Fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frosting

My dad’s 50th birthday was on Friday. I emailed him to ask what his favorite cake was.

His helpful response: “I never met a cake I didn’t like.”

Given free reign like that, I decided to do something a little different. Something he’d never order in a restaurant or ask for someone to make him, but that would still knock his socks off.

I also wanted to make something summery because of his late August, dog days of summer birthday. S’mores cake? Eh, I’ve made it in cupcake form before and wanted to try something new. Chocolate-orange? Nah, that seems like more of a cold weather one to me. I thumbed through All Cakes Considered for ideas. I hemmed. I hawed. I pondered.

Eventually I got stuck on my favorite thing about summer: figs. The rest came together pretty quickly after that. A fluffy white cake with a fig jam in the middle. A light, whipped honey meringue buttercream on top. Not too heavy, but certainly tooth-achingly sweet. Good for the kids.

But I wanted to slightly temper the sugar rush for the adults. Something herby. Which of course led to my favorite fig accompaniment, thyme. It’s piney, but not too piney like rosemary sometimes is. It doesn’t overpower the delicate honey flavor in the frosting, but it does effectively counter the sweetness while adding a little flair of its own.

Of course, the best part of this flavor combo is that I can say that I made my dad a fig-tieth birthday cake, on account of him being alive for a long thyme.

I’m sorry. I’m sorry!

I cut plain slices for my niece and nephew, then said to my dad, sister, and brother: “I didn’t think the kids would like this, but if you’d like I can put some fresh thyme over your piece of cake.”

Sister: “What’s thyme?”
Brother: “That sounds really weird. But usually when you try to get me to eat something weird, it’s good, so okay.”
Father: “If you say so.”

I sprinkled a few leaves over each piece of cake. I could tell they didn’t trust me one bit.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingThen they tasted it. “I can’t believe that’s… actually really good.” Well gee, thanks for trusting my judgement, folks. But I knew I had a winner when my sister and dad both took tiny slivers for seconds, and chose to add thyme to them completely of their own volition.

My dad knows I post my recipes on the internet. He saw me taking my photos and figured (correctly) that they were for a post. He said, “People aren’t going to think that’s good when they read the recipe. It’s too weird. They’re not going to realize how good it tastes and they won’t make it.”

It’s not that weird. Prove him wrong.

fig and thyme white cake with whipped honey frostingFig and Thyme White Cake with Whipped Honey Frosting
Adapted from Whipped Cream Cake by Melissa Gray in All Cakes Considered and Brown Sugar Meringue Buttercream from Sky High Cakes as posted on Completely Delicious

Serves 10 to 12

1 1/2 cups cake flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 cup whipping cream
2 eggs
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

3 egg whites
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons water
9.6 ounces (about 19 tablespoons) unsalted butter, at room temperature and cut into chunks

scant 1/2 cup fig jam, at room temperature
fresh thyme leaves, stripped from woody stalks

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter or spray two 8-inch pans, then line with a parchment paper circle. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, sift together cake flour, salt, and baking powder. In a small bowl, beat eggs until thick and pale yellow. Set both aside.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip cream on medium speed until stiff peaks form. Add beaten eggs and beat again until fully integrated and foamy. Add sugar and extracts and beat again for about 1 minute. Add dry ingredients and beat on low speed until barely combined — there should still be some visible flour. Use a spatula to fold the ingredients the rest of the way to avoid over mixing.

Divide batter evenly among prepared pans, then put in the oven. Bake for 20-30 minutes, removing when a toothpick comes out clean. If your oven heats unevenly, swap positions of the two layers about 10 minutes into the baking time.

Place on a wire rack until cool enough to handle. Use a knife to loosen the edges of the cake from the pan, then flip out onto the rack. Remove the parchment paper from the bottom and let cool completely.

For the frosting, there’s a little bit of timing involved in making this all work. Start by combining the water, sugar, and honey in a small saucepan. Do not yet put it over the heat.

In the bowl of your stand mixer with the whisk attachment, whip egg whites on medium speed until soft peaks form.

Put sugar solution over medium heat, stirring occasionally until it comes to a boil. Once it is boiling, stop stirring and insert a candy thermometer. Book without stirring until it reaches 238 degrees F (soft ball stage).

