Thursday, December 31, 2009

Inspiration Point

The other day, My Beloved and I were watching an episode of Jacques Pepin's newest series of fast food recipes. As I watched him core apples in his unique way and wash leeks, it occurred to me that while he was making an entirely different dish than I had in mind, I was planning to use some of the same ingredients.

Here's the result. I'm not quite sure what to call it, but it was inspired by M. Pepin. Maybe Pork Pepin?

Anyway, I browned two boneless, well-trimmed pork chops in a little olive oil in a wide frying pan over medium high heat, just to caramelize the surface of both sides, then added the chopped flesh of one apple and one leek (just the light green and white parts) to the pan and covered it to steam-cook, as that keeps the pork nicely moist while the apple and leek relax and get to know one another in the Biblical sense. When the meat was nearly done and the veggies were steaming in post-coital bliss, I added a splash of rosé wine that I had on hand (Lee Family Farm 2008, from the Carmel Valley) to wake them up and about two tablespoons of a Christmas gift we received from My Beloved's brother and his wife, Deborah's Kitchen Hot Cranberry
. This whole-berry sauce is spicy but not crazy, sweet but not cloying. We liked the gentle kick it gives, more a warmth than a true spiciness.

Topped the chops with the mixture of apple and allium, wine and cranberry, and served them with some bright green broccoli and the rest of the wine. It got the Beloved's enthusiastic nod of approval, and all because M. Pepin was my inspiration.

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Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Sweet, Sticky Memories

Whenever I have waffles, whether for breakfast or for dinner, I am swamped by family memories; we Hylands have eaten waffles for as long as I can remember.

As children, our Dad would take us to church on Sundays and Mom would stay home and make waffles. It was her quiet time during the week when she was relieved of four lively children and had only the fairly simple chore of making waffle batter. Her recipe came from the Joy of Cooking - she even beat the egg whites separately to make sure the waffles were crisp and light.

We came home from church roaring hungry (in those days, one did not eat before Mass) and Dad would pour the batter into the preheated waffle iron while Mom warmed the syrup. When I was a kid, the syrup came in a small metal can shaped and colored like a log cabin.

My younger brother was a picky eater, something that simply baffled the rest of us eager trenchermen. For many years, he refused vociferously to eat almost anything except Gerber baby pears in a jar, thinly sliced peanut butter sandwiches (no jelly!), the tops of broccoli (no stems!), thin asparagus, shrimp cocktail and waffles. Since we couldn't afford shrimp cocktail very often, waffles were my mother's secret for getting some protein into the kid in the form of eggs.

Later in life, when I was a guest at my friend Wenirs' house, she would make sour cream waffles. If you've never tried sour cream waffles, you are missing one of life's true pleasures. Spread with unsalted butter and drenched in syrup, they are all I plan to eat when I get to Heaven.

All my working life, waffles have been my fallback dinner when I couldn't face cooking anything complicated after a long day at the florist shop. I'd mix up some waffle batter, fry a little bacon or sausage and voilà, you've got dinner. First Husband wasn't too sure about that but he was careful not to ruffle my feathers when I'd been on my feet for 14 hours at a clip.

These days, I'm a lazy waffle maker - I use the stuff in the bright yellow box. Poured into my recycled waffle iron, the batter changes miraculously and emerges
crisp and light in just a few minutes. For Christmas this year we received a bottle of pure maple syrup from My Beloved's brother who lives in New England, the origin of the very best maple syrup. Light amber and runnier than other syrups, this is literally the food of the gods - nothing beats real maple syrup.

When I lived in western New York, each spring we would drive down to the Southern Tier of New York state to visit our favorite maple syrup farmer. We would stand in the thin sunshine of the early spring chill discussing the state of the sugar bush, the yield from the trees and the cost of the jugs of syrup we always bought for gifts as well as for ourselves. One year, when my older brother was the Naval Attaché at the American embassy in Paris, we bought many small jugs and shipped them to my brother's wife in France who sold them at a charity sale and raised a record amount of money for their good works. Our farmer friend still talks about the time his syrup was shipped all the way to France.

