Baby Spinach as a Blank Canvas

At Poppy’s house, we start most meals with a salad. More often than not, the greens used are baby spinach or a blend of baby spinach and spring mix. Spinach ranks number 2, right below kale as the healthiest salad greens. But unlike kale, spinach doesn’t constantly remind you how healthy it is while you’re eating it.

If we are making even a pretense of eating healthy, the last thing you want to do is use some store-bought dressing packed with calories and chemicals, especially since making a basic salad dressing is so simple and quick. If you have the ingredients handy, I would say 30 seconds, maybe a minute if you’re listening to some good jazz, having a glass of wine and dancing around the kitchen (just sayin’).

My go-to dressing is a variation on the basic Balsamic Vinaigrette: Continue reading “Baby Spinach as a Blank Canvas”

Asparagus and Grape Tomato Side

This is so simple, I hesitate to call it a recipe!

I like to keep things fresh. Not fresh like crispy veggies, but fresh as in not cooking the same things over and over again. This is an unexpected side dish that is super simple, not starchy, adds color to any plate, healthy, and goes with anything (unless your main dish involves asparagus and grape tomatoes).

Let’s get started. Halve some ripe grape tomatoes, snap off the hard ends of some medium to small diameter asparagus, then toss both in a little EVOO. Place the brilliant red and green mixture in a large skillet over medium heat.

Put a couple of tablespoons of salted butter in a cup. Take a clove or two of garlic and run it through your garlic press on top of the butter. You do have a garlic press, don’t you? Zap the butter-garlic mixture in the microwave until the butter is melted and the garlic is warmed.

Saute the asparagus and tomatoes, stirring occasionally, until the tomatoes become blistered and the asparagus is done. How do you know when the asparagus is done? … when no one is looking, take a bite out of the end of one of your stalks (you can put that one on your plate).

When ready, transfer to your plates, spoon a little of the butter-garlic sauce over the veggies and top with a little fresh grated Parmesan.

Yes, it’s that simple!

Fusilli with Roasted Asparagus/Piquillo Peppers

When tasty and easy-to-make intersect, it’s a win-win. This is a simple recipe with simple ingredients that makes a satisfying main dish without being heavy. Okay, enough hyperbole Poppy, let’s get to it.


Ingredients: 

  • 3/4 pound of Fusilli pasta (feeds 3-4)
  • bunch of asparagus
  • roasted piquillo peppers (more about this later)
  • 1 stick of unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups of fresh grated Parmesan cheese
  • Coarse ground black pepper to taste (lots)
  • 1 tbsp. sea salt

Preheat your oven to 425° in preparation for roasting the asparagus. When choosing asparagus for roasting, I look for shoots that are about the diameter of my little finger. If it’s much thinner, lower the temperature or reduce the roasting time. If it’s much thicker, don’t buy it and plan something else for dinner.

Snap off the tough ends and cut the asparagus into 1 inch sections, leaving the tips longer. Toss in a little EVOO and spread on a foil lined baking sheet. Roast for 25 minutes.

While the asparagus is roasting, start your water boiling for the pasta, add the salt to the water. You should also have enough time while the roasting is happening to grate your cheese, cut the stick of butter into 8 or so smaller chunks (chunks is a very technical term). I struggle with timing everything, so to keep it simple, I usually wait until the asparagus is done roasting before adding the pasta to the boiling water.

Roasted piquillo peppers. I love these guys … they are one of Poppy’s “secret ingredients.” I have no idea where you might find them fresh, so I’m quite content to buy them canned. This is the variety I use.

For this recipe, I cut three of the peppers into 1/2″ squares. There is so much to like about these peppers. They are not hot, but sweet. The roasting or grilling adds a delightful smoky flavor to their sweetness. I use them in salads, antipasto, add them to fresh corn, and of course, pasta. Their smokey sweetness contrasts nicely to strong flavors like feta cheese or bacon, plus they add a great pop of red to any dish. Okay, back to the recipe at hand.

After the pasta has cooked (about 9 minutes), drain the pasta, but reserve 1 cup of the pasta water. Set the pasta aside and return the remaining pasta water back to the stove-top on medium heat. Stir in the butter a few chunks at a time, until it has blended with the pasta water. Add one cup of the Parmesan cheese, bit by bit, stirring constantly until the mixture is well blended. If you are going to splurge on anything for this recipe, treat yourself to a high quality, well aged wedge of Parmesan and hand grate it. You will tell the difference.

Add the pasta back to the mixture along with the roasted asparagus and piquillo peppers. Stir and simmer for a minute before serving. Top with the remaining cheese, a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water-butter-cheese mixture and a very generous grind of coarse black pepper.

Enjoy!

I think this would also be good with roasted tomatoes instead of the asparagus and peppers. It’s on my list of things to try.

