Saturday, February 26, 2011

Ranch Dressing Gets Real

I think I feel a new series brewing.  I think I'll call it "Yes, You Can!"  Or maybe "Never Buy It Again!"  And, yes exclamation points are needed, because this series will feature recipes or techniques for food items that need never be purchased again.  Today's topic just may be the first in this imagined series: ranch dressing.

Until very recently, ranch dressing was one of the frew processed foods that I bought, even though reading the ingredient list too soon before bed would probably have induced nightmares.  I did try a couple of recipes for homemade years ago, but they involved chopping onion and garlic, or called for fresh herbs that I didn't stock.  I wouldn't mind the chopping now that I'm a little more experienced and have a wonderful, lifetime knife that I can't believe I didn't rave to you about (Thanks, Santa baby!), but fresh herbs are still expensive and not fridge stable for very long. And boy do they, as well as the garlic and onion, get funky sitting around too long in cold storage.

Let's face it.  Ranch dressing in its original incarnation is dairy based and pungent.  Leaving it in the fridge for long with the expectation of dewy freshness is a little misguided. It does not happen in the natural world.  Thus the list of preservatives, emulsifiers, etc. on the label of even the best brands.  And don't forget MSG.  Obviously, this dressing was not meant to be bottled and stored in the pantry.

But it was the one dressing that my picky britches son would eat, and having it around meant that he would eat salad.  I made my compromise and lived with it, still nagged at by the chemical names I avoided reading.

I have now solved this problem and need never buy ranch dressing again.  I did a survey (research nerd award) of scads of ranch dressing recipes, boiled it down to the basic ingredients common to most of them, and created my own version that works for us.  Meaning that Mr. Picky Britches eats it without announcing that it isn't as good as store bought, and we like it, too.

Since I have not tested them side by side and have no plans to do so, I can't swear that it tastes just like Hidden Valley, but the recipe I eventually worked from claimed that it would.  The dressing I've concocted pleases us in a ranch-like way.  That's all I need to know.  Besides, it's pretty sad when a freshly made dressing is held to the standard of an unnatural brew filled with chemicals that's been sitting in a plastic bottle for months. 

I don't have a standardized recipe for my ranch dressing.  I have a general formula that I'll share with you so that A) you can suit your own taste and B) you never have to buy it again.  It will be better for your body and maybe your wallet, too.

I solved the funkification problem by using onion and garlic powders, and dried dill, which seems to be the key to ranchiness, instead of fresh.  Using the dried flavorings lets you keep the dressing around almost as long as your wet ingredients are dated to be good.  Not that I'm a food scientist.  Use your good sense, please.  I've kept it for about a week.  And it's so easy to make that I don't mind whipping up another batch when it's gone. 

Since Mr. Picky Britches is a car-driving, sports-playing teenager and isn't always around to eat his share now,  I've found other uses for the tangy stuff, one of which I will soon be sharing.  Here's a hint: it involves the world's best cornbread!  Plus, with flavoring modifications, many other kinds of creamy dressing can be invented.  Blue cheese, anyone?

I'll admit that my dressing is still somewhat a compromise.  It uses store bought mayonnaise (making my own is another culinary goal for me) which doesn't have a squeaky clean ingredient list either.  But it's still an improvement--the creamy dressing I want, made easily with ingredients I ususally have on hand.  That'll do for now.  

Ranchy Enough Dressing

Makes: as much as you need

Onion powder
Garlic powder
Dried dill

Yes, there are no measurements.  Don't panic.  Plop some mayonnaise in a small bowl, as much as you think you might need.  If you don't need much, one spoonful (the big one from your flatware set) will do.  If you have a horde to feed or other projects in mind (suggestions forthcoming), then two to three heaping spoonfuls or more.  You could also use part sour cream or yogurt if you wish. Whisk in enough buttermilk to reach a consistency you like.  Add some of each of the remaining ingredients and taste.  Adjust the seasonings as necessary to make it taste the way you want.  You could even add a pinch of sugar or dash of vinegar if you're feeling so inclined. Experiment like a mad dressing chemist!  And sleep well at night.  

Friday, February 25, 2011

Risotto Redux

While double checking my technique for my birthday dinner party risotto, I found a recipe that mentioned a use for leftover risotto that instantly rang a bell, as they used to say. It was another of those recipes that I instantly knew I would be trying.  With risotto in the works, I suppose it was a no-brainer, even though I happen to like leftover risotto for what it is. But there was also a memory. 

