All-day Tomato Bisque

It was almost unbelievable to me, when I walked out toward our shriveled-up raised bed garden to begin breaking down the zucchini trellis and found—get this—new tomatoes!!!

It’s true that Southern summers tend to run a bit longer than some other regions, but I didn’t expect a tomato comeback, especially in the last days of September and given that our nighttime temperatures are sinking into the 40s. Mother Nature is something else though, isn’t she?


In addition to the lemon boy heirlooms (ripe and otherwise), we also had a bumper crop of a handful of Romas and though they didn’t look as pretty as the ones we enjoyed earlier in the summer, they were perfectly ripe and had a great flavor. I knew they’d be an excellent ingredient for homemade tomato bisque, which happens to be my husband’s favorite.

To be clear, you don’t literally need all day to make this bisque; I just needed something to do over the weekend, when our area was awash with the remnants of Hurricane Ian. Rather than making soup to freeze for a rainy day, I spent an entire rainy day making the soup we’d enjoy later. If you have half an hour, and don’t need to cook down fresh tomatoes, you could whip up this soup and use the simmering time to make a grilled cheese sandwich (our favorite side for this soup).

This is what a bowlful of comfort looks like.

My plan for the bisque came together in seconds: I’d blanch and shock the tomatoes for easy peeling, then chop them up and add them to my soup pot along with sauteed onions and garlic, plus a large can of Italian tomatoes (San Marzano, of course) and give the mixture a nice, long simmer to marry the flavors.


For a flavor boost, I swished out the tomato can with a few tablespoons of dry vermouth (the same spirit I put in my favorite martini) and dropped into the pot a dried bay leaf, which is always a good bet for a dish that is going in for a long simmer. Two hours later, I removed the bay leaf and brought out the immersion blender to puree the soup into the creamy texture that my hubby loves.


The resulting soup was really good, and I could taste the freshness that my surprise Romas contributed to the pot. It needed a little more depth, though, and definitely a little more color. Maybe you have noticed, as I have, that a homemade tomato soup or sauce tends to come out more orange than red, and it turns out there is a good (and scientific) reason for that, as I learned a few days ago in this article in my news feed. A little bit of tomato paste deepened the color and intensified the tomato flavor, a slight spoonful of sugar balanced the acidity, and a generous splash of cream made it bisque-y.


This was a great use of my encore tomatoes, though this easy homemade soup would be delicious with only canned tomatoes, which are usually packed at their peak of freshness. You might replace my fresh tomatoes with an extra, 15-ounce can, or simply reduce the other ingredients a bit for a smaller batch.

As for us, we are glad for a little extra, as a warm homemade soup will be most welcome at the end of today’s Yom Kippur service (that’s the Jewish holiday that has a 24-hour complete food-and-water fast), and we will undoubtedly devour our leftovers!

All-day Tomato Bisque

  • Servings: 8 cups or 6 bowls
  • Difficulty: Average
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Of course, you don't really need to spend all day making this soup, but the long simmer time makes a world of difference in flavor, especially when using fresh garden tomatoes.


Ingredients

  • 8 fresh, small plum tomatoes (or substitute a 15-ounce can of diced tomatoes)
  • 2 to 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, depending on taste
  • 1/2 large onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
  • Kosher salt and black pepper to taste
  • 28-ounce can whole, peeled tomatoes (San Marzano or another type that is packed in puree)
  • 1/4 cup dry vermouth (or dry white wine, such as pinot grigio)
  • 1 whole dried bay leaf
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • 1 tsp. sugar (optional)
  • 1/4 to 1/2 cup heavy cream (use less or substitute half and half for reduced fat)

Directions

  1. Put on a pot of water to boil for blanching the fresh tomatoes. Wash and score the bottom (blossom end) with an X for easy peeling. Carefully immerse the tomatoes into the boiling water for a minute or two, just long enough for the skins to split. Transfer immediately to a bowl of ice water, then peel and chop them.
  2. While water is boiling, heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and sprinkle with salt. Cook until softened and slightly transparent. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
  3. Add the fresh, chopped tomatoes to the pot and stir to heat through. Add the large can of tomatoes (juice and all, but remove basil sprigs) and break them up with your cooking utensil. If you wish, you can squeeze the whole tomatoes with your hands as you add them to the pot, and I would recommend this if you’re in a hurry. For long, slow simmering, the heat will break them up just fine.
  4. Add vermouth (or wine) to the tomato can and swirl it to rinse out the leavings. Add this to the soup and bring the pot to a slight boil, then cover and reduce heat. Add the bay leaf and simmer for at least 30 minutes or up to several hours. Check the soup occasionally and stir to keep it from burning on the bottom.
  5. When tomatoes break easily under pressure from your utensil, use an immersion blender to puree it as smooth as you like. Be sure to remove the bay leaf first! If you don’t have an immersion blender, allow the soup to cool and puree it in batches in a regular blender. Keep the vent cap open for safety.
  6. Stir in tomato paste and sugar (if using), and adjust salt and pepper to taste. Stir in cream just before serving.



Slow Cooker Cuban-style Pork

Between my husband and me, there is exactly zero percent Hispanic heritage—yet somehow, the foods of Hispanic cultures fall squarely into the “favorites” category for both of us, and it has been this way for all of our adult lives. For me, the passion for Hispanic flavors started much earlier, during my younger childhood when I lived with my mother in southern Colorado, where at least half the kids I went to school with were of Mexican descent. Their moms made the best food.

Les, who grew up in New York, was surrounded by the foods of seemingly every culture except Mexican, though other Hispanic flavors were obviously present in the Puerto Rican-populated areas of the city. He remembers his section of Queens, famed for being among the most multicultural in the world, was the first to create “fusion” foods, but alas, he says, he never ate at “La Casa Wong.” His first experience of addictive Spanish-influenced foods didn’t come until he spent a few young adult years in southern California, but even then, he didn’t get the full effect because those restaurants were mostly chains.

Today, thanks to our collective passion for cooking and adventurous approach to food, we are enjoying more than our fair share of all the world’s flavors, including those of cultures we have yet to visit.

Over the past few months, the 2014 movie Chef, with Jon Favreau leading a tremendous all-star cast, has been in hot rotation on our streaming service. Les and I both saw this movie in the theater when it was released (a good year before we started dating), but we still can’t resist watching it every time it appears in our program lineup. We love it, not only because it’s a compelling story of a talented chef who walks away from an unfulfilling restaurant job to start a food truck, but also for the joyful Latin music, the sweet relationship that develops through teachable moments with his adorable, mop-headed son, and the fantastic food that results from his commitment to doing food right and making it from the heart. If you haven’t seen this film, we highly recommend it.


The main food that always gets us drooling when we watch Chef is the Cuban pork, and the most authentic version would be slow roasted in the oven, as sous chef Martin prepares it in the film. But this is my version of it, done the easy way in a slow cooker. The key to exceptional flavor and texture is low-and-slow cooking and (of course) the marinade. My first taste of this mouthwatering, slow-roasted meat was in Key West, and rumor has it that was most likely the origin of the dish. But let’s not go down any rabbit holes of debate about that, because there’s cooking to be done!


Start with a pork shoulder, and for the best flavor, get one with the bone in. Trim off some of the excess fat, but don’t take it all off because there’s a world of flavor in it, and it will help protect the meat from drying out during cooking; you can easily skim it off the braising liquid later if you so choose. Rinse the shoulder to rid it of any bone shards, pat it dry with paper towels and give it a dose of salt and pepper on all sides. If your shoulder is very large, cut several slits all over the meat and insert smashed cloves of garlic into them. Mine was only three and a half pounds, so the marinade was enough to flavor it all the way through.


The marinade for this pork is called mojo, not like getting your mojo back or Mr. Mojo Risin’, but Spanish “j,” pronounced as an “h.” Try it with me: “mo-ho.”. The marinade begins with the juice of oranges and limes. For truly authentic mojo marinade, you’d use only Seville oranges, which are sour compared to typical navel oranges, but they aren’t easy to come by in the States, so a combination of navel oranges and limes is a common substitute. I kept a few of the spent orange wedges after juicing, and I’ll explain why in a moment.


You need a lot of fresh garlic for a mojo marinade. Smash the cloves first, and then peel and mince them up so the flavor permeates every pore of the pork shoulder. That’s an important thing to know about garlic; the smaller the bits, the more pungent the flavor. Cumin is traditional, and I like to use whole seeds, slightly toasted in a dry skillet and then crushed to a powder in a mortar and pestle. This fragrance on its own puts me in a state of near-euphoria. Oregano adds an herbal note, and I couldn’t decide between regular and Mexican, which is earthier with a slight note of anise, so I used half of each.


A pinch of sugar is decidedly not traditional, but we put a pinch of sugar in every damn thing here in the South. I like it for balance, but don’t go overboard. Season the mixture with salt and black pepper, of course, and whisk in a few generous glugs of extra virgin olive oil to finish the marinade. Time to cook!


Here’s where I used the spent orange pieces, along with some onion wedges; they were a bed for the pork shoulder in my slow cooker, allowing the mojo marinade full access to the meat’s surface. I poured about a third of the marinade over the shoulder, then turned it over and poured another third, reserving the last portion of marinade mixture to pour over the roast at serving time. Set the cooker on high for 45 minutes to bring it up to cruising speed, and then knock it down to low and walk away for five hours.


Low and slow makes it a winner!

Did you get that? You don’t want to cook it on high setting for five hours, or you’ll end up with tough, overcooked shoulder. The high setting is just to bring the temperature up more quickly, and then the cooking should all happen on low setting. Very important.

I had a busy afternoon, so I wrapped up my work emails, did a load of laundry and went out for a pedicure during this time, and having the freedom to tackle my to-do list reminded me how much I still love using a slow cooker on occasion. When I came home, the house already smelled amazing. I flipped the pork shoulder over for a final hour of cooking, and went about the business of making some jalapeno-simmered black beans.


I cut half of a sweet onion into crescent slivers, and diced up a fresh jalapeno from our post-summer garden, leaving most of the seeds behind. I sautéed those in olive oil, along with a touch of ground cumin, then added two cans of rinsed black beans. Salt and pepper, and a splash or two of the Cuban-style pork braising liquid and we had a perfect, if not authentic, side dish for our delectable pork.


