sorrel” in Jamaica and “flor de jamaica” in Mexico. Interesting, no?

Other hibiscus recipes: Strawberries in Hibiscus SyrupStrawberry Hibiscus Popsicles

twelve years ago: Peanut Butter Whoopie Pies

eleven years ago: Sour Cherry Cobbler

ten years ago: Life in Southwest France

nine years ago: Spanish Sunday Lunch – Patatas Aioli

eight years ago: Hush PuppiesTin Roof SundaeWatermelon Aqua FrescaRhubarb Beer Jam

seven years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

six years ago: Radish Butter,  Slow Roasted Spiced Pineapple  

five years ago: Pina Colada SherbetOrange Julius with Strawberry and Pineapple variationsChicken Shawarma Pocket SandwichRoasted Cherry Vanilla Frozen Yogurt

four years ago: Grand AioliSalmon Rilettes

three years ago: Greek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

two years ago: Strawberry Mascarpone Galette

last year: Raspberry Rhubarb Streusel TartGinger Mint Lemonade Base

SORREL (HIBISCUS DRINK) – loosely adapted mostly from this recipe among others

makes 3 quarts

for the steep:

3 quarts water

5 ¼ ounces (150g/about 3 cups) dried hibiscus flowers (sorrel)

½ pound (227g) ginger, and grated (use the grating disk on a food processor)

10 whole cloves

10 allspice berries, roughly crushed 

1 large cinnamon stick

for the simple syrup:

2 cups water

2 ½ cups (495g) sugar

  1. For the steep: In a large pot or Dutch oven, bring water to a boil. 
  2. Add sorrel, ginger, cloves, allspice and cinnamon; and boil until the hibiscus flowers (sorrel) begin to plump and swell, about 8 minutes.
  3. Remove from heat and let stand until cooled, then continue to steep in an airtight vessel in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours and up to 3 days.
  4. Strain the liquid through a fine-mesh strainer into a large pitcher, pressing on solids to express as much liquid as possible. If needed, strain again until it is clear of any ginger remnants. Discard solids.
  5. For the simple syrup: In a saucepan, bring water to a boil with the sugar. 
  6. Continue to cook, stirring, until sugar has completely dissolved. Remove from heat.
  7. To finish: Stir simple syrup into the strained sorrel, ½ cup at a time, until desired sweetness level is reached. Keep any extra simple syrup refrigerated for your ice tea or coffee.
  8. Chill until ready to drink. Serve over ice.

This weather. Ugh. It stifles my soul as well as my appetite. It’s over 100°F in Oregon and in Chicago, it’s been heavily raining with that god awful humidity that goes with it for a week now. We’re all drooping. Nothing sounds good. I want cold food that someone else makes because I can’t get up from the couch and that strategically placed fan. And yet … shrimp cocktail sounded good. Not the Costco tray that’s been sitting there god knows how long. No … homemade. That would be easy, right? Make a two-ingredient cocktail sauce and poach some shrimp? No big thing.

Famous last words. I went to buy the shrimp and noticed the seafood counter had some lovely bay scallops and gorgeous cleaned squid too. Then I remembered those crazy delicious seafood cocktails I’ve enjoyed at so many Mexican beachside restaurants and used to make back home for a spell. It had been a while and that sounded SO GOOD and it really is just a zhuzhed up shrimp cocktail so same-same, right? And just like that, my simple recipe became a whole other thing.

These tomato-y sweet spicy types of cocktails are often just shrimp – Coctel de Camarones – but depending on where you are along the coast, you’ll often see other types of shellfish or chunks of fish in the mix. They’re usually served with a sleeve of saltines or a bowl of tortilla chips to dip and scoop and pile on. Back home, my favorite combination is shrimp, scallops and squid but really, it’s usually just whatever looks good, or what I have in the freezer that drives my decisions. 

The key here, and this is where it gets a bit persnickety, is to cook the seafood separately and if I have shrimp shells, I like to make a quick shrimp stock first. I’ve noticed it’s becoming harder and harder to find shell on shrimp these days. So annoying. The shrimp I bought this morning only had tails, grrrrrrrr, so I pulled them off and made a quick stock with them. If you don’t have shells, that’s ok, just add salt to the water and move on. Regardless, the poaching step is the same for all the shellfish – bring the stock/salted water to a boil, turn off the heat, add the shellfish, give a stir, let sit for a few minutes, then into an ice bath. Note: if using squid, it really doesn’t take more than a quick dip in that hot water. Squid, like octopus, is one of those things that needs to be cooked very briefly or for a very very long time. There is no in-between if you don’t want to eat rubber bands.

