Tortilla Black Bean Casserole

IMG_0805If tacos married lasagna, this would be their love child: an easy layered Tex-Mex dish that packs a punch of flavor. I found this casserole recipe online at Midwest Living, but I’ve added a can of corn, and more seasonings than the original as it needed a little more zippity-do-da. It assembles in about 15 minutes, and bakes in 30…and as small corn tortillas take the place of pasta, it’s a hit with the gluten-free crowd. The first time I served this, my meat-lovin’ man was shocked when I told him he’d eaten—and enjoyed!—a meatless meal. So it’s a hit with vegetarians and carnivores as well. With only 2-3 of us currently in our household (that third comes and goes a lot), we always have leftovers. That’s why we were happy to find this dish is even better second day, reheated in the microwave. 

Serves 8


2 cups chopped yellow onion
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1 sweet green pepper, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 (15-ounce) cans black beans, rinsed and drained
1 (14 ounce) can of corn, drained
1 (14.5 ounce) can of diced tomatoes, do not drain
3/4 cup picante sauce or salsa
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons chili powder
1 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika, or regular paprika
Pinch each garlic salt and black pepper
12 – 6-inch corn tortillas (these small ones fit best in the rectangular pan)
2 cups shredded Monterey Jack or white cheddar cheese (I prefer the white cheddar)


1/2 cup sour cream
1 cup halved or quartered cherry or grape tomatoes
Fresh cilantro, chopped
1-2 scallions, sliced (optional)

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. In a large skillet, sauté onions on high heat until translucent. Add green pepper and cook and stir for 2 minutes. Add garlic and cook and stir for additional 1-2 minutes. Add black beans, corn, undrained tomatoes, picante or salsa, cumin, chili powder, paprika, garlic salt, and black pepper. Stir to combine and simmer uncovered for 3-5 minutes.

In 3-quart rectangular baking dish (9″x13″), assemble the ingredients in this order:
1/3 bean mixture
6 corn tortillas
1/2 of the shredded cheese
1/3 bean mixture
6 corn tortillas
1/3 bean mixture
1/2 of the shredded cheese

Top with foil and bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes. Remove foil and bake an additional 5 minutes. Remove from oven and let dish cool and set for 5-10 minutes before serving. Top each serving with a dollop of sour cream, tomatoes, cilantro, and sliced scallions.

Quick Jambalaya

FullSizeRenderOne-pot wonders. They are the saviors of the working woman (or man). The complexities of flavor in this chicken and sausage jambalaya recipe will make it a favorite at your house, just like it is at ours. When I first tried this concoction, we liked it so much I was making it once a week. My son’s girlfriend joined us for dinner a few nights, and this happened to be on the menu every single time! I had to apologize, telling her it really wasn’t the only thing we ever ate. Not sure if she believed me or not. Didn’t matter though—she loved it just as much as the rest of us, and didn’t mind having the dish repeated.

Traditionally, the New Orleans staple has seafood as well as meat, but we love this Martha Stewart quick jambalaya version with andouille sausage and chicken breast. My big cast iron and enamel Dutch oven* is perfect for stewing and simmering this casserole, and it ends up tasting like a dish that’s stewed all day, rather than 30-45 minutes. Sometimes I assemble this before work in the morning, simmer it for the suggested 30 minutes, and then put it in the frig. The whole pot can be reheated in the oven at 350° for about 20-30 minutes at dinner time. If you don’t have that much time to slam down supper, it reheats in the microwave perfectly well, too.

I couldn’t find the Old Bay seasoning from Martha’s recipe, so I subbed in all the seasonings you see listed below. I also found it needed less water than instructed in her recipe, and altered the cooking process a little as well. I’m sure Martha would be proud of me for being my own woman, and making it work for me.

Serves 6

1/4 cup olive oil
1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast halves
Coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1 medium onion, finely chopped
3 celery stalks, finely chopped
1 green bell pepper, stemmed, seeded, and finely chopped
1 pound andouille sausage, cut into 1/2-inch pieces**
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 cups homemade or store-bought chicken stock
1/4 teaspoon smoked Spanish paprika (or regular paprika)
1/8 teaspoon each dry mustard, cardamom, and ginger
Pinch each of celery salt, black pepper, crushed red pepper flakes, cloves, and nutmeg
1-2 bay leaves
1 can (14 ounces) diced tomatoes with juice
1 cup long-grain rice, uncooked

Heat olive oil in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat. Season chicken with salt and pepper. Cook until golden brown, about 5 minutes per side. Set aside to cool.

