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.



Smoked Maple Bourbon Crème Brûlée

WARNING:
Consumption of this rich and decadent dessert after a big meal may result in excessive lazing on the sofa, and may also force extended procrastination of post-entertaining kitchen cleanup.


At least, that’s what happened at our house—twice.

We had a very small gathering at our home for Thanksgiving—just me, my husband and our friend, Maria. I knew when I was planning dinner that it would not make sense to have large pies, cakes or other desserts that yielded 12 portions. As it is, we are scarce on refrigerator space for the leftover turkey and sides, and we certainly did not need extra portions of dessert hanging around. I wanted to make something special for our intimate holiday, and this crème brûlée definitely fit the bill, both for Thanksgiving Day and again for “leftovers” night on Saturday. And let me tell you, even after said lazing kept us up until after 11 pm washing dishes, I had no regrets about this dessert.

If you follow my blog regularly, you already know about our recent discovery of the Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon—the amazing dark spirit that became the star of our 2021 signature cocktail. I have made crème brûlée before, using the incomparable Ina Garten’s recipe as a guide, but I have never added bourbon to it before now. The warmth of the smoked maple bourbon married so perfectly to the creamy silkiness of our individual little custards, and the maple sugar that I torched on top was exactly what it should have been; crunchy, sweet and toffee-like. The custard inside was silky, sweet and creamy, with hints of the smoked maple bourbon. Yes, it was divine, as you’d expect from a dessert that is made from egg yolks, cream and sugar.


I can only hope that when we smashed the tips of our spoons into the crème brûlée, some of the calories fell out. On second thought, who cares?


Adapted from Barefoot Contessa | Crème Brûlée | Recipes
Recipe yields ~32 ounces, good for 6 to 8 ramekins, depending on their size

Ingredients

3 cups heavy cream

1 small pinch kosher salt*

5 large egg yolks + 1 large egg (at room temperature)

1/2 cup maple sugar* + extra for torching (see notes)

1/2 tsp. real vanilla extract

2 Tbsp. Knob Creek smoked maple bourbon


*Notes

I purchase maple sugar online from Big Tree Maple, a company that is based near my hometown in upstate New York. You might also find it in the baking aisle of a specialty market, or substitute caster sugar, which does not have the maple flavor but is also finely textured for easy dissolving.

Ina’s recipe does not call for salt, but I like to put a pinch in most dessert recipes because it highlights the flavors and balances the sweet.

If you use a stand mixer to make the crème brûlée, keep it fitted with the mixing paddle rather than the whisk, and work on the slowest speed so you don’t create a lot of bubbles. If you mix by hand, use a whisk but keep a gentle touch when adding the hot cream to the eggs.

As if our holiday was not already joyful, I also had the pleasure of finishing our dessert tableside with my kitchen torch, a dramatic endeavor that just pleased the dickens out of my Leo personality.

Let’s do this!

Instructions

  1. Preheat the oven to 300° F. Heat about 2 cups of water in a tea kettle for a water bath. Prepare your ramekins by arranging them in a handled pan with sides at least as high as the ramekins.
  2. In a medium saucepan, heat heavy cream over medium-low heat until hot but not boiling. Stir in a pinch of salt. Transfer the hot cream to a measuring cup with a spout for easier blending in the next steps.
  3. Combine the egg and egg yolks in a mixing bowl, and gradually stir in the maple sugar until the mixture is smooth and even, and the sugar appears somewhat dissolved.
  4. Very gradually pour the hot cream into the egg mixture, stirring constantly to prevent curdling. This is easiest with a stand mixer, but you can do it by hand as well. I recommend placing your mixing bowl on something that will prevent it from slipping while you stir or whisk.
  5. Strain the custard mixture through a mesh strainer over a pitcher bowl or large measuring cup. This is not absolutely necessary, but it will help strain out any curdled bits of egg.
  6. Stir vanilla and bourbon into the custard. Slowly pour the custard into the ramekins. I did this by filling each of them halfway, then “topping them off” around the pan until all were filled equally.
  7. Carefully pour hot water into the pan, taking care to not splash it into the ramekins. The water bath should be about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. Transfer the water bath pan to the preheated oven and bake for 35 to 40 minutes, or until custards are just barely jiggly. They will continue to cook when you remove the pan from the oven. Allow the pan to cool until you’re comfortable handling them. Remove the ramekins and cool on a rack, then cover and transfer them to the refrigerator for several hours to overnight.
  8. To finish the crème brûlée, remove ramekins from the fridge about 20 minutes before you’re ready to serve. Sprinkle about two teaspoons of maple sugar over the entire surface of each custard. Use a kitchen torch to caramelize the sugar evenly. Sprinkle an additional teaspoon onto each, and torch again. Allow the crème brûlées to cool for at least a minute so the melted sugar will harden and create the beautiful, shiny crust.