Turn the mixer with the egg whites back on medium speed. Carefully pour the hot (seriously, really really hot, be careful) sugar mixture in a thin stream into the egg whites. Try not to hit the beater or the side of the bowl.

Once the sugar syrup has been added, raise the speed to medium high and beat until the mixture is down to room temperature (touch the side of the bowl to check). This will take several minutes.

With the mixture still running, add the butter cubes a few tablespoons full at a time. Once all the butter has been added, continue to beat until smooth. The mixture may start to look curdled at one point, especially if your butter was a little too cold or too warm. Just let the mixer keep running and it will work itself out. Once the frosting is smooth, creamy, and light you’re good to go.

Put one cake layer on a serving plate or pedestal. I’m no expert cake decorator by a long-shot, but the best tip I can give for tidier looking cakes is to line the plate with strips of parchment paper tucked under the cake before you frost it. Try this! It really helps your cake look better to not have frosting smeared all over the plate.

Spread the fig jam evenly over the first layer. Then using an offset spatula, spread a small layer of frosting on top of the fig jam. Go almost all the way to the edge. Top with the second cake layer, then frost the top and sides to coat.

Sprinkle fresh thyme over the top of the cake, then serve.

Cherry chocolate Gruyere galette

I’ve been hanging on this recipe for a while and couldn’t think of something to say about it.

I mean, it’s just a galette with a touch of bitterness from the super-dark chocolate, an unexpected salty bite from the Gruyere cheese, a rich and flaky crust, all capped off with sweet and juicy in-season cherries.

chocolate cherry Gruyere galetteDo I really need to say anything else?

Cherry Chocolate Gruyere Galette
Crust from Sweet Galette Dough by David Lebovitz for Fine Cooking

Serves 6-8

11 1/4 oz. (2-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
5 oz. (about 2/3 cup) ice water

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/4 ounce Gruyere cheese, grated
1/2 ounce dark chocolate, roughly chopped
2 cups fresh cherries, pitted and sliced in half
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted

Stir flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add chilled butter and pulse until crumbly, but distinct chunks of butter remain — really, big chunks are good!Add ice water, then process just until dough comes together, no more than 30 seconds. Turn dough onto work surface and gather and knead together just slightly. If is fine if you see streaks of butter on the surface, as this is what will give you delightful flakiness. Divide into two equal pieces and shape into discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. (This galette only requires one disc of dough. Wrap the other very well and freeze for later use, thawing in the fridge for one day before using. [I used a leftover disc for this one.])

While dough is chilling, mix grated Gruyere and chopped dark chocolate into the cream cheese. Set aside.

Preheat oven with baking sheet or pizza pan in it to 400 degrees.

On a floured surface, roll one disc of chilled dough out into an approximate circle about 13 inches in diameter. Transfer to a piece of parchment paper.

Spread cream cheese mixture on the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Starting in the middle, place the cherry halves in a single layer, face down, over all of the cream cheese mixture. Fold the excess dough over the edge of the filling, pleating as you go. Brush the melted butter along the exposed crust with a pastry brush.

Slide the galette, parchment paper and all, onto preheated baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. When edges are browned, remove pan from oven. Slide the parchment paper and galette onto a wire cooling rack to prevent it from getting soggy while it cools.

Enjoy while slightly warm or at room temperature. Or, store covered in the fridge for up to 4 days and let come to room temperature before serving. If desired, garnish with curls of dark chocolate once cooled.

Za’atar zucchini salad with crusted halloumi

It’s summer! There are outdoor movies, bike parties, art festivals, birthday parties, anniversary parties, housewarming parties…

Heeey, I’m just over here rationalizing why I haven’t posted in a while.

But summer also has lots of awesome produce. And every summer, whether it’s a fluff piece in the local paper or friends in my Facebook feed, I always see people asking, what the hell can I do with all this zucchini? One that I’ve seen popping up recently is zucchini noodles topped with feta cheese, which is what got me thinking about this salad.

za'atar zucchini salad with crusted halloumiSo, what’s going on here?

Zucchini. You’ll want to use smaller ones if you can, because super huge zukes are not great for eating in salads like this — they get all weird and fluffy. And you’ll need to use a julienne peeler or a spiral slicer to get the “noodle” thing going on. (My mister when we sat down to dinner: “How did you make these vegetables like this?”) I use a crummy julienne peeler that I got for $1.99 in Japantown when I visited San Francisco, and it works fine.