Test doneness of the pork by inserting a fork and twisting lightly. If it shreds easily, it’s ready! We enjoyed the meat on its own that first night, and tried our best a couple of nights later to make Cubano sandwiches, just like Chef Carl Casper and his crew. The bread wasn’t quite right, but it was still pretty darn delicious. 🙂


Slow Cooker Cuban-style Pork

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: average
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My version of this Cuban classic has all the right flavors, and it was super easy to make in my slow cooker.


Ingredients

  • 4 lb. bone-in pork shoulder (sometimes called Boston Butt)
  • 2 navel oranges, wedged and juiced (reserve a few of the spent wedges)
  • Juice of 4 limes
  • About 2 Tbsp. crushed and minced garlic
  • 2 tsp. cumin seed, toasted and ground
  • 1 tsp. sugar (not authentic, but a touch helps balance the citrus)
  • 2 tsp. black pepper (mine was half smoked)
  • 1 Tbsp. dried oregano (I used half regular, half Mexican)
  • About 1/4 cup EVOO, whisked in
  • About 1 Tbsp. kosher salt
  • 1/2 large onion, cut into wedges (used as base in slow cooker)

Directions

  1. Rinse shoulder and wipe dry with paper towels. Salt and pepper both sides and let rest at room temp while you prep the marinade.
  2. Combine the citrus juices, garlic, cumin, sugar, pepper and oregano in a glass measuring cup. Whisk in olive oil and season with salt according to your taste (somewhere between 2 and 3 teaspoons is good).
  3. Place onion chunks and spent orange peels in the bottom of the slow cooker and place the shoulder on top. Pour in about 1/3 of the mojo, then turn the shoulder over and pour in another 1/3, reserving the rest for serving over the tender, shredded pork.
  4. Use the cooker’s high setting for about 45 minutes to get the heat going, then reduce to low setting and cook for 5 hours.
  5. Use tongs to turn shoulder over and continue to cook on low setting for another hour. Transfer shoulder to a glass dish and use forks to shred the meat. Stir the braising liquid and ladle some of it onto the shredded pork. Pour the reserved marinade mixture onto the pork as well. The freshness of the uncooked marinade brightens up the flavors of the tender pork.
  6. Strain the solids from the slow cooker, and keep the remaining liquid for packing the leftover meat. It will retain moisture better in the fridge this way.

Serve pork with jalapeno black beans and, if desired, white rice.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 medium onion, sliced into crescent shapes
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. ground cumin
  • 1 small jalapeno, seeded and minced
  • A few pinches kosher salt and several twists ground black pepper
  • 2 15 oz. cans black beans, drained and rinsed
  • 1/4 cup vegetable broth or Cuban-style pork braising liquid

Directions

  1. Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Toss onions and cumin until fragrant, then add jalapeno and season with salt and pepper.
  2. When onions begin to caramelize, reduce heat and add black beans. Add broth or braising liquid and cover to simmer until heated through.


Sourdough Challah Round

The Jewish High Holy Days are upon us, and that means it’s time for me to share one of my favorite breads. Regardless of your religious background or practices, you have probably heard of, seen or tasted this classic Jewish bread, which is rich with eggs, oil and honey. Challah is a mainstay of Jewish life, and is served weekly at Shabbat services and especially during holidays—or, at least, the ones in which leavened bread is allowed. Rosh Hashanah is a perfect time to enjoy this round version of challah, and there’s no doubt every last crumb will be gone before the fasting of Yom Kippur begins next Tuesday.

The great thing about challah, besides the fact that it is a sweet, soft and tasty bread, is that you don’t have to be Jewish to enjoy it or to make it (I’m proof of both points). From the time I became seriously involved with my husband, Les, I have been very interested in learning the foods of his Jewish heritage, and challah has become a favorite in our rotation. My sourdough version is a bit sturdier than a yeasted loaf, thanks to the higher protein bread flour that ensures a good oven rise. But the texture is still airy and it makes excellent toast, French toast and bread pudding.

There are two main challenges I’ve faced in making sourdough challah, but both can be resolved with time and practice. The first is the challenge of getting this dough to rise; any bread dough with a high volume of sugar (or honey, in this case) struggles against the yeast action, and challah is even more so because it contains so much heavy oil. The best way to win this battle is simply to give it more time. From start to finish, this bread takes almost a full day, but most of that time is spent just waiting—for the pre-ferment to be ready, for the dough to double in size (which it hardly ever does), and for it to rise for baking. Make it on a day that you have lots of other things going on at home so you aren’t tempted to stand and watch it, which I have learned the hard way doesn’t make it happen any faster.

The second challenge with making challah (sourdough or otherwise) is creating the beautiful, braided shapes. This is not nearly as complicated as you might think, and I’ll share my own technique for doing this, whether you want to try making a basket-weave round (as in the featured photo) or a simpler straight braid, which is no more difficult than braiding a kid’s hair. For Rosh Hashanah, I like to make challah in a round, as its shape is a symbol for coming full circle into a new spiritual year.

For extra flair and flavor, I use orange- or lemon-infused olive oil in my dough because I love the aroma of the challah in the oven and the intoxicating citrus scent in the finished loaf. Extra virgin olive oil does impart a slightly stronger flavor to the challah, but I find it delicious. Also, I frequently add dried fruit to the dough as it is rolled up for braiding, but the photos I’ll share are mainly without it. If you do choose to add dried fruit, such as raisins or cranberries, don’t concern yourself with rehydrating it first; it bakes up beautifully straight from the package, and for your effort, you’ll be rewarded with beautifully studded slices. Did I mention that it is amazing in French toast? 🙂

This is an old photo of a loaf I made before our kitchen remodel last year. The braids are stuffed with dried cranberries and oranges.

This bread requires a ripe sourdough starter, an intermediate overnight feeding, about 3 hours to ferment on baking day, and up to 5 hours for final rise after shaping, so plan accordingly. Don’t let this lengthy process alarm you; if you make the starter the night before, you only need about an hour of hands-on time for making the dough and about half an hour to shape it for proofing. As I said, there’s a lot of waiting. All my measurements are metric, so please depend on a digital scale for getting your ingredients right.

You’ll begin the night before you plan to bake, with creation of a firm starter, which is essentially an in-between feeding that bridges the basic wet starter and the final dough. This type of starter, also called “levain,” uses less water than a wet starter, and it concentrates the rising power of the culture in your final dough. Begin with a slight amount of ripe wet starter, stirring in water to make a slurry and then flour and mixing it together until no dry flour remains. The firm starter must ferment several hours, so it’s easiest to do this the night before and leave the bowl covered at room temperature, then bake the next day. If you wish, you can make the firm starter farther ahead and then refrigerate it for up to one day.


The next morning, measure out your flour and get all the other ingredients lined up, including your firm starter, which should be cut into pieces for easy introduction to the final dough. Most of the moisture in this dough comes from oil and eggs, so there is very little water to measure for the final dough. In this picture, my honey is stirred together with the small amount of water, but I usually measure the oil first and then measure the honey in the same cup—it slides right out without sticking. You’ll have an easier time mixing the eggs into the dough if they are closer to room temperature, so give them a few extra minutes on the counter before you begin.

Challah ingredients, clockwise from the top: honey and water, salt (I like to use mineral-rich pink salt), whole large eggs, flour (I use a blend of high-protein bread flour and white whole wheat) and olive oil (mine is blood orange-infused extra virgin).

In the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a really large mixing bowl, if you don’t mind mixing by hand), combine the eggs, oil, honey and water and whisk until even. Add the flour all at once. Mix until all flour is completely incorporated, about two minutes in a mixer. Sprinkle the salt over the dough, cover the bowl and let it rest for about 30 minutes. This gives the flour time to absorb the moisture, and kneading is easier at that point.


After the rest time, the salt will have begun to dissolve. Knead on medium speed to fully incorporate the salt, which should take 3 to 4 minutes. Transfer the dough to the counter or kneading board and press several pieces of the firm starter all over it. Fold the dough into thirds (like a letter) and press in the remaining pieces of firm starter. Move the dough back into the mixing bowl and knead on medium speed for 6 minutes, long enough to evenly blend the firm starter into the dough and also to get the gluten development going. Transfer the dough to a large bowl, cover and let rest at room temperature for at least 3 hours to ferment.


When the dough has fermented (you’ll know because it won’t spring back from a good finger poke), turn it out onto the counter and divide it into halves. This recipe makes two loaves; return one half of the dough to the bowl while you shape the first. Depending on how adventurous you want to be with braiding, divide the first dough section into either 3 or 4 equal-sized pieces. A 3-strand challah is made the easy way, as you would braid a child’s hair. To make the basket-weave round challah, you need 4 pieces.


Stretch each section of dough out into an imperfect rectangle shape, and then use a rolling pin to roll it into a long, oval shape. The dough will be very thin on the counter, and that’s good. Use spray oil to keep it from sticking, or dust the counter with a very light amount of flour. Roll up the oval into a long rope shape, keeping it tight as you roll and pinching the seam to secure it. Roll it out firmly to stretch the rope into an 18″ length, with the ends somewhat tapered from the fuller, center part of the rope. Repeat with the other three pieces and arrange them in a tic-tac-toe shape, with the centers fairly close together (but not tight) and long strands extended in all four directions. Notice the over-under pattern, as this is the important starting position for braiding a round.


One important thing to note is that you do not want the dough strands to be too tightly crossed, either at the start or after braiding. You should be able to wiggle a finger between strands after braiding, and this is important because the dough needs room to expand during proofing; otherwise, it will expand into one large blob and you’ll lose the beautiful pattern.

Shaping the dough is probably best learned through pictures, but I’ll try to describe it here. Take any long strand that is under the piece that crosses it, and sweep it over the piece parallel to it so that its new position is parallel to the cross piece. Repeat with the other four strands. Next, reverse direction but do the same thing, taking the underneath pieces and cross over to make them parallel to the piece next door. Repeat with the other four. Continue this pattern of reverse-crossing until the strands are too small to cross over. At that point, twist and pinch together the ends you would otherwise cross so that the dough doesn’t unravel. Tuck the twisted ends underneath and transfer the bread to a parchment-lined baking sheet.


Repeat with the second batch of dough and lightly spray or brush the loaves with olive oil and secure a couple of layers of plastic wrap over them. Keep the plastic somewhat loose, allowing room for rising, but not so much that air can dry out your loaves.

