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Warm Up with Broccoli Cheese Soup

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Fall is a season of change here in Michigan. As the green leaves begin transforming into their colorful grand finale, we gradually swap out our flip flops for real shoes and our shorts for long pants (except for that odd breed of man who stubbornly sports pasty legs all winter long). We also cycle through five or more jackets of varying weights–sometimes all in a single day.

My body has never tolerated the cold very well. As the temperatures grow cooler, I cling to any little bit of warmth I can get, rejoicing in mild Indian Summer days, evenings by a flickering campfire and warm dogs curled up next to me on the couch. I have childhood memories of hanging out with a book in front of the heating vent in my parents’ bedroom. In high school, I wore my jacket all day and sat on the heat registers in my classrooms until the teachers shooed me off.

However messed up my internal temperature may naturally be, I realized yesterday that something was not quite right when I absolutely could not get warm. I was dressed in my work clothes: pants, a light shirt and a cardigan sweater. They failed to ward off the chill, so I fashionably topped them off with my bathrobe and my heaviest winter down jacket. I was still shivering…on a 60 degree day. I was getting sick.

Unfortunately, fall is also the time when we trade our relatively vibrant summer health for sniffling, sneezing, body aches and fevers. We teachers spend our days in a veritable petri dish of creepy crawlies, and within the first few weeks of school, many of us succumb to one bug or another. Realizing that this time had come, I temporarily ditched the bathrobe and dragged my cold achy self to the grocery store to pick up the one key ingredient that I did not have on hand to make at least my tummy warm and happy: a block of name-brand processed cheese-food. (A departure from my usual preference for real cheese). I was determined to cook up a big vat of creamy, rich broccoli cheese soup before I reached the point where I would have take to the couch and further accessorize my outfit with a tissue inserted into both nostrils.

The timing was perfect. I had some broccoli from the garden waiting in the fridge, and with Bill’s help, Project Broccoli Soup was finished and greedily consumed before 6:00 p.m. The tissue made its debut at exactly 8:30 p.m. Today, home from work and feeling miserable, the leftover soup was just what I needed.

It’s super-cheesy and ridiculously comforting. I would highly recommend giving this recipe a whirl. Click here to find it.

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Super Sneaky Zucchini Apple Pie

Forgot to take a picture of the whole pie, but managed to get a pic of a slice before we devoured it all!

Many people have a mental block when it comes to zucchini. Take my dog sitter, for example. I had baked up a batch of perfectly delicious zucchini muffins and offered her one. She declined, stating that she hated zucchini. Now, hate is a pretty strong emotion for such an unassuming vegetable, and both my husband and I sensed that she had never experienced the yummy versatility that zucchini can offer. My husband started his persuasion technique with the tried and true, “But you can’t even taste the zucchini!” She looked at him dubiously. I followed up by asking her if she liked banana bread and carrot cake. When she said that she loved both of those, I explained that the muffin was similar. After a bit more coaxing, she took a bite, and was a very happy zucchini convert. In the future I may just refer to them as Cinnamon Muffins when sharing them with zucchini-phobes.

If you don’t have twenty minutes to talk your guests into trying baked zucchini products, but you have zucchini covering your countertops and must sneak them into food at every opportunity, then I have discovered an ideal recipe for you: Zucchini Apple Pie. Faced with a freshly picked monster zucchini last week, I found this recipe that would use a large quantity of zucchini and give me an easy dessert to top off a barbecue with friends.

However, I was not sure how well the pie would go over if I explained what was in it. So I didn’t. I made coy comments, such as “Bill made pickles today, and I did some baking. Now the kitchen smells like a weird combination of pickles and apple pie.” Then, when I brought out the pie, everyone assumed it was apple pie and eagerly dug in, giving it rave reviews, including, “This is the best apple pie I’ve ever had!” At that point, my husband gleefully broke the news that there was not a single apple in the pie, just zucchini. Nobody believed him. At all. So I had to fess up and show them the recipe.

