Food, Folks and FUNdraiser

Tonight I had the opportunity to attend the WHRO (our local PBS station) "Strolling Supper Party" benefit dinner featuring dishes from the best of the best of the best area restaurants (Hampton Road's Magazine's "Platinum Plate" winners). 

I walked into the huge ballroom and gawked.  The smells, the sites of 26 restaurants putting their best cuisine out for some 300 strollers to sample was astonishing.  I felt like the proverbial kid in a candy store - I didn't know where to start.  So...I started at the very beginning (it's a very good place to start) and selected a small plate containing two perfect slices of smoked New York Strip with homemade Worcestershire sauce served with a healthy dollop of wasabi mashed potatoes from the Riverstone Chophouse, Suffolk. 
After that hearty appetizer, we started our way around the room.  Some of the offerings were bite sized (all-meat tiny crab cakes from The Flagship Restaurant, Portsmouth and Lebanese chicken salad on pita rounds from Croc's EcoBistro in Virginia Beach) but some larger servings I opted to share with my husband (prime rib chili from Smokehouse and Cooler, Virginia Beach and rich she-crab soup from Lucky Oyster - a restaurant right by my house I was honestly surprised to see among the other Platinum Plates, as the two times dined there I thought the food and service to be sub-par).   

I will admit there was some weird stuff, and some - in my opinion - tried a too hard (too many little swirleys of sauce masked the flavor of the final dish) but the vast majority of the entrées were very good.  My choice for best - the one that got my red ticket in their jar - was my first selection.

Chophouse's simple rich beef flavor and creamy, flavorful mashed potatoes were my hands-down favorite.  I am definitely going to head out to Suffolk and visit the beautiful "Frank Lloyd Wright style" restaurant to peruse the whole menu.

BUT...despite all the amazing offerings, the one I can't get out of my mind was the fascinating plate of "molecular desserts."  Never had I had anything like raspberry caviar or mango foam but all four bite-sized selections amazed my taste buds and intrigued my mind.  I just might also have to go to Art Café 26 in WIlliamsburg for more than a wee sample!

Fish is Fishy

Tomorrow is Friday; for Catholics everywhere, this means substituting fish for the regularly scheduled meatloaf meal.  However, there are so many questions regarding this particular protein choice nowadays.  Is it sustainable?  Is is wild or farm raised?   Does it contain toxins such as mercury?  Is it what it really says in the wrapper?  Is it fresh?  How do I cook it without ruining it?!  (Psst...see my Parchment paper - not just for the Magna Carta post for a great method)

Confused?  Me too.  Good thing there other suitable protein choices for Fishy Fridays (and any day, really) that need little if any pondering.  

For reference, the Recommended Dietary Allowances (RDA) of protein for an average, healthy adult is in the neighborhood of 50 grams a day.  This can be gained by eating chicken breast (4oz = 34g) and steak (4oz = 32g) or, for Fishy Fridays, cod (4oz = 26g), salmon (4oz = 30g) and tuna (4oz = 34).  However, for a twist on the main dish, how about lentils (1cup = 18g), yogurt (1cup = 13g), peanut butter (1/4cup = 16g), navy beans (1cup = 16g), or edamame (1 cup = 29g).
Eda-what, you say?  Edamame are young, green soybeans.  This Asian favorite (served with icy cold mugs of beer as a bar snack in Japan) is now readily available in the frozen food aisles throughout the US and is delicious eaten straight up or served in a stir fry or salad.  Grab a bag next time you are in the store, drop in lightly salted boiling water for 3-5 minutes (depending on your taste), drain, sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt and eat hot or cold. 

Tonight for dinner, my family and I dined on edamame and miso soup made with tofu, wakame (seaweed), and nameko mushrooms.  I estimate we each had 40 grams of muscle building, tissue healing protein between these two nutritious dishes - and they were delicious. (miso paste = 4g per 1oz serving and tofu = 9g per 4oz serving) 

Miso Soup
1 14oz cake tofu (cut into 1/2 inch cubes)
1/3 oz dried wakame
1 scallion (chopped)
4 cups dashi
4oz red miso

Place dashi in pot, bring to a boil.  Soften miso by adding small amount of hot dashi and add to pot.  Add tofu and wakame and boil briefly until wakame unfurls.  Top with chopped scallions and serve (feeds 4)

If you still want fish - and I do - here are a few "good" choices from both a health and environmenal standpoint: wild-caught Pacific salmon, herring, pollock, sardines and cod. 

