Big Meadows Camping Trip in Shenandoah National Park

photo(18)

Have you heard that it’s National S’mores Day?

What better day to tell you all about a recent camping trip I took in Shenandoah National Park? A few weeks ago, I planned a trip for six friends to go camping up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I had visited and hiked in the Blue Ridge dozens of times, but I had never camped before. Planning a two-day camping and hiking trip for six was a daunting task, and I was a little nervous that, as the only one out of the group who had never been camping, I was doomed to miss a critical detail and therefore ruin the trip for everyone. So I did a lot of research and planning. If you know me well, you won’t be surprised at all that there were multiple checklists and maps involved, all important information lived in a “camping binder,” with plastic sheet protectors and all, and we packed the car to the roof with essentials and not-so-essentials, “just in case.”

Kyle and I bought a Marmot tent at REI earlier this summer and we were excited to finally put it to good use. The night before we left for our camping trip, we unpacked the tent and set it up in the living room, just to be sure that we had everything we needed and that we wouldn’t look too foolish to the other seasoned campers when we arrived at our campsite.

photo(14)

I believe the above diagram shows that no one can stand in this tent unless they’re under 5’1”. At first I took the other pictures to mean that the tent would fit two yogis or four mummies, but now I realize that they indicate that the tent will fit four people sleeping and two sitting up. I am new to this camping thing, but I think I’m starting to get it down.

photo(16)

We arrived at Big Meadows Campground about two hours before sundown on a Friday night. Kyle and I focused on setting up our tent first, and then we started to get dinner ready. Among our team of six, we had a few vegetarians, some vegans, a gluten-free restriction, a nut allergy, and a carb counter. You would think that would present a big challenge, but it really wasn’t that hard to accommodate at all. I made a burrito bar for our first dinner, which worked out really well because each person could make his or her own meal from the options provided. We had low-carb and whole wheat tortillas, black beans, sauteed zucchini, squash, and onions, salsa, sour cream, and cheese.

For dessert, we made s’mores (of course), and created the most amazing campfire snack I have ever seen. Behold. . . the S’moreo.

photo(13)

Simply twist two halves of an Oreo cookie apart and press a toasted marshmallow between them. For the record, Oreos are vegan. Marshmallows are not, due to the gelatin, unless you buy special vegan marshmallows.

We sat around the campfire the first night, laughing, telling stories, and scaring ourselves about the possibility of black bears crashing our party. We couldn’t believe how cold it was up in the mountains – around 60 degrees at the campsite at 3600 feet of elevation – while it was 75-80 degrees in the valley. Just as the fire started to die down and we began packing up to head to the tents, it started raining.

It poured all night long, hard driving rain, that never let up. We stayed completely dry in our tent, although there was one section on the corner above my head that was not completely taut, so it gathered a pool of water and then dumped a loud, sudden shower off the side of the tent about every twenty minutes all night long. Between the sudden “swoosh” of water right next to my head, jitters about sleeping outside for the first time ever, and weird sounds in the woods that my exhausted brain was convinced were from bears, axe murderers, or axe murderous bears, I hardly slept that first night.

34053_770724889236_2671301_n

The next morning, the rain let up a bit and then cleared up completely for our tubing trip on the Shenandoah River. After the cool, rainy night, we second guessed ourselves all morning on whether a tubing trip was the right plan, but when we got to the river, the sun was shining and it was a nice warm 80 degrees outside. The river was cool and refreshing, as were the beverages we packed into our cooler tube. I have gone tubing with Shenandoah River Adventures twice now, and I highly recommend them. We had a great experience!

When we headed back to camp that afternoon, it started raining again, so half of the group worked on setting up a tarp shelter for us to hang out under. The camp store at the Big Meadows Campground stocks a lot of supplies at very reasonable prices. We had brought an extra tarp with us, but we decided to buy a second one at the camp store to make an even larger shelter in case it rained for the next several hours. The other half of the group started washing and chopping vegetables for a giant tray of “hobo meal,” as Al called it.

photo(17)

Those are vegan hot dogs on the fire, next to a huge foil roasting pan full of potatoes, onion, carrots, zucchini, peppers, squash, salt, pepper, and oil. After about an hour directly over the fire, the “hobo meal” was done, and it was fantastic. Who says you need to have meat to make a hearty meal?

