Sunday, November 9, 2014

Quash the Squash - Fall Harvest Manicotti with Sage Cream Sauce

I blame Starbucks.

While it may be true that I consider the Cadbury Egg to represent the first sign of spring (instead of the crocus, which is what my second grade teacher taught me back at P.S. 119), I've never thought of the Starbuck's Pumpkin Spice Latte as the first sign of fall.  Apparently I am out of step with the rest of the world.  If Facebook postings were any indication, people have been eagerly anticipating the availability of the pumpkin spice latte with far more enthusiasm than I show at the reissue of my annual Wawa favorite, the turkey bowl (slices of turkey in gravy over half mashed potatoes and half stuffing, topped with cranberry sauce.  Now that's a great lunch!)

This year, the pumpkin craze has slopped over into all aspects of human nutrition, and I say it is time to quash the squash.  Okay, I admit that I did taste a little of the pumpkin spice coffee at Wawa, and it was just okay (better when I followed an employee's suggestion and mixed it half and half with the French vanilla), and that Paula Deen's recipe for gooey butter bars is even better with pumpkin added,   but it seems to me that enough is enough, and it is time to move on to some other type of vegetable worship.  I would suggest the rutabaga, but I don't see Starbucks picking up on that at all.

All kidding aside, for someone who never even tasted pumpkin until I was a freshman in college, I do love it, in both its sweet and savory permutations.

Fall Harvest Manicotti with Sage Cream Sauce

2 packages (8 ounces each) manicotti shells (you will use 20 of the shells)

1/2 pound mild pan sausage
1 large or 2 average green onions, white and green parts sliced
5 - 6 fresh sage leaves, halved lengthwise and cut crosswise (about 2 tablespoons)
granulated garlic
crushed red pepper (optional)

  • 1 container (15 ounces) whole milk ricotta cheese
  • 1 can (15 ounces) pure pumpkin puree
  • 1 1/2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese
  • 1/3 cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
  • black pepper
  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten

4 cups thin sage cream sauce for cooking the shells (recipe follows)
4 cups medium sage cream sauce for serving
2 cups shredded mozzarella cheese

In a large skillet break up the sausage as it browns.  After some of the fat has been rendered, add the green onion, the sage, garlic, and crushed red pepper.  Continue cooking a few more minutes, then remove from the heat and let cool while you prepare the cheese and pumpkin filling.

  • In a large bowl, mix ricotta cheese, pumpkin, 1 1/2 cup mozzarella cheese, the Pecorino Romano, pepper, parsley, nutmeg and eggs.  With a slotted spoon, move the cooled sausage to the bowl, and stir it into the cheese and pumpkin mixture.  Taste and season.  You will probably not need any salt, as both the Romano cheese and the sausage bring a lot of salt to the recipe.  Cover the bowl and place in the refrigerator for a few hours, or overnight.  Don't skip this step, it really does make a difference in the intensity of the flavors.

  • Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and now comes the really neat part of the recipe.  You will not be cooking the manicotti shells before filling them.  If you are like me, you hated have to boil manicotti and jumbo pasta shells, because whenever I boil them first, they break apart, plus those floppy, slippery shells are difficult to fill.

  • Fill 20 uncooked manicotti shells with the cheese-pumpkin-sausage mixture. The easiest way to do this is to put about a third of the mixture in a one-gallon plastic storage bag, press the mixture toward one corner and snip that corner with scissors. Use this to pipe the mixture into each end of the manicotti tube so that the filling meets in the middle.  Do not overfill.  Repeat with the remaining mixture.  If you have leftover filling, set it aside.

  • Spread a little of the sauce on the bottom of  two  9 x 13 baking dishes, then place the filled manicotti in the dishes.  Pour the remaining sauce over all, cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake in the preheated oven for 45 minutes.  Remove the foil, and with two spoons, carefully turn each manicotti over.  Put the foil back on and place back in the oven for another 15 minutes, until the manicotti is tender. 


  • Now you can see that the manicotti shells actually cooked in the sauce, so there is very little sauce left.  All the delicious flavor from the sauce has permeated the pasta.   When the shells are almost done, prepare the medium sage cream sauce and keep warm.  Remove the cooked manicotti from the oven and pour half the medium cream sauce over each dish.  Sprinkle a cup of mozzarella cheese on top of each dish, and return to the oven to bake just a few minutes until the cheese is melted.  This will feed a lot of people.

Thin Sage Cream Sauce

4 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon dried rosemary
1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon rubbed sage
4 tablespoons all-purpose flour

4 cups half-and-half
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons brown sugar
salt and ground black pepper to taste

Melt the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Mix the rosemary, thyme, sage and flour into the butter mixture; cook and stir until smooth, and bubbling, and there is no lingering "raw" flour smell, maybe 2-3 minutes.

Stir the half-and-half into the flour mixture a little at a time, allowing each addition to incorporate fully before adding more. Stir in the nutmeg, cinnamon, brown sugar, salt, and pepper and cook and stir until smooth.

This is going to give you a thin sauce, based on the proportion of 1 tablespoon each butter and flour to 1 cup of half-and-half, just right for cooking the stuffed shells without having to boil the pasta first.

Medium Sage Cream Sauce:  prepare exactly the same as for the thin sauce, except increase the butter and the flour to 8 tablespoons each, or in simpler terms, 1 stick of butter and 1/2 cup flour.

 What to do with the leftover filling?  Use it to fill as many of the remaining 8 shells as you can, and use a jar of Barilla marinara sauce.  Add a little water, which will help to cook the shells while baking.  Cover tightly with aluminum foil, and bake till shells are tender. Do the cheese thing, and put back into the oven another 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted.  I have to tell you, these manicotti are delicious with either sauce. 

