Riffs on avocado toast

Avocado toast with different topping ideasWhat can possibly be written about avocado toast that hasn’t already been written elsewhere? Along with smoothie bowls, poke, cupcakes and pizza, it’s one of the most popular foods on Instagram. Avocado toast also been named the most annoying food in Instagram 😉

At it’s most basic, you just mash or slice half an avocado onto a slice of toast. Boom. To prevent the avocado browning too quickly and to brighten up the flavor I like to squeeze in the juice of half a lime, Maldon sea salt, pepper and a tiny splash of good olive oil. Maybe some red pepper flakes if I’m feeling spicy.

basic avocado toast

  • Servings: 1 piece of toast
  • Difficulty: ridiculously easy
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Ingredients:
Your choice of toasted bread
1/2 ripe avocado
1 lime
1 tsp good olive oil
Salt (preferably Maldon sea salt) & Pepper (preferably fresh ground black pepper)

Directions:
1. Scoop the avocado flesh out of the skin (remove the pit)
2. Squeeze in as much or as little lime juice as you like, I like mine fairly citrusy so I usually use the juice of half a lime
3. Add the olive oil, sprinkle of salt and pepper
4. Mash the avocado with a fork – as smooth or as chunky as you like
5. Taste and add more salt and pepper as needed
6. Spread on hot toast (or bread or crackers)
7. Add additional toppings – see topping ideas below

Different ideas for avocado toast toppings
If you’re an avocado toast aficionado, here are a few topping suggestions to take your toast to the next level. And of course, you can easily combine toppings – red onion, tomato and cayenne and you’re almost at guacamole toast!

Avocado toast topping ideas (from left to right by row):
1. Slices of red fresno chili
2. Sprinkle of cayenne pepper
3. Sliver of jalapeno
4. Diced red onion
5. Sweet cherry tomato
6. Maldon sea salt and pink peppercorns
7. Drops of sriracha
8. Extra lime juice
9. Crunchy red radish

Did I mention avocado is good for you? Half an avocado contains around 150 calories but most of that is made up of heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fat.

And….because it’s Cinco de Mayo tomorrow and maybe you’ll have a few avocados laying around after making your toast, here’s a bonus recipe – my favorite chunky guacamole recipe:Chunky fresh guacamole with hot chile

Think of this as a loose starting point. If you’re a huge onion fan, add more! If you can’t stand cilantro (me!), then skip it. If you like a mild guacamole, skip the fresh chile or maybe just add a little mild anaheim chile. If you like it hot then graduate to a jalapeno or even habanero. Check out the range of heat in various chiles here.

Quick and Chunky Guacamole

  • Servings: 4 as a snack
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients:
2 perfectly ripe avocados
2 limes (ideally at room temperature for more juice)
1-2 garlic cloves – crushed in garlic press or finely sliced
1/4 tsp salt
1 tbsp finely diced red onion
1 tomato diced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Your choice of fresh chile – anaheim, serrano, jalapeno, habanero
Small bunch of cilantro (if you like it) – washed and finely chopped

If you want a more authentic approach then you’d want to get your hands on a molcajete (a large pestle and mortar made of volcanic rock) to grind your garlic, salt and onion into a paste, but this is the quick and easy version so…

Directions:
1. With the palm of your hands, roll the limes back and forth on the counter a few times, this will give you more juice. Cut the limes in half and squeeze all the juice into a bowl.
2. Cut the avocado in half lengthways, remove the pit. Scoop out the avocado flesh and add it to the lime juice. You’ll have giant chunks of avocado at this point. Toss in the lime juice to prevent browning.
3. Add the minced garlic, diced tomato, red onion, cayenne pepper, salt, and cilantro (reserve a little cilantro for garnish)
4. Finely chop the fresh chile if using. Use gloves if you have them or even a fork to hold your chile while you chop it (if you have chile oils on your fingers and then touch your eyes or mouth you will be in pain!), remove the seeds (unless you REALLY like heat) and add to bowl.
5. Toss ingredients and then use a sharp knife to loosely chop the avocado while in the mix, I like fairly big chunks, if you want a smoother guacamole you can use a fork to mash.
6. Taste the guacamole and adjust to your taste – more salt? more cayenne? Transfer into serving dish and sprinkle with extra cilantro.

