Friday, June 18, 2010


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Save-My-Ass Summer: Grilled Jalapeno Poppers

Ahem. In case you hadn't noticed, the weather's heating up. That means shorts. Mini-skirts. The dreaded swimsuit and the baring of post-winter backside. I don't know about you, but the first exhibition of pasty, stew-fortified winter skin makes me cringe.

So how do we cope? We cheat. We break out the razor, the pedicures. Scan the drugstore aisles for any depilatory that doesn't smell like a home perm. Self-tanner is our friend. Hey, a girl does what she's gotta do.

Gaining weight in the winter is natural right? It's biology in action--fat is nature's Snuggie, n'est ce pas? But when the days get steamy, it's time to display some backside; preferably some that you're not ashamed of.

And yet, I'm not one of those freakazoids who can pull a Paltrow and exist on veggie juice and downward dog for two weeks straight. Sorry. I sort of like food.

We're easing into things moderately here, trying to trade in mashed potatoes for sweet corn, s'mores for strawberries. And guess what? When things healthy are concerned, the grill is your best friend.

Take the other weekend, for example. We had family and friends over for an afternoon of food and water mischief, and I wanted to keep things festive but not heavy. Awesome Stepkid R. was craving something spicy and cheesy, and while his scrawny caboose might be able to handle traditional jalapeno poppers, mine certainly can't.

But thanks to the Flay-man, we didn't have to compromise much. These grilled poppers deliver all the flavor and none of the grease-coma. They're a perfect thing to break out this weekend for your favorite, spice-loving Daddy-O.

Grilled Stuffed Jalapeno Chilis
recipe slightly adapted from Bobby Flay
serves 6

4 oz. reduced fat cream cheese, at room temperature
2 oz. soft goat cheese
1 1/4 cup shredded reduced-fat white or yellow cheddar cheese*
2 green onions (green and pale-green part), thinly sliced
few dashes ground cumin and hot sauce
salt and black pepper
12 large jalapeno chilis, halved lengthwise, stemmed and seeded
1 heaping tablespoon ancho chili powder

Heat grill to medium.

Whisk together the cream cheese and goat cheese in a medium bowl until smooth. Fold in the cheddar, green onions, cumin and hot sauce. Season with salt and pepper.

Fill each jalapeno half with about 2 tablespoons of the cheese mixture; sprinkle the top with ancho powder.

Place chilis on the grill (or use a grill basket, if preferred), filling-side up, and cook until slightly charred and tender, about 8 to 10 minutes.

**Cabot brand or Cracker Barrel reduced-fat, block cheese only, please. Otherwise, just run a few extra laps and use the full-fat stuff.


I don't bake, but if you're feeling like getting your inner Ace of Cakes on, there's some cute Father's Day cake ideas here!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Veg-Head Tuesday: The Spectacular Shroom

Hi Readers! Back from a very restful and completely unplugged visit to beautiful California! More on that after the dust settles...I'll be trying to catch up with you slowly this week, so please be patient with me. I really can't wait to hear what y'all have been up to!

Shhhh...can you hear that? That's your grill, covered in dust from a long winter, catcalling in your ear, saying, "Hey babycakes, it's been too long, don'tcha think? How 'bout going for a little spin, eh?"

Wake up, folks! Dust that dude off! It's prime grilling time--the weather is neither so steamy that you can't fathom heating ANYthing up (even a grill) nor so chilly that you crave a bowl of Guiness stew. It's sweet-spot weather!

Well, at least it is in my neck of the woods.

Don't assume that your grill discriminates, either. Sure, he loves the chicken and the cow and lunchtime weiner, but he loves veggies, too. In fact, the grill is quite the show-off where veggies are concerned.

"Think you don't like vegetables?" the grill scoffs. "Plop 'em on here, honey, and I'll work some veggie magic. I've got serious veggie mojo, Mama, so let me show you how it's done."

That grill might be a braggart, but he's not a liar. Marinate some succulent portabello mushrooms, add some toasty, gooey cheese love, a kiss of herbs, a crunchy breadcrumb topping, and Whammo! You've got an audaciously delicious concoction. With a dish so multi-layered and flavorful, the chicken in your refrigerator will shed a tear, he's so jealous.

