Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness

Archive for the tag “natural”

31-Recipe Challenge: Day 2 — Veggie Style!

Something pretty amazing happened on Saturday, aka Day 2 of my 31-recipe challenge: I got the carnivore (well, omnivore) to go herbivore and LIKE IT!

That’s right, I got my meat-loving man to eat a vegetarian meal and admit that not only did he like it, but he would eat it again! *cue happy dance #2 for the weekend*

Only two days into this thing, and I’m already seeing some pretty amazing things happen.

Sweet potato taco 1

I’m sure you’re wondering what the magic recipe was that turned this T-Rex into a Brontosaurus. Well, it was two! It was these Asian-fusion sweet potato tacos from Love and Lemons and this winter kale salad from A Tasty Love Story.

The sweet potato tacos with avocado involved several steps, but none were terribly complicated. If anything, I became more a victim of my apartment-sized kitchen’s lack of prep space more than anything else. Basically: make glaze, chop veggies, glaze veggies, roast veggies, prep toppings, eat. Said toppings include goodies like sliced avocado, cilantro, sprouts, toasted pepitas and scallions.

However, this dish almost wasn’t quite the same due to my own trepidations. As I stood in Wegmans on Friday staring at the refrigerator shelf that housed those few sad containers of miso paste, I, well, freaked out. Thirteen ounces?? Seven dollars?? I only need two tablespoons! What am I going to do with 13 ounces? Seven dollars is WAY too much for something I’m only going to use a tiny bit of! Once! Alas, then Kevin said (via text) those magical three words that somehow made such a seemingly outlandish purchase alright: “We’ll make soup.” Ah, ok, we’ll make soup. Yes, we’ll make soup.

And so there you have it. I bought miso paste, a very key ingredient for what ended up being a fairly brilliant miso-maple glaze, and sometime in the near-ish future (i.e., after February), I will make miso soup. A lot of miso soup. And probably more sweet potatoes.

Sweet potato taco 2

Oh! P.S. sidenote…fresh toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) smell pretty darn good. But not as good as toasted balsamic-honey almonds. (I’ll get to that in a moment, stick around.) Also, can we take a moment to appreciate and applaud my lovely hand model? (The aforementioned T-Rex.)

Extra sidenote…the recipe includes a fresh, bright, somehow summery coconut-cilantro sauce to top the tacos (yum!) You can optionally add Sriracha and sugar to this sauce; I added neither. It didn’t need it. (And as I admitted on Day 1, I’m kind of a wimp when it comes to bringing the heat.) But really, if you know me at all or have read my blog even a little, you probably know by now that anything that combines avocado, lime and cilantro is A-OK in my book.

But that was not all! Oh no! There was that beautiful winter salad of pomegranate, kale and apple to attend to.

Somehow, despite the fact that the five pomegranates left in the produce section seemed truly sad, and I settled for the least bad of them, I ended up with some really lovely, delicious pomegranate jewels. Seriously, I should’ve taken a picture of them, because they looked semi-precious.

This salad is fun and fast, and plays with flavors in an interesting way. It also calls for shredded kale, rather than big leaves, so I stuffed torn leaves into my Magic Bullet (in small batches), and whizzed it with the chopping blade for a hot second. It was like kale confetti. (I don’t want that coming out of my pinata, though.)

The most involved part of the salad were the aforementioned balsamic-glazed almonds. Basically, toast raw almonds, add balsamic vinegar and honey, and stir to coat over the stovetop. Then they harden up and get deliciously glossy and sticky. And I have leftovers sitting in a bag at home. I call it the base to the world’s best trail mix. (Oh yes, they are that good. Seriously, go home and make these! They take, like, five minutes and it’s like a way more sophisticated version of those yummy-smelling glazed nuts stands at the mall.)

Pomegranate, apple, kale salad

Toss kale, pomegranate arils, thinly sliced apples and glazed almonds with a quick homemade vinaigrette and enjoy! Just don’t make too much dressing and then hand it off to someone else and let them finish the salad. They won’t realize you’ve made more dressing than necessary and they WILL just dump it all on. Then it will taste like balsamic with a little salad. Not that that happened, of course. (Totally happened.)

Still, it was clear these flavors were meant to be. And boy was it pretty! It was like a winter season fashion show–jewel tones everywhere!

And after sitting down with a heaping sweet potato taco and a big, colorful bowl of kale salad, Kevin declared the meal a winner and even admitted he’d eat it for a meal again (without meat.) Of course, even after three tacos and the majority of the salad, he still finished off a bag of popcorn at the movies that night, so *maybe* I should take that with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, I declare it a victory.

Of course, my cooking for the weekend was hardly done. After all, Kevin hosted a Super Bowl party on Sunday, and yours truly was, effectively, the caterer. Cue the marathon cooking day that was my Sunday (more to come…)

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31-Recipe Challenge: Day 1 — Kicking it off!

