Zucchini Melt

Zucchini grows GIGANTIC overnight–or so it seems!

Every couple of days I discover 2-3 more oversized squash in our garden that I swear were nowhere in sight in the days prior. I can’t keep up with the produce coming in, and the pile on the kitchen counter keeps expanding…ahhhhh!

This forces me to find creative methods of cooking it; otherwise, we quickly grow bored with the standard steamed zucchini.

Part of my repertoire includes hubby’s favorite dish, designed by his mother in his childhood: Zucchini Melt–at least that is what we have dubbed the dish.

Basically, this involves a halved zucchini sprinkled with a few herbs and topped with mozzarella, which is then baked until the cheese melts and browns.

Hubby absolutely LOVES this creation. It offers variety of flavors and textures as opposed to the bland squishiness of the overly-steamed method.

So, start off with a GIANT zucchini.

Lop off the ends. Slice it in half lengthwise. Now make diagonal slits one way, then the other; this will allow you to access the inside of the veggie so you can get the herbs and flavors in there.

Spread the zucchini and sprinkle with dill (fresh or dried), garlic powder, and pepper. I added dill to the original creation, and it adds a strong yet subtle flavor with its grassy, lemony zing that works well with the low-key, almost bland taste of the zucchini.

I then sprinkle parmesan cheese for the tangy punch it adds.

Finally, layer slices of mozzarella in thickness to suit your taste.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 30-40 minutes, until the zucchini feels tender when poked with a knife or fork and the cheese melts and turns brown.

We often make a complete meal out of this due to the GIGANTIC portions.

Because the mozzarella rests atop the zucchini, it does tend to slide off when cut into. Another option would include grating the cheese and pushing it into the crevices made by the diagonal cuts.

SOURCE: Hubby’s mom, a.k.a. Verno :  )

My other posts involving zucchini (well, only one other for now…but more coming up in the next few weeks with all the garden produce!):

Zucchini Fries

Spinach and Egg Strata

When the alarm screams at 5:00 a.m. each morning to rattle me awake me for a day of teaching, I usually concoct a quick smoothie for breakfast that I slurp on the drive to work, for I need each precious minute to grade assignments and plan lessons rather than take time to make fancy fare.

The weekends are a totally different routine, though. Time is a gift on weekends, and I peruse the array of collected recipes, ready to experiment.

One of my more successful trials was the Spinach and Egg Strata (according to cookthink.com, a strata is a like a bread pudding casserole made with eggs, cheese, and stale cubed bread). For this particular recipe, I had all the ingredients on hand, and it was an easy solution to using up some of the leftover bread that tends to collect in the back of the fridge, like the last unused hamburger bun or the end pieces of sliced bread that neither hubby nor I like. From now on, I think I will freeze all those extra bits of bread and use them for stratas.

I didn’t let the ingredients meld overnight as per recipe; nonetheless, the savory flavors of the herbs and cheeses as well as the fresh taste of spinach and basil shined through. I used individual 6-inch ramekins, which produced a hearty portion. Smaller ramekins would probably create more manageable amounts for one person, though.

Sidenote: The original recipe calls for two 4-inch ramekins and states the recipe makes two. However, I used two 6-inch ramekins and still had leftover bread mixture, which I used to bake one more strata the following day. So I would say this makes three 6-inch ramekins or probably four 4-inch ramekins.

I used multigrain sandwich bread which added a nutty flavor and texture. I also added fresh basil leaves which brightened the overall dish. And I used fresh spinach from our garden.

Overall, this recipe calls for just a handful of ingredients yet it packs a punch in terms of savory herb flavorings and a tangy cheese kick all hidden within the folds of a french-toast like texture from the mix of bread and eggs. “Yum” sums up this Spinach and Egg Strata, and it now ranks tops in my weekend breakfast fare.

Spinach and Egg Strata

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INGREDIENTS

  • 4 pieces of bread
  • 2 handfuls of spinach
  • 4 large leaves of basil (not part of original recipe)
  • 4 eggs
  • 1 1 /2 cups milk (I used whole milk)
  • 2 tsp. garlic
  • 1 tsp. fresh oregano (I used 1/2 tsp. dried oregano)
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese (I used cheddar cheese)
  • sprinkle of parmesan cheese (not part of original recipe)

DIRECTIONS

  1. The night before, tear up and mix bread, spinach, and basil. Place in two 4-inch ramekins.
  2. Whisk together eggs, milk, garlic, oregano, pepper, and salt. Pour over bread mixture. Top with mozzarella cheese, sprinkle with parmesan, and cover with plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator and let sit overnight.
  3. In the morning, preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Remove plastic wrap and cover each ramekin with aluminum foil. Place ramekins on a sheet tray and bake for 20 minutes.
  4. After 20 minutes, remove foil and continue to bake for another 15-20 minutes or until egg mixture has set and casserole has puffed (my puffed casserole caved slightly after a few minutes). Serve warm.

