Grateful Heart

Hi there, friends!  It has been some time since I posted to this blog.  I would say that I lost my steam over the summer, but it would be more accurate to say that the steam was directed elsewhere.  This is a blog about food, but this summer my energy went into making food.  And I don’t just mean cooking it.  Take a look.
IMG_0876

Petunias are not food.  Not that I’m aware of, anyway, but they were beautiful and colorful and they thrive in the heat.  So, while they’re not edible, they are a summer staple.  Side note: I have recently discovered edible flowers at my local grocery store.  Any tips on using them?

Now to the food.  I had a modest but productive balcony garden this summer.  I tried my hand at growing herbs again, with much more success, although it turns out cilantro is a wild and unpredictable beast.  Meals were incredible this summer, full of fresh thyme, rosemary, and basil, basil, basil.  I’m sad to report that after moving inside, my little potted herb garden died, but over the summer it was in full force.  I also grew cucumbers, a project that probably cost less than buying them at the grocery store.  They were not as large, but they were delicious and refreshing.
IMG_0879

Can you imagine how amazed and delighted I was to find this in the garden that I grew myself?  I squealed like a child on Christmas when I discovered the first tiny cucumbers growing and then again, louder, when I found this hidden under its big leaves.
IMG_0819

Not bad for a pack of seeds, some dirt, water, and sunshine. And love.  Lots of love.

Also bees.  (Save the bees – plant a garden.)

IMG_7336

And they were oh so refreshing! Cucumber water is one of my favorite summer beverages, hydrating and more cooling than anything else I’ve tried.
IMG_0860

I used my cucumbers mainly in salads and for fancy water, but the herbs did much more work, small and delicate though they are.  I’ve cooked dishes without salt and pepper because the herbs were that good.  I am partial to basil, especially since it grows like a weed, and two of my favorite uses were on pizzas, both regular and eggplant.
IMG_0790
IMG_7345

 

 

 

In addition to planting things, I also learned more about regrowing kitchen scraps, one of my favorite things.  I’ve saved and regrown green onions before – talk about something that grows like a weed!  Below, I give you the results of saving and watering the base of a celery heart.  Yes, celery is inexpensive, but it’s the principle of the thing.  In this small way, my kitchen is self-sustaining.

IMG_0767
None of this was difficult to do.  It was fun, therapeutic, as they say, and I can’t tell you how good it feels to go outside to gather some of your ingredients for dinner.  After nurturing your plants, hoping and praying they make it, and finally bringing them into the kitchen, you can feel nothing but the most profound gratitude.  Toward the end of the summer, a gardener told me you can grow virtually anything in a pot on a balcony.  Look out, summer 2016! 

The Friday Salad

Two Fridays ago, while visiting Steve’s family, I had lunch at The Backyard in Milton, DE.  I’ve been there a few times before and enjoyed such treats as cauliflower steak and avocado fries (yes, you read that right), but this last time took the cake.  I knew I wanted to try and stay gluten-free (always a challenge at restaurants), and that quickly cut down on a lot of options.  Mostly I’m choosing from salads these days, but when there’s something like a black bean mango salad on the menu, I’m not complaining.  This was the mother of all salads.  It started with quinoa, included a somewhat spicy tomato and pepper salsa, black beans, barbecued chicken, and mango.  And in case that’s not enough, it came with a side of spicy ranch dressing.  So, creamy dressing and your feelings on meat aside, this is a pretty healthy meal.  As soon as I finished it, I knew I’d be making it myself soon.

Exactly one week later, I set out to recreate this little delight.  It actually doesn’t cost too much to make; the most expensive ingredients are the quinoa and the chicken, and you’ll have leftovers of those for other meals.  I always keep black beans in the cupboard, and I usually have some version of the Rotel tomatoes and chilies on hand too.  I’ve been working my way through a bag of quinoa for some time, and this was a great way to finish that up.  So when I started this, I needed mangoes, chicken, barbecue sauce, and ranch dressing.

IMG_0668

The beginning of something great.

