Sunday, November 30, 2014

My Year in Food: The Local & Maggiano's Little Italy, November 29, 2014

Our oldest boy, Boot, will turn 22 tomorrow. We were happy he could come for Thanksgiving this year, not only because he was here for the holiday, but because we could take him out for his birthday, too. We actually ended up taking him out twice yesterday, for lunch and dinner. Jeannene wanted to pick up a Christmas gift for me at The Rustbelt Market, so we stopped beforehand for lunch at The Local, just down the street from the market in Ferndale. We'd liked the look of it when we tried to eat there a couple weeks ago & were happy to get the chance. It's got a casual, funky atmosphere and we were lucky enough to be seated by the wood burning fireplace. Our waitress was great, really friendly & attentive.

The menu was not extensive, by any means, containing a few breakfast items in one column and a few lunch items in another column. Boot and I both opted for the Cuban, while Jeannene had a cheeseburger with white cheddar. We all ordered the Awesome Potatoes, which were basically cube-style home fries and were cooked perfectly. I was a little disappointed that they didn't include peppers & onions, which I thought would really have enhanced them, but they were delicious with ketchup. My Cuban, while not completely authentic, was closer to a Miami Cuban than many I've had up north. It was on ciabatta and wasn't really pressed, but it also didn't feature a lot of weird offshoots, instead of plain old ham, pork, Swiss, & pickles. I have learned to drop my expectations and, thus, found my sandwich quite yummy. The bite I had of Jeannene's burger was terrific. I'd also considered the chilaquiles or the short rib hash. Perhaps on another visit.

In the evening, we had Pie & Bubbles join us for Italian at Maggiano's Little Italy. Boot had responded, when I asked him what he wanted for his birthday dinner, "Barbecue, beer, and whiskey!" So, I made plans for us to dine at Union Woodshop in Clarkston. However, by the time Boot arrived, he had started saying, "Or that Italian place. I love that place." By yesterday morning, it had become apparent that he really wanted to go there, as we did last year, for his birthday.

Maggiano's always feels festive, with a busy, chatty crowd and lots of laughter. During the holidays, it feels especially so. It seems like every other table holds a group exchanging gifts and drinking pretty cocktails. Poinsettias are everywhere and the Christmas tree sparkles. I've always found the food to be very good and the service likewise. Last night, we shared a special appetizer, pear and gorgonzola bruschetta, along with spinach and artichoke dip, Boot's favorite. The bruschetta was really wonderful. For my entree, I chose the fettucine alfredo, which is one of the entrees that, oddly, comes with a second entree to take home for later. My take-home choice was spaghetti with meat sauce. Their alfredo is not fabulous, it turns out. Perhaps I have become spoiled by learning to make it myself? They were quite heavy-handed with the garlic and not terribly generous with the parmesan, I think. I like garlic as much as the next guy, probably more, but I like to be able to taste more than just garlic, too.

Jeannene treated herself to veal parmesan, since she doesn't really get to make it at home. I am a little hypocritical, since I will eat other cows and other babies (lamb), but not baby cows. She absolutely loved it, said it reminded her of the veal parm she had when she was a kid, said it was perfectly prepared. Boot knew before he arrived that he wanted gnocchi alfredo with both Italian sausage and meatballs, which he had for his birthday last year, too. He devoured it, the whole enormous portion. Pie has long loved seafood and, being a young adult just starting out on his own, never misses an opportunity to order something he, personally could not afford, so he got the linguine di mare, featuring mussels, clams, shrimp, and lobster. I am not much of a seafood fan, but it was fun to see his eyes light up when his food arrived! Pie has always been our more experimental eater and I am so happy that he remains interested in eating different kinds of foods. Bubbles met us there about halfway through the meal, once she got off work. I hated the idea of her not eating and she turned down Pie's offer to share, so she ended up having alfredo, too, when I set my bowl down in front of her. I'd had plenty and I knew she would eat it if it was put in front of her. She also had Jeannene's spaghetti with marinara. Because it was Boot's birthday celebration, although we were not remotely hungry for dessert, they did bring us some lovely little crescent-shaped, iced lemon cookies. What a nice gesture---and I love lemon!

My Year in Food: Cheese & Crackers, November 28, 2014

I opted not to go out Black Friday shopping. I always opt not to go out Black Friday shopping, actually. Jeannene & Boot went while I stayed home, worked on my zine, and started on our Christmas letter, all while enjoying my first dose of Christmas music for the year and drinking Candy Cane Lane tea. What a relaxing day, after over a week of holiday prep for two big dinners with large amounts of guests.

Jeannene & Boot had a late lunch at Applebee's, where Pie's girlfriend works, and were, thus, not hungry when dinner time rolled around. I wasn't hungry enough to fix any supper (not even leftovers), so we ended up just noshing on leftover cheeses from Thanksgiving appetizers, with crackers and fruit. Hard to object to a dinner of cheese, crackers, and fruit. It's one of my favorites, in fact!

What's your favorite casual not-really-dinner?

Saturday, November 29, 2014

My Year in Food: Thanksgiving, November 27, 2014

Last year, my Aunt Miyoko and Uncle Tom in Ann Arbor hosted our family Thanksgiving gathering. This year, it was our turn. I love hosting holiday dinners and was delighted to have the family come to our house for the first time! There were 18 of us, aunties & uncles & cousins, and there is never enough time to spend with them, so it was great, great, great to be together.

Our family has a long-standing tradition of everyone bringing at least one dish. When I issued the invite, I was asked what I wanted each person to bring. I hate to dictate what people bring, but some folks have certain foods I just have to have them bring. For example, when my Uncle Jim asked what they could bring with them from Cleveland, Jeannene and I instantly knew we wanted them to bring Gloria Hardingtons. Glorias are something I've had at just about every gathering on my Aunt Holly's side, an appetizer the family has been making ever since they got the recipe from realtor friend, Gloria Hardington. They have called them after her. They are basically equal amounts swiss and cheddar cheese, shredded and mixed with olives and just enough mayo to moisten the mixture. This is then spread on party rye and broiled until quite bubbly and browned. They are ridiculous. The first platter last night came out of the oven and vanished almost immediately. My wife was not in the room at the time and was quite disappointed in me for not saving her even one. Honestly, it didn't even occur to me that she wasn't in the room, even though she and I had been looking forward to Glorias ever since we knew they would be coming. I tried to look contrite as I licked my chops at the idea of a second platter of them, which Holly kindly made to pacify Jeannene.

My Cleveland family also texted me in the morning, saying they were bringing a vegetable, as well. I guess if you classify anything containing pumpkin as a vegetable, this was true. They brought Holly's mom's Slap Yo' Mama Cake, pumpkin version. Her mom once took it to a school function (June was a school teacher for years, and a very beloved one, a wonderful woman) and a woman there said it was so good, it'd make them slap your mama. Therefore, the cake gained its name. It was, indeed, fab! I need to get the recipe.

Speaking of pumpkin, my Auntie Amy is nearly always the bringer of the pumpkin pie. She makes it well and never minds making it for us. She also did an enormous pan of green bean casserole, at my request. Yum!

Turning to Tom & Miyoko, we immediately requested that they bring her pastries, which she used to sell at her restaurant, Cafe Japon, and now sells at the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market under the name Cafe Japon L'Esprit de Miyoko. Her chocolate croissants are the very best I've ever had, so we very specifically requested those. She brought her gorgeous baguettes, spinach rolls, cinnamon rolls, almond croissants, plain croissants---we were delighted to see the bounty.

My cousin, Nova, brought a gluten-free strawberry balsamic pie made by a friend of hers, along with a GF corn casserole and one with regular flour. Nova is always coming up with great, healthier versions of recipes everybody loves.

Our menu was this, then, with recipes for starred items listed available on my Practice Thanksgiving post.:
-Artisan cheese (Cabot clothbound cheddar, D'Affinois, Black Pepper Bellavitano, and Stilton with Apricot and Mango---all accompanied by crackers and apricot rosemary jam)
-My rosemary cayenne walnuts*
-Marcona almonds
-Jim & Holly's Glorias
-Lots & lots of pickles
-My orange-Marinated Castelvetrano olives*

Mains (both from Gooseberry Patch Fall, Family, and Friends):
-Roast Turkey with Sage Butter (made by me)
-Praline Mustard-Glazed Ham (made by Jeannene)

-Mashed Yukon Gold potatoes
-Sausage Pecan Dressing
-Kale Salad (recipe here)
-Cranberry sauce (I use the Ocean Spray recipe)
-Cranberry Yam Bake*

-Kahlúa Derby Pie*
-Pumpkin Pie
-Strawberry Balsamic Pie
-Miyoko's pastries
-My grandmom's raspberry Jell-o (with raspberries in it)

My Year in Food: Buffalo Wild Wings Redux, November 26, 2014

After having my dinner plans pre-empted Tuesday night (I'd just thrown our steaks in the freezer after I found out we were going out grocery shopping, knowing we'd be getting dinner out), I was really ready to cook Wednesday. I'd planned to make burgers with sour cream and herbs, crinkle fries, and spicy tossed veggies (cauliflower & broccoli). However, Jeannene had not gotten enough of the Buffalo Wild Wings Chipotle Cherry Sting and she was bringing Pie by to visit with his brother and have supper. The boys have always loved wings, so she arrived home with Pie and a huge box full of wings. I don't know how many she ordered or why she thought we would eat them all, but that was dinner, along with carrot & celery sticks. It's a good thing I eat some veggies & fruits earlier in the day, with the kinds of dinners we've been eating! We absolutely did not eat even half the wings she brought home, but it all worked out because Pie and Bubbles had 2 nights' worth of dinner to take home.

