Roasted Tomato Salsa

It is my genuine belief that if summer in Chicago was a year-round experience, literally the entire population of America would live here. It is absurdly, catch-you-when-you’re-not-expecting-it beautiful, on days when you’re touristing, on days when you’re just walking through the park, on days when you’re stumbling for coffee, even on days when you’re commuting home from work. Contrastingly, though, a full year of Chicago winter would make this place the most desolate waste land south of rural Alaska. I guess that’s why Chicagoans are the only ones who really understand the gravity of the change of seasons for this city. I feel wasteful, napping this gorgeously sunny and clear 75-degree day away, but how can you possibly experience enough, when you stay out late in the cool-but-temperate evening drinking beer at a summer festival bright and loud from happy party-goers? As long as you drive with the windows down, I guess, to and from the places you need to go.

When you’re feeling especially pressed for time, or eager for socialization, dinner is pushed far down on the agenda. My recipes of late promise to be quite quick, not because I don’t find cooking “worth it,” but rather because I’d rather be enjoying this perfect season before it passes. I don’t know the punishment for spending June indoors, but I assume it’s fierce. I’ve actually been grilling out much more often than I ever have, which is an awesome development. Maybe one day I’ll create a grill-worthy recipe, since I’m definitely a novice in that territory. For now, I want to share this salsa, which is the easiest thing ever to make. It’s actually ridiculous that I always buy salsa, when it takes almost no time to pull together and is exponentially more fresh and delicious homemade. It’s great with chips, of course, but also really good on top of the giant salads you’re supposed to be eating now.

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Roasted Tomato Salsa

Makes about 2 cups

5 roma tomatoes, quartered

1 small yellow onion, quartered

2 jalapenos, seeded and halved

1 red bell pepper, quartered

5 cloves garlic, whole

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/4 tsp. salt

1/8 tsp. freshly cracked black pepper

Juice of 1 lime

1/2 cup cilantro

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Rinse and chop vegetables (hold lime and cilantro for later) and toss on a large cookie sheet. Drizzle olive oil over the top and mix the veggies with your hands to coat fully with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper. Roast for 20-25 minutes, until the tomatoes have softened and the vegetables are just browning.

Add the vegetables to a large food processor (or add to a large bowl and use an immersion blender). Blend the vegetables to a just chunky puree consistency. Add the lime juice and cilantro and blend again briefly. Taste and season appropriately (you may prefer an additional dash of salt). Store in a large mason jar. Or with a massive pile of chips. Or on top of a cheesy quesadilla. Or as the dressing for your mock-Chipotle salad. In any way, enjoy. This should keep in the refrigerator for about 1 week.

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Delicious serving suggestion.

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Asparagus and Roasted Tomato Egg Yolk Pasta

Memorial day weekend is one of the best of the year. It’s the time to embark upon any and all summer adventures. The pools open for visitors, the beaches start to fill, grills everywhere are lighted, and the brightening green grasses and trees are appreciated to their fullest extent. There is almost nothing in the world that makes me happier than seeing my dog Oscar bound with excitement on his first steps through the park’s green grass. Memorial day weekend screams, loudly, “SUMMER IS COMING!” And, oh my God, how incredibly ready we are. If you haven’t yet eaten ice cream, drank minimum one beer outside, or at least felt the fresh contact of sunshine, please, please drop what you are doing and enjoy. But, of course, if you’re in for the night, or maybe laying exhausted on the couch, meal planning for the week ahead (which promises nothing as fantastic as the weekend has held), here’s a delightful, summer inspired recipe to try.

If you freak out about egg yolk being added uncooked to the pasta, you can always skip it. However, it cooks lightly from the heat of the pasta and the pan, and it adds a creamy richness unparalleled by just butter or pasta alone. I don’t know about you, but there’s basically nothing better than a runny egg yolk dripping over vegetables, and that’s exactly what my intention was here. It kind of mimics pasta carbonara in this fashion, which has been eaten by indulgent Italians for years, so there’s really nothing to fear.

