Sourdough Onion & Sage Bread

With the arrival of fall comes the joy of having the house filled with the addictive aromas of meaty stews, roasted vegetables, and every variety of freshly baked breads and desserts. A few days before we dismantled the kitchen for our remodel, I pulled this favorite sourdough recipe out of my arsenal and baked it to accompany the roasted butternut squash lasagna that I shared last month.

The recipe I share today is a mashup of several bread recipes I have tried from an amazing blog called “The Fresh Loaf.” The site is a virtual community and message board for sourdough lovers—from novice to expert—and over the years, I have gained invaluable wisdom by eavesdropping on the conversations of those I consider to be far advanced of my own skills. I was barely beginning my own sourdough journey when I discovered TFL, but the pictures and formulas I found there inspired me to attempt new techniques, and I now proudly consider myself to be an “intermediate” bread maker.

One of the methods I learned is baking with steam, a simple technique that results in a perfectly crusty yet chewy exterior and lovely crumb texture that the aficionados would call “gelatinized.” Breads made with this steam-baked method make fantastic toast and sandwiches (especially grilled cheese).

The extra hydration of the dough creates the big, open crumb inside the bread. The steam makes the crust perfectly chewy.

The generous amounts of onion and sage I’ve added to this loaf also make it perfect for Thanksgiving stuffing or dressing, or you can follow my lead with any stale leftovers and turn it into savory croutons for hearty salads and all the soups you’ll be simmering during the autumn and winter months ahead.

Up close, you can see the golden polenta, the bits of onion and flecks of sage. This bread is perfect for fall!

Besides the intoxicating fall-scented flavors, this loaf also uses a pre-ferment, which is a fancy way of describing a pumped-up sourdough starter, and a soaker, which is nothing more than grains (in this instance, corn) that have been soaked overnight in water—a technique that coaxes the deepest flavors out of the grain and into the bread.


The kneading method used for this bread is also a bit different. It’s called “stretch and fold,” and it is an easy way to build strength in dough with a high volume of water, without so much messy, sticky kneading. Try this a few times, and you will be astonished at the elastic texture and volume achieved in the bread dough.

If this all seems confusing, trust me, it isn’t. I have found sourdough baking to be joyfully simple once you get the hang of it. As I mentioned last fall when I made the sourdough pumpkin challah, this kind of baking—naturally leavened and slow-fermented—is like a good relationship; the more you open yourself up to it, the more it comes back to you until you finally reach a point of familiarity that you can’t imagine ever buying a loaf of bread at the grocery store.

One more note: I strongly recommend measuring ingredients by weight when baking any kind of bread, but especially sourdough. Weight measuring takes the guesswork out of your ingredient ratios, and you can find an inexpensive, easy-to-use kitchen scale just about anywhere, including Walmart (where I bought mine).

That’s my story, and this is my favorite sourdough for autumn. I hope the pictures entice my fellow sourdough bakers to give it a go, and if you scroll to the bottom of the post, you’ll find a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. My ingredients are listed in grams (sorry, no volume measurements), so go on and get your kitchen scale and get baking.

Enjoy!


I could eat the whole loaf all by myself! 🙂


Sourdough Pumpkin Spice Waffles

As eager as I have been to get things rolling on our kitchen remodel, I have enjoyed being able to make some of the fall recipes I thought would get left behind. If we must be delayed, I may as well keep cooking fun things, right? We still have a few days of “Better Breakfast Month,” and this simple twist on your favorite waffles is covering a lot of territory for me.

If you have never tried them, sourdough waffles are the best thing going—with delicate, crispy exterior and soft, fluffy goodness on the inside. They are not as sweet as some other waffles, which is fine by me, given that I usually drench them in real maple syrup. In keeping with the season (we are now five full days into fall), I have also spiked these easy-to-make, overnight waffles with pumpkin and warm spices, the two flavors everyone seems to either love or hate. If you’re in the first camp, keep reading. If not—well, perhaps you simply need to try these waffles, so you might want to keep reading, too.

I used to hesitate on pumpkin spice recipes, imagining that maybe this ubiquitous flavor combination was too cliché. But then I went to Trader Joe’s, otherwise known as the pumpkin spice capital of the world, and I found myself surrounded by pumpkin spice cookies, donuts, yogurt, coffee, granola bark, cake bites, scented candles—well, you know the scene. And it was there, standing amid all those fall-inspired goodies, that I realized 75 million Trader Joe’s fans can’t be wrong. And neither are these waffles.