Add onions to pot and sauté for a few minutes alone, then add the rest of the vegetables to pot. Cook, stirring, 5 minutes. Add sausage; cook 3 minutes. Add garlic; cook 1 minute. Stir in stock, seasonings, and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Cut cooled chicken into 3/4-inch pieces, and add to pot with rice. Reduce heat; simmer for 30 minutes, covered. Stir one or twice. Serve.

*A cast iron and enamel pot is a great kitchen helper, and you do not have to spend a fortune on a Le Creuset dish to get good results. Macy’s carries a pot for under $75, and you can always use their 20% off coupons on merchandise (if you’re on Macy’s mail list). My work-horse of a pot was a gift from my son Brandon, when he was a poor college student, no less. He found one for under $40 at Home Goods, and it works wonderfully well. Thanks again, Brandon! It’s the gift that keeps on giving.

**NOTE: I use 4 links of andouille sausage, and freeze the additional link in the package for another pot of jambalaya. It’s plenty of meat and flavor, and cuts down on the cost a little.

Flower Power

tissue flowers IMG_0115Cheap can be chic. Trust me—I’ve done dozens of table tops on “we have no budget,” and sometimes the lack of funds forces creativity where a big budget wouldn’t have. Here’s an example of some items I’ve mixed and matched for use on several different occasions, and they might spur you on to other ingenious ideas. To start with, the photo at right shows a tissue paper flower centerpiece made with materials I had on hand. Supplies needed and how-to details below.

IMG_0703Let’s start with the base to this theme. I purchased 1 1/4 yards each of the red and white geometric print, and the mini-floral teal print. I quartered the yardage to make four napkins of each print, then rolled the edges and hemmed them. I also bought 1 1/3 yards of daisies with bright-colored centers on a teal background. This piece I left whole, just trimming the yardage as necessary to create a perfect square, then rolled and hemmed the edges. (These fabrics were all found at Jo-Ann’s—during a sale, of course.) This square can go over a solid white tablecloth, or a mini-checked lime gingham, or just about anything that coordinates. It was much cheaper than buying a full-size tablecloth, and adds a pop of color when laid diagonally on a round or rectangular table. (Unfortunately, a couple napkins fell into bleach in my laundry room sink, so they’re ombré now—white on the edges, gradually moving into teal floral. But ombré is super hot now, right? Ugh.) The plates pictured here are Fiesta—turquoise (purchased recently) and cinnabar (a discontinued color bought several years ago).

The other element to this decor scheme, was a vase of tissue paper flowers (pictured above and below). I made these using tissue paper I keep on hand for stuffing gift bags. With no money allotted for centerpieces for a ladies tea event at church, I cut organic shapes from tissue, and scrunched and taped the pieces with floral tape onto green floral wire. I started with a fringe of tissue for the “poppies,” then added overlapping petals, pleating at the base of each petal, and rolling them onto the stems with the floral tape. Then I wrapped the stems in floral tape to give them some heft. The pom-pom flowers were just large fringe pieces cut and twirled onto the floral wire stems. You could also do this by pleating the tissue like shown on this HGTV video of “how to make a tissue pom pom“. The leaves are just two leaf shapes cut from tissue, with the floral wire running down the center between the two pieces. I glued these together with one of my son’s left over glue sticks (which fortunately hadn’t dried out yet). The wire helps to be able to shape the leaf when putting it in an arrangement. I tried to do other types of flowers, too, but these were the only ones fit for public viewing. My attempts at daffodils and tulips were pathetic.

flowers and banner IMG_0202I added some orange “poppies” to the mix for a summer bridal shower, and used the square daisy print on the table top again (not visible in this image). Cut from simple construction paper, the ubiquitous pendant banner pieces were tied together with twine. Hand-lettering is not my forte, so I ran off the letters needed in black, 220+ point type on my home printer, cut out the letters with an X-Acto, and glued them on the triangles with the aforementioned glue stick.

Then I think I used these flowers and the table topper again for my Dad’s 80th birthday party. OK, now I’m starting to sound just plain miserly… (But no worries. Dad took no offense to the pre-used adornments—he wouldn’t notice “decor” if it bit him in the behind.*) At any rate, if you happen to stumble across a versatile decorating scheme like this one, don’t be afraid to re-use elements of it, mixing and matching to suite your celebration.

*For those of you concerned I’m sounding disrespectful to my father, be assured I say this with the utmost love. I 100% guarantee he said “Get outta here,” with a big grin on his face when he read this.

