Dijon and Herb-dressed Potato Salad for the Heart of Summer

I love the heat, energy and fireworks explosion of people out enjoying life in every possible way that takes place in July; but to me, August is the heart of summer.  I savor August days when the pace of life slows down, the garden booms and I can pause to soak in warmth, the natural wonders, brilliant flavors and the easy pace that life settles into at this time of year.  I enjoy being able to base my seasons on what is happening outside, instead of on the school year or the sport’s calendar.  It helps me keep the summer feeling alive to the last second when the fall chill genuinely takes hold.  I understand that for many people, the first sign of a cooler evening, a fallen leaf or the school year looming close marks a change.  Even so, it is too early to shift to autumn-cooking mode while the garden and farmer’s market is overflowing with beautiful summer vegetables and fruits.  If you have a potluck, picnic or BBQ left on the agenda, trotting out the classic potato salad is probably starting to seem a little dull and repetitive.  This is when it is time to turn the traditional potato salad on its heel–add some veggies to the ingredient list, subtract the typical mayo-based dressing.  With a few tweaks, you have a bright, fresh twist on a classic potato salad that capitalizes on August abundance and tastes and looks so different, you will forget the creamy classic potato salad recipe you wore out in June and July.

Dijon and Herb Potato Salad– Yield:  6 generous servings, 20 minutes hands-on, 50 minutes total time.

  • 2 pounds small Yukon Gold or Red potatoes scrubbed
  • 6 eggs, hard-boiled, peeled and halved or quartered
  • 1 cup Fresh Peas or String Beans, or a combination of both
  • 1 cup grape or cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 tablespoons chicken or vegetable stock
  • 3 tablespoons Tarragon vinegar
  • 2 1/2 tablespoons Grainy Dijon mustard
  • 8-10 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 minced shallot
  • 2 tablespoons fresh dill, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons flat-leaf parsley, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons basil leaves, chopped, plus small, whole basil leaves for garnish
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper


Drop the  potatoes into a large pot of boiling, lightly salted water and cook for 20 to 30 minutes, until they are just cooked through.  Drain the potatoes in a colander, then place them in a large bowl with the fresh peas or string beans on top and cover with a clean towel.  This allows the beans or peas to steam along with the potatoes for 10 minutes more.  Note, this approach worked for me, though if you are nervous about the peas or beans being cooked, add, them to the pot of boiling potatoes for the last few minutes, or steam them separately.  Cut the potatoes in half or quarters if they are large.  If you used Yukon Gold potatoes, you can slip off the skins right off at this point if you like. Toss the potatoes gently with chicken stock.  Allow the liquid to soak into the warm potatoes before proceeding.  

Combine the vinegar, mustard, olive oil with 1/2 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper in a small jar with a tight-fitting lid.  Shake vigorously to make an emulsion.  Add the vinaigrette to the potatoes. Add the shallot, dill, parsley, basil, salt and pepper and gently toss.  Just before serving, toss in the halved tomatoes and top the salad with halved hard-boiled eggs, fresh cracked pepper and small basil leaves.  Serve warm or at room temperature.

Another Taste of Ngon in Saint Paul

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Ngon Vietnamese Bistro – 799 University Avenue, Saint Paul, Minnesota Telephone:  (651) 222-3301

Last night we made a great discovery, Ngon, one of our favorite restaurants currently offers a great special on Monday nights:  Two Traditional Vietnamese Entrees, Pork or Vegetarian Vietnamese Spring rolls and a pitcher of beer for $30.  It has only been a few weeks since I wrote about the lovely, secluded patio, and a few months since I first wrote about Ngon’s selection of local-only beers, and traditional and inventive Vietnamese cuisine with locally sourced, sustainable meat and produce.  It seems a bit soon to write about it again, but the offerings at Ngon are unwaveringly well-prepared and delicious, so we keep going back.  We started with crispy vegetarian spring rolls which immediately cut our hunger.  Fortunately, after the indulgent, fried appetizer, our main dishes were lighter.  I ordered Bún, a rice vermicelli salad with organic greens, cucumbers, bean sprouts with saucy, fried tofu, garnished with pickly carrot, herbs and peanuts— my new summer go-to dish at Ngon.  Bjorn had a steamy, flavorful bowl of meatball Phở and piled on bean sprouts, slices of fresh jalapenos and basil leaves which are provided as garnish.  We managed to polish off a pitcher of Northwest Passage IPA by Flat Earth Brewing Co, a super-hoppy IPA made with Canadian malts and four American hops.  Flat Earth Brewing Company reports that “Northwest Passage goes well with Phở, Buffalo wings & bon fires.”  Bjorn completely agreed, and I will enthusiastically add that Northwest Passage also pairs well with spring rolls and Bún.   This meal was a great deal–had it not been for the Monday night special, we probably would have only ordered our entrees and a pint of beer, it was Monday, after all.  But, then again, why shouldn’t dinner out on a Monday night be tasty and a little extra nice?  We’re fortunate to have Ngon in our neighbourhood and to have discovered that they offer a deal that makes a special and relaxing meal possible on the unlikeliest of nights.

