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In the dog days of summer, there is nothing more excruciating than laboring over a fiery stove or sticking your hands (& face) into a 375 degree oven. So in an effort to stay cool, I self-imposed a “No-Cook, No-Bake” challenge. Meaning out of the 3-4 creations coming out my experimental kitchen every weekend, one dish CANNOT be the product of the stove or oven. This weekend, I was inspired by my recent travels to the heavenly Greek Islands (separate blog post to follow on the local eats and feasts!), so I decided to make a refreshing Tzatziki to remember my blissful days under the Grecian Sun.

A few simple ingredients + a little labor of love, and Voila! A super-addicting dip that will be sure to be a crowd-pleaser at any summer gathering. As a plus, it also received my Greek friend’s “authentic stamp of approval”. So without further ado:

Super-Addicting Tzatziki:

Tricks of the Trade:

  • 32 oz of Greek Yogurt (I used Chobani – my fave brand)
  • 2-3 large or 4-5 medium cucumbers, grated
  • 1 handful of fresh dill leaves, chopped
  • 1/2 cup low fat sour cream
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • 2-3 cloves of garlic, minced finely
  • 1 Tbsp Red Pepper Flakes
  • 1 Tsp Cayenne Pepper
  • Salt & Pepper (to taste)

The Magic Potion:

  1. Strain the yogurt in a cheesecloth (or sturdy paper towels) over a big bowl to let liquid drain for about 30 min to 1 hour in the fridge (I’ve skipped this step before and it still turns out fine, but just make sure you have a very thick yogurt to begin with)
  2. Strain the grated cucumbers in a cheesecloth by squeezing out all the liquid. Do this until most of the liquid is drained from the cucumbers
  3. Mix the yogurt and cucumber together. Add in the dill, sour cream, lemon juice, garlic, red pepper flakes, cayenne pepper, salt & pepper and mix well.
  4. Let sit in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours (1 hour MINIMUM) for flavors to develop. This is the most critical step, but given the short prep time and the amazing flavorful results, it will be worth the wait!

As a vegetarian who loves dining out, I used to find it frustrating that my choices at fine dining establishments were limited to pasta/risotto dishes, eggplant parm, or a stuffed portabello mushroom. I’m lucky that I live in NYC where restaurant options are broad and competition is fierce, forcing everyone to step up their game, but the lack of creativity in vegetarian options is one of the main reasons I started trying my own hand at the culinary pursuits.

Vegetarian cuisine has come a long way in the past few years, and today many of the most coveted restaurants like Bouloud, Eleven Madison Park, and the Modern all offer vegetarian tasting menus for those herbavoraciously inclined. This past birthday, the mister surprised me with the ultimate fine dining experience of all – an all-indulgent, pampering, hedonistic meal at Thomas Keller’s Per Se. While the food wasn’t without its flaws (some dishes were a little on the salty side), the creativity behind the concepts, the undeniably sophisticated  techniques utilized, and the impeccable, almost perfectly choreographed service made this the most out-of-this-world experience I’ve ever had with food.

Now on to photos:

Vegetarian 9 course tasting menu

Amuse Bouche - Cones of Fava Bean & Tuna Tartare

"Artichaut Barigoule en Gelee". Translation: Spring veggies like carrots, turnips, and herbs encapsulated in a jelly formed with the veggies' own broth. Clever, and delish - tasted like a mouthful of spring!

"Meyer Lemon Ricotta" with country bread croutons, heirloom radishes, english peas, and mint. The lemon was the real star of the dish and pulled all the flavors together. The ricotta was delishly crispy on top, giving the dish a complex variety of textures

"Slow Roasted Beets" with dates, celery branch salad, and sicilian pistachio mousse. This dish is great if you're a beet lover. There were slow roasted beets with a sweet hint of honey, pickled sour beets, and beet puree solidified to crunchy sugary beet chips. The pistachio mousse was a good companion, but I wasn't such a big fan of the pickled beets, which lowered my estimation of this dish. Overall, was still yummy though.

This was a dish off of Brian's regular "meat" menu. We didn't take a meat menu home so I don't know what this is called. All I know is that it was an asparagus and hearts of palm dish, and I COULDN'T STOP EATING THAT BROTHY SAUCE. Yes, it was that good. This remains one of our favorite dishes of the night. Hard to tell just from the simplicity of the photo, isn't it?

