Minestrone10

Minestrone8

 

Hope everybody’s 2014 has started out to be a good one. If you are like me and most people, the new year brings the same yearly promise to get healthy, eat healthy, feel healthy, be healthy. I don’t know why we tend to let go of our sensibilities towards the end of each year, but around here we did just that. Had such a good time being bad though, and in the back of my mind I’m telling myself that there’s a good chance I’ll do the same thing next year. I hope that I reach some goals and see some changes between now and then. We’ve started towards that place and it feels good.

One of the easiest and tastiest ways to reach your nutrition goals is to eat soup. Chock full of the good stuff and so comforting on a cold day, a big pot of soup is just the ticket. There’s something therapeutic about standing in the kitchen and chopping a big pile of vegetables, choosing a few spices and flavorings, and then creating the magical potion that is – homemade soup. It’s intoxicating. It’s good for you. It tastes nothing like the stuff that comes in a can. Nothing.

The best thing? Tastes even better the second day after the flavors have had time to get to know each other. If you make a big enough pot, you can freeze a few portions and reward yourself on those days that standing in the kitchen is the last thing you want to do. Win-win.

This soup is one of those that lets you decide what goes in it. One of those recipes that you will tweak according to your own mood and desires. Want to throw in some pasta? Go for it. A few beans? Kale? Yeah. Go right ahead. The veggies cook quickly, so after you get all the chopping done, the soup comes together very fast. Don’t worry about chopping everything all same-size perfect. Let it be rustic. It tastes better that way.

In this pot of soup I added potatoes instead of pasta, because that’s what my husband asked for. Sometimes I give him a choice. He likes that. I threw in a bit of cabbage. A few white beans. Olive oil. A little butter. I also added quite a bit of flavor. I tossed in some dried thyme from my herb garden. Some oregano. Some Italian seasoning. Garlic, of course. To make it really special I added pizza seasoning. Yes, that. It’s my new go-to thing. I add it to anything Italian-y. Buy yourself the good stuff though, none of that mediocre grocery store stuff. You’ll thank me.

Make this soup just like me, or however like you like it. Either way, it will be just right. Just remember to breathe. You’ll thank me for that, too. Smells like heaven.

Note: As the soup simmers, the olive oil and butter will float on the top. Be sure and stir before serving so that the fats are distributed throughout each serving.

 

Bowl of Minestroni

 

Minestrone

2 tbsp. butter

3-4 tbsp. olive oil

1 small onion, chopped

1 green pepper, chopped

1 red pepper, chopped

1 zucchini, seeded and chopped

4 ribs of celery, sliced

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

5 carrots, chopped or sliced

1 28 oz. can whole, peeled tomatoes, chopped or pureed

5 small potatoes, peeled & sliced OR 1-2 cups cooked pasta of your choice

6 cups water

4 cups chicken broth

1/2 tsp. dried thyme, crushed

1/2 tsp. oregano, crushed

1 – 2 tsp. Italian seasoning

1 tsp. pizza seasoning

One Bay Leaf

Salt and Pepper, to taste

Sugar, 1/2 to 1 tsp. (to cut acidity of tomatoes)

Handful or 2 of shredded cabbage, optional (add to pot during last 15 minutes of cooking)

1/2 to 1 cup White beans – cannellini, Great Northern, Navy, or white kidney (canned & rinsed OR fresh cooked, added during last 15 minutes of cooking)

Handful of chopped Italian parsley (add to pot during last 15 min. of cooking)

Minestrone Veggies

Wash all vegetables. Chop. Mince garlic and set aside.

Minestroni1

Minestrone2

Place canned tomatoes in blender and pulse once. Set aside.

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Minestrone4

Melt butter in large soup pot. Add olive oil.

Add the chopped onion, celery, green and red pepper, and zucchini to pan. Cook and stir until onion is almost translucent. Make a well in the center of vegetables and add minced garlic. Cook for 30 seconds or until garlic is fragrant. Pour in the pureed tomatoes. Stir. Cover and cook for 5 minutes.

Add water and broth. Add carrots. Stir.

Add spices and seasonings to pot. Add salt, pepper, bay leaf and sugar. Stir.

Minestrone6

Bring to a boil and then lower heat to low or simmer.

Cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes then add the potatoes, if using. Cover and cook for another 30 minutes or until potatoes and carrots are tender.

If using pasta instead of potatoes, add cooked pasta after the carrots are tender.

Add bean and chopped Italian parsley. Cook and stir to heat the beans. Remove bay leaf.

