Friday, November 26, 2010

Surprise Snow...and Sun in a Bowl

Well, that's Kentucky for you.

When we left for Thanksgiving dinner yesterday, we found it warmer than the clouds and rain had led us to expect.

When we woke this morning, there was a skiff of snow on the ground.

Weather here is highly variable, to say the least.

But no matter what the weather is doing, I've found a way to have sunny times indoors. In a pasta bowl, to be exact. As so often happens, necessity brought it about.

I have a new system when planning menus for the week. I make a list of the things in the fridge, freezer, and pantry that need using and plan the cooking around that list. It's another example of the freedom I find in limitation. I no longer have to consider All Possible Dishes. My search is narrowed and therefore easier, not to mention more frugal.

This week I had sour cream in need of a purpose. My internet search (how did I ever live or cook without you?) turned up a pasta dish that sounded promising. I'm happy to say that it absolutely delivered on its promise. First, it prevented my sour cream from becoming the science experiment that has to go, saving our money and my distress at such waste. Second, it was delightful.

The night that this lovely Lemon-Sour Cream pasta entered our life, it was rainy, gloomy, cloudy--all the gray weather states. But in our bowls, there was sun. The lemon came through bright and clear, perky even. Eating it today left over, that zing was still there. It's one happy dish.

Another happy fact about this dish is that it's (surely you saw this coming) easy! Basically, you sizzle up some onion and garlic in butter (boy, is that a happy smell!), add the sour cream and a few other ingredients, and toss with hot pasta. I added some smoked turkey for more protein and used cilantro in place of parsley. I skipped the lemon-pepper seasoning called for because, with lemon and pepper already there, why would it be needed? (It wasn't.) I also used what sour cream I had, not the amount specified, because...well, that was the point. But also because the original recipe gave a metric amount that was meaningless to me.

Yes, I was too lazy and/or improvisational to look up a conversion. I went with what I had, and it worked. I've always wanted to be that kind of person. Mwha, ha, ha. Ahem...

We followed the dish with a salad to get those all-important veggies in there, but with the addition of a green vegetable, this could be one of my favorite things--a one bowl meal. I can easily imagine it with diced bacon and frozen peas, or ham and asparagus in the spring.

If nothing else, it gives me a flexible, go-to main dish for that half container of sour cream that I often have left over after garnishing quesadillas or the like. And a happy one at that!

Hey, I'll take extra happy wherever I find it--especially at table.

Lemon-Sour Cream Pasta

Serves 4

8 ounces long pasta (spaghetti, linquine, fettucine, etc.)
1/4 cup onion, minced
2 cloves garlic, minced (more if you really like garlic)
2 tablespoons butter (or less if you have a non-stick skillet)
1 cup (approximately) sour cream
4 tablespoons Parmigiano, grated and divided
2 tablespoons milk
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
Zest of one lemon
2 tablespoons fresh cilantro or parsley, chopped
Salt to taste
Freshly ground pepper

While the pasta water comes to a boil, do all your chopping, grating, etc.

Cook pasta according to package instructions.

While the pasta cooks, melt the butter in a medium skillet. Saute the onion and garlic in the butter until it's tender and maybe a little brown. In here somewhere, the gorgeous aroma will produce the first wave of happy.

Lower the heat and add the sour cream and the remaining ingredients, reserving 2 tablespoons Parmigiano for garnish. Simmer for a minute or so.

Remove from the heat and pour over hot pasta. Add any proteins or veggies you may be using and toss. Garnish with the reserved 2 tablespoons Parmigiano and more freshly ground pepper. Then consume the sunshine no matter what the weather.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Texas Sheet Cake

I'm still not done with last week, because on Saturday there was Texas Sheet Cake for Sunday's church pot luck dinner. It deserves mention, at least in this little life of mine.

When the church secretary said to make plenty of food to provide for the guests invited to our 125th anniversary celebration, the first dessert that came to my mind was Texas Sheet Cake. I've learned to go with my instincts rather than flustering myself with over thinking, so that was that.

Now, I haven't made one of these in years. When I was enthusiastically licking the icing remnants off the spatula I wondered why. Here's what's to love about Texas Sheet Cake.

