Mediterranean caprese salad

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I don't know if we can go back to regular oil-and-vinegar caprese after this. I love a good caprese salad, but I accidentally keep typing "craprese" and that's sort of a fitting description for a lot of them. If the mozzarella is rubbery or cold, if the tomatoes are mealy or our of season, and if the dressing isn't lively and tangy, then they're just...nothing. I mean, they're bad, but more than that they're just absent any flavor or texture or redeeming qualities.

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However, tomato season is upon us, so it's much more likely that your tomatoes will be delicious. And if you have any access to a backyard, side yard, fire escape, community garden, etc, I implore you to plant some basil and mint. Both of these plants are hardy in the summer and will save you so much money at the grocery store. AND, you'll have no excuse not to make the pesto that accompanies this caprese salad (and that you'll want to pour on everything).

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So, we have good tomatoes and a tangy interesting pesto, but what else does this salad need? Well, I also implore you not to serve cold mozzarella. Room temperature is SO MUCH BETTER. If you can get even a decent mozzarella, I think it's improved exponentially by sitting out for a short time (or, if you're also in the middle of our current heatwave, a few seconds?). And, I like to guild the lily by sprinkling a generous amount of crumbled, salty, briny feta on top. Is it necessary? No. Is it delicious? Yes. Should you do it? Without hesitation.

Buy a rainbow of heirloom tomatoes and you have a showstopper for a dinner party that requires basically no effort (I even opted for a pre-cut cheese because I'm that lazy) and better yet, NO COOKING. Did I mention the heatwave?

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We ate it yesterday as Sunday lunch on our back porch with some prosciutto and salami, some Bantam Bread, and white peaches. A glass of cold rose or Sancerre would have made it heaven, but I'm old now and can't day drink without needing a nap and an Advil, so we forwent the wine. Boo.

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Mediterranean caprese salad

4 large heirloom tomatoes
1 large or 2 medium balls of mozzarella
½ cup crumbled feta
¼- ½ cup mint and basil pesto (recipe below)

Mint and basil pesto
1½ cups basil leaves, loosely packed
½ cup mint leaves, well packed
1 large garlic clove (or 2 smaller ones)
1 medium shallot, quartered
2-3 Tbsp lemon juice (juice of 1 large lemon)
1/3 cup olive oil
1 tsp kosher salt

To make the pesto:
Place all of the ingredients except the oil in a large food processor or blender. While the machine is running, pour in the oil and blend until you've reached your desired consistency. Add salt to taste.

To assemble the salad:
Alternate the mozzarella and tomatoes in whatever color combination you like. Top with the mint and basil pesto and sprinkle with the feta.

Serves: 3-4 as a main course, 5-6 as a side

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Two-bite strawberry shortcakes

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The road to these stupidly easy strawberry shortcakes was long and winding.

I started obsessing about scones right around the royal wedding and thought, these would make a great base for a shortcake. Upon further research, I learned that "short" cake just means a cake with a high fat-to-flour ratio, like scones or biscuits. But I wondered, what's the difference between the two?

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Martha Stewart thinks they're basically the same, but many commenters found that suggestion insulting to both Brits and southerners. Food52 had a much more detailed description of the differences, but after reading I felt less inclined to use either traditional scones (too much butter) or traditional biscuits (too much technique) as my shortcake base. The only specific shortcake recipe I found that appealed to me was the classic from Bon Appetite, but it calls for two hard-boiled egg yolks and I'm generally too lazy for that.

 See the tiny flecks of black? Those are the vanilla beans dispersed in the cream.

See the tiny flecks of black? Those are the vanilla beans dispersed in the cream.

Enter, the Never-fail Biscuit from King Arthur. These use no butter, so if you're looking for a butter-y flavor, these may not be your biscuits. However, they are so so easy and come together so fast. There's no resting or freezing or rolling or cutting, but you end up with a flaky, risen biscuit that is easily adapted into a sweet shortcake. 

And! These are tiny, two-bite shortcakes, so you get the taste of sweet summer fruit, without eating a huge dessert. I didn't healthify these thanks to the tiny portion size, but you could surely swap in gluten-free flour, full-fat coconut milk, and coconut sugar in this recipe with good results.

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A couple of notes:
- I made lots of changes because I wanted sweet biscuits and I didn't have self-rising flour, so I had to fiddle with the ratios of salt, flour, and baking powder a bit. In the end, I used less salt and less baking powder than the original recipe.
- I also added more sugar, a little more cream, and half of a vanilla bean instead of using an extract (though you could add 2 teaspoons of vanilla extract instead. KA suggests using 1 tablespoon, but I felt like I could taste the alcohol of the extract a bit). 
- You want to really make sure these shortcakes are cooked. I don't know why, but I felt like I could taste raw flour before I cooked them for an extra minute or two. See notes in the recipe for some tricks to tell if they're really done.