For the sauce part, I like a sweet-spicy combo so I use tomato juice – V8 actually – and a bit of ketchup. Too much and it’s too sweet for my tastes. A good dose of hot sauce and then crunchy things – red onion and cucumber though you could throw in a bit of celery too. I add diced avocado because when is that not a good idea? It’s important to keep in mind that this is a meal not a drink so it’s on the chunky side with just enough sauce to coat the shellfish; not too sloppy, not too juicy. Mix it all up and you have a delightful snack or light meal. Shake up a margarita, make a michelada or pop a cold beer and you are all set.

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: PRETTY LOW STRESS. Nobody has the time nor the energy for something super involved right now. There may be a few steps that you may – or may not – decide to take but overall, it’s a pretty easy, low key kind of recipe. Perfect for the upcoming holiday weekend that is destined to be a scorcher. This is also when you dust off those sundae glasses you got as a wedding present years ago. While you could use pretty much any kind of serving vessel, glass is best to show off all the ingredients and it’s just perfect in an old-fashioned sundae glass. I’m actually shocked I don’t own those. Shocked, I say.

make this for July 4th! Big American Flag Cake

twelve years ago: Cajun Ginger Cookies

eleven years agoRhubarb Custard PieStrawberry Buttermilk Ice Cream

ten years ago: Whole Wheat Chocolate Chip CookiesClassic FoccaciaBanana Tarte TatinLate Spring Pea SoupRhubarb Syrup – Hipster CocktailsPuff Pastry Asparagus Spears,  Strawberry Rhubarb Crumble Pie; Lard Crust,Strawberry ShortcakeSweet & Spicy Beer Mustard

nine years ago: Banana Fudge Layer Cake,  Pear Frangipane TartsFresh RicottaRicotta CheesecakeFarro TabboulehStrawberry Hibiscus Popsicles  

eight years ago: Chocolate Bourbon Lard CakeRoasted Asparagus w/Stilton SaucePickled GarlicMorel HuntingFrybread for Navajo TacosButtermilk Panna Cotta with Vanilla Cardamom Roasted RhubarbMexican Chocolate Pudding Pops,  Lime Angelfood CakeRoasted Strawberry SorbetGreek MeatballsPassionfruit Chiffon CakeBBQ Baked Beans

seven years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

six years ago: Parmesan Pea DipPickled Green StrawberriesMango Lassi Freezer PopsEton MessOnion Rye Berry Bread  

five years ago: Smoky Baba GhanoushPete’s Special – Teriyaki Chicken & Vegetable Rice BowlSummer Fruit Ice PopsApricot Date BarsLemon Ricotta Doughnuts for National Doughnut DayVietnamese Flank Steak with Peanut Soba NoodlesDate Shake PopsiclesEasy Home-Cured Bacon, Oven MethodRadish Top Pesto with Sauteed RadishesJulia’s Braised CucumbersSedano e Pomodori (Braised Celery and Tomato)Shaved Asparagus Salad

four years ago: Cold Cucumber Buttermilk SoupGreen Garlic Soup with Poached EggsCold Sesame NoodlesCream Soda SherbetMichelada Style Clams

three years ago: Lemon Elderflower Quatre Quarts (French Pound Cake)The Perfect Light Crispy WafflePeruvian Roast Chicken with Spicy Green SauceChicken Wing Friday … Sticky Northern Exposure WingsLemon Sour Cream PieGreek Salad Piadini Sandwiches

two years ago: Strawberry Mascarpone Galette

last year: Chorizo & Cornbread Strada (Savory Bread Pudding)

MEXICAN SEAFOOD COCKTAIL – loosely adapted from this recipe

serves 4 as an appetizer or part of a lighter meal.

I like a mix of shellfish, but you could go with just one type if you like. Because of the different cooking times, it is important to cook each separately but since each only take a few minutes – or seconds in the case of squid – it moves quickly. I also very much prefer to make a quick shrimp stock with the shells but am finding that shell on shrimp are becoming harder to find. If that’s the case, just add the salt and go forward or use the tails as those are usually left on peeled shrimp. If you opt for squid, try to find it already cleaned to save some work but if you must do it yourself, clean the squid and inspect it for featherbones, remove the beaks and ink sacs. Slice into ¼” rings and cut the tentacles in half if overly large. For the hot sauce, Valentina, Cholula or Tapitio work perfectly but use what you have, however, if it’s a particularly spicy brand, go easy at first. 