  • It's big--great if you need to feed a large family or a crowd
  • It's chocolate--my favorite, always and forever, amen. But not so chocolatey and rich that you almost choke before the piece is gone. I've uncharacteristically thought "I could eat another one" after every piece. But I haven't.
  • The icing--a light fudgey layer. Since it goes hot onto the hot cake, there's a gorgeous thin melty line that makes me melt, too. And no waiting for the cake to cool before icing it means that dessert is done in one pass. Perfect for the Lazy Chef.
  • It's easy--no fussy creaming step that must be gotten just right or the cake won't work.
  • It uses all pantry and fridge staples--no extra ingredients to buy. I could make one anytime. If I had some help to eat it, that is. Ah, but there's the freezer, where part of our leavings rest now. We'll see how that works. *(UPDATE: It works beautifully.)
  • It's as easy to eat as it is to make--no fork required when baked in a 12 x 18 half sheet pan. Then again, you could bake it in a 9 x 13 pan and have honest to goodness cake. I love versatility.
My husband is mystified as to why I'm loving this cake so much. Frankly, I don't have a ready answer. It just works for me right now. Maybe tomorrow I'll be in love with butterscotch pie all over again, since that's what I'm making right now for tomorrow's Thanksgiving feast. This could be another good food week at the barn.

By the way, the recipe I chose to follow was in one of my Cooking Light yearbooks, but there was no appreciable difference between their version and those not claiming to be lightened. (Texas Sheet Cake must be practically healthy!) The only variable I could find was a little less butter in the icing. Believe me when I say that you will not miss it. I did depart from their instructions when adding the pecans. I studded the top with them instead of folding them into the icing, just because I thought it would be prettier. And I used a bigger pan than they called for. I also skipped the cinnamon because I wanted just chocolatey goodness this time. and reduced the vanilla in the icing because I just didn't see the need for more than a teaspoon. It wasn't missed either.

Well, apparently I've made enough changes that I'd better just record my version here for you. If you need something big and chocolicious, and if you keep nothing more unusual than buttermilk in your larder, make yourself a Texas Sheet Cake and call in the neighbors. Or just pull down the shades, and no one will know.

Texas Sheet Cake

Serves: 12 to 20 (Depends on how you cut it, now doesn't it!)

Cooking spray
2 teaspoons all-purpose flour
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup butter
1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
1/2 cup low-fat buttermilk

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 large eggs

6 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup milk

1/4 cup unsweetened cocoa
3 cups powdered sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 cups pecans, toasted

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

To prepare cake, coat a 12 x 18 half sheet pan with cooking spray and dust with the 2 teaspoons flour. You could also use a 10 x 15 jelly roll pan or a 9 x 13 pan, but cooking times will have to be adjusted up.

Combine the 2 cups flour and the next four ingredients in a large bowl, preferably of your KitchenAid stand mixer, if you are so blessed. Stir well with a whisk or let the mixer go for a bit.

Combine water, 1/2 cup butter, and 1/4 cup cocoa in a small saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring frequently. OR use my cheater method: combine them in a microwave safe glass measuring cup and heat on high until boiling, about 3 1/2 minutes. Whisk briskly and pour into the flour mixture. Beat with a mixer (of some kind) at medium speed until well blended. Add buttermilk and eggs. Beat well. Pour the batter into your prepared pan.

Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 minutes, or longer if you're using a smaller pan and therefore have thicker batter. Whatever the pan size, when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean, it's done.
To make the icing, combine the 6 tablespoons butter, milk, and the other 1/4 cup cocoa in a medium saucepan. No vessel cheating possible here. This is old fashioned goodness that requires the stove. Bring the mixture to a boil, stirring constantly. Remove from the heat.

Gradually stir in the powdered sugar and vanilla. Stir in the pecans at this point if you want them enrobed with icing. Spread over the hot cake. You'll need to work with moderate speed, since it sets up fairly quickly. Scatter the pecans now if you're top dressing. You may need to press on them ever-so-lightly to embed them in the icing that is quickly becoming fudge's cousin. Cool completely on a rack.

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Dinner with Dilemma

Even though it's this week, I'm still dwelling in last week because it was so good. Two nights of just-the-two-of-us beautiful on Tuesday and Thursday were followed by the latest dinner party on Friday. (I love being able to say that last part. Sigh.) This time the menu was Vietnamese because the birthday boy among the invitees was in the mood for pho.

After a little research, the menu looked something like this:

Ga Thit Vien
Pho Bo
Che Chuoi
Coffee, Vietnamese style

Translated, that means:
Chicken Meatballs
Beef Noodle Bowl
Coconut Tapioca Soup
Coffee, Vietnamese style

The meatball recipe I found on the Food and Wine website, and the coconut tapioca soup version that I used came from Cooking Light. I located reliable instructions for the pho (pronounced phu, in case you didn't know yet) at Steamy Kitchen, complete with photos and puns. Birthday boy was in charge of the coffee because he actually owns the tiny little drip makers required to do it up right. (I'm all for investing in fun new food supplies, but since I don't drink coffee, that was one investment that I didn't intend to make.)

