Bran Muffins

I’ve tried a million different bran muffin recipes over the years, most of which were really just cupcakes masquerading as health food. (Cupcakes are delicious, of course, but I don’t always want one for breakfast. Sometimes, but not always.) There was never enough nutty bran flavor, or too much oil, or too much sugar. So I’m happy to report that I’ve finally found a truly wholesome winner, via Boston’s Flour Bakery, with lots of wheat bran (each muffin boasts as much fiber as an apple) and just barely sweet.

Instead of oil or butter, the muffins get their richness from crème fraîche, cream that’s been cultured by natural lactic bacteria. It has a higher butterfat percentage than sour cream, but less tang; if you can’t find it, crema Mexicana (available at Latin markets) makes an excellent substitute. These tender muffins are best the day they’re made, but they also freeze very well for a week or two.

Proper Bran Muffins
adapted from Flour by Joanne Chang, 2010; makes 18 muffins

  • 2 1/4 cups wheat bran (I like Bob’s Red Mill brand)
  • 3 tablespoons flax meal (optional; substitute 1/4 cup wheat bran if omitting)
  • 1 3/4 cup crème fraîche
  • 1 1/4 cup milk
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup golden raisins
  • 1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
  • 2 tablespoons mild molasses
  • 2 1/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, mix the bran, flax meal, milk, crème fraîche and eggs; let sit for half an hour to allow the bran to absorb the moisture. In a small bowl, cover the raisins with hot water and let rehydrate for half an hour.

Meanwhile, line two muffin tins with paper liners. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. When the bran is done resting, mix in the brown sugar and molasses. Drain the raisins and add to the bran mixture. Fold in the flour mixture until just combined (the batter will be thick and fairly stiff) and spoon into the muffin tins, filling to the rim.

Bake for 35 minutes on a rack in the center of the oven. Let cool for 20 minutes in the pan and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely.

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Slow Cooker Pulled Pork

Full disclosure: I am no barbecue expert, friends. I don’t know my Carolina from my Memphis from my Kansas City, couldn’t really tell you the first thing about brisket or burnt ends. But I do know when something tastes fantastic, like the barbecue sauce from Oakland’s Everett & Jones (smoky, tangy and rich with just the right amount of complex heat) and pork shoulder braised slowly in stock and lager to a fall-apart succulence. And I know that if you put the two together, you’ve got yourself a tailgate made in heaven.

You won’t need any expertise to make this pulled pork, either. It’s a mostly hands-free recipe, since your slow cooker babysits the pork while you’re away at work, or tapping out the next great American novel, or lazing around the house eating bon-bons. (No judgment.) All that’s left to do at dinnertime is shred the pork (an easy task, since it will collapse into a tender heap) slather on some tangy-sweet sauce (make your own or just buy your favorite brand, like I did) and turn on the game. Go Nats!

Slow-Cooker Pulled Pork
serves 6-8

  • 4 lb pork butt, tied
  • 2 medium onions
  • 6 large garlic cloves
  • 1 generous tablespoon salt + one teaspoon salt, divided
  • 1 tablespoon sweet paprika
  • 2 teaspoons cracked black pepper
  • 1/2 teaspoon chipotle or chili powder
  • 1/4 tsp cloves
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • three fat sprigs of fresh thyme
  • bay leaf
  • 32 oz beef stock
  • two 12-oz beers
  • liquid smoke (optional)
  • favorite homemade or store-bought barbecue sauce, about 16-18 oz

The night before, combine one generous tablespoon of salt, the sweet paprika, pepper, cloves and chili powder in a small bowl. Dust the pork butt (leave it tied) with the spices and refrigerate. Slice the onions and refrigerate. Thickly slice the garlic cloves and refrigerate. Wrap the thyme and bay leaf in kitchen twine to make an herb bundle.

In the morning, warm the vegetable oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat; sear the pork for about 2-3 minutes per side until nicely browned, starting with the fattiest section first. Transfer to a cutting board, and with a paring knife make several small slits on all sides of the pork and stuff with the garlic.

