Kill two birds with one cherry stone

Cherries are in season right now which brings joy to my heart.  I love dark red Bing cherries straight up. I love soft, pink springtime cherry blossoms in Japan (sakura). I love the song Cherry Oh Baby originally sung by Eric Donaldson and later re-recorded by a particular favorite of mine - UB40.  I love the cherries jubilee I made for Valentine’s Day.  I love black cherry ice cream.  And, I especially love cherry cobbler but don’t make it for two reasons – I hate to pit cherries and I don’t think they get done enough by the time the cobbler topping is baked.

As I contemplated the pound of cherries in the sink in front of me, I had a sudden and wonderful plan. What if I precooked the cherries on the stove top and THEN popped out the pits? It seemed reasonable enough to me, so I washed and de-stemmed the cherries and put them in a pan with 1/3 cup sugar and 1/2 cup water. I let them simmer on low for 40-45 minutes until the cherries were completely soft then removed the pan from the burner. Once they were cool enough to handle, I plucked the cherries out of the dark red juice, easily extracted the stones one by one and returned them to the pan. To thicken the juice I added 1T cornstarch mixed with 2T water to the cherries and stirred over a med-high burner until bubbly and poured the perfectly cooked, pitless, nicely thickened fruity mass into a 1.5qt oval baking dish I’d sprayed with nonstick spray.

To prepare the topping, I put two cups (10 ounces) all-purpose flour, 1/2 cup sugar, 2 t baking powder into my food processor and gave them a couple quick pulses then added 6T cold, cubed butter and pulsed until the mixture resembled course cornmeal. In a separate bowl, I whisked together two eggs, 6T milk and 1t vanilla then added it to the food processor. A few quick pulses to just combine the wet and the dry, and I was ready for assembly. As I previously wrote in Cobbler, Crisp, Crunch, Crumble, a cobbler resembles a cobblestone street, so I dropped spoons of topping onto the fruit as such. I put the cobbler into a 400 degree oven (on a cookie sheet to catch any drips) for 20 minutes until the topping was a nice golden brown.

Now, all I have to do is wait for it to cool a bit and make the important decision – vanilla ice cream or not?

(Speaking of cobbler, I made Mark Bittman's savory tomato cobbler the other night for dinner and it was absolutely fabulous!

Please Release Me

I just have to give a shout-out for Reynolds Wrap® Non-Stick Aluminum Foil (formerly known as Reynolds Wrap® Release® Foil - so I learned when I emailed the company). I'm very cynical and doubted the claims but had a $1 off coupon and bought some anyway. Back home I put it in the pantry and it sat…and sat…and sat on the shelf until one day I noticed it wedged under an extra roll of parchment paper. I happened to be making bbq chicken on the grill and thought, “Why not!”

It was amazing! I could not believe it actually worked as well as they said it would. However, the true test came when I made my signature overstuffed lasagna (I can never fit all the goodies in the pan). Regular foil sticks and rips the top layer off my lasagna leaving ugly bald spots; however, the Reynolds Release slipped right off leaving 100% of the cheese and sauce on the noodles. Who knew.

So, BUY IT and TRY IT!  I give Reynolds Wrap® Non-Stick Aluminum Foil two thumbs waaaay up!  I gladly added it to my stash of shortcuts!

(P.S. Here's a link to a $1.25 coupon.

Time to make the lunches!

School starts tomorrow for my kids, which means it’s time to get to packing again. I began making their lunches several years ago for two reasons – money and nutrition (or lack thereof). I realized I was spending $35 a week for what I considered to be substandard sustenance – processed, fatty, carb and sodium loaded lunches with nary a fruit or vegetable to be seen – and knew we needed to make a change. I started thinking about what an amazing array of foods I could pack for that kind of money – delicious and healthy ones at that. The proverbial final straw was when my two came home and told me lunch was a piece of cheese pizza, a chocolate chip cookie and a bag of Doritos…oh, and a tiny carton of milk.

As a standard, I pack a main course (sandwich on wheat bread, wrap, soup or leftovers in a thermos), one or two fruits and veggies (usually fresh but sometimes things like canned pineapple in natural juice or applesauce), and a snack (pretzels, granola bar, goldfish crackers) as well as a yogurt and a drink (100% juice or chocolate soy milk). Occasionally I will throw in a special treat like gummies (with 100% vitamin C), dill pickles, cookies, a small piece of candy…or a Moonpie (don’t ask).