Za’atar. Za’atar is a Middle Eastern spice mixture that you could make very easily to your preference. It seems like it’s one of those Italian grandmother tomato sauce situations, where every family has a different recipe. But generally it has some combination of sesame seeds, sumac, oregano, basil, thyme, savory, and salt. So you could be a rockstar and make up a little batch of za’atar… or you could be like me and use a jar of pre-packaged stuff that you impulse bought, while your partner pokes fun at you because the brand name is Urban Accents.

Preserved lemons. They are basically pickles made of Meyer lemons and salt. I probably should have made a post about when I made preserved lemons back when I made them last winter… but I didn’t. You can buy them in Middle Eastern markets, or in the ethnic aisles of some well-stocked grocery stores. My homemade ones were spiced with cinnamon sticks, cardamom, and peppercorns. Yum.

Halloumi. This cheese, much like feta, is salty and delicious. It doesn’t melt, so it’s perfect for browning in a skillet to warm it up and give it some crunch.

Za’atar Zucchini Salad with Crusted Halloumi

Serves 2 to 3 as a main, 4 to 6 as a side

3 small or 2 medium zucchinis (about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 pounds)
1 small red onion
2 ounces halloumi
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 1/2 tsp finely chopped preserved lemon, peel and flesh (a little less than 1/8 of one lemon)
1/2 small garlic clove, minced
2 teaspoons of za’atar, divided
2 cups arugula

Using a julienne peeler or a spiral cutter, make zucchini into long, thin, noodley shapes. Put in a large bowl and set aside.

Cut the tip off the red onion, then cut in half through the root and peel outer layers. Slice into thin half moons. Put in a small bowl and set aside.

Cut the halloumi cheese into small (about 1/2-inch) squares. Put in a small bowl and set aside.

In a measuring cup, mix olive oil, vinegar, preserved lemon, garlic, and 1 teaspoon of the za’atar. Pour a small amount over the halloumi and toss to coat. Do the same with the red onion. Then pour the rest over the zucchini, and add the additional za’atar. Toss to fully coat (I just use my hands).

Let zucchini marinate for 20 minutes.

While it is marinating, heat up a cast iron skillet over medium heat. When one piece sizzles, throw in the red onion. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 4 to 5 minutes until slightly softened and the taste mellows out a little bit. Remove from skillet and set aside to cool slightly.

After zucchini has marinated for 20 minutes, add arugula and cooled red onion and once again toss to combine.

Then go back to your cast iron skillet and turn it to medium heat. When a drop of water sizzles, dump in the halloumi cheese in a single layer. Let cook for 1 to 2 minutes until a brown crust forms, then use a metal spatula to scrape them up and flip to the un-browned sides. Don’t worry about getting every single piece perfect, but try to get some good brown crustiness on as much of the cheese as you can.

Remove from heat and distribute evenly over the top of the salad, then serve immediately.

Briny bay pickled beans

I’ve been canning off and on for a few years now. Not super seriously, to be honest. I have a pressure canner that I inherited from my mother, but I’m terrified of using it. So I’ve just done a few boiling water canning projects: a marmalade that I thickened too much, a few jams that I never really used, a mustard that turned out completely inedible.

Then I made a batch of hot pickled asparagus the other month.

Holy. Shit.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, pickles are the hipster stereotype of home preserving. It’s the food counterpart to homebrewing (which, for the record, is my mister’s thang). But you know why they’re so popular? Because they’re delicious, and hard to fuck up.

One thing that kills me about canning in general is the fear of botulism preventing me from experimenting. But with pickling, as long as you keep your brine at the correct acidity and use the recommended vegetables and processing times? You can play around a bit with your seasonings without paralyzing anyone’s face. I mean, isn’t that everyone’s goal?

So, these Old Bay infused green bean pickles. They’re spicy-sour, and because they only need to be processed for five minutes, they stay very crisp. I may have eaten an entire jar for lunch one day. When my mister whined that he had tried to find the jar in the fridge for his lunch but they were all gone, I reminded him that six of the jars are destined for my Homemade Trade club and not to eat them. But, I added: I’ll put up another batch while green beans are still in season… if he helped me trim them all up.

