A tradition of baking and shipping homemade holiday cookies to my grandchildren started approximately nine years ago. My granddaughter attended a Pre-K3 class, and starting with Halloween followed by Thanksgiving, Valentine’s Day, Christmas, ending with Easter, I baked, iced, individually wrapped and boxed cookies for her and her classmates. Four years later my middle Grayson came along, and when he started his Pre-K-3 class, my cookie duty doubled, requiring cookies for both his and his sister’s classes. Another four years passed and my youngest grandson arrived, but fortunately for me, the schools would no longer allow baked goods for the students due to the variety of gluten and nut allergies. I say fortunately because I’m not sure I could have made it through the baking and decorating of nearly 100 decorated cookies.
Now the cookies I send are just for the grandkids (and their parents) with a few extras to share with friends or co-workers. I’m no pastry chef, just a Nana trying to make her grandchildren happy. This year as I rolled, cut and baked my traditional cookie shapes, an idea formed that may inspire parents with a safe way to make Halloween fun and playful during this Covid 19 time we currently live in.
My trick or treaters usually receive one of my “crackers” filled with candies and plastic toys. Fashioned after the English Christmas cracker, I used the center roll from toilet paper, and wrapped the cylinder with Halloween tissue paper (it could be as simple as orange or black solid tissue paper from the local dollar store). Each end of the paper cinched with a piece of ribbon and usually a little black spider ring. The kids just loved getting something different that they got to unwrap when they got home.
This year, a great twist would be to fill the crackers with a “trick” like dried beans that are the same weight as candy, or a “treat” actual candy. Then hide the filled crackers around the house or yard and send the kids out to look for them (just like an Easter egg hunt). Some could be filled with a plastic spider, or other creepy crawlers that would result in a special prize, like a box of cracker jacks, a large chocolate bar or other fund prize.
Create a prize board with images of the “special” critters so that they know that just because the cracker is light in weight it may bear a big prize.
With this idea in mind, as I cut out and decorated the cookies I made one skeleton different from the others, two ghosts that faced the opposite way and were covered with orange and black sprinkles and a brown bat. All of the cookies were wrapped as shown below. Something like cookies could also be hidden and whomever found the “different” cookie could get a prize a special prize. (Sticker books, a small toy, etc.
The idea is simple and easy so that it’s suited for all ages. A scavenger hunt would be a great idea, but create more work to create clues and smaller children would have a harder time solving the clues, but if your children are old enough hiding items around the house hidden away and found by reading a special clue (i.e., “I’m dizzy from spinning round and round “- a stuffed animal hidden in the dryer; “I’m simply going to freeze if you don’t find me!” something in the freezer.)
I hope these ideas will inspire you to create a simple, but fun alternative for your children or grandchildren this Halloween. Start saving and ask your neighbors for help saving those toilet paper rolls and have a safe, fun and HAPPY HALLOWEEN!!
Nearly everyone we know is experiencing some form of stress in 2020, from health concerns of a family member, to financial restraints, home schooling children, and more. Here in the South alone, our anxiety level has been on edge as we have waited out multiple hurricanes and tropical storms. As we try to slowly and carefully gather with small groups of friends once again, I extended an invitation to three of my neighbors for a late afternoon autumn lunch.
One of the ladies has been taking care of an ailing family member for a long time, and I thought she could use a day out of the house; another recently put her house up for sale and will be moving away within a month; and the third organized a neighborhood bunco group several years ago that brought us all together and has been one of my closest friends for nearly seven years. While my work life has been extremely stressful and busy, I find my joy in spoiling others. So this, my second Autumn luncheon was scheduled more than 14 days since the fondue and was limited to three guests.
A French Country theme works well in the Fall, and I prepared a Fall inspired menu that was partially prepared by me and partially purchased. I made the roasted carrot ginger soup a day ahead (most dishes taste even better the next day) , the poached pears and palmier I prepare the morning of the lunch; and I purchased the Autumn salad at a local cafe’.
The Autumnal salad was a new item on the menu that I had tried the weekend before, filled with roasted beets and sweet potatoes, red quinoa, pumpkin and sunflower seeds, golden raisins, spring greens and frisee, green apples, small broccoli florets, radicchio and topped with alpha sprouts. Tossed in an apple cider vinaigrette, it couldn’t be more perfect. There were so many ingredients that it was just more feasible to purchase two salads that I split four ways.
