One-Pot Dinner

Well, I made it through my first semester of Grad School with two A’s in my pocket and my kids are still alive!  Here are some tips for success, if you find yourself in a similar situation:

  1. Forget about cleaning.  I mean, do a quick wipe-down on a weekly basis…but if it’s between reading your chapters for the week, writing a paper, or scrubbing the toilet, you know where your loyalties lie.
  2. Reconcile yourself to the fact that your social life will not just go down the drain, but it will be plungered and flushed away.  You just won’t have time during the semester, so all your pre-grad-school friends will probably move on to other more available friends.  And when you do have a break between semesters, your time will be spent reacquainting yourself with your husband, whom you have ignored for the previous four months, and convincing your children you are more than just “boring mommy”.
  3. Cut your hair.  I was in the “growing-out” phase, but in the hard in-between time when it was too short to pull into a pony tail and too long to just let air dry without turning into a poofy mess.  So I went back to the choppy pixie crop.  Time management is all about priorities, and I gotta say, I love that my whole shower to make up to hair routine now takes 20-30 minutes tops.
  4. Get reading glasses.  You may not need them now, but by week 5, you will.  So go ahead and stock up at the dollar store now, so when it’s time to hit the books, you can keep on hitting without those pesky headaches.  And wearing glasses just adds to your short hair, making you look more academic.
  5. Lower your dinner expectations.  By a lot. Costco’s ready-made quinoa tabbouleh salad is my new go-to.  If I couldn’t pull dinner together in 10-20 minutes, it didn’t happen.

I also instituted a new dinner initiative.  Instead of making dinner to order like I used to do, for each little member of my family, I made one meal.  We now call it “Real Dinner”.  The little family members are required to have one bite of Real Dinner.  If they like it, they get to eat the rest of Real Dinner served to them.  If they don’t like it, they are not allowed to make gagging noises, say “I don’t like that”, or “But mommy, that’s gross”; they politely request a dinner substitution by saying, “No thank you, I would not like Real Dinner tonight.  Could I please have Prison Food?”  Upon which they receive one slice of bread (no butter, jam, or honey), and water.  This really works!  But, fair warning, it is really hard to keep a straight face while your children are politely asking for Prison Food.

I treated school like a full-time job (after my full-time mommy job, of course), so I set Monday through Friday as my work hours, and used Saturdays only if I was completely swamped.  This happened a few times, as my classes were doubled up the second half of the semester (I don’t remember much from the last 7 weeks).  I also had to use Saturdays as my long run days–I’m training for the Zion Trail Ragnar!  Saturdays were definitely a needed running outlet–kept everything balanced.

One-pot dinners are life savers.  I just had to try One Pot Spaghetti from Martha Stewart–I was really skeptical that noodles, water, fresh tomatoes, onions, and basil would all come together while in the same pot, but it was magic!  You really just throw everything together, and the tomatoes turn into a flavorful sauce, the onions cook down to a sweet note, and the basil keeps things peppery.  Need a 20 minute one-pot dinner?  This is it!

And now on to deep-cleaning my house.  My bathrooms are gonna sparkle this week like no other sparkle on earth!


ONE-POT SPAGHETTI

  • Servings: 4 bowls
  • Difficulty: easy
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From Martha Stewart’s One Pot Cookbook

INGREDIENTS

  •  1 12oz. box angel hair spaghetti
  • 12oz. cherry tomatoes sliced in half, or 6 roma tomatoes, chopped
  • 1 yellow onion, thinly sliced
  • 4 garlic cloves, grated on a medium ribbon grater
  • 6 fresh basil leaves, roughly chopped
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
  • 4 1/2 cups water
  • freshly grated Parmiggiano-Reggiano cheese

DIRECTIONS

  1. Combine all ingredients except for the grated cheese in a large pot.  Bring to a boil over high heat.  Cook, stirring frequently with tongs, until al dente and water has nearly evaporated, about 10 minutes.
  2. Serve with grated cheese and a sprinkle of olive oil.

