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Monday, December 31, 2012

Cooking-In the New Year

To ring out the old year -- which I will, for the most part, be happy to see go -- I've been making recipes from the cookbooks I received for Christmas: The Tuscan Sun Cookbook by Francis Mayes, and Ten Dollar Dinners by Melissa d'Arabian. Today it was "Onion Soup in the Arezzo Style," from TSC.  This "soup" sounded so decadent-yet-easy that I had to try it.  The book says that it's even better the second day, so I halved the recipe and made a helping for both today's lunch and tomorrow's.  I'd have to eat it all myself because my 12-year-old wants nothing to do with onions and in this case there's no way to disguise them.  Poor me...

The Arezzo onion soup layers slices of bread, cheese and onions cooked in stock for a thick, rich dish that's perfect for a winter day.  As a...worshiper of Mayes and "Under the Tuscan Sun," I'm not going to risk infringing on her copyright by giving the recipe here, but I will show you what I did.

I started with 3 thinly sliced onions.  I broke out the mandoline slicer, and while not necessary, it sure was quick.

I let the onions cook in butter for about ten minutes, then added 2 cups of stock and let them cook, covered, for another ten.  I used homemade turkey stock because I had LOTS in my freezer, but chicken or vegetable stock would work fine, too.

Meanwhile, I greased two deep ramekins, and put a slice of bread in each.  The recipe calls for the soup to be assembled in one large baking dish, but I wanted to try this for portion control.

Then, I layered soup, a slice of cheese, more bread, more soup, and parmesan. The recipe calls for an Italian cheese, of course, but I used muenster because it's what I could get in a small town on short notice.

Finally, into a 350 oven.  Thirty minutes later...

The soup was puffy, bubbling and delicious! Mi piace!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Happy Accidents of Culinary Discovery

I certainly had plenty to be grateful for on Thanksgiving Day this year, but the holiday weekend itself gave me even more, thanks to a few culinary discoveries made in the course of turkey-day dinner, using up leftovers and kicking off the Christmas season.

The first discovery was prompted by what could have been a disaster.  My family had gathered at my sister’s home in Pittsburgh, and late in the turkey roasting several of us heard the sizzling sounds of the bird’s juices suddenly get louder.  It occurred to us that this wasn’t a good thing, but we weren’t sure until smoke started coming up through the stovetop.  My valiant brothers-in-law opened the oven and smoke billowed out, a harbinger of disaster that smelled delicious.  Evidently the slits in the roasting bag intended to vent steam had been made too low, so just before the timer went off, our bird runneth over.
The turkey was fine, but the mishap led to the first Thanksgiving discovery: smoked mashed potatoes. While the turkey bubbled up in the large, lower oven, the smaller oven right above it was on warming duty, and two crocks of mashed potatoes were exposed to that turkey smoke.  After two bites, it occurred to me that figuring out how to recreate smoked mashies without ruining the oven might have to become my life’s work. So far all I’ve come up with is to heat a metal pan to screaming hot in the oven next to the dish of potatoes, then add stock to the pan and close the door quick, but I’m wide open to suggestions.
The second discovery came several days later, as I attempted to liven up some leftover turkey.  A reader had recommended a new product from Maumee's Walt Churchill’s Market: a sweet-hot honey chipotle sauce, with the added benefit of being packed in a jar with its own spout.  An exclusive partnership between Toledo's own Owens-Illinois and the Market, the “Versaflow” jar helped keep my slapdashy cooking from getting downright sloppy – no spilled sauce while pouring – and the sauce was yummy even to me, despite the fact that I’m spicy-food challenged.  I thinned some with a little turkey stock and added the chopped turkey to heat it all through, then got inspired and added a handful of golden raisins.  Served over rice, which was also cooked in turkey stock, it was a hit with me and my 12-year-old daughter, who admiringly described it as tasting “kind of foreign.”  I think she meant foreign in the “exotic” sense, which is exactly the way I’d describe this sauce: exotic, flavorful-yet-versatile.  I tried it again a couple of nights later while making discovery number three: pizza cones.

