Sunday, December 28, 2008

What 2008 Brought

Best Recipe of the Year - Caribbean Chicken. We make this a LOT - the flavor is incredible, and really - it's just a marinade and not some crazy technique that requires $150 in new equipment for one recipe. It doesn't even require exotic ingredients. We sometimes do the whole deboned chicken thing, but often enough we just marinate chicken breasts and thighs and call it a day.


Best Dessert Recipe of the Year - Pumpkin Cake. Insanely popular everywhere I take it. It also makes excellent cupcakes.


Most Surprising Cost Savings - the new fridge, which cut our power bill and our food bill. It was a steal itself - $275 used vs. $800 - $1000 new, and much more energy-efficient than our 18-year-old icebox. And now that leftovers aren't buried deep in the old narrow fridge, we are much, much better about using things up and not having awful little surprises when we go looking for the mustard.

A slight downer is that I feel pretty un-hip for being this excited about a kitchen appliance.

Worst Recipe of the Year - when you try a bunch of recipes you inevitably end up with some stinkers. And hands down, the worst of the worst was a miso-bean thread salad from Vegetarian Times. Instead of being a wonderful, flavorful cold Asian noodle salad, it was a weird, otherworldy kind of mousse salt lick with veins of noodles running through it. The hell??? Great for Halloween as a visual, but clearly a Gitmo device culinarily.


Best New Gadget - I can't believe this, but, um, I don't have one. Just to be sure, I went through my kitchen and opened all the drawers and cabinets and, yup, nothing new. Apparently this fiscal management/decluttering thing has taken hold more than I realized. I've bought good standard equipment through the years - insulated cookie sheets, a Microplane zester, digital thermometer, standing Kitchen Aid mixer, good wooden spoons (a cheap one broke on me), Calphalon grill pan, etc. - and everything is in working order. I really didn't see that coming.


Best New Resource - Youtube. That's how Sweetie learned to debone a whole chicken - the written instructions paled in comparison to watching a video of how it's done.


Best Old Resource - the library, with which I've reacquainted myself over the past few months. Realistically, I only ever make a handful of recipes out of any one cookbook. It just doesn't make sense to put the money and the shelf space into them anymore.



Favorite Food Sites - what, Nostinkycheese ain't enough?? I'm partial to:



http://www.thecasualkitchen.blogspot.com/


http://www.cookinglight.com/,


http://www.worldshealthiestfoods.com/ - not a huge fan of their recipes, but it's a great nutrition resource


Wise Bread, a living-on-less website, has some terrific recipes and ideas in the food and drink section - http://www.wisebread.com/topic/frugal-living/food-and-drink


http://www.cakewrecks.blogspot.com/ is one of my very favorite, reliable sources for a laugh


Best Reason to Try New Vegetables - you might otherwise, inadvertently, name your child after one. Someone yelling "Kale! KALE!!" in the airport was not looking for a leafy green, but their kid. I hope to God they just didn't know... I mean, how low are your expectations for someone when you name them after a vegetable??? The worst part was that the parents clearly thought the other folks in the airport were smiling at how cute their son was - and he was indeed a cutie, but Jeebus, they named the kid "Kale." What else are a bunch of Southerners going to do but smile politely?

Friday, December 26, 2008

Is the Cookie Curse lifted?

Well, probably not - these are more assembled than baked.

I shipped a bunch of these up north and my Mom reports they were a hit. I don't care if she was just being nice. At this low point in my cookiemaking, I'll take it. If there's a New Year's Day party this year, I may bring these along.

Chocolate Bourbon Balls
2 1/2 cups vanilla wafer crumbs
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1 cup peca halves, finely ground in food procesor
6 ounces semisweet or bittersweet chocolate, broken into pieces*
1/2 cup bourbon
3 Tablespoons light corn syrup
Granulated (regular white) sugar

1. Place cookie crumbs, confectioner' sugar, and ground pecans in a large bowl and stir to combine.

2. Melt the chocolate in microwave or in top of double boiler over simmering water. Stir in the bourbon and corn syrup. Add chocolate mixture to dry mixture and stir well to combine. Let sit for 30 minutes. Place some granulated sugar in a small bowl.

3. Roll mixture between your plams into 1-inch balls, then roll in sugar to coat evenly. Place balls in airtight container, separating layers with aluminum foil or waxed paper, and allow flavor to develop by sitting at room temperature at least overnight.

*Chocolate chips may not work as well as bar chocolate. Chocolate chips are formulated a little differently to better withstand high temps and keep their shape in cookies.

Getting It Right In 2009


Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Overheard, Part Deux

I spent the day at my satellite office (Panera). It's astounding how much work I can get done there since my phone isn't ringing and no one is stopping by to chat.

Throughout the morning:


a) A couple sat down next to me. College-age. She looked like a Bollywood Ann Hathaway - gorgeous. He looked like John Belushi in the Animal House years. He was saying, "Let's just stay friends and see what happens later." She looked at him like he'd lost his mind. So did the guy at the table on the other side of them.

b) The business owner a few tables away was shouting into his cell phone. I know he was a business owner because of his previously-broadcast cell phone chats. Anyway - "I don't really know how to DO Vegas, though. Like pick up chicks." Well, no surprises so far. "But a friend said you just buy a table and put a bottle of sumpin' on it and that's all it takes. So I'll try that."

c) A trio of women in various stages of pregnancy. The one furthest along received a gift bag, and the giver said, "some of the stuff is not from your registry." The recipient said, "Well, thanks. I guess. Is there a receipt?"

d) Two kids enjoying their PB&J. "But I just decided TODAY that I really NEED the Dora the Explorer sleeping bag. And I talked to Santa ALREADY so how will he KNOW that I NEED it for Ansley's sleepover?" Her brother said Santa is on Twitter - he knows because his best friend already did it.

Overheard

Overheard it, loved it, thought I'd share:

"No, no, no. I'm going to enjoy the holiday - not be a vehicle for other people to enjoy their holiday."

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Purrrr......

I've found my zen. Yes, we saw Cutie's Christmas pageant and got to see her enjoy the gifts we got her and I went to the gym this afternoon - those are good, stress-reducing things . But more than that...

Right this second there are clean, fresh-from-the-dryer sheets on the bed, I'm in the glow of my pretty Christmas tree, and we just finished our hot Sunday Dinner (turkey-rice soup, using the last of the caramelized onion broth from Thanksgiving). The vase my grandfather gave me is brimming with snowy spider mums and scarlet hypericum. And I've snacked on yummy fruit basket clementines all weekend.

If I were my girl dog I'd hop up on the sofa and wait for someone to rub my belly. Life is good!

There are a few days left before Christmas and some things just aren't going to get done. This afternoon I picked up the new "Real Simple" magazine, and I'd rather curl up and read that than make little poundcakes or whatever. I'm so enjoying this peaceful evening.

Maybe this is what the holiday cards with the doves are trying to convey. I always assumed it was freedom from war and international conflict. But maybe it's this - warm contentment. A little oasis of "I'm happy with" in a vast sea of "I wish..."

Years ago I worked for Big Corporate and handled retail software. Christmas was insanely stressful and impossible to plan, and I used to spend the holidays with a good friend and her family. She made the most wonderful fruity hot tea at the holidays. We would have this hot tea going from post-church Christmas Eve all the way through Christmas Dinner. We were occasionally sidelined by a bottle of wine - two when we had to assemble the kids' doll houses late at night with no instructions in English. Good times.

One of my favorite Christmas memories is one of those serene oases. After Christmas Eve service and a wonderful dinner at my friend's house the baby was ready - more than ready - for her nighty-night bottle. I took her into the living room and we got snuggly on the sofa, her enjoying her bottle and me enjoying her and "It's A Wonderful Life" on the TV. After a little while the 4-year-old quietly curled up next to me. And there we sat - the baby finished and sleeping, her sister finally winding down after a few hyper waiting-for-Santa days, me decompressing after weeks of 12-hour workdays. My friend offered to put the baby in her crib. If you don't mind, I said, I'd kind of like to stay like this for a little while longer. She smiled and understood.

Merry Christmas.

Joy's Holiday Hot Tea

4 oranges
3 lemons
4 cinnamon sticks
2 cups sugar
1 cup pineapple juice
7 regular tea bags

1. Squeeze the juice from the oranges and lemons. Boil the rinds (separate from the juice) in 2 cup of water, for about 15 minutes.

2. To 3 1/2 quarts of water add 4 cinnamon sticks and 2 cups sugar - simmer 15 minutes.

3. Mix above together with juice and add 1 cup pineapple juice and 7 regular tea bags to crockpot. You can heat this on the stove first so the tea will be ready to serve more quickly.

And if you don't have a crockpot, just leave this covered on the stove top on a low setting.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Open House

I love Open House. Just love it. Stop by, enjoy conversation and some nibblies, share in the holiday spirit.

Right now I'm racing around in the holiday spirit myself, so just a few QUICK nibble-recipes today for anyone who's hosting or who's bringing a dish. We took Cutie to see the famous-in-Atlanta Pink Pig last night, as we do every year. She's 7 and I figure in about two more years she'll decide she's too old, and two more years after that she'll gently break it to my husband that, really, she's too old. She's cool like that.

Just a few quick recipes - for "appletizers", as Cutie calls them - before we head off for shopping and volunteering:

Brown Sugared Turkey BaconWe had this at a wedding at a very chi-chi country club. Apparently it's one of their most popular reception items, stacked Lincoln-log style. The good thing about it is that you can do two cookie sheets' worth at once.

