Sunday, October 30, 2011

'Twas the Night Before Halloween

You know, I was getting good and riled up about how all the stores want to skip directly to Christmas. I'd been making snide comments about the neighbors that have hung their holiday lights up when it's not even the end of October. But now Mother Nature's in on it all, blanketing the area in wet, heavy snow. Come on! How am I supposed to enjoy fall when even the environment conspiring to brush past fall and bring on the jingle bells?

Well, I'm not going quietly folks. Here's a list of Halloween-y dinner suggestions just in case you want to fight too.

First Course Options:

Sweet Potato Soup - make it cuter and more festive by using a witch on a broomstick cookie cutter to cut pieces of toast. Place on the soup to make it look like she's flying in front of the Harvest Moon.

Creepy Carrot Fingers - from stellacarolyn over at My Family Table.
Just in case gruesome is how you like your vegetables.

Main Dishes (Ranging From Simply Seasonal to Super Spoooooky):

Butternut Squash Lasagna - So delicious and decadent. No tricks here, it's all a treat.

Butternut Squash Mac and Cheese - Worried the kiddos will OD on candy with nary a vegetable in sight? This tastes rich and creamy, there's no need to mention all of the squashy goodness.

Fresh Fettucine with Butternut Squash - Sophisticated and sweet!

Mummy Meatloaf - stellacarolyn always does Halloween right, this time with a recipe from epicurious.

Side Dishes:

Ghostie Potatoes - doubtless the most adorable thing you can serve on Halloween. Another of stellacarolyn's amazing Halloween creations!

Frankenpeppers - stellacarolyn's menacing vegetable and pasta sides.

Eyeball cupcakes - Heading to a school Halloween party? You still have time to whip these up. Boxed cake mix + canned frosting and a smidge of effort will have stellacarolyn's cupcakes making you the hit of the afternoon.

Pumpkin snickerdoodles -simple, homey and perfect with a cup of cider.

Halloween sugar cookies - Not for the faint of heart, these sugar cookies will take up a lot of your time. But they're ridiculously fancy looking if you need to impress.

Tarantula cookies - I know plenty of people who'd leave a party if these were served. Which is fine. More for the rest of us, I say. Another stellacarolyn Halloween treat.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

My Newest Old Love: Sara Moulton's Back!

I am finished with the Food Network. Oh I watch the channel, I even get sucked into to their "Next Food Network Star" programming. Sadly, this leads to watching the show of the next "Star" (which is in quotes for a very good reason) and wishing that you were the kind of lush who plays drinking games on a Sunday morning because "chef's" narration is largely telling me to take some of this "here" and a bit of that "there" until I don't know the difference between the two anymore.

But that's all over now. I have a new love: Sara's Weeknight Suppers. Back in the day, I used to watch Sara Moulton, on what had to be one of the first call-in cooking shows (Cooking Live, if you are old enough to remember). Then the Food Network decided to trade chefs for "talent" and I spent years watching inferior shows. But now, my local PBS station is rescuing me from getting sloshed before lunch. Sara Moulton has a new show, oh glory Hallelujah.

Why I love this show:
1. Sara Moulton actually knows how to cook. CIA trained. Executive chef for Gourmet magazine.
2. She gives helpful tips (the marinade will permeate the meat faster if you leave it all on the counter instead of putting it in the fridge).
3. She knows me. In the first episode she was making four meals out of two, by repurposing the leftovers (and not by making two disgusting meals, as Robin Miller would have you do). She mentioned exactly how happy you'd be when you get home at 6 o'clock and realize you already have dinner mostly made. If I found two already cooked lamb chops in the fridge I'd think the damn food fairy came.
4. She doesn't try to bullshit you. She made nachos for dinner. With a disclaimer that she couldn't believe she was trying to pass this off as a recipe, but on a Friday night, who really cares anymore. At no point did she try to tell you that your nachos would be the centerpiece of a Cinco de Mayo feast that would be so Yum-O that your neighbors would anoint you with EVOO for being the one true queen of Mexican cuisine.
5. Her recipes work and are delicious. Case in point, these chickens. Loved the chickens Sara.
6. She really doesn't seem like an asshole and is pro-women in the workplace. Unlike some other chefs talent I could name.

