Cheesy broccoli orzo (4 servings)

Sometimes my stomach's rumblings are more eloquent than my mouth's... worderings.

Some days, I excitedly plop down in front of the blog with a clever, funny, or unique intro ready to go, the words flying from my fingers almost as quickly as they flash, lightning-like, into my brain.

Other times (like right now), I thunk myself into my chair with a weary, "I guess I should update the blog," as the cursor blinks at me on the blank template, a mocking middle finger flashing in front of my empty head. "This recipe is... good," I start to type, my brain carb-addled and sun-tired from the holiday weekend. 

But maybe there's something to be said for a simple introduction for an easy yet delicious recipe. So here you go:

Pasta + cheese + broccoli = Creamy goodness.

Enjoy. (And happy day-late Independence Day!)

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1 cup dry orzo pasta
  • 1 head broccoli, chopped into small florets
  • 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese (Gouda works nicely too!)
  • 2 Tbsp grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 1/4 - 1/2 cup milk
  • 1 medium tomato, chopped

Steps:

  1. Start a pot of water boiling for the pasta. Once the water boils, cook the orzo according to the package directions. When 3 minutes remain, add the broccoli to the boiling water. Rinse and drain the orzo and broccoli.
  2. Return the orzo and broccoli to the hot stockpot, adding in the cheeses, butter, and 1/4 cup milk. Stir well to melt the cheese. Season to taste with salt, adding more milk if the sauce becomes too thick. Fold in the chopped tomato and serve.

Greek-inspired chickpea salad (4+ servings)

On the past couple Sundays, I've made up a big batch of something that can be stored in the fridge and warmed up for last-minute lunches during the week. One week it was a green bean and pasta salad, another week I made Mexican quinoa salad, and this week, I came up with a lower-carb version of this pasta salad. Filled with lemony brightness and hearty chickpeas, it's satisfying, healthy, and adaptable. It's another great dish to make this time of year, since the weather is warm but not much is growing just yet; in a few months, I'll be able to make it again with local produce! 

You will need:

  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 1 15-oz can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 2 cloves garlic, pressed or minced
  • 2 cups cut green beans (thawed if frozen)
  • 2-3 cups halved cherry tomatoes or chopped plum tomatoes
  • 1/4 cup fresh mint leaves, roughly chopped
  • 1/2 tsp dried oregano
  • zest of half a lemon (or more, if you like it really lemony!)
  • 1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
  • salt and pepper

Steps:

  1. Heat 1 Tbsp of the oil in a rimmed skillet over medium heat. Once warm, add the chickpeas and cook, shaking the pan frequently, until chickpeas start to brown. (Shaking the pan keeps the chickpeas from becoming overly comfortable in their new home and celebrating by jumping up in the air and splattering oil all over the stovetop you just cleaned an hour earlier. ...Cocky little garbanzo bastards.)
  2. Add the garlic to the pan; cook and shake the pan for another minute. Transfer chickpeas and garlic to a large serving bowl.
  3. Add the remaining oil to the pan over medium heat. Add the green beans and cook for 3-4 minutes, shaking the pan occasionally, until the beans are just tender. Transfer them to the serving bowl.
  4. Add the tomatoes, mint leaves, oregano, lemon zest, and feta to the serving bowl. Toss gently to combine. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve warm or chilled.

In hotter months (and they'll be here before we know it), this could easily be made with un-toasted chickpeas and raw green beans for a speedy meal that requires no heat from the stove!

Roasted cherry tomatoes (4 servings)

Happy 2015, readers! Apparently, I made a New Year's resolution to abstain from updating my blog, and I'm proud to say I was successful until just now. I guess we all falter eventually, huh? Heh.

Anyway, it's definitely winter here and has been "Carolina cold" lately. (As a displaced Yankee, I hesitate to call anything above 32° cold for fear of mockery from my Northern friends and family.) Windy, gray days make me long for the juicy, bright, invigorating flavors of summer, and perhaps nothing typifies that summer savor satisfaction better than a ripe tomato. But sadly, there's no worse disappointment (or waste of money) than a mealy, flavorless out-of-season tomato. Bleurghh. I shudder to think.