Marinated Portabello Mushrooms with Asiago
from Weber's Way to Grill
serves 6

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

6 large portabello mushrooms, each 5 to 6 inches in diameter
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs
1 tablespoon fresh Italian parsley
1 1/2 cups grated Asiago cheese
Kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Crushed red chile flakes (optional)

In a small bowl, whisk together the marinade ingredients.

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp cloth or paper towel. Remove and discard the stems. With a teaspoon, carefully scrape out and discard the black gills from the mushroom caps. Place the mushrooms, caps sides up, on a rimmed plate and brush them with the marinade. Turn the mushrooms over and brush again with the marinade. Let stand for 15 to 20 minutes at room temperature. Prepare the grill for direct cooking over medium heat.

In a small bowl, combine the bread crumbs with the parsley and red pepper flakes, if using.

Brush the cooking grates clean. Grill the mushrooms, gill side down, over direct medium heat, with the lid closed, until the mushrooms begin to soften, 4 to 6 minutes. Brush the cap sides with some of the remaining marinade from the plate, turn over, add 1/4 cup of cheese on top of each mushroom, close the lid, and cook until tender when pierced with a knife, 4 to 6 minutes. During the last minute of cooking time, place the bread crumb mixture evenly on top of each mushroom. Remove from the grill, add salt and pepper to taste, and serve immediately.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


For a few brief months, between the move from North Dakota to the Rocky Mountains, we lived in Kansas. Alas, I didn't fit in any better in Kansas than I did in North Dakota. My parents chose a suburb with a concentrated Jewish population--a rather wealthy suburb, at that. We weren't rich. Or Jewish.

As per her usual, my sister made friends within days. Her best friend, Julie Schwartzman, was a smart, pale-skinned girl with jet black hair. Julie was popular and had a bowling alley in the basement of her home, along with pinball machines and skee-ball. I found Julie fascinating, particularly the carpet of black hair that covered her pale arms. I'd never seen a person that hairy in my life. Luckily, Julie's arm hair didn't phase her in the slightest; she even let me play with it sometimes. Nice girl, Julie.

The only friend I was able to wrangle up was a skinny Filipino girl named Maria Vergara who was just as out of place in that school district as I was. Maria had four older brothers who, evidently, thought it important to school her in the finer points in life: whacking the heck out of a tetherball, cheating at cards, and cursing like an old sea dog.

I remember one spring recess, while playing on the teeter-totter with Maria, I did something that apparently vexed her. She spit out a choice epithet and raised her middle finger at me, defiant. I'll never forget that moment, Maria ascending above me on the cracked red seat, finger waving in the air, stunning me into silence.

I came home that afternoon, wide-eyed. "Maria gave me the finger," I told Mama. I think I even whispered the word, I was so shocked. "I didn't know second graders could give the finger."

Mama promptly explained to me that ladies--particularly ladies in the second grade--did not give people the finger, and that Maria's brothers were obviously working overtime on Maria's education.

Luckily, Maria forgave me, and she was my only friend for the brief months I lived in Kansas. Maria's parents were both doctors, and worked long hours, but the one meal I did eat at the Vergara home, I was introduced to pancit. Pancit is a Filipino dish with Chinese influences, and it's delicious and quick. Silky rice noodles, cooked meat, and fresh vegetables are tossed with a savory sauce and stir-fried for just a few minutes. It's perfect for a quick weeknight meal.

Maria and I kept in touch for years--she was a stellar pen pal--and Maria now is a mother of two, living just outside of Boston. I only hear from her once a year now, at Christmas, but her letters are always full of vivid detail, written in her impeccable and beautiful cursive. I look forward to them.

Interestingly, Maria remembers neither giving me the finger nor what it was I did that raised her ire. She assures me that nowadays, she keeps her middle finger to herself.

serves 4

1 (6.75 ounce) package thin, Pad-Thai style rice noodles
4 tablespoons canola or vegetable oil
1 small onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced/crushed
1 teaspoon fresh ginger, minced/crushed
3 cups diced cooked chicken, shrimp, pork or beef (or any combination)
3 cups shredded bok choy or napa cabbage
1 cup bean sprouts or carrots
2 tablespoons oyster sauce
1 tablespoon fish sauce
1/4 cup chicken broth
1/4-1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
2 green onions, chopped, green parts only
Lime wedges and peanuts, for garnish*

Soak the rice noodles in warm water for 20 minutes or until pliable; drain.

