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Cure for a Cold Snap: Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup

13 May

Howdy readers, I’m back. It’s been an interesting few months to say the very least, but needless to say I wasn’t doing as much cooking as I do normally. And when I was cooking, I was feeling stuck in a little bit of a rut. Not as if there aren’t endless sources of inspiration in books and online, I just wasn’t in that head space. It was hard to be out of the groove, but as I’ve started feeling more like myself, getting back into the kitchen and just experimenting has made me really happy again.

I’ve been on a soup and stew kick this week. That might seem like a little bit of a head-scratcher for this time of year, but if you were in Arlington this week, it’s been in the 50s, overcast, and rainy. So my local friends might understand why I’ve wanted nothing but warming foods.

This soup is spicy-sweet, creamy, and really delicious. It can also be made vegan if you swap out the chicken stock for vegetable stock or even water with a stick of kombu in it. Let’s have at it!

Curried Butternut Squash and Apple Soup


  • 1 lb butternut squash, cubed
  • 1 apple, cored and cubed
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 3-4 cups unsalted chicken stock or broth
  • ½ cup whole or light coconut milk
  • 2 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 tbsp. curry powder
  • 1 tsp. salt (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper (less or more to taste)
  • ½ tsp. toasted ground coriander
  • Optional: Toasted, salted pistachios


Heat the olive oil in a deep, straight-sided saute pan over medium heat. Add the onions and cook until soft and a bit sweet.

Add the chopped apple, squash, and spices to the pan and cook everything over medium heat for 5-7 minutes or until the squash and apples begin to cook down and release liquid.

Add enough broth to the pan to cover the vegetables and fruit, then turn the heat to high and bring to a boil. Then reduce the heat back to medium and allow the soup to simmer, uncovered, until the squash is tender. The liquid will also start to reduce.

Using a traditional or immersion blender, puree the soup. If using a countertop blender, you may need to do so in batches to keep the hot liquid in check. Once the soup is pureed, add the coconut milk and blend it in. Check the seasoning, add salt and pepper as needed, and then blend again.

Serve hot with the toasted pistachio garnish and enjoy!

Hopefully I’ll be back a little more quickly this time. There’s a lot I know I’ll want to make once the farm markets are back in full swing for the summer, so keep your eyes peeled for new recipes. Until then…

Ciao for now,


Satisfy My Soul: Sweet Potato, Chickpea, and Collard Greens Stew

14 Jan

Long-time readers of this blog will no doubt remember the “Mystery Food” series. For a couple of summers, I participated in Community Supported Agriculture programs in the NoVA area. Basically, it’s like buying stock…only more delicious. You pay a lump sum to a local farm at the beginning of the growing season, and once a week receive a box full of whatever has been harvested that week.

What I miss the most about it is that it forced me out of my comfort zone. I had to plan meals around whatever appeared in that box—and during some times of the year that meant figuring out what to do with massive quantities of squash, apples, or greens. Kale must grow really well around here, because boy-howdy did I eat a lot of kale those summers.

So when my friend Heather tipped me off to a special deal on Relay Foods, a grocery delivery service that sources from local stores, restaurants, and farms, I was excited to find they had their own version of this CSA-type share called a Bounty Box. Cha-ching! Time for vegetable roulette. I ordered one and anxiously anticipated what might appear on the porch.

There were some glorious pink lady apples, a jug of fresh apple cider, a nice fat little tomato, some white potatoes, watercress, curly kale, an enormous pile of collard greens, and several very hefty sweet potatoes. I was definitely pleased with the haul, but a little thrown for a loop. Confession time: I never buy sweet potatoes or collards. I have nothing against them, but I just never buy them or cook with them.


