Monday, March 31, 2014

Grilled Cheese Nirvana

While I had my waffle iron out to make stuffing waffles, I decided to use it as a panini press. Have you ever make a  grilled cheese sandwich in a waffle iron? Well, neither had I, and it seemed like a fun idea.

To get the full value of this story, you need to know that my waffle iron is very special. I bought it perhaps 30 years ago in tiny Hilton, New York at a little shop called The Fixer's Offerings. The Fixer went around finding other people's castoffs, repairing and returning them to service. He was the ultimate recycler 20 years before the term "recycling" became a household word.

I bought the waffle iron mostly because I was enchanted by the two little round burners, the metal on-off switches that were sure to become red hot during the baking (they do), and the cloth-wrapped cord. Obviously, I was going through some kind of vintage stage.

Anyway, what I brought home as a quirky, five dollar purchase has been with me ever since. Other waffle irons have come and gone in my life but this one remains. It simply makes the best waffles on earth, and in a fraction of the time of any other waffle baker I have owned. The grates are seasoned from years of use, so they don't need greasing any more. Oh, it has some drawbacks, like the red hot switches and the fact that it can overheat, but all those considerations are minor compared to nearly instant and delicious waffles.

So, when I thought about putting a grilled cheese sandwich into my waffle iron, I thought carefully first. I didn't want anything to screw up my precious find. Still, nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?

I needn't have worried - the waffle iron accepted the sandwich and the weight of the heavy metal grates flattened it down so that the whole sandwich settled into the grid and toasted to a golden brown in just a few minutes. No sticking, no protest, it just went to work.

Oh, my heavens! What a lovely, crisp, buttery, gooey perfection of a sandwich! The Swiss cheese melted not onto the bread but rather into it, and became one with it. We couldn't tell where the bread ended and the cheese began, except for the long threads molten of cheese that pulled out with each bite. This was grilled cheese nirvana.

I immediately began thinking about other ways to riff on the sandwich but My Beloved stopped me. "This is perfect just as it is," he said and, as he so often is, he was right. No need to gild an already golden sandwich.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Wacky Waffle Wednesday

Here comes a shameful confession: My Beloved and I watch Guy Fieri. There, I've said it! 
I know most foodies would turn up their noses, but we get a kick out of his antics, his hairdo, and his "I just love myself" attitude. 

To give you some context, we discovered Guy Fieri years ago at an outdoor arts and crafts fair near Jenner, California, (he's a NOCA native) when we were out exploring one day. We stopped at the fair around lunch time and, seeing the line for hot dogs was a mile long, decided to go for the salmon line, which had far fewer people in it. That planked salmon was from Guy's restaurant, Johnny Garlic's, and it was so delicious that we cornered the chef (not Guy) and demanded his recipe. We couldn't believe anyone (even me!) would prefer tube steaks to this killer salmon. We've been planking ever since.

All that as prelude to our watching an episode of Guy's series, "Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives" in which he interviewed a guy in Syracuse, New York who makes stuffing waffles. What?? Yes, waffles made with stuffing. I have since learned that stuffing waffles are a great way to use up leftover stuffing at Thanksgiving, but I had never heard of such a thing so I just had to try them.

On that show, they demonstrate in rapid-fire order the ingredients that go into each dish, and the ones for stuffing waffles sounded easy enough, so here we go! Basically, you just assemble what you would normally stuff into your Thanksgiving turkey, let it soak up for a while, then press it into a waffle iron until it's crisp on the outside and the veggies are cooked through. I was initially uncertain about whether the raw onion and celery would get cooked but, magically, they did.

On the show, they also heated turkey slices and added gravy, mashed potatoes, and cranberry sauce, so I just followed suit - what the heck!  Thanksgiving in March - why ever not? 

I got the turkey slices and the mashed spuds from the deli section of my market and briefly heated the former in a small pan and the latter in the microwave. I made a simple gravy with some turkey stock I had in the freezer (butter, flour to make a roux, cook it a little, then add turkey stock a bit at a time, salt and pepper and voilà!) but you could buy that in a bottle if you didn't have stock on hand.

The meal was as much of a kick as that silly show is - the turkey was moist, the spuds loved swimming in gravy, the cranberry sauce was surprised to be called upon mid-year, and those stuffing waffles just made us smile. I mean, really - crisp stuffing?  Who couldn't love that?

The second graders I tutor love a book called "Wacky Wednesday." All kinds of fun and weird things happen in that book; if they had included a meal, I'm sure it would have been stuffing waffles.