"Fried Green Tomatoes" with green asparagus, mizuna, young onions and "ranch dressing". Hands down, my favorite savory course off of the veggie menu. Granted, I love my fried food so that didn't hurt either, but the tangy, crispy, flavors just worked so well together. It was the ultimate inventive take on a classic. Only criticism was that the lump of "ranch dressing" was so excessive that I only had about half of it. For me, the perfect dish should have the perfect balance of all elements and the ranch was just too over the top. Nonetheless, I was still a huge fan of this dish!O

"Braised Holland White Asparagus" with poached quail eggs, petite lettuce and black olive puree. How is it possible for asparagus to be so juicy? Did they inject some super veggie potion into it? They had me at asparagus, but the ooey gooey quail eggs sealed the deal. The olives, I could do without - added too much salty factor to the dish.

Red Adirondack Potato "Dumplings" with cornichons, arroleaf spinach, parsley shoots and caper emulsion. Disclaimer: Our nice camera died at this point so this was an iphone photo. The quality does not do justice to the dish! So you know what I'm thinking when I saw "potato dumpling". I thought "gnocchi" and then thought "A PASTA DISH"?! This is what i came to Per Se to avoid! Well it wasn't gnocchi at all but a delicious gathering of starchy goodness. Not the best of the courses but definitely not the pasta dish I had expected

Now it’s important to note that at this point, I started to get pretty full (who wouldn’t after 5 course?!) But power on I must, so on to the dessert courses:

Trio of cheese was the perfect segue to the sweets that were to come

Black Sesame Ice Cream with whipped champagne mango, thai basil and lime puree. Holy Bliss, I was in heaven! As full as I was, I couldn't help but think about the marriage of flavors. I'm sure I've had these flavors at various points in my life but I don't believe I've tasted anything so refreshing, succulent, and mouthwatering as this dessert!

Brian's first dessert - some type of "Parfait". Layers of crunchy candy on top of cream and chocolate. Not bad, but was a bit forgettable, especially next to the black sesame mango dish!

White Hibiscus with biscuit cuiller, hibiscus jelly, white chocolate bavarois and creme fraiche sherbet. Very whimsical and playful dish. The tartness of hibiscus and sweetness of white chocolate was theoretically the ideal pairing to balance each other out. Unfortunately I'm not a huge fan of white chocolate and the hibiscus was just too tart for me. However, I think it was one of the most inventive desserts I've seen.

Decadently Rich Chocolate Ganache Bar with Vanilla Ice Cream and a crunchy cocoa ball. So creamy, so rich, so filling...my stomach is calling for a stretch and I'm glad I'm wearing a loose dress at this point...

Bonus Chocolate Birthday Cake?! Probably the best of the second round of desserts (vs chocolate ganach bar and white hibiscus), but a girls' tummy can only fill so much. This was truly my limit!

And just when you think you can't possibly eat another bite, out comes their famous "Coffee and Donuts". Warm cinnamony mini donuts fresh out of the oven with coffee ice cream complete with cappucino froth on top. I later found out that this isn't something they offer to everyone, as the couple next to us didn't get it. Maybe because Brian had mentioned it was my birthday...but they do graciously offer this if you request, and believe me, it is worth every last waist-expanding bite!

And so concludes a romantic, unforgettable night to remember. The other thing to mention is really the crazy, impossibly perfect service we received. It should’ve been no surprise since Per Se has consistently won best service awards year after year, but never in my life have I been treated so graciously and sincerely by waitstaff, from laminating our wine label (yes, not only did they not make fun of us for buying one of the least expensive half bottles of wine at $80), they commended us on the good choice and said they’d laminate it so we can get it again next time (we later found out that the retail value for a full bottle at our local wine shop is about $29). They also send you home with goody bags filled with macarons, gelees, and rose brut – a small but wonderfully nice touch. It was everything we were hoping for and more!

Once upon a time, in the Golden State of California, a little girl grew up basking in the radiant rays of sunshine. Her little cozy ranch house boasted a mini orchard with succulent fruits like apples, oranges, kumquats, & avocados.  The organic garden her mother cultivated gave life to fresh tomatoes, basil, squash, and yam greens.  These essential greens (and reds, and yellows) nurtured her little body & soul, and she grew up to be a vegetarian.

In a land 2500 miles away in the heartland of America, a little boy grew up in the wholesome state of Ohio. There, the people were jolly and warm, and the meals big and hearty. Juicy steaks & creamy potatoes gave the boy strong bones & muscles, and he grew up to be an “equal opportunity eater”, more commonly known as an omnivore.

