… and to all a good meal!

This Christmas has been one of relaxation in our household, which is not a bad thing at all considering the busy year it’s been. The week has been very low-key, filled with cooking, shopping and lots of cozy fires in the fireplace. Nice.

During the past 10 days or so, I’ve been busy making holiday treats of various shapes and sizes — milk chocolate pots de crème for our Christmas dinner finale, white chocolate Oreo fudge and peppermint meringues to name a few. I found this recipe for cookies and crème fudge on allrecipes.com and have been making the heck out of it this season. With just three ingredients to worry about, it’s super easy to make, looks very pretty all packaged up in a holiday tin and tastes awesome. For the last batch I made, I used the holiday Oreos with the red filling, thinking they would look beautiful nestled into the white chocolate fudge. However, the color ended up bleeding out into the fudge, turning it sort of an alarming shade of red, but I threw in a little peppermint extract and called it festive. A brilliant and quick-thinking move on my part, if I do say so myself.

Since it was originally just going to be a quiet Christmas Day with hubby, the toddler and me, I didn’t go overboard on my dinner plans. My dad ended up joining us, which was fine, but for once, I was secretly glad not to have to cook a big meal for a tableful of folks.

For our main course, I ended up buying a turkey breast, which I stuffed with lemon slices and thyme sprigs and threw into the crockpot. It was delicious – moist and juicy with great savory flavor, and I used the stock that was released to make a scrumptious gravy. For sides, we had wild rice with dried cherries, apricots and almonds, and a panful of Brussels sprouts that I sautéed with garlic and olive oil, then steamed and topped with bacon. I’m telling ya, if you don’t like Brussels sprouts, I can convert you. Really, you can’t go wrong with almost any vegetable by sautéing it in olive oil and garlic, then topping with bacon or cheese. Alternately, roasting it in the oven until it turns brown and crispy works, too. Try it next time you have broccoli or asparagus on hand. Yummy.

Christmas dinner spread

Hubby really wanted to make Yorkshire puddings, something we’ve talked about for ages but never actually tried. For non-British readers, Yorkshire puddings aren’t really puddings at all, they’re like a popover/dinner roll thing that caves in the middle to create a little bowl of dough, into which you then spoon a big ladleful of gravy or jus. You see them often served abroad at carvery lunches in England or with roast-and-potatoes-type meals.

I looked up a few recipes and thought they all sounded deceptively simple. Hm. This immediately made me somewhat suspicious, but I was willing to give it a try. The batter is just milk, egg and flour, stirred together and left to sit for 30 minutes or one hour, depending on the recipe you’re using.

The next step is to coat your muffin tins with oil or a little of the drippings from your roast (I used bacon grease), spoon in a little batter and off you go. The puddings are supposed to puff up as they bake, then collapse in the middle as they cool to create the bowl shape. Mine didn’t collapse; they just stayed puffy in the middle. They tasted good, but there was no way you’d have been able to use them as edible gravy vessels. I’ll try them again, though, maybe throwing in some parmesan cheese and herbs next time.

the failed Yorkshire puddings

I spent a good chunk of my Christmas loot on new cookbooks! Shock of shocks, I did not previously own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, but I do now. Along with an awesome slow cooker recipe book I found on the bargain rack for $5, and a series of Culinaria books on Germany, France and Italy. What could be more perfect! They contain not just recipes, but tons of cultural information and profiles on various cities and regions. I can’t wait to dig into them.

Elsewhere in the week, we’ve been talking about making paella for awhile. I researched online and came up with a Gordon Ramsay version that sounded promising. Gordon definitely hooked us up on the shepherd’s pie, so I figured his paella would fit the bill as well. Plus, he’s looking kinda hot now that he finally got those weird craggy lines fixed on his chin… His recipe called for a slew of shellfish, which I had to leave out if I had any hope of hubby eating it at all. And the onion as well, of course, but that goes without saying.

Gordon’s paella calls for rice, tomato, spices, chicken, chorizo and some veg. That’s about it, really. Nothing too intimidating. I’d never cooked with chorizo before, and I had exactly one kind to choose from during my shopping excursion at Kroger, so I hoped for the best. It looks like a regular cased sausage, but I found as I sliced it up and tossed it into my pan, it completely melted away into the sauce. It definitely left a kicky flavor behind, but no chunks of nicely browned sausage to bite into like I was hoping for. Alas. Next time I’ll know to use a hard sausage or include some chunks of ham as well for texture. Everything else came together nicely. It was really just exactly like a risotto, which I’ve made many times over.

