Catching up on life and cooking…

Seattle summer happened a few months ago and it was beautiful – green, sunny, not too hot. Little humidity! I guess I got so caught up in it that I forgot to post on my blog! We also spent the summer house-hunting and now we are home owners! I guess I can blame that search for taking up a lot of our time. As usual though, I have done plenty of cooking and eating since the last time. Here’s a quick taste of just some of the things I’ve been cooking. (If you follow me on Instagram, however, you can keep up with my cooking and life a little more regularly – @erinthecooker)

Summer Berry Buckle (NYT), Blueberry and Peach Crisp, Black Bean Salad, and homemade Chocolate Cake with Raspberry Jam filling for a former co-worker.

Here’s a photo of our beautiful living room in our new house! (Don’t mind the Zappos box that I forgot to remove when taking the photo.) Don’t you love the orange front door?!

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I also made a Snickers pie (no Snickers actually in it, but rather a pie trying to imitate a giant Snickers!) It was rich, but it was a hit! I improvised the recipe off a Pinterest one I had saved months ago. The cake below is a chocolate stout cake.

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Having a house also means we now have a backyard and our very our own grill! We got to work right away grilling zucchini, chicken, and sausage. The photo on the right was a delicious Vietnamese-style noodle salad with grilled chicken. In the end, the recipe tasted very similar to one of our favorite Boston food trucks, Bon Me! Thanks again NYT Cooking!

Now that fall is upon us I’m looking forward to making some apple pie, pumpkin bread, and other cozy treats. Hopefully the next time you hear from me will be sooner rather than later!

Happy cooking!

Strawberry Queen of Heart Tarts

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Hello summer! I am so happy to see you! Spring and summer in Seattle have been beautiful with emerald-green lawns, colorful flowers of every variety, and warm temperatures. This past weekend got a little too hot though for a typical Seattle summer day. Temperatures reached 81 on Saturday and 92 yesterday, making our 4th floor, no A/C apartment pretty dang hot.

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In spite of the heat, I decided to turn on the oven and to make homemade pie crust (well not in that order).

Here’s a little summer advice for you: Do not make homemade pie crust on what is predicted to be the hottest day ever! Also don’t turn your oven on if you don’t have to!

Why shouldn’t you make pie crust on a hot day? The key to a good, flaky pie crust is cold fat (butter or shortening) and keeping it cold until it goes into the oven where it melts and creates pockets of air and thus flaky goodness. A hot kitchen (and hot hands) make keeping ingredients cold pretty difficult. I found myself popping my tarts in and out of the freezer at different stages to keep the butter from melting too early.

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But why was I making homemade pie crust in the first place? One of my friends was having an Alice and Wonderland themed engagement party over the weekend and I had to make something edible to fit the theme. Seeing the weather forecast, I told her I’d probably just make a salad to avoid using the oven. Yet the gorgeous, red strawberries grown right here in Washington were begging to be made into tarts and it seemed only fitting (and fun!) to make heart-shaped Queen of Heart Tarts.

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And because making one kind of tart is never enough (oh no, I always have to make it more complicated!) I made a savory asparagus tart too because, hello asparagus this time of year! For this tart I used puff pastry, because I had seen other recipes using puff pastry and it sounded oh so much simpler. In the end I was appreciative of the simplicity of the puff pastry compared to the pie crust, but in my opinion the pie crust tasted infinitely better!

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We had a wonderful celebration and kept cool in a lovely shady spot of the park. My friend was thrilled with the treats I brought and we ended up with a lovely Alice and Wonderland themed spread including: down the rabbit hole wraps (smoked salmon, herbed cream cheese, and cucumber), magic mushrooms (marinated mushrooms), mint tea (of course!) and a few other fun treats. They even had deck of card necklaces with different sayings on them from the book including “We’re all mad here!” I guess being crazy enough to bake on a hot day makes me fit right in!

Queen of Heart Tarts

2 pie crusts (homemade or store-bought)

2 cups diced strawberries

2-4 T. sugar (depending on how sweet your strawberries are)

2 T. cornstarch

lemon zest

1 egg, beaten

Roll out your pie crust into an even thickness of about 1/8 inch. Using a cookie cutter (or a stencil and a sharp knife) cut out heart shapes in your dough, as close together as possible. Re-rolling the scraps will overwork the dough and also make it start to soften and melt. (You can always bake the scraps with cinnamon and sugar and eat them as a treat!) Lay your cut-out hearts on a parchment lined sheet pan and put in the fridge while you cut up your strawberries.

