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.
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.
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
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.
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!
Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
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.
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.
Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
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.
The summer season brings all the garden-fresh vegetables I love, including zucchini and eggplant, which I would definitely be growing in our little garden plot if it weren’t for the deer. Year after year, I have tried in vain to grow my own veggies, and the increase of deer activity on our property and that of our neighbors has been almost humorous. Almost.
Gardening, for me, started as a fun, nature-loving adventure but has rapidly declined into a frustrating drama, and now we have this elevated box in our yard, where we cannot grow anything but marigolds and basil, which have proven to be the only things our local deer detest. Last year’s garden was demolished, right down to the flowers and budding fruit of the eggplants and even the jalapeno pepper plants (which I had been told deer would never eat). We have tried all the folk remedies on the internet—human hair, shavings of bar soap, peppermint oil, so-called deer repellent, and even a weird concoction I made from rotten eggs, cayenne and dish soap. That last remedy had near-catastrophic results, but I won’t embarrass my husband again with that story (you can read it here, if you’d like). This year, we didn’t even bother planting a garden, and I’m contemplating turning the raised bed into some kind of wildflower bed. I get exasperated just thinking about it.
To make up for a lack of homegrown veggies, we are regularly visiting our weekly Cobblestone farmers’ market, which features a variety of vendors offering fresh produce as well as pastured meat, eggs, organic mushrooms, jams and preserves, and even handmade alpaca wool products. It’s a fun way to spend an hour on a Saturday morning, and this past weekend, we came home with everything I needed for a new batch of ratatouille. Ah, my favorite veggie-centered summer meal!
Me being me, though, I cannot simply chop up these ingredients and make a “traditional” ratatouille, which would be a rustic casserole-meets-stew kind of thing. I have to twist it up! My culinary muse inspired me this time to combine the French classic dish with another favorite comfort food—lasagna. I figured that I could infuse my herbs de Provence seasoning into a ricotta mixture with lemon zest and some grated cheese and that it would be the “glue” to hold the other ingredients together inside a rolled-up lasagna noodle. The eggplant and zucchini would be sliced and roasted, and the red pepper would be worked into the sauce. This is how my mind sees a pile of ingredients, and the end result was exactly as I had imagined, both visually and in perfect summer flavor. Delicious!
This reimagined one-dish meal took mostly time to put together; it was not at all difficult. I cannot say definitively how much time is needed because I was cooking all day, in between work emails and other home tasks. I will say that it was mostly passive time; I was either waiting for things to lose moisture or to finish roasting or to boil or bake. The rest was just slicing, chopping and stirring, and there’s no particular order that must be followed. You could even make everything a day ahead and just assemble and bake it the next day.
The entire ratatouille-meets-lasagna project weaved itself nicely into my busy day, and because each ingredient received its own treatment, the simplest way I can describe it is to share the process of each component. I’ll share a PDF version of the recipe at the end if you want to try it, but I’ll let the pictures tell the story in today’s post. Here we go! 🙂
The Ricotta Filling
The Red Bell Pepper
The only classic ratatouille ingredient remaining is tomato, and though my ingredients photo displays a big, lovely heirloom tomato from the farmers’ market, I thought better of it when I began cooking my ratatouille. The heirloom tomato would have been full of seeds and too juicy for this dish, so I cast it aside and used half a can of San Marzano tomatoes instead to produce a fusion sauce, together with the roasted red pepper and a healthy dose of garlic. This sauce was similar to the roasted red pepper sauce that my husband, Les, discovered last year, but it leans more toward tomato than pepper. It was exactly what this recipe needed.
Putting it all together
Assembling and finishing my ratatouille lasagna roll-ups was a cinch! I par-cooked the lasagna noodles until they were soft and flexible, spread the ricotta mixture onto them, layered the eggplant, zucchini and leeks and rolled them up!
Oh, and that plump, juicy heirloom tomato I mentioned found its way instead to a BLT, which we enjoyed as a separate meal on freshly baked sourdough bread with local greens and some pastured pork bacon (also from the farmers’ market).
You didn’t know it when you opened this post, but you are about to witness something that doesn’t happen all that often in my kitchen—a simple, two-ingredient twist that will transform a basic fruit bowl into a mouthwatering side dish that is almost as sumptuous as dessert. Unlike some of my other “make-the-whole-thing-from-scratch” ideas, this one really is ridiculously simple. You can apply this easy twist to virtually any kind of fruit, including pre-cut if you are short on time, and the fruit itself does not have to be fancy. Look at my salad again—it’s only pineapple, grapes and berries. What elevates this simple fruit combo into an elegant and special treat is the dressing.
It may be that you have never considered “dressing” a fruit salad, but why? We don’t often see a vegetable salad served dry, and fruit is just as worthy of dressing up a bit. Dressing a fruit salad is not only tasty; it also helps the fruit retain moisture and color. Try this once and you’ll be craving fresh fruit salad every day.