As I was stirring hot stock into the rice, chicken and veggies, I was struck that many different cultures share a go-to chicken and rice comfort food just like this. In America, what is possibly more comforting than a steamy bowl of chicken and noodles? In Italy, you’ve got risotto; in France, coq au vin; in India, chicken tikka masala. There’s arroz con pollo, pilaf, dumplings, chow mein, you name it. Wherever there is chicken, there is chicken and rice.

The paella turned out very spicy, but good. We enjoyed it with a bowl of olives, garlic bread and some Manchego cheese (that was the only disappointment of the meal). I stirred through a handful of shrimp into my own bowl, which added a lot, I thought.

Paella

my bowl

Would love to make paella again, this time with all the seafood… maybe a girls’ night dinner in the offing?? Although I still need to have the gals over for an Italian spread inspired by our trip to Milan. I’ve already got that one all planned out in my head – bruschetta, pasta, grilled steak with parmesan and arugula, and tiramisu for dessert.

The New Year looms ahead. I’ve been writing my blog now for a whole year! Here’s hoping my few and faithful readers have enjoyed hearing about my food exploits as much as I’ve enjoyed experiencing them. Happy 2010!!!

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn’t

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!

The Thanksgiving that almost wasn't

I don’t know if it’s just the travel whiplash catching up with me or what, but I was not in a very Thanksgiving kinda mood last week. I didn’t want to cook a big dinner, I didn’t really want to do anything, just wasn’t feeling it.

Thanksgiving is always a melancholy time for me anyway, as I can’t help but think of years past and playing sous chef to my mother while she organized a huge spread. She’s been gone for seven years now, but as each Thanksgiving rolls around, I find myself missing her more keenly than at many other times of year.

Being a native of Ireland, hubby wasn’t raised on Thanksgiving. The holiday doesn’t mean anything to him, and since he never really gets time alone to himself when he’s home, I decided to take the toddler and head over to my dad’s for a few days. Figured he’d appreciate a little time to putter around the house in peace, ride his motorcycle, booze it up with his pals, that sort of thing. And he did.

Wednesday afternoon, it was into the car and down the I-70, to grandpa’s house we went. Traditionally, my family always eats Thanksgiving dinner mid-afternoon, so we scoped out some restaurants that were likely to be serving and went to bed. Preoccupied with deer hunting, Dad didn’t seem to be fazed in the slightest about where we ate, what, or when.

However… always a sucker for a bargain, Thanksgiving morning dawned and the first thing my dad says is “I wonder if Kroger’s marked down their turkeys today.” Hm. I immediately sensed a change in the weather.

The more I thought about it, dining out mid-afternoon with a toddler was a little like playing Russian roulette. There were no guarantees he would sit peacefully in his high chair, it would be solidly between meals for him, and he might possibly still be napping (or needing to) around the time we’d planned to eat. I caved, we all loaded into the car and took off for Kroger.

The grocery was surprisingly busy for Thanksgiving morning. Lo and behold, we found a dozen or so fresh turkeys (and a whole shedload of frozen ones), not terribly marked down, but discounted enough to make them enticing. An 11-pounder was more than enough for me, my dad and my aunt. Some sweet potatoes, brussel sprouts, stuffing, rolls and we were all set. Dad even had a couple of $5 off coupons, bringing our grand total to $17. Not bad, and less than we would have spent dining out, for sure.

As usual, I took over the kitchen once we got home. I think Dad was sort of counting on this. If I’d left him to cook the meal, we’d still be waiting to eat. I hadn’t planned on cooking at all, so I just worked at a leisurely pace and didn’t knock myself out. In fact, I’ve spent way more effort on some catering jobs than I did on this year’s meal. But, for three people, it was plenty.

Cooking a big meal at my dad’s house can be something of a challenge. His stove isn’t terribly old, but it’s temperamental. For instance, if you try to use more than one burner at a time while the oven’s on, it blows a fuse and the whole thing switches off. This can’t be a good thing, and dad always promises to have it looked into, but never does. And the burners are electric and VERY touchy. You have to crank them up to high to get them heated up, then turn them back down at a very precise moment before whatever you’re cooking scorches. It takes a certain amount of finesse, but I’ve learned to adapt. Most of my meal baked or roasted in the oven anyway, so I just cooked what needed to be cooked in turn on one big burner and all was fine.

