Scalloped Tomatoes

With summer and tomato season in full swing, in addition to the upcoming July 4th holiday, may we suggest and highly recommend this easy, unusual and impressively delicious side dish.  It incorporates some of the best summertime flavors — tomatoes, basil and garlic — and will go well with all different kinds of grilled proteins, including steak, chicken and shrimp.  I was initially skeptical that this dish would amount to not much more than a mushy mess of cooked tomatoes, soggy bread and wilted basil, but we had garden tomatoes to use and Ina Garten’s recipe was inspired by her “dear friend” and “cooking inspiration” Sarah Chase, which was inspiration enough for us.  The finished dish did not disappoint.  The flavor reminds me of a fried mozzarella cheese stick dipped in marinara sauce, but a de-constructed, lighter and way more healthy version.

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Broccoli Rabe w/ Garlic & Romano

We’ve had this leafy vegetable (also known as “rapini”) before, first with pasta and another time with pasta and sausage.  The version with (turkey!) sausage is probably our favorite way to eat broccoli rabe, but we were intrigued to try it on its own as a side dish.  Although I’m not typically a fan of cooked greens (sauteed spinach and I will never be friends, but Dan could eat it every week), rapini is a pretty hearty green that holds up well when cooked, without becoming mushy.  We found this recipe incorporating garlic and pecorino romano cheese to complement the slightly bitter flavor of the broccoli rabe, and we adapted the cooking method by using a combination of saute and steam, similar to the way we cook broccolini (but even though we cook them the same way, don’t be fooled — broccoli rabe is more closely related to the turnip than broccoli.)  We also added some red pepper flakes for a little kick and finished the dish with lemon juice to brighten the flavors.  Dan loved the rapini cooked this way, and I can honestly say that I liked it well enough to add it to our (obviously limited) rotation of cooked vegetable side dishes.  How’s that for a ringing endorsement?

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Italian Soba Noodle Salad

As everyone does, we try to make the most of our weekends — attempting to find the perfect balance between to-do lists and errands versus “lamping” (Dan and his brothers’ term for sitting around, doing nothing — as a lamp does) and having fun.  Sometimes you just don’t have enough time to hit up both Home Depot and Bed, Bath & Beyond on a Saturday.  For us, enjoying a lazy Saturday morning while still managing to feel productive usually involves planning our menu for the following week while watching HGTV or cooking shows.  (Dan occasionally sneaks in a Star Wars or superhero movie as well, especially if we’ve already seen whatever home improvement or cooking show happens to be on at the time.)   One of our favorite Saturday cooking shows is “Easy Chinese,” which features Chef Ching-He Huang touring local markets and restaurants in the Bay Area (sometimes other places too) for the best fresh ingredients and (mostly Asian) dishes, which she then makes her own by showing viewers how to easily recreate her versions at home.  This Italian soba noodle salad is one of the easiest we’ve ever seen her make. When we made it, we didn’t even consult the full recipe — we just cooked it from the notes I jotted down during the show.  We made a couple of changes, but that’s another thing that is great about the recipe — you can adapt the ingredients to suit your taste preferences.  And with its fusion of Italian (sun dried tomatoes, kalamata olives, olive oil and arugula) and Asian (soba noodles, sesame oil, mirin, rice vinegar, soy and shiitake mushrooms), this salad is as delicious as it is easy.

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Little Italy Relish

We found this recipe in one of our most-used grilling cookbooks, Weber’s “Real Grilling,” as an accompaniment to their recipe for grilled flatiron steaks.  It’s a simple and delicious way to dress up a steak, particularly if you’re a fan of olives.  Come to think of it, this relish might also work well as a topping for tilapia or some other flaky white fish, or even as a condiment for a hot dog, similar to the Chicago dog.  Certainly, each of these proteins are good on their own, but adding the fresh Mediterranean flavors of the relish can be a welcome change.  And since the relish is made with roasted red bell pepper, tomato, olives, celery and parsley, it has enough non-starch and non-meat components to qualify as a vegetable side dish in our book, thereby completing the meal.
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Crispy Brussels Sprouts with Honey and Sriracha

Apparently there is a restaurant called The Vanderbilt in Brooklyn, NY that specializes in various appetizers, including fried brussels sprouts.  We say “apparently” because we haven’t been there (yet!), so we don’t feel qualified to offer a personal opinion as to their specialties.  But, when researching brussels sprouts recipes (this one is our usual go-to, but we get bored with it), we found an entry on the Food 52 recipe/cooking website from a woman who loves the “undisputed star” brussels sprouts appetizer from The Vanderbilt so much that she recreated the recipe at home.  (After a quick perusal of The Vanderbilt’s menu, it doesn’t look like they currently offer the sprouts; all the more reason to try the homemade version.)  Peeling the brussels sprouts is rather time-consuming (if you have kids — put them to work!) but worthwhile to get a nice mix of crispy individual leaves and tender cores.  We think it’s the sauce that really makes this an outstanding side dish:  spicy sriracha combined with sweet honey, sour lime juice and just a touch of savory sesame oil.  Frying the sprout leaves can be a bit tricky (they pop and splatter a lot) and of course isn’t the most healthy way to get your veggies, so we tried roasting them in the oven instead.  Although the roasted ones weren’t quite as crispy, they were still really good, and we could eat just about anything tossed in that flavorful sauce.

