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.

party recap and the pickled red onion

Last post was all about the prep for a family birthday party. (Happy 10th birthday, Clare!) The hamburgers were made with beef we buy from a farmer friend. With only ten pounds in our freezer, I stretched it with two pounds of ground venison. (My husband’s sister must never be told as she claims to hate the flavor of venison–fooled her good.)

Party guests brought raw veggies, veggie salads (thanks for the Pinterest chickpea salad, Traci–so good!), and bowls of fruit–the perfect sides for our meal.

party spread

Beverages included lemonade (made with water, sugar, and my favorite lemon concentrate), rhubarb lemonade (same lemonade mixed with a homemade rhubarb puree), and cucumber water.

beverage station

This was followed by birthday cupcakes and root beer or dreamsicle floats. Adults were offered a shot of Pinnacle whipped cream vodka with their floats; it added a lovely creaminess as well as the hit of booze.

birthday treats

The party was indeed loads of fun and one of my favorite dishes on the table was the pickled red onions set out to garnish the burgers. After seeing these pink-tinted onions on a condiment bar at a local food truck, I had to make my own. Though I’ve never been a fan of pickled foods, these pretty pink onions grabbed me; they offered the perfect combinations of sweet and sour, tender and crisp. I found an easy-to-make recipe, then made a large enough batch that I’d have plenty of leftovers. I can use what’s left on sandwiches, in salads, on pizzas. A handful stirred into tonight’s braised collard greens made for nice color, texture, and flavor contrast.

pickled red onions–the perfect condiment

Pickled Red Onion

I multiplied the recipe by four.

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced and rings separated

In large resealable plastic food-storage bags, combine all ingredients except onion; seal bag. Shake gently to dissolve sugar. Add onion; reseal bag. Refrigerate at least 24 hours. Store refrigerated. Makes about 1 cup pickled onion.

the potato salad

A potato salad fan I am not. For whatever reason, this picnic favorite has never appealed to me. So it was odd to turn to page 20 of the most recent Cooking Club magazine and be so taken by the gorgeous photo for Double-Bacon Potato Salad that I had to make it. (I’m sure it was the bacon that got me.)

In the end, I made so many changes that it’s hardly the same recipe, but I’d say that its essence remains. I cut most quantities by two-thirds as I wanted enough for just one meal. But I bumped up the celery and green onions and in the interest of keeping it lower in calories (saving those for the decadent desserts), I used fat-free mayo and low-fat sour cream. The recipe called for “barbecue seasoning,” which I didn’t even try to replace; instead, I added fresh dill (none had been called for) along with the chopped dill pickle (which was called for). My biggest switch was using leftover bacon. The magazine’s recipe used freshly cooked bacon and added some of the bacon drippings to the dressing. I was ok replacing that liquid–along with the egg yolk I didn’t use–with mayo.

It was a pretty pretty salad and, to me, what potato salad should be: mildly flavored and packed with crunchy veggies, but still built around lovely, fork-tender potatoes. My husband was happy to see potato salad on our table for the first time in almost 20 years of marriage. He even said it was “really good,” which is high praise for a midwestern male with Norwegian blood.

If you’re a potato salad fan, give this recipe a try as the flavors are well-balanced and it’s not as fat-laden as other potato salads. If you don’t like potato salad, you might give it a try as well. I’m glad I did as it’s been fun to enjoy a dish I didn’t think I liked.

potato salad–better with bacon

My First Potato Salad

loosely adapted from Cooking Club‘s Summer 2012 issue

  • 1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, cubed about 1 inch
  • 1/4 cup low-fat sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons nonfat mayonnaise
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon sherry vinegar
  • Chopped fresh dillweed
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1/2 cup chopped green onions
  • 2 tablespoons chopped dill pickles
  • 2 slices cooked bacon, crumbled

In saucepan, cover potatoes with water; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 5 to 7 minutes or just until fork-tender. Drain.

Meanwhile, to make dressing, in small bowl, whisk together sour cream, oil, mayonnaise, lemon juice, vinegar, dillweed, salt and pepper until smooth.

In large bowl, gently stir together drained potatoes and half of dressing to coat. Add celery, onions, pickles, half of bacon, and remaining half of dressing. Toss gently to mix. Top with remaining bacon and additional dillweed to serve. Makes 6 servings.

from cobb salad to chocolate chateau

Spring break hit this week which could only mean one thing: road trip. Despite having no official travel plans, I was able to get out on a few small trips–all food-focused, of course.

