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Homemade Fresh Italian Salad Dressing

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Tis the season for over indulgence so it’s really hard to remember to eat some healthy food occasionally. It’s also really tough to slow down long enough to make a balanced meal. But, with a little planning and some simple recipes, we can maintain some semblance of a healthy diet through the holiday season. Really! Here’s an easy dressing recipe to make and use all week long.

I always thought there was some sort of secret voodoo involved in making fresh salad dressing. I don’t know why I thought it was difficult, but it seemed like something that was unnecessarily complicated when there’s an entire aisle in the grocery store devoted to the bottled stuff – and a lot of healthy bottled varieties at that. My opinion on those bottled dressings totally changed this summer when I started trying some homemade dressings.

I had such a bumper crop of fresh lettuce I HAD to get creative with it. I figured I couldn’t afford to buy a bunch of different dressings to top our plethora of greens, so I better learn to make some homemade versions. I also had some fresh herbs from the garden and also from my Bountiful Baskets, so I decided to dive in and give it a spin. I’ll never go back. Well, I tried when I was too lazy to make some dressing for a salad one night. YUCK. It just is not the same. All those…extra preservatives really do change the flavor of the whole salad.

One of my favorites this Martha Stewart recipe for Fresh Italian Dressing. I keep the basic recipe, but fiddle with the herbs and the amounts a little. The trick is in the preparation, which isn’t hard, but just something you may not know if you haven’t made your own dressing before.

Here’s how:

Gather your ingredients, so they’re all handy to make the process super quick. Start by chopping your garlic and fresh herbs. The original recipe calls for basil, oregano and marjoram. I never have fresh marjoram, so I use thyme instead. I would imagine that any kitchen herb, except maybe mint or cilantro, would work with this dressing, so don’t worry if you don’t have exactly these herbs. Can you use dry herbs instead of fresh? Sure, but use one teaspoon of dried herbs for one tablespoon of fresh herbs and know that it may not end up with the amazingly fresh taste that the fresh herbs create. Still, it will be better than the bottled stuff, so go for it. As always, I’m not that precise in my measurements with the herbs and it doesn’t seem to matter.

Left to right: thyme, garlic, oregano, basil

Next, whisk the vinegar with the garlic, sugar, mustard, pepper flakes and salt & pepper. Let’s pause and talk about the whisk itself. I bought this cool springy whisk at a yard sale recently and it’s quickly become one of my favorite kitchen tools. It is the perfect thing to get a great emulsification going with a salad dressing.

In a separate bowl, whisk the two oils together. I always feel like it’s more oil than I need, so I have cut down on both by equal amounts and it’s worked out fine, also.

Vinegar mixture on left; oil mixture on right

Ok, here’s the part you want to pay attention to because it’s the one critical step! Emulsification. Martha explains that’s when you suspend the oil in the vinegar. This happens when you slowly add the oil into the vinegar while you whisk away. If you just dump, it won’t do that suspension thing, so take a minute and slowly pour and whisk and then BAM! Emulsification happens!

Finally, whisk in the herbs and viola, it’s dressing! I like to let it sit for a few hours, if possible, before serving because it allows the flavors to develop more completely.

I make dressing so often now that I invested in this little cruet that I found on Ebay to store it. Isn’t it cute?

Homemade Fresh Italian Dressing

Yield: about 1 1/3 cup

Ingredients (directly from original recipe):

  • Two small garlic cloves, pressed or minced
  • 2 tsp dried mustard
  • 1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
  • 2 tsp sugar
  • 1/4 cup + 2 Tbsp red wine vinegar
  • 1/4 cup fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp fresh oregano, finely chopped
  • 2 tsp fresh marjoram (I used thyme), finely chopped
  • 1/2 cup canola oil
  • 1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • Coarse salt and fresh ground pepper

Directions:

  1. Chop fresh herbs and mince garlic.
  2. in a small, but deep bowl, combine and whisk together vinegar with mustard, red pepper flakes, sugar, 1.5 tsp salt, 1/2 tsp pepper and garlic.
  3. In another small bowl, whisk together the two oils.
  4. Slowly drizzle the oil into the vinegar mixture, whisking continuously until all ingredients are well combined.
  5. Whisk in the herbs.

Serve immediately, or let sit for a few hours while flavors marry. Refrigerate for up to one 1 week (I have gone longer, but that’s Martha’s suggested shelf life). Be sure to give it a vigorous shake before serving.

Notes for next time:

As I mentioned above, I use less oil than called for and it works out fine. If you don’t think you’ll use up the dressing within a week, try halving the recipe. I have also added a little lemon juice to brighten it up a bit. I think I tried balsamic vinegar once and it was also very good. Otherwise, I really like this dressing as is.

The fresh herbs with the oil and vinegar really are so spectacular. You won’t believe how much tastier your salad is with a fresh dressing on top. I also like to use Italian dressing when cooking veggies. Instead of just drizzling in some olive oil when sauteing or roasting, drizzle on this dressing for more flavor. Imagine tossing some fresh tomatoes in this dressing and then roasting it in the oven. Oh my!

See my Dips, Dressings and Sauces board on Pinterest for more fresh dressings.

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Goodbye Garden 2012, Hello Garden 2013

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I’ve been feeling blue for a couple of weeks. Temps have been dropping and my harvest has been drying up. My once lush and prosperous plants have been drooping and shrinking. Then Sunday afternoon the Hubs and I stood in the kitchen looking out to the garden, knowing it was going to freeze that night. I was a little teary and he put his arm around me and told me what an awesome garden we had this year and how much he enjoyed it and all of the fresh food. Awww…

It was 32 degrees when I went to bed that night, so I knew it was over then. Black leaves are so sad…and overtly symbolic. While I pulled the green tomatoes off my blackened vines Monday, I reflected on this year’s garden and already found myself planning for next year. One way to shorten the mourning period over the end of this season is to look forward to the next one. If only I didn’t have to wait sooooo long. First goal for next year: plan for Fall gardening, so I don’t have to feel soo sad when summer harvest ends.

