Sassy Succotash

All’s well that ends well, and after a few unexpected issues with the ingredients in this dish, I’m pleased to deliver the end result. It’s a colorful mix of healthful ingredients, with a little bit of crispy bacon on top, just because.

In case you aren’t familiar, succotash is a very popular dish in the southeast U.S., one that I first met when I dated a guy who was born and raised in rural North Carolina. His mother made succotash with sweet corn and lima beans as a regular part of her Sunday supper, which was immediately followed by three hours of gazing at a NASCAR race (yawn). They were nice people and she made juicy fried chicken (and the best coconut cake I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating). When I dared to make Thanksgiving dinner for them, I was admonished by boyfriend’s dad, who informed me that I needed to learn how to cook green beans. In the South, this would customarily involve a pressure cooker and a pound of “fatback,” a pretty dramatic contrast to my “upstate” green beans, which were delicately blanched and served with butter and almonds. Yep, they were still actually green. My bad.

I’m quite sure his family would not have approved all the liberties I’ve taken today with this succotash, adding all this crazy color and bold flavor, but what can I say—you can’t fix sassy.

For my version of succotash, I changed course for a moment with an idea to use golden hominy rather than corn because the hominy matched the size of the butter beans and roasted squash pieces. But as they say about the best-laid plans, things didn’t work out when the canned hominy proved to have texture equal to hog slop—it would have looked even worse in pictures than it did in the bowl. That’ll teach me second-guessing myself (this time, anyway).

I suspended preparation of the dish, long enough for my super-efficient husband to pick up a bag of our favorite frozen roasted corn, which brought me back to my Plan A. The roasted corn is pretty and rustic, and with addition of the big pieces of red onion and dark, earthy poblano pepper, my sassy succotash is a bona fide hit for Thanksgiving this year.

The finished dish has so many different colors and textures. It’s flavorful, and full of nutrients, too!

Oh, and I married the right guy, too—born and raised in NYC, and couldn’t care less about NASCAR. All’s well that ends well. ❤


Ingredients

2 cups butternut squash cubes (roasting instructions below)

2 cups frozen butter beans*, cooked according to package

3 slices uncured, smoked bacon, cut into 1” pieces

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1/2 large poblano pepper, chopped*

1/4 tsp. ancho chile powder* (see notes)

1 1/2 cups frozen roasted corn*

*Notes

Butter beans are usually a bit larger than lima beans, although I’m not sure it was the case with the bag I purchased. Either will work fine in this dish, so don’t sweat it.

I chose poblano for this dish because of its dark green color and mildly smoky flavor. It’s not as hot as jalapeno, but does have a little kick to it, though the heat dissipates during cooking. You could substitute a dark green bell pepper if you prefer.

Ancho chile is the dried, smoked version of poblano peppers. If you cannot find it, substitute any chili powder—it’s a small amount, so you won’t compromise or alter the flavor much.

We love the roasted corn from Trader Joe’s in so many things. I have seen other brands occasionally, but it would also be fine to use regular frozen corn, or, of course, you could upstage me and grill fresh corn!

The hominy setback turned out to be a blessing, because everything was prepped and ready to go for assembling the dish. Here’s how it goes, and you’ll find written instructions below, along with a downloadable version for your recipe files. Enjoy!


Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 400° F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.
  2. Toss the butternut squash pieces in olive oil, just enough to coat all sides. Season with salt and pepper and roast them for about 25 minutes, or until fork tender, but firm.
  3. Prepare the frozen lima beans according to package instructions, and then shock them in cold water to halt the cooking so they don’t get mushy. Drain and set aside.
  4. Heat a large, nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add the bacon pieces and toss to cook until they are done and crispy; remove to a drain on a paper towel. Do not drain the bacon grease.
  5. Add the red onion and poblano peppers to the skillet and sauté in bacon grease until they are very slightly soft. Sprinkle ancho chile powder over the mix and toss to coat.
  6. Add the frozen corn to the skillet and toss until heated through. Add the cooked butter beans and toss again.
  7. Just before serving, toss the butternut squash into the pan and toss the mixture to reheat the squash and combine everything evenly. Transfer the succotash to a serving bowl, and sprinkle with the reserved crispy bacon pieces.

