Southern Cookbook and Good Home Cooking

Now that school’s out and I have all three girls home with me all day, every day, my time is even more valuable, especially to them. Apparently, along with all my other roles, I’m also their personal chef, activities director and event planner for the summer. They don’t know how good they have it. I try to remember this when they try to lay on the guilt with: “I’m hungry. I’m bored. Can we go somewhere?” HELL NO! I’m trying to write in my blog. Of course I didn’t actually say that.

One place we love to go is the library. It’s good, free entertainment and we get to bring home books to occupy them later. I owe my sanity to the public library (which is why I made a nice little donation when I heard my branch might shut down due to underfunding). That’s not the only reason I love it. I could spend hours in non-fiction, browsing the shelves in section 641. Food and drink. I’m a big supporter of borrowing books rather than spending money on new ones. Especially cookbooks, since I really only use them for inspiration. But every now and then, I find one I don’t want to return. I renew it until I can’t anymore. Art Smith’s Back to the Family, is one such book. The pictures are amazing and the food is good and simple. I’ve made bread pudding (twice), fennel coleslaw and a brunch dish that coincidentally called for a cheese I’d just picked up at Trader Joe’s that I’d never used before (manchego). As usual, I made a few changes to suit our taste and food choices and sometimes just to use what we had on hand. If you like southern food, I recommend this book.

I’ve made several recipes already. My favorite is the bread pudding. I strongly recommend drowning the raisins in spiced rum first. I let them marinate for about an hour in hot rum. And I served it with ice cream as suggested (homemade vanilla). It’s so easy to make, it’s scary.  Scary because it so damn good.

One night I was looking for a way to use some cabbage that I’d had in the refrigerator for a week and a half, which by the way was still crisp and quite fresh since it was freshly picked when I’d bought it from Matthews Farmers’ Market (best in the Charlotte area, hands down). Raw veggies and apple cider vinegar have great health benefits. The recipe is for Fennel Coleslaw. I substituted half the fennel with my cabbage and added a red bell pepper.  I love fennel and it has its own benefits, but I don’t think my family would love a coleslaw made entirely of fennel.

Late one morning, I was looking through the book and came across a recipe for Asparagus with Manchego Cheese. I had a smoothie very early that morning and was getting hungry. This recipe looked easy and tasty. The tomatoes, now in season and delicious, and of course the manchego caught my eye. Similar to the bread pudding recipe, it calls for bread cubes and eggs. I substituted the French bread with a very dense whole wheat sandwich bread and the asparagus with broccoli, because that’s what I had on hand. When I was a less experienced and less confident cook, I would pass on recipes unless I had (and liked) the ingredients called for, which was a big mistake. It turned out wonderfully, but I can’t wait to try it with asparagus (and a few other veggies, now that I think of it).

I encourage less confident cooks to take a chance and make changes to suit your taste or use what you already have. (America spends a lot of money and resources on wasted food.) My mom has this simple and awesome fried rice recipe that’s comforting and makes me feel like a kid again. It’s not like the fried rice you’d find in a Chinese restaurant. There is no soy sauce or eggs and aside from the Korean sticky rice she uses, it’s more like an Americanized version of fried rice. She uses rice, carrots, onions, celery, ground beef, salt and pepper (and probably some minced garlic). I made this recipe with sausage instead, again because it’s what I had on hand. The smell of the sausage with those ingredients reminded me of another one of her recipes for dirty rice, so I meshed the two and added curry powder and a little extra turmeric (because it has some great health benefits and to give it a beautiful yellow color). Don’t get me wrong, my mom’s recipes are already good and very special to me. They are my comfort foods, along with the rest of her home cooking. (Where do you think my interest in food and gardening comes from?) However, I’ll be making this mash-up of the two again and again.

Spring – Time to Grow!

The weather has been unbelievable. I think we skipped the harsh winter months and got a head start on spring. And now it’s like early summer around here. I’ve found myself still too warm in a tank, shorts and flops more than once this week. The garden is growing and I’m adding more plants each week. The tomatoes I planted a week and a half ago – are already flowering.

I’m planting mostly food, but some flowers too. We have a small lot and last year I had decided there was only enough room for edibles. Unfortunately, it occured to me later in the summer that a few more flowers would’ve attracted more beneficial insects. (I had to hand pollinate my zuchininis and pumpkins.) And pretty flowers are nice to look at.