Whether you had your own garden this summer or you’re planning to try one next year, now is a good time to start planning. Most of my early planning is focused on which type of plants I want to add and which I plan to skip. But, along with those plans I’m realizing that I’m going to have to expand my garden space. Luckily, I have room, so I just need to get the dirt worked – and I should do it before the ground is totally frozen to get a jump on soil prep for next year. I also need to incorporate my compost into the soil now so it can get happy for next Spring.

But let’s talk plants because they’re more exciting than dirt. I have been thinking about what I’d like to add and subtract next year. My big lesson from this year is to grow what I like – well, love. If you don’t like it – or love it, you might not use it and find yourself swimming in produce you’re not very excited about, which can lead to waste. This year I realized I don’t need to repeat a few things.

No repeats:

  • Broccoli – I like it and the Hubs likes it, but I guess we don’t love it. The plants take up a ton of space and really don’t produce as much as a huge plant should.

  • Elephant garlic – it’s supposed to produce really large heads, but I wasn’t very impressed with its size or flavor. Regular garlic is better.
  • Sandia and Big Jim Peppers – I ended up with way too many of these and didn’t find them to be hot enough for my tastes, so I would rather plant some hotter peppers instead.

Happy additions:

  • Tomatillos – I got some in my Bountiful Basket and LOVED them. I want to make and can salsa verde next year.
  • Cucumbers – I’m not crazy about pickles, but cucumbers are great in a salad and when you’re eating lettuce daily for months, you need some fixins to make it more interesting.
  • Radishes – as with cucumbers, I think they go nice with salad, so I would like to grow a few.
  • Beets – I really love pickled beets and have seen some good looking recipes for roasted beets, so I think I would like to have some fresh beets.
  • Brussels sprouts – no idea if I can grow these in SW Colorado, but I like them, so I’m going to find out. I bet they will be really great when they are garden fresh.
  • Peas – maybe. I love peas and have grown them previously, but they take up a lot of room and take a lot of time to shell, so we’ll see.
  • Herbs – mint, thyme and rosemary. I don’t know why I didn’t do more with herbs this year. I adored my basil, cilantro and oregano, so I want to include more so I have fresh herbs to cook with.
  • Giant Sunflowers – not for eating, but for their supreme beauty. I just think they are cool to look at. Plus, they are handy for providing shade for tender plants during the peak of summer.

More or less:

  • Tomatoes – I had three cherry tomato plants and two regular tomato plants. Apparently I’m a real gardener now because I’m totally obsessed with tomatoes. I learned to can, so I need MORE. Next year I plan to focus on romas since I tend to make a lot of sauce, but I also want some salsa varieties and about three cherry plants seemed to be just right.

  • Onions – I felt like I planted bushels, but I know my stash will not last more than a month or two into winter. I need much more! I also plan to plant more green onions because they are so great to have and use during the summer while waiting for the big ‘uns to be ready.

  • Garlic – I also need much more garlic since I go through a head or two per week. It stores easily, so I need to plant more – and should have gotten some in the ground before freezing for a Spring harvest.

  • Bell Peppers – I had a few plants, but would like more variety than the purple and green I had: red, yellow, orange.

  • Spinach – I had a very small crop this year, so I think I need a heartier variety and I need to get it in the ground even earlier so the heat doesn’t get it.
  • Lettuce – I planted a mix that included about 4 varieties of heat tolerant lettuce and it was very, very prolific. I want to plant less of that mix and add some different varieties. A little seed results in mountains of cut and come again lettuce, so one needs to be careful how much they plant (remind me about this next Spring).
  • Potatoes – our crop was very small because I only planted about five plants and they weren’t very productive. I think my seed potatoes were not good, so I will try another variety and plant more.
  • Eggplant – my three plants had us swimming in eggplant and though we enjoy it, it was too much for us. Next year we’ll only have two plants.

  • Pumpkin – next to tomatoes, my other favorite crop is my accidental sweet pumpkins. I have almost used all of my pumpkin crop this year, and plan to buy some during the Halloween season to preserve for the winter. So, obviously I need to plant more next year. I think I’ll do a whole pumpkin patch area in the garden.

  • Basil – another favorite crop is basil and I must have more. I’m making pesto with the last of this year’s crop and wish I had more to put in the freezer for the winter because it’s so versatile and easy to cook with.

So I guess this is goodbye to Garden 2012. You were great fun and so productive! I can only pray that Garden 2013 lives up to your example…and then some! šŸ™‚

Readers: what new plants do you plan to add to your garden next year? Maybe you’ll give me more ideas (I’m going to end up with a whole farm, aren’t I?)


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Homemade Pumpkin Puree

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I already told you about my affinity for orange food when I wrote the the carrot soup post, so you had to know I would be talking about pumpkins – a lot! If you’re a Pinterest fan like me, you know that pumpkin-anything recipes are the most pinned recipes right now, so it’s only fitting we make some homemade pumpkin puree to get ready for all those orange recipes.

