Healthy Italian Cooking at Home

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When I was growing up, my maternal grandparents lived in the same city as I did in New Jersey.  They had a large house ( because they needed it for 7 daughters) and a large yard. My grandfather was a great gardener and he loved it.  He could make anything grow and was eager to share his bounties with you.  He had row after row of stunning roses, gladioli and lilies of the valley. Whenever I went to his house, he would send me home with a big bunch of whatever flowers were in season or a bag of zucchini and tomatoes.  I loved that my grandfather had such a gift. After my husband and I bought our first house that was not too far from his house, he would come over and spruce up my yard for me. He saved a great, little magnolia tree in the center of my yard and, boy, did my tomato plants thrive. Wish I could remember, now, what he did to those tomatoes to make them so fine.

Italians have had a very close relationship with food throughout history, but the famine endured by most Italians during World War II, shaped their cuisine into a more simple and inexpensive one. The hardship of war meant that Italians grew vegetables in their own backyard gardens, even if the garden was only 10 yards across. Owning land and the cultivation of a vegetable garden have always been popular for Italians and a right they have taken full advantage of in Italy and in the US..

My grandfather certainly espoused that philosophy and most of his yard was dedicated to growing fruits and vegetables. He even grew grapes – for wine, of course. The grapes, he grew, were white and light red, but I don’t recall what kind of grapes they were. He would cut off a bunch, usually the white ones, with his pocket pen knife and hand them to me for a snack.  I would eat a couple but they tasted awful – tart and full of seeds. I would eat a few because I did not want to hurt his feelings.  He was very proud of those grapes.

The grapes were grown on a trellis that overlooked a large bench he had for sitting in his yard. The trellis was impressive and I would sit there under all those grapes and feel quite cozy in what felt like another world.  My grandfather did make wine with those grapes and he would bring the wine to Sunday dinner, usually in a big jug. My father would put the jug on the floor near his feet and occasionally hoist the jug up and fill the glasses on the table – not mine, of course. You may have heard that European children drink wine with dinner, but not in our house. Wine was for grown-ups.  I remember my mother passing on my grandfather’s wine, saying, it was a bit too strong for her, but my father and grandfather enjoyed it.

Using Wine in Your Recipes

The function of wine in cooking is to intensify and enhance the flavor and aroma of food – not to mask the flavor of what you are cooking but rather to fortify it.  Use wines in your cooking that you would drink for dinner.   Wines, labeled cooking wines, are not quality wines and they often contain salt and food coloring.
When you take some of the fat out of dishes, you usually need to add another ingredient to replace the lost moisture. Here are some examples of how wine can do just that:

  • Instead of sauteing veggies in butter or oil, you can saute them in a smaller amount of oil plus some wine for flavor and moisture.
  • Instead of making a marinade with 1/2 cup of oil, decrease the oil to 1/4 cup and add 1/4 cup wine.
  • You can add wine to the pan while fish is cooking or drizzle fish with a tablespoon or two of wine and bake it in a foil package
  • For certain types of cakes, using wine or sherry in place of some of the fat not only lightens up the cake but adds flavor.
The following recipes use wine in their preparation and range from appetizers to desserts.

Appetizer course 

Italian Octopus Stewed in Wine and Tomatoes

This is a recipe for Southern Italian stewed octopus with white wine and tomatoes. Octopus requires long, slow simmering over low heat to keep it tender. Serve with crusty bread. This recipe serves 4.

Ingredients:

  • 1 lb small octopus
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 4 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes or peeled, chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1 cup white wine
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red chile flakes
  • 2 tablespoons capers
  • Salt and pepper

Directions:

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the octopus to the boiling water, return to a boil and cook for 1-2 minutes, then remove. Discard water.
Cut the octopus into pieces and saute in olive oil over medium-high heat for 2-3 minutes. Add the chopped garlic and saute for another minute or two.
Add the wine and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir well and let it cook down for 3-4 minutes.
Add the tomatoes and chile flakes and bring to a simmer.
Add the salt and the honey.  Mix well, cover the pot and simmer for 30 minutes.
After 30 minutes, add the capers and half the parsley.
Check the octopus — sometimes small ones will be tender in just 30 minutes.
If they are still super-chewy, cover the pot again and simmer for up to another 45 minutes.
When you think you are about 10 minutes away from being done, uncover the pot and turn the heat up a little to cook down the sauce.
To serve, add the remaining parsley, basil and black pepper.

