31 March 2015

A salad to say "so long, winter"

I thought EatSimplyWell's idea for a late winter salad seemed good, but the more I read the recipe, the more substitutions (and additions) I wanted to make.  So here's my version, by now quite heavily altered, for these early spring days best spent using up the end of the winter produce.

Barley and Root Vegetable Salad with Citrus

Serves 2-4

⅓ cup barley
1 teaspoon salt, divided, plus more to taste
1 medium carrot, peeled and cut into thin sticks
½ red bell pepper, cut into ½-inch squares
2 beets, peeled and diced
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
Pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon ground flax seed
2 green onions, chopped
3 teaspoons chopped fresh cilantro
¼ cup grapefruit or orange juice
1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 tablespoon fresh grated ginger
2 clementines, peeled and divided into segments

Add the barley to a pot with 2 1/14 cups water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Bring the water to a boil, then reduce the heat to a low simmer, covered, until the barley is tender and the water is absorbed, about 45 minutes. Remove from heat and drain off any excess water. This will make 2 cups.

Preheat the oven to 400º F. Place the beets on a parchment-lined baking sheet and drizzle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper. Toss to coat evenly. Roast for 20 minutes, then add the carrots and pepper. Continue to roast until beets are fork-tender and everything is slightly browned, another 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool slightly.

In a small bowl, combine the flax seed and 3 teaspoons water and set aside to soak for at least 1 minute. Then add the green onions, juice, ginger, soy sauce, cilantro, and the remaining tablespoon of the olive oil in a medium-sized bowl and stir to combine. Add salt and pepper to taste. Add the barley and chopped root vegetables and toss the whole mixture to combine thoroughly. Transfer the mixture to a large serving bowl and sprinkle the clementine segments over the top.

27 March 2015

Gin: a Buyer's Guide

I love gin in the spring and summer (and also the fall and winter, but you know...).  Gin and tonics are like grown-up Sprite, and gin pairs so well with any fresh fruit juice.  So, this is how I justify geeking out on gin for you, my loyal readers, and helping you figure out how to stock your liquor cabinets for spring while also refreshing my own options.

Expensive gins I do not buy but think are interesting

Hendrick's Gin ($35) gives off a boutique, old-world vibe, but it was actually introduced onto the market in 1999. It's a pretty special product, though, because besides just juniper in the infusion, they thrown in Bulgarian rose and cucumber. These added flavors are subtle, but with the addition of fresh cucumber slices, they become more apparent.  It's unique and quite tasty, and it's best sipped with the aforementioned cucumber and lemon slices rather than getting buried in heavy tonic water.

Williams Chase ($60) is the most expensive on this list, but it's also pretty interesting, with juniper, apple, and elderflower, along with a little citrus.  Like Hendrick's, try it without mix-ins first. Be forewarned, this U.K. gin is hard to find in many parts of the U.S. I'm too cheap to buy this, so if anyone is thinking of sending me a birthday present in July, email me and I'll give you my street address.

Mid-priced gins you can bring to a party without embarrassing yourself:

Tanqueray 10 ($30) is described as having a varied bouquet and a subtle citrus note.  I may be drinking too much of the rough stuff, but to me it tastes like nothing. So, if you're not too into juniper flavor, this smooth, inoffensive concoction is for you. It's Tanqueray's small-batch gin, and their marketing is great (how many times have you heard people ordering a "Tanqueray and Tonic"?  Now, how many times have you heard anyone order a "Seagram's and Tonic"?) Because it's so uninteresting, I think it works best in a martini.

Beefeater Gin ($23) is old-school, heavy juniper flavor that stands up really well to tonic. It's also got a nice hint of citrus and a more complex collection of herbal notes that some of the cheaper gins lack. Tastes like a Christmas tree, but a pretty smooth Christmas tree (which I mean as a compliment, by the way).

Boodles ($23), affectionately termed "proper English gin", has been around since 1847.  It's harder to find than Beefeater in run-of-the-mill liquor stores, but it's a more interesting version of gin along a similar old-school vein.  The recipe of aromatics and botanicals includes coriander, sage, cassia bark, nutmeg, rosemary, caraway, angelica root and juniper berries. It makes a great dry martini.

I am not including Bombay Sapphire, as I do not know that the hell that is.  Gin is not blue and should not taste like a bouquet from the grocery store.

The gins I keep buying again and again:

Disclaimer: I think gin should taste like you're sucking on a Christmas tree, and I don't mind if it burns a bit going down.

New Amsterdam ($16): this is a smoother, lighter version of a very affordable gin.  It's brighter in citrus overtones with a pretty subtle juniper flavor, and it's slightly creamy.  So, actually, this one does not taste like you're sucking on a Christmas tree, but I like it, anyway. Works just fine in G&Ts and is particularly delicious with grapefruit juice.

