Spooky Stuffed Peppers

Before the kiddos head out for trick or treating on Monday night, parents hope that they have a decent, balanced meal in their little bellies. You know, so that they aren’t just chowing down on sugar from all those Snickers, Reeses and Skittles that they get in their trick-or-treat bags.

In my limited experience with children, I learned one lesson loud and clear—a simple way to get kids interested in eating good-for-them food is to make it FUN.


With a little imagination, you can turn an ordinary bell pepper into a fun Halloween supper, and you can fill it with whatever your kids (or grandkids, great-grandkids, neighbor kids, friends’ kids, etc.) like to eat. Mine are stuffed with cooked ground turkey in a Mexican-ish flavor profile—a combination of onions, green bell peppers, celery, garlic and Rotel tomatoes, spiffed up with chili powder and tomato paste—but there’s no reason you couldn’t change it up and make it Italian. Or Greek. Or vegan with a kale and quinoa kind of thing. Or any other combination you think the kids would like to eat. For the big kids at our house (that would be me and my husband), I went in big for veggies and lean protein.

Use any combination of vegetables that makes sense for the flavors you like.

You could use another color of bell pepper if you’d like, but the orange ones are good here, not only for their impersonation of a jack o’lantern, but also because hungry trick or treaters may be more receptive to their flavor, which is sweeter than a typical green bell pepper.

Choose peppers with a good stem, and peppers that will stand up on their own.

To prep the peppers, carefully slice the tops off, taking note of how far down the stem extends so that you keep the top of the pepper intact. Clean out the seeds and excess membranes, and then place the peppers, upside-down, into a glass baking dish with about one inch of water. Put the pepper tops in there, too, and microwave them on high for about five minutes. This will steam and soften the peppers so that they don’t need as much time in the oven after they are stuffed.

When they are cool enough to handle, use the top of a sharp paring knife to cut out triangle eyes and a nose into each bell pepper body. If you’re feeling extra creative, you could also cut a toothy smile into the peppers, too, but be careful because you don’t want the filling to seep out of its whole face.


Preheat the oven, with a rack in the center position. Heat a little olive oil in a skillet and sauté the vegetables until they are just softened. Remember to season with salt and pepper, and then add the spice seasonings to bloom their flavors. Crumble in the ground turkey, a little at a time, and toss to stir until no pink color remains. Add the Rotel and a little tomato paste to intensify the tomato flavor, and a pinch of dried Mexican oregano.


Spoon the filling into the peppers, lay a slice of sharp cheddar over the filling, and then reposition the pepper tops before sliding it into the oven. At this point, all the ingredients are fully cooked, so the peppers only need to be in the oven long enough to heat through, finish softening and melt the cheese.


Serve the peppers right away with a few spoonfuls of cooked rice, and get those kids costumed up for their night of fun!

Spooky Stuffed Peppers

  • Servings: 4 peppers
  • Difficulty: Average
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This is a fun way to feed the little ones something on the healthy side before they go trick-or-treating for all that candy. Mix and match ingredients based on what the kids like.


Ingredients

  • 4 orange bell peppers (choose them for shape and size, plus strong stems)
  • 2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 sweet onion, chopped
  • 2 ribs celery, trimmed and chopped
  • 1/2 green bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed and minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 tsp. salt-free seasoning (I used a combination of chili powder, cumin and paprika)
  • 1 lb. fresh ground turkey (or other lean ground meat)
  • 10 oz. can Rotel diced tomatoes (there are many heat levels; choose what’s right for you)
  • 2 Tbsp. tomato paste
  • A pinch or two of dried oregano
  • 4 slices sharp cheddar or other favorite melting cheese
  • Brown rice, for serving

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 350 F, with oven rack in center position.
  2. Wash the bell peppers. Carefully cut the tops off the peppers, low enough to keep the stems intact. Remove seeds and membranes and place the peppers upside down in a microwave-safe dish. Add about an inch of water to the dish and microwave on high for 5 minutes, or longer if needed until peppers are somewhat softened. Set aside until cool enough to handle.
  3. While the peppers are cooling, heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add oil to the pan and sauté onions, green bell pepper and celery for about 5 minutes, until softened. Add garlic, salt and pepper, plus salt-free seasoning of your choice. Cook another minute.
  4. Crumble ground meat into the skillet, about half at a time so it doesn’t overcrowd the pan. When meat is no longer pink, add the Rotel tomatoes, tomato paste and dried oregano. Cook until mixture is bubbly, then turn off heat and cover the pan.
  5. Use a sharp paring knife to carefully cut out triangle eyes and noses in each of the bell peppers (toss the bits into the pan with the rest of the filling).
  6. Spoon the filling into the peppers. Arrange a slice of cheddar over each pepper, positioning the slices so that they will not melt to cover the eyes on the peppers. Replace the pepper tops and bake (uncovered) for 25 minutes, until heated through and cheese is melted. Serve immediately with brown rice.


Easy Slow Cooker Beef Stew

There is nothing earth-shattering or revelatory about beef stew in the fall, is there? The ingredients in my version are as one would expect—big chunks of vegetables, potatoes, beefy morsels and a thick, rich braising gravy—yet this is exactly the kind of comforting, satisfying, rib-sticking classic fall food I’ve been dreaming about since the temperatures first began to drop. So, even though I expect you may have your own recipe for beef stew, I’m going to share mine visually, just to make you hungry and ready to celebrate the season in comfort (you’re welcome).


Under less busy life circumstances, I might have made this one-pot stew right on the stovetop in our enamel-coated Dutch oven. But when I’m upside down with my day job, busy with home updates and wrangling our pets, I really appreciate the versatility of our slow cooker. Ours has extra options, including a setting for browning meat, so I was able to get this done without shifting ingredients from one pot to another. If your slow cooker has more simple settings, just brown the meat first in a skillet on the stove and transfer it to your slow cooker when it’s ready to braise.

I selected grass-fed, locally raised beef for my stew. It’s easier on my digestive system than conventional beef, and we feel strongly about supporting local suppliers. Choose the best beef you can find, and a cut that is mostly lean, but with some marbling for flavor. I tossed the beef chunks with a few generous pinches of kosher salt and let them rest 15 minutes while I prepped my other ingredients and got my slow cooker up to speed.