Proof the loaves at warm room temperature for up to 5 hours, until they have at least doubled in size. They will be quite “poofy” when they are ready. Preheat the oven, brush all over with egg wash (get into every nook and cranny) and bake until they are deep golden brown all over, with internal temperature at 200° F.


Transfer to cooling racks and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.

Sourdough Challah Round

  • Servings: 2 medium round loaves
  • Difficulty: Advanced
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The braiding technique is the easiest thing about these loaves, which are enriched with eggs, citrus-scented olive oil and sweet honey. The recipe takes time, but the reward is as sweet as my wish for you in the Jewish New Year.


Ingredients

  • 35g recently fed sourdough starter
  • 80g room temperature water
  • 130g bread flour

Mix the firm starter ingredients together, cover and let stand at room temperature overnight. Or, refrigerate after 8 hours fermentation and remove from fridge one hour before proceeding.

Ingredients

  • 65g warm water
  • 65g honey
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • 55g olive oil
  • 300g bread flour
  • 100g white whole wheat flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp. fine sea salt
  • all of the firm starter (above)
  • 1 large egg, mixed with a tablespoon of water (for egg wash)

Directions

  1. In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the water, honey, eggs and oil. Whisk together until fully blended. Add flour ingredients and mix with the dough hook until all flour is incorporated.
  2. Remove dough from hook, sprinkle with salt and cover. Rest the dough for about 30 minutes, as this will make kneading easier. Rinse all dough bits from the hook so it’s ready for the next kneading step.
  3. Turn the fermented firm starter out onto a floured countertop. Use a bench scraper to cut the dough into several pieces, toss them in the flour to coat, and then cover with plastic wrap or a clean towel to keep it from drying out.
  4. After resting, the salt on top of the dough will have dissolved a bit. Knead with the dough hook for a few minutes to fully incorporate the salt, then transfer the dough to a lightly floured countertop.
  5. Spread the challah dough out to enlarge it, and then press several pieces of the firm starter into it. Fold it up in thirds, like a letter, and press the remaining pieces of firm starter into it. Return the dough to the mixing bowl and knead with the dough hook for several minutes. You should not see any streaks of starter, and the dough should be dense, smooth and shiny. Transfer it to a large, oiled bowl and cover. Let it ferment at room temperature for about 3 hours. It likely will not double in size, but it will expand somewhat.
  6. Turn the dough out onto a clean counter and use a bench scraper to divide it in half. Return one half to the bowl and cover to prevent drying while you shape the first loaf.
  7. Cut the first dough portion into equal parts for braiding, either 3 or 4 pieces. Flatten into rough rectangle/oval shapes and roll up tightly into ropes, pinching to seal the edges. Roll out with the flat part of your palms to stretch the ropes to 18″, with ends that are tapered a bit.
  8. 8, Arrange the dough ropes for braiding, following visual instructions in this post. Place braided loaves on parchment-lined baking sheets and cover with lightly oiled plastic wrap. Proofing time will be anywhere from 3 to 5 hours, depending on the temperature of your kitchen, humidity and moon cycle. Just kidding on that last one, but honestly, the time needed for proof can vary broadly, so my best advice is to begin checking after 3 hours. Dough will double or nearly triple in size, and it is ready to egg wash and bake when it refuses to bounce back after a finger poke.
  9. Preheat oven to 350° F. Gently brush egg wash all over every visible surface of the challah loaves. Bake for approximately 35 minutes, until bread is deep golden brown all over. Internal temperature should be about 200° F. Transfer to a cooling rack and cool completely before slicing or wrapping.


From the CDJ archive, here’s another way you can achieve a “round” challah, if you aren’t feeling the love for the basket-weave design. Divide your dough for one of the loaves into three equal segments and braid them like a hair braid, and then curl it around, tucking and pinching to seal the ends together. It’s more of a wreath than a round, but still has the circle symbolism. This was an experimental sourdough pumpkin challah, filled with Trader Joe’s “golden berry blend” dried fruit, and it was nothing short of fabulous. 🙂



Brie & Mushroom-stuffed Meatloaf

To say that I’m excited for fall is a bit of an understatement. After stiflingly humid North Carolina summers, I am always eager for the relief that comes in mid-September. I can finally open the windows each morning to let the cool, fresh air permeate our space (at least until afternoon, when the temps rise back into the 90s), and my soul starts longing for all the culinary comforts of the fall and winter seasons—warm herbal teas in the evening, soups and stews that nourish us from the inside out, and the return of what I like to call the Sunday Supper.

This meatloaf is one of my very favorites, though calling it a meatloaf may not do justice to the elegance of the meal, especially if you go the extra mile to make the French Onion Gravy recipe that accompanies it on my plate.

No mashed potatoes necessary.

My first inspiration for this recipe came many years ago when I spotted a wedge of creamy, mushroom-studded brie in the specialty cheese section at Trader Joe’s. It was begging to be part of something special and so I incorporated it into my usual, plain-Jane turkey meatloaf and I never looked back. I have since seen the cheese branded by other companies as well, and I actually bought this one from another supermarket. If you cannot find brie with mushrooms, substitute any other brie, and preferably one that is sold in large wedges, as it is easier to slice evenly for the rollup.


There will be plenty of mushroom in the mix anyway, as I slice and brown nearly a whole package of “baby bellas” to layer with the brie. Oh, and sauteed mushrooms and onions also get chopped and blended right into the meat mixture as well. Yes, this is definitely a mushroom-lover’s meatloaf!


I like using a combination of ground turkey (93% lean) and ground turkey breast (99% lean) for this, because the turkey breast on its own tends to go dry during baking, and the other on its own is almost too soft to shape properly. I suppose this meatloaf could also be made with lean ground beef, but I love it with ground turkey, which has a lighter flavor and leaner calorie load—though I’m sure the brie filling that oozes out into every bite probably cancels out that second part.


To give this meatloaf a hint of Thanksgiving (we are already counting down at our house), I have used dry stuffing mix (which I crushed into crumbs) in the panade, and it forms a glue to hold it all together. Feel free to substitute your favorite bread crumbs. Use less milk for this one than you normally would in a panade, because the turkey meat mixture is fairly loose and it benefits from the sturdier, almost crumbly panade.

The richness of the brie demands a little balance as well, so don’t omit the fresh parsley. Putting this meatloaf together is not as complicated as it might seem. At the end of the post is a click-to-print recipe, but I’ll walk you through it so you can see how easy it really is.


Parchment paper is my best friend for the task of shaping the meatloaf, but waxed paper would work in a pinch. Take your time, be sure the long edge and ends are sealed, and bake it on a cookie sheet rather than in a pan, for a beautiful crust. Give it 45 minutes at 400° F, and let it rest for at least 10 minutes before slicing.


Look at that gorgeous crust!

As for the gravy, well, I probably had you at “French onion.” It’s simple enough to make, but it does call for a special ingredient in the Herbes de Provence, which is a blend of herbs well known in the south of France. If you don’t have or can’t find it, substitute a blend of thyme, rosemary, marjoram and lemon peel. It won’t be quite the same, but these flavors will help to highlight and complement the onions. Use sweet or yellow onions and your choice of chicken or vegetable broth.


Serve the meal by ladling a portion of gravy directly onto the plate, and top with thick slices of the brie and mushroom-stuffed meatloaf. This entree does not need mashed potatoes, but if you crave them, may I suggest my hubby’s fantastic Garlic Mashed? You won’t regret it. 🙂

Brie & Mushroom-stuffed Meatloaf

  • Servings: About 8 slices
  • Difficulty: intermediate
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Don't let the fancy swirl pattern in these meatloaf slices intimidate you! With a little patience and a sheet of parchment paper, you can make this delicious turkey meatloaf that literally oozes with comfort!


Ingredients

  • 3/4 cup dry herb stuffing mix (such as Pepperidge Farm), crushed into small crumbs
  • 1/2 cup milk
  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided (note directions for when to use)
  • 1/2 sweet onion, minced
  • 12 oz. carton cremini mushrooms, divided
  • 1 lb. ground turkey (93% lean)
  • 1/2 lb. ground turkey breast (99% lean)
  • 1 large egg
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Small handful chopped, fresh parsley
  • 6 oz. brie (with mushrooms, if possible)

Directions

  1. Make a panade, combining the dry stuffing mix with milk. You should have just barely enough milk to cover the stuffing mix. Let this rest while you prepare the rest of the meatloaf mixture.
  2. Clean and trim all the mushrooms and divide them, chopping enough into small pieces to measure about 1/2 cup. Slice the remaining mushrooms into thin slices and set aside.
  3. Place a non-stick skillet over medium heat with a tablespoon of olive oil. Sauté the minced onion until translucent. Season with Herbs de Provence, salt and pepper. Add the chopped mushrooms and sauté together until the mushrooms are soft and most of their moisture has evaporated. Cool this mixture and then process (or chop) into smaller bits.
  4. Add another tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet and brown half of the sliced mushrooms until they are golden on both sides. Repeat with the remaining oil and mushrooms. Don’t be tempted to cook the mushrooms all at once, unless your pan is very large. If they are crowded in the pan, they will cook by steaming rather than browning, and you’ll lose the texture of the mushrooms. Transfer the browned mushroom slices into a bowl to cool.
  5. In a large mixing bowl, combine the ground turkey (both), egg, panade, mushroom-onion mixture and parsley. Toss in a generous pinch of salt and a few twists of black pepper. Use your hands to evenly combine these ingredients until they are uniform, but try not to overwork the mixture.
  6. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Transfer the meatloaf mixture onto the parchment, using oiled hands to pat it into a rectangle about 9 by 12 inches, and about 3/4-inch thick. Layer the browned mushrooms evenly over the surface, leaving a 1-inch border around all edges. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate about 30 minutes to firm up. Use this time to preheat the oven to 400° F and to prepare the French onion gravy.
  7. Slice the brie cheese wedge into uniform thickness pieces, about 1/4-inch thick. Arrange the slices in a single layer all over the chilled meatloaf, keeping a 1-inch border along both sides, and at least 2 inches from the far, short end. This will help prevent the brie from melting out of the meatloaf during baking.
  8. Use the parchment paper to assist rolling the meatloaf, beginning with the short end near you. Bend the brie, if needed, so that it will roll easier. Keep the roll snug as you go, and pinch to seal all edges, finishing with the end seal on top of the roll. Sprinkle the surface of the meatloaf lightly with kosher salt and bake for 45 minutes, until the meatloaf is browned with a slight crust all over; internal temperature will be about 160° F. Remove it from the oven and allow it to rest about 10 minutes before slicing. The residual heat will continue to cook the meatloaf during this time.
  9. Serve with French Onion Pan Gravy.


