A Garden of Love….and possibly some fresh mint

Before Matt & I became serious about being parents, we had talked about our hopes and dreams for things we wanted in our first home. Jokingly (but not really a joke) we needed at least 1.5 bathrooms. We wanted room to expand our family, a place we could express our own sense of style and flair. No pool (even though since we now have one we have come around on the idea of swimtime during the summer) and a space to throw summer barbecues whenever we could.

But more than anything else, Matt wanted us to have an herb & vegetable garden that we could use to our advantage. When we needed that little bit of basil or possibly a fresh tomato, what better place than to grab the necessities from our own backyard? Prior to our house-hunting whirlwind we had attempted a bucket garden at our year-round rental. We used big buckets with potting soil and wrapped chicken wire with stakes around it to keep rabbits and squirrels from tampering with our project.

While our attempt at vegetables yielded only one little measly yellow squash plant with fungus on it, we found that the herbs were a lot more abundant! (And you know, no fungus.) Thyme, rosemary, and dill grew like wildfire from just a few seeds, so we found ways to incorporate those herbs into more of our dishes. Chicken dishes, tuna fish, homemade tomato sauce….we found ways to use as much as of it as possible. Eventually we just couldn’t find the time to keep up with pruning and drying out our abundance, so the garden fell to the wayside.

Fast forward to now….where Matt & I finally have the home, space, and enough time to work on such a large project. And so since this idea was Matt’s brain child, he set out to bring this garden to life.

If you had looked at the list of our YouTube searches, you may have chuckled a bit at seeing “How to Build a Keyhole Garden” in between “Little Baby Bum” and “Baby Shark”. We discussed what herbs and vegetables would work best with the way we cook, as well as looking up articles and videos on the best options for growth.

With a goal in mind, Matt set to work on creating on our garden project. First came a handful of Home Depot trips to select the correct lumber, chicken wire, topsoil, and potting soil all while scoping out potential plants. Next, Matt started skillfully building a keyhole garden, making sure that the ground was even before setting down the cardboard for the bed of the garden and loading it with the proper soil mixture.

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Starting our garden

And finally came the best (but most important part): selecting what we should grow in our garden. We wanted to have vegetables and herbs that we normally use in our cooking, as well as a few fun ones to try out in new recipes.

Of course the herbal basics (basil, rosemary, thyme, oregano, and parsley) were automatic shoe-ins for the main part of the garden bed. As a bonus, we added lavender, lemon balm, and sweet mint to round out the lineup. That holy trinity will be beneficial come iced tea/lemonade recipe time. And for that savory factor, lavender is one of the key ingredients in Herbs de Provence.

For vegetables, that became a little trickier but not impossible.

One of the best basics for a garden are tomatoes (even if it is considered a fruit). We decided on Roma tomatoes because they’re smaller than Beefsteak or Jersey, but are considered a good tomato for making homemade sauce. And usually smaller tomatoes are easier to grow, which means if this goes well maybe next year we’ll add cherry tomatoes to the mix.

Next came cucumbers, as my husband is half-Greek and I made pretty good homemade pickles using my great-grandmother’s recipe. There would need to be two types of cucumbers in our garden as the seedless are better for salads and tzatziki while Boston Pickling cucumbers are better for just that: pickling. And so we added those to our list.

With peppers we realized that while red bell are perfect for me as I am minimal on the heat and more on the sweet, Matt could get more into harvesting hot peppers for potential chili and just spicing up a few of our favorite dishes. By accident instead of grabbing four Tabasco pepper plants, we grabbed two Tabasco, one red chili, and one Santa Fe Grande plant. If all goes well, there will be very little need to replenish hot sauce.

For our final plant we had initially talked about spinach as Max has shown an interest in finally eating a green vegetable. (He ate spinach in Francaise sauce, which was a small victory in our house.) But since Matt could not locate a spinach plant anywhere, another great option was to attempt fresh romaine. With a handful of plants, we could pluck ripe leaves from the plant and have a salad without completely uprooting the whole plant. Sounded like a great compromise. Also, spinach is almost always on sale near us so that’s never a problem.

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Ta-da….we have a garden!

