Sunday, September 27, 2009

Simple Tomato Sauce


I think our cherry tomato plant missed the memo about it being the end of September. Despite the chilly mornings and evenings it keeps producing lots of little red globes-- we picked almost two pounds this past weekend! These little guys are so good it takes a lot of will power to not eat them all while picking them-- luckily, we were able to resist and I was able to put them all to good use in a simple tomato sauce.

Tomato sauce is something that I think people have a tendency to over think. I've made plenty of sauces that were too sweet or too salty or too acidic or just downright weird because I overcomplicated the process. In my humble opinion you only need five good quality ingredients for a successful sauce. 

If you look back through the entries on this blog you will find another sauce I made using a recipe from The Amateur Gourmet. It's a good 'starter' sauce and gave me the confidence to develop this one, which I have made many times for lasagna and other pasta dishes. Any variety of fresh tomato can be used, as long as they are in season. With the onset of cooler weather good quality canned tomatoes can be used in place of the fresh.

Simple Tomato Sauce
Makes about 2 cups

2 lbs of cherry tomatoes
6 tablespoons olive oil
1 onion, diced
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Coat the tomatoes with 3 tablespoons of olive oil and place them on a large cookie sheet. Roast the tomatoes for 20-30 minutes, or until the skins break and they start to release their juices. Remove from the oven and set aside.

In a large pot heat 3 tablespoons of olive oil over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft. Add in the garlic and cook for additional 2-3 minutes. Add in the roasted tomatoes, stirring to combine all the ingredients. Reduce the heat and allow the tomatoes to simmer for at least 30 minutes so that they fully break down. Stir in the chopped basil, salt and pepper, to taste, during the last 5 minutes of the cooking time. Using a blender puree the sauce until smooth. Store in the refrigerator for up to one week.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Lasagna with a Secret Surprise


This lasagna has a secret. If you serve this lasagna to guests upon a first glance they may think that it's nothing special, but once they bite into it they will discover the special secret hiding inside, which is garden fresh pesto.

When I set out to make lasagna, which was over a week ago, I felt conflicted about making such a heavy pasta dish considering it was technically still summer. Even though I consider it a cold weather meal I was really craving it so, to make myself feel better about the whole situation, I decided to incorporate some fresh pesto I had on had on hand. Think of it as a transitional lasagna-- comforting and cozy yet with a taste of summer.

I'm not including a recipe and wil just provide a walk-through of what I did. If you don't have a favorite lasagna recipe just use the one that is on the back of the box of noodles-- adding the pesto will really make it special. Lasagna is one of those things that once you make it a few times you can start trying new things and won't need a recipe anymore. The version I made includes ricotta, mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. I also used mild Italian sausage, but you can substitute any meat (or veggies) that you like.

Most basic lasagna recipes call for ricotta and this was the vehicle I used to incorporate the pesto. I used a roasted pesto that I had on hand and combined a 1/4 cup of it with 15 ounces of ricotta cheese. This was enough to give a nice hint of the pesto in the lasagna, but feel free to add more if you want it extra pesto-y.

I made a three layer lasagna starting with a small amount of sauce on the bottom of the pan. Next, do a layer of noodles (precooked until just tender), followed by a layer of the meat sauce, and then a layer of the ricotta, followed by a layer of the mozzarella and Parmesan cheeses. Repeat with the second layer. On the last layer you will just use the meat and cheeses. I'm finding that it's hard to describe how to layer things, so I hope it's not too confusing! 

Bake the lasagna according to the recipe you are using and allow it to rest for at least 5-10 minutes before serving. I have discovered that when I make it ahead and keep it in the refrigerator it's best to add 10 minutes or so to the bake time, so keep that in mind.

So, if you're like me already craving cold weather comfort food, but, at the same time, feeling conflicted about it, try incorporating your summer favorites into those dishes. Already have ideas? I'd love to hear them so be sure to leave a comment!

Monday, September 21, 2009

Blues & Brews 2009

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One benefit, although there are many, of being married to a brewer is having the chance to tag along to beer festivals, which is exactly how I spent this past weekend. 

Before I go any further, however, I have to shamelessly promote Kellys Brew Pub, which is the brewery my husband works for. If you're ever in Albuquerque be sure to stop by and ask for the Head Brewer (he also goes by Dan) and try the beer-- there's over 20 to choose from, all brewed on the premises.

Okay, back the the brew fest... part of Dan's job is packing up beer and trekking to remote locations to spread the word about Kellys beer. I don't often go with him on these excursions, but when I heard about the Blues & Brews Festival in Telluride, CO I decided that this year I should go. 