About that extra squash…I had a sweet patient girl waiting for just such an occasion. Good catch, Nilla! ❤
(She is lightning fast!)

Want to make this dish vegan?

Omit the bacon, and saute the onions and peppers in a tablespoon of olive oil rather than bacon grease. No other adjustments will be necessary. I love an adaptable recipe!

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Welcome Autumn Whole Grain and Bean Soup

Today is the first official day of autumn, and I’m so ready for it this year. Six months ago, it seemed as if time was standing still, as the pandemic threw us into uncharted territory and isolation with very little warning. The world became so weird, and it felt like the days dragged on. Now, we are in the opposite place—or back to normal, you might say—in that the days are moving very quickly once again. I think it’s because we’ve had little choice but to normalize what is happening around our world, and with the new precautions for safety and distancing becoming second nature, time is getting back on track—at least as much as possible.

My favorite part of fall and “cooler weather” is that I’ll soon unpack all my sweaters and leggings and boots, and I can finally put my kitchen focus on my favorite foods, like this autumn soup. Oh, yum!

It’s everything I love about fall, all in one beautiful bowl.

Though I’ve paid a lot of attention so far this month to breakfast (it being “better breakfast month” and all), it bears repeating that September is also designated as “whole grains” month and “mushroom” month. I don’t know who decides these things, but I’m happy to play along by offering up one of my own favorite recipes that incorporates both whole grains and mushrooms, and plenty more hearty satisfaction as well.

The main ingredient for this soup is a dried whole grain and beans soup mix from Bob’s Red Mill, and I cannot tell you how excited I am to see it back on their website. I first discovered this product while browsing through Big Lots discount store, and I felt pangs of sadness when it disappeared from store shelves and Bob’s website a year or so ago. But it’s back online, and I just hit the “buy it” button for two more packages. I love this wholesome blend because it has so much going on in terms of flavor and nutrition. Check out the ingredients list: small red beans, pinto beans, lentils, whole oat groats, brown rice, triticale berries, rye berries, hard red wheat, pearl barley, Kamut Khorasan wheat, buckwheat groats and sesame seeds. That’s a whole lot of hearty going on! It’s simple to cook, with a quick rinse and then bring to a boil and simmer with broth or water. It would be delicious and satisfying on its own, but for my “welcome autumn” soup, I’ve added browned ground turkey, onions, garlic, roasted butternut squash, mushrooms and vegetable broth. It all cooks up into the heartiest autumn weather dinner in a bowl.

It would be so, so easy to make this dish vegan, too. Simply omit the turkey and use vegetable broth and bouillon. You’d never miss the meat.

The comforting nature of this soup is exactly the right way to usher in my very favorite season. You might even say it’s a Sunday Supper kind of meal, given that it builds flavor over a few hours and has a good many ingredients (though all are simple). I make this soup on the stove top, but the recipe is perfectly adaptable to a slow cooker. Begin with cooking the grains and beans on low setting for a few hours, then add the other cooked ingredients and simmer on low another hour or two. However you make it , the leftovers will leave you as satisfied as the original bowlful, and if you happen to have some crusty dinner rolls or baguette slices on the side—well, even better. This recipe will make approximately 8 servings.

Ingredients

2 cups Bob’s Red Mill “whole grain and beans” soup mix

2 cartons (8 cups) vegetable or chicken broth*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1 lb. ground turkey (omit for vegan)

1 medium onion, chopped

3 ribs celery, strings removed and chopped

3 cloves garlic, chopped

1/4 cup sun dried tomato, cut into small pieces

1 tsp. poultry seasoning (or 1/4 tsp. each ground sage, thyme, onion powder, celery seed)

1 small butternut squash, cubed into 1” pieces

8 oz. package cremini mushrooms, cleaned and sliced*

Kosher or sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. low-sodium vegetable or chicken bouillon base*

*Notes

Broths are not all created equal, and my recommendation is to be attentive to the sodium content in the broth you choose. Some brands labeled “low-sodium” contain around 570 mg per serving, and others are only around 120 mg. As a rule, I select the lowest sodium broths, as it gives me more control over the final outcome of a recipe. You can always add salt, but you cannot take it away. For this soup, I used vegetable broth, and added richness with the chicken bouillon base.