Place half the onions in your slow cooker’s insert. Place the pork over top, fat side up, and the remaining onions on top of the pork. Pour in the stock, beer, and enough water (about 3 cups, depending on your machine’s capacity) until the insert is 3/4 full. Add the herb bundle. Cook on the low setting for 8-10 hours. Remove the pork and discard any twine and large portions of fat. Discard the onions and most of the braising liquid, reserving about one cup.

With two forks or your hands, gently “pull” or shred the pork. Sprinkle the shredded pork with one teaspoon salt. Add a few drops of liquid smoke to 1/4 cup of the braising liquid; pour the braising liquid evenly over the pork, mixing with your hands or a spatula to combine. Add 3/4 cup barbecue sauce and mix to coat the pork. Taste for salt and add more barbecue sauce, if desired.

Serve the pulled pork warm on split rolls with coleslaw and pickles. Pass extra barbecue sauce.

Note: Add a bit more braising liquid, another 1/4 cup or so, to any leftovers before refrigerating or freezing. Freeze flat in double-bagged gallon zip-top bags. If you don’t care to use beer for braising, substitute additional stock.

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Pumpkin Tea Cake

Fall is my most favorite season for baking. I love brown sugar, and spices, and a warm kitchen on a crisp day. I love heading out for a morning hike with a mug of hot coffee and an apple spice muffin tucked in my pocket. I love a flaky pie crust and cinnamon and fluffy scarves.

This elegant cake, a favorite of mine from Tartine Bakery, was just the recipe to kick things off. It’s not too sweet (indulge at any hour, including breakfast) and has a wonderfully moist, soft crumb that’s delicately spiced with nutmeg, clove and cinnamon. Pepitas (raw, hulled pumpkin seeds) and sanding sugar add a little glamour and a pleasing crunch. You can use a stand mixer to prepare the batter, but I’ve found it’s just as fast (and more satisfying) to mix up the batter by hand. The cake keeps well, and once fully cooled, you can wrap and freeze it for whenever company calls. But better yet, keep it for yourself and a cup of tea.

Tartine’s Pumpkin Tea Cake
adapted (barely) from the Tartine Cookbook, 2006

  • 1 2/3 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 tablespoon + 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons nutmeg, freshly grated
  • 1/4 teaspoons ground cloves
  • one cup + 2 tablespoons pumpkin puree (about 9 oz)
  • 1 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoons kosher salt
  • 3 large eggs
  • 2 tablespoons turbinado or sanding sugar, for garnish (optional)
  • 2 tablespoons pepitas, for garnish (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325 degrees. Lightly grease a 8.5″ x 4.5″ loaf pan; set aside.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the first six ingredients. In a large bowl, add the pumpkin puree, oil, granulated sugar and salt; whisk to combine. Add the eggs, whisking until well incorporated. Sprinkle half of the dry mixture into the pumpkin mix and fold together with a rubber spatula. Add the rest of the dry mixture and fold until just combined. Transfer the batter to your prepared loaf pan.

Garnish the batter with your sugar and pepitas, if using, and bake in the center of the oven for a little over one hour, until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean. Let the cake cool in its pan for about 15-20 minutes and then transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. Keep leftovers out at room temperature, well wrapped, for about 3-4 days.

Note: Pepitas are raw, hulled pumpkin seeds and can be found in Latin markets and natural food stores. They’re delicious as a snack on their own, toasted with a little salt, or in a homemade trail mix with raw almonds, chopped dried apricots and little hunks of dark chocolate.

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Red Pepper & Sun-Dried Tomato Relish

What are we going to do when the tomatoes go away? It was a blandly rhetorical question, but staring down at my plate of dry-farmed Early Girls, a pang of mild panic flickered through me. I don’t know. I DON’T KNOW! (Even in blustery San Francisco, it’s hard to say goodbye to summer.) But as if on cue, I happened upon this recipe a few days later, a perky crostini topping with plump sun-dried tomatoes and fresh bell peppers. Swap out jarred roasted peppers in the dead of winter, easy to find in many markets, and you can pull the entire sunny-bright recipe from your pantry, save for the bread.

