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.

un pique-nique

It was just my girls and me for supper tonight as my husband worked late. A bag of lentils in my pantry had me thinking lentil soup and a gift of a tomato flat meant that BLTs would accompany.

When mealtime rolled around, my youngest asked if we could eat outside. It’s been a beautiful and unseasonably warm 80°F day and al fresco dining seemed a lovely idea.

The components were simple and the picnic was served up on our front lawn. The girls enjoyed the sandwiches and at least tried the soup. Reheated (frozen) green beans added the vegetable group. Leftover cookies (which just keep getting better) are always a welcome finish to an outdoor meal. Nothing fancy. No waterfall or other picturesque nature in the background. But it was an easy way to freshen up mealtime. And not having to sweep up under the table? Bonus.

taking it outdoors–soup, sandwich, cookies

Café Lentil Soup

  • Olive oil
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced
  • 4 carrots, sliced
  • 3 cups lentils
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (10-ounce) box frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • Splash sherry vinegar (could also use red wine vinegar)
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper

In large stockpot, heat small amount of oil over medium-high heat. Add celery and carrots; sauté 3 to 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Add lentils, garlic, onion powder, and bay leaf; sauté 2 to 3 minutes or until garlic is fragrant. Add chicken stock and water; cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes or until lentils are tender, adding additional stock or water as needed. Stir in spinach and parsley; cook until heated through. Season with vinegar, salt, and pepper. Cook 5 to 10 minutes to blend flavors. Adjust seasoning as desired. Remove bay leaf before serving. Makes 8 servings.

defending the little guy

My youngest and I ran errands today and I looked forward to lunch out with her. She lobbied for Mc D’s or Subway, but I held strong to trying a local spot I’d often driven past, but never had time to stop at. Razs Coffee & Ice Cream Cafe also advertises soups, sandwiches, and bakery, so I was sure lunch could be found.

The shop was small and mostly empty, though arriving at 1:30 meant we had probably missed any lunch crowd. The sandwiches looked decent enough, but I couldn’t get excited about chicken, tuna, or egg salad fillings. The soup for Monday was Chicken Noodle–bingo. My daughter and I each ordered a bowl. It came with a roll and crackers–standard cafe fare. I also ordered an Americano as the shop’s coffee scent was beautiful and strong.

Our soup was very very good. I doubt it had been made using fresh local ingredients; it most likely came premade in a plastic pouch. But it was for sure a step up from canned. The noodles were so soft they fell apart on the spoon (not the al dente you want in a proper pasta dish, but just the ticket in chicken noodle soup), the chicken chunks were big and meaty, and the broth was salty and rich. It was a fun soup to slurp with my daughter and we emptied our bowls. The Americano was also excellent–it included the elusive crema you don’t always find floating atop espresso drinks. Not everything was amazing, though: The rolls were on the dry side and the packaged crackers were borderline stale.

In the end, dessert trumped all: Ice cream was a must–this was Razs Coffee & Ice Cream, after all. (Though I was tempted to take home one of the chocolate chip cookie bars as they looked fantastic.) My Caramel Collision Malt was truly yummy and my daughter’s ice-cream streaked mouth was proof that she enjoyed her mint-chocolate chip kiddy cone.

As we ordered our ice cream, I noticed Daughter getting dangerously close to a display of breakable serving dishes. I approached, ready with my “look with your eyes, not with your hands” speech, but instead fell in love with a small ribboned cake stand. It was priced at an incredibly affordable $10 and was just what I need for my Easter centerpiece. I added it to our $15 tab (couldn’t have had the meal for less even at McD’s) and left with a cake plate in one hand and my daughter’s little hand in the other.

found this at an ice-cream shop--so pretty!

The meal at Razs wasn’t 5-star, but I felt better about handing my dollars over to a man behind the counter who actually owned his one-of-a-kind shop rather than pay for a so-so meal at one of the many chain giants that seem to rule today’s dining scene. It was delightful to find good food and Martha Stewart–worthy servingware in a suburban strip mall. I’ll be back. I still need to try the chocolate chip cookie bars.

bowl of red part deux

Spring is here–yay! Fresh seasonal produce has started appearing in the store–slowly at first, but the collection will grow as we move forward into summer and then fall. For now, I’m more than content with the beautifully young and tender bunches of asparagus, bright red and juicy strawberries, and fragrant bunches of slender green onions that fill produce bins.

