Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Golden Eagle, March 21, 2016

Last night, Jeannene was slated to go to dinner with her boss and a bunch of folks from her plant and corporate headquarters. However, due to a late flight, the dinner was cancelled and she picked up some Thai peanut roll-ups from Starbucks. She loves those things! She was also sweet enough to bring me some of their mint tea. Yum!

I'd been at a church meeting, with our wee boy in tow, so he and I tried The Golden Eagle, an old school surf & turf house. I've been told to try the steak with Mario sauce (I have to Google that and see if I can figure out what it is) and have also been told their spaghetti is the best I'll ever have. I seldom believe that sort of claim, but I was quite curious to try it, anyway. We are having the sort of early spring weather that makes me grumpy---you know, the kind where it still feels like winter, regardless of the calendar. So, spaghetti sounded perfect.

I'd wisely tucked my new Jeffrey Deaver novel into my purse. Elijah and I walked in and the hostess seated us at a corner table, saying I could just tuck him in the corner of the corner, so he'd be safe. A woman at the table next to us told me I could just tuck him right there at her table & she'd make sure he was safe. It was sweet. People really dig our baby---sometimes, I feel like I'm traveling in the presence of a celebrity because so very many people stop to admire him.

Anyway, he slept right through the meal and I ate while texting with my mommy and reading about gruesome crimes. I've inherited my great-grandma Mil & my great-aunt Barb's taste in novels, I'm afraid. Barb used to save all her mysteries for me. My grandparents would visit Barb & Kay out in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and return with two or three paper grocery sacks stuffed with books for me.

My salad came with (rather a lot of) a very garlicky house dressing, which reminded me a great deal of the house dressing at the now-defunct Dominic's in Dayton, Ohio. The whole experience felt very much like being time-warped to the 1970s. I almost expected to look up and see my sweetheart, as a young girl, with her 3 older brothers, mom, & dad, enjoying a meal together. The spaghetti (I ordered it with bolognese sauce and baked cheese) was not the best I've ever had. That honor currently belongs to Wolfgang Puck's Spago, inside Caesar's Palace. However, it was very, very yummy and made me really glad I'd stopped there for dinner. Now, I'll have to take my wife for a steak!

Annual First Day of Spring Dinner, March 20, 2016

I've been making the same meal in honor of the first day of spring for years, since I was in my early 20s. It doesn't always get made on the actual first day of spring, but that's when I aim to make it. The year I met Jeannene, 2001, I was late making it. I know this because on April 2nd, when we accidentally met at a women's discussion group in a church basement, I couldn't go to dinner at my favorite restaurant with her because I was heading to my grandparents' house to make them salmon patties, dilled new potatoes, and steamed asparagus. The good news was that we were already scheduled to meet later that week to go dancing with mutual friends, Carmen and Maria. They'd been telling me since February, when they met her at a poetry slam, that I would love her. Turns out I did. We'll be celebrating 15 years as a couple on April 7th this year.

You can find the recipes here. This year, I steamed the asparagus in our steamer pot for about 9 minutes, which was perfect for Jeannene and a bit too long for me.

Cold Cereal, March 19, 2016

For the second Saturday night in a row, we had cold cereal for dinner. We'd been to Ann Arbor to do some Easter shopping and stopped for a late lunch at Macaroni Grill. I was completely unimpressed by the appetizer of mac & cheese bites. The concept is great, but the only time I've ever really been wowed by them was the very first time I had them, at the Winking Lizard Tavern in Avon, Ohio. Usually, they are just bland as bland can be. The truffle sauce Macaroni Grill served with them did nothing to zing them up. Our entrees, however, were quite good.  Jeannene had a fabulous Buffalo chicken parmesan (yes, this makes no sense at all, but it was so good) and some fairly blah cappellini with gorgonzola cream sauce. My rosemary grilled ribeye, with new potatoes and grilled veggies, was very tasty, too---enough so that I was annoyed when the hipster waiter took my plate after I had put the leftover steak half in my box, but before I scooped the veggies in there. He'd been irritating from the get-go, acting as though the job was beneath him, and he finished the meal irritating, not even bothering to ask us if we were interested in dessert. I guess because I got a box, he assumed I was too full for dessert?

So, we weren't really hungry for dinner until much later---and then, not for very much. I knew as soon as we got back in the car that I wasn't going to want a proper dinner. I knew, too, that what sounded best of all was a nice bowl of Raisin Bran, so that's what I had. Jeannene tried a new-to-us cereal, a honey and oat medley.