The rain slowed down before bed time that second night. We made more s’mores, left a huge dent in the beer supply, and played games until we were falling asleep in our camp chairs. I slept like a rock that night, no longer worried about homicidal maniacs or bears, and finally comfortable sleeping in a tent. Progress!

photo(20)

For breakfast both days, we had bagels (toasted over a campfire) with hummus or cream cheese, and fresh fruit. I made a batch of cold brew iced coffee concentrate at home and brought it with us for morning coffees. I don’t drink mine black, so I brought shelf stable milk in Tetra Paks, and on Sunday morning I discovered the joy of Silk chocolate soy milk in iced coffee. A little leftover “hobo meal” stew helped bulk up breakfast on the second day and gave us extra fuel for hiking later that day.

photo(21)

We headed to the Hawksbill Summit Loop Trail, about five miles north of Big Meadows Campground. Hawksbill Summit is the highest peak of Shenandoah National Park, at 4,049 feet. We accidentally hiked the loop backwards, making a very steep climb straight up to the summit, then meandering back along the Appalachian Trail at a slight downhill grade, with a lot of switchbacks and beautiful scenery. There was a lot of cloud cover all morning so we were not sure how much we would be able to see at the summit.

photo(22)

When we arrived at the top, it looked like we had reached the end of the world. We were standing in a cloud. It is pretty hard to describe the feeling of looking down off a cliff at nothing but thick white clouds. This picture that Kyle posted to Instagram demonstrates that a picture is worth a thousand words: Al at the Summit.

Within ten minutes of our arrival at the summit, the clouds began to break, and we could see the vast valley below.

photo(23)

There were these amazing little succulents growing out of the rocks at the top.

photo(26)

Adrienne took a yoga break while we took in the panoramic views.

photo(24)

Having the clouds break right as we reached the summit was a great end to a trip that was perfectly timed. . . no thanks to all of my meticulous planning. It was overcast and rainy for most of the time we were there, except for three distinct and brief times that the clouds cleared up and the sun shone down on us: when we first arrived and set up our tents, when we ventured out on our tubing trip, and when we reached Hawksbill Summit. These were the only three times we really needed the sun, and somehow it all worked out. There is no way I could have planned that.

At a time that I am reminded how much I am not in control, these brief moments of sunshine and intermittent rain made me even more grateful for the opportunity to explore all of the natural beauty we have in Virginia, just a two-hour drive from home.

You know it was a good trip when you haven’t even made it off the mountain yet before everyone starts asking, “when can we do it again?”

photo(25)

Advertisements

Eggplant Bruschetta with Heirloom Tomatoes and Fresh Chevre

eggplantbite1

I love summer fruits and vegetables, so I am ecstatic that I am now cleared by my doctor to carry heavy bags of produce from the farmers’ market to my house. I made a trip last weekend to the South of the James market and I went a little overboard with vegetable purchases. Everything wonderful is in season right now!

markethaul

The haul:

  • Goats R Us roasted red pepper chèvre (so flavorful!)
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Jalapenos
  • Green bell peppers
  • White peaches
  • Zucchini
  • Yellow crookneck squash
  • Tomatoes
  • Green beans
  • Eggplant
  • Cucumbers

I made a ton of great seasonal meals last week, and doing a lot of meal prep (washing, chopping, blanching, etc.) on Sunday helped me out so I could get healthy home cooked meals on the table around a busy schedule. The roasted red pepper chèvre and eggplant inspired me to throw together a quick and easy appetizer on Sunday afternoon.

eggplantchevre

This is a flavorful, summery dish that you can put together in about fifteen minutes, which is great for those impromptu summer porch sitting sessions. You know what I’m talking about. When a conversation with friends that starts with “What are you doing tonight?” and “I don’t know, what are you doing?” ends with two friends and a bottle of wine on your patio.

I used oval-shaped eggplant slices in place of baguette slices to make this summer “bruschetta” a bit lighter (and gluten-free, if you’re into that kind of thing). I guess technically that makes it not bruschetta, but I don’t bother with technicalities on sunny summer weekends. If you’re unlike me and you’re getting hung up on the semantics, have another glass of wine and throw some quotation marks around the word “bruschetta.”

