a cherry pepper of a giveaway!

It’s over, can you believe it? Yeah me neither. It feels like only yesterday we were cheering over the first day of summer break and now ten weeks, countless day trips, endless hours spent floating in the pool and one family vacation later… and the summer of 2014 is coming to a close. I have mixed feelings about summer’s end. On one hand I’m ready to get back into a set routine; sure that means shuttling kids to and from school, soccer, gymnastics and so on— but there’s a certain comfort to be found in the routine. On the other hand I could do without another year of maddening school projects, endless video game vs. homework battles and the daily chore of making lunches. Not to mention feeling as though it goes from the first day of school to Halloween to Thanksgiving in the blink of an eye. Seriously, before you know it we’ll all be stressing over holiday dinner menus, Black Friday shopping and the impending countdown to the end of the year. Ugh.

Luckily the end of Summer doesn’t mean the end of garden fresh vegetables. Root vegetables, apples and pears, pumpkins and gourds and a variety of peppers are at their seasonal best this time of year. In fact on a recent trip to Corrado’s Market the local cherry peppers looked so good that I couldn’t pass them by. I threw a dozen in a bag and figured I’d decide what to do with them later. Turns out that inspiration was no further away than the cheese department. You see Corrado’s sells an amazing sharp provolone that my husband and I adore, but some may find too strong for everyday snacking. As I pushed my cart along I thought about that cheese and imagined the flavor mellowing beautifully if it was wrapped in a bit of imported prosciutto, stuffed inside of a cherry pepper and allowed to cure for a week or so in some quality olive oil. Oh yeah, you know what I’m talking about right? Those spicy little stuffed cherry peppers that are an integral part of every good antipasto platter and olive bar. Yup that’s right, that’s exactly what I made… and man were they delicious!

But my story doesn’t end there— You see writing about back to school and the impending holidays began to make me feel a bit stressed. Don’t get me wrong, while I enjoy all the planning, prepping and preparing of a holiday meal it seems to become more and more difficult to pull off with each passing year. Apparently the universe sensed my stress and sought to sooth me with a little retail therapy… No sooner did I think ‘Thanksgiving’ then along came an email from Pacific Merchants Trading Company offering to send me a few pieces of their gorgeous tableware to use and review! By now you know that I’m a sucker for dishware (especially serving pieces) so you can imagine how quickly I jumped at the chance to add a few of their beautiful Acacia wood pieces to my collection. But the folks at Pacific Merchants didn’t just want me to be happy, nope they wanted you to be happy too! Pacific Merchants has offered to send one lucky beets and blue cheese reader a $50 gift certificate which they can use to purchase something amazing from their website. But that’s not all, they also wanted to offer EVERYONE reading this post a coupon towards a future purchase. Simply enter “WeLoveBeets” at checkout  on www.pacificmerchants.com  for 20% off your next purchase, from now until October 1, 2014. Pretty fantastic, right? Yup those lovely people over at  Pacific Merchants really know how to talk a girl in off a ledge!

So thank your lucky stars that I start worrying about Thanksgiving in September and go enter the giveaway, make this recipe and serve it up in something beautiful from Pacific Merchants

Pickled Cherry Peppers with Prosciutto and Provolone
I never need to buy those expensive olive bar peppers again. And now neither do you!

stuffed cherry peppers

12 large hot cherry peppers
6 cloves garlic, divided
1/4 tsp. black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 cups white wine vinegar
1/2 cup balsamic vinegar
2 cup water
1 tsp. coarse kosher salt
2 tsp. granulated sugar
1/2 lb. wedge of sharp provolone cheese
12 slices prosciutto
3 cups extra-virgin olive oil

  1. Wash and dry peppers and put in a large glass jar. Peel and smash three garlic cloves and add them to the jar with the peppers. Then add the peppercorns and bay leaf.
  2. Combine the vinegars, water, salt, and sugar in a saucepan. Bring to a boil and allow to boil for 1 minute. Remove from the heat and carefully pour over the peppers, they should be fully submerged. Allow to cool to room temperature on the counter, then cover and refrigerate for 1 week. (The peppers will absorb a considerable amount of the vinegar. Once the level has dropped a few inches you’ll want to add something to the jar to weigh down the peppers and keep them submerged in the vinegar. I found that a small ramekin worked well.)
  3. Drain the peppers well and use a sharp paring knife carefully remove the stem. With a baby or demitasse spoon carefully scoop out the seeds, leaving the pepper hollow but intact. Place the peppers cut side down on paper towels and allow them to drain further.
  4. Cut the cheese into blocks small enough to fit in each pepper. Wrap one slice of prosciutto around a block of cheese (don’t worry if the prosciutto pulls apart), then gently stuff into a cherry pepper. Repeat the same process with the remaining peppers.
  5. Carefully place all of the peppers and the three remaining garlic cloves in a large glass jar. Cover with olive oil, put the lid on and refrigerate for at least 24 hrs. Allow to come to room temperature before serving. And speaking of serving…

*adapted from chez panisse vegetables

HIP, HIP HOORAY, IT”S A GIVEAWAY!— HAS ENDED

wood plates2CONGRATULATIONS MIMI… YOU’RE THE LUCKY WINNER!

To enter for a chance to win a $50 gift certificate to Pacific Merchants Trading Company (which can be used for any number of beautiful times including a set of Acacia serving pieces like mine), please leave a comment below telling me what you like or dislike most about hosting a holiday dinner.

Are you like me and you love the recipe researching, list making, planning and ultimately pulling together a meal that hopefully tops all others? Or do you dread everything involved with a holiday dinner including the cooking, cleaning and having your family converge on you like locusts? Whatever it is, I want to hear it!