He agreed with no hesitation.

briny bay pickled beans

Briny Bay Pickled Beans
Adapted from Pickled Dilled Beans by National Center for Home Food Preservation

Makes 8 pint jars

4 pounds fresh green beans
2 1/4 cups white vinegar (5% acidity)
2 1/4 cups apple cider vinegar (5% acidity)
4 1/2 cups water
1/2 cup + 1 tablespoon pickling salt
8 cloves garlic
16 teaspoons Old Bay seasoning

8 pint jars, rings, and unused canning lids
boiling water canner with rack
jar lifting tongs
jar funnel (optional, but recommended)
clean dish towels

Important Note: If you’ve never canned before, you will probably want to study up on some basics before you get started. And use common sense when eating home-canned goods — leaking, compromised seals, weird growths, bad smells? Play it safe and throw that shit out.

Wash your green beans and lay out to dry on a dish towel. Trim ends off beans so you’re left with uniform 4-inch lengths. Peel and rinse garlic cloves.

Fill your canner so the water is at least two inches above the jars, and bring to a boil. (You might want to do this earlier depending on how long it takes your canner to come to a boil — I get mine started while I am prepping my beans.)

Wash your jars, lids, rings, and tools by washing in warm soapy water. Then sanitize by boiling in water. Alternatively, use the sanitize setting on your dishwasher, if desired.
In a large saucepan, bring water, vinegar, and pickling salt to a boil.

Remove jars from boiling water.

Add a garlic clove and 2 teaspoons Old Bay to each jar, then tightly pack with as many upright green beans as will fit. Ladle hot brine into each jar — a jar funnel makes this much easier, but if you don’t have one, just be careful. Leave 1/2″ headroom in each jar.

Wipe each rim with a clean, damp cloth. Center an unused, sterilized lid on each jar. Screw the rings over each lid until “fingertip tight” — that is, screwed on until you just start to get resistance.

Use your jar tongs to carefully place each packed jar in the canner. Bring back to a boil, then process for 5 minutes (up to 15 depending on altitude — see chart).

Remove jars from canner with tongs without tilting. Place on a folded dish towel, away from drafts and not touching each other. Let sit undisturbed for at least 12 hours.

Check each jar for a good seal (press on the middle or the lid — it shouldn’t move or make noise). Any that didn’t seal can be refrigerated immediately and still used.

Store sealed jars in pantry for up to 1 year. Then, refrigerate once opened for up to one month.

Fig and honeyed mascarpone galette

Fig season! Who can complain? Well obviously I can, because you know what sucks about figs? Because of their delicate nature, they’re so often in those horrible plastic clamshell packages to protect them during shipping. If you buy prepackaged figs, you’re going to end up with at least a couple that were picked too early. It’s my understanding that when you pick a fig too early, it will “ripen” on the counter in the sense that it will get softer. But that complex, oozy, honey-sweet taste? Not gonna happen.

So when my friend Laura told me that there’s a fruit bearing fig-tree in a park near my house? Shut the front door!

At the earliest opportunity, I rode my bike over there with a grocery-bag lined backpack, a vision of fig-filled galette running through my head. And then? I couldn’t find the damn tree if my life had depended on it. I texted Laura for further clarification of the location (what I actually asked was “uhhh, can you send me the Google Maps coordinates?”). I rode around for a bit waiting for a reply, and then remembered, oh yeah. She’s in Tanzania.

She hopped on the internet that weekend to email me a screenshot of the Google Map (and presumably do other things). But for this galette I had already filled my cart at the grocery store. It was still delicious, and, I must warn you, almost tooth-achingly sweet. It’s perfect for a brunch spread, especially since it can be made ahead of time and will hold in the fridge for several days. If you wanted it to, it could function as a dessert — seriously, all those figs make it fit for the most hardcore sweet tooth.

fig and honeyed mascarpone galette

Fig and Honeyed Mascarpone Galette
Crust from Sweet Galette Dough by David Lebovitz for Fine Cooking

Serves 6-8

11 1/4 ounces (2-1/2 cups) all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, cut into 1/2-inch pieces and chilled
5 ounces very cold water

8 ounces mascarpone cheese
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 teaspoon orange blossom water
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds fresh, ripe figs
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, melted
super flaky sea salt, to garnish

Stir flour, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a food processor. Add chilled butter and pulse until crumbly, but distinct chunks of butter remain — really, big chunks are good!Add ice water, then process just until dough comes together, no more than 30 seconds. Turn dough onto work surface and gather and knead together just slightly. If is fine if you see streaks of butter on the surface, as this is what will give you delightful flakiness. Divide into two equal pieces and shape into discs. Wrap in plastic wrap and chill in refrigerator for at least 1 hour. (This galette only requires one disc of dough. Wrap the other very well and freeze for later use, thawing in the fridge for one day before using.)