- Apple Pie Wine
- Roasted Carrot Ginger Soup with Crème Fraîche, Gremolata and Fried Shallots
- Autumnal Salad
- Poached Pears and Crispy Palmier
- French Pear Liqueur
- Hot tea (Chai or Apple Cider herbal)
Pears Poached in Apple Cider & Apple Brandy
Adapted from Martha Stewart – my own little changes are listed below the photos. https://www.marthastewart.com/341355/poached-pears
Roasted Carrot Ginger Soup
2 lb bag of carrots (peeled and chopped into 1 inch pieces)
2 macintosh apples (peeled and cubed same size as carrots)
fresh ginger (1 tablespoon grated)
1 lemon zest the entire lemon ( juice see below)
salt and pepper
1 garlic bulb sliced in half horizontally
2 to 3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup of coconut milk
1 quart vegetable stock
1 large yellow onion (thinly sliced)
Juice of 1/2 of the lemon)
1 small fresno pepper chopped
2 large shallots (thinly sliced on a mandolin)
1 cup of canola or vegetable oil
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Drizzle a baking sheet with about 1 tbsp. olive oil. Place cubed carrots and apples, grated ginger, lemon zest, 1 teaspoon of salt and 1/2 tsp. ground black pepper into a large bowl. Drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil and then stir or toss with hands until everything is coated evenly. Pour onto the oiled baking sheet and spread into on even layer. Nestle in the halved garlic bulb and drizzle with a little olive oil. Bake for 20 minutes, then remove the the oven and toss with a spatula (turning carrots and apples over). Return to the oven and bake another 20 to 30 minutes until carrots are tender.
Meanwhile, add the thinly sliced onion and place is a small non-stick pan. Over medium heat slowly saute’. Add small amounts of water as they begin to dry or stick to the pan. Watch carefully until golden brown making sure not to burn. May take up to 20 minutes or more. Set aside.
Remove carrot tray from the oven. Let cool for about 15 minutes.
Carefully squeeze the softened garlic over the cooked carrots and dispose of all of the husks. Deseed and finely chop the fresno pepper (a 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes is an option). Depending on the size of your food processor, you may be able to puree everything at one time or you may have to divide the ingredients into small portions and puree in batches. If making in batches try to use equal parts of carrot, apple, caramelized onions and fresno pepper. Add 1/2 cup of vegetable stock and puree. Continue to add stock 1/2 cup at a time until you reach the consistency that you prefer. Pour each batch into a medium saucepan to reheat. When all of the batches are complete and transferred to the pot, add the juice of 1/2 lemon and 1/2 cup of coconut milk to add a little richness. You may of course add as little or as much as you would like according to your taste. Just remember to taste as you add. Salt and pepper to taste.
Gremolata (optional) – this is a mixture of herbs (parsley, cilantro, thyme, sage) finely chopped, finely grated parmesan, toasted chopped nuts, and lemon zest. I even used some of the carrot tops (greens). Nut options can be pine nuts, pistachios, walnuts or other nuts can be added. A gremolata adds a little color and herbaceous freshness to the top of the soup.
Lastly, slice two large shallots on a mandolin (or slice very thinly with a sharp knife.) Place 1 cup of canola or vegetable oil to a medium saucepan and heat. Add the shallots and cook with an occasional stir until golden brown and crispy. Place fried shallots into a sieve or strainer to drain the oil. Sprinkle with kosher salt.
To serve place the heated carrot soup in a bowl, either swirl a small amount of creme fraiche (or sour cream or greek yogurt) over the surface. I placed my creme fraiche into a condiment squirt bottle, but you can use the tip of a spoon or even a zip bag and make a small cut in the bottom corner to apply the cream. Top with gremolata and then fried shallots.
The table was also dressed with a couple of pumpkins and a crock vase filled with sunflowers and hydrangeas. The napkins wrapped with twine and a crocosmia stem in bright orange.
I always have some kind of little take home favor for my guests. I found these miniature mums that were wrapped in Halloween paper that had a plastic coating. I removed one of the wraps and used it as a template to shape some gift wrap I had to recover each. I used a small tube of glue, to attache bot together, re-wrapped the little pot and tied with black gingham. I then cut out one of the gold bees and glued it over the ribbon knot. Trimmed the ribbon edges and placed one at each place setting. I also make pumpkin bread loaves that I wrapped and sent everyone home with.
A few hours later, we had enjoyed an afternoon of sharing the year’s experiences, offering support for each other’s future and a satisfying meal.
I have several friend between my wine club, book club and mother’s tea groups. So in few weeks I’ll be hosting yet another small luncheon for another 2 or 3. See you soon!
🍁I think we would all agree that the year 2020 has really thrown us off course. Whatever our routines may have been in the past, nearly everything has been forced to change. The routine that gives me the most pleasure and provides the content for this blog, is planning “social interactions and parties” for my family and friends. Social distancing obviously put a serious halt to all of those gatherings for several months, but as the “phases” allow us to slowly move forward and restrictions begin to slightly relax, I finally sent my first invite for a small gathering.
