Minestrone is a mainstay, regardless of season

Soup, as this week’s A la Carte acknowledges, is a cup of cheer that wards off winter’s chill.

And it isn’t just the substance, itself. The very idea of soup on the stove is a tonic to the soul. Months before this week’s food-section story sang the praises of soup, I hummed a happy little tune each time my freezer gained another quart: ham and bean with collard greens, French onion, turkey-vegetable, chili and our mainstay minestrone.

I conclude every year’s growing season with a batch of minestrone from whichever summer vegetables can be gleaned from the garden. So mine almost always contains zucchini, eggplant, green beans and fresh tomatoes, along with carrot, celery, onion and garlic.

I typically freeze that basic format without pasta or canned beans, which can be added to the defrosted and reheated product according to which are close at hand. Topped with a little of our homemade pesto, also from the freezer, the dish satisfies no matter the season.

Although this blog has mentioned homemade minestrone a half-dozen times, I’ve never posted an actual recipe. This one, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press, is just right for winter’s reliance on pantry-staple veggies, rather than summer’s bounty.

Tribune News Service photo

Hearty Minestrone With Celery and Parmesan

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 cups diced celery plus 1/2 cup chopped celery leaves, divided

1/2 cup diced onion

1/2 cup diced carrot

1 large garlic clove, peeled and chopped

1 teaspoon celery seed

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

4 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth or vegetable broth

1/2 cup orzo or other small pasta

1 can (15 ounces) Italian-style diced tomatoes

1 can (15 ounces) cannellini beans, rinsed

1/4 to 1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving

Heat the oil in a large saucepan or wide shallow soup pot over medium heat. Add the diced celery, onion, carrot, garlic, celery seed and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are tender, for about 10 minutes.

Add the broth and bring to a boil. Add the pasta and cook, uncovered, until tender, for 8 to 10 minutes. Add the tomatoes, beans, half the celery leaves and 1/4 cup of the cheese. Cook over medium heat until steaming-hot, for 3 to 5 minutes. Ladle into bowls and garnish with remaining celery leaves and a light dusting of cheese, if desired.

Makes 4 servings.

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Candy cane-chocolate brittle a breeze to prepare

Turning the calendar’s page from November to December marks the rise of peppermint flavor and pumpkin spice’s fall from favor. At least for another year.

I happen to be a year-round fan of both but can appreciate an extra dash of each, depending on the season. Peppermint tea is my preferred caffeine-free fix, and peppermint extract is one of my favorite complements to dark chocolate.

This traditional peppermint-chocolate bark is simpler to prepare than the “new and improved” version in this week’s A la Carte. The recipe featured in the food section’s print and e- editions combines a spritz cookie with chocolate-peppermint candy. This one, courtesy of Tribune News Service, would keep longer and hold up better when packaged for gift-giving.

The easiest approach is to use the tiniest candy canes available, put them in a zip-lock bag and smash on a sturdy counter with a mallet. You don’t want them ground to dust, just broken into shards.

Tribune News Service photo

Candy-Cane Brittle

1 pound high-quality bittersweet chocolate, chopped

1 cup chopped candy canes, divided

1/2 cup chocolate wafer cookies (such as Nabisco Famous Chocolate Wafers), lightly crushed

1 ounce high-quality white chocolate, melted

Line a large baking sheet with foil.

Place the bittersweet chocolate in a medium metal bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water; stir until melted.

Stir in 3/4 cup of the chopped candy and all of the crushed cookies; spread over foil. Sprinkle remaining ¼ cup candy over. Drizzle with the melted white chocolate.

Chill until set, for about 30 minutes. Break into shards.

— Recipe adapted from Bon Appétit

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Lemon, saffron dress up meatballs’ creamy sauce

The “little black dresses” of the culinary world, meatballs can fill a sandwich, pair with pasta, buoy a soup, top a pizza and hold their own in spreads both casual and elegant.

