Pomegranate and Rosemary Mule

Pomegranate and Rosemary Moscow Mule

If I wasn’t able to convince you to make the pomegranate simple syrup for the Pomegranate Fruit Salad, maybe this will get your attention.

pomegranate and rosemary moscow mule

Pomegranate Mule

Pretty, huh?

Tastes even better.

My intent was for you to make the fruit salad, double the simple syrup and then try these Mules with the extra syrup. Not a rule-follower? It’s ok. I too am attracted to pretty and fragrant beverages that involve gin.

Just do me a favor? At least try the fruit salad. It’s pretty awesome.

If you have yet to click on either of the “fruit salad” links above, I’m going to force you to do so. Why? You need the recipe for the simple syrup and it’s right there in the Pomegranate Fruit Salad recipe.

make the syrup

Pomegranate, Orange and Black Pepper Syrup

Once you have a jar of syrup like this, you are minutes from …

Pomegranate Rosemary Mule

gather other ingredients

You will also need:

  • gin
  • ginger beer
  • fresh lime
  • pomegranate seeds (optional, but awesome)
  • fresh rosemary sprigs

find a mule mug or a pretty glass

Pour one ounce of gin into your mug or glass. Add one tablespoon of the syrup, a squeeze of lime juice and ice cubes. Pour 4-6 ounces of ginger beer into mug/glass and stir with the rosemary sprig. Sprinkle a few pomegranate seeds on top and garnish with a slice of lime.

Don’t have a mule mug? All of your pretty glasses in the dishwasher? No worries. There are worse things than Solo cups.

black pepper? gin?

If you have been following this blog for even a short time, you will have likely picked up on the fact that I am an improviser. Two of my favorite things about this cocktail are the addition of black pepper to the syrup and the substitution of gin for vodka.

Black pepper seems like an odd thing to add to a syrup but, just as the tartness of the pomegranate balances the sweetness of the syrup, the black pepper gives it all a hint of warmth. It’s subtle. So subtle, in fact, that I am likely to add a little cracked black pepper to my next mug along with the sprinkle of pomegranate seeds. I like the contrast.

If you haven’t already called me out on this, Moscow Mules are typically made with vodka. Unless it’s in a Bloody Mary, I’m a gin girl. You can use vodka (might I even recommend the pepper flavored vodkas for this one?). I’m sticking to gin.

We can be friends.

Cheers to that!


Everyday’s a Holiday Pomegranate Fruit Salad

My go-to fruit salad for a weeknight meal was always the simple combination of strawberries, grapes, Mandarin oranges and pineapple. There was something about the bright colors and the combination of the tart and sweet that pleased my family. It was my secret weapon for battling the groans that would likely come when the broccoli or peas made an appearance on the table.

fruit salad upset

Oftentimes, in the fall or winter, strawberries would either be of poor quality or much too expensive (or both) and my go-to fruit salad became a no-go. I needed an alternate bribe. Enter the perfectly timed arrival of one of my favorite recipe magazines. I honestly can’t tell you which one it was and I can’t even say the picture was all that inviting but the words “pomegranate syrup” caught my attention.

Apples, pears, oranges, kiwi? All readily available and seasonal fruits in the fall and winter.

Pomegranates? Pomegranate Juice? Pomegranate Seeds? Fresh on the health scene. Beautiful. New to me.

Good enough to act as a bribe for the consumption of peas? Absolutely!

Holiday Pomegranate Fruit Salad

I modified the original recipe to include my favorite combination of fruits but you can absolutely use whatever you like, have on hand or is available in your stores/garden. I also made a bit of an unusual addition to the syrup …

pomegranate syrup

Pomegranate, Orange and Black Pepper Syrup

Pomegranate seeds and juice are antioxidant, anti-inflammatory powerhouses. The seeds add, not only nutritional benefits to this salad, but a nice texture contrast to the fruit. Using 100% pure pomegranate juice may be a bit more expensive than other juice options but the tartness of this juice keeps the syrup from getting too sweet. Adding a bit of orange zest and black pepper provides just the right amount of acid and warmth. Yes, black pepper sounds like a weird thing to add to a fruit salad but you have got to trust me on this one … it’s amazing!