Here’s what I did: I started the chicken and quinoa first.  The chicken needs to be absolutely slathered in barbecue sauce and baked at 350 (flipped once halfway through) for about 35 minutes.  After that, I turned the broiler on for about 5-7 minutes, flipping it halfway through that as well.  I wanted a really good coating of sauce on these because I’d be slicing them later on.  While that was baking, I cooked the quinoa in vegetable stock – that takes a total of about 25-30 minutes.

Meanwhile, I combined the black beans and Rotel in a saucepan with a little bit of diced red onion to punch it up.  I cooked this over low heat really just to combine the flavors.
IMG_0670

Once everything was cooking, I sliced up two mangoes and waited for everything else to finish up.  I did let the quinoa and the black bean mix sit and cool off for a few minutes, and I let the chicken rest for just a few minutes as well.  I didn’t necessarily want anything to be piping hot – it is a salad, after all.

And then it was just a matter of plating – my favorite part!  The only thing you can’t see here is the quinoa, but it’s hiding under there.

IMG_0681
I have to say, this was one of the most delicious meals I’ve ever made.  I enjoyed it, Steve enjoyed it, and I will absolutely be making this again (Friday, perhaps?)!  I topped mine with some ranch dressing – not the healthiest, I know, but it balances the spicy flavors so well.

IMG_0686

Now is that a summer meal or what?

Mango Black Bean Salads

Ingredients

2 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

2 ripe mangoes, sliced

1 cup quinoa

1 can Rotel diced tomatoes and green chilies

1 can black beans

8-10 ounces barbecue sauce

Ranch dressing

Optional: 1/4 red onion, diced

 

1. Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees

2. Place chicken breasts in glass baking dish; cover and toss with barbecue sauce

3. Bake for 30-35 minutes, flipping halfway through

4. While chicken bakes, cook quinoa according to package directions (typically, boil in vegetable stock 12-15 minutes and let sit until liquid absorbs).  Let cool.

5. In a saucepan, combine black beans, Rotel, and red onion (if using).  Cook over low heat for 8-10 minutes stirring regularly.  Let cool.

6. When chicken is cooked through, turn on broiler and broil for 5-7 minutes, flipping halfway through.

7. Once chicken is finished, let sit for a few minutes, then slice.

8. In each serving bowl, combine one large spoonful of quinoa and one of bean mix; arrange chicken and mango on top and top with Ranch dressing

 

Enjoy!

The Milton Market

Last weekend – well, more like almost three weekends ago now, actually (where have I been?!) – Steve and I (along with the rest of the D.C. population) went up and over to Delaware to visit his family for Memorial Day weekend.  Since we left early-ish on Friday, we made it just in time for this:

photo-3

Steve’s friend Rory, whose family owns Kemp’s Liquors in their hometown of Milton, DE, had a booth set up offering wine and beer tastings.  After tasting a couple of reds, I was off to explore the rest of the market.  There were plenty of booths selling fresh produce and meats, but I was especially excited about the lavender and soap booths!

photo

After walking a couple of laps, I figured out what to buy, although it wasn’t easy!  I couldn’t buy any wine at the market (although I could taste it – silly laws), so I ended up with these wholesome goodies instead:

photo-5

Fresh strawberries, lavender soap, and homemade applesauce!  Does spring get any better?  The strawberries were perfect, the applesauce was delicious and included a story about how the recipe has been passed down through the maker’s family, and along with the lavender soap, I picked up some fliers with suggestions on how to use culinary lavender!

When we were on the way back home, we did stop at the store and get a bottle of the wine I liked, an Old Vine Zinfandel.  We had a couple friends over for dinner a few nights ago, and this was a big hit!

photo copy

You know I’m a huge fan of farmers’ markets, and this one didn’t disappoint.  I really want to make it a regular thing this spring and summer – what could be better than fresh, local food and supporting your local farms and businesses?

photo-4

 

I hope everyone had a wonderful holiday and that summer’s off to a great start!

Sweet!

A big part of healthy eating is cooking for yourself. You know what’s going into your food, you can control what’s going into your food, and let’s face it: when you have to put in a little effort, you’re less likely to over-indulge. Although last night it was hard not to over-indulge on what I cooked.