Check out this Sustainable Seafood Guide from the Virginia Aquarium:  

(Thanks to for the protein and fish info.)      

Substitution Sidetrack

I planned to write about substitutions for a few more posts and will probably get back to it eventually, but my Butter's Better post prompted one of my readers to send me this fabulous video. It is a hysterical MUST WATCH!

The above clip (albeit crudely) supports my point of view that many convenience foods are ultimately, well, inconvenient (for health, grocery bills and the environment).  Along with filling our bodies with excess additives (and over-inflating our grocery bills), these items likewise fill trashcans with excess garbage. I do believe the nutrition to packaging ratio in the following landfill fillers (and countless others) to be massive:

~Single serving snacks including Pringles, Mount Olive Pickles, 100 calorie snack packs (buy the big one and divy up into smaller portions using reusable plastic containers)
~Bisquick Shake and Pour (one of the worst - this one-time use plastic bottle comes less than half-filled with powdered mix to which water is added to make batter for fifteen pancakes).   

I also heard from a butter basher and thus must state this key point - Everything in moderation.  This goes for all foods and beverages - including butter and my previously mentioned penchant for Spam.  (I eat it only occasionally).  So, have your Hot Pocket, your Doritos and your Oscar Meyer B-O-L-O-G-N-A, but just don't eat them every day!  

Butter's Better

Speaking of substitutions, I don't believe there is any substitute for real butter.  Yes, I caved and bought margarine (Smart Balance) for spreading on toast (not that we eat much toast around here), and I use cooking spray occasionally as well.  As far as baking and cooking go though, there is no substitute for the real thing.  The flavor alone is reason enough but not my only rationale for choosing butter. 

I try to live by what I call The Grandma Diet.  My grandma (as well as many of yours) grew up on and raised her children on a "country diet" - whole milk, butter, cheese, eggs, and meat as well as fresh and local (usually homegrown) in-season fruits and veggies, of course.  All of these were minimally processed, close to the earth and still recognizable as single source foods.  I believe this is the way to go.  Period.    

While many of these good, wholesome items get a bad rap, I frankly am amazed at what does pass for food these days.  I'm not exactly sure if margarine (17 ingredients in my Smart Balance), Velveeta (15 ingredients), Twinkies (28 ingredients), and Cool-Whip (14 ingredients) actually count as food, but they sell them at the grocery store.

Now, I don't mean to sound preachy...and, no, I don't exclusively eat from scratch (I happen to ADORE Spam - I buy the light version with half the fat and sodium - that's another topic for another day), but I believe I owe my family's good health to primarily eating foods with minimal ingredient lists containing items that I can both pronounce and would be willing to eat as is (I don't know about you, but I never had any desire to have a sodium stearol lactylate sandwich).            

PS - Watch this cool, disgusting, and hysterical Cool-Whip video:  

Oh, and of course, how could I forget.  Thanks for the reminder AB:


In an effort to bake a better bread, I've been reading Alton Brown's I'm just Here for More Food - Food x Mixing + Heat = Baking.  In among the tidbits, techniques and tips is an intriguing pineapple upside-down cake recipe made in a cast-iron skillet.  Now, I often get the baking bug on weekends and figured this would be a great cure (despite the fact it uses an entire stick of butter and two cups of sugar - yikes!). 

Unfortunately a quick inventory of my pantry revealed no pineapple.  I always have pineapple!  But...I am pretty good with improvisation when it comes to cooking, so I started to look around.  I did happened to have three mangy apples on the counter left from a Christmas fruit basket and decided they would do quite nicely.  The recipe also called for pineapple juice, but having no pineapple also meant I had no pineapple juice.  Further scouting revealed that bottle of apple brandy!  Substitutions in hand, I proceeded with the, uh...pineapple (?) upside-down cake. 