Minestrone

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 Eggnog Snack Cake with Vanilla Glaze

1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened

1 1/2 cups granulated sugar

3 large eggs, room temperature

2/3 cups eggnog, room temperature

1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract

2 cups unbleached flour

1 tbsp. baking powder

1/2 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 tsp. salt

Finely grated zest from one orange

Glaze:

1 cup sifted powdered sugar

2 tbsp. water

1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees (375 degrees for high altitude). Grease and flour Bundt pan; set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt, nutmeg, and grated orange zest. Set aside.

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In the bowl of your mixer, beat the softened butter for a few seconds. Add sugar and beat until light and fluffy, 2-3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Add vanilla and beat for an additional 30 seconds.

Add the flour mixture to the creamed mixture, in three parts, alternating with the eggnog and mixing well after each addition.

Carefully pour the cake batter into the prepared pan. Spread evenly.  IMG_9591e

Bake for 35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in center of cake comes out clean. Cake should be golden. Place cake in pan on a wire cooling rack and let cool for 15 minutes. Invert cake over cooling rack and continue to cool the cake.

When cake is cool, prepare the vanilla glaze. Combine the glaze ingredients in a microwave proof container. Microwave on high for 1 minute, stirring after each 20-25 second interval. Brush glaze on cooled cake.

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Want something decadent for breakfast or brunch?

Croissant French Toast2

This French Toast casserole has it all. Sweet, flavorful, fluffy, soft, and crunchy all at the same time and oh, so good. Paired with scrambled eggs and crisp bacon, this French toast takes a boring, bland breakfast to the next level. That special something you sometimes need to pair with say, a crisp, fall Saturday morning or Sunday brunch with family  or friends.

A snap to put together and very easily transported, this might become my go-to specialty. I’m betting this recipe can be changed up a bit by the addition of various fruits and nuts.

Maybe some chopped apples for fall and cranberries at Christmas time?

Yeah, that sounds like a plan.

Croissant French Toast0

Croissant French Toast

4 croissants

3 eggs, beaten

1 cup whole milk (I used 2%)

1/4 cup plus 1 tbsp. sugar, divided

2 tbsp. orange juice

Grated zest of one orange

1 tbsp. vanilla

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

In a bowl, beat the eggs. Add milk, 1/4 cup sugar, orange juice and zest, and vanilla. Whisk until well combined.

            Butter a 8×8 baking pan or casserole dish. Tear the croissants into chunks and arrange in the buttered baking dish in a single layer. Pour the egg mixture over the croissants.

Croissant French Toast4

Using a spatula, press the croissants into the egg mixture to ensure the croissants are moistened.

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Bake, covered with foil, for 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking for another 20 minutes.

Remove from oven, sprinkle with the remaining 1 tbsp. of sugar. Return to oven and continue baking until crisp, about 5 minutes.

Croissant French Toast6

Croissant French Toast

This recipe was adapted from a Food Network magazine recipe (April 2013) that called for baking the French toast covered for the full 40 minutes, then broiling for 5 minutes after sprinkling the sugar on top. You can also broil the top to crisp, but I found that the top will burn easily. I prefer baking the French toast covered for the first half of baking, then uncovered for the second half of baking to brown and crisp the top. The sugar topping can be reduced or eliminated altogether, as the casserole is just as delicious without it.

The next time I make this, I think I’ll add a little cinnamon and nutmeg to just 1/2 tsp. sugar.

Serve with warmed maple syrup or make an orange syrup by warming 1/2 orange marmalade and 1/4 cup water in a microwave-safe container for 1-2 minutes in the microwave.

Happy Brunching!

 

Croissant French Toast8

 Croissant French Toast1

Garden Herb Salad3

Garden Herb Salad4

1/2 cup mayonnaise or sour cream

1/2 cup buttermilk

1 tbsp. each of your choice fresh herbs, such as:

curly or Italian parsley, thyme or lemon thyme, fresh-snipped chives, dill, oregano, basil

1 garlic clove, crushed then minced fine

1/4 tsp. Dijon mustard (may increase for extra bite, if desired)

1/4 tsp. onion powder

1/4 tsp. each of salt and pepper

Wash and dry herbs. Mince, snip, or chop, as desired. I prefer a fine mince in my dressing.

Place all ingredients into a mason jar or small bowl. Shake or whisk to combine.

Keep cold for up to 4 days.

