Slow Cooker Ratatouille

Two super amazing things mashed up are really just one big super awesome amazing thing, right? Yessir!

Take the slow cooker, which is pretty much a must-have no matter if you cook or not. Like, even if you live in the tiniest New York City apartment and can’t even cook a peanut butter sandwich, you MUST have a slow cooker. I don’t use mine as much as I could. As a matter of fact, every time I have it out, I say to myself “I need to make more things in my slow cooker.” It takes like a nanokilowatt or something to run it all day long. And, seriously, you throw some stuff in it and turn it on, and a mere few hours later, it’s hot, ready and smells amazing.

That’s what I did with this ratatouille. Ratatouille is another amazing thing in my book. It’s old-timey French peasant food. Peasants in every culture have had the best kept secrets in the kitchen. It’s probably because they had to be creative and industrious and make every morsel of food count to feed large families on a few scraps. Ratatouille is a stew-ish dish with a ton of veggies and some herbs. That’s pretty much it. It’s amazing how something can be so fabulously simple and delicious. Actually, I find that sometimes the most simple dishes are the sleepers–the one’s that knock your socks off. This is no exception.

So, I did not cook this in the classic manner. And that pains me for a hot second because Joel Robuchon is quoted right there on the wikipedia page saying that the secret to a good ratatouille is to cook the vegetables separately. But only for a hot second, because this ratatouille, while not cooked in the classical manner is delicious AND easy. If you’re looking for the traditional preparation of the dish, you’re on the wrong page. If you’re looking for a hearty vegetable-based stew recipe that makes a ton, is really delicious, and that you could practically make blindfolded, look no further.

One time I was watching The Next Foodnetwork Star, I believe, and one of the contestants said the way she remembered how to make ratatouille is “EZ POT.” Eggplants, zucchini, peppers, onions and tomatoes. That’s apparently the order you add the vegetables, but it’s also great to remember what goes in it. That always has stuck with me. This is definitely an “easy pot” of lunch or dinner. Or both.

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Slow Cooker Ratatouille

  • 3 cups diced eggplant
  • 2 cups sliced zucchini (you can sub yellow squash–I did)
  • extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 large sweet peppers, diced
  • 1 large onion, diced
  • 8 large tomatoes
  • 3 or 4 cloves of garlic, minced
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 tsp of dried oregano
  • 1/4 cup flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp dried basil
  • 1 cup dry red wine

Heat the oven to 400 degrees. Place the eggplant and zucchini in a baking dish. Pour about 4 tablespoons of olive oil over them, season with salt and pepper and the oregano. Stir well. Bake about 30 minutes until soft, stirring once in the middle of the baking. Once softened, add the eggplant and zucchini to your slow cooker. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and prepare an ice bath. Core the tomatoes and cut an X in the bottom of each. In batches, drop them into the boiling water and leave for 30 seconds or a minute–until you see the skins crack along the cuts. Remove and put into the ice bath for a few minutes. The skins should slip right off. Add the skinned tomatoes whole to the slow cooker. Add everything else to the slow cooker and stir well. Cook on low for 8 hours. You may need to break up the tomatoes with a spoon once the cooking is done, but they will probably just fall right apart. Makes 6 large servings (or 8 probably normal servings). Serve with warm crusty bread and a little shredded parmesan cheese over the top.

The first time I ever made ratatouille (or even heard of it, really) was when I moved into my first apartment after I finished school. I subscribed to Martha Stewart Living, and a recipe for it was in the first issue I received. The vegetable-appreciator that I am exclaimed “where has this been all my life?!?” Since then, I make it about once or twice a year when I end up with a pile of vegetables I need to get out of the fridge. This time, it was eggplant that had some bad spots in it. I just cut around it, and you’d never know. I’ve been enjoying this for lunch all week. What a great way to end summer!

Duck Eggs!

Last week, the Hubs came home from work with a surprise for me. He was helping a landowner who had chickens and ducks. They got to chatting about fresh eggs, and she gave him six duck eggs to try. We’ve never had duck eggs, and I couldn’t wait to try them.

One was cracked, so I figured it would be best to scramble it. That is what I love about this time of year. Putting fresh veggies in scrambled eggs. I just used what I had in the fridge. I had some poblano peppers, goat cheese, onions, garlic and cilantro. Throw in some potatoes, and you’ve got a pretty fancy hash, if I do say so myself.

