Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Iced Tea Sangria

Boy, it is hot here in Topeka!

Yes, I'm familiar with the cartoon that says the same thing, but I’m not trying to be funny here. It really is hot and headed to 100-plus degrees today. (BTW, I love that cartoon, but The Picky Eater, who was a Topeka native, didn't care for it at all.) 

It's the perfect weather for this Iced Tea Sangria.

I love this recipe because it pairs two of my favorite beverages—iced tea and wine. I saw a recipe for it floating around Facebook, but of course I had to play with it a bit.

Use whatever fruit you like. I went with oranges, since I like them in my iced tea, and summer fruits like peaches, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries. You can use fresh fruit, but honestly I used frozen and the drink turned out great.

My wine choice was an un-oaked chardonnay I had in the fridge, but use whatever white wine you like. A rosé or red wine would work, too, but I picked white so I could also taste the tea.

Add sugar depending on how sweet you like your drink. Since I prefer unsweetened iced tea and dry wines, I only added a tablespoon of sugar. Add more if you like sweeter beverages, or just make a sweet tea to add to the recipe.


Iced Tea Sangria

4 cups brewed iced tea (I used a black tea.)
2 cups white wine
1 tablespoon sugar, or to taste
Fresh or frozen fruit of choice

In a large container, add the tea and wine. Add the sugar and stir until dissolved, and then add the fruit. Refrigerate for at least 4 hours. Overnight is even better. Serve over ice.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Margherita Pizza

When it comes to favorite foods, pizza is at the top of my list. It is also one of my favorite things to make at home. Seriously, homemade pizza is so easy, even if you make your own crust. Plus, it’s easy on the budget.

I get my love of pizza from Mom. She is a bigger pizza fiend than me. Frozen, homemade, or restaurant…the variety doesn't matter. Whenever we’re together, I know if I suggest getting pizza, she will agree almost before I finish speaking.

However, The Picky Eater was a different matter. He only liked certain pizzas from specific restaurants and was never one to experiment with something new. Frozen pizza could only be Red Baron supreme, and no matter how many times I tried, I could never get him to like homemade pizza. I think I was doomed from the beginning. The first time I made pizza for us, I goofed on the sauce by adding too much salt. From then on, it was a loosing battle. 

I've shared my favorite pizza sauce recipe before, but this pizza came about because I had a large tomato from the farmer’s market that was getting ripe fast and I didn't want it to go to waste. So instead of using sauce, I went for a Margherita-style pizza with sliced tomatoes and basil. (The name comes from Queen Margherita of Italy, who was said to like this style of pizza best on a visit to Naples in 1889.) The flavors are clean and simple…perfect for summer.

Margherita Pizza

1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees, or just warm to the touch)
1 packet rapid rise yeast
2 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons olive oil

2 tablespoon olive oil
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
12 to 14 fresh basil, thinly sliced and divided
1 large tomato, thinly sliced

To make the crust: Warm the bowl to your stand mixer by filling it with hot water and letting it set for about a minute. Pour the water out and dry.

Place the bowl onto the mixer stand. Add the warm water, and then sprinkle the yeast over the top. Next add 2 1/2 cups of flour, salt and olive oil. Mix with the dough hook for 2 minutes. If the dough is too dry (not coming together in a ball), add a few drops of water at a time until it clings to the hook and cleans the sides of the bowl. If it’s too wet (sticking to the bowl), add more all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup at a time, until it reaches the right consistency.

Once the dough has come together, continue to knead with the dough-hook for 2 more minutes. (Or you can knead by hand if you wish.)

Smear the bottom of a large bowl with olive oil. Remove the dough from the mixer and shape into a ball. Place the dough into the greased bowl, turning it over to oil the top. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap.

Let the dough rise in a warm place for 45 minutes to 1 hour, or until doubled in bulk. (I place my dough in my oven that I preheated at 450 degrees for 1 minute, and then turned off.) When the dough has risen, punch it down and then shape into the pizza form on a well-greased baking sheet or on top of a piece of parchment paper.

