Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Asian Chicken Soup

I came down with my first cold of the season last week. I'm sure it won't be my last--with two small kids underfoot, colds plague our doorstep with wrath and regularity once school starts.

My darling husband never gets sick, that Tosser...although I guess I should be grateful, because someone's gotta run this sinking ship.

I was feeling mighty sorry for myself this past week. I mean, not only did I have to deal with the Exploding Dishwasher Debacle, I had a fiery throat and a stuffy head to boot. I was slamming cabinets and barking into the phone: "Whaddaya Want?" Even Harryboy didn't want to hang out with me.

Normally, when I get a cold, I hop in the car and get myself to the nearest decent Vietnamese joint for a steaming bowl of pho. Pho is my comfort food; I love the complexity of the spiced broth, the sleekness of the rice noodles, the meltingly rare slivers of beef, the bite of the mint and chile. It's Mama's hug in a bowl. And, when I'm nursing a cold, I add extra squirts of Sriracha to blast those nasal passages wide open. It's the food equivalent of antibiotics.

But, as luck and the Appliance Gods would have it, last week I was chained to my house, waiting for the service repairman to solve my dishwasher woes. Trapped without pho. Serious suckage.

What's a snot-filled-girl to do? Alternative? Create faux pho.

Luckily, I had some homemade chicken stock in the freezer. This is usually not the case at my house (I'm no Ina Garten), but some higher power was looking out for me. I also had cinnamon sticks, star anise, ginger and garlic in the house. Yes! Benefit of being married to an Indian dude:I have shit in my pantry that I never would have thought of before.

I defrosted the stock, threw in a teaspoon of grated ginger and minced garlic, followed up with a star anise and a cinnamon stick, stuck the lid on the pot and let it simmer for 20 minutes.

Now I think it wise to mention that the broth for genuine Vietnamese pho is a complex process and most likely takes days to make. But we're talking desperation here. Plus, this is me, and I am lame and take shortcuts all the time.

Shortcut #2: I had a rotisserie chicken in my refrigerator (we slackers usually do). I shredded up the breast meat and set it aside to warm up. Hey, it's not rare beef, but it'll do.

I boiled some rice noodles, stuck them in the bottom of a big bowl, added the chicken, a fistful of bean sprouts and sliced mushrooms, and some very thinly sliced onion, and ladled a huge amount of the broth over the whole shebang.

Luckily, our garden is still cranking out mint and chiles, so a quick trip out there, a rinse, a chop, and my soup was topped. I know other people will cry foul, but I added basil, too. I added a squeeze of lime and this was one happy girl.

I slurped, sweated, and sipped my way to bliss.

Faux Pho
serves 2 generously

4 cups chicken broth
1 teaspoon bottled grated fresh ginger
1 teaspoon minced garlic
1 cinnamon stick
1 star anise
dash soy sauce

4 oz. thin rice noodles, cooked
1 cup cooked chicken, shredded
very thin slices of onion
bean sprouts
shredded carrots or sliced mushrooms
fresh mint, basil and/or cilantro
jalapeno, serrano or Thai bird chiles, thinly sliced
wedge of fresh lime

Combine first six ingredients in a large pot. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Fish out the anise and cinnamon and discard.

Divide the noodles into two large bowls. Divide chicken, onion and bean sprouts among bowls. Top with hot broth, fresh herbs, chiles and a squeeze of lime.

**And yeah, it did make me feel better. But I always feel that way when my nasal passages are on fire and I have hot soup in my gut...

PS: I have on good authority that my friend Phoo-D is also having asian chicken soup on her mind...I advise you to check her out in a few days for her (assuredly superior) recipe and photos! Go!

Monday, September 28, 2009

Meatless Monday: Ratatouille

Autumn is starting to show herself here; the leaves are turning topaz and there's a bite in the morning air.

The K and T Family Victory Garden is slowing down, but we still have some beautiful little eggplants, a few stray zucchini and absolutely LOADS of green tomatoes. I'll address the green tomato conundrum in an upcoming post...

There's a lot to love about Ratatouille. It's simple, it's good eaten hot, cold or at room temperature, it's healthy, AND it's a great way to use up tons of stray vegetables left over from a Farmer's Market Moment of Gluttony.

Why do I do it? Why do I go hog-wild and frenzied in the Farmer's Market? I *know* there are only two good vegetable eaters in this household. And yet somehow, I end up with an overflowing basket every time. In this case, I had tomatoes, green and red bell peppers and some not-so-perky celery hanging about, all a bit past their prime.

Another bonus about Ratatouille: it's forgiving. Nobody will know, in the end, that the veggies you sneaked in were just a few days shy of disgrace.

I wasn't sure about throwing the celery into the mix, but then I thought of French food, and how they braise celery all the time, and so I thought--eh? Why not?

I based this recipe on an old Craig Claiborne recipe I found on the Food Network. I added some additional vegetables (eg: celery and red bell peppers) and some herbs, because I thought the original recipe sounded a little bland.

based on Craig Claiborne's recipe
serves 4-6

1/2 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
2 cups onions, sliced
1 cup celery, chunked
3 cups zucchini, chunked
4 cups eggplant (peeled if skins are thick) chunked
2 cups green, red or mixed bell peppers, seeded and chunked
3 tablespoons flour
2 fresh tomatoes, chopped
1 28-oz. can San Marzano tomatoes
2 tablespoons fresh chopped oregano
1/2 cup chopped fresh parsley
2 tablespoons capers or a tablespoon of balsamic vinegar
salt and pepper

Heat oil in a very large skillet or dutch oven over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and the garlic and cook until onions are translucent. Meanwhile, chunk zucchini and eggplant (I didn't peel mine because they were thin-skinned baby guys). Toss zucchini and eggplant in the flour to lightly coat.

Add zucchini, eggplant and peppers to the skillet, stir. Cover the pot, turn the heat down to low and slow, and cook 30 minutes.

Add tomatoes (both kinds) and oregano. Cook, covered, 10 minutes. Remove cover, simmer 10 minutes more, breaking up the tomatoes with the back of a spoon. Remove from heat and cool 15 minutes. Stir in capers or balsamic and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste.