Way back in culinary school, I tried an appetizer version of the riosotto cake idea that another student made.  Nothing to hate there at all:  creamy, rich risotto, rolled into balls, floured, and fried. I did not refuse it. In fact, I remembered it warmly enough that I upped my batch to be sure I had leftovers to use.

This main dish version called for a cube of mozarella cheese in the center.  So now I was mentally tasting creamy, rich risotto, with a cheesy center, coated in flour and fried.  It sounded like a can't-miss idea to me.  Plus, I had the grape tomatoes they suggested roasting as an accompaniment.  On the schedule and done.

And how were they?  Well, behold the stringing cheese. I was not immune to its powers.

That gooey interior was nicely contrasted with the evident golden crustinesss. But be warned: to achieve that crust, do not skip or shorten the chilling step.  I did the latter and regretted that decision somewhere during the frying stage.  As you can imagine, risotto wants to fully exercise its creaminess in the presence of heat, therefore losing the cohesion required to maintain crust--the very part that makes it pretty, rather than puddly.  Chill faithfully, turn carefully, and all should be well.

I'll probably find out if my theory of that last sentence is true, since this technique is going into the idea file.  If you give yourself the gift of risotto, you might want to give it a try, too.  Making leftovers into a whole new dish is always a thrill. 

In case I'm getting the risotto cake cart before the risotto horse for you, there are basic  recipes here and here.  It's really a cooking technique, rather than a specific dish.  Once you learn the method, you can make it many different ways, all of which are luxuriant.  And now you can savor it twice.

Risotto Cakes
adapted slightly from Martha Stewart

Serves: 4 

4 cups leftover risotto, cold
2 ounces mozzarella, cut into 8 cubes
All-purpose flour for dredging
1/3 cup vegetable oil

Form risotto into eight balls.  (Slightly moistened hands make this step easier.)  Press a cube of cheese into the center of each ball and flatten risotto into 1/2 inch thick patties.  Make sure cheese is covered.  Dredge patties in flour and place on a baking sheet. Refrigerate until firm, 15 minutes. No cheating.

When cakes are firm, heat vegetable oil in skillet over medium heat until it sizzles when a pinch of flour is added.  Dredge patties in flour again, shaking off excess.  In two batches, fry patties until golden and warmed through, about 10 minutes per batch. Drain on paper towels.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice # 16

The first new green thing I see as spring approaches.

It causes a qickening, an excitement.
Spring really is coming soon!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Birthday Soup by Request

Another thrilling thing happened around my birthday:  a Twitter follower of Dave's asked for the recipe for the soup I mentioned improvising.

Remember this?
I was quite flattered.  I'm new to creating dishes, let alone being asked for the recipe. What a lovely birthday gift.  Thank you, Jay, wherever you are!

Of course, the problem is that there is no recipe.  I was simply using what we had on hand without measuring or following instructions.  It's a personal victory for me, but one that makes it harder to share the formula when asked.  I just had to do the same thing for chicken salad yesterday. 

I get it now that soup can be made from anything, as one chef wrote, making it literally the soup du jour.  If the jour at your house holds different supplies, feel frightfully free to experiment.  You may end up with your own unique creation.  And what a gift that will be to you and yours.

Without further ado, here's my best recollection.  May it bless other bellies!

Sweet Potato, Ham, and Quinoa Soup

Serves: 3-4

2 1/2 ounces diced ham
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large yellow onion, chopped
1 quart chicken broth
1 large sweet potato, diced
1/3 cup red quinoa
Water, up to 2 cups
Stems from 1 bunch cilantro, tied together with kitchen twine
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
Salt and pepper to taste
Cilantro pesto*
Cornbread croutons**

In a large saucepan over medium heat, cook the diced ham until lightly browned.  Add the onion and cook until transparent.  Add the chicken broth, sweet potato, quinoa, cilantro stems, and enough water to cover the vegetables.  Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until the quinoa and sweet potato are done.  Remove cilantro stems and discard. Add chopped cilantro and salt and pepper to taste.

Ladle soup into warmed bowls and garnish with a dollop of cilantro pesto and a handful of cornbread croutons.

*Cilantro Pesto, adapted from Simply Recipes

 1 cup cilantro leaves, packed, large stems removed
 1/4 cup natural almonds
 2 tablespoons chopped red onion
 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
 2 tablespoons olive oil

 In a food processor, pulse the cilantro leaves, almonds, onion, and salt until well blended.
 With the food processor running, slowly add the olive oil in a steady stream. 