Nothing like a mystery box to let your mouth know what it’s been missing! Seasonal food is awesome, because it’s exactly what the earth has to offer at that moment—and wherever you are, it’s probably exactly what your body is asking for too. Think about it: Collards packed with vitamin c, k, and soluble fiber (not to mention factors that regulate immune function) and sweet potatoes full of fiber, beta carotene, vitamin c, vitamin b-6, and potassium. Yep, mother earth definitely knows you need some protection against flu season. And nothing says yummy winter food like a stew…

Sweet Potato, Chickpea, and Collard Greens Stew

  • 1 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp. smoked paprika
  • ½ tsp. coriander seeds
  • ½ tsp. cayenne pepper
  • ½ tsp. cumin
  • 3-4 cups collard greens, large ribs removed, roughly chopped
  • 1 15.4 oz. can of no salted added chickpeas, drained, or 2 cups of dried chickpeas soaked overnight
  • 2 large sweet potatoes (approximately 1 lb.), peeled and diced
  • 2-3 cups vegetable or chicken stock
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Begin by heating the olive oil, paprika, cumin, cayenne pepper, and coriander seeds  in a large pot over medium heat. Heat for about one minute, and then add the chickpeas and stir to combine. Cook the chickpeas until lightly browned, about 5-7 minutes. Remove, and set aside.
20140109_171922Add the onions to the pot and cook until soft and somewhat translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add the garlic and cook one minute more, stirring frequently so that the spices don’t burn.

Add the diced sweet potatoes to the pot and cook for 10 minutes.
20140109_173252Once the sweet potatoes have softened slightly, add enough vegetable or chicken stock to the pot to just cover them. Bring the mixture to a boil, then reduce and simmer for 15 minutes or until the sweet potatoes are very tender.
Remove the pot from the heat and blend or mash the soup until you like the consistency. I like to leave some chunks of sweet potato, rather than making this smooth like bisque.
Return the pot to the stove over medium heat and add the collard greens and chickpeas. Simmer the soup for 10-15 minutes or until the greens are tender.
20140109_191507Serve hot, garnished with some roasted chickpeas, pumpkin seeds, or sunflower seeds for some crunch.
Nothing like a bowl of something hearty to warm your body and soul on a cold January evening. And a reminder that sometimes being thrown out of your regular routine leads to a whole new experience of comfort, ease, and culinary satisfaction.

Ciao for now,


Warming up: Beer-Braised Short Ribs

21 Jan

Welcome to 2013! Neen’s Notes is grabbing the bull by the horns and ready for another year of kitchen experiments and fun:


Our long national nightmare has ended and hockey is back! The Penguins had their opener against Philadelphia on Saturday and looked like they had things pretty well put together. I was impressed given that there was only a week of training camp due to the lockout.

It was conference championship week for the NFL, so a sports-filled weekend all around. What better way to enjoy the games than with something meaty and slow-cooked? That’s what was on my mind when I headed to the grocery store to get some things to make over the long weekend. You know it’s going to be a good day when you walk in and the butcher (with whom you have wisely made friends) gives you a big grin and says, “Check these out. These are what you want, trust me.”

Well who am I to argue? And let’s be honest…they were very pretty:

1 - short ribs

Short ribs have a lot of connective tissue to break down and cry out to be braised slowly in a very flavorful liquid. The key is to strike a balance between earthiness and acidity, and a mix of stock and something alcoholic is a good place to start. Wine braises are delicious, but for “tailgate” food I thought a good dark lager seemed more appropriate.

Beer Braised Short Ribs

  • 2 lbs. beef short ribs
  • 2 tsp. dried thyme
  • 3 tbsp. olive oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 3-4 small carrots, diced
  • 2-3 sprigs flat leaf parsley
  • 4-5 sprigs thyme
  • 1 tbsp. fresh rosemary
  • 12 oz. dark lager
  • 2 1/2 cups veal stock
  • 2 tbsp. tomato paste
  • Salt and pepper

Remove the short ribs from the refrigerator one hour before cooking and season with the thyme, salt, and pepper.

2 - seasoned short ribs

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees F.

Heat a dutch oven over medium-high heat and add the olive oil. Once it is shimmering and fragrant, add the short ribs to the pan and brown on all sides. This will take about 10-15 minutes.

4 - browned ribs

Remove the ribs to a plate and set aside. Reduce the heat to medium-low and add the onions and garlic to the dutch oven. Cook for 2-3 minutes or until the onions are translucent.

5 - onions in pan

Add the carrots and tomato paste and stir thoroughly with a wooden spoon, scraping the bottom of the pan.

