Monday, November 30, 2009

Party Time

Now that Thanksgiving is behind us (and wasn't it just the best? I love Thanksgiving!), the holiday parties will be in full swing. I'm pretty sure I'll eat too much, drink more than I do the whole rest of the year combined, and fetch up in January feeling both happy and fat. I never seem to learn moderation at the holidays.

Here's one reason why. Medjool dates spritzed with fromage blanc and topped with an almond. I first tasted these when My Beloved and I last went to the Marin farmer's market. The Date Lady (I'm sorry, I don't remember her name) was giving these out as a sample of why one should purchase her dates. Her sales technique worked - we immediately hunted up a bag of raw almonds and some Bellwether Farms fromage blanc to go with the fat package of dates we bought from her.

I decided to take these to our pal Sari's cheese tasting party. I cut the dates in half, spooned the cheese into a cookie press
with a decorative tip (you could use a pastry bag just as easily) and squeezed out a little pfffft of cheese at one end of each date half, then placed an almond in the other end. The dates are slightly sticky, so it all stays neatly in place.

Sweet date and tangy cheese flood the tongue with conflicting flavors, leaving behind the crunch of the nut for texture and yet another mellow flavor. I intended these to be a dessert but they were mostly gone before dessert was even dreamed of. It was party time, and moderation is something best practiced in January.

Labels: , ,

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Gathering Traditions

Thanksgiving isn't a particular day; it's the day when your loved ones gather.

Years ago, when I lived in western New York and my pal Wenirs and her family lived a mere six hour drive away in Michigan, we developed a strong tradition of spending holidays together and it was rare that we missed a Thanksgiving. One year, it snowed and sleeted so hard that we simply couldn't make the drive, slogging sadly to the local Wegmans market to buy a small turkey to eat with just the two of us. Most years, however, either they would drive east or we would drive west, usually on Thanksgiving day to avoid the traffic, and we'd celebrate the holiday the next day.

Since I moved to California, our Thanksgivings together have been far fewer, but this year I managed to snag Wenirs' son Mark for a second Thanksgiving dinner on the Saturday after. He drove up from LA and while he was sleeping off his long drive, I put a second turkey on the rotisserie and set a table filled with family traditions.

The table itself was a gift from our friends Irene and Guy. The china originated with my great-grandmother; the silver was a wedding gift from my parents; the water glasses came from my mother's best friend (and Wenirs' mother), Bobbie, for my sister, who sent them to me. The wine glasses were a wedding gift from
My Beloved's brother Ted. On the plate, in addition to the traditional turkey, are our good friend Jack's mashed potatoes as well as wild rice and black olives in honor of Wenirs who always served those at her Thanksgiving table. The squash is a new recipe to me this year but one that was such a hit that it will become traditional from now on.

Thanksgiving isn't a particular day; it's the day when your loved ones gather, whether in person or in spirit.


Friday, November 27, 2009

Jack's Spuds

Thanksgiving is all about gratitude, gratitude for the good things in life such as good health, firm friends, happy families, nature's bounty, natural beauty.

And mashed potatoes.

When we invited friends Janie, Jodie and Jack for Thanksgiving, Jack insisted on making his world-famous mashed potatoes (Jack is not given to modesty), and I readily assented - I have eaten his spuds before and they are memorable.

He starts with Yukon gold potatoes; they live up to their name. Waxy and softly yellow, they don't even need peeling and they cook quickly. Jack came armed with his own special masher (don't tell him, but it's just like any other) and, once the potatoes were tender, he poured off most of the water, set the pot back onto the warm burner (with the heat turned off) and went to work.

I can't tell you the exact recipe - I'm not even sure there is one - but copious lashings of real butter, half and half, salt, pepper, fresh minced parsley, dried basil and drama went in as he stirred and mashed, mashed and stirred. I don't want to say he made a big production of it but, well, he made a big production of it - lots of theater and body English went into these spuds.

The finished dish was pure potato heaven - spooned into a warmed serving dish, they were rich and bumpy with skins and lumps, buttery and savory and ohmyheavenstobetsy the temptation to take 'way too large a serving was downright irresistible.

This year, I have much to be grateful for and Jack's mashed potatoes are pretty high up on the list.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving

I'm thankful for My Beloved.

I'm thankful that my brothers and sister and their families are all in good health.

I'm thankful for two lovely daughters, not of my body but of my heart.

I'm thankful for our funny and beautiful granddaughter.

I'm thankful for a great bunch of friends, both new and enduring.

I'm thankful for the goofy mutt who shares our life and makes us laugh.

I'm thankful for my very comfortable lifestyle.

I'm thankful for humor that comes in my email.

I'm thankful for the thoughtful, intelligent family in the White House.

I'm especially thankful for the beauty around me daily - this sunset is just one example.

