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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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What’s Cookin’, Good Lookin’

Jake Bellucci Le Creuset CC BY-NC-ND 2.0One of the things I love about winter is that it’s a season conducive to cooking in bulk — think soups, stews, casseroles, gratins, the list goes on. I have gotten into the habit of preparing one to two soups for the week on Sunday afternoons, and boy, has it been scrumptious, not to mention economical and time-saving. I thought I’d compile a list of my recent soup pursuits, with some of my forays into baking, fish, and why not, mashed potatoes thrown in for good measure. One of the pleasures of blogging for me is documenting what I cook throughout the year, so as I give into that, I hope that you find something posted here that you might consider trying. (Also, if you don’t already have one, I hope you’ll consider busying yourself an immersion blender… the one I recently acquired has been a godsend this winter, as evidenced by the list below. If not, a regular blender works too. Just a thought 🙂 ) Bon appetit!

tracy benjamin tortilla strips CC BY-NC-ND 2.0I first tasted this chicken tortilla soup recipe from Food and Wine at the home of my friend, Allison, on a much-needed getaway trip to Nashville, Tennessee. (The trip ended with the discovery of frozen pipes in our frigid condo, due to my flakiness in leaving the heat off just as Chicago morphed into Chiberia. Even our jar of olive oil was frozen solid, but that’s another story!) This soup makes clever use of the aforementioned immersion blender, thickening up the tomato/onion/garlic/five spice/chicken broth/cilantro base with fried tortilla strips, puréed. The cubed chicken is added raw and cooked conveniently in the broth, and chunks of avocado are mixed in at the end. It’s hearty, zingy, and deeply satisfying when topped with the usual Southwestern suspects: grated cheddar, homemade fried tortilla strips, sour cream, cilantro, scallions, and lime wedges.

Steven Lilley Broccoli CC BY-SA 2.0Padraic told me he felt like he was dining at Panera after eating Ree Drummond’s broccoli cheddar soup, and I took that as effusive praise! I used 2% milk instead of whole, and things turned out quite creamy nonetheless. The recipe starts with preparations for a roasted broccoli garnish, and proceeds with sautéing onions in butter, then simmering pieces of raw broccoli in a mixture of milk, half-and-half, flour, and nutmeg. Three cups of cheddar cheese are added, with the option of puréeing the mixture or breaking up the broccoli with a potato masher. I think this might be the most indulgent broccoli dish there is, but January/February is certainly a fitting time for it.

nick mote Lentil Macro CC BY 2.0Surprise, surprise, this recipe does not use a blender — no, instead, Ina Garten’s lentil sausage soup, from her cookbook Barefoot in Paris, is richly textured with softened vegetables, lentils, and chunks of sausage. In my unsuccessful search for the recommended French green lentils, I learned that French lentils are simply smaller in size, so I just bought the most petit ones they had in the store, which worked fine. The process starts by cooking onions, leeks, and garlic flavored with cumin, thyme, salt, and pepper; then celery and carrots are added. This mixture plus pre-soaked lentils, chicken stock, and tomato paste simmers for an hour, then pre-cooked sausage is added and warmed through. You finish it off with a drizzle of red wine vinegar or red wine, take your pick.

cookbookman17 White Beans CC BY 2.0Cristina Ferrare’s minestrone soup from the cookbook, Big Bowl of Love is another hearty, one-meal wonder. It’s basically a compilation of fresh vegetables, beans, and tomatoes, puréed thick and served with freshly grated Parmesan and a generous drizzle of balsamic vinegar. I couldn’t find an exact reproduction of the cookbook’s recipe on the inter tubes, so I’ve posted the recipe at the bottom of this entry.

