Thursday, October 8, 2015

Friendly Fire - Heart to Heart - The Offal Truth About Beef Stew

Wednesday - We've all heard the term "friendly fire." I have no idea what is friendly about bombing your own troops, or those of your allies, so that makes it an oxymoron, "moron" being the operative word. So speaking of morons,  President Obama calls Doctors Without Borders today and apologizes for bombing their hospital in Afghanistan.  "Sorry" don't get the cows milked, Barack old boy. No wonder we can't take out ISIS; we can't differentiate between the good guys and the bad guys.

The price of beef is giving me heart palpitations.  I've never been one to buy expensive steaks and prime ribs for home consumption - I like to enjoy them on those rare occasions we eat out at a good restaurant - but as you all probably know by now, even the so-called cheap cuts have gone sky high.  I am always looking for a way to lower my food budget I (I can hear my husband's guffaw), which has led me to explore the use of offal. You know, those nasty bits that every animal has, like liver, heart, brains (Happy Halloween!), tongue, tripe, kidney, etc.  Some I eat, like liver and tongue, and others I give wide berth.  Lately, I've been wondering about beef heart - after all, it is a muscle just like the meat we normally eat. There is nothing inherently nasty about it, like an intestine. Or brains. And my go-to guy for weird foods, Andrew Zimmern, recommends it highly. (Andrew also recommends insects, eyeballs, and field-dressed squirrels.  On behalf of all the squirrels living in those ginormous trees next to the courthouse, I just say no.)

I love beef stew.  Who doesn't love beef stew? Besides vegans and practicing Hindu, I mean. I have some strong feelings about beef stew. In my mind, a proper beef stew should be able to feed a dozen hungry people with nothing else on the table but napkins and forks.  That doesn't mean I wouldn't load the table up with three kinds of breads, seven sweets and seven sours, a big pile of kraut sveckle or kasha varnishkes, and a 14 pound roast turkey with stuffing. Because I would. I just can't stop myself.

I like a beef stew to be loaded with vegetables, and potatoes that don't disintegrate and disappear.  I like a lot of unthickened gravy made with a pile of onions. So I like this recipe, enough to share it with you. 

And here's the point of my invocation of Andrew Zimmern - do not be put off by the inclusion of beef heart. It makes up about one-third of the meat in the stew, and helped me keep down the price a bit. Beef heart is $2.49 a pound; there is almost no fat or other waste; it smells exactly like the other stew meat, and it tastes divine.

Just do it. There is no try.

1 - 12 oz. package center-cut, thickly sliced bacon, cut crosswise into squares
3 large onions, chopped
1/2 stick butter
kosher salt, ground black pepper, a pinch of sugar
2 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1 jalapeño, seeds and veins removed, minced
1 tablespoon dried thyme
2 pounds beef for stew
1 pound well-trimmed beef heart, cut same size as stew beef
garlic pepper
1 - 32 oz. box beef stock
2 cups red wine
4 cups water
2 medium stalks celery, with some leaves, left whole
1 large carrot, cut in half crosswise, then halved lengthwise
2 bay leaves
1 - 6 oz. can tomato paste
2 Knorr chicken bouillon cubes
1 1/2 pounds yellow baby potatoes
1 butternut squash, peeled, seeded, and cut into large cubes
1 pound zucchini, sliced
1 cup frozen peas and carrots, rinsed under warm water to defrost
1 cup frozen cut okra, rinsed under warm water to defrost
2 cups frozen broccoli and cauliflower combination (e.g. Publix "Alpine Blend"), rinsed under warm water to defrost

Place the stew beef and the beef heart in a large bowl. Season well with the garlic pepper and set aside.

Render the bacon in a large deep pot. Remove the cooked bacon with a slotted spoon and set aside. Add the butter to the bacon fat in the pot, and then add the onion.  Season with the salt, pepper and sugar. When the onion is well-softened, add the garlic, jalapeño, and thyme. Cook on medium high until the onion is just turning brown around the edges.

Add the beef and beef heart, stir and cook a few minutes on all sides. Add the beef stock, wine, water, celery, carrot, bay leaves, tomato paste, and chicken bouillon and bring to a boil.  Lower the heat to simmer, cover the pot and cook for 2 hours.

Taste the sauce and adjust your seasoning, if needed. Discard the celery. Add the potatoes and butternut squash; bring the heat back up to a boil, then lower to simmer, cover and cook for 30 minutes. Add the reserved bacon and zucchini and cover and cook for 15 minutes. Finally, add the defrosted vegetables, cover and cook another 15 minutes.