Whenever I bite into buttery, syrupy waffles, I am flooded with these sweet, sticky memories. They are a big part of the reason I love waffles.


Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Bûche de Noël

I have never made a bûche de Noël. My sister-in-law, Ann, used to make them every Christmas. Ann is a superior cook and a marvelous baker. Then, one Christmas, our friend Mary Martin (no relation) made three different flavors of bûches for one memorable Christmas dinner. After that, she was the undisputed Queen of Bûches. With competition like that, I don't even try - I just sit back with a slice of swirly, woodgrained cake on my plate and prepare to compliment the cook.

This year, My Beloved and I were on our own for Christmas Eve dinner; daughter Sarah was in Boston with her hubby's family and daughter Katie was in Texas with her main squeeze's family. In case you are tempted to pity us, remember that Katie made us a Dungeness crab dinner before she and her guy left for Texas - we just had Christmas Eve a week early. Anyway, we were planning a nice beef tenderloin roast and, while wheeling our cart around the local market, we spied this bûche and it sort of leaped into our basket.

Swirled with mocha frosting inside and rich, dark chocolate frosting outside, it was as heady and heavenly a bûche as one could ask for, given that Ann and Mary are not with us this Christmas. The traditional meringue mushrooms and holly decorations were there, the cake was iced perfectly to look like the bark on a yule log and it only needed the addition of the little plastic woodsman kept from a previous year's bûche to make it perfect.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Taste Test

This photo should make all fruitcake lovers jealous - we got to taste two distinctly different ones this year.

On the left is Chilebrown's wonderful dried fruit and nut version - very California with figs, dried apricots, dates, raisins and almonds held together with only a modicum of cake. It is only as sweet at the rich fruits in the cake. Absolutely killer.

On the right is my family's gold standard, Aunt Virginia's traditional fruitcake, colorful with preserved cherries, pineapple, unnamed green thingies, a mere suggestion of cake and redolent of good cognac.

Which is the best?



Sunday, December 27, 2009

Cora's Corner

Every family member needs her or his own space in the house. I have my little computer desk tucked between the kitchen and the laundry room, and woe betide the one who moves my stuff around on it. My Beloved has his home office, which he glories in trashing for six months until it is impossible to walk across, then moaning and groaning and sighing through two days of weeding, filing and, when he can finally see the carpet, vacuuming. We share the bedroom and bath where we watch TV, sleep, shower and dress.

When Cora arrived three days after last Christmas, she came in a rush - her foster mother had an older dog who was ill with cancer so she was eager to move Cora to us. I didn't have time to buy food bowls and a bed to welcome her to the family, so I threw a flannel sheet over the upholstered slipper chair in our bedroom and hauled out these two bowls until I could buy "real" ones. Somehow, I never did get around to finding others.

The pressed glass water bowl was a garage sale score and the colorful, heart-shaped food bowl was a gift from Cousin J-Yah who found it and thought of me. Tucked into the only corner of my tiny kitchen where they wouldn't be knocked over daily, they nestle between the fridge and My Beloved's antique ice box that we use for wine storage.

I did find a nice dog bed with a washable zip-off cover, which fit exactly under the hall table where Cora can keep an eye on all our comings and goings - she's of herding stock and it shows. She uses it sometimes but her real bed is still that sheet-covered slipper chair next to my side of the bed.

When she first came, she sneaked into it only after the lights were out at night and leaped off as soon as we stirred in the morning, apparently thinking she was sinning. Lately, however, she has learned that we won't scold her for sleeping there, so she even puts herself to bed while we are still brushing our teeth and opening the sliding door to the sound of the quiet waves on the beach below. She curls up into the curve of the chair, a surprisingly small black ball for such a large dog, gives a heavy, g'night sort of a sigh, and drifts off to dream of chasing turkeys or sniffing butts or whatever it is that pulls little yips and twitches from her sleeping form.

It's hard to believe she has only been with us for a year; we can't imagine life without her now. She has a corner in the kitchen, a corner in the bedroom and a very large corner in our hearts.


