Monday, October 20, 2014

Ode to a Crockpot - Sweet and Sour Stuffed Cabbage

I recently read an Op Ed piece in the New York Times, where the writer expressed her feelings about the societal expectation of preparing daily home-cooked meals for children.  She was indignant, offended, and darn near angry.  After all, coming home after a long day at work doesn't leave time to whip up a pot roast, especially when the children have after school activities, homework, baths, and all that jazz.  She recognized that somewhere in that time period between the end of the school day and bedtime, the kids had to eat dinner, but expressed her longing for the days when the First Lady was not keeping pizza off the school lunch menus, and it was okay to do your dinner food shopping in the drive-thru at McDonald's.  The writer also expressed her not-inconsiderable feminist frustration that here we are in the 21st century, and mothers, i.e. females, were expected to cook for their spawn.

As the late President Richard Nixon would state, let me say this about that:  first of all, I'm a feminist - a real feminist, someone who faced blatant gender discrimination in the seventies, when I first started working, and had to push hard to make progress, failed in the face of a male-dominated industry, and then applied to law school to try to level the playing field.  I've been ready for Hillary for a long time, and furious that countries like India, Israel, and Great Britain have been led by powerful women executives, while we have not.  

Next, Michelle Obama needs to get out of the school cafeteria.  There is nothing wrong with pizza on Wednesdays or fried chicken on Monday.  It's all about balance and moderation. (Sometimes I still dream about those English muffin pizzas on the Wednesday lunch menu at Lawrence High School.) Third, I am firmly opposed to children having too many activities that eat up all their (as well as their parent's) spare time after school and every weekend.  Pick two, and let the kids have time to be kids. 

Fourth is that you don't have to cook every night.  True, my grandmother (she-who-raised-me) cooked a three course meal every night, but she was another generation, a stay-at-home wife and mother, and besides, the kitchen was always closed on the weekends.  I don't cook every night, in fact, I almost never cook during the week, because I've always been a working mother.  My schedule is the opposite of my grandmother's - I do all my major food shopping and cooking on the weekend, pack everything up in those ubiquitous aluminum pans that my cousin Steve Schneider likes to tease me about, and load up the refrigerator with enough food to feed my family for at least a week.  My son, now an adult, likes to eat late, so long after his dad and I are done with dinner, he pulls a goodly number of those tin pans out of the fridge, and fills up a plate with whatever combination of cooked comestibles strikes his fancy, and - are you ready for it? - he reheats it in the microwave.  

Admittedly, I think spending at least one of my days off from work frying artichoke hearts and basting chickens is a big treat, but I got the sense that the op ed author would rather scratch out her eyeballs with a fork.  For her and other parents who either don't like to cook, don't have the time or the talent to cook, don't have another parent in the home who is willing to pick up part of the cooking responsibility, and who can't afford decent take-out every night, there is, of course, always the last, best hope for a delicious and easy hot meal (and the reason for today's post)- the crockpot.  The crockpot is my go-to device on those occasions when I do plan to cook during the week, as well as one of the appliances I rely on during my weekend cooking marathons.  

This, my friends, is a crockpot, AKA a slow cooker.  This little beauty and I made our acquaintance in the fall of 1976, and we've been together ever since.  She is so old - like me - that her inner crock is not removable.  I think she is about 4 quarts, an adequate size for chili and soup, but not large enough for a couple of racks of baby back ribs or a nice big pot roast.  Until recently, I also had a round 5 quart cooker with a removable crock, but after almost as many years of faithful service, it passed on to that great appliance junk yard in the sky.  I am in the market for a replacement, and also checking out some 8 quart crocks, in case I ever feel the need to feed the population of a small city.  In the meantime, I rely most frequently on this 6 quart oval, which has two crocks, one of which is divided into two compartments.  Very nice when I want to serve cocktail meatballs AND little smokies, or two kinds of soup.

That is a lovely piece of stuffed veal breast in the crock, and by the time you read this, I will have posted that recipe.  For today, however, I am using both crockpots to create a relatively easy version of my grandmother's stuffed cabbage.  It can be prepared in stages, if you prefer, and I'll show how using the crockpot takes the stress out of assembling all of the components.  

To me, the biggest stress factor has always been the cabbage.  Either I have to deal with a huge pot of boiling water, trying to remove the rock-hard core of the cabbage so I can dip it in and out of the water to loosen the leaves (imagine cutting yourself and scalding yourself at the same time) or I have to plan three days ahead and put the cabbage in the freeze for at least overnight, and then let it defrost in the refrigerator and hope the leaves are soft enough to remove, stuff, and roll.

Instead, I took a nice big head of cabbage, placed it core-side down into my 6 quart crockpot, first cutting off about half an inch across the bottom so it fit under the lid.  I then added water about a third of a way up the sides, covered the crockpot, and cooked the cabbage head on low for 6 hours. When it's done, carefully move the cabbage to a large bowl, core-side up, and let it cool down enough to handle.  With a long thin knife, cut out the core and begin to carefully remove the leaves, placing them on paper towels to drain.  You will need 12 large yellow leaves, but do not discard the remaining cabbage just yet.

Here is my grandmother's recipe for stuffed cabbage, adapted for the crockpot:

1 large head of cabbage, cooked in the crockpot to yield at least 12 large leaves

For the filling:
2 pounds ground beef
1/2 cup uncooked long-grain converted rice (Uncle Ben's)
about 1/4 cup grated onion (grate the onion right into the mixing bowl)
1 extra large egg
granulated garlic and onion powder, to taste
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper

Combine the filling ingredients in a large bowl and mix together by hand.  Divide the filling into 12 equal portions, shaped like logs.