Now, check the meat and each type of vegetable for doneness, and cook a little bit longer if needed. You can overcook stew, so don't give it too much more time.

If you have the time and the space in your refrigerator, chill the stew overnight.  Next day, before reheating, remove the hardened fat that has risen to the top. Reheat slowly to avoid scorching the bottom. Add a little bit more water if needed. Taste the reheated stew and adjust the seasoning.  Serve in oversized soup bowls.  Take pictures of happy eaters and post on Facebook.

You may ask, "why those particular vegetables?" Ha, why not? Here is where you get to be creative, by subbing your favorite veggies in or yanking your least favorite out.

More on this tomorrow.

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Doctor, Lawyer, Indian Chief - Judge Me Not

Tuesday morning and I have a doctor's appointment. In Orlando. Siri tells me it is going to rain today, but she won't tell me when. That silicon brat. But I can see for myself that the sky is gray and overcast, and a drizzle is in my immediate future, to which I say, feh.

And then there was every social work attorney's nightmare ... you're shopping, or (like me) picking up a coffee in Wawa, and someone comes up to you and says, "you may not remember me, but you took my children away ..." Awkward, you say?  Oh jeez, is it ever - except I must have hit the lottery (which I never play) because while I was reciting mantras to quell the panic, she gave me a big smile and thanked me - all of us - for being tough on her.  She'd gotten her kids back rather quickly, and stated everything was going well because the experience had made her a better parent.

It could have been the one who followed me right into my parking lot after the trial that terminated her parental rights, or the one who stood up in court, pointed at my supervisor sitting next to me,  bellowed "blasphemer!" and became so belligerent we had to be escorted out the back door by a deputy, or even the nutty New Yorker who sort of threatened me, and the deputy escorted me right up to my front door. Instead, I got the normal one who worked her case plan, got her kids back, and stayed on track. Right away, my day was looking up. 

Then I got to my doctor's office and waited ... and waited ... and waited some more, because that's the way she rolls. If someone comes in for a 15 minute meds check, but has had a bad month and needs to discuss it extensively, the doctor will spend the necessary time.  It is what I both like and kind of dislike about her. She has always given me the time I need, and over the past 7 months I've had my share of lengthy appointments.  On the other hand, I never quite know when I'm getting out of here.  This was something of a problem when I was a working girl, but being retired I can afford to be expansive (although not in the psychiatric sense, which defines expansive as "marked by an abnormal euphoric state and by delusions of grandeur." My delusions are never of grandeur.)

A one hour wait, a 10 minute appointment, and I'm off to my favorite Publix, the one I shopped in for 23 years, for butternut squash and eggs and for some other stuff that wasn't on my list but jumped into my cart of its own volition.  Unfortunately, all this normalcy wore me out and I got home and crashed, really bad. You know the feeling, when you are utterly fatigued but a nap only makes you feel worse. Like sick to your stomach worse.

Somehow, hours later, I managed to make the gnocchi from the dough in the refrigerator, And stopped. No beef stew tonight folks. The gnocchi recipe is from the Pasta by Hand cookbook that I was raving about last week; this time I prepared the potato gnocchi with parmagiano-reggiano. I froze the uncooked gnocchi, but I definitely want to cook some tomorrow. You definitely need to add that book to your cookbook collection, if you have a cookbook collection, and if not, you should use this book to start a cookbook collection.

While reading today's Orlando Sentinel, I came across two separate articles about local judges in trouble with the Judicial Qualifications Committee (JQC) and/or the Florida Supreme Court; this is in addition to the charges filed against the one here in my county.  What is it about wanting to become a judge, or actually becoming a judge, that causes lawyers to behave so abominably? It doesn't have to be that way - I know many judges who remain ethical and honest while retaining their humanity. Of course I've had my share of sociopaths - every lawyer has. And that's not right, not right at all. What if we all gave in to our inner five year old and threw a tantrum in front of everybody in court?

Everything happens for a reason, and that likely extends to my illness and forced early retirement, because I realize that I've put up with enough judicial bullshit to last a lifetime, and that it was only a matter of time before I told one of them to gather up their petty ego, take off that ill-fitting black polyester robe, and get the hell down off the Bench before embarrassing it any further.

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

First Monday in October - First Anniversary Inspiration Nation

Monday - One year ago today, I officially rebooted this blog, which I had started in 2011 and then all but abandoned later that same year. I'm not sure what triggered it, except my physical and emotional condition was deteriorating, and I felt the need to write. I was coming off a trial schedule that should have been damn near impossible, and 5 weeks before, my very favorite pet of all time, my sweet cat Ira, departed for the Rainbow Bridge after a long illness. (All I can say is thank God it was Judge Carsten, rather than Judge Shepard, on the bench the day I had to explain that I could not stay late to finish a trial because I had an appointment to take Ira to the vet for the last time.)

