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Recommendations for Sanibel Island…and Beach-Side Musings

The salty, gritty scent of the gulf rolling onto crushed shell-bone and white sand… Clear, cerulean skies and hot sun… And, predictably, my favorite part: late, sun-kissed dinners teeming with fresh seafood, warm bread, and goldfish garnered salads. 

I grew up coming to Sanibel as a child, and this week my husband Padraic and I spent a week there with my parents and one of my brothers. I’m not the best at relaxing on vacations — trust me, I spent much of the week in the condo in front of my computer, planning lessons, grading papers, and researching summer professional development opportunities. Any “color” I got is the product of Jergens Natural Glow. (Minus my two lobster red feet.) But as I get ready to board the plane back to my real life, I find myself eager to reminisce.

I talk about writing quite a bit on this site, and so it bears mentioning that I always associate my childhood Sanibel trips with writing and journaling and reflecting. And the book, Gift from the Sea by Anne Morrow Lindbergh, given to me by my mother. There’s something about the pull and tug of the ocean that as a child/adolescent, called out my inner longings, surfaced my frustrations and fears, and got me in my feelings, in a broody, contemplative state that couldn’t have less to do with building an ambitious sand castle or getting a killer tan.

I also associate Sanibel with my mom, Jeanie. This is the only annual vacation she and my dad really allow themselves, and she always seems to take a bit of the island with her, sharing its breezy, pastel, wholesome elegance. Large bleached shells fill glass vases in their home, shell Christmas ornaments adorn their Christmas tree, and there’s even a Sanibel perfume that instantly makes me picture my mom’s master bath in her home in Saint Louis. 

But enough nostalgia…

This week Padraic and I indulged in daily yoga classes at Sanibel Pilates and Yoga including Vinyasa, Hatha, Aerial, and a Pilates class for good measure. If you have a fairly advanced practice, the classes feel pretty light, but it’s a beautiful studio with warm and inviting instructors. Other than yoga, we did a lot of walking on the beach… eyeing a few brazen dolphins swimming close to shore.

My parents have it down when it comes to the Sanibel restaurant scene, so allow me to tell you what I ate all week. Interested? Good. 

So night one was The Timbers: a bustling, family-friendly joint with a great seafood market to boot. They serve goldfish instead of croutons in their simple house salad, which is the kind of thing that wins me over to a place. I had a hankering for crunchy fried shrimp that night, which was a treat, but I have to say, what impressed me most was the roasted vegetable medley of zucchini, carrot, and broccoli — buttery and super satisfying. 

Night two was The Green Flash, located on Captiva Island. This place is a local favorite, and they don’t take reservations. I opted for turf — a steak with grilled polenta and sautéed spinach. The meal was solid, but the best part of the experience was the sunset ocean view and the service — our waiter was a robust Russian dude with a “professional waiter” aura. (I think in my next life I want to come back as tattooed waitress who provides kickass service and never needs to write anything down). 

More yoga… More walking… More furious typing on a computer… 

Our third night in Sanibel was very special. Padraic’s cousin and his family live in Naples, so we made a trip to their house, after perusing a few art galleries and walking through Naples’s historic downtown (mighty hoity toity for my taste…) Steven and Laura are both architects (in business together), and Laura is a phenomenal cook. She served us a spinach salad with jicama, diced apples, orange slices, and a cilantro/lime/olive oil dressing, followed by cheesy chicken enchiladas and refried beans… then homemade flan for dessert. 

More yoga… More walking… 

Sweet Melissa’s was night four. Easily the best meal I’ve had all year, and possibly one of the best meals of my life. This place does take reservations — if you’re ever in Sanibel, make a reservation! 

The family split salads:

Here’s my personal favorite: big chunks of tomato and watermelon drizzled with basil infused olive oil and garnished with a generous square of feta, a large cornmeal crouton, and a few olives:

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Here’s a head of grilled romaine lettuce sprinkled with Parmesan cheese and Caesar dressing:

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And here’s a goat cheese and beet get-up:

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Three of us got the same entree: sautéed scallops and chunks of pork belly served over a buttery sweet potato sauce. Holy crap. Who would have thought that pig and shellfish got along so nicely on top of a yam? 