PINKÉ Pyrex Casserole CC BY-NC 2.0Then, of course, there comes a time when enough soup has been had and a casserole — what else? — beckons. The notion of chicken tetrazinni was so delightfully retro to me that I felt compelled to whip up a behemoth batch of it. Who else but Ree Drummond, aka The Pioneer Woman, to guide me through layers of spaghetti, mushrooms, melted cream/Monterey Jack/Parmesan cheese, bacon, peas, and toasted bread crumbs? Hers is technically a turkey tetrazinni, which sounds delicious, but the only time I have cooked turkey on hand is the day after Thanksgiving. So I turned to The Kitchn for advice on poaching chicken breasts. Ree suggests adding up to two extra cups of chicken broth to the cheese/veggie/pasta mixture before baking it, even if it’s a little soupy. I second this — I added this amount and the consistency of the finished product was just right — cheesy but not overwhelmingly so, and moist. I skipped the chopped olives, but hey, that’s just me.

essgee51 Dill and Lemon 2 (20/365) CC BY-NC 2.0 Sometimes soup and casseroles don’t carry you through the entire week, which makes room for minimalist dishes like… salmon, roasted with lemon, butter, and dill. This is my go-to recipe for salmon — it’s as easy as melting butter with lemon juice and seasoning the fish with dill, minced garlic (or garlic powder), salt, and pepper. Comes out moist and flaky every time.

Anne White Yukon Gold Potatoes CC BY-NC 2.0I made a batch of these super easy, quick, and straightforward mashed potatoes to go with the salmon. It’s another find from Cristina Ferrare’s cookbook, Big Bowl of Love. I love this recipe because it turns what you normally think of as a special occasion, holiday side into a week night staple. The most work and time intensive part is peeling, boiling, and mashing the potatoes — after that’s done, you just add butter, milk, and salt, but in proportions that consistently produce a creamy, fluffy, apporiately-salted mash. The addition of lemon zest may sound strange, but I find that it brightens and freshens the dish in a beautiful way. Then again, I’ll add lemon to anything. A handful of chopped scallions add a peppery bite to the creamy potato canvas. I find that making mashed potatoes during the week is really quite practical — the leftovers can bulk up another quick-cooking protein a few days later or be packed in a lunch.

Tom Gill Apples CC BY-NC-ND 2.0Speaking of packing lunches, the discovery of a homemade scone in my lunch bag is worth the effort, I think. Lately I’ve been on a scone kick, as mentioned here. It’s the byproduct of my newly acquired “mini scone pan,” allowing you to just drop the dough into a greased pan, and the fact that scones are so versatile — good for breakfast, lunch, dessert… These apple and cheddar scones combine roasted chunks of tart fruit with a salty, cheesy bite, and the dough is non-fussily brought together in the bowl of an electric stand mixer — no messy wielding of a pastry cutter or hauling out of a food processor. The pre-roasted apples, grated cheese, dry ingredients (flour/sugar/baking powder/salt), and wet ingredients (butter/cream/egg) are simply combined in a single bowl and mixed together on low.

Screen Shot 2013-02-14 at 9.01.41 PMWith regard to other baked goods, this Valentine’s Day I was in the mood to make something chocolate, but I wanted to bypass some of the more decadent, ultra-sweet chocolate desserts. I still wanted to make something special, something I don’t normally make. I landed on Love and Olive Oil’s Orange and Dark Chocolate Biscotti, featuring my favorite chocolate-fruit flavor combination. The orange notes come through strongly, and the chunks of dark chocolate impart a subtle richness and decadence of flavor. I love the hearty crunch and mild sweetness of biscotti — making it at home transports you to your favorite café and gets the coffee pot percolating.

zoyachubby Basil CC BY-ND 2.0A second Valentine’s Day experiment, this time for the main course, was seared scallops with basil olive oil pistou. Somehow seafood is romantic to me, it’s the first thing that comes to mind when I imagine a Valentine’s Day dinner. I’m somewhat shy to say that this was my first time cooking scallops at home, but searing them proved quick and easy. Pistou (pronounced pee-stew) is a French term, and it’s similar to pesto: a mixture of herbs, garlic, and olive oil (in this version the herbs, parsley and basil, are blanched first. I’d never thought to blanche herbs before — aside from the nuisance of repeatedly hand wringing them dry, the blanching did make the sauce more delicate.) The pistou is spooned under each scallop and fresh herbs are sprinkled on top for a simple but slightly elevated presentation. The pistou certainly distinguishes this scallop dish and imparts lots of fresh flavor, but I have to say, it’s oily. I doubled the recipe, and even leaving out about 1/3 cup, the oil still saturated the plate. You might consider scaling back on it by paying closer attention than I did to the food processor.

