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Now that I’m back in the US, I am much more wary of the food I buy at the supermarket, and I have been doing a bit of research, some of which I will be posting in the next few weeks.

So I was thrilled earlier this week when I found organic strawberries at Whole Foods. Strawberries are more susceptible to harboring pesticide residue than many other crops, so it’s worth paying the extra dollar per pound if you can. After I brought them home, I placed them on the counter to mull over their fate. But the strawberries were looking at me from behind their plastic cage, and I just couldn’t take it so I decided to eat them that very day.

For those who have not been to Las Vegas in summer, let me tell you: it’s effing hot. I wanted something refreshing and light.

At first, I thought of strawberries and cream with mint. But, I had no mint in the house, and I haven’t planted any yet. However, I have recently planted some basil, which is in the mint family. Basil, and especially sweet basil, is an exceptionally versatile herb and can complement sweet as well as savory dishes. A little voice in my head told me to just go for it.

So. I took inventory of the types of cream I had in my fridge–Devon double cream (an imported cream from the UK that is high in butterfat content), creme fraiche, sour cream and heavy whipping cream.

As much as I love creme fraiche, I wanted less of a sour taste and so I opted for the double cream and the whipping cream (making what I call a “triple cream”–hehe). I added in some cinnamon, brown sugar, and lemon elements, and voila! This was the tasty result:

Skill Level: EASY

Preparation time: About 10 minutes.

Servings: Varies. I just made one for myself.

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Springtime brings us one of my favorite faux fruits: the strawberry.  This “accessory fruit”–or vegetable, depending on how you define it–is, in fact, the swollen tip of the stamen, or the base where the flower grows.  The seeds, or more accurately, the achenes, that attach themselves to this swollen bit are more than just annoying specks that get caught in our teeth–they are, in fact, the ovaries that house the real seeds of the plant.  So, just as the avocado is a delectable undercover fruit that is commonly treated as a culinary vegetable, the strawberry is a tasty summer vegetable that is almost always considered as a culinary fruit.  For more information than you ever wanted to know about the strawberry, click here.

So.  Maybe I went a little bit overboard by buying one kilo when I live alone.  But, in any case, I had this kilo of fresh, delicious, real–and I believe wild–strawberries (the multiple sized kind filled with juice and not genetic copies of some aesthetically “perfect” model).  And I was determined to eat them all.  So… I began by grabbing some and eating them simply, first by themselves, then with creme fraiche, then with regular cream.  If regular cream is difficult to find where you are, just use heavy whipping cream.

Preparing Strawberries:  To prepare strawberries for these simple dishes, as a general rule I cut off the caps, then quarter the strawberries, then sprinkle about a teaspoon of sugar over them and mix it in.  (This amount of sugar can be adjusted depending on the natural sweetness of the particular strawberry.)  A very light syrup should start to form from the juice of the berry and the sugar.  Then mix with the cream or creme fraiche, if desired.

These were small and sweet enough that I didn't have to quarter and sugar them; but it's generally a good idea if you're getting the larger, "American" variety of farmed strawberry. With creme fraiche.

With regular cream

And after all that eating… I still had at least half a kilo left. So I began to search through my fridge and pantry, trying to come up with ideas to use the rest of the strawberries.  There was a bottle of cava (Spanish champagne) staring back at me, having been bought a week before and seemingly upset that it was sitting there, still unopened.  And I thought… wouldn’t a cheesecake that had both the strawberries and the champagne in it be simply divine?

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This may not be an authentic Eye-talian recipe, and it may not be the most exciting or original food ever, but when you are looking for a fast, easy, minimalist, yet filling and delicious dish to throw together, this is a good one to have on hand.  And it is really, really good.  Like whoa.  I have to say, this meal is definitely staying on my short list for visiting family and friends.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 20-25 minutes.

Servings: 2.  Or one, if you’re me.

one fileted chicken breast, chopped into smaller pieces.

5 “nests” of spinach fettuccine

approx. 5-6 Tbsp fresh cream

about 3-4 pinches of shredded emmental cheese

2-3 dollops of creme fraiche

about 3-4 Tbsp grated parmesan

olive oil

salt and pepper to taste

This is your basic pasta recipe… nothing too shocking.  While you set the water to boil in a pot, rub some olive oil, salt and a small dash of pepper on the chicken and set to bake until it is white through and through.  For me, this is in my toaster oven for 15 min (I’m not sure what temperature it is).  Of course, you can also pan fry it, but baking is healthier and it also keeps a nice moist texture to the chicken.

Add a little bit of salt and a bit of oil when the water comes to a boil, before adding the pasta.

