Tuesday, July 29, 2008

"Since you said I can be the Fun Aunt...

"We used up all your cheese and trashed the kitchen. Sorry."

It was with those unexpected words that I greeted my niece's dad when he came back from his meeting yesterday.

Honestly, I don't know how it happened but I'd do it again in a heartbeat. After dinner Cutie (age 7) showed me what's new in the vegetable garden and we played on the swingset. Out of the blue she pulled out the Rachael Ray cookbook we gave her a few years ago. Initially she kept it in her play kitchen and - hopefully - she had the best pretend lasagne in town.

She found a recipe for Spicy Mustard Pretzel Dip and excitedly said of her posse of fellow Hannah Montana devotees, "The girls would LOVE this at the pool tomorrow!!" She sounded exactly like her mother and me circa 1996 in our Melrose Place Girls Night Dinner days, where six of us would take turns hosting/cooking and we would yell at Amanda Woodward and sing Jack Wagner's "Aaaallll Iiiii Neeeeeed..."

Anyway, she read the recipe and ran for the fridge. "We have butter! We have cheese! You're my grown-up helper, let's go!" And so we did and we laughed the whole time. Standing on her stepstool to comfortably reach the counter, she did all the measuring, shredded the cheese, and figured out almost all the correct amounts for halving the recipe. True, she failed to multiply the numerators and denominators of 1/2 x 1/2 to get 1/4, but I suppose that wasn't covered in first grade. We'll do flashcards next week.

Without the spicy brown mustard called for in the recipe I told Cutie that we would improvise with spices. To the regular yellow mustard we added some onion powder, ground mustard and, for color, a pinch of chipotle powder.

"We'll also need some of this" she said with authority, and handed me a jar of peanut butter. What was that about creativity run amok?

Cutie will proudly tell her friends at the pool that she made the snack from scratch. The aunt/niece relationship is all the stronger for the spontaneous, fun, friend-to-friend time together. In that regard, Best Dip Ever.

This is from memory, so let's be flexible and forgiving since it's just dip and you could always thin it with a little milk or thicken with some whipped cream cheese or sour cream, 'kay? It would also make a good spread for deli ham or roast beef sandwiches. If for some reason you like a really mustard-y macaroni & cheese, then toss with par-boiled macaroni in a baking dish, top with additional grated cheese, cover and bake at 350 for 20 minutes or so.

SPICY MUSTARD PRETZEL DIP - full recipe, which we halved
2 cups whole milk (we used skim)
2 1/2 cups of shredded cheddar (we used up all the cheddar and moved on to Monterrey Jack to make up the difference)
1/4 cup of mustard
1 TBSP butter
2 tsp flour

Melt butter in saucepan. Add flour and stir until there is no discernible white flour, it has all been integrated into the butter. Have your Big Girl Helper slowly add millk, about 1/2 cup at a time, and stir constantly. After all milk is added continue to stir until the mixture thickens. Add mustard. Remove from heat and add cheese - stir until melted. Serve with pretzel sticks.


For Cutie and anyone else who's active outdoors in this heat, here's an easy-for-a-kid-to-prepare frozen treat:

Vegetarian Times

2 cups fresh pineapple chunks
1 large banana, sliced
3/4 cup light coconut milk
1/4 to 1/3 cup agave nectar (or just make a simple syrup of equal parts water and sugar, heated until sugar is dissolved. Honey might work but I don't know how it freezes.... care to chime in, Nancy?)

Puree all ingredients in blender (put the lid on!) 1 to 2 minutes, or until mixture is smooth. Ladle into ice pop molds, with a paper towel under the molds in case of a spill. Freeze at least 4 hours. Run molds under warm water to unmold.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Summer on a Plate

Right now, while both mangos (mangoes?) and avocados (which looks right with out the E...) are in season, take advantage of this recipe. I'm not much of an avocado fan but I don't mind them in this dish. Do get fresh mango-in-the-plural for this one. I've tried two brands of jarred mango and they were just dreadful.