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Asparagus and Roasted Tomato Egg Yolk Pasta

Serves 2

4 oz. buckwheat or whole wheat pasta (something long and noodley)

2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

10-12 spears asparagus, trimmed

2 cups heirloom grape tomatoes

1/2 tsp. dried red pepper flake

Salt & pepper, to taste

1 egg yolk

1/3 cup Parmesan cheese, freshly shredded

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.

In a deep sauté pan over medium high heat, add the olive oil. Add the asparagus and tomato to the pan and sauté until the asparagus has softened and the tomatoes have started to blister open, about 10-15 minutes. Season with red chili flake, salt, and pepper.

Add the pasta to the salted boiling water and cook according to package directions, pulling from the water about 30 seconds to 1 minute “early” (buckwheat pasta takes about 3-4 minutes to cook, so watch carefully). Drain and add to the roasted vegetables. Remove the sauté pan from the heat.

Add the egg yolk to the pasta and toss until evenly coating the pasta and vegetables. I find tongs to be the easiest tool to use. Add the Parmesan cheese and toss again. Taste and season with additional salt and pepper as preferred.

As you can see, this comes together quite quickly. Definitely under 20 minutes. So indulge, enjoy, and relish in the impending delight that is summertime.

 

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Hot and Cheesy Stuffed Mushrooms

Oh, yeah. If you’re going to describe something as hot and cheesy, you’re probably not referencing mushrooms. You’re probably drooling over some mac ‘n’ cheese, or a pizza straight from the oven, or even a cheeseburger hot off the grill. Mushrooms are little fungi that have no clout with the hot and cheesy comfort foods of America. Not to say they don’t have their place- mushrooms can totally top that pizza or cheeseburger or even swim along side the melted cheese in your pasta. People respect them; they’re just not really that excited. But stuffed mushrooms deserve their place among the dinner parties and maybe even BBQs of your future. They’re poppable and flavorful and oh-so-endearing. The stuffing components have expansive, varied potential, but this recipe comes together in seriously 16 minutes and is a great place to start. I, in fact, invented this recipe on one of those I-haven’t-shopped-in-2-weeks-what-now kind of evenings, so you won’t find fresh herbs or obscure components this time. Not that they wouldn’t be delicious… but let’s keep things simple for now.

I used little button mushrooms for this recipe, because they’re what I always buy at the grocery store- they’re super versatile. But if you wanted a more substantial mushroom, you could easily up the ante by using adult creminis, which are portobellos (gasp!). I personally enjoy the ratio of filling to mushroom here, and also believe the diminutive size of these snacks to be a positive rather than an annoyance. To speak further to the possibilities here, you can of course adjust the amount of hot sauce you add to these to heat things up even more. Wow; it’s getting hot in here. All this mushroom talk… Just wait ’til you hear the compliments coming your way when you bring these to that block party next week.

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Hot and Cheesy Stuffed Mushrooms

Serves 2 (or multiply for limitless servings)

10 baby cremini mushrooms, rinsed and de-stemmed

1/4 cup hummus (I used original, but play around with the flavors)

2 tbsp. Parmesan cheese, freshly grated

2 tsp. hot sauce

1/4 tsp. smoked paprika

1/8 tsp. cayenne pepper

1 tsp. bread crumbs, optional

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Prepare the mushrooms by rinsing and gently removing the stem (save for stock or toss it). In a small bowl, stir together the hummus, Parmesan, hot sauce, and spices until well blended. To easily fill the mushrooms, add the filling to a zip top bag and push into one corner. Snip the corner to make a 1/4 inch opening. Squeeze the filling into the mushrooms (about 1/2 tbsp. per mushroom). You may have a bit left over, depending on how much you add. Feel free to overflow these a bit; they’ll stay stable in the oven. Top the stuffed mushrooms with a sprinkle of bread crumbs.

Bake the mushrooms in the oven for 12-15 minutes, until golden and juuuuust starting to release their juices. Remove from the oven, cool slightly, and serve.

These are an awesome quick dinner, a great appetizer, a perfect pot-luck accompaniment, and just an all-around good time. So easy, so good; you should certainly multiply this by about 10.

