Watermelon Salad with Arugula & Feta Cheese

P1000967Since I eat watermelon almost everyday of the summer, and since salads are my favorite summertime meal, and since having a plentiful crop of arugula in my garden is a luxury I cherish, creating a perfect watermelon and arugula salad was a feat that was meant to be.

Watermelon and feta cheese salads have recently become popular – a perhaps inevitable occurrence since the appeal of sweet and savory combinations has made its mark on the culinary landscape. The inclusion of arugula, however, is not the norm. Mint is customary and does add a welcome vibrancy, but arugula provides a peppery dimension that balances wonderfully with the saltiness of the feta and the sweetness of the watermelon,and so it has become essential to me.

I serve this as a salad course instead of a leafy green salad, and I prepare the various components ahead of time but avoid combining them until the last minute. Watermelon will render too much of its juice if allowed to sit in the dressing for too long. I measured out the ingredients to my liking, but of course, this is the kind of dish that insists you fiddle with it to please your own palate.

Watermelon Salad with Arugula and Feta Cheese

Serves 4

7 cups cubed seedless watermelon (nice and cold)
2 slices sweet Vidalia onion, separated into rings, larger rings cut in to half moons
1 cup loosely packed arugula, leaves torn in half
1/4 cup chopped fresh mint
1/2 cup finely cubed feta cheese
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar Continue reading

Do-Ahead Pizza

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One of my favorite meals to make when family or guests come to dinner is homemade pizza. However, since I am a type-A personality and like to have everything prepared in advance before guests arrive, and assembling pizza is really best done at the last minute, serving pizza has usually meant that I wouldn’t be very relaxed during dinner. But that was before I discovered my favorite do-ahead trick: parbaking the pizza shell. Not only does this enable me to easily assemble multiple pizzas before guests arrive, but it also improves the texture of the crust.

You can parbake crusts and freeze them as is, or you can top them with sauce and cheese and freeze the completely assembled pizzas.

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Here’s how to do it:

  • Make your favorite pizza dough, or purchase a good-quality pizza dough from the supermarket, selecting a brand that is additive free (with only flour, water, yeast, and olive oil).
  • Preheat the oven to 450 degrees.
  • Roll out the dough to a desired thinness, using flour to keep it from sticking. Place it on parchment paper and then slip it onto a baking sheet, or lightly oil a baking sheet and place the dough directly on it.
  • Bake 3-6 minutes, or until the dough is slightly puffy and the top is dry to the touch but still very pale.
  • Cool the pizza shell on a wire rack.

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  • When at room temperature, wrap in plastic wrap then foil. Freeze the empty shell up to a few months. Defrost before assembling your pizza. Alternatively, assemble the pizza with sauce, cheese, and toppings and freeze uncovered.When it is frozen, wrap it in plastic wrap then foil and return to the freezer.
  • Cook the pizza at 450 degrees until golden brown. If I’m not cooking the pizza on a pizza stone but rather on a baking sheet, I like to use tongs and slip the pizza directly onto the oven rack for a few minutes before it is done cooking to brown the bottom of the crust.

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Perfect Sweet Potato “Fries”

P1000677There is something in sweet potatoes that my body must need because I cannot get enough of them. I like them prepared in all manner and form (except with marshmallows), and consider their appearance in the fall one of the highlights of the season. I am often reminded of that memorable scene in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man when the main character encounters a street vendor in Harlem who is selling baked sweet potatoes (yams), and he purchases one. When he bites into it, he is overcome with a surge of homesickness for his family in the south. He then reveals, “I walked along, munching on the yam, just as suddenly overcome by an intense feeling of freedom – simply because I was eating while walking along the street. It was exhilarating. I no longer had to worry about who saw me and what was proper. To hell with all that, and as sweet as the yam actually was,  it became like nectar with the thought.”  Wow! The power of sweet potatoes!