The turkey roasted beautifully (coated with butter, thyme and a little Lawry’s seasoned salt), despite of the very interior still being frozen when I opened the package. Why, oh why, do groceries sell “fresh” turkeys that are actually still frozen?? I learned this lesson the hard way a few years ago when I bought a bird that was CLEARLY labeled “fresh” on the packaging and located in the fresh bin at the supermarket. I took it out of the fridge Thanksgiving morning to put it in the oven and found it solid as a rock just under the surface. After a few unsuccessful thaw cycles in the microwave, I got so pissed, I threw the whole thing in the trash. Which was a dumb move in retrospect when I could have just let it finish thawing and cooked it a day or two later, but hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.

The only hiccup with this year’s meal was the stuffing. I always make my mom’s stuffing recipe, the one I was raised with and watched her make year after year until it became ingrained in my cellular makeup.

Here’s the skinny – tear up several bags of (preferably slightly stale) bread into small pieces and place them all into a bowl. Saute a little celery and onion in oil until translucent and add it to the party. Spoon in the turkey jus collected in the bottom of your roasting pan, along with a little water if needed, to moisten. Add salt, pepper and dried sage. Spread the whole wet concoction into a baking pan and throw it in the oven for about 30 minutes until crusty on top.

I’ve changed the recipe slightly over the years. Sometimes I use store-bought stuffing croutons, sometimes I add diced apple or pecans, but it’s always the same basic plan of attack. Today, as it was a smaller than average crowd and I was making things easy for myself, I used a store-bought sage-and-onion stuffing mix. However, once I’d already sautéed the veggies and added as much turkey juice as I could from the pan, I still needed more liquid. I opened a can of chicken stock and poured it in. Once I started stirring, I realized something wasn’t right.

An odd, fishy sort of odor wafted up to me from my stuffing. Upon closer inspection, I determined there was something seriously off about the chicken stock I’d just added. Although still well within the expiration date, the inside of the can smelled like tuna fish. This couldn’t be good.

After taking a sanitation and food safety class as part of my culinary curriculum, I’m pretty paranoid about avoiding any possibility of food poisoning at all costs. If there’s any question at all in my mind, I don’t eat it. So it was out with the old stuffing and in with the new. I had to throw out the whole batch and start over. Fortunately, dad had enough extra bread to spare for me to make a new batch according to my mom’s recipe, and it was great.

The menu came together slightly later than I’d originally planned, but no biggie. We feasted on turkey, glazed sweet potatoes, roasted Brussel sprouts, stuffing (of course) and crescent rolls – and later in the evening, cherry pie a la mode. Not a bad spread, and fairly healthy, too. I completely forgot about cranberry sauce, one of my favorite Thanksgiving additions, until after we’d already cleared the table. Oh well. Christmas is right around the corner.

This year, I am thankful for a warm bed to sleep in; more than enough food to eat; a healthy body; cherished family and friends; and most of all, a husband, stepson and son I adore. Happy pre-holidays!!!

The good shepherd

Hubby, a native of Ireland, and I have talked about making shepherd’s pie for ages. Tonight, we decided, was the night to tackle just such a feat.

The only time I have ever eaten shepherd’s pie was the last time we were in Ireland. After begging my mother-in-law to show me how to make it, she finally agreed. It’s a fairly straightforward dish – a mixture of hamburger or ground lamb (or “mince,” as you’d say in Ireland), carrots and onions in a tomatoe-y sauce; poured into a casserole dish; topped off with a thick layer of mashed potatoes and baked in the oven until bubbly and browned. How could THAT be bad? I’ve yet to meet a mashed potato I didn’t like.

Hubby came across a shepherd’s pie demo this week while watching an episode of Gordon Ramsay’s “The F Word” on BBC America. For those of you who’ve only watched Gordon on Hell’s Kitchen, it might surprise you to see him in the F Word light. He’s a kinder, gentler Gordon; not so intent on being a dick, as I’m sure he amps up for ratings on Hell’s Kitchen. Seriously, does he really need to scream “I’ve had ENOUGH, you donkeys!” in every single episode?

