Tuesday, January 27, 2009

HAPPY BIRTHDAY, blog...and dog!

(Photo Credit: LadynBuster on Flickr)

Friends (and I use that term loosely, yet with fondness), it has occured to me that today is an auspicious day for three important reasons. Firstly, this is the third anniversary of this fine blog that you see before you, and interestingly, to the second point, I have completed exactly 300 posts to date. I still very much enjoy chronicling my culinary life for and with you, so it is with all sincerity that I say, thank you for (still) stopping by!

Then thirdly, by some odd coincidence, it is also the birthday of my ridiculous hound dog, Grady (more formally, that's American/Canadian Champion Goose Creek Wonder Boy!). And in his wickedness, he would have to go and mess up the theme of three that I've got working, as he is FIVE years old today--not that you'd ever know it by his mischievous antics! Though I have no recipes to share on this grand occasion (but there are some in the hopper that will be posted soon, fear not), I leave you with some dumb pictures of my dumb dog, the birthday boy.

To think that it started off like this:

And grew up to become THIS:


Saturday, January 24, 2009

It sure doesn't feel like spring...

Despite the fact that the wicked cold rages on (currently ten below, will "feel like" 20 below over night as the wind picks up), "spring" semester has officially begun. And even though we started with a short week (Wed-Thurs-Fri), after a month of being off, those three days like to wore me out, as my southern relatives might say. So it's back to long days and only having time for proper cooking and baking (and blogging) on the weekends. What is required here, and for the next four-month flurry of academic activity, is some good "quick cook" recipes--real food that doesn't take real long to make. And I've got an excellent one with which to kick off the semester.

As I often do, I was trolling the Cooks' Illustrated message boards recently, and there is a discussion category called "Tuesday Night Dinners." In the sub-section, "Quick and Tasty," a nice person named Winnie describe her general method for making something she calls Pasta Nicoise. I think it might be more like the tuna-based tonnato sauces of Northern Italy. But whether it's French or it's Italian (perhaps Fre-talian!), this stuff is YUMMY! And it makes a ton--enough for two people to have a hearty dinner, plus a couple/few lunches after that. I think it even tastes better the second day. In fact, that might be the best thing about this recipe--having leftovers to eat at your desk at lunch as you torment your co-workers with their sad little sandwiches and frozen Lean Cuisines. (I know this for a fact, as the nice IT guy who came to fix my computer at noon Friday and my across-the-hall neighbor both commented on the wonderful aroma emanating from my Gladware. They were smiling as they said it, but I suspect that they were bitter.) The other great thing about this recipe is that it in infinitely malleable; feel free to add and subtract ingredients as you see fit--it'll still taste great and be ready to serve by the time the pasta has cooked.

Pasta Tonnato
(Source: adapted from an idea by Winnie as posted on the
Cooks' Illustrated bulletin boards)

1 pound linguine
1/2 cup olive oil
1 small onion (or half an onion plus a few shallots), small dice
6 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
2 cans tuna, drained (the imported Italian stuff in oil would be best, but I used Bumblebee in water--if using tuna in oil, don't drain)
1/3 cup prepared olive tapenade (I used a jarred muffaletta spread)
pinch of red pepper flakes (to taste)
juice of 1 large or 2 small lemons
1 cup shredded parmesan cheese
1/2 bunch fresh parsley chopped (or 1-2 tablespoons dried)
salt and pepper, to taste

While linguine is cooking, add the olive oil to a saute pan. Cook the onions until soft and translucent, then add the garlic and cook for another couple of minutes. Stir in the tuna, tapenade, pepper flakes, and lemon juice.

When the pasta is al dente, drain and return to the pot. Toss the pasta with the tuna sauce. Mix in the parmesan, parsley, and salt and pepper as needed.

Note: I didn't think of it at the time, but a tablespoon or two of capers would have been perfect tossed into the tuna sauce. I will do that next time for sure. Another excellent addition would be some chopped sun-dried tomatoes. Note to self...and to you, dear readers!

Going back to work often means a return to a grind of a different kind. But if these hard economic times are making it tough to throw that fin at Starbucks every morning, I have found a pretty close copycat recipe on Recipezaar for my favorite of their beverages, the peppermint mocha. It's a delicious jump-start to your day, and more appetizing to your wallet as well.

Peppermint Mocha

3 tablespoons cocoa powder (I prefer Ghiradelli sweet ground chocolate and cocoa)
3 tablespoons warm water
1 1/2 tablespoons peppermint syrup (do not use extract--you can buy a very large bottle of the syrup at Starbucks for $7)
4 ounces brewed espresso or 2 cups double-strength coffee (I like Starbucks' Gold Coast brewed at 1 1/2 strength)
12 ounces steamed milk or half-and-half

whipped cream to garnish
red sugar crystals, optional

Combine cocoa with warm water to make a rich syrup. Pour into a 16-ounce mug. Add espresso or coffee, then the peppermint syrup. Steam milk (I nuke mine just until it comes to a boil) and add to the cup. Garnish with whipped cream and sugar crystals (I prefer a dusting of cocoa as I don't like crunchy coffee!).

If you prefer a cold or frozen coffee beverage as I do (even in the dead of winter), I have devised a frappucino-like version of the peppermint mocha that I think you'll love. This makes one super-venti treat or two talls to share with a friend.

Peppermint Mocha Frappuccino
Makes 2

2 cups (cold) brewed double-strength coffee
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 1/2 tablespoons peppermint syrup
1 pint vanilla ice cream
4 ice cubes

whipped cream to garnish

Add everything except the whipped cream to the jar of a blender and blend on high until ice cubes are completely pulverized. Pour into glasses, top with whipped cream, and serve with straws.


