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The Definitive Summer Grilled Cheese Sandwich

7 Aug


Sorry for the quiet, gang. I really had no intention of taking the summer off like that. School ended and there were two business trips and the weather got hot and there were days at the pool and days out of town and playdates and work work work, and now here we are. August. I have ignored you for far too long, and I apologize and hope you’re still with me here.

I have a treat for you today, to try and make up for my inexcusable lack of yumminess lately. The first is my new obsession: garlic oil.

My kids and I wandered into World Market recently for some hazelnut coffee syrup, and this little bottle whispered to me from the shelf, next to a nearly identical big bottle. “I’m taaaaaaasty,” it said. “You’ll liiiiiiiike me.” I turned it over in my hand a few times, shrugged, and took it home to give it a whirl in my kitchen.

To say I’m addicted is a leetle understatement. This stuff is amazing. I roasted potatoes with it–brilliant. I dipped pita in it–delicious. And today, I made a grilled tomato, basil, mozzarella sandwich with it. Which rocked my world in ways that may not be legal. It was crispy and crunchy and garlicky and fresh and I am in love, my friends.

You can make your own garlic oil by simmering garlic in olive oil, but there’s a pretty good risk of contaminating it and sickening yourself. I have seen it in the grocery store with the olive oil. This bottle from World Market is divine, and I’m going back for his big brother in the next couple of weeks. Consider it endorsed.

More to come in the next few days, my loves. Thank you for reading–I’ve missed you all.

To make the world’s best sandwich, you need:

Bread. Anything you like–I used a honey wheat sandwich bread because that’s what we had.

Mozzarella cheese. I used shredded. Two half-handfuls.

Two slices of summer tomatoes.

A wee bit of basil, fresh or dried.

A sprinkle of salt or No Salt.

About a tablespoon of garlic oil.


Heat a small skillet over medium-low. Brush one side of each slice of bread with the oil. When the pan is hot, gently lay the first slice in, oil side down. Quickly top it with half the cheese, the tomato, the basil, the salt, the rest of the cheese, and the other slide of bread, this time oil side up.

Cook your beautiful lunch or dinner (or breakfast, really) until the bottom slice of bread is golden brown and delicious. Carefully flip, toast, remove to a plate. let cool for a few minutes, cut, and devour. But slowly–you’ll want to savor this one.

Easier, Healthier Oven-Cooked Bacon

24 Apr

Y’all still here? Sorry I haven’t been around. We headed out of town for spring break and then spent last week playing catch-up, and I haven’t cooked anything new in awhile. But today, I have a great tip for you!

Bacon has been the hot food for awhile, and while stovetop frying is still a delicious way to cook it up, it’s hugely greasy and very, very messy. And I for one do not enjoy splatter burns all over my hands, which is what I get frying bacon.

You probably already know you can “fry” bacon in the oven. The problem with that, of course, is that you generally end up with bacon that’s submerged in a pool of grease on the sheet pan. Not great for crisping, and, quite frankly, disgusting to contemplate.

Enter your cooling rack. Yes, the same one you use for cookies and breads and baked amazingness. Note: if you don’t have one of these, they are a true multi-tasker and make a huge difference in the kitchen–great for baking but also good for many other things. They’re like $5, and I highly recommend procuring one or two.

Here’s the trick: Line your baking sheet with foil and put your cooling rack on top of it, just like you would if you were cooling cookies on it. Spray it with olive oil or other nonstick stuff; bacon has a lot of fat, but it’s all going to run off and if you don’t spray your rack, you’re going to be scraping bacon bits off it for a good long time.

Lay your bacon on the sprayed rack and bake it at 425 degrees for about 20 minutes–start checking on it after 10, because your oven is going to cook differently than mine. When it reaches its desired done-ness and crispyness, pull it out. See how all the fat is on the baking sheet where it’s not touching your yummy bacon?

Neat, eh?

I hope you’ll try this soon. And I have an amazing recipe for you later this week–I promise!


Honey Roasted Sweet Potatoes

22 Mar

This is my favorite veggie dish of all time. Bar none. It’s sweet, it’s comforting, it’s packed with nutrients, and it’s super simple. I had a big bowl of it for lunch yesterday and I may well have another for dinner tonight. The leftovers are delicious heated up or cold, and don’t even get me started about recycling it as a breakfast dish with a poached egg on top (oh yummmmm).

You should make it, and that’s really all I have to say about it. Really–words don’t do it justice.

