Archive | July, 2012

Lemon-Basil Sweet Tea (Even From a Yankee)

30 Jul

Even if I love being a culinary adventurer, at the end of the day, I have to identify myself as a Northeastern Yankee through and through. (Growing up in New Hampshire only gives me so much street cred outside of New England.)

As you can see, there’s a lot of the country left. Like 98%.

As much as I’ve come to love the South, Southwest, and all types of international cookery, I’m humble enough to admit when I don’t know a lot about another part of the world – or, more importantly for this blog, that area’s food and drink-stuffs. Which is why I’ve made it such a point to learn about the food of each place where I’ve traveled — to try things, learn how dishes are made, and understand how deeply food ties to the culture. My travels are tastier, and I feel like I’m showing a place the respect it deserves by honoring its cuisine. (Y’know, via my taste buds.)

I suppose it can even make you something of a hipster. But hey, you’re supporting a local economy, and that’s another great reason why this stuff matters.

Among the many, MANY delicious Southern bites and sips I had while in Charleston, one I’d never really tried before was authentic Southern-style Sweet Tea. That killer sweetness cuts through the brewed tea beautifully, all due – as I’ve come to find through a bit of research – to simple syrup, rather than just sugar.

Turns out that simple syrup is easy enough to whip up – combine equal parts sugar and water, and allow the mixture to cook over medium-low heat until the sugar dissolves. Voila, simple syrup for your tea or other recipes.

But I decided to kick this up a notch with two of my favorite flavors, lemon and basil. Some quick concocting over the stove, and behold: Lemon-Basil Sweet Tea. This recipe should serve 8 full glasses, or a number of refills if you’re using smaller tumblers. (I also have tips below for how to add a grown-up kick to the recipe.) Drink up, fellow faux-Southern ladies and gentlemen.

Image sourced from Two favorite flavors ever? Oh yeah.

Lemon-Basil Sweet Tea – serves 8

You’ll need:

  • 1 cup white sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • ½ lemon, sliced into ¼-inch thick slices. (Save the rest for all sorts of recipes)
  • 2 cold-brew bags of Lipton iced tea
  • A large pitcher
  • 7 cups cold water, plus ice (for brewing)

Here’s what you do:

  • Mix together the white sugar and water in a saucepan or small pot. Raise the heat to medium-low and cook the mixture, stirring regularly, until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is just bubbling.
  • Whisk in dried basil. Add lemon slices and cook for 1 minute more, flipping the slices after 30 seconds. Set the syrup aside to cool. Remove the lemon slices and set them aside; you can add them to the tea mixture just before serving.
  • As the syrup is cooling, make your cold brew in a large pitcher according to package directions; you may want to use slightly less water (7 cups, rather than 8) while adding about ½ a tray’s worth of ice cubes. (Lipton teas usually take 5 minutes of cold brewing with 2 cold brew bags.) Remove tea bags and discard when finished.
  • When the lemon-basil syrup has cooled, slowly pour and mix it into the tea, according to taste. You can also leave the syrup separate to use for future tea brews, as well as a lovely topping for sliced fruit (particularly strawberries and blueberries). It should keep for up to 2 weeks in the fridge.

If you’d like to add a grown-up twist to your tea, try the following mix-ins:

  • Add a shot of Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka or Firefly Sweet Tea Bourbon to your glass; mix thoroughly.
  • Add a shot of honey liqueur (use less syrup with this one), such as Barenjager, to your glass and mix thoroughly.
  • Add a shot of any other lemon-flavored liqueur to your glass for something of a big kid Arnold Palmer; Absolut Citron, a shot of Limoncello or even a dash of Mike’s Hard Lemonade might work well. Keep experimenting!

What are your favorite Southern dishes? Are you a sweet tea person, darlin’? Or do you like yours sweetener-free?

London 2012: An Olympic-Sized (Fishy) Feast

28 Jul

Friends, as I’ve likely told all of you about 80k times, I spent a semester studying abroad in London while I was at Notre Dame. Those four months, in a word, were awesome.

I took this picture; my current nostalgia rating is at about 10,000 on a scale of 1 to 100.

Ah, memories — flashback to the spring of 2008, that wonderful time when the pound-to-dollar exchange rate was at an all-time high and my impoverished American self lived off of warm pints of ale, cans of Heinz beans (they were only 50p! Holy affordable canned legumes, Batman!) and HobNobs. (Yet, magically, did not gain weight — I am, in hindsight, grateful for carlessness and the need to walk 4-5 miles a day to and from class / on adventures. Call it the poor-student-in-a-foreign-country diet.)

Mostly, the exercise was an attempt NOT to look like Henry VIII by the time I went home. Chubby bugger.

Last night, as I watched London host the Opening Ceremonies, I definitely went all misty-eyed at the sight of Parliament, double-decker buses, and even that floppy-haired bit-of-a-goober known as London’s mayor, Boris Johnson. (Fun fact: I saw him in person once. His hair is actually quite floppy.)

Image sourced from the Press Association. See? Hilariously floppy hair.