I’ll be back soon with a garden update!  

Mandilli de Saea al Pesto with Peas

I started out my last post saying that summertime “is a season to avoid being booked and busy as much as possible, to allow time to be free to savor summer’s simple pleasures.”  A few nights ago, I came home intent on making Mandilli de Saea al Pesto with Fresh Garden Peas –this supper is one of the reasons I avoid being booked and busy.  I have been waiting since January to roll out Silk Handkerchiefs or Mandilli de Saea and, cook them gently, and  coat them with a stunning, bright green, fragrant pesto made with basil from our garden.

I began by shelling a pound of farmer’s market peas.  Just-cooked, freshly-shelled peas rounded out our simple supper perfectly. 

I have rolled out fresh pasta in various formats, and made pesto a time or two, but I don’t claim to be an expert on either, though my technique has certainly gotten better over time.  I first learned to make fresh pasta at a cooking class I took at the Chopping Block Cooking School located in the Merchandise Mart in Chicago that my sweetheart gave me as a Christmas present a few years ago.  I will shamelessly admit that everything I have learned since I can attribute to watching cooking shows on T.V.  I usually follow Lidia Bastianich’s recipe for fresh pasta which is simple, using a food processor, readily available all-purpose flour and a little olive oil which makes a silky dough.  I came home from work and immediately got to work using our handy-dandy food processor to mix up a half-recipe of pasta dough—two people don’t need 1½ pounds of pasta sitting around.  Thank you Lidia for making your dough in the food processor.

Lidia’s  Pasta Dough – Yield 1½ pounds of dough

3 cups all-purpose flour
3 large eggs, lightly beaten
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
7 tablespoons very cold water, plus more as needed


Measure the flour into the food processor, and give it a quick buzz to distribute air throughout.  Crack eggs and measure liquid into a separate bowl.  Start the processor on high, and stream the liquid ingredients into the processor.  Once combined, the dough should form a ball at the end of the processor’s blade.  If it is crumbly, add cold water one tablespoon at a time until a ball forms.  If the dough is sticky, knead in a small amount of flour until the pasta is smooth.  Form the dough into a disk, wrap in saran wrap or a clean towel and let rest for 30 minutes.  After resting the dough, cut the disk into 8 equal pieces (or 4 if you are making a ½ recipe).  Begin by rolling the dough through the largest setting of a pasta machine, fold it once, and then roll through the largest setting again.  Roll the dough through each successively smaller setting once, until the noodles reach the desired thickness, which for Mandilli de Saea, should be thin enough to be semi-transparent.  I rolled my pasta through settings 1-6 using the flat pasta rolling attachment on my Kitchenaid Mixer, then used a rotary pasta cutter to slice the long sheets of pasta into squares of roughly the same size.  Perfection isn’t necessary.  One of the beauties of homemade pasta is its humble nature.  Italian Grandmas aren’t measuring each square with a ruler.

I placed a clean, lightly floured dish towel on top of a rimmed baking sheet, and laid the handkerchiefs on it, side by side.  Once one towel was filled, I gently layered another on top of it, filled it with squares of pasta, and continued to layer pasta between towels, one on top of the next until all of the pasta was rolled.  I covered the top layer with an additional towel to keep the pasta from drying out too fast.

Paolo Laboa’s Genovese Pesto

15-20 Leaves of Genovese Basil, Soaked in cold water to reduce Chlorophyll
2 Cloves of Garlic, peeled
A small handful of Pine Nuts
Approximately ½ Cup of Grated Parmesan Cheese
Ligurian Olive Oil, or Light Olive Oil
Pinch of Sea Salt