Well, folks, the day has finally arrived–I have officially started  my one-month, 31-recipe challenge! Since I’ve been sick for the past week (battling an ear and throat infection punctuated with cold-like symptoms, yay winter), I started off slow, but delicious. My first recipe I tackled for this challenge–sausage and pepper pizza!

Sausage pizza 1

Now, I’m from New Jersey, where sausage and peppers can be found in every corner pizza joint (and you can bet they’ll be good, too!) They’re not usually my first choice, but let me tell you, this pizza rocks. I’m rethinking sausage and peppers now.

One great thing I learned from this recipe: making pizza dough from  scratch is super-easy. Like, crazy, crazy easy. Literally takes five, maybe 10 minutes, not counting the time for it to rise.  I don’t think I’ll be buying pre-made pizza dough anymore, it’s just not worth it.

Let’s take a minute here and let this sink in: I. made. homemade. dough. And it didn’t suck.  The non-baker inside me is freaking out and doing a happy dance! (And possibly a literal happy dance occurred at the time, as well. Not ashamed.)

The pizza got the stamp of approval from my toughest critic, the sausage pizza aficionado, if you will. (AKA…Kevin loved it!)

I *very, very* slightly modified this recipe from Joy the Baker for the pizza.  The main modification I made was using all-purpose flour in place of bread flour in the dough recipe, because, well, I’m not likely to use much bread flour again, so having five pounds of it seemed excessive. Frankly, though, the AP flour worked fine. I also used mild Italian sausage (patties, not links, since there was no casing) instead of spicy, because I have a low heat tolerance and actually wanted to be able to eat my pizza. As it was, I was reaching for the water anytime I took a bit with a little too much red pepper flake on it. (And there wasn’t much.)

Sausage pizza 2

I totally plan on making this one again, and keeping homemade pizza dough on hand in my freezer. It was so quick to make, even on a rushed post-work Friday evening, yet WAY beats any fast-food and even beats great pizza shop sausage pizza. Possibly because even the best Jersey pizza joints don’t usually put fresh bell peppers and arugula on their pizza.

Consensus: Day 1 a success.  The fun continues today with sweet potato tacos with avocado and apple, pomegranate and kale salad. And I’m getting really crazy tomorrow, combining the recipe challenge with a Super Bowl party! Yes, I may have the best-fed Super Bowl guests this side of Baltimore (see what I did there?).

See you soon for Day 2!

An Anniversary and an Announcement!

I can’t even believe it, but Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Foodiness is ONE YEAR OLD today! Holy cow!

One year ago today, I decided, partially on a whim, to start a food blog. My life wasn’t where I wanted it to be, so I figured, why not do something I want, then? Something that’s entirely in my control.

Looking back, a year doesn’t seem that long. But then when I look at where I was a year ago compared to where I am today, it seems like an eternity. A year ago, I was out of work, so I was serving at a Cuban restaurant full-time. While I loved my coworkers and the atmosphere and even some of the customers, overall I hated the job. I was unhappy. And I remember sitting in front of the heating vent in my old house, watching the Food Network, which inspired my very first post.

Today, a year later, I am working full-time (at my old job, in political polling), I’ve moved out of the house I grew up in and I am looking into moving again.

Hurricane Sandy happened, and I learned to truly be thankful for what I have and to count my blessings. We were incredibly lucky–we only lost power for a few days and a few (recovered) pieces of siding off our chimney. Walking out your door and seeing the extent of the destruction right in front of you, seeing beaches you grew up on decimated, is an unimaginably eye-opening experience. It’s easy to forget the fragility in life.

So, clearly, some major life changed have happened this year, and this blog was one of them. So here’s to 2013 at LLPF–it can only get even better!

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But now, on that note, I have a big birthday announcement to make! I’m taking on a new project here at the blog, and I figured there’s no better time to announce that than on the first anniversary!

Starting next month, I am going to undertake a 31-recipe challenge. Over the month of February, I will cook each and every dish on this list (thank you, Buzzfeed!) I will not make any more than *minor* substitutions. That is, even though I don’t like beets, I will make and try the beet salad. Even though I rarely eat fish and have never, ever prepared it, I will make miso-glazed cod. Because, when all is said and done, I might just discover that I enjoyed it!

I’m doing this for several reasons:
1. These recipes look damn delicious.
2. Accountability and a constant content source–I have been far too intermittent with this blog at times, between all the other things going on in my life (work, moving, Sandy, repeatedly involving myself in theater productions [sorrynotsorry]), but this will give me a) a consistent flow of recipes and experiences to blog about and b) accountability. I said I’m going to do this, and I will!
3. An opportunity to expand my horizons, both in the kitchen and at the table–There are plenty of things in here I have never, ever cooked before (braised short ribs, most desserts, soup) and things I never eat/don’t like/haven’t tried. But by cooking all of these recipes, as is, I will be learning new things in the kitchen and trying new foods or rediscovering old foods I didn’t think I liked. And if I still don’t like it in the end, so be it. But I may discover I like things I didn’t before.