 Add more oil as needed for your use.

 Makes about 1/2 cup.

Whatever you don't use can be frozen in an ice cube tray.  Lining it with plastic wrap makes it easier to remove the pesto cubes.   (Now, I read that.)

**Cornbread Croutons (from me!)

 Leftover cornbread
 Melted butter

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Cut the cornbread into cubes of a size that suits your purpose.  Brush with melted butter and bake until golden brown, flipping once. 

Saturday, February 19, 2011


Well, last Thursday and Friday proved once again that I'm the world's biggest baby about my birthday and that joy and sorrow are often strangely intermingled in our ordinary days.

Big things were planned for Friday, so I conducted myself on the official day, Thursday, as if it were a normal one. I should know by now that such a stoic plan never works for me.  Thank God for all those Facebook greetings to brighten up the day a little. 

In my defense, there were things that needed to be done.  I wasn't intending to play the martyr. And I was fine...until half of my Spanish tortilla ended up on the stove top when I attempted to flip it while making dinner.  Since it was a frittata by another name, I could have broiled the uncooked top and saved myself the mess, but one experiments, cries over spilled eggs, and learns. It still tasted good as a potato and egg scramble instead, but you will not be hearing any more about that.

After we ate our tasty mess, my sweet husband gave me an iPod Nano...

The size of a cocktail ring.  Holds 500 songs. Amazing.
and a card so sweet that I cried again in the good way.  He also texted my son to make sure the dear was going to call me, finished the dishes when my mother called to sing to me as she always does, and drove me to another town to find the good chocolate that I hadn't had sense enough to give myself this year.  I am a lucky woman.  The pendulum swung back to happy.

So the crucial day was survived, and now you feel much better about yourself compared to my pitifulness.  Just a part of my service here.

Friday was filled with an even more surreal pairing.  The first part of the day was spent at an out-of-town funeral for David's aunt.  I wore my dark clothes, shed tears, visited with grieving family members, some of whom I'd never met, and was forced to face the realities of mortality and loss.    

After saying that sad and unplanned goodbye to a woman who had been kind to me, I went straight home to prepare a planned dinner for three good friends.  Prepping for it was one of those things that unexpectedly had to be done on Thursday once the funeral appeared on the schedule.

Just hours after walking away from a gravesite with a heavy heart, I was dining by candle light with a full one.  We feasted on a thankfully easy menu of risotto with bacon and peas; pear, blue cheese, and toasted walnut salad with maple-mustard vinaigrette; and blondies with vanilla ice cream and home made caramel sauce. Good wine, laughter, and easy conversation all flowed.  One of the friends even brought me chocolate-dipped strawberries, rose water marshmallows, and the biggest box of chocolates I've ever seen.

And we weren't done yet. 

A violin-viola duo from the National Symphony Orchestra was playing our little town in the 1819 Presbyterian church whose inside we've wanted to see for years. Tickets were only $5.00, and the venue mere yards from our barn.  We strolled over under a full moon and sat on the original pews for a flawless performance in a beautiful white plastered space.  Real candles flickered on the windowsills and children leaned chins on hands up in the balcony.  My lips stayed upturned in a smile during the whole concert. The pendulum had swung to happy again. 

I would not have planned such pairings in those days or any days, but life doesn't often operate according to my plans.  Many days even my inner state shifts in ways that I don't want, let alone anticipate.  This year, I try to simply accept that changeability, in the same way that I accepted a funeral in the middle of a celebratory week because it simply was and had to be honored. It's the only sensible, factual thing to do.  The wise ones say that it will save me much heartache. 

But I'm still going antiquing or something on my real birthday next year. Just in case.  

Friday, February 18, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #15

Pretty dish cloths

Because I would have everything be beautiful.
And also because if I'm going to be washing lots of dishes,
I might as well do it with something pretty!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Love with a Cornbread Garnish

This year Valentine's day found both of us in an unprecedented situation. Normally we're sentimental types who have to do something to celebrate our luck in love.  In our six years together Dave has hired music students to sing to me at work, sent flowers, taped love quotes all over our house, crafted me clever momentos like last year's framed wedding date, and more. I've done all right by him, too.  The bar has been set high around here.   

