Use it or lose it sometimes makes a great recipe

The old “use by” date challenge was facing me – again – when I opened the fridge this morning. I don’t know what kind of time warp happens in my refrigerator, because items that I swear I just put in there are suddenly teetering on the edge of badness.

Today’s contestants were a full container of ricotta cheese and half a jar of fig preserves that was opened in August. No mold – check. No bad smells – check.

Time to get busy.

The great thing about ricotta is that it is so versatile. Think outside the lasagna and stuffed shells, and you have options for desserts, apps and dips.

I decided on making a sweetish appetizer that could also make a great brunch dish or dip. You can make it ahead of time and heat or reheat just before serving. This is winning points all around, but the biggest score is its simplicity. We’re quickly approaching the open house/pot luck/drop by season, so why not have a winning recipe in your corner? And don’t worry about those people you know (and we all know them) who hate figs. The preserves add just the right amount of sweetness without making this taste like a Fig Newton.

I stuffed the Ricotta and Fig Dip into mini puff pastry cups, but it would also be great as a dip for gingersnaps, (giving everyone a break from the ubiquitous pumpkin/cream cheese dip). Or you can make a quick brunch dish by baking it inside a puff pastry, with the bacon served on the side.

Ricotta Fig Dip

6 pieces of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

16 mini puff pastry shells

1 cup ricotta

1/2 cup fig preserves

juice of half a lemon

1/2 tsp. dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In an oven-proof dish, mix the ricotta, preserves, lemon juice and thyme. Cover with lid or foil and place in oven.

Bake the puff pastry shells according to package directions at the same time the dip is cooking.

Remove the shells from the oven, and let the dip bake another 10 minutes.

Take the dip from the oven, remove the lid and let it cool five minutes.

While dip cools, remove the tops from the pastry shells.

Spoon the dip into each shell and top with crumbled bacon. Serve immediately.

To make this dish ahead of time, cook and crumble the bacon and refrigerate. Make the ricotta mixture and refrigerate or freeze it. (If frozen, let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking). Reheat the bacon in a skillet over low heat.

New trends have old roots

If you forget that America is a young country, as civilization goes, just look up “2016 food trends.”

Everything old – like, really old – is new again. Actually, some of the new predicted stars are ancient. Grains, such as farro, kamut and millet have been found in Egyptian tombs.

Another prediction is that we will move away from the sticky, sweet toppings and add-ins that kind of negate the advantages of yogurt, in favor of savory flavors from herbs, and garlicky sauces featuring vegetables. This will be welcome news for every tzatziki sauce lover out there.

And, since you can’t open a menu, or even visit a fast food drive-through without encountering sriracha sauce these days, it was inevitable that cooks are looking at other hot sauces to meet our new demand for savory heat. Many of the condiments chefs and home cooks will reach for have been used around the world for, you guessed it, a really long time.

Go ahead and practice pronouncing these sauces and pastes, including sambal, gochujang, dukka, yuzu and togarishi.

Today, however, we’ll start with a sauce that’s easier to find and that plays well with everything: harissa.

A blend of chilis, garlic, olive oil and spices that usually include dried mint, cumin and coriander, harissa is every cook’s friend. It comes as a paste or sauce and has origins in North African countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Like most sauces, harrisa recipes differ from region to region and cook to cook. Some add tomatoes, some add rose petals.

For now, harissa is almost impossible to find in local grocery stores, which is OK, because it is easy to make at home, where you can customize its heat.

Even if you are not interested in being a trend jumper, you’ll soon be thinking of ways to add harissa to your every-day dishes. You can add it to yogurt for a dip, use it in marinades, or mix it with maple syrup and brush it on vegetables before roasting.

Of course, like most hot sauces, harissa really goes well with eggs, any way you cook them. Last Sunday, on a murky morning, my husband made a breakfast bowl of roasted new potatoes, sautéed onions and scrambled eggs. A fabulous comfort food, that could only be enhanced by a big dollop of harissa.

