Potato Leek Soup

Happy December, friends! I feel like the super-late date of Thanksgiving has caused December to sneak up on me even more rapidly than usual. For me, December usually equates to a significant uptick in baking, candy-making, and gift-crafting that keeps me in the kitchen late into the night breaking up toffee and tying ribbon around pretty little boxes of mulling spices before packing them gently in bubble wrap and shipping them to friends and family across the continent.

And as much as I might like to convince myself that I can survive on party mix, mini cheesecakes, and pomegranate salsa, I work really hard to make sure I also have some real food in my fridge to sustain me. Something, warm, easy to prepare after late nights of baking, and filling enough to get through the busy days. To keep cooking to a minimum, I often turn to soups.

I had a bit of a soup explosion last fall and posted A LOT of them on the site: Butternut Squash Soup, my Favorite Chili, Sweet Potato Soup, Colorado Cape Cod Chowder, and more. This year I’ve been repeating many of those soups, but I did discover a simple potato leek soup recipe that I HAD to share with you.

Simple ingredients
Like so many soups, this one has fairly humble components: potatoes, leeks, and an onion make up the base, and a little butter, salt, pepper, and cream bring it all together.

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2014 Calendar!
I can’t decide if I am more nervous or excited about sharing this with you. So bear with me.

Since I started this blog two and a half years ago, it has been solely a digital enterprise. Oh sure the cooking and the gardening and the eating exist beyond this little corner of the internet, but my writing and photography and recipes live only here. Recently I’ve been toying with the idea of bringing some of that work to life, creating something that could live on a wall or a desk or a shelf. And no, I am NOT attempting to write a cookbook: I have neither the talent nor the time to take on a project of that scale.

So how about a calendar?

Sneak peek
It seems only appropriate: the available local produce marks seasonal changes for me just as strongly as weather and leaves and hours of daylight. I’ve sifted through hundreds of photos in the last few weeks to find my favorites for each month, and I am thrilled to present the final product to you. I’ve already received a proof, and I am very happy with the result: thick pages, bright colors, and a clean, simple month design make a good calendar in my mind, and this one has all three!

So if you’ve ever wanted some 30 Pounds of Apples swag, your moment has arrived.  If you think this looks like something you want on your own wall, or something you want to give to someone else, I hope you’ll order one! I really think you’ll like it. Everyone needs a calendar, right?

PS:

I also want to give away a copy to one of you. I get so much out of this blog, but my favorite aspect continues to be the conversation, the question-asking, the story-telling from those of you reading. I’m so glad you’re here.

Another sneak peek!

How to Win the 30 Pounds of Apples 2014 Calendar

1. Leave a comment on this post to answer this question: What is your favorite month, and why is it your favorite?
2. BONUS! To enter twice, head on over to 30 Pounds of Apples on Facebook and like the page. Then, come back to this post and leave me a comment saying you liked the Facebook page, and you’ll be entered twice. Fancy! (New likes only, but thanks to all the early adopters!)
3. Enter by 11:59pm EST on Monday, December 2. Winner will be announced on Tuesday, December 3.
4. Open to US residents only (sorry to my international readers, shipping is so dang expensive!)

Fancy Fried Green Tomatoes

I attended a wedding a couple weeks ago for two good friends I’ve developed since moving to North Carolina. A fairly significant portion of our friendship is based on a love of and fascination with food: we’ve explored North Carolina farms together, swapped recipes, and enjoyed a wide variety of Triangle restaurants. So I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised that their wedding included not one, but two meals, the first an Indian buffet to celebrate Varsha’s culture, and the second an elegant array of quintessential American cuisine to celebrate Eric’s.

I’ve heard people say that no one will remember the food at a wedding, that people have simply come to expect a good meal when they attend a reception. The food at this wedding, however, was anything BUT forgettable. We ate until we couldn’t eat anymore, and then after a few minutes, everyone squeezed in just a little bit more because the food was so. dang. good.

And my favorite treat was not an entreé, not a dessert, but one of the passed hors d’oeuvres for the second meal: a fried green tomato dressed up with a bit of pimento cheese and mint jelly. I was so impressed that after seeing a large pile of green tomatoes at the farmers market the next week, I snatched up a couple to re-create them at home.

Simple green tomatoes

Now work with me on this one. I was really, really skeptical when this tray came around. For one thing, I had never eaten a regular fried green tomato before. I don’t particularly like red tomatoes, so I guess I’ve never felt inclined to try a green one. Don’t worry, I now know I’ve been MISSING OUT for years. I guess I’ll just have to compensate for all that lost time by making these all the time.