Soup Course

Zuppa di Cipolle:  Italian Onion Soup

Ingredients:

  • 5 large yellow onions 
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces pancetta, diced
  • 6 cups beef stock, low sodium
  • 3/4 cup dry red wine
  • Salt
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 6 slices country style bread, about 1/2 inch thick
  • 1 garlic clove, peeled
  • Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated or shaved

Directions:
Peel the onions and cut in half.  Thinly slice the onions crosswise.
Heat the olive oil in a large soup pot over medium heat. Add in the diced pancetta and cook for about 3-5 minutes until some of the fat has been rendered.
Add in the sliced onions, stir. Cover the pot. Lower the heat to medium low and slowly cook the onions until tender, about 15 minutes.  Stir often.
Stir in the stock and wine. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste.
Toast the bread slices.  Rub the toasted slices with garlic. Place the bread slices in individual soup bowls. Pour the soup over the bread.
Either sprinkle grated cheese or shave cheese over the soup. If your bowls are oven proof, you can then place them under the broiler until the cheese melts.

Second Course

Osso buco is another traditional dish that uses veal, in this case, veal shanks. There are many recipes for Osso Buco that also use pork, beef or lamb shanks Turkey thighs are not traditional but create the same effect and contain less fat than shanks.

Turkey Osso Bucco

  • 6 turkey thighs
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1/3 cup all-purpose flour, for dredging
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 large onion, finely diced
  • 2 carrots, finely diced
  • 2 celery stalks, finely diced
  • 2 tablespoons tomato paste
  • 1 ½ cups dry white wine
  • 5-6 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1 large sprig fresh rosemary
  • 2 large sprigs fresh thyme
  • 2 bay leaves

Preheat the oven to 350.

Pat the turkey with paper towels to dry and ensure even browning. Season the turkey with salt and pepper and dredge the turkey in the flour to coat.

In a heavy roasting pan large enough to fit the turkey thighs in a single layer, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the turkey and cook until brown on both sides, about 6 minutes per side. Transfer the turkey to a plate and reserve.

In the same pan, add the onion, carrot, and celery. Season vegetables with salt. Cook until the vegetables are tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and cook for 1 minute. Stir in the wine and simmer about 3 minutes.

Return the turkey to the pan. Add enough chicken broth to come 2/3 up the sides of the turkey. Add the herb sprigs, and bay leaf to the broth mixture. Bring the liquid to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove the pan from the heat. Cover the pan tightly with foil and transfer to the oven.

Braise until the turkey is fork-tender about 2 hours, turning the turkey after 1 hour. Serve this dish over risotto or polenta with a side of green peas.

Side Dish

Broccoli Sautéed in Wine and Garlic Roman Style

Makes 6 servings

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
  • 3 pounds broccoli, cut into spears
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 tablespoon hot red pepper flakes
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • Grated zest of 1 orange

In a large sauté pan, heat the olive oil with the garlic over medium-high heat until just sizzling. Add the broccoli and cook, tossing frequently and gradually adding the wine to keep the garlic from browning until the stalks are tender 8 to 10 minutes. Add the red pepper flakes and zests, and tossing well.

Dessert Course

Biscotti, means twice-baked, and these cookies have grown to become an Italian classic.  As its name implies, the cookies are baked twice, first in the form of a log. They are then baked again after the log is sliced into diagonal strips. The crisp, crunchy cookie is perfect for dipping in coffee or dessert wine or even simply for snacking. Because they don’t need to be moist, biscotti are naturally low in fat.
It is said that biscotti were originally created as a provision for Venetian sailors and businessmen who went to sea for long periods of time and required foods that wouldn’t spoil. Many Italians eat the cookies as part of their breakfast with café latte. The varieties of biscotti differ throughout the many regions of Italy, but they are famous for their classic anise, almond or hazelnut flavor.

