Balsamic Braised Chicories

The Cold Season’s Answer to Vegetables:

Balsamic Braised Chicories

A spoonful of sugar helps the bitterness go away.

When the weather is frigid, and the garden has hunkered down for the winter, it’s time to turn to chicories. These leafy vegetables are our cold-season friends, packed with vitamins and nutrients, and winter’s replacement for sweet summer greens. While chicories are also referred to as “greens,” whites, reds, and purples may be more accurate descriptions. This broad group of leafy “greens” includes endive, escarole, frisée, Treviso, and radicchio.

Chicory leaves are hardy and often bitter, so it’s best to lean into their robust qualities, rather than pretend they are a substitute for mild-mannered lettuce. Team them up with equally strong flavors: sweet and sharp dressings, astringent citrus, smoky bacon, fruit, and nuts. And don’t be shy about using a little sugar, which will nicely offset their bracing bitterness.

Thanks to chicories’ sturdiness, they are great for braising, which is an appealing (and warm) way to get your veggies in the dead of winter. Braising will tame their strong flavor, and with a little extra sugar, amplify their natural sweetness.

Balsamic Braised Chicories

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 30 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

1 1/2 pounds chicories, such as endive, radicchio, escarole

1/4 cup chicken (or vegetable) stock
1/4 balsamic vinegar
1 to 2 tablespoons light brown sugar
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 to 3 thyme sprigs, plus extra for garnish

1. Trim the bases of the chicories. Halve the endives lengthwise and cut the radicchio and escarole into wedges.
2. Whisk the chicken stock, vinegar, sugar, lemon juice, and salt in a small bowl.
3. Heat the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Arrange the chicories, cut-side down in the skillet and cook until they begin to soften and brown, about 5 minutes, turning once.
4. Pour the balsamic mixture over and around the chicories, and scatter the sprigs over. Bring to a boil and then reduce the heat to medium-low. Cover the skillet and simmer until the chicories are tender, 6 to 8 minutes, turning once or twice.
5. Remove the lid, increase the heat to medium-high and cook until the liquid is reduced and the chicories are slightly caramelized.
6. Discard the thyme sprigs. Season the chicories with additional salt to taste and serve warm, garnished with fresh thyme.

Good Morning Scones

These currant scones are guaranteed to get you out of bed in the morning:
:
Currant Scones with Lemon

If it’s not broken, then don’t fix it. This pertains to great recipes, baking techniques, and, more specifically, these scones. I discovered this recipe years ago, published by Cooks Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen, and it’s a keeper. Since then, I have made these scones countless times with only the tiniest of tweaks. And, like any tradition worth repeating, these dense, moist, and crumbly scones have become a part of our breakfast rotation.

The technique is specific: the ingredients should be as cold as possible. And, while the method has steps that dance around this requirement, the good news is that the scones can be formed and cut, and then frozen in advance of baking. Simply pop them into zip-lock bags, and freeze for up to 1 month. The morning of serving, remove the scones from the freezer and bake them frozen, adding an additional 5 minutes or so for baking to compensate for their chilliness.

The original recipe calls for blueberries, which are a lovely springtime addition. I am partial to currants, so often add them instead, along with a generous sprinkle of lemon zest.

Currant Scones

Active Time: 45 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Makes 8

2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup whole milk
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup (8 tablespoons) frozen butter, plus 2 tablespoons melted butter for brushing
1/2 cup dried currants
Turbinado sugar for sprinkling

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, lemon zest, salt, and baking soda in a medium bowl and stir to blend.
3. Whisk the milk and sour cream in a separate bowl and refrigerate while you grate the butter.
4. Coarsely grate the frozen butter and place in a bowl. Freeze for 5 minutes and then add the butter to the flour mixture. Quickly mix with the tips of your fingers to combine. Pour in the milk and stir until just combined.
5. Transfer the mixture to a floured work surface and knead several times until the dough holds together in a ragged ball. Roll the dough out into a 12-inch square, adding a little flour as needed. Fold the dough 3 ways into a rectangle, like a business letter, using a metal spatula to lift the dough from the surface as necessary. Fold the short ends of the dough into the center, overlapping, so you have an approximate 4-inch square. Freeze the dough for 5 minutes.
6. Roll the dough out again on a floured surface into a 12-inch square. Sprinkle the currants over the dough, lightly pressing them in to adhere. Roll the dough up into a tight log, then press into a 12 by 4-inch rectangle. Cut the rectangle into 4 equal sections and then cut each section on the diagonal to form 8 triangles.
7. If freezing, place the triangles in one layer in a large zip-lock bag, press the air out, and freeze for up to 1 month. When ready to bake, remove from the freezer and proceed with the next step.
8. Transfer the triangles to a parchment-lined baking sheet. Brush the tops with the melted butter and sprinkle with the turbinado sugar. Bake on the middle rack of the oven until the tops and bottoms are golden, about 20 minutes (or 25 to 27 minutes if frozen).