French Onion Pan Gravy

  • Servings: 3 cups
  • Difficulty: average
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Ingredients

  • 1 large sweet onion, thinly sliced into crescent shapes
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 tsp. Herbs de Provence seasoning
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 Tbsp. butter
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp. dry vermouth (or dry white wine)
  • 3 1/2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth
  • 1 tsp. bouillon paste (optional, for richer flavor)

Directions

  1. Heat a large skillet or shallow sauce pot over medium heat. Swirl in olive oil and saute the onion crescents until translucent. Season with Herbs de Provence, salt and pepper and continue cooking until onions begin to caramelize.
  2. Sprinkle flour over the onions and add the butter, stirring to melt the butter and evenly coat the onions in roux. Cook until the onions no longer appear dry from the flour, about 5 minutes.
  3. Add dry vermouth to the skillet and stir to deglaze any browned bits. The liquid will probably dissipate rather quickly. Add broth, about half at a time, stirring to distribute evenly. When sauce begins to bubble and thicken, reduce heat to low and cover the skillet. Let it simmer while meatloaf is in the oven.
  4. Just before serving, taste and adjust seasonings. For additional richness, swirl in a heaping teaspoon of bouillon paste.
  5. Plate a ladle-ful of gravy, and top it with slices of the brie and mushroom-stuffed meatloaf.



Mexican Street Corn Guacamole

I guess you could say that I have been on a “Kenji kick” lately, channeling my secret inner scientist and learning so much about food that I can hardly keep up. If you’ve been following my posts, you know how inspired I am by J. Kenji López-Alt, the chef who pushes all the boundaries of science and food, and today, I present another example of new tricks I’m learning from Kenji.


I have attached the name “street corn” to this recipe, though it is technically missing a few of the signature street corn ingredients (specifically, mayonnaise and chile sprinkles). But the mouthwatering combination of flavors it does have—lime, cilantro, grilled corn and cotija cheese—gives me such an impression of street corn that I couldn’t help myself.


Besides, I felt an obligation to change the name because I couldn’t quite make the recipe (which comes from the pages of NY Times Cooking) as directed by its author, and that’s because I don’t have the proper tools of a Mexican cocina. Nope, this gringa relies mostly on her countertop electrics for heavy chopping, dicing, mincing and pureeing, and that works fine most of the time. But when it comes to making salsa or guacamole, the better and more authentic method would involve a molcajete, a huge, primitive looking mortar and pestle carved from a chunk of volcanic rock.

The rough interior of a molcajete (pronounced mowl-kuh-HAY-tay) makes the flavors more intense, because as you grind solid ingredients into it, you crush rather than chop, and that releases the essence of seed spices, herbs and onions in a way that modern appliances simply can’t compete. For this recipe, even though I recently spent several hundred dollars on a made-in-France food processor that basically requires a college course to use, I set out instead to find a molcajete, a culinary tool that you have probably seen in Mexican restaurants.

Originally, my plan was to share this scrumptious guacamole recipe in observance of Hispanic Heritage Month, but my research about molcajetes led me to realize that the tool really is primitive, and it is considered “pre-Hispanic” because it was created and used by the Aztecs, long before Spain began to influence the cultures that we recognize today as Hispanic—including Mexico, where most molcajetes are still made to ancient standards.


My first stop for one of these nifty devices was Amazon, but after scrolling through three pages of “authentic” molcajetes, I wasn’t convinced that they weren’t made in China, and possibly of concrete. Next stop, Williams-Sonoma, because who knows more about authentic Mexican cooking, right? OK, maybe not, though they did have some impressive-looking molcajetes, and (not surprisingly) at really impressive prices.

Finally, I wised up and headed across town to the Mexican supermarket. Les and I love visiting this interesting store, where we find all the spices, dried peppers and other Mexican ingredients we could ever want. They have the largest bin of fresh jalapenos I have ever seen (perfect for Les’s Atomic Buffalo Turds recipe), as well as a few ingredients I can’t pronounce and wouldn’t begin to know how to use (yet). English is not the first language for the workers in this market, nor for most of its customers, and I’m good with that because every visit feels like an adventure.


This is the same store where I found my cast iron press for making handmade corn tortillas, and I knew we would find a traditional molcajete as well—and there it was, conveniently nestled among all sorts other gadgets, right next to the carousel rack of shampoo and rubbing alcohol, of course. As I said, it is an interesting store (remind me to tell you sometime where to find the mayonnaise)!

What I had not realized at the time of my molcajete purchase was the curing, or “seasoning,” that is required. The pores are huge in the volcanic rock, and a great deal of dust and grit is encased in there. First, you must scrub the inside and outside with hot water (no soap) and a stiff-bristled brush to release the surface grit and grime, and tip it sideways to air dry. Then you grind raw, whole rice into the thing, which draws out additional gray, powdery grit.

You rinse and repeat as many times as it takes, until the rice comes out clean. At that point, you’re ready—unless you follow some experts’ instructions to also season the food-touching surfaces with salt and garlic. OK, all of that sounded time consuming, but easy enough!

Or, maybe not.


A mere 20 minutes into this process, I had to give up because I already had a blister from gripping the rough surface of the pestle so tightly. Les took a crack at it, too, and we soon realized this was not going to happen in time for us to make Kenji’s gorgeous guacamole, and that’s where the chef’s scientific expertise came to the rescue. As with most of his recipes, Kenji offered a workaround for crushing the ingredients with coarse salt, and it was so simple, we could do it with nothing more than a bowl, a cutting board and a good knife. Here goes!


Salting the white onions, jalapeno and cilantro for 15 minutes breaks down the cell walls and makes it easier to extract the flavors than if you started chopping it straightaway. Next, you mince that mixture finely, and then lay the blade of your knife nearly flat against the cutting board, dragging the mixture to a paste-like consistency. Transfer it to a bowl and carry on with the recipe.


We grilled our corn ahead of time and stripped off the kernels, but I imagine in a pinch you could even use (thawed) frozen fire-roasted corn, like the kind we frequently buy at Trader Joe’s. Squeeze lime juice over the avocados to preserve their color, and use a box grater to shred the cotija cheese into coarse crumbles. Blend it all together, mashing the avocado with the back of a fork or potato masher, and reserve some of the corn and cotija for topping your beautiful creation.


Friends, this guacamole was so freaking delicious, the two of us devoured the entire bowlful in less than half an hour!


You can make the guac as spicy as you want it to be by adjusting the jalapeno, or simply by leaving in some of the seeds. Choose the most ripe, ready avocados you can find and, if you don’t have a molcajete, take advantage of the workaround that Kenji shared because it really does make a difference. I readily admit that up to this point, Les and I had merely cut up our guacamole ingredients, but we look forward to applying this fabulously simple technique the next time we make the Smoky Chipotle Guacamole that Les has made famous at our house. And, of course, we will continue to grind away at the molcajete—hopefully, it will be properly seasoned in time for Super Bowl!

Mexican Street Corn Guacamole

  • Servings: About 2 cups
  • Difficulty: Average
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Even without the proper, authentic tools, I found this Kenji-inspired appetizer very manageable and absolutely delicious! Save yourself some time by grilling an extra ear of corn a day or two ahead, and use avocados that are at peak ripeness!


Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup white onion, rough-chopped
  • 1 jalapeno, seeded and rough-chopped
  • 1 cup loosely packed cilantro leaves and tender stems
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt or coarse sea salt
  • 1 ear grilled corn, cooled
  • 2 average size, ripe avocados
  • Juice of 1/2 large lime
  • 2 oz. cotija cheese, shredded on large holes of box grater
  • Additional salt, pepper and lime to taste
  • Tortilla chips for serving

Directions

  1. Combine onions, jalapeno and cilantro in a medium bowl and toss it with the kosher salt. Allow it to rest 15 minutes, to draw out moisture. Finely chop these ingredients together, then lay a chef’s knife nearly flat and drag them across the cutting board to create a mixture similar to paste. Some bits will remain, and that’s OK. Transfer the mixture to a bowl that’s large enough for mixing your guacamole. During the rest time, prep the corn and cotija.
  2. Trim the fat end of the ear of corn, and stand it up on your cutting board to cut down the cob, releasing the kernels. Break apart any large clumps.
  3. Wash the avocados, then cut them in half and discard the pits. Score the flesh into cubes and spoon it out into the bowl with the onion mixture. Squeeze the lime all over the avocado and toss lightly. Use a potato masher or the back of a fork to gently mash the avocado flesh to your desired texture.
  4. Add most of the corn and cotija to the guacamole bowl and fold or mash to combine. Adjust salt, pepper and lime to taste. Transfer guacamole to a serving bowl and sprinkle remaining corn and cotija on as a garnish.
  5. Serve immediately with tortilla chips and watch it disappear!



My Love-Hate Relationship with Trader Joe’s

Truth be told, I have wanted to write about this subject for some time, and my visit to Trader Joe’s last week has pushed me over the edge. For anyone who has never had a chance to visit this unusual store, with its extraordinary selection of unexpected products and ingredients, you may want to take my ranting with a grain of salt. It’s worth visiting, without a doubt, so don’t let me scare you away. But my husband, Les, and I ride our dedication to TJ’s like a seesaw—we are either raving about their products to everyone who will listen, or flat-out cursing them over some repeated offense—and I have been curious to know if other shoppers have experienced the same.

Make no mistake, there is plenty I appreciate about Trader Joe’s, where the employees wear Hawaiian print shirts and they all seem to be in a perpetual state of excited happiness. Many of the workers at our local store have been there since the doors first opened, so I expect it may be a terrific place to work.

The now-national chain began with a single California store in 1967, and a mission to bring interesting products to culture-savvy shoppers who enjoy exploring the flavors of the world (in other words, me). And for that, they have been pretty darn successful. Because of Trader Joe’s, I learned about zhoug, Calabrian chile paste, za’atar seasoning and nduja. Shopping there is fun, and the stores are small, so it doesn’t take all day to find something inspiring. They don’t mess around with sales or membership cards or loyalty programs or whatever other gimmicks irritate you at other stores. The price is the price, and it’s almost always a good one.