I’ve always loved sweet potato fries – I mean, who doesn’t? Anyone? Didn’t think so. But the only times I’ve had them were in restaurants or from the frozen section of the grocery store. Last week, I tried out a black bean burger recipe that has a little bit of cooked sweet potato in it, so when I made them again tonight, I thought the fries would be the perfect side.

I read a few recipes online, but in the end I went my own way. The big decision in making fries is how to season them. After smelling every spice in my cabinet, I landed on these:

IMG_4949

I had never even opened the ground cloves! It kind of makes me wonder why I bought them. At any rate, from what I’d read online, I knew I needed olive oil, salt, and sugar. As far the rest, I think I landed on a pretty good combination. The cloves and nutmeg gave just enough kick to balance out the sweet.

IMG_4952
 

After tossing everything together in a bowl, I spread the wedges onto a baking sheet and put them into a preheated 450-degree oven for about 15 minutes, then tossed them around and flipped them over.  Then they cooked for another ten minutes.
IMG_4961

 

 

I’ll be honest, at first I thought they were burnt, but it was just the spices.  They were perfect!  A little crispy on the outside and oh-so-sweet on the inside.

 
 

You might disagree, but I think these fries would be good even after they got cold! I was so happy with how they turned out. This was definitely a spur-of-the-moment dinner decision, but it’s one that I’ll be making again!

IMG_4969

The black bean burgers are Tosca Reno’s recipe, of course (I do love her), and the fries were the perfect complement. This was the perfect summer dinner. I know it’s not summer yet, but I’m a teacher, so it’s actually been summer for three weeks.
IMG_4976

Till next time! ❤

Le Pain Best Friend

So get this. A couple of weeks ago, I was waiting around for my best friend Naseem to FaceTime me from Vanuatu, where she’s been a Peace Corps volunteer for the past year. All of a sudden there’s a knock on my door, and who should it be but Naseem?!! I was totally shocked! She’s home for a short break and conspired with my mom and my boyfriend to surprise me. Naturally, we had to go shop. And eat.

photo

We headed up to wonderland, aka Tysons Corner, and decided to forgo Panera and such for a  little place called Le Pain Quotidien (“The Daily Bread”). You go through Bloomingdale’s to get there, and we were delighted to find that the entrance was just through the shoe boutique.

I decided to order something a little fancier than a soda for this meal – when in France, you know?!

photo-1

This is a mint lemonade.  But, like, with ACTUAL MINT.  No artificial flavors here, no sir!  I must say – it was divine!  Lemons and mint are summery and refreshing on their own.  Together – magic!   It makes me want to replant some mint (since the basil is the only thing that survived my apartment gardening venture).

photo-2

And now for the main event: Parisian Ham and Gruyere.  An open-faced sandwich with fresh greens, olives, adorable little pickles, three kinds of mustard (sweet to spicy!), radishes, cucumbers, and a perfectly cut slice of cantaloupe.  And it was served on a cutting board!  It was all absolutely delicious.  I’m not normally a fan of pickles or olives, but these were flavorful without being overbearing.

The whole experience of the restaurant was great – a relaxing environment, great service, and great, unique food!  But the most memorable detail of the experience had to be the postcards.  There were postcards throughout the restaurant with simple French recipes on them that you could mail (for free!) in the restaurant’s very own post office box.  Food + letters = my new favorite place.

photo-3

The day was absolutely wonderful – but how could a surprise visit from your best friend who is supposed to be on the other side of the world not be?!  We got into a little Vera Bradley shopping afterward, and then had dinner with Steve at Firebirds.  Le Pain Quotidien was a great start to the day – a perfect spot to lunch.  I strongly recommend trying it out if you have one nearby – a delightful experience all around!

Before I sign off for the night, I have to share another fun surprise – look what Steve got me as part of my birthday present:

photo-4

Present perfection!  I love Michael Pollan, and with my new love of cooking, this is the perfect time for this book.  Has anyone read him?  Anyone read this?  He was a pretty strong influence in my choice to start trying to eat clean.  Let me know what you think if you’ve read this – or tried Le Pain Quotidien!