🍁Just one year ago (in early September 2019) when life was clearly different than it is has been this year, I met two of my friends in Europe for an unexpected adventure. We spent one week visiting a castle in Southern Germany; medieval towns in Alsace,France and the Swiss Alps of Mürren, Switzerland. What better way to shake off our 2020 blues, than to recreate some of the food and wine experiences from our trip and gather to talk and recall special moments of this memorable time we spent together. Our best memories pictured below:
🍁I needed this gathering to be relaxing for myself as well as my gal pals. So while I prepared the salads and the fondue, I took shortcuts here and there and bought items prepared, like the pate’ and this Black Forest cake, that while not like the original version we enjoyed in the Black Forest of Germany, was light after all of the cheese, bread and potatoes and still recalled the memory of that day.
🍁”Where should we go when we can safely travel again?” asked on of my friends. Spain was suggested…. they’ve both been there – I haven’t. Once again, I’d be thrilled to just go along for the adventure!
Recipes and planning can be found on my 2019 Friendsgiving post https://socialinteractionsandparties.wordpress.com/category/friendsgiving/
Images from our European Adventure can be found on my Travel Journal category posts https://socialinteractionsandparties.wordpress.com/2019/09/30/the-spontaneous-traveler-bonus-edition/
A few months ago I shared my German Chocolate inspired cookie made with a box of cake mix. I’ve continued to experiment with making quick boxed cake mix cookies. Here’s a carrot cake and a tart, but sweet lemon pistachio cookie.
Carrot Cake Cookie
- 1 box of carrot cake mix
- 2 eggs scrambled before adding
- 1/3 cup of canola or vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup pecans (toasted) shop 1/2 and keep the best whole pieces to top off the cookie
- 1/4 cup toasted coconut (place in skillet on low heat and watch closely tossing until golden – it can burn quickly)
- 1 container cream cheese frosting
Preheat oven 350 degrees F.
Place pecans on sheet pan and place in the oven for 10 minutes to toast. Remove and allow to cook for 5 to 10 minutes. Select about 20 or so whole pecans and set aside. Chop the rest.
In a medium bowl place 2 eggs and scramble well, add cake mix and oil and mix with a spatula until the ingredients are well combined and form a thick cookie dough. Add and mix in chopped pecans. Use a 1 1/2 tablespoon scoop to form dough balls and place about 2 inches apart on a silicon or parchment line sheet pan. Bake 20 – 25 minutes depending on your oven. Check at a shorter time and allow more if needed.
Remove from the oven and allow to cook 5 minutes and then transfer to a cookie rack to completely cool. Once cooled top with cream cheese frosting and toasted coconut. Place one whole toasted pecan in the center.
- 1 box of lemon cake mix
- 2 eggs scrambled before adding
- 1/3 cup of canola or vegetable oil
- 1/2 cup of candied lemon peel (chopped)
- 1/4 cup chopped pistachios
- 1 container lemon frosting
In a medium bowl place 2 eggs and scramble well, add cake mix, add the chopped candied lemon peel and oil mixing with a spatula until the ingredients are well combined and form a thick cookie dough. Add and mix in chopped pecans. Use a 1 1/2 tablespoon scoop to form dough balls and place about 2 inches apart on a silicon or parchment line sheet pan. Bake 20 – 25 minutes depending on your oven. Check at a shorter time and allow more if needed.
Remove from the oven and allow to cook 5 minutes and then transfer to a cookie rack to completely cool. Once cooled top with lemon frosting and chopped pistachios.
So if you need a quick something sweet at the end of a meal, picnic or just for a snack, find a flavor that works for you or try them all!
Several years ago a friend brought me a jar of this homemade granola. She and her husband had recently discovered this granola in Aspen and apparently was given the recipe. So they made some at home and gifted me a large jar of the finished product as well as the recipe. This is the best granola I’ve ever had, and I’ve lost count of how many batches of it I have made and also gifted.
It’s great as a crunchy snack, but I also enjoy a sprinkle of it on my morning yogurt bowl to give it a little crunch. It’s also very good on ice cream or frozen yogurt. I’ve even sprinkled a small portion on grilled peaches.
TRIPLE CREEK RANCH GRANOLA
- Preheat oven 350 degrees F.
- 2 large sheet pans (sprayed with cooking spray)
- 4 quart sized jars
- 1 -21 oz container of Old Fashioned Oats (plus one cup optional)
- 2 cups sliced almonds
- 2 cups walnuts or hazelnuts (coarsely chopped)
- 2 cups pecans (coarsely chopped)
- 2 cups shredded sweetened coconut
- 3/4 cup light brown sugar
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 2 cups maple syrup
- 1 cup canola oil *** careful here only 1 cup all others were 2
- 2 cups of dried cranberries (or raisins, chopped dates, your own dried fruit choice)
1) In a very large bowl combine oats, all nuts, coconut, brown sugar and cinnamon.
