Simple Vegan Pesto

Pesto is amazing. It’s simple, flavorful, versatile, and can be made out of virtually anything. Truly, the only ingredients necessary to consider something a pesto are oil and fresh herbs. If you have an abundance of herbs and need to use them before they go bad, just blend them with olive oil and call it pesto! It also makes everything more delectable, from roasted vegetables to sandwiches to salads.

I used a ninja, but you can even use a mortar and pestle

I used a ninja, but you can even use a mortar and pestle

Traditional pesto is a blend of olive oil and basil, garlic, pine nuts, and Parmesan cheese. This vegan version replaces cheese with nutritional yeast, which makes sense because it has a natural cheesy-buttery flavor. If you’ve never had it, you should try it on popcorn—it’s great and super healthy. In this recipe, the nutritional yeast helps the pesto retain its cheesiness and also makes the texture thick enough to cling to the pasta. My only note on the recipe is that some of the commentors from the original site prefer to halve the amount of olive oil. I started with ¼ cup but gradually added more until I was almost at the ½ cup called for in the recipe. It’s just a matter of personal preference, so you really can’t go wrong.

before the oil

just a little oil at first…

I served the pesto tossed with Tinkyada fusilli, cooked al dente. It was easy to make, and ideal for serving to company because I could make the pesto a day ahead. Please share in the comments if you have a favorite pesto recipe! What do you love to serve with pesto?

keeps for a week in a jar in your fridge

keeps for a week in a jar in your fridge

Simple Vegan Pesto via Food 52

Gena Hamshaw            May 2013

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Not-Quite-Shepherd’s Pie

Shepherd’s pie, a dish often associated with Ireland, was designed as a way to make the most of leftovers. It transforms already prepared meat and potatoes into a new meal that will feed the whole family. It’s an ideal dinner idea if you happen to have mashed potatoes you would like to use up, but it’s simple enough to make every layer from scratch.

three layers of deliciousness

three layers of deliciousness

Before I share my recipe, I want to be clear that I know this is not shepherd’s pie. True shepherd’s pie is made with lamb. If you use beef, you’re making cottage pie. I use ground turkey and try as I might, I couldn’t come up with a likable name for this recipe. Regardless, the versatility of this method is one of my favorite things about it. You can make a vegetarian version or Mediterranean version and you’ll still get to enjoy a hearty meal that makes enough to feed a crowd.

With a recipe as traditional as shepherd’s pie, I like to start by consulting my Fanny Farmer Cookbook. I am not kidding when I tell you that she says to take three cups of cooked lamb and run it through your meat grinder with herbs. Although I know that’s probably an effective method, I buy my raw meat ground and go from there. Lamb pairs nicely with rosemary, but in my opinion poultry is best with sage.

Layer one: Meat and Gravy

Layer one: Meat and Gravy

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Preheat your oven to 375 F. Put a big pot of salted water on the stove and peel and quarter four yellow potatoes—any kind will do, but Yukon Gold is great because they don’t get to starchy. Once the water is boiling, add the potatoes and cook until tender. Drain well. I took 1-2 TBSP of some leftover Three Herb Butter and sautéed chopped onion (from one large yellow onion), 2 large cloves of minced garlic, and 1 ½ lbs of ground turkey (mix of dark and white meat) in a large skillet over medium heat. I added about 1 tsp of dried sage and salt and pepper to taste. Regular butter will work well in the recipe, and you can alter the amount of herbs based on your personal preference. Once the meat is browned and the onions are translucent, transfer the meat to a 9 X 13” glass casserole dish.

In the same skillet, melt 4 TBSP butter and stir in 2 TBSP flour. Cook over medium heat for at least 5 minutes to mellow out the raw flour taste. Slowly add 1/3 cup of chicken broth while stirring. Stir and cook until the gravy thickens, then add salt and pepper to taste. Pour the gravy evenly over the layer of meat. Some day I will use this incredible Chanterelle Mushroom Gravy in this recipe, but this time simple won out over gourmet.

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The vegetable layer is optional, believe it or not. I peeled and sliced 4 medium carrots and steamed them with one small bag of frozen peas until they were still firm, but slightly cooked. Add that layer over the layer of meat.