Nelson’s Ice Cream

FullSizeRender-2I scream, you scream, we all scream for ice cream! If ice cream makes you holler, then head to one of Nelson’s Ice Cream shops in Stillwater or St. Paul, Minnesota. My husband and I joined the throngs of folks waiting in line one balmy Friday night for the most generously scooped ice cream cones I’ve ever seen. With 40-plus tantalizing flavors of Brown’s ice cream to choose from, you need the wait in line to give you time to make up your mind. If you’re still torn between your multitude of options when your server yells “Next!”, don’t panic. They’ll let you have two flavors per cone or cup.

FullSizeRender-1As you can see from the picture of my Toasted Almond Fudge cone (being scooped by smiling server Dan), even the “child-size” cone is beyond belief. We used to joke when our kids were little that they weren’t supposed to eat anything bigger than their heads. At Nelson’s, you’d be hard-pressed to find a child’s head smaller than the ice cream cone on which they are blissfully licking away. I don’t know how anyone could possibly finish the Lumberjack—five mammoth scoops of any flavor served in a bowl with your choice of toppings. Judging from the Wall of Fame reserved for those who’ve downed the monstrous mound, it’s a task best accomplished by growing teenage boys.

FullSizeRenderWithin the forty or so flavors, there are a few sherbet and frozen yogurt options sprinkled in. And don’t forget about Nelson’s infamous Superman ice cream—a trio of tie-dyed neon yellow vanilla, blue raspberry, and pink cherry that’s especially popular with the younger crowd. I’m fond of their waffle cones, and the reward for making it through the first scoop or two, is getting a bite of the crispy cookie-like crunch along with the delectable ice cream. It’s worth the dollar up-charge— $4.50 instead of $3.50—to get a waffle cone over a cup or cone. Your only issue with Nelson’s Ice Cream shop might be finding it. The St. Paul shop is obvious enough on Snelling Avenue, but the Stillwater store isn’t part of the bustling downtown. It’s off the beaten path at the intersections of Greeley and Olive, up the hill from the main business district. But if you really love ice cream, you’ll find it. And you’ll be so glad you did.

Chocolate Chocolate Chip Cookies

IMG_0760When you need a chocolate fix bad, these double-chocolate cookies will definitely do the trick. I got this recipe years ago from a B&B that placed one warm, delicious cookie on the pillow of each guest in their rooms. (Don’t recall the name of the inn…) Our cookies never make it past the kitchen, as they get gobbled up lickety split. At first glance these look just like the Devil’s Delight Chocolate Cookie recipe I posted for Cinco de Mayo, but those have heat and spice, and these are just gooey goodness. They’re also a little easier to throw together than the Devil’s Delight.

This is another recipe to make when you only have one egg in the frig—but you still have cocoa, chocolate chips, and nuts, that is. You can certainly use Hershey’s unsweetened cocoa powder, but I prefer the Dutch process cocoa from Penzy’s, which is processed for a “milder, smoother flavor” (quote from their website). You can also get this cocoa through King Arthur’s Flour, or at higher-end grocery stores. Now, unless you’ve got the princess-and-the-pea living with you, your cookie devourees may not notice the difference between the two right away. But I do find the Dutch process cocoa makes rich, smooth baked goods. It’s especially awesome in chocolate buttercream frosting, but that’s for another blog post…

Makes 2 dozen

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
2 1/12 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup chopped pecans*
1 cup Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350° Fahrenheit. Combine cocoa, milk, and vanilla in a measuring cup, and stir. (It will take a bit for the cocoa powder to break down the surface tension** in the milk and actually allow you to combine the powder and liquid. Stir, let it sit, then come back to it and stir again until you have a dark paste. Use the back of the spoon to press the powder to edge of cup.) Set aside.

In large mixing bowl, cream butter. Add granulated sugar and cream again. Add brown sugar and continue to cream ingredients. Add egg and cream once more. In separate bowl, combine flour, baking soda, and salt. Slowly add to creamed butter and sugar mixture until combined. Stir in pecans and chocolate chips by hand. Drop by tablespoons onto baking sheet and press down slightly on top of dough so cookies bake up flat instead of in mounds. Bake for 12-13 minutes, or just until cookies are no longer glossy in center.

*NOTE: To make these extra delicious, toast the chopped pecans in the preheated oven for 5-10 minutes. Let cool to room temp before adding to dough, or they will melt the butter and make the batter runny.

