rhubarb pie, please

Great-aunt Helen’s recipe box has yet again yielded riches. Seasonal riches at that. With rhubarb growing strong in the backyard, my family had been making noises about bringing that rhubarb inside and putting it in a pie. So when I … Continue reading

brussels sprouts and bourbon

From my teen years on, I’ve enjoyed veggies of all sorts. As soon as I figured out they could be eaten in almost endless quantities without contributing many calories, I became a big fan. Carrots, broccoli, cauliflower? Bring ’em on. Greens such as kale, chard, spinach? Yes, please. Onions? Eggplant? Bell peppers? Yep, yep, and yep.

As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate the colors and shapes of produce in general. They’re not cookie-cutter foods from a factory; they’re grown and harvested and brought to market. (Speaking of markets, buying produce at farmers’ markets brings on a high that can last for days.) Then there’s the fun-to-cook-with factor. Because veggies taste different roasted than steamed than grilled than sautéed, there are endless ways to keep variety in the mix.

Roasting is my favorite way to cook vegetables as the high temps caramelize and bring out an inherent sweetness. But when washing and trimming Brussels sprouts the other night, I decided to throw caution to the wind and sauté these babies. (I’m one crazy cook, yes?)

why ever not?

why ever not?

Because I genuinely enjoy the flavor of (most) veggies, a spritz of olive oil and sprinkle of coarse salt is as fancy as I usually get. That said, I had an itch to spice things up a bit with these sprouts. My soft spot for all things bourbon coupled with a glance at a nearby bourbon bottle put the figurative light bulb above my head. Bourbon and Brussels sprouts? Why ever not?

A good glug (3 tablespoons or so) went into the cast-iron skillet where the sprouts were cooking in olive oil. The immediate scent of bourbon rose from the pan and I wondered if maybe I had made a mistake. Perhaps these flavors weren’t meant for each other after all? They sure looked good, though: A few minutes later, the bourbon had evaporated and the Brussels sprouts were a rich and bright green, with shades of mahogany borrowed from the bourbon. They were gorgeous.

good for you? goes without saying. but these B sprouts are really really good!

good for you? goes without saying. but these B sprouts are really really good!

Even better, these sprouts were knock-outs in the flavor department. Even my husband, who eats what I cook because he’s a nice guy (but would really rather be eating veggies of the peas and corn variety), gobbled them down, noting that the bourbon actually mellowed the strong sprout flavor. Somehow the in-your-face bourbon and sprout flavors canceled each other out, resulting in an alchemy that was sweeter, softer, and more neutral. Because I hadn’t overcooked the sprouts (this time), the texture was right on–a slight chew, but stopping short of mush. They made a fine veggie side dish and got me thinking that I should try adding bourbon to other vegetables as well.

Cooking up these sprouts was loads of fun. The adult in me got to play with spirits in the kitchen and my inner 16-year-old is delighted that she can eat lots of veggies and still have room for dessert.

nothing exciting here, folks–just cauliflower

Fellow readers, I will warn you up front that the following post is quite average. I go on about a (healthy) side dish using a simple “recipe.” No fancy ingredients, no new and exciting cooking methods.

But in full disclosure, this is how I cook for my family. The marshmallows? Lava cakes? Crème fraîche and buttermilk ice creams? These are projects and making them is the equivalent of my playtime.

What happens, though, when lunchtime rolls around? I dig in my refrigerator for salad greens, a carrot, feta or blue cheese, Greek olives, and a vinaigrette and throw together a salad. Suppertime for the fam? I hunt down a protein (pork chops? scrambled eggs? steak? chicken? all contenders); carb–which I try to make a whole grain (brown rice, millet, quinoa, barley, etc) though sweet potatoes work, too; and one or two veggies–frozen or fresh. We dig into one of the aforementioned “projects” for dessert, but mealtime rarely allows the luxury of finding and following a recipe. I use what I have to whip up something that (usually) works.

Last night’s cauliflower side dish is a fine example and its simplicity made it a good candidate for a blog post. We’re running low on veggies, but I did have a nice-looking head of cauliflower in the crisper. My plan was to boil and mash it, just as you would potatoes. Mixed with sour cream or a bit of half-and-half and a handful of dried parsley, mashed cauliflower makes a fun veggie side. But as I cut the cauliflower into florets, roasting seemed a better option.

A quick chop into smallish florets and tossed with just a bit of olive oil, the cauliflower went onto a baking sheet. I gave it a generous sprinkle of cumin seed, smaller sprinkle of curry powder, and dusting of coarse salt. The cauliflower roasted at 425°F for 20 or so minutes, after which I tossed the roasted florets with a touch of chopped fresh basil–as much as for color as flavor.

