BLT.

For the longest time, I had a crazy strong aversion to any recipe or dish that involved the term “wilted”. I always thought it was a fancy way of saying “we cooked this stuff for waaaay too long, but hey! just toss something crunchy in and with it and it’ll be like new”.

That being said, the new-ish craze of grilling lettuce was certainly not anything I was excited about or intrigued by at. all.

But then I tried a salad with grilled romaine lettuce. Hells yes.

And charred-like tomatoes. Hells bigger yes.

And then I combined those with blue cheese, prosciutto (what’s not to love about this, really!) and croutons. Shit just got real around here, no?

Charred BLT Salad
Adapted from Cooking Light, May 2012;  serves 4

time commitment: less than 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
3 T extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 oz thinly sliced prosciutto, cut crosswise into ribbons
1 1/2 c (1/2-inch) cubed whole-grain bread (about 2 ounces)
1 pint grape tomatoes
1/8 t kosher salt
1/4 t freshly ground black pepper
2 romaine hearts, halved lengthwise
Cooking spray
1/4 c chopped green onions
2 oz blue cheese, crumbled

instructions
Heat a large skillet over medium heat. Add 2 tablespoons oil; swirl to coat. Add prosciutto; cook 4 minutes or until crisp, stirring occasionally. Remove prosciutto with a slotted spoon. Drain on paper towels. Add bread to pan; cook 3 minutes or until browned, stirring frequently. Combine prosciutto and bread. Add remaining 1 tablespoon oil to pan. Add tomatoes; cook 5 minutes or until skins begins to split, stirring frequently. Pour tomatoes and olive oil into a small bowl. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

Preheat grill to medium-high heat.

Coat cut sides of lettuce with cooking spray. Place lettuce, cut side down, on a grill rack coated with cooking spray. Cook 2 minutes or until well marked. Place 1 lettuce half on each of 4 plates. Divide prosciutto mixture and tomato mixture among servings. Top each serving with 1 tablespoon onions and 1/2 ounce cheese.

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Finally, I Bathed in Buttermilk

There was a moment in time, not too long ago actually, that I could not for the life of me get the thought of a juicy, gnarly-shapen heirloom tomato out of my head. I imagined them, bursting with seeds and almost tie-dyed in their outward appearance, in a number of iterations, but at the time the markets were instead selling peaches and strawberries and maybe some squash by the bushels. A couple of tomatoes sat sadly on the corner of one table, and all the while I thought I’d be none the wiser if I just nudged them onto the ground and walked away, because I was damn tired of being taunted.

I don’t like being taunted.

Let there be no doubt – peaches, strawberries, and squash are lovely in their own right, but a tomato is what I craved. And then I missed a couple of Sundays at the market, probably the same weekends the troves of ‘maters made their awaited debut. All the while, I resorted to the canned version and made a tomato-semolina soup (okay, but not earth-shattering) and a roasted tomato and red pepper soup (totally earth-shattering, so stay tuned for this post). Then, I got some decent fresh tomatoes and made a panzanella salad with quinoa, but the quinoa was undercooked, which I’ve never done before (overcooking quinoa is my strong suit), so this merits a re-make.

To make a long story that shouldn’t be long short, I finally got what I’d really been craving and I scored those tomatoes. Then I had my way with them.

Now, some of you may say something like this when you realize I slathered them in buttermilk dressing: “wow. that’s a lot of dressing there, girlfriend. you know, you really don’t neeeeeed to put anything on a perfect heirloom tomato. it takes away from the flavor of the tomato, which should be left as is.”. This is just being way too judgmental. You should get with the program :). Others may say something like this: “damn. that’s a good lookin’ salad. not the first thing that came to mind for fresh tomatoes, but it’s worth a try.”. I’d say you’re on to something, and I like that you’re open-minded. And then there’s the rest of you, who’d say: “by golly I love me some buttermilk dressing, and I’m ’bout to tear this salad DOWN! then!, I’m going to drink the rest of the dressing and rub it all over my body.”. That’s what I’m talking about. Full of enthusiasm! I heart you.

Okay, so maybe you won’t bathe in it, but you’ll sure as hell want to. Of course, only if your thoughts are in line with the last group, and maybe the second. I’m totally in the last group, but generally I don’t like a lot of stuff on my ‘maters either, so I sorta blend into the second. And to be truthful, I normally don’t bathe in my food, but I made an exception.

