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.

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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!

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.

 

 

 

Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

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Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

Whether we like it or not, our lives are made up of seasons.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter.

Baby, Child, Teen, Young Adult, Adult, Senior.

Those seasons contain seasons within them. Take fall, for instance. September marks the end of tomato season, giving way to apple season. Squash flourish in October, the orange color of their insides reflecting the color of the outside world, the ever-changing leaves on the trees. The season is not stagnant. There are ebbs and flows within it, peaks and valleys. We may miss the tomatoes, but we have apples and pears and squash and beets to look forward to.

Each season in our lives has similarly functioning peaks and valleys. For example, young adults tend to move many different times. I moved from Columbus, Ohio to Boston for graduate school. I found love. I graduated. I obtained a job in my field. I lost love. I went back to the drawing board of life. I set new goals.

What do we know about seasons? A few things (at the very least):

  1. Each phase of a season is beautiful and necessary. The beginning brings joy. The end brings a despair that only lasts until the hope of a new season emerges—and it always does.
  2. If we try to bring back a season that has already passed, it does not taste as sweet. Eating tomatoes in December is not as pleasant as eating them in August. The fruit won’t be as fresh, flavorful, and bright.

We must enjoy each present season for what it brings to us. What can the joy teach us? What, conversely, can the sadness teach us?

Embrace the now—it is beautiful and necessary in a very particular way.

This past weekend, I embraced the tomato.

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Heirloom tomato magic
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My weekend farmer’s market trip. Success!

It is the beginning of September, and while tomato season is on the cusp of leaving us, they are still available in all their glory. Let’s have one last hurrah, shall we?

While caprese salads are my jam through and through, nothing celebrates fresh, sweet tomato flavor more than cold, smooth gazpacho.

This recipe comes from a summer when I worked in Spain. In my last three weeks there I stayed with my coworker’s family. Her husband was from Asturias, a region in northern Spain, and he was the most hospitable, heartwarming man. The kitchen was his domain, and he created new dishes every evening. When I first arrived at their house, he greeted me with a massive pan of paella. I knew I was in good hands.

Gazpacho was his kitchen staple. While I was used to very chunky renditions of this soup in the U.S., his version was a fresh garden of veg turned creamy.

Heirloom Tomato Gazpacho

  • 9–10 medium heirloom tomatoes (or 3-4 large heirloom tomatoes)
  • 2/3 cup chopped shallots
  • 2/3 cup chopped green pepper
  • 1/4 cup bread broken into pieces
  • 1/4 cup balsamic vinegar
  • 1/2 cup olive oil
  • 11 ice cubes
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1 clove garlic, minced (optional)
  • 1/4 cup cucumber, chopped (optional)
  1. Wash and chop the tomatoes, onion, and pepper. If you choose to add the garlic and cucumber, you can wash and chop those too.
  2. Add ingredients to a blender and blend for 2 minutes.
  3. Break apart about 1/4 cup of bread (2-3 small baguette slices). I suggest using a crustier bread. Stale, dry french bread is the best, but you can also use ciabatta. Add to the blender along with salt and pepper.
  4. Blend for 30 seconds.
  5. Turn on the blender and pour balsamic vinegar and olive oil while the gazpacho blends. This ensures the gazpacho is creamy! Blend for 30 seconds.
  6. Add the ice cubes to the blender right as you are about to serve the soup. Blend until ice is fully incorporated.

If the gazpacho is too grainy or seedy for you, you can pass the ingredients through a fine mesh strainer. This recipe serves about five people, so if your blender is not very large, you may need to make this recipe in batches. I’ll usually cut the recipe in half and make two batches in my blender.

Squash Stuffed with Cheddar, Apple, Onion, Sage Couscous

Hello!

Right now, though, I’m thoroughly enjoying this year’s fall bounty. I went apple picking again at Russell Orchards, and I’ve been experimenting with new types of squash.

Before this year I’ve only ever cooked with butternut and spaghetti squash. Now I’m also cooking with acorn squash and kabocha squash (think of a mix between pumpkin and sweet potato).  These particular squashes lend themselves well to stuffing.

Stuffed Squash
Stuffed Squash

I decided to stuff these squashes with apple, onion, and sage couscous. Grate some cheddar cheese on top, and you have a seriously delicious fall meal.

