butternut squash macaroni and cheese

I don’t think I do too badly with self-control. I can sit at home all day with banana cream pie in the fridge and not even think about it until it’s time for dessert and tea. I don’t drink alcohol on weekdays (those extra calories are saved for dessert), and it isn’t a struggle, even though we have plenty of it around.

But there are two foods that I have no control with – chocolate chip cookie dough and macaroni and cheese. No kidding, I can eat both until I’m feeling not so good, and even that won’t stop me from craving more as soon as I digest a bit. As a result, macaroni and cheese has been allocated to a once-in-a-blue-moon treat.

But…can I make a version of macaroni and cheese that is healthy enough to eat more often, but still worth craving?

Apparently. I’m not saying that this is hardcore health food, but it’s not so bad nutrition-wise. The squash does an admirable job of replacing some of the cream sauce, and it isn’t just a “hide the vegetables” trick, because the flavor is surprisingly complementary. The final dish was sweeter than regular mac and cheese, but that wasn’t a bad thing. And it doesn’t hurt that the golden color of the squash makes the pasta look even cheesier.

I shouldn’t be shoveling this into my maw without abandon any more than I do regular macaroni and cheese, but at least it’s healthy enough to eat more than twice a year.  Tasty enough too.

One year ago: Fish Tacos

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Butternut Squash Macaroni and Cheese (adapted from Branny Boils Over)

You can adapt this in a number of ways. The easiest is by changing the type of cheese, although if you can, using a combination of cheddar and a good melter will give you consistently great results. Branny adds in a couple ounces of cream cheese, which will make the sauce extra creamy, but I decided I could skip it and make this a little healthier.

Most homemade macaroni and cheese recipes call for a final baking step, which I’ve skipped here simply because I wanted to make this as easy as possible for a weeknight dinner. If you prefer your mac and cheese baked, I recommend pouring it into a broiler-safe 8-inch square pan, topping it with bread crumbs made from fresh bread, and heating it about 5 inches from the broiler for a couple of minutes.

Each serving has about 325 calories.

Serves 8

1 small butternut squash
12 ounces elbow macaroni
salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon powdered mustard
2 cups milk
4 ounces Monterey Jack cheese, shredded (1 cup)
4 ounces sharp cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)

1. Adjust on oven rack to the middle position and heat the oven to 425 degrees. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and lay the halves cut side down on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a butter knife inserted into the flesh meets no resistance. Scoop 2 cups of flesh from the squash and mash it with a fork, or, if you’re willing to put a bit more effort into it (I wasn’t), puree it in a blender or food processor.

2. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of water to a boil over high heat. Once it boils, add about a tablespoon of salt and the pasta. Cook the pasta until it’s tender. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

3. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Once the foaming subsides, add the flour and mustard. Whisk constantly for 1 minute, then gradually whisk in the milk. Bring the mixture to a simmer over medium heat, whisking frequently, then lower the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5-6 minutes, until the mixture has the consistency of heavy cream. Add the cheeses, ½ teaspoon table salt, and the squash, stirring until the cheese melts.

4. Pour the sauce over the drained pasta and stir thoroughly. Serve immediately.

african pineapple peanut stew

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I sort of hate when I find great recipes from blogs that come from a cookbook I already own. I guess it makes sense – now it isn’t just words on a page because someone (in this case, a number of people) is actually recommending it. But man, I sure wish that I could be the person to pick out the oddball recipe from the cookbook and spread the word about how great it is! You can tell I’m not one of those people who finds good stuff at thrift shops, can’t you?

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But can you really blame me; I mean, come on, pineapple, peanut butter, onions, and kale? Who would have expected that to come together into something delicious?

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It did though. No one of the flavors dominated; it wasn’t like I took a bite of stew and thought, “mm, pineappley.” Everything was in balance, coming together to create a meal that was earthy and comforting. I was surprised by how tasty it was, and I’m surprised that I’m already thinking that it would be the perfect way to use up the rest of the jar of peanut butter before we move. Who knew I’d ever crave pineapple stew?

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One year ago: Pumpkin Ravioli

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African Pineapple Peanut Stew
(adapted from Moosewood Restaurant Cooks at Home)

4 servings

I used natural peanut butter, which worked great. Also, I only had Frank’s hot sauce, which isn’t as spicy as some, and I would have loved a little more heat. I think a pinch of cayenne added with the garlic would be great too.