Two decades later, the playful hands of fate brought this little girl and boy together in the concrete jungle of New York City. As different as they were in their diets, they shared a common love for food (and each other), so they often had to get creative with their flexitarian menus and two-pot meals. Until one day, a Fairy Chefmother, Giada DeLaurentiis, waved her magic spatula and showed them a recipe that was vegetarian but tasted like meat. The little girl and boy devoured the dish completely, and lived happily until the next meal.

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This is my variation on Giada’s Rigatoni with Vegetarian Bolognese. I opted to make my tomato base from scratch, substituted seasonal spring ramps for onions, and picked my favorite herbs – thyme, basil & tarragon. What I kept constant (and believe it’s critical to) is the mascarpone and the mushrooms, which give it the  “meaty” taste that serves to trick all carnivores!

What You’ll Need:

  • 1 pound rigatoni (I made my own fresh pasta!) but you can use dry as well
  • 2-3 tomatos, diced
  • 4 oz mixed mushrooms (I used a baby bella and oyster, but porcini, king oyster, chinese black, and portabello will work just as well)
  • 2-3 carrots, peeled and chopped
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
  • 1 bunch ramps, chopped
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • a pinch of each dried herbs: thyme, basil, tarragon (can also use rosemary, oregano, marjoram, or fresh herbs)
  • salt & pepper to taste
  •  2-3 dollops of mascarpone cheese
  • 1/4-1/2 c of vegetarian broth
  • Olive oil – for cooking
  • grated parmesan cheese (to finish)

Putting it all together:

  1. Cook the diced tomatoes and ramps in a 3-4 qt pot with some olive oil, until tomatoes are very soft and become concentrated
  2. Meanwhile, in a food processor, pulse the carrots, bell pepper, and mushrooms until finely chopped
  3. In a skillet, heat up some olive oil. Transfer the finely chopped into the skillet, season with salt & pepper & herbs, and cook for 5-7 minutes, until vegetables are cooked.
  4. Add broth and bring the vegetables to a boil. Then simmer until the liquid is reduced by half (takes about 10 min)
  5. Fold in mascarpone cheese until well-integrated
  6. Meanwhile, bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the rigatoni and cook until tender but al dente (3-5 min for fresh, 8-10 for dry)
  7. Drain the pasta and transfer to the vegetable bolognese sauce. Mix well, adding some pasta liquid if mixture is dry.
  8. Sprinkle with parmesan and take a huge satisfying bite into it!

This morning, the sun’s golden rays graced New York City with the first true day of Spring. Donning a summer dress & flip flops, I pranced out of my apartment eager for the first taste of 75+degree weather. As I took in the sights of scarlet red tulips, golden daffodils, and pretty-in-pink magnolias blossoming all around us, I stared in amazement at this seemingly sudden arrival of Spring. Surely this transformation didn’t happen overnight, but when one has been as absorbed in work as I have been in the past few weeks, it’s easy to let the world slip past you in the blink of an eye.

It was at that moment when I decided to reclaim the balance in my life, to make sure that I pay proper attention to things I love and enjoy – cooking up a storm, blogging up a bigger storm, curling up with a good book, and taking the time to just be.

My balance comes from my freedom to unleash my creativity, to draw inspiration from things I see, hear, smell, and taste, and create something that I can call my own. So it is with the same explorer’s attitude  that I cook up this Korean-Mexican fusion with Korean Pajeon pancakes, and Latin-flavored fillings and sauce. The flavors are nothing foreign to me, but the combination of smoky, spicy veggie fillings wrapped inside a rice-flour crepe-like pancake instead of the usual corn-flour tortilla introduced a new refreshing twist to an old favorite.

Recipe:

This is a 3 part recipe, which may seem daunting and complicated at first glance, but once you get the prep work out of the way, it’s very straightforward and easy to put together.

For the Pancake:

Ingredients:

  • Instant Korean Pajeon pancake mix – follow directions on measurements of mix + water
  • Or if you have time, 1/2 cup allpurpose flour, 1/2 cup rice flour, 3/4 c seltzer water, 1 egg, salt & pepper. (Notes: The rice flour gives it that transparency and lighter texture, the seltzer water makes it fluffier – found this tip from various bloggers and the kitchn)
  • a small bunch of scallions, finely chopped
  • 1/4 cucumber, shredded
  • 1/2 carrot, shredded
  • 1 handful of cilantro, finely chopped
  • 1 tbsp of soy sauce, more or less depending on your taste

Directions: Mix the batter together until well integrated and texture is smooth. Throw in the veggies and herbs, soy sauce, and in batches, spoon out batter onto an oiled frying pan. Spread out batter so it is about 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch thick, turn heat to medium-low and when batter sticks together, flip to the other side and cook until pancake is crispy and gives off a golden brown hue.