When the pasta has boiled, strain and place back in pot.  Over low heat, stir in about a Tbsp of oil, and the cream, creme fraiche, and the emmental and parmesan.  When this has reached a nice smooth consistency, give it a taste and add salt as needed.  Toss in the cooked chicken pieces (they should be done by now) and stir those in.  When everything is nicely coated with the creamy cheese sauce, transfer to plate, and top with a sprinkle of grated parmesan and freshly cracked black pepper.  Serve with toasted bread and a nice glass of chilled white wine for a nice, relaxing meal.

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Tomatoes and Avocados as sweets?  Yes, these “faux veggies” deserve a second look. Their versatility practically begs us to play around and find new ways to use them. Who’s to say there aren’t other potentially fantastic “double agents” just waiting to be discovered?

Another of my favorite tapas from Mercado de la Reina (see Sobrasada with Brie) is a slice of toasted bread topped with a sweetened tomato jam and a slice of soft goat cheese. Given that the tomato is, in fact, a fruit, this shouldn’t have surprised me the first time I tried it. But, it did. Cherry and grape tomatoes tend to be the sweetest. The recipe for my recreation of this yummy tapa coming soon.

For now, I bring you some ideas for cool concoctions with that clandestine fruit, the avocado.

Idea #1
-Moroccan Avocado Shake
When on a walk through Marrakesh with a friend a few years ago, we passed a fruit shake shop. These shakes were not made with ice; simply the fruit, sugar syrup, and water or milk. I was surprised to see avocado on the menu. Avocado, like tomato, is actually a fruit, although we typically see it salted and prepared with vegetables and/or meat. I decided to go for it and asked for a water-based shake. The resulting product was what I have since referred to as the “Guinness of fruit shakes.”

Thick, sweet, and retaining its avocado flavor, I can say I have never tasted anything quite like it. All in all, I liked it. If only I had stopped drinking when I was full instead of challenging myself to the full glass. I have since thought of other ways to incorporate avocado into mousses and other desserts with less… avocado-ey intensity (see below), and I highly recommend it as a daring and different addition to your home menu. If you don’t want to mix the sugar and water to make the syrup, you can substitute honey. And I recommend adding ice cream or yogurt. And maybe a banana if you’d like.

Idea #2 + Recipe
-Avocado Chocolate-Chocolate Chip Frozen Custard
The Moroccan avocado experience opened my eyes to utilizing the remarkable dexterity of the avocado is as a dessert.  The Philipines, Brazil, and many other countries also know the secret bliss of the sweetened avocado in shakes as well as in ice cream.  There are also some intriguing recipes online for avocado lime pies and avocado chocolate mousse and pudding, but I wanted to do something different. Something that combined the elements of avocado, banana, chocolate, and frozen summer treat. With chocolate chips. Maybe this isn’t the most surprising thing, since my favorite gelato flavors are mint chocolate chip and double chocolate chip.

So avocado chocolate chip it is. By far one of the most delicious things I have ever made. And the only equipment I used included a fork and a bowl. Of course, if you have a blender or processor that would make the texture slightly more consistent. But it’s absolutely not necessary.

The one thing that surprised me–and made me kind of happy in a weird “Look at me, I’m a crazy cook” sort of way–was that I could not find any recipes like it already on the internet! Mousse, pudding, ice cream, yes, but not everything together.  (This is also a lot easier than the ice cream because you don’t need a machine.)  It’s the little things, right?

So this is how it goes, I think you’ll be surprised at how easy it is! If you want to make it less chocolatey (although I can’t imagine why!), use either less cocoa or omit the cocoa altogether. Play around with it!

And this time… I have tons of pics!

Skill Level: EASY
Preparation time: About 10 minutes to mix ingredients, plus freezing a few hours or overnight.
Servings: 2-4, depending on how large your serving cups are.

1 ripe avocado, peeled and pitted
1 banana, not yet mushy and relatively firm

1 tsp lemon juice
3 heaping teaspoons of cocoa (unsweetened)–knock this down to 2 to moderate the “chocolateyness”
1/8-1/4 cup sugar (I eyeballed it; you may want to add slowly, to taste)
About 3-4 Tbsp. dark honey
150-175 grams (5-6 ounces) of creme fraiche (sour cream can substitute)
4 or 5 Lindt dark chocolate thins (70% cocoa)

Mash the avocado, banana, and lemon juice in a bowl with a fork or else in a processor.

No, it's not guacamole. It's avocado and banana mush.

Add the cocoa, sugar, and honey and continue mashing/processing.

My favorite honey in the world

Add the creme fraiche last.

Adding the creme fraiche. OK, maybe I had a little too much fun with it.

Grab the chocolate thins in one hand and break them into little bits by squeezing your fist a few times (yes, it really is this easy). Fold them into the mixture.