For the shellfish:

3 ½ cups water

1 Tablespoon kosher salt

Shrimp shells, if you have them

1 ¼ pounds shellfish

  • large shrimp (26-30 per pound), peeled (shells/tails reserved) and deveined
  • bay scallops
  • squid/calamari, cleaned (see note above) sliced into ¼” rings, larger tentacles cut into bite sized pieces.

Ice bath

For the cocktail:

1 ¼ cup V8 or tomato juice, chilled

¼ cup ketchup

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon ground black pepper

3 Tablespoons lime juice (about 2 limes), plus lime wedges for serving

2 teaspoons hot sauce, plus extra for serving

½ cup English or Persian cucumber, cut into ½” dice

1 cup finely chopped red onion

1 avocado, halved, pitted, and cut into ½” dice

¼ cup chopped fresh cilantro

For serving:

Saltines or tortilla chips

Lime wedges 

Hot sauce 

  1. for the shellfish: if you have shrimp shells, make a quick shrimp stock by bringing the water and salt to a boil.
  2. Add the shrimp shells (or tails), reduce to a very low boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
  3. Strain out and discard the shells and return the liquid to the pot. 
  4. Bring the poaching liquid back to a boil (if you don’t have shrimp shells, bring the water and salt to a boil and proceed).
  5. Prepare an ice bath and set aside then cook the shellfish separately:
    • Shrimp: bring the poaching liquid to a boil then turn off heat. Add the shrimp, give a stir and let sit off heat for 5 minutes. Remove the shrimp with a slotted spoon and plunge immediately into an ice bath to cool completely.
    • Bay scallops: bring the poaching liquid to a boil then turn off heat. Add the scallops, give a stir and let sit off heat for 5 minutes. Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon and plunge immediately into an ice bath to cool completely.
    • Squid/Calamari: this is a quick one. Bring the poaching liquid to a boil then turn off heat. Add the squid, give a stir and let cook off heat for 10 seconds. Remove the squid with a slotted spoon and plunge immediately into an ice bath to cool completely.
  6. Remove the shellfish from the ice bath, pat dry then cut into bite size pieces – the shrimp into 3-4 pieces, the scallops in half if large and any large squid pieces into smaller bits if needed. 
  7. For the cocktail: combine V8 or tomato juice, ketchup, lime juice, hot sauce, salt and pepper in medium bowl. Taste and adjust for seasoning if needed.
  8. Add cucumber, red onion, and cooked shellfish and stir until evenly coated. 
  9. Gently fold in the avocado and cilantro. 
  10. Divide the mix between individual bowls or glasses and serve immediately with saltines, lime wedges, and extra hot sauce.

Beans have taken over my life as of late. I have pounds upon pounds of beautiful heirloom beans in my pantry, the welcome if overwhelming results of membership in the Rancho Gordo Bean Club. Six pounds arriving on my doorstep every three months has proven a bit overwhelming and there’s another shipment due in the next week. In addition to all that, I have a case of canned beans of various varieties currently sitting on my dining room table, leftovers from work projects. There are beans everywhere. Everywhere. Because of this, I’ve sort of rediscovered my love of refried beans. Sure, I’ve been making more complicated curries and lentil dishes and Mediterranean inspired bean salads, but it’s the humble refrieds I’ve turned to time and again. When I get a burrito from the corner joint, I always get a side of beans and chips. It’s one of my favorite snacks. A plate of creamy cheese topped beans scooped with chips? What can be better? 

I’m long past the days of opening a pasty can of Rosarita refrieds, though I did that for ages. As soon as I discovered how easy they are to do myself, I never turned back. To be clear, if using canned beans this will all be finished in about 15 minutes, HOWEVER, refrieds made from dried beans, especially a good quality dried bean, are vastly superior. It’s true but it takes a bit of time and planning, something I don’t always have or do. Have I come home from a busy day and popped a can of beans and had something to eat in a few minutes? Absolutely. Was it delicious and satisfying? Absolutely. Do what you need to do.

