Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Back in the kitchen

As most of our family and friends know, Dan and I spent an inspiring week in June working in a community garden and weeding at the Illinois State Fair grounds in Springfield. Knowing that I would love to have an edible garden at some point in the next couple of years, I was sure to pick the brains of the talented people leading us to get tips on everything from how to plant to when to harvest. I clearly missed the popular spring planting season for vegetables this year, but decided it's better to start small anyways and came home eager to plant an herb garden. I posted an image in June of a one-pot garden that seemed like the perfect way for a black thumbed person like me to begin, and decided to work with that as my inspiration!

A trip to Home Depot actually left me with 2 planters, in bright fun turquoise and lime green.

Utilizing tips I gathered in Springfield I got everything ready in a quick afternoon out in the yard. Dan punched holes in the bottoms of the planters for me to help with drainage and I put about an inch of pea gravel in the bottoms under the soil. I also decided from my own previous experience and from advice in Springfield that I should start with seedling plants rather than planting unsprouted seeds and hoping they'll grow, and a Saturday morning trip to the Farmer's Market had me on my way with basil, oregano, garlic chives, parsley and cilantro for under $10!

Once I get some cute little tags (I'm thinking I can find some at Michael's?) I'll have to put up pictures of my thriving plants which have been sitting pretty in the sun up on the back deck, but for now I wanted to post the incredible recipes I've been tackling this week in an effort to use my home grown herbs.

First up was Pioneer Woman's Penne a la Betsy which was quick enough to become a weeknight staple, and absolutely delicious.

(Image belongs to Pioneer Woman)

Here's the (fairly) simple recipe:
3/4 pounds Penne Pasta
1 pound Shrimp
3 Tablespoons Butter
3 Tablespoons Olive Oil
1 whole Onion (small)
2 cloves Garlic
1/2 cup White Wine (can be substituted with chicken broth)
1 can Tomato Sauce (8 oz)
1 cup Heavy Cream
Fresh Parsley, to taste
Fresh Basil, to taste
Salt and Pepper to taste

1. Cook the penne pasta al dente.
2. Peel, devein and cold rinse shrimp. Heat about 1 tbsp. butter and olive oil in a skillet, add the shrimp and cook for just a couple minutes. Remove from heat, cool, and chop into bite-sized pieces.
3. Finely dice one small onion. Mince two cloves of garlic. Add to a large skillet with 2 tablespoons of butter and 2 tablespoons olive oil and sauté, stirring occasionally.
4. After the garlic and onions have cooked a bit add white wine. Let the wine evaporate for a few minutes, stirring occasionally. 5. Add an 8-ounce can of plain tomato sauce. Stir well until combined. Then add 1 cup of heavy cream. Continue stirring. Turn heat down to low and let simmer.
5. Chop your herbs, about a tablespoon of chopped parsley and about the same amount of chopped basil.
6. Add chopped shrimp back into the tomato cream sauce. Give it a stir and add salt and pepper to taste. Throw in the herbs and stir until combined. Finally add your cooked penne pasta and give it a good stir.

A couple of notes from making this dish:
1. Taking a few minutes to chop everything BEFORE I start cooking makes a huge difference in my anxiety level. Having a pot of pasta boiling and a pan of shrimp cooking while I try to mince garlic just doesn't work for me. Next time, garlic, onion, and herbs will all be chopped and waiting in prep bowls before I even turn the stove on.
2. Onion seems to be an important flavor in a dish, so if a recipe calls for a whole one, I figure it shouldn't be omitted. Since we're not fans of onion itself (but like the flavor) I cut it down to half, and left it in big chunks (instead of dicing) so we could pick it out. Kind of a pain, but it worked for us.
3. Going upstairs and "harvesting" my own basil and parsley to use for dinner was a serious thrill for me. And, the fresh flavors are a HUGE improvement from the dried stuff we usually use from the spice cabinet.

Last night, I changed it up and decided I'd better use up some cilantro. Since Dan wasn't going to be home, I figured it was the perfect time to throw a bunch of veggies in to my dinner, and the end result was AMAZING.

First, I made Annie's Eats Favorite Salsa. I was a little concerned about this since I didn't have a food processor, but apparently Dan brought home a little one awhile back that was hiding in the pantry waiting for me to try it out! I quickly realized I didn't have nearly enough room to make a full batch of Annie's salsa, so I sort of halved the recipe and just added things in depending on how the flavor was going and how full the bowl of the processor was getting.

Here's the recipe:
2 fresh jalapeno peppers, seeded and very coarsely chopped
4 cloves garlic, halved
2 large vine-ripened tomatoes
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes (drained or not, depending on how much liquid you want in your salsa)
2 tbsp. red wine vinegar
1 tbsp. cumin
1/2 sweet yellow onion, coarsely chopped
1/4 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. ground cayenne pepper
1/4 cup fresh cilantro
juice of one lime

1. In the bowl of a food processor, combine the jalapenos and garlic. Process until finely chopped.
2. Scrape down the sides of the bowl and add all other ingredients to the food processor. Pulse in very brief pulses until the vegetables have reached the size you desire (it does not take many pulses so don’t overdo it).
3. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate at least 2 hours before serving to allow the flavors to blend.

A couple of notes from making this dish:
1. The grocery store on my street didn't have fresh jalapenos, but I figured I'd better still get some kick in there, so I bought a little bitty can of them. Upon opening, I thought they looked gross and fake, and the smell was overwhelming, so I opted just to put a TINY bit of the juice in my salsa, and left out any actual peppers. Turns out this was more than enough, and the salsa still had a little too much kick for my mild taste.
2. A 1/4 cup of fresh cilantro is a LOT of cilantro. I thought I had more than I really did, so I ended up cutting down this amount a bit in my salsa. I do love the flavor of cilantro, so I will likely try it again with the correct amount.

For dinner, I did not follow a recipe (!!!) and was still thrilled with the results. I sauteed up some chicken with garlic, onion, cumin, red pepper, paprika, and a little salt, and then shredded it. I put it back in the pan with a little olive oil, more garlic, a handful of corn, and half a thinly sliced zucchini squash and let it cook up for a few minutes. In a separate pan, I heated a small tortilla, layered it with pepper jack cheese, my chicken and veggie mixture, some tomato, and another tortilla, and in a few minutes I had a ridiculously filling quesadilla! I heated up the leftover filling today, added avocado slices and skipped the cheese for tacos at lunch. YUM.

I have yet to do anything with the oregano or garlic chives in my herb garden, but I still have some chicken left to cook so I may try and incorporate it all into another dinner!

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