Aerogarden Update:
Here is this week's photo (week three) of my little Aerogarden. As you can see, salad is imminent! :-)

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

PRESIDENT OBAMA! Say it loud, say it proud! (Say it with bread.)

To quote two iconic songs: O HAPPY DAY...been a long time comin'! I have never been prouder to be an American than I am today on the inauguration of our 44th president, Barack Obama! It was so amazing to glimpse that unprecedented sea of humanity on the mall at the capitol and to feel the whole world watching and celebrating together. (Personally, I monitored MSNBC on tv while simulataneously Facebook-ing via CNN live. What a strange, new technological world!) I just wish my mom had lived long enough to witness this day--she would have been overjoyed. I also wish I could have celebrated with my dear friends, June and Tom, who are currently with family in New Orleans. So I had to have my own inaugural watch party at home. Here are my favorite quotes from the very moving ceremony:

"This is the meaning of our liberty and our creed — why men and women and children of every race and every faith can join in celebration across this magnificent mall, and why a man whose father less than sixty years ago might not have been served at a local restaurant can now stand before you to take a most sacred oath." --President Barack Obama

"Lord, in the memory of all the saints who from their labors rest, and in the joy of a new beginning, we ask you to help us work for that day when black will not be asked to get back, when brown can stick around, when yellow will be mellow, when the red man can get ahead, man, and when white will embrace what is right. Let all those who do justice and love mercy say amen...say amen...and AMEN!" --Rev. Joseph E. Lowery

With all the pomp and circumstance, I suppose I should have had a whole red, white, and blue luncheon planned for today, but I didn't. As it happens, I am (even as I blog) enjoying some carrot-ginger soup from Trader Joe's (finished with a pinch of cayenne, a sprinkle of dried thyme, and a good glug of heavy cream) and a simply scrumptious grilled cheese. This sublime sandwich is special because it was indulgently made with three cheeses (cheddar, provolone, and swiss), but even more so because of the divine bread that I baked myself. Even though I have a freezer full of hand-made, brick-oven artisanal loaves (thanks, John and Keith!), I decided that I could not let my winter break end without baking some bread of my own. And in honor of this new era of "Yes we can!" personal empowerment and civic responsibility, I'll have you know that I made the recipe up myself! I wasn't sure if or how it would turn out, but I have to confess that these were among the most beautiful loaves to ever come out of my kitchen! And they are tasty, too, with a tender but hearty texture. Heretofore, let this recipe be known as Obama Inaugural Bread! Inspired by our new president and this profoundly historical day, I feel like waxing poetic for a moment. So gather 'round and give ear to my culinary hymn o' the day...

Bread seems a very fitting symbol for this inauguration day. Bread represents the food that we need to live and the work that it takes to make it. As the scriptures say, "By the sweat of your brow will you eat your bread" (Genesis 3:19). And Lord knows, our new president has his work cut out for him! Therefore, my bread begins with oatmeal--sturdy, long-cooking, steel-cut Irish groats--to symbolize our immigrant heritage and the ethic of the working people. Then I added wheat flour, in honor of our nation's proud farmers; I used both dark whole-wheat and light all-purpose to celebrate this new day in America's racial history, and to remember Martin Luther King's dream, the day after we celebrate his birthday. Next I added a lot of honey for this sweet day of peaceful transition. I also used a good amount of yeast in hopes that this country will rise up out of our current crises of economy and warfare. But I put in some salt, too, because this ascent will inevitably be tempered by the sharp brine of opposition and argument. Then I included some butter to symbolize the richer days that we believe our nation will enjoy in the near future, and milk to represent the fertility of this abundant land. Of course, I used a diverse blend of nuts and seeds, representing all of the country's beautiful cultures and peoples, and I threw in one egg to recognize, in particular, the powerful and brilliant women of our nation (shout out to Secretary of State Clinton!). Finally, I added water to symbolize this political purification--an ideological baptism, if you will--and in the hope of a living rebirth of our country's enduring greatness. Hmmm...does this make you want to bake bread or run for office? Either way, my recipe follows...


Obama Inaugural Bread (aka Honey Oatmeal Harvest Grains Bread)
Makes 2 large loaves

1 cup prepared steel-cut Irish oatmeal (cooled)
4 tablespoons melted butter
1 cup whole milk
1 egg
1/2 cup honey
4 1/2 teaspoons instant yeast
4 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup mixed nuts and seeds (I used KA's Harvest Grains Blend)
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 cup water (more or less/as needed)

egg wash (one egg beaten with a tablespoon of half-and-half)
rolled oats

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook, combine all ingredients except the egg wash and rolled oats. Mix until fully combined, cover the mixer with a tea towel, and let sit for about 20 minutes to fully hydrate the dough before kneading. After the dough rests, remove the towel, turn the mixer up to medium speed (about 4 on my Kitchen Aid) and knead with the dough hook for five minutes (it will seem a little soft and sticky, but that's okay).

Turn the dough into a large, greased bowl (I spray mine), cover with plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place until almost doubled. (This will take about an hour in a normal house or about two in my icebox!) Punch down the dough, divide in half, and on a well-floured work surface, shape into two rectangular loaves. Press each loaf into a well-greased pan (I used large glass loaf pans sprayed with flour-added Pam). Cover the loaves loosely with sprayed plastic wrap, and let proof in a warm place for about a half hour, until about an inch over the top of the pans. While the loaves are proofing, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

When loaves have fully proofed, carefully removed the plastic wrap, brush the tops with egg wash and sprinkle liberally with rolled oats. Bake for 40-45 minutes until the loaves are golden brown on the bottom. (You may need to cover the tops of the loaves with foil after 30 minutes to prevent over-browning.) Remove from the oven, and cool loaves in the pans on a rack for fifteen minutes or so. Then turn the loaves out of the pans and cool completely on the rack. Store in an airtight container, bag, or wrap.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Redonkulously cold.

