Homemade garlic croutons – more white bread uses!

Husband mentioned off-hand the other day that a bag of the garlic croutons he likes on his salads cost 3 dollars. Granted, 3 dollars is perfectly fine expenditure if it makes him happy, but it got me thinking: we still have a lot of white bread from the pantry giving us two spare loaves, and it seems like the perfect canvas on which to create croutons.

I experimented by cutting stacks of the bread into small, 1/2 inch cubes, though I didn’t sweat it if some pieces weren’t uniform. I covered them with pepper and salt and garlic powder and some oregano flakes, then shook them up in a bowl to cover evenly. Then I added three tablespoons of olive oil, trying to distribute it through mixing the bread, but again, not sweating it too much. I layered it out on a cookie sheet and put the croutons into a 425 degree oven until most of the pieces were turning brown, probably somewhere between 15 and 30 minutes, but I was cooking other things so I didn’t pay good attention to the time.

The oven did a great job of making a soft bread into a crunchy crouton! The necessary step after that was complete cooling before I put them into the plastic bag I was going to store them in – I know that any leftover moisture can seep out and be trapped with the croutons, turning them into soggy oil bread… much less delicious sounding, you know? I let husband sample them and he pronounced them good! I always remember croutons being the thing that got me through salads I didn’t like, a little savory crunch for all that green. While not as easy as buying the three dollar bag, these are pretty easy and cost pennies total to make. I recommend using all leftover bread, even that which is heading toward being stale, to make these croutons!

 

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Food that Feels Like Freedom: Tomato and Olive Oil Toast

No lie, I’ve eaten a lot of tomatoes, greens, potatoes, and squash this season – you’d think I’d get sick of it, but I feel like I cannot get enough. And yesterday afternoon I got home from work so ready to be done for a couple days, I was jonesing for a snack that made me feel free and easy. 

I turned to pan tomate, the Spanish snack I loved so much when I lived in Madrid. Two pieces of toasted bread, slices of garden tomatoes, a drizzle of good extra virgin olive oil, and a sprinkle of salt (sea salt for crunch if you have it!). The result is fresh but rich; I ate mine while chatting with Husband about our weekend plans.

What food makes you feel carefree and like you are unburdened? What do you cook when facing a weekend or just a couple luxurious free hours? 

Basil/Oregano Mashed Butternut Squash

I’ve become a big fan of dips – give me a variety pack of hummus flavors, or a savory baba ganoush, or a pile of guacamole any day and I’ll lay into it. I wasn’t expecting that butternut squash would make such a fantastic dip, though; rather than a recipe, today I present something I affectionately call a “mess-cipe” – something that easily could have turned out terribly as an experiment in the kitchen but which instead turned out delicious!

I was eager to roast up the butternut squash, so I added basil, oregano, and some last sprigs of rosemary that I had handy but after it finished cooking I kinda… left it in the oven to cool? I went about my afternoon, busy, and then came back to cooled-off, gooey squash. It was easy to separate the chunks from their skin, but then I wasn’t sure what I was going to do with it. My thought was “Pasta sauce,” along the lines of some you might have seen used on “butternut squash mac and cheese.”

I didn’t have a lot of cheese available, but I added cheese and milk, and used the food processor to mix it up. I made Husband a bowl of pasta and covered it in the sauce, which he vouched was sweet but flavorful, a perfectly fine dinner. What I noticed, though, was that since it was all fairly cool, it was really firmer than a sauce… more like a dip.

Instead of serving myself pasta, I dug a tortilla chip into the mixture, and crunched into it… PERFECT. While not a normal dip for tortilla chips, the mixture was too smooth for me to want it on something else soft like pasta, so I got the satisfying crunch and also the yummy flavor of butternut squash. I cannot give you exact measurements, but I definitely recommend that you try something like “mashed butternut squash” and have chips or crackers with it – the flavor is unusual but the texture is perfect for a dip.

Amusing sign in a Pennsylvania diner…

It has been a busy week. I’ve had three or four things on my at-home to-do list that just keep getting rolled over to the next day. For today, I’ll give you this cute little sign that I saw in a diner in Pennsylvania, when we were visiting Husband’s friend D; he took us to board game stores and we found one of my new favorites (try Citadels if you get a chance!) and even though I was recovering from illness, he took us for greasy spoon food. Everything was slathered in butter – I saw one of the girls behind the counter carrying a bit stainless steel bowl of it! While not good for my recovery, the flavors of the place were a good once-in-a-good-long-while treat, and I smile thinking of these people who cook all the time having such a sign hanging up while they toil. I salute you, grillmasters; this girl isn’t gonna cook anything till she gets caught up on life.

The Ritual of Slow Coffee

Coffee starts in fields, in trees, in beans. Coffee arrives, however it is grown, in bags of green beans from Ethiopia, sent to Husband by a roast-your-own-coffee company.

