Food Therapy

“You know what I love about cooking? I love that after a day when nothing is sure and when I say nothing, I mean nothing. You can come home and absolutely know that if you add egg yolks to chocolate and sugar and milk, it will get thick. That’s such a comfort.”  – Julie Powell (from the movie Julie and Julia)

One of my favorite quotes.  There are a lot of them in that particular movie.  Especially the one about “all the stuff on the floor!”  (Hee-hee)  I tell you, the restaurant business is not what it used to be.  And I say that meaning just the last 5 years has brought so many changes.  The “social media” world we live in is crazy.  It is ever changing and evolving.  People updating, tweeting, reviewing, texting, checking in and becoming mayors…  How to keep up?  I find it especially challenging as a restaurant owner.  Guess what – I don’t sit at a computer all day!  By the time I make my way to the office to return some emails, find the phone, and tweet about how tired I am the social media world has turned over, around and upside down 8 times!  Often I end up finding out (too late to respond, of course) that people are talking about…me!  The Good, Bad, and Ugly, truth and half-truths.

What happened to the days of getting in the kitchen, putting on an apron and throwing yourself into the fun of creating a meal for someone, or someone(s), in my case?   It used to be that the biggest challenge in my day was getting all of my employees to show up and figuring out what the newest tasty treat would be.  Now my day is filled with answering to 18 million different review sites, tweeting and re-tweeting, updating statuses and trying to respond before anyone thinks that they, or their business, isn’t important to me.  I rarely even get as far as putting on an apron before my attention is needed on facebook or twitter!

That said… last night I needed a little food therapy.  It was the first day open after being closed for 2 days and there was so much to catch up on!  But after the hustle and bustle of a crazy holiday weekend filled with toasty sausages from the grill, “mayonnaise-y” potato salad and buckets of soda, I wanted something light, healthy and oh-so-easy.  Something complicated enough to use my kitchen skills and warrant an apron, but easy enough to not have to turn on the oven.  So I made a whole wheat pasta with a garlicky salsa cruda and chilled shrimp.

The aromas of the fresh basil and garlic and the satisfying process of dicing, chopping, seasoning and watching it all come together were an instant lift to my senses.  I added a homemade Caesar salad and French Bread from The Olive Branch (only $1.50 per baguette) and called it dinner.  I invited some of my favorite people over and let the day dissolve into a relaxed and fun evening with a good meal and great conversation.  Now THAT is Food Therapy!

Here is my recipe in case you need a little food therapy of your own…

Margherita Salsa Cruda

5 Roma tomatoes (ripe)

3 cloves of fresh garlic (you can adjust this up or down according to your tastes)

About ½ Cup of fresh basil leaves (1 pkg from the grocery store)

2 T olive oil

1 T balsamic vinegar

Pinch of crushed red pepper

Salt and pepper, to taste

  1.  Dice the tomatoes as small as you can without cutting off your fingers!  Put them in the bottom of a LARGE bowl
  2. Mince the garlic finely.  You can use a garlic press or food processor to get the pieces very small.  Add the garlic to the tomatoes in the bowl.
  3. Roll the basil leaves into a “tube” and finely chop it.  Add it to the tomatoes and garlic
  4. Drizzle the oil and vinegar over the top of the tomato mixture and season it all with a little red pepper and salt and pepper
  5. Put the salsa into the frig to “marinate.”  Give it at least 30 minutes to blend together or leave it overnight.

This salsa can be tossed with hot pasta, cold pasta, or served on top of toasted baguette as a bruschetta appetizer.  A sprinkle of parmesan cheese  on top is a good compliment.

Food Therapy Meal

1 pound whole wheat pasta (I used spaghetti)

1 pound large boiled shrimp (shelled and chilled)

1 recipe of Margherita Salsa Cruda

1 Cup shredded parmesan

Fresh lemons

  1. Boil the pasta according to package directions.  Drain
  2. Toss the hot pasta over the cold Margherita Salsa Cruda sauce and stir gently to combine and cover all of the pasta with the sauce.
  3. Stir in the parmesan cheese.
  4. Using tongs, place some of the pasta mixture onto a plate.  Arrange some of the chilled shrimp over the top and hit them with just a little squeeze of fresh lemon.
  5. You can always top it all with more parmesan cheese if you’d like!

This meal is interesting because the hot pasta releases flavor from the tomato sauce without breaking it down.  The sweet shrimp are a perfect addition to the spicy garlic and pepper and the squeeze of fresh lemon brightens the tomatoes.


