Sweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

Sweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

When we first moved to our house about six months ago, so much was going on that we temporarily started eating dinner much later than normal. Not that we were burning any midnight oil, but Steve was regularly getting home from work at 8:30p.m. or later, and if by that point we hadn’t figured out what we were having for dinner (which did occasionally happen because lets be honest, I’m not winning any awards for organization) we were completely screwed. That is, unless we’re interested in Denny’s or IHOP (we weren’t).  It was even our personal experience in that time that some places that are supposed to close by 9pm will regularly close even earlier without notice if they feel like it.

Sweet and Spicy Pickle ChipsSweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

Real Urban Barbecue is just down the street from us and was one of the only places we could reliably count on to stay open until 9pm that wasn’t a fine dining restaurant (of which there are many) or a bar (of which there are few, many of which are attached to fine dining restaurants). This was the main reason we went there the first time, but now we keep going back because it is actually just a great place that has delicious food. We love their pulled pork and that they always have a variety of sauces (plus whatever their seasonal sauce happens to be at the time). They also serve “Brain Buster Pickles,” which are basically sweet and spicy (emphasis on the spicy) pickle chips that are incredibly addictive. I’m generally more of a dill pickle girl — my Jewish heritage requires me to feel this way. But even I can’t deny how great they are, and Steve loves these. Possibly more than anything else there.

Sweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

This lead me to try to come up with a reasonable copy at home, with the spice dialed down a bit. I can do some spice, and I prefer these to have some, but really the overpowering heat just prevents me from eating as many as I’d like, which is more than two. I think I managed to get the flavor to be a pretty spot on replication. You can always add more spice to taste, but you can’t take away, so I erred toward a lighter dose of red pepper flakes which gets spicier over time.

Sweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

Sweet and Spicy Pickle Chips

Inspired by the Brain Buster Pickles at Real Urban Barbecue

If you have a mandolin slicer, you can use this to cut up the cucumbers. Real Urban’s pickles are, I think, obviously cut with a professional slicer. Or someone just a lot more skilled than I am. But it’s not really important — cut them any way you like. You can add some cayenne pepper to make these hotter, but I would add very little, as the brine will get more spicy the longer it sits in the fridge.

1 lb pickling or mini cucumbers
2 cups of Apple Cider Vinegar
1/4 cup of water
1/2 cup of sugar
1 heaping tablespoon of honey
2 tablespoons of salt
1 teaspoon of mustard seeds
1/2 a teaspoon of turmeric
1/2 a teaspoon of red pepper flakes

Slice your cucumbers, then place in a large bowl or a mason jar. In a saucepan, heat the cider vinegar, sugar, honey, water, salt, mustard seeds, turmeric, and red pepper flakes to a boil. Let boil for one minute, then remove from the heat and pour over the sliced cucumbers. Cool for a few minutes, then cover and place in the refrigerator. The pickles will be ready to eat after about a day or two. The longer you let them sit, the more spice will develop, but I’m betting they won’t last very long.

 

Grilled Asparagus and Chicken Salad with Blue Cheese and Baby Kale

Grilled Asparagus and Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

In the last two or three years I can count the number of times we’ve used our grill on one hand. I don’t really know why because my love for BBQ and grilled things in general knows no bounds. For some reason it always seems like a bigger deal to me than it really is. Translation: We’re lazy. It’s all the way outside and we’re all the way inside, with a stove.

But recently that all changed when we began the demolition of a wall off our kitchen. This was a necessary renovation that we’ve been planning and patiently awaiting for months, and as renovations go, it has gone really smoothly. There haven’t been any major surprises, and the only thing pushing the the timeline further right now is this incessant rain Chicago is having. I’m now cringing as I write those last few sentences hoping that I’m not jinxing us.

