Basil salt

Herbs are a blessing and a curse in our house.  We grow basil, oregano, rosemary, thyme, and flat leaf parsley every year.  We attempt cilantro with great hope each season, and usually get one usable batch before it goes to seed or dies in our scorching Chicago summer (luckily, we get plenty of cilantro from the farmer).  I give a lot of rosemary to my friend Jin, who makes the most refreshing infused waters (for some reason, when I try this method it tastes awful).  I use the other herbs in veggie and traditional lasagna, but at the end of the growing season I am scrambling to use gallon-sized bags of goodness before they turn slimy.  My automatic response is to make savory herb bread, which I can easily freeze and pull out for impromptu dinners or book club offerings.  Recently I come across this interesting idea in the pile, another Good Housekeeping recipe, published in September 2014.

Homemade Basil Salt
In food processor, pulse 1/3 cup packed basil leaves, 1 tablespoon snipped chives and 3 tablespoons kosher salt until very finely chopped; transfer to small bowl. Stir in 3 more tablespoons kosher salt. Spread in thin layer on waxed paper–lined baking sheet. Let dry at room temperature 24 hours. Makes 1/2 cup. Store in airtight container up to 4 months. Use for fish, vegetables, pasta or chicken.

I had a bag of cilantro from the farmer, and came across a bag of oxidized basil in the refrigerator, which smelled and tasted fine, so I gave this herb salt a literal whirl in my trusty Cuisinart. I made one batch of each salt, omitting the chives in the basil salt because I was too lazy to see if we had any left in our garden.

I laid the salts out on baking sheets in the dining room for the requisite drying time.  Walking through the room was a heady, floral experience better than any commercial air freshener!

Cilantro salt on the left; basil salt on the right.

I had trouble getting the wet salt to spread thinly, so it dried more in clumps, meaning I’ll need to crumble the salt when I store it away.  The basil salt smells beautiful, and tastes like….salt.  The cilantro salt has no obvious aroma, and tastes like….salt.  So when I actually use these salts on fish, or vegetables, or whatever, we’ll see if any flavor comes through.

Verdict:  The jury is still out until I cook with the salts.  It’s better than throwing away bags of herbs, and they look pretty, but for now I’m sticking to my herb breads and lasagnas for a better application.


Seasonal Squash Roast

Becoming a shareholder in a Community Supported Agriculture farm was one of the best decisions I ever made.  Strange vegetables would show up frequently, challenging me to step outside my comfort zone of always buying the same vegetables at the grocery store.  I encountered brain-like celeriac, weird Asian greens I’d never heard of (mizuna), vegetables I’d only seen in the Chopped mystery baskets (daikon radish), and things I couldn’t identify without referring to the CSA weekly email (pea shoots).

Towards the end of the season, our CSA sends lots of fall and winter squash, which has always been on my go-to list.  Delicata squash was new to me, so I did some internet searching and found this gem (I have no idea of the source– I wrote it on a piece of paper, so my apologies to anyone wanting to see the original post).

Delicata Squash Roast

For the drizzle:

1 Tbs each melted butter, fresh thyme, honey
2 tsp oil
3 cloves garlic, sliced

Whisk together all ingredients; set aside.

For the squash roast:

2-12 oz delicata squashes, sliced 1/2 inch thick (skin is edible)
1 pound of red onions, sliced thinly
1/2 tsp each salt and pepper

Toss vegetables together and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Drizzle with butter/honey mixture.  Roast 20-30 minutes at 400 degrees. Sprinkle with 3 Tbs fresh parsley.

I’ve done this recipe with butternut squash  and kohlrabi.  The batch pictured is a pound of butternut squash, one kohlrabi bulb (fist-sized), and 1.2 of a large red onion, vertically sliced.  Roast as stated above, or until the squash and kohlrabi are fork-tender. The parsley is definitely optional.  It’s sinfully delicious.

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Almond Oat Berry Bake – Breakfast for a Chilly Morning

My mom has been a Good Housekeeping reader for over 40 years.  Even though I am overrun with magazines, she passes her issues on to me . While I don’t usually make time to read it cover to cover,  I at least skim the household hints and the month’s recipes. Quite a few of my test pile recipes are torn from GH, and they are easy to search and find on the GH website.

Breakfast for me for the past 6 months has been a shake or smoothie.  With the weather shifting into chilly mornings, I’m looking for something warm and comforting.  Cooking Light has a great baked oatmeal that I often make on a Sunday and reheat throughout the week.