The lineup was complete and with some configuring (and eventually re-planting of some of our crops), Matt & I worked together in bringing our garden creation to fruition.

We’re waiting with bated breath to make sure that crops start growing so we can harvest our end product and I can’t wait to share what we make when/if we do!

Stay tuned for potential recipe adventures and stories of our gardening experience.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

 

 

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It’s a little bit butternutty….

While I did it for the sake of Max’s little tummy at the time, adjusting to a dairy and soy-free life wasn’t easy.

With the constant need to read ingredients the process of eating became more of a challenge, more like an Olympic sport! Every item placed in the cart at the grocery store was scanned for any mention of dairy and/or soy. (I recommend the ShopWell app….saved me many times over at the grocery store and you can adjust it for just about any type of dietary restrictions.) I had to advise every waitress when I went out to eat of my dietary restrictions, sometimes even reading over a menu several times before I walked into the restaurant.

I lived with the feeling that it must have been frustrating for the cooks in the kitchen to have to adjust my meal, just because I didn’t want my son to cry in pain from any dairy or soy in my food that would get transferred to his breast milk. This frustrated me to the point that I really didn’t want to eat out at all until Max was cleared or we stopped breastfeeding. (After about nine months, I was able to finally go back to normal when Max started eating solid foods and showed no reactions as I reintroduced dairy and soy into my diet.)

But aside from that I will admit: I had missed dairy on occasion. There were moments I wished I could have a big slice of cheesecake, a plate of buttery Yukon Gold mashed potatoes, or a big bowl of fettuccine alfredo. Sure, there were alternatives like the Daiya products to give me the feeling that I was eating cheese or ranch dressing. (By the way, their pizzas and macaroni & cheese were pretty decent for not having any gluten, dairy, or soy in them.)

More than anything though, I really missed a good pasta in a cream sauce. Fortunately, I was able to locate this gem of a recipe courtesy of Cookie + Kate, which used pureed butternut squash in vegetable broth to replicate that decadence one craves when you order anything in a cream sauce. (And another added bonus aside from being healthy for all you non-meat eaters: it’s Vegan!)

You can check out the recipe on the Cookie + Kate website here: Creamy Vegan Butternut Squash Linguine with Fried Sage. And if you’re not that big into linguine, I recommend using fettuccine as evidenced by the featured photo. It was a delicious substitution and I mean, who doesn’t love fettuccine in a cream sauce?

While I am not a vegan or vegetarian by any means, this dish at the very least satisfied my palette. With my diet back to normal, I would more than likely add some heavy cream and possibly some Parmesan to give it that extra kick of salt. Yet I learned that if you need to be healthy, healthy can be delicious.

And as always, enjoy!

– Jenny V

Francaise: Not just a chicken dish

While I am a healthy mix of nationalities (and according to my recent genealogy research a few I didn’t know about), I was practically raised by my dad’s side: mainly composed of English, German, and Italian family members. I can credit my family for being a key factor in my appreciation of food and cooking. And especially with Italian food, I have developed a rather particular palette. Because while I’m sure a good portion of the Italians I know would pick a tomato-based dish as their favorite, mine has always been and always will be Chicken Francaise. (Fortunately, the version of Francaise we made for this post does have tomato in it.)

In fact, I love Chicken Francaise so much that during my freshman year in college when the cafeteria had failed spectacularly in their attempt to make it (they added raisins and made it sweet….NEVER add raisins or make it sweet, it’s gross), I went home that weekend and asked my dad for an emergency dinner at one of our favorite Italian restaurants. I still shudder thinking of those raisins….I stress that they should NEVER be added to a savory, lemony dish…:::shudders:::…but I digress.

About three years ago, approximately April of 2013, Matt and I opted for takeout from our favorite local Italian joint. I remember the date because Matt encouraged me to order anything and everything from the menu for reasons unbeknownst to me. It was after the fact that he admitted that that was the day him and his mom were in a jewelry store picking out my engagement ring. That day in particular, I had a craving for Shrimp Francaise. I had tried the chicken, I had even tried a flounder version from one of our favorite seafood restaurants. But shrimp? Never.