Friday, November 7, 2014

An Ordinary Woman - Seafood Stuffing Casserole

Today's inspirational ear worm comes from that grumpy old misogynist, Henry Higgins, who is, as he tells his friend Pickering, just an ordinary man.  Yeah, right.  With that house, and live-in staff constantly dusting the furniture, and the money to pursue his esoteric specialty?  I wouldn't mind being that ordinary, not at all.

I am, I suppose, an ordinary woman, although I have none of Professor Higgins' worldly goods.  I cook, I knit, I raise cats and dogs, I enjoy my family and friends.  A full pantry makes me smile.  So does a well-stocked freezer, and some of that Thanksgiving stuffing bread I baked last week.

I like my job.  The pay is lousy, but the emotional rewards are indescribable.  The benefits are pretty good, but the emotional toll can be beyond heart-wrenching.  It's a mixed bag.  After a couple of stressful days, I really need some sort of release that does not necessarily result in a naive young woman belting out "the rain in Spain stays mainly on the plain."  I could knit a tea cozy, or I could start to drink heavily or I could chop an onion and see where it takes me.  So I grabbed a very sharp knife ...

Seafood Stuffing Casserole

1 onion, chopped (or half of a Vidalia)
1 small celery stalk, chopped
1/2 carrot, chopped
6 cloves garlic, peeled and sliced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
2 oz. mild pan sausage
2 cups crumbled Thanksgiving stuffing bread, divided (see November 4 recipes)
1 flat can chopped clams, undrained
Mixed raw seafood (I used about 6 frozen shrimp and 8 frozen Patagonian scallops)
1/2 cup frozen mixed vegetables (corn, peas, cut green beans)
2 tablespoons chopped pimentos, drained
1 can cream of mushroom soup
2 tablespoons white wine

shredded Swiss cheese
French's French fried onions

In a stove-top-to-oven pan, heat the oil and butter over medium heat, and add the onion, celery and onion.  After a few minutes add the garlic.  Lower the heat and sauté the vegetables for a good while so they slowly caramelize. Do not season the vegetables at this point.  Add the sausage and break up with a wooden spoon as it browns.  Stir in some rubbed sage, black pepper, pinch of kosher salt, and remove the pan from the heat.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Spread out 1-1/2 cups of the bread on a small ovenproof pan and place into the oven to dry it out.   Add the bread to the pan along with the undrained clams and stir to combine well.  Place the seafood and vegetables in a colander and run some cold water over for about 2 minutes, then let drain well.  Add the seafood and vegetables to the pan along with the pimentos.  Finally, stir in the mushroom soup and wine.  Taste and add whatever seasoning is needed.  I used a pinch of sage and of thyme, and a sprinkle of granulated garlic.

Combine the remaining crumbled bread with an equal amount of Swiss cheese, and sprinkle across the top of the casserole.  Bake for 15 minutes, remove from oven.  Sprinkle some French fried onions across the top, return to the oven and bake another 10-15 minutes, until the casserole bubbles and the onions darken slightly.

This is a very nice side dish.  With a bit more seafood and mixed vegetables, it could work as a main dish entree.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Election Day PTSD - A Pasta Salad with Balls

I think the title of this post says it all.

When I was a kid back in Brooklyn and North Woodmere, my Pop, who read 3 newspapers a day and watched the evening news with the devotion of a true Cronkite acolyte, told me something so crystal-clear brilliant, so profound, so prophetic, that it still holds true today.  In one concise sentence, he summed up everything I would ever need to know about the election process:

"Politics is the dirtiest game around."

I was interested in the Presidential election of 1960, which makes me seven years old.  There was a big media hoopla about the possibility of the first Roman Catholic President, and I was trying to reconcile that with the fact that I just knew that George Washington hadn't been Jewish.  My grandparents were supporting Richard Nixon, so I was supporting Richard Nixon.  Mr. Nixon might not have had reason to appreciate the support of a 7-year old non-voter,  but I bet he did appreciate it in 1972 when I cast my first vote ever for his re-election to the Presidency.

Although my husband and I discuss politics habitually, I have never gotten past my Pop's words.  I dislike the two-party system immensely; when I was a registered Democrat, I voted Republican, and when I finally got around to changing it to Republican, I voted for Bill Clinton.  Twice.  I don't like the second-tier parties either; the Libertarians talk a good game but are just plain weird;  the Green Party bears the name of my second least favorite color, orange being the first, and the association with Ralph Nader remains off-putting; I am neither a Communist, Socialist, American Nazi (seriously?), or American Pirate (double seriously??)  I joke around that I am a Rational Anarchist, like Professor Bernardo de la Paz, a character in Heinlein's The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, but I'm not sure what that really means, and anything with "anarchist" in the title is bound to attract the interest of whomever the White House has set to the task of spying on the internet.

So this year I dropped all party affiliation and became an independent.  I actually feel a little cleaner for having done so.  I don't really care that the Republicans now control the two houses of Congress, other than as an intellectual exercise, because I am not a Republican.  I don't care that the Democrats got kicked in the gut last night because I am not a Democrat.  I did not vote for the guy in the White House, not because I'm a racist (seriously???) but because he was and still is a lightweight.  During the entire Republican administration of Bush the Younger, I would leave the room when he appeared to speak on the TV, because I could not tolerate his obvious ineptitude and blatant mischaracterization of the war on terror.  I really liked former Republican Presidential candidate Mitt Romney.  My favorite President of all time happens to be a Democrat, and he is my favorite not because he is a Democrat but because he is Bill Clinton.

Yesterday's election results, and the campaign season that preceded it, did nothing to change my mind about politics.  For instance, no matter who you may have voted for in the Florida Governor's race, you got screwed.  Two bad choices are no choice at all.  It was either Lord Voldemort or the Second Runner- up in the George Hamilton Tanning Invitational.  The campaign was so dirty I wanted to run and take a shower each time the ads showed up on TV.  My Pop was right.  Politics is a sad commentary on the current state of human nature, possibly the saddest and definitely the dirtiest.

