My Love Affair with Salads in a Jar

It’s been a couple of years now that I’ve been loving salads in a jar.

The premise is pretty simple: take a jar big enough to hold the size of salad you like to eat, and layer in all the ingredients, starting with the wettest ingredients at the bottom and ending with the lettuce as the top layer.

The beauty of this idea? You can make your salads a week ahead of time (time-saver!), and the crispy parts stay crisp. The flavors sometimes blend in wonderful ways. And the lunches you prepare are full of the good things you know you should be eating anyway.

I’ve got a handy little tool in the kitchen that helps pull air out of the jars and seal in the freshness…it works with a food vacuum sealer machine. But I’ve done salads both ways, and they always turn out great!

There’s really no limit to what kinds of salads you can put in a jar: I’ve done Caesar, Nicoise, Garden, Southwestern Chicken, Chef, Cobb, Summer Berry…you get the idea.

This week, I tried out a group of recipes to deliver a variety of flavors while also encouraging us to eat lots of veggies and protein. One was a more formal salad recipe that I adapted slightly for jars, and the others were made up based on what we like to eat. Here they are…

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Left: Cafe Brenda salad. Middle: Chicken Mediterranean Salad. Right: Steak and Onion Salad

Café Brenda Salad

(Serves 8)

  • 1 head romaine lettuce, torn into bite size pieces
  • 4 Granny Smith apples, chopped
  • 8 ounces gorgonzola cheese, crumbled
  • Spicy Nuts (see recipe below)
  • Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette (see recipe below)

Combine lettuce, apples, spicy nuts, and cheese in a large bowl. Toss with Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette. (Add a little amount of salad dressing at a time – a little goes a long way!)

Spicy Nuts

  • 3 cups pecans
  • ¼ cup butter
  • 1 Tablespoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 2 teaspoons ground white pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground allspice
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons sugar

Spread the pecans on a cookie sheet, and toast in a preheated 350 often for about 10-15 minutes, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned and crunchy. (Rely on your nose.) The nuts will begin to smell nutty and toasty.

Melt the butter. Turn the nuts into a large bowl and toss with the butter and remaining ingredients until the nuts are coated. (If you don’t like a lot of spice, sprinkle in the spices a little at a time to taste.) Spread coated nuts out on the cookie sheet to let them dry. Store in an airtight container until you’re ready to assemble the salad.

Maple-Mustard Vinaigrette

  • 1/3 cup cider vinegar
  • 3 cloves garlic, peeled and crushed
  • 2 shallots, peeled and diced
  • 1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
  • 1 tablespoon smooth Dijon mustard
  • 1 tablespoon coarse mustard
  • 2/3 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup vegetable oil

Put all ingredients, except oil, into a blender. Blend on high, then pour oil in a slow, steady stream, until the mixture is thick and emulsified. Pour into a mason jar and store in the refrigerator.

 Adaptation for Serving in a Jar

I scaled back the quantities by 50% on both the nuts and the dressing. That gave me enough for approximately 4 jars. Then I layered the dressing, apples, nuts, cheese and lettuce.

 

Chicken Mediterranean Salad in a Jar

  • Balsamic vinaigrette dressing of your choice
  • 2 medium tomatoes, chopped
  • 2 cucumbers, chopped
  • 1 8-oz. jar roasted red peppers
  • 1 5-oz. container feta cheese crumbles
  • 12 ounces chicken, cooked and shredded into bite-size pieces
  • 1 head red leaf lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 4 wide-mouth quart jars with lids and rings

Start by measuring 2 tablespoons of dressing into each jar. Moving from “wet” to “dry” ingredients, divide tomatoes, then red peppers, then cucumbers, then feta on top of the dressing. Place chicken on top of vegetable layer, then fill the remaining space of the jar with as much lettuce as you can fill in.