The dressing for this salad depends on two special ingredients that can only be purchased in a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop, and they are worth every penny. You have probably seen one of these stores, with all their shiny stainless steel containers lined up on a high table. Those containers, called “fustis,” hold exquisitely flavored extra virgin olive oils and balsamic vinegars, ingredients which have uncanny power to change the way you cook. In the spirit of full disclosure, I will tell you that I used to work in one of those shops here in my city, and it was one of my most fun jobs ever—a true foodie fantasy, come true!
These days, nobody is paying me to share about these products, but I feel compelled to do so because of the one question we received over and again at the shop, from customers who enjoyed the flavors but asked, “what would I ever do with it?” Part of my job as a sales associate was taking home various products and coming back with inspiration for the home cooks who shopped our store. I guess you could say I took my job seriously, because I’m still doing it. 🙂
The combination I’ve used for this fruit salad is blood orange-fused extra virgin olive oil and honey-ginger white balsamic vinegar. The vinegar has a slight tartness to it, but it is mostly sweet with the warmth of honey, and the ginger is subtle but present. The olive oil is rich with the flavor of blood orange, because the oranges and olives are pressed together during production. The result is so good, it makes itself at home in sweet and savory dishes alike.
At the end of the post, I’ll share some other ideas for using up these two ingredients.
2 cups fresh pineapple chunks, cut into bite-sized bits
1 heaping cup fresh strawberries, sliced into quarters
1 cup fresh large blueberries
1 cup fresh white seedless grapes
3 Tbsp. honey-ginger white balsamic vinegar* (see notes)
3 Tbsp. blood orange whole fruit-fused extra virgin olive oil*
Lime zest or fresh chopped mint or basil, optional for garnish
I wish I could offer up a universal brand name for the olive oil and balsamics that I use, but they are bottled under various franchised shop names. Here’s a tip—if you have this type of store in your community, ask for the name of the supplier. If it is Veronica Foods, you’re in the right place. 😊
Wash your fruit just before assembling the salad, and it’s best to add berries just before serving or they tend to get mushy. Combine all the fruit in a bowl large enough for easy tossing in the dressing.
Pour the honey-ginger white balsamic into a small bowl, or a glass measuring cup for easier pouring. Slowly pour the olive oil into the balsamic, whisking quickly and constantly, until the mixture is thick and syrupy.
Immediately pour the dressing over the fruit and toss gently to coat the fruit. Serve right away or refrigerate up to one hour before serving.
If you would like to put a little extra pizzazz onto the salad, sprinkle with fresh lime zest or thin strips of fresh mint or basil.
No matter what you’re into grilling during the warm weather months, you’ll find countless ways to use compound butter, and I do hope you’ll try it on my favorite—freshly grilled summer sweet corn.
In the days of my youth, I ate more sweet corn than I can recall. My small, upstate New York town was one of those idyllic, rolling green hills kind of places you read about. The landscape was dotted with dairy farms, and sweet corn was so prolific, it was not unusual at all to see freshly picked ears of it piled high against trees at the side of the road with a sign that said, “for the love of God, please take this corn already.” The grocery store didn’t even order corn in the summer because everyone already had more than they needed.
The down-side of living in one of these pastoral places was that we didn’t have much to do. Many a summer night in my young-adult years, I would gather for a backyard bonfire and corn roast with my cousin, Annie, and a friend, Julie. It was just the three of us most times, and we were not exactly living large. We would fill up two big, galvanized steel buckets—one with cans of cheap beer and a bag of ice, and the other with cold water and as many ears of free corn as we could fit—and we’d spend the night lamenting our town’s lack of interesting options (for anything). The corn was still dressed in its husks, silk and all, and after a good soaking, we would toss it directly onto the bonfire to roast and steam it to perfection. We peeled the charred husks back and used them like a handle as we finished off ear after ear. Little flakes of black, burned-up husks and silk would end up all over us, but do you think we cared? There is nothing that compares to that roast-y flavor and it never occurred to us that we should dress up our fresh summer feast with butter or anything else.
A couple of years later, Annie and I had both moved away from our little town, rarely to return. Julie got married and stayed in town, and the last time I saw her, she was happily raising a family. I don’t miss our small town much (except perhaps in mid-October, when I know the maple trees are turning brilliant shades of rust and red), but I do miss the abundance of sweet corn in the summer. Come to think of it, I equally miss the piles of free zucchini squash, but that will be another post.
Today, when I want to enjoy summer corn (which is always), we “roast” it on the grill. There’s no soaking involved and no charred corn husk getting all over everything, and the flavor of grilled corn, though not quite as intense as the bonfire-roasted corn of those olden days, is still far superior to that of boiled corn. And because I’m all grown up now, I do enjoy putting a flavor spin on my grilled corn, and that’s where the compound butter comes in.