*We loved this best slightly warm, almost room temperature, for lunch with a crusty baguette. I showered mine with shards of parmesan and a drizzle of good olive oil. I served it again with grilled sausages, and it only gets better!

**One Monday a month, I'm hoping to post a meatless recipe. It's good on the wallet and it's my payback to Mother Earth for the horrible paper product abuse in my household last week. Atonement, you know.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

White Trash Motherlode: Banana Bread

See this picture? Besides the painful/obvious evidence that this was the year that America fell in love with Dorothy Hamill and her wonky haircut, there's something else going on in that frame.

That's me, in the white blouse, trying incredibly hard to look brave. And if you look hard enough, it's evident that I'm sorta failing. This is my first day of 2nd grade, in a new state, at a new school, at an awkward time in the school calendar. It's hard enough to be new at the start of school, but when your family moves in the middle of the year, it sucks the big one. You aren't just the "new kid." You are the only "new kid." Translation: Dana is fresh meat.

My sister next to me? She's got a completely different look in her eye. My sister truly didn't mind moving as often as we did. She sort of thought it was exciting to get a fresh start, in a new place. By the end of the first week, she'd have made fast friends with several classmates and be out playing Kick the Can in the evenings.

Me, not so much. Not at all, actually. I didn't have her gift of gab, her tenacity, her ability to blend into a new landscape with ease.

You see, as much as Mama insisted growing up that I was a very brave girl, I wasn't. Most childhood pictures of me look like this:

And this:

New things, new people, new anything terrify me. Have since birth and alas, still do. I am a coward of the first water. In fact, the difficulty I had with the move mentioned above...Well, let's just say that when, several months later, we got transferred to Pittsburgh...Mama made Daddy get a new job.

A girl can only be broken so many times.

And no, if you look at that top picture again, that isn't a big black cockroach on my shirt. It's a pin. A pin in the shape of a porcupine, to be exact. A trinket that Mama pinned on my shoulder that first day of school, because it was a lucky porcupine. A porcupine that would keep me safe and okay and able to keep my shit together until I got home from school, wobbling and wrecked with anxiety.

She's a smart woman, my Mama.

But the lucky porcupine pin did not keep me safe. Nothing could. Because kids, even the little ones, can smell fear like nobody's business. And if a kid cowers and cries at the least provocation, it's pay dirt.

I was bullied relentlessly that year, but I still insisted on wearing that porcupine pin every day. Because Mama's don't lie and she said that thing was lucky, so it had to be true....maybe it was taking a little longer for the luck to kick in than I wanted, but I believed.

I believed so much that poor old "porky" got run through the washing machine a lot (my carelessness) and Mama had to stitch the poor dude back together constantly. By the end of the year, that pin was the most motley, moth-eaten thing you've ever seen.

But Mama kept mending it. To keep me safe. At least safe enough to wait for the bell, hit the door running and hi-tail it the 4 blocks home, where Mama was waiting, front door already open, with a fierce hug and a delicious snack.

Home was never sweeter.

Banana Bread*
makes 1 loaf

1 cup sugar
2 eggs
1/4 cup butter, softened
3 large or 4 small over-ripe bananas, mashed
1/2 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon soda
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups+2 tablespoons flour

Mix in order given and bake at 350 degrees for an hour. If desired, 1/2 cup nuts or mini-chocolate chips can be stirred in before baking. Best kept wrapped in foil and stored in the refrigerator.

*I know, right? A recipe from the White Trash MotherLode book that isn't revolting! This was my favorite baked treat, and Mama baked it religiously for me during tough times.

P.S. Thanks, Mama, for trying so hard to help me be brave. Alas, I'm 40 and still looking under the bed for monsters. But you did your best.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Art of the Sandwich

Neither of my girls will consume a sandwich. Not turkey, not grilled cheese, not even plain old PB&J. It's maddening for many reasons. I mean if there's no sandwich love in the house, what the Hell goes in the lunchbox?

But here's the most maddening reason: I make a kick-ass sandwich. I do. In fact, my hubby commented the other day, after I'd made a particularly toothsome specimen, that I am "Queen of the Awesome Sandwich."

I am waiting for my crown to arrive.

And it should, any minute, because NO, my dishwasher still isn't fixed. So I'm making hella lotta sandwiches lately.

I had a brief period of elation Monday when the service technician told me the dishwasher wasn't "fixed" per se, but was at least useable until the new part came in...but that rat-face lied to me. That sucker still dead.

I digress. Anyways, the reason I make awesome sandwiches is simple. I love sandwiches. My hypothesis: Shitty sandwiches are made by people who don't love them. Want an A-List Sandwich? Make sure it's made my someone who respects the sandwich.

True sandwich connoisseurs know that it takes a delicate balance of textures, flavors and mojo to achieve Sandwich Greatness.

For me, it's all about balance. A great sandwich needs something salty/savory/umami-ish, something crunchy, something fresh and juicy, something delightful on the bread to anchor the whole business.

And quality ingredients sure don't hurt. In fact, get the best.

Take the sandwich I made for hubs that got such raves. Two words: Boar's Head. Totally worth the money, dudes. If you're a veg head, you need gorgeous cheese or hummus or avocado in order to achieve necessary balance. And do not, I beg of you, use lame bread.

Now I realize that there are two distinct camps regarding the bread: toasters and non-toasters. Personally, I'm a dilettante. For me, it depends on the sandwich. My mama's tuna sandwich? Anything but squishy white bread, un-toasted, would be sacrilege. A proper Reuben? That bread had better crackle, my friend.

For my standard "code sandwich" I take a different approach to bread. I pop the bread in the toaster oven on the "top brown" setting. Then I put the toasted sides on the inside of the sandwich...reason being, I like crunch but hate chapping my hard palate on crust. Plus, the toasted surface allows the juicy elements to shine rather than slide out. Try this method, really. It's a revelation.

And oh dear, spreads present a very pesky problem. There's a legion of mayo haters out there (dear hubs is one of them). And some people can't abide mustard (hubs again). And using butter as an adherent is just a cop-out. But believe me, having something on that bread is crucial.

Tomato haters can be a problem, too. But as long as they'll acquiesce to crisp lettuce or thin slices of cucumber or slices of roasted red pepper, I think sandwich greatness won't be compromised.