Stuffing Waffles, adapted from Funk 'n' Waffles in Syracuse, NY

6 slices ciabatta bread (or other while bread)
1/2 large onion, finely chopped
1 stick celery, chopped
1 egg
1/2 cup or more turkey or chicken stock to moisten
thyme, rosemary, salt and pepper to taste
(next time, I will add sautéed mushrooms)

Mix the egg with the stock to blend. Add the herbs and mix to blend. Add onion, celery, and bread and mix thoroughly. Add more stock if needed - you want the "batter" to be quite moist. Let it stand for about 20-30 minutes to soak the bread thoroughly.

Pile a big spoonful into a heated waffle iron that has been sprayed with cooking spray (I used canola spray). Press down the lid and allow to cook until steaming has stopped and top and bottom are crisp. Serve topped with turkey slices, mashed potatoes, gravy, and cranberry sauce.

Monday, March 24, 2014

Love Is In The Air

If we didn't already know it was spring from the calendar and the weather, we'd know it from all the love floating around. Last weekend, we were guests at a beautiful wedding in a stunning setting when cousin Sherry married her long time partner, Kathy. They wrote their own vows, chose a good friend to officiate, and threw a fun party to celebrate afterwards. We are suckers for weddings, anyway, and this one was extra special.

Then, not only are Guy and Irene getting married in May (as I talked about here), but now my Fairy Goddaughter, Pamela, has a ring on her finger, too. She and her guy Matt have been an item for a couple of years now, so no one was very surprised, but we are all tickled pink. We approve of her taste in guys.

Pamela, who we call Louis (pronounced like the French), has been dear to my heart from the day she was born. I actually attended her birth, along with her father, in the operating room and was there when her mother told the nurse her name, Pamela, after me. In the list of honors in my life, that is easily Number One. 

And that kid just charmed the socks off all of us. She was an adorable baby, a sweet little girl with a determined chin to show the world she was no pushover, a graceful and athletic teen, a gorgeous young woman, a successful career woman who gives back to her community - and she just keeps getting better. 

So, when I was cleaning out my pantry in preparation for the kitchen remodel and I came across this cake mix for a diminutive, heart-shaped cake that some sweet person gave me long ago, I decided to bake it up in honor of all the happy couples we know and love. Sari and Jeff. Sherry and Kathy. Louis and Matt. Irene and Guy.

Happy Spring!

Friday, March 21, 2014

St. Patrick Would Be Pleased

I love St. Patrick's Day. I'm half Irish, so it's almost imperative. On the other hand, I'm developing a slow burn on the way some people act on St. Patty's Day - is it necessary to add to the stereotype of the drunken Irish?  So much better to stay home and make stew.

This year, I was not in the mood for corned beef. I had bought the cabbage but just wasn't feeling the corned beef, so when my blogging pal Katie of Thyme for Cooking posted about beef stew braised in Guinness Stout, that seemed just right.

As usual, I didn't quite follow the recipe - I'm bad that way - but I made a close approximation. I browned my beef without flour and paprika and that seemed to work, although I did have to thicken the gravy at the end. I added more thyme than her recipe called for as it's my favorite herb. I also used beef demiglace, as I had that in the freezer, rather than beef stock.

And I braised it longer (four hours) as my beef was tough and needed lots of additional tenderizing. Served over boiled potatoes that were crushed with my thumb, it was deeply, richly beefy with a tang of bitterness at the back end that was interesting. I might try this again using a whole pot roast - my beef was so lean it was a little dry. A pot roast would add just that little bit of fat to make it perfect.

When we reheated the leftover stew, My Beloved suggested trying it over egg noodles so we did that and we liked it even better with the noodles. Of course, that would have been heresy on St. Patrick's Day but, on the day after, even St. Patrick would have been pleased.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Pay It Forward

Our friends, Irene and Guy, after having been exclusive for the 25 years since they met in law school, are getting married!  All their friends were surprised, not because we don't know they are nuts about each other, but because they had been happily together just as they were.

They like to blame it on health insurance and survivor benefits and such, but anyone who has seen them together knows that's BS of the first water - benefits just give them a good excuse. So, late in May, we will all foregather down near Pescadero and celebrate the heck out of these two marvelous people.

Because they have been together for a long time, they don't need wedding presents. Instead, they asked their friends for the best presents of all - good deeds. They have asked us all to do random acts of kindness and to record what we have done so we can tell them about it at the wedding. Kind of like paying it forward. Isn't that a great idea?

