Orange & Honey-Ginger Fruit Salad

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.

Nothing fancy about this fruit.

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. 🙂

These flavors work great together!

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.


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


*Notes

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. 😊


Instructions

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.




Looking for more ways to use your blood orange-fused olive oil?

Substitute for the equal amount of oil in your favorite carrot cake recipe

Use it in a marinade for chicken or fish

Drizzle a teaspoon over dark chocolate ice cream (yes, really!)

Toss vegetables in it before roasting

Use it in your favorite pancake or waffle recipe


Need ideas for using up the honey-ginger white balsamic?

Try it an any salad dressing, especially Asian-inspired salads

Use it in a marinade for chicken, fish, shrimp or pork

Add a splash to a cocktail or white sangria

Drizzle it onto vegetables after grilling or roasting

Add a tablespoon to your water bottle for flavorful summer hydration



Compound Butters for Grilled Corn

Summer, meet your new best friend at the grill.

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.

Oooh, look at that beautiful char!

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.

Grilled corn with pesto compound butter

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

1/3 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese (or parm-romano blend)

A few twists freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil


Sun-dried Tomato & Feta Compound Butter

1 stick salted butter, slightly softened

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


Instructions

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.


Happy Summer!



Fourth of July Baked Beans

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.

I don’t need fireworks on the Fourth of July. All I really want is these maple bacon baked beans! YUM.

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.


Ingredients

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

Sauce:

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)


*Notes

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.


Instructions

  1. Cook beans as directed or rinse canned beans.
  2. 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.
  3. In the same skillet, saute the chopped onion in the bacon fat until onions are tender and slightly golden.
  4. In a large bowl or measuring glass, combine sauce ingredients and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste, then add water.
  5. 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.
  6. Bake at 350° F for about an hour, until sauce is reduced to a perfectly rich and sticky mess.
Happy Fourth of July!


Souvlaki Pork Chops with Grilled Zucchini Salad

The warmth of summer is fading, and I’m not complaining. My favorite things to cook are autumn and winter foods, and I’m scheming to bring exciting new flavors into the new season.

But we still have to eat between now and then, and the grill has been our BFF this summer, especially as we have challenged ourselves to elevate our home-cooked meals while so many restaurants were closed. Here’s a quick look back at some of the fun grilled foods I’ve put on my plate since I launched Comfort du Jour:


Before the sun sets on summer 2020, I’m throwing down a Mediterranean twist on simple grilled pork chops. I love the flavors of souvlaki, the Greek specialty that highlights the brightness of lemon and pungency of garlic, and is often applied to chicken or pork on skewers, so why not just skip chopping the chops into chunks and just marinate them as they are?

Does this look healthy and delicious, or what?

And tasty grilled meat deserves a fresh grilled side, so I have also whipped up a flavorful, healthy salad made with fresh summer tomato, crunchy red onion and marinated grilled zucchini squash. Here we go!


Ingredients

2 thick sliced, bone-in pork chops

4 cloves garlic, minced

Juice of one lemon

1 Tbsp. white balsamic vinegar (or any white wine vinegar + pinch of sugar)

2 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

1/2 tsp. dried oregano leaves

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (I used Greek Kalamata)

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper


For the salad:

1 medium zucchini, trimmed and cut lengthwise into wedges

1 medium firm tomato, cut into chunks

2 thick slices red onion, cut into chunks

6 Kalamata olives, drained and chopped

Dressing: 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar, 1 Tbsp. white balsamic, a few shakes of garlic-pepper seasoning, 1/4 tsp. dried oregano, whisk in 2 Tbsp. olive oil.

Feta cheese, cut into cubes

Fresh parsley, chopped, for garnish


Instructions

Take a walk through the slideshow for visual instruction, and refer to the notes below if you need them. Remember, you can download the recipe in PDF format to try it yourself, and please let me know how it comes out for you!

