Sunday, June 29, 2014

Cucumber Watermelon Feta Salad

Day 76

Here’s another recipe for your Independence Day menu! The combination of watermelon, feta, and cucumber with a vinaigrette does not sound very appealing at first, I realize. But, once you give it a try, you’ll see that the flavors blend beautifully and that the taste is absolutely superb. The flavor of the feta changes when combined with the melon, as you’ll notice that it’s softer than usual.  Feta’s trademark saltiness is perfect for the melon.

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
The cucumber adds a crunch and a bitterness to cut the intense sweetness of the melon too. Somehow, the vinegar-based dressing with garlic and olive oil is the perfect touch. It is now, officially, one of my very favorite summer salads.

I see similar variations of this recipe in magazines and cookbooks almost daily. Most recently, Country Living had a version that is like the one I’m sharing today. I’ve tried several different vinaigrette variations, and I truly prefer the one below. I hope you like it too!

Happy July 4th to you and yours! May we remember the sacrifices that were made and that continue to be made every day to allow us the freedom to safely gather together and to live the American Dream. Please, let’s all hug and thank a soldier and a veteran this week, and let’s also be humbled and grateful for all they’ve done to keep us safe and free! 

Cucumber-Watermelon-Feta Salad 

2 English cucumbers, washed
4 cups seedless watermelon, cut into cubes
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
5 tbs. red wine vinegar
6 tbs. extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. black pepper

In a salad bowl, mix red wine vinegar, garlic, salt, pepper, and olive oil. 

Using a mandolin or a sharp knife, thinly slice cucumbers, leaving peelings on. 

Place cucumbers in vinaigrette and toss to coat thoroughly. Add watermelon and gently mix. Serve within 30 minutes of adding watermelon, and just before presenting, garnish with feta cheese. 

Saturday, June 28, 2014

Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

Day 75

More picnics and barbecue fare! This recipe is a fun twist on the traditional macaroni salad often served at outdoor events. Potato salad and macaroni salad are staples because they are delicious, of course, but also because they are creamy. That smooth texture is a nice contrast to the tastes of alcohol and grilled meats and veggies, and it makes us feel like we had a perfectly balanced meal, taste-wise. 

I love July 4th picnics. Not only is it a wonderfully patriotic day, it’s also a day to spend time with friends, outside, enjoying pools, fireworks, and grilled food. When we receive July 4th party invitations, I always try to bring one pasta- or potato-based salad and one fresh and light salad. This year, I’ll definitely be contributing my Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad and maybe a cucumber-watermelon-feta salad (that will be my next blog post, for sure!).

Copyright, Doug Kapustin Photography, 2014
This recipe is one that I created based on the many macaroni and creamy pasta salads I’ve eaten over the years. It’s quick and easy, and it uses a very helpful shortcut that includes bottled ranch dressing rather than homemade. Mind you, I made two pasta salads, one with bottled ranch and one with mayonnaise and seasonings. Honestly, the bottled ranch dressing, although not as healthy, held up much better for picnic presentations, so I’ll be recommending it in today’s recipe. Feel free to make your own, though, if you aren’t comfortable using a prepared variety. 

The first homemade macaroni salad I remember was made by my grandmother on my mom’s side. She added lots of mayonnaise and even diced tomatoes straight from her garden. It had flecks of color from carrots, tomatoes, onions, and green peppers, and I remember that it was very simple but satisfying. Another quite different but absolutely incredible picnic pasta salad was one I remember eating at July 4th celebrations for my father’s side of the family. Daddy’s brother, Hunt, and Hunt’s wife, Nancy, used to invite the family to their house in town for July 4th. Everyone would bring a dish, but Nancy would do most of the cooking, much to our delight. Each Independence Day, she would make a different pasta salad that was en vogue that year. Nancy must have scoured cooking magazines constantly in the days before the Internet because her food was always new and exciting with the perfect blend of modern and traditional ingredients. Come to think of it, Nancy might very well be the best cook I’ve ever known. To my knowledge, she has no formal training, but she could have cooked with the likes of Julia Child or any Food Network chef had she been given the opportunity. 

