I found gorgeous, fresh, thin-skinned cucumbers incredibly cheap at a local farm, and immediately thought PICKLES. Love ‘em. I lack both the equipment and the patience for canning or fermenting things, so REFRIGERATOR PICKLES. These are quick and simple to make and have a crisper, fresher taste and texture than traditional pickles. They also don’t last as long (2 weeks or so in the fridge), but I can’t imagine them sitting around long enough to spoil.

While perusing recipes, I came across a few that called for up to two cups of sugar. TWO CUPS. First of all, ewww. If nature had intended for veggies to be sweet, she would have made them fruits. Second, that’s so many empty calories. If I’m going to consume that many empty calories, it’s going to be in the form of cake. Or gin rickeys. Mmmm.

An entire cucumber has about 50 calories, and vinegar and spices have virtually none. These pickles are pretty assertive, so if you like yours milder, you can reduce the amount of garlic and spices, or replace some of the vinegar (up to half) with water. You could also add crushed red pepper flakes, chili peppers, turmeric, black peppercorns, sliced onions…anything, really. As far as I can tell, the only rules for pickles are that they must include vinegar and some sort of produce.

Seriously, though, sweet pickles are wicked nasty.

This recipe only makes a pint–mostly because the only glass jar I happen to have is a pint jar–but it’s easily multiplied.

1 cucumber
1c white vinegar
1tbs salt
2 garlic cloves, smashed
1tsp mustard seed
1tsp dill seed

1. In a little bitty saucepan, mix everything but the cucumbers. Simmer for about 5 minutes until the salt has dissolved and your kitchen smells like pickles.

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2. While the brine simmers, slice the cucumber into ⅛ inch(ish) slices.

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3. Layer cucumber slices in a pint jar. This particular cucumber happened to be enormous, so it didn’t quite fit. (Shut up, ya perv)

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4. Cool brine slightly, then pour over cucumber. Cover and stick it in the fridge, and ignore it for a few days (at least 2) to pickle.

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These pickles are delicious right out of the jar (standing in front of the open fridge late at night, Nigella-style), and even better on a sandwich with leftover roast pork and spicy mustard. You could also batter and fry them, and serve them with ranch dressing and hot sauce, which would be a much tastier waste of calories (ok, yeah, maybe a few more calories) than icky gross sweet pickles.

Confession: Every single time I’m invited to an event to which I am expected to bring food, I panic a little. What if nobody likes what I make? What if it’s the dish that sits untouched on the table while everything else gets devoured? What if everyone thinks it’s weird? Or boring? Or gross?

I put this melon salad on skewers and brought it to a barbecue, and people RAVED about it all night. I’ve also served it for brunch and brought it to an office potluck, with similar results. It’s perfect… sweet, fresh, light, colorful, a little exotic yet approachable and familiar. About ten minutes worth of effort, and your friends and coworkers will think you’re a culinary genius.

Dressing:
2 limes, zest and juice
2tbs finely chopped fresh mint
2tbs raw honey
¼tsp ground ginger

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1. Whisk together dressing ingredients.

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2. Pour over melon cubes, any kind you like, and stir to combine. How much? I dunno, a bunch? I used about ½ of a canteloupe, honeydew, and small watermelon. Don’t use melon balls. Melon balls are for Sallies.

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3. Cover and chill for at least a few hours. Serve as a salad, or on skewers.

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…With ingredients you may or may not have on hand.

Cooking show hosts are a bunch of dirty liars. Every time one of them claims to be making a complete meal in this many minutes or for that many dollars, I know instantly I am about to be lied to, and will likely spend the next half hour pouting and yelling at my TV. I cannot make a dish requiring the slicing and chopping of huge quantities of different veggies quickly without the spilling of blood. I am dying to know where these bitches do their grocery shopping, because there is apparently some magical store where everything costs a teeny fraction of what it costs in the real world. I bet there are dinosaurs and unicorns there, too.