Serve with warm corn tortilla chips. Ideally you’ll want to eat the guacamole immediately. If you need to eat it a little later you can cover the surface tightly with plastic wrap and store in the fridge. Note that the heat from the chile will intensify the longer you leave it. You can also save one of the avocado pits and add it to the guacamole to (allegedly) reduce browning, remember to remove it before serving!

Quick and easy chunky guacamole with warm corn tortilla chips

Perfect with a cold cerveza or margarita!

Fragrant Lamb Shanks

A selection of colorful herbs and spices for a fragrant lamb shank recipe - inspiration from Morocco and North AfricaI recently read that the average American consumes just 1lb of lamb vs. a whopping 61lb of beef each year and up to 50% of Americans have never even tried lamb! I guess if I was a member of the sheep family I’d let out a grateful bleet at this news.

Growing up in the UK, we would quite often have roast lamb for Sunday lunch and my home-town dish of scouse wouldn’t exist without lamb. Here in Maine, we have fabulous local lamb available to us and when I saw the lamb shanks from North Star Sheep Farm I couldn’t resist buying them to make this flavorful Morrocan-inspired Fragrant Lamb Shank Braise.
Fragrant and fork-tender lamb shanks on a bed of lemon cous cous

Lamb is super tasty, rich in iron, zinc, selenium, vitamin B-12 and niacin, AND grass-fed lamb is loaded with alpha-linolenic acid (ALA, an important omega-3 fatty acids), in fact lamb contains 5 times as much healthy ALA as beef!

Lamb shanks are one of my favorite cuts of lamb, braise them slowly (similar to beef short ribs), and they’ll transform into fork-tender, melt-in-your-mouth shreds of juicy meat. Lamb also holds up well to bold flavors so I decided to look to the countries bordering the Mediterranean sea – Greece, Turkey, Morocco and North Africa.
Raw ingredients including Maine lamb shanks for a Moroccan-inspired lamb shank recipe

Za’atar (Zahtar) is Middle Eastern mix of up to 90% toasted sesame seeds and dried sumac with the remaining made up of a mix of other herbs including thyme, oregano, marjoram, cumin. Great to mix with olive oil for a tasty dip with fresh bread or coat a chicken before roasting.

Ras El Hanout is a North African spice mix of ginger, paprika, cassia, coriander, cumin, sugar, salt, tumeric, chili, black pepper, cardamom, coriander, rose petals, nigella, allspice, nutmeg, galangal.

I generally like to make this fragrant lamb shank braise the day before I want to eat it, the flavors improve overnight and I can chill, defat and then reduce down the braising liquid but most lamb shanks aren’t too fatty so in a pinch you could make and serve it on the same day. The last time I made these I ended up with ~6 cups of braising liquid (this includes the onions, tomatoes, eggplant etc) which I reduced down to about 3 1/2 cups the next day. Here’s the lamb and the braising liquid after a night in the fridge – you just scrape off the layer of yellow fat:

Cliff notes for the experienced cook: Just brown the lamb shanks for extra flavor, add in all of the vegetables, herbs and spices, and cook until the lamb is falling off the bone. Chill and defat the braising liquid, reduce it for a thicker sauce, add back the lamb and brighten with a little lemon juice. Great to make ahead when entertaining, also freeze well!
Step-by-step guide to making a fragrant lamb shank braise recipe

Fragrant Lamb Shank Braise

  • Servings: 4
  • Difficulty: easy
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Ingredients

4 lamb shanks (~3lbs)
1 tbsp butter and 1 tbsp olive or vegetable oil
1 large onion, half-moon slices
2 cloves garlic, crushed or finely sliced
1 inch fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1/2 tsp each cayenne, ras el hanout, za’atar, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, pink peppercorns.
~3oz medjool dates, chopped
Cinnamon stick
1 large eggplant or 2 small. Peel skin and chop into 1 inch squares
14.5 oz can of Muir Glen fire roasted tomatoes
32 fl oz chicken or vegetable stock (low sodium)
1/2 lemon
Fresh cilantro (or flat leaf parsley if you’re not a cilantro fan!)
Salt and pepper.

