Mexican Street Corn Hash and Eggs

Before we get too carried away into kitchen renovation land, I owe the month of September its due respect. We are now 10 days into National Better Breakfast Month, and given that breakfast is my favorite meal, I should have more breakfast recipes on the blog already. But at our house, weekends are the only time we do anything fun or fancy for breakfast, so my opportunities are somewhat limited (much to my chagrin).

Today’s recipe is not fancy, but it gets high marks in the fun department because of all the flavors and textures. My inspiration for the dish came from a restaurant where my work team had its first face-to-face meeting since the pandemic started. The restaurant, which specializes in breakfast and brunch, had a “specials” board that announced, “Mexican street corn hash,” featuring chorizo, corn, potatoes and a sunny-side egg. It was good, but not particularly spicy, and it was missing a little something for me (smoke). My mind started working to break down the flavors and figure out how to improve it, and the outcome was delicious!

My adjustments made this breakfast spicier and smokier than the restaurant version.

For my version of the dish, I amped up the flavors of a store-bought chorizo, using ordinary spices and a surprise ingredient (keep reading) to boost the texture of the sausage while enhancing the Mexican flavors. I used a combination of red jalapeno peppers and onions to make the potato hash interesting, and I finished the plate with crumbly cotija cheese, avocado cubes and a quick squeeze of fresh lime juice.

As I was discussing with a friend recently, if you have dietary restrictions, you don’t necessarily have to give up all the flavors you love. In this recipe, the yummy Mexican chorizo flavor can be easily adapted to turkey sausage or ground turkey (but be sure to adjust the spices and use a little oil for browning). You will still get the texture and flavors that made this dish delicious, without the ingredients that cause discomfort or health problems.


Ingredients

3 small, skin-on red potatoes, scrubbed and cut into cubes

1/2 tsp. baking soda

1/2 lb. fresh chorizo sausage* (see notes)

1/2 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika (or combine with cayenne, if you dare!)

A few shakes ground cumin

A few shakes of dried Mexican oregano*

1 to 2 Tbsp. fine ground corn meal or masa harina*

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

1/2 red jalapeno pepper, finely diced* (handle with care!)

1/2 cup frozen fire-roasted corn kernels*

2 large eggs (and a swirl of oil to fry them)

1/2 ripe avocado, cubed

1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese*

1/2 fresh lime


*Notes

I used 3 fresh chorizo links, similar in size to Italian sausage, with the casings removed. I don’t recommend the hard chorizo sausage that is typical of Spanish cuisine. If you substitute 1/2 lb. ground turkey or turkey sausage, add a bit of garlic powder and adjust the other seasonings to assimilate the flavor of chorizo, and be sure to use a little canola or olive oil in the skillet to make up for the sausage fat.

Mexican oregano, not to be confused with typical Mediterranean oregano, has an earthy flavor with similarities to citrus. This gives a different impression than the oregano you’d use in Greek or Italian recipes, which is a member of the mint family.

Are you wondering about the corn meal? I discovered a few years ago that adding corn meal (or masa harina, the ingredient used to make corn tortillas) gives a distinctly Mexican flavor to taco seasoning, and for this recipe, it adds a bit of the grainy, gritty texture that is so good in chorizo. It also seems to help absorb some of the grease when the chorizo cooks. Try it and see!

If jalapeno is too spicy for your palate, sub in a similar amount of red bell pepper.

I used Trader Joe’s fire-roasted corn, available in the freezer section. Regular sweet corn would work just as well, but I really like the slightly charred, smoky flavor that the roasted corn conveys.

Cotija is a dry, crumbly cheese that lends a salty touch to Mexican dishes. If you cannot find it, crumbled feta would be a good substitute.


Instructions

  1. Bring a medium pot of water to boil. Add the potatoes when the water comes to a boil and stir in the baking soda. This will “rough up” the surface of the potatoes to make them more crispy and more porous to the seasonings in the skillet. When the potatoes are just tender enough to pierce with the tip of a knife (but not mushy), drain and set aside.
  2. Remove any casings from the chorizo and sprinkle the paprika, cumin, oregano and corn meal over it. Using your hands, squeeze to combine the seasonings thoroughly into the sausage.
  3. Heat a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Crumble the sausage into the skillet and cook until all sides have a nice brown crust on them. Add the onions and jalapenos; continue cooking until the onions are soft.
  4. Move the sausage and onion mixture to the edges of the skillet. Add a quick swirl of oil if the skillet is dry. Add the potatoes to the center of the skillet, cooking them to desired texture. Add the corn and cook until heated through.
  5. In a separate, non-stick skillet, heat 1 Tbsp. oil over medium heat and fry the eggs to desired doneness.
  6. Divide the hash for two servings. Sprinkle each with 2 Tbsp. of the cotija cheese and scatter the avocado cubes around the plate. Squeeze a bit of lime juice over the hash, top with an egg and serve. Any chorizo drippings left in the skillet may be drizzled over the egg if you like. 😊



Time Flies When You’re Having Fun!

