Cacio e Pepe Panzanella

Lately in all this hot weather, I’ve been craving salads for dinner– anything else feels too heavy– but even salads have to have some heft to them in order to feel satisfying. Enter the panzanella: a salad that’s a good 30-40% homemade crouton, which (let’s face it) is often the very best part.

This salad from Food52 has it all– freshly-toasted croutons tossed in a cheesy, peppery dressing (hence the “cacio e pepe” moniker), sweet corn, tangy tomatoes, and a nice big ball of burrata to bring it all together and make it feel indulgent. I’ve made it twice already and foresee eating this a lot this summer, even if it does involve turning on my oven in this weather!

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Pasta with Baked Feta and Tomatoes

So apparently a year or two ago, this recipe (or a variation thereof) swept the internet with its simplicity and deliciousness, and I just missed it. But I discovered it recently and have promptly added it to my slate of weeknight dinners, because it’s just that easy and just that good. Basically, you chuck a block of feta and some cherry tomatoes into a baking pan, roast them for a bit, then toss in some cooked pasta and basil and you’re basically done.

With a sprinkle of crushed red pepper and some garlic, the finished dish is pretty fantastic, even if it’s not the most attractive thing in the world. The feta is creamy and salty, the tomatoes are bright, and you get an extra kick from the pepper to go along with the slightly sharp garlic (it’s barely cooked so it retains that sharpness). I will totally be making this over and over again!

I used farfalle, but any pasta shape would work pretty well here, I think. Just make sure there’s enough space in your roasting pan to add and toss your pasta, or you lose some of the convenience!

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Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce

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Ever since I first made this sauce I’ve been a huge, HUGE fan. The recipe is seemingly everywhere and it’s so simple, so perfect, so delicious you just want to eat more and more of it… it’s Marcella Hazan’s Tomato Sauce With Butter and Onion. Three ingredients (not including salt, but that hardly counts), but they come together in a way that defies explanation. The butter adds so much richness to the tomatoes, and the onion in the background just adds to the overall roundness and balance of the sauce. It’s my very favorite tomato sauce, and it comes together with pantry ingredients in under an hour.

Seriously, I beg you to try it the next time you want a weeknight treat. How to make it?

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Pumpkin Brown Butter Layer Cake

For Thanksgiving this year I originally intended to make a marbled pumpkin cheesecake, but my seven-year-old responded with a firm “no,” insisting on cake. Since she’s been getting into baking lately, I figured I’d enlist her help to make this one, which has a lot of components (you saw a few of them already) but ends up looking and tasting really impressive. The pumpkin cake is lovely and moist, and the candied nuts add a wonderful textural contrast. The decorative garnishes were just icing on the cake!

That being said, I really like using brown butter in recipes, but I have to admit that while the batter smelled amazing I couldn’t really taste the flavor in the cake itself. The frosting had more brown butter flavor, but again it wasn’t prevalent enough to really make it worthwhile, particularly when the cream cheese kind of took over. In the future I’d probably use regular butter in the cake, at least.

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Mexican Street Corn Nachos

These are amazing. Best nachos ever. Really, truly incredible. If you like Mexican Street Corn (also known as elotes), you need to make these as soon as possible. I made them one night for a last-minute dinner gathering and by the next morning I was already plotting when to make them again, calories be damned.

These nachos combine charred corn with a creamy cheese sauce, poured over toasty tortilla chips to form a rich, satisfying base, which is then perked up with tangy tomatoes, pickled onions, lime juice, and basically all of the fixings of your favorite tacos. There’s just something about the luxuriousness of the gooey cheese being poured over the tray of chips, layered with topping after topping… I think if I could sit out on my deck with friends, a 6-pack of Coronas, and these nachos, I would have my ideal late summer evening. (or you could, you know, stay indoors in the fall and just devour them anyway)

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Porg Rice Balls

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For May the Fourth I attended a Star Wars themed party, so of course I had to make something in-theme to contribute! I decided on these porg-shaped rice balls, which are rice balls rolled in crushed sesame, with nori accents and a chunk of cucumber in the middle for extra crunch. They turned out adorable, if I do say so myself, and were popular with party-goers, so I consider them a success!

While you can make these without any special tools, it’s a lot faster and easier to do if you have the right equipment. I used a nori punch for the facial features, and a rice-roll press to make my pieces evenly shaped and well-compressed. That being said, you can feel free to shape your rice by hand (wet hands make it easier) and to cut out eyes and mouths with scissors. I would definitely recommend using the parchment paper cutout to mask off the white parts of the rice during the sesame step, though!