Careful readers of this blog may have noted that I’m very fond of little things on toasts: canapes, crostini, bruschetta, open-faced sandwiches. They’re versatile and generally easy to prep ahead, and this soulful, well-balanced spread is no exception. Serve on crostini as an appetizer or alongside a big salad as a light main event. The leftovers were just right as an easy topping on seared halibut, and tomorrow I may mix a few dollops into scrambled eggs with crumbled goat cheese. Summer’s never far away.

Red Pepper & Sun-Dried Tomato Relish
adapted from Anna Del Conte’s Italian Kitchen, 2012; serves about 6

  • 2 large red bell peppers
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, finely chopped
  • 2 fat garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
  • pinch chili flakes
  • one 8 oz. jar of sun-dried tomatoes packed in oil (I used the Mezzetta brand)
  • one tablespoon capers, rinsed
  • two anchovy fillets, minced
  • toasted bread slices, for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.  Roast the whole bell peppers on a rimmed baking sheet for 30 minutes.

In a medium sauté pan, drizzle two tablespoons of olive oil and warm over medium-high heat. Sweat the onions, stirring, for 3 minutes. Add the garlic, chili flakes, and balsamic vinegar; stir and cook down until soft.

Meanwhile, drain the tomatoes of their preserving oil and slice into thin strips; add to the onion-garlic soffritto (base mixture). Cook, stirring, for 5 minutes.

While the tomatoes are cooking, peel the bell peppers (the skins will look papery and blackened, and easy to peel). Discard the stem and seeds and dice into small pieces. Add to the tomato mixture. Sprinkle the minced anchovy on top and stir, squashing the anchovy into the relish until it melts away. Add the capers. Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding another splash of balsamic or a pinch of salt if needed. Serve warm, cold or room temperature with toasted bread.

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Kale Caesar Salad

Now, I realize that a raw kale salad might not sound very promising. Too many vitamins and minerals, too much health, too much green to still be edible, let alone enjoyable. But kale in a Caesar-style salad with a lemony dressing, crunchy homemade croutons and a flurry of Parmesan? Amazing. (One of my vegetable-and-salad-averse friends went for seconds on this batch. For raw kale!) My friend Kathy got me hooked on them by serving her garlicky, snappy version at a dinner she hosted, and this salad is now in permanent, frequent rotation at my house.

The sturdy, flavor-packed recipe stands up well to all sorts of robust main dishes (we had it most recently with grilled pork chops), and unlike other leafy salads, it actually improves if you dress it ahead, as the dressing’s acidity will tenderize the leaves. The salad’s brightness also makes it a great season-straddling way to use kale, when the leafy greens starts popping up at the market but it doesn’t seem quite right to start braising and soup-making just yet.

Kale Caesar Salad
adapted from Bi Rite Market’s Eat Good Food, 2012

  • one large bunch of lacinto or dino kale, about 12 oz
  • 2 medium cloves garlic
  • two anchovy fillets
  • one large lemon
  • 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, divided
  • kosher salt
  • fresh-cracked ground pepper

for the croutons:

  • half loaf of day-old country bread
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • pinch kosher salt
  • dried parsley

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Slice or tear the bread into 1″ hunks. On a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. Sprinkle with salt and parsley and toss to coat. Bake for about 12 minutes, flipping halfway through, until crispy and golden brown. (Your croutons make take more or less time in the oven, depending on the type of bread you have and how stale it is, so it’s best to keep an eye on them.) Set aside to cool slightly.