Tomato Tart in a Little Green Dress

tomato pesto tart ingredients copy

How I ended up in Italy 3 weeks after graduating from high school is a long story.  The biggest part probably being the amazingly gracious family friends that agreed to host this lost girl who thought she would find herself amongst the cobblestoned streets and olive oil-scented air.  While the rest of my graduating class was living up the last summer of teenage “freedom” before starting college, I was working as a nanny for an Italian family in a small riverfront town.  While the mom of the family I worked for was not the typical Italian mama (no flour-dusted embrace, tomato-stained apron, hands waving “Mangia!  Mangia!” (Eat!) ), the upstairs neighbor was.  She made homemade gnocchi and pesto and tomato sauce, and brought it all down for the blonde American to taste.

I was probably the only person on earth, in Italy, who did not like olives, prosciutto, and pesto.  All that homemade green golden goodness just upstairs from me–and I took one taste of pesto and thought it was…thick.  I’m not sure how else to describe it!  It was a totally new flavor, and I simply did not like it.  Silly American.

My palate has grown up since that summer oh so many years ago, and I have to say pesto is now one of my most favorite ways to dress up any meal.  Seriously.  It’s like the little black dress of condiments…Little green dress.  You thought salmon wrapped in puff pastry was good?  Try spreading some pesto on the salmon before wrapping it up, and you can now charge your guests $10 more per plate.  A spoonful of pesto will make your Minestrone soup sing.

Put a little green dress on a tomato tart, and you will instantly become the belle of the ball.  I have brought this Tomato Pesto Tart to numerous get-togethers and brunches, and it has always disappeared within the first 60 seconds, and I have had to recite the recipe from memory to countless tomato-pesto-tart-wanna-be-makers.  And now, the secret is yours!

The key to a flaky whole wheat pie crust is keeping your refrigerated fats cold and your ice water ice cold.  When you use your hands to pull the pie dough together, you are going to knead it just enough, so the heat from your hands doesn’t heat up the butter and shortening.  You want to see “butter lumps” like this in your dough, then you know it’ll be extra flaky and crispy for your tart.  Gently fit it into your tart pan and get it ready to blind bake.  You can use a tart pan with the removable bottom, but I wanted to use this white porcelain one (mainly for aesthetic purposes).tomato pesto tart dough tomato pesto tart shell 2 tomato pesto tart shell 1

While your tart shell is blind baking, just whip up the rest of your ingredients–fresh garden tomatoes, your favorite pesto, fontina cheese, a little plain yogurt (or sour cream, or vegan mayonnaise) and then bake again until it all gets melty and your kitchen smells like a small corner of Italy.

tomato pesto tart tomatoes

tomato pesto tart 1

Serve with a little side salad and your dinner will be of the amazing-rave-to-all-your-neighbors sort.

tomato pesto tart 3

tomato pesto tart 4tomato pesto tart


TOMATO PESTO TART WITH WHOLE WHEAT CRUST

  • Servings: makes one 8-10 inch tart
  • Difficulty: easy if you've made pie crust before; medium if it's your first time making pie crust, as it adds another element to the recipe
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 INGREDIENTS FOR THE PIE CRUST
(This recipe will make a double pie crust; for the tart, I just cut it in half)

  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3 tablespoons sugar
  • 12 tablespoons ( 1 1/2 sticks) very cold unsalted butter
  • 1/3 cup very cold vegetable shortening
  • 8-10 tablespoons ice water

INGREDIENTS FOR THE TOMATO TART

  • 1 cup fontina cheese, finely shredded and divided in half (you can substitute mozzarella)
  • 3 medium tomatoes, sliced
  • 1/4 cup plain greek yogurt (or sour cream, or vegan mayonnaise)
  • 1/4 cup parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons pesto
  • 1/2 tsp pepper
  • 2-3 fresh basil leaves, julienned