So come on over, be converted. You don't need that Food Network cable crap. Just good old public programming and you can learn to love cooking shows again too!

adapted from Sara's Weeknight Meals

2 boneless skinless chicken breasts
zest of one lemon
1/2 t salt
1 t oregano
black pepper
1/8 t water
extra virgin olive oil
for a super quick pan sauce: 2 T butter and a dash of white wine

Trim your chicken breasts and remove the tenderloins. Add a drizzle of olive oil, lay a bit of plastic wrap over the chicken and pound until uniformly thin (maybe about as thin as a tenderloin). In a small bowl, combine the lemon zest, salt, oregano, a few turns of the pepper grinder and the water. Using the back of the spoon, mash it up until it forms a paste. Rub the olive oil that you drizzles onto the chicken before all over the breasts, adding a teaspoon more if needed. Then divide the rub evenly between the two breasts. Carefully rub this all over the chicken. Don't leave clumps because it will be very strong. I put the rub on my tenderloins too. Then set it all aside to sit for 30 minutes. Right before you're ready, add 2 teaspoons olive oil to a pan and heat to medium high. Add your breasts and tenderloins and cook 3-5 minutes a side (the tenderloins will need less the breasts may need more depending on how thin you pounded them). If you are making in a pan and want a super quick pan sauce, remove the chicken to plates, add 2 T butter and a dash of white wine, let it burble, scrape off the chickeny bits that are stuck to the pan and pour it over. Delicious.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Unholy Revelation

This past week, my father was diagnosed with Celiac disease. On the grand list of things that could be wrong with a person, it's not really that bad. But it's not fair. And I don't think I'm taking a too small and self-centered view of things to say that it's less fair for my father. My father loves food, passionately, nearly fanatically. It should tell you something that when I was reading Jeffery Steingarten's book The Man Who Ate Everything and I got to the part where he's checking the codes on ketchup bottles to find the ones that were bottled in summer when tomatoes are at their freshest, that I was reminded of my father. He has that level of intensity about food. The bread at the local supermarket isn't up to his standards, so he special orders it. They know him in the bakery department. How is someone who thinks most lovely, gluten packed breads aren't up to snuff supposed to get by with a substitute? It's just plain old not fair.

We are very lucky in that I happen to know quite a few people who are very knowledgeable about the subject and who shared a ton of resources with me that I could pass along to my parents. But it's not going to be an easy transition. Clearly, my mother is going to have to learn to bake all over again and I don't plan on letting her do it alone.

As a starting place, I've gone through and marked recipes on this blog as gluten-free. Some will need you to check labels carefully, but if you're cooking for someone with Celiac disease, that shouldn't be anything new. As I try out new recipes that are gluten-free (and don't suck) I promise to share them, and tag them. I'll also be experimenting with substitutions in my current recipes. I have quite a few that use flour only as a thickening agent, which should be an easy thing to fix, but I don't feel comfortable advising how to best switch the thickener until I've tried it myself.

Since I'm a complete amateur at this, feel free to let me know if there's any information or labeling that doesn't seem right.

I have faith that in time my mother and I will be able to produce baked goods that are up to snuff, but I hope my father's tastebuds survive the journey.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Pink Elephants On Parade

Another year, another baby shower, another set of sugar cookies! This time, pink elephants were the star of the show.

Sugar Cookie Logistics:
Start with this recipe.

I tend to do this over two days. Either make the dough and bake one night, then ice the next or make the dough one night and bake plus ice the next. All in one night will drain you!!

You can dye the dough to make cute cookies with less icing. Keep in mind that butter cookie dough has a yellow cast and therefore blues can have a greenish, unappetizing cast (ask me about the blue elephants I didn't photograph for you).

The dough needs to be C-O-L-D when you work with it. If you have it out too long it will stick to your counter or rolling mat and you'll lose your hard work.

Ideally, the baking sheets should cool between each batch. A failure to do this will mean your cookies could have random bubbling. I am lazy and don't care. But if you're going to go fancy, you very well might.

I've never had trouble with this recipe spreading. If you usually have trouble with spreading, try this one. If you still have trouble, let me know. I'm really curious.

You must pull the cookies before they brown. You might think they're underdone, but they look so ugly when they start to brown. Act quickly!

Icing Logistics:

I use meringue powder for safety reasons, especially when baking for a baby shower. Real royal icing means raw egg whites. Ew.