Speaking of judges, today is the first Monday in October, the day the United States Supreme Court begins the new session. Lawyers like that sort of thing for some dumb reason, although this is a very different Court than the one in existence when I attended law school. Sandra Day O'Connor, the first female Justice, had been on the Court for six years by then - a very far cry from the group that FDR referred to derisively as "The Nine Old Men." The makeup of the current Court would have been unimaginable at one time - what caught my attention was not the fact that there are now three women on the Court (including my all-time favorite, the Notorious R.B.G.), but that there are no Protestants.

From Wikipedia:
"The Court currently has six male and three female justices. One justice is African American, one is Latino, and two are Italian-Americans; six justices are Roman Catholics, and three are Jewish. The average age is 69 years, 10 months. Every current justice has an Ivy League background. Four justices are from the state of New York, two from New Jersey, two from California, and one from Georgia...

Most justices have been Protestants, including 35 Episcopalians, 19 Presbyterians, 10 Unitarians, five Methodists, and three Baptist." Apparently the Court has been without a Protestant Justice since 2010 which I find astonishing.  The working world in which I became an adult was run by Protestants, and I think I must have been traumatized by my early years in marine insurance, when neither women nor Jews were really welcome except for clerical positions. A Supreme Court composed of only Roman Catholics and Jews sounds like every neighborhood I lived in before moving to Florida.  Fascinating.

How did I get off on this tangent?

The past year has been one of the most - interesting - of my life.  I find myself in a place I never expected to be; I was so sure that I would "die at my desk" that I never considered any other alternative. So here I am trying to reinvent myself again. (yeah right, how is that working for you?)

Today was about gardening.  I should have done the potato gnocchi, but I didn't, and I hope the dough can be worked tomorrow.  But I got so much done today (and am already starting to pay for it), building on the weed-pulling of the last few days and clearing the garden of everything, even my beloved okra, which sent me a sweet goodbye message just as I was getting ready to rip its roots from the garden soil:

Yes, hiding among the tomatoes was a single perfect okra pod.  I thought I had harvested every last pod, but there was one just waiting for the perfect moment.

I also managed to salvage the last of the tomatoes and eggplant, which will probably end their short lives as bit players in a beef stew I am planning for later in the week. I transplanted the sage, rosemary, and Greek oregano to some of the long box planters on the porch rail, and moved those boxes with my pepper plants (still dropping flowers, damn it) to the west-facing rail.

I learned so much from my first gardening attempt - about the humanity of okra, the fickleness of squash, and how peppers really hate being overwatered.  This new planting season is going to be all about making better use of the space I have, and locating each type of vegetable where it will be happiest. With that in mind, I grabbed my measurements from the other day, created a list of available herbs and vegetables from the photos I took at Home Depot and Lowe's, and made a preliminary graph.

Tomorrow may be all about sitting and knitting, although if James is available to start the heavy stuff, I may be out there waving my baton (or knitting needle). So if you are in the vicinity of the courthouse and see a little old lady in a big floppy straw hat waving a 14 inch bamboo knitting needle at a hardworking gent in a baseball cap, wave. I promise to wave back.

Cleared for take-off

Monday, October 5, 2015

A Walk Through My Garden - Mushroom-Lover's Chicken Lombardy

Saturday - The sun is out and about, and I would like to enjoy it before the monsoon sweeps back in. First, I have avocado pits I want to plant in the flower boxes in the front of my house.  I usually start avocado plants by dangling the hind end of a denuded pit in water, but success is hit or miss so I'm going to try to bury them alive instead.  The other task I've set for myself, weather permitting, is to start pulling the weeds in my garden so that we can ready it for the fall planting.  All of this hinges on my level of pain which is simmering at a slow boil.

Last week Robert and I checked out the garden department at Lowe's, to get a good idea of what vegetable plants were going to be available.  Because my memory sucks, I took pictures.  I also took pictures of the seed packets - first time we had seen that at Lowe's - although, truth be known, I don't think I'm well-suited to start from seeds.  For starters, I just don't have sufficient planting area to accommodate all of the seedlings, assuming I want to do more than grow one or two types. I do better with the ready-to-plant pots, which let me choose a variety.      

After I planted the avocado pits, Rob and I went out to check on the ready-to-plant section at Home Depot in St. Cloud. OMG! I know where I am going to buy my plants. I also know that I am not going to pull weeds today. My road trip to Home Depot wore me out.                        