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in a heavy large skillet or wok over medium-high heat. Saute noodles for 1 minute. Remove and keep warm. Heat remaining 1 1/2 tablespoons oil in skillet. Saute onion, garlic, ginger, and meat for 1 minute. Add bok choy, bean sprouts, oyster sauce, fish sauce, chicken broth, and red pepper flakes. Cover and cook for about a minute or until bok choy is slightly wilted. Toss with noodles. If desired, squeeze lime over noodles and sprinkle with peanuts.

* The lime and peanuts are my addition; I don't remember them in the original version, but I like the tang and crunch they lend to the dish.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Minted Watermelon and Lemon Ice Pops

We recently enjoyed the first really balmy weekend of the season, and the girls were thrilled. It took them no time at all to rustle up some friends, break out the sprinkler and proceed to pummel each other with water guns. With all of the shrieking and bellowing going on, the neighbors probably wished for earplugs, but kids will be kids.

Late in the afternoon, the gaggle of water warriors heard the quintessential sound of summer: the tinny tinkle of The Little Red Wing. "Ice Cream Man!" they hooted, slamming the screen door behind them and hounding my husband for cash.

Notice that I said husband. There is good reason for this.

Reason 1: I never, ever, have cash on my person. Whenever I open my wallet, I always half expect moths to fly out of it, like in that wizard scene from Fantasia.

Reason 2: I am The Person in the House Who Says No.

If you want a Yes in my house, you go to Daddy.

Now of course, we couldn't just give money to our own offspring. This was the first ice cream man encounter of the summer; you can't just let other kids sit by and watch, long-faced, as Miss M. and Miss D. tuck into their Bomb Pops. We also couldn't expect the other kids to, you know, run to their own homes and beg for bucks. Inconceivable!

Ten minutes and twenty three dollars later, we had some sticky-faced, happy customers.

And truly? I wouldn't trade that first Bomb Pop of the summer for anything, even though that ice cream dude has a Helluva racket going on.

I decided that since summer was officially in swing, it was time to dig out the popsicle molds and get to work. The ice cream maker got a dusting off as well. It's Official: The Frugal Ice Cream Mama is open for business.

Minted Watermelon and Lemon Ice Pops
from Cooking Light Magazine
makes 8

Watermelon Layer:
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup water
1/4 cup coarsely chopped fresh mint
2 cups packed cubed and seeded watermelon
1 tablespoon fresh lime juice

Lemon Layer:
6 tablespoons sugar
1/2 cup water
2/3 cup fresh lemon juice
1/3 cup fresh orange juice
1/4 teaspoons orange extract

To prepare watermelon layer, combine 1/4 cup sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil; cook 30 seconds, stirring until sugar dissolves. Stir in mint; cover and let stand 30 minutes. Strain through a sieve into a bowl.

Place watermelon in a blender; process until smooth. Strain puree through a sieve into bowl with mint syrup; press with the back of a spoon until extract juice. Discard solids. Stir in lime juice; cover and chill for 1 hour.

Pour about 2 1/2 tablespoons watermelon mixture into each of 8 ice pop molds. Freeze 1 1/2 hours or until almost set. Arrange 1 wooden stick into mixture, being careful not to push through the bottom of mold. Return to freezer. Freeze 1 hour or until frozen.

To prepare lemon layer, combine 6 tablespoons sugar and 1/2 cup water in a small saucepan over medium high heat. Bring to a boil; cook 30 seconds, stirring until sugar dissolves. Pour into a bowl; stir in lemon juice, orange juice and extract. Cool 15 minutes; cover and chill at least 1 hour.

Remove molds from freezer. Pour about 3 tablespoons lemon mixture over frozen watermelon mixture in each mold. Freeze 2 hours or until completely frozen.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Ceviche for Miss Sunshine

Admittedly, there has been some not-awesome stuff clinging, like a bitchy barnacle, to the four walls of our house. However, we are weathering through and thank-you all so much for your kind words and well-wishes. Your support has been wonderful.