 

Steak and Onion Salad in a Jar

  • Red wine vinaigrette dressing of your choice
  • 1 red onion, sliced thin
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • leftover steak or deli-sliced roast beef, cut into bite-size pieces
  • blue cheese crumbles
  • baby arugula, red leaf lettuce, or other lettuce, torn into bite-size pieces
  • 4 wide-mouth quart jars with lids and rings

Caramelize the onions by melting the butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and sautee until browned and soft in texture, about 10 minutes. Set aside to cool.

In the jars, pour 2 tablespoons salad dressing. Layer the cooled onions, steak, cheese and as much lettuce as you can fit into the jar.

Super Simple Summer Dessert: No-Bake Key Lime Pie

Tonight’s dessert is brought to you by a healthy dose of nostalgic impulse.

It was one of those mornings where it felt like nothing was going according to plan…from a toddler waking up more than an hour before she was expected to, to unbridled resistance to the order of getting dressed, the act of meal planning during a holiday week with a weather forecast that made me want to put my husband on grilling duty. Every. Single. Night.

With the humidity adding to the weight of the day’s to-dos, an unexpected traffic snarl only added to the mental frazzles, where you have to remind yourself that you’re a grown-up. You’ve handled worse. You can get through this. And besides, you need to restock the wine.

That’s how, as I stood in the produce section of the grocery store and saw that limes were on sale, my mind went on a trip. Back to my early teens, when my parents would drop me off at the bus station in in the city with a ticket taking me north to the station nearest my grandparents’ cabin, and my grandpa would pick me up for the hour’s drive to the point where their cabin stood. Back to one of those heavy-hot summer mornings, where the occasional breeze that danced across the lake’s surface before drifting through the wide-open cabin windows felt heaven-sent. The mental picture of my grandma, rummaging through her pantry for a can of sweetened condensed milk to join the two limes and pre-made graham cracker crust on the counter.

“We had this for dessert at a friend’s place the other night, and it was delicious,” she explained, shouting a little because her head was still deep in the pantry. “I asked her for the recipe, and she rattled off four ingredients.” That last part was kind of spat out, like she couldn’t believe something so good took such little effort.

“So,” she sighed as she clanked the can down on the counter, “let’s teach you how to make key lime pie.”

Little flecks of lime zest bring the promise of sweet-tart coolness.

There we stood, side-by-side in the cabin kitchen, as she walked me through the very simple process of making a no-bake key lime pie. She was right: it was so easy, and so good. For a day when you didn’t want to heat the rest of the place with an oven, it was just right.

Topping the pie with whipped cream helps cut the richness of the dessert. (I kid, I kid.)

There’s no secret to the recipe, and I’m sure it’s been shared tons of times. But limes were on sale, and thinking through tonight’s dinner plans — grilled burgers, corn on the cob — the thought of a little key lime pie, tangy-sweet coolness giving the palate a pick-me-up and soother all at the same time, felt like a must. Less than a heartbeat later I was adding two limes to the little bag I had started, and mentally adding a can of sweetened condensed milk and mini graham cracker crusts to the shopping list.

No-Bake Key Lime Pie

Ingredients

  • 1 can sweetened condensed milk
  • 2 limes (the zest of 1 lime collected for the pie)
  • 1 large graham cracker pie crust, or 6 mini graham cracker pie crusts
  • Whipped cream or topping – according to your preference

Directions

  1. Zest one of the limes, reserving the zest for later.
  2. In a 4-cup liquid measuring cup, juice the 2 limes (they should yield 1/2 cup of lime juice).
  3. Add the sweetened condensed milk and lime zest, stirring briskly to combine.
  4. Pour into the pie crust(s) and place in the refrigerator to set, for approximately 2 hours.
  5. Serve with a healthy dollop of whipped cream.

School’s Out for Summer! – or – Ode to Pretzel Crack

It all started innocently enough. I’m big on thanking people who rock their jobs, so when it comes to the teachers and specialists my son interacts with at school, there was no question: they needed a little something to start their summers off on the right foot.