Although the recipe calls for baking, don't hesitate to throw the chicken on the grill if that's easier or more fun.

My preference is to serve this with a garden salad or fresh steamed green beans. I never use the tortillas; something about this light, fresh, flavorful recipe doesn't want starch weighing it down.

Avocado-Mango Chicken

1/4 cup Worcestershire sauce - check the label for gluten if that's a concern
1 TBSP soy sauce
2 tsp adobo sauce (from canned chipotle chiles)
2 limes
4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
1 large mango, coarsely chopped
1 TBSP finely chopped cilantro
1 TBSP finely chopped onion
2 tsp sea salt
4 white-corn tortillas - check the label for gluten if that's a concern

In a Ziploc bag mix Worcestershire, soy, and adobo sauces with juice from one of the limes. Don't dirty an extra bowl like the original recipe says to. Close the bag, shake it to mix, then pop in the chicken. Refrigerate 30 minutes.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine mango, avocado, cilantro, onion, salt, and juice from remaining lime in a bowl, then refrigerate. Transfer chicken and marinade to a baking dish and cook until tender and no longer pink, approximately 20 minutes. Remove chicken from oven, place each piece of chicken on a plate and top with salsa. Serve with one tortilla each (or not).

Sunday, July 27, 2008

The Curse of Costco

There are many, many things to like - in large quantities - about Costco. Thirty percent off magazines, great deals on just about anything, really. Staggering around the store, clinging to the cart, glassy-eyed and babbling something about "Do you know what 36 of these would cost at Publix???"

And of course there's the Costco hangover. The fuzzy-tongued, WTF? day after spent wondering where to put ten rolls of duct tape. The last, desperate Google for "recipe - six cups of mustard."

Hey, it happens to the best of us. We were suckered in - twice - on cherries, which are crazy expensive. One giant pod of cherries just looked great for snacking. Unfortunately for all so did other treats of the season. Too much competition, too short a shelf life.

The other crate of cherries was put to good and prolific use. Sweetie decided to make cherry ice cream (terrific). Oatmeal isn't my favorite summer breakfast, but it goes well with cherries so oatmeal it was.

Fortunately I came across this recipe for a cherry (tired of that word yet? I AM) streusel coffee cake. If you have both a bundt (fluted/ridged/pretty) pan and a tube (plain) pan, use the tube pan. Streusel tends to get caught in the fluting and it stays in the pan instead of deliciously on the cake.

*Generally, I follow the "never have any kitchen utensil that only has one use" rule. Of course, carried to its most extreme Depression-era form all anyone would ever need is a knife and a spoon, since most kitchen utensils are derivations of one of those items. A cherry pitter is an exception - it's money well-spent that keeps me from looking like a horror movie extra splattered with cherry juice.

Cherry Sour Cream Coffee Cake
Cooking Light

1/2 cup whole wheat flour
1/2 cup regular oats
1/2 cup packed brown sugar
3 TBSP chopped pecans (optional)
1 tsp ground cinnamon
2 TBSP frozen orange juice concentrate, thawed (I used regular orange juice)
1 TBSP canola oil

Cooking spray
1/4 cup canola oil
2 TBSP butter, melted
1 cup granulated sugar
2 tsp vanilla extract
1 large egg
1 large egg white
2 cups all-pupose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup fat-free sour cream (ICK - I use reduced-fat sour cream. I won't allow fat-free in the house)
2 cups pitted fresh cherries, coarsely chopped (if they're too roly-poly to manage chopping with a knife, put them in a large measuring cup and slice through with scissors from different angles)

1. To prepare streusel, lightly spoon whole wheat flour into a dry measuring cup; level with a knife. Combine whole wheat flour and next 4 ingredients. Add concentrate and 1 TBSP oil; stir until crumbly. [Note: this is a fairly sandy streusel]

2. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

3. To prepare cake, coat a 9-inch tube pan with cooking spray. Combine 1/4 cup oil and melted butter in a medium bowl. Add granulated sugar, vanilla, egg, and egg white; beat with a mixer at medium speed until smooth.