The one that infuriates me the most is when a host claims to be making a dish with ingredients EVERYONE has in their kitchen. I never have them. Ever. If Giada or Ina could make a dish from string cheese, several types of mustard, and coffee, we’d be in business. Otherwise, no.

This is a dish made of reasonably inexpensive ingredients. You can save even more by using garlic and lemon juice in place of shallots and wine. It’s pretty quick-cooking, only a few things need chopping, and it’s an entire meal in one pan. This recipe makes 2 enormous, satisfying, approximately 450 calorie servings packed with protein and green leafy goodness. No lies.

2tsp olive oil
8oz boneless, skinless chicken breast, in bite-size pieces
1 shallot, chopped
½c chicken stock
1tsp finely chopped rosemary
3c kale, in bite-size pieces
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
¼c white wine
Salt & pepper

1. Brown chicken with 1tsp oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Remove chicken from pan and set aside.
2. Add the other teaspoon of oil to the pan, and saute the shallot for a few minutes, until softened and brownish. Scrape the chickeny brown bits from the bottom as the shallot cooks.

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3. Return the chicken to the pan. Add the stock and rosemary. Scrape scrape scrape again. Brown bits=yum.
4. Reduce heat to medium-low. Add kale, cover, and cook about 8 minutes until kale and chicken are done.

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5. Add beans and wine, stir, re-cover, and cook 2-3 minutes until the beans are heated through.
6. Season to taste, and serve.

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Ever had a recipe jump fully formed into your brain and DEMAND to be made? That’s what happened to me yesterday after I settled in for the evening. I started thinking about the ricotta left over from the last recipe, the gorgeous little macarons I got from a patisserie in Montreal, and the decadent and unique cardamom hot chocolate I enjoyed at a chocolate shop in Montreal. Hell of a trip that was. My brain whispered, “cocoa meringues with orange cardamom ricotta.” Then it screamed it. Then I got off the couch and went to the store to buy an orange and some cardamom.

I chose to make meringues instead of macarons because, dammit, they’re easier. I’m a pretty competent baker, but fancy, fussy French pastries aren’t really my thing. As it turns out, neither are meringues…when it comes to presentation, anyway. Mine are a bit rough, and I’m totally okay with that. These cookies taste incredible.

Which brings me to the phenomenon of “ugly-sexy.” Picture Mick Jagger in the early 70s, or better yet, Danny Elfman in the 80s. They’re not handsome. You might even say they’re straight up weird-looking…but damn are they sexy. It’s hard to say why, they just are. These cookies don’t look like much, but the flavors and textures just work: rich chocolate, warm cardamom, bright orange, crisp cookies, creamy ricotta. Sexy cookies.

By the way, you could annihilate the whole batch and do less damage to your diet than a piece of cheesecake…there’s about 420 calories in the entire recipe. I’m not saying you should do that, but I wouldn’t judge you if you did.

Cookies:
2 egg whites
½tsp white vinegar
¼c granulated sugar
2tbs cocoa powder

Filling:
¼c ricotta
2-3tsp powdered sugar
1tsp grated orange zest
⅛tsp ground cardamom

1. Preheat oven to 225°.
2. With a stand or hand mixer, beat egg whites and vinegar at medium speed until foamy. Yup, vinegar. Egg whites need acid; there’s nothing magical about cream of tartar. Who keeps that stuff on hand?
3. Increase speed to medium-high, and slowly add sugar. When the meringue is stiff and glossy, reduce speed and mix in cocoa.

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4. Spoon meringue into a large zip-top bag, and snip off the corner to make a little ½in hole.
5. Okay, here’s where things got a little messy for me. Pipe little rounds, about 1 to 1½ inches, onto a parchment lined baking sheet. If you end up with little peaks or bumps, smooth them with a wet fingertip or back of a teaspoon. Or, don’t. Still sexy.