Eggplant Bruschetta with Heirloom Tomatoes and Fresh Chèvre

eggplantbite2

Ingredients:

  • 1 Chinese eggplant
  • 2 small heirloom tomatoes (I used Green Zebra and a red-green variety I couldn’t identify)
  • 1 oz. fresh chèvre goat cheese (I used roasted red pepper)
  • 1 small handful of fresh basil
  • Olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Preparation:

  1. Slice the eggplant on a diagonal to make oval-shaped slices, about a 1/4 inch thick.
  2. Heat a grill pan, indoor counter top grill, or outdoor grill. Brush eggplant slices with olive oil, then grill for a few minutes on each side, until eggplant is tender and grill marks appear. Do not overcook or eggplant will get mushy; you want the slices to still be firm enough to hold the toppings.
  3. While eggplant is cooking, slice tomatoes. Stack and roll basil leaves, then slice into a chiffonade.
  4. Remove eggplant slices from grill and set aside until cool enough to handle.
  5. Spread each eggplant slice with chèvre, then top with a tomato slice and basil. Season with sea salt and fresh ground black pepper.

So are you curious what we made with all of the rest of that produce? Here is last week’s meal plan. At the end of the week, when there is still produce left over, I chop it all and throw it in a stir-fry or on homemade pizza.

Breakfast: Blanchard’s Dark As Dark iced coffee, Peach Oatmeal Bars

Lunch: Mediterranean salad with baby greens, cucumber, tomato, olive, and hummus

Dinner:

Noodleless Zucchini Lasagna and baby greens salad

BBQ Tempeh, Green Beans Almondine, and Herb Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

Tomatillo Gazpacho with Fresh Corn Salad (recipe coming soon!) and Black Bean Quesadillas

Yukon Gold White Bean Basil Burgers and Roasted Yellow Summer Squash with Sage Pecan Pesto

 

What tasty seasonal recipes are on your meal plan for this week?

Vegology Branching Out, from Home Cooking to Competitions and Catering

teamvegbird

I started this blog four years ago to help me get out of my comfort zone in the kitchen, and to inspire others to do the same. From trying out new ingredients for the first time, to testing strange cooking techniques, to doing vegetarian cooking demonstrations, to traveling to distant places just to see what is going on in other food communities, I have stepped out of my comfort zone in a lot of ways, with mixed results. In four years, I have learned a lot about cooking and eating, and I have further developed my food philosophy as well. I do not reflect often, so although I have grown in a lot of ways since June 2010, I still see myself as a newbie, learning as much as I can, from people with more experience and different perspectives than me.

My initial reaction when I was asked earlier this year to participate in the Richmond Vegetarian Festival Food Fight was, “who, me?!” The Food Fight is an Iron Chef style cooking competition, in which three competitors must prepare three vegan dishes in one hour, using only the limited pantry ingredients and equipment available at each of their stations. The dishes must feature a secret ingredient, which is revealed seconds before the clock starts.

The invitation came in a tweet, and my immediate response upon receiving the Twitter notification on my phone was to look over both shoulders and wonder if there is another Vegology out there for whom this invitation is meant. I ignored the message, assuming it had been broadcast to a long list of people who would jump on the opportunity.

When the organizers (from Citizen, one of my favorite lunch spots in RVA) followed up with me, I realized the first message had not been an error. I was still in hand therapy and could barely cook for myself at the time. What I could do in the kitchen and at work, I was really slow at. The competition was about a month away and I figured it would give me a good goal for therapy to get my hands and wrists mostly functional by the end of June.

So I recruited a partner, my delightful and talented friend Brittany from Eating Bird Food (read her wonderful post about the competition here), and I agreed to do it. We do not cook fancy or complicated food and we do not spend hours perfecting our plating techniques or our knife skills, so we expected to come in dead last. We were determined to make food that tasted good and to have a ton of fun doing it. And that is almost exactly what happened.

vegbird1

The secret ingredient was fennel, one that we had not anticipated at all. After a quick strategy session, we started grabbing ingredients from the pantry, chopping, blending, and roasting (in a toaster oven!). Our first dish was raw spiralized summer squash “noodles” in a fennel and basil pesto sauce, with pan roasted red peppers and a sprig of fennel on top. We had a lot of fun putting this together, and twirling the squash “pasta” into little nests on each plate.

vegbird2

We worked really well together, and just focused on the cooking while we worked. I tuned out the audience, the host who narrated and entertained during the whole thing, and all of the comments from the judges and other competitors. There were definitely a few times that Karri Peifer, the host, put the microphone in my face and I had not even realized she was in our kitchen or had asked me a question until that black bulb was right in front of my mouth. I doubt that any of my answers were very impressive – sorry Karri!