You need:

Sweet potatoes (about 1 per person)

Honey (1 tbsp per potato)

Olive oil (1 tbsp per potato)

Salt to taste (I use about 1/4 tsp per potato)

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Cover a baking sheet with foil and spray it with olive oil or your nonstick goodness of choice. Do not skip this step–you will be very sad when your nuggets of sweet potato deliciousness stick like cement later.

Peel your potatoes and cut them into 2-inch pieces (I half them lengthwise, then cut each half into a half lengthwise, and then cut them into slices cross-wise). Plop them into a bowl and stir them up with the oil, honey, and salt. Lay them onto your nonsticked sheet pan with their flat sides down–they’re gonna get all brown and crunchy against the pan, and you want the biggest side to do that because it is so stinkin’ delicious that your taste buds will throw their own little party right there in your mouth.

Slide your pan into the oven and let those babies roast for about 20 minutes, until their bottoms start to crunch up. Flip them over, give them another 15 minutes or so, and serve.


Toasted Oats

21 Feb

Just so you know, this isn’t much of a recipe. It’s more of a technique or an idea. But it’s well worth learning because it is so simple and you’ll find a lot of uses for it.

As part of my eating-healthier challenge, I’m trying really hard to like yogurt. It’s loaded with calcium and all kinds of good stuff, and the Greek variety has a ton of protein, which helps keep me full until lunch. It’s cold and creamy and comes in a ton of flavors, and in theory, I should like it.

Sadly, it’s a struggle. Plain yogurt does nothing for me except make me grimace. I’ve tried all the flavors and all the brands and all the varieties, and I just can’t do it. I’ve found, though, that stirring in other things helps a lot–fruit, granola, nuts. Unfortunately, my favorite is granola and that can be really calorie-dense and full of sugar despite the beautiful T.V. commercials with fit people crunching away on mountaintops.

I really like cold Swiss style oats in the morning (which is a mixture of yogurt and uncooked oats), but I’m not always good at thinking ahead far enough to mix it together so the oats soak up some of the yogurt and get soft. And if I don’t give it enough time, the oats are chewy. I don’t enjoy chewy raw oats.

This morning, I drank my coffee and smacked myself in the forehead. Because toasting the oats takes all of 10 minutes and makes them deliciously nutty tasting and wonderfully crunchy, which is the perfectly perfect thing to stir into Greek yogurt. Why didn’t I think of that sooner?

This is so super easy: You preheat your oven to 400 degrees and spray a pan with a tiny bit of olive oil. I used a 7 x 12 pan, but you can really use anything you have. Pour plain oats (rolled, not quick) into that pan and shake them out into a layer or two–you want as many individual oats touching the bottom of the pan as possible. Pop that into your preheated oven and let those oats toast in there for 10-15 minutes, giving the pan a good stir every five minutes so the oats trade places on the bottom and none of them burn.

See the difference between raw and toasted oats? The raw ones to the left are chewy. The toasted ones at the right are a gorgeous golden brown (channeling Anne Burrell–brown food tastes good!). No sugar. No preservatives. No fat. No billions of calories. Just toasty, crunchy goodness that’s perfect on vanilla yogurt with some blueberries, or whatever yumminess you like–these would also be delicious on pudding or frozen yogurt or anything else that needs a little crunch.

Toasted oats have rocked my world, y’all (or at least my breakfast table). I made up a mess of ’em and stored them in a container to use all week. So simple and easy, and such a nice thing to have around. Hope you’ll try it!

Peanut Butter-Free Blossom Cookies

13 Feb

Y’all have seen the idea on Pinterest by now: You take a peanut butter blossom cookie recipe and make it with a heart-shaped Dove chocolate for Valentine’s Day. Cute, cute, cute.

Here’s the thing, though: peanut allergies are rampant, and if you want to send these little cuties in as a surprise in your kids’ lunchboxes, as I do, they can’t rightly have peanut butter in them. At least, I won’t send them that way. I know too many kids and one of my favorite people on earth who have nut allergies, and couldn’t live with myself if a cookie put them in harm’s way.

So today, I made up a batch of sugar cookie dough. Any one will do–choose your favorite. Only instead of rolling them out to cut with cookie cutters, use your palms to roll them into balls, with about a tablespoon of dough in each ball. Don’t squeeze them, or you’ll melt the butter inside and they’ll spread in the oven. You want a gentle roll. No heat.

