the grateful guest

I love party planning; the recipe research, list making, ingredient shopping and tabletop setting. Sure it’s a lot of time, work and money but what can I say— I truly enjoy that meal savored, compliments accepted, pots n’ pans washed feeling of a dinner well done. But ya know what I like even more? Occasionally being the guest rather than the host. Yup you read right, sometimes I prefer to be responsible for nothing more than a hostess gift and a side, rather than the whole shebang. Seriously. Instead of missing out on conversations because I’m stuck in the kitchen, watching the clock like a hawk to ensure that everything comes out hot, washing and packing back away countless pots, pans, dishes, glasses, platters, bowls, napkins and tablecloths… I get to drink wine, nibble on appetizers, chit-chat and relax.

So you may be wondering, what do I bring when the opportunity to be a grateful guest should arise. Well I’ll tell you. I like to bring a bottle of wine, something I know the host will enjoy whether they decide to open it at the gathering or not, and a dish that requires minimal serving effort. There’s nothing worse than having someone show up at your house with a contribution, that in theory is intended to make the dinner easier on you, but in reality requires elaborate assembly and/or preparation. For me the answer is always something that can be made at home, transported easily and (ideally) served at room temperature. Something like a cheese platter, a salad of some sort, dessert (a total no brainer) or an array of crudités and dips.

People love dip, it’s an undeniable fact. Give them something to dunk, dip or slather and they’re happy as clams. And why not— its easy, unpretentious and personally… makes me think of childhood. As a product of the 70’s I have fond memories of old school Lipton Onion Soup Dip served alongside a big ol’ bag of greasy crinkle potato chips. Man, it really didn’t get much better. I would never consider going the Lipton route now but I’m fairly confident that if I did, it would get devoured in no time flat. (Because let’s be honest— corn syrup, hydrolyzed soy protein, caramel color, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, monosodium glutamate and yeast extract may be unhealthy, but they’re just as yummy as they were in 1978!)

When I bring a crudité platter I like serve it with a couple of homemade “healthy” dips. Hummus is always an option and sometimes guacamole, but when I want to switch things up a bit I make Rosemary White Bean Dip or a super simple Feta & Lemon Dip. They’re delicious, can easily be doubled and the leftovers makes great sandwich spreads. I haven’t discounted the idea of attempting to create a healthy/from scratch version of everyone’s beloved Lipton Onion Soup dip, so keep your eyes out for that sometime in the near future. However something tells me that no matter how tasty it turns out, it just won’t compare to my MSG tinted memories.

Rosemary White Bean Dip
The rosemary flavor is very subtle, so even if you’re not a huge fan don’t omit it.

2dips3

5 lg. garlic cloves, smashed
4 tbsp. olive oil, divided
1 fat sprig of fresh rosemary
3 tsp. fresh lemon juice
1 can Great Northern Bean, drained and rinsed
1 tbsp. plain Greek yogurt
1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
crudités, chips or crackers, for serving

  1. In a small skillet warm 2 tbsp. of oil until it shimmers. Add the smashed garlic and rosemary and sauté until the garlic is golden brown. Remove the rosemary spring and discard, add the garlic and oil to the bowl of a food processor.
  2. Add to the food processor the remaining oil, lemon juice, rinsed beans, yogurt, salt and pepper.
  3. Allow to process until the mixture is completely smooth. Transfer to a serving dish and allow to chill before serving.
  4. Serve with crudités, chips or crackers.

*adapted from serious eats

Feta + Lemon Dip
Seriously simple.

8 oz. block feta cheese
3 tbsp. fresh lemon juice
2 garlic cloves, smashed
3 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil
lemon zest, for garnish
drizzle of olive oil, for garnish
crudités, chips or crackers, for serving

  1. Break the feta into chunks and place in the bowl of a food processor along with the lemon juice, garlic, and olive oil. Process until smooth and fully combined.
  2. Spoon into a serving bowl, drizzle with a little olive oil, and sprinkle with a bit of fresh lemon zest.
  3. Serve with crudités, chips or crackers.

*adapted from sweet paul magazine

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gluten-free… is it for me?

A few weeks ago I decided to try going gluten-free. I’ve had quirky issues with my stomach most of my life (ironic since I’m such a food lover right?) and I wanted to see if making the switch would make a difference. It’s too soon to make any concrete declarations but all signs are pointing to… maybe.

Deciding to change your diet can feel like a daunting task. I’ll be honest, my motto is more “Life is too short not enjoy dinner!” than “Moderation is the key too happiness.” With that in mind I’ve tried my best not to let gluten-free mean flavor-free, but it hasn’t been easy. I’ve discovered that potato chips and wine are both gluten-free (which frankly made me one happy girl) and I’ve come to the conclusion that if you fall into three simple categories you’re certain to find eating well gluten-free to be a snap. And here they are:

1.) You like vegetables and are happy to eat lots of them.
2.) You’re not a big fan of carbs and can give them up without a backward glance.
3.) You’re more of a baked goods buyer than a from scratch baker.

