Monday, March 31, 2008

March 31: My Gran's Birthday

Today would have been my grandmother's 97th birthday.

My parents got divorced when I was five years old. My mother had a time-consuming and demanding career that she loved and was great at, and when she wasn't with me, I was with my grandparents.

Here is a post that I wrote about my grandmother last fall on my other blog. It is one of my favorite posts that I've written. I am not putting up a recipe tonight. Instead, call your grandmother, tell her that you love her, and if she'll eat it, consider cooking her a plate of bacon.

Happy birthday, Gran. We love you, and we miss you.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Sweet and Salty

Several days ago, I ran out of coarse kosher salt. It's one of those
kitchen staples that I usually have lots of, but like lots ot things, it just
sort of got away from me this summer. Dan picked it up last night at the grocery
store before he picked me up from at the Metro. Have I mentioned how much I love
the Metro? I do. Public transit is so different here than it is in a lot of
cities whose transit systems have deservedly awful reputations. It's clean,
convenient, runs on time, and doesn't tolerate a lot of the nonsense that takes
place in New York. It saves me a grand total of about forty minutes a day of
driving, and I can knit on the commute.

Wow. That paragraph was so utterly stream-of-consciousness, my middle name
should be "non sequiter."

Salt. I was talking about salt. So Dan picked up a box of kosher salt at
the grocery store.

My whole life, my grandmother kept a crock of kosher salt on her kitchen counter next to her stove. Let me just say that this was a woman who loved salt. When she was dying of metastatic cervical cancer at 94, having radiation and chemotherapy, my mother could always convince her to eat -- as long as the meal consisted of Ensure and bacon. One of her favorite things was radishes, sliced in half and dipped in -- yes, you guessed it -- that exact same crock of kosher salt. It is a wonder that high blood pressure didn't get her, frankly.

The crock is a small brown ceramic one, round and maybe five inches high. It came from the grocery store, filled with Win Schuler bar cheez -- I'm not sure if we have that here, but if you're from Michigan, or maybe northern Ohio, you're probably familiar with Win Schuler. Great stuff. A normal person would have thrown it away when it was empty. Not Gran, though.My mother, the youngest of four children, was born in 1940. My grandparents married in 1930 and raised their children during the Depression and the second World War. My grandmother once said that she had a fight with her husband about how much sugar he put in his coffee. "Sugar was rationed," she explained. "He would finish his coffee and there'd still be sugar in the bottom of the cup. It made me so mad!"

She had an entire basement filled with food, mostly canned vegetables, mostly having expired somewhere around 1989. Her freezers--that's plural--were filled to bursting with things so frostbitten that they were unidentifiable, even when they were thawed. My cousins and I referred to her basement as The Food Museum. She saved margerine containers, plastic bags, Cool Whip tubs, and--well, basically everything that ever came in the door. My mother once threw away a pile of church lady meeting minutes from 1951. My grandmother barely spoke to her for a week.

When she was speaking, she had a way with words, my Gran. Once, when we were driving somewhere, out of nowhere, she said, "When I was your age, I was married and had three kids."

I had just broken up with my boyfriend of three years. "I know, Gran," I said.

"I'm sure you'd meet someone right away if you weren't so heavy," she told me in a very encouraging tone of voice.

And then I killed her.

Just kidding. But still, this was not exactly music to my ears. I was as thin as I'd been since high school, and substantially less satisfied with my life at that point that I had been in a long time. She sure cut to the chase, my Gran.

I went on my first date with Dan the night before Gran's birthday. That night, I went to her apartment there in her retirement community, planning to take her out for dinner. Instead, she'd cooked--chicken and homemade noodles, my favorite. I offered to take her to Steak 'n' Shake for a malt after dinner, her favorite treat.

"Sure," she said. "Let's go to the cemetary first."

"I...okay," I said.So for her birthday, I drove her to the cemetary where three of her four children, husband, and two grandchildren are buried, then to Steak 'n' Shake for chocolate malts.

After we watched "Friends" on television--her favorite TV show--I wished her happy birthday, kissed her good night, and left. On the way out, I called Dan on my cell phone."How's your Grandma?" he asked.

"That was the weirdest birthday party I've ever been to," I told him.

Gran was very sick when Dan and I got married, but we got married in her church, which made her very happy. Several days later, she told my mother she didn't think she could live by herself anymore, even in her assisted living community, and should probably move in with them.

We got married in July. I got pregnant in October. Coming back from the doctor's appointment where the doctor confirmed that I was pregnant, my mother called. It was getting close to the end. Gran didn't get out of bed anymore. She wouldn't eat--not even bacon.I didn't tell her I was pregnant. I really didn't want her emotions about her mother dying to be wrapped up in her emotions about me being pregnant. Besides, it was early. It made sense to wait. I'm not always sure I did the right thing, but based on what my mother said, Gran wouldn't have realized that I was pregnant at all.

My Gran died the first week in November of 2004. She was survived by her daughter, six grandchildren, eight great-grandchildren, and one great-great-grandchild, and Max, four weeks gestation. Her will stated that my mother should receive one quarter of her estate, and the rest should be split among her grandchildren.

This inheratance was sizable, and it allowed me to pay off our car and stay home for a year with Max. That is a really big deal.

My gran had a lot of junk--sixty years worth of margerine tubs, for example. She also had things that reminded me and all of my cousins of our childhood, spent on the southeast corner of Wall Lake in Delton, Michigan, learning to waterski and fish for three-inch long bluegill (my theory is that we caught the same ten fish all summer long every year) and torment each other all summer. I even lived there for a year when I was 22, rent free. Gran was the best roommate I ever had: she didn't use my tampons, borrow my clothes or CD's, or lose my phone messages--probably because she was too hard-of-hearing to hear the phone ringing most of the time.

During a storm that summer, the enormous oak tree on the hill in front of the house fell. It knocked down the railing on the deck and flattened a pink plastic flamingo my Uncle Lonnie had once given my mother as a joke, as well as a couple of very old, extremely uncomfortable metal lawn chairs, and just barely missing the northeast corner of the house. Gran said that when she married my grandfather in 1930 and laid eyes on that tree for the first time, she'd said, "That tree won't make it through the winter." The tree made it through the next sixty-nine winters.

My mother made sure that we would all get the things that were most precious to us, that reminded us of Gran and our childhood. Two of my cousins bought the property that her home stood on--one cousin lives next door, in the house that my aunt and uncle built, next door to my grandparents, a crazy upside down house with a huge kitchen on the second floor and a walkout basement of a first floor.

Every time I fill the salt crock on my kitchen counter, I think of my Gran. It's her salt crock, I asked my mother for it, and it wouldn't have been worth a dime to most people. I think she was surprised that I wanted it. But I think of her every time I look at it, and hope that someday, an old cheese crock from the grocery store will be as precious to someone who catalogues my idiosyncrasies for the benefit of the internet, just to show how much they loved me.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

March 30: Home Fries

Just in case anyone is interested, it's March 30th. The only significance to this date is that, five years ago, my husband and I started a conversation in the parking lot after work, decided we were enjoying the conversation so much that we wanted to continue it, went back to his apartment, and talked until 2:30 in the morning, at which point he made a somewhat clumsy overture which I pretended not to find hilariously funny and kissed me for the first time, my last first kiss (I hope.)

I just asked Dan what the first meal I ever cooked for him was. What he said to me was, "If I had known there were going to be pop quizzes later, I would have written some of this crap down." For the record, it was a roasted chicken in his Ron Popeil Showtime Rotisserie oven. I had never met anyone who had one of those; I'd been dying to try it out. It really was as simple as they make it look in the infomercial. That chicken was delicious, and I think it clinched it for Dan, that I really was the ideal woman.

I have cooked very few meals that my husband hasn't loved. To be fair, I'm married to a man who loves food, almost all of it, but before me, he always dated (and married) women who couldn't cook and didn't care about food. In contrast, he and I plan days around certain meals, take road trips in order to eat at specific restaurants, and have a monthly food budget nearly equal to our monthly rent.

My husband makes perfect Kraft Macaroni and Cheese; he always lets the butter and milk and cheese bubble in the pot for a few minutes before stirring the pasta back in. He loves meatball hoagies. Green bell peppers give him indigestion. He likes his hot dogs simmered in water and then pan-fried for a few minutes in butter with a little sprinkling of pepper, with mustard and onions and cole slaw. He eats salad with whole-wheat pasta and sliced chicken breast and vinaigrette dressing every day for lunch. And he once played the unspeakably dirty joke of telling me he was eating a peanut butter sandwich, and then when I took a bite, it turned out that he was actually eating a peanut butter and mustard sandwich. I still have not totally forgiven him.

One of the things that I really appreciate about Dan is that on weekend mornings, he gets up with Max and makes a very elaborate breakfast. One of the best things he makes is home fries.

Here is Dan's recipe for home fries. You can make as few or as many of these as you want, just by varying the amount of the ingredients and the cooking time. This is enough for about 4 people, if you're making them as part of a full breakfast. Dan made them this morning for me along with scrambled eggs and bacon.

Thanks, babe. Here's to five more years, and another fifty after that.

Home Fries

2 russet, all-purpose, or Yukon gold potatoes, peeled and cut into 3/4-inch dice
1 small white onion, finely diced
3 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 tablespoon butter
1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoons black pepper

Put potatoes in a microwave-safe bowl and toss with garlic powder. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and poke a couple of small holes in the plastic wrap. Microwave, on high, for 8 minutes.

Heat oil and butter in a large (12-inch) non-stick skillet over medium-high heat. When butter stops foaming, cook potatoes in skillet over medium-high heat, turning occasionally, until golden-brown and crispy, 10-15 minutes. Mix in diced onion, continue to cook another 6-8 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve hot.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

March 29: Italian Roast Beef

I've said before that I'm not that impressed by Cook's Country, the aw-shucks home-cookin' country-bumpkin cousin of Cook's Illustrated. I'm still not. My mother gave me a subscription a couple years ago, and the only recipe I made was the one for firecracker chicken. That, I have to admit, was delicious and simple to make, and would have changed my mind about the cookbook if it weren't for all the reader-generated content, the folksy stories submitted about newlyweds making cookies with old motor oil and seeking updated versions of their great-grandmother's kutchen.