Here's a rough recipe for my husband's Awesome Sandwich.

Awesome Sandwich
serves 1

2 slices very good quality bread, toasted only on one side
1 tablespoon (scant for hubs) Boar's Head Spicy Remoulade Sauce
1 1/2 slices good melting cheese, such as fontina, provolone or jack
2-3 oz. Boar's Head buffalo-style chicken breast, thinly sliced
Ripe tomato slices
Romaine or any other crisp lettuce

Before you start, take the meat and cheese out of the refrigerator and fan the slices out on the counter or plate. They shouldn't be ice cold in the final product. Toast bread on one side. On one slice, spread Remoulade (toasted side). On the other slice, place cheese on the toasted side, pop back in toaster oven and heat until cheese is slightly melted.

Place meat on cheese side of bread. Place tomato on Remoulade side of bread. Place lettuce on top of tomato, then place slices together. Cut in half.

**I must say that I advocate for spicy honey mustard, hummus, mashed avocado, or olive tapenade as binders also. It's not all Remoulade in my world.

The Awesome Sandwich was a handy little staple over the past weekend. However, Monday morning dawned cold and dreary. And not just Autumn dreary--there was actually a threat of snow in the forecast.

The Awesome Sandwich is not so awesome when it's that grim outside. Which is why my Panini Maker is my most favorite thing. Seriously, I'd French-kiss that thing if I could.

Last Night's Awesome Panini**
serves 1

2 slices good sourdough bread
2 thick slices Fontina cheese
2-3 ounces Boar's Head honey roasted turkey breast, sliced
Sliced roasted red peppers
Thick smhmear of Olive Tapenade (I like the Jalapeno-Olive kind, personally.

Smear Tapenade on one slice of bread. Place 1 piece of cheese on each slice (on a panini, cheese is the glue, so put it on both slices of bread! Layer on remaining ingredients. Close sandwich and either butter the outer sides or drizzle with olive oil. Squish in a hot panini maker and cook until brown and crisp. Let stand about a minute, then slice (if you slice too soon, all of your cheese drizzles out. Which is a total buzzkill).

**The toasty bread provides the crunch component in this sandwich, but if you are a freak like me, you will slide in a couple of Kettle Chips or Doritos into the sandwich. This makes my husband gag, but hey, I just roll that way.

Feel free to post your sandwich preferences, oddities, recipes and yes, even rants. I love hearing y'all talk!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Kaput! A Study in Sloth

I am sitting here writing this post wearing a black veil. Yes, gentle readers, we have had a death in the family. An unexpected and violent death. Farewell, my dear and faithful friend. You left us too soon.

Friday morning, I was sitting in the kitchen, scouring my cookbooks for a recipe (an edible one) that would make fast work of the leftover cabbage in the refrigerator. Suddenly, BLAMMO!! My trusty Kitchen Aid diswasher, a mere 4 years old, exploded. In a flash of hot water, foam and smoke, the front of it literally blew open mid-cycle.

Thank goodness Miss M. wasn't anywhere near that thing. It wasn't just the threat of burns I was worried about: the front door to that dishwasher has got to weigh more than 20 pounds. Little Miss Bright Eyes Would have been toast.

So nobody was harmed. That's the good news. The bad news? The service technician cannot come out until Monday, and if a new part is needed, I might not have a dishwasher for a week or so. This is dire news indeed.

Scoff if you like. I know, I know, the demise of a dishwasher is not the end of the world. There are actually mutants on this planet who do not own dishwashers at all. There are also freakazoids on the planet like my mother, who own dishwashers but rarely use them, because they enjoy doing dishes by hand.

However, I am not one of those mutants or freakazoids. I need my dishwasher to function. I hate doing dishes. And I cook a lot. And I have little turdlets in my house who think it's sacrilege to use the same cup twice for a stinking cup of water. This is BAD.

So, what does a girl without a dishwasher do? Well, she breaks down and does dishes by hand, naturally.

But what if, after that first 40 minute ordeal, the girl decides that she is far, far, too lazy for this by-hand crap?

My Mother Planet Earth, I apologize. I know the Recycling Gods have placed me on the highest rung of their shit list. But I was desperate, I tell you. I sheepishly purchased my paper/plastic crutches Friday afternoon and yes, I do feel dirty.

The second level of fallout from the Deceased Dishwasher Ordeal came in the form of meal planning. As in, I had to scrap my original menu plan because no genius has yet to come up with disposable saucepans. This required some ingenuity on my part: How could I feed the troops using as few pots and pans possible?

Bless you, grill. Bless you, panini maker. And bless you Cheater Summer Rolls, which only require the quick boiling of rice noodles.

Vietnamese Summer Rolls are one of my favorite things to make when it's too hot to cook. And they're wicked fun to assemble and eat. I decided to really cheat this time, however, because I couldn't be bothered to marinate and grill meat for the filling. Instead, I remembered seeing a recipe a while back (God knows where) where rare roast beef from the deli replaced the traditional grilled meat in summer rolls.

Viola! Cheater Summer Rolls were born.

Cheater Summer Rolls

-large rice paper rounds*
-butter lettuce or soft red leaf lettuce
-rice noodles, cooked, drained, and tossed with a drizzle of toasted sesame oil (I had chinese noodles on hand, so I cooked and used those)
-rare deli roast beef from the deli, thinly sliced (tofu or cooked shrimp work, too)
-bean sprouts
-any or all of the following: marinated slices of cucumber, radish, carrot**
-Mint leaves and/or Thai basil leaves
-Dipping sauce***

Mound all ingredients except for rice paper rounds on a large platter. In a large bowl of warm water, soak the rice papers, one at a time, until just pliable (about 30 seconds). Place the softened rice paper on the counter and layer with any or all of the options on the platter (just down the middle of the wrapper). It's a good idea to lay down the lettuce first, as it will prevent the wrappers from ripping/ingredients from falling out.

Be careful not to overstuff your rolls. After layering on ingredients, roll the ends and sides of the rice paper up, egg-roll style. Roll them tightly! Use some muscle!

Cover completed rolls with a damp towel to keep them from drying out. Or, as we do, just take turns making rolls and immediately eating them, working as you go.