When sweet potato fries became popular a few years ago, I was in big trouble.I found them hard to resist when I saw them on a menu – even though they are high in calories. But I have since discovered a fabulous lower calorie way to prepare them at home – roasting the” fries.” You can use a minimal amount of oil and still create the texture of a “fry.” The secret? Toss the raw strips of sweet potato in cornstarch before dressing them in oil and spices. This draws the moisture away from the potato and helps create a crisp exterior.

When my son Daniel came home for Christmas, he enlightened me about the best way to season roasted sweet potato “fries.” He sprinkled on a combination of cinnamon,  powdered chipotle, and salt all over the fries. Perfection!The sweetness of the cinnamon was an ideal foil for the smokey, hot chipotle, and together they worked magic on the sweet potatoes.

Powdered chipotle might be hard for some of you to find, but don’t worry, there are alternative spices that will work just fine. Try pairing the cinnamon with cayenne, or smoked paprika, or chili powder. Just be careful with with the amount of hot pepper (whatever variety) you use. Cinnamon can be liberally applied, but the chipotle or cayenne must be used judiciously.

Here’s how to make roasted sweet potato “fries”:

  • Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
  • Peel 2 or 3 sweet potatoes (you don’t want to crowd the pan, so if you are serving a lot of people, make them in batches)
  • Cut the potatoes into logs – like french fries
  • Place them in a large bowl and toss with about 1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch. Use your hands to toss well to coat them evenly.P1000669
  • Drizzle on a few tablespoons olive oil – just enough to coat them lightly. With a rubber spatula toss well. Season generously with cinnamon and cautiously with chipotle or other chili pepper. Sprinkle with salt.P1000671
  • Spread onto a baking sheet, being careful not to crowd the potatoes.
  • Bake at least 45 minutes, tossing often with a spatula so they brown evenly. Let sit 10 minutes before serving them; they will get more crisp as they cool.

The key to cooking them properly lies in realizing that even though they will become tender after 25-30 minutes, you still need to keep cooking them to bake off as much moisture as possible so the exteriors become crisp. They must become very brown, but you do not want to let them burn.

Here’s a bonus: you can refrigerate leftovers (an unlikely situation since they will be gobbled up), then reheat them with success. Again, let them sit a few minutes after they bake. Serving them piping hot is not the way to go – they crisp up as they cool.

 

 

 

 

 

Mushroom and Smoked Cheese Strata

P1000612A strata is a casserole composed of bread soaked in eggs, milk, and cheese and baked until hot and crusty. What makes it so appealing when the holidays arrive is that you assemble it the day before and refrigerate it overnight. About 45 minutes before you plan to serve breakfast, just pop it in the oven and bake until golden brown.

Stratas can include any combination of vegetables or profile just one favorite vegetable with a savory cheese to match. I especially love mushrooms in my strata, but freshly cooked spinach is also delectable. Regarding a cheese choice, I always use a sharp cheddar, or part cheddar and part smoked cheese for a meaty flavor. (Just because I don’t eat meat doesn’t mean I don’t recognize how tasty it can be!) This version that I am sharing with you pairs sauteed mushrooms with smoked mozzarella or smoked gouda.

When it comes to selecting the bread you will cube for the strata, try a firm sourdough or French bread so your strata has some texture.  A soft bread will be acceptable, but will not give a chewy, crusty texture that many people enjoy.

Stratas are the kinds of casseroles that beg for improvisation, so have fun playing with different combinations, and you’ll make this dish a holiday staple.

P1000600Serves 6

2 teaspoons olive oil
4 cups thinly sliced mushrooms, about 12 ounces
1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
6 slices good-quality bread, such as sourdough
3/4 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese
3/4 cup grated smoked mozzarella or smoked gouda
5 large eggs
Dash nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup heavy cream

1. Heat the oil in a large skillet and saute the mushrooms until nicely browned. Set aside.

2. Lightly butter a 12 x 7 x 2-inch casserole dish (such as a Pyrex). With the softened butter very lightly butter one side of each slice of bread, then cut int 1/2-inch cubes. Spread the cubes on the bottom of the baking dish.

