Fun and revelry with Spaghetti and Meatballs

January was a wonderful month for Scott and I.  He was on an ambulatory rotation which means that he worked 8:00AM-5:00PM Monday through Friday and that he got weekends off!  Over Martin Luther King weekend, we even jetted up to New York City!  It was Scott’s first time there so I had to try to show him as much as possible!
A walk through Chinatown
Papaya King hotdogs, chili fries, and fruit smoothie--yum!  We really felt like New Yorkers after we had our hot dogs! ;)
The Cross discovered at Ground Zero

Scott next to Starry Night by VanGogh at the MoMA
We ate lots of amazing food (I super highly recommend 4 and 20 Blackbirds and Lombardi’s pizza!), went to two Broadway shows, three museums, and walked past or through many of the sites NYC is famous for.  
Four and Twenty Blackbirds is owned and run by two sisters from South Dakota, my home state!  I had the buttermilk pie (top right) which tasted like the custard of a french toast but with a slight tang, and Scott had the Black-Bottom Oatmeal Pie which was chocolaty, gooey, crispy all at once.
Me outside of "Mamma Mia!" which was one of the Broadway shows we went to. It was a great show!  

Our pizza at Lombardi's, the oldest pizzeria in the U.S., was some of the best pizza I've ever had.

We packed so much into three days that our comprehension could hardly keep up with all that our senses were taking in!  It was so much fun for us to explore the city together and delight in every new discovery and nuance that makes New York the great city that it is.
The lovely deli and bakery near our hotel where we ate breakfast (or dessert for breakfast) every morning

Walking through Central Park, looking back at the Upper West Side, on our way to the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Times Square

We also managed to host a casual get-together with friends during a weeknight (usually out of the question with Scott’s schedule) during January.  Scott had been pining for a game night because he loves games and we hadn’t been able to play any of our favorite board games since we moved.  Meanwhile, I was yearning to cook a spaghetti and meatball recipe that had caught my eye months earlier, which I thought would be a perfect, effortless, yet delicious, meal to make for guests, and for which I had bought the ingredients weeks earlier so that indeed, I would be forced to follow through and make it someday.  I made the meatballs and sauce two nights before, intense cocoa brownies the night before, and did nothing but reheat and boil noodles the night of!  (See, I learned from my disaster last summer!)  The night was a great success with all the food tasting quite delicious and the game, Taboo, was absolutely riotous with “scandalous” words flowing innocently out of prim mouths and me shrieking “Wayne Gretzky!” at the top of my lungs when the epiphany hit, just as we were about to give up, that I actually knew a NHL hockey player’s name!  Sadly, the boys’ team ended up winning the game over the girls in a Sudden Death Showdown (boo!), but other than that the night was wonderful! After our guests had gone, Scott and I told each other, probably at least 20 times while we got ready for bed, how much fun we had that evening and we rehashed everything until we finally calmed down enough to sleep. 

I highly recommend hosting a game night with this Spaghetti and Meatball recipe to liven things up during this cold and dreary time of year.  It will surely be enough to snap you out of any winter dol-drums funk.  I’ll leave it up to you to decide what to do, but when you’ve made up your mind, the recipe is below.

P.S. If you need another endorsement for this sauce, Scott told me that night as we rehashed things, to never ever make another spaghetti and meatball recipe again, no matter how good or intriguing I thought another one might be.  This was the one that he wants “forever and ever.”  So, there you have it, I will now leave you to decide what to do.

Spaghetti and Meatballs
Slightly adapted from Molly Wizenburg in Bon Appetit
Makes 6 main-course servings