Bake your dough balls as directed in your sugar cookie recipe. When they come out of the oven, gently press a Dove heart (or a Hershey Kiss) into the center of each cookie, and let them cool. My Dove hearts liquified (they held their heart shape, but they got soft and gooey), so I stuck them in the fridge after a few minutes to harden back up. And I have a perfect, nut-free treat to send in with my loves for lunch tomorrow (including the one I married–nobody tell!).

Happy, save, Valentine’s Day, gang!!

Lemony Quinoa

5 Jan

I’d planned to mess around with this recipe today and post it for y’all tomorrow, but I just finished wolfing down a bowl of its deliciousness and couldn’t wait to share. If you were here (live and in person), I’d be shoving spoonfuls at your face and demanding that you try it. Because it is that good and so very healthy.

Quinoa is a grain that’s gluten-free and a pretty darned perfect source of protein, which makes it an allergy sufferer’s dream. I don’t fall into that category; I eat it because it’s super easy to cook, very versatile, and fills me up for a long time.

You can use it just like rice if you want to, but I like it as a main dish. This recipe was my lunch today. Turn it into a more substantial lunch or dinner entree with some cooked shrimp, chicken, tofu, or even smoked salmon stirred in at the end. Asparagus would also be a lovely addition, but any veggie you have in the house would probably work beautifully in this dish. That said, this would be a really good side dish alongside grilled chicken or fish.

I found the idea for this online, but the original called for raw red onions, cumin, and red pepper. And I’m sure that’s all good, but I have to talk to people in the afternoon, so raw red onion isn’t going to work for me (it’s super potent stuff), and I wanted more fresh and light than smoky this time around. I substituted cooked regular onion (you could use dried onion flakes too), swapped out the seasoning, and cooked it in broth instead of water to give it a little more flavor.

You’ll see lemon juice in this recipe. If you like lemon–like, really like it–go ahead and zest your fruit, and stir the zest in at the end. It’s really lemony that way. I happen to like lemony, but you might want to give this a try without that step the first time around and see if you think you need more citrus. I’m betting you could also use orange for a different flavor.

You’ll also see sliced almonds. I like them for their crunch, but you can leave them out and use more celery or chuck in some raw carrot for the same kind of mouth feel without nuts.

This is one of my favorite new healthy recipes, and I can’t wait for leftovers tomorrow. You need:

1/2 cup quinoa, rinsed well (gets rid of the bitterness) and drained

The juice of one lemon

A dash of salt

About a cup and a quarter of chicken or vegetable broth

About 2 tbsp of sweet onion, diced

1 stalk celery, diced

1/4 cup sliced almonds (or a crunchy vegetable if you don’t want nuts in the dish)

About 3 tbsp chopped fresh basil

About 2 tbsp shredded or grated parmesan cheese

Heat a small/medium saucepan over medium heat. Spray it with something nonstick and saute the onions until they’re soft and translucent.

In the meantime, juice your lemon into a 2-cup measuring cup. To the juice, add broth until you have 1 1/2 cups of liquid. Once the onions are cooked, pour that mixture into the pan and stir in your rinsed quinoa grains and salt. Bring that to a boil, clamp a lid on it, and cook it over medium-low heat until most of the liquid is gone (just like rice).

Remove the quinoa from the heat and stir in the basil, celery, almonds (or substitute), and, if you want a lotta lemon, the zest from your lemon. Stir everything together and let it sit about 5 minutes. Spoon it into bowls (2 for entrees, 4 for side dishes) and sprinkle it with the parmesan.

Whipped Cream Redux

22 Nov

You might remember that last August (2010), DH sprayed “Happy Birthday” in our driveway with a can of whipped cream, and that a few weeks later, it hadn’t quite vanished. Which made our family rethink that stuff that comes in the cans.

That picture up there? I took that this morning. Fifteen months after the sweet message landed on our concrete. Fifteen months of rain (including a hurricane) and snow and basketball and cars and people and garbage cans, and a lot of stuff…a lot more than goes in inside your body.

See what I’m saying, y’all?

You can see my original post on how easy it is to make whipped cream, and now that you’ve seen a real-world science experiment with that canned stuff, I’d urge you to rethink the convenience route. To make it a little more special for Thanksgiving, drizzle a little maple syrup in there while you’re whipping–it’s fantabulous. If you need it to travel, add a few pinched of cream of tartar, which will help it stand up longer.

