kick up the heat

Summer is in full effect and it's almost July. Seriously, where did June go?! Time is FLYING by. For me, nothing says summer like fresh corn, berries, chilled wines, and perfectly tart homemade lemonade. For a lot of people, watermelon is on that list.

Can I be honest with you? Watermelon is not my favorite. In fact, 10 times out of 10 I'll give you my slice if it comes as a garnish on a plate. I gaze over it at BBQ's, and it's the only thing left at the bottom of my fruit cocktail bowl. I'm aware that this probably makes me un-american and not human… what can I say?! Something about the overly sweet mush that I'm not a huge fan of. Well, until I played around with it a bit. 

I got a big ole hunk of watermelon in my CSA last week. Talk about a disappointment. I decided to make it my mission to create a watermelon dish that I could enjoy (part of the reason why I joined a CSA in the first place - to be more adventurous/experimental in the kitchen). I'm happy to announce I was successful not once, but twice! Last Summer I remembered seeing an article from Tasting Table about a Chicago restaurant serving up a watermelon salad in a fun way. I rememberd thinking - that makes me want to try watermelon and I'm not even a fan of the fruit. THAT is how powerful presentation can be in the world of food. No matter what kind of food I'm making, I always try my best to make it look fun/interesting/appetizing. So today I give you my play on Francesca's Forno watermelon salad presentation.

I think watermelon salads can be done well or terribly. A few weeks ago I had a watermelon cube served as an appetizer with a whipped feta. It was disgusting. It was an appetizer that tried to be friends with the savory crowd when it only knew how to play with the sweets. 

I used some of my favorite ingredients, basil and goat cheese for this version. I think the tang of the goat cheese plays nicely with the fruit (instead of trying to compete). Basil adds a nice herbal burst to cut through the sweetness as well. I added a drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar to further counter the sweet watermelon. But the real secret to this salad?! Salt and a light sprinkle of cayenne pepper. The salt helps with the sweet savory balance but that cayenne, it's the real star of the dish. I used just enough to leave a little tingle on the lips. It's definitely an unexpected and welcome kick to something you expect to just be sweet and juicy. If you're not a fan of spicy, you can totally leave it out. There's something really fun about watermelon salad with cayenne though… it's sweet heat!

Lots of improv suggestions below. Swap out the ingredients for your favorites… it's a salad after all!

kickin' watermelon salad

watermelon slices
crumbled goat cheese
torn fresh basil leaves
drizzle of aged balsamic vinegar
sprinkle of salt
light sprinkle of cayenne pepper (seriously just a small pinch dusted over the slice)

No measurements here, use as much as you like. Just like making a salad, you can't really go wrong (unless you dump TOO much cayenne pepper or salt). Use a light hand, you can always add more.

improv style:
i think the traditional watermelon salad involves feta cheese, olives, thinly shaved onions, and fresh mint leaves. i like 2 of the above ingredients so i improv'd it to my taste. use your favorite flavors. here's some suggestions:

combine any of the following:
  • semi-hard crumbly cheese - like feta, goat, blue cheese
  • fresh herb of sorts (in this case, fresh is a must) - mint, basil, cilantro, parsley
  • toppings - olives, onions, slivered nuts, sesame seeds, cucumber, tomato, wonton strips
  • dressings - your favorite type of vinegar, a honey dressing, your favorite salad dressing, maybe an asian toasted sesame?! - get creative or go naked!

you can serve it as a pizza slice but you could also just dice the watermelon and serve it up traditionally. if you don't have cayenne but still want to add heat you could try using hot sauce or siracha. just watch how much you put on… a little goes a long way! Also, don't have aged balsamic? just pour some in a pan and reduce it until it becomes a thick syrup. boom, now you've got your own thick syrupy balsamic without the huge price tag! 


happy accident

I love when a mistake ends up becoming a good thing, especially in the kitchen. Like the time I used my mom's fancy port when making spaghetti sauce. Because at 12 years old, the bottle looked like wine to me. Turns out the sweetness of port adds a nice touch to a spaghetti sauce. Now I add 1 TBSP of brown sugar and shredded carrots to my sauce to get the same effect (plus actual red wine). 