While dough is chilling, stir honey and orange blossom water into mascarpone until fully combined. Then slice figs into quarters.

Preheat oven with baking sheet or pizza pan in it to 400 degrees.

On a floured surface, roll one disc of chilled dough out into an approximate circle about 13 inches in diameter. Transfer to a piece of parchment paper.

Spread mascarpone mixture on the dough, leaving a 2-inch border. Layer fig quarters in concentric circles on top of the mascarpone. Don’t worry about being perfect — it’s rustic! Fold the excess dough over the edge of the filling, pleating as you go. Brush the melted butter along the exposed crust with a pastry brush.

Slide the galette, parchment paper and all, onto preheated baking sheet. Bake for 45 to 50 minutes. When edges are browned, remove pan from oven. Slide the parchment paper and galette onto a wire cooling rack to prevent it from getting soggy while it cools.

Enjoy while slightly warm or at room temperature. Or, store covered in the fridge for up to 4 days and let come to room temperature before serving. Sprinkle with a bit of super flaky sea salt just before eating for added flavor and crunch.

Guest post: strawberry honey ricotta muffins

The other week I wrote a guest post for my friend Ann Marie at her blog Let’s Give Peas a Chance. As a fellow Baltimorean vegetarian I was happy to share a recipe with her. She was kind enough to return the gesture and use her CSA bounty to whip up a little somethin’ for me. Someone is jealous that she’s not getting any.

I want to preface this guest post by letting you know two things about me: I love low-energy, high-taste cooking and I am terribly good at procrastinating. As you may know, Martine was so kind to do an amazing guest post for me over at my blog. I told her, “yeah, I will totally write one for you too and I’ll get it to you right away.” So, naturally, here we are, two weeks later and I am only now sitting down to write this. Luckily, I will be sharing these strawberry honey ricotta muffins with Martine, so she can’t be too mad. [Ed. note: Aww yee, muffins!]

strawberry honey ricotta muffins by Ann Marie

The whole thing about the low-energy, high-taste is totally relevant to this recipe, by the way. First off, I made a variation of this recipe about a year ago (you can see my ricotta basil muffins here), so I didn’t have to search too hard for a base recipe. I am part of a CSA with Baltimore’s own One Straw Farm, and we’ve been receiving strawberries because it’s that magical time of year. (Side note: if you didn’t know that you can only get fresh strawberries for a short period of time throughout the year, step away from the grocery store and head down to your lovely local farmers’ market. Trust me.)

strawberry honey ricotta muffins by Ann Marie

Strawberry Honey Ricotta Muffins

Makes about 12 fluffy muffins

2 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 small handfuls fresh strawberries, halved
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup ricotta cheese
1 cup milk (I used almond milk)
1 large egg
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon cinnamon

Preheat your oven to 275F degrees. Toss the strawberries in there for about 45 minutes to dehydrate them. If you decide to skip this step, add less liquid to the overall mix because the strawberries will leak. Once the strawberries are mostly dried, remove them and preheat your oven to 375F degrees for the muffins.

In a large mixing bowl, mix all of the dry ingredients (flour, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, dried strawberries). Use a whisk to sift and mix everything.

In a smaller mixing bowl, mix all of your wet ingredients (ricotta, milk, egg, oil, and honey). Once they are blended, slowly stir the wet ingredients into the bowl with the dry ingredients.

Once everything is blended, pour the batter into a lined muffin pan. Bake for 25 minutes or until done.

If you want, top with cinnamon sugar or butter when they come out of the oven. Let cool and enjoy!

Ann Marie is a Baltimore-based blogger, freelance writer, and social media addict. She regularly blogs meatless recipes at Let’s Give Peas a Chance and tweets at @annmariebrok. When she’s not online, you can find her with a book in one hand and a beer in the other.