Fast forward to a few years later, Matt and I decided to try making Shrimp Francaise to add some new dishes to our repertoire. The end result was a delicious lemony and buttery seafood dream, with some fresh sauteed spinach and cherry tomatoes that were bursting with flavor! Seriously, cooked cherry tomatoes–look into it and do it. And as for spinach, buy it fresh in bulk and you will yield many meals: a nice salad, a sandwich topping, and of course, cooked in Shrimp Francaise.

Fun plays on classic dishes are always a great way to spice up your culinary technique in the kitchen. This one is definitely a keeper.

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V


Jenn & Matt’s Shrimp Francaise 

1/2 lb. shrimp, cleaned & fully peeled

2 eggs, whisked

1 lemon, juiced

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1/2 lemon, sliced thin 

1 container cherry tomatoes

1-2 healthy handfuls fresh spinach

1/2 cup white cooking wine

1 cup chicken broth

1 – 1/2 cups flour

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon butter

1-2 tablespoons paprika

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

Salt, to taste

 

Directions:

1) In a small bowl, mix in eggs and tablespoon of lemon juice. In a small pan, mix flour, paprika, and black pepper. Dredge each shrimp through flour mixture, then egg mixture. Place shrimp in pan over medium high heat with a little oil in pan. Brown on each side and let it cook almost all the way through, then remove from pan.

2) Into pan, add tablespoon of flour and butter to create a roux, then add white wine, chicken broth, squeezed lemon juice, and tomatoes. Before the tomatoes begin to burst, add the spinach and shrimp. Place lemon slices over top.

3) Cook until spinach begins to wilt and  tomatoes burst. Remove from heat, season with salt if desired, and serve over pasta.

 

 

 

Spicy Tips: The Perfect Chicken Noodle Soup

Spoiler Alert: Be prepared for the onslaught of chicken dishes!

When the fall season hits, I can’t think of anything better than busting out the Crock Pot and making dishes that assault your sense of smell when you return from work that day. Also, the house just feels warmer and more inviting that way. Trust me, there’s nothing better than after a long day of being on the phone with an insurance company to argue a client’s claim, to walk in and smell the love that your dish has been making while you were away. It’s a calming force.

So before I wax poetic on slow cooking, let’s get back to the topic. Namely, Chicken Noodle Soup. I know we all have a recipe that we follow. We all have our own tricks and tips that personalize how we create this cold-weather classic. And so I want to share a few of my own, as there are a few helpful suggestions to guarantee positive results.

 
1) Make sure to flavor your broth!

When you’re sick, Chicken Noodle is simply the best soup (in my opinion) that can bring you out of that non-hunger phase and nourish your soul. It has the protein from the chicken, the vitamins from the vegetables, the noodles to help fill you up, and most importantly: that nice salty broth to break through your temporarily altered taste buds. So while I love adding a healthy dose of poultry seasoning, don’t forget salt and pepper! There’s nothing worse than all those delicious elements in a bland broth. And taste as you go….I cannot stress that enough.

 

2) If you can, make your own stock.

You can always buy chicken broth if you’re in a pinch, but I love making my own stock. When Matt & I purchase a whole chicken, we first roast it and eat the breast for dinner that night. Then, strip the meat off the chicken down to the bones, as the meat will be perfect for soup when you process and chop it. And in the Crock Pot, put that carcass in with enough water to cover the top of the bones, then lid on low and slow for 8-9 hours (and sometimes longer).

Once the carcass starts to fall apart in the stock, that’s a good sign. When done, remove the bones and my final move is to place a paper towel in the strainer and ladle in broth through that into a container. The stock will retain some fat, but this helps keep bone fragments out of your broth. Use a wooden spoon to push around the liquid to get it to strain. You may replace the paper towels a few times as eventually the fat will pool enough to where nothing gets through, but that’s okay. This is a messy (but rewarding) process. You get a clearer broth this way.

 

3) Saute your veggies before you put them in and make sure they’re fresh!

