Cucumber Ginger Ale

IMG_1700Just three ingredients needed to make this super refreshing summer drink, and no chopping or cooking involved! A trip to Trader Joe’s will get you the non-alcoholic ginger beer and the cucumber seltzer, and maybe even the fresh mint. I grow fresh mint in buckets on my deck, so I’m always looking for ways to use it up. And how did I discover this fabulous combo? My son Justin poured me a tall, cool glass of this mix one hot, summer day, when we were setting up his non-air conditioned apartment. He even topped it with fresh mint sprigs! (How many 20-something dudes offer their mothers a drink with muddled mint?) I was like, what is this? This is fabulous! He said, “It’s just ginger beer and cucumber seltzer. Super easy!” Thanks for sharing, Justin. You’re da bomb.

Makes 1-2 drinks

Reed’s Extra Ginger Brew All Natural Jamaican Style Ginger Beer
Spindrift Seltzer made with fresh pressed cucumbers
Mint sprigs

Put ice in glass. Pour non-alcoholic ginger beer in first third or half of glass. Fill the rest of the glass with the cucumber seltzer. Rub the mint sprig between fingers to release the oils, then add to glass and stir. Enjoy your refreshing drink!

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.


IMG_0959With my fresh mini herb garden pots going wild, I’ve been looking for ways to use the abundance of mint threatening to take over the deck. The Good Earth restaurant makes a fabulous tabbouleh, and after ordering it recently, I thought it looked easy enough to duplicate at home. I tried Ina Garten’s recipe found on, and I liked her process, but found the recipe had too little bulghur in ratio to the herbs and tomatoes, too much pepper, waaaaaaay too much salt (even with using only 2 1/2 teaspoons table salt instead of the kosher salt she recommended*), and far too many scallions. Then I looked at Ellie Krieger’s recipe, and ended up using my own amounts based on the two recipes. Ina puts the dressing into the bulghur wheat while it’s soaking, and Ellie pours in on after the fact. I tried it Ina’s way, and it seemed to have great flavor, with my adjustments to amounts below. I’m sure it would work fine to add the dressing after soaking the wheat, too.

I know this traditional Lebanese dish usually has more herbs and less bulghur than you see here, but we preferred a little more of the ancient grain to temper all the mint and parsley. And my son Justin said that 1 cup mint was over-the-top, and I needed to back off a bit. I liked it, but I love mint so much I want to marry it, so take that into consideration.

This is a versatile dish. It can be served as an appetizer along with toasted pita triangles and spicy hummus, and some sliced cucumbers, tomatoes, and Kalamata olives. Or it can be a salad or side to a meal. Shred or cube some grilled chicken into the bowl, and it’s a meal. The ease of the dish, plus the fresh herbs, make it perfect for warm weather, no matter which part it plays in your meal.

*NOTE: I did some research on kosher salt/sea salt/table salt, and found that you need more kosher or sea salt than table salt if substituting one for the other in a recipe. See this handy conversion chart for your own reference.

Serves 6-8

1 1/2 cups bulghur wheat
2 1/4 cups boiling water
1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice (2 lemons)
1/4 cup good olive oil
1 teaspoon lemon zest
1 teaspoon salt
1/2–1 cup chopped fresh mint leaves (1 bunch)
1 cup chopped flat-leaf parsley (1 bunch)
1 hothouse cucumber, unpeeled, seeded, and medium-diced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, cut in half
2–3 tablespoons mined red onion
2–3 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Place the bulghur in a large bowl, pour in the boiling water, and add the lemon juice, olive oil, salt and lemon zest. Stir, then allow to stand at room temperature for about 1 hour. (You can also just pour the boiling water over the bulghur, and add the dressing ingredients later.)

Add the mint, parsley, cucumber, tomatoes, red onion, chives, and the pepper; mix well. Season with salt, if necessary; cover and refrigerate. Flavor improves if the tabbouleh is made a few hours ahead of serving time.

Haystack Taco Dip

Haystack Salad IMG_0608So many appetizers rely on a brick of cream cheese as base, but this taco-flavored dip is chock full of fresh ingredients like tomatoes and alfalfa sprouts—and no cream cheese! And it’s probably the best thing you’ll ever dip with a chip. It’s a great appetizer for graduation open houses or other buffets as it doesn’t need to be kept hot, or cold. In fact, that’s where I first tasted this concoction, at my friend Laurie’s open house for one of her daughters. Laurie called her recipe “Haystack Salad,” but my family has always called it “that taco dip.” Laurie’s directions were to use a can of Hormel no bean chili as the base, or refried beans in a pinch. It seems Hormel has quit producing that item—I’ve not been able to find no bean chili for several years now, and the refried beans work perfectly well instead.

