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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! 🙂

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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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 for  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’t  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 Hubs  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 time  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 toss  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 🙂 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 don’t because most people don’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, I’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 I’m canning the big ‘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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Mexican Zucchini Succotash (Calabacitas)

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It’s that time of year when squash is taking over our gardens, kitchens and every other available corner of our lives. It’s great that it’s so easy to grow, but after you’ve made 88 loaves of zucchini bread, it’s time to change things up a bit. Zucchini is a very versatile veg, so you can really put it in most any recipe and it’ll make a great addition. My friend Mary even made a zucchini cobbler for book club once and it was way yummy (it was actually sweet, not savory).

This is some of the squash that is currently hanging around in my kitchen

I have a speedy weeknight, one-pot wonder of a zucchini meal for you that the whole fam will devour. When I first started growing zucchini, my husband kept talking about something his mom used to make with zucchini, corn and cheese. He called it calavacitas, but in doing some research, it looks like calabacitas and calvacitas are the same basic dish – each family just has their own way to say it. The beauty of it all is that there are many versions of the old-school dish, so we can tweak it however we want!

I also use the zucchini, corn and a little cheese, but I add a few more ingredients to make it more of a main dish. I use chicken as the protein, but you could swap that out for pork, ground beef, or shrimp – or you could leave it out and make it a vegetarian meal instead. It is really fast to throw together and it’s one of those recipes where you can sub out any ingredient you don’t have for one you do have and get dinner on the table in less than 30 minutes.

Simple one pot Mexican Succotash!

Start by dicing the chicken into bite-sized pieces. I used some chicken tenders (about 3) I had in the freezer, but you could use breasts or boneless, skinless thighs also. The meat is easier to dice if it is still about half frozen.

I buy a large package of chicken tenders when they’re on sale and then freeze smaller portions to pull out as needed.

While you’re dicing the chicken, heat a large saute pan to medium heat. When hot, add a few swirls of EVOO and let it heat up. Add 3-4 cloves of minced garlic to the pan and cook for a minute – be careful not to scorch it as burned garlic tastes really bitter.  Chop up about a quarter (or more, if you like!) of an onion and add to the garlic.

Add garlic to taste: I used 3 cloves

Now add the corn. If you have fresh corn on the cob, just slice it off the cob straight into the pan. I used two cobs in mine.

Once the corn gets a little sear on it, place the diced chicken in the pan, along with some salt and pepper. Sprinkle in about a 1/2 tsp each of cumin and Mexican oregano. Stir and simmer over medium heat.

I have a lot (a ton) of these little green peppers – we think they’re Sandias – so I chopped up a few and threw them into the pan. You could use bell peppers or whatever type of pepper you might have on hand – or just skip if you don’t.

We received a mystery pepper plant from a friend that we think is a Sandia pepper and it’s very productive, so I threw some in for some flavor.

Next, add some chopped tomatoes, and/or salsa. I had some (or about a thousand) cherry tomatoes and some fresh salsa so I added some of both. Use what you have on hand. If you think you’ll need a little more heat, throw in some red pepper flakes.

Throw in some tomatoes and/or some salsa and let it all simmer together until the chicken is fully cooked and tomatoes are softening.

Then continue by chopping the zucchini (or yellow squash) – I used about two regular sized zuccs to feed two of us. Add more for a larger group (or to use up more of your harvest).

Slice the zucchini in half, then slice each half horizontally.

Repeat with the other half until you have quarters

Chop the quarters up into about 1/2″ slices

Add the zucc to the pan and stir into the mixture. Cover and simmer for about 3-5 minutes. Watch the zucc, though, because you don’t want to let it get overcooked and mushy.

Add the chopped zucc and cover. Simmer 3-4 minutes.

At this point, your meal is complete – well, the Hubs says it’s not complete until you add the cheese! He likes a lot of cheese all mixed up and melted in the pan, but since I’m on the healthy kick, I shred a little on the side so we can each add as much or as little cheese as we like.