On The Border, March 8, 2016

I'd planned to make shish kebabs for dinner Friday night, with rice pilaf, labneh, and green beans. It sounded delicious to me, yet when Jeannene suggested we have dinner out so I could climb into bed early, the idea struck me as marvelous. I'd gotten a bit of a sore throat and it seemed to be morphing into an outright cold. So, we headed out. Jeannene wasn't interested, even a little bit, in picking a restaurant. I am usually not the sort to be really excited about picking, either, but as I began to drive, I decided Mexican sounded good. We had only been to On The Border once, but had found it to be pretty acceptable Tex-Mex for Michigan.

Jeannene had the green chile carnitas burrito, which she liked, but which was entirely too spicy for me. I would probably never survive a Tex-Mex place in Texas, let along actual spicy Mexican food. On the other hand, I found plenty to eat in Santa Fe, so I might be just fine. I'd planned to make my own combo, with a crunchy taco, an empanada, and an enchilada. However, just before we ordered, a plate of fajitas went by our table. I instantly decided they smelled so good, I must have them, so I ordered beef & shrimp ones. The beef texture was a little odd for me, but the shrimp were delicious!

Thursday, March 17, 2016

An Irish Feast, March 17, 2016

When I was growing up, my mom and I always made potato soup for St. Patrick's Day. Now, I have shifted to a tradition of making lamb stew, colcannon, and soda bread for the holiday. I've been making the same stew (based on Darina Allen's Ballymaloe School recipe) and bread for years now, but am still tinkering with the colcannon. I'm not much of a baker but the soda bread gets better every time I make it. It makes a great breakfast on the 18th, too!

For me, the best use for Guinness is in cooking and my stew is the perfect place for it. I usually buy a six-pack of it, use one bottle, and give the rest to my 23-year-old the next time he comes to visit. This year, I cheated on the colcannon. I boiled thinly-sliced cabbage until it changed color, then drained it. While it was cooking, I crisped some diced pepper bacon in another pot. After the cabbage was well-drained, I stirred it into the bacon & cooked it further. Finally, I stirred in leftover cheesy mashed potatoes with a little milk. It was yummy, even though I forgot the scallions I usually add.

Lamb Stew
2 lb. lamb shoulder chops
Salt & pepper
2 tbsp. oil
3/4 c. Guinness stout
1 lb. potatoes, diced (I used Yukon Golds this year, to good effect)
1 lb. baby carrots
1 bag frozen pearl onions, thawed
32 oz. beef broth
A couple tablespoons butter roux

Season the lamb with salt & pepper. Sear on both sides in hot oil, in a soup pot. Remove from pan. Add Guinness and deglaze pan. Return lamb to pot, along with veggies. Cover with broth and bring to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer a couple of hours (until lamb falls off bones). Remove bones from stew. Add roux and cook another 10 minutes to thicken. Serves 4. 

Irish Soda Bread
3 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1 tbsp. baking powder
 1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. butter, cut into pieces
1 tbsp. caraway seeds
1 c. raisins or currants
1 c. buttermilk (or 1 c. regular milk mixed with 1 tbsp. lemon juice, if you've forgotten to pick up buttermilk)
1 egg

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix the dry ingredients together. Add the butter and cut in with a pastry blender until it disappears into the flour. If you don't have a pastry blender, you can mix it in with your fingertips. Add caraway seeds & raisins/currants. Whisk the milk & egg together well. Add to dough and mix lightly, using your hands, until it comes together. Place on a floured surface and fold it over on itself several times, shaping it into a round loaf as you work. Place on a foil-covered baking sheet and cut a cross in the top. Bake 15 minutes. Reduce heat to 350 degrees. Cook another 15 minutes or so. Serves 6-8. 

This year, I also added some lime jello with mandarin oranges mixed in, to honor both the Catholic and Protestant folks of Ireland. My great-great-grandmother, Maggie, was a Scots-Irish Protestant who came to America in the 19th century. My granddad always wore orange on St. Patrick's Day and I wear orange and green. So, it was fun to have an orange and green dessert, too. Plus, I love any excuse to eat jello. Reminds me of my grandmom. 

The Former Lili's, March 16, 2016

One of our regular diner stops, Lili's in Oxford, MI, has recently been shifted to new management and given a new name (something with a number in it, something I seem to have some kind of block against remembering). We were next door for a hair appointment and a brow arch, so we decided jut to pop in for dinner, rather than cooking. Our server was cute as a bug's ear and very efficient. The food was reliably good, although my gyro seemed a bit oily, something I'd not encountered previously. Jeannene had a gorgeous-looking cheeseburger. Nothing fancy, nothing dozens of diners and coney islands don't have, but good, solid, easy to grab food.