I was letting the dogs out today, and I opened the back door and thought, huh, doesn't feel too bad out there. Then I went to check the weather, and saw this:

Clearly, you've been living in the North Country too long when three below doesn't phase you! However, it was not the kind of day where you want to be futzing around in the kitchen longer than you have to. It's the kind of day where you put on three layers of clothing, swaddle yourself in a heavy blanket, sidle up to a space heater, and try just to survive it, all the while keeping a watchful eye on the pipes. You also need to make sure that your own system doesn't freeze, and for that, you're gonna need a big crock pot of soup to sustain you throughout the day.

When I was reading the Cooks Illustrated bulletin boards lately, there was a thread about easy things to make with a pound of hamburger. Several people were extolling the virtues of a recipe from Paula Deen called taco soup. That sounded like just the ticket. It's simple, comprised mostly of cans of stuff already in your pantry, it's zesty and tasty, and it's very hearty--much more like a Mexican-style chili than a soup. Plus, you can dump it into a crockpot and let it simmer all day, and it just tastes better the longer you let it go. I made a few changes to the recipe, mostly because as written, it would make enough for a huge crowd. I essentially cut it in half, and it still filled my large crock pot, enough for me for a few days and plenty left over to share with my poor next-door neighbor who has pneumonia in one lung right now, but still checks on my chickens for me every day. What a gem! Anyway, this recipe is a keeper--very versatile, perfect for these brutal winter days, and a great choice for your Superbowl party, too. Give it a try when you need a warm-up, especially on a day that ends like this:

Mexican Chili (aka Taco Soup)
(adapted from Paula Deen via
Food Network)

1 pound ground beef (ground turkey would be good, too)
1 cup diced onions
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can pinto beans (I used black beans instead)
1 (15 1/2-ounce) can kidney beans (I used dark red ones)
1 (15 1/4-ounce) can whole kernel corn, drained
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can tomatoes with chiles (Ro-Tel)
1 (4 1/2-ounce) small can diced green chiles
1 (4.6-ounce) small can black olives, drained and sliced
1 (1 1/4-ounce) package taco seasoning mix
1 (1-ounce) package ranch salad dressing mix (start with half then taste from there)
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon brown sugar
2-3 cups tomato juice (I used spicy hot, but regular will do)
1/2 bunch cilantro leaves, chopped, optional

corn or tortilla chips, for serving
sour cream, for garnish
grated cheese, for garnish
chopped green onions, for garnish
pickled jalapenos, for garnish

Brown the ground beef, onions and garlic in a large skillet; drain the excess fat, then transfer the browned beef and onions to a large slow cooker or a stockpot. Add the beans, corn, tomatoes, green chiles, black olives, taco seasoning, ranch dressing mix, oregano, cumin and brown sugar. Stir everything together, then thin it out with tomato juice or water to a desired consistency. Cook on low in the crock pot for 6-8 hours (or more) or simmer over low heat for about one hour in a pot on the stove. Right before serving, stir in the chopped cilantro, if using.

To serve, place a few corn chips in each bowl and ladle soup over them (alternately, top with crushed tortilla chips). Top with sour cream (ranch dressing is good, too), cheese, green onions and/or jalapenos, as desired.

Aerogarden Update:
It's the end of week two, and all pods appear to be thriving (to review, I have lettuces in the middle and herbs on either end). I just had to add more water and two more nutrient tablets, so they should really go like gangbusters now! I have my fingers crossed for my first salad by the end of the month. :-)

Sunday, January 11, 2009

A Golden Night

Ok, so as of tonight, the Awards Season has officially begun! Oh, I know, I know. The People's Choice Awards have already been on and the low-rent, painful-to-watch Critic's Choice Awards have, too. But tonight, it's the glittering GOLDEN GLOBES! The Oscars are more auspicious, of course, but the Golden Globes are more fun. Maybe it's because the A-List movie stars are forced to slum it with the poor folks from the small screen. Maybe it's because the dress code seems more relaxed--still formal but with a touch of whimsy and a skosh sexier. And there seems to be more gaiety in the room--same amount of gays, probably, but more frivolity amongst the attendees, is what I meant--which may be due to unbridled imbibing at their tables. It is intriguing to see which of our American royalty is going to get trashed and a little too rowdy, perhaps delivering a slurred and meandering acceptance speech, or even forget to come back from the bathroom before her category is announced. What's not to look forward to?

I am also excited and quite pleased with myself because this is the most ready I have ever been to watch the Globes and soon, the Oscars. I have devoted my winter break to seeing as many of the nominated films as possible. Please recognize my outstanding achievement in cinematic spectatorship to date (keeping in mind that I live in a teeny little town where smaller, independent, artsy, or foreign films rarely play):

Burn After Reading
The Curious Case of Benjamin Button
The Dark Knight
The Duchess
Gran Torino
In Bruges
Kung-Fu Panda
Mamma Mia!
Pineapple Express
Slumdog Millionaire
Tropic Thunder
The Wrestler

Remain to be seen:
Cadillac Records
I've Loved You So Long (and the other foreign films which are harder to track down!)
Last Chance Harvey
Rachel Getting Married
The Reader
Revolutionary Road
Vicky Cristina Barcelona