1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 bunch kale or Swiss chard, large stems discarded, leaves chopped coarse
1 (20-ounce) can crushed pineapple, undrained
½ cup peanut butter
1 tablespoon Tabasco or other hot pepper sauce
½ cup chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup peanuts, chopped
1 scallion, sliced

1. Heat the oil in a 5-quart Dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sauté, stirring occasionally, until just browned at the edges, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.

2. Add pineapple to the pot and bring to a simmer; add the greens, cover, and simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally, until just tender. Stir in the peanut butter and hot sauce and simmer for another 5 minutes, until the flavors are blended. Stir in the cilantro just before serving and add salt if necessary. Serve over rice or couscous, garnishing each serving with the peanuts and scallions.

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white bean avocado sandwich

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I believe that people are what they think they are, which is just a less fancy way of saying that you can do just about anything you think you can do. I remember in high school, I consistently got an 89% in my classes, and I always wondered why I hadn’t worked just a bit harder to get an A. But I knew myself as a B+ student, so I worked just hard enough to get a B+.

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Early on in college, more by luck than design, I got straight A’s one semester. And then I knew I could do it – from then on, I was a pretty solid A student.

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Lately I’ve been thinking of myself as an indulgent eater. I see so many people on strict diets – raw food, clean food, low carb, vegan. I don’t, and never plan to, follow any of these eating philosophies. I eat refined flours and sugars, red meat and full-fat cheeses, butter and alcohol. When I compared myself to these people, I felt lax in my eating habits. And once I started believing I ate poorly, my eating habits did, indeed, decline.

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But the truth is, more of the time, I eat very healthfully. All of those treats above? You’ve heard it before – moderation. Most of my snacks are fresh fruit and vegetables. My tiny daily bagel is 100% whole grain. We rarely eat meat on weekdays, and I don’t drink alcohol on weekdays. I do eat dessert every single day, but we’re talking one, maybe two, small cookies.

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I need to remember that I do follow a good diet regularly, so that making healthy choices is easier. This sandwich, introduced to me by the same friend whose recipes for pumpkin muffins and peanut dip I love, is a perfect example of how I like to eat. Whole grains, beans, and lots of vegetables. It’s easy, filling, portable, and most importantly – delicious.

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One year ago: Green Chile Rellenos

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White Bean Avocado Sandwich

Serves 4

I’ve tried mushing the beans up with a potato masher, but I really do prefer the creamy smooth texture a food processor provides. Also, one thing I’ve learned after making this a few times is to overseason the beans. The seasonings in the beans are flavoring the entire sandwich, so add the lemon juice, salt, and pepper until just past how you’d normally prefer them. Because I’m apparently salt-crazy, I also give the avocado slices a light sprinkling of salt, as well as squeeze some more lemon juice over them.

1 (15-ounce) can white beans, drained and rinsed
1 lemon
salt and pepper
8 slices hearty whole-grain sandwich bread
1 avocado, quartered, peeled, and sliced thin
a few leaves of leaf lettuce, torn into sandwich-sized pieces
some alfalfa sprouts
a bit of red onion, sliced thin

1. In a food processor, puree the beans until they’re completely smooth. Season with lemon juice, salt and pepper to taste (see note).  I took notes on about how much of everything to add and then lost them, but I think a reasonable place to start is 2 tablespoons lemon juice, ¼ teaspoon salt, and ⅛ teaspoon pepper.

2. Thickly spread one side of each piece of bread with the bean mixture. Top four of the bread slices with slices of avocado, a bit of onion, and plenty of lettuce. Press some sprouts into the bean mixture on the other four slices of bread. Place the sprout-bread, spout side down (duh) on the other-stuff-bread, slice the sandwich in half if you want, and enjoy.

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pasta with no-cook tomato sauce and fresh mozzarella

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I know I’ve been harping on my love of summer lately, and I did the same thing last year. Honestly, while summer is undoubtedly my favorite season, fall is a not-too-distant second, and really, there are aspects I like about every season. But summer doesn’t just have sunlight and warmth and lightning bugs and beach trips and fireworks and…well, all of those other things I love, but very importantly, it has tomatoes.