Along with my mysterious cantaloupe plants out in the garden, I also ended up with a very nice crop of pie (sweet) pumpkins. I never thought to grow pumpkins before. After all, how many jack-o-lanterns does one need a year? But, I knew that the pumpkins that I accidentally grew were pie pumpkins because that was the only kind I had thrown out there during my lazy composting last winter. So, it dawned on me that since I use a lot of pumpkin puree for Fall recipes and for my homemade doggie treats (Yeah, I’m that kind of dog owner. Yeah, I’ll share the recipe in a future post), I should be really happy to have my own crop of sweet pumpkins.

That said, I always thought starting with an actual pumpkin would be complicated and laborious work. Turns out I was wrong. It’s pretty darn simple and it tastes SO much better than canned. AND, a cup of pumpkin is only 41 calories! While I know most people don’t have a personal crop of pie pumpkins in their backyard, we can all take advantage of the plethora of little pumpkins that are appearing in big bins at the market and farmers markets at this time of year. They cost almost nothing and they are so easy to work with. I used a couple of resources to learn how to make puree: Simple Bites and Elana’s Pantry.

Here’s how:

First, start with the little pie pumpkins – they are the baby-sized ones, not the big carving kind (which don’t taste as yummy) or the super-mini kind. You can use them for decor around the house during Halloween season, then make puree and all kinds of pumpkin yummies out of them.

Use small pie/sweet pumpkins to make puree for cooking

Cut the stem off, then slice the pumpkins open, horizontally.

Slice horizontally

Scoop out the seeds and stringy pulp, reserving for later.

Remove seeds and stringy pulp

It’s ok if some of the stringy part is left intact

Place pumpkin halves cut-side down on a rimmed baking sheet. Two pumpkins fit on one of my baking sheets.

Place cut-side down on a rimmed baking sheet

Bake at 350 degrees for about 45-60 minutes, depending on size. You know they are done when you can insert a fork into the outside of the pumpkin easily and the inner flesh is quite soft, but not complete mush.

Bake at 350 degrees for 45-60 minutes

Let cool until you can handle the roasted pumpkins. Then scoop the flesh from the outer shell and place in the food processor. Puree until very smooth.

Scoop flesh from outer shell

Puree the pulp until very smooth

Remove from food processor to a colander to drain off excess moisture. Use cheesecloth or coffee filters to line the colander so you don’t lose the precious pulp. Allow to drain for about 30 minutes.

Drain in a lined colander for about 30 minutes.

Once it’s drained, you can use it immediately in your favorite pumpkin recipe or you can store it in the fridge for a few days and/or freeze it for later use. My two small pumpkins yielded about 2.5 cups of puree. I used a little for a fruit tart recipe (recipe coming in a future post) and froze the rest. I used a muffin tin to freeze 1/2 cup portions, which are handy to grab and defrost as needed.

BUT WAIT, there’s more! Remember the seeds and stringy pulp you scooped out of the pumpkins earlier? Separate the seeds from the pulp. Put the leftover pulp in the veggie stock freezer bag (see sidebar in this post) and rinse and dry the seeds.

Separate the seeds from the leftover pulp

When the seeds are dry, mix with a little melted butter and salt and roast at 300 degrees for about 45 minutes.

Mix seeds with a little butter and salt, then roast at 300 for about 45 minutes

Great, healthy snack! For other fun roasted pumpkin seed recipes, see my pumpkin board on Pinterest.

Tasty healthy snack!

So, from two little pumpkins we have made puree for cooking, seeds for snacking and pulp for veggie stock. Some would also argue that we should reserve the liquid from the puree we drained. Ok. I didn’t, though.

Now, what are we going to make with our pumpkin puree? EVERYTHING! My personal fav is the soft pumpkin chocolate chip cookie, but I can’t have those very often. So, there’s also pumpkin pie (duh, right?), pumpkin waffles and pancakes, pumpkin pasta, pumpkin bread, pumpkin soup, pumpkin chili, pumpkin bread and muffins, pumpkin bars, pumpkin quinoa, pumpkin lattes, pumpkin smoothies, pumpkin butter, and pumpkin granola bars…..and the list goes on and on! Here are three of my pumpkin creations: Curried Pumpkin & Bean Soup andĀ  Pumpkin & Fruit Galette and Pumpkin, Bean and Rice Burritos. I’ll show you as I go through my pumpkin pins. Oh, and did you know that you can sub pumpkin puree for oil in many baking recipes (like you might do with applesauce)?

Leave a comment with your favorite recipe using pumpkin!

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Growing Cantaloupes in Zone 5, a happy accident

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I have been so focused on writing about cooking with the harvest, I have been ignoring the other part of the story: the garden. It’s Fall now and the leaves are changing and the temps are dipping to the low 40’s and high 30’s at night, so the garden production is slowing and it’s time to finish the harvest and start planning for next year.

One crop the Hubs insists we do again next year are cantaloupes. I didn’t plan them – or plant them – this year, but we grew them. Divine intervention? Sort of. Apparently last Fall or winter when I was in “lazy composting” mode I must have thrown the remains of a cantaloupe out into the garden area. Then, even after having my garden rototilledĀ  in the spring before planting, little mystery sprouts started appearing. They mostly looked like some sort of squash, but some were a little different. I asked friends who know things about gardens and they identified the seedlings as squash. I took photos and posted on Facebook asking for identification. Again, they said squash.

Yep, some were squash: zucchini and pie pumpkins, it turns out. BUT, the other ones that looked a little different turned out to be cantaloupe. I didn’t have much faith that they would actually mature into edible fruit because our growing season here in SW Colorado at 6,900′ is fairly short and can be pretty cool. I tried growing melons many years ago and nothing ever materialized. I figured I’d let them try to grow and see what happened. I thinned them so they wouldn’t take over the whole garden if they really took off and I moved some to the far side of the garden (yes, I admit it, the rocky not-so-fertile side) to get them out of the way.