A couple of important notes that will make or break this recipe.  The products you use 100% matter when you make this.  Canned tomatoes vary a lot in their taste and acidity.  San Marzano tomatoes (the expensive kind adored by Ina Garten) are hardly acidic--Scott even thought they tasted like V8 juice!  
This is an example of San Marzano tomatoes, ignore the fact that these are crushed (I used them for a different recipe), you want whole tomatoes for this recipe!
Other varieties, like Hunt’s for example are quite acidic.  The acidity of the tomatoes you use matters in this recipe because 1) there are only four ingredients in this sauce recipe, and 2) you add a good amount of butter to counterbalance the acidity of the tomatoes.  Some reviewers on Epicurious who had used San Marzano tomatoes found this recipe to be too buttery.  This is because there was little acidity for the butter to balance out.  So, the point is pay attention to what kind of tomatoes you are using, taste a chunk of one before you put it in the sauce to see how acidic it is.  When I made this I bought San Marzano tomatoes because I was making it for guests and wanted it to be extra good.  I ended up doubling the recipe and used three 28oz cans San Marzano and one 28oz can of Hunt’s that I happened to have in my pantry.  I added one stick of butter to the sauce, which, since I was doubling the recipe, was half the amount called for, and there I stopped because the acidity was balanced, the butter tasted beautiful in the sauce, and any more would have been overkill.  So, all that to say, get some good tomatoes (after doing some searching, Cook’s Illustrated ranks Muir Glen the best, San Marzano's are good too) and start by adding half the amount of butter, taste, and add more as needed.  With enough butter, you will find yourself with a sauce that is lovely in its silkiness, glorious in its velvetiness, and refined in its smoothness.   There will be no sharp acidic flavors, but only a wonderful richness.

Ok, so two other quick notes!  First, the texture of the meatballs is key so don’t use grated cheese when it calls for ground, and use your hand (the best tool) to mix everything until just blended, no longer!

The second note is that this sauce and meatballs taste great on crusty garlic bread.  So feel free use less pasta than called for so you’ll have extra sauce to wipe up with the garlic bread. Plop a meatball on top and you will have yourself a really good open-faced sandwich.

2 28-ounce cans whole* peeled tomatoes in juice, drained, juice reserved, tomatoes finely chopped
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter (see notes above!)
2 medium onions, peeled, halved through root end
1/2 teaspoon (or more) salt

1 cup fresh breadcrumbs made from crustless French or country-style bread
1/3 cup milk
8 ounces ground beef (I used 90% lean)
8 ounces ground pork
1 cup finely ground (not grated) Parmesan cheese (Use the rasp side of a box grater to get the proper size and recruited Scott to help me, you may also be able to use a food processor)
1/3 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 large eggs
2 large garlic cloves, pressed
1 pound spaghetti
Freshly grated Parmesan cheese (for serving)

For sauce:
Combine tomatoes with juice, butter, onions, and salt in large wide pot. Bring to simmer over medium heat. Reduce heat; simmer uncovered 45 minutes, stirring occasionally. Discard onions. Using immersion blender, process sauce briefly to break up any large pieces of tomato (or alternatively put he sauce in batches in a blender and pulse a few times). Season sauce with more salt and freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes for a bit of a kick. Remove from heat, cover, and set aside.
For meatballs:
Combine breadcrumbs and milk in small bowl; stir until breadcrumbs are evenly moistened. Let stand 10 minutes.

Place beef and pork in large bowl and break up into small chunks. Add 1 cup ground Parmesan, parsley, salt, and pepper.

Whisk eggs to blend in small bowl; whisk in garlic. Add to meat mixture.

Using hands, squeeze milk from breadcrumbs, reserving milk. I tried to do this step but there was no milk for me to squeeze out.  If you try this I would suggest putting your bread crumb mixture in a fine mesh sieve and pressing down on it with your hands to release any excess milk.  Add breadcrumbs to meat mixture. Using your hands as “claws”, quickly and gently mix meat mixture just until all ingredients are evenly combined. Do not overmix!  Overworking the meat will give you rubbery meatballs.  Chill mixture at least 15 minutes and up to 1 hour.

Moisten hands with some of reserved milk from breadcrumbs, then roll meat mixture between palms into golf-ball-size balls, occasionally moistening hands with milk as needed and arranging meatballs in single layer in sauce in pot (with the sauce still in the pot). Bring to simmer. (I did this and my meatballs turned out great and imparted extra flavor to the sauce; I personally would not worry about browning the meatballs first before adding them to the sauce.)  Reduce heat to medium-low, cover, and simmer until meatballs are cooked through, 15 to 20 minutes.  The meatballs and sauce can be made 2 days ahead! Cool slightly. Chill uncovered until cold, then cover and keep chilled. Rewarm while you bring your water for the noodles to a boil.