I love the rich autumn color of these pumpkin spice waffles!

The addition of pure pumpkin puree gives these waffles a gorgeous fall color and a big dose of antioxidants, while a teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice brings the essence of the season. Here’s a bit of happy news: if you don’t have a sourdough starter, you can still make a version of these. I made only those two modifications to my favorite sourdough waffle recipe for this variation, and I expect you can do the same with whatever recipe you like to use, sourdough or not. Just add pumpkin to the wet ingredients and pumpkin pie spice to the flour.

Obviously, you do need a waffle iron to make waffles. I have had good results using both a Belgian-style maker and a standard square maker, though the recipe will yield different amounts depending on the size of the waffles. No waffle maker, but jonesing for a pumpkin spice breakfast? Reduce the oil a bit, keep everything else the same and make pancakes instead.


Ingredients

Overnight Starter

1/2 cup sourdough discard

1 cup cultured buttermilk

1 Tbsp. cane sugar

1/3 cup pure pumpkin puree

1/2 cup all-purpose flour

1/2 cup whole wheat pastry flour (or white whole wheat)

A heaping 1/2 tsp. pumpkin pie spice (or a few pinches each of cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger)


Combine the first four ingredients in a large bowl (twice as large as you think you’ll need) until smooth. Stir in the flour and spice ingredients. Cover bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and leave it on the counter overnight to ferment.


In the Morning

Heat waffle iron to medium-high heat. Preheat oven to 200°F with oven rack in center position. Place a cooling rack inside a baking sheet inside the oven, for keeping the first few waffles warm while you finish the batch.


Whisk together these ingredients in a glass measuring cup:

1 large egg

2 Tbsp. canola oil (or melted butter)

1/2 tsp. baking soda

2 pinches salt


Pour the mixture into the pumpkin-sourdough starter and fold together, just until evenly combined. The buttermilk and baking soda will react, and the batter will become rather bubbly and rise in the bowl. Let the batter rest on the counter for about 10 minutes before you proceed with making the waffles.

Follow manufacturer’s instructions for making the waffles, transferring them to the oven to keep warm until ready to serve.


This recipe will make about four tall Belgian waffles, or about 12 squares. Either way, it’s plenty of breakfast for four people.


Homemade Giardiniera

One of the challenges (or joys, depending on your outlook) of flying by the seat of your pants is you can’t confidently predict an outcome. This is true for me in the kitchen, even when I am doing that flying through a familiar recipe. When I cook, I generally do not follow a recipe to the letter; rather, I follow my instinct to complete a meal using the ingredients I can find. This is why my mac and cheese is never exactly the same, and why I have so many meatloaf recipes in my repertoire, including a stuffed one that I made last winter that I never got a chance to share with you—but I will (it involves bleu cheese).

Last month, when I whipped up the Italian Deli Tortellini Salad, I made a promise that I would share my homemade version of giardiniera, which I had declared is far and away better than any stuff you’ll buy in a jar. I’m making good on my promise, but before I continue, I must explain that my on-hand ingredients this time produced a giardiniera that would be perfect for serving at, well, Easter.

It’s pink!!!

In my previous times making this quick-pickled vegetable medley, I have used sweet or yellow onions and I didn’t have this pastel outcome. But in the ruckus of preparing to remodel, I had to forego an extra trip to the market, and I just used the red onions that I had. It was disappointing at first, because I am a perfectionist who wants everything to be just so, especially if I am sharing it on my blog. But there is also great joy in some of these culinary surprises, and it got me wondering what would happen if I used purple cauliflower along with the red onions, and maybe even purple carrots?

No matter the hue, I find the homemade version to be not only more flavorful, but also far crunchier than the jarred versions. I grew to love this stuff when I worked in a supermarket, as a house-made version of it was always in the prepared foods section of our deli department, and it was a perfect side to a beef on weck sandwich (now there’s a recipe for my culinary bucket list)!

Giardiniera is simple to make, but I suggest you plan ahead because it requires a few days and a decent amount of space in the fridge, at least during preparation. When it is finished, you’ll need a tall jar or good-sized container for keeping it, and it will last in the fridge for a few weeks.

