Maybe it’s the afternoon showers cooling temperatures from oppressive to pleasant or the fact that I’ve watched three surfing documentaries this week, but I’ve craved the tropics. My desperate grasp for a taste of island life has led to a bit of over purchasing, leaving my counter piled high with mangoes and limes. (Don’t judge. They were really cheap and I couldn’t resist.) Now, to use up the bounty, I’ve been eating them with just about every meal. Mango-lime smoothies in the mornings, mango sprinkled with lime juice and chili powder for a snack and my personal favorite, mango slaw with lime dressing to go with lunch or dinner. The slaw recipe is the highlight of the excessive purchase and inspired a lunch/dinner meal where it pairs with marinated short ribs and white rice. The short ribs showcase a salty sweet marinade and cook up quickly on the stove-top or grill, while fragrant hot cooked rice rounds out the plate and balances the robust tropical flavors. The menu is suited for a sensible lunch gathering with a few friends and maybe a few beers. It’s refreshing, yet filling, but won’t leave you so full the rest of the day is unproductive. Enjoy.
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Here is a skillet supper that truly uses one pan to create all the components of a great meal. Crispy Chicken Breast Filets, flattened to quicken the cooking process, are paired with sweet corn medallions, bulb onions and fresh tomatoes. It’s a delicious party menu that utilizes peak seasonal ingredients to keep the flavor high and costs low. Outside of the pan, I’ve also included a dessert of Cherry Cream Pie which is a revelation in contrast to the recipes found on the back of cream cheese packets.
Norm’s Notes: Seasoning Salt and Blends
In today’s culinary world, salt and pepper reign as the undisputed kings of flavor enhancement. The numerous variants of sodium chloride and pungent berries are prized among cooks who often adjust and combine different types to meet specific uses. However, store-bought seasoning salts and blends, popular with most home cooks, often get no love. Since many peoples’ cabinets are littered with half full cylinders of them, I think salt and pepper elitism needs to be addressed.
Seasoning salts and blends are great because they will go with just about anything you can think of, quickly enhancing the taste of foods with little effort. The main problem is many of the seasonings lose potency and pungency over time. So that seasoning you bought for that one recipe you made, for that thing, two years ago, may be past its prime. A good rule is if you haven’t used it within the current calendar year, it probably needs to be discarded, but check the expiration date to be sure. My advice is to use seasoning salts and blends often and boldly. Shake a bit on fresh cut veggies, salad, eggs, grits or anywhere you would use salt and pepper or hot sauce. If anyone sticks their nose in the air about your love of seasoning salt and blends, smile at them, shake on more, and enjoy.
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Whether you’re lugging home a 15-pounder to slice into wedges or grabbing a pre-cut version, my guess is that your watermelon will generally be served plain. May I recommend you add some intrigue to your melon by pairing its sweet succulent flesh with the fruity spice of jalapeno and acidic tang of lime? The Latin-inspired combination transforms plain ol’ watermelon into a complex dish with loads of sweet and spicy flavor. These 3 recipes are all paired with fresh jalapeno and lime to provide a few more interesting ways to enjoy summer’s unofficial fruit.
Norm’s Notes: Pick a Pepper
I don’t know if it’s because of drought or my selection habits, but most of the chiles (especially jalapeno) I’ve had this year are really, really spicy. Although I generally like spice, sometimes there is such a thing as too hot. If you are in the same boat and want to keep the heat of chiles to a minimum, remove the seeds and inner white membrane with a sharp knife. Doing this will not only reduce the heat level, but will help bring out more of the chiles’ fruity flavor. Also, thinly slicing or finely dicing the peppers helps to evenly distribute the spiciness in a dish, allowing for a more predictable heat level and giving a peppery pop of flavor to each bite.
Baby artichokes are one of those farmers’ market purchases many people commit to due to a persuasive salesperson or solely based on their attractiveness, but soon regret the purchase when left pondering “how do I cook these?” To solve this common problem, here is an illustrated guide on the bare necessities to preparing those prickly pears into something delicious. Included are 4 simple ways to serve these babies to your friends and family.
Norm’s Notes: Trimming Baby Artichokes in 3 simple steps
Pluck away any leaves attached to artichoke stem. Remove tough outer layer covering the stem with a vegetable peeler or paring knife.
Cut away top ¼ portion of leaves, leaving a flat surface, cut artichoke in half lengthwise.
Examine each artichoke half to see if the choke (the fuzzy parts right above the heart and just below the purple line ends) is a bit overgrown (the fuzz will tend to stick out from the cut side if overgrown). If they are, carefully scrape away choke with the tip of a paring knife.
Noodle bowls of all types are having a moment in the spotlight. Although known by different names and varying styles and tastes, most noodle bowls have a few things in common: a rich flavorful broth; cooked noodles; and toppings of vegetables and various sauces. They are ideal for feeding a crowd as each serving can be adjusted to personal tastes and are quite filling. Host your next summer gathering featuring this robust and savory chicken version that is flavored with fresh ginger and chiles and dried mushrooms.