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Finally, place the potatoes back into the pot and add ¼ cup of butter. Place over low heat until the butter melts. Remove from heat and use a hand masher until the potatoes are soft and the butter is incorporated. At this point, you can add milk or broth until you have a consistency you like. I had crème fraiche to use up, so I added about ¼ cup to the potato mixture. I like thick mashed potatoes in this recipe because they are going back in the oven and I want them to hold up. Add salt and pepper to taste, then spread an even layer on top of the vegetables. Make a cross-hatched pattern with your fork if you like, then top with pepper and bake for 35-40 minutes, until bubbling and slightly browned.

after the oven

after the oven

That’s it! This dish serves 8-10 and keeps well for up to a week. If you have a name suggestion, I would love to hear it in the comments.

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Roasted Carrot Harissa and Creme Fraiche Crostini

Harissa is a spicy red chili paste that originates from North Africa and it’s used so frequently in other parts of the world that it’s often viewed as a condiment. If you’re curious, you can read about some of the history and regional variations here, or learn how to make a standard version here. The recipe I’m sharing with you is more of a spread than a paste and the roasted carrots mellow the peppers and temper the heat.

it's bright orange!

it’s bright orange!

I’ve recently been spending time with some of my vegan friends, and when I contribute to a vegan meal I like to find recipes that show off the potential in vegetables and spices. This harissa is perfect because it is packed with flavor and makes use of one of the few vegetables that thrives in winter—carrots. Roasting the carrots brings out their sweetness, which is the ideal way to balance the spice from the peppers.

dried anaheims and chiles de arbol

dried anaheims and chiles de arbol

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I used dried Anaheim chilis and Chile de Arbol and found the results fairly mild. You can definitely up the heat by using a hotter dried pepper. Most of the heat in chilis is contained in their veins and seeds, so by removing those you are keeping the flavor and lowering the heat. The spice mixture in this recipe is ground cumin, black caraway seeds, and coriander seeds. I can’t describe the flavor combination—you’ll just have to trust me and try it. It’s divine!

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Both times I’ve made this I prepared it in advance, and followed the instructions to store with some olive oil on top. When it was time to serve, I stirred it to incorporate the olive oil and found the final texture creamy and smooth. I bothered with the crostini once, but since then I’ve just been eating it with chips or rice crackers. The priority is finding a blank slate so the harissa can shine.

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For those of us who are not vegan, I recommend serving this with crème fraiche and little parsley. The chips in the photos are Late July Sea Salt Multigrain and are conveniently gluten free, vegan, and delicious. Enjoy!

Roasted Carrot Harissa and Crème Fraiche Crostini via Food 52

By Gingerroot            February 2011

Feeling Strong

I consider myself a naturally sedentary person. My sister was the athletic one when we were kids, and while she was out playing soccer I was at home playing piano. Even when I was doing something active, like swimming or riding my bike, I didn’t like to push myself. Once heavy breathing and sweat were involved I was ready to call it a day.

Being sick changed all of that for me. After a week in a hospital bed, walking across the room would take me out of breath. My frailty was disturbing, to say the least. It made me long for the days when my body was capable and strong. Now that I have my health I enjoy being active and setting physical goals. Last year I joined a strength-training group and it was amazing! It was fun to work out with a group of women who were so positive and encouraging. The instructor was great about giving us options so we could go at our own pace and ability. For the first month I think my goal was just to get through the class having completed all of the exercises. Sticking with it paid off—I have upper body strength for the first time in my life and my stamina for all kinds of activities has increased.

When my favorite instructor left my gym, I joined another group of inspiring and supportive women who meet weekly for a workout. I work harder in the class then I do on my own and it feels good to cheer each other on. Embracing exercise may not seem like anything profound, but I feel grateful that I have learned to appreciate my body while I’m still fairly young. I have friends in their 60’s and 70’s who tell me how lucky I am that I take care of my body at my age. If I take care of myself now, who knows what I will be capable of in my 60’s? My aunt climbed a 14,000 ft mountain to celebrate her 60th birthday. I want to be that strong and healthy when I grow up!

Now it’s time for some of my favorite exercise music and other random link love. If you have a great workout playlist, please share in the comments.

Icona Pop I Love It

Cut Copy Lights and Music

Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings How Do I Let a Good Man Down?