What can I say? In-season, heirloom tomatoes have that effect on me.

Heirloom Tomato Salad w/ Buttermilk Dressing
Adapted from Bon Appetit, September 2010; serves 4 

okay. one thing I will say about this salad, aside from the fact that I adored it, is that the blue cheese can come or go. if you’re big in to blue cheese, you may like it. if you’re not, you may think it’s waaaaay too much. I like blue cheese, but I preferred the salad with just the dressing, and no cheese…

time commitment: 30 minutes

printable version

ingredients
dressing
1/2 c mayonnaise
1/3 c buttermilk
2 T finely chopped fresh Italian parsley
1 1/2 T fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 T minced shallot
1 small garlic clove, minced
kosher salt and pepper

salad
3 slices of white bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (optional)
2 1/2 lbs heirloom tomatoes (various shapes and colors), cored, & cut into 3/4-inch-thick wedges (I used a pineapple corer but you could also just cut the core out with a knife)
1/2 c thinly sliced shallots
2 T evoo
1 T fresh lemon juice
kosher salt
1/2 c crumbled blue cheese (optional)
2 green onions, thinly sliced diagonally
2 T fresh Italian parsley leaves

instructions
Preheat oven to 350 F. Whisk first 6 ingredients in small bowl. Season dressing with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper.

Toss bread cubes onto a baking sheet and bake for ~10 minutes. Remove and let cool.

Place tomatoes and shallots in large bowl. Add oil and lemon juice; sprinkle with coarse salt and freshly ground pepper and toss. Divide among 4 plates. Drizzle with dressing. Sprinkle with blue cheese, if using, as well as green onions, and parsley. If you want a crunch to your salad, divide the croutons among the 4 plates (for leftovers, keep the croutons separate from the salad until eating.).

Bittersweet

Speechless is an appropriate term for how I felt this weekend.

Morose is an appropriate term for how I felt yesterday.

Emotional embodies both. I’ll explain.

As we all know now, I turned 30 last Friday. It ranks in the top 2 of all birthdays, and was filled with loads of fun, friends, food, and wine – my very favorite things. Hubs had quite a few tricks up his sleeve, as expected, and surprises were aplenty. The first was an out-of-town guest, our good friend Todd who we met in Italy almost 10 years ago. Todd lives in Pennsylvania and made the trip, and seeing him was birthday present enough, but it didn’t stop there.

I found what at first glance looked to be a puppy leash (I know – I won’t stop with the puppy nonsense!) in my bag once we were back from lunch, or perhaps an old man’s suspenders. After seeing a grin emerge from both Hubs’ and Todd’s faces, I quickly realized that the strap attached to a brand new camera! I tore into the box akin to the way a 4-year-old might rip open a coveted Christmas gift, eyes wide and with excitement written all over my face and exhibiting reckless abandon, not caring who or what my flailing arms might encounter. So soon, you’ll see some digital SLR quality pics, thanks to a Pentax K-x that has barely left my grip.

Within seconds, another cat was prematurely let out of the bag, so to speak, as Hubs instantaneously raved about Luke’s help in finding a perfect beginner camera and his eagerness to help me learn about it. Which meant only one thing – he and Cheryl were en route from Minnesota! The day just kept getting better and better.

Once I realized we had a little party going on in a matter of hours, I knew it was time for “Hot Dog Night”, and we proceeded to procure groceries as such (more on those lovelies later this week). Jennifer & Jon came over, Todd was there, and Cheryl & Luke as well as Hope showed up later on that night; the weekend apparently was just getting started, and day 1 of my 31st year didn’t seem so lame after all. Not to mention cake – red velvet cake – from Bake.

Saturday went as most perfect Saturdays go, with a visit to Handlebar for brunch and a few re-runs of Modern Family, interspersed with a camera tutorial courtesy of photographer extraordinaire, Luke, and some mighty fine biscuits (recipe below) that served as photography practice.

And that night, the final surprise was unveiled. Following a stop outside our storage locker for what looked like a bag full of wine bottles, we proceeded to dinner, and I became nervous again, not knowing where we were going or who would be waiting. Turns out, Hubs had been planning with the lovely folks at Mado an exceptional dinner that not only was a treat to me, but to the rest of the group as well. In addition to the 8 of us who’d already been around for Friday’s festivities, there were 5 more: Hope’s boyfriend, James, my buddy Caroline (culinary school) and her husband, and Rachel and Andy – who recently moved away from Chicago to Milwaukee (sniff, sniff). I couldn’t have picked a better group of 13 myself :).