Cremini mushrooms are my go-to for most recipes, but white or shiitake mushrooms would also be terrific in this recipe.

The bouillon is optional, but I love the extra richness it adds to this soup. I use the Better than Bouillon brand, but it isn’t always easy to find in “reduced sodium” version. I’m thankful that Costco carries it, but you can also buy it online or use another bouillon base. Again, noting the sodium content will help you achieve good results.

A spoonful of this adds incredible depth to my soup.

Instructions

  1. Use a fine mesh strainer to rinse both cups of grain and bean mix.
  2. Add soup mix and 2 cartons of broth to a large stock pot. Bring to boil momentarily, then reduce heat, cover and simmer until beans are tender (approximately 2 hours).
  3. Heat oven to 400° F. Drizzle olive oil on butternut squash cubes, season with salt and pepper, and roast about 30 minutes, or until just fork tender.
  4. In a skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and cook ground turkey until browned, about 5 minutes. Add onions, garlic, celery and sun-dried tomato bits and cook 3 more minutes. Season with salt, pepper and poultry seasoning.
  5. Add browned turkey mixture to the bean soup and stir to combine.
  6. In the same skillet used to brown turkey, add another tablespoon of olive oil and saute mushrooms until just lightly browned. Avoid crowding the pan, or mushrooms will steam rather than brown. You may need to do them in two batches.
  7. When mushrooms are browned, add them to the soup.
  8. Add roasted squash to the soup and stir to combine.
  9. For an extra boost of flavor and richness, stir in a tablespoon of bouillon base, straight from the jar. Alternatively, add two bouillon cubes, and perhaps dissolve them in a very small amount of boiling water to keep the flavor concentrated.
  10. Allow the soup to simmer for a few hours. Enjoy on its own, or with a crusty dinner roll or baguette slices.

Nourishment, flavor, comfort–it’s all in there!

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“Copycat” Chicken Lettuce Wraps

Ever since I started browsing recipes on Pinterest, I’ve noticed something that bothers me—the prominence of so-called “copycat” recipes. For some reason, everyone seems to be obsessed with the idea of bringing home the dishes they’ve enjoyed in a restaurant. And with great frequency, the restaurant they copy is a chain.

How did we get here? I remember a time when restaurants made claims like “as good as Mom used to make,” or “from a three-generations-old recipe.” Does this mean I’m old? When did we make this shift from holding restaurants to standard of homemade foods we remember from childhood—to seeking a fettucine alfredo that’s “just like the Cheesecake Factory?”

Most of the time, chain restaurant menus strike me as calorie- and sodium-laden oversized portions, often indistinguishable in terms of cuisine style. For example, it wouldn’t seem so strange to find a salad on a chain menu with blackened chicken (Cajun), a soy-based dressing (Asian), topped with roasted corn (Tex-Mex) and dried cranberries (um, what?). These are the kind of things that keep me up at night. What is a salad such as that even trying to be?

So when I asked a friend a couple of years ago for her preference for a girls’ lunch date, I admit that I cringed at her response—“How about P.F. Chang’s?”

A chain? Ugh. It’s my own fault, but my friend’s workplace isn’t near to many independent spots, so I agreed, and as luck would have it, I’m glad I went. Not because the food was exceptional (it was fine), but because I (finally) became inspired to delve into cooking the mouthwatering world of Asian food. For years, I loved the flavors but felt intimidated by this particular cuisine, with all of its complex special sauces and high-temperature cooking techniques. So how did a single meal at an Asian chain restaurant open my culinary mind?

Two words. Lettuce wraps.

Spicy, fresh and crunchy. Why did I wait so long to discover these?