I am just itching to cook (something besides Thanksgiving food)! Perhaps after Boot has headed home?

My Year in Food: The Rochester Mills Beer Co, November 25, 2014

When Jeannene arrived home from work on Tuesday, she was ready to go poke around the grocery and see if there was anything interesting we wanted to add to our Thanksgiving feast. I still needed some fresh sage and we hoped to find some turkey-shaped butter, too. We went to Whole Foods first (and enjoyed the festive holiday lights at The Village of Rochester Hills) and enjoyed a Michigan craft beer (Jeannene) and a hot mint tea (me) as we walked around. Then, we went to Trader Joe's and  picked up a boxwood wreath for the front door and some ilex for me to add to it. We also sampled their scrumptious coffee + cocoa and bought a can of it. Next up was Busch's, where we found the kale for my kale salad.

By the time we were finished, Jeannene was terribly hungry, verging on hangry, and I knew I should feed her soon. Mostly, though, I think she just wanted to get home because she'd been at work quite early and also because our oldest was due in at 11 or so. She hates when I drag her all over the place to find something cool to eat. Even the wonderful lights in downtown Rochester didn't feel worth it, I don't think, to her and she was distinctly irked with me for dragging her to The Rochester Mills Beer Company However, once we had entered the restaurant & brewery, located inside a former knitting mill, she was pretty impressed. There were plenty of tables in the wood and brick dining room and she certainly liked the look of the stainless steel beer vats.

It was hard to decide which of all the delicious options to choose. We finally opted for buffalo mac & cheese bites for an appetizer. Mac & cheese bites are one of those things I always think are going to be terrific and which are almost always disappointing. The first time I ever had them was at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Avon, Ohio, and they were off the hook. I think they must have used seriously sharp cheddar for them, because they were so very flavorful. I have never yet had them that good again. Generally, they're depressingly blah. I thought the "buffalo" qualifier on these would help, but, unfortunately, these fell on the blah side of the line. Ah, well, didn't need the calories, fat, carbs anyway.

For dinner, Jeannene settled on shepherd's pie and I chose Hungarian goulash over spaetzle. The shepherd's pie was enormous and quite yummy! My goulash was quite good, as well, and the spaetzle were a nice touch. The German pasta seems to be a food trend these days. I'm seeing it in more and more restaurants, not all of which get it right. I've had some pretty gummy versions. This was well-executed. Once we'd eaten, Jeannene was very chipper and really enjoyed the Christmas lights outside, too! Now, she's trying to talk our oldest into going there tomorrow for his birthday dinner. He sounds like he'd really like to go to Maggiano's Little Italy, but Union Woodshop is a possibility, as well.

My Year in Food: Buffalo Wild Wings, November 24, 2014

To be completely honest, unless I'm really in the mood, I am not usually thrilled when my wife wants to go to Buffalo Wild Wings. Sure, I love playing the trivia game. But, let's face it, their menu is pretty limited and the food is not particularly stellar, for the most part. However, Jeannene was terribly late getting home and there aren't many places in town that have a kitchen open past 10 p.m. So, BW-3 (it used to be called Buffalo Wild Wings and Weck, thus the "3") it was. The funny thing is that this was probably the very first time I ever ate there without playing trivia.

Our waitress was very sweet and I felt badly for her, as her power was out due to the wild winds we'd had. There was nobody at all in the restaurant side and we weren't entirely sure the kitchen was open. Luckily, it was. I ordered mild boneless wings and mac & cheese. Jeannene decided to try their temporary sauce flavor, Chipotle Cherry Sting, on traditional wings. If you're a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I fully expected to hate that sauce flavor because of the sweet component. We traded wings and I was overcome with the urge to steal Jeannene's wings. They were truly yummy! We are hoping they make this flavor a permanent flavor. It has just enough heat to make it interesting and just enough sweet to soften it a bit. I continued eating my wings, but had some serious sauce envy. I never did get my mac & cheese. My son, who once worked there as a cook, tells me I didn't miss out on anything good at all, so I'm pretty happy I didn't get it. I didn't realize I hadn't gotten it until the next day!

What is your favorite place to get wings?

Monday, November 24, 2014

My Year in Food: Grilled Turkey & Cheese Sandwiches, November 23, 2014

Yesterday, my wife had to work unexpectedly. They'd been contending with a mechanical failure and she had to be in early to try and get it solved. She'd hoped she might be home by noon, so we could go out Christmas shopping. Unfortunately, it was not to be. By the time she arrived home from work, it was nearly time for her to go to bed so she could be in early again today. Neither of us were hungry for a big meal, so we kept it simple with grilled turkey and cheddar sandwiches on Pugliese bread and mixed fruit left over from Practice Thanksgiving. And it was wonderful!

My Year in Food: Practice Thanksgiving, November 22, 2014

My dear friend, Andi, is from a family that has a wonderful tradition this time of year. The weekend before Thanksgiving, they invite friends over for a Practice Thanksgiving. They've been doing this for decades. I've been invited, but have never gotten to attend. So, Jeannene and I decided we'd really like to do the same kind of thing. She also wanted to have her management group over for dinner, so we thought it'd be nifty to invite them for our own Practice Thanksgiving. It was so very much fun & the food was outstanding! I spent the week cleaning, cooking, and crafting and had a ball doing it! We have some serious foodies in the group and I think they had fun choosing dishes and creating them. We invited folks to bring either a traditional favorite or a creative twist on a classic dish, something they would like to play around with, but wouldn't necessarily serve on actual Thanksgiving.

I did a classic green bean casserole, a new favorite sweet potato dish with cranberries, an Indian-spiced turkey breast, a spiced cranberry sauce, rosemary cayenne walnuts, a cheese plate, marinated Castelvetrano olives, a derby pie with a twist, almond crack (at Jeannene's insistence) and crudités in the shape of a turkey, found on Pinterest. Except, I absolutely can't take credit for the last. I was going to do it, then Jeannene offered to be my sous chef. She got the veggies cut up and I was going to take over, but Ken is happiest with a task, so he offered. He did an absolutely wonderful job! I should add that his desire always to have a task led to his insisting on washing dishes, too, despite my protests---that's my kind of dinner guest!

Ken & Meghan love all things food & she especially loves to play with dessert-making. She found some really cool ideas on Pinterest and executed them impressively. She brought an amazing 3 layer pumpkin spice checkerboard cake, with "Happy Thanksgiving" spelled out in cookies on top and little turkey cookies around the sides. She made some adorable turkey cupcakes for the kids, too, with cookies and candy for decoration. She kept saying they didn't turn out right, but I thought they were completely cool! As for the main event, they did an orange-brined turkey, stuffing, gravy, and cheesy hash browns. Yum! They also brought appropriate wine and beer pairings, for which I was thankful, as I know next to nothing about wines or beers (although more, oddly, about beers, even though I don't touch the stuff). I did pick up a bottle of Beaujolais and a bottle of Prosecco, at least, and made a pot of hot spiced cider.

Kelvin & Pat brought an impressive platter of shrimp, surrounded with cheery lemon wedges and served with Kelvin's homemade spicy cocktail sauce. Pat made pumpkin brownies and half-apologized for the swirl not working out properly. Had she not mentioned it, it would not have occurred to me that they weren't exactly as they were supposed to be. People, stop apologizing for your food! Chances are, just as with flubbed lines in a play, nobody but you will realize the food is in any way flawed.

Glenn & Kim brought delicious old standbys, mashed potatoes and corn pudding. Mashed potatoes are one of those "It's not Thanksgiving without _______" dishes for me and their version was creamy and perfect. The corn pudding was awesome, too. I somehow missed it when I was fixing my plate, so I had to snag a spoonful with dessert.