For the sauce:
2 large Vidalia onions, chopped into large pieces
canola or olive oil
2 cans of Campbell's condensed tomato soup
3 soup cans water
1-8 oz. can tomato sauce
1 sauce can water
1-6 oz. can tomato paste
kosher salt, ground black pepper, and granulated garlic to taste
3-4 tablespoons sugar
granulated citric acid (sour salt)

At the same time you start the cabbage, spray or oil the inside of a 4 quart crock, add the onions, drizzle on the oil, cover and cook for 6 hours on low.  Stir occasionally, and watch those onions caramelize without spattering oil all over the top of your stove.  When the onions are done, add all of the remaining sauce ingredients except for the citric acid.  Cover and cook on high for 2 hours.  After the first hour, taste the sauce and adjust your seasoning, including sweetness.  Then add about 1/2 teaspoon of the citric acid, cook the sauce another half hour, then taste again.  You want the perfect balance of sweet to sour.  Just keep in mind that the citric acid should be used sparingly, and take your time in achieving this balance.

Take a cabbage leaf and with a sharp knife, carefully shave off the thick part of the rib.  Repeat for all of the leaves.  This will make it easier for them to be rolled.  Then place one portion of meat on each leaf, and roll it up like a burrito or an eggroll. Set the finished rolls aside.

Rinse out the 6 quart crockpot.  Ladle some of the sauce on the bottom of the crock.  Break up some of the remaining cabbage into smaller pieces and place on top of the sauce.  Add a single layer of cabbage rolls, placing them seam-side down.  Ladle on enough sauce to almost cover them, then place the remaining cabbage rolls on top, crosswise from the first layer.  I fit 5 rolls on the first layer and 7 on the second.  Use some more of the broken up cabbage to tuck in between the rolls so that they fit snuggly.  

Finally, top with the rest of the sauce and more of the broken up cabbage pieces.  Cover and cook on low for 5-6 hours, or until the meat filling registers 165 degrees and the cabbage is very tender. I set my crockpot to cook for 5 hours, after which it automatically switched to the "keep warm" setting.  When I woke up this morning, it had been on "keep warm" for 2 hours, and was perfect.  My house smelled so good, I almost ate stuffed cabbage for breakfast!

Serve the stuffed cabbage directly from the crockpot or carefully move to a baking dish for later use.

Cooked stuffed cabbage reheats well and also freezes well. Just remember to place a piece of wax paper between the food and aluminum foil, if you are going to use the foil to cover the pan.  This recipe serves 12 as an appetizer, or 4-6 as an entree.

Try it, you'll like it - then leave a comment.  Love some feedback!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Which Came First, the Pig or the Egg? - Scotch Eggs

"If heaven ain't like EPCOT, I'm not going."  Yep, I used to say things like that.  As you might have guessed that was before I took my first cruise.  Back then, it made me happy just to have Scotch eggs and an Irish coffee for a mid-afternoon snack at the Rose and Crown Pub. These days, if I want a Scotch egg, I'm going to have to make it myself.  My recipe is based on one I found in an old Disney cookbook.  I only changed almost everything (grin).

1 pound hot sausage meat (I use Publix)
1 cup chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
6 hard cooked eggs, peeled and lightly patted dry
1 cup all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground black pepper
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning (I use Bell's)
2 eggs, lightly beaten with 2 tablespoons half-and-half
1 cup fine dry breadcrumbs (I mixed half plain with half seasoned because that's what I had available in the pantry)
canola oil for frying

In a medium bowl, combine the sausage with the parsley, sage, and thyme.  Divide the sausage into 6 equal portions.  With your hands, shape each portion of sausage into a patty, place a hard cooked egg in the center, and work the sausage around the egg to cover it completely.  
Set out a breading station.  Add salt, pepper and poultry seasoning to the flour.  Take one of the sausage covered eggs and roll it in the flour,  then the egg, and then the bread crumbs.  Use your hands to gently pat the breading and shape the egg.  Then run each egg through the breading station line one more time.  When all of the eggs are double-breaded, place them in the refrigerator for at least an hour.

In a medium sauce pot, heat 2 inches of canola oil to 375 degrees.  Gently place 3 of the eggs in the oil and fry until brown on one side, then turn to brown the other side, frying a total of 5 minutes. With the tip of a sharp knife, carefully pierce the breading and check to make sure the sausage is completely cooked. Set on a rack to drain; repeat and finish the other 3 eggs.

Let the eggs cool before trying to cut them in half.  These are usually served with a mustard-mayo or remoulade type sauce; having run out of energy, I mixed 1 tablespoon of McCormick's Tartar Sauce with 1/2 tablespoon of Goya's Salsa Rosada and 1/2 teaspoon Dijon mustard.  Not bad.  Then I stirred in 4 drops of fresh lemon juice and 2 drops of Tabasco.  Even better!

Just a side note - As you can see, I double-breaded the eggs.  While it kept the sausage from breaking through, I thought the breading was too heavy.  Could just be me.  Both Robert and Cory tasted the eggs and thought the breading was just right.  I googled around and saw that Jamie Oliver also recommended a double breading, but skipped the flour in the second go-around.  He also undercooked his eggs, so that they were done enough to peel, but underdone enough that the frying stage did not make them too hard.  Lovely idea.  Here is the link to Jamie Oliver's version, I am definitely going to try this again, undercooking my eggs as he did.  This article, also from a British chef, expounds on the whole idea of undercooking and gives her recommendation for the best egg (put eggs in a pan with cold water, bring to a boil, reduce to simmer for 5 minutes, then remove the eggs to a bowl filled with ice water and let them stay there a full ten minutes before shelling.)  Oh, and she uses panko crumbs instead of regular bread crumbs!  No recipes with matzo meal, though ...

Marinated Artichoke Tempura

I love fried food.  Proper Southern fried chicken, onions rings in puffy fried batter,  tempura shrimp and vegetables with a sweet soy dipping sauce, corn fritters dripping honey, conch fritters, hush puppies, Nathan's French fries, fried pickles, and the list could go on forever.  Many of these taste best with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce and I can hear my arteries hardening as I type this.  

