strawberries with balsamic vinegar

So we’ve been away for a little while.  Two months, to be exact.  Tending to other things.  Our hearts, our souls, our peace-of-mind, our new (to us) cottage in Northern Michigan where we’ll happily watch the weather in the desert on our smartphones and say, “Oh, how good it is to be here in Northern Michigan.”

With two months of projects, including a white picket fence, I’ve been otherwise occupied with gardening, and beach walks and campfires.  The simple pleasures of life.  With that said, and with summer berries in abundance, I bring you another simple pleasure.  Some of the best and most simple pleasures of summer: strawberries and balsamic.  And vanilla ice cream.  Moomers, of course.

This is so easy to make and is so incredibly delicious, you’ll never want to put anything else on your vanilla ice cream, again.  Guaranteed.  Enjoy!!

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Strawberries with Balsamic Vinegar (recipe courtesy Traverse Magazine, June 2012)

 Ingredients:

  • 1/3 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 2 teaspoons granulated sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
  • 3 pints strawberries, hulled and halved
  • 1/8 cup light brown sugar
  • Fresh ground black pepper

Directions:

  1. Bring vinegar, granulated sugar and lemon juice to simmer in small saucepan over medium heat.
  2. Simmer until syrup is reduced by half. Cool.
  3. Toss berries and brown sugar in a bowl.
  4. Pour vinegar syrup over berries, add fresh black pepper to taste.
  5. Serve over vanilla ice cream. Serves 6.

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***Cook’s Notes:  Use the very best balsamic vinegar you can afford…which is true no matter what you’re making.

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easy black bean soup

Like anyone who prepares meals every night of the week, I don’t always have time to languish over a pot of soup.  Some days, there’s just not time for all the chopping and dicing and stirring required.  If you feel my pain, you’ll appreciate how fast this black bean soup comes together.  Classic flavor reigns with the cilantro, red bell pepper, and cumin.  Optional toppers, aside from the yogurt (or sour cream, if you’re so inclined), include some shredded pepper jack cheese, a dash of hot sauce to kick it up a notch, or some baked tortilla chips.   My only qualm with the recipe was it didn’t make enough to put it to the “yesterday’s soup” test.  We all know things like this taste even better the next day.  But this one tasted pretty darn good the first day!  Nonetheless, next time I’m going to double the batch to insure some leftovers.

Also, this soup is only a couple of substitutions away from being a perfectly acceptable vegetarian meal:  swap out the chicken stock for veggie stock, and bulk it up with tofu or more beans.  Personally, I’d go with the beans.  Tofu is just…well.  Tofu is just tofu.  However you make this your own, you’re sure to enjoy!!

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Easy Black Bean Soup (recipe adapted from: Cooking Light Superfast Suppers)

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 c onion, chopped
  • 1/4 c red pepper, chopped
  • 1 low-fat turkey kielbasa (Hillshire Farms), cut into pieces
  • 1 15 oz can no-salt-added black beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 14 oz can fat-free, low-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp basil/garlic/oregano flavored tomato paste
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 2 Tbsp reduced -fat Greek yogurt (optional)
  • 1 Tbsp fresh cilantro, chopped (optional)

Directions:

  1. Place non-stick saucepan over medium-high heat until hot.  Add onion and pepper; saute 3 minutes or until vegetables are crisp-tender.
  2. Add chopped sausage, beans, and chicken broth to onion mixture.  Stir in tomato paste and cumin; bring soup to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer 5 to 6 minutes or until soup is slightly thickened.
  3. Ladle soup into individual bowls; dollop each serving evenly with yogurt, and sprinkle with cilantro.
  4. Serve with home-made tortilla chips (optional).

 

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jicama-lime slaw

Summer seems to be upon us here in Arizona, even though I think spring only officially got started a couple of weeks ago.  So, with temps in the 90s, and our grill performing its usual work-horse duties, I wanted a side that could herald summer.  Spring is fleeting.  Summer, well that just seems to go on forever.

I have my faithful stand-by recipes, but I like to experiment early in the season to find out if there’s anything worth making for upcoming picnics, get-togethers with friends, etc.  And I’m always enticed by oft-overlooked veggies.  Like the jicama, for instance.  You can find them in pretty much any grocery store, but it’s rare you see recipes calling for this uber-nutritious, fibrous root veggie.  And I’m surprised it took me this long to think of it as perfect for cole slaw.  The flavor and texture are spot on – crisp and sweet, somewhere between a water chestnut and a pear.  The jicama’s flavor is enhanced by the lime and doesn’t give way to sogginess when the dressing is applied.

If you’ve looking for a change of pace from a traditional mayo-based slaw, this one is perfect.  It’s tangy, zesty, and perfectly fresh for summer.  Enjoy!