For no special reason, I decided that I would use fancy onions for my beef stew. I chose cippolini onions, which are small and squatty—kind of like miniature vidalias—and they need to be peeled before cooking. This was easy to do, with a quick bath in simmering water, then a shock in an ice bath. For the sake of uniformity, I cut my other vegetables to match the size of the cippolinis. If you wish, use a large sweet or yellow onion, cut into large chunks. 


Browning the meat encourages more flavor because of something called the Maillard reaction, and if you want to geek out on food science, you could read this article to understand what that’s all about, or you could simply trust the process and brown the meat (your taste buds will thank you). When the oil in my slow cooker was ready, I added the salted meat a few pieces at a time to avoid a sudden temperature drop and turned them frequently to ensure even browning.


As soon as the meat was browned, I added a pat of butter and a few cloves of chopped garlic. A dusting of flour coated the meat and set the stage for gentle thickening, and then I splashed in about 1/4 cup of dry red wine. This adds depth of flavor to braising liquid, but if you don’t care for wine in food, you could substitute a splash of red wine vinegar or apple cider vinegar for a similar effect.


This is the time to transfer the browned meat to the slow cooker if your appliance only has heat settings, and it helps to have the cooker set on high heat setting when you do so. Add two cups of broth to the meat and stir it around until it begins to thicken slightly. Add the cut-up vegetables and cippolini onions, then add enough additional broth to just cover the cooker ingredients. Drop the temperature to low setting, add a couple of bay leaves into the stew, cover it and let it simmer for about six hours.


By that time, the beef will be very tender and the vegetables will be soft to the bite. If you like your stew a little thicker, a corn starch slurry will do the trick without giving an off taste. Turn the cooker heat back up to high and remove the bay leaves. Whisk together corn starch with equal amount of very cold water until smooth, and drizzle a stream of the slurry into the stew. When the braising liquid reaches a gentle boil, it will thicken to perfection.


We served our beef stew with some homemade, warm-from-the-oven dinner rolls. Now, aren’t you glad it’s autumn? What comfort food have you been craving?


Easy Slow Cooker Beef Stew

  • Servings: About 8
  • Difficulty: average
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There's an easy way to enjoy an all-day stew without giving it all-day attention. Grab your slow cooker and let's get cooking!


Ingredients

  • 1 1/2 pounds grass fed stewing beef, or chuck roast cut into pieces
  • 3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 to 5 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
  • 1 Tbsp. salted butter
  • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup dry red wine
  • 4 cups low-sodium beef broth, divided
  • 7 oz. cippolini onions, blanched for easy peeling
  • 2 cups fresh carrot chunks
  • 2 cups Yukon gold potato chunks (skin-on is OK)
  • 1 cup chopped celery, ribs removed
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 dried bay leaves
  • 2 Tbsp. corn starch blended with 2 Tbsp. ice water (optional, for additional thickening)

Directions

  1. Blot stewing meat (or chunks) dry with paper towels. Sprinkle with one heaping teaspoon kosher salt and black pepper to taste. Rest meat at room temperature for about 30 minutes.
  2. Heat olive oil in a cast iron skillet, Dutch oven or slow cooker (if yours has a browning function). Brown meat on all sides over medium heat. Add garlic and cook about 2 minutes, taking care to avoid burning it. Sprinkle flour over meat and garlic, and toss until it appears absorbed onto the browned meat.
  3. Pour wine over meat and quickly toss, scraping up any browned bits from the surface of the pot. The wine should thicken quickly, creating a sticky coating all over the meat. Transfer the meat (if using a separate pot) to the slow cooker on high setting.
  4. Add 2 cups of the beef broth and stir meat around until the broth begins to thicken slightly. Add onions, carrots, potatoes and celery and toss to combine. Add remaining broth and stir. Place bay leaves and thyme sprigs on top of the stew mixture. Reduce slow cooker to low setting and cook for about 6 hours, until beef pieces and vegetables are tender.
  5. If desired, stir in corn starch slurry during the last 30 minutes of cooking time (use high heat). Serve with crusty rolls to sop up all the delicious gravy!



Green Gazpacho Shooters

It isn’t easy being green—unless you happen to be this gazpacho! I know, you’ve probably only seen gazpacho in shades of red, and perhaps with a few green bits of pepper or scallion on top. But when I visited our farmers’ market last weekend, I discovered that most of the tomato vendors had sold out. That is, until I spotted these beauties at a booth near the back.

In the end, I was glad that all the red ones were sold out!

The grower assured me that these little gems were indeed ripe, and as sweet as any other baby tomatoes. I don’t remember the variety of the tomato (artisan-something-or-other), but I figured it would be, at the very least, a fun twist on the chilled summer soup I planned to serve at our 3rd of July shindig. I picked up some fresh spring onions and a few yellow tomatoes, too, figuring they would help supplement my gazpacho with garden-fresh goods. The soup wouldn’t be red, but it would be interesting, and I was committed to using farmers’ market ingredients as much as possible.

That raises an important point about shopping local and eating with the seasons—it puts you at the mercy of the harvest, and you either go with the flow or go hungry!

I consider every trip to the farmers’ market to be a treasure hunt!

Fortunately, nobody went hungry at our house that evening, and this easy appetizer was the first thing we shared to get the party started. My instinct was to serve the gazpacho as “shooters,” a quick and simple starter that could be prepped ahead and served, sans silverware, as guests arrived. And I could have served them that way, if I had left off the delicate cubes of yellow tomato, cucumber and avocado, but those made the cups so much prettier, even if we did need to hand out spoons! An additional “garnish” of roasted paprika-dusted shrimp made the shooters substantial enough to hold everyone over for the feast that would come off the grill later.

This was a fun way to welcome guests with a fresh taste of summer!

This recipe was very easy to make (gazpacho always is), and I prepped everything but the shrimp a day ahead, which worked well because gazpacho flavors really develop overnight. Step one was to strip the skins off the tiny tomatoes—you don’t want to put those in the processor, unless you like little bits of peel sticking to your teeth. For this task, I did a quick blanch-and-shock treatment. Bring water to a boil in a pot, and prepare a separate bowl filled with ice water. Cut an “x” on the bottom of each tomato to give the peel an easy place to break. Gently lower the tomatoes into the boiling water, a few at a time, and only for about a minute, and then immediately scoop and transfer them into the ice water. This immediately stops the cooking process, shocking the tomatoes so that the peels can be easily stripped away.