I also love artichokes.  Whole globe artichokes, which I stuff with savory flavors and bake or cook in the crockpot.  Frozen or canned artichoke hearts for sauces and soups.  Marinated artichoke hearts for antipasto and cold pasta sauces.  And frying.  Oh yes, you can take canned or marinated artichokes and bread them or batter them.  I first had breaded fried artichoke hearts at BJ's Brewhouse at the Loop in Kissimmee, and I was hooked.  So when I got a craving the other day,  I just had to try making it at home.  Rather than set up a breading station of flour, egg, and bread crumb, I tried this tempura version.  Much easier.  I'll save breading stations and the inevitable "club hand" for my fried eggplant.

Marinated Artichoke Tempura

2-12 oz. jars marinated artichoke hearts, drained and patted dry
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
dash of salt
dash of granulated garlic (optional)
1 cup very cold water

canola oil for frying
additional salt 

Heat 1/2 inch of oil in a frying pan, over medium high heat.

Whisk together the flour, cornstarch, and seasonings.  Gradually add the water and whisk until the batter is smooth.  Make sure that the artichoke hearts are as dry as you can get them; be prepared for some oil splatter.  Dip the artichoke in the batter, letting the excess drip off, and then, while you are standing arm's length from the pan, gently place the battered artichoke into the hot oil.  Repeat, working in several batches so that there is space between the pieces while they cook.  Turn one time, and when they are light golden brown, remove to a rack set over a baking sheet or aluminum foil to catch the excess oil drips.   Immediately season the hot artichoke hearts with salt.

Pretty, aren't they?

I tried a couple of my go-to dipping sauces - honey mustard, horseradish, even salsa rosada, but they all overwhelmed the delicate artichoke flavor.  I then took a couple of tablespoons of Hellman's mayonnaise, thinned it with  a little fresh lemon juice, and dipped into that.  Perfect - it enhanced the artichoke flavor.  Just add lemon juice and taste as you go. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Stuffed Breast of Veal for the Crockpot with Potato Gratin

This is kind of dish that Jewish mothers from Brooklyn prepared back in the middle of the last century.  Veal was always a treat, and our taste ran to chops and the the breast, stuffed with potato or bread.  Back then, you could find a nice big piece, 5 or more rib bones, a full half-breast, with a pocket already cut into it.  Veal is eaten a lot less these days.  It is now prohibitively priced, and for some people, there is the ethical issue of how the calves are raised and slaughtered.  Maybe once or twice a year, I see a small package of veal stew or a nice piece of veal breast on sale, and I allow myself to indulge.

2 pieces of breast of veal, 2 rib bones each piece
Cajun-style seasoning blend*
olive oil

1 1/2 cups crumbled saltine-type crackers
1/2 cup chopped leftover cooked vegetables - I had some cooked mushrooms and onions
1 extra large egg
1 generous teaspoon each dried thyme and rosemary
1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped
kosher salt and black pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon oil

1 jar of Gia Russa Marsala Simmer Sauce
1/2 cup marsala or dry sherry

Potato Gratin:
1 large russet baking potato, sliced very thin
Kosher salt, ground black pepper, and sweet paprika (preferably Hungarian)
5 oz. bag shredded Swiss cheese
up to a cup of French's French Fried Onions

Prepare the veal: Cut a pocket by sliding a sharp boning knife between the meat and the bone.  Slide the knife upwards from the bottom of the breast (you will see the bones protruding) without cutting open either side.  Rub the veal breast all over with a little olive oil, and sprinkle generously with Cajun seasoning.  Set aside.

Prepare the stuffing:  Combine all of the ingredients, adding just enough water to hold the stuffing together.

Using a wooden spoon, divide the stuffing in half and slide into each pocket.  Pat gently with your hand to evenly distribute the stuffing in each pocket, stopping about an inch before the opening.  It will look like a skimpy layer of stuffing, but will puff up nicely while cooking.

Heat a large deep skillet over medium high, add about 3 tablespoons of the oil, and brown each piece of veal on all sides, including the back of the bones.

Use about a half tablespoon of butter to grease the bottom of a 6 quart crockpot.  Place a single layer of the sliced potatoes to cover the bottom.  Lightly season with salt, pepper, and paprika, and dot with a little more butter.  Repeat with the remaining potatoes. Put the stuffed, browned breast pieces on top of the potatoes, placing the curved sides against the sides of the crockpot.  Pour the sauce and marsala or sherry over the meat, cover and cook on Low for 4 to 6 hours until the veal is tender and the potatoes can be easily pierced with the tip of a knife.  If you are around the house, turn the veal about halfway through the cooking time.

Remove the veal and let cool slightly.  Cut between the bones to serve.  If you have any difficulty (I did, even with an electric knife) do the best you can and don't fret.  Now the celebrity chefs tell us you eat first with your eyes, but I think you eat first with your nose, and this smells so good no one will care if your ribs are uneven.  Also, my mother always said it all ends up in your stomach anyway, and she never steered me wrong when it came to eating.  

Finishing the gratin: using a little more of the butter, grease an 8 inch square tin.  Carefully move the cooked potatoes from the crockpot to the buttered tin.  First place a single layer of potatoes, then drizzle a little of the sauce, then sprinkle some of the Swiss cheese.  Repeat until the potatoes are used up, and finish with more Swiss cheese.  Cover with foil, and bake for 30 minutes in a preheated 350 degree oven.  Remove the foil, and add the crispy fried onions to the top.  Return the pan to the oven for another 5 minutes or until the cheese bubbles and the onions are browned.  Let the gratin cool slightly before cutting into squares for serving. 

Spoon any remaining sauce over the veal and serve with the gratin.  

*For this I used Lowcountry Gourmet Seasoning from the Lowcountry shop in Savannah, Georgia.  Emeril's Essence is an ideal substitute.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

#TBT - You Get No Bread With One Meatball

Columbus Day has come and gone, Monday of this week, and I could not help but notice that it is no longer politically correct to celebrate the birth of the man who is credited with discovering America.  I just hope that doesn't mean an end to all of the Italian food specials that invariably show up at that time.

