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My Salad Muse ~ A Vinaigrette Experiment

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Last night was the fourth time in recent memory that I “WOW!!!”’d over a salad. 


I have no pictures.  Cuz, I mean, it’s salad. 

Oh wait, here’s one: 

That lovely soon-to-be clean plate was, just moments before, home to THE single most delectable combination of food stuffs I’ve eaten since…. um… probably February.  (You may notice a trend: when we go Up North, we eat extremely well.  When we eat extremely well, I blog about it, and then try to replicate what we ate Up North, then blog about that.) 

Anyway, that salad, the Muse, as I will now call it, was fed to us at the Boathouse on Old Mission. 

Its proper name on the menu was “apple beet salad,” which was deceptively misleading and caused me to blow past it without reading the description on first glance.  Upon further review, third trip down menu lane, I read all the way to the end of the description & ran smack into this:

“vanilla cinnamon vinaigrette.”

And I died a little. 

Nine dollars later, in the name of research and development, I declared the Boathouse apple beet salad to be the most wonderful salad I’ve ever, EVER had.  Possibly the best non-meat, non-dessert dish I’ve ever eaten. 

Envision the plate (cuz, as noted above, I was too preoccupied with eating the salad to photograph it – bad blogger):  Crispy white apple matchsticks on top of a fluffy mound of dark green ruffly spinach leaves, sparkly red beet pieces (ignore the beets if you don’t like them, I just pushed them off to Rick’s side), a perfect canel of creamy goat cheese on the edge of the plate, and a healthy scattering of toasted whole marcona almonds. 

Then inhale:  the scent of vanilla, apple & cinnamon hit me in the face with more force than I thought vanilla was capable of.  Savory, sweet, tangy, crispy, crunchy, cool, creamy, rich, and somehow umami, I swear.  Divine.  Perfect with the cold Bry’s estate dry reisling we ordered.  

(Yes, I was drinking two different glasses of wine – I ordered the veal as my entrée so I needed a red, too, sheesh.) 

Luckily that afternoon Rick & I ran 7 miles.  I call that 700 spare calories.  I saved up some of those for dessert on Sunday… this little beauty:  

Lemon tart with a sea salt crust & chocolate sauce at Riverside in Leland.  Again, a remarkably perfect flavor pairing.  I almost want to shed a tear just thinking about it.  And of course re-create it at home in cupcake form.  More on that later.

Anyway, so that apple-vanilla-cinnamon salad at the Boathouse changed my life. 

Yesterday, unable to shake the memory of it, I began experimenting with vinaigrette at home.  I downloaded a few recipes off the interwebs to get familiar with the oil-acid ratios.  I went to Meijers (yes, it is “MeijerZ”) & bought some fabulous produce (I’ve found that the boxed organic 50/50 spring mix/baby spinach is the best base for any salad and it makes a huge difference).  The grocery cart just about filled itself with berries, apples, cukes, radishes… 

I pulled out the blender when I got home and set my print-out references on the counter.  I followed one recipe for blueberry-balsamic vinaigrette to the “T” and wasn’t terribly happy with the result.  So I put it in a jar and started over. 

So in the blender went more blueberries, salt, pepper, Splenda, a little water, apple cider vinegar, and – wait for this – almond emulsion (extract).  Yes, almond flavoring, like you’d use in baking.  That was all blended till smooth, then drizzled with a bit of canola oil.  Here’s the recipe – make it if you get a chance:

Blueberry Vinaigrette with Almond Essence:

        1/4 cup fresh blueberries

        3 Tablespoons apple cider vinegar

        1/8 tsp almond emulsion or extract

        1 packet of Splenda or up to 1 teaspoon honey or sugar for desired sweetness

        1/4 – 1/2 tsp salt

        1/4 cup canola oil

Blend first 5 ingredients til smooth.  Then, with blender running, drizzle in the oil.  Refrigerate for 1/2 hour or more for best flavor distribution. 

I’m smacking myself in the face for not taking a picture of this salad. 

Not only was the dressing phenomenal, but so was the mix of fruits, veggies & nuts:  the aforementioned 50/50 greens mix, sliced cucumbers, radishes, celery, pink lady apples, black seedless grapes and toasted pecans.  If you have any kind of food-sensitive imagination you can know inherently how delectable, in flavor and texture, that combo was.  Together with my blueberry almond vinaigrette…  WOW. 

Next time I promise I’ll take a picture.  This time, I leave you with a cocktail inspiration.  Something Smith & Wollensky call The U.S. Mint – gin muddled with mint, cucumber & tonic.  THE BEST summer drink.  One of two reasons I grow mint (mojitos are the other). 