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These suckers are huge. I thought the yolks would be more yellow than store-bought chicken eggs, but it depends on what they eat, I think. At least that’s the case with chickens. Chickens that are free range lay eggs with deep yellow yolks because they eat lots of bugs and grubs rather than only feed. I don’t know what these ducks had been eating. The yolks weren’t super rich, but they were double the size of a chicken egg yolk.

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Honestly, I couldn’t tell much difference in taste with chicken eggs. The good thing is that two eggs go a lot farther when it’s duck eggs. This hash is super easy and full of flavor. You can use chicken eggs just like I did with duck eggs.

Poblano and Cheese Breakfast Scramble (serves 2)

  • 1 tb extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 and onion, diced
  • 2 poblano peppers, seeded and diced
  • 3 medium potatoes, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 large (chicken) eggs
  • pinch of baking powder
  • 2 tb whole milk
  • 1 tsp cumin
  • 1 cup sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (I changed my mind once I started cooking)
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • sour cream and cilantro for serving

In a large skillet, heat olive oil until hot. Add potatoes, season with salt and pepper, and stir well. Turn heat to medium and put a tight fitting lid on the skillet. Check every few minutes to make sure they aren’t sticking, and stir. When the potatoes are tender and have a bit of brown crust on them (about 10 minutes), add the onion and pepper. You might have to add a little more oil. Stir well, and cook for a few minutes until the onion and peppers begin to soften. Add the garlic and cumin. Crack the eggs into a small bowl and whisk a few times to break the yolks. Add the baking powder and whisk vigorously until it’s completely incorporated. Add the milk and whisk to mix thoroughly. Add the eggs to the potato mixture. Wait a few seconds, then move the potato mixture around with a spatula. You’ll have to keep turning it over and over to get it browned and done. When it looks like the eggs are set, add the cheese and stir well. Serve hot with a scoop of sour cream and chopped cilantro.

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This is so yummy. It’s just the right amount of heat and bite from the peppers–not too overpowering. The eggs and cheese make it rich, and the potatoes have a bit of crunchy bits on some of them. If you’re not a fan of sweet stuff for breakfast, this is right in your wheelhouse. And actually, I wouldn’t have even realized I was eating duck eggs if I didn’t know.

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You could use what ever veggies you have on hand to make this. It would be great with sweet peppers, tomatoes, even throw in some spinach if you have some. I might even go as far as kale. Hmm, I might need to try that with the goat cheese next weekend. I have four more duck eggs after all.

I Did a Diet Detox

I did a diet detox last week. It was awful and great at the same time. I wonder if that is what everyone says?

I had a crazy August. I was home something like three nights out of 18 days. I missed my bed. And I ate out just about every meal for almost three weeks. Even the days I was home, there was hardly any food at my house, and I didn’t want to go to the store and then leave home again for a few days. When I was eating out, it wasn’t healthy stuff. It was greasy and caloric and wonderful. And there was lots of boozing.

So, by the time last week rolled around, I knew I had to do something, I felt icky.

While I was travelling, I ran across a story in Prevention Magazine about a diet detox. It actually was kinda funny because it was called “Could your relationship survive a diet detox?” I guess the couple was pretty much at each others’ throats. No sugar, alcohol, caffeine, refined grains or dairy. Wow. It was just the kind of challenge that I like to do.

Of course, giving up sugar, caffeine and alcohol for a detox is a no brainer. Sugar is seriously toxic. And in my own personal observation, it messes with your brain. Last year, when I read Salt, Sugar Fat, It was an eye opener. It’s okay to treat yourself occasionally, but if you want to do a detox, sugar is something you definitely have to get rid of to get your body back on the right track. Caffeine has both positive and negative effects, but too much is definitely not a good thing. Just like with alcohol, a very small amount can affect your sleep. And, alcohol is basically empty calories. I’ve tried to give up dairy before for short periods of time. It makes your body produce mucus, and I was trying to get some allergy relief when I gave it up before. Dairy and grains are also difficult for our bodies to digest

So, off I went last week. I had my dinner menus planned. Fish or chicken each night and lots of vegetables. Salads for lunch. Non-dairy smoothies for breakfast. I was ready. On Tuesday morning, I felt fine until about 10 a.m. Then, the lack of caffeine kicked in, and it only got worse. I had to take a 15 minute power nap at lunch just to get through the day. And when I came home from work, I napped again. I. Couldn’t. Function. I wasn’t really cranky, and I only had a very mild headache (nothing like the migraine I expected), but I was so sleepy, I could have laid down and slept at any point after mid-morning. Of course, I had just come off a weekend trip to Atlanta, so I wondered how much was the caffeine withdrawal, and how much was just the weekend finally catching up to me. The migraine finally did set in about 8:30 p.m., and I just went to bed.