I just watered them along with everything else, but generally ignored them, yet they prevailed! The vines spread out and grabbed onto the onions and tackled the cilantro and made pretty little orange flowers (another clue that they were not squash – different flowers). Then one day, there were little balls of melon hanging around out there. I was finally able to positively identify them as melon. I started feeling sorry for the poor things, still assuming they would never mature enough to get to go inside and be sliced up for a snack. I propped them up on rocks so they wouldn’t sit in the mud too much and I tried to redirect the vines so they would be more comfortable. That’s about it, though.

They started growing up and looking like actual cantaloupes and I thought, well…maybe they’re going to work out. I read up on when to harvest and watch for signs of ‘slip’ from the vine and a change from green to light brown color. Then a few weeks ago we had a really huge, long rainstorm. I don’t know how much moisture we actually got, but I certainly didn’t need to water for about a week – a rarity in our high, dry area. About a week later, I was rummaging around in the garden and noticed one of the big melons looked awful! It was all cracked and starting to rot and ants were feasting on it. YUCK! I grabbed a shovel and removed it from the area. I poked around at it and noticed the inside really looked like a cantaloupe. It was mostly pretty and orange. So, even though that one had rotted for some reason, I realized we had real hope for some good melons!

I read some more and found that uneven watering can cause the cracking. I am pretty good about daily watering and I use soaker hoses, so I think it’s fairly even. I’m blaming the crazy rainstorm for the “uneven” water.

While they still weren’t showing all of the signs of ripeness, I knew I had to keep a close eye on them, lest they crack and rot like their big brother.Ā  I started checking the big melons daily and as soon as I detected a crack, I cut the cord and brought them in. I had learned that melons will not ripen more after harvesting, so I wasn’t terribly convinced that they would taste good since they weren’t technically ripe. Turns out that I was wrong. Again.

The first one I cut tasted sweet and ripe like the best summer melons from Green River, Utah. I enjoyed some, sliced the rest and put it in the fridge and forgot to tell the Hubs when he came in that night. Later he found it while foraging for a late-night snack. All sorts of excitement as he came to the bedroom where I was reading to tell me that the cantaloupe was amazing! He was totally impressed and couldn’t wait to tell his buddies at work – though he didn’t want to share.

Who knew? The Hubs keeps telling me how impressed he is with my gardening skills, but I feel a little guilty since I really didn’t do much to help the melons grow. It’s like being the apathetic parent of a child prodigy. The Hubs says we (meaning I) have to do it again next year. How do you accidentally do something twice? I guess I throw some melon remains out in the dirt sometime this winter and see if we have a repeat. I have read that you’re not supposed to save seeds from grocery store food, so I’ll work harder at an organic accident next time around.

So far we’ve eaten three full size melons and there are two more I’m keeping a close eye on outside. There are also several babies out there still. Not sure what will become of the poor underdeveloped orphans, but maybe they’ll be edible, if small. I’ll keep you posted!

Leave a comment about your surprise garden successes.

See my Gardening board on Pinterest for more garden notes.


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Roasted Eggplant and Tomato Pasta – the BEST pasta you’ll ever eat

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I’ve been telling you that I would share my all time favorite pasta and today is the day! This stuff is like crack for me and I don’t care if you think you don’t like eggplant or have never tried eggplant, just trust me: this is the most sumptuous dish I have come across in a very long time (and I surf Pinterest multiple times a day and I cook every day!).

Before we go any further, let’s give credit where it’s due. I only slightly adapted my version from Alexandra’s Kitchen (her recipes are gorgeous, go see them) and she borrowed it from the classic Chez Panisse Vegetables.Ā While I usually fiddle with recipes to suit my own tastes, this one required almost no modifications.

Next, let’s address the eggplant issue. I know, most people don’t get giddy over it, but they should! I didn’t plan to grow it in my garden this year, but I had some free space and the local nursery had some plants on sale, so I bought three eggplant plants. I had no idea how beautiful the plants would be…or how prolific. The joke about how everyone leaves zucchini on your porch or in your car at this time of year could apply to eggplant if more people grew it. I had beautiful, shiny purple orbs coming out of my ears, so I went a-searchin for some recipes and I was so lucky to find this one!

The beautiful silvery green plant makes these sweet little purple flowers

Then the flowers start making baby eggplant

Then we have beautiful purple fruit!

If you don’t have eggplant in your garden (and you probably don’t), you can find it at the farmer’s markets at this time of year and your local CSA or Bountiful Baskets may be including it in their distribution. You know that the eggplant is ready to eat when the skin is shiny and fairly firm (with some give), but not hard. Bigger is not better as they can get bitter if they’re too big.

Here’s how to make it:

Since eggplant can be bitter, we need to do a little prep work. I found that my super fresh from the garden eggplants were not bitter, but if you’re not sure, it’s best to go ahead and do this step. Remove the skin and slice the eggplant into planks about 1/2″ think. Lay on a double layered paper towel or kitchen towel and generously salt both sides. I am no chemistry buff, but apparently this helps leech out the bitterness. Leave them sitting for about 15 minutes, then flip. You’ll see moisture leaking out – that’s the bitterness. Leave another 15 minutes, then wipe off as much salt as possible. Some say to rinse and dry, but I think the residual moisture will impede the roasting process we’re about to use.

Salt both sides, then lay out to rest for 30 minutes, flipping halfway through.

Next, dice it up, and throw it on a baking sheet – NO olive oil this time – and roast at 400 degrees for 20-30 minutes, until softened and golden brown. Some people think that cooked eggplant is slimy. Complete MYTH. Let it cool and taste it now. Nothing slimy about it, right?