I would even go so far as to recommend that you make a double batch of this syrup.

Pomegranate and Rosemary Mule

Got your attention, didn’t I?

I am also working on a recipe using this syrup to glaze pork loin slices.

Right?

It’s okay. You can take a minute to add 100% Pomegranate Juice to your grocery list. I’ll wait for you.

And, while you’re at it … add peas and broccoli to your list.


Print Recipe
Pomegranate Fruit Salad
Fresh fruit salad gets a holiday makeover with a touch of a tangy pomegranate and orange syrup. This recipe is sure to be a success at any meal.
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Servings
8 cups
Ingredients
  • 1/3 cup bottled pomegranate juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh grated orange zest
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 large navel oranges
  • 2 apples
  • 2 pears
  • 2 cups grapes
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds optional
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 5 minutes
Servings
8 cups
Ingredients
  • 1/3 cup bottled pomegranate juice
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1 teaspoon fresh grated orange zest
  • 1/8 teaspoon freshly cracked black pepper
  • 2 large navel oranges
  • 2 apples
  • 2 pears
  • 2 cups grapes
  • 1/2 cup pomegranate seeds optional
Instructions
  1. Pour pomegranate juice into a small saucepan and stir in sugar. Bring slowly to a boil over low heat, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves (about 5 minutes). Remove from heat and add orange zest and black pepper. Cool to room temperature.
  2. Peel and section oranges. Core apple and pears and cut each into 1/2 inch slices or chunks. Combine oranges, apples, pears and grapes in a bowl.
  3. Pour syrup over fruit and stir gently to coat. Sprinkle pomegranate seeds on top.
Recipe Notes

One 15 oz can of Mandarin oranges (drained) can be substituted for the fresh orange segments.

Other fruit can be substituted or added as desired (e.g. bananas, grapefruit, kiwi, blueberries, pineapple, etc.).


Pomegranate Fruit Salad Pin

Butternut Squash Soup Feature

Squash Soup – What? No Marshmallows?

Until a few years ago, if you asked me, “do you like squash?” I would have told you that I did and in my mind I would see Acorn squash. Not Butternut. Not Spaghetti. Certainly not Delicata or Patty Pan. Just Acorn. If you asked me how to prepare it, I would have described how to bake it, scoop it, smash it and smother it in butter, brown sugar and marshmallows. Delicious! A very concerned look would cross my face if you asked me if I ever made squash soup.

That was then. This is now.

would you like a sample of our squash soup?

If you ever want to get my attention, simply ask me if I would like to try a sample. Seriously, that’s all it takes. When a smiling lady asked me this from her booth at the Des Moines Farmers’ Market last fall, I paid attention. She handed me a small cup filled with a warm and creamy orange purée, drizzled with just a little cream. I expected to taste the sweetness of squash but did not expect the warmth and depth of curry, onions and garlic. Often, free samples are a method to entice you to purchase a larger portion. This time, however, the free sample was sponsored by a local grocery and they were enticing people to eat healthy. To accomplish this, they gave away the recipe.

Jackpot.

Squash Soup Serving

TYPE AND SIZE OF SQUASH

Butternut and/or acorn squash work great for this recipe. Spaghetti squash might not be the best choice due to its stringy texture (this theory has yet to be tested in my kitchen). You do not have to be overly particular in choosing the “right” size of squash. Look for a butternut squash about 8″ long or use two small ones. Use two acorn squash for this recipe as they are typically about 6″ long.

Happen to have an abundance of carrots or sweet potatoes? They will work in addition to, or to replace, the squash.

Creamy, without cream

The key to a creamy soup is not necessarily cream. In this case, the consistency is dependent on the squash being cooked properly, the right amount of stock to determine the thickness and the ability to purée all the ingredients.

When roasting the squash, make sure it is cooked all the way through. The empty seed cavity will cook faster than the stem end of a butternut squash. Make sure you test several places on the squash for even cooking.

The amount of stock to add to the soup is flexible. Some people like a really thick soup and some prefer a thinner consistency. You control the thickness by the amount of stock you add. Do not be afraid to add more stock at the end if you find it too thick for your liking.