I loved the idea of the lettuce wraps—crunchy fresh lettuce wrapped up around a small mound of spicy sauced chicken with flash-fried rice noodles on the side. It seemed fresh and healthy, and the server was happy to bring me a side of their “ring of fire” sauce, which is pretty much the hottest thing you’d ever imagine ingesting. Man, that stuff was good. But later in the day, after my fourth glass of water, I remembered why I steer clear of the chains. My food was really, really salty. After a quick online lookup, I discovered that my lunch, considered an appetizer on the Chang’s menu, had 1,820 mg of sodium. In one appetizer.

That sent me off in search of a better way. I went to the market and discovered that nearly every Asian sauce is available in a reduced sodium version, so those were the ones I brought home (after inspecting the label ingredients for any other deal breakers, of course). I tasted each one, experimented with flavor combinations and figured out some other ways to add texture and flavor. And today, I present my very own copycat recipe—for chicken lettuce wraps. My version is decidedly lower in sodium, swaps out boring iceberg leaves in favor of crunchy romaine, with addition of sweet red bell pepper (did you know they are higher in vitamin C than oranges?), and nutty brown rice rather than bland, deep-fried rice noodles.

So maybe this is the reason for all the copycats on Pinterest. Perhaps other amateur chefs have the same idea—to enjoy the flavor they’ve had in other places, but with more control over the ingredients, the fat and the sodium. It also has occurred to me that because I grew up in a small community with no chain restaurants at all, I do not have any history of food memories tied to them, as others probably do. In the end, I learned something and found a new favorite to make at home.

These wraps are delicious, the heat is adjustable (either way) to taste, and my husband and I enjoy them so much, that lettuce wraps are now in our regular menu rotation. All because of lunch at a chain restaurant. If you’ve been nervous to try an Asian recipe at home, allow me to introduce you to a few of the key ingredients:

You can mix and match these in so many ways.

What is in hoisin sauce?

Hoisin sauce is a sweet, sticky sauce, made from fermented soy beans and garlic, and flavored with aromatic spices such as fennel, cinnamon and star anise. It is very common in Chinese and Thai dishes, sometimes used as a cooking ingredient but also sometimes as a dipping sauce. Think of it as an Eastern-world barbecue sauce. It’s delicious!

What is tamari?

Tamari is a wheat-free alternative to traditional soy sauce. The organic, low-sodium versions are often significantly lower than the low-sodium soy sauces, but the flavor is nearly identical. Because it’s wheat-free, it’s suitable for gluten-free diets—but for this recipe, be sure to check every other ingredient label for hidden sources of gluten if this is a concern.

What is sriracha?

Sriracha is an Asian-style condiment, made from aged hot peppers, vinegar, salt and a bit of sugar. It adds plenty of heat to this recipe but is balanced with the tang of the vinegar. Adjust this one to suit your taste but consider using at least 1 teaspoon to get the chili flavor that makes this dish special.

What’s different about chili-garlic sauce?

Chili-garlic sauce is similar in flavor to sriracha, but it’s a chunkier sauce that adds texture and a lot of savory heat, with underlying notes of garlic and not a lot of salt. If you love spicy food, double it (as I often do); if you aren’t into as much heat, use half or skip it altogether.

Anybody besides me getting hungry?


Ingredients

1 lb. lean ground chicken* (see notes for vegan option)

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small red bell pepper, chopped

3 cloves fresh garlic, minced

1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and finely minced

1/2 can sliced water chestnuts, drained and diced small*

Sauce

4 Tbsp. hoisin sauce (low sodium)

2 Tbsp. rice wine vinegar (not the “seasoned” variety, which has extra salt)

2 Tbsp. low sodium soy sauce (or tamari, which is even lower)

1 Tbsp. sriracha sauce

1 Tbsp. chili-garlic sauce

For serving

2 tsp. toasted sesame oil*

Fresh romaine heart, trimmed and prepped*

Hot cooked brown jasmine rice

3 scallions (green onions), trimmed and thinly sliced

Sesame seeds (optional), sprinkled on for serving


*Notes

Want to make this vegan? Swap the chicken for firm, cubed tofu (patted very dry) and a handful of cashews. Delicious!

In case you’re wondering, it’s not accidental that salt is not listed in the ingredients. Part of the goal with this recipe is reduction of the high sodium in the original dish. The sauces have enough to cover it.