This is a simple way to add a little pizzazz to corn, or whatever else you might be pulling off the grill—fish, shrimp, chicken, steak, burgers or other vegetables. Not grilling? No problem, because compound butter also comes in handy when you need to give a boost of flavor to something you make on the stove. Use it to sauté shrimp or vegetables, liven up a baked potato, melt over cooked pasta or drizzle onto your popcorn. What I love about compound butters is that you can make them in advance, they keep a good long time in the fridge (or freezer), and they afford multiple flavor options when you are serving guests.
Compound butter may sound complicated, but it could not be simpler—soften up a stick of salted butter and stir in the flavors that suit your fancy. Mix in a swirl of olive oil for extra depth of flavor and extended “spreadability.” I will offer up a few compound butter combos, using simple ingredients I already had in my fridge. Mix and match them any way you like. And, by all means, please share your ideas for compound butter flavors and uses, too.
Pesto Compound Butter
1 stick salted butter, slightly softened
2 cloves fresh garlic, very finely minced
Small handful fresh basil leaves, finely snipped or cut into ribbons
2 to 3 Tbsp. sun-dried tomatoes, cut or snipped into very small bits* (see notes)
2 oz. whole milk feta cheese, crumbled and pressed dry
A few twists freshly ground black pepper
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
*Notes – If the sun-dried tomatoes are packed dry, rehydrate them for a few minutes in boiling water, then drain and press out the excess moisture. If they are packed in oil, chop them fine and stir them in as the final ingredient, omitting olive oil.
Vegan Tahini-Soy Compound “Butter”
1 stick dairy-free butter substitute
2 Tbsp. tahini paste
1 tsp. soy or tamari sauce
1/2 tsp. Trader Joe’s Umami seasoning (powdered blend of garlic, mushroom, salt and red pepper)
Chili & Lime Compound Butter
1 stick salted butter, slightly softened
Zest of 1 small organic lime
1/2 tsp. ground chili powder (your favorite, check the sodium)
1/4 tsp. ground cumin
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Steakhouse Bleu Cheese Compound Butter
1 stick salted butter, slightly softened
1 tsp. Worcestershire sauce
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup crumbled bleu cheese
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Press and stir the butter down into a smooth, creamy spread. Add the other ingredients, beginning with those that can be stirred into the butter, and ending with any ingredients that need to be folded in. If you want to keep a few distinguishable bits, such as crumbled cheeses, fold them in at the end.
If you are adding ingredients that are inherently salty, such as hard cheeses or pre-mixed spice blends, you might opt to use unsalted butter to keep the sodium at the right level.
Keep compound butters in tightly sealed bowls in the fridge, or wrap them tightly in two layers of plastic wrap for freezing. Bring to cool room temperature to soften before serving.
Instructions for prepping easy grilled corn:
Remove husks and silks from fresh sweet corn. Use a sharp knife to make fresh, flat cuts on the ends of the corn ears. This will make it easier to hold them with corn handles. Tear off a square piece of aluminum foil for each ear. Melt salted butter in the microwave or on the stove top. Use a pastry brush to thoroughly but lightly coat each ear with melted butter. Season with salt and pepper. With the corn ear centered on the foil square, fold up one long end of foil all the way over the corn. Then, roll it up and twist or fold the ends to seal.
A bit of friendly, been-there-tried-that advice: resist the temptation to put the compound butter on the corn before grilling, especially if it has any type of cheese in it. In my experience, the add-ins will burn or gunk up or stick to the foil, rather than the corn. It does not seem to make a difference what type of foil you use, either, as I’ve had the same trouble using the expensive “non-stick” foil. It’s best to keep it simple for grilling, and add your flavored butter component at serving time. Besides, it’s fun to watch the butter ooze over the hot ears of corn! 🙂
The cooking instruction is a bit more nebulous because, as my husband, Les, says, grilling is an inexact science. How long you cook the corn depends on the type of grill you use, the temperature you are using for whatever else you’re grilling and placement of the corn on the grill, whether direct or indirect heat. When I pressed Les for a “ballpark” estimate on time, he quickly answered, “40 minutes.” The best thing to do is put it on the grill early, turn it periodically and check it a few times until it is done to your liking. We love it with a little bit of char on some of the kernels. And Les says if you turn up the temperature sometime to sear meat or another food, move the corn onto the upper warming rack.
The Fourth of July conjures very specific childhood memories for me, and baked beans has a major role in that nostalgia. Every year, members of my family on my maternal grandfather’s side gathered at the home of my great grandmother for a reunion-of-sorts picnic and, especially, for fireworks. Grandma Stoney, whose nickname was derived from her married last name, Stonehouse, lived across the street from the community baseball field, and we were lucky to have a front row seat for the excitement of what seemed to me at the time to be an enormous fireworks display. The tiny burg where Grandma Stoney lived put on quite a shindig for Independence Day, including a parade, complete with a marching band and people throwing candy to the kids from firetrucks. Back at Grandma’s house, we amused ourselves by playing croquet in the front yard and taking turns cranking the handle on an old timey ice cream maker. No doubt, my great grandmother felt great joy having everyone there.