For the Veggie Filling:

Ingredients:

  • 1 pkg of cremini or portabella mushrooms, sliced about 1/4 inch (you can play around with different varieties like shitake, chinese black, button, enoki, morel and oyster)
  • 2-3 medium sized carrots, peeled and diced roughly 1/2 inches thick
  • 2-3 medium sized zucchinis, diced into 1/2 inch thick medallions
  • 1 bell pepper (red, green, orange, or yellow), cut into strips that are about 2 inches in length and 1/2 inch in width
  • 14 oz can of diced tomatos
  • 1-2 handful of Morningstar Veggie crumbles (this is optional, but I love the texture they add)
  • Salt & pepper
  • A pinch of the following dried herbs: Rosemary, Oregano, Parsley, Basil

Directions: Saute the veggies, starting with carrots, which are the hardest to cook. At this time, I also add in the diced tomatoes to help flavor the carrots. Cook for about 5-7 minutes, then add bell peppers and cook for about 2-3 more minutes, then add the zucchini, mushrooms, and veggie crumbles last. Cook for an additional 3-5 minutes, adding in salt, pepper and herbs until veggies are cooked through and well-flavored

Chipotle Sauce:

Ingredients:

  • 1 can of Chipotle en Adobo sauce (you won’t need to use it all)
  • 8 oz can of tomato sauce
  • 1-2 tsp paprika
  • 1 dash of champagne vinegar

Directions: Take out 1-2 chipotles out of the can of chipotle en adobo sauce (plus a few spoonfuls of the thick sauce itself). I find these extremely spicy so you should only need a couple to get that smoke and spice into the sauce. Finely chop the chipotle, or process in a small food processor. Mix it into the tomato sauce, add paprika and the vinegar and mix well.

Putting it all together:

Option 1: Spoon in the filling into the pajeon pancake, roll it up and place it upside down on a dish, repeat until you fill an entire casserole dish, drizzle with the chipotle sauce

Option 2: (My preference because it’s more fun) Lay a piece of the pajeon pancake on a plate, fill will the veggie filling, drizzle with the chipotle sauce, and then roll it up like a burrito and eat right away

There was a time in my earlier twenties when I shed my structured, organized life in exchange for spontaneity. During that time,  the thrill-seeker in me longed for adventures and allowed myself to be seduced by the unknown. Each weekend brought about endless possibilities; each work project offered the promise of exotic travel locales. I loved that I didn’t have to report my whereabouts to anyone, and could pick up at a moment’s notice if Jetblue was offering flight deals.

As I cultivated that relationship with myself over the years, I have also come back full circle to my original roots. Naturally a Type A planner,  I’ve come to embrace the new routines of my more settled life. Work, weeknight dinners with the girls, indulging in Gossip Girl and American Idol, dragging myself to the gym, and then….welcoming home my man every Thursday night as he dependably lands in Newark Airport at 9:36pm.

Weekends still offer exciting variations of dinner parties, birthday gatherings and double/triple/quadruple dates, but the one “couple tradition” we hold very near and dear is our lazy Sunday of gym, laundry, catching up on HBO shows, and enjoying a simple meal of leftovers or a creation inspired by ingredients leftover from the week.

This succotash features corn and zucchini as the star ingredients. While it may not be the most traditional, the crunch of fresh veggies drenched in creamy sweetness will transport you into a world of ease and relaxation. It takes but minutes to put together and it’s exactly what we needed to wind down the weekend and welcome in another busy week at work.

Sunday Succotash Ingredients:

  • 1-2 cups of corn kernels
  • 1-2 zucchinis, cut into 1/4 inch disks
  • 1 red/yellow/orange/green bell pepper, sliced
  • 1 handful of baby bella mushrooms, sliced
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup of fat free half & half OR 2 tbsp of creme fraiche + 1/4 c. of veggie broth
  • 1 – 2 tsp soy sauce
  • (optional) fresh basil, cilantro, or parsley – whatever you have in your fridge, or substitute with dry herbs

Lazy Sunday Instructions:

  1. Throw all the ingredients into a frying pan and stir fry until all veggies are just cooked, about 5-7 minutes (doesn’t get any easier than this!)