  1. Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
  2. In a glass measuring cup, combine lemon juice, vinegars, oregano, salt and pepper. Drizzle olive oil into the blend, whisking constantly, until mixture is emulsified. Stir in minced garlic.
  3. Pour most of the marinate over the pork chops in a glass dish and set aside for 30 minutes. Turn once or twice during marinating time to ensure even distribution of flavor.
  4. Pour the remaining marinade over the zucchini strips in another dish. Salt and pepper the zucchini and set those aside while you chop and prep the remaining salad ingredients.
  5. Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
  6. Prepare grill and pre-heat to about 450° F (medium). Carefully place the pork chops over direct heat and sear each side about 1 minute to seal in juices. Then reduce the heat to about 350° F. The olive oil may cause flare-ups, so keep that cold beer in your hand to splash if necessary. Just kidding; either keep a squirt bottle nearby or use a grill tool to try to put out the flare or move the chops.
  7. Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
  8. When you turn the chops, pile the zucchini onto the grill also, and turn them frequently to cook evenly and to get those beautiful grill marks.
  9. Allow the finished chops to rest and chop the zucchini spears into bite-sized chunks. Immediately toss the grilled zucchini with the rest of the salad ingredients. Whisk the dressing briefly, then pour over salad and toss gently to combine. Scatter cubes of feta and fresh parsley over salad and serve alongside the pork chops.
Grill, I’m gonna miss you…

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Southern Peach Shortcake with Sweet Tea Syrup

What could be more southern than summer sweet peaches and cream on tender, salty butter biscuits? How about all that, plus a sweet tea syrup? Oh, yeah.

This idea came to me after my first taste of an Arnold Palmer, a non-alcohol summer beverage made of equal parts sweet tea and freshly squeezed lemonade. The drink is attributed to, and named for, one of the greatest American pro golfers of our time. Apparently, after a hot afternoon on the links, it was his go-to beverage, and I can understand why. I still have enough Yankee in me (despite 30+ years living in the South), that sweet tea on its own is decidedly not my drink of choice. But lightly sweetened and combined with tart lemonade, it’s light, refreshing, and I cannot get enough of it. When a flavor combination takes hold of me this way, I can’t help myself from thinking, “what else can I do with this?’”

I had four plump, juicy peaches on the counter—not enough for a cobbler, which would be too much for the two of us anyway.

So here we are. I boiled down the Arnold Palmer blend to concentrate the flavors of the tea and lemonade. My tea was light on sugar to begin with, so I added a couple of teaspoons when the syrup reached the reduction level I wanted. The syrup underscores the sweetness of ripe, juicy southern peaches, which are still undeniably the star. Go ahead and use frozen or canned biscuits if that’s easiest or knock it out of the park with some homemade fluffy biscuits if you’re a rock star (and how about sharing that recipe with me because biscuits are not my forte).

This recipe made exactly enough for 3 generous servings, dessert that night and one leftover for hubby’s lunch.

Of course, it’s topped with freshly whipped cream!

Ingredients

4 ripe freestone peaches, peeled* (see notes for peeling tip)

Juice of 1/2 small lemon

3 tsp. cane sugar

3 cups Arnold Palmer* tea-lemonade beverage (see notes for suggestions)

1 Tbsp. corn starch

1 Tbsp. unsalted butter

3 fresh buttery biscuits (I cheated and used purchased biscuits)

Sweetened whipped cream for topping


*Notes

Freestone peaches differ from “cling” peaches in that the soft fruit flesh will release more easily from the pit. The peaches at your market are likely to be freestone unless otherwise labeled.

Here’s a tip for peeling peaches without subjecting them to boiling water or crushing them: Use a sharp paring knife at a tight angle to the skin of the peaches and “scrape” against the peel, but not in a way that slices or cuts it. The best way I can describe this process is to pretend you are giving the peach a close shave. This gentle, all-over pressure will cause the skin to loosen from the soft flesh of the fruit. Then, you can slip the point of your knife under a small section of the skin and peel it right off.