Grilled Asparagus and Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

I was so excited that this project finally got underway that I completely forgot about what happens when you have construction in your house. Everything is a mess all the time — there is no escape and there is no hope. Try as you might, the dust and filth is everywhere. At the end of the first day I went into the kitchen thinking about dinner, and realized that every surface, item, tool, cutting board, you-name-it, was covered in about 1/8th of an inch of brick mortar dust. Fun times.

At that point it was a bit late and we were starving. We wanted to minimize cleaning and the amount of time between us and dinner, and the grill seemed like the simplest solution. It worked out beautifully because we have a gas grill and this amazing salad was done in about 20 minutes.

Grilled Asparagus and Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

So what can I say about this? It’s insanely delicious. It’s a snap to pull together (especially if you have a gas grill). It has the correct mix of textures and flavors. It is everything I want all the time in the summer. It manages to be clean and refreshing while also being savory and rich. It feels like a pretty classic and/or obvious combination to me but I guess salads like this usually contain steak and don’t usually contain asparagus (or kale for that matter). Those salads are really missing out.

Grilled Asparagus and Blue Cheese Chicken Salad

Oh, and the dressing is my favorite vinaigrette. It is my go-to salad dressing at this point. The cider vinegar provides just enough acidity without being overpowering, and the honey balances the mustard out beautifully. And of course, I suppose it even gets a few points for being red, white, and blue at a particularly appropriate time. If you wanted to add some more crunch to this salad, I think some sunflower seeds, walnuts, or fresh radishes would be a great addition, but not at all required.

 

Grilled Asparagus and Chicken Salad with Blue Cheese and Baby Kale

Make sure your chicken breasts are an even thickness before putting them on the grill. This will prevent you from overcooking the outside while the inside is finishing. More detail here, but you really don’t have to go this crazy for this recipe.

*We have a gas grill, so making this was extremely fast for us. If you don’t, I understand you’ll probably not want to set up charcoal just to make this dish, but this salad is also a great addition to whatever else you might have in a bigger spread. This would be a lovely side salad with the chicken left out.

Dressing recipe adapted from Bon Appétit, January 2012

1 5oz package of baby kale greens
2 Boneless Skinless chicken breasts
¼ red onion, diced
1 cup grape tomatoes, sliced in half
4-5 oz blue cheese, crumbled (gorgonzola also works)
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed 

For the Vinaigrette:
1/3 cup olive oil
1.5 tablespoons of cider vinegar
1 tablespoon of dijon mustard
1 heaping tablespoon of honey
Plenty of freshly cracked black pepper

*Preheat your grill. Place the kale, red onion, tomatoes, and cheese into a large bowl and set aside. Put all the vinaigrette ingredients into another bowl, wisk them together with a fork, and set aside.

Place the chicken breasts in a resealable plastic bag and pound them a bit, until they are about 3/4 of an inch thick. Take them out and put them on a plate, then season them on both sides with a generous amount of salt and pepper. Trim the asparagus and place them on another plate, then toss with a little olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Grill the chicken for 2-3 minutes on each side, until they have a bit of golden crust and some char. They won’t need very much time, and chicken tends to get dry really fast, so err on the side of less time. They will continue to cook for a bit after you remove them; just make sure they aren’t pink when you cut into them.

Remove the chicken from the grill to a clean plate and add the asparagus spears. These really need barely any time to cook. Check them very regularly to see that they have some char and keep turning them until they’re cooked on all sides (about 2-3 minutes), and remove them back to their plate when they’re done. After they’ve cooled slightly, chop the asparagus and the chicken into bite sized pieces and toss them into the bowl with the kale salad mixture. Cover with as much vinaigrette as you prefer and mix everything well. Serve immediately while everything is still warm.

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

For Valentine’s day two years ago, Steve surprised me by buying us two seats in a cooking class at The Wooden Spoon in Andersonville. The class was actually the weekend before Valentine’s day since we had made reservations at a restaurant in the city we’d been wanting to try for a while on real V-Day. We had a wonderful time at the class, and not as wonderful a time at the restaurant. In general my experience being out on Valentine’s day has been that there are huge crowds out for the night, and the food quality lessens overall because the kitchen is trying to pump out many courses as quickly as possible for loads of people. But of course–who are we to actually change our actions based on experience? This didn’t stop us from making a reservation at a Michelin starred restaurant otherwise known for its excellent cuisine. That totally absolves it from normal holiday-related restaurant clichés right?