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Roasted Red Pepper Pasta

There aren’t enough sauces, ingredients, shapes, cheeses, or styles in the world to burn out my love for pasta. If anything, it seems my taste for the stuff has only expanded since I started this blog; my childhood pasta preferences were limited exclusively to spaghetti with butter and parmesan cheese, and now I favor short, thick pasta dressed in zesty, flavorful sauces. There’s really nothing like writing a food blog to force me into trying new things. And as much as I want to make some of my favorites over and over again, then I’d have nothing new to tell you about! (However, if you haven’t already tried the Penne alla Vodka, you should really make it your top priority.)

Well, maybe your second priority. Because I’m pretty darn happy with this one, too.

All the bits and pieces

Roasted red peppers are pretty easy to come by at the grocery store. Yes, I know that fresh red bell peppers are EVERYWHERE at this time of year (at least in North Carolina), but for a quick and filling weeknight dinner, I went with these. Plus I already had them in my pantry and it was time to use them up.

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Perfect Autumn Caramels

Oh dear friends.

October is doing that thing again where it goes by too quickly. It’s my favorite month: the peak of autumn on most of this continent, and I may have mentioned once or seven-hundred times that autumn provides me the greatest joy of any season. A plentiful harvest of food to enjoy in the moment and store for the winter, repressed pigments unleashed in the forests in a glorious display of color, a chance to layer every article of orange, green, purple, and brown clothing I own in endless combinations for my daily attire (it is the only season I feel my wardrobe is remotely fashionable).

And of course, autumn recipes. This one in particular is the pinnacle of fall flavor unity: a basic caramel sweetened with maple syrup and punched up with a quart of apple cider boiled down to pure apple goodness. And now is really the best time to make them because it’s the one time of year you can buy fresh-pressed, unpasteurized apple cider.

Freshly picked apples

And while yes, the primary purpose of my annual expedition is a supply of local fruit to get me through the winter, the added perk is access to this incredible cider. Unpasteurized apple cider, contrary to its grocery store counterparts, is thick, opaque, and must be refrigerated. But it’s filled with the most incredible flavor: you can still taste which varieties were used to press the cider. Most apple orchards sell it, but you can also occasionally find it in specialty grocery stores or farmers markets. Get out there and get some!

I also had a bottle of maple syrup that I bought in Wisconsin. It seemed appropriate to add to this autumn candy, right?

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Whole Wheat English Muffins

I don’t eat a lot of sandwich bread. Brad can finish off a loaf of bread in three or four days, even faster if he’s trying to eat at home. I, on the other hand, have a tough time getting through even half a loaf before it takes a turn for the moldy.

I’ve always tended to prefer my breads in other forms. Tortillas, bagels, biscuits, cornbreads, and baguettes are much more likely to appeal to me than a loaf of sandwich bread. And more recently, English muffins.

Homemade English Muffins

Considering that I love finding ways to replace my store-bought staples with homemade versions, I am somewhat ashamed to admit that I really haven’t spent a lot of time focusing on breads. I do have some go-to recipes for quite a few quick breads, but not many that I cook on a regular basis (the dramatic exception being my favorite, favorite cornbread, which ends up on my menu quite frequently).  So when I ran across a recipe for this, my current bread-of-choice, I decided it was time.

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Easy Stove-Top Mac and Cheese

I’m just gonna come right out and say it. When discussing cheese and pasta, sometimes one must be blunt.

I like stove-top macaroni and cheese more than baked macaroni and cheese.

This is the truth, straight from me to you.

I mean, that’s not to say I won’t consume a mound of baked mac rapidly if it’s served at a potluck, a cookout, or a picnic. And I won’t say no to a fancy mac, like this one I made last year. But the macaroni of my dreams is prepared on the stove-top: al denté, piping hot, and swimming in thin, just-a-little-bit-spicy, orange cheddar cheese sauce.

Mac and Cheese
Is this a product of being raised on the blue box? Perhaps. Is this a product of wanting my pasta so firm that it nearly crunches between the teeth, a state that is nearly impossible to achieve when baking pasta? That’s probably reading too deeply into the whole thing. Maybe I don’t like the breadcrumbs that typically accompany a baked mac? Maybe I don’t like the waiting?

One significant downside of loving so much a mysteriously created product of food science is that it can be incredibly difficult to replicate at home. What the hell is that orange powder anyway? I theorize it must be fairy dust, for I have searched for years for a mac and cheese recipe that, if not identical, could at least be a satisfactory homemade replacement to the mac and cheese of my childhood.

Friends, I HAVE FOUND IT.