Dried beans usually, but not always, benefit from a soak. If your beans are very fresh, a few hours will do. If you’re not sure of their freshness, they’ve likely been sitting on the grocery store shelf for years so soak them overnight. Lately, I’ve preferred soaking them in a brine as I find them better seasoned in the end. This involves adding a Tablespoon or so of salt to the soaking water. You can cook in this liquid, however, I’ve been guilty of terribly oversalting my beans lately so I’ve been draining and cooking in fresh water. Put the beans in a pot and cover with several inches of cold water; maybe toss in a a bay leaf and a few garlic cloves too. Bring to a hard rolling boil for 10 minutes then lower the heat and simmer until tender, checking the water levels occasionally – do not let the water boil off. Again, this length of time will depend highly on how fresh your beans are. (My pintos were very fresh, had a 4 hour soak and took 1 hour at a low simmer to get tender.) 

Another favorite method is to pop the covered pan into a low-ish oven to cook (300°F). This has many advantages: you don’t have to keep an eye on them as closely and the water rarely boils off. That said, I don’t always like firing up the oven in the hot summer months though I do appreciate the hands off approach and find they cook more evenly this way. 

Regarding pressure cookers/Instant Pots: many like to use them to cook dried beans though it’s never been my favorite method as I find it cooks dried beans inconsistently. That said, you can’t really beat the speed and convenience – no real need to soak and they’re ready in maybe ½ hour. Overcooking, a common problem with pressure cookers, isn’t really an issue here since these are going to be mashed anyway. The final option, of course, is to use canned beans, the simplest choice of them all. 

Once you have your beans sorted, it’s really very easy. All you need is a few simple things: some kind of fat, maybe something aromatic, a bit of liquid and something to mash with, like a fork. That’s really it though they can be jazzed up in a myriad of ways.

  • Beans: any variety really, though pinto or black are most traditional. Dried or canned. If canned, drain and rinse. If dry, soak (or not) and cook until tender.
  • Fat: personally, I think a little lard or bacon fat is best but any oil will do. Even butter. And you know what’s really good? That orange fat left in the pan from frying up some chorizo. Yep.
  • Aromatics: not necessary, but nice. This could be a bit of onion, a minced garlic clove or diced jalapeno. Just a little something to add a bit of flavor, sautéed up in that fat before the beans are added.
  • Liquid: if cooking from dried, use that flavorful cooking liquid. If not, use stock or even water. I’ve also used a splash of milk for extra creamy beans.
  • Spices: salt is the only requirement – beans need salt – but maybe a bit of ground cumin or chili powder would be nice. Cayenne and coriander wouldn’t be out of place. Sometimes I’ll add a shake of adobo seasoning.
  • Cheese: definitely cheese, whether that’s cheddar, cotija, queso fresca, chihuahua. Anything nice and melty. You don’t need much, just a healthy pinch, but cheese is non-negotiable. I often will stir a little into the beans too or put a bit in the bottom of the serving bowl before adding the beans.
  • Toppings: keep in mind you’re not making nachos here (yet) so just a little bit of something extra for a little flavor and/or texture can be nice. Anything goes. As mentioned, cheese is a must but something crunchy is always nice – diced radishes, pickled jalapenos, scallions, pickled onion, diced tomato. Just a sprinkling. I particularly like a bit of chopped raw onion. A pinch of cilantro, a spoonful of salsa, a dollop of sour cream, a squirt of lime or a shake of hot sauce. A handful of crushed fried pork skins is delightful as is some diced avocado. A bit of crumbled cooked chorizo is a wonder. 
  • To serve: I like them best scooped with tortilla chips or warmed tortillas, but I might cook up a quick cheese crisp for dipping, and perhaps a fried egg. And I have been known to just eat them out of the pan with a spoon on a particularly bad day. 

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: MASH THERAPY. There’s something to be said for the therapeutic benefits of beating the hell out of something. Mashing beans can be very satisfying. Add to this the sheer comfort of eating something warm and creamy and this is a win-win type of situation on all fronts. This has been a year of non-stop cooking for us all – often breakfast, lunch, dinner and endless snacks – and I often hear “I’m out of ideas. Just tell me what to make for dinner.” Make this. Throw some bowls of beans on the table, topped with a handful of chips and a variety of stuff to customize and let ‘em all go to town.

other bean recipes: Navy Bean Soup, BBQ Baked Beans, Pico de Gallo White Bean Salad, Modern Three Bean Salad, Lulu’s Two Bean Salad, Cowboy Beans, Borlotti Beans with Italian Sausages and Fennel-Pepper Relish, Rosemary White Beans with Toasted Breadcrumbs, Gjelina Style Roasted Beets with Spiced Lentils

twelve years ago: Brown Butter Banana Bread

eleven years ago: Almond Tea Cake

ten years ago: Smoky Ginger Bacon Cookies

nine years ago: Buttermilk BiscuitsRamp Green KimchiCoconut Layer Cake

eight years ago: Scallion PancakesRendering Lard

seven years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

six years ago: Crispy Prosciutto

five years ago: Coconut Tres Leches Ice CreamMashed Peas with Chile and Mint

four years ago: Bacon Fat PolvorónesPlantain Chips with Cilantro Dipping Sauce

three years ago: Lemon Knot CookiesYellow Pickled Cauliflower & Carrots

two years ago: Raspberry Cream Cheese Coffeecake

last year: Chorizo & Cornbread Strada (Savory Bread Pudding) 

REFRIED BEANS

Serves 4, can be double or halved or tripled.