Tuesday Night Dinner with Poppy, No. 1

dinner

Some nights you just need to cook! Not that it had been a bad day at all, but we had take-out last night and I was in the mood to cook. In the spirit of full disclosure, Mrs. Poppy was out having dinner with some friends. It was just me and daughter #1. Okay, let’s be honest, maybe the gauntlet has been thrown down. I wanted to create a meal on a limited budget from Ferguson’s Shop N’ Save that was equal to the upscale dinner Mrs. Poppy was enjoying. (Somehow I feel much better now.)

Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli from the refrigerated section ($4.29), Asparagus ($4.23), Sweet Potato ($.99). The block of Parmesan cheese I had on hand, along with the Marinara sauce. {sidebar- If you’re buying prepared pasta sauces, look for the ones with the fewest ingredients, the one I used contained only tomatoes, EVOO, Onion, Garlic, and Basil}.

ingerdiants

Sometimes it’s the Beatles, Dave Brubeck, Jimi Hendricks, Doc Watson or Jack Johnson. Tonight was a Dylan night. I guess it’s possible to cook without music and an adult beverage, I just haven’t tested that theory.

Roasting the sweet potatoes was the most time-consuming part of this dinner. I preheated the oven to 400°, and commenced to peeling the potatoes, cutting them into 3/4″ thick pieces then quartering. Tossed them in EVOO and started roasting on a foil-lined baking sheet. After 20 minutes, I flipped them over and sprinkled on a bit of Cajun seasoning.

sweettaters

The asparagus was very thin, ruling out roasting. I decided to just grill it on a grooved cast iron pan. Before tossing it into the pan, I coated it with EVOO in the same bowl I used for the sweet potatoes. I prepared a simple sauce for the asparagus, using just a couple of tablespoons of butter along with a couple cloves of garlic, pushed through a garlic press. That mixture was heated in the microwave until the butter melted and the garlic got to know each other.

asp

From there it was just a matter of assembly, the ravioli only took a few minutes to cook.

If for some reason you’re under the impression that Poppy is some sort of sophisticate, let me put you at ease. The parmesan cheese was grated into a plastic Mickey Mouse themed bowl, courtesy of my grandkids.

mickey

 

Poppy’s Go-To Sandwich

poppyssandwich

I was going to title this post: “Poppy’s Go-To Garlic-Herb Chicken Breast with Sliced Avocado, Tomato, Provolone Cheese and Spicy Mayo on Sweet Onion Bun Sandwich”, but it wouldn’t fit.

Listing the ingredients at this point seems a little like the Department of Redundancy Department, but here goes.


Ingredients (per sandwich): 

  • Sweet Onion Bun
  • Deli Garlic-Herb Chicken Breast (Poppy likes a hearty sandwich, so I use about .2 lb to .25 lb per sandwich)
  • Sliced Avocado
  • Sliced Tomato
  • Slice of provolone cheese
  • Spicy mayo (I either use commercially prepared chipotle mayo or more commonly, make my own with a couple tablespoons of real mayo and a few dashes of Frank’s hot sauce)

Slice the buns in half then pop them in the toaster on a very low setting. I assemble all the stacks of chicken breast I need for the sandwiches on a large china plate, then top with a slice of cheese, before popping them into the microwave, just long enough to soften the cheese and warm the meat.

Then it’s just a matter of assembly, slide the stack of warm chicken breast and cheese on the bottom bun, top with the avocado and tomato, spread the mayo … enjoy!

Shown with roasted Yukon Gold and sweet potatoes, zucchini and sweet onion chunks.

 

Ode to Okra

Okra

Is there any vegetable more Southern than okra? Is there any vegetable more funky than okra?

Fuzzy on the outside, slimy on the inside, it can range from the ridiculous to the sublime. In Poppy’s opinion, boiled okra would be on lower end (slimy), but I can’t imagine gumbo without okra, both for its taste and as a thickening agent. Dipped in buttermilk then coated with a lightly seasoned flour-cornmeal mix it can be pan or deep-fried with excellent results. But if you are wanting to eat a little healthier (occasionally I do), then nothing beats roasted okra.

Roasting (IMHO) improves the taste of most vegetables, and okra is no exception. What starts out as fuzzy and slimy ends up crunchy with a divine nutty flavor.

Preheat your oven from 400° to 425°. Slice the okra into 1/4″ to 3/8″ thick pieces, depending on your preferences and diameter of the pods.

Toss the cut okra in a bowl with just enough EVOO to give it a slight coating. Arrange the slices cut-side-down on a foiled lined baking sheet wiped with a thin coating of EVOO. Expect to roast the okra for at least 30 minutes in a convection oven. I normally set a timer for 20 minutes, just to check on its progress. You can add some Panko crumbs or seasoned bread crumbs at this point if you want a little extra crunch, but lately I’ve skipped this part. If you’re ambitious, turn the slices for the final minutes of roasting.