Preheat your oven to 425 degrees F. Mix your diced strawberries, sugar, lemon zest, and cornstarch in a small bowl. Have your beaten egg ready as an egg wash for your tarts.

Remove the hearts from the fridge and top half of them with a small bit of strawberry mixture right in the center (do not overfill!). With the remaining hearts, gently place them on top of the strawberry filling and press around the edges to seal. Use floured fingers to keep your hands from sticking. Cut small slashes in the top of each heart and brush lightly with the egg wash.

Bake in the preheated oven for 18-20 minutes or until golden brown and bubbly. Let cool and enjoy!

Note: I made my strawberry filling before I had my hearts cut out and the filling got progressively juicy and soupy as it sat. I think if you wait til you’re ready to use it, you won’t end up with an overly juicy filling, which will just bleed out of your pies when you try and fill them and when you bake them if they aren’t sealed well.

Homemade Enchilada Sauce

When you grow up knowing certain foods from a can or a box, it becomes hard to imagine how easy they might be to make homemade. I’m always surprised when I talk to people who say they made banana bread or blueberry muffins using a box mix, but maybe that’s because, to me, those foods are simple things that my family always made from scratch. Measuring the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt that it took for homemade muffins seemed just as easy as opening a box, (okay, opening a box is pretty easy) and in my mind it tasted much better.

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Of course my parents didn’t cook everything from scratch. We had our Sunday Kraft macaroni and cheese tradition, Cincinnati chili and tacos made from a packet mix, and chicken enchiladas with canned enchilada sauce. Having grown up with these foods, I never questioned their authenticity or feasibility as a homemade food. As my culinary skills and recipe collection broadened, I began to learn that many purchased foods I’d had growing up could easily be homemade.

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The start of enchilada sauce bubbling away: oil, flour, chili powder.

Before we packed up our whole life to move to Seattle, I made us a batch of freezer meals to get us through the days without our skillets, spatulas, pots, and plates. In addition to Meatballs and Baked Chicken Nuggets, I made a batch of Chicken and Bean Enchiladas with a homemade enchilada sauce. This sauce starts like many sauces with a roux, which simply means fat and flour. These two ingredients will be your sauce thickener and as long as they are whisked in gradually and lovingly you will end up with a rich and smooth sauce. Once you get the hang of it, it’s really quite easy. Not as easy as opening a can and pouring it in, but come on now – have a little fun!

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Bagged up, ready for the freezer!

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Fill up your tortillas with chicken, cheese, and beans and roll ’em up!

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After adding the tomato paste…

Now listen: everyone has different culinary skills and ambitions. You might be just fine with your canned sauce or even your Mexican take-out place, and someone else might insist that everything be homemade with the purest ingredients. Sometimes you just don’t have time to whip up something from scratch and I totally understand. Nonetheless, I find it valuable to at least know, for all those canned and packaged foods you buy, how you could make it yourself. My rule is if you’ve made it at least once before or you know the process of making it, you are allowed to “cheat” every now and then and just buy the pre-made version. I know I’ve done it before. So go ahead now – try making your own enchilada sauce just this once and then you can go back to your canned stuff. Maybe you’ll like it. Maybe you won’t.

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Homemade Enchilada Sauce

adapted from TheFresh20

1/4 cup no salt added tomato paste

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 tsp. dried oregano

1 garlic clove, minced or 1/2 tsp. granulated garlic

1/2 tsp. Kosher salt

1/4 tsp. black pepper

3 T. olive or canola oil

1/4 cup whole wheat or all-purpose flour

1-2 T. mild chili powder (depending on spice level desired)

3 1/2 cups – 5 cups chicken broth, warmed*

*Whenever I make chicken enchiladas I start by simmering the chicken in chicken broth. For 3-4 chicken breasts I use 6-8 cups of water with Chicken Better than Bouillon added according to the directions. I bring that to a light boil and immediately reduce to a simmer to cook for 10-15 minutes or until all the breasts are cooked through. I remove the chicken breasts to cool and use the warmed broth to make my sauce. You can also buy canned broth or make your own using a fresh whole chicken with vegetables and seasonings. Make sure the broth is warm when you add it into your sauce as it will be easier to incorporate.