So, let’s get a jump on the coming year and make some harissa. Once the sauce is ready, you can put it in a glass container, cover it completely with a layer of olive oil, screw on the top and put it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for three weeks.

Here are some chili suggestions:

For moderate heat use a combination of Guajillo and New Mexico chilis

Bring on the heat by using Arbol chilies

Impart a smoky flavor with Chipolte or Marita chilis

For a rich sauce, use Ancho and Pasilla chilis


16 dried chilis (any combination you like), with stems and seeds removed

1/2 tsp. caraway seeds

1/4 tsp. coriander seeds

1/4 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. dried mint

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 tsp. salt

5 cloves of garlic, peeled

juice from one lemon

Soak the dried chilis in a bowl of boiling water for 20 minutes.

While they soak, add the caraway, coriander, and cumin to a small skillet over medium heat. Stir and toast the spices about four minutes until they are very fragrant.

Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the toasted spices with the mint, then pour into the bowl of a food processor.

Drain the soaked chilis on paper towels, then add them, along with the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice to the food processor.

Pulse the mixture for about two minutes, until a smooth paste forms.

Sweet Inspiration

first pecans

Being a Hokie fan is not easy this year. They are making more false promises, flubbed plays and bad calls than this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls.

But, we can’t waiver in our loyalty, even as we watch yet another dejected crowd shuffle out of Lane Stadium before the game is over – that just doesn’t happen at Virginia Tech.

So, we watch and when we watch, we snack. And when we snack, we seek the comfort of salty/sweet perfection. During this season, we have used Chicago Mix popcorn (a combination of caramel and cheese popcorn) to dry our tears. But looking for a change last Saturday, I spied the bottle of flat root beer that I had been meaning to pour out.

And, who knows where kitchen inspiration strikes? I thought that pecans cooked in a little butter and root beer would ease our pain. Unlike a few of my previous inspirations, this one actually scored.

pecans cooking

And by scored, I mean got gobbled up almost as soon as it cooled.

As the root beer evaporates, it leaves behind its signature flavor and gives the pecans a nice sheen and chewy/crunchy bite. Next time, I’m going to try cooking them in the new non-alcoholic butter beer I just saw at the grocery store.

finished pecans

As the Hokies continue to either win, lose or just fall apart, we will continue to watch because now we have a great excuse to eat pecans.

Hey, I’m reaching here.

Root Beer Pecans

1 Tbsp. salted butter

1 cup pecans

1/2 cup root beer

salt to taste

cayenne pepper (optional)

Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. Add the pecans and cook and stir about three minutes. Add the root beer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the root beer has evaporated. Pour the pecans on a plate and sprinkle with salt and a little cayenne pepper, if desired. Allow pecans to cool completely before serving, so they will crisp up.

Forget the parmesan, eggplant shines in caponata

caponataWell, the calendar, and the trees, say fall, but around here, the heat lingers and lingers. Our taste buds have grown weary of salads, but no one is ready for hearty fall casseroles and soups.

Caponata, a side dish of Sicilian origin, fills the gap between Fall and Indian Summer. It’s hearty, but light, and while it can be served hot, it is much better at room temperature or with a little chill factor.

Technically a relish, caponata serves as main dish around here. Scoop it up into warm pieces of pita and let the Mediterranean flavors take you away to sunlit shores. Actually, the other day, I made some for lunch with a friend, and we scooped it up with warm pieces of Indian naan bread. I love it when a hands-across-the-water dish comes together. Traditionally, caponata contains anchovies, capers and olives to give it that taste of the sea. Even this salt lover thinks that’s a tad too much.  So I ditch the anchovies and olives and add golden raisins. Or, confession, regular raisins, because I rarely keep the golden kind in my pantry.

The trick to caponata is low heat and plenty, plenty of olive oil when you sauté the eggplant because it sucks the oil up like a sponge. In fact, tests have shown that eggplant fried in oil absorbs four times more of the liquid than potatoes. If you want less oil in your dish, use a pot with a nonstick surface.

As fruits go, (a member of the nightshade family, eggplant, like the tomato is the fruit of the plant), eggplant is low in nutrients and offers an average amount of fiber. But its rich texture and ability to play well with others make it a frequent guest at dinners around here.