**My father, the chemist, happened to answer several of our youthful queries with “it’s the surface tension.” This happened so often that we assumed every question we asked could be explained away by “surface tension,” and it became a running family joke.

Wild Rice Casserole

IMG_0647If you live in the Great Lakes region, you love wild rice, and you’re darn proud of it. It’s that food item you buy for friends visiting from other parts of the world, showing just how unique and versatile we are in the midwest. Hey, we are so much more than hotdish and hamburgers! But what can you make with it besides the old standby, wild rice soup? Here’s a side dish I came up with that goes great with summer’s grilled meats and fish, or winter’s roasted beef, pork, or poultry. You can make it with dried cranberries to give it a sweet twist, or mushrooms to make it savory. Either combination compliments this hearty grain, and gives everyone a much-needed break from potatoes or white rice. (The wild rice casserole pictured here is served with my husband’s Brined and Smoked Turkey.)

Serves 6-8

1 cup uncooked wild rice
4 cups water
1 cube chicken bouillon, or 1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup yellow onion, chopped
8 ounces button mushrooms, sliced
(or use 1/3 cup sweetened dried cranberries—aka: craisins—but not both mushrooms and craisins)
½ cup pecan halves
3 tablespoons butter, divided

Rinse wild rice in colander under cold water. Combine wild rice, water, and bouillon cube in large sauce pan and bring to a boil. Reduce to low and simmer for 45 minutes, or until most of rice kernels are cracked open. Once rice is done, drain. Do a quick rinse of cold water to shock rice (halt cooking of grains). Drain again.

Preheat oven to 325° Fahrenheit. While rice is cooking, sauté onions in 1 tablespoon butter until translucent. Transfer cooked onions to 3 quart casserole dish. Add another tablespoon butter to pan and sauté mushrooms until cooked. Add to onions in dish. Add 1 tablespoon butter to pan, again, and toast pecan halves in butter about 3-5 minutes, or until they appear to darken slightly. Toss onions, mushrooms, and pecans with cooked wild rice in casserole dish. Cook, covered, in oven for 20-30 minutes or until heated through. Serve as side dish.

NOTE: If you prefer a tangier side dish, skip the mushrooms, and toast the pecans in 2 tablespoons butter. Then toss in 1/3 craisins with cooked rice. Cook in oven as directed above. Also, if you use salt instead of the chicken bouillon, this dish is vegetarian. It’s also gluten-free. Lose the butter, and it’s dairy-free and fat-free, but that’s going just a little too far.

Strawberry Rhubarb Crisp

IMG_0748Crisp, crumble, cobbler…what’s the difference? Researching this question, I got as many different answers as there are names for baked pastry-topped fruit desserts. Here’s the general consensus: cobblers have biscuits on top, and crisps and crumbles have similar streusel toppings. But crisps usually have oats, whereas crumbles have flour and no oats. (Huffington Post flips this difference in an article they published, but my cookbooks and other online sources are consistent with a crisp including oats not vice versa, so I’m sticking with that.) However, “crisp” and “crumble” have come to be used interchangeably in recipes, oats or not. Whew!

Here’s another recipe for the previously promised rhubarb-o-rama. Nothing beats the pairing of tart rhubarb and sweet strawberries, and since they both pop up in spring, how perfect is that? You’ll have to limit your enjoyment of this dish to when these fruits are fresh, because you can’t sneak in frozen fruit—the water content is too high and you’ll get a pile of mush. Rhubarb needs some prep to get it ready for baking, so this isn’t quite as quick as a crisp made from apples or peaches or berries. Serve with a dollop of real vanilla bean ice cream or heavy cream, and your guests will be oohing and aahing and asking for more.

Another plus? You don’t even have to get your electric mixer out to do this dessert—a couple bowls and spoons are all that’s needed. This topping comes from a recipe clipped out of Family Fun magazine many moons ago. I use this on a multitude of fruit combinations, depending on what’s in season. (Sugar and fruit amounts need to vary depending on the fruits, so I’ll post some of those combos later.) Took me a while to come up with the right ratios of sugar, rhubarb, and strawberries, so I’ve saved you all that hassle. Sweet, huh?

Serves 8-12

Fruit base

6 cups chopped (1/2″ pieces) fresh rhubarb
1 cup granulated sugar
2 – 16 ounce containers or 5-6 cups fresh strawberries, sliced
1/4-1/2 cup all-purpose flour


2 cups old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
3/4 cup butter, melted

In a large mixing bowl, add rhubarb and sugar. Stir to combine. Let stand for 1 hour. Add in sliced strawberries. Sprinkle with 1/4 cup flour, and stir. If mixture is still too soupy, add additional 1/4 cup flour and stir again.