One more thing to mention about my variation of giardiniera—it is intended as a riff on the Italian version, not the “Chicago-style,” which is marinated in olive oil rather than pickled.


Ingredients

About 4 cups fresh cauliflower florets                                            

1/2 cup carrot slices

1/2 red or yellow bell pepper, or pepperoncini or cherry peppers

1/2 onion (remember that red onion will make the dish pink!), cut into slices

3 celery heart stalks (strings removed), sliced thickly on the bias

Other vegetables would be good in this as well, provided they are crunchy. If I had made that trip to the store for yellow onions, I would have also picked up a bulb of fennel—that would be fantastic.

1/4 cup kosher salt* (see notes)


*Notes

I use kosher salt for most of my cooking and especially when brining or pickling. It has a pure salt flavor and the large grains take up more space than regular table salt. The additives in table salt (iodine and anti-caking agents) can add an unpleasant flavor and will likely result in a cloudy liquid. If you only have table salt, it is OK to use it here, but I’d recommend using less of it—maybe 3 tablespoons plus a teaspoon.


Instructions – Day One

Combine all the cut-up vegetables in a large bowl. Pour salt over them and use your hands to toss until evenly salted. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a lid and refrigerate several hours, up to overnight.


I’ll stop right here and admit that in my distraction over all the remodel prepping activity, I let my vegetables brine in the salt way too long, but it was not a disaster; a couple of extra rinses on the second day washed away the excessive saltiness.


Instructions – Day Two

Drain the released liquid from the vegetables and rinse well under cold running water for about two minutes. Taste one or two pieces for saltiness. If they are too salty, cover them in the bowl with cold water and let them rest half an hour, then drain and rinse again. When they taste seasoned, but not unpleasantly salty, they are ready for the next step of pickling.

This part of the recipe project felt like a scavenger hunt, mainly because I have packed away my spices based on which ones I figured we would likely need for easy cooking during our remodel.

Believe it or not, I used to know where everything was.

In case I have not mentioned previously, I have a lot of spices—enough to fill up both sides of this cabinet (and surplus spices, which live in a cabinet above the washer and dryer), and there are too many jars to fit in a single box for short-term storage. We expected to be put out of the kitchen two weeks earlier, and when the delays gave me time to make giardiniera, I had to go in search of my ingredients.


No worries. It will all be worth it when the kitchen is done. 😊


Pickling Ingredients

1 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar* (see notes)

1 1/4 cups water

3 or 4 cloves garlic, peeled and lightly crushed*

2 tsp. each mustard seeds, coriander seeds, fennel seeds

1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes

2 bay leaves

3 Tbsp. cane sugar

2 tsp. kosher salt (slightly less if using table salt)


*Notes

I usually have two kinds of apple cider vinegar on hand. One is raw, which means unfiltered and unpasteurized, which I will use for salad dressings or health purposes, but it is expensive. The other is a grocery store brand that is clear, which means it is filtered and pasteurized. I use the latter for this purpose because the vinegar is heated and that destroys the probiotic benefit of the raw vinegar anyway.

Unfortunately, I was so consumed in my search for fennel seeds that I did not remember the garlic when I made this batch, but I recommend it for an extra zing of flavor.

Combine the pickling ingredients in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt, then remove from heat. Pour the pickling liquid over the vegetables in a clean bowl and press the veggies under the surface of the liquid as much as possible. If it seems there is not enough liquid to go around, add equal splashes of vinegar and water to ensure good coverage.

Cover the bowl with plastic or a lid. Allow the giardiniera to cool, then refrigerate it at least overnight before enjoying it. For longer storage in the fridge, I transfer the giardiniera to a tall jar, and pour the pickling liquid through a mesh strainer to catch the seed spices and bay leaf.




Easy Puff Pastry Pinwheels

Of all the things I love about writing a blog—and there are many, from seeing a record of my kitchen accomplishments to moving another bucket list item to the “done” column to hearing the stories from others who have tried my dishes—the best benefit of all is meeting new friends. I had the most wonderful opportunity to do just that when my husband, Les, and I traveled by car for our recent vacation. Our trip was slated to take us up I-95 through Virginia, D.C., Maryland, Delaware and into New Jersey, and I was thrilled that my blogging pal, Bernadette, was open to a meet-up. She had mentioned many times on her own blog, New Classic Recipe, that she was a resident of the Garden State, and fate was on our side because we were able to meet just one quick exit off the highway, on our way up to the northern part of the state.

