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Category Archives: Basil

Use Those Late Cherry Tomatoes to Make Some Bruschetta

As the chilly fall weather descends upon us, we decided that today was perfect for making “lazy chili”–that is, opening a can of Chili Magic, adding some ground beef and tomatoes, and doctoring it up with peppers and spices to suit our tastes. Not having checked the garden in several days, we were afraid that our tomato season had ended and that we would have to rely on a can of diced tomatoes.  However, covered against the drizzle, Bill managed to pick enough tomatoes and peppers to throw into the mix.

Dieter, our 15-year-old German Shorthair Pointer, is thrilled that we still have some tomatoes hanging in there.  And when you are about a thousand years old in people years, those small joys are to be savored.  Dieter’s arthritis has gotten too bad for him to be able to go for a walk around the neighborhood.  Even if he is feeling particularly spunky, there is a good chance that he will just stop and refuse to move at some point of the walk, forcing us to carry his 55 lb self back home.  Therefore, when he feels like exploring, we’ve taken to allowing him to wander around in the part of the backyard that is usually off-limits to the dogs:  that mysterious area beyond the picket fence where the garden grows.

When he is back there, he can follow the scent of the bunnies and squirrels that are frequent visitors, mark his territory by the fence that separates us from the neighbor’s two dogs, and best of all…get up close and personal with THE MAGIC PLANTS. As I’ve mentioned in previous posts, whenever we are in the garden he stands by the picket fence, drooling and waiting for us to pitch him some of his favorite–cherry tomatoes. Due to this, we now seem to have a baby cherry tomato plant growing from a crack in the patio where those tomatoes land and break open.

When Dieter encounters the wonder of the tomato plants himself, I have to watch him closely or he will eat himself sick, greedily pulling tomatoes off of the vine or devouring half-eaten ones that have been discarded on the ground by local critters.  Plus, tomatoes are members of the nightshade family, and dogs should not eat the leaves, stems or green tomatoes. So, I am careful about what goes into his mouth and down his gullet. But, oh, how feisty he gets! Tomatoes are to Dieters like catnip is to cats.  Like crack. So, I let him indulge his obsession for a bit before either gently guiding him away from the plants–or the more likely scenario–giving him an “airplane ride” back to the other side of the picket fence.

If you still have cherry tomatoes ripening in your garden, or even if you have to pick some up at the store, I’d like to suggest using some in this yummy bruschetta (broos-ket-a).  Unlike Dieter, I am not the world’s biggest cherry tomato fan, but I really love them on this.  It is a perfect appetizer or accompaniment to a hearty Italian meal, or served with a bowl of steamy soup for lunch on one of these brisk fall days.  Dieter dog, this one’s for you!

LIGHTLY COOKED CHERRY TOMATO AND RICOTTA BRUSCHETTA: http://www.herbivoracious.com/2011/08/lightly-cooked-cherry-tomato-and-ricotta-bruschetta-recipe.html

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Julie’s Homemade “I Can Do It” Spaghetti Sauce

Spaghetti with my Homemade Meat Sauce

Since this post is about my making my own homemade spaghetti sauce, the context of the experience would be incomplete without the story of how I set water on fire in my early spaghetti making days.  Yes, folks, for years afterward I considered myself such a horrible cook that I could even set water on fire.  This incident happened back when I was in high school, and was one of three major kitchen mishaps of my youth–the other two being The Great Mustard War and the Wall Oven Meatloaf Disaster.  There were also intentionally horrifying culinary creations that originated in my parents’ long ago kitchen, with its turquoise boomerang formica countertops, blond wood cabinets and built-in Carol Brady oven.  Those, however, are stories for another day.

Setting water on fire was particularly mortifying to me because it happened when I was cooking what was supposed to be a romantic dinner for my date.  Also, because my date was the kind who would never let me live it down.  There I was, about sixteen years old, trying to impress my boyfriend with my domesticity.  When he arrived at my house, I had the Ragu-based meat sauce simmering and the salad all ready to go.  All that was left were the noodles.  While waiting for the water to boil, we ate our salads, and I awkwardly tried to be a charming and flirtatious hostess.  I had taken the seat closest to the stove, which meant my date–who sat across from me–was facing it.  All of a sudden, his eyes got huge.  I thought he was either choking or about to lavish praise on the miraculous salad I had bestowed upon him.  Instead, he shouted that the pot on the stove was on fire.

I was relieved that I did not have to perform the Heimlich maneuver, sad that my salad got no props and terrified that I was about to burn the house down.  We both leapt from our chairs, not sure what to do, but fairly certain that “Stop, Drop and Roll” did not apply to this situation.  As quickly as it started, the fire burned itself out, and we cautiously approached the stove to examine the forensic evidence.  My date was baffled by the fact that there was only water in the pot.  I knew that appearances could be deceiving.  You see, I had heard that if you put just  a bit of vegetable oil in the water when cooking pasta, the noodles won’t stick together.  It quickly became apparent that I had filled the pot with too much water, and when it boiled, it overflowed, causing the vegetable oil to ignite on the burner.