This year I have decided that I’ll have a few more flowers and I want a little more than food from my gardens. I want them to add a little natural beauty to my yard. I’ve found quite a bit of inspiration for neat ways to label plants using old stuff like wire hangers, wood scraps and small bamboo stakes. I’ve just been too busy planting the last couple of weeks. I just can’t seem to pry myself from tending to the gardens. My farmers’ market trips aren’t solely about buying food  ready to eat. I look forward to see what transplants are available each week. I’ve got a total of seven tomato plants so far. Fennel seeds are sown. There are carrots, countless herbs, garlic, spring onions, garlic chives, lettuces, beets, peas, kale, spinach, blueberries and raspberries and a few surprises (some kind of squash, pumpkins or maybe melons). Volunteer seedlings are popping up anywhere I mix in my compost. I’ll let a few of them go to see what grows. I hope we don’t have a late cold snap!

I do already feel the effects of the mild winter. Critters are everywhere. Literally. I come inside and have to inspect myself for hitch-hiking pests. I usually find at least one of these:

And my plants are all under attack. I found this huge snail in my garden. He looked like he could do some damage, so I had to relocate him – probably permanently. So sorry little guy. I have to admit that the small act of killing critters foraging for food sheerly for their own survival, does make me think twice before killing even the tiniest insects. Laugh if you must. I wish there was enough food in my garden to go around, but a seedling is no match for a slug or a snail or catepillar. My beet seedlings get devoured by something the day they emerge. If I could just get them to wait a little while… they’ll be enough for them too. Me and the snail hung out for a bit while I decided what to do. I couldn’t bring myself to kill it, so I put him in the trash bin. There is plenty of food in there. If he makes it out, well then kudos for him.

Last year I sowed only five pea plants. All but two of them were hacked by cutworms. We never had enough to make a side dish and usually opened the pods and ate them straight from the garden. This year I planted twelve. One of my food discoveries in this journey is that I don’t hate peas after all. I just don’t like the stinky ones you get in a can at the grocery store. Frozen or fresh peas are a staple now. I’m excited and hopeful about fresh peas! I may try and grow fava beans too, if cutworms thin out my peas again this year.

I’m looking forward to long, warm lazy days.  I’ve made a kind of bucket list for the spring and summer.

I hope I get to take a nap in a hammock (have to get one first).

I’m looking forward to outdoor dinners with amazing food, amazing people and laughter and smiles and candles and pretty table settings.

I hope I don’t get too caught up in the day to day details and I find time to do all the d-i-y art and garden projects I have planned.

I want to eat a meal made almost entirely with ingredients from my own back yard.

I want to swap and share homegrown and homemade food.

I want to can tomatoes, at least enough to last through the winter. I’ve planted seven tomato plants so far, and plan to get three more varieties.

I want to freeze some homegrown veggies, like peas and squash and peppers, so that I can have a taste of homegrown veggies in the dead of winter, when I’m craving springtime.

And those are just a few things I can think of at the moment.

Quinoa Stir Fry with Veggies and Tofu

Quinoa. Tofu. Yummy. Don’t believe me? Well then you should try it stir fried. I am so in love with tofu these days. We’ve been eating it at least once a week for the past month. I like it cubed and browned in bacon drippings to give it some ‘meatiness’. Slightly crispy and chewy on the outside and soft on the inside. Last night I had to come up with something quick. We had Korean braised pork with rice the night before, so no rice tonight, which is my go-to side for tofu.

I haven’t made quinoa in awhile and I had some in the back of the pantry. I decided to try and make a quinoa version of fried rice. We were running low on fresh veggies, so I checked the freezer. Edamame, sweet peas, yellow squash and snow peas. I also had a few slices of bacon leftover from breakfast. It was so colorful and nutrient dense, and I didn’t have to feel guilty about eating rice two nights in a row. And it was almost vegetarian. If you were wearing a blindfold, you would never have known it was quinoa instead of rice.