I have a bunch more pictures to help me remember everything Home Depot has available for planting, but these in particular captured the plants I did not expect to see, and now would love to fit into my garden. So that brings me to today, Sunday, and I'm all about measuring the available planting space. Last night I did some research on garden plans and on the vegetables themselves.  Did you know peppers do not like too much nitrogen?  And certain other plants do not like to have their roots disturbed at all, so transplanting is a no-no? Also that "intensive" planting is better than "row" planting for those of us with relatively small gardens?

Obviously, I want to grow what I know my family will eat. I also want to maximize chances for my peppers to flourish, and that means planting some brightly colored marigold in their vicinity. (Peppers need bees, and bees are drawn to bright flowers.) Also last season I planted herbs that I never use, like Thai basil and two different kinds of mint.  So I want to keep all of this in mind before I start piling plants into my cart at Home Depot.    

Having managed some weeding late yesterday once it had cooled down, I did a bit more, and made a proper go at measuring.  Once I get some graph paper I can plot it out,  but generally speaking I have 184 square feet, less the space taken up by the blueberry bushes, the chimney, and the area for access underneath the house. That's still a lot of herbs and vegetables.  Next year, James has proposed clearing out a whole line of shrubs across the back of our patio (I mean parking lot) to free up more gardening space. Imagine, a whole line of okra plants ...

Mushroom-Lover's Chicken Lombardy

The recipe for Chicken Lombardy has been around forever. It keeps showing up in regional and community cookbooks, which I collect, as well as some southern-type cookbooks.  This version happens to be how I made it today.   I've never made it this way before and I may never make it this way again.  But it turned out awfully good and tasty.  I know my boys will scarf it up or down or whatever direction in which you do your scarfing. I also want to pack up some for Mom and Dad, who don't scarrf, but will enjoy it, I'm sure.

4 very large skinless and boneless chicken breasts                      
Montreal Chicken Seasoning
Wondra flour
10 tablespoons of butter
24 oz. white mushrooms, sliced
Emeril's Essence
1/2 medium onion, finely chopped
1 Knorr chicken bouillon cube
1 cup water
1 1/2 cup dry sherry
1 tablespoon tomato paste (from a tube; I use Cento brand)
1/2 cup heavy cream, more as needed
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Quarter each chicken breast, by separating the tender section, cutting the thickest part in half horizontally, and cutting the largest piece in half.  Place each piece in a freezer bag and pound them on both side with a wooden meat mallet, until flattened to about 1/8th inch thickness.  Season both sides of each piece with the Montreal chicken seasoning, stack up the pieces in an aluminum baking dish, cover and place in the refrigerator for a few hours.

Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a large skillet over medium heat.  Sprinkle Wondra flour on both sides of four of the pieces and panfry in the butter until golden brown on each side.  Repeat for the remaining pieces, adding 2 tablespoons of butter each time. As they are cooked, place them in a clean baking dish, overlapping them to fit.  Set aside.

In the same skillet, add any remaining butter and all of the mushrooms. Sprinkle with Emerils' Essence. Let the mushrooms cook without stirring for about 5 minutes.  Add the onion to the skillet and stir. Continue cooking until the mushrooms and the onions are very tender. Using a slotted spoon, remove the mushrooms and onions from the skillet and spread over the chicken.

Now the sauce: to the liquid in the skillet add the Knorr cube, the water, and the sherry. Bring up the heat and let the sauce reduce by half, adding the tomato paste about halfway through. When the sauce is reduced, take off the heat and stir in the cream.

Spoon the sauce over and around the mushroom-topped chicken,  Combine the cheeses and sprinkle on top of the entire dish. Bake in a 450 degree oven for 10 minutes or until the cheese is melted and lightly browned in spots. Serves 8, maybe more.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

I Died And Went To Avocado Heaven - Guacamole for the Dentally-Challenged and JAPS Salad

Kids, take care of your teeth.  Seriously. Or else you will end up dentally-challenged, like me.

But first - yesterday, Thursday that is, was a really terrible day to be Barack Obama.  It was a great day to be Vladimir Putin, however.  I don't like the feeling of being transported back to the days of my childhood when Richard Nixon was Vice-President and Nikita Khrushchev was banging his shoe on the podium at the United Nations. The point is that the United States has been kicked in the nuts, yet again, by Russia and its new best friend, Iran.  We have been made to appear weak and foolish, and we are clearly no longer the leader of the free world. Hell, I'm not sure there is a free world anymore; we are being held in thrall by Muslim terrorists and the strengthening remnants of the Cold War. We have led the Europeans, whose countries already simmer with unresolved anti-semitism, to abandon Israel.  If you haven't seen Netanyahu scolding the assembly at the United Nations, you should look for it online. I thought his head was going to explode from sheer fear for his country and fury at the major powers who are allowing this to happen.

