Sunday, March 31, 2013


It's a low-key holiday around here, but just because it's only me and the roomie, that doesn't mean we shouldn't have a proper Easter feast! First, I colored some eggs...because that's what you do.

Then I tried to make Polish Easter Bread, but I'm sad to report that it did not turn out well. The dough was WAY too soft, even when I kneaded an extra cup of flour into it. So I'm wondering if something was wrong with the recipe? Also, the heat from the oven cracked the eggshells and the colors bled, and it was just a big old mess. Oh well. Win some, lose some.

I also made a ham based on The Pioneer Woman's recipe, but with MUCH less brown sugar (one cup), and I used a bottle of root beer instead of Coke or Dr. Pepper. Also, I didn't pre-cook the glaze. I just whisked together the brown sugar, mustard, and apple cider vinegar, then glazed the ham with it right from the beginning, poured the root beer in the bottom of the pan, covered the whole thing with foil, and cooked it for two hours. Then I uncovered it and basted it with the glaze frequently until it was cooked through. Easy and DELISH!

Root Beer-Glazed Easter Ham
(Source: adapted from The Pioneer Woman)

1 whole
fully cooked bone-in ham (15-18 pounds--mine was about 10 lbs.)

whole cloves (I skipped these--the root beer has a similar spicy flavor)
3 cups brown sugar (I used only one cup)
1/2 cup spicy brown mustard
1 can Dr Pepper or Coke (or root beer!)
3 tablespoons apple cider vinegar

Preheat the oven to 325 F.

Score the surface of the ham in a diamond pattern about 1/8-inch deep. Place cloves in the middle of each diamond. Place the ham in a large roasting pan with a rack, tent it with foil, and bake for 2 to 2 1/2 hours---or longer, depending on the package directions. (Some hams may require 3 to 3 1/2 hours at a lower temp; just check the package.)

Heat the brown sugar, mustard, vinegar and soda in a small saucepan until bubbly. Cook until reduced and a bit thicker, about 15 minutes. (I didn't cook the glaze ahead of time. It turned out fine even with skipping this step!)

After about two hours of baking time, remove the foil and brush the glaze on the ham in 20 minutes intervals (put the ham back in the oven, uncovered, in between) until it's nice and glossy. Remove from the oven and allow to rest 15-20 minutes before carving.

To go with the ham, I made another classic PW recipe, the same Spanish-style green beans I made at Thanksgiving (a new favorite around here!), and to complete the motif, a recipe for Potatoes Romanoff from a reader posting to PW's Tasty Kitchen site. I'm not sure how these potatoes are much different from twice-baked, just without the skins, but who cares? They are YUMMY! The main thing I did differently was to nuke the potatoes in the microwave, and then I sliced them in half and grated the flesh. So much easier than peeling potatoes!

Potatoes Romanoff
(Source: adapted from Tasty Kitchen)
3 whole large russet potatoes, unpeeled (I used six medium Yukon Golds)
2 large minced shallots
2 1/2 cups grated white cheddar cheese, divided (I used an aged Swiss)
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 cups sour cream

Preheat oven to 425 F. Wrap potatoes in aluminum foil. Bake potatoes on a pan in the oven until done, about an hour. Remove foil and let potatoes cool to room temperature. Put potatoes on a plate, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate overnight. (I nuked mine, then grated them as soon as they were cool enough to handle.)

Grate the chilled potatoes including skins (I grated the flesh only.) You can use a large box grater or a food processor. Transfer grated potatoes to a bowl and sprinkle in the shallots, 1 3/4 cup cheese, salt, and pepper.

Use your hands to gently toss together. Then fold in sour cream.Transfer mixture to a 1 1/2 quart gratin dish, making sure that you don’t compress it. Sprinkle the remaining cheese on top. (I covered mine as I don't like browned cheese.)

Bake at 350 F until the top is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Serves 6.

Lastly, for dessert I made a poppyseed version--adding 1/4 cup of poppy seeds--of my favorite Austrian tea cake with a simple almond-flavored glaze on top. DELISH!