Asparagus gets me especially excited as it truly is seasonal. Green onions are sold year-round, should they be needed for topping tacos, chili, and the like. But asparagus is something I’ll only buy from late-March to maybe mid-June. It is sold at other times, but only because it is shipped in from far far away and at $6ish a pound, wouldn’t be worth it. I’ll enjoy my asparagus now. Check out this gorgeous bunch.

pencil-thin asparagus!

The success of the other day’s pureed bell pepper soup inspired me to take things a step further and do something similar with asparagus. Instead of making a proper soup, I simmered the asparagus (after trimming, washing, and breaking into smaller pieces) in a small amount of water until the asparagus was bright green. I then added about 1 1/2 cups water and heated through. The immersion blender worked it into a smooth puree, after which I stirred in a spoonful or two of low-fat sour cream. My daughter had just brought in a handful of chives from our front porch (another sure sign of spring), so I snipped a few of those into the “soup,” then seasoned with salt and thinned it with a bit more water.

The next step was to spoon the beautiful green puree into soup bowls. On top and on only one side went a ladleful of the reheated bowl of red. The pretty green/red contrast would have looked lovely at a Christmas meal, but asparagus and red bells are spring and summer veggies (at least they are here in Minnesota), so that won’t happen here. But my husband and I enjoyed this soup-on-a-soup for last night’s meal alongside leftover shredded roast pork and baked sweet potato chips.

The final bowl was pretty for sure, but it also made for a nice flavor combination. The red bell pepper soup had a strong and savory flavor while the pureed asparagus–salt and a hint of chives the only seasoning–was content to be in the background adding a lightly sweet note. As well, I had been a bit overzealous in pureeing and brought the asparagus to a froth–lots of air bubbles made for a lighter flavor and texture.

Can’t say that my kids ate the soup (though they each tried a spoonful), but the adults at the table spooned up our veggies with gusto. It was a fun and easy way to make something simple look elegant. You could combine any number of “creamy” vegetable soups and purees to come up with different color and flavor combos. Creamy potato and broccoli soups, carrot and tomato. Or do dessert and puree chilled fruit soups in contrasting colors–spoon a chilled honeydew soup alongside a cantaloupe soup for a Chilled Melon Mix-Up. If you enjoy shopping produce aisles and farmers’ markets, think pureed soups next time you shop for seasonal fruits and veggies.

pureed asparagus and bell pepper soups

bowl of red

A recent sale on red bell peppers got me thinking about pureed bell pepper soup. Today was the day for this soup. Not wanting to take time to find a recipe, I made it up as I went along. This cooking philosophy doesn’t always serve me well, but today I struck gold (or ruby?). The results were just what I’d hoped for.

First, I chopped and seeded 4 large red bell peppers. Next, the peppers sautéed in just a bit of olive oil. When the bell peppers were just starting to brown, I added a splash of white wine (1/4 cup?) and a spoonful (1 tablespoon?) of low-sodium chicken bouillon. I stirred to dissolve the bouillon, then poured in about 1 cup (maybe a bit less) water. Next, I added about 1/2 to 1 teaspoon dried basil, covered the saucepan, and simmered the soup until the bell peppers were tender (15ish minutes). A quick whir with the immersion blender pureed it smooth (you could also transfer the soup to a traditional blender for the puree). The pan was removed from the heat so I could add 1 to 2 tablespoons 1% milk and about the same amount plain low-fat yogurt. Stirring in the dairy off the heat was important as both are low-fat and sure to curdle the high-acid soup if brought to a boil.

It was all pinch-and-dash, so I was glad to see the soup turn out well. The color was bold and the flecks of dried basil added a touch of rustic. Pressing the finished soup through a fine-mesh strainer would have rendered it smooth as silk, but I preferred the hint of texture from the bell pepper skins. I loved the deep and savory flavors–lots of bell pepper with a heavy hint of basil. And when I did the math, I figured I’d eaten half of the recipe (which made about 3 cups total). That means I downed two (!) large bell peppers. Wow. That’s some serious vitamins A and C as well as fiber and all the healthy “plant chemicals” we hear so much about. A very nutritious bowl of red, for sure.

pureed red bell pepper soup

donuts, kickstarts, and co-ops

My in-laws are in town and knowing that my mother-in-law (m-i-l) is always up for a food adventure, we road-tripped to Minneapolis’ Seward neighborhood in search of the Donut Cooperative (DC). Reading reviews the night before, I saw that there are some who really do not like DC pastries. “Worst donut I’ve ever had” and “worst food I’ve eaten in my seven years in Minneapolis” are two of the more memorable remarks. Most reviews were enthusiastically positive, but I was curious what we’d find.