Summertime drinkin’ with the Leland Palmer

If there’s one thing I like to do in the summer, it’s going to the park to drink outside and play cornhole. Of course everybody brings loads of beer. But I like to make a big jug of something liquory, but not too liquory; because let’s be real, you’re going to be drinking all day.

My friend Laura posted this recipe on my Facebook wall recently. An adult version of an Arnold Palmer with jasmine tea and gin, with a Twin Peaks-inspired name to boot? Sign me up. She said that she had made it, and that it was delicious! Oh but by the way she substituted Iron Goddess of Mercy oolong for the jasmine, agave for the honey, and homemade kaffir lime liqueur for the limoncello.

So yeah, she totally made a different drink. Which also sounds amazing! But as a fan of jasmine tea and honey, I wanted to make this drink.

However, like Laura, I am a little incapable of trying a recipe without futzing with it in some way. One of my favorite gin cocktails involves lemon juice, honey, and peppercorns; I found myself drifting to peppercorns again when thinking of this drink. That said, I don’t want to rehash the same thing over and over. And pickled peppercorns or black pepper both seem not quite right. Black peppercorns are too bold, pickled green peppercorns are too… pickled. But what about pink peppercorns? Fruity, citrusy, with just a hint of spice?

the Leland Palmer

Aww yeah.

The Leland Palmer
Adapted from The Leland Palmer by Damon Boelte for Bon Appétit

Serves 6

3 cups freshly brewed jasmine green tea (I used 4 teaspoons of DAVID’sTEA Dragon Pearls in 3 cups water) *
1/3 cup honey (or agave nectar for a vegan drink)
3/4 cup gin
1/2 teaspoon pink peppercorns
3/4 cup limoncello
3/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
1/3 cup freshly squeezed grapefruit juice
1 12-oz can seltzer, chilled
ice cubes, for serving
lemon slices, for garnish
pink peppercorns, for garnish

Stir pink peppercorns into gin and set aside to infuse for at least an hour.

Brew jasmine tea, then stir in honey until fully dissolved. Set aside to cool completely.

In a large pitcher combine cooled sweetened tea, infused gin (including peppercorns), limoncello, lemon juice, and grapefruit juice. Chill until ready to drink.

Just before serving, stir in seltzer. Pour over ice, then garnish with lemon slice and/or a few additional pink peppercorns sprinkled on top if desired (they’ll float).

* If you are using high quality tea, consider making two half-batches of tea with the same leaves (or making a double batch of the cocktail and making two 3-cup batches of tea with the same leaves, which is what I did).

Marinated squash and fig summer salad and my dirty little secret

I love to cook.

You would hope so, wouldn’t you? Since I’m documenting my recipes on the internet and all.

But here’s my dirty little secret:

I buy a lunch almost every day at work.

I currently work right across the street from a Whole Foods, and their salad bar, hot bar, deli, and other prepared foods are just too convenient.

I’m one of those people who snoozes the alarm eight times and sleeps until the very last minute before scrambling to get out of the house in the morning. So I’m pretty much incapable of bringing a lunch unless it has been prepared and packaged the night before. Sometimes this happens. But more often, I forget about this crucial task and instead spend my evening working on a project, watching Doctor Who, or harassing Smells McGee.

I rationalize my lunch habit to myself by saying that it makes me eat healthier; I try to stick to the salad bar (“though that doesn’t always happen,” say my pants). I tell myself that I like variety, and if I were to buy and prep all that fresh produce that I like to load up on my salad, it’d go bad before I used it all. I tell myself that it’s really not that expensive, because at least I’m not loading up my salad with a pound of chicken breast.

These excuses have been enough for me so far. I mean, I’m still eating lunch from Whole Foods pretty much every day. But in just over a month, I am being forcibly relocated from my beautiful downtown office across the street from Whole Foods (not to mention walkable to three sushi joints, the vegetarian sandwich shop/juice bar, the tea house, the pizza place, and occasionally the cupcake truck). I’m being relocated to…

An office park in the middle of the ‘burbs. With nothing you can get to on foot. WHYYYYY??