This one in Good Housekeeping caught my eye:


2¾ c. lowfat milk
¼ c. melted butter
1 tbsp. vanilla extract
1 c. old-fashioned oats
1 c. quinoa
½ c. roasted, salted almonds
½ c. brown sugar
3 tbsp. chia seeds
1 tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt
1 c. blueberries
2 c. strawberries
Lowfat vanilla yogurt

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Coat 2 quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray. Place on foil-lined cookie sheet. In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, butter, and vanilla extract. In prepared baking dish, combine oats, quinoa, almonds, brown sugar, chia seeds, baking powder, and salt. Pour milk mixture over dry ingredients in baking dish. Top with blueberries and strawberries. Bake 45 minutes or until almost all liquid has been absorbed. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve with vanilla yogurt, if desired.

A breakfast serving of this recipe (GH says it serves 6) packs over 400 calories, which is a little too much for my morning.  You could likely scale back the portion, but I made some easy changes to try to slim it down.  Here’s my version:


2¾ c. almond milk
1 Tbs  melted butter
1 Tbs vanilla extract
1 c old-fashioned oats (I used Irish steel-cut)
1 c quinoa
½ c walnuts (what I already had in the house)
2 Tbs brown sugar
3 tbsp chia seeds
1 tsp baking powder
¼ tsp salt
3 c strawberries (I didn’t have any blueberries; a frozen berry blend would also work here) 

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Coat 2 quart baking dish with nonstick cooking spray.  In a medium bowl, whisk together milk, butter, and vanilla extract. In prepared baking dish, combine oats, quinoa, almonds, brown sugar, chia seeds, baking powder, and salt. Pour milk mixture over dry ingredients in baking dish. Top with strawberries. Bake 45 minutes or until almost all liquid has been absorbed. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Serve with vanilla yogurt, if desired.

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 My results:  The texture was okay.  I decreased the fat by reducing the butter and using the almond milk, which may have affected the oatmeal’s ability to stick together.  It was creamy, but would never slice into neat squares the way the Cooking Light oatmeal does.  I liked the crunch from the quinoa and walnuts, and the berries provide a great pop of flavor.  The flavor is not sweet at all, which is my goal in an oatmeal.  If you want it sweeter, you could add some honey or other sweetener (agave, splenda, applesauce, etc.) or use the original recipe’s 1/4 cup of sugar.

Verdict:  I’d stick with  my Cooking Light recipe, maybe adding in some quinoa with the oatmeal.  This version wasn’t bad, but it didn’t thrill me enough to make again.

Book Club Soup

The members of my book club are always excited when it’s my turn to host.  Even though every meeting is potluck, my need to feed people always morphs into multiple dishes on my end.  With the first frost coming this weekend, I harvested everything left in the garden the other night: green tomatoes, hot peppers, herbs, and bags and bags of kale.  I found this clipping in the recipe pile.  It definitely came from the Chicago Tribune’s Lifestyle Section, but there was no date visible on what I ripped out.  I’d have said it wasn’t too long ago, because it wasn’t buried deeply, but an internet search revealed that this article was published almost a year ago, on October 27, 2014:

Kale and Potato Soup
Prep: 10 minutes

Cook: 20 minutes
Makes: about 8 cups, 8 servings

Embellish this hearty kale soup by garnishing it with crusty croutons and crumbled farmers or feta cheese. Or, serve it pureed, topped with a splash of cream and chopped chives.

6 cups chicken or vegetable broth
2 medium (10 ounces total) red potatoes, cut into ¾ inch cubes
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 large cloves garlic, crushed
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
10 ounces roughly chopped kale or tender collard greens, 6 to 7 cups
Plain yogurt or labneh (a strained yogurt), optional

1 Heat broth and potatoes to boil in large saucepan. Simmer on low, 10 minutes.

2 Meanwhile, heat a large pot of salted water, garlic and pepper flakes to a boil. Stir in the chopped greens. Cook, stirring, until greens are bright green and just starting to soften, about 2 minutes. Drain.

3 Add drained greens and ¼ teaspoon salt to broth. Simmer until potatoes and greens are tender, about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust salt as needed. Serve with a dollop of yogurt if desired.

Nutrition information per serving: 54 calories, 1 g fat, 0 g saturated fat, 4 mg cholesterol, 11 g carbohydrates, 3 g protein, 737 mg sodium, 1 g fiber

I love kale.  We met about 3 years ago, when my mother-in-law planted a bunch and decided her 6 plants would yield more kale than they could possibly eat. She dug out 4 and sent them home with us.  It was our first spring in this house and we hadn’t even finished digging out our garden plot.  There was just enough room along the edge of the bed to plant this wee kale.  I found a completed garden photo on Facebook:

See it? Waaay in the back along the fence.
See it? Waaay in the back along the fence.

We were overrun with kale that summer.  To every social gathering, I brought a kale salad.  I never got tired of it, and when we couldn’t find any seedlings the next summer, I was devastated.  Luckily, kale is a staple in our CSA box, so we still had plenty of kale.  This year, we found plants at a school PTO sale, so we had 2 different varieties (lacinto/curly and purple Russian) in the garden this season (plus CSA kale).