But more than that, I’m sharing with you a few fun ideas for hosting your own London Olympic-Sized Feast, complete with an easy menu that’s very new-chef friendly. (and some tasty brews to boot!) [Thanks to the lovely Ms. LeAnn Parson for inspiring the idea, as she has her own feast (complete with Cottage Pie) in Indianapolis.] I have my own London experience and the great Jamie Oliver to thank for nahy of these ideas. His book Jamie’s Kitchen: A Cooking Course for Everyone is one of the BEST I’ve used to learn basic cooking techniques (he even teaches you how to cut an entire chicken up for saute yourself), and his Fish and Chip Recipe (linked below) is, as he’d likely say, “top notch.” Enjoy! (And as much as I love the Brits, go USA!)

Olympic-Sized Feast — fun for a party! Watch some of your favorite events and nosh on the menu I’ve created here. Many of the British items are easily found in the international aisle of your local grocery store; check the fridge case for specialty cheeses, and the Asian foods section for anything Indian.

Appetizers and Snacks:

  • Various British cheeses with crackers (Wensleydale; Cheddar; Red Leicester; even a Stilton if you’re feeling daring!)
  • Toasted naan bread, sliced or cut into wedges, with an Indian chutney of your choice (those Brits love them some Indian food)

Main Course:

  • Jamie Oliver’s Fish & Chips (recipe courtesy of Food Network)
  • A side of Mushy Peas (heat frozen peas until thawed and hot; mush slightly with a fork; add butter, lemon juice, salt & pepper to your liking)
  • All the proper fixins: Malt vinegar, HP sauce, tartar sauce, and even Ketchup if you so desire.


  • HobNob cookies (or “biscuits”), served with a steaming cup of Earl Gray or Lady Gray tea
  • Scones with clotted cream & strawberry jam. (All surprisingly easy to find in your mainstream American grocery.)

Ales to Try:

  • Samuel Smith’s Nut Brown Ale
  • Boddington’s (comes in a yellow can)
  • London Pride or London Porter, if you can find them
  • Strongbow cider (or, if you can find it, Magners or Bulmer’s)

And there you have it! A fun way to get your friends together, nosh on British foodstuffs, and celebrate the Olympics. Will you be watching the Olympics this year? What are your favorite snacks for sporting events? Are you a fan of British cuisine, or do you think the pairing of those words constitutes an oxymoron? 🙂

Pintrest Challenge: Braided Cinnamon Coffee Cake

26 Jul

Like many of you, I’m kind of maniacally mildly obsessed with Pinterest. According to something I saw at D.C.’s Newseum recently, Pinterest has shot up in popularity since it first began in 2010, to the point where it’s the 3rd most popular social networking site on the web. Sharing links among friends, colleagues & friendly strangers + great pictures = success! Who knew?

But in the spirit of John and Sherry’s (and Katie Bower’s) recent challenge on Young House Love, I’ve decided to stop Pinning and start DOING – taking on a series of mini Pinterest Challenges for myself! This will be the first in a few­ posts where I take recipes I’ve pinned in the virtual world and try them out in my real life kitchen. Pinterest has so many creative and helpful ideas for a budding chef – time to see how well they hold up!

Also, I’ll be rating each recipe on a scale of 1 to 5 Pinterest P’s.  5 Pinterest P’s means the recipe is easy to follow, tasty, and actually resembles the original pinned photo. 1 Pinterest P? Let’s just say it probably turned out like this:

Image sourced from the hilarious Oy vey.

My first challenge? Braided Cinnamon Coffee Cake originally pinned from Totally Love It. A quick yeast bread-turned-cinnamon-roll, this coffee cake looked like a delicious addition to the History Teacher’s birthday brunch earlier this month. Here’s my final version:

Swirly cinnamon goodness.

Verdict? 3 out of 5 Pinterest P’s.

The recipe directions were occasionally a bit vague, and I definitely should have added more butter, but the end result was flaky and sweet. Not a bad addition to breakfast! I’ve rewritten the recipe below, with a few minor adjustments in clarity. Next time you have a breakfast or brunch to host, try this out!

Cinnamon Swirl Coffee Cake, adapted from Pinterest / Totally Love It – serves 8

You’ll need:

For the dough:

  • 2 cups flour
  • 1/2  tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup lukewarm milk
  • 2 and ¼ tsps. Active dry yeast or 1 envelope active dry yeast
  • 1/8 cup melted butter
  • 1 egg yolk
  • 1 tbsp sugar

For the cinnamon-sugar filling:

  • 1/4 cup softened butter
  • 4-5 tbsp sugar
  • 3 tsp cinnamon

Here’s what you do:

  • Mix yeast and sugar with milk; let it sit for 5 minutes, or the yeast bubbles.

Bubbling yeast. Mmm. Bread-to-be.

  • Add beaten egg yolk, melted butter, flour and salt. Knead the dough for 6-8 minutes, finally shaping it into a ball.

  • Place ball of dough in a large, greased / sprayed bowl, then cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in size (about 1 hour).

  • Preheat oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Dust work surface with flour, and roll dough out to a round, flat disk (kind of like a pie crust) with a thickness of about 1/4 to 1/2 inch.
  • Spread the ¼ cup softened butter across dough round; then sprinkle the cinnamon and sugar.
  • Roll up dough like a jelly roll; using a knife, cut log in half length-wise.