Garden Herbs

Garden Herb Salad2

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Happy to finally see September arrive. Seems like this year, more than any other, I am looking for fall weather as kind of a saving grace. I have learned to dislike the summer weather here. The heat feels oppressive, the wind never ending, and I long for the blessings that fall brings, earlier and earlier each year. September still brings hot weather to the Southwest,  but hot eventually turns to warm, and warm to cool. This month also brings the promise of cooler nights and crisp mornings, making the world a much nicer place.

September also brings to me my favorite season at home, for with cooler weather, our homes come alive with color and the outdoors are renewed with a fresh season of outdoor living. As the cooler temperatures extinguish the heat of summer, the days of air-conditioned, stuffy air are slowly replaced with days offering the tickle of fall breezes, the hint of that pungent outdoor air that I love, and scents of fall cooking and baking coming from the kitchen.

Ah, what’s not to like about fall’s effect in the kitchen, all spicy and fragrant and delicious?

Pumpkin Scones3

Pumpkin Pecan Scones

Moist from the pumpkin, with just a hint of brown sugar sweetness, and topped with pecans, these scones are a good way to start the season.

3 cups flour

1/2 cup packed brown sugar

2 tsp. baking powder

1/4 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1 tsp. cinnamon

1/4 tsp. nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ginger

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

4 tbsp. cold butter, cut into small cubes

1/4 cup buttermilk

2 tsp. pure vanilla

2 large eggs, beaten

1 cup pumpkin, canned or fresh baked

1 tbsp. brown sugar, for topping

1/4 cup pecans, chopped

Milk or Cream, to brush top

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Take the butter out and cut into small cubes. Place butter back in the refrigerator to keep cold.

In a medium bowl. whisk together the buttermilk, eggs, vanilla, and pumpkin. Set aside.

In a small bowl, measure flour, brown sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and cloves. Stir with a whisk to lighten and combine. Add the cold, cubed butter to the mixture and using a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles very coarse crumbs.

Pumpkin Scones

Add the wet ingredients to the flour/butter mixture, stirring just until combined, leaving the butter wholly undisturbed. The dough will be wet and sticky.

Turn out & knead

Flour a wooden board lightly, and turn the dough out onto the board. Gather dough together and using floured hands, knead lightly 3-4 times, just enough to pull dough together.

Place dough onto a silpat or parchment-lined baking sheet and pat into a 9 inch circle. Brush the top of dough with milk or cream. Sprinkle with brown sugar and chopped pecans, pushing both into the dough lightly. Score the dough lightly with a sharp knife (do not cut all the way through).

Sprinkle w brown sugar and pecans

Score Scones

Place into preheated oven and bake for 18-24 minutes, or until golden brown.

Cool on a wire rack before serving.

Delicious served with butter, apple butter, or pumpkin butter, but moist enough to serve plain.

Pumpkin Scones2

a.k.a. Chocolate Chip and Yummy Topping Banana Bread

Speckled Banana Bread Slice

Banana bread recipes are a dime a dozen, with so many variations, but all using common ingredients. Nothing wrong with your basic banana bread – it’s comforting, simple, and delicious, but here’s one to try. Speckled with bananas AND chocolate, it’s a winner. I’m sure many banana breads are baked simply because there are a few overripe bananas laying around kitchens, which is why I baked this loaf today. I can’t tell you how many times I told myself, “I need to make banana bread with those bananas”, only to throw the bananas away a few days later, black and shriveled. I always feel a little sad, knowing I could have (and should have) gotten my act together and baked something that is essentially one of the easiest baked goods on the planet, but sometimes the days are simply too chaotic for even the simplest of recipes.

Today, a day as chaotic as any, I stopped and transformed three lovely, spotted beauties into this fragrant loaf, knowing full well that I didn’t really have the time. I just did it any way. I was in the mood and so I baked a recipe from long ago that I used to bake when my kids were small, adding a little this and that to it, for kicks. Just before I placed it in the oven to bake, I sprinkled the loaf with a little mixture of cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg, and then, for good measure, I stirred a little quick-cooking oats and almonds into a tiny bit of melted butter and pressed that into the top of the batter.

I may not get all of the stuff done that I need to, but that’s really nothing new. I will, however, be able to offer my husband a yummy slice of banana bread with his evening coffee, and I’ve already had a sample.

That’s a good thing, right?

Mmmm, so good.

Ingredients:

Banana Bread

3/4 cup sugar

1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened

1 cup (2-3 medium) bananas, mashed

1/2 cup sour cream, room temperature

2 eggs

1 tbsp. pure vanilla

2 cups unbleached flour

1 tsp. baking soda

1/2 tsp. salt

1/2 cup chocolate chips, chopped small (milk or dark, your choice)

Topping:

1 1/2 tbsp. sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

Dash of nutmeg

1 tbsp. melted butter

2 tbsp. quick-cooking oats

2 tbsp. sliced almonds

Pre-heat oven to 350○ (375○ high altitude). Grease a 9 x 5 loaf pan and flour the bottom. Set aside.