Coffee gets roasted on our back porch, in a used popcorn popper, while Husband pokes at it with a wooden spoon handle and listens for the telltale crack that means it is ready. I sit with him, enjoying the roasting smell and crocheting something, usually a square for a quilt.

Coffee gets stored in a pan while it cools, then in a mason jar, then in the coffee grinder’s reservoir for the day or two before we use it. I stumble into the kitchen, freshly dressed for work, and press the big start button. 30 seconds of loud whirring later, the freshest of coffee is ready.

I wash the french press while the kettle vibrates on the stove. I pour the rush of boiling water over the grounds and wait impatiently for it to steep. Husband gets out of the shower and joins me.

We are not as slow with our coffee on weekdays as we are on weekends, when one french press pot of coffee can turn into two while we read books or clean the house or plan our days together. But those 5 or 10 minutes, lingering over the quality coffee and maybe a bagel or some recent pastry I’ve whipped up, they are what make all the hard work that is poured into this simple bean juice worth it.

I certainly drink coffee for fuel, to power me through long days and to get the live-wire buzz of caffeination to make me feel like my ideas are good ones and that I should keep working working working. But I would do all the steps in the coffee making process at home even if it was decaf. It’s a ritual, but I love it.

Corn on the Cob Season, Elotes, and my Grandma in law

I confess I have no great love for corn on the cob. It gets stuck in my teeth, corn juice smears all over my face, and I couldn’t understand why we didn’t just cut it off with a knife. The worst part was when I discovered corn was a starch, which meant it wasn’t as good-for-me as other veggies. For everyone else, it seemed like a treat, but I just couldn’t see it.

Then came the season in my life when Husband lived with his grandma, J, while he and I were dating. My weekends would be spent at her house, watching her and her neighbors as they gestured wildly at the TV during football games. We’d play charades, we’d go to pumpkin festivals, we’d stay up late chatting and eating all manner of food. J declared “fondue night” one time, and we spent the whole evening out of the back porch, dunking foods in chocolate or cheese. It was a delicious time, and I cannot really think about it without missing it.

J’s porch was where I found a way to like corn on the cob. She’d boiled up some ears, and she told me that there was a way to make it called “elotes” – it’s a preparation that is popular in Mexico. They make the corn then cover it in butter, mayonnaise, spicy chili powder, cilantro and a dash of parmesan or feta, and sure enough, with just a little of this awesome flavoring, I was able to see why corn was so popular. I didn’t mind getting messy, or having corn stuck in my teeth. It might have been the corn itself, I suppose, but it also might have been the excellent company as the sun went down over the house and J stoked the fire in the chimenea on the porch.

Quinoa with sweet tomato, onion, and summer herbs

On Friday, I really traipsed into the thicket of tomatoes in our backyard and emerged with tons – 30 or more cherry and 10 San Marzanos. I want to freeze some to eventually can sauce, but a more pressing need presented itself: my aunt and uncle were coming over for dinner! They are the sweetest folks and one is vegetarian and the other is dairy/gluten free, so quinoa was an obvious option.

I prepared about 1 cup of quinoa according to the directions on the bag, but the long roasting time meant that I did that much later. I started by cutting up the cherry tomatoes and some San Marzanos into the roasting pan pictured. I then sliced and diced one purple onion and 4 cloves of garlic, and added maybe a teaspoon of olive oil to keep it all from sticking. I roasted it at 400 degrees F for 45 minutes.

When they came out, I added cut chives, basil, and oregano – all fresh because I’d gotten packets of fresh herbs from the community garden, and that stuff doesn’t last long! I left the whole roasting pan on the stove to stay toasty while my aunt and uncle got a tour of the house, but then added the hot quinoa to the veggies to mix up together.

We had quite a feast – Husband obviously made a salad, and I whipped up guacamole to make sure that everyone had a hearty enough meal. Afterwards was a gluten-free banana bread that I was pleased with, even though it was drier than I expected; I’ll post about it at some point. But sitting around the table, passing dishes and eating off placemats made me realize how much I missed that. When we’ve had our dinner parties, there have been too many people to sit down to table together, and that makes me think the next dinner “party” will just be, perhaps, 4 other folks. Last night was a less boisterous evening, but I think that the niceness of sharing the bounty of the garden and the chat that we all had about plants and electronic circuits and family history made me miss a regular sit-down dinner with family.

French Toast: How to make white bread exciting again.

As I’ve mentioned before, Husband and I work at a food pantry. We were leaving the other week and the leader of the pantry, L, came up to us and said “We defrosted these loaves of bread, can you take them? We don’t want them to go to waste!” I dislike food waste, but I also don’t eat a lot of plain, white sandwich bread. We took it home, but I worried we’d let it languish without consuming it ourselves.