  After collecting some summer sipping cups that had chalkboard labels and loading up gift cards at a book store, it was time to add a homemade touch to each little care package. Which is how I stumbled upon this recipe.

I knew we were in big trouble when my husband asked me — after the first batch was prepped, packaged, and added to the gifts — if there were any leftovers. And when he learned there weren’t, offered to run to the store and pick up more ingredients.

Then came the email and handwritten note from my son’s teacher, thanking me for the gifts and specifically asking for the recipe.

Then my husband asked for another batch for home, since there weren’t any leftovers.

Then he signed up to bring some “Pretzel Crack” to a pot luck party at work. And asked if I could double the batch, to be sure there was enough for everyone to sample…because he knew what he could do with any leftovers.

We may have a problem here, readers. And as I believe none of us should suffer alone, I think it’s past time to share the recipe with the rest of you. So we can suffer together with our mouths full of Pretzel Crack.

 

Get off of that plate and into mah belly!

 
Salted Chocolate Pretzel Toffee, aka Pretzel Crack

  • 1 bag Pretzels (can be regular or mini, the recipe’s not terribly picky)
  • 1 cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup light brown sugar
  • 1 12-ounce bag chocolate chips — milk chocolate or semi-sweet, according to your preference
  • Sea salt for sprinkling

Directions

Preheat the oven to 375° and line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment paper.

Break your pretzels into smaller pieces and scatter around the pan. You may not use the entire bag of pretzels, but make sure you’ve got a nice layer for that toffee to grab onto and never let go.

In a small saucepan, melt the butter and brown sugar together over medium heat, stirring constantly. Bring to a rolling boil, and let boil without stirring for 3 minutes. Pour over the pretzels in the pan; don’t worry if it doesn’t cover every square inch of the pan, as it will “melt out” a bit more in the oven.

Place the mixture in the oven and bake for 5 minutes.

Remove from the oven, and sprinkle chocolate chips over the top. Give the chips a few minutes to melt before spreading the now-molten chips around to make the topping. Sprinkle with sea salt.

Now, the hard part: allow the pan and contents to cool and set completely. This is the hardest, especially as the grown-ups in the house would occasionally pass through the kitchen and “test” the batch to see if the corners were set up yet or not.

Serves 24. If you mean one piece per person. If you’re particularly hormonal, then one batch serves 1.

Love from Hell

Valentine’s Day — a highly commercialized expression of love, some would say. Not the most wonderful time of the year for those who don’t have someone to love (worse for those who have someone who doesn’t return their love).

But for our kiddos, it’s another way to show their affections for friends and even teachers. During the evenings this week our oldest has been spending his time carefully writing out Valentine cards to his classmates. Our youngest has been drooling over the Valentine cards we’ve been writing on her behalf. Treats were attached to each card – Ninja Turtle candies for the Kindergarteners, Cheddar Bunnies for the infants – and packed to go off to school and daycare.

The teachers, though: we knew (or hoped) they would get candies and cards from other kids and their families. All richly deserved. But in thinking of a gift that would stand out and last longer than a quick sugar high, a brilliant idea hit.

We’d give them a little love from Hell.

IMG_4834Hell’s Kitchen peanut butter, that is.

The recipe, from Hell’s Kitchen Restaurant in Minneapolis, was published in the food section of our local paper a few years back. It’s also available in a cookbook sold at the restaurant. But this peanut butter is unlike any jar one gets at their grocery store. Big chunks of peanuts, a blend of honey, brown sugar and kosher salt to bring a sweet but bitter bite to the palate. Perfect just spooned atop a slice of apple, smeared over a chocolate bar, or even sandwiched between two slices of banana. Oh, and sandwiches and toast too.

Packed in a gift set of grape jelly, with a witty jar label that’s more seasonally appropriate, it was a no-brainer. The gift that would keep on giving until the jars were empty. A little love felt at breakfast, lunch, or snacktime.