I had some sharp cheddar and some Monterrey Jack cheese on hand; use what you have, or skip if you prefer no cheese

Garnish with some green onions and/or cilantro and you’re ready to eat!

Can it get any simpler than that? If you have other veggies you need to use up, go ahead and throw them into the pot as well. I think some diced potatoes or some green beans would be a happy addition – and would add a little more bulk if you’re trying to stretch the meal a little further. I could also see beans – maybe pinto or black – rounding it out nicely, as well. You could also wrap it up in a corn or flour tortilla to make it more kid friendly or portable.

Mexican Zucchini Succotash

Servings: 2-3

  • 2-3 medium sized zucchini, diced
  • Diced chicken (2-3 tenders/thighs/1 large breast) – or similar quantity of pork, ground beef or shrimp
  • 1/4 onion, chopped
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced
  • 2 Sandia peppers (or 1/2 bell pepper), diced, seeds removed
  • 1/2 tsp cumin
  • 1/2 tsp Mexican oregano
  • Corn – 2-3 fresh cobs or 1 small can drained or 1 cup frozen
  • Tomatoes, diced (1 handful cherry or two regular) and/or 2 Tbsp salsa (optional)
  • 1/4 -1/2 cup grated cheese (optional)
  • Red pepper flakes (optional – to taste)
  • Salt and pepper + 2 Tbsp EVOO

Directions:

1. Heat a large saute pan over medium heat. Add a couple of tablespoons of EVOO to lightly coat the bottom of pan.

2. Add garlic, saute for 1 minute then add onions. Saute on medium heat, stirring occasionally.

3. Remove corn from the cob and place in pan with garlic and onions.

4. Stir cumin and oregano, along with salt and pepper into the mixture.

5. Once corn is beginning to sear, add diced chicken to the pan.

6. Let the chicken begin to brown and then stir in tomatoes and/or salsa. Let simmer until chicken is no longer pink. (If you’re using shrimp, add the tomatoes, allow to cook five minutes then add shrimp with zucchini, making sure they are cooked through (pink) before removing from heat.)

7. Add diced zucchini, cover and cook 3-5 minutes until zucchini is tender but not mushy.

8. Remove pan from heat and stir in cheese, if including it – or use as topping for individual portions. Garnish with green onions, cilantro and red pepper flakes to taste.

Notes for next time: The Hubs liked this version of his childhood favorite and endorsed the addition of the chicken. He said I made it a little spicy for him (perfect for me), so taste before adding extra heat with peppers. I will make with shrimp next time (when I’m home alone) because the Hubs is weird about shrimp mixed into other food – he likes it on the side (??). Otherwise, I might also add some beans next time.

I would love to hear your spin on this old, new again classic.

Need other zucchini recipes (who doesn’t?)? See my squash board on Pinterest.

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Caramelizing Onions – Oh, how sweet it is!

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I never really knew what caramelized onions were – or cared. Then, I accidentally made them one night when I was making brats for the Hubs and wanted to put some cooked onions on top. I chopped up the onions and got them cooking in a little EVOO. Then the Hubs called and said he was running late, so I turned the onions down really low and just let them simmer. I stirred them as I wandered through the kitchen occasionally, but generally ignored them. I don’t remember how late the Hubs was, and thereby how long the onions cooked, but it was a spell. When I finally put them on the brats (mine was really a chicken sausage), the most amazing sweetness came through with the mild onion flavor. WOW! Who knew?

Apparently a lot of people knew because it’s a standard cooking trick, but I figure that if I didn’t know how to do it, then other people may not either. I have a bunch of onions hanging out in the dirt in the backyard and soon I’ll be harvesting and curing them for winter storage. While I let them finish maturing, I have pulled a few to use in my daily cooking. They are so pungent and  fresh tasting. They even make me cry when I chop them and I haven’t cried over onions in years. Oh, and the stalks are wonderful to chop up and use like green onions. I’m sure there are whole recipes devoted to the stalks, but I have more pressing issues with all of the other produce to harvest and cook – I’ll learn that later (but please share if you know any).

