Anniversary Dinner, Part 1: Bruschetta and Tapenade

Every October for the past several years, my parents have celebrated their wedding anniversary by driving from Michigan to Topsail Island, North Carolina.  I’ve never been there myself, but they’ve brought back pictures of little crabs on the beach and ocean sunsets, unique treasures found in the shops in Asheville, and stories of fresh seafood and local charm.  A couple of times, they decided to visit Virginia instead.  This year, they chose our house as their romantic getaway destination.

Yep.  Our little town in North Dakota, population forty-something, won out over the warm ocean breezes.  I’m guessing their cute little granddaughter had something to do with it.  Anyway, we had a great time–playing card games, taking walks, catching up on Downton Abbey.  My dad lent his painting and light-installing expertise to make our kitchen more awesome.  I did all the fun cooking, and my parents chopped onions and washed dishes.  I could get used to this.

For my parents’ last night here, we decided to make them a nice anniversary dinner.  I made chicken piccata as the main course and rounded out the meal with appetizers, soup, and an amazing dessert.  With some white wine, candles, and a little Duke Ellington, it was almost as good as the ocean.  Nah.  Even better.

Part 1:  Appetizers
We started out with homemade crostini with bruschetta and tapenade.  Both were new recipes, and both are definitely going back in the recipe binder to make again.  The crostini can be made a day in advance; just store them in an airtight container until they’re ready to use.  They take barely any time and are ten times better than crackers.  The tapenade can also be made in advance; it should keep a week or so in the fridge.  The bruschetta, on the other hand, will turn mushy and soggy if it sits too long, so make it shortly before serving.

Bruschetta and Tapenade on Homemade Crostini
Mystery Soup
Chicken Piccata
Mystery Dessert

Homemade Crostini, Bruschetta, and TapenadeCrostini  (my recipe)
Time:  30-35 minutes
Yield:  About 2 dozen

1 baguette loaf (the fresher, the better)
3-4 T. olive oil
1-2 large cloves garlic, peeled

Preheat oven to 375 F.  Slice baguette on an angle into 1/4″ to 5/8″ thick slices.  I use my biggest kitchen knife, rather than a bread knife, for this.

Spread out the bread slices on a baking sheet (you’ll probably need two).  Lightly brush each piece with olive oil.  Bake for 10 minutes, then switch the pans and continue to bake in 3-minute increments until golden brown.

Cut off the wide ends of the garlic cloves, then rub the garlic over each piece of bread (sort of like you’re grating the garlic).  You can also do this step before brushing the crostini with oil, but I’ve found it goes more quickly when the bread has been toasted.

Cool completely.  Store in an airtight container until ready to use.

Tomato-Basil Bruschetta (original recipe here)
Time:  10 minutes
Yield:  about 2 cups

3 plum (roma) tomatoes, chopped (I used two larger tomatoes)
1/3 cup thinly sliced green onions
2 T. olive oil
1 T. minced fresh basil OR 1 tsp. dried basil
1 T. red wine vinegar
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/4 tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. pepper

Combine all ingredients; refrigerate until ready to serve.  Serve on crostini.

Kalamata Tapenade (original recipe here)
Time:  10 minutes
Yield:  1 cup

1 clove garlic, minced
1 cup pitted kalamata olives
2 tsp. anchovy paste
1 T. capers
1/2 tsp. fresh thyme leaves
1/2 tsp. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1 1/2 T. fresh lemon juice
2 T. olive oil

Combine first seven ingredients (through lemon juice) in a food processor.  Slowly add olive oil while blending the ingredients together, until mixture resembles a smooth paste.  Serve on crostini (use sparingly; tapenade is quite salty).


Slow Cooker Multi-Bean “Bake”

Winter’s almost here!  Wait… what?  Yesterday I was enjoying a gorgeous day, hanging my sheets out in the sun, digging in the dirt, and thinking that North Dakota summers aren’t half bad.  Then I realized it’s October already–and my poor tomatoes and peppers probably aren’t going to ripen in the sun now that snow is in the forecast for this weekend.  That’s right.  Five months after the last dirty snowdrifts melted away, the snow is back again.  Blech.