Use small eggplants for caponata, because the larger ones are often bitter on the outside and pulpy on the inside, and no one wants to deal with that.


1/4 cup olive oil

3 small eggplants, diced

2 tomatoes, diced

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. capers, drained

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat until the oil shimmers. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes, until eggplant has softened and started to turn golden brown.

Add tomatoes and juices, onion and garlic. Cook and stir another 10 minutes.

Add capers, vinegar and raisins. Cook, stirring occasionally, another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small pan over medium-low heat, add the pine nuts and toast until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.

Taste the caponata and add salt, if necessary. Pour the caponata into a serving bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature. You can serve it then, or refrigerate it. Stir in the toasted pine nuts and basil just before serving.


Chill out, even during the dog days

We're making chilled avocado soup
We’re making chilled avocado soup

avocado 4 (2)

avocado 3 (2)

Don’t pay attention to the calendar, or the reappearance of school buses. Hot weather is going to be around long enough for you to go the pool or lake and watch college football  – all in the same day.

And, if you have finally, finally reached your limit on tomatoes, so that the idea of gazpacho makes you blanch, try a different approach. Try avocados.

Chilled avocado soup is ridiculously easy and flexible enough to accommodate whatever ingredients you might have on hand. No limes? Use rice vinegar. No cilantro? Use watercress. No jalepenos? Use green jalepeno hot sauce.

See. No sweat. And since we’ve been sweating enough this summer, thank you very much, this is the kind of recipe even the most hurried cook can appreciate. This version is even vegan, because I used cucumber to thicken it up. You could use the same amount of fresh bread. Oh, wait, that’s another substitution. Use a food processor or blender. Whir, refrigerate and go.

Then you can head outside. Because no matter how much we complain, come January, we’ll be nostalgic for even this hellish summer weather.

Chilled Avocado Soup

3 Tbsp. chopped red onion

juice of 2 limes (or 2 Tbsp. white wine or rice vinegar)

1 tsp. salt

3 medium sized ripe Hass avocados

1 cucumber, seeded, and cut into large pieces

1 clove garlic

1/2 jalepeno, seeded and chopped coarsely (or 1Tbsp. hot sauce)

3/4 cup cilantro

1/2 cup no-salt vegetable broth

1/2 cup water

1 Tbsp. olive oil

First, put the onions, lime juice and salt into the food processor and let them sit for at least 10 minutes while you prepare the other ingredients. This will mellow the sting of the onion.

While onions get their groove on, slice and prepare the other ingredients. Then add them to the food processor bowl. Pulse until you get a creamy consistency. Then, with motor running, slowly add the broth and water, then finally, the olive oil. Taste for salt, and add more if necessary.

Pour into a bowl and chill at least an hour. Top with anything you want – toasted pistachios, sliced avocado, diced green peppers, cilantro, or, yes, even diced tomatoes


A Girlilla by nurture and nature

I just finished reading an article that states that women are starting to take over the last bastion of manhood, the area in front of the grill.

That made me laugh, because I was raised by a mother who did the grilling. Mom had many phobias, but cooking over an open flame wasn’t one of them. Dad on the other hand, got sweaty palms every time he came near the grill. Fire was his biggest fear. We frequently heard, “What are you trying to do, burn the house down?”

We chalked it up to his degree and brief stint in forestry. He saw the damage that an idiot with a match could do.

So that left my mother to concoct the marinades, rubs and techniques to get the most out of our rusty grill, and much, much later, their fancy gas grill. She insisted that they always have one, because power outages on their house’s ancient electric grid were frequent and extended.

She embraced the grilling culture and passed it on to me and my sister. We frequently got the newest gadget or grill light for Christmas.