For the Arnold Palmer beverage (named for the champion golfer who loved the drink), I mixed equal parts of lightly sweetened tea and Trader Joe’s freshly squeezed lemonade. Simply Lemonade brand would also be good, and homemade would be best of all. Steer clear of instant lemonade drinks such as Country Time. You’ll appreciate the flavors of real lemonade. This blend is so refreshing and summery, I could honestly drink it for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

If you’re not already making your own sweet tea at home, here’s the quick rundown for success. First, get some Luzianne blended tea—this is the real-deal “southern” tea, specifically blended for iced tea (though I can’t identify what makes it so). Seriously, if you aren’t in the South or cannot find Luzianne, there’s nothing wrong with Lipton or another brand, but for this recipe, stick with black tea rather than herbal. If you have the jumbo tea bags, you’ll only need two of them, or six regular sized tea bags.

Southerners swear by this stuff.

May I suggest also, if you expect you’ll be enjoying this beverage in the evening, consider getting the decaf version of the tea bags. On my first experience with the Arnold Palmer drink, I kept filling my glass without a thought about the caffeine (the stuff is that delicious). It was a decision I regretted the entire next day, after having only slept about three hours. I think I’d rather have a hangover than an all-night caffeine buzz. On the plus side, it was a very productive day. 🙂

Bring water to a boil in a tea kettle or pan and pour 6 cups over two family-size tea bags in a heat-safe pitcher. Allow the tea to steep 5 minutes, then remove and discard the tea bags. Add about 1/2 cup pure cane sugar (give or take, depending on your taste) and stir until dissolved.

Allow it to cool a few minutes, then add 2 cups of fresh ice cubes and stir until melted. Refrigerate the tea until you’re ready to enjoy it or, in this case, blend it with equal amount of fresh lemonade.


Instructions


  1. Toss peaches in lemon to prevent browning
  2. Sprinkle sugar over peaches and macerate several hours or overnight in the fridge.
  3. Simmer Arnold Palmer blend down to about 3/4 cup volume.
  4. Taste syrup; if too tart (lemony), add 1 tsp. sugar at a time to taste
  5. Combine 1 Tbsp. cornstarch with 1 Tbsp. cold water. Bring sauce to gentle boil and slowly stream in the slurry to slightly thicken the syrup. You may not use it all. Stir in butter. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate if you aren’t using it right away.
  6. Split a biscuit, drizzle syrup on the bottom half, then layer on peaches and biscuit top. Drizzle generously with sweet tea syrup and top with whipped cream.
The first bite of a sweet summer dessert is the best, am I right?

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Elote Macaroni Salad

You don’t have to visit Mexico to experience the delicious combination of flavors in elote, the beloved Mexican street food staple that is roasted fresh corn on the cob, seasoned with spices, lime and grated cheese. Here’s a pasta side salad that captures the essence of this simple street food. It’s sweet, spicy, savory, smoky and perfectly delicious next to the saucy ribs Les pulled off the grill.

Easy to put together, and mixing up south-of-the-border flavor with a timeless classic American comfort food, the macaroni salad.

I’m loving this!


Ingredients

12 oz. pkg. casarecce pasta* (see notes)

2 ears freshly grilled corn*

1/2 cup red onion, chopped

1 average-size jalapeno, seeded and diced

3 scallions, trimmed and grilled

Handful fresh cilantro, rough chopped for serving

Crumbled feta or parmesan cheese for serving

Additional slices fresh jalapeno (optional, for garnish)

1 small ripe avocado, cut into cubes


Dressing Ingredients

1/4 cup canola mayo

1/2 cup light sour cream

Juice of 1/2 lime

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (or avocado oil)

3/4 tsp. ground chipotle

1/2 tsp. cumin

1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

Freshly cracked black pepper


*Notes

Casarecce pasta is a long, shaped noodle that looks like a rolled-up rectangle. I like it here because it has a firm, toothy texture that anchors all the other ingredients, which are cut into smaller pieces. Any substantial-sized pasta with texture will work in its place though, including penne, rotini or farfalle (bow ties).