The side went well with our oven-fried chicken drumsticks and reheated leftover rice pilaf. Gourmet it was not. (And I’ll note that my kids preferred cutting up their own carrot sticks to eating the fragrant and “exotic” curry-scented cauliflower.) But it took little time to pull together, was inexpensive as I’m using what’s already in my kitchen, and it’s as healthy a meal as they come. Maybe someday I’ll have the time (and energy) to pull off more ambitious mealtime menus. But this works well for now and leaves me time and energy for those playtime projects I love so much.

roasted curry cauliflower

roasted curry cauliflower

foodie art

The premise of this blog has always been to highlight my fun food finds. Totally subjective, I suppose, but the hope is that there are others who share my sense of what is fun. Posts most often include thoughts on restaurant meals or food made at home along with occasional mention of a cookbook or cocktail. Today, I widen the scope and write up my youngest daughter’s art project.

This year, I signed on as “art helper” in my first-grader’s classroom. (Extremely ironic if you know me, as I’m not artistic at all.) Another mom plans and leads the lessons; my job is to help with set-up, clean up, and everything that happens in between. Today the kids were learning about Frida Kahlo and her still-life paintings. Kahlo is my all-time favorite painter. (I didn’t say I didn’t appreciate art, just that I’m not good at it.) She led an extraordinary and fascinating life and I was looking forward to seeing what the lesson would involve.

As any lesson for a class of six-year-olds should be, this one was simple. A nicely put-together fruit bowl sat in the front of the class as inspiration and the students were given cut-up fruit along with same-color paint.

fruit as inspiration

supplies needed

They stamped fruit onto their papers, then glued on  pre-cut “table” and “bowl.” Nothing to it. I enjoyed watching the kids build their fruit bowls (most were pretty crazy) and loved the idea of stamping fruit patterns using real fruit.

final project

As I saw the paint-soaked fruit pieces piling up in the trash, I cringed at so much uneaten food being thrown away. What a waste, right? But I quickly realized that the fruit had most decidedly not been wasted. It had been used to teach kids about an influential artist and it had been used to make sweet little fruit bowls that would adorn school walls, then eventually hang on refrigerators. The fruit may not have been eaten, but it made something beautiful happen. How fun is that?

roasted squash photo shoot

This morning, a friend and I joined up for a photo shoot for my new website. (Stay tuned!) I had brought a box of assorted produce in hopes of having plenty on hand for whatever happened once the camera started shooting.

With Rachel snapping shots, I chopped red bell pepper, carrot, and asparagus and tossed them into a bowl of couscous, then drizzled all with a bit of olive oil for a colorful salad. A loaf of pumpkin-pecan bread was sliced alongside a lovely fan of thinly sliced apple. Winter squash soup sat next to a tossed green salad and a small bowl of braised Brussels sprouts.

The most fun was finding a photo from Seven Fires, a cookbook I’d flipped through while posing. The charred and stuffed squash was a stunner, and I was lucky enough to have most of the ingredients on hand. We filled the squash cavity with braised Brussels spouts (easy to make–sauté sprouts in olive oil, add a bit of salt and a smaller bit of sugar; cook, stirring, until browned), arugula, and crumbled feta cheese. (Reveal: we had to dab the filling with a bit of yogurt to get a similar effect as I hadn’t brought feta.) The squash looked good on camera and served as a tasty (and healthy!) lunch later on.

roasted squash stuffed with arugula, Brussels spouts, and “feta”

I’m hoping we get some great shots for my site, though there’s a lesson in what we were able to pull together. With a handful of ingredients, we assembled attractive, healthy, and tasty meals ON THE FLY. Neither one of us came to the session with recipes. We hadn’t mulled over how to assemble what we’d be shooting. Yet between the two of us, we created good-looking meal options.

This brings me to my Kitchen Philosophy. Putting together healthy and tasty meals is possible, even on the busiest of nights. There’s so much emphasis put on recipes–my career, in fact, is devoted to recipe developing, testing, and editing. And recipes absolutely serve a purpose even if they’re used solely for inspiration.