There are many ways to purée the ingredients. The immersion blender is your friend. It will allow you to blend the ingredients right in the pan in a few minutes. Be careful as it takes a little practice to avoid splattering. An apron is your friend too.

No immersion blender? A regular blender will work. Typically, allowing the ingredients to cool before adding to a blender is recommended. Often the blending will be done in small batches. A food processor can also be used to purée the squash before adding it to the other soup ingredients.

over the top

Squash Soup

I had no idea making a cashew cream was so easy. The cashews (or almonds, pistachios, walnuts, etc) are soaked in water for 30-45 minutes. This softens the nuts so they blend well. Skipping the soak will result in a finished cream that has a grainy texture. Look for nuts that do not have an outer “skin” or have that had the “skin” removed. Almonds are a good example. Blanched almonds will work better than those with a brown exterior. Either will work but the outer brown skin will add more texture and color to the cream.

Coconut milk is amazing in this recipe and what I would recommend. If you do not have it on hand, feel free to substitute regular milk.

Thai, italian, mexican, and german

The original recipe was vegan. It called for vegetable stock. As I mentioned above, the soup was seasoned with curry powder and the “cream” was made with coconut milk and cashews. The beauty of this recipe is its versatility. I have made this soup with vegetable and chicken stock. The curry/cashew version is outstanding. We love an Italian combination of crushed red pepper, thyme and almonds (this is the version in the recipe below and pictured throughout the post).

Coming soon to the PLF table? A Mexican twist featuring chipotle peppers, cilantro and tortilla chips.

Who says squash soup has to be savory? I think my grandmothers would be pretty proud if I stuck to my German heritage and seasoned the soup with cinnamon and brown sugar, put some toasted marshmallows on top and drizzled it with a little maple syrup.

Now that sounds delicious!


Print Recipe
Squash Soup with Cashew Cream
This soup is creamy without the addition of cream, seasoned with herbs and spices and topped with a light and flavorful swirl of cashew cream.
Butternut Squash Soup Feature
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 60 minutes
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
2 quarts
Ingredients
  • 1 medium size butternut squash see text above
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil divided
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
Cashew Cream
  • 1/3 cup cashews see text above
  • 1/3 cup Milk see text above
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • toasted pumpkin seeds & cashews
Prep Time 15 minutes
Cook Time 60 minutes
Passive Time 30 minutes
Servings
2 quarts
Ingredients
  • 1 medium size butternut squash see text above
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil divided
  • Salt
  • Black Pepper
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 2 cloves garlic minced
  • 1 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
  • 4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
Cashew Cream
  • 1/3 cup cashews see text above
  • 1/3 cup Milk see text above
  • 1 tablespoon lemon or lime juice
  • 1/2 teaspoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pinch sea salt
  • toasted pumpkin seeds & cashews
Butternut Squash Soup Feature
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 400°.
  2. Wash and dry the outside of the squash. Cut in half, length wise, and scoop out the seeds.
    Roasting Squash
  3. Drizzle the cut side with one tablespoon of olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
    Roasting Squash Step 2
  4. Place squash halves, cut side down, on a rimmed baking sheet and roast for 30-40 minutes, or until is it very soft and the skin bubbles. Make sure to test the thickest part of the squash (i.e. the end without the seed cavity). A fork or knife inserted in the skin should go through the squash easily.
    Roasting Squash Step 3
  5. Remove from oven and cool. Peel away the skin.
    Roasting Squash Step 4
  6. Sauté the onions with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil in a soup pot over medium-low heat. Cook for 4-5 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and crushed red pepper flakes and continue cooking for 1-2 minutes. Slowly add the vegetable or chicken stock and bring to a simmer over medium heat for 5-10 minutes. Add squash and return to simmer.
  7. Purée soup with an immersion blender until smooth. (Also, see text above for alternate methods of puréeing.
  8. Serve with cashew cream and toasted pumpkin seeds or cashews.
    Squash Soup Serving
Cashew Cream
  1. Soak the cashews in water for 30-45 minutes.
  2. Drain off all water. Place the soaked cashews in a blender or food processor with the milk, lime or lemon juice and olive oil. Blend or process until smooth. Season with salt to taste.