1 (12-ounce) package turkey bacon (most kinds are really good - but honestly, Jennie-O turkey bacon is about the nastiest stuff ever. Just my opinion)
Vegetable cooking spray
1/3 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 to 1 1/2 tsp coarsely ground pepper

1. Arrange bacon in a ingle layer in an aluminum foil-lined broiler pan (I used a cookie sheet with sides). Coat the foil with cooking spray. Sprinkle bacon evenly with brown sugar and pepper.

2. Bake at 425 degrees for 14 - 18 minutes or until done. Serve immediately.

Skewer Options
Load up your toothpicks with:
Chunks of Caribbean Chicken, pineapple, and purple onion.
Grape tomato, cubed mozzarella, a slice of pepperoni

The Mustard-Roasted Potatoes, if you get tiny potatoes, work really well on a buffet if you're serving sliced ham and/or roast beef.


This is a wonderful dip and it can be made the day beforehand and warmed up in the microwave or oven. Or, you can mix it the day beforehand, cover and store in the refrigerator, and bake just before your guests arrive. Serve with tortilla chips or small slices of pumpernickel bread.

SPINACH ARTICHOKE DIP
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese (real Parmesan, not the dust in the green can)
1 large clove garlic
1 (10-ounce) package frozen spinach, thawed and firmly squeezed to remove moisture
1 (6 1/4-ounce) jar marinated artichoke hearts, drained
1 container (6 1/2 ounces) garlic and herb gourmet cheese spread, such as Alouette (I used the reduced-fat and it worked fine)
1/2 cup sour cream (regular or low-fat, doesn't matter)
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

2. The recipe says to put the Parmesan cheese into a food processor with a metal blade, turn on the processor and drop garlic through the feed tube to mince, then add the spinach, artichokes, and Alouette. There's no food processor in this house - I minced the garlic with a garlic press and blended everything with a hand-held mixer.

3. Fold in mozzarella cheese.

4. Pour mixture into a 4-cup baking dish (8" by 8") and bake until heated through, 20 - 25 minutes.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Are We Still Calling it "Freedom Toast"?

Oh, the silliness...

If it weren't for holidays I wouldn't know what a hot breakfast was. To me, it's a decadent, indulgent thing to eat something for breakfast that's not poured into a to-go cup (smoothie) or doused with milk (cereal).

So when Cutie's parents offered to help me cook on Thanksgiving Day, what better way was there to thank them than by giving them a hot, delicious breakfast? I'll tell you - by giving them a hot, delicious, EASY breakfast.

This Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole is assembled the night before, refrigerated, and popped in the oven the day you serve it. The recipe is a keeper from Cooking Light - yes, it's French toast and it's Cooking Light. We've all heard someone order a rum and Diet Coke or a large pizza with pepperoni and ham and sausage and hamburger and NO CHEESE. This isn't quite like that - they really did lower the fat and calories from the original, but don't tell yourself this is some kind of health food. It's a treat that is more healthful than it might otherwise be, while still tasting terrific.

And this is indeed fabulous. Know how you can tell you're among good friends? They help themselves to seconds, knowing that's what it's there for and that you're glad they've enjoyed their meal that much.

You've got some liberties to take here. Someone's allergic to nuts? Leave them out. No time/patience/oranges to squeeze juice? Buy a small bottle of OJ; I used half for this recipe and half for Orange-Chipotle Marinade, which I used for pork chops.

This is great for Christmas or New Year's morning. Enjoy, enjoy, enjoy! We fed 5 people (one child, four adults - one of whom had just run 13.1 miles) and it was the right amount of food. If I were feeding more than 5, I'd make two casseroles.

Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole
Cooking Light - June, 2004

1 cup packed brown sugar (I used dark brown, but light brown will work just fine)
1/3 cup butter, melted
2 Tablespoons light-colored corn syrup (I don't have any - I used sugar-free maple syrup)
Cooking spray
1/3 chopped pecans (leave them out if you wish; walnuts would be a good substitution if you don't have pecans)
1 teaspoon grated orange rind (adds a lot to the dish, but isn't critical - you'll just have a less pronounced orange flavor if it's omitted)
1 cup fresh orange juice (I used bottled)
1/2 cup skim milk
3 Tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 large egg whites
2 large eggs
12 1-inch-thick slices French bread (I used the "take and bake" whole grain baguette from Kroger's - I baked & sliced, and it was fine)

1. Combine brown sugar, butter, and corn (or maple) syrup. Pour into a 13x9-inch baking pan coated with cooking spray. The mixture will be sticky; I pressed mine into place with the back of a spoon.

2. Sprinkle chopped pecans over butter-sugar mixture.






3. Combine rind, juice, milk, white sugar, cinnamon, vanilla extract, egg whites, and eggs; stir with a whisk or fork.



4. Arrange bread slices over pecans in dish - when I did it, it looked pretty sparse. Fortunately, the bread absorbs the egg mixture and really fills out; here's what it looked like initially:





5. Pour egg mixture over bread. Cover and refrigerate 1 hour or up to overnight.

When you're ready to bake...

6. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

7. Carefully turn bread slices over so that the "naked" side can absorb the egg mixture - this also makes sure you get a little brown sugar mixture on each side. If you have cut the bread too thin, this will be a nightmare; if you can't turn it, just leave it.

Let stand at room temperature 20 minutes.



8. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes or until lightly browned.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Traditions

Usually I'm not open to non-traditional ideas on Thanksgiving. I love to cook our dinner and eat in our own home. But this year circumstances were different - our usual Thanksgiving guest couldn't make it. Sweetie was running the half-marathon in the morning. The children's home, where we've delivered Thanksgiving dinner for the past 8 years, has relocated from 3 miles away to waaaaay out in the farmland - not exactly something we could squeeze in between turkey bastings.

So for as much as I love tradition, it's not worth it if it doesn't bring joy. And cooking two Thanksgiving dinners by myself, with a two-hour roundtrip drive somewhere in there, sounded like a very un-fun way to spend the holiday. As it turned out, Sweetie and I had one of the best Thanksgivings either of us has had in recent years.

1. Cutie's parents were looking for volunteer work and asked if they could all come help me cook for the babies & toddlers. In a spirit of giving-ness not only did I say yes, but I told them they could even bring a pie. In a spirit of giving-ness, they brought two. And better yet, they brought great conversation and a kid who can sort cranberries and snap green beans like nobody's business.

2. Sweetie was totally open to the idea of mixing things up a bit. I offered a nice Thanksgiving brunch or doing the turkey over the weekend instead of on the Big Day. He found an unbelievable deal at Ruth's Chris, and we agreed that was the way to go (it SO was).

3. The kids and staff had a great, healthful meal home-cooked with love by multiple people.

It really was a terrific day with a lot to be thankful for. I mean, we saw one of our little ones - whose prognosis was pretty grim last year - walking with her little lavender leg braces while holding onto her oxygen pole. SO very proud of herelf. Giving thanks becomes an everyday event in those circumstances, doesn't it?

Some of y'all know that I found an unbelievable Orange-Pecan French Toast Casserole recipe for our brunch on Thanksgiving morning. As soon as I can pull the how-to pics off the digital camera, I promise I'll post the recipe!

In the meantime.... ugh. As I've mentioned, being the daughter of the Master Cookie Baker means I got the recessive gene on that one. There isn't a cookie in the world that my Mom can't make perfectly. I, on the other hand, have sought safe harbor in about a half-dozen Stephanie-proof recipes. And for some reason I thought I'd venture out into that cold, harsh world again and try to add to my collection.

I've had 3 disasters in the past 2 weeks. The first was one from Oprah's website - an orange-cream cheese chocolate chip cookie (yeah, I know, I know...). It was pale and puffy and cakelike and weird. Next, like a leming to a cliff, was the Chewy Oatmeal Cookie from the usually-reliable Everyday Food magazine, which spread out all-damn-over the cookie sheet and maliciously smelled good and tasted like fried oats. Maybe Martha Stewart really is evil and not just annoying. Oh, and there was a chocolate cookie that went straight in the trash.

I'm too emotionally scarred to date another recipe right now. Instead, I'm seeking sanctuary in my tried & true's this year. I'm sure that in a few months I'll fall victim again and decide to risk a stick of butter and my fragile, duct-taped-together cookie self-esteem.

'Til then, Gingersnaps are the way to go. They're quintessentially Christmasy, they're terrific with a glass of milk and they ship very well.

Gingersnaps
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
3/4 cup shortening (butter or Crisco)
1/4 cup molasses
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 cup granulated sugar

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a large mixing bowl combine the brown sugar, shortening, molasses, egg, baking soda, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, and about half the flour. Beat with an electric mixer on medium to high speed until combined. Beat or stir in remaining flour.

Shape dough into 1-inch balls.

Roll balls in the granulated (white) sugar to coat. Place balls 2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet.

Bake in a 375 degree oven for 8 - 10 minutes or until edges are set and tops are crackled.

Cool cookies on cookie sheet for 1 minute. Transfer cookies to a wire rack and let cool.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Krabby Patties

That was a (very) little joke for the SpongeBob set.

Every year during the shopping, we say "Oh, I love ___________ (apple cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, whatever)! I'm cooking anyway, so we'll just make a little extra to be sure we have leftovers." As if we never had leftovers before. And by the Sunday after Thanksgiving, people dread dinner. They plot to avoid it. It's usually something like this:

* Thursday - a wonderful feast

* Friday - grab a turkey sandwich for lunch and congratulate yourself on using up food you already have. Prepare a casual dinner of leftovers. It's not on the good china this time, so it must be a completely different dinner, right?

* Saturday - Decide everything will taste better immersed in chicken brot as a soup. This is almost always a bad idea; it can be done well, but emptying cold, Tupperwared, clumpy masses into a saucepan and dousing with broth ends up just as appetizing as it doesn't sound. Almost as bad - trying to make a "Thanksgiving Stirfry" - hello, have you ever seen potatoes in a stirfry??? - or "Thanksgiving Pizza" or some other nonsensical, just DOES NOT GO concoction. You're not fooling anyone. Like cartoon Dad Hank Hill once said of Christian Rock - "you're not making Christianity any better and you're making rock worse."

