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 #2, vegetable quiche

What is it about breakfast for dinner that is so special? Maybe it’s because in the morning we are rushing to get out the door and don’t think twice about what we are eating. Or, maybe, it’s because for some reason it takes us back to our childhood. How many of us growing up had pancakes for dinner on a rare occasion? It was such a special treat. When you have breakfast for dinner you can sit down and enjoy those traditional flavors without needing to be somewhere in twenty minutes. It’s a laid back Sunday around here and to go with the theme of relaxation, I decided to do quiche for dinner. With this love letter, we can pretend like it’s the weekend just a little longer.

Besides pastries, my favorite traditional breakfast dish is quiche. Quiche is so versatile, you can put almost anything into them. Baked with an all-butter pie crust, my vegetable quiche is a letter that Alex requests often.

My quiche uses onions, bell peppers, and zucchini. Any vegetable will work in a quiche, such as broccoli, spinach, or asparagus. I find though that having some kind of squash (whether it’s zucchini, eggplant, or butternut) gives a needed hearty texture to the tenderness of the baked eggs. There needs to be some kind of vegetable to offset the creaminess of the dish. With red peppers and squash, there is a pleasant added crunch. Combine that with lots of grated parmesan reggiano, and it’s a meal fit for any time of the day.

 

Making pie crust can be intimidating, but it doesn’t have to be. The key to pie crust is making sure everything is chilled and to be conscious of the time. I put both the ice water and diced butter in the freezer for five minutes to get it nice and cold. I also put the bowl of my food processor in the fridge, just to help with temperature control. Once you get the hang of this crust, you’ll make it every time you need a pie crust. Forget Pillsbury. It freezes well, so I like to make two batches at a time and save one for another meal.

 

While I love using Ina’s Perfect Pie Crust recipe, I tend to prefer an all-butter crust. It makes for a flaky and golden final product. Using a food processor is a fast way to get the desired consistency. I prefer this over a handheld pastry cutter. It’s faster and works just as well. Can’t beat that.

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An easy way to transfer the dough into the pie pan is by rolling it almost halfway onto the rolling pin, then laying it over the pan.

 

While I love decorative pie crusts, a simple border you make with your fork is perfect for quiche. Once the dough is in the pan, put it in the fridge to chill.

Before you start the cooking process, it’s always a good idea to have all your ingredients out, chopped, and measured. This makes everything go much smoother and you don’t have to worry about chopping an onion while making sure something on the stove doesn’t burn.

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I slice the onions paper thin so that they cook fast, and a small dice to the red and orange bell peppers. Put them in a sauté pan with olive oil over medium high heat until they start to brown. Add zucchini then garlic. Almost always you should add garlic last. It burns easily and turns bitter. Just cook until fragrant–that’s how you know it’s ready.

 

Whisk the eggs, parmesan, and half and half together. Add a liberal amount of salt and pepper. Add in fresh dill, chives, and parsley.

 

Recipes that aren’t improved by fresh herbs are few and far between. They add a freshness to food that can’t be imitated. Even desserts taste better with fresh basil or mint! In the summertime, I like to grow my fresh herbs outside in small pots, but during the winter you can take them inside and store in a sunny place. Thankfully herbs are very easy to grow and maintain.

Once slightly cooled, you can add the onion, pepper, and zucchini mixture into the egg mixture. It needs to be somewhat cool so that the heat from the vegetables doesn’t scramble the eggs. You definitely don’t want that!

Add the quiche ingredients to your pie crust. Place onto a baking sheet and cover with aluminum foil. Cook for one hour. Let sit for at least 10 minutes before cutting into it. Serve with in-season heirloom tomatoes and spinach.

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For lunch the next day with caprese salad and avocado

Quiche is perfect for so many occasions–birthdays, bridal or baby showers, brunch, etc. But I like it best when it’s for dinner. It’s perfect with a grapefruit vodka cocktail and fresh fruit. Having this for dinner on Sunday evening helps ease you into your work week. It’s elegant comfort to the max.

Vegetable Quiche

  • 1 red bell pepper
  • 1/2 orange bell pepper
  • 1 yellow onion, sliced thin
  • 1 1/2 zucchinis, chopped and quartered
  • 1 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 7 eggs
  • 1/2 cups freshly grated parmesan reggiano
  • 1 1/4 cup half and half
  • 1 tbsp fresh dill, chopped
  • 1 tbsp fresh chives, chopped
  • 1/2 cup loosely packed fresh parsley, finely chopped
  • Salt and pepper

Sauté peppers and onions with olive oil over medium high heat until almost browned. Add zucchini and cook for two minutes, add garlic and cook for one minute. Whisk eggs, half and half, parmesan, and fresh herbs together. Once cooled, and vegetable mixture and season with salt and pepper. Add to pie crust. Put pie crust onto baking sheet and cook for one hour at 400 degrees. Let set for ten minutes before serving.

All Butter Pie Crust

  • 1 1/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 stick of cold butter, diced
  • 5 tbsp ice water
  • 1/8 tsp salt

Add flour and salt to food processor. Pulse once. Add cold butter and process until butter is the size of peas. Add ice water one tablespoon at a time. Note: you may need more or less water depending on the flour, humidity levels, etc. After the right amount of water is added, dough will form after five seconds or so. Shape dough into a disc and wrap in plastic wrap. Chill for at least 30 minutes. Roll dough out and use rolling pin to drape over pie pan. Cut off extra dough and use a fork to go around the sides.

