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  • Blogging for Books Review: Food With Friends by Leela Cyd + Polenta Bowls with Roasted Cherry Tomatoes, Walnuts & Thyme

    Alright, I have started yet another...thing...here. After discovering an amazing organization, Bloging for Books, I knew I had to participate. The cookbook lover in me rejoiced! Fast forward a month or so, getting my first book in the mail, reading it, and making a few recipes from it, I am now ready to review Food With Friends by Leela Cyd.At first glance, what caught my attention was the vibrant nature of this book. The colors and pictures, the words, the food...it all screams "party time!". I mean, even the cover with magenta-stained deviled eggs screams celebration! Anyone who has the ability to make a deviled egg that exciting probably knows a thing or two about entertaining. But, know that wheen Leela says "party!" it doesn't always mean a huge, planned, extravagant gathering. She emphasizes that even the smallest gathering with just a friend or two, or heck, even just YOU, is worth celebrating with tasty, fun, but equally not complicated food. I love that she gives tips about how she personally can afford, both time and money wise, to entertain. She devotes a whole section, "Style File" to this, and for the new-to-entertainer, as well as seasoned party thrower, the tips and tricks she provides are solid. 

    The book is divded into categories: Breakfast & Brunch, Tea Time, Happy Hour, Potlucks & Picnics, Desserts and finally, Tiny Takeaways. Just reading the category names makes you want to entertain! Every section gives recipes to arm a host or hostess with tasty food options that are approachable, fun and not pretentious. It is as if Leela knows that when you want to throw a gathering, you're not going to go ahead, be like Martha, and make crackers from scratch, embark on a recipe that takes 3 days of prep to execute, or go on a multi-city voyage to find a certain ingredient. The point is to not to kill yourself over complicated food, but really to just prepare delicious and easily shared foods that inspire, delight or even thrill guests (and the host/hostess!). However, if there is a recipe that calls for an extra bedazzled step, she justifies her approach and assures that it is worth it for the "wow factor" (example: Sugar Cookies with Edible Flowers, page 55). Regardless, her goal is to keep you sane, happy and well fed, all while having a great time and delighting your guests.

    Leela gives a variety of recipes for those who would need to be gluten free, vegan, vegetarian, etc. Although, this book is not 100% devoted to any diet mantra, so if you're looking for a food entertaining book to suit that need, I wouldn't not suggest Food With Friends, just know that you're not going to find those types of devoted topics in this book. But, as I said before, the inspiration is boundless...and I bet anyone could use their imagination for most of the recipes to make them suit their dietary needs. 

    I really love that fact that she has an entire section devoted to simple treats that would serve as host/hostess gifts (always a good idea!), or simple treats to take with you to a gathering to share. I can personally endorse the Whiskey Pepper Magic Shell (page 189). While this recipe fabulously simple, the wow and taste factors are exceedingly high!

    Overall, if you are looking for a solid book for inspiration, tasty recipes for foods worth and designed for sharing, and some good tips on entertaining, I would absolutely recommend Food With Friends. If you are in the market for a complete guide on how to plan for and execute a party or event, or for a book with all plantbased/vegan/"clean food" recipes for entertaining, I would look elsewhere. Personally, I am very pleased with the book, and look forward to trying more recipes (with modifications to some to suit my needs), as well as Leela's tips for throwing a bash. 

    I have been enjoying her recipe for Polenta With Blistered Tomatoes, Walnuts & Thyme (page 132). As I mentioned above, I made some modifications as I saw fit for my needs and what I had in my kitchen (with these modifications to the ingredients noted in parenthesis). Since really, the end goal is delcious food that will bring you joy and pleasure! Enjoy!



    Polenta With Blistered Tomatoes, Walnuts & Thyme // plant-based; vegan; gluten-free; sugar-free; soy-free // makes 4 servings // 

    • 2 cups cherry tomatoes (I used mini San Marzano tomatoes)
    • 1 TB + 1 tsp olive oil (I used organic extra virgin)
    • Sea salt & freshly cracked black pepper
    • 4 sprigs fresh thyme (I omitted these due to not having any on hand)
    • 1/2 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
    • 1 cup polenta (I used organic polenta)
    • pinch nutmeg
    • 1/2 cup finely shredded Parmesan cheese (I used 2 TB nutritional yeast)
    • 1 TB unsalted butter (I used Earth Balance)
    • 1/4 cup plain whole milk yogurt (omitted this)
    • Optional add-ints I chose to use: roasted corn & zucchini, kalamata olives, basil pesto, sauteed kale

    1. Preheat oven to 400F. Place walnuts on a baking tray, and tomatoes tossed with the olive oil, sea salt, black pepper and thyme on another sheet tray or in a baking dish. Toast nuts for 7 minutes, and roast the tomatoes for an additional 13 minutes, or until starting to blister and crack, and turn soft. Allow to cool while you get on with the polenta.