This is not a commercial for them, just an honest personal assessment, but I have more to say—a lot more. I’ll begin with the positive, in no particular order.

Their commitment to products without “HFCS” and “GMO” ingredients

This is a big one for me. Since I first began to learn about the sketchy origin of high-fructose corn syrup, I had spent at least an extra half hour on every grocery store visit, to ensure I had enough time to do proper vetting against this ingredient. Then, Trader Joe’s opened in my city. I don’t have to scan the labels anymore, because of their promise to reject products containing HFCS. The same goes with genetically modified organisms (GMO). Less time reading labels means more time to focus on being inspired toward new recipes.

Good alternatives to big-name items, usually at much better prices

This speaks mostly for itself, but I’ll offer a few of my favorite examples: I love plain kefir as a base for my healthy breakfast fruit smoothies, and the Trader Joe’s brand is significantly less expensive than the Lifeway brand that is available at other markets. Same with their butter, which has short, fat sticks rather than the usual long, skinny ones. They fit better in my butter dish and the packages even fit better in the fridge door. Their organic natural peanut butter has been my go-to for a decade. We use a lot of canola oil at our house, especially for baking or high heat recipes, and the bottle at TJ’s is not only a more convenient shape and size at a better price, it gets bonus points for being expeller-pressed.

The best selection ANYWHERE of dried fruits and nuts

Endless options for granola, right here!

I mean, an entire aisle length of every kind you can imagine and then a bunch more that you didn’t. They have dried sweet cherries and dried Montmorency tart cherries. Raisins and golden raisins and jumbo raisins. Raisins mixed with dried cherries, blueberries and cranberries (this is the “Golden Berry” blend that my hubby enjoys on his morning cereal). Dried figs and apricots and bananas—you get the idea. Same with nuts, and not only every variety imaginable, but also options for roasted or raw, salted and unsalted, even 50% salted! Whole nuts or halves and pieces. Don’t even get me started on the imaginative flavor combinations they put on the nuts, like the spicy Thai, Lime and Chili cashews, Everything But the Bagel mixed nuts, or the brand new Crunchy Chili Onion peanuts (I just bought a bag this week—I’ll let you know).

Helpful, knowledgeable employees who make thoughtful recommendations

Unlike so many other stores I frequent, Trader Joe’s trains their employees to be ready for customer requests, and nine times out of 10, they lead me directly to the item I need (if they have it). I was buying ingredients one day to make my Copycat Chicken Lettuce Wraps, and I couldn’t find canned water chestnuts. Turns out, Trader Joe’s doesn’t carry them. But when an employee noticed me searching and offered to help, she proposed an alternative in fresh, cut-up jicama sticks. “Would this give you the texture you’re looking for, without adding an off flavor?” And they did!

TJ’s is the store for anyone throwing a wine and cheese party.

Their wine selection is vast—an amazing feat, considering their small footprint—and they are big supporters of smaller, independent wineries, with a broad range of private label offerings. You will find your favorite varietals at several price points, from their famous “Two-Buck Chuck”—the house brand** that sold for $1.99 a bottle back in the day but is now up to $4.49, still a phenomenal bargain—all the way up to a Caymus Cabernet that I spotted last week for $75. The wines are well-organized, and labeled with descriptions that don’t sound snobbish, making it a great place to discover wines you didn’t know about, like Vinho Verde from Spain, or an Italian Montepulciano. I especially appreciate that they carry a Kosher for Passover chardonnay, unoaked, and it’s pretty good!

**UPDATE: On September 13, 2022, the creator of “Two-Buck Chuck,” Fred Franzia, has passed away.

Say “cheese!”


Need some cheese to go with that wine? Scoot on down the row to the specialty cheese case where you’ll find a few standards, such as the Unexpected Cheddar that is immensely popular at our house, with its sharp, salty flavor that hints at Parmesan. And depending on your timing, you’re guaranteed to find a nice “seasonal” cheese, like the cinnamon-dusted Toscana that I picked up on my recent visit.

Speaking of seasonal, count of Trader Joe’s to bring home the flavors

Without a doubt, TJ’s has nailed this. Their stores don’t have enough space to carry all the things, all the time. Their solution for keeping things interesting is seasonal swapping. For better or worse, we are about to enter “pumpkin spice” season at TJ’s which, for me, marks the official start of autumn.

Hi, Pumpkin!

I personally can’t wait to see the big crate full of fantasy pumpkins on the sidewalk, and I’ll buy a few to dress up our front steps. A big display case will be set up near the front of the store, packed on every side with all things pumpkin spice, including a few things that probably have no business carrying those flavors. It can be a little overwhelming for those who like a taste of pumpkin spice—TJ’s has it for their coffee cup, breakfast waffles, ravioli, hummus, dog biscuits, scented candles and even body butter—and downright annoying for customers who would prefer to just carve a jack-o-lantern and call it fall. Nonetheless, moving products through with the seasons helps Trader Joe’s give the people what they want right now, and they are darn good at it.

Maybe a little too good?

This notion of “seasonal” brings me around to discussing the dark side of Trader Joe’s—the grievances that leave me frustrated, annoyed or downright furious.

Lame excuses for not having the products you have come to love

Oh, if I had a nickel for every time I’ve made a trip to TJ’s for something I’ve gotten excited about only to find it gone. If you dare to ask for something that is even one minute expired from their scheduled inventory, you can bet your pumpkin spice one of their uber-cheerful employees will inform you that the item was—wait for it— “seasonal.” This is their first, go-to answer. It’s so aggravating, and sometimes, it seems like an easy excuse. This idea of retiring products makes sense to a point. I don’t expect Trader Joe’s to have pumpkin spice baton cookies in April, but what about when I’m trying to find the brand-new Crunchy Jalapeno Lime and Onion condiment that was literally in the Fearless Flyer ad I picked up on my previous-week visit?

Headliner today, gone tomorrow.

I walked through every aisle without luck and was eventually told, “Oh, we sold out last week and it’s gone for the season!” Well, damn. Maybe next year—or maybe not, depending on how well the product performed in sales.

I’m still aching from the disappearance of the honey-pale ale mustard I loved. At first, they told me that was seasonal, but I learned the next year it was permanently discontinued because it wasn’t a good seller. This made more sense because, let’s be honest, mustard isn’t seasonal. So, what about the mayonnaise we (and millions of other customers) loved?

When the “seasonal” claim holds not a shred of truth, and when the product was undeniably popular, that’s when you can expect the other pat answer: they’re having a problem with that supplier. That’s what they told us when we couldn’t find our favorite expeller pressed canola oil mayo. That stuff was like oxygen for our sandwich-loving selves, and we were downright panicked when it vanished. The company line was that the “canola oil had gotten too expensive” for them to continue selling the mayo. Funny thing, though—they still carry the aforementioned canola oil that I love, and its price hasn’t changed. There’s a clinical term for this type of response, and I’m pretty sure it’s “gaslighting.”

Fresh items turn south way too quickly

OK, fellow serious home cooks, how frustrating is it—on a 1 to 10 scale—to plan a menu, shop the day before, and discover upon setup for the meal that one of your key ingredients has already begun to spoil? Trader Joe’s has a fantastic return policy, and I have never had a problem with them refunding or replacing anything. But their fresh meats and produce have a very short life, and it isn’t at all convenient to haul myself back across town with a stinky chicken or moldy bell pepper when I need to have dinner on the table in the next hour. Depending on how busy I am the next day, I may or may not be able to do it then, either. I’ve mostly stopped purchasing fresh meat there, which is a shame because they have a good selection. The rule of thumb at our house is, “don’t buy it unless the oven is already pre-heated at home.”

All that plastic wrapping on the vegetables

Why? Just why do all the vegetables have to be bagged in plastic? I don’t want to imagine the environmental impact of this, and though some of their produce items do need to be contained—the yummy salad kits, for example—other items, like bunches of fresh scallions or whole heads of cauliflower, don’t. My hunch is that they don’t have the proper prep spaces to handle the produce differently, but all that plastic troubles me. Another thing that’s interesting about their produce is that nothing is priced by weight, which is a big plus for keeping the checkout lines moving faster, but it does mean you can spend extra time digging for the largest delicata squash to be sure you get your money’s worth on items priced by the piece. I’m speaking hypothetically, of course—delicata squash is seasonal and hasn’t hit the stores yet. (insert smirk emoji)

All that delicious bread comes in frozen

The selection of bread is great, but it all comes in frozen and the moisture that collects inside the bags increases the likelihood of mold. This has not been a problem for me personally in recent years—I have bought nary a loaf anywhere since I started baking with sourdough—but if you want one of those beautiful ciabattas, buy it on the morning of the day you plan to use it. Even the tortillas are affected by the freezing; it isn’t unusual to find them stuck together in the package after something went awry with the thawing. Not much fun when you’re in a hurry to make breakfast burritos.

Consistency of products is lacking

There’s nothing like anticipating a taste of something that you have grown to love, and then opening the bag to find a completely different product. That’s part of the game with some of the items at Trader Joe’s. Les and I have noticed this especially with their snack items, including the spicy ghost pepper potato chips—one bag will be bland and barely seasoned, and the next will burn your lips off. Once, I opened a bag of multigrain pita chips in the car on the way home and turned my car around on the spot to exchange them because they were thicker than usual and stale. I opened the replacement bag there at the customer service desk, and guess what? They were perfect.

I gave up on the TJ’s peppermint fluoride toothpaste—it was my go-to for years, because I can’t tolerate the xylitol sweetener that’s in most commercial brands—but I started noticing that a few tubes had an underlying taste of moldy bread. If you think it sounds disgusting, be thankful you didn’t have a mouthful. It was hit or miss at first, and they always exchanged it for me. But during the height of COVID, they were not accepting returns, and I’ve moved on to another brand.

The “customer engagement” efforts that go a little too far

This seems to have (finally) stopped at our store, but I am curious to know if this has happened to you. For years, I dreaded the quirky, borderline-invasive small talk that the front-end team at my store routinely initiated as they were ringing up my items.