Till next time!

Pretty Little Pizzas

As you read in my last post, I’ve been a little off track with this healthy eating thing lately.  But sitting here now, sipping on a peach and honey smoothie and looking back over the last few days, I think I’m making my way back.  Last night, I was craving pizza, but rather than call up Papa John, I decided to take matters into my own kitchen.

Enter the homemade pita naan pizza.

IMG_3904

I’ve never used naan before and have probably only eaten it a handful of times.  But I can tell you this: it makes for a truly tasty pizza.  I cheated a little on this recipe by using a jar of marinara sauce – oh, the horror! – but I dressed it up with some fresh diced heirloom tomatoes.  Heirloom tomatoes, have I told you lately that I love you?

Naan, fresh basil, grated mozzarella, marinara sauce, heirloom tomato

Naan, fresh basil, grated mozzarella, marinara sauce, heirloom tomato

 

These are so tasty and so easy to make.  You turn on your broiler and while that’s heating up, spread the sauce on your naan, top with some of the diced tomatoes, and cover with cheese and any other toppings you like.  Steve added mushrooms, while I stuck with basil.  Once the broiler is hot, these go in the oven on cookie sheets for five minutes.

IMG_3897  IMG_3905

 

 

 

 

And just how did I get the basil to stay so green and pretty?  I actually didn’t put it in the oven!  I’ve made eggplant parmigiana with fresh basil before, and while it still tastes good cooked, it turns brown and isn’t as pretty.  But cooked or not, the stuff is delicious!  I used some of my little basil plant that’s been hanging out in my kitchen all summer in a Mason jar.  It feels so good to use fresh ingredients when I can!

IMG_3890

Gorgeous, isn’t it?

 

These little pizzas are fun to make, easy to make, QUICK to make, and so yummy.

Naan, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship!

It Ain’t Easy Being Green

The past few weeks have not been good.  I have had soda, fried foods, fast foods, and followed no eating schedule at all.  In other words, I haven’t been eating clean.  I’ve been doing this to be healthy, but I’ve also been trying to lose a little weight along the way as well.  It was actually starting to work, too, but now I’m just sort of stuck.  I’ve figured out that, for me at least, there are a few things that have gotten in my way:

Time  There are a couple of facets to this.  First of all, if I have a busy day, I don’t have time to stop and cook meals.  There’s prep work, cooking itself, cleaning, and eating.  If I have an hour to eat lunch, by the time I do all of that, I have five minutes to eat.  I know there are quick meals, but that’s where the second part of this comes in: laziness.  That’s right, I said it.  When I’m hungry, I want to eat right away.  That means a trip down the street to Chick-fil-A is much easier and faster than cooking a meal.  The trick to avoiding this is planning in advance, I know.  That can be difficult too.

Travel  It’s one thing to pack healthy snacks in a cooler (which I still haven’t done), but what do you do about meals?  I know that it’s possible to eat clean-ish things in restaurants, but if you live where I do, most of your “right off the highway” options are fast food and other greasy things.  And isn’t that part of the fun of a road trip anyway?  There are times when I could have packed healthy snacks, but I chose to get a soda and have a horribly unhealthy snack anyway.

Parties  Oh, the summer cookout.  Burgers, hot dogs, chicken, mayonnaise-filled dishes… you get the idea.  At a party, there are virtually no healthy options unless you hover around the vegetable tray.  The whole point of a party is to eat the junk, right?  And sometimes it’s fine to indulge, but in party season, whether it be summer or Christmas, the parties and the junk abound.

I’m not trying to make excuses.  This is just what’s been happening.  I always start my day really well with a healthy breakfast, but it’s been going downhill from there.  When I first started this eat clean diet lifestyle, I went 100% in and lost three pounds in a week.  But then life things got in the way, and it became difficult to stick with all the time.  I keep thinking about “starting over” all the time, which I guess is pretty typical with diets, but I was hoping that eating clean would be different.  Well, all I can do is keep thinking about going forward – onward and upward, right?  I’ll get there eventually.  I hope.