Leave your comment between Wednesday, September 3, 2014 and Thursday, September 11, 2014. (One comment per person please, US residents only.) Entries must be left via the comment form at the bottom of this post. A winner will be selected using Random.org. on Friday, September 12th and will be promptly contacted.

So please leave a comment and then feel free to…

  • Follow @beetsbluecheese on Twitter.
  • Become a beets and blue cheese follower via e-mail
    (you’ll find the “follow me” button at the top of this page).
  • Follow @beetsbluecheese on Instagram.
  • Share this giveaway with your friends on Facebook and Twitter.

Good luck!

cucumber à la julia child

This week would have been the 102nd birthday of everyone’s favorite food maven and former spy Julia Child. Julia was a firm believer in following your heart, stepping outside of your comfort zone and embracing life regardless of the obstacles placed in front of you. In honor of her and all she has given to a world of home cooks and great chefs alike, I have decided to reblog my post about Julia from last August and my (her) recipe for Cold Cucumber & Potato Soup.

Until next post I’ll leave you with these wise words from the beloved Julia Child:

“The measure of achievement 
is not winning awards.
It’s doing something that you appreciate,
something you believe is worthwhile.”

Well said Julia, I couldn’t agree more…

Around this time each summer two things happen in my garden. The squirrels destroy my corn stalks (evil no-good rodents) and my tomato and cucumber plants explode with fruit. An over abundance of tomatoes is never a problem, I use them in salsa and salads of all kinds and for my Sweet Summer Sauce, but cucumbers are a bit more tricky. I’ve attempted to make pickles, only to end up with a soggy vinegary mess. I’ve given some away, but believe it or not a lot of people don’t like cucumbers (I know, can you imagine?!?) and I’ve eaten them simply sliced and in salads, but there are only so many cucumber salads that even this girl can eat! So I set out on a mission to find another use for all these cukes.

My initial thought was that I could try to bake with them like you would grated zucchini, they really are almost the same vegetable after all. In fact I’m sure they would be the perfect zucchini substitute in these Pineapple-Zucchini Muffins and with back-to-school only a few weeks away I think that’s exactly what I’ll do (don’t tell my son). But muffins weren’t what I felt like making amidst this August heat, so I continued to wade through my cookbook cabinet in search of inspiration. And there it was, in the NY Times food section that I had saved from last August. August 15, 2012 had been Julia Child’s 100th birthday and the food world had celebrated it in great fashion. Julia Child— the cooking and culinary legend and inspiration to generations of home cooks. She was “absolutly fabulous”. And here I stood, just days away from Julia’s 101st birthday and in need of cucumber inspiration. “Hmm, what would Julia make?” I thought to myself. That’s when I heard a warbly voice say “Potages aux Concombres!” Okay I didn’t actually hear Julia’s voice from the great beyond, but I did discover an old recipe of hers for cold cucumber soup which sounded perfect but for one exception; to thicken the soup she had used farina— that’s where she lost me. I would rather use a thickener that would add flavor to the soup as well as substance (sorry Julia). A bit more research and I found a vichyssoise recipe that seemed to have some of the elements Julia’s recipe had been missing, namely potato and buttermilk. It was at that moment, in my little New Jersey kitchen that a Julia Child/Cooking Light cold cucumber and potato soup was born.

Bon appétit and happy birthday Julia, thank you for being you!

Cold Cucumber & Potato Soup
This soup may not be for everyone, including my children and husband. But that doesn’t mean it’s not delicious and wouldn’t be the perfect first course on a hot summer day.

cucumber soup3

1 tbsp. olive oil
1 leek, halved and sliced thin
2 stalks celery, sliced thin
3 garlic cloves, sliced thin
1 cup sweet onion, chopped
6 1/2 cups cucumber (about 4), peeled, seeded and chopped
3 cups baking potato, peeled and cubed (about 2)
3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable broth)
1 cup light buttermilk
1/4 cup heavy cream (as an homage to Julia)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
snipped fresh chives, for garnish
Greek yogurt, for garnish

  1. In a large dutch oven over a medium-low flame heat the oil. Add the onion, leek, celery and garlic and cook 6-8 minutes or until onion is transparent, stirring occasionally.
  2. Add to the pot the chopped cucumber, potato, and broth; cover and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer 20 minutes or until potato is very tender, stirring occasionally.
  3. Using an immersion blender (or food processor) blend the cucumber/potato mixture until it is perfectly smooth. Allow to cool on the stovetop for at least one hour.
  4. Once cool add the buttermilk, heavy cream, salt, and pepper and stir well. Cover and chill for several hours before serving. Garnish with snipped fresh chives and a dollop of Greek yogurt.

spicy beet greens with chickpeas

My children have been away with their grandparents for the better part of the past two weeks. The first week with one set, the second with the other. That’s right, we’ve been childless for nearly 14 days. Just typing that makes me feel slightly woozy. FOURTEEN DAYS KID-FREE. (I know, the gods are clearly smiling on me.) So what you may wonder have I been up to? Well… I’ve been putting in some serious hours at work. I’ve done a significant amount of chillin’ on the deck. I’ve read a book. We met friends for drinks. I went shopping without anyone asking me “Are we almost done? How many more things do we need to buy?” We went to the movies (an advance screening of The Hundred Foot Journey to be precise). We went out to dinner. I did not watch a single TV show that revolved around Bart, Marge, Maggie and Homer, a family of British pigs who love muddy puddles or that famous duo Elsa and Ana. I got a pedicure. We actually talked to each other (imagine!) and we made things for dinner that the kids would never want to eat; Garlicky pesto over linguine, salmon with a balsamic glaze, lamb burgers with tzatziki, giant bowls of steamed mussels and one night we went totally vegan— beet greens, chickpeas, Habanero chilies and tofu with coconut milk over brown rice. Yup, I’m not kidding.

