Tempura Squash Blossoms with Ricotta, Chile, Mint, and Lemon Zest

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From Memorial Day to Labor Day, my company offers us “summer Fridays” where I get to leave work at 1pm every single Friday. These half days are such a gift. In past years, I would take advantage of this early start to the weekend by making as many plans as possible. Take a trip one weekend, go on a jam-packed adventure with friends another week. If I didn’t have something to do, I felt uncool, almost as if I were less worthy as a person.

Why does society perpetuate the stigma of being alone? There’s a general pressure, especially for women, to avoid being alone. Loneliness isn’t “becoming.” Blah, blah, blah. This negative view towards being alone and spending time by yourself, with yourself, does nothing but increase feelings of shame and cause an obsession with being busy, occupied.

This year has taught me many lessons. One of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that it is not only okay, but necessary to spend time with yourself. This is an act of self care. The act of being with yourself, taking yourself out on a date, puts into practice the idea that you can be alone and also be okay.

I’ve been listening to the Dear Sugars podcast lately, and I listened to an episode about loneliness and women who worry they will never find “the one.” They spoke with writer Kate Bolick, who referenced this beautiful line from Edith Wharton:

“I believe I know the only cure, which is to make one’s center of life inside of one’s self, not selfishly or excludingly, but with a kind of unassailable serenity—to decorate one’s inner house so richly that one is content there, glad to welcome anyone who wants to come and stay, but happy all the same when one is inevitably alone.”

YAS, Edith Wharton!

Spending time alone is not an easy task for me, so I challenged myself this year to use my summer Fridays as my “me” time. The farmers market is open down the street on Friday afternoons, so I like to take my time, walk around to all the booths, and compare the quality and pricing of the produce offered. Then, I start to plan potential meal options in my head for the weekend based on the fruits and vegetables that look best. I’ll have conversations with the farmers, who give me their recommendations. It’s really quite thrilling for me to do this! The produce is so incredibly, achingly beautiful to me. I’m passionate about home grown fruits and veggies, okay?!

A few weeks ago I spotted a gorgeous pint of baby heirloom tomatoes from Atlas Farms. I knew that baby tomatoes were the way to go because this year larger heirloom tomatoes are late (we’ve had a colder August here in New England). I then grabbed a luscious bunch of basil from MacArthur Farm, and I had the makings of the most bomb caprese salad:

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I made garlic toast with whole wheat sourdough bread I bought from the Iggy’s stand, and I enjoyed this dinner by myself, for myself. My heart felt happy and free.

I also stopped by the Siena Farms stand in hopes that I would find squash blossoms. At first, I didn’t see any. Then, in a moment of pure serendipity, one of the farmers pulled out a bucket of them. I had my squee moment, then eagerly went up to him and asked for six.

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Aren’t they gorgeous?

He asked me how I like to cook them. I told him, the whole reason why I knew you could eat squash blooms is because I watched an episode of Jamie at Home one day, and he was making Crispy Courgette Flowers Stuffed with Ricotta and Mint. The light crispiness of the tempura batter and the warm, bright, yet rich filling within the delicate flower seemed like heaven to me. I wanted to learn how to adapt this recipe and make it for myself. Here’s what I’ve come up with:

Tempura Squash Blossoms with Ricotta, Chile, Mint, and Lemon Zest

  • 6 squash (or zucchini) blossoms

Filling

  • 2/3 cup whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1/2 teaspoon lemon zest
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper OR 1/2 teaspoon chopped fresh red chile pepper
  • 6 mint leaves, chopped
  • salt and pepper to taste (I would start with 1/4 teaspoon each)