I love Italian food.  It is as much a part of my culinary heritage as chopped liver and potato kugel.  Growing up in Flatbush in the fifties and sixties, there really was no difference between Italian Catholic families and us Russian Jewish families, and it was the late comedian and actor, Dom DeLuise, who reinforced this point, writing "the Jews had matzo balls, and we had meatballs."  For me, cooking Italian is instinctive.  Maybe I should call these instinctive meatballs.  Never mind.  I also love to make Jewish sweet and sour meatballs, Swedish meatballs, tiny meatballs for Italian wedding soup, and you get the idea.

"You Get No Bread With One Meatball" Meatballs  

The waiter hollered down the hall:
You get no bread with your one meat ball.

Little man felt so very bad,
One meat ball is all he had.
And in his dreams he can still hear that call
You get no bread with your one meat ball.

Oh, but what a meatball!

3 1/2 - 3 3/4 pound ground beef (I use Publix market beef or you can use ground round)
3 eggs
1 1/2 cup whole milk ricotta
1/2 cup panko bread crumbs
1/2 cup Italian bread crumbs
1/2 cup cornflake crumbs
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 tablespoons parsley flakes
1 tablespoon onion powder
1 tablespoon dried oregano
1 1/2 tablespoon dried basil
1 1/2 tablespoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon Hungarian sweet paprika
1 tablespoon coarse black pepper
1 1/2 tablespoon brown sugar
crushed red pepper, to taste
2 teaspoons ground mustard
1/2 cup ketchup
4-26 oz. cans Hunt's garlic and herb pasta sauce

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and lightly spray the bottom of two casserole dishes, preferably the aluminum 9x13 size with deep sides.

Loosen up the ricotta by mixing it with the eggs.  Then combine all the ingredients except for the pasta sauce, in a very large bowl, take off your rings, and start mixing.  When everything is well mixed, take a small portion of the meat, form a very small patty and cook it in a pan.  Taste the cooked meat and make any seasoning adjustments to the meat mixture in the bowl.

Using a 3/4 cup measure, divide the meat into 16 portions.  Form the meatballs, and place eight in each of the prepared pans.  Place in the oven, uncovered, for 15 minutes.  Remove, carefully turn the meatballs over, and return to the oven for another 15 minutes.

While the meatballs are baking, heat the pasta sauce.  Ladle half the sauce into each pan of baked meatballs, cover with aluminum foil, lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees, and return the pans to the oven for 45 minutes.  Check for doneness with a thermometer - it should register 165 degrees internal temperature.  Add more time as needed to finish the meatballs.

Then eat your one meatball with as much bread as you like ... garlic bread for me.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Not Vegetarian Chick Pea Chili

I am trying to organize my recipe collection.  Over 40 years of scraps of paper scribbled in someone else's handwriting, recipe cards featuring pictures of cornucopia and matronly chickens, photostats from hundreds of cookbooks, printouts from food websites and blogs like this one.  I had one rather successful organization in 1990, using a very rudimentary program to type up and print out most of my recipes, but I never finished it and then things got out of control.  Still, I have all of those recipes, printed out and slipped into sheet protectors and clipped into a couple of extra-large ring binders, to use as a starting point for my ambitious project.  

Not only that, but I have a serious cookbook collection (and that's after weeding out the books I did not use or want anymore) and I have favorite recipes in most of them.  Okay, the truth is that I really want to leave a culinary legacy for my son.  And that means finding all of those favorite cookbook recipes, copying them, and adding them to the ring binders.  

Which means going through all of these cookbooks.  As well as the ones further to the left that didn't fit into the photo.  And the ones on the kitchen counter.  Also those on my night table, in my car, in my office, and on my Kindle reader.  

Going through those books was like opening up a whole lot of presents on Christmas morning.  In addition to the tried and true favorites, I was finding a new generation of recipes that I wanted to try.  This particular recipe, found in a book I must have purchased a good 15 years ago, caught my eye because of it's unabashed inclusion of garbanzo beans.  That was all it took for me to buy the ingredients and test it on my willing family, after I made some substantive changes to suit their taste. 

I realize that sounds kind of nervy, but have you ever read the reviews of online recipes?  The ones that start out "I love this recipe, and so did my husband!  I just substituted shallots for the red onion, and at the end I added nonfat yogurt instead of creme fraiche and I didn't have pork in the house so I used chicken and it was wonderful and thank you for sharing  your recipe."  Read enough of the reviews and you will realize there is an awful lot of tweaking (not twerking) going on, especially among us old cooking dinosaurs (definitely no twerking!)  For us, someone else's recipe is a framework, a suggestion, an idea that has not yet risen to full fruition.

It's not a great picture of the finished product, but when you see the turmeric in the recipe, you'll understand.  It really is quite delicious, and tastes best without any kind of topping or condiment.  But if you just have to pile on the cheese, sour cream, chopped onions, sliced black olives, and homemade guacamole, don't let me stop you.

Not Vegetarian Chick Pea Chili

2 1/4 pounds beef chuck, cut into very small pieces (carne picada, available in Walmart)
2 tablespoons Emeril's Essence
2 large onions (or 1 very large Vidalia), chopped
2 celery ribs, sliced into 1/4 inch pieces
1 large sweet green pepper, chopped
1 large sweet red pepper, chopped
1 Anaheim chili, seeded, ribs removed, and chopped*
6 garlic cloves, chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
3 tablespoons unsweetened cocoa
2 tablespoons McCormick Dark Chili Powder
2 tablespoons Badia Polvo de Chili Powder
2 tablespoons granulated garlic
2 teaspoons ground cumin
2 teaspoons dried oregano
2 teaspoons paprika (preferably Hungarian)
2 teaspoons ground turmeric
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
2 tablespoons molasses
1/2 cup dry red wine
1-28 oz. can diced tomatoes
1-10 oz. can Ro-Tel Diced Tomatoes and Green Chilis (mild or hot)
1-16 oz. can red kidney beans, drained
1-16 oz. can garbanzo beans (chick peas), drained
1-2 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Season the beef with Emeril's Essence and set aside.   Heat the oil over medium-high heat in a large deep pan.  Add the onion, celery, sweet peppers, Anaheim pepper, and garlic, and sauté just to soften the vegetable.  Add the beef and cook, stirring constantly, until beef is no longer pink.  Drain off any fat and return to the pan.  Stir in all of the remaining ingredients except for the sherry vinegar.  Bring to a boil.  Cover the pan, reduce heat and simmer, stirring occasionally, for an hour and a half.