Dang & Vi & their adorable kids brought a huge platter of spring rolls (fresh), one of egg rolls (fried, but in spring roll wrappers), from-scratch tiramisu, and a gorgeous fruit sculpture---a pineapple adorned with skewers of grapes, pineapple, and strawberries sticking out of it all around. I, for one, was especially excited to see the Vietnamese egg rolls. They took me back to my childhood, when our Vietnamese friends would come for holiday dinners and commence making egg roll after egg roll. I hung out in the kitchen and devoured as many as I could get away with snagging. Anh, Si Anh, and Mui were quite generous with their wares and I ended up burning my mouth and stuffing my belly every single time. But they were so good.

Frank & Connie brought cornbread stuffing with jalapeño and andouille, which was incredibly flavorful, and corn muffins with jalapeño, perfect for breakfast the next day. Frank loves to cook and it's always fun to see what he'll come up with. I am anxiously awaiting the recipe for the pork stew he brought to game night earlier this fall. They also brought bottles of Gewürztraminer & Riesling.

The cheeses we chose for our cheese plate were a Cabot Clothbound Cheddar, black pepper Bellavitano, Maytag blue, Cypress Grove Purple Haze, and Fromager d'Affinois, one of my favorite French double-cream cheeses. These were accompanied by Medjool dates (if you think you don't like dates, try these!), Marcona almonds, Castelvetrano olives (if you think you don't like olives, try these!) I'd marinated in olive oil with orange zest strips and red pepper flakes, and my rosemary cayenne walnuts,  from Laurie Colwin's recipe:

Rosemary Cayenne Walnuts
5 tbsp. butter
4 tsp. crushed rosemary
2 tsp. salt
1 tsp. cayenne
16 oz. walnut halves

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Melt the butter in a rimmed baking sheet. Add seasonings and toss with the walnuts. Spread out so the nuts are in one even layer. Bake 8-10 minutes. 

The idea for the turkey crudités came from Pinterest, which links to this page. I used red leaf lettuce and Ken subbed cranberries for the black olive eyes. I liked the cranberries much, much better! I think it turned out wonderfully!

The turkey breast turned out beautifully, with simply gorgeous color and very juicy. Jeannene and I toyed with making an Indian-spiced turkey for actual Thanksgiving, but decided to go with a more traditional, sage-infused version, instead. We have plans for another Indian-spiced turkey breast sometime this winter, though. 

Indian-Spiced Turkey Breast
2 c. Greek yogurt (you could use any plain yogurt, but I would go with full-fat for this. My favorite yogurt is Greek Gods and that's what I used for this, knowing I would be enjoying the rest with granola and fruit)
1 onion, chopped
5 cloves garlic
A 1" knob of ginger, peeled and sliced
Juice of 1 lemon
2 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. cumin
1 tsp. coriander
1/2 tsp. cayenne
1/2 tsp. cinnamon
8.5 lb. bone-in turkey breast, with skin (you could do a smaller one and simply adjust cooking time as needed)
Salt & pepper
3 tbsp. butter, melted (you could sub olive oil or ghee)

Purée all the ingredients up to the turkey in a blender or food processor. Rub on turkey and under skin, in a large bowl. Cover and refrigerate 24 hours. Remove from fridge about an hour before roasting. Preheat oven to 475 degrees. Put turkey in roaster, skin-side up. If you discover, as I did, that your rack has gone missing between uses, you can wad up a bunch of aluminum foil into a rope and make a spiral on which to place the turkey for roasting. Sprinkle the turkey with salt & pepper, then drizzle with butter. Roast 20 minutes. Reduce heat to 375 degrees and roast another 45-60 minutes, removing from the oven when it has reached 165 degrees on a meat thermometer. Tent with aluminum foil and allow to stand a minimum of 10 minutes before carving. 

If you've grown up in the States, you've probably had green bean casserole before. It's a ubiquitous holiday dish. It wasn't a staple in my family, but I tried it at someone else's house when I was in my early 20s and right away decided I would add it to our Thanksgiving menu, as well. It has been present ever since. You can find the recipe just about anywhere in the U.S. this time of year. I've always just used the recipe from the French's onion can, but this year, I finally wrote down what I actually do and popped it into my recipe binder right by the derby pie. While I usually prefer fresh vegetables for most recipes, I have tried this with fresh green beans and I didn't like it as much, to my surprise. So, I always make it with canned green beans. If this is anathema to you, by all means use the fresh sort! In case you're not somewhere this dish is popular, here's the recipe:

Classic Green Bean Casserole
1 can cream of mushroom soup (I use the healthy version, with lower sodium and reduced fat, and find it just as tasty---I figure I might as well cut those things where I can, since I'm going to eat all kinds of unhealthy stuff, anyway)
3/4 c. milk
A good grinding of black pepper
2 cans cut green beans, drained (some people prefer French-style---whatever you like!)
1 1/3 c. french-fried onions

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix soup, milk, and pepper into a creamy, smooth sauce in a 2 quart casserole dish. Stir in green beans and 2/3 c. onions (sometimes, I use a whole cup). Bale half an hour. Stir, then top with 2/3 c. onions (sometimes, I use a cup). Bake another 5 minutes to brown the onions. Serves 6 as a main side dish, but on a Thanksgiving buffet, it's more than adequate for a crowd of 15 or so. 

I have never liked sweet potatoes and have never understood why anyone would. Until I discovered, in my Gooseberry Patch cooking project, this recipe. At least, this is my version. It evolved because when I first made it, I realized I'd only gotten one can of yams, instead of the two called for by the recipe. So, I was going to halve the entire recipe. Except, when I started to mix in the butter, I realized I'd used the whole amount. Well, shoot! I had to go back and double the rest of the streusel ingredients, so I ended up with twice the streusel the recipe wanted me to use. It was delicious, so when I made the full amount of yams and cranberries, I doubled the amount of streusel. What you see here is my version. Not remotely healthy, but sinfully good---much more a dessert than a side dish, really and truly. If you want less streusel, as the original recipe recommends, just halve the amounts of flour, brown sugar, oats, cinnamon, and butter. 

Cranberry Yam Bake
1 c. flour
1 c. brown sugar, packed
1 c. oats
2 tsp. cinnamon
2/3 c. butter, chilled
2 17 oz. cans yams, drained and slightly mashed (I couldn't find plain yams the first time I made this, so I used candied yams---use whichever you prefer)
2 c. cranberries (I usually use an overflowing 2 cups, as I love cranberries)
1 1/2 c. mini marshmallows (and if you only have the big sort, feel free to use those, although the minis are most aesthetically pleasing to me)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix flour, sugar, oats, and cinnamon. Cut in the butter, using a pastry blender (or, if you don't have one, a fork or 2 knives---you just want to make sure the heat of your hands doesn't warm the butter and make it melty) until mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Toss yams and cranberries with 2 cups of the crumb mixture. Put in a lightly greased 2 qt casserole dish. Sprinkle with remaining streusel mixture. Bake 35 minutes. Top with marshmallows and broil until golden brown. Keep a close eye on this! The first time I made this dish, I got distracted and burned the marshmallows. Luckily, they came off very easily and I had more to try again. As with the green bean casserole, this serves 6 as a main side, but will suffice well for a crowd with other side dish options. 

I cannot imagine Thanksgiving dinner without the cranberry sauce. Many people see it as dispensable or use only a dab to flavor their turkey. For me, it's one of the very best parts of the meal. I don't want it canned, either. The canned whole berry stuff is acceptable for everyday meals, I suppose, but I cannot imagine why you wouldn't just make it from scratch. It's so very easy and quick, too! Of course, if you must have the canned stuff, you must! And the homemade version certainly won't slice. I've wanted for quite awhile to try Chinese 5-spice in my cranberry sauce and I finally did. This has all kinds of exotic yumminess in it. It may sound weird, but it's really good!

Spiced Cranberry Sauce
A smidge of water in the bottom of a saucepan
12 oz. cranberries
1 tbsp. peeled, minced fresh ginger
2 c. dry red wine (I used Gnarlyhead Cabernet Sauvignon because it's what I had on hand)
1 c. sugar (mine was a scant cup)
3 tbsp. chopped crystallized ginger
1/4-1/2 tsp. curry
Large pinch Chinese 5-spice

Heat water on medium-high heat. When it starts to bubble, add berries & fresh ginger. Cook, stirring, until the berries begin to burst. Add wine and sugar and cook at a boil, stirring, until mixture is reduced to about 2 1/2 cups, about 15 minutes. Add the rest and stir well. Allow to cool at least 3 hours or overnight. Serves 6 as a main side, a whole crowd as part of a large buffet. 

A couple years ago, I tried a recipe called "Almond Delights," for the first time. My wife, who adores nuts and has a terrible sweet tooth, fell completely in love with the cracker/cookie/candy confection and has a very hard time keeping her hands off them. So, we have dubbed them "Almond Crack." 