I eat vegetables everyday. Not because I think I should or because they’re good for me. I eat them daily because I love them. My family doesn’t exactly share my passion for Mother Nature’s candy, but the kids will eat baby carrots and garden fresh cucumbers for a snack, they love mashed turnips and grilled asparagus and only grumble minimally when I make grilled squash or string beans. But they draw the line at greens. Sure they can handle collards with bacon, but an arugula salad or god forbid sautéed spinach or beet greens… totally out of the question. My husband, who can deal with nearly anything but cauliflower, has come to accept that life with me involves much more than meat and potatoes.

Anyway back to the vegan meal… I stopped at the store on my way home one night thinking I’d make a coconut milk and brown rice number with some of the leftover veggies I had at home; A few bunches of fresh beets with greens that needed to be eaten, some Habanero peppers leftover from the mussels night and cherry tomatoes from my garden. I already had brown rice and chickpeas in the pantry so all I needed was coconut milk and shrimp and we’d have dinner in a flash. The shrimp ended up being both expensive and pathetic looking, totally not worth buying. I needed an alternate plan. I still wanted to add a bit more protein to the meal, but it needed to be something that required minimal prep and cooked quickly. That something turned out to be tofu. I think of tofu is a rather innocuous ingredient. It really doesn’t lend much by way of its own flavor but it’s more of a sponge for the other flavors in the dish, and it’s high in protein. So I sliced and diced, sautéed and deglazed, simmered and served and guess what… It was delicious. And vegan. And while my dearest did comment that “It would be better with sausage.” he cleaned his plate nonetheless.

The kids will be back tomorrow and while I have thoroughly enjoyed their absence, I’m ready for them to come home. I know this will mean listening to their bickering, watching their dopey kid shows and answering 50 million times the question “How many more bites do I have to take?” But I’m ready for them to return all the same.

And if you ever remind me that I said that, I’ll completely deny it.

Spicy Beet Greens with Chickpeas and Tofu 

Deilsh and vegan. Who knew… 

vegan2

1 tbsp. coconut oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
4 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tbsp. fresh ginger, grated
a handful of cherry tomatoes, diced
3 Habanero peppers, seeded and julienned
3 tbsp. lemon juice
15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
greens from two bunches of beets, stemmed and julienned
14 oz. can coconut milk
2 tsp. salt, divided
1/4 tsp. ground cinnamon
brown rice, for serving
fresh cilantro leaves, for garnish

  1. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium-low heat. Add the onion and cook until it becomes translucent. Add the garlic, ginger, tomatoes, Habanero peppers and 1 tsp. of salt and cook for 3 minutes, stirring frequently.
  2. Add the lemon juice to deglaze then pan then add the chickpeas and beets greens. Stir to coat well with the onion mixture and allow to cook until the greens have just begun to wilt.
  3. Add in the coconut milk, remaining teaspoon of salt and ground cinnamon. Bring the mixture to a simmer then turn down the heat to low and cook for 5-10 minutes or until the chickpeas just begin to soften.
  4. Serve over brown rice and garnish with fresh cilantro leaves.

bacon!

Ba·con. (bey-kuhn) noun. Cured and smoked meat from the sides and belly of a pig. Bacon. A smell immediately identifiable by hard core vegans and dyed in the wool carnivores alike. Bacon. A food that has reached a cult like obsession within the food community. Bacon. An item that until I made it myself, I really never gave a flying fig about. Bacon. The topic of this post…

Sure I’m the girl who gave you candied bacon, followed naturally by Candied Bacon Fudge; but I never really considered bacon as anything more than just another ingredient. However strangely enough, when we became the proud owners of a smoker my first thought was BACON! Crazy, right? Or perhaps not… Anytime I can figure out how to make something from scratch that I’ve ALWAYS had to buy, I do. Bacon seemed to fit that criteria perfectly! The more I considered bacon (be it homemade or store-bought) the more I began to see it’s inherent value. What would Quiche Lorraine be without bacon? And how sad would that BLT sandwich be without good ol’ bacon? Not to mention my roasted brussels sprouts or mashed turnips. I quickly came to the conclusion that bacon is in fact much more of a superstar than I’ve been giving it credit for.

Last summer was the first time we attempted curing and smoking a pork belly. I couldn’t find one recipe that seemed exactly right, so I cobbled two of them together and dove headlong into the process. The resulting bacon was not exactly a success. It was bacon all right but it was extraordinarily salty bacon, way too salty to be eaten on it’s own. I ended up using it in a variety of yummy recipes, but my desire to create the perfect slab of homemade bacon still loomed large in my little foodie heart. I spent the winter on a mission to find what I deemed the ideal bacon recipe, I was a girl obsessed. And then I found it. A recipe from Whole Foods for Brown Sugar-Black Pepper cured bacon. Naturally I tweaked the recipe a smidge (come on now, you know I can’t help myself!) but followed the curing directions to a tee. And guess what happened? Deliciousness baby. Total and absolute deliciousness!

We ate the bacon just as is. We ate bacon and egg sandwiches (on homemade english muffins). We ate black-eyed peas with bacon, brussels sprouts with bacon and maple syrup and one of my all time favorite side dishes— braised collard greens with bacon. We were in a bacon stupor and damn we were happy.

Bacon. Possibly the world’s most perfect food.