Grilling fresh corn is one of the simplest pleasures. We strip the husk and silk, then smear with softened butter, salt and pepper. Wrap them up in foil and grill on direct 300-350 F heat for about 35 minutes. If you prefer, you could also pick up some frozen roasted corn and thaw before using. You will need about 1 1/2 cups.


Instructions

  1. Cook pasta according to package directions. Cut kernels from corn and prep all other vegetables while pasta is cooking.
  2. Combine dressing ingredients in a small bowl or glass measuring cup, whisk or stir until smooth. If dressing seems very thick, add another tablespoon of olive oil and another squeeze of lime.
  3. Drain pasta and toss to evaporate excess moisture. Add a small amount of the dressing and toss to coat. This helps to prevent the pasta sticking together. Let the pasta cool a few minutes, then add corn, jalapeno and red onion to the pasta bowl. Pour in remaining dressing and toss to combine. Chill until cold, at least one hour.
  4. To serve, top salad with chopped grilled scallions, parmesan or finely crumbled feta, avocado, jalapeno slices and cilantro.
Mexican street corn meets macaroni salad, and it rocks!

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Fresh Broccoli-Apple Salad

The word “salad” can mean a lot of things, depending on the generation during which the recipe was introduced. For example, in the 1960s or ’70s, a “salad” could have been anything from an iceberg lettuce-based dish served ahead of dinner to a molded concoction of sweetened gelatin, cottage cheese, marshmallow or who knows what.


Blame our parents, if you need to, for those atrocities. But this salad is a real salad—vegetables, fruit, dressing—everything you want to complement what you’re serving for dinner in these modern times, especially if what you’re serving is coming off the grill.

Broccoli comes to us from the brassica family of vegetables, kin to brussels sprouts, cabbage and kale, to name a few. Some of these veggies carry a slightly bitter flavor, but here’s a tip to knock it down: give it a quick swim in boiling water (only for a few seconds), then shock it cold again in an ice water bath. Not only will you strip away some of that bitter flavor, you’ll also see the broccoli transform to a much brighter green color. Be sure to drain it well before proceeding with the salad, so the dressing doesn’t get watery.

We love salads at our house, but my husband, Les, isn’t wild about broccoli by itself. A salad that features broccoli along with other flavors and textures is a great compromise, and he liked it. His son, Alex, has been with us for meals at least once a week since his return home from Europe at the start of the pandemic, and he announced at dinner that this dish has “all my favorite things in it.” I’m counting that a double success!

This dish is crunchy, cold, fresh and—despite the slight sweetness—still packed with nutrition. Approximately 6 servings.


Ingredients

2 broccoli crowns, washed (about 4 cups worth)

2 medium carrots, peeled and shredded

1/2 cup red onion, chopped

1/2 cup golden raisin-dried cranberry blend, soaked briefly in hot water to plump

1 granny smith apple, peeled, cored and chopped

Juice of 1/2 lemon

3 slices thin bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled (this is optional)


If the dressing seems familiar, you might be remembering my creamy cole slaw a few months ago. It’s pretty much the same, repurposed for a different type of salad.

This dressing works for all kinds of summer salads!

Dressing Ingredients

1/4 cup light mayo

2 Tbsp. whole milk

2 Tbsp. buttermilk

2 Tbsp. lemon white balsamic* (or white wine vinegar or lemon juice, but double the sugar)

1 Tbsp. cane sugar

1 tsp. kosher salt

1/8 tsp. white pepper

Freshly ground black pepper


Instructions

  1. Dip the broccoli crowns very briefly into gently boiling water, then shock them in ice water and drain. This helps remove any bitter taste, and also brightens the color. You can skip this step if you don’t mind the slight bitterness of broccoli.
  2. Trim leaves from broccoli crowns and cut up into small bites. You can chop the broccoli if you’re in a hurry, but I like to have cut off whole pieces rather than “crumbs” of broccoli. My general rule of thumb for bite size is this: If a piece is large enough to completely cover a quarter, it’s too big, so I’ll cut it in half.
  3. Combine broccoli pieces with onions, plumped raisins, carrot shreds. Toss the apple pieces in the lemon juice to prevent browning. Add them to the salad.
  4. Combine all dressing ingredients and whisk until smooth. Pour over salad and toss to evenly coat. Refrigerate a few hours to allow flavors to mingle.
  5. Scatter crispy bacon (if using) over salad just before serving.
The crispy bacon adds a nice touch of salty and smoky on this hearty summer side.