I repeated the process with the larger, yellow tomatoes, which I took time to de-seed first (I kept the seeds for another purpose). I held back the flesh of about half a yellow tomato to use later for garnish, and the rest went into the large bowl of my food processor with the little green tomatoes. A few of them had tougher stems, which I cut off, but most of them were tender enough to toss into the mix.

I haven’t shared much about my processor yet, as I’m still learning all the bells and whistles, but I promise I’ll give it a proper introduction soon. For now, I’ll say that it is quite large (14-cup capacity) and it has a cool “Blendermix” ring that is designed to keep the bowl contents in check when you puree ingredients. I love this because it eliminates the need to stop and scrape down the bowl during mixing. Less work for me is never a bad thing!


When I was satisfied with the smoothness of the tomatoes, I tossed in most of a peeled and seeded, cut-up cucumber (I reserved part of it for a topping), a chopped spring onion and about half of a chopped jalapeno. If you like heat, you can leave the seeds in the jalapeno for a bigger bite. I stripped them out to accommodate guests who may not enjoy heat as much. It’s always easier to add spice than to take it away! Depending on how much texture you want in your gazpacho, you could either pulse in these extra goodies or puree the dickens out of them. I went with plan B and whizzed it up nice and smooth, then transferred the soup to a pitcher bowl and stirred in a splash of red wine vinegar and a quick swirl of good, extra virgin olive oil (Spanish, of course).


Gazpacho is best when it has had some time to “relax” in the refrigerator, so at that point, I covered the pitcher bowl and chilled it overnight. Remember the yellow tomato I set aside earlier, and the last bit of cucumber that didn’t get pureed? My intention was to use them as a garnish/topper on the gazpacho at serving time, so I sprinkled them with salt and combined them in a small bowl that also went into the refrigerator. A little bit of texture on top of the gazpacho would add visual interest and something to tantalize the taste buds on those first few bites.

Even the yellow tomato was so juicy! I reserved the seeds and excess juice for another purpose.

To serve the gazpacho, divvy it up into cute little cups or glasses. We did this an hour or so ahead of our friends’ arrival to save time and last-minute fussing, then tucked them back into the fridge. Top each cup with a few cubes of the reserved tomato-cucumber mixture, and a few cubes of fresh avocado. If you wish to garnish with the roasted shrimp, check out my previous post for Bloody Mary Shrimp Cocktail—the process was the same, but for this gazpacho recipe, I tossed the shrimp with a little bit of salt, garlic powder and sweet Spanish paprika.


This green gazpacho was a perfect starter for the summer meal to come from the grill. It was light, flavorful and very refreshing, and though it was a simple course—from its short list of ingredients to its ease of preparation—everyone loved it so much, they were still talking about it as we hugged our goodbyes.

It doesn’t get much sweeter than that!

Green Gazpacho Shooters

  • Difficulty: average
  • Print

This easy green gazpacho can be made ahead in half an hour and is terrific as a starter course for a summer meal off the grill! This recipe requires a food processor, or it can be made in a blender, though you may need to process the tomatoes in batches.

Ingredients

  • 2 dry pints of ripe baby tomatoes (green or otherwise)
  • 3 smallish yellow tomatoes (one will be reserved to chop for topping gazpacho)
  • 1 spring onion or small sweet onion, rough chopped
  • 1 large cucumber, peeled and quartered with seeds removed (reserve a chunk of this for topping)
  • 1/2 medium jalapeno, rough chopped (use the seeds if you like it hot)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar
  • 1 Tbsp. good quality, extra virgin olive oil (preferably a Spanish, fruity variety)
  • 1/2 ripe avocado, cubed (this will be a garnish at serving time; do not add it to the blended gazpacho)
  • Roasted paprika-dusted shrimp, optional for garnish (cooking instructions included in note below)

Directions

  1. Bring a pot of water to boil and fill a separate, large bowl with ice water.
  2. Wash all tomatoes and use a paring knife to cut a small “x” on the bottom of each.
  3. Carefully lower the tomatoes (a few at a time) into boiling water, and turn them a few times until the peels begin to loosen. This will only take about one minute, unless the tomatoes are less ripe. Scoop them out and immediately transfer them to the ice water bowl, taking care to fully submerge them. Repeat until all tomatoes have been blanched and shocked.
  4. Drain the tomatoes of excess water and transfer them to the bowl of a food processor, fitted with the large blade. Season with salt and pepper. Pulse a few times to break up the large pieces, and then process continuously until the tomatoes are pureed to a smooth consistency.
  5. Add the cut-up onion, cucumber, and jalapeno to the processor. Pulse, then puree continuously to desired consistency.
  6. Stir in the vinegar and olive oil. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Transfer gazpacho to a pitcher bowl and refrigerate several hours or overnight.
  7. Dice the reserved yellow tomato and cucumber into bite-sized bits. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Combine these in a bowl and refrigerate to use as a garnish on the soup.
  8. To serve, divide the gazpacho into cups and top with reserved tomato and cuke bits, plus roasted and chilled paprika shrimp (below).

These paprika-spiced shrimp are very simple to make, and you may prep these up to a day ahead. Be sure to give them enough time to chill completely in the fridge before serving time.

Ingredients

  • 12 to 16 shrimp (enough for two shrimp per gazpacho serving)
  • 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 tsp. Spanish sweet paprika
  • 1/2 tsp. garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp. kosher salt
  • several twists freshly ground black pepper

Directions

  1. Preheat oven to 400 F, and line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Peel and de-vein shrimp, keeping tails intact for presentation. Pat dry with paper towels.
  3. Add shrimp to a zip-top freezer bag. Drizzle in olive oil and add seasonings. Seal and shake to evenly coat the shrimp with seasonings.
  4. Arrange shrimp on baking sheet. Roast for about 6 minutes, or until shrimp are just barely opaque. Remove from oven and arrange in one layer on a plate. Place the plate directly into the fridge or freezer for a few minutes to stop the cooking process. Transfer to a covered container and keep chilled until ready to serve.