Wednesday was just like Tuesday, except I had to travel for work. I could have gone back to sleep at any point after mid-morning. And I fell asleep again (accidentally) in the car while I was carpooling with others. How embarrassing. Another nap when I got home from work. It was starting to become clear how I get through my days. But on Wednesday, no headache, so that was an improvement.

Overall, I mostly felt like crap for the first two days. But it was because I was just so sleepy. It wasn’t until Friday morning, when I woke up, that I actually felt amazing. The couple in the Prevention magazine story did their cleanse for four weeks, and I almost wished I would have gone a little longer since I only started to feel the positive effects of the detox on the last day. I woke up without any sniffles and stuffiness, and everyone else I know was miserable on Friday. So, I think it was the no dairy for four days that really helped. Before, when I have cut out dairy, I haven’t noticed much difference. But this time I really did.

Not having any alcohol was also helping my sleep, too. The older I get, the more I get what I call the “Bud Light Big Eye” where you are wide awake three hours after you go to bed after you have only a little bit, like two glasses of wine. It’s the worst. Well. Maybe not as bad as actually being hung over, but at least when you drink that much, you sleep all night long.

I will say, by the afternoon on Friday, I was fantasizing about how delicious that coffee would be first thing Saturday morning.

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It was just as amazing as I imagined.

Now that I’m done, what’s the takeaway? Detoxing isn’t for everyone. I asked myself a few times why I was doing this. Mostly, I just wanted to prove to myself that I could, I think. It gets easier the longer you go. And it’s a good way to cut back on everything that makes you feel a little off when you go back to normal. I still haven’t had any sweets. I am eating cheese like a fool and taking allergy pills, though.

PROJECT RECIPE: Thug Kitchen Summer Rolls

You guys know how much I love the Thug Kitchen website. I’ve gushed about it on here before. The recipes are easy, tasty and mostly vegetarian. And they seem so fancy.

I love spring rolls, so a while back, when I saw the recipe for summer rolls, I was on board.

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PROJECT RECIPE verdict: Keeper. These were a little daunting since I’ve never worked with rice papers before. It took me a couple rolls to get the hang of it, but once I did, it was easy. Rice paper wrappers are surprisingly durable. They didn’t rip easily like I thought they would. You can even tug and stretch them a bit.

These were delicious! I reserved some of the peanut marinade for dipping sauce, which was key. Otherwise, I think they would have been missing something. Besides, when you order these at a Vietnamese place, they always give you peanut dipping sauce. The recipe says to just use whatever vegetables you have, and I used swiss chard, sweet peppers, carrots and cilantro.

How I changed the recipe: I didn’t have tempeh, but I did have tofu. So, I switched that in. No problema.

Seriously, if you are afraid of making spring rolls, I can tell you it’s no sweat. Since the package of spring roll wrappers has like a hundred in it, I’ll definitely be making these again very soon. They’re the perfect way to use up some veggies from the garden when you are getting tired of all your usual ways of making them.

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Oh, by the way, Thug Kitchen has published a cookbook, which will be released this fall. You can preorder it on Amazon, and you should check on it. I did.

The legal jargon: I did not receive any cold hard cash, swag, or anything else from Thug Kitchen for this post. I just think they’re pretty freakin’ awesome.

 

The Chipotle Cultivate Food Fest

When I was in Minneapolis a couple weeks back, I wanted to visit a park near my hotel in the morning before my flight back home. Imagine my elation when I got to the park and saw that it was hosting a free food festival sponsored by Chipotle.

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Chipotle Cultivate was going on in Loring Park, featuring chef demos, live music, and of course, amazing food. Cultivate celebrates a better food system, with sustainably-raised fresh food, talented chefs who embrace the philosophy, and some great local artisans and vendors. All set to a fantastic live soundtrack.

