Almond Joy Brownie Bites

My taste for chocolate has evolved exponentially since childhood. The candy bars I loved back then—Kit Kat, Snickers, Mounds and Almond Joy were some of my favorites—all fall a little flat now that I have experienced fine, artisan chocolates. After you develop a palate for high quality, single-origin chocolate, it’s tough to go back. But occasionally, nostalgia sneaks in and makes me crave a taste of yesteryear, and that’s what happened when I had to reach past a jar of unsweetened coconut to get to my go-to brownie mix.

Why couldn’t I turn my brownies into a play on an Almond Joy candy bar, I thought, but with an elevated presentation and more texture? I reached for almonds, too, and had only one dilemma—how to incorporate the coconut so that it didn’t get lost into the brownies. I didn’t just want the flavors of an Almond Joy to be present, I wanted it to look kind of like an Almond Joy candy bar, too, and that meant I could not just add coconut to the brownie mix. No, I needed to create a filling that would be enveloped inside the brownie, and I wanted it to be bite size with two almonds, just like the candy bar.

These miniature, two-bite brownies were a home run!

I found a recipe on Pinterest for a coconut filling intended for layer cakes, and as I considered the steps of cooking the milk and sugar together until it was dissolved and thickened, it occurred to me: isn’t that basically sweetened condensed milk, and why not just use that? It was perfect for transforming plain, shredded coconut into a thick, sticky, coconutty filling.


My brownie mix got an extra boost of dark chocolate from a spoonful of dark cocoa powder. I did this because I always wished that the candy company had made a dark chocolate version of the Almond Joy—sort of a Mounds-Almond Joy combination thing. I also gave the almond flavor a boost with a touch of almond extract added to the liquid ingredients used to make the brownie batter.


A few more notes worth mentioning before I dive into a visual walk-through of how I put these fun little treats together:

To keep this from being too sweet, I combined equal amounts of sweetened and unsweetened shredded coconut. The latter is sometimes labeled “dessicated” coconut, and you can find it in the baking aisle of a well-stocked supermarket or online from Bob’s Red Mill (where I get it). This is my preferred coconut for most recipes—cookies, smoothies, muffins, etc.—and I chose to use some of it here because I knew the filling would be sweet enough with the addition of the condensed milk and the amount of sweetened coconut. I pulsed the coconut in the food processor, too, to knock down some of the shaggy texture.

My go-to brownie mix is Ghirardelli Dark Chocolate, but (I can’t believe I’m about to say this) the chocolate chunks included in the mix may not be right for this recipe. If you are making this as mini muffins, as I did, you will find that the melted chocolate bits hinder the work of loosening and removing the brownie bites from the pan. The dark chocolate flavor is great but consider using a brownie mix that doesn’t have chips or pieces of chocolate in it; you’ll have an easier time removing the brownie bites without breaking them.

Finally, and this is important, the amounts of brownie batter and coconut filling exceed what is needed in the 24-count mini muffin pan. I had enough of both left over to make a small skillet brownie, and trust me when I tell you, that was not a bad decision either. If you decide to do this, I’d like to suggest that you eat it warm. Mmm…

Yes, really.

OK, preheat the oven to the temperature suggested on your brownie mix, and let’s get this started!

So, was all this necessary? Couldn’t I have just chopped up some Almond Joy candies and added them to the brownies, the way I did with the Leftover Snickers Brownies I made at Halloween a few years ago? Sure, and that would have been tasty, too, but this was a lot more fun. 😊


Almond Joy Brownie bites

  • Servings: 24 brownie bites
  • Difficulty: average
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This is a fun way to dress up a box mix, bringing together the flavors of a classic candy bar with fudgy, soft and chewy brownies.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup sweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 box brownie mix plus ingredients on package to make them
  • 1 Tbsp. dark cocoa powder, optional
  • 1/2 tsp. almond extract, optional
  • 24 whole raw almonds
  • a few pinches flaky sea salt, optional

Note that this recipe will yield more batter and coconut filling than you will need for a single pan of mini muffin-size brownie bites. Plan ahead to use up the rest in a small baking dish or extra mini muffin pan.

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 325 F, or whatever temperature is recommended for the brownie mix. Generously butter the inside of every cup on a mini muffin pan.
  2. Combine sweetened and unsweetened coconuts in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times to make a finer texture. Transfer the coconut to a bowl. Add the sweetened condensed milk and stir until evenly blended. This will be a thick, sticky mixture.
  3. Prepare brownie batter, adding the dark cocoa to the dry mix and the almond extract to the liquids. Fill the mini muffin cups about halfway. Scoop out a small amount of coconut filling and roll it between your hands into a ball about the size of a marble. Press the coconut ball into a muffin cup, letting the batter come up the sides around it. Repeat with the remaining muffin cups, then drop a slight spoonful of batter on top to fully enclose the coconut ball. You will have a significant amount of batter left over. See Step 5 for suggestions.
  4. Place two almonds on each brownie bite and scatter a few small pinches of flaky sea salt over the pan. Bake at 325 for 15 minutes. Allow brownie bites to cool in the pan until they are easy to handle. Run a thin rounded knife around the edges of the brownie bites to aid in releasing them. Let them cool completely on a plate or tray.
  5. With the remaining batter and filling, we made a warm miniature skillet brownie for two. This could also be baked up in a small glass baking dish, or make a second batch of mini brownie bites when the pan is fully cooled. Use the same method of layering coconut filling over about half of the batter, then pour the last of the batter over to cover it. Sprinkle with chopped almonds and bake for 30 minutes. Enjoy warm!



Blender Buttermilk-Feta Dressing

Let’s get this out of the way; today’s post is less about the salad dressing (which was just OK, and I’ll offer my ideas for making it better) and far more about my excitement in finding the new appliance I used to make it. What can I say? —I don’t take my decisions lightly.