For the sauce: In a small bowl mix tomato paste, cumin, oregano, garlic, salt, and pepper. Stir to combine and set aside.

Heat a large non-stick saute pan over medium heat. Add in oil, flour, and chili powder. Stir to combine until it becomes a thick paste. Add in tomato paste mixture and stir to combine.

Slowly add in hot broth while whisking to dissolve the flour mixture. Make sure to use a non-scratching whisk if you are using a non-stick pan. Continuing whisking while adding broth to your desired thickness. You can always add more if it’s too thick when it finishes.

Reduce heat to a simmer and cook for 5-10 minutes to deepen the flavor. Taste and adjust seasonings as needed – add more broth if it is too spicy or more salt and chili powder if it is too bland.

Use to mix with your cooked chicken and to top your filled tortillas in the pan before baking.

Enchilada, minus the enchilada sauce (just a burrito?)

Enchilada, minus the enchilada sauce (just a burrito?)

Better-than-Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

IMG_1597These are not oreos.

These are buttery chocolate shortbreads smashed together with a sweetened thick icing.

IMG_1582The ingredient list is short (and sweet!) You probably already have everything at home to make them. Well, except the cake flour, but I didn’t let that stop me!

IMG_1585Sticky chocolate dough. Don’t add more flour to make it better. Stick it in the fridge. Let that softened butter firm up again.

IMG_1586I used a wedding gift champagne glass as my cookie cutter. That’s because I’m creative. Also I do not own a round cookie cutter. Doesn’t a round cookie cutter just seem unnecessary and boring?

IMG_1589Freshly baked below! (No rising involved so they don’t look that different from the unbaked above)IMG_1591Sandwich them together. Eat a few. Dip in milk if desired.

IMG_1598Wrap up for a friend.

IMG_1599Stamp it with your seal. Let them know: I made these, people!

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Better-than-Oreo Chocolate Sandwich Cookies

adapted from the Totally Chocolate Cookbook

Chocolate Shortbread

2 sticks butter, softened (I used one salted, one unsalted and it was perfect)

1 cup powdered sugar, sifted

1 tsp. vanilla

1+1/2 cups cake flour OR 1 cup + 2 T. all purpose flour AND 2 T. cornstarch (I used the cornstarch)

1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder, sifted

1/4 tsp. salt

Filling

1/3 cup vegetable shortening

1+2/3 cup powdered sugar

2 T. milk or heavy cream

pinch of salt

1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

For the cookies, beat butter with an electric mixer until smooth and fluffy. Add sugar and vanilla and mix in. In a separate bowl combine flour, cocoa powder, and salt. Add the flour mixture to butter mixture and mix until there are no streaks of white. Do not over mix. If it is sticky (which it should be) wrap in plastic wrap in a flattened disc and refrigerate until somewhat firm – 30 minutes to an hour.

Divide the dough in half and keep one half in the fridge while you roll out the other. Turn out onto a well-floured surface and roll until 1/4 inch thick. Be sure to check the dough as you are rolling it out to make sure it isn’t sticking. Flip over and re-flour as necessary. Cut out rounds of dough (about 2 inches) using a cookie cutter, drinking glass, or champagne glass (if you’re feeling fancy). It is very helpful to flour your cookie cutter every few cookies so the dough doesn’t get stuck. Space the cookies apart about a 1/2 inch on an unlined, ungreased cookie sheet. Be careful transferring them as the dough is fragile. I used a thin metal spatula to keep from crushing the edges. Refrigerate the cookies on the sheet until firm again, while you finish rolling out the rest of the dough (10 minutes should be about right). Re-roll scraps and use as much as possible without overworking the dough.

With the cookie sheets of cookie rounds still in the fridge, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. When preheated, remove the cookie sheets from the fridge and bake the cookies for 18-20 minutes, switching racks and rotating the sheets halfway through to ensure even baking. Cookies should be slightly firm to the touch. Be careful not to over cook them. Since they are already dark, it can be hard to see if they’re done by their color. Let cool and prepare the filling.