Pineapple Upside-Down Cake (Alton Brown recipe ala me)
-Preheat oven to 350.
-Melt 1 stick unsalted butter in cast-iron skillet.
-Add 1 cup (8ounces) brown sugar and stir until combined.
-Top with 3 peeled, quartered, cored and sliced apples tossed with 3T apple brandy.
-Combine 1 cup (5 ounces) all-purpose flour, 1t baking powder, 1/4t salt. 
-Combine 3 large eggs, 5T apple brandy, 1 cup white sugar (7 ounces) and pour onto flour mixture. 
-Mix just until batter comes together.  Do not mix smooth.  Lumps are ok.
-Pour batter evenly over apples and bake for 40 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean.
-Invert on large plate and eat.

This un-pineapple upside-down cake was so good, but it started me thinking about substitutions:

1. What can and can't one replace in a recipe and get away with it
2. Why does one makes recipe substitutions: allergies, health and diet concerns, and my favorite reasons - ingredient availibility and creativity
3. At what point does the recipe cease to be the recipe one started out to make.  (And, does it really matter?)

Stay tuned!

Hot, hot, hot, hot, stuff!

Yesterday I went to the store just for eggs. I didn't even get a cart because I only needed eggs.  Alas, when I passed by the cheese on the way to the cackle-berries, I couldn't resist picking up a package of Cabot Hot Habanero Chedder.

I have a special place in my heart(burn) for spicy foods.  (Indeed, my entire kitchen is decorated in the style.)  If it makes me sweat, I love it.  But, I should quantify that statement; altough I once took 3rd place in the Bayou Boogaloo & Cajun Food Festival hot pepper eating contest, hot is not enough (or perhaps too much) for me - it has to taste good too.  I don't like to suffer unless it is worth it.

Growing up in MeatandPotato Town, Ohio, the spiciest thing I ever ate was black pepper - the preground stuff from the shaker can.  Once out in the wide, wide world, I easily became tempted by the forbidden (or should I say forsaken) fruit.  I speak, of course, of the Capsicums, the more popular being:

~Capsicum annuum - jalapeño, pimento, cayanne, and even bell peppers (ok, so I had those before)
~Capsicum frutescens - tobasco (as in the sauce - did you know it has to age THREE YEARS before hitting the grocery shelves?!) and my true love Thai (aka Bird's eye) peppers
~Capsicum chinense - habanero and Scotch bonnet

And, yes, they are fruits - technically berries but not technically "pepper".  (Black pepper = Piper nigrum.  Black peppercorns are the unripe, dried, fermented versionwhite peppercorns are ripe and dried with the outside husks removed, and green peppercorns are also unripe and usually preserved in brine. PS - The brine is a killer add to a Bloody Mary) 

My first time with this potent produce involved margaritas and a glut of jalapeños.  As a neophyte, I was unaware of the end consequences of my actions (but I digress).  Later in life I was exposed to the fabulous world of Thai cooking (by my neighbor Anne), and learned the hard way the hazards of playing with fire when cooking with the aforementioned Thai peppers.  (Always use gloves and NEVER rub your eyes - especially if you wear contacts. Owich!)  Nevertheless, my consumption of these has matured and is as frequent and varied as possible.

My preferred application of any pepper is salsa.  And, one of my absolute favorites is a black bean and corn salsa I make to top grilled chicken breasts (or often just to eat alone.)  Here's roughly how I do it:

Chicken marinade
1/3 cup olive oil
juice from two limes
1 t kosher salt
1/2 t fresh gound black pepper

Wisk to combine.  Place four thawed boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or equivalent chicken parts) and marinade in zip top bag for minimun one hour (or overnight).

1 can yellow corn, drained
1 can black beans, drained & rinsed
1 large vine ripe tomato, diced
1 medium sweet onion (vidalia or walla-walla preferred), finely diced
1 green pepper, seeded & diced
1 bunch cilantro, chopped
1 (or 2) fresh jalapeño, seeded & finely diced
juice from one lime
kosher salt to taste

Combine all and let set at room temperature to allow flavors to meld.  Grill chicken, top with salsa and eat!

Another hot topic - Atomic Fireballs - love me sum cinnamonalicious Atomic Fireballs.  Check out this great site detailing the birth of the fireball!

Admin note!

Stupid blog!  I heard people have been unable to post comments - even as "anonymous."  The way it was set up involved writing your comment, then reviewing your comment, then filling out that annoying little "what word it this" security thingy.  I tweaked it again so you can post without all the run-around.  So...comment away!