Cook spaghetti in large pot of boiling salted water until just tender but still firm to bite, stirring occasionally. Drain.
Using slotted spoon, transfer meatballs to platter. Add pasta to sauce in pot and toss to coat. Divide pasta among 6 plates. Top each serving with meatballs. Sprinkle meatballs with freshly grated Parmesan cheese and serve.

*If you buy diced tomatoes they generally have calcium chloride added to them, which maintains the firm texture of the dice. So, no matter how long you cook them, they will never break down to be as smooth as whole tomatoes that you chop yourself.


Please read . . .

Please read my latest post on my Reflections page.  There will be no more posts here until you do!  Just kidding!  Really though, what I write about there is important to me, and if you are related to me, and are buying me a gift for Christmas, read this before you buy any gifts.  It is deep, with a lot of meaning packed into a few paragraphs so read it slowly.  I do not mean to attack or offend, but I do mean to provoke thought.  I am interested in your opinions.  Thank you!  Love you all!


Don't Forget the Ice Cream!

As you know from my last post, Scott and I have been quite busy as of late.  One of the things that kept us the busiest outside of work has been our lawn.  Yes!  We have an honest to goodness lawn in our backyard now!  It took a lot of time and effort along the way though.  First, we had to rake and rake in order to clear the ground for grass seed.  
We had about 5 years worth of packed leaves all over our yard and it took three full days of hard work to get it all cleared up and moved to a massive pile behind our backyard.  Next, Scott attempted to aerate out lawn on his day off.  I say “attempted” because the dirt here in NC the dirt is as hard as cement.  To dig a hole here one uses a pick-ax, not a shovel.  So despite the machine we rented weighing 250 pounds, the biggest hole I found in our yard was about 1 cm deep.  After the failed aerating, I had little to no hope of grass ever growing in our yard.  Despite this, Scott wanted to plow on ahead and try planting grass.  Even our neighbor, Rocky (I’ll have to tell you more about him later, he is a whole post in and of himself), told Scott multiple times “You’re crazy, you will not succeed in growing grass, it is impossible.” but Scott, being the optimist that his is, would not listen.

So, being the good wife that I am, I went to Lowe’s after church (Lowe’s and I are now very familiar with each other having now painted our house, built a deck, planted a garden and defended against deer) and spent a good chunk of change on three bags of grass seed, 1 big bag of fertilizer, 1 bag of lime, a few bags of top-soil and peat moss, a seed-spreader cart thing, and two bales of hay.  It is an odd feeling being a girl, in a dainty dress, with no husband in sight (he was working), buying a mountain of yard supplies at Lowe’s.  Try it sometime, you will get uncertain, worried looks from all the men around you.   Take it one step further, and throw my yellow Volkswagen beetle (complete with hot-pink flowers in the vase) with the back of the car packed full with macho yard supplies that say “I mean business” but yet look so utterly out of place, into the equation and then you will really get disconcerted looks from the guy that is helping you load the hay bales into your car.
The next day we planted grass in our backyard (we ran out of seed for the front, nor did we have enough time) and everyday after that we I watered our yard for almost two hours every night moving our one sprinkler to a new spot every fifteen minutes.  After one week we noticed our first bit of green!  

At the end of three weeks we had a full, lush, bright green, legitimate lawn!

Multiple neighbors have now stopped by to pay their compliments, express their surprise at seeing such a green lawn in this part of the country, and ask how we managed to do it.  The only neighbor that has not said anything has been ol’ Rocky--he still thinks our grass will die and not come back in the spring.  Hopefully we can prove him wrong!

Somehow, during this busy time, I made caramel ice cream, made with real homemade caramel.  
I made it to go with some apple crisp that I had made and while I tinkered a little too much with the crisp recipe (so much so that the “crisp” part was not crispy), I followed the caramel ice cream recipe almost to the letter and it turned out divine.
It may be the best ice cream, custard or gelato that we have ever tasted.  It was that good!  Better, even, than Berthillon in Paris.  You see this empty glass below?  
I poured myself some of the custard and drank it!  I felt compelled to because it was so just so tasty, that and the beautiful caramel color with its velvety glossy smoothness enchanted me.  It was what I have always imagined Butterbeer to be in Harry Potter, a caramel custard in liquid form (plus the addition of some rum).  I share this recipe with you now as I feel ice cream is often an afterthought for Thanksgiving desserts, but yet ice cream is so necessary for all the pies, crisps, and bread puddings served on Thanksgiving Day to really shine.  At least in my opinion, the goodness of a dessert is multiplied when you add ice cream.  So, if you want to spice things up a bit from regular old vanilla make this!  If making homemade caramel for the caramel ice cream seems daunting, consider this Maple Pecan ice cream recipe (which is also really good) or this tangy buttermilk ice cream, which pairs excellently with the overly sweet pecan pie or the rich, the warm spices used in pumpkin pie.