To top the pizza: In a small dish, stir together the olive oil, garlic, and salt. Set aside for 5 to 10 minutes, and then brush the mixture onto the pizza dough. (You may not need all of it. I just used the oil, which had picked up the garlic flavor. If you like a stronger garlic taste, make sure some of the minced garlic is spread on the crust.) Sprinkle half of the basil over the pizza, and then top with both cheeses. Lay the tomatoes on top of the cheese and sprinkle just a bit of salt over each slice.

Bake at 450 degrees for 15 to 20 minutes. (I often remove my pizza from the pan directly onto the oven rack after 10 minutes of baking so the bottom crust gets nice and brown.) Take out of the oven and sprinkle with the remaining basil. Cut and serve.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Minestrone to Sooth the Soul

I've never been one to stop eating when I’m under stress. In fact, I’m just the opposite. The more stress I feel, the more I want to eat. The only time I loose my appetite is when I’m sick, and I make up for the food I missed once it all starts to taste “right” again.

Then my husband died.

For the first time in my life, I didn't feel hunger. Didn't feel it at all! The only clue I had that I might be hungry was when Mom would say, “Linda, you need to eat something,” and when I did, I felt a bit better. I remember thinking, “Hum, I must have been hungry.”

Normally I decide what to eat by asking myself, “What are you hungry for today?” In those early days after The Picky Eater was gone, the answer was, “Nothing.” Actually, I didn't even ask the question. The only thing I remember eating that tasted somewhat enjoyable was Chinese food with Mom at a restaurant one evening, plus a donut from the box my neighbor, Jan, brought me. That was it. I know I ate more, but I don't remember what.

After about a week passed, I was looking through my freezer and saw a bag of diced zucchini from last
summer. That was when I experienced my first craving—for minestrone soup. In spite of it being summertime, minestrone fits the season for me since I like it made with lots of zucchini and summer squash.

I mixed up a big batch of the soup in the slow cooker and ate it every day for a week—sometimes twice a day. Each bowl, with Parmigiano Reggiano grated liberally over the top, not only gave me the nutrition I needed, but it also brought me a sense of comfort as I began my new “normal” life. It is soup to sooth the soul.

Minestrone Soup

Makes a lot! I ate a bowl or two every day for a week and still had enough for two containers in the freezer.

1 medium onion
2 ribs of celery, diced
1 large clove of garlic, minced
2 carrots, diced
1 summer squash, cut in large dice
2 zucchinis, cut in large dice
2 cup shredded kale
1 28-ounce can crushed tomatoes
2 15-ounce cans dark red kidney beans, drained and rinsed
2 15-ounce cans great northern beans, drained and rinsed
1 quart low-sodium chicken broth
2 bay leaves
1 teaspoon Italian Seasoning (I use McCormick.)
Salt and pepper, to taste
1 cup uncooked ditalini pasta
Grated Parmigiano Reggiano, for garnish

In a skillet over medium heat, saute the onion and celery until the onion is translucent. Add the minced garlic and cook until the garlic becomes fragrant, about 30 seconds. Remove from the heat and transfer the onion/celery/garlic mixture into a slow cooker.

Add the remaining ingredients, except for the ditalini and Parmigiano Reggiano. Cover and cook on low for 3 1/2 to 4 hours, or until the carrots and other vegetables become just soft. The kale will always be a bit chewy. If you don’t like this, just omit it or choose a different greens variety, such as Swiss chard. If the tomatoes and broth don’t give you enough liquid in the pot, just add more broth or water.

Towards the end of the cooking time, heat a large saucepan filled with water to a boil. Add salt to the water, and then boil the ditalini until it is just al dente. Drain the pasta and add it to the soup in the slow cooker. Let the soup continue to cook for another 30 minutes.

To serve, ladle the soup into bowls and liberally grate Parmigiano Reggiano over the top.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Saying Goodbye to The Picky Eater

I want to thank all of you for the kind thoughts and wishes you have sent my way since The Picky Eater’s passing. They have brought me a great deal of comfort and helped to ease the sadness that has settled over my heart.

Please indulge me one more time as I share my sweetheart with you. As a writer, I feel compelled to put words on paper about how much Mike meant to me. By sharing those words with you, he will not only continue to live on in the hearts of those who knew him, but also out there in you who only knew him though my words.