Fortunately, cherry and grape tomatoes are tasty any time of year. Yes, local, in-season tomatoes are even better, but their little siblings make a good substitute during the coldest months. Here, I served them on top of crisped polenta slices and ayocote morado beans I'd made in the crockpot a few days earlier. Sweetened by roasting and jazzed up with garlic and cilantro, the tomatoes lightened the polenta's density and balanced the beans' savory flavors.

You will need:

  • 2 pints cherry or grape tomatoes
  • 1 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/4 tsp ground cumin
  • 1/2 tsp oregano
  • red pepper flakes to taste
  • fresh cilantro leaves

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 400°. Line a rimmed baking sheet with non-stick foil or spritz it with non-stick spray.
  2. Rinse the tomatoes and pat them dry on a clean towel. Place the tomatoes in a large bowl and drizzle the oil over them. Toss gently to coat them evenly. Sprinkle the garlic, cumin, oregano and red pepper flakes, plus a big pinch of salt, over the tomatoes and toss gently again.
  3. Spread the tomatoes out on the baking sheet. Roast for 25-35 minutes, or until the tomatoes are sizzling and beginning to shrivel.
  4. Remove the pan from oven and allow the tomatoes to cool slightly. Return them to the large bowl and add cilantro leaves. Lightly smash the tomatoes with a wooden spoon. Serve warm.

I think the tomatoes would also work well with a variety of other pairings, such as pasta, rice, or vegetarian chorizo. They would even be great over toasted bread with a little melted feta or queso blanco on top. Ooh, or with scrambled eggs and refried beans! Now my wheels are turning...

Spicy roasted okra (~3 servings)

Within the first year of living in Chapel Hill, I passed a culinary milestone: I tasted okra. Do we have okra in Pennsylvania? Yes, we do, but I never knew anyone who dared to make it. In fact, I grew up frightened of okra. My only connection to it was a cautionary tale, rehashed by my parents, of two unsuspecting, naive eaters being passed a slimy, gummy substance that made them both gag. I knew that trying okra could lead to dire consequences (everyone knows okra is a gateway veggie that usually leads to greener, often leafier produce), so I was in no hurry to try it myself.

But once an adult daughter moves away from her parents, she often rebels against her upbringing. Unsupervised and unapologetic, she will often take risks and experiment with things her parents may have frowned upon -- nay, gasped at -- back home. Okra, you say? Roasted and wrapped in crispy coating? Set me UP!

Truth be told, when roasted, okra is quite lovely. It lacks the mucus-like ooze (let's be honest, friends) of its boiled brethren and is instead crispy on the outside and pleasantly soft on the inside. Pair that with a spicy coating, and you've got a zesty, crunchy vegetable that will surprise even the most hesitant of okra-haters.

You will need:

  • 1 lb okra
  • 1/8 cup cornmeal
  • 1 tsp chili powder
  • 1/2 to 1 tsp chipotle powder
  • 1/4 tsp garlic powder
  • 1/2 tsp coarse salt

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450˚ F.
  2. Rinse the okra and pat it dry with a towel to remove any remaining water.
  3. Using a paring knife and cutting board, slice off the stem ends and tips of the okra pods, and then slice the pods in half lengthwise. Place the okra halves in a large zipper bag. 
  4. Sprinkle the cornmeal, spices, and salt into the bag. Seal it up and shake it gently to coat the okra evenly.
  5. Spread the okra out on a baking pan lined with non-stick foil. Bake 18-20 minutes, turning once, or until the okra is crispy and starting to turn brown.

I based this recipe on one from The Fitchen, leaving out the jalapeños (I'm a wimp), adding garlic, and subbing cornmeal for the millet flour. Besides the flavor, what I really like about this recipe is that it doesn't require any oil! Although the slimy texture disappears after the okra is roasted, it does make the cornmeal coating stick to the raw vegetables, so no oil is necessary. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised by this recipe! I know Bryan and I were!

