A New Beginning

Sawtooth sunflowers at Horlock Prairie, St. Charles, Illinois.

Dear Reader:

I’ve been blogging since January of 2011, and have had a great time. I’ve been grateful for the readers from all over the world who have visited my blog, often year after year, cookie after cookie. But I’m ready for something new and to move forward. I can’t help but think of the Monarch butterflies Jim and I have raised and released this summer. They flew off over the treetops: It was time for the next chapter of their lives. So this will be my last Something for (almost) Nothing post.

I am already working on the format and topic of my new blog, which will be on Nature Journaling. When it’s ready to go up, I will post the name and url here, and I am hoping you will consider joining me there. It will feature nature journal pages, and more bird and butterfly photography, plus eco gardening. I have to admit–I’m really excited about it! The older I get, the more the natural world moves, inspires me and nurtures me. Meanwhile, heartfelt thanks to you all. Peace to you, Fran

 

PS Here is my newest Nature Journal page, taken from what I observed at Horlock Prairie, here in Saint Charles. See you soon!

 

Fluffy Sriracha Dip

Sriracha Hot Chili Sauce is having a moment now–you may be familiar with its red bottle emblazoned with a rooster, and its jaunty green cap. It has long been a cult favorite, I think because of the cute bottle, but, also, for a hot sauce, it’s not super hot. At any rate, the other day, while wandering through a thrift store, I found a 97 cent copy of “The Sriracha Cookbook,” by Randy Clemens and quickly found myself wanting to add Sriracha to everything.

This all leads up to why today’s post is about a Fluffy Sriracha Dip. Why is this dip so fluffy? Well, when I went to the store to buy goat cheese, which is one of the ingredients, I accidentally purchased spreadable goat cheese. This recipe started as a Sriracha cheese log, but because of the spreadable goat cheese, it ended up as a delicious, fluffy dip. And so new dishes are discovered. Who needed a cheese log, anyway? The dip is spicy hot–but not incendiary–and creamy with a green herbal note. So good with fresh cut-up veggies. Here is the recipe. (Don’t freak out about the fresh herbs–more about them later.)

Fluffy Sriracha Dip

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsely
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1-8 ounce package Neufchatel cream cheese, at room temperature
4 ounces spreadable goat cheese, at room temperature
3 tablespoons Sriracha
1 clove garlic, put through garlic press

In a small bowl, combine the chopped herbs and the pepper. Toss together.

In a larger bowl, combine the cream cheese, goat cheese, Sriracha, garlic and most of the herb and pepper mix. Mash with a fork until evenly blended.

Scrape into a small bowl, and serve with cut-up fresh veggies.

First, thing, I went to pick the fresh herbs from my garden. If you don’t have fresh herbs, consider chopping some fresh parsley with a couple of green onions, and using that.

 

I also picked a hot pepper to use as a garnish. Again, this is optional.
The freshly ground black pepper and the chopped herbs.
Ingredients. The Neufchatel cream cheese is lower in fat than regular cream cheese (it’s made from milk, not cream), but is still good tasting and creamy.
I’m not always the brightest bulb in the pack, and I spent several moments trying to shake the sauce from the bottle, not realizing there was an inner seal. So this is an FYI.
The original recipe called for mixing wit a stand mixer, but it’s so much easier to use a fork. I mashed with a fork, and then brought it all together at the end with a spatula.
Scrape the mixture into a pretty little bowl, and top with a blob of Sriracha. Swirl through the mixture with a knife.
Swirly, fluffy dip. Sprinkle on remaining chopped herbs or parsley.
I sliced the hot pepper and used it as a garnish. It looks like a strange, hot pepper sea creature.
Yum.
We had it for lunch!

Making notes: As I’ve mentioned, the fresh herbs are optional. The parsley, green onion mix will work fine. Also, this dip is all about the Sriracha hotness along with the creamy texture, so, again, don’t sweat the herbs. If you can only find “regular,” not spreadable goat cheese, make a cheese log! Either way, it’s good.

Standing in the sunny garden this morning, I’m aware that we are in bee season. There are bumble bees, honey bees (not sure, but I think so), and many smaller bees, all gathering pollen while the sun shines. The butterfly is our last Monarch, released a few days ago. I will miss them! Peace to you. Fran

Bumble bee on phlox.
Honeybee? Not sure.
Small, unidentified bee-like creature.

