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?
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!
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
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!
Season pork chops with salt and pepper.
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.
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.
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.
Mix together the dressing ingredients and set that aside, giving the dried oregano time to hydrate.
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.
Continue to cook for about 10 minutes each side, or until juices start to run clear when pierced with a knife tip.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Toss peaches in lemon to prevent browning
Sprinkle sugar over peaches and macerate several hours or overnight in the fridge.
Simmer Arnold Palmer blend down to about 3/4 cup volume.
Taste syrup; if too tart (lemony), add 1 tsp. sugar at a time to taste
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.
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.
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!
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
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
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.
Cook pasta according to package directions. Cut kernels from corn and prep all other vegetables while pasta is cooking.
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.
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.
To serve, top salad with chopped grilled scallions, parmesan or finely crumbled feta, avocado, jalapeno slices and cilantro.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Scatter crispy bacon (if using) over salad just before serving.
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.
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.
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)
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
Begin by grilling up several wedges of fresh, ripe watermelon. Cool them, and refrigerate until ready to proceed with the pureed soup.
Peel your heirloom tomatoes, and remove seeds if desired. Pluck out any obvious watermelon seeds.
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.”
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
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.
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.
Peel and cube the avocado and squeeze fresh lemon or lime juice over them to prevent browning. Chop the scallions. Dice the jalapeno.
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).
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.
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!
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)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
3 oz. Vodka
3 oz. Watermelon puree*
1 oz. Jalapeno simple syrup*
Juice of 1/2 lime
Ginger beer* to top off
Fresh mint (optional) for muddling and garnish
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.
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.
If you love the idea of homemade ice cream but don’t feel like messing around with a cooked custard base, this recipe will be right up your alley. The cream cheese (or, in this case, mascarpone) gives it a luxurious, silky texture, but it comes together quicker without the extra, fussy step of tempering eggs and straining a custard. Greek yogurt helps lighten it up a bit without compromising the creaminess. The layers of fruit syrup and crushed graham crackers bring home all the memories of a fresh summer cheesecake.
I’ve broken the recipe into tasks over a couple of days, but you could easily start this in the morning and finish it the same evening. Just be sure you give the berries enough time to macerate, and the cream mixture time to thoroughly chill before freezing.
Not wild about strawberries? Feel free to swap them out in favor of another favorite fruit, but consider that some fruit might need to be cooked first. Blueberries and raspberries, to name two, aren’t as juicy as strawberries so they would need a little help getting there. I think fresh summer peaches would be amazing in this recipe—and, of course, cherries.
8 oz. mascarpone* or cream cheese
3/4 cup caster (super-fine) sugar*
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup whole milk
3/4 cup Greek yogurt* (plain or vanilla)
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 tsp. almond extract
2 1/2 cups fresh organic strawberries*
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 Tbsp. vodka* (optional for improved texture)
Mascarpone is an Italian-style creamy cheese, a bit denser and definitely silkier than regular cream cheese. It will lend an ultra-creamy texture to this ice cream which, unlike most of my others, does not begin with an egg custard. If mascarpone is not available in your market, use full-fat cream cheese (the brick kind) for similar result.
Caster sugar is sometimes called “super-fine” sugar. I’ve chosen it for this recipe because it is easier to dissolve in cold ingredients. In my custard-based ice creams, I use pure organic cane sugar, which I’m certain would not fare well in this recipe because we are not cooking the base.
Caster sugar is pure white and extremely processed (a quality that makes it practically against my religion), so it’s rare for me to use it at all. It’s also pretty expensive compared to most sugars. If you can’t find caster, put your regular sugar in a blender and grind it into as fine a powder as you can. Measure the amount after grinding. Otherwise, warm the milk called for in the recipe and dissolve your sugar into it, then cool completely before proceeding.
Because the mascarpone already has cream in it, I’m using less heavy cream than I normally would for ice cream. To make up the difference, I’ve opted for Greek yogurt, and the one I chose is vanilla with a touch of cinnamon, which I think is going to play really nicely against the strawberries. I’m always on the lookout for a twist, which typically leads me to develop favorite new recipes.
Unfortunately, strawberries top the 2020 “Dirty Dozen” list of potentially toxic produce items. Each year, the Environmental Working Group, a non-profit organization, issues a list of produce items most likely to be contaminated with pesticides and other questionable chemicals. You can learn more about it here, but in the meantime, choose organic strawberries whenever possible.
The vodka in this recipe is optional, and it does not affect the flavor, but it helps with the final texture of the ice cream, making it easier to scoop straight from the freezer.
Clean and hull the strawberries, and slice into pieces. I use an egg slicer for this task—it’s quick and simple, and I end up with uniform slices. Add the berries to a medium size bowl and stir in brown sugar. Give the berries time to fully macerate at room temperature, then put them in the refrigerator.