Honestly I’ve got no problem with 1. And I’m actually surprised at how easily I’ve given up 2., but the baking part has been tricky. You see while it’s quite possible to find recipes for ooey-gooey gluten-free cinnamon buns and chewy chocolate chip cookies; these recipes are often labor intensive and usually require a boat load of special ingredients. Ingredients such as tapioca and rice flour, xanthan gum, potato starch and agar flakes, things you probably don’t exactly have lying around the pantry. Yeah, I know— annoying. I’ve decide that if I stick with this little wheat-free detour then perhaps I will make the ingredient investment, but until then I’ve been trying to manage with my own little tweaks and substitutions. So what have I come up with? Well I’m glad you asked…

My daughter and I made our own oat flour and used it to bake up some lovely applesauce muffins. I’ve made dozens of loaves of cornbread with a blend of fine and coarse cornmeal, a couple of eggs and some cream style corn— the results were delicious. But my biggest gluten-free success so far has to be macaroni n’ cheese. I swapped regular pasta for rice (I like Trader Joe’s brand the best), used arrowroot powder instead of flour in the roux for the cheese sauce, and punched up the flavor big time by using a combination of goat brie and cheddar. Afraid of that goaty flavor? Don’t be, it’s really subtle but makes a huge flavor impact and this combo seems to be loved by all. Seriously! My family thinks it’s one of the best versions of mac n’ cheese I’ve ever made, which is fantastic, but I really knew I was onto something when I served it at our July 4th barbecue. Not a single one of the dozen kids who were here had anything but “Is there more?” to say about it. I’ll take that as one big fat recipe success.

I guess you can say that I’m slowly learning to navigate the world of gluten-free living. I can almost imagine myself continuing to live this way if I can just conquer one all mighty obstacle… The ultimate crusty loaf of gluten-free bread. So stay tuned!

Gluten-Free Goat Brie + Cheddar Mac n’ Cheese
I make this with goat brie and my family loves it, but you can use all cheddar if you don’t think yours will.

glutenfree mac2

2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. arrowroot powder
1 1/2 cups skim milk, warmed
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. garlic powder
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
4 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, diced
4 oz. wheel goat brie, peeled and diced
16 oz. gluten-free rice macaroni

  1. Begin cooking the macaroni according to package directions. While it cooks melt the butter in a medium saucepan.
  2. Add the arrowroot powder and whisk until it turns golden. (The key to using arrowroot is not to overheat it, otherwise it loses it’s thickening magic.)
  3. Slowly add the warm milk and whisk until the sauce has thickened. Add the garlic powder, salt and Dijon mustard and stir until well combined.
  4. Drain the macaroni and return to the pot. Add the diced cheese to the white sauce and stir until the sauce is smooth.
  5. Pour half the cheese sauce over the cooked macaroni and give it a gentle stir. Add additional sauce until the macaroni is coated to your liking. (I often have extra sauce that I use when I reheat the leftovers.)
  6. Serve, enjoy and be amazed at how tasty gluten-free can be!

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.

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.

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

tomato soup and scooby-doo

Grilled cheese and tomato soup; it’s the ultimate comfort food combination. No matter who you are or where you’re from I’m betting you have some memory directly connected to this classic combo; for me it’s cozy weekend lunches as a kid. I’d set myself up with a tv tray smack in the middle of the living room, turn on one of my favorite shows; perhaps Scooby-Doo, Josie and the Pussycats or Schoolhouse Rock and settle in with a piping hot bowl of tomato soup and a good ‘ol grilled cheese. Simple. Classic. Perfect.

Flash forward 30+ years and nothing has changed. Sure the show on tv is probably SpongeBob, Fairly Odd Parents or Uncle Grandpa (Unfamiliar with this one? Count yourself lucky.) The soup is Slow-Roasted Tomato Bisque and the sandwiches are Grilled Rosemary Ham and Muenster on Marble Rye; but the cozy, comforting perfection is just the same.

Slow-Roasted Tomato Bisque
You can also make this soup with canned whole tomatoes and it will be perfectly good, but nothing beats fresh.

tom soup2

2 1/2 lbs. fresh Roma tomatoes
2 tbsp. dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tsp. ground cloves
1 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. black pepper
extra virgin olive oil, for drizzling
2 1/2 cups vegetable stock
3/4 cup low-fat half and half

  1. Preheat oven to 300°F. Line a baking sheet with parchment and set aside. In a small bowl mix together the brown sugar, cloves, salt and pepper. Slice the tomatoes in half and place cut-side up on the prepared baking sheet. Drizzle each half with olive oil then sprinkle liberally with the brown sugar mixture.
  2. Roast in the oven for 2 1/2 hours, or until the tomatoes begin to soften and collapse. Transfer the roasted tomatoes to a blender. Add the vegetable stock and blend until smooth.* Transfer the puree to a medium pot and heat until warmed, but not boiling. Stir in the half and half and cook for an additional minute. Ladle into bowls and enjoy!

*To make ahead: Follow the directions up to this point, then pour into a storage container and refrigerate. When ready to use heat until warmed, but not boiling. Stir in the half and half and cook for an additional minute, then serve.

