Monthly Archives: May 2014

Strawberry Chicken Salad-A Great Summer Meal!

Chopped StrawberriesOne of my favorite things to make in the summer, especially when it’s hot out, is a dinner salad.  It’s easy to make, healthy, and quick.  I especially love to add summer produce and make a sweet, summery dressing.  This recipe combines ripe strawberries, tart dried cherries, crunchy walnuts, all with a sweet honey Dijon dressing.

This salad recipe makes a big single serving for dinner for me, but probably two smaller servings for the normal eater. 🙂  Feel free to double, triple, quadruple…whateverBoston Lettuce you need.  It’s pretty flexible.  And please, substitute away.  If you’d rather have peaches and pecans, go for it.  If you don’t like dried cherries, leave them out…or substitute cranberries.  It’s easy!

To start, make the vinaigrette in the bowl you’re using.  This way, it’s easy clean up.  Just 1 bowl to deal with. Whisk together 1 teaspoon Dijon, 1 teaspoon honey, and 1/2 teaspoon apple cider vinegar until well combined.  Slowly add 2 teaspoons olive oil, and continue whisking until it’s emulsified and Viniagretteall of the oil has been combined.  Next, you’re just going to pile in the salad ingredients.

A few months ago I wrote about grilling chicken for my Italian Grilled Chicken Salad.  You can use those same instructions for this recipe or use a different recipe.  You want 1 large or 2 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cooked.  Chop the chicken into bite size pieces and add to a bowl.  Hull 1 pint strawberries, chop, and add to the bowl.  Take 1 head Boston or Bibb lettuce, chop, and add Walnutsto the bowl with the chicken.  Add 1/2 cup dried cherries and 1/2 cup walnuts.

Toss the salad together, making sure everything has some of the dressing, and serve.  I prefer this salad at room temperature, but leftovers do well in the fridge.  Also, as I said before, feel free to substitute and experiment.  You can also add your favorite cheese to the salad.  The possibilities are endless.Salad

Peonies Blooming Everywhere!

Late spring is my favorite time in the garden.  While the first pops of color from spring bulbs are a welcome sight, I love to see the perennials come back to life.  I absolutely love the big bursts of color that they bring after the dreary winter.  There are big bearded irises popping up all over the yard. The clematis cover their supports with buds and blooms.  The rhododendron is a mass of pink blooms, and the weigela is beautifully pink and red.  However, the prize of the late spring garden for me is the huge peony bloom.

I have a bunch of peonies that pop up all over the perennial beds.  Those red shoots are a welcome site in early spring, knowing that they are still active and growing underground.  But the pièce de résistance are the blooms.  They are covered with huge blooms of amazing colors.  From the subtle whites and yellows, to light and dark pinks, deep magenta, and purples, the colors are amazing.  And the blooms come in classic, subtly beautiful single blooms to full, heavy, bursting double varieties.

Below is a sample of some of the peony blooms I’m enjoying in my garden these days.  Thankfully, we haven’t gotten a heavy rain yet to drop the blooms to the ground.  Staking is definitely recommended, but I usually just chance it.  Enjoy them while they last, sadly, they will be gone all too soon.

Single White Bloom Double Light Pink Ready to BurstDelicate Single PinkDouble Pink with Yellow CenterFull Double PinkMagical MagentaMore Blooms to Come

Tomato, Basil, Garlic, Olive Oil…Ah Bruschetta

I am not sure if I’ve mentioned this before, but I love tomatoes.  I love them in all forms, cooked, raw, doesn’t matter.  And one of my favorite ways to eat tomatoes is in bruschetta.

Bruschetta is incredibly simple to make, and absolutely delicious.  And, because it’s all about fresh ingredients, it’s a perfect summer recipe.

Diced TomatoesTo start, find nice, ripe tomatoes.  I prefer the Roma or plum tomatoes for bruschetta because they aren’t as juicy.  Their texture holds up well.  However, really any tomato will do.  And if you have them fresh from the garden, well, they are always the best!  For this recipe I use 5 tomatoes.  And, you may remember a while ago me going on and on about ceramic knives for cutting tomatoes, but I really do taste a difference.  So if you have a ceramic knife, now is the time to use it.  Remove the seeds and dice the tomatoes and add them to a bowl.

