Cobb Salad and Butterfly Season

Finally, temperatures have dropped! Instead of 95 degrees, today it’s 85, and it feels better. Everything is relative. I’ve been in a salad mode lately, and last week I made a Cobb Salad with shrimp. I loved it, but Jim is not a fan of shrimp so yesterday I made it with chicken, and it got a big thumbs up. All I know about a Cobb Salad is that it was invented by a California restauranteur named Mr. Cobb, and that it always includes bacon, hard-boiled eggs and avocados. The rest is up to you. This is a delicious main dish salad, a lot of which can be made ahead and thrown together at the last moment. Here are the how to’s.

Cobb Salad with Chicken

pre-cooked bacon bits
1 to 2 seasoned boneless chicken breasts, sautéed until golden
juice of one lemon
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 clove of garlic, put through garlic press
1-1/2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 small washed heads of Romaine lettuce
1 cup shredded carrots
2 small tomatoes, sliced
4 hard-boiled eggs, sliced
1 avocado, sliced
freshly cracked pepper

Line a big salad bowl with leaves of the lettuce. Spoon the shredded carrots, sliced tomatoes, sliced hard-boiled eggs, and sliced avocado in mounds on top of the lettuce. Evenly slice the cooked chicken breast, and arrange it on the salad. Mix together the lemon juice, Dijon mustard, pressed garlic, salt and olive oil. Pour over salad. Sprinkle the bacon pieces over the whole salad, and strew with the freshly cracked pepper. Garnish with fresh basil, if you have it. Serves two to three.

The original recipe called for four strips of bacon, cooked until crisp. Every cook has their line in the sand, things they just don’t want to do, and, for me, it’s cooking bacon. So I bought a small package of bacon pieces, and it worked fine.
Not a real interesting photo, I know, but it gives an idea of how much chicken I used in this salad, for two people. I dredged it in a mixture of salt, pepper, paprika and garlic powder, and sautéed it for about five minutes on each side. Set it aside to cool.
I hard boil eggs by covering them with water in a small saucepan, and bringing it to a boil. I turn off the heat, cover the pan, and let the eggs sit for 12 minutes. Drain them, and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Then peel. (The caption for the lettuce photos below got lost! The lettuce was purchased at Aldi, and I used two of the four heads.)
Mixing the salad dressing. You can estimate the amounts, and taste a bit on a lettuce leaf before adjusting to your tastebuds.
I can’t resist showing off my beautiful new salad bowl. I got it at a thrift store for $3.92, and it’s perfect! The shallowness makes it easy to arrange a pretty salad.

An average carrot will yield about 3/4 to 1 cup grated carrot. Exact amount not crucial!

Slicing the tomatoes and avocado. Use the best tomatoes you can find. Grape tomatoes, sliced in half, would also work. For a good avocado, look for one that is firm (but not hard as a rock) with no soft spots.
Arrange your lettuce leaves around the bowl. This is why having a shallow bowl works so well.
Mound your prepared ingredients on top of the lettuce, leaving a space for the chicken.
Evenly slice the cooled chicken and arrange it with the other ingredients. If you wanted this salad for 3 to 4 people, you could add another chicken breast and another avocado.
Spoon the dressing evenly over the salad, and sprinkle with bacon pieces and freshly cracked pepper. You can also top with some sliced fresh basil.

Making notes: I served this with Wasa whole grain crackers, Irish butter, and some freshly sliced watermelon. And a chilled white wine. Provide two large spoons, and everyone spoons up what they want. You may already be able to think of variations: shrimp instead of the chicken was delicious.


Butterfly Season

And now for something completely different! It’s Monarch butterfly season and I am taking care of some caterpillars. We raised and released two Monarchs last summer; this year we have twelve! There’s something incredibly fun about it–watching the eggs hatch, and then the caterpillars buzz sawing their way through mounds of fresh milkweed leaves. We can’t help naming them, which is ridiculous, I know. Here are the three biggest: Chomper, Muncher and Nibbler.

They live in a terrarium. The rest are in individual canning jars.
Puff “protecting” the rest of the butterflies. The jars contain butterfly eggs and tiny caterpillars along with fresh milkweed leaves. They will be moved to larger quarters as they get bigger.

Below: A black swallowtail butterfly visiting the coneflowers. These brightly-colored coneflowers are some of the new varieties, and they are gorgeous. I will plant more! Peace to you. Fran

Ancho Lime Butter and a Scary Robin

I’m not going to lie–I had another, more ambitious, recipe lined up for today’s post, but then looked at the thermometer. It’s ninety, but feels like more. The air feels like a big friendly, but furry, animal clinging to me, and breezes from our dining room air conditioner barely make it to the kitchen. We live primitively. Yes, I was going to make some double chocolate biscotti, but then thought of my oven, which gives off heat like a blast furnace. Time for Plan B.

