Tag Archives: Basil

Meatless Monday: Ensalada Caprese Stack with Toasted Garlic “Croutons” and Savory Butternut Squash Soup

Photo by Kathyhuntphoto.com

Meatless Monday seems to be growing in popularity and meat lover that I am, I’ve been avoiding it like the plague! But now that the holidays are over and I’m back to eating relatively healthful food day to day but…I still have pants in the closet that I can’t fit into anymore!

While I’m well aware that eating veggies only once a week isn’t going to make a significant impact it’s certainly a step in the right direction. It also starts off the week with a kick to my immune system and sets the stage for eating good wholesome food throughout the rest of the week.  So, meatless Monday it is!

Bacon bits just wouldn’t have been right so I went with the garlic “croutons”. These are not actually croutons but simply pan toasted chopped garlic. These yummy little tidbits pack a punch, are easy to make and great as a garnish for soups, salads, or even cooked vegetables.

I use a little dairy in both of these recipes. If you avoid dairy try making the tomato stack with firm tofu in place of the mozzarella cheese and unsweetened almond milk would be very good in the soup.

Note: The soup is best if made the day before and it also makes this an easy dinner to prepare on a Monday night!

Savory Butternut Squash Soup

1 – Large butternut squash
1 – Whole head of garlic
1 – Med yellow onion, halved then sliced thin
1 Tbsp – Fresh ginger, grated
6 Cups – Low sodium vegetable broth
1 Cup – Low fat kefir, plain (or non-fat buttermilk)
Olive Oil
Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Olive oil (or canola)
Parmesan cheese for garnish

Preheat the oven to 375. Line a baking sheet with foil or parchment paper and spritz with cooking spray. Quarter the squash leaving the seeds intact and place skin side down on the baking pan. Spritz the squash with a little of the cooking spray and season with salt and pepper.

Very carefully cut roughly ½ inch off the top (pointy end) of the garlic head. (The idea is to expose as many of the cloves as possible without removing too much of the meat.) Place the garlic on a piece of foil then drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil evenly over the top. Season with salt and pepper then bring the edges of the foil together over the top of the garlic head to seal.

Now place the baking sheet into the oven then place the neat little package of garlic on one of the corners of the baking sheet alongside the squash. Bake for 45 minutes, carefully remove the garlic and bake the squash 15 minutes more. Remove the squash from the oven and set aside to cool.

While the squash is cooling add 1 tablespoon of olive oil to a 4 quart sauce pan and place over medium heat. Add the onion and ginger and cook 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally until the pan is sizzling and the onion has begun to become transparent. Lower the heat to low and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until the onion turn golden, about 10 minutes.

When the squash have cooled enough to work with remove the skin and the seeds. (If they are not too burned; save the seeds for garnish or to munch on later.) As you work, place the cooked squash pieces into the pan along with the onions continuing to stir once in a while. Carefully remove the garlic cloves from the head and gently squeeze the roasted meat out of the skin, adding this to the pan with the onions and squash.

When you have all of the squash and the garlic added to the pan, add 2 cups of the broth, raise the heat to medium high and cook stirring often until most of the broth has evaporated. Stir in 3 more cups of broth and reserve the remaining cup for later. Allow the soup to just come back to a boil then remove it from the heat.

With the pan off of the heat, use an immersion blender to carefully puree the soup while adding the kefir a little at a time. Blend until all of the ingredients are well pureed and the soup has become silky smooth. Check the flavor and add salt and pepper if needed then return the pan to the heat and cook stirring often until heated through. If the soup is too think stir in the reserved cup of broth to bring back the consistency. Serve garnished with toasted garlic “croutons” and just a few shavings of parmesan cheese.

Ensalada Caprese Stack with Toasted Garlic “Croutons”

1 – Med to med-large very fresh, very ripe tomato per person, rinsed well
4 – ¼ thick slices fresh mozzarella per tomato
1 branch – Fresh basil, per tomato
Aged balsamic vinegar (I used12 year old)
Extra virgin olive oil
Mixed baby greens salad
Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper
Parmesan cheese for garnish

Slice enough off the bottom of each tomato to allow it to sit flat. Working one tomato at a time and slicing horizontally cut each into five equal slices including the top. Position the tomato slices in such a way that you can easily reassemble them into the original tomato shape.