There’s not much I can do about the weather, though, so here’s a cozy dish that’s perfect for fall potlucks and family get-togethers.  It’s actually great for summer picnics, too, so if you’re not lucky enough to have snow on the way, there’s no need to feel left out.

You can make this multi-bean bake either in the crock pot or in the oven.  For once, I prefer the crock pot, but if you’re short on time or feel like heating up your kitchen, go ahead and do it the other way.  You can also substitute different kinds of beans, if you prefer; sometimes I use baked beans in place of the pork and beans.  The original recipe called for lima beans, but I think they’re gross, so I use black beans instead.  And butter beans are almost impossible to find around here, so I usually just substitute black beans for those, too.  Just aim for a variety, and the sauce will tie it all together nicely.

Crock Pot Multi-Bean "Bake"Slow Cooker Multi-Bean “Bake”
Serves 10-12
Time:  20 minutes prep, 1-3 hours cook time

2 (16 oz.) cans red kidney beans, drained (about 2 cups)
1 (15 oz.) can black beans, drained (about 2 cups)
1 (15 oz.) can butter beans, drained (about 2 cups)
1 (31 oz.) can pork and beans (or two 15 oz. cans; about 4 cups)
1 pound ground beef
1 large onion, diced
4-5 slices bacon
1/2 cup ketchup
1 tsp. Frank’s Red Hot sauce
1/4 cup light or dark molasses
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tsp. yellow prepared mustard
1 tsp. salt

Combine beans in slow cooker.  Brown the ground beef and onion; drain.  Add to slow cooker.  Cut bacon into 1-inch pieces; fry until just barely crispy.  Drain; add to slow cooker.

In a small bowl, combine remaining ingredients.  Mix well into beans and meat.  Cook on low for 2-3 hours or on high for 1-2 hours.

Conventional oven method:  Combine ingredients (as indicated above) in large baking dish instead of crock pot.  Cover and bake at 350 F for 1 hour.

Slow Cooker Multi-Bean "Bake" 2

Raspberry Sorbet

I finally took the netting down from my little clump of raspberry bushes today.  I’m averaging about two berries a day now; if the birds really want them that badly, more power to them.  Six quarts are in the freezer, just waiting to be transformed into muffins and cobblers and other goodies when the winter winds are howling and we need just a little burst of summer’s sweetness to make it through to spring.  In the meantime, there’s still plenty of fruit to make one of our new favorite treats, a sweet-tart sorbet that far surpasses the neon pink version you get in the store.  Personally, I think it’s a bit on the sweet side, but I suppose sorbet isn’t designed to be eaten by the quart-ful.  A single scoop with a few fresh berries is the perfect way to finish off a late summer meal.

This recipe does require an ice cream maker and a fine mesh strainer.  I haven’t made any changes to the original recipe, but since Cook’s Illustrated recipes aren’t readily available online, I’ve included the whole thing here.

Raspberry SorbetRaspberry Sorbet (Cook’s Illustrated July/August 2012; online subscribers go here)
Yield:  1 quart
Time:  Begin at least 7 hours, or up to 27 hours, in advance (chill ice cream maker in advance–see note below)

Cook’s Illustrated Note:  Super-chilling part of the sorbet base before transferring it to the ice cream machine will keep ice crystals to a minimum.  If using a canister-style ice cream machine, be sure to freeze the empty canister for at least 24 hours and preferably 48 hours before churning.  For self-refrigerating machines, prechill the canister by running the machine for five to ten minutes before pouring in the sorbet mixture.  Make certain that you use Sure-Jell for low- or no-sugar recipes (packaged in a pink box) and not regular Sure-Jell (in a yellow box).

1 cup water
1 tsp. Sure-Jell for Less or No Sugar Needed Recipes (pink box)
1/8 tsp. salt
1 1/4 lb. (4 cups or 1 quart) raspberries, either fresh or frozen (thawed, with juices)
1/2 cup plus 2 T. sugar
1/4 cup light corn syrup

Combine water, Sure-Jell, and salt in medium saucepan.  Heat over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until Sure-Jell is fully dissolved, about 5 minutes.  Remove saucepan from heat and allow mixture to cool slightly, about 10 minutes.