  • “What have you been up to today?”
  • “How are you going to use this horseradish cheddar?”
  • “Are you headed home after this?”
  • “Aha, the pumpkin spice body butter!”

After a while, Les and I amused ourselves by imagining comebacks that would turn the tables on those awkward conversations. If we really wanted to be pre-emptive, we might have strung our responses together right at the greeting, like this:

Helpful TJ’s employee: “Hi there! I can take you right over here!”

Us: “Thanks so much! We’re in a hurry to get home so we can puree this horseradish cheese with moldy peppermint toothpaste. Won’t that be an awesome crostini topping for this half-frozen bread? Hey, double bag our order please—we have to stop off at the morgue for an identification on the way home. Whew, I’m glad it’s pumpkin spice season. So, here’s what I plan to do with this body butter…”

We are still feeling the love

At the end of all this ranting, I readily admit that the positives of Trader Joe’s outweigh the negatives.

It would take an awful lot to make us walk away, and our local store even has a place in our personal story. Sometime around the middle of 2014, I spotted a familiar face on my way to the checkout and commented on the fact that we each had a box of Trader Joe’s brand Toasted Oatmeal Flakes cereal in our baskets. I recognized Les from the pool league we both played in at the time, but he was drawing a blank—apparently, he didn’t recognize me without high heels and a pool cue in my hand! Later that year, we became teammates, then friends the next year, and what followed is obvious.

That “coincidental” meeting is further testament to the fact that some things are meant to last and others are not—this summer, Trader Joe’s discontinued our favorite cereal. I think it was a problem with the supplier, or something like that.



Dubonnet & Gin (a cocktail for the Queen)

If you have never given thought to a morning cocktail—well, perhaps you have never felt hungover, but I won’t go there—you might want to take it under advisement that Queen Elizabeth II enjoyed one every day. You read that correctly; each and every day, the Queen had an alcoholic drink before lunch. Oh, those wild and crazy royals!

I had read a few years ago that the prim and proper monarch was a bit of a party girl behind closed palace doors, knocking back several drinks in a day, to the point that she would even have been considered a “binge drinker” by U.K. health standards. Not that anyone would dare tell her that, mind you. Not anyone except her doctor, who advised her last year to lay off the booze in order to be strong enough to participate in all of her Platinum Jubilee activities. As the royal rumor mill spins it, she was pretty annoyed about this (I feel you, Your Majesty), but she complied with doctor’s orders.

Say what you will about her drinking habits, at least the Queen paced herself, and her taste in tipple was broad and varied. By various accounts, it is confirmed that she enjoyed a dry martini in the evening and a glass of champagne as a nightcap. At dinner, and sometimes at lunch, she sipped a glass of sweet German wine. And before lunch, this one. The Dubonnet and gin cocktail is little more than the name implies. Stir the two together with a slice of lemon and ice, and then strain it over new ice with a fresh slice of lemon. But what exactly is Dubonnet?

When my iPhone news app interrupted my workday yesterday with the announcement of Queen Elizabeth’s death, I decided for no good reason that I should do something to honor her on Comfort du Jour, and the quickest way to do so would be to whip up the Queen’s favorite cocktail—only, it proved to be a bit more complicated than that because I needed to find the proper ingredients, in particular, the Dubonnet.


First of all, Dubonnet is not a liquor, but a fortified wine. That meant I would not find it in one of our state-run “ABC” stores. My best shot would be a well-stocked wine store. The Queen would have had access to the spirit made in France by Pernod, but I could only purchase the version made here in the States, by a distillery in Kentucky.

According to Dubonnet’s website, the cat was a beloved pet of founder Joseph Dubonnet’s wife. ❤

The online inventory checker on Total Wine’s website assured me the store had several bottles of Dubonnet in stock, so I planned to hustle across town to buy it before everyone else did. Sometimes, I imagine that other people have the same fervor as me when it comes to commemorating notable occasions with food and drink. Thankfully, given that you are still reading, there aren’t that many of us. I found the Dubonnet in aisle 7, right next to the sweet and dry vermouth that I purchase all the time. I honestly don’t know how I missed this lovely bottle before; it even has a beautiful tabby cat on the label. $15.49 later, I was back in the car and headed home.

Being the responsible blogger that I am, I tasted the Dubonnet on its own in order to describe it for anyone here who has not tried it. The inclusion of quinine led me to expect a bitterness in this high-ABV wine, but I found my first sip to be on the slightly sweet side, almost Lillet-like, and when the first vapor of it rose off the glass, it reminded me of Niagara grapes, though I can’t imagine Dubonnet, which was founded in France, would be using a native U.S. grape (if you aren’t sure what Niagara grapes taste like, just open a bottle of Welch’s white grape juice). No, this aperitif is a mashup of European (mostly) red grapes, spiffed up with herbs and spices for complexity. I’m certain it’s the Muscat that strikes a familiar aroma.

Only one thing left to do; I mapped a route to the nearest ABC store in search of Gordon’s London Dry, the Queen’s preferred gin. Our local liquor stores are pitifully under-stocked, so I didn’t expect I’d find what I was looking for and indeed, initially, I didn’t. The problem was, I was looking high, not low, so I didn’t notice at first the bottles of Gordon’s on the bottom shelf. It was in a plastic bottle, and about half the price of the gin brands I usually reach for. Please don’t take this as a slight to Her Majesty, but I was sure there must have been some mistake. I knew I had a bottle of Ford’s (also London Dry) at the house, the same one I love for my favorite martini, so couldn’t I just use that? But I have learned enough about mixology to know that the essences of gin can make or break a drink, so I went home to do more research last night about what makes Gordon’s gin the world’s best-selling London Dry gin and the perfect one to pair with Dubonnet.

The upshot is that Gordon’s is extremely juniper-forward, meaning it is crisp and clean without nuances of too many of the other botanicals. My Ford’s, though I love it, is not comparable in that sense, but I found that another brand I like, called Broker’s, fit the bill of being very juniper-forward. My martini-loving friend, David, turned me onto Broker’s a few years ago and I trusted it. As a bonus, Broker’s gin comes with a cute little hat on the cap, and it doesn’t get much more London-y than that.


My discovery, unfortunately, came to me after the ABC store was closed, so I had to go back this morning—to a different store in the county just south of us, which is several miles out of the way and well worth the trip, and finally, I had what I needed to make the Queen’s cocktail.


For the love of the crown, let’s make this drink!

It’s a simple drink, which is good, I guess, if you’re having one every day!

Personally, I think this cocktail would be lovely served up, in a chilled coupe glass with an expertly designed twist of expressed lemon peel, but that is not how the Queen took hers. No, she poured it straight over ice, which reminds me of my own grandmother and the way she preferred her afternoon martini. So I paid my respects and made it the same, and also with Her Majesty’s 2:1 ratio; that is, 2 parts Dubonnet to 1 part gin.

I can taste why this drink was a favorite for Queen Elizabeth II, and also for her mom, The Queen Mother. It’s light, just sweet enough to be enjoyable, yet with a touch of bitter to spur the appetite.

There’s no question, I will not be imbibing with this drink as regularly as Her Majesty (doctor’s orders and all that jazz), and most definitely not in the morning, but I shall practice my curtsy and I’ll take it as my duty to raise a glass a few times during the next 10 days, as the world mourns the passing of the longest-serving monarch in U.K. history.

Long live the Queen!

Dubonnet & Gin Cocktail

  • Servings: 1 cocktail
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 oz. Dubonnet Rouge
  • 3/4 oz. London Dry gin (something juniper-forward)
  • 2 half moon slices fresh lemon
  • Cocktail ice

Directions

  1. Measure Dubonnet Rouge and gin into a cocktail mixing glass (or shaker) with ice. Drop in one lemon slice.
  2. Stir (or shake) vigorously until the outside of the mixing container is cold and frosty.
  3. Strain over fresh ice and garnish with the second lemon slice


As a postscript, I have since learned (thanks to my pal, David) that Gordon’s London Dry is more than acceptable—it’s his go to, actually—so that would have been a good purchase. But buying the Broker’s does allow me to add to my hat collection. I started saving the hats during the pandemic and discovered they fit perfectly on my bitters bottles. The only thing I’m unsure about now is what will I do to use up the rest of this Dubonnet? 🙂



Miraculous Mayo Marinade

I’ve been cooking since I was little. Watching my grandmother cut up a whole chicken or whip up a batch of her classic bread pudding was my favorite way to spend time when I was 8 or 9. And you can bet she was putting my little hands to work, even if I did need to have a Sears catalog under my butt in order to reach the dinner table. Those experiences paid off, as did my many adventures in a commercial catering kitchen years later, where I learned professional knife skills and the art of preparing food in bulk and making it look more “sexy.”

Despite my confidence with most cooking tasks, I do not consider myself to be so accomplished that I cannot learn new things (and I sure hope that will always be true). One of the reasons I love reading about food, watching cooking videos and subscribing to blog sites is that there might be an unconventional technique or approach I’ve never considered. I want to know what else is out there and if there’s a better way to do something—whether for reduced fat, more convenient process, better flavor, improved outcome, time savings, whatever.

Last month, I opened one of the daily emails I receive from NY Times Cooking, and the letter referenced a technique that apparently has been circulating in the culinary underground for some time—a method for improving the outcome of grilled shrimp—and I’ve gotta tell you, I’m flabbergasted. It involves a slick coating of a small amount of mayonnaise, which isn’t exactly groundbreaking, but also the tiniest little bit of something else that activates the mayonnaise to become even more slippery, resulting in the juiciest shrimp I have ever tasted. It works so well, in fact, that I have since tried the technique with a variety of seasonings, cooking methods and even other seafood proteins.

This culinary hack, my friends, involves good old baking soda. Say what?

Yep, the same household substance that will softly scrub your stovetop to sparkling clean, give a leavening boost to your banana bread, dry shampoo your pet-worn carpet—heck, even knock the stink off your kid’s gym bag—can also be used to make grilled, broiled or sautéed seafood better, juicier and more succulent than you’ve ever tasted before.

Who knew??


OK, some of you may already be performing this trick. This is probably a good time for me to acknowledge that I am a little slow to hop on the bus that’s been following J. Kenji López-Alt, the chef-slash-genious whose innovative approach to cooking has me awestruck at every stop. If there’s a science behind it, Kenji has already explored it, hacked it, improved it and written a chapter about it in his book, The Food Lab, which is the holy bible of cooking, as far as I’m concerned. If you are already savvy to this particular mayo knowledge, feel free to nod along politely and just skip ahead to the juicy pictures. I’m envious. But if you’re sitting there with a stunned expression, as I was when I first read this, then join me for an exciting adventure in Kenji’s chemistry class.