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Chineasy Cucumber Salad

I’ve never been a big fan of cucumbers. Not that this is a big deal or anything, but the cucumbers of my youth had thick skins, were heavily waxed, had a lot of seeds, why were we eating them, etc. Also, my mother didn’t like cucumbers, and it’s surprising how that can influence you. But vastly improved cukes are showing up in the produce department, and I have had a change of heart, cucumber-wise. So when I saw this recipe for Chineasy Cucumber Salad in a book called Lucky Peach: 101 Easy Asian Recipes, I decided to go for it with the tender-skinned mini-cukes from Aldi.

The result was a spicy, cuke-y, nutty salad that will go well with the rather mundane hamburger patties we are having this evening. The recipe also calls for bashing the cucumbers with a wok cleaver, and that was fun. Or at least, my idea of fun. The cracked cucumber slices will imbibe more dressing. Here is the recipe.

Chineasy Cucumber Salad

1 tablespoon malt vinegar
1 teaspoon chili oil
1 teaspoon sesame oil
1 teaspoon brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
3-4 “mini-cukes,” or Persian cucumbers
1 teaspoon toasted seseme seeds
1 tablespoons roasted peanuts
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped cilantro

Mix together the vinegar, chili oil, sesame oil, sugar and salt. Set aside.

Cut off both ends of the cucumbers. Halve them length-wise. Set them cut-side down on the cutting board, and thwack them with the side of your cleaver or chef’s knife. Experiment! You don’t want to reduce the cukes to a pulp, just to crack them apart a bit. Cut the cukes cross-wise into 3/4-inch thick half moons.

Toss the cukes with the dressing and spoon into a nice bowl. Top with the toasted sesame seeds, the roasted peanuts and the chopped cilantro.

First, toast the sesame seeds. I used a small iron skillet, and stirred them constantly over high heat.
In about five minutes, the seeds will have browned. Set aside.
Ingredients. The recipe called for Chinkiang vinegar, also known as Chinese black vinegar. Our local grocery store, which has a pretty extensive assortment of Oriental foods, did not have this, so I used a malt vinegar instead. I know it’s not the same, but it worked well. It’s possible that balsamic vinegar would work. Next time!
Four mini-cukes, each about five inches long. Slice each cuke in half, lengthwise.

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Turn the cukes face down and thwack them with the side of your wok cleaver or chef’s knife–just enough to crack them a bit.
Slice the cracked cucumber halves into 3/4″ thick half moons. Toss with the dressing, and transfer into a pretty bowl.
Top with the toasted sesame seeds, peanuts and chopped cilantro. I also made a little cucumber fan for decoration.
I’ve had these books on Japanese Garnishes for years, and found the directions for the fan in the “More Japanese Garnishes.”
Cut a 3-inch section from a mini-cuke, and slice off one side so that the section sits flat.
Slice the two long sides off.
Make thin length-wise cuts, leaving 1/4″ uncut at one end. Press down on the slices so they fan out.
I also made a chain of cucumber slices, which was surprisingly easy, but for another post!
Before serving, taste carefully, especially for salt. The delicious sesame flavor should be pronounced, so you might want to drizzle with a bit more oil.
Our fourteenth monarch, posing before she flies off. A lump-in-the-throat moment.

My latest Nature Journal page had me struggling with depicting a squirrel holding a black walnut. Had to learn a bit about squirrel anatomy. Apparently squirrels enjoy black walnuts so much that sometimes you see them with the brown dye on their cheeks.

Peace to you. Fran

Zucchini Quiche

Lately, I’ve been cooking from an excellent cookbook called Real Food, Really Easy by George Stella. It’s a so-called “low-carb,” cookbook, and whether you are into that type of cooking or not (no potatoes, rice or bread), this Zucchini Quiche recipe from the book is a winner. First of all, it’s really tasty, with its cheese custard and toasty zucchini. Second of all, it’s cute, with its zucchini ruffle around the cheese custard, and third, it uses zucchini, which is everywhere right now. Oh, and fourth, it made me realize just how heavy and indigestible a pie crust can be. And–while we’re at it–fifth, calling this dish a “quiche” sounds so much better than saying it’s a zucchini casserole, which sounds as dull as dull gets. Here is the recipe, which includes some of my modifications:

Zucchini Quiche

2 medium zucchini
1/2 teaspoon dry oregano
6 eggs
1/2 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8  teaspoon black pepper
1/8 teaspoon garlic powder
1-1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
1/4 cup shredded fresh Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Oil a 9-inch baking dish with extra virgin olive oil or vegetable oil. (I used a 12-inch long oval ceramic casserole dish, which worked perfectly. So the baking dish size is flexible.)