Meanwhile, rinse the kale well and pat dry. Discard any thick ribs from the greens and tear into large bite-sized pieces. Add to your serving bowl. On a cutting board, mince the garlic and anchovy. Sprinkle with a healthy pinch of salt and smash with the flat edge of your knife to make a paste. Transfer to a small bowl and add the olive oil, mustard, two tablespoons of lemon juice, half the grated cheese and several grindings of black pepper. Whisk to combine. Take a leaf and dip into the dressing to taste; add more lemon juice or salt to your taste.

Pour the dressing over the kale, and with your hands, toss to combine, massaging the dressing into the leaves to help tenderize them, about 2-3 minutes. (If you have time, let the salad sit for 5 extra minutes to let the kale soak up some of the dressing.) Smash two of your croutons into little bits over the salad, add the rest of croutons and the remaining cheese; toss to combine and serve.

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An enterprising hotel chef in 1920s New Zealand was the first to whip up a Pavlova, a culinary tribute to visiting ballerina Anna Pavlova’s ethereal, wispy beauty. They’re a perennial favorite of those lush islands, and in Australia, too, where every cook worth her salt has a recipe. Down under, the crisp-chewy meringues (delicately crunchy on the outside, cloud-like and a bit marshmallowy at the center) are often topped with passion-fruit, kiwis, and other local fruits. I used unaltered end-of-season peaches and raspberries; you might make a quick berry sauce or substitute whatever fruit’s in season and on hand.

Pavlova has an easy elegance, and its effortless charms make the dessert very well-suited for dinner party afters: bake the meringue days ahead (leave it out at room temperature, loosely covered), prep the fruit and cream in the morning and assemble faster than a pirouette for a graceful, simple dessert.

Pavlova with Peaches & Raspberries
adapted from Sinfully Easy Delicious Desserts by Alice Medrich, 2012; serves 6-8

  • one cup superfine sugar
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons cornstarch
  • 4 large egg whites, room temperature
  • one teaspoon distilled white vinegar
  • one cup heavy cream
  • one teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 teaspoons superfine sugar
  • one pint raspberries or blackberries
  • 2-3 large, ripe peaches, sliced

Preheat the oven to 275 degrees. On a large piece of parchment, trace a salad plate to make a 7-8″ circle. Flip the parchment over and place on a baking sheet; set aside. Mix the cup of sugar and cornstarch together.

To the clean bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, add the egg whites and vinegar. Whisk on medium-high; it will look frothy at first and then start to turn creamy and soft-looking; at that stage, with the machine running, start to sprinkle in the sugar by the tablespoon. Continue whisking until your meringue is glossy and very stiff, about 3-4 more minutes. (You can’t really overwhip this type of meringue, so don’t worry.)

With a spatula, transfer the meringue to your parchment. Spread within the traced circle in loose swirls. Bake for 1 hour and 15 minutes until lightly beige; it will feel crisp on the outside and likely cracked a bit in places. Transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. If you aren’t serving it that day (pavlovas will keep for several days), loosely cover with foil or plastic wrap and leave out at room temperature.

When ready to serve, whip the cream with the vanilla and 2 teaspoons superfine sugar. Dollop the cream over top and pile the peaches and berries on top of the cream. Serve.

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Baba Ganoush

I could probably eat my own weight in baba ganoush, the silky-textured eggplant dip that’s a constant of nearly every Middle Eastern culinary tradition. On a warm day with a cold beer and a pile of pita bread, there are few appetizers with which I’d rather spoil my appetite. It’s also a breeze to make at home (heat and a bowl are the only real equipment required) and scales up or down easily, depending on how many folks you’re feeding.

Traditionally, whole eggplants are grilled over hot coals until charred and tender, then smashed together with garlic, lemon and tahini (if you don’t care for it or can’t find it, substitute tangy, thick yogurt as they do in Turkey). I cheated a bit and just roasted my eggplant in the oven, adding smoked paprika and a dash of liquid smoke, which sounds like a weirdly sinister product, but it’s actually just real-deal hickory smoke that’s condensed with water. (Also a nice boost to homemade BBQ sauce.) Rigorously authentic? Maybe not, but my taste buds couldn’t tell.