DIrections

  1. In an oven-safe casserole dish over a medium high heat, sear lamb shanks in the butter and oil, remove from dish and set aside
  2. Add a little more oil if dish is dry, over medium heat, add chopped onion, crushed garlic and grated ginger and stir well to combine.
  3. Add 1/2 teaspoon each cayenne, ras el hanout, zaatar, fennel seeds, cumin seeds, pink peppercorns, stir well to combine, cook 5 minutes, your kitchen will start to smell amazing.
  4. Add chopped dates and the cinnamon stick, diced eggplant/aubergine and the can of fire-roasted tomatoes and stir well to combine.
  5. Nestle lamb shanks back in and pour over just enough stock to just cover. If your carton of stock doesn’t cover the lamb, add water.
  6. Cover and pop in a 325 degree oven for about 3-4 hours. Gently turn the lamb shanks every hour or so. The exact time will depend on the size of the shanks and your oven. Check them after 30 minutes, you want a simmering/little bubbling but not frantic boil. Adjust the oven temperature as necessary. If the shanks are particularly large, you might need to cook for up to 4 hours. They’re done when a little poke with a fork makes the meat just flake off.
  7. Take out of oven and put shanks in a shallow dish (handle them carefully, the meat will fall off the bone), pour over a little cooking liquid to keep them moist, cover tightly and pop in fridge. Remove the cinnamon stick. Cool cooking liquid overnight in fridge.
  8. The next morning, remove the thin layer of yellow fat that’s collected on the top of the braising liquid. Put the braising liquid back in the oven (uncovered) at 400 degrees for about 30 minutes until it has more of a sauce-like consistency. Taste and add salt and pepper to taste.
  9. Squeeze in the juice of 1/2 lemon to brighten the flavors.
  10. Reduce oven to 350 and gently add back lamb shanks, cook until piping hot.

To serve, you can take the meat off the bone if you think bones will freak out your guests but I like to serve a whole shank per person on a bed of lemon couscous (cook couscous according to directions, replacing liquid with juice of 1 lemon and unsalted chicken stock, stir in lemon zest and a spoon of butter) or quinoa. Sprinkle over the fresh cilantro or parsley.

This is a very forgiving dish. If you skipped all the herbs and spices it would still be a tasty meaty dish, just not with the same fragrant depth. Although I’d try to at least get your hands on the Za’atar (because you’ll definitely use it again with a little olive oil as a dip).

You can also really make it your own recipe. If you want to add a can of drained and rinsed chickpeas in the last 30 minutes of cooking, go for it! Throw in a bunch of chopped carrots in the last hour – why not? Feel free to substitute zucchini/courgette instead of eggplant/aubergine – try it! It also adapts well for the slow cooker, just reduce the amount of stock as it won’t reduce down as much.

The cooked lamb shanks and sauce will freeze well so I usually make 4-6 servings and freeze half. Just defrost thoroughly and heat in the oven at 325-350 degrees until piping hot.
Lamb shank casserole with North African, Mediterranean, and Middle Eastern herbs and spices. So delicious!

Beet & Goat Cheese Salad – 3 ways

Did you ever watch The Office (US version)? Dwight was one of my favorite characters, I loved how he was all kinds of inappropriate to the point of offensiveness and then you’d get a rare glimpse of his kind-heartedness. Whenever I cook anything involving beets, I think of Dwight and his beet farm. Fun fact – beets are known as beetroot in the UK.

Especially in winter, a bunch of fresh roasted beets provide a much-needed pop of color in the kitchen and I especially enjoy the red and yellow jewel-tones next to a snowy white goat cheese. I have lots of friends who’ll always order beet salads when eating out but wouldn’t think of cooking beets at home – now there’s no excuse 😉

If you buy beets of a similar size, they’ll cook at the same rate which makes life easier. Beets are also pretty flexible, you can roast them high and fast or they’ll happily hang out at a lower temperature if you happen to be braising something else in your oven.

I usually roast my beets in a little foil packet (skins on) with a splash of olive oil until a cake tester or toothpick slides easily through, slip the skins off, slice and then toss them with a little oil and vinegar. Small beets might be done after 45 minutes at 375 degrees. Large beets might take 2 or 3 hours at 300 degrees. They’ll happily sit in the fridge for a good 4-5 days ready to be added to your salad of the day. And if you’re not in the mood for cooking beets, I’m a big fan of the fresh packages of white wine and balsamic organic baby beets you can find in the store from “LoveBeets” How to roast beets in the ovenClockwise from top left: skin-on beets about to go into the oven, using a paper towel to slip off the skins, sliced beets, sliced beets in a little olive oil and vinegar ready to eat.