Almond Crack
40 buttery crackers like Townhouse or Club (I had Townhouse on hand the first time I made them, so that's what I usually use now)
1 c. slivered almonds
2 sticks butter
2/3 c. sugar

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with foil, then spray with cooking spray. Line the crackers up on the foil-lined, sprayed sheet. You do not want to skip the foil or the spray. They are your friends. Trust me, it's not just for ease of clean-up, in this case. I could imagine that this could be ruined, fairly easily, by skipping this step. Scatter the almonds over the crackers. Now, melt the sugar and butter together, stirring to dissolve the sugar. Once it's dissolved, stir at a boil for another 3 minutes. Spread over the crackers & almonds. It doesn't have to cover fully or evenly, just mostly. I was worried the first time I made them because I couldn't make it cover everything. It was absolutely fine, though. Bake 15 minutes, then remove from the oven and cool completely. Once they are cool and the coating has hardened, cut into squares or rectangles (or, heck, just break them up randomly). This will vanish, possibly mysteriously in the night. 

When I was a kid, the pies at Thanksgiving were always pumpkin and mince, neither of which I liked. At all. So, when I was a young woman living in Nashville and discovered derby pie, I began to make that for Thanksgiving. Derby pie is basically pecan pie with chocolate chips and a little bourbon added---true purists would say it must be Jim Beam or another Kentucky whiskey to be real derby pie and would be appalled at my use of Jack Daniels, but it's cool. For my cousins, now, it's not Thanksgiving without my derby pie. My wife, however, who hates all bourbon or whiskey-laced anything, is always asking me to make a chocolate pecan pie without the liquor. For Practice Thanksgiving, I'd planned to make my regular derby pie. Then, I realized I finally, last Thanksgiving, used up the bottle of Jack Daniels I bought ages ago for pies and bbq. Note: whiskey purists will be appalled that I keep such things on hand for so long, I suspect. I know. I do it anyway. For my purposes, it doesn't matter. I didn't want to dip into my son's Jacob's Ghost and I had my liquor-hating wife in mind. I almost left the alcohol out altogether, but then I thought, "Hmm, what if I used Kahlúa, instead? or Patrón XO Cafe?" I went with Kahlúa and, oh, man, was it delicious! Jeannene loved it, too. A new tradition? Maybe I'll call it Matador Pie, since it's absolutely not derby pie.

Matador Pie
2 pie shells (if you make your own, bully for you! If not, no big. I sure don't)
2/3 c. sugar
1/3 c. butter, room temperature
1 c. light corn syrup
2 tbsp. Kahlúa
1/2 tsp. salt
3 eggs
1 c. pecan halves
1 c. chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Mix sugar, butter, corn syrup, Kahlúa, salt, and eggs together and whisk smooth. Put chocolate chips and pecans in pie shells (that have been placed in pie plates and crimped). Pour the sugar & butter mixture over them. Bake, with a baking sheet underneath just in case, 40-50 minutes. 

Oh, in case you want to make cute place settings, I made shimmery chocolate spoons for people to take home as favors, then tied a sprig of rosemary and a brown tag place card (the edge of which I'd used a lace punch to make pretty) to each one (wrapped in a little plastic treat bag like you use for lollipops---available at craft and baking supply stores) with orange raffia. They looked great. To make the chocolate spoons, you just melt chocolate chips (I did a batch of Ghirardelli dark & one of Nestle semi-sweet), stirring, on the lowest heat you can. Then, tip up the pan and dip plastic spoons into it, so that the bowl of the spoon is covered. Place them on waxed paper to harden. When they are hard, brush with edible shimmer. You can also sprinkle them with cute cupcake confetti while they're still soft, if you want. 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

My Year in Food: Max & Erma's, November 21, 2014

I'd planned to eat potluck at book group last night, but the RSVPs started dropping like flies in the afternoon until it was down to me & my sweet wife. So, instead, we went out candle shopping and to dinner at Max & Erma's. When I was a kid, living about an hour from Columbus, Ohio, my family would sometimes make trips up to German Village for the day. There was this funky restaurant with great burgers, soups, & sandwiches, plus all kinds of cool vintage memorabilia all over the walls and ceiling, before that was a thing. It was called Max & Erma's and I really liked it. It was fun & yummy. Much to my delight, over the years, the restaurant became a small, local chain and we got them closer to home.

When we moved to Michigan last year, I was sad because I would miss the chain. There'd been one about 5 minutes from our Columbus-area house and it was our go-to for nights when it got too late to eat anywhere else before we got a chance for dinner. Let me tell you, I was pretty happy to see a Max & Erma's in a little shopping area about 20 minutes from our new Michigan home. We've only been there a couple of times in the year we've been here, but we're never sorry we went there.

Last night, I was a little worried we were going to have poor service. Our waiter seemed pretty ditzy. We laughed and joked to each other about saying to him, "Dude, are you high?" He certainly seemed it, but he ended up being a pretty decent waiter, air-headed though he was. I tucked into a Buffalo chicken sandwich and Jeannene had fish & chips. Good stuff. I was disappointed with this location's warm chocolate chip cookies, though. They were really thick and lukewarm. I know there are people in this world who see no fault with any chocolate chip cookie, but I am picky and really only love them if they're still warm and chewy. These were a mite too cakey for my taste. Ah, well, better for me not to have cookies, anyway. The sweetest part of the experience, anyway, was to see an adorable little boy on his way back from the sundae bar, his eyes shining and his mama smiling at him.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

My Year in Food: Steak, November 20, 2014

Tonight was the wife's night to cook. I think I've noted here before that when it's her night to make dinner, it's nearly always steak, pasta, or dinner out. It's not that she can't cook other things beautifully. It's just that those are her very favorite foods---and she is often too wiped out from work to cook at all, thus the restaurants.

Tonight, she picked up a New York Strip Steak for herself and a ribeye for me. She just pan-fried them, with a little garlic-herb butter. I'd picked up a box of Near East rice pilaf with toasted almonds at the grocery this afternoon and suggested we polish off the labneh with that, instead of doing potatoes or pasta on the side. She was delighted to agree to this plan, as it's one of her faves. She debated between fixing some cauliflower or corn. The corn won, since it was by far the easier.

My Year in Food: Nick's Country Oven, November 19, 2014

Jeannene got home from work later than she expected last night. We are hosting her management team for a Practice Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, so we had a date to have supper out, then go to the grocery. It was blowing snow and was quite cold. I didn't want to be traipsing all over the place, so I just drove to the grocery, thinking we might just get our shopping done, then head over to The Village of Rochester Hills to eat at one of the restaurants there.

However, when I pulled into the parking lot, I remembered that I have been curious about Nick's Country Oven, in that plaza. I pass it all the time, but have never ventured inside. It looks like a mom & pop place, the sort it had become hard to find in my old neighborhood, but which are all over the place in the Detroit Metro. Poor Jeannene thought, from where we were parking, that I was dragging her to the Chinese place and groaned mightily. She really has to be in the mood for Asian food. She was so relieved when I pointed to Nick's, instead.

When we walked in, our waitress took us to a corner tucked away in the back of the restaurant. They were only 45 minutes from closing, but she showed no sign of being annoyed that we had come into the restaurant. Instead, she chose a booth for us based on where it was the warmest and let us know she'd just made a fresh pot of coffee. We both gladly accepted a cup and, when she brought it, she brought French vanilla creamer along with the regular half & half, saying she thought it just adds a little extra coziness on a cold night.

She made some great recommendations and was quite personable. She also really reminded us of someone and we spent most of the meal trying to figure it out. Jeannene had the Monterey chicken, deliciously juicy grilled chicken topped with Jack cheese and peppers. The rice that came with it was cooked to just the right consistency & served with lots of butter. I had been hankering for meatloaf since my friend, Jill, mentioned she was having it for dinner, so that's what I had. It was good, with a bit of an odd spice that I think may have been allspice. It came with real, lumpy mashed potatoes, a nice change from the blah potatoes I had the other day.

Our waitress told us that our dinners come with a free dessert and asked if we might like some tapioca pudding, noting that it was homemade. Well, there was nothing about a free dessert in the menu, so I think she was just being kind. We both agreed to tapioca, which neither of us has very often. It was very clearly made in-house and was just delicious! When our waitress brought our food, it struck me who she reminded me of---Sandra Bullock! But, even more, a cross between Sandra Bullock and Anna Paquin. She was really pleasant to talk to and responded well to our comments about her resemblance to the stars. We got into a conversation about how to find time for reading when you're raising kids. It was a really good experience. Not fine dining whatsoever, but good food and good service!