Friday, December 25, 2009

Christmas Gift

A few days before Christmas, I got a wonderful gift, my grandfather's copy of The Elements of Theoretical and Descriptive Astronomy by a Charles J. White, A.M., "formerly professor of mathematics in Harvard College," published in 1896 with the first edition printed in 1869. It didn't come from a family member, either; it came from a stranger.

It's a fun story.

I received an email from Kristi, a woman in Cavalier, North Dakota, telling me that she had purchased a used copy of a little green book - she didn't mention why it had attracted her except to say that she thought it looked cool. When she opened the flyleaf, she saw it was inscribed, "John J. Hyland, Naval Cadet, U.S. Navy" and she wondered who that was. Googling the name, she found more than one entry for a John J. Hyland, mostly those from my father's naval career. One of them was a website maintained by a guy who once served on one of my father's ships. She emailed him for information and he forwarded my email address; I have no idea how he knew my email address - the good fairies must be watching over me.

Anyway, she wrote to me, asking if the book belonged to my grandfather; I thought it must be his, since he was in the class of 1900 at the Naval Academy. She sent me the book, carefully wrapped in this pretty napkin, and refused reimbursement for either the book or the postage. It was enough for her that the book was back in family hands. She not only believes in "pay it forward," she lives it.

When I opened the book, the signature was so eerily like my father's and my older brother's handwriting that all doubts were quelled - this was surely my grandfather's copy. Kristi and I have marveled at how one of his books could have worked its way so far inland when my family are all such coastal people.

Kristi and I have struck up a long-distance friendship, trading family information and histories and enjoying a warm glow of connection this Christmas. All because of a little green book, the curiosity of a lovely woman and the kindness of a former sailor.


Thursday, December 24, 2009

White Christmas (Dinner)

Ever notice how some recipes you once made and loved now seem somehow dull or flat? Sadly, this was the case with my formerly-loved recipe for Turkey Tetrazzini that my sister gave me years ago.

It was always creamy and rich with Parmesan cheese so I knew going in that it wouldn't be a light meal. That's usually fine for winter dinners - I like them to be sustaining. This time, however, either my taste buds have atrophied or it was just too bland.

My besetting sin as a cook is that even while I'm eating a meal, I'm analyzing how I could have improved it instead of just enjoying it. Blame it on my science background. Anyway, this dish would be marvelous with just a few tweaks.

First, I'd have many more mushrooms and they'd be of more than one variety; I'd like more earthiness. Second, one can never have too much Parm/Reg, in my view - I'd double it.
I liked the crunch of celery lightly sautéed for texture and the turkey was tasty with the tangy sauce. I added frozen peas just before serving to thaw and lightly cook them, and that was a good idea - their sweetness was a nice foil to the tang of the cheese. I also added some coarsely chopped Italian parsley as garnish but next time I'd add lots more and stir it in so there would be little hits of intense green throughout the sauce. After I made this, I found a recipe online that mentioned adding almonds and I think that would be genius - some coarsely chopped raw or toasted almonds would be heaven.

See what I mean? Not a wholesale re-do, just a few tweaks, and this white Christmas dinner would be singing in a whole different key.

Turkey Tetrazzini
(Comments in parenthesis are the tweaks)

1 cup white sauce (melt 1 Tbs. butter, stir 1 Tbs. flour into it and cook for a few minutes; add 1 cup milk or half-and-half, a bit at a time, stirring constantly while the sauce thickens)
1 cup turkey (I used leftover from Thanksgiving) cut into bite-size pieces
1/2 cup cooked spaghetti, cut up (I never cut up pasta and I used linguine this time)
1/2 cup sliced mushrooms (I'd use at least a cup and perhaps more, and I'd mix up the varieties)
1-2 stalks celery, sliced crosswise
1/3 cup parmesan cheese (I grated Parm/Reg freshly - it's worth the effort)
(1 cup of frozen or fresh peas, stirred in at the end just long enough to heat them)
(1/4 cup coarsely chopped Italian parsley)
(Coarsely chopped raw or toasted almonds for garnish)

Sauté mushrooms & celery in a little butter while making the white sauce. Combine the two, add the cheese and then the turkey pieces. Serve hot over spaghetti. (I made the white sauce in the same pan as I sautéed the veggies - just pushed them aside and made the sauce in the middle. It works fine and saves washing another pot)

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Dreamy or Nightmarish?