I ask for inputs and suggestions and am always on the lookout for new ideas to keep things fresh and interesting.  (Trader Joe's has some of the most unique lunchbox items - cinnamon almonds, pita chips, exotic dried fruits, fruit leather, and more!)  Probably the kids' single-most favorite lunch EVER is one I first made during a desperate time when I inadvertently found myself breadless. I called it a “snack pack” (and still do) and filled their lunch boxes with several small items including hard-boiled eggs, cheese cubes, celery or pretzels with peanut butter or hummus, edamame, and more.

Oddly enough, even the lunch lady thinks their lunches are cool – she comments regularly on them and told me she is always excited to see what new things I will pack each day.

Here are a few random lunch-packing tips everyone probably already knows, but I’m going to add them anyway.

• Keep the hot stuff hot and the cool stuff cool. Pour hot water into the thermos, cap it and let it stand for at least five minutes to warm the thermos lining before adding soup or other yummy hot food (spaghetti is a much loved choice around here). Add a reusable icepack to the lunchbox closest to the foods that need it the most.

• Wash the ice packs and lunchboxes at least once a week.

• I put a small bottle of germ killer in the outer pocket of their lunchboxes for those times when they aren’t able to wash their hands before chowing down.

• Buy large bags of food and divide it into smaller servings in reusable containers – those single serving, 100-calorie deals are both budget and environmentally UNfriendly. Ziploc and Lock&Lock both make an assortment of sizes. I personally prefer the Lock&Lock brand because they actually keep juicier items from leaking all over the inside of the lunchbox.

When life gives you limes

I’ve mentioned my passion for lemons, but I also have an equally zealous zeal for the zest, juice, and aroma of limes. I happened across a bin of perfect looking limes at the grocery store priced ten for a dollar! I put a horde of the green goodies in a bag and then noticed something next to them. “Sweet limes” ~ $1.29 per pound. These were large, yellow and appeared to have a significantly thicker skin than their little green neighbors. Never before had I tried sweet limes but figured my tendency toward tart citrus ensured I would likewise enjoy these lemon colored limes. I picked out six firm, heavy specimens and put them in the cart. I couldn’t wait to get home and do a little research…and perhaps make some sweet limeade.

I learned that my ten-for-a-dollar “regular” limes – the one most commonly seen in the grocery store - are actually Persian limes (Citrus latifolia). The “sweet” limes or “limetta” (Citrus limettioides) are known as Palestine or Indian sweet limes. These are a less acidic cousin of the Persian limes and are ready to eat when yellow.

Having also read that sweet limes are a less flavorful member of the citrus family, I cut one open to see for myself. I discovered the scent (peculiarly reminiscent of Lemon Pledge) and sweet/tart flavor to be very light and delicate – indeed, almost completely nonexistent. Juicy? Very much so. Sweet? Definitely. (But, the peel and pith left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth – akin to grapefruit.) All of this made me hesitant to have them stand alone as a limeade.

However, I remember watching the movie The Darjeeling Limited in which three brothers travel by train across India. Throughout the movie, they regularly drink a sweet lime drink as well as consume copious amounts of marmalade made from the same. More research led me to learn that both are very popular in Indian cuisine. The limeade is purported to be both highly refreshing and a much celebrated digestion aid. (By the way, the sweet lime in India is called a mousambi). I found a dozen or more different recipes (and names!) both online and in my various cookbooks for this Indian style lime drink. They differ in ingredients ranging from sugar, salt, cumin, honey and more but all agree the end result has a mild taste. I tried a couple and found them simply too bland for me – the honey and cumin even seemed to tower over the subtle citrus flavor.  

Maybe I will make the marmalade instead or use the remaining few to juice up my “regular” limeade (recipe below) - I will find a use for them yet!

Lemon or Limeade
10 lemons or 15 limes (sliced thin, end to end with a mandolin slicer)
1 to 1.5 cups sugar
5 cups of cold water (sparkling water adds a nice twist)

-Mash sliced fruit with one cup of sugar for 3-4 minutes in large, flat bottomed container until sugar is dissolved and fruit gives up its juice.
-Transfer bowl contents to pitcher fitted with strainer lid.
-Add 5 cups water and remaining sugar as needed. Stir to mix and serve over ice!


I am a bonafide watermelon lover and recently bought a nutritious and delicious 25 pounder for two bucks at the produce stand. Aside from the amazing flavor, juiciness and an incredible fragrance, I love that watermelons are rich in potassium, vitamins A and C, and lycopene (a powerful antioxidant thought to help lower the risks of many types of cancer). According to the National Watermelon Promotion Board, this favorite summer fruit has “higher concentrations of lycopene than any other fresh fruit or vegetable. In fact, fresh watermelon contains higher levels of lycopene than fresh tomatoes - a 2-cup serving of watermelon contains and average of 18.16 mg and one medium-sized tomato contains 4 mg.”