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Okonomiyaki

Ten years ago my husband and I took a trip to Japan, and it was there that we discovered okonomiyaki. Okonomiyaki is a Japanese pancake made of shredded cabbage and meat in a flour-egg batter, and often contains additional ingredients for extra flavors and textures. The restaurant we went to was in a tiny little town and was listed as a “hidden gem” in our travel guide, and it definitely spoiled us for all other iterations of okonomiyaki on our trip (because of course, having had it once we were dying to have it again!). The ingredients came in separate bowls that you combined to your own taste, and there were personal grills right at the table to cook the pancakes, which were served with pickled ginger, bonito flakes, and okonomiyaki sauce for garnish.

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Oddly, despite searching for similar restaurants here in the States, we never thought of trying to recreate the recipe at home. However, I was in a local Asian market recently when I spied a bottle of okonomiyaki sauce (a tangy, savory sauce that’s kind of like a mixture of ketchup and Worcestershire sauce), and was inspired to try my own version of these!

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Cucumber-Pineapple Mosaic Sushi

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Have you seen those videos floating around about how to make fabulous sushi rolls that form pictures or designs when you cut them? They look amazing, though really time-consuming and extremely difficult to make. That being said, I recently saw one that looked so easy I had to try it– it’s a cucumber and pineapple roll, and since my daughter loves cucumber maki and loves pineapple it seemed like a natural next step to try this one.

Let me tell you, you’ll need two things to make sure this sushi works. A very sharp knife (dipped in water between cuts), and a sushi rolling mat. Both are essential– my knife wasn’t quite sharp enough and it made things a little difficult my first time (photos are of the second time around), and without the mat I’d never have been able to compress things tightly enough to stick together.

All in all, the sushi didn’t turn out badly. A little too much rice, I think, but that just means I need to work on pressing it very, VERY thinly over the nori before filling and rolling. (like, one grain thick and leaving a few spaces in between with no rice at all, since it gets compressed together when you roll). Also I think pineapple isn’t the best thing to put in the center, since it doesn’t compress or shift to fill in empty spots, which leaves the finished slices a little unstable. I’d try salmon, or tempura shrimp, or really anything that you can cut into strips that has some “give” to it and is maybe a tiny bit sticky. Crab stick, maybe?

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Black Bean Brownies

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I admit to being skeptical about “healthy” desserts using alternative ingredients– they never taste quite right, and you end up eating more of them anyway because you’ve been lulled into a false sense of security by the “healthy” moniker. So it took me a while before trying this brownie recipe, which uses black beans as a base and which is also gluten-free. But since I was trying to avoid flour this month (my usual diet is way too starchy) I thought this might be a tasty dessert option.

Reviews of similar recipes have been mixed– some people rave over them, others claim that the texture is off-putting and the bean flavor is too obvious. Personally, I fall somewhere in the middle. These brownies are nice and chocolate-y, with no hint of bean flavor, even as an aftertaste. However, the texture is definitely not that of a regular brownie– they’re not chewy at all, nor are they gooey enough to be considered fudge-y. They’re soft, but not cakey– they’re kind of like a dry soufflĂ©, in that they melt away easily in the mouth. And they’re not dense but I wouldn’t call them light either. In short, the texture is difficult to define, but not unpleasant.

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Bulgogi-Marinated Jackfruit Bao

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I’ve never been one for meat substitutes– if I’m going to eat vegetarian, I’m fine with embracing that rather than trying to make it taste like meat– but I’d heard so much about “jackfruit pulled pork” that I just had to try it myself. The concept is simple: you take canned, green jackfruit and simmer it in sauce until it can be pulled into shreds, much like pulled pork. Many recipes call for using a crockpot over several hours, but I found that you can simmer for 30 minutes and have it turn out fine.

The texture of the shredded jackfruit is hard to describe– it’s not quite like meat, since it doesn’t have the same firmness, but it’s definitely reminiscent of meat in a way that most other vegetables aren’t. It kind of reminds me of the texture of fake crabmeat– the kind that comes in sticks. In any case, it’s never going to fool anyone into thinking it’s real meat, but it’s probably as close as you’re going to get.

Rather than go with a standard BBQ sauce (though I’m sure it would’ve been tasty), I opted to go with a Korean bulgogi sauce, which I thought turned out great. Sandwiched in a steamed bun (purchased frozen at my local Korean market) and topped with various vegetable trimmings, I’d say the overall effect was pretty good! If I were having a barbecue and my guest list included vegetarians, I wouldn’t hesitate to serve these!

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