I'm thankful for the friends I've made through blogging and all they have taught me.

I'm spending Thanksgiving with dear friends, and my godson and his partner are coming up to help us celebrate. I'm glad that this holiday gives me a good excuse to think about what I'm grateful for and to talk about it to those who make me so thankful.

I hope you have as much to be thankful for as I do, and maybe even more.

Happy Thanksgiving.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009


I have a weakness for whimsy, especially in kitchen gadgets. Give me a colorful whisk or a flower-shaped spatula and I'm a happy woman. It makes me smile to have utilitarian and functional items that are just plain silly.

Needless to say, this basting brush was irresistible. I'll be basting my Thanksgiving turkeys with this, for sure.

It's made with silicone, so it will withstand high heat, the handle is long enough to keep the hot spatters at bay, the floppy "needles" hold a nice amount of sauce or juice for basting and, best of all, it's a twig, or heaven's sake.

Who thinks up these things? I'd love to meet the designer who came up with this idea; we'd be best friends.


Monday, November 23, 2009

Mixed Grill

My Beloved is a guy who likes a lot of variety on his plate. Whenever there's a dish on a restaurant menu that has mixed flavors, such as a mixed seafood plate, I can count on him to order that. He will eat leftovers happily, but he usually likes them best after a different meal or two in between to increase the variety. You can imagine, then, that mixed grill is perfect for him.

I suppose a true mixed grill would have a lamb chop and perhaps some beef or liver/kidneys but this one made with just two kinds of sausages, one mild Italian sausage left over from making the spaghetti sauce and one lamb sausage that we scored at the farmer's market last week and froze, worked just fine for us.

We are grilling a lot these days, trying to make the most of the lovely fall weather we've been having. It's crisp in the mornings but mild in the afternoons and so sunny that there has literally not been a cloud in the sky. If it's too chilly at night, we move inside to grill on the Jennair - we're just grillin' fools these days. Mixed grillin' fools.

Labels: ,

Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Snack Police

I'm living with the Snack Police. BC (Before Cora), I used to snack fairly frequently on these little string cheese logs. I enjoyed pulling them into strips and prolonging their taste by eating them slowly. Then came Cora. Guess who else loves string cheese?

She loves cheese so much that giving her pills is a snap. While she was recovering from the pitbull attack, I'd just stuff her pills into a little cheese and down the hatch it went - no fuss, no struggles, just a happy dog and a satisfied nurse.

It is impossible for me to sneak one of these out of the fridge if she's anywhere in the house. Even if she misses the opening of the refrigerator door, she hears the zip of the package pulling apart from three rooms away. I swear she can hear it when she's outdoors with the door shut. She's there in a flash, skidding to a halt on the kitchen tile and sitting as if her butt is glued to the floor, ears perked forward hopefully. "See what a good dog I am?," she seems to be saying, "Don't I deserve a treat?" Well, shit, yes, she does. So, there goes my snack, string by string down her eager throat. She seems hardly to taste them - I really think her nose does the tasting before it ever hits her tongue. Sometimes, I sneak one of the strings for myself but her reproachful stare is more than my conscience can bear, so she usually gets the whole thing.

Yesterday, she was out in the car with My Beloved, which she loves to do more than just about anything. Yep, I stole into the kitchen and ate an entire one ounce portion all by myself, without the Snack Police drooling on my shoes.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Courting Spaghetti

Back when God was a child and I was dating my first husband, I offered to make dinner for him - his choice of menu. He chose spaghetti and I assented readily. I had never actually made spaghetti (or much of anything else, for that matter), you understand, but I wanted to impress him so I called my pal Meredith, who made the best spaghetti on earth, and asked her for the recipe. He was duly impressed; I'm not sure I ever confessed to my treachery in 25 years of marriage.

I have continued to make the same spaghetti recipe all my life. When I feel a hankering for it coming on, I don't even have to go to my recipe box any longer - I know it more or less by heart. This time, however, I did think I'd change it up a little, so I used half mild Italian sausage instead of all ground beef (I'll use spicy next time - you couldn't really taste the sausage) and I didn't have any ripe olives in the house, so I left them out.

The rest of the recipe is so simple that it's not really even a recipe. You just brown the meat crumbles thoroughly in olive oil in a deep pot, then remove them to a plate and soften garlic mince (you decide how much - I used about a tablespoon or two) and a chopped large onion in the rendered fat from the meat (You can pour off some if you have too much fat or add some olive oil if your meat was very lean). I set the aromatics aside afterward, too, while I brown about six large mushrooms, sliced, in the same pot. The idea is that each ingredient adds it's caramelized flavor to the pot but you don't crowd the components so they brown nicely.