Homemade Brown Sugar-Black Pepper Bacon
Delish. Delish. Delish.

bacon group4

5 lbs. fresh deboned pork belly
4 cups coarse kosher salt
2 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
2 tbsp. ground black pepper

  1. Rinse pork belly and then pat dry with paper towels to remove excess moisture.
  2. Combine salt, brown sugar, granulated sugar and back pepper in a mixing bowl. Place half of the mixture in a large lidded container. Add the pork and cover with the remaining salt mixture, being sure that it is fully submerged in the salt.
  3. Cover and refrigerate the pork belly for 1 week, checking on it once or twice to be sure it’s still fully covered with the salt mixture. This will “cure” the belly, creating salt pork (a.k.a. unsmoked bacon).
  4. Remove the pork from the cure and rinse well under cold water. Fill a bowl large enough to hold the pork belly with water and submerge the pork. Allow to soak for 30 minutes then pat dry with paper towels and place on a rack fitted in a large rimmed baking pan (a lasagna pan works well). Refrigerate, uncovered, overnight to air-dry.
  5. Prepare the grill (or smoker) for indirect cooking over very low heat. Add 1 wood chunk (such as hickory or pecan) to the charcoal, or add 1 handful of the wood chips to the smoker box of a gas grill, following manufacturer’s instructions. Close the lid. When the wood begins to smoke, place the pork belly over indirect heat.
  6. Cook until pork is firm and slightly darker, about 1 1/2 hours, until the internal temperature reaches 145-150°F. Remember, you’re infusing the pork belly with a smoky flavor, not fully cooking it at this point. (If using a charcoal grill, replenish the charcoal as needed to maintain a steady temperature. Add 1 wood chunk to the charcoal every 30 minutes, or drain and add 1 handful of the remaining wood chips to the smoker box every 20 minutes before the old chips burn out.)
  7. Allow bacon to cool, then cover and store in the fridge for up to 2 weeks or thoroughly wrap and freeze for up to 2 months. (The colder the bacon is the easier it will be to slice.)
  8. Thinly slice, cook and enjoy!

*adapted from whole foods

Braised Collard Greens with Bacon
Even if you’re unfamiliar with collards and don’t really think you’d like them, this recipe will change your mind. It’s honestly one of my most favorite things to eat.

3/4 cups homemade bacon cut into lardons (or slab bacon, diced)
1 1/2 lb. bunch collard greens
4 cups onion, diced
4 cloves garlic, grated
1 12 oz. bottle of beer
2 cups chicken stock
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. smoked paprika
1/4 tsp. ground cayenne pepper

  1. Dice the bacon, add to an already hot stockpot and allow it to crisp and the fat to render, about 5-8 min. Rinse the collard greens and remove the tough center stem of each leaf. Stack a few leaves together and slice them into thin strips. Repeat with the remaining leaves.
  2. Add the diced onion and garlic to the bacon fat and saute until the onion is translucent. Add the beer to deglaze the pan, being sure to scrape up any brown bits that have formed on the bottom.
  3. Add the sliced greens and stir until they are all moistened. Cover and cook for 5 minutes or until they begin to wilt. Add the spices and stock, reduce to low and cover. Allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes. Uncover and cook for 15- 25 more minutes. (I like my greens to still have a bit of texture to them so I cook them for 35 minutes, if you like yours mushy go for the 45.)

suffering for strawberries

When I think about Summer I think about adventure. New sights. New sounds. New experiences. Since I’m now a working girl my time with the kids is really limited, they’re busy with camp and grandparents all summer and they’re both getting to the age were friends are beginning to trump Mom. So when it comes to entertaining my little loves on our days together, I go out of my way to keep things interesting. We do things like tromp around Storm King Art Center and spend the day digging for sand crabs at Sandy Hook. Explore lower Manhattan and visit the new baby gorilla at the Bronx Zoo. Just last week we spent the morning strawberry picking in Western N.J.

Apple and often blueberry picking has become a part of our annual trip to Vermont each August. Every one looks forward to hiking through the orchard, snacking on perfectly crisp apples and enjoying the rolling Green Mountain views. A trip North just wouldn’t seem complete without it. But that’s the extent of their PYO repertoire; they’ve never gone asparagus, peach or even strawberry picking. I have vivid memories of picking mountains of incredibly sweet red strawberries and eating them for days, weeks (or because my mother often froze a bunch) months on end thereafter. It seemed to me to be time that my own children enjoyed (or perhaps suffered through) the same experience. If you’ve gone strawberry picking before then you know exactly what I’m talking about, if you haven’t then let me quickly set the scene.

Strawberries, the sweetest of Mother Natures fruits, are typically grown in long, dusty, very low to the ground and completely unshaded rows. They also happen to be ready for picking when (and only when) the temperatures reach hellfire hot. So you may be wondering, did my cherubs charge headlong into this sweaty adventure yelling “Thanks for the wonderful memories Mom!” or “Don’t worry about Lilly, I’ll resuscitate her. You just keep picking those sweet, sweet berries!” Um no, not exactly. They did make an effort to see how quickly we could fill up our basket, they made a game of finding the mostly perfectly or oddly shaped berry and they were already discussing what to make with our bounty as we left the field. Sounds like the perfect image, right? Yeah, perhaps it would have been had my yelling “I’m sorry this isn’t your idea of fun. Go wait for me at the farm stand if you’re that miserable!” hadn’t proceeded it. Sigh…

As Harry Truman is quoted as saying: “The reward of suffering is experience.” And apparently strawberries.