QUINOA STIR FRY WITH VEGGIES AND TOFU

Ingredients:

  • 1 package of tofu
  • 4 tablespoons bacon drippings (can sub with other oil)
  • 1 cup quinoa
  • 2 cups water
  • 3 slices cooked bacon
  • 1 cup shelled edamame
  • 1 cup sweet peas
  • 1 cup squash
  • 1 cup snow peas
  • 2 green onions
  • 1/2 an onion
  • 2 cloves garlic
  • 2 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons soy sauce
  • salt and pepper
  • toasted sesame seeds

Method:

  1. Cut tofu into three one-inch slices. Wrap in a towel and place between two plates. Stack a heavy pan on the plates to remove excess water. I let it sit for at least 15 minutes.
  2. While the tofu is draining, rinse quinoa to remove bitterness. Put two cups of water and rinsed quinoa in a sauce pan. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to simmer, cover and let cook for 15 to 20 minutes (until all water is absorbed and the quinoa is fluffy). Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.
  3. While the quinoa is cooking and the tofu is draining, prep the vegetables.  Chop onions, squash, green onions, garlic and cooked bacon slices. Then warm a pan with about half the bacon drippings on medium high heat to brown tofu.
  4. Cut the tofu slices into cubes and brown them in the prepared pan. Add salt and pepper to taste. I like them a little crispy and chewy, quite browned, so I cook them for awhile. Maybe 10 to 15 minutes, tossing them around in the pan frequently to brown evenly and prevent burning and sticking.
  5. Scramble eggs in a bowl and push the tofu to one side of your pan. Cook the eggs in the other half of the pan. Once the eggs are done add the rest of the bacon grease, then combine all ingredients together in the pan (quinoa, tofu, onions, garlic, peas, snow peas, squash, edamame, the bottoms (white parts) of the green onion, soy sauce and sesame seeds). Stir fry for about 5 minutes, until veggies are tender but still brightly colored. (Cooking them too long will cause them to brown and yellow. Not pretty.)
  6. When everything is cooked turn off the heat and toss in the reserved green onion tops. Add salt and pepper to taste.

You could use whatever veggies you prefer or have on hand. I used what I had on hand. Some were frozen veggies which I either thawed in the microwave or boiled with the quinoa. You could also substitute the tofu with chicken or whatever meat you prefer instead. I think some red bell pepper or shiitake mushrooms would have been nice in here. If you’ve never cooked with quinoa before this is a great way to introduce it to your family. Make sure you rinse it to remove bitterness. Some even suggest soaking it for a half hour. I just rinsed it a couple times and it wasn’t bitter at all.

Pomegranates and Smurphat Family Recipes

I bought two pomegranates a week ago. I looked at them nearly every day and asked myself, “When are you going to crack those things open? What exactly are you waiting for?” My kids asked the same sorts of questions. Truth is I haven’t bought one in years. When I was growing up, my mom would buy them. But she lovingly did all the hard work and all we had to do was pick off the arils. I’ve bought them a few times since then, but was always disappointed and never felt they were worth the trouble. The seeds inside were hard and difficult to chew, making the little burst of juice hardly worth the messy, cutting, peeling, prying, plucking and seed spitting. Now, why did I buy these again? Oh yeah. They are good for you and yummy (even if they are a lot of work). They are rich in vitamin C, B5, potassium and polyphenols (like tannins and flavonoids).

Finally, I decided to open this baby up. But first I had to consult YouTube. Not because it’s all that difficult, but because I figured there was a trick to it and YouTube is my favorite site for how-to demonstrations. I found two ways to do it. Since I had two of them, I tried both ways. Yeah. I’m a nerd like that. The first method involves cutting the thing into manageable pieces then working the arils out by hand in a bowl of water. The peel and membrane floated to the top and the kernels sank to the bottom. Of course when you cut the thing open, just know that it has the potential to look like a scene from some gory horror flick. The juices splatter. In fact, I didn’t even notice they had splattered all the way up the wall and under my cabinets. Also found some on the the paper towel roll the next day. And on the canisters. And toaster. Meh… I prefer the second way, which involves “scalping” the top to reveal the sections and then slicing through the skin and prying the sections apart. It was definitely less messy. And the spoon tapping to release the arils worked okay. Though it didn’t really knock them off, the arils were loosened and easy to pry off after the spoon smacking. (I know, I know. I’m a food nerd.)