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Finally, last night, I rolled up my sleeves and did a little cooking to thank my parents for all the indulgent meals… with another indulgent meal…   Brown butter scallops, Parmesan risotto, and sautéed kale.

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A few notes on this recipe: 

  • The recipe title is a little misleading — the scallops aren’t actually cooked in brown butter; they’re sautéed in olive oil and then drizzled with some butter that’s been browned in a saucepan. 
  • You probably know this, but to get a nice sear on the scallops, pat them DRY. 
  • The risotto doesn’t call for any salt — the many ladles of chicken broth and pile of Parmesan cheese does the trick. That’s one reason I think this particular recipe for risotto is a good basic, bottom line risotto recipe to have in your repertoire, whenever you’re serving risotto as a side starch and not a main course. The instructions are simple and the result is scrumptious.
  • You probably know this, too, but when you’re sautéing kale or spinach in olive oil and you want it to cook down faster, add a splash of water… Helps soften and moisten the greens without making them oily. If I were at home, I would have added some red pepper flakes.
  • The whole plate is just crying out for a squeeze of lemon — I don’t know why the original recipe doesn’t mention lemons, for the love of God! 
  • Oh — one more thing — I seared all the scallops — large and small — for four minutes on each side. This worked out pretty well for me.

Okay… Home we go… Back to dead carrot fingers :/ I feel blessed, bloated, quite a bit spoiled, and totally overwhelmed by everything I have to do before Monday. Namaste. 

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Making Plans

I’ve been making a lot of plans lately. Lesson plans, life plans. Today I’m taking a step back, using poetry to muse about control, spirituality, and the inspiration of the natural world, with a few shots of my Iceland vacation thrown in.

Making Plans

Remember in July,
when we stood still in our hiking boots,
waiting for the geyser to gush?

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Even that was a plan you made
and clothes I carefully laid
and bills we carefully paid
so we could dig our heels in the brown ground,
say “Wow”
When the earth flaunted its do-as-it-likes

Carefully stepping around wet stones and
“hugging the mountain” when the altitude felt too high

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We breathed in Earth’s overflow
witnessed Her grace

But over a Gull, or lobster soup,
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we mused over plans for home,
or lunch,
stealthily strategizing.

Meanwhile, glowing chunks of blue-white ice floated idly toward the Atlantic
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Aggressive waterfalls thundered down cliffs
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the gray Atlantic met with pebbled beaches
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And we took pictures, eager to clap
For this jazz.

Then

Surrender came in a flash
when I stripped off my coat and scarf and laid in the moss-grass of a mountain
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suddenly remembering that memorial service photo of Carrie’s mom,
basking in the sky on Colorado grass
Before ALS hit.

Today I wonder if I’m a fool
to think that the plans I’m making
bear a contrast, rather than a pale resemblance to
the sprinkling of volcanic ash on a glacier
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Perhaps I’ve been duped
by the strangeness of ash on ice
the drama of cascading water
the glow of blue lagoons

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Yes, I think I’ve been duped.
I’m “a theatre person”; I should understand
the planning that goes into the artifice.

“Whipped cream on a brick,”
a dance teacher once said,
of a ballerina’s lithe posturing
to look like she does as she likes.

Still, it’s a nice thought,
And one that I think I’ll hold onto,
That when the geyser errupts,
She’s just letting it go,
on a whim.

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Eating The Veggies

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As I mentioned in Chicken with Coconut Curry, I’ve been more or less on the Whole30  for the past 21 days. I’m still putting off the post when I explain my take-aways from the book It Starts With Food and the documentary Fed Up. It’s just easier and less overwhelming to share my favorite recipes with you.