Homemade Ricotta Waffles with Fresh Strawberry Sauce
Even if you’re usually not a sweet for breakfast type, you’ll love these waffles.

strawberry waffles2

1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 cup cake flour
1/2 cup stone-ground cornmeal
1 tbsp. granulated sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. sea salt
1 1/2 cups low-fat milk
1/2 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
2 eggs
3 tbsp. canola oil
Strawberry Sauce, for serving (recipe below)
  1. In a large bowl, stir together the all-purpose flour, cake flour, cornmeal, sugar, baking powder and salt. In another bowl, whisk together the milk, ricotta, eggs and oil. Stir the milk mixture into the flour mixture just until smooth.
  2. Coat a waffle maker lightly with oil, wiping off any excess with a paper towel. Preheat according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
  3. Spoon in the batter, close lid and cook until the waffle is golden brown, 5 minutes. Repeat with the remaining batter, keeping prepared waffles warm in a low temp. oven.
  4. Serve the waffles with fresh strawberry sauce and enjoy. Makes 6-8 waffles.

*adapted from williams-sonoma 

Fresh Strawberry Sauce
This simple sauce is perfect on waffles or pancakes, yogurt of even ice cream. 

2 1/2 cups sliced fresh strawberries
2 tbsp. brown sugar
1 tsp. fresh lemon juice

  1. Place all the ingredients in a medium sauce pan and gently stir together. Bring to a simmer and allow to cook over medium heat for 30 minutes, stirring frequently, until the fruit breaks down and the sauce reduces.
  2. Cool slightly and serve with abandon.

my curry of solitude

“No more pencils. No more books. No more teacher’s dirty looksOut for summer. Out till fall. We might not come back at all. School’s out forever. School’s out for summer…”
~Alice Cooper

Yup that’s right, school’s out for Summer— and frankly not a moment too soon. I was quickly approaching my school year breaking point. I’m tired of remembering assigned snack days, helping with school projects, making lunches and yelling “hurry up we’re late!” on a daily basis. I need the slower pace of Summer; the laid back mornings, the swimming after dinner evenings. I need a break.

My parents had planned on coming to spend a few days with my kids the first week of summer vacation, they would all get some quality time together and I would get a few more uninterrupted days at the office. However as a surprise (and perhaps because they sensed my approaching breaking point) they instead offered to take the kids back to Connecticut with them for the better part of the week. “What do you think?” they innocently asked. “Are you kidding… They’re yours!” I said tripping over my own feet in the mad dash to get upstairs and pack their suitcases before anyone realized what had just been agreed to. Naturally the kids were just as overjoyed as I was at the idea of a week at Grammy and Grampy’s house. (It’s common knowledge that the rules at their house only vaguely resemble the rules at home. And when I say vaguely, I really mean not at all.) So off they went with barely a backward glance and off I went to enjoy the quiet of a child-free home. And blissfully quiet it was.

Flash forward 24 hours— My husband comes home and announces that he has to go away on business while the kids are in Connecticut. “Wait. What? Do you mean to tell me that I will be here all alone?” Yup that’s right folks. I was alone for 24 hours. Alone. Let me type that again… ALONE. It was wonderful. Sure I had to make the coffee and empty the dishwasher (typically my husband’s jobs since he gets up earlier than I do) and sure the damn dog killed another bird and it was up to me to pick up the mangled carcass; but that was a measly price to pay for 24 hours of me-time.

I have a girlfriend who eats cold cereal whenever she’s home by herself at dinnertime. Her theory is one bowl + one spoon = zero kitchen mess. I’m the exact opposite. When mine is the only palette I have to please I cook exactly what I want regardless of the prep and process involved. I pull out every pot and pan, make a mess and leave the disaster to be cleaned up when I’m good and ready. With this in mind I spent the “afternoon of my aloneness” (that’s how I plan to refer to these 24 hours when I think back on them fondly) mulling over what to make for dinner. Something spicy (of course), maybe with seafood and definitely the kind of meal the kids would moan and groan over. I ultimately decided to make a curry; a shrimp and coconut green curry to be exact.

It turned out to be exactly the type of meal an afternoon of aloneness begs for. A meal that made this “loves her family but not missing them one iotia and couldn’t possibly be enjoying the solitude more” wife and mother very, very happy.

Shrimp and Coconut Green Curry
This was a delicious dinner… and I was the perfect dining companion.

green curry

1 tbsp. coconut oil
3 fat scallions, sliced thin
2 tbsp. Green Curry paste
1 tbsp. fresh ginger
4 cloves garlic, minced
1/2 lb. raw shrimp, peeled and deveined
5 oz. button mushrooms, sliced
1 sm. yellow pepper, cored, seeded and sliced
a handful of dandelion greens, roughly chopped
13.5 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. light Tamari soy sauce
1/2-1 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
2 tbsp. fresh basil, julienned
Jasmine rice, for serving
fresh cilantro, for garnish
diced chilies, for garnish

  1. In a large high sided skillet or wok melt the coconut oil. Add half of the scallions, curry paste and ginger and cook for 1 minute.
  2.  Add to the pan the garlic, shrimp and vegetables and cook for 2-3 minutes. Add the coconut milk, fish sauce, Tamari and cayenne pepper and allow to simmer until the shrimp are pink and cooked through.
  3. Remove the pan from the heat, stir in the julienned basil (adding it at the end will keep it green) and serve over Jasmine rice. Garnish with fresh cilantro, diced chilies and additional Tamari if desired.

