Minestrone Soup

I truly wish it wasn't 88 degrees outside as I write this post. This photo would be far more effective if a chill was in the air....if the sky was grey and gloomy....if you were bundled up in a scarf. But, you'll have to take my word for it: Minestrone is good, no matter the season! In fact, it's a great soup for summertime, owing to all the fresh produce you can pour in. It's also a great soup for substitutions. The recipe is versatile and forgiving--and best of all, easy and healthy!

Minestrone (from a few different sources, combined into a new recipe)
-4 cups vegetable broth
-4 cups diced tomatoes (canned are fine, if you want to go that route)
-2 tablespoons olive oil
-2 cups carrots, chopped
-1/2 onion, diced
-1 tablespoon minced garlic
-2-3 stalks celery, chopped
-3 zucchini, chopped
-1/2 tablespoon dried basil
-1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
-1/2 teaspoon dried parsley
-Large pinch of Italian Seasoning
-2 bay leaves
-1 14.5-ounce can Cannellini beans
-1 14.5-ounce can dark kidney beans
-1/2 small can tomato paste
-About 1-2 cups cooked short pasta (like Ditalini, Alphabet, or Orzo)

1. Saute carrots, onion, and garlic in olive oil over medium heat in a dutch oven. Cook until tender.

2. Add tomatoes with juice, celery, zucchini, beans, seasoning, and tomato paste to the pot. Add broth. Stir well.

3. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Cover and let simmer for at least 30 minutes.

4. When ready to serve, add the cooked pasta. Remove bay leaves and serve. Top with parmesan for a vegetarian option.

-Serves at least 8 generously as a main course.

Note: This makes a *lot* of soup. SO, another benefit of this tasty dish is that it's also economical! We froze our leftovers, which I think will work out fine. I'm looking forward to busting it out for an impromptu meal.

Peanut Butter Cup Blondies

I am starting school again this week. A lot of the mommy bloggers are putting up posts about nice treats to give their kids on the first day of school, yummy lunch treats, etc. Sadly, my mommy is not here in IL to make me yummy first-day-of-school treats. So, I (albeit unconsciously) took it upon myself to make some serious noms for school/work/just because I really, really, really wanted them.

When I opened up this month's Cooking Light and saw the words "Peanut Butter Cup" and "Blondies" together in one recipe title, I had to jam a fist in my mouth to stop myself from screaming. A little known fact about Heather is that she loves her some cookie bars. I don't know why, but cookies in bar-form just taste better. Blondies are preferable to brownies in most cases. And if you throw peanut butter AND peanut butter cups up in that mix, I will be all over it. As in, I showed it to my husband and then went out to buy peanut butter cups. All over it like that.

Me, being "all over" the blondies. Sneakily.

My major beef with this recipe is that it's not TRULY Cooking Light. You're supposed to cut a 9" pan into 20 pieces. It's not fudge, Cooking Light. They're blondies. People don't want a dinky 1.5" square. That's just sad. And in looking at the recipe, the peanut butter isn't reduced-fat, the milk isn't skim or 1%, etc. It seems full-fat, just with reduced portions. So...just get used to the idea that this isn't really a "light" recipe unless you have the self-control to only eat 1 tiny portion per day.

Peanut Butter Cup Blondies (from Cooking Light)
-5 3/5 ounces all-purpose flour (about 1 1/4 cups)
-1 cup granulated sugar
-1/2 teaspoon baking powder
-1/4 teaspoon salt
-1/3 cup creamy peanut butter
-1/4 cup butter, melted and cooled slightly
-2 tablespoons 2% reduced-fat milk
-2 large eggs, lightly beaten
-1/4 cup semisweet chocolate chips (**I used dark chocolate chips. Sooooo good.**)
-Cooking spray
-4 (0.75-ounce) peanut butter cups, coarsely chopped

1. Preheat oven to 350°.

2. Weigh or lightly spoon flour into dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine flour and next 3 ingredients (through salt), stirring well with a whisk. Combine peanut butter and next 4 ingredients (through eggs), stirring well. Add peanut butter mixture to flour mixture; stir until combined. Stir in chocolate chips.