As it turns out, the seeds aren’t as bad as I remember. I wasn’t going to mention the seed spitting option to the kids unless they had a problem with it. I didn’t have to. The seeds didn’t bother them. One of them even liked the crunch. Huh. Me too. Go figure. And eating the pomegranate with the seeds is better for you. They contain healthy oils, micronutrients and fiber. Pomegranates are high in sugar. In fact, most of it’s calories come from this sugar. But the fiber helps keep blood sugar levels from spiking by slowing the breakdown of sugar in the body.

They make a great healthy snack all by themselves (I ate quite a few while writing this post), but they were also great on our salads last night:

Speaking of salads, this Sweet and Sour Slaw is what led me to the collection of Smurphat family recipes. Of course the recipe is good as is, but you know me – I added fennel, apples and carrots to give it my seasonal, nutrient dense twist.

The slaw recipe is my mother’s. I had misplaced my handwritten recipe and after searching everywhere, I suddenly remembered that she had submitted the recipe for the Smurphat Family Recipes. No she is not technically a Smurphat (that would be my late grandmother on my Dad’s side), and this recipe actually comes from my childhood neighbor. The recipes were gathered at a family reunion and the “Sweet and Sour Slaw” recipe was my mother’s contribution.  So I dug around and found the family recipe book in a closet upstairs. (Upstairs!?)

Even before I’d found this cookbook, I had been thinking a lot about family recipes. Since I’m cooking more traditionally now, I am always in search of old recipes. I love how naturally good for you they are and I’m fascinated that science is now proving that these tried and true methods and ingredients (a.k.a. slow food) are more beneficial to our health than we realized. Good, simple, unprocessed ingredients, food preparations and cooking methods that have been fine-tuned over centuries and handed down for generations – the culture, the tradition. I’ve been wondering how and what recipes I want to pass on to my daughters. And as I was preparing the slaw, I began thinking about my grandmother. She passed away a few months ago. I wondered which recipes she had contributed. So after dinner I finished my glass of Syrah while perusing family recipes.

As it turns out, quite a few of these recipes called for processed food ingredients like cream of mushroom soup and rolls of refrigerated dough, marshmallow creme, shortening and margarine. I was a little disappointed that these recipes weren’t very traditional, and in fact seem to come from the 50’s era of condensed soup and prepackaged convenience foods.

There were a few gems though. Even some traditional Italian and German Recipes. My grandmother’s recipe for “Number 1 Perfect Apple Cobbler” was included and it just so happens that apples are in season. In fact, Saturday is the last day for apples at my favorite farmers market. Other than the “oleo” (margarine) that she calls for, the rest of the ingredients are pretty traditional. I’m excited to try it.

All this has me wanting to put together a collection of family recipes that use traditional ingredients and methods. You’ll probably be hearing more about this and more about traditional recipes and methods in future posts. I’d love to hear about your family food culture, traditions and recipes. Please feel free to comment below.

Time Change, Halloween, Thrift Stores and More Seasonal Food

I’m in a sort of ‘zen’ mood this week. Last week was rough. I was ready to throw in the towel. But toward the end of the week I found my center. The chaos seems to be running in slow motion at the moment. Slow enough for me to handle. Slow enough for me to step back and see what’s really important.

The crape myrtle in my back yard is one of my favorite things. It’s my calendar. In the fall it looks like this. Green, yellow and red and pink all at once. Even though it’s leaves are dropping, the flowers are still hanging on. Normally, the time change bothers me. But this year, the early darkness seems calming. Evenings feel slightly less hectic. The rest of the world disappears. Only the center of my universe, my family, this house, is visible… at least until morning.

Halloween was fun, but lasted longer than usual. After a full night of trick-or-treating we decided to take the kids to see both sets of grandparents. We ate too much candy. We went to bed too late. We did not hand out boxes of raisins, apples or home made goodies as I wished we could.  Instead we gave out tattoos, lollipops and fruit snacks (organic, with no artificial colors or flavors – except for a few recycled handouts from other places). I also managed to find some decent, individually wrapped dark chocolate that was ethically produced. Expensive chocolate, unrecognized by most, that will probably be left in candy bowls and jars, until all the other favorites are long gone.

The girls were so darn cute. Especially our sweet little Dorothy. I’ll always remember Haleigh the year she dressed as Raggedy Ann, Linsey the year she was Dora the Explorer and now London as Dorothy, with her white stockinged legs and little feet shuffling in a sparkly ruby red blur from porch to porch.

