Toasted and Roasted Vegetable Israeli Couscous

So I’ve had this jar of tri-color Israeli couscous in my cupboard for awhile now. Wasn’t sure what to do with it. But after a little research I decided roasting and toasting stuff to go in it was my best bet. Sometimes great things happen by accident. I just started throwing stuff in there and voila…. the result was pretty darn awesome. Savory, nutty, spicy… and that mysterious “umami” taste everyone’s talking about. Technically, the term is borrowed from the Japanese, meaning “savory taste”. But we use it meaning “beyond savory”… that something extra that makes you say, “wow!”

Anyway, the beauty of this dish is that you can swap out ingredients (like the veggies) for your favorites. Just be sure to prepare them the same way. Be sure to think about the type of vegetable you’re using to make sure it will go well with the spices used.

It’s a little labor intensive, but makes a huge batch you can eat on for days. Trust me, it’s worth it. Also, there are a few unique ingredients that if purchased in the grocery store, can be pretty pricey. Find a local International Market in your area (you’ll be surprised how many are out there!)… you will pay 1/3 of the price there and get twice as much. That’s where I purchased the turmeric, mustard seeds, cumin seeds, saffron and even the sliced almonds (1/2 lb bag for $4!).

2 cups of Israeli couscous (tri-colored optional. Sometimes called “pearl” couscous)
3 cups low-sodium veggie stock
1 cup water
1 cup fresh broccoli florettes
1 cup fresh cauliflower
1 whole red bell pepper (stemmed, seeded and julienned)
1/2 cup asparagus tips *and 2″long each)
1 cup chopped tomatoes (I used canned, drained and rinsed because that’s all I had)
1 16oz can chickpeas – rinsed
1/2 a medium sweet onion – diced
1 tblspn minced garlic
3 sprigs green onion – diced
1/2 cup sliced almonds (use less if desired – I love almonds!)
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
1/2 tsp whole mustard seeds
1/2 tsp cumin seeds
1/2 tsp turmeric powder
1/2 tsp saffron
2-3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
sea salt and fresh cracked pepper to taste

Pre-heat oven to 375 degrees.

This is a perfect opportunity to organize your mise en place.

Dice sweet onion, mince garlic, cut asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, bell pepper and green onion according to ingredients above. Toss cut asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower and bell pepper lightly in olive oil and sprinkle with sea salt. Spread out on a cookie sheet into one even layer. You may need to do this in two batches.

Ready To Cook?
Place cookie sheet of veggies on top rack of oven (or use broiler). Rack should be roughly two inches from the top. Cook for 15 minutes or until broccoli and cauliflower edges start to get brown and crispy. You can smell when they’re done – yum! While that’s cooking,  drizzle olive oil and heat in  a large soup pot or dutch oven, over medium flame. Add sweet onion, garlic, saffron, turmeric powder and a pinch or two of sea salt. Saute until onions are translucent.

Once garlic and sweet onion are softened, add couscous to the pot and stir consistently. This will toast the couscous and will keep it from becoming mushy. Toast for 2-3 minutes… couscous will start to turn a slight color. Add veggie broth and water. Bring to a boil. Add another pinch of salt and pepper.

While that is boiling, drizzle a tiny amount of olive oil on a saute pan. Once hot, toss in mustard seeds and cumin seeds. They will sputter and splatter so be careful. This only takes a minute – so don’t burn them! You’ll suddenly smell the aromatic seeds and they are ready to throw in the pot of couscous. Reduce pot to simmer. Add roasted veggies, almonds, green onion, chickpeas, tomatoes and red pepper flakes. Stir until well mixed. Remove from heat when all liquid is absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Serve warm or cold!

The Perfect Bite
If you’ve been reading this blog for awhile, you know I’m about to tell you to stack your fork with a little bit of everything! However, there are so many ingredients in this – that might be impossible. So, take a few bites… you’ll be amazed how each bite will taste like a different dish! I love getting a taste of the earthy mustard or cumin seeds… then heat from pepper flakes, or smoky from the roasted vegetables. You’ll never get bored, bit after bite.

The Perfect Pairing
There are so many flavors happening here you want an uncomplicated wine. Try Cline Cellers 2010 Viognier. Cline’s Viognier offers rich and distinctive aromas of peaches, apricots, orange blossoms and honeysuckle which will compliment the smoky, earthiness of the spices in this dish.

