Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A little help

Last weekend I was finally feeling motivated to cook and photograph food again. One slight problem: I was feeling extremely uncreative and unimaginative. Thankfully, I had a little help…

Earlier in the day, we had taken some really good shots of carrot soup that I was more than pleased with. And when a photo session goes well and the food is cooperating, it always makes me want to do more. (Don’t ask about the times that the photography goes all wrong…it ends with one very cranky and usually very sweaty Karen, swearing off food photography forever.) But when dinnertime rolled around, as much as I wanted to cook and photograph another dish, I had a complete mental block. The big part, red pepper sauce over chicken, had been decided but that was all I had. Hoping that something would come to me, I went out to our very own garden to pick peppers.

An aside: Saying that I’m going “out to our very own garden to pick peppers” never gets old. I can’t tell you how happy it makes me. Every time I go out to snip herbs or a pepper, I announce it to the household. If Andy isn’t in the room, no matter…the animals are listening, right?

Back to dinner: With a pile of peppers in front of me, but no real plan, I started chopping and rattling off ideas of what else I might throw in the pot. Andy had that look on his face like he didn’t really agree with any of my suggestions, and honestly, I wasn’t really buying what I was selling either. And then, very casually and like it was so obvious, Andy suggested cumin and coriander. D’oh! Why didn’t I think of that?! Later he suggested a sour cream-lime drizzle “to not only cool off the dish, but also to add some color variation for the photos.” (His words…see why I love him??) And then, to literally top it all off, let’s add chopped cilantro, he says. I was ready to just hand the apron over to him…

Once the sauce was finished, Andy barbecued the chicken and I started to plate the dish. We fussed with it for a few minutes and ran to take photos, hoping it would be an “easy” dish and we could eat a hot meal. After a few less than great shots, I looked at Andy with that look that he now knows to mean “please help right this very second or I’m going to go off the deep-end.” He stepped in front of me, took probably the fewest shots we’ve ever needed to take, and ended up with some of our best photographs yet. In fact, I spent a lot of dinner just ogling them and smiling.

Red Pepper Sauce over Chicken

Makes 1 1/2 cups

2 tablespoons olive oil
3 cups chopped assorted red peppers (sweet and/or spicy)*
2 tablespoons chopped shallot
1 large garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon coriander
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2/3 cup chicken broth

barbecued chicken breasts
chopped cilantro

Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Sauté shallots until soft, add garlic and cook for additional 30 seconds. Add chopped peppers and stir to combine. Sauté for about 5 minutes. Stir in all spices, sauté for about 5 more minutes until soft. Add chicken broth and bring to a simmer. Simmer for about 10 minutes until broth is reduced by about half.

Transfer pepper mixture and all liquid to a blender. Blend until completely smooth. (Add a little more broth to thin out sauce, if desired.)

*Note: The spice level of this sauce is easy to control…add as many or as few spicy red peppers as you want. For my mix, I used a combination of red poblanos, red bell peppers and 4 red Fresno chiles (seeds and all), which made it quite spicy.

Sour Cream-Lime Drizzle

1/4 cup sour cream
2-3 tablespoons lime juice

Whisk together sour cream and lime.

Serve red pepper sauce over chicken with sour cream-lime drizzle and cilantro.

This is a very flavorful (especially when it’s spicy), very versatile sauce. It was perfect over tender barbecued chicken breasts, but I think it would be just as good over steak or halibut, or even used as a dipping sauce for shrimp. Overall, it has a robust red pepper taste, but hints of cumin and coriander make it layered and interesting. The sour cream drizzle does the trick to soothe some of the spice and the cilantro adds brightness.

So I went from completely uninspired to having this meal in under an hour, complete with great photos. The Beatles said it well, “Oh, I get by with a little help from my friends…” Or in this case, with a whole lot of help from my husband.

Apparently the cat wanted in on some of this action too. It was that good (or she's that bad).

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Times they are a-changin’

Finally…a new post. Some big changes and a mini vacation have left me itching to cook and write but without a lot of time to do either…

Not that I’m complaining about taking a little break and going down to Santa Barbara for a few days. The laid-back, coastal city holds many memories for Andy and me. It was one of the first trips we took together and being there always transports me back to those early months of our relationship; both of us giddy and hopeful, excited but terrified, head-over-heels in love. I could sit and stare at these views forever.