Once all are browned, pile them back into the pot, add a big can of chopped tomatoes, a small (14oz) can of tomato sauce, a big glug of red wine (I used merlot since I had an open bottle in the fridge - about a cup and a half or two cups), a healthy pinch each of thyme and basil, and a big handful of chopped fresh parsley. You can also add a bay leaf or two, if you are so inclined. Now comes the "secret" ingredient - cinnamon. Meredith has always added cinnamon to her sauce; this time, I subbed in about two heaping teaspoons of ground allspice instead.

All this bubbles along on the lowest stove setting for a couple of hours with the lid on. If it gets too thick, add some more wine. The resulting sauce is rich and dark with lots of flavor layers, not like the bright red stuff that comes in a jar. It covers the pasta like a lover and the grated ParmReg puts on the finishing touch. Served in a pasta bowl with garlic toasts, it's as seductive a meal as you could ask for.

If you are courting, or just courting favor, try serving her/him a nice bowl of this spaghetti. It gets 'em where they live.


Tuesday, November 17, 2009


This is the third and last installment of the potential disaster my neighbor Theresa averted by giving away her defrosted hoard of freezer meats. The beef ribs were browned and went into my crock pot along with some chunked onions and carrots and a cup or so of both beef broth and red wine with which I deglazed the browning pan.

They simmered and bubbled together for several hours, until the bones gave up their essence and fell out. This was a fairly fatty cut of meat so I refrigerated it while we ate the other two dishes, removed the congealed fat that had risen to the top and, a few days later, set it back into the base to cook for another couple of hours, adding chunks of red potato to the final cooking.

Spooned onto the plate next to some bright green broccolette, the stew was as simple as a wedge and deeply, richly beefy. The goozle I didn't use on the plate went into a container in the freezer - it will make the base for a wonderful soup later in the fall. Theresa's generosity has fed us five or six times in the past week - maybe I'll make her a coming-home gift of something to eat as delicious as the food she lost.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 16, 2009

Life's Small Pleasures

I have an optimistic outlook and an appreciation for life's little pleasures. I didn't cultivate these traits; they just seem to be part of my DNA. Just lucky I guess. I expect good things to happen, and they usually do. I don't have to be reminded to take time to admire these glorious Western sunsets. I automatically stop to smell the flowers as I walk with Cora. I enjoy visiting for a few minutes with Kitty Sweet, the utterly imperturbable orange cat who lives two doors down. I like the occasional trashy novel and relish an afternoon nap. And, when in my travels I come across Westminster oyster crackers, I get a little lift of pleasure when I open the package.

All they really are is saltines but there is something extra fun about the little rounded shapes that crunch lightly between my teeth, spreading a light buttery taste and a little salt over my tongue. Once, when his mother was on a very restricted diet, My Beloved ordered her a whole case of these to be delivered to bring her a smile. They just do. He ordered a case for us, as well, and we grinned each time we fished out a packet for a snack.

Next time your seafood comes served with oyster crackers, my wish for you is an optimistic outlook and the small pleasure of Westminster oyster crackers in your soup.


Sunday, November 15, 2009

Naked Lust

This week, My Beloved's sales manager called him and "asked" him to deliver some samples the manager would need next week to a location about an hour's drive one way from our house. This request came on a Friday afternoon (and, by the way, MB had asked this knucklehead weeks ago if he would need these samples so MB could have taken them there in his normal work travels) and the samples are needed on Monday morning. The implication was clear; you must give up half a weekend day to do this "favor" for the boss. Grrrr!

In order to turn this task into a fun outing, My Beloved invited me to ride along. We left the samples at the Millbrae Railroad Museum (never mind why) and got a tour of their Pullman car while we were there. When I was about six years old, my mother, sister and I crossed the country on a train and we had our own Pullman compartment. It was fun to explore again the ingeniously designed folding sink, toilet, beds, etc. and to recall the adventure of crossing from car to swaying car and eating in the dining car. Each evening, the Pullman steward would come in and, using his big key, lower our freshly made bunks for us. As we neared Utah, which was a "dry state" in those days, my mother was warned by our porter that, if she wanted a drink before dinner that evening, she'd have to order it before we crossed the Utah border. All this was high adventure for us and I've never forgotten falling asleep between crisp white sheets to the clickety-clack of the wheels on the rails with the whistle blowing in the night.

Since we were down that way, we also made a return visit to the Old Port Lobster Shack in Redwood City. If you've never been, you really must go. I've heard that they now have a location in North Beach, too, but I haven't visited that one. The original has a huge tank of live lobsters and a fun-funky maritime theme - for example, the restrooms are labeled "Buoys" and "Gulls." They do a land office business in there, being open from 11am to "when we stop making money." I've been tempted by lots of items on their menu but I always order the same thing, the Naked Lobster Roll.