On Thursday, a good friend and I were joined by our daughters as we day-tripped to Stillwater, a small destination city with quaint downtown shopping. Lunch, at Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop, was retro in decor and food. My butterfinger malt was rich with malt powder (yay) and the Cobb salad looked like a Cobb salad was supposed to–neat rows of ingredients. (Food pet-peeve: restaurants that toss chicken, bacon, romaine, blue cheese, and hard-cooked egg together and call it a Cobb. Don’t toss a Cobb.) The blue cheese dressing was thick and the bacon was good, though adding avocados would have made it more authentic. We shopped a bit, then hit Tremblay’s Sweet Shop for a collection of pay-by-the-pound candies before heading home. (I billed our visit to this store as a treat for the girls, but who am I kidding? I love candy.)

Cobb salad at Leo’s

Friday’s “road trip” came about when my oldest daughter asked if we could go on “one of our adventures” when her younger sister went to daycare. (I love that my daughter considers our outings “adventures.”) We had only a few hours, so stayed close to home and set off to explore a few St. Paul neighborhoods.

Our first stop was Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau. (Yes, that is really what it is called.) The first floor had opened only a month ago as a retail chocolate shop. The upper three floors of this beautiful Victorian mansion are eventually slotted to hold a chocolate museum, hall-of-fame, event center, pastry shop, tasting room, and who knows what else. Dr. Chocolate certainly has big dreams.

The first-floor shop was stocked with wrapped chocolate bars sourced regionally and internationally as well as high-end chocolate candies and baking mixes. They also carry aprons, cookbooks, coffee mugs, and other gift-y items. The chocolate display case boasts at least 30 different kinds of truffles along with bricks of chocolate wrapped in gold foil (shades of Willy Wonka) and chocolate-dipped goodies such as fruit, cookies, and the like.

The truffles were front-and-center and seemed the thing to buy, though we limited ourselves to three total. I also bought a few chocolate bars (Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Aztec dark) as well as a chocolate Cabernet cake mix (packaged in a wine bottle) and a few smaller chocolates. It wasn’t an inexpensive trip, but it was fun to be there at the beginning of this store’s journey. Walking away with our bag of classy chocolate was simply (chocolate) icing on the cake.

Dr. Chocolate signage

Dr. Chocolate purchases

We left the Chateau to walk a few blocks to Cheeky Monkey, a fun lunch and dinner spot with impressive food. I’ve been a number of times, but especially enjoyed sharing it with my daughter. We chowed down on sandwiches (hers the Little Monkey with turkey and cheese and mine a roasted pepper, chicken, bacon, and gouda panini–delish, ate every last crumb) and enjoyed the complementary self-serve cucumber and lemon waters.

No time for dessert (we had chocolate waiting for us in the car, remember?), we drove over to Grand Avenue to do a bit of window shopping. I was thrilled to spend this time with my 9-year-old as I know that in not too many years she’ll prefer spending time with friends to spending time with mom. I’ll take as many of these “adventures” as she’ll give me.

Tonight my husband and I took the shortest road trip of the week by hitting the freeway for i nonni, an upscale Italian restaurant in a nearby ‘burb. The food and drink were amazing. From cocktail (gin with grapefruit, sage, and cucumber–refreshing!) to appetizer (cured, paper thin slices of strip steak) to entree (farro pasta with sea urchin roe and lump crab) to dessert (a game-changing figgy pudding–wow) to grappa (what else after an Italian feast?), the meal was one I’ll long remember. It was a splurge, for sure, but with two young kids and nearly 20 years of marriage under our belts, my husband and I don’t get out much. Tonight’s fancy-pants date made up for all of the going out we haven’t done in the past few months.

When Monday rolls around, the kids go back to school and I’ll buckle down to work projects again. And though I didn’t hit the beaches of Cancun or tour Disney property with my family, I enjoyed local spots–new and old, upscale and casual. I shopped, ate well, and spent time with friends and family. Spring Break 2012 gets high marks from me.

escape from suburbia

Yesterday, I escaped suburbia and had a blast doing it. Large cities invigorate me. The air seems charged somehow. I breathe deeper, my blood flows stronger–cliches, yes, but everything is more alive. My life in the ‘burbs is a good one and there are solid reasons I live where I do. Just the same, when I have a chance to go urban, I grab it.

Which is why I was happy to join a friend for lunch at Eat Street Social. This stylish spot, just two-weeks young, was too hip for signs, so it took me a while to figure out exactly where it was. Once I (finally) found the door, I sat in the darkly paneled dining room and ordered a salad (greens, pickled radishes, sliced kumquat) and grilled turkey sandwich. The sandwich was decent enough, but Jen’s burger beat it for taste.