On Memorial Day weekend this year (the unofficial start of summer), my husband, Les, and I enjoyed a few craft beers at our favorite local brewpub, dreaming up fun things to do for a late-summer vacation. We were hoping to make good on some travel plans that we had to cancel last year, and our decision to drive rather than fly gave us a lot of flexibility for how to spend a week away from home. We knew that we wanted to visit the Northeast, through New York and Connecticut, and we were game for just about anything.

On a whim that afternoon, my husband looked up the concert schedule for one of his favorite Jersey-based bands, and would you believe it? —they were scheduled to play on Labor Day weekend, right at the end of our planned vacation time! Our spontaneous decision to hit the “buy it” button on those tickets turned out to be one of our best moves ever. We counted down the months, weeks and days until our trip, and now the vacation that we had so eagerly anticipated has ended and it feels a bit blurry. The experience of time is an odd thing, and even more so after having spent nearly a year and a half not going anywhere. We are safe at home, exhausted, and still reeling from all the incredible adventures we had over 10 days and across more than 1,800 miles.

During our getaway, which was conveniently timed to coincide with Les’s birthday, we enjoyed visits with family and old friends, made new friends and met a few others face-to-face for the first time, including Bernadette, one of my blogging buddies that I met here on WordPress, and our musician friends, Glenn Alexander and Oria. Those experiences gave me joy that I cannot quite put into words. We also had some of the most incredible food, including pizza at three of America’s top-rated pizzerias and some chicken wings in Connecticut that were, quite frankly, better than any wings I have had from my time near Buffalo. Les and I walked more than 7 miles in one day in NYC, including lunch at Chelsea Market and happy hour at a classic tavern in Greenwich Village, mere days before the record-setting rainfall that wreaked havoc on the city and parts of New Jersey and Long Island, all locations we stayed during our trip. We visited a legendary music venue made famous by Bruce Springsteen, attended a fabulous outdoor concert by a favorite band, and did I mention all the terrific food?

I’m still trying to get my arms around these experiences, and also trying to resume the routines of work-from-home life, and it is a little overwhelming, but I promise more details are coming. Here’s a glimpse of what is to come in the weeks ahead, as I aim to replicate or re-invent some of the culinary experiences we had along the way.

Nearly every leg of our journey was tied in some way to Comfort du Jour, and I am overwhelmed with gratitude for the many ways starting this blog has changed my life for the good.

We are happy to be home, sleeping in our own bed and loving on our precious pets. It is back to business-as-usual status around here, but not really. This action-packed vacation was a pre-emptive strike against stress, as our kitchen remodel is finally about to begin, so brace yourself for some new posts that will probably be a bit chaotic at times. We still have a lot of pantry items to use up, and Les will be giving me a new “Chopped” basket this evening, and it will be the last one I am able to navigate before the kitchen is dismantled. And then we will have a new adventure, perhaps named “The No-Kitchen Challenge.” Oh, these are the good times!

Thank you, dear reader, for hanging on for the ride. ❤


Italian Deli Tortellini Salad

It does not seem possible that we are already heading into Labor Day weekend, the U.S. holiday that was established in 1894 to honor all the hard-working people whose efforts built social and economic strength for our country. But here we are, days away from the first Monday in September, and for most of us, that means an end-of-summer cookout, or at least some time in the great (hot) outdoors.

I promised a couple of weeks ago to present a few new ideas for easy salads that are perfect for backyard gatherings—I shared the tangy apple cole slaw, which brings a bit of tart fruit to the usual cabbage-and-carrots mix, and the tzatziki potato salad, leaning on the zesty flavors of a popular Greek condiment to bring some zip into one of our favorite summer sides.

To make good on my promise for a twist on pasta salad, I let my imagination run wild through an Italian deli case and all the salty, meaty, cheesy flavors one might find there. Initially, I had planned to use a basic pasta shape, such as penne or rotini, but I stepped it up and used cheese-stuffed tortellini instead. The result is this hearty, satisfying salad that could be a side dish (if you have the discipline to only scoop out a little bit of it), but we found it perfectly filling as a cool dinner salad, served up on a bed of fresh baby spinach and topped with halved grape tomatoes.

Since the time that I made this hearty salad, I have had the pleasure of visiting a real Italian deli, so I expect that my next version of this salad might hold a few additional flavors, but this was a good, flavorful start. 🙂

Mangia!

A small scoop of this salad would be a good side, but a large scoop on a bed of baby spinach was hearty enough for dinner!

Ingredients

1/2 package fresh cheese-filled tortellini* (see notes)

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise (optional, see notes)

4 Tbsp. prepared Italian vinegar-and-oil dressing (I used Good Seasons)

Several slices provolone cheese, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured Italian salami, cut into bite-sized pieces

Several slices uncured pepperoni, cut into bite-sized pieces

About 1 cup giardiniera vegetables*, drained well and chopped

1/2 can garbanzo (ceci) beans, drained

Handful of fresh grape tomatoes, halved

Fresh baby spinach, for plating


*Notes

I used Buitoni fresh pasta, the kind you find in the refrigerated case near the ricotta cheese. Frozen tortellini would probably work well, too. Or you could go crazy and make it from scratch! If you want a lighter salad, substitute about half a box of penne or rotini pasta.