Overflowing with large chunks of fresh lobster, the bun is authentic (I've heard they actually fly them in from Maine) and lightly grilled on the outside as a crispy counterpoint to all that luscious, seductive lobster. You can get a lobster roll with lobster salad made with mayo if you prefer, but the plain lobster always gets my vote. There are cole slaw and French fries in the basket and a little cup of rich, clarified butter to pour over your naked roll if you wish but, let's face it, it's really all about the shellfish. Man, is that ever good!

Good enough, in fact, to smooth over my ruffled feathers and make me think that MB's boss isn't such a bad guy after all, if his requests mean a trip the the Lobster Shack.


Saturday, November 14, 2009

Pecan Pie Perfection

If you love pecans as much as I do, pecan pie can be a bit of a trial. My problem is that I don't really like the gooey, too-sweet gel on which the pecans rest in most pecan pies. I only really enjoy the crust and the pecans.

We had dinner this week with the delightful Naomi and her beau Sam, a couple of students it has been my pleasure to befriend; they gave up a precious afternoon and evening to cook for and entertain us two old fogies despite the fact that Sam is only here for a few days before he has to head back to "pahk his cah in the Hahvahd Yahd" - he's doing a post-doc at Harvard and they let him off the leash only briefly and infrequently.

Sam and Naomi put on quite a spread - roasted sweet potato rounds as an appetizer, pork roast with homemade wheat yeast rolls and roasted acorn squash - and, hallelujah! a bourbon pecan tart for dessert. They said they got the recipe from and the closest one I can find there is this, only Naomi subbed out the bourbon with brandy instead (good choice!), and added a dollop of spiked whipped cream. The crust she used was seriously buttery and the tart was mostly pecans, with just enough sweet stuff to hold the nuts together - just the way I like it. If you're looking for a great recipe for a Thanksgiving pie, give this one a try - it's as close to pecan pie perfection as a pecan lover could wish for.

Labels: , ,

Friday, November 13, 2009

Neighbor Favors, Part Two

Probably the most talented home cook I know is my brother's wife, Ann, who has been known to make Julia Child's cassoulet from scratch, including making her own sausage to start. Imagine! When I received a gift of duck legs from my neighbor Theresa, I thought briefly about making that hallowed recipe but once I started reading it, I changed my mind. Even retired, I don't have that kind of time and with three kinds of meat needing immediate preparation, I really didn't have that kind of time.

Instead, I did what I usually do - I improvised. I read a number of online recipes as well as Mrs. Child's and came up with a version that incorporates, I hope, most of the wonders of this plain and hearty dish with a bit less of the fuss. I didn't have confit duck legs, so it wasn't the same, but I like to think it's still pretty good.

Impromptu Cassoulet

2 links of spicy Italian sausage (or bulk spicy sausage)
2 duck legs, cut into four pieces each (I used a big, heavy knife to chop through the bones)
1 cup small dry white beans, such as Navy beans
1 quart beef broth
1 bouquet garni* including 1 bay leaf (1/2 if it's a California bay leaf), 2 sprigs fresh thyme, a small bunch of fresh flat leafed parsley, 5 or so whole peppercorns, 2 sprigs of celery leaves)
olive oil
2 carrots, cut in 1" chunks
1 large onion, chopped
3-4 garlic cloves, finely chopped

Quick-soak beans by covering them in with water by about 1" and bringing them to a boil. Off the heat, let them sit for about an hour. (You can also soak them without boiling overnight or for at least 8 hours if you have lots of time).

While the beans are soaking, squeeze dollops of the Italian sausage out of the casings and into a preheated, oiled pan. Brown the sausage, then set aside. In the same pan, brown the duck legs thoroughly and remove the skin (you can make cracklings from the skin if you slowly fry it in a separate pan and I have heard that the rendered duck fat from this process is heaven to cook with, although I haven't tried it myself as yet). Set aside. Pour out most of the fat from the pan, then add the carrots and onion and cook until soft, deglaze with a little of the beef broth so you get all the goodies.

After the hour of soaking, drain the water from the beans and replace it with the beef broth; if you don't have enough broth, add some water - you want the liquid to cover the beans. Add the bouquet garni to the beans and gently boil until the beans are tender, about an extra 45 minutes-1 hour. Remove the bouquet garni and discard.

Assemble the dish by pouring the beans into a shallow, ovenproof casserole dish and mixing them with the onions, carrots and deglazing liquid. Nestle the meats in amongst the beans, making sure they are covered with liquid. If they aren't, add a little water or broth. Bake, covered, in a 350 degree oven for an hour or two - until the scents tell you that all is one in the universe. The duck will be falling off the bones and the liquid will have turned to savory sauce. You can mash some of the beans against the side of the casserole and mix them in to thicken the sauce if it seems too watery.