Serve with dipping sauce and Sriracha on the side.

*You can find rice papers in the Asian section of most supermarkets.

**I make a simple marinade of 1/3 cup rice vinegar, 1 1/2 tablespoons of sugar and a dash of crushed red pepper. I toss thinly sliced cucumber, radish or carrot with the marinade and put the veggies in the refrigerator for 20 minutes or longer.

***The dipping sauce is a traditional Vietnamese condiment. Don't fear the fish sauce!! I know it sounds scary but when mixed with the other stuff, all you really taste is salt. If you do fear fish sauce, however, you can dip the rolls into hoisin sauce thinned with a little rice vinegar or hot water instead.

Dipping sauce (nuoc cham):
1/4 cup fish sauce (in Asian section of supermarket)
2 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon warm water
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
1/2 garlic clove, minced
2 small serrano or red chiles, sliced

These were a hit! It's especially nice because the kiddos can pick and choose what they put in their rolls. Let's just say that radish never makes it to the little ones' lips, and no, they don't use the dipping sauce. However, Awesome Stepkid R. loves the dipping sauce, so you never know!

If you are less slothful than me, and want to do the spring rolls the way they SHOULD be done, I encourage you to check out this post from Jen at userealbutter. Jen is a friend, a terrific cook and a kick-ass photographer. This girl knows her stuff and, unlike me, NEVER does anything half-assed.

Prepare for more half-assed, low-effort dinners from this lame broad until the Saga of the Exploding Dishwasher is over.

Friday, September 18, 2009

Family Recipe: Stuffed Cabbage Rolls

In direct betrayal of the German side of my heritage, I am not a cabbage lover. I can tolerate cole slaw once in a while, but only if it's laying on top of a big old bbq brisket sandwich.

No cooked cabbage, particularly not that nasty sweet and sour red cabbage that sends my father into a swoon.

And sauerkraut? Forget it.

My father even likes the Sauerkraut Salad of White Trash Motherlode fame. It boggles the mind how much he adores that stinky, cruciferous stuff.

I was riffling thorough some old recipes the other day and came across a recipe for Stuffed Cabbage Rolls. My mother made them a few times growing up, and, if memory serves me, I think I sort of liked them. Probably because there's not that much cabbage IN them. And, if memory serves me, Mama's cabbage rolls were the only edible cabbage rolls on the planet.

Other people's Stuffed Cabbage Rolls are vile concoctions, to be avoided at all costs. Because other people stuff hideous crap like pine nuts, raisins, or bulghur into theirs. And they muck up the sauce with lots of vinegar and sugar, so it becomes this viscous, sweet/tart monstrosity. Shudder.

Curiosity got the better of me. I mean, had I really eaten Stuffed Cabbage Rolls as a child and survived the experience? Or do I clearly have early-onset Alzheimers, because looking at the recipe, I can't believe I ate them. The filling reads suspiciously like....God, can I even say it? *M.L.* My life-long nemesis.

I decided, against my better judgement, that I needed to try this recipe. I went to the store and bought a head of cabbage--an item that had never graced my cart. Ever.

Just to add a little drama to the experience, I decided to serve Stuffed Cabbage Rolls on the eve of my 9th Anniversary. Clearly, I was testing the devotion of my husband. He was expecting something sexy, like filet mignon or seafood paella.

When I placed this little steaming plate of Deutchland in front of him, he looked at me, dumbfounded.

"It's an experiment," I said.

To his credit, he dug in. He's a trooper, my man is.

Verdict: Not bad! Oddly kind of comforting, if not just a little bland. I think we're so used to eating spicy food that if I make them again I'll throw in some Harissa or chile flakes. We ate a couple and decided that Stuffed Cabbage Rolls aren't evil.

However, the next day I boxed up the leftovers and took them to the one person I knew would appreciate them most.

This girl knows her daddy.

Stuffed Cabbage Rolls*
serves 6

12 large cabbage leaves
1 1/4 lbs. ground beef
1 cup cooked rice**
1 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 small onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 egg
1 teaspoon dried thyme
2 tablespoons oil
2 (8 oz.) cans Hunt's Tomato Sauce
2 teaspoons brown sugar
1/4 cup water
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

Cover cabbage leaves with boiling water and let stand for 5 minutes or until limp; drain. Combine beef, rice, pepper, salt, garlic, onion, egg and thyme.

Trim any stiff spines off of the cabbage leaves. Place equal portions of the meat mixture in the center of each leaf. Fold sides of each leaf over meat; roll up and fasten closed with toothpicks.

In a large electric skillet***, heat oil. Brown rolls on all sides. Combine tomato sauce, sugar, lemon juice and water. Add to the skillet. Simmer covered, one hour, basting often with the sauce in the pan.

* And no, the filling for these does NOT look suspiciously like meat loaf. No! It does NOT. I'm tellin' ya.

** It's best if you undercook the rice just slightly. That way, it doesn't get mushy in the end.

*** It goes to show you how ancient this recipe is by the reference to an electric skillet. Do you remember those things? Mama had one and made my favorite fried pork chops in it. I don't have one. I'm not even sure if they make those suckers any more. You can use a large saute pan or, if you are lazy like me, skip the browning step altogether and bake the Cabbage Rolls in a large covered casserole dish in a 350 degree oven for an hour, basting occasionally.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Spicy Asian-Chicken-Salad Lettuce cups

Confession: I am addicted to the food rags. Gourmet, Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Saveur, Cooks Illustrated, Food and Wine...I get them all. It makes my husband crazy, because he's always tripping over stacks of magazines, dog-eared with recipes I want to try. And I am slow about trying them, so the stack starts looking like the Leaning Tower of Pisa.

Eventually, he'll demand a "magazine purge," which means I actually have to take the time to rip out the recipes from the magazines. And then, of course, create another pile.

Some of the recipes actually get made, usually the ones that aren't overly fussy or complicated. Translation: I hardly ever make recipes from Food and Wine Magazine (the same used to apply to Gourmet magazine, but I think they're trying to reform...the recipes seem less hoity-toity lately).