Don’t they look like apple slices???

It was truly fabulous! Actually, it was a combination of two recipes. I followed this Zucchini Apple Pie recipe, but since I only had one deep-dish frozen pie crust on hand, I didn’t put a top crust on it. Instead, I made the crumb topping from this Cinnamon Crumble Apple Pie recipe. The final result tasted very similar to my husband’s favorite brand-name Dutch apple pie, which he will no longer allow himself to eat because it contains trans-fats. So, now we have a tasty alternative!

At the same barbecue, I tried out this Cucumber Zucchini Salad recipe as well.  It was also a winner, crisp and refreshing, and I was asked to bring it to another event the following weekend.

A nice summer side dish!

And, after trying several pickle recipes over the years that we haven’t much cared for, we like this one: Homemade Zesty Dill Pickers and Peppers, and so did our guests. It makes a flavorful, crunchy refrigerator pickle.

Well, what are you waiting for?  Time to get busy with those zukes and cukes!

The Neglectful Gardener Makes Stuffed Zucchini Cups and Oven Zucchini Chips

The main garden, thriving with little care

This summer is cruising by so quickly that I can’t believe that July is almost halfway over!  Many exciting things have been happening in the garden, such as plants inconveniently producing berries and oversized vegetables while we were out of town, and octopus-like weeds popping up everywhere to mock our neglect. We returned home from our cottage a few days ago to find that our beloved raspberries, overripe from not being picked, had become fodder for flies.  Luckily, we caught the zucchini before they developed enough to become self aware.  The weeds continue to grow, since I have been too busy (i.e. lazy) to do anything about them.

The first night back, my husband rooted around and emerged from the garden with a monster zucchini, some semi-normal sized zucchini, several cucumbers, and one single pathetic raspberry.  The decimation of the raspberries saddened me, because our homemade raspberry jam is one of my favorite treats from our garden. I was afraid that we wouldn’t be able to make it this year.  However, I had the foresight to pick and freeze about two cups of raspberries before we left for vacation, so now I am slowly adding to that amount each night as fresh berries ripen.  We should be able to squeak out a few jars of jam, but probably won’t have enough for raspberry pie–another one of my favorites.  Sigh.

I knew that leaving the garden unattended for a long stretch of time wasn’t the most responsible choice, but with temperatures forecasted in the 90s, we sure as heck weren’t going to sit around our sweltering backyard and watch things grow when we could be at a cabin on the lake.  So, we sacrificed raspberry pie for up north.  As my husband said, “You can buy a raspberry pie, but you can’t buy the up north experience.” So true.

The rest of the garden is doing its thing.  The tomato plants are flowering and becoming unwieldy (as we are behind on the staking), and new plants are emerging from last year’s unintentional reseeding.  We’re getting some peppers in, and best of all, we will be having corn on the cob tonight because I actually managed to pick the first two ripe ears before the local wildlife ravaged them!

Corn for dinner tonight!

So now that we are finally able to harvest some stuff, I thought I’d pass along two new zucchini recipes that we tried. The first one successfully used up a monster zucchini.  (I still have one more lurking in my vegetable crisper, awaiting its fate as zucchini bread or spice cookies).

If you like stuffed peppers, this recipe is along the same lines.  In fact, you could stuff them with the filling that you usually use in peppers.  We made the recipe pretty much as directed and thought it was a keeper.

Stuffed zucchini cups

Meat, Tomato and Mozzerella Stuffed Zucchini Cups:

http://www.kalynskitchen.com/2009/09/recipe-for-meat-tomato-and-mozzarella.html

I think this second one is going to be made on a frequent basis this summer as my go-to savory zucchini recipe.