4 Tablespoons fat – lard, bacon fat, drippings from Mexican chorizo, butter or good-quality vegetable oil

1 small onion, chopped (or whatever aromatic you desire)

3 cups drained cooked or canned beans – pinto, black, pink or whatever 

Reserved cooking liquid, water, stock or milk

salt and pepper

Optional seasoning: 2 teaspoons ground cumin + ¼ teaspoon cayenne, or to taste

Optional toppings of choice (see above)

Warm tortillas or tortilla chips for serving 

  1. Put half the fat of choice in a large skillet over medium heat. 
  2. Sauté the onion until soft, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add the remaining fat and when hot, add the beans. 
  4. Mash with a large fork or potato masher to break up and stir around.
  5. Add a good pinch each of salt and pepper (and the optional seasonings, if desired).
  6. Continue to cook and mash until the beans are more or less broken up (a little chunky is fine), adding reserved cooking liquid as needed to keep from being too dry.
  7. Add more cooking liquid or water to adjust to the consistency you like. I often like to simmer them for a while with some additional liquid to make them nice and creamy.
  8. Taste and adjust the seasoning. Garnish as desired and serve with warm tortillas, chips or whatever you like.

It’s full on ramp season right now in Chicago and people are losing their god damn minds. Happens every year for those few weeks. For those that don’t know, ramps are wild onions that are foraged in these parts. They look like a scallion with bits of purple and wide green leaves, taste like a cross between an onion and garlic and are a sure sign that spring has arrived. Every year I get a pound or two from a friend and every year I’m a little stumped on what to do with them. I’ve pickled, I’ve kimchi’d, I’ve pesto-ed and I’ve learned a few things along the way. One, I don’t care for pickled ramps. Two, ramp green kimchi is the best thing ever and is stunningly, shockingly even, pungent. Whew. Three, my friend Joe makes better ramp pesto than I and sells it from his stand at the farmers market for 10 bucks. Worth it. And finally, I’m always looking for new ideas. This year I took about two pounds of gorgeous ramps and made a few things: I grilled a handful and used them on a pizza, made a little pesto (which is how I know Joe’s is better) then I turned the greens into kimchi, because it’s wonderful and I love it, funk and all. But I still had a bunch of bulbs to deal with. What to do. What to do.

So I turned to that helpful little tool we call google and asked: “what do I do with ramps?” I came across an article on the Food & Wine site – “16 Chefs on Their Favorite Ways to Cook Ramps” – super helpful! The very first post from Chef Cedric Vongerichten caught my interest: “Sambal matah is a traditional sauce/condiment that first originated in Bali. My variation of sambal matah sauce uses lemongrass, kaffir, lime, chilies, and I replace shallots with ramps for a seasonal component. The bulb of the ramp is grilled, and the green stem is chopped. I love to pair it with a piece of fish, lamb, or suckling pig.” Ummmm. I could get on board with this one.

I loved this idea and started googling “sambal matah” for a better idea on how to make the stuff. Just reading about the tart-sweet-spicy combination had my mouth watering. It’s all those wonderful southeast Asian flavors that I love. Lemongrass. Lime. Garlic. Makrut lime leaves (previously known as kaffir lime and one of my very favorite ingredients ever). Chilies. Normally made with thinly sliced shallots, I loved the idea of replacing those with thinly sliced ramps as their garlicky flavor would work so well with the other ingredients. I set about rounding things up.

I already had the ramps so that was easy and I opted to use just the bulbs, sliced raw as the shallots would be. What I hadn’t counted on was the challenge in finding the lime leaves. I actually have a small lime leaf tree that I’ve carefully coddled for years but the poor thing had a rough winter, much like us all. It shed all its leaves a few months ago in some kind of protest and I’m slowly nursing it back to health. Since it had no leaves to give, I stalked my local Thai market. It took three trips – three! – to track them down (I discovered that they get small infrequent shipments that are often sold out by noon) but I finally snagged some for myself. I realize this isn’t an option for many but I do encourage you to seek them out; they’re wonderful. Failing that, you can substitute regular lime zest for the makrut leaves. It won’t be quite the same but it will be delicious. 