Let's talk about food.

The idea for this pasta salad goes back a few years, and arose from one of my weekend trips to BJs.  There was an office potluck coming up, and I was always given free reign as to what I would be bringing.  The refrigerated cases full of little mozzarella balls inspired me to snag them plus some marinated artichoke hearts and Mother Nature's gift to salad-lovers, sweet little grape tomatoes. The next day, I brought the unopened jars and the box of tomatoes to the office with a big Tupperware bowl, and literally threw together an antipasto salad in just under 3 minutes.  I think I was amazed that my coworkers were amazed, because I felt I had cheated them by not cooking from scratch, while they were singing my culinary praises.  I love those guys.

This is a more carefully planned version, transformed into a pasta salad full of umami (also described as the fifth taste), so easy to prepare you will pinch yourself.  Take your time in between the few steps - sit down, put your feet up, watch the Magic lose yet again - and then serve it to all the happy campers in your life.

A Pasta Salad with Balls

1 pound container marinated ciliegine (small mozzarella balls)
2 cups grape tomatoes, uncut
1 cup marinated mushrooms
1-12 oz. jar quartered and marinated artichoke hearts
1 cup mild pepper rings
1/2 cup manzanilla green olives stuffed with pimento
1/2 cup pitted kalamata olives
1-4 oz. jar sliced pimentos
1/4 cup sun-dried julienne cut tomatoes in olive oil with herbs

1 T. dried oregano
1/2 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper

1-3.75 oz. Sargento Parmentino cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
1-5 oz. package Hormel pepperoni minis

1 medium green bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch squares
1 bunch of green onions, white part only, sliced thin

2/3 of a 1 pound box of Barilla's TriColor Rotini, cooked according to package direction, rinsed with cold water and well-drained
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

Remove each of the first 9 ingredients from their respective jars with a slotted spoon or a fork.  You want each element to retain a coating of the marinade and spices they were packed in.  Reserve all of the marinade from the mozzarella.  Place all of these 9 ingredients in a very large bowl.  Add the oregano, Italian seasoning and pepper, and carefully mix everything together so that the spices are well-distributed.  Add the parmentino cubes and the pepperoni minis, then moisten with about half of the reserved marinates.  Mix again, cover, and refrigerate for at least a couple of hours, longer if you like.  Now add the green peppers and green onions, a little more of the marinade, and a bit more of the oregano, Italian seasoning and black pepper.  Carefully mix to combine, cover and back in the fridge.  Place the well-drained, cooled pasta in a medium bowl, pour over the remaining marinade, season with oregano, Italian seasoning, black pepper and the salt, and stir to combine.  Cover and place in the fridge as well.  After an hour, add the pasta to the rest of the salad, and serve.  Or cover and hold it for the next day.  The recipe makes a lot, feeds a crowd, and will make your reputation as a pasta salad maven.  There is almost no chopping and no waste, but lots of accolades.  Enjoy!

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Crazy Cat Ladies Who Knit Through the Night - Ladder Cable Fingerless Mitts (a different kind of recipe)

(This is a #throwback post from 2008, from my defunct knitting blog, "Knit Until the Cows Come Home")

Another one of those age-old questions. Chicken-and-egg kind of stuff. Really, which came first - a knitter's compulsion to live among as many cats as possible, or a cat-lover's need to play with string?

If you doubt me at all, take a good look at Ravelry or any number of independent knitting blogs on the net. People don't post pics of their kids, or their cars, or that diamond brooch you inherited from dear Aunt Minnie - no indeed, they post pics of their cats. Multiple furry talisman.

I count myself among the terminally feline-impaired, and offer you this photo of my newest owner. His mother left him outside the door of my office when he was but 2-3 weeks old. We bonded over a mini-kitty-bottle, and with the help of my trusty mommy-surrogate, Athene, we raised him to be the fine strong boy you see to the right.

His name? Anakin Skywalker, or as we find ourselves calling him in the evening when his Dark Side comes through, Lord Vader. Darth Kitten has grown and flourished. How do you like that Duff Goldman goatee he is sporting?

I was a knitter long before I took that fatal step of sharing my home with a cat. Call it fate, call it karma, call the Ghostbusters - nah, never mind. I'm hooked. 

And to quote Captain Jonathan Archer of the Starship Enterprise, "wouldn't have it any other way."

November 4, 2014

Another good morning.  Shhhhhh!  If I say it out loud, I will give myself a kinehora, and that would be bad.  Let me just state - quietly - that I have the best job in the world.  That is not to say I don't get exhausted, or angry, or frustrated, or demoralized, or stressed-out, but despite all that, the sheer pleasure I derive from doing what I do never wanes.

The best stress-reliever for the tough times is a cruise.  A 4 or 5 day cruise to the Bahamas can lift my spirits and quiet my soul, especially if I don't get off the ship.  Of course, one cannot cruise all the time, gosh darn it.

When I can't cruise, which is most of the time, I find that knitting, and it's country cousin, crocheting, to be the best medicine in times of trouble or stress.  Knitting while on a cruise?  Sheer, unadulterated ecstasy.  Carnival Ecstasy, that is.

The only problem with knitting on a cruise is the absence of cats.  Who else can organize a knitter's needles and other knitting impedimenta with such determined ease?

And what other creature on God's green Earth is so agreeable about modeling a knitted garment over and over and over again?

Let's face it, cats and knitting go together like Bogey and Bacall ... Taylor and Burton ... green eggs and ham ... champagne and caviar ...  Heck, I feel myself relaxing just by looking at these photos.