* Sunday - order a ham for Christmas. Each family member discreetly throws some leftovers into the trash and "goes to the gym" or "visits with Aunt Marilyn" at dinner time. Said family members pretend not to notice each other at the local pizza joint.

With a little planning, it doesn't have to be this way. I can't have this dish myself, being allergic to shellfish and all, but from what I undertand crabcakes are quite the delicacy. Whenever we're anywhere near water, Sweetie takes the opportunity to order them and remains dreamy-eyed for the next hour or two.

The young man in the video is heading off to the Culinary Institute of America and is vying for scholarship $ to get there - hence the video (your 5-star rating would help him out). What I like about this is that he didn't try to make these turkey-cranberry-the-rest-of-the-canned-pumpkin crabcakes; he chose one ingredient to incorporate, and it was an ingredient that makes perfect sense.

Without further ado:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=szM9E3j2pvU

Saturday, November 22, 2008

When It's Good It Stays Good

'Twas 1999 and I was hosting another Orphans Thanksgiving - those of us whose work didn't allow us to travel for the holiday, who were too battle-scarred from incompetent airlines over past Thanksgivings, etc. In other words, my friends from softball and work and whatnot were held hostage to my cooking! MWWAAAH-ha-ha-haaaaaa!

I wanted the dinner to be very traditional. My parents are both terrific cooks and made the most wonderful Thanksgiving dinners! Granted, my Bangladeshi friend in attendance had no frame of reference for a Thanksgiving dinner, but the folks from Ohio and Chicago and St. Louis did. And whether they were missing their families or escaping them, we all deserved a warm, comfortable, friendly, fantastic dinner together. I did turkey and dessert, they brought the rest.

Wanting to share the best with my friends, I picked up the November, 1999 copy of Bon Appetit to find the perfect turkey recipe. [I'm proud to say I had come a long way from the 1993 incident of calling my Mom in a panic, asking her what this bag was doing in my turkey?!?! What kind of slipshod poultry farm was stuffing God-knows-what inside my bird, and to whom do I report them?? Never heard her laugh so hard.] Narrowing down my choices, I read the recipes to my Dad over the phone and we decided which would be best. On Thanksgiving we had the following conversation:

Dad, vastly experienced with roasting turkeys: So how's the turkey coming? It's in the oven by now, right?
Me: Yeah, but barely. I've rubbed my buttered, herb-y hands all in and over that thing. A nice dinner is the least of what it owes me.
Dad: Um, you don't have anyone over right now who heard that, do you?

That 1999 magazine is one of the very few that I've ever saved in its entirety. I was just looking through it and some things are noticeable for their absence - the words "artisinal" and "vegan", omnipresent in current foodie magazines, aren't there. Neither are website URLs - there are a few, but it's mostly 1-800 numbers for more information. There are no e-mail addresses, no mentions of organic food, and the words "New Orleans" are not followed by "rebuilding" or "lost" or "damaged" or "Katrina." Did it all change that fast?

This recipe has stood the test of 9 years time and I expect to make it for twenty more, at least. Enjoy.

Sage-Roasted Turkey With Caramelized Onions and Sage Gravy
Bon Appetit - November, 1999

1 1/2 pounds onions, sliced
3 TBSP vegetable oil

1 14- to 15-pound turkey; neck, heart, and gizzard removed [the stuff in the bag in the turkey. Ew]
2 TBSP butter, room temperature
8 large whole fresh sage leaves plus 1 1/2 teaspoons, chopped

1 cup (or more) boxed low-salt chicken broth

6 TBSP all-purpose flour
3/4 cup dry white wine (or more broth if you don't keep wine around)
Pinch of ground nutmeg

Position rack in bottom third of oven and preheat to 425 degrees. Toss onions and 2 tablespoons oil in large roasting pan. Roast until onions are golden brown, stirring every 15 minutes, about 1 hour.





Meanwhile, rinse turkey inside and out; pat dry. Slice hand under skin of turkey breast to loosen skin. Spread butter under skin over breast meat. Arrange 4 sage leaves under skin on each side of breast.

Tuck wing tips under turkey; tie legs together loosely. Rub turkey all over with 1 TBSP oil; sprinkle with salt and pepper. [I don't like to touch my salt & pepper shakers with oily, raw-turkey-juice hands. I pour the oil into a little dish, add the salt and pepper, and then do the rub]

Place turkey atop onions in pan. Roast turkey 30 minutes. Pour 1 cup broth into pan.

Tent turkey loosely with foil. Reduce oven temperature to 325 degrees. Roast turkey 2 hours. Uncover and baste regularly. Continue to roast until turkey is golden brown and thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180 degrees, about an hour longer.

Transfer to platter/cutting board. Tent loosely with foil; let stand 30 minutes.

Pour onion mixture into gravy separator, and pour off broth into large measuring cup. Add more chicken broth to onion mixture, if necessary, to measure 5 cups. Reserve 2 TBSP of fat.

Add the 2 TBSP of fat to a small skillet on medium-high heat. Add chopped sage; stir 30 seconds. Add flour; whisk until beginning to color, about 3 minutes (mixture will be dry and crumbly). Gradually whisk in onion mixture, wine, and nutmeg. Simmer until gravy thickens to desired consistency, whisking frequently, about 5 minutes. Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

It's The Stuff That Counts

Yes, of course, there's heart-warming good will and togetherness and spiritual enrichment at the holidays. And there's shopping! Much as I wish I wasn't, I'm a shopper. And Thanksgiving - or Easter or Arbor Day or whatever - is a great time to pick up a few things for a special dinner.

Cooking the Big Dinner for the first time? There are a few absolutely critical items, some nice-to-haves, and some culinary equivalents of a chia pet.

Really Important and Helpful
MEAT THERMOMETER


Every year - seriously, every year - there are TV news reports and magazine articles and door-to-door missionaries preaching the word about the deadly cavalcade of bacteria hiding out in the turkey, preparing their attack on the half-wit who leaves the bird on the counter for six hours before feeding it to her family. The fever! The chills! The delirium! Um, happy holidays? And what are you grateful for, little Timmy?

You need to thoroughly cook the turkey and, if it has stuffing, that can be hard to do. And the standards are high - you want it fully, safely cooked and you want it not dehydrated. Dear God, what next? A federal turkey bailout?

This little wonder will get you where you're going as far as done-ness of the turkey. Kitchen respect is yours - all yours! - when you use the term "cooked to temperature." That means you confidently tossed aside the recipe directions to cook for X.Y hours and, savvy as you are, you knew that when the internal temp of the bird reaches 165 degrees, you're done even if you're "supposed" to have Z minutes left. If you've stuffed the turkey, the stuffing must also reach 165 degrees.

And by the way, you can use this baby all year long. I always, always, always use mine for roasted chicken - it can be perfectly well done and still be pinkish (who knew?). I also use mine to test the water temp for yeast when I make pizza crust.

For more info on safely thawing and cooking a turkey, click here.



ROASTING PAN
You've seen those foil roasting pans in the supermarket, right? Thinking about buying one for your feast? Do this - while at the store, put a 5-pound bag of sugar in the foil pan and see how stable it feels. Then realize that, between a roasting rack and a 10-pound turkey, you've got at least 7 more pounds to add to that. And when you take the pan out of the oven and the turkey slides and the foil buckles and the broth and grease slosh out, you're standing in a puddle of shoe gravy.

So I see you've decided that a roasting pan is a really good idea. Excellent choice! The picture above is a fancy-schmancy from Crate & Barrel. Do you need a fancy-schmancy? No. My own roasting pan is a piece of my grandmother's speckleware. She turned out wonderful dinners in it for 50 years or more, which is good enough for me. If you're only going to use your roasting pan once or twice a year, I wouldn't bother with a Calphalon or All-Clad version.

As long as your roasting pan has well-attached handles and is big enough to allow plenty of air to circulate around your bird, it's fine. I prefer one with a lid - I think it's more versatile that way - but it's not a hard and fast rule.

Oh, and that magazine rack in the picture? It's called a roasting rack - and yes, I really did use mine as a magazine rack when I had my first Big-Girl apartment. It lifts the bird off the bottom of the pan, allowing the grease and broth to run off and the skin to crisp.



TURKEY LIFTER
I know, I know - I'm breaking my "no gadgets that have only one purpose" rule. I'm sure you can use these to, ummmmm, string up loops and make potholders or something, right?

The first time I made a turkey I couldn't get it out of the pan. Wading cautiously into the waters of entertainment cooking, the bird was a 16-pounder for, I don't know, a dozen people or so. You know, starting slow. I fuzzily recall there was a lot of wine.

Anyway, my plan of impaling the bird on a wooden spoon didn't work out anything like I envisioned it. And three people with two forks each, trying to lift from the bottom, didn't balance so well. Neither did the "helpers" after all that Beaujolais Nouveau.

They're worth the ten bucks.


HELPFUL, BUT NOT MISSION-CRITICAL


RIDGED CARVING BOARD
I really wavered about whether this was imperative or nice to have... Here's the deal. When you carve a turkey there's a LOT of juice that runs off. It's just what you need after you've trashed your kitchen for the past 2 days of preparation, right? You can, if you have to, make a little fortress of rolled-up paper towels around your regular cutting board. I guess.

But if you're going out to buy a cutting board anyway, something like this is the way to go. Never cut on a glass surface - it ruins knives. You can chop your veggies on this, then carve your turkey before serving. The broth collects in in the ridge, which is soooo much easier to work with.