Preheat oven to 300° Fahrenheit.* Grease 9″x13″ or other 3 quart baking dish. Pour prepared strawberry-rhubarb mixture into pan. In medium mixing bowl, add oats, sugar, flour, and spices, and stir to combine. Pour melted butter over oats and toss until butter is incorporated. Sprinkle oat mixture over fruit and bake uncovered in preheated oven for 1 hour. Let cool 10-15 minutes so rhubarb juices set before serving.

*NOTE: You can also bake this dish at 375° Fahrenheit for 30 minutes if you’re in a rush, and it’ll be just as tasty.

Spinach Ricotta Crespelles

IMG_0747Feeling like a little Italian for dinner, but don’t want the heavy post-pasta blues? These “crespelles” are basically manicotti, but made from scratch, and so much lighter than store-bought boxed noodles. Think crepes, only Italian, and you get the idea. I’ve been making this dish for several years, and my husband Rich has yet to miss the meat in this meal. First time I made these, I left one pan uncooked, thinking I could refrigerate it and have dinner ready for another night. But they got soggy from sitting uncooked in the sauce, and were really nasty. So I suggest baking both of the pans at the same time, then reheating one when you have “leftover buffet” another night. (That’s my son Mitchell’s favorite meal—a little of this, a little of that—all the leftovers together on the table in one glorious feast.)

The only indicator on my hard copy print out of where I got this recipe, is a tiny little note that says “Gina’s Weight Watcher Recipes.” But I’ve got no link, or even the name of the original recipe. Sorry I’m not able to give proper credit on this one! The recipe called for reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, and only egg whites in the crespelles, but I usually use the real deal cheese and 2 whole eggs, yolks and all. Hey, you only live once! It also called for frozen spinach, but I’ve found the fresh tastes so much better.

Makes 12 crispelles, 6 servings

For filling

16-ounce container of part-skim ricotta cheese
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese, reserve 1/2 cup for topping
1 large egg
6-ounce bag of fresh spinach, chopped (or half of 9-ounce bag)
1/4 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
salt and pepper to taste

For crispelles

1 cup flour
1 1/2 cups 1% or skim milk
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
drizzle of olive oil, or olive oil spray

1 28 or 32 ounce jar of marinara sauce, like Trader Joe’s Organic Marinara or Classico Tomato Basil Marinara

Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit. In large mixing bowl, combine ricotta and 1 1/2 cups of mozzarella cheese, one egg, spinach, Parmesan, salt, and pepper. Stir until ingredients are incorporated. Set aside. Pour some of the marinara sauce in the bottom of a 9″x12″ baking dish, as well as in a 9″x9″ baking dish. Reserve some marinara for topping crespelles.

In blender or mixing bowl fitted with whisk attachment, combine flour, milk, eggs, oil, and salt. Blend or beat until batter is smooth and no lumps of flour remain. Heat 6-inch non-stick fry pan on medium heat. Lightly spray or drizzle pan with olive oil. Pour 1/4 cup batter into pan and slowly swirl around pan until batter evenly coats bottom of pan. Cook until edges of crespelles are dry, then flip to lightly brown other side. Turn cooked crespelle onto a cutting board, and place 1/4–1/3 cup of the spinach and cheese filling down the center of the crespelle. Roll up crespelle around filling to make a tube. Place seam-side down in one of the baking dishes. (8 crespelles will fit in 9″x12″ pan, and 4 in the 9″x9″ pan.) Continue making crespelles in fry pan, then filling with spinach and cheese mixture until all 12 crespelles are done. Pour remaining marinara sauce on top of crespelles, and top with remaining 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese. Cover with foil and bake in preheated oven for 20-25 minutes.

NOTE: I’ve got 10 points assigned to 2 spinach-filled crespelles in Weight Watcher’s code…but that’s if you’re using the reduced-fat mozzarella cheese, and 2 egg whites plus one whole egg in the crespelles. I grabbed this recipe online back in 2010, and I think WW had a different point system at that time than they currently use. At any rate, it’s still lower cal than most traditional Italian dishes!