Gilbey's ($14): Made since 1857 in England, this is another piney, citrusy gin, but the pine is lighter, the citrus a little brighter, with just a touch or burn.  This, like all of the gins in this category, makes a good G&T or other citrusy cocktail. It's also quite nice in a gimlet or Negroni, because it's not too rough.

Gordon's ($12): Yes yes, I know you think this is getting into rot-gut territory, but it's actually a winner in the Huffington Post Gin and Tonic Taste Test.  And why?  Because it tastes like gin should: a mouthful of Christmas tree with just a little paint remover thrown in.  Just kidding, though the juniper flavor is pretty simplistic compared to Boodles or Beefeater.  Your martini might be a little rough, but the aforementioned cocktails will work just fine with this Grandpa-style gin.  I love it, actually, and am trying to stage a hipster-style comeback, ala PBR.

Seagram's ($12): I've seen this on a lot of "good budget gins" lists lately, and I haven't tried it since my grad school days in its birthplace of southern Indiana, but unless it's changed quite a bit since the early 00s, I say to you: no.  Just. No.

24 March 2015

Quickest-ever Indian food: Curried Red Lentils with Greens

In keeping with my self-professed love for rice and beans, I'm posting this easy, fast recipe for curried lentils. It's comforting but also satisfies your craving for Indian take out (if you're like me and there's no place around!), and it's technically rice and beans, but these little red lentils break down into a chunky, potato-y sauce in no time.  Add whatever other vegetables you want to this; I can imagine roasted cauliflower, potato chunks, or okra would be great. Don't swap out a different kind of lentils, though, or you'll never get a sauce, just highly seasoned, intact lentils.

Curried Red Lentils with Greens

Serves 6-8

1 tablespoon coconut oil
1 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 small yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons fresh grated ginger
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ to 1 whole jalapeno, minced (depending on desired spiciness)
1 quart water
1 14-oz. can coconut milk
2 cups red lentils
2 tablespoons chopped cilantro stems, plus chopped leaves for garnish
½ lb. kale or mustard greens, coarsely chopped
Salt and black pepper to taste
2 teaspoons lemon juice, plus wedges for serving
Cooked rice for serving

In a large saucepan, heat the coconut oil over medium heat.  Add the cumin, turmeric, curry powder, and onion and cook, stirring constantly, until onion just begins to soften, about 2 minutes.  Add the garlic, ginger, jalapeno, and about a teaspoon of salt and continue to cook until onion is soft and mixture is fragrant, about 6 minutes.

Add the water, coconut milk, lentils, and cilantro stems and bring to a simmer.  Reduce to medium heat, cover, and cook, stirring occasionally, until lentils are tender, about 20 minutes.  Add the kale and cook until tender, about 5 minutes.  Stir in the lemon juice and season with salt and pepper.

Serve over cooked rice with lemon wedges and chopped cilantro.

20 March 2015

Springy links for the weekend!

It's not quite spring yet, but in most parts of the country, it really feels like it! I don't care if it snows three feet tomorrow, today I am going to make the most of this.


When is there a better time to dust off your tiki bar cocktail mixing skills than right now? Rated R Cocktails is campy, fun, and has great recipes. (Ahem...the R is rum.  Get your minds out of the gutters!)

It may not be a recipe blog, but I love a good story, and Tell the Bartender is my favorite house-cleaning companion on Saturday mornings.  Give it a listen.


Heidi Swanson's blog, 101 Cookbooks, is always delicious, beautiful, and inspiring.  But her Cali-style cooking just seems especially compelling this time of year.

Isn't this Easter bunny cake from The Cake Blog gorgeous? I am too lazy to make it, but I enjoy looking at the nice photos.


Interested in eating and drinking in the Denver area?  5280 magazine just came out with their annual "best new restaurants" issue with some great-sounding suggestions.  And if you're headed there, see what museums are free to complete the trip.

(PS--If you really want to get serious about plunging into a springy environment, check out my post on weekend getaways from earlier this month.)

17 March 2015

Ghosts of St. Patty's past

It's a blast form the past (well, 2010), but it's still my favorite St. Patty's Day post, and coddle is still my favorite St. Patty's Day food...enjoy! -- NR, 3.17.15

I have some Irish roots in my background, like so many Americans, and like most of the Americans I know, it doesn't have anything to do with how or why I celebrate St. Patrick's Day. I celebrate it because it's an excuse to drink and eat, and because it comes at the end of a rough winter, and because by the middle of March I have been so busy working that I haven't spent time with friends since December 31, and so on. And really, for me any holiday is about the food, drink, and company. (Oh, and please stop harassing me for not wearing green on March 17. Are we all still in fourth grade?!)

As I circle around my mid-30s, I also have this annoying habit of waxing nostalgic over trivial things--I blame the presence of my entire high school class on facebook. But since it's me torturing everyone within earshot, those memories are food-fueled.