Process water mixture and remaining ingredients in blender or food processor until smooth, about 30 seconds.  Strain mixture through fine-mesh strainer, pressing on solids to extract as much liquid as possible.  Transfer 1 cup mixture to small bowl and place remaining mixture in large bowl.  Cover both bowls with plastic wrap.  Place large bowl in refrigerator and small bowl in freezer and cool completely, at least 4 hours or up to 24 hours.  (Small bowl of mixture will freeze solid.)

Remove mixtures from refrigerator and freezer.  Scrape frozen base from small bowl into large bowl of base.  Stir occasionally until frozen base has fully dissolved.  Transfer mixture to ice cream machine and churn until mixture has consistency of thick milkshake and color lightens, 15 to 25 minutes.

Transfer sorbet to airtight container (I use a flat Tupperware container), pressing firmly to remove any air pockets, and freeze until firm, at least 2 hours.  Allow the sorbet to sit at room temperature for five minutes to soften before serving.

Sorbet can be frozen for up to five days.

Raspberry Sorbet 2

Mango-Yogurt Popsicles

My husband and I got on a big popsicle kick when I was pregnant and discovered those new Edy’s Outshine mango fruit bars.  I don’t even really like plain fresh mango that much, but those popsicles tasted so. good.  Especially when the only other thing I felt like eating was those weird styrofoam-y rice cakes.  Eventually we decided we might as well buy a decent popsicle mold and make our own.  And now that we have a Costco membership we can load up on whole crates of mangoes and make as many popsicles as we want.

This recipe isn’t quite the same as the kind you buy in the store, but I think they’re pretty darn delicious.  I especially like the creaminess added by the yogurt–I prefer Greek yogurt, but regular plain yogurt would work too.  The original recipe calls for 1/4 tsp. ground cardamom; I leave it out since I don’t have any on hand (and I don’t feel like buying it just for this recipe), but I’m sure it would add an extra burst of flavor.

Mango PopsiclesMango-Yogurt Popsicles (from Perfect Pops)
Time:  15 minutes prep, 6 hours to freeze
Yield:  6 to 10 popsicles, depending on mold

2 1/2 cups cubed mango (from about 1 pound of fruit, or two large mangoes)
3/4 cup plain yogurt (I prefer Greek)
1/4 cup sugar
2 tsp. freshly squeezed lime juice

In a blender, combine all ingredients until smooth and creamy.  Freeze in popsicle molds for at least 6 hours until firm.

Mango Popsicles 2

Cucumber Salad

Drowning in produce yet?  Despite the weeds and the grasshoppers and the lack of rain, I have more cucumbers and cherry tomatoes than I know what to do with (almost… I’m managing to keep up so far).  This morning I made a beautiful batch of oven-roasted cherry tomatoes; if they taste half as good as they smell, I will be quite happy.  I’ve also made several bowls of my mother-in-law’s amazing cucumber salad.  This is not the creamy version of cucumber salad that some people make.  That kind is okay, but I really love this one for its sweet-sour vinaigrette.  I’m a big fan of dill, too–next year I’m hoping to put some in my herb garden, if only for this recipe and for beef stroganoff.

This recipe is best if made a day ahead, to give the cucumbers a little time to marinate.  But you can do it in two hours (one for salting the cucumbers, one for chilling) if you’re in a hurry.  If you have one, a mandoline will make short work of thinly slicing the vegetables (please use the hand guard).  And even if you’re not a fan of raw onions (*raises hand*), you should put them in.  They add an extra bit of flavor, and you can always pick them out later if you don’t want dragon breath.

Cucumber SaladCucumber Salad
Serves 6
Time:  15 minutes prep, plus at least 2 hours (best if made the day ahead)

4 cucumbers, peeled and very thinly sliced
1 onion, very thinly sliced
1 tsp. salt
1/3 cup vinegar
1/3 cup vegetable or canola oil
1/3 cup sugar
1 tsp. dill weed OR 1 T. fresh dill, chopped (or add more if you like)
salt and pepper, to taste

Place cucumbers and onion in a large bowl.  Fill bowl with cold water to just above the level of the vegetables.  Sprinkle about 1 tsp. salt over the water.  Cover and refrigerate 1 hour.  Drain (do not rinse).