4. Lightly spoon all-purpose flour in dry measuring cups; level with a knife. Combine all-purpose flour and next 3 ingredients in a large bowl. Add flour mixture and sour cream alternately to egg mixture, beginning and ending with flour mixture. Stir in cherries.

5. Spoon half of batter into prepared pan; sprinkle with half of streusel. Spoon in remaining batter; top with remaining streusel. Bake at 350 for 55 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool in pan 10 minutes on a wire rack; run a knife around outside edge. Cool completely in pan.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

"It's A Demotion!" - Where's A Poo Cake When You Need One?

Original thinking is a fabulous thing. I REFUSE to use the term "think outside the box." How could I stand to use a cliche to talk about innovation? I'd ask "how could anyone?" but I'm really working on this less-judgmental thing. Except for cases like this, where most of society is with me.

Creativity lends color to the picture, sparkle to the mundane and lime juice to the banana bread (I know! What took so long??).

And yet.

We've all had, and possibly made, dishes inspired by... I don't know, acid trips that never quite wrapped up, revenge, canned goods with the labels missing, whatever. Creativity run amok can have ungodly consequences. To protect the innocent I'm naming no names.

Except this one - www.cakewrecks.blogspot.com. A collection of the most disturbing, inappropriate, disastrous cakes you couldn't imagine on your own due to your good taste and social graces, no matter how lacking.

Here's what I mean - the "It's Just A Cold Sore" cake. The poo cake. The puffer-fish cake. "Happy Birthday D---head" - sure, I've wanted to make that one a time or two in years past, but I never was one to waste real butter and Madagascar vanilla.

Review. Gasp. Point and laugh. I dare you not to. And if I show up somewhere with a chocolate (of course) "Love the new shoelaces!" cake please gently pull me to the side, tell me it has gone too far, and find me a ride home.

And give me my cake back.


Saturday, July 19, 2008

Fire + Meat - How Hard Could Caveman Cooking Be?

In the north, barbecue is a verb - "What did you barbecue?" "Oh, some burgers and chicken." It may also be an event - "How was the barbecue?" "It was a lot of fun - Cheryl was there, and someone brought those amazing lemon bars." In the South, it means pulled pork (or beef in Texas).

Ooohhhh, the right meat and the right sauce and the right technique are a matter of considerable debate and passionate discussion, probably because the results can be so, sooooo good. That, and it takes so frickin' long to cook. Vinegar based? Mustard based? Sweet red sauce? Seriously, you could tell someone their kid was homely and they wouldn't be as offended (he'll grow out of it) as if you said their barbecue was so-so.

The super anal-retentive Cook's Ilustrated magazine, which goes to great lengths to determine if one brand of baking soda is superior to another (it isn't) and tries out seventeen different bread-kneading techniques to see which one reigns above all others, is an unlikely participant in this debate. Scientific and persnickety vs. My Daddy Did It That Way. Heat to 170 degrees vs. when the coals sputter, but not too much, it's ready.

Still, a magazine devoted to summer cooking and grilling must have barbecue. Being a rather persnickety person myself, with more background in red pasta sauce than red barbcue sauce, figured I'd better get my $10 worth out of the CI summer supplement.

A bona fide North Carolinian has confirmed her home state as the Lexington referenced (I thought it might be Virginia or Kentucky). It was my first experience making barbecue on a grill and also my first with vinegar sauce - this year's earlier experiment with a mustard-based sauce didn't go so hot.

Sweetie and I thought this turned out pretty well. I expect it will be even better when I have some more experience with using soaked wood chips in a gas grill. And I have to say that I'm astounded to get so many meals from a $6.50 Boston Butt (major sale, coupon, etc.).