A different kind of original recipe:

Ladder Cable Fingerless Mitts

Ladder Cable Pattern adapted from The Knitting Stitch Bible by Maria Parry-Jones

Size: adult small

Needles: US Size 5 DPN (increase needle size for larger mitt)
Yarn: Paton’s Classic Wool

Abbreviations: C4F (cable 4 forward) - place 2 stitches on holder or another dpn, hold in front of work, knit the next 2 stitches, and then knit the stitches on holder.

Ladder Cable Pattern, multiple of 14 stitches:
Row 1 – P1, K2, P4, K2, P1, K4
Row 2 – Repeat Row 1

Row 3 – P1, K8, P1, K4
Row 4 – Repeat Row 3

Row 5 – P1, K2, P4, K2, P1, C4F
Row 6 – Repeat Row 1

Row 7 – Repeat Row 3
Row 8 – Repeat Row 3

Row 9 – Repeat Row 1
Row 10 – Repeat Row 1

Row 11 – P1, K8, P1, C4F
Row 12 – Repeat Row 3

Cast on 42 stitches. Divide 14 on each of 3 needles.

Cuff: Repeat Row 1 of pattern for a total of 18 rows.

Body of Mitt: Begin pattern, Rows 1-12, then Rows 1-11.

Next Row: following pattern for Row 12, work across needle 1 and then needle 2 up to the last 4 stitches. Knit 2, make one stitch, knit 2, and then complete pattern across needle 3. (You will be increasing for the thumb gusset from the middle of the middle cable.)

Next Row: follow pattern for Row 1, placing markers on either side of increased stitch on needle 2.

Next Row: follow pattern for Row 2 across needle 1 and then needle 2 up to last 5 stitches. Knit 2, slip marker, increase 1 stitch using lifted bar method, knit 1, increase 1 more stitch, slip marker, knit 2, go on to needle 3.

Next Row : follow pattern for Row 3

Next Row: follow pattern for Row 4, increasing 2 stitches for thumb gusset (my preference – slip marker, knit 1, increase 1, knit to within one stitch before marker, increase 1, knit 1, slip marker, continue in pattern.)

Repeat last two rows until there are 15 stitches total between the markers. (You should be ending on a Row 2 of pattern.)

Next Row: follow pattern for Row 3, placing thumb stitches on separate needle. Continue in pattern until Row 12, then repeat cuff pattern for 9 more rows. Bind off loosely.

Thumb: Pick up 5 stitches, and knit across the 15 stitches on the separate needle. Divide the 20 stitches across 3 needles, and knit around for 6 more rows, bind off loosely, and finish.

Edited on 3/30/08 to add photos.

Turn the Beet Around - Roasted Root Vegetables

The weekend we were in Georgia for the wedding went far too quickly.  We like Georgia, a lot, and have spent more than a casual amount of time in and around Atlanta and Savannah.  The wedding venue was a little too far from Atlanta to hit some of our usual haunts, like Thompson Brothers BBQ in Smyrna, the Varsity, right smack downtown near the site of the 1996 Olympics, or even the Dekalb Farmers Market, but that just give us an excuse to come back.

Having said that, everything having to do with the wedding was perfect.  The weather, the location (gorgeous), the service (just the right length of time and sweetness), the food (delicious) and the two glasses of white zinfandel.  The groom was the younger son of dear friends and we were honored to have been invited.

I loved the smoked salmon roll-up, with its delicate wrapper and a touch of cucumber in the filling.  Back in the days when we would attend the Disney Food and Wine Festival, one of our first stops was always at Norway, so I could enjoy their gravlax salmon wrapped in lefse, a potato flatbread.  I have tried to replicate the gravlax rolls over the years, but tortillas lack the delicacy of the lefse, so while my version is good, it's not great.  The wrapper on the wedding canapé gave me another idea (lefse still being unavailable in Central Florida), and I will be testing out my theory.  You can expect my full report sometime in the future.

I also loved the side dish of roasted root vegetables, their exteriors perfectly caramelized and their flavors perfectly intensified.  This glorious melange included potatoes, carrots, and beets, and I ate the beets and the world did not end nor did I have to run to the restroom to relieve myself of an offending mouthful.

But I hate beets.  Don't I?

Apparently not, at least not if they are roasted.  I've always liked to roast vegetables like potatoes, carrots, brussel sprouts and onions, so why not throw a couple of fresh beets into the mix?

1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
3 garlic cloves, minced or micro-planed
3 beets, peeled, quartered
2 Russet potatoes, cut into eights
2 carrots, peeled, cut diagonally into 2-inch-long pieces
2 parsnips, peeled, cut diagonally into 2-inch-long pieces
1 large sweet potato, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 rutabaga, peeled, cut into 1 1/2-inch pieces
1 large onion, peeled, quartered through root end
1/3 cup chopped green onions
kosher salt and ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350°F. Mix oil, syrup and garlic in small bowl. Place all remaining ingredients except green onions on heavy large rimmed baking sheet. Pour oil mixture over; toss to coat. Spread out vegetables in single layer. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper. Roast until tender and golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 1 1/2 hours. Transfer vegetables to platter.  Sprinkle with chopped green onions.

Well, I made a few minor changes to the original recipe.  I also used the oil and maple syrup a bit too generously, not bothering to measure.  Not sure the green onions added anything; next time I might use another fresh herb or skip it all together.  This makes a huge amount, which is great for Thanksgiving,  not so great for at-home during the week.  It was still pretty good, and I would definitely make it again, especially for a crowd or a potluck.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

The Artist Formerly Known

I am an artist and my medium is food.  Well, sometimes it is yarn, but for the purposes of this post, it is food.

Yesterday, a Monday, went surprisingly well.  I came home with enough energy to fill the manicotti shells and slice the pork loin.  I am enjoying my accomplishments, but not getting ahead of myself.   There is beef stew to skim and a sage cream sauce to create.  I would like to try the Thanksgiving stuffing bread again, because it could benefit from a few tweaks and fiddles (which is why it hasn't been posted yet.)  There is also an application to be filled out for passport renewal (those were the fastest ten years of my life) and plans to be made for the Big Pig Jig in Vienna (pronounced Vy-Anna) Georgia.  My evenings are nothing if not interesting.