No less versatile when it comes to family meals, meatballs are a go-to on my menus. When a few months have passed since making a batch, I assemble at least two types of ground meat and sundry other ingredients on hand. Our family favorite recipe, shared in a 2007 post, remains a staple, with at least a dozen meatballs destined for the freezer.

Even without a recipe, meatballs are a no-brainer format for using a bit of ground meat, maybe some leftover, cooked grain and any soft vegetable that promotes a homogenous, tender texture. In the absence of breadcrumbs mixed with egg, I’ve bound the meat mixture with a few tablespoons of yogurt, ricotta cheese or soft tofu. Even picky kids can’t resist these.

A half-dozen meatball recipes have been posted to this blog over the years, but this one’s creamy sauce, with bright flavors of lemon, parsley and white wine, departs from the typical flavor profile. The expense of saffron threads for the sauce makes these meatballs worthy of special-occasion fare. Consider making and then freezing them to ease holiday entertaining, as explained in a recent story for the Mail Tribune’s holiday guide.

Tribune News Service photo

Albondigas en Salsa de Limon (Meatballs in Lemon Sauce)

6 tablespoons dry breadcrumbs

1/4 cup milk

3/4 pound ground veal

3/4 pound ground pork

2 eggs, plus 2 egg yolks, divided

2 tablespoons finely chopped prosciutto

1 1/2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme leaves or ¾ teaspoon dried thyme

1 1/2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt, plus more to taste

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

5 tablespoons minced, fresh parsley, divided

3 garlic cloves, peeled, minced and divided

6 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice, divided

All-purpose flour, for dusting

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

1/4 cup finely chopped Mayan onion

3/4 cup chicken broth

3 tablespoons dry white wine

Pinch of crumbled saffron threads

4 ounces mushrooms, brushed clean, stems trimmed and caps halved or quartered

Chicken broth or water, as needed

To prepare meatballs, combine the breadcrumbs with milk in a large bowl. Gently mix in the ground veal and pork, eggs, parsley, prosciutto, thyme, salt, pepper, 2 tablespoons of the parsley, 2 of the minced garlic cloves, and half of the lemon juice. Shape into 1/2-inch meatballs and dust with the flour.

To prepare sauce, heat the oil in a shallow, flameproof casserole over medium-high heat, and saute meatballs until brown on all sides. Add the onion and saute until softened. Stir in the broth and wine. Bring to a boil over high heat. Cover and simmer for 40 minutes.

Mash 2 tablespoons of the parsley with remaining garlic, the saffron and a pinch of salt to a paste in a mortar, or process in a mini food processor until finely minced.

Transfer meatballs to a warm plate and keep warm. Strain sauce through a fine sieve, pressing on solids with back of a metal soup ladle to extract as much liquid as possible. Return sauce to casserole and add the mushrooms, mortar mixture and remaining lemon juice.

Whisk the egg yolks with a little hot sauce from casserole in a small bowl, then add back to casserole. Cook over low heat, stirring continuously until thickened (do not boil). If sauce seems too thick, add a little of the broth or water. (it may need no additional liquid.) Return meatballs to sauce and simmer for 1 minute. Serve straight from casserole, sprinkled with remaining parsley.

— Recipe from “One Pot Spanish” by Penelope Casas (Sellers Publishing; 2009).

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Stock pantry, refrigerator, freezer for fast pastas

As carbohydrate-heavy as the Thanksgiving meal tends to be, I come off that eating marathon hungry for pasta.

Omitted from the main spread, pasta typically doesn’t show up until the week’s last hurrah with turkey-noodle soup. But we returned home from almost a week away with frozen turkey carcasses and the need for a fast dinner assembled with pantry staples.

Enter pasta. One of my go-to recipes is carbonara, which requires only ingredients I perpetually have in abundance: bacon from the half-hog in our freezer and eggs from our backyard chickens. Plucking a few collard greens from the winter garden improves this dish’s nutritional profile.

For a satisfying dinner that needs no chopping or sautéing, I grab any oil-packed, brine-cured, savory morsel that enjoys permanent status in the refrigerator. Plain-Jane spaghetti becomes almost fancy with sun-dried tomatoes, Kalamata olives, capers and toasted pine nuts in a butter sauce enhanced with anchovy paste and red-pepper flakes.

