Greek Pasta Salad

Summertime is for BBQs, and this Greek Pasta Salad should be on every picnic table. It’s a great make-ahead option, tastes great cold or at room temperature, and since it’s not loaded up with mayo, it’s even a bit on the lighter side. Cool fresh vegetables, tangy artichokes and a salty pop from the feta is sure to be a crowd pleasing side for your favorite grilled entrees.

 

 

Ingredients:

1 lb. pasta (ditalini, orzo or rotini)
16 artichoke hearts (approx. 200g), stems removed and chopped
3 tbsp. (approx. 50g) sundried tomatoes, chopped
½ cup red onion, minced
1 cucumber, seeded and chopped
¼ cup crumbled feta cheese
Red wine vinaigrette (recipe below)
Chopped basil (optional garnish)

Red Wine Vinaigrette:
¾ cup red wine vinegar
2 tbsp. sugar
3 tbsp. olive oil
3 tbsp. Greek yogurt (plain or non-fat)
1 tsp. dill weed
2 tsp. Greek oregano
Salt and pepper*

Cook pasta in salted water according to package directions, drain and place in a bowl. Set in refrigerator to cool. In a small bowl, whisk together Red Wine Vinaigrette ingredients and pour over cooled pasta. Add chopped artichokes, sundried tomatoes, minced red onion, chopped cucumber and feta cheese. Gently toss to combine. Top with chopped basil and set in fridge for at least one hour. Toss again before serving and add salt and pepper, if necessary. Enjoy!

Note: taste pasta salad before adding additional salt. After cooking the pasta in salted water and adding the feta, it may be salty enough. Also, the sundried tomatoes and artichokes I use (both Trader Joe’s brand) are pre-marinated and add a little extra salt and olive oil to the pasta salad. If using a different brand, you might need to add a little salt and pepper or a drizzle of olive oil.

Herbed Butter

herbed-butterSummer is the season for fresh herbs and nothing kicks up dinner a notch like having some fresh herbed butter to slather on homemade baked goodies. Get ready to impress your guests with a loaf of homemade bread and herbed butter fresh from the garden – they are both so easy to make!

 

 

herbed-butter-2Ingredients:
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
Your favorite herbs – my favorite combos are basil and garlic, chive and garlic, and dill and parsley
Whatever your favorite combinations are, my rule of thumb is 1 clove of garlic and 1 tbsp. minced herbs per stick of butter
Sea salt

 

herbed-butter-3Pulse herbs and garlic in food processor, add softened butter, and mix thoroughly (do no whip). Scoop herbed butter in wax paper, and roll into a log. Put in refrigerator for 1 hour to set, remove and slice into rounds. Spread onto freshly baked bread, sprinkle with sea salt, and enjoy!

Balsamic Vinaigrette

Cranberry Pecan Spinach Salad with Balsamic VinaigretteAs summer blazes on in Texas, we are having more and more salads with dinner.  Mixing up a cool, fresh salad keeps me from having to turn the oven on, and changing up the ingredients keeps them new and interesting. No same-old, same-old around here!

Homemade vinaigrettes > store bought vinaigrettes.  They are easy to make, inexpensive, and taste 100x better.  Once you experiment with making vinaigrettes at home, you will never buy them again.

Among the most popular is Balsamic Vinaigrette, and this recipe is my favorite. The tangy balsamic is balanced by the sweetness of the honey, and using a high quality olive oil really comes through in every bite. Perfect for tossing with some leafy greens, drizzling over fresh tomatoes and mozzarella, or using as a marinade for chicken, I have a jar of this in the fridge at all times.

Ingredients:
¼ cup balsamic vinegar
2 tbsp. honey simple syrup
3 tbsp. olive oil
1 tbsp. Dijon mustard
1 clove garlic, pressed or finely minced
¼ tsp Italian seasonings (dried basil and oregano blend)
Salt and pepper

Steakhouse Chopped Salad with Balamic VinaigretteWhisk together balsamic vinegar, honey simple syrup, olive oil, Dijon mustard, pressed garlic, and Italian seasonings until emulsified. Season with salt and pepper. Toss with a Steakhouse Chopped Salad, Cranberry Pecan Spinach Salad, or one of your favorites. Enjoy!