So, there you have it. I know the list says “31 Things to Cook in January,” but I’m waiting to start until February because, well, it’s already 10 days into January, so that’s valuable time lost. Also, I’m starting tech week for a play this weekend (yeah, yeah, another one!) so my cooking time will be pretty much minimal.

I hope you’re all as excited for this as I am! I can’t wait to start!

So. Much. Produce.

My fridge has been lacking in the produce lately, so I was very glad when I had a half day at work last week and Kevin and I could hit the farmer’s markets. He only needed to get corn for dinner that night, but I walked away with a far more impressive haul:

We made our rounds. We started at Sickle’s Market, a part garden center, part farmer’s market and part general store. It’s a year-round place, with the majority of the produce and groceries indoors, but the quality and selection is more akin to a good farmer’s market than a supermarket.

Anyway, everywhere I turned I found something else I had to have. It’s a miracle I only walked away with what I did.

I ended up walking away with a bunch of kale (meant to make kale chips, but that didn’t go quite as planned–more on that later), five nectarines, a quart of Jersey-fresh blueberries and half a watermelon. There was also an almond croissant in there that didn’t make it through the car ride home. (Don’t judge.)

We also hit a small, local produce stand, Trader Joe’s and Wegman’s, where I grabbed a couple of avocados so I could make more of this before leaving on vacation.

Over the weekend, I also got a goody bag of home-grown tomatoes and cucumbers from a friend of mine. She’s been growing them in her yard and had more than she knew what to do with, so I gladly volunteered to take some of that pesky produce off her hands. Then I realized I don’t know what to do with five tomatoes and four cucumbers either. So I’ve been eating a lot of tomato, mozzarella and basil salad and drinking tons of cucumber-lemon water. I’m not complaining.

Oh, and in case you were wondering, Kevin did get the fresh Jersey corn he was looking for–and it was delicious! It was so sweet it didn’t even need butter. Just boiled with some salt, and I could’ve eaten all six ears! Also, I forgot how much fun it can be to shuck corn. (I can’t believe I just said that.)

Speaking of vacation, (I spoke of it somewhere, I’m sure…) I’m getting pretty stoked to go to Disney World in two days! (Yup, I’m a child. Whatever. Happiest place on Earth, man.) Anyway, I’ve been compiling a list of certain things I want to try to do while I’m down there this time around. It’s a little lopsided though:

Yup, my Things I want to eat list is far longer than my Things I want to do list, especially since some of the things I want to do a really food-related anyway. Really, though, is anyone even surprised? I’ll be lucky if they’re not rolling me out of the parks. The saddest part is there is literally, like, one healthy thing on that food list, and that’s the AK egg roll stand (really!) because I want to go there for their veggie spring rolls, Asian noodle salad and fruit salad.

What? I’m on vacation. Don’t judge.

Well, not quite yet. Right now, I’m still at work, eating avocado-black bean salsa and wishing I was already in sunny Florida. (New Jersey’s a bit cloudy today…)

Expect some fun, Disney-themed posts in the coming weeks!

Avocado-Black bean salsa

It’s August, which means there’s still a month or so of summer left (almost two, technically) and still plenty of grilling and barbecue opportunities. Also, it means we’re coming into the hottest days of the year, and hot, heavy food just doesn’t always sound so appealing. Sometimes, in the East Coast heat, I just want a cool and refreshing snack or light meal that will leave me satisfied but not weighed down. And that, folks, is how I got my avocado-black bean salsa.

I made this stuff on a whim one night after I bought ripe Haas avocados and some canned black beans. Served with some super-addictive Trader Joe’s plantain chips, I couldn’t put this stuff down! I ate it for dinner, a late-night snack AND lunch the next day!

It’s the perfect summer snack and an awesome side dish to bring to your next barbecue–a fun and nutritious way to mix it up from regular salsa or mayo-laden picnic salads.

Seriously, make this salsa and you’ll never want to stop! It will become a staple for your summer, for sure!

One thing I’d like to note: I always look for no salt added canned beans–they’re much more convenient than dried beans, but canned beans are notorious for their sodium content. Rienzi sells all sorts of no salt added beans, which I love, so my pantry’s stocked with black beans, cannellini (white) beans and chickpeas. I still rinse the beans, though, to get off any extra salt and to improve the texture (they’re still canned in liquid, so they are a little slimy otherwise.) By rinsing them, it also allows me to almost completely control the amount of salt that goes into my food.

