Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

At the height of summer, on long days of working and playing outside, nothing is better than a refreshing garden-fresh salad. The lemon cucumbers that have been ripening back-to-back on our vines are deserving of better than a humble supporting role. We’ve enjoyed plenty sliced with a pinch of salt.

As a basis of a more substantial dish, perfect for al fresco lunch, I mix the beautiful slices with corn, fresh herbs, feta, and succulent wild greens. Dressed only lightly with extra virgin olive oil, the flavors balance and compliment one another wonderfully– salt from the feta, sweetness from the corn, and light citrus from the purslane.

I’ve used mint and basil together since enjoying the best-ever caprese salad in a restaurant, and now my tomatoes are paired more often with mint than the latter. We also use the abundant herb in myriad savory dishes that I would have once thought strange, since mint always meant “sweet” to me– an association I suspect an unfortunately large population of Americans share. I only urge you to branch out! Zucchini and mint are a match made in heaven. And there’s always mint wine.

Here I use grapefruit mint, my favorite variety. It has the power and aroma to turn a cold glass of water into a refreshing summer mocktail with a simple muddled leaf.

As for the purslane and oxeye daisies: both are exceptionally common, easily identified wild plants, though of course I encourage research before foraging for food. Both are used medicinally and are delicious greens.

While the beautiful seas of daisies have dried on Northwest hillsides, lush basal leaves continue to sprout everywhere. (Check your garden!) Their flavor is pleasantly herbal and mild. Baby arugula would make a stronger-flavored domesticated stand-in, and wild amaranth leaves would be nice as well.

Purslane especially likes inhospitable cracks in the sidewalk and gravel driveways, so just look down. It’s an unassuming succulent with a cucumber-citrus flavor. More on this lovely wild snack from Grow a Good LifeAttainable Sustainable, and Little Big Harvest. Sliced lemon verbena or lemon mint might stand in adequately, though without the cool crispness than purslane offers.

Cucumber Salad with Corn, Feta and Herbs

Quantities are notably omitted. Use a handful of each ingredient as you prefer.

Cucumbers, preferably lemon variety, sliced 1/4-inch thick

Steamed corn, cut from the cob

Feta cheese, crumbled

Purslane, tips and leaves

Oxeye daisy, basal leaves

Basil leaves, thinly sliced

Mint leaves, such varieties as grapefruit, apple, or spearmint, thinly sliced

Extra virgin olive oil (very little)

Salt (very little)

Black pepper (very little)

For garnish: basil or mint sprigs, oxeye daisy flowers, borage flowers, or nasturtium.

Toss all ingredients together, then arrange in shallow salad bowls and add garnishes, all of which above are edible and delicious.

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Quick & Easy Breakfast: Huevos a la Campesina

One of my husband’s and my favorite eateries from our college town is a Mexican breakfast joint where the walls are adorned with colorful paintings and the same friendly trio crowds behind the counter each morning. The food is so good our “usuals” migrated across the scrawled, wall-mounted menu: the best chilaquiles on the planet, topped with house-pickled jalapeños; huevos rancheros swimming in fresh salsa; Frisbee-sized blackberry pancakes mounded with whipped cream.

My go-to on most days, whether between afternoon classes or on a hung-over Sunday morning, was their version of huevos a la campesina.

When we’re unable to drop into one of the rickety mismatched chairs of our favorite campus café, we make this dish at home. It’s as fast as plain scrambled eggs, ten times as delicious, and it only calls for a few scoops of whatever salsa is hanging around the fridge and even the stalest tortilla chips from the back of the pantry.

I whip up a few eggs in a bowl while heating a skillet. When it’s nice and hot, I add some oil– coconut, vegetable, whatever– and coat the entire bottom and sides of the pan to prevent the eggs from sticking. Then I pour in the eggs. While they sizzle and begin to solidify, I loosely crumble in a good handful of tortilla chips and start stirring it up. A few seconds later as the eggs start to come together, I drop in a few scoops of salsa and keep stirring it up until the eggs are cooked.

The whole shebang takes a couple of minutes. No seasoning is necessary because of the salt in the chips and the flavors of the salsa. A sprinkle of grated cheddar or crumbled queso fresco is great but totally optional. I typically eat them with pickled jalapeños and a dollop of sour cream if I have it on-hand.

This is the perfect simple breakfast for a crowd, on busy mornings, or whenever chips and salsa are hanging around from the night before.

Roasted Wild Mustard Buds

As the hillsides flare yellow with mustard flowers, we enjoy the delicious wild bounty of the season in numerous dishes. We saute the leaves with onions and dock. We eat the blossoms fresh and enjoy salad after salad of nutrient-rich wild greens.

Most delicious of all, though, we roast the flower heads with olive oil, salt, and pepper.

Just as the buds are about to open or even after a blossom or two has unfurled, the flower heads resemble their near cousin, broccoli. The flavor is like other brassicas with a bit of extra spice, though roasting coaxes out a mellow savoriness. It’s a quick, easy, and spectacularly tasty dish.

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I collect the top several inches of tender stem, picking off the larger leaves to add to a salad or saute. I toss the buds with extra virgin olive oil and plenty of salt and fresh-ground black pepper and spread them out evenly on a baking sheet. They roast in a 450-degree oven for about five to seven minutes, until the leaves have crisped up and darkened a bit, and the stems are just barely tender.

Served with mashed potatoes, these give my very favorite standard veggies a run for their money.