But anyone putting meals on the table night after night doesn’t always have the luxury of following recipes. A better plan is to have a pantry full of amazing foods (fresh produce, fantastic cheese, great spices, good breads and grains–whatever you and yours like to eat most) and a good sense of how to throw things together. This “good sense” comes only with practice. Which means you’ll have to take some chances and make some mistakes. But even the chances and mistakes can be fun And the reward–amazing meals that you pulled together solo–is well worth it.

one zucchini, two directions

We’ve never been able to grow zucchini, which is ironic as zukes are vegetables that grow in abundance. I’m sure there’s some sort of soil fix we could do, but I’m just as happy to receive zucchini from family and friends or buy it at the farmers’ market. My mother-in-law recently handed over a monster zuke. While I love to slice and roast or chop and sauté, these preps are best suited for the younger, sweeter, more tender zucchini. The zucchini giants of this world are best shredded and used in baking or pancakes. Which meant I had some shredding to do.

shredded zucchini–so pretty with the green flecks

My food processor made quick work of it and I soon had eight cups shredded zucchini. I wanted to use as much of it fresh as possible (though frozen shredded zucchini is fine for baked goods) and zucchini bread seemed the obvious choice. My hunt turned up a recipe for Chocolate Zucchini Bread (thanks, Mac!) that looked simple enough, so I baked up a batch. Short on granulated sugar, I made up the 1/2 cup difference with muscovado sugar, a deeper, darker, richer brown sugar. I wanted to stir in something yummy and though mini chocolate chips were tempting, I reached instead for cacao nibs thinking they’d add a hint of darkness to an otherwise sweet bread. I enjoyed the final zucchini bread very much, even more so with a light topping of crème fraîche.

chocolate zucchini bread with cacao nibs

Two cups shredded zucchini down, six to go. We needed a veggie side for supper and I remembered a simple gratin recipe I’d once enjoyed from a local paper. Having lost the clipped recipe, I guessed on amounts and came up with a pretty, savory, and flavorful side dish.

gratin before baking

gratin after baking

gratin after serving

The final two cups shredded zucchini are in the refrigerator and I’ll throw part of it in a scramble or omelet for breakfast tomorrow. The rest? Who knows? It’s true what they say about zucchini, even if you don’t grow it yourself: It’s a gift that keeps on giving.

Chocolate Zucchini Bread

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 6 tablespoons baking cocoa
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3 large eggs
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups grated zucchini
  • 1/2 cup cacao nibs

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease two 8- or 9-inch loaf pans.

In bowl, mix flour, cocoa, salt, baking soda and cinnamon. In separate bowl, whisk together sugar, eggs, oil and vanilla. Stir into dry ingredients just to mix. Add zucchini and cacao nibs; mix gently. Divide batter evenly between pans. Bake 1 hour or until knife inserted into center of loaf comes out clean. Cool on wire rack.

Zucchini Gratin

Gratin

  • 4 cups shredded zucchini, pressed to dry
  • 1/4 cup grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tablespoon dried bread crumbs
  • 1 teaspoon dried oregano
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • Salt, to taste

Topping

  • 2 tablespoons dried bread crumbs
  • 1 tablespoon grated or shredded Parmesan cheese
  • 1 teaspoon olive oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano

Heat oven to 425°F. Coat pie plate with cooking spray.

In bowl, stir together gratin ingredients. Spread into pie plate. In small bowl, stir together topping ingredients. Sprinkle over gratin. Bake 20 minutes or until topping is browned. Makes 8 servings.

strawberry-turned-peach cake

When peaches are in season, I overbuy. Then, it’s a race to eat them all–or bake with them–before they go bad. Thanks to Meatballs & Milkshakes, I met this challenge today. The peaches that were starting to go soft in my refrigerator fruit drawer were destined for the strawberry cake this blog author just posted.

Be sure to link back to Meatballs & Milkshakes for the recipe and lovely photos. My cake looks different as I used a lot more peaches than she did strawberries–nearly 4 cups fruit total. The cake baked much longer than the one hour in her recipe and was still extremely moist, much like a pudding cake in the center. Also, I used lime zest instead of lemon (about 2 teaspoons) and sprinkled some on the cake just before baking. Hence the greenish flecks.

Flavorwise, this cake was a knockout. I went back for multiple servings and had a hard time cutting myself off. Rich, buttery, but also chock full of amazing fruit. I’ll be serving it up for breakfast tomorrow for sure. Thanks m&m!

before hitting the oven

out of the oven

peach cake on the plate

Many thanks also to Lilly Sue and her Bites and Brews. Lilly Sue was kind enough to nominate me for the Versatile Blogger Award for which I’m most grateful:-) I’ve seen this award make its rounds and am tickled to have it come my way. Yay! It’s been great fun to put my food stories out there and it’s a kick (in a very good way) to know others are reading it.