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If there’s one thing I’ve learned in the kitchen, it’s that failure is real. It happens a lot. I share a lot of my successes here, and I have more on the way, but I want to make sure you all are perfectly clear that I do suffer some total, utter failures in this little kitchen of mine. Sierra has been lobbying me for a while to do a post on these disasters, so I sifted through some of my unpublished recipes this week to find the best worsts.

I keep all the photos I take when I shoot recipes, sorted into folders, and let the folders sit in an “Unpublished” folder until a recipe is posted on the site. It turns out that I have almost as many unpublished recipes as published ones. Sometimes they sit unpublished because the photos are hideous, sometimes because their moment in seasonal cooking has passed, and sometimes they are abandoned on my hard drive because the recipe itself (or my execution of it) was a total failure. Here is a sampling of some of those disasters.

Maple Pecan Muffins

Maple Pecan Muffins

Pretty, right!? Ooooooh I was so looking forward to this recipe. Maple syrup, chopped fresh pecans, a thick, warm crumb supporting a pat of melting butter… how could they possibly be bad? This is one I wanna try again because seriously, I still don’t know what happened. The muffins were far too dense, flavorless, hard as hockey pucks on the outside, and crumbling to pieces when removed from the wrappers. See how the batter is sitting far below the top of the muffin wrap? They hardly raised at all! Things only got worse the second day, at which point the whole batch was virtually inedible. So much for the world’s best muffin I was hoping for.

Simple Winter Fruit Salad

Simple Winter Fruit Salad

I suppose, in terms of scope, this doesn’t totally qualify as a disaster. Just more of a meh. When I discovered that someone at my farmers market grows kiwi that ripens in early December, I flipped out. How could such an exotic fruit grow somewhere that I live? In an effort to use up fruit already in my fridge before heading to Colorado for Christmas, I decided to feature the kiwi in a little fruit salad. And in truth, it didn’t taste bad. But it was way, way, WAY too acidic. Kiwis, I discovered, are used in some areas as a substitute for tomatoes in salsas. Pomegranates and apples, of course, are also fairly tangy and acidic. The combination of the three, with nothing like a peach or banana to break them up, made this a really, really tart experience that made my mouth feel the way too many Warheads does. Not a condition I would wish on anyone else.

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Skillet Corn with Zucchini & Onion

For most of my life, I’ve eaten corn one of two ways: from a can or on the cob. (And I’m talking about kernels of corn here, not the corn syrup, corn meal, corn starch, and other corn products that certainly make up most of the “corn” in the average American diet.) In the summer, there was no greater thrill than Dad bringing home a bag full of fresh Colorado sweet corn, and I still look forward to the arrival of corn on the cob every time the season rolls around.

But it’s really only in the last few years that I’ve started appreciating fresh corn as an ingredient, as something more than just a cob of kernels slathered with butter. Fresh corn has flavor and texture that give everything from pizza to fajitas a little something extra.

In this dish, corn is not just an ingredient, it’s the star of the show. With two of my other favorite veggies to support it.

Simple summer veggies

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Swiss Meringue Buttercream

For the first several years of my training as a cake decorator, I used an icing composed primarily of Crisco and powdered sugar. And I’ve gotta admit, for someone decorating 1-2 practice cakes (and in later years, simply styrofoam cake forms) every month, there was nothing better: it’s snow white, doesn’t take long to bring to room temperature, holds it’s shape  and consistency even as it gets warm in the piping bag, and seemingly never spoils.

That icing served me well for a long time. But as I grew older I started to grow wary of the mysterious ingredients in Crisco, and the gritty texture of the powdered sugar irritated me more and more. I started to think perhaps it was time to up my game in the icing department. And it only took a teensy bit of digging around the cake-baking community to know that I needed to learn, above all other things, the art of Swiss Meringue Buttercream.

The very best buttercream
And boy am I glad I did. Each batch I make reaffirms my obsession with this icing: impossibly smooth and creamy, light and airy, shiny and stable, and delicately sweet. It freezes well, so it can be made in large batches even if you only have a small cake to bake. Because the sugar is dissolved, there is no grittiness whatsoever. It’s stable once applied, gives strength to your cakes, and is gorgeous enough to be used as an outer icing with no need for fondant. Plus, it can be adapted to just about any flavor you want.

I’ve now used this buttercream for two wedding cakes, a birthday cake, cookie icing, cupcake icing, and dinner party cakes. It’s extremely versatile and soooo tasty.

So today, I want to share it with you. And it’s not scary! Though it is a bit time-consuming, it’s pretty straight-forward to make. So let’s dive in and make some SMBC!

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