Thank you Chef Street for posing with my lovely drink.  Your freshly-pressed vintage shirt and dirty martini are definitely better than any backdrop I could design 😉 

PS ~ no matter how much I gush about the food, good friends are the best side dishes.   Okay, good wine is right up there, too. 


Bella Sirloin Lasagna: A celebration dinner!

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I’ve been craving lasagna for a while and this weekend marked the perfect occasion:  Rick & I celebrated our 73-day anniversary!  We have officially been married longer than Kim Kardashian & Kris Humphries. 

Okay, that wasn’t very nice.

Sorry Kim, of all people, I know things happen.  People make mistakes.  Not judging.  Promise. 

Anyway, I didn’t discover my passion for cooking & baking until a few years ago.  People have actually asked me when and how I got started and I don’t have a concise answer.  I’ve always loved to watch cooking shows on tv and I’ve never been afraid to go to town on whatever random stuff I might find in the pantry or fridge to create a meal for myself. I’ve never been one to eat for the sake of sustenance.  I eat for pleasure.  If I’m starving and the only thing available is an ordinary turkey sandwich, I’ll continue to starve. 

Even if I don’t recall that one defining culinary moment, I do remember exactly when this lasagna first came into my life and that it was probably the catalyst for a serious shift in my desire to cook & entertain. 

This is Linda’s Lasagna.  Her recipe (which is a full letter-size page of prose, single-spaced, ten-point font) discloses up front that it is merely a “guideline,” and goes on to make dozens of suggestions for additions & modifications to the original ingredient list.  This might have been the first time I received written permission to cook like I do.  Free-form.  Organically.  A tad loosey-goosey on occasion.  Only once or twice have I really botched a dish (don’t ever put crab and green peppers together, EVER, trust me). 

But I still use this “recipe” for lasagna, and I stick more closely to it than many of the more structured recipes I use.  Doesn’t that seem backwards? 

I’ve only made this three or four times because it’s a little bit involved, but every time it has turned out wonderful and different than any lasagna I’ve had in restaurants or out of the freezer.  It’s quite light on the sauce.  The noodles are thicker and never mushy.  The filling is rich, not too salty, not too sweet, not too herbaceous…  It’s just perfect. 

This time I used ground sirloin and baby portabella mushrooms.  I also added a tiny shot of wine to the sauce.  The “recipe” below is truly a guideline, but it was sooooo amazing I want to write it down exactly how I did it so I can try it again like this someday.  I say, next time you have a couple hours to spare and something fabulous to celebrate, make this.  You will not be disappointed. 

Thank you, Linda, for your inspiration.  Also, thank you for being so much more fun and down to earth than Martha Stewart and equally as talented in the kitchen!!!  Oh, and for the recipe and the lovely baking dish, too 😉 

Sirloin & Portabella Lasagna

Lasagna noodles (half a box)

1 pound ground sirloin

1 pound sliced baby bellas

15 oz can Contadina Italian herb tomato sauce

dry red wine


1 cup low fat ricotta cheese

4 oz softened cream cheese (don’t use low fat)

1/2 cup grated or shredded parmesan cheese

1 egg

1/2 tsp garlic powder


2-1/2  –  3 cups shredded Italian cheese

fresh basil

dried oregano

crushed red pepper flakes

course black pepper



Boil a huge pot of water.  When boiling, add salt (at least a tablespoon, I use sea salt) & a tablespoon of olive oil to prevent the noodles from sticking together. Add 10-12 Lasagna noodles (you’ll likely only need 9, but I make extra in case some tear) and cook al dente according to package directions (I used the Meijer brand – not the “oven-ready” kind – and cooked them for 9 minutes).  Stir a few times during cooking but be gentle.

As the water boils, sauté a pound of sliced baby bellas in a heavy-bottomed NON-non-stick skillet (in other words, a stick skillet – whatever, you know what I mean) in 1 T butter & 1 T olive oil (I used light olive oil because I don’t like the taste of mushrooms cooked in extra virgin) until brown.  Season mushrooms with garlic powder, salt & black pepper. 

Remove mushrooms from the pan & set aside.  In the same pan, add another tablespoon of light olive oil & brown 1 pound ground sirloin.  Season with salt, black pepper and a little crushed red pepper flake.

To the beef, add 1 can (15 oz) Contadina tomato sauce with Italian herbs and about an ounce of dry red wine (I used Gabbiano Chianti Classico, my favorite spicy red wine to serve with savory pasta dishes).  Let the sauce come to a simmer, then turn off the heat.