One way to make this dip extra great, is to get some Penzy’s taco seasoning. It has less salt and more flavor than the stuff you get in the foil packets at the grocery store. You can order the taco seasoning through Penzy’s website, and hey, grab some cinnamon and vanilla while you’re at it! (Last time I ordered, they shipped free with a $50 order, so you might as well stock up on other spices and seasonings.)

The other thing you’ll like about this appetizer, is that it goes together in about 15 minutes (or less if you enlist the help of someone to shred cheese) and requires no baking. Have I convinced you to try this one yet?

Serves 10-12

1 – 16 ounce can of refried beans
4 tablespoons Penzy’s taco seasoning or 1 package of other taco seasoning
3 ripe avocados
1 cup sour cream
3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 – 4 ounce can of diced mild green chilies
1 – 4.25 ounce can of chopped ripe olives
1/2 cup chopped scallions (about 4 scallions)
1 cup shredded monty jack cheese
1 cup shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 tomatoes, diced
1/3 to 1/2 container of alfalfa sprouts
Tortilla or corn chips

Combine refried beans and taco seasoning in a small bowl. Spread on the bottom of a glass 9″x13″ baking dish. In another small bowl, add avocados, sour cream, and lemon juice together and mash until combined. Spread on top of the refried bean mixture. Drain the green chiles, and sprinkle on top of the avocado layer, followed by the chopped ripe olives, then the scallions. Next sprinkle monty jack cheese, and then cheddar cheese. After dicing the tomatoes, strain them to get rid of the extra juice. Add tomatoes on top of the cheeses, and finish with the alfalfa sprouts. If not serving immediately, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Serve with tortilla or corn chips. But remember, no double-dipping!

Fresh Italian Focaccia

Focaccia BreadNothing beats a wedge of fresh focaccia. Dipped in flavored olive oil and a sprinkle of grated Parmesan cheese, it’s a great accompaniment to any pasta entree in lieu of a baguette. This recipe came from an issue of Family Fun magazine in the late 90’s, and was touted as easy to make, even for the novice bread baker. So those of you with yeast-anxiety (that’s you, sis!) can handle this one. Making bread is like playing with Play Doh, really, and how hard is that?

You can flavor this however you’d like. I usually make it with Italian seasoning, but any dried herb will do, like rosemary, or chives. But I’d stick with the savory ones over the more sweet spices like dill or tarragon. And you don’t have to serve it as a side to a meal – it can be the main attraction. Split the baked loaf in half lengthwise, fill with deli meats, cheese, and fresh spinach, and slather with Dijon mustard. Then replace the top and cut in wedges like a pie, and you’ve just made a killer sandwich. 

There are a few different methods used to rise dough. I put a few inches of hot water in my kitchen sink and put the bowl right in the sink, covered with a moist dish towel. My mother-in-law used to rise her dough in an oven on low heat, but I’ve never gotten the hang of that. For years we lived in a very old house with a teeny tiny kitchen, and I’d raise my dough in the bathtub for lack of counter or sink space. So you don’t need a tricked-out kitchen to make bread, people!

Makes one 12-inch loaf

2/3 warm water
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon honey
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning (or other dried herb of choice)
1/2 teaspoon garlic salt
4 tablespoons olive oil, divided

Fill large mixer bowl with hot water to warm bowl. Pour out water, and add 2/3 cup warm water. Sprinkle yeast on top of water and add honey. Let sit until yeast is dissolved and begins to foam. Add 1 cup of the flour, 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, Italian seasoning (or other herb) garlic salt, and 3 tablespoons olive oil to bowl. Fit mixer with dough hook and stir ingredients on low. Add additional 3/4 cup flour and stir on low until dough clings to hook and pulls away from the side of the bowl.

Drizzle a tablespoon of olive oil into medium bowl. Set aside. Sprinkle cutting board with flour, and knead dough a few times by pulling dough from outside to inside and punching down as you do. Add a sprinkling of flour as needed, if dough gets sticky. Continue until dough is smooth and elastic. Put dough into oiled bowl, cover with a moist kitchen towel, and let rise in a warm place for an hour.

Preheat oven to 400° Fahrenheit. Once dough has risen (roughly doubled in size), punch down and knead a couple times to reform into a ball. Sprinkle cutting board with flour and roll dough out with wooden rolling pin to about 1-inch thickness. Drizzle a 12-inch round pizza pan with olive oil, and sprinkle with a trace amount of yellow corn meal. Place flattened dough on prepared pizza pan. Cover with dish towel and move to warm place to rise. Let dough rise 30-40 minutes, or until doubled. Poke top of dough with finger to make dimples, then sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning (or other herbs). Bake for 12-15 minutes, or until bread is light golden brown on top. Immediately remove loaf to wire rack to cool. If not serving bread within the hour, cover with dry kitchen towel to keep from drying out. To keep fresh overnight, put in plastic bag or wrap, once it is cooled to room temperature. (If you put in plastic when it’s not completely cooled, the condensation will make the bread soggy.)