Thinly slice the washed zucchinis into discs, and lay them across the bottom of the baking dish. Then line the edges of the dish with the slices, as well. Sprinkle 1/4 teaspoon dried oregano over the zucchini.

Thoroughly mix the eggs, half and half, salt, pepper, garlic powder and mozzarella cheese in a bowl and pour over the zucchini in the baking dish.

Sprinkle the Parmesan cheese and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon of dried oregano over the custard mixture. Bake for 40 minutes or until top puffs up and turns golden brown. Let set for about five minutes before serving with a large spoon.

I used two zucchini that were about seven inches long.
Custard mixture before stirring.
I topped the custard with a sprig of fresh oregano. It’s already cute!
Fresh from the oven. Let it sit for five minutes before serving. Scoop up big fluffy spoonfuls to serve. It’s so pretty, and would make a nice, light Sunday supper.

 

I served the quiche topped with green tomatillo sauce, and along with a garlic-y dark green salad. For dessert, fresh strawberries.

If you are growing zucchini, the above recipe will hardly make a dent in your zucchini supply. Reaching into my archives, I found this moist, delicious zucchini bread. I remember how good it was topped with ricotta and fresh blueberries. This also won’t make a dent in your zucchini supply, but at least we tried!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Which flower is different than the rest? A hint: it has a beak.

Peace to you. Fran

 

 

Roasted Tomatoes on the Vine with Burrata

Hello Friends, glad to be back. For the last few days I’ve been pondering what to blog about, and the usual answers surfaced: food and birds! I’d been riffling through a wonderful book called The Italian Vegetable Cookbook by Michele Scicolone, when I came across a recipe for Roasted Tomatoes on the Vine with Burrata Cheese. Soon I was in the kitchen making the recipe, because: I loved the simplicity of it, this is tomato season, and I’d always wanted to try burrata cheese.

But before we go any further, here’s the thing: while it is tomato season and I am growing tomatoes, I tend to neglect them. They become leathery and then chipmunks gnaw them. I watch rabbits run off with them. This is a public confession. And most of the year I don’t have garden fresh tomatoes. The beauty of this recipe is that by roasting whatever tomato you do have, it tastes delicious. So you can make this recipe now with your own tomatoes or tomatoes from a farmer’s market, or you can make it in January with supermarket tomatoes.

Here is the recipe:

Roasted Tomatoes on the Vine with Burrata Cheese

1 pound small tomatoes on the vine or grape tomatoes
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound burrata or fresh mozzarella cheese, cut into 8 slices
Fresh basil leaves, if you have them, or a sprinkling of dried basil

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

In a baking dish just large enough to hold them, toss the tomatoes with the oil and salt and ground pepper to taste. Roast for 20 to 30 minutes, or until the skins are wrinkled and the tomatoes are beginning to collapse. Let cool slightly.

(The amounts in the recipe are for four persons. I plated it for two, and set the remaining ingredients aside for another meal.) Arrange two cheese slices on each plate. Place the warm, roasted tomatoes next to the cheese. Spoon the tomatoes juices over all. Garnish with the basil.

Ingredients. Burrata is a fresh Italian cheese made with mozzarella and cream. The mozzarella encloses the curds and cream, which spill out when sliced. It’s as amazing as it sounds. Be prepared when you open the container to find (in this case) two white blobs of cheese. Each blob contains quivering curds and cream. I used some small Campari tomatoes on the vine. These are available much of the year and are quite good. But, of course, you could use tomatoes from your garden!
Tomatoes in their pan, ready for the oven. The reason for using the smallish baking dish is that the tomatoes will give off a lot of juice. In a big pan, the juice will quickly start to run and burn. This way, the tomatoes roast in their juices. The ceramic baking dish shown is about 9″ across.

 

 

The tomatoes will take anywhere from twenty to thirty minutes to roast. It depends on the size of the tomatoes. At this point, you could serve them as a delicious side dish. And it’s so easy. It’s occurred to me that you could throw in some peeled garlic to roast along with the tomatoes. That would to easy and good, too!
This is where my deficiencies as a photographer are apparent! No matter what, the burrata cheeses look like glistening white blobs. I hope you will trust me that they are delicious!
Real life at the Manos household. We had pan fried Italian sausage, and slurped up the tomatoes and cheese, guzzled wine.