What I remember most, besides playing with distant cousins I rarely saw, was the food. Inside the house, every available horizontal surface—and I mean tables, countertops, the stove, card tables and anything else that could be rigged up to hold dishes—was covered with potluck offerings, as everyone in attendance always brought a dish or two to share. It was unbelievable. For me, the best of all was the dining room table, which was always covered from corner to corner with every variety of baked beans you could imagine. Some of the dishes were very saucy, some looked as though they had been dumped directly from a can of Van Camp’s, and others were baked with that delightfully sticky sweet sauce pooled in the corners of the pan. And there were always several dishes of beans topped with slices of bacon. Oh man, how I loved that table!
Bacon is still one of my very favorite ingredients for baked beans, and I’ve paired it here with a favorite flavor of my Upstate New York home—maple. That combination of smoky-salty-sweet cannot be beat, and for me, it’s as much a part of Fourth of July celebration as parades and fireworks.
This time, I made my baked beans from scratch, having soaked the beans overnight and then cooking them until tender before adding the flavorful sauce. But you could absolutely take a time-saving shortcut and use cans of beans. Just be sure you drain and rinse them thoroughly before you begin.
1 lb. dried beans, soaked and prepared for cooking* (see notes)
1 heaping cup thick-cut bacon, cut into cubes
1 sweet onion, sliced or chopped
6 oz. can no-salt tomato paste
1/2 cup real maple syrup
1/4 cup maple-infused balsamic vinegar*
About 20 grinds fresh black pepper
1/2 tsp. chipotle powder (optional)
3/4 tsp. kosher salt
1/4 tsp. dry mustard powder
3/4 cup cold water (added after flavor adjustment)
My recipe was made with dried cranberry beans, rinsed and soaked overnight, then drained twice and cooked low and slow until tender. If you prefer, or if you are pressed for time, feel free to use 3 standard cans of cooked beans. Drain the beans and rinse under cold running water, to remove all the “goo” from the cans. Great Northern, navy or white kidney beans (cannellini) would be great.
The maple-infused balsamic is a specialty ingredient, purchased at one of the stores that sells flavored olive oils and balsamic vinegars. I love this product because it enhances the maple flavor without making it more sweet. If you do not find this maple balsamic, substitute an equal amount of regular dark balsamic vinegar or a couple of tablespoons of apple cider vinegar.
Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
Place a cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Add bacon cubes and cook, tossing occasionally, until fat is rendered and bacon cubes are just crisp. Transfer cubes to a paper towel-lined plate and drain off all but about 2 tablespoons of the bacon fat.
In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
Layer the cooked beans, bacon and onions in a glass 8 x 8-inch baking dish. Pour the sauce into the beans and give the baking dish a few gentle shakes to distribute the sauce throughout. The beans should be swimming in sauce, as much of it will absorb into the beans during baking.
Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
With summer officially underway (as of Sunday at 11:32 p.m. EDT), I intend to be sufficiently armed with a lineup of refreshing, easy summer cocktails. We are finally getting back into the swing of life—fully vaccinated, planning summer travel, and enjoying the long overdue, in-person company of friends and loved ones. This makes me very happy, because one of the great common denominators for me and my husband, Les, is our delight in entertaining. Last weekend, we were pleased to have one of his fellow Yankees over for dinner, though the reference to Yankee is strictly a geographic one, as both Les and his friend, Dave, are native New Yorkers who happen to love the Mets.
While the guys talked sports in the air-conditioned comfort of our living room, I whipped up a batch of these pineapple-cilantro mules. It is my fruity, south-of-the-border twist on a classic Moscow mule, which uses vodka, lime and ginger beer. I have swapped in silver tequila and muddled some fresh pineapple and cilantro in the bottom of the copper mug. These two ingredients play especially nice together, and Dave, who initially noted that he has not enjoyed tequila since that bad experience in his younger days (you know what I mean because we all have one) joined me for a second round.
This summery, chill cocktail is refreshing and simple to make. We have been enjoying the 1800 Coconut tequila (the same ingredient highlighted in the tequila & lime pie), but any straight silver tequila would be delicious. If you are still cringing over any tequila mishaps from your own youth, swap in a light rum and call it a twist on a mojito—no worries. 😀
Any quality brand of ginger beer will work, but I recently discovered the Q brand of cocktail mixers, and the company’s ginger beer is extra spicy and delicious, thanks to a pinch of cayenne.
I am generally not keen to have bits of anything floating in my drink, but the crushed ice keeps the muddled fruit and cilantro well-contained in the bottom of the mug.
Use fresh pineapple for best results, and if you don’t have copper mugs, go with a short rocks glass. Cheers!