I know, right? Not bad for a poor movie-goer in rural, northern New York/southern Quebec! So to celebrate, I will prepare myself a special supper to enjoy while watching the Globes later this evening. I have already made THE BEST pre-function, EVER! I know I'm a little late on this one, but I made this TO-DIE-FOR Texas Caviar, which is not caviar at all, but rather a zesty dip made with black-eyed peas that is simply delicious with tortilla chips (or if you prefer to eat it with a spoon, then call it a marinated bean salad). I have been meaning to make this for New Year's (as eating black-eyed peas is supposed to bring good luck and/or wealth in the new year), but I could never settle on a definitive recipe. I was enticed last year by Homesick Texan's version, and then again this year by the Pioneer Woman's. Not being able to choose between them, I sort of combined the two recipes and then put my own twists on it, as is always my way. Of course, it's the kind of dish that you can add or remove things you like or don't like, and it'll still work. Mine turned out AMAZING! I am not fooling. It is so good that I want to dive into the bowl and live in there! You must, must, must try this! Even if you think you don't like black-eyed peas, this will change your mind.

Gina's (Send W Back to) Texas Caviar
(adapted from Homesick Texan and The Pioneer Woman Cooks!)

1/2 cup olive oil (could cut this back to 1/3 C if you choose)
1/4 cup red wine vinegar (or vinegar of your choice)
juice of half a lime (about one tablespoon--or go crazy and use the whole lime!)
1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce
1 tablespoon hot pepper sauce (Tabasco or I adore Trader Joe's version)
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground celery seed (you can use celery salt, but then cut back on the regular salt)
1 teaspoon dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons sugar (less or more, to taste)

3 large or 4 small green onions, sliced
2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped (I used red chiles that looked like this
for both color and heat)
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 can diced fire-roasted tomatoes
2 cans black-eyed peas, rinsed well and drained
1/2 bunch cilantro, chopped

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together. Add all of the prepared vegetables on top. Gently combine. Let chill for several hours so that the flavors mingle (or do as I did and eat a quarter to a third of it immediately and leave the rest to chill until the next day...tee hee).

*You might also choose to add a couple of stalks of celery (chopped), and/or a red, orange or yellow bell pepper (seeded and chopped), and/or one cucumber (peeled, seeded, and chopped). It’s ALL good with this recipe!

Now for dinner tonight, I will be enjoying some grilled pork steaks that have been soaking in a rockin' Asian-style marinade since yesterday. The marinade is the sort of thing that I just start pulling bottles out of the fridge and cupboards to concoct, but roughly, it is comprised of soy sauce (1/2 cup), rice vinegar (1/4 cup), honey (1/4 cup), chile paste (2 teaspoons), minced garlic (1 tablespoon), onion powder (1 teaspoon), ground ginger (1 teaspoon--though I prefer fresh ginger when I have it on hand), black pepper (1/2 teaspoon), and Worcestershire (1 tablespoon). I'm just guess-timating the amounts, but you get the idea. I shall grill the marinated pork steaks (indoors, I'm afraid, as it's currently one degree above zero--oops, check that, now zero degrees), and serve them with steamed rice, and some green vegetable that I unearth from the freezer (I think I spied some french-cut green beans in there that would be tasty with a little butter and lemon pepper). Of course, none of these dishes are thematically linked to the Golden Globes. Usually, I like to make GOLDEN food for the Golden Globes. Perhaps the beloved hot artichoke dip to start, then pork chops with golden mushroom soup (ok, it's more orange, but it's got GOLDEN in the name!) over golden egg noodles served with Dorie Greenspan's golden brioche loaf? And then I serve my golden foods on my golden dishware (retro, amber-colored glassware from the thrift store) on top of golden chargers from my Christmas collection. Yes, this is the sort of thing that amuses me.

Though my appetizer and entrees will not conform to the theme this year, I did make a golden dessert for the occasion. Yesterday, I was helping my friend find a bakery from which to order a long-distance birthday cake, and I came across this one place whose website said that they always had "smash cakes" on hand. Having never heard of a smash cake, I Googled it and found some recipes that all involved a homey dessert made with a box mix that sounded easy and kind of yummy. But it did not sound like the sort of thing a specialty bakery would keep on hand. So I keep Googling, and finally discovered another definition for
smash cake, which is the tiny sidecar cake that a bakery makes to match a larger cake for a baby's birthday. That way, little Junior can smash the little cake as is the privilege of the infant birthday boy or girl, and the rest of the guests can still have a piece of un-mangled cake. Very cute and quite sensible.

However, I still wanted to make the other smash cake for fun. It was super-easy and tasted pretty good; however, as I took my first bite, I was reminded of something very similar that I made a long time ago,
Paula Deen's Gooey Butter Cake (which is also known as St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake for its city of origin). I looked up that recipe, and guess what? It was the same recipe, except that Paula's doesn't have nuts, but she does add an extra stick of butter (big surprise). It seemed strange to me that just reading the recipe--and/or the process of making it--didn't jog my memory of the gooey butter cake. But it was the first, overly-sweet bite that brough it all rushing back. Mind you, I had already cut the sugar by HALF out of instinct, but when I make this again (and I will--it's easy and good), I will cut the sugar by at least half again (from almost four cups to two to one at the most!).

Smash Cake (aka Gooey Butter Cake aka St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake)

1 box yellow cake mix
1 stick of butter, softened
1 egg
1 cup chopped pecans (I micro-toasted mine for a minute or two)

8 ounces cream cheese, softened
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
pinch of salt
few drops of lemon oil, or 1 teaspoon of lemon zest, optional
1 cup powdered sugar (most recipes call for a pound, which is 3 3/4 cups!)