BASTER
I'm SO intrigued by this "shower head baster" business! A regular baster is fine - squeeze the bulb, place the wand in the broth, release the bulb, then squeeze the broth over the turkey. Done. I've had a plain, regular baster for years and when it finally wears out someday, I'll consider replacing it with this one. Note - if you're buying a regular baster, get one with a metal tube. They clean up much better and they don't melt.

Gosh, this shower head baster just sounds like a little spa day for the turkey, doesn't it? The dry heat of the sauna. The blast from the shower head. Wow. Kinda deceiving, actually...


GRAVY SEPARATOR
One of the best kitchen inventions ever. Pre-separator the intructions were to wave an ice cube over the hot broth to solidify the fat so it could be skimmed off. Think about it - steaming hot broth, ice cube. Besides having your own little weather system in the roasting pan, the ice didn't stay ice very long. Ugh. Blotting with paper towels, which took off a fair amount of hard-wrought broth, was another method. But no more!

When you've removed the turkey from the roasting pan and you're ready to make gravy, pour the broth into the separator and wait a few minutes. No need for ice or tribal dances or whatever, just let physics do its thing. The fat will rise to the top and, since the spout is connected at the bottom, you'll pour out plain, de-fatted broth. Stop pouring when all you see is fat.




LARGE MEASURING CUP
This is actually a "triple pour" measuring cup. Why someone can't turn their wrist a little to pour from a regular spouted cup is an unknown here in Nostinkycheese Labs, but whatever. The point is this - a large measuring cup can double as a bowl. If you're mixing up herb butter, or the water/cider/mustard for gravy, you can easily use this to both measure AND mix. I have a 4-cup Pyrex measuring cup that I use all the time.



YOU MEAN THESE COST KITCHEN SPACE AND MONEY???



TURKEY PARAPHERNALIA
I come from good people, and we do not embroider our turkey. I don't know anyone who does. Can someone please tell me what the hell this stuff is for? I see this Turkey String Art kit every year. Is it one of those trashy lace-up turkeys? Like I said, I come from solid folk and we wouldn't know of such a thing. Truly, I'm lost.




SILICONE POTHOLDERS
Man, I effin' hate these things. They seemed so happy-bouncy-sproingy in the store! And sure, they're cute and kinda squeaky. But I use them only as trivets now - I just can't get a good grip with them, and if I'm moving 8 pounds of something at 400 degrees, I want to really know that I've got it firmly in hand. Fabric only, please.




On Crate & Barrel's webite, they say this piece of engineering times "three dishes simultaneously... features beep and light signals, clock and countdown functions, and the familiar touchpad controls of handheld electronics. Pre-programmed with cook times for beef, lamb, chicken, and more."

Uh-HUH.

I just wouldn't know where to start with this thing. There's only one probe, yet it times 3 dishes? If they're going that far with it, why not have it yell out "Green bean casserole - done!" instead of giving some sort of Morse code? I think by #3 I'd be trying to remember what on earth was still in the oven and there must be something else for me to remember... do I need to call someone? Is it their birthday? Maybe it's the day for the dogs to get their heartworm meds?... before finally clipping it onto my waistband as a pedometer or something.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Time = Money = Freezing

So I'm making cupcakes for the hardy band of our church's ad-hoc builders for Habitat for Humanity. Chocolate-Spice Cupcakes with Orange-Rum Cream Cheese Frosting, to be precise.

[Habitat Captain Guy? The rest of this is way boring and there's something interesting on television right now. You have cable - find something.]

But precise is the very last thing I've been this evening. I mixed up my allspice and ginger and dumped in FOUR TIMES the amount of allspice called for. Then I discovered that my set of measuring spoons has a rare half-tablespoon on the ring, found where the teaspoon would usually be. In other words, I'd used EIGHT TIMES the amount of cinnamon in the recipe.

That's why trash cans are conveniently kept in kitchens.

So congratulating myself on my commitment to high standards (I'm going to be positive about this if it kills me), on my second effort with newly and properly measured ingredients, I jauntily tossed an egg from my right hand, sailing over my waiting left hand, to the kitchen floor.

That's the other reason trash cans are conveniently kept in kitchens. Clearly, this is not my night.

So here's something I've gotten surprisingly good at - saving money and discovering new things that can be frozen instead of thrown away or thrown across the room because I'm so damn tired of having the same thing for the fourth meal in a row.

1. Keep an emergency dinner around - either something in the freezer (soup, barbecue) or something very easily thrown together with pantry staples. Sweetie made me the only thing I felt like eating tonight; tortellini soup (boxed chicken broth, pre-made tortellini, chopped carrots, shredded Parmesan). Having an emergency dinner or two means you don't have to spend $ getting food delivered.

2. The easiest way to build up a stock of emergency dinners is to double the recipe for whatever you're making. Throwing a baked ziti together? Make an extra in a disposable foil pan, wrap it up, and freeze it. It's ready to go when you need it.

3. Did you know you can freeze a block of cheese? I had NO idea. A few weeks ago I bought a brick of Monterey Jack cheese for chicken enchiladas. It's not a type we get in bulk, so I wrapped the remainder carefully in plastic, put it in a Ziploc, and froze it. When I made Chicken Tamale Casserole this past weekend - voila! - no need to buy the cheese. The texture was a little crumbly, so I wouldn't plan on serving it on a cheese plate after freezing, but for shredding it worked beautifully.

4. Lunchmeat can be frozen. I bought the honkin' big package of deli roast turkey at Costco (18 good-size slices for about $8.50) - I just love a good turkey sandwich for lunch. I laid out a few sheets of Saran Wrap, laid 4 or 5 pieces of turkey on each, and rolled each up like a wrap sandwich. I popped all the rolls in one big bag and into the freezer it went. When thawed, the turkey does not taste one bit different for having been in the freezer. I saved a good amount of $ and I didn't cry at the idea of having to eat 18 slices of turkey before they went bad.

5. Bacon can be frozen. That's one thing we never finsh before it gets to the HAZMAT stage. Same as the turkey - get some plastic wrap & roll it up. I felt so smug when I made a bacon-roasted chicken and didn't have to buy any special ingredients!

6. Bulk shopping is my friend! A small block of Kraft Cracker Barrel cheddar runs a good $4 or more ($5.50 lately for the part-skim, which I used to love but no longer buy). It's about the size of two sticks of butter. Two pounds of cheddar at Costco is $5.79.

7. You can find any recipe you could possibly want on the internet - there's no need to buy a cookbook unless you really want to. I'm sure if you Googled "Chicken Olive Pasta Tasty Rice Ricotta" or some other combination, you'd get at least 500 hits.

Besides saving on cookbooks, the Google trick can also help to use up leftovers and random odds & ends in the pantry. Google on what you have and see what comes up.

8. Apparently the very chi-chi spice emporium Penzey's has a bottle of vanilla that costs FORTY-FIVE DOLLARS. I've never paid that for a good wine, never mind a flavoring. From what I hear, Costco's $4 bottle of vanilla (same size) is every bit as good. No need to elaborate, is there?

9. Breakfast for dinner - eggs take literally minutes to cook. Toss some chopped veggies into your eggs - mushrooms, spinach, onions, broccoli - and you've got a protein and a vegetable.

10. If you make cookie dough and freeze it in small balls, you can bake just one cookie - instead of spending $1.25 for one at Whole Foods.

As Easy As....

Looking to make friends? Bring dessert. Thankful for the invitation to Thanksgiving dinner? Bring dessert.

Atlanta restaurant Murphy's has a wonderful sour cream apple pie. Billowy, creamy, apple-y... I hadn't ever heard of such a thing until I moved here, but it's fabulous.

Many an experienced cook has been bedeviled by pie crust; for a Learn-To-Cook recipe, don't bother with it. Get the Pillsbury pre-made (specifically Pillsbury) in the refrigerated section of the grocery store. The rest of it is homemade, so go ahead and coast on the crust like most people do.

This is about the easiest pie recipe I've ever seen, and it's a crowd-pleaser. It puffs up during baking and looks pretty impressive coming to the table.

Unlike some of the other Learn-To-Cook recipes, you can't make this in stages. Apples turn brown within an hour or two, so you'll need to have twenty minutes or so set aside to prep your apples, mix up the filling, and get the pie in the oven.

Sour Cream Apple Pie
One 9-inch single pie crust
2 large apples - cored, peeled, and sliced (peel first with a vegetable peeler, slice into quarters, and cut the core out of the slices). Why large apples instead of small? Less coring, less peeling; you get to use more of the apple you paid for.
1/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoons flour
8 ounces sour cream

Line pie plate (glass or metal) with pie crust and trim the edges. Roll some of the overhang up so that it forms a little ridge around the edge.

Peel the apples with a vegetable peeler. Then slice into quarters, and cut the core out of each slice. Put the apple quarter on its flat side, with the cut-out core facing you. Slice, about 1/4" thick, your way down the apple. Honestly, it doesn't matter to the recipe which way you slice the apple - if your knife skills aren't the greatest, you'll have an unnecesary kitchen disaster by trying to thinly slice it longways. That's all.

Mix apples with sugar, cinnamon, flour, and sour cream. Pour in pie crust. Bake for one hour at 375 degrees.

Graciously accept compliments - "Oh really, it was no big deal." "It just took a few minutes." "Yes, made it myself. Me. In my kitchen."

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

A Box, A Can, and A Bottle

First things first - it's Veteran's Day in the U.S. A big "thank you" to our armed forces, past and present, and to their families whose sacrifices often go unrecognized.