This year was different somehow.  We both seemed caught in a fog of indecision and procrastination.  I had a splashy idea, but never lined up the outside help it would have required. (I'm saving it for another year.  Again.)  Dave was stymied by the mild budgetary pinch we are experiencing. While not broke by any means, there was no money for the gifts or bought experiences at which he is adept. A mild break in the weather on Sunday set us contemplating a picnic supper in the cemetary overlooking our little town, until cold clouds rolled in.  The forces seemed to be against for this holiday. The only clear and thankfully shared determination left to us was that Valentine's Eve be special in some way and spent together. 

In that aim we succeeded.  We danced to slow jazz in the wide open heart of our little barn. We dined on an improvised sweet potato, ham, and quinoa soup garnished with cilantro pesto and cornbread croutons; toasted with red wine; and snuggled up with some good chocolate.  OK.  It was actually a Lindt chocolate reindeer left from Christmas that I bought for 59 cents at the local market, but it was plenty delicious.  We spent the remainder of the candle lit evening just being happily together, sharing our thoughts, our dreams, and our fortunate satisfaction with each other.  It doesn't get much better than that.  I know.  I've had the opposite.   

In the past, I would have been clinically worried if we, or I, had nothing amazing planned for the holiday of love.  I suffered then from a veritable phobia that good love always goes bad. Five years of good marriage have calmed that fear.  Even our every day life is loving and companionable, which matters much more in the long run than romantic stunts.  I delight in surprises, flowers, sentimental gestures, and gifts as much as the next woman (although there better not be a next woman), but without the quotidienne kindnesses, they are meaningless.

I'm grateful for a relationship in which the best gift is being together, even when it's in our relaxo-clothes eating pantry-clean-out soup fancied up with aggrandised leftover cornbread washed down with five dollar wine followed by bargain buggy chocolate.  Relationships may be as common as cornbread, but as I've just learned, common things can be amazing with the right chemistry, better than you ever knew they could be. 

P.S.  After you make the life changing cornbread, try turning it into croutons.  Cut into cubes, brush with melted butter, and toast in a 350 degree oven until golden brown, turning over once.  They're as delightful as good love.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Cornbread to Get Excited About

I'm not kidding around with that title folks.  Last night Dave and I ate the best cornbread we've ever had--and we've both had plenty of it in our Southern bred lives. (Regrets to the mothers.)  I've even made it many, many times myself.  Apparently I was making it WRONG!  I  needed a new recipe.  I just didn't know it.

Actually, I did know it.  Most cornbread recipes are scaled for a 9-inch skillet. (Yes, a cast iron skillet is the best baking vehicle for cornbread.  That part I had right years ago.)  Unfortunately, the vintage skillet my granny gave me is ten inches in diameter, leaving me for all these years with flat, thin cornbread.  Somehow, I never quite got around to trying the few recipes I collected that were designed for a bigger pan.  With more time in my life to breathe (and isn't that often the key to solving a problem?), I finally had the presence of mind to go to my file vault and pull one out to try.  If I had only known what I was missing, what cornbread could be, I would have done this years ago.

(Ignore that sound. It's just me kicking myself. Again.)

You know all that talk about the wonderful crust on cornbread when it's cooked the traditional way with the oiled skillet preheating along with the oven?  This cornbread made me get it, finally.  The bottom crust, which became the top once I flipped it out, was gorgeous and grainy-crusty and thrilling.  Inside, it's appearance was almost lacy, while it's texture was light and fluffy and moist, without tasting like cornmeal cake, which I really love when I want cake.  So, yes, I'm one of those people who do not like sweet cornbread.  Because it's part of dinner, not dessert.  Duh!

The funny thing is that the only major difference between this God-gift of a recipe is more buttermilk and an extra egg stretching the same amount of corn meal and flour.  The one minor difference--less baking powder paired with baking soda, instead of all baking powder--could affect the flavor, since too much baking powder can add bitterness, but I'm going with the buttermilk as the magic bullet for crustiness and texture. God bless buttermilk!  I'm pretty sure he invented it primarily for baking magic, whether in cake (which this isn't, remember?) or cornbread.

I'll give the egg a little credit, too. Both add to the wet ingredients, which renders the mixture thinner, more like johnny cake or hoe cake batter.  That wonderful crust reminded me, now that I think about it, of the hoe cakes I sampled at the restaurant where I did my internship for culinary school and discovered the wonders of fried cornmeal.  Which is basically what you get with adding a thinner batter to a hot oiled skillet. My old thicker-battered recipe did not produce such glory.

And glory it was!  If all I had were a mess of greens and cornbread this good, I could live on them.  Pretty healthily, too, as a bonus.  Those old-time Appalachians were, by necessity, on to something.