Mix first three ingredients. Press batter into ungreased 9 x 13 pan (I sprayed my pan with nonstick spray). Press pecans into the batter. (Some people do it this way, but if you don't press the pecans into the crust well enough, they will float up and mix into the topping. So I solved this problem by mixing the pecans into the batter and then pressing it all into the bottom of the dish, as many other bakers do. This worked fine.)

Beat cream cheese, eggs, vanila, lemon (if using) and powdered sugar together until creamy. Pour over batter.

Bake at 350°F for 30-40 minutes until golden brown. Do not cut into squares until thoroughly cooled.

Before I sign off and go grill my pork steaks and steam my side dishes, I will leave you with one last photo of the Aerogarden experiment after one week. Actually, this was day eight when the parsley finally made its appearance. I will attempt to post a pic once a week from here on out so that interested viewers and would-be Aerogardeners can track the progress of my little indoor plot.

Thursday, January 08, 2009

Comfort Ye, My People

Where was I? Oh yes...the second part of the web-isode in which I describe some of the comforting dishes which have appeared recently on my international smorgasbord. I say "smorgasbord" because it's fun to say, and because I begin with a fine recipe for Swedish meatballs from the man who should have been my husband, Alton Brown. I'm not sure what possessed me to make Swedish meatballs, except that I tried to talk the Faculty Association Party Committee into having them on the menu for our winter fete, but I was outvoted. So I made them for myself! HA! And they were very good, except for one mistake--I used sausage instead of regular ground pork, and I didn't think to reduce the added salt. So be mindful of that correction if you make these and swap out some Jimmy Dean as I did. Of course, you can serve the meatballs for a hearty supper over broad egg noodles, or keep them warm in a crock pot with a sidecar of toothpicks for your next party (Superbowl, anyone?).

Swedish Meatballs
(Source: Alton Brown via
Food Network)

2 slices fresh white bread (I used wheat bread)
1/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons clarified butter, divided (I did not clarify--leaving my butter ambiguous, ha ha)
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
a pinch plus 1 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 pound ground chuck
3/4 pound ground pork (can use sausage, but reduce or omit additional salt)
2 large egg yolks (I used two small whole eggs)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
3 cups beef broth *
1/4 cup heavy cream

Preheat oven to 200 degrees F. Tear the bread into pieces and place in a small mixing bowl along with the milk. Set aside.

In a 12-inch straight sided saute pan over medium heat, melt one tablespoon of the butter. Add the onion and a pinch of salt and sweat until the onions are soft. Remove from the heat and set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, combine the bread and milk mixture, ground chuck, pork, egg yolks, one teaspoon of kosher salt, black pepper, allspice, nutmeg, and onions. Beat on medium speed for 1 to 2 minutes (I just mixed this by hand.)

Using a scale, weigh meatballs into 1-ounce portions and place on a sheet pan. (I didn't weigh mine, but used a cookie scoop to portion them.) Using your hands, shape the meatballs into rounds.

Heat the remaining butter in the saute pan over medium-low heat, or in an electric skillet set to 250 degrees F. Add the meatballs and saute until golden brown on all sides, about 7 to 10 minutes. Remove the meatballs to an ovenproof dish using a slotted spoon and place in the warmed oven. (I did not bother to do this, but rather reheated the meatballs in the gravy for a few minutes at the end.)

Once all of the meatballs are cooked, decrease the heat to low and add the flour to the pan or skillet. Whisk until lightly browned, approximately one to two minutes. Gradually add the beef stock* and whisk until sauce begins to thicken. Add the cream and continue to cook until the gravy reaches the desired consistency. Remove the meatballs from the oven, cover with the gravy and serve. (I garnished with some dried parsley for color.)

*Though I cooked the gravy down for quite a while, it remained on the thin side. I might start with two cups of stock and wait to see if you need the third (because you are still going to be adding the cream). Alternately, you could start by adding more flour to your pan drippings (up to a half cup) and then use all three cups of stock...either way.

From Sweden, we head south to Italy for an impromptu lasagna. I know, people don't usually make accidental lasagnas, but this is how it happened. I wandered into the kitchen, thinking of making something simple, like spaghetti. Then I thought, what I really want is cavatini! But I was resistant to the idea of boiling a big pot of water to cook the pasta before assembling the casserole. Then I remembered that I had some leftover no-boil lasagna noodles, but I didn't have either ricotta or cottage cheese. What resulted was a lasagna/cavatini hybrid that was FANTASTIC! It was a little sweet and a little spicy, just like I like it. The pasta was tender, not mushy. There was plenty of sauce without so much as to cause the dreaded lasagna landslide. The ground beef and mushrooms made it hearty, and the onions, garlic, herbs, and especially the pepperoni, made it ever-so-flavorful. So maybe...and I know this may be wrong to say...but maybe lasagna doesn't always need ricotta or cottage cheese? Maybe, along with everything else, mozzarella and parmesan can be enough!

The only thing that is mildly annoying about this recipe is that you'll need about a jar and a half of spaghetti sauce*. I used one 26 oz. can of a chunky garlic and herb spaghetti sauce then a pint of my homemade seasoned tomato sauce for the top of the lasagna. However you do it, you'll need about 42 to 45 ounces of sauce altogether, as the no-boil noodles need more sauce to cook properly. On the up-side, I think the pasta ends up being more flavorful, as it cooks in the sauce and not in plain water. Overall, this is a fairly easy method made with quite a few pre-fab ingredients. It might even be do-able for a weeknight. Give it a try!