Garlic butter roasted mushrooms (2 servings)

Sometimes, as an Eastern Pennsylvanian who has moved to North Carolina, I forget that people down here don't understand Pennsylvania Dutch terms. Of course, I'm not surprised that Southerners are unfamiliar with the blatantly "Dutchy" turns of phrase (Obviously, nobody here parts ways with, "Y'all come back now, vuntz!") but I was surprised to learn how many of the things I grew up saying without a second thought are actually part of a very specific regional vernacular. Admittedly, most of these linguistic lightbulb moments came to me when I was teaching. In a moment of frustration, I once scolded a group of restless pupils, telling them, "Stop rutsching and just do your work," only to have them respond with blank stares. (Hey, at least it shut them up momentarily.) Just the other day, I discovered that no one here says, "It's spritzing" when the rain comes down in fine droplets. I've also learned that "Hush your fussin'!" is the South's version of the "Stop grexing!" that my Mom-Mom sometimes hissed at me and my sister if we whined too much.

Image from http://suzyssitcom.com

But I miss the colorful local language of Lancaster and Berks County. Each time I go home, I hear less and less of the true Dutchy accent, as in "Meet me dahn at the Ranch Haas," or "I'm from Berks Cahney." Pennsylvania Dutch is, of course, not actually Dutch but a corruption and modernization of German. It's characterized by unique words and phrases but also for the order of words, as in, "Throw the cow over the fence some hay." (That one always makes me giggle.) As with modern German, Pennsylvania Dutch has some situation-specific, difficult-to-translate words. Some of my favorites are "nix nootz" to describe a trouble-making but good-hearted child, or "schusslich" to describe hasty, sloppy, last-minute actions.

However, the PA Dutch word I most miss, simply because it describes the action it names so well, is "fress." To fress is eat, but it's a specific kind of eating; fressing is like grazing or snacking leisurely throughout the day. We fress on holidays, when we're already stuffed so full of gustatory goodness but we don't want to hurt the host's feelings, so we pick at the cheese plate. We fress when it's hot outside and a heavy meal would make us lethargic, so we just eat a few bites of whatever we can find in the fridge. We fress at picnics and holidays, where there's so much temptation that choosing one or two main dishes is too difficult, so we take bits of this and that and load up our plates until they start to bow. In my understanding, fressing isn't so much about the quantity or type of food; it's more about a variety of small samples, often spread out over time.

Bryan and I are most likely to fress at the end of the week, when energy levels are low and leftovers are diverse. Usually, by the end of the week, I have an assortment of ingredients sitting around, either due to purposeful exclusion ("I don't feel like putting tomatoes in this dish tonight") or accidental amnesia ("What the hell did I buy this leek for again?") and "Fressing Friday" is a wonderful (wunnerful goot?) opportunity to use up those things. Friday evening is a time for dressed-up finger foods, dips, side dishes, and cut-up fruits. It's a chance to relax and unwind without going to any extra trouble. And one of my favorite last-minute fressing dishes is Smitten Kitchen's garlic butter roasted mushrooms. I halved Deb's recipe since it was just two of us.

(I know, I know -- you were just starting to think, "Soooo... is there a recipe in all this, or are you just waxing nostalgic this week?")

You will need:

  • 1/2 pound medium sized button mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 Tbsp vegetable or canola oil
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 Tbsp butter, cut into small chunks
  • Parmesan cheese

Steps:

  1. Preheat the oven to 450° F. Coat the insides of a small baking dish (you could even use a round pie plate) with a little non-stick spray or oil and set it aside.
  2. Place the mushrooms in a resealable plastic bag; add the garlic, vegetable/canola oil, and a dash of salt and pepper to the bag, too. Toss gently to combine. 
  3. Place the mushrooms, gill-side up, in the baking dish. Spread the butter pieces out on top of the mushrooms and sprinkle with a bit of parmesan. 
  4. Roast the mushrooms for 15-20 minutes, or until the mushrooms are tender and the buttery sauce around them is bubbling. Top with chopped parsley, if desired, and serve warm.

These mushrooms are chewy, dense, and earthy. The garlicky-buttery juice they roast in is flavorful but not overpowering. I served this two Fridays ago with a sliced Fuji apple, some leftover roasted green beans, chunks of warm pretzel bread (Thank goodness for the Elysium that is A Southern Season), whole-grain mustard, and salty hunks of cheese. At the end of a long week, it was a feast for all the senses and a welcome respite!