Minced GarlicAdd to the tomatoes 3 garlic cloves, minced.  In traditional bruschetta, the garlic would be rubbed on the toasted bread, but I find this works well and is easier.  You want the mince to be pretty small to avoid people getting a huge piece of garlic.  Also, I should warn you, I love garlic, so you may find 3 cloves is a bit much for you, or you may want more.  Feel free to adjust.

To the tomatoes and garlic, add 3 tablespoons olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper.  I also add 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.  I think purists would probably just stick with the olive oil and not include the vinegar, but I think it adds a great flavor to the bruschetta.

BasilFinally, add 6 basil leaves.  I chiffonade them.  Sounds impressive, right?  Well, it just means you roll the leaves up and cut them into strips. Now give the bruschetta a stir and you’re done.

I prefer bruschetta at room temperature.  Also, as it sits, the tomatoes release their juices, adding to the delicious liquid.  Serve the bruschetta with toasted sliced Italian bread.  Just grill the bread, or toast it on a cookie sheet in the oven.  The crispy bread Bruschettadoes a great job of soaking up the delicious juice.

Bruschetta makes a great appetizer, but it’s also a good side.  And it works well at barbeques or picnics.  I might whip up a batch for Memorial Day!  Happy Memorial Day weekend everyone!

A Delicious Summer Dinner…Shrimp and Orzo with Spinach and Tomatoes

TomatoesI’m always playing with recipes, trying new things in the kitchen, and looking for different things to make for dinner.  I especially like to try seasonal things, tying the food to the weather.  When spring and summer hit, I start to think about some of my favorite foods, like seafood, especially shrimp.  Recently, I had played around with some ingredients and came up with a delicious dinner, shrimp and orzo with spinach and tomatoes.

Shallots and GarlicFor this recipe, cook 1 1/2 cups orzo according to the package directions.  While it is cooking, you can prepare the rest.  Saute 1 large shallot, minced, in 2 tablespoons olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat.  You want the shallots to be soft and have a bit of color.  It only takes a few minutes.  Add to the shallots 4 garlic cloves, chopped.  Cook those for a few minutes to get a little bit of color, but make sure they don’t get too dark.  Add 1/2 cup white wine, and deglaze the pan (scrape up any cooked bits from the pan).

Shrimp Tomato SpinachTo the saute pan, add 1 lb peeled and deveined shrimp.  Cook the shrimp until they start to turn pink.  They only take maybe 2 minutes on each side.  Add 8 oz spinach to the pan.  Stir carefully…I always seem to toss the spinach everywhere.  But it will start to wilt and become part of the dish.  Add 1 pint of cherry or grape tomatoes that have been cut in half.  You just want the tomatoes to heat through, so it will only take a minute or two.  They don’t need to cook.  Add 1 tablespoon of fresh thyme leaves, then stir everything with the cooked orzo.

Leave everything for about 15 minutes while the flavors come together and the orzo absorbs some of the sauce.  Grate 4 oz Asiago cheese into the dish and serve.

OrzoThis makes a great, light dinner, especially on a warm night.  I like it almost at room temperature, but if you prefer it hot, you can just dig in sooner.

The Garden’s Food-Compost

When my grandmother was gardening, she had the most amazing roses.  I don’t even know what types they were, but the thick bushes were always filled with beautiful, fragrant blooms.  She had vases full of roses in the house all summer.  Her secret?  She would “feed” the roses.  She would dump coffee grounds, egg shells, even banana peels into the dirt, work it under the soil so it wasn’t unsightly or stinky, and over time, the “food” would break down for the roses.  And, while my grandmother never used the term “compost” or probably even knew what it was, she certainly knew about feeding the soil.

Compost ReadyFor those of you who have been gardening for a while, compost is probably old hat.  But if you aren’t currently composting, or haven’t heard much about it, let me make a suggestion…as Nike would say, Just Do It!  Compost is basically organic matter that decomposes into rich fertilizer.  As I tell my niece and nephews, you’re take trash and making dirt (or dirt food) out of it.  The added bonus is that you’re recycling a lot of your kitchen and garden waste, cutting down on actual trash that makes it to a landfill somewhere.  Also, it is easy to do if you have a spot in your yard for a pile.