Once the okra has achieved a proper level of crispness and browning, remove from the oven.

My favorite way to finish this dish off, is with a pinch of Cajun seasoning and a sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.

By now you’ve noticed that something is missing from this post … a photo of the finished product!

I’m going to blame my family for this error. It gets eaten before I can take a photo. My grandson in particular eats this stuff like popcorn, by the handful.


If you get a chance to roast some okra and want to send me a photo of the finished dish, I would love to use your photo in this post.

Poppy’s Honest Burger

HonestBurger1

Buckle in … somewhere in with a great bar story and some musing is a recipe.

Is there any food more American? The hot dog, apple pie … forget about it. The burger is debated, ranked, written about and fought over. Fast food empires have been built on the humble hamburger.

I was tempted to call this “Poppy’s All-American Burger.” But that seems a little pretentious and my glass-half-full personality wants to believe, despite the current crop of politicians, that there is still honesty to be had in this great country.

It seems so simple, right? It’s a slab of ground beef between a bun … how hard can it be?

Until recently, I made it hard, I added spices, secret sauces, an egg to bind everything together. I cooked them here, I cooked them there. Were they edible? Yes. Was it a great burger? No.

It got so bad my family steered me away from making, as they called them, “homemade burgers.”

At that point my pride kicked in. I experimented, I researched, and most importantly I thought about the places that served up good burgers.


My favorite bar story…

There was a bar and grill in my hometown of Ferguson, Missouri (yes that Ferguson) that served up a great burger. This was not a fern bar. There was nothing trendy going on here, the regulars were unpretentious, the drinks were strong, the décor was “early attic”, it got cleaned once a month whether it needed it or not, and it delivered great burgers.

The lady that worked the day shift (Let’s call her Brenda) tended bar and did a little cooking as the need arose. At the end of her shift she moved from one side of the bar to the other. She ceased being an employee and became a customer. This coincided with the time I would normally stop by to get some take-out burgers for the family.

I honestly couldn’t say how old Brenda was, but I could say with conviction, she had not had an easy life.

I was seated a few stools down from Brenda where she was regaling the regulars with a story of her abusive ex. She related the time he pushed her up against a wall, thrust the barrel of a pistol up against her forehead and pulled the trigger. Brenda was still with us, so either the pistol was unloaded or it misfired.

She paused for a moment, bringing back the memories of that day, then said quite calmly, “you know … the funny thing is, that was the same gun I shot him with.”

My to-go order arrived about that time and I left with some good burgers and an even better bar story.

That bar eventually got bought out and cleaned up. The menu was expanded and food prep efficiencies were put into place. Unfortunately, the quality of the burgers suffered. The bar had an old-fashioned walk-in freezer some distance from the kitchen. With the old bar, when more burgers were called for you would see one of the kitchen staff walk by with a platter containing a mound of ground beef. The burgers were formed by hand, the shape and even the size varied, but they were always good.

Today the burgers are cooked from pre-formed patties … they are consistent in shape, they are consistent in size, unfortunately they are not as tasty. Aaahh progress.


Ok enough reminiscing Poppy … out with the recipe!

Here is what I have learned. As with most things in life, the simpler the better.

Start with ground chuck, it has the right mixture of meat to fat. We don’t like to talk about fat these days, but without it your beef would be dry and tasteless.

Unless you have a commercial grade griddle like that old bar in Ferguson, you are going to need a good cast iron skillet.  I don’t try to fit more than two burgers in a skillet. I have two cast iron skillets, but if you just have one don’t despair. Done Poppy’s way these guys cook up so fast you can rotate burgers in and out of one skillet and keep everyone happy.

Speaking of fast make sure your beer is cold and your side dishes are ready to go because these burgers are done in minutes.

The trick here is heat and nothing delivers heat better than cast iron.

Coat your skillet with a thin layer of vegetable oil or any oil with a high smoke point, not butter. Then crank your burner up to high and turn on your exhaust fan.

I usually go for 1/3 pound burgers and create a simple ball of ground chuck in that size.

When your skillet starts to smoke drop those balls of ground chuck in and immediately flatten with a good sturdy metal spatula. I know this goes against many theories of burger cooking but give it a try!

When you see the browning start to creep up the sides of the patties flip them over. Even though you have oiled the skillet you may have to use a little force here.

As soon as the patties are flipped, sprinkle them with a 50/50 mixture of salt and coarse ground pepper. Nothing fancy here, just simple and honest.

At that point add cheese if desired. I use a slice of provolone and a slice of medium cheddar, but let your tastes be your guide.

Because cast iron retains heat so well, I go ahead and turn off the burners. When the cheese has softened, transfer them to the buns and let them rest for a couple of minutes. Add your condiments of choice and enjoy!

(Spend the extra buck and buy some good buns)

… shown with roasted potatoes, sweet onions and zucchini.

(and don’t forget the exhaust fan)

Enjoy!