Vanilla Almond Glaze

2 cups confectioners' sugar
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup evaporated milk
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

In a medium sized bowl mix all ingredients together until smooth. Add more milk for desired consistency. You may also use regular milk, but I must say that evaporated milk gives a WAY better taste!

Drizzle over desired desserts.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

A Yummy Trip to Florida for Spring Break

My amazingly generous friends, the Padulas, let me invite myself along on their vacay to sunny Florida for Spring Break last week. We flew out of little old Plattsburgh (first time I've done this--so convenient!) to Orlando where we hit most of the theme parks--Epcot, Animal Kingdom, Magic Kingdom, Universal and Islands of Adventure, including Harry Potter! We split our time between the madness of Orlando and the serenity of Port Richey, where my friends recently bought a mobile home in a retirement village. We shopped, we ate, we swam, we hit the flea market and farm stands, we visited with Padula relatives, I read two novels, and we all tried just to chill out and hide from reality for a week. It was very enjoyable and over far too quickly, as is always the way.

When we got to Florida, we had just missed some big strawberry festival (boo hiss), but the fruit was still abundant and at its peak of deliciousness at all of the local farm stands. Janice and I are probably the only two people in the world who think canning is a fun thing to do while on vacation, but that's what we did! We made one batch which yielded eleven luscious half-pint jars (that we mailed home to ourselves so as not to overburden our suitcases and incur extra luggage fees).  We used a simple recipe that was basically straight from the pink box of No Sugar Needed Sure-Jell, and I swear that it was the best strawberry jam I've ever made: tender, ripe red in color, and the perfect blend of sweet and slightly tart. Edible souvenirs are the best!

Reduced-Sugar Strawberry Jam
(Source: adapted from House Beautiful)

6 pints freshly picked strawberries
4 cups sugar
1.75 ounce box No Sugar Needed Sure-Jell (pink box)
1 to 2 teaspoons butter
8 8-ounce glass canning jars (We got 11 plus!)
Regular jar lids
Regular jar rings

1. Place 8 8-ounce size jars in the rack of a canner two-thirds full of water and bring it to a boil over high heat. Fill a saucepan wth hot water and add the lids and rings. Keep warm until needed.
2. Avoid fruit with insect marks or over ripe spots. Carefully inspect fruit. Remove any stems, soft spots, insect marks. Rinse well in metal collander.
3. Move strawberries to a large bowl and use a potato masher to crush the berries. Do not puree, as you want some chunks of strawberry in the jam.
5. Measure exactly 4 cups of sugar into a separate bowl, set aside. Inaccurate measuring will make the jam fail to set.
6. Place the crushed berries into an eight quart stock pot and place on medium heat. In a small bowl, measure 1/4 cup of sugar from your premeasured sugar and mix with the 1.75 ounce box of No Sugar Needed Sure-Jell. Stir this sugar and Sure-Jell mixture into the strawberries. Mix with a wooden spoon, increase heat to high and allow mixture to reach a full rolling boil. If there is a lot of foam, on top of the berries add up to two teaspoons of butter. (Any amount of foam less than half the surface could suffice with 1 teaspoon of butter.)  When a full rolling boil is reached, add the remaining sugar and stir constantly until the mixture again reaches a full rolling boil. When a full rolling boil (constant bubbles) is reached allow the mixture to continue for 3-4 minutes. Remember you must stir vigorously the whole time. Remove the pot from heat. Skim off any foam at the top of the pot.
7. Immediately, ladle the jam into the hot jars. Work carefully as you pour the hot jam into the jars and carefully wipe the rims. Place warm canning lids onto the jars and secure the lids in place with a jar ring (fingertip tighten only).
8. Place the jars into canning rack, ensure that jars are not touching each other. Lower the canning rack into the boiling water. Be sure the jars are at least 1 1/2 inches submerged under water. Cover with the lid to the canner. Allow the jars to boil for ten minutes. Pull the whole canning rack out of the canner. Using jar tongs, place the jars onto a folded tea towel (soft surface). Listen for the ping sound as the cool air creates a vacuum and pulls the jar lid into place creating the seal.
9. After 24 hours, check the jars. You can usually see a slight indentation in jars that have sealed. You can also check by pushing down on the jar lid, movement indicates a seal did not form, refrigerate and jars that did not seal immediately.

