Wednesday, December 14, 2011


Brock and I went to Santa Fe for a long weekend for our first anniversary.  This was back in our BC (before children) era, when we could do (and afford) such things as take off for a romantic mini-vacation to an artsy (and expensive) town.  This trip has probably been romanticized in my memory a bit, but my memory says it was magical.
We'd have pastries and lattes at the bakery below the hotel every morning, and spend our days wandering through museums and galleries, eating amazing spicy New Mexican food, drinking strong margaritas, perusing jewelry sold by street vendors on the plaza, etc, into bliss.  We spent one morning meandering through the arts district and found ourselves at a cute, funky little tea house at lunch time (our first departure from New Mexican food, not counting pastries).  I had a tasty oolong and an incredible (and memorable) baked ricotta sandwich.  Brock had some weird bright-green foamy tea (matcha?), and a lunch that wasn't quite as memorable.

But the ricotta...  This was the first (and still only) time I'd had baked ricotta at a restaurant, and I never was able to find a decent recipe for it, so I created this one.  
Best dang sandwich this side of Santa Fe, if I do say so myself.

the veggies (etc):

-for the ricotta:

  • Olive oil, for prepping the baking dish
  • 32 oz ricotta cheese
  • 2 eggs
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1 tsp dried basil
  • 1 tsp salt
  • fresh ground pepper, to taste

-for the sandwiches:
  • Your favorite bread, sliced
  • Balsamic vinegar, for drizzling
  • Roasted red peppers, cut into strips (4-6 strips per sandwich)
  • Baby spinach, large stems removed (about 6 leaves per sandwich)
  • Fresh basil, chiffonaded (did I conjugate this correctly?-- Or, in other words, shredded; a tablespoon or two per sandwich)

the love:

-for the ricotta:

  1. Oil a 9x9" (or slightly larger)* glass baking dish and preheat your oven to 350°.
  2. In a mixing bowl, stir together the ricotta and eggs until well-incorporated.
  3. Add the garlic powder, basil, salt and pepper, and mix well.
  4. Spread the mixture evenly into your prepared dish.
  5. Bake for about an hour, or until the ricotta is firm in the center.
  6. Cool slightly or completely before cutting.**

-for the sandwiches:***
  1. Slice the ricotta into rectangles,trapezoids, or whatever shape and size best fits your bread.  Munch on any small odd-shaped pieces while you assemble sandwiches (good stuff, huh?).
  2. Top a slice of bread with a piece of ricotta, then drizzle with balsamic.
  3. Top that with a few strips of roasted peppers and several spinach leaves, then sprinkle with some basil shreds.  
  4. Top with the other piece of bread and savor while contemplating the art of Georgia O'Keeffe.

*I make mine in a 9x9" dish, and the ricotta comes out pretty thick.  It's good this way, but sometimes a little messy.  In a slightly larger dish you'd get thinner slices but more of them, which could be a good thing...
**I often make this ahead of time and refrigerate until I'm ready to use it.  It tastes good at any temperature, but is nice and firm (thus less messy to eat) when cold.
**This is just what Brock and I like on these-- but there are probably a million ways you could dress up this ricotta and still have it taste fantastic.  For my boys, I just serve it plain on regular whole-wheat sandwich bread.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

grandma gen's•spiced glazed nuts

The sanity level in my household is already questionable-- I don't need the craziness of Christmas pushing anyone over the edge.  This is one reason why I try to keep the holidays simple for my family (without taking away too much of the fun).  But there are some things you just can't skip-- the things it just wouldn't feel like Christmas without.  For example, Grandma Gen's Spiced Glazed Nuts.