After an hour, taste the chili and reseason to taste.  At the end of another half hour, add the sherry vinegar.  Taste and add more if needed.

*Anaheim chili peppers grown in New Mexico are a lot hotter than those grown in California.  You can also add some heat to the chili by leaving the ribs and seeds intact.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Pineapple Upside Down Cupcakes

Maybe I can't watch the Cleveland Cavaliers play the Miami Heat in Rio de Janiero this evening, but I can see Doctor Who.  Happy Saturday!

Watching the news ... another photo hacking scandal.  If someone hacks into my iCloud, all they are going to snag are pictures of food.  And speaking of food photos, here we go:

This is the chili recipe I tried last weekend.  Aren't those chick peas gorgeous?  

Despite a massive recipe collection, which I am in the process of seriously organizing, I cannot seem to stop myself from browsing for more.  Any weekend when I am not on a Carnival cruise ship is an opportunity to try something new in the kitchen.  This weekend I had hoped to try Jamie Oliver's recipe for whole roast chicken cooked in milk, but the fresh sage leaves in the produce section at Publix were uninspiring.  Instead, I'm going to bake a little, and fry a little, and just maybe take a trip to to South Korea.  We'll see.

Right about now I was planning on typing up that chili recipe, but Anakin had other plans:

Baking his brains out while resting on the recipe.  Let's move on for a moment.

Pineapple Upside Down Cupcakes

1-1/2  tablespoons butter
1-1/2 tablespoons light brown sugar
pinch of salt
12 maraschino cherries, patted dry and cut in halves
1-8 oz. can pineapple tidbits, drained, juice reserved
1-9 oz. box Jiffy Golden Yellow Cake Mix
1 extra-large egg

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Coat a 12-muffin pan with no-stick baking spray.

Melt the butter in a small pan and add the brown sugar and salt.  Place a cherry half, cut side down, in the center of each muffin cup. Divide the brown sugar mixture, about a half teaspoon each, around the cherry half.  Place 4 pineapple tidbits around each cherry, pressing lightly into the brown sugar mixture.  Set muffin pan aside.

Add cold water (or maraschino cherry juice) to the reserved pineapple juice to make 1/2 cup.  Prepare the cake mix as directed on the box, using the juice and egg.  Divide the cake mix evenly among the muffin cups.  Place the pan in the oven and bake for 18 minutes until done.  Remove the pan from the oven, and with a long sharp knife, holding the knife flush with the top of the pan, slice off any excess cake.  Immediately cover the muffin pan with a baking sheet (I first place a piece of wax paper over the muffins), and turn the whole thing over.  Remove the muffin pan - the cupcakes should come out easily if you did not let them cool off - and admire those cute little upside down cakes.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

#TBT - Peanut Chicken Stir Fry

Marinade and Peanut Sauce:
1 medium onion, minced
½ cup peanut or other neutral oil (I use canola)
½ cup fresh lemon juice
½ cup thin terikayi sauce (I use Mr. Yoshida’s Gourmet Marinade 
and Sauce)
½ cup dark rum (I used what I had, 151 proof – zowee!)
½  cup honey
2 tablespoons peeled and grated ginger root
6 garlic cloves, smashed and minced
1 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 teaspoons kosher salt
¼ teaspoon black pepper
¼ teaspoon granulated garlic
1 – 13 oz. jar creamy whipped peanut butter (you will not use
 all of it)
2 tablespoons half and half

Main ingredients:
2 pounds chicken breast meat, cut into bite sized pieces
1 medium or 2 small red bell peppers, large dice
1 medium onion, large dice
2 cups (approximately) stir fry vegetables (I used a 12 oz. bag of
 Eat Smart brand)
¼ cup thin teriyaki sauce (this is in addition to the ½ cup used in the marinade)

Wok on:
¼ cup vegetable oil
1 tablespoon peeled and grated ginger root
3 garlic cloves, smashed and minced

To serve:
½ pound angel hair pasta
2-3 green onions, white and some green parts, thinly sliced
Olive oil

For the Fancy Schmancy:
Chopped peanuts
Additional green onion, thinly sliced

Combine all of the marinade ingredients except for the peanut butter.
 Pour over and marinate the chicken for several hours in refrigerator.  
Stir occasionally while marinating.

When ready to prepare the dish, set out all the ingredients next to 
the wok. Mise en place is always important, but never more so than 
when making a stir fry dish!

Drain marinade from chicken.  Measure it, then put into a small
 saucepan and heat over medium until boiling. Watch it very carefully, 
as the alcohol will cause it to boil over. Measure out half as much 
peanut butter as marinade, then remove pan from heat and add the peanut butter, stirring until sauce is smooth.  Taste and adjust with 
more peanut butter if you like.  Stir in the half and half.  Let sit on 
stove at very low or warming heat.

Cook angel hair pasta according to package directions.  Do not run 
cold water over the hot pasta.  As soon as hot water is drained off,
 add a drizzle of olive oil and sliced green onions and toss to coat
 and combine.  Return to pot and hold over low or warming heat on stovetop.

In hot oil in wok, stir fry garlic and ginger till fragrant, but do not let 
brown. Immediately add the chicken to wok and stir fry till done, then remove and hold on side.
Add more oil if needed to wok. Stir fry onion and red bell pepper.  
Add remaining vegetables to wok.  While stir frying, add about 
¼ cup teriyaki sauce to vegetables to create steam.  When vegetables
 are tender, add back the chicken.  Lower the heat under the wok and 
add the warm peanut butter sauce, stirring with the chicken and vegetables.

To serve:  ladle peanut chicken and sauce over the pasta.  Sprinkle
 with chopped peanuts and green onion if desired.  Or skip the pasta 
and serve with rice, preferably the sticky Chinese type.