3. Scrape the batter into a 9-inch square metal baking pan lightly coated with cooking spray, and arrange the peanut butter cups over batter. Bake at 350° for 19 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center comes out with moist crumbs clinging. Cool in pan on a wire rack.

-Serves "20," unless you love yourself enough to give yourself more than a 1.5" piece.

Quadruple Chocolate Lady Godiva

I live for coffee. I honestly cannot imagine giving it up. It's an addiction I wear proudly on my sleeve. How do I take my coffee, you might ask? Black. I like mixing in flavored coffees, but I don't generally go in for diluting my caffeine while I'm mainlining it in the morning. SO, while I was super stoked about getting to try Godiva coffee (P.S. It is DELICIOUS taken black), I was worried about my aptitude for making an icy, flavored concoction with it.

Naturally, instead of keeping it clean for the kiddies, my mind turned straight to alcohol for the answer to my problem. Hubster suggested "Triple Chocolate"-something. And, as always, I took it overboard and made it "Quadruple Chocolate"-something (overboard, but in a good way). I made this for my lady friends Jessica and Rachel. It happened to be Rachel's birthday, so I bought her a chocolate cake. I'm almost ashamed to admit that I briefly wondered if I could puree a bit of the cake into the drink to make it "Quintuple Chocolate"-something. This was discarded on the grounds of lunacy. As it was, having 4x Chocolate, caffeine, and liquor washed down by a hearty helping of birthday cake was quite the experience.

I made this up as I went. I think some of the best things in life come out of improvisation, and this was no exception. 3 out of 3 girls on a drunken sugar high approve of this drink.

Quadruple Chocolate Lady Godiva (from me)
-8 ounces Godiva Chocolate Truffle coffee, brewed and chilled in the refrigerator
-4 ounces Baileys Irish Cream
-4 ounces Kahlua
-4 ounces Half 'n Half (**Note: Honestly, I didn't put this much in. I only did it here for ease of ounces per glass. So, if you want your drinks less dilute and more boozy--good for you!--just pare it down to 1.5-2 ounces.**)
-1.5 ounces semisweet chocolate, melted and whisked smooth
-2-3 ice cubes per glass, plus a few for the martini shaker
-Chocolate whipped topping to garnish
-Chocolate shavings to garnish

1. In a martini shaker, mix cold Godiva Chocolate Truffle coffee, Bailey's, Kahlua, Half 'n Half, and melted chocolate over a few ice cubes. Shake well.

2. In each of 4 glasses, place 2-3 ice cubes. Pour the drinks out into equal portions, about 5 ounces each. Top with whipped cream and chocolate shavings and serve immediately.

-Serves 4

The birthday girl with a positively sinful combination.

I wish I'd had more time this month to experiment with other Godiva drinks. I received two bags from them--one was the Chocolate Truffle, the other French Vanilla. I'm envisioning something creamy, with more vanilla and rum for the French Vanilla....and something with Creme de Menthe for the Chocolate Truffle. SO, my suggestion to you, cordial lovers, is to go out, score some sweet Godiva coffee, and improvise! You won't be disappointed. Even if you're not into cordial drinks, I recommend the Chocolate Truffle coffee on its own--it is awesome!

I received Godiva coffee as part of the Foodbuzz Tastemaker program.

Spicy Beef with Thai Basil


Thai Basil might be one of my favorite herbs in the whole wide world. If you're unfamiliar with it, I can tell you only that it "smells like Thai food." Inhale deeply, and you might smell anise. Before it's incorporated into your food, while on the stalk, it has beautiful dark purple flowers that emanate the most intense aroma.

Thai Basil, photo from Mas Du Diable.

So, anywho, it never occurred to me that things like Thai basil and lemongrass were, y'know, growable in your own backyard. My friend Kathy began her own organic herb garden, and both of the aforementioned were part of this summer's bounty. While I got many great herbs from her this summer (things like chocolate mint and lemon verbena included!), these were by far my favorite as exotic items are not always easy to find here in Urbana-Champaign.