Spring Onion and Thyme Chicken Salad

I last made this chicken salad, I think, over 4 years ago at my apartment in Durham. My mom and Brian were over and were hungry. I whipped this up pretty quickly for an easy dinner, and then it was promptly devoured with pita bread dippers and even a spoon. Chicken salad is so easy, yet so delicious, it’s interesting that I should go several years without making it. What’s important, though, is that Brian loved it (loves it? who knows). This chicken salad involves poaching the chicken, which seems, on first glance, to be the least flavorful way of cooking chicken there is. However, poaching the chicken in a flavorful stock with fresh herbs and vegetables actually ensures the most moist, juicy chicken ever. And once tossed with the other salad ingredients, this truly becomes a decadent lunch- or dinner-time food.

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Spring Onion and Thyme Chicken Salad

2 chicken breasts poached

  • 2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 3/4 – 1 lb.)
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 6 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 1 carrot, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 yellow onion, quartered

1/2 cup mayonnaise, light or otherwise

Zest and juice of 1 lemon

1/2 green apple, diced finely

1/4 yellow onion, diced finely

4 spring onions, diced

2-3 tbsp. fresh chives, minced

2-3 tbsp. fresh thyme (several sprigs)

Salt & pepper, to taste

To prepare the poached chicken, add all ingredients to a sauce pan, including the stock. Bring the mixture just to a boil, then lower the heat to very low and cover. Poach for about 15 minutes (depending on the size of the chicken breasts) until the chicken is tender to touch. Remove the poaching liquid from the heat, and allow the chicken to cool in the liquid for 10-20 minutes. Remove the chicken from the liquid and chop roughly. Strain the liquid and store as stock for a later date! (It keeps well in the freezer).

Mix together the chicken salad ingredients and serve, over a spring salad with cucumber or in a pita pocket or on a slice of bread. This keeps well in the refrigerator for several days.

 

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Gnocchi with Balsamic Reduction and Garlic Kale

Ah! It’s been a whole week, and I haven’t had one moment to talk about dinner. Sunny, warmed up, Spring- and Summer-time Chicago is a demanding experience. People are always doing everything, preferably outdoors, at any and all hours, and yes, of course, you should go also. You should take your dogs on epic 2-hour walks down the lakefront, stopping to sprint and roll and tackle in the middle of dandelion-spotted verdant grass inherent only to the Midwest in late Spring. You should stare longingly at Lake Michigan, willing it with your mind to be warmer, knowing that regardless you can’t really swim in that bacteria-laden pool. You should run outside, in the morning, afternoon, or night, relishing the angles of the sun on the skyline and the dusted rooftops as the sun sets. You should certainly eat tacos on the sidewalks, with at least one margarita on the side. And yes, absolutely enjoy a happy hour flight down the street. You can feel the depths of winter siphoning out of your veins, and you can almost, almost forget it happened (maybe not this year entirely). But on those rare nights in, probably on Wednesday, you still need to eat dinner.

Gnocchi is responsible for the best meal of my life, hands down. Traveling Florence with my best friend way-too-many years ago, we stopped for lunch at a small restaurant off the main streets. We had a carafe of water and a glass of wine; I ordered gnocchi with tomato cream sauce and she ravioli. I’m certain she enjoyed her meal immensely, but I will never ever forget the pillowy, unbelievably cloud-like texture of the gnocchi I had that day. The tomato cream sauce was light but flavorful, just enough to coat the little dumplings of joy. I haven’t tried homemade gnocchi (yet), so returning to the US I’ve been accepting but somewhat disappointed in the gnocchi offerings. It doesn’t stop me from enjoying this Italian classic, but I should definitely try my hand at my own version.

Regardless, this gnocchi is really most about the accompaniments. The gnocchi is still, of course, soft and flavorful, but the balsamic reduction and vegetables and kale are perfect for an almost-summer dinner that still warms you up. It’s absurdly easy, also, so don’t let the word “reduction” fool you. It really just means “heat for awhile then serve.”