Avocado-black bean salsa

2 small or 1 large avocado, pitted and diced
1-15.5 ounce can of no salt added black beans, rinsed (I buy Rienzi brand) or soaked and cooked black beans
1 tomato, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
1 scallion, white and light green parts only, diced
Juice of half a lime
Salt and pepper
Crushed red pepper flakes, to taste

Mix the first five ingredients together, being careful not to overly mash the avocado. Mix in lime juice, and season with salt, pepper and red pepper flakes to taste.  Serve with veggies, tortilla chips, plantain chips or use as a topping for, well, anything you want! (This would go great over salad greens, steak, grilled chicken, burgers, you name it!)

This is so fast and so easy, and it brings a bounty of veggies and a healthy dose of protein and fiber to the party!

Happy August!

WIAW: Snacking spree! And some catching up

Clearly it’s been a while since I’ve had a What I Ate Wednesday post, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been keeping tabs on some fun finds! As always, thanks to Jen from Peas and Crayons for hosting.

During the rehearsal process for the show that kept me away from the blog, we had some hours-long days in the theater. Since I wasn’t really able to keep food cold and didn’t have a ton of time to sit down and eat, I had to rely on healthy, quick, nourishing snacks to get me by. Outside of rehearsal, I had very little free time, so I was also on the lookout for convenient grab-and-go foods and meals.

I used to keep a stash of frozen Lean Cuisines and the like at work, but I’ve been making a serious effort to cut artificial preservatives and sweeteners out of my life as much as possible. I’ve switched from Splenda to raw sugar in my coffee, switched to organic yogurt and Greek yogurt from Light n Fit, and have stopped buying Lean Cuisines. However, that doesn’t mean I have the time to always make everything from scratch, as much as I’d love to. So you can imagine my excitement when I found these in the freezer aisle at ShopRite:

No artificial preservatives and relatively low sodium for a packaged food. And ingredients I can recognize and pronounce! And even with sour cream as an ingredient, the whole (large) burrito still clocks in at under 500 calories! I used to buy a brand called Evol burrito, but the nutrition facts just didn’t stack up against Red’s, and the ingredient list was definitely longer and less recognizable.

The best part? It actually tastes good!

I also bought a vegetarian rice and beans version, but it lacked flavor compared to the chicken. As wrong as it may be to say, it tasted like it needed salt. Yes, I realize the contradiction–I love that the sodium is (relatively) low, and yet I complain about a lack of salt. But I guess we know how they kept it so low. It still had a spicy kick, but was missing the flavor punch it needed to round it out. But I’ll definitely buy the chicken again for those days I have no time to make lunch (or dinner.)

Now, on to snacktime! (What everyone’s really waiting for!)

I know June was technically WIAW’s “healthy snacking” month, but I missed a month, so I’m backtracking and making up for lost time. (That’s okay, right? I’m saying it is.)

This time around I found healthy snacks in an unusual place–TJ Maxx! I was on line to buy shoes and, while waiting, discovered shelves of unique and nutritious snacks. There were a lot of things to choose from, from chocolates to falafel chips, but I settled on two fun finds: dry roasted edamame and mango Chimes. I love regular steamed edamame, so I was intrigued to try it in dry, crunchy form–like soybean chips! In all honesty, they’re just okay. I can eat a small handful or two but then it gets to be too much. They’re great for an energy boost, though. As easy to eat as a bag of Goldfish crackers but packed with protein!

The mango Chimes, on the other hand, were a great find. They’re small, individually-wrapped (yay!) mango-flavored ginger chews. At first, they’re sweet and candy-like with a gummy candy chewiness (which I love–like ginger gummy bears!). But after a bit, the spicy ginger kicks you in the palate. And it’s INTENSE! I’ve learned to take a few small bites instead of just popping the whole thing in my mouth. I love all things ginger, though, so this is like a gingery, fruity, guilt-free(ish) gummy candy. Awesome.

A few other snack creations: a caramel popcorn cake topped with natural peanut butter and crushed peanuts for crunch–sweet, creamy, crunchy, salty. And again, protein!

I’ve also been trying to make my own salad dressing when I can. It’s even better when I can enjoy it with seasonal produce (like fresh raw green beans and homemade Italian vinaigrette.)

Also, I’ve been pretty much OBSESSED with this lately, especially the lime and raspberry lime flavors:

Okay, sometimes I drink the orange, too.  You know, when I have to. But this stuff is great! It’s so refreshing, with just a hint of natural flavor. I’m bad about drinking enough water, and this definitely gets me to drink more! Carbonated and fruity, it’s a hydrating, sugar- and calorie-free alternative to soda. (And all natural–no artificial sweeteners or anything.) Costco sells it by the case and I’ve been drinking it like, well, water.

And now? I was just noshing on some cottage cheese with this mixed in:

Never heard of cranberry apple butter? What? You don’t know what you’re missing. This isn’t actually butter at all, but rather a smooth cranberry fruit spread. (If you’ve ever had apple butter, think of that.) I bought it at Trader Joe’s a while back, so I don’t know if they still carry it or if it’s seasonal. Either way, if you see it, buy it! It’s super tart and tangy and is totally versatile. It goes great on toast, with or without peanut butter; in oatmeal; with cheese (especially brie or gorgonzola) and even on pork! Not a cranberry fan? Can’t find it? No problem, grab the mango one instead. You can thank me later.