We are approaching the six-month mark since the completion of our beautifully remodeled kitchen, and I am still on the hunt for the right tools to help equip me for success. You know how it is—you improve one thing, and suddenly everything in and around it seems outdated. My husband, Les, and I gave every countertop gadget we own a once-over when we did our update, and though a few appliances were deemed worthy, I have decided to replace my tired, old food processor (more to come on that one) and to purchase a real, honest-to-goodness blender. It’s about time!

I’ve had a Nutri-Bullet personal blender for a few years, and it’s great for breakfast smoothies and small amounts of things that I want to puree into oblivion, but not so good for anything that requires finesse, because the Nutri-Bullet has only one setting. It is also inconvenient for making anything that requires adding or adjusting ingredients halfway through, because once you open the wide, jar-like lid, the blended mixture gets all over everything and makes a mess. I needed a blender that opened at the top and had multiple settings and functions to help me with more than just smoothies.

When I had lamented to Les a few years ago that it was difficult to find a quality blender “like they used to make,” you know, with a sturdy glass carafe, he disappeared to our garage and returned with a dusty relic that had been gifted to him many years ago (for his first wedding, as he recalls). It was tall and heavy, with real glass! Unfortunately, when we finally found replacement gaskets for the ones that had dry rotted, we discovered that the blender didn’t have much oomph. It was mostly good for, well, stirring things.

After months of intense research, and reading reviews on every website imaginable, I have finally found the best blender for us. It’s tall, attractive, powerful and versatile enough to handle whatever role I give it. In other words, it’s the George Clooney of countertop appliances. The first challenge I had with it was deciding what to make first, and so far, I’ve only used it to make coconut martini cocktails and this buttermilk feta salad dressing, which was included in the little recipe cards that came with the machine. Regardless of your blender brand, I’m confident that you can make this dressing, and it only requires five ingredients, plus salt and pepper.

This dressing can’t help being tangy, with feta, buttermilk and lemon! Garlic and olive oil round out the ingredients list.

Part of the appeal of this recipe was that I already had all the ingredients, and the dressing wasn’t bad but I would recommend a few tweaks to improve the texture and balance the tang. Just about any kind of fresh, tender herb would be good here; basil, cilantro or dill would add a zesty punch. In the texture department, I would recommend addition of a couple tablespoons of mayonnaise to produce a creamier dressing that will cling better to your salad greens. If you do stick to the recipe offered by Breville, I recommend using a buttermilk with a thicker consistency so it doesn’t turn out watery.

Here’s how things went for me.


But enough about the dressing. 😉

I am very pleased with our new Breville blender, which has a pre-programmed setting for smoothies, and eventually I will get around to making one. I especially appreciate the self-clean function, which makes cleanup a snap, even after making a creamy salad dressing like this one. It’s so easy, I literally put two drops of dish liquid into it with about one cup of water and touch the “auto-clean” button. The blender does the rest, switching between speeds and settings until the pitcher is clean. Quick rinse, and done. I should have bought it years ago. Did I mention that I paid full price for this appliance, and nobody is paying me for my opinion? Just thought I’d mention that, in case this sounds like an advertisement.

Besides the debut of our fab new blender, I am also excited to apply a new way of sharing the details of my recipes with you. When I first started my blog, my sister-in-law, Andrea, suggested adding a “print” feature to make it easier for a reader to save a recipe for later. It was a great idea, and up to this point, I have accomplished it by formatting the recipe into a PDF that I upload at the end of a post. Today, I’m doing something different.

After an hour-long chat session with WordPress support (which left me as confused as ever), and then a few friendly emails and helpful coaching by one of my blog buddies about something called “shortcode,” I have finally figured out how to apply my recipe ingredients and instructions to my posts, including a quick “print” option, without so much background work.

I first spotted this feature on a post by Maylee at BeyondGumbo.com, and when I reached out to ask about it, Maylee graciously walked me through how she uses the feature. As you’ve probably guessed, her blog is all about the regional cuisine of Louisiana (which is so much more than gumbo!), including a beautiful bibb salad with luscious Louisiana strawberries, which she just posted on Sunday. And if you think that sounds delicious, wait until she surprises us with something that she casually whips up from the satsuma trees growing in her backyard. 😊


Let’s see how this goes!

Easy Buttermilk Feta Dressing

  • Servings: 8
  • Difficulty: very easy
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This recipe is simple and versatile, and it can be made in any blender. Consider tweaking it by adding other ingredients, such as your favorite fresh herbs, for a twist of flavor.

Ingredients

  • 1/2 cup cultured buttermilk
  • Approximately 1/2 cup feta, crumbled
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • The juice of one organic lemon
  • 1 small clove garlic, rough-chopped
  • 1/2 tsp. organic lemon zest
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Directions

  1. Place buttermilk, feta, olive oil, lemon juice and garlic into the jug of a blender. Puree 15 seconds, or longer if needed to achieve smooth texture.
  2. Add lemon zest. Season with salt and pepper. Mix on a low speed for 5 seconds, to incorporate seasonings. Transfer dressing to a jar and refrigerate until ready to serve.



Vegan Black Bean Burger

At our house, we enjoy doing Meatless Monday—for the good of the environment, yes—but mostly for the health benefit of eating more vegetables and whole grains, and to test recipes that I’d like to serve when my husband’s vegan daughter visits. When I set out several years ago to “make a better black bean burger,” I tried every which way to make it flavorful and simple, but I kept running into the same problem: the burger looked great on the bun until I bit into it, at which point it just squished. The black beans must be smashed or processed to hold together in a patty, but once they are, the texture is just, well, lost.

This time, however, I turned to a new ingredient that I’ve seen and tasted before but had never employed in my own kitchen—textured vegetable protein. With the increased popularity of and demand for plant-based foods, it has become easier to find ingredients such as  this one in a regular supermarket, rather than trudging to a health food store or taking a chance with an online purchase.