Confession time. Guilty pleasure here. I love iceberg lettuce salads. There, I've said it.

I don't need anything more than a thick wedge of crisp, sweet iceberg lettuce drazzled liberally with either ranch dressing from a wishbone-shaped bottle or real Roquefort dressing. I learned to love this salad from my Dad, who always ordered it in restaurants, back in the Dark Ages when it was what anyone meant by "salad," except possibly the French. My mother was all about Romaine and vinaigrette so my Dad and I had to stick together.

When My Beloved is away on business, this is occasionally my dinner. You can have your gourmet baby greens and radicchio with raspberry-pomegranate-whatever - give me iceberg lettuce with a creamy dressing and I'm in Dreamland.


Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Loving Gesture

Is this a pretty picture? No. Does the food look appetizing. No. Did I love every bite? Oh, yes.

My Beloved made it for me. Every now and then, as much as I enjoy cooking, I just can't face another session in the kitchen. I was flaked out on the bed trying to summon the energy to get up and make some dinner when he appeared in the bedroom door with that hungry look on his face. Sadly, it wasn't hunger for my delicious self, but for the hamburger in the fridge. I groaned. He offered. Great marriages are made this way.

He cooked the hamburgers to perfection and had the idea to nestle them into gently toasted English muffins with a flourish of lettuce. He sautéed the Swiss chard in garlic and butter, hastily whacking off the tough stems as he plated the whole leaves. He set the table and poured the beverage before calling me to dinner. He even photographed the dinner so I could blog about his thoughtfulness.

I did the dishes with a smile on my face. I was revived by a tasty dinner and it was the least I could do after such a loving gesture.

Monday, December 21, 2009

Dungeness Crab Weather

In northern California, there are essentially two seasons, the wet and the dry. The temperature around the San Francisco Bay area doesn't fluctuate much throughout the year, so we mark the passing of time by the period when the rains begin and end. Around the end of October it starts raining on and off every few days and continues with sunny breaks between the storms until the end of March. We welcome the rain as it turns our hills from brown to bright kelly green in a few weeks and gives us the Sierra snow pack that we use to drink, bathe and cook for the rest of the year.

In early April, we typically have two windy weeks that dry out the grasses that grew so luxuriantly on the hills during the winter and turns them to the "golden" brown of the dry season. Normally, we then have seven months of dry season when it simply doesn't rain until October again nears its end.

Since I moved to California, Christmas Eve has always meant a feast of Dungeness crab. These large, orange and white crabs with the sweetest of meat mark the start of winter for us here and are another reason I look forward to the rainy season each year. This year, we had our first crab dinner on our pre-Christmas Eve, about a week early. My Beloved's daughters were both going to be away for Christmas, Sarah with her husband's family in Boston and Katie with her boyfriend's family in Texas, so we celebrated early with a warm crab dinner and lots of presents. I'm always in favor of having more than one celebration of a major holiday.

We were joined by Katie's Mom, who brought the soft Italian white wine she had enjoyed in Sorrento with her twin sister and expert knowledge of how to clean crabs. Katie and André supplied the salad, the crabs and the two huge pots of furiously boiling water flavored with Zatarain's Shrimp and Crab Boil into which they dropped the wiggling crustaceans. I'm such a wimp that if I had to kill my own dinner, I'd become a vegetarian. I watched in awe as Katie and André calmly discussed boiling times and cooling times after they clapped the lids on the crabs in the steaming cauldrons.

Once the crabs were cool enough to handle, Tina and Katie showed us how to remove the top shell and the gills, and how to separate the rest of the crab from the undesirable and unmentionable parts inside. Tina hails from Maryland but normally has no Southern accent - when she's cleaning crabs, however, her voice takes on the soft lilt of her birth state. She learned this skill with Maryland's famous blue crabs, and apparently learned it from a Southerner.

The result was this enormous bowl of delectable crab parts ready for the crackers and picks at each place on the table, some delicious cold noodles dressed with garlic butter and Parmesan cheese, and a light, green salad.

