Pop stars

For months, my friend Laura has been raving about the “best caramel corn EVER,” and urging me to try some. I finally got around to it, and turns out, she’s right. Inga’s Popcorn is pretty damn tasty, and hard to keep your hands out of.

a little Inga's Chocolate Delight

Using family recipes, Inga has created some really delicious caramel corn variations, not to mention cheesy varieties (try the jalapeno cheddar!). A Chicago Combo Mix of caramel and cheddar offers the best of both salty and sweet worlds if you just can’t get off the fence. Or if you have PMS. I sampled the Chicago mix and the new Chocolate Lover’s Delight – a wickedly yummy caramel corn drizzled with ribbons of dark chocolate. Both were so delectably light, they very nearly melt in your mouth.

Inga's cheddar/caramel Chicago Mix

Inga’s secret ingredient? The popcorn itself. For her concoctions, Inga uses only a special kind of organic popcorn grown by Mozingo’s Farms in nearby Brownsburg. This particular strain of corn somehow pops up incredibly fluffy with very little hull to wind up stuck in your teeth.

Inga’s is based in Zionsville, and you can find her various flavored popcorns in stores scattered throughout the village and at the Zionsville farmer’s market. The company just opened a shop in Bloomington to boot, and you can also order popcorn online via her web site.

For more information about how to get your hands on this addictive stuff (and trust me, you want to), visit www.ingaspopcorn.com.

On a side note, a few weeks ago, Laura gifted me a bag of ground cornmeal from Mozingo Farms that’s been sitting in my freezer begging to be used. This week, I busted it out to make some chili-accompanying bacon cheddar corn muffins. However, I think my ratio of cornmeal to flour was off and they turned out way too doughy. I also used a tiny bit of the cornmeal to dust the pan beneath a homemade pizza last night, and it added a fantastic hint of toasty crunch.

Tonight’s experiment – polenta. And a really great one, as it turned out. I’m not well-versed in polenta, so this was an experiment. One I’d eagerly undertake again. I’m also wondering what the difference is between polenta and grits. Anyone? Please feel free to chime in here, readers. From what I can tell, they’re basically the exact same thing, but I’m all ears if you know the difference and want to set me straight.

Polenta, as it turns out, is easy peasy to make, requiring a list of ingredients you can count on one hand and a wee bit of patience. All you do is bring some water and salt (or if you’re me, half water and half chicken stock) to a boil, stir in the cornmeal and then keep on stirring until it loses its grit and becomes soft and velvety, about 20 minutes or so. If it’s too thick you just add a little more liquid to keep things rolling. Also, if you’ve got a splatterguard in your possession, you’ll want to put it to use here. The consistency of this stuff is like molten lava and you do NOT want it splashing up onto your skin. Definitely not a cook-while-naked dish.

When the polenta has reached a silky texture, not unlike mashed potatoes, throw in as much butter as you dare and maybe some cheese. Spoon it onto your plate or into your bowl and top it however you like – standard spaghetti sauce, sautéed veggies, chili… go crazy. I whipped up a quick marinara of sorts with mushroom and onions and it was fab.

polenta with mushroom ragout

If you prefer, you can spread the polenta out into a baking dish while it’s still warm, let it set up, then cut it into squares and eat it that way. Heck, you can even fry the squares lightly in a little olive oil if you really want to kick things up. This is also a surefire way to entice the kids to eat it if yours, like mine did, turn up their noses and refuse to take a taste of the more porridgey version.

A great, easy recipe to have in your bag of tricks. Try in as an alternative to pasta or mashed potatoes sometime and report back.

Give peas a chance

Think you don’t like vegetables? Think again. I’m of the mindset that you can take almost any veggie, drizzle it with a little olive oil, sprinkle on some s&p and roast it into a state of crispy deliciousness. Carrots, parsnips, Brussels sprouts, broccoli, asparagus… even if you hated them with a passion as a child, it might behoove you to give them another shot.