I follow Chef Paolo Laboa’s Chow Network tutorial on creating the perfect pesto as closely as possible.  In the past this has involved attempting to grind and mash the ingredients together by hand into a creamy, perfectly-emulsified green paste using my mortar and pestle.  This week, there was an unfortunate freak accident in our kitchen, which involved an old kitchen drawer that was mounted to the wall and used for years as a shelf falling (or leaping?) to the floor.  Apparently, one of the screw-in hangers was stripped.  When the shelf came down it took with it its contents, about half of which were smashed to smithereens.  My precious Mortar and Pestle, Butter Bell butter crock, the stopper to my vintage vinegar bottle and a tiny lidded pot de creme vessel all met their demise along with a full bottle of balsamic glaze.  The incident left kitchen cupboards and floor and the inside of an open drawer splattered with sticky, syrupy balsamic glaze which affixed the jagged remnants of the broken crockery firmly to the tile floor.  It will take several more rounds with a bucket and sponge to get every glued-down shard out of the grout between the floor tiles.  Sadly, everything but the balsamic glaze was a Christmas or anniversary gift.  Though I am a little heavy-hearted having several gifts broken to bits, these things can be replaced.  In the meantime, it gives me a good excuse to use the food processor to make pesto which isn’t Paolo Laboa’s way, but it is much easier.  

Grate approximately ½ cup of Parmesan Cheese into the bowl of the food processor.

Add a handful of pine nuts, a sprinkle of sea salt, and two peeled cloves of garlic and pulse ingredients together to form a paste.

Add 15-20 leaves of Genovese Basil which have been soaked in cold water to reduce the chlorophyl.  Chlorophyl gives plants their verdant hue, and it improves the basil flavor to have it taste a little less “green.”  Add a small amount of olive oil, and pulse, stopping to scrape down the sides of the food processor.  When the ingredients have become a thick paste, stream in additional oil while running the processor until the pesto has a smooth texture.

Cook the pasta handkerchiefs in a large pot of boiling, lightly-salted water for 1½- 3 minutes, until al dente.  I cooked the peas in a separate saucepan of boiling water and drained them after 1½ minutes.  In a large bowl, mix the pesto with a small ladle-full of hot pasta-cooking water to melt the parmesan cheese, then added the pasta and peas to the bowl.  Gently stir the hot sheets of pasta and peas through the pesto to coat each surface with warmed, melting sauce.

We sat down immediately to eat at the table on our patio that faces the garden.  All of the senses are engaged in the preparation and enjoyment of this meal.  The process is completely justified by the result.  There is no way to duplicate the fragrance, colour, texture or flavor on this plate using frozen peas, jarred pesto, or pasta from a box.  We enjoyed the meal the only way it should be made– totally from scratch, in season and eaten al fresco.  A fresh plate of Mandilli de Saea al Pesto, piled high with sweet, fresh peas is a wonderful summer-only dish.

A Lesson in Pesto

If it hasn’t already become extremely obvious, pasta is one of my all-time favorite foods.  There are so many variations, from basic buttered noodles to whatever-you-have-in-the-fridge, to traditional recipes: stroganoff, Bolognese, or pasta all’Amatriciana.  I’m usually a “concept cook” who has something in mind [e.g. pasta with veggies] and the actual ingredients I use depend on what I’m in the mood for or what needs to be used up.  I haven’t been one to follow many recipes.  I enjoy the freedom of my slapdash approach to cookery, but I have tasted enough really good food in my years to know that recipes, carefully chosen ingredients, timeless techniques and even a little precision are equally as necessary in the kitchen as passion and creativity.  It also pays to take a few tips from the experts.  I have long loved food blogs, food magazines, food television, cookbooks and hanging out in other people’s kitchens.  Reading about cooking, talking about it and observing other cooks in action are my source of inspiration.  These are as much my hobbies as cooking and writing about food.   I became aware of the noticeable difference that good technique and ingredients yield in restaurant meals, but the breakthrough did not occur at home until I learned about the perfect pesto.

It was just another Wednesday night.  I found myself watching short programs on the Chow network on our Roku on cooking and food.  There was an episode on soup dumplings,* and on the perfect beer,** and then a segment on the perfect pesto aired and changed my approach to pesto forever.

Previously, I have only had a modest appreciation of pesto.  The first pesto pasta I ate was a lunch back in my teenage years at the now-shuttered Grandma’s Restaurant in Fargo, North Dakota.  It was so heavily garlic-y that I was afraid of both pesto and garlic for almost a decade.  I still shudder to think about how much raw garlic I consumed before realizing it would be with me for days.  More recently, I have tasted a pretty good silk handkerchief in a mild, dark green pesto at Bar La Grassa.  Having grown basil in our garden, I’ve also made basil and parsley pestos at home that have been fine on toasted sandwiches and roasted vegetables.  None of these looked anything like the marvelous green pesto I saw that evening on the Chow network.

