Love letter #8, herbs

Growing up, I wasn’t surrounded by cooks, and that’s okay. I learned many other valuable lessons from my family that don’t involve cooking. I’ve always have known that I’ve wanted to cook and cook well, however. I remember watching old dubbed “Iron Chef” episodes or “Two Fat Ladies” and knowing that’s what I wanted to do.

When I moved out of my parent’s house and into an apartment, I wanted to cook for myself, but was slightly lost and misguided. All that Food Network watching didn’t prepare me in the way that I had hoped. I considered myself a cook. I made spaghetti and jarred sauce! Bagged Caesar salad! Mashed potatoes! Chili from a can! I look back on that time with both nostalgia and embarrassment. But that’s okay, that’s the point—you have to learn.

I remember making chicken tortilla soup and adding lots of sour cream while it was still boiling away. I was left with soup with completely curdled sour cream. And I had no idea. I happily ate it and went on my way. I’ve had my fair share of “Pinterest Meals”. That site is definitely keeping the crock-pot and cream cheese business alive. It’s very attractive to people. Throw three different types of dairy products, chicken breast, and potatoes in and you’ve got a creamy, unappetizing-looking dinner ready in six hours.

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That’s the reality of cooking though; it can be as easy or as complicated as you want. Just because those Pinterest meals are unappealing to me, doesn’t mean they aren’t meeting someone else’s dinner needs. Cooking is always a learning process.

All of that being said, the turning point for me was when I started using fresh herbs. It was such a foreign concept to me, but once I started, it made total sense and completely changed my cooking game.

Adding herbs creates flavor that no other seasonings can. They can add depth of flavor, brightness, acidity, etc. It’s very rare that I cook something without adding fresh herbs.

What’s also so amazing about herbs is that they are so easy to grow! In an apartment or house, large garden or no garden, you can grow just about any kind you’d like. They are easy to maintain, and you never have to worry about your store being out of basil when you’re making your marinara.

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Besides Alex, caprese salads are what I love most. Last week when we were driving home from vacation, we even stopped out of our way to a waterfront restaurant so I could indulge my craving. They are quintessentially summer. Fresh, homegrown tomatoes, sweet basil, tangy balsamic, creamy mozzarella. It all comes together into a beautiful, simple, yet complex dish.

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Sometimes I like to use cherry tomatoes and swap out mozzarella for feta.

IMG_2264Adding prosciutto and a touch of olive oil makes it a complete meal and the perfect beach picnic.

My morning breakfast always consists of herbs, namely chives and dill. Lots of herbs piled high on avocado, with or without a sunny side up egg, and some sriracha to add some heat. It’s easy, comforting, and so fresh. Chives add classic yet mild onion flavor and dill is always perfect with eggs and salmon.

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I use a lot of dill in this. It may be way too much for some people. Just add it to taste. 

A great method of sunny side up egg cooking can be found here at the Serious Eats website.

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Thyme is piney, peppery, and a touch lemony. It reminds me of a milder version of rosemary. It’s perfect in sauces, in a roasted chicken, or a creamy dish. It’s the perfect addition to this Onion and Fontina Galette.

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Fontina is an Italian cheese. It’s soft, creamy, and buttery. It’s similar to mild gruyere or provolone cheese.

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Make a piecrust using this recipe of mine here.

IMG_6744Make a roux with flour and heavy cream

IMG_6745IMG_6746Add cheese, then onion mixture, and the rest of the cheese mixture.

IMG_6752Bake, then serve immediately, garnished with more thyme leaves.

Mint, like basil, is good in dessert or heartier meals. I love Ina’s Couscous with Pine Nuts and Mint.

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Ina’s Deconstructed Strawberry Shortcake is divine, and made even better with torn mint leaves on top. Homemade whipped cream, strawberries with liqueur, and fresh mint from the garden. There is no better dessert.

Alex’s favorite dish with herbs is simple Herbed Basmati Rice. He requests it for lunch very often! And I make it because it is simple for me, flavorful for him, and I add lots of chopped spinach to up the nutrition factor. It’s a rice dish I don’t feel guilty giving him.

The bottom line is whether you’re just starting to branch out of Pinterest-style crock-pot cooking, or have been cooking for decades, herbs will almost always improve your meal. Growing your own herbs, much like cooking, will reward you with a sense of accomplishment. You’ll save money, too. If you’re trying to up your elegance level, challenge yourself to use fresh herbs in every dinner you make this week. You’ll be convinced in no time.

Hannah’s Pinterest

Caprese salad

  • Fresh tomatoes
  • Mozzarella, sliced or pulled off
  • Fresh basil, julienned
  • Good, aged balsamic vinegar
  • Salt and pepper
  • Prosciutto, optional

Chop or slice tomatoes. Toss with mozzarella and basil. Add balsamic, salt and pepper to taste.

Thyme and Fontina Galette

Link here

Avocado toast

  • Slice of sourdough
  • 1/2 avocado, mashed
  • 1 egg
  • Handful of dill, roughly chopped
  • Chives, chopped
  • Sriracha to taste
  • Salt, pepper, red pepper flakes

Lightly toast the bread. Mash the avocado onto the toast. Cook the egg sunny side up and season with salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes. Add dill and chives. Finish with sriracha.

 

 

 

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Love letter # 6, roasted vegetables

Vegetables are a favorite in our house. The majority of our meals are vegetables with a little meat or starch on the side. Whenever I hear someone complain that they hate vegetables, I have to think that they just have not had properly prepared veggies. In reality, they are packed with flavor and add depth to any meal.