I wish I could properly credit the source of this life-changing recipe, but alas, the magazine page that I tore out years ago and stuffed in a folder doesn't identify itself.  I'm pretty sure that it's Gourmet (RIP), Bon Appetit, or maybe Food & Wine, judging from the quality of the paper and the general look of it, but a web search of modest effort turned up no twin.  Well, I changed a couple of wee details anyway.  I'm calling it mine now and giving it away for the betterment of human kind.

I feel really sorry right about now for all those poor people whose Grannys didn't leave them a ten-inch cast iron skillet!  May they get one soon or overflow a nine-inch with cornbread love.  

Skillet Cornbread

Makes: one 10-inch round (Yay!)

4 tablespoons canola oil, divided
1 cup cornmeal
1 cup all-purpose flour (or White Lily if you're really Sourthern)
2 tablespoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups well-shaken buttermilk
2 large eggs

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees.

Pour 2 tablespoons of the canola oil into a 10-inch skillet.  Tilt to coat the bottom and sides of the skillet and place in the oven.

Stir together in a medium bowl, the cornmeal, flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  Stir together in a small bowl the buttermilk, eggs, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of canola oil.  Add the buttermilk mixture to the cornmeal mixture, stirring just until the dry ingredients are no longer visible.  Do not stir more than necessary.

Remove the hot skillet from the oven.  Pour the batter into the skillet and bake for 20-25 minutes, until golden-brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Let it rest for 5-10 minutes before cutting. (So they say. Go ahead and try!)

Saturday, February 12, 2011

Hello Comfort Food

Whenever I've heard people talk about comfort food, I've felt on the outside. Maybe that's a good thing. Maybe it means that I don't turn to food to comfort myself.  Maybe it's helped me stay thin.

But they would go on so glowingly about mac-n-cheese or ice cream or other luscious, sumptous foods, that I had to wonder why I hadn't found any bowls of comfort along the way that could soothe me immediately upon consumption.  Then again, I hadn't comforted myself at all in the past, with anything.  I just forged on through sheer determination.

But now, with my masochistic days waning, I think I've finally had my first comfort food experience.  

Somewhere during Thursday afternoon, my blood sugar began dropping and my eyelids began drooping.  Just as I determined that a snack would be necessary, my husband called and wanted to be picked up from work early, since he wasn't feeling well.  I dashed off to rescue him and tried to subsist on half a pear left from lunch.  All carbs with a dash of fiber.  Never a good plan.

Oh, and my old friend Depression had just come knocking. A bonus.

I've learned to be kinder to myself in these circumstances than I used to be.  Now I look with compassion on my devolved and nutrient-deprived state and begin to wonder how I can help my poor, baby self feel better. Since I was already VERY HUNGRY--again--by the time we got home, spending time cooking and therefore not eating until the food was done did not appeal to the fussy, baby self.  The planned shrimp tacos were for the full-faculty grown up culinary explorer, not the low-blood-sugar neednick.

On the other hand, the needy self is never emotionally lifted by settling for quick and dirty fast food either.  How then, to comfort my ailing self on all the levels of need?  I wanted a soothing end to hunger with a clear conscience.  I wanted an easy yet sustaining dinner from my own kitchen.  I wanted....comfort food, that culinary category heretofore denied me.

And do you know what food first came to my mind?  Scrambled eggs, toast with jelly, tea. Quick, homey, soft and creamy, sweet and crunchy, warm.  Little effort with maximum home-cooked comfort. 

I felt so veddy Britishy sitting down to that little supper.  It reminded me of Beatrix Potter fixing tea after coming in from the rain in the introduction to the Peter Rabbit video that I watched (and sometimes slept through--those were tired days) with my toddler son.  A steaming cuppa can chase away all sorts of gloom and chill, even if it's only in the heart.

Eggs have power, too. Belly filling protein served up in trembling, custardy curds that even a toddler or the toothless elderly could easily eat, cooked slowly and softly in one of the French ways.  Gentle to the infirm, yet full of bodily rebuilding blocks.

And then there's toast.  Hand made and whole grain. Crunchy, chewy, lightly caramelized, spread with fruity sweet jam.  So basic.

It may have been supper (Well, lupper.  It was only 4:00.), but it's also the kind of breakfast for a Saturday morning with nowhere to be.  And the dinner menu sometimes when I was a girl and Dad the meat and taters man was out of town.  Treats, both.  Good associations.