Squash Stuffed with Cheddar, Apple, Onion, Sage Couscous 

Serves 4

  • 1 acorn squash
  • 1 kabocha squash
  • 1 and 1/4 cup Israeli couscous (I used Trader Joes’ Harvest Blend)
  • 1 and 3/4 cup water or chicken broth
  • 2 medium apples, chopped
  • 1 small yellow onion, diced
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 fresh sage leaves, chopped fine
  • 1/2 cup grated cheddar cheese (enough to cover squash)
  • salt, pepper, and garlic powder to taste
  1. Cut the squash in half lengthwise and scoop out the seeds. Drizzle olive oil on the squash and sprinkle salt, pepper, and garlic powder on top. Flip the squash cut side down onto a baking sheet. Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for 50 minutes or until fork tender. The kabocha squash may take more time to cook.
  2. While the squash is roasting, prepare your stuffing. Chop two medium sized apples and one small onion. Add to a skillet with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Sauté for 7-10 minutes. Add minced garlic and chopped sage and sauté for another 2 minutes.
  3. Add the couscous to the skillet to let the couscous toast a little.
  4. Add water or chicken broth based on the couscous package’s cooking instructions. Let simmer until liquid has evaporated.
  5. Once the squash are done roasting, take them out of the oven and flip them back over. Spoon the stuffing into each squash half. Grate cheddar cheese on top of each half and then place back in the oven for another 5 minutes.

Enjoy the very best of fall with this comforting dish. Have a wonderful rest of the week, everyone, and I’ll be back soon with more fall favorites!

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Rainbow Swiss Chard

Hello! I’m back.

Transitioning into the full-time job lifestyle is not an easy task, but with every new week I settle more and more into a routine. The test kitchen is busy making delicious food (some of which they allow employees to take home!), and I’m learning more about new ingredients.

Take quinoa. I grew up with rice, pasta, barley, and farro, but quinoa is a relatively new grain for me and my family. I’ve tried the pre-packaged, pre-flavored kinds. Don’t go there. Buy the plain kind and doctor it up yourself. Do keep in mind that there are different types of quinoa (like red quinoa), and check to see if the quinoa is “pre-rinsed.” If not, then please rinse it yourself! Don’t do what I did once and have a dish of bitter quinoa. Rinsing the grain helps take that bitter layer off. Now I’m imagining those NBC commercials with that music playing as the celebrity says “the more you know…”

Swiss chard is my new favorite green, leafy vegetable. Unlike fibrous kale, the leaves are soft to the touch. Swiss chard’s more mild flavor comes to life when simply sautéed with extra virgin olive oil, minced garlic, and a splash of red wine vinegar. If you’re feeling like a healthy leafy vegetable but don’t want to stomach kale or spinach, I highly recommend swiss chard. I used rainbow chard over green chard. Why? The texture was more pleasing to my mouth, and, I mean, who doesn’t want to cook with a rainbow vegetable?

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard
Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swiss Chard takes less than 30 minutes to make—heaven to my ears after I come home from work.

Cheesy Quinoa with Sautéed Swish Chard

Quinoa

  • 1 cup white or red quinoa, rinsed if the package does not say “pre-rinsed”
  • 2 cups water
  • 1/2 cup grated monterey jack cheese (you can also use sharp cheddar, smoked gouda, gruyere, fontina…any nice melting cheese)
  • 3 tablespoons light cream
  • salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to taste

Swiss Chard

  • 1 bunch of fresh swiss chard, washed
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
  • salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper to taste

1. First, prepare the swiss chard by washing each leaf thoroughly in cold water. Stack the leaves one on top of the other and then chop horizontally, so pieces will be about an inch wide. Unlike kale’s stems that are difficult to cook down, swiss chard’s stems become tender right along with the leaf. I usually chop the whole leaf and a little of the remaining stem. Set your washed and chopped swiss chard aside.

2. If your quinoa is not pre-rinsed, grab a fine-mesh colander or a bowl and rinse the quinoa under cold water for about 30 seconds. If your quinoa is pre-rinsed, then you can skip this step.

3. With a cheese grater, grate 1/2 cup of monterey jack cheese (or the cheese of your choice). Set that aside.

4. Now, I like to go back and cook my swiss chard. First, peel and mince two cloves of garlic. In a medium-large pot, add three tablespoons of olive oil. Turn the heat up to medium high and add your minced garlic, salt, pepper, and cayenne pepper. Let the garlic sizzle for about 30 seconds.

5. Add your swiss chard and mix around with tongs. Put the lid on the pot to let the swiss chard wilt.

6. After about 2 minutes, take the lid off the pot and mix the swiss chard around with tongs once again. Let the swiss chard cook until the liquid is almost evaporated. This should take about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and add the red wine vinegar. Mix it around again and have a taste. You can add more seasoning, vinegar, or oil to your taste. Let that lovely veg sit.

7. Now, for that quinoa. Bring 2 cups of water to a boil. Add one cup of quinoa and let it simmer for about 10-15 minutes, or until the liquid evaporates.

8. Add your shredded cheese, light cream, and salt, pepper, garlic powder, and cayenne pepper to taste. Mix the quinoa until the cheese has melted. Taste and see if you need to add more seasoning or cheese. If you would like the quinoa to have a thinner consistency, add more light cream. Tailor the dish to your taste!

While I love pasta, quinoa provides a toothsome, protein-filled alternative to your traditional mac and cheese. You will feel energized after eating this meal, rather than feel like you’re in a food coma.

How do you cook quinoa? Do you love swiss chard as much as I do, or prefer another leafy vegetable? Let me know your thoughts!

Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!