Believe it or not, Gordon does have an actual soul, and in the F Word, you get to see glimpses of him outside the kitchen. For instance, you might see him visiting the homes of lucky viewers to teach them to prepare a dish they want to learn to make, or even hanging out with his kids and pet sheep in the spacious backyard of his spacious home. There’s still plenty of kitchen action as well; Gordon occasionally even takes it on the chin when he goes head-to-head with visiting cooks competing with him to make the tastiest version of a given dish.

Anyway, hubby saw Gordon whip up a scrumptious-looking shepherd’s pie that didn’t look too terribly difficult to make, and we were thus inspired to try it out for tonight’s dinner. We took a spin through Marsh for the ingredients, where I was happy (and slightly surprised) to find very fresh ground lamb in the butcher’s case. Gordon’s recipe calls for minced lamb, but I’m sure my mother-in-law made hers with ground beef and I remember it being perfectly delicious. Of course, Gordon’s recipe also calls for grated onion, which, as you can imagine, was duly omitted in tonight’s effort.

The cooking was a team effort — hubby peeled, boiled and made the mashed potatoes (a rich and creamy version with butter, egg yolks and Parmesan cheese) and I handled the lamb. It was pretty easy – you just brown and drain the meat, add carrot, garlic, red wine, tomato paste and chicken stock. Not much different from the base for a boeuf bourguignon or Guinness beef stew. Then you cook it down until the sauce reduces and thickens, dump it all into the casserole dish and spread the mashed potatoes on top. Twenty minutes in the oven, and the top of the potatoes gets all golden brown and crusty. It looked and smelled GORGEOUS. We could hardly wait to dig in. I served it up with some steamed green beans and slices of delicious Irish brown bread that my hubby threw together this afternoon, and it was PERFECT.

Next time you’re in a meat-and-potatoes mood, I urge you to give this dish a try.

Gordon can shepherd me anytime.

tonight's dinner - shepherd's pie, green beans, Irish brown bread and red wine

tonight's dinner - shepherd's pie, green beans, Irish brown bread and red wine

my plate, for the first serving of shepherd's pie

my plate, for the first serving of shepherd's pie

An ode to Melissa D’Arabian…

How do I love thee, Melissa D’Arabian? Let me count the ways… specifically, there are three: Crispy-skinned orange chicken, individual potato gratins, and now braised pork.

For those of you who don’t watch Food Network (and I can’t imagine why in the world you wouldn’t), Melissa recently won the most recent season of Next Food Network Star. The woman is a working mother of four girls (all under the age of 6, including 1-year-old twins), NOT a trained chef, yet she kicked the asses of much more qualified contestants up and down the stage. And in just a few short episodes, she has rocked the Food Network house. Most everything she makes looks delicious, and affordable. The premise of her show is that you can make dinner for four people for less than $10. I question some of the ingredients, but when you take into account the things already in your pantry, I would say she’s darn near right on the money. So to speak.

The first Melissa dish hubby and I tried to make was individual potato gratins. These are simply thinly sliced potatoes layered in a muffin tin with shredded cheese. You pour a little bit of cream over the top of each one and bake until bubbly and toasty. Genius. Sheer genius. They are so easy, tasty and utterly adorable. We are currently experimenting with different kinds of cheese, a touch of garlic here, maybe a few crumbles of bacon there…

Next up came an attempt at Melissa’s Crispy-Skinned Chicken A L’Orange. The secret ingredient here? Frozen orange juice concentrate. Again, GENIUS. The only fault I found with this recipe is probably my own.

I always seem to have issues with defrosting frozen chicken. I thought I had completed defrosted my chicken breasts in the microwave, but it wasn’t until I’d already seared them and put them in the oven to take their temperature for the first check that I realized they were still slightly cold in the middle. Argh! Back into the microwave for a few more minutes on defrost, then back into the oven to finish cooking. So because my oven cooking time took a little longer than expected, the glaze slightly overcaramelized and got a little bit too dark in spots.

Still, the dish was super tasty. The chicken was very juicy and the glaze was absolutely delicious when it mixed with the chicken juices in the pan to create the sauce! I thought it might be a little too sweet when I read the recipe, but it was great. Awesome orange flavor. Hubby loved it, too. I will definitely try it again, with fresh chicken this time. I love how she is able to create such deep flavors and sophisticated food with simple ingredients and instructions.