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Cabbage-Carrot Casserole

File this one under “Interesting.”  One of the cool things about having a food blog is that it’s a natural conversation-starter.  Nearly everyone has an intriguing food anecdote, experience or recipe to share, once they find out we are passionate enough about food to blog about it.  When talking to one of Dan’s colleagues at a work event a little while ago, she told me how her niece is currently living in Russia and has had to adjust quite a bit to cooking and eating over there, especially in terms of food availability.  Apparently meat is very expensive (and quality can be somewhat sketchy), so they cook and eat a lot of vegetables.  In particular, cabbage is abundant and inexpensive there, and they cook with it often.  When I heard that one of their favorite dishes is a casserole made with cabbage and carrots, I was intrigued enough to ask for the recipe, especially since I don’t prefer the boiled cabbage that Dan insists I eat serves with corned beef every St. Patrick’s Day.  The dish sounds a bit strange — and I would definitely call it interesting — but we liked it.  The cabbage has a mild flavor, the carrots add a bit of sweetness to contrast with the spice from the paprika, and the sauce made with butter, flour, chicken broth, milk and cheese ties it all together well.  It may not be the best side dish we’ve ever had, but the fact that there’s a story behind it makes us appreciate this casserole even more.  (And it’s a heck of a lot better than plain old boiled cabbage.)

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Baked Asparagus w/ Parmesan

Although it may be available year-round in some places, Spring is the official season for asparagus.  So now is the time to spend less money on fresh, better quality, possibly even locally-grown, bunches of this delicately thin, slightly bitter vegetable.  Our go-to method for cooking asparagus usually involves tossing it with a little olive oil and salt & pepper, then grilling it for a few minutes until it is barely tender.  As with most cooked veggies, we prefer asparagus al dente or “crisp tender” — cooked through but retaining a bit of crunch.  For the times we don’t feel like grilling (or more likely, the (many) occasions when our propane tank is empty and we’ve forgotten (again) to replace it), this recipe is a good alternative for cooking the asparagus in the oven and achieving that crisp tender texture we prefer.  Adding melted Parmesan cheese and a drizzle of good balsamic vinegar elevates the flavors even more, for an elegantly savory Spring-time side dish.

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Homemade Hummus

Whenever we go to visit Dan’s younger brother and his family in New York, our sweet sister-in-law always makes it a point to stock up on hummus from the Middle Eastern specialty food shop in their neighborhood, because she knows how much we love it.  It’s the best we’ve ever had, and we’ve never been able to find anything that comes anywhere close here in Dallas.  So Dan finally decided to look no further than our very own kitchen, and researched a bunch of recipes for us to make hummus at home.  He chose and adapted this recipe, mainly because it divulges the secret to “ethereally smooth hummus” (so smooth that it’s the clever name of the recipe), the likes of which we’ve only ever encountered on our family visits to Brooklyn.  It may sound strange and unnecessary, but the key to getting butter-smooth consistency in homemade hummus is to peel the chickpeas before putting them through the food processor.  Now that we know this trick for getting foolproof smooth texture, the only challenging aspect of making homemade hummus is experimenting with flavors and varieties.  But that’s also the fun part.  We started with a very basic version flavored with garlic, tahini, lemon juice, salt, olive oil and cumin.  This will be our go-to favorite, but we look forward to trying other versions and flavor combinations — maybe a spicy one with jalapeno, or a peppery one with roasted garlic and red bell pepper.

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Butter Lettuce Salad w/ Blue Cheese Vinaigrette

Confession time:  I used to scoff a bit at people who exclusively make their own salad dressing, especially those who insist that their homemade versions are so easy and soooo much better than the store-bought variety.  Since I am more of a follow-the-recipe-and-measure-precisely type of cook, I figured it was a LOT easier to just buy dressings from the store — rather than research and find a recipe, procure the ingredients and execute the recipe — especially since the pre-made dressings taste just as good.  Dan definitely disagrees with me on the latter point, and his (more discerning) palate can almost always detect an artificial quality in store-bought salad dressings.  Considering the fact that many dressings have a (quite literal) shelf-life of many months — if not years — they likely contain a lot of preservatives that cause the artificial taste and aren’t the best things to be putting in our bodies.  I’ll probably never get to the point of being a “glug of olive oil, splash of vinegar, dashes of spices, bit of this and bit of that” kind of dressing-maker, but I’m slowly coming around to using homemade vinaigrettes more often and we’ve tried a couple of recipes that are both easy and delicious.  Don’t get me wrong — I still believe that a lot of store-bought salad dressings are great (we almost always have a bottle of this French vinaigrette in our fridge), but sometimes a homemade dressing really does make certain salads taste better.  This is one of those times, and one of those salads.

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Old-Fashioned Potato Salad

We’re not exactly sure what qualifies this potato salad as “old-fashioned.”  Perhaps it merits this distinction because it tastes like a family recipe that has been handed down through the ages — complicated and difficult to make, with well-kept secret ingredients?  Or maybe it’s because, as recipe author Ina Garten points out in her book, “Barefoot Contessa at Home,” during the 18 years that she owned her namesake specialty food store, they “must have made millions of pounds of this classic potato salad.”  No matter the reason, we’ve added this salad into our permanent side dish rotation, especially for the upcoming Spring/Summer grilling season.  With complex, yet complimentary flavors from 2 types of mustard, fresh dill, red onion, celery and potato, the recipe is surprisingly simple to make, especially given how good it tastes.  It can be made ahead (and should be, in order to give the flavors time to combine), making it even more ideal for the  BBQ-friendly months of the year.  We predict at least tens of pounds of this salad in our foreseeable side dish future.

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