My eyes were bigger than my refrigerator, though, so I needed to whittle the massive melon down a bit and decided to make sorbet (ala Cook’s Illustrated, July/August 1995 p. 24-25). I trimmed the rind off of five pounds of sweet smelling pink flesh (not bothering to remove the seeds – they are edible and contain zinc and iron), pureed the chunks in the blender in two batches and drained it into a large bowl through my handy-dandy All-Clad stainless steel strainer (I love it because it's shiny and sits securely on the top of almost any size bowl). Into the juice I stirred 1/2 cup raw sugar and 1/4 cup vodka and ended up with about 90 ounces of liquid.

CI’s watermelon sorbet actually calls for 2.5 pounds of watermelon, 1 cup minus 1T sugar, 2T lemon juice and 1T vodka or Campari, but I’ve tweaked this fabulous recipe with the help of my Aunt Carol’s son Scott who concluded that lowering the sugar and upping the alcohol made a far smoother, tastier sorbet. At the last minute, I decided to forgo the sorbet and instead made watermelon popsicles! To do this, I divided the liquid into 15 eight-ounce paper cups, covered them with plastic wrap and stuck in a popsicle stick.

They were certainly a refreshing way to use part of the fleshy, fragrant fruit. Now, I’m thinking about doing the same with a cantaloupe or another canary melon (which was absolutely luscious, by the way!)  (See Cook's Illustrated p. 25 for a list of alternate sorbet suggestions)

Thank you to the National Watermelon Promotion Board for the nutritional information.  Check them out for more interesting facts, recipes and more: 

Cup 'O Joe By Any Other Name

I never used to be a regular coffee drinker but lately can’t seem to get my day started without it. I’m fond of Starbucks but only occasionally order anything but their brewed coffee as both the price and the calorie content of some of their featured items scare me (although once or twice a year I indulge in a Cinnamon Dolce Latte or a cappuccino). My frugal side spurs me to make the majority of my own coffee at home, but because I fancy myself a sort of coffee connoisseur, I've found the fair-trade organic blends from Trader Joe’s (they have a few) nicely suit my daily needs.

(A Fair Trade Certified designation, in theory, marks goods that pay the farmers producing them - typically coffee, tea, chocolate and sugar - a larger percentage or "fair" amount of the proceeds. For more on this, see

Regular coffee aside, my Vietnamese coffee post prompted me to think about other “exotics” I’ve tried both here and abroad. Of course I’ve had Jamaican Blue Mountain and Kona coffee; indeed, when I was on the Big Island in April, I visited a coffee co-op and bought plenty of Kona for me and some to share. But, I suppose my two absolute favorites are of the Greek and Turkish varieties. Although I’d tasted Greek coffee at our local Greek food fest, the cup I had in Crete was second to none. I was able to watch the curator grind the beans in an ancient looking mill, carefully spoon out just the right amount of fine powdered coffee from the mill’s wooden drawer, simmer my single serving in a small metal pot known as a briki and slowly pour the rich, dark brew, grounds and all, into a white porcelain demitasse topped with the lighter brown foam left clinging to the sides of the pot. Delicious.

(Greek coffee is made with or without sugar. The amount or a lack thereof sugar is identified by the name. Sketos = no sugar, metrios = a little sugar, glykos = a lot of sugar, vary glykos = extra strong coffee with extra sugar.)

Turkish coffee is prepared in the same manner as the Greek coffee and indeed is often referred to as one in the same (although the Turkish beans traditionally have a far darker roast). Finely powdered coffee - sugar or no - is also brewed in a long handled pot called a cezve.  Not unlike a briki in form and function, this Middle-eastern version is traditionally made from copper and a bit more ornate.  Additionally, Turkish coffee is frequently spiced with cardamom. Cardamom, of the ginger family, is indigenous to India but also grown in South America. Available in whole pod, seed or powder form, it is widely used throughout Indian cooking from curries to desserts and even to season steamed basmati rice. In the Middle East, where I lounged on a red velvet couch to enjoy my first cup of Turkish coffee, cardamom is used to add flavor to both coffee and tea.

I don't have the capicity to grind my coffee beans as fine as is required for either of these, nor do I have plans (unfortunately) to travel overseas again any time soon, but I have learned to make due.  A couple brands of pre-ground Greek coffee can be found in specialty markets, and I satisfy my Turkish coffee crave by grinding a whole cardamom pod (purchased from, of course) with my regular beans before brewing. 