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Heirloom Tomato and Grilled Watermelon Gazpacho

A few hours before my 50th birthday, I had dinner by myself at a local restaurant where a friend of mine was a server. This was a very intentional decision I made because, as strange as it may sound, all I wanted for my birthday was to hear Guido describe the specials. The “u” in his name is silent, so it’s pronounced “GHEE-doe.” He is of Argentinian descent and a beautiful person (inside and out), but please don’t misunderstand—this was not any kind of romantic inclination. Guido knew that I was a full-fledged foodie, and he had a remarkable gift in his ability to describe food with exactly the right words to make me want that dish.

How often have I rolled my eyes in a restaurant when a perky server bounces up to the table with the trite declaration, “Hi, I’m Ashley (Bridget, Connor, Danielle, whatever) and I’ll be taking care of you.” Sweetie, please, you have no idea what it will mean to take care of me. I’m a high-maintenance guest, so brace yourself. And while you’re at it, please stop with this cliché.

But not Guido, an old soul who has always seemed to know instinctively what I’m craving, from wine to appetizers to dessert. He never promised to take care of me, he just did so. And he never asked whether I wished for freshly cracked pepper from his giant pepper mill—he knew me, like a culinary soulmate, and I followed him when he moved to work in a different restaurant. He used words like “exquisite” and “succulent,” and he looked me in the eye as he described the dishes from memory rather than reading off his order pad. Of course, I realize the possibility that he was merely very persuasive in his approach, and that he may not have known what I wanted as much as he made me want the dishes he was selling. And I’m OK with that.

Either way, on my birthday that year, he positively nailed it when he “suggested” that I should begin my birthday meal experience with one of the chef’s special starters—a refreshing bowl of the house-made grilled watermelon gazpacho.

OK, what?

I have no idea what else I ate and drank that evening, but I never forgot about that gazpacho. It was everything I imagined and expected—fresh, chilled, flavorful—but unlike any I had ever had before, courtesy of the summer-sweet watermelon. And grilled, at that. The level of cool, clean refreshment was off the charts, and I’m very excited to finally make my own version of it, so I can share it with you. I’ve followed the lead of Guido’s chef by grilling wedges of fresh watermelon. I’ll mix it up with additional fresh watermelon, ripe heirloom tomatoes, red onions, cucumber and jalapeno. Doesn’t it sound like summer?

Though gazpacho is most often served as a starter, I’ve turned mine into a cool summer meal, with addition of paprika-dusted grilled sweet shrimp and creamy cubes of avocado. When you’re ready to make this, use the ripest, freshest farmer’s market tomatoes you can get your hands on. Grocery store tomatoes will not cut it for this one. And it’ll be best to use watermelon at its peak sweetness as well.

In a blender or processor, the whole thing comes together quickly, then just chill it down in the fridge overnight so these flavors have plenty of time to mingle.

From start to finish, this dish reminds me of Guido, whom I have stayed in touch with, but have not seen since that night at dinner. I should call him up and invite him to taste this gazpacho. It also reminds me of turning 50, and for some, that might not be a positive. But, without question, it turned out to be the best year of my life. Can a soup change one’s life? Probably not, but like any other food, sometimes it can hold a special place in your story.