In the last few years, Chipotle has been ahead of the fast food game, proving that you can have fresh and healthy affordable fast food relying mostly on small local producers. You might recall that they made waves with their short cartoon about our industrialized food system. Their policies on factory-farmed meat and organic produce have won them a place in my heart. Plus, the food is pretty freakin’ good. Cultivate is an extension of that concept.

The festival was free and open to the public. As you walked through the gates, a tent was set up for local artisans. I sampled some locally-made feta cheese that was to-die-for, and some locally produced flavored honey. I’ve never even heard of anything like the chili honey I tried, but it was sweet and hot, rich honey spiked with red pepper. It would be amazing as a glaze for ribs or grilled chicken (or any meat, really).

Because I had a very small window of time to spend in the festival, I hit all the Chipotle Experience exhibits first. There were five interactive educational exhibits set up throughout the festival, and if you participated in four, you got a coupon for a free burrito, tacos, or burrito bowl. The exhibits were: processed food vs fresh food, factory farming, a fresh guacamole demo, GMOs, and a short film. I follow many of these issues closely anyway, so the information was not new to me, but I was curious how it was received by the other attendees. Those around me seemed to be very engaged and genuinely interested (maybe more interested in a free burrito, but nonetheless interested). The fresh guacamole exhibit was awesome, as Chipotle employees took the participants step-by-step through their recipe. I don’t know if people realize how amazingly simple fresh guacamole is to make, and how much better it tastes that pre-made from the grocery store. The proof was in the pudding–er, guac, since we got a free sample at the end.

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A blurry action shot of the fresh guacamole demo

After I collected my coupon for a free burrito, I headed over to the chef tent, because the first demo was starting. Incidentally, the first chef up was, Jack Riebel, the chef from The Butcher and the Boar, which I had eaten at the night before. For a chef who’s menu is so meat-centric, I was delighted that he chose a summer squash rollatini stuffed with herbed fromage blanc. That sounds really fancy, but it was simply a thinly sliced yellow squash or zucchini rolled up and stuffed with a little raw milk cheese spiked with shallots and fresh herbs. It sounded so easy as he went through the demo, but his finished plate was the difference why he is a James Beard finalist and I am not. He tore apart some fresh basil, sprinkled it over the dish and drizzled it with some gorgeous pale green olive oil. It looked so elegant and fancy.

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Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay long. Later in the day, Amanda Frietag was doing a chef demo, followed by Minneapolis’s resident celebrity chef, Andrew Zimmern. I would have loved to have seen those.

At any rate, it was such a happy accident that I stumbled on this, but it was an hour well-spent. I love Chipotle’s philosophy on food, and it was so nice to see them engaged in the community by featuring local chefs and artisans, and then inviting the public to celebrate with them.

*The fine print: I didn’t receive any consideration from Chipotle for my glowing endorsement of their food or Cultivate. I just really like their food and what they stand for.

 

Deer Devastation

After being away from home for a week, I couldn’t wait to see what was growing in my garden. Before I left, I was picking about four or five cucumbers every couple days from the two hills I planted, and had half a dozen or so tiny ones that I knew would be ready to pick when I got back. I also harvest some of the outer leaves of the swiss chard that was rebounding from the last time the deer sampled it. The tomato plants were full of green tomatoes and the peppers were just coming on. The peas I planted for the fall were up and starting to trellis us the chain link fence I planted them in front of.

The sight I saw when I came back was pretty much heartbreaking. It was just about all gone.

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The sad skeleton of a tomato plant.
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Not only did the eat the swiss chard down to the roots, they tromped through the beds smashing what they didn’t eat.
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What’s left of the hills of cucumbers.
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The stems and stalks of an eggplant plant.

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The only things that they didn’t really eat were the tatsoi, and Asian green. It’s probably only a matter of time before those are gone, too, though.

 

 

 

I’m not giving up. It’s still early enough to replant those peas and more swiss chard, maybe. I just need to look into more deterrent than marigolds. They are clearly not working…

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Tatsoi seems unharmed. As of now.

 

Eats and Drinks from the Twin Cities

Last week, I was in Minneapolis for work. I was attending meetings during the day, but in my off time, I was on the search for local food and drinks. It’s my favorite way to take in a new place and culture, through my tastebuds.

