A cheesy proposition

When hubby and I lived in Sonoma, California the year after we got married, one of our favorite things to do was to pick up a random bottle of vino from one of the local wineries and assemble a cheese board for supper. In fact, we enjoyed this whole ritual so much, we did it on a weekly basis. In California wine country, every restaurant, grocery store, corner deli and gas station (no joke) offered spectacular wine and cheese selections. Creating something incredibly delicious without even turning on the oven was a total no-brainer.

One of the more memorable cheese platters that comes to mind from that era in my life was something we enjoyed with another couple, kicking off a night out at the swanky Ledson Hotel restaurant on the Sonoma town square. I don’t recall specifics, but I have a fond fuzzy memory of fragrant, fruity red wine complemented by salty, robust blue cheese smeared on small squares of housemade walnut bread and topped with paper-thin slices of sweet, juicy pear. It was a thing of beauty. I have no idea where we went for dinner or what we ate the rest of the night, but the memory of that blue cheese and walnut bread is etched in my brain forever.

Sadly, our cheese board habit has gone the way of the dinosaurs since moving back to Indianapolis. Every now and then, we’ll get a hankering for it, but these times are few and far between. Out of sight, out of mind I suppose. I’m not even sure where to go here in town for great cheese. Valentine’s Day, we decided, marked a perfect occasion to bring our long-lost tradition back to life.

In the past, our cheese board dinners and party platter offerings have consisted of fairly standard ingredients. Two or three cheeses, water crackers or slices of baguette, nuts, olives, grapes, perhaps a sliced apple. Maybe some salumi if we’re feeling wild and crazy. That’s about it.

From what I’ve gleaned in my culinary research over the years, the general rule of thumb for cheese platters is as follows — one hard, one soft, one blue. Which breaks down into a cheddar/gouda/havarti, a brie/goat, and a gorgonzola/blue. No rocket science about it. It’s what you choose to accent the cheese that really makes the difference.

Presentation is key when it comes to cheese platters, as it is for any plate you want to appear impressive. The saying “you eat first with your eyes” is definitely true. A few extra minutes can make any item you serve so much more appealing. Stack things up in little piles. Slice your vegetables and fruits with care. Set out a couple of cute cheese slicers or cocktail spoons for serving. Include some fresh herbs for garnish. The little details count big here.

I clipped a gorgeous two-page spread from a magazine (I believe it was Bon Appetit) several months ago detailing creative cheese platter ideas, and secured it to the wall of my fridge with magnets for inspiration. It includes yummy stuff like pine nut brittle, spirals of dried citrus zest, pate and spicy red pepper jelly. In short, it looks absolutely beautiful and oh so sexy. Alas, I had serious doubts about locating many of those items in my shopping.

For tonight’s offering, here’s what I put together:  a brie (which I ended up having to toss because it smelled overwhelmingly of ammonia. Thanks for staying on top of things in the cheese section, Marsh…), a slender chunk of creamy Edam (delicious, rich and buttery), and a wedge of Maytag blue (quickly becoming a go-to for me). A bag of toasted Italian bread rounds (which screamed for some sort of flavor or seasoning), sweet-salty chunks of proscuitto-wrapped cantaloupe, smoked almonds, sliced pear, yellow pepper matchsticks and a ramekin of pickled grapes rounded out the spread.

Valentine's Day dinner cheese platter. Seriously - look how pretty it is!

The grapes are another Molly Wizenberg recipe I cribbed from her “A Homemade Life” memoir. This woman can do no wrong. The seedless grapes are basically just marinated in a vinegar and sugar concoction with some pickling spices. They were fab, almost like tangy chutney with hints of cinnamon and pepper.

pickled grapes

The wine? A friendly and knowledgeable woman at Cork and Cracker steered me toward a lovely French Fleurie red Beaujolais. I like that place more and more each time I go in; they really seem to know their stuff.

The nice thing about having a cheese board for dinner is you can eat and eat and eat without ever really feeling like you’re pigging out. It’s perfect and romantic for a date night. Finger food, feeding each other tastes of things… get the picture?? And because everything is fresh and usually heavy on fruit and fresh items, it all feels fairly healthy.