3. Sprinkle the mushrooms on the bread, the sprinkle on the 2 cheeses.

4.  Beat the eggs with the nutmeg and salt. Beat in the milk and cream.  Pour this custard all over the bread mixture. Cover with plastic wrap and chill overnight.

5. Let the casserole stand at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

6.  Bake, uncovered, for 30-35 minutes, or until a knife inserted in the center comes out dry. Let sit 10 minutes before cutting into squares. Delicious served with homefries or some kind of roasted potatoes.

 

 

 

 

Bruschetta with Goat Cheese, Pesto, and Roasted Red Peppers

P1000548This delicious concoction is a breeze to assemble, especially if you have pesto in your freezer like I often do. It is a combination of four of my favorite foods:goat cheese, pesto, and marinated roasted red peppers, and chewy Tuscan bread.

To make this I line a small dish with plastic wrap and pack in some plain goat cheese. I then invert the cheese onto a plate or platter. I spoon on a few tablespoons of pesto. Roasted red peppers from a jar get patted dry, then diced. I toss them with a tablespoon or so of vinaigrette and spoon them on and around the cheese mound.

I use a good-quality Tuscan-style bread and toast a few slices. Olive oil is then brushed on the toasts, and then they are cut into pieces. The bread surrounds the goat cheese, and voila – a perfect holiday appetizer!

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English Toffee

P1000543This is one of my most treasured recipes and one that always draws raves from those who get this candy as a Christmas gift. I’ve been making toffee every holiday season for over 20 years; it’s easy, fun, and outrageously good. I challenge anyone to come up with a better candy.

Although the basic recipe has remained unchanged, I have improved upon it by adding a bit of corn syrup because it guarantees that there won’t be any sugar crystallization. When crystallization takes place, candy turns grainy and sugary, rather than clear and smooth. The whole batch is ruined as a result. Corn syrup does the trick, and you only need a tiny amount of it to prevent crystallization.

I pour my boiling toffee onto a baking sheet, but only use half the sheet. This gives the toffee the desired thickness, and it gives me room to insert a spatula underneath the slab of toffee to flip it over when I want to coat the underneath with chocolate and nuts. It’s a bit of an unconventional technique, but after years of experimenting, I have found that it works beautifully. Have fun making this toffee; I guarantee you’ll get hooked.

Makes about 2 pounds

1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter, plus extra for greasing
1 cup very finely ground almonds, divided
1 cup sugar
3 tablespoons water
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
8 ounces (1 1/3 cups) semi-sweet chocolate chips

1.  Lightly butter half of a large 17 x 12 baking sheet (the area then measures 8 1/2 X 12). Measure 1/2 cup of the ground almonds and place near the stove.

2.  Combine the butter, sugar, water, and corn syrup in a large, heavy-bottomed skillet (cast iron is good) and place over medium heat.  Using a whisk, stir the mixture and bring to a boil. Boil exactly 5 minutes (start timing once it starts boiling), whisking occasionally, but not constantly.

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Now here comes the tricky part: After 5 minutes, the toffee cooks very quickly, so be attentive. You want to cook it about 1 minute more (6 minutes total), but this will depend on the color. The toffee is done when it is a caramel color – not as light as camel hair, and definitely not as dark as cinnamon.

3.  Immediately sprinkle in the reserved 1/2 cup ground almonds and stir to blend. Very quickly pour the toffee onto the buttered part of the baking sheet and, using a rubber spatula, shape it so it fills half the pan. Let rest 1 minute or so.

P10005314. Sprinkle half the chocolate chips onto the top of the toffee slab. Wait 5 minutes or so for them to soften, then spread the chocolate all over the surface (an offset spatula works well), going right to the corners and edges. Sprinkle on about half of the remaining ground nuts to cover the chocolate. Let the toffee cool until he chocolate hardens, a few hours.

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5.  Take the remaining chocolate chips and place them in a small saucepan. Over medium-low heat, melt them only halfway. (This prevents the chocolate from overheating.)Remove the pan from the heat and stir the chocolate until it is evenly melted.