Back to reality and definitely not as much fun as a vacation: the big change. I’ve started working part-time again and I’m here to tell you, if you threw a couple kids in the mix, there’s no way Tasty Trials would stand a chance. I’ve said this so many times before and I’ll say it again: I am in awe of those of you who work, have kids, and still manage to produce amazing blogs. Just a few hours taken out of my day has shaken up my routine so much that I’m left exhausted come dinnertime, leaving good ol’ Trader Joe’s to provide us with meals that I can poke a few holes in and pop in the oven. Surely I’ll be used to this new “normal” soon enough and can get back to cooking and writing, although I do suspect it’s more a case of the grass being greener on the blogging side. If I weren’t able to blame not blogging on working I’d probably blame it on any number of other things…trashy reality television, anyone?

In other exciting news, I practically squealed in delight when I saw that fresh figs had finally made their first appearance of the season at our farmer’s market. There they were, sitting gloriously in their little green baskets just waiting to be made into jam, put into tarts, stuffed with cheese and wrapped in bacon. Even better news, they resided at my favorite stall, run by my favorite vendor who is very sweet but incredibly shy, calls me “Chica” and always throws in a little something extra. I was absolutely delighted when he topped my baskets off, making them overflow. I don’t think I could be more in love with the farmer’s market.

I couldn’t wait to try this combination of fig and spice, and I’m sure it is the first of many figgy treats of the season…

Fig-Jalapeno Jam

12 ounces fresh figs, diced
2 tablespoons minced jalapeno (ribs and seeds included)*
1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
1 tablesoon lemon juice
1 tablespoon water
1/4 cup sugar

In a saucepan, combine all ingredients. Stir well. Heat to a simmer over low heat. Simmer for 30 minutes uncovered, stirring occasionally. Cover and simmer an additional 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If desired, mash slightly with a fork once jam is done.

*Note: Make sure you use a spicy jalapeno. Some jalapenos taste like bell pepper and won’t give this jam the kick you’re looking for.

My mom believes that I’ve burned my taste buds off and that my definition of spicy is not normal, but I really don’t think this is knock-your-socks-off spicy (take that with a grain of salt, or chili powder, if you choose). The jalapeno is subtle but cuts through the sweetness just enough for a little heat to linger in your mouth. Andy and I both thought that a little more heat might actually be nice, but then there’s that addiction rearing it’s ugly head again. In any case, this jam is perfect just spread on crostini with a little cheese, or could be used as the “sauce” for a pizza topped with goat cheese and prosciutto.

According to, this year’s fig season was delayed due to late season rain, but they are promising figs-a-plenty through mid-December. (Is there any way to hold them to that?) Family members beware, you may be getting fig-related Christmas gifts…

One last Santa Barbara can you get tired of this???

Monday, September 12, 2011


After just writing about summer being over, we had a stretch of very hot days. Then, a couple nights ago, we had a thunderstorm. This is a bit unusual for us, so after determining that the noise we were hearing was not in fact a jet plane, we ran outside like little kids trying to catch a glimpse of the lightening, our heads craning out from under the covered patio, our feet getting soaked by the sudden downpour of huge rain drops. We don’t get many thunderstorms around here, but when we do, they’re pretty exciting. I didn’t always feel this way though…

I remember a song we learned in kindergarten that had something to do with dinosaurs and the chorus was, “THUNDER, THUNDER!” This is the only part of the song I remember, and a Google search did not yield any further lyrics. When I called my parents to see if they remembered it, my dad met my question with a hearty guffaw, followed by a “yeah, right.” My mom at least remembers it, but only the chorus. I guess I really made an impression with my singing.

But singing that song was about as close to thunder as I wanted to get. Thunder and lightening terrified me when I was young. And by terrified, I mean that as soon as the first clap of thunder hit, I was running for the bathroom (too much information, I know, but I wanted to paint an accurate picture). I’d have an instant stomachache and be consumed with anxiety until I was sure the storm had passed. Even for hours afterwards, every noise I heard sent me into a tizzy. I’m not sure why this fear became engrained in me, and I’m not sure why it passed, but I’m glad it did and even more glad that I don’t have to worry about where the nearest bathroom is every time I hear a noise like thunder.

I have no appropriate segue into this recipe, so just pretend there’s one here that relates to sorbet…

Pluot Rosé Sorbet

4 large Dapple Dandy pluots, ripe
2 ounces Rose wine
3 tablespoons sugar (or to taste)

Peel the pluots and remove the pits. Put the flesh into a blender with rosé and sugar. Blend until completely pureed. (Depending on how sweet the pluots are, adjust the sugar to taste.)