Mashed Root Vegetables – A Colorful and Healthy Alternative to Mashed Potatoes

These Roots are Smashing

Mashed Root Vegetables

Root vegetables are fall and winter’s best-kept secret. Packed with nutrients, natural sugars and starch, the humble root is a healthy and flavorful substitute for the ubiquitous russet potato, and a superb way to get your vitamins and nutrients in the cold weather season. A good peel of skin reveals a rainbow of antioxidant-rich colors ranging from magenta to ochre to buttery yellow, sure to brighten any gray day – and your holiday table.

Feel free to mix and match roots, such as sweet potato, parsnip, rutabaga, carrot, celery root, and of course the dependable russet, to your taste and preference. Try to choose a balance of sweet and savory roots for even flavor and mash them to your desired consistency. It’s ok if the mash is a little chunky – it provides a pleasant texture. This recipe calls for a combination of sour cream and Greek yogurt in the mash, which creates a balance of smooth richness and tangy lightness. So long as you use a combined amount of one cup, you can opt for all of one or the other.

Mashed Root Vegetables

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Serves: 4 to 6

3 pounds mixed roots (such as 1 pound each of sweet potato, celery root, and rutabaga)
Salt
3 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup sour cream
1/2 cup whole milk Greek yogurt
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Peel the root vegetables and cut into 1-inch chunks. Place the vegetables in a large pot with 2 teaspoons salt and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat to medium and simmer until the vegetables are very tender, about 20 minutes.
2. Drain the vegetables and return them to the pot; cool 5 minutes. Add the garlic and butter and mash with a potato masher until the butter is melted. Add the sour cream and yogurt and continue to mash until the ingredients are blended and the mash is to your desired consistency (I like mine a little chunky). Add 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper, taste for seasoning, and add more if desired.
3. Spoon into a serving bowl and serve warm.

Prepare ahead:
The mash may be prepared up to 1 day in advance of serving. Cool completely and transfer to a buttered gratin dish. Cover and refrigerate for up to 24 hours. Remove from refrigerator 1 hour before serving.
To reheat, heat the oven to 325°F. Dot the top of the mash with about 1 tablespoon of finely diced butter and cover with foil. Bake in the oven until heated through, 30 to 40 minutes.

Cranberry Orange Trifle for the Holidays

A Festive (and Do-Ahead) Dessert for the Holiday Table:

Do-Ahead Cranberry Trifle Dessert

This billowy cranberry trifle will carry you through the holiday season. It’s a great do-ahead dessert with impressive results: orange-infused pound cake blanketed with layers of cranberry compote, whipped mascarpone cream, and candied walnuts. Each bite is light and airy with the pop of sweet-tart cranberries, and the satisfying crunch of cinnamon-dusted nuts, so be sure to get a little bit of everything in every spoonful.

Don’t let the length of this recipe deter you. It’s composed of several separate short recipes for each component that can (and should) be prepared well in advance of assembling. And the entire trifle can also be assembled in advance of serving, which leaves you plenty of time to wrestle with that turkey.

Cranberry-Orange Trifle with Candied Walnuts

Assembly Time: 20 minutes
Makes one large trifle, serves 8 to 10; or 8 individual trifles

1 loaf Orange Buttermilk Pound Cake (recipe follows)
Cranberry Compote (recipe follows)
Candied Walnuts (recipe follows)
Orange Mascarpone Cream (recipe follows)
Finely grated orange zest, for garnish

1. Cut the pound cake into 3/4-inch cubes. Set aside a few whole cranberries from the compote for garnish.
2. Pour a thin layer of cranberry compote into the bottom of the trifle dish or individual serving glasses. Arrange a snug layer of pound cake over the compote. Top with a layer of cream. Sprinkle a few of the nuts over the cream.
3. Repeat the layering process, finishing with a layer of cream and nuts. Garnish with the reserved cranberries and finely grated orange zest.
4. Serve or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 6 hours before serving.
Optional: Lightly brush each layer of pound cake with Cointreau or Gran Marnier for an adult version of this dessert.