I grew white, yellow and purple onions. Soon, I will pull them out for curing.

A purple pretty from the garden

Anyway, I am digressing. Caramelizing onions is super easy and the payoff is huge! Here’s how to do it:

You can use whatever sort of onion you have on hand. Slice it up into rings, about half an inch or so and use the whole onion because it’s going to shrink down.

Slice up a whole onion into rings

Next, heat up a small skillet to medium heat. After it’s hot, add some EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) – enough to mostly coat the bottom of the pan – and let it warm up. Add the onions and season with some salt and pepper. You can also drizzle a little EVOO over the top, but they don’t need to swim in the oil.

Place the onions with some EVOO and salt and pepper in the warm pan

After they start to soften, turn the heat to a low-medium heat. Keep it low and cook it slow! You’ll notice the onions starting to brown – that’s the carmelization! I promise they’re not burning, as long as your heat is low. If you’re worried, turn it down a bit more.

The dark color is the caramelizing process in action!

Keep an eye on them, but go about your business doing other kitchen tasks and just give them a stir now and then. They will keep getting yummier and yummier.

Keep cooking them low and slow for super sweetness

You’ll also notice that they are shrinking up, too. Again, that’s ok and it’s part of the process. Usually, it takes about 25-30 minutes to caramelize an onion, but it will depend on how thick your slices were when you started, and your cooking temp. No, cooking at a higher temp will not make the process faster because they will crisp up and burn. However, like my first try, you can cook them at a super low temp for longer to squeeze even more yummy out of them. I find the 30 minute mark is about right for my tastes – oh yeah, make sure you have some tasters along the way!

When they turn a deep, dark CARAMEL color, they’re done!

That’s all there is to it! So heap some on your burger or your brat and experience a whole new level in taste-ology. But, stay tuned because I have some upcoming recipes that take the caramelized onion beyond the brat and burger – way beyond. In the meantime, experiment by using them in recipes that you might ordinarily use regular boring cooked onions in and see how it improves the flavor. Simply stirring in some chopped veggies, like zucchini, broccoli or peppers – or green beans! Or mushrooms! (so many options), at the end of the caramelizing step and cooking for a few more minutes would be an easy, flavorful side or even main dish……Or… roasted potatoes would be fabulous with these onions! I could go on..but you get it.

Ok, now you know the process and I’m sure I’ve convinced you that you must make some caramelized onions NOW, but it gets better. How? When you’re cooking the onions, pour in a little BEER (like 1/4 cup) and let it cook down with the onions. Seriously – it takes the whole thing to an even deeper, more flavorsome place that you may never have experienced before. Do it.

Oooooo…and I bet wine would also be a heavenly twist….

Leave a comment and let us know how you’re using caramelized onions.

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Adventures in Canning Tomatoes 1.0

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Before this summer I never bothered with trying to grow tomatoes. I know, you can’t call yourself a real gardener if you don’t grow tomatoes. But here’s the deal: I just didn’t really like them. Oh, I love tomato sauce, in fact I could pretty much bathe in and drink ketchup, salsa, marinara, or pizza sauce. It’s the actual raw tomatoes I didn’t really care for. Yes, I know that tomato sauce starts with tomatoes, but a plain ol tomato has….well, texture issues. It’s hard yet pulpy and squishy and seedy and then there’s the skin. Am I right? I never eat a raw, naked tomato slice – nope, not even on a burger or a taco (yes, I pick them off!).

Aside from the fact that I didn’t really like tomatoes, growing them sounded pretty difficult. People are always going on about issues with their plants – no tomatoes, dropping tomatoes, no ripe tomatoes, frozen or heat exhausted tomato plants. Sounded like a big hassle over something I didn’t really want to eat. I stuck to growing the easy stuff like squash and carrots.