Salted Butter Caramel Ice Cream (aka The Genius of David Lebovitz)
A few quick notes, if you are tempted to use regular table salt for this recipe, don't.  It will over power the ice cream.  Use fleur de sel if you have it, otherwise regular sea salt use slightly less than called for.  Also, because of the caramel in this ice cream, once churned and frozen, it will stay soft and creamy, not hard like other homemade recipes.  If it becomes too runny, crank up your freezer or store it in a shallow pan.  Finally, even though it is more work to make the caramel praline (verses leaving it out), I strongly encourage you to make it as the textural crunch it brings is fantastic.

For the caramel praline (the mix-in)
½ cup (100 gr) sugar

¾ teaspoon sea salt, such as fleur de sel
For the ice cream custard
2 cups (500 ml) whole milk, divided

1½ cups (300 gr) sugar

4 tablespoons (60 gr) salted butter

scant ½ teaspoon sea salt

1 cups (250 ml) heavy cream

4 large egg yolks

¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
To make the praline:
1. To make the caramel praline, spread the ½ cup (100 gr) of sugar in an even layer in a large, unlined heavy duty saucepan. Line a baking sheet with a silicone baking mat or brush it sparingly with unflavored oil.
2. Heat the sugar over moderate heat until the edges begin to melt. This will take few minutes but be patient. Use a heatproof utensil to gently stir the liquefied sugar from the bottom and edges towards the center, stirring, until all the sugar is dissolved. (Or most of it—there may be some lumps, which will melt later.)  Continue to cook stirring infrequently until the caramel starts smoking and begins to smell like it’s just about to burn. It won’t take long once the sugar has liquified.
3. Without hesitation, sprinkle in the ¾ teaspoon salt without stirring and immediately pour the caramel onto the prepared baking sheet and quickly lift up the baking sheet, tilting and swirling it almost vertically to encourage the caramel to form as thin a layer as possible. Set aside to harden and cool.

To make the ice cream:
1. Make an ice bath by filling a large bowl about a third full with ice cubes and adding a cup or so of water. Nest a smaller metal bowl (at least 2 quarts, the mixing bowl that comes with Kitchen Aid stand mixers works well here) over the ice, pour 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk into the inner bowl, and rest a mesh strainer on top of it.
As you can see here, I got away with using a glass bowl just fine.
2. Spread 1½ cups (300 gr) sugar in the saucepan in an even layer. Cook over moderate heat, until caramelized, using the same method described in Step #2 for making the praline.
3. Once caramelized, quickly remove from heat and stir in the butter and salt, until butter is melted, then gradually whisk in the cream, stirring as you go.  This will bubble and maybe even splatter (protect yourself from burns) but this is normal.  The caramel may also harden and seize, but return it to the heat and continue to stir over low heat until any hard caramel is melted. Stir in 1 cup (250 ml) of the milk.
4. Whisk the yolks in a small bowl and gradually pour some of the warm caramel mixture over the yolks, stirring constantly to warm the egg yolks without cooking them, (this will prepare them to go into the rest of the hot caramel). Scrape the warmed yolks back into the saucepan and cook the custard using a heatproof utensil, stirring constantly (scraping the bottom as you stir) until the mixture thickens. If using an instant-read thermometer, it should read 160-170 F (71-77 C)  (For me, I reached 170F before it seemed very thick but the ice cream still turned out wonderfully).
5. Pour the custard through the strainer into the milk set over the ice bath, add the vanilla, then stir frequently until the mixture is cooled down. Refrigerate at least 8 hours or until thoroughly chilled.
6. Freeze the mixture in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
7. Enjoy!!  This ice cream is so good you will be tempted to keep it all to yourself and not bring it to your Thanksgiving meal, but bring it anyway and I bet you will enjoy everyone's compliments just as much. ;)