If I were to psychoanalyze myself, my lack of desire to cook during the following twenty years of my life could maybe be traced back to this embarrassment, as could the failed marriage to the guy who incessantly mocked me about it for years.  Hmmm…gotta love blogging as therapy.

Back to the present. Now that my self-esteem has mostly recovered from the trauma caused by that formative life experience (except for my lingering fear of fire), I once again enjoy making spaghetti.  I have tried many jarred pasta sauces in the past few years, and have settled on Sockarooni by Newman’s Own.  Not only is it all-natural and tasty, but the name is AWESOME and fun to say (Sockarooni! Sockarooni! Sockarooni!), and all proceeds go to charity.

However, when  tomato season arrives at our house, it seems silly to use tomato sauce from a jar, so last year I boldly did some experimenting and created my own recipe.  And it’s GOOD, if I do say so myself.  🙂  It is a thick and chunky meat sauce that is easily adapted to different tastes.  Leave in more jalapeno seeds if you want a kick or leave them out if you prefer a non-spicy sauce.  Bell peppers and mushrooms can be used or not, depending on your preferences.  I don’t like something that’s in Italian Seasoning, so I just add basil and oregano, but if you’re a fan of Italian Seasoning, go nuts.  Also, I used ketchup, but you could put in tomato paste instead. Use as much of it as you need to make the sauce the consistency you want.  Oh…and I no longer spike the pasta water with oil–go figure. It’s much safer just to toss the cooked noodles with some olive oil to keep them from sticking together.

BTW, if you are looking for something to do with any leftover spaghetti noodles, I highly suggest feeding them one by one to your dog, if you have one.  It is highly entertaining, complete with slurping and teeth gnashing, as you can see in this YouTube video featuring my dogs Dieter, Tigger, and the late Katie.   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RfWUTW1arGc

JULIE’S HOMEMADE PASTA SAUCE

Note:  All measurements are approximate and may be adjusted to taste. Makes approximately 4 servings.

  • 1 lb ground sirloin
  • 2 tbsp olive oil
  • 1/3 cup chopped onions
  • 1 bell pepper, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • Dried basil, oregano, salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 jalapenos, minced–leave a few seeds in for some spice
  • 5-7 medium-sized tomatoes
  • ½ cup ketchup (a few squirts)
  • 1-2 tbsp fresh basil leaves, minced
  • 1 small can mushroom pieces
  • 2 tbsp ground flaxseed (this is not necessary, but why not sneak in some healthy Omega 3s)
  • Cornstarch, if needed for thickening

Set a pot of water to boil for peeling tomatoes.  Meanwhile, brown ground sirloin in olive oil with onions and bell peppers.  When meat is almost browned, add garlic, jalapenos and dry seasonings.  Turn off heat when done, to deal with tomatoes.

When water boils, plunge tomatoes in pot for one minute, then remove. When cool enough to handle, core, peel and seed them.  Chop and mix remaining pulp into meat mixture.  Use a turkey baster to drain any excess liquid/grease.

Add ketchup, fresh basil, mushrooms, and flaxseed to meat/tomato mixture. Bring to a boil, and then turn down heat to simmer.   Simmer for 15-20 minutes minimum, longer if possible, until tomatoes and peppers have softened.  If sauce is too watery, cook longer or add a bit of cornstarch to thicken.

Serve over pasta or spaghetti squash with parmesan cheese and a salad and/or garlic bread.  Actually, I found a yummy bruschetta recipe that would make a great appetizer or accompaniment for this dish.  Stay tuned…

Click JULIE’S HOMEMADE PASTA SAUCE for a printable PDF of this recipe.

It’s Time for Some Naan-sense

One of my major pet peeves used to be seeing–and especially hearing–people eat on TV.  Those snack commercials with the close-ups of psychotically enthusiastic people crunching a chip grossed me out, and I could not understand why advertisers would feature people extolling the virtues of their product with full-mouth-induced speech impediments:  “Wow, thatsh sho tashty!”

Honestly, I still hate those commercials, but ironically, I love watching the Food Network and other food based reality shows.  For one thing, rarely are chewing or crunching sounds audible when food is sampled. Thank you, sound engineers.  And also, they seem to train their show hosts to speak clearly with a big honkin’ mouth full of a fussily arranged and pleasantly garnished dish.

Bill and I relax and unwind at night while watching The Next Food Network Star, America’s Next Great Restaurant, and Hell’s Kitchen, among others.  One of the appealing things about these shows–besides feeling superior when experienced chefs mess up a rudimentary task, such as cooking pasta–is that sometimes their creations and/or ingredients are intriguing.  This will occasionally inspire us to try new foods and new recipes.