For dessert, I baked up a batch of red velvet cheesecake swirl brownies. Sadly, I have yet to master the swirl – my marbled effect usually ends up looking pretty uniform. In this case, pink. No matter. They were tasty, and I used a biscuit cutter to carve them into rounds instead of the usual squares for a little something different.

red velvet cheesecake brownie rounds

This Valentine’s Day, dear readers, I hope your lives are full of love, and your love is full of life.

Cooking by the book

In my book, you can never have too many cookbooks. My collection spans three shelves of a bookcase positioned in the corner of my dining area, where the books, booklets, pamphlets and clippings can inspire culinary prowess through their mere presence.

my cookbook corner

I can’t remember when I really started collecting cookbooks, or if I ever did. They seem to simply appear over the years, sometimes as gifts, sometimes through personal purchase, sometimes via former books of my mom’s that I’ve borrowed from my dad’s kitchen and conveniently forgotten to give back. I look over them fondly, and often. To me, browsing through a cookbook holds every bit the same satisfaction as reading a great novel. I spend hours poring over them, drooling over delicious-sounding dishes that I dream of whipping up in my own kitchen. Some I make, some are destined to remain wistful imaginings.

Here are a few of the standout culinary tomes in my collection:

“The French Laundry Cookbook” by Thomas Keller and Michael Ruhlman. I’m not sure I’ll ever have the balls to actually attempt any of the insanely nitpicky recipes in here, but with its attention to detail and absolutely gorgeous photography, the book itself is a work of art worthy of any coffee table.

Darina Allen’s “Ballymaloe Cookery School Cookbook.” Ballymaloe is a renowned Irish culinary school, and this book is the definitive collection of recipes covered in classes there. The instructions are detailed and geared toward a student audience, making them easy to follow and offering description in great detail. My Irish in-laws have also gifted me with Darina’s “Traditional Cooking” and her daughter-in-law Rachel Allen’s “Bake” as well – welcome additions to my section on Irish cuisine.

“Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook.” Well, it was new back in 1968 when my mom bought it. For ages, this book has been one of my go-to resources for general cooking instruction. It’s definitely old-school, but many of the recipes have held up well over the years. And the big trend toward retro comfort food is only helping its cause. I use it primarily for classic cookies; the peanut butter recipe is my fave. I also own the updated 1996 version, but refer to them both equally.

Various volumes by Rachael Ray, Giada de Laurentiis and Ina Garten. Love them or hate them, those Food Network bitches do turn out some good food. Ina’s “Barefoot Contessa Family Style” and “Barefoot Contessa at Home” are the ones I use most often because her cooking style is probably most similar to my own, although I have memorized the lemon spaghetti recipe from Giada’s “Everyday Italian” and adopted it as my own.

“A Homemade Life” by Molly Wizenberg. This isn’t really a cookbook per se, it’s more a food-themed memoir with recipes interspersed, but what recipes they are! I’ve made several of the mostly vegetarian offerings, all with great results. Next up – pickled grapes. Molly also writes a column for Bon Appetit magazine, and maintains a blog called “Orangette.”

I pull out other books at random, when I need something specific, or if I’m bored and just looking for something new to make for dinner.

What’s your favorite cookbook and why? There’s always room on my shelf for something new…

Recent culinary exploits and obsessions

A few foodie items I’ve recently been jazzed about:

My French Fontignac 5-quart casserole dish.

Last year, I just HAD to have a Le Creuset something or other. (I think I was probably inspired by seeing Amy Adams make a beef bourguignon in one in the movie “Julie & Julia.”) I settled for spending some of my Christmas money on a lovely blue Fontignac vessel I found at Bed, Bath and Beyond instead. This was a pricy piece of cookware – even on sale, it was still $80 – but I had visions of using it to make gorgeous stews and braises through the winter.

Long story short, this beautiful pot sat on a shelf in my basement until about three weeks ago. For starters, I was intimidated about using it. Secondly, I wasn’t quite sure how to use it. It wasn’t until I was in Ireland this summer and used a similar pot owned by one of my sisters-in-law to make curry that I got over my fear.