Pour into ice cream maker and run for about 30 minutes (or according to manufacturer’s directions). Transfer to freezer to set up completely.

The color of this sorbet is a gorgeous bright pink. It’s refreshing…tart and sweet at the same time, and a nice light way to end a meal, whether it’s sunny or stormy out. And apparently, with all this crazy weather we’re having, that’s a good thing.

(And if anyone knows the lyrics to the dinosaur/thunder song, please share. I'd love to sing Andy the full version...I know he's dying to hear it.)

Wednesday, September 7, 2011


We recently attended a wedding at which the officiant spoke of those who couldn’t be there and asked that they be remembered in that moment. This always chokes me up, and predictably, I felt a tight squeeze on my hand. I looked over to see Andy also choked up. The same scene took place at our own wedding; both of us with tears in our eyes thinking of the family members we wished with all our might could be there with us.

I know in these moments Andy is thinking mostly of his mom. I never met her, but these are some things I know about her:
-        She was an adventurous eater, always seeking out the newest restaurants and trying different cuisines.
-        She loved to travel.
-        She shopped at Goodwill and was known on occasion to come home with a piece of clothing, only to realize that it was a piece she herself had donated. She thought this was hilarious.
-        She adored Snoopy.
-        She drank coffee like it was going out of style: hot, iced, fresh, day-old…didn’t matter.
-        She was known to throw quite a party.
-        She had a ceramic cantaloupe on her coffee table that always had candy in it.
-        She didn’t suffer fools gladly, with one of her favorite lines being, “I hate stupidity.” (A woman after my own heart.)
-        She was a crossword whiz.
-        She collected rocks. With a bucket in tow, she’d walk down the beach and select rocks that spoke to her. Her family of three rock-ducks sitting on our mantle is a whimsical (and highly coveted) reminder of that hobby.
-        She has a son who loves her dearly, misses her constantly, and always speaks of her with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye.

With all my heart, I wish I could have met the woman who raised the best friend I’ve ever had. Andy promises me that we would have loved each other, and if her personality was anything like her sister’s, who I do have the good fortune of knowing, then I know he’s absolutely right. “Firecracker” probably most accurately describes them both.

So when I was trying to decide on a pasta recipe for the Smart & Final First Street Grand Event, I threw a couple ideas Andy’s way, one of them being lasagna. Since I’ve never made lasagna, he immediately suggested that I make his mom’s version. Now, there is no recipe for this lasagna and Andy himself has only made it for me twice. I agreed to try it, but immediately got that nervous, oh-my-goodness-I’m-making-his-mom’s-lasagna-I-hope-I-can-do-this-recipe-justice kind of feeling.

Knowing it would mean a lot to him if I stayed as true to the original as I could, I got some guidelines from him and got cooking, trying as best I could to channel a woman I’ve only heard stories about.

Mom’s Lasagna

Cottage cheese mixture:
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup chopped yellow onion
3 cloves garlic, chopped
16 ounces cottage cheese
2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 eggs
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Meat sauce:
1 pound ground beef
2 14.5 ounce cans diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 15 ounce can tomato sauce, divided use
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1/2 cup red wine

12 ounces First Street lasagna noodles*
olive oil
16 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

In a large dutch oven over medium heat, heat olive oil and sauté onions until soft. Stir in garlic and cook for another minute, making sure garlic doesn’t burn. Transfer onion mixture to a bowl to cool slightly. Stir in cottage cheese, basil, thyme, parsley, eggs salt and pepper. Mix well. Reserve in refrigerator.

In the same pot, cook ground beef until no pink remains. Drain off all fat. Add canned tomatoes and their juices, oregano, garlic and onion powders, salt and pepper. Simmer until most of the tomato juice is gone. Add about half the can of tomato sauce, tomato paste and red wine. Stir well and let simmer for about 30 minutes to allow flavors to develop.

Meanwhile preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cook the lasagna noodles in salted water and according to the package until tender. After draining noodles, toss gently with a little olive oil to prevent sticking.

When ready to assemble lasagna, spread remaining half can of tomato sauce on bottom of a 13x9 glass pan. Lay 4 noodles across the pan, overlapping slightly to fit, followed by half of the cottage cheese mixture, one third of the meat sauce, and one third of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat with another layer of noodles, remaining cottage cheese mixture, one third meat sauce and one third mozzarella cheese. Lastly, add one more layer of noodles and top with remaining meat sauce and mozzarella cheese. Sprinkle parmesan cheese over the top.