The Perfect Health
I’ve heard so many people say that couscous is a grain. But, um, no. It is pasta. Believe it or not, it’s made from semolina. Often hand rolled and sprinkled with wheat flour to keep separated. Israeli couscous is toasted, rather than dried, which gives it a nutter flavor.

So is couscous healthy? Not necessarily. But it is a healthier option than most pastas. Especially since it’s generally paired with vegetables and not cheese. But it is a little “carby”. Read more HERE about the health pros and cons of our beloved couscous.


Savory Galettes

Spinach and Smoked Salmon Galette

Zucchini, Prosciutto and Basil Pesto Galette

The beauty of the galette is that it can come in any shape, size and flavor. It’s simply a free-form rustic tart and can be either sweet or savory, or both. My favorite, not pictured here because my friends ate it before I could snap a photo, is fresh fig and goat cheese drizzled with dark honey.

These galettes are made with a “cheater” crust – store bought rolled up in a box. But it worked in a pinch. But use whatever your favorite pie crust recipe is and I’m sure they’ll be delicious and even more rustic looking. Or cheat as I did… whatever works best for you.

On a side note: I just won an ebay auction scoring a 1967 edition of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That deserves a blog entry all its own.. but I looked up galettes according to Julia and she made them as small individual appetizer tarts! About 2″ in diameter and often a chunk of (French) cheese served as the base, topped with ham, or an egg or both. Then wrapping the crust around and baking – things of perfection, I’m sure.

So there’s a few extra ideas for you. Listed below are the recipes for the two galettes pictured above. If you try your own version please come back and post it on this blog so we can all benefit from your culinary genius!

Each galette serves 3-6 people depending on whether you are serving it as an entree, a side or an appetizer. TIP:  You’ll notice that both galettes call for homemade ricotta. Please, please, please do me a favor and don’t buy that pasty store-bought stuff. Click on the link provided and you’ll see just how very easy it is to make your own. And once you do – you’ll never eat store-bought again – I promise! Try making the ricotta a day or two before and it won’t feel like such a big job all in one day.  One batch of ricotta should be enough to make roughly three galettes.

Galette #1
1 roll of store-bought pie crust
1 cup homemade ricotta
1 large egg
1 half small sweet onion – finely diced
1.5 cup baby spinach leaves (washed w/stems removed)
3/4 cup smoked sockeye salmon (or whatever your favorite smoked salmon is)
1/4 pine nuts
pinch of fine sea salt
pinch of ground pepper
egg whites for brushing on crust

Galette #2
1 roll of store-bought pie crust
1 cup homemade ricotta
1/2 cup of grated Parmesan cheese – divided
1 large egg
1 tsp of garlic paste or very finely minced garlic
1 tablespoon of pesto
1/2 cup of red bell pepper – julienne
1/2 zucchini slices (roughly 8-10 dials)
1 sheet of prosciutto – sliced into strips lengthwise
pinch of fine sea salt
pinch of ground pepper
egg whites for brushing on crust

Galette #1
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or spray with non-stick spray. Parchment paper is best because it will help to transfer the galette to a plate later.

Roll out a pie crust onto your work board and use your rolling pin to stretch and smooth it out. This should give you an extra inch of pie crust. Place the crust onto the cookie tin.

In either a stand mixer or using a hand mixer, blend together the ricotta, the egg and diced onion.  Add the salt and pepper. Don’t over-beat… it should look like cottage cheese when you’re done.

Place 1/2 of your spinach leaves in a single layer, forming  circle in the center of your pie crust. You should leave at least 2″ of crust edge showing.  Spoon your blended ricotta and egg mixture on top of the spinach leaves. Spread around with a spatula making an even layer, not exceeding the spinach leaves (as in, still leave 2″ of pie crust available).  Now put another single layer of your remaining spinach leaves on top of the mixture. Then your final layer is the Smoked salmon and pine nuts. Peel salmon into small thin strips and scatter evenly on top of the spinach leaves. Scatter pine nuts across the top.

Gently fold the 2″ crust up and over the layered smoked salmon. It will not cover the whole thing and will leave roughly a 3-4″ whole in the center uncovered (see photo above).  The finished shape will be rustic and rarely the same. Sometimes they’re very round, sometimes more triangle or square. It doesn’t matter… I think the more non-uniform the better.