I’m thinking that maybe I need to make this again. You know, just to be sure.


Les’s 3-Variety Overnight Applesauce

When Terrie asks me to share a recipe for her blog, my immediate thought about the specific post is where my recipe came from. In the case of applesauce, which I make at various times throughout the year, I have no answer.

I simply cannot recall the origin of my homemade applesauce. I suspect it came about originally because of my son’s absolute love of apples; he started eating apples before he was 2, and had one daily into his high school years.

I do know my recipe took a turn when two things happened. First, somewhere along the way, I decided to do with the applesauce what I have done with mashed potatoes, which is mix varieties to increase the flavor and texture. Rather than two varieties (russet and Yukon gold), as I do with my roasted garlic mashed potatoes, I decided three was the perfect mix for apples in applesauce. Second, back about 2013, for my annual gift to self for Thanksgiving (a story unto its own), I bought a Cuisinart multi-cooker, a juiced-up version of a slow cooker. This is the same slow cooker that saved many a day for us during our recent kitchen remodel.

For applesauce, the slow cooker suffices—and it is easier than tending a cast-iron pot, my old method. As for varieties, I’m quite consistent in using Honeycrisp for sweet and Granny Smith for tart; then, the third variety is whatever strikes my fancy. Unless, that is, I can find my all-time favorite, Jonagold, which happen to be extremely tough to locate in North Carolina. This year, the third variety was Kanzi, a style of apple that basic research reveals comes from Belgium. The name means “hidden treasure,” and the apple is considered a cross between a Gala and a Braeburn. It is a mix of tangy and sweet, a fine add to the first two. All three apples are in the crispy category, which I believe makes for better applesauce.

A couple of years ago, Terrie asked me to make this for Thanksgiving as an add to the usual cranberry sauces on our table. It had more to do with the proximity of the Jewish holiday Hanukkah, where applesauce is a wonderful complement to Terrie’s homemade latkes. This year it was a complete no-brainer, as Hanukkah begins the Sunday night of Thanksgiving weekend.

This recipe requires some upfront labor in peeling and dicing the apples. But after that, the slow cooker does the rest and a few hours later—voilà!—a homemade applesauce that will have your dinner table guests thinking you’re a genius in the kitchen.

This recipe could not be simpler. Combine your ingredients in the slow cooker and wait nearby with a spoon.

Ingredients

Eight to nine large apples, three varieties

One small lemon, juiced

1/2 to 3/4 cup brown sugar

Vietnamese cinnamon to taste (I use about 1/2 teaspoon)


Instructions

Peel and core the apples, then cut into bite-size chunks. Add to the slow cooker. Juice the lemon over the apples and toss to prevent browning. Add the brown sugar and cinnamon and toss to coat. Turn the slow cooker to high and let it cook for four to six hours. I usually set it up at bedtime and by morning, the cooker has cooled. Mash the softened apples by hand (I use a potato masher). If you like the applesauce chunky, use a light mashing touch. Chill and enjoy.


Slow Cooker Turkey Chili Soup

Can someone please explain to me how time works? Because it has only been nine days since my last post, but it feels like 29. Some of the days have been a blur, as we have had non-stop activity in the kitchen during the demolition of the old and especially the arrival and installation of the new. And then, other days it has been so quiet it seems that even the crickets are on vacation. This morning, I literally had to ask my husband, “what day is today?” because amid the ruckus, I couldn’t quite remember. Only one week down and at least five to go—oy, vey!

It would be premature at this point to show you the progress of our remodel, given that we don’t yet have a countertop and the floor is covered in protective cardboard and there is new and ongoing discussion about how much we can configure our backsplash for a couple of design features I’ve been desperate to have. Well, OK, maybe just a few quick photos, but I want to save some for the big reveal!