Is that not a gorgeous hunk of pork loin?  Seriously, look at that appetizing glisten of the maple barbecue sauce!  And I cannot help but admire the consummate skill of the carver who wielded that vintage 1974 electric knife with such success!  (Cooking and carving is so much better than watching an endless parade of political ads, by the way.)

A photo of the 1974 electric knife with the 1977 crockpot. Old friends. No, I mean it, really old friends.

That was the cooked pork loin I defrosted the other day, and it was as delicious as the day I originally made it, maybe even better.  The Thanksgiving stuffing bread recipe, including the tweak and fiddle has finally been posted.  And on a more serious note, thank you to everyone who said a prayer for Peter.  Reports from Tennessee are good.

Finally, tomorrow is Election Day.  Regardless of your preferences or party affiliation, please get out there and vote - it reminds the politicians that we're paying attention.

Giving thanks for Thanksgiving - Thanksgiving Stuffing Bread

"The Y2K problem is the electronic equivalent of the El Niño and there will be nasty surprises around the globe." — John Hamre, United States Deputy Secretary of Defense[5]
Hmmm ... well, that certainly explains how the year 2000 played out for my family.  Not that it started badly; on the contrary.  First, as New Year's Eve rolled along, I got a phone call from my childhood friend, Bethe.  We had only recently found each other after a 30 year lapse.  She had already celebrated the New Year - in Romania! - and called to send her love and good wishes.  I was looking forward to seeing her in about a month, at my son's bar mitzvah.

The next day, the sun rose, the sky was blue, the World Wide Web neither crashed nor burned, and my husband became a godfather when our dear friends Laura and Jay were blessed by the birth of their second child.  Eight days later, I sighed with relief as my husband carried his godson to his grandmother's arms on his way to the bris.  He neither dropped the baby nor passed out during the actual circumcision, and that was a good thing.

The year moved along with happy occasions and family celebrations.  My son's bar mitzvah was everything I had hoped it would be.  My Number One Niece graduated high school.  My Number Two Niece celebrated her bat mitzvah.  2000 was tricking us into thinking that everything was going to be alright.

Our First Cruise - Thanksgiving 2001

But there was a problem brewing that year which unfortunately upset a lot of apple carts, and made us want to be somewhere else for family gatherings.  Thanks to our friends Jay and Laura (Jay had to stage an intervention, as I had not been on a vacation in 10 years) we traveled with their family to St. Croix over Thanksgiving, and then with Bethe and her family, continued to travel at Thanksgiving for a few years afterwards.  That first Thanksgiving, though, went out with the Year 2000 slide into hell.  The trip to St. Croix was glorious, but we spent a lot of time watching hanging chads, and then on November 27, our last evening on the island, we got a call that my grandmother had passed away in her sleep.

Ah, Venice - Thanksgiving 2004

In addition to St. Croix, we traveled to Mexico and the Caribbean, and even twice to Europe.  Oh, those trips were wonderful, and I will treasure the memories, but I never did get over a weird feeling at eating something other than turkey and stuffing at Thanksgiving.  My son, on the other hand, had no problems eating warm water lobster and squid ink risotto on that most American holiday.

At the Acropolis in Athens, Greece, Thanksgiving 2005

The trips stopped after a while - work schedules and competing financial obligations, and the original problem had sort of resolved itself - and although Bethe and I talked about possibly starting up again for Thanksgiving 2012, we were not able to make it happen.  So I've gotten back into the habit of wrestling a turkey and making too many side dishes, and I'm okay with that. Thanksgiving remains my favorite holiday for cooking and eating.  I love the planning stages and I love the execution. 

Cory eating spiny lobster for dinner in St. Croix, Thanksgiving, 2000

Now, the question remains - what about baking a bread with certain herbs and spices, specifically for the purpose of preparing the stuffing (or dressing, I'm not fussy) for the turkey?  It so happens I came across such a recipe while looking through one of my bread machine cookbooks, and the bread machine was out on the counter anyway from the Hungarian onion bread, and I still had yeast available, and you know what happened - I tried the recipe.  Maybe I made a few minor changes - added a couple of herbs, doubled the amount of one or two spices, that sort of thing - and then there was that small stalk of celery - well, we will just have to wait and see.  It just seems to me that most American recipes are woefully under-seasoned, which is why you should taste, re-season, and taste again when cooking.  But you can't do that when baking, so I am taking a chance upfront.  If it works, I will happily share the recipe with you, and if not, we'll pretend this conversation never took place.

A little later ... 

Better than expected.  I was concerned when the top inexplicably sank, but it did not affect the flavor or texture.  This is definitely a great bread for stuffing (and for eating, I keep picking at it.  Tasty.)  The flavor of the spices and herbs is very pronounced, but not obnoxiously so.  Cut into cubes, dried out a bit, and mixed with cooked sausage and maybe some apple, celery and onion sauteed in a little butter, an egg to bind it - I look forward to experimenting.  

Thanksgiving Stuffing Bread

This is a recipe for a bread machine, so add the ingredients to the bread pan in the order given, unless your manufacturer suggests otherwise.

1 1/3 cups water
1 extra large egg
4 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup diced onion
1 small stalk of celery, chopped
4 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
2 teaspoons rubbed sage
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1 teaspoon dried rosemary
1 teaspoon celery seed
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
1 cup precooked cornmeal (masarepa, masa de harina)
3 1/3 cups bread flour
1 packet of Rapid Rise (Highly Active) Yeast

Set your machine for White or Basic Cycle.  Let the bread bake according to the machine manufacturer's directions.  Cool, slice, and store for Thanksgiving.