IMG_4835It’s a little process-heavy, but not a long time making. You definitely need a food processor for this recipe, though. But so, so worth it…

Hell’s Kitchen Peanut Butter

(Found in “Damn Good Food” by Mitch Omer)

  • 3 cups Spanish peanuts (skin on)
  • 5 tablespoons honey
  • 4 tablespoons light brown sugar
  • 2.5 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 7 tablespoons peanut oil
  • 5 tablespoons unsalted butter
  1. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees. Place nuts onto a rimmed baking sheet, and place on the center rack of the oven. Roast 10 minutes, rotate the pan 180 degrees, and roast another 10 minutes or so until the peanuts are a dark brown. Remove from the oven, and bring to room temperature.
  2. Place peanuts in a food processor with a steel chopping blade, and process on low until finely ground, about 30 seconds. Do not overblend; you want the peanut butter to be chunky, not grainy.
  3. Dump ground nuts into the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with a paddle. Add honey, brown sugar and salt. Blend on low speed until thickened, about 1 minute.
  4. Back over in the food processor, combine peanut oil and butter and blend on low until completely emulsified, about 11 seconds. Scrape oil and butter into the peanut mixture and mix on low until smoother and creamy. Place in container with tight-fitting lid and refrigerate. After setting a while, some of the oil may rise to the surface. Simply mix this back in.

While you store it in the fridge, it tastes and spreads best if you let it warm to room temperature. Better still – take the mini ice cream scoop you use for cookie dough, scoop out a tiny ball of peanut butter and let that warm on your plate while you make your coffee and toast your bread. It will spread perfectly then.

Good manners: gifts for your care team

Upfront, let me just say that this is in no way a “must do.” Everyone has different care experiences, and some believe this is going too far. This is intended to share what I did without turning it into a “should” for you, dear reader. Unless you think it doesn’t go far enough. I’m not even talking to you if that’s what you think.

The first time I was preparing to welcome a baby into the world, I heard murmurs and whispers about doing “a little something” for the staff who would care for you at the hospital.

This was news to me – and so I polled, quizzed and queried my way into understanding this practice. I learned that some mom-friends of mine showed up at their place of birthin’ with a cookie tray they had ordered from their nearby bakery, or had a plan in place for their partners to dash out and buy bagels (or pizzas, depending on the time of day) for the nurses’ station once their baby was born and all were well. Other sources I read showed that some people believed it would be offensive to the care team, that the services rendered were just part of the job, and giving them treats doesn’t buy you any favors.

That made me pause.

Whether paid or not, all of us work. All of us have jobs that we’re just supposed to do. Does that mean we don’t want to be recognized or thanked for doing that job?

No. And as our firstborn’s due date came and went, and an induction date was scheduled, I had the luxury of cleaning the hell out of my house one last time, preordering an arrangement of flowers to be delivered to my OBGYN after the baby was born and pulling together some treats to bring with us and share with the hospital staff. I ruthlessly took advantage of the fact that some members of my family are healthcare professionals, and asked for their feedback on what would be most appreciated/useful/desired in a treat basket. Here’s what I learned:

  • Portability is key. Many of the hospital staff are on their feet and on the go for the bulk of their shifts – in some cases skipping breaks and cutting meals short to do what needs doing. Tempting as it may be, if the item isn’t something that can be grabbed and tucked away in a pocket or eaten while walking down the hall, it may just be passed over.
  • Balance the sinful with the healthful. Treats are nice, but depending on either the time of the year or a staff member’s personal health goals, there’s a real risk of sugar overload. Consider adding fresh produce in with the treats and offer a choice.
  • No refrigeration required. This should be a no-brainer, but any treat will most likely be sitting out on a counter in a break room, so make sure whatever is brought in can tolerate at least a single shift out in fluorescent lighting with nowhere to hide.

Using that information all those years ago, I arrived with a basket brimming with oranges, apples, grapes…and some chocolate oat bars, cut and individually wrapped. The one glitch I encountered was when my labor stalled, an emergency c-section was called for, and as the on-call anesthesiology team was congratulating us on our healthy baby boy, I offered up the information that we brought some bars. “No one told us there were treats!” was the outcry. And in the blink of an eye, the surgical suite was emptied, save for myself and the recovery nurse.