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Two-bite strawberry shortcakes
 

1 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
Scant ¼ tsp fine kosher salt
3 Tbsp sugar
½ tsp cinnamon
¾ cup + 1 Tbsp heavy cream
½ vanilla bean, scraped and seeds added
1 Tbsp demarara or other coarse sugar for sprinkling on top
24 medium strawberries
1 cup whipped cream

Preheat the oven to 450.

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and whisk to combine.

Measure the heavy cream in a large measuring cup and add one extra tablespoon. Using a small sharp knife, cut the vanilla bean pod in half lengthwise. Scrape out the inside of the pod and add the brown seeds to the liquid. Whisk vigorously to disperse the vanilla beans.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, making sure to scoop out any vanilla beans on the bottom of the cream mixture. Mix just until the wet and dry ingredients come together and begin to look like a flaky dough. This is a dry-ish dough, but you should be able to form the mixture into a ball easily with your hands. If the dough is falling apart, add ½ of tablespoon of cream at a time and mix again with your hands. You want the dough just coming together without falling apart, but without becoming too wet.

When the dough is together, scoop off a small amount (about 1 tablespoon) and lightly roll into a ball with your hands. Place the balls on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops of each ball with demarara or other coarse sugar.

Bake for 10-12 minutes, rotating the tray once during baking. My best indication that the shortcakes are done was that the extra sugar on the tray (not on the shortcakes) had burned ever-so-slightly and the bottoms of the shortcakes were a dark caramel brown.

Yield: 24 mini shortcakes

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Chard, corn, and garlic scape pasta salad

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Are you guys ever surprised by your own agency? I feel like I've gotten more on board with the decision-maker role, but some things still catch me off guard. For example, I often forget that I can change the radio station in the car when I hear a song I don't like. I'll listen to something really annoying until it suddenly occurs to me, "I could change this." I'm a weirdo.

That said, you don't have to live with boring basic pasta salad! (In fact, you don't have to bring pasta salad to parties at all, but you'll want to when you read this recipe.)

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Pasta salad feels like one of those things that food snobs are supposed to hate. But I'll be honest, my mom makes one that, on paper, sounds gross (pasta, mayo, celery, hard boiled eggs, celery salt, etc), but is actually delicious.

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However, more often than not it's included on a BBQ table as more of an afterthought than a star. But this guy right here, is a star. It's nutty, salty, crunchy, tangy, and full of greens. AND, it's vegan. When do you have a pasta salad whose flavor doesn't hinge on some meat or cheese? Use a gluten-free pasta if that fits your dietary needs and everyone is happy.

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A few notes:
-None of these veggies need a ton of cooking and I would eat corn raw all summer if you let me. But if you like things more well done, feel free to increase cooking times. Just a note, the more you cook garlic scapes, the mellower the garlic flavor gets, so I would advise against overcooking them lest they lose their kick entirely.
-Don't be afraid of salt here. Since there isn't a traditional sauce or a terribly large amount of oil, the flavor of this pasta hinges on the salt (and the veggies, nuts, lemon, and olive oil, but mostly, the salt). I oversalt the pasta water (use what you normally would and then add another 2 large pinches) and season the veggies as they're cooking and again once you've added all of the ingredients together. It may feel like a lot of salt (and taste throughout cooking and prepping, lest you add more salt than you personally enjoy), but I do think it's necessary to have a hefty amount of seasoning here.

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Chard, corn, and garlic scape pasta salad

¾-1 lb dry pasta (in v salted water)
3 Tbsp olive oil, divided
1 large head chard (if less than 8 leaves or if very small leaves, use two heads)
8-10 large garlic scapes
3 medium or 2 large ears of corn
2-3 Tbsp lemon juice
½ cup roasted cashews, roughly chopped
½ cup marcona almonds, roughly chopped
1 cup torn fresh basil
1 tsp kosher salt
Pepper
Nutty cheese (optional)

Bring water to a boil and cook your pasta according to package directions. Once cooked, drain the pasta and add to a large bowl and toss with 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

While the pasta is cooking, wash and chop the chard, garlic scapes, and corn. In a large sauté pan, heat the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the chard first and allow it to wilt for 1 minute. Season with more salt. Add the garlic scapes and cook both veggies, tossing and stirring frequently, for about 5-7 minutes. Add the corn kernels and cook for another 3-4 minutes.

Add the cooked vegetables to the pasta and olive oil and toss. Add the lemon juice and toss again. Add the chopped nuts and torn basil and toss again. Test for seasoning and adjust with more salt and pepper as needed.

If using, add the cheese just before serving.

Yield: So much pasta salad. But seriously, at least 6 adult servings, more if this as a side dish.