Every year, my Grandma Gen would show up for our Christmas celebration with a big holiday-themed cookie tin full of these nuts.  We would dig into them while we opened gifts, and they'd be gone a lot sooner than something containing so much salt, sugar and fats (albeit good fats) should be.  
My mom says the recipe actually came from a next-door neighbor of ours when I was young, but at some point Grandma got a hold of the recipe and made it hers.  
She just turned 90 and I wouldn't be surprised if she's still making these nuts this year (they're that good, and she's still rockin' it well enough to whip out a few pounds of Christmas nuts).
Since I haven't been back to Minnesota for Christmas in years, I've started making them myself.  And now I can't help but to double the recipe, pack some into holiday-themed bags with ribbons and hand some out with our Christmas cards.  It's a nice little gesture that people really seem to appreciate.
And these people don't have to know how ridiculously easy they are to make...

the veggies (or nuts, etc):*
  • 1 lb roasted, salted mixed nuts, plus a little extra**
  • 1 egg white***
  • 1 TBS cold water
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp salt

the love:
  1. Preheat your oven to 225° and line a large sided cookie sheet with parchment.
  2. In a mixing bowl, beat together the egg whites and water until bubbly.
  3. Add one pound of the nuts and mix until evenly moist.  If there's egg mixture pooling at the bottom of the bowl after mixing, add some extra nuts then stir some more.
  4. In a small bowl, stir together the sugar, cinnamon and salt.
  5. Sprinkle the sugar mixture over the nuts and stir until the sugar has dissolved.
  6. Spread the nuts out evenly onto the cookie sheet.
  7. Bake for an hour to 1 1/2 hours, stirring every 15 minutes or so, until the nuts are no longer gooey (they will still be a little sticky until they're completely cool).
  8. Cool completely and store in airtight containers, such as Christmas tins or bags, and  don't forget to share.


*I often double this recipe, which seems to work fine-- just make sure you use two pans to give the nuts enough room.
**I usually get a big thing of mixed nuts and a smaller can of cashews.
***If you or someone you're gifting to can't have eggs or are vegan, you might try this recipe for Eggnog Spiced Nuts recently posted on Peas and Thank You.  These nuts looks equally (if not slightly more) tasty, but a little less simple.  

Saturday, December 10, 2011


This one's for my dad.  It was his birthday this past week, and this dish always makes me think of him.  Also, the reverse-- thinking of him usually makes me hungry for Taco Pieces.  
I grew up on this dish.  Family legend has it that my dad invented it, but I do realize there are a million versions of Mexican-style casserole (or as they say in Minnesota, "hot dish") out there.  But this one is special-- to me, and apparently also my dad.
This is always the first thing he suggests for dinner when we're visiting.  I'm not entirely sure if it's because he really likes it that much or just because it's an old standby that's easy to make vegetarian (throw in some soy crumbles instead of the traditional ground beef, and you're golden).  I suspect it's a little of both.  Whatever his reason, I can tell my mom really wishes he'd let go of his hang-up with Taco Pieces.  She rolls her eyes anytime anyone says those two words together.  This is probably because, having lived with my dad for over forty years, she's eaten quite a lot of it.  
I have too.  The only difference is, I don't get sick of it.  Quite the opposite. 
My version has deviated from Dad's in that I've ditched the meat and soy crumbles and opted for lentils instead.  The end result is still true to the spirit of the original "hot dish", and it still makes me think of my dad...  
I hope you had a happy birthday!

the veggies (etc):

  • 1 TBS olive oil
  • One onion, finely chopped
  • One red or green bell pepper, finely chopped
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 2 1/2 cups cooked lentils (from about 1 cup dry)
  • 2 cups cooked red kidney beans (from about 1 cup dry)
  • 1 1/2 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/8 tsp cayenne
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 6 to 10 medium to large tortillas
  • 4 cups shredded sharp cheddar cheese
  • Your favorite taco fixings (salsa, plain yogurt/sour cream, lettuce, chopped tomatoes, etc)