Makes 2 drinks
A couple of chunks of fresh pineapple for each mug bottom
A couple of sprigs of fresh cilantro for each mug bottom
3 oz. 1800 Coconut (or other silver) tequila
Juice of 1/2 lime
1 oz. canned or fresh pineapple juice
1 can or bottle ginger beer
Plenty of crushed ice
Muddle the pineapple and cilantro together in the bottom of the mugs, using a cocktail muddler or the handle of a wooden spoon. Fill the mugs about 2/3 full with crushed ice.
Combine tequila, pineapple juice and freshly squeezed lime in a cocktail shaker. Add about 1 cup of ice cubes and shake about 30 seconds, until the shaker is uncomfortably cold.
Strain the cocktail into the ice-filled mugs. Top with ginger beer. Garnish as desired. Repeat at your own risk.
On Juneteenth, my mind is littered with so many emotions I find it difficult to put my thoughts down. I am thrilled for the modern Black community, for whom Juneteenth has always been woven into the fabric of life. I am embarrassed to realize that the meaning of this occasion escaped me until last year, when the U.S. entered a long-overdue season of racial reckoning after the horrifying death of George Floyd. Most of all, I am disappointed and angry that the significance of Juneteenth was not spelled out in the history books of my small, lily-white upstate N.Y. town. Or anywhere else, for that matter.
Along with so many others in my age group, I grew up learning about the greatness of the men whose tremendous business skills built this great nation, including the forefathers and later the business and industrial magnates—Andrew Carnegie and J.P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller and Cornelius Vanderbilt—you know, all the rich, white guys. But we did not hear the whole story, and that means we never got the real story. There is so much more to be said and taught about our nation’s history, but a great deal of resistance to teaching it, and I’m flat-out puzzled and pissed off about that.
Juneteenth, in case you have completely avoided all news outlets recently, marks a celebration for the last of the slaves being freed following President Abraham Lincoln’s famous Emancipation Proclamation. The news that slavery had become illegal spread throughout the land, but not exactly like wildfire. It was not until 2½ years later, when federal soldiers rode into Galveston, Texas, to read the edict out loud, that the enslaved African-Americans there even realized they were free. I suspect the delay of this information had a lot to do with the fact that the slaveholders had more to gain by keeping the joyous news on the down low.
Fast forward 156 years, and Juneteenth has at last become a federal holiday, under the pen of President Joe Biden, and it’s been a long time coming. We still have a lot of work to do to recognize full equality and taking the first step feels a little intimidating. Rather than assume what kind of celebration is respectful, I have done some research into the significant themes around Juneteenth, and I am responding with this bright red cocktail, created in honor of those for whom respect has been a long time coming.
Red drinks have always played a major role in celebration of Juneteenth, as the color symbolizes both the bloodshed of Black peoples’ ancestors and the courage and resilience that brings them to this point in history. Hibiscus, a deeply-hued flower, is a significant ingredient in red drinks for Juneteenth, as it was one of many favored foods that enslaved Africans brought with them to this land. Hibiscus has a delightfully tart flavor and somewhat astringent effect—not particularly sweet on its own, almost like cranberry, but with hints of floral. I first tasted hibiscus as a tea, and that is a very traditional way to enjoy it on Juneteenth, but I wanted to mix it into a cocktail for one specific reason: this whiskey.
As part of my own “first steps” toward racial equity, I have made a personal commitment to seek out and support Black-owned businesses, and Uncle Nearest is one, founded a few years ago by a Black woman named Fawn Weaver. The story behind this new whiskey brand is rich and complex, just like the spirit in the bottle. There is so much to know about it—more than I can say here in this post—but the kicker of this true story is that Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved man in Lynchburg, Tenn., taught Jack Daniels how to make whiskey. Yes, that Jack Daniels. This startling real story began to circulate a few years ago, and I think you’ll find the story linked here a fascinating read. I was elated this week to find that Uncle Nearest whiskey is already available in our local liquor store.
I’ve paired the Uncle Nearest 1856 premium whiskey with a couple of other ingredients that seemed right to me—hibiscus simple syrup, spicy ginger beer and a few drops of aromatic bitters, courtesy of Hella Cocktail Co., another Black-owned business. Finally, a subtle accent of vanilla, a flavor that seems so utterly common today, yet most of us would never have known it without the discovery and effort of an enslaved 12-year-old boy named Edmond Albius. I only learned about him last year when I went searching for the most popular flavors in America.
A cocktail will not fix the problems of racial inequity, but every little bit of awareness leads me into the light, and this is my small way of paying that forward. The drink is somewhat bittersweet—much like the story that inspires it—but refreshing and invigorating, nuanced with spice and freshness. It tastes exactly how I feel, now that I am finally beginning to understand the real story.
1.5 oz. Uncle Nearest 1856
0.5 oz. hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup* (see notes)
2 or 3 drops Hella aromatic bitters
Quick squeeze of fresh lime
About 2 oz. spicy ginger beer*
Lime wheel to garnish
A simple syrup is made with water and sugar, and in our house, that means fair trade-certified sugar because I learned the real, true story about slave labor in the sugar industry several years ago. Profit-driven exploitation of human beings must stop, and as consumers, we have the power influence companies to do the right thing. Is it more expensive? The answer depends on who you ask.