SOURCE: slightly adapted from Naturally Ella

Graduation Cap Sugar Cookies & Several Links for Recipes, Cookie Cutters, and Vanilla Beans

Last week, my best friend of 36 years called and asked, “WIll you make cookies for Dani’s graduation party?”

“Of course!” I shouted as my mind raced with ideas. The problem was certainly not making cookies; it was limiting myself on making too many varieties. With excitement I perused my lengthy list of options.

First choice: Lemon and Vanilla Bean sugar cookies–in the shape of graduation caps in the school’s colors. I’m happy with the outcome. I was pleased to hear guests think they were ordered from a bakery, and even more pleased to hear from others that they tasted even better than the sugar cookies from a popular local bakery. Success!

Cookie Recipes and Decorating Tutorials

If you are interested in sugar cookie recipes and how to decorate, check out my recent blog post with several links. It’s really quite fun to use the royal icing, but the entire process does take a chunk of time (like a couple of days) due to dough mixing and chilling, baking, cooling, and the various decorating steps.

Cookie Cutters

To find a variety of cookies cutters, I’ve compiled the resources I’ve discovered thus far:

    • For those local to the South Bay area, try Cookin’ Stuff in Torrance, CA
    • For those in the Orange County area, try Classic Cake Decorations in Garden Grove, CA
    • Sur La Table has a huge selection and they have stores all over the country
    • For those who prefer online shopping, try The Cookie Cutter Shop. I particularly like this site because as you click on most cutters, the page includes completed cookies to show you how to decorate them–a highly useful feature, indeed.

Vanilla Beans

As mentioned, I used the Lemon and Vanilla Bean recipe, which tastes light and fresh. Vanilla beans can be quite expensive at the market, though. I’ve found them at Costco, during the holidays, for a reasonable price. Since then, I’ve ordered from amazon.com. I’ve also discovered Beanilla but haven’t used this company yet; it looks well-stocked and prices seem reasonable. I found Beanilla via an informative blog post from Vanilla Garlic about the differences and uses of the various types of vanilla beans (I had no idea there were so many kinds out there!).

There you have it–a list of my favorite resources from my research and running around town. If you don’t have the time or energy for decorating, at least try the cookie recipe some day, but it is addictive if you like the taste of lemon. One of these days, I’m going to swap the lemon flavoring for orange…and maybe even lime…

Herb-Roasted Whole Chicken

I would think roasting a whole chicken wouldn’t be so difficult. Just season it a bit, pop the bird in the oven, and a while later you have a crispy, browned chicken.

Nope. Gotta roast it long enough, first of all, so it’s cooked all the way through;  otherwise, you risk food poisoning (major yuck!).

Then you run the risk of over-roasting and having meat that is tough and chewy rather than tender and moist.

Of course, flavoring matters, too. I prefer a savory blend of light herbs, something aromatic and mouth-watering.

Well, I’ve tried several recipes with a variety of issues: herbs overpower the chicken; underuse of herbs produces bland chicken; too garlicky; too heavy with rosemary; too lemony…

And let’s not even talk about cutting that bird with any degree of expertise. I’m more like a hacker even though I’ve studied numerous videos and graphics of how to properly and easily cut up a chicken. Just not working for me…yet.

I think I have a whole new appreciation of my mom and how she has mastered the chicken over the years: always cooked moist and tender, seasoned with hints of lemon that tantalize the taste buds, and crispy, brown skin. Oh, and she has no problems carving.

Now it’s my turn to work toward mastery, and I’ve made a major step with this recipe. The seasonings are the one: sage, rosemary, and thyme–gotta be fresh herbs, though, for maximum impact. Also garlic, lemon, and onion shoved into the bird’s cavity provide an additional aromatic flavoring from the inside.

And that’s about all there is to this recipe. Overall, it’s a definite keeper, a 5-star winner. Simplicity turned elegance.