Kentucky Hot Brown Swirls

The funnest thing about doing a food blog is putting all the new spins on the old dishes. Wait, did I just write “funnest?” Well, a word like that fits the situation, given that I am feeling playful about twisting up a classic. If I’m taking all kinds of liberties with the flavors so beloved for Kentucky Derby, I may as well do it with my words, too.

My celebration of the Kentucky Derby—which is Saturday, by the way, in case time has gotten away from you—is purely vicarious. I’ve never been to the Derby and honestly don’t know how I feel about the way they pressure the horses to perform for profit, but I know that I like the pomp and circumstance, the food traditions, the fancy hats and especially the bourbon! The Kentucky Hot Brown is the most classic dish associated with the Kentucky Derby, and I have twisted it up in several ways already, including a Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, a Kentucky Hot Brown Pizza and a super simple Kentucky Hot Brown Dip. When Derby time rolled around this year, I wanted to make a fun, crowd-ready food that’s easy to pick up and enjoy in just a few bites because, honestly, who wants to sit down in the middle of a party with a knife and fork and eat a messy, traditional Kentucky Hot Brown open-faced sandwich, with all its oozing Mornay sauce? Yeah, these are much easier!

It’s no coincidence that these Kentucky Hot Brown swirls are delicious with bourbon.

If you’re entertaining friends for the afternoon leading up to the “most exciting two minutes in sports,” may I suggest these adorable little puff pastry swirls? They have all the flavors of the beloved Kentucky Hot Brown, including roast turkey, bacon, tomatoes and gruyere, plus a touch of sauteed shallot and (in a nod to the catering kitchen where I worked so long ago) “A Pinch of Thyme.”

I expected a few obstacles along the way to these tasty rollups, mostly because puff pastry can be fussy to work with. It bakes up best if it goes into the oven cold, so the first thing I planned was to work quickly. Get all your filling ingredients ready first, and refrigerate the ones that are cooked, such as the bacon and shallots. Cook the bacon long enough to render as much fat as possible, so the lingering fat doesn’t make the pastry soggy, but not so much that hard edges will tear the pastry. Shred the cheese and keep that in the fridge until assembly time, too. Fresh roast turkey is probably better than deli turkey (mainly for keeping the sodium in check), and I confess that I used leftover turkey that we had stashed in the freezer after Thanksgiving. As for the tomato, I knew that my sweet and savory tomato jam would not spread neatly onto the puff pastry without tearing it, and I didn’t want to heat it (see the first point about baking puff pastry cold), so here’s how I overcame that challenge—I added a few tablespoons of tomato jam to the bowl with chopped turkey and stirred it together. Problem solved!

You can put these two-bite treats together in the morning or afternoon, even the night before, all the way up to slicing them into swirls, and then refrigerate them until about a half hour before your guests arrive. A quick egg wash and some extra sprinkles of gruyere just before they hit the oven, and, well—riders up!


This recipe makes 12 swirls, just about right as appetizers for 6 people.

Ingredients

3 slices smoked bacon, cut into pieces no larger than a postage stamp

1 smallish shallot, peeled, halved and cut into half-moons

1 cup chopped, cooked leftover roast turkey breast

3 Tbsp. tomato jam (store-bought or homemade, if you have it!)

1 heaping cup shredded gruyere cheese (or Swiss), divided

A few sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped

1 sheet store-bought puff pastry, thawed according to package instructions

1 egg, whisked with a teaspoon of water, for egg wash just before baking


Instructions

Ready to make them?



Pollo Chipotle

There’s a time and place for the numbered dishes on a Mexican restaurant menu—you know what I mean, the #11 combo platter of one crunchy taco, one burrito and one enchilada, with a side of rice and flavorless refried beans. For me, the time was in my younger years, before I learned to appreciate the Mexican specialty dishes as I do today, and the place was (obviously) an actual restaurant, which I don’t frequent as much as I did in those days because, frankly, we prefer the food we make at home. It has only been recently that I started considering how to make some of our favorite Mexican meals, and those favorites seldom include items from the numbered combo section, and never any crunchy, from-a-box taco shells that I used to associate with Mexican “cuisine.” It’s funny how much has changed.

At one of our favorite local places, called Señor Bravo, the pollo chipotle is the special menu item that always wins over my husband, Les. The chicken (or pollo, if you wish) is tender and bite sized, and it’s drenched in a spicy sauce that has enough smoky chipotle to warrant being part of the dish’s name, but also enough rich cream to soften the edges and give the dish a special flair. I have tried several times to make this dish at home, and on previous attempts found it difficult to replicate the flavor and texture. It seemed something was missing so I fiddled with the cooking process, added ingredients and spices, tried different types of cream—from half and half to heavy cream—and every addition made it less and less like the restaurant dish. Finally, I dialed it all back and kept it simple. Turns out, simplicity was exactly and only what it needed.


Besides being simple and delicious, this dish is also relatively healthy, as I used cream cheese rather than heavy cream to thicken the spicy sauce. This eliminated the need for flour as a thickening agent. And for our at-home pollo chipotle, I jazzed up a simple pot of brown rice with a shake of cumin and a small handful of chopped cilantro and served it alongside a simple salad with fresh tomato and slices of ripe avocado.


Ingredients

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 Tbsp. expeller-pressed canola oil

1/2 large yellow onion, chopped

2 cloves fresh garlic, smashed and sliced

3/4 tsp. kosher salt

1/4 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

Several twists of freshly ground black pepper

1 or 2 Tbsp. pureed chipotle with adobo sauce* (see recipe notes)

1 cup low-sodium vegetable broth*

A couple of pinches of dried Mexican oregano*

4 Tbsp. cream cheese, room temperature


*Recipe Notes

The chipotle puree is best prepared in advance, and you may want to start with one tablespoon and adjust up to taste. To make the puree, empty the entire contents of a small can of chipotles in adobo sauce into a food processor or blender. If your processor has a small bowl insert, that will be the perfect size. Pulse a few times, then run the machine continuously until the sauce is completely smooth.


I prefer the more complex flavor of vegetable broth in most recipes, but for this dish, you could certainly use chicken broth. I would still recommend a low-sodium version, as this helps with controlling the overall amount of sodium in the dish.

Low-sodium vegetable broth is one of the most versatile ingredients in my pantry. If you prefer, use chicken broth.