Pączki Day

Fat Tuesday, Shrove Tuesday, Mardi Gras, Carnival, Pancake Day - whatever name one gives it - this day is synonymous with good eatin'. Today - a day of excess and indulgence - is the last day before the Catholic Lenten period of fasting, prayer and penance. Some feast upon King Cake (I had a slice a few days ago and, for the first time ever, found the baby inside!) and others have their pancakes, but the Polish community has their Pączki.

Oh, to be in Hamtramck, Michigan today!  In my Christmas-time post, I wrote about the vast array of deliciousness found in the Polish bakeries there.  Few things, though, can rival the ultimate indulgence...the Pączki. This traditional Polish "doughnut" (for lack of a better term) consists of a round of deep fried dough filled with jelly, custard or chocolate and covered with glaze or powdered sugar.  In theory, these were made to use up all the goodies "forbidden" for consumption during Lent - lard, sugar, eggs.  (A single pastry can impart 800 or so calories - but who's counting?)

The crowd I encountered at Christmas pales in comparison to those crammed in on Pączki Day - or so I hear. (New Palace Bakery had t-shirts declaring, "I survived the crowds on Pączki Day!") While I once had the distinct privilege of sampling a raspberry jam-filled, powdered sugar dusted version, I long to stand hours in line with several THOUSAND of my closest friends on Pączki Day to buy my own white cardboard box tied with string!

(Thanks to the City of Hamtramck webpage for the Pączki picture.)

Shallot or Shall-not

When I made that scrumptious spinich lasagna the other day, I (for the first time ever) bought shallots.  The recipe called for them, so I blindly bought them.  I never had before because they seemed no different than small onions to me - expensive small onions. 

As I dined on my leftover lasagna tonight, I started thinking about those shallots.  I noticed the lasagna didn't really have a distinguishable onion flavor, so why did I have to put those expensive onions in there then?  I decided to find out. 

For Valentine's Day, my husband bought a copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking for me - not because he is an inconsiderate oaf who doesn't know how to treat a woman but because I specifically asked for it.  (PS - he also gave me a ginormous bouquet of lillies).  On page 19 of my gift is where I started my shallot research.  I figured if Julia couldn't explain it to me, no one could.   

Julia says, and I quote, "Shallots with their delicate flavor and slightest hint of garlic are small members of the onion family. (ha! I was right. So why not just use onions, Ms. Childhmmm?)  Julia reiterates, "delicate flavor!" and continutes, "The minced white part of green onions (spring onions, scallions, ciboules) may take the place of shallots.  If you can find neither, substitute very finely minced onion dropped in boiling water, rinsed and drained.  Or omit them altogether." 

Sooooo, all types of onions belong to the genus Allium and shallots (Allium ascalonicum) are mildly flavored onions as are spring onions (Allium fistulosum) AND boiling the eye-watering, nose-burning, pungent regular yellow onion (Allium flavum) gives it a milder flavor.  (Oh, I see.)  AND...garlic too is an Allium (Allium sativum to be specific) which is presumably how shallots can taste like mild onions AND garlic.  Whew! 

A little more research led me to discover there are actually some 700 or more species of Allium - and not all are edible.  Come to think of it, I did see several species in my Breck's bulb catalog.  (ow, my head)  

Well, I've always heard, "Use the right tool for the job."  I guess this is a clear-cut case of, "Use the right onion for the job!"  From now on, if a recipe calls for shallots, I shall use shallots!

(Thanks to for the picture of Allium caeruleum - "Azure Allium.")

Leftovers again?

I had company this weekend which prompted me to "show off" my cooking a little.  Now, I don't mean show off like "nah nanny boo boo, see what I can do" but more like inspired to go the extra mile to make the food a little more special, a little richer, a little more...well, everything.  This resulted in making a little more than we needed which means we have a little more than a few leftovers. And, if I do say so myself, they are GREAT leftovers. 