Let's dispense with the results. The chicken meatballs were well received, perhaps because they were somewhat familiar. They had the usual Asian party of flavors going on in one dish and each bite. Cilantro, mint, lemongrass, shallot, fish sauce--and more--were all mixing it up merrily in each little bundle of protein. The sriracha sauce was the fireworks, adding both color and heat.

The coconut tapioca soup (actually somewhere between soup and pudding) went over well, too. My husband did liken the tapioca pearls to fish eyes, but the flavor was acceptable to everyone. Well, everyone except my recovering-picky-britches son, who did bravely taste before donating his serving to one of our reliably adventurous eaters. We all agreed that the diced fresh pineapple I added to the traditional banana and toasted sesame seed topping was welcome.

Now let's back up to the middle, the main dish, the source of a mini-rant to come. Prepare yourselves.

I was all set to do pho the old fashioned way. The dish is basically a self assembled bowl of noodles, beef, and condiments bathed in a good, spiced beef stock, which I was prepared, nay delighted, to make. I've never made beef stock at home. In fact, I don't remember making it at school even. I wanted to make beef stock, straight from the bones and all.

And therein lay my last-minute problem--bones. I failed to imagine that it would be impossible in my area to find bones for stock, but it was. I called my usual grocery store's meat department and was told that most everything comes in prepacked. They had no bones. Nor would any other grocery store in the area, the nice man on the phone assured me. Then I called the slaughter house where the father-in-law has his beef processed. The lady on the phone there said that all bones went into the "bone barrel," whatever that is. They could sell me no bones. A retail meat company in the nearest small city over an hour away offered stock bones, but I had no opportunity left to make the trip to purchase them. Obviously I wouldn't be making my own stock after all.

I should have known. Somewhere in all this digging up bones effort (Sorry. Couldn't resist!), I remembered what I'd read about meat processing regulations in this country. I can't recall all the details, but I do remember that they don't make much sense. Regulations that were conceived to protect the consumer have now become so burdensome to would-be meat retailers that what the consumer is now almost protected from is buying beef or bones from anyone but an outfit large enough to navigate the complex rules and permit procedures to both process and sell it, i.e, agri-business and corporate giants.

Are you ready for the big, irritating irony that struck me while I was on the phone with the local meat processor? I live in a county full of beef farmers (one of them my own father-in-law) and two slaughter houses (one of them less than a mile away), but I can't buy five pounds of knuckle and leg bones to make stock! There's something wrong and illogical about that situation.

But that, my friends, is the mainstream food supply status quo in our country. Production and consumption are effectively divorced for most of us. If I go to the grocery store here in my town, the beef sold there probably came from who-knows-where, even though beef cattle dot almost every pasture you see right here. The local orchard languishes unattended while we buy apples from Washington state or even another country.

I'm not going to carry on all day, and I don't pretend to have all the answers to the food problems. What I will do is admit my own culpability. While brave souls all over the country are trying to reconnect producers and consumers via farmers markets, Consumer Supported Agriculture programs, and other local market endeavors, I'm still conveniently popping into the chain grocery store every week. This bone business has reminded me that I'm still part of the problem, not part of the solution.

I know of a farm in the county in which I work and do the bulk of my shopping that produces humanely and sustainably raised pork, chicken, and eggs, but I don't go out of my way to go there. There's a farmers market program, but I don't show up. Even with all the disturbing information I've encountered about food production in America, I have not yet reached my "That's it!" point. Clearly, I've got to change if I want anyone or anything else to do so.

Luckily, the purchased beef broth I was forced to use for my pho tasted quite good once it was doctored with charred onion and ginger and a vigorous spice sachet. The birthday boy--the only one who had eaten pho before--pronounced it satisfactory. But I would still have rather made my own. If that's ever going to happen, I'll have to travel to the city regularly (irony again) or become part of the local food rebels who are looking for safe, reasonable, homegrown solutions.

Which one is it going to be?

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Beautiful Redux

Here we go again.
In the best way.

It's been a good food week here at the barn. As if the beautiful experience of Tuesday evening wasn't enough, we did it all over again on Thursday. The sky was quiet this time, but dinner was again a treat. Not because it was anything grandiose, but because the preparation and consumption of our evening repast was viewed as a sensual treat rather than a necessary chore.