Crispy Ranch Chicken, March 15, 2016

A couple nights ago, I made oven fried chicken, cheesy mashed potatoes, and endive salad with pears, walnuts, & blue cheese. It was a nice combination of homey & fresh, perfect for the teetering-on-the-brink-of-spring weather we've been having. I shook the chicken with crushed cornflakes mixed with ranch dressing mix before baking it on a baking sheet I'd coated with cooking spray. I dressed the salad with a mixture of high quality olive oil, lemon juice, & honey.

Papa Joe's Soup, March 14, 2016

Monday night, after a wonderful lunch at Clarkston Union with my friend, Sue, I found myself feeling a bit draggy and uninterested in cooking. My sweet wife had a meeting at church, then brought home 3 different kinds of soup, with rolls, from Papa Joe's. I honestly think I ate too much at lunch to be very hungry. I had a gorgeous salad with some of the best balsamic dressing I've ever encountered, followed by a brie and tomato sandwich with roasted red potatoes on the side. For dessert, I ate most of an awesome ice cream sandwich (vanilla on a pizzelle, cut into dainty finger sandwiches and served with salted caramel and hot fudge sauces). So, when the broccoli cheese, chicken noodle, and cream of mushroom soups arrived, I was unable fully to enjoy them. Poor Jeannene, I think she thought I just hated them. They were great. I just wasn't hungry!

Steak, March 13, 2016

For Sunday dinner this past weekend, Jeannene decided that, since Pie and his girlfriend are planning to move to Alaska soon and wouldn't be benefitting from Sunday dinners at our place any longer, she should start giving them cooking lessons. The idea, I think, was that they would pick what they wanted to learn and she would teach them. I suspect what actually happened was that she asked them if they'd like to learn to make steak, because that's what she loves best, and they were happy with that idea. She picked up some beautiful strip steaks on sale and marinated them in Guinness and seasonings. To go with them, she made baked potatoes and Brussels sprouts (just boiled, with butter---and they were sooooo yummy). For an appetizer, she decided on a crab-stuffed avocado dish she found in James Beard's New York Times Cookbook. Since I don't like crab, I got a version with everything but the crab and it was very good. It made for a pretty presentation, too.

Dessert was at church, where I presented on the book of Esther for "Lenten Lights," an annual program, with a speaker, dessert, and coffee, put on by Women's Fellowship. We had an extravaganza of church lady desserts, so you know it was scrumptious! My two favorites were a light-as-air lemon cheesecake-ish dessert and a variation on dump cake (one woman called it "gunk") that was more cobbler-y than cake-y and starred apple pie filling. I've procured Brenda's recipe for that one and will be trying it myself with various fillings.

Cold Cereal, March 12, 2016

For those of you who think we eat amazing food all the time, rest assured that we don't. Saturday, neither of us felt like cooking and we couldn't get it together to figure out whether we wanted to go out or what we might like if we did. So, about 10 o'clock, Jeannene poured herself a bowl of cornflakes. After asserting that I wasn't interested and would just heat up some hot dogs or something, I changed my mind and asked her to make me a bowl, too. It was quite delicious!

BBQ Shrimp, March 11, 2016

While I've enjoyed bbq shrimp in New Orleans restaurants, I had never made it until last Friday. It was amazing! I served it with cheesy grits & roasted cauliflower. I also did some pre-seasoned tilapia Jeannene had in the freezer for her, as shrimp often gives her the heebie-jeebies, ever since 2 undercooked shrimp episodes in restaurants within about 2 weeks of each other a few years ago. This bbq shrimp is rich and sumptuous and you'll want some good, crusty bread to sop up extra sauce. It's the bomb!