Mexican oregano is very different from the easier-to-find Mediterranean oregano you are probably accustomed to using. It’s part of the verbena family, with a citrusy, slightly floral flavor. Search it out in an ethnic supermarket, at Whole Foods or the international spice section of World Market. If you can’t get Mexican oregano, dried marjoram would be a better substitute than regular oregano.

To make the cilantro rice, simply cook a batch of your favorite brown rice according to package instructions. Use vegetable broth rather than water for more flavor. Stir in salt, pepper, a few shakes of ground cumin and a small handful of fresh, chopped cilantro leaves before serving.

Why serve ordinary rice, if you can make it more flavorful with so little effort?

Instructions



Looking for ways to use the rest of the chipotle puree?



White Borscht

Like many of you, I have been filled with agony over Russia’s violent aggression against Ukraine, disgusted by the flippant and cavalier attitudes presented by deniers and Putin sympathizers, and worried that there is little I can do to make a tangible difference in the lives of the Ukrainian people. And yet I feel a kinship with them and want to do something, anything, to show my support.

One of the primary reasons I started Comfort du Jour was to build community with others who, like me, feel deeply connected to the world through food. It is the most universal need of humanity, yet very personal because of the customs and traditions woven into our individual and collective heritage.

Last week, a message from Sam Sifton, the founding editor of New York Times Cooking, arrived in my email inbox and it confirmed that I am not alone in this desire to use food to demonstrate solidarity. Sifton described being inundated with reader requests for recipes for borscht, a traditional sour soup that is common across all of Eastern Europe, most notably with Ukraine. I could not resist digging into the variety of recipes he offered in response to his readers, and this one in particular caught my eye.

Most borscht recipes are based on red beets, and though I adore their earthy flavor, my husband (whose Hungarian mother used to make beet borscht for herself) does not. This version, named “white borscht” by chef and author Gabrielle Hamilton, features potatoes and kielbasa, and seemed more in line with my husband’s palate. The original recipe suggests using real pork kielbasa, but I have substituted a lower fat turkey kielbasa. I also cut the butter amount in half and stirred in a little sour cream at the end rather than the crème fraiche suggested by the recipe’s author.

The sour cream and dill add a touch of freshness to this hearty, humble soup.

As always, my exploration into other cultures’ cuisine has taught me some lessons, and one thing about this soup surprised me. I have long assumed that Eastern European soups are “sour” because of fermentation or added vinegar (and sometimes they are), but this soup is both soured and thickened with a hefty chunk of sourdough bread, which I always happen to have on hand. This method of soaking and pureeing the bread was a genius move by the author, as it gave the soup a sturdy, almost creamy, texture, as well as a distinctive sour flavor. Always more to learn in the world of food, isn’t there?

My only regret is that I cannot make an enormous vessel of this soup to feed and comfort all of Ukraine, but I hope that somehow, sharing this experience will ripple across time and space to ensure the courageous people of that nation that they do not stand alone. 🇺🇦


Adapted from https://cooking.nytimes.com/recipes/1021711-white-borscht

Note: The original recipe linked above is only available to paid subscribers of New York Times Cooking (which I am), but my adaptation is very close to the original, except for the aforementioned substitutions and the fact that I halved the recipe for our family of two.


Ingredients

1 lb. smoked turkey kielbasa, cut into three or four pieces

6 cups filtered water

2 dried bay leaves

4 Tbsp. salted butter, divided

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

3 cloves garlic, smashed and minced

1 large leek, cleaned and cut into thin half-moon slices

Kosher salt and about 1 tsp. ground black pepper

A large piece of dense sourdough bread*, crusts trimmed (see notes)

1 1/2 lbs. russet potatoes, peeled

About 1 cup chicken or vegetable broth*

Sour cream and fresh dill for serving


*Notes

Note that real sourdough bread is made from a sourdough starter. Some grocery bakeries take a shortcut that embellishes yeast bread with citric acid, and it is not the same. If you don’t have sourdough bread, consider picking up a loaf from an authentic bakery or use a (seedless) rye. I confess that the sourdough loaf I had on hand was dotted with pumpkin seeds, but after pureeing, this did not have a bad effect on the finished borscht.

The recipe that inspired me did not call for broth, other than the one created by simmering the kielbasa, but in my first-attempt jitters, I accidentally simmered my soup longer than I should have and needed more liquid to keep it from becoming mashed potatoes. It isn’t a bad idea to have some broth at the ready for this purpose. I used a version of vegetable broth called “No-Chicken” broth, and it was perfect for making up the difference in liquid without affecting flavor.


Instructions

  1. Place the kielbasa chunks in a large soup pot and cover it with the filtered water. Add the bay leaves and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer for about 20 minutes.
  2. Prep the potatoes by cutting off the sides and ends, creating mostly flat sides on the potato. Keep the potato scraps in one pile and cube up the rest into a separate pile.
  3. After simmering, the kielbasa should be noticeably swollen, and small droplets of fat from the kielbasa will be swirled throughout the broth. Use tongs to transfer the kielbasa to a cutting board. Pour the broth into a large bowl or measuring pitcher.
  4. Into the same pot, melt two tablespoons of the butter and sauté the yellow onions and garlic with salt and pepper for about five minutes, until tender. Add the remaining butter and leeks to the pot and sauté two more minutes, until those are also tender.
  5. Add the scraps of potato and the large chunks of sourdough bread to the pot. Pour about 2/3 of the reserved broth into the pot and simmer until the bread looks completely bloated, about 10 minutes. Use a large, slotted spoon or tongs to pull out the sopping bread into the measuring pitcher with the remaining reserved broth. It’s OK if some of the leeks and onions tag along. Set the pitcher aside to cool for a few minutes.
  6. Add the potato cubes to the pot, along with enough broth or water to just cover them. Heat to a boil and then simmer for about 15 minutes until potatoes are slightly tender. While that simmers, use an immersion blender to puree the sopping sourdough with the liquid in the bowl or pitcher.
  7. Stir the puree mixture back into the pot, along with the kielbasa. Adjust salt and pepper to taste. Simmer just until heated through, as continued cooking will cause the potatoes to turn mushy.
  8. Serve the white borscht with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of fresh dill.