Today I'm happy to share some super-awesome with you. Yep, it's not all thunder and storm clouds over here--we've got serious sunshine, too. Her name is Daniela and she's a student from Torreon, Mexico. She's staying with us until July, touring the state and helping me keep The Minxes entertained. Her twin, Alejandra, is staying nearby, so oftentimes, we're lucky enough to get a double dose of sunshine in our house. The Minxes are over the moon, they're so in love.

Dani and Ale have been craving a few foods from their hometown, and I've been having a lot of fun trying to re-create those dishes. One of their desires has been for ceviche, a salad of raw or barely cooked seafood that's marinated in a spicy citrus dressing. We ordered it for lunch a few days ago at a sunny Boulder cafe; as soon as we took our first bites, we knew it wasn't going to suffice.

"There's too much filler in there," Dani said, squinting at the plate. "You can hardly find the fish."

"Where's the lime?" Ale asked. "It's supposed to taste like lime."

"This isn't spicy at all!" I said. "Aren't there supposed to be chiles in there?"

Hrumph. Clearly, in order to get this right at all, we were going to have to make it ourselves. But, ummm...I've never made ceviche and raw fish kind of skeebs me out.

Not that the fish is really raw once it gets to your plate; the lemon-lime dressing actually "cooks" the fish, so it's really quite safe to eat, honest.

When searching for a go-to recipe for ceviche, I decided that I really couldn't go wrong with Reichl. The woman in charge of Gourmet magazine (may it rest in peace) certainly isn't a hack; she knows good food. I found this recipe for Shellfish Watermelon Ceviche in The Gourmet Cookbook, and it sounded like a winner.

Juicy watermelon, sharp chiles, lightly poached seafood, and a bright kick from orange and ginger? What's not to like?

We scooped up bites of that lusciousness with sturdy, salty tortilla chips and basked in the accomplishment of getting it right. Sometimes, there's nothing finer.

Shellfish Watermelon Ceviche
serves 6 as a first course

1 navel orange
1/2 cup plus 2 tablespoons fresh orange juice
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/2 cup diced (1/4-inch) seeded watermelon
1/2 teaspoon finely grated peeled fresh ginger
1 1/2 tablespoons finely diced red onion
2-3 teaspoons finely chopped jalapeno or serrano chile (to taste), including seeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/4 pound sea scallops, tough side muscle removed from each if necessary, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 pound large shrimp in shells, peeled, deveined, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1/4 pound cooked lobster, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh mint
3 small heads bibb lettuce, leaves separated (optional)

Cut and peel white pith from orange with a sharp paring knife, then cut segments free from membranes. Chop enough segments to measure 1/4 cup; discard remainder or save for another use. Combine chopped orange, orange juice, lime juice, watermelon, ginger, onion, jalapeno and salt in a large bowl and stir until combined.

Bring a 1-quart saucepan of well-salted water to a boil, then add scallops and poach at a bare simmer until just cooked through, about 1 minute. With a slotted spoon, transfer scallops to a bowl of ice water to stop the cooking. Return water to a boil and add shrimp; poach at a bare simmer until just cooked through, about 1 minute. Drain and transfer to a bowl of ice water.

Drain scallops and shrimp well and pat dry.

Add scallops, shrimp, lobster, and mint to watermelon mixture and toss to combine, then season with salt. Refrigerate, covered, for at least 1 hour and up to 3 hours.

Serve ceviche with lettuce leaves on the side, if desired (use a slotted spoon for transferring ceviche to leaves).

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Grilled Tomato Bread with Proscuitto

I know, I know, you tomato-haters are completely over
the recipes I've been posting lately. I swear, I know better, but I can't help myself.

It's just that I totally got my freak on at the Farmer's Market a week ago, and we've been drowning in the little red suckers ever since. It's like a crimson, seedy orgy over here, I'm telling you.

I could make a big batch of marinara sauce, throw it in the freezer, and put you loathers of all things tomato out of your misery. But it's been Hella Hot over here, and turning on the stove is about as appealing as a trip to the proctologist, so you're just going to have to endure one more post about the love apple. I'll make it quick, okay?

This yummy little morsel makes a perfect appetizer or light lunch. A quick turn on the grill renders the tomatoes tender and melty, and paired with crunchy bread, creamy ricotta and sharp, salty Proscuitto, you have a winner of a dish. Add a cool glass of Pinot Grigio and I doubt that you'll mind the steamy weather one bit.