White Rabbits Percussion Gun

Vampire Weekend Unbelievers

And a few random happy things: 

10 Decadent GF desserts from Food 52

Amazing Food Dioramas

Willamette Week Portland GF Dining Guide

Quick Chicken Paella with Sugar Snap Peas

Let’s be honest—paella is never really quick and easy, but this version is straightforward and keeps your active time in the kitchen to under an hour. Paella is a traditional Spanish dish that often mixes meats, fish, and even snails with rice to create a rich, one-pot meal. This recipe keeps it simple, adding only chicken thighs, Spanish chorizo (as opposed to Mexcian chorizo), and sugar snap peas to the rice.

roasted peppers and Olympic Provisions chorizo

roasted peppers and Olympic Provisions chorizo

The key ingredient that makes paella memorable is saffron. Saffron is one of the most expensive spices in the world. It comes from the crocus flower and imparts a beautiful, yellow hue to anything it touches. This recipe requires soaking 1 tsp of saffron in white wine, which gives you a chance to watch the color as it seeps into the wine.

saffron yellow

saffron yellow

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Believe it or not, I follow this recipe exactly as it’s written. I use fire-roasted tomatoes instead of regular diced tomatoes, but that’s the only change I make. This time I used a locally made chorizo from Olympic Provisions. It worked perfectly, but I didn’t notice much difference from the less expensive, imported Spanish brands. Typically I use fresh snap peas, but it’s winter and the ones in the store looked tough and sad to me, so instead I bought a local, organic brand of frozen snap peas. I let them thaw while I was cooking so they would be ready to add in near the end of cooking, just as the recipe requires. They were a fine substitute, although the fresh peas retain a little more snap to their texture.

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spice rub

toast the rice then deglaze with saffron wine--watch the yellow appear!

toast the rice then deglaze with saffron wine–watch the yellow appear!

This paella makes enough for six servings, and it’s definitely rich and filling. I like to serve it with a green salad to lighten the meal up a little bit, often with a few olives to keep with the Spanish theme. This is company worthy meal, so invite over some friends and dive in!

I used my cast iron pot instead of a paella pan

I used my cast iron pot instead of a paella pan

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Quick Chicken Paella with Sugar Snap Peas via Epicurious

Bon Appétit            April 2010

Dolma (Stuffed Grape Leaves)

Stuffed grape leaves are one of my favorite foods. I love them so much that when I was diagnosed with celiac I signed up for a private cooking class with a personal chef, and on the very short menu created just-for-me I asked to learn how to make grape leaves. My fiancé is Assyrian and stuffed grape leaves, stuffed cabbage, and even stuffed onions are all part of traditional Assyrian cuisine. The first holiday I spent with his Assyrian side of the family I decided to prepare grape leaves as a contribution to our New Year’s Eve dinner. I had a reliable recipe from my session with the personal chef and I was excited to invite Ben’s family to roll grape leaves with me. Did I mention that none of them like stuffed grape leaves? Well, in fairness, they didn’t mention it to me either!

Don’t worry—they only told me after we had devoured almost all of the ones we made together. They insisted that these stuffed grape leaves were delicious, but agreed that none of them had eaten decent ones before. I knew what they meant. Poorly made versions can be tough, bland, or even sour. Instead, these are savory and a little sweet, and definitely tender.

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all the flavor is in the herbs, nuts, and spices

all the flavor is in the herbs, nuts, and spices

Here is what you will need. If you’re vegetarian you can just omit the lamb. I promise, I have done this with great success.

½ lb ground lamb

1 large onion, finely chopped

½ cup cooked white rice (do this in advance so it has time to cool)

5 TBSP olive oil

¾ tsp sugar

2 tsp salt

½ tsp black pepper

½ tsp cinnamon

1 tsp allspice

2 TBSP dried currants

2 TBSP pine nuts

1 TBSP each of finely chopped mint, dill, and parsley

2 TBSP tomato sauce or 1 TBSP purée

1 jar of grape leaves (I use Mezzetta brand)

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Cook the rice in advance to let it cool. Sauté the onions in olive oil until they are translucent, but not browned. Mix all of the stuffing ingredients and knead for 5 minutes. Take about 2 TBSP of stuffing and roll it into the shape of a small log (this is the right amount for large leaves, but you should adjust if the brand you buy has smaller leaves.) Place the glossy side of the leaf down—this means the back of the leaf should be facing you.

front of the leaf on the left, back of the leaf on the right

front of the leaf on the left, back of the leaf on the right

Put the log of stuffing at the bottom of the leaf, next to the stem. Fold in the sides first, then roll toward the tip of the leaf. Place the stuffed grape leaf seam side down in a large pot, with the ends touching to help keep them in place. Once all of your grape leaves are stuffed and in the pot, add 1 cup of water and tomato sauce or purée. The tomato will add flavor to the water, which will season the grape leaves as well. Cover and cook over medium heat for 40 minutes. You want them to simmer but if they come to a rolling boil they will open up and you will unwittingly have soup.