Brush the outside of the pastry with the egg whites. You can also use melted butter if you prefer.

Galette #2
Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper or spray with non-stick spray. Parchment paper is best because it will help to transfer the galette to a plate later.

Roll out a pie crust onto your work board and use your rolling pin to stretch and smooth it out. This should give you an extra inch of pie crust. Place the crust onto the cookie tin.

In either a stand mixer or using a hand mixer, blend together the ricotta, the egg, garlic, pesto and 1/2 of your Parmesan cheese. Add the salt and pepper. Don’t over-beat… it should look like cottage cheese when you’re done.

Spoon your blended ricotta, pesto and egg mixture forming a circle in the center of your pie crust. You should leave at least 2″ of crust edge showing. Spread around with a spatula making an even layer. Now put a single layer of of the prosciutto strips on top of the mixture. Then scatter the red bell pepper strips as the next layer. You can be neat or haphazard it’s up to you. Then layer your thin zucchini slices, starting from the outside and working your way to the middle in a circular pattern. Sprinkle the top with the remaining Parmesan cheese.

Gently fold the 2″ crust up and over the layered zucchini. As mentioned before, it will not cover the whole thing and will leave roughly a 3-4″ whole in the center uncovered (see photo above). It’s okay of the hole is larger, as long as there’s a good lip of crust to keep in the ingredients.

Brush the outside of the pastry with the egg whites or use melted butter if you prefer.

Ready to Cook?
Place galette in a 375 degree preheated oven, on the middle rack for 25 minutes or until your pie crust is golden brown. On galette #1 the pine nuts should be lightly toasted. If they blacken, your oven rack it too high. On galette #2 the zucchini should be lightly browned and caramelized. Let sit for 10 minutes before serving, but serve warm.

The Perfect Bite
Cut the galette in triangles and eat just like a pizza. Take a nice big bite to be sure and get a taste of all the ingredients!

The Perfect Pairing
Serve by itself or with a lightly dressed side salad. If serving as brunch they go great with mimosas. To make mimosas simply mix 1-2-1 pulp-free orange juice with a sparkling wine such as Barefoot Pinot Grigio Champagne.

The Perfect Health
Did you know that smoked salmon is recommended By The American Heart Association? Smoked salmon is also high in Vitamin E, which is also a great antioxidant. Vitamin E can reduce or lower the risk of heart disease and has also been shown to play a protective role against cancer as well. Read more HERE.

Garden Vegetable Pasta Bake

This is one of my favorite go-to meals, especially if unexpected company stops by… which happens frequently at my house. If your pantry is regularly stocked with an assortment of dried pastas and a few fresh garden vegetables (or even better – you have a vegetable garden in your yard!) you can whip this up on the spot… an hour’s time max!

Yields: 4-6 main course servings / 8-10 side dish servings

1 lb Fusilli or Rotini noodles (uncooked – I use Barilla Plus)
1/2 cup Vegan Parmesan
1 medium zucchini squash
1 medium yellow squash
1 red bell pepper
1 green bell pepper
1 cup asparagus tips
1 small sweet onion
1 medium red tomato (seeded – rind only)
1 tablespoon of minced garlic
1 pinch each of what I call The Italian Big 5 (dried): thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary
1.5 tablespoon kosher salt (divided)
1 teaspoon pepper as needed
2-3 tablespoons cup extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dry white wine (you can you veggie stock if you prefer)
2 tablespoons vegan butter

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

This is where your veggie chopping skills come in. I’m going to list how I chop my vegetables for this dish, but change it up to your own preference!
Zucchini – trim ends and then chop whole zucchini into three 1.5″-2″ rounds. Then take each round and quarter length-wise.
Yellow Squash – slice into 1/8″ dials. If the squash is fairly fat at the end (more than 1.5″) cut dials in half. The goal is bite-size.
Red & Green Bell Peppers – I cut them julienne. Which is a fancy word for skinny strips. Simply trim top and bottom off pepper and discard. Core and remove seeds and spines. Then slices in 1/4″ slivers about 1.5″ long.
Asparagus – I use just the tips because often the center can be a little woody if not cooked long enough. I cut the tips off about 2″ in. Then I reserve the remainder of the stalk for making soups or purees.
Sweet Onion – peel and dice finely… this should be for flavor and not something you want bite-size.
Garlic – same as the onion above.
Tomato – Slice in half and core out seeds and spines. We just want the fleshy part. Cut into 1″ chunks.