There is much more to be done, and some of the details our contractor is working through are special enough to be considered “fussy,” so we are fine with some intermittent slowdowns. As far as we know, and barring any future catastrophes, things are still on track for us to be back in the kitchen by mid-November!

The biggest challenges have been exactly as expected—keeping the pets calm and cared for, which has been manageable so far because the weather is nice enough for our cat to chill outside (which she loves anyway) and our next-door neighbor has generously invited me and the dog over for some peace and quiet whenever things get wild over here. The other obvious challenge has been cooking without a kitchen, and today I’m sharing the first real, “cooked” recipe I’ve made since we started the remodel project. Breakfast doesn’t count because we are mainly just using the toaster. And until Friday of last week, we had relied on take-out and sandwiches for lunch and dinner. And (of course) cocktails for me, but that will be another post. 😉

Our first real meal could not have been more perfect for the fall season, and it also could not have been simpler to make, despite the fact that I did not have a stove, a microwave, a sink or a countertop. How did I pull it off?

It’s my multi-purpose friend, the slow cooker!

Say hello again to our multi-purpose slow cooker, the same one I used for our final “Chopped” challenge when Les tricked me into cooking all that kielbasa. The “browning” setting on this 7-in-1 appliance saved the day for my new adventure of “cooking without a kitchen.” I browned the ground turkey and onions, then added all the other ingredients, switched it to the slow cook setting, and let it simmer until Les walked in the door at the end of his workday. I was so excited to have actually cooked, and there was something very comforting about having the aromas of that chili soup filling the house. We needed a good, home-cooked meal at the end of such a crazy, noisy week. And, because it all came together in one pot, even the cleanup was easy.

This original recipe is one of my favorites, and it conjures warm and fuzzy memories for me. A few years ago, on a gloomy February day during another crazy time in my life, I’d scrambled through the cabinets for something to make that did not require a trip to the grocery store. I didn’t have a whole can of tomatoes, but I did have a small can of salsa, plus some roasted green chiles, half a bag of frozen corn, a can of beans and a carton of chicken broth. When I settled in with a bowl of this delicious concoction, which is not quite chili and not quite soup, I loved it so much, I took time to write it all down, and I’m glad I did because it was just right for such a crazy time as this. And there’s another benefit to it—easy leftovers!

Of course, you don’t need to have a special slow cooker to make it. Feel free to use a soup pot or Dutch oven. I’m pretty sure that’s what I’ll do next time—you know, when I have a shiny new kitchen!

If I had an oven this week, I would have made a batch of cornbread to accompany this tasty chili soup!

Ingredients

3 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 small sweet onion, chopped

1 lb. ground turkey (or turkey breast, if you prefer leaner meat)

3-4 cloves garlic, chopped

1/2 tsp. ground cumin

1/2 tsp. sweet Spanish paprika

1/2 tsp. ancho chile powder

Salt and pepper

3 Tbsp. all-purpose flour

4 cups chicken broth (this is equal to 1 large carton)

7 oz. can roasted green chiles, chopped

1 small can Herdez salsa (about 8 oz.)

1 1/2 cups frozen roasted corn

1 can black beans, drained

Tortilla chips for serving


Instructions


  1. Add olive oil to the slow cooker (or pot), on a medium heat setting. Saute the onions until they are soft and translucent, then push them to the outside of the pot.
  2. Add the ground turkey, about half at a time, breaking it up into bits with your fingers as you go. When you brown ground meat, it’s a good idea to cook a small amount at a time to maintain a steady heat. Otherwise, the meat will just steam. When all the turkey is browned, add the chopped garlic and the spices, plus salt and pepper, and cook about one minute until the garlic is fragrant.
  3. Sprinkle the flour over the ground meat mixture and stir it around to evenly coat all the meat. It should seem a little dry on the surface of the meat; add a touch more flour if needed to get this appearance. Cook the mixture two minutes, add the green chiles and cook two more minutes.
  4. Add the chicken broth to the pot all at once. Stir gently to mix the broth with the roux-covered meat mixture and cook until it reaches a slight boil, then reduce the heat and simmer about one hour. At this point, I switched the slow cooker setting from “browning,” which is essentially the same as cooking on a stove top, to “high slow cook.”
  5.  Add the roasted corn, black beans and salsa and stir to combine. Adjust seasonings to taste. Simmer on low setting for two hours or more, until you’re ready to serve.