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Wrong-o. I have no doubt that this restaurant is a fantastic place under normal circumstances that we fully intend to return to at some point (which is why I’m purposely not revealing the name) but I think we’ve officially learned our lesson. Needless to say, we opted to stay in this year and I wanted to cook something meaningful. As relatively food obsessed people, we’ve had many meaningful meals, but making something from our previous Valentine’s day cooking class was obviously nostalgic and relevant.

Even though our dinner out wasn’t great, the class was really fun and we made some fantastic food; the menu was: Salad of Fried Mozzarella with Arugula, Prosciutto, and Homemade Breadsticks, Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin SeedsPork Tenderloin Scaloppini with Roasted Potatoes and Grilled Asparagus, and Chocolate Mousse with Whipped Cream.

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

The class was completely full — a group of 10 or so couples, and different parts of different recipes were given to each couple to eventually create all the courses. As someone who cooks a lot, I was hoping to get assigned something that I had never done before and not end up doing some boring part of the meal like chopping 50 shallots and then standing there watching everyone else. Luckily, everyone was engaged the whole time, and everyone got a chance to do a lot of different things. My husband and I actually ended up making all of the pork tenderloin, which was great because I have leaned vegetarian for much of my adult life and have little experience with cooking meat. It did, however, require that we chop about 50 shallots.

Our instructor was very knowledgable and everyone in the class seemed to really enjoy themselves. But the most important part: the food was superb. Most everything was something I would make again, but the butternut squash soup was special. Yes, this was the very definition of butternut squash soup.

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

And in the case that you’re not as picky about your squash soups as I am, you might be wondering exactly what that definition is. I love butternut squash soup, but there are definitely bad versions. Some are so sweet that the squash flavor is gone, some are chunky instead of smooth, some bizarrely call for white onions (which are way too strong). As you could guess, all of these have been made by me previously. For some reason I could never find a recipe that had the exact balance of smooth/savory/creamy and with a hint of sweet flavor that made up the model in my mind for what it should be. This soup manages to hit all these notes perfectly.
Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Definitely do not skip the butter toasted pumpkin seeds – they add depth and richness (along with a drizzle of sour cream or Crème fraîche, if you please).

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

Butternut Squash Soup with Butter Toasted Pumpkin Seeds

As I mentioned above, the internet is loaded with butternut squash soup recipes and I have tried many of them — in my opinion they all pale in comparison to this one. You could lessen the cider by about 1/4 – 1/2 of a cup if you’re concerned about the sugar and I don’t think it would make a huge difference.

Lightly adapted from The Wooden Spoon in Chicago

For the Soup:
2 tablespoons of olive oil
3 tablespoons of butter
2.5 pounds of butternut squash, peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2 inch cubes (about 6 cups)
3 medium leeks, diced (white and light green parts only)
2 small carrots, diced
2 celery ribs, diced
2 small Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and chopped
2 teaspoons of dried thyme
1 tablespoon of minced fresh sage leaves (or dry)
5 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (or use water)
1.25 cups of apple cider (I used Knudsen No Sugar Added)
3/4 cup of heavy cream or half & half
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon of cayenne pepper
pinch of allspice
Creme Fraiche for garnish

For the Pumpkin Seeds:
1 cup of pumpkin seeds (Pepitas)
2 tablespoons of butter
1 tablespoons of sugar
1 teaspoon of cinnamon
pinch of cayenne

Melt the butter and oil in a dutch oven or heavy saucepan over medium-high heat. Add the squash, leeks, carrot, and celery. Saute until slightly softened, about 15 minutes, then mix in apples, thyme, and sage. Add the stock and cider and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium-low and then cover and simmer until apples are tender, stirring occasionally (about 30 minutes). Let cool slightly before you attempt to puree the soup.