On Saturday, though,  I decided to whip up one of my breakfast favorites that I rarely make when there’s no bread in the house. I mixed about a cup of whole milk, three eggs, two tablespoons of brown sugar, and a dash of vanilla and cinnamon with a whisk, then dipped slices of bread into the mix and fried them on a griddle with butter on it. I left the first pieces soaking too long, so they fell apart, but after that, I dipped slices in quickly and fried them, adding extra cinnamon if one side looked particularly sparse. Whereas Egg in a Basket is savory, this was a tasty, sweet twist.

Husband prefers his french toast with honey and I preferred mine with butter and jam. We made about half a loaf of bread’s worth, and the leftovers kept in the fridge and were nice to reheat and eat the following morning.

I remember that there was a little hippie restaurant near where I went to college that, for special occasions, would be where my friends and I would get breakfast. Their best dish, in my opinion, was french toast layered with sweetened cream cheese and strawberry preserves, usually served with a side of home fries just to vary up the textures and flavors. It makes you feel well-fed to eat something with such heart, but still full of sweetness. I might be able to use up those extra loaves of bread yet. 🙂

A Day of Plenty: Harvesting Squash and Tomatoes

Husband has been pushing patience at me, because online I read that for butternut squash to be ready to harvest, you have to wait until the stem had died a little; that’s the only time when it’s truly done with nutrients. He said to wait to harvest ours until that ripeness level.

However… they’ve been that creamy orange color that indicates ripeness for more than a week now! I harvested our first two, one that weighed 2 pounds and one that topped out at almost 5, and I set about preparing the first for roasting. As soon as I cut into it, a sweet smell and a bunch of water came out – it was the juiciest butternut squash ever! I was quite sticky-fingered by the time I finished cleaning it out, cutting it up and getting it into the oven, but so happy. And glad that, this time anyway, my haste was alright. I’ll wait longer for the other, because it will take me a while to process the 5 pound squash.

Also, our tomato jungle is so dense that it’s hard to reach the back rows, which are up against the neighbor’s fence. Yesterday, I braved the spiders and the mosquitos to get in and get all the hard-t0-reach tomatoes, yielding me about 25 cherry tomatoes and 15 of the San Marzanos. I’ve found that my friends J, S, and B love cherry tomatoes so I’m not freezing any more of those, but for now, my plan is to keep freezing San Marzanos until I have enough pounds to merit a day of canning. I know I don’t need to try canning, but I think it’ll be fun. I’ll bug a friend or two to help me, and we’ll make sure we have the tools we need, and everyone will go home with jars of tomato sauce (simple sauce, with plenty of lemon juice to keep it acidified against botulism!). I’m rather excited.

Finally, I had given up entirely on our pepper plants, but two lovely things happened: the only pepper plant I knew of now has 3 teeny tiny peppers on it, so I’m hoping for lots of sun and rain to get those swelled up and beautiful, and there are at least another 10 flowers that I can dream about turning into bell peppers. Also, I noticed a very small plant with the same kind of leaves as the pepper, which I hope means we’ve got another, late-bloomer pepper emerging. Last year, Husband moved into the house in September and was pulling peppers into early October, so I am hopeful that we’ll have a long, luxurious harvest. It’s not orderly and perfect, but just dragging in the bowl of tomatoes every day gives me more joy than I ever thought raising a little bit of food could.

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Fillo Dough Days: Chocolate fillo pastry!

So, a delightful blogger sent me this beautiful recipe, which is simple, elegant, and by all accounts perfect. She said her husband, who doesn’t even like desserts, liked this one. So what did I do? I took some similar component parts and cooked something… weird.

I have a talent for baklava, so I got overconfident and thought “I’ll make a chocolate treat out of flat sheets of fillo dough!” Note to self forever: if the recipe calls for little fillo cups, use those! It’s a tart, not a flat dish.

So I mixed up a similar mixture to the one in her recipe (I used coconut milk, which maybe was my downfall? I’m still unsure). What came out was not firm like the pretty mousse she created, but instead a semi-viscous liquid… it tasted great, but it would not hold up like a normal pudding.

Undaunted, I used the mixture and butter and huge sheets of fillo dough and constructed a… something. I cooked it (not part of her recipe, but definitely a must for my thin gooey sheets of dough), and in the end, I had something chewy on the edges and soft in the middle. It was definitely chocolate-flavored, and like the spanakopita I made recently, the middle sheets of dough became somewhat like pasta, which gave the whole thing a bit more body than it had otherwise. I have no idea what to compare it to besides jello, but it was like very thin, chocolate flavored jello.

All this to say: don’t try to mess with desserts! They are so much more calibrated than, like, a recipe for stir-fry. Instead, I recommend you follow this recipe to the letter, and enjoy the adorable little fillo cups she created. They look like they’d be epic for a party, bite-sized!