  • Twist the two halves together, keeping the open layers exposed to the top. Pinch the ends together (forming a wreath-like shape), then transfer to a baking tray (buttered or covered with cookie sheet).

  • Top with extra dollop of butter and sprinkle with more sugar and cinnamon mixture. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes – make sure to reduce temp to 350 degrees F after 5-10 minutes to ensure it won’t burn – or until the top is golden brown.
  • Top finished cake with a simple glaze of confectioner’s sugar and milk, top with extra cinnamon sugar, or eat as is.

 And there you have it! As I mentioned earlier, I’d add a bit more butter to the mix, as well as that final glaze on top (maybe with some more cinnamon and a bit of nutmeg dashed into the mix). Happy Pinning — and doing / cooking / experimenting!

The Best Way to Travel …

20 Jul

… is through your stomach!

No, that’s nowhere near as violent and strange as it may have come across.

What I mean is this: when you’re heading somewhere new, do as the locals do. Or, rather, eat as the locals eat! One of the best ways to get to know a new place or unknown culture is to explore its favorite dishes, the point-of-pride classics or down-home favorites that satisfy local hunger pangs. When I studied abroad in London, you can bet I did my best to try bangers & mash, mushy peas, and even a classic newspaper bundle of fish and chips. My spring break trip to Paris? Une crepe au fromage et jambon, merci beaucoup. My middle school trips from New Hampshire to Quebec City? Artery-clogging but oh-so-decadently-good poutine, please!

Mmm. So so delicious.

You get the idea.

Why this little meditation on gastronomic traveling? The History Teacher and I are going on a road trip! (Insert your favorite road trip playlist here. Mine includes U2’s “Where the Streets Have No Name” and anything that inspires a sing-along. “I Would Walk 500 Miles,” I’m looking at you.) Where are we going?

The lovely city of Charleston, SC! Two Yankees in the deep South? Should be quite the adventure. I couldn’t be more excited — rich history, beautiful architecture, and, from everything I hear, absolutely fabulous food. Items (hopefully!) to-be-tasted:

Low Country Boil

Sourced from Shrimp, potatoes, sausage, corn and goodness.

Shrimp & Grits from Shem Creek

Sourced from Nom nom nom.

Sweet tea and Firefly vodka (locally distilled here — cool, huh?)

Sourced from This + Lemonade = best Arnold Palmer ever?

Fried Green Tomatoes, or something else just as deliciously Southern and good.

Sourced from No movie magic, just plain tasty.

I’ll keep all y’all posted on our culinary adventures. Here’s to open roads and full bellies!

Easy-Peasy Homemade Pizza

18 Jul

I’ve been on something of a chemical-free kick lately, food-wise. (I still put Lord-knows-what’s-in-it volumizing spray in my hair before I blow dry, but I’m using organic conditioner and wash my clothes with biodegradable detergent! Baby steps.) While I’m not making any groundbreaking changes in my diet, beyond the basic healthy choices I’ve adopted over the years, the whole “farm-to-table,” hormone-free dialogue just makes me think. A lot.

Image sourced from What does “sustainable” really mean in day to day life?

It also leaves me with questions. How many chemicals, preservatives, dyes and additives are in foods I eat every day? What’s their impact on my health? And how difficult will it be for me to channel my inner Alice Waters / Barbara Kingsolver / Michael Pollan on a teacher’s budget?

Image sourced from Should this be my guidepost?

The easiest way to start, as someone who’s a long way from either being a master chef or growing her own animal, vegetable or miracle, is to try making what you can from scratch. A friend once told me that she stuck to the “outer rim” of the grocery store — produce, lean protein, etc. — and I find that the more “whole foods” I buy, and the more things I make on my own, the better I feel. And, frankly, the better my conscience feels, both in terms of my own health and in terms of my impact (or lack thereof) on the earth. I could buy the premade pizza dough and tomato sauce, manufactured hundreds of miles away, stuffed into non-biodegradable containers and chock-full of preservatives and chemicals, or I could make my own.

Granted, I’m not in an episode of “Portlandia” here — no one made homemade parmesan cheese in an organic bucket with locally sourced rennet, and I’m not exactly raising my own chickens on an urban homestead. Nor am I looking down on those who don’t make their own pizza crust, sauce or the like. Life’s too short to judge how “green” someone else’s diet is. But the baby steps are the building blocks of real lifestyle change. Why not try and make some little adjustments, if the overall benefit is to your health and the joy of your taste buds?

Image sourced from Just substitute “pickle that” for “make that from scratch with loads of pretension!” No thanks.

And oh, is it worth it! There’s something so lovely about taking that kind of ownership over your food. Cutting through a crust you’ve kneaded. Spooning on a sauce you’ve cooked yourself. Slicing market-fresh vegetables and sprinkling them with cheese. Serving that hot, steaming pie to people you love. As Martha would say, it’s a good thing. (Then again, Martha also went to prison for insider trading. Again, nobody’s perfect.)

