How to Make a Basic Vinaigrette

With my naked, homegrown salad, I wanted a basic balsamic vinaigrette.  Once you start making your own vinaigrettes and realize how easy they are, there’s no limit to your imagination.

At its essence, a basic vinaigrette is 4 ingredients, plus salt and pepper, alright, 6 ingredients.  Plus 3 tools: a small whisk (or fork), a prep bowl, and garlic press.I minced 1 clove of garlic in a small prep bowl.Then I combined 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar and 1/2 teaspoon spicy deli-style mustard.  Please don’t use basic yellow mustard; it really doesn’t have the same flavor as deli mustard.  I stirred to combine.While whisking, I drizzled in 2-3 tablespoons of olive oil.  It wasn’t possible for me to get a picture while one hand whisked and the other drizzled, sorry.  Then I poured the vinaigrette over my salad and mixed with my hands.

Once you get comfortable with the basic canvas, play around with other ingredients you may enjoy: lemon juice/zest, spices, different vinegars, different oils, orange juice, etc.  Always taste the dressing before pouring it on the salad.


A Dinner of Contradictions

This post is both a confession and a celebration, so I hope you will both forgive me and be happy for me simultaneously.  I made a dinner of contradictions consisting of my first, fresh lettuces and a frozen dinner with microwave rice.  I’ve moved toward growing my own food and creating an edible landscape, but I still heavily rely on convenience food, namely frozen items.  This plate made me laugh because it represents 2 contrasting philosophies.  On the one hand, fresh homegrown and seasonal, and on the other, frozen, ready-made.  In the modern world, they can co-exist, and as a working professional, I am grateful they do.It’s the end of May, and my mesclun mix  lettuce seeds have been rising to meet the world.  It took my arugula a little bit of time to start, until I discovered why they were not sprouting up as wildly as the mesclun.Going out to my backyard raised bed is exhilarating since the plants are doing surprisingly well, despite my inconsistent watering, lack of discipline, and forgetfulness.  I’ve since added dog-protection to the raised bed.Mesclun is lovely for its various textures and shapes.Rich, burgundy  romaine.Wild, frizzy parsley-like something whose name I don’t know.I love this one because of its heart shape and soft, spiky edges.This one had small bumps growing on it, and I sure hope we weren’t eating insect eggs.And of course, the ever-reliable arugula with its wavy shape.I may have “cheated” with my 75% frozen dinner, but the salad burst with the spicy, slightly bitter flavor of dark greens.  Delicious!

Kahlua Spiked Ice Cream Pie for The Rapture

I don’t know about you, but I’m riding out the Rapture in sin, and what better  way to do that than with alcohol, ice cream, and chocolate.

Saturday, May 21st, was the end of the world according to a local in my neck of the woods, the SF Bay Area.   To celebrate in our unique way, Kris and I threw an end of the world potluck BBQ.  We wanted to leave the world feasting, surrounded by friends.

I prepared this luscious ice cream pie, dripping with Kahlua flavor at each layer a day before the BBQ.  It has several freezing stages because of its 3 layers, so it is definately a make-ahead.

Delicious Decadence.  I can’t wait for the next apocalypse scare.

Forgive me, Lord.

Printable PDF: Kahlua Ice Cream Pie for the Rapture

For Crust:
½ package of Oreo cookies
6 tablespoons of melted butter

For Kahlua Spiked Chocolate Sauce:
6 ounces semi sweet chocolate
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon instant coffee crystals
6 tablespoons Kahlua

For Kahlua Spiked Ice Cream Layers:
1 pint vanilla, plus 2 tablespoons Kahlua mixed in
1 pint Java chip (or other coffee ice cream), plus 2 tablespoons Kahlua mixed in


Start with 1/2 a package of Oreo cookies and 6 tablespoons of melted butter.Crumble the cookies in the food processor, and add butter.   Pulse until you get a glossy mixture that can be formed into a cookie crust.With your hands.Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes.  Take out and cool completely.