Tempura Batter

  • 1/2 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/3 cup seltzer water (if you don’t have seltzer water on hand, you can use beer or white wine, something with fizz!)
  • a pinch of salt
  1. First, you’ll need to remove the pistil from the blossom (this is the part of the flower that gathers all the pollen). Gently open the blossom with you fingers and, with a pair of slender scissors or kitchen shears, snip off the pistil.
  2. Squash blossoms are delicate, so do not run them under the faucet! My suggestion is to fill a bowl with water and then place the squash blossoms in the bowl. This process gently washes them and helps get rid of excess pollen and dirt. Once washed, place the blossoms on a paper towel to dry.
  3. For the filling, place the ricotta, lemon zest, mint, and chili in a bowl. Mix together, then add salt and pepper to your taste.
  4. Fill a plastic bag with the ricotta filling. With kitchen shears, snip off a corner of the plastic bag. This will serve as your piping bag to fill the squash blossoms.
  5. Gently open your squash blooms and pipe the filling in. Don’t worry if filling overflows, it will get covered with tempura batter anyways!
  6. Then, in a separate bowl, add your flour, salt, and seltzer water. Mix together so the batter is thick (it should stick to your spoon). If the batter is too thin, add more flour. If too thick, add more seltzer. It’s quite simple!
  7. Before you do anything else, add canola oil (or the oil of your choosing, coconut oil/flaxseed oil/grapeseed oil will work, too) to your skillet and turn on the heat to medium high. You want the blossoms to sizzle when they hit the oil.
  8. Dip your squash blossoms into the tempura batter, coating all surfaces (but not too thickly).
  9. Once your oil is heated, place your squash blossoms in the oil. You’ll need to turn the blossoms a few times so that all sides are properly fried.
  10. Once the blossoms turn golden brown, take them out of the pan and place them onto a plate with a paper towel so any excess oil can drain.

I encourage you to take time for yourself each day, and even schedule full days just for yourself. Recharge, honor yourself with a good meal sourced from the farmers market, read your favorite book, write, spend time outdoors. You’ll come to find that kind of solitude will leave you more open to the world, and the world will open itself up to you in return.

Roasted Rhubarb with Orange, Ginger, and Clove

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Hi! It’s been awhile.

Sometimes we take breaks from certain things in our lives because we want to devote our time to other endeavors. Sometimes we go on hiatus for unintentional reasons. Life happens, and we naturally gravitate towards other matters in our lives that are (or seem to be) more pressing.

My break from blogging was an unintentional one. I so badly wanted to blog, but I’ve been devoting my time to co-chairing the 60th New England Book Show. After 10 months of planning, it’s finally going to happen next week on May 9th. If you’re in the New England area and love books, I encourage you to come!

After the book show is done, I’ll be devoting time to writing and branching out of my comfort zone in that arena. One way I like to practice straying away from what I know is to cook with ingredients I’ve never used before in my kitchen.

One such ingredient…rhubarb!

Surprising, right? I’ve had countless strawberry rhubarb pies, rhubarb cakes, and strawberry rhubarb jam, but I’ve never tried cooking the vegetable on my own.

Here’s what I know about confronting something new:

  1. It can be scary. (“What if I fall flat on my face?”)
  2. It can be exhilarating. (“What if this is the best thing that’s ever happened to me?”)
  3. Whether the predominant feeling skews towards fear or excitement, facing the unknown will, undoubtedly, teach you something valuable and make you a stronger person in some way.

The predominant feeling I felt towards those rhubarb stalks sitting on my kitchen counter absolutely skewed towards excitement. I know I love rhubarb. I also know rhubarb pairs well with sweeter ingredients since its sourness creates a balance of flavor.

“So,” I thought, “Let’s dive in!”

Roasted Rhubarb with Orange, Ginger, and Clove

  • 6 stalks rhubarb, cut on the diagonal in two inch pieces (If you buy rhubarb with the leaves attached, throw those leaves away! They are poisonous!)
  • 1/3 cup sugar (I find this amount achieves the perfect balance of sweet and sour. ½ cup sugar works, but it makes the rhubarb almost too sweet.)
  • 1 tablespoon strawberry jam
  • 1 teaspoon orange zest
  • 1 teaspoon grated fresh ginger
  • 10 whole cloves
  • seeds from ½ vanilla bean
  1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Wash rhubarb stalks and cut on the diagonal into two-inch long pieces. Place in a mixing bowl.
  3. Add sugar, strawberry jam, orange zest, grated ginger, cloves, and vanilla bean seeds to the bowl.
  4. Mix it all together!
  5. Let the rhubarb mixture sit for 15 minutes so that the rhubarb begins to release some of its juices.
  6. Place the rhubarb in an 8” by 8” square baking dish and roast at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. The rhubarb should be fork tender, practically pulling apart.
  7. Let cool.