Image sourced from Well, I guess if Martha’s making pizza with Gwyneth Paltrow, then all’s right with the world again.

Easy Peasy Homemade Pizza — serves 4 – 8

You’ll need:

For the dough — makes enough for 2 pizzas. [courtesy of Better Homes & Gardens]

  • 2 cups lukewarm water (105° to 115°, to get technical; just make sure it’s not too hot, or you’ll kill your yeast.)
  • 2 packets active dry yeast (or 4 and 1/2 tsps)
  • 6 cups bread flour or unbleached all-purpose (OR 5 cups all-purpose, 1 cup whole wheat)
  • 2 tsps sea salt

For the sauce — makes enough for 2 pizzas.

One recipe Homemade Pasta Sauce, minus the tomato paste and carrots

You’ll also need …

  • 1 small bag shredded mozzarella cheese (1-2 cups)
  • Parmesan cheese, for sprinkling
  • Romano cheese, for sprinkling
  • Various dried Italian herbs
  • Toppings of your choice — I love fresh bell peppers, tomatoes, and cooked chicken. (Especially shredded Rotisserie Chicken!)

Here’s what you do:

  1. Mix your water and yeast in a large bowl; allow the mixture to sit for 5 minutes, or until slightly bubbly.
  2. Add flour and salt, mixing to combine. The pre-kneaded dough may seem pretty dry.
  3. Knead the dough on a floured surface (I used my tabletop) for 6-8 minutes, or until elastic in texture. (I.e. when you poke it, it bounces back a bit.) Form into a ball.
  4. Grease a large bowl; place the dough in the bowl, turning over once or twice until it’s coated in oil or spray. Cover with a kitchen towel and allow to rise until doubled in size, or 1-2 hours.
  5. Meanwhile, cook up your sauce; allow it to simmer on low, covered, as the dough’s rising.
  6. When the dough is fully risen, cut off half to use for another pizza. [Freeze the dough, tightly wrapped in saran wrapped and bagged in a Ziplock, for up to 3 months. (According to BHG. Have yet to test this theory.)]  Roll out the dough on a floured surface and place on a cornmeal-covered pizza stone or baking sheet. Brush with a small amount of olive oil and bake in a 450° oven for 10 minutes.
  7. After 10 minutes, remove the crust from the oven. Ladle on your sauce, spreading over the hot crust. Add cheeses, herbs and toppings in amounts to your liking. Return to 450° oven and bake for an additional 10-15 minutes, or until the cheese is bubbly and brown.

What are your favorite pizza recipes? How have you gone “farm to table” in your own apartment kitchens?

Quick Dessert: Vegan (or Not) Banana “Ice Cream”

16 Jul

This might be, by far, the easiest recipe I’ve ever tried. A coworker recently told me how his wife uses overripe bananas to make “ice cream.” The technique, he said, was simple:

  1. Freeze the bananas
  2. Blend them in a blender or food processor
  3. Eat

It can’t be THAT simple, I thought to myself as I visualized the 3 overripe bananas in a basket on my counter. Normally, my attack strategy is to make banana bread or banana muffins out of those bad boys. This time – with DC heat waves hitting some absurd highs a week ago – I decided to forgo any baking and give this “ice cream” a shot. And oh, how richly were my taste buds rewarded!

So creamy and delicious. And so, so easy!

Banana “Ice Cream” – 2 variations. Serves 1-2, or more if you have more bananas.

For the vegan version …

You’ll need:

  • 2-3 overripe bananas
  • 1-3 tbsp cold water

Here’s What You Do:

  • Slice the bananas into small chunks. Place the chunks in an ice cube tray (one chunk per “cube”), and freeze for an hour (or until fully frozen).
  • Add the chunks to a food processor or blender. Add 1 tbsp cold water to help the mixture blend. Blend or process on full strength (or “Puree” / “Liquify” on your blender) until the mixture is smooth, adding another 1-2 tbsp water if necessary.

  • Serve with a drizzle of agave nectar or real maple syrup and chopped walnuts. (Or, try a scoop of natural peanut butter if you’re feeling decadent!)

For the not-quite vegan version …

You’ll need:

  • 2-3 overripe bananas
  • 2 or 3 tbsp vanilla Greek yogurt (optional)
  • 1-2 tbsp milk

Here’s what you do:

  • Slice and feeze the bananas just as you would in the vegan version.
  • Add the chunks to a food processor or blender. Add your yogurt and 1 tbsp of milk to help the mixture blend. (The yogurt adds extra flavor and richness, but the bananas are just as creamy on their own – adding the yogurt is entirely up to you.)
  • Blend or process on full strength (or “Puree” / “Liquify” on your blender) until the mixture is smooth, adding another tbsp milk if necessary.
  • Serve with drizzles of your favorite sundae sauces (caramel sauce sounds particularly delicious), chopped walnuts, or chocolate sprinkles. Mine was delicious with a drizzle of honey and handful of walnuts.

As Ina Garten would say, how easy is that? I haven’t tried this technique with other frozen fruit, but I assume the effect would be sorbet-like. (Which sounds lovely and summery to me!) The bananas have such a natural creaminess, though, that they’re really ideal for this kind of preparation. You can also use leftover banana chunks for smoothies!