Ingredients

3 cups chopped heirloom tomatoes* (see slideshow for peeling tips)

2 cups chopped grilled watermelon*

1 cup fresh watermelon

1/2 large red onion, rough chopped

1 medium cucumber, peeled, seeded and rough chopped

1 good sized jalapeno, seeded and rough chopped

1 tsp. coarse sea salt

Freshly cracked black pepper

1/2 tsp. seasoned salt

1 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

2 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined

1/2 tsp. sweet smoked paprika

Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 scallions, washed and trimmed

Extra virgin olive oil

1 avocado, peeled and cubed

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 jalapeno, diced (optional to taste)

*Notes

I love heirloom tomatoes because they taste the way I remember tomatoes, rather than mealy and bland from the supermarket. If you can pick them from the vine yourself, even better! But if you don’t have a garden, no problem (after all, mine belongs to the deer). Head to the farmer’s market and don’t be shy about trying different varieties. It’s often the funky-looking tomatoes that have the very best flavor!

Grill the watermelon in large thick slices, as chunks are more likely to fall apart. We did them outside on the gas grill, but if you have an indoor grilll, that will work as well. The goal is to concentrate the flavors of the watermelon.

Here’s a quick visual tip for peeling tomatoes without boiling water and handling them when they’re all hot and slippery. My grandmother taught me this easy trick that works every time.


Instructions for the gazpacho

  1. Begin by grilling up several wedges of fresh, ripe watermelon. Cool them, and refrigerate until ready to proceed with the pureed soup.
  2. Peel your heirloom tomatoes, and remove seeds if desired. Pluck out any obvious watermelon seeds.
  3. Load up the bowl of your food processor or blender with the watermelon, grilled watermelon and peeled tomatoes. Work in batches if necessary. Pulse several times until mixture is evenly combined and “soupy.”
  4. Remove half of the pureed mixture to a separate bowl, then add the onions, jalapeno and cucumber to the processor and pulse until smooth. Add salt and pepper, seasoned salt and vinegar and pulse again to combine.

Transfer the processor mixture to the bowl with the rest of the puree and adjust seasoning to taste. Refrigerate puree at least overnight to really blend the flavors.


Instructions for shrimp and serving

Shrimp cook quickly, so I grilled them indoors rather than waiting for the outdoor grill to heat up. Grilling scallions mellows out their flavor, which is exactly what I wanted for topping the gazpacho.
  1. Toss the shrimp with just enough olive oil to coat it, then season with paprika, salt and pepper and toss so that the spices are evenly coating the shrimp. Spray or drizzle the scallions with olive oil.
  2. Grill the scallions and shrimp (I used the integrated grill on our gas range) until they are desired doneness and scallions have sweet little grill marks. Allow both to cool slightly.
  3. Peel and cube the avocado and squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice over them to prevent browning. Chop the scallions. Dice the jalapeno.
  4. Ladle the gazpacho into serving bowls and top with the shrimp, avocado, jalapeno and scallions. Finally, a quick twist of freshly ground black pepper (did you know that black pepper has amazing health benefits?—Guido always said that when he brought the pepper mill to my table).

Light, fresh and delicious!

Here’s what I love about this soup—

  • It’s cool, and in the midst of intense heat of a Southern summer, a welcome relief.
  • It’s delicious, fresh and healthful. Just savoring these marvelous flavors in their natural state makes me want to take up yoga and change my name to “Sunshine.”
  • It’s very low in fat. I don’t know the specific count, but there’s none in the soup, a nominal amount in the shrimp, and only the good-for-you kind in the extra virgin olive oil and avocado.
  • A single serving satisfies a full daily requirement of nutrients, vitamins, fiber and antioxidants.

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Grilled Pineapple-Jalapeno Ice Cream

Inspiration for nearly every original recipe I’ve made comes from my experience with the same combination of ingredients in a different type of dish. For example, I love the balance of flavors in pineapple salsa, especially served up alongside fresh grilled foods in the summertime. So why not take the two key elements of the salsa—pineapple and hot pepper—and cross them over into new territory as a dessert? That’s precisely what I’ve done with this unusual ice cream. Holy. Moly. The distinct jalapeno flavor is subtle throughout, thanks to an infused simple syrup, but it’s definitely the sweetness of the pureed pineapple taking the lead. The creamy ice cream is accentuated even further with pieces of sweet grilled pineapple and the tiny bits of candied jalapeno, left over from the syrup creation.