I took one bite of this roasted rhubarb, and I did a little dance in my studio kitchen. The spicy ginger, the simultaneous sweet/sour flavor of the sugared rhubarb, the bright kick of orange zest, and the warm clove all melded together at once on my tongue. Enjoy this beautiful concoction over tangy, plain Greek yogurt and granola or vanilla ice cream.

Baking with rhubarb for the first time has made me a better, more knowledgeable cook. Whether you’re facing a new ingredient, a new feeling, or a new life situation, try to embrace that unknown and all the lessons you will learn from that experience with kindness and gentleness towards yourself.

Have a wonderful week, friends, and go bake some rhubarb!

 

Pork and Chestnut Ragu

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Winter is here, and you know what that means…sickness! Everyone seems to have some form of cold, cough, or sore throat. I’ve definitely caught the bug. While everyone is out and about doing their Christmas shopping, I’ve had to stay in for most of the weekend and take a sick day today from work. This is tougher for me than it should be. General American working culture makes it seem like taking a sick day and, therefore, taking care of yourself, is a bad thing. It’s as if coming into work even though you’re sick is a badge of honor and dedication. Thankfully, I work at a company where culture dictates that taking care of yourself is a top priority. And, who wants to catch my germs, anyways?

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Taking care of yourself 101: Drink mugs and mugs of this beautiful tea—preferably in your favorite mug.

My boss just told me this today, and I think we all need this reminder on the daily: Never apologize for taking care of yourself. You know your needs better than anyone else does.

Part of taking care of myself includes nourishment, of course! When I’m sick, I always muster up the energy to cook myself something, even if it’s just warm chicken broth. Now, when most people are sick, they think “soup!” Well, when I’m sick, the first thing I think of is, “pasta!” (Are you at all surprised?)

So, earlier this week I saw peeled and cooked chestnuts at Trader Joe’s, and something came over me that said “you MUST buy these and cook with them!” even though I’ve never cooked with chestnuts before in my life. I was kicking myself later in the week, staring at these chestnuts dumbfounded. Then I took out all my cookbooks and cooking magazines to look for a recipe. Thank goodness, I found a copy of Jamie Oliver’s magazine (aptly named Jamie Magazine) from November/December 2011. He had a whole section on cooking with chestnuts. Perfect! His recipe was for Chestnut Tagliatelle with Venison Ragu. Well, I hate venison (don’t hate me!) and I did not have the ingredients to make the homemade tagliatelle, so I tweaked the recipe a bit to make my own version of it! Behold (let’s show this beauty pic again…):

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Pork and Chestnut Ragu

  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, finely chopped
  • 1/2 red onion, finely chopped
  • 3 tablespoons butter
  • 3 bay leaves
  • 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
  • 1 pound ground pork
  • 1 vacuum-packed package of peeled and cooked chestnuts, roughly chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 1 cup tomato purée
  • 3/4 cup red wine (I used Chianti)
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth
  • 1 tablespoon tomato paste
  1. Add finely chopped carrot, celery, and onion to a sauté pan with 2 tablespoons butter, the bay leaves, cinnamon, and salt and pepper to taste. Cook, covered, for 10 minutes.
  2. Add the ground pork and break that up in the pan. Sauté until cooked through.
  3. Add the chestnuts and nutmeg and stir together.
  4. Add the tomato purée, stir in, then add the red wine and stir again.
  5. Add the chicken broth and let the mixture come to a boil. Simmer for about 15-20 minutes.
  6. Add the tomato paste and mix into the sauce. The sauce will thicken at this point and should only need a few more minutes to simmer.
  7. Taste the ragu and add additional salt and pepper to taste.

Serve this with a pasta of your choice. Rigatoni pairs perfectly, if you were looking for a recommendation!

The holiday season is about giving to others, but please remember to give to yourself, too. Happy December!

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

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Today is election day. Today marks a pivotal point in our country’s history. A new chapter is about to begin, and many of us are worried about what the outcome will be this evening.

Before I continue, I urge everyone to vote. Please. We have the incredible right in the United States to make our voices heard. Exercise this right. Do your part to ensure this country goes in the right direction.

