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School Supplies & 10 Minute Pasta

9 Aug

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I went to Target yesterday. Oh, let me preface that and say: school starts next week and I went to Target yesterday. It. Was. Nuts. At one point Rob looked like he was about to straight-arm a 7-year old just to get to the crayons. I stood at a safe distance while he ventured in and out of the school supply section with Bear Grylls-like prowess, emerging triumphantly with the 64-pack of colors with the sharpener in the back. Rob was unscathed, but as we walked away with the echoes of children crying, yelling, running, my eyes widened with what awaits me in the coming week.

It’s funny; the teacher supply section is not at all near the kids supply section. It is quiet in the teacher section and the glossy books happily stand, emitting joy and hope of future learning. Among one of them, standing out like a beacon of necessity, was Color Me Calm 100 Coloring Templates for Meditation and Relaxation. An adult, Zen coloring book which intends to “help bring you to a relaxed emotional state as a way to self-soothe.” Not so much a teacher resource, but definitely a teacher necessity.

People, do not pass “go,” do not pick up $200, summer is over and all signs point directly to Back To School.

Which, of course, makes me reminisce on the summer. It was a fun, busy, and traveling break, visiting my sister in New Orleans, my friends in SoCal, and hitting every state in New England. Rob and I went to a couple weddings, camped in Maine (praying the lightning storm wouldn’t kill us in the tent – well, I prayed, Rob thought it was cool), backpacked and camped in New Hampshire (cooked a quinoa and cod salad on a rock in the middle of the forest), made it to the top of Mt. Washington, and discovered the wonderfully quaint (and delicious) town of Stowe, Vermont. We spent time with both of our families, relaxing in Connecticut, wine tasting and dining on the North Fork, and currently we are finishing this shooting match back in Jacksonville by lying on the couch as much as possible before time runs out.

While we were very blessed to have such an eventful summer, we are also aware that the whirlwind days of school and deployments are right around the corner.

When Rob deployments coincide with the start of the school year, I kind of fall into a cooking rut. It’s just me (and Sig) in the house; so cooking a full-fledged meal, with leftovers, seems a bit superfluous. My nights can consist of popcorn, wasabi peas, peanuts, and if it was a bad day at work, frozen black truffle cheese pizza. If I’m at all feeling the effect of those really trying days, I’ll even resort to my famous microwaved nachos (organic blue corn chips and shredded jack/cheddar cheese nuked for 30 seconds, then topped with too many drips of Tapatio). But being determined to make this new school year a healthier start, I did a solo-dinner test run.

With Jacksonville’s heat historically lasting well into October, a culinary silver lining is that farm-fresh tomatoes are ripe, fruity, brightly acidic, and will be perfect for a good while now. Another thing about the heat is that spending anytime outside is next to dreadful, and sitting inside gaining cooking inspiration from my many cookbooks is ideal. So after reading Tina Nordstrom’s Scandinavian Cooking recipe for Gnudi with Sage-Roasted Tomatoes and Caramelized Butter, I was inspired.

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When inspiration strikes, I act quickly. My waiting-too-late-to-figure-out-dinner-when-Rob-is-on-a-night-flight hunger made me made me act even more quickly. Thus born was the 5-ingredient, 10-Minute Pasta dinner suitable for a solo meal, elegant enough for quick company, yet comforting and fresh enough to leave anyone feeling last-bite-satisfied.

Ms. Nordsrom has a thing for browned (caramelized) butter, and I don’t blame her. The stuff is awesome. Fabulous, even. And frankly, I don’t use it enough. So here’s my interpretation:

While waiting for 3 tbsp of unsalted butter to heat, melt, and brown in a large pan over med-high heat (browned = the kitchen starts to smell like popcorn and the happy, sputtering butter sound immediately ceases), slice a good pint of farm-fresh grape tomatoes in half. Tossing them into the pan with the butter, the acid from the tomatoes immediately starts to release and emulsify with the fat, creating a silky and fragrant sauce. Seasoning with s&p is key here. I also added about ¼ tsp red pepper flakes, because I’m spicy like that, but it’s not necessary to the dish. Add whole wheat spaghetti (not my favorite, but works oh-so-well here with its nuttiness becoming a star flavor) into a separate pot of salted boiling water. Once cooked through, add the pasta to the tomatoes, and thoroughly toss over low heat. If needed to thin the mixture, add ¼ c of the starchy pasta cooking water to the pan. Adding ¼ c freshly, and very roughly chopped Italian parsley, as well as 3 tbsp of toasted pine nuts into the pan finishes the dish.

This meal was so perfect – super easy, unbelievably tasty with brown butter/pine nut/ wheat pasta nuttiness and tomato-tanginess leaving a lasting buttery taste, cut only by the fresh grassiness of parsley.   I don’t make pasta meals all that often, but this one will absolutely be a back to school staple.