I first came to know about Bernadette because she began commenting on some of my posts near the end of 2020, most notably the Oysters Rockefeller Pizza, and when I checked out her blog (WordPress is good that way, encouraging you to check out the bloggers who like your pages), I found myself also mesmerized by stories of her travels and food adventures, and especially the Italian recipes, including this one for fried, stuffed olives. We began following each other’s blogs, but I didn’t expect I would meet her one day.

At least, not until a couple of weeks ago. 😊

Les, me and Bernadette. 🙂

Once our travel plans became clear, I reached out to Bernadette privately, and she was terrific to recommend places near her that we could connect in person, and I’m so glad that we did! We gabbed over lunch—about food and blogging, about family and friendship, and the time just went so fast, as Les and I were suddenly back in the car and on our way to the rest of our action-packed vacation.

Before we parted, my new friend surprised me with a gift bag that contained two jars of handmade preserves, which I treasure. One of them is fig, which we will most certainly dig into when the holidays arrive, and the other is blackberry-prosecco. As much as I have enjoyed slathering the latter on my breakfast toast, I wanted to make something delicious and special with it, both to honor my new friend and to show appreciation for this (literally) sweet handmade food gift. This recipe is simple to make because it relies on store-bought puff pastry, but it has a little bit of “wow” factor, thanks to a pretty shaping method that is very easy to do. And the blackberry-prosecco preserves offer just the right kiss of sweetness on top of a cream cheese cushion.

The laminated dough puffs up during baking and makes the prettiest pastries!

My intention for these pastries is to serve them for breakfast or brunch, and because September is Better Breakfast Month, it seems apropos to do so. But honestly, there’s no reason these could not also be served as a light dessert, perhaps even with a glass of prosecco, in a friendly nod to the prosecco in Bernadette’s preserves.

Wait, why not both? 😉


Ingredients

1 sheet refrigerated (or frozen, thawed) puff pastry

3 oz. cream cheese, slightly softened

1 heaping Tbsp. powdered sugar

1/4 tsp. vanilla

6 tsp. favorite fruit preserves

1 egg (+ 1 tsp. cold water, for egg wash)


Instructions


  1. Preheat the oven to 400° F, with oven rack in the center position.
  2. Remove puff pastry from package and roll out on a lightly floured counter or board. Use a rolling pin to gently press out any folds in the pastry and aim to keep the pastry sheet in a mostly square/rectangle shape.
  3. Using a pizza wheel, trim the edges all around and cut the pastry into six roughly equal size squares. Arrange the squares on a parchment-lined cookie sheet. It is not necessary to have much space between them.
  4. Use a paring knife to cut diagonally from the corners of each pastry square toward the center, but keep about 1½ inches of the center fully intact. Fold every other point toward the center, slightly overlapping them in the middle. Press down firmly on the centers with your thumb to ensure the pastry stays put.
  5. Divide the sweetened cream cheese mixture among the pastry pinwheels. Each should have about 1 tablespoon. Gently press the center of the cream cheese with the back of a spoon to create an impression. Fill each impression with a small spoonful of your favorite preserves.
  6. Brush all exposed pastry dough with egg wash. Bake for about 18 minutes, or until pastries are puffy and golden. Rotate baking sheet about halfway through the time, for even browning.
  7. Cool pastries on the baking sheet for about 2 minutes before transferring to a rack to cool.

Making breakfast better!


Mexican Street Corn Hash and Eggs

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

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

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

1/2 tsp. baking soda

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

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

A few shakes ground cumin

A few shakes of dried Mexican oregano*

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

1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped

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

1/2 cup frozen fire-roasted corn kernels*

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

1/2 ripe avocado, cubed

1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese*

1/2 fresh lime


*Notes

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

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

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

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

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

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


Instructions

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



No-Guilt “Alfredo”

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


Thank you for the reminder!

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

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

Yes, really!