Orange Buttermilk Pound Cake
Active Time: 15 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 15 minutes
Makes 1 loaf

Cake:

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
3 large eggs, room temperature
2 teaspoons finely grated orange zest
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 cup buttermilk

Syrup: 
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 cup sugar

1. Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter a 9-by-5 inch loaf pan. Line the bottom with parchment and butter the parchment.
2. Whisk the flour, baking soda, and salt in a bowl and set aside.
3. Cream the sugar and butter in the bowl of an electric mixer until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Mix in the orange zest and vanilla.
4. Add half of the flour, then the buttermilk, and then the remaining flour, mixing to combine after each addition.
5. Pour into the loaf pan. Bake until a wooden skewer inserted in the center comes clean, about 55 minutes.
While the cake is baking, make the syrup. Combine the juice and sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat. Simmer until the sugar dissolves, and then remove from the heat.
Remove the cake from the oven and transfer to a rack. Pierce the top of the cake all over with a skewer and brush with some of the syrup. Cool 10 minutes and then invert the cake onto a rack. Brush the sides of the cake with the remaining syrup and cool the cake completely.
Note: The pound cake may be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Wrap with plastic and refrigerate until use.

Cranberry Compote
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Makes about 1 3/4 cups

12 ounces cranberries, fresh or frozen
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup freshly squeezed orange juice
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch of salt

Combine all of the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Cook until the cranberries pop and release their juices, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and cool completely.
Note: The compote may be prepared up to 2 days in advance. Refrigerate until use.

Candied Walnuts
Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes
Makes about 1 1/2 cups

1 1/2 cups walnut halves
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line a baking tray with parchment. Spread the walnuts on a separate baking tray and bake 10 minutes.
2. Heat the sugar over medium heat in a small saucepan. As soon as it begins to dissolve, stir with a wooden spoon until the sugar liquefies and is amber in color.
3. Immediately add the walnuts, salt, and cinnamon and stir to coat. Remove from the heat and spread the walnuts on the parchment-lined baking tray. Cool completely, and then break into coarse pieces.
Note: The nuts may be prepared up to 1 week in advance. Store at room temperature in an airtight container.

Mascarpone Cream:
Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 10 minutes
Makes about 3 cups

8 ounces mascarpone cream, chilled
1 1/2 cups heavy cream, chilled
1/4 cup sifted powder sugar
1 tablespoon Cointreau (optional)
1 teaspoon finely grated orange zest, plus extra for garnish
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1. Add the mascarpone to the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a wire attachment and mix on medium-low speed to soften.
2. With the machine running, slowly add the whipped cream and mix to combine. Increase the speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form.
3. Add the sugar, liqueur (if using), the orange zest, and vanilla, and beat until stiff peaks form.
Note: The cream may be prepared up to 6 hours in advance of assembling the trifle. Cover and refrigerate.

Apple and Oat Muffins

Add a little apple to your morning muffin:

Healthy Apple Oat Muffines

I don’t bake muffins often, but when I do, I try to make them healthy. This way they are on hand for an easy breakfast or a snack. My issue with muffins, is that they often resemble mini-cakes, packed with sugar and fat. To some extent, this can’t be avoided if you wish to eat a muffin that doesn’t resemble a hockey puck or bird food. But I adjust, reducing some of the sugar and fat and adding healthy grains or cereals, fruit and nuts to the batter. I also add grated fruit, which is a key ingredient for natural sweetness and moisture.

Grated apple is the star of this muffin recipe, which also includes raisins, chopped nuts, and oats for extra fiber. As muffins go, they are reasonably healthy, while sufficiently naughty to indulge a craving for something moist and sweet. You can tweak this recipe if you like – just make sure to follow the ratios. In place of apple, try adding grated carrot, zucchini, or pear; and bran can be substituted for the oats. There’s no need to peel the fruit. The nutrients in the skin add a little extra healthy boost – I’ll take my small victories where I can.