Disposable chopsticks are a must for this party. I found a pack of 40 for around $1 at a local Asian market.
Norm’s Notes: Oodles o’ Noodles
Asian-style noodles come in just as many varieties as Italian-style pasta. However, Asian noodles are far superior to keeping their shape in hot liquid thanks to the addition of alkaline substances (such as baking soda) in the recipe. I recommend taking a trip to a local Asian market and browsing the variety of noodles available (It will be a lot, trust me). Don’t be intimidated by the stylish characters that adorn the fronts of the packaging. Usually, on the flip side, there are picture directions that show proper cooking techniques and times. Pick a few different styles and cook them up to see which you prefer.
Three of my favorite noodles: Japanese-style Udon, dried Soba and mushroom egg
Noodles out of the package
Cooked noodles (Left to Right): Japanese Udon, Soba and Egg
Japanese-style Udon noodles are fluffly and toothy. I like to use them because they have a bit more body than the dried version making them very filling. Those unfamiliar with their texture may rate them as soggy and rubbery, so buyer beware.
Soba noodles are more hearty in texture and earthy in taste thanks to a buckwheat flour base. I like them because they tend to soak up the flavor of the soup better than any noodle. Also, they are great served cold and tossed with a light coating of soy sauce, sesame oil, fresh grated ginger and ground fresh chili paste.
Egg noodles are the user-friendly option. Most people are familiar with the texture (think Chinese Lo-mein) and they are the easiest to find in your local supermarket. You can buy them fresh or dried and in flat or round shapes. Where to find them in the supermarket: In fresh form, look in the produce section usually along side egg roll and wonton wrappers. In dry form, check the international isle where you may also find dried versions of Soba and Udon noodles.
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If clear summer weather is in the forecast this weekend, consider entertaining off-site and host a picnic in the park. Round up a few friends and have everyone pitch in and bring components to create a fabulous meal. One person should bring sides (store bought or homemade — it doesn’t matter), another brings the fresh fruit and beverages, and another a main entree like fried chicken fingers. Finally, you arrive with this show stopping sandwich and a simple dessert, if desired. I recently pitched in hosting a picnic in the park and created this grilled vegetable, mozzarella and prosciutto sandwich for the occasion. My friends dubbed it “The Symphony.” I’d like to think it was due to the delicious and harmonious taste of the sandwich, however, since our picnic was at an outdoor symphony performance, I think other factors were involved. Regardless of the name sake, it is a fantastic item to bring to your next gathering, whether indoors or out. Click to see the recipe and tips for packing up a portable outdoor meal.
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The finale of the Summer Entertaining Toolkit presents a sweet send off with Lemon-Vanilla Custard. This luxurious confection has the perfect balance of sweetness and richness. Think of it as refrigerator ice cream; a creamy, dreamy treat that tops a variety of ripe summer fruit and baked goods or is great, on its own, a spoonful at a time. [FYI, a few dollops of custard over sliced fresh bananas and vanilla wafers makes for one great tasting banana pudding as well!] This easy one-pot dessert comes together in no time and will delight your palate with its silky sweet taste.
The featured recipe will make about 8 servings depending on how much you decide to spoon on. A heaping tablespoon or two usually does the trick. However, it is easily doubled to serve twice the amount of individual servings or be used in a large trifle dish layered with fresh fruit and cubed pound cake to feed a crowd. Use ripe summer stone fruit like peaches, cherries, nectarines, and plums or fresh berries for the best results. Fresh cut melon is not a good choice to serve with this custard since they tend to water out when the custard is added, leading to a milky watery mess in the bottom of the serving bowl. Try the custard for breakfast, spooned over waffles or pancakes and topped with chopped fruit. Or smear on a piece of fresh pound cake for a quick dessert.
Overall, this recipe follows the same theme of versatility and customization as the other recipes included in my Summer Entertaining Toolkit. I hope this program has provided core recipes that you may incorporate into gatherings throughout the season. They all work together as a full menu, but try options where you break them out individually and compose a meal based around one or more. I encourage you to play and experiment with the menu to make it your own.
Norm’s Notes: Canning Jars as Serveware
Canning jars offer a casual appeal in serving your menu and are cheap enough to be purchased in bulk when hosting a large number of guests. Use them for individual servings of dessert, green salad, or as holders for flatware on a buffet. My preference is for the wide-mouth variety because they are easy to fill and eat out of. I also use canning jars as holders for tea-light candles outdoors as they are sturdy enough to survive a slight wind gust without tipping. Place jars of varying heights and volumes to create mood lighting at the table or pack a few with fresh cut flowers for a simple centerpiece. Personally, I steer away from them when serving beverages since the screw top glass feels a bit unsophisticated, but if you like them for that purpose, go for it. A case of 12 wide mouth half-pints or pints costs around $12 to $15 and will serve you well over the year, whether as a container for banana pudding or quick table lantern.