Similar in concept is this “pantry pasta,” courtesy of the Chicago Tribune. I would hazard that mascarpone cheese doesn’t quite qualify as a staple. More common in most households is cream cheese, which can be substituted but will yield a sauce that tends to stiffen up once removed from the heat.

Tribune News Service photo

Pantry Pasta

Cook 1/2 pound spaghetti in plenty of well-salted, boiling water until al dente.

Meanwhile, in a skillet over medium heat, heat 2 tablespoons olive oil. Add 1 garlic clove, peeled and minced; cook for 1 minute. Stir in 1 (12-ounce) jar roasted red bell peppers, drained, rinsed and sliced into strips.

Turn heat to low; stir in 4 ounces mascarpone cheese. Add some hot pasta water to help it melt. Sprinkle on 2 teaspoons capers and fresh or dried thyme or basil to taste.

Drain pasta. Stir it into skillet to coat with sauce. Makes 2 servings.

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Tired of turkey sandwiches? Try smorrebrod

The week after Thanksgiving can’t pass without the obligatory turkey sandwich. For some of us, make that more than one.

I like turkey probably more than the average person. But once the cranberry sauce is gone, along with neat slices from the bird’s breast, I’m ready to move on.

Tuna salad trumped turkey for today’s lunch. Building on the appeal of fish flaked and spread on bread is this recipe from the Chicago Tribune inspired by smorrebrod served in New York’s Great Northern Food Hall.

Literally “butter and bread,” smorrebrod are open-face sandwiches from Denmark. Reducing the ratio of bread to filling should please anyone cutting back on carbohydrates. A layer of butter between the bread and fish isn’t just delicious; it keeps the bread from becoming soggy.

Hungry? Read more about the Great Northern Food Hall and the Nordic diet in this month’s Oregon Healthy Living magazine.

Tribune News Service photo

Double Salmon and Chives on Rye

1 (8-ounce) package  light cream cheese, softened

1/4 cup sour cream

Finely grated lemon zest from ½ lemon

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

2 to 3 dashes red-pepper hot sauce (optional)

1/4 cup finely chopped fresh fennel bulb (or celery)

1/4 cup finely diced, roasted red bell pepper (homemade or jarred)

1/4 cup chopped, fresh chives

4 ounces smoked salmon, such as Nova salmon pieces, chopped (about 1 cup)

1 (6-ounce) can wild Alaskan red or pink salmon, drained and flaked

Soft butter (optional)

6 to 12 slices hearty rye bread

Fresh fennel fronds, shaved fresh fennel bulb, sliced tomato, thin apple slices, for garnish

In a medium bowl, stir together the softened cream cheese and sour cream until smooth. Stir in the lemon zest, salt, pepper and hot sauce until well-mixed. Stir in the fennel, red pepper and chives. Fold in the smoked and canned salmons. Refrigerate, covered, for up to 3 or 4 days.

To assemble sandwiches, spread a thin layer of the soft butter (if using) over 1 side of a slice of the bread. Top with a 1/2-inch-thick smear of salmon mixture. Garnish as desired. Serve with a knife and fork. (Or top with a second slice of buttered bread and skip utensils).

Makes about 3 cups, 6 servings.

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Pear streusel pie a simple swap in holiday spread

Most Thanksgiving menus are set, the shopping done and prep work well underway by Wednesday before the big feast.

In my family, however, the meal’s parameters were firmly established some 30 years ago. Whenever my mom and I attempt to change or eliminate items from the well-worn but much-beloved roster, cries of protest arise from anyone whose favorite dish is in danger of being discarded.

We’ve pulled off a few improvements in the past five years or so. Purchasing a heritage-breed bird raised on pastures south of Bandon has become a tradition. And when we can procure some other coastal forage, such as this year’s chanterelle mushrooms and huckleberries, we feature them prominently.