November 3, 2014

I was not totally satisfied with the recipe, so I re-ran it tonight, with a couple of important adjustments.  I really think part of the problem with the first bread was that I misjudged the amount of liquid by using a sweet onion, uncalled-for-chopped celery, and an extra-large egg.  

Here are all of the changes I made:

Make sure that you are using a regular yellow onion, and measure exactly 1/2 cup
Use 1 large egg instead of an extra-large
Eliminate the celery
Add 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
Use coarse yellow cornmeal instead of the masarepa
Use just 2 teaspoons of yeast, instead of the entire packet

Now I'm just waiting for the baking to be over.

Isn't that perfect?

Apparently not.

The last time I saw a sinkhole like that was on the 5 o'clock news.

(It still tastes good.)

Sunday, November 2, 2014

False Bravado

All day long, wearing a mask of false bravado 
Trying to keep up the smile that hides a tear 

I had some serious cooking plans for this weekend, even after paring down the list once I gathered all available ingredients.  There were two shopping trips, one to BJs and one to Publix, but that's pretty standard  But coming on the heels of my freaky Friday which ended with me crashing on my couch for 6 hours, I should have known better.  All my brave words about telling fibromyalgia to kiss my grits were for naught.

The beef stew went swimmingly, but by the time we hit the produce section at Publix, my legs felt as heavy as tractor-trailers attached to my hip bones, and my back was hurting.  So was my head, but these days, that's standard.   Once home, I researched the best way to peel beets in anticipation of a dish I call Oven Roasted Russets, Beets, and Sweets, and armed and ready to do battle with root vegetables, promptly landed back on the couch in pain and frustration.  And exhaustion, did I mention exhaustion?

So as I sit here right now, there will be no sweet and tangy chicken, fall harvest manicotti, pickled pasta salad, roasted root veggies, or apple cake.  Not that my family will starve, far from it, and considering the multiple world crises of Ebola, ISIS, economic recession and the Ukraine, this is hardly a big deal. Well, the cooking is hardly a big deal.  The fibromyalgia had been giving me a pass recently, and I guess I got used to feeling normal.

I'm beautiful in my way
'Cause God makes no mistakes
I'm on the right track, baby
I was born this way

Until next time ...

Pork Belly Politics - Root Beer Braised Streak o' Lean

I am so sick of good cheap foods being suddenly and dramatically overpriced because celebrity chefs are (wisely, for them) finding ways to use them in their high-end restaurants.  The only exception to this is chicken liver, and I don't want to say that too loudly, because my husband and I love chicken liver.  But beef short ribs, lamb and pork shanks, pork belly, a simple beef brisket, and even the humble oxtail are being priced right out of my food budget.  If my grandmother could see the current-day price of brisket, she would roll over in her grave, but for the fact that she was cremated at her own request.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to savor absolutely sublime pork belly prepared in different ways at different venues, including Emeril's Tchoup Chop, Artist Point at Disney's Wilderness Lodge, and at an incredible Savannah treasure with the unusual name of a.lure. Served with seared foie gras and a deep-fried Krispy Kreme doughnut, that dish has made the menu of my Last Meal, which contains elements such as lobster, chocolate, and even osetra caviar.  Pork belly is a formerly super cheap cut, used in Chinese cuisine for a dish called Shanghai-style braised pork belly, red braised pork belly, crispy pork belly, and the like.  I love love LOVE it, and that means I really want to be able to cook it at home.  But I have yet to see pork belly in the meat refrigerators at Publix or BJs or Walmart, at any price.

On our way home from Georgia, we stopped at Carroll's Sausage and Country Store in Ashburn.  Besides an amazing selection of fresh and smoked sausage, I picked out a small piece of streak o' lean to experiment with.  I had never heard of streak o' lean until, years after my relocation to Florida, I happened upon My Mother's Southern Kitchen by James Villas.  He explains how his mother, like s many other southern cooks, uses streak o' lean when cooking green beans, baked beans, and leafy greens southern style.

What I found, after a little online research, is that cuts like pork belly, salt pork, and streak o' lean are all related to our American bacon, cut from the same or close to the same part of the pig.  Bacon and pork belly are actually fraternal twins. Streak o' lean is very similar to salt pork, except it has a higher meat-to-fat ratio.  Both streak o' lean and salt pork are salted, which pork belly is not.  So what I wanted was to try a little Harry Potter magic and turn the streak o' lean back into pork belly.

Prior to developing my cooking strategy, I cut off a very thin slice of the pork and fried it briefly.  There's a pretty good meat-to-fat ratio, and nice texture, but without a doubt, it was too salty to be used without a culinary intervention.  So I soaked it overnight in milk; if I was to try this again, I would soak it longer, and would change the soaking liquid a few times, much like you would do with bacalao (salt cod).  I would also switch to a salt-free seasoning, or just combine a few spices like black pepper, granulated garlic, onion powder, and sweet paprika.

I cooked this in the crockpot, but you could probably cook it, tightly covered with foil, in a slow oven as well.

Root Beer Braised Streak o' Lean

1/2 pound square chunk of streak o' lean
2 cups of whole milk (plus more for repeated soakings)
Crystal hot sauce (to taste)

2 tablespoons light brown sugar
2 tablespoons Emeril's Essence (spice blend)
small amount of Wondra flour
1/2 tablespoon olive or canola oil

1-12 oz. bottle A&W root beer (I had diet in the house)
Worcestershire sauce
a few drops of Crystal hot sauce

I removed the skin carefully, leaving the top fat layer intact. and then placed the pork in a ziptop bag with the milk and enough Crystal hot sauce to turn it a very pale pink.  I soaked the pork overnight, then removed it from the bag, patted it dry, and discarded the milk.