    2. Bring 4 cups of water to a boil (the original calls for 3 cups), adding a good pinch of sea salt and the nutmeg once boiling. Slowly whisk in the 1 cup of polenta, turning down the heat as necessary to prevent bubbling over. Whisk until the mixture is thick enough where the polenta will not all sink to the bottom and scorch. Turn the heat down to medium-low, stirring constantly until the mixture bubbles slowly. Place a lid on, set a timer for 30 minutes. After 10 minutes, return to the pot, and give it a good stir. Do the same after 10 minute increments for a full 30 minutes. If desired, cook for 40 minutes for an even softer texture. 

    3. At the end of the 30, or 40, minutes, stir in the parman (or nutritional yeast), and butter (or earth balance). You can keep the polenta warm for about 20 minutes with the cover on, but you will need to add a splash of water or vegetable stock and give the thickened polenta a good stir over heat to get it to scooping consistency again. Serve, topping with the blistered tomatoes, toasted walnuts, and whatever else you may desire. Enjoy immediately! If you have leftover polenta, spread it out on a lightly grease baking sheet, cover, refrigerate, and enjoy slices topped with leftover toppings the next day!



    The fixins', including the roasted cherry tomatoes and walnuts. I found having all of these toppings ready made for a really fun, easy way to share the polenta! Like a taco bar...but with polenta bowls...Close up...cause they are super pretty and tasty! The roasting concentrates the tomatoe flavor and natural sweetness. Don't forget to get all that juicy, thick tomato goo off the roasting pan! It is like tomato caramel sauce!Polenta...in a bag...pretty fun stuff! Really, it is! After cooking, it becomes a blank canvas onto which you can top as you please. Perfect for a group!Scoop cooked polenta into bowls, and top as desired! Enjoy!I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review, and highly recommend the program for anyone who loves to read new books on a frequent basis!

  • Stashing Away the Summer: Pickled Beets, Quick Refrigerator Pickles and How To Freeze Tomatoes

    So guys....it is September. I have been a hermit, working away at my research, trying to not pull my hair out. You know how big of a pain humidity makes cooking caramel to specific moisture contents? Well, let us all hope that you never have to go down that road. Caramel should be fun, not painful...I rest my case. Have I mentioned how eager I am to graduate in December? I have imporant things on my mind...like my graduation party! Should I make my own cake? What sort of snacks should I provide? Hot chocolate bar?? Veggie chili with lots of toppings?? But for right now, I am trying to focus on having a relaxing holiday weekend, involving spinach artichoke dip, bean dip with lots of fresh summer produce, and sitting in the sun. Not gonna lie, I think I have earned a few days off before the next round of my data collection begins next week!

    For the preserving: I canned tomatoes with my mom a few weekends back, and then made pickled beets...this Wisconsin girl *cannot* fathom that she has never made them (spoiler: super easy, super tasty). I also hit the jackpot with some super easy, super-duper tasty refrigerator pickles (spiked with garlic, of course). And this past weekend, after picking ~30 pounds of tomatoes at our CSA farm, I froze a few pounds of them beautiful red 'maters.  

    I assure you, the goods below are not a ton of work, even though preserving/canning is usually assumed to be very time consuming-just be organized, keep your work space clean and remain calm. There is not a moment to waste! We have the last few weeks of summer to enjoy, and the harvest to preserve to help us get through the wicked cold season that is too fast approaching. 

    Notes: 

    First, please start with clean jars for the pickled beets and pickles: thoroughly wash in soapy, hot water (or in a dishwasher with a high-heat setting somewhere during the cycle), and sanitize with a dilute bleach solution. Air dry. This can be done up to 2 days ahead.

    The Pickled Beets recipe hailed from an issue of The Isthmus, Madison's weekly newspaper full of fun shit...and now, evidently pickled beet recipes...what more could a WI girl ask for? The original called for 3 1/2 pounds of beets, but I only had about 2 on hand (about 2 regular bunches). I did not cut the other ingredients in half, so if you wish, just up the beets to the full 3 1/2 pounds for 4 full pints (not 2). If you are a strict vegan, than I suspect agave OR maple syrup would both be suitable subs for the honey. I use locally sourced, raw honey, cause that is the right thing to do. These are great in salads, on sandwiches, or by themselves. 