Roast diced eggplant at 400 for 20-30 minutes until tender and golden brown.

At this point, you have a choice to make. It’s about the tomatoes. Alexandra’s recipe calls for two cups of tomato sauce. When I made it the first time, I didn’t have any sauce and I was feeling a little lazy and didn’t want to make any (and I won’t buy it), so I dug around in the cupboard and found a can of fire-roasted diced tomatoes and used that for the sauce (adding a dollop of pesto). You can do the same and it will be amazing – I fell in love with it this way. BUT, if you want to go more homegrown, and use up some of those cherry tomatoes, go ahead and make a pan of roasted cherry tomatoes at the same time the eggplant is roasting. Beware, people may knock on your door, fork in hand, because they will smell all of this deliciousness wafting from the windows.

Caramelize an onion while the eggplant (and tomatoes, if you choose) roasts.

Meanwhile, caramelize an onion (see why I dedicated a whole post to caramelizing onions? We keep needing them!).

While the onions, eggplant and tomatoes are doing their thing, mince a couple of cloves of garlic. When the onions are ready, add the garlic and saute a minute, then deglaze the pan with a glug of vinegar – I used a red wine vinegar as I didn’t have a sherry vinegar as the original calls for. Next, add the canned or oven roasted tomatoes, the tomato paste, the roasted eggplant and a little bit of red pepper flakes. Stir and simmer on low.

Add garlic, vinegar and tomatoes to the pan.

Add the roasted eggplant to the pan and simmer. See those beautiful colors?

At this point, if you haven’t already done so, you can put the pasta on to boil until al dente. I used Barilla Plus penne, but you can use whatever type of pasta you have on hand.

Boil the pasta to al dente

I like to let the sauce simmer for a bit so all of the flavors can meld, but you can simmer as long or as short as you have time for. I have actually turned it off, covered it and left it sitting for up to an hour at this point. Be sure to grab a few forkfuls to test, though. A few minutes before I’m ready to serve, I chop up a handful of fresh basil and add to pan. I’ve learned it’s better to wait until later in the cooking process to add the fresh spices.

Chop a handful of fresh basil and add to the pan a few minutes before serving

After adding basil, simmer a few more minutes and drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water. It’s so pretty and smells sooo luscious!

Finally, drain the pasta, reserving about 1/2 cup of the water in case the sauce needs to be a little more saucy. Add the pasta to the pan, fold in gently and serve immediately, or let it sit for a few minutes so the pasta soaks in some of the sauce. If your sauce is too thick for your taste, add the reserved pasta water, in small amounts until you reach the desired consistency. Serve and garnish with some grated Parmesan or Romano cheese, if desired.

The first time I served this, the Hubs asked if it had meat in it. No. He sighed…a meatless meal. Again. Then he dug in and devoured two helpings. In fact, we ate ALL OF IT that night. We stopped short of licking the pan. If you’re leery about eggplant, it’s ok. It doesn’t taste eggplanty at all. It’s just thick and rich and binds all of the other yummies together. I swear, if you make this for your next dinner party, you will be the next Martha Stewart Rachael Ray of the neighborhood!

Roasted Eggplant & Tomato Pasta

Servings: 4

Ingredients:

  • 1-2 large eggplant, peeled and diced
  • 1 onion, sliced
  • 2-3 garlic cloves, minced
  • a handful basil, chopped finely
  • 1 regular-sized can fire-roasted diced tomatoes (+ dollop of pesto) –OR– 1 recipe roasted cherry tomatoes
  • 2 dollops (about half a can) tomato paste (freeze the rest in ice cube trays for later)
  • 2 cups pasta (penne, or whatever you have on hand)
  • Red pepper flakes
  • Olive oil
  • 1 glug of red wine vinegar (I have also used red wine)
  • Salt and pepper
  • Parmesan or Romano cheese (optional)

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 400.
  2. Peel and slice eggplant into 1/2″ planks. Salt generously on both sides, then lay out on towels to drain for 30 minutes, flipping halfway through. If your eggplant is garden fresh, you should be safe to skip this step.
  3. If using the roasted cherry tomato recipe, prepare tomatoes while eggplant is draining.
  4. Wipe the salt off the sliced eggplant, then dice. Place on un-greased baking pan. Roast for 20-30 minutes until tender and golden brown.Ā  If roasting tomatoes, place in oven at the same time as eggplant. They should finish about the same time.
  5. While eggplant and tomatoes roast, caramelize onions in a large, deep saute pan. The onions, tomatoes and eggplant should all be ready about the same time.
  6. When onions are caramelized, add garlic and saute for a minute before deglazing by splashing the vinegar or wine into the pan.
  7. Add tomatoes (canned or roasted) and paste to pan and simmer for a few minutes on low-medium heat.
  8. Fold in roasted eggplant and red pepper flakes. Salt and pepper to taste. Continue to simmer on a low heat.
  9. Put pasta on to boil. Cook until al dente, drain, reserving about 1/2 cup of the pasta water.
  10. Chop the basil and add to sauce a few minutes before serving.
  11. Add pasta to sauce, stir gently. Add reserved pasta water a spoonful at a time, to create a saucier sauce, if desired. Let simmer on low for a few minutes or serve.
  12. Garnish with Parmesan or Romano cheese, if desired.

Notes for next time: Honestly, this is one recipe that I plan to leave alone. I’m always tempted to add more ingredients – like I think it might be nice to add some zucchini to this (since we have plenty), but I am going to refrain and not mess with success since this is so perfect, as is. The Hubs loved it just as much when I made it again and thinks we should grow even more eggplant next year. Since I’m still drowning in the eggplant harvest, I wonder if I could make this sauce and then freeze it. I have baked and frozen some eggplant for winter use, but hadn’t though of freezing it. Might give that a whirl!