At the same market I easily found the rest – the shrimp paste, Thai chilies, lemongrass and some fat juicy limes. Finely chopped/sliced and all mixed together with a few other things, it was mighty delicious but there’s one final step that takes it to the next level: hot oil. Heat oil to sizzling then add lemongrass and a bit of shrimp paste, then pour it over the mixture. It pops and sputters and brightens all the flavors. I found a lot of conflicting information on which oil to use; many said coconut, others said vegetable and a few said peanut. In the end, I went with coconut for the flavor but am fully aware of the drawbacks. Coconut oil solidifies when refrigerated; not ideal. I countered this by leaving it at room temp until needed (about an hour) and rather than heating the refrigerated leftovers, I let the container to sit on top of my oven/stovetop to warm ever so slightly and gently. Worked perfectly. 

I grilled off a piece of arctic char and simply spooned the sambal on top. It was utterly delicious. Mouthwatering crazy delicious. So good I thought about eating it twice in one day. I never do that. Bright and fresh and spicy and tart, it was fantastic on that piece of fish, reminiscent a bit of a Southeast Asian pico de gallo. I could easily see it paired with something rich and fatty, like pork or fried chicken as the chef recommends; the acidity would work so well with the rich meat. This was a great find and one I’ll make with the shallots those other 49 weeks ramps aren’t in season.

STRESS THERAPY BAKING FACTOR: OH. MY. As I said, this was a great find. Kudos to the Balinese. Full of wonderful, mouth watering flavors it instantly transports me to somewhere beach-y and beautiful. Damn I’ve missed traveling. For a relatively simple relish, it certainly packs a ton of flavor. A definite keeper. I also think need to spend more time with the cuisine of Bali. Looking forward to seeing what else they have.

Cinco de Mayo celebrations: Avocado Lime Tequila PopsiclesScallop CevicheQueso FunditoSpicy Mango LemonadeHorchata Strawberry Swirl Ice CreamCoconut Tres Leches Ice CreamBacon Fat PolvorónesCotija Churros with Guava SauceMexican Chocolate Pudding PopsMichelada Style ClamsStrawberry Hibiscus PopsiclesWatermelon Aqua FrescaPico de Gallo White Bean SaladSpicy Pineapple PaletasBlender GazpachoWatermelon Jicama SaladMexican Corn SaladHatch Chile Queso DipMachaca – Mexican Shredded Beef, Machaca EnchiladasChicken Sour Cream EnchiladasSweet Pumpkin EmpanadasCotija Cumin Shortbread

twelve years ago: Brown Butter Banana Bread

eleven years ago: Kolacky, Polish Butter CookiesPretzel DogsPeanut Butter BarsHomemade SaltinesKentucky Derby Tarts  

ten years ago: Sticky Bun BreadRoasted Garlic PotatoesHomemade Crème Eggs

nine years ago: Fresh Goat CheeseStrawberries in Hibiscus SyrupPickled RampsPopovers & Strawberry ButterCultured Butter

eight years ago: Classic Yeast CoffeecakeEscargot Roasted MushroomsTomato Soup with Grilled Cheese CroutonsFlourless Peanut Butter CookiesLemon Loaf Cake

seven years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

six years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies

five years ago: Soft Potato RollsCoconut Pound CakeRed Curry Firecracker Shrimp with Sweet Chile Dipping SauceGiardinara Cheese BreadBlueberry Crumb CakeRaspberry Speculoos Frangipane TartTurtleback Cookies

four years ago: Greek Yogurt Cheesecake with Fig-Date CompoteParisian Gnocchi with Asparagus and Brown ButterCreamy Radish SoupHomemade Crème Fraiche

three years ago: Pantry Clam ChowderThe CBJ (grilled cashew butter, cheese and fig jam sandwich), Sweet & Spicy Cashew & Coconut Mix

two years ago: Vietnamese Style Chicken SaladCandied Jalapenos

last year: Roasted Cabbage with Miso VinaigretteSourdough CrêpesSmall Batch Cinnamon RollsCinnamon Roll Bread PuddingChorizo & Cornbread Strada (Savory Bread Pudding) 

SAMBAL MATAH WITH RAMPS

Makes about 1 cup

Originally from Bali, sambal matah is a spicy and refreshing condiment that goes well with just almost everything, but most especially fish and seafood. Use more or less chilies depending on how spicy you like things – the 5 thai chilies I used were pleasantly spicy. No ramps available? Use the more traditional shallots. No lime leaves? Substitute lime zest. Make sure you use the tender inner bulb part of the lemongrass, slice it thin then give it rough chop as the pieces can sometimes be a little fibrous.