On a side note, that Zen adult coloring book, it is so much fun. Of course I bought it! A supposed calming resource in the teacher’s resource section provided right before school starts? Completely worth the try. Then again, so is the pasta. Back to school or not, this is an end-of-summer recipe homerun for just one, two, or a few to devour!

Enjoy!

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Broccoli Slaw

27 Mar

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Lately, in our CSA farm basket, we have been receiving the most fantastic broccoli I’ve ever tasted. The hearty green grows well here in north Florida; that is if you don’t get any crazy spurts of unseasonably super warm weather making it bolt and go to seed (speaking from experience here). It is so healthy, so filling and satisfying; broccoli is quickly becoming one of my favorite veggies to eat.

It’s funny how tastes change. Growing up, whenever broccoli was served with dinner, I would only eat it doused in nacho cheese sauce. Maybe even a couple of times, I did the whole hide-the-broccoli-in-the-napkin trick. I’m sure my mom and dad never figured that one out (right, guys?). At some point, I matured in my broccoli taste and the boring crudité of raw florets dipped far enough in the endless bowl of ranch to actually be considered “dunking” became my sole broccoli experience.

Times have surely changed again. Years ago, after watching Ina Garten make her Parmesan Roasted Broccoli, I stretched my broccoli comfort a bit farther, and whatcha know? I loved it! Broccoli became a staple in our house from that point on. Roasted, steamed, chopped into risottos, soups, and certainly not loaded down with heavy creams and mayo-based dressings, broccoli has finally received the badge of culinary honor it’s always deserved.

The weather is starting to warm up (sorry cold-weather readers – while we, too, had our wintery bout of frigid weather, it is currently 82 degrees in Jacksonville. Love you guys!). So the innate cravings for springtime foods are in full force. Especially moving around every 3-4 years, Rob and I really try to make the best out of the areas we experience. Food, of course, falls into this category. We have definitely given the true, Southern Food experiences a valiant effort and I, personally have fallen in love with slaws. We’re not talking the globby, sticky, sweet, mayo-dripping, brown-sugar laced kinds of slaw, but the tangy, fresh, crunchy, shredded veg mixtures that have endless possibilities.

During the warm months, when salads just get too monotonous, and the grill needs a break, a slaw is the perfect meal. Yes, meal. Not side dish, but full-on, full-flavor, smack-your-taste buds around, meal. While the classic red/green cabbage with carrots is always an easy go-to, the slaw is the perfect avenue for veggie creativity. Here are a few of my faves (all greens and veggies shredded, to keep the slaw texture genuine):

Kale, savoy cabbage, pumpkin seeds, and dried cranberries
Arugula, green cabbage, carrots, celeriac, celery seeds, almonds, and apple
Red cabbage, zucchini, carrots, curry powder, cumin seeds, and pine nuts

And probably the best (and easiest) of all:
Spinach and Broccoli

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The Spinach and Broccoli Slaw came about with my continually expanding broccoli-love, as well as the fact that our CSA has delivered stalk after stalk of the stuff. Using a food processor fitted with the shredding blade, simply shred 1 whole head of fresh, raw broccoli, a few florets at a time. Then, using 8 oz. of baby spinach, stack them, then roll them into a cigar shape, and slice them thinly into a julienne cut (the leaves then look like little ribbons). Mix the shredded spinach and broccoli together in a large bowl, and lightly season with a pinch of salt.

My Slaw Dressing generally stays the same: 2:1 nonfat Greek yogurt to mayo, lemon juice, red wine vinegar a heavy touch of very good honey, and s&p, really all just to taste. Sometimes, if a particular sassy feeling arises, I’ll throw in some finely chopped rosemary, thyme, or even tarragon for an herby note. Usually, I prefer a thinner, more vibrant dressing (resulting in less to use), so I go heavier on the lemon juice and less on the yogurt and mayo, but it’s really all a preference with room to experiment (also, a great tip is to lightly season the shredded veg with salt before dressing it, so it all the veg juices start to release, adding even MORE natural flavor to the slaw).

Slaws are wonderful – they marry flavors over time, they are sturdy (so they hold up well), and completely portable. They are a foundation to add protein, much beyond the stereotypical backyard BBQ pulled pork. Try hot-smoked salmon, grilled chicken, nuts galore, or braised lamb. Really, the possibilities are endless.

Enjoy!

Paleo 101

12 Oct

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I like to entertain. Actually, when filing out the eHarmony personality profile years ago, “likes to entertain” was one of the things that found Rob and I compatible. In Oregon, with the close proximity of everyone in our neighborhood (well, really it was the close proximity of the width of the peninsula – there weren’t many miles to go before hitting water on either side!), we would entertain all the time. Big, late-into-the-night parties, simple girls’ nights, football get-togethers, I think once we may have even celebrated Groundhogs Day. Hey, it’s an American holiday, right?