Succulent Braised Pork is the third Melissa recipe I’ve tried, and it may just be my new favorite… I could only find pork shoulders at the store in the 8-pound range. Way too much for just my husband and I, so I used country-style pork ribs instead. They made the sauce just the tiniest bit greasy, but it was still delicious. The dish smelled soooooo good as it was cooking, hubby and I were practically pawing at the oven door waiting for the timer to go off. I served it with rosemary roasted sweet potatoes and baguette. Hubby and I stuffed ourselves silly. I seriously wanted to pick up the casserole dish and drink this sauce. The pork is so tender, and again, I am amazed how so few ingredients can create something that tastes so rich and complex.

Check it out for yourself. Her cooking show, “Ten Dollar Dinners” runs on Sunday mornings here in Indianapolis on the Food Network. In the meantime, you can find all of Melissa’s tasty recipes on the Food Network web site at http://www.foodnetwork.com/melissa-darabian/recipes/index.html. Go. Go now. Right now. I’ll wait…

I cannot wait for this woman to come out with a cookbook. All hail Melissa!

An ode to Melissa D'Arabian…

How do I love thee, Melissa D’Arabian? Let me count the ways… specifically, there are three: Crispy-skinned orange chicken, individual potato gratins, and now braised pork.

For those of you who don’t watch Food Network (and I can’t imagine why in the world you wouldn’t), Melissa recently won the most recent season of Next Food Network Star. The woman is a working mother of four girls (all under the age of 6, including 1-year-old twins), NOT a trained chef, yet she kicked the asses of much more qualified contestants up and down the stage. And in just a few short episodes, she has rocked the Food Network house. Most everything she makes looks delicious, and affordable. The premise of her show is that you can make dinner for four people for less than $10. I question some of the ingredients, but when you take into account the things already in your pantry, I would say she’s darn near right on the money. So to speak.

The first Melissa dish hubby and I tried to make was individual potato gratins. These are simply thinly sliced potatoes layered in a muffin tin with shredded cheese. You pour a little bit of cream over the top of each one and bake until bubbly and toasty. Genius. Sheer genius. They are so easy, tasty and utterly adorable. We are currently experimenting with different kinds of cheese, a touch of garlic here, maybe a few crumbles of bacon there…

Next up came an attempt at Melissa’s Crispy-Skinned Chicken A L’Orange. The secret ingredient here? Frozen orange juice concentrate. Again, GENIUS. The only fault I found with this recipe is probably my own.

I always seem to have issues with defrosting frozen chicken. I thought I had completed defrosted my chicken breasts in the microwave, but it wasn’t until I’d already seared them and put them in the oven to take their temperature for the first check that I realized they were still slightly cold in the middle. Argh! Back into the microwave for a few more minutes on defrost, then back into the oven to finish cooking. So because my oven cooking time took a little longer than expected, the glaze slightly overcaramelized and got a little bit too dark in spots.

Still, the dish was super tasty. The chicken was very juicy and the glaze was absolutely delicious when it mixed with the chicken juices in the pan to create the sauce! I thought it might be a little too sweet when I read the recipe, but it was great. Awesome orange flavor. Hubby loved it, too. I will definitely try it again, with fresh chicken this time. I love how she is able to create such deep flavors and sophisticated food with simple ingredients and instructions.

Succulent Braised Pork is the third Melissa recipe I’ve tried, and it may just be my new favorite… I could only find pork shoulders at the store in the 8-pound range. Way too much for just my husband and I, so I used country-style pork ribs instead. They made the sauce just the tiniest bit greasy, but it was still delicious. The dish smelled soooooo good as it was cooking, hubby and I were practically pawing at the oven door waiting for the timer to go off. I served it with rosemary roasted sweet potatoes and baguette. Hubby and I stuffed ourselves silly. I seriously wanted to pick up the casserole dish and drink this sauce. The pork is so tender, and again, I am amazed how so few ingredients can create something that tastes so rich and complex.

Check it out for yourself. Her cooking show, “Ten Dollar Dinners” runs on Sunday mornings here in Indianapolis on the Food Network. In the meantime, you can find all of Melissa’s tasty recipes on the Food Network web site at http://www.foodnetwork.com/melissa-darabian/recipes/index.html. Go. Go now. Right now. I’ll wait…

I cannot wait for this woman to come out with a cookbook. All hail Melissa!