the love:
  1. Preheat your oven to 350° and heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  2. Add the onions to the skillet and saute for a couple minutes before adding the bell pepper.  Continue cooking until the onions are translucent.
  3. Add the corn and cook until it's defrosted, then throw in the beans, spices, salt, and 1/4 cup water.  Stir and cook for a few minutes, until well-incorporated and heated through, then turn off the heat and set aside.
  4. In a 9x13" glass baking dish, put down a layer of tortillas (using about a third of them, or 2 to 3 tortillas), tearing the tortillas and piecing them together for even coverage.
  5. Layer 1/2 of the filling mixture on top of the tortillas, then sprinkle that evenly with about a third of the cheese.
  6. Repeat the last two steps to make another layer of tortillas, filling, then cheese.  
  7. Top all that with one more layer of tortillas, then the last of the cheese.
  8. Bake in the oven for about a half hour, or until it's all heated through and the cheese on the top is golden.
  9. Slice and serve topped with whatever you like on your tacos-- salsa, lettuce, etc.

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

carrot-nut-raisin•breakfast-snack-dessert cookies

I don't get much alone time with Owen these days.  So it was perfect timing today when he woke up early from nap (while Oliver was still sleeping).  I happened to be making cookies, and once they were done we brewed some blueberry tea and had our own personal tea party.  Owen was thrilled.  I'm not sure if it was because he was getting special alone time with his mama, because I was letting him pour his own tea using his own tea set, or because I was letting him eat cookies in the middle of the afternoon.

While eating his treat he said to me "I wish we had a cookie tree in our yard so I could go out and eat cookies whenever I want".  I didn't tell him that even if someone miraculously bred a tree that grew cookies on it there's still no way it would grow in our hardiness zone (but maybe at Nana and Papa's in Florida?).  
In any case, it was a sweet few moments.  Owen got to eat a cookie for snack, and I got some time with my big boy.  I didn't tell him that these cookies are so full of healthy goodness (and vegan, to boot, if you care about that sort of thing) that I would consider letting him eat one whenever he wanted if he asked nicely enough.  Instead, we'll have them again as dessert after dinner.  And if there are any left, I'll probably have one for breakfast with my coffee...

The veggies (etc):
  • 3/4 cup margarine, softened (I like Earth Balance)
  • 1 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 TBS ground flaxseeds
  • 3 TBS water
  • 1 tsp vanilla
  • 2 cups rolled oats
  • 1 cup white whole wheat flour
  • 1 cup unbleached white flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking powder*
  • 1/8 tsp baking soda
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup grated carrots (about one large carrot)
  • 1/2 cup raisins
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

The love:
  1. Preheat your oven to 375°, and prep a couple cookie sheets (I line mine with parchment).
  2. In a big bowl, beat together margarine and syrup until well incorporated (the mixture will look pretty strange at this point-- almost curdy).
  3. Beat in the flaxseeds, water and vanilla.
  4. On top of that, add the oats, then flours, baking powder and soda, salt and cinnamon.  Mix the dry ingredients together as best you can before stirring into the wet.**
  5. Fold in the carrots, raisins and nuts.
  6. Drop the dough onto your cookie sheets (I do about 1/3 cup-size scoops for about 16 really big cookies) a couple inches apart.
  7. Bake for about 15 minutes, or until cookies are just a little firm to the touch in the middle, and a little golden on the edges.
  8. Cool the cookies on the pan for a couple minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely.  Eat them in the afternoon with blueberry tea on a tiny plastic tea set or whenever, really.

*This recipe is adapted to the ridiculously high altitude at which we live.  If you live at a more reasonable height above sea level, you might want to double the baking powder and soda.
**I'll give the same disclaimer I gave with my pancake recipe: Most recipes will tell you to mix the dry and wet ingredients separately, then stir them together-- this is to prevent clumping and ensure even mixing.  I'm lazy and don't like getting out and washing an extra bowl, so I do it all in one bowl.  To make up for it I try to mix the dry ingredients together on top of the wet before I really stir it into the the wet stuff.  If this is offensive to you, by all means, get out another bowl.

Where credit is due:
Beyond the Moon Cookbook, by Ginny Callan, has been on my shelf for many, many years.  I especially love her baked goods, which are heartier and healthier than most and often contain whole wheat and honey.  My cookie recipe is a veganized and further-fortified version of one of hers.