Since moving to Jacksonville, we haven’t entertained as much. The deployments are constant, the distance from one end of Jacksonville to the other is over an hours’ drive, and we happen to live in the “country.” Which, I love, but it does make the trek out here a little long. But enough was enough. It was time for a girls’ night.

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After inviting a group of friends over, I was in the full get-together swing of things. The morning of the party started a little rocky with my homemade almond butter ending up on the ceiling (that little blender stopper dohicky thing is important), but the house was already decorated for the season, so the only thing left for décor was ironing napkins. Easy. For the menu, I kept true to my roots; seasonal is always best.  The weather has just started to change in JAX, exhibiting an autumnal breeze cool enough to notice there isn’t sweat running down my thighs for the first time in months.  So I thought a healthy comfort food meal would be perfect: white bean dip with cast iron nuts and stuffed bacon-wrapped dates for appetizers, and spaghetti squash with a veg ragu accompanied by a green bean, leek and apricot succotash as the main. The girls were generously bringing wine and dessert, so we were all set.

Green Bean Succotash

Martha and Ina would have been proud of my table (yay for pumpkin name plates!), and the dinner just smelled delicious. Everything was planned out swimmingly until, 5 minutes before the guests arrive, I freak out. Remembering that two of the girls coming were following a general Paleo diet, my gasp was audible. Here I am, with my veg-inspired background not at all following rule #1 of entertaining: serve what will make your guests feel special. AH! Paleo is meat-based, and the pepitas on my ragu isn’t going to cut it! Is there time to stuff a chicken in the oven? No…. Can I throw some salami on the squash? Hardly. With the doorbell ringing, I prayed to the veggie Gods for help, and the protein Gods for clemency.

My freak-out, like honestly most freak-outs, was just plain silly. We had such a good time, and the ladies loved the meal. Better than any food or wine that night was the amazing company and the growing of friendships. Which is truly the reason for any entertaining. We all had a lot in common and were able to share some pretty funny military wife stories. No boys allowed.

The Paleo diet did come up though, and after we said our goodbyes, I decided to do a little more research on the topic. So, as I sat in bed, eating a late-night dessert piece of sourdough with butter, I ironically read about the gluten, grain, legume, and dairy-free lifestyle. Through breadcrumbs on my night-shirt and with butter-licked fingers, I learned about the pros and cons of “primal” eating, and it truly inspired me.

Being one that focuses eating on a more flexitarian principle, I do experiment with different styles of cooking and eating, as long as it’s whole-food, seasonal, clean eating. So into the Paleo world I dove.

Remember the almond butter on the ceiling? Well, that was a small series of catastrophes that led to me throwing my hands up in the air (as opposed to my blender against the wall) on making homemade almond butter, and settled for almond milk instead. Loving plain almond milk but wanting to spice things up a bit, I let raw almonds, coconut chips, and a touch of maple syrup sit completely covered with water for 24 hours in the fridge. After it was blended and then strained, I was left with a beautiful, slightly naturally sweetened almond milk, and a hearty almond mash.

Almond Milk & Mash

The Paleo inspritation: almond cookies! Similarly to how I use my juicing pulp to make crackers, I couldn’t let the mash go to waste. So mixing in a quick dough of coconut flour, almond butter, a touch of maple syrup and the mash, I whipped up a crunchy and creamy Coconut Almond & Maple cookie that would leave even the biggest sweet tooth none-the-wiser. They are super easy to make, and even easier to eat.

Despite the flexitarian diet, the evening was such a blast and I look forward to the next time the girls get together. Only next time, I’ll serve marinated flank steak, and these cookies for dessert!

Enjoy!

Paleo Almond Cookies

Almond, Coconut, & Maple Cookies
(makes 12, 2-in cookies)

  • ½ c almond butter
  • ½ c almond mash left over from making Sweetened Almond Milk
    • (almond milk: 16 oz. raw almonds, ¼ c coconut chips, & 1 tbsp good maple syrup – let sit completely covered with water for 24 hours – blend completely, then strain through cheesecloth or a fine-mesh sieve for almond milk. Save the leftover mash for these cookies)
  • ¼ c coconut flour
  • ¼ c good maple syrup
  • 1 egg
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp almond extract

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Mix all ingredients together until incorporated, only about a minute. Using spoons, or a small ice cream scoop, spoon onto parchment paper or a silicone mat on a half-sheet pan.  Push down to make the cookies even.  Top with a sprinkle of sea salt, and *optional: a piece of roasted coconut.

Bake until golden brown and crunchy on the outside, and chewy on the inside, about 25 minutes. Let cool, serve, and devour.

Enjoy!

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