Ready To Cook?
Put a large pot of water on medium heat. Drizzle olive oil and add a tablespoon of salt to the water. I use a good amount of salt when cooking pasta… I’ve heard your water should taste like the ocean when you’re done. Infusing your pasta water with salt is better than adding salt to your meal later.

Once your water comes to a boil add your pasta and continue cooking until it’s just shy of al dente.  Remember, it’s going to cook a little more in the oven so we don’t want to overdo it. I prefer to use the fasilli or rotini noodles because the corkscrew shape holds the seasonings best… but feel free to use whatever your favorite pasta is – I’ve used to bowtie with this as well, which makes for a festive looking dish.

Using as cast iron skillet (or any nonstick), pour in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil. While bringing it to a medium heat toss in The Italian Big 5 (dried thyme, basil, sage, oregano, rosemary). Once your oil is ready (it sizzles with a drop of water), gently add in your onion and garlic first. Stir well so that the dried herbs are worked through the oil, onions and garlic. Saute for 3 minutes then slowly add the veggies in this order (based on cooking time): Peppers, asparagus, zucchini, squash. Reserve the tomato, which won’t be added until ready to bake. Pour the 1/4 cup of white wine over veggies and continue sauteing for 5-6 minutes or until the zucchini has become tender and can easily be stabbed with a fork.

Drain pasta and transfer to a large baking dish (a lasagna dish works best). Add diced tomatoes. Then pour all the contents from your skillet over the pasta including olive oil/wine reduction that’s happened in the pan while sauteing. This is going to be the sauce. TIP: If your pan has become too dry while sauteing, you may have overcooked your veggies. Just add more olive oil and a splash of white wine (or veggie stock) and de-glaze the bottom of your pan. Add that to your pasta-veggie mix.

Immediately add 2 tablespoons of Vegan margarine so it can melt. Add half of your Vegan Parmesan cheese and mix thoroughly until everything is coated and you can see that the herbs are distributed evenly.

Taste your dish to see if additional salt and pepper is needed. TIP: Don’t assume it needs salt – salted pasta may have added plenty. Always taste your food before seasoning!

Sprinkle top with remaining Parmesan and bake uncovered on middle rack for 20 minutes (or until cheese starts to brown at edges).

TIP: If making extra to freeze for later, do not bake the portion you want freeze. Freeze after it’s cooled. Should last in freezer up to a month.

The Perfect Bite
This is one of my favorite kind of dishes to get a perfect bite from. I love stacking my fork with a twirly little noodle, a juicy piece of sausage, a buttery bite of zucchini and sweet sliver of red pepper. Oh, my mouth is watering just thinking about it! I love the nutty Parmesan and lightness of this invisible sauce.

The Perfect Pairing
This is a great summer dish so I prefer to pair it with a chilled glass of wine. Now, I’ve long since been a rosé snob. Pink wine? Really? My mind immediately goes to that giant box of Almaden Pink Blush Chablis that sits warm on the edge of my mom’s kitchen counter. Sorry Mom, but really?

However, rosé has come a long way… and I’m starting to warm up to them… well, at least when they’re chilled (again Mom, really?). Try pairing this dish with this French Rosé Note Bleue Cotôs De Provence Rosé 2009 – it’s sweet and earthy. A perfect compliment to the buttery pasta and veggies and peppery sausage. Served chilled, about 47 degrees.

The Perfect Health
Using Barilla Plus, reduces carbs and adds protein to any meal.  It’s made from legumes such as Chickpeas and Lentils as well as Egg Whites, Spelt, Barley, Flaxseed, Oat Fiber, and Oats.  Be sure check the box for cooking instructions – Barilla Plus can take longer to boil. Unlike many wheat or whole grain pastas that taste a little, well, cardboardy. This one is delicious! And I’ve found it holds up better in soups (as in, doesn’t swell and get mushy).  Read more here about its nutritional value.

Roasted Butternut Squash Soup

Fall just calls for soup… I’ve never really liked Butternut Squash soup – until a couple of years ago when I was in Calgary, Alberta.. Canada. And believe it or not it was in catering at the arena we were working in! But it was incredible, thick, flavorful… seasoned just perfectly! I ate it by the bowl, used it as a dip for bread and veggies. I couldn’t get enough of it! Normally, my complaint about butternut squash soup is that it’s too bland. Not enough flavor to keep me interested beyond a couple of spoonfuls.