Our focus paid off when our vegan ground beef, or “nut meat” came out perfectly. Our second dish was a nut meat lettuce wrap taco with a fresh corn and fennel salad on top. The spicy “meat” was countered by the sweet fresh corn, and I thought it tasted pretty good. The judges said they couldn’t detect the fennel, which we had included in the “meat” as well as the corn salad, but our proportions must have been off, or the strong flavors of other ingredients drowned out the fennel flavor.

vegbird3

Our final dish, which was described by one judge as “homey” was a Nourish Bowl with jasmine rice, black beans, roasted sweet potato and fennel, and pan roasted red peppers, finished with a peanut sauce and Thai basil garnish. All three dishes were ones that any home cook could easily throw together. I’m not sure if “homey” was meant as a compliment or not, but I took from it that we cooked our food, which was exactly what we had set out to do!

Each duo was given a score out of 240 total possible points, and dishes were evaluated on taste, presentation, innovation/uniqueness, and use of the secret ingredient. Our team (Team VegBird) came in second place, and the host announced that we were within two points of the winners! The winning team was Kate Koyiades and Mackenzie Monday from 821 Café. Yes, that’s right, two points away (out of 240) from professional chefs. What?! We were very pleased with the results.

vegbirdbeer

We celebrated with a beer from Ardent Craft Ales, a new brewery that is located in Scott’s Addition, right down the street from the festival. I would be lying if I said that was it. Then we took the party over to Hardywood for another beer and some tacos from the Boka Tako Truck.

Riding high after our second place finish, I packed my car the next day for a road trip to Asheville, NC for the grand opening of my sister’s ballroom dance studio, Rococo Ballroom. We spent a week putting the finishing touches on the studio space and getting the word out for the grand opening and ribbon cutting.

xrococo1

I spent my days handing out flyers, hanging posters around town, writing press releases, shopping for décor, and cleaning impossibly large windows and mirrors. I squeezed in three classes at Asheville Yoga Center (so wonderful), and at night I ate a ton of the best vegetarian food Asheville has to offer. To see all of our great eats, check out the #vegologyeatsasheville hashtag on Instagram.

After the great experience I had branching out at the Vegan Food Fight, I did not hesitate to say yes when I was asked to do all of the food for the Rococo Ballroom grand opening party the following Saturday. I prepared food all day in my sister Meghan’s kitchen, packed it into containers within a giant cooler, plated when I got to the studio, and then replenished from the same cooler throughout the party. My “catering kitchen” on-site was a gigantic cooler with a pack of gloves, a cutting board and knife, and a few bags of ice, all located on a sidewalk outside the back door of the studio. The kitchen got soaked during a sudden downpour halfway through the party. I adapted. The food turned out pretty great!

xrococo2

The appetizers included caprese salad bites, which were basically tomato, mozzarella, and basil, skewered and marinated in a balsamic viniagrette, and cucumber cups filled with jalapeno cilantro hummus, topped with chili powder and pimentos.

xrococo3

We also enjoyed watermelon, feta and mint bruschetta, which was a nice summery treat.

xrococo4

Dessert (not pictured) was a tower of mini cupcakes in gold foil wrappers to match the regal décor of the studio. We also had a cheese tray and plenty of wine, which I wrapped in custom Rococo Ballroom labels just for the party. The selection  included Waltz White (Pepperwood Pinot Grigio), Rumba Red (Castle Rock Pinot Noir), and Bolero Bubbly (Jaume Serra Cristalino Brut Rose Cava).

xrococo5

After pulling off a week of helping to open a business, bookended by a vegan Iron Chef competition and my first catering gig, I needed a glass of Bolero Bubbly wine to relax!

In retrospect, the marathon week was a great way to celebrate Vegology’s fourth birthday. It definitely boosted my confidence and pushed me to ask myself the question, “what’s next?” proving once again that it’s sometimes a very good thing to push yourself out of your comfort zone and try something you’ve never done before. It could turn out great or it could turn out to be a disaster learning experience, and either way at least you can say you did it!

Peanut Butter S’mores Cookies

smores1

The weather has been gorgeous lately and I have been able to fire up our backyard grill a few times already this season. The longer, warmer days make me feel like summer is right around the corner. We’re planning outdoor activities for our weekends and starting to think about miniature summer vacations to go camping, hiking, canoeing and tubing in the area.

riverrock2014urbanassault

Last weekend, Kyle and I met up with some friends at Dominion Riverrock, which is an outdoor sports and music festival in Richmond, VA. We spent hours outside in the sun, watching demonstrations and competitions for various outdoor sports, including mountain biking, bouldering, kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, trail running, and even dog jumping! It was amazing to be surrounded by people with so much love for the outdoors. It got us thinking about planning a camping trip this summer. Do you have any ideas for must-see spots to share?