Starting at the bottom, sprinkle the first slice with a little kosher salt & pepper. Now add a slice of mozzarella and a leaf or two of fresh basil, then drizzle this with a little of the balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Set the next tomato slice on top and repeat the process until the tomato is reassembled with salt and pepper, cheese, basil, and oil and vinegar between each slice.

Before putting the top back on the tomato carefully cut out the stem, then after placing the top back on the tomato, drizzle a little more oil and vinegar into the hole left behind. Pinch the top of f of a branch of basil and place the stem end into the same hole so that it appears to be leaves on the tomato.

To serve, spread a serving of mixed baby greens on the plate then carefully set the tomato in the center. Sprinkle the greens with a little of the oil and vinegar, then garnish with toasted garlic “croutons” and just a few shavings of parmesan cheese.

Toasted Garlic Croutons

 2 to 4 Tbsp – Garlic, roughly chopped (large mince)
2 Tbsp – Olive Oil
1 – Pinch of kosher salt

Warm a small non-stick pan over medium heat and add the olive oil. When the oil begins to shimmer lower the heat to low and stir in the garlic. Stirring very often to avoid burning, cook until all of the garlic has become evenly cooked and golden brown. Using a slotted spoon, remove the garlic to drain on a paper towel much as you would with bacon. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and shake the paper towel a little to distribute and to spread out the garlic so the pieces don’t stick together. Allow “croutons” a minute or two to dry before serving.



Butter vs Olive Oil – Penne with Shrimp, Fresh Herbs and Lemon

Photo by KathyHuntPhoto.com

There was a time when most any meal I set out to cook began with a big glob of butter melting in a hot pan. Whether it was sautéing onions for a casserole, browning chicken for a braise, or scrambling an egg; it all started with butter. Then as I began reading about nutrition and becoming more conscious of my health, slowly but surely I transitioned to olive oil. Quietly and gradually, somewhere over the last few years, olive oil became my butter.

Through most of my years of cooking, it was not unusual for me to use a pound of butter per week, or at least every couple of weeks. Nowadays it is a rare purchase indeed and though I still keep (un-salted) butter around for a special treat in a pan-sauce or on my Sunday morning toast…I can honestly say the transition is complete. And why not?

Butter is a saturated fat too much of which can contribute to the build-up of blood cholesterol – Olive oil actually contains anti-oxidants and monounsaturated fats that have been proven to help lower cholesterol. Olive oil also contains vitamins E, K, and A, powerful anti-inflammatory properties and a host of other health benefits.

So why eat butter at all? Well, aside from that wonderful flavor there are a few good things about butter. For one, it does not contain any trans-fat, it also contains beneficial vitamins and minerals, can be high in Omega 3, and can even help your body fight off cancer cells. There is a great article at getmybodyback.com that discusses the details.

To my thinking these days, a little butter goes a long way…It’s a good fit in my “everything in moderation” theory that I mention so often. Butter is not inherently evil but it can easily be too much of a good thing. If you balance it out with a good bit of olive oil though, I think you can find a happy medium that will help you live a longer and more enjoyable life.

Recipe notes: This recipe uses olive oil as the base for the “sauce”. It is surprising in that it is not dripping in fat or greasy tasting. The idea is to coat the pasta rather than drenching it in a heavy sauce. The recipe comes together very quickly so I recommend having all of your ingredients ready to go by the time the pasta is almost ready to drain.

Penne with Shrimp, Fresh Herbs and Lemon

1 Lb – Med fresh shrimp, peeled & deveined
1/3 Cup – Extra virgin olive oil
3 Tbsp – Fresh garlic, minced
2 Sprigs – Fresh thyme
½ Tsp – Dried red pepper flakes
8 Oz – Dried 100% whole wheat penne
Juice of ½ Lemon
1 to 2 Tbsp – Fresh basil chiffonade
Fresh Parmesan cheese
Kosher salt & fresh ground black pepper

Add a tablespoon of kosher salt to a large pot of water over medium-high heat. When the water comes to a boil gently stir in the pasta. Continue stirring occasionally and cook 8 to 10 minutes or until the pasta has softened to your desired doneness.