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I love fresh summer tomatoes so much that, other than the very occasional container of cherry tomatoes, I don’t bother buying fresh tomatoes any other time of the year. Why set myself up for disappointment? Why bother with those dry, mealy, flavorless winter tomatoes? I’d rather just wait for the real thing.

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And then – then I go crazy. Gazpacho, BLTs, maybe a potato tomato tart, and this pasta. Oh this pasta. It’s a perfect meal. Super simple, it can be made in the time it takes to boil the noodles. The sauce, uncooked, retains the brightness of tomatoes at their peak, accented with smooth fresh mozzarella, tangy green onions, and fruity extra virgin olive oil.

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With almost no cooking and so few ingredients, you need to make sure you’re using the best ingredients you can get. Summer tomatoes, of course. Use whatever your favorite mozzarella is – this time I used buffalo mozzarella, but I’ve also tried the little balls my grocery sells in its olive bar, as well as the shrink-wrapped balls that I’m guessing are more widely available. Also, be careful of your garlic – I once made this (for a large group, no less) with some incredibly strong garlic, and it really ruined the whole dish. I recommend toasting the unpeeled cloves, either in a dry skillet or in the oven if it’s already on.

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Fall is closing in fast (pumpkin and cider and football and colorful trees and crisp air!) but there’s still time! We still have at least a month of wonderful tomatoes left! What are your favorite ways to use them?

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One year ago: Blueberry Sour Cream Ice Cream

Pasta with No-Cook Tomato Sauce and Fresh Mozzarella (from Cooks Illustrated)

This is the recipe directly from Cooks Illustrated. I do make a few small changes. First, I don’t seed the tomatoes, which does make the pasta a little wetter, but I just can’t throw away so much precious summer tomato flavor. I also use less oil, because, you know, fat and all that. And sometimes I reduce the amount of pasta.

Also, you’ll probably want to warm your serving bowl for this recipe.  I usually put the bowl in the oven, turn the oven on to warm for a few minutes, then turn the oven off, leaving the bowl in there until I’m ready for it.

salt
1 pound pasta (a short, curly type is best)
1½ pounds ripe tomatoes, cored, seeded, and cut into ½-inch dice
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
1 medium garlic clove, minced or pressed through a garlic press
3 medium scallions, sliced thin
ground black pepper
8 ounces fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into ½-inch cubes

1. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil in a large pot. Add 1 tablespoon salt and the pasta to the boiling water, stir to separate the noodles, and cook until al dente. Drain and return the pasta to the pot.

2. While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Combine the tomatoes, oil, garlic, scallions, ½ teaspoon salt, and ¼ teaspoon pepper in a medium bowl. Add the tomato mixture and mozzarella to the pasta in the pot and toss to combine. Adjust the seasonings with salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately.

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potato tomato tart

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Dave and I have this conversation nearly once a week:

Me (whining, after baking all day): I’ve been cooking all day and I’m tired and I haven’t even stupid started dinner. Stupid stupid stupid.

Dave: Okay. We’ll order pizza.

Me: We can’t order pizza! I bought ingredients for dinner! If we don’t use them tonight, they’ll go to waste!

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Once the week’s menu is set, it does not change.

But last week something went haywire, and I needed to come up with an extra meal on short notice.

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I had two potatoes that I’d bought and never got around to using (see! they almost went to waste!) and there was a pile of tomatoes leftover from tomato picking. But I couldn’t find any recipes that fit all of my requirements – used plenty of both tomatoes and potatoes, didn’t require any ingredients I didn’t have, and actually sounded good. So I <gasp> came up with something on my own.

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I sliced the potatoes thin and arranged them in a skillet. Once they were crisped on the bottom and mostly cooked through, I arranged sliced tomatoes over the top. Once those were softened, I arranged sliced mozzarella on top of that. It melted almost immediately, so I quickly picked a few leaves from my pathetic sun-starved basil plant, and sprinkled them over the tart.

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It was pizza-like, which is always a plus. The potatoes were browned and crisp on the bottom.  It was pretty. It was easy. It was tasty. It used up ingredients I didn’t know what else to do with. Perfect.