Grilled Tomato Bread with Proscuitto
recipe courtesy of Bobby Flay
serves 4

1 pint cherry tomatoes
Olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
12 slices French bread, sliced 1/2-inch slices
1/2 cup ricotta cheese
12 paper thin slices Proscuitto di Parma
2 lemons, cut in half
* I also added fresh basil, because tomatoes without basil is a crime*

Heat grill to high. Toss tomatoes in oil and season with salt and pepper. Place on the grill in a grilling basket and grill until charred and softened, turning a few times, about 10 minutes. Remove to a bowl. Crush the garlic with a little salt to form a paste and add to the bowl with a few tablespoons of olive oil.

Brush bread with olive oil. Season with salt and pepper, and place on the grill. Grill the bread until lightly golden brown on both sides, about 20 seconds per side.

Combine the ricotta with a little olive oil in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper. Mound some of the tomato mixture on the bread. Lay proscuitto on top. Dollop with some ricotta mixture and garnish with lemon juice squeezed over the top.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Seven Hours Alone--*Update*

I had seven whole hours alone this weekend. I know.

Actually, the circumstances were complicated and awkward and not nearly as awesome as you think, but I was, indeed, alone for seven hours.

My alone-time began shatteringly early for a Saturday morning: 5am. Oddly, I didn't mind it though, because nobody was begging me for coffee or pancakes or a fried egg or Spongebob. All was pretty good, even at that hour.

I opened the paper, sipped my tea and then realized: I get to think about what I want for breakfast. I'll be damned.

Now I don't know about you, but even on weekends, my mornings are a freakshow. The kids need food NOW and they certainly don't want the same thing, and the cat's meowing for his milk, precariously underfoot, and I need to make the coffee and AIEEE! She'stouchingmemommymakeherquittouchingme...

You know. Like that.

Breakfast is usually someone's leftovers, shoved quickly down the gullet, as I'm running to make sure Miss M. really did hit the potty this time. I always eat breakfast of some sort--I'm ravenous in the morning--but it isn't really something I choose for myself, consciously. At this point in my life, breakfast=fuel. The quicker it gets into the belly, the better. No time to think.

But on this sunny Saturday, I got to choose.

Then I went for a long walk around a nearby lake, keeping company with geese and cows and large canines dragging dogged and harried owners. I walked fast. No need to stop to tie small shoelaces or take a dandelion-picking break or clap for spontaneous cartwheels.

Walk finished, I began the drive home and noticed that the Farmer's Market was open again: a sure sign of impending summer. I detoured, wandered around, found some cute little heirloom tomatoes and bunches of sharp-smelling herbs.

Back home, I realized something. When you're up at 5am, a mid-morning nosh is definitely necessary. Again, I was struck by the notion that I could actually put some thought into this. Eat exactly what I wanted to. This rarely happens.

As I've confessed before in this post, what I eat when I eat alone is usually shameful stuff. Leftovers, odds and ends, cereal. This food is not what I want to eat. It's food eaten out of desperation or laziness--food I don't have to think about, much less take the trouble to cook.

Oddly enough, I'd just thoroughly cleaned my refrigerator, so there wasn't the usual drek sitting in there, begging my parsimonious self to put it out of its misery. Yet again, I was able to stop, consider. I chose some of those little heirlooms with some fresh, creamy cheese and sharp basil. A snack was never nicer.

By the time 1pm rolled around, Awesome Stepkid R. was on his way home, there were weeds in the garden calling, and I didn't want to tarry, so I grabbed a heel of baguette, some herbed butter, and called it lunch.

The point of this story? I dunno. ???

I guess I was just struck at the notion that I no longer really feed myself. I cook, but with others in mind. I rush through my day and never stop to ask, "What do I want? What's going to nourish me, at this very moment?"

And I don't do that because...well, I can't. There's a family to consider. Just feeding myself seems rather selfish. But it made me wonder. What, at this moment, would you eat, if you could, just for you?

And p.s.: Lest you think I was virtuous all day, I will confess to my afternoon snack.