Every dinner has been better, actually, since my smart husband began tapping into the power of music.
We drag home hungry and tired like we always have, but when he turns on his Michael Buble or Diana Krall channel on Pandora, I feel instantly happier. The atmosphere is transformed from stressed to swank, and cooking feels like pampering, not drudgery. I highly recommend this technique. Bring the restaurant ambiance to your house soon. Dinner will never be the same. Light candles, even, when dinner time is dark (another winter tradition I've come to love). Making memories on an ordinary day makes ordinary days memorable.

But before all that, Thursday's culinary inspiration was, of all things, cabbage. I had a head that needed using, which meant that the next logical thought was sausage. Polska kielbasa to be exact. I sliced up a pound of it, browned the slices, softened some onion, deglazed the pan with chicken stock and a plop of Dijon mustard, threw in chopped cabbage and a little salt and pepper, and clapped a lid on it for about 20 minutes or so.

My recipe-free concoction (Thank you, school!) was just what I wanted. Deeply savory, well seasoned, and very satisfying--especially with crusty bread to sop in the plentiful juices. Sopping may not be glamorous, but it's a time honored practice for a reason. It tastes good, yes, but it's also a mite good-to-the-last-drop lusty. It smacks of really enjoying every bit of what's in front of you. We've been blessed to feel just that way multiple times this week. No wonder I'm writing this all down!

Another virtue of this relatively painless meal is that the bulk of it is made up of a vegetable, and an inexpensive one at that. In fact, I could probably have gotten away with using only half the sausage to stretch the meat dollar and cut down on fat and calories, but I was feeling expansive. Even with carnivorous generosity, there were easily two servings or more of cooked cabbage in my blate...or plowl..or whatever. (There needs to be a better term for those broad shallow food containers usually labeled "pasta bowls" because they elevate so many more one-pot dishes than pasta into Dinner with a capital D.)

I even felt inspired (again I say, again!) to concoct a quick fruit dessert. Maybe the presence of vanilla ice cream compelled me. Whatever the reason, I suddenly had to try poaching diced Granny Smith apple and raisins in half a bottle of hard cider that had been a disappointment as a beverage but that I hoped would be redeemed as a poaching medium. (The other half became our aperitif, with cheese and crackers, during the cabbage tenderizing time!) I tossed in a multi-finger pinch of sugar, a cinnamon stick, a couple of cloves, and a strip of lemon zest, and left it to simmer while we ate. By the time we were ready for dessert, the apple was tender, the raisins were plumped, and the cider had reduced to a golden syrup. My wicked improvisation had worked. And since I had more fruit than ice cream, I still felt virtuous.

Mostly I savored the life-is-good feeling of being relaxed, safe at home, puttering about the kitchen, feeding our whole selves well with music and soft light, in addition to the food. As usual, I've decided that the difference is attitude and the choices we made because of it. I've hit the door hungry and tired before, but choosing to make the experience of getting food on the table as pleasurable as possible made it the self care we needed at the end of the work day, an island of sensory restoration rather than a dull chore.

When you, dear reader, are faced with the dilemma of how to handle that time of the day when hunger could drive you to go quick and dirty, remember that real food, however humble, will leave you with an after glow that take out pizza or a fast food fix will not. You don't have to be a chef. Nibble on come crackers to appease the hunger demon. Then scramble some eggs and toast some bread. Or boil up some pasta and toss it hot with cheese, a few veggies, and a bit of protein. The food doesn't have to be fancy, just the feeling. Music, wine, and candlelight will supply that, and your body and mind will thank you for simple, loving food.

Just in case you don't feel improvisational (I certainly didn't for years), here are directions for my quick cabbage and sausage braise. Try it some night when you don't want to think. And don't forget the music!

Braised Cabbage and Sausage

Serves 4

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 to 1 pound polska kielbasa (depending upon how carnivorous you're feeling)
1/2 onion, chopped
1 14-oz can chicken broth
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 medium head cabbage, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large skillet, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the sliced sausages and cook, stirring occasionally, until they are browned. Add the onion and cook until they are soft and translucent. Add the chicken broth and mustard to the skillet, scraping up any brown bits on the bottom. Add the cabbage, reduce the heat a bit, and cook covered until the cabbage is tender, 20-30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

It's a Beautiful Life

All day it rained, the drizzly kind that makes a body feel cold even if the temperature isn't. I never took my scarf off, even in the office. But somewhere during my trek through WalMart to fill a charity Thanksgiving basket, the sun appeared in a dramatic fashion.

On the way home, the newly resurgent sun and equally resistant clouds treated us to a half hour light and shadow show that made us feel glad to be alive and see it. Entire landscapes appeared in the sky, sculpted of battling clouds and light. At one moment, it seemed that a circular portal had opened in the churning gray, like those in the movies right before the aliens appear or time is traveled.