Gina's Cavatini-Style Lasagna

1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, chopped
1 pound ground beef
4 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1 tablespoon Italian herb blend (I like Presti's spaghetti seasoning)
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
pinch of salt
1 tablespoon brown sugar
pinch of red pepper flakes, optional
1 26 to 30 oz. can/jar plus 1 pint spaghetti sauce*, divided
1 large can sliced mushrooms (or two small cans), drained
9 sheets no-boil egg pasta (I use Barilla)
1 package sliced pepperoni (you'll need about 64 slices)
1 pound shredded mozzarella
2 cups shredded parmesan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large saute pan, soften the chopped onions in the olive oil for a few minutes. Add the ground beef and the minced garlic and cook until meat is browned. Drain off the excess fat. To the meat mixture, add herbs, pepper, salt, brown sugar, red pepper flakes (if using) one jar of spaghetti sauce, and mushrooms. Stir to combine.

Spread about one-third of the meat sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 casserole dish. Place three pasta sheets on top of the sauce (don't worry that there will be big gaps--the pasta sheets swell as they cook and cover the dish) then another third of the meat sauce covered with a layer of pepperoni slices and half of the mozzarella cheese. Repeat with another three sheets of pasta, the last third of the meat sauce, another layer of pepperoni slices, and the other half of the mozzarella cheese. Finally, top this with the last three sheets of pasta, another pint of (plain) spaghetti sauce or seasoned tomato sauce, and the parmesan cheese.

Cover the lasagna with aluminum foil and bake at 350 for 45-50 minutes until the pasta is cooked through and everything's melted and bubbly. Let the lasagna sit for about 20 minutes before cutting and serving.

Cyd made this, and she said she just went ahead and used both jars of sauce. She said it came out great--not too saucy. Good to know!

Ok, so that's two very comforting entrees...now we need a sweet nibble. I don't know what possessed me, but every time I went to Sam's Club leading up to and during the holidays, I bought yet another bag of pecans, fearing that I would run out. And now I don't have enough room in the freezer for all of them! I did make the wonderful Pecan Puffs, but that barely made a dent in my supply. Luckily, Deb of Smitten Kitchen was experiencing the same problem, and she offered another recipe for sweet and spicy nuts that--dare I say it--are at least as good, if not a wee bit better than the meringued pecans. These are similar, as they also use egg white as a binder, but it is not whipped, so the resulting nuts are not as puffy or meringue-y. But they are marvelously crispy with the added spice elements--cinnamon, smoked paprika, and cayenne--along with the sweetness from the sugars. In a word, YUM! In another word, ADDICTING! And, it must be said, a little easier and quicker to make than the Pecan Puffs. If you are also looking for delicious ways to make use of your holiday nut supply, this is the ticket! Also makes a terrific hostess gift, IF you can bear to part with them, that is. I'm not sure I could find the will myself.

Sugar-and-Spice Candied Nuts
(adapted from Elizabeth Karmel of Hill Country via
Smitten Kitchen )

1/3 cup dark-brown sugar
2/3 cup white granulated sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
generous pinch of cayenne pepper

1/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 pound pecan halves (or walnuts or whole peeled hazelnuts or whole almonds)
1 egg white, room temperature
1 tablespoon water

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Mix sugars, salt, cayenne, paprika and cinnamon, making sure there are no lumps; set aside. Beat egg white and water until frothy but not stiff. Add nuts and stir to coat evenly. Sprinkle nuts with sugar mixture, and toss until evenly coated. Spread sugared nuts in a single layer on a cookie sheet fitted with parchment paper (or a Silpat). Bake for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from oven, and separate nuts as they cool. When completely cool, pour the nuts into a bowl, breaking up any that stick together.

Quick Aerogarden Update:
The dill has sprouted! Now I'm just waiting on the parsley, who will be the last to join the party.

Quick Movie Awards Season Update:
Burn After Reading by the Coen Brothers is very funny! (But where's the love for Brad Pitt in this film? He's HYSTERICAL!). Also, The Duchess is lush and gorgeous. But, most importantly, have you seen Wall-E? A contemporary animated masterpiece, I tell you! A delight for young and old alike, from the fellow who brought you Finding Nemo (also among the best of its kind). A must-see, friends, even if you have no children and don't usually go in for animated offerings.

Wednesday, January 07, 2009

Still savoring my winter break...

Hello there. It's been almost a week since I checked in here at the old blogspot. I wish I had terribly exciting news of some kind to share, but mostly, I'm just hanging out, enjoying what's left of my winter break. I did finish a couple of books: Dead Until Dark (the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series on which the fabulously trashy "True Blood" on HBO is based) and Jeffrey Eugenides Pulitzer-prize winner, Middlesex (so good--highly recommend it!). Of course, I had at least three more books waiting in the wings that I hoped to get to, but oh well. ("Three Books Waiting in the Wings" could be my Native American name!) Part of the problem is that my media time is split between reading, watching old, brilliant-but-cancelled TV shows on YouTube (Wonderfalls, Freaks and Geeks), and getting my Golden Globes on. Speaking of films, I have many more to see--most of them terribly serious dramas about life-and-death subjects, or corsetted costume pieces starring some English dame or another. But so far, my favorite movies of 2008 are both contemporary side-splitters.