Getting there wasn't easy. Because of work I had to drive through the mountains late at night. Luckily, I had my recently purchased TomTom and a very good friend serving as co-pilot. 

Have you ever driven in the mountains at night? It's was so dark it seemed like we were driving through a black hole-- we could only see trees alongside the road, eerily illuminated by the headlights. Needless to say, we were relieved when we finally arrived around midnight. At that point, after the 6 hour drive in the dark I was really questioning the whole trip.

Until I woke up the next morning, stepped out on the porch and saw this...

Like Dorothy, I thought I had landed in a whole other world and found myself thinking "I don't think we're in Albuquerque anymore." It was that breathtaking. Six hour drive in the dark, navigating narrow and windy roads scared out of my mind? Totally worth it.

Telluride, CO is a treasure-- a sleepy, little mountain town with no chain restaurants or big box stores. Main Street is lined with locally owned shops and restaurants with no Starbuck's in sight. 

The houses are rustic and are so inviting that it makes you want to go inside, wrap up in a blanket and read a book by a crackling fire.

The Blues & Brews Festival is located in a large green space at the edge of town. All of the breweries set up under tents and serve while live music plays on the main stage. Rain or shine the beer is served against an amazing backdrop of mountains...

As the unofficial staff photographer for Kellys I was excited to capture some of the action with my camera. Mostly I just enjoyed telling random people that I was with the brewery and took full advantage of going in and out of the tent at will. I felt like a roadie for a touring band-- all the necessary parts were present: t-shirts, live music, alcohol and some crazy people.

It was a perfect day-- 
lots of great music, beautiful scenery, only a sprinkling of rain and plenty of beer to go around.


After the brew fest wrapped up we had plenty of time to sight see...

The weekend flew by and, before I knew it, it was time to drive home. After the long drive home (although considerably less scary during the day) I was tired and my muscles were a little achy, but, strangely enough, I woke up Monday morning feeling incredibly refreshed and full of energy. Maybe it was the fresh air still in my system, or the memory of the mountains, or maybe... was the beer.


Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Roasted Apples with Caramel Sauce


If you've read previous posts on this blog you already know about my love of all things roasted-- tomatoes, garlic, green chiles, and peppers just to name a few. I'm happy to now add apples to that list after taking some time to roast some this past weekend. They're great as a snack with some caramel sauce or dressed a bit with some ice cream, caramel and toasted walnuts.

I used pink lady apples because they are crisp and sweet with just a hint of sour. It's important to use one that will hold it's shape when cooked, so keep that in mind when choosing your apples.

Roasted Apples with Caramel Sauce
Serves 4

2 apples, sliced into wedges 
1 tablespoon of sugar
caramel sauce

For the apples: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. In a bowl toss the apples with the sugar. Spread the wedges in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast them for 30 minutes or until they are tender. Remove from the pan and serve with some caramel sauce on the side.

For the sauce: I had never made caramel sauce before so I did a little research before attempting it. I highly recommend using Simply Recipes' caramel sauce recipe because it's easy to follow and the final result is really good. Be sure to follow Elise's advice and have all the of the ingredients and the recipe close by when you start making it. I made the mistake of leaving the recipe in another room and, in the time it took me to run and grab it, my sugar burned and I had to start over. Trust me, the smell of burnt sugar is not pleasant. Happily, the second attempt went off without a hitch and tasted amazing.

For a complete dessert pair the apples with some vanilla ice cream, drizzle with the caramel sauce and sprinkle the top with toasted walnuts. 

Sunday, September 13, 2009

BLT Pasta Salad


Our little cherry tomato plant has suddenly gone crazy and is producing ripened tomatoes almost every day. With quite a few tomatoes on hand, along with an invitation to a potluck, I decided to put together a pasta salad. This version is a take on a BLT sandwich, plus a few other ingredients to add a bit more flavor. Be sure to make this several hours before you plan to serve it so that all the flavors have time to meld together.

BLT Pasta Salad
Serves 6-8

3/4 of a pound of rotini pasta
1 cup mayo
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, finely chopped
Juice from half of a lemon
1/2 tablespoon lemon zest
1/4 cup red onion, diced
8 slices bacon, chopped
2 big handfuls of spinach, chopped
1 cup cherry tomatoes (slice large ones in half)

Cook the pasta according to package directions. Drain and then spread the pasta on a baking sheet. Allow the pasta to cool in the refridgerator for about an hour. It's important to chill the pasta otherwise, if you skip this step, the hot pasta will make the mayo dressing runny.

While the pasta is cooling mix the mayo, lemon juice, lemon zest, thyme and onion together in a small bowl. Season with a pinch of salt. Cover the bowl and store in the fridge for at least 30 minutes.