One of the first full days I was there, I ventured near the conference for lunch to an Irish pub I’d scouted on Yelp.  When in Rome… so I got the fish and chips–typical pub food. The fish was gigantic, but it was really awesome. Often, the biggest downfall with fish and chips (which makes me a little gun-shy to order) it is that it’s too greasy, but this wasn’t at all. A Guiness would have made this absolutely perfect and classic Irish Pub food.

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One of the consistent things I noticed about Minneapolis is how much folks there seem to enjoy summer. I think it’s probably because the winters are so brutal.  The Local had plenty of empty tables outside on the sidewalk at 11:20, but by 11:45 it was packed.  Nicolett Mall was the neatest place. It’s a mostly pedestrian street lined with bars, cafes and shops that stretches for several blocks right through downtown. It only has two lanes, one each way, but nice wide sidewalks with plenty of street-side cafe seating. Although I was staying a block off Nicolett, I liked walking along it to and from the conference. One day, there was a farmers market, and the street was lined with pop-up tents selling the most beautiful selection of fresh fruit and veggies and stunning bouquets of fresh flowers. For crazy cheap. Seriously, the bouquets rivaled something you’d see in a florist shop and they were $5.

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NIcolett Mall at lunchtime.

I couldn’t help but think of my friend Samantha, who has an awesome blog about running and cities. Nicolett Mall is something she would love. A vibrant downtown area full of foot traffic for eating, shopping and drinking. It was such a magnet. I couldn’t help making it a part of my route as a moved around town.

The conference wrapped up in the early afternoon later in the week, so I had the rest of the afternoon free. I ventured over to see the Minnesota State Capitol in St. Paul. It’s currently being rennovated, so the outside was a bit of an eyesore with all the scaffolding and baracades, but inside there was plenty to see inside. I got pics of both chambers and the gorgeous atrium and skylight. After getting some pics I went to the nearby Tin Whiskers microbrewery to refresh with a flight of beer. It was only a couple blocks away. They had a pretty impressive offering of dark beers, which I love, but my favorite was the wheat beer. I thought it tasted like pineapple juice, but I later learned from a couple “off the clock” employees that it was actually made with chamomile tea. It is a great summertime beer. Nice and refreshing!

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That  evening, I wanted to take in a Twins game since they were in town and tickets were surprisingly affordable. I  had scouted a dinner place on Yelp (of course)  near the ball park. I  actually read about it on Andrew Zimmern’s blog  about restaurants not to be missed near the ballpark. It’s known for meat, obviously, but more  specifically cured meats.

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In the interest of being healthy,  I started with  a salad–a wedge salad. I didn’t realize that this wasn’t one wedge, but four, like a whole baby head of iceberg. With bacon that seemed  like someone made it in the back, and maybe they did. With perfect blue cheese crumbles like the classic version, and red  pepper strips and tomato glaze.

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Next came the charcuterie platter, with a sample of four of the  offerings from the menu: turkey pate, ox  tail terrine,  and head cheese. Yes, I tried head cheese for the first time and it was amazing. Perfect for a recommendation from Mr. Bizarre Foods himself. The turkey pate was my second favorite behind the head cheese. It was  a little salty, but absolutely divine on a rustic cracker served with the platter.  The terrine was my least favorite, as I found it a little bland, but not terrible.

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Next, it was time for the game, so I walked a few short blocks with what felt like everyone else int the city, but not before stopping by the only self-serve beer station at the ballpark in the country. It was a neat novelty, but definitely not as convenient as getting it from the concession stand. The way it works is that you buy a pre-loaded card of either $15 or $30 after showing your I.D. at the cashier. The area is roped off so folks can’t just walk up to the machines. Your I.D. is verified again, and then you’re free to pick your poison. An attendant is available to help you pour your beer since there is a trick to getting it from a tap without all foam. You hold up your card to the sensor to detect the amount available, and then the tap is activated. The cost was 40 cents per ounce, which actually was about $15 for two beers. Not too bad!

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The next day, I was flying out, but it was an afternoon flight, so I got to get lunch one last place before I left. Another restaurant I scoped out was Lotus, a Vietnamese place near by hotel. I’m not really familiar with Vietnamese food, but I love pho. This place had about six different kinds you could order. I started with a shrimp spring roll with peanut dipping sauce. Very classic.
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The pho was pretty awesome, too. I got a large (way too much), and even though it’s a broth-based soup it’s pretty hearty. I got tofu and seafood. Pho seems pretty straightforward, but the flavors are so complex and layered. The play between the hot peppers and basil is awesome, and the bean sprouts add crunchy texture.