In the meantime, make the Kahlua spiked chocolate sauce by halving 6 Baker’s semi-sweet chocolate squares.  They are conveniently 1 ounce each.Heat the chocolate, 1 teaspoon of instant coffee crystals, 6 tablespoons of Kahlua, and 2 tablespoons of butter in a small saucepan until a thick sauce forms.  Set aside to cool.When it coats your spoon, it’s done.Spike your vanilla ice cream with 2 tablespoons of Kahlua.  Spread it along the cooled cookie crust in a single layer.  Freeze.

Spread the Kahlua-spike chocolate sauce in a layer on the vanilla.  Freeze until firm.  I hope yours comes out a little more elegant than mine.  Good thing there was a third layer to cover it up.

Spike up Java Chip ice cream with 2 more tablespoons of Kahlua, and place as a final third layer of Kahlua goodness.  Freeze until ready to serve.Hint: I had trouble cutting my ice cream pie crust.  I submerged the bottom of my pie pan in hot water until the water reached halfway up the sides.  This loosened the crust from the bottom of the dish making cutting and serving a little easier.

Easy, Versatile Chicken Tortilla Soup

Soups are forgiving.  They need a minimum base, but the rest is flexible, depending on what’s in your pantry.  Soups, like casseroles, are the best way to use up leftovers.

I made this recipe for Chicken Tortilla Soup for some friends who came over to help us with our No-Front-Lawn Project.  They assisted with hauling, shoveling, and more hauling, and more shoveling.  My arms and shoulders were quite sore.

This is a fast, easy, versatile recipe that’s hearty and quite fast, ideal for a long day working out in the yard.

Printable recipe: Chicken Tortilla Soup-1

Ingredients: 1/2 rotisserie chicken, 1 32-ounce box chicken broth, 1 14-ounce can black beans, 1 14-ounce can diced tomatoes, 1 4-ounce can green chilies, 1 large onion, 2 small zucchinis, 4 garlic cloves, 1 large red bell pepper, 3 small carrots, corn tostadas or corn tortillas.

There are lots of substitutions for this soup, all depending on your taste and cupboard.  The minimum base is onion, garlic, spices, broth, chicken, diced tomatoes, and tortillas.

-Any canned bean could switch with the black beans. I imagine pinto or kidney would be the best.

-The total for my vegetables (carrots and zucchini) was about 2 cups, which could easily be another mix of veggies like celery, corn, fresh tomatoes, other squash, etc.  Just be aware of which vegetables, like carrots, need to cook longer, and which, like zucchini, barely need any cooking

-Instead of tostadas use fresh corn tortillas cut in strips or crushed tortilla chips

-Rotisserie chicken has 2 bonuses; it’s cooked already and has great flavor, making this recipe extremely fast, but you could also cook 2-3 chicken breasts beforehand then shred it.

I’m sorry, I forgot to get step-by-step photos because my mind was thinking about the yard, not what I was cooking.  Here’s the process.  It’s easy, half the soup is fresh veggies, the other half canned staples, plus already cooked chicken.

  1. In a large soup pot, heat up about 2 tablespoons of extra virgin olive oil.  Add diced onions and red bell pepper, and sauté 3-4 minutes.
  2. Add diced carrots, and continue sautéing another 3 minutes.
  3. Add minced garlic, 1 tablespoon ground cumin, 1 teaspoon dried oregano, 1 teaspoon chili powder, and 1 teaspoon salt.  Stir so all the vegetables get coated with spice.
  4. Shake chicken broth and pour in the whole box.
  5. Add entire can of diced tomatoes, juice and all.
  6. Drain beans in sink; add them to the soup.
  7. Dice up chili peppers and add to soup.  Turn heat up to high to bring it to a boil.  Then lower to medium-high.
  8. Shred the rotisserie chicken by pulling it into strips about the size your pinky or smaller.  Add to soup.  Let everything simmer together for about 20-30 minutes.
  9. During the last ten minutes, add zucchini to cook.  If needed, add in more chicken broth to your desired consistency.
  10. To serve, fill each bowl with soup and top with crumbled tostada, grated cheese, and any other toppings you have around (avocado, green onions, red onions, cilantro, fresh tomatoes, sour cream, etc).

and here’s the delicious finished soup.