2) In a large measuring cup or bowl combine syrup and oil.
3) Pour syrup over the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly with a wood spoon or rubber spatula until the dry ingredients are evenly coated with the syrup – oil mixture.
4) Using a 1/2 cup measuring cup place four scoops of the mixture on to the prepared baking sheet. Spread the mixture into an even thin layer. (Place two sheets into the oven at a time. ) Put stove timer on for 7 minutes. Pull baking sheets out one at a time and stir granola around that will still be wet. Put the timer on again for another 7 minutes. Check again. When most of the moisture is gone remove the trays from the oven. (Watch closely because it can go from under done to overdone in seconds. Every oven is different.) It will continue to dry and crisp as it cools. Put 1/2 cup of dried fruit on top of the hot granola and toss with wooded spoon or spatula. Scrape the sheet with a metal spoon or spatula in one direction and then the other. This clears the sheet from sticking while also helping the granola to help the dried fruit plump up.
5) When the granola has cooled down to slightly warm, I used a canning funnel to scoop the granola into quart sized Mason Jars.
6) Re-spray your baking sheets. Mix the remaining ingredients together thoroughly. The liquid tends to settle in the bottom. If it looks really wet, try adding another cup of oats. Again scoop out four 1/2 cups of the mixture on two the trays and spread out thinly. (Follow the instructions in Step 4 on timing.)
One of my friends asked if there was a way to reduce the sugar without changing the texture. Previously I had not diverted from the original recipe that I was given. So to accept her challenge I did a small test with the remaining ingredients I had and below is a lower sugar version.
This version fills a quart sized canning jar:
Preheat over 350 degrees. Spray a large sheet pan with cooking spray.
½ cup chopped walnuts
½ cup chopped pecans
½ cup sliced almonds
½ cup sweetened shredded coconut
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 cup of rolled oats
¼ cup light brown sugar
½ cup maple syrup
¼ cup canola oil
Omit dried fruit or you can add ½ cup of 50% lower sugar dried cranberries or chopped dates that have healthy natural sugar. Dried apricots have the lowest amount of sugar.
Mix dry with wet ingredients until the dry is well coated, if too dry a little more canola oil. Spread thinly on the prepared sheet pan. Spray the top of the granola (I used butter flavored spray). Place timer on 7 minutes, using a spatula stir and slightly flip the mixture around, but recreating a thin layer. Return to the over with timer on 7 minutes. Remove from the oven stir and scrape back and forth. Add dried fruit and stir /toss again. Allow to cool -then store in tightly closed jars such as canning jars.
Recently, I purchased an Apple Watch, and a few times throughout the day, a gentle “ding” invites me to b r e a t h e. The new decade of 2020 started with the usual fireworks and resolutions, and then like a tornado swiftly upended our lives with a life threatening virus, quarantines, home schooling, working remotely from home and running out of simple things like toilet paper! So many unexpected challenges have formed new routines in our lives; created a mixture of emotions and concerns; and forced us to find new creative ways to stay home, but still experience some of the pleasures of life that had to be put on hold. Pausing to b r e a t h e throughout the day, could not have come at a better time.
Staying close to home has become a necessary norm, and finding ways to make life at home more comforting and fulfilling has resulted in planting gardens, renovating homes or “nesting” with a renewed interest in making our home life more cozy and comforting. Since traveling is not currently an option, memories of past soothing travel experiences come to mind, like waking up to a specially prepared breakfast at a lovely B & B in the Napa Valley. While I can’t remember the entire menu, I do remember being served my very first red wine poached pear that was an unexpected beautiful change for a mid-morning breakfast.
So how about creating a B & B style breakfast for you and your family that makes the weekend feel a little more special?
Long before there was the Food Network and Pinterest, I would tear recipe pages from magazines and organize them into categories (a hard copy version of Pinterest) into a three ring binder. Later when I had a special occasion to cook for, I would reference my binder of ideas and make notes in the margins of adjustments I made. If the recipe was good, I’d keep it. If not is was pulled out and thrown away. Interestingly enough most of these recipes can be found on the internet now and I can also “pin” them.