Here’s how I made the hibiscus-vanilla simple syrup:
If spicy is not your thing, any ginger beer or ginger ale will lend a nice little zip to this cocktail. I chose the Q brand “hibiscus ginger beer,” obviously for the hibiscus twist but also because it also includes spices that are celebrated in African-American cuisine. I stumbled onto this ginger beer by accident, and it turned out to be perfect in this drink.
Combine Uncle Nearest 1856, simple syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add 1 cup of ice and stir until the outside of the glass becomes frosty. Strain over new ice in a double rocks glass. Squeeze in lime juice and top with ginger beer. Garnish with a lime wheel.
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? 😀
The 147th running of the Kentucky Derby is mere days away, and after the big deal I made about it last year, I had to issue at least a couple of recipes to keep the momentum of this spring occasion. I’m starting this year with the most obvious offering, a cocktail.
I had hoped that the Derby might be an inaugural outing for my husband, Les, and me—an event that could finally find us in the personal company of friends, without masks or restrictions. Alas, I am only halfway vaccinated, with my second COVID jab scheduled for tomorrow (fingers crossed!), so there won’t be time before Saturday for antibodies to take hold just yet. Nevertheless, we will celebrate, probably with a batch of the Kentucky Hot Brown Dip I created last year, or perhaps the Hearts of Palm Citrus Ceviche, maybe finishing with my Southern Belle Lemon Bars, and most certainly, with a cocktail and a fancy hat.
If you missed the special drinks I whizzed up last year, either for the “preview party,” because the Derby was postponed by COVID, or the actual run for the roses, which happened in September, you’ll want to circle back to check out those fun libations.
Bourbon is a staple on Derby day, being born in Kentucky and all, and in my quest to make good use of all the fresh herbs I am constantly plucking from our countertop Aerogarden, I have come up with a global spin on the drink that is signature to Kentucky Derby—the mint julep. Though I do have some variety of mint (spearmint, maybe?) growing at a very slow pace, I am literally overwhelmed with another herb, Thai basil, and I thought, “why not?” Thai basil is part of the mint family, so it seemed like it might work. It’s decidedly not the same flavor as the Genovese basil that would be on your caprese salad or in your pesto. It is used widely in Thai and Vietnamese food, with subtle notes of basil, of course, but there is a distinct difference that took some time for my taste buds to identify. It’s anise, the same general flavor of fennel or licorice, which is not unlike Peychaud’s bitters, a classic item for any serious cocktail cart. I knew that the Thai basil flavor would work with the bourbon, and to play up the Asian spin, I added the slightest splash of lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar, which I picked up in a specialty shop. Strange, you say, to add vinegar? White balsamic is no more tart than a squeeze of citrus (it’s actually sweeter), and the lemongrass is a refreshing complement to the drink.
Turns out, this was a very good call! Paired with the sweetness of the bourbon, this anise-scented herb is a winner. Rather than muddle the Thai basil in the cocktail glass (oh, I can’t stand little bits of things floating in my drink), I have infused a simple syrup with a fat handful of Thai basil, so it is technically a “smash,” rather than a julep. Either way, a half-ounce of this fragrant, slightly exotic syrup flavors a shot of bourbon quite nicely. Mix it up in a cocktail shaker with a splash of the lemongrass-mint white balsamic, strain it over crushed ice, and you are ready for the race. Garnish it with a fresh lemon twist, if you’d like, plus a sprig of the Thai basil, and enjoy!
2 oz. bourbon (I used Elijah Craig Small Batch)
0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Thai basil simple syrup (recipe below)
1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) lemongrass-mint white balsamic vinegar*
Lemon twist and fresh Thai basil leaves to garnish
The lemongrass-mint white balsamic is a specialty ingredient I purchased at a boutique olive oil and balsamic vinegar shop. These stores have popped up everywhere in recent years, and I love being creative with their products. I cannot name a brand because the shops are franchised with various names. But if the shop owner confirms their supplier is “Veronica Foods,” then it is the right stuff! If you can’t find it, leave it out and go for the twist of lemon. Perhaps substitute with a couple drops of bitters. It’s Derby time, so bourbon is the star anyway. 🙂
Combine bourbon, syrup and white balsamic in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add about a cup of ice and stir or shake until outside of the container is uncomfortably cold, about 20 seconds.
Strain over crushed ice into a cocktail or julep glass. Garnish with lemon twist or a fresh sprig of Thai basil.
Thai basil simple syrup
1/2 cup filtered water
1/2 cup organic cane sugar
1 handful Thai basil leaves, cleaned and trimmed of heavy stems
Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and bring to slight boil. Remove from heat, stir in Thai basil leaves and steep until cool. Strain out the leaves. Transfer the syrup to an airtight jar, and store it in the refrigerator for up to one month.