As Janice put it, we "ate like we were going to the chair" while in Florida (tee hee), but walking five miles a day at each theme park helped keep our waistlines in check. My big splurge meal was at Emeril's at Universal where I had the chef's tasting menu, including some pan-seared scallops that nearly made me weep in ecstasy. The last night before we flew home, we finished our Grand Floridian Seafood Tour with a truly fabulous feast at the Bonefish Grill. The highlights included their signature appetizer, Bang Bang Shrimp, and this Chilean sea bass with a chimichurri sauce. SO GOOD! Most of their entrees come with one side dish that you choose and one daily special. The night we were there, the special garnish was this delicious chickpea dish with spicy chicken sausage and fresh spinach. It was savory, colorful, and quite healthful to boot! And it also seemed like the sort of thing that I could recreate when I got home as a quick-fix, midweek meal. So I did...

Chickpeas with Spicy Chicken Sausage and Spinach
(Source: adapted from Blue Kitchen)

1/4 cup olive oil
4 links spicy chicken sausage, casings removed
2 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 15-ounce cans chickpeas, drained and rinsed
1 teaspoon sweet paprika plus 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
5 to 6 ounces baby spinach, chopped
juice and zest of 1 lemon
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Heat a large nonstick skillet over medium flame. Add oil. When it starts to shimmer, add chicken sausage and sauté until lightly brown, stirring occasionally. Add garlic and continue to cook until fragrant, about another minute. Add chickpeas and paprika. Stir to coat chickpeas with oil and paprika and cook until chickpeas are just heated through, stirring frequently, 2 to 3 minutes. Add spinach (in batches, if necessary), tossing to coat it with oil and wilt it. When the spinach is just wilted, remove from heat and stir in the lemon juice and zest. Serve immediately or let cool to room temperature to serve.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Book Club Gathering with a Spanish Flair

Several months ago, my friend Domenica told me that she and some friends from work had discovered that they were all reading Gone Girl at the same time, so they decided to form a book club to discuss it...and also to drink wine and eat good food together. Tee hee. I am sad that I missed the first meeting--especially as I have read all of Gillian Flynn's books and enjoyed them. But she invited me for the second book, The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, another book I read and enjoyed very much; in fact, I use a quote from it as a heading to this blog!

Because the book is Spanish, Domenica decided on a tapas theme for the book club meeting. And the membership did not disappoint! The sangria flowed freely, as did an odd drink of red wine and Coke called kalimotxo. For the savory nibbles, there were stuffed mushrooms, little cheeseballs rolled in nuts and skewered, crackers and hummus, olive and cheese bread with tomato sauce to dip into, and a beautiful Spanish tortilla (like an Italian frittata).

For the dessert course, our lovely hostess made churros and a thick, decadent chocolate sauce to dunk them into. Another gal made some gluten-free lemon bars that were nutty and tangy, but the real showstopper was this gorgeous dulce de leche flan cake atop a brownie-like base. YUM!

As for my contribution, I am still without a range in my kitchen, so I wanted to make something simple, something that I could cook quickly at the party, right before serving. What could be more perfect than some spicy, garlicky shrimp and a crusty baguette to sop up the yummy juices? Easy, delicious, and you will always bring home a clean plate if you serve this dish at a party!

Gambas al Ajillo (Spicy Garlic Shrimp)
(Source: adapted from Lisa and Tony Sierra)

1 1/2 lbs. shrimp, 25 count to a pound (I used frozen, ez-peels)
6 large cloves of garlic, finely minced
1 teaspoon sweet Spanish paprika, plus 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 (up to one whole) teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon coarse black pepper
2 tablespoons (up to 1/4 cup) cognac or brandy
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 lemon for juice
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 fresh baguette, toasted and sliced

Mix the shrimp with the garlic, all the seasonings, cognac, and olive oil. Saute in a large skillet in a single layer, just a couple/few minutes each side, until they are pink throughout and just starting to curl a bit (not all the way to a "c" shape). Transfer to a serving dish along with the seasoned oil, squeeze the lemon over the top, and garnish with the fresh parsley. Serve with slices of crusty bread to soak up the yummy juice!