After dinner, we had an orgy of gift giving that created a huge mound of wrinkled wrapping paper and made us all wonder where the recession had gone. When My Beloved and I left to drive home, reliving the highlights of the evening, there was a light, misting rain that shined the streets.

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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Raclette Fiend

I'm a half-Irish woman who came of age in France. I guess I should have known that raclette was going to be my all-time favorite dish. If you've read enough already! about raclette here, you can just skip this post and come back tomorrow, 'cause here I go again.

Boiled red spuds (again!), smothered in raclette cheese under the broiler (again!) but this time with lightly sautéed pancetta wafers here and there through the cheese and potatoes. I'm in true danger of becoming a raclette fiend. 'Nuff said.

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Saturday, December 19, 2009

Smashed And Twisted

I'm not a big breakfast fan at breakfast time; I don't get hungry until I've been up for a while and, in my view, eggs are better for lunch or dinner than for breakfast. They seem a little rich first thing in the morning.

When I have geared up a bit, however, I love scrambled eggs, particularly when they are gently cooked in a modicum of butter with real bacon bits mixed in. I've been known to deny myself that last strip of crispy bacon one day to save it for smashed eggs the next.

Smashed eggs is the name Chief Banks came up with to describe this delicious concoction, which he invented just for me. Don't tell me others knew about it before he invented it - you'd spoil a precious memory.

This time, I used the some of the pancetta for a slight twist on the scramble. Pancetta is more intensely salty than most bacon, usually very thinly sliced and it's not smoked. Getting a bite of pancetta in your creamy smashed eggs is a lively wake-up call for the taste buds, the breakfast equivalent of setting your clock radio to a Zydeco station.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Move Over, Martha

Last weekend, I attended a delightful party, a Christmas tree ornament exchange disguised as a White Elephant party. The idea was that everyone brings a wrapped ornament and unwraps one from under the tree. Each successive unwrapper gets to "steal" a previously unwrapped ornament if she likes that one better. Hilarity ensues, needless to say. Bring a dish to share and you've got the makings of a really fun party.

One of the women who came to this party (it was a hen party - the hostess thought the guys would prefer to stay home and watch football) had made these amazing penguin appetizers. The feet and beaks are made of carefully sculpted carrot, the olives must be meticulously cut out to receive the beaks and the cream cheese-and-horseradish filling is piped in with a pastry bag, then carefully shaped. Everyone marveled at the patience and the tweeness. Move over, Martha. You have serious competition in Novato, California.


Thursday, December 17, 2009

Pancetta Will Do

Dreaming of mushroom-bacon burgers but no bacon in the house? I can hear you gasp with dismay but that was my dilemma. I had a pound of nice, grass-raised burger from Prather Ranch and some big, meaty mushrooms but no bacon, not even in the freezer.

I did have a very small amount of pancetta that I bought to try with raclette - inspiration! I lightly fried the wafer-thin pancetta in a wide frying pan, sautéed the mushrooms in the same pan, pushed all that to one side and added the burger patties to the slurry of flavors in the pan until the top and bottom were richly caramelized and delicious. Pancetta isn't smoked, so you get the porkiness and the saltiness without the smokiness. I guess I still prefer bacon, but pancetta will do.


Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Spud City

Back at Thanksgiving, pal Jack offered to make his famous mashed potatoes, so I went out and bought a boatload of russets, enough to feed a small army of hearty eaters. Ooops, Jack only uses Yukon Golds and he brought his own; we now have a near-lifetime supply of russets languishing in the vegetable drawer.

Every now and then, My Beloved will consent to a dinner that does not include meat. Not often, mind you, but occasionally. So, I baked us each a spud, blanched some broccoli and melted raclette cheese over the spuds (that's why they appear so yellow) before sprinkling them with a single rasher of chopped leftover bacon and topping them with the bright green broccoli. It takes a while to bake the spuds but, other than that, this meal is dead easy, 'way tasty and I used up two pretty sizable potatoes from our overflowing hoard.