Monday, December 5, 2011

pickle ball and olive•pasta

Owen loves pickles and I will use this fact to my advantage to make dinner time go just a little more smoothly.  Actually, calling capers pickle balls is not far off from the truth.  The little spheres that are commonly called capers are actually flower buds from the caper bush that are-- you guessed it-- pickled.
He loves olives, too, and insisted I add them to the title of the recipe.  So, with some direction from my preschooler, I bring you "Pickle Ball and Olive Pasta".
We had this for dinner last night, and Owen said, "This is the best dinner I've ever had!"  I'm pretty sure he has learned by now that it's to his advantage to flatter his mama, and I'm pretty sure this statement was a slight exaggeration.  But, I was not about to argue with him.  The four-year-old has spoken.  Brock and I thought it was maybe not the best dinner ever, but really good.  I was excited that dinner was so easy to make-- and of course, that Owen is finally starting to learn to flatter his mother.  Oliver was just excited about his bread.
This pasta has actually been a favorite of ours for years-- as evidenced by the condition of my recipe card (with notes scribbled all over and the original blue ballpoint ink faded nearly to oblivion in places).  It's about time I type it out, lest it be lost to me.

The veggies (etc):
  • A 14.5 to 16 oz package of pasta*
  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 3 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 lb ripe tomatoes (about 3 large tomatoes), chopped (about 2 to 2 1/2 cups)
  • 1 1/2 cups pitted, coarsely chopped Kalamata olives
  • 1/4 cup capers (AKA pickle balls), rinsed
  • Red pepper flakes or cayenne, to taste (I just add a pinch so it's not too spicy for the kids)
  • 1 tsp dried marjoram
  • 1 1/2 TBS dried parsley**
  • Salt and pepper, to taste
  • Parmesan cheese, grated (optional)

The love:
  1. Cook your pasta in boiling salted water until al dente and drain.
  2. Meanwhile, heat the oil over medium heat in a wide skillet and add the garlic, tomatoes, olives, pickle balls, pepper flakes or cayenne, marjoram and parsley.
  3. Simmer briskly for 10 minutes, until sauce has thickened a bit and tomatoes start to break down a little.
  4. Season sauce with salt and pepper, to taste.
  5. Toss the pasta with the sauce and serve immediately, topped with a little fresh grated parmesan.


* I use Barilla Plus pasta, which for some reason comes in 14.5 oz packages.  Maybe it's because this kind expands more than your average noodle when cooking-- it seems to be about right when substituted for a one-pound box of regular pasta.
**If you feel like getting fancy with the herbs, you live somewhere you can grow such things as marjoram and parsley, or you generally use a lot of fresh herbs when cooking, go for it and substitute fresh for the dried (use about 1TBS chopped marjoram and 1/2 cup chopped parsley).  Your pasta will probably taste that much better because of your valiant efforts.  But, if you're like me and are looking for a fast meal with a minimal about of washing and chopping, you cannot grow herbs more finicky than mint and chives in your garden, or you end up using a small amount of store-bought herbs and letting the rest of them go slimy in your vegetable drawer, stick with the dry herbs-- it'll still be pretty darn good.

Where credit is due:

In the very corner of my recipe card, in very small and faded print, I believe it says Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone.  A quick Amazon search and a glance at the cover photo have reminded me that this cookbook is by Deborah Madison.  My memory now tells me that although I haven't picked up the actual book in years, it's been a helpful one in the past-- and has obviously provided me with a recipe or two that I've tried, re-made and re-named over the years...