When the lasagna noodles are done, drain in the pot and cool by filling & dumping cool water in the pan a few times. 

You can do all this stuff at once, it’s fun – like a circus on your stove!

Preheat oven to 350. 

Mix together cream cheese, ricotta cheese, parmesan cheese, one egg, garlic powder, salt & pepper. 

In a lightly-greased baking dish, place one layer of noodles.  It helps if they’re mostly dry.  Layer on top of the noodles about half the cream cheese mixture.  Add about a THIRD of the meat sauce (there will be leftover meat sauce – this is not a saucy dish) and then a third of the shredded cheese.

Add another layer of noodles, cream cheese, sauce & shredded cheese.  Then another layer of noodles and more shredded cheese on top.  Sprinkle lightly with fresh basil, red pepper flakes & dried oregano.

Bake uncovered for 40-45 minutes or until golden brown around the edges. 

After taking it out of the oven LET IT REST for at least 15 minutes, and even longer if you can stand it.  The more it firms up the prettier it is to serve.  Conveniently enough, our garlic bread needed to bake for 10-12 minutes at 450, so that created perfect timing.

The salad I served with this was crazy good, too.  Normally I’m not a fan of salad in general, but this was so great I’m actually going to post about it later this week. 

This meal was out of this world!  Don’t be intimidated by a multi-step dish like this.  There’s nothing demanding about it if you give yourself an hour to prepare it and an hour to bake it.  It is such a reward to serve your family something this beautiful and you won’t find a better lasagna in any restaurant. 

NOW, Linda’s suggested additions & modifications: 

Use half beef and half Italian sausage – Sweet and Hot, one link of each – just slice out of the casing & brown with the beef. 

Substitute cottage cheese for ricotta – I thought I didn’t like ricotta but I was totally wrong – and add another egg to the mixture if you like it a little firmer.

Forego the mushrooms & add a layer of spinach instead.

Use different kinds of shredded cheese – she suggests mozzarella, provolone, munster and others.

Add a few bits of green or red bell pepper.

Feel free to use more sauce.  (But I love it this way.)

If you don’t like oregano, use more basil.  Fresh basil is best, but dried can suffice. 

Double the recipe and make an extra pan to freeze for later (best suggestion YET!)

A Pizza worthy of something much better than Bud Light, but…

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Friday was one of those days.  Well, Friday itself was a pretty decent – VERY productive – day, but the rest of the week seemed like a full moon was out in force.  Anyway, it was definitely a homemade pizza day.  And a beer night.  Okay, maybe a three or four beer night.

Pizza is probably my favorite food.  Rick hates it when I ask him what his “favorite” anything is (he also says he doesn’t eat bacon), but if I’d have to wager, I’d say pizza’s his favorite food, too. 

We topped this one with roasted cherry tomatoes & basil, a tiny smear of jarred pizza sauce, red onion, a tiny smidge of bacon, green pepper, roasted red peppers and, of course, mozzarella & parmesan cheese.  I always sprinkle my pizza with crushed red pepper flakes, salt & black pepper, too.  And extra basil (fresh) or oregano (dried) on top. 

This was maybe the best one yet.  Although the seafood pizza we made a few weeks ago was killer. 

Onions, mushrooms, shrimp & tilapia (because I had some in the freezer) sautéed in a little butter, olive oil & white wine, thickened just a smidge with a dusting of flour at some point during the sauté and seasoned with a dash of Old Bay.  That was both a sauce and topping, and I did add some roasted red sweet peppers (jarred, I’ll admit) and just a thin layer of cheeses.  (Basil & seasonings, same as always.) 

I’ve also made this in a deep-dish version by lining a 10” cake pan with it, pressing it up the sides and pre-baking it for about 5 minutes before adding the toppings – lots of simple pizza sauce, bacon, onions, olives, peperoncini & feta cheese, Greek-like. 

One more time and I’ll have this memorized.  After the first couple times you make it it’s a fun, organic process that’s very therapeutic and PERFECT for a Friday after a long week.  For no other reason than nothing goes better with wine or beer than pizza.  Bon jour no! 

Pizza Dough (by hand, not by mixer)


1 package active dry yeast

1 cup hot water (120-130 degrees)

pinch of sugar

1 tsp sea salt

3 – 3+1/2 cups all purpose flour

1-2 Tbs extra-virgin olive oil


First, warm a medium-sized glass or ceramic mixing bowl by swirling some hot water in it.  Drain.  Put the yeast in the bowl, then the hot water & sugar.  Stir with a fork and let sit until the yeast dissolves & gets foamy (5-10 minutes).