But first…

On Day 21, let me say this… one of my cheats is that I’ve weighed myself regularly on my Whole30. I’ve only lost 3.5 pounds across 3 weeks. I lost all of it the first week and then plateaued. This majorly underwhelms me. It disappoints me. It discourages me. But Whole30 emphasizes “Non Scale Victories,” and I’ve experienced many of these: Increased energy. An increased feeling of control over food, that I’m not merely subject to my sugar or junk food cravings. Feeling better in my clothes. Less inflammation — my wedding ring slips off easy when I take a shower or wash the dishes or sink my hands into yet another bowl of ground meat, because lord knows, we’re eating a lot of it… The pleasure and discipline of cooking a lot, and cooking clean… The pleasure of a “clean full” feeling… The pleasure that comes from shopping the perimeter of the grocery store and presenting your checker with piles of produce… Which helps with the evolving notion that I am not only “trying to healthy,” but in fact, I am a “healthy eater,” that healthy eating habits aren’t just something I do, but in theory, a growing part of my identity, a concept that Melissa Hartwig shares in this fascinating video about how her struggles with drug addiction have helped shape the outlook that defines the Whole30. Enjoying how sweet fruit tastes…

So it’s been… productive. On the flip side, my husband, who actually needs to gain  weight, has effortlessly shed five pounds, even though he eats an extra helping of white potatoes every meal. So I’m wondering if this is the healthiest thing for him…

Bringing it back to the veggies… Here are a few veggie recipes that I will definitely keep making post-Whole30 because they are delish and doable. I hope you will give all of these recipes a try:

Roasted Onions & Cauliflower

  • To make this Whole30 compliant, I omitted the Parmesan cheese and substituted ghee butter for olive oil (which I would probably still do, post Whole30, because of butter’s rich flavor. If you use butter to flavor the veggies, I don’t really think you need the cheese).

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

  • Again, substitute ghee for olive oil if you want. I also recommend washing the sweet potatoes but not peeling them. I think they get a little crispier that way. These are especially delicious when dipped in some Dijon mustard.

Padraic’s Potatoes

  • Cube some Yukon gold potatoes.
  • Boil the bite-sized cubes for 10 minutes.
  • Roast with some cooking fat, salt, pepper and fresh or dried herbs of your choice for 40 minutes at 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Fluffy on the inside, crispy on the outside 🙂

Vegetable Hash, School Night

  • Add some cooking fat to a frying pan over medium high heat.
  • Let 1 yellow onion, chopped and 1 lb Yukon gold potatoes, cubed into bite-sized pieces sauté until the potatoes are golden brown and soft, about 12 minutes.
  • Add 2 cloves garlic, minced and cook about 2 minutes longer.
  • Transfer the contents of the frying pan to a bowl.
  • Do not wipe the pan clean; add more cooking fat. Over medium-high heat, cook 1/2 lb mushrooms, seasoned with salt and pepper. This takes about 4 minutes — you want the mushrooms to be soft and deep in color. Transfer the cooked mushrooms to the same bowl with the other ingredients.
  • Again, do not wipe the pan clean; add some more cooking fat and add 2 zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and 1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch pieces. Season with salt and pepper. This takes about 4 minutes — you want the vegetables to soften. Add this batch to the bowl-in-waiting and season with 3 tablespoons fresh thyme and a little extra salt and pepper.

 

 

Two Flank Steak Suppers

Still putting off a more substantive post on the Whole30 program and all that I’m learning about health, habits, and, let’s be real, expensive grocery bills, because I’m too impatient to share the delicious food that we’re enjoying. Both of these recipes come from Williams-Sonoma School  Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week but they are Whole30 compliant, with a few tweaks.

Both of these meals are elegant in their simplicity, but most importantly, incredibly healthy for you. Here goes:

Flank Steak Salad with Grilled Peaches and Red Onions

  • Make a marinade for 1 lb of flank steak: Whisk 3 tablespoons of olive oil, 1 1/2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, 1 large minced garlic clove, 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small bowl. Dump your flank steak into a gallon Ziploc bag, followed by the marinade and shake to coat evenly. Refrigerate for at least an hour or overnight.
  • Make the dressing: in a liquid measuring cup, whisk together 3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar, 2 tablespoons minced shallots, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste. Slowly add 4 tablespoons olive oil and mix to emulsify. Set aside.
  • Tear a head of romaine lettuce (or whatever kind of lettuce you like) into a salad spinner; wash and dry.
  • Slice 2 red onions into half rings. Pit 3 peaches and cut them into thick slices. Mix 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar with 3 tablespoons olive oil. Brush the onions and the peaches with the olive oil/vinegar mixture.
  • Heat a grill and grill the onions and the peaches. (Or, if you’re feeling lazy, like me today, omit the peaches and caramelize the onions in a big frying pan over low heat with the same olive oil/vinegar mixture, plus a sprinkling of salt and pepper).
  • Cook the flank steak: remove from the Ziploc and slice into inch thick slices. Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and fill the skillet with some cooking fat (I used ghee butter). Add as many slices as you can without crowding the pan and cook on each side for 5 minutes, turning with metal tongs. Reduce the heat to medium or medium low as necessary.
  • Assemble your salad and if you’re not following Whole30, add some blue cheese or feta crumbles.

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My nephew and chef-in-the-making grilled all the onions and peaches on a puny little Panini Press! And sported my “onion goggles” in the process. We all enjoyed the fruit of his labor:

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Flank Steak with Avocado & Tomatoes

This is an even simpler recipe than the salad above. The cookbook version actually calls for skirt steak, which is essentially a little beefier and tougher than flank steak, but very similar, according to What’s the Difference Between Flank Steak and Skirt Steak? To make:

  • Cut 1 1/2 lbs skirt or flank steak into 1-inch or 1/2-inch slices, season with salt and pepper, and leave the slices to rest at room temp for 15 minutes.
  • Heat a frying pan over high heat and add some cooking fat (I used ghee butter, but you could use olive oil or coconut oil, or…??) Add the steak and cook until medium rare, 3-4 minutes per side. Transfer the steak to a cutting board or a plate, cover loosely with aluminum foil, and let rest for 10 minutes.
  • Fill a bowl with 1 1/2 cups (9 oz) halved cherry tomatoes, 2 cubed avocados, 1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, and the juice of 1/2 lime. Enjoy 🙂

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Chicken with Coconut Curry

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All right, food lovers… I have a confession to make… I’m on Day 12 of the Whole30 program. I’m working on a more substantive post about the documentary Fed Up which finally lit a fire under me to swap out The Things They Carried with Fast Food Nation for my American Lit II class, as well as the big ideas I gleaned in Whole30 founders Melissa and Dallas Hartwig’s manifesto of sorts, It All Starts with Food, plus the dilemma I now find myself in when it comes to Ina Garten, whom I love, adore, and cook from, butter, SUGAR, and all.

But for now… a REALLY good recipe from the cookbook The Whole30: The 30-Day Guide to TOTAL HEALTH and FOOD FREEDOM. 

And I’ll say this… one benefit of taking the Whole30 challenge is learning to cook with new ingredients and discovering that you love them. I am developing quite an affection for coconut milk, which I confess I had never used before this “total health” endeavor.

I’m also finding ghee butter handy — clarified butter (milk solids, aka sugar, removed) in a jar. If you’ve ever made clarified butter you can appreciate buying it in a jar. It’s a process. Clarified, or ghee butter can be used to cook at higher temperatures, imparting delicious butter flavor to a wider variety of dishes. Ghee butter runs for about $6.99 a jar at my local grocery store, so make of that what you will. Some grocery stores don’t have it…

I’ve made this chicken recipe twice now, once on the grill and once baked in the oven. If you have the means, the texture and flavor of grilled chicken is just better, in my opinion. But the curry sauce is so decadent, baked chicken is convenient and tasty too. I’ve made it with thighs and breasts — both are good — but bone-in, skin-on is key. (And cheaper!)