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These may be served warm or cold, with tzatziki, yogurt, or lemon juice. If you make your own tzatziki, I recommend grating the cucumber and gently squeezing it to get rid of some of the moisture. To turn this into a meal I served 4-5 grape leaves with a side of rice, tzatziki, carrot sticks, and hummus, and a green salad. If you make this for guests, although you can make them in advance, the scent of them simmering is mouth-watering. Enjoy!

snug little leaves

snug little leaves

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Taste and Flavor: Designing Your Own Recipes

When I was first learning how to cook it was hard for me to tell if a recipe was going to be any good just by looking at it. Any time I wanted to make a dish for the first time I wound up reading recipe after recipe to compare and contrast the ingredients. I still do this to some degree, but by now I’ve gotten used to flavors that pair well together. Unless I’m jumping into an unfamiliar ethnic cuisine, I’m rarely surprised by a combination of ingredients. Now that I’m confident in the kitchen, my next culinary adventure is creating my own recipes. To that end, I recently took an Herbs and Spices class through Portland’s Culinary Workshop. I also received The Flavor Bible as a holiday gift, which is a helpful complement to the class. So what am I looking for when I scan an ingredients list in a recipe? Well, there are a few basics every cook should know.

First, do you know the difference between taste and flavor? Taste is what our taste buds can physically detect. There are only five essential tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, and umami. Flavor is the combination of taste and aromatics. Basically, the smell of our food significantly contributes to its flavor. When I read a recipe, the first thing I look for is a balance of the five elements of taste. I also look for an interesting, but compatible, variety of textures. Finally, I’m hoping to find combinations that make sense. That’s where The Flavor Bible and the Herbs and Spices class comes in. Melinda Casady, co-founder and instructor at Portland’s Culinary Workshop, pointed out that if a combination hasn’t occurred before, there’s probably a reason. Food is central to human life and we’ve been cooking our food for literally hundreds of thousands of years. Although food can be innovative, the best meals still rely on some basic principles for success.

herbs demo at PCW

herbs demo at PCW

I’ll give you an example. Friday night I had dinner at Grain & Gristle and I ordered their grilled chicories, beets, bitter chocolate, pistachio, and balsamic. I’ve never tried this dish before, but I had a sense that it would be delicious. The chicories and chocolate I knew would be bitter, while the beets, pistachios, and balsamic are all a little sweet. The pistachios also added some salt and crunch. Sure enough, the result was a well-balanced, savory and flavorful dish.

Learning what pairs well together can be a lifelong process, but there are some great resources out there if you want some inspiration. Melinda recommended Culinary Artistry, which is often used as a textbook in culinary schools. Besides books, the next best resource is your self! Think about your favorite foods and what ingredients make them irresistible. In the class we walked through some of the most common fresh herbs and dried spices and discussed common pairings. When Melinda got to thyme I immediately thought “oranges.” This is not a particularly novel combination, but I know from experience that it’s a delicious one.

star anise-key ingredient in chinese five spice

star anise-key ingredient in chinese five spice

I learned a few helpful things in this class that I would like to share. Just as salty balances sweet, sour balances bitter. Melinda’s example was using a lemony (sour) dressing on a kale (bitter) salad. Sweet can also help mellow out hot (honey and cayenne, for example.) Consider the strength of a spice or herb before pairing it up—rosemary has a heavy pine note that will overpower delicate dishes. Fresh herbs typically go in at the end of cooking or are enjoyed raw, while spices go in at the beginning of cooking. Buy whole spices and toast and grind them yourself when you can. In class we compared the freshly toasted spices with pre-ground spices and the difference in aroma was significant. You can use a coffee bean grinder if you have one that comes apart and can be easily cleaned.