For our latest baby, I intended to do it all again – flowers for the OBGYN, and treats for the hospital staff. But, being older and wiser, I also took the minute-and-a-half needed to inquire with my doctor on what staffing numbers typically run at our Women’s Center, as well as the size of the anesthesiology team. To make sure whatever I prepared and brought in would cover at least a shift.

Considering the autumnal air, I then took time to plan out some goodies that felt seasonally appropriate — honeycrisp apples for the healthy, some Lawry’s seasoned popcorn , and for the real treat: brown butter salted caramel snickerdoodles. The day before our scheduled caesarean was spent cooking and packaging.

IMG_3836IMG_3837IMG_3838IMG_3839Some craft paper labels and a trip to Dollar Tree gave me all I needed to dress up the tray and add the personal touch we wanted. But the cookie recipe is what really stole the show. Here’s the recipe, which I found at another blog:

Brown Butter Salted Caramel Snickerdoodles

(from Two Peas and Their Pod)

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2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup unsalted butter, sliced
1 1/4 cup dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon plain Greek yogurt
1 cup caramel squares, cut into 1/4’s

For Rolling the Cookies:
1/4 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

Sea salt, for sprinkling on top of cookies

Directions

IMG_3828In a medium bowl, Whisk together the flour, baking soda, cream of tartar, cinnamon, and salt. Set aside.

IMG_3827To brown the butter, heat a thick-bottomed skillet on medium heat. Add the sliced butter, whisking frequently. Continue to cook the butter until melted. The butter will start to foam and browned specks will begin to form at the bottom of the pan. The butter should have a nutty aroma. Watch the butter carefully because it can go from brown to burnt quickly. Remove butter from the heat and let cool to room temperature.

IMG_3830In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the brown butter and sugars. Mix until blended and smooth. Beat in the egg, yolk, vanilla, and yogurt and mix until combined. Slowly add in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.

Form the dough in a ball and cover with plastic wrap. Chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes. You can chill the dough overnight.

IMG_3829(While the dough chilled, I took time to quarter the caramels.)

IMG_3831When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Measure about 2 tablespoons of dough and roll into balls.

IMG_3832Flatten the ball with the palm of your hand and place a piece of caramel in the center of the dough. Wrap the cookie dough around the caramel, making sure the caramel is completely covered with dough.

IMG_3833 In a small bowl, combine the cinnamon and sugar. Roll the balls in the cinnamon-sugar mixture.

IMG_3834Place dough balls on a large baking sheet that has been lined with parchment paper. Make sure the cookies are about 2 inches apart. Sprinkle the cookie tops with sea salt.

IMG_3835Bake the cookies 8-10 minutes or until the edges of the cookies begin to turn golden brown. The centers will still be soft. Cool the cookies on the baking sheet for 2-3 minutes, or until set. Transfer cookies to a wire cooling rack and cool completely.

Cheese Week! Last Chances and Full Fromagical Nerdity

It’s Friday!

Which means that Cheese Week is drawing to a close. As is the opportunity to enter for a chance to win a pair of free tickets to the Minnesota Cheese Festival. So, let’s get the business end out of the way first: want to enter? You have until midnight tonight to leave a comment at the end of this post telling me how you like to enjoy your cheese. I’m letting random.org pick the winner, who will be notified via email over the weekend.

Cheese is not a food that’s limited to any particular meal or time of day, is it? This week we’ve explored ways to enjoy cheese for Breakfast:

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Lunch:

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Dinner:

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And anytime of the day you need a little gastronomic escapism:

IMG_3690Great ideas to share any time of the year, but what more can you get out of the Minnesota Cheese Festival? A little something I like to call “full fromagical nerdity.”