The shop is in the spot of the late, great Cake Eater, a short-lived cupcake shop I had liked. DC was busy, but not crowded, this Saturday morning–a good thing given the small space. We took cinnamon-sugars home for my husband and his dad, who had opted to stay back; the kids got a Chocolate Long John (not filled) and a Vanilla Sprinkle. My m-i-l had the Almond (topped with a good handful of sliced almonds) and I, true to form, chose crazy: Coconut Curry with Golden Raisins. Also took home six small cookies–three m&m, three (Belgian!) chocolate chip. Yum.

DC donuts are yeasty and have a far more complex flavor than what you’d find in any other donut. I removed the raisins (not a fan), but adored the melding of curry-coconut-vanilla. (Am still breathing curry as I write.) My girls gave the donuts a “medium” rating (“not good, not bad,” explained the 9-year-old), but my m-i-l and I were entranced and enamored with the bolder flavor and texture offered by these donuts. They’re not for the faint of heart and I can see how some folks would be unimpressed; these donuts have little in common with the standard bakery or convenience store pastry. But I love how these donuts made me sit up and take notice. You can’t not concentrate on the deep flavor and springy chew when you’re eating one. They demand to be noticed. Whether you like them or not depends on what you want from a baked good. But, by the looks of the steady Saturday morning crowd, there are plenty who want what this store bakes up. (Interesting note: DC was one of the first Twin Cities businesses to use Kickstarter to raise opening and operating funds.)

Next stop was the green-tiled Seward Co-op. I filled my basket with a few bulk items, a pack of local, organic chicken drumsticks (on sale!), and Rochdale butter (it’s delish). The deli beckoned and we had hearty and healthy soups and sandwiches. My m-i-l’s Curried Tomato Coconut soup was the best of the bunch, though my Cosmic Lentil was no flavor slouch. The veggie-centric lunch restored our nutrition virtue after our high-calorie late-morning donut snack. No harm in eating dessert first.

Cinnamon-sugar donuts from Minneapolis' Donut Cooperative

The Donut Cooperative sells cookies, too.

pepper pots

Bell peppers are on sale at a neighborhood grocery this week, which is a good thing. I love the vibrant colors of yellow, red, and orange bell peppers. I already had a stash of green bell peppers in the refrigerator thanks to a gift from a neighbor. The peppers would serve as inspiration for tonight’s supper.

I immediately thought “pepper pot soup,” though not sure why as I’d no idea what it was. A bit of online searching uncovered two types–a Jamaican hot pot of sorts with yams, coconut milk, and hot chile peppers. The Philadelphia or Yankee version was more what I had in mind: beef, carrots, celery, okra (had some on hand from a recent project), tomatoes, and the namesake bell peppers. I’d love to share a recipe here for what I made, but can’t. It’s not that I don’t want to follow recipes; my livelihood is developing, writing, and editing recipes, after all. It’s just that I never seem to have all of the ingredients I need. Or I mess up somewhere along the way. But I use what I have and move through “mistakes,” because I know that recipes are only springboards (am talking cooking here–this laissez fare attitude doesn’t usually hold for baking).

When I made tonight’s pepper pot soup, I loaded up on the bell peppers, replaced the tripe with short ribs, added thyme, beer, and a splash of white wine vinegar for more flavor depth, skipped the water and bouillon in favor of the stock I’d made with beef soup bones (one of the easiest ways to make something spectacular), used twice as much okra as the recipe called for as I wanted to finish the bag, and probably some other “tweaks” I’m not recalling. Could I make the exact same soup again? Nope. Was it good? Absolutely. My daughters picked out most of the vegetables, but they tried something new and I consider that a success.

Beef stock is as easy as throwing a few ingredients into a pot and letting it simmer. Freeze the stock in ice-cube trays, then pop the cubes into a resealable freezer bag for quick hit of broth. Or freeze in 1- or 2-cup portions.

Homemade Beef Stock

  • Beef soup bones
  • Water
  • 1 large onion, cut into wedges
  • 2 to 3 carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
  • 2 to 3 celery ribs, cut into large chunks
  • 6 or so whole peppercorns
  • Bay leaf
  • Few sprigs fresh parsley

Heat large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add soup bones; cook, turning, until browned on all sides. Add remaining ingredients. Cover pot; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 4 to 6 hours. Strain and discard solids. Skim fat from surface of stock or refrigerate and remove top layer of chilled fat.  Season stock with salt, if desired. Refrigerate or freeze to store.

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.