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6. Bake for about 1½ hours, rotating the pan halfway through cooking. The cookies will be crunchy and lift easily off of the parchment when completely cool.
7. While the cookies are baking, prepare the filling. First, drain the excess liquid out of the ricotta by putting a double layer of paper towels into a mesh strainer, and spooning the ricotta onto the towels. Set the strainer over a bowl and let it sit for about an hour.

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8. Mix drained ricotta, powdered sugar, zest, and cardamom in a small bowl. You really don’t need more than that little bit of cardamom. It’s wicked strong.
9. Make little sandwiches, using about ½tsp of filling for each one. You can make the cookies and filling a day or so ahead, but fill just before serving. The assembled cookies will go soft within a few hours; they don’t keep well. They probably won’t last that long, anyway.

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Last week, a friend and I took a little trip up to Montreal to celebrate my 30th birthday. Our first night there, we had dinner at Le Bremner, one of chef Chuck Hughes’ restaurants. Chuck Hughes–in case you live in a cave somewhere–is the head chef and co-owner of two of Montreal’s hottest restaurants, an Iron Chef winner (eat it, Bobby Flay), and host of the cooking show Chuck’s Day Off. Impressive guy. He’s also ridiculously cute. Like, stupid cute. Cutest man in the world. Sorry, Richard Hammond.

Imagine my utter joy when I walked into Le Bremner and saw him standing at the entrance to the kitchen. Imagine my difficulty resisting the urge to run across the room, jump into his big manly tattooed arms, and propose marriage. Instead, I enjoyed the most delicious dinner I’ve ever eaten and then said to our sweet, lovely hostess, “I wouldn’t ordinarily ask, but it’s my 30th birthday and I’m a HUGE fan.” She said, “No problem,” and moments later my friend and I found ourselves standing in chef Hughes’ kitchen.

Turns out, that incredibly talented, ridiculously cute chef is also a really sweet, friendly guy. He chatted with us for a good ten minutes or more, and gave us a list of places to eat in the city. He was right…the roast beef poutine at Magnan and bagels at Fairmount are spectacular.

He even autographed our ticket and drew me a picture of a lobster. Awww.

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Look at that FACE! Not my face. Don’t look at that. His face. Behold the cuteness. I’m not typically much of a celebrity worshipper and I’m definitely not a gushing girly-girl, but…come on.

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This recipe is my take on a dish we had at Le Bremner. I would have taken a picture of it, but it’s a small restaurant and I thought it would be a bit conspicuous, and I was trying so hard to act cool and not like the giddy fangirl I felt like. My version is made with whole wheat flour for extra protein and fiber, and it has about 175 calories per serving. It also has more honey than Chuck’s…because you could hand me a jar full of honey, and I’d probably tell you it needs more honey.

Big thanks to my friend Anita for getting the reservation at Le Bremner, and Heidi for the yummy raw honey from Springdell Farm.

Honey and Chuck Hughes. Tasty tasty.

Bread:
½c warm water
1 packet active dry yeast
1tsp honey
1c whole wheat flour, plus a little extra for rolling
¾tsp salt
2tsp finely chopped fresh rosemary
1tsp olive oil

Topping:
¼c ricotta
4tsp raw honey
a few pinches red pepper flakes

1. Whisk yeast and 1tsp honey into warm water (just over body-temp-ish). Let it sit for about 5 minutes until it goes all foamy. If it doesn’t foam, the yeast is dead. Have a little moment of silence and start over with fresh yeast.

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2. Mix 1c flour, salt, and rosemary. Mix in yeast mixture. Clean hands are the best tool for this.
3. Knead a few times, just until the dough comes together. Form into a ball and coat with the olive oil, cover, and let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. This will take about an hour.

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4. Preheat a cast iron skillet over medium heat. Or you could use a regular nonstick skillet. I guess. If you absolutely have to. Seriously? You don’t own a cast iron skillet? You can pick up a used one at an antique store for under ten bucks. There, now you have something to do while your dough rises. Anyway…
5. Divide the dough into 4 pieces. Roll each piece into a 5inch-ish, vaguely circular shape. Yes, I do use an empty bottle of garnacha instead of a rolling pin.