But we’re still left with a menu of no fewer than 15 items, ranging in their wholesomeness and deliciousness from the stuffing made with homemade bread to the straight-out-of-the-’60s Twenty-Four-Hour Salad. It, along with the cranberry sauce made from South Coast cranberries, constitute the meal’s fruit.

That ratio would increase with the inclusion of a fruit pie, rather than our usual pumpkin and pecan. Because apples and pears already are handy around the house, either would be an easy, 11th-hour addition to the spread.

Underutilized in pies, but so delicious, pears would get my vote. This simple recipe with streusel topping is courtesy of Tribune News Service.

And if your family simply can’t do without pumpkin pie, see this week’s A la Carte for a few suggestions for making it extra-special. Among them are pears and cranberries.

Tribune News Service photo

Pear Crunch Pie

5 cups cored, peeled, and sliced Bartlett pears (about 5 to 7, depending on size, and very ripe)

2 tablespoons lemon juice

2 tablespoons cornstarch

1/2 teaspoon cinnamon

Good pinch nutmeg

Good pinch salt

2/3 cup sugar (or half white and half brown sugar), plus 2 teaspoons, divided

1 9-inch pie shell, unbaked (homemade or store-bought)

1 tablespoon butter

Streusel topping

1/2 cup quick-cooking rolled oats

1/3 cup flour

1/3 cup butter, melted

1/4 cup chopped almonds or walnuts

Preheat oven to 375 F. In a medium bowl, combine the pears, lemon juice, cornstarch, cinnamon, nutmeg, salt and 2/3 cup sugar. Set aside to let juices form. Prepare pastry for a 9-inch pie shell.

Dump filling into prepared pie shell and dot with the butter. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare topping. With a fork, the mix oats, flour, melted butter, almonds and 2 teaspoons sugar, until well-combined and crumbly.

Remove pie from oven, sprinkle topping evenly over pear filling, then return pie to oven and continue baking for 50 to 60 minutes.

Remove to a rack to cool. Serve warm with whipped cream or ice cream.

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Position parsnips prominently on winter’s plate

Parsnips are a gateway to the realm of root vegetables, which shed their ugly duckling reputation in this week’s A la Carte.

Sweeter than carrots with a satisfying starchiness, parsnips once were winter’s primary storehouse staple throughout Europe. Then the potato, imported from the New World, surpassed the parsnip’s prominence.

A stash of parsnips is a staple in my kitchen, once the weather turns cooler and my culinary mood shifts to stews, curries, casseroles and other comfort foods. We enjoyed parsnips this week, paired with its close cousin the carrot, in lentil stew and shepherd’s pie.

I often favor parsnips with turnips, whose slight bitterness offsets the sweetness in parsnips that can become cloying. But my husband wanted something sweet to soothe an upset stomach.

Now that everyone’s appetite is back in full force, parsnip chips may be just the thing to get my young sons to eat more veggies. A mandoline makes short work of slicing the parsnips, as directed in this week’s story.

And for a vegetable side dish that would play equally well on the weeknight or holiday table, consider this recipe from the Chicago Tribune. In addition to parsnips and carrots, it mingles two other members of the Apiaceae family of flowering plants: parsley and cumin.

Tribune News Service photo

Parsnip Family Reunion

1 pound small parsnips (about 8), peeled and trimmed

1 pound carrots (about 6), peeled and trimmed

1 garlic clove

1 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon pepper

1/4 teaspoon ground cumin

6 tablespoons fresh orange juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/2 cup finely chopped, fresh parsley

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add the whole parsnips and carrots. Cook until tender (test by poking with a fork), for 15 to 17 minutes.

Meanwhile, using a mortar and pestle (or heavy knife) smash together the garlic, salt, pepper and cumin. Whisk together with the orange juice, oil and lemon juice. Set aside.

When vegetables are cooked, drain. Note: Small parsnips should have tender cores about the diameter of a pencil. If you find wide, woody cores, slice parsnip lengthwise, cut out and discard cores. Slice parsnips and carrots crosswise, diagonally, into 1/4-inch-thick ovals.