So when this recipe popped into my inb0x this weekend, I was skeptical, but Italian roast beef happens to be something I really love, when it's done right. Spicy marinated roast beef, sliced thin and piled on crusty bread, a little herby vinegar and oil dressing, thinly sliced provolone. Skeptical, but I've never had really good Italian beef outside of Chicago. I am looking forward to trying this recipe, as soon as I get a chance to get to Eastern Market or somewhere similar, where I can find a really good top sirloin roast, as suggested. It's meaty and tender and lean.

Italian Roast Beef

4 teaspoons garlic powder
4 teaspoons dried basil
4 teaspoons dried oregano
1 tablespoon pepper
1 4-pound top sirloin roast , fat trimmed to 1/4 inch thick
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 onion , chopped fine
3 garlic cloves , minced
1 tablespoon flour
2 cups low sodium beef broth
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
2 teaspoons salt

1. Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position and heat oven to 300 degrees. Combine garlic powder, basil, oregano, and pepper in small bowl.

2. Pat roast dry with paper towels. Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Brown roast all over, about 10 minutes, then transfer to V-rack set inside roasting pan.

3. Add onion to fat in skillet and cook over medium heat until softened, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic, flour, and 1 teaspoon spice mixture until fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in broths and water, using wooden spoon to scrape up browned bits. Bring to boil, then pour into roasting pan.

4. Stir remaining oil, pepper flakes, and salt into remaining spice mixture. Rub mixture all over meat and roast until meat registers 125 degrees (for medium-rare), 75 to 90 minutes. Transfer roast to cutting board, tent with foil, and let rest 20 minutes.

5. Pour jus through fine-mesh strainer and keep warm. Slice roast crosswise against grain into ¼-inch-thick slices. Serve with jus.

Friday, March 28, 2008

March 28: Blueberry Buckle

My son was born on June 21, 2005. On June 18th, 2005, my parents arrived in Washington D.C. They hadn't seen me since Christmas. I am very tall--5'11"--and a little wide, and when I was nine months pregnant, I looked maybe six months pregnant, with a baby spread out all over the front of me. The last time they saw me was on my birthday, when I was 3 months pregnant, and didn't look pregnant at all.

It must have been fairly shocking for them to see me looking like a landmass, hot, sweaty even in the air conditioning, unbearably bloated, having contractions--but not knowing that the almost constant discomfort that I was having were contractions--and grouchy beyond all compare. My mother responded to all of this by treating me like a spoiled beauty pagent queen and indulging my every whim. She even went with me to a local barbecue joint, where a skeevy creep leaned up against me from shoulders to ankles, stuck his face in my ear, and said in this yucky, breathy whisper, "So what's good here?"

My mother looked horrified, and I was absolutely enraged beyond compare. "I'm ordering pulled pork with a large side of personal space," is what I told him, loudly. "Don't touch me again or I'll defend myself." I meant it too. I was 9 months pregnant and Skeev was lucky I wasn't carrying a weapon of some kind. He was stunned that I would stand up for myself, clearly, and very defensive about it, claiming to have meant no harm by it. I didn't give one tiny rat's ass, though; don't be creepy and rub up against me when it's 96 degrees outside and I'm as pregnant as I can possibly be or I'll stab you in the skull with a screwdriver. How's that for the moral of a story?

After I made a huge scene in a crowded take-out restaurant, my mother was even more inclined to indulge me. She did so by baking me a blueberry buckle, a tender yellow cake full of fresh blueberries and topped with a crumbly, buttery brown sugar topping. It's sort of half dessert, half coffee cake, rich and not-painfully-sweet but gorgeously indulgent feeling. She found it in Cook's Illustrated, and I've baked it for every friend whose had a baby since then. It's one of my favorite things.

Don't use frozen blueberries. They're too mushy and gloppy, and they'll leave you with a homogenous, creepy blue-green cake. Hold out until mid-June, at least, and make it then, when blueberries are sweet and fresh, and preferrably local. Yum.

1/2 cup unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
2 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch table salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter (1/2 stick), cut into 8 pieces, softened but still cool

1 1/2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
10 tablespoons unsalted butter (1 1/4 stick), softened but still cool
2/3 cup granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, room temperature
4 cups fresh blueberries(about 20 ounces), picked over

1. For the streusel: In standing mixer fitted with flat beater, combine flour, sugars, cinnamon, and salt on low speed until well combined and no large brown sugar lumps remain, about 45 seconds. Add butter and mix on low until mixture resembles wet sand and no large butter pieces remain, about 2 1/2 minutes. Transfer streusel to small bowl and set aside.

2. For the cake: Adjust oven rack to lower-middle position; heat oven to 350 degrees. Spray 9-inch round cake pan with 2-inch sides with nonstick cooking spray, line bottom with parchment or waxed paper round, and spray round; dust pan with flour and knock out excess.

3. Whisk flour and baking powder in small bowl to combine; set aside. In standing mixer fitted with flat beater, cream butter, sugar, salt, and lemon zest at medium-high speed until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes; using rubber spatula, scrape down bowl. Beat in vanilla until combined, about 30 seconds. With mixer running at medium speed, add eggs one at a time; beat until partially incorporated, then scrape down bowl and continue to beat until fully incorporated (mixture will appear broken). With mixer running on low speed, gradually add flour mixture; beat until flour is almost fully incorporated, about 20 seconds. Disengage bowl from mixer; stir batter with rubber spatula, scraping bottom and sides of bowl, until no flour pockets remain and batter is homogenous; batter will be very heavy and thick. Using rubber spatula, gently fold in blueberries until evenly distributed.

4. Transfer batter to prepared pan; with rubber spatula, using a pushing motion, spread batter evenly to pan edges and smooth surface. Squeeze handful of streusel in hand to form large cohesive clump; break up clump with fingers and sprinkle streusel evenly over batter. Repeat with remaining streusel. Bake until deep golden brown and toothpick or wooden skewer inserted into center of cake comes out clean, about 55 minutes. Cool on wire rack 15 to 20 minutes (cake will fall slightly as it cools).

5. Run paring knife around sides of cake to loosen. Place upside-down plate (do not use plate or platter on which you plan to serve the cake) on top of cake pan; invert cake to remove from pan, lift off cake pan, then peel off and discard parchment. Re-invert cake onto serving platter. Cool until just warm or to room temperature, at least 1 hour. Cut into wedges and serve.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

March 27: Sauteed Chicken Breasts With Creamy Chive Sauce

When I was little, my grandmother had a million wild chive plants growing in her yard. I can still remember the smell of the backyard, the herbal, oniony sweetness that hung over the backyard from April until August. My grandmother would send me outside to get her a handful of chives to chop into salads, to stir into sour cream for a baked potato. I could smell the chives on my hands for hours afterwards.

Chives are coming into season right now, along with asparagus, artichokes, green garlic, peas, and other spring vegetables. Spring vegetables are great: they're light, they're fresh, they're springtime on a plate.

I've said before that I love chicken breasts for their blank-slate quality. If I were going to make it into a musical metaphor, chicken breasts are the cello behind the piccolo of a spring veggie. That's why I love the look of this recipe: the richness of a delicate, creamy sauce against the sweet herbal note of chives. I think that I would serve this with a spinach and garlic orzo with a little lemon and a little parmesan, and a crispy green salad, and a loaf of crispy bread to sop up the sauce.

Sauteed Chicken Breasts With Creamy Chive Sauce

4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (about 1 pound), trimmed of fat
1 teaspoon kosher salt, divided
1/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon all-purpose flour, divided
3 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided
2 large shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 14-ounce can reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/3 cup reduced-fat sour cream
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup chopped chives (about 1 bunch)

Place chicken between sheets of plastic wrap and pound with a meat mallet or heavy skillet until flattened to an even thickness, about 1/2 inch. Season both sides of the chicken with 1/2 teaspoon salt. Place 1/4 cup flour in a shallow glass baking dish and dredge the chicken in it. Discard the excess flour.

Heat 2 teaspoons oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a plate, cover and keep warm.
Heat the remaining 1 teaspoon oil in the pan over medium-high heat. Add shallots and cook, stirring constantly and scraping up any browned bits, until golden brown, 1 to 2 minutes. Sprinkle with the remaining 1 tablespoon flour; stir to coat. Add wine, broth and the remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt; bring to a boil, stirring often.

Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the pan, reduce heat to a simmer, and cook until heated through and no longer pink in the center, about 6 minutes. Stir in sour cream and mustard until smooth; turn the chicken to coat with the sauce. Stir in chives and serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

March 26: Spinach & Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms

I love stuffed mushrooms. They are gorgeous and delicious as an appetizer, not to mention popular. Buy some portabellos, stuff and bake them, and you've got a healthy and irresistable dinner. Why do I not do that more often? I am making a mental note to myself as I write this.

There are dozens of delicious stuffings for mushrooms. I always start with fresh breadcrumbs and an aromatic like onion or garlic. Then there are a million different ways to go. I like crabmeat--the cheap stuff, not the jumbo lump; I've even used canned--cream cheese, scallions, and parmesan. I like diced proscuitto, goat cheese, and basil. I like spicy Italian sausage, diced tomatoes, Italian seasoning, and mozzerella. I like spinach and feta and fresh oregano. I like bleu cheese and sour cream. Pretty much anything goes well in a mushroom. It's the great thing about a mushroom.

This is Fine Cooking's stuffed mushroom recipe. Spinach and parmesan are a natural pair. Don't skip the step of roasting the mushroom caps; if you do, the filling will be drippy and watery and not at all the toasty, savory treat that this can be.

Spinach & Parmesan Stuffed Mushrooms

1 pound medium white mushrooms, wiped clean
8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 slices firm white bread
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/4 cup dry sherry
6 ounces fresh baby spinach, roughly chopped
1/4 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup heavy cream
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon freshly grated parmesan cheese
1/2 lemon

Set an oven rack 6 inches from the top element and heat the broiler to high. Completely remove the mushroom stems; thinly slice the stems. Set the mushroom caps stem side up on a rimmed baking sheet, drizzle with 1 1/2 tablespoons of the oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt and a few grinds of pepper. Broil until the mushrooms are brown and completely tender, 6 to 7 minutes.

Pulse the bread in a food processor until it forms crumbs. In a large, heavy saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons of the oil over medium-high heat. Add the breadcrumbs and 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt and cook, stirring constantly, until the breadcrumbs crisp and brown, 4 to 5 minutes. Transfer to a plate and wipe pan clean. Return the pan to high heat, add the remaining 1 1/2 tablespoon oil and the scallions, and saute until browned and softened, about 2 minutes. Add the mushroom stems and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Cook, stirring, until the stems soften and brown, about 3 minutes. Add the sherry and and cook until almost evaporated, 30 to 60 seconds. Add the spinach and stir until it wilts, about 1 minute. Add the cream and 1/3 cup of the parmesan, reduce the heat to medium, and cook until the cream reduces slightly, about 2 minutes. Taste for salt and pepper. Let cool.