Most supermarkets sell water chestnuts in their Asian section, and sometimes they are available in a diced form, but the pieces are almost as large as sugar cubes. I prefer the slices, because it’s easier to cut the slices into a smaller dice.

A little bit of toasted sesame oil goes a long way, so don’t be tempted to use more of this. Additionally, you don’t want to cook in this pungent oil because its low smoke point will cause it to scorch.

To prep the romaine heart, trim the stem end and rinse the individual leaves under cold running water. Drain them of excess water, then wrap them up in paper towels and place the bundle in the fridge until it’s time to serve. The chilly air will keep them crisp, and the towels will absorb lingering moisture.


Instructions

Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add canola oil, then brown the ground chicken together with the garlic and fresh ginger. Add the chopped yellow onions and red bell pepper and sauté until the vegetables are soft. Add the chopped water chestnuts and heat through.

In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine the hoisin sauce, soy or tamari, sriracha, chili-garlic sauce and rice wine vinegar. Whisk to combine.

Adjust the heat level up or down, simply by changing the amounts of sriracha and chili-garlic sauce.

Pour the sauce combination over the chicken and stir to coat evenly. Just before serving, drizzle in the toasted sesame oil and stir to combine.

Yes, they’re as fresh and yummy as they look.

For serving

You could probably pre-fill the lettuce leaves with the chicken mixture for serving, but we enjoy the DIY aspect of serving it at the table. Arrange the lettuce leaves on a plate, with the brown rice in one bowl and the meat mixture in another, sprinkled with sliced scallions and sesame seeds.

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What restaurant recipes have you copied (or wanted to)? Leave me a comment, and maybe we can tackle it together!


Just Collards.

As much as I love vegetables and know that dark, leafy greens are incredibly rich in nutrients, I’d actually been mystified and intimidated by collards for decades. They seemed foreign to me, even off-limits to a degree because of their cultural origin. So I kept to myself and didn’t bother with them until one day two years ago, when I worked up enough gumption to put a fresh bunch of collards into my cart at Food Lion. At checkout, I humbly confessed that I was nervous because I’d never cooked them before. From behind me in the line a friendly Black woman spoke up: “What are you planning to do with them?” I shrugged and said I figured I’d be boiling them or maybe putting them in the slow cooker because I assumed they took a very long time to cook.

She quickly gave me an alternative. —

“No, honey, fry them!” And right there at register 3, she gave me a crash course in her way of making collards, the food that so many take for granted is a native “southern thing,” though food historians say they came to this country for the first time in the 1600s—from Africa. And in Africa, cooks have learned from their grandmothers for generations that frying collards in oil, then simmering them is the best cooking method.

Ever since, I’ve prepared them precisely as she instructed, because it wasn’t just a recipe that kind woman shared with me that day—it was part of her culture, her tradition, her story, her life. She was happy to share it with me, and I’m honored to share it with you.

These have a terrific flavor and have become a staple in our meal rotation. I don’t know why I wasted so much time feeling intimidated by this simple food. After all, as the woman told me—”they’re just collards.”

The humble collard, in all its beautiful green glory.

Ingredients

2 slices bacon, cut into one-inch pieces

1 medium onion, chopped

Cooking oil (I use extra virgin olive oil)

2 lbs. fresh collard greens, cleaned and chopped

A few shakes crushed red pepper

1/4 cup apple cider vinegar

1 cup water or broth (I used vegetable broth)


Instructions

If you’re a visual learner like me, you won’t need to read the instructions below. That’s how easy it is.


  1. In a large, heavy-bottomed pan, cook bacon pieces and chopped onions together until the fat renders and bacon begins to crisp. Sprinkle with crushed red pepper and season with salt and pepper.
  2. Add collard greens, a few handfuls at a time, and stir them around so they soften and wilt. When there’s room in the pan for more, add more. Add cooking oil to the middle of the pan as needed for cooking the remaining collards.
  3. When all the greens are wilted, move them to the outside edges of the pan. Pour vinegar into the center of the pan, and stir with a wooden utensil to de-glaze any burned bits from the bottom of the pan.
  4. Add water or broth and reduce heat to low, then cover and simmer the greens for about an hour until tender.
Collards are packed with nutrients and antioxidants.
They are considered by nutrition experts to be a “superfood.”