6. Using metal spatula, flip the slab of toffee over so the underside is on top. It’s okay if the slab breaks when you do this. With a pastry brush spread the melted chocolate all over this side of the toffee. Sprinkle on the remaining nuts. Let the toffee cool again until the chocolate hardens.You can refrigerate it at this point to speed things up.When the chocolate is hard, break the toffee into pieces about 1 1/2 inches square.

 

 

Roasted Curried Cauliflower

 

P1000472My step-daughter, Susanne, told me recently that roasting cauliflower is her favorite method of preparing this wonderful vegetable. I became intrigued because although I roast vegetables on a regular basis, I had never tried roasting cauliflower as a side vegetable. I have a fabulous recipe forCauliflower and Potato Tian” in my book Simple Vegetarian Pleasures, and that has been one of my go-to recipes when I have a large head of cauliflower that I want to use as a main course. A tian is a casserole where vegetables are cloaked in olive oil and cooked at a high heat – a sort of moist roasting that caramelizes the vegetables.                                                                                                                               The roasted cauliflower that I feature here is curried by an extremely easy method:just mix some good quality curry powder, cumin seeds, and a bit of tomato sauce into some olive oil and coat the cauliflower with the mixture. It couldn’t be a simpler.  When the cauliflower is cooked, toss on some thawed frozen peas , return to the oven, and cook a few more minutes to heat up the peas.                                                                                          I serve the cauliflower with a side of basmati rice that has been cooked with a cinnamon stick, a bay leaf, and some minced onion. Plain yogurt on the side rounds out the meal.  I roast the cauliflower in a heavy casserole dish, keeping it in one layer so it browns nicely, but you can use what ever you have on hand – even a large baking sheet will do.

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1 large head cauliflower, cut into small florets
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup tomato sauce
2 tablespoons curry powder
A few dashes cayenne pepper
1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds (optional)
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste ( I use a lot)
1 cup frozen peas, thawed

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.Place the cauliflower in a large bowl. Combine the remaining ingredients – except the peas- in a small bowl and pour all over the cauliflower, tossing thoroughly to coat the cauliflower well. Spread the mixture in a large casserole dish or on a baking sheet.

Bake about 45 minutes, or until the cauliflower is tender and browned. Sprinkle on the peas and return to the oven for about 5 minutes to heat the peas through.

 

 

Best Pasta Dish in the World

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Ok, so it’s quite a claim, but really, there is nothing quite like an uncooked tomato-basil sauce made in August or September (here in New England) when tomatoes are at their peak. I know this is not a new recipe idea; these sauces have been around for decades, but sometimes we forget how good our old favorites are because they get lost among the trendier renditions that currently intrigue us.

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What could be better on a hot day than a sauce that requires no cooking yet has as seductive a flavor as you can get out of perfectly ripe tomatoes and basil? All you need to do is chop up a large amount of tomatoes, basil, parsley, and garlic and let them stew together in a bowl with olive oil and garlic. When you are ready to eat, cook some pasta al dente – I prefer something long like spaghettini or linguine, but any kind will work – then toss it in the sauce. A  handful of grated Parmesan then gets mixed in, and you are ready to enjoy one of the best concoctions ever. I often include diced Brie in the sauce instead of the Parmesan, and it is fabulous.That idea came from the Silver Palate cookbook.

P1000458Here are the proportions I use. I like to mix all kinds of tomatoes; the only requirement is that they be perfectly ripe and in season.

Serves 4

3 large ripe tomatoes,cored and diced
3 garlic cloves, put through a press
1 cup shredded basil
1/2 cup chopped parsley
1/2 cup olive oil
1/4 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1 pound spaghettini or linguine
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

In a large bowl combine everything except the pasta and Parmesan cheese.  This can marinate at room temperature for up to 2 hours.

Cook the pasta until al dente.  Drain well and mix into the sauce.  Sprinkle on the cheese and toss well.