Because my mood and the weather always influence my kitchen adventures, I made a campfire s’mores-inspired sweet treat to fuel our research and planning. These peanut butter s’mores cookies are soft, chewy, and packed with peanut butter flavor, with little bits of graham cracker and chocolate mixed throughout, and soft marshmallow middles (which is exactly what I’ll have, if I don’t stop eating these cookies).

I used one of my favorite basic peanut butter cookie recipes from chocolatecoveredkatie.com and modified it to dream up this unique combination. When enjoyed in moderation, they are quite delicious!

Peanut Butter S’mores Cookies

smores3

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 cup peanut butter
  • 3 Tablespoons all natural applesauce (no sugar added)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1/3 cup Sucanat (or substitute brown sugar or Turbinado if you prefer)
  • 3/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • 3 Tablespoons all purpose flour
  • pinch of salt
  • 3 Tablespoons chocolate chips
  • 1 rectangular regular size graham cracker (4 sections), crumbled
  • 12 miniature marshmallows

Preparation:

  1. Combine peanut butter, applesauce, and vanilla in a medium bowl.
  2. In another bowl, combine Sucanat, baking soda, flour, and salt.
  3. Add the flour mixture to the peanut butter mixture and stir to combine until a dough is formed. Fold in the chocolate chips and crumbled graham crackers.
  4. Roll the dough into about 1-inch balls. Push a miniature marshmallow into the center of each cookie dough ball, and re-roll into a sphere. This should make 10-12 cookies.
  5. Chill dough balls in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. At 25 minutes, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
  6. Transfer dough balls to a lightly greased cookie sheet and space 2 inches apart. Bake at 350 degrees F for 8 minutes. Remove from oven and cool.

How do you enjoy the great outdoors this time of year? Have any tips on cool camping or hiking spots?

What the Heck is a Chayote Squash, and What to Drink for Cinco de Mayo?

IMG_0787

These weird little squashes have been staring at me from a bin in the produce section of my grocery store for far too long. I have passed by the bright green chayote squash dozens of times, wondering how to cook them and what they taste like. I finally picked up three of these weird little gourds last week, and I stumped the cashier when I went to check out.

“Excuse me, what is this?”

“Chayote. C-H-A-Y-O-T-E.”

“I don’t see the code for that, are they pears?”

“No, they’re labeled ‘chayote squash’ on the bin. Maybe they’re under ‘squash’?”

asks coworker in next lane: “Do you know the code for these?”

coworker: “No, they look like pears. Charge her for pears.”

Pears were $3.99 per pound that week, and I have no idea how much the chayote were priced per pound. I guess chayote is not a fast-mover at the Carytown Kroger. In the cashiers’ defense, the chayote does look a bit like a pear that is trying to eat itself.

IMG_0788

The chayote originates from Mexico, where the fruit, leaves, blossoms, and roots of the plant are eaten. The squash has a very thin green skin attached to the green-to-white flesh. The skins and seeds are edible, although I found that many recipes call for the skins and seeds to be removed. The flesh is very crisp, and the raw squash has the texture of a potato and a very mild flavor like a broccoli stalk. The chayote can be eaten raw, but it is often cooked and seasoned, or eaten in a sauce with other more flavorful ingredients.

IMG_0789

I found a great vegetarian recipe for Chayotes Rellenos from world-renowned chefs Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger, of The Border Grill in Los Angeles, Las Vegas, and Santa Monica. I had never tried one of their recipes before, so it was an evening of firsts.

IMG_0791

The chayote was very easy to work with. I left the skins on, but boiling caused them to peel off. The texture and flavor of the cooked chayote was similar to summer squash. I loved that this recipe incorporated epazote, and the crunch from the almonds added an unexpected and pleasant texture to the filling, which probably would have been pretty mushy otherwise, due to the cooked squash and mushrooms.

IMG_0794

I topped the cooked stuffed squash with some fresh pea shoots, which were an impulse purchase from Relay Foods. I normally would have tossed some cilantro on there, but I was out (rare occurrence!). One thing that recipes for stuffed squash or eggplant NEVER tell you is what to do with the extra filling. Am I the only one who always has extra filling after stuffing my vegetables?

I put the extra filling in a glass baking dish, topped it with cheese, and baked it at the same time and temperature indicated in the recipe. It worked out great.