My favorite “dish” was the cocktail. I had recently seen the Copper Dagger reviewed and knew I had to try it. Ingredients: verna Amaro, Lemon Hart 151, St. Germain, lemon, and egg white. While I don’t know much about the first three spirits (though had just read about each in Boozehound), the drink seemed sophisticated and I liked the idea of frothy egg white crowning my cocktail. The Copper Dagger was fantastic. My dessert–chocolate-olive oil cake–had a slew of lovely and tasty garnishes: salted Marcona almonds,  coffee ice cream, vanilla syrup, and a terrific buttercream, but the cake itself was a touch dry and try as I might, I couldn’t detect the olive oil.

Walking back to my car, I passed Truong Thanh, a Vietnamese grocery. Remembering that I needed fish sauce, I added the shop to my itinerary. Ethnic grocery stores thrill me–strange packages with wording I can’t read; unfamiliar produce, meat, and dairy; foreign cooking equipment and serving dishes. I love walking the crowed aisles trying to decipher products, even if just by photo. I eventually selected a fish sauce, but also found green tea pumpkin seeds, a strainer skimmer, ginger candies (the same brand my daughter enjoys at half the price I usually pay), and lemongrass. At check-out, I struck up a delightful conversation with the owner, a tiny older woman, about acupuncture and Chinese herbs. Making this connection was fun and amazing; who sees–much less chit-chats with–the owner of a local Costco? Another reason the city brought me to life.

My last stop was Rye Delicatessen–a much talked-about and reviewed new eatery in Minneapolis. There’s been so much hype (it’s amazing, it’s rotten, everything in between), I wanted my own take on it. Filling a brown bag with goodies (black-and-white cookie, ruglach, sour cream and bacon knish, day-old bialy), I tried it all and concluded it was indeed good stuff–amazingly buttery would be my overall descriptor. But I also decided that Jewish deli food isn’t my thing–too heavy. My mission completed, I found the freeway and flew home in time to get my girls off the school bus. I’d enjoyed a great foodie escape and look forward to the next.

Mixed greens and my Copper Dagger sidecar at Eat Street Social.

green tea pumpkin seeds--taste a bit like Fruit Loops

family moments: popovers, pizza, frozen yogurt

Family time–while lovely in theory–can be rough in practice. I remember taking the girls to our community pjs and Santa event when they were 4ish and maybe just 9 months. By the time we got two pajama-clad girls into the car, everyone was mad at each other. It had been stressful getting the girls ready and I remember wondering if it was even worth it to go. No one was feeling festive–we were crabby and it probably would have been better to just stay home and put everyone (mom and dad included) to bed. But we had planned to see Santa with the girls that night and we were forging ahead. The night was mostly a disaster. Too crowded, too noisy, too late at night, and both girls cried just looking at Santa. Despite these disasters (and there have been many), we continue pursuing those perfect and ideal family moments.

Today, we hit the jackpot. A downtown library was showing a children’s film fest, so we took the girls. My husband, a library junkie, hit the stacks while the girls and I enjoyed five subtitled foreign film shorts. I took a quick walk through cookbooks and found entire shelves devoted to bourbon and other spirits (more about bourbon later). We bought a few books at the Friends of the Library bookstore, then walked over to Macy’s for a great lunch at the tony Oak Grill. We enjoyed a piece of history and some solidly good food: First, Oak Grill’s classic popovers. Then the girls slurped down their chicken veggie soup. I had the same soup with a Meditterranean-ish salad. My husband had a chicken stir-fry. Driving home, I realized we’d had a perfectly lovely morning. No one fought, we didn’t get lost, everyone was happy about the restaurant choice. Somehow we got that ideal family moment. It had just happened. When we left the house that morning, we had no plan outside of hitting the film fest. Everything else just followed.

Tonight I took my 9-year-old to the senior fashion show at a local University. She was wide-eyed as the models strutted the runway and it was fun to support one of her interests. Wandering to Dinkytown after the show, we had wonderfully greasy pizza at Mesa and then played Connect-4 after building frozen yogurt sundaes at Chilly Billy’s.