Grilled Shrimp and Guacamole Tostada Bites

Grilled Shrimp and Guacamole Tostada BitesIt’s not difficult to tell what season it is by looking at the dinner table in my house. If winter can be characterized by sauces, soups and stews, summer is represented by fresh herbs, salads and anything topped with vegetable slaws. Maybe it has something to do with not having a bulky sweater to hide behind, or a lighter appetite in the 100 degree Texas heat.

If you’ve ever been to Z’Tejas, a restaurant in downtown Austin, you’ve probably tried their Grilled Shrimp & Guacamole Tostada Bites appetizer. Crunchy tostadas, topped with a big dollop of guacamole and perfectly seasoned grilled shrimp, served with a tangy vegetable slaw. They are what an appetizer should be – a bite or two to help entice your appetite – which makes them a great anytime appetizer, but even better summertime appetizer!

Since I’m making a big batch of these for a get-together, I used store bought guacamole to save time, but you can certainly make your own. Speaking of saving time, have you tried out a stove top grill pan? I bought a fire engine red Le Creuset Double Burner Grill Pan from the William Sonoma outlet a few weeks ago and I am in love with my new toy. I probably buy one piece of Le Creuset cookware a year to add to my collection, and I’m like a little-kid-on-Christmas kind of excited whenever I get a new piece. It’s large enough to use over 2 burners, so it heats evenly and I even did all 30 shrimp in one batch!

Grilled Shrimp and Guacamole Tostada Bites 2Ingredients (makes 30 bite sized tostadas):

Vegetable Slaw:
2 tbsp. apple cider vinegar
1 tsp. sugar
1 tbsp. lime juice
1 tbsp. canola oil
1 red pepper, diced
½ red onion, diced
1 jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed, diced
¼ cup shredded carrots
½ cucumber, peeled, seeded and diced

Garlic Lime Shrimp:
30 peeled and deveined shrimp small/medium shrimp (approx. 30 per lb.)
2 cloves garlic, pressed or finely minced
Pinch crushed red pepper
Juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp. canola oil

30 tostada or pita rounds
1 pint store bought guacamole or see recipe for Restaurant Style Guacamole

Grilled Shrimp and Guacamole Tostada Bites 3To make the slaw:
In a small bowl, whisk together the apple cider vinegar, sugar and lime juice until sugar is dissolved. Add in canola oil and set aside. Mix together diced red pepper, red onion, jalapeno, shredded carrots and cucumber. Pour dressing mixture over the top and stir to combine. Set in refrigerator for 20 minutes while preparing the shrimp to let the vegetables marinate in the dressing.

To prepare the shrimp:
Combine shrimp with pressed or minced garlic, lime juice, crushed red pepper and canola oil. Season with salt and pepper. Spray grill pan with non-stick cooking spray and heat on medium. Grill shrimp 2-3 minutes per side until cooked throughout.

Line tostadas on a serving tray. Top each tostada with a heaping teaspoon of guacamole and a grilled shrimp. Spoon vegetable slaw over shrimp, serving the rest on the side in a small bowl. Enjoy!

Maryland Crab Cake Salad

Maryland Crab Cake SaladThere is a restaurant in Austin called The Grove that was designed with me in mind. Extensive wine list, great salads, pizzas and charcuterie; it’s a wine lover’s dream. They make a fantastic crab cake salad – mixed greens, lightly dressed with a citrusy vinaigrette, topped with a crab cake and drizzled with remoulade. It’s light and fresh, but the crab cake and creamy remoulade make it just a little sinful.  And at about $20, it’s also kind of expensive. Luckily for me, the Central Market by my new house has a great seafood selection; they even have ready-to-make crab cakes that rival most restaurants in town. If I were feeling adventurous, I might make my own, but this easy shortcut gets dinner on the table in about 15 minutes.  Perfect for a quick weeknight dinner and much easier on the wallet than eating out!