TVP is a true blank canvas of vegan foods.

This product, known to plant-based eaters as “TVP,” is a defatted soy product, with a pleasant, chewy texture after rehydrating, and a neutral, almost sweet flavor that can be shifted to the cuisine of your choice. In this recipe, my first-ever shot at cooking with TVP, I wanted to boost the protein content of my Southwest-inspired black bean burgers, but I was also looking for an assist with the texture. The TVP packs a whopping 12 grams of protein per serving, and it only takes a few minutes to soften up with water or broth, but it holds its shape after rehydrating. In other words, it’s exactly what my smashed black beans needed to keep their composure. I found this product in one of our larger supermarkets, but you can also find it online from Bob’s Red Mill.

The other trick I used to give my burgers more heft was oven-roasting the beans before pulsing them into bits. This technique has worked for me in the past, but at that time, I was still using egg as a binder, which made it vegetarian but obviously doesn’t fly for a burger claiming to be vegan. This time, to keep it truly plant based, I further modified my old recipe and substituted a “flax egg,” which was nothing more than ground flax meal combined with the reduced liquid from the can of beans (I could have used water, but I’m always looking for a way to add one more bit of flavor). The flavor boosts came from a generous spoonful of my spicy coffee rub, a few sun-dried tomatoes and the last tablespoon of chipotle puree lingering in the fridge, left over from my pollo chipotle.

The color was right, the texture was good, and the flavor was totally on-point for the burger lovers in this house. Which is both of us, of course!

The textured vegetable protein and oven-roasted black beans gave these all the texture I crave in a burger!

Ingredients (makes about 5 burger patties)

2 cans organic black beans, drained and rinsed (reserve liquid from one can)

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, plus extra to drizzle on beans before roasting

1 cup diced sweet onion

1/2 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped

1/2 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and rough chopped

1/2 cup roasted salted cashews (from a can is fine, or roast them yourself)

1/2 cup textured vegetable protein, dry from the package

About 5 sun-dried tomatoes, cut up into bits* (see recipe notes)

1/2 cup water or vegetable broth*

1 Tbsp. milled flax seed*

1 Tbsp. spicy coffee rub or other favorite smoky-spicy seasoning*

Medium-grind corn meal, for crusting the burgers before frying

Canola oil, for trying the burgers

Soft vegan buns and favorite toppings, for serving


*Recipe Notes

I learn many things from my trials in the kitchen, and one shortcut occurred to me a moment too late. My photo steps reveal that I rehydrated both the sun-dried tomatoes and the textured vegetable protein with low-sodium vegetable broth. Eventually, I combined them, so my recommendation is doing them together in one bowl to save time and dirty dishes.

Low-sodium vegetable broth is one of my core pantry items and I frequently use it for rehydrating ingredients or cooking dry goods such as rice or quinoa. My philosophy is, why use water if you have an opportunity to elevate flavor?

Flax seed is a nutritional powerhouse, but dieticians are quick to point out that our bodies can only benefit from it when it has been milled. You can buy flax “meal” pre-packaged, but it turns rancid rather quickly. If you buy a bag of seeds, you can keep them fresh longer and mill them in a blade-style coffee grinder as you need them. To make a flax “egg,” combine a tablespoon of the meal with an equal part of warm liquid. The mixture will thicken into a gel-like substance that works great as a binder.

My spicy coffee rub was excellent for flavoring these burgers, and I’ve included the recipe for it on the downloadable PDF if you’d like to try it. Otherwise, use any spice blend you like for grilling. If you are committed to making the burgers vegan, confirm the ingredients of your spices. You might be surprised at some of the stuff they sneak in there. 😉


Instructions

There are several components of these burgers, and most of them can be prepared concurrently, or the day before. My instructions are broken out into each component, and I trust that you’ll manage the prep however it works best for you.


Prepping the black beans

Preheat oven to 350° F. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper or silicone mat. Spread black beans out in a single layer and let them air dry while the oven heats. When it comes to temperature, drizzle olive oil lightly over the beans and roll them around to lightly coat them. Season with salt and pepper, and then roast the beans for 30 minutes or until they have a dry, slightly crumbly exterior.


Making the flax egg

Reduce the reserved black bean liquid in a small saucepan until it’s reduced to about 2 tablespoons. Let it cool slightly. Sprinkle the milled flax into the liquid and stir to blend. Let this mixture rest for about 15 minutes until it’s a thick, gelled mixture.


Rehydrating the TVP

Heat vegetable broth in a small saucepan or the microwave. It should be at least the temperature of hot bath water. I hydrated the sun-dried tomatoes separately, but I could have added them to the bowl with the TVP. I’m still learning here! Pour the hot broth over the mixture, stir to moisten and let it rest at least 10 minutes to fully rehydrate. Refrigerate this if you are working ahead.


Prepping the veggies

Heat skillet over medium heat. Add olive oil and sauté onions, peppers and garlic until softened and slightly caramelized. I usually judge this not by time, but by appearance. When the steam rising from the skillet is replaced by the sound of oil sizzling, they are done. If you still see a lot of steam, that moisture will come back to cause trouble when the burgers are in the skillet. Divide the mixture (at least visually) into halves.


Putting it all together

All ingredients should be cooled to approximately room temperature before mixing. It’s OK if they are cold or lukewarm, but do not process the beans and veggies if they are still hot because this will result in a mushy mixture that won’t hold together well in patties.

To the large bowl of a food processor, add all the roasted black beans, half the sauteed veggies and cashews. Add the spicy coffee rub (or substitute) and chipotle puree. Pulse a few times, just until the beans are about 1/3 their original size and the mixture looks uniform in texture. Don’t process it to the point of being smooth. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl.