My book club is a collection of 4 awesome women of different ages and all walks of life (no other teachers, which is a big change for me in a social setting). I adore them all, and we get along well.  BUT two of them are picky eaters (I say this as a fact only; I LOVE them), and meal planning, as I am pretty adventurous, can be a challenge.

Clearly, this soup recipe appealed to me. But reading it the other night left me thinking, this is kind of boring. So I doctored it up, made it heartier, and continued to beat down the veggie surplus in the fridge and pantry.  Here’s my end result:

Hearty Fall Chicken Vegetable Soup

Olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless, chicken thighs (I buy Costco’s organic), cut into 1 inch pieces
1/2 pound baby carrots, cut into 1-inch pieces
1 medium red onion, diced
5 small russet potatoes, diced (3/4 inch)
1 Tbs minced garlic
6 cups chicken stock (I used Kirkland organic)
salt and pepper to taste (1/2 – 1 tsp salt, 1/8-1/4 tsp pepper)
1/2 tsp red pepper flake
3-4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 sprig fresh oregano
6 cups kale, roughly chopped
1-2 cups rice, cooked

In a large stockpot, brown the chicken in 1/2 Tbs of olive oil over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes. Drain and set aside.  Add a little more oil to the pot and saute the carrots and onion until onions are translucent, about 5 minutes.  Add garlic and cook one minute, stirring constantly.  Add stock, potatoes, chicken, herbs, and seasonings.  Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low.  Simmer 20 minutes, or until chicken is cooked through and potatoes are fork tender.  Remove and discard herb stems (most of the herbs will have fallen off). Add kale and rice to the pot.  Stir in kale and cook until kale is wilted and rice is warm.  Adjust seasonings as needed (I didn’t really taste a kick from the red pepper flake, so you could add more if you wanted to up the spice level).

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I served this soup with a Caesar Salad and crusty sage bread. We also had hummus and carrot slices and rice-quinoa crackers, homemade brownies, and Trader Joe’s Pumpkin Cream Cheese Muffins!  Oh, and wine (pinot grigio).  Heavenly night all around.

Clean Out the Recipe Files

I collect recipes. I clip them out of newspapers and magazines. I handwrite them on cards, scratch paper, and backs of envelopes. I photocopy them from other people’s cookbooks.  I Google them. I post them to my Facebook page.  I keep some in a secret recipe file on Facebook.  I am a recipe hoarder.

Some of my paper recipes have made it into a binder.  Others have earned their own file folder (pies, specifically, but that’s another blog post). Quite a few of them are stuffed in a beautiful tin.  Many are in a 2-pocket folder.  Too many are in piles on my kitchen counter and a kitchen cabinet shelf.


I got to thinking, how many people have these same habits?  Do we ever make these recipes, and if we do, are they worth it?  How many recipes become favorites or staples? Are they just taking up space?  And a grand experiment was born.

My goal for most of my posts here is to tackle those recipe piles.  I’ll include the original recipe, the source (if I have it– some of these are tiny old clippings that I may not be able to cite), and if I made modifications when I cooked the dish.  I’ll also give a recipe verdict– to keep or to toss– or what I would do differently if I attempted the dish again.  Maybe you’ll benefit from my test kitchen. Maybe you’ll be inspired to tackle your own recipe clutter.  Maybe we’ll just eat a lot more home-cooked meals.  Of course, each blog post will allow me to toss that paper recipe, because it will all be right here.  I call that a win.

Dog Parties and Berry Bones

I used to be a dog person, but messy life circumstances after my last dog crossed the Rainbow Bridge made dog guardianship too challenging (we have cats now).  I still love dogs and have many dogs in my life.  So when Family Circle published this recipe for Yogurt-Berry Bone Parfaits in August, I tore it out and left it sitting in the recipe pile for weeks because I knew I’d be attending Billy’s birthday celebration this fall.  Billy is my friend Nancy’s dog.  Her dog birthday parties are epic.  She’s had as many as 15 dogs in attendance with party favors, treats for dogs and humans alike, pinatas, photo opportunities (visualize dogs having their picture taken in a Barbie car), and party hats and other costume options.  She has everything short of a magician for these furkids!

Nancy always buys Frosty Paw treats at the grocery store for a dog treat (even the year our other friend made a salmon cake). She describes them as “frozen liver for dogs”.  They come in an ice cream cup with a pull-off cardboard lid, but she couldn’t find them a couple of years ago, to every pup’s disappointment.  I made these as a back-up treat for this year’s festivities.  They have dairy and gluten, so if your pup has a sensitive stomach or is grain-free, this treat is not for you.