Zucchini chips

Zucchini Oven Chips

http://www.health.com/health/recipe/0,,10000001087041,00.html

We whipped this up as an evening snack recently, and it was sooooo good.  Simply slice a normal sized zucchini into chips, dip in milk and a seasoned breadcrumb mixture, and bake the slices in a 425 oven for half an hour on a nonstick baking rack.   I didn’t have breadcrumbs on hand, so I pulverized some Parmesan/garlic croutons in my little food processor to use instead.  Also, it seemed like these would be good with a dip–like the zingy dip served with Bloomin’ Onions at Outback Steakhouse.  Since we were out of horseradish, my husband improvised and came up with his own tasty dip. I’m giving you the closest approximation to his measurements that I can, since he was in mad scientist mode and measured nothing.  So, I suggest starting with minimal spices, tasting it as you go and adjusting accordingly.

Zippy Dip

  • 1/3 cup sour cream (or lite sour cream)
  • 1/4 cup mayo (or lite may0)
  • capful of white vinegar

Approximately 1/4 tsp of each of the following, or to taste:

  • chili powder
  • ground cayenne
  • paprika
  • garlic
  • dried minced onion

Mix sour cream and mayo together.  Add a capful of white vinegar and spices and stir until combined.  Taste, and add another capful of vinegar if you want more zip.  Add more of any spices you desire.  Mix well.  Serve with Zucchini Chips or other veggies.

Click ZIPPY DIP for a printable PDF of this recipe.

Slaving and Salivating over Strawberries

Freshly made freezer jam/sauce, along with tonight’s strawberry harvest

It’s Memorial Day weekend, and rather than sitting in traffic on I-75 with the rest of southeastern Michigan, Bill and I have decided to have a “stay-cation.”  I’m thinking we may regret this decision in the next few days, as temperatures are supposed to be in the 80s and 90s, and a cabin on the lake would be much more pleasant than our sweltering sun-drenched backyard.  But, alas, the decision has been made.  Our exciting plans include lots of sweating profusely, venturing into Detroit to visit Historic Fort Wayne and the Dossin Great Lakes Museum, and trying desperately to keep up with our strawberry crop.

Thanks to an often summer-like spring, our strawberries came in several weeks earlier than usual.  They are in full force now, and a disproportionately large amount of my time has been devoted to picking, coring, and rinsing them….and using them up before they go bad.  But I don’t mind too much because they are oh so tasty!

Besides munching on them with a sprinkle of sugar, here is what we have made so far: Strawberry spinach salad, a pitcher of strawberry mojitos, strawberry-topped vanilla bean ice cream, strawberry smoothies, homemade strawberry banana “ice cream,” and several jars of freezer jam.

My improvised recipe for the smoothies consists of throwing a handful of fresh strawberries into my Magic Bullet blender along with half of a container of Greek yogurt, some crushed ice, milk (Lactaid), and a spoonful of my last jar of freezer jam from 2010.  Sometimes it’s refreshing to drink lunch from a straw, as I did today.

With the hot weather upon us, I’m thankful that I also recently discovered a quick and easy way to make a creamy frozen treat that is very similar in taste and texture to ice cream. Simply slice up a very ripe banana, freeze the pieces, and then purée them to a smooth consistency. Again, I use the Magic Bullet.  It’s the most healthy and natural ice cream you’ll ever have!  A few days ago, I did the banana thing and added in some fresh strawberries.  It had a great flavor, but  it was a tiny bit soupy due to the juiciness of the berries.  Next time, I’ll freeze the strawberries a bit and see if that will make a difference.

Speaking of juicy….my freezer jam is refusing to set up properly.  I followed the recipe in the Sure Jell package to a tee, but after the requisite 24 hours on the kitchen counter it’s not at all firm.  Not sure what went wrong.  The thing I love about freezer jam, though, is that if it turns out runny, it is still perfect for spooning over pancakes, waffles, crepes, ice cream, or adding into smoothies!

