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North Huntingdon food lover's project becomes 'Seriously Delish' guide

| Tuesday, Aug. 26, 2014, 9:00 p.m.
David Burke
Jessica Merchant, author of 'Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People Who Totally Love Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99)
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
“Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People Who Totally Love Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99), by Jessica Merchant
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Whole Wheat Blueberry Bundt Cake
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Zucchini Tacos with Grilled Corn Salsa
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Chocolate & Toasted Coconut Quinoa Parfaits

Jessica Merchant's food blog, “How Sweet Eats,” is 5 years old, but she doesn't profess to be a culinary genius. In fact, she says, she's quite the opposite.

Merchant even documents her mistakes in a section of her blog devoted to “Recipe Disasters” with color photos and explanations of kitchen creations gone wrong — from burned glazed-doughnut holes that resembled lumps of coal to goat cheese alfredo that curdled and separated and cupcakes that sunk in the middle.

“Every year in December, I post that year's failures,” Merchant of North Huntingdon says. “My biggest failure was on our first Valentine's Day (with her husband, Eddie) when I tried to make red velvet cake in mini-cake pans, and they exploded all over the oven.”

Getting to know her, you soon learn that she's a true fan of bacon and chocolate, and she hates vegetables of all sorts — except for ears of local, sweet corn, which she devours in multiples and features in several seasonal recipes. One of her current favorites is a caramelized shallot corn relish that she slathers over broiled garlic-butter salmon — or eats by the spoonful.

“It is the most delicious concoction of savory flavors to come out of my kitchen in a long, long time,” she writes.

Her first cookbook, “Seriously Delish: 150 Recipes for People Who Totally Love Food” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99), will debut Sept. 2.

So, why does the self-proclaimed average cook with no formal culinary training choose to write about food?

“I am madly, passionately, inexplicably in love with food,” she says.

Merchant grew up in a family of home cooks, including her stay-at-home mother, and her late grandmothers. Her maternal grandmother, Virginia Lovett, nicknamed Mother Lovett by her father, had a penchant for baking. Her paternal grandma, Lois Merchant, loved entertaining.

Merchant says it wasn't until she was well into her 20s that she started cooking.

“I baked with my grandmothers, but probably, when I got married was my first realization that I have my own kitchen and can make whatever I want every night,” she says.

She started out by taking the classic meals her mom prepared and tweaking her recipes with a creative flair. Traditional ground-beef tacos became fish tacos, and grilled cheese took a healthy turn in her “Green Grilled Cheese” with fresh spinach, whole-grain bread, fontina and sharp white cheddar cheese.

Even a basic peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich evolved into her “Grown-up PB & Js (Chipotle Peanut Butter & Bourbon Pineapple Spread).”

One of the biggest cooking challenges she faced was roasting a whole organic chicken.

“I was very intimidated at first at the thought of touching all of that raw meat,” she says. “I made it the first time, and it was the best chicken we'd ever had.”

It's now one of the couple's weekly Sunday dinners, with leftovers added to lunch, soup or quesadillas.

“It's something quick and easy. It was truly a matter of just doing it,” she says.

Merchant says one of the reasons she chose to write a book was to provide simple options for those people who, like herself, want good food that isn't too complicated to prepare.

“Weekdays are so difficult because you work all day,” she says. “It's so easy to stop on your way home and pick something up or pop in a frozen meal. My recipes are geared to busy young professionals who don't have a ton of time to cook.”

She and her husband are busy preparing for their first baby, due in December. And she is looking forward to her first book tour, which will get under way Sept. 2 in Tampa, Fla., and include the following hometown stops:

• 3 p.m. Sept. 6, Barnes & Noble, South Hills Village

• 6 p.m. Sept. 23, Penguin Bookstore, Sewickley

• 6 p.m. Oct. 23, Crate, Green Tree, cooking class, ticket required

• 4 p.m. Oct. 29, Barnes & Noble, Duquesne University

• 6 p.m. Nov. 6, Crate, Green Tree, cooking class, ticket required

• Nov. 8, McGinnis Sisters, Adams

Candy Williams is a contributing writer for Trib Total Media.

Recipes used with permission from “Seriously Delish” ( Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $29.99), by Jessica Merchant.

Zucchini Tacos With Grilled Corn Salsa

Time: 30 minutes

For the zucchini:

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 shallots, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 cups cubed zucchini

12 teaspoon salt

12 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Corn Salsa:

2 ears grilled corn, kernels cut from cob

1 jalapeno chile pepper, seeded and diced

2 tablespoons chopped, fresh cilantro

Juice of 1 lime

14 teaspoon salt

14 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

For the Chipotle Crema:

3 tablespoons plain full-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt

2 teaspoons adobo sauce from a can of chipotle chile peppers in adobo sauce

Juice of 1 lime

Pinch of salt

Pinch of freshly ground black pepper

For serving:

8 (4-inch) flour tortillas, warmed

To prepare the zucchini: Heat a large skillet over medium-low heat and add the olive oil. Add the shallots and garlic and, stirring, cook until softened, for 2 to 3 minutes. Add the cubed zucchini, salt and pepper and stir. Cook, stirring, until the zucchini becomes slightly tender, for 5 to 6 minutes.