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Gnocchi with Balsamic Reduction and Garlic Kale

Serves 3-4

1 lb. gnocchi

1 cup balsamic vinegar

2 tbsp. olive oil, divided

1 yellow onion, diced

1 red bell pepper, diced

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

6 cups kale, washed and chopped

4 cloves garlic, minced

1/4 tsp. dried red pepper flake

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, sliced thinly (chiffonade)

Salt & pepper, to taste

In a small sauce pan, heat the balsamic vinegar over medium-high heat until boiling. Reduce the heat to medium-low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally, until reduced by half. It should be reduced in about 10 minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Bring a large pot of water, salted, to boil.

In a large pan, heat 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the onion and peppers and sauté until just softening, about 5 minutes. Add the sliced mushrooms and cook until the mushrooms have softened, browned, and just releasing their juices. Season with salt and pepper.

While the vegetables are cooking, in a separate pan add 1 tbsp. olive oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the kale and stir. Cook the kale until just softening, about 5 minutes. Add salt, pepper, and red pepper flake to the kale and stir.

In the large pot of water, add the gnocchi and cook for about 3 minutes, or according to package directions.

Add the balsamic reduction to the vegetables and mix. Once the gnocchi has cooked, add the gnocchi to the pan as well. Stir thoroughly so all of the gnocchi and vegetables are coated.

To your serving plate, add a serving of garlic kale. Top with the balsamic-coated gnocchi and vegetables. Enjoy.

 

 

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Tomato and Basil Wrap with Goat Cheese

I’m considering moving from Chicago to be closer to work. And by considering I mean looking at rental properties and planning the timeline of my summer around the move. I’ve had emotions ranging from excitement (to leave behind a bad commute) to apathy to an “everything will be about the same” attitude to outright sadness. And now that it’s getting closer, the latter is the overwhelming opinion. It’s probably because the trees are green now and the sun comes out. And that the streets are starting to burst open with people and the skyline is sparkling again. It’s probably something to do with the extra time the sunlight allots my day and the ease and freedom I have in calling up friends to meet for dinner. I’m a little unsure if I’ve allowed something so transient as a job to remove me from this beautiful city that is the reason I moved back to the midwest. And then I’m certain that people in their 20s are supposed to move for work because those are the sacrifices you make to be successful. But maybe-I-don’t-want-to-be-successful-I-just-want-to-eat-dinner-outside-on-the-sidewalks. Who finances that lifestyle?

So here’s a really delicious wrap that you can make for lunch the night before to bring to work. It feels pertinent to discuss things like that as I toss and turn with thoughts and expectations for work, life, and otherwise. Because the question: what should I bring for lunch tomorrow? persists despite all life events. It is the permanent question at 9:39pm when you wanted to go to bed 10 minutes ago. It is important because it’s food that will fuel your day, but so absurdly insignificant because it’s that midday meal that’s satisfied by leftovers or snacks or cafeteria food or random fridge grabs. No one really cares much about lunch. So here; change that.

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Tomato and Basil Wrap with Goat Cheese

Serves 1

1 large flour tortilla, softened

2 tbsp. roasted garlic hummus

1 tbsp. goat cheese, crumbled

8-10 fresh basil leaves

1/4 cup baby spinach

5 heirloom cherry tomatoes, halved

Salt & pepper, to taste

To prepare the sandwich, I spread on a layer of hummus, followed by the goat cheese crumbles. Drop a few basil leaves and top with a small handful of baby spinach. Halve the tomatoes and stack precariously atop the greens. Sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Roll the wrap by tucking in both ends and rolling away from you. I usually wrap it up in a paper towel and aluminum foil to keep it contained.

This stays well overnight, probably even longer (I haven’t tried). A perfectly flavorful lunch wrap tangy from the goat cheese and creamy from the hummus, with just the right peppery basil bite and pop of fresh tomato. Serve with some fruit or Greek yogurt for a truly healthy lunch of champions. Pride yourself on your preparedness and commitment to not buying lunch from the cafeteria. High five.

And now, back to ponder the great questions of life.