Happy Thanksgiving, gang!

Super Simple Garlic Bread Spice Mix

13 Sep

Want to make my family happy at an Italian restaurant?

Plop down that basket of garlic bread. Seriously–it’s like roadkill to vultures. As if we’re not going to have Carb-O-Rama anyway, we attack the bread like we’ve never seen food before and may never again. It’s even worse if there’s olive oil in a little dish for dipping.

I’ve tried to break this sad addiction, but nothing works. And now that my kids are well into elementary school, they know enough to have figured out that garlic bread can come with spaghetti at home, too.

The stuff in your grocer’s freezer is delicious, no doubt, and I’m not above grabbing a loaf or two if I’m making lasagna for 15 people on a holiday. It’s a time thing. But I don’t buy it just for us, because it’s disgustingly bad for us and because it takes up too much room in my freezer (this is an honest food blog, ladies and gentlemen, and there you have my confession on that one).

I’ve bought garlic bread spice mix through the mail for a long time now, mainly because the ones at the grocery store are full of salt and we get plenty of that already. The other day, though, I ran out. There was an almost-empty jar in my spice drawer and a ziti in the oven, and I will admit to you that I had a brief moment of panic before my inner Julia Child spoke up.

“Dude,” she said (Julia’s still cool), “It’s spices. How hard can it be?”

I shrugged. “Dunno. Let’s find out.”

And so I did. I took the remains of my spice jar and shook them onto a plate and got my CSI on, sifting through to see what I saw. Yellow stuff = garlic powder. Red stuff = paprika. And green stuff = Italian seasoning.

“Julia,” I said, “You still rock.”

From there, it was easy to sift together my own spices, put them into a little plastic container, and make garlic bread that was way healthier and cheaper than buying it or using a pre-made mix. I didn’t use a spice jar because my Italian seasoning is cut a little bigger than what was in the garlic bread mix I used to buy, and I didn’t think it would fit through the shaker top. So a plastic container is great–I can pinch out what I need.

Your inner Julia will be proud of this one, gang. Takes two seconds and no stove required. Ready? You need:

3 tbsp garlic powder (not garlic salt)

1 tbsp Italian seasoning

1 tsp paprika (sweet if you have a choice, but not hot)

Mix together in a resealable plastic container. To make garlic bread, slice Italian bread into one-inch-thick slices (I have used sandwich bread in a pinch, but don’t tell anybody). Lightly butter one side, sprinkle the spice mix on that, and pop it under the broiler for a minute or two butter side up, until the edges start to brown. Once that happens, pull it out. flip it over, lightly butter and spice it, and sprinkle some shredded Parmesan on top of that. Back under the broiler until the crusts brown and the cheese melt and you’re done. Don’t tell my family. You won’t stand a chance.

Trick Your Canned or Frozen Corn

23 Aug

Once or twice a month, you’ll find my family at our favorite restaurant, enjoying fajitas, burritos, and, for me, a yummy barbecue chicken chopped salad. I’m not a huge salad lover, truth be told, but the combination of barbecued chicken and fresh greens and veggies is among my favorite meals.

We took the kids to the beach last weekend and, sandy and exhausted, stopped at a Panera for dinner on our way home. They have a barbecue chicken chopped salad on the menu, and having stuffed myself with fried yumminess and caramel popcorn earlier in the day, I ordered it–fresh and light sounded wonderful. This salad lacked the chopped avocado of my favorite, but kicked its butt in the flavor department. It took me a minute, but I figured out the difference.

Roasted corn. Just a bit of browning on the corn kernels boosted their flavor in an amazing way–I really couldn’t believe the difference. And so I tried it today while making my own barbecue chopped salad for lunch, with the same effect.

It’s very simple. Preheat your broiler (to low, if yours lets you choose a temperature). Drain canned or frozen (and thawed) corn and spread it on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Pop that under the broiler for about five minutes, or until it starts to brown along the tops and edges:

Turn on your exhaust fan. It’s a little smokey.

Once you have some brown on the corn, take it out of the oven, cool on the baking sheet, and toss it into your salad. You won’t believe how good this simple trick is!

(You can absolutely do this with fresh corn, but it’s a great trick for frozen or canned when fresh isn’t at its peak.)


Don’t forget my giveaway!! It’s super easy!