I guess I’ll have to start bringing my lunch more often. Maybe I’ll even bring this salad, which was loosely inspired by a dish on the Whole Foods salad bar. Obviously you should be taking advantage of the summertime nectar of the gods, fresh figs, if you can get them — if you’re not so lucky, just use dried ones.

marinated squash and fig summer salad

Marinated Squash and Fig Summer Salad
Serves 4 as a main dish

1/4 cup olive oil
1 tablespoon lemon juice
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
1 heaping teaspoon fig jam
1 heaping tablespoon fresh thyme
1/4 teaspoon salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste (I like a lot)
1 medium yellow squash
1 medium zucchini
5 ounces baby spinach
5 ounces arugula
1/2 cup slivered almonds
6-12 (depending on variety) fresh figs, quartered
shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano to garnish

Stir olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, cheese, jam, salt and pepper into a storage container. Make sure the jam is fully dissolved. Remove the thyme leaves from the woody stalks, and crush slightly between your fingers before adding to the marinade.

Chop the ends off your zucchini and yellow squash, then cut lengthwise. Slice thin half moons (I like using the food processor slicing disc for this). Add to the marinade. Stir and shake to make sure all the slices are coated. Let marinate in the fridge for at least two hours, as long as overnight if you can plan that far ahead.

Mix spinach and arugula in a big bowl until integrated. Dump the marinated squash, almonds, and quartered figs on top, and toss to combine. I used Black Mission figs, which are pretty petite. If you’re using a larger variety of fig, you can use fewer and may want to dice them into eighths. Add more of the marinade as needed to fully dress the salad. Top off with some generous shavings of a good Parmigiano-Reggiano.

If you want to save leftovers to bring for lunch instead of buying your lunch out yet again: I would recommend preparing just as much as you are going to eat for the first meal. Then toss everything except the greens in a jar, and keep the greens separate to mix when you’re ready to eat.

Sweet Corn/Black Bean/Avocado Big Salad

Slicing sweet corn off the cob always reminds me of my great grandfather. He supported his family as a farmer in Iowa, growing soybeans commercially (sup farm bill). But when he retired to northern Minnesota, he kept a large “garden” which was really more of a mini-farm. His garden had no soybeans — he only grew the things he’d actually eat. Being in the midwest, of course he grew sweet corn. And whenever we ate that fresh corn, he always sliced it off the cob.

I thought this was the best thing ever, and so of course I had him slice my corn off the cob too. I liked not getting corn stuck in my teeth, but mostly I loved picking up the sheets of still-connected kernels and stuffing them in my mouth.

Of course, it wasn’t until much later that I realized why he sliced his corn off the cob; let’s just say, getting corn stuck in his teeth was not a problem for him.

sweet corn/black bean/avocado big salad

This is definitely a meal salad, not a wimpy side meant to be put next to the “real” food. The combo of greens, starchy sweet corn, and beans are a complete and healthy meal all on their own, and it’s a perfect summertime meal for when you can’t bear to turn the oven or stove on.

Sweet Corn, Black Bean and Avocado Salad
Inspired by Fresh Corn and Avocado Salsa by The Pioneer Woman Cooks

Serves 4

2 ears fresh sweet corn
1 ripe but firm avocado, diced
1/2 small red onion, diced
1/2 jalapeno, minced
1/2 red bell pepper, diced
1/2 of one 15 oz can black beans, drained and rinsed
1 lime
3/4 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
pinch of salt
fresh ground pepper
7-9 oz baby spinach
cilantro, if you’re into that sort of thing

Shuck, de-silk, and rinse your sweet corn, then carefully use a sharp knife to slice the kernels of the cobs. That’s right, we’re eating it raw. Trust me, it’s delicious. It helps if you cut a small slice off the top of the cob so you have a flat surface to balance it on while you hold it by the stem.

Dice your red onion to about the same size as your corn kernels, then put in a small bowl of ice water. Let this sit while you prepare the rest of your ingredients. This will help cut the sharpness of the raw onion which can be a little unpleasant.

Dice your red bell pepper the same size as your onion. Cut the top off of your jalapeno, and remove the ribs and seeds to your preference to dial down the spice. Cut it in half, then cut one half into thin matchsticks. Rotate your matchsticks and chop again so you end up with a very fine dice.

Cut your avocado into a medium dice — a bit bigger than your corn, red onion, and red bell pepper. This is where having a slightly firm avocado comes in handy — it will hold its shape better than a very ripe one. An easy way to dice is to cut that avocaddie in half, pop out the pit (carefully!), then score it with the knife while it is still in the skin. When you use a spoon to scoop out the flesh, it will come out already diced.