So now I have my first comfort food--not the rich, indulgent kind, but the kind that writer Laurie Colwin called nursery food.  I think that term is very appropriate--at least for when I need such stuff. When I've devolved to my baby self, I don't need to be indulged so much as nurtured, as in the days of childhood when I wasn't allowed near the stove and Mama or Granny made me a cooked breakfast. I need sheltering food at pitiful times--not sinfully bad-for-me cheesecake, but good-for-me eggs and toast and chamomile tea.  All the strokes with none of the guilt.

Comfort can be so simple and sustaining when we finally know how to give it to ourselves. 

Friday, February 11, 2011

A Lighter Shade of Blondie

Most people seem to have the eye rolling idea that reducing fat consumption will automaticallty render food less enjoyable to eat.  I'm here to tell you that this idea is often false.  In my opinion, some things actually benefit from a little less fat. 

Take blondies for instance.  Last Wednesday, I made some for a church dinner.  I did a brief survey of recipes and chose one that seemed to fit the most common ingredient measurement pattern, expecting splurgy good things from a full-fat, whole-hog version.  I mean, I'm not fat phobic any more.  When I have dessert other than my usual small piece of chocolate, I'm fine with going all the way.

Remarkably, I wasn't impressed with this full fat experience.  The taste was pleasing, but the high amount of fat in the recipe made the top greasy, which was not attractive. It also produced the exact texture that my husband and I do not like in a blondie or brownie--gooey, like an under baked paste.  The church folk were fine with them, but I resolved to go in search of a recipe that would produce my idea of a good blondie, for blondies should be in any one's sweets repertoire, pantry staple beauties that they are.

As I often do for a starting place, I turned to my friends at Cooking Light, who normally do a good job with lightening recipes. The apparent fluffy yet chewy quality shining forth in the web site photo sold me, but adaptation was required.  The first change I made was substituting real eggs for egg substitute. (There's something horribly wrong with that statement).  I also changed the mixing order, combining the melted butter with the brown sugar first because it's easier to eliminate brown sugar lumps that way.  I could now kick myself for not browning the butter first as directed, which sounds scrumptious, but at the time I was in a hurry and hadn't more butter to use if the browning turned into blackening. (Next time, which case I'll update.)   

The resulting blondies were just what we both wanted--with half the fat.  They were still caramely rich and chewy, but not greasy and pasty.  Fats may be important to baked goods, but it is possible to have too much of a good thing.  This recipe had what we considered to be a more judicious amount, one that gave the full, rich experience we wanted without the undesired side effects of excess. 

Plus, although these lovelies are quite enough on their own, less fat in the blondie leaves more room for a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a drizzle of caramel sauce, with which they go very well.  And that's a splurge worth having!

Adapted from Cooking Light

Servings: 24

10 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 1/2 cups firmly packed brown sugar
3 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
Cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

In a large microwave-safe bowl, micro-cook the butter until melted.  Add the brown sugar and stir until combined.  Add eggs and combine well.  In a small bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, and salt.  Add to butter mixture and stir just until moistened.

Spoon batter into a 9 x 13 baking pan coated with cooking spray. Smooth top with spatula.  Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in the center comes out clean.  Cool in pan on a wire rack.  Cut into 24 squares.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

Serious Research

It's time to let you in on a little research project that Dave and I have stumbled into.  We're taking one for the team, and we wanted to let you know about it.

We recently found ourselves absolutely wine-less.  It was a sad day at the barn.  When we hit the city, wine deprived and cash poor, we visited the Liquor Barn to remedy this situation as affordably as possible.  Our bind having put me in a rare quantity-over-quality state of mind, I proposed that we have a fun hunt for cheap wine, which evolved into a game of picking $5.00 bottles to try.  Six bottles later, all of different varietals and vintners, we had the beginning of science in the name of the public good. (Seriously, it's all about you folks out there.)

Surely you too have found yourself in the position of coveting wine with dinner, but not wanting to or able to spend big bucks, and wondering if any good cheap wines are out there.  Well, we're here to find out for you.  We're only budding oenophiles, so there will be no flowery descriptions (I'm still trying to figure out how they taste those peaches and apricots in there), but we'll tell you what we think and whether we'd buy them again. Two bottles have now been dutifully drained, and the first report is ready.

The first to be cracked open was a 2007 French Maid Chardonnay.  With a name and a label like that (I'm a Francophile who owns a French maid costume--bought for Halloween, I promise!), it had to be tried.  It was cute. It came from France. I had hopes.