Easy, Creamy Potato Soup

As far as I am concerned, the best thing about winter is the soup. When the weather is cold, damp or just generally crummy, a piping hot mug of soup is like a reset button for my winter-weary soul. And you know what makes soup even better? An easy recipe that doesn’t take all day, uses the simplest of ingredients (so I don’t have to run to the store to make it), and can be customized with almost any extra flavors one could imagine. This creamy potato soup is ticking all those boxes for me.

Soup is one of my favorite comfort foods ever, and that probably dates back to days that I stayed home sick from school. On those rare occasions, I would get dropped off at my grandmother’s house, where I’d spend the day napping to the soothing sound of her cuckoo clock, sipping some variety of last-minute, homemade soup and watching TV under a soft afghan from the big, upholstered wing-back chair in her den. My Gram could whip up a soup from thin air, it seemed, and to this day, a “what’s-in-the-fridge” soup is my favorite kind. Is it possible that I may have feigned illness on occasion, just to enjoy that kind of day? Why, yes, that is certainly possible. Sometimes a kid just needs a little extra comfort—the kind only a grandma and a warm cup of soup can deliver.

I have outgrown the days of pretending to be sick, but I still yearn for the cozy comfort of a warm mug of soup, especially when gloomy weather has me down. I’ll take any kind of soup; chowders, stews, bisques, broth with noodles, minestrone—they are all on equal footing for me. My husband loves soup, too, but his preference is specifically for cream-style soups, so this one was a double win at our house.

Sour cream, shredded cheddar, bacon and chives makes this easy soup a satisfying meal!

We had fun dressing up our creamy potato soup like a loaded baked potato—with sour cream, chives, cheddar cheese and crispy bacon pieces on top. But it would be very easy to keep the base of the soup and swap in different enhancers, such as roasted broccoli florets, sautéed mushrooms, frozen corn, cubes of ham or whatever else takes you to your happy place.

This potato soup is very easy to make, and despite the ultra-creamy, silky appearance, it has no heavy cream whatsoever. Buttery Yukon gold potatoes were the key element for my recipe, but you could use any combination of gold, red or russet potatoes, as long as some of them will hold their shape after simmering. Peel or don’t—whatever works for you. I thickened the soup with a slight amount of roux, made from the drippings I had from crisping up the bacon (but you could swap in butter or olive oil), and a combination of low-sodium vegetable broth and milk, then I used my trusty immersion blender to puree it halfway. It was every bit as luxurious and comforting as a cream-based soup, but with far less guilt!

We still have almost four weeks ’til the official arrival of Spring. As luck would have it, there is at least a pound of potatoes remaining in the kitchen, so I’m pretty sure this one will be on the menu again by the weekend, just in time for another round of colder temperatures.


This recipe makes 4 entrée servings or 6 appetizer servings

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. bacon drippings, butter or olive oil

1/2 large onion (about 1 cup), chopped

3 ribs celery hearts, trimmed and chopped

Salt and pepper

2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour (gluten-free 1:1 flour works for this also)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable broth* (see notes)

2 cups milk*

About 1/2 tsp. ground cumin

About 1 lb. Yukon gold potatoes, scrubbed and cubed (peel if you wish)

Toppings and stir-ins of your choice


*Notes

Vegetable broths vary widely in ingredients; for best results, choose a broth that does not contain tomatoes. The brand I like for this is Imagine vegetarian “no-chicken” broth. It has a rich golden color and seasonings that are very reminiscent of chicken broth.


I used a combination of whole milk and canned evaporated milk in my recipe, primarily because I only had 1 1/2 cups of fresh milk. Feel free to substitute 2% or skim milk if you’d like; the flavor will be less rich overall, but the roux will still give the soup a thick and creamy consistency, and you can also achieve creaminess with the immersion blender technique.


Instructions

Step up to the stove with me and I’ll walk you through this easy recipe. Keep scrolling for a downloadable recipe that you can save or print for a rainy, gloomy day. 🙂

Old Man Winter, you are no match for this soup.


New Haven-style Fresh Tomato Pizza

Right here in the middle of gray, dull, Dry January, I think we could all enjoy a warm-weather trip down memory lane, and a taste of sweet summer tomatoes like the ones on this pizza. I’ve been waiting many months to share this story with you, and because this month is such a drag, I’m actually thankful that it took me so long to get to it. Life has been busy since we wrapped up our kitchen remodel, but now that the holidays are behind us, I’ve been looking at these pictures again and remembering the sweet time my husband, Les, and I had on our vacation through New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.

Our road trip presented a unique opportunity for me to do one of my favorite things—research of famous local foods—and this time, I was studying different but not necessarily opposed pizza styles. And after my extensive research (which was essentially just eating a lot of pizza), I have a confession. More of an announcement, really. For all the times I have claimed victory in the challenge to make homemade pizza that rivals my husband’s memory of his beloved N.Y.-style pizza, I stand corrected. My pizza at home does not at all rival the pizza of New York. It rivals a completely different style of pizza.

New York pizza is, of course, known for its gigantic slices and an ultra-thin and crispy crust that is easy to fold for eating on the run as you dash off to catch the subway or, if you’re lucky, a Broadway show. We had a taste of this N.Y. pie on our day trip into the city last August, as we stopped at one of the more acclaimed pizzerias, Bleecker Street Pizza. A friend of ours who is a native New Yorker (like my hubby) swears it is the best, so we put it on our “must do” list.

Legendary pizza slices, served up daily!

Notice their media props outside? Those are well-deserved, and the pies looked great, with the seasoned tomato sauce swirled out onto the dough (as I’m still learning to do at home, with hubby’s coaching) and, of course, all that cheese. It was good, but the crust didn’t feel or taste like the one I have developed at home—the crust that Les says is “just right.”

I can’t say for sure, but I suspect the Bleecker Street dough was dusted with rice flour. This is a simple trick that puts a crackling-crisp texture on the bottom crust and it’s good for reheating the slices, as they do to order, but it does not add flavor. Our research into pizza excellence would continue the next day, because we had plans to visit another legendary pizza town—New Haven, Connecticut. And that’s where I had my epiphany.

Greetings from New Haven, home of a whole different kind of pizza.