The only vegetables I can remember growing up with were canned corn and iceberg lettuce salad with a few cucumber slices. Tomatoes? No way. Green beans. Uh uh. I turned up my nose at anything and everything of the fresh-picked persuasion. My veggie phase began in college, when one day, I added some frozen broccoli to my beefy Ramen noodles just for kicks. It was a real revelation, let me tell you.  I’ve come a long way since then, baby. These days, I eat the heck out of some fresh produce, and the more colorful, the better. My salads are things of beauty. I love going to farmers markets and browsing the booths to see what’s fresh and in season, and am trying my darnedest to get my little guys on board with veggie appreciation as well.

Take kale, for instance. I don’t know much about kale. I can’t recall ever eating kale. But when I saw beautiful bunches of it at the opening weekend of the Indy Winter Farmers Market on Saturday, I couldn’t resist picking up some to experiment with. Lo and behold, I quickly located recipes online for kale “chips,” and I was off and running.

Basically, all you do is wash the leaves and use the above-mentioned technique to bake them off. After about 15 minutes in the oven at 350 degrees, they dehydrate into paper-thin crisps. They actually shrunk so much, I really could have afforded to do another baking sheet full, but then again, they only had to serve myself, a friend and the toddler as part of a bigger-picture dinner. So for a trial run, they worked out just fine.

crispy kale chips just out of the oven

I thought the chips were tasty, but they did have a very strong, earthy flavor that some people may not dig. The little guy was curious enough to eat one, but that was it. I was glad that, at the very least, he was willing to try it. There may be hope for him to become a veggie connoisseur after all…

an adventurous eater in the making?

Role reversal

In a curious turn of events, hubby has been jobhunting during the past month and I’ve been the temporary breadwinner, busy full-time working on various freelance writing assignments. No complaints, though. I’ve been lucky enough to receive some pretty plum jobs that have allowed me to write about two of my favorite subjects — food and travel. The only real downsides to this situation are that 1) I haven’t had as much time as I’d like lately to spend with my little guy and 2) I’ve barely been cooking at all.

Have to say, hubby has really embraced the whole domestic scene and is doing a great job at keeping the house running like a well-oiled machine, including meal preparation. On one recent occasion, I happened to walk in to get a glass or something out of the cabinet while he was cooking and was promptly ordered to “get out of MY kitchen.” This may be taking things a LITTLE too far…

Hubby had a few solid dishes under his belt to begin with, but he’s really taken them to a new level over the past few weeks. He’s definitely got the homemade pizza thing nailed. A neighbor and I were enjoying a glass of wine on the back patio during a warm evening about two weeks ago when hubby decided to whip one up. You should have seen her face when he brought it out, hot, steaming and fragrant from the oven. She was so impressed, she called the next day to ask him for tips so she could make one at her house.

hubby's homemade pepperoni pizza

Hubby uses store-bought refrigerated crust, but I fully expect that it’s only a matter of time before he’s cranking out his own from scratch. I haven’t even witnessed what he does to make his ‘za so good, but I believe it involves simply tomato paste, cheese, pepperoni and the lightest drizzle of olive oil. A sprinkling of the herbes de Provence I purchased on our last visit to France in the fall seems to be the secret ingredient. I’m telling ya, that little packet I bought at a street market in Aix for a couple of euros has proven to possess damn near magical qualities — a little pinch utterly transforms everything from roasted meat and veggies to pasta sauce. I’m tempted to try it in muffins or scones. If you ever see an herbes de Provence blend in the supermarket, pick up a jar and try it for yourself in almost any savory dish. You won’t be sorry.

But I digress, back to bragging about my husband… the other dish he’s really been jazzed about perfecting lately is pot pie. This is sort of an unlikely fixation for him; he’s never requested or even mentioned an affinity for pot pie prior to eating a chicken version he proclaimed awesome at the Red Lion Grog House in Fountain Square a few weeks ago.