When the pasta is roughly two minutes from being done, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium high heat. When the oil is hot, stir in the garlic, thyme, red pepper flakes and about ¼ teaspoon of fresh ground black pepper. Stir constantly for about 30 seconds then add the shrimp in a single layer. Shake the pan to “nestle” the ingredients.

Meanwhile, test the pasta for doneness, and drain into a colander reserving a little of the pasta water on the side.

After about 2 minutes, shake the pan again to loosen any shrimp that may be sticking and turn the shrimp over. Cook 2 minutes more on the second side then add the lemon juice and a couple of tablespoons of the pasta water. Cook another minute and remove the pan from the heat. To finish, stir in the pasta and the basil, gently tossing to combine.

Serve with fresh grated parmesan sprinkled over the pasta.



Speaking of Comfort Food – Pho Ga

Photo by KathyHuntPhoto.com

Even in the warmest months of the year I am still quite fond of soup. Because this is historically the season of lighter meals I will usually choose a broth based soup as opposed to the heavier chowders or other cream soups. Just lately too I have been feeling a little under the weather so I figured it was a perfect time for a pot of soup.

It was once chicken noodle soup that cured my blues, until I discovered miso soup, that is. With its salty essence of the sea combined with the health benefits of tofu and seaweed…miso soup just seemed so, well…healthy! Ah, but then I found Pho; a Vietnamese soup steeped with perfumey flavors of the orient in a warm and comforting bowl of goodness!

Pho is a light, broth based soup most commonly made with beef, featuring tender rice noodles, vegetables, and aromatic herbs and spices. Also very popular is Pho Ga, which is essentially the same soup, made with chicken. Upon reading Jaden’s Pho Ga post over at Steamy Kitchen this is the Pho I set out to make this past Sunday morning.

I decided I could come up with a reasonable facsimile of the broth using my good old standby chicken stock recipe along with a few additions I already happened to have in the pantry. I was very pleased with the results! Don’t let the length of the recipe scare you…it really comes together quite easily with the hardest part being the long slow simmering of the stock.

Starting right after my morning coffee I spent only 15 minutes getting the ingredients prepped and inside of 30 the stock was well under way. The garnishes on the other hand would require a trip to the market while the stock was simmering gently on the stove. As a bonus…the house smelled delicious by the time I got back from the store!

The garnishes by the way are the fun part of Pho! Usually served alongside so that you may add as much (or as little) as you like, the most common garnishes are: Hoisin sauce, Sriracha or other pepper sauces, sliced chili peppers, Thai basil, culantro, fresh lime, and bean sprouts. With so many to choose from, each bowl of Pho tastes just a little different depending on the individual diner.

Of special note: In this recipe I am using a technique for “Velveting” the chicken. I searched for what seemed like forever trying to find out just how Chinese and other Asian cuisines get their chicken so wonderfully tender and I have finally found it. Look for more about this technique in future posts!

Pho Ga

Notes: For the most authentic Pho flavor use a grill to brown the chicken parts instead of the oven. The spice quantities are approximate based on how strong you would like these flavorings to be.

Step 1 – Prepare a chicken stock as written in Singing the praises of Chicken Stock, omitting the Thyme and adding the following ingredients at the same time that you add the chicken pieces to the pot:

2 to 3 ounces – Fresh ginger root, about 2 inches, roughly chopped
2 to 3 pods – Star anise
3 to 4 – Whole cloves
1 Tbsp – Ground coriander
1 Tbsp – Whole celery seed
1 Tbsp – Dark agave nectar, or molasses

Step 2 – While the stock is cooking, “Velvet” the chicken…

Whisk together…

2 Tablespoons – Shaoxing wine
2 Tablespoons – Warm water
2 Tablespoons – Corn starch
1 – White of 1 large egg
1 – Pinch kosher salt

Then marinate 1 large chicken breast half, split lengthwise then sliced very thin, in this mixture for at least ½ hour, refrigerated.

Fill a wok (or a large wide frying pan) at least half full with water and bring to a boil. Add 1 tablespoon of sesame oil and reduce the heat to a steady simmer. Carefully add ½ of the chicken, drained of excess marinade, and cook for one minute gently separating the chicken slices to prevent clumping.