My Year in Food: Spaghetti, November 18, 2014

In chilly weather (well, really, in any weather) one of our favorite meals is spaghetti with meat sauce. Jeannene had been hinting that she would very much like to arrive home someday soon and discover that I had made it. With the snow we've been getting, a cozy plate of spaghetti seemed like just the thing to warm us. I am a very lazy spaghetti maker, nearly always just doctoring up a jar of sauce from the grocery. My current favorite is Newman's Own Sockerooni Sauce. However, what we had on hand was a jar of Bertolli Tomato & Basil Sauce Jeannene picked up a couple weeks ago because she is not comfortable without at least a jar or two of spaghetti sauce in the house & it was on sale.

My usual doctoring mostly consists of adding some extra oregano and basil, along with some parmesan cheese. The other night, though, I decided to get a little more creative. I splashed in a little merlot and added Italian seasoning, basil, fennel seeds, and parm and let it bubble awhile before we ate. Jeannene was just delighted with this version and thought the 96% lean ground beef I used was mixed with Italian sausage, thanks to the fennel seeds.

We were too cold to eat salad, so I roasted some Michigan-grown Lacinato kale we got at the farmer's market the other day. To do this, I tossed it with a little olive oil, salt, & pepper before sticking it in a pre-heated 350 degree oven for about 14 minutes. It was lovely and crispy when it came out of the oven! We also had some Pugliese bread from the grocery. If you have a Kroger near you and you see this bread in their bakery, give it a try. We love it!

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

My Year in Food, Zesty Herb Pork Chops, November 17, 2014

Jeannene loves to pick up seasoning packets. She almost always has quite a number on hand, for just about any dish you could think of that's not too exotic. She especially likes the Frontera Grill ones. I, on the other hand, usually do my seasoning from scratch and am somewhat skeptical of the starters. I will use seasoning blends like, oh, Italian seasoning or garam masala, but not so much the McCormick sort. But, the thing is, she plays around with them until they are really yummy! I don't know how much playing around she did with the marinade for last night's pork chops, but they were delish! She used McCormick GrillMates Zesty Herb for them & I baked them after they'd had some time to soak in the flavor. Pork chops cooked in a skillet with sauerkraut will likely remain my favorite forever, but these made my tastebuds quite happy.

We had mashed potatoes and a garbanzo & kidney bean salad from the deli to go with it. We were going to have pork gravy, as well. Jeannene had picked up a jar the day before and put it in our pantry, but somehow, even with both of us looking for extended periods of time, we couldn't find it when it was dinner time. I guess we have a black hole in our pantry? Perhaps it time-traveled to some poor Irish folks who were starving during the potato famine? Or Russian peasants struggling to get by in the deepest Siberian winter? Or my great-grandma Mil during the Great Depression---only, I am sure I would have heard the passed-down story of the miraculous gravy, had that occurred.

My Year in Food: Lemony Baked Fish, November 16, 2014

Since the children (our youngest and his girlfriend) moved about 10 minutes from us, instead of about 5 hours from us, we have begun to have them over for Sunday dinner each week. It's good for them, given their broke young people state, and fun for us to cook for them. Usually, Jeannene hogs the bulk of the cooking, but this week, I got to cook! I did a lot of not-really-cooking, to be honest. We asked them if they'd rather have pork chops or fish. They responded with an enthusiastic text message requesting fish, so we had lemony baked tilapia, because Jeannene requested a mild fish and the Red Snapper and Grouper were too spendy and we weren't sure if any of us would like the swai---we figure we can try that out when nobody else is dining with us. I had a wonderful Vietnamese catfish appetizer at The Winds Cafe once that I've always wanted to try to replicate at home, so I suspect that's what I'll do with the swai. We bought it simply because we've never tried it, so wish me luck on producing a good dinner when I use it!

Anyway, Sunday night, to go with the fish, I made some boxed rice pilaf (I like the Near East brand, with almonds---well, my favorite is the lentil pilaf, but Jeannene has an aversion to lentils) & served it with labneh we found at Nino Salvaggio's to top it. I added a kale salad and some leftover butternut squash casserole from Friday night. Dessert, for everyone but me, was a pumpkin pie that was on sale for $2.99. I'm not a fan of pumpkin pie, myself.

Lemony Baked Fish
4 fillets of a mild fish, like tilapia or grouper
Salt, pepper, garlic powder
3 tbsp. butter, room temp (you could also use olive oil)
3 scallions, chopped
Zest & juice of 1 lemon

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Place fish on a greased baking sheet (I use cooking spray). Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Mix everything else together and slather on the fish. Bake 10-12 minutes. Serves 4. 

My Year in Food: Beignets, Rosie O'Grady's, and Bagels, November 15, 2014

Oh, the perils of waiting too long to eat lunch! Saturday morning, I had every intention of making chocolate gingerbread waffles for our breakfast, but Jeannene had had her coffee and was raring to go! So, a cozy breakfast in was not in the cards. Instead, we ventured out for our first excursion to Detroit's Eastern Market, the oldest historic market in the U.S., in operation in its present location since 1891. Jeannene works so hard during the week that she always likes to have some magnificent fun planned for the weekend. I'd asked my Facebook friends for cool stuff going on over the weekend and Susan, a foodie like myself, suggested Eastern Market.

When we arrived, we were delighted to find a food truck specializing in beignets & coffee! It's called Beignets 2 Go and rumor has it they'll be opening a café in Hamtramck before too long. They're generally at Eastern Market on Saturdays, from what I hear, and, having recently been to New Orleans and (over?)indulged in trips to Café du Monde, I can say that these, while not of the C du M caliber, are very, very good. It's probably not such a good thing that we've discovered this food truck, frankly. We split an order (so, 2 apiece) and each got coffee, as well, before wandering around the market.

I was almost immediately sorry I'd gotten coffee, as the first several stands we came across were fruit stands with splendid-smelling hot spiced cider, which would have been lots more festive than coffee. However, the very first thing I spotted just about made me leap in the air with a celebratory whoop! The very first stand we saw had baskets of gorgeous Winesaps!!! I have such a hard time finding this, my favorite apple, and there they were, in glorious display before me. Of course, I had to buy some. We found lots of other beautiful local produce to buy, as well, and also picked up some tasty frozen turkey burgers. I debated a bittersweet and grapevine wreath, but decided that we're close enough to December that we might as well wait for a Christmas wreath. Next year, I'll get a fall wreath earlier.

We were both hungry for real food before long at all, but wanted to finish poking around the market. I probably should have just gotten something from the mac & cheese truck. Who doesn't love mac & cheese? By the time we had finished our market excursion, I figured the crowds at the nearby restaurants would have thinned out, it being 3 p.m. We stepped into the heavenly scent of Supino's for a slice of pizza, only to discover a huge line. We were hungry enough that we didn't want to wait, so we moved on to our next stop, the Rust Belt Market in downtown Ferndale.

We'd not yet had a chance to check out this little shopping area, except for a quick ice cream run I made over the summer, to Treat Dreams (which is no Jeni's, but is delicious, anyway). We were pleased to see that there are a bunch of interesting dining choices and happily made our way into Local Kitchen & Bar. We waited and waited to be seated, with nobody in sight, until finally a pair of ladies who'd just finished their lunch informed us that they thought the restaurant closed between lunch and dinner. This was also the case with our first choice, Assaggi, as well as Star of India. Not wanting to go to Buffalo Wild Wings when we could eat someplace that doesn't exist in our town & not being in the mood for Thai or Chinese food, we chose Rosie O'Grady's by default.

This was an error. Perhaps it was an off day or perhaps we were too hungry to like anything we got, but it wasn't very impressive. There was nothing horrible about it. It was simply meh. When my "Autumn Dude" cocktail, which was meant to be like a White Russian, but with Kahlúa Pumpkin Spice (the pumpkin spice hater crew will, at this point in my narrative) insist that I should know better than to order such an abomination), turned out to be mostly vodka with a splash of milk (and sloppily presented, at that), our lumbersexual hipster waiter seemed annoyed with me for mentioning it, even though he told me when it was delivered that nobody at the bar seemed to know how to make it. Luckily, when the manager gave it to the regular bartender to try, he was appalled & made it properly for me.

Lunch was not much better. Again, it wasn't horrible. But. Our Buffalo chicken crisps (in wonton wrappers) had a great flavor, but a texture oddly reminiscent of pre-chewed baby bird food. My chili was not particularly hot and was watery around the edges and my mashed potatoes tasted rather like instant. They arrived with no gravy at all and, when I inquired, our waiter informed me that they don't come with gravy. I could have sworn I had seen gravy in combination with mashed potatoes somewhere on the menu, so I mentioned that. He said, "Oh, our gravy is designed to go with the chicken & biscuits, so it's a chicken gravy, not a brown gravy. It doesn't go with the mashed potatoes." Well, clearly if I am weird enough to be ordering mashed potatoes and an order of chili for my lunch, I don't really care what kind of gravy it is! I didn't, however, press it. Jeannene's patty melt was fine (not epic, by any means) and her parmesan garlic fries were cold and greasy. So, all edible-ish, but nothing particularly good. It's a damn shame so many of the eating spots along that strip close between lunch and dinner.