Big Wheel, keep on turning…

Fall is in the air and school is back in session. I’ve been daydreaming about my time at Indiana University and craving a visit to Bloomington like crazy. I have wonderful memories of my college days, and southern Indiana is absolutely gorgeous when the leaves start to turn. Since this is a food blog, after all, it seems a perfect opportunity to pay tribute to some of my favorite I.U.-related eating experiences. In no particular order, here we go: Big Wheel. Let’s all take a moment and pay homage, shall we? My mom was actually born and raised in Bloomington and my grandparents lived there for a long time, so I have plenty of childhood memories of B-ton trips from as long back as I can remember. Big Wheel was a presence even back then in the 1970s. Situated on north College Ave., Big Wheel was one of the first restaurants you’d see when you entered town from the north. Landmarked by, what else, a big neon wheel, it was hard to miss. This place was seriously old-school – big, roomy vinyl booths and a menu full of traditional down-homey breakfast-lunch-dinner favorites. Country-fried steaks, chicken and noodles, pie, you get the idea…It was sort of like a Denny’s or IHOP, but locally owned and operated, which automatically makes it better. Waffle House couldn’t hold a candle to Big Wheel, even though it did dish up a very respectable biscuits and sausage gravy… While I attended I.U., Big Wheel became the sight of many a late-night study session and dinners with my Varsity Villas roommates. Rumor has it, Big Wheel was one of Bob Knight’s favorite places to hold meetings with various administrators and pals, but I never saw him there. I was heartbroken when the Big Wheel finally closed its doors. It’s since been torn down and replaced with a prefab Steak ‘n Shake, last I checked. Sniffle, sniffle. Pizza Express breadsticks. After rolling in from Kilroy’s or Hooligans at 3 a.m., nothing soaks up all the booze better than a order of Pizza Express breadsticks and cheese sauce, delivered hot and steamy right to your door. Except maybe… Kilroy’s 25-cent nachos. Kilroy’s was the first bar I legally entered at midnight the day I turned 21. Way back then (we’re talking early 1990s here), Kilroy’s featured a serve-yourself nacho bar. For one slim quarter, you got a basket of chips and as many toppings as you could scoop on – salsa, cheese and sour cream. I shudder to think how many of those baskets I consumed, along with a cold Coors Light or one of those crazy banana-strawberry daquiris they used to serve. IU Memorial Union, Sugar and Spice, Special K bars. I believe Sugar and Spice is still there, but wouldn’t bet my life on it. It’s just a tiny little busy snack/coffee counter nestled in a corner of the Union, but if you hit the line at just the right time, you could snag a Special K bar to eat on the way to your next class. Think Rice Krispie treat, but made with Special K and peanut butter instead, flatter, chewier and way more gooey. My mouth is watering right now just thinking about one. Loaf and Ladle, Nutty Bird sandwich. Another casualty of urban development, the Loaf and Ladle is no more, but back in the day, it served fantastic soup-and-sandwich lunches from its cozy little perch on the northeast corner of the town square. The Nutty Bird was a tasty turkey sandwich with cream cheese, sunflower seeds and sprouts, as I recall. With a cup of the soup of the day, it was darn near the perfect lunch. Village Deli. I can’t remember the specifics exactly, but they used to serve some sort of breakfast monstrosity that pretty much threw in everything you’d ever want to eat in the morning. It started with a layer of breakfast potatoes topped with scrambled eggs, sausage gravy and cheese on top. Maybe I just imagined it during one hungover visit after a particularly long bender at Jakes… Mother Bear’s Pizza. What is there to say? Except it’s fabulous. Mustard’s bears mentioning for its do-it-yourself burger bar, as does the meatball sandwich at Macri’s Deli and the lasagna from Grisanti’s. I know there are other dishes and locales I’m forgetting. Please forgive me, it’s been (gulp) 20 years since I was stomping around those grounds. Would love to hear from other IU alums about your favorite Bloomington food memories. And in the meantime, Indiana, oh Indiana… we’re all for you! 3772470003_7690c3676f

Watch and learn

I think I’m addicted to television cooking shows. For a long, long time, the Food Network was my go-to channel. I’d simply flip on the TV and leave it going in the background for hours, picking up a tip or two by osmosis as I’d go about my day. I got very used to the voices of celebrity chefs infiltrating my consciousness. However, thanks to the proliferation of reality TV cooking competitions, I hardly ever watch it anymore. Namely, my must-see TV now consists of Top Chef, Hell’s Kitchen and Next Food Network Star.