Spice Rub
2 TBSP ground black pepper
2 TBSP paprika
2 TBSP brown sugar
1 TBSP table salt
1 boneless pork shoulder roast (4 - 5 pounds)
4 cups wood chips

Lexington Barbecue Sauce
1 cup water
1 cup cider vinegar
1/2 cup ketchup
1 TBSP granulated sugar (I used molasses instead)
3/4 tsp table salt
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes

1. Combine paprika, pepper, brown sugar, and salt in small bowl, breaking up any lumps as necessary. Massage entire pork roast with spice mixture (lucky pork roast).
2. Soak wood chips in bowl of water to cover for 15 minutes. For a gas grill, seal woaked wood chips in a foil packet. Place packet on primary burner of gas grill, turn all burners to high, and preheat with lid down until chips are smoking heavily, about 15 minutes. Scrape grate clean with grill brush. Turn primary burner to medium and shut off other burners - adjust as necessary to maintain average temperature of 275 degrees.

3. Position pork on cooler side of grill. Cover and cook until meat has dark, rosy crust, about 2 hours.
4. Meanwhile, adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 325 degrees. Transfer pork to large roasting pan, wrap pan and pork tightly in foil, and roast in oven until fork inserted into pork can be removed with no resistance, 2 - 3 hours. Remove from oven and allow meat to rest, still wrapped in foil, for 30 minutes.

5. For the sauce - whisk together all ingredients until granulated sugar and salt are dissolved. Using hands, pull pork into thin shreds, discarding fat if desired. Toss pork with 1/2 cup sauce; serve remaining sauce separately.

Public Service Announcement

Recently an Atlanta man was served the wrong dish at a restaurant. He died of anaphylactic shock, as the dish he received had shellfish in it and he was allergic.

If you have an Epi pen, as I do:

a) Check the expiration date and make sure your pen is still effective.
b) Know how to use it. Better yet, also make sure the people you spend time with know about your allergy and
know how to use the pen and where to find it. [Dear Friends & Family - Mine is in my purse. Always.]
c) Know that you MUST go to the hospital immediately after administering the shot. The Epi pen does not resolve the reaction - it buys you an extra ten to fifteen minutes to get to the ER.

And here's a shout-out to my friendly neighborhood CVS. The last time I flew - to Maryland, home of the crabcake - I had to leave my Epi pen behind because the prescription label had been on the box, which fell apart months beforehand. In times where illegally large shampoo bottles can get you held back from a flight, an unidentified pre-filled syringe would almost certainly result in never seeing your family again. When I picked up my new pen last week I told the pharmacist that I need to be able to fly with it and asked for an additional prescription label. She gladly obliged.

Guest Blogger Amy D (Registered Nurse and Advanced Cardiac Life Support instructor) says:
In addition to the Public Service Announcement, from your Friendly Neighborhood RN/ACLS Instructor: after administering the Epi pen, do NOT drive to the ER or let anyone else do so. I'm sure you think you can get there faster than the ambulance, but I bet you don't have Oxygen, Endotrachial Tubes or Defibrillation Paddles in your car. If you do, have at it. Otherwise, please call 911 and let the professionals do the transporting. Thanks, kids.

Friday, July 4, 2008

Independence Day - Just Brilliant

"I'll bet what motivated the British to colonize so much of the world is that they were just looking for a decent meal." ~Martha Harrison

That's amazing insight. The 3-hour final in the "US History 1600 - 1864" class I took in college was to write six or seven blue books to "Discuss the significance of water in American history, 1600 - 1864." This Martha Harrison would've kicked that exam's butt, no question.

Sweetie and I spent the 4th dining at the fancy-schmancy Woodfire Grill with the smartest woman we know, who has devoted her life to developing, testing, and producing an AIDS vaccine (and raising her kids, at which she did a bang-up job). She's great company, which has been the uncompromising hallmark of our holiday celebrations. Woodfire's barbecue was just unbelievable, and the peach-blueberry crisp finished off the meal perfectly. Munching on watermelon with our favorite 7-year-old and her dad (while watching fireworks) rounded out the evening culinarily. And yes, perfectly ripe watermelon fresh off the vine does count as a culinary experience and is in a different class altogether from the pale pink styrofoam cubes found in the supermarket.