Lindt 70% cocoa dark chocolate thins

The most nutritious chocolate treat... ever?

Pour mixture into parfait cups or, if you are at a loss for pretty display glasses like I am, just use regular old drinking glasses, if they can be frozen. Freeze for several hours or overnight.

Ta Da!

You should end up with a gelato-like, nutritious, delicious banana double chocolate chip frozen custard. I am in love with it. Enjoy!

NOTE:  The frozen gelato-like texture may be somewhat difficult to achieve as the ingredients can tend to “overfreeze,” making long thaws necessary.  I am going to play with some ingredients (no milk though) to see how to improve this.  For now, my suggestion to get the perfect frozen texture is to pop it in the freezer for about 3 hours after making to achieve the texture, then transfer to the fridge for 3-4 hours for storage before serving.  Longer freezing time may require longer thawing time.  If you only keep it in the fridge instead of freezing, you will achieve a very rich pudding instead.  Could also be used as pie filling–seems to have gone over well that way according to other recipe blogs!  However you serve it–it’s delicious!

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I made it out to Berlin recently to visit friends.  I thought that, without a doubt, I would walk away with some new wonderful currywurst addiction.  Instead, I fell in love with Kartoffelsalat, or German potato salad, which I picked up as a side dish one damp and chilly afternoon at Curry 36, an apparently famous (according to my travel buddy and Lonely Planet) currywurst stand under a city rail overpass.   (The currywurst was okay, too, but nothing in comparison.)  After that, it seemed like Kartoffelsalat existed everywhere I went.  There are a few different kinds, of course, Germany being a relatively large country and made up of various regions that like to claim cultural independence from each other (try referring to a Bavarian as German and you’ll see what I mean).

Anyways, this particular potato salad was served cold (or Kalter), as opposed to this type of hot German potato salad.  This salad had a light but slightly creamy sauce to it, and my friends and I couldn’t figure out exactly how that was done. Yes, it could have been mayonnaise, and according to the internet it was mayonnaise. But it didn’t taste like mayonnaise.

I looked high and low on the internet but I just couldn’t find exactly what I had fallen in love with.  So I had to improvise. One friend had suggested perhaps sour cream–and that got me thinking.

I took the basic recipe of peeled and cooked potatoes, marinated in onions and a little bit of the water they were boiled in, mixed with vinegar, mustard and seasoning.  Having recently become ridiculously attached to creme fraiche (which is related to sour cream), I thought this would be the perfect addition to add the slightly sour, slightly tangy, creamy texture to the salad that I was looking for.  It came out great!! I also added things not mentioned in the recipes I was looking at, but that had made such a big difference in Berlin: fine rings of radishes, and sometimes green onions and chives, depending on the place. So delicious!

For the dill haters out there, just know that I usually don’t like dill either, but just a little bit of fresh chopped dillweed does add an almost summery quality to the salad.

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time:  About 3 hours, including skinning and boiling the potatoes beforehand, and 2 hours of marinating.

Servings:  6-8.

2 lbs. (1 kilo) peeled and boiled medium potatoes

1/2 onion, sliced thin into strings

1/2 lb. (approx. 200 g) radishes (depending on how strong an influence you want–I love radishes), sliced very thin

2-3 tsp fresh dill, chopped

2 tsp fresh green onions (optional), chopped

2 tsp fresh chives (optional), chopped

a few dollops of creme fraiche (approx 3 Tbsp, depending on your preference)

1 Tbsp mustard (more if you really love mustard)

salt to taste

Okay, I cheated once again and used vacuum-sealed, pre-boiled, pre-skinned potatoes, although in this case I do think it would be better to use fresh potatoes because you want to save some of the water in which they’re boiled.  Also, the potatoes in Berlin were a tiny bit firmer than the usual typical American potato salad, and the pre-boiled ones were too soft for my preference.

Chop up the onion into thin strips, slice the potato into disks, mix these in a large bowl and pour a small amount (1/4 cup or less) of the water the potatoes were boiled in (if you have it) over the mixture.  Cover and marinate at room temperature for 2 hours.

After marinating, add vinegar and mustard.  Supposedly the texture would be “creamy” as-is, according to every internet recipe I saw, but it was nothing like what I had in Berlin.  So, I decided to add a few dollops of creme fraiche, which immediately thinned out upon contact with the water, mustard, and vinegar.  That definitely did the trick!

Nice and creamy potatoes, after much ado!

Add in the dill, radishes, green onions, and chives.  You’re ready to go!  Enjoy!