Friday night we had Cook's Illustrated spinach lasagna that called for layers of a spinach and Béchamel sauce mixture, lasagna noodles, and three kinds of cheese: whole milk cottage cheese and freshly grated Fontina and Parmesan cheeses (My Microplane® grater made quick work of the Parmesan.  How did I ever get by without it?).  When I went to the store looking for Fontina cheese, I could only find Fontinella.  I was perplexed.  It seems to look and smell (yes, I sniff cheese) similar to Fontia, so I bought it hoping it would do.  When I got home and did a little research, I discovered it seems to be an acceptable if not entirely accurate substitute for the Alpine region specialty cheese.  Regardless, it melted well and gave the dish a wonderful texture and rich flavor. 

I also used the Barilla no-boil noodles.  I got hooked on these a few lasagnas ago.  My Cooks Illustrated recipe lists these as a favorite but recommends they be soaked in hot water for five minutes to reduce cooking time.  It did.  Amazingly, my lasagna was done in 40 minutes as opposed to the 2-3 hours it normally takes.

Saturday I made Alton Brown's Coq A Vin (the two bottles of wine dish sans pearl onions).  It was a very time consuming recipe to make but the results were way worth the trouble.  I got a little panicked about halfway though cooking when I noticed the wine had turned the chicken a delightful shade of purple and the onions edges and garlic an ink blue.  However, my worries were in vain.  By the time it finished cooking, the color had mellowed to a rich burgundy.  Served over egg noodles and paired with green peas in a cream sauce - it was a fabulous dish to behold (and eat). 

(I am no wine connoisseur - not by any means - but think the Beringer Founders Estate 2007 Pinot Noir I bought to be quite tasty.  What?  You think I would serve something without first sampling a wee bit?) 

We finished Saturday's meal with cherries jubilee.  I'd never made this simple combination of dark cherries, lemon rind and juice, sugar and rum cooked into a sauce and served hot over vanilla ice cream but found it to be the perfect finish to our Valentine's Day meal.  (PS - I didn't torch my eyebrows when I flambéd the rum - unlike the cognac and cream sauce episode.) 

While there is plenty of lasagna and Coq A Vin, there are no leftover cherries.  So, aside from any additional dessert, I don't have to cook the rest of the weekend.  My only problem is deciding which leftover to serve for dinner today.  Somehow I don't think there will be any complaints with either choice. 

Wee admin note

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Thank you for reading! 

If it were the last food on earth

I finally figured out what I'm making for Valentine's Day and it's not chicken marsala (even though I have a great Cook's Illustrated recipe for it).  I was setting up Good Eats to record and noticed the show on Coq A Vin was scheduled for tonight.  I'd already watched that episode but remembered being fascinated by making a dish that used not one cup, nor even one bottle but TWO whole bottles of wine!  Two bottles of Pinot Noir to be exact. 

So, I am making the Coq A Vin.  (Coq = chicken and vin = wine)  Now, should I use Alton Brown's version or Julia Childs'?  Whichever one I decide on, I already know I will not be using pearl onions....

There are few, very few - probably less than six - foods I cannot STAND!  Among them are pearl onions, liver, and dandelion greens (another story for another day).  I would probably starve before I'd eat any of these - especially pearl onions.  I like sour little cocktail onions, and I love crispy rakkyōzuke  (a type of tsukemono or Japanese pickle) which are a tiny, sweet whole onion often served with Japanese curry.  But pearl onions...these must have been invented by the devil himself.

They pop when I bite into them and are just generally nasty.  I can't stand them.  I would apologize to all of you pearl onion lovers but realize my disdain for them means more for you!  You can keep your pearl onions!  ICK!!

P.S. I love every other type of onion known to man especially spring onions and Walla Walla Sweets (I ordered a 10# case from Cavalli's Onion Acres in Walla Walla, Washington for a ridiculously cheap price - about $12 including shipping. Check them out!) 

The Musical Fruit

Beans, beans the musical fruit
The more you eat, the more you toot
The more you toot the better you feel
So let's eat beans with every meal

No, Benjamin Franklin did not coin that sweet ditty, but he really did say, "Fart proudly," so I felt compelled to include it.

Beans, also known as legumes (because they are of the family Leguminosae or alternately Fabaceae) are, in a word, the bomb.  They are probably the most versatile, nutritious, delicious, cheap, easy to prepare and rather (in my opinion) underestimated and underappreciated (and most joked about) little powerhouse of a food - dried beans, that is.  ("Green beans" are immature beans eaten, usually whole, while the pod is still tender and before the little beans inside have been given a chance to ripen and dry.)