1) “Like” Playing With My Dinner on Facebook and post a note on the wall saying hi so I know you’re new in town, or

2) Convince a friend to “like” the blog and post a note telling me you referred them, and…

You can win a $30 giftcard to Williams-Sonoma! Buy yourself a super fun present to have even more fun by the stove! Like the blog or refer a friend by September 1 to enter!

The Spices of My Life

11 Jan

That up there is one of two spice drawers in my kitchen. Inside the godforsaken freezer is a stack of more, in plastic containers with tight lids. And over there in the glass-fronted shelving unit are a line of pretty glass jars that hold even more.

Know what’s annoying? Buying a spice for a recipe and never using it again. Sadly, many of the jars that line my spice storage areas fall into that category. I suspect many of you have the same issue, which is why I thought we’d talk about staple spices today–the jars and containers of sweet-smelling bits that you really should have to make most recipes.

First, let’s talk about buying spices. The grocery store is not your friend here. Lord only knows how long those little jars have languished on the shelves or in a warehouse before that. I have a few grocery store jars in my drawers, but not a whole lot–they’re normally my last resort when I go to make a recipe and realize I’m missing a spice. Mail-order or a fresh foods market is a better bet, if you want your spices as fresh and potent as possible. I really like The Spice Hunter, both because their spices are delicious and because they have an amazing array of salt-free spice blends that are indistinguishable from their salt-laden grocery store cousins. Other people swear by Penzey’s, which has wonderful spices but not as many salt-free options unless you buy in huge bulk (lots of jars at a time), which I don’t.

My other favorite is an Amish bulk market that’s near our favorite vacation destination. They mark their spices with the date they were processed, so I know exactly what’s good. These come in bulk; I transfer small amounts to airtight glass jars for immediate use, and keep their original plastic containers in the freezer for later.

You see a lot of spices in the drawer up there. Sadly, few are everyday, must-have-in-your-pantry options. Those I classify as that are:

  1. Salt. I know. I don’t use much salt. I do use a lot of No-Salt, which tastes just like real salt but with no sodium. Salt wakes up almost all flavors, from chocolate to tomato to honeydew melon (try it!), so you really need it. You’ll want a good table salt and a Kosher salt in the house.
  2. Pepper. Ditto for above–good on just about everything. Buy whole peppercorns and grind them yourself for the best flavor.
  3. Garlic powder. I love fresh garlic, but sometimes garlic powder is best (think garlic bread, for one thing). I always have this around.
  4. Lemon pepper. Good on chicken. Good on fish. Good on broccoli. Great on asparagus. A great wake-up-the-flavor spice.
  5. Chili powder. Self-explanatory.
  6. Ground cumin. Lends a wonderful smokey flavor to a ton of dishes, from chili to pasta to seafood.
  7. Dried bay leaves. Same as cumin, only more subtle and deep.
  8. Italian Seasoning. All those recipes that call for basil and oregano and thyme and such? A pinch of Italian Seasoning. Take the help where you can get it.
  9. Dried oregano. Next time you make pizza, sprinkle some on the sauce, under the cheese. Thank me later. 😉
  10. Dried onion flakes. Toss these into meatballs, burgers, pasta sauce…anything on the wet side that calls for onion. Delicious and crunchy.
  11. Fajita seasoning. I love my fajitas dry, and this stuff is awesome. Sprinkle it on your beef or chicken or shrimp and grill away. Delicious. Also good in tacos or on grilled meat you’d like to have a little Mexican flair.
  12. Dill. I prefer fresh, but dried is really good too. Excellent on scrambled eggs, in tuna salad, on top of grilled fish, in salads, or anywhere you’d like a little fresh snap.
  13. Dried chili flakes. Drop a few into your pasta sauce next time. It won’t be hot. It’ll just wake it up a bit. Also delicious in a simple olive oil and garlic pasta, in tomato-based soups and stews, and sometimes in dark chocolate dishes.
  14. Cream of Tartar. If you like Snickerdoodles, you must have this. Ditto for whipped cream. It helps food stand up  and fluff up. Good stuff.
  15. Cinnamon. Self-explanatory–good almost everywhere.
  16. Nutmeg. Whole ones. Grate them with a Microplane. Great in baked goods but also sprinkled over cooked greens.
  17. Ground ginger. I have no patience for peeling and grating ginger. This stuff saves me. You can’t tell the difference.

I have other must-haves (cardamom, Garam Masala, Mrs. Dash original blend), but they’re unique to my family and foods we enjoy. I’d love to hear about yours!

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