For this B & B style breakfast I’m using Martha Stewart’s Nectarine Pancake recipe below, but I’ve added my own twist -using white peaches instead of nectarines and a blueberry sauce with crispy prosciutto. https://www.marthastewart.com/909613/nectarine-pancakes
- 3 cups of fresh blueberries
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup sugar (varies on sweetness of berries and your preference)
- zest half of a lemon
- juice of half of a lemon
Place all of the items above in a medium saucepan over medium heat bringing contents to a gentle boil. After about 5 minutes carefully taste for desired sweetness. I usually start with 1/4 cup of sugar depending on the sweetness of the blueberries and add a little more if needed. Lower the heat to a gentle simmer, cover and let simmer, stirring occasionally for 15 to 20 minutes. The berries will soften and deflate but still have their shape with a syrupy sauce. Remove from the heat and transfer to a bowl, set aside to cool.
On to the pancakes. Obviously there are different stone fruits you could consider for these pancakes. I’ve always made them with peaches, white peaches to be specific are my favorite. A tip is to make sure the fruit isn’t too ripe or it will fall apart while cooking. These pancakes create a nice thick batter that isn’t runny and they form up very nicely every time.
The recipe shown here is directly from the link provided on Martha’s website with notes in bold of my personal adjustments.
- 1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 1/2 tablespoons sugar
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
- 1 1/2 cups low-fat buttermilk
- 2 large eggs, room temperature
- 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract (I used vanilla paste that is filled with vanilla bean seeds)
- 1 tablespoon butter, melted, plus more, softened, for skillet and serving
- 2 tablespoons safflower oil ( I used canola oil)
- 2 nectarines, peeled and thinly sliced (about 2 cups) ( I used two white🍑peaches and I didn’t peel them. I just sliced a small thin layer from the bottom and then cut 1/4 in. rings around the pit until getting to the top of the peach)
- I also added the zest of 1/2 of a lemon to the batter
- I served my peach buttermilk pancakes with the blueberry syrup and fresh blueberries, garnished is a sprig of mint and crispy prosciutto.
- Step 1 Whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Whisk together buttermilk, eggs, vanilla, melted butter, and oil. Whisk egg mixture into flour mixture.
- At this point I let the batter rest in the bowl and preheated the oven to 400 degrees p fahrenheit. Line a sheet pan with parchment paper place the thinly sliced prosciutto, pancetta or applewood bacon on top. (Bacon may take longer to crisp.) Place in the oven for 20 minutes until crispy, about the time it takes to cook the pancakes.
- Step 2 Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Working in batches and adding more butter as needed, pour in 1/3 cup batter per pancake. Place 2 to 3 nectarine slices on top of each pancake. Cook until small bubbles form on surfaces and undersides are golden, about 3 minutes. Flip, and cook until golden brown, about 3 minutes. Serve with butter and syrup.
- MY method: I tried pouring the pancake batter into the skillet and then putting the peach ring on top and it didn’t make as pretty of a pancake. So I put the peach ring into the butter and oil pan and poured the pancake batter over it.
Measuring Tip: I’m not sure who to give credit to for this, but I would not be surprised if it was Martha Stewart. I was a faithful student who watched every show that aired originally once a week on PBS and then later The Martha Stewart Show until most recently her “Martha Knows Best” garden show on HGTV. If there’s anything you want to cook, plant, build or craft you can always count that Martha’s version will not fail you.
Recently I found myself teaching my 4 year old grandson how to measure dry ingredients when baking some chocolate chip cookies. So here’s the tip…. baking is very precise and you have to fill your measuring cup (in this case with flour) not by scooping, but by using a scoop or spoon to gently fill the measuring cup. Over fill the cup (over your flour container) and use a chop stick to level it off. Keep the chop stick in your flour container for future use.
Traveling introduces us to new and unusual experiences and foods. If you’d like to try something different to drink with this B & B breakfast, you could prepare my favorite, a chai tea latte. However, I found this box of concentrate to make a London Fog Latte at (Walmart) that I saw as an opportunity to serve something different. A London Fog is Earl Gray tea and a touch of lavender, served with warm milk.
Fill a mug a little less than half way with the tea concentrate. In a large heat proof measuring cup (or separate mug) fill half way with milk of your choice. Put both mugs in the microwave for 1 1/2 minutes. I have a battery operated aerator that when held along the top of the heated milk will create a lovely frothy foam. Pour the heated milk and froth into the cup of headed tea concentrate. (If you don’t have an aerator or don’t like the milk frothed, but pour the two together. I have culinary lavender, so I sprinkled a tiny amount on top.
While you may not be able to get away, you can treat yourself and those you love to a colorful B & B style breakfast that celebrates summer’s seasonal fruits and berries to make any weekend extraordinary rather than ordinary. Introduce some unusual and different food experiences at home just as you would during your travels to make staying home feel a little more adventurous.
My good neighbor (and friend) presented me with a small bowl of five greenish Roma tomatoes from her garden before heading out of town for a short get away. I placed the tomatoes in a small pottery bowl on a shelf where the morning sun gently ripened the skin from a green to a rich red. It took just over a week, so I had plenty of time to think about what I would transform them into. Hw to make a meal simply of tomatoes? Soup!