The pizza cone kit was my daughter’s birthday gift from her aunt Katy, a whimsical, creative present I was confident wouldn’t work.  Cut, fold and crimp pizza dough, then slip it on the cone form?  No way.  Dough sticks, right?  Oh me of little faith.  We got the dough on the metal cones, which have such a great finish nothing could stick, baked them for six minutes, then set them right-side-up in their holders and started filling them with toppings.  My daughter skipped sauce altogether in favor of just cheese and pepperoni; I spread the honey chipotle sauce inside my cone and filled it with onions, fresh tomatoes, kalamata olives and cheese.  Another five minutes in the oven and we had…pizza cones!  I don’t know who came up with this crazy concept, but ours were crazy delicious and lots of fun to make.  If you’re still on the hunt for a kids’ gift, I recommend a pizza cones kit. Ours came from Sur la Table (www.surlatable.com), and last time I checked they were on sale for $11.99.  The only downside is that with one kit you can only make two cones at a time, so at that price, you might want to pick up two.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Foodie Fun on a Budget

Being a single foodie can be a little inconvenient – you’ve got one less person to cook for at home, and no ready companion to go out with. But I have learned from recent experience that being a single foodie is nothing compared to being an unemployed foodie. Because I am, as one of my professors once put it, "not shy," I am willing to go to food and wine events alone, but if I can’t afford to go, then I’m staying home. All the time. As you may have guessed, however, an unexpectedly jobless single mom really needs an occasional diversion, which has led yours truly to ferret out some affordable foodie fun.

Late last December I stopped at the Anderson’s Market (Sylvania, Ohio) after a long and unintended absence, to pick up some gift wine. I was determined, due to my budgetary circumstances, to only buy what I went in for, so I made a point of walking with my head down to avoid being tempted by any other goodies. Fortunately, on my way out I lifted my eyes long enough to spot the store’s events calendar, and what I found there was like a little gift just for me: baking classes, cooking classes, cheese chat! I started picking up fliers like they were twenty-dollar bills blowing down the sidewalk, and when I got home I compared the event dates to my master calendar. (That’s a little joke. My "master" calendar is just a big empty hanging on the wall.)

A few weeks later, my daughter and I claimed a couple of seats right down front at January’s Saturday morning baking class, "Desserts," with guest pastry chef Brandi Phillips. For $8.50 each, we learned to make – and perhaps more importantly got to sample – two kinds of mousse, baked Alaska with strawberry sauce, chocolate truffles and an "Elvis Napoleon," a version of the classic dessert with banana and peanut butter added, to make it fit for The King. We also got lots of great tips from Chef Brandi, including one I was able to put into practice just a couple of weeks later: warm your egg whites in a double boiler before you try to whip them. How do you keep from ending up with scrambled egg whites, you ask? I did too.

"These are great tools," the chef said, holding up her hands. "Use your hand to keep the whites moving in the bowl. They’ll warm more evenly and you’ll be able to take them off before they get too hot."

In addition to the goodies and three hours of good advice, class attendees got the recipes for every delicious creation.

Two other recent epicurean excursions were Michigan events, both easy drives from Toledo and both easy on the wallet. Blissfield’s Hathaway House restaurant kicked off February with Wine Tasting Wednesday, featuring five French wines, knowledgeable representatives from the vineyard and the distributor, and overflowing trays of hors d’oeuvres that were refreshed all evening. Attendees got all of this – in a beautiful setting – plus a $10 gift certificate for a return visit to the Hathaway House, for just $15 a ticket. It’s no wonder attendance was nearly three times what the restaurant expected.

The Boulevard Market in Tecumseh, a treasure trove of artisanal cheeses and other gourmet specialties, closed-out February with its first "Stinky Cheese Fest," a $10 event that entitled ticket holders to unlimited wine and cheese tastings and featured a Mac & Cheese Cook-off. The Stinky Cheese Fest was just the latest of the Market’s offerings, which include food shows that spotlight local specialty food purveyors, and a regular calendar of cooking classes and demonstrations.

When I had a job I wasn’t exactly raking it in, but food was my hobby, so I was willing to pay to attend events where I’d taste and learn new things. I wasn’t particularly a bargain hunter when it came to groceries, either – I was lucky to get something palatable on the table, so my primary concern back then was not ruining some precious ingredient I’d paid a premium for. But now, I’m always on the lookout for a deal: the bi-annual one-day meat sale at my local grocery, Sofo’s customer appreciation days and Aldi in general. One of the very unexpected and very few perks of being unemployed, it turns out, is that it has made me a more creative foodie – an asset in a pursuit referred to as the culinary arts.