Oh my!  I do not know where to start!  So much has happened since I last posted!  I started my job as a research/administrative assistant for an anesthesiology research group at UNC almost two months ago.  I have had my ups and my downs at work but hopefully things will get better as I get used to them.  The downside to working, and being married to a Medicine resident, is that I have had no time to blog!  Instead, my time has been taken up with working, riding the bus to and from work, watering our lawn for two hours every night, cleaning the house, laundry, cooking, and working on work at home. My new busyness combined with Scott working 90 some hours each week has caused some “growing pains” in our marriage.  Thankfully, through these pains, we have grown and matured together, adjusted to our new schedules, and not so ironically, our relationship, in the end, was strengthened through the trial and we now love and appreciate each other more than ever.  I am so grateful for that.

Since we have been so busy, there was a week where I “cooked” frozen pizza for dinner three out of five nights!  I know, shocking!  I hope I have not disappointed any illusions you may have had of me.  If it makes a difference, that week was also the first time I ever cooked a frozen pizza for dinner period.  However, during that hectic time I discovered two recipes that take minimal effort, but are rewardingly delicious!  Even better, I did not have to make either of them.  Scott made an apple bake and some coworkers of mine made pumpkin chocolate chip muffins.  Now, if you know anything about Scott’s complete lack of cooking ability, you know that if he can make it, then it must be easy and I am not just telling you it is.  The other recipe, the pumpkin muffins, only have three ingredients!

First, let’s cover the pumpkin muffins.  They are dense, even heavy, moist, tender muffins that have a copious amount of chocolate chips.  To make them, you simply take one box of spice cake mix, once 15oz. can of pumpkin puree, and one bag of chocolate chips.  Stir all together so the cake mix is incorporated and moistened, and bake at 350F for about twenty minutes.  That is it!  No lie, no eggs, no butter, no oil.  Simple and delish.  I will caution though that these are best eaten within a day of making them, as they will dry out faster than normal muffins because there is no oil or butter.

Now on to the Apple Harvest Bake. 

This was tasty, moist, stored well for several days, made you feel peaceful, warm and cozy, and it often induced smiles while eating it, which, I believe is a necessary criteria for food to be called “comfort food.”  I found the recipe on Midwest Living’s website as they had a feature of 26 apple desserts and breads that were all very tempting.  I chose this apple bake because of how moist it looked in the picture and because it would not take me half a day to make it. 

In the end, Scott ended up making it while I made supper one night.  He did not measure anything correctly.  No fluffing of flour, no leveling off the baking powder, I do not think anything he put in there was exact.  Still, the recipe pulled through, and we were treated to a wonderful, warm apple cake with a melting cinnamon-butter.  It was ooey-gooey goodness!  I hope you enjoy these two simple recipes, especially as our lives get busier with the upcoming holidays! 

Apple Harvest Bake

  • Cinnamon Butter (recipe follows)
  • 1  cup  packed brown sugar
  • 3/4  cup  all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2  teaspoons  baking powder
  • 1/4  teaspoon  salt
  • 1/4  teaspoon  ground cinnamon
  • 2    slightly beaten eggs
  • 1-1/2  teaspoons  vanilla
  • 2  cups  peeled and chopped tart cooking apples
  • 3/4  cup  chopped walnuts

Prepare Cinnamon Butter; chill.
Preheat oven to 350F and grease a 9-inch pie plate. In mixing bowl, combine brown sugar, flour, baking powder, salt and cinnamon.  

Add eggs and vanilla; stir till well mixed. Add apples and nuts; stir till well combined. Spoon into pie plate.

Bake in a 350 degree F oven for 30 to 35 minutes or till browned and top feels firm. Serve warm with Cinnamon Butter on top. Makes 8 servings.

Cinnamon Butter: In small mixing bowl, beat 1/4 cup butter with electric mixer for 30 seconds. Add 1 cup sifted powdered sugar, 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1 tablespoon milk and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Beat till combined. Cover; chill till firm. Makes 1/2 cup.


A Sleepy Doctor and My Favorite Granola

Scott wakes up very early everyday he works, which is six days out of the week.  I think his average wakeup time is 5:00AM.  I say “think” because I am never awake to verify this, I am happily unconscious when he wakes up, while eats breakfast, gets ready, leaves for work, and even when he arrives at work I am usually still sleeping.  This past Thursday morning, I went to the kitchen to indulge in my favorite part of the day, breakfast, before heading off to work. (Yes!  I am working now!)  Sitting on the counter I saw a Honey Bunches of Oats box that was not closed properly. 