As a kid growing up in the Chicago area in the 80s, St. Patty's Day meant the toxic, nuclear-green McDonald's Shamrock shake. It was thick and milky and tasted ever so slightly of mint. I loved it because you could only get it for a limited time. My husband tells me that they did not have these in Alabama McD's, so maybe Illinois was special. I hadn't had one in years when I got a craving one spring break at the University of Illinois and I dragged my roommate along. They sucked, actually. Little kids have terrible taste.

I did not have a habit of going out to the bars on this Holiest of Holy Drinking Nights as a student. I suppose I had homework. But in my late 20s, I was able to live out the college dream in Casper, Wyoming. I was a member of the Wyoming Symphony then, and we always had a concert over St. Pat's week. After a rehearsal that lasted until 10:30pm (I called this the "rude awakening" rehearsal, because it was our first in a series leading up to the concert, and we always sounded terrible), my friends and I would drive up the main street and pass the dear old Wonder Bar, filled to the brim, decorated outside with random pukers on the sidewalk and cops glaring from every corner. I'm serious--you wouldn't guess it, but those people know how to party. I'd cram my way in to enjoy a local beer from a fine plastic cup, gulping whatever I could before I got bumped and spilled it all over the belligerent, overly made-up woman nearest me. I guess it was fine that I stayed in doing homework when I was younger.

Now that I am old and cranky (with a metabolism to match), I prefer making traditional Irish foods I don't have to chew. Go here for my favorite, colcannon. But when I was a graduate student at Indiana University, I enjoyed St. Patty's meals (and many other meals, and many many other pints), at a great watering hole called the Irish Lion. It's the real deal, complete with those ridiculous yards of beer you have to put on the floor to drink from and authentic Irish grub. Being one of the few bars in southern Indiana with Guinness on tap, I visited somewhat regularly. And when it was cold outside, when it had been a rough week, and particularly when my brain was swimming in alcohol, I would feebly point in my menu to the bowl of coddle, famed Irish cure for the hangover, and look pleadingly at my server.

6 Servings

1 pound sliced bacon
2 large onions, sliced
2 cloves of garlic, minced
4 large potatoes, thickly sliced
2 carrots, thickly sliced
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper to taste
12 oz. light beer (like Budweiser)

In a dutch oven, fry bacon until very crisp. Remove bacon but leave bacon grease, then sautee onion and garlic in the grease until soft.

Add the potatoes and carrots to the pot and pour in two cups of water. Add the salt and bay leaf, cover, and bring to a boil. Lower heat to medium and cook for 10-15 minutes, or until potatoes are very soft.

With a hand masher or large spoon, smash up the potatoes so that you have some chunks and some smooth bits that help to thicken the broth. Pour in the beer and return the bacon to the pot. Stir, cover, and simmer on low heat for 30 minutes. Remove bay leaf and add pepper to taste.

*Vegetarian friends can omit the bacon and cook veggies in olive oil. Cook Morningstar Breakfast Strips until crisp (I find the microwave works best) and crumble into individual bowls of soup.

Please do not add bouquets de garni, heirloom vegetables, or garnish with freshly chopped parsley. That's too fancy. It's not right.

13 March 2015

Weekend Getaways for your Spring Fever

Spring never really comes in March here in the Rockies, and it's spotty at best in most areas of the country.  So why do we always get such unbearable spring fever as soon as February is over?  Is it because Target so cruelly busts out the swimwear and whimsical straw hats, or do they do it because they know we want to see it?  Whether you're in a position to go somewhere and experience a little early spring or you're just into fantasizing about it on the couch in your sweatpants while it's snowing (no judgement), here are some short trips that might fit the bill:

Asheville, North Carolina

Nestled in North Carolina’s Smoky Mountains region, Asheville has a cute college vibe in the downtown area, a thriving arts scene, and breathtaking mountain scenery without all the snow. Architecture buffs love the town’s Art Deco-influenced buildings, as well as the Biltmore Estate. Modeled after a French castle, Biltmore Estate ranks as the largest private residence in North America. Shoppers can scoop up fine arts and crafts at local artisan galleries, while nature enthusiasts can foray into the surrounding mountain preserves that burst with colorful wildflowers when spring comes around.

Austin, Texas

Austin is the “Live Music Capital of the World.” With nearly 200 venues, Texas’s capital is also the state’s most culturally rich city, with museums and art galleries galore. Basically, it's not very Texan. Temperatures averaging in the low 80s in the spring, so this is as late as you'd (I'd) want to go. It’s also when bat-viewing is at its best--you can watch up to 1.5 million bats (considered the largest urban bat colony in North America) take off every night from Austin’s Congress Avenue Bridge in search of food.