Add the remaining vegetables and TVP mixture to the processed bean mixture and fold to combine. Add the flax egg and fold to blend. Shape the mixture into burger-shaped discs that are the same size as your burger buns (they will not shrink during cooking as meat does). Sprinkle both sides of the burgers with cornmeal and press on them to adhere it. Put the burgers on a plate or cookie sheet, covered with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for an hour or two so the patties set up for cooking. Remove from fridge about 30 minutes before frying.

Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium high heat. Add canola oil to a depth of about 1/4” and place the burgers in the skillet, keeping enough distance between them for easy access to turn them. Cook each side until crispy and browned, about 5 or 6 minutes. Take care when turning, as they will fall apart if you “flip” them as you would a meat burger.

Serve with your favorite plant-based toppings and enjoy!


You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the brands and products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or merchandise for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Terrie


Kentucky Hot Brown Swirls

The funnest thing about doing a food blog is putting all the new spins on the old dishes. Wait, did I just write “funnest?” Well, a word like that fits the situation, given that I am feeling playful about twisting up a classic. If I’m taking all kinds of liberties with the flavors so beloved for Kentucky Derby, I may as well do it with my words, too.

My celebration of the Kentucky Derby—which is Saturday, by the way, in case time has gotten away from you—is purely vicarious. I’ve never been to the Derby and honestly don’t know how I feel about the way they pressure the horses to perform for profit, but I know that I like the pomp and circumstance, the food traditions, the fancy hats and especially the bourbon! The Kentucky Hot Brown is the most classic dish associated with the Kentucky Derby, and I have twisted it up in several ways already, including a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and a super simple Kentucky Hot Brown Dip. When Derby time rolled around this year, I wanted to make a fun, crowd-ready food that’s easy to pick up and enjoy in just a few bites because, honestly, who wants to sit down in the middle of a party with a knife and fork and eat a messy, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown open-faced sandwich, with all its oozing Mornay sauce? Yeah, these are much easier!

It’s no coincidence that these Kentucky Hot Brown swirls are delicious with bourbon.

If you’re entertaining friends for the afternoon leading up to the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” may I suggest these adorable little puff pastry swirls? They have all the flavors of the beloved Kentucky Hot Brown, including roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and gruyere, plus a touch of sauteed shallot and (in a nod to the catering kitchen where I worked so long ago) “A Pinch of Thyme.”

I expected a few obstacles along the way to these tasty rollups, mostly because puff pastry can be fussy to work with. It bakes up best if it goes into the oven cold, so the first thing I planned was to work quickly. Get all your filling ingredients ready first, and refrigerate the ones that are cooked, such as the bacon and shallots. Cook the bacon long enough to render as much fat as possible, so the lingering fat doesn’t make the pastry soggy, but not so much that hard edges will tear the pastry. Shred the cheese and keep that in the fridge until assembly time, too. Fresh roast turkey is probably better than deli turkey (mainly for keeping the sodium in check), and I confess that I used leftover turkey that we had stashed in the freezer after Thanksgiving. As for the tomato, I knew that my sweet and savory tomato jam would not spread neatly onto the puff pastry without tearing it, and I didn’t want to heat it (see the first point about baking puff pastry cold), so here’s how I overcame that challenge—I added a few tablespoons of tomato jam to the bowl with chopped turkey and stirred it together. Problem solved!

You can put these two-bite treats together in the morning or afternoon, even the night before, all the way up to slicing them into swirls, and then refrigerate them until about a half hour before your guests arrive. A quick egg wash and some extra sprinkles of gruyere just before they hit the oven, and, well—riders up!


This recipe makes 12 swirls, just about right as appetizers for 6 people.

Ingredients

3 slices smoked bacon, cut into pieces no larger than a postage stamp

1 smallish shallot, peeled, halved and cut into half-moons

1 cup chopped, cooked leftover roast turkey breast

3 Tbsp. tomato jam (store-bought or homemade, if you have it!)

1 heaping cup shredded gruyere cheese (or Swiss), divided

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

1 sheet store-bought puff pastry, thawed according to package instructions

1 egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for egg wash just before baking


Instructions

Ready to make them?



A Change of Venue.

You know the feeling, I suspect. For months, you plan and look forward to a vacation—whether it’s a full-blown trip or a quick driveaway—and you can’t wait for the rest and relaxation that comes with it. And then you get home exhausted. You need a vacation after the vacation.

That’s how it has been for my husband, Les, and me in the aftermath of an almost-weeklong getaway to celebrate our 5th anniversary. Our fun getaway started with the Jimmy Buffett concert that we bought tickets for way back in 2019, before the entire world stalled to a halt because of COVID. It was the first time Les had seen a Buffett show, and we had a fun time, even imagining how we might plan next time to do some hardcore tailgating on par with some of the other “Parrotheads” we encountered in the parking lot. The tropical vibe of the evening seemed like the perfect introduction to a few days of relaxing at the beach, and we couldn’t wait!

The countdown to our getaway was expected to coincide with completion of our master bath remodel project, which started in mid-March, and we looked forward to coming home for a nice, hot shower in our beautiful new space. But, well, that didn’t happen. Getting a straight answer about the timeline of the project hasn’t been difficult, but getting a true answer has, and we ordered the work suspended during our vacation because the ruckus is very stressful for our pets. But at least we would have a break from the noise and commotion that has consumed our home for the past six weeks.

We kept our eye on the prize—a peaceful escape to a rental home we’ve enjoyed before, and we yearned for the calm, quiet rest that awaited us. We’d sip wine or bourbon every evening and enjoy unadulterated views of the beach from our oceanfront deck, and we’d slumber with the sliding glass door cracked a few inches, allowing the calming sound of waves crashing ashore to invade our dreams, with no alarm clock set and no pets clamoring for 3 a.m. potty breaks.  

Only it didn’t quite happen that way.