Longer ago than I care to admit I spent six months in West Africa. We went to the capitol on occasion but mostly stayed on/near campus in "bush country" - lots of banana and mango trees, lots of rice growing, lots of malaria. And no packaged food. The closest you could get was a Maggi cube (chicken bouillon) at the market; other than that, we were on our own to turn just-stopped-squawking chicken, hot peppers, rice, and coconut into a meal.

Oddly enough, twenty years later it's now the hot, healthy thing to do.

And of course, I'm exactly off-trend by discovering this gem of a Chicken Tamale Casserole recipe. It uses a box (of cornbread mix), a can (of green peppers) and a bottle (of red enchilada sauce). And it's delicious.

If you need to divide the work, then cook & shred the chicken and bake the cornbread in one session, and combine for casseroling in another.

Chicken Tamale Casserole
Cooking Light, November 2008

1 cup (4 ounces) preshredded 4-cheese Mexican blend (y'all know how I feel about pre-shredded cheese. Blech. I used cheddar and some Monterey Jack that I put in the freezer after making enchiladas a few weeks ago)
1/3 cup skim milk
1 egg or 1/4 cup egg substitute
1 teaspoon ground cumin (great stuff that adds flavor, but don't buy it just for this recipe if you don't have it)
1/8 teaspoon ground red pepper (ditto)
1 14-ish-ounce can cream-style corn
1 8.5-ounce box corn muffin mix (we're a Jiffy family)
1 4-ounce can chopped green chiles, drained
Cooking spray
1 10-ounce can or bottle red enchilada sauce (Trader Joe's "Mexican Red Sauce" is great)
2 cups shredded cooked chicken breast
1/2 cup fat-free sour cream (optional)

1. Preeat oven to 400 degrees

2. Combine 1/4 cup cheese, milk, egg or egg substitte, cumin, red pepper, creamed corn, and corn muffin mix in a large bowl. Stir until moist. Pour mixture into a 13x 9-inch baking dish coated with cooking spray.

3. Bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes or until set [the original recipe said 15 minutes; mine took at least 25, so start checking it at 20]

If you're not making the recipe all at once (e.g. your kids are out of the house in the afternoon and you can't get 20 minutes to cook when they're home; you can do prep work the night before and need to get dinner in the oven right after work), turn off the oven and move on with your day.

4. Pierce the surface of the cornbread liberally with a fork. Pour enchilada sauce over top. Top with chicken and sprinkle with remaining 3/4 cup cheese.

5. Bake at 400 degrees for 15 minutes (really) or until cheese melts. Remove from oven, let stand 5 minutes. Slice, and top each serving with sour cream.

A green salad goes well with this. Black beans would also make a good side dish.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

From Everyday to Fancy-Schmancy

Or, as children's literature's Fancy Nancy would say, it's not fancy - it's posh, which is a fancy word for fancy.

Sweetie and I consider a handful of carrots to be a better-than-no-veggies-at-all side dish for sandwiches, burgers, whatever. I know, I know, the bags of "baby" carrots are way more expensive than buying a bag of regular carrots and cutting them myself. But I usually opt for the convenience.

A little cup of carrot sticks ain't going to cut it at a holiday table. And even if it's just a regular dinner and you're making (or buying) a nice roasted chicken, the Glazed Mini Carrots are a perfect side dish. For something so easy, they're quite sophisticated. Best of all for holiday purposes, they're made on the stove top - meaning you don't have to try and cram 3 more things into the oven where you're roasting your turkey. Also, these can be made the night before, refrigerated, and warmed up just before serving.

Glazed Mini Carrots
Eating Well, Fall 2004
3 cups mini carrots (1 pound)
1/3 cup water
1 TBSP honey (if a spare packet of honey or two from your favorite coffee place happens to come home with you, that should do it)
2 teaspoons butter - note TEASPOONS. Sticks of butter are not marked with teaspoons, they're marked with TABLESPOONS, which are bigger.
Dash or two of salt
1 TBSP lemon juice (fresh if you have it - bottled is fine)
2 TBSP chopped fresh parsley - not vitally important, but a great way to add some color to the dish. If you're having turkey, potatoes and stuffing, you've got a beige/tan plate. Adding orange carrots with flecks of bright green parsley helps liven it up.

Combine carrots, water, honey, butter, and salt in a large skillet.

Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat (5 on an electric stovetop).

Cover and cook until tender, 5 - 7 minutes. If your skillet doesn't have a lid use aluminum foil. It really does have to be covered, as the steam that stays in the skillet cooks the carrots. Also, you don't want the excess liquid evaporating just yet or you'll have a charred brown mess instead of a lovely glaze. Just sayin'.

Uncover and cook, stirring often, until the liquid is a syrupy glaze, 1 to 2 minutes.

Stir in lemon juice and pepper. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Per serving: 74 calories, 2g fat, 14g carbohydrate, 1g protein, 2g fiber

Friday, November 7, 2008

Freezing

Not here in Georgia, nor in Maryland where I was for 5 days last week. Lovely weather in both places, actually.

But the freezer, that big energy-suck in the kitchen, has been prominent this week - in a good way.

My sister was gracious enough to insist that she really needed some meals in the freezer when I took over her kitchen (sheepish grin). Better yet, her 6-year-old, "Sunshine", could not wait to help cook. The night I got there she busted out her Easy Bake Oven so that we could make cookies on a lightbulb together, just like her Mom and I used to. Actually, I don't think I ever let my sister anywhere near my beloved Easy Bake Oven, but that's another story. So yeah, all the more gracious for letting me tear up her cooking space.

Anyway.

Sunshine and I practiced measuring and stirring and letting Aunt Stephanie handle things that are hot. She was very pleased with our 3-inch lightbulb cookies.

She did so well on her audition that she was ready for the big leagues. We had a great time making muffin-tin meatloaf (much more practical than a big loaf for kids with small appetites). People Who Cook are welcome to toss in some suggestions on this... Sunshine wadded up balls of foil to put in the bottom of each cupcake well so that the meat would be lifted off the bottom and the fat would run off. Is there any way to keep the mini-meatloaf looking meatloaf-like and not like a large, squashed meatball? We didn't mound the meat too high because I didn't want the fat running onto the top of the tin and, inevitably, onto the floor of the oven and setting off the fire alarm.

Squashed meatball or not, Sunshine was soooo proud of herself for making dinner! Oh, did she ever feel grown-up in her pink Princess apron, shredding zucchini and measuring spices and squishing the meat mixture in her little hands. When I teasingly told her that she could ditch her Strawberry Shortcake Halloween costume and trick-or-treat in her apron, she rushed to assure me that she would consider being a chef for Halloween next year. Gotta love that kid.

For those of you following at home, when the muffin-loaves had cooled we popped them into a Ziploc and froze. When Sis needs a quick dinner, she can take out what she needs and not be stuck with meatloaf all week, the way she would if we made a full loaf.

We also made some Caribbean Chicken which, as she said "P.U. stinks when you make it but it tastes really good." Hmmm, are fresh ginger, fresh garlic, cloves, and soy sauce pungent? Fair enough.

It's so cool that Sunshine and I have this connection. I'm looking forward to seeing how her younger brothers' individual interests develop and where we naturally connect and find fun ways to spend time together. Such strong, sweet little personalities!

I'm back home in Georgia and I've been working intensely on a project for work. So much so that I went straight from the office to get my flu shot and came home and waited for dinner to just make itself. Dang, I'm tired. REALLY tired.

Shopping was out. Driving? Walking down aisles? Waiting in line? Driving again? Too much energy. I decided to break into my own freezer stash. Homemade pizza it was - we had dough and spaghetti sauce in the freezer, and Hormel turkey pepperoni, fresh Parmesan, and fresh spinach in the fridge. And my basil plant hasn't died yet, so I threw some of that on there, too. I usually use mozzarella as well, but for darn sure it wasn't worth the effort to get some.

This pizza crust recipe makes enough for two pizzas. It was originally credited to Weight Watchers, but I have no idea what changes were made to it before it got to me. I usually use half the dough right away and freeze the other half. Warning - if you freeze some or all, BE SURE to spritz the Saran wrap with non-stick spray or olive oil first. This dough can be very sticky when it thaws but it comes off the plastic beautifully when I use the non-stick.

With a good stand mixer with a dough hook this is really low-effort. The yeast and the mixer do all the work. Since I used my last batch of dough this evening, I'll probably just make some up this weekend and go straight to the freezer with it.

BASIC PIZZA DOUGH
1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
2 1/2 cups unbleached flour (at most - I find using all this flour makes it too stiff)
1 package active (not expired) dry yeast
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 1/4 cups hot water - 120 to 130 degrees (use a meat thermometer or candy thermometer)
[Option - herbs. Like oregano or rosemary? Toss in a half-teaspoon or so, as long as they're dried herbs and not fresh. The added moisture of fresh herbs will throw off the dough]

Combine 2 cups of the flour, the yeast, and salt in a large bowl. With an electric mixer, slowly beat in the water. If you're health-consciously thinking about leaving the salt out, please reconsider. It's really not that much and the dough will taste like cardboard without it.

Beat 2 minutes, scraping the side of the bowl occasionally with a spatula. With the mixer on medium speed, add in 1/2 cup of the remaining flour, beating until the dough is stiff, about 2 minutes. Work in the remaining flour. You want to get it to the point that the dough is no longer super-sticky, but is still elastic. It should stick to your fingers a little, but it should not stick in big, can't-get-this-damn-stuff-off globs.

Spray a large bowl with nonstick spray; put the dough in the bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let the dough rise in a warm spot (not the oven or the stovetop) until it doubles in size, about an hour.

Divide the dough in half. If you're going to freeze, wrap the portions separately in oiled plastic wrap and pop them in a Ziploc.