Once the pasta has cooled combine it with the mayo mixture in a large bowl. Add in the cherry tomatoes and chopped spinach.

Keep the pasta salad covered in the fridge until ready serve. Shortly before it's served stir in the bacon. If you add it in too soon it won't be as crispy, so hold off adding it in until right before serving.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

A Fresh Start: Chocolate Chip Cookies


For some people it's New Year's Eve, but, for me, fall has always been my fresh start. Growing up I was the weird kid that always looked forward to going back to school in the fall. Around the beginning of August every summer my mind became clouded with dreams of the coolest trapper keeper , the perfect pair of jeans and the idea that maybe, just maybe, the upcoming school year would be the best year ever.

Not much has changed except I don't load a back pack with books and climb on the yellow bus every morning to go to school. The backpack and bus are no longer, but I still get that optimistic and hopeful feeling when the weather starts to cool and we turn the calendar to September. It's like a switch has been flipped and I find myself browsing the back-to-school section at Target longing to buy new pens and five-pocket notebooks.

So now, instead of dreaming about making the diving team and going to school dances, I find myself fantasizing about finally painting the living room or signing up for the cooking classes I have been talking about for a year. Just like New Year's resolutions some of the goals are never quite realized (for example, finding the perfect pair of jeans-- still working on that one) and they just carry over year to year.

I know I'm not alone with this-- I've met others that have never been able to shake that feeling that September marks the start of something new. Maybe it's the cooler weather, nudging us to go inside, that triggers a personal desire to emotionally internalize and re-examine our goals, hopes and dreams. Or maybe I'm just over analyzing it and it's just really just a result of powerful business marketing that drives some of us to buy lunchboxes when we're in our 30s. Who knows?

I may not know what causes it, but September has once again reignited some dreams not yet realized and a wave of new hopes which has resulted in a growing to-do list and a fresh outlook on life. At the top of my list? I want to start taking the time to make cookies since it's something I don't do very often. I like the idea of regularly filling our house with the comforting aroma of fresh baked cookies and, in my opinion, there's no better cookie to start with than chocolate chip. A classic and timeless treat best served on a crisp fall day while contemplating a fresh start to the year.

Chocolate Chip Cookies
Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies
My version is crispy on the outside and chewy on the inside with the classic combo of toasted walnuts and chocolate.

1/2 cup butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup chopped walnuts, toasted

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Line a large cookie sheet with parchment paper.

In a large bowl cream the sugars, butter and vanilla together until light and fluffy. Add in the eggs and mix until combined. In a medium bowl mix the flour, baking powder and salt together. Slowing add the flour mixture to the wet ingredients until combined. Fold in the chocolate chips and walnuts until evenly distributed.

Drop a heaping tablespoon of cookie dough onto the parchment paper. The cookies won't spread much while they're baking, so you can squeeze quite a few onto one sheet-- I was able to fit 20 on a sheet.

Bake the cookies for 9-11 minutes at 375 degrees. Be sure to check on them frequently so they don't over bake. You'll know when they're done when the start to brown around the edges. Once done remove them from the sheet and allow them to cool on a wire rack. Store in an airtight container.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Chicken & Spinach Meatballs


There are some meals you can always count on to make everyone happy. At our house spaghetti night, taco night, and pizza night rotate frequently through our menu plan. For spaghetti night I usually make the same ground beef meatballs, so this week I decided to switch things up and try something new.

The new meatball features some of the usual suspects like basil, Parmesan cheese and garlic, so the switch-up came in the form of ground chicken and spinach.

Using a pound of chicken and a 10 ounce box of frozen spinach I was able to make 18 decent sized meatballs-- we had some for dinner and I froze the rest to have on hand for those busy days when dinner needs to be ready in a hurry.

Since it was spaghetti night we had ours over, well, spaghetti. However, I think these would make great sandwiches, as well. Overall, the chicken and spinach meatballs were a nice change from our old stand-by meatballs.

Chicken & Spinach Meatballs
Makes approximately 6 servings

1 pound ground chicken
10 ounce box frozen spinach, thawed, drained and chopped*
2 tablespoons fresh basil, chopped
2 large garlic gloves, minced
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
2 eggs, beaten
1/4 plain bread crumbs
1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, shredded
a few pinches of salt
a few pinches of pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl mix all the ingredients together until just combined. Form the mixture into golf ball sized balls and place on a baking sheet coated with cooking spray. Bake at 360 degrees for 25-30 minutes.

*For the spinach: Be sure to thaw completely and then wrap it in a clean dish towel to wring out all the excess moisture before chopping.


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