The sudden shift in the weather, complete with sky show, made this evening feel special.
It suddenly seemed appropriate to be abandoned. We detoured to buy ice cream that I had deemed over priced just a day or two ago. Once home, the regular comfy clothes wouldn't do. I swaddled myself in a long, soft, cowl neck sweater. Dave donned his dad's old high school sweater over his turtleneck. Oh, yes. Different was the order of the night.

The brief clearing had ended by the time our dinner was ready. The wind had kicked up in the way that makes you check online for tornado or severe storm warnings. Finding nothing worse than a wind advisory, we ate our comforting pasta carbonara and romaine-parmesan salad and vanilla ice cream with sauteed apples while it howled and scooted the deck furniture, feeling cozy and blessed. I didn't do the dishes, nor even want to hear the dishwasher run. There's always tomorrow, when I'm home during the day. Tonight is different indeed.

But oh so good. We have simple delicious food and shelter and candlelight while rain blows. We are mellowed by good wine and the joy of living, while outside it's cold and damp. Tony Bennett is singing. The only lights are a hand thrown oil candle and a lantern.
I'm even co-existing peacefully with David's pipe indoors. There doesn't seem anything more important to do but Be. Here and now.

If the storm to end all my time came tonight, this evening would be a good way to leave life, going out with good food, love, and a belly full of happiness.

Blow, baby, blow. I'm as free as your wild wind for a few moments.

That, and I have a basement.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

One Degree of Separation

That is no ordinary hand blender. Just you wait.
Well, wait while you're reading.

Today, My Beloved and I ran away (again) to one of our favorite places--Augusta, Kentucky. The ostensible mission was to purchase another pair of alpaca socks for my ridiculously cold feet before winter hits (which sure wasn't today, as it got up to about 70 degrees), but the emotional mission was to decompress from a stressful week (Him) with a date (Her).

We arrived before the stores were open, so we sat by the river, watching the barges lumbering past and the ferry crossing back and forth as they've been doing for generations. The warming sun was at our backs. In front of us, the Ohio river stretched far in both directions, without bends or walls to block the vista. Above us, the wispy clouds and plane contrails formed a star burst pattern seemingly centered on our bench. A single dried leaf bobbed along in the current as a wading bird flew by trailing gangly legs. Two small planes buzzed overhead, one of them vintage. They seemed the same size as the buzzards surfing the thermals. I reflected on the vastness of the sky whose great possible distances create such a two-dimensional effect.

And then we cursed ourselves for NOT BRINGING THE CAMERA. Oh, well.

At noon (store opening time in this small town) we headed to the charming two-block commercial center for our shopping. The alpaca sock store was indeed still there, staffed by the friendly and helpful owner. We procured my toe circulation insurance, bay rum shaving soap for Dave, and some chocolates made by a local woman who was our lunch waitress on a previous visit. (I love small towns!) I was happy that my feet would be warm without scratchiness, Dave was thrilled to satisfy his craving for a classic bay rum shaving supply of some kind, and we both were glad to have chocolates for the pantry. (We CANNOT run out of chocolate. There might be rioting--by me.)

That friendly and helpful owner suggested that we go up the street to Nina's, a store owned by George Clooney's mother. Augusta is his home town, in case the world doesn't know by now. They are really proud of him. And his aunt Rosemary. And his father Nick. And apparently of his mother, too. She also said that George was in town, there could be a George sighting, he's really nice, comes home more than you think, etc. We're not celebrity hounds, so we just made polite replies.

But after a lunch at Cafe Bravo that included both the biggest pork barbecue sandwich (it required a knife and fork--no way to pick it up) and the first food-bumming stray cats I've ever seen, we did make our way up to Nina's eponymous store, where, among the interesting collection of art prints and antiques, I saw a Braun hand blender for $29.00. This item got my serious consideration because I've wished for one on at least two recent occasions. It's a much easier tool for pureeing soups than the food processor or blender, with less possibility of hot liquid ending up on the ceiling or the cook and less to clean. I'm not keen on a plethora of kitchen appliances and gadgets, but this one my life says I need.

Actually, I have one that David gave me for Christmas a few years ago, a fancy Breville from Williams-Sonoma that has never worked properly. (Sorry, Mr Williams, it's true.) I've wanted to replace it for a while, but it hasn't quite made the priority list. Thus my consideration of the Braun, which I thought was a good brand and a good price. I hesitated because I wasn't sure
if it really was a good one. (I hadn't done my RESEARCH, people!) What if it was used, and badly at that? What if there was something wrong with it? I can talk myself out of buying things like nobody's business sometimes.

