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

 

 

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.

 

 

 

A muffin a day makes a happy husband!

While my post is about a recipe that I found (gasp!), I do want to talk about my latest baking venture: muffins.

Yes, muffins! While I have mastered items such as cookies, cheesecake, bread, and brownies a million times over….I wanted to venture into more of a breakfast territory. Instead of Matt reaching for a cookie in the morning, what better item to have prepared in the house than a fresh batch of muffins? When prepared correctly, they’re light, fluffy, and that one word that seems to put some on edge when they hear it….moist. (I don’t get it, it’s a legitimate word and relevant for what I’m talking about.)

So with Matt away on yet another late night gig, I challenged myself to try making blueberry muffins. I mean, we had two containers of these beautifully ripe blueberries that without a recipe, I would just eat plain (or with chocolate chips). So baking needed to happen. Of course, I did my research on recipes and came across an easy recipe that only required tweaking the measurements to make a dozen rather than four dozen. Because, come on, what does a married couple do with four dozen muffins? I could feed my neighborhood on those! (Or possibly Matt’s co-workers at his seasonal job….they’re requesting muffins after I posted some provocatively delicious photos…like this one:)

The blueberry muffins were a hit! In about 48 hours since baking, those muffins were G-O-N-E….and so was all the milk. (Matt’s addiction to sweets only measures up to his craving for milk with those sweets.) And with the end of the blueberry muffins came the ever-inevitable request for more muffins. This time: banana chocolate chip.

I accepted the challenge and proceeded to diligently research recipes to find an easy and fun recipe for Matt’s ultimate craving. The result? A recipe that uses NO oil and tastes like a muffin that you would expect to be loaded with calories. (They’re not. They’re…..dare I say it? Healthy!)

So while this is not my recipe, I’m going to share it anyway via link. Because my batch of bananas yielded two dozen muffins that are practically gone within about four days. (Mind you, I have only had a handful and only a few of our friends got to try them before Matt went to town on the rest with a lifetime supply of milk.)

Click this link for the recipe: Banana Chocolate-Chip Muffins Recipe

I promise you: these WILL not last in your house!

And if you need a little bit more encouragement to make them….well….there is always this:

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V

Move over tortellini….it’s time for ravioli

With Memorial Day Weekend down and the beginning of summer season at the Jersey Shore, it’s also the beginning of more grilling, less indoor cooking, and my favorite….salads! Now I adore a good pasta salad, especially something with macaroni and tuna fish involved. Yet sometimes, I also find myself gravitating towards a frozen bag of tortellini and some Italian dressing for a quick and easy side dish!

Alas, there was no tortellini in our freezer upon checking our reserves for dinner tonight….instead just several bags of ravioli that have remained dormant and useful in a pinch during the cold weather. (Honestly, a package of frozen ravioli with a nice thick tomato sauce is a must when it’s freezing outside.) Without tortellini and trying to weigh out the options on hand, I couldn’t help but wonder….why not a cold ravioli salad? Like tortellini, it has cheese in the middle, it’s bite-sized, and the same flavor profiles would work.

Initially, I had attempted trying to locate a cold ravioli salad recipe with little luck. It seems everyone has gravitated towards tortellini instead and with a little bit of research, I located a handful of recipes that seemed way more complicated than it was worth. With a little bit of encouragement from Matt (and a pantry of unlimited resources, it seems), I created this recipe. As most  of you know from prior posts, I tend to draw inspiration from other recipes and vary the original dish to reflect our cooking style. But what does one do when there’s nothing to draw from? You improvise! And this improvisation was one delicious dish. (Matt and I ate over half of that bowl of ravioli with some delicious grilled chicken thighs seasoned in our curry powder–what a tasty way to end Memorial Day weekend, indeed!)

Dishes that are normally prepared hot can be just as delicious served cold. Never be afraid to give them a chance! Maybe next time I’ll throw in some fresh cauliflower, maybe even a nice spinach or grilled yellow squash instead of the broccoli. Or if you’re into the possibility of no vinaigrette and possibly some seasoning or crispy bacon bits, it’s worth a try too. This recipe is one take on a dish that should no longer be overlooked. Tortellini, you’re out and ravioli is in!

Enjoy!

~ Jenny V


Jenn’s Cold Ravioli Salad

1 package frozen mini ravioli (round or square, doesn’t matter)

1 package frozen chopped broccoli

1 small jar of marinated artichoke hearts, chopped (and hold onto the liquid from the jar, you’ll need it)

1/2 small onion, diced

Italian Balsamic Vinaigrette 

Directions:

1) Prepare ravioli as directed on the package. Use slotted spoon to remove from water and place into large bowl.

2) Prepare broccoli in the pasta water. Cook until bright green and separated, then strain and add to bowl with ravioli.

3) Combine all ingredients into bowl, including liquid from artichoke hearts. Add enough vinaigrette to lightly toss and coat. Cover and refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Serve.