Please go get some eggplant and make this and then leave a comment about how much you loved it! šŸ™‚

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For more eggplant recipes, see my Eggplant Board on Pinterest.


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Carrot and Sweet Potato Soup – orange you ready for some soup??

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I love orange veggies! Pumpkin, carrots, sweet potatoes, sweet orange peppers, butternut squash….mmmhhhmmm. They all inspire images of cozy Fall evenings by a fireplace. Comfort. Fall is in the air here in SW Colorado. The nights are cooling off enough to force us to close some windows at bedtime and when we drove up to Telluride this weekend, we saw that the leaves are turning crispy golden colors already.

Another sign that Fall is upon us is that the Hubs has a cold. That’s the downside of the season change, right? I’m fending it off, so far, but I feel some sniffles coming on, too. So Fall is arriving and we’re a little sickly, so that means it’s soup season! I adore making soup. There is something so wholesome and satisfying about mixing up a batch of comforting soup and letting it simmer quietly on the stove. I think one of the first real scratch cooking recipes I made was soup – Tuscan bean soup, I believe, and I was amazed how simple it was to make and how yum-o it was to eat.

The Hubs requested chicken soup over the weekend and we finished it last night, so I wanted another soup recipe for tonight. My kitchen is overflowing with veggies from the garden and from my most recent Bountiful Baskets haul, so I assessed what I had and started my daily trolling of Pinterest forĀ  ideas. I found it: carrot soup! I have tons of my own garden carrots and also two packages from Bountiful Baskets. I’ve never made carrot soup, but I have made pumpkin soup and it sounded similar – and it’s orange! YAY! My inspiration recipes are from Basket 411 (which I’m glad I found because it’s all about using Bountiful Basket produce) and from Food 52. I stole borrowed a few ideas from both and made my own version tonight.

It turns out that I got to combine the carrots with another orange veg: sweet potato (or yam)! Orange squared!

Secret ingredient: sweet potato!

So here’s what you do:

Start by peeling and chopping up about 6-10 carrots into bite-sized pieces. Personally, I only peel my carrots if I can’t get all of the dirt out of the nooks and crannies because you lose a lot of nutrients by peeling. You need to wind up with about four cups of chopped carrots. I have some very large, odd looking carrots from my garden, so my quantity of carrots to start was only about 4, plus a couple of normal carrots.

This is what happens when your carrots get “uneven watering” and you don’t thin them enough – freaky carrots!

Chop up carrots into bite-sized pieces measuring about 4 cups

Next, peel and dice one sweet potato (or yam) and toss into a bowl with the chopped carrots. Peel a few cloves of garlic and add to the bowl. Pour about 1/4 cup of extra virgin olive oil over the mixture and gently toss to coat all veggies in the EVOO.

Combine carrots, sweet potato, garlic and EVOO

If this process sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s basically the same process described in my post about roasting cherry tomatoes. Yep, we’re going to roast these veggies before we throw them in the soup. Roasting brings out all kinds of flavorful yum in veggies and since it’s cooling off, we don’t mind having the oven on for awhile.

Dump the mixture onto a jelly roll pan (rimmed baking pan) and spread veggies into a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes until largest pieces are very tender. If they begin to scorch, move to lower rack or reduce heat to about 400. Each oven is different, so adjust accordingly.

Dump veggies onto baking sheet and spread into a single layer

Roast at 425 degrees for 20-30 minutes until largest pieces are very tender. Be sure to taste test to be sure.

While the orange veggies are roasting in the oven, caramelize an onion in your soup pot. The roasting and caramelizing both take about 20-30 minutes, so do other kitchen chores while they’re working.

Caramelize an onion while the orange veggies roast

When the orange veggies are roasted, pour in some vegetable stock to deglaze the soup pot before adding veggies.

Sidebar: speaking of veggie stock, you should make your own! Really! It’s super simple and it’s healthier than the commercially processed kind. Plus, you’ll always have some on hand when you need it. See my method for Easy Vegetable Stock here.

Freeze veg stock in muffin tins then store in big baggies for easy use

I used about 2.5 cups of stock, but I like a thicker, heartier soup. If you like a thinner soup, use more stock. You can also add more after you puree it to get the desired texture. Bring stock and onions to a medium boil.

Dump the roasted veggies in the pot and add the ginger and thyme, with a little more salt and pepper. I decided we needed a little acid to counteract the sweetness of the roasted veggies and caramelized onions, so I added about two or three heaping spoons of my roasted tomato mixture from the fridge. If you don’t have roasted tomatoes, just chop up a couple of tomatoes and throw them in the pot. You cold also use about half a can of diced tomatoes, drained.

Combine the rest of the ingredients and let simmer on low for at least 10 minute or longer

Next, add the other secret ingredient: Worcestershire sauce. I know: weird, right? I don’t even know what’s in the stuff (no, I don’tĀ  want to know), but I swear by it in soups and stews. Adding it increases the richness of the soup exponentially. I only use a quick glug or two, but it makes all the difference. Trust me.

Finally, chop the parsley and add to the pot. Once all of the ingredients are in, simmer covered on low for at least 10 minutes to allow all of the flavors to get happy and dancing together. I believe soup must simmer and you must be able to smell from outside your front door before it’s “done.”