*adapted from injennieskitchen.com

irish blue cheese + walnut crisps

As I’m sure you’re aware Saint Patrick’s Day is on Monday. The one day of the year that EVERYONE is officially Irish, that green beer is a thing to be celebrated and that a meal of boiled meat is consumed with gusto by a significant amount of the population. Don’t get me wrong— I like St. Paddy’s Day just as much as the next Polish/Italian girl and I will in fact be eating corned beef (or Chicken Stout Stew) and soda bread right along with the masses. My question is why? Why was Saint Patrick such a big deal that he deserves an entire boozy and bloated from the brined beef day named after him. Seriously, why?

I did a little research and quickly found out few things. First of all Saint Patrick’s Day has it’s own website, nope not kidding! It’s filled with lore, recipes, parade schedules and the like. Secondly, I found this great graphic from History.com of Saint Patrick’s Day stats…

st-patricks-day-infographic-final-forweb

Pretty impressive numbers for a day celebrating a guy who wasn’t actually Irish. Yup that’s right, the third thing I discovered was Saint Patrick was apparently born to either British or possibly Roman parents; either way his lineage was not Irish. Crazy, right?!? So why is March 17th such an international big deal? Well, it wasn’t always. Prior to the early 1900’s the day was considered a minor religious holiday in Ireland; a simple church service, a big family meal (which could include meat and beer, items normally abstained from during Lent) and that’s about it. Hmmm, so then how on earth did it become such a “day” here in the States? Well I’ll tell you how… According to NationalGeographic.com: Eighteenth-century Irish soldiers fighting with the British in the U.S. Revolutionary War held the first St. Patrick’s Day parades. Some soldiers, for example, marched through New York City in 1762 to reconnect with their Irish roots. Other parades followed in the years and decades after, including well-known celebrations in Boston, New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago; primarily in flourishing Irish immigrant communities. ‘[Saint Patrick’s Day] became a way to honor the saint but also to confirm ethnic identity and to create bonds of solidarity…'”  And there you have it; we apparently have a bunch of Irish mercenaries to thank for the grand celebration that is Saint Patrick’s Day as we know it.

When you think of typical “Irish food” potatoes, corned beef and beer are undoubtedly the first things to pop to mind. But in fact the Emerald Isle actually has a strong connection to seafood and dairy as well. You’ll find delicious Irish cheeses and butter for sale everywhere; from Costco to Shop Rite, Trader Joe’s to Fairway. Irish butter is a “European-style butter”, meaning it has a higher butterfat content than your average American butter and a richer, creamier texture. It’s fantastic on a slice of toast, or melted on some veggies but it really shines when you use it for baking. Your typical American butter contains more water and less butterfat than it’s European counterpart. When used for baking this additional water can act as a glueing agent and result in tougher pastry dough. Higher butterfat = light and lovely baked goods! (Next time you make a pie crust try using Irish butter instead, the results will amaze you.)

This year to celebrate the not so Irish patron saint of Ireland I’ve decided to pay a simple homage to the Irish dairy industry. What goes better with a few cocktails and snacks than some yummy crisps. (Listen to me, next I’ll be suggesting we put the kettle on the cooker and have a cup of tea!) Anyway back to the crisps… Irish Blue Cheese + Walnut Crisps to be exact. These are perfect with a bit of cheese and a pint, but equally delish all on their own! So until next we meet…

“May the Irish hills caress you;
may her lakes and rivers bless you;
may the luck of the Irish enfold you;
may the blessings of Saint Patrick, behold you.”

Irish Blue Cheese + Walnut Crisps
These are so amazingly tasty that you just may want to consider doubling the recipe so insure there are leftovers!

bluecheese crisps2

1/2 cup walnut pieces, toasted and finely chopped
8 tbsp. unsalted Irish butter, at room temperature
8 oz. Irish blue cheese, crumbled and at room temperature
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1 tbsp. cold water
1 egg beaten with 1 tbsp. of water, for egg wash

  1. In a medium dry skillet over low fame, lightly toast the walnuts. Remove to a cutting board, finely chop and set aside.
  2. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream together the butter and blue cheese for 1 minute, until smooth. Add the flour, salt, and pepper and continue beating on medium speed until the dough resembles large crumbles. Add 1 tablespoon of cold water and mix until the dough comes together.
  3. Gather the dough together (you’ll need to scrape the bowl) and place on a lightly floured surface. Gently roll it into a 12″ long log. Brush the log completely with the egg wash. Spread the reserved walnuts on a cutting board and roll the log back and forth in the walnuts, pressing lightly to distribute them evenly. Wrap in plastic and refrigerate for at least 45 minutes.
  4. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  5. Carefully cut the log into thin coins with a serrated bread knife (you may need to reshape them a bit after cutting) and arrange the coins 1/2 inch apart on the cookie sheets. Stagger the cookie sheets in the oven and bake for 11 minutes, rotate and continue baking another 5-6 minutes until they are lightly browned and crisp. Cool on a rack and serve at room temperature. Sláinte!

*adapted from barefoot contessa