Luke took plenty of pics, and we consumed plenty of wine. 14 bottles to be exact. That night, Mado catered to a plethora of special diets all at once – a table of 13 of us had gluten intolerance, dairy/lactose intolerance, pescatarianism-but-usually-vegetarianism, and a preggers chick to deal with. It went off without a hitch, and we were all stuffed by the end of it. Stuffed and drunk. The rest of the night’s shenanigans included more wine and Rock Band till 4, and a puppy visit that my cat scoffed at.

That Hubs, he really is something, isn’t he? You don’t need to answer here; it’s a rhetorical question, you see. I can’t say what my life would be like without him; where I’d be had we never met. He is what they call a diamond in the rough, the butter to my bread, the shrimp to my grits; he is everything and so much more.

But when I think about how it all happened, how “we” came to be, it brings me back to yesterday’s feelings.

You see, I didn’t go to Italy (where Hubs and I  met) on a whim those 9 years ago. I didn’t go because I’d been dreaming of it all my life, or because I had a special interest in the Italian Renaissance. I went to get away from life; to be on my own, in a way.

I’d lost two of my favorite people the year before. Three days following my 20th birthday (the other one in the top 2), I received the worst call of my life. From my dad, in the middle of the night. My 17-year-old brother had been killed in a car accident. There was nothing that could have been done to save him; he had died on impact and just like that – he was taken out of my life forever. I remember screaming into the empty air, tears soaking my pillows, and I remember waking my roommates without knowing what I’d say or how I’d say it. My then-boyfriend’s family drove to pick me up from college in the middle of the night; we drove home in silence – other than sobs and sniffles I was quiet, blank. I remember that day and those that followed as if it were yesterday. I spent those following months at home with my family, being with my mom, dad, and sister and helping to take care of my gramma, who’d been diagnosed with end-stage cancer the day of my brother’s accident. I spent weeks upon weeks at home with her, at which time we watched hours of The Price is Right, paid her bills, and of course, ate peanut butter s’mores. It was not a typical college girl’s summer, that’s for sure.

Yesterday marked 10 years since that dreaded phone call. It’s gotten better, but it’s never easy and while 10 years seems like so long ago, I see it so clearly. Every year on that day I think of him, just like every other 364 days of every year, but this year seems a little bit different, a little bit harder. I miss him so, no matter how annoying he was, or how baggy his jeans were. I’d let him smoke packs of cigarettes if he were here with me today, and I wouldn’t even complain…

…And so, it was that year, months later, that I decided I needed change, and I decided to study abroad in Italy. It was there that Hubs and I met and while I think in sadness about what brought me there, realizing the irony of it all, I smile knowing that, no matter how tragic, how terrible the circumstances were, I know that, because of meeting him, I have become a better person, and that I went on that trip to find him.

So with that, I am humbly thankful – because in being surrounded by death, I learned to live. I learned that life can be so short, our time here with the ones we love so horribly finite. I learned that each and every day is a gift, and that if all else fails us in life, we still have the ones we love. Most of them, at least.

This past weekend was so perfect for so many reasons – but mostly, because I was surrounded by some of my favorite people – my friends, who mean the world to me and so much more.

Thank you for being there.

Now, let’s eat some tasty biscuits.

Blue Cheese Scallion Drop Biscuits
From Smitten Kitchen, who adapted from Gourmet; makes a dozen

if you like blue cheese, you will like these biscuits. if you don’t, you should probably find another cheese to blend in, or perhaps use the original Gourmet recipe linked above. really, any biscuit will do, but I enjoyed these thoroughly. blue cheese flavor permeates every bite, and the scallions add a distinct zing. plus, they come together in no time, so there really is no excuse for not giving them a whirl. did i mention they freeze well? freeze a few (unbaked) and pull ’em out for a last minute slab of carbohydrate by adding a few minutes to the baking time.

printable version

ingredients
2 1/4 c all-purpose flour
2 1/2 t baking powder
2 t sugar
3/4 t baking soda
1 t salt
6 T cold unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1 1/2 c crumbled blue cheese
4 scallions, finely chopped
1 c buttermilk (or let 1 c milk + 1 T vinegar sit for  5 minutes to curdle)

instructions
Preheat oven to 450 F. Whisk together flour, baking powder, sugar, baking soda, and salt in a bowl, then blend in butter with your fingertips, or with a pastry blender, until mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in blue cheese and scallions. Add buttermilk and stir until just combined.