Again, using plain old store-bought pie crust, he’s been able to produce some interesting and delicious results. First, a lightly sauced chicken pot pie stuffed with shredded meat, chopped carrots and celery. Even better, though, is his beef version, made using his Guinness beef stew recipe, which I already love. Playing around with presentation, his latest attempt included some little ceramic ramekins he filled with the stew and covered with rounds of dough, and also some mini-pies that made using muffin tins. I liked the ramekins, I thought they would be adorable for a fancy dinner party, but hubby preferred the muffin versions, saying they reminded him more of the authentic pies he’s eaten in England. No matter, both were delicious.

adorable individual pot pies

muffin-tin pot pies

With several big assignments now turned in and off my plate, my freelance schedule looks to be lightening up a hair. Hopefully I’ll have enough breathing room to revisit my pots, pans and knives this week and make sure they haven’t forgotten me. If I can wrestle hubby out of “his” kitchen, that is…

Visions of sugarplums

The newly minted Top Chef Just Desserts season has kicked my sweet tooth into overdrive. (What’s with all the drama, by the way? An open plea to Top Chef producers – PLEASE just stick to the food. Leave the whining, bitching and bipolar episodes to Hell’s Kitchen. I expected more a little more from you. Here’s hoping you’ll redeem yourself with Top Chef All Stars…)

The holidays demand sweets. That’s just all there is to it. When I was growing up, one of the events I most looked forward to was our church’s annual holiday tasting party. Each year on the first Sunday evening of advent, the church played host to a huge seasonal program. Following the big show, the tasting party would take over the basement to offer table upon table laden with every imaginative use of sugar one could fathom. All created by the loving hands of the church ladies and you know as well as I do, no one cooks like a church lady.

Here how’s it worked:  you’d grab a paper plate and troll the aisles, loading up with anything that struck your fancy. Cookies, brownies, buckeyes, cupcakes, Rice Krispies treats, bars, chocolate-covered whatever, sweet Chex mix, corn flake wreaths, peanut butter fudge, butterscotch chow mein noodle haystacks… good grief. It’s enough to send me into sugar shock just thinking about it. Looking back, I’m not sure how it was successfully managed, but it was. I don’t think actual fights broke out over the last item on any given plate, but the potential was definitely there. I do seem to remember an awful lot of hyper children running around that basement.

Every year around the first of December, I start sorting through my cookie recipes, intending to recreate some old favorites and maybe try a few new ones. I even picked up a jar of red and green holiday sanding sugar at Michael’s the other day in anticipation of this year’s baking extravaganza.

I’d like to try my hand at sugar cookies and gingerbread men, but I’ve traditionally not had good luck with these kinds of dough. In fact, the last time I attempted to make gingerbread men, I recall spending an entire afternoon painstakingly mixing, rolling, cutting, decorating and baking them, only to bite into one and discover that it tasted like nothing but straight-up flour. Bleh.

To me, nothing says Christmas like the winning combination of chocolate and mint. (It even brings back fond memories of mixing up mugs of peppermint schnapps-spiked hot chocolate in my IU dorm freshman year.) I’ve got a wickedly decadent recipe for crème de menthe brownies, and another for double chocolate chip cookies with crushed candy canes that I plan on dusting off within the next week or so.

Creme de menthe brownies

I’m all for collecting other ideas and suggestions. If you’ve got a favorite cookie recipe, holiday or otherwise, feel free to post as a comment below. In the meantime, here’s a recipe I made several times last year to much acclaim. It’s super easy, doesn’t require many ingredients to fuss with, and is consistently delicious. Enjoy – and bring on the sweet eats!

Cookies ‘n creme fudge

3 (6 ounce) packages white chocolate baking squares

1 (14 ounce) can EAGLE BRAND® Sweetened Condensed Milk

1/8 teaspoon salt

3 cups crushed Oreos (it could be fun to experiment with other cookies as well)

In a heavy saucepan over low heat, melt the white chocolate squares, sweetened condensed milk and salt. Remove from heat and stir in crushed cookies.

Spread evenly into a wax paper-lined 8-inch square pan. Chill 2 hours or until firm.

Turn fudge out onto a cutting board; peel off the wax paper and cut into squares. Keep refrigerated until ready to serve.

… 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!!!

In the scone zone

I have a couple go-to recipes that I, uh, go to when it comes to baked goods. Through a long process of trial and error, I am proud to say I have pretty much perfected three treats – chocolate chip cookies, mini-cupcakes and scones.