According to the food writer, Marcia Gagliardi who appeared in the segment, perfect pesto can be had in San Francisco at a restaurant called Farina, on a pasta dish called mandilli al pesto.  I do believe Marcia is right.  When you read about Farina, you get a sense that they are better at what they do than everyone else.  The chefs of Farina make known their belief that only Italians can cook the true foods of their region.  I am not going to dispute that or attempt to prove them wrong.  But I am going to try to learn as much as I can from them about making pesto.  In the segment I watched, Chef Paolo Laboa of Farina explains the process of making pesto while shifting naturally from English and Italian, translating himself, and pausing to emphasize the importance of each detail of his approach.  What becomes immediately clear even through the television is the fact that his pesto is different.  It is bright green and creamy and is almost a perfectly emulsified, glistening paste.  When Chef Paolo adds the pesto to the pasta, it melts, enveloping the thin sheets in a perfect, translucent, green coating.  I’m guessing it is a meal that dreams are made of.  Just looking at it makes you want to be in the Mission District for supper tonight.  Or at our house…

Back to a winter day in Minnesota…  I may never duplicate Chef Laboa’s pesto, but in listening to him, I learned a few things about how to make a better pesto.  First, for a pesto worthy of freshly rolled pasta, you have to ditch the food processor and use a mortar and pestle.  Fortunately for me, I just received one for Christmas from Bjorn.  The one he selected for me is a nice small size that I can comfortably manage to hold.  It is made of non-porous porcelain and a smooth wooden handle and a red exterior that I am happy to store on the open shelves in our kitchen.

I learned from Chef Paolo that the origin of ingredients matters a lot.  Basil pesto universally contains basil, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil, parmesan cheese and salt.  Sure, you can make pesto out of these ingredients produced anywhere, but to begin to approximate Paolo Laboa’s pesto, you need basil that is similar to that grown in Genoa, Olive Oil from Liguria, Pine Nuts from Pisa, and carefully-selected Parmesan.  And you need time.  Lots of time.  After watching the segment and trying to make it myself a few times I realized the making of Paolo’s pesto takes longer than it appears to take on TV.

I did the best I could gathering ingredients.  It is winter, and the basil I found at the store wasn’t the best.  I do believe that the Genovese basil from our garden will be an improvement on the basil available at the supermarket in a clamshell package in January.  I didn’t spring for $18 Italian Pine Nuts but got some from Spain instead.  I tried a few of Chef Laboa’s tips.  Since Ligurian olive oil is not available to me I used light olive oil instead of extra virgin which is too strong and kills the taste of the basil.  I soaked the basil leaves in water because, I learned if you don’t soak the basil there is too much chlorophyll in the leaves.  I crushed the pine nuts with garlic and coarse salt and added 15 basil leaves.  I put my heart into the process of grinding all of the ingredients together and then mixing in the oil.  When the pesto was ready, I added a little pasta water to the pesto to melt the cheese before tossing hand-rolled handkerchiefs of pasta in the pesto.  The end result of my effort did not yield the solid bright-green cream produced by Chef Laboa.  Not even close.  Even so, we thought the result was delicious and immeasurably better than the oily, basil-heavy, oxidized, chunky sludge that I’ve made in the food processor.  If pesto is worth making, it is worth making well.  Will I spend 45 minutes with the mortar and pestle to make pesto every week?  Certainly not.  It is a time-consuming process and a rich dish you can’t eat every week.  Come summer though, when the basil is bursting forth I will make pesto again.  I might not achieve “perfect” pesto, but delicious will be good enough.

*The segment about soup dumplings made me want soup dumplings which are little pouches made of dough that are stuffed with meat and fatty broth that liquefy upon cooking.  Are there vegetarian soup dumplings out there?  I want to try them!

**The writer of the beer segment claimed Supplication Ale by Russian River Brewing Company to be the best beer in the world.  I’m sure I’d like it, but that I’d disagree about it being the best.

Caprese Sandwich– the Best Sandwich of the Summer

Summer is over when I say it is!  Or at least when the weather starts behaving as though autumn has arrived.  As long as I am picking delicious tomatoes from our garden daily, and walking outside comfortably in flip flops at 5 p.m., it is still summer in my books.  No matter what people say, I am not going to yank out the perennials and I’m going to keep watering our vegetable garden until it frosts.   I am not going to eat like it is October yet either.  I’ve got months and months of soups and roasted vegetables ahead of me, and so for this week, while tomatoes are still bountiful, I’m going to live it up, and enjoy the last precious days of delicious tomato season.  A tomato may just be the most tasty and versatile of all of the summer fruits.  I made myself a Toasted Caprese Sandwich that I ate for lunch when I was home alone.  Since I was home alone, there is no meat-eaters counterpart to the sandwich in this post.