Vin santo ( the wine of saints) is a late-harvest wine from Italy, generally Tuscany. It’s usually made from white grapes, namely Trebbiano or Malvasia, that are semi-dried before being pressed and fermented; then the wines are stored in small barrels for up to 10 years, usually in attics which turn hot and cold with the seasons. There is a wide diversity in styles, from sweet dessert versions to dry, sherry-like styles, and quality varies.

Biscotti al Vin Santo

Makes about 20 biscotti

IngredientsCantucci e vin santo (Almond biscuits & dessert wine, Italy)

  • 1/2 cup (3 oz) sliced almonds
  • 2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cups sugar
  • Grated zest of 1 lemon
  • 1/2 cup (4 oz butter), cut in small pieces
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 3/4 cup sweet white wine, (substitute a sweet Madeira or sweet Marsala for Vin Santo, if unavailable in your area)

Directions
Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread the nuts on a baking sheet and toast them in the oven, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned. Let them cool.

Mix the flour with the baking powder and salt in a bowl and stir in the sugar and lemon zest. Cut in the butter with a pastry blender, then stir in the almonds. Make a well in the center and add the wine and almond extract. Stir gradually drawing in the flour to make a smooth soft dough that holds together. If it seems dry, add a little more wine.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured board and shape the dough into a log about 1 inch thick, 4 inches across and 12 inches long. Wrap it in plastic wrap, then flatten it slightly. Chill until firm, at least 2 hours and longer if you wish. The dough can also be frozen.

For the first baking:

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Unwrap the log, set it on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and bake until lightly browned and firm on the outside 35 to 40 minutes. A skewer inserted in the center should come out clean. Let the log cool on the baking sheet and lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F.

For the second baking:

When cool, cut the log with a serrated knife into 1/2-inch slices – they will be quite soft, almost cake-like in the center. Space the biscotti on the parchment lined baking sheet and bake, turning halfway through,  until they are dry and lightly browned on the cut surfaces, 20 to 25 minutes. Let them cool on a rack and store them in an airtight container.

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Are veggie haters born or made? The answer seems to be both. Some of us have negative veggie experiences from our childhood that come back to haunt us as adults. Maybe you were forced to eat vegetables, or had to plow through a stack of green beans to get to dessert. Maybe you were served overcooked, mushy vegetables. “If veggies are only served in ways that don’t match your personal flavor preferences, they won’t seem exciting,” explains Karen Collins, MS, RD, nutrition advisor for the American Institute for Cancer Research. So if you love spicy food, you won’t like veggies served plain; or if you love simple, earthy flavors, veggies covered with a rich sauce won’t be appealing. 

When my children were young, they struggled with eating some vegetables that were on their dinner plates.  I, also, know that many parents struggle to get their kids to eat their vegetables – it’s a never-ending battle in many households in America. Nagging and taking away dessert are often futile remedies. What can help is, if a parent can involve their children in food preparation and find healthy ways to make vegetables taste good. 

Deep frying or adding butter and cheese make everything taste so good.  The real challenge is how to make vegetables taste good without it, if you are trying to make your meals more healthy. Cooking vegetables with the right herbs can make a difference, such as oregano, basil, parsley, thyme, rosemary, tarragon, coriander, dill and garlic. Adding chopped nuts to vegetable dishes is another way to bring more flavor and nutrition into the meal. Using cooking techniques other than boiling in water, such as roasting and grilling, are ways to improve the taste of vegetables without adding a lot of fat.

Prep veggies, like carrots, asparagus and peppers, place in foil, mist with extra virgin olive oil, drizzle with a tablespoon or two of balsamic vinegar or another flavored vinegar or with a low-fat dressing, sprinkle with herbs like thyme, rosemary and cracked black pepper and place the package on the grill. Some take as little as 10 minutes to become tender. Or use the same seasonings on vegetable kabobs, alternating  vegetables of your choice with cherry tomatoes and onion slices.