What are your favorite easy summer desserts? Any tips for more frozen treats?

“Midgie Kitchie”: Tips for Working in a Small Kitchen

15 Jul

Let me preface that title with an explanation: my older sister, a lovely and hilarious woman, has an eensy weensy kitchen in her Boston apartment. It may or may not be the size of my bathroom, minus the tub. Regardless, she’s made the space (which has its fair share of nice architectural details, from granite countertops to a peek-through space between the kitchen and living area) work for her remarkably well. The point of this preface was to explain that my sister — a woman with a knack for nicknames for inanimate objects, if there ever was one — has dubbed her kitchen the Midgie Kitchie. (If you say it right, it rhymes. If you don’t, it sounds a bit like you’ve just sneezed.) Inspired by her, I write this post.

Illustration by artist Phyllis Ann Whippen, sourced from Aw, Beantown. I miss ya. Especially the Midgie Kitchie.

Small kitchens are, if nothing else, a bit of a challenge. How do you effectively use counterspace when the total “space” amounts to little more than an area rug’s worth of “real estate”? (Go vertical.) How does one stock a pantry when there, well, IS no pantry? (Still working on that one.) What about my oodles of tools? Do I have to sacrifice my 3 extra spatulas and spoon-ulas? (Probably. How many do you really need?) Is it remotely possible for two people to work side by side? (The short answer? Yes, but your acrobatic and choreographical skills need to be top-notch.)

She’s actually passing him a measuring cup.

But they can also be a lot of fun, and an exercise in creativity. As evidenced by The Kitchn’s Small Cool Kitchen 2012 Contest, the small kitchen inspires its chef — no matter his or her experience level — to simultaneously become a small-scale urban planner, an organizational guru, a bit of a neat-freak and a roll-with-the-punches problem solver. If I can figure out how to keep between twelve and fifteen 7th grade boys engaged in a lesson about reading strategies, you can effectively learn to use your own “midgie kitchie.” To help you along, here are the best tips I’ve learned for making the space work for you.*

*Disclaimer: About 70% of these were either modeled on, or blatantly stolen from, my wonderful mother who helped me organize this kitchen when I first moved in. Mama-lady, you’re my hero.

Tips for Using, Keeping, and Loving Your Little Kitchen:

  • Location, Location, Location: If everything has its place, and that place makes sense according to how you use each thing, organization will become intuitive. My mugs, tea, coffee filters and honey all reside on one little shelf above the coffee maker, and the proximity makes their use feel easy, rather than disjointed. I also keep my knives on one of those cool magnetic strips from Ikea above an area of counterspace, so simply reaching up and chopping / dicing / slicing is a thing of ease.

Makes ’em look all organized, too.

  • Buy (and Store) Within Your Means: While I’d love to head to Costco and buy a year’s supply of spaghetti for budget purposes, I just don’t have the space to store that much dried semolina. Instead, I stock up when I can (and when things are on sale — hello, Giant-brand bags of brown rice), only buying as much as a) I can store, and b) I can realistically use. This is a bit of a trial-and-error process: You’ll learn your rhythms — a.k.a. how much you actually consume of certain foods over their “lifespan” — as you live in your space, but the important thing here is to be practical while still staying budget-conscious.
  • When in Doubt, Go Vertical: My two-tiered spice rack is one of my favorite storage areas of my kitchen. It functions like a double-decker lazy susan, effectively storing loads of spices, dry rubs and seasonings in one fairly tiny space next to the toaster. The History Teacher and I also installed an Ikea wall rack to hold various utensils, including a cheese grater and mini colander, over the sink. Even our wine rack and wine glasses are stored on the wall (and next to one another — see rule number one) Oh, you creative Swedes!

The only challenge is resisting the urge to spin it too quickly. “Whoosh! Uh-oh, there goes the rib rub …”

It’s over the sink, too, which means putting this away after washing them is a snap.

  • Outsource Storage to Other Rooms: If it makes sense with your kitchen’s layout, you can expand a bit to store things in nearby spaces. I keep things like holiday linens (tablecloths, napkins, etc.) in a storage draw under the TV (hey man, whatever works) since they’re rarely used. Another example is the bar cart we refurbished (thanks, Craigslist!) with paint, wood stain and some elbow grease. Its two shelves are great for holding extra kitchen items, and its near-the-kitchie location makes its use practical. Even our hall closet has a wire shelf that we installed on one wall to hold canned goods and jars.

I’m planning on adding a basket or two underneath — maybe linens or paper goods?

  • Keep Your Counters (Mostly) Bare: Sometimes this is easier said than done; inevitably, different devices will worm their way to your countertops. (Currently, my immersion blender is enjoying some real estate next to fruit and tomato baskets.) Still, keeping most items either in drawers / cabinets or on the walls keeps your countertops feeling airy and more spacious — crucial when your counter “space” may be virtually nonexistent.
  • And finally, the best tip I can pass on: Clean As You Go! The best way to keep your kitchen feeling like it has more space is to keep it as clutter-free as possible, including during that high-stress time known as “cooking.” The History Teacher and I trade off dish duties, depending on who’s cooking, and I try to finish as many of the dishes as possible while things are still simmering on the stove. Wiping countertops and stove burners feels a lot easier when you’re attacking the mess as immediately as possible. (Well, not if your burners are hot. See: 2nd degree burns.) Here’s a Kitchn post with more great comments about cleaning as you go.