If it isn’t obvious, a meat eater would probably enjoy this sandwich just as I did, or with the addition of crispy bacon, and perhaps mayonnaise instead of basil and mozzarella if that person is a BLT purist.

A sandwich that starts with a tomato like this is impossible to mess up.  This one came from our square foot garden in the back yard.   I see some amazing heirloom tomatoes at the Saint Paul Farmer’s Market, which we check out most weekends.  We just walked right by them this year because we have had a regular supply of our own.  To start with, I assembled all of all of the elements of a caprese.  I sliced up the tomato and some fresh mozzarella and coarsely chopped some basil, also just-picked from our garden.  I toasted the bread only slightly.  I like to pile on the toppings, and so I needed the bread to have a little bit of give to keep it all together.  I think any version of a tomato sandwich should be eaten on either really fresh bread or toasted bread.  Without bacon, all of the sandwich elements are cold, and that little bit of heat from the toasted bread lets everything get cozy and comfy and meld together rather than being one ingredient stacked on top of the next.  In addition to the delicious sandwich fillings being a sure win, this sandwich was destined to succeed because it is made on City Rye.  City Bread is my favorite bread in the whole world.  It is made in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where I grew up.  I stock up on Rye and Pumpernickel every time I am there, and when the freezer is empty of City Bread, it is time to go back, or to entice friends down to Minnesota for a visit.*  I don’t think the people of Winnipeg know how lucky they are to have such a prevalence of wonderful bread available in almost all of their grocery stores.  I think it has something to do with the large Ukrainian population in the city.  When the Ukrainians immigrated to Winnipeg, they brought with them wonderful bread baking which is now engrained in the city’s dietary culture.   I am certain that there are other great breads like this in the world, but in Winnipeg, there is no searching.  City Bread is available almost everywhere.  There are even a few other brands of bread that are quite good available in Winnipeg grocery stores.  I grew up with City Bread, so I am partial to that particular bakery, and I accept no substitutes.

I dressed the sandwich with a olive oil, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  I used a silicon pastry brush to lightly brush the toasted bread and mozzarella with oil and balsamic vinegar.  You only need a touch.

I ate my sandwich with a cup of coffee.  Kind of an odd beverage pairing, I know.  The sandwich was my breakfast and my lunch.  A cold Diet Coke, or a glass of milk would have been a much more appealing option.  This sandwich was the summer’s best.

*Please come, and kindly bring bread.

Linguine with Chunky Vegetable Sauce – A Simple Monday Night Supper

So many Mondays, we come home and feel too wiped out to cook.  We tend to cook a lot over the weekend.  On Monday we both come home tired, hungry and wanting to relax instead of preparing and cleaning up after a meal.  The obvious result is, many Mondays we go out to eat.  We tend not to plan ahead which leads us to pick a place we know well.  We often issue last-minute invites to family members in the neighbourhood who might want to join us in making the transition back into the weekday grind a little kinder to our weary souls.  The Groveland Tap is right up the street, and it has been a go-to place to meet up for a burger and a tasty beer on these lazy nights.  They have great happy hour specials on beer and appetizers that seem always to be going whenever we’re there.  The Nook is also becoming a regular in the Monday night rotation.  The Nook has a long wait most nights of the week because their burgers are the best.  Monday nights they run a $1.25 mini-burger special after 8:30 p.m., but if we arrive a little earlier than that, we’ve managed to sneak right in before the rush for cheap burgers starts.  We are lucky to have these friendly, casual spots close home to lean on, and especially grateful that we have friends nearby to join us.   The downside is that it becomes a little too easy to get into the habit of never cooking on a Monday.   Lately, we’ve been trying to eat a little healthier, and to eat out a little less to help us stick to our budget.  This is certainly no Nook burger and fries, but it still hits the spot.  It is a simple pasta dish with a chunky vegetable sauce that I’m posting as a reminder to myself that there are some meals that are so quick and consistently delicious that I can even tackle cooking them any night, even on a Monday.