Nobody mentioned to us—and when I say nobody, I mean the rental company that happily took our money for the condo stay—that the federal government had funded a significant renourishment project along the coastline we were visiting, or that the work would occur all day and all through the night, with the incessant beep-beep-beep that signals the backup of heavy equipment, and a constant clanging of enormous, rust- and barnacle-covered pipes that spanned the beach directly in front of our rental and down the beach as far as the eye could see.

This was some serious ocean commotion!

This is important work. The renourishment is necessary for preservation of the beachfront, not just for the enjoyment of tourists, but for the conservation of the coast and the ecosystem around it. We could deal with this for a day or two. At least we would enjoy dinner in nearby Wilmington and walking the boardwalk and grabbing a Britt’s donut—a must-have when you are in Carolina Beach (except, they were closed). And we could still enjoy our planned beach day. Thank goodness we had arranged for an umbrella rental, which they promised to place in a safe spot. Well, kind of.

OK, this is cozy.

I’m not complaining; I’m just pointing out the irony of our “getting away” to a new place with equal-or-greater commotion than what we left at home. Yep, it was still full-on ruckus, only with a change of venue. We did enjoy some incredible food (and drinks), and I look forward to recreating some of that—and sharing it with you in the months ahead.

The whole “vacation” experience reminds me of our wedding day, which was the basis for our celebration now, five years later. Les and I were supposed to be married outside, beneath a sweet little white pergola at the entrance of our neighborhood. The homeowner’s association even moved up the date for painting the thing so it would be fresh and perfect for our big day and our very small wedding party of five (plus us and the rabbi). But you know what they say about the best-laid plans, right?

Wedding day monsoon.

On that day, we threw together a last-minute plan to exchange vows in the loft of our home, a decision that led to some precious and humorous moments with our pets, who decided they should be in on the action. At the end of that day, we were married, so we accomplished the main thing. Everyone assured us that rain on your wedding day is “good luck,” which is some brand of Southern nonsense that falls easily out of the mouths of people whose weddings were not rained out. Les said the wedding day weather was apropos, because life ahead would bring plenty of storms, so this was just good practice. We had a lovely time with friends and family despite it all, and we still think of our special day when we climb the stairs up to the seldom-used room.

I’m convinced that amid the curveballs that come at us all the way through life, we either get better or worse at rolling with the punches, and we get to decide which it will be. I’m grateful to be married to a man who has perfected the art of “let it go,” thankful for the experiences we share—rain and ruckus and all—and if a vacation turns out to be simply a change of venue in which to experience the chaos of life, well, I guess that’s a blessing, too.



Pollo Chipotle

There’s a time and place for the numbered dishes on a Mexican restaurant menu—you know what I mean, the #11 combo platter of one crunchy taco, one burrito and one enchilada, with a side of rice and flavorless refried beans. For me, the time was in my younger years, before I learned to appreciate the Mexican specialty dishes as I do today, and the place was (obviously) an actual restaurant, which I don’t frequent as much as I did in those days because, frankly, we prefer the food we make at home. It has only been recently that I started considering how to make some of our favorite Mexican meals, and those favorites seldom include items from the numbered combo section, and never any crunchy, from-a-box taco shells that I used to associate with Mexican “cuisine.” It’s funny how much has changed.

At one of our favorite local places, called Señor Bravo, the pollo chipotle is the special menu item that always wins over my husband, Les. The chicken (or pollo, if you wish) is tender and bite sized, and it’s drenched in a spicy sauce that has enough smoky chipotle to warrant being part of the dish’s name, but also enough rich cream to soften the edges and give the dish a special flair. I have tried several times to make this dish at home, and on previous attempts found it difficult to replicate the flavor and texture. It seemed something was missing so I fiddled with the cooking process, added ingredients and spices, tried different types of cream—from half and half to heavy cream—and every addition made it less and less like the restaurant dish. Finally, I dialed it all back and kept it simple. Turns out, simplicity was exactly and only what it needed.


Besides being simple and delicious, this dish is also relatively healthy, as I used cream cheese rather than heavy cream to thicken the spicy sauce. This eliminated the need for flour as a thickening agent. And for our at-home pollo chipotle, I jazzed up a simple pot of brown rice with a shake of cumin and a small handful of chopped cilantro and served it alongside a simple salad with fresh tomato and slices of ripe avocado.


Ingredients

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil

1/2 large yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and sliced

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Several twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 or 2 Tbsp. pureed chipotle with adobo sauce* (see recipe notes)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth*

A couple of pinches of dried Mexican oregano*

4 Tbsp. cream cheese, room temperature


*Recipe Notes

The chipotle puree is best prepared in advance, and you may want to start with one tablespoon and adjust up to taste. To make the puree, empty the entire contents of a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. If your processor has a small bowl insert, that will be the perfect size. Pulse a few times, then run the machine continuously until the sauce is completely smooth.


I prefer the more complex flavor of vegetable broth in most recipes, but for this dish, you could certainly use chicken broth. I would still recommend a low-sodium version, as this helps with controlling the overall amount of sodium in the dish.

Low-sodium vegetable broth is one of the most versatile ingredients in my pantry. If you prefer, use chicken broth.

Mexican oregano is very different from the easier-to-find Mediterranean oregano you are probably accustomed to using. It’s part of the verbena family, with a citrusy, slightly floral flavor. Search it out in an ethnic supermarket, at Whole Foods or the international spice section of World Market. If you can’t get Mexican oregano, dried marjoram would be a better substitute than regular oregano.

To make the cilantro rice, simply cook a batch of your favorite brown rice according to package instructions. Use vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor. Stir in salt, pepper, a few shakes of ground cumin and a small handful of fresh, chopped cilantro leaves before serving.

Why serve ordinary rice, if you can make it more flavorful with so little effort?

Instructions



Looking for ways to use the rest of the chipotle puree?