First, I cannot recommend highly enough that you rush right out and rent Tropic Thunder. My beloved Robert Downey, Jr. is BRILLIANT as a Russell Crowe-type Australian method actor playing a "black dude" in the movie-within-a-movie. Also fabulous is Tom Cruise in a non-credited role as a sleezy Hollywood agent--it's all about watching him dance! Both have been nominated for supporting actor Golden Globes with all good reason. Then, in a continuing Steve Coogan theme, I just watched Hamlet 2. HEAVEN HELP ME, but that was the funniest movie I have seen in ages! For my conservative, religious subscribers, I suggest you stop reading now and just walk away, because there are those that might consider this film more than a little off-sides and perhaps a wee bit sacrilegious. After all, the big number from the film is called "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus." It sounds worse than it is; the playwright suggests that, if Jesus were to have come to earth in the present day, he would have had to market himself like a "hot" (said in a Paris Hilton intonation) celebrity. Personally, I disagree. I think He would use Facebook to "friend" an initial 12 devoted followers, shoot a homespun but powerful video of His message of love, peace and redemption, and then rock the world by going viral on YouTube. Just saying. ;-)

In addition to books, TV, and movies, I am also monitoring my indoor gardening experiment. Check it:

On day three, even in this freezing cold house, my lettuces had already sprouted! And the next day, the first herb (thyme) was up. Yesterday (day five), the basil showed its face. So now I'm just waiting on the parsley and the dill. Fun! I guess growing fresh veggies awakened my barely-latent canning obsession. Unfortunately, the only thing seasonally appropriate to preserve would be all the lovely citrus fruits that are very plentiful in the supermarkets right now, but I put up WAY too much marmalade last year. So when I ran out of nacho slices, I decided to make my own pickled jalapenos, or escabeche. It'll be a month before the pickled veggies will be ready to taste, but I snuck a couple of carrots from the over-full jars as I was canning them, and I think they are going to be delish! Plus, the stuff looks so colorful and beautiful, does it not? This should be a great recipe to have on hand next fall when I am overrun with hot peppers from my garden. I am imagining it with fried fish, as a condiment for fish tacos (or any kind of tacos, for that matter), in a quesadilla, and on nachos, of course. Then again, I like to eat pepperocini as a snack by themselves, so I may just nibble on those spicy, pickled carrots out of hand. Yum!

Jalapeno Escabeche
(Source: adapted from Michael Gokey via
Foodie Mama)
Makes 3 to 5 pint jars , depending on whether you follow the original recipe (3) or my adaptation (5)

1 lb. jalapeƱo or serrano chile peppers, sliced into rounds of desired thickness (may also be left whole--then you may wish to blister their skins in a hot pan with a trace of oil first)
1 medium white or yellow onion, 1/4 inch thickly sliced (I used TWO yellow onions sliced somewhat thinly)
2 medium carrots, peeled and 1/4 inch thickly sliced (I used a whole pound of carrots, peeled and not as thickly sliced)
1 head garlic, cloves separated and peeled (I used 2 cracked cloves per pint jar)

3 cups apple cider vinegar (could also use white, but I like the subtle sweetness of cider vinegar here)
3 cups water
2 tablespoons pickling salt
1 tablespoon sugar (I used about 2 teaspoons)
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
4-6 sprigs of fresh marjoram or 1/4 teaspoon dried
4-6 sprigs of fresh thyme or 1/4 teaspoon dried
20-30 mixed black and red peppercorns (I just used black)
*I added 1/4 teaspoon of ground cumin, too (would have preferred seeds if I had them)

Prepare the pickling brine (you may need to increase the brine by 25% if you follow my version). Add the vinegar, water, salt, dry herbs, and sugar to a pot and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and let simmer while you prepare the rest of the vegetables.

Wash your vegetables well with no soap. Now peel and slice to prepare. Add at least one clove of garlic, 3-4 peppercorns, to each of the sterilized jars. If you are using fresh herbs then, pack one sprig each in each of the jars.

Pack the chile vegetable mixture into sterilized jars leaving 1/2" head space. To help reduce bubbles, slowly fill the packed jars slowly with the pickling brine, plucking out the bay leaves. Make sure you use a plastic bubble remover and slide it around the inside of the jar wall.

Seal and process the jars in a boiling water bath for 15 minutes. Store your pickled en escabeche jalapenos for four weeks in a cool, dark place before serving. Once opened, they can keep well for one to two months in the refrigerator.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It has come to my attention--through the guidance of some helpful folks at the GardenWeb Harvest Forum--that this recipe is too low in vinegar to be perfectly safe (especially as I added extra low-acid vegetables to my mix). A safer ratio would be two cups of vinegar to every one cup of water, although three to one might be even better! So the next time I make this, my brine will consist of at least four cups of vinegar to two cups water, or perhaps even 4 1/2 cups vinegar and 1 1/2 cups water. Better safe than botulism, right?!

Good grief! I was going to blog about some of the other tasty things that I've whipped up in the kitchen lately, but this post already seems too long. Perhaps I'll save that for a part deux within the next day or two, eh? Stay tuned...

Friday, January 02, 2009

HAPPY 2009!

HAPPY NEW YEAR, everyone! Did you party hearty? I definitely did. On New Year's Eve day, I went into town for a late matinee of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (very good--AMAZING special effects and makeup--but very long at three hours!). By the bye, can I just share the extreme JOY of all Plattsburghers and surrounding areas?! We have a brand new, 12-theatre cineplex in town called Cumberland 12. It's north of town on Route 9 (so that much closer to me!), it's HUGE, has a great concession stand, an arcade, a nice little sitting area, and best of all, stadium seating with comfy chairs that rock and recline and with armrests that raise. The ticket prices prices are less than at the mall cinema, and there is no comparison in ease of parking. Most importantly, though they may be showing Adam Sandler on two screens and Jim Carrey on two others, there are enough theatres to accommodate films like Doubt, Valkyrie and Benjamin Button. Usually, I have to go to Montreal or Burlington to see the smaller, dramatic Oscar contenders. YEE-HAW! I am holding out out hope for Slumdog Millionaire to show here, still, this town is finally coming together! We've already got a Starbucks and now the Tar-ghay and the new theatre...if we could just get ourselves a Chili's and an Olive Garden, we'd be all set. (P.F. Chang's might be pushing my luck.)