5 bird’s eye or Thai chilies, finely sliced (about 1 Tablespoon)

¾ cup thinly sliced ramp bulbs (85g/3oz) or thinly sliced shallots (about 5-6)

1 large garlic clove, finely minced 

2 large kaffir lime leaves, stems removed then thinly sliced (about 1 teaspoon) (or ½ teaspoon fresh lime zest)

1 ½ Tablespoons fresh lime juice (about 1 lime)

¼ teaspoon kosher salt

¼ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon shrimp paste

1 lemongrass stalk, peel and use tender white inner bulb only, sliced thinly then roughly chopped (about 1 ½ Tablespoons)

3 Tablespoons coconut oil or vegetable oil

  1. In a medium bowl, combine the chilies, ramps or shallots, garlic, lime leaves, lime juice, salt and sugar. Set aside.
  2. Heat the oil in a small pan over medium-low heat until it’s sizzling. 
  3. To the hot oil, add the shrimp paste and lemongrass and stir until fragrant. 
  4. Pour the hot oil mixture into the chili mixture. Stir to combine.
  5. Serve and store the leftover in an airtight container for up to one week. If using coconut oil, it will likely firm up in the refrigerator. Warm very gently to preserve the fresh flavor.

I’ve got a real thing for a good tangerine. Mandarins more so. In fact, to be even more specific, satsumas are really my thing. Starting around the holidays, I’ll start pacing the produce aisles of Asian markets and Whole Foods looking for large piles of those bright orange orbs with the telltale leaves and stems. When fresh, they are incredible – bright, full flavored, juicy, sweet but with a little bit of tartness for a wonderful flavor balance. I adore them and will eat as many as I can during the short season.

A few weeks ago, I did a thing. After reading an article in Bon Appetit about a California citrus farm specializing in tangerines, I placed an order. It took a few determined weeks to make it happen but it happened. Orders open up only once a week and as demand is high and supply is naturally limited. They usually sell out quickly, especially early in the season. It was cold and grey outside and I desperately needed a little sunshine. I opted for a variety pack to try a little of everything – a few Valencia oranges, a few blood oranges, three types of amazing tangerines, two gorgeous lemons and the best avocado I’ve had in my life. Ten pounds of beautiful citrus was picked on Saturday and on my kitchen table by Tuesday. It was glorious. The best tangerines I’ve ever had. Next year I’ll get my butt in gear earlier for satsuma season. I’ve got the reminder set in my calendar and am drooling just thinking about it.

I’ve enjoyed most of the shipment as is but with some beets sitting in my produce drawer, I decided to combine the two and make a salad. Roasted beets and fresh citrus are a marvelous combination and so very pretty if you mix up the beet colors. The beets are tucked into foil packets and roasted in a hot oven, as this is my preferred method for best flavor. I’ve never understood why some people boil beets. ugh. The oranges get a sort of fancy treatment called “supreme” in which you carefully separate the flesh from the rind and membranes into nice little segments. Sure it takes a little bit of time but the effort is well rewarded in the end. Take care to cut off the rind and pith, following the curve of the fruit and leaving as much of the orange flesh behind as possible. It does take a little practice; when I worked in restaurants I bet I suprememed a couple cases of oranges every week. You get really good after the first case.

I roasted both red and yellow beets and tossed them in a simple, light vinaigrette type of thing along with both orange and tangerine segments. The dressing is mostly orange juice and vinegar with just a little bit of olive oil so it’s light and bright, perfectly accenting the whole mix. A handful of toasted walnuts went on top because they go great with citrus and beets and the crunch is delightful. I also reached for the za’atar, that wonderful middle eastern spice mixture of thyme, sesame, sumac and other lovely things that is also, coincidentally, amazing on citrus and beets. The whole thing is delicious. Bright and a little earthy, sweet and a little tart, fresh and crunchy. A wonderful combination of all the things.