 

Caramel Apple Pork Chops with Butternut Squash Risotto

What a gorgeous week we’ve had here in Michigan!  If you are like every other person I’ve talked to, chances are that you’ve taken advantage of this lovely weather by braving the swarming yellow jackets and visiting a cider mill.  Besides feasting on some of those crispy-on-the-outside-warm-and-fluffy-on-the-inside donuts (insert Homer Simpson drool here), you probably also picked a bunch of apples.

Here is an idea for dinner that practically screams “Autumn!” and will allow you to use up some of those apples.  It’s basically a take on the Peter Brady “pork chopppssshh…and appleshaush” that turns the pork chop into a vehicle to be slathered with a buttery sweet and tangy homemade apple topping.  Your house will smell heavenly while this is cooking!  I served it this evening with a side of butternut squash risotto from (gasp!) a box.  Yes, since I was making one dish from scratch already, I went for the easy and tasty accompaniment of boxed Lundberg Butternut Squash Risotto.  I already had two pans going on the stove for the Caramel Apple Pork Chops, so the microwave directions for the risotto were way convenient, and the hint of ginger in this side dish played nicely with the nutmeg and cinnamon in the apple sauce.  I do have some plain arborio rice in the cupboard, so perhaps I will feel ambitious one day and try a risotto recipe with fresh butternut squash.  If I do, I’ll let you know how it turns out. 🙂

I found this recipe for Caramel Apple Pork Chops online a couple of years ago and now look forward to making it every fall!   Speaking of fall flavors… I think I will now have to pour myself some Witches Brew wine, warm it up, and toss in a cinnamon stick…

CARAMEL APPLE PORK CHOPS: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/caramel-apple-pork-chops/detail.aspx

Here are a few notes:

  • I choose to make the apple sauce first, then let it simmer while cooking the pork chops, rather than the other way around as suggested in the recipe.  I’m sure it would work fine either way.
  • When making the apple sauce, I first saute’ about 1/4 cup of slivered onions in the butter for a couple of minutes before adding the apples and spices.  The onions give the sauce a bit of tang and keep it from being too sweet.
  • Since I am cooking for two people, I only fry up two pork chops, but make the full amount of sauce, so that we can really load up on the deliciousness–so if you are cooking for 4, double the measurements for the sauce if you want lots of it!
  • Use real butter in the sauce.  Yep.  No margarine or olive oil substitutions this time.

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

Salsa Chicken is a Simple Choice

It is frustrating at times to be a passive-aggressive indecisive person living with an equally passive-aggressive indecisive person.  Figuring out what to have for dinner often goes something like this:

Bill:  I’m starving.

Me:  Yep.  It’s getting to be about dinner time.

Bill:  It is.  Oh my God.  I’m starving.

Me:  Did we thaw any meat?

Bill:  What kind of meat do we have?

Me:  I’m guessing that’s a “no,” so we’re going to have to go out to eat or pick something up.

Bill:  OK.

Me:  What are you hungry for?

Bill:  (Playing Scrabble on smart phone) I don’t know.  What do you feel like?

Me:  I’m not the one who’s starving.

(Bill becomes re-absorbed in Scrabble and I go off to feed the dogs, who have blissfully eaten the exact same thing for dinner every night of their lives).

Bill:  (20 minutes later) So, what are we going to do for dinner?  I’m starving.

For a while, we thought we had this dilemma solved by inventing the ABC Restaurant Run game.  Starting with the letter A, each time we went out to eat, we would choose a restaurant beginning with the next letter of the alphabet.  Once we hit Z, I made up little pieces of paper with names of restaurants on them, and we would randomly draw one when we couldn’t make a decision.  I think I need to find those papers again…

Why is it so difficult for us to figure out where to get a simple meal?  Because we are JINXED, that’s why.  You see, far too often, when we have a hankering for a certain restaurant and actually make a hard and fast decision, we get thwarted.  To prove this point, within the past couple of weeks, here are some scenarios that we have encountered upon driving to our destination:

Chosen eatery:  Colombo Italia.  We decided to check out this restaurant in downtown Mt. Clemens that we had never tried.  It was pitch black inside–creepy even, with no sign of being inhabited anymore…except maybe by Freddy Krueger.  Which is entirely plausible, knowing what the basements of those old buildings are like.