Thursday, December 1, 2011


Beans are the quintessential vegetarian food.  They have a lot going for them-- perhaps most notably their protein and fiber content.  Plus, it's easy to throw them into a meal to round out it's nutritional content.  Or, it would be if you use canned beans.
But, I am not okay with cans.  A recent harvard study showed over a 1,000 percent increase in BPA levels in the urine of people who ate one serving of canned soup a day for five days (for more, check out this article:  BPA is nasty stuff.  It mimics your body's hormones and has been linked to heart disease and cancer, among a bunch of other disagreeable conditions.  There's been a lot of focus lately on removing BPA from plastics, but many people don't know (or care?) that most food cans are lined with the stuff.  
One exception (that I'm aware of) is Eden Foods brand's cans, which say right on the label, "BPA-Free Lining".  Eden's stuff is not the most accessible (I can't seem to find it anymore at my local grocery store since they've rearranged the bean aisle) or affordable (I've seen prices ranging around $2 to $3 per can of beans).  So, a lot of bean-lovers are left with only one real option: cooking dry beans.  Especially at altitude, dry beans take forever to cook, making them impractical for your average weeknight meal.  Even with a pressure cooker, making beans from scratch will add at least a half hour to the cook-time of a meal.

But there is a way around this: that small appliance tucked away in a rarely-used cupboard called a slow-cooker, or Crockpot.  Let's re-name it the Beanpot.  That's really all I use mine for these days.  But it does certainly get used.  In fact, I've considered finding it a new home in a more-often-frequented cupboard.  But, really, who am I kidding?  I hardly have time to cook beans, so why would I have time to rearrange my cupboards?
While the beans in this recipe take eight hours to cook, the actual hands-on time is more like five minutes.  And, if you play it right you can prep the beans without even getting out a cutting board.  I try to throw everything together sometime before 10 am, and have a big pot of beans ready by dinner time.  Another plus: these taste far better than canned beans.  And did I mention they're crazy-cheap?  They're flexible, too: leave them whole and saucy or mash them into refried-style beans.  Then, throw them on a frito salad, serve them over brown rice with your favorite extras, stick them in a tortilla-- do whatever you might do with canned pinto or refried beans, except, of course, expose your family to crazy amounts of BPA.

The veggies (etc):*
  • 3 cups dry pinto beans, rinsed
  • 9 cups water
  • One onion, peeled and halved
  • Cayenne pepper, to taste (I use a generous pinch, which keeps it very mild), or half of a fresh jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 2 tsp garlic powder or 2 TBS minced fresh garlic
  • 1 tsp ground cumin
  • 1 TBS salt
  • Fresh ground pepper, to taste

The love:
  1. Combine all the ingredients in your slow cooker and turn the heat on high.  Let it cook for eight hours, checking and stirring every couple hours or so.  Add more water and/or turn down the heat if the water is evaporating too fast.  
  2. At the end of the eight hours, the beans should be tender and saucy but not watery, with the sauce level just even with or just below the top of the beans.  Cook a little longer if it's not quite there--  cooking the liquid down to the right level is what gives the beans so much flavor.  Serve as-is or mash with a potato masher to your desired consistency.**

*This recipe makes a lot of beans.  I have one of those really big Crockpots and this recipe makes good use of its capacity.  I usually make these beans for dinner one night, then we eat beans for a couple lunches and sometimes another dinner over the next week.  Or, we freeze some of the leftovers.  If, unlike us, you think you might get sick of eating beans after four days in a row, you might consider halving the recipe.
**If your liquid level still isn't quite right you may need to remove some liquid before mashing or add some water during mashing to get the right texture.  Experiment with it--  it's largely a matter of preference.

Where credit is due:

For me, it's a beautiful thing to watch a meat-eater transform into a vegetarian.  It gives me a sense of joy and accomplishment (even though I may have had nothing to do with it).  I not only like to see the person make a choice that's healthier for them and the planet, but, selfishly, it's nice having another person to share recipes and have dinner parties with.  
Mandy was one of these people.  And she's the one who gave me the original form of this recipe.  As with everything I cook, I couldn't help but mess with it a little bit.  For one thing, cumin is probably my favorite spice, and the original recipe made it optional.  Not only is cumin mandatory in my version, I've increased the amount...  
Since giving me the bean recipe, Mandy and her husband have moved off to Alaska.  Alaska is an enchanting place and I really shouldn't blame her for moving.  Except, who are we supposed to have dinner parties with now?