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If you have been reading the past two weeks, you now have a new summer cocktail and a go-to appetizer. Today, it’s time to get to the meat of the menu, literally. This installment of the Summer Entertaining Toolkit features an entree of rich pork meatballs. If this doesn’t strike you as an ideal summer main dish, let me explain the value. The key selling points to this recipe are ease of preparation and versatility of serving. Meatballs are not much work to assemble and can be cooked in advance of your gathering, then simply sauced and reheated when guests arrive. These specific mounds are bold in flavor and succulently juicy thanks to the rich fatty bacon and pungent herbs that pulse throughout. The combination of flavors are not only delicious on their own, but allow for easy pairing with a variety of sauces. Whether covered with a favorite red sauce, creamy garlicky white sauce, such as Alfredo, or Asian-style sweet and spicy red chili sauce, these meatballs compliment both savory and sweet tastes. Serving options are also customizable. Nestle the meatballs atop hot cooked pasta, grilled fresh vegetables, or hearty risotto and ferry to the table spread on a large platter, family style, or serve individually plated. Also, try slicing and layering them on fresh pizza dough spread with a spicy red sauce. Top with fresh mozzarella slices, then bake, grill, or broil to cook and crisp the dough and melt the cheese. Finish with a light covering of torn fresh basil leaves and freshly grated Parmesan. Any way you try them, they are a welcome departure from typical summer proteins and will give your guests a pleasant supper surprise.
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This week’s installation of the Summer Entertaining Toolkit has the hardware to impress guests on the first nibble. Sunflower Seed Pâté and Grilled Bread are your new all-star starters. If you haven’t touched sunflower seeds since your last handful of trail mix, I recommend trying them in this finely ground form. The earthy tasting seeds are mixed with fresh herbs, lemon, and a few golden raisins, to add a hint of sweetness, then cradled to your mouth on a crunchy, smoky piece of grilled bread. It doesn’t sound like much, but Grilled Bread should be put into the rotation as a staple appetizer carrier this season. It holds a variety of cheeses, spreads, and dips alike, is inexpensive, and easy to make indoors and out. I like to grill bread not only for its simplicity and taste, but also for a kind of “batting practice” for grilling season. Although one’s dedication to tending an outdoor fire in inclement weather varies, I would guess most folks probably haven’t used the grill much over the past 4 to 6 months. That much time away necessitates a tune up session. Grilling bread slices helps you get familiar with temperature zones and hot spots without running the risk of turning a 20 dollar rib-eye into a piece of carbon. A 2 buck baguette helps work out the kinks, preserving food from overcooking and letting you know how close you can get to the heat without having a case of burnt knuckles.
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Since warm weather has returned and daylight has almost stretched to the maximum, summer entertaining is beginning to bloom. If you are dreaming of basking in the favorable temperatures and can’t wait to entertain friends and family with a seasonal gathering, then the Summer Entertaining Toolkit is for you. Over the next 4 weeks you’ll receive a full menu of recipes including a cocktail, appetizer, entree and dessert, that highlight the flavors of the season. Plus, I’ll have some techniques for dressing your table to beautifully accent the dishes. This week say hello to the Baton Rouge. Your new signature summer cocktail.
The most popular warm weather cocktails are often the simplest to make. The margarita, daiquiri, Cuba libre, and caipirinha all contain 3 to 4 ingredients, depending on the maker. The bubbly, sangria-like Baton Rouge is the product of a similar ideal. Choice ingredients of French aperitif wine, orange liqueur, sweetened lime juice and sparkling water combine to make this delightful drink. The cocktail is easily thrown together on a hot afternoon to make a single glass or fill a pitcher. (One bottle of Lillet makes 16 servings!).
Adding to the ease of crafting this drink, is the use of sweetened lime juice. I, unlike many of my mixologist friends, have no problem using this “well” bar staple. It provides advantages of a long shelf life and predictable tartness and sweetness, leading to consistent tasting cocktails. Plus, with limes costing nearly 3 metal George Washingtons apiece, I think having it on hand is not a bad idea.
Norm’s Notes: Stocking up on Glassware.
This drink is suitable for a variety of glasses, so it’s up to you on what to serve it in. A simple wine glass, double old fashioned (aka “DOF”), collins, or juice glasses are all acceptable. It’s helpful to take an inventory to make sure you have enough of the same style of glass to suit the amount of expected guests. If you are running low, or have a bunch of mismatch drink-ware, stop by an antique mall or estate sale and pick out a set of patterned beauties to add to your collection. They usually don’t cost much ($12 to $15 for a set of 6 is the max I’ll pay) so, I’ll often pick up a second set of a similar pattern or style so I have more glasses than needed. Knowing you have backups help ease the stress when the inevitable happens and one tumbles to the floor.
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