If you prefer a dressing that is not creamy, skip the mayonnaise and increase the Italian dressing by a tablespoon or two.

This was one of those times that I thought a store-bought ingredient would be “just as good” as a homemade one, but this giardiniera does not hold a candle to the one I make myself. Before fall officially begins, I promise I will share that recipe!


Instructions

  1. Cook the fresh tortellini according to package instructions, stopping just shy of tender. Drain it, and then immediately transfer the cooked pillows to a bowl filled with ice water to halt the cooking. Drain completely, and if you have enough time, chill the pasta by itself for an hour or two before adding the other salad ingredients.
  2. Prep all the other ingredients, along with anything else you think belongs in an Italian deli pasta salad. Be sure to drain any ingredients that are packed in water.
  3. Combine mayonnaise and Italian dressing until smooth.
  4. Toss the add-ins into the bowl with the cooked, chilled tortellini. Pour the dressing over the mix and gently fold with a spatula to combine and coat all the ingredients.
  5. Chill for at least one hour before serving. I found that this salad was better the second day, because the cooked tortellini tightened up a bit.
  6. Serve on a bed of baby spinach leaves, topped with halved grape tomatoes and a sprinkling of grated parm-romano cheese.

I tried to include all the great flavors of an Italian deli. Did I miss anything? 🙂


Moroccan Zucchini “Boats”

One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.

You can make a generous meal from a foot-long zucchini!

On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.


This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.

 

Harissa is a staple seasoning of North African cuisine. It packs a spicy punch, so use it sparingly.

Ingredients

Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out

Olive oil spray

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*

1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*

Fresh chopped parsley for garnish


*Notes

Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.

I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂

There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.


As usual, Nilla is ready and waiting for a piece of vegetable to fall! ❤

Instructions

Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
  3. Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
  4. Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
  5. Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
  6. Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
  7. Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
  8. Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.

Delicious and satisfying!



No-Guilt “Alfredo”

There is a common occurrence around 3 am at our house, and it usually results in a new recipe idea. You see, when I find myself unable to stay asleep, my middle-of-the-night solution is to pick up my smart phone and start looking at Pinterest. It doesn’t take long before my insomnia-driven wanderings, combined with the rabbit-hole algorithms of their platform, usually leads me to imagine putting a ridiculous, over-the-top twist on favorite classic foods. On a recent sleepless night, however, I was inspired in a different way.


Thank you for the reminder!

If there is truth in this quote (and, of course, there is), then I owe myself, and especially my physical body, an apology. At times, my enthusiasm for trying new things has caused me to put undue emphasis on foods that don’t serve me well, at least in terms of good health. I cannot eat s’mores ice cream and root beer-glazed baby back ribs all the time. I have to strike a balance with some good-for-me foods, too, and I’m overdue for some healthier stuff.

Rather than switch to an unsustainable “all salads” kind of menu plan, I decided to pull out some old tricks and use vegetables in creative ways to lighten up some foods that would otherwise be rich and decadent. The first recipe I drew from my archive is this silky “Alfredo.” It satisfies all my cravings for rich, creamy sauciness, but without the guilt or side effects associated with eating a ton of cream, butter and cheese. What kind of culinary wizardry is this, you may ask? And what ingredients could possibly achieve this?

Yes, really!

Yes, the same fiber-rich vegetable that stands in for carbs as rice and pizza crust can also be transformed into a ribbony, sumptuous sauce that’s ready to be draped over your favorite whole grain pasta or veg’d out even further onto spiralized zucchini noodles. All you need is some broth, a bit of olive oil to roast the garlic and a good, powerful blender. After you puree it to smooth, silky perfection, you can swirl in a little cream for richness and a spoonful or two of Parmesan for zest and a lovely umami flavor. Of course, if you prefer to keep it entirely dairy free, you can do that, too. Perhaps swirl in a bit of creamy oat milk or almond milk and a tablespoon of nutritional yeast. Finally, a touch of olive oil emphasizes the silky mouthfeel that is just as important as ingredients for creating a satisfying food experience.

Forgive me, I was eating it straight from the spoon.

But does it really taste exactly like real Alfredo? Obviously, no, because it’s cauliflower. But it has a creamier texture than you would ever expect from such a fiber-rich vegetable, and it’s an easy, inexpensive way to satisfy your craving for creamy without the dietary downside. The roasted garlic provides a savory depth of flavor, and you can add just enough cream or half and half to trick your taste buds into thinking it is a traditional Alfredo. You will never miss the high-calorie ingredients, I promise, and this also happens to be a great way to “sneak” some veggies into a meal for an unsuspecting loved one.

In addition to the obvious use as a sauce for pasta, you could use this concoction in place of a béchamel in a casserole or veggie lasagna, or increase the broth or milk of choice and turn it into a creamy base for a comforting vegetable soup. As a bonus, you can warm up the leftovers without breaking the sauce into a greasy mess.