Luckily an employee inquired if we needed any assistance. When I told her of my doubts about the item, the employee said that she would ask Nina, because it was hers. Nina avowed that it had never been used and was a good one, so I bought it.

Being caught up in my usual dithering over my purchase, I had missed the momentous fact that David announced on the way to the car.

"You just bought George Clooney's mother's hand blender."

(I pause here to pray. Please may that not be my only claim to culinary fame. Amen. )

We laughed at the absurdity of it, stowed the kitchen tool brushed by fame, and went on our merry way, popping into the local art guild exhibit, where we saw Nina yet again, and adding an Eiffel tower and a purple bottle from another shop to collections of mine. (I don't always talk myself out of buying things. Not at all. That's why I stay home when there's no money!) We even discovered a renewed winery on the way home that is actually the oldest winery in its original location in the country, at which we purchased local wine for our "cellar" after ogling their spectacular 160-year-old, 30-feet-high, barrel vaulted cellar. It was the cap to a day of treats.

I truly hope that my brush with once removed fame will not be the most remembered moment of our day. I'd rather revel in the more enduring pleasures of the river and the togetherness. Besides, not being a celebrity star gazer, I can't say that I'm particularly impressed by my ownership of a kitchen appliance that once graced a famous person's mama's house. It's just...amusing. You could say that there's now only one degree of separation between me and George Clooney.

That and five bucks might buy me a truffle or something.

Now I'm off to do too-late research and find out if I got a good deal after all. Then again, if it works at all, it will be better than what I have, regardless of who owned it before. It's all about the bargain, baby! (Sorry, George.)

Friday, November 12, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #8

A stack of books waiting for me.

I always feel so bereft when I don't have a book or few waiting.
Life is so much better when I know that I do.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Fry Me to the Moon

I'm not normally a fried dinner kind of woman. But every once in a while, like the Day of the Doughnut, I go all out with the grease. Tonight was one of those nights.

It all started last Sunday, when my otherwise sane husband had the sudden, random craving for....I shudder to say it...Long John Silver's, that castle of cholesterol whose food leaves me mysteriously and intensely THIRSTY a few hours later, for what reason I don't KNOW. They must pack in EXTRA sodium or something! I... A moment while I compose myself, please.

There that's better.

Basically, his attack boiled down to a craving for fried fish. After I assured him that I could take care of that need for him in the coming week's menu, the LJS mania passed. Which was a good thing, since the a twenty minute drive away. Really, was it worth all that?

Not any more, it's not. Tonight I not only fried fish for him and my equally grateful son, but french fries, too, using the cold oil method that I've read about twice, once in Cook's Illustrated and then on a blog called Going Country. My husband declared that both beat LJS (sorry guys) to speak. (I promise that pun just slipped right out.)

Thus, I am here tonight to officially join what must surely be the long line, somewhere in cyber space, of fans of this potato frying method. I hear that it solves the hot oil problem of overcooking the starchy insides of the potato in order to cook the outsides to a lovely goldenness. (Spell check keeps indicating that goldenness isn't a word, but I don't care. It ought to be, don't you think?) Since I've never actually made French fries at home, I didn't know until I read the Cook's Illustrated article that such a problem existed. I don't remember noticing it when buying fries at restaurants, perhaps because the food service industry has solved the problem by double frying (learned that at school) or by some laboratory method I probably don't want to know about. But then again, I haven't ordered fries in so many years that I probably just don't remember.

Regardless, I loved these fries and ate them greedily. No sogginess from laying under the heat lamp here. (It's all coming back to me now.) These babies emerged with an ethereally light crustiness and that appetite stimulating golden color. They were perfect. And with little effort.

That's the real beauty part. Other than cutting up the potatoes, there's no work to it other than watching carefully during the last few minutes for that perfect color to arrive. Just put the cut potatoes into a deep pot, cover them with cold oil, turn the heat to medium, and forget about them for 25 minutes, except for gently stirring them occasionally to prevent sticking and encourage even cooking. When the 25 minutes are up, you turn the heat to high for 5 to 10 minutes for the big finish. Goldenness! Fish them out onto a paper towel lined tray, salt them, and run to the table to eat. We did.

It's ridiculous how exciting our Fried Meal Extravaganza was to us. Dave was moved to take pictures of the sizzle action. We stood over the pot as if we were expecting a magical happening. And we were in such a rush to eat them while they were at their amazing best that we (well, really Dave, because he thinks more like a blogger than I do) forgot to take a picture of the finished fries. And they were on my Austrian ironstone, too. Darn! Sorry about that. We couldn't help ourselves. Even I, the healthy-food snob, could not deny the brief but powerful allure of the fried potato.