John Robinson Lemon and lime CC BY 2.0Two final dinner recipes — last night I tried this fish taco recipe in lieu of Lent. It’s refreshing and light all around, a much-needed break from all these hearty, thickly puréed soups I’ve been making. You can use any white fish, I used cod — flavored with a marinade of lime juice, minced garlic, cumin, chili powder, and vegetable oil. For a healthier meal, the fish is grilled, not fried. The tacos are dressed with a cabbage slaw combining shredded cabbage, sliced red onion, cilantro, and more lime juice and veggie oil. Additional toppings include salsa, sour cream, and sliced avocado. (I opted against bottled salsa for an easy-to-make salsa fresca, containing chopped tomatoes, a squeeze of lime juice, some diced red onion, and a pinch of salt.) Last but not least, what could be easier than this lemon spaghetti recipe, authored by the one and only  Giada Di Laurentiis. You literally whisk together lemon juice, olive oil, and Parmesan cheese, and boil noodles, then make a few tweaks with pasta water, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and fresh basil (or in my case, dried). Couldn’t be simpler, and couldn’t be more delicious.

So there you go… a kitchen sink’s worth of good food links. Hopefully it stimulates some upcoming cooking adventures in your own kitchen. Thanks for reading, and please let me know if there’s a better recipe out there for salmon, mashed potatoes, soup, fish tacos, etc. etc. Happy hunkering down this winter!

Hearty Vegetable Minestrone Soup
From Big Bowl of Love

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, diced
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1/3 cup water
  • 2 carrots, diced
  • 2 celery stalks, diced
  • 2 small zucchini, diced
  • 2 cups broccoli florets, cut small
  • 1/2 small cabbage, shredded
  • 1 cup cauliflower cut into small pieces
  • 2 teaspoons salt
  • 1 (28-ounce) can of chopped tomatoes
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • 2 (15-ounce) cans white navy beans or cannellini
  • 1 1/2 cups uncooked small tube, shell-shaped pasta, or orzo
  • 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
  • fresh basil
  • red pepper flakes
  • balsamic vinegar, for drizzling

Instructions

  • Heat a large stockpot over medium-high heat. Add the olive oil and heat until hot. Quickly add the onion, and sauté for 5 minutes, until the onion starts to caramelize. Add the garlic and sauté for 30 seconds.
  • Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring constantly, for 1 minute; then add the water and stir. Simmer for 2 minutes. Add carrots, celery, zucchini, broccoli florets, cabbage, cauliflower, and salt. Cook for 3 to 5 minutes, until the vegetables start to release their juices.
  • Add the canned tomatoes and chicken stock. Bring to a gentle boil. Add the beans and stir. Cover and gently simmer on low heat for 45 minutes.
  • In a blender, (or with an immersion blender), purée three-quarters of the soup until semi-smooth. Pour back into the stockpot and stir well. This will thicken your soup.
  • Adjust the seasoning (taste for salt; you will probably need to add more — 1/4 teaspoon at a time, so you don’t oversalt). Bring the soup back up to a gentle boil. Add the pasta and stir well so the pasta doesn’t stick. Cook the pasta for about 5 minutes or until al dente. You don’t want to overcook the pasta. Ladle into heated bowls. Garnish with 2 tablespoons freshly grated cheese per serving, fresh basil, and red pepper flakes to taste. Drizzle about a teaspoon of olive oil and balsamic vinegar over the top.
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