Sometimes accidents don't turn out so well. Like the first time I made spaghetti sauce and added tarragon. All I remembered was that my mom put a lot of green herbs into the sauce. Turns out, tarragon wasn't one of them. Same dish, 2 very different outcomes. 

Last year, when going to order Matt a jim beam and ginger ale, the bartender thought I said gin and ginger. This left Matt with a very unpleasant and surprised cringed face. Can you imagine expecting bourbon and getting gin instead?! I offered to go back and get him a new one but he said it was fine. On second sip, expecting gin this time, he decided that it was actually pretty good. A few sips later he declared it his new favorite summer drink. 

I'm not a gin lover so I was hesitant to try it. But even I have to admit, it's perfection. It's crisp and clean with a bit of a floral bite from the gin. Refreshing is the perfect way to describe it. We named it the happy accident as that's exactly how it was discovered. With summer upon us, I couldn't think of a more perfect cocktail to share with you.

happy accident (gin + ginger ale)
yields 1 drink

1 oz gin
1 ½ c. ginger ale
4 - 5 ice cubes 
lime wedge for garnish (optional)

mix, stir, serve. 

improv style:
this is a cocktail - just glug, glug, and stir. you don't actually need to measure. i will say that if you have a heavy hand and aren't a fan of gin, be easy. i like this as a refreshing summer sipping cocktail, not a "lets get loaded" drink. when i order it out i usually request a single in a tall glass to ensure it's not too strong. gin can be overwhelming and i'm not a huge gin fan. this drink is totally the exception. if you're skeptical, give it a try once. it might just make you a fan… 

you could totally overcomplicate this if you want. elderflower liquor or a splash of something citrusy would be a welcome addition. the whole K.I.S.S. (keep it simple stupid) rule really applies here. any brand of gin and any brand of ginger ale will work. if you're into making everything from scratch, try making my friend over at a sage amalagam's homemade ginger ale. She adds some fun spices to her mixture wich would be a great twist to this cocktail. If you're going for simple, you could leave those out and just make the ginger simple syrup. 


peachy keen

The weather is nice and oddly we've been eating a lot of hot dogs for dinner. Hot dogs and coleslaw. The weather is nice and we've been busy running around like crazy lately. Something about this Chicago weather right now makes hot dogs sound like a good idea.

When I do get some free time, I'm going to make another batch of this peach tea sparkler and sit outside reading the latest cooking magazine. Ok, most likely I'll be reading the issues from 6 months ago (I'm a little behind) but it will be fantastic. I'm looking forward to this day. I wonder when I'll be able to fit it in. 

Iced tea is one of my summertime favorites. I'm a sucker for peach iced tea. I'm also a sucker for all things sparkly. Bubbly sparkly, not shiny sparkly. Who am I kidding, I love shiny sparkly too but were talking about bubbly things right now. Peach tea sparkler. I said it. It's everything you love about a subtly sweet peach iced tea with little bubbles that tickle your tongue and scream IT'S SUMMER! Little things, like bubbles, make me happy.  

This recipe is just a guideline. I like my tea STRONG. I also like it subtly sweet, not hit you in the mouth sweet. Peaches are my favorite tea combination but lots of other tea/fruit/herb combo's would be just as nice. Improv suggestions below!