The other side of nature’s resilience

A week or so ago, I made a post about the resilience of nature.  True, nursing my sugar snap peas back to health from near-death helped me have faith in nature’s ability to recover itself.  Then I went out to our front yard and remembered the other side of nature’s resilience, weeds and grass.Yes, those splashes of purple are from a lavender bush, strangled by Bermuda grass gone wild.

Nature has her way of reminding us that bare ground will not stay that way for long.  She will fill it with something or we can.  I cleared this area back in February with the intention of putting landscape fabric down, but our dog Titania got to the fabric before I could, and her teeth marks made the weed block useless.

So, here I am again, at square #1 with stubborn weeds insisting on taking over.  I bought some weed killer and a friend even gave us another bottle, but I’m just not ready for those harsh chemicals.  I’m afraid it might kill my plants or the run off will cause harm.  So far the old-fashioned way of pull-pull-pull is OK, for now, except for my massive allergy attacks that happen after 5 minutes of pulling.  Luckily, my sister-friend, Natalie, helped clear out these weeds.

Kris and I are contemplating 3 options for this fertile area.
1.  Plant sweet corn
2.  Plant mint to be a delicious invasive ground cover
3.  Plant some other type of ground cover

All are better than the bermuda grass that lurks like a squatter in any spot of bare dirt.

Lessons from the Garden: Patience

As a high school teacher, patience is one of my virtues and vices.  I can tell the same student 3 times in a one hour class period to take his headphones out of his ear every…single…day of the school year.  I can remind my students day-in-and-day-out, every time we write a quotation we need the citation, which is the what?  (choral response) “Page number.”

My patience struggles with wanting immediate results from teaching, which is not something I get very often.  For immediate results, I turn to gardening, more specifically, seed planting.  My nasturtiums have sprouted.  I had to move them from the raised bed since I discovered they acted like ground cover.At first, when I planted seeds, every day I checked to see if anything had come up.  After a week of nothing, I felt like a failure and would never be able to grow anything.  Nature of course choose this moment of doubt to give me glimmers of hope and remind me that I can be a gardener, even though my past attempts have been well-intentioned.As a teacher I have to remember that my job is to plant seeds.  Some of them will grow.  Sometimes I will get to see the results.  More importantly I have to be patient and have faith in the growing/learning process.

My Best Garden Helper

Titania is our 2 year old pit bull that we adopted about 1 year ago.  Sweet thing that she is, stole our hearts instantly, and no matter what she does or eats or destroys, her puppy eyes and droopy ears can instantly turn my yelling and reprimanding into pets and scratches.

Titania is my best garden helper, making cameos as sunbather extraordinaire.

She keeps husbands distracted by playing with them. 

Recently she has helped solve the mystery of why my arugula seeds are not coming out as fast as my lettuce seeds which I planted the same day.  She sleeps right on top of them in the afternoon sun.

I’ve seen her several times when I come home, basking in my raised bed, oblivious to anything but the warmth of the sun and dirt.  I tried yelling, telling her bad dog, but those pleading, puppy-dog eyes say “I never meant to do anything to make you mad; I just like the sun.”  How can I stay mad at that face.  Sigh…I’m such a sucker. 

Coconut Custard Cupcakes

I made this recipe when I met Kris’ family in Nebraska for the first time, Christmas 2007.  I wanted to bring some Latin American treats for his mid-western relatives, plus I needed something gluten-free for his mom.  Not only is this dessert based off of my mom’s favorite ingredient, coconut, but now that we know she’s gluten intolerant, it makes the perfect dessert for Mother’s Day.

The first time I made this recipe, I used store bought shredded coconut which was fine.  This time around, freshly grated coconut made the thick custard even more hypnotizing. (Click here for How-to Make Freshly Grated Coconut) If you don’t have fresh coconuts, I sense your pain; you can use fresh canned coconut meat, or, if you have to, shredded coconut from the store.

I adapted this recipe from “Quindins de Yaya (Coconut Cupcake Dessert)” in The Book of Latin American Cooking by Elisabeth Lambert Ortiz.  I took out the flour to make it gluten-free and added flavor with cinnamon and nutmeg.
Printable PDF: Coconut Custard Cupcakes

Ingredients: 1 1/2 cups brown sugar, 8 egg yolks, 2 Tablespoons softened butter, 2 cups freshly grated coconut, and 1 egg white. (Not pictured ground cinnamon and nutmeg.)