Thursday, March 07, 2013

I'm a WIZARD, a GENIUS, with an electric skillet!

I am still doing a lot of pondering and debating and comparison shopping for a new range, but in the meantime, I am still making do with a microwave, crock pot and electric skillet. So imagine how pleased I was with myself when I managed to make THIS fabulously tasty (and quite healthful) dinner tonight, all in the electric skillet!

First, I bought a package of 10 or 12 chicken thighs (the leftovers make an awesome chicken salad!), and I marinated them overnight with enough olive oil to coat, the juice of a whole lemon (I threw the rinds in, too, for good measure), a few cracked garlic cloves, and two tablespoons of an Ethiopian berbere spice mix that I found at my local co-op. Then I just sauteed them in the electric skillet until the skin was browned all over and the juices ran clear. Easy-peasy!

Next, I made a wonderful wild rice, walnut and broccoli salad from a recipe in The New York Times by Martha Rose Shulman, originally from her cookbook, The Very Best of Recipes for Health. This is a perfect recipe for winter--it's nutty, lemony, delicious, and so good for you to boot! The leftovers are yummy cold, but the flavors really stand out if you serve it warm.

Skillet Wild Rice, Walnut, and Broccoli Salad
(Source: Martha Rose Shulman via The New York Times)
Yield: Serves 6

3 1/2 cups water, vegetable stock or chicken stock
salt to taste
1 cup wild rice
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 tablespoon sherry vinegar or champagne vinegar
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 small garlic clove, finely minced or puréed
1/4 cup walnut oil (I just used 1/2 cup EVOO total, as I did not have walnut oil) 
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 pound broccoli crowns, broken into small florets
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs such as chives, dill, tarragon, marjoram
1/4 cup shelled walnuts (I doubled this!)      
Freshly ground pepper to taste
1. In a medium saucepan, bring 3 1/2 cups stock or water to boil. Add salt to taste and the wild rice. When the water returns to the boil, reduce the heat, cover and simmer 40 to 45 minutes, until the rice is tender and has begun to splay. Drain and transfer to a wide, heavy skillet.
2. Make the dressing while the rice is cooking. Whisk together the lemon juice, vinegar, salt, mustard, and the garlic. Whisk in the oils, taste and adjust seasonings. Set aside.
3. Steam the broccoli until just tender, about 4 minutes. Transfer to the pan with the rice. Add the dressing and the nuts and heat through, stirring. Add freshly ground pepper and just before serving stir in the parsley and other chopped herbs. Serve warm.
Advance preparation: Both the cooked wild rice and the steamed broccoli will keep for three days in the refrigerator. But combine everything with the dressing right before serving, or the broccoli's bright green color will fade.      

Tuesday, March 05, 2013

We'll miss you, Grandma May...

At least four of my friends have lost beloved family members over the past couple of weeks, and I have been feeling very sad for their grief and loss. It's hard to know how to console people during such a difficult time, but I usually bring gifts of comfort food. When you're mourning the loss of a loved one, you often don't think about taking care of yourself, and cooking is probably the last thing on your mind or that you have the energy to do.

Last week, my colleague and dear friend, Janice's 82-year-old mother-in law, Domenica (who we called May or Grandma), passed away from acute leukemia. It was very fast, so maybe that was a blessing, but it was also so unexpected that it was quite a shock. Grandma lived with Janice and her family for half the year, and the other half in Florida. Since she lived in Plattsburgh half the time, I was friends with May, too, and she and I bonded, especially over cooking and reading. She loved the Twilight books, and she went with us to the midnight premiere of each of the films. She was also a fan of the Fifty Shades of Grey series--tee hee! She was a dear, dear lady, and she was very loved and will be missed very much.

As much as the Padulas have done for me over the years, truly welcoming me into their family, I really wanted to do more than just send some flowers. What I wanted to do was to cook a huge meal for the whole extended family that came into town and take it over to their house, but I am still cooking in a very limited kitchen without a stove top or oven. So I turned, as I often do, to my trusty crock pot and whipped up a big batch of hearty, comforting soup. Cooking for the Padulas is sometimes a challenge, because two of them are avoiding wheat and processed foods, one can't have MSG, and one is allergic to pork. So I decided to make an Italian-style soup with whole grains and beans (starting with a mix from Bob's Red Mill), a flavorful chicken sausage instead of pork, and some winter kale for color and texture and extra nutrients.