My secret to great chocolate chip cookies is the use of brown sugar instead of white and the addition of a box of instant pudding mix to the batter. That and not overbaking them. I like my cookies soft, not crunchy, and these three things seem to do the trick. Plus, you can experiment with different pudding flavors for interesting combinations. Banana flavored pudding with the chocolate chips and some pecans thrown in makes for an especially tasty cookie.

For the cupcakes, I rely on Ina Garten. Any recipe of hers that I’ve made has been fabulous, primarily because she is not at all shy about butter. I was introduced to her delicious coconut cupcake recipe four or five years ago, the first time I assisted my chef friend Jennifer. She made them as part of a dessert buffet for a wedding dinner she was catering, and they were a relevation. The mini-versions were adorable, tasty and looked perfectly bridal with their little white caps of shredded coconut. I’ve been using the basic buttermilk-batter cake recipe ever since and tweaked it with all different kinds of additions – vanilla bean and coffee, crushed oreo cookies, peanut butter and mini chocolate chips to name just a few. It’s never let me down. I always make the mini versions because at parties and on buffets, a full-size cupcake can be something of a commitment. Plus, you can eat three or four of the mini-cupcakes without feeling guilty.

Thinking back, I’m not sure when I first became acquainted with scones. They’re still not always an immediately recognizable item here in Indiana, I find. Many people have only come across them in the glass counter at Starbucks. Having had real-deal scones in England, I can tell you that the versions you get here in America aren’t quite the same, as is usually the case. (My husband would argue that the European version is better, of course, but that’s a whole other blog…)

Basically, scones are like a triangular sweet biscuit. My default scone recipe comes courtesy of Semi-Homemade by Sandra Lee. Not one of my favorite Food Network shows or personalities, but I happened to spot her making these years ago, downloaded the recipe and have been using it to great success ever since. I don’t think I can post the recipe here due to copyright reasons, but you can find it under “Mocha Chip Scones” on the Food Network web site if you’re so inclined to look it up.

Sandra’s scones are pretty easy to make, as you’d imagine according to the name of the show. You use Bisquick baking mix to simplify things for yourself. Not that it’s exactly strenuous to measure out flour, baking soda and salt, but whatever. You simple create the dough, pat it out by hand into a large disk on a floured board, cut it into wedges and bake. You can brush the scones with egg wash and sprinkle them with sanding sugar to make them really pretty, if you’re so inclined. If you’re feeling lazy, you could probably just drop the dough by large spoonfuls onto the baking sheet. Either way, they turn out yummy and are perfect for dunking into a cup of coffee.

Again, once you get the basic recipe down pat, it’s super easy to tweak it according to your own tastes and preferences. Sometimes, I’ll leave out the coffee and throw in orange zest instead. Or drizzle them with sugar glaze or ganache. I once tasted a chocolate chip and rosemary scone at Tulip Noir that was fabulous. You can also make savory versions with cheese, herbs and spices for a great alternative to boring old garlic bread.

Here’s my latest scone effort – chocolate chunk and cranberry. Ever the purist, hubby turned up his nose at the cranberries and picked them out, but I thought they were great and very Christmasy.

Chocolate chip cranberry scones

Speaking of Christmas, still trying to decide what to make for dinner tomorrow… guess I’d better get to work scouring the cookbooks. Ta!

Crocks rock

Have I ever mentioned how much I love my crockpot?

After years of being relegated to shelves and pantries, crockpots are coming out of the closets and seem to be experiencing a resurgence in popularity, with good reason. You put some meat and veg in there, pop the lid on, turn it to high and leave it alone. Several hours later, you open it up and voila. Dinner. It’s like magic!

My dad gave me my crockpot years and years ago, shortly after I graduated from college, I believe. I never used it. It sat alone and forlorn, gathering dust in a cupboard for ages. Oh, I may have used it once or twice for BBQ cocktail weenies at parties and such, but certainly not with any regularity. It wasn’t until after I got married that I decided to haul it out and do some experimenting. I could have kicked myself when I quickly realized what I’d been missing out on all that time.

