Friday, March 25, 2011

Spring--On The Plate Anyway

Today, while winter makes another pass on its way out, my thoughts drift back to last Sunday when spring was in town for its annual get-aquainted visit.  Seventy-eight degrees and sunny...Birds, leaf buds, flowers...Caressing breezes.  Ah, the day that was. 

All days are precious when you think about it, but those tender early spring ones are especially easy to love.  I hauled my beloved rocking chair up from basement storage to the  deck on the shady side of the house because it was so warm.  I rocked contentedly and read Elizabeth Bard's Lunch in Paris, a delightful escape and inspiration for a Francophilic foodie.  It's a story of love and France with recipes. I couldn't ask for much more except pictures, but I'm not greedy like that. Some of the recipes and menus may even appear on the ole blog in the future, they sound so enticing.

Despite my fond memories of a warmer day, I'm not sorry that it's cold again.  Spring does this. She dances back and forth for a while. I patiently let the seasons do their thing.  Soon enough it will be hot, and no one but this lizard will even want to be out in it.  Besides, at our dinner table it was determinedly spring today anyway:  salmon cakes with dill sauce, lemon-parsley rice, and buttered asparagus.  (Take that Old Man Winter!  Time to go bye-bye soon.)

I'm not sure how exciting salmon cakes are to you, but every once in a great while, I just suddenly want them for dinner.  I never follow a recipe, and still they end up rich and satisfying with very few ingredients and at a very low cost: I picked up my can of salmon on sale for $1.99 when I felt the urge coming on.  All I add is enough mayonnnaise to bind, a few bread crumbs, and a dash of salt.  That's it.  Talk about economical.  And since the asparagus was also (seasonally!) on sale for $1.88 per pound, the whole plate couldn't have rung up at more than $3.00.  I'm too lazy to do the detail math, but surely that about covers it.  The cost is as big a refresher as that fondly remembered spring day, after weeks of higher than usual grocery store expenditures. 

But back to salmon cakes.  One could be fancier with them, adding capers, onion, etc, but sometimes it's nice to do the simple, easy thing. 

Oh, wait.  I usually find that nice, don't I?  And don't you, too?  I mean, I know you're busy and all.  So, the next time you see cans of salmon on sale, grab one or two and throw these together like an old pro.  If you need a little fanciness, stir up the quickie sauce and gloat.  Add rice dolled up with a little grated lemon rind, chopped parsley, and salt, and blanched asparagus rolled in a dab of butter, and spring's on the plate.  Now there's an escape that doesn't require the weather's cooperation at all.

Super Simple Salmon Cakes

Serves: 2

1 14.75-ounce can of salmon
Fine dry bread crumbs

Remove any undesirable bones from the salmon and place in a medium bowl.  Add a couple of spoonfuls of mayonnaise, a sprinkle of salt, and a palmful of bread crumbs to the salmon.  Stir gently together.  If it looks dry, add a little more mayonnaise.  Form salmon mixture into 4 cakes and roll in additional bread crumbs to coat.  Place cakes in the refrigerator for about 15 minutes to firm up.

After the cakes have rested, coat a skillet with oil and warm over medium heat.  Fry the cakes a few minutes on each side, until golden brown.  Drain on paper towels.

Dill Sauce

Lemon juice
Dried dill

In a small bowl, whisk together a couple of big spoonfuls of mayonnaise with just enough buttermilk to thin it to a thick sauce consistency.  Add a pinch of salt, a squeeze of lemon juice, and about a 1/2 teaspoon of the dill.  Whisk, taste, and adjust the seasoning to your liking.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Jalapeno Finale

It seems I've had a request (other than my husband's) for the chocolate cake recipe I mentioned in my previous jalapeno-happy post.  I didn't include it then because I wasn't sure enough about it to wax enthusiastic to you lovely people.  Now that it's cooled (we ate that baby warm, mmmm), glazed, and aged, I'm more confident of its qualities and ready to share.  Besides, I can't say no to such nice folks.  So here you go.

I may have, in my haste, fallen upon the first recipe that met my limitations of the day, but it turned out to be a good one.  The cake is still tender and even more moist today than last night, so it's aging well so far.  There is also a bit more jalapeno flavor on day two, but we still wish it had more heat.  If I made it again (and I wouldn't put it past me if there are jalapenos lying about again--any excuse to eat chocolate), I would add a dash of cayenne for a truer south of the border accent.  I would also be tempted to add cinnamon for an even more Aztec aura, although David thinks that would muddy the flavors. 