Oh, and there was fish and zucchini slaw, too. Whatever. The supporting actress stole the show.

The tell tale plates.

Like the doughnut fry, this is a rare event at my house. Although the thrill of beautifully fried food is very real, it quickly becomes too much for me if indulged in with any sort of frequency, so I don't have plans to repeat this orgiastic feast anytime soon. But when it's blow out time, I'll definitely use the cold oil method. Thanks Cook's Illustrated and Kristin at Going Country.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Go Big Orange

Life is full of surprises. That fact is one good reason to stick around. You never know what wonderful new thing might be coming.

Like the color orange, for instance. Suddenly, I love it. And that love is a zingy new surprise.

I'll back up a bit with two biographical facts about me.
1) I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, home of the (Big Orange) Volunteers.
2) I'm about as pale as a person can be without being an albino.

These circumstances mean that I've seen enough of the color orange for a small lifetime and
that it doesn't look good on me anyway. The closest to orange I've ever worn is bright coral, which is more ethereal than warm or earthy. Earthy and I don't get along. I'm partial to and enhanced by icy cool or jewel tone colors, not shades of earth and plant and sun. Yellow, orange, green, and brown (all the hues my husband looks best in) have never appealed to me.

The came this fall. The first change I noticed was how much I was enjoying the orange-leafed trees when color time came along.
I chalked that phenomenon up to the droughty last few months, which reduced our usual riot to mostly russets and browns. Orange was about the only real color we had. I thought I was enjoying it because it was all there was.

Then, while antiquing, we saw a deep orange afghan draped on a vintage green porch swing. The color combination was quite striking, so striking in fact that I couldn't get it out of my mind for weeks. I even returned to the store to buy it later, but didn't see it.

Then, I went clothes shopping and found myself visually excited by a vivid orange satin top with a bold paisley print on it. It was a little big, but at $6.00, I bought it anyway just for the thrill. It's sumptuous texture and color excited my senses. I went with it.

They'll know I'm in the room!

Which led me back to the antique store shortly thereafter. I inquired about the afghan this time. The owner told me that it was hers, used for decoration only, but that if I wanted it, I could have it for $10.00. Sold, sister. I carried it home in my arms with more excitement and spread it across the back of our blue-and-cream sofa.

Every day, I enjoy the burst of color it makes. The salvage barn wood walls can be dark for an air-sign ice princess who normally paints every wall white. The gorgeous punch of my new treasure relieves the brown woodsiness, punches it in fact. I love the contrast with the navy throw pillows and the green side table.

It's just a blanket, one that will probably be out only for the fall season, but it enlivens my life and gives me pleasure each time I see it. And surprises me. I was very sure that I didn't like orange to wear or live with at all. Now, suddenly, I do. If a whole new portion of the rainbow can open up to me in my 43rd year, what other delightful, zippy surprises await? An undiscovered talent? Latent confidence? Surprising strengths?

Oooh, I can't wait to see!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Random Reason to Rejoice #7

This perfect little gift.

A new friend recently gave me this adorable, precious, dainty (can you tell I love it?) little tea cup. It's numbered Royal Copenhagen, delicate, beautiful, just right for my brief first-thing-in-the morning tea ritual.

While I had been rushing to finish a larger cup or pouring out unconsumed tea, neither of which is a soothing way to start the day, now I sip peacefully, enjoying the graciousness of the bright blue flowers, the leaf hidden under the cup until I lift it, and that gentle clink that fine china makes when I set the cup back down. Now I can truly relax into my day-making ritual because I have a cup that's just the right size for the moment.

Thanks, new friend.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010


A while back, during a house sitting gig, I was left alone with the homeowner's batch of homemade granola and instructions to eat whatever food was there. I took her at her word and enjoyed her granola often. It took me back to the meusli I loved during one of my college era trips to Europe. It also made me want to make some myself.

Once we had settled back into our own home again, I began the search for a recipe (I do love the research stage. It's part of my nerdiness. If only I had smarty-pants specs. Hey, I'm over 40 now, so any time...any time.) and quickly discovered that granola isn't necessarily health food. Some of the recipes called for butter or what seemed to me to be excessive amounts of oil and sweeteners. Not exactly the light and nourishing breakfast I had in mind. Ruling those out, I chose a recipe and made the first test batch, which was underwhelming. I could have eaten it, although without being thrilled, but the husband was adamant that it wasn't sweet enough. (Again, I ask: am I the only one in America who likes the taste of grains almost as is?) I did admit that, however palatable to me,
the toasted raw oats flavor, much like that of the Swiss meusli I had in my youth, wasn't quite my ideal either. Besides, I believe in the win-win solution. I wanted both of us to be satisfied.