And then there was another school shooting in Oregon. Nobody expects something like that to happen in the Pacific Northwest, but it did and many young people were killed or critically injured. The President took the opportunity to vent his spleen about gun control. While I am no fan of Barack Obama, I honestly understand where he was coming from and I will admit that a good deal of what he said made sense.  I support the Second Amendment, but it may be time to consider carefully crafted limitations regarding what kind of weaponry citizens can purchase and use.

I would also like to know what kind of craziness has infected us.  What degree of internal rage - and I know something about internal rage - causes someone to grab a gun and start shooting into a place where people congregate? Is there a mental illness that begats violent behavior? Is it the same sort of illness that causes domestic violence?  

Finally, let us not forget the hurricane, named Joaquin, heading towards the east coast. Three states, including New Jersey where I have family, and North Carolina where I have family and friends, have declared a state of emergency.

So that was all yesterday, and if I was Barack Obama, I'd be fucking depressed. And embarrassed. And ashamed. There's your legacy, Mr. President.

Last Friday, my friend Terry gifted me with five (5!!) fresh-off-the-tree-in-her-backyard avocados.  They still needed some ripening time, so I left them in a place of honor on my counter and started checking out recipes.  Did I mention that Terry's husband Dan started the avocado tree from the pit from a Florida avocado? How cool is that?

I am here to tell you that those were the best damn avocados I have ever eaten.  Better than Hass, better than the huge Florida avocados you can buy in the supermarket.  I wanted to use and enjoy each and every one, and I think with these two recipes I hit the mark. First is the recipe that the avocado was born to make: guacamole. I love it, and I make it often, following Alton Brown's recipe. This time, however, I was missing half the ingredients and wasn't up to making a trip to Publix, and I really didn't feel like chopping vegetables.  So here is my version of a super-easy guacamole that has the added advantage of being easy-to-eat for us dentally-challenged types.

Guacamole for the Dentally-Challenged (no chunks or hard bits)

2-3 ripe medium Florida avocados
lemon or lime juice
chunky salsa
kosher salt
cayenne pepper
ground cumin

The most important factor in creating a delicious guacamole is the avocado.  It has to be ripe enough to bring out the unique, buttery flavor, but not so overripe the flesh starts to turn brown inside.  The texture should be creamy and soft enough to mash with a dinner fork.  So you really need to take the time to let the avocados ripen on your kitchen counter, even if it takes two weeks, which is about how long my avocados were off the tree.

Scoop out the avocado flesh into a medium bowl. I cut the avocado in the shell, so when I scoop it immediately breaks up into pieces. Drizzle some lemon juice over the avocado pieces, then use a fork to mash them to whatever texture you prefer.

JAPS Salad (Jalapeno, Avocado, Palm and Shrimp)

1/2 of a 24 oz. jar hearts of palm, drained and rinsed, cut crosswise into 1/2 inch slices
1/4 sweet onion, thinly sliced
1 red bell pepper, diced
jicama, peeled and cut into 1/8-inch strips
jalapeño pepper, seeded and minced
1 cup cooked salad shrimp, patted dry
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1/4 cup fresh lime juice
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
honey, to taste
avocados, diced

In a medium bowl, combine the hearts of palm, onion, bell pepper, jicama, jalapeño, and shrimp. In a glass measuring cup combine the lime juice, orange juice, olive oil, salt and cumin.  Whisk together with a fork.  Taste and add a small amount of honey to taste. Combine the dressing with the salad, cover and refrigerate for at least one hour.  Add the avocado just before serving.

Let me critique this salad: I got this recipe from this site. I was really excited for the chance to use jicama, and to make good use of my wonderful avocados.  I don't know much about picking jicama, and this one wasn't as sweet as I had hoped.  There is a reason jicama is described as a cross between a potato and an apple; unfortunately I picked a so-so jicama.  The original recipe did not include honey in the dressing, but us Russian Jews love the sweet and sour, and so I made that adjustment.  Cory had the salad with his dinner, and liked it quite a bit, in part because he loves hearts of palm. He wasn't all that enthusiastic about the jicama.  The shrimp was my addition; clearly you can leave it out.

Happy avocado day!

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Give Me A Head With Hair - Banana Butterscotch Muffins

Thursday - It may be Thor's Day, but it feels like Loki is working his black magic on me. Forget back pain, my whole frakking body hurts. I'm not sure how I got out of bed this morning - I just know that if not for my insistent bladder, I'd still be there.