According to the U.S. Dry Bean Council (never knew there was such a thing), the thirteen most popular dried bean varieties grown in the US (mainly in the midwest) are Baby Lima, Large Lima, Black, Blackeye (yes, the black-eye pea is really a bean), Cranberry, Dark Red Kidney, Light Red Kidney, Garbanzo (aka chickpea), Great Northern, Navy, Pink, Pinto and Small Red.  Of course, there are a bazillion other types of beans (including fava beans which I heard are fabulous with a nice Chianti), but these are the most commonly consumed.

So, where was I going with this?  Oh yeah...Beans - nutritious and delicious - aside from having lots of fiber (thus giving them their symphonic side-effect), are packed with a perfect blend of protein (16 grams per cup) and complex carbohydrates along with a fair dose of calcium, potassium, folate and even a dash of iron.

I've already touched on bean soup, so I'd like to share another of my new favorite bean recipes compliments of another of my favorite no-nonsense cooks, Mark Bittman.  This one actually came from my Runner's World magazine (yes, I run - just very slowly) but also is in his cookbook Kitchen Express (of which I have a copy - it's great).  I was hesitant at first to use smoked sausage in a stew but figured it was good enough for my gumbo and finally made the recipe as is.  It was hearty and delicious and loved by all! 


Cassoulet with Lots of Vegetables
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound Italian sausage, bone-in pork chops, duck breasts, or chicken legs, or 1 pound of a combination of meats
1 tablespoon garlic, chopped
2 leeks or onions, washed and sliced (I used leeks)
2 carrots, peeled and cut into 1-inch lengths
3 celery stalks, cut into 1/2-inch pieces (I omitted the celery because I didn't have any at the time and I'm not a big fan of cooked celery except in clam chowder)
2 medium zucchinis, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 cups canned tomatoes (and juice), chopped
1/4 cup fresh parsley leaves, chopped
1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
2 bay leaves
4 cups canned white beans, drained and liquid reserved in case needed (or frozen like I wrote about a few posts ago)
2 cups chicken or vegetable stock (preferrably homemade from your squirreled away stock of stock in the freezer)
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, or to taste

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Add meat and cook, turning until browned on all sides, about 10 minutes. Remove from pan and drain off all but two tablespoons of fat. Turn heat to medium, add garlic, leeks or onions, carrots, celery, and zucchini; season with salt and pepper. Cook five minutes, or until softened. Add tomatoes and juice, meat, and herbs. Bring to a boil. Add beans and boil again, stirring occasionally; reduce heat so mixture bubbles gently. Cook for 20 minutes, adding stock or bean liquid when mixture gets thick. Fish out meat; remove bones and skin and chop into chunks. Return to pot and add cayenne. Warm through. Serves four.

FAT: 11 G

(Thanks to for all the fabulous bean facts.  Check it out - there's tons of information and some great recipes at the site!)

Luv me sum leftovers - Part I

Preheat oven and pizza stone to 450 degrees.

-1 loaf ciabatta bread, split
-2 thin sliced sweet onions, carmelized (soften with 1T olive oil and add 1t of fresh ground black pepper, 1/2t kosher salt, 1T Lea & Perrins Worcestershire Sauce)
-About a 1 pound chunk of leftover pork loin roast sliced super thin (layer on top of onions in pan after adding sauce and heat through, flipping once to coat with yummy goodness)
-8 slices swiss cheese

Layer meat, onions and cheese on bread, close sandwich and wrap securely in foil (sprayed with cooking spray).  Place on cookie sheet and top with hot pizza stone (yes, you can use a panini press but this works just as well and all the gooey goodness stays inside the foil).  Bake for 10 minutes, unwrap, slice into six pieces and eat. 