 

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Jicama-Lime Slaw (recipe adapted from Cooking Light Superfast Suppers)

Ingredients:

  • 1 medium jicama, peeled and shredded
  • 1 c green cabbage, shredded
  • 1/4 c red onion, finely chopped
  • 1/3 c fresh lime juice (about 4 limes)
  • 2 tsp EVOO
  • 1 1/2 tsp granulated sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper

Directions:

  1. Combine first three ingredients in a medium bowl, tossing well.  Set aside. t
  2. Whisk together lime juice, EVOO, sugar, salt, and black pepper.
  3. Pour dressing over slaw mixture and toss well to coat.
  4. Serve at room temperature or chilled.

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***Cook’s Notes:  I was in time-saving mode, so I grabbed a bag of pre-shredded cabbage in the produce aisle.  Turns out it was the angel hair variety, so a bit too flimsy for my taste, but worked fine.  Next time I’ll either shred my own or make sure I buy a thicker shred.

 

sausage and egg fried rice

One of my favorite things to order at our neighborhood Chinese restaurant is chicken fried rice.  Even better, wrap it up in a soft tortilla and call it a Chinese burrito.  Either way, it’s comfort food through and through.  But we all know the fried rice at your favorite carry-out is, while incredibly delicious, not exactly scoring high marks for health food.  Also, we don’t eat out that much – have you seen the portion sizes?  And, frankly, we get a healthier meal at home.  Which is why I’ve always been curious about making my own fried rice.

Last night was the perfect night.  My people had gone off to have dinner with relatives.  Earlier in the day, in anticipation of dinner-for-one, I cooked up some rice (halving the recipe below) and set it aside to cool.  Fried rice is a great way to use up leftover rice from a previous dinner, but since I’m apparently so good at portion control, I rarely have leftover rice on hand.  Note to selves:  If you’re ever just hanging out with an hour to spare, make some rice and tuck it away in the fridge for dinner later that week.

The original recipe called for diced ham, but I used an organic turkey sausage, instead, since it’s what I had on hand.  I think it’s a perfectly good substitute, lower in sodium and fat, while still adding a nice boost of protein.  Since it’s a recipe that loans itself to personal adaptation, pick your protein for what suits your lifestyle.

I wasn’t sure what to expect since I believed it would be nearly impossible to recreate the goodness of Chinese carry-out in my own kitchen.  But this recipe came pretty darn close.  I thought it was delicious…and much, much healthier.  The green beans added crunch and a pretty burst of color.  Onion and garlic gave it nice, heady flavor in combination with the soy sauce and sesame oil.  Prep first and it all goes together really fast, as a stir-fry should.  Can’t wait to try the leftovers after the flavors have a chance to mingle, a bit.  Definitely a keeper on the first run, though.  Enjoy!

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Sausage and Egg Fried Rice (recipe adapted from Cooking Light, September 2008)

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups cold cooked long-grain rice
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons canola oil
  • 1 1/2 cups chopped onion
  • 1 tablespoon minced garlic
  • 1 cup thinly horizontally sliced green beans
  • 3/4 cup diced turkey kielbasa (about 4 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup low-sodium soy sauce
  • 2 1/2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
  • 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/4 cup (1-inch) slices green onions

Preparation:

  1. 1. Break up rice with hands to remove large clumps, if necessary.
  2. 2. Heat a 14-inch wok over high heat. Add canola oil to wok, swirling to coat. Add 1 1/2 cups onion and garlic to wok; stir-fry 1 minute or until onion begins to brown. Add beans and ham; stir-fry 2 minutes or until ham begins to brown.
  3. 3. Reduce heat to medium-high. Add cold rice to wok; stir-fry 2 minutes. Stir in soy sauce, sesame oil, and black pepper. Push rice mixture up sides of wok. Pour eggs in open space in center of wok; cook 30 seconds or until set, stirring to scramble. Gently stir scrambled eggs into rice mixture. Sprinkle with green onions.

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spice cake

This cake could be frosted, but there might not be enough left to frost after everyone discovers how yummy it is.  So, if you frost it, do so quickly.

There are no prep pictures of this cake because I threw it together on a whim one evening after a bout of tears in the grocery store parking lot.  We’d been decorating for Christmas and we opened up several boxes of things I’d brought from my mom’s house last fall.  It was hard.  Really hard.  Walk-away-to-get-my-car-keys-to-go-to-the-grocery-store-for-some-obscure-item-so-I-can-sit-anonymously-crying-in-the-parking-lot hard.

And if there’s anything to make me feel better in an emotionally charged moment, well, it’s a good cry in a parking lot and baking a cake!

As I said above, if you want to frost it, don’t let anyone near this cake until you’ve done so.  I planned on it (a nice brown butter drizzle would have been excellent), but it was sliced and packed into lunch boxes before I had a chance.  After that, consensus was just leave it be.  It’s perfectly delicious without frosting and frosting is messy in lunch boxes, anyway.  This cake would make a wonderful addition to a holiday brunch buffet, in which case I’d definitely frost it to give it that finishing touch.  I think you’ll love it either way.  Enjoy!