Seriously, I had plans for today; I had decided to give my kitchen a break and go outside to start pulling weeds. Despite feeling like I had failed the try-outs for the Orlando Magic cheerleaders, I toddled outside with my cane to inspect what is left of my garden.  I actually bent down to pull a few weeds. Boy, was that stupid! So now I am sitting in my Dark Corner and I feel like crying. Fucking fibromyalgia.

Wednesday - I have some Big Decisions to make. Like, should I use the remaining chicken breasts to make Chicken Lombardy or Chicken Francese? That francese recipe is from Tyler Florence and I have made it before and it is so good, I would kiss him if I could find him, but he's off torturing people who are competing for a chance to own a food truck.  When did Food Network turn into reality TV?

I also have to decide whether I should cut my hair.  This one is huge, I'm telling you. Hair is a big deal to most women, and I am at the top of the list.  My hair was the source of tremendous angst when I was a girl, because it was thick, curly, and unmanageable.  You know the gig - I wanted long, straight, shiny hair so I would look like all of the other girls.  I won't bore you with the details of my unhappy adolescence, except to say I never really bought that story about all the "girls" in our family having straight hair, while all the "boys" had curly hair - I knew where the curly genes came from. Thanks, Mike.

Fortunately, as I got older and grayer, I went straight.  I mean my hair went straight.  Even on a high humidity day, which is almost every day in Central Florida, it might develop a few waves but nothing like the bushy Jewfro I was cursed with from birth through incipient senility. So I could let it grow long, right? Oh so wrong ... my hair is still so thick and heavy, if I let it go too long, it hurts too much to wear it. So I've kept it reasonably short for years, the only difference being the degree of shortness.  Most recently I've been keeping it really short, almost Jamie Lee Curtis and Judith Densch short, but for some reason I got it in my head to let it grow, let it grow, let it grow.

I know I am going to be unhappy, but I feel compelled to do this.  Maybe it has something to do with Hillary Clinton and Carly Fiorina or maybe I just don't feel up to cutting it, since I do that myself.  Oh retirement, how you challenge me!  Right now my hair is at a length that adds to the realization that I am the spitting image of my father's sister Sylvia, also known as Aunt Osh.

I love muffins.  I love baking them and I love eating them.  I used to think of them as my personal baking Waterloo, but I finally got the hang of them, and learned the Secrets of Muffintop and I've been pleased with the results ever since.

The lemon zucchini muffins were just a fond memory, and I really enjoy a muffin with my morning coffee, so I knew it was time to start worrying about my potassium levels which turned out to be a splendid excuse for baking some banana muffins.  I've made banana muffins before for the blog, click on the link for Banana Applesauce Muffins, but I wanted something a little different.  I wanted the Best Banana Muffin, so that's what I typed into Safari.

The recipe I found was basic, but well-vetted by the folks who left comments.  You can find that recipe for Best Ever Banana Muffins by clicking on the link. The other thing that, in my opinion, absolutely made these muffins sing banana, was the post I found on the topic of How to Quickly Ripen Bananas For Making Banana Bread. I encourage you to check out that link because you will never have to worry about an underripe banana again, if you happen to be the sort of person who worries about such things.

I baked these Wednesday evening, before Loki dropped in and messed with my entire physical integrity. Because I felt pretty good, I tossed in some butterscotch chips and a shot of banana-flavored booze. You're going to love these muffins. Oh, and if anyone sees this Norse pain-in-the-ass skulking around, please give him a good kick-in-the-balls from me to him. Fucking Loki. Fucking fibromyalgia. Terrific muffins.

Banana Butterscotch Muffins        

3 large, very ripe bananas
3/4 cup sugar
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/3 cup melted butter, cooled a bit
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon banana liquor (creme de banana)
2/3 cup butterscotch chips

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place 9 paper liners in a 12-cup muffin tin.

Using a hand mixer, mash and break down the bananas; add the sugar and beat together with the banana until you have a fairly smooth, thick puree. Beat in the egg, butter, and banana liquor, then set aside.

In another bowl, sift together the flour with the salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Stir this into the banana mixture with a wooden spoon, just to combine the wet and dry ingredients. Fold in the butterscotch chips. Do not overwork the batter.

Scoop the batter into nine of the twelve muffin cups; this should fill them just to the top.  Bake for 18 to 23 minutes.  Cool for 10 minutes in the pan, then remove the muffins to a metal rack to cool.

I would suggest tossing the chips with a very small amount of flour before adding them to the batter, so that they don't sink to the bottom during baking.  Also, if you don't have banana liquor, try another compatable flavor liquor or a teaspoon of vanilla extract or just leave it out.