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Jamaican Jerk Chicken Stuffed Peppers

If there’s a better way to knock down a huge pile of peppers, I don’t what it is other than stuffing them with great flavors. Like you, I’ve had them the traditional way—with ground beef and rice, topped with tomato sauce. One of my go-to recipes through the years has been turkey stuffed peppers. But this time, my pepper purchase included a half dozen of these huge red beauties, and they have been begging me for something a little special.

Red bell peppers have so much going on. They are far sweeter than green bell peppers, packed with vitamin C (more than oranges, in fact) and well-suited to a number of terrific ethnic cuisines, including Italian, Asian, Spanish and, as we’re about to dive into today, Caribbean.

You don’t have to love spicy flavors to enjoy Jamaican jerk, but it certainly helps. A traditional jerk blend includes fresh thyme, allspice, scallions, a bunch of black pepper, ginger, nutmeg and a good dose of super-hot habanero pepper. But it’s not difficult to find a seasoning that backs off the habanero, and of course, you can always make your own from scratch.

This is the stuff, right here! Find it at Whole Foods, gourmet specialty stores or online.

This one happens to be my favorite, straight from Jamaica (as it should be) and packing plenty of heat. The brand is available at most Whole Foods stores or online. If your market doesn’t carry it, look for another with the aforementioned ingredients.

Another thing I love about the flavors in this recipe is that it’s very adaptable to vegan preferences. I’m always on the lookout for ways to make a recipe completely plant-based, because we never know when Les’s daughter may be free for a visit, and this one would be a snap. Just omit the chicken and double the sweet potato and black beans—done!

This recipe serves 2, double it up to feed a hungry family.


Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil

1/2 lb. ground chicken

1 small red onion, chopped

1 medium raw sweet potato, shredded* (see notes)

1/2 can black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 green bell pepper, chopped

1 Tbsp. Jamaican jerk seasoning*

2 large red bell peppers

*Notes

Shredding the sweet potatoes helps speed up the recipe because they cook so quickly. If you prefer, you could cut them into small cubes and give them a little more time to soften before adding the black beans. I used the food processor to shred them, but a box grater would also work.

The jerk seasoning I like is meant to be a rub for grilling or smoking, rather than an add-in, so it’s tipping the scale toward the sodium side. For this reason, no additional salt is mentioned in the recipe—the jerk seasoning has it covered. I always recommend examining the nutrition information on labels so you know what you’re getting into. If you use a dry jerk seasoning rub, it’s likely to have even more salt, so use your judgment and cut back to a lesser amount accordingly.

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350° F, with rack in the center.
  2. Heat a non-stick skillet over medium heat, swirl in olive oil and brown the ground chicken with the onion and green bell pepper. When chicken is no longer pink and vegetables are softened, add shredded sweet potato and black beans. Cook a few more minutes, until sweet potato is tender. Mix in the Jamaican jerk seasoning rub and stir to combine.
  3. Prep the red bell peppers by cutting the tops just below the stem line. I like to replace the top during baking and presentation, so it helps to cut low enough to keep the stem intact. Use a paring knife to cut around the seed pod and remove seeds and membranes.
  4. Soften the whole peppers by putting them upside-down in a microwave-safe dish with about 1/2” water (with the tops squeezed in the side), and microwave at full power about 2 minutes.
  5. Fill peppers with jerk chicken mixture, replace tops and cover peppers tightly with foil. This will help retain moisture while the peppers bake for 35 to 40 minutes.

They’re spicy, fresh and satisfying, packed with plenty of nutrients. Serve the peppers piping hot, just as they are, or with your favorite island-inspired sides. This was a test run for me, and now that I know it’s a keeper, I’ll make some mango-scallion rice to go with it. Won’t that be pretty?

There’s so much flavor and nutrition packed into this dish. My husband feared he wouldn’t be able to finish his portion.

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Yep, he finished it.