The following is the piece I wrote for his memorial service this past Monday:

On November 11, 2010, at 4:30 p.m., I pulled into the North Topeka Dillons parking lot to meet a man named Michael Ditch. We connected on Match.com and this was my first date ever from an internet dating site. We had exchanged emails for a week and talked on the phone in the days leading up to the date, but I was still nervous about what to expect.

That chilly autumn afternoon, I met the love of my life.

The following June, Mike pulled into the same Dillons parking space and asked me to be his wife.

On December 24, 2011, I married my soul mate on a beautiful Christmas Eve morning surrounded by family and friends.

A few days ago, I was honored to be the person he reached for as he passed from this world into Heaven.

Mike Ditch was the most loving man I've ever known. Not only to me, but to many others as well. He made friends out of strangers, from waitresses in our favorite restaurants to the people we only saw for a moment each evening on his courier route. He was so trusting he would buy any sales pitch offered on an infomercial, and believed advertisers couldn't possibly be lying to him.

He gave money to people digging in dumpsters, even if it was the last $20 he had until payday. He would buy meals for people down on their luck. Every year, he adopted a single mom and child through the United Way of Greater Topeka’s Christmas Bureau, and instead of giving the standard $30 in gifts and $30 in food, he would take them to the store they requested and let them pick out the gifts and food themselves, often costing double what was expected.

In Mike’s final gift to others, he was an organ donor. I was told he could help up to 50 people, with 50 families thanking God for his gift.

Our time together was so short. Too short. Unbelievably short for the love we had for each other. I feel as though we were able to experience decades of love in the 3 years, 7 months, 4 hours, and 14 minutes we had together.

Many, many times, when I would say to him how lucky I felt to be his wife, he would reply, “Don’t you know? I’m your guardian angel.”

Now he truly is.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Hard to Say Goodbye

This is just a short post to let you know The Picky Eater, also known as my beloved husband, Michael Ditch, passed away early Thursday morning. His loving heart just wasn't strong enough to survive one more heart attack. Now I'm feeling a sadness that words can't describe.

Once I get through these crazy days of saying goodbye and return to my new normal, I will post again. Cooking can ease the soul. And thanks to my fellow bloggers who have sent messages of support and encouragement. 

Friday, June 6, 2014

Mint Double Chocolate Cookies in the Friday Cookie Jar

Don’t you just love it when one solution solves multiple problems? My first issue was what to do with an abundance of spearmint from the farmer’s market that was left over after making a strawberry mint soup for a newspaper article. The other dilemma was how to satisfy The Picky Eater’s need for treats without him buying packaged cookies.

The solution was these Mint Double Chocolate Cookies!

I was inspired by the mint white chocolate chip cookies I've made in the past. This recipe is basically a traditional chocolate chip cookie with cocoa powder and chopped spearmint added to the mix. If you don’t want to spend the time chopping the mint into tiny bits, do what I did and whiz it in the food processor with the granulated sugar. Easy!

The mint flavor is very subtle, with a fresh feeling that lingers on your tongue. If you’d like a stronger mint taste, just use more or add mint flavoring to the mix instead of vanilla.

The Picky Eater loved them! I was passing a few out to our neighbors in the apartment building when he said, “Don’t give them all away!”

I didn't. Hey, I liked them, too!

I created the Friday Cookie Jar as inspiration to spend time in the kitchen with family and friends (especially children, since they love to make cookies), or to make something to share with others. I post cookie recipes on Friday so you can plan ahead for the weekend. Imagine baking cookies with the kids on a Saturday morning. My intention was to post a recipe each Friday, but honestly, life got in the way. However, I'll do my best to keep your cookie jar full! 

Mint Double Chocolate Cookies
Makes about 5 dozen

1 cup loosely packed mint leaves (I used spearmint, but any mint would work.)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cocoa powder (I used Hershey’s.)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened
3/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 12-ounce package semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used Ghirardelli.)
1 cup chopped nuts, optional (I didn't use them, but I think walnuts or pecans would taste great!)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line baking sheets with parchment paper. Set aside.