Dump the avocado pieces in a medium bowl, and juice the lime right over it. Depending on how acidic you like things, you might want to hold back a little bit on the juice — start with one half of the lime and work up once you’ve made the rest of the salad to taste. Toss well, making sure it is well coated — this will prevent the avocado from browning. Drain your red onion and dump it on top, along with the bell pepper, jalapeno, and half a can of rinsed black beans. Add the apple cider vinegar, sugar, salt, and pepper, and toss it up! You could conceivably add a bit of olive oil in there too, to make it more “dressing-y,” but I think the avocado is more than enough.

Let this bowl chill in the fridge as long as you can stand, at least 30 minutes. A couple hours is best, but who has that time on a weeknight? If I don’t have dinner ready within a half hour of when my mister gets home, he starts snacking. And nothing chaps my ass like pre-dinner snacking. (Of course, on his nights to cook I wait what I think to be very patiently, then get hassled for getting hangry. Which is actually completely legit.)

When it’s time to serve, dump the baby spinach in a large bowl, dump the corn on top, and toss until everything is beautifully intermingled. I suppose if you want to save a dish you can make the corn in a big bowl to start with, and mix the spinach in… but I always find that I end up with all the good stuff falling to the bottom no matter how much I toss.

Of course, this is the kind of dish that people want to put cilantro on. I realize this. So go ahead and do it. Just don’t put any on mine.

Pickled Bee Sting, aka the perfect summer drink

pickled bee sting

In my opinion, a hearty amount of pepper makes everything better. And honey, the sweetness countered with a delicate floral taste, not to mention the fun of trying all the different varieties. And lemon juice, the perfect accompaniment to make anything taste a bit brighter.

Then there’s the gin, which I somehow manage to enjoy despite my history with it. I must have been about ten years old, and my dad was sitting on the sofa watching television, holding one of the mason jars we used as drinking glasses. I climbed over and sat next to him.

“What’s that?”
“Can I have some?”

Yep, my dad was and still is a major trolldad. So, I took a hearty gulp. Of straight gin. Thinking it was Sprite.

In his defense, he expected me to smell it and maybe take a tiny sip and realize my mistake. But he told me it was Sprite! And I was a very trusting child.

Anyway, this drink is very ginny. If your dad pranked you when you were a kid and you haven’t yet recovered, I would recommend against it. If you want to make this drink, you should enjoy gin.

The original recipe called to muddle black peppercorns. I tried this a few times, but it never quite worked — muddling a dried spice, especially when it’s spherical, is difficult. Peppercorns are pretty hard. I graduated to coarsely grinding black pepper into the drink, which tasted good but gave it an unpleasant grittiness. I still drank them from time to time, but wondered if something could be done to improve the situation.

Enter pickled green peppercorns.

pickled green peppercorns

I’d been intrigued by them on my past five or so trips to the Asian market, but couldn’t think of a reason why I needed them. Finally, I said screw it and bought them… and immediately came up with plenty of ways to use them. Revisiting this drink was one of them.

Pickled Bee Sting
Adapted from the Bee Sting by John Gertsen

Honey Syrup:
1/2 cup honey
1/2 cup water

12-15 pickled green peppercorns
1/2 shot honey syrup
1/2 shot lemon juice
2 shots gin (I like Hendrick’s)

So, first you’ve got to make your honey syrup. I’ve had some in my fridge since our annual Christmas cocktail party and it’s still fine, so you might as well make a good bit. Combine honey and water in a small saucepan. Heat, stirring frequently, until honey dissolves into water and you’re left with a homogenous syrup. Put it in a little jar, and label it so you remember what the hell it is six months down the line.

Pluck your peppercorns off the stalk, and rinse the brine off of them with cold water. Go ahead and pop one in your mouth if you want to get an idea of how spicy they are — they taste basically like black pepper, but a bit more mild and with a juicy pop.

Muddle the peppercorns in the bottom of your cocktail shaker, then top with honey syrup, lemon juice, and gin. Fill with ice, then shake shake shake. Strain into a cocktail glass, or if you’re me, a rocks glass, because you don’t have cocktail glasses. If you’d like, throw another couple rinsed peppercorns in there so you have something to chomp on at the end.

Sip and savor the floral, citrus, and spicy notes, preferably while sitting on a porch.