Then I realized that it would not close because the bottom had been opened and it was upside down.  

 “Oh Scott,” I thought, “you poor thing, did you open the bottom of the bag too?”  

“Yup.” I figured he must have either been in a rush or very tired when he opened the box and for a brief moment I was worried that both the top and the bottom of the bag might be open.  I secured the bottom of the box and flipped it over and found that luckily that was not the case.   

When I asked Scott about the cereal box at supper that night he said, “You know, I remember thinking that the box was abnormally difficult to open.  I was so tired I did not realize why.”  So there you have it, patients beware!  Just kidding.  I promise!  Since patients are much more important than boxes of cereal, and because he has been awake a full hour (instead of a mere 30 seconds) before working with patients, I am confident when I say Scott’s cognitive abilities are fully functioning once he arrives at work.  You do not need to worry. ;)

Since we are talking about breakfast I want to take this opportunity to share with you my new, all time favorite granola recipe.  I am in love with this granola!  It was my wonderful mother who first came up with this recipe and every time we would go home to visit she would always have a jar of it sitting on the counter.  It was probably the first and last thing I would eat on my visits home and definitely the thing I would nibble on the most often!  It is addictive!  The recipe uses both real maple syrup (which has my undying allegiance forever and ever), and freshly grated nutmeg.  The two combine to make the most delicious, delightful granola I have ever popped into my mouth—and there has been many.  I cannot say how many different versions of granola I have made over the last two years, I even blogged before about a healthful one here before, but this is my hands-down favorite.   Try it, and see if it is not yours too!

Mom’s Maple and Nutmeg Granola
Not only do I love the flavor of this granola, it is a snap to make and I almost always have all of the ingredients on hand.  I also strongly suggest that you use nothing but real, pure maple syrup here.  I prefer the “dark amber” variety for its richness and depth of flavor.  To make sure you have real maple syrup look on the ingredient list, the only ingredient listed on the bottle should be “maple syrup.”  I know this is more expensive than the fake stuff, but I believe it is more than worth it.  Also, when you buy it, by the biggest jar or jug you can find, as this will almost always give you more for your money.  Finally, fresh nutmeg, this is not as expensive as you would think.  You can buy a good size jar for a great price that will last you a long time at World Market.
**If you love this recipe as much as I do, double it, use two sheet pans to bake it, and then freeze half of it until the other half is gone!**
Here are the ingredients you need:
3 ½ cups rolled oats
½ cup pecans or walnuts, quartered
½ cup slivered almonds
¼ cup brown sugar
½ tsp course salt
¾ tsp nutmeg, freshly grated
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
¼ cup plus 2 Tbls pure maple syrup
½ tsp. pure vanilla extract
Craisins, raisins, or other dried fruit (optional)

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  In a large bowl, mix together rolled oats, nuts, brown sugar, nutmeg, and salt.  
Mmm freshly grated nutmeg smells so good!
All the dry ingredients in a bowl ready to be mixed!
Stir in extra-virgin olive oil, maple syrup, and vanilla extract until evenly coated.  Spread granola mixture on a large rimmed baking sheet and bake about 25 to 30 minutes, stirring mixture halfway through.  Add desired amount of dried fruit if you wish, and let mixture cool completely on the pan.  Store in airtight container at room temperature up to 2 weeks, or can freeze in ziplock bags up to 3 months.  


Deer and a Caterpillar

Scott and I planted a vegetable garden, some flowers, hostas, and a hydrangea this summer.  Some things were a success, but most things under-produced, or, in the case of the zucchini and summer squash, died.  We know we didn’t do everything right.  Sometimes we watered too little, and other times too much, but we tried.  We love our plants and are very proud of them when they do manage to flower or squeeze out a vegetable or two.  That is why when Scott and I woke up last Friday morning to this, 

and this, 

and this 

and this,

we were devastated.  Ok, maybe “devastated” is too strong a word, but we were very upset.  How could someone do this to us?  We had battled hard to give our plants life.  We almost lost our hydrangea in the heat of July, but through an emergency transplant surgery and valiant watering efforts we were able to bring it back.  We were so proud when it seemed to make a full recovery!  After all our hard work, to eat our plants to the ground in one only night was not only disrespectful to us, but also cruel to our poor plants.  Yes, they were developmentally behind, but that’s no reason to just cut them off!  With no chance of living their fullest life!  Equal rights for all!  Wait, are we still talking about plants?  Anyway, we were ticked, the problem however, was that we did not know who the culprit was.