This is a meal that comes together up in 15 minutes or less.  A pasta with a simple sauce can go any direction that our appetites desire.  I grab whatever vegetables I have on hand or that need to be used up.   I almost always have fresh mushrooms in the fridge, peas in the freezer because these are staples in my diet, and favorites that are easy to use in many meals.  There is alway an onion, some sort of pasta and usually a can of good tomatoes in the cupboard too.  If Bjorn is in the mood, it is easy to add chicken or a few frozen meatballs to his plate.  Fortunately, Bjorn is happy enough to go without meat fairly often which makes meal preparation even easier.  I gather, wash and chop the veggies and get some olive oil heating in a pan.  As soon as I remember, I start boiling water for the pasta.  Today I opted for Linguine noodles.  They cook quickly, and they must be al dente to be any good, so I get the sauce almost ready before starting the pasta.  The sauce is simply sautéed onions and mushrooms, depending on mood, garlic.  Once those are cooked, I add a can of San Marzano tomatoes and chop them to manageable chunks in the pan.  For a canned tomato, San Marzano tomatoes are a little spendy, but they are special, as far as canned tomatoes go.  They are only grown in one region of Italy where they get their distinct flavor from volcanic ash present in the soil.  They make pasta with tomato sauce more of a taste treat than a simple, plain tomato sauce straight from the jar.  There is nothing wrong with sauce from the jar, but ever since I discovered San Marzano tomatoes when I have pasta with tomato sauce, it is what I want to taste.  When the sauce is good and bubbly, I salt the pasta water, add the noodles and start a timer.  A few minutes later, I add a few handfuls of peas to the sauce.  I like to drain the linguine out a little short of boiling time and finish cooking it in the sauce.  When I remember to, I reserve a little pasta water to loosen the sauce if I’ve made it too chunky.

If the sauce is chunky enough to count as a serving or two of vegetables, I don’t even make a salad.  I top the pasta with some cheese and a small handful of fresh basil leaves from our garden.  The cheese can be anything from grated Grana Padano to shredded cheddar, although fresh mozzarella is definitely my go-to when it is in the fridge.  This meal is so simple, and so delicious.  Even on Mondays, I’m running out of excuses not to cook.

Existential Crisis and Caprese

Eggs and toast are a common weekend breakfast at our house.  During the work week we both end up eating a granola bar in the car or when we arrive to our desks most days.  A hot breakfast at home welcomes the weekend.  Eggs and toast is still a quick meal, and the very slight effort it takes to make it yields the satisfying nourishment to remind you it is Saturday and give you the energy to have great day.  Making eggs and toast for breakfast is about as simple as it gets, except if you are me.  I am going through the process of re-learning how to scramble an egg.  I have been scrambling eggs since I was 5 years old, and I thought I had it mastered.   I cracked eggs into a bowl, and mixed them up with chunks of cheese, and cooked them in a frying pan with oil or butter, stirring them occasionally until solid.  I lived under the illusion that cheesy eggs was the only way to eat scrambled eggs until I ate the Simply Scrambled breakfast at the Birchwood Cafe.  In Birchwoods’ Simply Scrambled breakfast, there is no cheese in the eggs!  The eggs are super fresh and a lot creamier and less solid than the eggs I’ve been scrambling for over 25 years.  And they are so good!  I could tell that this is partly due to using extremely fresh eggs which is something I’ve already been using for several years.  These delicious, creamy, plain eggs were a mysterious new experience for me.   I asked a foodie friend for his thoughts about the Birchwood’s egg scrambling technique over a year ago, and he suggested something about only having the eggs on heat for a while, then taking the pan off of the heat letting them cook themselves.  I tried it, and the result was plain, unevenly cooked, verging-on-runny eggs.   Next, I watched Gordon Ramsey do a demo.  When Gordon Ramsey says “every time we get a new cook in the kitchen, we always asked them to make scrambled egg.  If they know how to make perfect scrambled egg, you know they know how to cook properly”  I am sure he is right.  I don’t know how to cook properly.  Since watching this demo, I’ve been undercooking eggs left and right, but using butter and a little milk or sour cream* and finishing them with fresh chives to make them “sexy.”  It might be a patience issue.  I’m not sure.  The good news for us is, Bjorn has not had an existential crisis about scrambled egg preparation.  As in most areas requiring confidence and skill, if I can do it well, Bjorn can do it better; and with a lot less effort.  So we are still eating delicious eggs, scrambled by Bjorn, while I limp along re-learning out how to Properly cook something I’ve been cooking and happily eating since I was a very little kid. 