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One year ago: Banana Coconut Muffins

Potato Tomato Tart

Serves 2 for a light meal

I used a mandoline set at 1/8-inch to slice the potatoes and tomatoes.

1 tablespoon olive oil
2 medium Yukon gold potatoes, sliced thin
salt and pepper
2 large (or maybe 3 small) plum tomatoes, sliced thin
2½ ounces mozzarella cheese, sliced thin (or just over ½ cup shredded)
3-4 basil leaves, sliced thin

1. Heat the oil in a medium nonstick skillet over medium heat. Arrange the potatoes in one layer on the bottom of the skillet, overlapping each slice. Season with pepper and a generous pinch of salt. Cover the pan, reduce the heat to medium-low, and cook for 20 minutes, until the potatoes are almost tender and are lightly browned on the bottom.

2. Arrange the tomatoes in one layer of overlapping slices over the potatoes. Cover and cook for 5 minutes, until the tomatoes are slightly softened. Evenly disperse the mozzarella over the tomatoes and cook a few minutes, until it’s melty. Sprinkle the top of the tart with basil.

3. Serve. I was able to move the tart once, by sliding it from the pan to a serving plate. Then I realized it would be easier to cut the tart if it was on a cutting board, but moving it from the serving plate wasn’t nearly as easy as moving it from the pan. By which I mean that the whole thing mostly fell apart. So don’t try to move it around too much.

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vegetable curry

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I’m particular about cookbooks. I’ve gotten into the habit of buying one hopefully comprehensive cookbook per cuisine. It started with Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Marcella Hazen’s Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking, then it was Corinne Trang’s Essentials of Asian Cooking, and most recently, Julie Sahni’s Classic Indian Cooking.

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The thing is, I’ve hardly made anything from any of these. I’ve barely even opened Indian Cooking since I got it for Christmas this year, and to be honest, I’m really not bothered by this. It makes me happy just knowing that I have them, and that someday, hopefully sooner rather than later, I’ll find the time and discipline to learn what I can from each one.

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In fact, I’ve only made a couple of Indian dishes ever, but that was all I needed to be convinced that I’ll love it; I enjoy the basic flavors and ingredients so much. One of my favorites is a vegetable curry dish from Cooks Illustrated, but every time I made it, I was surprised by how long it took. I wanted something simpler that I could reasonably make on a weeknight.

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Then I found a recipe for Aloo Gobi that had a lot of the same ingredients, except less of them, plus a simpler cooking method. It has potatoes in it, as does the CI recipe, but since I wanted to serve my curry mixture over rice, I decided that I could eliminate the potatoes. I also wanted this to be a one-dish meal, but the original didn’t have any protein. Exchanging the potatoes for chickpeas killed two birds with one stone.

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The recipe starts out with sautéing all sorts of delicious aromatics – garlic and ginger of course, but also spices, including curry powder and garam masala. Garam masala is seriously delicious stuff. It’s a blend, so brands will vary, but I’ve been perfectly happy with McCormick’s. Then I added cauliflower, which is my favorite vegetable, and then tomatoes and chickpeas. One ingredient I love after another. At the end, peas are stirred in.

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This was exactly what I was looking for. It has similar ingredients to the Cooks Illustrated recipe that I enjoyed so much, but it’s easy enough to make on a weeknight. Aloo gobi  has similar flavors, but this version has the right nutritional balance for a one-pot meal. I wonder how many more great Indian dishes I can discover by actually looking through a cookbook?

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One year ago: Grits, Onion, and Cheese Souffles

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Vegetable Curry

Serves 3-4

I love this over basmati rice (I like to put a cinnamon stick and some cloves in the pot with the rice cooks) and topped with mango chutney and plain yogurt.

I didn’t have peas when I photographed this. Also, I used too much of the spices; the recipe below calls for less than I used, so if yours looks a little different from the pictures, that may be the reason.

1 tablespoon canola oil
1 tablespoon minced or grated ginger
3 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 teaspoons garam masala
2 teaspoons curry powder
Salt
½ medium head cauliflower, cut into small-medium sized florets
1 (15-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (15-ounce) can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
4 ounces (about ¾ cup) frozen peas

1. In a large skillet, heat the canola oil over medium heat. Add the garlic, ginger, garam masala, and curry powder. Cook until fragrant, 1-2 minutes, stirring constantly.