Friday and Saturday passed with no signs of the offender.  Saturday night we went to church to see the African Children’s Choir perform and had an amazing time.  They were so good that I decided to go back Sunday morning to watch them again while Scott was at work.  As I was pulling out of my driveway Sunday morning I noticed movement to my right.  Standing there, in our yard, were five deer.  

I was shocked; I had never seen deer anywhere in our neighborhood before.  I stopped the car and stared, they stopped what they were doing (coming back for seconds no doubt) stared back at me.  We sat and stared at each other for a while, neither one of us moving or giving up our ground.  “Fine,” I thought, “bring it on.” I put my car into Drive and drove down the road towards them honking my horn along the way. Two of them turned and ran away.  I reversed back up the street and prepared to “charge” them again.  I drove towards them again twisting and turning my car sideways across the street so I would come “at” them.  Two more ran away.  I repeated the maneuver with my car and succeeded in getting what I assume was the leader to run away as well.  I’m sure if the neighbors were watching my psychotic driving and honking out their window they now think I am nuts.  But I’m o.k. with that, like a mother defends her child, I will do anything to defend my plants!

After church that day I went to Lowe’s, which is conveniently across the street from my church.  There I was told by one employee to buy this one fertilizer that is pelletized human excrement (i.e. poop), which apparently marks our territory to the deer and will keep them away.  I thought it was an interesting theory so I put a bag of the stuff in my cart.  Even if it didn’t work I figured it would be good for the plants.  Then I went to this overwhelming aisle (at least for a novice gardener and “city girl” like myself), 

which has a ridiculous number of products to keep away any type of garden pest, whether weeds, rattlesnakes, or deer. There I found these scary looking products.  

I bought the one that was “organic” because the others were definitely not safe to spray on plants whose fruits we wanted to eat.

**Warning, if bugs make you squeamish, you may want to skip the next part of this post as you might lose your appetite before you get to my two recipes.**

I went home and sprayed everything.  Then, just as I was finished spraying, thinking my plants were now safe, I saw this.  

Look closer, THIS.  

Are you grossed out yet?

My flash made it look extra freaky!
I hate caterpillars.  I don’t care what they may become; they are gross.  They look like a fat worm, their bodies are too squishy, and the muscular, suction-cup legs by which this variety clings to plants are oddly very strong.  I don’t like them.  I think they are the bug that makes me the most squeamish.  To top it off, this one had white things hanging all over it.  What are those?*  Since Scott was at work, I had to face this one alone.  I grabbed a sturdy long stick and started nervously poking at it.  After a bit of poking, it released half its body from the branch.  Wasting no time I stuck my stick under its belly and flicked it as I squealed aloud, worried I would flick the caterpillar onto myself.  Luckily it landed about twenty feet away.  

I flicked it with my stick again and it landed here.

It lost most of its white things. Weird.  Steeling my nerves, I picked up the piece of wood it landed on and ran to the street ballet-style with my toes pointing out in order to carry the 
caterpillar as smoothly as possible. 

I left the caterpillar in the middle of the street to meet its fate.  (I could not kill it myself because a) I was too scared and b) I would feel bad.) 

Relieved of my charge and breathing easier, I started raking our backyard so we can hopefully plant grass this fall (more on that another time).  Within minutes two cars passed by and I wondered if they had ran over the caterpillar, but then I saw a blue bird dive down to the exact place I had left the caterpillar and then fly back up to the power line with it in its mouth.

The end.

 * Upon googling "Green caterpillar" I found out that the name of this creature is a tomato horn worm and according to this website that those white things are actually the cocoons of parasitic wasps whose larva eat the caterpillar from the inside out!   EEEWWWW!  I now know that I did that caterpillar a big favor by letting a bird eat it instead.  The website even suggests putting the caterpillar in a jar and feeding it until it dies--I'm sorry but why would you want to watch a caterpillar be eaten from the inside out?  Gross.  Anyway, before you totally lose your appetites, let us move on to the food part of this post below!