IMG_0797

If you’re feeling inspired by Cinco de Mayo and you want to try out a Mexican dish besides tacos or nachos, I suggest that you give chayotes a try. Although they do not pack a ton of flavor on their own, they are very versatile and do soak up the flavors around them. Next I would like to try them in a really spicy curry, topped with chopped fresh mango, and I do not intend to wait for another holiday to do it.

What to Eat on Cinco de Mayo

If you are feeling less ingredient-adventurous but you do still want something Mexican-inspired on your table this week, check out my recipe roundup from last week.

What to Drink with Mexican Cuisine

If you want to branch out from the standard Corona, Sol, or Tecate that are very popular this time of year, head to your local craft beer store. Kyle and I collaborated on this list of brews drink with Latin American food.

For an authentic Mexican beer that is a cut above the rest, seek out Negra Modelo or Bohemia.

For a local Virginia alternative to the Mexican light lager, try Blue Mountain Brewery Lager or Legend Brewing Co Pilsner.

If you like hoppy beers, try Cigar City Brewing Jai Alai or Smuttynose Finestkind IPA.

If you intend to sit on a porch and sip beer for a few hours, pick up Sierra Nevada Summerfest or Lagunitas Daytime.

And if you just want a beer that looks great in a Cinco de Mayo party spread and is refreshing on a warm evening out on the back deck, pick up Breckenridge Brewery Agave Wheat. When you choose a beer that is infused with an iconic Mexican ingredient and labeled with a skeleton wearing a sombrero, you get an A+ for sticking to a theme!

 

Due Stagioni and Beer Dinneroni

2013-09-15_18-57-26_28

This is a tale of two seasons and two pizza recipes.

Kyle and I hosted a potluck vegetarian beer dinner at our house Saturday night. The theme was Farewell Summer, Hello Fall and the guest list approached twenty, for the largest Vegology beer dinner yet. For a month, we tasted and tested beers. Two weeks before the event, we began to prepare the house, yard, and décor.  One week before the dinner party, I realized that merely a wish and a dream would not get twenty people to fit into our house and around the same table, so I placed my order with Party Perfect to rent banquet tables and folding chairs for the patio. By Friday afternoon, the only thing I had not prepared for yet was what dish to make. It was the element I was least worried about, since I’ve thrown together my dishes for the last two beer dinners at the last minute.

2013-09-14_18-46-14_391

As I drove home from work on Friday evening, I started to think about what dishes I could prepare. The loose guidelines I imposed on myself and the guests – “summer or fall, any kind of small plate” – were not focused enough, so I had way too many ideas floating around in my head. I started to think about transitional seasonal dishes, ones that could bring you from summer into fall, and foods that I could make ahead and reheat at party time, and then it hit me. Four seasons pizza.

Quattro stagioni is a pizza with four different ingredient sections, representing the four seasons: artichokes for spring, olives for summer, mushrooms for fall, and prosciutto for winter. I decided to make miniature pizzas, or pizzettes, and do them in two seasons, due stagioni. Because I couldn’t think of a beer that would pair well with both olives and mushrooms, I did seasoned zucchini for summer on one half, and mushrooms for fall on the other, with a basil pesto base and fresh asiago melted on top (thank you,  Dany Schutte of Ellwood Thompson’s for the cheese suggestion!). The zucchini seasoning I used was the Village Garden piquant spice blend, which can be purchased locally at the South of the James farmers’ market or the Carytown farmers’ market.

2013-09-15_19-19-38_835

I knew the pizzette idea was a winner. I woke up Saturday morning and floated to Project Yoga at the VMFA feeling confident. After a relaxing practice in the cool autumn-like morning sun, I purchased my ingredients, some fresh flowers for the table, and a few more pieces of décor, and headed home to prepare for the party. Kyle was at work so I had to tidy up the patio, set up the tables and chairs, decorate, clean the house, and prepare the food all by myself. Everything was going really smoothly and I even had time to practice my introduction speech for the Due Stagioni Pizzettes, and decide whether to curtsy or bow when our guests gave us a standing ovation and declared the dish the most clever and delicious thing they had ever had the pleasure of tasting.

Then, suddenly, it was forty-five minutes before party time and I hadn’t made my dish yet, three people had cancelled, and Kyle was stuck at work. I frantically sliced zucchini, rolled out and cut dough, and preheated the oven. I was still assembling my dish as guests started to arrive and I distractedly pulled it out of the oven as the first course was being served. By the time my turn came around to serve, my award-winning pizzette idea had made a spiral descent down the drain and turned out to be an oily, crispy mess. A mess that left me wishing that I had chosen a stronger beer to wash down my soggy burnt crust, instead of that light, crisp pilsner, served with a side of hubris.