When we left the Rust Belt Market, where I saw scads of crafts I didn't understand and for which I am probably not hip enough and several I really dug (including really lovely handmade tiles, a vendor with all kinds of book-related coolness---Heaven Sent Crafts, and McClary Bros. Handcrafted Drinking Vinegars, whose Apple Pie vinegar I have been enjoying the last couple of days), I took Jeannene to a wonderful grocery store my mom & I discovered last week called Nino Salvaggio in Troy. We had a grand time!

On the way home, we considered what to do about dinner. We were both worn out and it was clear that nobody was going to be cooking. Further, we'd had such a late lunch that neither of us was super hungry. However, we were a little hungry. I suggested that we could either stop by Olive Garden for soup & salad or just have bagels at home. We'd gotten some fabulous-smelling rosemary-olive oil bagels from The Detroit Institute of Bagels stand at the Eastern Market. I was delighted when Jeannene said she'd rather just go home because it meant that I got to have mine, with cream cheese, for dinner. She had yogurt with granola and nuts. Not a terribly well-rounded eating day, but that bagel was stellar! I can't wait to try some of their other flavors, as well!!!

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Cranberry Pot Roast & Creamy Butternut Squash (also, My Year In Food, November 14, 2014)

I am all for a nice, cozy pot roast, especially on the chilly evenings we've been having in the last week here in Michigan! Whenever I happen across a buy one, get one deal on a roast, I stick the other one in the freezer. So, I was all set for this recipe. However, I have to admit approaching it with incredible trepidation. I've posted before about my intense dislike of sweet & meat paired together. Well, let me tell you, as if the cranberries in the recipe were not enough, the very first direction in the recipe asked me to "dredge roast in sugar." Dredge roast in sugar??? Were they serious??? That goes a great deal farther than an apricot glaze or cooking pork with apples (both of which I oppose for my own personal plate).

Yes, yes, that was not an error in printing. Dredge roast in sugar. Really. Perhaps there are some of you out there who are thinking to yourselves, "Mmm, sugary pot roast?!? How soon can I make this deliciousness? What's wrong with her?" You can have my portion!!! Add in 12 ounces of cranberries and the zest and juice of an orange and I am pretty much ready to eat peanut butter and jelly for supper. I was so sad, juicing the orange, because it smelled absolutely divine. They are really starting to come into season and this one was a really lovely specimen that should have been eaten out of hand. I felt sad to waste the cranberries, as well, especially when the beautiful red went to a murky brown due to the long cooking and the beef juices. However, I am doing the whole cookbook and, besides, I rationalized, Jeannene does like sweet glazes on meat. We both ate it and Jeannene liked it, but it's not something I would ever, ever eat on purpose. Very definitely sweet.

I'd honestly been dreading the butternut squash casserole, as well, but not for reasons of flavor. You see, I am a complete wuss when it comes to cutting up those squashes with the super-hard shells, like butternut. Luckily, my mom was with me when I was looking for pre-cut squash and failing to find it. As she admired the beauty of the whole butternuts and I bemoaned my fate at having to figure out how to dice it, my mom shared that she uses a serrated bread knife to cut it at her house, with much success. I sincerely doubted that would work for me, but since my mom often has terrific ideas about using the proper tool for the job, I decided to give it a try despite my skepticism. And, what do you know? It actually worked! Sure, it was still a tough go, but man, that bread knife worked a heck of a lot better than any of my other knives have ever done. The casserole, along with steamed green beans, turned out to be the saving grace of the meal. Very yummy, even though I'd forgotten I needed carrots for it & had given them all away. Next time, I'll add carrots, too.

Friday, November 14, 2014

My Year in Food: Grab It & Growl, Part 1

When my almost-grandma was suggesting that we all just eat whatever we could come up with in the fridge or pantry for supper, she called it "Grab It & Growl." I assume this was a pretty accurate term when she was raising two boys! I know my boys were fairly grabby & growly about food when they were teenagers. The term has stuck and Jeannene uses it now, as well. We don't have Grab It & Growl nights all the time, or even very often, since we both love to cook. However, sometimes we know things are going to be really busy and we won't have time to cook or to sit down for a proper meal, so we have a scheduled, planned Grab It & Growl night.

Other times, something goes awry and we end up having an unexpected Grab It & Growl night. Perhaps I forgot to load the crockpot in time. Maybe the pork chops were never taken out of the freezer to thaw. On occasion, one or the other of us has planned to fix supper, but just doesn't feel like cooking. Then, either we can go out, order pizza or Chinese for delivery, or have Grab It & Growl night.

Last night, Jeannene had it in mind to make pork chops. They were all thawed, as they should have been. Then, she worked a 14-hour day. On top of having a cold that leaves her with a throatful of razor blades, who can blame her for not wanting to cook? By the time I got home from book group a little after 9:30, it was fairly late for going out, as well, considering that she had another early morning ahead of her. So, I offered to make one of my standby dinners. You know, the ones you come up with when nobody really wants to cook and you don't know what to cook, anyway.

I offered scrambled eggs, grilled cheese, or Boca burgers. Jeannene countered with a request to have leftover Mexican chicken mac & cheese. I let her have at it, having eaten some for lunch myself, and fixed myself a Boca burger on a whole grain English muffin, a handful of kettle chips, and a little bowl of cherry Jell-o with fruit. It was perfect. If you don't think you'd like a veggie burger, you really ought to give these a chance. Normally, I try to have a fairly well-rounded dinner for us, with some kind of vegetable or salad. On Grab It & Growl nights, though, that doesn't always happen. I looked at the salad in the fridge, looked at the fruit in the Jell-o, and called it good!

What are your go-to standby dinners?

Thursday, November 13, 2014

A Catch-Up Melange of Recipes

I made this fish dish back in May and it is truly fantastic! 

Grilled Mahi Mahi
1 lb. mahi mahi fillets
1/4 c. grated parmesan
1/2 tbsp. butter, room temp
1 1/2 tbsp. mayonnaise
1 scallion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
Pinch salt
Dash hot sauce

Mix everything but fish. Lay fish in foil and cover with the parmesan mixture. Place on a grill (or broil for about 10 minutes), until cooked through. Serves 2-4.

This very good ragout of white beans and Tuscan kale is an Emeril Lagasse recipe from his wonderful Farm to Fork cookbook. I have tinkered a little bit to make it vegetarian/vegan-friendly. It would make a good main course, although I served it as a side. It's also good with fennel in place of the kale and no tomatoes!

Tuscan Kale & White Bean Ragout
1-2 tbsp. olive oil
1 bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, minced
1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 small red onion, sliced
1 large bunch Tuscan kale, cut into ribbons about 1" wide
3/4 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. pepper
30 oz. canned cannellini beans, drained and rinsed
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/2 c. veggie broth

Heat oil in large skillet on medium-high. Add bay leaf, garlic, red pepper, and onion. Cook 3-4 minutes. Add kale, salt, & pepper. Cook another couple minutes. Add everything else. Cover and cook until kale is wilted and everything is cooked through, about 15 minutes. Serve with a drizzle of olive oil. Serves 4-6.

This Somali dish is one I first had at a Lebanese restaurant. It was better at the restaurant, but my (probably wildly inauthentic) version was still pretty terrific. 

Oil for frying
1 onion, finely-chopped
1/2 lb. burger (96% lean is what I usually use, even if it seems a little silly when I am frying it, anyway)
A handful chopped parsley
2 tsp. curry
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. pepper
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 pkg. wonton wrappers

Heat 1 tbsp. oil and cook onion in it until the onion is soft, but not browned. Add burger, parsley, curry, garlic, salt, pepper, and lemon juice. Cook to brown the meat. Adjust seasonings. Allow to cool to room temperature. Place about a teaspoon of meat mixture on a wonton wrapper. Brush edges of wrapper with water and press to seal along edges. Repeat until the ingredients are all used. Heat an inch of oil in a heavy skillet and fry the little packages until they are golden on both sides. Drain on paper towels and keep warm in a 250 degree oven. Serves 4-6.

This traditional rice salad is really scrumptious and makes a good accompaniment for the above recipe or the one below!

Dilly Rice Salad
1 c. rice, cooked
1/2 red onion, chopped
3 tbsp. apple cider or red wine vinegar
Zest & juice of 1 lemon
2-3 tbsp. olive oil
3 cloves garlic, minced
Salt & pepper
A scant handful chopped dill weed

Mix the onion and vinegar and let steep 5 minutes. Strain, discarding the vinegar. Whisk the lemon juice, oil, garlic, salt, & pepper into a dressing and mix into rice. Add onion, lemon zest, and dill. Mix well. Serves 4-6.