DIRECTIONS

  1. Start with the pie crust.  Place flours, salt, and sugar in a large bowl and mix well.  Dice the cold butter and add with the shortening to the flour mix.  Cut in with a pastry cutter until pea-size.  Add 4 tablespoons of ice water to the dough and stir with a spoon until it starts to stick together.  Add 4-6 more tablespoons until most of the dough is a ball.  Dump out on a floured surface and knead just until the dough forms into a ball.  Flatten into a disc, wrap in wax paper, and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.
  2. Preheat the oven to 425.  Roll out the pie dough on a floured surface into a 12-inch circle.  Fit the dough into an 8-10 inch tart pan and prick the bottom with a fork.  Fit a large piece of parchment paper into the pie shell and fill with beans or pie weights.  Blind bake for 8-10 minutes.
  3. Meanwhile, slice the tomatoes and let rest on a paper towel to absorb extra liquid.  Stir together half of the shredded fontina cheese, yogurt, parmesan cheese, pesto and pepper.
  4. When the tart shell is done baking, sprinkle with the remaining shredded fontina cheese and let stand for 10-15 minutes, until the cheese is melted.
  5. Arrange the tomato slices over the cheese. Spread the pesto yogurt cheese mixture over the tomato slices, leaving a 1″ border around the edge.  Bake at 375 for 20-25 minutes, until the cheese is golden.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Sprinkle with fresh basil before serving.

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Classic Basil Pesto

How I ended up in Italy 3 weeks after graduating from high school is a long story.  The biggest part probably being the amazingly gracious family friends that agreed to host this lost girl who thought she would find herself amongst the cobblestoned streets and olive oil-scented air.  While the rest of my graduating class was living up the last summer of teenage “freedom” before starting college, I was working as a nanny for an Italian family in a small riverfront town.  While the mom of the family I worked for was not the typical Italian mama (no flour-dusted embrace, tomato-stained apron, hands waving “Mangia!  Mangia!” (Eat!) ), the upstairs neighbor was.  She made homemade gnocchi and pesto and tomato sauce, and brought it all down for the blonde American to taste.

I was probably the only person on earth, in Italy, who did not like olives, prosciutto, and pesto.  All that homemade green golden goodness just upstairs from me–and I took one taste of pesto and thought it was…thick.  I’m not sure how else to describe it!  It was a totally new flavor, and I simply did not like it.  Silly American.

My palate has grown up since that summer oh so many years ago, and I have to say pesto is now one of my most favorite ways to dress up any meal.  Seriously.  It’s like the little black dress of condiments…Little green dress.  You thought salmon wrapped in puff pastry was good?  Try spreading some pesto on the salmon before wrapping it up, and you can now charge your guests $10 more per plate.  Does your Minestrone soup need some zip?  Add a spoonful of pesto and your family will be shouting “Wow!” with glee.

basil pesto

Traditional basil pesto originated from Northern Italy–just basil, olive oil, pine nuts, and a little parmesan cheese all blended up.  There are so many variations of a pesto–I’m sure you could make and eat a different type every night for a year!  Any combination of vegetables, herbs, nuts, and other flavorings will blend up a fantastic sauce–kale, roasted red pepper, and sunflower seeds; parsley, sage, and walnuts; arugula, spinach, and almonds–endless little green dresses at your fingertips!

A couple of years ago I planted about 6 little basil sprouts in my garden.  They very quickly turned into basil trees.  Full-blown TREES!  I used as much as I could over the summer, and in the fall invited a couple friends over for a pesto-making party.  We chopped down those trees and blended batch after batch after batch of fresh basil pesto.  I think I froze at least 6-10 bags of frozen, cubed fresh basil pesto.  It’s a little embarrassing to say that it’s taken me two years to get down to my last bag of pesto cubes.  I know they say 6 months tops in the deep freeze, but I’ve had this pesto since the fall of 2013–and no way I’m going to throw out this green golden goodness!  Still tastes great…even in the fall of 2015.


CLASSIC BASIL PESTO

  • Servings: makes about 1 cup
  • Difficulty: super easy
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Adding a handful of fresh spinach or parsley leaves to the mix will ensure your pesto will retain its deliciously bright green hue 

INGREDIENTS

  • 1 cup tightly packed fresh basil leaves
  • 1/2 cup fresh Italian parsley leaves (no stems), or fresh baby spinach leaves
  • 1 tablespoon pine nuts
  • Pinch of red pepper flakes
  • 1 tablespoon Asiago or Parmesan cheese
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

DIRECTIONS

  1. In a blender or food processor, combine the first three ingredients and pulse until combined.  Add the next three ingredients and pulse again to mix.  With the machine running, slowly add the olive oil and process until a smooth sauce forms.
  2. Use right away, or keep in the refrigerator in an air-tight container and use within one week of making.  Alternatively, you can freeze in cubes (put a drop or two of olive oil on top) and keep in deep freeze up to six months.