I made some mistakes, and I am going to outline them here so you don’t have to make them yourself. Because the next day, I repurchased all my ingredients and made the whole dish over again to prove to myself that it would work. And it was good!

2013-09-15_18-58-07_361

So here are the don’ts of making miniature pizzas, besides the obvious ones (don’t wait until the last minute to test your recipe, don’t cook during your dinner party, don’t shut off your brain while entertaining in your kitchen).

  1. Don’t roll out your crust too thin. I used a thinner crust the first time, thinking that a thicker crust would swallow up or spit out the delicate toppings as it rose. On the remake, I cut out the pizza rounds from a thicker sheet of dough and it worked much better.
  2. Don’t forget that your pesto has oil in it. Don’t use too much oil when sauteing your zucchini. I used way too much oil overall in the first batch, and when I pulled the pan from the oven, the oil from the pesto and the zucchini had seeped out and formed a slick on the baking sheet.
  3. Don’t second guess browned edges. I checked on the pizzettes at one point and saw browned edges but the top of the dough still looked soft and wet, so I left them in the oven for a few more minutes. Big mistake. The pesto pizzettes turned into hockey puckettes very quickly.

2013-09-14_19-46-19_750

Lucky for me, we had a beautiful evening with great food and beers and excellent company. Hopefully the nightmare of the failed pizzettes haunted only me that night, as everyone else seemed to have a wonderful time. Here is a rundown of the courses we enjoyed at our fourth ever potluck vegetarian beer dinner:

Avocado and Grapefruit Salad with Crispin Cider – Liz and Alex from I Heart Vegetables – deliciously fresh and tart, with sweet dressing and two kinds of nuts for crunch, a great start to the meal.

Eggplant, Chickpea, and Potato Curry with Three Brothers The Great Outdoors – Sydney and Andrew from chic stripes – perfect as the sun started to set and the temperature began to drop, a dish with summer vegetables and fall spices to keep us warm, and a beer that reminds you of camping.

Cracklin’ Cauliflower with home brewed rye pale ale – Brittany and Isaac from Eating Bird Food – Brittany is right that this cauliflower is great at any temperature, and the flavor went really well with Isaac’s impressive home brew. I’ve made her recipe before, and it’s a keeper.

Due Stagioni Pizzettes (improved recipe below) with Victory Prima Pils – me and Kyle – thank goodness Kyle’s sense of humor and optimism pairs well with my high-strung perfectionism, so when the first attempt fell flat we could laugh it off and have another beer. . . then try again the next day!

Cauliflower “Cous Cous” Salad with Lagunitas Little Sumpin’ Wild – Paul and Leah – I need to get this recipe and I’ll link to it here. We loved this pairing of a dish and a beer that both came with a twist – the “cous cous” is actually cauliflower and the beer is actually Lagunitas Little Sumpin’, with an additional wild yeast strain.

Skillet Apple Pie with Left Hand Nitro Milk Stout – Shannon and Evan from Thirsty Richmond and Boho Cycle Studio – so decadent, this apple pie was perfect, not an exaggeration, and it elevated my appreciation of this milk stout, as well as cast iron skillets. Oh, and blogger husbands, who are (in my humble opinion) the very best.

Deconstructed Apple Pie with Cider – Brock (Isaac’s brother) and Alex from Quarter Life Cupcake – I did not know that a vegan, gluten-free homemade dessert could be so good! I am officially a believer now.

And then the after-dinner bonus beers came out, including Goose Island Harvest Ale from Al (and poor Adrienne who had to stay home with a cold), Dogfish Head Tweasonale, The Alchemist Heady Topper, Goose Island Bourbon County, and more. Thank you to everyone who made this dinner special!