The glaze that I added after it cooled was Dave's idea.  He likes the crackly texture contrast and the extra bit of sweetness that it adds.  With or without the glaze, the cake is a very mild chocolate experience that still manages to be adequately satisfying. It scratches the chocoholic itch without feeling heavy and decadent or causing the afterburn of over indulgence. It's the kind of cake that might have been called "snacking cake" in a more innocent time when a piece of something sweet and a glass of milk was considered to be healthy. Although I can knock back shots of the deep dark stuff, the hard liquor of chocolate, the kind that makes me roll my eyes and moan with sensual delight, I really enjoyed the simple, homey satisfaction of this lightweight version. 

But the very best thing about the recipe is its utter ease.  There's no fussy creaming step that must be gotten right or else disaster, which makes it perfect for those who are scratch-cake avoiders.  If you can measure and stir, you can make this simple cake.  It can be vegan if you substitute soy milk for the buttermilk I used, which was all I had and usually a good thing for baking anyway.  Add-in's other than jalapenos could create variety: orange zest, nuts, chocolate chips, dried fruits, toffee chips, coconut, etc.  It could be topped with powdered sugar, plain glaze, citrus glaze, chocolate glaze, caramel...Well, obviously I could go on and on, but you get the idea.  See how exciting this part of food is?  So many stimulating ideas!

But back to the ease factor.  If I wanted a simple, easy chocolate cake fix, this one could be whipped up almost any time--even an hour before dinner it turns out.  It's definitely the simplest cake I've ever made.  There's a time and place for fancy and rich, but this one works famously for, say, a dreary Monday when you want to be amused and comforted. Or, I suspect, a few other occasions, too.  Or no occasion at all.  When cake is this easy, you don't need one, now do you.

Jalapeno Chocolate Cake

Serves: 8

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1-2 jalapenos, seeded, deveined, and finely diced
1/2 cup orange juice or water
1/2 cup buttermilk, regular milk, or soy milk
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon vanilla
2 teaspoons vinegar (or 1 tablespoon if you use regular milk or soy milk)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Grease and flour an 8 or 9-inch round cake pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, and jalapenos.  In a small bowl, whisk together the orange juice and/or water (I used a combo), buttermilk, oil, and vanilla.  Add the orange juice mixture to the flour mixture and stir to combine.  Add the vinegar just before pouring the batter into the pan.  It can't sit around once you add it.  It's a bit reactive, shall we say.  You'll see.

Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. 

Allow to cool in the pan on a wire rack for a few minutes.  Turn out onto the rack to cool completely.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Jalapeno Happiness

Today was not a happy day. I moved mechanically through the tasks that needed to be done during the morning. On my walk in the afternoon, I saw the forsythia beginning to bloom, the daffodils bouncing in the wind, and a new fern turning stalky.  I felt none of the joy of it. I kept going forward, which is the only way to go, waiting for the break in the clouds that always comes, often quite unexpectedly.

As commonly happens, that break came with dinner, the best part of the day for me.

Here's what happened. (I miss Monk just a little.)  When the time came to begin preparation, I suddenly remembered a madcap idea that I'd hatched last night and felt a spark of interest.  I needed madcap.  I needed something to be excited about.  And so, just because it made me smile and feel energetic, we had an all jalapeno dinner, combining the two jalapenos in the crisper, jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins in the freezer, and a self-imposed mandate to use what was on hand only, without running to the store the day before the weekly shopping trip. 

My Sunday research, along with the no-shop rule, had suggested jalapeno black eyed peas as the main dish.  Normally I would think of rice as a partner, but pure silliness won out.  Jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins from the freezer it was.  And for dessert?  Jalapeno chocolate cake. The fact that there were no eggs or milk in the house did not dissuade me.  For such situations, we have our vegan friends. They've already invented that wheel.  I quickly searched up a recipe for a simple one-layer cake that could be mixed in a trice and tossed in to bake while I threw together the quickie legume main course and thawed the muffins. 

Yes, I know.  It was really unnecessary to turn dinner into such a larky production.  But what fun!  And I needed fun.  I tied on my perky, it's-officially-spring bunny apron with a geniune smile. All jalapeno dinner here we come! 