Sunset Margarita

This weekend, I will have the privilege of introducing my husband to live music by the one and only Jimmy Buffett. Despite being an avid music lover and concertgoer, Les has somehow managed to miss seeing the Son of a Son of a Sailor on stage (not to mention the pre-show tailgating), but that will all change on Saturday.

It may be difficult for me to make these fabulous margaritas in the parking lot of the Buffett concert, and it certainly would not display its layers of color through a red plastic cup, but it will taste as wonderful, and at least we enjoyed it at home a few times in all its beautiful, grown-up-cocktail glory.

The raspberry “sinker” has a way of stealing the show.

I created this drink from memory after a getaway weekend Les and I had back in February. We had a mouthwatering Mexican meal in Asheville, North Carolina, and I was intrigued by the descriptions (and the flavors) of the restaurant’s specialty margaritas. This one was called “1800 Sunset,” and the highlight—besides the 1800 reposado tequila that is the star spirit—was the Grand Marnier float and something the menu called a “raspberry sinker.” A float, I understand, and I’ve done it before by slowly pouring a spirit over the back of a bar spoon on top of the finished drink. But a sinker? How in the world do you get an ingredient to stay put in the bottom of the glass? After much searching on Pinterest, YouTube and a few of my favorite professional cocktail sites, I finally learned two ways to achieve this feat, one of which I’ll share with you in the slideshow (hint: I was seriously overthinking it).

A little sweet, a little heat, a little tart and a whole lot of fun!

For the rest of the drink, I wanted pure tropical bliss, so added a few twists of my own. I mixed the tequila with freshly squeezed lime, a splash of pineapple juice and a bar spoonful of jalapeno-infused simple syrup to shake things up. Raspberry on the bottom, orange on the top, and no sign of any “shaker of salt” —no, this pretty drink is rimmed with pink sea salt. These are no ordinary margaritas. Jimmy Buffett, eat your heart out!

You don’t need special “margarita” glasses to make this drink, but it is prettiest in a clear glass that is wider at the top than the bottom. Even a martini glass would work, if that’s what you have. Make up to two drinks at a time in your shaker.


Ingredients, per cocktail

2.0 oz. 1800 reposado tequila

1.0 oz. pineapple juice (canned or fresh)

0.5 oz. jalapeno-infused simple syrup (recipe below)

Juice of 1/2 lime

0.5 oz. Chambord raspberry liqueur (for sinker)

0.25 oz. Grand Marnier or Cointreau liqueur (for floater)

1 tablespoon pink sea salt (for rimming the glass)


Instructions

Prepare the glasses first by swiping a lime wedge around the rim. Pour a couple of spoonfuls of Himalayan sea salt onto a paper towel. Roll only the outside of the glass on the salted towel, so that the rim is evenly salted, but the salt will not fall into the cocktail. Place the glasses in the freezer for at least 10 minutes.

Slice thin wheels of fresh lime, one for each drink. Place them on a paper towel to absorb excess juice and sprinkle them lightly with sea salt, if desired. Measure out the Grand Marnier into a shot glass or small measuring cup. This will aid in “floating” the liqueur over the drink without overdoing it.

Here comes the “sinker” part of the recipe, and you may be surprised how easy it is. Remove the glasses from the freezer and measure the Chambord into the bottom of the glass. Add several ice cubes (or one giant one) to the glass so the Chambord cools down while you shake up the rest of the cocktail.

The drink begins with a pour of Chambord, topped immediately with ice. I use my digital scale for measuring; it’s less sticky! 🙂

In a cocktail shaker, combine tequila, pineapple juice, jalapeno syrup and lime juice over one cup of ice cubes. Shake about 20 seconds to blend the ingredients. Strain the cocktail over the ice in the glass, pouring slowly to avoid disturbing the raspberry sinker underneath.

Finally, turn a bar spoon or teaspoon upside-down over the drink, resting the tip of it on one of the ice cubes. Pour the Grand Marnier slowly over the curved back of the spoon—easy does it! Garnish the drink with a lime wheel and enjoy!

I missed getting a picture of the Grand Marnier float, but it really is as easy as it sounds!

Jalapeno-infused Simple Syrup

1/2 cup filtered water

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/2 red jalapeno, thinly sliced (seeds included, if you dare)

Simple syrup can be infused with just about anything. This time, I used a red jalapeno for heat to balance the sweet pineapple and raspberry.

Bring water to a gentle boil. Turn off the heat, add sugar and stir until dissolved. Add the jalapeno slices and allow the syrup to steep until completely cooled. Strain out the jalapeno slices. Transfer the syrup to a sealed jar or squeeze bottle. Keep syrup in the fridge for up to two weeks.



Matzo Brei Florentine

Make something off limits, and that’ll be exactly what you crave, right? We only started Passover on Friday evening, and I can’t stop thinking about wanting a big, fat sandwich. To be clear, my husband does not expect me to adhere strictly to this Jewish custom of his—heck, he’s the first to admit that he is not religious himself about this requirement when he is out and about—but he does not eat bread at home during the Passover week. His choice is not about strict religious mandates, but tradition that helps him feel connection with his ancestors, and especially his late father. I am not Jewish myself, but I respect the tradition and so I am making an effort to accommodate this food called matzo.

Iconic, yes. But matzo needs a whole lot of help to become flavorful or interesting.

If you have never had the anti-joy of eating matzo, allow me to describe it for you— try to remember the driest, most bland, and perhaps even stalest, saltine cracker you’ve ever eaten. It may have been a cellophane-wrapped packet that a diner waitress fished out of her apron pocket for your bowl of chili in 1974. Maybe you got stuck in traffic on the interstate during a blizzard and had to resort to eating whatever random things you found in the glove compartment. Or perhaps you found some old takeout crackers in the back of your desk drawer when you finally made it back to the office after two years of COVID shutdown. Whatever memory you conjured, hang onto that for a moment and try to remember the taste. Yep, matzo is like that. But not as good. And without salt.