Also want to congratulate Lilly Sue on receiving the award herself. She has a great voice, covering the beer and culinary scene in Colorado. I’ve enjoyed following her posts: great stories, great photos, great music clips. Check her out and you’ll agree that she has excellent taste in food, drink, and music.

In keeping with Versatile Blogger tradition, I’m listing 15 bloggers to nominate for this same award.

The final “requirement” for accepting the nomination is to list seven things about myself.

  1. I’ve tried to like kiwi, but to no avail.
  2. Though I’ve written about my aversion to fast food chains, I have a soft spot for McDonald’s ice cream cones. And I do love my DQ.
  3. I’ve recently discovered Baron Ambrosia’s Culinary Adventures on Cooking Channel and it cracks me up.
  4. Even with all of the amazing recipes available online, I’m still partial to my old-school, hardcopy cookbooks.
  5. I’m not on Facebook, though am working on a page for my business.
  6. When I left my college apartment, I didn’t have to clean the stove because I NEVER USED IT. Yes, I have a Food Science degree, but I didn’t learn how to cook until after I graduated.
  7. A favorite college internship: Working on the Recipe Search Team for the Pillsbury Bake-Off. (Won’t mention the year–haha)

Versatile Blogger Award – Rules for Winners

1. Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to their blog.
2. Choose fifteen blogs to nominate and let them know by leaving a comment.
3. Request that the chosen blogs pass on the award to their favorite fifteen.
4. Copy and paste the award on your blog post.
5. List seven things about yourself.

delightful banana bread

I’m relatively new to blogging, so have had only a small taste of what folks are writing about. But I have noticed that banana bread gets a lot of press. Finding recipes for spotted bananas appeals to those who enjoy cooking and/or baking as we love food and are loath to throw it away.

A quick WordPress search for banana bread turned up oodles of recipes. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are blogs out there devoted entirely to this yummy quickbread and all its variations (scones, muffins, cakes, etc). Even in my short blogging life, I’ve written two posts with recipes using overripe bananas.

That said, Delightful Discoveries’ claim of  The Best Banana Bread Ever seemed a bold one. Always looking for an excuse to bake, I felt compelled to give his recipe a whirl. It was a basic banana bread recipe: no stir-ins, no whole wheat flour or other good-for-you grains. Though I prefer whole-grain baked goods, the case can also be made that some foods are best enjoyed in all their white flour, white sugar, egg, and butter glory. (Add sour cream in this case.)

These ingredients absolutely added up to crazy-good banana bread. It was everything this cake-passing-for-health-food should be: tender, sweet, buttery, fragrant. Calling it the definitive “best” would mean making lots of other banana breads and trying them all side-by-side, so we’ll never know. (Though that sounds like a fun project.) But it seemed the perfect loaf–what you’d see under “banana bread” in a dictionary.

My only deviation from the original recipe was to toss in a small package of blackberries that had to be used quickly if I didn’t want to have to toss them. (again, hate to throw out food) It added a fun blast of color and flavor, but the loaf would have been amazing without. It doesn’t need stir-ins or any other addition to shine. It may or not be the “best” (that’s not my call), but I will deem it Perfect.

Perfect Banana Bread à la Delightful Discoveries

with a few blackberries stirred in

adventures in grape juice

I’ve written before about our neighbors’ food drops and the fun it is to get an unexpected box of unknown foods. Yesterday we got grapes–red, green, seeded, and seedless. With young kids in the house, you’d think these grapes would be an easy sell. But the grapes are just past prime (meaning my girls will pass) and there’s no way I’m going to remove the pits from the seeded grapes. Life is too short.

Thinking the grapes would end up in the compost, I lamented that I wished there was something that could be done with our oodles of grapes. They seem not as versatile as overripe pears, apples, berries, or bananas. My 5-year-old overheard my lament and asked, “Why not squeeze them to make grape juice, mommy?” Brilliant. Why not indeed?

I’ve made grape juice from vine grapes before, but never supermarket grapes. Figuring the principle would be the same, I washed them, removed most of the stems, then added them to a large pot with a few cups of water. The pot was covered and the water brought to a boil. I then uncovered the pot and reduced the heat. The grapes simmered for an hour or so, filling the house with the fragrance of sweet grape.