Serves 4

  1. First things first: put 2 cans of coconut milk in the fridge for at least an hour. The cream will rise to the top of the can, which is what you’re using, and what makes this curry sauce so decadent.
  2. Make the curry sauce: melt some ghee butter in a saucepan over medium heat, and…swirl to coat… of course 🙂 Add diced onion (half a medium onion) and cook, stirring, until translucent. Add 2 minced garlic cloves and let the garlic cook for about 30 seconds. Throw in 1 tablespoon of curry powder and stir for a good 15 to 20 seconds, then add 1 cup of crushed tomatoes (or tomato sauce) and simmer to thicken, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat, transfer to another bowl, and let everything cool. (The cookbook calls for you to blend the sauce in a blender at this point. I didn’t bother with this step and let the onions and garlic provide a little texture). Use your can opener to measure 1/2 cup of coconut cream out of your can of coconut milk. Measure out 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon pepper  and once the mixture has cooled, stir in the coconut cream, salt, and pepper. (If don’t let the mixture cool, the coconut cream will curdle).
  3. Pour some of the curry sauce into a separate bowl and brush it on your chicken breasts or thighs. (Pat the chicken dry first). (This way if you end up with extra curry sauce, you’re not contaminating the entire bowl as you prepare the chicken. I ended up with extra curry sauce both times. You can re-use the sauce for other things… more meat, a fried egg…)
  4. Grill or bake your chicken and then serve with extra warmed curry sauce. (I baked the chicken at 375 Fahrenheit for 35-40 minutes and then cut into it to see if it needed more time).

Now, in advance — I’ll quote Kathleen O’Toole, a relative I recently met on my travels in Ireland, after she served me carrot cake and apple pie around midnight, seized my hands with a twinkle in her eye, and declared, I’m delighted you liked it!!!!

Festive Summer Supper

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Check out this recipe from the Williams-Sonoma cookbook called School Night: Dinner Solutions for Every Day of the Week. “Mediterranean Shrimp with Feta, Olives, &  Oregano” has a few things going for it:

  • Healthy.
  • Good for company, good for the fam.
  • Mostly assembly and one dish, plus a sauce pan of couscous.
  • Shrimp! Olives! Feta! Yum!
  • Fresh herbs! But dried oregano works too.
  • I made it for my dad on Father’s Day. Good vibes. Make it for someone you love.

Materials

  • Colander
  • Sheet pan
  • Paper towels or cling wrap
  • Medium saucepan
  • Fork (for fluffing couscous)
  • Deep casserole dish
  • Chef’s knife
  • Cutting board
  • Measuring spoons
  • Liquid measuring cup
  • Serving bowls

Ingredients

  • Box of couscous
  • Butter and kosher salt
  • 6 Roma tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra
  • 1 1/2 lbs frozen shrimp
  • Pitted kalamata olives, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup
  • Crumbled feta cheese, 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup
  • 1/4 cup fresh oregano leaves or 2 Tablespoons dried oregano

Instructions

  • Thaw frozen shrimp in the fridge for a few hours in a colander on a sheet pan with cling wrap or paper towels draped over the top. Bring them to room temp and get rid of any ice crystals by running the colander under warm water at intervals and patting the shrimp dry as you make the couscous.
  • Make a box of couscous, following the directions on the package. I went ahead with a pad of butter and several pinches of salt, as called for my box. (The cookbook calls for Israeli couscous rather than the instant kind. I confess I’ve never made Israeli couscous, so you’ll have to comment if I’m missing out. The instant kind was yummy too).
  • Preheat your oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Rinse, dry, and chop the tomatoes, placing them in the bottom of your casserole dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and mix well with your hands.
  • Bake for 8 minutes, until the tomatoes release their juices.
  • Check to make sure the shrimp is thawed. (The cookbook calls for raw, deveined shrimp but medium frozen ones cooked at the same temperature for the same time worked just as well).
  • Layer the cooked tomatoes with shrimp, olives, feta, and oregano. (The cookbook recipe calls for a half cup of both olives and feta, but I recommend more of each. Serve the remaining olives as an hors d’oeurve, or nibble while you’re cooking. Point is — jar should be consumed, some way or another.)
  • Bake 12 minutes. Drizzle the cooked casserole dish with olive oil and serve atop the warm couscous.

Serve with this simple, healthy Rachel Ray tomato, cucumber, red onion chopped salad if you want to round out the plate.

And finally, to end your summer meal, a berry pie. I adapted Joy the Baker’s Strawberry Rhubarb Crumb Pie by substituting a pound of blueberries for the rhubarb, since zero out of three of my local grocery stores were selling rhubarb in June. (Wha??)

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I also substituted half the lemon juice for orange juice, and added some orange zest and lemon zest to the filling.