I love all vegetables—raw, steamed, canned, even those mushy, stinky, overly cooked brussel sprouts on Thanksgiving. However, roasting vegetables is by far the best way to cook and eat them.

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Before you read any further, you must make this recipe of Ina’s. It’s the most amazing roasted broccoli recipe, and Alex’s absolute favorite side dish that I cook. It’s lemony, it’s cheesy, and it’s slightly charred. It’s perfect. That recipe will turn any veggie-hater into a broccoli fiend. We have it three times a week.

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Roasting veggies makes them tender, sweeter, and with a slightly crunchy outside. Heating them in a high temperature oven allows the sugars in the veg to caramelize, removing some of the bitter notes that many do not like.

Most olive oils you find in grocery stores are not real olive oil, or they’ve been cut with some other type. There are many resources online about which olive oils are real and which ones are not. Generally the ones that say “imported from Italy” are not 100% pure olive oil. You’ll notice this with many dressings. If you make a dressing with real olive oil, it’ll solidify in the fridge. Usually fake olive oil will not.

We have two favorites. This one from California Olive Ranch, and the Kalamata Olive Oil pictured below from Trader Joe’s. The best way to pick an olive oil you like is simply by tasting them by themselves. I used to not understand all the differences in each oil, but once you taste them side by side, you can really pick out different flavor notes in each one. It’s like wine tasting, except with olives!

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It’s easier to throw all your veg into a large bowl and toss with the olive oil and seasonings. I have found that is the best way to ensure every bit of each vegetable is covered.

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It’s very important to spread your veggies out in a single layer on the baking sheet. If they are too crowded then they will steam, not roast. I usually use two baking sheets depending on the dish, and sometimes have to use three.

Big sheet pans are your best friend when roasting vegetables. Buy three and use them forever.

Zucchini, eggplant, onions, and red peppers have a higher water content than other vegetables. They can hold up to being cooked at a higher temperature for longer than say broccoli or cauliflower.

 

This mix of veg went in the oven at 400 degrees for 50 minutes, occasionally stirring.

Roasting garlic is easy. You don’t want to chop or mince it; it’ll burn in minutes. What you should do is cut off the bottom of the head, brush with oil, then roast at a high temperature for 30-35 minutes. You’ll get beautiful roasted garlic that is sweet and tender. It’s hard to not just eat the garlic by itself, but if you can resist, then serve it on crusty bread with salt and pepper.

 

Bacon-wrapped everything is popular at the moment, but I find most of those recipes too Pinterest-esque and as Alex would say, totally “egregious”. It’s too much. Too much bacon just overpowers a dish. The bacon is usually too thick to cook with whatever it’s wrapped around, so you usually have to slightly precook it, then wrap it around whatever your making. No thanks. Not for me.

What I really enjoy, however, are things that are wrapped in prosciutto. Prosciutto is dry-cured ham that is very thinly sliced. It’s very delicate and has great, salty flavor.

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IMG_5733I take half of a slice of prosciutto and wrap it around a piece of asparagus. Do that for a handful of them. Put them on the baking sheet with the rest of the asparagus, drizzle with olive oil, salt and pepper. The prosciutto is so thin that it will crisp up in no time, and finish cooking at the same time as the asparagus. Serve two to three prosciutto-wrapped asparagus along with the plain ones to each dish. You don’t want too much of the prosciutto. A little goes a long way.

Sweet potatoes and rosemary go hand in hand with each other. Often times I find rosemary to be overpowering, but the sweet potatoes can stand up to the fragrant herb. Cut into cubes, heat at a high temp, stir/flip once, and you’re done.

Roasting vegetables is about a simple of a side as you can get. The wonderful combination of flavors from the oil, veggies, and seasonings make for a hard to resist final product. If you have someone in your life that is not thrilled with the idea of eating vegetables, roast them, and I’m sure you’ll change their mind. Feeding the people you care about roasted vegetables is the ultimate act of love. It’s good for their soul and body. They’re hearty and good for you. It’s a unique way of saying “I love you”.

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I used the zucchini, eggplant, fennel, onion, mushroom, and pepper mixture in Ina’s Vegetable Paella which you can find here or in her book, “Barefoot Contessa: Cooking for Jeffrey”. I added shrimp for protein for Alex. It was wonderful.

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Roasted vegetable mix

  • 2 zucchinis, largely sliced into circles
  • 1 eggplant, largely sliced into circles
  • 3 red bell peppers, sliced in one inch strips
  • 1 red onion, sliced in one inch strips
  • 16 oz shittake mushrooms, stems removed
  • 2 fennel bulbs, core removed, sliced in one inch strips
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Add all cut vegetables minus the mushrooms to a large bowl; add in salt, pepper, and three tablespoons good olive oil. Spread onto 2-3 baking sheets. Cook for 45-50 minutes, flipping vegetables after 25 minutes. Add mushrooms after 25 minutes of baking.

Prosciutto-wrapped asparagus

  • 5 slices prosciutto
  • 1 lb asparagus, ends trimmed
  • Olive oil
  • Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut each prosciutto slice in half. Wrap ten or so asparagus with prosciutto. Add to baking sheet. Drizzle olive oil, salt and pepper. Cook for 20 minutes.

Rosemary roasted sweet potatoes

  • 3 large sweet potatoes, cubed
  • 1 tbsp plus 1 tsp minced fresh rosemary
  • Olive oil
  • Salt, pepper

Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Add all ingredients to a large bowl and stir. Spread onto baking sheet in even layer. Cook for 30 minutes, flipping the sweet potatoes after 15 minutes.