Apple Oat Muffins

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 35 minutes
Makes 12 (2 1/2-inch) muffins

1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs, room temperature
1/4 cup unsulphured molasses
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup buttermilk
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup old-fashioned oats
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup raisins
1 medium sweet and crisp apple, such as Honey Crisp, grated, about 1 cup
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts or pecans (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Oil a 12-muffin tin (or line with paper liners).
2. Mix the sugar and oil in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Add the eggs, one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Mix in the molasses and vanilla, and then mix in the buttermilk.
3. Whisk the flour, oats, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl. Add to the sugar mixture and mix on low speed until just combined, without over-mixing. Stir in the raisins, apple and walnuts, if using.
4. Spoon the batter into the muffin tin or paper liners, filling them. Transfer to the oven and bake until a tester comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in the pan, and then remove and cool the muffins completely on a rack. Store in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 days.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

These baked potatoes are not a hassle:

Cheesy Hasselback Baked Potatoes with Parsley and Garlic

I can’t think of a better way to prepare a potato than hasselback-style. You may have seen these baked potatoes, with their distinctive accordion pattern. Thinly sliced, but still intact, the flesh is exposed while creating a cascade of ridges and edges ready to crisp. As the potato bakes, a flavorful basting sauce dribbles into the potato, flavoring the interior while hastening the browning of the skin. Apparently, you can have your baked potato and your crisps and eat them as one.

Russet potatoes, large Yukon Gold potatoes and sweet potatoes are all fair game for hasselback-style. The key to the prep is to first thinly slice a piece of each potato base lengthwise to stabilize them, so they won’t wobble or tilt while baking. Then cut thin slices crosswise, 1/8 to 1/4-inch thick, nearly to the bottom without cutting through the base. A trick to doing this is to lay 2 chopsticks, or 2 thin cutting boards lengthwise on either side of the potato, to act as a buffer for the knife as it cuts through the potato, and prevent it from reaching the work surface.

Then, brush the potato all over and in the crevices with a melted butter basting sauce, and continue to baste the potato once or twice while it bakes. About halfway through the baking process you can gently fan the slices to spread the potato further open to expose to the interior. If some of the slices break off, no worries! They will be delicious chips on the side.

Herb and Cheesy Hasselback Potatoes

Active Time: 30 minutes
Total Time: 1 hour and 30 minutes
Serves: 4

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, plus extra for finishing
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper, plus extra for finishing
1/4 cup finely grated Gruyère or Parmesan cheese
1/3 cup chopped fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, and/or chives

1. Preheat the oven to 400°F.
2. Cut a very thin slice lengthwise from the bottom of each potato to stabilize the bottom. Cut each potato, crosswise, as thinly as possible, 1/8 to 1/4 inch thick, to about 1/4 inch from the bottom, without piercing the base. Place in a baking pan or cast iron pan.
3. Melt the butter with the oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Whisk in the garlic, salt, and pepper and remove from the heat. Brush the potatoes all over and in the crevices with some of the butter mixture.
4. Transfer to the oven and bake until the potatoes are tender and beginning to crisp, 45 minutes to 1 hour, depending on the size of the potatoes, basting once or twice with the butter. In the last 10 minutes or so of cooking, sprinkle with the cheese and continue to bake until the cheese is melted.
5. Remove from the oven and immediately brush all over with the remaining butter. Season with additional salt and black pepper and sprinkle with the herbs.

Farmers Market Potato Salad

Tasting Potatoes, Danish-style

I discovered this fresh and light-handed salad years ago when I lived in Denmark. Most likely it was at one of our frequent family gatherings, seated outdoors at a long wooden picnic table in the shadow of a thatched roof farmhouse with the summer sun hanging, as if caught on the hook of the horizon, refusing to sink as the evening set in. It was certainly summer, because that’s when new potatoes are at their peak in Denmark, and considered not only a staple but a delicacy to be greedily devoured.

I was smitten by the salad’s restraint, simply tossed with oil and vinegar, and generously layered with freshly snipped flowering sprigs and herbs from the garden. As an American, my experience with potato salads to that point had been the heavy-handed mayo and egg sort, tasty for sure, but more of a cloak and disguise to the mild-mannered potato. I would prod a fork through those murky salads swathed in cream, sugar, and oil in an attempt to fish out any intact morsel of potato, which by then had no flavor except that of the coating with which it was blanketed. The Danish potato salad was delightfully different, and appropriately Scandinavian in its understatement and use of fresh ingredients, celebrating the humble potato with a confetti of garden herbs. Most importantly: I could taste the potato.  And when the season’s newest potatoes are available, delicately sweet and faintly redolent of butter, there is nothing as sublime as the taste of potato.