For the filling beat the shortening with an electric mixer to loosen it up. Add sugar and half the milk, beating to incorporate. Add remaining ingredients and stir until smooth.

To frost, dab a spoonful of the filling on the bottom of a cooled cookie. Top with another cookie and gently wiggle and smoosh it to distribute the frosting evenly or just spread it on one cookie evenly before putting the second cookie on top. Repeat with remaining cookies. Enjoy with milk. I found this made just the right amount of filling for my cookies, but it depends how much you put on and how many cookies you end up with. You can always measure out the filling and divide it exactly between the cookies.

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As a side note: I decided to get rid of the post numbering. Does anyone really care how many “posts” I’ve written? Probably not. If you do, let me know ūüôā Thanks for reading as always.

Post 117 – The Perfect Bread – Oatmeal Cranberry Walnut

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One of my first jobs out of college was at a small bakery in Dayton, Ohio. I had to be there at 5 AM, which meant getting up at 4, in the dark, hating the world, and driving on mostly empty, quiet roads. When I got there our bread baker was usually wrapping up his overnight shift while listening to talk radio. The first few hours of my days were always hard – not only had the day just begun, but it was really really early. The kind of early where you get up and wonder what the heck you are doing with yourself. Once the sun came up, it was always like seeing the light at the end of the tunnel – there was hope the day would get better. Sunrise meant the bakery would open soon, which meant customers would come trickling in and the quiet dark of the morning’s preparations would be replaced by the happy din of caffeinated and well-fed people.

IMG_1478While working at this bakery I acquired some helpful techniques while I learned to make croissants, scones, cookies, brownies, and danish all from scratch. Though I never made bread while I worked there I often took home a loaf during the week. My mom’s favorite was their Oatmeal bread. Continue reading

Post 108 – Homemade Mac and Cheese… and what to do with the leftovers

Sunday macaroni and cheese was an unspoken tradition for my family growing up. We came home from church, hungry for lunch (despite the cookies we probably gobbled down at “coffee hour”) and looking for something quick and tasty. My mom cooked plenty of homemade meals when I was young, but for reasons unknown we always had the blue box Kraft Mac n’ Cheese instead of homemade. Perhaps Mom had grown up on it too. Perhaps she wanted something quick and easy. Perhaps her three daughters had tried homemade mac and cheese and turned their noses up at it. Who knows.

IMG_1311We loved it of course and made it pretty much every Sunday. It counted as the main meal, though now and then we’d mix in some cut-up hot dogs while our parents opted for the more adult mix of canned tuna mac.

At some point, however, I learned how to make the basic roux (flour and butter) that started any good bechamel sauce. Mom probably used it at some point to make nacho sauce or homemade mac and cheese, but in general, I remember the Kraft mac and cheese – the familiar blue box, the bright orange powder packet, the black pepper our neighbor and babysitter, Lee, always put on his.

IMG_1314As an adult I have tried making mac and cheese, but always to my disappointment. It’s hard to compare to that bright cheesy flavor and color that I remember from my childhood. The flavor always seems to miss the mark. I’ve made it at work with butternut squash mixed in (that obviously changes the flavor) and for the growing toddlers almost 5-year old twins I cook for who request it every time they see me (not because it’s particularly good, but because it’s a kid-approved favorite). Nonetheless I have yet to find a recipe I’m thrilled about. This one gets me much closer. I’m sure the kind of cheese you use makes all the difference.

IMG_1318In my Cookbook Challenge adventures for this week, I turned to a compilation of recipes from Lamar County in Georgia where my aunt and her family live. She has a love for cooking as I do and has given me several cookbooks throughout the years, including this one. Though I was tempted to make many of the student-submitted recipes for “a saled” with “curumbers” and “geshin” (dressing), I chose this mac and cheese recipe instead. I modified the recipe slightly, making more noodles for the amount of cheese sauce called for, and was very happy with the results. It has a slight mustard-y taste, which I don’t mind so much, but I tried to adjust for it in my version here. I also used my favorite brand of Dijon mustard – Maille – which is particularly pungent. Also, her recipe originally calls for extra sharp cheddar and I only used sharp cheddar. You choose which one you prefer.