Chop the chocolate chips small, leaving some pieces finely chopped and some pieces a bit bigger (chopping the chips helps to keep the fine texture of the bread). I use a mezzaluna for this task. Miniature chips will work well too.

Mezzy Chocolate

In a mixing bowl, beat sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add mashed bananas, sour cream, eggs, and vanilla. Blend well.

In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking soda, and salt. Whisk together to blend.

Add flour mixture, a little at a time, until mixed well with wet ingredients. Pour into prepared loaf pan. Smooth top. Combine the sugar with the cinnamon and nutmeg. Sprinkle on top of batter. Melt butter. Stir in almonds and oats. Spoon on the top and center of batter and press lightly with a spoon.

Bake for 50-60 minutes, or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in center comes out mostly clean.

Note: Take a peek at the end of the 50 minutes. If the topping is getting too browned, tent a piece of aluminum foil over the top during the last few minutes. Remove foil just before the bread is done to ensure top of loaf browns evenly. Remove from oven. Let cool in pan 15 minutes. Remove from pan and let bread finish cooling on a wire rack.

Speckled Banana Bread

Speckled Banana Bread Topping

Bluebird of Happiness

Bluebird of Happiness

While I was baking this biscotti, my husband called me outside. We have been fortunate this spring to have two different bird nests to watch over, right in the middle of our yard. Western Bluebirds have built a nest in a juniper tree. The bluebirds are very beautiful and very colorful. The little ones have tender voices and it’s been so nice to listen to them as they are being fed. The nest was built in a birdhouse our son built when he was much younger, in the sixth grade. He’s twenty-five now. The birds return each spring, but we are not sure if they’re the same pair, or if we perhaps are just lucky enough to attract new bluebirds each year.

Nic's Birdhouse

We have also been watching a nest with four little bluejays, located in a very large, old pinon tree. The birds are very loud when feeding, sounding almost dinosaur-like, with their loud screeching.

Today was the day they left the nest for the first time. We were wondering how long the nest would hold them, since they’ve grown so large for the size of the nest. They didn’t really fly from the nest, they hopped, from branch to branch. They will be perfecting their wing flapping and soon be gone.

A sight to behold, these little feathered friends, all fluffy and new.

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Shaking its tail feathers.

Shaking its tail feathers.

Blessings come from unexpected places.

Very Vanilla Biscotti

Simple, with lots of vanilla flavor, because simple can be oh, so, delicious.

Besides, sometimes you feel like nuts, sometimes you don’t.

 Vanilla Biscotti

6 tbsp. unsalted butter (3/4 stick)

2/3 cup sugar

1/4 tsp salt

1 tbsp. pure vanilla extract

2 whole vanilla beans, split and scraped

1 1/2 tsp baking powder

2 large eggs, room temperature

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

  • Pre-heat oven to 350 degrees (375○ high altitude). Lightly grease a large baking sheet (18 x 13), or line with parchment or silicone baking sheets. A pan specifically for baking biscotti may also be used.
  • Measure out the sugar (3/4 cup) and place in a small bowl. Split the vanilla beans and scrape out the seeds with the tip of a small, sharp knife. Add to the measured sugar, mixing well.

Vanilla Beans

Vanilla Sugar

Vanilla Biscotti1

  • In a medium bowl, beat the butter, the vanilla sugar, salt, vanilla extract, and baking powder together until the mixture is smooth and creamy. Beat in the eggs. Batter will look curdled. On low speed, add the flour one cup at a time. Mix until smooth. The dough will be soft and sticky, but will hold its shape when dropped from a spoon. You will be able to see the vanilla beans throughout the dough.
Very Vanilla Biscotti Dough

Very Vanilla Biscotti Dough

  • Transfer the dough to the prepared baking sheet., shaping it into a rough log, about 14″ long, 2 1/2 inches wide, and 3/4″ thick.
  • Bake the dough for 25 minutes. Remove from the oven and set on a baking rack to cool for 5 to 25 minutes. Remove from pan. Slice 1/2 to 3/4 inches thick, using a sharp serrated bread knife. To make the biscotti easier to slice, use a clean plant mister filled with fresh water to lightly mist the top and sides of the dough. This will make the dough less likely to crumble when slicing. After misting, let sit for 5 more minutes, then slice, making sure to slice the biscotti evenly from top to bottom.
  • Place slices upright on baking sheet, leaving room between the slices. Bake for another 20-25 minutes, until golden brown. Remove from oven and let cool before storing in an airtight container.