So I’ve been on a mission the last couple of years – trying to perfect this soup. And I wanted to keep it purely vegetarian – not adding cream or chicken stock like many recipes call for… and I think I’ve finally done it. It’s a little labor intensive – but once you taste it you will certainly agree it’s worth all the effort. So make a huge batch, freeze some for later and enjoy it throughout the Fall season!

*A tip for using veggies in any soup – try roasting them before adding to the soup. It brings out their natural sweetness, the caramelized edges add an earthy nuttiness and will give your soup that wow factor.  Plus, your kids will be asking for seconds… on vegetables!

extra virgin olive oil
2 medium sweet onions, chopped
1 large fennel bulb (cut off “fern”)
3 large butternut squash
1 large red bell pepper
2 tablespoons roasted garlic
2 cups white wine
1 teaspoon ginger powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon powder
1 teaspoon yellow curry powder
32oz *garlic veggie broth

Salt and pepper to taste

*Vegetable Garlic Broth
this broth will make ALL the difference in your soups… and you can make as much or as little as you like!  I prefer to make the largest batch I can manage so I can freeze small containers worth and have this ready to add to any soup, any time. This recipe is based off of 2.5 quarts. (More recipes to come using this tasty broth!)

2.5 qts vegetable stock preferably from scratch but try to use organic if purchasing cans or boxes of broth (it’s roughly six 14oz cans).
4-5 tablespoons (heaping) coursely diced garlic (roughly 2 bulbs)
2 bay leaves
3 tbsp olive oil
3 pinches dried sage
1 tsp dried thyme
1 tsp dried oregano
1 pinch salt

Add all ingredients to the stock, bring to a boil, reduce heat… cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Strain through cheesecloth or mesh strainer. Use immediately for soup or freeze in individual portions. TIP: freezing broth in ice cube trays allows you to use small portions at a time.

Place olive oil coated squash flesh side down on tray for roasting

Be sure to let the squash cool before scooping it out

This fresh garlic came from a friend’s garden – so yummy!

Adding roasted red bell pepper gives the soup extra flavor – these came straight from my garden!

Ready To Cook?

Pour generous amount of olive oil to cover bottom of a stock pot. Heat over low-medium heat. Add chopped onion. Cook until translucent. Clean fennel bulb and the fern (the fern is the top, finely-leafed portion of the fennel) under cold water and pat dry. Detach fern from stems, discarding stems (they can be pithy). Chop bulb, discarding tough outer layer. Add chopped fennel bulb to onion and continue to sauté over low heat, stirring occasionally.

Turn heat to medium, add 1 cup white wine to onion and fennel; cook until alcohol “burns off”, approximately 4 to 5 minutes.

Seed and quarter red bell peppers and coat in olive oil… place on cookie sheet flesh side down and roast at 425o for 20 minutes or until skins have blistered and started to brown. The trick to removing skins from peppers is remove peppers from oven and immediately place in a bowl and cover with cellophane. Let sit for at least 15 minutes and then skins should peel off easily!

*Cut squash in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds, then quarter if squash is large. *Coat in olive oil and place flesh side down on cookie sheet (*see photos above). Roast on top rack of oven at 425ountil tender… roughly 45-50 minutes. Be sure to use a cookie tray with at least a 1/2 inch lip as squash will give off a lot of water. Meanwhile, add vegetable/garlic broth to pot of onions and fennel. Cover and bring to a slow boil. Mince several sage leaves. Add to pot. Reduce to simmer.

When squash is done, scoop flesh from peel and add to pot. Add roasted bell pepper and remaining cup of wine.

Add cinnamon, cayenne pepper, curry powder and ginger powder.

Remove soup from heat and puree with hand mixer or immersion blender. Once thoroughly mixed, transfer to food processor for a smoother texture. Again, many recipes call for cream at this point to create that smoothness we all want in a bisque-type soup. But with a little extra work – you can eliminate the need for dairy products and get that creamy-smooth texture without the fat. For an even silkier texture… go one more step and work soup through a sieve with a spoon. I, for one, am completely okay with the texture of the soup without the extra step!