If you’re cool with having a pink-colored ice cream, feel free to skip this next step. I’ve decided this time around that I want to create a ribbon of strawberry syrup through the white ice cream, so I’m going over the top, even though it means I’ll add a day to my ice cream prep. Care to join me? Allow the strawberries to macerate overnight, then use a large mesh strainer to drain off the liquid and simmer it over medium-low heat until it is reduced by half and has the consistency of a thin syrup.
Allow the syrup to cool to room temperature, then return it to the fridge in a separate bowl from the drained berries.
In the bowl of your mixer, beat the mascarpone together with the caster sugar, milk and Greek yogurt until fully combined. Slowly beat in the heavy cream, taking care not to whip it too much. Add the vanilla and almond extracts. Transfer the cream mixture to a sealed bowl and refrigerate several hours until fully chilled.
Day two (or three, if you went down the rabbit hole with me on the strawberry syrup):
Stir the cream mixture to reincorporate all ingredients, as some separation will have occurred. You don’t need to whip it here—just mix or gently whisk until the mixture has a uniform, creamy appearance. If you didn’t make the strawberry syrup, drain the berries at this point and blend their liquid into the cream mixture.
Pour the cream mixture into the ice cream machine and mix according to manufacturer’s instructions. Mine takes 20 to 25 minutes to freeze. For the final few minutes of freezing, spoon in the strained strawberries (and vodka, if using), allowing them to blend in before adding another spoonful, and repeat until all strawberries are used.
Place the graham crackers into a paper or zip top bag, and gently crush them with a rolling pin or the bottom of a bowl or measuring cup. I didn’t want it to be fully crumbs—try to keep a few bits of the crackers for texture in the finished ice cream.
Layer the ice cream in an insulated container, beginning with ice cream, then staggered layers of reduced syrup ribbon (if using) and graham crumbles. Finish with the leftover fine crumbs. Cover the container and freeze at least 4 hours until firm.
Just for fun, and because we had already licked the bowl, the spoon and the ice cream maker paddle, I gathered up the dregs that freeze hard to the freezer bowl and made miniature ice cream sandwiches with a couple of graham crackers. They were not the prettiest things, but it was a delicious taste test!
Some women are dazzled by diamonds, others by expensive cars. Me, I tend to get overjoyed with really simple things, such as this stunning display of fresh peppers I ran into on one of my recent grocery runs. There are so many things I can do with peppers, and I couldn’t resist buying up a bunch of them.
But all of my best intentions lost a bit of their sparkle when I came home to the harsh reminder that we still don’t have enough room in the veggie drawer for two weeks’ worth of fresh stuff. So I had to come up with a plan, and fast. As a result, this week and next I’ll be focusing on some go-to recipes, along with new twists and some experiments, for using up those peppers. Along with some (hopefully) great dishes, I’ll show you a few of the tips I’ve learned for working with them, especially from my time in the catering kitchen, where every minute counted.
But first, a lesson, and forgive me if you’ve already seen this on Pinterest:
Did you know about the idea that bell peppers with three lobes on the bottom are males, best for cooking, while peppers with four lobes are females, chock-full of seeds, but sweeter and better for eating raw? This is fascinating to me.
As luck would have it, I have one of each—a yellow “male” and a bright red “female.” We’ll test this claim, but more importantly, here comes my first tip. To avoid getting seeds everywhere when you cut open a pepper, turn it upside down and use a sharp paring knife to just barely cut through the skin, along the natural lines of the pepper. Then, pull the individual sections of pepper out and down toward the stem, like you’re peeling an orange. Keep going until the section snaps at the stem end, leaving the seed pod behind. Repeat with the other sections until all you have left is the stem and seeds.
Almost all the seeds remained with the stem piece, which means less time you’ll spend wiping them off your knife blade or sweeping them away from the cutting board. I did the same with the “male” pepper, and you can see the two compared. The yellow pepper definitely cut apart cleaner, which is more about how I cut it than anything else—no messy seed cleanup. But how about that claim that the “female” pepper is sweeter and has more seeds?
OK, the red pepper probably is sweeter, but not because it’s female. It’s because of the color. All deeply colored fruits and vegetables are more flavorful than their paler counterparts because they are more ripe. Without standing here and counting the seeds, I can honestly say I don’t see much of a difference between the two stems I’m holding.
As cool as it would have been to get the skinny on the whole male vs. female pepper thing, the truth is it’s a bogus claim. And although the rumor continues to spread faster than kudzu all over the internet, botanical experts everywhere have declared it has no merit, so let’s just move along because it’s almost dinner time and I think we can all agree we’re getting hungry just staring at all these fresh peppers, especially now that I’ve thrown in a zucchini.