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Carrot, ginger, and tahini dressing

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Salad! Do your kids eat it? M will inexplicably stuff his face with raw kale sometimes and then turn around and gag on anything leafy or green. The dressing is a factor. Also, if he gets to mix the salad, he is much more likely to eat it. I recommend putting your salad bowl on a rimmed baking sheet to catch any greens that escape (read: all of the greens) and letting the little ones have a go.

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Since M is currently SO PASSIONATE about sushi, we've eaten at A LOT of Japanese restaurants lately. Sometimes that ubiquitous carrot and ginger dressing is a revelation, but more often, it's watery or too acidic. This version is neither of those things. There's a fair amount of liquid and acid in this recipe, but the load of carrots and the little bit of tahini mellows the vinegar just enough and adds a touch of creaminess.

I won't lie: It's a little chunkier than your average salad dressing, but it coats the lettuce beautifully and instead of just being oil, you're sneaking in some extra goodness in what is essentially a condiment. So if your toddler deigns to eat a mouthful, they're eating EVEN MORE VEGETABLES.

Also, this dressing is sweet and tangy, but happens to be free of gluten, dairy, and sugar. And it lasts FOREVER. Pretty sure I'm still eating a batch that I made three weeks ago. But, you know, use your judgment.

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Creamy carrot and ginger tahini dressing

¼ apple cider vinegar
1 Tbsp white vinegar
2 Tbsp tahini
2 extra large carrots or 4 medium/small carrots
1 inch piece of fresh ginger, peeled and roughly chopped
¼ white onion
1 large clove garlic
2 Tbsp lemon juice
½ cup olive or avocado oil
salt
pepper

Place all ingredients (except the oil) in a blender or food processor. Start blending and slowly pour in the olive oil while the machine is running. Blend until you've reached your desired consistency. If the mixture feels too watery, add another tablespoon of tahini. If it feels too thick, add one tablespoon of water and blend.

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No-bake granola bars

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Guys. I have tried and tried to make actually good, lower sugar, school-safe granola bars. I succeeded with these bars, but they're a bit more effort than I'm willing to expend when I suddenly realize on a week night that we don't have anything for snack or lunch boxes the next day. These granola cups are super easy, but we're entering that sweltering season where turning on the oven is basically just opening the gates of hell.

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Instead we have these no-bake granola bars that are super quick and easy (and cool) to prepare, are lower in sugar than store bought bars, are free of dairy, nuts, gluten, and eggs AND are absolutely freaking delicious.

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I've tried a couple of no-bake granola bar recipes via Pinterest that left me wanting. Some recommended using quick oats, which got lost in the honey and nut butter mixture. Some also suggested rice cereals that lost their crunch when mixed with the other ingredients.

Many of them also call for dates, which I tried in these bars too. Here's the thing: If you use enough dates, they do help the bars stick together when they heat up. But, your bars taste primarily like dates, which I didn't want for this recipe. So, just beware that these bars are ever-so-slightly crumbly when they heat up.

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A couple of notes:
- The texture of these bars can change based on a few factors: First, nut butters separate, especially in the heat, so the thoroughness of your mixing can change the texture of these bars. Try your best to mix vigorously so that your nut butter isn't too thin or too thick.
- You should be able to form the mixture into a ball that stays together and doesn't stick to your fingers. If the mixture is too crumbly, add one Tbsp of nut butter at a time and mix again to see if the grains come together. If the mixture is too sticky, try adding 1 Tbsp of oats at a time until you have a better consistency.
- Give the dry ingredients a good stir before adding in the wet ingredients. The mixing of the wet and dry ingredients can require some elbow grease, but is easier if you've already distributed the grains and cinnamon.
- To make these bars school safe, use sunflower seed butter. If you don't have nut or peanut restrictions, peanut and almond butter are perfectly great substitutes.
- If you can't find or don't want to use the chocolate-covered sunflower seeds, any old chocolate chips or carob chips (we're particularly fond of these non-dairy chocolate chips), will do.  
- Millet is a slightly more exotic ingredient, but it's available at Whole Foods or health stores and really helps these bars to have some crunch. Millet is also gluten free and has a ton of health benefits.

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Actually good, no-bake granola bars

1¾ cups rolled oats (not quick oats or steel cut)
½ cup millet
1 tsp cinnamon
¾ cup sunflower seed butter
¼ cup honey
½ cup chocolate covered sunflower seeds or chocolate chips
Optional: a pinch of salt

Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and give them a stir.

Add the sunflower seed butter and the honey and stir to combine. You can zap these ingredients in the microwave to loosen them up a bit first, but I find that a little elbow grease and some wet hands do the trick.

Add the chocolate covered sunflower seeds or chocolate chips and stir again just until they’re incorporated.

Dump the mixture out into a parchment-lined brownie pan (I like 8x8 best for the size of the bars it produces, but 9x9 or larger will also work with thinner results).

Freeze for 20 minutes. Remove the bars and cut them into 16-24 portions. Store in the fridge.

Yield: 16-24 bars

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