Start of the Week Challenge

I threw myself a challenge on Monday.  I know.  Mondays are NOT the day for a challenge.  Especially not a self-induced one!  But there it was.  Just staring me in the face!  My friend Jonathan, who now lives in San Antonio, was driving through Waco around 5 pm on Monday on his way back home from a visit in Dallas.  Knowing that he was starting his new job with his dad’s construction company I figured that he would be short on time and energy this week as he was getting settled, beginning new routines and learning his new profession.  So I wanted to send him with a couple of meals for the week that he could eat then or freeze for later.  Seeing as how I came to this conclusion at 11:30am, the challenge was how many meals could I get ready that travel and hold/freeze well before 5 pm?  And what meals would he even like?  (He tends to be picky…)  At 12:15 I headed to the grocery store armed with a list of meals I know he likes to eat and a few ideas from meals we have shared together…

I got home at 1 pm and by 2:45 I had a surprising number of meals packaged and ready to go.  Homemade mac ‘n cheese, King Ranch Chicken Casserole, Smoked Sausage with baked apples, My lemon-olive vinaigrette, a sauce to make Reuben sandwiches with, Italian queso,  A giant pepperoni pizza with a homemade garlic herb whole wheat crust, and an apple pie!  (after all the 4th of July is coming up)  The kitchen was a WRECK!  I think I used every pot and pan I own.  But I was ready for that 5 pm pick up surprise with time to spare!

The mac ‘n cheese recipe is somewhere in the depths of this blog.  For his, I used sharp cheddar, white cheddar, Fontina and Monterrey jack cheeses.  I personalized the pasta to be wagon wheel pasta as part of an on-going joke we have, but wagon wheels are great mac ‘n cheese pasta actually!  They hold onto lots of yummy, gooey cheese sauce.

I made a super simple King Ranch Casserole.   I boiled chicken breasts while I was watching the cheese sauce, and let them cool.  I then shredded them into a bowl.  I added 1 can cream of mushroom soup, 1 can cream of chicken soup, 2 cans rotel, 2 Cups shredded cheddar cheese,  2 T chili powder, 1 T cumin, and pepper.  I stirred it all up and then added ½ bag of tortilla chips.  I sort of crunch them up as I stir.  Pour it all into a baking dish (in this case 3 small disposable aluminum pans so he can heat a small amount at a time), top it with a little more shredded cheddar and bake it at 350 till the cheese is golden and it is all hot and bubbly.  This casserole freezes well.  He just needs to let it thaw in the fridge while he is at work, then pop it in the oven 30 minutes before he is ready to eat.  Add a salad and he has a full meal ready with little effort.

Jonathan loves the toasty Reuben sandwich from McAlisters deli.  He gets it without sauerkraut. So, of course, I started making a version for him here at The Olive Branch.  (Look for it to be a sandwich of the month soon!)  We don’t have Russian dressing so I had to come up with my own version with leftovers we had lying around from different caterings.  It was declared a winner!  We don’t have corned beef either, but we often have salami handy.  So I assemble the sandwich with a liberal spread of my Reuben dressing, a slice of provolone, salami and roast beef.  We toast it all up on the griddle so it’s hot and melty.  I feel fairly certain that given the Reuben sauce, Jonathan will be able to make his own version of a sandwich he will like.  He will probably just put the sauce on hot dogs, but that would be OK too!  At least it would make a simple meal a little more special. I tacked the recipe on at the end of the post.

As for the pizza, I followed the recipe at this website – adding garlic salt and thyme to the flour mixture.  I turned the dough into 2 very thin, 16” pizza crusts.  His, I topped with homemade marinara sauce from the Olive Branch, a whole bag of pepperoni and lots of pizza cheese (mozzarella, provolone, and parmesan).  The other I topped with olive oil, my lemon-olive vinaigrette (the same dressing I made for him to take home), spinach, tomatoes, olives and feta cheese.  (That one was for me and my friends!)  They turned out delicious, crispy and flavorful.  The recipe for the vinaigrette is under “healthy dressing of summer love” in the recipe section of my blog.  I created it for a tuna salad, but it is good on pasta salad, Caesar salad and pizza!

I won’t bore you with the other recipes I threw together.  I just want to encourage you that given 2 hours, you too can have several meals put away for your friends and family, saving you countless hours and hot kitchens later in the week.  I know that Jonathan has already had the pizza.  He told me it was yummy.  I hope he enjoys the rest of the meals and fixins.  The pie is frozen and destined for a 4th of July celebration with his family this weekend.  As for your celebrations this weekend, don’t forget to call or come by The Olive Branch for brownie and cakeball trays.  Or order an apple pie for yourself.  I hope this start to July finds you enjoying yourself, your family and friends and not getting overheated in the kitchen!

“Reuben” Sauce

½ Cup chili sauce

3 T dill pickle relish

1 T Dijon mustard (I like the course grained one)

2 T mayonnaise

Stir this all up in a small bowl.  It’s great on sandwiches and even hot dogs and hamburgers!