This first “spotlight on peppers” recipe is super simple, perfect for outdoor cooking and an easy way to max out our daily servings of vegetables. It doesn’t hurt that we also won’t have a lot of cleanup, because we’re moving this party outside—to the grill!
You’ll need some grilling skewers for threading the vegetables and shrimp, or, even easier, one of those cool stainless steel grilling baskets.
1 red bell pepper (any gender is fine) 🙂
1 yellow bell pepper
1 medium onion, cut into large chunks
1 medium zucchini, cut into large chunks
8 oz. package fresh cremini mushrooms, cleaned and trimmed
1 Tbsp. Dijon mustard
3 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
Garlic pepper or lemon pepper seasoning
1/2 tsp. dried herb leaves (oregano, basil, whatever you like)
3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
About 1 lb. fresh shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon, plus a little of the zest
1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper
Much of the time, I don’t even bother marinating veggies before grilling, because a little olive oil and plain old sea salt and pepper brings out enough of their flavor. But on this occasion, I discovered an almost-empty bottle of Dijon mustard in the fridge, so it seems like a good time to offer one of my favorite tricks for using every last little bit. I use Dijon anyway to aid in blending a vinaigrette-style dressing or marinade, and when I can’t squeeze any more out of the bottle, I just add the other ingredients to it and shake it up to use what’s left. As a bonus, it further reduces the dirty dishes, because I can discard or recycle the bottle when I’m done with the marinade.
I realize the odds are low that your own Dijon is also down to the dregs, so I’ve offered approximate amounts, but keep this idea in mind the next time you’re at the bottom of a bottle (of mustard, that is).
Combine the marinade ingredients, then toss the peppers, zucchini and mushrooms and let them rest while you prep the rest of the recipe. I’ve gently tossed the onions chunks in a different bowl, so they don’t separate too much before I thread everything onto skewers.
Combine the garlic, lemon juice and olive oil and toss the shrimp to coat. They don’t need to be dripping in the marinade—just a light coating is fine.
Preheat the grill to medium heat, and thread the veggies onto the skewers however you’d like—if you want to keep all peppers together, separate from skewers full of mushrooms or zucchini, that’s cool. I usually mix them up, but I always keep the shrimp separate because they don’t require as much time.
Here’s a quick tip I’ve found on the skewering, to prevent spearing yourself when you thread them—especially if they’re a little slippery from the marinade. Put the veggies flat on the cutting board and then stab the skewer down into them. It keeps your hands out of the line of fire. No sense turning an easy dinner into an all-night adventure at urgent care.
Move the skewered veggies to the grill and cook over low to medium heat until tender and lightly charred. The shrimp cook quickly, so add them to the mix when everything else is nearly done.
Light, fresh and healthy. Les and I love this simple kind of meal just as it is, but it would also be great over a bed of herbed rice or polenta.
For the record, sometimes I do recommend peeking at the bottom of peppers and selecting the ones with four lobes instead of three—not because of any weird gender claim, but simply because they stand up better when they’re stuffed with meat or rice if they are even and balanced on the bottom. Let’s revisit that when we make some Caribbean stuffed peppers next week.
We must be headed into summer, because I can hardly tear myself away from grilled food ideas. I’m dreaming about classic summer favorites, but I’m also having fun imagining new ways to enjoy fruit, vegetables, pizza and who knows what else on the grill. One thing you can expect from me in the coming weeks is a grilled watermelon gazpacho. True story, I woke up thinking about it the other day. After a bunch of rainy days and weekends, we’ve finally eased into some nicer days, and cooking outside is the best part of that!
Most of the time, mentions of grilling conjures images of burgers and ribs and heavy smoky things. But I’ve definitely been feeling it more for freshness lately, and craving lighter foods that will help me feel less sluggish after so many weeks of “comfort food,” Zoom happy hours and going absolutely nowhere.
Over the next few weeks, we’ll be planning an expansion of our patio and some other embellishments to help make it even more inviting. And hopefully one day soon (or at least not too far off), we will be able to share the space with friends more than current circumstances allow.
For now, we’re thankful to have comfy patio chairs, a private backyard, and a great Char-Broil gas grill, and tonight we’re cooking up a grilled chicken Caesar. Not just grilled chicken on the Caesar, mind you—more than that, the Caesar will be grilled as well. If you have not yet enjoyed grilled romaine, it’s such a treat, and yet so, so simple. It’s basically a poster child for Comfort du Jour—a familiar comfortable food, but with a fun and simple twist to elevate your happy. Let’s get cooking!
