Basil Oil, thy time is now

Tomatoes with Basil Oil

Delicious evidence

I have several things on my plate for the next couple of weeks, but I couldn’t keep this from you. It was one of those things I made for myself and thought, dang it how selfish would I be not to share this? I’ll make this quick…

Last weekend I hit our local farmer’s market and was delighted to find tomatoes. I know, tomatoes are in the grocery store every week of the year and there’s even been hothouse tomatoes at the market for a while. That’s not what I’m taking about. I’m talking about “grown in the ground”, luscious, sweet, red (and other colors too!!) tomatoes. The kind when you smell they they have that vine-y tomatoes smell. You know it, and to me it’s summer. I have memories of canning bushels of tomatoes with my mom and my dad and making his special spaghetti sauce.

While any tomato are pretty good, but they’re even better when you try eating them seasonally. Back in the day I used to take cooking classes from a restaurant in Madison, L’Etoile (I miss those classes, dang it, Chef Tory, bring them back!). I learned so much from their chefs, but their founder, Odessa Piper was like the Midwest equivalent of Alice Waters. Very much an early adapter of the local food movement, she is a rare gem and visionary. One of my favorite classes was following her around the Madison Farmer’s Market and meeting each of her favorite purveyors. I still shop from them when I’m in the area. She always extolled the virtues of eating seasonally. How much more delicious it is to eat a tomato, or even a BLT if you haven’t for many months. Then she said you eat them when they are in season until you’re almost sick of them because you crave them so much, but it is these “culinary vacations” we have to take from certain fruits and vegetables when we eat seasonally that makes them all the more special.

Now I can’t do this, at least not completely. I’m lucky in that I live by a really great farmer’s market in central IL. I can even get peaches locally for a few months over the summer. However, if I couldn’t get local peaches I’d have to get them somehow. There’s other things like avocados that I just couldn’t live without. And I do eat the occasional tomato off season, but they don’t taste very good, and I usually regret it in the morning.

By now you’re saying, “Um, so what does this have to do with Basil Oil? Can we circle back to the point, hmm?”. Sorry for the long windup, but I’m getting there. When tomatoes are in season, basil is right there too. Basil and tomatoes, like Bert and Ernie, two very different things that go quite well together. At the market last week as I squirreled together my tomato stash, I grabbed a bunch of basil (yes, I have “basil” in my “garden” but my garden is a sad sad place where plants go to die and I’m trying to give them their space. That’s for another time. Or not).

I had been plotting to make a Margarita Pizza with my spoils when I turned on an episode of Barefoot Contessa where she was drizzling some gorgeous vivid green oil over some tomatoes. Basil Oil! I thought, well, why not? I googled up a recipe and found a good one on Epicurious. A couple of words of advice about the recipe. You need to blanch the basil or it will get muddy brown. A big part of this recipe is how beautiful it looks, so take 5 seconds and blanch it. I shocked it in ice water too, but cold water is probably fine. Also, I used a mixture of olive and canola oil because the olive oil I had was kind of spicy. I’d use all olive the next time I make it. It doesn’t have to be fancy oil, but I think all olive would have been a bit jazzier.

Oh so delicious

Mmmm, my bright green precious…

That’s not to say it wasn’t delicious. Seriously. I made a caprese salad with tomato, fresh mozzarella, and basil and it was amazing. You can see the evidence, or lack there of above and I’m not saying this lightly; it was incredible. Over the next few days I was looking for ways to use it. I made some sandwiches and used it as a spread/oil for the bread. I also drizzled it over some fish I steamed in the oven.  There are so many ways you could use this oil. Also, It lasted for several days and stayed bright green and tasty.

So um, not quick I guess, but I couldn’t help myself. ‘Tis the season for basil oil and fresh tomatoes.


This is the Black Bean Soup you’re looking for

Bean Soup

So I really like black beans. There was a time in my life when I would cook up a pot of black beans regularly. I’d use them in tacos or burritos, mix in white rice, and even make up a little soup. I like to use them in place of other beans. I mean, come on who really likes the kidney beans in chili? *

I can’t remember where I first ate black bean soup, but I vividly recall the experience. It was a small hot bowl, almost bittersweet chocolate in color. The taste was savory and spicy with just a bit of lime. It wasn’t totally smooth, but had whole beans swimming in the thick beany broth.

The deal sealer with black bean soup are the garnishes.  In the same way as a good chili, you need to top black bean soup with something. Preferably many somethings. This restaurant topped the soup with a scoop of steamed white rice. It was amazing. It is the flavor of that soup that I chase when I make my own recipes today.