You could search the entire world and not find a less interesting cracker. Or is it considered bread? The Jewish people developed matzo as a reference to the unleavened bread their ancestors were forced to eat when they fled Egypt in a hurry. There was no time for the bread to rise, so they baked the dough as it was and took it on the run. Whatever category you put matzo in (bread or crackers), this stuff is undeniably boring, but a common sight in my home now—at least during Passover. My goal, as the primary meal maker, is to find ways to make matzo more palatable because eating it from the box can only be described as “choking it down.” And I won’t even mention what it does to the digestive system (it ain’t pretty).

Thank goodness for the New York Times Cooking e-letter, which is always brimming with menu ideas, including a classic, basic version of this dish, called matzo brei. According to Melissa Clark, the author of the recipe, brei rhymes with “fry,” which is exactly what you do with the matzo before scrambling it into eggs. As written, the recipe sounded dull, but as I started working at the stove, I asked Les if there was any reason that I couldn’t jazz up this humble dish just a bit—maybe with addition of onions and some spinach? Sure, was his response, and this was the result.

My first attempt at matzo brei got my gears turning about other possible flavor twists. What do you think would be good?

I liked this dish! Spinach is nothing new with eggs at our house, as I incorporate it often into omelets. Onions were a no-brainer, and some matzo is even onion-flavored, though that variety is not usually considered kosher for Passover. And the matzo pieces, fried in butter and mingled throughout the scrambled egg mixture, reminded me a little bit of a baked pasta, especially for the crispy, buttered edges. I don’t know what prompted me to top the dish with sour cream, but it was a good call, and the fresh dill I had picked up at the market was a perfect finish for this savory, ready-in-15-minutes breakfast. As Les and I scarfed down our matzo brei with spinach (Florentine, if you will), we began brainstorming other flavor combinations— maybe peppers and mushrooms, or feta and asparagus. Wait, how many days of Passover do we have left?

The recipe was not without challenges, despite its simplicity. I messed up the beginning of the recipe by commencing to fry the matzo in butter straight from the box, and it wasn’t until my common sense began to question the technique that I noticed in the recipe’s steps that I was supposed to rinse and soak the matzo first. Why it was not listed as such in the ingredients, I’ll never know, but I’ll add the oversight to my list of what I call the problem with recipes. The ingredients of the NYT Cooking recipe did not include water, so it didn’t occur to me until it was (almost) too late.

All’s well that ends well, and I’ll describe in my recipe notes how I recovered from my mistake (it was easy). Regardless of whether I ever make matzo brei again, I discovered for sure that I always want to have sour cream and fresh dill on my scrambled eggs now. And with five days of Passover left to go, we are least down two more sheets of matzo.


Ingredients (serves 2)

2 sheets plain matzo, rinsed under warm water and set aside to soften* (see notes)

3 Tbsp. salted butter

1/4 cup chopped sweet onion

Good handful fresh baby spinach, rough-chopped

Kosher salt and ground black pepper (to taste)

3 eggs*, room temperature, beaten with a splash of water or milk

A hefty dollop of sour cream (for serving)

1 Tbsp. chopped fresh dill (for garnish)


*Notes

My mistake led me to an alternate method of softening the matzo. Since I had missed the step of rinsing and resting the matzo ahead of time, I simply poured about 1/4 cup warm water from my tea kettle right into the skillet with the butter and matzo pieces. The dry matzo soaked up the water and fried in the butter with no issues. This may truly be a better method than the original because I didn’t have to wash an extra “soaking” dish or clean up a soggy matzo mess from the counter. Do what works for you!

The original recipe that inspired me suggested using four eggs, but I followed my instinct and used three, as I always do for an omelet-for-two. If you have an extra hearty appetite, go with four eggs.


Instructions

I’ll walk you through it in pictures, and keep scrolling to find it ready to print or save for your recipe files!



Baked Salmon with Creamy Dijon Sauce

What a week! Things have been a bit upside-down at our house, as my husband and I are now in week five of our master bath remodel. It isn’t clear to me how a room half the size of the kitchen can take longer to overhaul, but we are assured that the end of the month will bring light at the end of the tunnel. I’m sure ready to get back to normal, though “normal” itself is different with the change of season. Can I get an “achoo?”


The weather is warming, my car is predictably covered in yellow pollen, all the flowers are blooming and the bees are buzzing (literally). Yesterday, as I chatted with a neighbor in the warmth of the afternoon, we heard a humming sound that became increasingly loud as we talked. It was not the sound of the nearby wet saw grinding away at the large porcelain tiles that will grace the walls of our new, walk-in shower—no, this sound was much closer and sounded like a chaotic symphony of the natural sort. To be honest, it felt and sounded a bit ominous, as if the wind carried a warning. I finally looked up to realize that an enormous swarm of bees was on the move! In all my years, I had never before witnessed such a sight, and it was something to behold. Thankfully, they kept moving!


Easter arrives this weekend, and for the occasion, I’ll be making a couple batches of homemade Moravian Sugar Cake this evening and tomorrow morning. And then, with the Friday evening arrival of Passover, all leavened baked goods will be “off the table” for a week (plus a day). That is a big test of my willpower, and I will probably try to satisfy my cravings virtually by sharing a previously made bread recipe (or two).

In the meantime, here’s a delicious and healthful seafood recipe that fits the bill for the final Friday of Lent or for a simple Passover meal for the coming week. When I made this dish a few months ago, it was a good reminder for me that a meal does not have to be complicated to seem elegant. The creamy Dijon-spiked sauce has a dual role; first, to coat the salmon during baking (which keeps it delightfully moist) and, second, a reserved amount can be dolloped onto the plate for dipping as you enjoy each bite. I like wild or sustainably farm-raised salmon for this recipe, but arctic char or steelhead trout would be equally delicious, and it only takes 30 minutes, start to finish—perfect at the end of a hectic “here comes spring” week!