I like to serve this with lightly buttered garlic toasts, slices of baguette that have been toasted and rubbed with garlic. You can make a garlic crumb topping if you prefer. Add a little olive oil to a skillet and cook a clove or two of minced garlic until fragrant, just about a minute. Add 1-2 cups bread crumbs (fresh) and continuing cooking and stirring until the crumbs are crisp and golden, a few minutes more. Top the casserole with these crumbs, or serve them alongside in a bowl for sprinkling over each serving.

This is such a hearty meal that you won't need more than a green salad to finish the plate.

*A bouquet garni is a French term for a little "teabag" of herbs and flavorings made with a square of cheesecloth and tied with cotton string. Make the string extra long on one end so you can tie in to the handle of the pot for easy retrieval. You could just put all these seasonings loose in the pot but then they are the devil to fish out later.

Labels: ,

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Neighbor Favors

How often does one have a neighbor call and say, "Can you do me a favor? Come over right now and let me give you three different kinds of meats." It was unprecedented in my experience, I can tell you.

My neighbor Theresa had discovered, on the very eve of a business trip to Amsterdam, that her big freezer had quit and all her carefully divided and vacuum-sealed meats had thawed. She was calling all the neighbors to offer them packages of viands - I scored marinated chicken thighs, beef short ribs and duck legs. I needed to cook them all in a single day as they wouldn't re-freeze happily, so I got to work the next morning in a flurry of culinary energy and made cassoulet with the duck legs and braised beef stew in the crock pot with the short ribs. More about those later; this evening, we enjoyed the marinated chicken thighs.

When I asked Theresa what the marinade was she couldn't remember, so it was a mystery as I cut open the package. One sniff told me garlic and soy sauce, maybe a sort of teriyaki? Theresa recommended baking at 400 degrees, so that's what I did, first nestling alongside the chicken some slices of bright orange kabocha squash and halves of ruby red potatoes. It made a beautiful fall color palette as it slid into the oven.

The chicken and veggies emerged about 40 minutes later, all browned on the bottoms, soft in the middle and ready to eat. The sauce wasn't really teriyaki, as there wasn't any ginger or sweetness, but it was garlicky, mildly salty and delicious - we enjoyed every bite.

While I wouldn't wish such a dilemma on anyone, I stand ready to do such favors for any of my neighbors who are in a bind in the future. It's what good neighbors do, right?

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Trick or Treat

When pal Sari brought me the Buddha's Hand citron as a Hallowe'en trick, despite its creepy appearance I kept it in a basket on the dinner table and enjoyed it for weeks for its light and fresh perfume. I wasn't sure how to use it in cooking despite some fairy intense internet research.

Then, last evening as I was preparing a Cornish hen and butter-braised Brussels sprouts for dinner, I thought, "Man, this little bird would taste great with that and a few mushrooms" so I sliced three big mushrooms, chopped some green onion and, feeling a little squeamish, cut off two of the smaller digits from the Buddha's Hand and sliced them very thinly.

While I was wielding a big knife, I halved the hen and browned it in a little olive oil in a wide frying pan, skin side down, then flipped it over and added the mushrooms, green onion and citron slices to the pan, stirring them a few times to brown them and to coat with the pan juices, then put on a lid and allowed it all to sizzle gently for about 20 minutes. I'm always surprised at how long Cornish hens take to cook given their diminutive size.

After removing the hen halves to warmed plates, I reduced the pan juices for a few minutes on higher heat, adding a squeeze of fresh lemon juice to brighten the flavors and a big grinding of fresh black pepper.

The Buddha's Hand added an amazing amount of flavor with just a tiny tang of bitterness that we enjoyed very much. This was definitely not a trick, but rather a very nice treat!

Labels: ,

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Muscleman Soup

Brawny. Vigorous. Hearty. What are the best words to describe soup made with lamb sausages, cranberry beans and assorted tasty veggies? Whatever the word, this soup is it.

My Beloved and I made it to the Marin farmer's market last Sunday for the first time all summer - we had been taking advantage of having our own small market in our little town. Now, that market has packed it up for the winter so we need to go farther afield. What a pleasure it was, too, as the Marin market is much, much larger and more varied than our local one was, with all kinds of interesting victuals available. It was also a lovely, crisp fall day and early enough in the morning that the pushiest of the goal-oriented Marinites were still abed.

Our first stop was at the Prather Ranch booth where we scored some lamb sausages. I was already dreaming of this soup as I left the booth. After a really good cup of coffee and a shared Belgian waffle at a little table in the sunshine, we collected veggies to go with the sausages and headed home via the park where we walked an excited Cora along the lake, actually less of a walk than a constant battle to deny her to either a swim in the water or an invigorating chase of the waterfowl. After that much unexpected exercise, hearty soup is just the ticket.