Monday, December 14, 2009

Bird Bones

I was a Biology major in college. Having stuffed a number of birds in my Ornithology class, which included some taxidermy, I am familiar with the intricate architecture of birds. The light, hollow bones, the marvelously flexible necks, the "hands" evolved for flight still amaze me 25 years after I graduated with my diploma firmly clutched in my fist and my tassel tickling my cheek.

My Ornithology professor, who was also my academic adviser, laughed at the faces of distaste I made as I worked my way determinedly through the taxidermy lesson - it was not my favorite part of ornithology. But, I never roast a chicken or make turkey soup from the bones of my Thanksgiving bird without remembering his anatomy lessons and thanking him mentally for all he taught me about birds and about life. His name was Dr. Ronald C. Dilcher; he died this past year before I ever returned to Brockport to thank him again.

Ornithology was the first class I took from him, a summer course that met at 7am - "early birds" is not just an expression. I remember trotting along behind him, straining to recognize the bird calls he heard while struggling to keep up with his long, lean stride - he was a foot taller than I and the difference was all leg.

On one of those mornings, he darted away down a path in the woods and came back to the startled class carrying a starving but still struggling Great Horned Owl, nearly a foot tall, snapping angrily and trying to bite but too weak to fly and with a foot so damaged that it could not hunt for itself. Dr. Dilcher asked for volunteers to care for the owl, whom we named Mean Joe after the famous football player and his evident temperament. I applied
eagerly for the job. Mean Joe spent the next couple of months in my screened porch, sitting on a big branch that I dragged in and growing fat on chicken wrapped in dog hair that I combed daily out of my Tillie and Chica's coats (owls need roughage to aid their digestion and dog hair works a treat). He eventually went to a nature center as he would have starved in the wild. I like to think that Mean Joe gave up his freedom so that several generations of children could learn the wonder of being close to such an impressive creature.

In addition to biology, Dr. Dilcher taught me the value of patience and persistence, of trying again and again, and not giving up. He rallied me through Chemistry and encouraged me through Statistics and helped me to find my vocation, even though it took me away from him and his beloved Sciences in the end.

It's the season when we all look back over the past year and think about its significance. The loss of Dr. Dilcher is one of those important events for me.
His legacy is enduring; I'm still an eager amateur bird watcher, I still care about environmental matters and I still enjoy keeping up with advances in science even though my work hasn't involved them for many years.

Our Ornithology final exam that summer involved identifying bird anatomy - from a big bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken that he brought to class and had us name as we ate.
When I break this wishbone, my wish will be that all students have a Dr. Dilcher at least once in their lives.


Sunday, December 13, 2009

Mon Petit Chou

We seem to be on a raclette kick now that the weather is definitely wintry. It's all relative, of course, as "wintry" here means you might possibly have to scrape your windshield with a credit card to get the frost off in the morning, but usually it's not as severe as that. I did have to bring my poinsettias in off the front steps last night - oh, the hardships we suffer!

Back to the raclette. I had fully intended to add some pancetta when I made the raclette this time but I totally spaced it and, instead, had the idea to add some gently steamed Brussels sprouts before melting under the broiler all that lovely cheese over the red potatoes.

The ticket with these tiny cabbages is not to boil them on high heat - that brings out all their aggressively smelly cabbage-family genes - but rather to cook them gently and only just until they are tender on medium heat with a little water to coax out their sweet side. They like it when you say "pretty please" rather than "Hurry up!"

This simple dish, completed with some tiny, intense cornichons and pickled onions (I like Maille brand but have enjoyed others as well), even got the thumbs-up from My Beloved, who is normally not a huge fan of "mon petit chou." We were murmuring endearments all the way through this delicious dinner. Charles Boyer comes to mind.

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Saturday, December 12, 2009

To Ketchup or Not To Ketchup

When Mom T taught me how to make meatloaf, back when I was a new bride for the first time, she insisted that one does not put the ketchup* on the meatloaf while it cooks, only afterward, at the table. Since her meatloaf, a bumpy, chewy feast of textures and flavors, nicely caramelized and guaranteed to encourage overeating, is still my gold standard, I have always followed her dictum.