Squash Soup Pin

Autumn Au Gratin Potatoes

Comfort Food: Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes

Think of your favorite comfort food. Is it sweet or savory? Is it warm or cold? Do you eat it with a spoon? A fork? Your fingers? Do you prefer a casserole or soup?

Final question: does it involve a starch, a cheese (or three), and a salty element?

I think that’s why I have always loved Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham. Salty chunks of ham surrounded by cheesy, soft and warm potatoes with just a hint of mustard and that crunchy bread crumb topping are the perfect combination for comfort on a plate. It’s my go-to recipe for delivering a message of love to someone who needs a bit of pampering or a sympathetic gift.

Whenever I make it, I smile in remembrance of a story about my boys that is precious to me. You can read the story of that humorous misunderstanding here.

the flavors of autumn in casserole form

Autumn Au Gratin Potatoes

Winter may be the season that many of us need and crave comfort food most but fall, to me, is the season that embraces the senses in the most comforting way. The warmth of the colors and spices, the last produce from the garden, and the chill in the air are just plain soothing.

As I started tweaking the recipe for traditional Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham, I saw some sweet potatoes on the cupboard. That orange color begged to be included. Veggies. This dish needs more veggies. Kale is a wonderful cool-weather vegetable and mushrooms go so well with kale. Sausage would be a good alternative to the ham. Why, yes, I do have some apple-bourbon chicken sausage links in the freezer (true story). What about herbs? Fall … Thanksgiving … sage is the answer.

This is my version of Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes.

Autumn Au Gratin Potatoes Feature

If kale is a four-letter word to you, or if it is not at its best in the grocery store, feel free to substitute spinach or Brussels sprouts. The mushrooms are optional but I encourage you to try them in this dish. Since they are sautéed, they blend in really well and they are loaded with essential nutrients. Don’t happen to have apple-bourbon chicken sausage in your freezer? Substitute any pork, chicken or turkey sausage (link or rope) you like. Look for ones that have flavors (like sage, onion, maple, cranberry, etc.) that will compliment the other ingredients.

A salad of fresh spinach, apples, pears, cucumbers and red onion with a honey-mustard dressing and a few pecans or walnuts will be all you need for a nourishing, yet comforting meal. Well, that and your family.


Print Recipe
Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes
This recipe takes the traditional au gratin potatoes and puts a fall flavor twist on it. Sweet potatoes, chicken sausage, kale, mushrooms and sage combine in this delicious, cool weather casserole.
Autumn Au Gratin Potatoes
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Servings
8 people
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound fully-cooked chicken sausage
  • 4 tablespoons salted butter divided
  • 8 oz cremini or white button mushrooms sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Black Pepper divided
  • fresh kale wash and cut into bite-sized pieces to make 3 cups
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes
  • 3 medium white russet potatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion
  • 1 tablespoon flour flour
  • 1 tablespoon dry sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 cups 2% or whole milk room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese divided, room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded swiss cheese divided, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Servings
8 people
Ingredients
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 pound fully-cooked chicken sausage
  • 4 tablespoons salted butter divided
  • 8 oz cremini or white button mushrooms sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon Salt
  • 1 teaspoon Black Pepper divided
  • fresh kale wash and cut into bite-sized pieces to make 3 cups
  • 3 medium sweet potatoes
  • 3 medium white russet potatoes
  • 1/2 cup onion
  • 1 tablespoon flour flour
  • 1 tablespoon dry sage
  • 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
  • 1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
  • 2 cups 2% or whole milk room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded cheddar cheese divided, room temperature
  • 1 cup shredded swiss cheese divided, room temperature
  • 1/2 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/4 teaspoon paprika
Autumn Au Gratin Potatoes
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Heat olive oil in a skillet over medium heat; add sausage pieces, lightly browning. Remove from pan and set aside, reserving one tablespoon of drippings in the pan.
  3. Add one tablespoon of butter and the sliced mushrooms to the skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms are brown (about 5-7 minutes). Sprinkle mushrooms with salt and 1/2 teaspoon of the black pepper. Remove mushrooms from the pan and set aside. Add kale to the hot pan and cook, 2-3 minutes, until kale wilts. Remove kale and set aside.
  4. Peel and thinly slice potatoes.
  5. Place 1/3 of potatoes in bottom of a 9”x13” pan. Cover with 1/2 of the chicken sausage, 1/2 of the mushrooms and 1/2 of the kale. Repeat layering, ending with a final layer of potatoes.
  6. Melt remaining butter in the skillet over very low heat. Stir in onions and sauté until tender, 3-4 minutes. Whisk in flour, 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, sage, crushed red pepper and nutmeg, stirring constantly until bubbly (1-2 minutes). Slowly stir in milk (1/2 cup at a time) and bring back to a very low boil, whisking constantly. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese (1/2 cup at a time) whisking after each addition until melted. Stir in Parmesan cheese. Pour sauce over potato/meat/vegetable layers. Use a fork to gently distribute the sauce throughout the potatoes.
  7. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
  8. Combine bread crumbs, remaining cheese and paprika. Sprinkle on top of casserole and return to oven for 20 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly.