I think it was sometime last winter when I opened a can of diced tomatoes with basil and dumped the contents into my saucepan to make some spaghetti sauce when it hit me: I could make my own canned fresh diced tomatoes if I grew tomatoes! DUH. My cupboard is always stocked with a variety of canned tomato products: diced with green chiles, fire-roasted, whole, stewed, crushed. I use them all the time in my cooking because I love the flavor when they are cooked down. It’s just the raw variety I find unappealing.

So, there it is. I grew tomatoes this year and now I have to do something with them. I’ll tell you about the types of plants I grew in a future post, but I’ll tell you that I ended up with five plants: three cherry/grape varieties and two ‘regular’ varieties. Since this is my first foray into tomato growing, I didn’t know how many tomatoes to expect, so I prioritized my list of tomato needs (wants, really), so I would be sure to end up with my favorites if my crop was less than bumper.

  1. Salsa – it’s a pantry staple in our house. It’s not just a dip for tortilla chips for us. I use it in everyday cooking – you’ll see.
  2. Diced – like I explained above, I use diced tomatoes throughout the winter for tons of dishes. It would be great to have a variety of diced like my old commercially canned versions.
  3. Pasta sauce – pasta freak that I am, I use a lot of marinara. I have frozen it in the past, but bottled has to be better.
  4. Pizza sauce – can we ever get tired of pizza? Certainly not the Hubs, who could literally live on it. Some homemade pizza sauce would be super nice to have.
  5. Paste and sauce – I can always use some basic tomato paste and sauce for everyday recipes.

So far, I’m on #2 – I did some salsa a few weeks ago. I’ve made salsa in the past, but I didn’t can it. This year, with my new-found love for homegrown tomatoes, I knew I had to learn to can. I have friends who can and I knew the internet would help me along. I also bought The Ball Blue Book, which is the standard canner’s guide and I also bought a lovely book called Canning for a New Generation by Lianna Krissoff. I invested in a big pot to do the water bath step and also a basic set of tools and, of course, mason jars (aren’t mason jars the best little things?).

This is my new ginormous pot for water bathing

My friend Mary taught me how to can salsa without using the water bath technique, which I’ll tell you all about in a future post about making salsa (UPDATE: apparently non-water bath technique is considered unsafe by USDA, so I cannot recommend it).

I ended up with nine 1/2 pints of fresh salsa

Even though I canned the salsa, I didn’t feel like I had had the “real” canning experience since I got to skip the water bath part. So, armed with several pounds of tomatoes, I decided it was time to do this thing! I planned to use the traditional Ball Blue Book’s basic recipe for chopped tomatoes, which you can find on their website.

My technique:

Since I don’t own a kitchen scale, I have no idea how many pounds of tomatoes I started with, but the Hubs guesses about 8-10 lbs. Here’s the whole lot in my big salad bowl:

I started with this many tomatoes

Jars: I chose to make mine in pint jars because that’s about the amount I would use for most recipes. Next time, I may go to the half pints for a smaller quantity option. I bought my jars at the local big box store, but I have also seen them online. Remember, you can reuse jars and the outer lid rings, but you always have to get new flat lids to ensure a good seal. The good news is you can buy the flat lids separately so you can reuse last year’s (or grandma’s) jars.

Cute pint jars

Work space: If you’re going to can tomatoes, you need to know that your kitchen will look like a crime scene when you’re finished – and you will look like the guilty party with all of that bloody red stain on the front of you. Cover your clothing and clear as much counter space as you can. This makes me laugh at myself. Have I told you about my ridiculously outdated and inefficient kitchen yet? Pink and tan tile back-splash. Forming an image? It’s worse than that – I only have two and a half cupboards and about two feet of work space by the (electric!) stove. BUT, if I can successfully can in my kitchen, you have no excuses.

Tools: You’ll need three large bowls: one for the ice bath, one for the guts and peels and one for your chopped tomatoes. Besides the giant canning pot, you’ll also need a large pot for boiling the tomatoes and another for sterilizing the jars and lids. Find your best, sharpest knife and then sharpen it some more. It’s handy to have this basic set of canning tools, but you can improvise, if needed, with substitutes from your kitchen drawer. I highly recommend the jar lifter, though, because it will save you from scalding burns when you move the jars from the boiling water.