If you're making pizza, roll or stretch the dough into the desired shape. Mine, since I'm worthless with a rolling pin, is usually a one-celled organism shape (amoeba, paramecium, whatever). Some may call it a drastic move, but I found that marrying the kitchen-talented grandson of a pastry chef relieved me of ever having to worry about it.

DO NOT use flour on the baking surface (pizza stone, cookie sheet, whatever). Flour burns at this temperature and it smells just awful. Blech. Use cornmeal instead.

Bake for 4 minutes at 450. This firms up the crust so that it doesn't soak up all the sauce while it's raw and bake up mushy. Top with sauce, veggies, meat, cheese, whatever. Pop back in the oven for another 6 minutes or so.

And get an enthusiastic six-year-old to help you if at all possible. Pizza is way fun to make and is absolutely age-appropriate for spooning on the sauce and arranging toppings.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

No Quiz This Friday

I am spending some time up north with my sister and her kids - with three of the adorable little buggers around, I won't be able to post a Learn To Cook recipe this week.

Have a wonderful Fall weekend!

Monday, October 27, 2008

Sort of a PSA for Runners

Sweetie ran the half-marathon at the Silver Comet Trail this weekend. In the spirit of camaraderie and support, he wishes to pass along the following statement:

"Running tights are not as opaque as people think they are."

Friday, October 24, 2008

Best.Vegetables.Ever

It's far from a perfect world, but a perfect recipe exists. For years I've proclaimed Cooking Light's Asparagus [or Green Beans] With Balsamic Browned Butter to be their best vegetable recipe ever, and possibly my favorite of any source. In CL's anniversary issue (20 years, I think) they reviewed their very best ever recipes in various food categories, and they agreed with me that they outdid themselves on this one. And it's straightforward enough to be this week's No Fuss/Learn To Cook recipe.

Much to my surprise I'm still finding asparagus at the DeKalb Farmer's Market, and it's not crazy expensive, either. At least not any more crazy expensive than asparagus is in the summer... Fresh green beans work fabulously well with this sauce instead of asparagus, as will zucchini or yellow squash (I like to make a melange of zucchini and yellow squash to add color to the plate).

I've served this asparagus with simply grilled fish, with roasted chicken, with pork tenderloin - all kinds of things, very simply prepared. The key, particularly if you're new to culinary adventures, is to have only one strongly flavored dish per meal. If you're serving herb-crusted rack of lamb, then plain mashed potatoes will work soooo much better as a side than rosemary roasted potatoes. It's the culinary equivalent of over-accessorizing.

According to this very detailed article on asparagus (who knew there was so much to say??), select asparagus that is firm and green, with compact tips. If it's soft, sparse-looking on the flower end, or yellowish, skip it. And since this is roasted, get the thicker spears if you can, since thin will cook very quickly and will need to be watched carefully.

Roasted Asparagus with Balsamic Browned Butter
40ish asparagus spears, trimmed (about 2 pounds)
Cooking spray
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or two or three dashes of regular table salt)
3 or 4 twists of black pepper
2 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoons low-sodium soy sauce (or Tamari, if you need a gluten-free option)
1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar (it has to be balsamic for the sweetness; other vinegars will be too sour and won't work)

1. Trim the asparagus by snapping off the woody end wherever it naturally snaps. If you're crunched for time and can't sweet-talk someone into doing this step for you, just line up the asparagus on your cutting board, ends aligned, and chop about the last 2 inches off.

2. If you need easy cleanup, line a baking sheet with foil and spritz the foil with cooking spray. Skip the foil if you wish.

3. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

4. Arrange the asparagus on the baking sheet so that none of the spears are overlapping. This will help them to cook evenly. Spritz the asparagus with cooking spray.

5. Sprinkle the asparagus with salt and pepper. Bake for 12 minutes (check on it at 10; if it's a little brown, take it out).

6. Melt the butter in a small skillet over medium heat. Cook for 3 minutes or until slightly browned, stirring occasionally. You can do this step while the asparagus is in the oven.

7. Remove the skillet from the heat; stir in the soy sauce and the balsamic vinegar.

8. Drizzle over cooked asparagus. My preference is to move the asparagus into the serving dish, then drizzle. Toss the asparagus to make sure all pieces have some of the sauce.

I honestly don't know how well the leftovers keep, because we never have any left.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Spice Road

I was craving, in the worst way, something rich and spicy that didn't take all day to prepare and/or six hours to simmer. In other words, I wanted Chicken Vindaloo.

You know, I hesitate to say it's Indian because I suspect it's an Americanized version that may bear little resemblance to actual vindaloo. Much like from-Italy Italians are horrified by what we consider pizza, I imagine people from India get their hopes up here when they hear "vindaloo" and then wonder what the heck is on their plate.

Regardless of its origins and authenticity, it's a terrific dish. When recipes move out of their country of creation, they adapt to whatever food is locally available and favored in the community (meaning "if this was originally made from a part of the chicken I'm not used to eating, it would never have been made in my kitchen").

Something to keep in mind - the fewer ingredients a recipe has, the higher quality each of those ingredients needs to be. For those of us on a budget, dishes with lots of ingredients have some leeway.

If you cook a lot with, say, coriander, then it's worth it to invest in Penzey's or some other highly-regarded brand. But if you don't keep cardamom on hand and you just want some for this recipe, try going into a Hispanic market or the Hispanic aisle of your local supermarket. You'll find small packets of spices for a dollar or so. You won't take up space in your kitchen or drain your wallet for something you'll rarely use. To be honest, in a dish this highly seasoned an expensive spice isn't likely to stand out and be noticed, anyway.

I like to serve this on top of hot rice or barley, with a salad on the side. The leftovers make a terrific lunch.

Chicken Vindaloo
1/3 cup white wine vinegar (plain white vinegar is fine if that's what you have)
6 large garlic cloves, peeled (they mellow out, I promise)
3 T BSP chopped fresh ginger (yes, fresh ginger root. No substitutes here)
1 1/2 Tablespoons curry powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon dried crushed red pepper
2 TBSP yellow mustard seeds (eh - it's optional in my book)
2 pounds chicken, cut into 1- or 1 1/2-inch pieces (this is easier if the chicken is still partially frozen and you're using a good, sharp knife)
4 TBSP olive oil (or regular vegetable oil or canola oil)

2 1/2 cups chopped fresh onions (you can go up or down 1/2 a cup with no ill effect)
1 14 1/2 to 16-ounce can of diced tomato in juice
1 cinnamon stick (they're pricey and, I think, overpowering. I'd use less than 1/4 teaspoon of ground cinnamon)
1/2 cup chopped cilantro (optional)

Note: If you want to do serve this on a weeknight, make the marinade and cut up the onions the night before. Store them in the refrigerator, and when you get home from work you've just got the cooking to do, which is hands-off.

Combine the vinegar, garlic cloves, ginger, curry powder, cumin, cardamom, cloves, and red pepper in a blender or mini food processor. Add the mustard seeds and blend until smooth. [At this point, you can refrigerate the marinade]

Transfer the spice mixture to a large bowl. Add the chicken, 2 Tablespoons of oil, and toss to coat.

Heat the remaining oil in a heavy, large pot over medium-high heat. Add onions and saute until golden (about 5 minutes). Add the chicken mixture, stir, and cook for 3 - 5 minutes to blend the flavors. Add the tomatoes WITH their juice, the cinnamon (stick or dash of ground cinnamon), and bring to a toil.

Reduce the heat, cover, and simmer until the chicken is tender, about 30 minutes.

Season with salt & pepper (optional) and mix in the remaining one Tablespoon of mustard seeds (also optional). Simmer uncovered until the sauce is slightly thickened. If you used a cinnamon stick, remove it and throw it away. If you're using cilantro, stir it in just before serving.

Enjoy!

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Just In Time To Practice for Thanksgiving!

For real. You can serve these alongside a turkey and people will love them.

Speaking of which, if you're cooking for Thanksgiving and you've never in your life cooked for Thanksgiving, get in a practice turkey or at least a turkey breast before the Big Day. Should we cover that in the next few weeks?

Here's a dirty little secret of Thanksgiving dessert - a can of plain pumpkin and a saucepan of painstakingly cooked-down fresh pumpkin look and taste EXACTLY the same. The difference is that cooking down fresh pumpkin takes a good 3 hours longer. If using the fresh pumpkin fulfills a spiritual need within you, have at it. I'll nap and meet up with you later with my can opener.

Anyway, todays Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe is Mustard-Roasted Potatoes! A friend brought amazing roasted potatoes to a dinner for the homeless. Heartless heathen that I am, they smelled so good that I discreetly helped a teensy piece of potato off the tray and had a taste. Phenomenal. And it sent me on a quest to find a better roasted potato recipe than the one I had, and I landed on this one. Since it is a holiday recipe, it's written to serve ten. In other words, double the quantities (but NOT the cooking time) for a crowd.

Mustard-Roasted Potatoes
Serves 5
Nonstick cooking spray
1/4 cup whole grain Dijon mustard (plain will work, but whole grain is better)
1 Tablespoon olive oil or vegetable oil
1 Tablespoon butter, melted (hint on this below)
1 Tablespoon fresh lemon juice
1 or 2 garlic cloves, minced (one for a mild flavor, two for a more assertive garlic flavor. If you're not an experienced cook, do one and know that, next time, you can add more if you wish)
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon peel - I don't measure this, really. I zest half a lemon and figure it's fine.
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 pounds tiny unpeeled potatoes, cut in half

1. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. If you don't have/don't want to use a microwave to melt the butter, just put 1 tablespoon butter in a large non-plastic bowl. Set the bowl on the stovetop; the heat of the oven will melt the butter. And if you don't use a bowl, it'll melt all over the stovetop.