Fair warning that red beets will stain everything – your hands, your cutting board, every damn ingredient they come in contact. The trick is to lightly oil or spray your hands with cooking spray to prevent this (your cutting board too.) Keep them separate from your other ingredients too, in their own bowl until the last moment, unless you want the salad a lovely day-glow shade of fuchsia.

twelve years ago: Khachpuri (cheesy Georgian bread)

eleven years ago: Oatmeal Jam Bars  

ten years ago: Guinness Stout Floats

nine years ago: Chocolate Banoffee Tart

eight years ago: Lemon Tart – Sunday Lunch Polish Easter

seven years ago: Guinness Crème Anglaise

six years ago: Flourless Chocolate Cookies

five years ago: Potato Goat Cheese StrudelChouquette

four years ago: Pici (hand rolled spaghetti), Old School Garlic Bread

three years ago: Easter Recipe Round Up (and some polka favorites) 

two years ago: Sourdough Spätzle

last year: Corned Beef Dinner Hand Pies

ROASTED BEET & ORANGE SALAD

Serves 4 as a side dish

I like to keep this simple, but a soft goat cheese or salty feta crumbled on top is quite nice. Pistachios would be nice though I prefer the earthy slightly tannic flavor of a walnut. Be sure to zest the oranges first.

1 bunch beets (about 1 ½ pounds), scrubbed, trimmed and cut in half or quarters if large

olive oil

kosher salt and ground pepper

¼ cup walnut pieces

2 oranges or 1 orange + 2 tangerines or 4 tangerines (zest first)

For the dressing:

1 teaspoon finely minced shallot, about ¼ of a shallot

2 Tablespoons white wine vinegar

1 teaspoon mild honey, like wildflower or clover

2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest 

¼ teaspoon za’atar

Good pinch of kosher salt

Few grinds of ground black pepper

¼ cup fresh orange juice

1 Tablespoon good olive oil

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F. 
  2. For the beets: place the beets on a large piece of foil on a sheet pan (if roasting various colors of beets, keep the red ones separate.)
  3. Drizzle with a little olive oil and a pinch each of salt and pepper. 
  4. Fold foil around beets and crimp ends to form a neat packet. 
  5. Roast until tender when pierced with a paring knife, about 45 minutes.
  6. Let cool completely then peel the skins off with a paring knife (lightly oil your hands if working with red beets to prevent having fuchsia tinted hands all day.)
  7. While the beets are roasting, toast the walnuts on a sheet pan until fragrant, about 5 minutes (keep an eye on them – they’ll go from perfectly toasty to burnt in seconds). If large, coarsely chop once cooled. Set aside until needed.
  8. For the dressing: in a large bowl, whisk together the shallot, orange zest, vinegar, salt, pepper and za’atar. Set aside while you prepare the oranges and beets.
  9. Supreme the oranges: Cut about ½” off the top and bottom of each orange/tangerine to expose the flesh. 
  10. Place the orange/tangerine cut side down on a cutting board and with a chef’s knife, follow the curve of the orange to remove the rind, including the pith (the white part.) Try to cut as close to the pith as possible, reserving as much of the flesh as you can. Discard the rind.
  11. Switch to a paring knife and over a bowl to catch the juice, cut each citrus segment from the membrane by cutting gently on one side of the membrane then the other, carefully removing each segment (discard any seeds as you come across them.) 
  12. Squeeze the remaining membrane over the bowl for any excess juice then discard. Continue with any remaining oranges/tangerines.
  13. Measure off ¼ cup of accumulated orange juice for the dressing. If you don’t quite have enough, give it a few minutes. I’ve found that orange segments will continue to give off juice for a while, so if you wait a bit, you might eventually get what you need. If not, squeeze another orange or tangerine to top it off.
  14. For the salad: thinly slice the peeled beets (about 1/8” thick) and place in a small bowl (keep red and orange/yellow beets separately to prevent everything from turning bright pink. Hint: spray your hands and the cutting board with cooking spray or lightly oil to keep it all from staining.)
  15. Finish the dressing – add the orange juice and olive oil to the dressing bowl and whisk to combine. Taste and adjust seasoning if needed.
  16. Add the dressing to the various bowls of things – citrus segments, beets – and gently toss to combine. If using tangerines, take care as they are rather delicate and tend to break apart.
  17. On a serving platter, scatter about the dressed beet slices and orange/tangerine segments. Drizzle any excess dressing over, top with the walnuts and a good pinch of za’atar.
  18. The salad can be made ahead – however, and this is a big however – if you’re using red beets they will turn everything pink. So, if making ahead, keep the red beets separate in their dressing and combine just before serving.