Whisk together vinegar, oil, and sugar until sugar is dissolved.  Add dill weed, salt, and pepper to taste.  Pour dressing over drained cucumbers and onions.  Refrigerate for 1 hour or, preferably, up to 24 hours.  Toss to combine; serve cold.

Cucumber Salad 2

Green Beans Napoli

Tomato, tomahto.  When I got married, I discovered that I had been pronouncing a whole host of words incorrectly.  Well, okay, maybe just a few–but they were important ones for a food loving couple like us.  Bal-SAM-ic vinegar, not BAL-sa-mic.  Cil-AHN-tro, not cil-ANN-tro.  I grew up calling cumin comino (I think that’s a Hispanic thing, though).  And I’m pretty sure I never even tried to pronounce the word prosciutto before I met my husband.  My parents were (and still are) amazing cooks, so why bother taking four kids out to fancy restaurants all the time?  We spent hours outside making mud and dandelion pies, not watching cooking shows.  Martha Stewart would probably swoon if she heard me pronouncing the word Napoli.  Who cares?  It still tastes delicious.

I love my mom’s recipe for using up bucketloads of fresh green beans this time of year, but their frozen or canned counterparts will work… um… almost as well.  Fresh bread crumbs make this dish amazing; it only takes a couple of seconds to whirl them up in a food processor.  I usually use the fake Parmesan in the green can (Martha wouldn’t approve of that either), but I’m sure freshly grated cheese would take these beans to a whole new level.

Green Beans NapoliGreen Beans Napoli
Time:  15 minutes
Serves 4

1 lb. fresh green beans, cut into 1- to 2-inch pieces*
1 T. butter
1/4 cup fresh bread crumbs (from about 1/2 slice bread)
1/2 tsp. paprika
3 T. grated Parmesan cheese
1 T. olive oil
garlic salt to taste

Steam green beans until just tender; do not overcook.  Transfer to serving dish; keep warm.

Meanwhile, in a small pan, melt butter over medium heat.  Add bread crumbs and stir until crumbs are golden brown and crunchy.  Remove from heat.  Add paprika and Parmesan; toss lightly until combined.

Toss beans with oil and garlic salt; top with bread crumb mixture.  Serve hot.

*For more on steaming vegetables, check out this post from my old blog.  You can also substitute 1 lb. canned or frozen green beans (heat them up first), although fresh is the best.

Healthy Pumpkin Muffins

So now that I’ve just drooled over summer’s bounty, here’s a completely out-of-season recipe for you.  Why turn on the oven and bake pumpkin muffins in the middle of the summer, you might ask?  Well, 1) I’m trying to make room in the freezer for this year’s squash crop and 2) they’re delicious.  I’ve made three double batches already this summer.  My recipe is based on this healthy pumpkin recipe, except they’re even healthier.  I always substitute Greek yogurt (plain regular yogurt works too) or applesauce for oil in muffin recipes, and I usually like to throw in some wheat germ and nuts to give them an extra burst of flavor.  I generally also reduce the amount of sugar (my mom always cuts the sugar in quick breads by half, but I think that would be too much in this case).  Don’t be scared away by the healthiness, though.  These muffins are moist, pumpkin-y, and very un-cardboard-y (yeah, I realize that last one might not be the most glowing adjective… oops).

Healthy Pumpkin MuffinsHealthy Pumpkin Muffins
Yield:  1 dozen
Time:  30 minutes

1 cup pumpkin puree (you can also use squash such as buttercup or acorn)*
2 eggs
1/4 cup plain Greek yogurt
1/4 cup unsweetened applesauce OR additional pumpkin
1/3 cup water
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup oat flour (OR 1/2 cup oats, finely ground in a food processor)
1/4 cup wheat germ
3/4 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice
1/4 to 1/2 cup pecans, chopped

In a large bowl, whisk together first six ingredients (through vanilla).  Stir in sugars.  In a separate bowl, whisk together remaining ingredients.  Add wet ingredients to dry; stir just until combined.  Bake at 375 F in greased muffin pan for 18-20 minutes.