6 - vegetables and tomato paste

Add the ribs back to the dutch oven and tuck the herbs around them. Pour the beer over the meat and then add 1 ½ cups of the veal stock.

7 - herbs8 - add the beer

Cover the dutch oven and move it to the oven. Cook for 3 hours, adding small amounts of veal stock every hour until the remaining cup is used. Remove the lid during the last 20 minutes of cooking.

Move the ribs to a plate and remove sprigs of herbs from the dutch oven. Puree the remaining liquid and vegetables into a sauce with an immersion blender and reduce slightly until it coats the back of a spoon.

9 - cooked ribs10 - pureed sauce

Pour the sauce back over the whole ribs and serve as-is if you like. The meat is very tender though, so I shredded it and served it on whole wheat pasta with the sauce. The end result was a hearty, warm dish that fit perfectly into a lazy January weekend.

11 - short ribs over pasta

Hope you’re having a great start to 2013!

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 19: Clown Box edition

6 Oct

My stomach and I are at war. I don’t know what I ever did to it, but it’s mad at me. Most of my delicious mystery food from last week had to go the preservation route, but I am absolutely not complaining about a freezer full of lunches. I did get around to making some delicious potato soup from the mountain of potatoes I accumulated and it’s been a lifesaver while I’m not feeling 100%. It’s also perfect for this lovely, brisk weather that has appeared out of nowhere. It’s not too heavy, but substantial enough for a meal:

Crock Pot Potato Soup

-12 small/medium potatoes (use the week 17 and 18 pictures for size reference.) They yielded about 6 cups diced.
-1 medium white or yellow onion, diced.
-3.5 cups of low sodium chicken stock. I like Kitchen Basics’ unsalted variety.
-3 cloves of garlic, minced.
-3 slices of bacon
-1 cup of 2% milk
-1.5 tsp. dried thyme
-A few shakes of cayenne pepper
-Salt and pepper to taste
-Green onions or chives to garnish

-Peel and quarter-inch dice your potatoes. If you too are sick with the stomach flu, have a friend drag a chair and your laptop into the kitchen so that you can sit and watch bad reality television like Hell’s Kitchen while you work. If you’re preparing them in advance, put the diced potatoes in a bowl and cover with cold water. This will keep them from turning gray.
-Dice the bacon and sauté it to render out most of the fat.
-Put the potatoes, chicken stock, bacon, thyme, pepper, and some salt into the crock pot and set it on high.
-Gently sauté the onions in the left over bacon fat (you may need to add a splash of olive oil) until translucent and fragrant. Add the garlic and sauté 1-2 minutes more. Add this to the crock pot and give everything a quick stir.
-Cook on high for 4 hours.
-Ladle half of the soup into a blender and add the milk. Blend until smooth. Add the puree back to the crock pot and cook for another ½ hour on low. (It should be simmering very gently.)
-Garnish with green onions and a few grinds of black pepper. Eat merrily.

Yield: Six 1 ½ cup servings

It’s so good. I confess, however, that by the end of the weekend I was really tired of the lack of solid food in my diet. I made cookies and justified it by saying that the inclusion of ginger (digestive aid!) and blackstrap molasses (iron!) made them an appropriate snack. And they’re perfect autumn cookies, best eaten alongside a strong cup of coffee.

Giant Gingersnap Cookies

-1 cup all-purpose flour
-2/3 cup sugar
-4 tbsp. unsalted butter
-1 egg
-2 tbsp. blackstrap molasses
-2 tsp. cinnamon
-1 tsp. ground ginger
-1/4 tsp. ground allspice
-1/4 tsp. baking soda
-1/4 tsp. salt
-A few grinds of black pepper (really amps up the spices)

-Pre heat an oven to 350 degrees F.
-Mix the flour, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, baking soda, salt, and pepper in a bowl and set aside.
-Cream the butter and ½ cup of the sugar (reserve the rest in a small bowl) until fluffy. Add the egg and molasses and mix well.
-Slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet and mix until just combined.
-Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and drop the dough by rounded tablespoonfuls onto the baking sheets. They will spread slightly, so only put 7 cookies on each sheet.
-Spray the bottom of a glass with non-stick cooking spray, dip in the bowl of reserved sugar and then flatten a mound of dough. Repeat for each cookie.
-Bake for approximately 13 minutes or until just set. The centers will still be slightly soft, but will firm up and be crunchy once cooled.
-Cool on a wire rack and then store in a sealed container for up to a week. But they won’t last that long.