Set a wide skillet (or two) over medium heat. Melt the butter in skillet. Slide in sliced parsnips and carrots. Cook, turning now and then, until most slices have turned golden-brown, for about 8 minutes.

Pour in orange-juice mixture. Reduce heat to low; cook, tossing, for 1 minute.

Slide everything into a serving dish. Sprinkle with the parsley (and more salt and pepper if need be). Enjoy at room temperature.

Makes 4 to 6 servings.

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Simple squash soup repurposes pantry staple

Even as I’ve been grateful for soup in the freezer, a week of upset tummies and sore throats called for mild flavors and smooth textures.

Recalling a carton of butternut squash soup I’d purchased for just such an occasion, I went rummaging among the pantry’s cans. The carton wasn’t so difficult to spot, but I’d clearly pushed the soup’s origins farther back in my mind than on the pantry shelf. Best by: October … 2013. Naaahhhh.

I’m not usually one to let dates on shelf-stable goods dictate my meal plans. Consumer misunderstanding and the food industry’s lack of standardization lead to the waste of millions of pounds of perfectly good food every year. But we already were dealing with the aftermath of a likely foodborne illness. So this wasn’t a time to play the odds.

Consigning the carton to the chicken-feed container somewhat soothed my frugal soul. But before adding the soup to my grocery list, I had to ponder the likelihood that it wouldn’t meet the same fate. Then I ran across this recipe from Tribune News Service.

Squash Soup With Sausage is exactly the sort of thing my family favors, even picky kids. And it’s ready about as quickly as boxed macaroni and cheese.

Putting orzo into a soup, rather than giving it to my kids drained and buttered, also should alleviate some of the sticky mess I struggled to clean up since their last serving of this tiny pasta. I’d even sneak the soup into their mac-n-cheese.

Ssssshhh!

Squash Soup With Sausage

Tribune News Service photo

In a large saucepan of well-salted boiling water, cook 1/2 cup orzo pasta until al dente.

Meanwhile in a Dutch oven over medium-high heat, heat 1 tablespoon olive; add 1 small onion, peeled and chopped, and 2 links precooked chicken sausage, sliced. Cook until onion has softened and sausage has lightly browned, for about 3 minutes. Add 1 tablespoon chopped, fresh thyme leaves; cook, stirring occasionally, for 1 minute. Deglaze pan with 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar.

Pour in 1 (32-ounce) carton butternut squash soup; cook until warmed through, stirring occasionally, for 7 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta; add to soup.

Makes 4 servings.

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Triple-creme Brie is a perfect pairing for pears

Windfalls. Referring to fruit, the term most often describes apples. But it was a windfall of pears that greeted me upon returning from a long weekend away from home.

My mother-in-law left four, long-necked Boscs on the counter, along with a squat, green winter squash. My mom packed up a few rapidly ripening Comices in a care package for her grandsons, intended to tide us over until we could do the grocery shopping. That’s not to mention the few pears I had left on the counter, which were perfect for eating the evening we arrived home.

Because so many pears hit peak ripeness before we could consume them all, I’ll need to consign some to cooked dishes. The recipes in this week’s food section, particularly upside-down cake and pear-dried cherry cobbler, would be ideal starting points.

When we make it to the grocery store, a delicious cheese is pair with pears is on my list. The finest triple-crème Brie is suggested with these grilled pears. Two specific types are suggested.

This recipe, courtesy of the Chicago Tribune, also puts the rush on pears that aren’t perfectly ripe. Grilling, of course, releases the pear’s juices and caramelizes the sugars for more flavor. A caramel sauce pushes this dish into the realm of decadence.

Tribune News Service photo

Grilled Pears

4 ounces Brie (such as Brillat-Savarin or Moses Sleeper) or other triple-cream cow’s milk cheese

4 firm, ripe Bartlett pears

1 stick (1/2 cup) unsalted butter

6 tablespoons dark brown sugar

1/2 teaspoon

1 pinch salt

Cut the cheese into 12 small portions. Let rest at room temperature.