Use a wooden spoon to mix in the salt and about a cup of flour until blended. 

Mix in a second cup of flour and stir until the dough forms a mass & starts to pull away from the bowl.

Sprinkle about a 1/2 cup of flour on a clean countertop (give yourself PLENTY of room to work the dough and avoid the countertop above your dishwasher or other hot appliance) and start working the rest of the flour into the dough gradually, kneading for about 10-12 minutes until the dough is smooth & stretchy. 

Lightly oil a clean mixing bowl with olive oil & put the smooth doughball inside.  Cover with a clean damp dishtowel and place in a very warm spot and let rise until it doubles in size, about 40-50 minutes.  If you can’t find a warm enough spot, turn your oven on “warm” for about ten minutes, put the bowl of dough inside, turn off the oven and let it proof in the turned-off but warm oven.  (

The recipe I use says to test the dough by poking two fingers into it, and if the indentations remain, the dough is ready.  This IS so not as scientific as it sounds.  I’ve made this dough half a dozen times or more and it seems to turn out slightly different every time, but bakes up great, dependably. 

Knead the risen dough for another minute or two before rolling or stretching into shape on a pizza pan.  I use a non-stick 14” pan with holes in the bottom that seems to make perfect, non-greasy, lightly crispy crust. 

This serves 2 people who are eating WAY late on a Friday after a super long week at work or 4 people if you also have a salad or appetizers to tame the beast.

Recipe straight out of my favorite, simplest cook book: Italian, by Kate Whiteman, Jeni Wright & Angela Boggiano.  I would seriously recommend buying this book, actually, and have to thank Linda for giving it to me as a gift, along with her incredible lasagna recipe.  Thanks, Lin!

Indian Summer

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Aaahhh… summer is NOT gone.  No no no, it is NOT!  Because we still have THESE coming out of our landscaping:

Yes, I said landscaping.

No, I didn’t mean “garden.”  We don’t have a garden. 

We grow tomatoes in our landscaping.  You’d have to see it to understand why it works, but trust me, it does.  Our landscaping is fairly, um, naturalized.  I mean that in the most complimentary way, I do!  We totally intended it to be that way. 

We have six tomato plants weaseled between the hydrangeas, barberry, burning bushes, ornamental grasses and smokebushes, and right now they all have a million green tomatoes on them.  STILL! 

These babies are Sweet One Hundreds.  Rachel Ray was cooking with them sometime last spring on one of her shows and I thought they looked adorable.  Aren’t they?  They’re, like, tiny!  So I snagged a four pak of seedlings (plus two Big Boy plants) when we made our too-early-for-reasonable-men-to-buy-annuals-but-we’re-suffering-from-debilitating-cabin-fever-and-must-see-green-plants trek to Buds & Blooms, the big huge greenhouse 15 miles east of town, last Mother’s Day weekend.  I swear, we’ve been harvesting a handful of these buggers every day for the last month and we’re still not sick of them.  Well, I mean, technically I’ll only eat them cooked in stuff, but Rick eats them like candy.  I guess as far as tomatoes go that means they’re pretty good. 

I do not eat raw tomatoes.  It’s pretty much the only food I truly hate.  So much so that I know when a sandwich place or fast food restaurant almost screwed up my special order, put the tomatoes on, then unwrapped the sandwich before I could find out, took off the tomatoes, wrapped it up again and served it to me anyway.  Gag!  Tomato residue on my bread – not cool. 

BUT!  My BFF Giada once roasted tomatoes in olive oil, salt & pepper and did something beautiful and simple with them like probably put them on a plate.  Drew me in like a moth to a flame (which may or may not happen everyday from 6:00 – 7:00 on Cooking Channel).  I added basil (because we planted an entire huge pot of that, too, last spring; it’s my favorite) and couldn’t resist.  The resulting dish smelled so incredible I had to try it.  Amazing!  This could be (and has been) its own special form of bruchetta on crostini, or a pasta sauce, or a topping on grilled chicken with parmesan cheese, or with caramelized onions in a summer salad like this incredible one from Joy… delish! 

Tonight we actually spread them on grilled chicken club sandwiches with spinach & provolone, kind of as a tomato jam.  Weird?  NO – amazing!  Sorry, we ate them before I could get pictures.  You’d understand if you’da been here. 