When my husband and I got our first gas grill as a wedding present, we wisely asked his brother to come visit and assemble the thing in exchange for food and beer. And, since then, while my husband can certainly grill, he has been more than happy to pass the tongs to me most times. And I am choosy about my tongs. They have to be medium-length, bare-bones, metal restaurant models to provide the best feel and grip for whatever you’re cooking

Unlike many (mostly manly) grillers, I use our grill as an outdoor oven more than a grill. Indirect heat is my friend and even though I like charcoal grills, a gas rig is better suited to it. The other day, while I grilled a steak, I had stuffed Portobello mushrooms sizzling away on the shelf above. Put them on and close the lid about five minutes before you add the meat and they will be ready by the time a thick-cut ribeye is medium rare (five minutes per side, with three minutes to rest).

So, whether you’re the girlilla of the house or the audience of another fire-eater, you can whip up these mushrooms easily and way ahead of time. I try to cook on aluminum as little as possible, but improvising an open-topped foil pan catches the delicious juices, which you can drizzle on the finished mushrooms or the steak. And, no cleanup, so, pleading guilty.

Cheesy Stuffed Portobellos

Preheat the grill to 400 degrees, leaving one burner unlit for indirect heat if you don’t have a warming rack.

4 small Portobello mushrooms

1/3 cup canned artichoke hearts, chopped fine

1 Tbsp. each of fresh basil and oregano, minced

1 Tbsp. mayonnaise

1/3 cup shredded Gruyere cheese

Wipe the mushroom clean and remove the stems.

Mix the artichokes, herbs, mayonnaise and cheese. Add salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.

Stuff the mushrooms and place in a pan or on foil with the sides folded up.

Place over indirect heat and close the grill lid.

Cook for 12-15 minutes, until mushrooms are tender.

Memories are about taste, too

Ok, I’ll admit it, from my first memories to just last week, the things that usually stick with me from any trip or vacation revolve around food. I have no shame for making these strong associations because they dredge up many more wonderful memories from each event.

My mother, a foodie herself, used to get exasperated with me. For example, we were once reminiscing about my childhood trip to Mystic Seaport. The first thing that popped in my head was that a huge bee landed in my root beer and I had to toss it out. My mother threw up her hands and said, “Really? That’s what you remember?”

Well, no. I remembered the huge ships and flapping sails and chilly (in summer!!) breeze. That appeased her, some. But from then on she told anyone who would listen that all I remembered about Mystic was the damn bee.

It was a HUGE bee, I’m just saying.

Likewise, the other day I came across some photos I had taken during a trip with four college friends to the World’s Fair in Knoxville, TN, in 1982. I spent the entire two-day whirlwind trip with my jaw agape, blown away by the size, scope and representative cultures of the fairgrounds. I saw my first robot,  building a car in the Japanese pavilion, among dozens of other marvels.

We could only afford a weekend trip and we slept on the floor at a friend’s house, because, you know, college equals dirt poor. So, while I eyed the exotic food being offered hither and yon, I couldn’t afford most of it. That’s why my food memory of The World’s Fair is Fritos chili pie. Yep, at a lowly stand, they would slice open the side of a Fritos bag, top it with chili, cheese and onions and hand it to you with a spoon. Nirvana for a college student.

When I unearthed those photos, of course I had to make Fritos chili pie for dinner, and it was a good as I remember, even when eaten from a bowl and topped with a heap of crisp arugula  to offer some semblance of a healthy meal. Now I can call it Fritos chili salad to appease the guilt, because we will have it again.

You don’t need a recipe for Fritos chili salad, but here are a some variations:

  • Use your favorite recipe for black beans or red beans, skip the rice, and pile on (in this order) the shredded cheddar or Monterey jack, diced raw onions, and arugula, watercress or cilantro.
  • Instead of greens, top your “salad” with quick pickled slaw and cucumbers: In a medium bowl, combine 1/4 cup of rice vinegar with a tablespoon of sugar and a pinch of salt. Stir until sugar dissolves. Add a cup of coleslaw cabbage mix (the kind with carrots) and one diced cucumber. Let sit, stirring occasionally, for 20 minutes before you begin assembling the meal. Use slotted spoon to scoop the pickled slaw on top of your creation.
  • Add what you usually like on your chili, whether it’s jalapenos, green olives, green onions or sour cream.