I mixed it into some cottage cheese with raisins. I was going to post a picture until I realized how unappetizing light pink cottage cheese actually looks. But it tastes good! A few handfuls of almonds and a spoonful of Nutella rounded out my “dinner.” I wish I could say I ate this light and healthy all the time, but today in particular it’s because I’m going out for pizza and beer in a little while. Oh well, no one’s perfect (and it’s totally worth it!)

That being said, it’s pizza time! Happy WIAW, all!

I couldn’t think of a title for this post. OR, The food’s more important than the title anyway, so here’s a post about smoothies.

We all have those snacks and meals that we keep coming back to again and again because they’re basically perfect.  My latest greatest go-to is a smoothie.  Well, all kinds of smoothies, really. They’re versatile, quick, healthy and filling.  Really, it’s a perfect snack, breakfast or light meal.

You can put pretty much anything your heart desires into a smoothie, but I have some basics that I always keep on hand–frozen bananas, frozen berries and plain Greek yogurt. (Vanilla or fruit-flavored works too, so does regular yogurt.  I’ll use whatever I have at the time, but I try to keep some plain Greek yogurt around when I can.)

Fresh fruit’s great, but it’s hard to find year-round.  Plus, frozen fruit eliminates the need to add ice to your smoothie, which streamlines the process (it’s all about efficiency, people!)  I like using frozen bananas especially, because they give an icy, creamy texture to smoothies.  I keep my freezer stocked whenever I buy bananas–inevitably, I never finish the bunch before they start to turn, so when it looks like they’re starting to go bad, I cut them up and freeze them in plastic bags. I also do this with leftover banana halves after I use them in cereal, oatmeal, etc. if I don’t want to finish them.

I’ve been so busy lately, running from work to rehearsal with little time for dinner in between.  So smoothies have become even more of a go-to for me lately. I whip one up and get some protein, carbs, fiber and vitamins all in one! Plus, it’s light enough that I can go dance and not feel weighed down.

You’d think I’d get sick of the same thing all the time, but that could only happen if I had the same thing all the time. Smoothies are so versatile, I mix it up each time. Two of my favorites: a chocolate power shake and a pb & j smoothie.

I use my bullet blender to make smoothies, which makes it even quicker! (And means less clean-up! Just one cup.)

Both of these use a base of plain Greek yogurt and frozen bananas. For the chocolate power shake, brew 6-8 oz. of strong coffee and let it cool (you can add ice to speed this along.) To the Greek yogurt and bananas, add about a tablespoon of chocolate syrup (Hershey’s and Fox’s U-bet are my favorites), a tablespoon or two of natural almond butter (I use Trader Joes’ brand) and the cooled coffee.  Blend until smooth.

You get a great mix of protein from the yogurt and the almond butter, sugar and carbs from the chocolate and caffeine from the coffee.  This is the kind of smoothie I make when I need a real pick-me-up after a long day of work or before a grueling rehearsal or workout. The almond butter-chocolate-coffee combo may sound a little weird at first, but it’s sort of like an amaretto coffee. The almond butter actually has a very light flavor and doesn’t come through very strongly through the chocolate and the coffee.

The pb & j smoothie really tastes just like peanut butter and jelly! Start again with the Greek yogurt and banana base.  Add whatever fresh or frozen berries you like–my favorite are blueberries and strawberries. Add one to two tablespoons of natural peanut butter (again, I use TJ’s. I go for salted, but unsalted would work well, too) and blend with skim milk until smooth.

Antioxidants, vitamins and protein, and it tastes like childhood! With the protein from the yogurt and peanut butter, the fiber from the fruit and a little natural fat, this smoothie can really keep you satisfied for quite a while.

The best part about making smoothies at home? It’s so quick, easy and cheap! It saves a whole lot of money over going to those smoothie shops in the mall, plus you have complete control over what you put in it. Vegan? Try silken tofu and almond or soy milk. Or just fruit–frozen bananas puree into a soft-serve like consistency. Let your mind wander!

All this writing about smoothies has really gotten me craving one now.  I think there’s a nice fruit smoothie in my future! (Sometimes just a straight yogurt, fruit, juice combo is perfect, too!) Or maybe a bit of extra nut butter protein to power me through a late rehearsal tonight. I’ll never get sick of these things.

WIAW: Memorial Day Picnic!

I’ve neglected What I Ate Wednesdays for the past couple of weeks, but now I’m back–with a recipe! Once again, thanks to Jen from Peas & Crayons for hosting!

So, obviously Monday was Memorial Day. And originally, I was hoping to have a party or a small cookout or something. But my lack of planning coupled with my friends’ work schedules meant that wasn’t going to happen this year. But I still wanted to do something fun and summery to end the long weekend. Kevin got off work at six on Monday night, so I decided to throw together a fun, light, healthy Memorial Day picnic!