So, you’ve roasted your beets, now what? Now you need some kind of soft cheese. If you can lay your hands on Meredith Dairy marinated cheese, also known as cheese crack in our house, then it’ll be a happy day. Don’t be put off by the name, I realize that “Sheep & Goat Blend Marinated Cheese” doesn’t exactly sound appetizing but this soft, rich and creamy cheese has just the perfect hint of thyme and garlic and will blow your mind. You can find it in Whole Foods, the Cheese Iron in Scarborough and even Market Basket.
Meredith Dairy marinated goat cheeseIf you can’t find the above cheese a regular log of soft goat cheese works great. If you’re not a fan of goat cheese, try regular cream cheese or Boursin garlic and herb cream cheese.

Oven Roast Beets

  • Servings: 2-4
  • Difficulty: absurdly easy
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Ingredients:

4 large beets (I’d probably roast a bunch and use them throughout the week)
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp balsamic or white wine vinegar
Salt and pepper

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Place beets (skins on, you can remove the leafy tops and tails) on a large sheet of aluminum foil. Drizzle over 1 tbsp olive oil. Loosely crumple the foil at the top to enclose the beets. Place foil packet on a baking sheet and pop into oven.
2. Exact cooking time will vary with beet size. I usually roast beets at 350 degrees and they’ll take 1-3 hours depending on their size. If you’re cooking something else and need your oven to be cooler or hotter just adjust the cooking time. Beets are done when a cake tester or skewer slides easily through to the middle.
3. Leave beets to cool in the foil packet. There will likely be a little liquid in the bottom of the foil packet (condensation and beet juice), turn the beets so that all sides get to lie in the liquid, this will help the skins to slip off more easily).
4. Use paper towels to slide skins off beets
5. Slice beets into wedges and toss with 1 tbsp good olive oil, 1 tsp vinegar and salt and pepper.
6. Enjoy or store in a baggie in the fridge for 4-5 days

So you’ve got yourself a package of deliciously sweet roast beets. What to do with them? Here are 3 serving ideas:

1. Simple beet and goat cheese salad with pomegranate
Prepare roast beets as in recipe above or open a package of Love Beets (confession, the beets in the picture below are the honey & ginger Love Beets). Divide between two plates. Crumble over marinated cheese and pomegranate arils. Enjoy
Simple salad of roast beets, Meredith Farm marinated cheese and pomegranate arils

2. Roast beet and goat cheese salad bowl with baby greens
Divide wedges of roast beets between two bowls, crumble over goat cheese. Add any other salad items you have in the fridge – tomato wedges, sliced cucumber, baby greens. Drizzle over a little oil and vinegar.
A healthy salad bowl with roast beets, crumbled goat cheese and baby greens

3. If you want to get all fancy, maybe impress a special someone, then try a beet and goat cheese tower.
Roast your beets per recipe above and let cool. Remove a very thin slice from the bottom of each beet (so they’ll stand up on the plate) and then slice them horizontally. You’ll want 3-5 decent sized slices. Spread each slice with your choice of marinated goat cheese, Boursin cream cheese or other soft cheese and then refrigerate for 30-60 minutes. Don’t skip this step. You need the cheese to harden before you slice. If you skip the refrigerator and slice the beet/cheese stacks immediately, everything will just smush under your knife.
How to make beet and goat cheese tower appetizers
Once your little beet and cheese towers are chilled, use a large sharp knife (wipe it clean in between each slice) to cut the beet tower into 4 quarters. Turn the quarters “inside out” when you plate them so that the inner corners become the outer corners and your beet tower has a square appearance. Fill the inside of the tower with baby greens (and crumble over some bacon if you have it!).  Enjoy!
Elegant oven-roast beet and goat cheese tower

Once you’ve tried roasting beets for the first time, the possibilities are endless. Make a beet and blue cheese checkerboard, beets also pair well with crunchy walnuts and they liven up almost any salad.