*For more information on roasting and pureeing squash or pumpkin, start with this website.  I store mine in plastic containers or bags in the freezer.

Sautéed Zucchini with Bacon

Spring will always be my favorite season, but when it comes to fresh produce and mouth-watering meals, summer surpasses spring by a mile.  I spend all winter dreaming of sun-ripened tomatoes fresh off the vine, even as I attempt to stomach their mealy, cardboard-like counterparts in the meantime.  The first home-grown cucumber, cherry tomato, and green bean are like tiny miracles, delicious proofs of all that work of planting, weeding, and watering.  In a few weeks, I will probably never want to eat another cherry tomato as long as I live, but for now I’m reveling in the bounty of summer.

If you’ve ever grown a zucchini, you’ve probably prepared it in some way similar to this.  I don’t want anyone to miss out, though, so here’s my recipe.  Plus, a friend recently introduced me to the genius idea of adding bacon to the pan.  Yum.  The ingredient list is just a starting point; feel free to add or subtract whatever vegetables you have on hand.  Summer squash works in place of zucchini, or you can use both.  My dad often slices tomatoes and tosses them in.  Bell peppers would work, too.  You can also change up the seasonings–basil and oregano (fresh or dried) add an Italian touch; a dash of garlic powder or seasoned salt is also delicious.

Use the smallest zucchini you can find.  Zucchini has the habit of growing into terrifying monsters the second you look away, but the smaller ones are more tender–seeds, skin, and all.  If you’re trying to use up a giant zucchini, however, just cut it in half lengthwise, scoop out and discard the seeds, and then slice it.  You may want to peel it, too, if the skin is tough.

Sautéed Zucchini with Bacon
Time:  20 minutes
Serves 2-3 as a side dish

2-3 T. olive oil
1 small zucchini, skin on, thinly sliced (use a mandoline if you have one)
1/2 onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
Other thinly sliced vegetables as desired (sweet peppers, tomatoes, summer squash, etc.)
2 slices bacon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
salt and freshly ground pepper

Heat oil in skillet over medium heat.  Add vegetables and bacon; sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover and cook about five minutes, without stirring, until some of the vegetables begin to brown.  Continue to cook an additional five minutes, still covered, stirring occasionally.  Uncover and cook about five more minutes, until zucchini and onion are very tender and any liquid has evaporated.

Chicken Piccata

Why, hello.  It appears I haven’t posted anything for, um, four months.  Oops.  Well, I have any excuse.  I planted a garden–the first full-size garden I’ve ever planted by myself–with pumpkins, brussels sprouts, leeks, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, beans, watermelon, cantaloupe, and three kinds of tomatoes.  And 21 pepper plants (my husband really, really likes peppers).  And mini sunflowers.  I didn’t start planting until June, so it will probably be a small miracle if anything but the sunflowers comes up, but the snow didn’t melt until May around here, so give me a break.  Anyway, gardens demand lots of time and work and attention, which is why I didn’t write anything at all during, um, March and April.  Yeah.

Oh, right.  I almost forgot.  I had a baby too.  She’s beautiful and sweet and thinks she’s the center of the universe, and since I happen to agree, not much has been accomplished around here of late, including the writing of blog posts.

I think this recipe is more than worthy of posting, though, despite the baby sleeping in my lap and the garden gasping for more… water… outside the dining room window.  My husband and I selected chicken piccata as the main dish at our wedding reception.  There may have been another entree option, but if there was, I can’t remember it because the chicken piccata was just so amazing–golden brown, lightly breaded chicken bathed in a tangy lemon-wine sauce, basking on a bed of delicate angel hair pasta, with a garnish of salty capers and tender artichoke hearts.  Oh. Yum.

In celebration of four years of wedded bless, I made this dish last week.  It was the first real cooking I’d done in the six weeks since our daughter’s birth, and it turned out perfectly.  Pair with a nice salad and a glass of white wine, and you’ll have a meal fit for a king.  Or a couple celebrating their anniversary.  Or a gardener discovering that those ten-year-old seeds actually did come up.  Just make it.