Thanks to these last couple posts, in addition to a Vietnamese coffee press (I've now learned is called a cà phê phin), I now feel the need to find a briki or perhaps even a cezve.

(Thank you to for the cardamom picture and to for the cezve picture)

Cà phê sữa đá

Oh, so when I was at the Vietnamese restaurant eating my Phở, I also ordered an iced coffee or Cà phê sữa đá (literally translated, “milk coffee with ice”). I was surprised when the waiter brought a glass of ice to the table along with a white ceramic coffee cup wearing a small silver metal hat. He noticed the perplexed look on my face and asked hesitantly in heavily accented English, ‘First time coffee?” I nodded yes, and he slightly lifted the hat – which turned out to be a type of coffee press – to show me that the pitch-black liquid was still dripping through. He then explained, ‘Wait, then stir.” As he walked away, I asked, “But, where’s the milk.” He smiled and said, “Under! Stir!” and went on back toward the kitchen.  Huh?  Under?

When the coffee dripped its last drop, I removed the filter and stuck the slender silver spoon into the dark recesses of the cup and was surprised to find resistance. I pulled the spoon back out and noticed it was coated with a thick layer of milk – sweetened condensed milk! Voila! So, that’s why it sat at the bottom without mixing with the coffee. I stirred and poured the whole mess over the ice in the glass and sipped.  It was perfectly creamy and sweet and absolutely delicious! When I got home I found a can of condensed milk in the cupboard and made my own iced coffee – Vietnamese style. Who knew!

Check out these easy, step-by-step directions from Wandering Spoon food blog to make your own Cà phê sữa đá at home. (complete with ordering sources for both the coffee press and the coffee)

What's Phở Dinner? (Part II) aka ~ Noodle Battle

We had the Phở last night for dinner, but it was far less than perfect in my eyes (although the family sure loved it). “Just needs soy sauce,” my husband said quoting Amy Tan’s Joy Luck Club, which is what he always says when I complain about a dish not being up to my ultra-critical standards.

“But the worst was when Rich criticized my mother's cooking, and he didn't even know what he had done. As is the Chinese cook's custom, my mother always made disparaging remarks about her own cooking. That night she chose to direct it toward her famous steamed pork and preserved vegetable dish, which she always served with special pride.

‘Ai! This dish not salty enough, no flavor,’ she complained, after tasting a small bite. ‘It is too bad to eat.’

This was our family's cue to eat some and proclaim it the best she had ever made. But before we could do so, Rich said, ‘You know, all it needs is a little soy sauce.’ And he proceeded to pour a riverful of the salty black stuff on the platter, right before my mother's horrified eyes."

While not everything I make comes out exactly like I want or expect it to, I love trying to cook new things – especially ones I think my family will enjoy.  And, replicating an amazing restaurant dish is a challenge I can’t help but take, thus I recently became determined to learn to make beef Phở.  I painstakingly gathered all the necessary ingredients and made a huge pot of homemade beef stock.  I was ready to cook.  However prepared, I knew the noodles would be the hardest part - indeed they often vex me.

Through time, I have learned to slightly undercook my udon, saimen, soba and similar type noodles because they WILL keep cooking in the soup base. These take only a few minutes to cook, so I was prepared for the Phở rice noodles to cook just as quickly. Unfortunately, when I turned the package over I found no cooking directions. Quick & Easy said simply to “cook the noodles” and Complete Asian’s directions included soaking the noodles in warm water for “at least two hours.” A third set of directions from instructed me to soak the noodles for twenty minutes until “soft” and cook in boiling water until “tender but not mushy.”  Hmmm...

The stock, now perfectly seasoned with cinnamon, cloves, anise, ginger and fish sauce, simmered on the back burner while I waited for the noodle water to boil. The noodles enjoyed a nice warm water bath for about 40 minutes (a happy medium between 2 hours and 20 minutes) - which is when I thought them to be “soft” – before being dropped into the boiling water. I then set my timer for 3 minutes and waited, watching, gently stirring.

At three minutes I was surprised to find the noodles not only tender but also rapidly approaching mushy! I quickly drained them, divided them into the four waiting bowls, topped with a handful of bean sprouts and strips of thinly sliced raw beef (it cooks in the soup), added the piping hot broth and rushed the bowls to the table where three hungry people and little plates of basil leaves, lime wedges, and thin jalapeño slices waited. The smell was divine, the presentation beautiful and the noodles – a gelatinous glob in the bottom of the bowl.  Oh Phở-ey!  As the others ate heartily and proclaimed dinner delicious - I will admit, it was very, very tasty - I silently steamed over the ones that had betrayed me yet again! 