As you can see, I chose blue potatoes for this salad, since I love their unusual color and how they contrast with the flowering yellow mustard greens I found at the farmers market. You can also use yellow or red new or small potatoes. The combination of herbs is up to your taste and whatever might be growing in your garden or stashed in your fridge. If you can find flowering mustard, add it to the mix or use it as a garnish, since it adds a nice peppery bite and vibrant color to the salad.

Danish Potato Salad with Garden Herbs

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes plus cooling time
Serves 6

3 pounds new potatoes or small potatoes (red, white, or blue), washed
Salt
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
3 cups fresh herbs, such as parsley, mint, dill, chervil, chives, tarragon, coarsely chopped
Flowering mustard sprigs for garnish

1. Place the potatoes in a large pot. Cover with cold water and add 2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Partially cover the pot and cook until the potatoes are fork tender, but not mushy, 10 to 15 minutes depending on the potatoes. Drain the potatoes and let stand for 5 minutes to cool slightly.

2. Cut the potatoes in half or large bite-size pieces. Add the potatoes, the oil, vinegar, scallions, garlic, 1 teaspoon salt, and the black pepper to a large bowl and stir to thoroughly combine. Cool to room temperature.

3. Before serving, taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if desired. Add the fresh herbs and stir to blend. If the salad is too dry, add additional olive oil. Serve at room temperature.

Roasted Carrot and Pearl Couscous Salad

Here’s a party-worthy salad layered with flavor, that you can call a main course or a sumptuous side:

Carrot Couscous Salad Platter

This salad does not hold back on herbs and spice. Handfuls of garden herbs and a shake of the contents of your spice drawer build layers of flavor and freshness into this bright and festive couscous platter. Israeli couscous (also known as pearl couscous) is made of wheat flour and semolina which is rolled into tiny “pearl” balls and then toasted. The dried couscous, once purchased, is simmered in a liquid to soften. I like to toast the dried couscous in the pan first, before adding the liquid to simmer, which essentially means the couscous is doubly toasted. This extra step adds satisfying nutty flavor and golden color to the sturdy little semolina balls.

Carrot Couscous Salad with Pine Nuts

Purchase rainbow carrots for this salad, if possible, since they add a brilliant array of color to the platter. Choose thin carrots of uniform size to ensure similar cooking time. If necessary cut thicker carrots in half lengthwise.

Roasted Carrot and Israeli Couscous Salad with Pine Nuts and Arugula

Active Time: 40 minutes
Total Time: 40 minutes
Serves 6 to 8

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 cups Israeli (pearl) couscous
2 1/4 cups water
Salt
1 small red chile pepper, minced
1 clove garlic, minced
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon cayenne
1 ½ pounds thin rainbow carrots, peeled, halved lengthwise if thick
Freshly ground black pepper

Gremolata:
1/4 cup chopped Italian parsley
1/4 cup chopped cilantro
2 tablespoons chopped dill
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Pinch each of salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 to 4 cups baby arugula
2 to 3 tablespoons toasted pine nuts
1/2 lemon, plus wedges for serving

1. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a skillet. Add the couscous and toast over medium heat until golden, 1 to 2 minutes, stirring frequently. Add the water and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cover the skillet and simmer over medium-low heat until the liquid is absorbed and the couscous is tender, about 10 minutes. Transfer the couscous to a bowl and stir in the chile pepper, garlic, lemon juice, lemon zest, cumin, coriander, and cayenne. Let stand at room temperature while you roast the carrots.
2. Heat the oven to 425°F.
3. Place the carrots in a large bowl, drizzle with the remaining 1 tablespoon oil, and lightly season with salt and freshly ground black pepper. Spread the carrots on a rimmed baking sheet and roast in the oven until lightly charred and crisp tender, about 20 minutes. Remove and cool slightly or to room temperature.
4. Make the gremolata: Mix the parsley, cilantro, dill, garlic, lemon zest, salt, and black pepper in a small bowl.
5. Scatter the arugula on a serving platter or in a wide shallow serving bowl. Spoon the couscous over and around the arugula and arrange the carrots on top. Squeeze the half lemon over the salad and sprinkle evenly with the gremolata. Garnish the platter with the lemon wedges and serve.