watermelon + feta… i think i ❤ you

A few weeks ago I was lucky enough to be invited to attend the Montclair Food & Wine Festival’s Grand Tasting. The event, a fundraiser for Saint Joseph’s Children’s Hospital, was hosted at the Montclair Art Museum and featured more than 30 New Jersey restaurants, distillers, wine distributors and food vendors. The night was a whirlwind of food and people. We started off in the relative calm of the VIP hour and then proceeded downstairs to a literal food frenzy. We tasted nearly everything that was being offered, and what we tasted was some pretty amazing stuff. Raw oysters and clams, and duck liver pate. Curried shrimp with rice and chilled asparagus soup. Injera with lamb and tiny spring vegetable tartlets. Delicious ceviche (one shrimp and one scallop) and down home mac n’ cheese. Not to mention spicy samosas and meatballs like your Italian Grandma used to make. There were a ridiculous number of wines, locally brewed beers, a Pisco Sour table, organic vodka cocktails and a rum punch collaboration between a locally distilled rum with a locally produced cocktail syrup— all available for the sampling (and resampling). And let’s not forget the wild array of desserts that were offered; Macaroons and cheesecake bites. Fall off the wagon worthy toffee and mini whoopie pies. Organic chocolates and a host of other delicious delights that I didn’t even get around to tasting. Sounds like a whole lot of crazy fun, right? Oh, it was.

It may come as a bit of a surprise but, out of the lengthy list of things I ate that night the one bite that stood out the most was the actually simplest one. As much as I enjoyed the exotic and decadent nibbles that were offered, it was actually the tiny tower of cubed watermelon, feta, mint and kalamata olives that kept me coming back for more. I had discovered how well watermelon works with savory ingredients last summer with this Grilled Shrimp & Watermelon Salad, so I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised by how well this pairing worked together. It was the perfect balance of salty and sweet, fresh and preserved and I knew that I had to replicate it at home. And so I did. And it was delicious.

Watermelon and feta skewers with fresh mint is now—without a doubt—my favorite go-to summer appetizer. Give it a try and it just might be yours too!

Watermelon & Feta Skewers
Seriously this is so simple it doesn’t even need a recipe.

watermelon apps

Fresh watermelon, cubed
Block style feta cheese, cubed
Fresh mint leaves
Kalamata olives, pitted
Long, fancy tooth picks

  1. Start with a cube of watermelon, top with feta, a mint leaf and finally an olive.
  2. Skewer with a fancy tooth pick and marvel at the simple deliciousness.

rub me the right way

Last weekend may have been the unofficial start of Summer, but in my mind it actually began a few weeks ago. You see for me the early days of Summer have less to do with the calendar and more to do with rediscovering life outdoors. It’s little things like; starting each day off with coffee on the deck, my vegetable garden being fully planted and prospering, the remaining school year being counted in weeks rather than months and the grill and smoker working overtime churning out something delicious nearly everyday of the week. Yeah, it’s definitely the little things that best tell the story of the season for me.

My husband received an offset smoker as a birthday gift about a year ago and has been on a mission to become the ultimate backyard smokin’ guru ever since. He spent last summer perfecting smoked chicken and ribs— he modified the firebox, researched optimal fuel types and temps, watched countless hours of BBQ Pit Masters and collaborated with yours truly on marinades, rubs and sauces. We spent a considerable amount of time developing a wet rub that was initially our go to recipe for ribs, but after giving it a try on chicken it ended up our go to recipe for just about everything. Shrimp, ribs, chicken, pork roast… it’s a winner every time.

Basically all a rub consists of is ground spices, sugar and salt, pretty simple. Rubs are typically massaged into the meat and then allowed to sit for a few hours so that the flavors can permeate. Our recipe starts out pretty much the same as all the others but then we add a twist— apple cider vinegar. You see we wanted to develop a rub recipe that would ensure the meat would stay moist during its long cook on the smoker, would provide plenty of flavor and would work to tenderize and “flavorize” the meat rather quickly. (While we always plan our smoking adventures well in advance we’re not always so quick on the fire building prep and execution!) In the past I’ve used balsamic vinegar as a quick marinade for grilled pork chops— the acids in the vinegar help to tenderize the meat in a very short amount of time and keep it moist while it cooks. Balsamic is a pretty strong flavor, but I thought apple cider vinegar would achieve the same results with a much more appealing profile. We mixed together our spices, added brown sugar and kosher salt, poured in the vinegar, blended until it was a watery paste and schmeared it all over the meat. Holy moly it was amazing!

And as they say… the rest is history.

Best Ever BBQ Wet Rub
This rub works well on everything. Seriously, everything.

rib rub2

1 tsp. smoked paprika
1-2 tsp. chipotle chili powder
1 tsp. chili powder
1 tsp. Chinese Five Spice
2 tsp. ground cumin
3 tsp. kosher salt
3 tsp. garlic powder
5 tsp. brown sugar
5 tbsp. raw apple cider vinegar

  1. Mix all the ingredients together in a medium bowl. Schmear all over the meat and allow to sit for a few hours before smoking or grilling*.

*Because of the brown sugar in the rub be sure to grill the meat slowly over a medium-low flame to avoid charing.

dinner + drinks

It’s come to my attention that a few of you may be under the impression that I live a sort of charmed life. That woodland creatures twitter at my backdoor, my children frolic quietly and happily in the other room, dust bunnies don’t gather in my corners and mealtime is the most relaxing time of the day. Ummm. Yeah. No. The reality is… my half Jack Russell/half South Carolina swamp dog catches all the birds, bunnies and moles that visit my backyard and “plays” with them until their playing days are over. My children seem to constantly complain, bicker and need me to supply them with endless sources of entertainment. Try as I may my house is ALWAYS dusty. And dinnertime is pretty close to the most frustrating time of my day. (Trying to get myself and two kids out the door by 8:15 every morning wins that award!) In fact here’s a little sample of the what goes on at a typical Greco family meal:

DINNER: Grilled Pizza
COMMENT FROM SON: “You’re the best cook! Is there more pizza?”
COMMENT FROM DAUGHTER: “I don’t like pepperoni!” “You were just eating it out of the bag while I made the pizzas.” “Well… I don’t like it now.” (Said with arms crossed and a little humph at the end.)
COMMENT FROM HUSBAND: “This is my favorite way you make pizza.”