PilesMany years ago, when I was in college, I built my first compost pile.  I was so excited, I did tons of research.  I read about the right proportions and what should be included.  I built a “pen” out of old wooden skids and filled it with the right mix of nitrogen rich green matter and carbon rich brown matter (suggestions are 1/3 green to 2/3 brown, but I don’t really follow that these days).  I added earth worms and shredded newspapers.  I watered the pile and turned it often.  It was perfect.  I can remember one cold September evening that first year when I could see the steam coming off of the pile, knowing that mother nature was hard at work, working her magic.  Then, one of my neighbors thought it was just a junk pile and dumped loads and loads of grass clippings into my pile.  It ruined my perfect balance, and, while I tried to clean it out and save my hard work, my enthusiasm was crushed.  I took apart the pile the following year and that was it.

StructureWhile my first attempt was a bit OCD, several years ago I created another compost heap.  With this go around, I have become much more lax, and much more successful.  The first thing I did this time around was create two piles side by side.  My thought was that the one pile could be for dumping “new” material while the other pile was decomposing the “old” material.  I used inexpensive metal fence panels to create the walls of my compost pile. As I mentioned before, I had used wooden pallets in the past, but the wood started to decompose as well, so metal seemed like a better choice.  Each panel is 36 inches wide and 42 inches tall.  And because the panels are open, there is a lot of air flow, which also is good for compost.  Because I was using the fence panels, I needed 5.  I left the front side for each pile open, so it was easier to turn the piles periodically, and they share the middle panel.

PileOnce I had my structure built, I was ready to start adding to it.  For a compost pile, you can add almost any organic material, with a few exceptions.  First, be careful with weeds.  If the weeds went to seed, then they could spread those seeds in your compost, basically meaning you’re planting seeds as you spread the compost out.  And do not include clippings of diseased plants.  Again, this could just pass the disease to other healthy plants when using the compost.  Also, don’t add any kind of animal products from the kitchen.  You can add egg shells, and they are great for compost, but don’t add any meat or vegetables that are cooked with meat.  This will only attract animals to your pile.  For the most part, that’s about it.  Everything else is pretty fair game.

I add all of my clippings and deadheading As I mentioned when I was cleaning out the garden, I also add all of the leaves and debris I clean out of the garden in the spring.  Most of this already has started decomposing, so it works perfectly.  I add any soil I’m getting rid of that was in pots from the year before (with the dead plant, why not).  My sister is a big fan of campfires, so I also add in the ashes she has after her big bonfires.  And I do add weeds. especially the young ones that I pull in the spring.

Kitchen CompostAs far as the kitchen, I always have a bowl on my counter that I use for compost waste.  I know there are fancy things you can buy, but I just use a bowl.  I wait till it fills up, or starts to smell, whichever comes first, and then take it out and dump it on the pile.  I add egg shells, vegetables, fruits, banana peels, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, and even used paper towels (if just wet).  Most of the materials end up drying out a bit, so the bowl rarely smells…I usually just dump it when it’s full.

On Vegetable GardenOnce you start building up the pile, just turn it every few weeks or so to get air in it and get things moving.  As I mentioned earlier, throughout the spring and summer, I like to add to 1 pile, then the other is the one from the year before that may have some compost at the bottom, or may just need to sit longer.  You also want to make sure it stays moist, but I’ve found that summer rainstorms work pretty well for that.  After a while, you’ll notice that everything starts to break down and you’re left with a rich soil.  Use it wherever you feel your flowers, fruits, or vegetables need some extra nutrients.  I’ve been spreading mine on the vegetable garden before I till the soil, and it’s worked out really well.  I also add some to the hole when I’m planting any new trees or shrubs.  But wherever you use the compost, you’ll be rewarded.

And, if we’re being honest, back to the turning and watering, I’ve gone months where I’ve been busy and have completely forgotten to turn or water the pile, and it still works out great.  I’ve essentially ignored it, but I’m still rewarded.  The biggest difference is speed.  The more you turn it and take care of it, the faster you end up with compost.  However, I’m a patient person! 🙂

A Great Mother’s Day Dessert…Lemon Bars!

