Fresh Tomato Avocado Salsa

IMG_2835Need a quick topping for grilled fish or chicken? Try chopping up a few fresh veggies like this, drizzling them with balsamic vinaigrette and TA-DAAAH!!! You’ve just taken your dinner up a notch in flavor. I grabbed these ingredients thinking they’d pair well with my husband’s grilled tilapia the other night, and boy, did they ever. We gave it a solid 10 out of 10! So simple, there’s really nothing more to say—let’s just get to the recipe, if you can even call it that…

Makes 4-6 servings

1 cup grape tomatoes, halved and quartered
1 ripe avocado, chopped
2 slices yellow onion, diced
A few sprigs of fresh basil, chiffonade*
A splash of balsamic vinaigrette

Combine all ingredients in a bowl, stir, and ladle on top of cooked fish or chicken.

*NOTE: Chiffonade is the technique of bunching up herb leaves and chopping into fine, thin strips.

Pesto Chips

IMG_1718Bunches of fresh basil and some other kitchen staples are all you need to make these incredibly fragrant and savory appetizers. These are pretty easy to whip up, yet your kitchen will smell like you’re a seasoned gourmet who’s been slaving at the stove all day. I’ve been making these for years to serve either as appetizers, or as a side to a meal of grilled meat, veggies, and some fruit. When tomatoes aren’t in season, these are great with just the tortillas, pesto, and grated cheese. I often made these sans tomatoes for an after-school snack for my boys. (Hmmmmm. Maybe that’s why they developed rather sophisticated food palettes. They did occasionally get Rice Krispy bars or other more kid-friendly fare…occasionally.)

Farmer’s markets are teaming with fresh basil, parsley, and tomatoes this time of year. I got the most delicious Roma tomatoes this weekend from a little Saturday morning Farmer’s market in West St. Paul (Icy Cup parking lot, 63 George Street, corner of George and Stryker. For more info, visit growingwestside.com/farmers-market/). My friend Sue’s daughter, Nellie (and her new husband Stephen), have a booth there selling organic produce from their farm, Whistling Thistle. The Roma’s I got from them were perfect for these, as they were meaty and had a lower moisture content than standard grocery store ‘maters. That’s essential to keep the chips crispy once baked.

Makes 8 ounces pesto

For pesto:
1 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves (washed and rinsed)
½ cup fresh parsley springs (without stems), or ¼ cup dried parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
¼ cup slivered almonds (or pine nuts)
1 large clove garlic, quartered
¼ teaspoon salt

For chips:
Corn or flour tortillas
Shredded aged mozzarella, or cubed fresh mozzarella
Roma tomatoes, diced

Preheat oven to 375° Fahrenheit. In a blender or food processor, combine basil, parsley, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, almonds, garlic, and salt. Cover and blend or process with several on-off turns until paste forms. Stop machine to scrape down sides as needed.

Spread a few tablespoons of pesto over one of the tortillas, and put it on a baking sheet. (Flour tortillas are tastier, but I’ve used corn tortillas to make these gluten free.) Sprinkle cheese of choice on top, then repeat process for desired number of tortillas. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes, or until edges are crispy and slightly browned. Cut into wedges and serve as is, or sprinkle with the diced tomatoes, then cut and serve.

NOTE: If not using the pesto immediately, store in airtight container and refrigerate up to a week, or freeze for 6-12 months.

For another tasty way to use your basil pesto, Check out a previous post with directions for a basil pasta that’s a fabulous meal on it’s own.

Basil Pesto

FullSizeRenderBasil is bountiful at farmer’s markets this time of year, so what can you do with this most fragrant of herbs? Pesto is a versatile sauce, and making it yourself fills your kitchen to the brim with fresh summertime smells. We love this recipe (from an older Better Homes & Gardens cookbook) stirred up over a a pound of prepared pasta, with cubes of grilled chicken, and cherry tomatoes. Delish!!! I love wide, flat noodles with pesto. Trader Joe’s lemon pepper pappardelle pasta works really well (pictured here), but you can use anything your little heart desires—penne, spaghetti, linguini, farfella (aka: bow tie pasta) or those little cup shaped ones I can’t remember the name of. I draw the line at lasagna noodles, though. That would just be silly, people.

This is also great slathered on a tortilla and sprinkled with grated parmesan, and then baked in a 375° oven for about 15-20 minutes, or until edges or tortillas are crisp. Cut like a pizza and serve with your meal. (If you use corn tortillas, this could be a gluten-free snack.) Or spread on think chunks of sourdough bread and top with fresh mozz and a slice of tomato, then broil in the oven for a few minutes. These make fabulous appetizers. 