I love the smooth and creamy texture of a custard-based ice cream, so that’s where this recipe begins. Proper tempering of the egg yolks is key to the outcome, so be patient and watch it closely. If you’re not quite ready for the jalapeno flavor, I’m quite certain the ice cream would be good without it. But if you’re game for a tropical flavor adventure, I promise you won’t be disappointed!


Ingredients

1 1/2 cups whole milk

1 1/2 cups heavy cream

2/3 cup sugar, divided

3 egg yolks

Pinch kosher salt

1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

1/8 tsp. Fiori di Sicilia* (optional, but yum)

2 oz. jalapeno simple syrup (recipe below)

1 cup pureed fresh pineapple*

1/2 cup grilled pineapple pieces*

2 Tbsp. candied jalapeno pieces

1 Tbsp. neutral alcohol, such as vodka or light rum* (optional, but improves ice cream texture)

*Notes

Fiori di Sicilia is a unique Italian extract, featuring very concentrated citrus and vanilla flavors. It’s optional in this recipe, but adds a special flair. Look for it in specialty stores or online from King Arthur Flour.

It may be best to puree the pineapple just before freezing the ice cream, to preserve the beautiful fresh color.

Earlier in the week, I had grilled pineapple for our Jamaican Jerk pizzas, and I reserved enough pieces to use for this ice cream. If you like pineapple with bold spicy flavors, you’ll want to circle back and check out those pies!

Grilling the pineapple really elevates its sweetness in a lovely way, but don’t let this be a deal-breaker. If you’re pressed for time, skip the grilling and use fresh pineapple bits or even canned tidbits (but drain them first).

The addition of alcohol is optional, but it helps to improve the texture of the ice cream. I used 1800 coconut-flavored tequila, another nod to the tropical flavors.

Instructions

  1. Stir together milk, heavy cream and about half the sugar over medium heat until sugar is dissolved, and mixture comes to a very slight boil. Reduce heat to lowest setting or turn off burner.
  2. While milk mixture is heating, whisk egg yolks, the remaining sugar and kosher salt until light, fluffy and lemon colored. Scrape down sides of bowl as needed, to ensure all sugar gets incorporated.
  3. Prepare an ice bath to be used for cooling the custard. Place a heat-proof glass bowl over another bowl filled with ice cubes and water. It will be helpful to have this ready when the custard has finished cooking.
  4. Ladle out 1 cup of hot milk mixture into a measuring cup with a pour spout. Temper eggs by slowly drizzling hot milk into the mixing bowl, whisking the entire time. Then, return the egg mixture back to the pot with the remaining hot milk and cream. Simmer on medium-low heat, stirring constantly, until custard retains shape on the back of a spoon.
  5. Remove from heat and pour through a mesh strainer into a bowl over ice water to cool custard. I’ll confess here that I often skip this step when making a custard-based ice cream, but the flame seemed a little hot under my pan this time and I wanted to cool it down quickly before the eggs got any ideas about curdling. Stir in vanilla, Fiori di Sicilia and jalapeno simple syrup. Lay heavy plastic wrap directly onto surface of custard, then cover entire bowl with another layer of plastic or tight-fitting lid. Refrigerate overnight.

Here’s a slideshow to help you visualize the process:

The next day, add pineapple puree to chilled custard just before freezing according to manufacturer’s instructions. After 20 minutes, add grilled pineapple pieces and candied jalapeno pieces for final few minutes of churning, adding vodka or rum in final minute. Transfer ice cream to insulated freezer container and freeze at least four hours to ripen. I know it’s tempting to dive right in for a scoop, but this ice cream will be at its best after an overnight freeze.

Oh my, is that a perfect looking scoop? 🙂

Jalapeno simple syrup

1 cup pure cane sugar

3/4 cup filtered water

2 smallish jalapenos, seeded and diced

Heat sugar and water over medium heat until sugar is dissolved and syrup begins to lightly boil at the edges. Add jalapeno pieces and stir, cooking about 2 minutes at low heat. Turn off heat, cool completely, strain jalapenos (reserve them) and keep syrup in a covered jar in the fridge up to 2 weeks.