Chosen eatery:  Firehouse Lounge (on Harper).  We got close and noticed that there were no cars in the parking lot, and there were no lights on.  There was a note on the door, but we didn’t even turn into the parking lot to read it.

Chosen eatery:  Quiznos.  Closed at that location. Forever.

Chosen eatery:  Zack’s Hot Dogs. I was craving a Rachel Dog.  Sadly, they no longer have dinner hours at that location.  Only lunch.

Chosen eatery:  Maya’s Deli.  This little place in downtown Mt. Clemens has some spectacular sandwiches!  Only, apparently, they are not open on the weekends.  So we decided just to get some tacos from Taco Bell.  Simple enough, right? I shit you not, our local Taco Bell, which we pass several times a week, has suddenly been reduced to a pile of rubble.  A pile of rubble! Because it knew we were coming.

This is why I am thankful for easy recipes, such as Salsa Chicken, that can be thrown together in a matter of minutes–even using oven ready tenders if we haven’t thawed anything–thus avoiding the drama of choosing a restaurant that will ultimately be unavailable.   For example, last week, after returning home from a party where we had just nibbled on appetizers, Bill uttered his famous words, “I’m starving.”  I yanked a package of breaded chicken tenders from the freezer, poured some salsa on them, topped them with cheese, and threw the whole thing in the oven.  When it came out, we garnished it with jalapenos and sour cream–and it was the perfect stomach filling, liquor absorbing, post-cocktail dinner.

Salsa Chicken has many variations.  For the meat, you can use boneless chicken breasts, tenders, breaded tenders or just about any other poultry parts that you know how to cook in an oven.  The salsa can be from a jar, the deli department, or homemade–hot, medium or mild.   Cheese?  You know me with cheese…the more, the better!

Here is a link to the base recipe for SALSA CHICKEN that we’ve use for several years now:  http://allrecipes.com/recipe/salsa-chicken/detail.aspx

More about the salsa: In the summertime Bill and I make two different kinds, using a base recipe, but throwing in whatever kinds of tomatoes and peppers happen to be ripe in the garden.  The first salsa is good with chips and with the chicken, but because of the beans and corn it can also be eaten as a stand-alone side dish.  The second salsa is a nice fresh pico de gallo.  We adjust the heat by how many jalapeno seeds and membranes that we leave in.   I would give credit to the creator, but I’ve had that one in my recipe book for a while, and did not print the source.

Cilantro, Black Bean and Corn Salsa

CILANTRO, BLACK BEAN AND CORN SALSA

http://allrecipes.com/recipe/heathers-cilantro-black-bean-and-corn-salsa/detail.aspx

Fresh and Chunky Salsa

FRESH AND CHUNKY SALSA

Ingredients

  • 3 large ripe tomatoes
  • 3 tbsp onion, finely chopped
  • 2 small cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 hot chile peppers, Serrano or Jalapeno, finely chopped
  • 2-3 tbsp cilantro, minced
  • 1 1/2 -2 tbsp lime juice
  • salt and pepper

Preparation

1.   Boil enough water to cover tomatoes.  Dunk them in for a minute, take them out and plunge in cold water. Peel, seed and chop.

2.  Put chopped onion and garlic in a strainer; pour 2 cups of boiling water over them, then let drain thoroughly.  Discard water. Cool.

3.  Combine onion and garlic with chopped tomatoes, peppers, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper.

4.  Refrigerate for 2-4 hours to blend flavors.  Makes about 2 cups of salsa.

Click FRESH AND CHUNKY SALSA for a printable PDF of this recipe.