Discard any liquid that may have accumulated in the mushroom caps. Mound the spinach mixture into the caps, top with the breadcrumbs, pressing them lightly into the filling. Top with the remaining tablespoon of parmesan.

Heat the broiler to high. Broil the caps until the breadcrumbs brown a little more and the mushrooms heat through, 1 to 3 minutes. Squeeze the lemon over the caps. Serve immediately.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

March 25: Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan and Toasted Garlic

It is not exactly an exaggeration for me to say that garlic is one of my favorite things in the world. Nothing says comfort food to be like a big bowl of linguine tossed with a mixture of olive oil, crushed red pepper flakes, about eleven cloves of minced sauteed garlic, and topped with a handful of toasted panko bread crumbs tossed with Italian seasoning. Then I smell like garlic for two days and my husband wants to know if I'm trying to ward off a Romanian vampire, or just him. What I'm not telling him is, the pasta's totally worth it.

What I don't love: asparagus. It's just one of those acquired tastes that I never managed to acquire. Maybe it was that my mother liked asparagus boiled to a grey slimy mass. Or, maybe it's just that asparagus tastes like old gym socks to me.

However, I acknowledge its popularity. I appreciate that I'm in the minority when it comes to this spring vegetable. I'll even stink up my house making it for my husband who loves it. But from now on, I'm making it this way, to distract me from the fact that it's, you know, asparagus. I will probably even take a bite of it. Unfortunately the new prescription drug is continuing to make everything with more than two ingredients in it taste like a cocktail of gefilte fish and butterscotch pudding, so I won't like it or anything. But hey, I'm a sport.

Use big fat asparagus, or it'll overcook. If all you can get are the sweet little petite things, then reduce the cooking time by 3 or 4 minutes.

Pan-Roasted Asparagus with Parmesan and Toasted Garlic
2 tablespoons olive oil
3 medium cloves garlic, sliced thin
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 pounds thick asparagus spears, ends trimmed
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese

1. Heat the olive oil and sliced garlic in 12-inch skillet over medium heat; cook, stirring occasionally, until garlic is crisp and golden but not dark brown, about 5 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer garlic to paper towel-lined plate.

2. Add the butter to the oil in the skillet. When butter has melted, add half of asparagus to skillet with tips pointed in one direction; add remaining spears with tips pointed in one direction. Using tongs, distribute spears in even layer (spears will not quite fit into single layer); cover and cook until asparagus is bright green and still crisp,about 5 minutes.

3. Uncover and increase heat to high; season asparagus with salt and pepper. Cook until spears are tender and well browned along one side, 5 to 7 minutes, using tongs to occasionally move spears from center of pan to edge of pan to ensure all are browned. Transfer asparagus to serving dish, sprinkle with grated Parmesan and toasted garlic, adjust seasonings with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.

Monday, March 24, 2008

March 24: Spinach & Basil Salad with Tomatoes, Candied Walnuts, & Warm Bacon Dressing

I talked to my mother on the phone last night, and she said that southwestern Michigan got ten inches of snow over the weekend. Here the trees are budding, it hits 50 by mid-morning most days, and winter is giving up the fight, and in Michigan, it's sledding weather.

I miss winter, if you want to know the truth. I'm a cold-weather girl, I like the sound of snow under my boots, I like scarves and mittens and how quiet everything is with a few inches of snow on the ground. It drives me crazy that there's never enough snow here to make it worth even dragging out my down jacket.

This is a fantastic winter salad. Even in the dead of winter, when there's not a decent tomato to be found, grape or cherry tomatoes are entirely edible. The basil, you may have to search for a little, if there's not a Trader Joe's or a Whole Foods near you, but it's doable. Really, nothing else in here is a particularly exotic ingredient--most decently stocked grocery stores have herbes de Provence now.

Take the time to make the candied walnuts. In fact, make extra. They're delicious tossed with cooked carrots with some crumbled bacon, as a topping for ice cream or fruit crisps, or just eaten out of hand.

Spinach & Basil Salad with Tomatoes, Candied Walnuts, & Warm Bacon Dressing

1/2 pound baby spinach leaves, washed and dried
1 cup lightly packed fresh basil leaves, washed and dried
6 slices bacon
2 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/3 cup plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 pint grape tomatoes
1 1/2 teaspoons dried herbes de Provence
1.2 teaspoon dehydrated minced or granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
Candied Walnuts (recipe follows)

In a large salad bowl, toss the spinach and basil together.

Cut each slice of bacon into thirds. Cook in a skillet over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until crisp, drain on paper towels.. Reserve 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. Crumble the bacon into pieces

In a medium bowl, whisk the vinegar with the mustard. Slowly whisk in 1/3 cup of of the olive oil, then whisk in the 1 tablespoon bacon fat. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Set aside in a warm place.

Position an oven rack as close as possible to the broiler element. Put a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet on the rack and heat the broiler to high. Toss the tomatoes with the remaining 2 teaspoons of olive oil, the herbes de Provence, and kosher salt. Pour the tomatoes onto the hot pan and broil, stirring occasionally, until the skins are cracked and blistered, and the flesh is warmed through, 4-5 minutes. Transfer the tomatoes with a slotted spoon to the bowl with the salad dressing. Stir to coat and mix the seasonings into the dressing.

Just before serving, transfer the tomatoes from the dressing to another bowl with a slotted spoon. Whisk the dressing to recombine. Add half the bacon to the greens. Drizzle with dressing and toss lightly to coat. Don't overdress.

Garnish with the tomatoes, the remaining bacon, and some of the candied walnuts (you'll have leftovers.) Serve immediately.

Candied Walnuts

1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
Pinch cayenne
1 large egg white, at room temperature
1 tablespoon water
1/2 pound walnut halves

Heat the oven to 300 degrees. In a small bowl, mix together sugars, salt, cinnamon and cayenne. In a large bowl, whisk the egg white until frothy; whisk in the water until combined. Add the walnuts and stir to coat. Sprinkle on the sugar mixture and stir to evenly distribute.

Line a rimmed baking sheet with parchment or a Silpat. Spread the nuts in a single layer on the sheet. Bake for 15 minutes, stir, and continue baking until the smell toasted and the sugar coating has caramelized, about another 15 minutes.

Let nuts cool on the pan, separating them as they cool. When completely cool, transfer to an airtight container. They'll keep for two weeks.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

March 23: Cheese Enchiladas With Rajas

The brisket was delicious and tender and flavorful, the potatoes were...oh, just so good. I steamed some broccoli to go with, and I put half of that aside to saute with garlic and olive oil and crushed red pepper flakes and toasted pine nuts and some hot pasta tomorrow. It's one of my favorite things to do with leftover broccoli.

At the risk of maybe telling you too much, I have to admit that I am on a new medication in my apparently neverending quest to have a second baby and it is wreaking total havoc on both my digestive system and the number and type of calories and insulin both that I need to consume to keep my blood sugar in line. For dinner tonight, I am going to have a tall cup of chicken broth with a few egg noodles in it in an effort to calm my churning and miserable stomach, but what I'm craving is a red-chili-sauced cheese and onion enchilada with a few strips of roasted poblano peppers, a puddle of beans, and a big pile of chopped romaine lettuce with thinly sliced radishes and a crumble of queso fresco.

So that's the recipe you'll get tonight. I make fabulous cheese enchiladas, if I may say so, and they're really one of my favorite meals. This is a great thing to serve to some non-meat-eating friends with lots of chips and a spicy-smoky salsa to start, cold beer or fresh limeade to drink, and some fruity sorbet and a couple of ginger cookies for dessert. I am hoping that these lousy side effects will get up off my ass sometime soon so I can go back to eating like a person who likes food again.

Cheese Enchiladas With Rajas

8 corn tortillas
2 1/2 cups enchilada sauce, canned or homemade
8 ounce brick-style cream cheese, softened
8 ounces shredded sharp cheddar cheese
1 medium white onion, half chopped fine and half very thinly sliced
salt and pepper
2 poblano peppers

Garnishes: your choice of thinly sliced radishes, hot sauce, additional shredded cheese, sliced hot peppers, pickled or fresh, sliced black olives, additional slivered onions, diced avacado, diced tomato, chopped cilantro, sour cream.

Under a pre-heated broiler, roast poblano peppers until all sides are blistered and blackened. Put peppers in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set aside for at least ten minutes.

Preheat oven to 400. Mix together diced onion, cream cheese, cheddar, and salt and pepper to taste.

Peel roasted peppers (the skins should slide right off), seed, and slice into thin strips.

Wrap tortillas in plastic wrap and microwave on high for 1 minute. Spread about 2/3 cup of enchilada sauce in the bottom of an oven safe rectangular baking dish. Dip tortillas, one at a time, in enchilada sauce, spread 1/8 of the cheese-onion filling down the middle of the tortilla, top with 2-3 peppers, and roll. Place seam-down in the baking dish.

Bake 8-10 minutes, until heated through. Serve with garnishes of choice.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

March 22: Scalloped Potatoes with Chipotle and Smoked Cheddar

Tomorrow's Easter. I have a six-pound beef brisket in the slow-cooker right now, with a whole bunch of pureed onion and garlic and Worcestershire and beef broth. This brisket really spoke to me in Costco today. It's going to be spicy and southern-style, not good-Jewish-Mama style. I'm kind of psyched about it.

To go with it, I'm going to make these scalloped potatoes from my bridal shower. Traditional, but with a twist. I can't wait.

Scalloped Potatoes with Chipotle and Smoked Cheddar

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, minced (about 1 cup)
2 medium garlic cloves, minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1 large chipotle in adobo, minced (about 1½ tablespoons)
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 1//2 pounds (about 5 medium) russet potatoes, peeled and sliced 1/8 inch thick
1 cup canned low-sodium chicken broth
1 cup heavy cream2 bay leaves
4 ounces smoked cheddar cheese, shredded (1 cup)

1. Adjust oven rack to middle position; heat oven to 425 degrees.

2. Melt butter in large Dutch oven over medium-high heat until foaming subsides. Add onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until soft and lightly browned, about 4 minutes. Add garlic, chipotle, thyme, salt, and pepper; cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add potatoes, chicken broth, cream, and bay leaves and bring to simmer. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer until potatoes are almost tender (paring knife can be slipped into and out of potato slice with some resistance), about 10 minutes. Discard bay leaves.