Garnish your bowl with the leftover fennel fern and enjoy!

The Perfect Bite

Soup is such a versatile dish. It can be a main course, an appetizer, a side dish, a snack… it’s’ your call. So the Perfect Bite really depends on what you’re having this with… but anytime… a big chunk of warm pumpernickel bread swirled and scooping up some of the sweet and savory goodness… is truly the perfect bite.

The Perfect Pairing

This is such a hearty soup that I hesitate to suggest any meal to compliment – other than what I suggested earlier – other than a big hunk of pumpernickel or whatever your favorite bread may be. But for something different in a beverage to enjoy try the 2008 Chateau St. Jean Gewurztraminer – this spicy flavorful grape is hard to pronounce but will be a perfect compliment to the rich earthy flavors of this butternut squash soup.

Did You Know?

Butternut squash is not just low in fat and calories, but winter squash are high in Vitamins A & C and high in Potassium and dietary fiber. It’s also a great source for anti-oxidants and works toward heart and lung health. Read here for more details.

Caribbean Stuffed Bell Peppers

I love bell peppers. Which is why I am so excited to be growing them in my garden this year. I have red, orange and green ones. The green bell pepper plant has at least a dozen bells hanging, while the red and orange ones only have 2-3 bells hanging. This may explain the price difference in the grocery stores.

My mom never really cooked much while I was growing up, but one thing she made that my dad loved was stuffed bell peppers. She used to use the green ones as they were more economical and her filling was more like meat loaf. So here’s my take on Mom’s recipe. And of course, I’ve thrown an ethnic twist into it.

Also, if the contents to this meat filling sound familiar… it’s because I used the same filling here as I did for Big Daddy’s (& Little Debbie’s) Spicy Beef Patties. If you’re making patties one night – make extra filling and freeze it for a quick Stuffed Bell Pepper dinner another night!

2-4 med red bell peppers
1 pound lean ground beef or ground turkey
1 medium sweet onion, finely diced
1 tablespoon minced garlic or garlic paste
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon coarse ground black pepper
1/2 tablespoon fine sea salt (add more to taste)
1/2 teaspoon of African Hot Pepper (you can use dry Chipotle pepper if you can’t find the African Hot Pepper-which I found at the International Market in downtown Nashville)
2 teaspoons curry powder – divided
1 jalapeño, finely diced (include seeds for extra heat)
1/2 cup bread crumbs
1/2 cup beef broth
1 tbsp crumbled goat cheese

Preparation & Ready to Cook
Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.
Sauté meat over medium heat, adding garlic, onions, paprika, thyme, 1 tsp curry powder, black pepper, African Hot Pepper and salt. Stir together, and then add the diced jalapeño. Be sure to mix thoroughly so you don’t get “hot spots” from all the spicy peppers. Remove from the heat, adding the bread crumbs and the beef broth, stirring well to combine.

Cut the tops of the bell peppers off and carefully remove seeds and spine inside peppers. Fill each pepper, packing the meat firmly until it rises above the top a 1/2 inch or so. Be sure to pack it firmly so later when you are cutting open your pepper, the meat will not all crumble apart. Place peppers standing up on a baking sheet. I use parchment paper to line baking sheets. This keeps your peppers from burning or sliding for the natural oils during baking.

Bake on middle rack for 20 minutes or until peppers are tender and you can see the skin start to wrinkle. Remove tray and let cool 5 minutes. Crumble goat cheese on top of meat and serve!

The Perfect Bite
I personally like to take a knife and slice the pepper into sections so that I can get a bite of pepper, meat filling and goat cheese together. But you may like to eat the filling out of the pepper like a bowl. You create your own perfect bite and enjoy!

The Perfect Pairing
If you use large peppers one can be a meal in itself. But if you use smaller peppers you may want to add a little white rice on the side. Cooking your rice in coconut milk and butter to keep the Caribbean flavors going! And you can always add some spiced mango when in season. As for beverages – you may have already guessed it. A perfect pairing with this Jamaican favorite is an ice cold bottle of Red Stripe beer – also a Jamaican favorite.

Did You Know?
Bell peppers with 2-3 lobes are sweeter to eat raw and 4 lobed bells are better cooked. Brightly colored bell peppers, whether green, red, orange or yellow, are rich sources of some of the best nutrients available. To start, peppers are excellent sources of vitamin C and vitamin A (through its concentration of carotenoids such as beta-carotene), two very powerful antioxidants. Read more here.