At home, I squeezed little lamb "meatballs" out of two of the sausage casings and browned them in my soup pot with a little olive oil, poured off the excess fat, then added chopped celery, onion, carrots, anise and fresh corn cut off the cob to cook in the same pot until they were softened. I added a quart of organic tomato soup that I had in the pantry and two cups of water, s & p, and about two cups of Full Belly Farm cranberry beans and brought the whole gmish to a boil. Once the boil was reached, I lowered the heat to a simmer, clapped on the lid and left it all to get acquainted for a couple of bubbly hours.

I always think soup is best the next day, so we waited to taste it until the following lunch.
Brawny. Vigorous. Hearty. Deeply, deeply satisfying, it fueled all kinds of muscular activities around here from laundry and dog walking to sales calls and painting touch ups.

Labels: , ,

Monday, November 9, 2009

Better Now

When greeting dear friends, they often ask how I am and I often reply, "Better now." Friends make everything better.
Even disappointing shrimp and grits.

My friend Wenirs and I chatted by phone over the weekend and laughed together over all the grits recipes I've been posting. You may get the impression that Wenirs is not a Southern cooking fan when I tell you that she opened the conversation by demanding, "When are you gonna get off of the grits?!" I laughed out loud. That's okay, she just hasn't tasted the cheesy grits yet; I know she'll be a convert.

As we chuckled and chatted, I was devising in my mind a 'fix' for the too-rich shrimp and grits leftovers. I couldn't bear to throw them away since they contained fully a half pound of shrimp, but I also couldn't face eating them in their super-rich state. I added another can of chopped tomatoes, a big squeeze of lemon juice plus some additional shrimp stock and served them over nice, chewy brown rice. They weren't perfect and I probably won't make anything quite like this again but they were, as I like to say, better now.


Sunday, November 8, 2009

Shrimp and Grits, Take One

Rats, shoulda gone with my gut.

When I read the recipe for Shrimp and Grits, I somehow knew there should be more to making the rich, darkly flavored dish I enjoyed in North Carolina than this recipe outlined. I mostly followed the recipe, however, instead of experimenting a bit.

I did make a few changes - subbed shrimp stock that I had in the freezer for the water in the recipe and added a bit more of the chopped tomatoes - but I was mostly a good little girl.


I never thought I'd say this as I love buttery, rich foods, but the whole dish is 'way too rich when you put shrimp and sauce made with lots of butter and heavy cream over cheesy grits. Oink! It was all so rich that we could barely taste the shrimp as separate from the creamy sauce - and there was plenty of shrimp in there! If I was to make this again, I'd serve it over rice rather than cheesy grits, and probably a chewy brown rice to add texture to the dish. I had added fresh corn to my cheesy grits of the night before and, although I love it as a side dish, it was wasted under all that creamy stuff.

So, what changes? I did like the hint of heat from the sriracha sauce and the jalapeños, so I'd keep that but I'd increase the chopped tomatoes by half again to raise the acid a little and I'd omit the cream altogether, subbing in more of the shrimp stock. I'd probably try adding some paprika, too, to darken both the sauce and the flavor. I might add some lemon juice or zest, too, for additional zing. What I dream of would be lighter and leaner, with a sauce that contrasted more with the sweetness of the shrimp, a sauce that would lighten the cheesy grits rather than weigh them down with even more richness.

Next time, I'm going with my instincts!


Saturday, November 7, 2009

Teenage Mutant Ninja Lemon

Ever since Hallowe'en, my nose has been tickled by the scent of this mutant-looking citron that pal Sari brought over to scare me on All Hallows' Eve. It does look a bit like a lemon that was growing at Three Mile Island.

It may be creepy looking but it's the most wonderfully fragrant thing it has ever been my pleasure to own. It has been in a basket on my dining table all week but it perfumes the whole kitchen as well - I catch whiffs of the scent from 20 feet away, and yet it's not at all a heavy scent. I want to bury it in my underwear drawer or dab it behind my ears.

Like all citrus, it has that signature tang, but Buddha's Hand adds a light floral note to that for the most seductive thing I've smelled since vanilla extract or the yeasty scent when you first pop open a bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne.

I've been researching it and it seems the culinary uses are in place of lemon zest or in marmalade, so I think I'll try to make marmalade out of it. If it retains all that complex scent in the finished jam, it should be wonderful. But, even if you don't want to make jam with it, buy one just to have in the house; it's a simply marvelous creepy looking mutant.

Friday, November 6, 2009

Southern Supper

There's another Southern cook in my life, my pal NamasteNancy, who leaves thoughtful comments from time to time on my blog. Nancy and I share an interest in art and cooking, and we both come from Navy families; we've bonded over lunches, art exhibits and sea stories about the Navy.