Want to know more about the venues mentioned? Visit these websites:

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Celebrating Slapdash Success

A couple of weeks ago I observed, briefly, the first anniversary of becoming the lone adult in my household. It’s still a painful memory, but that event was the impetus for my cooking journey, and in marking it I realized that over the past year I’ve made some real progress in my new role in the kitchen. They’ve all been baby steps, but even baby steps get you somewhere eventually, right?

At first I worked in the kitchen as my husband had left it and did things the way he’d done them, but as I was pressed into regular service I started making discoveries about how I do things, and how I wanted my kitchen to work. Then I found, when I mentioned some of my techniques and timesavers to others, that no, not everyone had thought of that, and a number of people said they’d be adopting some of my ideas as their own. So, although it seems a little absurd to me, the until-recently non-cook, here are some of the kitchen ideas and observations that have helped me get through the last year, offered with the hope that they might be helpful to some of you.

Prep for success: Chop, pour and measure every ingredient in your recipe before you touch a pan or turn on a burner. Some of this prep can be done hours in advance, and will pay off in a far less frantic cooking process.

Take inventory: Knowing what you already have to work with can save you time and money. If you no longer remember what all is in your freezer or pantry, take a few minutes to sort through, then make a list of what you find. I keep mine on the freezer door, and update it as I use or add items. You might be surprised by the number of complete meals you can put together with groceries you’d forgotten about.

Prioritize: Decide which ingredients or dishes are worth making from scratch, and which ones modern culinary technology can provide for you. If you enjoy focusing on entrées but have no interest in salads, pick up some coleslaw at the deli or a bag of Caesar salad in the produce department. Refrigerated dough products like pie crust allow you to get straight to the fun stuff, and are even sanctioned by celeb chefs including Guy Fieri and Paula Deen.

Freeze for speed: Pre-cook recipe components, package them as single or family-sized servings and freeze them for use later. Cooked chicken is a staple in my freezer, as is cooked rice. When packaging meat for freezing –whether cooked or uncooked – individually wrap chicken breasts, pork chops and the like before throwing them all into a large freezer bag. This keeps the pieces from freezing into a clump of more meat than you need.

Stock up: As long you’re pre-cooking that chicken for the freezer, buy it on the bone and make chicken stock at the same time.

You can’t have too many go-to tools: If you’re constantly reaching for your tongs, have 3 or 4 pairs on hand so you don’t have to stop what you’re doing to wash your only pair. Discount stores often sell serviceable kitchen tools that are cheap enough to stock up on.

Cook on your countertop: Small counter-top ovens – souped-up versions of toaster ovens – preheat quickly, can accommodate an 8"x8" pan, and offer a variety of cooking functions including, in some cases, convection bake. These can be a real time saver and are great for singles or small families.

Have fun: I’ve enjoyed my time in the kitchen a lot more since I stopped thinking of every meal as a life-or-death event. Stuff happens, but rarely is an entire meal ruined by one or two slip ups. Start with a slapdash outlook, and more often than not you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the results.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

Five quirky - even Slapdashy - wine buying tips you can actually remember

I found this article on a local wine blog yesterday, and I'm sharing it everywhere I can.  If you are influenced by high points raitings but you're not familiar with "age-worthiness" (as I certainly wasn't), you'll appreciate tip #2.  Check it out!


Friday, October 7, 2011

Tuna, by any other name

Dinner last night was sort of a walk down memory lane for me.  I didn't make grandma's best recipe or a longstanding family favorite; I made the dish that my preschooler enthusiastically ate -- even asked for -- because of what I called it.  Last night, my daughter Rosalie and I had "Creamy Noodles and Peas," known to the rest of the world as Tuna Noodle Casserole.

As a pair of foodies, Rosalie's dad and I were eager that she not be a picky eater, and we largely achieved that -- at 10 she will specifically request a sushi dinner, fight you for the last serving of asparagus, and has been eating hummus since she could chew pita bread.  That was the key, of course: early exposure to a variety of foods, and a refusal to make one meal for her and another for us -- she ate what we ate.  But when I feared a "weird" name or red-flag ingredient would make her resistant to trying something new, I just renamed it.  So, when she was four or five and I found a tuna casserole recipe I thought even I -- a tuna hater -- would like, I laid the groundwork for a successful launch: Creamy Noodles and Peas.