097Finally, this post could only be ended with a shot of the statue on Nicolett Mall of Mary Tyler Moore throwing her hat in the air just as she did at the end of the opening credits for her show, which took place in Minneapolis. I thought it would only be fitting.
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* I am having difficulty getting links embedded. Below are the ones I wanted to include.

My friend Samantha’s blog about cities and running: http://www.irunthesetowns.blogspot.com

The Local Irish pub: http://www.the-local.com

The Butcher And the Boar: http://www.butcherandboar.com

 

Chunky Garden Minestrone

It never fails with vegetable gardens that they seem to explode all at once. One day you’re just hoping for the first tomato to turn red or the first yellow squash to finally grow long enough to pick. Next thing you know, you’re faced with tons and tons of vegetables, and are running out of creative ways to cook them just to manage the onslaught.

Soup is probably the easiest way to clean out your fridge of all those vegetables that have been building up over the past few days. Especially when you make a gigantic pot to take in your lunch all week long (and part of the next week…) That’s what happened when I started throwing this soup together. It just kept growing and growing until I had way too much. No worries, though. I love vegetable soup, especially minestrone.

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I love, love, love minestrone. Probably because I love fresh vegetables. While this isn’t a traditional minestrone recipe, it makes them the star of this soup. It’s like late summer in a bowl. Actually, minestrone didn’t have a set recipe to begin with anyway. It was a peasant dish that was just a way of using up what was growing fresh in the garden, mixed with some beans and pasta to round it out. In that sense, I guess this really is a traditional recipe.

Chunky Garden Minestrone (8-10 generous servings)

  • 1 small onion, chopped
  • 2 Tb extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 carrots, chopped
  • 1 small sweet pepper, chopped
  • 1 small summer squash, cut into bite-size pieces
  • 2 cups diced tomatoes
  • 2 handfuls of kale, chopped
  • 2 quarts of vegetable or chicken stock (I used 1 of each)
  • 1 cup dried small pasta such as macaroni or orecchiette
  • 1 cup dried lentils
  • 1 large potato
  • 2 Tb fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • salt and pepper to taste

In a large pot, heat the olive oil on medium heat and add the onion and carrots. Saute for a few minutes until the onion softens and begins to turn translucent. Add the garlic and peppers and saute a few minutes longer. Add the squash, diced tomatoes and kale, and give it a good stir to mix everything together. Add the stock, parsley and thyme, and bring the pot up to a simmer. Add the lentils and potato. Stir well, reduce heat and cover. Simmer for 10 minutes, then add the pasta. Simmer for another 5 minutes, then check the doneness of the pasta, lentils and potato.  The pasta may need just a couple minutes longer, but don’t cook it completely to al dente. It will continue to cook for a few minutes in the hot stock. Remove from heat. Garnish with more parsley or freshly grated parmesan.

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This is one of those soups that the flavor seems to get better after it is leftover. It makes a huge pot, but it’s so healthy, it’s okay to have a big ol’ bowl of it. I used lentils instead of the the more traditional kidney beans or white beans for minestrone, mostly because that’s what I had handy, and they cook much quicker. You would have to cook it over a few hours if you used dried cannellini beans. Lentils are done in 20 minutes or so. And it would be a shame to cook this soup to mush with all these fresh veggies. It’s actually a great way to get your daily allowance of vegetables, and the lentils add some protein and fiber to keep you full. It’s a tasty way to use all those vegetables that are piling up for your brown bag lunch.

Strange and beautiful mushrooms from my backyard

Earlier this week, I found three clumps of these mushrooms growing in my backyard near where the grass ends and the brushy part starts.

They are absolutely stunning. Bright, sunny yellow and in clumps about six inches across. They look like something straight out of Alice in Wonderland.

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I was excited to try my hand at mushroom identification with the book I got last Christmas, Wild Edible Mushrooms by Hope Miller. I flipped through the book, and there were only  two described that it could have been. One only slightly resembled these, and the description didn’t sound like it it at all. The description for Velvet Foot, (Winter Mushrooms) seemed to fit the bill exactly, except that it stated that these favored cool weather. It hasn’t been what I’d call cool recently, so that was my only hang-up with that i.d.