Oh, and yes, our basil is slowly becoming a houseplant.  I didn’t have the heart to leave it all out in the cold a few days ago so, at a friend’s recommendation I cut a few bunches and have put little vases of basil all over the house.  If I had to choose between roses or basil, you know what it’d be 😉   

Oh, PS:  that gorgeous olive oil was a gift from Jessica & Doug.  It came as a bonus one day along with a wonderful balsamic vinegar in our Cline wine-of-the-month club.  BONUS!

A cauliflower the size of a Volkswagen

and maybe some other veggies, too, but LOOK at that cauliflower!!!

The day after we came home from up north for the Big Celebration we went to the Midland Farmers Market for some fish.  Specifically, Lake Superior Whitefish.  Perhaps I should back up a couple weeks…  The “Big Celebration” was a freaking food fest of epic proportions.  (And I’ll be the first to admit that I overuse the word “epic” these days; I am not crying wolf this time.)  Our week’s menu consisted of things like crab-stuffed whitefish roulade, roasted corn & fromage blanc cannelloni, the most precious beef tenderloin, whitefish cakes with lemon mustard sauce, savory balsamic peaches, fried mac & cheese balls in tomato basil soup, and some totally memorable chicken, shrimp & beef fajitas.  There was also an abundance of good wine, Bud Light Lime and a wedding cake (more on that later).

So when I got home I wanted to hug my Kitchenaid I was feeling so inspired, and under such withdrawal from not cooking anything in over a week.  We woke up Saturday morning to a soaking Michigan rain, so logically, we wasted not time & immediately hopped in the Suub & went to the market for fish.  And veggies.  And fruit.  And that cauliflower the size of a small car.  The fish was great, by the way, but surprisingly, the veggies were the star of the show. 
This was also the Michigan football opening game day, mind you, so I was charged with creating a tailgating menu fit for a Wolverine (or two).  In no time, I had corn niblets flying off the kernels on command, that cauliflower wrangled into manageable pieces and a husband with some bloody knuckles (hey, it is NOT my fault that he has not yet learned how to grate a zucchini without injury – he OFFERED!)  Heh heh….  I made a huge pot of corn & cauliflower chowder and some delighfully crisp savory zucchini corn cakes.  Here’s the spread:

points to anyone who notices the REALLY confusing item in this pic...

Remember it was raining, so the flash in the pic could not be helped.  Anyway, this was a most spectacular way to begin our Labor Day weekend.  Those zucchini cakes were even pretty good heated up (in the OVEN) the next day as an appetizer.  I served them with warmed up pizza sauce & fresh basil.  Delish!

Here’s some rough guidance on what I made:

Corn cauliflower chowder:

One small onion & one sweet bell pepper, diced (I used a yellow one because they were SO pretty at the market) & sauteed in a swirl of olive oil in a soup pot.  When they are soft, add about 2 tablespoons of butter and

the niblets of four ears of fresh sweet corn (you get extra points if you use a bundt pan, balancing the end of the ear on the center post – but I just got it all over the house, the dogs enjoy the clean-up – or you could even use canned & drained or frozen sweet corn, cheater).  Cook the veggies for a few minutes until they get a little color on them, then add

about two cups of chicken stock, a cup of whole milk and about 2 cups of cauliflower florets (hm, that sounds redundant…).  Cover & cook until the cauliflower is fork tender, maybe 10-20 minutes or so.  Ladle about half the soup & veggies into a blender, cover & puree to your desired consistency, then blend the second half (or not, if you like it chunkier).  Add salt & pepper to taste.  Frankly I might have added some other stuff, too, but I don’t remember (read the Hello World post below for the disclaimer – this is NOT a recipe site!)  It could have used a little more umph, like maybe a jalapeno or two or some hot sauce, or even some grilled chicken or shrimp, but it was great with the zucchini cakes.

Zucchini Corn Cakes

Simple:  buy some self-rising corn meal & follow, pretty much, the corn pancake recipe on the package (milk, eggs, oil as described) adding 1 cup of finely grated zucchini, a teaspoon of sugar and about 1/4 tsp salt (give or take; just fry up a tiny bit & taste one of the cakes before going to town on all the batter).  Fry on a hot griddle or skillet in a good dose of vegetable oil with a pat of butter melted in for flavor.  Keep warm in the oven while finishing each batch – the recipe on my cornmeal made about a dozen 3″ cakes. 

I served these with pizza sauce but the next morning I made a sweet batch with cinnamon & nutmeg and served them with apples sauteed in brown sugar & butter – YUM!