Les spent 19 years in the New Haven area, and I have heard plenty from him about various food joints he loved there, and especially about the white clam pizza, which we have worked to perfect over the past few years and now serve at home every New Year’s Eve. A random internet search for this unusual seafood pizza will lead you directly to New Haven, and particularly to Frank Pepe Pizzeria, which has been making white clam pizza since 1925. My mouth was watering from the time we arrived just before noon, and for the entire 30-minute wait, as there was a line of hungry pizza lovers wrapped all the way around the restaurant. We had waited so long for me to have a taste of real Frank Pepe’s pizza, we ordered three of them!

The crust on the first pizza—roasted red pepper with pepperoni—seemed instantly familiar, with more of the character I had been making at home, and Les agreed it was superior to the pie we had enjoyed the day before on Bleecker St. And there was something different about the flavor of the dough as well, something more complex, and we supposed it had to do with the higher heat ovens than what is used in the N.Y. pizzerias.

Frank Pepe’s uses an enormous coal-fired oven with a brick floor, and the pizzaolo has a pizza peel with a handle that is about 7 feet long—giving him access to load and spin the pizzas in the oven, but at a safe distance from the intense heat.

The coal-fired oven at Frank Pepe’s must be enormous inside, because they are churning out pizzas every few seconds.

My interest was piqued when the other two pizzas arrived at our table. First, there was a fresh tomato pizza, which is a limited-season thing and quite a big deal in New Haven, and it was very fresh and bright, exactly like summer. Finally, the legendary white clam pizza, and I was certain it would be pure nirvana for my taste buds.

Sometimes your imagination (or even your memory) of something can outrank the real thing and maybe that’s what happened, but it wasn’t until I finally dared to lean across the table and whisper the words, “I think ours at home is better,” and Les instantly agreed, that the reason occurred to me. As quickly as they were churning out specialty pizzas at Frank Pepe Pizzeria, there is no way they can manage using freshly shucked clams, as we do at home every New Year’s Eve. Nope, these clams had to be from a can. Still, the crust was very good and more like the one that Les has encouraged me to emulate. What I didn’t like was the dusty black char that was prevalent across the bottom of the pizzas, and even a bit on top of my white clam slice—it was the stuff we avoid at home by scraping off the hot steel before sliding another pizza into the oven. But I get it, they are slammed busy with a line out the door even as we left. Overall, it was still a great experience, and we boxed up our leftover slices to continue our journey through New Haven.

We had one more pizza joint to experience and it turned out to be the best of the bunch, not only for the pizza but for the overall experience. So much so, in fact, that it deserves its own post—tomorrow!

Until then, please enjoy this recipe—my own—for fresh tomato pizza, which I created at home the first weekend after we returned from our trip!

We don’t have a huge, coal-fired oven, but we are still getting it done at home!

My version used farmers’ market, late-season heirloom tomatoes and some fresh basil I plucked from a plant that was growing on my kitchen counter. It was post-Labor Day, but we were technically still in the final days of summer, and this pizza captured all the beautiful freshness of that.

The base, of course, is what I have long called My Real N.Y. Pizza Dough, but obviously I will have to update that because my careful, ahem, “research” proved my dough more closely resembles what the locals in New Haven call “apizza.”


Ingredients

2 heirloom tomatoes, cut in 1/4’’ slices

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 ball of pizza dough at close to room temperature

1/3 cup simple tomato sauce

2 Tbsp. parm-romano blend cheese

About 3/4 cup freshly shredded whole milk mozzarella

A handful of fresh basil leaves

Extra virgin olive oil


*Notes

As always, the oven should be as hot as a home oven goes—550°F.  and heated for an hour with a heavy pizza steel for the best-ever, crispy texture. If you do not have a steel, use a pizza stone and preheat to the hottest temperature possible for your particular stone. This combination of steel or stone and very high heat will emulate the brick oven baking that makes this style of pizza so special.


Instructions

Spread the tomato slices out onto a large plate and sprinkle kosher salt over them. Be generous with the salt, as it will draw out excess moisture, concentrating the flavor of the tomatoes. Let this rest 20 minutes while you enjoy a cocktail (or whatever you do before dinner). Transfer the tomatoes to layered paper towels and pat dry. I actually poured the salted tomato juice from the plate right into my martini for a savory twist. When Dry January is over, I may do that again! 😉

Shape the dough into a 14” round and place it on a flour and cornmeal-dusted peel. Swirl on sauce, then sprinkle parm-romano evenly, not minding if some of it lands on the dough edges. Scatter the mozzarella on top, give it a few quick twists of freshly cracked black pepper, and arrange the drained tomato slices and basil leaves. Lightly drizzle the top of the pizza with olive oil and dash it off into the screaming-hot oven for about six minutes.



Quick & Easy Refried Bean Soup

This recipe was shared with me many years ago by a friend who had the craziest schedule I’d ever witnessed. When she wasn’t running full speed ahead with her two middle-schoolers—to dance classes, soccer practice, music lessons, birthday parties, etc.—she was leading a high school youth group, teaching aerobics classes, volunteering at church and befriending every newcomer to the neighborhood. Her door was always open to visitors, even during the hectic holidays, and she always seemed to have something tasty to nibble on when someone appeared unexpectedly.

She didn’t have what I would call a passion for cooking, and certainly not much time, but she was incredibly skilled at getting a healthful and satisfying meal on the table in no time flat. This soup is one example, and when I pulled it out of my old recipe box the other day, I thought, “of course.” This is not an all-day-simmer kind of soup; rather, it leverages the already developed flavors of two key ingredients—jarred salsa and canned refried beans. Add some fresh onions and bell pepper, some veggie broth and your choice of chili beans and dinner is served.

There’s plenty of hearty comfort in the bowl, with beans, onions and peppers. And your favorite salsa lends a flavor that defies the quickness of the recipe.

The soup is every bit as comforting as any other homemade soup, but only takes 20 minutes, start to finish, which just happens to be the exact amount of time you need to throw a batch of Jiffy corn muffins into the oven (they’re perfect on the side).

What could be easier after a hectic day of shopping and errands during the busy holiday season?


Simple pantry ingredients and a few easy things from the fridge.