Ingredients

1 large head fresh cauliflower, separated into roughly uniform florets

1 or 2 whole bulbs garlic, roasted* (see notes)

1/2 cup chicken bone broth* (or mushroom or vegetable broth)

Salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. mild, neutral olive or avocado oil

3 Tbsp. half and half*

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend*



*Notes

If you are a garlic lover, I recommend using both bulbs of roasted garlic, which has a rich, mellow flavor because of the slow roasting. If you have never roasted garlic before, please give it a try because it is one of the best ways to add a rich flavor to a veggie-centered dish. Use the instructions I offered in my previous post for roasted garlic (a.k.a. best flavor ever), or if the oven heat is too much for your late summer comfort, a quick internet search will lead you to instructions for making it in an instant pot or slow cooker. Whatever method you choose, roast the bulbs until they are very soft, and a deep golden color.


I used chicken bone broth in my no-guilt Alfredo sauce, because I wanted the rich, savory flavor and I was not concerned about keeping it vegetarian. If you prefer, use a mushroom or veggie broth, preferably one that does not contain tomato, which changes the flavor significantly. You know what else would probably be really good? Miso broth!

I used bone broth because I had it open, but any vegetable broth or mushroom broth will work fine too.

The dairy items are totally optional, and depending on your preferences or diet restrictions, you have plenty of choices. OK with dairy but need it low fat? Try evaporated milk. Want it vegan? Go for a creamy (unflavored and unsweetened) oat or almond milk and consider adding a tablespoon of nutritional yeast for a cheesy, nutty flavor that is reminiscent of parmesan. Want your veggies and still craving cream? Add more half and half or heavy cream. You’re the boss. 😉


Instructions

  1. Rinse and dissect the cauliflower into florets of approximately the same size to ensure even cooking. Use the thick stem parts, too, but trim off all visible layers of leaves.
  2. Add enough cold water to just cover the cauliflower in a large, heavy-bottomed sauce pot. Bring to a gentle boil and add a teaspoon of kosher salt to the water. Cover the pot and simmer over medium-low heat until the thickest stems and pieces of cauliflower are tender enough to be easily smashed with a fork.
  3. Drain the cauliflower in a large colander. Spread it out onto a parchment-lined baking sheet to cool a bit, and also to evaporate all of the excess moisture from the cauliflower.
  4. Combine the cooled cauliflower, broth and roasted garlic in a good blender, working in batches if necessary. Pulse a few times at first, then puree steadily until the mixture resembles sauce. Transfer mixture to a large bowl.
  5. Use a splash of additional broth or half and half (or substitute) to blend out the remaining sauce that clings to the sides of the blender. Stir that into the sauce, along with parm-romano blend, parmesan or nutritional yeast.
  6. For additional silkiness, stir in a tablespoon of mild, neutral-flavored olive oil or avocado oil. This will help your no-guilt Alfredo maintain a glossy saucy look and also adds a dose of heart-healthy Omega-3 fats.

Served with handmade (sun-dried tomato) pasta, roasted broccoli and easy sauteed shrimp.



Easy Chicken Souvlaki

My first taste of Greek food came when I was in my early 20s, shortly after I arrived in Winston-Salem, N.C. Unlike the places I’d lived before—upstate N.Y. and a few places in Colorado—this southern city is home to a large community of Greek-Americans. One of my first jobs here was waiting tables at a Greek-owned casual seafood restaurant, where our most popular (though not inherently “Greek”) menu items included breaded and deep-fried flounder and crunchy little seafood nuggets known as “popcorn shrimp.”

It didn’t take long though before I discovered some of the other Greek-owned eateries in town that offered an authentic, mouthwatering specialty called souvlaki, a lemon and herb-seasoned marinated meat, grilled on skewers and served with any number of authentic sides. Depending on the time of day, you might be served souvlaki with seasoned rice or lemon-herb potatoes, or with Greek feta salad and pita. But always on the side with souvlaki is tzatziki, a Greek yogurt-based condiment with shredded cucumber, garlic and dill.

Some of the new words associated with these delectable foods were hard for me to say at first, but it didn’t take long for me to fall in love with the incredible flavors of Greek food. This fall, perhaps when our new kitchen is completed, I look forward to making a classic pastitsio or moussaka, both of which are baked comfort to the nth degree, rich with warm spices and creamy béchamel.

But today, I’m focused on the food to work best with summer grilling, and that is souvlaki. Traditionally, souvlaki would be made with chunks of lean pork, but there are just as many restaurants around here that put the same flavors and treatment on pieces of chicken breast, and it is positively delicious. Feel free to cut boneless chicken breasts into chunks for your souvlaki—that would be the more traditional way, after all—or you can take the easy way, as I have, and marinate whole chicken tenders, skip the skewers and toss the tenders right onto the grill.

Souvlaki is delicious with warm, soft pita breads and zesty tzatziki sauce, which is easy to make while you wait for the marinade magic to happen. You might also serve your souvlaki up with a batch of the cool tzatziki potato salad I shared a few days ago. Before long, you’ll join me in shouting the traditional Greek celebration exclamation—OPA!


Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders

1 whole organic lemon, juiced (plus the zest)

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

About 4 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. Kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil


Instructions

  1. Pat the chicken tenders dry, but do not rinse them. Lightly sprinkle with kosher salt and toss to coat.
  2. In a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl, combine lemon juice, zest, vinegar, garlic, oregano, salt and pepper. Take note of the volume this mixture has in the bowl. Whisk the marinade mixture while streaming in enough olive oil to roughly double the volume of the marinade.
  3. Add the chicken tenders to the marinade and use tongs to thoroughly toss and coat them. As much as possible, press the tenders to be fully submerged in the marinade. Cover the bowl and refrigerate at least six hours.
  4. When you are ready to cook the tenders, simply remove them from the marinade and place them directly onto the pre-heated grill. There is no need to rinse them or even to scrape the marinade from the tenders.

Tzatziki

1 Persian cucumber (or 1/2 medium slicing cucumber), peeled, seeded and finely chopped or grated

A couple pinches of kosher salt

1 cup plain Greek yogurt (or substitute sour cream if you must)

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped

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

Line a small custard cup with a paper towel. Add the chopped or grated cucumber and stir with salt. Wrap the paper towel over the cucumbers and allow this to sit in the fridge 30 minutes to release and absorb excess moisture.

Combine cucumbers with yogurt, garlic and dill. Cover and refrigerate until ready to serve.




Tzatziki Potato Salad

There are as many ways to make potato salad as there are grandmothers, and although my own Gram never made this version, I know she would have liked it. Gram introduced me to yogurt when I was a young girl, and it’s a good thing she did, for a couple of reasons. First, I love it in all its forms—plain, Greek, drinkable, etc.—and second, I likely would not have tried yogurt at all because my mother hates it.

If the passion for food and cooking is passed down genetically, then all I can say is that it skipped a generation in my branch of the family tree. My mom is not a bad cook, just a basic (and infrequent) cook, and the meals she served when I was young never strayed from what she herself liked to eat. My friends, that was a short list. On the good side of things, this allowed me to experience Mexican food at an early age, and it is still a favorite. On the flip side, I nearly missed out growing up on so many things I love today, including cream cheese, eggplant, bleu cheese and, well, I could go on for days. Not only did my mom not enjoy those foods, but she would make disgusted faces about the very idea of them, and I might have grown up believing they were poisonous, if not for my grandmother’s influence.

Yogurt is about as far from poison as you can get; it’s rich with protein and gut-nourishing probiotics, and I learned to love the little cups of it that my grandmother always seemed to have in the fridge when I visited. My favorite flavors, as I recall, were lemon and the ones with blueberry or peaches that you stirred up from the bottom. These tasty treats paved the way for me to love Greek yogurt in my adult years, and most often with no fruit or sugar added. This powerhouse food is strained to a thicker texture than regular yogurt, so that the protein is concentrated, making it a fantastic base for healthy breakfast smoothies. In our house, we regularly reach for Greek yogurt as an even exchange for sour cream, and we whip it into our scallion cream cheese to make it more spreadable.

As summer inches toward its end this year, I had been considering ways to liven up my basic potato salad recipe, and it occurred to me that tzatziki—the bold and zesty, Greek yogurt and cucumber sauce—could be a terrific addition to a potato salad. I am not crazy about having a lot of mayonnaise in my salads, and the idea of refreshing tzatziki sounded pretty darn good. I was right.

Cool, creamy, refreshing!

While you cook the potatoes, make the tzatziki. Begin by chopping or shredding a peeled and seeded cucumber, then use salt to strip it of excess moisture and blend it together with a healthy dose of Greek yogurt, garlic and dill. Combine that with a touch of mayonnaise and fold it into cold, boiled potatoes, and you will have a side salad that’s perfectly cool and fresh, served with burgers or any kind of meat kebab on the grill.


Ingredients

About 1 1/2 pounds red or yellow potatoes

1/2 good sized slicing cucumber, peeled

Kosher salt and black pepper

2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

2/3 cup Greek yogurt

Fresh or dried dill leaves

1/4 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo from Trader Joe’s)


Instructions

  1. Scrub the potatoes but leave the peel on. Cut the potatoes into large chunks and cook them in salted water at a low boil until they are just tender enough to pierce with a knife. Drain, cool and chill them at least two hours.
  2. Cut the cucumber lengthwise into quarters (like pickle spears). Use a paring knife to carefully slice off the center strip that contains the seeds. Discard them. Slice, then dice the remaining parts of cucumber into very small bits. Alternatively, you may cut the cuke in half lengthwise, use a spoon to scoop/scrape out the seeds, and then grate it on the large holes of a box grater.
  3. Transfer the cucumber bits or shreds to a paper towel-lined bowl and sprinkle with two generous pinches of kosher salt. Toss the cucumber in the salt, fold the paper towel over it and put the bowl in the refrigerator. After about 30 minutes, gently press the cucumber between layers of clean paper towel to remove the excess moisture.
  4. In a medium bowl, combine the Greek yogurt, minced garlic, black pepper and dill. It is unlikely that you will need additional salt, as the cucumber will bring that flavor to the dip. Fold in the salted, drained cucumber bits.
  5. Combine the tzatziki with mayonnaise. Adjust pepper and dill to taste.
  6. Fold the dressing into the chilled cut-up potatoes. Garnish salad with additional sprinkles of dill and a few cucumber slices.