You can roast just about anything, but vegetables especially benefit from the high, dry heat of the oven. Their flavor becomes concentrated and their natural sugars caramelize, transforming them into richly satisfying sides. For every 2 pounds of vegetables, toss with 1 tablespoon olive oil prior to roasting. Spread in a single layer, with space in between the pieces or they’ll just steam instead. You can roast different veggies together if their cooking times are similar.

The recipes below are ones I have made, adjusting ingredients, cooking techniques and utilizing Italian flavors to make these dishes just right. These are vegetable side dishes that my family likes and enjoys at our family dinners.  

Mashed Potatoes With Kale

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds russet potatoes, scrubbed and peeled
  • Salt
  • 1 pound (1 large bunch) kale, either curly or cavolo nero, with the ribs removed and the leaves washed
  • 1-1/4 cups low-fat milk
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • Freshly ground pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Directions

Cover the potatoes with water in a saucepan, add 1/2 tablespoon of salt and the garlic and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover partially and cook until tender about 30 to 40 minutes. Drain off the water, return the potatoes with the garlic to the pan and mash with a potato masher.

While the potatoes are cooking bring a large pot of generously salted water to a boil and add the kale. Cook the kale for 4 to 6 minutes (after the water returns to the boil) until the leaves are tender but still bright green. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes, drain and squeeze out excess water. Chop into small pieces and add the olive oil.

Stir the chopped kale into the hot mashed potatoes along with the milk.  Add salt to taste and freshly ground pepper.

Tip: This is a good dish to make ahead and reheat for dinner.

Yield: Serves 4 to 6

Oven-roasted Vegetables with Rosemary, Bay Leaves and Garlic

 The process of roasting brings out the natural sweetness in vegetables and intensifies their natural flavors

Ingredients

  • Sea salt
  • 1 lb red or Yukon gold potatoes, cut into 2-inch chunks
  • 1 lb butternut squash, seeded and cut into chunks
  • 2 medium red onions, cut into eighths
  • 1 fennel bulb, trimmed, cored and cut into chunks
  • 3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 3 parsnips, peeled and cut into chunks
  • 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 8 garlic cloves, smashed
  • 4 sprigs of rosemary
  • 4 sprigs of bay leaves

Directions

In a large baking pan sprayed with olive oil cooking spray place potatoes, squash, onions and 2 tablespoons of the oil. Toss to coat, then roast for 20 minutes.

Add the remaining tablespoon of oil and the remaining ingredients to the baking pan.

Roast for another 20 minutes, turning the vegetables occasionally until tender and edges slightly brown. Salt and pepper to taste.

Remove bay leaves before serving.

Makes 4 servings.

Grilled Vegetables with Basil Dressing

Makes 8 servings

Ingredients

  • 1 small eggplant, sliced into chunks
  • 1 zucchini, cut into chunks
  • 1 yellow summer squash, cut into chunks
  • 1 red bell pepper, seeded and cut into squares
  • 1 small red onion, sliced and cut into 8 segments
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic  vinegar
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh basil
Dressing
  • 1/4 cup non-fat Greek yogurt
  • 2 tablespoons reduced-fat olive oil mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon minced fresh basil
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice

Directions

Thread skewers with alternating pieces of eggplant, zucchini, squash, bell pepper and onion. Place skewered vegetables in shallow pan.

Make the marinade for vegetables by blending vinegar, oil and 1/4 cup fresh basil. Pour over vegetables. Let stand 10 minutes, occasionally turning skewers so marinade coats all sides.

Meanwhile, make the dressing. Place yogurt, mayonnaise, 1 tablespoon fresh basil and lemon juice in a bowl and whisk until smooth. Transfer to small serving dish.

Grill vegetables, adjusting height of rack to avoid charring, if using an outdoor grill.

Serve vegetables as a side dish, as a sandwich filling in ciabatta rolls or on sliced Italian bread or bruschetta. Pass basil-yogurt dressing to use as a topping.   

Baked Spaghetti Squash

What I like about this spaghetti squash dish is that when it comes out of the oven, it’s ready to serve. It does not need any additional cooking to give it flavor.