I'm so glad that I rode the jalapeno happiness train. The black eyed peas were quite satisfying.  Way to turn three cans and a jalapeno into dinner, if I do say so myself!  There's nothing like a bowl of health to make me feel flush with it, especially when it's ready to go in twenty minutes or less. The jalapeno-cheddar corn muffins were quite harmonious with the stew, not repetitive at all.  The jalapeno in the cake wasn't actually noticeable, except faintly IF you were tasting for it.  But it was tender, nicely crumbed, and lightly chocolatey--not the Death By variety, which is just fine for a week day when there isn't usually cake anyway.  My day went from flat to chirpy in a meal!

Even if you're not genetically cursed with the blues and/or carried away with the frivolous idea for an ingredient based dinner, consider adding the jalapeno black eyed peas and cornmeal muffins to your repertoire.  The pair are plenty nourishing and could be pulled off on a week night in about 30 minutes. A few more meals like that in the idea file would help any cook's mood, any day. 

Jalapeno Black Eyed Peas

Serves: 4

1 tablespoon oil
1/2 medium yellow onion, chopped
1-2 jalapeno peppers, seeded, deveined, and diced
1 fat clove garlic, minced
2 cans black eyed peas, 1 drained, 1 undrained OR drain both and add stock
1 can petite diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon tamari
1 small bay leaf
1/2 teaspoon smoked paprika
3 tablespoons chopped cilantro
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
Shredded monterey jack cheese

In a medium saucepan, warm the oil over medium heat.  Add the onion, jalapeno, and garlic, and cook until the onion and pepper are tender.  Add the black eyed peas, tomatoes, tamari, bay leaf, and smoked paprika.  Cover and simmer for 10-15 minutes.  Add 2 tablespoons of the cilantro.  Spoon into bowls and garnish with shredded cheese and remaining cilantro.

Cornmeal Muffins

Makes: 12

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup corn meal
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 cup oil
1 egg

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Grease cups of a muffin pan and set aside.

In a medium bowl, mix flour, cornmeal, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.  In a small bowl, combine the buttermilk, oil, and egg.  Add buttermilk mixture to flour mixture and stir just until moist.  Do not over mix.

Divide batter among muffin cups.  Bake for 15 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the center of a muffin comes out clean.  Remove from cups and cool on a wire rack.  Or, even better, eat them warm!

Friday, March 11, 2011


I'm still usable.
Worn near to the nub,
but still scratching out truth
while digging for freedom
in the earth of the page.
Still giving my lead
in the hope of striking gold
under the next word.
Still sharpening,
though I near the end
of my utility.
I can no longer erase mistakes.
All that emerges remains--
the chosen and the regretted.
I'm wearing away,
giving all I have
in shavings and syllables.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

What I Wish Life Was

Sometimes I wish that life could be simple, a mistake-proof formula of Steps 1, 2, 3, and 4 that lead to health and happiness ever after.

We all know life doesn't work that way.  Even when it's good, it can still be...muddy.

Like my life right now.  I have a wonderful opportunity to start a business of my own, but I'm not sure which kind I want, the one I'll be happy to tire myself out with each week.  While I wait for clarity (Psst, God, over here. Whenever you're ready.), I comfort myself with simple things that are soothing and sure: remembrance of guidance past, cups of tea, comfortable clothes, good reads, and always, always good food.

Since one of the things that I know I love is feeding some of that good food to friends here at the barn, we hosted a few of the collegiates from our church for freshly squeezed lemonade, homemade pizzas, salad, and Italian cookies last Friday.  The poor deprived dears consumed all the lemonade and raved about the homemade ranch dressing, both as a salad topping and as a sauce on one of the pizzas in combination with Italian sausage, red pepper, zucchini, and feta.  I'm very proud to say that the combo was my idea beacause it was wonderful.

Just when they had all decided that they loved me, I brought out the platter of cookies: delightfully bitter mocha puff balls with a texture reminisent of shortbread and glossy rich amaretti whose wow factor belied their ease of execution.  We all swooned further and ate at least one too many, just as we had done with the pizzas.

I think it was days later when I realized that my husband's new best buddies, the amaretti, are what I wish life was: simple, easy, and amazing.  A few basic ingredients are run through a set of clear steps and voila, perfect pleasure.  I even love their name, saying it in my best Sophia Loren accent just because it feels so good in my mouth. (So no, I'm not being a pretentious foodie when I roll out "Ah-ma-rhet-ee."  I don't even know for sure that it's right.  It's just fun and how I'm made.  Born mimics can't help themselves, you know.)