On a cold winter day, there’s nothing more soothing than treating yourself to a bowl of steamy hot soup. While we were stuck inside our apartment, watching the snow cast an enchanting white blanket over New York City, we decided to brew up some delicious soup to warm our tummies.

In the process, I discovered a new favorite ingredient to work with – Celery Root. Don’t be scared by its rough exterior. Though it may look a bit like a veggie monster, it packs a punch of flavor – savory, creamy, with a bit of unexpected peppery bite.  Paired with a few celery stalks, it makes for the perfect cure for cabin fever!

What you’ll need:

  • 1 celery root
  • 3-4 stalks of celery, chopped
  • 1 small sweet onion, chopped
  • 4 cups veggie broth
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1/4 cup fat free half & half OR 2 tbsp lowfat creme fraiche
  • 1 tbsp fresh thyme, chopped finely OR 1 tsp dried thyme
  • salt & pepper to taste
  • a dash of cayenne pepper
  • a dash of paprika
  • butter & olive oil for cooking

Warm up your soul:

  1. Trim off the lumpy and knobbly skin of the celery root and chop into 1 inch cubes.
  2. Melt 1 pat of butter in a frying pan and cook the onions until translucent and soft.
  3. Add the celery and cook for 3-4 more minutes. Add more oil if necessary.
  4. Meanwhile, in a pot, bring 1 cup of broth to a boil. Add the celery root and let it continue to boil for 5-7 minutes.
  5. Add in the onion & celery into the pot and pour in the remaining 3 cups of broth. Finally, add in some salt & pepper to taste, and drop in the bay leaf and thyme.
  6. Bring to a boil, and then bring back to low-medium heat and let simmer for another 15 minutes. Remove the bay leaf.
  7. In batches, puree the soup in a blender or food processor until smooth.
  8. Return to pot on low heat, stir in the half & half or creme fraiche. Season with more salt & pepper as needed, and add in the cayenne pepper and paprika
  9. Serve warm!

We’re taught that the key to maintaining our figure when surrounded by so much food creations is to eat in moderation. But once in awhile, we all encounter a dish that we take a “test bite” of and then just can’t resist going back for more! Before you realize it, you’re making another batch just so you can serve a presentable looking dish to your dinner guests.

The other day, I was bitten by the “can’t stop eating” bug when I made this highly addictive and extremely simple bread pudding.

Looking for inspiration for what to do with my days-old baguette, I came across this scalloped tomatoes recipe from the Contessa herself, Ina. It was, as you might call it, a life changing experience. Who knew such a simple equation of tomatoes + bread + oven = bliss? From that day forth, I recreated variations of that recipe whenever I came home from a long day at work (and had leftover bread from TomKat bakery). This is one of my favorite variations, filled with healthy veggies and bubbling with cheese on top:

First Hit:

  • 4-5 Ripe Tomatoes, diced
  • 5 cups of bread, cut into 1 inch cubes (I use baguettes, but mostly any bread will do)
  • 1/2 of a zucchini, sliced into 1/2 inch thick medallions, and then halved
  • 1.5 cup of fresh cut corn (frozen/canned will work too)
  • 1 cup of sliced mushrooms (I like using a combo of baby bella, oyster & shitake)
  • 2 cups of shredded fontina cheese (chedder, mozzarella, monterey jack also work beautifully)
  • 1/4 cup basil leaves, cut into thin Chiffonade shreds
  • 2 Tbsp Xagave Nectar
  • 2 cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
  • 3-4 Tbsp of olive oil
  • a pinch of salt & pepper, to taste

Get Hooked:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees
  2. In a frying pan, toast the garlic in olive oil
  3. Add the bread cubes; toss & toast on medium heat until bread is crouton-like
  4. In another frying pan, saute the zucchini, mushrooms, and corn in some oil & salt & pepper until just cooked (3-5 min)
  5. Meanwhile, mix the diced tomatoes and basil with the Xagave nectar until well blended
  6. Add in the cooked veggies to the tomato mixture and mix well
  7. Mix in the toasted bread cubes and pour into a casserole baking dish (don’t worry if it’s a little watery – the bread will soak up the tomato liquid when baking)
  8. Season with some salt & pepper, layer the fontina cheese on top, & pop in the oven for 30-40 minutes until cheese is bubbly and the top is crispy and browned
  9. Dig in with a spoon and don’t resist the temptation to keep on eating!

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