This is the most delicious chicken salad I’ve made yet. I used seasonal ingredients: crisp fresh apples and dried cranberries. And I added a little curry powder. Hey, don’t knock the curry. I found it in this recipe from allrecipes, where it got rave reviews. I thought it sounded interesting. Why not try it? All I have to say is this: curry powder is now a staple ingredient in my chicken salad. Just a tiny bit – 1/2 tsp or so.

This was the best fish I’ve eaten in while. My picture doesn’t do it justice. (I’ll explain it in a minute.) My parents went on a fishing trip recently and came back with a nice sized catch, which they skinned, gutted and filleted themselves in freezing cold weather. And I am so lucky (and thankful) that they shared. Flounder is very delicate, apparently. Too delicate for a clumsy home cook like me. I ended up with a few fairly large chunks and a lot of bits and pieces. But it was a delicious mess – seasoned with salt, pepper, a little garlic and chopped fresh rosemary, sage, oregano and thyme. Every single one of the kids devoured it and begged for more. I reluctantly doled out the remaining “flakes” I thought I might have for lunch the next day, in second and third helpings. How can I say no when they plead for something so good for them?

This oven “fried” coconut and almond crusted flounder turned out much better. Sounds fancy, but I really just substituted regular flour with a mix of coconut flour and almond flour. You could also just use toasted coconut and ground almonds (food processor). Cook it in the oven at 475 deg. for about 8 to 10 minutes. I turned the broiler on at the last minute to get the tops nice and golden brown. The kids love this one too. You get the fried fish taste, without so much oil and again if you are looking for a gluten free alternative to fried fish, here ya’ go. (Also works for chicken, though you’d have to cook it longer. Here’s a recipe for Eating Well’s Almond Crusted Chicken Fingers.) I cut the fish into smaller, more manageable pieces and it turned out a great.  I made enough to freeze for another night.

Here’s another delicious mess of a meal. I found a recipe for carnitas on smittenkitchen.com. I didn’t have any orange juice or lime. I considered running out to get some, but knowing apples and pork go well together, I used some spiced apple cider and lemons that I had in the fridge instead. I also added about a teaspoon of some orange zest I have stored in the freezer. (I keep a stock of lemon, lime and orange zest in the freezer. Before peeling or juicing citrus I wash and grate the peel and store it in the freezer. It’s frugal and I love how this zest can brighten up a dish. I use it all the time.) The recipe is so great by the way, even though I burned it (because I stepped away from the kitchen). All the liquid evaporated out more quickly than I expected and it stuck HARD to the cast iron skillet, which – by the way – you should avoid cooking acidic foods in. I had hoped the lemon juice wouldn’t be too much. Between the burning and the damage from the acidic lemon juice, the “season” on the bottom of my cast iron dutch oven is gone. About a quarter of the pork had to be scraped into the garbage. The carnitas were yummy with the queso fresco and cauliflower I bought at the farmers market. I topped mine with avocado, yogurt, red onion, green onions, cilantro and a few drops of sriracha (hot chilli sauce). Mmm-mmm-mmm…

I had planned to split the pork into two meals. Luckily enough pork remained, even after I burned it. The following night I served the leftover pork with sauerkraut and smashed red potatoes and cauliflower (also leftover from the night before). If you are watching carbs, you should consider mixing potatoes with cauliflower (or even substituting completely). My family didn’t even notice it the first time I mixed our mashed potatoes half and half with cauliflower. Now that they know they like it, I don’t bother trying to disguise it. If you have a picky eater, you might want to try it that way. I don’t bother peeling my potatoes either.

This was last weeks “macaroni and cheese”. To my kids, anything with a white, cheesy sauce is macaroni and cheese. And they’ve grown to expect a few veggies mixed in. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were actually a little spoiled by our macaroni and cheese. The plain stuff just might not be good enough anymore.

The one above has a little bit of ground pork, arugula, peppers, onions, garlic, chives and thyme. The one below from last night’s dinner has a slightly less cheesy, garlic, butter and sage cream sauce. I threw in a few chopped kalamata olives and anchovies to add richness to the sauce. (A few anchovies added to a dish won’t make it taste fishy. It’s like adding any other salty meat, like a little bacon or sausage, to a meal. A little bit goes a long way.) There’s also some Italian sausage, onions, peppers, fresh parsley and chives in there somewhere.