Ingredients

1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 medium onion, chopped

1/2 bell pepper (any color), chopped

2 cloves garlic, minced

Cumin, salt and pepper

1 cup prepared salsa from a jar* (see notes)

2 cans beans (mix and match; pinto, black, kidney, navy are all good here)

2 cups low-sodium vegetable (or chicken) broth

1 can refried beans

Corn muffins for serving (optional, but yummy)


*Notes

Any kind of savory salsa will work here. It can be mild or spicy, green or red, thick or runny. If you have a can of Rotel tomatoes on hand, you could also substitute with that.


Instructions

  1. Get your corn muffins in the oven, if you’re making them. This soup can be made while they are baking.
  2. Drain and rinse the canned beans.
  3. Heat olive oil over medium heat in a soup pot. Saute onion and pepper until softened. Add garlic and saute another minute or two. Season with cumin, salt and pepper.
  4. Increase heat to medium-high. Add canned beans, salsa and broth, and stir to combine. When mixture begins to boil, reduce heat to medium. Stir in the can of refried beans, taking time to swirl and blend it into the broth. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer until ready to serve.


Hot Artichoke-Cheddar Dip

When you make a recipe so many times, you no longer need to review the ingredients list or even bother measuring, and that is the case for me with this hot artichoke cheddar dip, which I made umpteen dozen times during my stint as a prep cook for a catering company called A Pinch of Thyme.

The holiday season was wild in the “Pinch” kitchen, as many of our regular, affluent clients planned and hosted extravagant parties and, naturally, they did not prepare the food themselves. My friend, Tammy, was the events manager for Pinch, and she often shared colorful stories about some of the luxurious homes where our food was delivered (like the one with copper pipes running hot water underneath the marble floors to keep everyone’s tootsies warm), and I often wondered if those hosts supposed the food came from an equally posh kitchen and was prepared by consummate culinary professionals donning crisp, white chef coats and hats.

If they only knew.

My day job at the radio station usually had me out the door by noon, which gave me plenty of time to change into my most worn-out jeans and a WKZL T-shirt before tackling the party menus at the kitchen. The rock music would be blaring, Chef Rodney would be barking orders to everyone, the dishwasher would start running full-steam ahead and, somehow, we’d get it all done in time for the serving crew to load the truck and shuttle our delicacies to the client. The menu for such a shindig might have included a whole roasted beef tenderloin and buttered red bliss potatoes, some exquisite pastry dessert that I probably can’t even pronounce, bacon-wrapped dates stuffed with bleu cheese and, more often than not, this artichoke cheddar dip. Because, simple though it was, everyone loved it.

Warm and bubbly from the oven, this artichoke cheddar dip is delicious served with pita chips or crostini!

No matter how elaborate (or not) you intend your holiday get-togethers to be this year, I promise this dip will bring rave reviews. From memory, I scaled down the recipe to make it at home and, over time, I have modified it to reduce the ratio of mayonnaise in favor of smooth cream cheese; I think it endures better, especially when guests will be mingling for a while. The cream cheese keeps this dip silky, the cheddar gives a little sharpness and the artichoke hearts are satisfying and tart with their lemony zing.

If you want to go overboard, as we usually did in the Pinch kitchen, you might serve the dip in a silver chafing dish with handmade toasted herbed pita chips, which we typically made in quantity to fill up a hotel laundry cart. We would cut pita breads into wedges, split them to expose the shaggy insides, brush them with melted butter and then toss them with dried oregano, basil and garlic powder before baking them to perfect crispness. It was delicious, for sure, but at our house this year, we simply baked the dip in a pie plate, opened a bag of Stacy’s multigrain pita chips and had ourselves a party!


Ingredients

8 oz. brick of cream cheese (full fat or Neufchatel)

1/3 cup mayonnaise

1/4 cup sour cream or plain Greek yogurt

A few shakes hot sauce, such as Tabasco or Texas Pete

2 cloves fresh garlic, finely minced

8 oz. brick cheddar cheese (medium or sharp), freshly shredded* (see notes)

Freshly ground black pepper

1 cup marinated artichoke hearts, finely chopped*

1/2 tsp. dried oregano

A pinch of dried thyme (of course)

1/4 cup parm-romano blend*


*Notes

I know that it’s tempting to use pre-shredded cheese from a bag, but don’t. The stuff is coated with a powdery substance that keeps it from clumping, which may be great for the purpose of packaging, but not great for cooking because it does not melt well. Break out the box grater and shred the cheese yourself. You’ll be glad you did!

I use artichoke hearts that are marinated in spices and oil, and I usually scoop them out of the jar with a slotted spoon without draining them. The herbs and oil add a pleasant layer of flavor. If you use artichoke hearts packed in water, drain them thoroughly and also drizzle them with a bit of olive oil before mixing into the dip. If they are plain, consider increasing the dried herbs slightly.

I use oil-marinated artichoke hearts. There is no need to rinse or drain them, and the herbs add flavor.

We make our own parm-romano blend, which is easy to do and super convenient, because we love the piquant flavor in so many dishes. If you don’t care to do this (or if you just don’t have the time), substitute a good quality grated parmesan from the supermarket.

Before we get into the making of this recipe, I have a confession (as you’ll see in the photos). To satisfy our shopping list on the day I made the dip, my husband had to visit four grocery stores. I decided not to wait for the new package of cream cheese, and I dipped into our fresh batch of spreadable scallion cream cheese, which we make regularly as a bagel schmear. The spread has a bit of sour cream in it, plus chopped scallions and a touch of dill. I scooped out a heaping cup of it for this recipe and it worked great. Improvisation has led me to some of my favorite flavor discoveries, and I’ve learned to not be strictly bound to a recipe.


Instructions

Using an electric mixer, blend the cream cheese, mayonnaise and sour cream together. Add garlic and hot sauce and mix until smooth. Give it a taste and adjust hot sauce to your liking. Add about 2/3 of the shredded cheddar and mix again. Season with about 15 twists of freshly ground black pepper. Blend in the chopped artichoke hearts until evenly distributed. Add oregano and, in keeping with the original recipe, a pinch of thyme.

Pile the mixture into a deep pie plate or 8 x 8 glass baking dish. Sprinkle on the parm-romano blend. Top with remaining shredded cheddar.

Bake at 375° F for about 25 minutes, until dip is heated through and cheese is bubbly. Serve warm with pita chips, sturdy crackers or crostini.