2. Spray a large, rimmed cookie sheet with nonstick spray.

3. In the bowl where you melted the butter (aren't you energy conscious??), add the mustard, olive oil, lemon juice, garlic, oregano, lemon peel, and salt. Use a fork or spoon to stir it briskly and combine everything.

4. Add the potatoes to the bowl, and give them a few stirs. Your goal is to have every side of every potato have some contact with the seasoning. Try scooping from the bottom, stirring, and scooping again - then stir in the other direction.

5. Place the potatoes - but NOT the extra seasoning liquid - on the baking sheet, and spread them out so that none of the potatoes are touching. This will let them crisp up.

6. Put them in the oven and let them cook for 20 minutes.

7. After 20 minutes take them out, turn the cookie sheet around so that the left side is now on the right and vice-versa. Put them back in the oven for another 25 minutes. Check them at 22 minutes - if they're crispy outside and tender inside, they're done.

I once served these with a roasted chicken and the Creamed Spinach Au Gratin from last week - it was a warm, tasty, terrific meal.

Happy cooking!

Friday, October 17, 2008

Atkins Was Too Annoying, Anyway

Aren't you glad the Atkins Diet craze is over? I got so tired of all those people shaking in terror at the sight of a cracker, or santimoniously pointing to my plate at a cocktail party and ticking off "good (green pepper), good (cheese), bad (carrot)." What could possibly be bad about a carrot stick???

That wasn't the weirdest moment of that years-ago party, though. I met a guy whose name sounded soooo familiar - and, yes, mutual friends had been trying to set us up. The tacky guest criticizing my crudites? Set-up guy's boyfriend. "Ummmm, my friends don't know I'm gay," he said. "No shit," said I. Happy New Year!

Where was I on the cooking thing? Right....

Moderation in all things. And if you're going to indulge, indulge on something that's worth it. It's a sad fact in life that crappy candy does not necessarily have fewer calories than really good candy.

And let's defend our humble potato friend, shall we? They're the inspiration for an awesome children's toy (of the Mr. Head variety). They are high in potassium and, as long as you leave the well-scrubbed skins on, high in fiber. They're way inexpensive and, unlike fresh corn or good fresh green beans, always available.

Not only are we not in a potato famine, we are awash in different varieties. And they ARE different, and using the right kind of potato can help ensure excellent results.

Russet potatoes - these are the corky-looking, kinda dirty-looking longish potatoes. They don't have as much water as other potatoes, so when baked they get light and fluffy and soak up butter or sour cream really well. These are also called Idaho potatoes (long story).

Red potatoes - no surprise what these look like. These are usually smaller, rounder, and smoother-looking - just overall cuter - than russet potatoes. If you're making mashed potatoes or boiled potatoes, these are the ones to use.

Lastly, we have our great compromise potato - the Yukon Gold. This is smooth in appearance like one of our spunky red potatoes, and may be similarly shaped but is larger. The skin is yellow/brown. They are known for their buttery taste, and who doesn't love that? They're my go-to for mashed potatoes.

So it should be obvious by now that we're not making rutabaga or celeriac this week. Everybody needs a good recipe for Roasted Potatoes, especially with cooler weather coming, and these are terrific. They accompany any meat dish beautifully.

You'll need:
Whole grain Dijon mustard (or regular Dijon if you don't have whole grain)
olive oil
butter
lemon juice and lemon peel - in other words, one lemon
fresh garlic
oregano
salt
1 1/2 pounds tiny red-skinned or tiny white-skinned potatoes. These may be called "creamer potatoes" or "fingerling potatoes" - either is fine.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Fries-day

This one is so easy we're just going to do the shopping list & the recipe on the same day. Really, it has nothing to do with jumping for glee at getting rid of our 18-year-old refrigerator this weekend and replacing it with a Craig's List beauty and setting up the new fridge just the way I - I mean "we" - like it.

But since you're probably wondering... it's white (old one was nasty beige), has the freezer on the bottom with a shelf & racks in the door, and according to Sweetie there's some kind of a wine holder in the fridge that I'll be able to see when we take it off the dolly.

And sincere thanks to our neighbor, Dad of The World's Best-Behaved Dog, who helped get it into the house!

So are you throwing the last few burgers on the grill as Fall approaches? Sauteeing some chicken or tossing some ham on the dinner plate? Just plain having sandwiches for dinner?

Cumin Carrot Fries are super-easy and a nice change from regular french fries. Unlike frozen french fries, you know exactly what's in these. And if you have kids who don't like spicy foods, just leave the spices off of some of them and voila - kidfriendly and parentfriendly on different sides of the same cookie sheet. Beat that.

You'll need:
1 1/2 pounds of peeled carrots, cut into 3-inch sticks. No, they don't have to be exactly 3 inches and yes, a bag of baby carrots will work just fine - just split the larger carrots in half lengthwise

2 Tablespoons olive oil - vegetable oil or canola oil will work just fine instead of olive
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or 1/4 teaspoon regular table salt

If everyone is having spiced carrots, then measure the oil, cumin, and salt into a ziploc bag. Seal and shake to combine. Add the carrots and seal & shake again.

Turn the carrots onto a baking sheet (I like to line mine with aluminum foil for easier cleanup). Roast - which means to cook uncovered - in a 400 degree oven. They will cook for a total of 30 minutes; be sure to take them out briefly at 15 minutes to turn each carrot over. Otherwise they'll burn on one side.

If some of your crew is having spicy carrots and some plain, then add 1 TBSP olive oil, a little salt & pepper, and half the carrots to a Ziploc. Seal and shake and turn out onto one side of the cookie sheet. Using the same bag, add 1 TBSP olive oil, a little salt & pepper, and HALF a teaspoon of cumin. Seal and shake, then add the rest of the carrots and seal and shake.

Add those carrots to the other side of the cookie sheet. Roast at 400 degrees for a total of 30 minutes, flipping each carrot at 15 minutes. A pair of tongs makes this a breeze, but a fork works well, too.

Happy cooking!

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

But Do They Leave The House?

Apparently "French Women Don't Get Fat" for a number of reasons. They eat freshly prepared, non-processed food. They insist on high quality. They exercise portion control. They walk a lot.

And according to the comments in this British newspaper - the British possibly not an unbiased source of information about the French - they also smoke a lot to stay slim.

I've read several bloggish reports of American women who gave the FWDGF approach a serious and enthusiastic go. Croissants, wine, dark chocolate, and creamy soups drum up lots of enthusiasm. And they loved it.

One of the things routinely commented upon was lingering over meals. For hours and hours, as a part of the daily routine. And it did sound languid and luxurious and all that... rather vacation-y.

My most recent Saturday morning - before 10am - included taking the dogs out for their unleashed frolic at the local tennis courts, loading up the car with all the recyclables, doing a few loads of laundry, vacuuming the downstairs and probably scrambling an egg with chopped vegetables. That was before getting the dry cleaning, grocery shopping, etc.

I can not imagine the weekend when I would whip up a batch of beaten biscuits, only eat one of them - if they were up to snuff - and gaze thoughtfully at two perfect strawberries. For an HOUR.

I wasn't there and she didn't provide a schedule, but I imagine my sister spent last Saturday getting her 6- and 4-year-olds to various soccer games and birthday parties and keeping the toddler from destroying the house, and certainly at some point they ate some cereal and bananas or something.

Just a guess, but I'm pretty sure it's a treat for her to remain seated for five consecutive minutes at mealtime, let alone ponder a glass of milk and wonder if the cow that provided it led a charmed existence.

There's a lot to be said for cooking your own food, watching portions, and savoring judicious treats. Sweetie and I have always believed that eating together - with the TV off - is an important part of our day.

Even with as much as I love to cook, I'm not willing to ascribe food that much of my day. I'm just not. A square of dark chocolate is great. A shopping trip with an longtime friend or watching Cutie sing with her church choir or digging up the flower beds is better.

Perhaps it's semantics or lower standards or rationalization. When we can sit down together to a homemade meal, fantastic. It's truly a delight to carve (well, watch him carve) an herb-roasted chicken and spoon up some homemade mashed potatoes and talk about our day and our plans and so on. But if Sweetie is volunteering one night and I'm working out and I throw together a smoothie for dinner, well, so be it.

Vive la difference.

Can Weight Watchers Get A Pulitzer For This?

Or a James Beard award or something?

I adore Thai food. I love the bright notes of lime and the creamy coconut milk and I'm good friends with curry paste. But sometimes the calories are prohibitive.

Weight Watchers magazine published this stroke of genius recently and we LOVED it. Most of the Thai food I've attempted before has been a lot flatter in taste than what we'd get at a restaurant; just not as full-bodied. That's not the case here, and it really tastes like Thai food that I went out and spent $$$ on... but it's not.

This is terrific. The only reason this isn't a Learn To Cook recipe is because some of the ingredients aren't part of the average cook's pantry. They are worth the purchase, though.

Thai-Style Chicken Breasts With Spinach

Serves 4 (I used one big chicken breast & cut it in half. We used the rest of the sauce on some leftover plain grilled chicken to have for lunch tomorrow)

1 cup light (reduced-fat) coconut milk
2 garlic cloves, minced
2 TBSP minced peeled fresh ginger
1 TBSP paprika (didn't make sense to me at first, but gives the sauce a great color)
1 TBSP reduced-sodium soy sauce, or Tamari if you need a gluten-free option
1 TBSP Asian fish sauce (or 2 more TBSP soy sauce if you don't keep fish sauce handy; fish sauce is better, though)
1 tsp grated lime zest (more intense than lime juice, but use 2 tsp juice if that's what you have)
1/4 tsp crushed red pepper
4 (1/4-pound) skinless, boneless chicken-breast halves
1 (6-ounce) bag washed baby spinach leaves - or grab 3 or 4 handfuls out of whatever bag of spinach you have
3 TBSP chopped fresh basil or cilantro (I used basil since I have a plant on the deck)
1 tsp Asian (dark) sesame oil
1 TBSP packed brown sugar
1/2 tsp salt (are they kidding?? This is plenty salty without it)
2 cups hot cooked white rice (I used brown steam-in-the-bag rice)
4 tsp unsweetened shredded coconut (I'd use it if I had it around, but I wasn't going to buy it to use such a small amount. It works just fine without.)