I know, I’m freaking adorable. This meal was a mix of home-cooked and store-bought, which is my kind of combo. We started with homemade bruschetta and crostinis (check out my recipe for that here). Still on my pesto kick from the day before, I also whipped up a big batch of pesto pasta salad! (Recipe to follow.) It’s a great way to use fresh pesto and it lightens up an otherwise mayo-laden picnic staple. Personally, I prefer the basil-y freshness to gloppy mayonnaise.

I bought some prepared chicken leg quarters from the supermarket for an entrée, though we barely even made a dent in the chicken after all the bruschetta and pasta salad! For dessert, I bought some fresh mangoes, apricots and blueberries–so glad summer fruit is finally in season! I chopped up the mango and apricot and mixed all the fruit together with some sweetened lime juice to make a citrusy-sweet fruit salad. (Oops, was that a recipe?)

I still wanted something really dessert-y, so I baked cookies. But I cheated. I’m not much of a baker, and I don’t have a working mixer, so I was taking the easy route out on this one–I wanted a cookie mix. Well, who knew that it is shockingly hard to find a cookie (or brownie) mix without trans fats? (Be careful–the package can say 0g trans fats as long as it’s less than 1g. Check the ingredients list for partially hydrogenated oils, which equal trans fats.)

But lo and behold, in the refrigerated section, was my savior: Nestle Tollhouse Break and Bake cookies. Both the chocolate chip and the chocolate chunk are trans fat-free! Naturally, given those options, I went with the chocolate chunk. And so, we had a semi-homemade, chocolatey end to our meal.

And what’s a good picnic without some wine? So if you’re keeping track, yes, we drank wine out of sippy cups. Yes, I still own sippy cups. Note to self: buy disposable plastic cups.

A nice dry, Spanish rosé seemed like a good picnic wine. It was sufficient.

So, once everything was cooked and ready to go, we packed up our picnic and took it down to a park the next town over, overlooking the lake. Not gonna lie, it was pretty romantic. When I want to bring it, I can bring it.

But really, how can you beat a delicious (mostly) homemade dinner with views like this?

A lovely, relaxing conclusion to a lovely weekend. Then we went home and Kevin, my sister and I proceeded to finish off all two dozen cookies. Yeah, that happened.

Oh, and that recipe I promised:

As often happens with me, I didn’t measure, because I created a huge batch of this. It can obviously be adjusted to make a single portion or enough to serve a whole party. Use as much as you want to create as much as you want. Also, veggie-to-pasta ratios can be purely subjective. Do what you like.

Pesto Pasta Salad

Spiral, shell or other strong, sauce-holding pasta
Chopped red bell pepper
Chopped orange bell pepper
Chopped fresh green beans
Chopped celery
Diced tomato, seeded
1 chopped scallion, white and light green parts only
1 batch of homemade or store-bought pesto (see pesto recipe here)
Fresh mozzarella cheese
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

-Cook pasta according to package directions in lightly salted water.
-While the pasta cooks, chop and prep all veggies and make pesto sauce.
-Once cooked, drain pasta but do not rinse. Let cool in colander or large bowl until room temperature.
-When the pasta is cooled, mix all vegetables, including the scallion, into the pasta
-Dice or tear the mozzarella into the pasta salad.
-Add enough pesto to generously coat all ingredients and give a good basil flavor. Mix well and season with salt and pepper.

This healthy alternative to traditional pasta salad may just become my go-to party dish! The chopping takes some time, but the actual assembly takes no time at all–a great, quick crowd-pleaser. Even Kevin, who doesn’t like pasta salad, couldn’t stop eating this!

Well, there you have it. Happy Memorial Day and Happy What I Ate Wednesday!

Presto Pesto!

I hate myself for writing that title. Yet I can’t bring myself to delete it. Such is life…

Anyway…I’ve wanted to make my own homemade pesto for some time now. I’ve been waiting until I had access to a food processor (which I do not own), until I realized that I could probably attempt this in my bullet blender. And while the final product isn’t perfect–there are some chunks and unground nuts here and there–it’s still pretty darn good!

The other key component for homemade pesto was, obviously, basil. It’s hard to get my hands on fresh basil for some reason. They don’t sell it in regular bunches at the grocery store like they do parsley, cilantro and mint. It comes either as a big bunch with roots on the end in a package, which says to me that I’m meant to replant this. And since I have the gardening skills of a doorknob, I’ve always steered clear.

But recently I discovered a much more user-friendly version: already potted basil! Yup, I just have to take it out of the package, plop it in a larger pot or on a dish (something to catch the dirt and water) and water it from time to time. And then tada! A never-ending supply of homegrown basil.

I bought this wonderful creation yesterday, though it’s still sitting on my kitchen table because I’ve yet to transfer it to the big pot in my front yard.