Maryland Crab Cake Salad 2Ingredients (serves 4):
5 oz. container spring mix
½ red onion, sliced thin
Red bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, sliced
Cucumber, peeled and seeds removed, sliced
4 tbsp. Citrus Vinaigrette (see recipe)
4 crab cakes
4 tbsp. remoulade

Preheat a non-stick skillet on medium-low heat, spray with cooking spray, and brown crab cakes until they are cooked through, about 5 minutes per side. Meanwhile, in a large salad bowl, combine spring mix, red onion, bell pepper, cucumber and toss with Citrus Vinaigrette to lightly coat. Portion salad into 4 bowls, top each with a crab cake and drizzle 1 tbsp. remoulade over each. Enjoy!

Note: the easiest way to remove seeds from a cucumber is to cut off the ends, stick a butter knife in the seedy center, and turn in a circular motion to loosen the seeds. They should come right out.

Citrus Vinaigrette

Citrus VinaigretteSummer is the season for fresh vegetables, less cooking (inside anyway!) and eating a little lighter. This is the perfect citrusy dressing for a side salad, or my favorite entrée salad – Maryland Crab Cake Salad – fresh greens, red onions, peppers and cucumbers tossed with Citrus Vinaigrette topped with crab and a spicy remoulade. The tangy vinegar is balanced by the sweet honey, and it’s the perfect light dressing to enhance the flavor of garden fresh vegetables.

 

Citrus Vinaigrette 2Making vinaigrettes at home is really easy, and they taste so much better than store bought salad dressings. You can experiment with different types/flavors of vinegar to compliment your salad style – and the best part – have control over the quality of ingredients. Most vinegars are pretty tart, and store bought salad dressings are either too bitter for my taste or include some sort of artificial sweetener I can taste from a mile away. Using honey balances the vinegar naturally.

 

Maryland Crab Cake SaladIngredients (dresses 2 entrée sized salads or 4 side salads):
2 tbsp. citrus vinegar (I use Trader Joe’s Orange Muscat Champagne Vinegar)
1 tbsp. honey simple syrup (or ½ tbsp. honey and ½ tbsp. water)
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tbsp. olive oil
Salt and pepper

Combine all ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until smooth. Pour over your favorite salad and toss to coat. Enjoy!

 

Pistachio and Basil Pesto

Pistachio and Basil PestoWhew! The last few weeks have been hectic. Packing, moving, unpacking… but we are all settled in to our new home and ready to enjoy the summer. Basil is my all-time favorite summertime herb, so much so, that one basil plant just isn’t enough in my house. Of course when I make pesto, I think pasta, but it’s also great on pizza, in soups, and – my newest favorite – on sandwiches. Doesn’t a grilled cheese with mozzarella and prosciutto, topped with bright and aromatic pesto sound indulgent?  This pesto sauce also takes less than 5 minutes to make; all the ingredients are thrown in a food processor and blended until smooth.  Easy and delicious!

Pesto is traditionally made with toasted pine nuts, but the grocery store sells pistachios in the bulk section, where I can buy just what I need for a single recipe. Pistachios are also less expensive than pine nuts, so it’s a win-win to me.

Pistachio and Basil Pesto 2Ingredients (serves 4):
¼ cup unsalted pistachios, toasted (see below)
3-4 cups loosely packed basil leaves
¼ cup shredded parmesan cheese
2 cloves garlic, quartered
¼ tsp. crushed red pepper
½ cup olive oil
Salt and pepper

To toast the pistachios, preheat a small skillet on medium heat. Add pistachios and stir until fragrant, about 2 minutes. Remove from heat and place toasted pistachios, basil leaves, parmesan cheese, garlic, crushed red pepper and olive oil to a food processor.  Pulse until ingredients are smooth, scraping the sides with a spatula as necessary. Season with salt and pepper and toss with your favorite pasta for an easy weeknight meal.

Enjoy!

Propagating Basil

Planted basil at 2 weeksFresh fruits, vegetables and herbs make everything taste better. I love summer, and nothing tastes more like summer than fresh basil. You can find packets of cut basil at most grocery stores, but there is nothing better than growing your own at home. Most of the time, a potted plant is less expensive than those little packets anyway, and with a little care you will have fresh basil all season. Did you know that many herbs, including basil, can be easily multiplied by taking cuttings and letting them root in water? I don’t know about you, but I can’t make all the pesto, pizza, sauces and salads I want with just one little plant.