Ingredients ReadyFor most Mother’s Days, I cook dinner for the family.  The number of siblings varies from year to year as commitments may be with in-laws, but at least my mom is always there…actually, my mom and my sister, who is also a mom, of 3 boys.  And, the good son and brother that I am, I try to incorporate some of their favorite foods into dinner.  The menu always varies drastically, but one pretty common ingredient, at least with dessert, is lemon.  My mom loves lemon desserts, so I’ve made lemon meringue pies, lemon curd tarts, even lemon ricotta cookies (FYI, Giada has an amazing recipe for these…you have to try them!), but one of my favorites, and the easiest, is lemon bars.

Lemons JuicedOver the years, I’ve tried a number of different lemon bar recipes, and was about to give up.  There have been ones that are too runny, and others that have been too sweet or too tart.  Then I found this one.  This recipe is absolutely perfect.  It’s easy to make, and the lemon bars come out perfectly sweet and tart, with a buttery crust, and custardy filling.  I found this recipe on allrecipes.com, where it is appropriately named “The Best Lemon Bars.”

CrustTo start, beat 1 cup softened butter with 1/2 cup sugar until light and creamy.  Add 2 cups flour.  Mix until combined.  Pour into a greased 9×13 inch pan and press it down into an even layer.  Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes in a 350 degree oven, or until firm and golden.Crust Ready for Oven

Filling IngredientsWhile the crust bakes, whisk together 1 1/2 cups sugar and 1/4 cup flour.  Add 4 eggs and the juice of 2 lemons.  Whisk until well combined.  When the crust is finished baking, as soon as it comes out of the oven, pour the egg mixture over the crust.Pouring

Powdered SugarBake for an additional 20 minutes in the same oven.  They may look too soft, but they will firm up when they cool.  Once cooled, sprinkle the top with powdered sugar, and cut into bars.

One tip about the powdered sugar, I sprinkle the powdered sugar on the top, cut them, then sprinkle again.  I find that it makes my messy cuts look perfect…and a little extra powdered sugar never hurt anyone!

These really are a great dessert for Mother’s Day.  And speaking of Mother’s Day, hopefully you’re all taking care of the mothers in your life on Sunday.  For all of you moms, I hope you have a wonderful and relaxing day.  Happy Mother’s Day!  Tray of Lemon Bars

 

Easy Appetizer…Figs with Gorgonzola and Prosciutto

FigsI’m not sure about you, but the warm weather always makes me think of entertaining.  There’s something about sitting on the porch or deck, pulling out the grill, sharing food and drinks, that is just perfect for the warm weather.  But the last thing I want to do when I have guests over is spend hours in the kitchen while they are all enjoying each others company outside.  That’s why this bite size appetizer is perfect, it’s quick and easy to throw together, and bonus, it doesn’t involve the oven or stove!

Gorgonzola DolceThis may be one of the easiest recipes I ever write about.  It’s just so simple, but the flavors work so well together.  You may remember me ranting about my love of figs a few months ago…I do love them.  Here, the fresh figs are soft, sweet, juicy, and delicious.  They pair really well with the creamy, sweet/sharp blue cheese, Gorgonzola, and the salty ham, prosciutto.

So, as for the recipe, get ready…here goes.

Fig and GorgonzolaTake 8 oz fresh figs and slice off the woody stems.  Then, just cut each one of them in half.  Next, select the cheese.  I used Gorgonzola Dolce, which is a sweeter and milder blue cheese, but really any blue will do.  Take 4 oz Gorgonzola Dolce and slice it into small pieces.  Set the cheese on top of the figs, on the sliced side.  Then, wrap the figs and cheese with the prosciutto.  You’ll need about 3 oz sliced prosciutto.

So there you have it.  As promised, simple recipe for those warmer evenings.  Also, if you can’t find the Gorgonzola Dolce and use a different blue that might not be as sweet, or you just like things sweeter, you can always drizzle some honey over the cheese before you wrap the prosciutto around.  And if you don’t like blue cheese, feel free substitute whatever flavor combination you prefer. Enjoy!Finished Figs