This technique begins innocently enough, with a mere 1/4 cup of mayonnaise per pound and a half of shrimp (or, presumably, any other protein you wish to marinate). Add some flavor enhancers; Kenji’s initial recommendation is a few cloves of grated garlic and a minced jalapeno half, a fairly generous pinch of kosher salt and then—wait for it—1/4 teaspoon of baking soda. Watch what happens to the mixture:


You can see a bunch of tiny little bubbles in the mixture, which is caused by the chemical reaction between the baking soda (an alkaline) and the mayonnaise (it’s acidic, thanks to the vinegar in it). This sudden shift in pH level forces the moisturizing nature of the mayo further into the shrimp, and this will protect it from the high heat of your grill, skillet or oven.

Fold the peeled, deveined shrimp into this magical mayo marinade and tuck it away into the fridge for half an hour. Use this time to light the grill or prep whatever else you plan to serve with the shrimp or to pour a glass of wine and congratulate yourself for being willing to learning something new.


The first time I tried this baking soda-mayo technique, the weather forced me to do my grilling indoors, and it was perfection for the shrimp tacos I made for taco Tuesday. The second time, I changed up the flavors to marinate fillets of fresh halibut, which I topped with spicy lime panko crumbs and baked in the oven (I’ll share the recipe below). Again, perfect.


The third time, I used the same seasonings as the first batch of shrimp, but with green jalapeno. I cooked it in a plain skillet (with no additional oil) and laid it atop zucchini noodles with sautéed fresh tomatoes and onions. Brilliant!

This made a wonderful, light and easy lunch.

The mayo has enough oil in it that you don’t need to bother oiling the grates or adding oil to your skillet. Somehow, though, that oil remains suspended in such a way that it doesn’t make the shrimp or fish feel or taste even remotely greasy. Oh, and none of this tasted like mayonnaise.

You can bet I’ll be trying this marinade trick on other forms of protein, starting with skinless chicken, which can be difficult to grill without drying out. I’ll report back on my findings, and if you should happen to go wild and beat me to it, please share the outcome here for all to see. 🙂

Below is a click-to-print recipe for the basic marinade, including my own slight adjustments from Kenji’s original. Further below is the recipe for the panko-topped halibut, which I’ll be making again very soon!


Miraculous Mayo Marinade

  • Servings: Enough for 1 1/2 pounds protein
  • Difficulty: Easy!
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Every now and again, a technique comes along and surprises me, upsetting everything I thought I knew about cooking. This is one of those techniques!


Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) mayonnaise
  • Several cloves fresh garlic, peeled (see ingredient note below)
  • 1/2 fresh jalapeno, seeded and minced (see ingredient note)
  • 1 tsp. kosher salt
  • Several twists freshly ground black pepper, optional
  • 1/4 tsp. baking soda

Ingredient Notes

  • For best results, grate the garlic cloves on a microplane, as this ensures the flavor will be evenly distributed throughout the marinade. If you don’t have a microplane, carefully grate the garlic on the smallest holes of a box grater or mince into the smallest pieces possible and drag them with a flat knife blade to make it like a paste.
  • The jalapeno is optional, and may be omitted if you don’t care for the heat. Try another minced flavor add-in, such as citrus zest or fresh, minced herbs.

Directions

  1. Combine mayonnaise, garlic and jalapeno in a bowl large enough to hold the protein you plan to marinate. Stir in salt and pepper.
  2. Add baking soda and stir vigorously to blend.
  3. Fold small protein into the marinade, or spread the marinade over the protein if it is large, such as fish fillets. Refrigerate up to 30 minutes, and then grill, bake, roast or pan-fry as intended.


Mayo-marinated Baked Halibut with Zesty Citrus Panko Topping

  • Servings: 2 portions
  • Difficulty: Easy
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This is a simple, but elegant fish entree that stays moist after baking, thanks to the miraculous mayonnaise marinade technique I learned from J. Kenji López-Alt. If halibut isn't your favorite, substitute any other firm, flaky whitefish and adjust cooking time as needed.


Ingredients

  • 2 portions fresh halibut, about 6 oz. each
  • 2 Tbsp. mayonnaise
  • 3 cloves garlic, grated on microplane or smallest holes of a box grater
  • Zest of one lime, divided (you’ll use half in the marinade, and half in the crumb topping)
  • 1/4 tsp. key lime juice (or regular lime juice)
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt and several twists of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. baking soda
  • 2 Tbsp. salted butter
  • A few quick shakes dried pepper flakes (I used Flatiron Pepper Hatch Green Chile, but any will do)
  • 1/4 cup plain panko crumbs

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 375° F, with oven rack in center position. Pat fish fillets dry with paper towels and place them on a foil-lined baking sheet.
  2. In a small bowl, combine mayonnaise, garlic, half of the lime zest and juice. Stir together with salt and pepper.
  3. Add baking soda to the mayo mixture and stir until blended. Small bubbles should appear in the mixture and it will seem to expand a bit.
  4. Spread the marinade all over the halibut fillets, covering every side that will be exposed to the oven heat. Let this rest for 30 minutes.
  5. In a small skillet, melt butter over medium-low heat. Stir in remaining lime zest and dried pepper flakes. Toss panko crumbs in the mixture until all butter is absorbed.
  6. Spoon the panko crumbs over the tops of the halibut fillets.
  7. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until you can easily flake the side of the fish with a fork. If crumbs do not brown, return it to the oven on a low broil setting for about 30 seconds (watch it closely to prevent burning).



Late Summer Succotash with Chicken & Waffles

Something about the change of seasons makes me happy, and this is especially true when we can see Labor Day just up ahead. This time last year, my husband, Les, and I were gallivanting all over New Jersey, Connecticut and New York, visiting old friends, meeting new ones and satisfying our culinary curiosity with so many delicious foods. Our plans this year have kept us mostly at home, and so the transition to fall doesn’t feel nearly as dramatic, but we have at least fulfilled the delicious food requirement. The big food news of our week occurred when we celebrated my hubby’s birthday with a fantastic veal and eggplant Parmesan dish, which he will be proud to share on Comfort du Jour soon (it will be an excellent way to re-welcome the Sunday Supper category).

Yes, the countdown to autumn has begun, and I’ll be at the front of the line to greet it. For now, I’d like to share this colorful, late-summer dish that I whipped up last month, just before our garden tomatoes started coming in. It’s a “healthy-ish” play on chicken and waffles, and a great way to hang onto the lingering days of summer as we prepare to roll out the welcome mat for the glorious comfort foods of autumn.


It may seem that “chicken and waffles” could not qualify as healthy-ish, but I did lighten this up in a number of ways. First, I used skinless chicken tenders (rather than skin-on, bone-in pieces), which were drenched in flavor after a two-hour bath in buttermilk, seasoned with plenty of hot sauce and a bit of Bell’s poultry seasoning. Never miss an opportunity to add flavor—that’s one of my key approaches to cooking. Rather than deep frying the tenders, I dipped them in seasoned flour and crisped them up lightly in a cast-iron skillet. And with a high volume of vegetables in the succotash, each serving only included two of the fried tenders. Portion control is one of the simplest ways to reduce calorie intake. 🙂


The waffles for this dish were on the healthy side of things, too, and based on a sourdough pancake recipe from my favorite baking site, King Arthur Baking Company.

I followed the King Arthur recipe as written, except that I halved it, swapped in white whole wheat flour with a little cornmeal, and bumped up the oil just enough to prevent them from sticking to the waffle iron. The scallions and leftover grilled corn folded into the batter made the waffles extra hearty, and sourdough can’t be beat for this application because of the amazing crispy texture it puts on the waffle exterior. If you aren’t riding the sourdough train, there’s no reason in the world you couldn’t substitute another waffle recipe you like and add the corn and scallions to it.


The succotash (technically this isn’t one because it doesn’t have beans) has everything that I love—zucchini (still plenty of it at the farmers’ market), grilled corn, leeks, ripe baby tomatoes, pickled onions and half of a tiny jar of pimentos we had in the fridge. I used one of my favorite prep-ahead techniques for this meal, which is layering the cut-up ingredients in reverse order in a single prep bowl that I can tuck into the fridge until I’m ready to start cooking.


This recipe gave me a first chance to use the new non-stick skillets we bought this summer; Les and I had looked high and low for replacements that didn’t feel chintzy and weren’t made in some factory overseas. Les learned via online research that the only pair of American-made non-stick skillets were a specific set of Calphalon pans that were sold by Williams-Sonoma (most of Calphalon’s products are made in China, but this set is made in Ohio). They are available online if you don’t have a store near you.

The non-stick coating is great, and I love the sturdiness of our new pans, but for me the real test of a new skillet is “how easily can I flip my ingredients?” Sometimes when I have a lot going on at once, I don’t want to take time to pick up a utensil so I’ll employ the flipping technique I learned during my catering days. It worked fine, though the pan was a bit heavy, so I’m counting it as upper-body exercise (and I only lost a few pieces of onion to the floor).


Having one prep bowl filled with vegetables makes cooking a snap, as I simply empty them into the skillet as I need them, and there’s no jumbling around in the fridge to find what I need or washing extra prep dishes. When the zucchini started to become tender, I moved deeper into the bowl for the other ingredients until I had everything in the pan.


All three components of this dish—the waffles, the chicken and the succotash—happen simultaneously, but you could certainly make the succotash ahead and simply rewarm it when you’re ready to serve. Keep the waffles warm on your oven’s low setting if needed, and aim to make the chicken the last thing you prepare. Remember to season it with a light touch of salt from the skillet!

Pile it onto a plate, with the succotash underneath and over top of the crispy waffles, and the chicken tenders leaned against it. Finish the dish with a scattering of fresh chopped basil leaves, and dinner is served!

Not only does this presentation look beautiful, it serves the purpose of keeping everything warm until you make it to the last delicious bite!