1 romaine heart (the tender inside part of romaine lettuce)
Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 Tbsp. bottled Caesar dressing (the simpler, the better)
4 anchovy fillets
Freshly shaved parmesan or pecorino romano cheese for serving
Check your brand of garlic pepper seasoning for salt content, and adjust your marinade ingredients to taste. We have McCormick brand, and the salt is just right. If yours is salt-free, you’ll probably want to add about 1/4 tsp. salt along with it, or season the chicken with salt before you add the marinade.
In our house, we’re careful to avoid a lot of highly processed ingredients, such as high-fructose corn syrup and just about any version of soybean oil (it has no nutritional value and is usually genetically modified). We like the brand pictured in this post (Marzetti’s “Simply Dressed”) because it’s made with real ingredients and nothing that makes us cringe. Find it refrigerated in the produce section of your market.
Anchovies have gotten a bad rap, in my opinion. For a long time, I assumed I didn’t like anchovies because other people didn’t like them. But in small amounts, and paired with the right things, they add a fantastic savory pop to a dish. If you haven’t tried them lately, give them a shot in this recipe!
Pat the chicken breasts dry with paper towels and set aside while you prepare the simple grilling marinade.
In a small bowl, combine red wine vinegar, lemon juice, Dijon and garlic pepper seasoning. Drizzle in olive oil in a slow and steady stream, whisking constantly to incorporate and emulsify. Pour the marinade over the chicken breasts in a covered glass dish or a zip top plastic bag. Put in the fridge until about 30 minutes before grilling.
Next, prep the romaine for grilling by trimming the end and any loose leaves, and cut in half lengthwise. Rinse under cold water, ruffling the leaves to let the water get inside the layers. Shake off excess water and place romaine halves, cut-side down, on a plate lined with a double layer of paper towels. Lay a damp paper towel over the top and put the plate in the fridge for several hours. The water will continue to drain from the cut leaves, and the romaine will get nice and crunchy during its chill time.
Preheat your grill or grilling pan to about 450° F. The chicken should rest at room temperature about 30 minutes. This isn’t absolutely necessary, but it helps the chicken cook more evenly. Reduce the temperature to about 350° and grill the chicken until it’s nicely charred on the outside and the juices run clear. At this point in the recipe, I usually bid adieu to my husband, Les, who handles most of our outdoor cooking. He’ll tend the chicken while he sips on a cold one and catches up with his Facebook feed. I have my own business to tend—the dressing.
Straight honest truth, if you’ve ever had authentic, scratch-made Caesar dressing, you know that there simply is no equal. The lemon, egg, anchovy and garlic create a perfect harmony that literally is the Caesar salad. Without it, you have basically a pile of romaine. But on a busy weeknight, who has time to coddle eggs? Me neither. What we can do instead is elevate a store bought “Caesar” dressing (I’ve yet to find one that has all the right stuff) with the addition of a couple of simple ingredients.
Don’t start making faces now. Anchovies are surprisingly delicious if you don’t overdo it, and we definitely won’t here. I’m only using a few fillets of these salty little fishes, and they will add a whole new layer of flavor to my otherwise “OK” dressing.
Chop them into small pieces (so you don’t get too much in any single bite), then stir or whisk them into the Caesar dressing. If the dressing seems a little thick, also pour in a little of the oil packed with the anchovies. Give it a quick taste—if it’s too salty, add a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to tone it down. Grind some fresh black pepper into it for a little more bite. This is your salad, so make it work for your taste.
Pull the romaine from the fridge and move it to the next step by drizzling good quality extra virgin olive oil over the cut side. Allow the oil to trickle down between the leaves a little, but don’t drench it. Season the halves with sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, then take it out to the grill.
When the chicken is nearly finished, place the romaine halves directly on the grill, cut side down. And leave it. The first time I made grilled romaine, this felt so strange—putting delicate lettuce on the grill? But it’s really an incredible difference it makes in the salad, and I look forward to grilling season for things just like this. Obviously, we can eat salad all year, but in our winter months, it isn’t always practical to fire up the grill. For sure, my hubby isn’t gonna stand out there in 20° weather. Especially in the dark (which is usually is at dinner time during winter). It is, of course, possible to do this on an indoor grill pan, but there’s something more special about it when it’s cooked outside.
When the romaine has a nice amount of caramelization on the cut side (you decide when it reaches that point), turn over the halves and allow the other side to grill for a minute or two.
To serve, rest the chicken breasts then slice into crosswise strips. Serve alongside the romaine half, drizzling both with the jazzed-up Caesar dressing and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan or romano cheese. If you prefer, chop the grilled romaine as well, and toss it together with the chicken and dressing, then divide on two plates and top with shredded cheese.