Luckily for Scott and I, neither the deer nor the caterpillar ate our peppers!  Speaking of peppers . . . this summer I’ve made some great Mexican and Spanish inspired dishes with peppers.  I’ve made chicken mole adapting this recipe to use some fresh peppers I bought at the farmer’s market. 

I have also made chicken fajitas using our favorite fajita recipe, which are quite juicy thanks to the garlic-lime mojo.  Yum!  And just last night I made a Spanish inspired red pepper soup that had a slightly sweet flavor from the peppers and the caramelized onions and a wonderful richness from the toasted almonds.   Scott and I both loved it and lamented I had not made more!  I have included both recipes for you below.
Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Soup, served with focaccia and a selection of cheeses

Chicken Fajitas
Serves 4
1 Tablespoon Canola oil
½ large white onion, cut into ½-inch-thick slices, (about 1 cup)
1 large green bell pepper, ribs and seeds removed, cut into ½-inch-thick slices (I often do ½ a green and ½ a red bell pepper each for extra color)
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
8 ounces boneless skinless chicken breasts (about 2 small ones), sliced ½-inch-thick
8 6-inch (or 4 10-inch) flour or whole wheat tortillas, warmed
1 recipe Mojo de Ajo (recipe is below)
Guacamole, for serving
Pico de Gallo, for serving
Sour cream or plain yogurt, for serving
Shredded mild cheddar cheese, for serving
Heat a large, heavy skillet over high heat.  Add oil, and gently swirl to coat.  Add onion and bell pepper, and season with ¼ teaspoon salt.  Cook, stirring frequently to prevent burning, until onion is browned in spots and pepper has softened slightly and skin is blistered, about 5 minutes.  Season the chicken with salt, and cook, stirring frequently, until chicken is browned and cooked through, 5-7 minutes.  Add the mojo de ajo, and stir to coat.  Season with salt and pepper to taste.  Serve immediately with warmed tortillas, guacomole, pico de gallo, sour cream, and cheese.
For the Mojo de Ajo:
¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons minced garlic (4-6 cloves depending on their size)
3 Tablespoons fresh lime juice (from two small limes)
1/2 teaspoon red-pepper flakes (add more if you like it hot)
½ teaspoon coarse salt
Cook oil and garlic in a small saucepan over low heat until garlic is soft and fragrant, about eight minutes.  The heat must be quite low to cook garlic for eight minutes without burning, or even caramelizing, it.  Remove from heat and stir in the lime juice, red-pepper flakes, and salt.

Roasted Red Pepper and Almond Soup
Serves 2 as a first course
Inspired by a soup I ate at Lincoln Cafe in Mt. Vernon, IA and also from this recipe on Pioneer Woman's website
3 large red peppers or four small ones
½ medium onion, chopped
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
2 garlic cloves, minced
½ cup almonds
1 cup chicken stock
¾ cup milk, half and half, or even cream if you’re feeling dangerous
Salt and pepper

Oil your grill rack or put a small amount of Canola oil in a large skillet.  Start your grill or heat the skillet on high heat.  Char the red peppers thoroughly, turning the peppers every few minutes so the skins get nice and black.  The blacker it is the easier it will be to peel the skin off.  Take the peppers off the grill/skillet and place them into a large plastic bag to “sweat” for a few minutes.  This isn’t entirely necessary but will aid in peeling the skins off.  While the peppers sweat, heat a soup pot over medium heat and toast the almonds until fragrant (skip this if you are using already toasted almonds), about five minutes.  Set the almonds aside.  In the same pan, heat some olive oil in the skillet and sauté the onion, stirring often until nicely caramelized.  Add the garlic and the cumin to the onion and cook for a minute or two more.  When peppers are cool enough to handle peel off as much of their skin as possible and de-seed and de-rib them.  Cut the peppers into large chunks and put them in a blender with the almonds, onions and garlic, and chicken stock.  Puree on your highest setting until all is “liquefied” as much as possible.  A few small, sand-sized pieces of almonds are fine and add some texture.  Return this mixture to the soup pot, add the milk to create desired thickness of soup (I left mine pretty thick), season with salt and pepper, and heat until ready to serve.