But you know what? Triscuits, lettuce, pepper jack cheese and mustard? Exactly what I wanted, trashy or no. Sometimes a girl just wants what she wants.

**Hi friends, a little more awkwardness and not-awesomeness going on here, so please forgive me if I don't check in with you for a bit. Nobody's diseased or dead, so don't worry about that. I just have some figuring out to do. Thank you, dear readers. You mean the world.**

Saturday, May 22, 2010

For Love of Harriet

I've always suffered mad book-love, even before I could actually read. Mama read to us for hours during long North Dakota winters, and I learned early on that even if you were snowed-in and drop-dead-bored, you could lose yourself in the world of Wonka; be comforted by Charlotte, spinning in a corner of the barn.

For most kids, summer means swimming, baseball, popsicles, games of kick-the-can. For me, summer meant books. Lots and lots of books. Mama would take me to the library twice a week and I'd get lost in possibility, studying shelves and scanning inside covers with ardent fingers. Books took me far away from myself; they made me forget that I didn't have any friends and felt nervous all the time. I could go places without ever leaving the four walls of my room. Books were magic.

One of my favorite books was (and still remains) Harriet the Spy. I adored Harriet--every sneaky, spunky inch of her. The summer I discovered Harriet, I realized that it was okay if nobody wanted me on their kickball team--Harriet would carry me through. And she did.

I loved Harriet so much that I told Mama that I needed to try Harriet's favorite lunch: The Tomato Sandwich. Mama, bless her heart, was happy to oblige.

Turns out, Harriet was right. There's nothing quite so fine in life as a tomato sandwich. To this day, it's one of my favorite afternoon repasts. Sure, things have changed a bit--I don't use squishy white bread and I jettison the Miracle Whip and I add an extra flavor or two--but the essence is still the same.

Once tomatoes are worth eating again, Harriet's sandwich calls to me. It's the first thing I crave when those plump, juicy, red suckers hit the Farmer's Market stalls. I snatch a good baguette, slice into vermillion, and fall in love all over again.

Tomato Sandwich (grown-up version)
serves one

Good crusty baguette, sliced
Best Foods mayonnaise, mixed with a squeeze of lemon and a little garlic
Fresh basil leaves
Spring/Summer tomato worth eating
Generous sprinkle of kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Layer ingredients on baguette in quantities that suit you. Devour. Spend the rest of the afternoon, if possible, lost in a good book.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Drinks with my Archenemy

You heard that right. I sat down and shared a cold one with a person who sends chills down my spine, who offends me at every turn, whose laugh turns my blood to adamant.

This was not easy for me. I hate to admit this, but I'm not exactly the forgiving type. I'm just not.

Which is why I didn't forgive her. I merely sat down and had a drink with her. In spirit. Because, as you well know:

This drink recipe came from her magazine. In a pathetic attempt at excusing myself, I will mention that it wasn't her recipe--it was a guest named Donatella's recipe. Which made things a little easier to swallow.

Actually, things were very easy to swallow, because this drink is delicious and absolutely refreshing. Serve it up at the end of a warm, sunny day. Share it with someone you love...or even an enemy. Your ire will be soothed in record time.

Basil-Gin Lemonade
from EveryDay with Rachael Ray magazine
serves 8

1 bunch fresh basil
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 cups gin, such as Bombay Sapphire
1 1/2 cups fresh lemon juice (about 6 lemons), plus 1 lemon, thinly sliced crosswise
3/4 cup triple sec
1 orange, sliced thinly crosswise

Reserve a handful of the basil leaves plus 8 small sprigs to use as garnish. In a medium saucepan, bring 1 1/2 cups water, the sugar and the remaining basil to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, stirring, until the sugar is dissolved, about 5 minutes. Let cool slightly. Refrigerate until cold. Strain into a clean container, pressing down on basil to extract any liquids; discard the basil.

In a pitcher, combine the basil syrup, gin, lemon juice and triple sec. Stir in basil leaves and lemon and orange slices. Serve in tall glasses over ice.

PS: I've been asked to extend the South Park Avatar contest another week--apparently, some of you are having issues saving your handiwork and want some more time to prepare your masterpiece! If you want to try your hand, go to South Park Character Generator!! Have fun! Leave the link to your character in the comments section if you want to play!