When I wrote about Shrimp and Grits, she weighed in with a recipe for red eye gravy, a southern specialty that goes well with cheesy grits and ham steaks. I had some grits left over, so the ham and red eye gravy seemed almost inevitable.

Nancy found this recipe for red eye gravy from the late lamented Gourmet magazine and left me this comment as encouragement to try it:

Red eye gravy is another subject of much controversy; some people make it with coffee and some with chicory or even Cola-Cola! The recipe that I found from Gourmet uses butter but my family used bacon drippings (the better to raise your cholesterol level with, my dear), We also added paprika but that’s not traditional either. You can also add a dash of pepper sauce - it doesn't make it too spicy, honest!

Ham and Red-Eye Gravy

Recipe Courtesy of Gourmet Magazine

Prep Time:
10 min
Inactive Prep Time:
0 min
Cook Time:
10 min

4 servings


* 1/2 stick (1/4 cup) unsalted butter
* 1 1/2 pounds baked Virginia ham, cut into 1/2-inch thick slices
* 1/4 cup brewed coffee
* 1/2 cup boiling water
* Hot pepper sauce to taste
* Spoon bread or buttered cooked grits as an accompaniment if desired


In a large skillet heat the butter over moderately high heat until the foam subsides and in it sauté the ham in batches, turning it once, for 2 to 3 minutes on each side, or until it is browned, and transfer it to a platter. Into the skillet pour the coffee and 1/2 cup boiling water and cook the mixture over high heat, scraping up the browned bits, for 2 minutes. Season the gravy with the hot pepper sauce and pepper and pour it over the ham slices. (If desired, strain the gravy before pouring it over the ham.) Serve ham and gravy with spoon bread or grits.

A bit of the history:"

I followed these directions with few changes (I used a 1-to-1 coffee to water ratio; butter as I didn't have bacon drippings on hand; and a dash of sriracha for the heat. I also don't know where to get the real-deal Virginia ham in California, so I used a Niman ranch uncured ham sliced to the desired thickness) and was surprised that the result was a thin, coffee-flavored and milky coffee-colored juice that we poured over our ham steaks - I admit to a hint of skepticism and trepidation when I made the first pour.

I needn't have worried - it was really good. The slightly bitter coffee cut wonderfully through the richness of the ham steaks and complimented surprisingly well the cheesy grits. Nodding and raising eyebrows in that "Who knew?" way, My Beloved and I enjoyed every bite.

I can't imagine how this would taste if the red eye gravy was made with Coca-Cola - and I shudder to think - but we did drink a glass of iced Coke with this southern supper. It just seemed fittin'.

Thanks, Nancy!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Southern Newbie

The daughter to two Yankees, a mother who was born in New York City and a father who was born at the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard, I'm a newbie to Southern cooking. After my trip to North Carolina and Virginia, however, I am inspired to try some Southern specialties.

To that end, I bought a bag of water stone ground grits from a little shop in Elkin, a tiny hill town in northwestern North Carolina where my nephew has settled. It's a lovely town, a slice of America a few decades ago - and that's a good thing. There is only one elementary, one middle and one high school (the football team is called the Bucking Elks - you can imagine what more jaded kids would make of that) and all the kids pile into the local soda shop on Friday afternoons after school for some ice cream and socializing. Lots of giggling and flirting, pranks and laughter. Their parents stand around chatting, too, but the true supervision is provided by the owners of the soda shop who love the kids but tolerate no nonsense on their premises. It takes a village.

My mother had a Southern friend, Maria Hart, who made cheesy grits that Mom, who never loved grits in any other form, heartily approved of. That recipe came to me via my sister, who has lived in the South all her adult life and used this recipe successfully at many a dinner party. After forty years of living in Virginia, she may still be "Tom's Yankee wife" to the folks down there but she can cook like she was born south of the Mason-Dixon line. Now you know the pedigree of this particular recipe for Cheesy Grits.

This dish is insanely rich, no two ways about it. I think the dairy industry must have invented it. If you ate this frequently, you would be a serious candidate for bypass surgery;
nevertheless, it is so delicious that it will have you singing "Dixie."

1 quart milk
1/2 cup butter (This seems excessive but I have it on good authority that it is necessary)
1 cup grits (I used fairly coarsely ground grits) (Quick grits will work but don't use instant grits)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded gruyere or Swiss cheese (I used gruyere)
1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese (I used Parmesano Reggiano)
1 additional Tablespoon of butter for the top

Boil milk, add 1/2 cup butter. When butter has melted, stir in 1 cup grits and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally, about 15 minutes. Add salt to taste (I omit this step as the cheeses are both salty and we liked it without additional salt) and pepper. Off the heat, beat with a hand mixer for five full minutes until creamy (don't fret, it will still have texture). Mix in the two cheeses while beating. Pour into casserole and top with the additional tablespoon or two of butter. Bake at 400 degrees for 30-35 minutes.