Ingredients (serves 2)

2 fillets salmon (about 6 oz. each, skin-on is fine)

Creamy Dijon Sauce

1/3 cup sour cream (or Greek yogurt, if you prefer)

1 tsp. Dijon mustard* (see note below)

1 small shallot, finely chopped

2 tsp. fresh dill, finely chopped (or about 1/2 tsp. dried dill)

A small handful of fresh, flat-leaf parsley, chopped

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

Kosher salt and black pepper to taste


*Notes

If you will be making this dish for Passover, omit the Dijon, as mustard is not considered kosher for Passover, especially in Ashkenazi Jewish culture. I’m still learning the rules, and though we don’t follow all of them at our house, I would hate to lead someone else astray of acceptable standards. This will be delicious, even without the mustard.


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Prepare a baking sheet, lined with parchment or silicone liner.
  2. Pat salmon fillets dry with paper towels. Season each with salt and pepper.
  3. Stir together the sour cream, Dijon, shallots, dill and parsley. Squeeze in lemon juice and stir to combine. Adjust salt and pepper to taste.
  4. Spread the creamy Dijon sauce generously over each fillet, reserving a few tablespoons for serving later. Bake for 25 minutes, or until salmon flakes easily.

Baked Salmon with Creamy Dijon Sauce
Served with easy sauteed spinach and roasted rings of delicata squash.


Black Sea Bass with Dirty Martini Butter Sauce

I’ve lived in and around Winston-Salem for 35 years, and from the day I arrived as a fresh-faced 20-something, I’ve explored every corner and tried every restaurant and sought out all the specialty shops in a quest to satisfy my food-loving soul.

Or so I thought.

A few years ago, some friends of ours made mention of Sea Products, a hidden gem that has been in business three years longer than I’ve been here, and their recommendation has changed my life. OK, that’s probably a bit overstated, but it has definitely changed my seafood game for the better.

I love stepping into this little shop in the West End of my city. It smells like the ocean in the best possible way and is always amply stocked with fresh seafood—mostly from our own coastline, but sometimes from as far as Canada—and all kinds of accoutrements for whatever preparation you have in mind for your fresh catch. Sea Products throws in a fresh lemon with every seafood purchase, and sells housemade tartar and cocktail sauces, side salads in ready-to-go containers, and fresh breads from a local bakery. They even have a small, curated wine selection, and every bottle pairs with fish. It’s a one-stop shop, and I am a proud supporter of local businesses such as this. The selections are always interesting, to the point that I don’t even bother making a shopping list.

What would it be this day—fresh shrimp, clams or scallops? Pre-made crab or fish cakes? Halibut or grouper? And then something caught my eye from the corner of the case, a fish that I hadn’t seen on previous visits. Black sea bass. The clerk described it as “mild and flaky, similar to snapper but a touch sweeter.”


I am always interested in trying new fish, and thought it made sense to pair the unfamiliar black sea bass with flavors we already knew. OK, I thought, piccata sauce. It’s light enough to let the flavors of the fish shine, and both my husband and I like the balance of brine and tartness, softened by the butter that’s swirled in at the end of cooking. Piccata was the plan, at least, until I opened the fridge. As I shuffled jars to reach the capers, my eyes locked in on a taller jar of pimento-stuffed cocktail olives. Ooh, a martini would be nice right now, I thought.

And then, hmmmm.

I could not help but wonder what would happen if I made the olives an understudy to the usual capers. And because savory olives work so nicely in a martini, what would happen if I substituted gin and vermouth for the white wine in my piccata? Well, this happened!

Black Sea Bass with Dirty Martini Butter Sauce

Technically, the alcohol infusion I’ve used here is what a bartender would call a “reverse martini,” because the ratio of gin to vermouth has been flipped. This seemed the right thing to do, not only because my husband is decidedly not a gin lover, but also for the fact that gin is much higher alcohol by volume than white wine. Dry vermouth, on the other hand, is on par with wine, alcohol-wise, and it would be a better flavor choice to highlight the olives without over-boozing the fish. Finally, my splash of olive juice was far more generous than I’d ever drink in a cocktail (I used a full ounce of it), so a bartender would probably declare the drink infusion to be a “filthy reverse martini.” Filthy indeed.

Two olives in a martini is said to be bad luck. One wasn’t enough, I went with three! 😉

So, those are the flavors and here comes the technique. If you have ever marveled at the elegance of a butter sauce on fresh seafood, you may find it surprising to know that it is simple to make. The trick is to remove the pan from the heat as soon as the juices are reduced, and to swirl cold-from-the-fridge pats of butter into the sauce, one at a time. This easy technique transforms the otherwise liquid leavings in the pan into a silky, rich sauce.

Come, join me in the kitchen!


Ingredients

2 fillets fresh black sea bass (or other mild, flaky whitefish)

1 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

2 Tbsp. canola or other neutral oil

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (a rich, fruity one is great)

1/2 medium onion, diced (about 1/2 cup)

1 reverse filthy martini* (see note below)

1 heaping tsp. pimentos from a jar

3 Tbsp. completely cold butter (for swirling in at the end)

Small handful of fresh parsley, chopped (for serving)

Lemon wedge (to squeeze at serving time)


*Notes

Reverse martini ingredients are 1.5 oz. dry or extra-dry vermouth, .5 oz. gin, 1 oz. olive juice, 3 olives. Do not shake or stir the martini with ice, as you would for drinking. Just combine the ingredients in a glass or measuring cup at room temperature. Chop or slice the olives and set them aside.

If you don’t care for gin, swap it for vodka or omit it altogether.


Instructions