    The Refrigerator Pickle recipe comes from none other than Deb. Need I say more?? Feel free to throw in a few slices of peppers, more garlic, some red chili flakes, and anything else you think would improve with a spa-like bath in vinegar (carrots, radishes, etc). Eat these as you would any pickle...um...however you do that. 

    And lastly, the frozen tomato method is from my grandma/everyone's grandmother. It is just the way you do it! You can halve, quarter or slice the peeled tomatoes, squeeze out the juice/pulp and use for another purpose (or strain and freeze separately!). Really, this method is super flexible. You could even freeze the tomatoes whole after peeling, juices/seeds and all! Some people freeze tomatoes whole and raw, but I prefer to blanch and peel my 'maters before freezing, because 1) who likes tough tomato skins? No straining, blending or pureeing required once you use the tomatoes, and 2) the blanching step stop enzymes, and this is important especially in home freezers; we like to think that freezing "stops" or makes every biological/metabolic process dormant, but this is not always true. Frozen tomatoes are best used in cooked recipes, since they will be mushy from freezing. Sauces, soups, stocks, purees...you get the idea!



    Easy Pickled Beets - Naturally Sweetened // plant-based; vegan option; nut-free; oil-free; soy-free; refined sugar-free option; gluten-free // makes 2 pints (double only the amount of beets for 4 pints) //

    • 2 bunches beets, any colors or variety (about 2 lbs; original called for 3 ½ lbs, which would make 4 pints)
    • 1 cup water and/or liquid from cooking beets
    • ½ large onion, sliced thin (original called for ½ lb)
    • 2 cups white vinegar (I used 50:50 white:white white vinegar)
    • 1/3 cup honey + 1/6 cup (original called for 1 ¼ cups sugar)
    • 2 TB salt (I used regular-grain sea salt)
    • *spices: original called for 6 whole cloves an a 13-inch cinnamon stick, in a spice bag, but I left this out.

    1. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Fill clean jars with the hot, boiling water and allow them to sit. Place clean canning lids in the remaining hot water, off to the side on your counter. 

    2. Trim the root ends and tops off beets. Place into a large pot, fill with water, and boil until tender. This will depend on the size of your beets. Don't sweat it too much if you have some large and small beets. Once cooked, carefully drain the cooking water off, reserving 1 cup if it isn't too funky looking (I juse used water, since my cooking water wasn't the most appealing). Run hot beets under cold water, peeling skin away as you do this. Cut peeled beets into 1/3"-1/2" slices.

    3. In a large pot, combine the water, onion, vinegar, sweetener of choice, salt, and spices of your choosing. Bring to a boil. Add the beets, and return to a boil for 4-5 minutes. 

    4. Pour the hot water out of the jars, and immediately pack the beets in, topping off with liquid. Clean the rims of the jars off with a damp clean towel, then place jar lids on right away, and tightly close with jar rings. Allow to sit for 24 ours, undisturbed. Store in the fridge for 4-5 months.


    Did you know that pickled beets need that punch from onion? I had no idea. I sacrificed a super pretty purple onion from our CSA. Also, note the burn marks on my cutting board. At first I was horified when that did that, then grew to like it. Weird, Ok, now those beets...

    The sunlight + The Beets = Summer Jewels!Crazy to think that those roots below can be so beautiful (and so good for you!)Everything in the pot, ready to place into jars:And the finished pickled beets! I'll be thanking myself in November...you will too!



    Easy Refrigerator Pickles // plant-based; vegan; nut-free; oil-free; soy-free; sugar-free; gluten-free // makes ~2 pints // 

    Ok, so here is the scoop: I followed Deb's recipe to the T. The only thing I adjusted was adding more garlic, a very heavy pinch of red pepper flakes, and probably double the amount of dill. This recipe, beyond the vinegar/salt/water ratio, is very flexible. See the notes above for more ideas! These lasted only about 2 weeks for us, at which time they were still crunchy. 


    Pickles...in the making (aka: cucumbers). A homegrown pepper was tossed in too...seriously, this is the first year my pepper plants have actually produced. Maybe the neglec to water consistently was a good thing then??

    Fresh Garlic. Pretty purple!The pickles cut up. Cut them thin if you like them thinner...and thicker if you want them crunchier...whatever your texture preference.Stuff it all into a jar, and let the osmosis take place! Taste along the way...you made pickles!!

    After about 1 hour:

    The next day! These were so great to munch on. 

    Still crunchy a few days later, and the flavors had really come together!