Baby Back Ribs with Root Beer BBQ Glaze

A few weeks ago, my husband, Les, and I had the unfortunate experience of being forced to empty and clean out what we call our “downstairs” fridge. The term is a misnomer, for sure, given that our home is built on a slab, and we have no downstairs—unless you consider the main level as “downstairs,” and that would only make sense if you were standing in the loft. No, our extra refrigerator lives in the garage, just through the laundry room, about six steps from the kitchen. The confusion is built on Les’s occasional reference to the spaces of a home he once owned in Connecticut, where he apparently did have a downstairs fridge. He also sometimes mistakenly tells me he was listening to “K-ROQ” on the drive home, which was his favorite radio station when he lived in Southern California (which, by the way, was only 28 years ago), but I digress.

What happened that night recently was a flat-out mess, as a forgotten glass bottle of “nitro” cold brew coffee was shoved into one of the uneven cold spots in the back of the extra refrigerator, and the darn thing exploded all over everything. There was broken glass and sticky cold coffee on the shelves and walls of the fridge and spattered on several food and drink containers that were sitting beneath the mishap. It was not exactly the way we intended to “clean out” the fridge, but it did force us to dump some things and gave us a chance to properly inventory the ridiculous quantity of stuff that has piled up in the overflow fridge, which we frankly would not need if it were not for my impulse purchases, especially, it seems, the beverages.

What can I say? I don’t want anyone to be thirsty!

One such impulse buy stood out as a bucket list item for me, and the forced fridge cleanup gave me a push on my culinary intention of making a root beer-based barbecue sauce. I will admit that neither Les nor I are fans of carbonated soda. I have not had a Coca-Cola or 7-Up or anything like them in years (maybe decades), and I don’t miss them. My aversion is based partly on the fact that they are carbonated and leave me feeling bloated and uncomfortable, but more on the fact that nearly every soda on the market is made with high-fructose corn syrup. And that, my friends, is a total deal breaker for me. Diet sodas are no better, because I cannot abide the aftertaste of alternative sweeteners, including the plant-based stevia.

But when I had spotted this small-batch, handcrafted root beer a few months ago, I thought again about my desire to make a root beer sauce or maybe root beer-braised pulled pork. This specialty root beer is sweetened with cane sugar, and on its own, it is sweet. Like, melt-your-teeth sweet. When I reduced it down, however, and simmered it with ketchup and spices and onions, it was exactly right for dressing up baby back ribs on the grill. As with most rib recipes, I started with a brine to give the meat a jump start toward tenderness and flavor, and I got some good advice from chef Bobby Flay about what to put in the brine—cinnamon, star anise and molasses were a giant echo for the root beer flavor that would be slathered on the ribs near the end of cooking. There are a couple of things Les and I agreed we would do differently next time, and I’ll explain that at the end. But overall, this was a successful adventure!

It was a southern BBQ feast, with spicy collards and homemade mac and cheese.

Another bucket list item has been moved to the “done” column, and because I discovered that I also really like the essence of root beer, I used two more bottles of it from the “downstairs fridge” to make syrup for bourbon cocktail experiments. Alas, my friends, that will be a post for another day.


Inspired by  BBQ Ribs with Root Beer BBQ Sauce Recipe | Bobby Flay | Food Network

Ingredients – the ribs

1 large rack baby back ribs (ours were pasture-raised from the local farmers’ market)

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup molasses

2 whole cinnamon sticks

2 star anise

1 Tbsp. oak-smoked black peppercorns* (see notes)

1/4 cup sweet onion juice, optional*

Enough ice and water to make 8 cups of brine liquid


*Notes

The smoked peppercorns are made by McCormick and sold in a tall jar with a built-in grinder top. I am thoroughly addicted to their flavor and have used them in various food and cocktail recipes whenever I want to add a smoky flavor.

I made these ribs the same weekend as the tangy apple cole slaw that I shared a few days ago, and the onion juice was the discard from the shredded onions in the slaw. Waste nothing, right? 😉


Prepping the ribs

  1. Prepare the brine by combining kosher salt, molasses, cinnamon, star anise and black pepper in a large glass pitcher bowl. Add two cups of boiling water and stir to dissolve the salt and sugar. Add ice cubes and enough cold water to make 8 cups total.
  2. Remove the tough membrane from the back side of the ribs. Begin by slipping a sharp paring knife under the membrane on the smaller end of the rack. Separate enough of it to grab onto with a dry paper towel, and then slowly but steadily lift it up and away from the ribs.
  3. Use kitchen shears or a sharp knife to separate the ribs into portions. Transfer the rib portions to a 2-gallon zip top freezer bag, placed in a container large enough to contain the brine if the bag should happen to leak. Pour the cold brine over the ribs, squeeze out as much air as possible and send them to the fridge to marinate at least overnight, and up to 24 hours.
  4. When the brine is complete, remove the ribs and pat them dry. Place them on a rack over a baking sheet and refrigerate, uncovered, for a few hours. This prepares the surface of the meat for more flavorful grilling.