Hubby and I were living in Sonoma at the time, where there is certainly no shortage of delicious meat and produce year-round. The first thing I recall making in the crockpot was a boneless leg of lamb for one of hubby’s work colleagues and his wife who were coming over for dinner that night. We had a huge rosemary bush growing just outside our back door, so I snipped a few sprigs to throw in, along with a few slivers of garlic tucked into the meat and a drizzle of olive oil. I turned the crockpot on and we went out to run errands.

When we got back to the house several hours later and opened the door, the aroma coming out of the kitchen was absolutely intoxicating. When I later went to lift the lamb out of the savory jus, it was so tender, it fell into chunks as I laid it ever so gently onto the serving platter. Needless to say, it was delicious. The meal even inspired our guests to unearth their own crockpot and rev it up.

Over the next few months, my crockpot saw a lot of action as I played around with various recipes. I even put it to use for Thanksgiving – Cornish game hens stuffed with orange wedges and more of that delicious rosemary.

Now, when the weather turns chilly and I’m trying to decide what to make for dinner, my thoughts immediately turn to my crockpot. It’s the perfect vessel for comfort food on a cold snowy night – pulled pork, turkey chili, beef stew and pot roast are all ideal crockpot meals. Most recently, I used it to turn out a yummy pepper steak/goulash recipe courtesy of hubby’s cousin Noreen in Canada.

Seriously, crockpot cooking couldn’t be easier, and it all but guarantees that any meat you use will come out meltingly tender and juicy. The secret for the best flavor is to brown your meat first before you put it in the pot. Take a tip from Julia Child – dry your meat very well with paper towels, then brown it quickly in a pan with a little nearly smoking-hot oil over high heat. Transfer it to your crockpot, then deglaze your pan with a little bit of wine, stock or even water. Make sure to scrape up all the browned bits stuck on the bottom of the pan; that’s the good stuff. Pour all that yumminess into the crockpot as well. Your stews and roasts will thank you, trust me.

If you’ve got a crockpot languishing away forgotten somewhere in the depths of a closet or on a basement shelf, I urge you to wash it up and get reacquainted. I’ll even get you started – here are a few of my fave crockpot recipes to try for yourself:
Pasta e Fagioli

3 or 4 slices of bacon or proscuitto
2 Italian sausages, sliced into bite-sized pieces
1 can cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
2 bay leaves
½ tsp. dried thyme
1/2 tsp. dried basil and/or oregano
a few sprinkles of hot red pepper flakes
3 cloves garlic, minced
½ medium onion, chopped
1  14.5 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 quart chicken stock
1 cup water
1 cup of your favorite small pasta (ditalini, orzo, mini-farfalle)
1 wedge of parmesan cheese for grating

In a skillet, brown the bacon or proscuitto and sausage slices in a little olive oil and then transfer to the crockpot. Add the beans, tomatoes, seasonings, onion, garlic, chicken stock and water. Grate the parmesan cheese, save the grated cheese for garnishing and add the rind to the pot for extra flavor. Cook on low for about 4 or 5 hours or high for 2 to 2 ½ hours. Add the
pasta, stir into the pot and cover for another 20 to 30 minutes on low. (Can add another cup of water here if it’s too thick.) When pasta is cooked, the soup is ready to serve. Remove bay leaves and parmesan rind before eating. Salt and pepper to taste, drizzle with a little extra virgin olive oil, top with grated cheese and serve with crusty bread for dipping.


Crockpot Roast Lamb

4 to 5 pound boneless leg of lamb, or whatever size will comfortably fit in your crock pot
a few sprigs of fresh rosemary
about 5 cloves fresh garlic, cut into slivers
olive oil
salt and pepper

Open up the lamb and cut small slits throughout, stuffing with alternately garlic slivers and small pieces of rosemary. When lamb is sufficiently stuffed (use as much or as little garlic and rosemary as you like), rub lightly with olive oil and salt and pepper both sides.

Fold lamb up to fit into crock pot. Pour in about ½ c. of water. Cook on high for 3 to 4 hours or low for 6 to 7 hours. It will smell awesome and literally fall apart into tender chunks as you take it out of the crock pot.