Spice Cake (recipe adapted from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook)

Ingredients:

  • 2 c all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 tsp ground nutmeg
  • 1/4 tsp ground cloves
  • 1/4 tsp ground ginger
  • 1/2 c unsalted butter, softened
  • 1 1/2 c sugar
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/4 c low-fat buttermilk

Directions:

  1. Grease a 13×9 baking pan, or grease and lightly flour a 9″ bundt pan; set aside.  Stir together flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, and ginger; set aside.
  2. In a large mixing bowl beat butter with an electric mixer on medium to high-speed for 30 seconds.  Add sugar and vanilla; beat till well combined.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each.  Add dry mixture and buttermilk alternately to beaten mixture, folding in after each addition just until combined.  Pour into prepared pan.
  3. Bake in a 350° oven for 35 to 40 minutes for the 13×9 pan, or 45 minutes for the bundt pan, or until a wooden toothpick comes out clean.  Cool sheet pan completely on wire rack.  If using bundt pan, cool for 10 minutes on wire rack.  Remove cake from pan and cool thoroughly on wire rack.

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***Baker’s Notes:  The original recipe suggested baking in either the sheet pan or 2 8 1/2 inch cake pans, but I wanted a bundt cake.  Mine is a 10 1/2″ bundt pan which can hold between 10 and 15 cups of batter.  This recipe makes about 8 cups of batter, so my bundt pan wasn’t anywhere near full to capacity.  Therefore, the finished cake was a little thinner than if I’d used a smaller bundt pan.  My baking time was 45 minutes.  If you use a smaller bundt pan, just make sure to check the cake at about the 45 minute mark.  It may need a little more time.  When the cake begins to pull away from the edges of the pan, you’re just about there.

grilled vegetable sandwiches

Summer is ending.  Fall is arriving…slowly, but arriving.  We had a couple of evenings recently where we sat on the patio and enjoyed what had the makings of a cool breeze.  I think we’ve survived another desert summer!  Which is good and bad, because that means summer veggies are going by the wayside.  But it also means fall root veggies, key to many comfort foods and soups, will be in abundant supply.

While flipping through a cookbook looking for something entirely different, I came across these grilled veggie sandwiches which sounded (and looked) delicious.  My usual cooking routine includes incorporating a meatless meal or two each week.  And, since no one has put up too much of a fight, I’m not rocking that boat.  These veggie sandwiches were the perfect meatless meal, and made for a tiny celebration of the end of the season by using the last of the summer veggies.  For those of you in colder climates, the benefits will be two-fold: enjoying the last of summer vegetables and lighting up the grill one more time – before the lid is frozen shut!  Enjoy!!

Grilled Vegetable Sandwiches (recipe courtesy Cooking Light Superfast Suppers, Oxmoor House Publishing)

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Ingredients:

  • 2 Tbsp light mayo
  • 1 Tbsp fresh chopped basil
  • 2 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 Tbsp balsamic vinegar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1/4 tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 red bell pepper, cut into eighths
  • 1 (1 lb) eggplant, cut crosswise into 1/2-inch slices
  • 1 sweet onion, cut crosswise into 1/4-inch slices
  • 1 zucchini, cut lengthwise into 1/4-inch slices
  • Cooking spray
  • 4 ciabatta rolls, sliced in half
  • 8 oz fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced

Directions:

  • Prepare grill.
  • Combine mayo and minced basil; cover and chill.
  • Combine oil and next 3 ingredients in a large bowl.  Add bell pepper, eggplant, onion, and zucchini to dressing mixture;; toss vegetables to coat.
  • Place bell pepper and eggplant on grill rack coated with cooking spray; grill about 6 minutes.  Add onion and zucchini; grill 5 minutes.  Turn vegetables often, baste with dressing, and cook just until tender.  Remove from grill and keep warm.
  • Place bread on grill, cut side down, and grill 2 minutes.  Turn bread, cut side up, and place half of cheese slices on bottom half of bread.  Grill 1 minute or until cheese begins to melt.
  • Spread mayo mixture over top half of bread.  Top bottom half with vegetables, remaining cheese slices, and top half of bread.
  • Serve immediately.

sandwich©zouptonuts***Cook’s Notes:  I used a grill basket for the veggies, which made worries about losing vegetables through the grill grates a non-issue.  Choose a nice, hearty roll.  The ciabattas are great because they hold up well to the moisture from the dressing, grilled veggies, and melted cheese.  Also, I came across this little gem while working on the post; the website for the book Simply in Season, which offers a fruit and vegetable guide for tips on how to choose, store, prepare, and use selected fruits and vegetables.  Good stuff!

balsamic marinated tomato and mozzarella salad

I know there are a lot of food purists out there who will say this is a travesty; the bastardization of the Caprese Salad.  Yes, there is balsamic vinegar which some say you would never find on a Caprese Salad in Italy.   And yes, I served it as a side dish as opposed to a starter as they would in, you guessed it…Italy.