When the chicken is solid white and cooked through (about 1 to 1-1/2 minutes) remove to a strainer to drain. Repeat until all of the chicken is cooked setting the strainer over a bowl to drain. Refrigerate the chicken until ready to use. Note: I used a Chinese Spider Strainer for this cooking process and a traditional 8″ mesh strainer to drain the chicken.

Step 3 – Slice a large white onion first in half, then in paper thin slices. Soak the onion slices in cold water for at least 30 minutes.

Step 4 – Cook the noodles and serve…

Prepare one package of Bahn Pho (or Rice Noodles) per the directions on the package. Add a serving each of the noodles, the onion slices, and the prepared chicken to each serving bowl, then ladle over the broth to cover. Serve with your choice of bean sprouts, Hoisin sauce, Sriracha or other pepper sauces, sliced chili peppers, Thai basil, culantro, and fresh lime slices on the side.



Menu for Two – Pan Seared Sea Scallops with a Fresh Herb White Wine Sauce, Oven Roasted Potatoes and Asparagus Spears.

Last week my wife Kathy had a rough week fighting the cold that I probably gave her when I had it the week before. Since she was feeling somewhat better by Friday I wanted to cook her something special so I went browsing at Costco for something out of the ordinary. With a crispy salad and some crusty bread, these scallops fit the bill perfectly!

I shop at Costco or BJ’s often as bulk stores are a great way to stretch your grocery bucks. For instance, while you might find nice fat Sea Scallops (nearly always pre-frozen) at a local seafood market or grocery for 12.99 to 15.99 per pound, these came in just over 9.00 per pound for a two pound bag. Two pounds are enough for 3 dinners for the two of us and that boils down to about $6.00 per meal or $3.00 per person. Just try to find that kind of deal at a seafood restaurant!

Speaking of buying frozen seafood; for a very long time I absolutely refused to buy frozen scallops or shrimp. While I wouldn’t consider myself a food snob…I simply did not care for the way the frozen ones tasted when compared to fresh. Then I came across an article about sodium tripolyphosphate . Sodium tripolyphosphate is a preservative that packagers will “claim” is used to “retain tenderness and moisture”. In fact it absolutely ruins the flavor and texture of certain foods, especially shrimp and scallops, giving the flesh a diluted, soapy flavor and an unpleasant spongy, almost waterlogged texture.

So why do seafood packagers use this additive, which is also used in household cleaners, laundry detergent, and paint? The simple answer is Sodium tripolyphosphate “can substantially increase the sale weight of seafood in particular”. Need I say more?

Fortunately, in the U.S., Sodium tripolyphosphate must be listed in the ingredients list on the package label. Also fortunately, Costco and BJ’s both carry frozen shrimp and scallops that do not contain Sodium tripolyphosphate! Do yourself a favor and read the ingredients next time you buy frozen seafood. For the same reason I also try to avoid the “fresh” scallops that are sold soaking in “their own” liquid.

Menu for two – Pan seared sea scallops with a fresh herb white wine sauce, oven roasted baby creamer potatoes and asparagus spears.

Note: Before I get started on the recipe there is one other tip that I must mention: WATER KILLS BROWNING! In searing and roasting the browning that occurs on the outside surface is where the flavor comes from. Searing your scallops while they are wet will prevent them from browning. To get the most flavor from your browned foods always be sure to pat them dry with a paper or dish towel before cooking.

For the Scallops you will need:

12 medium – Sea Scallops, thawed, rinsed, and dried well.
¼ Cup – Dry white wine such as Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc
Juice of ½ – Fresh lemon
3 Tbsp – Butter, Cut into 6 or 8 cubes, and kept cold.
2 Tbsp – Shallots, minced
2 Tbsp – Fresh basil, sliced in thin ribbons ( see http://www.basilbasics.com/chiffonade.html )
1 Sprig – Fresh rosemary
Italian Herb Seasoning Grinder
Olive Oil

For the Potatoes and Asparagus you will need:

12 – Baby Potatoes, I used half red bliss and half Yukon gold potatoes
12 Large or 16 Medium – Fresh green asparagus spears
Olive Oil
Italian Herb Seasoning Grinder

To Prepare:

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Rinse and dry the potatoes. Trim the stem end of the asparagus, rinse and dry. When the potatoes are dry toss them with just enough olive oil to coat, give them a good dusting of seasoning from the Italian herb seasoning grinder and toss again. Spread them evenly in a glass 9 X 12 inch baking dish and roast for 15 minutes. Meanwhile, toss the asparagus spears with just enough olive oil to coat, give them a good dusting of seasoning from the Italian herb seasoning grinder and toss again. Set the asparagus aside.