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Avocado mousse-stuffed smoked salmon rollsSeafood baked mac and cheese.  It seems that no matter how creative we try to be, someone has already thought of the same thing, or else something extremely similar.  But that doesn’t mean that there isn’t still plenty of room (and need) for creativity.  In fact, the wide range of internet recipes that mob the blogosphere is a great resource–we can find good ideas for new food pairings, improve the recipes we were already working with, and perhaps most importantly, learn from others’ mistakes!

So, when I tried to think of something to do with an avocado sitting on my shelf, I thought that avocado mousse would be a good idea.  Counting on the fact that I am not entirely original, I Googled it and found a slew of avocado mousse recipes, ranging from the savory to the sweet.  Of course, I had also thought of making a dessert with avocado, with banana and possibly with cocoa, and this list of recipes just proved that yet again, many, many people had already beat me to it.  The great thing about this is, I could compare and pick the best ideas and, of course, still add my own to the mix.

I saw that, basically speaking, to make a savory avocado mousse you just mix the avocado with cream cheese.  I also saw that most of the time, people pair the mousse with smoked salmon.  However, the friend of mine at whose house I was going to be eating this snack does not like smoked salmon.  So, I took the basic idea, picked up some specialty cured jamon ibérico to replace the salmon (and also used some leftover turkey slices sitting in my fridge), and grabbed a baguette from my local supermarket, and came up with this:

Skill Level:  EASY

Preparation time: 5-10 minutes.

Servings: Approx. 15 pieces, depending on the amount of mousse you spoon onto the bread pieces.

For base:

smoked salmon slices, turkey slices, cured ham slices, or whatever sliced soft meat you prefer (thin slices of muenster or another mild semi-soft cheese should make a good vegetarian option)

1 baguette (freshly baked or re-toasted prior to meal preparation)

For avocado mousse:

1 ripe avocado (peeled and pitted)

1/2 package of cream cheese (4 oz.)

1-2 teaspoons mustard (to taste–I find using dijon or other specialty mustard is better for this)

half a teaspoon of garlic butter (optional)

salt and pepper to taste

In a medium bowl, mix avocado, cream cheese, mustard, garlic butter (if used) and salt and pepper to taste.  I did this with a fork for a few minutes and it was fine, however if you really want to make it as smooth as possible, feel free to use a processor.  Slice the baguette in half down the middle, then into small pieces, 2-3 inches in length.  (I find that the step of slicing it down the middle makes it much easier to eat.)

Lay a small piece of sliced salmon, ham, turkey, or whatever you have chosen on the bread slices.

Note: These bread slices have NOT been sliced in half width-wise. Don't make my mistake!

Scoop about a tablespoon of the avocado cheese mixture onto each piece.

Easy, fast, minimalist, and tasty.  My favorite combination!

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I love cheesy potatoes au gratin, and I am especially a big fan of Betty Crocker boxed potatoes au gratin, having grown up on them. But I figured there had to be a way to make potatoes au gratin out of real, fresh potatoes and a block of cheese. I poked around on the internet and there are countless recipes, some of them adding onions, some adding flour. But I wanted to go simple, if only to prove the point that it really doesn’t take that much to make a satisfying side dish. This is what I came up with:

Take that, Betty!

Skill Level: EASY
Preparation time: About 25-30 minutes, including skinning and boiling the potatoes beforehand.
Cooking time: About 15 minutes.
Servings: 6 -8.

1 pound of potatoes (the smaller they are, the quicker they’ll cook)
Block of cheddar cheese (quarter pound ought to be sufficient)
Cream
Bread crumbs
Olive oil (optional)
Salt
2 Tbsp butter (optional)

Skin and boil potatoes. I actually cheated and used a vacuum-sealed pack of skinned and pre-cooked baby potatoes (although I did need to rinse off the ascorbic acid to separate the potatoes–ascorbic acid is a form of Vitamin C often used as an antioxidant to prevent produce from browning).

Set the cooked potatoes in lukewarm or slightly cool water to cool them down to the touch, if necessary.  Then slice the potatoes into thin discs. Lay out in a casserole dish. In a small pot, mix over low heat a small dollop of olive oil, and enough cream to melt the block of cheese, which should be cut up into small pieces to help speed up the melting process, stirring constantly. Add butter if desired. Salt to taste.

Pour cheese-cream mixture over potatoes so that all potatoes are covered. Take a couple of small handfuls of bread crumbs and lightly dust over potatoes. Bake at 450˚F (250˚C) for 10-15 minutes or until the tops of the potatoes are browned. Remove and let cool for a few minutes before serving.

This dish was a surprisingly simple hit with my friends, and a nice option if you have to throw something together quickly but only have a few ingredients! If you have more time and more ingredients, feel free to add additional spices, some flour to thicken the sauce, onions, chopped peppers, or whatever you prefer!

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