And so my thoughts wandered to what, food wise, has really been helping me through these hot days. The answer? The herb-flavored butters I posted about on June 3. They have been fantastic. Yesterday I melted pats of the Rosemary Orange Butter on some steamed broccoli, and it was so good and so easy.

So today I made another flavored butter, this time with ancho chile powder. Ancho chiles are dried ripe poblanos. They have a deep chile flavor with a touch of raisin sweetness and are just slightly hot. Mixed with butter, grated lime zest and a dash of salt, this is so delicious. The raisin flavor tails off into the butter and then is given a kick by the lime. Here’s how to make.

Ancho Chile Lime Butter

1 tablespoon ancho chile powder
1 stick butter, softened
grated rind of one small lime
juice of half a lime
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Mash the softened butter until smooth, and add the ancho chile powder, grated lime rind, lime juice and salt. Mix until everything is evenly amalgamated. Form into a roughly-shaped roll and wrap in a piece of plastic, and store in freezer until needed.

Ingredients, plus, please mentally add a lime. The ancho powder can be purchased at a local hispanic grocery store. The bagged chiles show what whole ancho chiles look like., plus, see top photo.
Easy so far! Mash the softened butter until smooth.
The lime should be small, but not as small as the tiny limes used for margaritas.
With all the ingredients mixed, form a roughly-shaped roll of the butter using a spatula.
I placed some fresh oregano leaves on the plastic before rolling up the butter–just for pretty and a bit of flavor.
Rolling up the butter. The kitchen was warm, so I worked fast!
In the freezer and ready to go. I store the butter in the freezer because it can pick up off flavors in the refrigerator.

Making Notes: If you check out your local hispanic grocery store, you will find that they have a wall of chile products–dried whole and powdered. I will definitely be using this ancho chile powder in other recipes, including my chicken wing recipe. Also, some recipes I’ve seen are more complicated, adding garlic and other spices. But this is so good and so simple.


Scary Robin

Well, not scary exactly, but if you use your imagination, you might wonder what he’s thinking about. He does seem to be expressing his inner vulture. (He was caught in a rain shower and is shaking his tail feathers to dry them, so that’s a more likely explanation of his expression!)


Nature Journal

A young house finch and a blooming stem of blue wild indigo are the subjects for this nature journal spread. I learned that it takes at least four different shades of blue watercolor to even come close to what nature creates in the blue wild indigo flower! Peace to you. Fran


Grapefruit and Serrano Pepper Salsa

I am on a tear–salsas are calling to me from left and right, and today I made something a bit unusual–a grapefruit and serrano pepper salsa. This salsa is very simple but sharp and tart in flavor. It’s made to go with that chicken breast, the hamburger patty, or as in our case tonight, the sliced round steak–things that are a bit bland and possibly ho-hum. This will wake up your taste buds! With that said, it’s occurred to me that you really have to like grapefruit to like this salsa–I’m just sayin’. But if you do, you will eat up the whole bowlful.

Grapefruit and Serrano Pepper Salsa

1/4 cup hulled and roasted pumpkin seeds
1 pink grapefruit
1/2 a serrano or jalapeno pepper, cut into paper-thin slices
1/4 of a small red onion, sliced very thinly
1/2 a lime, juiced
1/2 cup fresh cilantro
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
salt to taste

I also added lime juice and sliced red onion.
To prepare the grapefruit, slice off the top and bottom. In a fancy restaurant they would also slice off the rind and membrane, but at home, I’m not that fancy, and just pulled off the rind.
Using a sharp paring knife, slice the segments, leaving the membranes behind. Let the segments fall into the work bowl. Squeeze all the juice you can from the membrane, then discard the membrane. The idea is to have lots of nice, juicy grapefruit segments.
Thinly slice half the serrano pepper. I used a mandoline.
Coarsely chop the cilantro.
Add all the ingredients into your work bowl and stir. (After the initial tasting, I added the juice of half a lime, and one quarter of a small red onion, thinly sliced. The original recipe called for a small amount of sliced green onion, and it just wasn’t enough.)
I topped it with some red currants because they are in my garden right now, but, believe me, they are optional!


Garden Interloper

A dragonfly appeared in my garden, and I ran for my camera. Much to my surprise, the guidebooks identify it as an Eastern Pondhawk (Erythemis simplicicollis). It could be a female or young male–that’s as far as my expertise goes. Why it was in my garden I don’t know, but it’s wings are so beautiful.