DINNER: Vegetable and Chicken Sausage Frittata
COMMENT FROM SON: “Did you have to put so many vegetables in it?”
COMMENT FROM DAUGHTER: “I don’t like the red peppers” “You love red peppers and ask for them in your lunchbox all the time.” “Well… I don’t like them now.” (Said with arms crossed and a little humph at the end.)
COMMENT FROM HUSBAND: “Hmm, not bad. I told you that cast iron pan wasn’t too big” (He bought me the pan. It’s giant.)

DINNER: BLT Linguine
COMMENT FROM SON: “The sauce makes my lips feel like I have on ChapStick and next time can you leave out the green stuff?”
COMMENT FROM DAUGHTER: “How many bites do I have to eat to get ice cream? Is this enough? Is this enough? Is this enough?”
COMMENT FROM HUSBAND: (No comments but he did have seconds. I’m guessing he skipped lunch.)

DINNER: Grilled Cuban-Style Pork Loin
COMMENT FROM SON: (No comments. No complaints. I’ll take that as a thumbs up).
COMMENT FROM DAUGHTER: “I love this! Look what a good job I’m doing on dinner!”
COMMENT FROM HUSBAND: “This is the only marinade you should use for pork.”

DINNER: Turkey and Cheddar Paninis with Bacon
COMMENT FROM SON: “BACON! I LOVE BACON!”
COMMENT FROM DAUGHTER:  “I don’t like the bread.” “It’s the good Trader Joe’s panini bread I always get.” “Well… I don’t like it.” (Said with arms crossed and a little humph at the end.)
COMMENT FROM HUSBAND: “Bacon? Are you feeling all right?.”

So you see, my life really is no different from anyone else’s. And while the grass may appear greener on my side of the fence, be careful where you step because it’s been a few days since I’ve been out to pick up the dog poop…

Pisco Twilight
This is the perfect warm weather drink and just
boozy enough to make less than stellar dinner reviews a smidge less annoying. 

pisco twilight2

3 fresh strawberries, diced
4 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
1/2 fresh lime, diced
20 ml (4 tsp./.7 oz) Agave nectar
60 ml (12 tsp/2 oz.) Pisco*

  1. Add to a cocktail shaker the strawberries, basil, lime and agave. Using a muddler (or handle of a wooden spoon) muddle together all the ingredients until the strawberries and limes are really smashed.
  2. Add the Pisco to the shaker, cover and give a few shakes. Strain into a rocks glass, fill with ice and garnish with a lime wedge, fresh basil and a strawberry.

* Pisco is a colorless grape brandy produced in winemaking regions of Peru and Chile.

**adapted from capel pisco cocktail book

spring into chimichurri

After having endured a longest, coldest, harshest winter of memory, Spring couldn’t come soon enough for this girl. Cool mornings, warm afternoons, flowers blooming, birds chirping, the world seeming to suddenly come back to life as if overnight. Just the mention of Spring makes me feel relaxed; like the burden of boots, coats and scarves has been lifted. But wait, what’s that falling from the sky? Snow… in April… Are you kidding me!? And that sound, is that rain? And rain and rain and more rain. WTF Mother Nature— because we haven’t been through enough? Seriously girlfriend, you suck. But I digress…

Regardless of the type of Winter I’ve just lived through, Spring is always a welcome season in my book. It’s fresh, green and full of promise. It makes me want to be outside, to simply slow down and enjoy the sights and sounds of nature rediscovering the world. Spring always makes me think of herbs and herbs make me think of pesto. I love pesto. I love the fresh herbal taste, the pungent garlic and the salty cheese combination. I’ve been known to use it on everything I can think of and sometimes I even eat it right off the spoon. Yeah, I really love it. So it would only seem natural that Chimichurri (the Argentine answer to pesto) would be right up my alley.

I’m lucky to live close enough to Newark N.J. (that’s right, I said lucky enough) that we think nothing of taking a trip to the Ironbound section for dinner. The Ironbound is filled with amazing Portuguese, Brazilian, Spanish and Argentinian restaurants; each paying a subtle homage to its neighboring cuisine. Years spent frequenting this little world unto itself has taught me a lot about food; more specifically how simple can become extraordinary with a few little twists. The perfect example; steak on a stone. Steak brought to the table and quickly seared on a screaming hot stone or terra cotta tile, finished with a squeeze of fresh lemon juice and served with some beautifully green and garlicky Chimichurri. It is the epitome of simple ingredients resulting in extraordinary flavor.

Since our last dinner in the Ironbound I’ve started making Chimichurri at home. It’s as easy to make as pesto, fills my salty/garlicky/spicy/herbal perfectly and has quickly become my condiment of choice for just about everything. No joke, everything.

Chimichurri
I am totally obsessed with this stuff. Drizzled on steak, tossed with potatoes, splashed on greens or even eaten right of the spoon. Hello deliciousness!

chimmichuri2

1 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
6-8 large garlic cloves, peeled and crushed
1/2 cup fresh oregano leaves
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
3/4 cup good quality olive oil

  1. Place all of the ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Allow to process until smooth.
  2. Transfer the Chimichurri to a serving dish and let stand for at least 1 hour before serving. (The Chimichurri can be made ahead and refrigerated overnight, but allow it to come to room temperature before serving.)