Next step was straining the juice through cheesecloth. My husband has come up with a good set-up for this: The four corners of the large cheesecloth square are secured with a rubber band, then the rubber band is twisted a few more times before being hung on a cabinet knob right above the bowl collecting the juice. The juice drip-drops into the bowl for a few hours, then the cheesecloth “bag” is squeezed a time or two to extract all the flavorful nectar.

pale pink undiluted grape juice

The final juice is refrigerated or frozen and can be diluted and sweetened as desired for drinking as-is or used as a base for jelly-making. This batch was a pretty pink; made from green grapes as well as purple, it was not the usual violet-purple hue. It was sweet and syrupy–for sure will need dilution with a bit of club soda to brighten it up. I plan to use some of it for drinking and most of it for jelly.

In the end, I like knowing that the food will remain in our kitchen and be used and enjoyed instead of ending up in the compost bin. Thank you to my 5-year-old daughter for turning my grape dilemma into a grape adventure.

dreaming of eggplant and chrysanthemum tea

I met up with an amazing friend this afternoon for a business meeting of sorts. She’s helping me refresh my company’s branding and it’s been a pleasure to see her more often. We met at The Tea House near the University of Minnesota East Bank campus. I came having eaten lunch (and she’d had a lunch meeting before our meeting), so was thinking I’d grab tea and dessert.

The tea part was easy. I ordered the chrysanthemum as it was something I’d never tried. It was a beautiful pale yellow and had a mild floral flavor that was soothing rather than bracing. Our server said it was even better mixed with black and offered to refresh my pot with a hit of the darker tea. He was right–it was a lovely balance of refreshing floral and a deeper, darker brew.

I passed on the dessert when the menu’s photo of Eggplant in Garlic Sauce caught my eye. The photo itself didn’t make my mouth water–a pile of garlic-sauced eggplant isn’t all that attractive. But the thought of eggplant appealed. Minnesota has an all-too-brief growing season for produce. Eggplant is fresh and lovely and vibrant at the farmers’ markets from maybe July to September. Come fall, winter, and spring, I go without. Why not give it a whirl at a Chinese restaurant?  (If you’re not a fan of eggplant–and how many people really are?–know that even a veggie-lover like myself couldn’t bring myself to try it until age 30. I fell in love immediately. It may not be too late for you.)

The Tea House’s take on eggplant was full of flavor, though fairly heavy. This veggie’s spongy flesh absorbs oil too well. (Botanically, eggplant is a fruit though it’s considered a vegetable to most.) Eating this plate of spicy, garlicky eggplant started me thinking on summer’s produce and the fun I’ll have once it gets here.

My favorite eggplant fix is to slice it into rounds or “fries,” toss it with a bit of oil and sprinkle of salt, then roast it on a baking sheet at 400°F until it’s tender, maybe 15 minutes? I’ve read recommendations to salt and drain eggplant, then rinse before using as this helps remove any bitterness in the flesh. Because I’ve found only older, larger eggplants to be bitter, I usually skip this step when I have a younger and smaller eggplant. I also usually don’t bother to peel eggplant as it seems like more work than it’s worth. Although using a vegetable peeler to take off strips of peel every 1/2 inch or so around the fruit makes for striking presentation. With this winter’s unseasonably warm temperatures, garden-fresh eggplant may be closer than I think.

eggplant in garlic sauce and chrysanthemum tea at The Tea House

in defense of school lunch

My youngest daughter and I join my eldest for school lunch every Thursday. I brown bag it as I’d rather bring my own. In past years, I packed all of my daughter’s lunches as well, but she now (usually) prefers eating what the school kitchen has to offer. This used to bug me, as I’m well aware of the high childhood obesity rates. It’s so easy for kids (and adults) to make bad nutrition choices. Junk food lurks around every childhood corner–cookies after musical rehearsal, juice boxes and candy-bar like granola bars after soccer, the list goes on. And the school lunches I remember were high in calories and low in good nutrition. Lately, though, things are looking up. True, mini corndogs were on today’s menu, but so were carrot sticks, broccoli florets, and baked sweet potato fries. The pizza crusts and tortillas are whole grain. Fresh fruit is always offered. But at the end of the lunch period, it’s less about what the school serves and more about what the kids will eat. Cut-up fresh vegetables may be on the menu, but if those veggies end up in the trash they haven’t added to anyone’s 5-a-day.

The most important nutrition responsibility, I feel, falls on parents. Kids who learn to like fresh fruits and veggies at home are more likely to eat them at school. Does my daughter make healthy choices? Not always. I’ve seen her eat her chocolate chip cookie first and leave the veggies untouched. (Yes, I call her on it. So far, she still wants me there.) But I keep hoping that by setting (mostly) good examples with my food choices, my daughters will eventually come round. And in the meantime, I know they’ll get (again, mostly) good nutrition at home and the school meals are better than they used to be.