Unfortunately, our maid must have come from the rough part of her French town. She was all dolled up but had no refinement or class, not even much pleasantry.  In fact, she put up a fight against even opening, breaking our cork screw in the process. (Perhaps that should have been a sign.) Once wrestled open, she was a mite raw and harsh, maybe a one star wine if we're being generous, meaning barely drinkable but not repeatable. The succint verdict is that we wouldn't buy it again, and it's proof that not everything French is beautiful.  Enough said.

The second test bottle was a 2010 Fish Eye pinot noir hailing from South Eastern Australia.

Now this was more like it.  Although lacking the full body and rounded depth of pricier reds we've tried, we enjoyed consuming it. I especially liked it, which was a pleasant change for me, as I sometimes have trouble with the oakiness and tannic qualities of most reds. My red shy self actually relished its immaturity or juvenility, if you will.  (I'm getting more flowery. Somebody tweet Food and Wine magazine.) I found it quite grapey, totally missing the cherry and spice mentioned on the label, like a very grown up grape drink with more bottom notes that I could easily put away. In fact, I just realized that it had the dark grapey quality of the suicide sodas I had at a church camp concession stand when I was a girl, the one with a little bit of all the drinks in it, but with grape always singing a descant above the Coke and Sprite and Mello Yello.  That may sound weird, but it's a good thing, in case you've never experienced a suicide.  (But maybe you should try one in order to say that you've really lived.)

As I said, not a practiced wine palate here.  We're dealing with the basics: Did we feel that our $5.00 was wasted, and would we voluntarily drink it again? This wine scored well on both points.  It's unsophisticated, yes, but also inoffensive.  Downright fun, if you haven't graduated to full fledged red appreciation. 

There you have it, folks--the average Joe and Jane report on our first two experimental wines.  Four more still await our assessment.  If we have little bargain success at the $5.00 price point, we plan to try $6.00 wine. Then we'll move up the dollar scale until we find the tipping point at which more dollars more reliably buys better wine. Unless I can find this Three Buck Chuck I've read about, in which case we could back track. 

Oh, the possibilities!  For you, we're willing to be the guinea pigs. 

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #14


Last week they resurrected my miserable, bed ridden son,
who was the sickest he's been since pneumonia at age 2.
What a relief to this mother's worried heart.

When truly needed and properly used, they're a modern pharmaceutical miracle
for which I am truly grateful.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Year in a Word

A little belatedly, I've come to the topic of New Year's resolutions. I'm not sure that I've ever actually made any, even though I have, like everyone else, succumbed to the hope that a new year could bring new habits or new successes. The whole process seemed doomed to failure, like starting a diet--the plans too grand, too detailed, too many.  The closest I've come to resolutions was writing down a list of goals for a recent year, almost none of which were accomplished.  I still feel a bit chastised when I come across that page in our New Year's Eve milestone book, and I've never done it since.

This year I felt particularly removed from the whole resolutionary effort.  Part of my disconnect was the fog of illness, but part of it was a feeling of existential pointlessness that was plaguing me. Why write down a list of intentions that would only mock me later?  At the new year or at any other time for that matter?

Still there was the hope, however unrecorded. The beginning of a new swing round the sun seemed to merit some attempt at reaching for better.  I just didn't want to play the annual sucker again. 

I had reached a new low in my feelings about the intention to change, but I also discovered out in the blogosphere a different approach to transformation in the new year: choosing one word that embodies what you hope to incorporate into your life as the year unfolds. More a mantra than a list to check off. That seemed more doable, but no word leaped to mind.

A little late I became sure of my word for 2011.  I chose acceptance.  Or maybe it chose me. 

In the synchronistic way in which the universe sometimes nudges me, I found myself remembering the blissful moments of self-acceptance that I experienced as 2010 wound down; hearing statements in yoga videos about how life is an acceptance practice; watching a video by a life coach named Joy Tanksley in which she credited acceptance and gratitude for the life she had as being the key to moving forward into the life she wanted; and reading both Eckhart Tolle's unshakeable statement that if we aren't in a state of either acceptance, enjoyment, or enthusiasm, then we are causing suffering to our self or others, and Barbara Sher's assertion that if we will only accept the passing of youth, then the middle of life can be amazing. So many messages coming at me seemed to say that instead of being in resistance to what is and working so hard to change me and my life, which I've been trying diligently to do for years, I should just accept who and how I am right now.  Because just maybe it was quite good enough, if only I'd let it be.