 

Adapted from King Arthur Flour Cookie Companion cookbook. I prefer to scrape the split vanilla beans instead of using the entire vanilla bean. Experiment to see what you like. For those times when plain just isn’t what you are in the mood for, feel free to add in your choice of nuts or chocolate, etc. Just be sure to chop all extras on the small side to make slicing the biscotti easier.

 

Vanilla Biscotti3

 

Green Chile Chicken Tortilla Soup1

 

 

Soup Ingredients:

6 chicken breasts w/ skin

A good spice mix containing chile powder, garlic powder, cumin, onion powder, cilantro

(I used Mourad’s Moroccan Meatball & Hamburger Seasoning Blend) , enough

to season chicken breasts plus 1 tbsp. for soup (you can also mix your own using a tbsp. of each spice)

4 tbsp. olive oil, divided

1 tbsp. butter

1 medium onion, chopped

1 small green pepper, chopped

1/2 red pepper, chopped

4-6 celery ribs, cut in two and chopped

1 medium zucchini, seeded, peeled or unpeeled, chopped

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 10 oz. can Rotel Original tomatoes w/ green chile

1 cup green chile, roasted and chopped (fresh, frozen or canned)

1 carrot, grated (I used a course microplane grater)

2 32 oz. containers reduced sodium organic chicken broth

1  14 3/4 oz. can creamed corn

1/2 packet McCormick Fajita Seasoning

3 tbsp. Jiffy Corn Muffin mix, mixed in 3 tbsp. hot water

1/2 cup instant white or brown rice

2 large or 4 small russet potatoes, peeled and chopped small

Salt and Pepper, to taste

Tortilla Chips

Flour tortillas, grilled and buttered

Optional Toppings: Avocado, grated cheddar or Monterey Jack cheese, sour cream

Preheat oven to 400 F. Wash the chicken breasts and pat dry. Place in roasting pan and drizzle each with olive oil. Season well on both sides using spice mix. Bake uncovered for about 1 hour, 25 minutes or until no longer pink, but still moist.

Roast Chicken w Spices

While the chicken is baking, start the soup. Wash and dry all veggies and chop or mince as directed, keeping garlic separated from the rest.

Chop Veggies

Mince Garlic

Place 2 tbsp. olive oil and 1 tbsp. butter in large soup pot and heat on medium. Add chopped onion, green and red peppers, zucchini, and celery, and sauté, stirring often, until onion is translucent. Make a well in the middle of veggies, add minced garlic, let cook for 30 seconds, then stir into the veggies. Stir in the Rotel tomatoes and the cup of green chile. Turn heat to low and let cook for a minute or two. Stir in chicken broth. Return heat to medium, bringing to a boil, then stir in the grated carrot, seasonings (fajita seasoning and 1 tbsp. spice mix), creamed corn, rice, and potatoes. Mix the corn muffin mix w/ the hot water and stir into the soup pot. Let soup cook at a low boil for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, then turn down to simmer.

When chicken is done, remove from oven and let sit until cool enough to handle.

Remove Chicken from Bones

Remove Chicken2

Pour the drippings into a glass measure or fat separator. Deglaze the pan w/ a little water, too, scraping the pan w/ a wooden spoon. Pour all of the flavorful juices into the soup pot. Remove chicken from bones, discarding skin and bones. (At this point, you will have a hard time not feasting on the crisp, flavorful skin. A couple of bites won’t hurt, in fact, take a bite of the chicken, too – yum.) Chop and shred the chicken. Add to the soup pot.

Simmer soup for an hour or so, stirring occasionally. The potatoes will break down, thickening the soup.

To serve, crush a handful of tortilla chips into soup bowl and add the soup. The tortilla chips will soften in the hot soup. Stir and top with your choice of toppings (I love the avocado in this soup).

Serve with grilled and buttered flour tortillas.

After reading many, many recipes for Chicken Tortilla Soup, I settled on using the ingredients I liked from different recipes, adding my own ideas to make this final version. The added corn muffin mix idea came from Ree Drummond (Pioneer Woman), a great idea (thanks!), although she suggests using cornmeal.  I added the rice and the potatoes to thicken the soup and make it hearty. You can also just boil the chicken for this soup, but seasoning it and baking in the oven first gives the chicken so much flavor, I will always opt for going the extra mile.

Green Chile Chicken Bite