Nancy tackled the extremely complicated recipes in magazines and cookbooks that most of us skip right over; you know the ones I’m referring to—those with directions (and no explanations) like “make a simple roux” or “after blanching” or “braise then thread with saffron”. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to spend an hour Googling words or looking at other recipes to understand directions like that. Nancy is fearless, though. She has always jumped right in, and the results have been consistently incredible. Once, she invited my father and I to dinner, for which she has prepared an herbed beef roulade, oven roasted root vegetables, and broccolini salad, long before anyone really used the hybrid kale/broccoli vegetable. Dessert was her sherry-soaked fruitcake that melted in our mouths. Nancy prepared these dishes with ease, and served them with her standard, humble modesty that is such a classic—and classy— trademark of her character. I miss her delicious food, to be sure. 

Today, Nancy isn’t often in the kitchen, as she is fighting the battle of her life against a dreadful cancer. She continues to exude grace and charm, even on her hardest days, and I’ve never known such a fighter. When we see our friends and loved ones battling a devastating illness, it isn’t easy to understand. Truth be told, it angers us. But, perhaps the most difficult part of the equation is that nagging question of why such lovely people are caused so much pain and suffering. We have to leave those questions and their answers in God’s hands, but it’s not so simple. Although I don’t see Nancy nearly enough these days, in my mind she is still pouring over Bon App├ętit and Food and Wine magazines, ear-marking recipes that she’ll try when she feels up to it. I just hope I get an invitation to that meal because there’s no doubt in my mind that it will be smashing! 

So, this recipe, albeit way too easy to compare to any of yours, is dedicated to you, Aunt Nancy. And, as soon as you’re back in the kitchen, I’ll be the first to jockey for the honor of being your sous-chef in training! Maybe I’ll even learn to make your beef roulade. I love you!  

Version with farfalle pasta

Ranch Picnic Pasta Salad

1 box rotini or farfalle pasta, cooked al dente and drained
1 jar Marie’s Creamy Ranch dressing (from refrigerated produce section of supermarket)
2 medium cucumbers
20 grape tomatoes
1 red onion, finely diced
½ cup fresh dill, chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped 
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt and pepper to taste

4 slices of cooked bacon, crumbled (optional)*

While pasta is still hot, add ½ jar of the ranch dressing and mix thoroughly. Refrigerate until cool. 

Meanwhile, peel cucumbers only in sections using a vegetable peeler, leaving strips of green  for color and texture. Chop cucumber into bite-size pieces. Slice each grape tomato in half, length-wise (it’s just prettier that way).

Once the pasta is cool, add the remaining ranch dressing and all of the other ingredients. Stir gently until well combined. If you prefer an even creamier pasta salad, don’t hesitate to add just a bit more ranch dressing if you have it (or just add a little mayo mixed with garlic and onion powder). Refrigerate until ready to serve.  Sprinkle with crumbled bacon just before serving, if desired. 

*Bacon crumbles not pictured.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Brown Sugar Peanut Blondies

Day 74

Summer is finally here! I’m sincerely hoping that you are reading this with the sound of ocean water nearby, or at least the beach or a vacation somewhere in your near future. 

Over the summer, we will all be invited to various picnics and barbeques, most likely, so I thought that the next few blog recipes should be good ideas to take to grilling events. To make the cut, I think the recipes should be easy to eat and serve, not too heavy, and somewhat unique.

 I found this delicious blondie recipe in a Better Homes and Gardens magazine earlier this year, and I adapted it to include peanuts and chocolate rather than the almonds in the original recipe. Peanuts and chocolate always seem to be a crowd-pleaser, especially if there are any kids in the party mix. 

This recipe is one of the easiest I’ve ever made, and it lends itself nicely to an ice-cream sundae with caramel sauce (I recommend Haagan Daz’s brown sugar ice cream if you can find it) or simply to be eaten au naturel as a bar or cookie. Each square offers a chewy center with lots of brown sugar flavor. In many ways, it’s a better summer alternative to brownies since these blondies aren’t quite as sweet and rich. 

You’ll surely fall in love at first bite. Enjoy your summer, and may it be filled with relaxation, friends, sunshine, and lots of smiles!