I’ll get you, noodles! Next time, I’ll get you!!

Beige is Bad

We interrupt the regularly scheduled post for today (What’s Phở Dinner - Part II) for a small venting. This morning as I was sipping a perfect cup of fair trade, organic Five Country Espresso Blend coffee from Trader Joes, I saw a commercial for Popeye’s Fried Chicken that stated everyone should be able to “eat something delicious no matter what your budget is.” Just as I got the words, “how about nutritious,” out of my mouth, the screen filled with beige – beige chicken and beige biscuits. While I am not arguing whether or not this $2.99 special is delicious, I protest the notion that this is the best bang for your (three) bucks.  (By the way, the thigh, leg and biscuit meal shown, according to the Popeye's website has 630 calories, 40 grams of fat, and 1480mg of sodium)

When I was in the Navy, it was bad news if the only food left onboard was beige. (Yes, yes, there are plenty of nutritious beige foods, but generally speaking, more color = more nutrition)  I remember distinctly sitting down to some pretty plain, carb loaded off-white meals and yearning, craving, hungering, and even aching for a little green accompaniment. And, it wasn’t just me – indeed, when ship’s stores came on board, people hoarded the oranges, apples, mangos, grapes and any other portable produce available. So, my question is, why do something like this on purpose – fill one's gullet with fried, fattening fare disguised as food?

I don’t presume to preach perfect nutrition. As a matter of fact, I made Spam, eggs and rice – a perennial Hawaiian favorite – for breakfast. (Albeit, it was low fat/low sodium Spam and organic, free-range eggs and four people shared one can of the pink pork product) I simply argue that our society often strives for cheap as the sole deciding factor when looking for a meal deal without even considering the alternatives OR the ramifications.

Some time ago, I wrote about making a huge pot of Navy bean soup for only a few bucks. I offer that there are plenty of other decent and delicious alternatives akin to this. Indeed, almost any dinner leftover or even a simple sandwich would make a far better lunch than greasy, salty, fatty - yet arguably delicious - fried chicken and biscuits.

What's Phở Dinner? (Part I)

I recently read a rave review of a Vietnamese Phở restaurant near my house – well, near enough anyway. I’d only had Phở once before but found this most famous Vietnamese noodle dish to be simply amazing. The huge bowl of almost translucent rice noodles I could top with my choice of lime juice, basil, jalapeños, and bean sprouts (I used all) was a perfect match for the thinly sliced beef and subtly flavored (I detected fish sauce, anise and perhaps coriander) piping hot beef broth. Yes, I had the recipe in both Quick & Easy Vietnamese: Home Cooking for Everyone and in The Complete Asian Cookbook by Charmaine Solomon, but I just never was ambitious enough to try and make it at home – until now.

Having this unforgettable dish again made me determined to figure it out. (Interestingly enough, during my research, I learned the Phở I had for lunch - as well as many other Vietnamese noodle soup dishes - is more frequently served as a breakfast food.)

First and foremost I needed good beef stock. While I don’t mind occasionally using canned chicken stock, I simply don’t like the beef version. Canned beef stock doesn’t have the same taste as homemade. Since I had no stock in stock, I needed to make a batch. At the grocery, I asked the butcher shop if he had any soup bones. He admitted they were out and instead offered a pack of almost $4 a pound Angus beef ribs. While I’m certain they would have made a delicious soup base, it went completely against my frugal nature and instead I went to a second store where I scored three pounds of meaty bones for a little over two bucks that I set to simmer in my 10qt stock pot. Twelve-ish hours later, I strained the stock and put it in the fridge to solidify the fat for easy removal.

Next I hit the Asian grocery store to ensure I had the requisite ingredients. Quick & Easy and Complete Asian vary slightly on ingredients and garnishes but both insisted on the right kind of noodles – specifically rice noodles labeled especially for Phở.

I found them nestled among an entire aisle of confusing imposters, grabbed a pack and put them in my basket along with the Thai basil, limes, bean sprouts and a bottle of my favorite fish sauce. While there are many brands of fish sauce (made from fermented fish – not always but usually anchovies), I have a preferred one I use for all my Asian dishes.

Stock made - check, ingredients assembled - check, Quick & Easy tabbed to the right page - check.  Tomorrow’s dinner was destined to be delicious - Phở sure!