    Frozen Tomatoes // plant-based; vegan; nut-free; soy-free; sugar-free; oil-free; gluten-free // makes however many bags of tomatoes you wish // 

    • however many pounds fresh, fully ripe summer tomatoes you'd like to stash away for the winter
    • sharp paring knife slotted spoon or other tool to transfer tomatoes
    • heavy-duty freezer bags (you can re-use them when you're done!)
    • Sharpie marker for labeling bags (prevents the "WTF is this?" moment 3 months later when you forgot that you took the time to freeze summer-fresh tomatoes)
    • baking or cookie sheet

    1. Bring a large pot of water to a good simmer. Meanwhile, get a large bowl full of cold water and ice ready.

    2. Cut an "X" in the non-stem end of each tomato. Remove any stems or leaves from tomatoes. 

    3. Working in batches (if needed), use a slotted spoon to carefully slide tomatoes into the simmering water. Allow them to blanch for 30 seconds-2 minutes, or until you can see the "X" you cut start to widen and/or skin around the "X" loosen/peel away. Transfer with the slotted spoon to the ice bath. Allow to sit until the tomatoes are cool enough to touch.

    4. Using you fingers and a paring knife to help, peel the skins away. Remove the stem end and tough core. Cut the tomatoes into halves or quarters, reserving any juice that comes out in the process-I do this entirely over a baking sheet to catch the mess. Alternatively, you can also leave the tomatoes whole.

    5. Place tomatoes into freezer bags, along with the juices (if desired, or you can simply strain and freeze the juice separately, or use it fresh). Try to not cram in a ton in each bag, as this hinders a quick freezing process. I use a kitchen scale to measure out approximately the same quantity in each bag. Squeeze out as much air as possible, or use a straw to suck out extra air. Label, lay flat in freezer or place onto cookie sheets, and freeze. Once frozen, you can move them around as you see fit in your freezer.

    6. Tomatoes will last about 7-8 months in a standard home freezer. 


    So many tomatoes...so little time....

    Such a crazy pretty red color...ketchup has nothing on these guys.The X's cut into the bottom of the tomatoes:After a few minutes in a good simmering bath, plunge into ice or very cold water, and watch as the skins start to peel off themselves:Finish the peeling...naked tomatoes!Core the tough stem end out, and then slice into halves, quarters, or simple leave whole. Place in bags, get all the air out you can, freeze flat, then you are done! Oh, and label if you want...I labeled my bags.I put about 20 oz. in each bag, and had 6 bags at the end. Hooray!

  • Fried Summer Squash or Zucchini Pasta Salad

    First off, HAPPY SUMMER! I am so excited. I am running out of time to do my research and write my thesis, but here I am making glorius summer salads. Whatever-you live once, and I LOVE summer. It is right up there with autumn. And, I know I was on a gluten-free challenge, but I also live with an Italian. That means carbs are a reality, especially with pesto season upon us. So what was a girl to do?? Uhh...Trader Joe's to the resecue!! Have you tried their gluten-free pasta made from quinoa and brown rice? I am in love. Indeed, even my boyfriend had a hard time discerning in a side-by-side taste test the difference, and mixed in with a flavorful herby dressing with lots of summer veggies? Win! And at less than $2.50 per one pound bag, you get several servings for an affordable price. Whatever variety of pasta you do use, I think the bite-sized pasta shapes are best here, so save that bag of angel hair, linguini or spaghetti for summer tomato sauce dishes. 

    This pasta was inspired by Deb at Smitten Kitchen. Is there any recipe that she shares that isn't simple and delicious? Now, I know what you are thinking: frying zucchini or summer squash? Won't that be super greasy and heavy, on top of an oil-based herb dressing? Asnwer: no (and yes, I too was skeptical at first!). If executed properly, pan frying is actually a dry cooking method; the water in the produce steams away, and higher temperatures, thanks to the oil, produce a brown, crispy texture. The key is to keep the oil at the proper temperature, as oil that is not hot enough can seep into the food, and too hot oil can be a smokey mess. Be sure that when you add batches of the zucchini or squash, that it sizzles right away-and doesn't just sit there in a pool of oil. Yes, you're probably adding some extra calories here, but to help bulk-up the dish and dilute any frying oil that does make it into the zucchini, I added a ton (yes, a metric ton) of fresh veggies. Tomatoes, arugula, green onions, garlic...be creative with what you add in addition to the zucchini, and suit to what is in season. My additions were based on what was in my fridge/CSA box. A nice dose of lemon juice and zest really lighten this salad and make the flavors pop-so don't skip the lemon!!