I keep my veggies standard: celery, onion, carrot. You can add fun ingredients like leeks or fennel, but I love the classics when it comes to chicken soup. Now, you can always just throw the veggies in raw and allow the slow cooking to do its magic, but I love getting a little bit of color on those veggies. You won’t necessarily get a bite of onion as it melts into the broth, but you will taste a hint of it. The carrots will practically melt in your mouth, as will the celery. You want to let them cook the longest in your broth.

So for the best result, a little bit of oil in a pan, saute for less than 5 minutes, and add the veggies first to the broth.

 

4) For best results, make the noodles separately (and keep them that way).

This is more a rule because Matt does not like soggy noodles. And it’s a good one! The noodles are always the final ingredient to add to the soup, because once they’re done the soup is done. And then once in the fridge, the noodles keep expanding the longer they sit. And instead of soup, you get this noodle dish with soup elements and minimal broth. So instead, I tried a new trick: I cooked the noodles alone, strained them, then placed them first in the bowl and ladled the soup over the top.

When I had to clean up and put the rest in the fridge, I made a decision to keep the noodles in a separate container. You get more control over the amount of noodles you want in your bowl, and the broth remains intact when you heat it up.

 

5) Low and slow is the best way to go!

I have forgotten the most important tip of all: the slow cooker is the best way to make Chicken Soup. Flavors are best when they have a chance to meet and meld for a while. You don’t want to rush this step and if you have the time, take it. The depth of flavor you can achieve from that low and slow technique is second to none.

 

And as always….enjoy!

– Jenny V

When in Doubt….just stuff it!

Being busy, I haven’t always had time to sit and write about the latest recipe/concoction. (Thanks multiple jobs/friends I am getting to see post-wedding madness!) That doesn’t mean I haven’t been cooking….quite the contrary!

But that is neither here nor there and so….let’s talk about chicken breast. Matt & I don’t necessarily prefer cooking with chicken breast, mainly because there’s such a small window to perfection on it. (And unless it’s on sale, it’s not worth spending an exorbitant amount of money to have it in the house.) It can becomes time-consuming to prep (which is why I have my husband filet the breast….something I have yet to even try perfecting. He makes it look sooooooo easy!) And unlike it’s counterpart, dark meat, chicken breast is prone to drying out very quickly. So whenever we have it in our fridge (because sometimes the sale is just too good to pass up), we get creative.

Stir-fry, homemade chicken nuggets, and our personal favorite, Chicken Cordon Bleu, are just a few of the ways that we prepare the breast other than seasoning and grilling it. But I’m bored of all our standards, so in true creative fashion….I took to the idea of stuffing the chicken with cheese and broccoli! We had the ingredients, we had the time, and we were also adventurous enough to think outside of how we normally prepare the elusive white meat.

Now I know it’s been done, but our version became so easy to make, complete with a Mornay sauce and some deep-fried bacon on top….do I even need to say more on how delicious this was? (Especially when there was nothing left?!?)

And just a quick tip: if you deep-fry bacon, partially cook it first. Also, if you deep-fry the whole package of bacon and have leftovers….make bacon bits with it! Homemade bacon bits are delicious…..trust me on this.

Meals don’t always have to be the same-old standard. If you’re willing to get a little daring and try a variation on a recipe that you’ve made before….DO IT.

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V


stuffedchickenwbacon

 

Jenn’s Stuffed Chicken Breast

Ingredients:

3 large chicken breasts, butterflied and pounded thin

1/2 package frozen chopped broccoli (slightly thawed so you can break it apart to stuff chicken)

1 to 1 1/4 cup shredded cheese (depending on how much cheesiness you like!)

Bread Crumbs (optional)

Egg (optional)

Salt

Pepper

For the Sauce:

1 tablespoon flour

1 tablespoon butter

Nutmeg

1 1/4 cup milk

Parmesan Cheese

For the “garnish”:

6 pieces partially cooked bacon

 

1) Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees and with filleted chicken breasts, lay them flat on a baking pan. Lightly salt and pepper the inside, then take the partially thawed broccoli and shredded cheese, distributing them equally towards one side of the chicken breast. Roll, then tuck the sides in and arrange chicken breasts neatly in the baking pan. (Optional: you can baste with egg, then use bread crumb to sprinkle on the top.) Place in oven and bake for 45 minutes – 1 hour. Remove when done and let sit for 1-2 minutes.