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FYI, you will only use 2 oz. of the jalapeno syrup in the ice cream recipe. Save the rest for elevating your tropical flavored cocktails—maybe this Watermelon Jalapeno Mule!

A refreshing taste of summer, perfect for sipping in the backyard.

Watermelon-Jalapeno Mule

Ah, watermelon. It has always been one of the most refreshing flavors of summer, and versatile as well. I remember being happy to just grab a wedge of freshly sliced, juicy watermelon and dash back outside to play. That was when watermelon still had oodles of black seeds running through it—you know, before genetic engineering was the norm for our food. And as a kid, I always wanted someone to make me one of those watermelon baskets that’s filled up with fruit salad.

As a grown-up, I still love the flavor but I’m more inclined to elevate it to something more special. Last summer, I made a watermelon-basil sorbet that was freaking delicious. Watermelon and feta salad is always welcome on my summer table, and I’m still fantasizing about grilled watermelon gazpacho. For the over-21 crowd, this adaptation of a Moscow Mule will make you appreciate watermelon even more than you did in your carefree childhood years.

All my recipes are adjustable to your comfort zone for heat and flavor, but if I may suggest, don’t omit the jalapeno syrup in this cocktail. On a 1 – 10 spicy scale, this is only hitting at about 2. Without its seeds and membranes, jalapeno has a bright and fruity flavor that isn’t all that spicy (especially in such small amount as this) and it dances a fine little foxtrot with the juicy watermelon. I’ve used vodka in this cocktail, but if you substitute a white tequila, I’m betting it would be reminiscent of a paleta, the delightful summer treat from south of the border. Pick your poison, then amp up the refreshment even further with a touch of fresh muddled mint, if you so desire.

Let’s raise a copper mug to summer!

We’ve made this a summer go-to for casual backyard downtime this summer. Use the ginger beer you like best, or even ginger ale. The recipe below makes 2 cocktails, perfectly refreshing for summer sipping.

Ingredients

3 oz. Vodka

3 oz. Watermelon puree*

1 oz. Jalapeno simple syrup*

Juice of 1/2 lime

Ginger beer* to top off

Crushed ice

Fresh mint (optional) for muddling and garnish


*Notes

The watermelon puree is a breeze to make—literally, just throw some cut-up pieces of it into your blender or food processor and let it spin. I then run it through a mesh strainer to remove some of the pulp but that’s optional, a benefit, I suppose, of the new-and-improved “seedless” varieties.

To make the jalapeno simple syrup, combine 1 cup each filtered water and cane sugar in a saucepan and bring to a light boil. Remove from heat, stir in a chopped jalapeno (seeds or no seeds, depending on your love for heat) and let it steep until the syrup is cooled. Use a mesh strainer or slotted spoon to remove the jalapeno pieces and keep the syrup in a sealed jar in the fridge for up to two weeks.

Ginger beer is not “ginger-flavored” beer, and it does not have alcohol. It’s a stronger, zippier version of ginger ale soda, and it is a typical ingredient in a classic Moscow Mule cocktail. You may find it in the soda section of your market—if not, look in the cocktail mixers section where you’d find tonic water and club soda. Fever Tree brand has gained popularity recently, but I favor the Reed’s brand, which is all-natural and sweetened with honey. In particular, I look for the “Extra,” which has a higher concentration of the spicy ginger. If the spice doesn’t sit well with you, use regular ginger beer or try ginger ale.

Instructions

Fill your copper mule mug or 10 oz. glass halfway with crushed ice to get it chillin’.

Combine the watermelon puree, vodka, lime juice, a couple of mint leaves (optional) and simple syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake for 20 seconds or until the outside of the shaker is frosty. Strain over the crushed ice into your mugs or glasses and top with ginger beer. Garnish with lime wheel, jalapeno slice or additional mint if you’re feeling fancy.

Cheers, from our backyard to yours!
Which one is sweeter? ❤

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