I'm not sure why I even still get Food and Wine. Maybe I'm just compulsively afraid I'll miss out on that *one* recipe that will come along and rock my world if I cancel.

I was riffling through the latest pile of recipes (from magazines, I am ashamed to report, spanning from April-September) and came across one from, gasp, Food and Wine Magazine. It was so carelessly ripped that I couldn't even see which month's issue it was from, but it's a pretty summery recipe, so I'm sure it's fairly current.

This recipe was SO not typical Food and Wine fodder. It was incredibly simple, required no cooking and used, of all things, a rotisserie chicken from the deli. Mon Dieu! Sacrilege!

I know a lot of people are thinking Autumn right now, but it's still pretty warm here. The air conditioner is still churnin' at Chez T. I made the recipe on a steamy night and we just loved it.

Don't be put off by the "spicy" moniker in the title. It packs a bit of heat, but it's not overwhelming, and the avocado puts out any fire you'll feel. Promise.

And don't worry that it's, well, orange. It looks a little weird, but it's just the chile sauce talkin.' It may not be the most gorgeous chicken salad, but on a hot night, when you want something light, this will hit the spot.

Spicy Asian Chicken Salad Lettuce Cups
from Food and Wine Magazine

1/2 cup mayonnaise*
2 teaspoons sambal oelek or Chinese chile-garlic sauce
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon sesame oil
One 2-pound rotisserie chicken--skin and bones discarded, meat pulled into bite-sized pieces
1/3 cup water chestnuts, coarsely chopped
2 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
Kosher salt and freshly ground pepper
12 Bibb or iceberg lettuce leaves
1 Hass avocado, peeled and cut into 12 slices
Lime wedges, for serving

In a medium bowl, mix the mayonnaise, sambal oelek, mustard and sesame oil. Stir in the chicken, water chestnuts and scallions and season with salt and pepper. Spoon the chicken salad into the lettuce cups and top with a slice of avocado. Serve with lime wedges.

*Hubby isn't a big mayo guy, so I only used about 1/4 cup. It wasn't super-creamy that way, but the avocado on top added a little moisture, and we found it just fine that way.

F&W suggests pairing with a slightly sweet white wine, such as Reisling such as 2008 Chateau Ste. Michelle Columbia Valley or an off-dry Pinot Gris such as 2007 Hula Vineyards from New Zealand. They know a heck of a lot more about wine than I do, so I'd believe them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

Of Pea Soup and Edgar Pine

The lovely blogger here, the Unconfidential Cook, jogged my memory the other day with her comment on a White Trash post. She mentioned the hideousity that is Pea Soup.

If there are any pea soup lovers out there (besides my sister, and she already willingly admits to loving Shipwreck Casserole, so go figure), let me just say... WTF? Glutinous bowl of something does that translate to *edible* to you freaks?

Pea soup is nasty. And Edgar Pine* is proof.

Edgar Pine was in my kindergarten class, and, now that I think of it, was probably a vampire. He was that pale, that skinny, that wan. And this was 1974, folks, so don't even think it was cool to be a vampire back then. Plus, Edgar Pine had one lazy eye that insisted on hunting when the other was fishing...NOT a good thing.

In a wicked turn of bad luck,I caught Edgar's fancy. I have no idea why. There's a pretty good chance that it was because I was the only kid in class skinnier than him. And slower than him.

Which made me Edgar Pine's prey of choice for a playground game called Kiss and Punch. I have no idea if this game existed anywhere else on the planet, but the cretins on my North Dakota playground loved it.

Kiss and Punch was simple and oddly pointless, but I guess you could say that about Red Rover or Crack the Whip, too. Kiss and Punch went like so: pick your victim, chase victim around the playground until you either corner or tire him/her out, kiss victim and then promptly deliver a hard fist to the stomach.

Edgar Pine always called dibs on me. Come recess time, I was toast. And when he came at me with those mismatched eyes, chapped lips and crooked corncob teeth, I wanted to die. The only positive thing I can say about the whole ordeal is that Edgar Pine packed a pretty weak punch. That sissy.

Further proof that Edgar Pine was some kind of Alien came when our Kindergarten class compiled a book of our favorite recipes. This book was a mother's day gift and was titled, "In the Kitchen with Mom." It had a red cover and, like most Kindergarten presents, was highly amusing reading material. Kids say the darnedest things.

Take the entry from my then best-friend, a little redhead named Missy Fairchild: "My mom can't cook but my dad can. My favorite thing he makes is pot pie. You take it out of the box, put it in the oven, and when it's black, it's done."

Like many of my classmates, I declared that my mother's masterpiece was Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. However, I also gave her cred for her bitchin' Tuna Fish Sandwich.

Edgar Pine's choice? Pea Soup.

I told you, right? I mean, if you are 5 years old and your favorite food is pea soup, you are obviously sleeping in coffins and swilling plasma, don't you think?

I actually felt relief when I saw his entry in the cookbook. Aha, I thought. Proof.

My playground horrors with The Vampire ended when Edgar and his Coven moved to Minneapolis. I was happily rid of him.

A week later, I caught the eye of a boy named Darren. Darren sat at my table and was highly talented; he could, with record speed, slurp pickle juice up his nose. But that's another story...

Mama's Tuna Fish Sandwich**
serves 3

1 can water packed tuna, drained
2 ribs celery, finely chopped
1 teaspoon sweet pickle relish
3 tablespoons Miracle Whip Salad Dressing
salt and pepper to taste
Squishy White Bread

Mix tuna, celery, pickle relish, and Miracle Whip together in a small bowl. Season with salt and pepper.

Spread between slices of the Squishy White Bread (do NOT substitute!) and enjoy.

*Edgar Pine is, at the advice of my husband, an alias. He's afraid that there's a Vampire in Minnesota who still remembers me.

**I ate this sandwich, alternating with the Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, every day for lunch for my entire Kindergarten career. I think this probably qualifies as Jag #1.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Birthday Sheet Cake

Barefoot Bloggers must have it in for me this month, because they chose not just one, but two cakes as September projects. This makes my baking-challenged soul quiver, let me tell you. I am Baroness of the Box Cake.

