That’s Amore!

CookingVintageValentineI have never been one to go out for a big high falootin dinner on Valentine’s Day evening. The restaurants are packed and the prices raised just for this one meal. Home cooking is always healthier, and less expensive, and in some (many?) cases, just better tasting.

If you are thinking of making dinner tomorrow night, I thought I would give you a dinner menu that is special enough for the holiday, but also easy enough so it can be put together on a work night.

Depending on how fancy the dinner is, how about starting with some appetizers? The stuffed mushroom recipe I make is easy, and you can make these the night before and just pop them in the oven when you get home. If you have extra time, this recipe for gougères is to die for, and are best right out of the oven–just don’t burn your tongue!

Soup or salad? I will always go for salad whenever given the choice. You could make a simple salad of  greens but include something special like my favorite, Hearts of Palms. These run about $3 a can, so I buy them only on rare occasions. Maybe a few grape tomatoes, a quick vinaigrette, and you’re set!

I always think seafood always makes for a special meal. You could make this scallop recipe (and forego the aforementioned salad), or linguini with clam sauce, which is quick and easy. Or what about this salmon recipe? Just pop the fish in the oven and make the quick sauce on the stove.

Dessert anyone? That is, if you haven’t given up sweets for Lent! If you want something chocolaty, you could make these brownies the night before and serve warmed with a little bit of vanilla ice cream. Or what about gingerbread? This is warm and cozy and another recipe you can make in advance. Of course, one of the most special recipes of all is chocolate mousse, and this must be made in advance, so you can focus on the rest of the meal.

So open up a bottle of your favorite wine, turn on Dean Martin, and just relax and cook for the ones you love.

Cream of Fiddlehead and Asparagus Soup

I mentioned last week that springtime to me means rhubarb. But there is something else that also means springtime, fiddlehead ferns! These little curly ques of green have a certain flavor I find similar to asparagus. The season is quite short, so I try to take advantage of them as soon as I see them.

Now, there are some fiddleheads that are OK to eat, others are poisonous, so I never take chances foraging in the back field or in the hills and just buy them at the coop. Since I had both fiddleheads and asparagus in the vegetable bin, I thought the flavors would meld well together and decided to make a combo soup one night for dinner.

I first minced a small shallot with a couple cloves of garlic and put it in a Dutch oven with a couple teaspoons of warmed olive oil. I was too busy prepping the vegetables to notice it burned a little, leading me to remember two tips I’ll pass on to you. First off, try to have most things prepped before you start cooking, but if you don’t and you’re sauteing garlic and/or onions and not ready for that next step, add a little bit of water to the pot to slow down the cooking process. You’re not hindering anything aside from allowing the alliums to cook slower.

I added the fiddleheads and asparagus, tossed them with the shallots and garlic, and added some leftover chicken broth and water. A splash or two of white wine and I set it on its way to boil. I simmered the soup for about 15 minutes until the veggies were really soft.

I find both asparagus and fiddleheads quite “woody,” and despite several pulses in the blender, it never became completely smooth. Adding a bit more liquid would help this, but then, I like soup with a little bit of oomph and not completely pureed. Also, on some evenings, I’m impatient. Back to the pot went the soup. I had some half and half that was nearing its expiration date, so I added that, about a quarter cup. I live with someone whose least favorite herb is dill, and it’s one of my favorites, but tasting this it was just crying out for some dill and lemon. I added a half-teaspoon of dill weed, but if I were to cook this for myself, I’d add a full teaspoon. A few squirts of fresh lemon and some salt and pepper and it was ready to eat!

This recipe is fairly simple and easy variations can make it palatable to lactose and vegetarians. For dairy-free, leave out the cream; for vegetarians, vegetable broth or water can be substituted. If you don’t cook with alcohol, you can always leave out the wine, too.