This is what passes for excitement in our house. Puff usually rests upside-down like this.

Nature Journal Page

I learned a lot about Mourning Cloak butterflies while doing this page–they are amazing.

Peace to you. Fran

Mexican Chocolate Cake

I often find the most interesting recipes when I’m on my way looking for something else, and in this case, while looking for salsa recipes in “Celebracions Mexicanas,” by Gray and Lahl, I found this Mexican chocolate cake. The ingredients themselves, including Mexican chocolate and a type of brown sugar called piloncillo, were fascinating, and in short order I was at La Huerta, our local hispanic market, shopping.. Here is the recipe:

Mexican Chocolate Cake
(Pastel de Chocolate Mexicano)

It’s rose season!

1 Mexican chocolate disc (see Notes)
1/3 cup plus 2 tablespoons milk
1/8 tsp ground cayenne pepper, or
1/4 tsp ground Ancho chili pepper
3/4 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
pinch of salt
1/4 cup melted butter or oil
1/4 cup grated piloncillo
1 egg
powdered sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch round cake pan. Line with a circle of waxed paper, and grease again. Roughly chop the chocolate. Place chocolate in a large saucepan with 1 tablespoon milk, stirring until chocolate is melted. Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt; set aside. Pour the remaining milk into the melted chocolate and mix until combined. Mix in the melted butter or oil, and sugar. Use a whisk to thoroughly beat in the egg. Pour the flour mixture into the chocolate mixture. Fold in just until combined. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan, and bake for about 20 minutes. The cake should be pulling away from the sides of the pan, and a tester inserted into the middle will come out clean. Allow to cool before turning out onto cake plate.

Ingredients. I got the chocolate, ancho chile powder and piloncillo at my local hispanic grocery store.
Not an interesting photo, perhaps, but if you prepare your pan carefully, you will never have trouble turning the cake out. Trace around the pan on a piece of waxed paper, and cut out. Grease the pan, place the waxed paper in the pan, and lightly grease again.
The recipe called for a 2-ounce disc. This seemed more like 3 ounces, but it worked well.
Chocolate disc. It contains ground cocoa nibs, sugar and cinnamon, and is grainy in texture.
Chopping up the chocolate disc.
The moment it starts melting, start stirring–chocolate burns very easily.
Set the melted chocolate aside to cool.
Ancho chile powder. The flavor is mild.
Piloncillo means “little loaf,” and is made of unrefined whole cane sugar. It’s soft and has an underlying molasses flavor. I like it better than regular brown sugar!
Ir grates very easily. (Sorry for the blurry photo.)
Mixing everything together in the saucepan.
Peeling the waxed paper off.
I had found these cake stencils at a garage sale. You could make something similar using a round of waxed paper, and cutting it like a snowflake.
Using the stencil.

Baking notes: The original recipe called for baking this for 30 minutes. I recommend 20–it’s a light little feather of a cake, so you don’t want to overbake. This cake has a very light chocolate flavor, with an underlying note of cinnamon. As a lover of dark, fudgy chocolate, it initially seemed too light for me. Then I had another piece. Mmm. It’s actually a nice little summer cake that’s perfect with berries. It won’t weigh on your stomach, and I was tempted to have a third piece. It would also be nice under a pillow of whipped cream with more Mexican chocolate grated on top.


Cat Foibles

My niece Anne gave me a packet of cat grass seeds for my birthday (much appreciated), and they came up in a flash. Big treat for cat Puff! But a cat is a cat, and doesn’t want to be taken for granted. Who do I think he is–a naive kitten who will jump at anything? So Puff took a brief look, and  yawned. He’ll be back!

Lastly, another page from my Nature Journal. Baltimore orioles have been coming to our garden, and I labored over painting their luminescent orange feathers.

Peace to you. Fran


Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa

I’m in a fresh, green, tart mode right now, culinarily speaking, and yesterday made a Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa that really hit the spot. I found the recipe in ‘The Great Salsa Book,” by Mark Miller (available at Amazon for one penny plus shipping, an incredible bargain). It called for tomatillos, an avocado, cilantro, lime juice, and a serrano chile. I love green salsas. For one thing, here in the Midwest, wonderful tomatoes are only available for a few months of the year, but fresh, tart tomatillos (also called Mexican husk tomatoes) are available year round.

So I drove over to La Huerta, a nearby hispanic grocery store. I love roaming the aisles of La Huerta, especially the dried chile pepper section, but in this case I picked up my recipe ingredients and quickly hot-footed it back to my kitchen. This is a simple salsa–just coarsely chop the ingredients, and process in a blender. The avocado adds a bit of unctuous smoothness not usually found in a typical green salsa. Here are the how-to’s.