Friday, October 2, 2015

Oh, Mercy Mercy Me - Leisurely Paced Chicken Cacciatore

Marvin Gaye is singing about the ecology while I prepare the chicken cacciatore.  This song always transports me right back to the lawn in front of College Hall in New Paltz. My ever-responsible friends, like Kathy and Lynn, were studying for exams.  The irresponsible among us, like me, were snapping pictures with our Kodak Instamatics and falling up cement stairs.

It is still Tuesday and I am still cooking, but in a slightly more relaxed manner.  Just one dish, the chicken cacciatore.  This isn't really so much a recipe as a common sense assembly of a slightly gussied-up chicken in spaghetti sauce kind of dish.  Proportions don't matter, exact ingredients don't matter.  I have no idea what constitutes an authentic chicken cacciatore, since I've never cooked one.  Nor eaten one either.

I'm in pain from my shoulders to my waist, and my right arm is pitching its own little hissy fit, and the Advil are taking their sweet-ass time kicking in to give me a little relief.  I have to admit that I am finally getting a bit cranky.  So cranky that I want only to creep upstairs and sit in bed while I play with my coloring pencils.

Chicken Cacciatore

4 very large chicken breasts, cut into large cubes (I estimate about 3 1/4 pounds)
All-purpose flour
Kosher salt, black pepper, Italian seasoning, Emeril's Essence
Canola oil
3 large sweet onions, halved and sliced
Sweet paprika, granulated garlic, sugar
4-6 large cloves garlic, sliced
3-4 sweet bell peppers, any combination of colors, cut into large squares
3/4 cup pitted kalamata olives or other pitted black olive, drained
1 - 45 oz. jar chunky tomato, garlic and onion pasta sauce (I used Ragu brand for this)

Combine the flour and the seasonings.  Heat a good amount of canola oil in a large deep skillet. Working in two batches, dust the chicken in the seasoned flour and put into the hot oil.  Cook on medium to medium high heat until golden brown on all sides.  Remove the chicken to a baking dish or platter and set aside.

In the same skillet, add a little more oil if needed, and then add all of the onions. Season with salt, pepper, paprika, granulated garlic, and a pinch of sugar.  Cook on medium until the onions are soft and caramelized.  About halfway through the cooking, add the garlic slices. Remove the onions and garlic with a slotted spoon to another pan.  Add a little more oil to the skillet if needed.

Place all of the peppers into the skillet and cook on medium to medium high until they are softened, but still bright in color. When the peppers are done, carefully discard all the excess oil in the pan, and add back the cooked onions and the entire jar of sauce.  Listen, by now you know I always add some water to the jar to swish out any sauce clinging to the sides of the jar, and this time was no different.  Use about a cup to a cup and a half of water, close the lid, and shake shake shake. You need that water, trust me. Pour it into the skillet, stir, and add the kalamata olives.

Simmer the sauce for about 10 minutes to get the ingredients to sing together in three-part harmony, and then add the chicken, stirring it into the sauce.  Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for 20 to 30 minutes. Taste and re-season if necessary. The flavor profile for this sauce is ever-so-slightly sweet, not spicy and not too much oregano or basil.  American comfort food pretending to be Italian. Very good, although not very continental. Definitely serve this with pasta.

Yes, we have Nosferatu ...

Wednesday - I had already resolved by yesterday's end, that I was not going to continue in manic cooking mode today.  Two days of that, and all the kitchen cleaning that goes with it, was more than this old lady could take. You would think I would be knocked out and fall asleep easy peasy, but noooo ... I was up until 3 AM, and woke up at 7 AM.  Woke up and stayed up, damn it. Still, I managed to restrain myself from rushing into the kitchen waving four more chicken breasts and two pounds of mushrooms. Tomorrow is Thursday. Thursday is a good day for making Chicken Lombardy. Today is Wednesday. Wednesday is a good day for the therapist.

I usually go to the therapist on Tuesday or Wednesday.  Last week, my appointment fell out on Yom Kippur, which I did not realize until the night before the appointment.  When I realized it, I cracked up a bit.  This is Central Florida, what I have affectionately referred to as a Jewish wasteland.  It's not easy being Jewish in Central Florida, trust me.  But somehow, accidentally, no, serendipitously, I end up with the only Jewish therapist in Central Florida. Back in 1998, it was, and I was referred to this therapist by my then-psychiatrist.  Even if I had found him on my own, I wouldn't have known - he's got an ethnic-neutral surname, sounds like New Orleans chef John Besh when he talks, and I don't think that's his original nose. But he's a good therapist, one of the best - and I should know, he's not my first by a long shot.