2. Add the cauliflower and toss to incorporate with the spices, then stir in ½ teaspoon salt, the chickpeas, and the tomatoes with their liquid. Cover the pan and simmer over medium heat for 10 to 15 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender, stirring occasionally. Stir in the peas, cover again, and continue simmering for 2-3 minutes, until the peas are heated through. Serve over rice, topped with plain yogurt and mango chutney, if desired.

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farmer’s market salad with spiced goat cheese rounds

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This is a bit of a misnomer for me, as I haven’t found a convenient farmers market since we moved to Pennsylvania last January. We drove half an hour to one last year and bought some nice eggs, but it didn’t have much in the way of produce. I hear there’s another, 30 minutes in the opposite direction, but honestly, my grocery store sells local produce and I’m lazy.

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Whether you buy your ingredients at a farmers market or the grocery store, you’ll end up with a delicious salad. We’re talking greens, topped with potatoes, green beans, slivered carrots, tomatoes, and, mmm, goat cheese. I used purple potatoes and I wanted yellow beans (yellow green beans?) for maximum color impact, but couldn’t find them. The original recipe also has black olives, and I included them the first time I made this salad, but they didn’t seem to fit with the other flavors.

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Now let me be honest: I put quite a bit of work into this salad. I roasted the potatoes and the green beans, I cut the carrots into the thinnest of coins, and I dutifully rolled discs of goat cheese in a colorful spice mixture. (Oh, and I unceremoniously dumped a pre-washed bag of mixed greens into a bowl.)

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Some of this is nice for maximum potential, but not strictly necessarily. The tomatoes? Expendable; I’m not sure they matched the rest of the ingredients anyway. The spices? Couldn’t taste ‘em. And it’s not like you’re really going to improve on goat cheese anyway. The shallot in the dressing? Nah. You could spend half the time, focusing on just the key components of this salad – the greens, dressing, potatoes, beans, and did I mention how much I love goat cheese? – and get a very similar result.

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On the other hand, if you do you have access to one of those colorful outside markets where the farmers are friendly and the produce is varied, mix it up! It’s a salad, and you’re not going to ruin it by making it your own.

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One year ago: Filbert Gateau with Praline Buttercream

Farmers Market Salad with Spiced Goat Cheese Rounds (adapted from epicurious)

Makes 4 main-course servings

Goat cheese rounds:
2 tablespoons sesame seeds
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1½ teaspoons paprika
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh thyme
¼ teaspoon coarse kosher salt
⅛ teaspoon ground black pepper
16 (½-inch-thick) rounds chilled soft fresh goat cheese (from one 11-ounce log)

Vinaigrette:
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 shallot, minced
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
Coarse kosher salt

Salad:
1 pound baby new potatoes (such as Dutch yellow baby potatoes), halved
1 pound green beans (or mix of green and yellow), trimmed
8 cups (loosely packed) mixed salad greens
12 ounces assorted small tomatoes (such as cherry, grape, and teardrop; preferably mix of red and yellow)

For goat cheese rounds:
Line baking sheet with waxed paper or parchment paper. Mix first 6 ingredients in shallow bowl. Dip cut sides of goat cheese rounds into spice mixture to coat. Place on prepared baking sheet. Chill until ready to serve. DO AHEAD Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and chill. Bring to room temperature before serving.

For vinaigrette:
Whisk first 4 ingredients in small bowl. Gradually whisk in olive oil. Season with coarse salt and pepper. (Can be made 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Rewhisk before using.)

For salad:
Steam potatoes until just tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer to plate; cool. Steam green beans until crisp-tender, about 5 minutes. Rinse under cold water; drain. Pat dry with paper towels. ( Potatoes and green beans can be made 6 hours ahead. Wrap separately in paper towels. Place in resealable plastic bag; chill.)

Combine greens and basil in large bowl. Add enough vinaigrette to coat lightly; toss. Arrange on large platter. Add potatoes and green beans to same large bowl; add remaining dressing and toss. Arrange potatoes and beans atop greens. Scatter tomatoes and olives over. Surround with goat cheese rounds.