3. Transfer mixture to 8-inch-square baking dish (or other 1½-quart gratin dish); sprinkle evenly with cheese. Bake until cream is bubbling around edges and top is golden brown, about 15 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

Friday, March 21, 2008

March 21: Sausage Corn Bread Muffins

I have a breakfast problem.

Junk food has lost most of its appeal to me, really; I'd rather go home and make myself a turkey sandwich with dill havarti cheese with dijon mustard and arugula and a paper-thin slice of red onion than go through the drive through at McDonald's for a quarter-pounder with cheese. Now that I watch what I eat a little more closely, I really want what I eat to taste good.

That's not the problem. The problem is breakfast. My fast food moratorium does not extend to breakfast, especially not the sausage breakfast burrito from McDonald's, or, God help me, the sausage croissant'wich from Burger King.

That's part of the problem, but the underlying problem is, I don't like most breakfast food: I don't like syrup, I don't like cereal except for Cheerios (don't ask), and I only like fruit in small amounts. I like bacon just fine, of course, because who the hell doesn't like bacon, it's bacon, but a plate of bacon is apparently not an appropriate breakfast. Especially not for a diabetic, whose arteries are prone to clogging and other bad things, things I have tried very hard not to pay a whole lot of attention to until now. Sheesh.

Well then. My breakfast problem is that I have strict requirements for breakfast: it ought to be portable, reasonably healthy, and contain some sort of pork product, because, you know, I'm kind of a stubborn asshole as it turns out.

I like the looks of this bad boy, I have to say. It's from Everyday Food, which I bought yesterday in the grocery store line because I am a sucker for an impulse buy, especially an impulse buy involving a food or cooking magazine of some kind. I have no interest in imitation sausage veggie patties, so I am telling you right now that I have replaced that with real honest to God sausage. Okay, so come on, it's half a pound of sausage in a dozen muffins. That works out to less than an ounce of sausage each, and this probably won't kill me, as long as I don't do what I am concerned that I might do and sit down and eat all twelve of them at once.

Oh, and I'd just like to add the following: I found two typos in this recipe as printed. I have omitted them, because I find typos in a presumably-professionally edited document nearly as offensive as I find imitation sausage, but should anybody be looking to hire a copy editor in the D.C. area, my current job is kicking me to the pavement and laughing while I cry lately, and I might be willing to entertain some offers.

Sausage Corn Bread Muffins

8 oz. hot breakfast sausage
3/4 cup yellow cornmeal
1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 large egg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
3/4 cup shredded pepper jack cheese

Preheat oven to 400. Line 12 muffin pan cups with muffin liners.

In a non-stick skillet over medium heat, cook sausage, breaking up with a wooden spoon, until browned. Let cool.

Combine cornmeal, flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt in a large bowl, set aside. Whisk together buttermilk, egg, and butter in a medium bowl. Mix buttermilk mixture into dry ingredients until just combined. Fold in sausage, corn, and cheese.

Divide the batter into the muffin pan cups. Bake 18 to 20 minutes, until muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Serve warm.

Can be refrigerated up to 3 days, or frozen.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

March 20: Whole Wheat Linguine With Caponata

The diet continues. Sometimes, like tonight, we can't stand our own cooking anymore, and we go out for a tiny little dried-out grilled chicken breast and a baked potato, no butter, no sour cream. Food has become less than the feast for the senses that it was four weeks ago.

But, it's worth it. I'm still not losing much, but Dan is losing like crazy. I couldn't be more proud of him, although the drastic reduction in calories has made him incrediby grumpy. I told him he's bringing new meaning to the phrase "lean and mean."

Some days are better than others when it comes to what we eat. Like I said, it's not the feast for the senses that used to be, but the Type-A control freak in me likes the little rush I get from eating 350 calories for dinner, and then stopping. Oooh, that sounds disturbingly like an eating disorder, doesn't it? Yeah, I wouldn't worry just yet.

One of the first cookbooks my mother ever gave me is a pasta cookbook. I don't make pasta very often, but I like this one because it gives recipes for lots of different kinds of pasta, and sauces to go with them. I have made the black pepper linguine with red clam sauce dozens of times.

This pasta sauce is paired with whole wheat spaghetti, which I don't like well enough to make for myself. I like it well enough to eat it because it's healthy and for me, because I really love pasta, whole wheat pasta is better than, like, no pasta at all, but that's about it. Nevertheless, this sounds good, and healthy, and like I wouldn't totally hate it. Nothing's perfect, but my mind is open. Mostly.

Whole Wheat Linguine with Caponata

1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small eggplant, peeled and cut into 1/2 inch dice
1 medium onion, thinly sliced
1 celerey rib, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, thinly sliced
2 garlic cloves, crushed through a press
1 pound fresh plum tomatoes, seeded and coarsely chopped
1/2 cup halved and pitted Greek or Sicilian olives
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1 bay leaf, broken in half
1 1/2 teaspoons dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon crushed hot pepper flakes
3 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons drained small capers
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 pound whole wheat linguine or spaghetti, cooked according to box directions

In a large nonreactive skillet, heat the oil. Add the eggplant, onion, celery, and bell pepper and cook over medium heat, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to soften, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the garlic and cook 1 minute. Stir in the tomatoes, olives, vinegar, sugar, bay leaf, thyme, and hot pepper flakes. Cover and simmer, stirring often, until the vegetables are very soft, about 20 minutes.

Stir in the basil, parsley, and capers. Simmer, uncovered, stirring often, until roughly half the liquid has evaporated, about 15 minutes. Remove and discard the bay leaf. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Toss hot cooked pasta with sauce. Serve immediately.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

March 19: Slow Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup

So here we are, still on a diet. My husband's down about two pants sizes, and mine are beginning to get a little looser. Maybe. Men.

I'm finding that the thing that I'm craving, much more than fat or sugar, is spicy. Something about spicy food gets my engine going and makes me feel more satisfied with less. I'm sure there's some kind of neuro-biological reason for that, but at this point, I'd rather have one of my low-fat, practically-no-cheese-involved chicken enchiladas than a bowl of ice cream. Go figure.

Speaking of enchiladas, I make my own enchilada sauce because the stuff that comes out of a can tastes terrible and what I make tastes great. It's the America's Test Kitchen recipe, and if you're interested, leave me a comment or email me and I'll send it to you. Other than that, this soup is made of things I keep around the house regularly, but I am inclined to raise the stakes, by using fresh ingredients when I can. I'm also inclined to add tortilla flavor and thicken the soup by adding a quarter of a cup of masa to this, an hour or so before it's done.

This was a totally generic recipe when I found it; I've turned it into something a little more interesting since then. It's also easy: throw everything in the crock pot and just walk away, Renee. You need some leftover chicken on hand, which is something I almost always do have.

Slow Cooker Chicken Tortilla Soup

1 pound shredded, cooked chicken
1 can Muir Glen Organics fire-roasted diced tomatoes
1 10 ounce can enchilada sauce, or 1 1/2 cups homemade enchilada sauce
1 medium onion, chopped medium-fine
1 4 ounce can chopped green chile peppers
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 cup water
2 (14.5 ounce) cans low sodium chicken broth
1/4 masa (corn flour)
1 teaspoon cumin
1 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cayenne
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1 bay leaf
1 (10 ounce) package frozen corn
4 tablespoons chopped cilantro
7 corn tortillas
vegetable oil

Cooking Instructions
Place chicken, tomatoes, enchilada sauce, onion, green chiles, and garlic into a slow cooker. Mix masa into chicken broth. Pour in water and chicken broth, and season with cumin, chili powder, salt, pepper, and bay leaf. Stir in corn and cilantro. Cover, and cook on Low setting for 6 to 8 hours or on High setting for 3 to 4 hours.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Lightly brush both sides of tortillas with oil. Cut tortillas into strips, then spread on a baking sheet.

Bake in preheated oven until crisp, about 10 to 15 minutes. To serve, sprinkle tortilla strips over soup.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March 18: Swiss Steak, Southwest Style

Something of an oxymoron, right? Okay.

We just finished dinner, and mmmmmmmmmmm-hmmmmmmm. All I can do is sit here and make happy food noises.

This was a total experiment, based on what looked good last night and was on sale in the grocery store. When I was pregnant, I had wretched morning sickness for about four months. One of the few meals I could stomach was swiss steak, also one of the few meals that my mother makes really, really well. At the time, my mother was 13 hours away and could not be at my house to make swiss steak every night, so I made it myself. Not every night, but once a week, at least. That, chili dogs, tuna-noodle casserole, white bread, and navel oranges were the only things that would reliably not make me yack.

The result of this was that I gained 100 pounds. The end. No, I'm kidding, I only gained about 28 pounds, and I give the credit to the fact that I lost about 15 in the first trimester. The real result is that I burned out a little on swiss steak and haven't really been interested until I found two packages of the most gorgeous-looking cube steaks in the grocery store last night on sale.

Swiss steak, in case you were wondering, is not from any neutral European country. It is a cheap piece of beef, usually bottom round, that has been swissed, or poked repeatedly with sharp objects, until some of the meat fibers are cut, tenderizing it by--well, basically by pre-chewing it for you.

I know, okay? I prefer to chew my own food, generally speaking. But we're talking about a seriously cheap-ass piece of meat that's magically transformed into a lean, beefy, fork-tender piece of deliciousness that does not occur in nature otherwise.

So here I am with these cube steaks, and some pantry staples. Dan and I both had the thought in our head that we wanted something a little spicy; and these gorgeous steaks were staring at me from the second shelf of the fridge.

So I modified my mother's swiss steak recipe slightly. Here's what I did:

Swiss Steak, Southwest Style

4 6-ounce swissed bottom round steaks
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
2 shallots, minced
6 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
1 14.5 ounce can Muir Glen Organics fire-roasted diced tomatoes
2 cups chicken broth
1 to 2 whole pickled jalapenos from a can, finely diced

Combine flour and salt, pepper, and cayenne, all to taste, in a shallow dish or plate (taste the flour, it should be fairly well-seasoned.) Dredge the steaks in the flour

Heat the oil in a 12-inch nonstick skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add the shallots, garlic, and onion to the pan. Cook, stirring constantly, until they are fragrant and softening slightly, 30 seconds to 1 minute. Add the steaks in and brown, turning as needed to keep them from burning. Remove steaks from the pan.