However, this time I couldn't cheat, so I raided the baking aisle at the store and bought foreign items like chocolate chips, baking soda and vanilla. You know, stuff that most normal people just always have on hand? I even had to buy a disposable cake pan, and this one was a whopper.

The recipe I made was for Ina's Birthday Sheet Cake, and that sucker is a cake. Ever seen a 12x18-inch cake pan? When I saw it in the baking aisle, I almost mistook it for a luge.

A couple of notes before I get into the details:

*Ina insists that the key to a light and fluffy cake is that the eggs, butter and sour cream are at room temperature when you start. Ina says she usually just sets them out over night... Okay, does this give anyone else the heebie-jeebies?

I mean, don't eggs and butter and sour cream spoil if not refrigerated? Isn't that why we *keep* them there in the first place? Still, Ina sure bakes more that I do, so I let them sit out on the counter for three hours before I started.

*Ina's Birthday Sheet Cake is basically a vanilla cake with chocolate frosting. Except. She adds the zest of an entire lemon to the cake batter. This also seemed a little weird to me. Lemon cake with chocolate icing? I wondered if Ina'd been sniffing glue when she came up with that combination, but, like a good girl, I followed orders.

*This cake is ginormous, and Ina instructs us to use a mixer with a paddle attachment to make the batter. Translation: Ina assumes that everyone can afford an industrial, 12-cup Kitchen Aid Stand Mixer, which is a few hundred little dollars.

This is no problem for Ina, in her little crib in the Hamptons, but it's a pretty big assumption that an average Joe has a Kitchen Aid kickin' it on his counter.

However, when I married my husband almost 9 years ago, my Aunt Pat, who happens to be both generous and an amazing cook, sent me one of those suckers as a wedding gift. Shamefully, I rarely bake, so the thing had gathered some dust...I know, I am lame.

Anyways, enough yakkin.' Here's the Birthday Sheet cake, from The Barefoot Contessa Family Style.

For the Cake:

18 tablespoons (2 1/4 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
6 extra-large eggs, at room temperature
8 ounces (about a cup) sour cream, at room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
Zest of 1 lemon
3 cups all-purpose flour
1/3 cup cornstarch
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon baking soda

For the Frosting:

24 ounces semisweet chocolate chips
1 1/2 cups heavy cream
2 tablespoons light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

M&M's chocolate candy, for decorating

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 12x18x1 1/2-inch sheet pan.

To make the cake, cream the butter and sugar on medium-high speed in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment until light and fluffy, about 5 minutes. On medium speed, add the eggs, two at a time, then the sour cream, vanilla and lemon zest, scraping down the bowl as needed.

Mix well. Sift together the flour, cornstarch, salt and baking soda. With the mixer on low speed, slowly add the flour mixture to the butter mixture and stir until just smooth. Finish mixing by hand to be sure the batter is well mixed. Pour evenly into the pan, smooth the top with a spatula, and bake in the center of the oven for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean. Cool in the pan to room temperature

For the frosting, place the chocolate chips and heavy cream in a bowl set over a pot of simmering water, stirring occasionally, until the chips are completely melted. Off the heat, add the corn syrup and vanilla and allow the chocolate mixture to cool to room temperature. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment, whisk the chocolate mixture and the softened butter on medium speed for a few minutes until it's thickened.

Spread the frosting evenly on the cake. Have the children decorate the cake with the M&M's.

Serves just about the whole damn neighborhood. Which is basically what I tried to do. I stood at the corner bus-stop yesterday, shamelessly pimping it out to eager schoolchildren. We still didn't finish it, but we gave strong effort.

And guess what? Those little taste testers didn't notice the lemon zest--or at least they had the good sense not to complain...because they know in a couple of weeks, the Cake Pimp will be back on that corner, saying, "Psssst....guess what I got?"

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Dinner by Committee: Frogmore Stew

Have I mentioned that we have the coolest neighbors ever? The K and T Victory garden is still bearing fruit, although the K's garden is doing much better than ours. We have a pesky crabgrass infestation while the K's are cranking out beautiful things like this.

Luckily, they're happy to share. We particularly enjoy the K family in the summer; our girls flit from yard to yard, house to house almost seamlessly on long afternoons. Many weekends, my phone will ring in the early afternoon and my neighbor Jen will say something like: "I've got a ton of jalapenos, three ears of corn and a loaf of amazing bread...what have you got?"

And I'll laugh and look in my refrigerator and we know that Dinner by Committee is on.

Dinner by Committee basically means that Jen and I don't want to go to the grocery store, don't want to cook something elaborate, but still gotta get grub on the table. Thus, we need each other. In short: we gotta make somethin' outta nothin'.

It's a fun challenge to pool your resources, gather together at the end of a long summer day and eat something delicious. It's sort of like Iron Chef meets Stone Soup.

This weekend, Jen did, indeed, have a buttload of jalapenos that needed eating, so she made bacon wrapped jalapeno poppers on the grill. Did I mention how lucky we are?

I had potatoes, corn, a package of andouille sausage and some shrimp in the freezer, so I made Frogmore Stew. Frogmore Stew, or Low-Country Boil, is a dish I'd never heard of until I met my wonderful friend Tink. Tink is Georgia born and bred, which means several things: she's got a tart little twang on her tongue, she's always perfectly groomed, and she can throw a party like nobody's business.

A few years ago she called and said that her husband was fixin' to cook up a Low-Country Boil, and did we want to stop by? I said, "Ummm, whaaa??"

Low-Country Boil is to folks in Georgia/South Carolina what a Lobster Boil or Clambake is to New Englanders. And, like those East coast seafood feasts, Frogmore Stew is lots of fun to make and eat.

Frogmore Stew (aka: Low-Country Boil)
serves 6 (can easily be doubled)

a good fistful of Old Bay seasoning (about 3 tablespoons to a 1/4 cup)
4-5 ears fresh corn, shucked, wrenched in half
2 pounds small red new potatoes, scrubbed
1 pound cooked smoked sausage, such as andouille or kielbasa, chunked
3 pounds shrimp, deveined, shell on
cocktail sauce, remoulade sauce, and/or lemon butter (we did 'em all)

Bring a humongous stew pot of water on the stove to boil. Throw in the Old Bay seasoning and the potatoes. Cover and cook 10 minutes.