Most meringue powder has its own recipe printed on the container. Mine calls for four cups of confectioner's sugar. I could probably coat every surface in my kitchen with that amount of icing. I made a quarter recipe for the detail work on about 4 dozen cookies. If you're flooding (covering the whole surface of the cookie), you may want a much larger amount, but if you're only piping on details (much easier to do well if you're a beginner), don't do it. Unless you have some holes that need spackling.

If you make a quarter recipe, like I did, you'll really want a hand mixer, not a stand mixer. It doesn't have enough volume for your stand mixer to really work with. (Yes, I've held the bottom bowl up so that the mixing attachment could actually mix it, but it's a much bigger pain that you want to deal with).

If you're flooding, you need two consistencies of icing, a thick and a thinner. Do the thick first, then when you've done the details, use water to thin out the remaining icing.

Use a ziploc bag to pipe. It's cheap and accessible. You can use a knife to poke out the bottom hole or a pair of scissors to snip. You want a TINY hole. Much easier to control that way. I usually fill the bag and dye the icing first and then snip.

It's easiest to fill the ziploc bag if you put it in a glass. Think trash bag. So pop the ziploc in a cup and arrange the edges over the side. Then the glass will hold it up for you while you pour in your icing. You can even do your dying then and stir it around with a spoon, and only squish the sealed bag to evenly distribute the colors.

A little goes a long way when it comes to color. Also, plan ahead. If you want blue icing and green, then make the blue first, use it and then add your yellow dye to that bag to make green.
Also, I'd rather run out of a color and have to dye more of the base icing than have an excess of pink and nowhere to use it. I dye each color as I need it rather than making the colors in advance.

If you trace the cookie cutter onto paper, you can use a pencil to plan your design so you know about where the eyes should go or if a tail makes it look like the elephant is pooping (hint, yes, it does).

Unless you're perfect, you'll have a couple of substandard cookies. Ice these first. You can keep them, rather than bring them to your event or serve them at your party, but it won't matter if you wreck them and it will help you get in a rhythm for icing and try out new ideas.

Icing can be really tiring. I do it sitting down at the dining room table. I find I have a steadier hand and better stamina when I sit.

Make sure you let the icing dry completely before putting the cookies away! You don't want your hard work to go to waste!

Monday, October 10, 2011

Not Just a Side Dish

It seems the men in my life, despite (because of?) being hearty eaters are a bit particular about what constitutes dinner. Sample cases:

Soup - Doesn't count as dinner unless it has a filling side. This has evolved into a game of culinary chicken. Will I break first and make something to go with the soup? Or will I stay strong and force Ryan to forage and make himself something to go with the soup?

Salad - Ah, salad. It's like gambling. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose. With Ryan the odds are in my favor. Salad will count. With my father, it's betting a longshot. You might get lucky, but chances are you're just wasting your time.

Macaroni and cheese has always been a side dish in these parts. Without meat or its own side dish, I just couldn't get it to pass for dinner. Luckily my mom has years of experience trying to get meals past my father. With just a few tasty additions, mac and cheese can appear in the starring role.


1 1/2 oz bacon (this was about 2-3 strips)
8 oz sliced baby bella or button mushrooms
1 C frozen peas
1/2 lb elbow macaroni
1 T flour
3 T butter
1/2 C milk (whole milk is best, but any will do)
1 T mustard (I use whatever I can grab first)
1 1/2 C grated cheddar cheese

Set a pot of water to boil for the macaroni. Chop the bacon into smallish bacon bits - maybe 1/4" squares? Eyeball it, do not measure with a ruler or anything picky like that. Cook in a fry pan over medium high heat for 3-5 minutes until it is crisp. Remove from the pan and set aside. Retain some of the fat in the pan (pour off some if it looks like a ton). Add the mushrooms, sprinkle with salt and cook for 5-7 minutes until golden and tender. I often add a splash of balsamic. It's up to you. Then add the peas and cook for another 3-5 minutes.

When the water boils:
When it reaches a rolling boil, toss in the pasta and cook until done 8-10 minutes. Drain, and set the pasta aside in the colander. In the pan you made the pasta in, melt the butter and add the flour. Mix well and cook on very low heat for about four minutes. Turn off the heat and add the milk and the mustard. Whisk to blend. Return to heat. I always add back the cheese and cooked macaroni alternately, stirring to combine in between each addition. Then add the mushrooms, peas and bacon. Fancy.


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