Random thoughts about each series: Next Food Network Star would be the competition I’d be most likely to enter if I could. The challenges seem to be the most up my alley, although I have absolutely no desire to host my own television cooking show. The contestants seem to be fairly normal people and there’s not nearly as much of the high drama you find in some of the other series.

This past season’s winner, Melissa D’Arabian, was my top pick all along. The network promoted that runner-up guy as some kind of Zen food yogi, but he always just seemed half-stoned to me. Come to think of it “Let’s Get Baked” wouldn’t be a bad name for a cooking show… but I digress. Although she seemed a little hyper at first, I liked Melissa’s French-inspired food best; it looked the tastiest and the dishes she cooked often seemed like things I could see myself making at home. She’s already busted out several little cooking tips and hints that I have found extremely useful and am likely to remember forever. Plus, the woman has four little girls, all under the age of 5 (including 1-year-old twins!). Anyone who has time to deal with that AND cook gourmet dinners complete with do-it-yourself French pastry is my hero.

Hubby and I taped one of Melissa’s first shows on the DVR and were very impressed with it. On the season finale, part of her show demo meal was an individual potato gratin made in muffin tins. I downloaded the recipe and hubby and I have made it twice within the past week. It is ridiculously easy, and super tasty. Tonight, we’re going to give her crispy-skinned chicken breast a l’orange a whirl.

I like Hell’s Kitchen, but sometimes the drama gets to be a little much to bear. It’s like the American Idol of cooking shows with Gordon Ramsey cast as a foul-mouthed, hot-tempered Simon Cowell. I know it’s all about ratings, but seriously. I’ve worked in a handful of restaurant kitchens with all different kinds of culinary personalities, and I’ve never seen anyone act that way. I’d certainly never want to work for someone who’d get in my face and call me an effing donkey, and I have to question the mental stability and sanity of anyone who does. Then again, some of the HK contestants are complete whack-jobs anyway.

Gordon Ramsey is obviously a good chef and has made a career out of being an uncompromising perfectionist. I suppose it’s a bit like playing basketball for Bobby Knight. I know he’s a good coach, (my fellow IU alumni are probably going to bust my balls for even making this comment at all) but aren’t there just-as-effective leadership techniques that don’t rely on fear, intimidation and masochism? I’ll watch Hell’s Kitchen, don’t get me wrong, but I don’t take it seriously.

Top Chef is perhaps my favorite cooking competition to watch. There’s no golden post or television show prize waiting, the winner simply gets a buttload of money to use to further their own culinary dreams and aspirations. In my book, that’s awesome.

These are hardcore, serious chefs and it’s fun to see what kinds of dishes they manage to produce. I don’t kid myself that I could hang with this level of crowd for a second; they cook using products and techniques I’ve never seen, hear of, or know how to spell. Last season, though, it was cool to see caterer Carla give fly-under-the-radar Hosea and snooty Stefan a run for their money in the finale by staying true to herself and her simple, cooking-with-love style. That’s the approach I’d take; I was sorry to see her lose it in the end by letting her sous-chef rattle her self-confidence.

Some of these chefs show off creativity that is truly stellar. In each episode, at least one contestant makes something that leaves me seething with envy and renews my interest in going to culinary school. For example, in this week’s episode, two of the top-rated appetizer dishes included a savory macaroon filled with avocado guacamole, and an apple sorbet in a little shot glass with a goat cheese cracker/cookie. YUM.

As an added bonus, I love, love, love the judging panel. Gail Simmons is like your best girlfriend, Tom Colicchio knows his shit but conveys criticism in a way that’s not soul-destroying, and Padma Lakshmi is a tasty visual treat that whets the appetite anytime she appears onscreen. (How in the world do these people eat all of that food without making themselves completely sick or gaining 200 pounds?)

Too early to make a prediction yet about this season, but I seem to think it’s going to be one of the two brothers.

Fellow foodies, leave me a comment! Your favorite cooking show and why????

What’d an onion ever do to you?