Baba Ganoush (Smoky Eggplant Dip)
adapted from Sally Butcher’s The New Middle Eastern Vegetarian, 2012; serves 6-8

  • 2 pounds eggplant (about two large)
  • 3 tablespoons tahini (sesame paste)
  • 4 fat garlic cloves, in their skins
  • one lemon
  • one tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for roasting the garlic and for garnish
  • 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika, plus more for garnish
  • kosher salt
  • few drops liquid smoke (optional)
  • pita bread, for serving

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. With a paring knife, make several 1″ slices on the skin of the eggplants. Rub a bit of olive oil on the garlic cloves and wrap in a 4″ square of aluminum foil. Toss the garlic packet on an aluminum foil-lined baking sheet with the eggplant. Roast until the eggplant are tender and collapsing, about 40 minutes. Let cool for 15 minutes. Remove the calyx and peel away the skins; transfer the eggplant to a colander over the sink and let any excess juice drain away, about 5-10 minutes.

While the eggplant cools, squeeze the roasted garlic from their jackets into a medium bowl. Transfer the eggplant to the bowl; drizzle the tahini, one tablespoon of olive oil and two tablespoons of lemon juice over top. Add the the paprika, 1/2 teaspoon of kosher salt and a dash of liquid smoke, if using. With a potato masher or wooden spoon, smash the eggplant until well mixed into an even, slightly lumpy mixture. Taste and add a bit more salt or lemon juice to taste. Transfer to your serving bowl and garnish with more paprika and a drizzle of olive oil. Serve with pita or flatbread for dipping.

Note: the dip’s flavor improves with a little bit of time, so consider making it the night before. At the market, look for eggplants that are heavy for their size with taut, glossy skin; store in the fridge for a couple of days until needed.

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Slow-Roasted Summer Vegetables

That, friends, is one homely mess of vegetables. I almost didn’t share the recipe with you, it being rather underwhelming in the looks department, but the flavor (oh man, that flavor!) was so worth it that it seemed a bit unfair to keep all to myself. Those streaks in the bottom of the pan? That’s where we dragged pieces of ciabatta through to scrape up the very last little bits. (I didn’t throw “scarpetta” into the name of this blog for nothing.)

Layers of eggplant, tomatoes, zucchini and onions slow roast in a hot oven until they collapse and relax into one another, and it’s almost hard to tell where one vegetable starts and the other begins. Ever had a batch of ho-hum ratatouille or a soggy vegetable tian and think this could be so much better? Try this. Lucinda Scala Quinn’s trick is to press down on the veggies (use the back of a spatula or a wooden spoon) a few times during cooking, which releases the moisture so it can steam away, and all you’re left with is caramelized, olive oil-kissed goodness. (Smart!) This dish makes a delicious end-of-summer side to grilled fish or meat, but I could easily tuck into a plateful all on its own.

Slow-Roasted Summer Vegetables
adapted from Lucinda Scala Quinn’s Mad Hungry, 2010

  • one small-medium eggplant, thinly sliced crosswise and cut into half-moons
  • 5-6 small tomatoes, thinly sliced (Early Girls, if you can find them)
  • one yellow onion, peeled and sliced
  • 2-3 medium zucchini and/or summer squash, thinly sliced lengthwise
  • 3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
  • 1/2 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried oregano, divided
  • 1/3 cup extra-virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Splash a little of the olive oil into a glass or ceramic casserole dish (9×13 or a 12″ oval). Add half the onions and a third of the tomatoes. Sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon oregano. Add a layer of eggplant and sprinkle with 1/4 teaspoon salt. Add another third of the tomato slices, the zucchini, garlic, thyme, 1/4 teaspoon of oregano and 1/4 teaspoon salt. (If you have any leftover eggplant and zucchini, layer it on top.) Add the remaining onions and tomatoes. Smush the vegetables down a bit with your hands. Drizzle the rest of the olive oil over top.