Alas, we are not in Italy.  We are in the United States of America and here?  Here, I put balsamic on my Caprese Salad and serve it as a side dish.  Except there’s one, minor detail.  This isn’t really Caprese salad.  Because it also has minced garlic and chopped onion.  So, there.  Take that, Italy.  It’s a side salad!

Don’t get me wrong.  I love me some Caprese Salad.  It’s the most tantalizing starter at any summer meal.  But this version is basically a balsamic marinade, and the added onion and garlic gives you an added kick in the taste buds.  It really was very, very good.  Lots of robust flavor with the same summer freshness of the purist’s Caprese Salad.  Keep this recipe on hand for summer weekends where you’re not hosting a formal sit down meal with several courses.  This has summer picnics and barbecues written all over it, especially if you’re invited to a summer meal where you’re asked to bring a dish to pass.  Make it ahead and let the flavors mingle.  It’s all good.  Enjoy!

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Balsamic Marinated Tomato and Mozzarella Salad (recipe courtesy Food.com)

Ingredients:

  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • black pepper
  • 1 clove minced garlic
  • 3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 1/4 cup onion, chopped
  • 1 1/2 cups mozzarella cheese, cubes
  • 1 pint grape tomatoes or 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved

Directions:

In medium bowl, combine cheese pearls and tomatoes.  In separate bowl, whisk together olive oil, balsamic, salt, pepper, garlic, onion, and chopped basil.  Stir to blend evenly.   When dressing is evenly mixed, toss over cheese and tomatoes, stirring gently to coat.

Chill until ready to serve.

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Cook’s Notes:  Especially where dressings and marinades are involved, always use the best quality balsamic vinegar and olive oil you can afford.

snickerdoodle bundt cake

We Lutherans love a good pot-luck.  Or, so I’m told.  Personally, most of what’s served in church basements can be pretty sub-par eats, at best. Obviously, the food is secondary.  The pot-lock?  Well…it’s more about the camaraderie, I’m certain; the closeness, the companionship…the reality you won’t have dishes to do after dinner!!

When I show up at the church pot-luck dinner, not only are the other diners happy for my companionship and closeness (come on, could that ever be in question?), they’re also very excited about this cake.  It’s pretty much the only time I bake it.  This time, though, I had invited a friend and her two daughters for dinner.  Her husband had traveled pretty extensively during the month of February and the “single mom” syndrome was setting in.  I figured she could use a home cooked meal  that didn’t involve her stepping foot in the kitchen.  This cake was dessert for my friend and her two daughters.  I sent them home with full bellies and a to-go bag full of leftover cake.  There were smiles all around.

I think one of my favorite things about this cake – aside from the fact the Snickerdoodle cookie is the center of many wonderful childhood memories – is the way the outside bakes into a crispy, sugary shell.  Beyond that, the inside is soft and moist, with a swirl of more cinnamon sugar.  One slice is all I’ll allow myself lest I completely lose my senses. True!  Now go forth and bake.  If you happen to swing through a good old-fashioned Lutheran pot-luck, I guarantee there will be some happy church ladies.  Enjoy!

snickerdoodle bundt cake

Ingredients:
2 tsp ground cinnamon
1 c white sugar (granulated)

Combine these ingredients in a small bowl, mix well and set aside.

2 1/2 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp kosher salt
1 c unsalted butter, at room temp
1 c white sugar
1 c light brown sugar
3 eggs, room temp
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 c sour cream, at room temp

Procedure:

Pre-heat oven to 325. Generously spray a 9″ bundt pan with non-stick cooking spray. Be particular about coating all the indentations in the pan, as well as the center tube. Dust the entire inside of the bundt pan with the sugar/cinnamon mixture. You’ll probably only need about 1/4 cup of sugar, but you’ll want to make sure the pan is evenly coated – including the center tube. Save the remaining mixture and set everything aside.

Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

Beat just the butter for 1 minute on medium speed. Add the white sugar and mix for about another 3 minutes or until light and fluffy. Scrape down the bowl and the blade and add the brown sugar. Mix for about 2 minutes or until the batter looks light brown and uniform in color.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating each for 1 minute. Stir in the vanilla. Add the flour mixture alternately with the sour cream, beating well.

Spread half the batter into the prepared pan. Sprinkle with 1/4 to 1/3 cup of the sugar/cinnamon mixture. Add remaining batter to the pan and sprinkle evenly with the remaining sugar/cinnamon mixture.

Bake for 55 to 60 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before inverting cake on to a wire rack to cool completely.