It emerges from the oven hotter than a nuclear meltdown; it stayed very warm in my Corning ware casserole for 45 minutes after removal from the oven. That can be a bonus if you are making other dishes to go with it - keeping it warm is not a problem.

Serves 8.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

The French China

My paternal grandparents had a marvelous life in the Navy. My grandfather graduated from the Naval Academy in the class of 1900 and, despite the frequent separations, they had a happy married life. My grandmother used to love to say with a twinkle, "Navy wives are happy half the time; I'm not saying which half."

In their day, even junior officers rated help in the house and they were posted to some pretty interesting places. Early in their marriage, my grandfather was on one of the battleships that sailed in 1907-09 around the world in Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. Speak softly but carry a big stick; those huge white battleships were the big stick.

My grandmother followed the fleet all around the world to all kinds of exotic ports - Egypt, Hawaii, China, Japan, India, Australia.
We still have her ticket, which reads "From New York to San Francisco, via Suez." I have a photograph of her and two other ladies in their long dresses and enormous hats riding camels in Egypt. My grandmother told me about that day, saying, "I rode a camel to the Pyramids. Nasty, smelly animals - I took the train back!"

After they returned from that trip, my grandfather served on a ship, the USS Monongahela, which took him to France; Grandma followed along on a passenger liner. When they took a few days together in Paris, he said, "Josie, I want to buy you a mink coat," but she demurred in favor of this set of French china. Every single woman in our family, without exception, thinks she made the right choice.

Last week while I was visiting their daughter Aunt Virginia, the keeper of the family china, she allowed me carefully to take out a place setting to photograph it for the family archives. Richly blue and gold with raised decoration, it is truly glorious stuff. My grandmother always washed it herself, afraid to let the stewards handle it. She felt that if anyone broke it, it had better be herself or she'd never forgive them. Aunt Mary, my Dad's older sister, was helping her dry it once and so great was her fear of her mother's sorrow that when she dropped one of the cups she caught it again before it hit the floor. The set is still complete; twenty-four place settings, plus serving dishes.

I love imagining the table my grandmother must have set for a big dinner party - white linens, the gorgeous china, gleaming silver and crystal, and perhaps flowers in the center. It must have been an amazing sight when twenty-four guests sat down to dinner at their house with the French china.

Labels: , , ,

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Happy Birthday, Earl

We owe Basil Montagu, Fourth Earl of Sandwich, a huge debt; it was he who invented, or at least popularized, the sandwich.

The legend goes that he was at a gaming table and didn't want to interrupt his winning streak to eat, so he ordered some meat to be clapped between two slices of bread and ate it while he played.

He went on to do some other notable things, such as supporting Captain James Cook's explorations (and having the Sandwich Islands named after him as a reward), serving as First Lord of the Admiralty a couple of times, not to mention Postmaster General, but all that pales in comparison to his enduring legacy, the sandwich.

Today is his 291st birthday; eat a sandwich today in his honor.

Labels: ,

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Battle of the Dipping Sauces

When I returned from back East, on my kitchen counter I found a little dish of a mysterious, garlicky-smelling sauce. My Beloved explained that while he was entertaining his brother and wife with fresh California artichokes, his daughter Katie had rejected his offer of lemon butter in favor of this olive oil-based sauce of her own concocting.

I decided to do a side-by-side taste test of the two sauces with the remaining artichoke. I have always been a fan of lemon butter - what's not to like? Melted butter, fresh lemon juice and a tender artichoke spells heaven to me. But, dipping my leaves into this combination of olive oil, lemon juice, minced garlic, black pepper and herbs, I had to admit that she had my lemon butter beat. The extra flavor and lower cholesterol are a bonus. Olive oil actually has more calories than butter but they are well worth it when doctored up so tastily and served next to one of my favorite veggies.

This seems like the best kind of detente to me - both are winners!

Labels: ,

Sunday, November 1, 2009

Better Than California

We Californians tend to brag a bit about our consistently sunny weather and natural beauty but there's at least one thing the East coast does better than California - fall color.

Last week, my sister and I drove from Greensboro, NC to Rome, NY and back via Washington, DC to visit our older brother and his family, and all along our route the fall colors were in full swing. I had rather forgotten how exciting is the blaze of red, yellow, orange, ochre, maroon and brown, contrasting with
the true, soft green of the eastern forest. On an overcast day, they lend amazing beauty and on a sunny day they are resplendent.

I took this picture at Gunston Hall, the historic home of George Mason whose ideas of independence were borrowed by and whose language was tightened up by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. The trees there, close to the Potomac's softening influence, were just getting started. While I'm glad to be back on the sunny Left Coast, I'm also glad I had the chance to feast my eyes on a glorious East coast fall.

Labels: ,