There you have it! My ultimate advice: Life’s a lot easier when you embrace what you have. If your kitchen has as much floorspace as an airplane seat, enjoy it for what it is. Figure out its strengths, and use them to your advantage. Don’t worry if it’s not your dream kitchen — that’s what your Pinterest boards are for, honey. And ultimately, get creative, instead of claustrophobic. What are YOUR thoughts about living with small kitchens? What advice do you have to share?

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Spaghetti Limone Parmeggiano

13 Jul

In an effort to keep learning and stay fresh with all things culinary, I’ve been trying out recipes from Gwyneth Paltrow’s semi-new cookbook, My Father’s Daughter. Gwyneth’s become something of a self-taught chef over the years, learning from her parents, her Spanish “mama” (she studied abroad there as a youngster), and her own explorations of good, healthful food. Many of the recipes are vegetarian or vegan, but others are comfortably adapted to a more traditional diet. (Though she does use duck bacon, which I’ve never tried … any of you?)

image sourced from

[And yes, by using her first name, I can pretend we’re friends. I’m also babysitting Moses and Apple after school next week while Gwynnie’s at a bikram yoga class. Tee hee. In my defense, I saw her at a movie premiere in London once! Check out my not-so-clear shot below.]

This might have been a banquet for The Prince’s Trust. Either way, this is, by far, the closest I have ever been to an actual, real live “famous person.”

 While the book is filled with fun and healthy recipes, my FAVORITE is her Spaghetti Limone Parmeggiano. It’s simple, elegant, and oh-so delicious. For those of us in the “learning” process of cooking, this is an easy recipe to master.

Note: All credit here goes to Ms. Paltrow, her book and her impeccable taste. I’ve tried to rewrite the directions in my own words, but the method is the same. If I’ve changed anything ingredients-wise, it’s noted in parentheses below.

Spaghetti Limone Parmeggiano – serves 4

You’ll need:

  • 1 lb spaghetti (Up from Gwyneth’s ¾ lb; I’ve also used shells, penne or other types of pasta)
  • Coarse salt
  • 1 lemon
  • 1 ½ cups grated Parmesan cheese (or a mixture of Parmesan and Romano; that extra bite is nice!)
  • ½ tsp black pepper
  • A pinch of salt
  • 2 ½ tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
  • 3-5 tbsp pasta water (easily eyeballed)
  • A handful of fresh basil leaves (or 1-2 tsp dried, crushed to release essential oils)

Here’s what you do:

  1. Fill a pasta pot with water, and heat on high until boiling. Cook the spaghetti according to package directions.
  2. Meanwhile, grate the lemon zest into a serving bowl. Then, cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice into the same bowl. Add your Parmesan, pepper, and salt, mixing together with your olive oil to form something of a lemony “pesto.”
  3. When the spaghetti is cooked through, add some of the pasta water to your “sauce.” Add the pasta and toss thoroughly until everything is well-coated. If needed, add a bit more pasta water to keep things from getting too sticky. Tear your basil leaves by hand, stirring them into your pasta.
  4. As Gwyneth says, “serve each portion with a sprinkle of coarse salt, a fresh grind of black pepper, and a few gratings of extra Parmesan.”

So. Hilariously. Easy. And so, SO good. If you’re looking for some additional protein, this dish is delicious when served with grilled or sautéed chicken, particularly if said chicken has something of a lemon-based or Italian-style marinade. Add a green salad and some crusty bread, and you’re well on your way to being besties with Gwyneth – or, at least, imagining you are.

I also highly recommend My Father’s Daughter – I’m slowly cooking my way through (more recipes on the way), and it’s a great resource for all of us self-taught chefs. Enjoy!

Oatmeal Banana Nut Muffins

11 Jul

Side note: Courtesy of WordPress’ “Freshly Pressed” page, I found this delicious-looking recipe for Buttermilk & Cornmeal pancakes from Pallavi at Veggiezest. Will most definitely be trying that soon!

It’s unfortunate that the phrase “muffin top” is something of an insult. In a dream world – at least, however I may conceive a dream world to be – any term related to that incredible breakfast food known as the “Muffin” would be nothing short of the highest compliment.

Top of the muffin TO YOU!

In the mood for baked breakfast goodness, I took a look at my favorite muffin recipe from Better Homes and Gardens a few days ago. (Step 1: get power back after severe thunderstorms. Step 2: BAKE*) Somewhat uninspired by the nondescript muffin “base recipe,” I wanted to up the ante and add some mix-ins. I took to my cabinets, fridge, and pantry, uncovering the following potential mix-ins:


A bag of walnuts in the freezer

Some borderline overripe bananas

Raisins, one of the few survivors of FRIDGE THAW 2012 (dun dun dunnn.)