To finish, you need to puree it. You can use a blender or food processor, but you’ll need to cool it to warm before doing so or it blows the lid off. Also, don’t overload the container; process in batches. I am lucky enough to own an immersion blender (and I highly recommend you invest in one, too), so I just buzz it around the pot until I get the right texture. The HubsĀ  and I like some chunkiness to out soup, so I leave it pretty thick and don’t blend down all of the pieces (though I do try to get the garlic pieces all pureed in). Add water or more stock if you want a thinner consistency.

Puree the soup to the desired texture, adding water or stock to thin if needed

Return pot to stove and reheat until hot. Simmer a little longer, or serve immediately.

Simmer pureed soup on low or serve immediately

Garnish with whatever you like and have on hand. Some toasted nuts or pumpkin seeds would be lovely. Or, some cilantro or green onions would be good. I meant to add green onions, but the Hubs arrived and I got distracted and forgot. Crusty bread or toast makes a great dipping tool (too bad we finished the baguette with the chicken soup). Cuddle up under a flannel blankie by the fire and enjoy your orange soup!

Carrot & Sweet Potato Soup

Servings: 4

Ingredients:

  • 4 cups chopped carrots (about 6-10 carrots)
  • 1 sweet potato, peeled and diced
  • 4-5 whole cloves of garlic, peeled
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil (canola would also work)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • 1 onion, sliced (preferably yellow)
  • 2-3 cups vegetable stock (could sub chicken broth)
  • 1 Tbsp minced ginger (fresh is best, but I only had some in a jar)
  • 1 tsp dried thyme
  • 2-3 heaping Tbsp roasted tomato mixture (or 2 chopped tomatoes, or 1/2 can diced tomatoes, drained)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh chopped parsley
  • 1-2 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
  • Garnish (optional): nuts or seeds, green onions or cilantro

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Combine diced carrots, sweet potato and garlic in a medium bowl. Toss withe EVOO to coat all veggies.
  3. Dump mixture on a jelly roll pan (rimmed baking sheet) and spread into a single layer. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.
  4. Roast in over for 20-30 minutes until the largest pieces are very tender.
  5. Meanwhile, caramelize the sliced onions in a large soup pot (see caramelizing instructions here).
  6. Deglaze the soup pot with a little veggie stock, then add another 2 cups of stock. Reserve the remaining stock to add as needed during the puree process.
  7. Bring soup to a medium boil, and add ginger and thyme and a little more salt and pepper to taste.
  8. Add remaining ingredients.
  9. Simmer on a low heat for about 10 minutes.
  10. Puree in blender or food processor (cool to warm, then puree in batches) or using an immersion blender. Blend to desired consistency, adding stock if needed.
  11. Return to stove and reheat until hot.
  12. Garnish with nuts or seeds, green onions or cilantro.

Notes for next time:

I like spicy food, but since the Hubs has a sore throat, I didn’t spice this recipe with anything other than the garlic and onions. Next timeĀ  I would add some red pepper flakes or a little curry powder or paste to heat it up. I also might try using basil rather than parsley and I might add a little red wine to the soup. Another thought is to tossĀ  a little balsamic vinegar with the veggies before roasting. I also thought out adding some roasted corn after pureeing the rest of the soup. The Hubs liked his soup, but required a grilled cheese sandwich on the side to feel satisfied after a long day of working while sick šŸ™‚ I was full after my bowl.

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Roasted Cherry Tomatoes: Simple Savories

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UPDATED: See bottom of post.

This year I planted tomatoes for the first time. I had planned to only have three plants because I wasn’t convinced that I would enjoy growing them – or be successful. Since I didn’t know a lot about the many plant choices, I ordered a variety pack from Burpees. One of those was called the Super Sweet 100 Hybrid, described as a high-producing sweet cherry variety. Then a friend gave me a couple of additional plants, which turned out to be cherry varieties, as well. So, out of five plants, I have three that are cherry! Know what that means? I have MILLIONS of itty bitties, and I wasn’t prepared for the influx of the little sweeties.

Cherry tomato plants produce MILLIONS of sweet little tomatoes!

I started exploring other food blogs to figure out how to preserve the giant harvest of mini tomatoes and learned that while it is possible to can them, most people donā€™t because most people donā€™t like to leave the skin on canned tomatoes and most people refuse to peel 1000 cherry tomatoes in order to get a couple of pints of canned tomatoes. Personally, Iā€™m not terribly averse to skins and I do throw some cherry maters in my salsa, but decided I wanted to do something else with the little guys since Iā€™m canning the big ā€˜uns.

What to do with all of those little yummies?

I learned a simple, fast and super yummy trick for roasting and then preserving cherry tomatoes. I’ve seen several versions of this technique, so I am by no means claiming to have thought of it myself! As always, I try to put a little of my own spin on it and show you how easy this savory delight is to make and how versatile the finished product can be.

Roasted cherry tomatoes are simple and versatile

I started with about a pound of cherry tomatoes, which fits in one jelly roll pan and makes about one half pint of the mixture. I only have one jelly roll pan so that’s all I make at a time – you could make more if you have multiple pans.

Preheat the oven to about 425 degrees. Prepare the tomatoes by slicing each of them in half. TEDIOUS! I hate tedious! Let’s make this faster. I wish I remember where I saw this trick (somewhere on Pinterest, I’m sure), but the person who invented it is a genius. Here’s what you do: find two plastic lids of the same size. I use the kind from the big Greek yogurt containers (cottage cheese, sour cream, etc.). Set one lid, label side down and fill the lid with tomatoes. I find it works best if you use similar sized tomatoes in each batch.

Fill the first lid with the tomatoes

Fit them in as snugly as you can, then place the other lid, label side facing up on top of the tomatoes, making a little tomato sandwich.