IMG_1166Chicken Piccata (based on this recipe)
Time:  30 minutes
Serves 4

2 (8-ounce) boneless, skinless chicken breasts*
1/3 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
freshly ground black pepper
olive oil
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from 2 small or 1 large lemon)
1/2 cup dry white wine
1/2 cup chicken broth
1 (14-ounce) can artichoke hearts, quartered (about 1 1/2 cups; I prefer water-packed)
1/4 cup drained capers
angel hair pasta

Using a long, sharp knife, carefully cut each chicken breast in half horizontally (so it’s the same size but half as thick). Place chicken in a zip-top bag and pound with a meat mallet or rolling pin until 1/4-inch thick. In a bowl, combine flour, lemon zest, paprika, garlic powder, and black pepper to taste. Add to bag with chicken; seal and shake well to coat.

Heat 1-2 T. oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add chicken and saute 2 minutes per side, until golden brown and cooked through, adding 1-2 T. oil as needed. Add lemon juice, wine and chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Simmer 5 minutes, until chicken is cooked through and sauce thickens. Add artichoke hearts and capers and simmer 1 minute to heat through.

Cook angel hair according to package directions. Serve chicken and sauce over pasta.

Note:  Occasionally I have trouble getting the sauce to thicken in time. If you want a thicker sauce, remove the chicken and cover it to keep it warm. In a small bowl, whisk together 1 tsp. water and 1 tsp. cornstarch; add to the sauce. Continue simmering, stirring constantly with the wire whisk, until sauce thickens.

*You can also use 4 (4-ounce) chicken breast halves; just skip cutting them in half.

Eggs Mornay

My husband is chef extraordinaire in our household when it comes to cooking eggs.  He raves about my hard-boiled eggs (ooh, what an accomplishment!), but then he turns around and makes amazing omelets, poached eggs on toast, and eggs over easy, which I don’t even attempt anymore (mostly because runny yolks gross me out, but that’s another story).  On vicarage, we used to laze around on Saturday mornings and whip up big fancy breakfasts together (or maybe I lazed around and he cooked the breakfasts–I can’t quite remember).  It was during that year of newlywedded bliss that my husband introduced me to eggs mornay–a cross between a giant breakfast platter and the welsh rabbit (or rarebit, if you prefer) that my dad used to make on Sundays after church.  Basically, you take an English muffin, cover it with fried ham, top it with an egg, and smother it in a wine-infused cheese sauce.  Pure bliss.

We still make this dish together, mostly so one person can whip up the cheese sauce, toast the English muffins, and fry the ham while the other works his magic on the eggs (just kidding–I usually make the cheese sauce and he does the rest).

This recipe can be dressed up with higher-quality ingredients.  Thick-sliced ham (leftovers work great), sharp cheddar or Gruyere, and poached or over-easy eggs make for a more gourmet version, but lunch meat, mild cheddar, and hard-over eggs will do in a pinch (and if you’re lame).  You can also substitute nutmeg for the mustard powder if you prefer.

Eggs Mornay

Eggs Mornay
Time:  15-20 minutes
Serves 3-4

3 T. butter
3 T. AP flour
1 1/2 cups milk
1/4 cup white wine
1/4 tsp. mustard powder
salt and pepper to taste
1 cup melting cheese, such as sharp cheddar or Gruyere
paprika, for garnish

For each person:
1 English muffin, toasted
2 eggs, poached or fried
1 large slice ham or Canadian bacon, lightly browned in pan (no oil needed)

To prepare sauce, melt butter in a large skillet (one with sides is preferable) over medium-high heat.  Whisk in flour to create a roux; cook, whisking continually, until yellow, 1-2 minutes (don’t let it brown).  Slowly add milk, continuing to whisk until smooth.  When mixture thickens and starts to bubble, reduce heat to medium low.  Add wine, mustard powder, and salt and pepper and simmer for 2 minutes, stirring frequently.  Add cheese and combine well.  Cover and keep on very low heat until other components are ready.

To assemble, open toasted English muffin and top with ham.  Cover each muffin half with an egg, then cover generously with cheese sauce.  Garnish with paprika if desired.

Eggs Mornay2