For example, Bill’s mouth was watering like Homer Simpson dreaming of donuts while watching The Next Food Network Star last week.  Contestant Vic Vegas Moea was making lamb burgers, and lamb is one of Bill’s favorites.  So, the next day we hit the grocery store so that he could buy the ingredients and try it out.   While he was in the bakery department, futilely searching for individual hamburger buns (he really didn’t need a package of eight), I wandered around perusing the rest of the baked goods, doing my own Homer Simpson impression.  I snagged a bag of pretzel bagels and skipped over to add them to the cart, just as Bill noticed packages of freshly baked Tandoori Naan.

Naan is a type of bread that we have seen on various cooking shows–usually used by Indian-influenced chefs.  It is a leavened flatbread cooked in a tandoor (a clay oven).   We had never tasted it before, and Bill decided on the spur of the moment that he was going to use it, instead of a bun, for his lamb burger.   We got home, and Bill went to work on Vic’s recipe, while I tried to decide what I was going to have for lunch–I do not eat lamb.

I took a look at what we had around the kitchen, and decided to do a bruschetta type of creation.  I brushed both sides of my piece of naan with olive oil, topped it with sliced golden tomatoes and basil from our garden, and finished it with some fresh grated parmesan cheese.  I put it under the broiler just long enough to melt the cheese.  Holy cow, was it ever spectacular!  The naan was pillow-y soft, with just a bit of chew.  I will be purchasing it often from now on.  I truly think just about anything would taste better on it or with it, but it really was a fantastic complement to my simple toppings.  Just consider it my Italian-Indian fusion experiment.  Sounds classy–like it could be on one of those shows.

Here is the link to the lamb burger, which Bill describes as one the best things he’s ever eaten!  (He didn’t use anything from our garden, but I had to post the recipe since he liked it so much.  The “mayoli” has garlic in it, and we do grow garlic–it just isn’t ready yet.  And it calls for dried basil–guess he could have used fresh, but he stuck to the directions on this one).

LAMB BURGERS WITH CARAMELIZED RED ONIONS, MAYOLI AND FETA

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/lamb-burgers-with-caramelized-red-onions-mayoli-and-feta-recipe/index.html

A Cucumber-iffic Meal with Special Guest Appearances by Zucchini, Cherry Tomatoes, Purple Pepper & Basil

Giant cucumbers picked recently:  10.   Cucumbers left at the end of the day yesterday: 0.  Whew!  Lucky for us, our cleaning lady likes cucumbers and took a few off of our hands.  We delivered a couple more–along with a monster zucchini–to some friends.  (Bonus:  Got some homemade blackberry jam in return that we can’t wait to break into!)  Bill made some experimental pickles with a couple more, and finally, we finished them off by using making some cucumber-based recipes for dinner with Bill’s parents.

To serve with our appetizers, we prepared Tzatziki sauce for the first time.  We followed the recipe on that one exactly, except that our cucumbers are not English cucumbers.  I wrangled as much water as I could out of the shredded cuke by salting it and mashing it between paper towels and then using centrifugal force in the salad spinner.  We were glad that we chose to add the optional dill, since that really enhanced the taste.  The sauce turned out nice and thick, and we paired it with both mini pita breads and Fried Zucchini “Crab” Cakes.  Just a tip:  Unless you are actively trying to repel vampires, it is not advisable to use Garlic Cloves of Unusual Size, like we did.  Regular sized cloves would be quite sufficient.  Although, we did sit outside all evening and I didn’t get a single mosquito bite, so perhaps the pungent garlic scent emanating from my every pore kept those blood-sucking demons at bay.

The Fried Zucchini “Crab” Cakes were a spur-of-the-moment decision by Bill, who wisely began preparing them without my knowledge while I was on the computer blogging.  By the time his parents arrived and I saw that he had a pan of EXTREMELY FLAMMABLE oil on the barbecue with fire licking up around it, there was not much I could do except for whimper softly and internally berate myself for always forgetting to buy a fire extinguisher.  Fortunately, all turned out well.  The cakes were crispy and delicious, and we did not have to bother the nice men at the fire department.  When making the cakes, Bill used Panko breadcrumbs and seasoned them with paprika, garlic powder, cayenne, salt and pepper–rather than Old Bay.

For our dinner, Bill grilled up some steaks and I put together a Quinoa Greek Salad.  Quinoa (keen-wa) is such an intriguing little grain.  It has a good deal of protein, which I love, since I am prone to getting dizzy and shaky between meals if I eat too many carbs.  So, I actively seek out sources of protein such as Greek yogurt (used in the Tzatziki), nuts, and soy-enhanced cereal and meal replacement bars.  This salad was lemony and refreshing, and I definitely will be adding it to our regular rotation.  I stuck to the recipe fairly closely, except that rather than red and green bell peppers, I used a purple pepper from the garden.  I also added some of our cherry tomatoes, but served the feta cheese on the side, since Bill’s parents are not big on it.  Also, I lightly browned the quinoa in a bit of butter before adding the chicken stock in order give it a bit of a toasted flavor.