*adapted from food & wine

porcine aplenty pea soup

Since last Sunday’s dinner we’ve eaten leftover ham in every fashion imaginable and yet I still had plenty of leftovers and a ham bone sitting in my fridge. You too? Yeah I thought so. Typically when we have ham for Easter someone ends up taking home the bone and returns sometime later with a few containers of split pea soup. This year I decided to take the “boar” by the horns and make it myself.

Frankly I’ve eaten enough pea soup over the years to know exactly how I like it; super thick, with plenty of carrots (potatoes optional) and I prefer the ham diced rather than shredded. With those factors in mind I forged ahead and created an “almost as good as my mothers” split pea soup. (Although she actually makes hers with smoked turkey and not ham, so perhaps mine is actually the winner in the smoked porcine category!) Either way it turned out so good that I decided to share it with you. So good in fact that no one grumbled about dinner, questioned how many bites were required or feigned fullness just to get the meal over with. And frankly in my world, that spells total dinner success!

Split Pea Soup with Smoked Ham
This is the perfect recipe to use up holiday ham. Perfect!

pea soup

2 lbs. split green peas, rinsed
1 ham bone
4 large carrots, diced
4 stalk celery, diced
1 large onion, diced
6 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
8 cups low-sodium chicken broth
4 cups water

2 tsp. Kosher salt 
1 tsp. ground black pepper
4 cups leftover smoked ham, diced
8 oz. baby carrots, steamed and diced

  1. Put the split peas, ham bone, carrots, celery, onion, thyme, bay leaves, chicken broth and water in a large stock pot and stir to blend. Bring to a boil over high heat, lower to a simmer, cover and cook until the peas are tender, about 1 hour.
  2. Remove the ham bone, thyme stems and bay leaves and using an immersion blender, puree the soup to the desired consistency. Add to the pureed soup the diced ham and steamed carrots and allow the soup to come back to a simmer. Adjust the seasonings and serve with crusty bread or cornbread.

“cuban by association” roasted pork

Sunday is my favorite day of the week. It’s the day I usually get to sleep in, it’s a day that’s often commitment free, it’s a day to relax and do what we want at the pace we want to do it. I like to have a proper dinner on Sunday, nothing overly fancy just a little more involved than your ordinary weeknight meal; a little Death Row Chicken, some slow-cooked pulled turkey or as on a recent Sunday a bit of Cuban-Style Roasted Pork. Now before we go any further I feel the need to make a few things clear: I am not Cuban nor am I married to a Cuban (yes I have a girlfriend who is but I’m not sure that counts), I have never been to Cuba and I do not profess to understand all the intricacies of Cuban cuisine. However… I do happen to love this inspired by a million other cuisines style of food (traditional Cuban food takes a page from Spanish, French, African, Arabic, Chinese, and Portuguese cultures) and have eaten it enough to think that I can come up with my own riff on Cuban Roasted Pork. And so I did.

To begin with I made a “traditional” Cuban mojo; a mixture of oil, garlic, onion, oregano, orange and lime. I let the meat marinate in the mojo overnight and then roasted it in the oven like I would our Christmas Prime Rib (start off at a high temp. to sear the outside then reduce the heat and let it cook for a couple of hours). The results were amazing, seriously delicious. So good in fact that I would almost be willing to serve it to my girlfriends mother-in-law. Almost. But wait, the story doesn’t end there.

On the eve of every weekend I say I’m going plan dinners for the week and shop for everything I need ahead of time, and every weekend I don’t. So invariably the same thing always happens; we’re good to go till Wednesday then kaput… mayonnaise sandwiches. It was one of those nothin in the fridge but condiments and Sunday nights leftovers (which happened to be roasted Cuban pork) that actually inspired the most fantastic leftover dinner to date. I decided to break out the panini press and turn the leftover pork, a little Dijon mustard, Virginia ham, dill pickles and swiss cheese into delicious Cuban Sandwiches. Winner, winner… Cuban pork take two dinner. Delish!

Cuban-Style Roasted Pork
You can cut this recipe in half, but then you don’t have much for leftovers.

2 heads garlic, broken apart and skinned
1 large onion
1 1/2 cups orange juice
1/2 cup lime juice
3 tbsp. olive oil
2 tbsp. dried oregano
2 tbsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. black pepper
zest of 1 lime
zest of 1 orange
6 lbs. pork loin end roast, trimmed

  1. Place all of the marinade ingredients in the bowl of a food processor. Allow to process until fairly smooth. Pour the marinade into a large resealable container, add the pork and allow to marinate (turning once or twice) for 12-18 hrs. Remove the meat from the refrigerator an hour before you want to put it in the oven.
  2. Preheat the oven to 450°F. Remove the roast from the marinade and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Add a little water to the bottom of the pan and roast for 30 minutes.
  3. Reduce the oven to 350°F and allow to cook until the internal temperature reaches 160°F, about 2 hrs.
  4. Remove the roast from the oven and allow to sit for 20 minutes before carving into thin slices.

Cuban-Style Roasted Pork Panini
This is one of my favorite leftover meals and it’s so simple it really doesn’t even warrant a recipe.

cuban sandwich2

leftover pork loin end roast, sliced thin and warmed
crusty bread (I used a loaf of ciabatta)
Dijon mustard
baby dill pickles, sliced thin
Virginia ham
provolone or swiss cheese

  1. Preheat your panini press. (You can do this in a pan like you would grilled cheese as well, but you’ll need to weigh down the sandwich while it cooks.) Slice the bread into individual portions and then in half.
  2. Coat one half with mustard then start layering: cheese, then a couple of slices of pickle, then a few pork slices, top that with a slice or two of ham and finish up with another slice of cheese. Top with the remaining half of bread, squish in the panini press until the cheese has melted and the crust is warm and crispy. Repeat with remaining sandwiches.