One of my very favorite dishes to order comes from Vientiane Palace in Madison--Fried Whole Basil with Beef (though I'm pretty sure it used to be called "Fried Holy Basil," and Thai Holy Basil is a different thing entirely). The dish came with entire bunches of thai basil--stalks and all--fried up and served in a spicy brown sauce with succulent slices of beef. It. is. so. good. This was my attempt at making something similar at home.

Spicy Beef with Thai Basil (from The Food Addicts)
-1 lb. stir fry beef, sliced thin
-4 cloves garlic, minced
-3 shallots, sliced thin
-2 red Thai chiles, minced (these can be dried and rehydrated in warm water)
-1-2 teaspoons lemongrass, minced (**this is optional, but oh-so-tasty!**)
-1/2-1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
-1/2-1 orange or yellow bell pepper, thinly sliced
-1/4 cup soy sauce
-1 1/2 teaspoons fish sauce
-1 tablespoon brown sugar
-1 tablespoon mirin
-1 tablespoon cornstarch
-Cracked pepper to taste
-1 cup Thai basil leaves (leave whole or slice them chiffonade--it's up to you)

1. Saute beef over medium-high heat for about 3 minutes. Add garlic, shallots, lemongrass, and chiles. Saute for 1 minute more.

2. Add the bell peppers and mix in. Saute for a few minutes more, until beef and peppers are tender.

3. In a small bowl, whisk together soy sauce, fish sauce, brown sugar, mirin, and cornstarch. Pour over the beef-pepper mixture, stirring to coat. When sauce thickens, add a bit of cracked pepper to taste.

4. Remove pan from heat. Toss in the Thai basil. Don't cook the basil, or it will turn black. Serve immediately with rice.

-4 small-ish servings (to extend it a bit, add 2 whole bell peppers)

Note: This dish is delightful and tasty, but VERY spicy. If you want to dial the spicy down a notch, only put in 1 Thai chile, or use milder chiles.

Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Gorgonzola

I was that weird kid who didn't mind eating brussels sprouts. They just tasted like cabbage to me (and I loooove cabbage). I realize that most of people's disdain for brussels sprouts probably lies in the way they're prepared. They're often overcooked and mushy, slathered in butter and breadcrumbs. Who would like *anything* that tastes like cabbage-y baby food? The key to brussels sprouts is cooking them until they're just tender--preferably still a bit crisp. If you're looking for a way to ease yourself into brussels sprouts, this recipe--flavorful, a little spicy, studded with gorgonzola--is a great way to do it.

Pasta with Brussels Sprouts and Gorgonzola (modified from Food & Wine)
-2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
-2 cloves garlic, minced
-1 small red onion, thinly sliced
-1 pound brussels sprouts, stem trimmed, and thinly sliced, loose outer leaves reserved (**Note: If you're not a brussels sprouts fan yet, you may want to put in less than a pound...there are a lot of sprouts in this dish!**)
-5 large white button mushrooms, sliced
-1/8 teaspoon cayenne
-1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
-Salt and pepper to taste (**I think I did about 1/2 teaspoon and 1/4 teaspoon**)
-1/2 pound penne or other short pasta
-4 ounces Gorgonzola, crumbled

1. In a large, deep skillet, heat oil over medium-high heat. Add onion and garlic, cook 3 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the sliced brussels sprouts and mushrooms, cayenne, thyme, and salt and pepper. Cook over moderate heat, stirring occasionally until sprouts are just tender, about 3 minutes. Add the reserved brussels sprout leaves, cover and remove from heat.

2. In the meantime, boil a pot of salted water for the pasta. Cook pasta according to box instructions, reserving 3/4 of the pasta water. Add the pasta to the skillet along with the reserved pasta water. Cook over medium heat, stirring to coat pasta with vegetables. Season with more salt and pepper as necessary. Transfer to bowls to serve, top with Gorgonzola.

-Serves 4 very generously (I might even say 6)

Verdict: Tres tasty! Especially if you add more Gorgonzola (damn you and your addictive nature, cheese!). This looks like a fast recipe to make, but the reality is that prepping brussels sprouts is fairly time-intensive. Get a helper to cut them up and you'll be done in no time.