Now, because this day is going to be filled with so much apprehension and anxiety, I want to talk about spreading the love.

From an early age, I saw gifts of food as gifts of love. My Mom would bake banana bread or lemon bread for new neighbors to welcome them. She learned this ritual from my great grandmother. During the Depression, my great grandmother “Bunna” would not only make food for her five children, but she would also cook meals for those around her who could not put food on their table that day.

Have you heard of the five love languages? They are quality time, words of affirmation, receiving gifts, acts of service, and physical touch. We all have our favorite ways of giving and receiving love, and those ways can be placed in one or more of these categories.

Over time, I’ve come to find that I give love through acts of service—specifically when I cook for others. If I cook for you, I’m sending my love to you. The top way I receive love is through words of affirmation. So, if I cook for you, and then you tell me you like what I made, the love comes full circle!

So, where do banana chocolate chip muffins fit into this reflection? It all starts with my Mom’s recipe for banana bread, the bread that she would make and give to others as an act of service, love, and kindness. I adapted that recipe to make muffins—a very portable breakfast staple and the perfect way to make anyone’s morning special.

Bake these muffins. Wake up tomorrow morning. Have a few with a cup of coffee or tea. Bask in the sunshine that is this election being o-v-e-r. Give some of these muffins away out of love. Because, boy, do we need more love right about now.

Banana Chocolate Chip Muffins

  • 1 egg
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup (equal to a half stick) melted butter
  • 3 ripe bananas, mashed
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1 and 1/2 cup of flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 cup chocolate chips
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Lightly whisk flour, baking soda, and salt in a medium bowl. Set aside.
  3. In another bowl, mash the bananas well.
  4. In a third bowl, whisk the egg and sugar until light yellow.
  5. Add the melted butter, vanilla, and bananas to the egg and sugar mixture. Mix well.
  6. Add the flour mixture and mix with a spoon until just incorporated. Don’t overly mix!
  7. Add the chocolate chips and stir until just incorporated.
  8. Line a muffin tin with paper baking cups. Spoon the batter into each cup until it’s about 2/3 full.
  9. Bake for about 20 minutes. Check the muffins with a toothpick—if it comes out cleanly, the muffins are done.

Fall Apple Bake and Bourbon Apple Oatmeal

Have you gone apple picking yet? If not, go now and embrace the season!

I went apple picking a few weeks ago. Here in New England we had a drought, so I had to prepare myself for a different sort of crop. Less water means smaller, less abundant apples. However, when we got to the orchard, the apples were still beautiful and delicious.

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Nature shows us that life does not always happen the way we plan it, and that is okay. Beauty still comes from the unexpected events. This was an imperfect year for apples in New England, but that doesn’t mean these apples were useless. Ohh no. I made two fabulous recipes from them. We, too, can create beautiful things in times of uncertainty, when we are in our own “droughts.” I’ve come to find that expectations can easily disappoint, for they hardly ever represent reality. The true measure of resilience is making the most of your present circumstances, rather than discrediting them for not living up to what you thought was perfect.

On to the APPLES!

My Momma made this apple bake for my sisters and I every year. I unabashedly have it for breakfast, lunch, or dessert with vanilla ice cream.

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Fall Apple Bake

  • 8 medium size tart apples; peeled, cored, and sliced (McIntosh and Cortland are best)
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 1/2 tsp cinnamon
  • 2 tablespoons orange juice
  • 1 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 tablespoons grated orange zest

Topping

  • 3/4 cup flour
  • 1/2 cup firmly packed brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 6 tablespoons chilled unsalted butter
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts
  1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease a 2 1/2 quart soufflé dish, deep casserole dish, or 12-inch cast iron skillet.
  2. Mix sliced apples, brown sugar, flour (2 tbs), and cinnamon in a large mixing bowl.
  3. Add orange juice, lemon juice, and orange zest to the apple mixture and transfer to your baking dish.

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  1. For the topping, mix flour (3/4 cup), salt, and brown sugar in a mixing bowl. Add the butter and break down with either a fork and knife or your fingers until the mixture resembles coarse meal.
  2. Add the chopped pecans or walnuts to the topping and spread this over the apples.

20160925_144619Bake at 375 degrees for 40-50 minutes. You’ll want the top to be golden brown and the filling to be bubbly!