La Bella Burger

This spicy Italian burger, oozing creamy mozzarella from every bite with bursts of sweet roasted red peppers and tangy pesto sauce… is an all-time crowd pleaser. I served all 3 of the international burgers (from recipes shown on this site) on 4th of July this year… and this was voted the favorite of the night. This burger is probably the most time intensive of all the ones I do… but completely worth the effort.

1 lb ground turkey – dark meat if possible (does not dry out as bad)
1 lb sweet Italian turkey sausage (usually found in links)
1 egg
1 tbsp fresh garlic
1 tbsp finely chopped dry oregano
1 cup finely chopped fresh basil (divided – use 1 tbsp for meat mixture)
1 tbsp finely chopped dry thyme
1 tbsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 tsp salt
1/2 pepper
8oz fresh mozzarella
1 sliced red bell pepper
1 cup spinach leaves (remove stems)
4 sourdough baker’s roll
Pesto Sauce
finely chopped fresh basil (remaining cup)
3-4 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
2 tbsp pine nuts – toasted
1 tbsp mayonnaise
1/4 tsp salt
a pinch of black pepper

Mix first 8 ingredients together thoroughly… then add salt & pepper and olive oil. Turkey meat has a tendency to dry out quickly on the grill, so the olive oil will help maintain a tender, moist burger.

Form 8 thin patties with the meat mixture. Cut mozzarella cheese into 1/4 inch pieces. On top of one patty, scatter 4-5 mozzarella pieces throughout the center of the meat… leaving a little space between each cube. Be careful not to put cheese too close to the edges or it will leak out during grilling. Place another patty on top and seal edges together until cheese is completely buried.

Cut off the top of the red bell pepper and remove seeds and core. Then slice into 1/4″ rings and brush lightly with olive oil.

Pesto Sauce
In a dry frying pan, quickly toast the pine nuts. Should take less than 3 minutes. In a food processor, pulse basil leaves, toasted pine nuts and salt & pepper…. simultaneously adding olive oil through the feed tube. Once good puree is achieved, add the mayo and pulse 2-3 more times, scraping sides to make sure it’s thoroughly mixed. Don’t leave the processor on or the mixture will be too fine. You want some texture in order to taste each ingredient.

Ready To Cook?
Cook burgers meat over medium heat. Be sure to coat grill with non-stick spray. Cook about 8-10 minutes on each side (varies based on your grill – mine is slow). Keep in mind that turkey burger and turkey sausage will look different than beef or pork… and the sausage lends a reddish color, which can be mistaken for rare meat. Cook on the high end of 12 minutes if you want to be safe… though be careful not to cook too long or your burger will dry out. Try not to flip the burger too often as it tends to crumble. If the mozzarella starts to ooze out, don’t worry… that’s a sign that your burger is almost done.

Please red pepper rings on the upper or outer edges of grill. Cook 3-4 minutes on each side. Brush olive oil on the insides of both halves of the sourdough buns and also place on the upper or outer edges of grill. Remove when lightly toasted.

Spread pesto sauce on top & bottom bun. place spinach leaves on bottom bun and place meat on top of spinach leaves. Garnish top of meat with grilled red bell pepper, fold the halves together and you have La Bella Burger!

The Perfect Bite
I think the perfect bite here… is the first bite. The unexpected burst of hidden mozzarella cheese and spicy sausage leaves most people exclaiming, “Oh my gosh – what’s in this?!”. But it’s a burger… so every bite will be perfect. Reserve extra Pesto sauce for dipping your burger… and anything else you can find – dip away!

The Perfect Pairing
A pasta side might seem an obvious choice for an Italian burger, but that’s probably going to be too heavy. A green salad with Italian dressing would set this off perfect… try this salad. And you probably think I’m going to suggest a red wine… well, you’re right! I just got a bottle of a California Cabernet from Napa Valley called Avalon. But be sure to get the 2006 vintage – 2005 has gotten horrible reviews. A bad year for the folks at Avalon, I suppose. A bottle normally runs in the $12-$14 range… but on sale now 3 for $21.99 at Main Street Liquor in East Nashville! See it pays to live here on the Eastside…

Did You Know?
What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil and how can something be Extra Virgin? Someone had to ask, right?