Place the second lid on top of the tomatoes

Now, press down on the sandwich firmly and begin slicing into the tomatoes with an very sharp knife. If you don’t keep the pressure firm, the tomatoes will escape out the backside of the sandwich. Sometimes I do rotate it a bit, but do not pull out the knife, which would make it messy.

Press firmly on the top while slicing through the tomatoes

Viola! Quick work made of slicing up a handful of cherry tomatoes! I told you it was genius!

Like magic, they’re all sliced in one move!

After the tomatoes are halved, place them in a medium sized bowl. Peel, but do not chop a few cloves of garlic and add to the bowl of tomatoes. Remember that garlic mellows out when roasted, so feel free to add more!

Add some garlic cloves to the bowl of tomatoes

Add about a 1/4 cup of EVOO to the bowl and gently stir to coat all tomatoes and garlic cloves. Dump the contents of the bowl onto the pan and spread the tomatoes and garlic out into a single layer. It doesn’t matter if the tomatoes sit cut side up or down.

Spread the garlic and tomatoes into a single layer on the pan

Sprinkle the spices and salt and pepper over the mixture and place in the oven. Roast for about 20-30 minutes. I like a little charring on the edges, so I wait until I see that before I pull them out. Be careful, though, because you can go from a little char to a major scorch in a matter of a minutes. My pan below may have gone a little too long.

Roast until you see a little charring on the edges of the tomatoes

Let the mixture cool on the pan. The second they are cool enough to eat, taste them! (Caution: I have burned my tongue more than once by diving in too soon!). Amazingness, right? Super savory flavors that make you want to lap it up off the pan. Depending on how much you eat off the pan, you now have a nice little batch of roasted yummies to add to tonight’s dinner, or save in a jar for a future recipe.

Cool then taste!

If I want to save them for another day, I scoop the mixture into a half pint (jelly size) jar. Be sure to get all of the drippings and the garlic (you can smash or chop the garlic to make for easier use later). Smoosh the mixture firmly into the jar and top with a splash of EVOO. Fill to nearly the top, but f you’re going to freeze it, leave about 1/2″ headroom. I have kept the mixture in the fridge for up to a week, but if I don’t think I’m going to use it quickly enough, I just pop it in the freezer. Defrost in the fridge overnight when ready to use.

Pour the mixture in a small jar for fridge or freezer

The mixture makes a perfect pasta topping, as is. Just prepare some pasta, warm the tomato mixture in a saute pan (add some pesto and/or a little tomato paste for more body) and then combine the pasta and tomato mixture for a super easy, but very savory supper. I will share my FAVORITE pasta dish with you in a future post soon, and we’ll use this recipe as our basic sauce starter.

Besides pasta, you could use this as a topping or stir it into many other dishes since it’s just a tomato and garlic combo. Think: stews and soups, stir into meatloaf or burgers, cassaroles, bruschetta, pizza, eggs, rice, veggie stir-fries, shrimp or fish topping, bean or green salads, etc. It also occurs to me that it could be pureed to create a smoother texture, making it even more versatile. Oooo…gotta try that!

Roasted Cherry Tomatoes

Serving size: makes about 1/2 pint

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 4-6 whole, peeled garlic cloves (more, if you like)
  • 1/4 cup EVOO
  • 1 tsp dry Italian seasoning (or any combo of basil, oregano, thyme, etc. You could also use fresh chopped herbs)
  • 1/2 tsp each: salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
  2. Slice tomatoes in half, place in medium-sized bowl.
  3. Peel garlic, add to bowl with tomatoes.
  4. Add EVOO to bowl, gently stir to coat all tomatoes and garlic.
  5. Pour mixture onto jelly roll (rimmed baking sheet), spreading mixture into single layer.
  6. Roast for 20-30 minutes, until edges of tomatoes are slightly charred. Remove from oven.
  7. Cool completely on the pan.
  8. Use immediately, or scoop mixture into small jar, packing tightly and topping with EVOO. Leave 1/2″ head space if you plan to freeze.

Notes for next time:

I think it would be fun to try a Mexican spin on the mixture by using Mexican spices instead of Italian and adding some green chiles or jalapenos to the roasting pan. This version could be used as a stir-in to taco filling and other Mexican dishes. Another nice addition to either version would be thick slices of onions and/or green peppers which also roast so nicely and pair well with tomatoes.

Leave a comment with your roasted tomato recipe ideas. Enjoy!

UPDATE:

When I wrote this post, I noted that maybe the roasted tomato mixture could be pureed into a smoother texture, making it even more versatile. I also thought it would be fun to add some onions and bell peppers to the roasting pan to include even more savory flavor. Well! Last night I tried both and it turned out to be simply delicious and got rave reviews from the Hubs. He isn’t quite as enamored with the texture of the plain roasted tomato mixture as I am, so the smoother version works great for him. I just had to share!

Here’s how:

Prepare cherry tomatoes and garlic as above, but add chopped pieces of bell pepper and onions. I had some pearl onions (over-grown green onions) from the garden, so I used those. You can just chunk up about half an onion. Toss with olive oil, as described above and roast the same way.

Next, dump the mixture into a bowl and use the immersion blender to puree to the desired consistency (or cool then use a food processor or blender).

Blend with food processor, blender or immersion blender to desired consistency

I added a dollop of my basil pesto, a little salt and pepper and about 1 Tbsp of sugar, but mostly because I was experimenting with the flavors. It was great, as is, before adding ingredients. Just tweak to your own tastes and you end up with great marinara sauce. I served mine over open-faced (chicken) meatball sandwiches and the Hubs asked for seconds. Enjoy!

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