Lately, however, I've begun to question this doctrine. Meatloaf lovers, I'm curious - do you add the ketchup while the meatloaf is cooking, or not, and what is your reasoning for doing it whichever way you do?

Mom T's Meatloaf

2 lbs. ground beef
1/4 lb bulk sausage**
1.5 slices bread, torn into small pieces
1 egg
1 medium-large onion, chopped
1 or 1 sticks celery, chopped

Sauté onion and celery until soft. Add to other ingredients in a large bowl and mix thoroughly with your hands. Push into a shallow baking pan (it should be about 2" thick) and bake at 375 degrees for about an hour, to desired dark brownness. Serve with ketchup, preferably the sublime ketchup* that June Taylor makes.

**I realized upon typing this out that I have made a modification to her original recipe; I use 1 pound of ground beef and 1 pound of sausage, either bulk sausage or sometimes spicy Italian sausage. I also use whatever bread I have around although she always used sliced white bread.

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Friday, December 11, 2009

Again With The Soup??

I'm a big fan of soup; I could eat soup twice a week and be a happy woman. My Beloved, maybe not so much. When I trotted out our third or fourth pot of soup in less than a month, his body English said, "Enough with the soup, lady!" He's from New York - he has eloquent body language.

Turkey soup, made from the simmered bones of Thanksgiving with carrots, onions and celery in the broth, then strained to remove the bones and used-up veggies. I picked the meat off the bones and added that to the soup. Once all the goodies were in the pot, I added new sliced carrots, some frozen peas, some sliced green onion and broken vermicelli for the final heating.

We each ate two bowls of soup - notice, please, that the body language did not translate into reluctance once the soup was on the table.
I couldn't finish my second bowl, so Cora got some, too, and I had only enthusiastic body language from her - she has a way of dancing on her hind legs that indicates strong approval.

Message received from the boy, however. I'll wait a while before making another pot of soup.


Thursday, December 10, 2009

Swiss Taters

Cruising through the supermarket aisles the other day, I happened upon a nice brick of cheese from the Swiss/French mountains and was reminded of the dish that bears its name.

Raclette; the very idea starts my mouth watering. This time, it was little more than a slightly tangy, earthy cheese melted under the broiler over some boiled red potatoes and sprinkled with a little bacon but what a lovely late fall meal it made!

I added dark green Swiss chard that I had sautéed in some of the bacon drippings with a minced garlic clove or two - just seemed like the right combination since the origins match - and sprinkled the raclette with a little Italian parsley for color and a bright taste. Added some very puckery cornichons and pickled onions to the plate and, man, does that ever liven up the tongue! Alternating bites of pickle with bites of unctuous cheesy spuds is a screaming, arms-in-the-air roller-coaster ride for the taste buds.

If you were struggling home after a tough day at work or from driving the kids to all their soccer, ballet and playdate activities, this would put delicious dinner on the table in less than half an hour. Even if you're retired like me with lots of time to spare, you could spend it reading a trashy novel or visiting with friends and still have a lovely meal in a flash. Raclette - keep it in mind.


Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Life Saver

Thank heaven for broth! When you've got broth in the freezer, you've got dinner. No matter how crazy the day gets or how forgetful I become in my late middle age, I can make dinner in a flash if I have broth.

Chop an onion or two, slice some celery and carrot, cube some squash, brown a small handful of leftover hamburger, add garlic, splash in the broth - in this case, beef left over from crockpotting - (if it's frozen, it will thaw in the hot pot), sprinkle in a generous dash of Penzey's Northwoods Fire seasoning (a blend of hot and black peppers), some s&p, yadda yadda and less than one hour later, you have tasty, filling, sustaining dinner for a household. The dog will circle the table twice before reluctantly settling down with a heavy sigh as close to your chair as she can get. Discreet slurping noises will be heard. The next day, lunch will be even better than dinner was.

The moral of the story is: Make broth, not war. You listening, President Obama?


Sunday, December 6, 2009

Relishing Porkiness

Onions and apples have always been good friends with pork - they are naturals together - so when I had two nice thick pork chops, an apple that needed eating and a nice big onion in the fridge, it seemed like a match made in heaven.