Whole Grains and Beans Soup with Spicy Chicken Sausage and Kale

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup red onion, chopped
1 medium leek (white and pale green part), rinsed well and sliced
1 cup celery, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced (or four!)
14 oz chopped tomatoes (I used Italian-style)
1 teaspoon dried rosemary, chopped
2 teaspoons dried oregano

1 teaspoon paprika, plus 1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika (optional--you can use all sweet)
1 bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
8 cups (2 quarts) vegetable stock or broth (up to 10 cups, if needed)
1 3/4 cups Bob's Red Mill Whole Grains and Beans Soup Mix (half the package)

1/2 bunch of kale, stems removed and leaves coarsely chopped
1 lb. spicy chicken sausage, casings removed

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet, then saute the onion, leek, and celery until tender. Add the garlic and cook for another minute or two. Scrape the veggies into a crock pot and add the tomatoes (with juice), all of the seasonings, the vegetable stock, and the grains and beans. Cook on low for about eight hours or high for four hours--or until the beans are tender. (Add another couple cups of stock if the soup is too thick.)

When the soup is almost done, remove the bay leaf, add the chopped kale and continue to cook until sufficiently wilted. Meanwhile, crumble up the chicken sausage in a skillet and brown. Add the cooked sausage to the soup, stir to combine, then serve piping hot, perhaps with a sprinkle of Parmesan cheese.

Sunday, March 03, 2013

Canine Good Citizens and Chicken Velvet Soup

WHEW! This weekend has been busier and more stressful than the work week! Though I am exhausted and can hardly face the idea of Monday, I am thrilled to report that, not only did my literacy team make it to the finals at the mall yesterday (YAY!), but after FOUR LONG HOURS of testing today, nearly 12-year-old Prunelle and 9-year-old Grady BOTH earned their Canine Good Citizen titles, and Grady also passed his Therapy Dog exam! It's a MIRACLE! (Paw-note: Prunelle passed both the TDI and the CGC back in 2007, but the AKC lost their record of the latter, and Grady completed all of the exercises on the CGC last summer, but failed the test because he peed on some weeds during his loose lead walking. So HUZZAH to my little hounds!)

Because I was so busy this weekend, I could not make my usual Sunday evening culinary fanfare. So I needed something easy to prepare that I could leave simmering in the crock pot while I was off doing the dog testing. Somewhere online recently, I was reading about this tea room in Indianapolis (later identified as The L.S. Ayres Tea Room by my friend, Phillip, who himself hails from Indiana) that is no longer in existence, and the person posting was grieving the loss of their delicious Chicken Velvet Soup. I was intrigued by the name of the dish, though have no idea how it's any different from cream of chicken soup. Nevertheless, that's what I had crockin' today. Now, I do realize that this would be quick and easy to make on the stove top, but tragically, my range died an electrical death right after I finished browning my braciole on Sunday. So until we get a new stove, we are making do with a microwave, an electric skillet, and my trusty crock pot. Ugh.

Crock Pot Chicken Velvet Soup
(Source: adapted from L.S. Ayres Tea Room Recipes & Recollections)
6 tablespoons butter
3/4 cup flour
1 cup warm milk
2 cups hot chicken stock
1 cup warm cream
1 quart chicken stock
1 tablespoon chicken soup base
1/2 teaspoon pepper
1 1/2 cups chopped, cooked chicken

Melt the butter in a glass measuring cup in the microwave and then whisk in the flour until smooth. Pour into the crock pot. Add a cup of warm milk, two cups of hot chicken stock, and a cup of warm cream. Whisk until smooth, and cook on high for about two hours, stirring every so often when you happen to wander through the kitchen. Then whisk in another quart of chicken stock, the chicken soup base, and the pepper. Stir in the chicken and cook for another couple of hours on high. Garnish with chopped fresh chives.