Due Stagioni Pesto Pizzettes

2013-09-15_18-57-12_13

Ingredients:

  • 12 ounces pizza dough, homemade or store bought, rolled out to 1/4 inch thick
  • medium zucchini, thinly sliced
  • 4 ounces mushrooms, sliced – both shiitakes and maitakes are good (maitake mushrooms are our favorite)
  • 1/4 cup basil pesto, homemade or store bought
  • Italian seasoning or herb/spice blend of your choice for the zucchini
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 3 ounces fresh (soft) asiago cheese, or mozzarella, grated

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium heat in a medium pan. Add zucchini to pan and saute until tender, adding seasoning to taste halfway through cooking. Remove from heat. Add salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Heat 1 Tbsp of olive oil over medium-high heat in medium pan. Sprinkle the oil with 1/2 tsp black pepper. Add mushrooms to pan and saute until tender, then remove from heat.
  4. Using a 2-1/2 inch round cookie cutter, punch circles in the rolled out pizza dough and transfer to baking sheet. This should yield about 12-15 pizza round.
  5. Top each pizza round with pesto, dividing evenly among all rounds. Place two zucchini slices on one half of each round, and a spoonful of mushrooms on the other half. Top with grated cheese.
  6. Bake in preheated oven 10-12 minutes until edges begin to brown – then remove immediately!
  7. Can be reheated from refrigerated in 350 degree oven for 4-5 minutes if needed.

How to Compose a Seasonal Salad, Featuring Fresh Arugula with Roasted Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Feta

2013-08-12_20-41-08_939

A commitment to seasonal cooking often requires a certain degree of improvisation. If you want to be the type of cook who can wander through a farmers’ market, purchase the best that the season has to offer, and then plan meals around your market haul later, it helps to have a few generic meal recipes in your back pocket that lend themselves to seasonal substitutions. I have thrown together a salad like the one pictured above dozens of times in many configurations, by substituting what I have on hand for the basic components and then pulling all the flavors together with a dressing. This version featured local arugula, spicy roasted chickpeas and tomatoes, crumbled feta cheese, and a lemon herb vinaigrette.

2013-08-12_20-33-34_687

If you have been eating fresh tomatoes all season, I recommend that you try roasting them to deepen and sweeten the flavors. These roasted tomatoes were like candy, offering the sweet component of my salad.

My basic formula for a seasonal salad is this:

  • Greens – tender greens like arugula, spinach, and spring mix are my favorites, but I occasionally change it up with romaine, kale, or cabbage
  • Something sweet – dried or fresh fruit, tomatoes, and carrots are good choices
  • Something crunchy – fresh vegetables work well, as do nuts and seeds
  • Something fatty – creamy ingredients like cheese and cream-based dressings are good; so are oily ingredients like olives and marinated artichokes, and avocado is always a welcome addition
  • Something acidic – vinegar and citrus based dressings are great for cutting through the fatty ingredient
  • Protein (optional) – to make my salad a complete a meal, I add a protein component like legumes, tofu, tempeh, or quinoa
  • Something salty or spicy (optional) – salt and spice are great for balancing a sweet component and these flavors are usually covered in the protein component, fatty component, or dressing.

One component can deliver a lot of these flavors and textures. For example in this salad, the chickpeas offer the protein, crunch, and spice, while the feta offers the fat and salty flavors. As summer turns to fall, it’s fun to experiment with different ingredients and preparations to modify the final product. My guess is that the deep, hearty flavors of the spicy roasted chickpeas will start to take over, as cucumbers and fresh tomatoes become a distant memory.

Scroll below the recipe to find another one of my tricks for preparing meals with local, seasonal ingredients, even when life gets hectic.

Arugula Salad with Roasted Tomatoes, Chickpeas and Feta

2013-08-12_20-41-53_500

Ingredients:

  • 1 can chickpeas, drained and rinsed
  • 3 Roma tomatoes, sliced
  • 2 Tablespoons olive oil, divided
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (or sub chili powder)
  • pinch cayenne pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 4 cups arugula
  • 4 ounces fresh feta in water, drained and crumbled
  • Salad dressing to taste (try this Lemon Thyme Vinaigrette)

Preparation:

  1. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
  2. Toss the sliced tomatoes in 1 Tbsp olive oil, then spread out the slices in a single layer on a large baking sheet.
  3. In a medium bowl, whisk the cumin, paprika, cayenne, and salt into the remaining 1 Tbsp olive oil. Add chickpeas and toss to coat. Pour chickpeas out into a single layer on the same baking sheet as the tomatoes.
  4. Bake tomatoes and chickpeas at 400 degrees F for 30-40 minutes.
  5. In a large bowl, combine arugula, feta, and dressing. Add roasted tomatoes and chickpeas and gently toss to mix. Serve immediately.

Another one of my keys to quick seasonal food preparation is to pick up all my local ingredients in one place by using Relay Foods online grocery shopping, now available in Virginia, Maryland, and Washington, D.C. If you have never used Relay Foods before, please enjoy $30 off your $50+ order by clicking the coupon on the left side of this page. Then please let me know how you liked it!