Tomatillo-Avocado Salsa

1 pound tomatillos, husked, rinsed and coarsely chopped
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and roughly chopped
1 serrano chile, with seeds
3/4 cup chopped cilantro leaves
2 tablespoons fresh lime juice (one lime)
1 teaspoon salt

Place all the ingredients in a blender, and puree.

Ingredients ready to become salsa.
Just for comparison, the serranos are on the left, a jalapeno on the right. The serranos are hotter, but both peppers have a fresh, green flavor, and you could substitute in a jajapeno.
A bag of tomatillos. To prepare, peel the husk off, de-stem, and rinse. The surface of the tomatillo will be a little bit sticky.
One pound of tomatillos. You can weigh them at the store, if you don’t have a scale.
Chop the tomatillos at least into eighths–it will make it easier on the blender.
Perfect avocado. Look for an avocado that is firm (but not rock hard) with no soft spots.
Making salsa. (Please ignore the bottle of rice vinegar. It somehow got into the picture, but it’s for another recipe.)
A sliced serrano.
The chopped cilantro, and the lime ready to juice.
Read to blend!
Salsa is ready!

Salsa note: Note that there is no garlic or onion in this salsa.The flavor is like a big flame of fresh greenness that contrasts beautifully with other, blander foods. It goes perfectly with tortilla chips. Here’s another thing: “Hot” peppers can vary in hotness to a surprising degree. The one serrano in this recipe yielded a barely hot salsa. I will make this again, using two serranos for more heat. But it’s up to you and your diners.

Muy bien!


And now, to another world . . .

My baptisia plant (wild indigo) is in full bloom and has attracted bumblebees. After some research, I identified the bee as the common eastern bumblebee (Bombus impatiens). I watched mesmerized as it floated from flower to flower.

Flying away.

Peace to you. Fran

Herb-Flavored Butters and a Butterfly

My garden is exploding–not literally, thank goodness, but after a long rainy spring, plants are doing great. I especially enjoy seeing the herbs come up, fresh and green and full of intense flavor. I’ve learned that one of the best ways to capture that intense flavor is with herb-flavored butters. These are simple to make. Butter is mixed with a chopped herb (or herbs) of your choice, along with fresh garlic, some grated citrus rind, salt, pepper and, if you like, red pepper. Roll the flavored butter into a log, wrap in plastic or waxed paper, and store in the freezer.

You will find yourself reaching for these convenient butters again and again to top freshly cooked rice or potatoes, or to top broiled chicken or fish. They are also delicious with homemade bread. Or on steamed vegetables. I mean, they are just delicious! Here’s two to try.

Spicy Cilantro Butter

1 clove garlic, put through press
4 generous tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 a jalapeno, seeded and finely chopped
1 teaspoon grated lime zest
2-3 teaspoons fresh lime juice
salt to taste
crushed dried red chile to taste
1/4 pound butter, softened

The Kerry Pure Irish Butter is golden and full of buttery flavor. And I imagine that the cows have a bit of a lilt to their moo.
You can estimate amounts with this recipe. This is about one teaspoon finely grated lime rind.
Nothing to see here, really–just two sparkly lime halves ready to be juiced.
Ingredients ready, in a flat-bottomed bowl for easy mashing.
Mashing the softened butter. It smells wonderful.
The mixed butter.
While still in the bowl, lightly shape the butter into a log with a spatula (in this case, the world’s oldest spatula), and then tip the log onto a piece of plastic wrap or waxed paper.
Place a few leaves of cilantro on the butter before rolling in plastic–it will help you identify it in freezer.

Rosemary Orange Butter

1 clove garlic, put through press
3 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves, chopped
1/2 teaspoon grated orange zest
1 tablespoon lemon or orange juice
1/4 teaspoon crushed dried red chile pepper
salt to taste
1/4 pound butter, softened

Mixing the ingredients. I used freshly cracked black pepper in this butter.
Formed into a log, and topped with a sprig of fresh rosemary before wrapping.
Ready for the freezer.
Better than money in the bank. In the background, some frozen chicken thighs. For dinner this week, I will bake the chicken thighs with a little pat of flavored butter on each.

There are a skillion variations on this recipe: how about basil or sage butter, or fennel butter with pernod? I found these recipes in “The Herb Garden Cookbook” by Lucinda Hutson. It’s a really fun book for cooking Tex-Mex with herbs.