Instead of pecans, I used store bought roasted, salted almonds for the crumb topping. But don’t make my mistake — thoroughly mix the butter with the flour, and this is key — before you add the nuts — otherwise you’ll end up with sections of raw, unbrowned flour on the top of your pie.

As for the crust, cold ingredients are key — dice the butter and then put it in the freezer for a few minutes, and keep the buttermilk refrigerated until you use it. This hand-mixed, buttermilk-congealed pie crust is one of the easiest I’ve ever made. The buttermilk really helps things come together to form a smooth dough.

I made two pies — for Clark, and for Patrick, my father and my father-in-law — and I learned these helpful hints about freezing a pie from The Kitchn. Long story short, if you tightly wrap and freeze an unbaked pie, the juices from the berries won’t make the crust soggy when you eventually bake it. So freeze pies unbaked. Enjoy 🙂

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Goat Cheese and Onions Part 2

I recently read an article (in Epicurous, I think) about the oft-neglected merits of something certain foodies consider super uncool: boneless, skinless chicken breasts. Unexciting, perhaps, but I’m a firm believer that boneless, skinless chicken breasts are indispensable. See this recipe for chicken and veggie quesadillas by Ree Drummond that has sustained the two of us for at least a week’s worth of dinners… a sprinkle of taco seasoning lends the diced chicken a bit of kick, and you can prepare it ahead, along with the sautéed onions and bell peppers, and throw together a quesadilla whenever you’re feeling hungry. Then, mix the extra diced chicken with romaine lettuce, shredded Mexican cheese, tomato slices, and this rich, basil and scallion-loaded green goddess dressing, and you’ve got lunch. Or (I digress) the dressing is so rich you may just want a plateful of lettuce and tomato, like so:

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But anyway. Boneless skinless chicken breasts. Yes.

That being said, I’m also aboard the bone-in, skin-on chicken thigh trend. Which brings me to goat cheese and onions. Here’s how I adapted Ina Garten’s Chicken with Goat Cheese and Sun Dried Tomato a few weeks ago:

  • Chicken thighs instead of chicken breasts. In my experience, thigh meat tends to be fattier and more succulent than breast meat, and I feel I can justify the treat because thighs are smaller than breasts.
  • Her recipe calls for herbed goat cheese – I had plain in my fridge, from my aforementioned experiment with goat cheese caramelized onion bruschetta, so I added a fresh basil leaf under the skin instead. (If you have an herb garden, you could always mash in your own fresh herbs and an improvise your own herbed goat cheese. Right now my chives are out of control, so maybe I should have done that. Aw shucks, I suppose I’ll have to buy another log of goat cheese and start all over again… 🙂 )
  • I also did not have sun-dried tomatoes on hand, so I put a roasted red pepper (that came in a jar) under the skin. (Another reason to buy these jarred, roasted red peppers is that they layer sweetly on your standard, homemade grilled cheese sandwich and add nice, vinegary notes to salads. If you happen to have fresh bell peppers lying around, plus olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper, and a little fresh garlic (optional), you can make your own. See another, goat-cheese centric Ina Garten recipe (this one I haven’t made) for more specific instructions on how to pickle peppers.

Onions, you say?

I’ve made this Ina Garten recipe for herb roasted onions a few times, say, if I’m cooking meat and I have no vegetables or salad ingredients on hand to go with. It’s something of a revelation to me that onions are a vegetable that can be roasted like anything else, and stand on their own. Quarter and separate a few onions – mix them with olive oil, mustard, fresh herbs, and salt and pepper – roast them on a sheet pan, and voila: a cheap and surprisingly delicious side dish. (This time I made the recipe with yellow onions only, because that’s what I had – but I think adding a red onion to the mix is really worth it. Adds extra sweetness).

I rounded out the roasted chicken and roasted onions with some roasted carrots – really simple — olive oil, salt and pepper, and in my case, copious amounts of fresh dill.

Here’s how dinner ended up (I forgot to mention that crisp (cheap) white wine is always an important factor in the goat cheese and onion equation, but perhaps that just goes unsaid…)

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To goat cheese, to onions, to alfresco dining, to life, to life, l’chaim….

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