 

Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes Pin

Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham

Comfort Food: Au Gratin Potatoes & Ham

If you search “comfort food” on Pinterest, you will see a steady flow of pictures of macaroni and cheese, meatloaf, soup and casseroles. Most comfort foods are warm and involve at least one starchy element. Cheese is a common ingredient (there is joy in the gooeyness). Those foods that require a fork or a spoon seem to beg for you to slow down and savor each bite.

engaging the senses

What is it about certain foods that even the thought or scent of them can instantly lift the spirit and relax the mind? Warm chocolate chip cookies can put a smile on a discontented face. A steaming bowl of soup and a grilled cheese sandwich can take the chill off of any brisk day. Finding a restaurant that prepares chicken and noodles (served over mashed potatoes, of course) so much like the one your mom use to make triggers a stream of cherished memories.

If you ask people what their favorite comfort food is, you may get a very traditional answer, like those previously mentioned. Sometimes the answer may be a dish or dessert that is so unique, it begs for a story to be told. The commonality in all responses will be the look on their face as they explain why: the eyes close softly, a slow inhale and exhale ensues and a smile of remembrance is sure to follow.

Comfort food is nostalgic. There is an emotional, physical and/or spiritual attachment with it that transforms food into an experience that is relived with each bite. My mom makes a very simple casserole she calls goulash … ground beef, elbow macaroni, mixed vegetables, tomato sauce/soup … that my brothers and I are certain tastes better because she has baked it in the same pink casserole dish our whole lives. Of course, it is “so good” because she knows exactly the proportions of ingredients and just the right baking time, but we will always associate the best goulash with that pink dish.

the comfort of casseroles

While debating which recipe to share for this post, it didn’t take long for this one to come to mind: Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham. 

Au Gratin Potatoes Ingredients

This casserole has all the elements necessary: it’s warm, full of potatoes and cheese, and each forkful is deeply satisfying. It is also attached to a very fond memory. When my boys were little, they would come into the kitchen as I was making dinner and ask “What are you making?” That day, in the middle of my preparations, I quickly responded, “Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham”. They both were silent (a rare and noteworthy event), scrunched up their faces and then said, “ROTTEN potatoes and ham?!?!?”. 

Priceless.

After a brief discussion of what “au gratin” means and a promise that I would never serve them anything rotten, this recipe became a dinner staple for our family. A spinach salad with apples, pears, cranberries, red onion and cucumbers compliment the ham and potatoes perfectly.

When it comes to comfort food, it doesn’t matter that we don’t all choose the same dish. It may be pancakes. It may be fried chicken. It may be pie. What matters is that we pay attention to what gives comfort to others and to ourselves. 

Prepare it. Savor it. Enjoy it … together.