Fresh Lemonade

Lemonade IMG_0715Ahhhh, lemonade. I love making it from fresh-squeezed lemons, but I’ve tried so many recipes with the wrong ratio of lemon to water to sugar, and it’s such a waste of time, energy, and…lemons! A couple years ago, I finally stumbled upon the right amounts of each ingredient, and here it is. One of the keys to making perfect lemonade is to boil the sugar and water together first, so the sugar dissolves and doesn’t sit in granules at the bottom of the container. The other trick is to measure an amount of lemon juice vs. numbers of lemons. Lemons vary so much is size and amount of juice in each one, so a recipe that calls for “2-3 lemons” can yield vastly different amounts of juice from time to time.

Room-temperature lemons will give you the most juice, and if you roll them on the countertop with the palm of your hand before halving them, it helps to bring out all the juice. This is a great recipe to make with kids—it’s simple, and squeezing lemons is just plain fun. (OK, I may have a warped sense of what’s “fun.” A trip to Europe would be really fun. Squeezing lemons? Maybe just mildly entertaining.) What makes this recipe kid-friendly, is you really can’t mess it up. Plus your kitchen will smell awesome while you make it. If your kids or grandkids want to do a lemonade stand this summer, help them make their own lemonade from scratch. If Laura Ingalls Wilder could do it (did she?), they can too! Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.

After you’ve squeezed your lemons, cut the rinds into quarters and run them through the garbage disposal to clean it out. And if this whole process sounds like too much work? Then go buy a quart of Simply Lemonade. It still beats lemonade made from concentrate. A 2-pack at the big box store is probably less expensive than making it yourself, but not near as much fun.

Makes 6 cups

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
1 cup fresh squeezed lemon juice
4 cups cold water
Lemon slices or wedges for garnish

In medium sauce pan, combine sugar and 1 cup water. Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Stir on low until all sugar is dissolved. Let cook slightly. (This is called a simple syrup.)

Combine the simple syrup, lemon juice, and remaining 4 cups cold water in a 2-quart beverage container. Stir to combine. Chill for at least 2 hours before serving. Stir or shake container before pouring; garnish glasses with lemon slices or wedges.

Rhubarb Mint Coolers

Rhubarb Coolers IMG_0150Rhubarb is one of those early starters, and we usually have something on the table made with the tart ruby red stalks by end of May. Over the next couple weeks, there’s gonna be a rhubarb-o-rama as I post some favorite rhubarb recipes. Those of you in warmer climes probably can’t grow it since it’s a chill baby—it loves colder climates like Canada and the northern half of U.S. You Floridians will have to purchase frozen rhubarb in order to make the recipe below.

This recipe comes from the Epicurious website, and my friend Karin made the cooler and brought it to our house last July 4th. The pinkish-red color made it a natural for celebrating Independence Day, but she said she’s also served it on Valentine’s Day as well. (To serve mid-winter, make in the summer when rhubarb and mint are in abundance, and then freeze the mixture. Or make it in winter with frozen rhubarb, which is available all year.) She doubled the rhubarb amount from the Epicurious recipe, and then diluted the beverage with club soda* for fizz—half rhubarb drink and half club soda in each glass. Topped with a sprig of fresh mint, it was gorgeous as well as refreshing.

IMG_0636Even though the foliage is so pretty and impressive, remember that rhubarb leaves are toxic. Apparently this came to light in WWI when rhubarb leaves were used as a food source in Britain. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) Another fun fact about rhubarb, is that it’s useful for helping with constipation. (Thanks again, Wikipedia!) Not quite sure how much of it you need to ingest in order to reap those benefits… But I digress! Take a break from soft drinks and lemonade, and try this cooler as for a fresh, tart beverage to go with any meal.

Makes approximately 4 cups

4-5 cups chopped fresh or frozen rhubarb
5 cups water
1 cup sugar
1/4 cup packed fresh mint leaves, chopped
Garnish: fresh mint sprigs

Cut rhubarb into 1/4-inch pieces and, in a saucepan, combine with water, sugar, and mint leaves. Bring mixture to a boil. Reduce to simmer, and stir occasionally for 15 minutes (rhubarb will disintegrate). Cool for 15 minutes. Pour mixture through a fine sieve into a pitcher, pressing hard on solids to release extra flavor from the fruit. (Or is it vegetable? A New York court decided in 1947 that it would be classified as a fruit not a vegetable, which reduced the tariffs for importing and exporting. But again, I digress.) Chill mixture, covered, until cold, about 3 hours, and up to 2 days.

*NOTE: You can use club soda or seltzer. Both are inexpensive options compared to mineral water, which is naturally carbonated, and therefore more pricey. Club soda has some minerals added to it for flavor in addition to the bubbles, but seltzer is just carbonated water, and nothing else.