I’ve mentioned that I love shopping at thrift stores. But did I mention it’s a great place to find cool cheap props! I’ve been finding some of the cutest dishes, place mats and other table decorations and kitchen stuff. I’m going to try to take some family photos soon and I’m thinking this is where I’ll find some interesting props.

I love these Italian and French glass canisters that I’ve been collecting from thrift stores. I found the set of four vintage French jars with garden vegetables on them and paid only $0.99 cents a piece. I found a set of three online for $30.00. The cheapest set was $13.00. I got a set of four for $3.96. Woo hoo!

Roasted Tomato and Red Pepper Soup (Autumn)

Last week a friend shared a link with me from smittenkitchen.com for Roasted Tomato Soup. (Thanks Jane!) While looking over the recipe, I instantly started salivating. Memories of childhood and Campbell’s Tomato Soup came to mind (though the soup from smittenkitchen looked a thousand times more appetizing). But I loved the canned soup when I was kid – with obscene amounts of crumbled Ritz Crackers. I tried it again as an adult, years later, and was disappointed. (Why don’t these things ever taste the way we remember?) I so miss enjoying that bowl of soup. I have never tried to make it from scratch. Usually fresh tomatoes peak at the end of summer, when it’s much too hot for soup. However one of the farmers from the market has a ton of late tomatoes this season. So thanks to Jane and late tomatoes, I decided to try and resurrect my love of tomato soup.

What I liked about the smittenkitchen recipe was that the tomatoes were roasted, along with a few cloves of garlic, and I loved the way the recipe married grilled cheese and tomato soup. I also love roasted peppers (especially with tomatoes). And I just happened to have some really great sweet red peppers in the garden. The one below is not yet ready and nowhere near as large as the ones I actually used. They are called Corno di Toro Sweet Peppers and are also great for stuffing (which I have done… and they were good). But if you aren’t lucky enough to have fresh peppers growing in your back yard, then you could substitute with red bell peppers. I also have some medium heat Poblano Peppers in the garden. I used one large one.

Something else that goes well with tomatoes is basil. And I have lots of beautiful basil perking up in my garden thanks to cooler weather. (Isn’t a garden a great place for inspiration?) So here’s my seasonal version of tomato soup:

ROASTED TOMATO AND RED PEPPER SOUP (AUTUMN)

INGREDIENTS:

  • 4 or 5 medium sized tomatoes
  • 1 large or a few small to medium red sweet peppers, seeded
  • 1 Poblano Pepper, seeded (or other hot pepper)
  • 3 to 4 cloves of garlic
  • olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 2 cups of vegetable or meat stock
  • fresh basil (optional)
  • plain yogurt or sour cream (optional)
  • chives (optional)

DIRECTIONS:

  1. Quarter tomatoes and squeeze out some of the seeds and excess water. Put them in a strainer and let them drain a little more while you cut and seed the peppers into chunks. Place tomatoes, peppers and whole cloves of garlic on a baking dish, drizzle with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast in a 400° oven for 45 minutes to an hour, stirring once or twice during cooking.
  2. Once the tomatoes and peppers are soft and begin to brown they are done. Remove the dish from the oven and press on the roasted garlic with a fork to easily remove the skin. You can either put the roasted veggies and the fresh basil into a food processor or blender until smooth (or chunky if you like it that way, use a blender if you want it really smooth); or you could just skip to the next step and use a hand held immersion blender.
  3. Combine the tomato, pepper and basil mixture and the stock of your choice in a pot over medium heat. (This is where the immersion blender comes in if you haven’t already blended them.) Once the soup begins to boil, reduce heat and simmer, uncovered for 20 minutes.

Click here for a printer friendly version: ROASTED TOMATO AND RED PEPPER SOUP

Serve this soup with a dollop of plain yogurt or sour cream, a sprinkle of fresh chives, maybe a little drizzle of olive oil and a slice or two of toasted, crusty, chewy bread topped with melted cheddar cheese.  When I made the soup on Sunday, I placed the bread in the oven with the cheese, then once the bread was toasted and the cheese melted I placed a couple slices directly on top of each bowl of soup . It went all soft and gooey, which was amazing, but I missed the crunch from those crackers in my childhood tomato soup.