Print Recipe
Au Gratin Potatoes & Ham
Comfort food casseroles warm the body and the spirit. This traditional recipe combines potatoes, ham and cheese, with a hint of mustard, for a warm and hearty meal.
Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham
Keyword casserole, ham, potatoes
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Servings
8 people
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds white russet potatoes about 6 medium
  • 2 cups diced ham
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon flour heaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 2 cups 2% or whole milk room temperature
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, etc), divided, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
Keyword casserole, ham, potatoes
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 1 hour 40 minutes
Servings
8 people
Ingredients
  • 2 pounds white russet potatoes about 6 medium
  • 2 cups diced ham
  • 3 tablespoons salted butter
  • 1/2 cup diced onion
  • 1 tablespoon flour heaping
  • 1/2 teaspoon Black Pepper
  • 1 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1 teaspoon dried parsley
  • 2 cups 2% or whole milk room temperature
  • 2 cups shredded cheese (cheddar, Swiss, Monterrey Jack, etc), divided, room temperature
  • 1/4 cup dry bread crumbs
  • 1/2 teaspoon paprika
Au Gratin Potatoes and Ham
Instructions
  1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
  2. Peel and slice potatoes and layer with the ham in a 9”x13” pan.
  3. Melt butter over low heat in a skillet, add onion and sauté until onion is tender (3-4 minutes). Whisk in flour, pepper, ground mustard and parsley stirring constantly until bubbly (1-2 minutes). Slowly stir in milk (1/2 cup at a time) and bring back to a very low boil. Add 1 1/2 cups of the shredded cheese (1/2 cup at a time), whisking after each addition until melted.
  4. Pour cheese sauce over the potatoes/ham. Use a fork to gently distribute the sauce throughout the potatoes. Bake, uncovered, for one hour and 20 minutes.
  5. Combine bread crumbs, remaining cheese and paprika. Sprinkle on top of casserole and return to oven for 20 minutes, or until top is brown and bubbly.

I have developed another version of this casserole that incorporates a variety of fall flavors: sweet potatoes, kale, mushrooms and chicken sausage. Autumnal Au Gratin Potatoes has a  hint of sage and nutmeg add that extra warmth at the end of a day in the field, raking leaves or non-stop meetings.


Au Gratin Potatoes & Ham Pin

Foodventurous: Miami

September is not the month this Iowa girl would pick for a trip to Miami.  Cooler temps and turning leaves typically have me pulling out flannel shirts and making chili and molasses cookies. However, when an opportunity to spend a few days in southern Florida presented itself, I pulled out my swimsuit and sunscreen and started planning a foodventure.

There were two culinary boxes I wanted to check during my stay: seafood and Cuban food. The best way to find the most authentic, fresh and unique offerings?

Ask the locals.

In this case, “the locals” just happen to be my relatives.

When my mom and aunt said they wanted to visit their older brother and sister-in-law in Miami and wanted someone act as their tour director, they didn’t have to twist my arm … at all. When my cousin offered to go along and be my copilot, I knew we were in for a great time. We would be visiting the family who introduced us to Cuban foods like picadillo, arroz con pollo, café con leche, and flan. Four generations now live in the Miami Springs/Hialeah area so other than booking a flight and a hotel, I quickly handed over the “tour director” responsibilities to my cousins and followed them wherever they wanted to take us.

signature Cuban meal

Ropa Vieja

The debate began simply with the common question, “Where should we go to eat?” Knowing how much I wanted to experience Cuban meals, several places were proposed. When asked if there was anything in particular I wanted to try, I shook my head and said, “something traditional”.

The answer was unanimous. Molinas.

Spend one minute inside Molinas Ranch Restaurant in Hialeah and the word “eclectic” comes to mind. Diner-style seating, 80’s classic music, big screen televisions broadcasting soccer/baseball games and even a John Deere toothpick dispenser (which made my uncle smile like he was back on the farm) work together to give this place a comfortable and casual vibe.

Spend one minute looking at the menu and you will need more time. We non-Floridians looked up with lost and confused expressions. Only one question was asked: “Beef, chicken or fish?” My response: “what’s the most traditional dish on the menu?”

Ropa Vieja.

Close the menu.

Ropa Vieja Dinner

What does ropa vieja mean? Literally, it means “old clothes”. Technically, it means shredded beef but my taste buds will always translate it: the best tasting shredded beef I’ve ever had. It is not a complicated dish. It is slow-cooked beef with deep flavor from onions, peppers, roasted red peppers, olives, tomato and paprika (among other things) and served with peas, white rice, black beans and sweet plantains.