Will cherish today’s memories as they don’t come around often enough. Will also (try to) remember that forcing these family moments doesn’t make them happen; more often than not, it backfires. Expecting Norman Rockwell-worthy moments is overly optimistic and in the end, usually leads to disappointment and frustration. Tonight, my recipe for that perfect family moment is to pay attention so I can grab on and appreciate when things go right.

salad and pizza

Had a friend and her daughter over for lunch today. While the girls played paper dolls and build-a-bears, my friend and I caught up a bit. She brought a fun salad–chickpeas and thinly sliced apple, all a lovely shade of magenta thanks to the beets she had boiled, peeled, and chopped. A sweet-tart dressing of honey mustard, lemon juice, and olive oil flavored it up. The salad didn’t come from a package; she took the time to put it together.

Knowing the little girls would like pizza, I had rolled out a quick crust and topped it with a sauce of pureed cooked-down tomatoes (with a bit of olive oil, sugar, and Italian seasoning stirred in). Favorite pizza toppings finished it off. It didn’t take that much longer to make than it would have taken to purchase, unwrap, and bake a frozen pizza. And the results were so much better. (Then again, when my immersion blender landed on the floor, splattering tomato sauce on kitchen cupboards and cracking in half, that frozen pizza looked pretty good.) In the end, it wouldn’t have mattered what we ate as the afternoon was about catching up with a friend and watching our daughters play. There is certainly a time for frozen pizza and packaged salad. But if today’s food was that much better because it was homemade and done so with love, we shared more than a morning playdate. We shared a great meal as well.

Homemade Pizza Crust

  • 1/2 cup warm water (105°F-155°F)
  • 1 teaspoon dry active yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon honey
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup whole wheat flour
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons olive oil

In small bowl, mix warm water, yeast, and honey; let stand 5 minutes or until bubbly.

In medium bowl, combine flours and salt. With wooden spoon, sir in yeast mixture and oil until combined. Transfer dough to floured surface. Grease bowl. Knead dough until smooth. roll dough into a ball; return it to bowl. Cover with plastic wrap. Let dough rise in warm place 20 minutes or until double in size.

Punch dough down; roll into 12-inch circle. Place on cornmeal-dusted pizza pan. Prebake 5 minutes at 425°F. Top as desired. Bake 10 minutes longer or until crust is lightly browned and toppings are heated through.

pink blue cheese?

Thinking of an angle – something that will make this space my own. There are lots of food blogs. LOTS of them. And though I love all things food, that hardly makes me unique. My livelihood is food-focused as are my personal passions. But I come back to the original question: what’s my angle? Dunno. But I need to start writing and instead of waiting for that “ah-ha” moment, will jump in and see where this goes.

My mom always made a big deal out of holidays–Valentine’s Day included–so I want to honor her traditions by playing them out for my daughters. Which means we started our day with pink, heart-shaped pancakes (using a Sturdiwheat mix means I can sleep in until 7 and still get pancakes on the table before the bus comes at 8). Pink food coloring in the milk (Yes, I’ve heard the evils of artificial food color, etc. Please know that I mostly get the “whole food” nutrition thing right.) and sliced strawberries. Even better than the tasty breakfast fare was the fact that I didn’t yell at my kids once and they didn’t fight with each other. Happy Valentine’s Day!

Lunch was at Panera with my youngest. My Cobb salad was an imposter (why do restaurants not get that Cobb salads are deconstructed and should have rows of the separate ingredients and NOT be tossed together?), but wasn’t expecting much as we were in Chains-ville. The weirdest part was the blue cheese dressing. It was pink and flecked with herbs. When I asked if it was really blue cheese dressing, the young counter-folk said, yes, it was blue cheese dressing and isn’t it strange that it’s pink? I suppose pink is a good color for the day. (Though the dressing ended up in the trash.) The Cobb salad craving not satisfied, I made a real one for supper. It was a perfect meal for a family with kids as–when properly made with the ingredients fanned out in rows over the romaine–the salad can be served on a giant platter and each family member takes more of what they like best. Chicken and bacon were hits around the table. My five-year-old gobbled down the hard-cooked eggs. Her older sister liked the croutons. And I got my avocado, blue cheese, and blue cheese dressing that wasn’t pink.

Homemade Croutons
Croutons aren’t part of the traditional Cobb salad, but homemade croutons are welcome on any salad of mine.

Sourdough bread, toasted and cut into large chunks
Olive oil or melted butter
Garlic salt

In bowl, toss together bread cubes and small amount of oil or butter. Sprinkle with garlic salt; toss to mix. Heat skillet over medium-high heat. Add bread cubes; cook, tossing frequently, until lightly browned. Use immediately or set aside to cool.