So I cut to the chase, so to speak. I went straight to a granola recipe that Molly at Orangette had praised. When in doubt consult those whose taste you admire, those who consistently choose good things. She did not steer me wrong.

Batch number two wowed us. It was crunchy and golden and gently spiced. The little bit of ground ginger makes it, in my opinion. More importantly for me, it was also filling, meaning that I didn't require a mid-morning snack to stay fully functional when breakfasting on this version. Since Molly credited the original recipe to Nigella Lawson, I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised. I don't watch TV, so I haven't seen her in action, but I've seen pictures and heard mention of her sensuous slurping of pasta or some such food. Surely that lovely lady is not a woman who skimps at anything, let alone something important like breakfast. This granola is almost at voluptuous as she is.

I'm still making my own version and still enjoying it with my other new love, plain whole milk Greek yogurt. The recipe even made it to a card in my Most Used Recipes basket. But here was my big question about homemade granola, however delightful: is it cheaper to make your own?

I finally did the tedious math and came up with some kind of reasonable estimate of what it cost to make my last batch, for which I noted the cost of the ingredients while shopping. My best calculation turns out to be about $8.00 to make approximately two pounds of the current incarnation, meaning about $4.00 per pound. That price isn't drastically lower than what I've paid for some commercial brands I've bought on sale, but I'm pretty sure that my homemade batch contains more nuts (the most expensive ingredients) than they did. I also enjoy the satisfaction of doing it myself and knowing exactly what's in it. I hope that it contains less sugar than commercial brands (please check the numbers--they can be scary), but I don't have any way to estimate that. I just continue to tinker with the recipe, looking for the balance point at which my sweetness-loving husband is still satisfied with the flavor, and I'm satisfied that only the truly necessary sweetening is being used.

Here's where I disclose how I've changed the recipe. After several batches I eliminated the sesame seeds because 1) they tended to end up lodged in my teeth, 2) they settled to the bottom of the container so that the last serving was very sesame heavy, and 3) they were harder to find here at a good bulk price. I substituted local sorghum or molasses for the brown rice syrup, which isn't available here either. I also took liberties with the applesauce measurements. Molly had mentioned that she bought hers in the single serving cups, since the jars seemed to go fuzzy before she could use them up. That seemed like a good tip, so I bought mine in the same form. Then I got lazy (my next blog will be called The Lazy Chef) and didn't measure the volume of the cups. I just dumped one in. Later I discovered that the cup didn't contain the 3/4 cup that was called for in the original recipe, but two of the cups would have been too much and the granola was delicious as I had been doing it, so I continued my lazy ways, using just one cup. Except for the day that I had homemade, sweetened pear sauce that could be easily measured. That day, I used the 3/4 cup sauce and skipped the brown sugar--and yes it was still fabulous.

Here's what I'm finally able to love about food--making it my own and letting it evolve. I've always been very good at following directions (Note to self: another post lies there) and very scared to deviate from them. Not any more. Thank God almighty, I'm free at last. I'll do it differently every time if I need or want to, depending on the season, the mood, or the contents of the larder. And so should you! Just start somewhere and go.

In case you want to start your granola explorations with my humble version (of the week), here it is.

Makes about 9 cups or 2 pounds

5 cups rolled oats
1 cup whole natural almonds
1 cup pecan pieces or any combination of nuts you like
3/4 cup raw sunflower seeds
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger (Important!)
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup unsweetened applesauce (or 1 single serving cup if you're lazy)
1/3 cup molasses or sorghum or brown rice syrup or maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
2 tablespoons canola oil
Dried fruit (optional)

This is so easy. Preheat the oven to 300 degrees.

Mix all the dry ingredients together in a large bowl.

Mix all the wet ingredients together. Pour over the dry ingredients and combine well.

Pour the mixture out onto two large rimmed baking sheets, dividing evenly of course.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes or until the oats are light golden brown, stirring every 10 minutes and changing the rack position of the pans halfway through or so and enjoying the lovely gingery scent the whole time.

Let it cool, add fruit if using, and store in an airtight container for...well, I don't remember how long it will last because it's always gone long before it would expire. I think it's two weeks. The granola also stores very well in the freezer if you need to keep it around longer. (Thanks to Deb at Smitten Kitchen for that handy piece of information.)