Root Beer BBQ Glaze

2 Tbsp. canola oil

1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Zest of a fresh lemon

2 pieces crystallized ginger, finely minced

3 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 cup tomato ketchup

12 oz. bottle naturally sweetened root beer

1 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika

Kosher salt and oak-smoked black pepper


Make the glaze

  1. Empty root beer into a heavy-bottomed saucepan, and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is reduced to about 1/2 cup. Transfer to a measuring cup.
  2.  In the same saucepan, heat canola oil and sauté onions about two minutes, until slightly softened. Add minced garlic and crystallized ginger and cook one to two minutes more.
  3. Add smoked paprika to the pan and cook just until the paprika becomes fragrant. Add root beer reduction and simmer on low heat several minutes until the mixture is syrupy.
  4. Add the ketchup and brown sugar, stirring to combine. Add lemon zest and smoked black pepper. Simmer on low heat until just bubbly at the edges. Adjust salt, pepper and sweetness to taste. I wanted it a little bit sweeter, so I added a splash of additional root beer.

Time to grill the ribs!

My hubby, the grill master, questioned the instructions I handed him from the Bobby Flay recipe, and I darn sure should have listened. We followed the gist of the original recipe, grilling the ribs naked over indirect heat at about 250° F for two hours, then glazing them with the root beer BBQ glaze for the last 20 minutes or so. Granted, we do not have a “kamado-style” charcoal grill, but I had hoped

This was enough time to cook them, but not enough to make them fall-off-the-bone tender, which is what my root beer-loving heart desired. We had also soaked some hickory chunks in cold water and root beer, and tried out the small smoker box we had purchased for the grill. Friends, let me just say, “don’t bother,” because we did not get even a hint of smoke on the ribs. It would have been terrific, though, on a regular smoker. Overall, The meat was tasty (I think the brine did wonders) and the sauce was just as I imagined—root beer was present but not too sweet.

We have had more tender ribs without following a recipe, and next time we make these, I will hand the reins over to Les to grill or smoke the ribs however he chooses. We also agreed that low and slow roasting in the oven would probably have resulted in more tender ribs, and I sure would not mind the aroma in the house!

The flavorful brine and the root beer glaze were the real winners for this recipe!



Tangy Apple Cole Slaw

It seems funny to me that the three most popular summer salads are based on the most economical ingredients—macaroni, potatoes or cabbage. Nothing fancy and yet we love them! As we wind down summer (which I can hardly believe is happening, even as I write this), I will share a few of my own twists on these three summer classic salads, beginning with the easiest—cole slaw.

The most obvious benefit of cole slaw is that you don’t have to cook anything to make it. This easy summer side comes together lickety-split (especially if you buy the pre-shredded bagged cabbage), it pairs nicely with everything from grilled chicken to pulled pork to burgers and beyond, and with cabbage as the primary ingredient, it packs a pretty hefty nutritional punch, with loads of fiber, vitamins and minerals. If you don’t drown it in mayonnaise or sugary dressing, it’s pretty darn good for you.

I’ve taken my standby “KFC-style” slaw in a slightly different direction with this recipe, keeping the cabbage and carrots (though I used yellow and white ones this time) and adding shredded Granny Smith apple for a little extra tartness. For my creamy-style dressing (which does have some mayonnaise but also cultured buttermilk and regular milk), I’ve swapped in a specialty white balsamic vinegar that echoes the flavors of the Granny Smith apple. The result is a tangier offering than usual, perfect as a side for anything rich or meaty that you might be pulling off the grill through the last days of summer.


Ingredients


About 6 cups finely shredded green cabbage

1 cup carrots, finely shredded or cut into thin matchstick pieces

1 large Granny Smith apple, peeled (or not), cored and shredded

Juice of 1/2 small lemon (to prevent apple browning)

1/2 medium sweet onion, shredded and squeezed dry of juice* (see notes)

1/3 cup mayonnaise (I used canola mayo from Trader Joe’s)

3 Tbsp. whole milk

3 Tbsp. buttermilk*

3 Tbsp. green apple white balsamic vinegar*

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/2 tsp. white pepper

1/2 tsp. celery seed


*Notes

It is important that you press out as much of the onion juice as possible; otherwise the dressing will break down and become watery. I shredded the onion in my food processor and then pressed it through a mesh strainer. When assembling the salad, add the onion to the dressing rather than the cabbage blend.

Real cultured buttermilk works best, but you could have similar results with the same amount of plain,  low-fat yogurt or Greek yogurt.

The green apple white balsamic vinegar is a specialty item that my husband picked up on a trip to California a few years ago. Check with a balsamic and olive oil shop in your area to see if it carries “Gravenstein apple” balsamic, as that would be a perfect substitution. Otherwise, use 2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar and 2 Tbsp. sugar to mimic the balanced sweetness of the balsamic.


Instructions

Combine the shredded cabbage and carrots in a large bowl. Add the shredded apple to the bowl, immediately squeeze the fresh lemon juice over the apple and then toss the apple to distribute the lemon juice. This will help prevent the apple from browning while you mix the dressing.

In a large glass measuring cup, whisk together mayonnaise, buttermilk and milk until the mixture is smooth. Add vinegar, salt, pepper and celery seed, and stir to blend. Add the shredded onion to the dressing and stir until it’s evenly distributed.

Adjust the dressing to your taste; if you find it too tart, add a teaspoon of sugar at a time until it is to your liking. Remember that sugar (or salt) needs a few minutes to dissolve in a dressing, so you may want to let it rest a few minutes to be sure you have adjusted correctly.