1. In a large skillet, bring the coconut milk, garlic, ginger, paprika, soy sauce, fish sauce, lime zest, and crushed red pepper to a boil. Cook over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the flavors are blended and the mixture thickens slightly, about 8 minutes. [Note: if you need to do your prep work beforehand, you can measure and combine all the sauce ingredients and leave them in a Ziploc bag in the refrigerator. If you're busy during the day, it helps to do them mix & measure the night before]

2. Add the chicken; reduce the heat and simmer, covered, just until the chicken is cooked through, about 10 minutes. Add the spinach, basil, sesame oil, brown sugar, and (if you're using) salt. Return to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the spinach wilts, about 2 minutes longer.

3. Serve with the rice and sprinkle with the shredded coconut.

I served baby carrots on the side 'cause I'm classy like that. Steamed broccoli would also work really well with this.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Nostinkycheese Hotline, How May I Help You?

Let's follow up on two earlier posts:

1. The Pumpkin Cake was a hit! It sold out early and raised $16 for charity. I'm so honored.

Sweetie asked if it was risky to bring a non-chocolate item to a bake sale. It's a gamble; on the one hand, some amount of chocolate is always going to sell really well. However, something seasonal (lemon poundcake in the summer, gingerbread in December, etc.) is always going to have a market and will usually provide a little diversity on the bakesale table against all the chocolate. The Pumpkin Cake was a lovely taste of fall just as the weather is starting to get crisp.

Next time, though, I'm going to bring in a naked cake and ice it when I get there. Why didn't I learn that lesson from a pro, who did my wedding cake that way?

2. Pot roast is far more popular than I ever imagined. I'm glad the recipe has made it into so many kitchens.

To answer a question I've been asked twice so far - "boneless beef chuck pot roast" is not the ony cut that can be used.

What's a little confusing is that pot roast is not actually roasted - it's braised, meaning it's cooked in a simmering liquid. This technique is often used for tough meats, as it tenderizes them very well. And Pot Braise sounds silly and unappetizing in a way that Pot Roast doesn't. So if you're looking in your handy Better Homes & Gardens cookbook or on the "Beef, It's What's For Dinner" website, you would need to look for cuts of beef that respond well to braising, not roasting.

Can you use a very pricey cut of beef for a pot roast? There are some cuts that would work, but holy hell you'd pay literally 600% more than you had to and the finished product would not be 600% better. 'Nuff said.

Cuts for pot roast usually comes from the "chuck" - the shoulder area of the cow. Meats from this area tend to be fairly tough (and therefore inexpensive).

Chuck cuts for pot roast include:
* Boneless chuck roast (my go-to)
* Boneless top blade steak (also known as "flat iron")
* Boneles chuck pot roast
* Boneless arm pot roast
* Shoulder roast
* 7-bone pot roast (I've never used it and, frankly, from the diagram it looks like the meat is a pain to get to with all the bones)

Although also from the chuck, DO NOT ue country-style ribs or short ribs. They're totally not what you're going for in a pot roast.

Also try some of the "round" cuts, from the area of cow we'll politely call the rump. Some, but not all, cuts from the round braise well and make good pot roasts.

Round cuts for pot roasts include:
* Bottom round or bottom round roast (this cooks nicely, I've used it before)
* Boneless rump roast or Boneless round rump roast (it cooks well, but it has a thick layer of fat on the outside that needs to be cut off. You'll need to go up a smidge on the weight when you buy it since you'll throw some of it away)

Happy cooking - and keep asking questions!

Good Morning, Campers!

WOW, what a gorgeous day. I'm so looking forward to heading to the Greek Festival this afternoon - what's better than Greek potatoes???

If you don't have access to that Mediterranean delicacy this afternoon, you've got an excellent backup in Creamed Spinach Gratin, this week's Learn To Cook/No-Fuss recipe.

The recipe calls for fresh, and that's a great, close-to-your-food way to go. Personally, I prefer using frozen spinach just because it's less work. With the fresh spinach you have to swish it in water to make sure all the grit is out, and go through that process of foot-tall piles of spinach leaves cooking down into a manageable amount of greens before wringing out the water. Frozen spinach still requires you to wring out the water, but other than that you just let it thaw and nothing is less work than that.

Creamed Spinach Au Gratin
Cooking Light, November/December 1997
1 (10-ounce) bag fresh spinach, or one box frozen chopped spinach
Cooking spray
2/3 cup chopped onion (optional)
1/4 cup tub-style light cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
Salt & pepper
1 cup sliced tomato
1/4 cup dry breadcrumbs (or crushed corn flakes, for a gluten-free option)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

IF YOU'RE USING FRESH SPINACH - Remove the large stems from the spinach and throw them away. Tear spinach leaves into 1-inch pieces, place in a sieve/colander, and rinse the spinach under cold water.

Place a large Dutch oven (big saucepan), coated with cooking spray, over medium heat until it's hot. Add onion if you're using and saute 3 minutes. Stir a few times during those 3 minutes.

Add the spinach. Cover and cook 2 minutes or until spinach wilts.

IF YOU'RE USING FROZEN SPINACH - allow the spinach to thaw. Squeeze the water out with your hands.

Place a large Dutch oven (big saucepan), coated with cooking spray, over medium heat until it's hot. Add onion if you're using and saute 3 minutes. Stir a few times during those 3 minutes.

Add the spinach.

BACK TO THE RECIPE....
Add the cream cheese, oregano, salt (just a pinch) and pepper (a few dashes or twists). Uncover and cook an additional minute or two until the cream cheese melts.

Get a rubber or silicone spatula and scoop the spinach mixture into a one-quart (small - 8x8 baking dish is too big) gratin dish or shallow casserole coated with cooking spray.

OPTIONAL
Arrange tomato slices, or halved grape or cherry tomatoes, in a single layer on top of the spinach, and sprinkle with breadcrumbs (if using) and Parmesan cheese.

BACK TO THE RECIPE...
Having spooned the spinach mixture into the gratin dish, sprinkle with the 2 Tablespoons of Parmesan.

Bake at 375 degrees for 30 inutes or until golden brown.

Friday, October 3, 2008

Of course you like spinach!

The first time my parents visited me in my own, big-girl apartment I noticed my mother eyeing the cabinets. Go ahead and look, I told her, you probably already know what you won't find. That's right - no beets, no lima beans, no sauerkraut, no other intruments of torture from my youth.

But some of the foods I didn't like as a child, like spinach and sweet potatoes and green beans, just needed to be prepared differently for me to like them. I was in my twenties before I discovered that cooked spinach wasn't awful - at least not in Houston's spinach/artichoke dip. In fact, it's fabulous. [That is one of the few vegetables my Mom just can't stomach, so I never had it until after college.]

Since we've done a workweek's worth of entrees in the Learn To Cook/No-Fuss series, we're moving on to side dishes. Once you've mastered a few of these, you can toss out a confident "Can I bring a vegetable?" the next time you're invited to a dinner party. You can dazzle your in-laws or your co-workers - or whoever it behooves you to dazzle - with your simple, tasty side dishes. Or just plain put a dinner on the table that is the work of your own two hands transforming everyday foods into something terrific.

This week we're making Creamed-Spinach Gratin - the low-fat version. This is SO good with roasted chicken. I've been known to use the leftovers as a bread spread for a turkey sandwich, or stirred into hot rice for a variation on the side dish. This goes very well with meatloaf, too.

You'll need:

A 10-ounce bag of fresh spinach OR a box of frozen, chopped spinach (I use the frozen, but if you're pursuing a whole foods/granola/earthy vibe, rock on with the fresh spinach)
Onion
Tub-style light cream cheese. Yes, tub style. It matters.
Dried oregano - if you're buying it just for this recipe, you can go to the Hispanic section of the supermarket and get a small packet for less than a dollar - way less than the $4 or so if you get McCormick's
Fresh Parmesan cheese - cheaper if you buy a block then buy it shredded, but you're going to melt it in a seasoned dish so the taste difference between block and pre-shredded is minimal. DO NOT use that white sawdust in the green cardboard canister. The texture will be gritty, sandy, and all-around wrong.

The recipe calls for fresh tomato - it's optional and, if you choose to add it, grape or cherry tomatoes are probably a better bet at this time of year.

Breadcrumbs are also called for in the recipe, but I don't think it adds anything other than carbs. If you love a breadcrumb topping, go for it and I'll include the how-to in the recipe.

And to wrap up Iron Chef Week, when I got home from the gym yesterday Sweetie pretended to suddenly come up with the idea of burgers for dinner (he had one pre-made in the fridge, seaoned and everything). I had some of my confetti turkey burgers (recipe in an earlier month) in the freezer. We were out of frozen hamburger buns, so we had them au naturel. I sauteed some yellow squash with lemon & pepper for the vegetable.

Do I have enough gas to drive to a friend's house and not enough to drive to the supermarket? Apparently so. I'm a sucker for good food and good friends and a cute baby to cuddle, and tonight's invitation had all 3 (plus wine!). We grabbed Fat Matt's barbecue for the group and had a fun, laidback, detox-at-the-end-of-the-week evening. What greater show of friendship is there than for our host to say "I know we're all coming for the company, so let's just order out and be sure to do it together"?? Fabulous idea, good times.