For our first “cooking without a kitchen” meal, I served this comforting turkey chili soup with tortilla chips, but it’s really delicious with a fresh batch of skillet cornbread.



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.




Moroccan Zucchini “Boats”

One clear advantage to growing your own garden vegetables is that you have a wider range of varieties and sizes of veggies to choose from. I can find zucchini, for example, at my local supermarket, but only smallish ones that can be fried, steamed or skewered. Because this year we gave in to the deer and decided to forego attempting our own garden, I had to go to the farmers’ market to get a large zucchini, like the ones everyone gave away for free this time of year in my hometown. I appreciate that unlike grocery store produce, whatever I bring home from the outdoor market was probably hanging on the vine mere hours before.

You can make a generous meal from a foot-long zucchini!

On our last visit to the market, I was specifically on the lookout for large zucchini because I wanted to make a “boat” out of it. I have enjoyed stuffed zucchini for years, dating back to my hometown days and first apartment meals. Through the years, I have made them with sausage stuffing, ratatouille flavors or Italian-themed ingredients, depending on what else I had in the fridge at the time.


This time, I kept it entirely plant-based and gave it a spicy Moroccan twist. Israeli pearl couscous found its way into the mix, along with tomatoes, onions, mushrooms and garlic. I added a robust harissa paste for a big afterburn flavor. It was a double win for me—I got my wish for a hearty garden-based meal, and it was a fun flavor twist that my heat-loving hubby enjoyed, too.

 

Harissa is a staple seasoning of North African cuisine. It packs a spicy punch, so use it sparingly.

Ingredients

Large zucchini, halved lengthwise and insides scooped out

Olive oil spray

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1/2 cup Israeli couscous* (see notes)

1 cup vegetable broth

1/2 medium sweet onion, chopped

4 or 5 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

2 cloves garlic, finely minced

Half of a large can of whole peeled tomatoes with puree*

1 tsp. harissa paste (more or less to taste)

1/4 cup panko breadcrumbs

2 Tbsp. melted vegan butter*

Fresh chopped parsley for garnish


*Notes

Couscous is essentially really tiny pasta, and for this recipe, I used a blend from Trader Joe’s that combines Israeli (“pearl”) couscous, which is larger than regular couscous, with various other ingredients, including split baby garbanzos, orzo (another tiny pasta) and quinoa. Any type of cooked grain would work here, including bulgur, freekah, wheat berries or even brown rice. You need about 1 cup cooked.

I almost always have San Marzano tomatoes in play in my kitchen, and half of a 28 oz. can was about right for this recipe. Use a standard can of diced tomatoes or, obviously, go for fresh! 🙂

There are so many good options for non-dairy “butter.” I am fond of the olive oil version made by Country Crock. It looks, melts and spreads just like dairy butter.


As usual, Nilla is ready and waiting for a piece of vegetable to fall! ❤

Instructions

Here’s a quick visual walk-through for making this yummy, plant-based zucchini boat. Steps are listed below, along with a downloadable PDF for your recipe files. Enjoy!

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center position. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Cut the zucchini in half lengthwise, then score the inside to scoop out the seedy flesh. Cut the flesh up into chunks and toss with salt in a colander to remove excess moisture.
  3. Drizzle, brush or spray olive oil onto the cut sides of the squash and season generously with salt and pepper. Lay the squash on the parchment and roast for 30 minutes, or until squash is tender.
  4. Meanwhile, cook couscous according to package instructions, using vegetable broth in place of water to afford additional flavor to the dish.
  5. Heat a medium sauce pot over medium heat. Add a generous swirl of olive oil and sauté the onions until softened and translucent. Add mushrooms and zucchini chunks to the pot and cook until tender. Transfer the mixture to a separate bowl.
  6. Add another swirl of olive oil to the sauce pot and simmer the tomatoes and garlic over low heat until the tomatoes are soft enough to break when pressed. Stir in harissa paste and adjust seasonings to taste. Return the onions and mushrooms to the tomato mixture, along with the cooked couscous and the reserved salted zucchini pieces.
  7. Melt the vegan butter and toss with the panko crumbs, salt and pepper.
  8. Spoon the couscous filling into the zucchini shells. Top with buttered panko crumbs. Return the zucchini boats to the oven and bake until crumbs are browned and crispy. Serve with chopped parsley sprinkled on top.

Delicious and satisfying!



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.