Incidentally, I used my trusty electric fry pan instead of my wok
 for this dish.  Worked great, and the chicken had the opportunity 
to pick up a nice brown color.  If you do use a wok, I recommend 
stir frying the chicken in two separate batches, so that the chicken
 browns instead of steams.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Welcome Back - Easy Falafel and My Favorite Tzatziki Sauce

My house smells awesome, as I am trying a new chili recipe.  Because you can never have enough chili recipes, ha ha.  These past few weeks I have tried a bunch of recipes, for no other reasons than my family has to eat, and perhaps more importantly, I find cooking to be extraordinarily therapeutic.  It is my meditation.

There were some successes but also a couple of epic fails.  The whole wheat bread pudding was just feh.  The kale and smoked turkey wing was so awful, I got up in the middle of the night, while it was simmering in the crock pot, and threw it out.  One of the successes, perhaps the best of the best, was my version of falafel, prepared from canned chick peas.

I love falafel.  Really love it, especially in a warm pita with chopped salad and garlicky yogurt sauce. Having moved to Central Florida in the early nineties, I was resigned to never experience the joys of real New York food, like a real falafel sandwich, bagels, and pizza, ever again.  After 23 years, I can safely report that you cannot get a decent bagel, nor a proper slice of pizza, in the entire state of Florida.  Good falafel can be had in, of all places, downtown Kissimmee.  Nadia's Cafe' on Broadway Avenue, right across from my office and a stone's throw from my house, serves excellent Mediterranean food, including an authentic falafel, which I get as part of a salad.  But Nadia's is not open at all those times I might experience a Mediterranean food craving, so I was going to have to come up with a homemade version that did not involve a mix, did not require me to soak beans overnight, and would not fall apart in the hot oil.

Voila!  By the way, that is an ebelskiver pan.  While it is not crucial to the success of the dish, I really think it made the frying part a lot easier.  Less mess, less oil absorbed, and more even cooking.

This recipe makes 18 falafel, which I portion out using the same size scoop I would use for meatballs.    These are best when served hot out of the oil, but they are also good cold.  I like them with tzatziki sauce, and I am posting my recipe below.  There are other Mediterranean sauces that probably work as well, but I'm a tzatziki sauce nut, and that's that.  

If I was going to serve this to a group, I would include pita and lightly toasted naan bread on the table, along with hummus, tabbouleh, and an Israeli salad, and let folks create their own version of Mediterranean goodness.  Cheaper than a flight to Morocco, safer than a trip to Israel.

Easy Falafel

1-15 oz. can chick peas (garbanzos), drained, rinsed with cold water, patted dry.  I use Goya.
1/2 cup finely minced onion
1 large clove garlic, finely minced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 extra large egg, lightly beaten with a fork
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground coriander
1 teaspoon kosher salt
white pepper and cayenne pepper, to taste
1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup matzo meal, more if needed
canola oil for frying

In a large bowl or an aluminum pan (always my preference) mash the chick peas with an old-fashioned potato masher until thick and pasty.  There should be some recognizable bits of chick pea in the mixture.  Add the onion, garlic, and parsley, and use a fork to combine them.

Add the spices, lemon juice and baking powder to the egg, beating lightly with a fork to combine them.  Pour the egg mixture over the chick pea mixture, and then add the olive oil.  Use your trusty fork one more time to evenly distribute the ingredients.

Now add 1/2 cup of the matzo meal and use your hand to work into the chick pea mixture.  Do not overwork.  Add a little more matzo meal as needed, until mixture is no longer sticky nor too stiff.  This is similar to adding bread crumbs to a meatloaf, and you must rely on touch to know when enough matzo meal has been added.

Use a meatball scoop to portion out about 18 balls.  Roll lightly in your hands, then press gently to flatten slightly.  Heat the ebelskiver over medium high heat, and add enough oil to fill each well not more than halfway.  You can also use a regular skillet with an inch of oil.  Carefully place a falafel into each well, and fry until golden brown on each side.  Repeat until all the falafel is fried, and serve hot with your favorite Mediterranean accompaniments.

My original tzatziki recipe called for plain Dannon yogurt and a Kirby cucumber.  It's hard to buy just one Kirby, and I finally found a way to make an everyday cheap cuke work.


1 - 6 oz. container Chobani plain non-fat yogurt
equal amount of sour cream
1/2 cucumber, peeled and seeded
1 clove fresh garlic
kosher salt and white pepper to taste
1 or 2 drops Tabasco sauce

In a small bowl, combine the yogurt and sour cream and set aside.

Shred the cucumber on the medium holes of a box grater.  Place the shredded cucumber between two sheets of paper towel, roll up and squeeze out the excess liquid.  Add the cucumber to the yogurt.  Mince the garlic very finely, or use a microplane to grate it, and add to the yogurt.  Season to taste with salt and pepper, add the Tabasco if using it, and mix everything together.  Cover and let chill in the refrigerator for an hour before using.  Serve with the falafel.  Also nice with certain lamb dishes, and I love to eat it as a dip with toasted naan.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Good heavens, I forgot the lemon poppy seed cake

Forgot to post it, can't remember where I put it, and haven't been here since. Mea culpa.  Wait, I just found it, stuck between the pages of my Johnsonville Big Taste of Sausage Cookbook.  Awesome.

Looking at the recipe part of this blog, I was shocked and appalled to realize that almost all of the photos were gone.  No idea why.  It may be a technical glitch, but if it involves my venturing into the mechanics of this blog, it may never get corrected.  After spending two hours on the phone yesterday with Bright House Networks, trying to figure out why my email up and quit, I am not feeling the emotional stamina to deal with Google.  Really, some of the pictures were pretty useless; food colors were off and the lighting sucked; but the recipes are pretty good, so try them anyway.  Look, I taught myself to cook starting in 1974 from The Joy of Cooking, and there is not one darn photo in there!    Yes, yes, when I was your age I walked to school in blizzards, uphill both ways.