Once it was dry, I rubbed it with a spice paste made by combining the brown sugar, Emeril's Essence, and the oil.  Next, I dusted all sides of the pork with a very small amount of the Wondra Flour, and placed the pork at the bottom of a crockpot.

I poured the A&W into the crockpot around the meat, and added about two or three glugs of the Worcestershire and a few drops of the Crystal hot sauce.  Cover the crockpot and cook on low for 4 to 5 hours, until the pork is meltingly tender.  Don't cook any longer than that, as the pork will become more like corned beef, which isn't bad, but also not the purpose of the recipe.

You won't need any kind of sauce to enjoy this.  Trying serving it as a lunch or appetizer with a starchy side like rice and some fresh green beans that have been steamed or cooked in a little butter.  If there are any leftovers, do not store the pork in the cooking liquid, as it retains a good part of the salt.

I liked it, and next time I can find a piece of streak o' lean, I will definitely try it again.

Rock Around The Clock - Beef Stew in Red Wine and Sofrito

I had trouble sleeping for the stupidest reason imaginable - I was cold.  My feet, my hands, my whole being, all uncomfortably freezing cold.  Every part of me except for the back of my neck, and that was because Woody settled down there to sleep.

I finally added layers to my nightclothes, a sweater, yoga pants, a pair of handknit socks, and crawled under the blanket, covering most of my head in the process.  I would have added a hat to my ensemble, but my superstitious nature would not allow me to put a hat on the bed.  It never got below 55 degrees out there, by the way.  Once I fell asleep, I slept well, especially as I luxuriated through that extra hour that magically appeared about 2 AM.  If I didn't know I have to give the hour back come next spring, I'd be even happier.  But I'm the person who gets jet lag from driving back and forth to the Central Time Zone, and happiness is relative anyway.

This morning, feeling reasonably rested, I set out to tackle some of the items on my cooking list. I had 4 pounds of gorgeous stew meat, already cut into nice big chunks, and some fresh vegetables I picked up at BJs yesterday, and other vegetables in my fridge - those were looking a little limp, past their prime, so to speak, which made them perfect for the stew.

I must have a dozen different recipes for beef stew, but I felt like doing something a little different, and that was where the sofrito and the Tuscany chicken broth came in.  This is the result, and it is quite tasty.  I cannot, incidentally, emphasis enough the need to taste and season throughout the entire cooking time.  According to my own personal cooking god, Emeril Lagasse, this creates layers of flavors which you can't achieve by seasoning just at the beginning or the end.

Somewhere out there rages a huge debate over whether to include potatoes in beef stew.  Potatoes stretch a stew to feed even more people.  They taste good, having soaked up some of that luscious sauce, but they also thicken the stew more than desirable by soaking up the same sauce.  Most importantly, potatoes do not freeze well at all.  If you do freeze leftover stew containing potatoes, once it defrosts you will be left with pockets of watery, unappetizing potato sludge.

I would rather choose from any number of side starches to accompany the stew, like poppy noodles with peas, kasha varnishkes, arroz con gandules (keeping with the sofrito mood), homemade spaetzle, or any of their less ethnic cousins.  If it is potato you crave with your stew - and I often do - boil, bake, roast or mash them and let the gravy flow.  Anyway you choose, you are going to end up feeding a lot of happy people.

Beef Stew in Red Wine and Sofrito

4 slices bacon, large chop
2 tablespoons butter
1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, large chop
3 celery stalks from the heart (center - this will use up any remaining stalk)
3 carrots, large chop
2 parsnips, large chop
3 large cloves garlic, chopped

Seasoning - all to taste:
kosher salt
ground black pepper
granulated garlic
onion powder
dried thyme
dried rosemary
Goya sofrito, tomato cooking base

4 pounds beef stew
1 cup red wine
1 - 32 oz. container Progresso Tuscany Broth
1 tablespoon soy sauce
2 bay leaves
1 large green bell pepper, cut into large squares

1 large Vidalia or other sweet onion, halved and sliced
1 pound whole baby bella mushrooms, quartered
2 tablespoons olive oil

In a large deep pot, over medium high heat, render the bacon until a good amount of fat appears.  Do not brown the bacon all the way.  Add the butter, then add the vegetables. Lower the heat to medium and cook the vegetables for about 10 minutes.  Add about 1/4 cup of sofrito and 1/4 cup water and cook another 2 minutes until the vegetables are coated with the sofrito.  Remove from the pot and set aside.

Add a little more butter to the pan, and working in batches, brown the beef cubes on all sides.  Don't worry about washing out the pot first, and don't overcook the beef; you just want a light sear.  When the last batch of beef is removed, pour the wine in and stir to deglaze the pot, and then add the broth and the soy sauce.  Taste and season the cooking liquid (not too heavily) and then carefully return the cooked meat and vegetables to the pot, including any liquid that has collected.  Add the bay leaves.  Cover the pot and simmer the stew until beef is tender, about 1 1/2 hours, adding the green bell pepper after the first half hour.

In a large skillet, heat the olive oil and add the onions.  Cook over medium for 10 minutes or until the edges show some browning.  Add the mushrooms and cook another 10 minutes.  Once the stew is at the 1 1/2 hour mark, add the onions and mushrooms, cover and cook for another 15 minutes.

If you have the time, refrigerate the stew overnight and remove the solidified fat layer.  Warm the stew slowly, and serve over the starch-of-your-choice.  Heartwarmingly delicious, I promise.

To round out the meal, start with a wedge salad and hot rolls or biscuits.  Enjoy!