Roasting tomatoes creates a texture somewhere between that of a fresh tomato and a sun-dried tomato, and concentrates as well as sweetens the flavor. I decided to roast the garden tomatoes along with some grape tomatoes that were starting to wrinkle, along with sliced onions and garlic to create the base of my soup that can be served in a few different ways.
ROASTED SPICY GARDEN🍅TOMATO AND SHRIMP SOUP
Yields 4 to 6 servings
- Sheet pan
- Olive Oil (approx 3 tablespoons)
- 5 Roma or vine ripened tomatoes (halved)
- 1 pint grape or cherry tomatoes
- 1 medium yellow or white onion sliced
- 1 head of garlic sliced in half (through center cloves)
- 1- 2 small (about 3 in.) red Fresno or Serrano pepper
- 1/2 to 3/4 cup vegetable or chicken stock
- Fresh Basil (chiffonade: stack and roll leaves like a cigar and make thin slices)
- 1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream (optional)
- Red chili oil (optional)
- kosher salt & fresh ground pepper
- 8 oz. medium peeled and deveined shrimp (optional)
- a splash of white balsamic vinegar (optional – white will not change the beautiful color of the tomato and brings down the acidity of the tomatoes.)
Pre-heat oven 400 degrees F.
Place halved Roma or vine ripened tomatoes, grape or cherry tomatoes, sliced onion, and garlic on a sheet pan and evenly drizzle each area of the tray with approximately 2 to 3 tablespoons (total) with olive oil. Sprinkle from high above with about 1 teaspoon salt (helps salt evenly distribute) and freshly ground pepper. Roast in the oven for 25 to 35 minutes.
Place the roasted vegetables in a blender or food processor. Add 1/2 to 3/4 cup of vegetable or chicken stock and puree (amount depends on your desired thickness). Slice one red chili pepper and remove seeds. Tomatoes are very delicate, so I personally did want to blow away their sweet flavor with too much heat, but when it comes to spicy it’s a personal preference. My advice is to add a little at a time and test the flavor until it reaches your desired spiciness. Add chilis to the puree and blend until smooth. Add salt and pepper to taste and a splash of white balsamic vinegar.
Heres where to options begin. The puree at this stage can be served in few ways.
- Option 1: 🍅 Serve at room temperature or transfer to a medium sauce pan to warm on a medium low heat; garnish with fresh sweet or spicy basil and a small drizzle of red chili oil. ( I use an eye dropper to disburse small droplets over the surface)
- Option 2: 🍅 Warm soup (from above). Add a 1/4 to 1/2 cup of heavy cream. Stir to blend evenly. Garnish with chiffonade basil.
- Option 3: 🍅 Follow option 2, and then add peeled and deveined medium shrimp and poach at a gentle simmer until shrimp curl (cooked). Add 1/4 cup basil and stir. To serve garnish with fresh basil, red chili oil droplets and (optional) a couple of slices of fresh red chili (to your heat preference).
Leftover soup can be refrigerated and rewarmed up to a few days. Perfect for a light but filling lunch, especially on a rainy day! I hope you give it a try and enjoy!
A couple of weeks into this year’s quarantine, due to the limitations of restaurant and fast food options – I decided to play private chef to my brother for a while and make him a few home cooked or hand prepared items each week. Fortunately the simplest to prepare, turned out to be one of his favorites. So much so, that when he plated the items, he snapped the photo above to send me a quick thank you. In honor of his birthday (this week) I thought I would share one of his favorite easy dinners.
Caramelized Baby Bella Mushrooms, with nutty short grain brown rice.
HOW TO COOK MUSHROOMS: Being a cooking show junkie for several decades now, one of my chef mentors gave advice on the proper way to cook mushrooms that I’ve never forgotten. All you have to do is try this method once, and you’ll never forget because they taste so good! See below: makes approximately 2 servings
- Lundberg short grain brown rice 1/2 cup
- Chicken stock (or add a tablespoon of chicken broth seasoning base or bouillon to water) 1 cup
- 1 pint of baby bella mushrooms (wiped clean with a paper towel and then thinly sliced)
- 2 tablespoons of butter
- 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
- salt and pepper and (red chili flakes optional)
- 2 sprigs fresh thyme
- 1/4 cup of chopped chives or scallions ( just the green part)
- optional in the photo I had some left over oven roasted grape tomatoes I added for color
Place rice and stock (or water with bouillon) in a rice cooker or pot and cook according to instructions. Brown rice takes longer to cook than white so this may take about 45 minutes or longer so this will have to be made ahead of time. When finished move to a medium sized bowl. (This Lundberg rice has a delicate nuttiness and firm chew like no other brown rice I’ve found, that gives this dish it’s special flavor.)