So a few weeks ago, I took a deep breath, dusted off my Fontignac and broke it in. I finally found out what I’ve been missing all this time. The inaugural dish? Braised country-style pork ribs with a bourguignon-ish sauce of red wine, beef stock, tomato paste and rosemary. The beauty of this pot, I quickly realized, was being able to sear the ribs in it, then simply dump in the sauce ingredients, put the lid on and throw it in the oven for a couple hours. The heavy cast-iron construction means this is a pot I’m likely to have forever. Oh, and the meal was fantastic.

Since then, I’ve used this versatile cooking vessel to boil water for pasta, to make a delicious risotto, and yes, to prepare a beef stew. Looking back now, I don’t know what I was so scared of. HUGE bonus, it’s super-easy to clean. No matter how messy it looks, whatever’s left in there scrubs right out. I LOVE this pot. And it’s so pretty, I just leave it out on my stovetop on display when not in use.

Fontignac casserole dish

Cherry pie filling and preserves.

I’m in a big cherry phase at the moment. Given the choice between strawberries, raspberries and cherries, I’ll take cherries any day. This preference is approaching something of a fever pitch lately.

It all started about five weeks ago during a freelance assignment that required me to stay in some bed-and-breakfasts in Southern Indiana. (I know, I know… it’s a dirty job, but someone’s got to do it!) For one of the breakfasts, we were served buttermilk pancakes with freshly made cherry preserves from one of the nearby Amish farms. The preserves were presented simply in a little white ramekin, and they looked like edible red jewels. Absolutely gorgeous.

When I volunteered to make a dessert for the monthly teacher lunch at my son’s preschool last week, I came across a recipe I made some years ago for cherry cheesecake brownies. Decision made. This is a yummy and fairly easy dish to make – you make a brownie mix according to the directions on the box, then top it with a simple cheesecake batter and bake for another 20 minutes to so. When it’s cool, you cut it into squares and top it with spoonfuls of cherry pie filling. According to the thank you note I received, it was a big hit.

I also had intentions of making a strawberry shortcake for dinner at a friend’s house the other night, but the strawberries I bought were sadly disappointing. Cherry pie filling to the rescue! I bought a can and we spooned it over slices of pound cake and topped it with a dollop of Cool Whip.

Which brings me to…


I’ve come across two new cake recipes lately that I’ve been whipping up like crazy. The first is a lemon yogurt cake I came across in Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life.” (She specifically says in the book that she thinks recipes are made to be shared, and I heartily agree.)

The recipe uses ingredients you’re likely to already have on hand, with maybe the exception of plain whole-milk yogurt (which you can buy by the single-serving container at the supermarket for less than a dollar). I’ve made it several times within the past few weeks – it works well with the lemon glaze as directed in the book, or with a spoonful of fresh fruit sauce (or cherry preserves!) Plus, you don’t have to use lemons – they are easily be swapped out for oranges or even limes would be good. The recipe makes one 9-inch round pan full, not too much and not too little, and the cake itself is bright, lemony and luscious. I made it for a book swap I hosted last weekend, and several guests took leftover slices home for breakfast.

glazed lemon yogurt cake

The second new cake discovery is the pound cake I made for the strawberry-turned-cherry shortcake. I found it on Allrecipes.com, one of my go-to sites for cooking inspiration, and it contains the surprising ingredient of whipping cream. Whereas the lemon cake is light and fruity, this one is dense and rich, but still plenty moist. With the cherry pie filling and whipped cream topping, it made a pretty and delicious dessert. In fact, I made another one to take to my cousin’s house today and serve it the exact same way. I’m also planning to try this recipe again with some chocolate chips thrown in the mix. Because, after all, everything’s better with chocolate chips…

Sweet dreams!

Memories of mom food

This past Monday would have been my mom’s 78th birthday, so of course, she’s been on my mind all week. My dear mom passed away eight years ago, and still, not a day goes by that I don’t think of her.

On a not-so-coincidental note, I just finished reading Molly Wizenberg’s book “A Homemade Life,” and it really hit home for me. Each chapter consists of a personal food-related anecdote along with a corresponding (and mouthwatering) recipe, sort of a my-life-story-through-food piece of work.

Whose life doesn’t have distinctive food-related memories, especially where moms are concerned? Whether she was a gourmet chef who made the most elaborate dinners in town or had trouble boiling water to make a box of mac and cheese, everyone has food connotations when it comes their moms. Chances are, there’s at least one thing she made — good, bad or ugly — that will forever stand out in your memory and remind you of her.