2013 was a really tough year, and nowhere is that more reflected than in this blog.  I ignored it because I had barely enough energy to get out of the house each day to go to work.  Despite presenting a whole new set of challenges, 2014 is shaping up a lot better than its predecessor, so I will try to be a little more attentive ... but that's not a promise, just an aspiration.  Like the phrase I put into some court orders stating "the Department will make it's best effort to obtain the following services."  I'll make my best effort.

Here's the recipe:

Too easy.

Preheat oven to 325 degrees.  Spray some nonstick stuff into an 8 x 12 x 2 inch aluminum bake pan.

1 package Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix
3/4 cup warm water
1/2 cup canola oil
1 teaspoon lemon extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
4 eggs  at room temperature
1/4 cup poppy seeds

Combine cake mix with water, oil and extracts.  Beat on low speed just to combine, about 30 seconds.  Add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Beat at medium speed (I use a Kitchen Aid stand mixer) for 4 minutes.  Yes, that is four (4) minutes.  Add poppy seeds and stir in on lowest speed.  Pour into prepared aluminum pan.  Bake for 50 to 60 minutes until toothpick comes out clean.  Cool completely before adding the topping.

Topping: Stir together 12 ounces defrosted Cool Whip and fresh lemon juice to taste. Spread on the cooled cake.  Store cake in the refrigerator.  Serves 12 to 24.

Monday, November 11, 2013

So much time has passed and so many things have happened in the last 19 months, and it is difficult to quantify the impact. One thing I have noticed is that I do not cook as frequently as I did in the past, and this blog is really based on my love affair with cooking.  Tonight having whipped up a really easy lemon poppy seed cake with a light frosting, also ridiculously easy, I suddenly felt the desire to share it on the recipe blog.  Maybe even take a picture.  Look for it tomorrow - between pretrial conferences and trying to recover our car from a garage in Cordele, Georgia, I should have the time to do so.

Saturday, March 17, 2012


I couldn't be more proud of Dwight Howard than if he were my own son.  Loyalty does count.  He is, as my own mother would say, "a good boy."  Besides, it's not like he isn't going to be earning $19.5 million this coming season.

That was really the only good news over the past few weeks.  The world continues to go to hell in a minivan.  War, politics, massacres.  I sideswiped my own car in my own office garage. I made an appointment with my dentist because I cannot put if off any longer.  I realized that the pain in my left big toe is from podagra, also known as gout.  I oversalted my fried chicken (no one complained except me, but that's not the point.)  The price of gasoline continues on the upward path towards prohibitive.  March is almost over and nobody scheduled our office's monthly potluck.  All those lovely Irish-themed recipes I tested, for naught.  Well maybe not naught.  Cory and Rob had a grand time tasting them for me.

As always, when life becomes a little unpleasant, I start chopping onions.  I was determined to perfect a maque choux without tomatoes.  Why, you may ask?  Because tomatoes are over used.  I tried the maque choux last week, and found the flavor delightful until I added the tomatoes.  For some reason, the taste went flat after that.  Feh, flat.  Tried it again this week after tweeking a few ingredients, and I like the result, which is sort of a cross between maque choux and succotash.

To go with it, I prepared shrimp scampi - except instead of using olive oil with the butter, I used bacon fat.  Brined the shrimp first, and they stayed succulent and sweet.  I think I'm starting to get this cooking thing.

I got very little knitting done, darn it.

I spent a lot of time with my babies, and that was nice.

Cats and Dogs, living together ...

Earlier in the week, I took a little time for myself, and armed with a loaf of bread, headed down to the lake (Lake Tohopekaliga), and walked around a bit, feeding the ducks.  I discovered that Muscovy ducks can be quite aggressive when they realize that an unfeathered biped is carrying a bag of bread.  So can seagulls and other flying critters, and there was a moment there, I admit, when I felt like an extra in an Alfred Hitchcock movie.  But the lake is beautiful, the weather was crisp and clear and sunny, and I came away feeling better than when I had arrived.

Recipes to follow ... not the duck!

Sunday, March 4, 2012

Daydream Believer

Rest in peace, Davy Jones. 

Hey, has anyone else noticed that his passing did not garner the huge hoo-rah that Whitney Houston's did?  Is it because he wasn't a drug addict?  (Snarky of me, I admit, but still ...)

I'm still ranting a bit about getting our priorities straight.  The tornado victims in Indiana are important.  Rush Limbaugh is not.  We should have all resolved to ignore him a long time ago.  His numbers would have tanked, revenues would have dropped, his show would have been cancelled and he would not have been around to publicly humiliate a young women by calling her a slut and a prostitute.  The growing tension between Iran and Israel is important. (I know several young men in uniform and I would hate to see them deployed to the Middle East if that situation blows up.)  Lindsay Lohan on Saturday Night Live is not.  Why are we so fascinated with famous drug addicts?

The upcoming Presidential election is important.  What makes it hard to take seriously are some of the antics and bloopers put out there by the Republican candidates as they get closer to their primary.

Gas prices are back up in the stratosphere, with premium over the $4.00 mark.  Ah, Keystone, we hardly knew ye.

On a lighter note, I posted the recipe for my Mushroom Risotto with Sherry and Cream on the food blog, so here is the link.  I also have a few other recipes coming down the pike in the next few days.  I told you I kept cooking during my little hiatus from the blog.  Heck, I even wrote some of them down!

And because I don't always cook for the family, a shot of my devastatingly handsome son at Longhorn Steakhouse, eating a porterhouse the size of my head  ;-)

Saturday, March 3, 2012

I am as guilty as the next person

Well maybe not as guilty ... I did not obsess over the deaths of Whitney Houston nor Michael Jackson, and I never watch the Oscars ... but I am not immune from following the hype surrounding public figures.  I have been known to scream at the television while the Magic are playing ... or snoozing on the court, as happens far too often these days.  Stan, I love you, but it's time to go and take Otis with you.