Saturday, November 1, 2014

It's astounding, time is fleeting - Maple Barbecue Sauce and a Sweet Sweet Potato Casserole

Whatever my little wake-up-and-feel-awful incident was yesterday, it got worse.  One hour in the office, one hour in my car, eyes closed, but the weakness would not pass.  I went home and crashed on the couch for 6 undisturbed hours.  A truly rotten day.  And it could have been caused by anything, I suppose, because in the past I have tested low for iron, vitamin D, and vitamin B-12.  Low blood sugar has plagued me over the years, as has fibromyalgia, the never-ending menopause, and that pinched nerve in my upper spine.  What a drag it is getting older, eh?

Having said all that, I still consider myself to be in pretty good health.  I hate to be slowed down, and when it became obvious I could no longer take Lyrica, a wonderful drug for nerve pain, because my weight was racing to the top of the charts at an alarming rate, I told fibromyalgia it could kiss my grits, and kept marching forward.  Most days are pretty good, it's just that yesterday was not one of them.

Someone who could use your prayers is my godson Peter, seen here with his sister and their dad, the Headless Horseman.  Monday, Pete is having open-heart surgery up in Tennessee.  Peter was born with a congenital heart condition which has caused him to have to endure multiple surgeries over the years.  Even as I write this, his mom, my cousin Sheryl, his dad, the Headless Horseman (or as we usually refer to him, Gary) and his sister Stephanie, are on their way north to be with him.  Love and prayers for Peter and the entire Depp family.

With last weekend being our wonderful mini-vacation in Georgia, I've let the cooked food supply approach zero, and that means this is a food-shopping and cooking weekend.  Whoo hoo!  The menu is going to be driven by what we find on our shopping expedition in the Expedition, but just in case nothing inspirational jumps out of the case, I pulled plunder from the freezer, a delicious pork loin, and set it out to defrost.

That pork loin was roasted with a generous coasting of my mother's barbecue sauce, which is good enough to serve on wood chips, but does better on succulent pork, as you will see if you try it.  I also found another fine find in my freezer, which will go perfectly with the pork:

That's a sweet potato casserole, sweeter than it probably needs to be - I prefer a baked sweet potato topped with butter - but it happens to be perfect for upcoming Thanksgiving tables, when everyone expects their yams to be topped with a thick layer of melty marshmallow.

Before those recipes, a peek at the rest of my weekend:

There will be some sort of beef stew with baby bella mushrooms, sweet and tangy chicken,  and yet another pasta salad, this one with marinated bocaccini (baby mozzarella).  I'm hoping to do some other stuff; at the top of that list is a very special apple cake, made with the very special apples I picked up in Georgia this past Monday.  So many recipes, so little time ... no doubt my cooking plans will slop over into the work week.  Won't be the first time.

Pork Loin with Maple Barbecue Sauce

I like to buy one of those enormous cryovac'ed pork loins that I find in BJs warehouse.  I cut them right down the middle, and if I am planning on using a fruit stuffing, I freeze one of those halves uncooked.  This time I skipped the fruit stuffing, cooked both halves at the same time, and froze one of them for future use.

Pat the pork dry and season with anything that suits your fancy.  Kosher salt, ground black pepper, sweet or hot paprika, granulated garlic, and the list goes on.  Or pick your favorite commercial spice blend, or google Steven Raichlin and try one of his spice blend recipes.  Pork is so versatile, you can cook it right away or put it into the fridge for a couple of hours or overnight.  If you are using my grandmother's barbecue sauce, I would recommend you don't use smoked paprika or any smoke-infused blend, as it will totally override that nice maple flavor.

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees (375 works also) place the loin on a rack in a nice aluminum tin (I love you, Cousin Steve!) and roast it for about 45 minutes.  Check your temperature with a meat thermometer - it will probably read between 95 and 105 degrees - pour on some of the sauce, and return to the oven.  Check the pork every 15 minutes.  Pour on a little more sauce, and watch the internal temperature.  Once the pork reaches 145 degrees, it is done and you can remove it from the oven to rest.   The sauce should be nicely glazed but if it needs a little nudge, turn on the broiler for just a moment, keeping the oven door open and never taking your eye off of it.   When the sauce is set the way you like, take out the pork roast and let it rest.  I  like to do the slicing with an electric knife, and slice it fairly thin.  Serve the pork with some of the sauce spooned over.

Maple Barbecue Sauce

2/3 cup Log Cabin Original maple flavored syrup
3 to 4 tablespoons Heinz ketchup
2 tablespoons French's yellow mustard
2 scant tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
a few drops Tabasco sauce, optional
kosher salt and ground black pepper, to taste

Place all the ingredients into a screw top container.  Shake well to combine.  Refrigerate for several hours or overnight before using.  Always shake the container before using the sauce.

Don't bother trying this with real maple syrup, it doesn't work.  It's got to be the maple flavored syrup and it's got to be Log Cabin.  Also, don't put this in a blender nor use beaters or a whisk to combine.  That will cause the mixture to emulsify, which will turn your nice pourable barbecue sauce into edible sludge.

The sauce works on any kind of pork dish, and on chicken as well.  And now, the sweet potato casserole.  I found this in a cookbook written by Carnie Wilson.  I'm not sure if anybody except other post-surgery gastric bypass patients ever bought it, but it has quite a few delicious recipes in it, and almost none of them are dietetic.  This is one of them.

Sweet Sweet Potato Casserole

2 large cans cut yams (Bruce's), drained
1 - 21 oz. can apple pie filling
1 - 21 oz. can cherry pie filling
2 tablespoons butter, cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 bag of small marshmallows
dried apricots, prunes, and/or raisins, to taste (I like raisins)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a greased baking dish, layer the sweet potatoes with the apple and cherry pie fillings.  Dot with butter, sprinkle with some of the cinnamon, and throw some of the dried fruit and marshmallows over, then sprinkle with some of the brown sugar.   Repeat the layers until everything is used up, ending with marshmallows.  Bake for an hour; if the marshmallows get too dark or start to burn, cover with some aluminum foil to finish baking.  Let this cool down a bit before serving.