There are parts of the egg and toast breakfast that I prepare that have not been called on to the carpet for re-evaluation.  I have discovered that eggs and toast is another meal that a slice of tomato makes better.  If you have a decent grocery store tomato, all you have to do is throw a few slices in the frying pan toward the end of cooking the eggs.  The tomato gets a little softer and sweeter and picks up just enough butter or oil from the pan to make it extra luscious.  All it needs is a little pepper and salt.  At the height of tomato and basil season, there is always fresh mozzarella in our fridge, and so fresh, just-sliced garden tomatoes inevitably are paired with fresh mozzarella and basil, a touch of olive oil, balsamic vinegar and the usual salt and pepper.  A caprese is tomato’s perfect foil.  I have mentioned my love of a caprese salad and the fact that I could happily eat them as a part of three meals a day at this time of year.  I wasn’t kidding.   Even for breakfast.  How can I resist with tomatoes like this:

It is our second year with a Square Foot Garden.  Last year we planted 6 tomato plants , and enjoyed tomatoes from our garden into December.  This year we expanded the garden and planted 12 different varieties.  We are luxuriating in an abundance of tomatoes of all shapes, colours and sizes**.  We also have 4 square feet devoted to basil.  I am serious when I say I love this flavour/texture combination.  It is truly a luxury to be able to walk out the back door and pick a medley of herbs to season our breakfast.  This morning I picked Italian Flat Leaf Parsley, Chives, and a little dill in addition to basil.

As a nod to Gordon Ramsey and the Birchwood’s perfect eggs, today our eggs are plain, but ready to be dressed up to taste with a little grated manchego cheese and garden herbs waiting on the side of the plate***.  Having both manchego and fresh mozzarella on the same plate tips the scales towards indulgence, but after a pious week of granola bar breakfasts, perfect scrambled eggs, toast, fresh herbs and a caprese with basil and tomatoes from the garden is an indulgence we can afford.

Then, there is of course, the toast.  The bread today is a dense Italian loaf from the bakery at Cosetta’s Italian Market in Saint Paul.

*Sorry Gordon; we don’t stock crème fraiche in our kitchen.

**Grey squirrels have also been picking our tomatoes and eating just a few bites, much to our frustration and disgust.  We’ve resorted to garden warfare.  Each of the raised beds is surrounded by chicken wire.  We’re using smelly garlic and peppermint squirrel deterrent sprays, and we’re both pretty good aim when we throw a shoe, but we don’t seem to be able to get the squirrels under control.  If there is some kind of a secret weapon against these greedy creatures, I’d love to know about it.

***Maybe I’m not so convinced about the perfection of cheese-less scrambled eggs?!?

Inspired by… Summer Soba

I am a follower of an ever-growing list of blogs.  If I let myself, I would probably be able to add a new blog to my Favorites every week*.  Most of the blogs I follow are food-related, a few focus on lifestyle, decor or fashion, but mostly, cooking, restaurants and the like.   There are so many creative and fascinating people out there blogging, it humbles a person who is just starting out.  A lot of these fantastic bloggers have better cameras, and more technical agility and more honed culinary skills than I do.  Some of them have even contracted with a web designer.  But this doesn’t deter me, because this is just for fun.  The way I look at it,  if I keep coming back every day to see what these internet personas are doing in their little corner of the world, maybe someone will stumble upon our blog and come back to see what we’re eating and what is inspiring us.   Since I spend a few of my free moments virtually lurking around kitchens of some serious foodies and great chefs, now and then I am inspired to try a recipe, or more even often, create a dish inspired by something delicious-looking I’ve found in a blog.  Hence, a new, soon-to-be recurring feature, Inspired by… which will feature a dish I make that is based on Another Blogger’s Creation**.  I encourage readers to follow the link back to the original blogger’s post.  When I say, my dish is Inspired by… something I don’t mean I’m going to even attempt to recreate exactly what the original blogger did, or show how to make the dish step-by-step.  It is more likely to be a riff on the original.  I like to play fast and loose with recipes, and I am not a Parisienne daily grocery shopper, so I’ll be using what I have on hand.  So, here it goes.  My first Inspired by… begins, where my blog following began, an easy Summer Soba supper, inspired by Macheesmo.

Macheesmo is the first blog I ever followed.  I was googling a recipe for some ingredient I needed to use up, and landed on his site.  Macheesmo is an informational blog written by a guy named Nick, and typically shows a recipe step-by-step.  He has a few recurring features, such as a weekly poll to determine a recipe he’ll make and blog about, and “Homemade Trials” where he attempts to make something from scratch that you’d otherwise buy.  I think he even does research.  As is typical for me, I followed the recipe loosely.  I stir-fried green onions, carrots and button mushroom with a few Thai chilis and green beans from the garden.  The sauce contained soy sauce an sesame oil, but substituted ginger from the spice cupboard for the fresh ginger and champagne vinegar for the mirin.  The Macheesmo recipe contains corn, which sounds great, but wasn’t in my refrigerator.  I topped mine with toasted black sesame seeds and fresh basil from the back yard.