Charleston, South Carolina

Few cities are more lovely, genteel, and downright Southern than Charleston, South Carolina. Visiting Charleston in the spring is best, with the temperatures warm but bearable. People are friendly and the pace is slow; combine that with the blooming flowers, fantastic restaurants, upscale shopping, and a plethora of beach options nearby and you might stay the whole week. 

Death Valley, California

The cheapest way to see what Mars might actually look like, you might want to check out the vast open spaces, arid mountains, rolling sand dunes, old ghost towns, and barren salt pans of Death Valley. Despite its name, this national park comes alive with wildflowers through mid-April, and with summer highs soaring above 120 degrees and winter lows dropping below freezing, spring is the prime season to discover this 3.3-million-acre park’s many wonders: Hike the lowest place in North America (almost 300 feet below sea level), surf a sand dune, visit a Moorish-style castle, and cool down at the top-notch Furnace Creek Inn.

New Orleans, Louisiana

New Orleans is colorful, chaotic, and there’s no better way to discover the city where jazz was born than by attending its crowning fête, Jazz Fest (late April/early May). The 10-day cultural event gathers musical acts from across the globe to perform on multiple local stages, while Louisiana cuisine and crafts are showcased at the Fair Grounds Race Course. And come on, the food is crazy good. 

Santa Catalina Island, California

Though its heyday as a stomping ground for movie stars passed with Hollywood’s golden age, Catalina Island, 22 miles off the coast of Long Beach, California, is still an idyllic seaside escape with a year-round Mediterranean climate (and nary a freeway in sight). Avalon, the only real city on this 75-square-mile isle, is a striking place where the preferred mode of transport is by golf cart, not car. Check out the Art Deco mermaid murals adorning the grand 1920s circular dance hall known as the Casino, then sprout your own fins and scuba dive in the crystal-clear Pacific. Inland, you’ll discover indigenous foxes, bald eagles, and the offspring of a bison herd brought to the island for a silent-screen-era movie shoot.

Santa Fe, New Mexico

Harmonious Santa Fe, New Mexico lives up to its moniker, “the City Different,” thanks to its combination of surreal desert landscapes, sprawling adobe architecture, and the third-largest art market in the United States. Though summer typically draws the largest crowds, spring outings are primed for visiting this city in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains, when crowds are fewer, prices are lower, and yucca flowers are in full bloom. Sample the best of native cuisine; shop for eclectic pottery, jewelry, sculptures and paintings; or take a leisurely stroll down popular Canyon Road.

10 March 2015

Red beans and rice with a twist

I love rice and beans all the time. I love the puzzle of changing the seasoning and the rice to suit the particular beans I happened to find on sale in the bulk section of my local grocery store that day. And I love adzuki beans, those small, creamy, slightly sweet red beans that are usually the star of fried Chinese desserts at your local buffet.  This recipe combines them in a typically Creole way, except for the Asian seasoning...

East-Meets-South Red Beans and Rice

Serves 6

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
1 link andouille sausage, cut into small pieces
3 cups chopped kale leaves
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon Old Bay seasoning
1 teaspoon fresh grated ginger
1 teaspoon (or to taste) hot Chinese mustard
2 cups cooked adzuki beans
1 tablespoons soy sauce
Salt and black pepper to taste
Brown short grain rice for serving

In a large sauté pan, heat the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion and sausage and cook until onion is soft and sausage is cooked through, about 5 minutes.  Add the kale, garlic, Old Bay, and ginger, and stir together.  Cover, lower to medium-low heat, and cook until kale is wilted, about 5 minutes. Stir in the mustard, beans, and soy sauce and heat through.  Season with salt and pepper if necessary and serve over rice.

06 March 2015

Whip up a springy dish in less than 30 minutes

It is not officially spring yet, but in between snow storms, it's starting to feel that way here in the Rockies.  And the asparagus is on sale at the store, which always makes me think of spring. This dish takes advantage of fresh, tender asparagus (although you could easily replace it with broccoli florets if you want), and it's ready in a hurry, so there's more time for drinking in the kitchen.  I think they call that "having an apertif".

One-Pot Pesto Pasta

Serves 4

2 cups dry fusilli or similar pasta
1 bunch (about 2 cups) asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2- inch pieces
8 oz. mushrooms, cleaned and thickly sliced
2 tablespoons julienned sun dried tomatoes
2 tablespoons pesto
Juice and zest of ½ lemon
Salt and crushed red pepper to taste
Grated Parmesan cheese for serving

In a large pot or Dutch oven, bring well-salted water to boil.  Drop the pasta and cook for about five minutes, then add the mushrooms and asparagus.  Cook until pasta is al dente, about another 10 minutes.  Drain, then stir in the sun dried tomatoes, lemon zest and juice, prepared pesto, and salt and red pepper to taste.  Serve with grated Parmesan on the side.