Yogurt-Berry Bone Parfait

2 Tbs plain greek yogurt
2 tsp fresh blackberry juice (from 3 smashed blackberries)
3-4 fresh raspberries, torn into pieces
1 tsp toasted coconut honey oats (toast 1.5 Tbs coconut oil with 1/4 rolled oats in skillet 5-7 minutes; stir in 1 tsp honey)

Use a bone cookie cutter as a mold. Place on flat surface, such as a glass or ceramic plate.  Pour 1 Tbs yogurt into mold.  Freeze at least an hour.  Add layer of blackberry juice. Freeze 20-30 minutes.  Place pieces of raspberry over juice layer and top with remaining yogurt.  Freeze 20 minutes. Top with oats and freeze another 10-15 minutes.

Since I made a dozen of these for the party, I used a variety of cookie cutters in several shapes and sizes.  The recipe is already labor intensive, and I wasn’t about to make one at a time!  (If you were making one or 2 for your dog, I could see making them the same. I mean, I own 2 bone cookie cutters, but do you?)

Confession time– I didn’t measure anything.  I held the open container of yogurt in one hand (not greek, by the way, but plain and fat free) and a spoon in the other.  I put all my cookie cutters on a big cookie sheet, made a yogurt layer for the whole lot, and froze all 12.  I smashed about 10 overripe strawberries with a potato masher and made the berry layer the same way.  I topped it with more yogurt and froze overnight.  After toasting my oats (omitted the honey, because I forgot), I popped the treats out of their molds and put the last layer on after the oats had cooled a bit.


The shapes were a big hit with the humans.  The treats were VERY cold, so if I made these again, I would take them out of the freezer for a few minutes before serving.  Most of the dogs licked them like popsicles, but nobody went crazy for them.  One guest’s teenage son thought they looked so good he ate one too!  Verdict:  I probably would make these again, but only in mass quantities and only for special occasions.

he birthday boy!

Carrot Squash Soup

We have a fantastic grocery store here called Woodman’s.  It’s Wisconsin-based and employee owned. There are 3 locations in Illinois, and luckily for us, my husband works really close to one of them.  Woodman’s is huge.  Huge!  If you like to grocery shop, you could spend hours in there.  But because of their massive inventory, they have to watch their expiration dates closely.

Woodman’s is one of my favorite places.  Besides the vast selection of products, one of the best things about it is the clearance sections. They sell many close-dated items at half-price– dry goods, meats, dairy, seasonal.  You never know what you’ll find, which is a budding chef’s dream.  5 pound bag of overripe avocados for 99 cents? Yes, please!  3 pound slab of ribs for $8? Break out the smoker!  Giant bag of jalapeno peppers for 99 cents?  Roast those and throw a couple of tablespoons in every soup you make!  Brown grocery bag full of fresh corn or bananas (sometimes underripe) for 99 cents? I’ll figure something out!  You get the picture. More on Woodman’s in a minute.

A couple of weeks ago, we received a gigantic (4 pound!) butternut squash in our CSA box.  I made a delicious soup with it, and at the last minute threw in a handful of baby carrots to brighten up the color.  It was perfect timing for soup, as we had our first taste of blustery Fall weather at the same time.

Last week my husband came home with 6 pounds of clearance carrots.  He’s always a little sheepish when he shows me the clearance treasures, but neither of us can resist a bargain, and we hate seeing food go to waste. Clearance produce isn’t always pristine– you might have a moldy strawberry or raspberry in your haul, but for the most part, it’s still in good condition.  I pulled out and tossed a few questionable carrots from the first 2 pound bag and set to work, using that recent squash soup as my guide.  Here’s what I came up with:

Carrot Squash Soup 

yield – about 4 quarts


1 tbs olive or avocado oil
approximately 2 pounds carrots, cut into 1 inch chunks
one large onion, chopped
1 to 2 tbs minced fresh garlic
2 lbs winter squash, roasted/seeds removed (I used Hubbard Squash)
32 oz chicken or vegetable stock
2 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/3 cup heavy cream or half-and-half

To roast squash:  Cut each squash in half and place on foil or parchment-lined baking sheet.  Brush with olive oil and season with salt and pepper.  Roast at 425 until squash is fork tender, about 30 minutes.  Set aside. Once cool enough to handle, scrape the flesh from the skins, discarding the seeds.

In dutch oven or stock pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add onion and carrots and saute until onion is translucent and carrots begin to soften, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally.  Add garlic and thyme and saute for 1 minute, stirring constantly.  Add stock, salt, pepper, and squash flesh.  Stir well and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer until carrots are tender, 15-20 minutes.

If you have an immersible blender, puree the soup right in the pot.  If not, transfer the soup to a blender and puree in batches (make sure to remove the center of the blender cap to allow the steam to escape–cover it with a towel to keep splashes inside!).  Return to the pot and stir in the cream or half-and-half.  Add more salt and pepper to taste.

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