Add the mint leaves and granulated sugar to the bowl of a food processor. Whiz until the mint is finely chopped into the sugar. You may need to scrape down the sides of the bowl a time or two to make sure all the mint is processed. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, add the butter, brown sugar, mint sugar and vanilla. Beat until creamy. Add the eggs and beat until well combined. With the mixer on low, gradually add the flour mixture until combined, scraping down the sides of the bowl a couple of times. Add the chocolate chips and nuts (if using) and mix for just a moment to combine.

Drop rounded teaspoons of the cookie dough onto the baking sheets. Place in the oven and bake for 8 to 10 minutes, turning the cookie sheets and swapping shelves halfway through baking. Take the cookies out of the oven and allow them to sit on the baking sheets for 2 minutes. Then place them on racks to cool. Store in an air-tight container. 

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Lasagna for Two

When it comes to meal preparation, I have two issues that must always be addressed. 

First is the size of the recipe. Since dinner most evenings is just for The Picky Eater and me, recipes are often too large for our needs.

Second, The Picky Eater is, well, picky about what he wants. Often that means I forgo recipes I would like because there would be enough leftovers to last a month.

So I was thrilled when the folks at America’s Test Kitchen sent me The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook. Last year I posted about how much I liked the 2013 edition, with two great recipes. This cookbook is a combination of all the previous yearly versions.

Inside I not only found all of many favorite recipes downsized for two, but there were also a lot of new ones to try. I love the idea of making brownies and cakes that are just big enough for two. Perfect for my middle-aged household. Plus, the front is full of shopping tips, kitchen supply suggestions, and food storage ideas, which would make this cookbook a terrific wedding gift idea.

Now I can make recipes that fit my tastes and dishes we both like without the fear of massive leftovers.

I've found my go-to cookbook!

This lasagna recipe was a big hit. Absolutely delicious! Who would have ever thought to make it in a loaf pan? Perfect! 

Since The Picky Eater has to watch his sodium intake, I used low-sodium diced tomatoes and sauce. Also, he doesn't like chunks of tomato in dishes, so I pureed the diced tomatoes to smooth out the sauce and just let it simmer a bit longer than the original recipe to thicken. The only other change I made was to use ground sirloin instead of the recommended meatloaf mix .

Stay tuned for more recipes from this terrific cookbook!   

Lasagna for Two

Adapted from The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen

For sauce:
1 (14.5-ounce) can low-sodium diced tomatoes
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 small onion, chopped fine
Pinch of salt
2 garlic cloves, minced
8 ounces ground sirloin
2 tablespoons heavy cream
1 (8-ounce) can low-sodium tomato sauce

For filling:
1/2 cup part-skim ricotta cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, plus 2 tablespoons, grated
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
1 large egg
1/8 teaspoon pepper
4 no-boil lasagna noodles (I used Barilla)
1 cup grated whole-milk mozzarella cheese

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Move an oven rack to the middle.

For the sauce: In a blender or food processor, puree the can of diced tomatoes until smooth. Set aside.

In a large skillet, heat the oil. Add the onion and salt, and saute until tender. Stir in the garlic and cook for just 30 seconds, and then add the ground sirloin. Cook until browned. Stir in the cream and cook until it evaporates, which takes about 1 to 2 minutes. Add the pureed diced tomatoes and tomato sauce. Bring to a simmer and allow it to cook while you prepare the filling, about 15 minutes.

For the filling: In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the ricotta, 1/2 cup Parmesan, basil, egg and pepper.

To assemble: In the bottom of a loaf pan, spread 1/2 cup of the sauce. Lay one noodle on top, and then spread a third of the ricotta mixture on top of the noodle. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup of the grated mozzarella, and top with another 1/2 cup of sauce. Do this two more times. Lay the final noodle on top and cover with the remaining sauce, mozzarella, and 2 tablespoons Parmesan cheese.

Spray a piece of foil with non-stick cooking spray and use it to tightly cover the loaf pan. Set the loaf pan on a baking sheet to catch any spillover, and bake for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the sauce bubbles around the edges of the pan. Take the foil off the top and keep baking until the cheese has browned to your liking, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool for at least 20 minutes before serving.