Add tomatoes to pan. Use broth to rinse out the can, then pour the broth into the pan as well and bring to a simmer. Nestle the steaks back into the tomato-broth mixture and simmer, uncovered, 20 minutes, turning steaks occasionally.

Stir the jalapenos into the sauce and continue to simmer another 20 minutes. While your steaks simmer, make some mashed potatoes. They don't have to be fancy, just regular old mashed potatoes are fine. Even the kind from the box will do; it's not really about the potatoes.

When the sauce is as thick as you want it to be and the potatoes are ready, make a big pile of mashed potatoes on a big platter. Pile the steaks over them. Spoon or pour the spicy tomatoey goodness over the whole thing.

Curse yourself for making something this yummy when you're on a diet. Only eat one helping.

Monday, March 17, 2008

March 17: The Pioneer Woman Cooks! Spicy Shrimp

Have you all discovered the food-geek wonder that is The Pioneer Woman Cooks! yet? Get thee over there, right now, and then use your back button to return to me. She won a Bloggie at SXSW for her food blogging, and man is it well-deserved. I...I am so very embarassed to admit this to you all, but I think I may have actually licked my computer monitor while reading her entry on pasta primavera. Yes Indeedy.

In short, The Pioneer Woman is a totally hilarious housewife on a cattle ranch somewhere in the middle of the country. She used to be an urban hipster in L.A.; now she drives forty minutes round trip to buy her very basic grocery staples, so she is a little defensive of her use of parmesan cheese from that green can. You know--that green can. She has two blogs: The Pioneer Woman Cooks and Confessions of A Pioneer Woman. That one features a lot of pictures of rather fit young men in tight jeans. Thanks for that, by the way.

Anyway, about her food blog: she takes pictures, something I am mostly too lazy or harried to do (also, I can't find the USB cable for my camera), and the pictures are some of what's so appealing about her cooking. Also, it's unpretentious, real-world easy, and uses a lot of butter. By which I mean, a lot. I can't believe she doesn't weigh 345 pounds. I would.

She doesn't really measure things so much, so it's hard to use her recipes as, you know, recipes, rather than just something to think dirty thoughts about, but her spicy shrimp look so good that I am sort of a little bit in love right now. One great thing about living on the Eastern seaboard is the seafood. We still get the shrimp frozen, but they're usually in better shrimp than the ones that have been sleeping with the fishes, so to speak, for months and months. And I don't think I need to explain what a decent crabcake can mean for a woman who's lived to be 27 years old and never tasted Maryland blue crab.

So, I will now attempt to translate Ree at The Pioneer Woman Cooks! from shameless hard-core food porn to a recipe with measurements and everything. It will be my usual wild-ass-guess estimation method that I use every time I attempt to post a recipe that isn't really my recipe but just an idea out of my head. By all means, assume that I'm playing it fast and loose with the numbers and hope for the best. If I'm off by a mile on anything, I encourage you to let me know.

Spicy Shrimp

2 lbs. large shell-on shrimp
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Tabasco to taste
1/3-1/2 cup Worcestershire
Generous amounts of Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
8 tablespoons (1 stick) Butter, cut into 16 pieces
3-4 Lemons
1 large loaf crusty French bread

Thoroughly rinse shrimp under cold running water. Spread shrimp in a single layer on a large rimmed baking sheet.

Drizzle oil, Worcestershire, lemon juice, and Tabasco (you are seasoning these shrimp through the shells, so be aggressive.) Generously salt. Very generously pepper.

Drop pats of butter over the shrimp. Then pepper them again. Generously.

Slide the shrimp under the broiler for 10 minutes or so, until they are cooked all the way through. Don't overcook.

Warm the loaf of bread in the oven. Use it to sop up the sauce from the shrimp.

Sunday, March 16, 2008

March 16: Herb-Crusted Pork Roast

I am not a huge fan of ham. For one thing, as a child, Easter always seemed to be the time of year that I would find myself with a stomach virus, so hard-boiled eggs and ham always make me think of terrible Easter nights spent hugging the toilet. Then, when I was pregnant and had round-the-clock morning sickness for four months, only to be replaced swiftly by a debilitating case of gastroenteritis which landed me in the hospital for several days and had me not feeling 100 percent for several weeks afterwards. In this lasting period of varying degrees of queasiness, I found that ham, to me, looked like what I described to my husband as people meat--cooked and sliced human being of some sort. I can manage a ham sandwich, sort of, as long as there's some pickles and cheese and mustard, something to make me not think too hard about what I'm actually eating.

So, of course, as far as holidays go, Easter's not my favorite. Ham is the traditional Easter dinner around my house, and my grandmother was a big believer in a glazed ham with pineapple rounds, cloves, and marashino cherries. Thinking about what to make for my own family, I think I'd like to give them something a little fresher, less sugary, with fewer artificial colors involved.

I love a center-cut pork loin roast how easy it is to make--it's compact, uniformly-sized, and easy to slice. It's also a little bland. Usually I make some kind of a pan sauce or stuffing, but this year, I'm going to do an herb crust, courtesy of America's Test Kitchen.

Herb-Crusted Pork Loin

1 boneless center-cut pork loin roast (2 1/2-3 lbs.)
1/4 cup sugar
1 slice high-quality white sandwich bread, torn into pieces
1 ounce parmesan or pecorino cheese, grated (about 1/2 cup)
1 shallot, minced
4 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
1/2 cup packed fresh parsley or basil
2 tablespoons minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or 1/2 teaspoon dried
1 garlic clove, minced

With a sharp knife, score the fat cap on the pork, making a 1/4 inch crosshatch pattern, then cut a pocket in the side of the roast, stopping 1/2 inch short of each end. Pull open the roast to cut the pocket deeper. Dissolve 1/2 cup salt and the sugar in 2 quarts water in a large container, submerge roast, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 1 hour. Rinse the roast with cold water and dry with paper towels.

Adjust an oven rack to the lower-middle position and heat the oven to 325. Pulse the bread in a food processor until goarsely ground, about sixteen 1-second pulses. Transfer crumbs to a medium bowl (do not wash the food processor) and add 2 tablespoons of parmesan, the shallot, 1 tablespoon of oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper. Using a fork, toss the mixture until the crumbs are evenly coated with oil.

Add the parsley, thyme, rosemary, garlic, remaining parmesan, 3 tablespoons oil, 1/8 teaspoon salt, and 1/8 teaspoon pepper to the now-empty food processor and process until smooth, about 12 1-second pulses. Transfer the herb paste to a small bowl.

Spread 1/4 cup inside the herb paste inside the pocket in the roast and tie at 3 intervals along the length of the roast with kitchen twine. Season the roast with salt and pepper.

Heat the remaining 2 teaspoons of oil in a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat until just smoking. Add the roast fat-side down and brown on all sides, 8-10 minutes, lowering the heat if the fat starts to smoke. Transfer the roast to a wire rack set in a rimmed baking sheet lined with aluminum foil.

Using scissors, snip and remove the twine from the roast, discard twine. Spread the remaining herb paste over the roast; top with the bread crumb mixture. Transfer the baking sheet with the roast to the oven and cook until the thickest part of the roast registers 145 degrees on an instant-read thermometer, 50-75 minutes. Remove the roast from the oven and let rest 10 minutes.

Transfer to a carving board, taking care not to squeeze the juices out of the pocket in the roast. Cut into 1/2 inch slices and serve immediately.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

March 15: Balsamic Sauteed Mushrooms

Balsamic vinegar is one of those kitchen staples that I am never, ever without, like kosher salt and dijon mustard and great olive oil. It's the starting point of about a dozen different things for me, including a dressing that's great for strong salad greens like arugula and escarole, a marinade for roasted vegetables, and a glaze for fresh strawberries that is absolute heaven on poundcake or vanilla ice cream.

Spend the money for good balsamic vinegar at a specialty food store like Whole Foods or Trader Joe's. Look for an aged basalmic, one whose ingredient list doesn't include caramel color. It'll cost you, for sure, but the difference between great aged balsamic vinegar and grocery store cut-rate is like night and day. In this recipe, where the flavor takes center stage, it will make a particular difference.

Serve these mushrooms next to a steak or a seared fish fillet.

Balsamic Sauteed Mushrooms

1 Tbsp. balsamic vinegar
2 tsp. dark brown sugar
2 tbsp. butter
1 lb. cremini (baby bella) mushrooms, cleaned and quartered
kosher salt
1 to 2 tsp. minced garlic
Freshly ground black pepper

Combine the balsamic vinegar, brown sugar, and 1 tbsp. water in a small dish.

In a 10-inch straight sided saute pan, heat 1 tbsp. of the butter with the olive oil over medium-high heat. When the butter is melted, add the mushrooms and 3/4 tsp. salt and stir right away with a wooden spoon until the mushrooms have absorbed all the fat.

Let the mushrooms cook undisturbed for 2 minutes and then stir once. The pan will look dry but keep the heat at medium high and continue to cook, stirring infrequently, until the mushrooms are shrunken, glistening, and some sides have developed a deep brown color, 6-7 minutes.

Turn the heat to low, add the garlic and the remaining 1 tbsp butter and cook, stirring, until the butter is melted and the garlic is fragrant, 15-20 seconds. Carefully add the balsamic mixture. Cook, stirring, until the liquid reduces to a glazey consistency that coats the mushrooms, 15-20 seconds. Season with a few grinds of pepper. Immediately transfer the mushrooms to a serving dish, scraping the pan with a rubber spatula to get all of the garlicky sauce. Let sit for a few minutes. Serve warm.

Friday, March 14, 2008

March 14: Chicken with Marsala, Mushrooms & Gorgonzola

I just don't have the energy for a long drawn-out explanation of a recipe. I've just had an iron-plated bitch of a week at work, which is the only kind of week that you have when you work for a housing counseling and homeownership non-profit and there's a foreclosure crisis taking place. I am so glad it's Friday that I really might eat this recipe, a whole plate of it with garlic mashed potatoes and a whole head of steamed, buttered broccoli. My husband's lost 18 pounds in three weeks. I have lost two. We've been eating virtually the same thing every day. Men.

Chicken with Marsala, Mushrooms & Gorgonzola

1 lb. boneless, skinless chicken breast halves (about 3)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
6 oz. cremini or white mushrooms, sliced 1/8 inch thick (about 2-1/4 cups)
2 large cloves garlic, minced
1/2 cup dry Marsala
1/3 cup heavy cream
1-1/2 oz. crumbled Gorgonzola (1/3 cup)
1 Tbs. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

Trim the chicken, removing the tenders, and slice on an angle into 3/4-inch-thick pieces; season generously with salt and pepper.