But wait…there’s more!

Below is the most beautiful breakfast on earth. Make this topping for your oatmeal, and you will start your day off like the champion you are.

Bourbon Apple Oatmeal

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  • 1 Mcintosh Apple, sliced
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1.5 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • Cinnamon and Nutmeg to your liking (I like a lot of spice!)
  • 2 tablespoons bourbon
  1. Melt butter in a skillet.
  2. Add apple slices, water, brown sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg. Sauté for about 5-7 minutes.
  3. Add bourbon. Sauté for another 3-4 minutes.

Add topping to a serving of steel cut oatmeal. Happiness will ensue.

 

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Cotija Cheese

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Cotija Cheese

Today I’m offering a two-part reflection. One on the beauty of cast iron skillets, and another on the deliciousness that is the brussels sprout.


We Should All Be Like Cast Iron Skillets (a poem)

We should all be like cast iron skillets—

A vessel that can take the heat.

Built of strength, it can endure most anything.

With time, it becomes more nonstick,

seasoned, retaining the wisdom of what’s touched its surface before,

letting things go cleanly, more easily.

We should all be like cast iron skillets—

a vessel through which masterpieces are made.

Reliable, it will always be there,

a labor of love lasting a lifetime.


As I grew up, brussels sprouts had a bad reputation. The cliché going around was that one may like vegetables, except for brussels sprouts.

A typical conversation among friends or family members:

Inquiring adult: “Kristina, do you eat your vegetables?”

Kristina (as a child): “Yes, I eat my vegetables!”

Adult: “Which vegetables do you like to eat?”

Kristina: “Well, I like corn, potatoes, tomatoes, green beans, broccoli, all kinds. But I hate brussels sprouts. Gross!”

Here’s the thing—I had never even tried brussels sprouts. I heard such terrible things about this vegetable that I didn’t have the guts to try it until I was maybe 23 years old.

I know. Shameful.

When I did finally try them at a restaurant in Boston, I was floored with how delicious this vegetable really is. Brussels sprouts have a more earthy, cabbage-like flavor that pairs so incredibly well with bacon and cheese. The sprouts caramelize, boasting a hint of sweetness that begs for crispy bacon and salty, yet firm cheese. This is why we see many recipes for brussels sprouts with parmesan, for example. I chose cotija cheese for its mild yet salty qualities. The cheese melts just enough, and then it browns right along with the sprouts at the very end.

This dish is one of my kitchen experiments, and after a few tries, I’ve hit the jackpot of deliciousness. I love serving this as a side dish with baked chicken or on top of pasta. Enjoy, and let me know if you make it!

Braised Brussels Sprouts with Bacon and Cotija Cheese

  • 1 lb. brussels sprouts, cut into halves or quarters depending on the sprout’s size
  • 3-4 slices applewood smoked bacon
  • 1/3 cup chicken stock
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed in a garlic press
  • 1/4 cup crumbled cotija cheese
  • salt and pepper to taste
  1. Slice bacon into pieces about 1/2 inch wide and place into a cast iron skillet. Turn on the heat to medium-high and fry until crispy. Take the crispy bacon pieces out of the pan with a slotted spoon and place bacon into a dish. Set aside.
  2. While the bacon is cooking, prepare your brussels sprouts. Slice off the very bottom of the sprout and throw away. Cut the brussels sprout in half. If the sprout is quite large, you can cut the sprout in half again.
  3. Once the bacon is done cooking, place the brussels sprouts in the cast iron skillet with the bacon fat. Over medium heat, let the sprouts acquire an initial char (about 2 minutes).
  4. Place minced garlic in the pan and stir to incorporate. Add crushed black pepper to taste (I used about 1/4 teaspoon, you can always add more).
  5. Pour 1/3 cup chicken stock into the pan and cover the skillet with a lid. Let the sprouts steam over medium heat for about 5-7 minutes. The liquid should be about evaporated.
  6. Turn up the heat to medium high and let the sprouts caramelize further as the liquid fully evaporates, 1-2 minutes.
  7. Add crispy bacon and crumbled cotija cheese into the pan. Turn off the heat, and allow the cheese to melt just slightly.