I suppose if life or my tangled mind were simple, I would know what I know and do what I do with no befuddlement or hesitation and all would turn out as sweet as amaretti.  Maybe that's how it will be if I ever get down to my own inarguable basics, as did the brilliant mind who concocted these cookies. If that takes a while, I can always make amaretti and drown my confusion in chamomile tea. 

from Simply Recipes

Makes about 30 cookies

2 1/2 cups almond flour OR 3 cups blanched, slivered almonds, finely ground
1 1/4 cups sugar
3 egg whites
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
Extra sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 300 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper.

In a food processor, mill together the almond flour or ground almonds and sugar.  Add the vanilla and almond extract and pulse for a few seconds.  Add the egg whites, one at a time, and continue to pulse until the mixture is smooth.

Place teaspoons of batter on the parchment lined pans and dust with extra sugar.  Bake for 24 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool completely before serving.  Store in a cool, dry place.

Note: If you like your cookies chewy, bake them for no longer than the 24 minutes.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #18

Lower than expected heating bills this winter.

What a blessing that this charming place is both old and new,
full of antique boards but piled with insulation, too!

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Random Reason to Rejoice #17

Cheap mascara without clumps!

And on clearance, so it was even cheaper!

After years of thinking I had to travel to the city and spend more
 for clump-free quality, now I know better. 

 I may not have been born with it, 
but now I've got my new friend Maybelline,
affordably available in a town near me! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Yet More Cornbread Love

Please accept my apology for the pathetic quality of the picture below.  I was in a hurry, late for church, but photographed it anyway--for you. I am risking a public pity-induced fund raiser for a proper camera complete with photography lessons because this is something all cornbread bakers need to know about.  If you're not a cornbread baker, you might want to become one in order to make...

Cornbread Salad!

I discovered a recipe for some version of this salad years ago on one of those Saturday "Crap, there's a potluck Sunday!" recipe hunts.  I happened to have a half-pan of cornbread (No, not that cornbread.  My life wasn't that good yet.) and some pinto beans left from a safely recent dinner, and I already loved to use leftovers magically (You should see how I doctored leftover macaroni salad into our dinner tonight.  Or not.).  I gave thanks for my luck, layered her up, and loved it. 

I say that I found a recipe.  I guess I did.  But I did not keep it or write anything down.  You really don't need written instructions for this salad.  All you need is the idea.  Just layer crumbled cornbread, beans, and, really, whatever else you like. Some crunchy or colorful things are good. Cheese is de rigeur.  Bacon is sexy. Then top with dressing and refrigerate.  So yes, it's a make ahead wonder.  Something else to love about it.

I used brown beans because I like the overtly Southern USA character of them.  When I searched for recipes out of curiosity this time around, I found several versions that use black beans, corn, and salsa for a Tex-Mex taste.  That approach could be fun, too.

My dressing on top was my homemade Ranch (another use for that, too!), but you could also use the mayonnaise, vinegar, and sugar mixture that's ususally cole slaw dressing.  Either one is tasty.

Aside from transformative leftover potential and make-ahead ease, I love to make this salad is because I get to use my trifle bowl, which shows off the layers so prettily.  However, any glass bowl that's a good bit taller than it is wide will do.  But it has to be glass.  What's the point otherwise?  Ok, there's the eating, but we eat with our eyes, too.  So, please---glass.  Please?

Well, whatever container you use, you now have another use for leftover cornbread.  My work here is done for the night.  If you'll excuse me, I have to go feed my inferiority complex by reading award-winning blogs.  (At least I have dinner.)

Cornbread Salad

Half a 9-10 inch pan of cornbread
Beans--2-3 cups cooked or 2 15-oz cans
Chopped vegetables--bell peppers, celery, tomatoes, onion, grated carrot, etc
Bacon--5-10 strips, cooked and crumbled
Shredded cheddar cheese
Ranch dressing or cole slaw dressing (bought if necessary)
Shredded cheese, crumbled bacon, and/or scallions for garnish if you wish

Crumble the cornbread into the bottom of your glamorous vessel. Top with the beans, layers of whatever veggies you chose, the crumbled bacon and cheese.  Spread dressing over the top.  Garnish now or at serving time.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to eat.