(A technique I learned years ago from one of my many cooking show mentors on cooking mushrooms.) In a medium skillet heat olive oil and butter, add sliced mushrooms. Try to separate and flatten each on one side against the pan surface. Do not stir! Allow the mushrooms to caramelize on one side. It takes about 5-7 minutes. Turn the skillet around every few minutes for even caramelization of all of the mushrooms. Turn over one of the mushrooms to check, if there is a golden brown color, it’s time to flip them. Allow the mushrooms to slide down to the end of the skillet away from you and then toss to flip. You have to do this with confidence, but if it doesn’t work out, just use a fork to flip over each mushroom to the other side and allow the opposite side to achieve the same golden brown color. If the pan seems to be too dry you can add a little more olive oil and butter. (The butter will burn if not paired with olive oil. )
Sprinkle with salt and pepper (and red chili flakes if desired) from high above the skillet for even distribution. (No stirring) and added chopped fresh thyme. Cook for about 2 minutes and then remove from the heat. Pour over the prepared brown rice. Add chopped chives or scallion greens and gently toss.
Oven Roasted Red Snapper in Foil
In the mid 1980’s I used to subscribe to a magazine long since gone called Cuisine. I can still remember the images of a boneless chicken breast nested between two sheets of foil topped with thinly peeling strips of carrots and herbs that I prepared for one of my first dinner parties. Years later I use the same simple technique to gently cook fish.
This version can be used per serving or one large piece of fish could be shared by two. If you do not live in an area with fresh fish, you might be surprised to find out that this fish was purchased at Walmart. I’ve been happily surprised to learn they have expanded their fresh fish options to include snapper. (I also cook fish this way to make fish tacos.)
- 1 5 to 6 ounce piece of red snapper (or other flaky fish)
- 2 pieces of aluminum foil sheets
- Cooking spray
- salt and pepper
- olive oil
- 1 lemon (zest and then slice into disks)
- fresh celery leaves
- 1 carrot (strips made with peeler)
- sliced red bell pepper (optional – as seen in the full plate photo)
Pre-heat oven 375 degrees F. Spray one side of the two sheets of aluminum foil with cooking spray and lay the fish – skin side down on to the sprayed foil sheet and move to a baking sheet pan. Drizzle the top of the fish will a little olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper, and the zest of the lemon. Slice the lemon in half and make 2 to four round lemon disks to lay on top of the fish (save the other half of the lemon and set aside). Top with celery leaves and strips of carrot. Place second foil sheet on top of the fish. Fold the edges of the two sheets together forming a tight seal all the way around. Place baking sheet in the oven for 20 minutes.
Allow the packet to rest when removing from the oven for about 5 minutes. Carefully open to allow the hot steam to release from the packet by either cutting open with the slice of a knife or unwrapping. Slide onto a plate allowing all of the juices to remain with the fish to serve. Squeeze the juice from the remaining half lemon over the fish just before serving.
Finally, I simply placed a package of fresh sugar snaps peas in the microwave (time according to the package) and that was his green vegetable side. I did give him this meal for his birthday this week – so Happy Birthday Brother!
The recent worldwide quarantine caused this “social interactions” hostess to take pause from the usual planning of gatherings with family and friends. As we all tucked away in our homes in what felt like the longest “time out” ever, the demands of my regular full-time job excelled and continues to require long work hours. Grateful for my job, I was not among those who had time to reorganize and meditate during the quarantine. What time I had on the weekends, I made the usual masked trip to stock up on groceries, and then returned to continue my quarantine with cooking (see Simply Elevated category), clean and launder. Suddenly the weekend had evaporated into thin air and it was Monday again.
I missed the company of friends and entertaining. Always on the look out for inspiration for my wine club themes, I saw “The Kutchers” Ashton & Mila appear on several morning and entertainment shows, to share their idea behind Quarantine Wine and their partnership with Nocking Point wines. The entire story can be found online, but the point that drew me in was that 100% of the proceeds of sales would go to various charities for those in need during the quarantine. How could I have a 6 year old wine club and not contribute in this way? The bottles sold in sets of two, with the idea of keeping one and sharing (giving one) to someone else to share during the quarantine. The only problem is that the demand (orders) were so high, that Nocking Point had trouble getting the bottles shipped out quickly enough. It took about 2 months for me to receive my shipment of 6 bottles, but the wonderful news is that they raised over reported $1 million for some important causes.