This recipe below also busts a myth or two. You really don’t need to soak beans before you cook them. I still will soak beans if I think about it, but often I just cook up black beans for soup and it’s just fine.  Also, I added salt relatively early in the cooking process and again it was just fine. I know some claim that salt inhibits the cooking process with beans, but I haven’t had that experience, and by adding salt your beans aren’t blah.

Black Bean Ingr

For the Beans

1# black beans

1 ham hock

2 bay leaves

6 cups of water

1/8 t baking soda

1 t salt

For the Soup

3 T olive oil

1 large onion

1 large carrot

1 red pepper

2 large cloves garlic

½ t red pepper flakes, I may have used a bit more, so to taste

1 ½ T ground cumin

½ c chopped tomatoes (I used some larger pieces from a jar I canned last fall)

4 cups chicken broth

Some Garnishes

Lime juice

Minced cilantro

Red onion

Greek Yogurt

 Alternate garnish

Cooked white rice

Chopped BBS

 How to do it

Start by combining all the bean ingredients except the salt in a nice sized Dutch oven. Turn it up and get a good boil going over medium heat. Stir in salt and lower the heat to a peppy simmer.  Simmer covered until the beans are tender.  Mine took about 90 minutes, but check them. Also, keep track of the water. If it starts to get low add another cup. When the beans are tender, I put everything in a large bowl,  remove the hock and the bay. When the hock is cooled, remove the meat and chop it up to add back in.

Saute bbs

Wipe the dutch oven clean with a paper towel. Toss the oil in the pan and heat over medium high. Add the onion, carrot, pepper to the pan and stir occasionally. You’ll cook them until they are very soft and lightly browned. Add the garlic, pepper flakes, and cumin to the pan, stirring frequently until fragrant maybe a minute or two. Add the beans, cooking liquid, tomatoes, hock meat, and chicken broth to the pan and adjust the heat so you get a nice boil, then lower to a simmer for about a half hour so the flavors can combine.

Soup bbs

When it seems ready, take 3-4 cups of the soup and put it in the container that held my homemade stock. You want something tall, so you can whip out your immersion blender and frappe the soup into a smooth thickener.  Once it’s smooth, add it back to the pot and you should have a slightly thickened bean soup that still had whole beans and bits of veggies.

Whirr bbs

Then you’re done. This soup is very close to what I remember from that soup that got me hooked. It is just a little thick, but still silky with a depth of flavor that has just a bit of heat. Don’t forget when you serve it to have a little assembly of garnishes. Your guests will love  customizing their own bowls with various add ons. Let’s be honest, people usually hop up their chili until it’s more garnishes than actual chili, and that’s how it should be.

Bean Soup

Suggested beverage: Malbec or a Pale Ale.

* Answer is no one.  Kidney beans are gross.

Seared Shrimp Salad with Blood Orange Vinaigrette


It’s not every day that a recipe knocks me off my feet. I cook a few times a week and you’d be surprised at how many of the online recipes are just meh – nothing I’d make again. I’m a busy gal and nothing ticks me off more than taking the time to make a recipe only to be rewarded with something boring. So when I try something new my expectations are so low, yet the bar is really high. This recipe really surprised me, it’s simple yet oh so tasty. I think it’s the low number of ingredients used in just the right way that allows this recipe to sing. I stumbled across this recipe on the lovely Tartlette blog. I changed it just a bit to meet my own tastes and the limits of my location. Her recipe called for scallops and since I’m terribly landlocked here in the middle of Illinois, I thought a safer bet was to use shrimp.

As an unexpected bonus, it didn’t take me longer than 10-15 minutes to make this whole recipe. Yes you heard me right, a totally homemade recipe in under 15 minutes. In fact, this is so easy you really don’t need a recipe for it, but I’ll walk you through what I did.

IMG_3973The vinaigrette calls for blood orange juice, red wine vinegar, minced garlic, salt/pepper and olive oil, you can see exact amounts on the Tartlette blog. Also, don’t be worry about finding blood oranges, heck my local Schnucks had ’em. If you can’t find them it’s fine to use a regular orange, but you won’t have the beautiful ruby red vinaigrette to drizzle and the flavor may be different and more breakfasty. IMG_3979I added everything but the oil and then added it slowly giving it a brisk whisk.  I didn’t use as much oil as her recipe, but I tend to like a more tart dressing.  If I were you I would add a bit and taste it. If it tastes good, stop, if not add more oil. You should always taste your food as you’re cooking. How else will you know if it’s delicious? And this dressing is seriously good. I didn’t use nearly all of it for the salad and am saving it for a something next week.