My husband doesn’t like onions. Actually, that’s a vast understatement. My husband loathes onions. He hates onions with such passion, I’m convinced he must have had a traumatic childhood experience with one that scarred him for life. Like, he fell headfirst into a barrelful of rotting onions and no one found him until the next morning. Perhaps his brothers held him down and forced him to eat onions against his will. Or maybe he just overindulged one night, was violently sick and nursed himself through an onion hangover, swearing “never again.” Like a bad high school peach schnapps experience. In any case, his dislike of onions borders on pure hatred. I’m not exaggerating – anyone who ever eaten with my husband will back me up on this point.

If hubby thinks he sees, smells, tastes or hears a hint that an onion might have been used in the recipe, it’s game over. He will not even take a bite to be polite. I have been slightly embarrassed on one or two occasions when we’ve been at someone’s home who’s cooked something lovely for us, only to have hubby turn up his nose and refuse to take even a single taste. And I can’t count the number of times in restaurants that hubby has sent a plate back because it was delivered to our table containing the offending item.

Hubby is usually very diligent about specifically requesting no onions, but even so, some slip by every now and then. You should see him if God forbid, a salad arrives with a few slices, or a burger comes topped with a small stack of onion straws. Superman encountering Kryptonite is no less dramatic. In several instances, meals have turned into a joke when a sent-back plate comes back still containing onions even after a request to remove them.

When my husband moved to Germany five years ago during our courtship, the first phrase he learned wasn’t “Where’s the bathroom?” or “My name is…” It was “NEIN ZWEIBEL!” One guess what that means.

Being the self-proclaimed “golden boy” of the family, hubby’s mom will actually cook a separate onion-free version of whatever she’s making just for him. This is no small feat, considering the woman usually prepares meals for any number of her seven children, plus their spouses and kids at any given time. This is the precedent I married into.

It’s amazing to learn just how many recipes contain onions until you are forbidden from using them. Through the four years of our marriage, I’ve learned it’s easier to just leave onions out whenever the recipes call for them. Otherwise, I end up dining alone. Hubby is convinced onions add nothing to a dish whatsoever and refuses to believe they lend anything beneficial by way of nutrition or flavor. I disagree. If you’ve ever had chili or a nice spaghetti sauce sans onions, I feel it lacks a little something, but I’ve managed to learn to live without and survive.

When I mention to other people that my husband thinks onions are vile, I have found a small but surprisingly vocal number of folks who heartily agree. Why all the haters?? What is it about the humble onion that brings out the worst in people? For many, it seems to be either an issue of texture or flavor, neither of which I can fully understand. Most people dislike the taste, for others, it’s the mouth-feel. It’s rare to find those who hate them across the board.

A few weeks ago, I was trying to figure out what to make for dinner and remembered I had some leftover frozen empanada filling from a dinner I’d hosted for some girlfriends last month. I had two versions to work with: a black bean/corn mixture, and a beef/potato blend that contained the tiniest bit of onion, along with a ridiculous amount of chili powder, cumin and other seasoning that MORE than drowned out any offending flavor. The onions, by the way, were all but grated into oblivion before I added them to the beef and not even visible to the naked eye. I knew if hubby knew they were there, he would refuse to eat it, but for the first time in the course of our marriage, I wondered if I could pull one over on him. So I made the empanadas and took my chances.

When we sat down to eat, hubby inhaled a couple of the veggie empanadas, proclaiming them delicious. Then he got hold of one of the meat empanadas. One bite in… “Are there onions in this??? How could you let me eat this and not say anything!” It was wrong, I know. I don’t know why I thought I could get away with it, but honestly, we’re talking about something like a teaspoon of minced onion mixed into about two pounds of ground beef. I just didn’t believe he would notice it or taste it; I certainly couldn’t. In any case, the trust is now gone. Any item I’ve served since has been eaten only after INTENSE scrutiny, a series of hardcore questions and a thorough visual and olfactory examination.

Personally, while I don’t particularly like eating raw onions, I quite enjoy them cooked and incorporated into dishes. Such as sautéed in butter and added to scrambled eggs with some cheddar cheese, or carmelized until succulent then draped over a roasted chicken breast or pork chop. And I must ‘fess up to an occasional jaunt through Burger King drive-thru for an order of rings, slathered in ketchup.

Oddly enough, my husband can eat garlic like nobody’s business. Go figure.

Common onion - Allium cepa