Easy Rice Pilaf

 Homemade Rice Pilaf – Quick, Easy, and Delicious:

Homemade Rice Pilaf - easy and delicious

When I was young, one of my favorite side dishes was rice pilaf. It came in a slim box with a portion of rice and a sachet of spices, dehydrated chicken stock, and goodness knows what else – all set to prepare with water on the stovetop. The results were salty, addictive, and fragrant. My brothers and I would fight over who got to finish the bowl on the dinner table. One box was never enough.

These days, I make pilaf from scratch – and you probably do, too, without realizing it. The principle behind pilaf is that rice, or another grain such as bulgur or farro, is sautéed to lightly toast the grains, and then steamed in a flavorful broth, along with spices and a few aromatics such as onion and garlic. When ready to serve, the rice is fluffed to separate the grains and prevent stickiness, and handfuls of fresh herbs, chopped almonds, or chilies are added for extra flavor, texture, and color. You can choose to keep the rice simple or add the garnishes selectively to your taste. I tend to pile them on, because they add sensational flavor and freshness, while nudging an unassuming side into a stand-alone dish. So, before you reach for a box of pilaf in the supermarket with a long list of multi-syllabic ingredients, remember that it’s really quite easy – and much cheaper – to make your own from scratch.

Homemade Rice Pilaf

Active Time: 10 minutes
Total Time: 45 minutes
Serves 6 as a side dish

2 3/4 cups chicken stock (or vegetable stock for vegetarian option)
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon sweet paprika
Generous pinch of saffron threads
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup orzo
1 small yellow onion, finely chopped, about 1/2 cup
1 garlic clove, minced
1 1/4 cup basmati rice

Optional garnishes:
1 scallion, white and green part thinly sliced
1 small red jalapeño, finely chopped
2 to 3 tablespoons coarsely chopped almonds
2 to 3 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro or parsley

1. Combine the stock, 2 tablespoons butter, the salt, paprika, and saffron in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer and keep warm.
2. Heat the oil and melt the remaining 1 tablespoon butter in a deep skillet (with a lid) over medium heat. Add the orzo and sauté until light golden, about 2 minutes. Add the onion and sauté for about 1 minute, and then add the garlic and sauté until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add the rice and continue to cook, stirring constantly to coat and lightly toast the rice, for about 2 minutes.
3. Pour in the stock and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat to low and cover the pot. Cook, undisturbed, until the rice is tender and the liquid is absorbed, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove the lid and fluff the rice with a fork. Let stand for 5 to 10 minutes
4. Serve with the garnishes sprinkled over the top.

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

Cool Soups Are Not Just For Summer. This light and luscious pea soup is a lovely spring teaser:

Chilled Pea Soup with Tarragon and Cream

With warmer days on the way, chilled soups are a bright and refreshing alternative to a steaming bowl of soup. And while cool soups are certainly a solution to the heat of summer, they are also delicious year round. In fact, the slightly chilled temperature often amplifies the flavor and freshness of the ingredients, especially when the soup is as elegantly simple as this pea soup.

I prefer the savory flavor of the chicken stock in this recipe, but additional water may be substituted for a vegetarian version – in which case, be sure to taste and adjust the seasoning accordingly. The soup may be served slightly chilled or at room temperature. Serve as a light first course for 3 to 4 people, or divvy it up between 6 to 8 demitasse cups for a pretty appetizer.

Chilled Pea Soup with Crème Fraîche, Lemon, and Tarragon

Active Time: 20 minutes
Total Time: 20 minutes, plus cooling time
Makes about 2 1/2 cups

1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 large shallot, finely chopped, about 1/4 cup
3 cups shelled English peas
1 cup chicken stock (or water)
1 cup water
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/3 cup crème fraîche (or plain whole-milk Greek yogurt)
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest
Sliced radishes and fresh tarragon leaves, for garnish

1. Melt the butter in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add the shallots and sauté until translucent without coloring, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the peas and sauté until bright and crisp-tender, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the stock, salt, and pepper and simmer until the peas are very tender, 3 to 4 minutes.
2. Carefully transfer to a food processor and process until smooth. Add 1 cup water, 1/4 cup at a time, until you reach your desired consistency. (The soup should be a little thick and not too runny.) Taste for seasoning and transfer to a bowl to cool to room temperature.
3. Whisk the crème fraîche and lemon zest in a small bowl.
4. Divide the soup between serving bowls or small cups. Add a spoonful of the cream to the soup and gently swirl, leaving light traces of the cream visible. Garnish each serving with 1 to 2 radish slices and sprinkle with snipped tarragon leaves.