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6.Cook about 1 minute on each side. When it’s done, it will have pretty, rustic-looking brown spots on it.

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7. Top the hot flatbreads with little dollops of ricotta, drizzle with honey, and sprinkle with hot pepper flakes. Serve warm.

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This dish is easy, gorgeous, and perfect with cocktails. Or, if you’re not in the mood to entertain, it hits all the comfort food buttons: carb-y, creamy, sweet, spicy, warm, and it smells fantastic. That Chuck Hughes, man. Genius.

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And cute. Did I mention cute?

When you’re looking for something cheap, nutritious, easy, quick, and versatile, you can’t do better than beans. Take a look in your kitchen cabinets. I bet you have a couple of cans you didn’t even know were there. Add a few more basic ingredients and a few minutes later, boom, side dish.

This recipe is my interpretation of the stunningly sexy Nigella Lawson’s White Bean Mash. I’m hoping that if I eat enough of it, I too will develop gravity-defying boobs and ass.

This recipe makes, annoyingly, about 3 servings. Or, 2. Maybe 1.

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1tbs olive oil
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 can butter beans (about 16oz)
few leaves fresh basil, chopped
1tbs grated parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

1. Heat oil in a small saucepan over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes.
2. Drain and rinse beans. Add to pan and cook for a few minutes, just until heated through. As they cook, stir and mash them with a wooden spoon.
3. Remove from heat and stir in basil and cheese. Taste, and season. You may not need more salt…the beans and cheese are pretty salty.

You may want to save a little basil for garnish. This is unlikely to be the most attractive side dish you’ve ever served.

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Though it does look nice next to a quick-cooked steak (thin cut lean steak, salt, oil, sear in a hellfire-hot cast iron skillet for about 90sec each side for med-rare) as Nigella suggests on her show. Mmmmm. Nigella Lawson.

Mmmm….steak and beans.

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For only 25 calories, you can have a watery, plastic-y, vaguely chocolate-flavored mug of warm modified whey, artificial flavors, and preservatives. Mmmm. Or, for under 200 calories, you could have hot chocolate.

Some brands of diet hot chocolate boast that they have as much calcium as a glass of milk. Funny thing is, so does, um, MILK. Imagine that. Natural cocoa powder–of which there is virtually NONE in those nasty diet mixes–contains compounds that may help lower blood pressure and improve cardiovascular health. Also, my recipe contains no refined sugar. Good stuff, this is.

Chocolate is delicious on its own, but I think it’s even better when combined with complementary flavors. Sometimes I add coffee to hot chocolate, or peppermint extract, or a little booze. The one thing it always needs is salt…it intensifies its chocolatiness.

This is my favorite way to make hot chocolate. Adding spices to chocolate is nothing new, and there’s a damn good reason people have been doing it for thousands of years…it’s crazy-good.

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1c milk (I used 1%)
2tbs natural cocoa powder
1tbs honey (or more, to taste)
pinch of salt
pinch of cinnamon
pinch of cayenne
⅛tsp vanilla extract

1. Heat the milk, either in a saucepan over low heat, or in the microwave in a large mug.
2. While the milk heats, mix together the remaining ingredients. The mixture will look powdery and dry. It’s kind of cool how the honey seems to disappear.

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3. Stir cocoa mixture into hot milk.

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There you go. A hundred times better and more nutritious than anything anyone has ever dumped out of a packet for not much more effort.

Let’s get one thing straight right away: When I say “maple syrup,” I mean exactly that. Not “pancake syrup,” “maple flavored syrup,” “syrup with X% maple,” or–God forbid–“sugar-free maple flavored syrup.” It’s against the law in Vermont and parts of Canada for trucks transporting that shit to even drive past a maple tree. True story.