Well, now that my major two pieces of this puzzle came together, it seemed like there was nothing left to do but make pesto!

This is a pretty traditional pesto, but not completely authentic. For one thing: I added parsley in with the basil to add a fresh, crisp brightness. There are also no pine nuts. (SAY WHAT?) Really. Pine nuts are expensive, and I’ve never exactly sat down with a bowl of pine nuts for a snack, so they’d really become quite a one-trick pony. So I substituted nuts I had sitting in my pantry: almonds. That’s the great thing about a sauce like pesto–you can tweak and customize to your tastes, dietary needs or pantry supplies!

Also, like this is a surprise, I didn’t measure. I grabbed things and tossed them into the blender cup. And it was tasty. It was different each time too, but that’s the beauty of experimenting. Make this to your tastes.

Basil-parsley pesto

Several large handfuls of whole, fresh basil leaves
Small bunch of fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves
Large handful of grated Parmesan cheese
1 small garlic clove, peeled but whole
Handful of slivered or whole almonds (I had slivered on hand so I used them to cut down on the chopping once in the blender)
Generous pour of extra virgin olive oil
Salt and fresh ground black pepper to taste

-Add everything to the cup of a bullet blender or jar of a regular blender. If using a food processor, add everything but the oil. Blend well, shaking and scraping down the sides as needed, until well incorporated and evenly chopped or puree to smooth, depending on personal preference.
-Add more oil as needed, or, if using a food processor, drizzle in oil and the dry ingredients mix. Continue to blend to desired consistency. Finish with salt and pepper.

*(Just a note if you’re using a bullet blender like I did–I used the flat chopping blade, not the regular blade that sticks up. I use that one to puree and make smoothies.)

I made my pesto pretty thick, almost paste-like, to be more versatile. I can add olive oil to it to thin it out for use as a sauce or keep it thick to use as a sandwich spread.

So what did I make first with my homemade pesto? Pasta pesto, of course!

Cook pasta (I had elbow macaroni on hand), mix with olive oil and pesto, top with more grated Parmesan and enjoy!

And for lunch the next day, I mixed a tablespoon or so of pesto into plain hummus to make pesto hummus! I used store-bought Sabra hummus, but this would be even better with homemade!

Yesterday, I made a bigger batch of pesto and used it to make a pesto pasta salad for my Memorial Day picnic! But more on that tomorrow…

Has anyone made their own pesto before? Do you go for the traditional recipe, or do you add your own tricks and tweaks? I’m seriously contemplating a cilantro pesto, since I have a cilantro obsession. What’s your favorite spin on pesto?

Porta Patens Esto. Nulli Claudatur Honesto. “Be the door always open. Be it not closed to any honest person.”

First off, I’d like to apologize for the lag in posting. The last couple of weeks have been utterly crazy for me; I started up working full-time again, but didn’t quit my old job, plus I’m in the rehearsal process for a show that opens in three weeks. So I’m working 6-7 days a week and going to rehearsal, which unfortunately leaves little time to cook or enjoy a nice meal out.

But Monday I had a half day at work, so Kevin and I took the opportunity–and free time–to go out for a nice, sit-down meal. He and I have this little thing we do where we try to go to a new restaurant every month. Monday was our February opportunity though, admittedly, we cheated on this one a bit. We chose to go to Porta in Asbury Park, N.J. It was brand new to him, but I had been there. Just once. And not for dinner. I just went there after work late one night with a friend and we split a pizza and a carafe of their house red wine (more on that later.) So really, I hadn’t experienced Porta to its fullest, so it was still fair.


Porta is a pizzeria by name, but it is so much more than that once you step inside its wide white doors. The building looks like a converted garage, complete with three large bay doors on one end that open up to their patio and outdoor bar (dubbed “Porta National Park”) in the warmer seasons. Inside, Porta is arranged family-style, with large picnic-style tables rather than traditional individual seats. The back wall is lined with antiqued wooden doors, and in clear view sit their wood-fired pizza ovens, imported from Italy, with the open prep and cooking space. Porta also has a large bar, complete with a great wine list and varied beer options. (“Porta” is Italian for “door,” hence the door theme.)

By night, Porta becomes a bar and nightclub complete with a DJ, live music and dancing. But by day (well, Monday evening), it had a unique, modern-classic feel, pumping standards through the sound system rather than Top 40 dance beats. It mixed sophistication with a backyard feel.

But enough of that. Really, this is about the food. And the food is no less unique than the space itself. While the menu is small by normal standards, its anything but boring. Mostly appetizers and pizza with a few pasta options, Porta keeps it simple while keeping it special.

For appetizers, we ordered two salads to share: The Winter Caprazy and the Cavolo Nero. The Winter Caprazy is exactly what it sounds like: a seasonal take on the classic Caprese salad. This one included slow roasted tomatoes, black garlic and fresh oregano.