If you are not familiar with plantains, Molina’s would be the perfect place to get acquainted. Similar to bananas in appearance, plantains are starchy and require cooking. As plantains ripen, like bananas, the peel turns from green to yellow to brown. “Green” plantains are used for savory preparations and ripe plantains for sweet. At Molinas, we tried three different, but equally delicious side dishes.

As pictured above with the Ropa Vieja, these caramelized, ripe plantains, or maduros, are soft and sweet and buttery. Tostones are made by frying thick slices of a green plantain, smashing each and frying again. Apologies for eating the subject before photographing it for you.

Plantain Chips

Frying very thinly sliced, green plantains creates the Cuban version of chips and salsa, where the “salsa” is a very light and flavorful combination of oil, vinegar and garlic. Trust me, they are every bit as addicting as the Mexican counterpart.

Like most people, I judge a restaurant by the quality of the food and the atmosphere. However, I will elevate a restaurant to a dining experience when I leave with increased food knowledge and the inspiration to create something new in my own kitchen. Molinas was a most enjoyable dining experience. Time to start searching for Ropa Vieja recipes!

cuban bakery

Vicky Bakery Pastelitos

One of the most underutilized dining experiences in any community is the local bakery. Often the word “bakery” brings to mind doughnuts and bread and is considered a place to stop for a coffee break. I love that but I want people to consider it to be an opportunity to try some regional and cultural specialties, both sweet and savory.

Vicky Bakery is the perfect example. Family-owned, this bakery, or panaderia, has been making Cuban pastries and specialty items in Miami for almost 50 years. They are now a chain of more than 20 locations using family recipes that “have been passed down from Abuelito to Abuelo”, or generation to generation.

To say we had a “sampling” of Vicky’s menu would be a complete lie. We bought a large amount of a wide variety of their offerings and loved every bite. It’s called research.

On the sweet side, we highly recommend the Guava and Cream Cheese Pastries (pictured above) and the Caramel Coconut Balls (pictured here on the left). For all of you who know my affinity for bread pudding, there was an ever-so-tempting tray of that too but I stuck to my plan to try new things.

Vicky Bakery Coquito Prieto

I think the thing that impressed me most about this bakery was the selection of savory items. I am now officially infatuated with Croquetas de Jamon (ham croquettes) and Papa Rellenas (meat-filled mashed potato croquettes). Oh how I wish I had a picture of these! It’s probably a good thing we don’t have them around here. If we do, please don’t tell me … on second thought … please tell me!

Vicky Bakery Pizza Pastels

This pizza pastry also caught my eye but didn’t make it into our box. Add it to the list for the next trip!

buy local

When I tell people that local grocery stores are on my agenda for any trip, I’m pretty sure they refrain from putting the back of their hand to my forehead to make sure I’m not ill. Like bakeries, grocery stores vary greatly from region to region and country to country. The produce isle is the perfect example. Those plantains we ate at Molinas?

Plantains

And the guava from the pastry at Vicky’s?

Guava Fruit

Ever seen an avocado as big as your hand?

Slim Avocado

What do you call groceries bought on a foodventure? Souveniers. Cannot wait to take these home to add to my Cuban-inspired meals.

Cuban Grocery Shopping

pizza

Pizza? How does that fit into the Cuban/seafood agenda of this trip? It doesn’t. But when your cousin says “you have to try this pizza!”, you try it!

Nic's Pizza Hialeah Florida

Meet Nic. Born in Italy, learned to make pizza from his father, achieved Maestro Pizzaiolo status (like his father), moved to New York City and refined his skills as a chef, Nic knows what he’s doing. Now, in Hialeah, he is making some pretty awesome pizza in his own pizzeria. While our pizza was in the oven, my cousin told me that when he was a kid and other kids were hosting lemonade stands, Nic was making and selling pizza. That’s one way to make a lot of friends fast.

If there is one pizza on the Nic’s New York Pizza menu that you must try, it is the Black Truffle. The only reason to skip this pizza is if you really don’t like mushrooms. Even then, I think you should try it. Black truffle cream, mushrooms, ham, mozzarella and white truffle oil … not your traditional toppings but completely unforgettable!

We thought we should take a variety back to the family waiting for us so we also got the BBQ and the Hawaiian. They all disappeared but it was the Black Truffle that got the most compliments.