My Beloved and I have been picking up a lot of trash on their behalf, and I've been giving a free swim to the next stranger who comes after me at the pool each time I go. Every time I give money to a homeless person, I think of Guy and Irene. Each time I put another piece of trash into a waste bin, I think of them. Every time the lifeguard clicks my swim card twice, I feel good thanks to Shin and Stilson. This has been more of gift to us than it really is to them.

So, what has that got to do with barbecuing?  Nothing, really, except that I was sort of paying it forward when I used the same coals to roast my chicken and asparagus for tonight's dinner while planking my salmon for tomorrow's. 

The chicken got a light sprinkle of salt and pepper and a half a lemon, two sprigs of rosemary, and a little bundle of thyme twigs in the cavity before I put it on folded foil to roast for an hour on indirect heat under the closed lid of my trusty Weber. 

The salmon got nothing but a plank set directly over the hot coals for 15 minutes. 

The asparagus were spritzed with just a little oil, salted, then roasted once the salmon came off and made room on the grill. 

All three were letter perfect, smoky and delicious, with little blistered parts on the asparagus, crisp crackling skin on a chicken that ran with juice, and tender salmon ready for inclusion in tomorrow's Salade Niçoise.

All in less than an hour - and no cooking at all tomorrow. Pay it forward all spring and summer long.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Improper Impromptu Chili

A couple of days ago, I was telling you about my Margaritas. I was making them whilst my chili dinner was cooking. Now, purists will tell you that proper chili does not have meat in it - and it certainly doesn't have pork in it! - but I beg to differ.  These days, when I go to the interwebs for an idea, it's the inspiration I'm looking for rather than a recipe.

I was inspired by the idea of using leftover mustarded pork shoulder roast to make chili.  As soon as I read the title, I was off and running.

This chili was all about layering flavors into the pot. It began with bacon drippings and ended with a splash of hot sauce at the table, and in between I just kept adding flavors until it tasted right. Onions sautéed in the bacon fat for that sweet/smoky base. Chunky pork shreds added when the onion had softened, half a bottle of some tomato salsa/spagetti/whatever sauce. Chipotle hot sauce, about 1/4 cup? A handful of frozen corn. A can of black beans.  It all bubbled together for about an hour while we consumed our Margaritas and walked the dog. 

Served in wide bowls, I garnished with a sprig of cilantro and crumbled a little cheese over the top. I didn't have Mexican cheese, so I used good old sharp cheddar.

My Beloved likes chili well enough, but it's not normally a dish he looks forward to. This one, however, got a gratifying nod of the head and a scraped-clean bowl, so I know it was a hit, proper or not.

Friday, March 14, 2014


My Beloved and I are not big drinkers of alcohol. Most of the time, we just have water with dinner, or sometimes a glass of wine, so where my urge to make Margaritas came from is anyone's guess.

I was making chili (more about that later) and my invented recipe seemed dry, so I thought to add a little liquid and I thought, "Why not tequila?" These ideas just come, sometimes. Anyway, I hauled out the duty bottle of tequila, which we have had for at least 10 years, and splooshed enough into the pot of chili to loosen it up a tad.

When I was taking the tequila out of the cupboard, I spied a bottle of Margarita mix which we probably bought along with the tequila 'way back when and never used. I decided it would make the perfect cocktail for dinner.

Actually, it made two - one that wasn't very good because the proportions on the bottle of mix are all about using lots of mix, and one that wasn't half bad.

For the first one, I used table salt along the rim of the glass, stuck there with water. Too salty. And the ratio of the mix was off - too sweet. So, I changed the proportion from 4-1 to 3-1 (mix to tequila), coated the rims of the glasses with lemon juice, then Hawaiian red salt, and shook the tequila/mix concoction vigorously with ice cubes.

A side note: My Dad had a wonderful silver cocktail shaker that he used to make a martini for himself and my mother nearly every evening of their married life. I didn't have one (my younger brother inherited the silver one) but I improvised - a travel coffee mug works very well as long as you slide the little door in the lid closed before shaking. Uh, don't forget that little door, or put your thumb over the hole. Enough said.

Anyway, poured - ice cubes and all - into the salt-rimmed glasses and garnished with a sprig of cilantro, it made a very nice cocktail before dinner.  So, we had another one with dinner! Are we living large, or what?  ¡Olé!

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Easy Ersatz Mexican

I'm sure you know by now that I'm a great believer in using up everything in the fridge before it grows hair and even I won't touch it. My mother taught me the parsimony part - the part she didn't get was how to use it up before it became a science experiment. Whenever I visited her in her later years, I would throw away one cure for a dread disease a day so she wouldn't notice they were going until her fridge was free of fuzzy items. No kidding - that woman would save two tablespoons of peas, but then never use them. To this day, I shake my head when I think about the contents of her fridge.