    I used  olive oil for the frying step, but please feel free to substitue any oil you'd like for this (yes, I do know that it has a lower smoke point than other oils). Virgin coconut, sunflower, grapeseed, etc. would work, too. But please, please use a good quality extra virgin oil for the pesto...it is a requirement, not a suggestion, since it is the basis for the salad's dressing. Not a fan of nutritional yeast or it freaks you out? Then omit it, or add your favorite locally sourced hard italian-style cheese, such as romano, asiago, parmesan (look for a veggie rennet type if you're a true stickler about this, as traditional is made from animal rennet) or even ricotta salata. 

    p.s.: I betcha a picnic or cookout would be a great occasion to make this! And, bonus! You can make it up to a day ahead of time, and let the flavors meld in the fridge. Boom! You're awesome.



    Fried Zucchini or Summer Squash Pasta Salad // plant-based, vegan, gluten-free option, soy-free, sugar-free, nut-free option // Serves 4 as a main, 8 as a side //

    For the Zucchini/Summer Squash:

    • 3-4 small/medium zucchini or summer squash
    • 3-4 TB olive oil (enough to cover the pan bottom), or other oil for pan frying 
    • Sea Salt

    For the Pesto:

    • 2 cups loosely packed fresh basil leaves, or other fresh herb combination, like parsley and basil
    • 4 TB extra virgin olive oil
    • 1 or 2 large cloves garlic (2 if you like it super garlic-y)
    • 1 TB fresh lemon juice 
    • 1 TB nutritional yeast
    • 1/4 tsp sea salt
    • 1/4 cup walnuts or pinenuts (use sunflower seeds or just omit entirely for nut-free), toasted

    For The Salad:

    • 2 cups gluten-free or other favorite pasta (I used Trader Joe's Quinoa and Brown Rice Rotini)
    • 1 1/2 to 2 cups tomaotes (I used small San Marzano; a similar cherry/grape tomato is perfect here)
    • 1 1/2 TB capers, rinsed (salt packed or brined will both work), OR finely chopped kalamata or other quality olive
    • 3 scallions/green onions, white and green parts
    • 1 TB red wine vinegar (or lemon juice)
    • Zest of 1 lemon
    • 4 heaping cups arugula or spinach
    • Sea salt and freshly cracked pepper, to taste
    • Nutritional yeast, if deisred (or favorite hard Italian cheese) for topping

    1. Bring a pot of salted water to the boil, and cook pasta to al dente. Drain and set aside to cool a bit. While you wait for the pasta to cook, carry on:

    2. In a medium to large pan, bring the 1/3 cup oil up to tempertaure over medium-high heat. Slice zucchini or squash into 1/4" rounds. Fry in a few batches, to make sure the oil stays hot. The zucchini/squash should sizzle immediately when added to the oil. Cook until golden brown, then flip. Transfer to a paper towel lined plate or cooling rack to allow excess oil to drain, and sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Repeat with remaining zucchini.

    3. In a food processor or blender, combine all the ingredients for the pesto. If necessary, add a TB or two of water or more oil to help blend. Taste, and adjust seasoning. 

    4. Cut tomaotes into small bite-sized pieces, chop scallions into small rounds, and add to a large bowl or container. Add the remaining ingredients for the salad, fried zucchini, and the pesto. Gently toss in the cooked and slightly cooled pasta, and adjust seasoning/lemon juice and zest. Serve with freshly cracked black peper and nutritional yeast, if desired. Pasta will keep for up to 4 days, covered in the fridge.



     The zucchini and summer squash, all green and gold and glorius!

    Cut into rounds...and ready to pan fry:

    Fried and fabulous (did you know that is a food cart here in Madison??):

    Ok-we're making progress! The arugula, tomatoes, green onions, capers (I got my salt-packed capers from Fraboni's Italian market in Madison. Love that place, and spend waaay too much when I go there! Fun Fact: my boyfriend's grandfather had a butcher shop right accross the street from the Fraboni's on Regent street, back in the glory days of the Greenbush area in Madison!).

    Ok, now for the pesto! You may toast your nuts (ha!) or sunflower seeds if you are using them. Really, I included this picture because my boyfriend, as awesome as he is, got me an All-Clad Copper Core 10" fying pan for by birthday. Can I tell you how amazing nice cookware is? Such a treat after dealing with my sub-par pans for years! I will slowly have nice cookware...one piece at a time!

    Everything for the pesto into a blender or food processor:

    And there you have it-a delicious vegan pesto perfect for this recipe OR for anything you'd like to use it for.

    Now we gently toss everything together. You are done! Make sure to taste for seasonings and lemon-I usually have to spike mine with another pinch of sea salt. But do your thang!

    Enjoy now, or cover and place into the fridge. You can snack on this all week, or share it at a summer picnic or cookout. Enjoy and HAPPY SUMMER!