Bake for 1 1/2 hours, uncovered. About 45 minutes in, smush the mixture down firmly with the back of a wooden spoon or a spatula. (The veggies will have shrunk down quite a bit and gone a little charred at the edges.) Return to the oven for another 45 minutes, pressing once more halfway through. Let cool for about 10 minutes before serving.

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Caleb’s Margarita

My friend Caleb hails from San Antonio, Texas, and as such he lightly salts his speech with “y’alls” and knows his way around that city’s storied breakfast tacos. Caleb’s a man of varied talents and quirks, many of them nurtured by the Lone Star State, but it’s my belief that his true Texan powers are with tequila. He’s a Spurs-loving mystic, a conjurer of Cointreau and lime wedges, maker of the best margarita I’ve ever had, anywhere.

Caleb’s margarita has little in common with frothy blender concoctions made with packaged sweet-sour mix, relying instead on fresh lime juice and a kiss of agave syrup. (You could use superfine sugar instead, in the same amount or to taste.) His is elegantly smooth and sweet-tart with just a hint of tequila’s husky fire, a good mood in a glass. And I’m just going to say this once: Caleb’s margarita goes down super-easy, y’all, but it is a sipper. (Trust me on that one.)

Caleb’s Margarita
serves one

  • 3 oz good tequila (Herradura, preferably)
  • 1 oz Cointreau
  • 1 oz fresh lime juice (or more to taste)
  • 1/2 teaspoon light agave syrup

In a cocktail shaker, add a handful of ice and all the ingredients. Shake until chilled and strain into a lowball glass. (No salt for me, please, but you can use a salt-rimmed glass if you like. Run a lime wedge around the rim and dip the glass into a saucer of flaky sea salt.) Garnish with a lime wedge.

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Panzanella is a sunny Tuscan bread salad made with tomatoes and onions, a clever way to stretch a good country loaf that’s gone a little stale. The traditional peasant dish is a tasty exercise in texture, with crunchy bread soaking up pulp and juice from ripe tomatoes and a peppery snap of red onion. Purists might blanch at the thought of fussing up such a simple dish, but you can really add any other Mediterranean ingredients you have on hand: capers, pitted black olives, roasted red peppers, a big handful of arugula or grilled hunks of summer squash. The proportions below are really just a rough sketch, so tweak as you see fit (more tomatoes, less bread, more basil).

I use the same technique described below to make awesome homemade croutons, the easiest (not to mention cheap!) way to jazz up otherwise ordinary garden salads and Caesars. Coat the bread cubes with the olive oil as evenly as you can, leave in the oven in a little longer (5-10 extra minutes or so) until they’re bone dry, then toss with a little garlic salt and dried herbs (I usually use parsley or an Italian blend). Seal the croutons tightly and keep at room temperature for a week or two and probably three, though at my house they never seem to last that long.

adapted from Polpo: a Venetian Cookbook (of Sorts), 2012; serves four

  • 1/2 loaf of day-old, crusty country bread
  • 2-3 large heirloom or garden tomatoes
  • 1/2 medium red onion
  • handful of fresh basil leaves
  • extra-virgin olive oil
  • kosher salt and black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Slice or tear the bread into 1″ hunks. On a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle the bread with olive oil (the amount will depend on how much bread you have, but about a 1/4 cup or a little less) and toss.

Bake the bread for 10 minutes, then shake the pan to flip. Bake 5 minutes more until light golden brown. (It’s okay, better even, if they’re not evenly toasted.) Meanwhile, thinly slice the onion and sprinkle with salt (about 1/2 teaspoon) and let sit for 10 minutes to reduce some of their raw bite. Add the warm bread to your serving bowl. Cut the tomatoes into thick wedges, add to your salad bowl and sprinkle lightly with salt. (If you have any tomato pulp or juice on your cutting board, scrape that into the bowl as well.) Add the onions. Tear the basil into small pieces and add to the bowl. Drizzle with olive oil and season with ground black pepper. Toss to combine.

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