While the soup is cooling a bit, make the toasted pumpkin seeds. Heat the butter in a small skillet, then add the pumpkin seeds and cook over medium – medium-low heat until they are lightly browned and begin to pop. Transfer them to a paper towel to drain the excess butter. Mix the sugar, cinnamon, and cayenne together in a small bowl and then pour over the hot seeds. Stir to fully combine.

Working in batches, puree the soup in a blender and then return to the pan, or make your life much easier and use an immersion blender (seriously, just buy one already. It will improve your life, I promise). Stir in the heavy cream, cinnamon, cayenne, and allspice. Enjoy your soup with a sprinkling of seeds and a dollop of creme fraiche.

Egg Breakfast Casserole with Feta and Spinach

Egg Breakfast Casserole with Feta and Spinach

Over the course of the last few years I lost some weight. Actually, not just some weight, a very good amount — about 35 pounds. This was a big deal for me, because I’ve been heavy for much of my life and that particular time, I really feel like the weight was coming off and staying off because I had finally managed to figure out a lot of underlying metabolic issues and other habits that I was previously unable to manage. This recipe takes a lot of those things into account, and is one of the first recipes I started making when I was trying to make an effort to cook specifically for weight loss.

eggs and spices

I learned very quickly that eating a lot more protein than I *thought* I needed made a huge difference in just about everything. My energy level, my hunger throughout the day, my desire (or lack thereof) to really even think about food at all changed drastically. I went from being someone who was hungry at all times to thinking about eating maybe twice a day – for me that is unprecedented, and something I never really thought could be possible. It completely changed the way I thought about nutrition and my view of different types of foods.

feta cheese

Specifically, a high protein breakfast made a huge difference for me. When I first found recipes similar to this, I questioned how good eggs baked in a casserole dish and stored in the fridge throughout the week could be. As it turns out, they do keep pretty well, which is great news because that makes this an incredibly speedy alternative to cooking eggs or egg whites every morning.

eggs and spices

Egg Breakfast Casserole with Feta and Spinach

There are a thousand ways you can change this recipe, and I have changed it around many times. I think this version is probably my favorite. This dish really benefits from a strong cheese; good feta is really good in this, as is blue cheese. I’ve used soft goat cheese in here as well, but the flavor is not as sharp and I don’t like it as much. You can obviously swap out spinach for whatever greens you’ve got (kale and chard both work well).

Makes 6-8 servings, adapted from Kalyn’s Kitchen.

About 8 ounces of spinach, washed
1 tablespoon of olive oil
4 ounces (or a 1/2 cup) of Feta Cheese (I used Montchevre Goat Milk Feta).
12 eggs
1 teaspoon of dried rosemary
1 teaspoon of dried thyme
1 teaspoon dry minced onion

1/2 teaspoon of dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/4 teaspoon hungarian paprika
1-2 tablespoon of parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon of hemp seeds (optional, but another excellent source of protein)
Salt and pepper to taste

Preheat the oven to 375 F and then wash the spinach. Heat the olive oil over medium high heat in a pan large enough to contain the greens. When the oil is hot, add the spinach and stir until it is just starting to wilt, about 3 – 5 minutes. Remove the pan from heat and set aside.

Butter or oil a 13″ x 9″ casserole dish. Pour the cooked spinach into the dish and spread evenly over the bottom. Crumble the feta evenly over the spinach. In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and all seasonings together. Pour the eggs over the spinach and feta, then sprinkle the top with a little parmesan cheese.  Place in the oven for approximately 45 minutes, or until the casserole is set and the top is brown. If using hemp seeds, sprinkle on top after the cooking is finished.

Slice the casserole and store it in the fridge for later consumption (this will keep for about a week). I reheat mine for 45 seconds in the microwave, but microwave cooking times vary. This is also delicious topped with sriracha or tabasco sauce.