Texas Style Shrimp Boil

I invited friends over for dinner last night.  I had no idea what I was going to make, though.  Summertime makes me want to eat simple foods.  Things that are not too rich or too heavy.  And, of course, I love the idea of using the grill so I don’t have to heat up my whole house.  However, those things combined don’t always create the most impressive of meals.  So I started to rack my brain for ideas.  I wanted to keep it easy and fuss-free, but still delicious and special.  That took me back to an engagement party I went to one summer.  It was a shrimp boil.  I had never been to a shrimp boil.  It was so much fun!  The party was out on a ranch and held in a barn.  There were two GIANT pots of seasoned water boiling away (imagine that) that were filled with not only shrimp, but potatoes, corn and sausage.  As the food finished, the cooks would dump the perfectly cooked and seasoned food onto newspaper covered tables and we would dive right in! It was delicious (and fun)!  I thought that might be a good thing to try to do with my friends.

Seeing as how I’m not from Louisiana, I’m not really sure how to go about the boiling “thing.”   So I decided to try my hand at a Texas-style shrimp “boil.”  I went to Heb and started gathering ingredients: lemons, baby new potatoes, fresh, sweet corn, garlic, large shrimp (in the shell), Andouille sausage, and some orange roughy filets.

I got home and started putting it all together.  I cut the corn and sausage into 3 inch pieces and the potatoes into bite size pieces.  I sliced the lemons into rounds and smashed several garlic cloves.  I started a foil packet for each guest.  On large squares of heavy duty foil, I piled several potatoes, 2 pieces of corn, 3-4 pieces of sausage and a lemon ring.  I sprinkled it all with my homemade Cajun seasoning and drizzled it with olive oil.  I sealed each packet well and put it on a medium heat grill with the cover down for 20 minutes.

On another very large piece of foil, I drizzled olive oil and then laid the orange roughy filets down.  I covered the fish with a layer of lemon rings, 5 smashed garlic cloves, 1 T of butter (diced into small pieces) and then I poured a pound of large shrimp over the top.  Sprinkled it all with more Cajun seasoning and sealed the packet up tight.  I added it to the packets already on the grill and let it go for about 10 minutes.

It turned out great!!  We each picked a potato packet, opened it up and added some shrimp and fish from the other packet.  I served it with crusty French bread to soak up all of the lemony, garlicky, buttery juices.  It wasn’t quite a newspaper covered table in a barn under the stars, but it was still fun.  And clean-up?  Everything went in the trash!  No dishes to wash besides our plates.  Homemade vanilla ice cream (blue bell) and summer strawberries were the perfect sweet ending.

Give this Texas-style “boil” a shot at your house.  It was easy and fast.  And did I mention healthy? (minus the sausage, of course) I am going to give you my recipe for the seasoning I threw together.  Hope you enjoy!

My “Cajun” Seasoning:

  • ½ Cup Season Salt
  • 2T Cayenne pepper
  • ¼ Cup granulated garlic
  • ¼ Cup paprika
  • 2T onion powder
  • 1T crushed red pepper
  • 1T black pepper
  •  2T Thyme leaves

Stir all of these spices together and store in an airtight container.

Signature Spice!

Have you ever watched enough Food Network to realize that every chef that has their own show has their very own seasoning blend?   You can purchase their blends online and in stores, or you could make your very own seasoning blend instead.  I love to create my own seasoning blends when I cook.  I have one of those “towers of spices” that contains herbs and seasonings that nobody knows what to do with… I mean, how many recipes call for marjoram?  However, I decided that someone likes these spices and they must be good for something, right?  So, I try to use all of the spices (in varying applications and ratios, of course) when I am creating a new meal.  My personal signature spice for steaks is a blend of: season salt, garlic salt, celery salt, course ground black pepper, savory and marjoram.

There is a very simple way to go about creating your own signature spice.  You have to use your nose!  I start with the product I plan to season and cook and then choose a base spice such as season salt for steaks or garlic salt for fish.  Then I layer in other spices as I go.  I literally hold the raw product up next to an open container of the spice I am curious about and smell them together to decide if they go well with each other!  If they smell good together, I add it to the base seasoning I have started in a bowl.  I continue to add spices until the seasoning blend I have created smells just right with the raw product.  You can save your spice blend in a Ziploc and label it with its intended use; steak seasoning, fish seasoning, chicken blend, etc.

I had a friend over to dinner the other night and she laughed at me during this process.  She caught me holding up raw sirloin and a bowl of salt, pepper, and spices… must’ve been funny to see.  However, she declared that she loved the final product and that her steak was deliciously seasoned!  The result is worth the process!

I encourage you to try your own blends and experiment with those little known spices taking up room in your pantry.   You may find something new to love.  You will also begin to become aware of the seasonings in other foods that you eat.   Just a note: some salt is “necessary” in a blend.  It adds instant flavor and is a meat tenderizer, but don’t go too heavy, you can always add table salt after cooking.

Leah’s Steak Seasoning:

  • ¼ Cup season salt
  • 2t celery salt
  • 2t garlic salt
  • 2t granulated garlic
  • 1t savory
  • 2t marjoram
  • ¼ cup course ground black pepper

Simple Directions:

  1. Stir with a fork to blend and sprinkle evenly over your steaks before grilling!