Yield: 14 big wonderful cookies

Onto this week’s Mystery Food…I called this week the clown box edition for good reason. Items just kept coming out no matter how many times I reached into the box! Fantastic.

Salad greens, Rome apples, green bell peppers, a small eggplant, squash, potatoes, and a lovely pumpkin. I found a recipe for sweet spiced pumpkin pickles so I might give that a go. If I end up canning I might also use some of those beautiful Rome apples to make apple pie filling. A quart jar of pie filling is the perfect amount for a 9-inch pie.

I hope you enjoy this week’s recipes. I’m crossing my fingers that my stomach and I can form a peace treaty so that there will be apple-picking in the near future. What better way to celebrate autumn?

Ciao for now,


Mystery Food Week 8: Summer Ragout edition

22 Jul

Before we get down to the joy of Mystery Food, I want to express my joy and thanks to all of the family and friends-that-are-like-family in Pittsburgh who made the July Birthday Extravaganza so wonderful. I enjoyed it this much:

(Special thanks to Rendezvous for letting me make a guest appearance!)

Onto the tasty things…Mystery Food week 8 was summer in a box. It was perfect: 

I received yellow peaches, doughnut peaches, apples, summer squash, zucchini, apricots, sweet corn, and a basil plant.

Between all of the squash, fresh herbs popping up in my garden, and a can of amazing San Marzano tomatoes (thanks dad!) I started thinking, “Ragout, ragout, ragouuuuuut.”

Let’s talk about stew/ragout/ragu. Now, I know what you’re thinking: “Stew? Neen, really? It’s been in the 90s in Arlington for the last few weeks and you’re thinking about warm, fuzzy-sweater-cozy stew?” And while I’ll confess that what I’m about to present is a hot meal, I’ll argue to the end of the world that there is no better time to have it than in summer. The squash is perfectly sweet and tender, complemented by warm notes from bacon and cayenne pepper, all brought together in a sea of tomato-basil goodness. All it requires is some chopping and one pot. So without further ado, here’s…

Neen’s Summer Ragout

-One summer squash, diced.
-One zucchini, diced.
-6 or 7 Roma tomatoes, chopped or one can of San Marzano tomatoes.
-2 ears worth of sweet corn kernels.
-2 spring onions (or one medium white/yellow onion).
-3 small cloves garlic, minced.
-1 slice thick-cut bacon.
-1-2tbsp. grape seed or olive oil.
-A few splashes of white wine (optional).
-A few strips of dried cayenne pepper, diced (or cayenne powder to taste).
-Handful of basil leaves, torn.
-5 or 6 sprigs of lemon thyme leaves.
-Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper to taste.
-Grated parmesan cheese, to garnish.

-Place the slice of bacon in the pot over medium heat until it is cooked through and the fat has rendered out.
-Remove the bacon and dice it.
-Add the onions and garlic to the pot, add a little bit of oil, and reduce the heat to medium-low.
-Cook until the aromatics are golden-brown. Add the diced bacon.
-Move the pot off of the heat and add a few splashes of wine, then return the pan to the heat and turn it up to medium.
-Add the zucchini and summer squash and sauté gently for about 7-8 minutes.
-Add the tomatoes, corn, cayenne, herbs, a few pinches of salt, and a few grinds of pepper.
-Put the lid on the pot, reduce the heat so that the ragout is simmering gently. Cook for 1 hour, giving it a stir every 15 minutes or so, and cook until the squash is soft, but not mushy. Remember to taste and adjust your  seasonings along the way!
-Garnish with a bit more basil and some parmesan cheese if you like. Voila!

I ate mine as it was, but ragout certainly goes well over pasta, brown rice, or quinoa. Ground turkey breast, browned and put into the pot when the tomatoes are added is another nice way to make a heartier meal. It also freezes/reheats nicely—always a bonus.