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tortellini soup with carrots, peas and leeks

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It turns out that pea-picking is way more fun than strawberry picking. For one thing, it isn’t nearly as crowded. Shocking, I know, that strawberries are more popular than peas. There’s also nothing squishy lurking under the foliage, and the peas are plentiful and just demanding to be picked. And pick we did, far more than we needed for this soup.

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I know, it’s July, and you’re not interested in soup. Rest assured that I tried it both ways, and it’s just as good with frozen peas, so you’re free to wait until the weather cools down a bit. Either way, it takes all of 15 minutes to make. Even better, it covers all of your nutritional bases, making side dishes unnecessary, although we found that a chunk of crusty bread is a welcome addition.

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It comes together like any soup, starting with sautéing aromatics, adding broth, then tortellini, and finally the peas near the end. Pour it into bowls, top with some parmesan, and enjoy an assortment of light, spring flavors.

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One year ago: Cherry Rhubarb Cobbler

Tortellini Soup with Carrots, Peas and Leeks (from Fine Cooking, November 2006)

I doubled, or maybe even quadrupled the carrot. Also, the second time I made it (when I took photos), I didn’t have leeks, so I had to use red onion instead.

2 medium leeks (12 ounces untrimmed)
1 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 cloves garlic, finely chopped (about 1 tablespoon)
½ medium carrot, peeled and finely diced (2 tablespoons)
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
5 cups low-salt canned chicken broth
8 ounces frozen cheese tortellini
1 cup frozen peas
¼ cup (½ ounce) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Grana Padano

1. Trim the roots and dark green leaves from the leeks. Slice the white and light green part in half lengthwise and then slice the halves thinly crosswise. Rinse well and drain.

2. Melt the butter in a 4-quart saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, leeks, and carrot. Season with a couple pinches of salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. (It’s fine if the vegetables brown lightly.) Stir in ¼ teaspoon pepper and cook for about 20 seconds, then add the chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add the tortellini and cook for 3 minutes. Reduce the heat to a simmer and add the peas. Continue to simmer until the tortellini are cooked, 3 to 5 minutes.

3. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Portion the soup into warm bowls, top each with some of the cheese, and serve.

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tofu mu shu

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A friend of mine once, oh-so-innocently, asked me if I had any recipes with napa cabbage. Poor guy. You have to be careful talking to me about food, because I can go on forever. I sent him longwinded comments about a bunch of recipes. I also sent a recipe for tofu mu shu, which I overcomplicated by providing two versions, one a super-anal-Bridget-version and the other simpler. Of course I had only made the super anal one. Of course.

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Mu shu is stir-fry wrapped in a thin bread-like shell. The first several times I made it with pork using Jen’s recipe, which is quite delicious. I did want a vegetarian version though, as we tend to save meat for special occasions (you know, like weekends). I haven’t been able to find the dried tofu cakes that Jen recommends substituting for the pork.

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I’ve had good results from pressing firm tofu, marinating it briefly in soy sauce, and sautéing it in a very hot pan. Tofu prepared this way was excellent in mu shu, so it was included in my super-anal-Bridget-version.

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The other difference between my two recipes is the shape of the chopped ingredients. Jen has exceptional knife skills, and her prepped ingredients for mu shu are beautifully julienned. Frankly, it takes me forever to do. Jen also cooks the eggs as one sheet, then removes it from the pan and cuts it into strips, which is far more attractive than clumpy scrambled eggs.

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But are crisped tofu, julienned vegetables, and eggs cut into strips worth the extra time? I made my easy version first, with unbrowned tofu, scrambled eggs, and coarsely chopped vegetables. Two days later, I made the other version, sautéing the tofu, cooking the eggs as a sheet, and julienning the vegetables.

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Dave and I didn’t notice a difference in flavor in the finished product. The easy version probably took me about 15 minutes less time. With pre-made mu shu pancakes, that makes this a pretty reasonable weeknight meal.

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One consideration is that the more work-intensive method is more attractive, as the ingredients are all approximately the same shape. That could be an important consideration if you’re serving this to guests. I, for one, am happy to have a simpler version of this, so I can eat it that much more often.

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One year ago: Pecan Honey Sticky Buns

Mu Shu Tofu (adapted from Use Real Butter)

Start to press the tofu before preparing the remaining ingredients.