Cream of Fiddlehead and Asparagus Soup
Makes 4 servings, for a light lunch or dinner

2 teaspoons olive oil
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 small shallot, minced (or about 2-3 Tablespoons minced red onion)
1 ¼ cups fiddleheads, ends trimmed
2 cups asparagus, trimmed and coarsely chopped
2 1/2-3 cups chicken or vegetable broth or water
A couple splashes of white wine (optional)
1/4 cup cream or milk (optional)
½-1 teaspoon dried dill weed
A couple squirts of fresh lemon
Salt and pepper to taste

In a Dutch oven, add the garlic and shallots to olive oil warmed over medium heat. Saute for a couple of minutes until soft. Add the fiddleheads and asparagus and stir, combining all the ingredients. Add the liquid and bring to a boil. Turn the heat down and let the vegetable simmer until very soft. When the vegetables are soft, in batches, puree the vegetables together in a blender or food processor. (*Have patience, it takes a while for these vegetables to be completely pureed.) When the soup is smooth, add back to the pot and add the cream, if using, dill weed, lemon, and salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday Night Tacos

Maybe it was the conversation about hamburgers at work that afternoon, but Tuesday I started to get a craving for beef. Since I had a package in the freezer, I knew it wouldn’t be hamburgers or meatloaf, it needed to be something where the meat cooked in the skillet. A quick mind scan of what I had on hand in the fridge and I knew what I was going to make: tacos!

I had to mow the lawn that evening, so when I got home, I took out the hamburger and corn tortillas and put some frozen corn in a small bowl to defrost for a little while. I have a love-hate relationship with mowing the lawn; it gives me 40 minutes of meditation time to daydream about my day, recipes to make, and other things going on in my life, it’s great exercise, and in the end, I can see the fruits of my labor, but I also get hot, sweaty, and it’s hard work. So this evening, I daydreamed about what I was going to put in my tacos; I always figure if I think about food, the job will go faster! A cool shower and a glass of Moscato and I was ready to go.

Although I’ve made tacos many times, this evening’s meal was totally on the fly. In a skillet, heat about a teaspoon of olive oil and when warm, add a thinly sliced clove of garlic (we’re finally getting the first garlic bulbs of the season, so this was nice and mellow). Add about a pound of hamburger (ground turkey or chicken would work nicely too) and gently cook until the meat is finished. Perhaps it was the Moscato talking, but I got a little crazy with the spices: a couple of dashes of chili powder, some curry, a bit of cinnamon, and cumin and coriander filled the kitchen with a Middle Eastern scent as opposed to Mexico, but it was delicious. While this was cooking, I set up my mise en place: chopped onions, chopped tomatoes, corn, lettuce, and a diced avocado with a couple squirts of lime juice were placed in small bowls. I didn’t have cheddar cheese, but no matter, with the avocado and salsa with a dollop of sour cream, it wasn’t missed at all. If you are a vegetarian, this can easily be turned into a veggie meal, with either crumbled tofu or black beans in place of the beef.

Summer in Vermont, a newly mowed lawn, a glass of wine, a quick and delicious dinner, and episode 3 of “Downton Abbey,” I felt like I was in heaven!

Szechuan Cucumbers

I love this time of year as it means cucumbers–and lots of them! I make soups, salads, pickles (recipes to come!) almost on a daily basis. I always have a large stash in the fridge. One of my favorite side dishes is Szechuan Cucumbers, based on an old Eating Well recipe that I’ve changed so many times it’s become my own. It is reminiscent of a wonderful Thai restaurant that is no longer in business; at dim sum they offered a small plate of crunchy, spicy cucumbers with just the right amount of acid. It was heaven and I would have been happy just eating plate after plate of cucumbers if I could. And now that I have a recipe, I can!

I made this the other evening while waiting for the fish to finish cooking for dinner; it’s fast, easy, and delicious with almost no calories! (Note, that evening I didn’t follow my on instructions to leave in the fridge or an hour or so!) I have made substitutions through the years: yellow onions instead of red, peeled cucumbers, no ginger, no peanuts, eaten right away, and while it is still tasty, it’s not perfect. This is one instance where it is best for the recipe to be followed, in my opinion!

Szechuan Cucumbers
• 2 cucumbers, sliced horizontally, seeded, and cut into half-moon slices
• 1 jalapeno, minced
• ½ small red onion, thinly sliced (or more, depending on the size of your cucumbers, if they’re large, use more onion)
• Minced ginger, about a tablespoon or more to taste

• ½ cup rice vinegar
• 4 teaspoons reduced sodium soy sauce or tamari
• *1 Tablespoon sugar (*Note: The original recipe called for sugar, but I usually leave it out. Feel free to use if you want to balance out the vinegar and soy sauce.)