Herb-Roasted Whole Chicken

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INGREDIENTS

  • 3-4 lb. whole chicken
  • 2-3 tbsp. canola oil
  • 1-2 tbsp. total of chopped fresh herbs: sage, rosemary, thyme
  • 1 tbsp. kosher salt (if you use table salt,
  • 1 tsp. pepper
  • one small lemon
  • one small onion (I like white, but any type will suffice)
  • 3-6 cloves of garlic, depending on how much you like garlic

DIRECTIONS

  1. Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.
  2. Remove the neck and giblets from the bird’s inner cavity. Rinse the chicken inside and out under cold running water. Remove any excess fat and leftover pinfeathers. Pat chicken dry with clean cloth or paper towel to ensure a crispy skin while roasting.
  3. Pick herbs from their stems, then give them a fine chopping. Mix with salt and pepper; add canola oil and mix.
  4. Quarter the lemon and onion; peel the garlic cloves (probably would work to just smash them and leave unpeeled, too), then fill the cavity of the bird with these aromatics (remember to pull out the neck and gizzards, first, and rinse the cavity in cold water).
  5. Rub the entire outer chicken with the herb mixture. You can also gently loosen the skin over the breast and thigh on each side and rub some herb mixture in there, too.
  6. Place chicken breast side up (legs sticking up) in 450 degrees F oven and roast for 1 hour to 1 hour and 15 minutes. Chicken is done when instant-read thermometer inserted into thickest part of the breast registers 160 degrees F or when juices run clear when you cut between a leg and thigh (cloudy, bloody juice = not done yet).
  7. Remove from oven, cover loosely with foil, and let rest for 10-15 minutes before carving (resting chicken allows juices which have concentrated to middle of chicken during cooking to re-disperse, thereby creating juicy, tender meat)

SOURCE: adapted from The Pioneer Woman Cooks

How to carve a chicken (use an 8 or 9-inch carving knife; larger knives are harder to manipulate around the bones):

Ice-Cream Sunday: Slow-Roasted Balsamic Strawberries & Banana Sorbet

Sigh. I did it again: forgot to eat the bananas before they reached ruination.

At this point, I usually chop ‘em up and toss ‘em in the freezer for smoothies, whip up a loaf of banana bread, or bake a pan of muffins.

Recently, though, I stumbled upon a blog showcasing strawberry and banana ice cream. Up to this point, visions of using the beloved slow-roasted balsamic strawberries for ice cream had crossed my mind. Why not attempt it with the mushy bananas sitting on the counter?

Thus a star was born (sorry for the cliché, but it fits).

Instead of a lightness from using just natural berries, the slow-roasted flavor concentrates the organic sweetness, producing a richer, deeper flavor. Paired with the natural sweetness of the bananas, the duo delightfully dance across the taste buds.

Consider me smitten.

If you don’t have an ice-cream maker, you can still make ice cream at home. Check out how on Brown-Eyed Baker’s site. Or, like me, purchase the Cuisinart Ice-Cream Maker at Costco for only $29.99 (they have a coupon this month for $6 off–find it in the flyers mailed home if you have a Costco membership); it works beautifully.

Slow-Roasted Balsamic Strawberries & Banana Sorbet

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INGREDIENTS

  • 1 1/2 cups slow-roasted balsamic strawberries
  • 2 ripe bananas
  • 1/4 cup juice from slow-roasted strawberries
  • 1/2 cup cold water
  • 2 tsp. lemon juice
  • 1 tbsp. vodka (optional, but this helps the ice cream to not freeze hard as a rock)

DIRECTIONS

  1. Mix all ingredients in a blender or food processor.
  2. Chill overnight.
  3. Freeze in ice-cream maker according to manufacturer’s instructions.

SOURCE: inspired by A Full Measure of Happiness (check out her site for the original rendition)

Decorated Sugar Cookies

In my early days of attempting to bake pies and sugar cookies, the dough would stick in gooey clumps to my fingers and stubbornly adhere to the rolling surface. It didn’t take long before I gave up altogether.

Then one day my life turned in a new direction. A friend shared a link to Annie’s Eats food blog to share a sugar cookie recipe. And oh-my-God, Annie’s decorating skills made my jaw drop. This gal outdoes her talent every time she decorates a batch of cookies; just check out her butterfly designs –stunning! And her other works of art: Easter, snowflakes, Halloween, wedding, baby….

I yearn to decorate sugar cookies like Annie. I’m not there yet but am making progress. And having fun. And experimenting.