BBQ Shrimp
1 stick butter
3/4 c. chicken broth
1/4 c. worcestershire sauce
1 tbsp. soy sauce
1 tbsp. lemon juice
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. onion powder
1/4 tsp. pepper
1/8 tsp. paprika
Pinch cayenne
1 lb. medium shrimp, peeled & deveined

Heat everything but the shrimp in a cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Cook until reduced and slightly thickened, about 5 minutes. Add shrimp & cook until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Serves 4. 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Mother Sauces, March 10, 2016

Our final Williams-Sonoma cooking class for the season was last Thursday. I'm so glad Women's Fellowship at our church sponsors this! The last class was on the classic mother sauces. We didn't do all of them (they are, if you are not familiar, béchamel---the base for classic mac & cheese, espagnole---the mother of demi-glace, veloute---from which comes a delicious white wine sauce, hollandaise---which has long intimidated me, and tomato), but I was really happy to watch our instructor create a hollandaise. I love the idea of doing Eggs Benedict at home, but have never felt confident to make a hollandaise from scratch. Her demo helped me understand the kind of wrist motion I'm looking for when whisking. I was a little skeptical about her claim that a classic hollandaise doesn't have lemon juice, although I've since learned lemon is a usual flavoring, but not essential to the sauce. I especially questioned it when she told us that when you add lemon to a hollandaise, that creates a bain-marie. If I'm not mistaken, "bain-marie" is the term for a hot water bath such as the one I use when making flour less chocolate cake. However, seeing it made helped reduce my intimidation level.

She also made a béchamel, which she put on penne. It seemed odd to me to use béchamel, which has a pretty neutral flavor, on plain pasta without jazzing it up with some cheese or seasonings. It turned out to be pretty bland. However, it was useful in that I got to see a different kind of roux than I am accustomed to making, made with vegetable oil, rather than butter. She said she never uses butter, as oil has a much higher smoke point, so it's easier to get a really dark roux, such as you want for gumbo, without burning it. It seems to me that a butter-based roux would be infinitely more flavorful, but I am not classically trained---or trained at all---so, I defer to her judgement.

Along with the pasta, we had a lovely pork tenderloin with a scrumptious pan sauce she created by deglazing the pork searing pan with white wine. It was intended to have chicken stock, as well, but she didn't pack it. That was a great lesson in kitchen improv and I suspect the pan sauce she made was tastier with all wine than it would have been with the stock. The pork, sliced and drizzled with sauce, was so gorgeous on the platter. Plating and presentation is not at all my forte and it was really fun to watch her move. She had such grace in the kitchen and everything looked so great.

The final sauce we learned was a beurre blanc. I can't remember if it was the béchamel or the beurre blanc which broke, but she calmly told us that it doesn't completely ruin the dish if it breaks. I'd always thought that if the sauce breaks, you're supposed to scrap it & start over. She explained that it's largely about texture, though. Since I won't ever be selling my sauces, I am happy to know that it's not the end of the world to have them break on us. Anyway, the beurre blanc went on beautifully cooked asparagus. I had that and hollandaise on mine, a bit on each end!

A fun series! I will definitely be returning for whatever offerings they have for us next winter!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Potato Leek Soup, March 9, 2016

Last night was our monthly Red Tent gathering, for which I usually make soup and some kind of sweet. When I was growing up, my mom and I made potato soup every year on St. Patrick's Day, so I chose potato leek soup for the March Red Tent gathering this year. It was heavenly! I added some rosemary olive oil bread from the grocery, some Pecan Thins for gluten-free eaters, chocolate chip cookies, and plain old Hershey minis. If I were serving this for dinner at home, I might add a green salad.

Potato Leek Soup
4 potatoes, peeled & sliced (I used russets)
3 large leeks, white and light green parts only, halved lengthwise, rinsed well, and sliced
64 oz. vegetable stock
Salt and pepper
1 c. milk or cream (you could omit this for a yummy vegan soup)

Put potatoes, leeks, veggie stock, salt, & pepper in a soup pot. Bring to a boil. Reduce heat, cover, and simmer about 40 minutes. Mash the veggies with a potato masher (or use an immersion blender, for a smoother soup---I like this one a little rustic). Add milk/cream and heat through. Serves 6-8. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies
1/2 c. shortening (I use Crisco)
1/2 c. butter
2 1/2 c. flour
1 c. dark brown sugar (if you only have light, that's fine)
1/2 c. sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp. vanilla
1 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
12 oz. (2 c.) chocolate chips (I use Ghirardelli when I can, but even store-brand is going to taste good, honestly)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Beat the shortening & butter on medium-high speed until softened, about 30 seconds. Add half the flour and beat well. Add sugars, eggs, vanilla, soda, & salt. Beat well, scraping down the sides occasionally. Add the remaining flour. When well-combined, stir in the chocolate chips. Drop dough by rounded teaspoonfuls, about 2" apart, onto ungreased cookie sheets. Bake 9-11 minutes. Makes 4-5 dozen.