This drink is so refreshing, and it is making good use of all my Thai basil. Cheers from my backyard!
Two weeks from today, I’ll be recovering after my second dose of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for COVID-19, and I feel like celebrating, though I am a bit apprehensive about how my immune system will take it. Mind you, I am not skeptical about the vaccine, which would be an entirely different conversation. I trust the science and I am astonished at how quickly the research teams collaborated to produce an effective safeguard against this dreadful disease. I was in line for my first dose as soon as I became eligible.
My unease is related to something else, namely the unpleasant symptoms I expect I may have as result of my body demonstrating its immune response. My first dose was uneventful, save for an achy arm for two days, but there have been many anecdotal reports by some second-dose recipients of nausea, fever, chills, migraines and other not-so-fun experiences. And that has me on high alert, which is also a pretty accurate way to describe my immune system.
In 2003, I learned that I have an autoimmune disorder, vitiligo, which some consider to be a dermatological issue, but research shows it is most likely related to a dysfunction of the immune system, possibly triggered by an extended overload of the stress hormone known as cortisol. In short, my immune system is always looking for a fight, and sometimes it attacks on my own healthy cells, specifically my skin.
I am also extremely sensitive to common household chemicals, cosmetics, fragrance and even sunshine. As these disorders go, I feel extremely lucky—I could have been hit with lupus or rheumatoid arthritis, both of which are serious and more complicated to manage—but I am preparing myself for a bumpy ride after my second dose of “the Fauci ouchie.” Still, the jab and any side effects I feel from it will be far better than what my body would have done with COVID, so I am optimistic, grateful and ready.
It almost seems too good to be true to realize that by the time Memorial Day rolls in, antibodies will be standing guard and we can finally breathe easier and spend face-to-face quality time with friends. I want to hug everyone at once, but the past year of social distancing and general wariness of being close to “others not in my own household” is also creating apprehension. I sure hope I can remember how to relax and be myself when we get there.
Until we do, my fully vaccinated husband, Les, and I will spend Friday night as we have for the past 13 months—at home, alone but together, with homemade pizza and cocktails. The pandemic forced all of us to get more creative with our down time, and as the weeks in lockdown progressed, we have made some epic advances in our game for both of our culinary Friday night rituals. It has been a while since I posted any of our homemade pizzas, but rest assured, we have been making them. Here’s a quick gallery of images to catch you up (and make you hungry), or you can find a recipe for tonight on the Pizza Party page.
The cocktail part of our Friday night has varied widely over the past year, and you can hit the Happy Hour page to see a few of them. As of late, my go-to has been a dry gin martini and Les usually locks in on bourbon, a spirit he barely even knew before he met me (you’re welcome, babe). Of all the cocktail variations we have tried, we always seem to come home to this smoked maple old fashioned. It is classic in that is relies on smooth bourbon and bitters, but slightly unconventional in its substitution of smoked maple syrup for the standard muddled sugar cube. Our usual garnish is a simple Luxardo cherry, which, in my opinion, should win an award for “best cherry ever created.” But we sometimes go all-in with an orange peel twist, too, and I like the fragrance that lends to the edge of the glass with each sip we savor.
Friday night is one of the main things that helped us get through COVID lockdown, and this is what it tastes like at our house. Cheers!
Ingredients (see notes for additional info)
1.5 oz. bourbon
0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) smoked maple syrup
0.25 oz. (1 ½ tsp.) amaretto almond liqueur
3 drops orange bitters
Large cocktail ice cube
Luxardo cherry and freshly stripped orange peel (optional) for garnish
We are currently pouring Elijah Craig Small Batch bourbon at our house. It is smooth and easy, and works really well in most of our mixed cocktails, but not as pricey as some of the top-shelf brands.
My first taste of smoked maple syrup was in a gourmet shop in Blowing Rock, N.C., and I was pretty excited recently to find it on Amazon. If you like the idea of maple but not the smoke, then by all means, use regular maple syrup, preferably dark—but do not offend your cocktail with any cheap crap from the grocery store. It may be fine to enjoy your old fashioned on the porch of a “log cabin,” but the high fructose junk that sweetens that fake syrup has no place in your glass (or anywhere). Splurge a little; I promise you won’t regret it.
Addition of amaretto is optional, but we love the slightly sweet, nutty nuances it gives to this cocktail. We use Disaronno brand.
Orange bitters is a classic cocktail ingredient, and if you are building a home bar, this is one item to include from the start. Contrary to the name, bitters do not make your drink bitter; they add layers and complexity, and it’s usually what brings a drink together in the glass. A bottle of orange bitters will run you about $10, and it will last a good long time because you only need a few drops per drink.
Speaking of splurge, Luxardo cherries. They are $20 a jar. But trust me, you want them.