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!!!

Where’s the boeuf?

Last week marked my second attempt at Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon recipe (and will I ever learn to spell “bourguignon” without having to look it up on Google?). There are two things you should know about preparing a Julia Child recipe. One, it will taste delicious. Two, it will be a pain in the ass. The only other Julia Child recipe I can recall ever making is a cheese souffle, which I assure you easily met these two criteria.

My first boeuf bourguignon recipe attempt was about a month and a half ago. After seeing “Julie & Julia,” my friend and sous chef extraordinaire Gillian and I decided to host a French-inspired dinner party for several girlfriends. I knew Boeuf Bourguignon was the entree I wanted to make; G tackled a Julia chocolate almond cake. We rounded out the spread with Brie, baguette, salad and tons of red wine.

The boeuf started off innocuously enough. The base of the stew is the same one I’ve used for several other dishes as of late – Gordon Ramsay’s shepherd’s pie and Melissa D’Arabian’s braised pork come to mind. When you’ve got a good thing going, apparently chefs want to apply it to as many different kinds of meat as possible. Garlic, onions, carrot, tomato paste, thyme (my herb garden produced an abundance this year, so I’m happy for chances to use it as often as possible), red wine and beef stock. Insert meat, cover, braise for a couple hours and you will eat WELL. It’s a cheap concept, too. Beef stew meat is one of the most affordable items you can buy at the butcher’s counter, and if you use a Charles Shaw Shiraz (which is HIGHLY drinkable, trust me, I speak from experience), you can get away with spending about $3 for the wine.

Anyway, back to the recipe… Julia’s version calls for the addition of bacon, a note I found intriguing. However, she instructs you to boil the bacon for 10 minutes first before browning it for the stew. So there’s one dirty pot right off the bat. I’m not sure what the reasoning is – if anyone owns a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are there any liner notes of explanation?? I seem to recall something about making the flavor of the bacon less overwhelming, as if that’s a BAD thing? Anyway, not one to argue with the master, I boiled. Then browned. No biggie, I suppose.

A useful tip I learned – dry your meat completely with paper towels before browning it in oil or fat. I don’t think I’ve ever done this before, and it really did make a huge difference. The meat browned up quickly and beautifully, leaving behind tons of those yummy brown bits on the bottom of the pan that eventually incorporate into your sauce and make it that much better.

So I browned the meat, then the vegetables. Keep in mind, you’re constantly removing whatever you’ve just cooked to another dish while you prepare the rest. More dirty dishes. But that’s ok. Once everything is browned, you dump it all into your casserole dish. Then you pour your red wine and stock into the browning pan, scraping up every bit of those brown bits as you go. Pour the sauce over the meat and veg, cover it and throw it in the oven for about two hours. When it comes out, the meat is almost obscenely tender and the sauce smells so good, you’ll want to dab a little behind each ear. Mix in some sauteed mushrooms and there ya go. Not exactly a user-friendly dish, but wow, is it good.

Last week, hubby was returning from a business trip and I decided boeuf bourguignon would be a nice way to welcome him home. He was still a little pissed off that I included onions in my first version for the gals, immediately disqualifying him from any leftovers. Not that there were any… This time, however, I took a few short cuts. For starters, there wouldn’t be any onions to chop or worry about. I also decided to make the whole dish in the crock pot. I still had to boil the bacon and brown everything on the stove top, but with the crock pot, I knew I could let it go for awhile in case hubby’s flight was delayed and not worry about anything overcooking. I dare say it was every bit as good as the traditional method.

Julia suggests serving the stew with boiled potatoes, but even after four years of marriage, hubby still doesn’t trust me to boil potatoes (he’s Irish, what can I say?). I opted for buttered egg noodles instead. The overall effect turned out to be a fabulously rich beef and noodles. We froze the scant leftovers and I zapped a portion for myself tonight in the microwave. Nice thing about stews, they reheat perfectly.

So if you’ve got a few hours and a bunch of pots and pans, I recommend this recipe. You can easily find it online, and I have to say, it really is worth the trouble. Make Julia proud.

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around

Boeuf Bourguignon over noodles, second time around