Maple syrup. It is truly unique in flavor and in composition…scientists have discovered several compounds in maple syrup that don’t exist anywhere else in nature. Maple syrup is graded differently in different countries, but as a general rule those that are darker in color are stronger in flavor. As with honey, there are many variations in flavor among maple syrups, so experiment until you find your favorites. Personally, I like a darker syrup with a deep, earthy, almost smokey sweetness.

In addition to being delicious and versatile, maple syrup is a good source of zinc and an excellent source of manganese. As if deliciousness alone weren’t a good enough reason to stay away from that artificial junk.

1 pork tenderloin (approx 1lb)
3tbs maple syrup
3tbs mustard (Dijon or spicy)
pinch of cayenne
salt & pepper

1. In a large zip-top bag, mix syrup, mustard, and cayenne.
2. Trim fat from pork, season with salt and pepper, and place in bag. Squish out the air, zip, moosh it around to make sure the pork is coated, and marinate in the fridge for at least an hour.
3. Cook pork at 375° for about 25 minutes. Let it rest for 10 minutes before slicing and serving.

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Note: Why yes, that pork tenderloin IS pink. Perfectly pink, juicy, and delicious. You don’t have to cook your pork until it’s the texture of shoe leather in order to make sure it’s safe. The USDA site says 145° is fine. I’m convinced that most people who say they don’t like pork only say that because they’ve only had it well-done and bone-dry.

This cake has no butter or oil, and it doesn’t need any. The honey and yogurt keep it moist. It’s only slightly sweet, so if you want it sweeter, you can make a glaze by mixing a cup or so of powdered sugar with a tablespoon or two of orange juice. Either way, it’s yummy, and perfect with tea. It’s also obscenely simple to make.

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¾c honey
3 eggs, lightly beaten
1¼c Greek yogurt
½tsp vanilla extract
Zest of one orange
¾c whole wheat flour
¾c all purpose flour
½tsp salt
½tsp baking soda
2tsp baking powder

1. Preheat oven to 350°, lightly grease a loaf pan.
2. Whisk together eggs, honey, yogurt, vanilla, and zest.

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3. Sift in dry ingredients, stir to combine.

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4. Turn into pan, bake for 1 hour or until a cake tester (or, if you’re like me and never remember to buy cake testers, a butter knife) comes out clean.

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Note: The cake may be brown long before it’s done. Check it at around 30 minutes and if it’s getting brown, cover loosely with foil until it’s finished baking.

This is not the healthiest, “cleanest” meal I’ve made lately, but it’s the perfect meal for when I want to indulge without consuming a million calories, and without resorting to bizarre and revolting “swaps” (read: un-foods. food substitutes) touted by that inexplicably wildly popular and truly despicable and evil food blogger and TV personality who shall not be named.

If you’ve ever had chicken thighs wrapped in bacon (usually served on a toothpick at a party…so good), this is sort of the same idea, but lighter…a HUGE serving of salty, meaty, cheesy goodess for about 400 calories. Add a salad or some steamed veggies and you’ve got a reasonably balanced and seriously delicious meal for under 500 calories, no fat-free cheese flavored topping or precooked lite turkey bacon required.

For each diner, you’ll need:

1 chicken breast
2 slices prosciutto (the cheap stuff is fine; you’re cooking it anyway)
1oz part-skim mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 400, and line a baking sheet with foil.
2. Dice cheese into little cubes.
3. With a small, sharp knife (a paring knife works well), cut a pocket in the chicken breast, being careful not to cut all the way through. Don’t try to cut the pocket the entire length of the breast, you’ll lose your mind. It just needs to be big enough to hold the cheese. If you’re not sure how to pull off this maneuver, check out one of the million how-to videos on the web.
4. Stuff the cheese into the chicken breast. Wrap the proscuitto around the chicken, making sure you cover the entrance to your little cheese pocket.
5. Bake chicken 20-30 minutes until the juices are clear. Turn chicken halfway through cooking.
6. Serve. Don’t worry if a little bit of cheese has escaped its porky wrapping. It’s fine.

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