Leftover Spaghetti “Lasagna”

When we make a big batch of spaghetti and meatballs, we usually have abundant leftovers. I like to have dinner leftovers, because they make the best easy lunches and quick snacks for our toddler.

However, we don’t use a microwave, and some foods are more amenable to stovetop reheating than others. Some leftovers I just pop into the oven or toaster oven to heat; others I steam. Pasta tends to get mushy on the stovetop and dry out in the oven. So whatever we don’t eat cold, we like to make a baked spaghetti “lasagna” for a second dinner round.

This can easily be done with other pastas, like penne or macaroni, with or without meatballs. Pasta with hearty vegetables is great, and you can always fry up a little ground lamb or sausage or blanch some fresh veggies to layer in on whatever pasta you’ve got in the fridge.

We happened to have a nice selection of cheeses in the fridge last night, so we used a combination of sheep’s milk gouda and young asiago with a sprinkle of parmesan over the top. We’ve done it with cheddar or mozzarella before, too. Fresh ricotta would be a fantastic addition.

To assemble the casserole, we slice the meatballs into 1/3-inch-thick rounds. We spread a very small amount of olive oil over the bottom of a casserole or Dutch oven and tuck in about a 3/4- or inch-thick layer of sauced noodles. In go the meatball rounds, arranged in the next layer, and grated cheese goes over the top. We repeat these layers to fill the dish and sprinkle the top with parmesan and crumbled dried oregano.

The casserole bakes at 375 degrees for 20 or 25 minutes, until it’s heated through and the cheese is beginning to brown.

We serve it with a great heap of fresh salad greens drizzled with a simple vinaigrette or olive oil and vinegar for perfect balance.

As we ate dinner last night, we asked ourselves why we would ever go out. We rarely do, but even special occasions turn out best spent at home with real food, even if it’s just repurposed pasta and greens picked fresh from the backyard.

Sloppy Joes From Scratch

We started making these as we worked through a supply of elk shared by my in-laws a few years ago. I was not raised on the canned mix that so many seem to recognize as a Sloppy Joe. In fact, I had my first one as an adult, made from a supermarket seasoning packet and whatever the recipe called for on the back. It was no life-changer, but I saw the potential that this meal can be more than a cheap, last-resort mess. Much more.

The great flavors stand up to even the gamiest of meats, and anything lean works well, from goat to venison to beef. Anything too fatty has to be drained very well. We enjoy things spicy in our home, but the sugars of this recipe take out a great deal of the bite, so taste often and adjust your seasoning– don’t be too intimidated by the chilies.

The Real Sloppy Joe

I like to serve these with a big green salad drizzled with a simple vinaigrette, or sometimes coleslaw. The recipe serves two and doubles well.

1 T vegetable or canola oil

1/2 yellow onion, chopped fine

1 jalapeño or 2 serano peppers, minced

3/4 Lb. ground elk or lean beef

3 cloves garlic, minced

1 t chili flakes

4 T ketchup

1-1/2 t Worcestershire sauce

1 T chili powder

1 1/2 T brown sugar

1/4 t salt

1/4 to 1/2 cup water

burger buns (something light and soft, like potato buns)

1. Heat oil in a medium skillet over medium-high heat. Add the onions and pepper and saute until the onions are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the meat and cook while breaking it up well until no longer pink. Drain any excess fat as necessary.

2. Push beef to the outside of the pan, making a well in the center, and add the garlic and chili flakes. Crush with the wooden spoon for about 30 seconds, until aromatic. Then add the ketchup, Worcestershire, chili powder, sugar and salt. Stir to mix, then add 1/4 cup of water and mix again. If there is no excess liquid, add up to another 1/4 cup.

3. Reduce heat to a moderate simmer and let cook, stirring occasionally, until reduced to a sauce consistency, about 10 minutes. Adjust seasoning as necessary.

4. Heap half onto each bun to serve, or eat open-faced with a fork.

Vegetarian Refried Beans

Our family makes burritos and tacos at least once a week. A large batch of refried beans provides plenty of leftovers for quick bean and cheese burritos for daily lunches.

These beans were a revelation when we began making them– so incredibly delicious and rich, the first time my huband made them we ate most of our dinner on bites of freshly made tortillas standing at the kitchen counter. They are vegan if you omit the butter, and the flavor is so wonderful, no one will miss the lard from traditional refried beans. They may ruin canned beans forever.

Vegetarian Refried Beans

1 Lb pinto beans

1 onion, halved

2 carrots, broken into large pieces

5 cloves of garlic, crushed

10 whole coriander seeds

10 whole black peppercorns

salt

2 sprigs thyme

2 T butter (optional)

2 T vegetable oil or other neutral oil

Place the beans in a large bowl and cover by several inches with water as they will double their volume as they expand. Leave to soak over night.

Pour off the water. Place the the beans in a large pot with 6 cups of water and the vegetables. Enclose the coriander seeds and peppercorns in a tea strainer and place in the pot. Season with a  good pinch of salt.

Cook the beans for about an hour until they are tender but al dente (not soft). Strain and return the liquid and all other ingredients– except the beans– to the pot to continue simmering. Add the thyme.

When the broth has reduced down to about 2 cups or so, strain, return to the pot and add the butter if desired for a smooth creaminess.

Meanwhile, heat a large skillet over medium. Add the oil. When it’s hot, toss in the beans. Fry and mash them with a fork for several minutes, then begin adding in the broth. Continue cooking and adding until you’ve reached the desired consistency, using most or all of the flavorful liquid. Plenty of beans left whole offers a wonderful texture.