In a 10-inch straight-sided sauté pan, heat 2 Tbs. of the oil over medium-high heat until it shimmers. Add half of the chicken and cook, flipping once, until lightly browned and just barely cooked through, 1 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer the chicken to a plate; repeat with the remaining chicken. Cover with foil to keep warm.

Return the pan to medium-high heat and add the remaining 1 Tbs. oil. Add the mushrooms, season lightly with salt, and sauté, stirring with a wooden spoon, until softened and well browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to medium, add the garlic, and cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, 20 to 30 seconds.

Pour in the Marsala and scrape the pan with the spoon to loosen any browned bits; simmer until the Marsala is reduced slightly, about 2 minutes. Stir in the cream and simmer until thickened slightly, 2 to 3 minutes. Add two-thirds of the Gorgonzola and stir until melted, 1 to 2 minutes. Taste the sauce; add salt and pepper as needed. Add the chicken along with any accumulated juices and turn to coat with the sauce. Serve immediatly, sprinkled with the remaining cheese and the parsley.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

March 13: Tapenade

I got my start as a food blogger writing about dip.

I wrote about how much I love dip, how, for me, things like raw veggies and chips and French bread are like little delivery trucks, bringing total goodness from a bowl in front of my face straight to my mouth: Hello, lover.

One time, a few years ago, I went to an art tour with my mother in a series of venues downtown. Some of them had great wine and snacks, some of them had Two Buck Chuck and cubes of grocery-store cheese, and one place had vegan health food snacks. Never one to pass up even questionable vegan dip, I dipped a carrot stick in the bowl of the curious greyish substance, and ate it. Filled with an immediate and pervasive sense of deep regret, I sought out some kind of awful deathberry-wheatgrass juice blend to try to wash down the mystery dip. It was the only time I can remember dip being a totally unredeemably bad, nothing good about it. I can't even fathom what on earth was in it.

On the other end of the spectrum is the year that my stepfather was in Guam with the Red Cross at Thanksgiving--he is a retired high school administrator who got tired of playing golf so he went to work doing disaster relief--and my grandmother and uncle were in North Carolina, and it was just going to be my mother and I, so we went to a friend of hers' house. The snacks before dinner that day were great, one of the reasons that I vastly prefer Thanksgiving Snacks to Thanksgiving Dinner. One of the snacks was tapenade.

Tapenade is a dark, lusty sauce that tastes like Greece, Southern France, and Italy, all mixed up together. When I tell you that it's pretty much the greatest thing ever, I'm not overselling the thing. Cut the top quarter off a pint of cherry tomatoes, hollow them out with a teaspoon, and stuff them with tapenade. Mix it into the stuffing for hard-boiled eggs. Thin it out and use it for a dip for crudites, toss it with cold pasta. Spread it on bruschetta, top it with goat cheese, and broil it briefly. Put it on grilled cheese sandwiches. Tapenade is great stuff.

The ingredient list is long and full of things that I don't generally keep on hand, like anchovies and capers and fresh thyme. Tapenade isn't something I make often, but occasionally, I'll go ahead and do it, just because it's so good. Don't worry about the anchovies--they don't make the thing taste fishy, they just round out the flavors into something bigger than the sum of its parts.

Okay, the "black" olives: listen, don't go buy a can of black olives in the olive aisle at the grocery store. Go to your Fresh Fields or your Whole Foods or whatever grocery store you like. Buy great, great-tasting olives off the olive bar, those little black wrinkly ones or kalamatas or--whatever you like, basically, as long as they taste good and they don't taste like the can that they come in.


1/2 pound black olives, pitted, drained of their liquid
4 anchovy fillets
2 tablespoons capers, drained
1 garlic clove, peeled
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon grated orange zest
8 sprigs of thyme, leaves only
4 tablespoons olive oil

Place all the ingredients except the olive oil in the work bowl of a food processor. Pulse to blend. Add the oil and pulse a few more times to form a cohesive but still coarse paste.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

March 12: Orange Flan

It's been awhile since I posted any kind of a dessert. I love dessert, but I don't eat it very often. Besides being diabetic, I'm just not a "sweets" kind of person. I would rather skip dessert and have an extra serving of sweet corn, or some chips and salsa, or a really luscious appetizer.

But oh boy, flan. I am crazy about flan. It's a not-overly-sweet custard, rich and creamy, topped with a fabulous caramel sauce, made from scratch. It's simple, and at the same time, totally luxurious.

The best flan I've ever tasted--no kidding--cost $.95 in a Mexican restaurant at the back of a Mexican grocery store in Western Michigan. The restaurant had about nine tables and while the servers in the restaurant mostly spoke a little English, you would do well to speak a little Spanish there. We are usually in Michigan around Christmastime, which also coincides with my birthday. More often than not, that's the restaurant that I choose for my birthday dinner, and that's the dessert I choose too. Nobody seems to do it better than them, and it's always better than birthday cake.

Serendipitously, my email today held a recipe for this orange flan. I am really looking forward to making this. Maybe to follow a simple dinner of fried potato tacos and Rick Bayless' drunken pinto beans and a simple salad of romaine, red onion, radish, and tomato wedges.

It'll have to wait until this weekend though. I'm really having a swell week at work.

Here's one note though: the water bath keeps the custard from curdling, over-cooking, or cracking in the harsh heat of the oven. The easiest way to set it up is to put the roasting pan on the oven rack with the towel folded in the bottom, then set the filled cups on the towel, and then pour in the water. Not so much carrying and sloshing.

Orange Flan

Cooking Spray
2/3 cup granulated sugar, divided
1 can (12 oz) evaporated milk
3/4 cup Egg Beaters
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon grated orange peel

1. Preheat oven to 350° F. Spray six 6-oz custard cups with cooking spray.

2. Place 1/3 cup of the sugar in heavy 1-quart saucepan. Heat over medium heat without stirring until sugar is melted and golden brown, swirling pan occasionally to heat evenly. Pour and divide syrup evenly among prepared custard cups. Tilt custard cups to coat bottoms evenly. Let stand 5 minutes.

3. Combine the remaining 1/3 cup sugar, milk, Egg Beaters, vanilla, and orange peel in medium bowl; mix until blended. Pour evenly into custard cups. Line a roasting pan with a folded towel to prevent the cups from sliding, place custard cups in the pan, and using a kettle with very hot water, carefully pour water into the roasting pan to come about 1 inch up the side of the custard cups.

4. Bake 25 minutes, or until knife inserted in center of custard comes out clean. Immediately remove from water. Unmold and serve warm, or refrigerate 4 hours and unmold at serving time.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

March 11: Cocktail Meatballs For A Crowd

I'm throwing a baby shower! Well, sort of. It's my best friend's baby who I'm showering, and I'm throwing it in conjunction with her mother, if my best friend doesn't beat her to death with a heavy object soon. The shower is next month, in Kentucky, and Kimberly has given an executive order for no fuss.

Of course, the first thing I thought about was what to eat at a baby shower. I've never thrown one before. So...what do I serve? Baby carrots? Baby corn? Baby...Baby's breath? No, no, that's not food. Kimberly doesn't eat a lot of meat (although the baby loves him some chili dogs), and there's the no-fuss order.

Here's my experience with parties: nobody will like everything, and bad food is never, you know, good, so I consider my audience. There are some things that almost everybody likes; serve enough of them, do it well, and people will talk about how great the food was. It's the law of large numbers.

Here's my rule when it comes to party food, and it exists because I am the laziest housekeeper on earth, I really am: I like party food that gets eaten completely without leaving some part of itself behind. For example: shrimp. I like shrimp. Everybody likes shrimp, just about, but shrimp have shells and tails to be left behind. Invariably, they slide off of little paper plates or get knocked off an end table, and just like that, you have shrimp shells in your carpet for, like, a week. Really want to serve shrimp at your party? Make a shrimp dip and serve it with slices of baguette. No shells left behind. Chicken wings: incredibly popular, a huge crowd-pleaser. They also leave a mess. Instead, make a buffalo chicken dip: chunks of white-meat chicken in a creamy dip base mixed with wing sauce, with lots of bleu cheese stirred in, served bubbling hot. I've had it on tortilla chips. Sounds a little weird? Go with me on this; I know I've almost never met a dip I didn't like, but this one is something special

Another thing almost everyone likes: meatballs. The great thing about cocktail meatballs is that you can totally buy good-quality frozen ones, because it's all about the sauce. Thaw the meatballs overnight in the fridge, pop them into a hot oven for a few minutes on rimmed baking sheets to heat up, and then toss them with some kind of yummy sauce in your crockpot. They'll stay hot forever and the only thing they leave behind is maybe a toothpick or something. I've also seen the same meatballs simmered in sauce with kielbasa: also delicious.

As for the sauce, you can keep it simple with barbecue sauce--whatever kind you like; I like KC Masterpiece. You can make a sauce with tomato paste, red wine vinegar, mustard, garlic, and Worcestershire sauce, but it seems fussy to me. My favorites are Sweedish meatball sauce, a sort of sour-cream-dill-beef broth concoction which is delicious but occasionally curdles if it stands too long, and this ridiculous thing that I love, despite the fact that it's so low-brow. Here it is, barely a recipe at all. Sandra Lee would be so proud of me. I'm a little embarassed by this thing, but go with me. You'll love me for it.

Cocktail Meatballs for a Crowd

2 1-lb bags of good quality frozen meatballs, thawed overnight in the refrigerator
1 bottle Heinz chili sauce
1 12 oz. jar good-quality apricot preserves
1 8 oz. jar good-quality grape jelly

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Put meatballs on a rimmed baking sheet and warm in the oven until heated through, 15-20 minutes.

While meatballs heat, put preserves, jelly, and chili sauce in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir occasionally, until jelly melts.

Place meatballs in a crockpot set on low, gently pour sauce over. Keep warm; serve.

Monday, March 10, 2008

March 10: Homemade Mayonnaise

There are some pieces of knowledge that are, for foodies, absolutely necessary to have, not because we use them all the time, but because when we do use them, they are so much better than whatever alternative is available that it is, quite simply, totally worth it.