Finally, remember that watermelon plant that I mentioned was taking over my garden like a kudzu vine? It’s been covered in little yellow flowers with no signs of fruit. This morning, I found this:

Cutest. Watermelon. Ever.

There are four of them, each about the size of a kidney bean at the moment. Hopefully we’ll get one or two that ripen fully.

Ciao for now!


Warm and Wonderful

25 Sep

Fall is in the air! I actually needed a sweater yesterday and this morning. My office is always a little icy, so I keep a cardigan there, but today called for one right out of the door. I’m certainly not complaining. The days are pleasant here and I’m looking forward to a temperate autumn.

The crisp air did, however inspire me to make a very cozy Roasted Cauliflower, Leek, and Garlic Soup that came out rich, creamy, and at a mere 70 calories per cup. Read on…

Cast of Characters

1 head of cauliflower, cut into florets
1/2 head of garlic, cut so that the cloves are exposed
3 leeks, (white/light green part only) sliced thick
3 cups low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup skim milk
3 bay leaves
A few grinds of black pepper
1/2 tbsp. sea salt
1-2 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
Fresh parsley, basil, or basil puree for garnishing

Preheat an oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit and place a baking sheet (lined with aluminum foil if you have it) on the middle rack.

While the oven/baking sheet are heating up, toss the cauliflower, leeks, and garlic with the oil, salt, and pepper. Once the oven is preheated, spread the mixture onto the baking sheet and roast, stirring occasionally for 25-30 minutes or until the cauliflower is lightly browned.

Remove the vegetables from the oven and set the garlic aside. Pour the other vegetables into a large saucepan (this is where that aluminum foil comes in handy!) and add the chicken broth and bay leaves.

Once it’s cool enough to handle, (about 5 minutes) squeeze the garlic out of its paper and add it to the soup. Discard the paper. Bring the soup to a boil and then reduce the heat and cover the pot. Simmer for 15 minutes or until the leeks and cauliflower are very tender.

The next step has several options. You can use either an immersion blender, countertop blender, or a food processor to puree the soup. I used my countertop blender and did it in two batches. Once pureed smooth, return the soup to the saucepan and stir in the milk. Taste and add seasoning if necessary.

Serve warm with a basil or parsley garnish. I can’t emphasize enough how much more flavor those vegetables have just from the roasting. Refrigerate for up to 5 days or freeze for up to a month. My batch is frozen into 5 small containers for afternoon snacks or as a side dish alongside roast chicken breast or pork chops.

What popped into my head upon tasting this was that you could make this a healthier substitute for mashed potatoes by using a lot less liquid, (say 1/2 cup chicken broth and 1/2 cup milk) and then processing to your personal desired consistency.

This recipe was adapted from Clean Eating Magazine’s most recent edition. Since they only publish 6 times a year, it included a special section on how to make a clean, healthy Thanksgiving meal. I was a bit doubtful at first, but after tasting that soup I can honestly say it would compliment a roast turkey excellently. Maybe I’ll bring some to Thanksgiving dinner this year…

I’ve been making so much soup lately that my freezer is absolutely packed to the brim. Consequently, I’ve been eyeing pressure canners on Amazon and waiting for a good sale. I have a hot water canner (great for tomatoes and fruits), but without pressure the water can’t get hot enough ensure the destruction of scary bacteria that could spoil low-acidic foods. I have nearly two cases of mason jars waiting to be filled and it would be a shame if they were left so lonely.

Plus, who doesn’t want a cupboard full of homemade soup? Living in Boston made me realize the importance of having a well-stocked pantry. I don’t know about you, but going to the store when the temperature is in the negatives isn’t my idea of a fun time. I think I’d rather curl up on the couch with some warm soup/stew, Joe, and Dioji. That sounds much better.

Okay, enough out of me for today. I hope everyone is having a great week—it’s almost the weekend! Joe and I have errands to run on Saturday (and I have schoolwork), but Sunday will hopefully be full of football and relaxation. Hooray!

Ciao for now, friends!