Ingredients:

  • 1 small to medium spaghetti squash
  • Olive oil cooking spray
  • Kosher or salt and fresh pepper to taste
  • 1 teaspoon smoked paprika
  • 1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
  • 1 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder

Directions

Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds and fibers with a spoon. Place on a baking sheet, cut side up, spray lightly with the cooking spray, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.

In a small bowl mix together the paprika, onion powder, Italian seasoning and garlic powder. Sprinkle over squash.

Bake at 350° F for about an hour or until the skin gives easily under pressure and the inside is tender. Remove from the oven and let it cool 10 minutes.

Using a fork, scrape out the squash flesh a little at a time. It will separate into spaghetti-like strands. Place in a serving dish and serve.

Spicy Broccoli Rabe with Garlic and Lemon Zest

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds broccoli rabe
  • Extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves minced garlic
  • 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes (adjust to taste)
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Bring a large pot of water to a boil and add salt. Cook broccoli rabe in water for 4 to 5 minutes until tender and bright green. Drain well in a colander and set aside.

In a large saute pan heat  2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil over medium heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes then toss in the broccoli rabe.

Season with salt and pepper and cook for 2 to 3 minutes, gently tossing it in the pan. Finish with the lemon zest and toss to combine. Serve immediately.

Whole Roasted Cauliflower with Lemon Vinaigrette

Serves  6

Ingredients

  • 1 head cauliflower
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • Progresso Italian Bread Crumbs

Lemon Vinaigrette

Whisk together:

  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon lemon juice
  • Pepper to taste
  • 1 tablespoon small capers

Preheat oven to 450 degrees F.

Wash the head of cauliflower and trim off the outer leaves. With a sharp knife, remove a cone-shaped piece from the core, keeping the head intact.

With your fingers, rub a little olive oil into the bottom of a deep oven-safe baking dish, rub the remainder on all over the cauliflower, working the oil into the crevasses as best you can. Place core-side down in the baking dish and sprinkle with salt and breadcrumbs.

Bake for 1 hour or 1-1/4 hours, until the exterior is brown and crusty and the center soft.  With a spoon, drizzle the vinaigrette over the top of the cauliflower and let it seep slowly.

Crispy Parmesan Broccoli

2 servings

Ingredients 

  • 1/2 lb broccoli, rinsed, dried, and cut into flat sided bite-size pieces
  • 1/2 cup egg substitute
  • 1/4 cup Progresso Lemon Pepper Panko Crumbs
  • 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese, finely grated

Directions

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F.

In a small bowl combine the bread crumbs and cheese.

Put the broccoli in a large bowl, add the egg substitute, and toss with your hands to coat.

Sprinkle in the bread crumb and cheese mixture and toss to combine.

Transfer to a baking sheet, flat side down, and roast for 12 minutes.

Italian Green Beans Marinara

Ingredients

  • 2 pounds fresh green beans, cleaned and stem ends removed
  • 1 can (14.5 ounces) diced tomatoes, no salt added
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 6 large cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 tablespoon dried oregano leaves
  • Salt and pepper to taste
Directions
Snap the beans into 2-inch pieces. Blanch lightly salted boiling water for 2 minutes to soften slightly. Drain well.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and sauté until softened. Add the tomatoes, oregano, salt and pepper.
Simmer uncovered, until tomatoes start to break down. Add the green beans and cook, covered, until tender.
Taste the beans for seasoning and, if desired, add more salt, pepper or oregano. 6-8 Servings

Roasted Prosciutto Wrapped Asparagus 

Servings: 4
 
Ingredients
  • 1 1/4 lb thin asparagus spears, tough ends trimmed
  • olive oil spray
  • fresh cracked pepper to taste
  • 4 slices (2 oz) thin sliced prosciutto
  • grated Parmesan cheese
Directions

Preheat oven to 400° F.

Lightly spray asparagus spears with olive oil cooking spray. Season with fresh cracked pepper and divide into 4 bundles.

Bundle 1/4 of the asparagus together and wrap a slice of prosciutto around it.  Place on a baking dish seam side down.  
Repeat with the remaining asparagus and prosciutto.
Place in the baking dish and bake 12 minutes or until asparagus is tender crisp. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan.



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