Late Summer Succotash with Chicken & Waffles

  • Servings: About 3
  • Difficulty: Intermediate
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This meal takes some time to prepare, but the combination of sauteed summer ingredients and lightened-up chicken & waffles is well worth the effort! Prepare the three components of this dish at your own pace; if time is limited, the succotash can be made ahead and warmed at serving time. If you plan to make everything concurrently, consider setting the oven to warm and tuck away the waffles or chicken tenders on a rack placed over a baking sheet.

Ingredients

  • 1 pound boneless, skinless chicken tenders, patted dry
  • 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
  • Up to 1 Tbsp. bottled hot sauce
  • 1/2 tsp. poultry seasoning
  • Salt and pepper
  • 1 cup neutral oil (for skillet frying]
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 2 Tbsp. medium-grind corn meal
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder

Directions

  1. In a medium bowl, combine buttermilk, hot sauce, poultry seasoning, salt and pepper. Add chicken tenders to the bowl, tossing to coat. Allow this to rest at room temperature at least 30 minutes, or refrigerate up to a few hours if working ahead. Take them from the fridge 30 minutes before pan-frying them.
  2. In a small bowl, combine flour, corn meal and garlic powder, plus a few shakes each salt and pepper. Set this aside for breading the chicken tenders.
  3. Heat a cast iron skillet over medium heat, with 1/2-inch oil.
  4. When oil is hot, remove tenders from buttermilk mixture, allowing all liquid to run off. Dip the tenders into the breading mixture; coat evenly without dredging too heavily. Carefully place each tender into the hot oil, taking care to not crowd the pan too quickly, as this will drop the temperature of the oil and result in greasy chicken. Turn tenders when the first side is golden brown; transfer them to a paper towel-lined plate when done. Season immediately with a light sprinkle of salt.

Ingredients

  • 1/4 cup fed sourdough starter
  • 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 3 Tbsp. medium-grind cornmeal
  • 1/2 tsp. baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 cup leftover grilled corn kernels
  • 3 chopped green onions (scallions), white and green parts

Directions

  1. In a medium batter bowl, combine sourdough starter and buttermilk. Add flour and cornmeal. Stir until smooth; cover and leave at room temperature at least 30 minutes, up to about 2 hours.
  2. In a small bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, baking soda and salt. Set aside.
  3. Set waffle iron to medium heat. While it preheats, add egg, oil, soda and salt to the sourdough batter. Stir until smooth. Fold in corn and scallions.
  4. Brush waffle iron with oil. Add a scoop of batter and bake until crispy, following manufacturer’s instructions. As a visual cue, watch for steam to dissipate from the iron. Generally, if the waffles are sticking, they aren’t finished baking. If working ahead, place finished waffles on a rack over a cookie sheet and keep them in a warm (250° F) oven.

Ingredients

  • 1 medium zucchini, chopped into chunks
  • 1 small leek or onion, chopped
  • 1 cup leftover grilled corn kernels
  • 1/4 cup pickled onions, chopped (I like the “pickled” flavor here; substitute anything pickled, such as okra, green beans, cucumber)
  • 2 Tbsp. jarred pimento, drained
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 cup ripe baby tomatoes, halved
  • Salt and pepper
  • Fresh basil or parsley, to garnish

Directions

  1. Heat a large, non-stick skillet over medium flame. Add olive oil and saute zucchini with leeks or onions until slightly tender.
  2. Add remaining vegetables, except tomatoes, and toss until evenly combined. Reduce heat to low and cover skillet with a lid so that the pan ingredients can heat through without much more cooking.
  3. Add tomatoes at the end, tossing just to combine.

To assemble the dish, spoon out some of the succotash, and then place a waffle section, topped with additional succotash. Arrange the chicken tenders by leaning them up against the waffles. Sprinkle with chopped, fresh basil or parsley.



Pompatus of Love

We have enjoyed this peachy bourbon cocktail at our house all summer, ever since I first made the peach shrub. What’s that—you say peaches don’t grow on shrubs? True. The peach “shrub” that I speak of is an old-school concoction, otherwise known as a “drinking vinegar,” and though it was a popular way of preserving seasonal fruits back in Colonial times (or as far back as the Roman Empire, depending on whom you ask), the shrub is having a new moment, especially in the world of craft cocktails.

A shrub is a mixture of fruit, sugar and vinegar, usually in equal parts. You can either cook the fruit together with the sugar before adding the vinegar, which results in a jammy, compote-type flavor, or go the fresh route with raw fruit, which takes longer to develop but presents a more vibrant flavor in the shrub. I chose the latter, with enough cut-up peaches to measure a heaping cup. I stirred in a cup of raw turbinado sugar and left it in the fridge about 24 hours.


The second day, I strained the syrupy, macerated fruit (we put the chunky remains on top of vanilla ice cream) and mixed the liquid with a cup of vinegar—half apple cider (raw, with the “mother”) and half white wine.


My peach shrub was strong, tart and a little too “in your face” for the first couple of days, but after a week in the fridge, it had mellowed to become quite enjoyable in this cocktail, and even more so as the weeks have passed. The other ingredients in this drink are bottled-in-bond bourbon (this one has a very low percentage of rye in the mash bill, so definitely choose one on the sweet side), a fresh chunk of muddled peach and a couple of shakes of bitters. I like the ginger bitters, but if you can find peach bitters, they’re nice, too.

This is a bottled-in-bond bourbon from one of our local distilleries.
It’s mostly corn, and only a slight amount of rye, so it’s nice and sweet.

There’s one more thing that makes this cocktail special, and you’d probably never guess—it’s salt. You heard me. I’ve been experimenting with the concept to further balance a cocktail, and it is a pretty amazing thing. We bought this Himalayan pink salt swizzle stick back in February when we visited Asheville Salt cave, and as it turns out, a slight touch of this special salt brings this drink together, the same way a pinch of salt makes a dessert taste better. The things we learn!


We have tried several iterations of this libation over the summer, including an infusion of thyme in the peach shrub, minted sugar on the rim of the glass, on the rocks, and up in a Nick and Nora glass, etc. My favorite is simple and straightforward—bourbon and muddled peach, shrub, ginger bitters, no sugar rim, poured over the salt swizzle stick on a giant ice cube, and keep ‘em coming.

I decided to call this cocktail “Pompatus of Love.”

Pompatus of Love.

Now, I won’t make you wrack your brain to figure out why the name sounds familiar to you—it comes from the 1970s classic rock song, “The Joker,” by the Steve Miller Band. You know, right after he sings, “some people call me Maurice.” What you might not know is that the word pompatus is not really a word at all, but something that Miller misheard from a doo-wop song released two decades earlier. I’ll let you explore that on your own time with the help of Google and Wikipedia, because it is a story in itself.

And since you’ve already heard the Steve Miller version of the song at least as many times as I have, I’d like to introduce you to one of our favorite local artists who performs a terrific rendition of this song. Please click to play, while I tell you a little bit more about this peachy bourbon drink, and about our friendship with Colin Allured, the artist featured here.

If you love this, subscribe to Colin’s YouTube channel. He has plenty more where this came from.

I first met Colin almost 8 years ago, when he debuted his one-man act at a wine bar that I frequented. He mesmerized the entire room on that December night, even drawing the kitchen staff out to the front of house to see who was this guy, covering the vocals of everyone from Steve Miller to The Beatles to Justin Timberlake to Katy Perry—as well as plenty of his own (awesome) original music. From that night, I hardly missed an appearance by Colin at the wine bar or anywhere else, and Les quickly caught on as well when we began dating. Fast forward a few years, when Les conspired with Colin to play a very special song for us on an evening we had planned to celebrate my birthday—I say they “conspired” because the night took on a whole new meaning after Colin dedicated the song to us. That’s when Les popped the question and put a ring on my finger. Since then, we have followed our friend around to many venues, including the show where he recorded that version of “The Joker,” and I have no doubt that he will always be a part of our love story, in some way or another.

So what does all of this romance nonsense have to do with this bourbon cocktail, based on a peach shrub?


I named this drink Pompatus of Love because, to me, it embodies a little bit of everything that makes a romantic love relationship great. It’s intoxicating, just sweet enough, a bit tart and sassy, and slightly salty in a way that is unexpectedly addictive. As one of our July 4th weekend guests put it, “the first sip surprised me, but it’s growing on me.”

Yep. That’s the pompatus of love.


Pompatus of Love

  • Servings: 2 cocktails
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Print

This perfect marriage of bourbon and peaches is made even better with a splash of peach shrub, an old school “drinking vinegar” that’s made with fresh peaches, sugar and vinegar. Plan to make the shrub about a week ahead for best results. I like these best on a large ice cube in a double rocks glass, but it can also be shaken and strained into a chilled coupe glass if you’re feeling fancy.

Ingredients

  • 1 small, fresh peach (for muddling)
  • 4 oz. bourbon (use a high-proof, low rye version if possible)
  • 1 oz. peach shrub* (see below)
  • 2 quick shakes ginger (or peach) bitters
  • large ice cubes for serving

Directions

  1. Place a chunk of peach (about the size of a walnut) into each rocks glass. Crush it with a cocktail muddler or the handle end of a wooden spoon. Place a large ice cube over the peach.
  2. In a cocktail mixing glass or shaker, combine bourbon, shrub and bitters. Add one cup of ice and stir or shake until the mixing vessel is frosty.
  3. Strain into glasses, garnish with slices of the peach.

For the Shrub: choose very ripe peaches, and don’t worry if they have bruises or dark spots. This is a great way to use peaches that are a little “past their prime.” The shrub will be quite intense for the first few days after making, but it mellows after about a week and is lovely in cocktails, or put an ounce in a glass with ice and top it with sparking water for a zero-proof summer treat!

Ingredients

  • 3 or 4 ripe peaches, washed
  • 1 cup raw cane turbinado sugar (white or light brown sugar works, too)
  • 1/2 cup raw, unfiltered apple cider vinegar (such as Bragg’s)
  • 1/2 cup white wine vinegar

Directions

  1. Peel and pit the peaches, and cut them up into chunks.
  2. In a medium bowl (choose one that has a fitted lid), combine the peaches and sugar, stirring until it begins to get syrupy. Cover and macerate in the fridge 24 hours.
  3. Strain peaches through a mesh sieve, catching the liquid in a bowl below. Discard the peach solids, or use them right away in some other dish.
  4. Stir the vinegars into the sweet peach syrup. Transfer to a sealable glass bottle and refrigerate up to 3 months.