Full disclosure: I’ve never had black garlic or fresh oregano (only dried.) I’ve been missing out. Black garlic, while it looks a bit scary, is a sweeter, richer cousin to what we know. And fresh oregano blows the dried stuff out of the water. Upon eating it, I got that distinctive bite and slight hit to the sinuses that confirmed I was indeed eating oregano, but the flavor was so much milder and fresher than its spice rack counterpart. Where has this been all my life? Needless to say, everything worked together pretty well, with the roasted tomatoes imparting a sweeter, heartier flavor than the raw version. I don’t love roasted tomatoes, but this definitely made a pretty good winter version of one of my favorite classic Italian salads.

However, I don’t think the Winter Caprazy can hold a candle in creativity next to the Cavolo Nero. Tuscan kale, shaved sunchoke and watermelon radish with garlic crostini and parmigiano reggiano in a lemon-garlic dressing. This was my first introduction to kale, and what a way to start! This definitely makes me want to eat kale more often. My only complaint about this salad would be that the toppings (sunchoke, watermelon radish, garlic croutons) were a bit too scarce. As good as the kale was, it was a bit boring without the accouterments and we left some on the plate once we finished everything else. But it was delicious. I love radishes, so this was a treat to me, especially with how beautiful shaved watermelon radishes are.

Sliced watermelon radish. Photo via SmartSeeds

I need to find some watermelon radishes and use them in everything I make. Everything. They taste great, and they’re gorgeous! (New goal.)

Moving on…

Kevin, being the pizza-lover that he is, obviously could not resist the major part of Porta’s menu: the pizza. He ordered an Italian Stallion with San Marzano tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, Gorgonzola, sweet Italian sausage and long hots. (I could insert a joke here about him being an Italian stallion, but I’ll pass for his sake.)

As much as he loves pizza, Kevin hates blue cheese, but he bit the bullet and tried it on this pizza. And he didn’t hate it. Overall, he thought the pizza tasted great, but the generous drizzle of olive oil (and probably the grease from the sausage) made it a little soggy for his liking. He boxed half up to take home and said he’ll try to crisp it up in the oven before eating the leftovers.

I was in a pasta kind of mood that night, so I went ahead and ordered off their small, but not limited pasta menu. I went a little off the beaten path with a wild boar ragu with rosemary papardelle, rosemary, sage, red wine and parmigiano reggiano. If you hadn’t told me this was wild boar, I wouldn’t have known. But I’m so glad I tried it. It’s, unsurprisingly, very similar to pork, but a bit heartier and beefier. Sort of like a delicious pork-beef hybrid all stewed up and served over pasta.

Oh right, the pasta. Between the rosemary papardelle and the rosemary in the sauce, I expected a double whammy of in-your-face rosemary. But instead, it was subtle and underlying and I had to really look for it at times. Still, I ate almost the whole thing. Hearty, warm and inviting. It almost made me forget it was nearly 60 degrees that afternoon.

Pizza; Photo via http://www.pizzaporta.com/

Not the Italian Stallion, but another one of Porta'a pizzas. Photo courtesy of Porta Pizza.

And of course, what better to complement a great meal than some house red wine? Porta has a nice Italian wine list, but the standout is their house-made red and white wines, which can be ordered by the glass or the carafe. I’ve been here twice and only ever had one wine–the house red, a Cabernet. I thought about switching it up at dinner, but I figured, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Next time I’ll have to try their house white and eventually branch out to their other wine selections.

Kevin went a more traditionally American route–pizza and beer. Porta seems like the kind of place that would have tons of local and craft beers on hand, but most of their beer list is surprisingly generic. They have a few crafts, including three varieties of Six Point. Kevin had the “Bengali Tiger,” which he said was very pine-y with a citrus finish. He equated it to Pine Sol at one point, which I assumed was a bad thing, but he seemed to enjoy it. I picked up on the pineyness but not as much on the citrus. However, the back of the can did quote William Blake’s “The Tyger.” (Plus one for Six Point.)

Porta’s minimalistic atmosphere and inspired take on locally-sourced ingredients may be far too hip and trendy for some, but I actually found it a relaxing and enjoyable Monday evening. Is Porta a bit hipster? Yes. Are the food, drinks and service worth it despite that? Absolutely. It’s nestled on an obscure little corner of Asbury Park, right between the bustling downtown and the boardwalk and offers a casual retreat that’s still leaps beyond traditional pizzeria fare. So, if you’re looking for an original, quality meal in a quaint, casual environment, head for Porta.

Porta also runs several specials throughout the week, like gluten-free pizza every Tuesday and a 4-course family dinner every Sunday night. They weekend brunch every Saturday and Sunday and, of course, the club/bar scene at night.

I’ll have to check out the nightlife sometime and see if it lives up to the weekday fare. Come summertime I’ll have to give this another go too, of course.

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