The class was a confidence builder as much as anything. I was reminded of how much I’ve learned about flavor and food pairings in the past decade of cooking. The best part is, gluten has nothing to do with taste or flavor. Being diagnosed with celiac hasn’t kept me from enjoying flavorful food. Now that I have some new knowledge and inspiration, I look forward to sharing some of my own recipes on the blog in the year ahead. Some combinations I’ll be ruminating over in the meantime…

  • Juniper and Lamb
  • Nutmeg and cauliflower
  • Mint and Duck
  • Lemongrass and Coconut

Do you have a combination that you love? Share it in the comments! Maybe I’ll be inspired.

Rosemary & Garlic Chicken

Some nights I want a home cooked meal without a lot of fuss. A whole roast chicken can take some prep work, but if you’re just roasting chicken breasts you can turn it into a quick and easy weeknight meal. My go-to version is a simple garlic and rosemary combination. Rosemary is a hearty herb, so you can find it fresh and full of flavor year round. I typically roast four pieces of chicken at a time so I have enough for leftovers.

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The process is straightforward. Preheat your oven to 350, or 375 if you’re hungry. Use your fingers to gently separate the skin from the meat of the breast, or if you prefer, cut small incisions into the meat to create pockets for your garlic and herbs. The goal is to get slivers of raw garlic and fresh rosemary right up next to the skin. I typically use about two cloves of garlic and one stem of rosemary per chicken breast, but that’s just my preference. Then generously season the chicken with salt and pepper and drizzle a little bit of olive oil on top to help the skin brown and the meat stay moist. Roasting times depend on how much meat you’re roasting, so I rely on a meat thermometer for tender, juicy chicken. Mine is often ready to eat in 30-45 minutes. Even though it takes some time to roast, it takes very little time or effort in the kitchen. If you’re not a fan of rosemary, there are a lot of tried-and-true delicious combinations for roast chicken. For this week’s version I used up some of the three-herb butter I had frozen after Thanksgiving. What flavorful butter! It sank into the meat and I could taste it with every bite.

When it goes in the oven I prepare my sides. Sometimes I throw a garnet yam wrapped in foil in the oven on a rack below the chicken. Other times I prepare some rice cooked in chicken broth and 1 TBSP of butter, tossed with fresh parsley just before serving. In the summer I was steaming baby potatoes and tossing them with some butter, salt, pepper, and fresh chives from the garden. Broccoli and green beans are delicious steamed and easy to prepare. They cook so quickly that sometimes I wait for my chicken to come out of the oven before I start steaming the vegetables, which also gives the meat a few minutes to rest. All told this meal can take me as little as 15 minutes of “active time” in the kitchen. It’s healthy, it’s hearty, and it’s hard to mess up. Perfect for a weeknight meal!

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Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins

I have long been a fan of lemon poppy seed muffins. It started with a delicately flavored, dense lemon poppy seed cake that my mom used to make. Like hers, this recipe incorporates sour cream. The sour cream enhances the tartness of the lemon, but also adds some density and feeling of richness. It is a must-have ingredient for me in any lemon poppy seed based recipe.

pretty purple poppy seeds

pretty purple poppy seeds

I have a few tips although the recipe is fairly straightforward. First, the reviewers are right—the recipe should state ½ cup of butter, not ½ a pound. Getting your butter to room temperature is important in order to make it cream properly. For the flour I used Cup 4 Cup, but you can easily use Bob’s Red Mill, Pamela’s, or another all-purpose mix. Don’t skip the sifting step! It makes gluten free baked goods a little bit lighter. Per usual, I chose to make flax-eggs for the egg substitute. This recipe calls for three eggs, and typically I look for recipes that call for two or less in order to get the texture right. I took a chance with this recipe and I wasn’t disappointed. This discovery may broaden my cake-horizons!

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These muffins can be enjoyed with a glaze or a frosting. I skipped the glaze called for in the recipe and instead mixed one cup of confectioner’s sugar with lemon juice until the texture was thin, but not liquid. I baked the muffins for 18 minutes and glazed them right out of the oven. A sheet of parchment paper under the cooling rack kept the kitchen from getting messy. I only glazed the muffins once and brought them warm and fresh to my book group gathering.

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I missed the lemon zest from the glaze and will definitely add it next time. Other than that, I was pleased with my sweet, lemony, and poppy-seed-crunchy muffins. My food nostalgia rarely leads me astray!

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Lemon Poppy Seed Muffins via Food 52

By sweet enough            July 2009