Anyway, after the movie, I made a foolish stop by the Wal-Mart to pick up a few things (most other places closed by 6pm). You would think that the world was coming to an end and everyone needed provisions to try and survive it! The lines at the registers were worse than at Christmas! JEEZ! Finally, I came home to monitor the pipes so that they didn't freeze in the 14-below wind chills. Pretty exciting stuff, eh? But I did watch my favorite New Year's duo, Anderson Cooper and Kathy Griffin, countdown the new year with the Clintons dropping the ball (so to speak). On New Year's Day, I enjoyed a screwball comedy marathon on TCM. This winter break, I find myself in an inextricable Cary Grant period. I love His Girl Friday with Rosalind Russell, and my very favorite is Bringing Up Baby with Katharine Hepburn. But I had never seen The Awful Truth with Irene Dunn. SO GOOD! If you haven't seen these wonderful, hilarious films, put them in your Blockbuster/Netflix queue at once!

Ok, so it's January 2. Now what? I didn't really make any resolutions this year ("I figure all that stuff's a bunch of crap anyway. You do what you do, right?" For bonus points, name the movie--another of my all-time faves.) However, I did renew my commitment to eat fresh and locally as much as possible in the new year. And here's a fun first step: sometime this summer, when no one was thinking about such things, I bought myself a half-price AeroGarden off of Amazon (thanks to Beth the Kitchen Mage who tipped me off to the sale!). It's been tucked in a corner of the back bedroom since then, but I finally pulled it out and got it all set up with lettuces (red leaf, green leaf and butterhead) and a few herbs (parsley, dill, thyme and basil). And now...we wait.

How about you? Are we over those bogus New Year's resolutions to lose weight yet? Good, because I'd like to introduce you to my leetle friend, a friend I call Dark Chocolate Sour Cream Cake with Brown Butter Pecan Topping! I was reading a couple of message board threads on Cooks Illustrated's site and on eGullet, and several people were extolling the virtues of CI's Sour Cream Chocolate Bundt Cake. I wanted to try it, but I certainly didn't need cake for 12-14 people, resolutions or no! So I halved the recipe and baked it in an 8x8 glass pan which worked perfectly. The cake is tender and flavorful enough to be eaten alone or with just a sprinkling of powdered sugar and/or whipped cream and maybe a garnish of fresh raspberries. But I took it over the top with a sweet browned butter topping that's chock-full of toasted pecans. WOW! Maybe that is my resolution for 2009: THE YEAR OF BROWNED BUTTER! I want it in everything--soups, green salads, Jello molds, pizza, you name it! (Tee hee.) Seriously, though, the browned butter topping really complements the brown sugar-based caramel notes in the deep-dark chocolate cake. I suppose that chocolate velvet cake is still my favorite chocolate cake overall; this cake has a similar flavor profile, but it's sturdier, to hold the shape of a bundt pan. Even in a plain, square dish, it developed deliciously crispy outer edges (which is why I chose not to frost and, therefore, soften the sides). Yum! I think this is a glorious and sweet way to ring in the New Year--just resolve to lengthen your dog walk or treadmill run after enjoying a piece! ;-)

Dark Chocolate Sour Cream Cake with Browned Butter Pecan Topping
(adapted from Cooks Illustrated)

For the cake:
3/8 cup cocoa (1/4 cup Dutch processed + 1/8 cup black cocoa, like Hershey's Special Dark)
3 ounces bittersweet chocolate (I use Ghiradelli chips)
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder, optional (don't really need it if you use the black cocoa)
3/8 cup hot water
1/2 cup sour cream
3/4 + 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons butter (3/4 stick), softened
1 cup light brown sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla
3 small eggs

For the topping:
5 tablespoons butter, divided
1 cup pecans, chopped
pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-3 tablespoons heavy or whipping cream (half and half or milk would work, too)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine cocoa, chocolate, and espresso powder (if using) in medium heatproof bowl; pour hot water over, microwave for one minute, then whisk until smooth. Cool to room temperature; then whisk in the sour cream. Whisk flour, salt, and baking soda in second bowl to combine.

In standing mixer fitted with flat beater, beat butter, sugar, and vanilla on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about three minutes. Reduce speed to medium and add eggs one at a time, mixing about 30 seconds after each addition and scraping down bowl with rubber spatula between each addition. Reduce to medium-low speed (batter may appear separated); add about one third of flour mixture and half of chocolate/sour cream mixture and mix until just incorporated, about 20 seconds. Scrape bowl and repeat using half of remaining flour mixture and all of remaining chocolate mixture; add remaining flour mixture and beat until just incorporated, about 10 seconds. Scrape bowl and mix on medium-low until batter is thoroughly combined, about 30 seconds.

Pour batter into an 8x8 Pyrex pan sprayed with flour-added cooking spray, being careful not to pour batter on sides of pan. Bake until wooden skewer inserted into center comes out with few crumbs attached, about 45 minutes. Cool in pan ten minutes, then invert cake onto wire rack to cool completely.

To make the topping, melt one tablespoon of butter in a frying pan over medium heat. Add the chopped pecans and salt and cook for a few minutes until they smell "nutty" and just start to color. Turn off the heat and let cool. At the same time, in a small sauce pan over medium heat, brown the remaining four tablespoons of butter about five minutes until a dark golden color (but not black!). Remove from the heat and let cool until just warm, but not to the point of re-solidifying.

In a small mixing bowl, whisk the powdered sugar with the cooled browned butter, vanilla, and enough cream or milk until the desired consistency is reached. Fold in the buttered pecans, then spread the mixture on top of your cooled cake. Cut and serve. Yields 9 generous pieces or 12 resolution-conscious ones.