First, I cut a deep pocket into the fat side of each chop with a sharp knife, taking care to keep the blade level so the pocket sides would be evenly thick. The chops were about an inch thick, so the resulting pocket was about 1/2" thick on each side.

Then, I diced finely about 3/4 of a large apple (snacked on the rest while I worked) and the same amount of onion. I sautéed them both in a little butter, just until the onion was translucent and the apple had softened a bit, added about a tablespoon of apple cider vinegar to the pan and tossed the dice to coat. Into each chop pocket, I spooned a healthy portion of the apple-onion relish, reserving the rest.

I browned the chops on both sides using a little olive oil in a heavy frying pan (being careful not to dump out the stuffing when I turned them), then added a generous splash of chicken broth to the pan and put the lid on. Steaming the chops this way kept the meat moist while it cooked for about 10-15 minutes more. My Beloved likes his pork slightly on the pink side, so I took his out a few minutes before mine. These cook faster than chops without pockets so watch them carefully.

Laying the chops on the plates, I spooned the rest of the reserved apple-onion mixture over the chops. The vinegar added a lively tang to the sweet and savory of the apple-onion flavors and gave another dimension to the rich chops. I would happily make this again - it was easy, relatively quick and we relished (sorry 'bout that!) every bite.

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Friday, December 4, 2009

Newly Minted Tradition

Sometimes, I feel a little silly saying I "invented" a new dish - I think they've all been tried before. However, when I stumble upon flavors that I, myself, have never tried or read about before, it feels like true innovation to me.

This dish was like that. I had just about a quarter of a small kabocha squash left from a previous meal and wanted to roast it tossed simply in olive oil, salt and pepper to accompany our Thanksgiving dinner. I made a fairly fine dice out of it, thinking it would cook quickly, and slid it after tossing into a 350 degree oven. I nearly burned it - you can see that a few of the smaller pieces did approach ignition - and when I tasted it, it was good in that hearty, sweetish, comforting way that kabocha squash always is but, admittedly, a little on the ho-hum side.

I had picked up at the supermarket the previous day a small package of glazed pecans - nothing but the nuts very lightly coated with canola oil and sugar and, I suspect, roasted briefly - and I had the idea of adding them to the squash dish while it was still hot. It was so good that it will be an honored guest at all subsequent Thanksgiving dinners at our house. Next time, I will make slightly larger cubes of squash but I'll be even more liberal with the toasty nuts. While it wasn't as sweet as pumpkin pie or that squash dish with melted marshmallows on top, it was a really nice accompaniment to our dinner and I'm already dreaming of serving it alongside a roasted pork chop. I got a little frisson of pleasure, too, at thinking I had invented a whole new dish.

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Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Easy As (Pizza) Pie

Back in September, when I had a glut of pizza dough that I was, frankly, too stubborn to throw out, I froze the extra but wondered what in the world I would do with all that dough. In the intervening months, I have been saved more than once by this trove of frozen treasure.

Last night was a good example. I had taken out of the freezer one of the packages of dough and set it in the microwave over the warm oven to thaw when we stepped out to walk Cora around the neighborhood for her late afternoon constitutional. On the way home, we witnessed a terrible scene, two loose pitbulls attacking a cat. We arrived too late on the scene to do anything to save the poor cat but we rushed home, threw Cora to safety in the house and drove back to the scene hoping to at least get a description of the dogs that we could call in to the police, which we did.

My Beloved, being the kind and helpful man that he is, also drove all over the neighborhood trying to spot the pitbulls for the police, warning people that these two dogs were loose, urging them to take their cats indoors and giving rides home to any who were out with their own dogs and far from safety. We heard later that one of the dogs was captured; the other, as far as we know, is still at large. The owner of the cat is inconsolable.

When My Beloved returned home hours later, he was tired to the bone and hungry. We hastily piled goat cheese, sliced, blanched broccoli, leftover bacon and sliced mushrooms onto the rolled-out crust and slid it onto our pizza stone that had been heating in the oven. It made a quick and sustaining meal for two shocked and heartsick animal lovers.