Add the corn and sausage; cover and cook 10 minutes more, or until potatoes are tender.

Add the shrimp and cook just until pink. Drain the entire thing, and roll the whole shebang onto a giant platter set on top of newspaper.

Guests eat with their hands, discard the cobs and shells onto the newspaper, and dunk the feast into one or all of the following: cocktail sauce, remoulade sauce or lemon butter.

Great served with ice cold beer and people who tell good jokes.

***We couldn't have Tink in our backyard this time around, but as the girls were licking buttery corn off of their fingers, forearms and elbows, I knew she was with us in spirit. I almost could hear that minxy little laugh of hers, saying: "Y'all, this is what summer's about."

Monday, September 7, 2009

Poem About Morning

Poem About Morning
William Meredith

Whether it's sunny or not, it's sure
To be enormously complex--
Trees or streets outdoors, indoors whoever you share,
And yourself, thirsty, hungry, washing,
An attitude towards sex.
No wonder half of you wants to stay
With your head dark and wishing
Rather than take it all on again:
Weren't you duped yesterday?
Things are not orderly here, no matter what they say.

But the clock goes off, if you have a dog
It wags, if you get up now you'll be less
Late. Life is some kind of loathsome hag
Who is forever threatening to turn beautiful.
Now she gives you a quick toothpaste kiss
And puts a glass of cold cranberry juice,
Like a big fake garnet, in your hand.
Cranberry juice! You're lucky, on the whole,
But there is a great deal about it you don't understand.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Cooking Together: Sesame Pork Lettuce Wraps

Awesome Stepkid R loves lettuce wraps. I usually make them several times a month when he's around, and if I forget, he's quick to remind me that he's missing them.

I like requests. Dinnertime is so much more stress-free and enjoyable when you're cooking for an appreciative audience. And a hungry 16 year old boy is definitely an appreciative audience. He's growing so fast that my old [much hated] Elementary School Nickname of "Flamingo Legs" isn't too far from becoming his truth. Poor dude.

I usually use chicken for lettuce wraps but pork tenderloin was on sale this week, so we gave it a spin.

Sesame Pork Lettuce Wraps
serves 3-4

1 pound pork tenderloin
1/4 cup thinly sliced shallot
1 tablespoon honey
2 tablespoons soy sauce
1 tablespoon hoisin sauce
1 tablespoon chopped bottled ginger
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon Sriracha or other hot asian pepper sauce
1/2 tablespoon Mirin, japanese wine
1 teaspoon dark sesame oil (preferably toasted, if you can find it)

Hot cooked short grain rice
Butter or red leaf lettuce (allow about 4 leaves per person... WAY more if you have hungry teen [aka: Garbage Disposal] in house)
Bean Sprouts
Mint Leaves
Chopped roasted peanuts or sesame seeds
Lime wedges

Freeze the pork tenderloin until somewhat frozen. It took ours about an hour. Combine next 9 ingredients; add to a large ziploc bag. Remove pork from freezer; slice crosswise very thinly (slices should be about 1/4 inch thick). Seal and marinate pork at least 2 hours. I let mine sit in that salt bath about 5 hours. It's forgiving that way.

Now a purist would probably grill these pork slices. That's the traditional way. Just throw them on a medium high grill for 1-2 minutes a side. However, it looked like rain outside, and I actually like the way the sauce coats and caramelizes the pork if you cook the pork directly in the marinade, so this is what I did. Heat a heavy skillet or wok, brush with a bit of oil, throw the pork and the marinade in the pan and saute quickly until the pork is just cooked and the sauce coats the slices.

In each lettuce leaf, pile a few strips of pork, rice, bean sprouts, mint and nuts/seeds. Give it a healthy squirt of lime juice, roll up and eat!

**In our house, we also add an extra squirt of Sriracha and some thinly sliced jalapenos. You can also substitute shredded carrot for the bean sprouts, or add them anyways, like we do, because more veg is always good.

We liked the pork in the wraps--in fact, my husband couldn't stop eating the meat. Next time, I'll double the recipe because we could have tucked into another entire order of that meat.
You know, because we can be pigs...eating pig...wait, that ain't right, is it?

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Walk

Some of you (at least I think there's some of you, or mom, is it all you?) leave me comments and ask how I know so many stories/ know so much about my family. Well, for starters, I have an Irish grandfather and a grandmother who grew up Southern. Nobody likes to tell tales more than a liquored up Irishman--unless it's a Southern Belle.

Their stories got passed on to my mama, who then passed them on to me. Some of the stories got passed on while we were in the kitchen together. From an early age, I loved hanging out with my mother in the kitchen. My sister stayed FAR away from that place, but for me, the kitchen was the heart of the house.

We spent a lot of hours rolling dough, patting out hamburgers, glazing cookies with sweet icing. Especially in long North Dakota winters. Many of mama's recipes came from people she'd known and loved, and inevitably, there'd be some kind of story lurking in the background. I thought that was the coolest thing ever--that something as mundane as a slip of paper had a person, a time, a moment behind it.

But really, I learned most of my stories on The Walk.

The Walk wasn't something we were looking for, and at first, it was an awful reminder.

When I was in the third grade, my sister and I walked the four blocks home from school, boots thunking through February snow, bickering and hurling insults. We fumbled at the doorknob with mittened fingers, entered the foyer and...

My father was sitting at his desk.

This was weird. Dad usually travelled during the week. And if he didn't, he was at the office and (being the good German that he was) never came home until 6 o'clock sharp. Thursday+3pm+Dad=weird.

Plus, I didn't smell anything yummy in the air. Where was the smell of buttered popcorn, or oatmeal cookies, or yeast rolls with jam? Where was my after school snack, always waiting for me at 3pm sharp, because mama knew I was starving after school?

My sister and I cut eyes at one another, animosity forgotten, now comrades in a strange and quiet room. And then something happened that terrified me. My sister, still gawking at my father, reached out and took my hand.

Mama didn't die, but she was supposed to. She came close. When she returned to us, weeks and weeks later, she only had one lung. And as fate would have it, the one she got to keep was the one scarred from bronchitis, so it was kind of a bum deal.