Remove the skillet from the heat and set aside.

To prepare the Corn Salsa: Combine the corn, jalapeno peppers, cilantro, lime juice, salt and pepper in a bowl and toss it.

To prepare the Chipotle Crema: Whisk together the yogurt, adobo sauce, lime juice, salt and pepper.

For serving: Add some of the zucchini mixture to each warm tortilla and cover it with corn salsa. Drizzle the crema on top.

Makes 2-4 servings.

Whole-Wheat Blueberry Bundt Cake

Time: 1 12 hours

“You know who loves Bundt cakes? My mom,” Jessica Merchant writes. “Perhaps it's because she is a baby boomer or, perhaps, it's just because she is really good at making them, but you can almost always count on a Bundt cake being in her kitchen.

“And, as a reminder, she is also the kind of woman who can bake a cake, then let it sit on her counter all week in a pretty dome while she savors one slice a day. One slice, people.

“Now, isn't that the kind of woman we all aspire to be? I had the best example ever.”

For the cake:

Nonstick baking spray

2 cups whole-wheat pastry flour plus 1 tablespoon for rolling the blueberries

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

14 teaspoon salt

3 large eggs

23 cup loosely packed light-brown sugar

12 cup grape-seed oil

1 cup plain full-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 pint fresh blueberries

For the blueberry glaze:

12 cup fresh blueberries

1 12 cup confectioners' sugar

12 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 tablespoons milk

To prepare the cake: Heat the oven to 350 degrees. Liberally coat a 6-cup Bundt pan with baking spray.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.

Add the eggs and brown sugar to the bowl of an electric mixer. Beat on medium speed until fluffy, for 3 to 4 minutes. Add the grape-seed oil and beat for 1 to 2 minutes on low speed. Scrape down the sides of the bowl, if needed. Add half of the yogurt and the vanilla extract and beat until combined. With the mixer on low speed, add the dry ingredients. Add the remaining yogurt, and beat until just combined.

Toss the blueberries with the flour and add them to the batter. Fold them into the batter with a spatula, then pour the batter into the Bundt pan. Bake until the top of the cake is golden brown, for 45 minutes. Remove the cake from the oven and let it cool in the pan for 15 minutes.

To prepare the blueberry glaze: Add the blueberries to a food processor and blend until the blueberries are pureed. Add the powdered sugar, vanilla extract and milk. Blend until the ingredients are combined and creamy.

Gently invert the pan on a cake plate to remove the cake. As soon as you remove the cake from the Bundt pan, pour the glaze over the top.

Makes 6 to 8 servings.

Chocolate & Toasted-Coconut Quinoa Parfaits

Time: 25 minutes

“Quinoa-yogurt parfaits are one of those treats that I discovered through food blogging,” Jessica Merchant writes. “I surprisingly wasn't ever hesitant, because I'm always looking for another way to use the trendy seed, and, yes, I'm calling it a treat because when chocolate and coconut are involved, you don't even care about the quinoa.

“Actually wait, you do care about the quinoa — because you use it to justify some extra goodies in your parfait. Quinoa and chocolate? It's a health food! Complete protein and complex carbohydrates and extra antioxidants.

“All that's missing is some wine.”

12 cup quinoa

12 cup canned light coconut milk

12 cup water

14 teaspoon salt

1 12 cups plain full-fat or low-fat Greek yogurt

13 cup unsweetened, flaked coconut, toasted

4 ounces high-quality dark chocolate, chopped

Add the quinoa to a fine-mesh strainer and rinse it well. Place the quinoa, coconut milk, water and salt in a small saucepan over medium heat. Bring the mixture to a boil and immediately reduce the heat to low. Cover the pan and cook until the liquid is absorbed, for 15 minutes. When the quinoa is finished, scoop it into a bowl and allow it to cool. You can even stick it in the fridge to speed the process.

To assemble the parfaits, use a pretty glass or jar and layer a few tablespoons of the quinoa, a few tablespoons of yogurt and a sprinkling of coconut and chocolate together. Repeat the process 2 or 3 more times to create the parfait.

Notes: You can make a big batch of quinoa at the beginning of the week to use for breakfast bowls and parfaits. Just scoop it right out of the fridge. The parfaits can also be made about an hour ahead of time and stored in the fridge if you'd like to serve them at a brunch or a party.

The more commonly known parfait is usually stuffed with fruit, and there need be no exception to the rule here. Try stuffing some strawberries and kiwis between your quinoa and yogurt layers, or even some super-fresh peaches and brown sugar in the summer. Come autumn, mix a few spoonfuls of pureed pumpkin and pumpkin pie spice right into the yogurt, then sprinkle in some toasted pecans and almonds.

Makes 2 servings.

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