Serves 6

1 (12-ounce package) firm or extra-firm tofu
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon toasted sesame oil
2 teaspoons cornstarch
3 teaspoons canola oil
3 eggs, beaten
8 ounces shiitake mushrooms, stemmed and cut into strips
3 cloves garlic, minced or julienned
1 medium head napa cabbage, halved and shredded
2 cups bean sprouts
4 green onions, sliced
1 can bamboo shoots, roughly chopped
12 mu shu shells
hoisin sauce

1. Cut tofu in half horizontally to make two flat rectangles. Layer it between double layers of paper towels or clean dish towels. Put all of that in a pie plate and put something heavy on top, maybe another pie plate with some cans in it or something. Set it aside while you prepare the other ingredients.

2. In a small bowl, mix together the soy sauce, sesame oil, and cornstarch. Cut the tofu into strips and add it to liquid ingredients; stir gently.

3. Heat 2 teaspoons canola oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat and add the mushrooms. Once the mushrooms are softened (2-3 minutes), add the garlic; cook and stir until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the eggs and stir vigorously with wooden spoon until scrambled and barely moist, about 20 seconds. Add the cabbage and bean sprouts. Sauté until the cabbage is wilted but still a little crunchy, 3-4 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and the tofu mixture. Cook and stir until evenly heated.

4. Heat the mu shu shells according to the instructions on the package. Serve each mu shu shell with a smear of hoisin sauce down the middle. Place several spoonfuls of mu shu on the shell and fold the sides in.

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basic lentil soup

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I recently had a friend visit, and somehow, her week-long trip turned into a wine and cheese fest. The wine part of the trip started immediately. We didn’t start hitting the cheese until the third day, but once we’d started, it quickly escalated. On her last night, for a grand finale, we made macaroni and cheese for dinner. We had cheese and crackers for an appetizer. We had chocolate fondue for dessert, and one of the dippers was cheesecake. We also had a lot of wine. It was glorious.

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The next day, however, not so much. Poor Ramie was stuck on planes all day, but after dropping her off at the airport, I came home and immediately worked out. Then I considered what to make for dinner – something healthy(!) and easy that didn’t require a trip to the store. I didn’t have salad ingredients and the weather was rainy and cold, so lentil soup was exactly what I wanted.

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Mark Bittman has a simple recipe in his How to Cook Everything Vegetarian that calls for lentils, carrots and celery to be cooked in broth. An onion is supposed to be sautéed separately and then stirred into the cooked lentils. What is that about? Why am I using an extra dish, skipping any sort of caramelization of the carrots and celery, and denying my broth of soaking up onion flavor as it simmers? With no explanation for such an unusual method, I chose to cook this in a more traditional order, sautéing all of the aromatics together before adding the broth and lentils. I also decreased the oil and increased the amount of vegetables, because, you know, the cheese and wine detox.

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The soup was just perfect. It was simple, it was filling, it was healthy, and it was delicious. The lentils were tender but not mushy, and the broth was perfect with some rustic whole wheat bread. It goes to show that healthy food can be just as tasty as something more indulgent. Of course, the next day we had pizza for dinner. I don’t want to go too crazy with taking a break from cheese.

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One year ago: Florida Pie

Basic Lentil Soup (adapted from Mark Bittman’s How to Cook Everything Vegetarian)

Obviously, Bittman calls for vegetable broth (or water) in his Vegetarian cookbook, but since I’m not actually a vegetarian, I usually use chicken broth. How much salt you need to add will depend a lot on your broth.

2-3 main dish servings

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 carrot, diced small
1 celery stalks, diced small
1 onion, diced small
2 cloves garlic, minced
¾ cup lentils, washed and picked over
4 cups chicken broth
1 bay leaf
freshly ground black pepper
salt to taste

1. Heat the oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the carrots, celery, and onions and cook until just brown around the edges, about 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the garlic; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in the lentils, broth, bay leaf, and black pepper, increase the heat to medium-high, and bring to a boil. Once the mixture boils, reduce the heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until the lentils are tender, about 30 minutes. Adjust the heat as necessary to keep the soup at a simmer.

2. Once the lentils are tender, remove the bay leaf and adjust the seasonings as necessary. Serve. The soup can be made a few days in advance and refrigerated.

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