Brown Sugar Peanut Blondies

2 cups packed brown sugar 
2/3 cup butter, cut up
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
2 cups all purpose flour 
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1½ -2 cups chopped peanuts and chocolate chips, combined 

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13x9x2-inch baking pan; set aside. In a medium saucepan heat brown sugar and butter over medium heat until butter melts and mixture is smooth, stirring constantly. Cool slightly. Stir in eggs, one at a time; stir in vanilla. Stir in flour, baking powder, and baking soda.
Spread batter in prepared baking pan. Sprinkle with nuts and chocolate. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes or until a wooden toothpick inserted near center comes out clean. Cool slightly in pan on a wire rack. Cut into bars while warm.

Original recipe from Better Homes and Gardens magazine, and at this link:

Sunday, June 8, 2014

Chocolate Beet Cake

Day 73

Beets! Chances are, you have a strong opinion about beets. In fact, you probably either love them or hate them. They are one of those root vegetables about which we are rarely on the fence. I happen to adore them. Pickled, steamed, roasted—you name it; I love them served every way imaginable. Even in cake. Although, to be fair, this is my first experience with a beet-chocolate pairing but it might not be my last.

I know the name Chocolate Beet Cake is a touch off-putting, but try to read on. Even I—a Lifetime Lover of Beets—was skeptical of this recipe. I learned about it from my friend Gwen who likes to bake and who is also very much into juicing and healthy cooking. But Gwen is so much more than a healthy cook and a baker. She is a mom, a businesswoman, and an *Awesome Cancer Survivor*! Gwen is quite the inspiration, for sure. 

So, when she shared the Beet Cake recipe (originally from Breezy Willow Farm and at this link:, I had to try it. I was very curious about the flavor. Would I taste beets?, I wondered. (Yes, a little bit, but if I didn’t know there were beets in it, I’d just think it had that certain je ne sais quoi).  Could there possibly be a healthy chocolate cake out there?  I pondered a bit longer. No, not really. It’s probably still not great for us, but definitely better than straight butter-chocolate cake.  

The verdict is that the cake is really, really good. It is moist and smooth and dense, and it has many ganache or icing options. It requires a springform pan, so make sure you have one before you begin. For the topping, the original recipe suggests sprinkling powdered sugar while Gwen recommends a glaze. I went with an easier alternative by spreading a thin layer of raspberry preserves over the top while it was warm, then a slightly thicker layer of Nutella over the preserves once it cooled. It made for a nice blend of flavors, a bit reminiscent of an Austrian Sacher Torte. 

Boiling the beets a day ahead is a good idea since it takes 40 minutes to get them soft enough to puree. 

Here’s the mostly healthy recipe. Minus the white flour, sugar, and butter. Oh, who cares; there are vegetables hidden in this cake! And, I think I read somewhere that dark chocolate is good for the heart. I know it does wonders for mine. Enjoy!

Chocolate Beet Cake

1 cup butter, softened, divided 
1½ cup packed dark brown sugar 
3 eggs at room temperature
1½ oz. dark chocolate 
5 medium beets/2 cups pureed beets 
1 t. vanilla extract 
2 cups all-purpose flour 
2 tsp. baking soda 
¼ tsp. salt 
½ tsp. cinnamon 
¼ tsp. nutmeg 
Confectioners' sugar for dusting 

To make beet puree, trim stems and roots off beets and quarter. Place in heavy saucepan filled with water. Bring to a boil and reduce to a simmer for 50 minutes or until the beets are tender. Drain off remaining liquid and rinse beets in cold water to cool. Slide skins off and place beets in blender. Pulse until a smooth puree forms. Let cool slightly before using in cake. Puree can be made several days in advance. 

In a mixing bowl, cream 3/4 cup butter and brown sugar. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Melt chocolate with remaining butter in the microwave on high in 20 second intervals, stirring each time until smooth. Cool slightly. Blend chocolate mixture, beets and vanilla into the creamed mixture (mixture will appear separated so don't fret). 

Combine flour, baking soda , salt, cinnamon and nutmeg; add to the creamed mixture and mix well. Pour into a greased and floured 10-in. spring form pan. Bake at 375 °F for 60-70 minutes or until a toothpick inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in pan 15 minutes before removing to a wire rack. Cool completely before dusting with confectioners' sugar*. 

*See blog post for other topping suggestions. 

Original recipe from Gwen via