I suppose this is akin to a Cuban less the mustard, ham and pickles that I did have but decided to not use.  Whatever you want to call it, it was DELICIOUS!  (and there are no leftovers left over from the leftover, so I can't show you the final product)

Julia & Alton

I watched Julie & Julia a few nights ago.  It melds the stories of Julia Child (what a cool lady!) and a middle-aged woman in a culinary rut who starts a blog documenting her efforts to hone her cooking skills by making all the recipes in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  I'm certainly no Julia and while I am not in a rut (nor do not consider myself "middle-aged"), I know my skills could use some honing.  (If you remember, I said my baking was subpar.)  I went to the library (fabulous place - all the books you need and more - for free) and checked out Julia Child's Julia's Kitchen Wisdom: Essential Techniques & Recipes from a Lifetime of Cooking and Alton Brown's I'm Just Here for More Food: Food+Mixing+Heat=Baking.  

Now, the other night I was talking to a friend, and she asked me if I'd ever made anything so good but then forgotten how I'd made it.  I told her the answer to that was yes, all the time - because I was a "mash together a recipe or two and then add a bit of this and a bit of that because I had ideas how to make it better" cooker.  I further described my cooking style as "Throw a Bunch of Stuff in a Pan and It Tastes Great."  On the FIRST PAGE of AB's baking book in the FIRST PARAGRAPH it says, and I quote, "'Cooks' who enjoy facing a pan and tossing in 'a bit of this and a bit of that' usually get away with it as long as they don't burn the meat or forget to put water in the rice..."  (Yes, I've since searched my kitchen for hidden cameras.)
That may explain my baking handicap - either that or my oven is on crack (AB says all ovens lie) - or both.  While I've made excellent cakes from scratch and can throw down a tasty quick bread or pan of muffins in no time, my breads, pie crusts and biscuits, in a word, stink.  

The rest of the first chapter goes on to explain why precision is essential to successful baking.  Precision.  I think I can handle that.  I have a Salter Aquatronic Electronic Kitchen Scale that measures grams as well as ounces (and mililiters and fluid ounces) and a mathematical mind (I did teach myself trigonometry after all), so I intend to use this book - and whatever Julia has to say in hers - to be a better Good Cooker.  I don't think I will make a souffle any time soon, but I may attempd the herbed Italian loaf again.  I'll keep you posted. 

Compliments and Quandaries

My husband gave me probably the nicest compliment ever the other night.  He said that no matter how crappy his day is at work, he knows he can always look forward to coming home and having a great dinner.  Wow.  That is a pretty heavy responsibility.  I guess the old adage, "the way to a man's heart is through his stomach," is true. 

Honestly, though, I've found this to be true for both men and women (and small rescue dogs).  Try taking food to work or just putting a bag of candy on your desk.  Suddenly everyone is your friend.  There are worse ways to win people's affections.  Food is a great icebreaker; in fact, I was attending a class not too long ago (about how to run and organize an effective board of directors - what I do in my real life) and the instructor told the group to never run a meeting without having food - even a bowl of m&m's will grease the skids and warm the hearts.  

Hmmm...back to hearts again.  Valentine's Day commeth and I traditionally make a big, fancy dinner for my husband as my "gift."  I stew over what to do each year and choose and reject many candidates until I pick just the right thing.  I've made everything from homemade gyros (including the flat bread and the tzatziki sauce) to my personal favorite - Alton Brown's Strip Steak with Pepper Cream Sauce (but I used filet mignon).  It was AMAZING (and the reason I still have a nearly full bottle of Hennessy Cognac in the cupboard next to the Apple Brandy I bought to make a delectable apple cake and the coconut rum I bought for my pineapple upside down rum cake - yummy).  By the way, the first time I made this dish, it was perfect.  The second time I almost set the kitchen on fire and burned off my eyebrows when reducing the cognac.  Oops.  

But, this year I have a quandary.  I need to make something new and fabulous and not just for the family; we are having a friend come in to town for the weekend and I have never cooked for her.  I have yet to decide what it will be and should break out the Cook's Illustrateds and have a look.  Perhaps chicken marsala?  Why not!  I have room for yet another partially used bottle of booze in the cupboard.   

Take Stock

Tonight I made chicken and wild rice soup for dinner with the leftover whole roast chicken I baked last night (recipe below) in my cast iron dutch oven (which by the way was amazing, tender and moist.  I will definately make whole roast chicken in the dutch oven again.  It was just an experiment but one that went really well).