Basil cuttings in water

Basil cuttings in water

So I make more.

The fastest and easiest  way to multiply basil plants is to buy a big healthy plant at the beginning of the growing season, and root additional plants from cuttings. Basil is one of the easiest plants to do this with. Here’s what to do –

 

 

 

Basil cuttings at 3 weeks

Basil cuttings at 3 weeks

 

Take 4 inch cuttings from basil plants, about an inch below secondary leaves. Remove lower leaves and stick in a glass of fresh water so the water covers the nodes where the lower leaves were removed. Place in a sunny window, and after a few days, you will see roots starting to form, looking like small white bumps. Change water every few days and after 3-4 weeks, you will have cuttings with strong root systems ready for planting.

 

Planted basil cuttings

Planted basil cuttings

That’s it! It doesn’t get any easier than that. I’ve also done this with Rosemary and Thyme with similar results. Hooray for free plants!

 

 

 

 

 

Planted basil at 2 weeks

Planted basil at 2 weeks

Best Baby Back Ribs

Best Baby Back RibsLiving in Texas, good BBQ is everywhere. I love baby back ribs, but not everyone is lucky enough to be able to smoke ribs at home or pick some up at the local BBQ joint. This is the easiest way to make tender, juicy ribs, and takes no special equipment – just an oven.  You won’t get the same smoky flavor as traditional BBQ, but with the right spices and sauce, you won’t miss it.  Use your favorite store bought spice rub and BBQ sauce, or if you are feeling fancy, make your own!

 

 

Best Baby Back Ribs 3The key is to cook the ribs long enough that the meat is tender and juicy, but retaining enough structure that you can sink your teeth into the juicy meat to pull it cleanly off the bone. If the ribs are overcooked, they can dry out, or even worse, completely fall apart and become mushy.

Good ribs need to have good texture. These are words to live by.

 

 

Best Baby Back Ribs 2Ingredients:
3 lb. rack baby back ribs
¼ cup spice rub
1 cup BBQ sauce

 

 

 

Best Baby Back Ribs 4Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Rub spice mixture on rack and place ribs (curved rib side down) on a baking sheet. Cover with foil and bake 2.5 hours. Remove from oven and turn broiler to low. Discard foil, brush with BBQ sauce and finish under broiler until starting to caramelize, 5-10 minutes (depending on broiler flame and how close top rack is to flame). Let rest 5 minutes, slice and serve with extra BBQ sauce for dipping. Enjoy!

Wine Pairings:
District 7 Cabernet Sauvignon 2014
Montgo Monastrell 2012
Solanera Vinas Viejas 2013

Corn and Black Bean Salad

Corn and Black Bean SaladSummer means grilling, and if the cooking is being done outside, it’s time to whip up some easy sides that are packed with veggies and don’t require turning on the oven. I love making dishes that use a bunch of fresh ingredients, but sometimes if I’m using a piece of an onion or half a bunch of cilantro, as much as I plan to make something with the other half, a few days later I wind up throwing a wilted bunch of cilantro in the trash. Making this Corn and Black Bean Salad on a night when I also make Guacamole for an appetizer, uses several of the same ingredients, so less waste and the flavors complement each other nicely. Besides, everyone loves to snack on Guacamole while waiting for dinner!

Corn and Black Bean Salad 2Ingredients:
16 oz. bag frozen corn, thawed and drained
1 can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds and ribs removed, diced
2 tbsp. red onion, minced
2 tbsp. cilantro leaves, stems removed and chopped

For the dressing:
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
Juice of ½ lime
3 tbsp. sugar
2 tbsp. canola oil
¼ tsp. cumin
Salt and pepper

Corn and Black Bean Salad 3In a medium bowl, mix together corn, black beans, diced bell pepper, diced jalapeno, minced red onion and chopped cilantro. In a separate bowl, whisk together apple cider vinegar, lime juice and sugar until sugar is dissolved. Stir in canola oil, cumin, salt and pepper and pour dressing over vegetable mixture. Stir and refrigerate for one hour before serving to let flavors fully incorporate.

Enjoy!

 

Note: this makes a great summer side, but I’ve also been known to make this as an appetizer and scoop it up with some chips!