I’ve also done a mixture of half real mayonnaise, and half prepared pesto for a sandwich spread. You want to wake up your boring old lunch, this will do it! So is that enough ideas to get you going?

IMG_1038I’m super excited because my basil is actually doing great in my mini herb garden this year. In the past, it’s grown rather sparse in my pots, but my plant is going gang-busters right now—it’s yielded enough to make 3 jars already! But when I’ve not had basil right out my back door, I’ve bought bunches from the farmer’s market, and spent a morning making multiple recipes of pesto, putting each batch in an 8-ounce container (pint jars work great). Then I use one batch fresh for dinner or appetizers, and freeze the others for use all year long. There is nothing like a batch of pesto over pasta in the dead of winter—it’s a reminder that spring will come again.

Makes 8 ounces

1 cup firmly packed fresh basil leaves (washed and rinsed)
½ cup fresh parsley springs (without stems), or 1/4 cup dried parsley
½ cup grated Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup olive oil
¼ cup slivered almonds*
1 large clove garlic, quartered
¼ teaspoon salt

In a blender or food processor, combine basil, parsley, Parmesan cheese, olive oil, almonds, garlic, and salt. Cover and blend or process with several on-off turns until paste forms. Stop machine to scrape down sides as needed.

If not using immediately, store in airtight container and refrigerate up to a week, or freeze for 6-12 months.

*NOTE: I used to make this with pine nuts—the traditional nut for this recipe—but they are crazy bonkers expensive, so I use almonds now and they work just as well. Pine nuts also have a tendency to go rancid if not refrigerated, and I’ve wasted those little gold nuggets unintentionally. So I quit buying them and stick with almonds.

Mini Herb Garden Pots

Herb Pots IMG_0697Fresh summer meals require fresh summer herbs, and if you’ve got a patch of sunshine, you can grow a pot of herbs. No need to own your own acreage—even apartment-dwellers can do this with a little bit of deck and a place to put a pot. I’ve been growing pots like these for years, and if you combine the herbs in an artful fashion, they can be decorative as well as utilitarian. The pot pictured here has (from left counter-clockwise) rosemary, thyme, sage, oregano, purple basil, and chives, with sweet basil in the center. I also plant a pot with just spearmint. In the summer, we go through mint like Kleenex, as I’ve got a recipe for mint ice tea that is absolutely to die for—posting to come! (FYI—we don’t use those two items interchangeably…)

Summer table IMG_0345NOTE: If you are going to plant a pot of mint, make sure you grab spearmint instead of peppermint, unless you want your culinary efforts to have a Pepto Bismol after taste. (Been there, done that.) Mint is a perennial if planted in ground, but it tends to take over a garden. One trick for outsmarting the all-consuming plant is to plant it in the ground inside an old cracked plastic pot. It keeps it somewhat contained, and if the roots are protected underground through winter, it comes up year after year. (More info below on the table setting at right.)

Back to the mixed herb pots. I try to do a variety of leaf shapes and sizes, and a mix of bright greens, dark greens, and purples. Mixing heights adds interest to your containers too. Last year, I was super lazy and didn’t pull the dead herbs out of their pots in the fall, and surprise, surprise, the chives actually came in again! Who knew there was an upside to lazy?

Herb Centerpieces IMG_0346Once your pots start growing like crazy, you can put together some sweet little centerpieces like these. The bright, clean labels on these 28-ounce Red Gold ® diced tomatoes really caught my eye. So after I used the tomatoes in a recipe, I rinsed and saved three cans for table decor. (Hey, reduce, reuse, recycle, right?) Then I cut squares of wet floral foam slightly larger than the cans, and soaked them in water about an hour. To do this at home, wedge the soaked floral foam into the cans (yes, you are putting a square peg in a round hole), then poke cuttings from your herb garden into the wet block. They will last a week or more, and make nice, low-profile centerpieces. No playing hide-and-seek with guests at the table around a gargantuan arrangement. An added bonus is that the fresh cut herbs smell awesome!

IMG_0701The super simple napkin rings (shown here and above on the table setting) are made from stringing wooden beads onto suede leather lacing, and then looping one end back through the first bead to secure. My daughter-in-law strung these one Thanksgiving (thanks, Jessica!), and they were great with our warm, neutral palette for fall. They also work with bright, summery colors like those pictured here. I’m a sucker for the affordable IKEA napkins, which are 50 for $1.99. The color choices are always fun, and keeping these napkins on hand helps to be ready for impromptu guests.