So the next day for lunch, I kept the cheesy toast on the side. I also got it really crispy on both sides before adding the cheese. I put a little olive oil in a pan over medium heat and toasted the bread well on one side, then flipped it, sprinkled it with sharp cheddar cheese and turned the heat off while the other side toasted slowly, giving the cheese enough time to melt.

Some suggest peeling the tomatoes and the peppers, but I didn’t bother and it turned out fine. If the soup is a little on the watery side, you can either add some tomato paste, tomato sauce or canned tomatoes (though you may have to blend it again if you use canned tomatoes), or you could just simmer for a little longer to allow more of the water to cook out. We were in a hurry (because the football game was starting!) so I added a can of Trader Joe’s  fire roasted tomatoes with green chillies.

To save time, you could easily use canned tomatoes and skip roasting them altogether. If there weren’t some available at the farmers market, I would have used Trader Joe’s fire-roasted tomatoes straight out of a can. This recipe is simple and good as is, but I love to play around flavors. Next time I may add rosemary or thyme instead of basil and some red wine to sweeten it up a little. Some heavy cream would make it more velvety. I have not checked the ingredients or sugar content of the Campbell’s version, but my guess is that it’s high (in salt too). Some tomato recipes call for added sugar, which would give it that sweeter taste like Campbell’s, if that’s what you are aiming for. So put your twist on it. I think you’ll like it.

A Week of Food (Sans Microwave)

I like to drink hot tea… a lot – maybe 2 to 4 cups a day. It’s a bit more difficult without a microwave. At first I was heating water in a sauce pan. Then I found a like-new Revere Copper Bottom Tea Kettle at a thrift store for a whopping $2.99. SOLD! (Thrift stores are my favorite these days. They are the ultimate way to recycle, re-purpose and reuse – and save a ton of money!)

Green tea infused with mint and rosemary.

This is my version of Olive Garden’s  “Zuppa Toscano”. I added kidney beans and used kale to make it nutrient dense. I also skipped the bacon this time. (It’s rich enough without it.) If you want to lighten this soup up, or prefer a little acidity, you can skip the heavy cream and stir in a quarter cup of red wine vinegar to the pot once it’s done cooking. It’s delicious both ways.

This week I made pasta salad for the girls’ lunches. I used several veggies and herbs from the garden: aji dulce peppers, fresh basil, parsley, oregano and some grape tomatoes (the only tomatoes left in the garden). I added chopped onions, kalamata olives and grated Pecorino Romano. I dressed it in olive oil, red wine vinegar, balsamic vinegar, some of brine from the olives, black pepper, a few red pepper flakes and just a little salt. Pecorino Romano is quite salty.

We had pizza one night. The 100% whole wheat crust and sauce were made from scratch. For the sauce I used San Marzano tomatoes (only because they were on sale). Some cooks swear these are the best tasting canned tomatoes. I dunno. Raw, out of the can, they weren’t anything special. The sauce turned out wonderful, but I think the garlic, onions, sweet bell peppers, aji dulce peppers,  basil, oregano, thyme, sage, salt and pepper might have had something to do with it. I covered it with a splatter screen to keep the sauce in, but let it reduce down more quickly. Then I pureed it a little with an immersion blender. Homemade sauces for pasta and pizza are so easy, so much better tasting and way better for you. 

^^^This is why I’m putting aji dulce peppers in everything! This pepper plant is quite prolific! We also stuffed some with a mixture of goat cheese, cream cheese and bacon, then roasted them at 375 degrees for 20 minutes.

Halloween has officially hit our house. This was not my idea, nor my recommendation, but I did get caught up in the spirit.

Not sure what was happening when I broke down and bought these. I hardly ever buy candy, unless it’s made with dark chocolate. Nostalgia? That’s probably also what caused me to eat one after taking this photo. Disgustingly sweet (each one is about 82% sugar)… but it didn’t stop me from eating two more.

I tried to take this picture without alerting the kids, but I got caught.

So I gave her a few too. London: “Thank you Mommy! I love you.”

London: “Can I just have one more… please?”

Me: “No.”