Leaving skin on the pears, slice each lengthwise into 1/3-inch-wide planks. Use a paring knife or apple corer to punch out any seeds. (Each slice will look something like a guitar: pear profile with a hole in belly.) Set pears on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.

In a medium saucepan over medium heat, whisk together the butter, sugar, vanilla and salt until thick and foamy, for about 4 minutes. Keep this caramel sauce warm over low heat.

Brush each pear plank lightly on both sides with sauce.

Set a gas grill to medium-hot, or prepare a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill. Clean and oil grates. (Or use a ridged griddle pan set over medium heat.) Grill pears, turning once or twice, until golden-brown and nicely crisscrossed with grill marks, for about 8 minutes.

On each of 4 plates fan out 4 pear planks separated by 3 cheese wedges. Warm pears will melt cheese. Drizzle each with about 1 tablespoon of remaining sauce. Enjoy.

Makes 4 servings.

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Cache chicken soup in freezer, without dumplings

Returning home from a long weekend away should have been a comfort to my cold and cough. But a break in the city’s water line, leaving my house without water, put a considerable damper on our homecoming.

With no running water, of course, cooking becomes challenging. It’s time like these when I’m grateful for several quarts of soup stashed away I my freezer, perfect comfort food.

Among my options are ham and bean with collard greens, French onion and turkey-vegetable, which I could beef up even more with the addition of some quick-cooking noodles. I could even mix up the dumplings in the following recipe and add to my ready-made soup.

This classic chicken version, courtesy of the Detroit Free Press, would be one to add to the freezer. Despite the long list of ingredients, the recipe is straightforward and comes together in a few minutes, once the stock has simmered.

See five more recipes for fast fall soups in the current edition of A la Carte.

Tribune News Service photo

Chicken Soup With Parsley-Thyme Dumplings

Broth:

1 large chicken breast, skin removed

2 chicken thighs, skin removed

2 chicken legs, leave skin on one

1 medium onion, quartered

3 carrots, cut into large pieces

2 celery ribs, cut into large pieces

8 parsley sprigs

1/2 cup celery leaves

2 bay leaves

10 black peppercorns (optional)

Soup:

2 medium onions, peeled and chopped

5 carrots, peeled and sliced 1/4-inch thick

3 ribs celery, sliced 1/4-inch thick

1 large parsnip, sliced (optional)

1 tablespoon oil

Salt and pepper, to taste

Dumplings:

11/2 cups all-purpose flour

2/3 cup water

2 large eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon black pepper

1/3 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme

In a large stockpot, put the chicken parts. You can add extra parts like wings or backs if you like.

Add the onion, carrots and celery ribs. Wrap the parsley sprigs, celery leaves, bay leaves and peppercorns in a piece of cheesecloth and add to pot.

Cover with cold water, about 14 to 16 cups, several inches above ingredients. Bring mixture just to a boil; immediately reduce heat to a simmer.

Partially cover and simmer mixture (little bubbles should just break surface) for about an hour and 20 minutes without stirring; skim foam that rises to the top. Remove chicken pieces after they’re cooked through. Keep mixture simmering for 30 minutes more if you want to develop flavor.

While mixture is simmering, peel and slice the vegetables for soup. Mix all the dumpling ingredients in a separate bowl.

When chicken is cool enough to handle, remove and discard skin from the one leg, and remove meat from bone and shred.

Set a mesh colander over a large bowl or another stockpot and pour broth mixture into colander to strain. Discard solids in colander.

Wipe out stockpot, add the oil and heat over medium heat. Add soup vegetables and sauté for about 10 minutes. Add shredded chicken and strained broth mixture. Simmer for about 30 minutes.

Just before serving, use an approximate 1 teaspoon measure to drop dumpling dough into simmering soup. Season as needed with salt and pepper.

Makes 8 servings.

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    Sarah Lemon

    Sarah Lemon covers the Rogue Valley’s food scene with an enthusiasm that rivals her love of cooking. Her blog mixes culinary musings and milestones with tips and recipes you won’t find in the Mail Tribune’s weekly A la Carte section. When ... Read Full
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