The watermelon was a gift. A southwest Georgia farmer with a disability makes a trip to Atlanta every so often, calls our agency and brings us a feast of whatever he just harvested - "I have 75 pounds of peanuts for y'all!" On Thursday, it was 20 watermelons. After taking the train for a while you might think you've pretty much seen humanity-in-transit in all its wonders and varieties. Try taking the train with a 12-pound watermelon in your arms and see if "weird" doesn't go to a whole new level. It does get you a seat, though.

In all seriousness, it's this country for which Rosellina, Giulio, Tressa, and Dominick - my paternal great-grandparents - set arduous sail in the late 1800's and early 1900's. They each wanted a life in which they, and their future children, could succeed without any imposed limits. They farmed, they owned businesses, they openly went to Mass (Catholic church service) and made pizzelles (anise-flavored cookies) at Christmas and they proudly called themselves Americans. It was in the British colony of "America" that my mother's ancestors arrived in the 1600's... to farm, mine coal and own businesses, and to openly go to church and raise their children as they saw fit. And get a decent meal.

In honor of our fireworks-watching, watermelon-seed-spittin', Peachtree-Road-Race-running-or-wheeling, anthem-singing holiday, I offer the most all-American recipes I have that aren't apple pie:

Confetti Burgers
(Weight Watchers, but don't let that throw you - they don't taste diet-y and they're easily the best of a dozen turkey burger recipes that I've tried. That's right, I labored over a hot grill so you don't have to. Some people rid the world of transmissible diseases and I test out recipes. We all have our gifts and none of us got to choose them.)

3/4 pound ground skinless turkey
1/2 yellow squash, finely shredded (I have one grater with one size hole that I use for everything except zest. Whatever size you have is fine.)
1/2 cup cooked whole-grain brown rice
4 sun-dried tomato halves (not packed in oil), diced
1 tsp Italian herb blend (just combine some oregano, basil, and rosemary)
freshly ground black pepper

1. Preheat the grill to medium-high or prepare a medium-hot fire.
2. Combine the turkey, squash, rice, sun-dried tomatoes, herb blend, and pepper in a bowl, tossing just until mixed. Form the mixture into 4 (3/4-inch-thick) patties.

Either grill or freeze at this point. I usually double the recipe, wrap each uncooked burger in Saran wrap, and throw all the wrapped burgers into a freezer bag. It makes an easy dinner along with a salad.

Boneless Buffalo Wings
from Eating Well magazine
3 TBSP nonfat buttermilk
3 TBSP hot pepper sauce, such as Frank's Red Hot, divided
3 TBSP distilled white vinegar, divided
2 pounds chicken tenders
6 TBSP whole-wheat flour
6 TBSP cornmeal
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper
2 TBSP canola oil, divided 2 cups peeled carrot sticks
2 cups celery sticks
Stinky Cheese Dip (you're on your own for that part)

1. Whisk buttermilk, 2 TBSP hot pepper sauce and 2 TBSP vinegar in a large bowl until combined. Add chicken, toss to coat. Transfer to the refrigerator and let marinate for at least 10 minutes or up to 1 hour, stirring occasionally.
2. Meanwhile, whisk flour and cornmeal in a shallow dish. Whisk the remaining 1 TBSP hot sauce and 1 TBSP vinegar in a small bowl.
3. Remove the chicken from the marinade and roll in the flour mixture until evenly coated. (Discard remaining marinade and flour mixture.) Sprinkle both sides of the chicken with cayenne.
4. Heat 1 TBSP oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the chicken, placing each in a little oil. Cook until golden brown and cooked through, 3 to 4 minutes per side. Transfer to a serving platter. Repeat with the remaining 1 TBSP oil and chicken, reducing the heat if necessary. [Note: make sure you wipe any browned bits out of the skillet; they'll burn and smoke otherwise. From what I've heard....] Transfer to the platter. Drizzle the chicken with the reserved hot sauce mixture. Serve with carrots, celery, and Spicy Stinky Cheese Dip.

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Mimosas?? HA! Alabama Slammer, Baby

Thought for the day (wish I knew who to whom to attribute it):

"Muffins are for people who don't have the 'nads to order cake for breakfast."