I shall call this photograph “Muffin … in Abstract.”

BOOM! Instant inspiration. Using some of BHG’s measurement tips for adding mix-ins (seriously, the Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook is kind of my life manual), I concocted these Oatmeal Banana Nut Muffins. They’re not too sweet, but pair well with peanut butter, honey, or any fruit jam. (Or, perhaps, a bowl of Quinoa Oatmeal?)

Aren’t they lovely? Since they use pantry staples, they’re also pretty budget friendly.

*Advisory Note: Baking after 9 am in outrageous heat waves could probably cause an extreme case of heat-related chef-delirium, resulting in hallucinations of Julia Child cooking boeuf bourguignon over your stove, or Gordon Ramsay judging your onion-chopping skills. Word to the wise? Limit your summer baking in the interest of not turning your kitchen into a sweatbox. If you have no-bake suggestions for sweet treats, keep me posted!

Oatmeal Banana Nut Muffins, adapted from BHG’s classic muffin recipe

Makes 12-15 muffins

You’ll need:

  • 1 ⅓ cups all-purpose flour (substitute up to ½ cup wheat flour for wheatier muffins)
  • ¾ cups rolled oats
  • ½ cup sugar (or ¼ cup sugar, ¼ cup baking stevia)
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ¼ tsp salt
  • 1 tsp cinnamon
  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ cup milk
  • ¼ cup cooking oil
  • 2 overripe bananas
  • ½ cup walnut pieces
  • ½ cup raisins

Here’s what you do

  1. Preheat oven to 400˚F. Mix dry ingredients (flour, oats, sugar, baking powder, cinnamon & salt) in a medium-sized bowl, leaving a well in the middle. Grease a 12-count muffin tin with cooking spray. (Note: Don’t use paper liners with banana muffins.)
  2. In a separate bowl, combine beaten egg, milk, and oil. Mash bananas in another bowl until creamy and semi-smooth; chop walnuts into small pieces. Add egg mixture all at once to flour mixture, stirring until moistened. (lumps are welcome!) Add mix-ins (banana mash, nuts & raisins) until mixture is just combined.
  3. Using a ¼ cup measurement or large spoon, spoon batter into sprayed muffin tin cups, filling each cup ⅔ full. Bake for 18-20 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean and the tops are golden brown. Cool in muffin tin for 5 minutes; remove by running a knife around each muffin until loosened. Serve warm or completely cooled.

The dry ingredients

Mixins, ready for mixing

Batter should look lumpy — don’t overmix! You’ll overactivate the flour’s gluten and end up with gummy muffins. (Not with gummy bears, which might be bizarrely tasty.)

What are your favorite breakfast breads and treats? Are you coffee cake people, or Danish-lovers? Anyone with a great homemade Danish recipe out there? I’d love to hack the Entenmann’s Cheese-filled Crumb Danish with a recipe of my own.

R&R: Le Pain Quotidien and Not Quite Vegan Tofu Scramble

10 Jul

Note: “R&R” is an easier “abbrev” for Review and a Recipe. Helps keep things simple.

From the wordsmiths at

Noun1.portmanteau – a new word formed by joining two others and combining their meanings; “`smog’ is a blend of `smoke’ and `fog'”; “`motel’ is a portmanteau word made by combining `motor’ and `hotel'”; “`brunch’ is a well-known portmanteau”

My favorite portmanteau, by far, is brunch. Brunch, I might argue, is epitome of the good things in life. Sleep in late? Time for brunch. Can’t decide between breakfast food and lunch food? Time for brunch. Got a hankering for scones AND a sandwich? Time for brunch, indeed.

image sourced from Are you drooling yet? I know I am.

DC, luckily enough for this lady, is VERY into the brunch scene. Maybe those politicos and high-powered government folk like to blow off steam over coffee, omelets and Monte Cristo sandwiches. (If Texts From Hillary were still going, I like to imagine one pic might reference Hil noshing upon pancakes at a DC brunch joint and running the world.) This love is pretty evident all over the Interwebs, including here, here, and here; Yelp and Urbanspoon also have lots of message boards and lists related to DC’s epic brunch offerings. Booyah.

I recently hit up one of the DC outposts of Le Pain Quotidien for brunch with an out-of-town friend who was visiting the DMV. Le Pain Quotidien (French for “The Daily Bread”) is something of a hybrid between café-type joints like La Madeleine or Panera, with their fast-casual approach, and a sit-down-with-a-menu restaurant. With communal wooden tables, a rustic color palette, and a simplistic approach to style, Le Pain Quotidien really lets the food – and particularly the bread – sing.

I hope you’re not afraid of carbs, friends.

On an earlier visit several weeks prior, I was on the hunt for a refreshing afternoon snack. Their 100% vegan-friendly Chilled Gazpacho, made with a tomato base, loads of red peppers, drizzled with olive oil, and chock-full of fresh herbs and a sprinkling of cucumber, was the answer to my prayers. Served with a side of rustic wheat peasant bread and a Mint Lemonade, it hit the spot.