 

 

 

quinoa salad with cashews, cranberries, and mint

P1000343Your requests for quinoa recipes have not fallen on deaf ears. During these sultry summer months I am always seeking ways to avoid heating up my kitchen, so I often turn to main-course salads.Sometimes all the ingredients are raw, as in salad-based dishes with marinated vegetables, tofu, or bean topping; other times, I do a minimal amount of cooking early in the day, as with this quinoa salad, and then chill the dish until dinnertime. When it is time to eat and all I need to do is remove the dish from the refrigerator, I pat myself on the back for having had the forethought to prep the dish early in the day.

As many of you know, quinoa is on the list of superfoods.  It is high in protein and iron, low in fat, and is relatively low in calories.  To enhance the flavor of this “seed” (quinoa is not a true grain), it is wise to toast it before you simmer it in water or stock. Quinoa also needs to be rinsed before cooking because it contains saponins, a slightly bitter coating that should be removed. I have found that since wet quinoa doesn’t toast very well, it is preferable to toast quinoa before you rinse it, then it will be ready to be simmered.

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P1000349Serves 4 as a main course

2 cups quinoa
3 1/2 cups water
1/2 teaspoon salt

the vinaigrette:

1/2 cup olive oil
juice of 2 lemons
2 garlic cloves, put through a press
1/2 teaspoon salt
generous black pepper

the fixings:

1 cup dried cranberries
3/4 cup dry roasted cashews
4 scallions, very thinly sliced
1 carrot, minced
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint

 

1. Toast the quinoa in a large skillet over medium-high heat until it begins to crackle and  become fragrant, about 3-5 minutes.  Toss it frequently so it toasts evenly. Pour it into a large bowl and let cool a few minutes.  Toss it into a strainer and rinse under cold water.

2. Bring the water and salt to a boil in a medium saucepan. Add the quinoa and reduce to a simmer.  Cook about 18 minutes, or until all the water has been absorbed.  Spoon the cooked quinoa into a large bowl and let cool to room temperature.

3.Meanwhile make the vinaigrette by combining all the ingredients in a jar with a lid and shake well.  Pour onto the quinoa and mix well.

4. Add the “fixings” and mix again.  Chill until cold.  Taste for more salt and pepper.

 

 

 

portobello mushroom burgers with wasabi mayonnaise

P1000322    Now that the grills are heating up, it’s time to have a meatless burger that is easy, delicious, and appealing to vegetarians and meat eaters alike.  Enter the portobello mushroom burger! I am so enamored of these juicy burgers that I would easily choose them over any other veggie burger.  And they couldn’t be easier to prepare.  Just cut off the stem as close to the cap as possible, rub the cap on both sides with olive oil, and grill the mushroom until very brown and juicy, flipping it over occasionally. Season with salt and pepper. During the winter or whenever I don’t have access to a grill, I use a cast iron griddle or frying pan and have very good results.

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The creative part comes with the sauce you can develop to spread on the burger rolls.  Here are a few of my favorite concoctions:

  • wasabi mayonnaise – mix wasabi powder with a bit of water to make a paste, then mix in enough mayonnaise to generously coat the rolls you have
  • chipotle mayonnaise – mix some chipotle powder and a bit of ketchup (or a minced chipotle pepper in adobo sauce) into mayonnaise
  • chimichurri sauce- this Argentinian sauce is made by pureeing a generous amount of fresh parsley with some olive oil, a splash of vinegar, a bit of garlic, salt, and pepper, and a bit of crushed red pepper flakes (optional).  The thick sauce gets spooned on the burger roll, and you can also add some mayo, but it is not essential
  • tzatziki – Mix plain Greek yogurt with lots of fresh dill, grated cucumber that has been squeezed dry in your hands, and a bit of garlic.

Another alluring addition to these grilled mushrooms can be a special cheese that gets melted on the hot juicy mushrooms. Try Monterey Jack with jalapeno peppers, muenster, feta, or blue cheese.

And don’t forget sliced tomato and some greens – a soft lettuce or arugula are perfect toppings.