She wheezed a lot, fought for breath. Doctors told her that she needed to strengthen that lung, make it so mighty that it could do the job of two. But face it, she was a frail bird. She certainly wasn't going to slap on a pair of leggings and Jane Fonda it to aerobics class.

So the doctors told her to walk. A lot. Start small, they said, until you start to feel better, but walk, and do it now.

Mama wanted rather badly to live, so she did. At first, she would just meet me outside school and we'd walk home together.

By summertime, she could walk up the steep hill to the neighborhood swimming pool, scan the sea of small faces until she saw mine. She'd holler my name, smile broadly, wave. And I'd wave back, whole body rocking, so happy to see her there. And then she'd leave me to my playmates and my cool water, journeying back home alone.

By fall, she was zipping up her windbreaker, telling us that she'd be back in 45 minutes.

And so it went, The Walk, every day, for several years. The bum lung got strong. She felt good. Her legs had muscles they'd never had before. And then she got a blood test back with a totally fucked white blood cell count.

And she dealt with it. And she kept walking. In fact, she decided to walk more. She worked up to 90 minutes, which was an awfully long time to spend alone. So she suggested I join her.

I'd just hit 6th grade, was gawky and miserable, had 1 friend to my name (thank you, Julie Nicodemus, don't think I've forgotten) so I agreed. Hey, it was something to do.

You can cover a lot of ground in 90 minutes. And we did. Five miles and lots of stories. We took The Walk together every day that we could. Even in 100 degree heat. Even at -10 in January, which we learned was a bad idea, because mama got frostbite on the tip of her nose.

We walked together for 7-plus years. That's a lot of stories, tears, confessions, changes, challenges.

The neighbors began calling us The Walkers. When people see someone hoofing it around the neighborhood every day for years, they start to think they know you, so mama and I would get accosted in grocery stores and post offices.

"Have you walked enough miles to reach San Diego yet?"
"You two are so inspiring! I've watched you for years, and now I'm starting to walk, too."
"Crap, would you give me some of your motivation?"
"I'm embarrassed to say it, but my husband looks forward to seeing you two girls walk by every day. He's a pig, but he means no harm."
"You two are so lucky to have each other."

And we were. We are.

I read this wonderful post the other day, by a writer and human being I highly admire. It reminded me of the power of The Walk. You sure as heck don't have to go five miles, and you certainly don't need to make it a daily ritual, but do it. Lace up your shoes, grab someone you love, and let the landscape and air and the rhythmic sound of your heels on hard ground take you away.

White Trash Motherlode: Sauerkraut Salad

My sister's best friend in North Dakota was a girl named Lisa. I liked Lisa--she didn't care if I followed her and my sister around like a hungry dog. This was a bigger deal than you'd think, because I had no friends of my own. Thus, she pretty much had to tolerate me all of the time. Because, much to my sister's disgust, mama insisted that we were a package deal.

"But I'm 3 years olllllllder than her," my sister would protest. "I don't see why I have to drag that baby around when I play with MY friends."

Looking back, my sister sort of had a point, but Mama was too busy and too smart to relent. She knew that if left to entertain myself, I'd hurl myself to the floor, threatening to die of boredom, within 5 minutes. So Tagalong I was.

Sometimes we ended up at Lisa's house, which I found thrilling. Lisa had two much older brothers, and spying on them (without detection) was one of my favorite pastimes. I studied them voraciously, not altogether unlike Goodall and her apes. They talked on the phone to girls and had pimples and listened to music other than The Osmond Brothers. Quite exotic, I tell you.

Lisa's mother, Barb, always wore perfume and lipstick and was the only woman I've known who actually smoked cigarettes in those long holders, like Cruella DeVille. She was perpetually on a diet and dressed provocatively. I remember eyeing her breasts with suspicion, wondering when those globes were going to go AWOL from her clingy shirts. To my disappointment, I never witnessed it.

My mother tried to be friends with her, but Barb was, in the end, just too racy for mama. I think the clincher was one fateful trip to the movies, when my mother discovered, to her horror, that the film Barb had chosen was X-rated. Mama didn't say a word, but I'd have given a million dollars to have been a fly on that wall.

Barb wasn't much of a cook, but she was generous with invitations to dinner, which was nice. Except. Barb followed a strict weight loss plan and once a week, that plan advocated eating liver for dinner. Now this would have been okay if there was one night--say Wednesday--that was Liver Night. Then, no problem. I could be permanently busy on Wednesday. But Barb wasn't that organized. Liver Night was frighteningly fluid in that household, and mama told me it was bad manners to ask what was for dinner if invited. I do beleive the threat "beat you until you can't sit anymore" had been uttered regarding that breach of etiquitte.

But it also wasn't polite to always refuse an invitation to dinner, so I spent a few nights in flat-out terror, eyes glued to the stove, wondering what menace was lurking in the pot.

Luckily, I never got liver, and luckier still, my problem got solved for me. Not long after my 4th birthday, I got bronchitis. My nasty, phlegm-soaked ass was stuck in bed. Quite gleefully, my sister set out for Lisa's house on a rare solo venture.

When she came back, I was huddled in a blanket, on the kitchen floor, watching my mother cook dinner, fuming at my sister the traitor.

The Traitor poured herself a glass of Hi-C and said casually to my mother, "Mom, what does screw mean?"

There was a long pause. Then my mother continued peeling potatoes. "You mean like when you screw in a nail?" my mother said.

"Nooooo, I mean screw like what Barbie does with Ken," my sister said, rolling her eyes in disdain.

We learned two lessons that day. One of them was a vocabulary term. The second: do not play Barbies with Lisa's older brothers in the room.

Lisa spent most playdates at OUR house from then on. Liver Night Problem solved.

This recipe for revolting (I assume) Sauerkraut Salad came from Lisa's grandmother. Suffice it to say that I know now why Barb wasn't much of a cook.

Sauerkraut Salad

1 green pepper
1 small onion
3 stalks celery
1 can (1 lb.) sauerkraut
1 cup chili sauce
1/3 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon paprika
3 tablespoons lemon juice

Chop green pepper, onions and celery fine. Then mix with sauerkraut and all remaining ingredients. This is very good with cold cuts.**

**Her endorsement, not mine!!