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Velvet Foot mushrooms are edible and choice, if that is in fact what these were. Luckily, I had the good sense to post the pics on Facebook to see if anyone had any thoughts before I took a bite. A coworker is part of the in the West Virginia Mushroom Club‘s Facebook group, and shared my pics with the group.

Wow! What a wealth of information these folks are! Since some mushrooms are poisonous, and even deadly, it’s always best to be absolutely certain when trying to i.d. wild mushrooms. It’s nice to have access to a group of folks who are experienced in West Virginia mushrooms, and which you can eat, and which to avoid.

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I have been fascinated with mushrooms for years, especially wild ones. When I was young, my dad took us mushroom hunting for morels in early spring. There is nothing quite like that first skillet of fried morels of the year. They are truly a delicacy, selling for at least $8 for just a few ounces at the grocery store. Every spring the Hubs and I try to find them. Even if you are unsuccessful, it’s fun to be in the woods at that time of year when things are barely beginning to turn green.

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I’d love to find some other kinds than morels that are edible in the woods sometime. I love mushrooms. They have such a unique taste that really adds an element to dishes like stir-fry or stews that seem to be missing something without them. You can’t really put your finger on what’s missing, but something is. At least with the West Virginia Mushroom Club, I know I can ask questions about my finds until I get comfortable i.d.-ing them on my own.

The consensus on these were that they were poisonous jack o’lantern mushrooms, which are not in my book. They are not deadly, but do cause a good bit of sickness. For now, I’m going to stick to cultivating mushrooms in my backyard, rather than foraging there. I hope to start growing oyster mushrooms in coffee grounds, like I learned at the West Virginia Urban Agriculture Conference this spring. I’ll have a steady supply for all my soups and stir-fries then.

Missing the Blossom Dairy’s Smoked Fish Salad

There used to be a great restaurant here in Charleston called the Blossom Dairy. It was an institution. It had been open for decades. Walking in was like walking back in time. It used to be an old school soda fountain shop, and still had the counter that ran most of the length of the place down one side. And the walls were all chrome or something like the 1950s. It’s a shame it’s closed. It’s one of those places that I always ordered the same thing every time I went because it was so freakin’ good. I always ordered the smoked fish salad. I don’t know what kind of fish it was,  but it came in a big generous scoop, all creamy and salty and smoky on a bed of salad greens with some red onion and grape tomatoes and a balsamic vinaigrette on the side. I haven’t had smoked fish salad quite like that since it closed.

We had  a package of pike and a package of walleye that the Hubs caught in Canada last summer that really needed used. Just in case they were a bit freezer burnt, I decided to smoke them in my father-in-law’s smoker and make smoked fish salad with it. Just like I used to get at the Blossom Dairy.

Actually, a couple years ago, we went in with my sister-in-law and her family to get my father-in-law a smoker. Best present we ever bought him, hands down. We’ve been reaping the benefits ever since; smoked turkey breast, smoked chicken, smoked pork butt.  Anyway, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at smoked fish (and actually smoked cheese…) since we gave it to him. It’s pretty easy. According to the booklet that came with it, fish should be smoked about two hours. You basically soak some wood chips, add them and some water, and turn the sucker on. My mother-in-law had it all ready for me when I got there.

smoked fish

The pike is bigger than the walleye, and the walleye was a bit overcooked after two hours, but the pike was perfect. The fish flaked apart easily, which was good since pike is full of annoying “y” shaped bones.  When I first tried it, I was kinda disappointed because the smoke flavor wasn’t that strong. But, after I mixed it up, it was pretty tasty. After I left the salad sit a day… wow. Amazing. Worth the wait.

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Smoked Fish Salad (makes about 6 cups)

  • 2 1/2 pounds smoked white fish
  • 1 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1/2 cup finely minced onion
  • 1 tsp garlic salt
  • salt and pepper to taste

Take the skin off the fish and remove the bones, if not already. Mash the fish up with the mayo, sour cream, onion and garlic salt. Mix well until completely incorporated. Taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Enjoy.

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While, it’s not as good as the Blossom Dairy’s was, it’s not bad. Especially after it’s leftover. I wish I had their recipe, but it could be lost forever. In the meantime, this will have to do. And it’s pretty darn good.