Extra virgin – considered the best, least processed, comprising the oil from the first pressing of the olives.
Virgin – from the second pressing.
Pure – undergoes some processing, such as filtering and refining.
Extra light – undergoes considerable processing and only retains a very mild olive flavor.

Why cook with olive oil versus Canola oil? Canola oil is a relatively recent development and the original crops were unfit for human consumption due to their high content of a dangerous fatty acid called euric acid. Canola marketers advertise that their oil has less fat content… however, they fail to mention that when heated (which is what happens when you cook.. hello) the oil tends to transition into dangerous trans fatty acids. Ahem. We don’t want that. Read here for more details.

Roasted Red Bell Pepper Salsa

Just the hint of a warm Spring day in my home here in Nashville brings people out of their Winter hiding and into the brilliant sunshine. On a beautiful day such as today, you’ll spot people gathering on front porches or in backyards, passing around a plateful of some beloved family recipe or sharing a favorite beverage. I may have romanticized this a bit, but Spring and Summer will do that to a girl.

One of my favorite summer-time treats is a healthy bowl of my homemade salsa… not just because it’s chock full of fresh ingredients like cilantro, summer tomatoes, spicy jalapeño peppers and sweet Vidalia onions. But because it’s a social dish. I served this just last night at a grill-out and it became the ‘watering hole’… where everyone gathered to scoop chip-fulls of chunky goodness as they caught up on each others lives. This particular recipe has a couple of unusual ingredients for salsa… a touch of Indian curry for heat and roasted red bell peppers for sweet. If you keep some of these ingredients on-hand… it’s a quick and easy way to bring people together and keep them coming back.

1 large can of Red Gold Whole Peeled Tomatoes (*or 10-12 fresh Roma tomatoes quartered and roasted – follow directions for fresh bell peppers below)
1 large sweet Vidalia onion – quartered
*1 jar sweet roasted red bell peppers (include about 1/2 the juice from the jar)

4 cloves of garlic
1/2 cup of cilantro leaves (remove stems)
2-3 jalapeño peppers – remove seeds and quarter
1 tablespoon Patak’s Hot Curry Paste (hopefully still in your fridge from making my curry hummus recipe!)
Salt & pepper to taste
Garden of Eatin’ Blue Corn Chips (or any bag of your favorite corn chips)

* feel free to roast your own bell peppers. Just cut in half, remove seeds and stem, drizzle with olive oil, sprinkle with sea salt and roast on top oven rack at 400 degrees for 20 minutes. You’ll know they’re done when your whole house smells AMAZING! TIP: to easily remove skins, immediately place piping hot peppers in a bowl and cover with saran wrap. Let steam (and cool) for 10 minutes and the skins will just peel right off!

In a food processor or blender, add whole peeled tomatoes (discard juice from can), and all remaining ingredients. Pulse the food processor or blender but don’t let it run or you’ll puree the salsa and you’ll lose the chunkiness. Taste the salsa (always taste your food before serving!) and add additional salt, pepper or curry paste if needed.

The Perfect Bite
I use the Garden of Eatin Blue Corn chips, but any chip with good scooping power will work. For added yummy-ness, dice a semi-ripe avocado and sprinkle across top of salsa. Scoop up a bite and enjoy. This salsa is also great as a topping on your burger or on grilled fish and chicken.

The Perfect Pairing
Now, normally you’d never catch me recommending a boxed wine… but I’ve recently discovered Bota Box wines… and their Pinto Grigio is quite tasty. Since you’ll probably be entertaining with all this salsa… you’ll need a Bota Box (contains 4 bottles and runs $16-$20 depending on where you purchase) to satisfy the masses. Refrigerate white boxed wine over night to achieve a good tasting temperature.

Did You Know?
Jarred salsas are very high in sodium. Manufacturers have to guarantee a shelf life and use tons of preservatives. Making your own salsa lets you control the salt. I’m a big fan using plenty of flavorful spices so very little salt is necessary. And if you make it tasty enough – it will be gobbled up and it won’t need a shelf life! For even less sodium, make this recipe using fresh tomatoes cut into 1/4 inch squares. A Handy Tip: If you use rubber gloves to cut and de-seed jalapeños you’ll avoid the Diablo Rojo fiasco. The seeds are the hottest part of the chile and if you can handle, add quite a bit of heat to your salsa. Enjoy!