Prepare a 24 mini-muffin pan with cooking spray.  Place the muffin tin inside of a baking pan with side high enough to act as a water bath for the custard.

Using a hand mixer, beat egg white until soft peaks form.  Set aside.Use a stand mixer to cream the butter and brown sugar.  Add coconut and mix well

Drop in egg yolks, ONE AT A TIME.  After each one, mix until incorporated.

Take bowl off of stand and fold in beaten egg white. Add 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon and 2 sprinkle-shakes of ground nutmeg.  Stir lightly to combine.Fill ¾ of each muffin space with custard.  Pour hot water into the baking pan until it reaches halfway up the sides of the muffins.  This creates a water bath to cook the custard evenly. Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean.  Remove from water bath and cool.  Makes 24-30 mini cupcakes.

How to Make Freshly Grated Coconut

When I was in elementary school, we used to go to the San Jose flea market once a month.  My mom was a single mother, raising 2 young girls, working 50-60 hours a week to try to get ahead.  We’d buy hard-to-find tropical fruits and vegetables, and every time she would treat herself to a fresh coconut.

She walked around humming, sipping the coconut water out of a straw with a look of delight.  Afterwards, the fruit vendor hacked his machete, a harsh “thwack,” revealing the inside treasure, milk-white coconut meat.  He cut off the shell and put the meat pieces in a cup for her.  Immediately she turned giddy as if she were doing something behind her mother’s back.  I tried a bite each time, hoping for the same delight, but the gummy crunch never appealed to my tastes.

This Mother’s Day, I decided to make freshly grated coconut for  Coconut Custard Cupcakes.  I hope it brings my mom back to those stolen moments of pleasure she found drinking and eating a coconut in the midst of trying to raise 2 young girls on her own.

You can find coconuts at any Hispanic market, often Asian markets as well.  Remember coconuts have water and meat.  For grated coconut, you’ll just need the meat.

Printable PDF: How to Make Fresh Grated Coconut

Start with medium size coconuts, about the size of a ripe cantaloupe. Locate the 3 eyes of the coconut on the top.With a hammer and screwdriver, pierce 2 of the 3 eyes.  You will not need to go very deep, but you need to widen the holes by twisting the screwdriver in a circle.Drain the coconut water into a bowl.  (Drink it or store it or give it to your hard-working mom)Bake drained coconuts at 400 degrees for 25 minutes.  Some stray strands will be browned.Place baked coconut on a hard surface (ex: concrete patio).  Take the hammer and lightly smash around the shell to break it in half.  Husbands like to do this.Use a butter knife to carefully take out the coconut meat from the shell.  It should come out in one bowl-shaped piece.Use a paring knife or a potato peeler to peel off the inner brown skin.Coarsely chop coconut and place in a food processor.Pulse until coconut is finely chopped.  You can add a tablespoon or so of the coconut water to help the grating.  Makes 2 cups.

Lessons from the Garden: Resilience

Almost 95% destroyed, my sugar snap peas seemed a lost cause, but oh…that 5%; I wanted to salvage that 5%.  In the process, I learned a valuable lesson in the resilience of nature.

I found the culprit of my tragic eat-and-run, well, one of them, a slug no bigger than my pinky nail, but as hungry as a newborn.  I picked off this “slippery little sucker” (Yes, a cheap Pretty Woman reference) one morning before the sun had climbed beyond our fence.  The little vampire thought he was safe in the shade.

It was feasting on recent new growth my snap pea plant had shot out in a last ditch effort to stay alive.  Seeing these 2 leaves begin to emerge reminded me of nature’s resilience, its incredible capacity to stay alive and fight for survival, despite being utterly destroyed.

Hope restored, I began to water the plants more regularly.  I checked them in the morning while drinking coffee, seeing everyday new growth fighting for a chance and leaves building off of seemingly dead stalks.

Nature’s ability to restore and renew itself is remarkable.  Mother Nature is a master of resilience.  I think we all sometimes need to remember there is always a co-existing cycle of life and death.  When all seems lost, something new will always emerge if we are open to it.  The evidence: my first sugar snap pea flower.