Happy, almost, weekend!

peach tea sparkler
yields 4 servings

3 black tea bags (I used Tazo Awake)
2 c. water
2 fresh peaches, sliced
2 T. agave nectar
4 c. sparkling water

In a medium sized pot, bring your water to a boil. dump in your tea bags and steep for 5 minutes. yes, you have to wait the whole time. you're making a tea concentrate and you want it to fully brew. if you add in anything (sugar, flavor, etc…) at this point, it will disrupt the steeping process. once you have a nice dark brew, remove your tea bags and add your sliced peaches. Return to a gentle simmer and cook for another 5 minutes. You want the peaches to release their juices into the mixture. Remove from heat and add as much or as little sweetener (in this case agave) to the pot. It will taste strong but remember, you're topping it with sparkling water which dilutes it, a lot. Let it sit for 15 more minutes off the heat. Then strain and let the mixture cool in the refrigerator (about an hour). Pour about ¼ c. of the tea mixture over ice and top with about 1 c. of sparkling water. Give it a stir and adjust to taste. If you don't have the patience to let it cool, just pour it over some ice and use a little less sparkling water. Instant gratification.

improv style:
fresh peaches might not be available where you are yet. it's technically not their season, yet. if that's the case for you, you can use frozen peaches. not down with peach? blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, lemon - you see where i'm going here. use your favorite flavor combination. 

this would also be great with other types of tea. i like the taste of black and the jolt it gives me but green tea, white tea, or even herbal tea would be just as tasty. if you're going for light and refreshing consider doing lime juice with some fresh mint leaves and green tea. or blackberry black tea with lime sparkling water. so many options, these would be my alts.

on to sweeteners... i like using truvia on most days (it's a stevia based natural low-cal sweetener) but when i'm splurging, i do agave nectar. honey, white sugar, sugar in the raw... however you prefer to sweeten will work just fine here. add as much or as little as you prefer.

what's your favorite iced tea sparkler flavor?


they call me tater salad

Something comes over me in the Summer. It's like welcoming a close friend who you've lost touch with, back into your life. I'm so thankful and happy to have you back sunshine! It's that magical time of year when you wake up to sunshine and think, "Hey! Morning isn't so bad. I think I love today, we should make the most of it, we should BBQ"! Do you have these same thoughts? 

Grilling season is in full effect and I couldn't be happier, well, actually I'm sad because our building is under construction and they closed off our roof deck until mid-July. MEANING NO GRILL ACCESS, ahhh! Luckily our good friends invited us over for some burgers last weekend. Nothing says Summertime BBQ like a big bowl of homemade potato salad. 

I'm not into that store bought sweet pickle stuff. I like the real deal, mamma's classic potato salad. It's made with mayo, dill pickles, hardboiled eggs, and a hint of mustard. It's very basic, super simple, and perfectly savory with hits of saltiness from the pickle and seasoning. It's the perfect compliment to burgers and hot dogs.

There's all sorts of potato salad recipes out there, and I welcome them. But for our first Summer BBQ I had to have my mom's classic recipe. This potato salad will be a hit at your next barbecue. I highly recommend you make if for the 4th of July too. It's a staple on our menu. 

HAPPY SUMMER everyone!!!!

classic potato salad
yields 12 servings

4 medium - large russet potatoes
2 c. mayo
6 baby dill pickles chopped
5 hardboiled eggs chopped
2 T. Dijon mustard
½ t. mustard powder
salt + pepper to taste
chopped parsley to garnish (optional)

Peel and dice your potatoes into bite sized chunks (whatever you prefer). Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Drop a handful of salt and your potatoes in and cook until tender. Depending on the size, this will be about 15 - 20 min. If you're feeling lazy like me, you can roast your potatoes in the oven and peel them when they're cooled and dice after the fact. 

In a large bowl, combine mayo, pickles, eggs (including yolk), dijon, and mustard powder. Stir until combined. Add in your diced potatoes while they're still slightly warm (not HOT, just warm to the touch - you don't want your mayo getting funky on you). This will let the potatoes absorb more flavor. It will look like too much sauce at first, don't panic. After sitting for 1 - 2 hours it will be just perfect! Salt and pepper to taste. I tend to think potatoes can use a healthy dose of salt, but hey, that's just me. 