Tools and jars ready to go

Jar Prep: The recipe explains that we need to sanitize and heat the jars in boiling water. I just put a few jars, along with lids, in a wide pot and set it on a low, not quite boil while I was prepping the tomatoes. I suppose I could have done it in the giant pot, but I wasn’t ready to fire that baby up yet.

Fill the jars all the way to the brim with water inside the pot and set to a low boil while you prep tomatoes

Tomato Prep: Meanwhile, get the water boiling in another pot. Since you have to peel the tomatoes (actually, you don’t HAVE to peel them if you don’t mind them but most people do. I don’t peel mine for salsa, but I blend them in the food processor, so the peels get pretty broken down), the boiling water improves the process. Put a few cups of ice with some water in one of the bowls. Once the water is boiling, put a test tomato in and then watch a clock. Take the tomato out of the hot water after no more than 1.5 minutes. Immediately dunk into the ice water. Let tomato sit and cool for a couple of minutes. Then try to slip the skin off. If it comes off easily, keep doing the same with the rest of the tomatoes. If the skin doesn’t slip off easily or of you have to poke it with a knife to get it going, try this: cut a very shallow slit in the side of the tomato before dunking in the boiling pot.

Dip tomatoes in boiling water for now longer than 1.5 minutes.

Dunk tomatoes into ice bath to stop the cooking and cool the tomatoes.

Cut a shallow slit in the tomato before dunking in boiling water to allow skins to slip off easily

I took my time and only worked with groups of five tomatoes, but you’ll find a groove after the first few tomatoes are skinned. After skinning, cut out the stem end and then seed it. I found it helpful to slice the tomato in half horizontally (make your pre-boil slit horizontal to get it started). Once it’s halved, use your fingers to squish the seeds from between the ribs. Personally, I don’t mind if there are some seeds left hanging around the diced tomatoes, but some folks are pretty opposed to leaving any seeds in tact. Fun fact: the seeds contain the highest concentration of vitamin C and much of the flavor. Your call with your own tomatoes. I tried not to mangle the tomato too much, so as not to loose too much juice. After it’s seeded, go ahead and dice it up and throw it in a bowl.

After skinning, seed then dice the tomatoes.

Once all of the tomatoes are skinned, seeded and diced, we’re ready to can ’em!

This is when I got the gigantic pot boiling. Mine has a rack that sits inside to hold the jars up off the bottom, so I pulled that out before I filled with hot water and set to on the burner. Meanwhile, I carefully pulled the jars out of the other boiling pot, using my jar lifter, and dumped the hot water out. I set the jar on the rack that goes into the big pot. Once I had six jars set up, I used my wide opening funnel and a ladle to fill the jars with the diced tomatoes.

Fill the jars with the diced tomatoes – pack tightly!

One mistake I think I made was that I didn’t pack the jars tightly enough. I was probably being too gentle with them, but the point is to have diced tomatoes, not a jar full of fluid. The recipe says to fill with boiling water, so I used the leftover water I blanched the tomatoes in earlier. I had to add quite a bit, again – I should have packed more tightly. Use a chop stick or spoon handle to poke around and remove air bubbles. It’s ok to really stir and poke, as this will lead to a tighter pack. Add more water or tomatoes to fill it up, but leave about 1/2″ of head space at the top of the jar so it has room to expand while water bathing.

IMPORTANT: Unless you want botulism, you have to add either 1 Tbsp lemon juice or 1/2 tsp citric acid to each pint jar. I used citric acid, but would probably use lemon juice next time because I’ve read it tastes better. I also added 1 tsp salt, which is optional.

You MUST add citric acid or lemon juice to each jar or you will kill people!

Add salt, if you like, and clean up the rim of each jar. Be sure to leave about 1/2 of head space at the top of the jar.