The general admission tickets are a heckuva deal for cheese lovers of all stripes. But what if you want to take your experience to the next level? There are seminars held throughout the festival where folks who know a ton and are equally passionate as they are knowledgable on topics like wine and beer pairings, cheese tasting basics, and dairy farming will share some great tips, information and insights for anyone willing to listen. There’s even a chance to meet members of the newly-formed Minnesota Cheesemakers Guild.

Or, want to see someone up to their elbows in mozzarella? Learn some more cooking tips for cheese? There are some very cool workshops also scheduled.

Now let’s say you’re a cheese geek. You meticulously maintain a set of cheese knives and know what each blade type is best suited for. Your answer for what you’d bring with you to a deserted island involves a cheese cave. You’ve engaged in vigorous debate over whether camembert is superior to brie and even risked losing a friendship over the disagreement. Then it’s time to take things to the VIP level.

The VIP tickets cost more, and offer a level of access a cheese geek values as a worthwhile investment of their time – you’re at the Cheese Festival all day, have no worries about parking or entrance lines, get a complimentary drink and cheese plate during the event. There’s even a small tasting event for VIPs, and a drawing for some fabulous cheese accessories. I don’t think they could cram more into their VIP access unless they brought in a licensed nail tech/artiste who would offer to massage your feet and paint your toenails a creamy shade to match your favorite cheese. (That might be a bit much, eh?)

It’s an event you can make your own, whether you’re just curious, looking to broaden your horizons, or immerse yourself in a subject you’ve always been curious about. Mark your calendars, buy your tickets, and enjoy!

Cheese Week! Chevre, take me away…

Sometimes, you have a day. It’s not that the day was bad, but you wouldn’t call it good either. It was just a day. And you need a little break, the chance to hit the reset button to make it through to the end of it.

Maybe a little snack? Something to amuse the bouche? We’ve been cooking a lot this week, so how about a little no-bake cheese break before dinner:

Goat cheeses are growing more popular, in part because goat’s milk can create a cheese that’s friendlier to the lactose-intolerant than most cow’s cheeses are. Goat milk is also lower in fat and cholesterol and higher in calcium and Vitamins A & D, compared to its bovine cousin.

For this pre-dinner treat, though, I had a sweet tooth. The Celebrity brand from Mariposa, a dairy based in Canada, was too powerful to resist…it has a touch of honey that settles in with the tang of the goat cheese without overpowering it. But that doesn’t mean you can’t find both goat cheese and honey at the Minnesota Cheese Festival next month! Ames Farm, a local honey producer, will be sharing their wares, as will Singing Hills Goat Dairy. Look them up – you won’t regret it.

Now, on to our snack. With cheese in hand, I grabbed some other goodies to assemble the somethin’-somethin’ I thought would help smooth out my day a bit.

IMG_3689A little chutney, some lingonberry jam, fresh berries, and a bit of honey left over from an apiculture course my husband took back in the winter. With mini toasts set out on my Brooklyn Slate Company board, (oh, you can browse their products at the Minnesota Cheese Festival too), I added a healthy schmeer of the goat cheese. And started topping things off.

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And there we had it: the perfect excuse to stop, sit down, and dwell for a moment on that tiny toast topped with tastebud teasers.

IMG_3691There’s no reason to say this must be a sweet treat. You could try any soft goat cheese, with herbs, or just plain, and top with a few flakes of smoked salmon and a sprig of dill. Or half a cherry tomato, or some chopped pepper. Whoosh up a little minced garlic with some olive oil, layer a shaving of cold lamb and drizzle the garlicky-olive oil mixture over that. Or, what about an olive tapenade?

I think you get the idea. Pair it with a glass of your favorite wine. You’ve got five minutes. Heck, you could stretch it to 10 if you don’t chug your drink.

Either way, take a moment to ask yourself: have you entered yet to win a pair of tickets to the Minnesota Cheese Festival? The clock is ticking, so head over to this post, leave a comment, and consider your hat thrown into a delightfully cheesy ring.