Let it sit in your fridge and get happy for at least 2 hours. This is actually better on day 2 & 3 when the flavors have had time to build. Bonus if you're hosting a party because it's one last thing to do day of! 

improv style:
you can use any potato you fancy. if it's yukon or red potatoes, consider leaving the skins on, yum! 

mayo, eeeek?! yes, this is full of fatty goodness. if you're looking to lighten it up, consider swapping it out for reduced fat or fat free mayo. OR you could mash up some avocados and do 50/50 mayo to avocado. you'll get the consistency and flavor you're looking for without as much bad fats. you could try doing the same thing with greek yogurt but i personally think it would be too tangy. 

consider adding in some chopped green onion, dill, celery, bell peppers, or for a little kick jalapeno. this is a completely savory potato salad but if you prefer something more like the store bought sweet kind, consider using sweet pickles instead of dill. the possibilities of potato salad are endless but this is my favorite classic, mayo based potato salad. what's your fav style?


improv it!

Yesterday I posted these amazing raspberry lemonade bars and today I wanted to show you an improv version of the recipe. When I first saw the original recipe I couldn't decide which to make... the original or the first thing that popped into my head, blackberry lime. Raspberry lemon is such a classic combination. One that I fall for every time.

I'm not sure which ones I like better. Honestly they taste like two completely different desserts. You only substitute 2 ingredients but it's crazy what those little tweaks can do. Hopefully this post will show you what adapting a recipe to your tastes could be like. And seriously, someone please do the raspberry ones and blueberry ones for 4th of July. It's perfect summertime dessert fun with a patriotic twist!

blackberry lime bars
adapted from sophistimom


for the crust:
9 T. (1 stick + 1 T.) butter
¼ c. sugar
1 c. flour
1 t. vanilla extract
pinch of salt

for the filling:
12 oz (heaping 2 c.) frozen blackberries thawed - it became 1 c. of pulp/juice 
¾ c. sugar
 c. lime juice (about 8 limes - mine weren't very juicy)
2 T. lime zest (4 limes worth)
3 egg whites
1 egg
 c. flour
pinch of salt

powdered sugar for dusting on top

Preheat oven to 350ยบ F. Line an 8x8 baking pan with parchment paper so you can easily lift the bars out once they've cooled. If you don't have an 8x8 that's ok. I did this in a smaller rectangular pan too and they turned out just fine. You may have to adjust the baking times depending on the size.

To make the crust:
Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer, then add the vanilla. Add flour until just incorporated. Dump dough in baking pan and press with your hands until it evenly covers the bottom of the dish. Bake for 20 - 25 minutes until slightly golden brown. 

To make the filling:
If you, like me didn't have enough time for the blackberries to thaw on their own, place in microwave for 1 minute to soften them up. Then put in a fine mesh sieve and press the berries through (this removes the seeds) into a large bowl. If you don't mind seeds, you can add them in whole. Or if you don't have a sieve, you can blend them up in a food processor or blender. Add sugar, egg whites, egg, lime juice + zest, flour, and salt to the bowl and stir to combine. Pour the mixture into the crust (don't worry, it's a very loose mixture, it will thicken) and bake for 25 - 30 minutes depending on your oven and the sized baking dish you use. 

Let cool to room temperature and then place in the refrigerator for 4 hours (or until they've cooled completely). You can place them in the freezer if you need them sooner but refrigerator is best. If you can wait overnight, that's even better! 

improv style:
i prefer my bars with a good amount of tartness. if you have a sweet tooth, consider increasing up to 1½ c. sugar.

there's TONS of possibilities to change this recipe up! strawberry lemonade bars anyone?! you could make this a fun 4th of july treat by doing blueberry lemon and strawberry lemon bars (red, white - crust, and blue!). here are some combinations to consider:

• cherry lime
• strawberry orange (use less sugar)
• grapefruit bars
• blueberry lemon
• strawberry lemon