Once the jars are full and the rims are clean, place flat lids on top and screw the outer ring on – just “finger tight” is fine in case air bubbles need to escape during boiling. Now it’s time to put all of the kids in the bath. I set my rack o’ jars down into the giant pot of boiling water (yes, it was a little scary) and used the jar lifter to set the jars upright, as needed. Make sure the water covers the jars by about two inches, then make sure you have a full boil and cover the pot. Keep it boiling!

The recipe says to process pints for 40 minutes, but you have to adjust if you’re at a higher altitude according to this chart. I live at about 6,800′ so I had to add 15 minutes. So, I had almost an hour to clean up the crime scene while it processed. Once time is up, use the jar lifter to pull the jars out and set them someplace they can be left undisturbed for at least 12 hours. The flat lid is supposed to seal to the jar. This can take up to 24 hours and you’ll know it’s sealed when the lid will no longer flex when you press the center. If it doesn’t seal within 24 hours, it didn’t seal and you’ll need to refrigerate the jars instead. Mine were sealed almost immediately.

BUT, they looked funny:

I had separation of the tomatoes and liquid, but it’s ok!

I was worried! Did I just waste all of my tomatoes by doing something wrong? I immediately went to my favorite canning expert: Marisa McClellan who writes Food in Jars. She has great info on her blog and I found this post that explained that I probably did something wrong – like got it hot and cooled a bit -but it’s still edible! YAY! The hubs looked skeptical, so I shook the jar (after it was completely cool) and it looked much better.

After completely cool, just shake it up and it’s all pretty again.

So the work paid off! I have six pints of beautiful, freshly canned diced tomatoes I can use this winter when the garden is over and the produce in the market is from faraway places and tasting bland.

Beautiful pints of yum!

Was it simple? No. Worth it? Yes. It is so empowering to know that I was able to grow my own tomatoes in the backyard and then preserve the harvest for year-round healthy, fresh cooking! OH, and I should tell you that I now like raw tomatoes! If I grow it, I like it and I eat it!

Notes for next time:  I would also like to try the raw tomato with no added water recipe. I will keep researching other types of diced tomato recipes – I think some allow for added garlic, herbs, etc. Finally, I didn’t really like the part where I ended up with a bowl of seeds, skins and tomato guts that I had to waste (well, I did compost it). So, I’m researching what I could do with all of the leftovers instead.

I hope the tomato crop continues to produce so I can get through the rest of my tomato priority list, but it’s getting a little cool here in SW Colorado.

Leave a comment – I’d love to hear more tomato canning techniques and ideas. Happy canning! 🙂

For other canning recipes and ideas, see my “Canning and Preserving” board on Pinterest and follow Cooking Ripe! on Facebook for more cooking and gardening tips and tricks.

Update: Well Preserved shared a great way to peel lots of tomatoes fast!

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Crispy Parmy Sprouties (Brussels Sprouts)

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It’s like the presidential race: either you’re on one side of the aisle or you’re on the other. Either you love Brussels or you gag at the idea of them. If you’re a gagger, I probably can’t sway you to my side of the aisle, but if you’re leaning across the aisle and are open-minded about another point of view, this recipe might win your vote.

I don’t know why Brussels are so vehemently despised, but it’s likely due to bland and boring cooking techniques. Brussels are just mini-cabbage and people don’t generally hate cabbage, so I think they’ve gotten a bad rap. Recently I got a big bag of ginormous Brussels in my Bountiful Basket.

SIDEBAR: While I grow a lot of my own veggies, I also get tons of produce from Bountiful Baskets, which is an all volunteer food co-op that distributes produce baskets to participants every other week in communities all around the country. To me, the best part – well there are two best parts: the first best part is that a basket is only $15 and the second best part is you never know what you’re going to get! Surprise produce! My tiny community just started participating in the co-op this summer and I have so much fun figuring out what to do with my basket items every two weeks. I end up trying new fruits (have I mentioned that while I love veggies, I’m not exactly a fruit enthusiast?) and veggies that I would have ignored at the store. If you’re not growing a garden, or you want to supplement your garden, you should really check out Bountiful Baskets to see if they are coming to your area – and if not, you could help start a new site.