Equipped with the wine, I knew that life would not immediately go back to the way we once knew it and that gathering elbow to elbow at my dining room table again was far into the future. Outdoor entertaining seemed like the best option once some of the quarantine orders were lifted, but not having a great outdoor space, I found a local State Park along the river, perfect for a Sunset Sipping gathering.
Let’s Get together for a
Sunset 🌅 Sipping at the River
Knowing as the quarantines were lifted, everyone’s calendars would begin to fill with family obligations and vacations – I decided to email everyone hoping the majority would be available meet the following weekend.
Quarantine wine is a pinot noir that turned out to be a nice enjoyable drinking wine. For this cheese course, instead of just buying a couple of chunks of cheese, I wanted to find something to make with one of the recommended cheese pairings. I found this recipe on Pinterest https://www.theflavorbender.com/cheesy-thumbprint-savory-cookies-bourbon-tomato-jam. The link provides step by step instructions.
In my interpretation I did not have bourbon, so I played off of the apple cider vinegar and used Calvados (Apple brandy) that was delicious. My only warning is that since the recipe is in grams and ounces that required an online conversion calculator to use cup measuring. I had to make a little adjustment to the amount of cheese and butter in the original recipe due to butter seeping from the cookie while baking. The quality of cheese chosen could also make a difference in the result of the savory baked cookie.
My Version of the recipe https://www.theflavorbender.com/cheesy-thumbprint-savory-cookies-bourbon-tomato-jam
Follow the directions per recipe link –
- 2 sticks of butter (room temperature)
- 1 cup of sharp cheddar grated (make sure to buy good quality cheeses)
- 1 cup of pepper jack grated
- 1 deseed jalapeno chopped finely
- 1 large spring of fresh rosemary chopped finely
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 egg (place in a bowl and scramble before adding to mixture).
- 1 cup of all purpose flour
- 3/4 cup semolina
Note: I used a lower quality cheese to save on the cost. As a result the butter seeped out of the cookie. I had to increase my oven temperature to 375 F and after the first 20 minutes, move the cookies to a fresh cookie sheet to finish baking another 10 minutes. I then moved the cookie to a rack to cool and crisp and they were not at all greasy, but recovered perfectly. I share this in case you as the baker experience a similar situation.
- Turkey Thai Lettuce Wraps
- Grilled shrimp in chimichurri sauce
- Stuffed mini sweet peppers
- Eggplant caponata on toasted bread
- Cucumber salsa and chips
I selected a spot beneath moss draped oak trees that created a tunnel view of the sun shining over the river in the distance. I set up a folding table and asked my guests to bring their own chairs. Tip: Tie the corners of the tablecloth into knots to keep edges from touching the ground – learned this when a large black ant made its way to the top of the table.
We formed a large circle facing each other while sipping wine and catching up with great conversation. On this mid-June summer evening we were cooled by an occasional comforting breeze that contributed to the perfect comfortable evening.
DESSERT – WATERMELON PORT SORBET WITH
CUCUMBER AND MINT SIMPLE SYRUP
The temperature high of the day was 91 degrees, so I knew I needed a cold and refreshing dessert to end the evening. I found this version of watermelon sorbet (in the link below) incorporating port wine that I felt would be the perfect finale for a wine club party. My wonderful neighbors gave me a couple of cucumbers from their garden earlier in the week and I had an idea to make a mint simple syrup with cucumber as a side relish to provide a fresh crunch. https://www.recipegirl.com/watermelon-sorbet/
Cucumber Mint Relish: Peel cucumber, slice in half, scoop out and discard the seeds. Dice into 1/4 inch pieces. Chopped 2 tablespoons of fresh mint and mix into the diced cucumber. For simple syrup in a medium sauce pan add 1 1/2 cups of sugar to 1 1/2 cups water. Heat on medium until the water is warm enough to dissolve the sugar. Turn off the heat and add 1/2 of mint leaves and (optional a 1/4 inch of fresh ginger). Let steep for 30 minutes and then remove mint leaves. Pour the cooled mint simple syrup over the cucumber. Refrigerate over night and when serving the sorbet, spoon some the cucumber along the side of the scooped watermelon port sorbet, drizzle with simple syrup and garnish with fresh mint and edible flowers (optional).
As the time of sundown approached we walked as a group toward the river catching the final stages of the setting sun in the horizon. Grateful for our health, our friendship and this beautiful evening together, as a group we have shared a lot of fun memories. While our world has been forever changed in 2020, we all hope for a clearer vision to embrace what truly matters most in life for our futures.
The sun now set, creatures of nature began to emerge. In the front pond, a small alligator popped its head from the surface, crickets began to chirp in song and as we made our last trip toward our cars with the table and chairs, someone sighted fireflies flickering in the woods as if saying goodbye. A perfect ending to a wonderfully enjoyable warm summer evening.