My mom wasn’t a terribly adventurous cook, but what she made was solidly good and consistent. Let me paint a picture for you. As a child of the 1970s growing up in Indiana, here’s what the majority of our family dinners looked like. Some sort of meat (usually dipped in flour and fried), mashed potatoes from a box with gravy, canned green beans, individual bowls of iceberg lettuce salad with Kraft French dressing and perhaps a few shreds of cheese, and bread and butter. Sound familiar? Not that we didn’t branch out now and then and go crazy with a pizza, tacos or something else, but that was the sort of meal you might find on our table any given night during my childhood.

This is not to say that my mom wasn’t a good cook. She was. She was also an extremely organized cook. These two qualities led to her leadership rise on church planning committees for large-scale luncheons, dinners and banquets. (I like to think this is where I get my penchant for catering – it’s in my blood.) I just think as a busy working woman with two children, she took some shortcuts where she could find them, and when they proved successful with picky eaters like my brother and I. She had her work cut out for her. I didn’t grow to appreciate vegetables until college and liked to douse my fried chicken with ketchup. My brother got upset if any food item on his plate touched anything else. Fortunately, my dad was an easy audience, inhaling two or three servings of anything she put in front of him and pronouncing it wonderful.

Some of my mom’s “famous” dishes include spaghetti sauce that consisted of ground beef mixed with cans of tomato and mushroom soup and a little Italian seasoning, a chocolate chip coffeecake that has personally won me some rave reviews as well (including a recipe publication in Rachael Ray Magazine), and a fancy beef dish called Saucy Sirloin that she’d make when company came over.

I was at my dad’s house last weekend and happened to catch a glimpse of my mom’s old recipe box on a cabinet shelf as he reached in for something, so I swiped it and brought it home with me to look through at my leisure this week. This was a real walk down memory lane. Inside, I found some real treasures, like my grandmother’s pineapple cookies and persimmon pudding recipes. I also found a lot of things that call for a can of Campbell’s or a packet of Lipton onion soup mix, old favorite standbys for Hoosier cooks of a certain age and inclination. And casseroles. LOTS of casseroles.

There were a few recipes in there that I can’t recall ever eating. I don’t remember my mom ever preparing anything as exotic as asparagus strata, chicken curry or Harvey Wallbanger cake, but lo and behold, there they were. And I must admit, I was moved and thrilled to actually uncover a few recipes I had given her over the years that she must have thought worthy enough to hold onto.

In my beloved mom’s honor, I dug out one of her oldies but goodies to make the other night. It’s called porcupines. (Relax. Although we have been known to eat wildlife shot by my dad or brother from time to time, this dish is not actually made of porcupines, silly.) It’s a moist and savory meatball with rice that spikes out as it cooks to look like – what else – a porcupine. The whole thing simmers away in a tangy tomato/Worchestershire bath until it’s tender and delicious. My toddler even ate some without protest. And because the ingredients are simple and accessible, it’s super affordable to make. This hearty dish is a great alternative to meatloaf, perfect to serve with a salad, green beans or perhaps some steamed broccoli with cheese sauce. Give it a whirl and let me know what you think.

And to my mom, wherever you are, thanks.


(Serves 3 or 4)

1 lb. ground beef

1/2 c. uncooked long-grain rice

1/3 c. milk

3 tb. finely chopped onion

1 egg

1/2 tsp. celery salt

1/4 tsp. garlic salt

2 tb. margarine (or Crisco shortening if you’re really kicking it old school)

1 15-oz. can crushed tomatoes

1 c. water

1 tb. Worchestershire sauce


In a large bowl, mix the ground beef, rice, milk, onion, egg, celery salt and garlic salt until well combined. You can add a few twists of freshly ground pepper as well. Form into meatballs about the size of a golf ball; an ice cream scoop works well for this purpose and lets you make sure all the meatballs are evenly sized.

Melt the margarine in a large saucepan and add the meatballs. Turn them gently to brown on all sides, then add the tomatoes, water and Worchestershire sauce. Cover the pan and simmer for 35-40 minutes until the rice is cooked, moving the meatballs occasionally to make sure they aren’t sticking to the bottom. If the liquid boils away too much, add a little more water, but the sauce should be fairly thick when it’s done.