See what I mean?  Still, I like to think that I spend much more time paying attention to the important stories out there, about noncelebrities who quietly make a difference, despite never getting a million dollar paycheck, and about true public servants who really are in it to help people.  (That leaves out all politicians, who make no sacrifices to serve the public, the very same public whose taxes are funding those extra special, exclusive lifetime benefits packages.)

Every day people continue to amaze me with their strength, their resolve, and their dignity in facing the worst that life can throw at them.  I think we all need to spend less time oogling (or is it googling) Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, and more time honoring everyday heroes.

Which is why I have added this blog to my blog list found on the right hand side of this page.  It is maintained by my friend and former coworker, Erin Baxter, who is doing an extraordinary job caring for her two children, one of whom was born with partial Trisomy 9.  If you don't know about trisomies - and I knew very little - you should follow her story.  Incidentally, if any of my Orlando peeps were aware that February 7th-14th was proclaimed as Congenital Heart Defect Week by Mayor Buddy Dyer, it was the result of Erin's intervention.  Erin was a Child Protective Investigator for the Department of Children and Families for over four years, and to say she is an incredibly strong child advocate would be an understatement.  This is for you, Erin, and Kaleb, Nolan, and Dennis.  The Johnston family rocks!

Moving over to food ... I am testing some Irish-themed recipes this weekend, in preparation for a little catering event.  Here is how that happened - our office had decided a while back that rather than try to go out to a restaurant to celebrate our birthdays - twelve, to be exact - we would pick one date every month and do a potluck lunch.  Those have been extremely successful, to say the least.  I think it was last month I brought in my version of shepherd's pie, which was so well-liked than one of my co-workers suggested I "cater" the lunches, so that they would fund the ingredients and I would do the cooking.  I really was honored by the suggestion, and while I don't think I would want to do that every month, I told them I would like to try it for our upcoming luncheon.  One of our group had earlier suggested we work each lunch around a theme - a terrific idea in my opinion - so I ran with that, and picked the quintessential March holiday of St. Patrick's Day.  I'm going to throw a little Purim in there as well, but just a little.  Purim is all about hamentaschen, rather than the main dishes, and the hamentaschen recipe I posted last year on the food blog is the bomb.

So there is, as we speak, an Irish soda bread in the bread machine which contains some of my favorite ingredients in the world - raisins and caraway seeds - and I am hoping it is a success so I can bake another one for my office buddies later this month.  I will also be testing an Irish stew, and miniature shepherd's pies in a biscuit crust.  That's not the whole menu by a long shot, as some of my selections are tried-and-true and don't need any testing.  If it all works out, you know where to find the recipes.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

I think I've got a problem

This problem may require a visit to the doctor, so of course I am resisting.   I dislike being turned into a pincushion.  I resent having to give a well-meaning lab tech any amount of my blood, since I seem to have so little of it.  I don't like drugs of any kind, and while I have not been able to totally avoid them, my prescription medication intake is minimized to a manageable level - 2 little pills in the morning. I fear painkillers, and I am fortunate that neither my doctors nor my dentist are pill pushers.  My drug of choice for pain is ibuprofen, except for those rare post-surgical hours when my only choices are taking the damn Darvocet or screaming my head off.  As soon as possible, however, I switch to Advil.

I am not good about taking supplements, and I think that is the source of my current discomfort.  Since my little event up in Panama City Beach this past Labor Day, I have tried to be more diligent about taking my iron, B12, and calcium pills.  Unfortunately, one cannot take the wish for the deed when it comes to supplementing one's diet, and as I commit these thoughts to virtual paper, I realize what I have to do.

Taking a page from my diligent, organized, utterly devoted husband's book ... I have created my very own "pill box."  Yes, it is smaller, sleeker, and prettier than the one my husband faithfully drags out of the pantry every morning and evening.  And hopefully, I shall use it "in good health."  Now I just have to find room for it in the pantry.  Ha ha.

So I have not been up to cooking today, but I have several recipes (a very few with photos) taken during my recent hiatus, and will post them as time permits.  For now, I am going to creep back upstairs, crawl into bed and complain about how these darn vitamins are already upsetting my digestive system.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Happy Belated Birthday, dear Blog

Caught up in a whirl of 23 simultaneous games of Words with Friends, I totally missed the Blog's birthday.  Unlike Mandy, the GPS I refer to as "that electronic bitch", I really do care for the Blog, and would not want to hurt it's silicon-based feelings.  Mea culpa, Blog.

As you may recall, I started Inspiration Nation one year ago, February 19, 2011, my son's 24th birthday.  Now he is 25, and we still haven't celebrated.  I'm starting to see a pattern here ...

There have been several cruises and several road trips, and I am embarrassed to admit I failed to take photos and I also failed to make blog posts.  For all you knew, I had fallen into a vat of chicken fat - delicious but fatal. 

I have been cooking - a lot - but I didn't take pictures of those finished dishes either, except for an exceptional lasagna. 

The Giants won Superbowl.  But you knew that. (You can take the girl out of New York, but she's still going to root for the home team.)

We adopted another Yorkie, named Romeo.  His first human mother was quite ill, and had to find a home for him and his sister.  He is just two years old, exactly one year older than Blog, with all the energy that comes with that age.

Four Dog Night - Indiana Jones, Athene Minerva, Woodrow Wilson Smith, and Romeo Lee

Sometimes it seems I spend all of my time catering to those doggies, as well as their five feline siblings.  For example, today is a big day - the NBA All-Stars Game (in Orlando! Gonna make lots of snacks and root for the Eastern Conference Team), the Oscars (which I don't watch), and best of all, we are going to shave our orange cat, Fuzzybutt Dejah Thoris, and maybe, if Rob and I live through that adventure, we will also shave our feral cat, Zebadiah.  I am not sure why those two are so terribly matted, but in Dejah's case, those matted areas are reaching critical mass.  I should have bought some catnip to get her high to calm her down.  Zebbie can still be brushed out, I think, but it involves chasing him into a closed room and confining one part of him to a pillowcase while the other part is being combed.

I am also doing quite a bit of knitting ... but that's another blog post.