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

1 large head fresh cauliflower, separated into roughly uniform florets

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

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

Salt and pepper

1 Tbsp. mild, neutral olive or avocado oil

3 Tbsp. half and half*

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend*



*Notes

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


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

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

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


Instructions

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

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



Easy Chicken Souvlaki

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

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

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

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

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


Ingredients

1 1/2 pounds chicken tenders

1 whole organic lemon, juiced (plus the zest)

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

About 4 cloves garlic, finely minced

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

1 tsp. Kosher salt

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

About 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil


Instructions

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

Tzatziki

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

A couple pinches of kosher salt

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

2 cloves garlic, crushed and finely chopped

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

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

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




Baby Back Ribs with Root Beer BBQ Glaze

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Ingredients – the ribs

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

1/2 cup kosher salt

1/4 cup molasses

2 whole cinnamon sticks

2 star anise

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

1/4 cup sweet onion juice, optional*

Enough ice and water to make 8 cups of brine liquid


*Notes

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

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


Prepping the ribs

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

Root Beer BBQ Glaze

2 Tbsp. canola oil

1/2 sweet onion, finely chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Zest of a fresh lemon

2 pieces crystallized ginger, finely minced

3 Tbsp. light brown sugar

1 cup tomato ketchup

12 oz. bottle naturally sweetened root beer

1 tsp. smoked Spanish paprika

Kosher salt and oak-smoked black pepper


Make the glaze

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

Time to grill the ribs!

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

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

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

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



S’mores Ice Cream

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

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

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

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

No campfire required!

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

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

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

Looks like delicious black gold, doesn’t it?

Happy S’mores Day, everyone!

Yes, please, may I have s’more?!

Ingredients


Ice Cream Base

14.5 oz. can sweetened condensed milk

1 cup whole milk

1 cup heavy cream

1 tsp. real vanilla extract

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


Gooey Marshmallow Swirl

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

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


Chocolate Fudge Ripple

1/2 cup cane sugar

1/3 cup light corn syrup

1/2 cup water

3 Tbsp. Hershey’s Special Dark cocoa

3 Tbsp. King Arthur Double Dutch Dark cocoa

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

Pinch sea salt

and…

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


Instructions

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

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

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

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

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



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



Crab & Artichoke Bisque

If this soup looks and sounds familiar to you, it’s because you are a faithful reader of Comfort du Jour, and you probably remember it from the Chopped Challenge post of a few days ago. In that post, I detailed my thought process in transforming a basket of ordinary mystery ingredients (curated by my darling husband, Les) into stunning food magnificence. Dramatic? Perhaps I have been watching too much of the real “Chopped” on Food Network and channeling host Ted Allen. Or blame the stars—I am, after all, a Leo.

Anywho, because of the overwhelming response and multitude of requests for the details of this recipe (OK, it was only my foodie pal, Dorothy, who requested the particulars, but she is enough), I share it today for your culinary pleasure. Dorothy and I met on WordPress, the digital platform for my blog, and we follow each other’s kitchen adventures with great joy and mutual encouragement. Her own blog, The New Vintage Kitchen, has me swooning over homemade delicacies on the regular, so if she wants one of my original recipes, you can bet I’ll hustle it up here. This works out well for me, too, because my usual M.O. is cooking without a specific plan or purpose, adding a little of this and that, skipping all effort of writing down the ingredients, amounts or instructions. Inevitably, Les will casually mention how much he enjoyed the such-and-such that I made back in oh, I don’t know, 2017, maybe? And at that point, I have absolutely no idea how to replicate it. Sigh.

That will not happen with this delicious soup, which also happened to be easy to make, even though I felt at the time as though I was flying by the seat of my pants (I was). I created it as a challenge to myself, to avoid the pitfalls of my own comfortable repertoire, and to surprise Les with something more interesting than the most obvious dish I might have otherwise prepared from my mystery basket (pizza). Do I not already make enough pizzas here on the blog? [Insert shameless plug for Pizza Party page] Thankfully, I had the presence of mind to jot down my method and amounts, so this will be a piece of cake—no, wait, a pot of soup—and I will be able to refer back to my own blog to revisit the recipe anytime I want (you’d be surprised at how often I really do this).

The soup ingredients themselves are no mystery. You’ll need lump crab meat and canned artichoke hearts, plus some onions (I used leeks), small red potatoes, seafood stock or veggie broth, a generous glug of white wine, a splash of cream and an immersion blender. Oh, and some crispy bacon for serving. If you don’t have an immersion blender, I am confident that this soup would also have been delicious in the style of a chowder, and I almost made it that way myself, except for the fact that Les loves creamy soups, and bisques in particular. I took a chance pureeing it, given that the potatoes had red skin and the leaves of the artichoke hearts can be kind of stringy, but it worked out beautifully. So you choose which works for you.