So, when my own fridge was full of this and that, I knew it was time to make them into something before the inevitability of earthy decay became a reality.  I had a hunk of leftover mustard-glazed pork shoulder that had been slow roasted until it was falling apart (I didn't tell you about it because it was unremarkable), a little cup of white refried beans and another of Spanish rice from our last outing to Las Camelias (still the Bay area's best Mexican restaurant), and a half a jar of Newman's Own salsa. Surely I could make something good out of that.

Tortillas are my friend. I found a package of those, too, so spread them out, topped them with shreds of pork, strips of string cheese, a rattle of the rice and a smear of the beans, adding fresh chopped onion and green onions before rolling them up and turning them seam-side down.  I poured the jar of salsa over all of the rolled "burritos" and slid them into a medium oven until they were nice and hot.

I made four, thinking we'd eat them all but they were so hearty that I had two left. They are in the fridge. And you know what can happen in there...

Monday, March 10, 2014

Flower Power

Georgia O'Keefe is a wonderful artist; her style is unmistakeable. She's an iconic figure in the Southwest with her spare, timeless looks. What I didn't know is that most of her well-known paintings, especially those giant flowers, were painted early in her career, long before she moved to New Mexico and became a household name. The current show at the deYoung takes an interesting look at her earlier works and the influence her mentor/husband, Alfred Stieglitz, had on her work. There is also an interesting little movie in the show that talks about her life in the desert, but the works themselves are from the time in New York, especially in the Adirondack compound on Lake George owned by Stieglitz's family. 

Cousin Jan and I spent an enjoyable couple of hours at this show which, interestingly, was overwhelmingly visited by women if our sample is representative. I guess the idea of giant flower paintings puts most guys off?  In any case, we enjoyed seeing those, but especially her lesson-known works. There was a wonderful painting of the glowing red maples in fall - since I have been to the Adirondacks in that season, I realized that she wasn't exaggerating the colors at all - the flaming hardwood trees are made to seem even brighter by their juxtaposition with dark green conifers. Perhaps my favorite of these works was the quietest of the whole show, a wonderful barn with a light dusting of snow. Very little color was used and yet the visual impact was powerful.

After absorbing all we could of the show for the moment, we sauntered into the museum cafe for a little lunch. I am tickled by the way the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, (which runs both the Legion and the deYoung) have recently begun theming their menu offerings to the current shows. This time, a Waldorf salad with chicken (in honor of her New York years, one supposes) was decorated with the same pansies shown in some of her large flower paintings. Having just seen some of these in the show, I really noticed the details of the flowers. Jan and I split the salad and a pastrami sandwich they called the "Nu Yawka." A little corny but, hey, at least they are trying and it was pretty good. It wasn't a true New York Reuben, but it was Reubenesque.

We came away with lots of strong images playing in our heads as we drove home. A different kind of flower power, all good.

Friday, March 7, 2014

Aware Of Wonder

When I was young, back when God was a child, I encountered a book that became wildly popular at the time, a wonderful little book of essays called, "Everything I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" by Robert Fulghum. Mr. Fulghum has a nice, folksy writing style and some wonderfully apt insights; one of them occurred to me as I was planting beans this morning.

Be aware of wonder. Remember the little seed in the Stryrofoam cup: The roots go down and the plant goes up and nobody really knows how or why, but we are all like that.

I had donned my ratty old straw gardening hat with the flowered band and was out in the filtered sunshine, first we have seen in several days, enjoying the freshly washed air after an overnight rain. It seemed like the perfect time to plant beans. Last fall, I bought a package of  Tarbais beans from Rancho Gordo for a cassoulet and, on a whim, saved just a few for planting.

I'm an indifferent gardener at best, but I do enjoy experimenting each year with some funny new crop. Last year, I had decided not to plant anything, but two tomato plants volunteered from the previous year's seeds, so I let them grow and they were actually the most productive tomatoes I have ever grown. That little story is a good illustration of my gardening habits. I'm bad at watering, worse at weeding, and hopeless at keeping any semblance of orderly rows.