Annie provides tutorials (listed below) for decorating the cookies with royal icing. It’s like using a liquid sugar pencil to create masterpieces that pop off the cookie and cause people to say, “Your cookies look professional.”

My first foray into decorated sugar cookies worked. Meaning the dough rolled out smoothly and easily lifted from the counter–due to the malleable dough, to a generously floured work surface, and to a very thin spatula used to lift cutouts.

For Thanksgiving, I entered the arena of sugar cookies with simplicity, decorating with a star design and using only white so I could experience this royal icing technique. It worked!

For Christmas, I ventured into holiday trees, gingerbread men, and stockings. I added a few more colors and got better at drawing with the liquid sugar.

These flowers are my third attempt at decorating sugar cookies and although they are not stunning like some of the designs I’ve seen, I’m pleased enough to finally post a picture of my artwork.

Rather than recreate what I’ve seen posted, check out the following links for recipes and tutorials:

Bean & Veggie Soup–Quick and Easy

Scratchy throat + runny nose + pounding head = miserable way to end the school year, especially during finals week when I had about 165 essays to read!

Driving home, all I could envision was a piping hot bowl of soup–any kind of soup would do, as long as I had a bowl of nutritious goods to heal my aching body and get me through grading finals. And something that I could quickly whip up (other than soup from a can).

Luckily, I had chopped up onion and diced chile leftover in the fridge, along with a bit of chicken. I then enlisted hubby’s help to chop up carrots, celery, and zucchini while I opened and rinsed cans of various beans found in the pantry. After tossing in a few spices (I just used the same spice ratios as the Chicken Tortilla Soup recipe we love), we had a robust, healthy pot of soup ready in minutes.

BEAN & VEGGIE SOUP

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INGREDIENTS

  • 1/3 cup chopped onion
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced (or 1 tsp. garlic powder)
  • 3/4 tsp. ground cumin
  • 3/4 tsp. dried oregano
  • 1/4 tsp. chili powder
  • 1/2 tsp. pepper
  • 6 cups chicken broth
  • 1 (14-oz) can diced tomatoes
  • 1 (4-oz) can diced green chiles
  • 2 diced carrots
  • 2 celery sticks, diced
  • 2 zucchini, diced
  • 1 can corn, drained
  • 1 can pinto beans, drained
  • 1 can kidney beans, drained
  • 1 can black beans, drained
  • 1 cup (or more) of diced, cooked chicken (cook and flavor it any way you like)

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a Dutch oven or large pot over medium heat, stir onion, garlic, cumin, oregano, chili powder, and pepper until spices are fragrant, about one minute.
  2. Add remaining ingredients to pot; bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce heat; cover and simmer until vegetables are tender, 15-20 minutes.

SOURCE: adapted from the Chicken Tortilla Soup recipe

S’mores Berries


Over the Memorial Day weekend, hubby and I spent a day with our cousins camping by the beach. Now, you can’t have a camping trip without s’mores, but my cousins taught me how to upgrade the typical s’mores simply by adding sliced strawberries in between the gooey goodness of the heated marshmallows and the melting chocolate. YUM! Strawberries and chocolate go hand-in-hand, so this elegant combo totally adds a new twist to the old s’mores. It felt like a sophisticated, grown-up version of the kid treat.

If you’ve never made a s’mores, it’s quite simple. You need graham crackers, marshmallows (and a stick for popping it on the end for roasting), and Hershey’s chocolate bars. Put chocolate pieces on one graham cracker, roast marshmallow until burned and melty and gooey, then plop it on top of chocolate and top with another graham cracker. Take a big bite and relish the ooey, gooey sweetness!

A couple of days later, my cousin sent me a picture of a S’moresana: a s’mores with banana! That got me thinking about other options. I have a box of chocolate graham crackers left over from a recipe I made last week. That might work. And I love dark chocolate, which might be another sophisticated adult s’mores option. I hated dark chocolate as a kid but have grown to love it as an adult. Funny how the taste buds grow up along with the rest of our body and mind, isn’t it? How about raspberries in there? What a new world has opened up just by switching out a single ingredient in the traditional s’mores!

If you’re like me and don’t get out camping too often, make a kitchen s’mores. Nuke the chocolate/graham cracker and roast the marshmallow using a knife or fork over the stovetop flame–works beautifully! Have a pretend campout and pig out on s’mores!!

Thank you Maryann and Scottie for the idea :  )

P.S. The layering is wrong in my pictured version. I should have placed the strawberries between the chocolate and marshmallow to prevent slippage. It was still yummy, though.