 

Love Letter #1, meatballs

I have been inspired by Ina Garten since her show “Barefoot Contessa” premiered almost 15 years ago. For the better part of two decades, I continually look to her when it comes to both recipes and lifestyle. The way she speaks to her audience and the stories behind the things that she does showcases her ability to connect to people in a real and engaging way.

Because of my love of Ina, it is fitting that my first post will feature a recipe of hers. Tweaked only slightly, this is one of Alex’s favorite letters: Spicy turkey meatballs with arugula parmesan salad. You can find the recipe here or in her cookbook “Barefoot Contessa: How Easy Is That?”.

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Chopping everything before you start cooking helps you stay organized.
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Adding chopped parsley to the meatballs gives them some freshness and a pop of color.
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Your hands are your best utensils.

Meatballs can seem intimidating to many home cooks. Do I roast them? Sear then roast? Sear and cook in marinara? What option is the best? The truth is, I still haven’t figured it out. I have tested so many methods of meatball cooking, and I haven’t found one to be particularly better than the last. There are benefits depending on each technique. Searing give them gives them that crusty, wonderful crunch on the outside, but roasting allows for a more even cooking process, and more reliable finished result.

With this recipe, the meatballs are roasted. Ina recommends using your favorite jarred sauce to pair with the meatballs. While good in a pinch, Alex loves my marinara, so I rarely buy store bought sauce. My recipe is simple and full of flavor and cooks while the meatballs are roasting. The meatballs are made from ground turkey and sweet Italian sausage. The sausage gives the dish the traditional flavors one expects, but the turkey lightens it up. Pairing the meatballs with a crisp and lemony arugula salad with a tangy vinaigrette and crusty bread on the side makes this a classic go-to dinner. Open a bottle of a fruity, spicy zinfandel to complete the meal.

Because turkey is so lean, the sausage and soaked fresh breadcrumbs add much needed moisture to the finished product. You can use packaged breadcrumbs in this recipe in place of bread, but they will still need to soak in milk.

My sauce is both onion and garlic heavy, but you can reduce the amounts of either if you prefer a less flavor-forward sauce.

Adding in a parmesan rind gives depth of flavor to the sauce. Tomatoes and parmesan give you the umami (savory) richness that make a sauce memorable. I only use real parmesan reggiano that is imported from Italy and it makes a noticeable difference. Quality ingredients produce a quality product.

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Knowing how to make basic vinaigrettes is essential to a home cook. You’ll need vinegar and oil plus whichever add-ons you prefer. The typical ratio is 3-1, three parts oil to one part vinegar. I like a tangier dressing, so mine uses more vinegar than most. My basic vinaigrette consists of Dijon mustard, lemon juice, balsamic vinegar, extra virgin olive oil, salt, pepper, and honey for sweetness. It works well for most greens, especially arugula, which is what I used for this salad.

Arugula is best described as both peppery and lemony. It’s a refreshing green that has been very en vogue the last two years. It makes for a wonderful topping on pizza, wilted in pasta, or by itself as a crisp salad. It’s a favorite green of mine and I always have some handy.

Radicchio adds a bitter bite to the salad, which is a nice juxtaposition to the salty creaminess of the parmesan.

Always season your greens with salt and pepper.

Once finished, you’ll notice some of the cheese has seeped out of the meatballs during the cooking process. This is normal. Just discard. Add the sauce to your meatballs in a large serving bowl.

Drinking the same wine you cook your sauce with is ideal. However, since it was 90 degrees out, I chose a crisp sauvignon blanc instead.

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This was an easy and fairly quick way of putting an elegant dinner on the table during the week. When you can add some special touches during the week, it makes the weekend seem not so far away.

Ina’s Spicy Turkey Meatballs

Hannah’s Marinara

  • 2 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 28 oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes, hand crushed
  • 1 heaping tbsp tomato paste
  • 3/4 cups dry white wine (I like sauvignon blanc…It seems odd to use white in a red sauce, but it’s more common than you think.)
  • 1 1/2 medium yellow onions, diced
  • 6 large cloves of garlic, diced
  • ½ cup loosely packed julienned basil leaves, plus more for serving
  • ½ cup fresh parsley, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano
  • ¼ tsp dried red pepper flakes
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 parmesan reggiano rind

Heat the olive oil over medium high heat

Sautee the onions for 5-7 minutes until translucent but not browned

Add garlic, oregano, red pepper flakes and tomato paste, cook for 1 minute until fragrant

Add tomatoes and wine

Bring to a boil, then lower to a simmer, with the lid partially on

Add salt and pepper

Add parmesan rind

Let simmer for at least 20 minutes, until reduced to desired thickness

Take off heat and add parsley and basil

Serve with pasta, meatballs, or crusty bread. Add parmesan and fresh basil to taste.

Tangy balsamic vinaigrette

  • 1 tbsp good Dijon mustard, such as Grey Poupon
  • 1 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice*
  • 1 tsp honey
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
  • 4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large clove of garlic
  • Salt and pepper

Whisk ingredients together in a bowl or measuring cup. Use immediately if adding garlic. If you omit garlic, store in fridge for 3-4 days. The olive oil will solidify, so take it out of the fridge 30 minutes before you use it.

*Ina is right, there is no substitution for freshly squeezed lemon juice. If you don’t have lemons or only have the pre-squeezed juice from the grocery store, just omit.