The thing is, those pieces of knowledge aren't exactly static. What's necessary for me isn't necessary for, say, my best friend or my mother. I doubt that my mother has any desire to make her own fresh pasta for fettucine with garlic-cream sauce, and yet, I think that making the best fresh pasta I possibly can make is an invaluable skill. My best friend is a vegetarian, when she's not pregnant with a small person who, apparently, loves meat. I doubt that the ability to roast a chicken with moist, juicy meat and perfectly crisp and crackling skin is going to come in that handy for her, and I really do.

Homemade mayonnaise is well within the reach of anyone with a food processor, and I think that the ability to make it is a really important ability, at least for me. Why? Because it transforms and improves whatever it touches. Chicken salad is fine with Hellman's; chicken salad with homemade basil mayonnaise, chopped celery and red onion, and pine nuts on ciabatta bread is a work of art. Steamed fresh artichokes in spring are delicious, of course, but with homemade anchovy mayonnaise, they are pure luxury.

What dishes are your necessities? I have several, like I've mentioned: fresh pasta, perfectly roasted chicken, a light, fluffy, crispy waffle with cinnamon-honey butter, a brutally-rich and custardy cheesecake. And homemade mayonnaise, of course, which can be made in ten thousand different flavors for an equal number of applications. Try it, really. It's not hard, and it's worth it and it's science and art at the same time, which is something I like quite a bit about food. Here is the basic one; variations are limited only by your imaginations. And that sentence, the first one in this paragraph? Your necessities? I really want to know.

Homemade Mayonnaise

2 Egg yolks
1 Whole egg
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper to taste
1/4 cup fresh lemon juice
2 cups corn or vegetable oil, or best-quality olive oil

Combine the egg yolks, whole egg, mustard, salt, freshly ground pepper, and half of the lemon juice in a food processor. Process for 1 minute.

With the motor running, drizzle in the oil in a slow, steady stream. When you have added all the oil, shut the motor off and scrape down the sides of the bowl with a spatula.

Taste the mayonnaise. Correct the seasoning. If you are using vegetable oil, you will probably need the additional lemon juice. Scrape the mayonnaise into a storage container, cover, and refrigerate until ready to use. The mayonnaise will keep safely, if refrigerated for 5 days. Stir before using.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

March 9: Glazed Blueberry Chicken

What a craptastically cold, wintery, yucky weekend. Kimberly won't shush her sassy mouth about how great a snow day is; it's March and I am frankly over it. It was cold and windy and grey all weekend and we had a lot to do, so instead of curling up on the couch with hot chocolate, we spent the morning trekking back and forth through a wailing, freezing, miserable wind across the parking lot between a Pep Boy's store and Borders Bookstore while waiting for new tires to be put on our car.

I am an Upper-Midwest girl, born and raised an hour from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan. That particular area of the state of Michigan is mostly farmland; most of the farmland is blueberries. My husband's parents moved to that particular area maybe 10 years ago; their home is surrounded on three sides by blueberry farms and on the last side by a small inland lake. It's typical of that area of the state. The best thing about their house is that through most of the second two-thirds of the summer, the unmistakable smell of blueberries is in the air round the clock.

Oh, man. I could really stand a big taste of summer right now, and this dish is just the thing that would do it for me. It comes from The Silver Palate Cookbook, which is, as I've said before, sort of my food bible. As I've mentioned, Julee Rosso, one of the authors, is from (and still lives) in the same area of Michigan that I've just described. I'm guessing that right about now, Ms. Rosso is sniffing the cold, damp, March Michigan air, thick with the smell of snow, and missing the smell of blueberries ripening under a July sun.

Serves 2-4.

Glazed Blueberry Chicken

1/2 cup blueberry vinegar
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 chicken, quartered
Salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/3 cup blueberry chutney or preserves
1 tablespoon chopped fresh Italian parsley, for garnish

Combine the blueberry vinegar and thyme in a large bowl. Add the chicken, turn to coat with the marinade, and marinate for 2 hours, turning occasionally.

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Arrange the chicken pieces, skin side up, in a baking pan, reserving the marinade. Season the chicken lightly with salt and pepper and coat it lightly with the blueberry chutney or preserves.

Bake the chicken on the center rack of the oven until it is cooked through, about 1 hour, basting occasionally with the marinade. Do not baste in the last 15 minutes of baking.

Transfer the chicken to a serving platter. Serve immediately or at room temperature, sprinkled with parsley.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

March 8: Huevos Rancheros with Spicy Ham

Here's a recipe. It's for huevos rancheros. I would tell you more about it, except that I am exhausted and need to crash for the night. I had this dish last year in San Diego, and like almost everything else I ate there, it was delicious. If I weren't on a ridiculous diet, one where I've cut my calories down to almost half of what I was on before I was on a ridiculous diet, I'd go to my kitchen right now and cook this dish, because I am so hungry I could cry. Ironic, isn't it?

Huevos Rancheros with Spicy Ham

3 tablespoons vegetable oil
10 ounces smoked ham, cut into 2-by-1/4-inch strips
4 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
2 medium red onions, thinly sliced
2 Scotch bonnet chiles or jalapeños—halved, seeded and thinly sliced crosswise
1 large green bell pepper, thinly sliced
1 teaspoon sweet paprika
2 medium tomatoes, coarsely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
Eight 6-inch corn tortillas
8 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 475°. In a large skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Add the smoked ham and cook over moderately high heat until browned on the bottom, about 2 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the ham to a plate. Add 1 1/2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil to the skillet along with the garlic, onions, Scotch bonnet chiles and green bell pepper. Cover and cook over moderately low heat, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened, about 12 minutes. Stir in the paprika and cook over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and cook until they release their juices, about 2 minutes. Stir in the ham and season the sofrito with salt and pepper.

Meanwhile, wrap the tortillas in aluminum foil and warm them in the oven. In a large cast-iron skillet, heat 1/2 tablespoon of the vegetable oil. Crack 4 of the eggs into the skillet, season with salt and pepper and fry sunny-side up over moderate heat, until the egg whites are set and the egg yolks are still slightly runny, about 3 minutes. Transfer the eggs, yolk side up, to a plate and keep them warm by tenting them with aluminum foil. Add the remaining 1/2 tablespoon of vegetable oil to the skillet and fry the remaining eggs.

Set 2 tortillas on each plate. Top with the fried eggs, spoon the sofrito on the side and serve.

June 1: Extra-Light, Extra-Crisp Waffles

Waffles are one of my favorite things for breakfast. Crispier than pancakes, lighter than toast, a waffle is a great vehicle for cinnamon-honey butter and a spoonful of sauteed, diced apples. Yum.

A great waffle is a thing of beauty, but it's also pretty rare. America's Test Kitchen has an unorthodox approach to waffles: a basic batter with egg whites whipped and folded in, vegetable oil standing in for butter, swapping cornstarch for some of the flour, and the unorthodox addition of Rice Krispies, which seem to disappear into the batter, magically leaving behind their crispy texture.

I love a mystery ingredient. It does something for the recipe without changing the character of the dish. It's one of the many ways in which food becomes more than the sum of its parts. This is crazy, but honest to God, it works like a charm. I would happily eat these waffles for any meal of the day, including with fried chicken, which is apparently quite a big thing--I'd never heard of it before, but it sounds good to me.

Extra-Light, Extra-Crisp Waffles

1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup Rice Crispies

3/4 cup cornstarch

1/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 large eggs, separated

1 1/2 cups milk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/2 cup vegetable oil

Preheat a waffle iron to medium. Stir the flour, Rice Krispies, cornstarch, sugar, baking powder, baking soda and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk the egg yolks, milk, vanilla, and oil together in a medium bowl.

With an electric mixer or ballon whisk, beat the egg whites in a bowl to soft peaks. Pour the milk mixture overthe dry ingredients and whisk until combined. Whisk in the beaten whites until just combined. Do not overmix; a few streaks of whites should be visible.

Pour 2/3 cup of the batter into the center of the waffle iron and use the back of a dinner spoon to spread thebatter toward the outer edges. Close the lid and cook until deep golden brown, 3 to 4 minutes. Serve immediately. Repeat with additional batter.

Friday, March 7, 2008

March 7: California Barbecued Tri-Tip

The tri-tip roast is sort of part steak, part roast, and it's not always easy to find, but it's worth it. It's a big, sort of U-shaped piece of meat from the sirloin, near the bottom of it. It's actually kind of delicious--lean, a little chewy, with great big flavor, and it's a relative bargain when it comes to beef.

Californians know the value of a tri-tip roast: it's a Santa Maria Valley specialty, barbecued tri-tip, sliced thin and served with barbecue beans and buttered French bread. I don't get out to California a great deal, and so I've only tasted tri-tip barbecue once, but yowza. Talk about big, well-rounded, balanced, classic flavors.

Cook's Illustrated has their Best Of America's Test Kitchen issue out right now, and there's a recipe for California Barbecued Tri-Tip. This particular cut of meat is worth seeking out for this great regional specialty, but if you can't find it, they suggest bottom round steak. Put on your coat and fire up your grill; you can stand in the cold for a few minutes for this bad boy.

This calls for the fairly common practice of using water-soaked wood chips on a charcoal fire for smoky flavor. In this case, the chips go on after the meat sears over the hot side of the fire, to keep it from tasting like an ashtray.

California-Style Barbecued Tri-Tip

1 2-pound tri-tip roast
6 garlic cloves, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 cups wood chips, preferably oak
1 teaspoon pepper
3/4 teaspoon garlic salt

Pat the roast dry with paper towels. Using a fork, prick the raost about 20 times on each side. Combine the garlic, oil, and salt and rub over the roast. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour.

Soak the wood chips in cold water to cover for 15 minutes, drain. Open the bottom grill vents. Light a large chimney filled with charcoal bricquets and allow it to burn until the charcoal is covered in a layer of fine ash. Spread the coals over over half the grill bottom, leaving the other half with no coals. Set the cooking grate in place, cover, open the lid vents and heat 5 minutes, until hot.

Using paper towels, wipe the garlic off the roast. Grill directly over the coals until browned, about 5 minutes per side. Carefully remove the roast and grate from the grill. Scatter the soaked wood chips over the coals. Replace the grate and place the roast on the cooler side of the grill. Cover, positioning the lid vents directly over the meat, and cook until an instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the roast registers about 130 degrees for medium-rare, about 20 minutes. Transfer the meat to a cutting board, tent loosely with foil, and rest for 20 minutes. Slice thinly across the grain. Serve.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

March 6: All Things Pizza

I don't think I know anybody who won't eat pizza. My best friend in high school, who had strange eating habits anyway, ate pizza more creatively than anybody I have ever seen. She would only eat thin crust pepperoni pizza with extra sauce, first of all. She would blot each piece, individually, with enormous amounts of paper towels, so that not a single visable speck of oil remained. Then she would peel off each piece of pepperoni and pile them on the side of her plate. Then she would eat the cheese with her hands, using torn-off pieces of it to scrape up the sauce. Then she would use her fingers to scrape off and eat the sauce. Then she would tear off bites of now totally denuded crust, dip them in more sauce, and eat them. Then she would eat the pepperoni. Watching all this was frustrating beyond all belief to me, for some reason.