By the way, I would like to say you could use dried herbs in the above recipes, but these butters are all about fresh, vivid flavors. I purchased a bunch of cilantro to use, as well as a small pot of fresh rosemary for the garden. Total cost: $3.78 plus tax. And the rosemary plant can be brought indoors in the fall.


Nature Journal Page

I’ve mentioned that I follow a Facebook page called the Nature Journal Club. Really fun and inspiring to see what everyone is up to. From me this week, a page of the ruby-throated hummingbird that frequents our nectar feeder.


Monarchs are Back!

The following mosaic of photos may seem pedestrian, but look again. Somehow, a monarch butterfly has found our swamp milkweed plant. This really does seem so amazing–the plant is not in flower, and it’s probably the only swamp milkweed plant around. How does the butterfly find it?  Also, I would love to think that this is one of the monarchs we raised last summer. Who knows?


Peace to you. Fran


Israeli White Cheese and Green Olives

I briefly thought of making cookies today and then came to my senses. The temperature is soaring, and I feel like eating something light and cool. I had been looking last night at a cookbook called “Jewish Cooking,” by Marlena Spieler, and had come across  this Israeli White Cheese and Olive spread. It looked as fluffy and cool as snow, I have the fresh thyme, so all systems were go.

The recipe did call for farmer’s cheese and I wondered if I could find it. Here’s the thing: a lot of stores nowadays have two separate areas for cheese–the fancy schmancy expensive cheese area, and the regular old cheese area. The farmer’s cheese will be in the regular old cheese area, probably under the grated cheese. If you can’t find it, ricotta will serve, but is not quite the same. Otherwise, the ingredients are simple and easy to locate. We will be having this for lunch. (Update: It’s gone! Totally.)

Israeli White Cheese and Green Olives

1 cup farmer’s cheese
1/2 cup crumbled feta cheese
20-30 pitted green olives, some chopped, the rest halved or quartered
2-3 garlic cloves, put through garlic press
sprigs of fresh thyme, if available
kosher salt and freshly cracked pepper

If you don’t have fresh thyme, a quarter teaspoon of dried thyme can be sprinkled over the spread.
I used about about 20 olives, but if you like a more olive-y flavor you could use more. This recipe will be very interesting to try with different kinds of olives.
This shows the texture of farmer’s cheese. While you can use ricotta, farmer’s cheese is fluffier and tangier. Actually, it’s amazingly delicious, and I am already thinking of more ways to use it.
The crumbled feta.
Mix to combine and to break up any large chunks of feta, but the mixture won’t be smooth.
Add the olives, thyme and chopped garlic to the cheese mixture, along with a sprinkling of kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper. Mix and spoon into a bowl. Sprinkle with more thyme. I also sprinkled on some Aleppo red pepper. If you are interested in Middle Eastern food, you have to try Aleppo red pepper, which can be found at the World Market. It’s somewhat hot, but not blisteringly so, and it has a a delicious red pepper flavor.

Serve with crackers and fruit, if desired.

Notes: Don’t skimp on the olives, as the olives, fresh garlic and salty feta are in the ring duking it out with each other, and the creamy taste of fresh cheese brings it all together. I briefly thought of making fresh pita bread for this, and, again, came to my senses. These Town House Pita Crackers worked perfectly. The fluffy cheese mixture on the crackers, topped with a few thyme leaves is so pretty that a platter of them could be prepared as an appetizer.

You will have left over farmer’s cheese and feta–enough to make another batch in a few days.


Last summer,  out at a local nature area, we saw our first Baltimore oriole, amazed at its neon orange breast. So we were astonished to see an oriole at our hummingbird feeder last week. Since then orioles have been showing up every day. An amazing bird.

It dive-bombed the hummingbird at this feeder, and took its place.

This shows the soft beauty of his feathers.
Then he flew away!

And it’s iris season.


Since my Mom died ten days ago, I feel as though I had been riding steadily in an airplane for years, and have suddenly fallen out and am still falling. But this poem makes me think of her, how much she loved life. It’s called “I Thank you God for this Most Amazing,” by e.e. cummings.

i thank You God for most this amazing
day:for the leaping greenly spirits of trees
and a blue true dream of sky; and for everything
which is natural which is infinite which is yes

(i who have died am alive again today,
and this is the sun’s birthday; this is the birth
day of life and of love and wings: and of the gay
great happening illimitably earth)

how should tasting touching hearing seeing
breathing any–lifted from the no
of all nothing–human merely being
doubt unimaginable You?

(now the ears of my ears awake and
now the eyes of my eyes are opened)

e.e. cummings

Peace to you. Fran