So it was my Jewish therapist who set the appointment, and his Jewish client who took the appointment.  I figure since we live in Central Florida, God understands how these things can happen. Anyway, I was trying to explain my day, and my attempt to resist the urge to start flinging chicken in the kitchen.

Resistance is futile.

The truth of the matter is that I cannot walk into my user-friendly kitchen without straying towards my knife block or peering into the refrigerator to snag some likely ingredients.  Cooking, as my grandmother taught me by example, is the best therapy, and if there is anything I have need these past seven months, it's therapy. And chocolate, lots of chocolate.  Never mind that I can't eat most of what I cook - that's where the chocolate comes in - it's the act of cooking that soothes my mood disorder.

I gave up and threw some bananas in the oven to hasten their ripening in preparation for my banana butterscotch muffins. Then I took out my now-defrosted snow crab legs and rinsed them, patted them dry, and put them in a convenient ziploc bag.  Finally, I weighed the remaining Russet potatoes to make sure I had enough to make some potato gnocchi with Parmigiano-Reggiano (only it's going to be with Locatelli Romano).

And only then I went to get dressed to head out to the therapist.  I already feel much better.  Oh, the banana  butterscotch muffins? That's another blog post.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

He's Gone Plaid - Crockpot Corned Beef with Cracked New Potatoes and Maple-Kissed Brussel Sprouts

Tuesday - It's raining.  It's raining because we are heading over to our storage rooms to do some clearing out. I still have more cooking planned, and some baking.  If we ever get home, because this is a big project.

Turns out that we got a lot done, mostly because once James get started on a project like moving boxes, he can't stop. The man goes into superhyperdrive - in other words, he's gone plaid, like Dark Helmet in "Spaceballs" - and sets the pace for the rest of us. Zoom zoom. A truckload of stuff is headed out and will be part of a community yard sale.  Very satisfying; I can safely say we finally unpacked the basement of our Ronkonkoma house, which is an accomplishment only 25 years overdue. Now if only I could do the same with the multitude of boxes still sitting in my bedroom and dining room.

Kraut Sveckle (Hungarian noodles and cabbage)

These recipes are from Monday's cooking frenzy; they are the kind of cooking prep that works well when you are doing a whole lot of other things on the stovetop, or you're spending the day at home watching an entire season's episodes of Game of Thrones or a James Bond marathon. So while I was fussing with chicken and fruit and Hungarian noodles and cabbage, my crockpot took care of the rest.  It was a long day for both of us.

Crockpot Corned Beef with Cracked New Potatoes and Maple-Kissed Brussel Sprouts

1-3 to 3 1/4 pound corned beef (usually in cryovac, with a seasoning packet)
3 whole cloves garlic, peeled
2 small bay leaves
1 Knorr beef bouillon cube, broken up
1 1/2 pounds new potatoes, white or gold
olive oil
2 pounds fresh Brussel sprouts, trimmed, loose leaves discarded

Rinse the corned beef under cool water, and place into the crockpot, fat side facing up.  Add the contents of the seasoning packet, garlic, and bay leaves.  Add cool water just to cover, cook on high for 3 hours, then check for doneness. If a long cooking fork can go all the way through, the corned beef is done.  Do not overcook or the meat will shred while you are try to slice it.  Remove the corned beef to a baking pan, cover with foil and let cool to room temperature. Use an electric knife and patience to thinly slice the corned beef against the grain, This particular corned beef was a little tough, so I put the slices in a baking dish, spooned in some of the cooking liquid from the crockpot, covered with foil and put in the oven until the meat is tender.

With a strainer, remove the seasoning and bay leaves from the cooking liquid in the crockpot.  Don't worry if you can't get all of it.  Add the uncut potatoes to the crockpot.  Cover and cook on high for about an hour and a half, until they can be pierced with a fork. Now my potatoes turned out to be a little underdone, so I "cracked" them by pressing against them with a potato masher, and placed them in a baking pan. Drizzle with some olive oil and season with salt, pepper and smoked paprika.  Put into a 425 degree oven and let the potatoes roast until as crispy as you like on both sides.

To the remaining cooking liquid, add 2 tablespoons butter and the Brussel sprouts; cover and cook for another 2 hours. I wasn't thrilled with the result for some reason, so I melted some bacon fat and cooked the chopped onion until softened, and then added the drained sprouts.  I still wasn't thrilled with the taste. I think I was getting overtired, so I drizzled on some maple syrup and cooked in the pan a few minutes longer. Now that's good.