TZATZIKI: http://www.food.com/recipe/tzatziki-59336

FRIED ZUCCHINI “CRAB” CAKES: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/connies-zucchini-crab-cakes/detail.aspx

QUINOA GREEK SALAD:  http://www.food.com/recipe/quinoa-greek-salad-97764

Fishing for Compliments? Make Farfalle with Asparagus and Smoked Salmon!

Yes, we used basil from our garden in today’s featured recipe, but this dish is not about basil; the star is smoked salmon. If you had told me a week ago–heck, a day ago–that I would be feasting on smoked salmon, my response would have been, “Ewww.”

I am not particularly fond of fish. Tuna fish mixed with Miracle Whip and onions has been the extent of my seafood consumption for most of my life. Sometimes I can eat shrimp, but other times it grosses me out. Especially when there are feet. Or frightening long antennae that touch me from the plate (see picture of Scary Prawn). I have been trying to eat more fish, though, because I know it is healthy. In the past year I have developed a taste for the fish sliders at Seeburger’s Cheeseburgers in Mount Clemens, and I have tried various fish tacos that I truly like. I can also eat fish and chips, as long as I have unlimited tartar sauce. I know that pretty much negates the healthiness of the fish, as does the deep-frying, but I’m taking baby steps.

I was not particularly interested when Bill decided to smoke some salmon in the smoker that his parents got him for Christmas. I have tried smoked salmon in the past and do not care for it unless it is disguised with mounds of cream cheese. But, this was the debut of the smoker, and Bill was really into it, so when the fish was done I bravely tried a piece. Surprise: it was tasty and not at all fishy! We have been enjoying it on bagels and crackers with the requisite cream cheese, and the recipe that we discovered last night for dinner was too delicious not to share. The link to the recipe is below.

We have clay soil, so we have not attempted cultivating our own asparagus patch. Therefore, the main veggie in this dish was store-bought. We didn’t actually measure any of the ingredients. We just eyeballed everything according to our taste, and also added some chopped sun-dried tomatoes. The result was an incredibly light, fresh dish that we ate as a complete meal. The briny, smokey taste of the salmon is perfect with the lemon and bow-tie pasta. And when you get a chunk of pistachio or sun-dried tomato, it is a happy little surprise. We had seconds, and then thirds, raving all the while. Being that Bill is not big on asparagus, and I previously shunned salmon, this dish was a surprising hit!

FARFALLE WITH ASPARAGUS AND SMOKED SALMON: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/farfalle-with-asparagus-and-smoked-salmon/detail.aspx

The Side Dish Sidekick / Orzo with Parmesan and Basil

As I write this, it is that time of day again:  time to come up with a side dish for dinner.  Bill is the main cook in our household and a proud carnivore.  He has a knack for experimenting and putting flavors together, and is one of those who likes to whip up a breakfast of omelets, bacon and hash browns.  I love big breakfasts, but I am also good with just cereal.  Before he came along, my only actual cooking consisted of three things: scrambled eggs, spaghetti (although I once set water on fire making it), and grilled cheese sandwiches.  I grew up in a house with an electric stove, but after college I lived in an apartment with a gas stove. I never used it once because I was convinced that it would explode.  That’s when I learned how to make grilled cheese sandwiches with an iron.  On an ironing board.

Being an animal lover, I also don’t like to touch raw meat or even think about it.  Ground beef and boneless chicken breasts are my limit, and even then, I have to go into a deep state of denial about what it actually is.  I would be a vegetarian, but I have an unfortunate tendency toward anemia and cheeseburgers.   So, nowadays when we make dinner, Bill usually grills or otherwise prepares the meat, and I am his Side Dish Sidekick.  This is why I enjoy the garden so much:  I use whatever is abundant in the garden and incorporate it with other ingredients we have on hand.  I have even learned to enjoy experimenting in the kitchen.

Since not much is ready to pick yet, I have been building my part of the menu around our fresh garden herbs. Below is the link to what has been my go-to side dish for a few years now.  It is as simple as making a boxed noodle or rice dish, but without the powdery, MSG-laden flavor packets.  I have been substituting I Can’t Believe It’s Not Butter for the real butter, and sometimes I use vegetable stock in place of the chicken broth. Admittedly, it is not something I can make with an iron, but fortunately I have made my peace with the gas stove.

ORZO WITH PARMESAN AND BASIL:

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/orzo-with-parmesan-and-basil/detail.aspx