This light burger is perfect for summertime, but pretty delicious for this time of year, as well. You can cook these on the grill, if you like, but be careful because it's easy for them to burn or dry out.

Chicken Spinach Sliders
1 lb. ground chicken
6 oz. baby spinach
5 scallions, thinly sliced
3 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 tsp. cumin
Salt & pepper
3 tbsp. olive oil
12 slider buns
Greek yogurt, red onion for topping

Mix chicken, spinach, scallions, garlic, cumin, salt, & pepper, making sure not to overwork it. Shape into 12 slider-sized, half-inch-thick patties. Heat oil & cook the sliders until they are golden brown on both sides. Serve on buns with toppings. Serves 4. 

This dish is a wonderful choice for vegetarians, but also will be satisfying to non-veggies who simply like cabbage. If you want to amp it up to a main course, just toss in some beans, perhaps pinto or cannellini beans. Tofu, stir-fried or baked, would also be a nice addition. My mom and I made this on my last visit to her home, Hickory Hill. I suspect it will be a lot easier to do at my house, where I have electric light instead of kerosene!

Cabbage Sauté with Brown Rice
2 tbsp. olive oil
 1/2 small head green cabbage
2 tsp. minced ginger
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 c. brown rice
Salt & pepper
2 tsp. rice wine vinegar
3 tbsp. sesame seeds

Cook cabbage, ginger, and garlic in olive oil until wilted. Set aside. In same pan, lightly toast the rice. Add 1 1/2 c. water and 1 tsp. salt. Bring to a boil, then cover and cook for half an hour on low heat. Let stand off heat for 5 minutes before fluffing. Heat cabbage mixture through. Stir into rice. Serves 4. 

Chicken Scampi with Artichokes

This dinner dates back to last month. I'd planned to make shrimp scampi, completely underestimating my dear wife's unwillingness to eat shrimp anymore. She had undercooked shrimp at 2 restaurants in a row 2 years ago and is pretty much done with shrimp. I hadn't realized this because she asked me to make my grand mom's shrimp in beer after those incidents. But she is done, so it became chicken scampi, which suits me just fine. With pasta, a green salad and some nice, crusty bread, this makes a lovely meal.

Chicken Scampi with Artichokes 
1/2 stick butter (or, you can reduce this as far down as 1 tbsp---or use 1-2 tbsp olive oil)
5 cloves garlic, minced
1/3 c. dry white wine
Pinch salt
1/8-1/4 tsp. red pepper flakes
1 lb. chicken, cut into bite-size pieces
12 oz. marinated artichoke hearts, drained & chopped
1 large handful chopped basil
Juice of 1 lemon

Melt butter or heat olive oil. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Add wine, salt, and red pepper flakes. Bring to a bubble and cook until reduced by half, a couple of minutes. Add chicken and artichokes. Cook through. Add the rest of the ingredients and heat through. Adjust seasonings. Serves 2. 

Instead of a plain green salad, I served this with a really luscious berry salad, my version of an Aarti Sequeira recipe.

Berry Salad with Cardamom Balsamic Dressing
2 tbsp. balsamic vinegar (I used vanilla)
2 tbsp. honey
Pinch cardamom
Salt & pepper
1 lb. strawberries
1 pt. raspberries
1 handful mint leaves, torn 

Whisk balsamic, honey, cardamom, salt, and pepper together. Toss gently with berries. Sprinkle with mint and gently toss to combine. Serves 4. 

My Year in Food: Mexican Chicken Macaroni & Cheese, Chipotle Chopped Salad, Apple Raisin Carrot Salad, Tortilla Chips with Garlic Breath Salsa and Guacamole

I just finished browsing my way through Rachael Ray's "My Year in Meals" cookbook and thought it might be fun to try to get more disciplined about sharing at least dinner notes every single day. The cookbook is a fun read, if a smidge repetitive, and includes a cocktail section, as well. Knowing myself, I will not do it every day, but let's see what happens when I try. Since my study year (a year of reading on a chosen subject) goes from November 1 to November 1, I'll do Novembers with this idea, as well, except I will start where I am. Here goes!

Last night, my honey, who has been suffering with a bad cold, got bored of doing nothing all day and decided to get up and make dinner---or, at least, assemble it. She had no idea what she was going to make and kept warning me that she had no idea what she was doing. I trust her noodling around in the kitchen, pretty completely, to be tasty, if not necessarily healthy. The biggest problem with her impromptu cooking sprees is that she can never re-create dishes if they turn out great, which they frequently do. I am trusting that she did not impart her cold into the dinner and give it back to me!

She found leftover rotini in the fridge, from chicken noodle soup she made me when I had the same cold, as well as a package of chicken breasts I'd bought for use this coming Sunday & had not remembered to tuck in the freezer. I can only attest to the debris I saw on the counters---cheese wrappers, cardboard from a box of bouillon cubes, a fine dusting of cumin on the stovetop, seeds and stem from a jalapeño (I went on to use the rest in my salsa). What came out of the oven, all bubbling and orange, was yummy and would have done any 1970s housewife proud. Jeannene dubbed it Mexican chicken macaroni & cheese. She'd started with parmesan and white wine, she said as we ate, but when she realized I was making salsa and guacamole, she decided to veer in another direction. It was my lunch today, too.

She's a huge fan of those bagged chopped salads that seem to be all over grocery shelves right now. Her favorite right now is the Dole Chipotle & Cheddar Salad Kit. I am not much of a fan of any of the bagged salads and this is the least favorite of all, I think. The texture is not one I appreciate. So, she buys them for herself and takes them for lunch. Last night, though, she and my mom really enjoyed it (as much as you can enjoy any food when you can't smell it properly!). I went for leftover apple raisin carrot salad from the night before, instead, and it was great! Here's the (very simple) recipe:

Apple Raisin Carrot Salad
1/2 c. golden raisins
2 smaller-size Honeycrisp apples, peeled & diced
About 1 c. matchstick carrots (if I were not a lazy cook, I would do this myself, but I bought them already cut that way)
A handful of chopped pecans
2 tbsp. fat-free mayonnaise (I would normally use canola mayo, instead, but I was trying to keep it as light as possible for my mom---however, I really think this needs no mayo at all, even though it's traditional)

Cover raisins with water and bring to a boil. Simmer 5 minutes. Let sit in hot water, off heat, for another 15 minutes, then drain. Mix with apples, carrots, and pecans. Gently fold in mayonnaise, stirring to coat everything entirely. Serves 4-6. 

The garlic breath salsa recipe comes from my friend, Maggie King, who says it is not only good for colds, but also for warding off vampires. Not only that, it's delish! Here's my preparation of it, which is not exactly as Maggie would make it, but allows the cilantro-phobic to eat it with pleasure, as well! I would have added her 4 oz. can of chopped green chiles, but the can I thought I had in the pantry was not there, after all. A pity. 

Garlic Breath Salsa
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 onion, chopped
10 cloves garlic, minced
Most of a jalapeño, seeds removed, minced
5 Roma tomatoes, chopped
6 scallions, chopped
1 tbsp. cumin
Juice of 1 lemon
Juice of 1 lime
Salt & pepper, to taste

Mix together & eat with tortilla chips! Serves 8-10. 

I make my guacamole by feel, just mashing the avocados with some garlic powder, salt, and lime juice in my molcajete. 

Since my mom doesn't eat cheese (except very low fat versions) or chicken, she had leftovers for her main course, Jeannene's version of Mollie Katzen's broccoli & tofu in spicy peanut sauce from The Enchanted Broccoli Forest. If you're not familiar with it, this is a wonderful (and prettily illustrated) cookbook from the early 1980s, a vegetarian classic and a companion to the Moosewood Cookbook. Jeannene had done Cornish game hens for our Sunday Dinner with the kids this week, so she made that dish for my mom, whom I cannot begin to imagine eating a teeny little chicken (which Jeannene & Bubbles kept referring to as "cute" even as they tucked into it!), to enjoy while we ate teeny little chickens. 

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Chai Tea

Sometimes, I do remember to put the crockpot on in plenty of time. When my sweetie arrived home from work last Friday, I was able to offer her one of her favorite Starbucks orders, chai tea. [Just an aside---is it my imagination or have they recently changed the recipe for their chai tea, making it much spicier? I don't like it nearly as much these days] It's a perfect relaxer for a chilly fall evening at the end of a hard work week and I imagine I'll be making a lot of this over the winter.