Back to the soup - I started with a mirepoix (chopped carrot, celery and onion sauteed until soft in a bit of butter or olive oil), 2 bay leaves, 1t of dried thyme, 1t fresh ground black pepper, 1T Kosher salt, 1 cup of wild rice, 2 quarts of water and two of homemade stock (and the chopped chicken).  It was delicious - I'd say, largely inpart because of the stock.

I used to rely on Swanson's broth (in the can - I still use it from time to time in a pinch) but got brave a couple years ago because of Alton Brown and started making my own stock.  I use the pieces parts of the chicken - neck, guts, wing tips, etc - and simmer them down, strain out the bones and floaters, and freeze for later.  Having good stock always at the ready became somewhat of an obsession, and I now have a freezer full.  I started having the butcher save me his backs and necks and even boil down the carcass of whole baked chickens and turkeys after the meat is picked off.  If you remember, I also made duck stock for use in my New Year's Day stuffing.  And, yes, I did use this most recent roast chicken carcass to make another pot of stock I just finished squirreling away in the freezer. (PS - fried turkey carcasses are not fit for stock - icky - and smoked turkey stock must be marked as such because it can't be used as readily as other plain stock).

Alton Brown uses a bunch of herbs and veggies in his stock - and I did try his recipe - but I am pretty happy with my plain poultry stock.  It also appeals to my thrifty side because it is pretty much free.  Maybe instead of stocks and bonds, I can save money with stocks of bones. 

Roast chicken: Rub - 1T kosher salt, 2T Hungarian paprika, 1t ground black pepper, 1t white pepper, 1t cayane pepper, 1t dried thyme, 1t onion powder, 1t garlic powder ground together in my spice grinder (aka coffee grinder).  Pat all over the chicken and put in the fridge for a day in a gallon zip-lock.  Add 1T olive oil to dutch oven, add the chicken, lid and bake for three hours at 250 or until done (180 degrees or until juices run clear)

Confessions of A Good Cooker

I have a confession. I feel I must be honest here because I don't want to continue this blog under false pretenses. Yes, I do cook from scratch (most of the time) and rarely buy "prepared foods" and "convenience items." Yes, I can apparently cook just about anything I put my mind to. But I must confess something. Obviously I'm no Martha Stewart. Not even remotely. Because...I am a terrible baker.

Bread and pie crusts are the bain of my existence. If I use my bread maker, I am reasonably certain to be successful, but from scratch...bah. I am almost guaranteed to screw it up. Someone far back in my lineage must have really irked the Pillsbury Doughboy or something.

Today I followed a recipe - to the letter - for herbed Italian bread. I weighed my flour and proofed my yeast. All looked good until I tried to form the dough into a round loaf. I felt like Br'er Rabbit fighting the Tar-Baby. It stuck to both my hands - fronts and backs and between my fingers - a sure sign I added too much water or not enough flour. Who knows.

I finally succeeded in making a decent shape and let it rise. I got my razor and cut the cute little lines in the top and popped it in the oven. As if the earlier events weren't bad enough, my loaf cooked to a beautiful golden brown in TEN MINUTES. Temp was right, oven rack was on the right level. Who knows. I turned the oven down and checked the loaf in another ten minutes. It was then approaching Russian rye status. The internal temp was no where near 200 degrees, so I decided to try and save it by turning the loaf over. I had nothing to lose. Alas, it was stuck to the cooking stone even though I "liberally sprinkled corn meal" on the stone. I guess my dough was still too moist - either that or I really am cursed. Who knows. After carefully prying around the edges, I was relieved to feel the loaf pop loose. I picked it up to flip it over and discovered the middle still stuck to the stone. More scraping freed the gooey blob and I put the loaf back in the oven for the final ten minutes.

Was it pretty? No. Was it delicious? Yes. Will I try bread from scratch again any time soon? Who knows.

(PS - I might as well admit I also...use...jar sauce. I've tried to make spaghetti sauce from scratch and it turns out ok, but I prefer the flavor and convenience of the stuff in a jar. That's not to say I just open the jar, heat it up and dump it on. No, I do fix it up a little - add sauteed mushrooms or onions, extra herbs and garlic, meat, shredded zucchini, etc. But, I once told a fellow cooker of my secret shortcut and she looked at me like I just told her I used real dirt in my dirty rice. Bugger.)