Pour the dressing over the cole slaw mix and toss to combine. Refrigerate at least an hour for best flavor, but this salad will also keep in the fridge for several days.




S’mores Ice Cream

There is something very special and nostalgic about s’mores, the delightfully sugary campfire treat that I first learned of when I was a young girl. I cannot say for sure that my first experience of s’mores was during my time as a Girl Scout, though legend has it a troop leader named Loretta Scott Crew first dreamed them up to feed 16 hungry girl campers in 1927. But I do know that my first taste of this wonderful confection—toasted marshmallow and Hershey’s chocolate square, melted between two graham crackers—was like a seductive symphony of ooey-gooey summer heaven. The only cooking involved in making s’mores is toasting a marshmallow to golden perfection, and then allowing the contained heat within the marshmallow to melt the piece of chocolate bar when you squish the graham cracker cookies together.

Truth be told, I was prone to wreck my marshmallows by over-toasting them. I’d position my marshmallow stick (and yes, where I come from, we used actual sticks) directly into the hottest part of the campfire until my puffy marshmallows blazed with a blue light around them. I’d blow out the fire, only to skim off and eat the scorched sugary jacket and plunge them back into the fire for another round of overcooking. I’m quite sure that was not the intention behind the “toasted” marshmallow portion of s’mores, but nobody ever accused me of following the rules—I like what I like.

Now that I’m all grown up, I still love the idea of s’mores, but I cannot fathom the notion of sitting around a campfire in the dead heat of summer, and we don’t usually fire up our patio chiminea until at least October. Not even for a sticky-sweet s’more—sorry.

Luckily, I have other plans for those delicious flavors, and just in the nick of time, it seems, given that today is National S’mores Day. Why, I wondered, couldn’t I represent the same s’mores flavors in a cold treat form that was more suitable for the middle of August?

No campfire required!

And that was my approach to this yummy spectacle of summer sweetness. For a change of pace, I skipped the eggs in my ice cream base and used sweetened condensed milk instead. I wanted the vanilla ice cream to be a pure palate of white, but I was also trying to avoid cooking as much as possible. It’s been pretty dang hot here in the South, and if I have the option to keep the stove turned off, I’m taking it. The marshmallow swirl was also a no-cook step, and for this, I relied on a tried-and-true fruit dip recipe that fuses marshmallow fluff with cream cheese. The dairy ingredient gave the fluff just enough body to take away the ultra-sticky consistency but retain the marshmallow flavor.

See how the cream cheese mellowed out the sticky marshmallow fluff? And it still tastes exactly like marshmallow (but creamier).

I did turn on the stove briefly to make the fudgy swirl that represents the melted chocolate square of a traditional s’more, but that was a small price to pay for this delicious final result.

Looks like delicious black gold, doesn’t it?

Happy S’mores Day, everyone!

Yes, please, may I have s’more?!

Ingredients


Ice Cream Base

14.5 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. vanilla flavored vodka (optional, for improved texture)


Gooey Marshmallow Swirl

2 oz. full-fat cream cheese (this is 1/4 of a regular brick)

1 cup marshmallow fluff (give or take, as this stuff is difficult to scoop and measure)


Chocolate Fudge Ripple

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup water

3 Tbsp. Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa

3 Tbsp. King Arthur Double Dutch Dark cocoa

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

Pinch sea salt

and…

Of course, you will also need graham crackers, about 6 cookie sheets, broken into pieces


Instructions

For the base of the ice cream, whisk together the condensed milk, whole milk and heavy cream. When the mixture is smooth and even, stir in vanilla extract. Cover and refrigerate until all other ingredients are cold and ready for layering.

For the marshmallow swirl, use an electric mixer to whip the cream cheese and marshmallow fluff together. Allow enough time for the mixture to settle into a smooth consistency. Cover and refrigerate.

For the fudge ripple, combine sugar, corn syrup, water and cocoa powders in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Whisk constantly until mixture reaches a just-barely-boiling point. Remove from heat and stir in sea salt and vanilla extract. Transfer to a bowl, cool several minutes, then cover and refrigerate until fully chilled.  

To make the layered ice cream: Freeze the base ice cream according to manufacturer’s instructions; my Cuisinart machine takes about 20 minutes. During the final minute, add the vanilla flavored vodka. This ingredient is not essential, but it helps make the ice cream scoopable immediately upon removal from the freezer. If you avoid alcohol—no problem; simply remove the ice cream about 15 minutes before serving to slightly soften.

When ice cream is finished churning, add a slight ribbon of fudgy ripple to the bottom of an insulated ice cream container. Spoon in a few dollops of the ice cream base, followed by the graham cracker pieces and a generous drizzling of the marshmallow fluff mixture. Swirl on more fudge ripple, then repeat with ice cream, graham pieces and marshmallow fluff mixture. Be generous with the s’mores ingredients for best results. Any remaining fluff or fudge swirl mixture can be used to “dress up” your ice cream at serving time.



Transfer ice cream container to the freezer for several hours (preferably overnight) to firm up. Serve with additional topping ingredients.