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Fried Green Tomato Caprese Salad

Grocery stores do not typically carry green tomatoes.  Purple, yellow, orange heirloom tomatoes, yes; tart green ones, perfect for making faux tomatillo sauce or fried green tomatoes, no.  Last summer I thought I’d try a fried green tomato caprese salad, and it was really, really fun.  Breaded and pan-fried crispy tart green tomatoes, fresh mozzarella, basil and sweet basalmic vinegar–it was a caprese salad 2.0.

This summer we moved.  We don’t have a garden yet.  We don’t have a yard, yet.  We have plans, though–really big, gorgeous garden arbor, raised beds, garden wall, natural blackberry and raspberry fence plans.  I can see it, and it’s going to be really great.

But right now, in the thick of summer, I really wanted to make that fried green tomato caprese salad…so I asked some new friends if they would loan me some green tomatoes.  Ok, more like give me to have and devour green tomatoes.  I luckily had some willing green-tomato givers.

When I pan-fry something, I always use panko breadcrumbs; I think the results are crispier.  But when I reached for my panko container, it was totally empty.  Rats.  So I made do with what I had (and the more traditional southern pan-fry coating): cornmeal.  I decided to mix cornmeal and flour, to help the cornmeal not be a burned-too-crunchy-cornmeal texture, and they turned out great.

fried green tomato beginningsfried green tomato salad 1

I also had a SWAT team helper, taking a break from duty to help me arrange tomatoes and fresh basil leaves on the plate.  That’s the funny thing: my little guys love helping me in the kitchen, love stirring and mixing and scooping, and they always tell me it “smells so great” and “looks so “bee-you-tee-full”, mommy”, and “I am so excited to taste it, mommy”.  And then I prepare a bowl for them, and they take one look and walk away.  Some day…some day they will eat me out of house and home…

fried green tomato caprese salad

fried green tomato caprese salad 2


FRIED GREEN TOMATO CAPRESE SALAD

  • Servings: 2-4, if you are willing to share
  • Difficulty: easy
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You can make this salad as big or as little as you would like.  If your green tomatoes are large, I would estimate one tomato per person; if they are small, two per person.  

SALAD INGREDIENTS

  • 6 small green tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 large red tomatoes sliced, or a mix-match of mini heirloom tomatoes, cut in half
  • Fresh mozzarella medallions
  • A handful of baby basil leaves, or larger leaves julienned
  • Drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar

PAN-FRY ASSEMBLY LINE INGREDIENTS

  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour in one shallow bowl
  • 2 eggs, beaten in another shallow bowl
  • 1/2 cup all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup cornmeal, 1 tsp italian seasoning, and 1 tsp each of salt and pepper mixed together in a third shallow bowl

DIRECTIONS

  1. Heat 2-4 tablespoons of olive oil in a large frying pan.
  2. Dab both sides of the green tomato slices dry with a paper towel.  Working with 3-4 slices at a time, first coat both sides of a slice with flour, then move to the egg bowl and coat both sides, then move to the flour/cornmeal mixture and coat both sides.
  3. Gently place in the frying pan.  You should be able to comfortably fit 3-4 slices at a time.  Watch until they are golden brown and flip.  Once they are browned on both sides, let them rest on a cooling rack.  They will stay crispier on the rack vs. just laying them on a paper towel or a plate.
  4. Continue until all your green tomatoes are fried.
  5. Arrange your salad however you would like!  You can make fun towers alternating fried green tomatoes, red tomatoes, and fresh mozzarella; just layer the fried green tomatoes and mozzarella, and cluster the mini tomatoes on the plate, etc.  Sprinkle the fresh basil over top and drizzle with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.  You can also sprinkle more salt and pepper, if desired.

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