On my brunch visit, I decided to explore more of the menu’s options. My friend and I planned to split their Breakfast Basket, a selection of breads and pastries served with jams and a chocolatey, nutty spread, but due to a brief power outage the night before (sheesh, DC – there wasn’t even a storm!), few of their breads were available. The staff still lent us the spreads, however, and whatever bread they could scramble. Their wheat bread was a perfect base for the Apricot and Raspberry jams, and that Chocolate spread? Let’s just say I contemplated swiping the jar and running out the door.

image sourced from I wonder if there’s a specific health code violation for digging your face into jars of Noisella in public places. Gotta check that one.

Their brunch offerings include the full lunch menu (featuring salads, tartines [open-faced baguette sandwiches], and various seasonal offerings), as well as a selection of breakfast goods ranging from Steel-Cut Oatmeal and cups of fresh berries to various omelettes and Riz Au Lait, a sort of breakfast rice pudding that looked delicious. In the end, I ordered a Tofu Scramble with soy cheese, mushrooms and herbs, and my friend thought their Asparagus and Parmesan Frittata, a seasonal item, looked like a winner. For the full menu, click here. It’s worth checking out for the photos alone!

My friend’s frittata was light and fluffy, chock full of asparagus and a generous helping of aged, nutty parmesan. My scramble was a bit of a gamble (tee hee, rhyme time – I kill myself); while I enjoy tofu in most forms (particularly marinated and stir-fried), I’d never had it “scrambled” like eggs before.  Would the scramble be as light and fluffy as the eggs I love? Or would it simply turn to egg-colored mush?

Like the men of “The Hangover” during that imitation-“Rain Man” scene, my tummy and I were richly rewarded for our gambles. The beauty of the dish was its creamy, so-totally-egg-like texture and flavor. It maintained that subtle soy character while taking on additional flavors in that beautiful way that tofu can do. Softly sautéed mushrooms, nutty soy cheese, and various herbs all played their part in making my breakfast something extraordinary. While it was a hefty portion, it disappeared from my plate in a manner of minutes.

image sourced from The mushrooms and soy cheese were real highlights in this light, fluffy dish.

I sipped my little pot of coffee (all coffee is served in an individual white ceramic pot, which was charming), enjoying the delicious flavors and good company. We were there for about two hours, and the staff never once rushed us through our meal. It did take me a good 15-20 minutes to get a spoon for stirring my coffee mix-ins, but that’s a pretty insignificant quibble in the grand scheme of things.

In honor of my lovely breakfast, I’ve put together a recipe for my own Tofu Scramble. If you’ve never really tried tofu, this is a great “gateway” into vegetarian and vegan eats. Enjoy! Note: You can easily, however, substitute traditional eggs for the tofu. Just use 4-6 eggs as your base.

Not-Quite Vegan Tofu Scramble – serves 2

Adapted from Gena’s Classic Tofu Scramble at Choosing Raw. Gabby at Veggie Nook has another great example, as does Angela Liddon’s Oh She Glows (more of a scramble-in-a-burrito).

You’ll need:

  • ½ block extra-firm tofu, pressed for 4 hours at minimum. (Explanation below.)
  • Cooking spray or olive oil
  • ½ to ¾ cup sliced mushrooms
  • ½ green bell pepper, diced
  • ½ white onion, chopped fine
  • 1 tbsp Bragg’s (vegan soy sauce) or traditional soy sauce
  • ½ tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
  • ¼ tsp freshly ground black pepper
  • ¼ cup shredded soy cheese (or ¼ cup shredded traditional cheddar if you’re not going vegan). This takes the place of Gena’s nutritional yeast, a common vegan ingredient that adds creaminess and flavor to various dishes.

Here’s what you do:

Note: Pressing the tofu: Extra-firm tofu will taste better and absorb more flavor if you press it – removing the excess moisture – for an extended period of time. To press your tofu, layer it between two plates, lining each plate with a paper towel (the order being plate, paper towel, tofu, paper towel, plate). Top with a heavy jar or even a book, and leave in the fridge for 4 hours or more.

image sourced from You get the idea.

  1. When ready to cook, spray a sauté pan with cooking spray or drizzle with minimal olive oil, heating the burner to medium-low (4-ish on your stove dial). Sauté the mushrooms, green pepper and onion until the veggies are soft. Julia Child says “Don’t Crowd the Mushrooms,” and if you’re concerned about following the Gospel According to Julia (as I often am), cook them first, then set them aside and cook the green peppers and onions.
  2. Crumble the tofu into bits using your hands, adding it to the pan. (Here’s where it will start to look more like traditional scrambled eggs.) Stir-fry until the tofu has warmed through.
  3. Add your spices, soy sauce, and pepper, stirring to combine. Finally, add your soy or traditional cheese, stirring thoroughly until the cheese is well-incorporated and begins to melt.
  4. Serve with your favorite scrambled egg fixins. (Mine may or may not be good ole processed ketchup, which probably explains why I’m unlikely to ever go fully vegan!)

image sourced from Enjoy the deliciousness!

What are your favorite brunch spots in the DC area, or in your own hometowns? Are you fans of tofu and other vegan or vegetarian ingredients, or would you stick to traditional eggs?