IMG_3991Once the vinaigrette was finished, all that was left was to saute up the shrimp. Like the recipe, I wanted to keep it simple. I dried the shrimp really well with paper towels and salt and peppered them.  I put a very light film of olive oil in my trusty cast iron skillet and set it to almost high.  It didn’t take long for the pan to have small wisps of smoke and I threw the shrimp in making sure they had plenty of room. Don’t crowd your pan or you’ll steam them and you won’t get any caramelly bits. I’m all about the caramelly bits.  12 shrimp were  enough for me, but if you’re making this for more than yourself you might want to do it in two batches, but even with doubling the cooking time on the shrimp this recipe is still wicked fast.

Now stay close to the pan, but don’t stir them or turn them or mess with them at first. Leave them alone and watch, you’ll see the shrimp change and become pink, slightly opaque, and beginning to curl. When you see this happening, check the undersides. They should release easily and be just a little caramelized. Flip ’em and do the same to the other side. I like my shrimp firm, but cook yours until they are done to your taste. When they even pinker and totally opaque, give them a little poke with your finger. For me, the shrimp should be nice and firm, but not rubbery.  If you’re still unsure if they’re done you can also pop a sacrificial shrimp in your mouth and taste it to see if it’s right, no one’s looking.

IMG_3997When your shrimp are done mound some greens onto your dinner plate. I opted for a spring mix from our local co-op, but you can use whatever greeny lettuce you enjoy. Top with a nice serving of the shrimp and then drizzle the vinaigrette over the whole shebang. If it separated it’s fine just give it another whisk, and then drizzle away.

I think a sparkling rosé would pair really nicely with this. I had a Sauvignon Blanc already open and it was a bit tart. If you didn’t want a sparkler, I’d maybe try a dry Riesling. You don’t want something that competes too much, the dressing is a tiny bit tart, but it’s the sweet blood oranges combined with the briny slightly caramelized shrimp that dominate the flavors.

And there you have it, a delicious dinner that can be easily assembled in minutes after work. Make it for your honey or make it for yourself, but trust me you’ll want to make it.

mmmmm, Radishy

radish, originally uploaded by lclea.

This is why I love the farmer’s market. Our local supermarkets just don’t carry things like this; long, beautiful two-toned radishes. They were crunchy and not too bitey. I don’t like a really bitey radish. Have you ever sautéed a radish? Try slicing them into round and frying them up in a little sweet butter. I brown them on both sides and they sort of caramelize, and then I top them with a little salt. The bite goes away and they are delish. Give it a go.

For the Love of the Brine

Briny chops, originally uploaded by lclea.

Do you brine? I do. Chances are if you are still reading, you have at least heard of brining, if not, then buckle in for a salty festival of flavor.

First, what is brining? Brining does two things, it gives meat an insulated layer of moisture that helps keep it from getting dry and it imparts flavor. You can brine with just water and salt, or add other things like sugar and even spices. Now, I wouldn’t just brine anything, I’ve found it works best with pork and poultry. I’ve never brined beef, and if you feel adventurous (or crazy), try it and let me know. The reason the “white” meat and the “other white meat” does so well in the briny soak is due to the skinny nature our birds and piggies have these days. I try to get pasture raised chickens, turkeys and pork (this is tough to find, but there is a great purveyor in Madison, the pigs live healthy, happy, natural lives) just because I like the way that tastes better and I can sleep at night knowing the animals used in my food live happy lives.

I learned of this technique from a cooking class at L’Etoile restaurant in Madison. Chef Tory Miller is a brining maniac and while this recipe is good, and if you have great pork, it’s even better, do if you you’re in town try the pork (or anything) at L’Etoile. The food is amazing locally grown produce and meats, and the wonderful wait staff makes each meal a memory. I’ll be there for my next birthday, hope to see you there.

Okay, back to the brine. My first time out, I followed Tory suggestion that we brine the turkey for two days… I did and it was delicious, moist, crispy, and just the right amount of salt. You really don’t need two days, but do brine your Thanksgiving turkey. It’s like a failsafe and helps you not overcook the darn thing. However, the amount of brine you need will increase, you need to completely submerge the bird in the liquid. The equation of water to salt stays true, so just adjust (I don’t use the sugar with poultry, it’s just my preference). Also have room in your fridge for the bird and the brine.