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It certainly doesn’t have that bright orange color that Kraft does, but it made for some lip-licking mac and cheese.

Homemade Macaroni and Cheese

adapted from A++ Recipes from Lamar County

1/2 lb. elbow pasta

1 can (12 oz.) evaporated milk

1/3 cup chicken broth

1 T. butter

2.5 T. all-purpose flour

1/2-1 tsp. Dijon mustard

2.5 T. grated Parmesan

5 oz. shredded sharp cheddar

salt and pepper to taste

Bring a medium sized pot of water to a boil. Add a hefty pinch of salt and the elbow noodles. Stir to break up the noodles and cook according to the package directions (5-7 minutes) until al dente. Drain the noodles and spread out on a cookie sheet or large dish to cool so they don’t stick together. In a microwave-safe measuring cup, heat the evaporated milk and chicken broth until hot and steaming, but not boiling (1-2 minutes in the microwave). Meanwhile in the same pot, melt the butter, add the flour and stir. Gradually whisk in the milk mixture, carefully breaking up any clumps if you can. At this point it may look very curdled and chunky, but as long as most of the lumps are out, it will be fine when the dish is finished.

Continue to whisk until the milk mixtures thickens a bit, 3 minutes or so. Whisk in the mustard and Parmesan. Turn off the heat and stir in the cheddar until melted. Add the cooled pasta, stir to incorporate and reheat. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with fresh fresh ground black pepper or garlic powder.

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WAIT WAIT WAIT! Don’t go away. This is a two-in-one deal. “What to do with the leftovers?” you say!

Leftover macaroni just doesn’t have the same creamy appeal as the fresh from the stove version, but that doesn’t mean you should let those leftovers go to waste in the fridge. If you’re feeling extra decadent, just waffle it.

What?

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That’s right, waffle it. (Waffle is now a verb). What could be better (and healthier -ha!) than breaded and waffle-fied mac and cheese? Daniel Shumski’s book Will it Waffle? fulfills all your waffle fantasies. I bought this book as an impulse buy at Brookline Booksmith. Shumski himself was there giving out waffled samples and promoting his book. Feeling bold I went over to talk with him (I’d seen the blog) and ended up buying the book (with the intention of giving it to someone for Christmas). My mac and cheese solidified magnificently, making it especially easy for breading. This recipe adds a great crunch and pizzazz to an otherwise stiff leftover dish.

Waffled Mac and Cheese

adapted from Will it Waffle?

Leftover Macaroni and Cheese (see above recipe)

2 eggs

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 cup bread crumbs

1/4 cup grated hard cheese such as Parmesan

salt and pepper to taste

non-stick cooking spray

Heat your waffle iron to medium if possible (mine only has on or off and it worked well).

Cut the macaroni into slices about 1/2 thick. If it is much thicker, it may not heat all the way through without burning your breading. Set up three shallow bowls – the first with the flour, the second with the eggs and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, and the third with the breadcrumbs and Parmesan. If your breadcrumbs are plain you might consider adding a sprinkle of black pepper or garlic powder (as I did to my Panko crumbs).

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Now carefully dredge your macaroni slices, one at a time, in the flour, egg, and breadcrumbs. Put in the middle of a well-sprayed or greased preheated waffle iron. Close the lid and press down gently. Allow to cook for 3 minutes or until nicely browned. Carefully remove with a spatula and/or tongs and enjoy hot! Repeat with remaining macaroni slices.

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Bon appetit! Two more cookbooks checked off my list!

Post 106 – Store-bought from scratch

We all¬†get stuck in our habits and routines. Lunch at 12:30 even if you’re not hungry. Stay home on Sunday morning even though there’s a delicious bakery down the street. Buy the same brands, eat the same foods. When you always do something, the habit gets so ingrained that it becomes hard to imagine¬†the other possibilities. If you always buy your granola, why would you consider making it?¬†Store-bought pesto – easy! While these quick¬†grabs can definitely be a time saver, there are some¬†days¬†when you have the time and it’s totally worth it (and even an improvement) to make your own. For some reason this past weekend I was inspired to try making¬†what for me are usually store bought foods – pita bread and marinara sauce. The results: delicious!