Nic's Pizza Hialeah Florida

Now it’s time for me to confess. While waiting for our pizza, my cousin and I shared an appetizer.

Only, it wasn’t an appetizer … it was dessert. Nutella Tiramisu.

Tiramisu at Nic's Pizza in Hialeah

Thanks, Nic, for brining your craft to Hialeah. Any interest in opening a satellite in Des Moines??

ceviche

On one of our drives between my aunt and uncle’s house and our hotel, I noticed a small place called Ceviches By Divino. Having only recently discovered how much I love ceviche, I had to ask my cousins about it. After getting the thumbs up from them and having a break in one of our days, I asked my travel partners if they wanted to try something very different. They surprised me and said they wanted to go along even if they chose not to be too adventurous.

Ceviche is a style of cooking where the acid from citrus fruit cures the fish and/or seafood that is added to it. It is served cold with a variety of sauces and fruits (e.g. mango or pineapple) and vegetables (frequently onion, avocado and peppers). Since we happened to stop during a quiet time for the restaurant, we were given the full attention of the staff. They answered all of our questions and helped us choose the Trio de Ceviches pictured above. My travel partners were totally curious and tried some bites of each preparation, preferring the one with avocado and mango.

The real surprise for me was a traditional Peruvian drink called Chicha Morada, or purple corn juice.

Chicha Morada

This is a non-alcoholic drink made by boiling and straining dried purple corn in water with cinnamon and adding sugar and lime. It was the most unusual thing I had encountered on this trip and I enjoyed every sip.

seafood

Key Largo

My request for fresh seafood spurred an offer to spend an afternoon and evening on Key Largo. My cousin, Gloria, has a stunning home in Tavernier. The last time I visited, this home was still in the construction stages. Having followed the progress via Facebook over the years, the opportunity to see it completed sounded perfect. Getting a boat ride around the island and spending a few hours lounging by the pool was priceless.

Travenier House

Salt water and sunshine … is there a better way to prepare for an ocean-front seafood dinner? Don’t think so. Before leaving Key Largo, we stopped at Sundowners. We missed the sunset by about 20 minutes but were still rewarded with a beautiful view from the patio and live music.

Sundowners Patio

Always looking to try something new, I saw one fish selection that I did not recognize: hogfish. Among the preparation options for this entree was a key lime and caper sauce … yes, please.

Hogfish Dinner

I may not be able to find hogfish in any midwestern grocery store, but I sure will be trying to recreate that key lime and caper sauce!

While we’re talking about key limes …

Key Lime Pie

… let’s close this day with a slice of Key Lime Pie.

Every bite of this pie was infused with lime: the meringue, the custard-style filling and even the crust. Perfect meringue peaks look like the waves of the ocean.

Don’t mind me … I’m just having a kumbaya moment here.

family dining – Miami Style

As I sit here looking at all of these pictures and remembering all the amazing places we visited and food we ate, I still have one more favorite to share: family dinners. There is nothing better than gathering around my aunt and uncle’s table … actually, there were enough of us that it was two tables put together … and sharing home-cooked meals.

One meal in particular was an exceptional treat for us midwesterners. Several members of our Miami family are quite talented and adventurous fishermen (and women). They were willing to share some of their catch with us in the form of creole.

Lobster and Snapper Creole

Yes, they caught the lobster (snorkeling). Yes, they caught the snapper (deep-sea under a full moon using live lobster as bait). Yes, they made the creole themselves. Yes, they are pretty cool people! Served with white rice, avocado salad and a guava/lime/vodka or gin drink we created ourselves.

I know this post is about my foodventure in Miami but it is also about my family reunion. While food always seems to be the centerpiece of our gatherings, prayer and love nourish us most. We hold hands and thank God for His blessings. We sing the songs that unite us across the miles. We laugh and cry, sometimes at the same time.

And every single time I make Picadillo, or attempt to make Ropa Vieja, I will remember this reunion.

Til We Meet Again!


Foodventurous in Miami and Key Largo


This experience and could not have been so successful without the guidance and encouragement of my mom, aunt and cousin who were amazing “foodventurers” and my aunt, uncle and many cousins who live in Miami Springs/Hialeah. Love you all!