So I hope I’ve piqued your interest and if you haven’t tried it yet, give it a shot, and if you haven’t tried really good pork, and are close at all to Madison try Willow Creek Farm (but don’t brine the bacon!).
2/3 c Sugar
3/4 c Kosher Salt
1 Gallon Water

Bring all the ingredients to a boil to dissolve the salt and sugar. Cool. Tasty add ins: coriander, peppercorns, allspice, cloves, brown sugar, red pepper flakes, bay leaves, cinnamon, cayenne, or garlic cloves. Don’t add everything, mix and match or try your own! Even the plain brine is a great.  Soak the meat either chicken or pork for 1-2 hours in the refrigerator (I use large plastic bags to marinate and brine, but you may want to set it in a bowl to prevent leaks). When you remove the meat from the brine, dry it off, or you won’t get a crispy crust/skin, then roast, grill to your heart’s content. Mmmm, briny pork…

Olive Bread

olive bread, originally uploaded by lclea.

Olive Bread
1c warm water
1 package rapid rise yeast
Dash sugar
Tsp salt
1 ½ c bread flour
1 ½ c all purpose flour
2 tsp diced rosemary
¼ c chopped pitted kalamata olives

Hold on, it’s not hard. Bloom the yeast in the warm water and I sprinkle just a little bit of sugar. Wait 5 minutes. This is how you make sure the yeast is alive. If it’s alive, it will get puffy and wonderful.

Then I start with 1c of each of the flours and the salt in a medium bowl. Add the water/yeast mixture to the flours, and add additional bread and all purpose flour until dough comes together in a soft slightly sticky ball. This is where I always had trouble when I first started making yeast breads. I find most of the time I don’t need all the flour a recipe calls for, but it can greatly vary depending on the dryness or humidity in the air. You can always add more flour when you knead. I knead it until it’s a soft and supple cohesive dough, usually 5-8 minutes. I like kneading it’s sort of meditative. When the dough is where you want it, then plop it in a greased (I use olive oil) bowl, cover it with plastic wrap. Put it in a warm place and let it rise until doubled. When the dough has risen, gently deflate it, and now it’s time to shape.

To add the rosemary and olives, I turn the dough out onto the counter and sprinkle the add ins on top. Then I gently knead them in until they are distributed sort of evenly. Some olives will try and pop out, just shove them back in. You can make one big rustic loaf, or small little loaves or rolls. I shape the loaves by flattening the dough into a rectangle. Then I take the top of the dough and bring it to the middle of the rectangle. Then I bring the bottom edge up to the middle and press the edges together. Flip it over and sort of zhuzh the dough into a loafy shape (For rolls, I just divvy up the dough and roll them into balls). I put a little corn meal down and let the bread rise on a cookie sheet. Cover in plastic and let rise until doubled. Heat oven to 375 degrees, when risen bake for 30-40 minute until golden. If you want the bread crusty, spray the loaf/oven with water several times during the first few minutes of baking.

You can let it cool or just spread it with some butter and eat it warm. Delicious. This dough is very versatile, you can add whatever you want to the dough or don’t add anything.

Now try it, it’s not hard and then you can brag to everyone that you made your own bread.  Na nanny boo boo, I can make bread and you can’t (that’s the chant), or if you brag, you might have to share.

First Recipe Ever

I really admire the blogs that focus on food and recipes.  I search them almost every day looking for the next best thing to cook.  Or maybe it’s the food porn.  The beautiful pictures that make your mouth water.  I vow that the next time I post a recipe it will have a wonderful drippy picture, but right now I don’t have a picture, just a tasty treat.  Since it’s the first recipe, it’s an appetizer.  I’ve always known this recipe as Carrie’s Cheese Puffs.  I think Carrie attended my parent’s church, but we all love this.  I think it’s best with a crisp light white like Savignon Blanc or Pinot Gris, but that’s me because I’d rather start the meal with something lighter.  It’s not foodie, or precious, just good, and I’ll bet you can’t eat just one.

Carrie’s Cheese Balls

1 stick Butter

1 C Grated Cheddar Cheese

1-1/4 cups Sifted Flour

1/4 tsp Paprika

1/4 tsp Salt

Tiny olives

1 Form into ball. Kneed lightly. Form balls and stuff little olives inside.

2 Bake at 400° for 12 minutes or until done.