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Now you might remember that I’ve gone through some different food experiments while¬†writing this blog. I’ve dealt with acid reflux (still do), I tried an elimination diet, and I tried some low FODMAP recipes. I became frustrated when nothing in particular seemed to make me feel 100% better and I started to wonder: is this a part of getting older? Did I develop some kind of strange allergy or disease? Is this permanent? Was I dealing with some serious pre-wedding stress last year? I didn’t¬†feel stressed. Whatever it was, it has seemed to resolve itself somewhat for the time being and I am thrilled! I’ve focused less on avoiding certain foods and more on enjoying the food I do eat while¬†not eating too much. It’s still a balancing act, but I’m finding my way and in the process I am thrilled to reintroduce myself to many of those foods I avoided before – hello garlic, onions, oranges, and lemons! Who knows how long this will last…

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Lemon and garlic for the chicken shawarma marinade

 

Eating these foods again has greatly expanded my recipe possibilities, which is why I took on the homemade pita and marinara projects. Nothing can beat the smell and warmth of fresh bread from the oven and I figured warm pita would be no different. Having made homemade bread and pizza several times, I figured pita bread was totally do-able. It takes a bit of babysitting to make, but is overall the quickest baking yeast bread that I know of Рit bakes in less than 5 minutes. We served the pita bread with chicken shawarma, hummus, and veggies, using the pita as an edible utensil to scoop up all the yummy juices from the chicken.

Dinner spread complete with homemade pita and hummus.

Dinner spread complete with homemade pita and hummus.

As for marinara sauce, we always bought the jars of sauce when I was growing up. Prego, Ragu, Barilla – whatever brand we bought, marinara sauce seemed like one of those canned foods¬†that saved time and wasn’t overly processed. It’s only recently having heard my co-workers talk about making sauce at home that I considered the possibility. I looked up a recipe and was surprised how quick and relatively simple it sounded to make. Sure you start with canned tomatoes, (especially this time of year) but at least you’re simmering the sauce with the flavors and fresh herbs yourself. I’d say it’s a nice step up from buying jars of sauce and the flavor was wonderful. I layered my homemade sauce into a hearty lasagna and served it with a fresh green salad.

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I know how easy it is to just do what you’ve always done, but sometimes you’ll be surprised what a difference it makes to eat your own homemade food whether it’s bread, sauce, or even yogurt. When you have the time to experiment, take a look around and see what you might be able to make yourself. Take a step back and ask yourself, could I make that? Sometimes you just have to see with new eyes.

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Homemade Marinara Sauce

adapted from theKitchn.com

1 T. butter or olive oil (I used butter, but you can use olive oil to make it vegan)

one 28-oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes

one 14-oz can whole San Marzano tomatoes

one 8-oz can pure tomato sauce

1 small onion, diced

1-2 cloves garlic, minced

1 bay leaf

fresh basil in chiffonade

1/2 tsp. each dried oregano and thyme

salt to taste – 1/4 tsp. to start

a pinch of sugar

 

There are a couple approaches you can take with your tomatoes here. For a chunky sauce, carefully quarter each tomato (being careful not to burst the juices into your face – trust me) and add to the sauce as instructed. For a smoother sauce, pulse your tomatoes in a food processor before adding to your sauce. OR wait until your sauce is done simmering and carefully blend in a food processor or with an immersion blender. Either way I would recommend prepping your tomatoes at least by opening the cans before you get your onions going so that you don’t burn your garlic when the time comes to add the tomatoes. Whatever you do, the sauce will be great.

To start your sauce, in a large skillet melt your butter over medium heat. Add your onion and saute for 5 minutes or until it begins to soften. Stir in the garlic until fragrant, less than a minute and then add your tomatoes, juice and all. Add the tomato sauce, salt, bay leaf, oregano, and thyme. Save the fresh basil for the end. Bring to a simmer and turn down to a low simmer for 15-20 minutes, stirring every now and then. Remove the bay leaf and taste your sauce. Adjust flavors as needed – a pinch of sugar, more salt, some black pepper. Add your basil, stir to incorporate and remove from heat. Use for your favorite ravioli, lasagna, or even garlic bread.

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