I may have resisted the cliched urge to resolve, but I am now belatedly warm to the idea of a guiding word. I've found myself calling upon it many times already--and it's been maybe a week--because it applies in so many ways: acceptance of the delays and frustrations of every day life; acceptance of the blessings of my current life; acceptance of others for just who they are, doing the best they can; and yes, acceptance of myself when I prove over again that I'm imperfect in my own eyes.

I've still felt my usual upsets.  I was a mite fussy over waiting 8 minutes just to get a spot at the gas pump, with people dashing in ahead of me, until I accepted the situation and let it go.  I was about to descend into Loser-itis when I forgot an ingredient in three baking projects on the same day. Instead I accepted that I was human and having one of those days.  And last Thursday's restorative micro-vacation?  Acceptance at work. There was definitely a lot less suffering that night.

Other than the versatility of the word of the year idea, I love it's simplicity. It's the mono tasking version of New Year's resolutions. I don't have to force change on six fronts.  I have only one kinder, gentler aim for this year--a state that by definition is open, yielding, unperturbed, trusting, and serene. This tight bowstring of a detail person could use a healthy dose of all of those. Any of them would beat another multitudinous list of musts that just becomes a flagellation scourge later.

It can be so very hard to accept (that word again) that we must be and begin where we are right now, that the moment at hand is the only one assured us, and that both are enough.  If that kind of acceptance is all I achieve this year, it will suffice--no matter when I started.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #13

Morning sunlight pouring into our little barn,

turning a second hand chair into a momentary throne.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Worth Doing Twice

A few nights ago I tried a new dish that I was truly excited about.  I had known at the moment I read the title to the recipe that I would be making it soon.  I commented on the blog where I found it saying just that--and I am usually, I confess, more prone to lurking then commenting. I was so into it that I even took a still life photo of the ingredients like a good blogger. I was all about this dish.

By now you're probably wondering what wonderful recipe could so captivate me, so immediately motivate me. Well, I'll tell you: Winter Greens with Smoked Paprika and Almonds.

What? You don't find that thrilling? 

Listen, people, we all need to eat our greens. You know it. I know it. The problem is finding delicious ways to do it.  I've learned to appreciate their deep flavor and pleasant bitterness myself, but I never mind a snazzy new way to prepare them, especially one involving smokiness. (I like smoky.)

Also, I had recently discovered smoked paprika in my spice cupboard that I had no memory of buying but didn't want to leave without purpose.  This experiment was a done deal.

So I cooked up the aggrandized greens and ate them happily, forecasting my rapturous post about this health sustaining food that was so darkly, smokily, pungently good. 

Then I cleared the table and saw the sherry vinegar still sitting on the counter.  I had forgotten to put in one of the ingredients!  No matter, I told myself.  I loved them greens without it.  I just needed the beauty shot.

Then I accidentally knocked the remaining photographable greens in the floor when I turned to get the camera.  

Don't think that I didn't consider picking them up and taking the picture anyway, because I did consider it.  But we have a cat.  I was taking no chance of being the blogger caught snapping greens with a cat hair garnish. I let it go for that night.

But they were so good that I shortly bought more greens and tried again, using all the ingredients and getting the glamour shot this time. This dish was so worth telling you about that it was worth making twice.

While I was glad to have made an accurate sample of the recipe, I actually liked it better without the vinegar that I so thoroughly included the second time.  (As I said, I like smoky. Sometimes straight up.) The other real grown up at the table (the 17-year-old predictably abstained) felt differently.  So guess, what?  They're good either way.  You can't lose. 

Frankly, any good greens recipe is worth making more than twice. 

Winter Greens with Smoked Paprika and Almonds

from Pink of Perfection
Serves 4

1 1/2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup whole almonds, coarsely chopped
2 large garlic gloves, chopped
3/4 teaspoon smoked paprika
1 pounds greens, chopped (I used collards)
1/4 cup water
1 to 2 teaspoons sherry vinegar

Heat 1 tablespoon oil in large heavy skillet over medium-high heat.  Add almonds.  Stir until lightly browned, 2 to 3 minutes.  Add garlic and paprika.  Sprinkle with coarse salt; saute 1 minute.  Transfer to small bowl.  Add remaining 1/2 tablespoon oil to skillet.  Add greens; sprinkle with coarse salt.  Add water.  Cover and cook until crisp-tender and still bright green, about 4 minutes.  Pour off any water.  Stir in almond mixture.  Season to taste with coarse salt and pepper.  Mix in 1 to 2 teaspoons vinegar.  Transfer to bowl and serve.