As promised by Macheesmo, the result was a tasty and healthy supper, and an even more delicious cold lunch at work the next day.  It was far tastier than a frozen microwaveable meal which are a noontime standard in the office lunch scene.  Ironically, a co-worker commented “that doesn’t look very appetizing!” when she observed my plate.   The dark colour of the soba noodles, combined with the soy sauce sesame seeds must have thrown her off the trail, because it actually was the best lunch I’ve had in a while.   To each his or her own.  I recommend checking out Macheesmo, and giving the Summer Soba a spin.

*I did in fact just add about 5 to my links, Blogs To Get You Through The Day list.

**Yes, Another Blogger’s Creation purposefully harkens back to Another Bad Creation, (ABC), the 1990’s R&B group from my youth.

Perfect Summer Snack Times Two

What do you do when you are hungry for a snack and you have a fresh baguette and all of the ingredients for the two perfect summer salads to go with it?  Well if you are almost incapable of avoiding complication in the creation of even the simplest of summer snacks (like me), you make both.

Today’s summer afternoon snack started with a caprese.  I think an insalata caprese would be in the top 3 contenders of foods that I’d want to have to eat on a desert island.  I love them so much that when our garden is kicking out tomatoes and basil like mad, I’m eating them in as many as three meals a day.  They are summer’s loveliest flavour and texture combination.  A luscious tomato, cut thick, with generous slices of fresh mozzarella and just-picked basil leaves floated down upon them; finished with the lightest drizzle of balsamic vinegar and olive oil, salt and maybe a little pepper.  I’m no stickler, but I will mention that these things taste like a million bucks if you’ve grown your own tomatoes and basil, or bought them very fresh from friendly farmer who has.  And the mozzarella-it must be very fresh, milky and on the watery and porous side.  I think the cryo-packed balls can often be as good as the packed-in-water in plastic containers from the grocery store.  So many people love good fresh mozzarella that it is becoming very easy to find and cheap to buy.  Enough about my caprese obsession.  How about a picture of the golden tomato caprese that launched a thousand word paragraph?

This on its own is the perfect summer snack, but there are two hungry people in this house,  and, I’ve also got some lovely dill, fresh eggs and lettuce, so I can’t stop with just the caprese.  I boiled the eggs, or, if you are a student of Martha Stewart –hard cooked them.

Check out these gorgeous fresh eggs that I bought from a man named Fernando who raises them in the little town where I work.

For egg salad, eggs are boiled, peeled, sliced in half and ready to be chopped and combined with a little light mayonnaise, mustard, diced onion and celery and a little pepper and salt to taste, then piled on top of some lettuce and garnished with dill, both from the garden.

There isn’t much more to do then to place the plate between two hungry people to eat with baguette, or on their own.  I put salt and pepper, olive oil and vinegar on the table, to adjust flavours, as needed.  We dove in.  It was fresh, flavourful and satisfying; the perfect summer snack.

Sunday Noon

I am sure that of the best home-cooked meals I’ve eaten in my life, the vast majority of them were consumed at or around noon on Sunday.  The day of rest welcomes a meal made a slower pace and consumed with some measure of reverence.  Slowing down enough to enjoy and to be aware of the activity of cooking and eating has so much to do with what makes food enjoyable, after all. 

The slow part is not out of the ordinary for me.  I’m a slow cook.  I don’t like to rush.  I like to meditate on the process a bit and I like to have most of my dirty dishes washed before the meal is served.  Most importantly though, I like things all to be hot and ready serve and to eat at the same time.  Yesterday’s noon meal was no fancy Sunday roast, but I hold that pizza is worthy of being the culinary high point of the week when it is made with love from scratch with the yummiest toppings you have available.  It takes some time to make your own dough and to cut and saute your favorite toppings.  Above, pizza dough flecked with basil and Pecorino Romano Cheese.

On the left, mushroom, green pepper, pineapple, fresh mozzarella and marble cheese (mozzarella was in short supply!).  On the right, maple syrup breakfast sausage, mushroom, green pepper, mozzarella and marble jack.  Tomato sauce seasoned with salt, pepper and oregano on both.

Char marks are one of the best results of grilling a pizza.

The vegetarian version was delicious.  Perfect char marks, delicious toppings… Only addition needed was a coke.

Punch Neapolitan Pizza, one of our top three favorite pizza shops in our hood serves some of its pies uncut with a knife and fork.  It works well for a personal size pizza with a crispy crust that is loaded with toppings.  Here is Bjorn’s maple syrup breakfast sausage Sunday delight.