The recipe is very, very simple, relying solely on plain old black tea (I only had family-sized Luzianne iced tea bags and whole spices, with milk at the end. Oh, and sugar. I used a little less than the scant end of the suggested spectrum and would happily go with even less. I think it can be drunk quite cheerfully with no milk, as well. When we'd each had 2 of our Good Luck Cat mugs-ful of the tea, Jeannene went looking for more and was terribly disappointed that I'd only made half the recipe. Now, I know better. I would like to get some whole cardamom pods to add to this next time, as suggested in the recipe, and perhaps some star anise, which was not suggested, but which would look and taste scrumptious!

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Hot Spicy Cider for a Crowd

I don't know about you, but I am forever forgetting to start crockpot dishes on time. Sometimes, it means dinner is something else entirely (pizza, anyone?). Sometimes, it simply doesn't matter. The case of this cider is the latter. It has just begun to be really blustery and chilly in Michigan. My mom and I had been out at the art museum all afternoon. My sweetie has a cold, with a very sore throat. I wanted to make her something warm, cozy, and soothing on the throat. Had I been thinking before we ran off to ogle the Diego Rivera murals and fabulous African masks, I would have set a pot going when we left so my honey would have something delicious to sip, all along.

However, when we got home and I remembered that I'd intended to make the cider, my mom agreed that we should go ahead and make it to go with dinner, anyway. This is all to say that if you are making a crockpot cider recipe and run out of time, you should feel free to pop it on top of the stove, instead. This particular recipe calls for ground cloves and allspice, plus cinnamon sticks. I worried that the cinnamon sticks would not have imparted their flavor to the drink by the time it was hot, but it was plenty redolent of cinnamon.

My mom referred to this drink as "cider punch" which is an apt description. It calls for sugar and orange juice, in addition to the spices. I used half the sugar and still felt it could be reduced. Frankly, I don't think it needs any sugar added at all. The cider and juice have plenty of sugar theirownselves. So, next time, I will skip the sugar. Furthermore, I need to remember that I dislike loose ground spices in my drinks. Even making this stovetop, I believe I'd rather use whole allspice and cloves next time. Better yet, I will stick a Post-It note on the door reminding myself to throw everything in the crockpot before I go gallivanting!

P.S. "For a Crowd" is a little misleading. Perhaps the recipe creator is thinking of wee punch cups, rather than the hearty mugs we use around our house, but just 2 of us (my wife bowed out, despite the soothing qualities, when she got a whiff of the strong dose of cloves) drank about a quarter of the recipe with one serving each. I made a half-gallon, which is half the recipe, and poured the leftovers back into the jug, leaving it half-full of spicy cider. So, if you use bigger mugs like we do, count on the whole recipe serving about 8 people, rather than the 16 the recipe claims to serve. Perhaps we are simply cider gluttons, though!

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Woods Creek Bean Soup

Oh, dear. I simply had my expectations too high on this one. I suppose it's because I was expecting it to be something it isn't, a creamy navy bean-style soup, like my grandmom's or my father-in-law's. I knew, looking at the recipe, that a single can of Great Northern beans for a soup recipe, in conjunction with 32 oz. broth, would not make that sort of soup. I forgot, however, and I think some part of my mind also expected the blender portion of the recipe to make a difference. It didn't. I am not usually a huge fan of broth bean soups, so it's not too much of a surprise that I found this one pretty meh. The recipe also calls for not salt at all, not one grain. I don't think most soups can stand without at least a smidge of salt.

This soup was certainly a good choice, however, for dinner with my mom, who avoids salt and fat as much as she possibly can. She liked it quite a bit, in fact. Since she's vegetarian, I subbed unsalted veggie broth for the fat-free chicken broth in the recipe, so it is very nicely adaptable for vegetarians. We used the turkey kielbasa normally cooked into the soup as an add-in at the table for the carnivores among us. The broth had good basic flavor (imparted by Italian seasoning), despite needing some salt, but if I am going to have soup that brothy, I want a good lot of vegetables in it, or some noodles. However, I did really like the idea of adding spinach to a bean soup and may use that in my usual bean soup, sometime in the future. The added flavor was a plus, for certain!

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Cranberry Yam Bake

Cooked carrots are one thing. Yams are quite another. While I suspected I wouldn't eat much of the maple-glazed carrots, I knew for certain, that I wouldn't have more than the tiniest bite of the cranberry yam bake. In fact, I was quite relieved when I saw that the half-recipe I was making called for only 1 cup of cranberries---less tart deliciousness wasted by being polluted with yams. The wife, on the other hand, was dancing with anticipation at the yams and was dreading the sourness of the cranberries ruining her yams.

When my mom was a baby, my grandmother related to me, the only food she wouldn't eat was sweet potatoes. Me, I am like my mama. I have never liked yams or sweet potatoes. Nor, I suspect, could I tell you the difference between the two. I know I've heard that true yams are rarely sold in the States. Otherwise, I could muddle my way through a faked explanation, but it's better, if you're curious, to read this: Me, I just know I don't like them.

Or do I? When I made the recipe, I felt revulsion at even putting my tongue to the little portion on my fork. Amazingly, it was delicious! Perhaps because it was more akin to dessert than to a vegetable, given the oat streusel both mixed in with the canned yams and sprinkled on top (under a layer of toasted mini-marshmallows)? Perhaps because I accidentally forgot to halve the amount of butter I put in the streusel topping, forcing myself to go back and add the other half of all the rest of the streusel ingredients, too, resulting in twice as much brown sugary, cinnamony goodness as the recipe actually calls for? Perhaps the fact that it was studded with jewel-like bursts of translucent cranberry zing in contrast to the yams' opaque richness? Whatever made the difference, I had a hard time stopping at one serving. My mom did, too. My wife? She loved it despite the (oh, horrible of horribles!) cranberries.

We'll be hosting Practice Thanksgiving on the 22nd and this dish is tops on my list of possible dishes to serve. It's a wonderfully different twist on the usual Thanksgiving sweet potato casserole. And, if you get distracted by the making of another dish (apple raisin carrot salad, in this case) and burn the marshmallows during the broiling process, it's really easy to lift off the gooey, blackened mess and toss on another round of mini-marshmallows to try again. Paying attention this time.

La Luna Cooks Gooseberry Patch: Maple-Glazed Carrots

As I was preparing to make this dish, I was fairly certain I wouldn't be eating any of it. It violates one of my more firmly held food rules (no sweet with meat). Furthermore, I have a long history of greatly disliking cooked carrots on their own. Stick them in the oven with a roast, some potatoes, and onions and I love them. In chicken or veggie soup? Terrific. On their own? Nope. Mostly, though, I just like crunching on them raw, with or without dip. Jeannene, on the other hand, was thrilled. My wife loves sweet, soft veggies and is an avid dipper of sausage in syrup, which makes me shudder, if only inwardly, every single time. She never gets to have cooked carrots because I never make them. So, this cookbook project is quite beneficial to her.

I'd hoped I heard her wrong when she mentioned bacon as an ingredient, but when I got down to making these carrots, I saw that the recipe does, indeed, call for bacon. Oh, yuck. What ended up happening, though, was that it wasn't as abhorrent as I was expecting. Jeannene really loved it and I found that I could eat it and even sort of enjoy it. True, I gave myself more of the apple part than the carrot part, but I had an entire serving. I think any cooked carrot lover would be delighted with this recipe. It was good for me to stretch myself.

I'd worried that the carrots wouldn't be properly cooked in just 10 minutes, that Jeannene would be appalled at how crunchy they still were, but they softened up nicely (if you find that sort of thing nice). I mistakenly cut the apple into thin slices, rather than thin wedges, and I think it would be better with thick wedges to stand up better to the bulk of the baby carrots. The apple bits kind of became wisps. Next time, I will remember that. Next time? Really? Yes, because I love my wife.

Tuesday, November 04, 2014

Cuban Black Beans for Patti

While I was on my honeymoon in New Orleans, a blog reader named Patti commented on another post, asking if I have a good black bean soup recipe. It so happens that I do. I love black beans, either eaten from the bowl like a traditional soup or ladled over rice. I can't vouch for the authenticity of this, as I use canned beans, but it tastes pretty good. If you want it soupier, just add some beef broth to it. 

Cuban Black Beans for Rice

1-2 tbsp. Spanish olive oil (you can sub any extra virgin olive oil)
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
5 cloves garlic, minced
3 tbsp. apple cider vinegar (white vinegar is fine, too)
3 cans black beans (I like Goya brand)
1 bay leaf
2 tsp. cumin
Salt & pepper
Chopped onions, for serving
Lime wedges, for serving

Sauté onion & pepper in oil until softened & onions are translucent, 3-5 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, another minute. Add vinegar, beans, bay leaf, cumin, salt, & pepper, mashing slightly with a wooden spoon to break down some of the beans. Cook about 25 minutes. Remove bay leaf and serve over rice, with chopped onions and lime wedges. Serves 8-10. (sometimes I also squeeze a little lime juice and a little orange juice into the pan while this is cooking)