***Helpful hint***: You can usually tell stuffed chicken breast is cooked through when the middle is bubbling out. It means the heat has gotten all the way through the meat and cooked it.

2) About 5 minutes before the chicken is done, turn on the deep fryer on high to warm for the bacon (or pan to finish cooking bacon through….you want that garnish crispy!)

3) While the fryer is warming, in a small saucepan on medium heat, combine the butter and flour to create a roux, then add milk to the roux. Stir with a whisk to incorporate. Add a few pinches of nutmeg (trust me, a little goes a LONG way here) and when the sauce starts to bubble a little, add the parmesan cheese to thicken it up. Stir, then remove from heat.

4) This garnish is optional, but once deep fryer is up to desired temperature, drop in the bacon for roughly 1 minute. Seriously, not long, because the bacon is already partially cooked and this will turn extra crispy extra quick. After about a minute, remove bacon and put on plate covered with paper towel to cool down and crisp up.

5) When plating, first put down the chicken, then ladle sauce (as much or as little as you’d like) over the chicken, topping with two pieces of bacon.

Feel the Braise

When we received our cast iron Dutch Oven as a shower gift, Matt and I were not quite sure how to proceed with it….it’s heavy as hell! I mean, carrying that thing requires at least some weight-training, or a strong husband. But as we continue to use it, whether it be for cooking roasts, chili, turkey burgers, gravy for Sunday dinner (yes, gravy, Italians call it gravy), it has become our favorite toy in the kitchen….aside from the pasta press, but we’ll get to that later.

So today, as a change from our usual cooking methods for chicken thighs, I wanted to try them in the Dutch Oven, which brings us to braising. Now, for those who are not familiar, braising meat means that you use dry and wet methods of cooking. First you cook to sear in the juices, then in the oven it cooks in liquid.

Matt was on board with it, especially since he loves when I suggest new methods to cook our favorite foods. And the best part? Chicken thighs are dark meat, which means if you cook it longer, you won’t dry it out, due to its fattier content (never a bad thing, especially since that fat is jam-packed with flavor.) Now, the recipe I found had ingredients like fennel and red potatoes, so we varied it up a little bit and made this our recipe with the ingredients that we had in the house.

Feel free to change it up any way you like it, especially if you have a favorite veggie that you’ve worked with that cooks beautifully in the oven.

****And if you don’t have a dutch oven, use a deep pot, like a stockpot, and cover it with foil when you put it in the oven.****

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V


chicken

Braised Chicken Thighs a la Jenn & Matt

4-6 Chicken Thighs (you can trim the excess fat if you like, but not always necessary)

4 carrots, peeled and sliced

4-6 small potatoes, washed and cubed (we went with white potatoes, which gives a thinner sauce, but you can thicken it up with red potatoes)

1 medium onion, chopped

2-3 stalks celery, chopped

1-2 cloves of garlic, minced

1 can of chicken broth (a cup)

1/2 cup of Marsala cooking wine (any cooking wine you prefer will work, be creative!)

1 tablespoon thyme

dash of red pepper flakes

1 bay leaf

salt & pepper to taste

Olive oil

1) In the cast-iron, heat up 1 tablespoon olive oil on medium-high heat (closer to high, because you want a sear on the chicken)

2) Season the chicken thighs with salt and pepper on both sides, then place skin-side down in the cast iron first, browning them on both sides. Once browned, remove thighs and place on a plate.

3) Drain some of the fat from the cast-iron until only about a tablespoon remains, place back on heat and throw in the potatoes, onions, celery, and carrots first, cooking until they start to brown. When they start to brown, throw in the garlic. Cook until garlic browns.

4) Once garlic browns, add chicken broth, cooking wine, thyme, red pepper flakes, and bay leaf to the vegetables. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the pot for all that residual yummyness!

5) Place the chicken thighs on top in the cast-iron, keep on heat until liquid comes to a boil, then cover and place in oven at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to 1 hour.

6) Once it’s done, remove the bay leaf and serve with a little bit of the braising liquid over the chicken and the vegetables….yummy!