2. Warm 1 to 2 Tbsp olive oil and 1 sprig of rosemary in a non-stick pan over medium high heat swirling the oil occasionally as it heats. Dust the scallops lightly with the Italian herb seasoning.

3. After 15 minutes carefully remove the potatoes from the oven. Carefully tilt the baking dish so that the potatoes move to one side allowing room to add the asparagus spears. Add the asparagus and place the dish back in the oven for 15 minutes longer.

4. While the vegetables finish roasting, sear your scallops: When the oil in the pan is hot the rosemary will begin to crackle and pop. Remove and discard the rosemary then gently place the scallops, one at a time, into the pan. You should hear a distinct sizzling as soon as each scallop hits the oil. Sear the scallops for two minutes on the first side, gently flip, and sear one minute more before removing directly to serving plates. Cover each plate with a paper towel or foil to keep the scallops warm.

5. Remove the vegetables from the oven and set aside to rest.

6. As soon as the last scallop is removed, add the shallots and the wine to the pan. As the wine comes to a boil swirl the pan and, using a wood or silicone spatula, scrape any browned bits from the pan. Reduce until the wine takes on a syrupy consistency then add the lemon juice.

7. Turn off the burner and allow the residual heat to reduce the liquid by half. Gently swirl in the butter cubes 2 or 3 at a time letting these melt before adding 2 or 3 more. Continue swirling the pan until all of the butter has been incorporated, swirl in the basil and spoon the sauce evenly over the scallops.

8. Carefully place the roasted vegetables on the plate and serve.




After seeing the photo in my blog header, my friend Jackie really wanted my bruschetta recipe. I told her this was only one of about a million ways that bruschetta is made and explained how I prepared it on this particular day.  She still insisted that I share the recipe so Jackie…this one is for you!

The word bruschetta actually refers to the bread that is usually grilled or toasted, drizzled with good olive oil, then rubbed with a fresh cut clove of garlic. The “bruschetta” is then often topped with a mixture of fresh tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. A quick search of bruschetta on Google actually returns over 7,150,000 results, many of which are delicious recipes and the common denominator in nearly every one is the bread, the most important ingredient.

Traditionally bruschetta was a use for old bread that was or about to become stale. This was the good, crusty stuff that mom baked in her kitchen or picked up from the local bakery. So in keeping with tradition, when I make bruschetta, I always look to start with a good loaf of Italian bread or a French baguette. And, for the best taste and texture, I always try to serve my bruschetta while it is still warm.

To make bruschetta place a whole loaf of good crusty bread on your cutting board so that the right end is pointing towards the lower right corner of the cutting board, and the left end is pointing towards the upper left corner or roughly a 45 degree angle. Now cut ½ inch thick slices with your knife blade parallel to the sides of the cutting board. This should give you nice oval shaped slices of bread. Now lightly toast the slices on a grill or under a broiler until they are crisp but not overly browned. (I toasted mine on a dry cookie sheet placed 6 inches under the broiler just until they were golden.) Once toasted, lightly brush each slice of bread with a little extra virgin olive oil then rub gently with the cut side of a freshly cut in half garlic clove.  Now you are ready to make bruschetta magic!

On the day the photo was taken, I wanted to make my bruschetta in the style of an Insalada Caprese. So after toasting and following the steps above, I drizzled each piece with a little balsamic vinegar; probably no more than ¼ teaspoon on each. Then I topped each bruschetta with a slice of soft fresh mozzarella, a slice of super ripe fresh tomato, a sprinkle of kosher salt and fresh ground black pepper, and a few ribbons of fresh basil chiffonade.

I hope you enjoy this bruschetta and be sure read through a few million of the other recipes on Google <wink!> or use your imagination to come up with your own yummy topping combination!