In the intervening years, Rosalie would tell us regularly that she didn't like tuna, and ask regularly for Creamy Noodles and Peas.  Over time, though, the casserole kind of dropped off the radar, until  Rosalie asked recently, "Mom, why don't we have Creamy Noodles and Peas anymore?"  So, we did.

Within the last year or so Rosalie announced that she DOES like tuna, which was when I dropped the bomb about Creamy Noodles and Peas.  She just shrugged.  No harm done.  But we still don't call it "tuna" anything.

Tuna Noodle Casserole, aka Creamy Noodles and Peas
From the cookbook Lickety-split Meals by Zonya Foco

In the universe of tuna casserole recipes, this is not the most exotic or unusual, and it's gourmet fare only in the most "slapdash" sense of the word.  It is a super-easy (even I can do it), low-calorie version that I nevertheless like better than any other I've ever had.  It is supposed to serve four, but was always enough for six servings in our house.  Because I'm only cooking for two now, I mixed up everything but the noodles, then put half the mixture in the freezer for another time.  The one I made didn't suffer for the quantity change but did take about the same amount of time to bake.  --A

1 can reduced-fat cream of mushroom soup
1 soup can of skim milk
1 can (6 oz) water-packed tuna
1 tsp onion flakes (or just chop some onion; this recipe is very flexible)
1/2 tsp dill
1/4 cup parmesan cheese (shaker cheese in the green can is fine)
1 1/2 cups frozen peas
3 cups uncooked pasta or noodles (I use noodles)

1. Mix all ingredients except noodles in a casserole dish
2. Add noodles and mix gently until every noodle has been coated by the tuna mixture.  Some of them will stick up above the surface of the liquid so they at least need to be "wet."
3. Cover and bake at 375 degrees for 50 minutes.  When it's finished baking, take the casserole out and let it stand uncovered for a minute or two to thicken up before serving.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

It's all in the timing

I'm not the only one who has trouble having the whole meal ready at the same time, am I?  Can I get an "amen"?  I continue to be amazed by cooks who can get all the dishes to the table hot, at the same time, and when it's all tasty, too....  Well, then they're just show-offs. 

I have a long way to go on this score, and I never correctly anticipate which item will trip me up.  Tonight I made seared scallops and rice -- Rice-a-roni, to be perfectly honest -- and I of course thought the delicate and expensive scallops would be the tricky part, even though I had cooked them successfully once before.  But no.  I messed up the Rice-a-roni.

"Messed up" may be too strong a term, but it was definitely not the loose, saucy side dish that my mom used to make.  Probably because I have a big, honkin' professional stove -- from the days of the resident chef, you know -- the recommended cooking time on the package had no bearing on the results at my house.  It turns out "Cover and simmer for 15 to 18 minutes" will yield a sauceless, somewhat sticky pan of rice even when the heat is as low as it goes.  So, the rice was ready too early, already dry AND had to wait on the stove.  But, it wasn't inedible, so we ate it.  My daughter even had seconds.  I should probably focus on that.

An earlier attempt at scallops
 The scallops, on the other hand, were wonderful.  I found these flash-frozen sea scallops on sale at Kroger a month or so ago, and I've been really impressed.  One bag equals one meal for my 10-year-old and I, or two for me alone when she's sleeping over with a friend or visiting her dad, and I paid $9.99.  Considering I paid $11+ for the two of us at McDonalds recently, that seems like a pretty good value, and it sure is a nice change from chicken.

ANYWAY, I seared the scallops in butter -- very hot pan, 4 minutes on one side and 2 or 3 on the other (I use the timer for the 4 minutes and go by feel after I turn them).  Now, here's the part where I feel kinda' smart.  Even I know that when you cook protein in a pan you'll get a lot more flavor if you deglaze the pan and use the resultant liquid drizzled over some or all of the meal.  So, I was prepared, and by the time I took the scallops out there was a LOT of fond -- the brown stuff stuck to the bottom of the pan.  First I poured in the liquor from the scallops (what was left in the bag when I took the scallops out.  It's a surprising amount).  I scraped the fond loose, then added some chicken stock, let it reduce a little, and stirred in a pat of butter.  It was like a textbook example of a pan sauce, and it tasted great!

So, overall, dinner was a success.  The rice was ready too early, and over done, but maybe I should give myself points for choosing a side that doesn't make you want to cry when it comes out a little dry.  Ruining the scallops would have been a lot worse than sticky Rice-a-roni.