Combine the bourbon, amaretto and smoked maple syrup in a cocktail mixing glass or shaker. Add drops of bitters and stir to blend. Add about one cup of ice and stir briskly (or shake, if using a shaker) until the outside of the container becomes frosty, which will be about 20 seconds.
Strain the cocktail into a double rocks glass, over a big, fat ice cube.
Drop in the cherry. If desired, squeeze the orange peel to express the natural oils, and rub the outside of the peel along the rim of the glass before dropping it into the drink.
The whole world seemed to be holding its breath this time last year, as health officials everywhere began sounding major alarms about the potential dangers of COVID-19. If I had known that Valentine’s Day would be one of the last opportunities for life as we knew it—well, I might have made an exception for my usual “let’s stay at home and celebrate” attitude.
Or maybe not. I’ve never quite appreciated the way the food service industry has dealt with Valentine’s Day—raising prices while simultaneously reducing menu options doesn’t seem terribly romantic, just opportunistic. I put this couple’s night out in the same category as New Year’s Eve. Why in the world would a restaurant place restrictions on a “special” occasion, as if they are not capable of handling a full house with their regular menu? It shouldn’t be much different from a typical busy Saturday night. I don’t get it.
Happily though, I love the anticipation of preparing a special dinner at home, and for Valentine’s Day, I pull out all the stops to make decadent dishes for the love of my life. ❤
I have mentioned previously that my husband, Les, is completely crazy over anything that combines chocolate and cherry, as with the triple chocolate-cherry brownie bowls I shared from his birthday last summer, and the entire Valentine’s meal I made for us last year, only a few weeks before I started Comfort du Jour. It was “all about the cherries” for that occasion, and I prepared duck breast with a cherry-pinot noir sauce (it’s what I was making in the “about me” photo in the section at the right, plus chocolate crepes filled with mascarpone and topped with cherry-chocolate sauce, and we began the evening with this candy-inspired cocktail—the Chocolate-Covered Cherry Old Fashioned. Les and I had made fast friends with the classic Old Fashioned, and I knew the cherry and chocolate would give it a perfect twist.
During the holidays this year, we were introduced by his daughter to the most incredible chocolate covered cherries of all time, sold by Trader Joe’s. These sweet little nuggets pack a lot of decadence into one bite, including a rich dark chocolate jacket and a silky, boozy liqueur floating around a candied cherry. It is not unusual for us to choose these little gems for satisfying our post-dinner sweet tooth. We will be bummed when the box is empty, as we will have to wait until next holiday season to get more of them.
This riff on a classic rocks drink replicates the decadent experience of that limited-edition treat, combining the sweetness of cherry and the romance of Valentine’s chocolate with the spirit of bourbon. At our house, we love the accent of almond with cherry and chocolate, so there’s a little splash of amaretto in the cocktail as well. Whether you’re staying home to celebrate Valentine’s Day with a loved one, or simply to enjoy the pleasure of your own company (as you absolutely should), I hope you’ll enjoy this special sweetheart of a cocktail.
Makes one cocktail; simply double ingredients if making for two.
1.5 oz. bourbon (Elijah Craig Small Batch is on my bar right now)
0.5 oz. (1 Tbsp.) Godiva dark chocolate liqueur
0.5 oz. cherry juice (I used Trader Joe’s, but any brand is fine)
0.25 oz. (1 1/2 tsp.) amaretto
1 bar spoon (about 1/2 tsp.) syrup from Luxardo cocktail cherries* (see notes)
3 drops chocolate bitters*
Cocoa powder (for rimming the glass)
Premium cocktail cherry (such as Luxardo)
For the love of cocktails, please put away the artificial maraschino cherries! The Luxardo cherries mentioned here are the Ferrari of all cocktail garnishes, produced in Italy using real Marasca cherries that are macerated in Luxardo maraschino liqueur and packed in the resulting syrup. They are pricey, but completely worth it, and a jar will last a long time. Find these in gourmet shops, the cocktail mixers section of a high-end supermarket or online.
My chocolate bitters are produced by Woodford Reserve (the bourbon maker) and they add depth, not bitterness, to a cocktail. Find them in the cocktail mixers section, perhaps at Total Wine or online.
Prepare a double rocks cocktail glass by wetting the rim with a small amount of chocolate liqueur, holding the glass upside-down so that the liqueur doesn’t run down the sides. Then roll only the outside edge of the cocktail glass into a bit of the cocoa powder. This keeps the cocoa outside the drink, giving you an extra hint of chocolate on every sip. Do this a bit ahead of time so that the cocoa rim has time to dry and set up on the glass.
At cocktail time, combine bourbon, chocolate liqueur, amaretto, cherry juice, syrup and bitters in a cocktail mixing glass. Add a cup of ice and stir about 20 seconds to chill down the cocktail mixture. Strain into the cocoa-rimmed glass over a giant ice cube. Garnish with a good cocktail cherry (or take it home by skewering an actual cordial cherry).