As a bonus, I will also share the ratio of ingredients for the tangy tapenade I served on the side, taking advantage of another basket ingredient (Kalamata olives) that didn’t seem to fit the soup itself. Enjoy!

Note to self: Must make again; Les loved it and declared my Chopped challenge a “winner.” And it just might be served one day in Dorothy’s own kitchen, or perhaps under her majestic maple tree named Alice, and that would make me super proud.

Recipe makes about 6 servings

Ingredients

1 slice thick center-cut bacon, diced* (see notes)

2 leeks (white and pale green parts), sliced and cleaned (or 1 medium onion, chopped)

2 Tbsp. salted butter

4 smallish young red potatoes, skin-on, diced (should be about 1 1/2 cups)

15 oz. can artichoke hearts, drained*

3 cups seafood stock or veggie broth*

About 1/3 cup dry white wine

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

1 or 2 bay leaves for simmering

Salt and pepper to taste

1/2 cup heavy cream

8 oz. lump crab meat

1 rib celery, strings removed and finely minced

Lemon slices and freshly chopped parsley (for garnish)


*Notes

The bacon I used for this recipe was pasture-raised and very thick cut. If using a grocery store brand, I recommend the thickest center cut available, and consider using two slices.

If you intend to make the artichoke-Kalamata tapenade, cut a few of the artichoke hearts in half, reserving the very tender parts for the tapenade. Otherwise, use the entire can in the soup. These artichoke hearts were packed only in water, not in oil with spices.

I used seafood stock from a carton because I already had it on hand. I knew the crab would be introduced at the very end, and I wanted more of the seafood flavor simmered into the soup. If I had the time (and enough shrimp shells in my freezer stash) I probably would have made this from scratch. In a pinch, a favorite veggie broth would work well. Or perhaps veggie broth, plus a small bottle of clam juice.


Instructions

  1. Place a heavy-bottomed soup pot over medium heat. Add the bacon to the pot and cook until crispy. Remove the bacon with a slotted spoon and set it aside.
  2. Add butter to the bacon grease and saute the leeks (or onions) until tender. Stir them around to loosen all the browned bacon-y goodness from the bottom of the pot.
  3. Add the potatoes and artichoke hearts and toss to coat in the bacon drippings mixture. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Add the stock, white wine, lemon juice and bay leaf. Bring to a gentle boil, then reduce to simmer for about 45 minutes. Check to be sure the potato cubes are completely tender.
  4. Remove bay leaf from the pot. Use an immersion blender to puree the soup mixture to the desired consistency. Stir in heavy cream. Adjust seasoning to taste.
  5. Add most of the lump crab, reserving a bit to sprinkle on top of each serving. Add the minced celery here at the very end also, for a surprising little bit of texture in each spoonful. Stir gently to combine and simmer until the crab is warmed through. Drizzle a bit of olive oil into the reserved crab and place it near the stove to warm.
  6. Ladle the soup into serving bowls. Top each bowl with a tablespoon of reserved lump crab, a sprinkling of the crisp bacon, a scatter of fresh parsley and a broiled lemon slice.

Broiled lemon slices: Cut thin slices from the center of a lemon (where it is thickest). Remove the seeds and press between paper towels to remove as much juice and moisture as possible. Arrange the lemon slices on a parchment-lined baking sheet and broil on low for a few minutes (watch them closely). I placed mine on a baking sheet with another item and baked them for about 20 minutes, and the result was nearly the same.


Artichoke-Kalamata Tapenade

A handful of pitted Kalamata olives, preferably packed in brine with oil

1/4 cup artichoke hearts (only the tender “bottoms”)

2 large “lemon twist” cocktail olives in vermouth (mine were Tillen Farms brand)

2 Tbsp. sun-dried tomatoes, snipped into bits and rehydrated with boiling water

Juice of 1/2 fresh lemon

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (mine happened to be from Kalamata olives)

Kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper


Chop up the olives, artichoke hearts and cocktail olives (including lemon peels inside) into very small bits. Do this by hand, as a food processor would pulverize them into mush. Drain the sun-dried tomatoes and add them to the mix. Stir in lemon juice. Drizzle in olive oil and stir to coat everything. Season the mixture to taste with salt and pepper. Serve alongside the soup with crackers, pita, crostini or bread sticks.