So, as I dropped my fat, white seeds into little holes at the base of slender bamboo poles that I imagined some day will each support a leafy vine full of swelling pods, I was aware of the wonder of what I was doing. The wonder that a seed can hang on to life over a long winter. That it magically knows when the time is right to begin germination. That from less than an ounce of bean will grow many thousands of times that amount of stalk, leaves, flowers, and more beans for next year and the year after that and the year after that!  It's the very best kind of mystery.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Birthday Party

Here's another one of the unexpected joys of a grandparenthood helpfully provided by My Beloved; a little girl's tea party. Because I never had children of my own, I didn't anticipate being invited to a birthday party for a seven year old who, when asked what she wanted for her birthday, replied, "A crown with real jewels and a horse." When her aunt pointed out that the horse might be a bit of a problem in a suburban neighborhood, Mia replied, "Well, in that case, a pony would be okay." My Beloved's smart genes are in there, for sure!

She also had firm ideas about what sort of birthday party she would have. A tea party, with finger sandwiches and petit fours, please. So, here's the splendid table her mother set for her party, complete with balloons, fresh flowers, and tea service. Mia wore her favorite dress that her Boston grandmother gave her, all white satin and sequins and glitter, complete with a bridal veil with satin flowers across the top. Everywhere she has been in the house sparkles gently as the dress sheds a bit.

She even supervised her mother's wardrobe, rejecting very fashionable boots in favor of silver high heels, and asking plaintively if her mother didn't have at least one long dress. She curated her mother's jewelry, too, insisting on a very sparkly necklace with gigantic jewels. They rivaled the Koh-i-Noor and the Hope Diamond - perfect for our budding gemologist.

Mia made crowns for each of us from a kit her father found, carefully selecting and gluing fabulous gems, stickers, and pompons to each one, so we all became instant royalty. As we sat down to tea, the balloons bobbed gently above our heads. We passed the plates of sandwiches and petit fours, saluting the birthday girl with our tea cups.

I can only imagine the memories running through Mia's head that night as she drifted off to sleep. The party was perfect in every way and her presents were all spot on for her. No, she didn't get the horse (although we did give her a gift certificate for a riding lesson) and the crowns didn't have real jewels, but the rest was just as a little girl might wish.

Happy Seventh Birthday, Mia!  Being your grandmother is one of the best things in my life.

Monday, March 3, 2014

The Soup That Eats Like A Meal

As My Beloved and I sat down to eat dinner, what should float to the top of my consciousness but the tag line from a Campbell's soup commercial from my youth. "The soup that eats like a meal." Amazing the Proustian associations a bowl of soup can dig up!

Such as memories of my friend Wendy, who loves wild rice - there was wild rice in this soup. And remembering why I froze turkey stock and soup from last Thanksgiving - we were sick of turkey back then but are grateful for an easy meal now. And a chuckle remembering that the little rounds of spicy summer sausage were provided by My Beloved's friend Tom, who lost the Super Bowl bet this year and sent us cheese and sausages from Wisconsin.

This soup really did "eat like a meal." It was nearly stew. Nothing in there but shallots softened in butter, then covered with turkey stock, carrots, and thyme to simmer together with the wild rice until the rice "blossomed," about 50 minutes, then it was time to add the sausage, leftover turkey pieces, and peas for the final heating.  It needed salt and pepper at the table but was otherwise perfect. Even My Beloved, who is not always a fan of soup for dinner, enjoyed it enough to have a second helping.

The sausage was the magic ingredient that sparked everything else. It was a tiny bit spicy and very flavorful when heated in the soup. It also complemented the wild rice beautifully - those two are a great combo.  The rest was just along for the ride, but that homemade broth played in the background, like the cello in a concert - not often the star of the show, but it makes the stars shine out.

I have had a head cold all this week. Soup is the perfect meal for a cranky, cold-ridden patient.

Turkey and Wild Rice Soup

3 cups homemade turkey broth (I don't think you can buy this stuff, but if you can, let me know where. I make mine simply by boiling the turkey carcass in water to cover the bones with onions, carrots and celery until it all falls apart, cooling it, straining out the bones and veggies, and reserving the meat)
3 small summer sausage sticks (you might substitute pepperoni, but those are spicier), sliced into rounds
3 large shallots, chopped
About 3/4 cup raw wild rice
3 medium carrots, chopped
2 tsp dried thyme
1 cup leftover turkey pieces
1 cup frozen peas

Soften the shallot in butter, then toss the rice with the shallot until grains are coated and shiny. Add the thyme and cook until fragrant, just a few minutes. Add the turkey stock and carrots, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for about 45-50 minutes, until the rice "blooms" (i.e., splits and shows the white interior). Add summer sausage, turkey pieces, and peas. Cover and simmer until peas are dimpled but still bright green, perhaps 3-4 minutes. Serve in wide bowls and pass the salt and pepper.

*If I had had mushrooms in the fridge, I'd have sautéed them along with the shallot, then followed the rest of the recipe.