Drop dough in 12 equal mounds about 2 inches apart onto a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake in middle of oven until golden, 16 to 20 minutes and rotating the pan once halfway through baking.

The Next Best Thing

Remember the college days? What did you eat back then (well, for me it certainly feels like “back then” although it was only 8 years ago since those undergrad days) when the “freshman 15” was really no big deal because you were little, young, and knew you’d work those extra calories off at some point?

I tell ya, I ate a heck of a lot of Gumby’s pizza (take a look – their pies are cheap as dirt!) and frequented Sammy’s for their hot wings with ‘Sammy Sauce’ more times than I care to remember. Shoot, we even took my dad there when he came into town, which was often. NC State was his alma mater too, so he jumped at the chance to tailgate, eat wings, and visit (probably also to check in on me, which I didn’t mind because it always involved giving me gas money).

When I wasn’t ordering Gumby’s or making my way over to Sammy’s, Wing Zone received quite a few calls from my dorm room and following the first year, whatever apartment I was living in at the time, since much to my dad’s dismay I moved every. single. year. Wing Zone has multiple flavors of chicken wings and when you’re in college, you have to ensure that there are good pizza and wings in the near vacinity. For me, that was no problem.

But in college, I never thought about the actual preparation of wings: the breading, the often-frying, and that finger-lickin’ buffalo sauce that was comprised primarily of three ingredients: butter, hot sauce, and butter. I could, spoon in hand, alternate between the sauce and the blue cheese dip without ever touching the chicken, if truth be told.

But now I know why I shouldn’t, and as much as it hurts to pass up the wings 9 out of 10 trips to sports bars, I punk out and instead drool all over my plate that once held something boring, like grilled chicken.

I’ve realized that it doesn’t have to be that way. First, I now know how to make my own yummilicious wings that, although comprised of similar ingredients, have much less butter and are baked instead of fried. One could stop at the wings and be satisfied for the most part, but I was still hankerin’ for the blue cheese.

And so I present to you, a “best of both worlds” sort of dish: chicken stuffed with a blue cheese sauce, baked until it’s oozing out all over the place, and topped with a healthy version of buffalo sauce that’s sweet from the roasted red peppers, tangy from the Worcestershire sauce, and reminiscent of the wings you know and love thanks to Frank’s Red Hot. You definitely won’t miss all the butter, and in this case, the only thing missing is the celery sticks, and perhaps a nice cold one to wash it all down.

What about you – any healthy food conversions you can to share?

Blue Cheese-Stuffed Chicken with Buffalo Sauce
Adapted from Cooking Light March 2010; serves 4

printable version

ingredients
1/2  c (2 ounces) crumbled blue cheese
1  T reduced-fat sour cream
1  t fresh Meyer or regular lemon juice
1/4 t  freshly ground black pepper
4  (~6-ounce) skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
1/4  c flour
2  T skim milk
1  egg, lightly beaten
1  c panko breadcrumbs (or regular if that’s what you have)
1 1/2  T butter, divided
6  T finely chopped drained bottled roasted red bell peppers
2  t water
2  t Worcestershire sauce
1  garlic clove, minced
1 T hot sauce (Franks, preferably)

instructions
Preheat oven to 350.

Combine first 4 ingredients in a small bowl. Cut a horizontal slit through thickest portion of each chicken breast half to form a pocket. Stuff cheese mixture evenly into pockets.

Place flour in a shallow dish. Combine milk and egg in a shallow dish, stirring with whisk or fork to mix. Place panko in a shallow dish. Working with 1 breast at a time, dredge chicken in flour, then egg, then panko. Repeat procedure with remaining chicken, flour, egg mixture, and panko.

Heat a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1 tablespoon butter to pan; swirl until butter melts. Arrange chicken in pan; cook 4 minutes or until browned. Turn chicken over; place skillet in oven. Bake at 350 for 20 minutes or until done.

While chicken bakes, combine remaining 1 1/2 t butter, bell peppers, water, Worcestershire, and garlic in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring to a simmer; cook until butter melts. Remove from heat, and stir in hot sauce. Serve sauce with chicken. If you prefer a less clumpy sauce, blend in processor or blender.