Making notes: Burrata is found in more and more supermarkets. Look for it with the fresh mozzarella and mascarpone cheese. None of these cheeses are inexpensive, but they can make a meal special. Also, “The Italian Vegetable Cookbook,” is a treasure. The recipes are simple but with that indefinable elegant Italian twist. Especially if you have a vegetable garden, check it out!

Yay, it’s goldfinch season! Actually, all summer is goldfinch season, but they come into their own in late August as the Joe Pye weed and the coneflowers go to seed. The whole garden becomes a playground for these beautiful birds. Here’s a sweetie in the Joe Eye weed, nibbling its seeds. His feathers are already starting to thin out a bit–fall is coming.

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t know if you have ever heard of the plant called Wild Senna, but it’s a great plant for the midwestern garden and I have devoted a Nature Journal page to it. It’s tall (six feet), deer resistant, and attracts bumble bees. I have spent many moments standing almost in the plant (neighbors love this) watching the bumble bees close up. While they can sting, they are not aggressive at all. They swing from flower to flower, hovering as they collect pollen.

Peace to you. Fran

 

 

 

 

Warm Figs with Mascarpone

I was skittering on the edge with this recipe, working from a hazy idea involving dried figs and wondering if I could cook them up into something wonderful, along with the observation that mascarpone, sometimes called “Italian cream cheese” is becoming more and more commonly available at local grocery stores. I wondered if I couldn’t simmer the dried figs in orange juice, rendering them warm and juicy. Then I envisioned slathering them with the mascarpone. Thing was, I had never had mascarpone, so I really was skittering on the edge! I went to work, and have to say, this easy little dessert is unbelievably, almost celestially good, so the food gods were on my side.

Warm Figs with Mascarpone

Here is what I used, though you might find different quantities at your grocery store:

dried figs (I had a 9-oz. package)
mascarpone ( I used Vermont Creamery brand, 8 oz.)
3/4 cup orange juice (from a small 12-oz. bottle of Tropicana)
1 tablespoon brown sugar or grated Mexican piloncillo
1 teaspoon vanilla

A slightly haphazard look at the ingredients. And I got a new set of little bowls at the resale shop. Happiness is the small things!
These figs are from California, but you can use any kind available.
I grated some Mexican piloncillo, enough for the cooking juice, and a little extra to sprinkle on the dessert. You can use brown sugar instead, but the piloncillo has extra flavor depth.
Mix the orange juice, the brown sugar or grated piloncillo and the vanilla in a small pan. Bring to a simmer, and add the figs. I used 10 figs, but you could use more. (I have found that in a recipe like this the commercial orange juice works perfectly. You could squeeze fresh orange juice, but the freshness gets a bit lost in the cooking.) Cook the figs for about seven to eight minutes–but it depends on the softness of the figs. Some imported figs are firm, and you may need to cook longer. They should become soft and juicy. Take off the heat and set aside. The juice will have become a bit syrupy.
At this point, we meet the mascarpone, which is so good. It’s not like cream cheese at all, but more like English clotted cream. Stir it a bit before using to loosen it up.
For each serving, spoon a generous tablespoon into a small bowl. The mascarpone is rich, and you won’t need more.
Spoon four figs on top of the mascarpone, and spoon a little of the syrupy cooking juices around the edge. Sprinkle with the grated piloncillo. Serve it forth!
You could cook the figs ahead of time. Have your bowls ready, and your mascarpone stirred. When ready for dessert, heat up the figs, and top the mascarpone with them. Easy, and so delicious.

Making notes: The figs are the variable here. They come in different quantities and some may be almost hard, and some soft. The brand I used here, called “Nutra-Figs,” were soft and moist, and I recommend them. Also, before you put the figs into the simmering orange juice, pull their stems out a bit–they will look more like figs like that, and not lumpish.

As per usual, in the midst of cooking the above, a bird landed outside the window at the feeder, and I couldn’t resist taking a photo. It’s a female cardinal, a bit worse for the wear at this time of year,  but full of spirit and quite adorable!

We are still raising Monarch butterflies. Last week we released four! Here they are, emerged from the chrysalis, wings drying out.

The net prevented them from climbing out of the jar when they were caterpillars.
Another beautiful butterfly! This one is female.

Peace to you. Fran