When I was 16, I went to Finland, Russia and Estonia for two weeks. In St. Petersburg, a great-looking Russian photographer directed us to a tiny restaurant around the corner from our hotel. After living for a week on brown bread, farmer's cheese, some kind of cream-of-wheat-like porridge, and massive quantities of cabbage--I was too afraid to eat the mystery meat that all the restaurants served--my roommate and I were beside ourself to find a pizzaria, where they served us thin-crust cheese pizza with olives. It's a pizza I've never forgotten, because I ate it in Russia.

Pizza is great, and it's getting even greater for me as I become more proficient at making it at home and more creative when it comes to toppings. The Terrible Diet 2008 continues at Chez Kitchen, however, and pizza is hard to fit in there. To be honest, I feel like a hooker who's taken a pledge of chastity.

Unless. Unless I get really crazy with the toppings. Pizza, if you ask me, isn't meant to be wildly decadent; once upon a time it was good food eaten by poor people who had to stretch their food budget a long way. Italian piadina, for example, was a way to use up odds and ends of bread dough, greens, and meat that were getting close to spoiling.

I've heard of flatbread baked on hot stones, then topped with olive oil, parmesan cheese, arugula, and lightly dressed with vinegar. Sounds wonderful. Every veggie pizza on earth, as long as you don't go too crazy with cheese (a major challenge for me) is relatively healthy.

So, below is my favorite recipe for pizza crust, and below that is a list of my favorite pizza toppings that will probably not cause a stroke. When you bake pizza at home, you know exactly what's in it--you can eliminate what you don't want, leave in what you want more of, and stop paying your bad neighborhood chain whose name rhymes with Pizza Slut to provide you with bad food that is edible but not really enjoyable. This crust is easy, versatile, and great with just about every topping there is. It can be left thickish, rolled out thin, or wrapped around a topping or two for calzone. I've included the notes that America's Test Kitchen made about baking this, and a revision they made on their own recipe.

Please let me know in the comments what you like on your pizza. If you're nice to me, I might invite you over and cook something for you.

Pizza Dough

This dough can be used for any size pizza with thick or thin crust; simply adjust the cooking time to fit the pizza. Make sure you heat the oven to 500 degrees for thirty minutes before you start cooking. Your tiles or stone need at least that long to heat up; if they’re not properly heated, your pizza crust will be thin, blond, and limp. Once the dough for the crust has been topped, use a quick jerking action to slide it off the peel and onto the hot tiles or stone; make sure that the pizza lands far enough back so that its front edge does not hang off. For a cornmeal-flavored dough, substitute three-quarters cup of cornmeal for three-quarters cup of the bread flour. Editor's Note: This recipe was updated in 1997, when we found that adding more water resulted in a tastier pizza. This recipe contains a total of 1 3/4 cups water, while the original that appeared in the magazine in 1995 contains 1 1/2 cups.

1 3/4 cups water, divided, 1/2 cup warm, remaining at tap temperature
2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast (1 envelope)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus extra for brushing dough
4 cups bread flour
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
vegetable oil (or cooking spray) for oiling bowl

1. Measure 1/4 cup of warm water into 2-cup measuring cup. Sprinkle in yeast; let stand until yeast dissolves and swells, about 5 minutes. Add remaining 1/4 cup warm water plus remaining 1 1/4 cups tap water and olive oil. Meanwhile, pulse flour and salt in workbowl of large food processor fitted with steel blade to combine. Add liquid ingredients (holding back a tablespoon or so) to flour and pulse together. If dough does not readily form into ball, stop machine, add remaining liquid, and continue to pulse until ball forms. Process until dough is smooth and satiny, about 30 seconds longer.

2. Turn dough onto lightly floured work surface; knead by hand with a few strokes to form smooth, round ball. Put dough into medium-large, oiled bowl, and cover with damp cloth. Let rise until doubled in size, about 2 hours.

3. Turn dough out onto lightly floured work surface and use chef’s knife or dough scraper to halve, quarter, or cut dough into eighths, depending on number and size of pizzas desired. Form each piece into ball and cover with damp cloth. Working with one piece of dough at a time, shape as desired. Brush dough very lightly with olive oil before topping and cooking.

4. Use the following guide to determine cooking time for pizza crust with topping but without cheese. All pizzas need to be cooked an additional two or three minutes after adding cheese, or until cheese is completely melted.

14-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 2) - 7 to 8 minutes
12-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 4) - 5 minutes
8-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 8)- 3 minutes.

12-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 2) - 9 to 10 minutes
8-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 4) - 5 minutes
6-inch pizzas (Master Recipe makes 8) - 4 minutes

My favorite combinations of toppings and sauces

Spicy garlic oil: Gently warm 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil over medium low heat. Stir in 10-12 cloves pressed garlic, 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper, 1 teaspoon crushed red pepper, 1 teaspoon coarse salt. Simmer over low heat (should not sizzle or brown) for 4-5 minutes. Brush thickly on pizza dough, sprinkle with romano cheese. Refrigerate leftover oil (it's also delicious over pasta or brushed on chicken or pork in the last minute or so of grilling.)

White pizza: Mix 1/2 cup ricotta cheese with a handful of chopped fresh herbs (I like basil, rosemary, and thyme) and 2 cloves of pressed garlic and spread over pizza dough. Sprinkle with mozzerella, provolone, and fontina and bake.

Tomato sauce, Italian sausage & bell peppers, provolone cheese, a pinch of red pepper flakes.

Tomato sauce, proscuitto & capers, Italian fontina.

Olive oil, diced fresh tomatoes, pressed garlic, and small cubes of fresh mozzerella. Sprinkle with fresh basil, torn into small pieces, after baking.

Whole roasted garlic cloves smashed with olive oil and spread over pizza, cubes of sauteed eggplant, zucchini, and sliced mushrooms, fresh mozzerella.

Pesto sauce, quartered artichoke hearts, diced yellow tomatoes, parmesan cheese.

Thinly sliced, very ripe tomatoes, slivered red onions, very thinly sliced cold smoked salmon and capers (the dough can stand to be cooked for a few minutes before you put the toppings down on this pizza.)

Tomato sauce, crisp-fried bacon, onions, black olives, and mushrooms with mozzerella. Put the mozzerella over everything last so that the bacon doesn't burn in the heat of the oven.

Olive oil, spicy hard salami or sopresetta, roasted red peppers, fresh mozzerella.

Tomato sauce, leftover thinly-sliced grilled chicken breast, diced ripe tomatoes, smoked provolone or mozzerella.

Fresh spinach, sliced mushrooms, and slivered garlic sauteed in olive oil, crumbled feta cheese.

Thinly sliced ripe pears and crumbled bleu cheese. Throw a handful of toasted, chopped walnuts over the top before serving.

Olive oil, slivered red onion, fresh thyme, coarse sea salt, a light sprinkling of parmesan cheese.

My parents' favorite: tomato sauce, sliced pepperoni, mushrooms, onions, and sliced green pimento-stuffed olives. Extra shredded mozzerella cheese. Nothing spicy, please; they are old and delicate.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

March 5: Agnolotti with Sausage

I love Italian sausage in almost any application you can find for it. If you'll go back, you'll see my very first recipe of the new year (right after Hoppin' John for New Year's Eve) was a dish with sausage and peppers over penne, one of my very favorite things.

I like sausage on pizza. I like it on pasta. I like it in sandwiches, in calzone, on the grill. I am willing to consider it in almost any context, with the exception of dessert. Last year, we discovered a roadside stand in Maryland's Amish country that sells freshly-made sweet and hot sausages, both in bulk and hand-stuffed in links. It is so much better than anything you'd find in a store. This same place, I should add, is across the road from Charlotte Hall Market, where you can buy a knockoff Gucci purse and a LED lighted belt buckle that you can (but probably shouldn't) program to say different things, like "My Boo" and "Baby Mama." That's on one side of the market; on the other, the Amish sell live animals, homegrown vegetables, and fresh dairy products. Yes, it is a really weird place, but it's the only place you can get an elephant ear in Maryland in January.

I haven't spent a lot of time at Martha Stewart's website, but now that my best friend is contemplating her baby shower, I am all about the Martha. She has an extensive collection of recipes, and this is one of hers. I'm all for new variations on my theme of sausage, and this sounded good to me. As I mentioned yesterday, I'm on a diet, so this dish with sausage, peas, pasta, cream, and oil probably won't happen any time soon, but if I were making it, I would substitute half of the sweet sausages for hot for a good balance, but follow your own preferences.

This serves six.

Agnolotti With Sausage

1/2 cup (about 1 stick) unsalted butter
2 large onion, cut into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 pound sweet Italian sausage,, casings removed
Coarse salt, (to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper, (to taste)
1 (10 ounces) frozen petite peas, not defrosted
2 pounds agnolotti, fresh fettuccine, or 1 1/2 pounds dry pasta such as shells, orecchiette, or rotini

In a medium heavy-bottomed skillet, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add onions. Cook until onions are soft and have lost their moisture. It may be necessary to adjust the heat so that onions do not brown. Reduce heat to medium-low, and continue to cook so that onions brown slowly, stirring frequently, until dark brown but not burned, about 45 minutes total cooking time. It may be necessary to adjust the heat to prevent them from burning.

Heat olive oil in a medium skillet. Crumble sausage into skillet. Cook, stirring occasionally, over medium-high heat until lightly browned. Do not to let the meat dry out. Add cream, and cook, stirring, for 2 minutes. Transfer to a large heat-proof bowl. Break sausage into marble-size pieces, if necessary. Set aside.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Add peas and onions to sausage in bowl. Add agnolotti to boiling water. Place bowl over pot of boiling water to warm through. Cook until al dente, following label directions. Strain pasta, and add to bowl with sausage mixture along with a few tablespoons boiling water. The sauce should not be wet or runny. The agnolotti should be well coated and shiny from the sauce. Transfer to serving dishes, and season with pepper. Serve immediately.