Place the lasagna dish onto a rimmed baking sheet and bake for 1 hour, until top is brown and crusty, and lasagna is cooked completely through. (If top is getting too brown, tent a piece of foil over the pan.) Remove and let sit for at least 10-15 minutes before cutting it.

*Notes: I cooked the entire 16 ounce package of noodles to allow for breakage.
First Street lasagna noodles are made with durum semolina; use whichever noodles work for you.

This is a hearty, comforting dish and makes enough to feed an army. I couldn’t have been happier with the way it turned out, and it even passed the “mom” test with Andy (whew!). 

To me, this recipe is about family, gathering together and sharing your day at the dinner table. 

It’s about knowing that no matter what these are the people that you can count on, even if you do fight over the crusty corners of the dish. I can completely picture Andy and his brothers in this scene, years ago. This makes me happy. I know it makes Andy happy. And I’m pretty sure it would have made his mom happy.

This project has been compensated as part of a social shopper insights study for #collectivebias. All opinions are my own.

Friday, September 2, 2011

The end is near

That title sounds a little doomsday-ish, doesn’t it? But I suppose that’s how some of us feel about the end of summer. Me? I’m ready for fall.

We haven’t had our typical Californian make-the-rest-of-the-country-jealous kind of summer this year. I can’t complain too much as we’ve had plenty of perfect days, but there weren’t too many nights when sitting outside all evening didn’t require a sweater or a blanket. Now it’s just downright chilly after the sun goes down. And as soon as we can feel that telling briskness in the night air, Andy and I start dreaming of the next season. To us, fall means perfectly cloudy, grey days, hours spent reading in front of the fireplace, curling up on the couch to watch football, cozy sweaters, mulled wine, hearty stew and weekends when we’re “stuck” inside. Funny for two native Californians, huh?

As ready for fall as I am, I still have a little trouble with the fact that I’m already seeing Halloween costumes and candy popping up at stores. Fine, it is only two months away…I guess I can handle Halloween. But I’ve also started seeing Christmas merchandise at a certain warehouse store, and I have a big problem with that. It’s just September! Let us enjoy fall before throwing us into winter and Christmas! Once the holiday stuff starts showing up, the end of the year is imminent. Now it’s all happening too fast…maybe I’m not ready for summer to be over after all!

Around here though, it’s not surprising to see warm, sunny weather into October, so we’ll go gradually into fall…it makes the transition easy and time seems to slow a bit. And of course, the summer produce is still in full swing at the farmer’s markets. Red, ripe tomatoes, juicy peaches and plums, sweet corn…all tastes of summer.

This salad makes me think of summer, although you can get these ingredients pretty much year ‘round.  If you need a sunny pick-me-up come November, this would be a good dish.

Mediterranean Couscous Salad

1/2 cup pomegranate seeds
heaping 1/2 cup chopped bell pepper (red, orange or yellow)
1 cup deseeded and sliced cucumber
3/4 cup halved grape or cherry tomatoes
2 tablespoons chopped red onion, rinsed and drained*
1 green onion, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
1 tablespoon chopped mint
1 box Near East Roasted Garlic and Olive Oil couscous**

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/4 teaspoon sugar
salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine first 8 salad ingredients. In a separate bowl, whisk dressing ingredients together and reserve.

Prepare the couscous according to package directions.

When couscous is ready and still warm, combine in bowl with produce. Immediately pour dressing over and stir lightly. (Use a fork to fluff the salad instead of packing it together.)

Salad is best if allowed to sit at room temperature for at least 15 minutes to let the couscous absorb the dressing and flavors. (Can also be refrigerated and served cold.)

*I rinse the chopped red onion to subdue the flavor a bit. If you like stronger onion flavor, skip this step.
**Plain couscous would probably work fine here, but I like what the roasted garlic and olive oil flavor adds to the dish.

This is such a simple dish to make but it has so much flavor that it tricks you into thinking it must have required more effort. I made this so many times this summer that I thought we’d get sick of it, but every time we ate it we oohed and ahhed and couldn’t wait to make it again. I have a feeling this will be a staple all through the year.

Enjoy these waning days of summer…and if you see a crazy person running screaming from the Christmas displays, it just might be me.

Giveaway winner: The winner of my Tropical Traditions Coconut Oil giveaway is Hippie_Mom. Congrats!