• ¼ cup chopped peanuts

In a bowl, add the cucumber, onion, pepper, and ginger and mix. Measure out the liquid, mix together,  add to the bowl, and mix again. Place in refrigerator for an hour or two before serving. Right before serving, give it one last stir, add the chopped peanuts,  and enjoy!

The Bounty is Coming….

Happy Summer Solstice!

With the rains slowly stopping and July 1st just a couple of weeks away, the bounty from our farms is starting! This is a most exciting time; Saturday mornings I stop at the farmer’s market before the grocery store and coop. In the picture you’ll see this week’s picks: pea shoots, scallions, basil, breakfast radishes (named by the British, but I put on an evening salad instead), kohlrabi, spinach, garlic shoots, and more. Saturday evening’s salad was a simple one, assorted greens topped with leftover avocado, those British radishes, and pea shoots. Two teaspoons of olive oil, a dash of champagne vinegar, and some salt and pepper. Divine! Stay tuned, while the season got a late start, I think this is going to be a fantastic one for recipe creations!

* * *

Friday night dinners are always a conundrum. After a week of work, I’m tired, yet don’t want to go out, but am willing to cook if it’s really simple. In the winter, this usually means homemade pizza or soup. Throw it in a pot and turn on the heat–or toss the crust on a pan, add some sauce, cheese, and veggies and pop in the oven. Last Friday I had no clue what I wanted to eat for dinner. Every meal I thought of just didn’t appeal to me, and I dislike going to the grocery store and searching for something to strike my fancy. So as I was driving there, I thought of the vegetables I had left in the bin from last week (peppers and carrots), some dried shiitake mushrooms in the cupboard, and some shallots and garlic on the counter. A few more veggies, a package of chicken, and a can of coconut milk and I could make a tasty red curry stir fry over rice. Exactly what I wanted! Some asparagus and chicken and I was ready for dinner, except the coconut milk. After a thorough search, I found the spot where the coconut milk was supposed to be–empty. Foiled!

I saw a recipe last week called “Sherry Vinegar Chicken Nuggets and Herbs” or something like that, so I was intrigued by the name, so I decided to make my version. It was delicious, nutritious, and best of all, really easy for a Friday night; the only thing that really took time was chopping the veggies and chicken! I put five shiitakes in a small bowl with boiling water to reconstitute them; you can used dried mushrooms, fresh one, or leave out. I’m not sure what vinegar to suggest for substituting the sherry vinegar, so I would urge you to buy a bottle. It’s my new favorite vinegar, I used it on salads all winter long. It’s tangy yet subtle, and its flavor is divine. It may be hard to find, my supermarket has just one brand, and although it’s a small bottle and a little pricey (yet under $4), I think it’s totally worth it and a little bit goes a long way. Depending on your own vegetable bin, you can use more, less, or substitute whatever would be tasty in a stir fry! Oh, and by using the skillet for both the veggies and the chicken, clean up is two knives, a cutting board, a bowl, a skillet, and plates!

Lazy Friday Night
Stir Fry
Serves 2 with plentiful leftovers

2 boneless breasts of chicken, diced into bite-sized pieces

1 cup chopped asparagus
1/2 chopped carrots
1 red pepper, sliced thinly
4-5 dried shiitake mushrooms, reconstituted (you can leave out or use fresh mushrooms)
A couple gloves of garlic, minced
1 jalapeno pepper, minced

A pot of cooked brown or white rice

In a skillet, heat a couple teaspoons of olive oil. When warm, add the asparagus and carrots and cook for a few minutes until soft. Add red pepper, mushrooms, and stir. When the veggies are just about done, add the garlic and jalapeno and mix until they become fragrant. Take the skillet off the stove and put mixture into a bowl.

In the same skillet, add a little bit more olive oil. When warm, add the diced chicken. Add about 1/3 of a cup of the sherry vinegar and mix it in the chicken. Since the chicken is bite sized, it should take about five minutes or so to cook, but make sure the meat doesn’t absorb the vinegar, you want a little bit left for flavoring the stir fry. On a plate, add the rice, veggies, and chicken, relax, and enjoy!