Anyway, where was I? OH, I got some Brussels in my basket a few weeks ago and wanted to try out some new recipes. The Hubs loves Brussels (because he love cabbage), but when I made the first batch, using this recipe for maple cayenne roasted Brussels, he looked skeptical and said, “I don’t know about this. I like them cooked the regular way.” When pressed about what the regular way might be, he didn’t have a clear answer and started eating instead. Of course he thoroughly enjoyed them and forgot about that other regular way.

Easy win. But, I had a lot more Brussels to get through, so I decided to try something new the next time I made them. I call them Crispy Parmy Sprouties (leaving out the Brussels part is my way of being covert).

The concept is pretty basic and one that will work with many other veggies, like zucchini, eggplant, carrots, onions – ooo, and I just thought of asparagus, which would be really yummy done this way. Easy process: dip in egg, dip in seasoned panko (breadcrumbs) and bake.

Start with clean, dry Brussels. Discard any brown leaves and slice in half lengthwise.

The crispy part comes from the panko breadcrumbs. If you haven’t used panko yet, it’s very versatile – and inexpensive – and you can use to coat chicken, veggies, seafood, etc., but it’s lighter than regular breadcrumbs. It’s what they use to make the breading on crunchy Japanese fried shrimp, veggies, etc. You can find it in the baking aisle of the grocery store nowdays. If you are making this tonight and don’t have panko, use regular breadcrumbs. Grate the Parmesan cheese (you can sub asiago, or other hard cheese, but you MAY NOT use that dry stuff in a green shaker can that they sell in the Chef Boyardee aisle!) and mix with the panko bread crumbs in a shallow plate or pie pan. Add the spices and mix by hand.

Beat an egg (or a couple of egg whites) in shallow bowl. Dip the Brussels in the egg, then in the panko/parm mixture.

Roll those Brussels around and press the mixture into the egg coating, then place on the baking sheet.

Pop into the preheated oven and cook for approximately 20-30 minutes. My sprouts were huge, so they took about 30 minutes, but check yours at 20. They should be crispy and golden brown – and you will smell the cabbage aroma. Poke them with a knife to make sure they are fork-tender inside. I like mine more done than not, so I tend to let them get fairly soft inside and crispy on the outside. If you want to get them crispy on all sides, carefully (think tongs not spatula) flip them halfway through the cooking time.

Crispy Parmy Sprouties

2-3 servings

Ingredients:

  • 6 Brussels sprouts, halved lengthwise
  • 1 egg (or two egg whites)
  • 1/2 cup panko breadcrumbs
  • 2 tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tbsp Italian seasoning
  • 1/2 tsp garlic powder
  • pinch of salt and pepper

Directions:

  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Coat a baking sheet with cooking spray (or cover in foil and spray for easier clean up).
  2. Break egg into a shallow bowl and lightly beat.
  3. Combine panko, Parmesan, Italian seasonings, garlic and salt and pepper in a shallow dish or pie pan.
  4. Dip each Brussel half into egg, then into panko mixture. Toss to coat well and lightly press mixture onto sprout.
  5. Place on baking sheet, sprinkle remaining panko mixture over Brussels on sheet (we don’t want to waste those yummies!)
  6. Bake for 20-30 minutes, carefully turning once halfway through cooking time. Brussels are done when you can smell them, are fork-tender and golden brown and crispy on the outside.
  7. Serve and eat immediately for best taste!

Notes for next time: Hubs had no criticisms to offer on this one! Next time, I might lightly spray the uncooked sprouts with some cooking spray just before baking for even more crispiness. Another idea – to cut cooking time – is to cut the Brussels into quarters instead of just halves. OH, and pizza sauce or marinara might make a fun dipping sauce.

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Caramelized Brussels Sprouts – with Bacon!