Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Best Christmas Books Ever

It's the most wonderful time of the year, and when I'm not jinglebelling and caroling out in the snoooow, I've got my nose stuck in a book. I have a shelf in my living room that is devoted to Christmas books and these are a few of my favorites:

1. "Reader's Digest Book of Christmas," a big red book that is quite easy to find in grandparents' homes and used book sales. It includes an excerpt from "A Tree Grows in Brooklyn," Betty Smith's marvelous story of Irish immigrants in New York, circa 1910. The story, "Francie Nolan's Christmas," is about two poor kids determined to get a Christmas tree, and the bruising punishment they endure to obtain it. (On reflection, it reads better than it sounds.) This volume is loaded with holiday songs, traditions and stories.

2. "A Christmas Memory" by Truman Capote. Simply one of the best short stories ever written. Capote's enduring story of a young boy and his unconventional elderly aunt is available in many editions, including a children's book version with illustrations by Beth Peck, that is a favorite. The story is also included in the Reader's Digest book above (find that book!)

3. "Why the Chimes Rang." This is probably out of print, but it is included in the Reader's Digest book (gotta get that book!). I found an ancient hardcover at a Goodwill book sale years ago, and I treasure it. The story is about two young brothers travelling on Christmas Eve to a great cathedral, and the sacrifices they make in order to hear the chimes ring. I remember my grade school teacher reading this story to my class. Sentimental and essential.

A few more, in no particular order,

4. "Best Christmas Pageant Ever" by Barbara Park. The Herdman children smoke cigars and learn about Jesus' birthday. I've never cried so much over the presence of a ham.

5. "A Certain Small Shepherd." More sentimental stuff, but I love it.

6. "Christmas Letters" by Lee Smith. Like all of Lee Smith's stories, it involves laughter through tears, or is that tears through laughter? Also includes recipes, so some might say it's the perfect Christmas book.

7. "Silent Night" by Philip Lee Wiliams. Memoir by one of Georgia's most elegant writers.

8. "To Whom the Angel Spoke" by Terry Kay. The real joy of this book is to hear it read by Terry Kay, who is blessed with the voice of a preacher.

9. "The Hand-Carved Creche" by the late James Kilgo. My college professor and a terrific writer.
If you'll excuse me, I have a date with a cup of tea and a book....

Friday, December 5, 2008

A Soldier at Christmas

A soldier stood watch

Over his troop on

This Christmas night

The deep dark sky

Lights up very bright

As the war raged on

And our heroes had to fight.

The Soldier's mind went

Back to another place

And another time

Where there was a

Magnificent sign.

A huge bright star

Lit up the night

Sky in the East

As the Shepherds stood

Watch over their sheep.

In bethlehem there was

Great new and great joy

Of the Birth of a Savior

Christ the Lord.

News Spread over the land

Of a perfect gift sent down from God to man!

The Soldier stood praying

For his country and his family at home.

As he hears the firing of missiles in

This war torn zone

He may not be famous

Or lsiten in "Who's Who"

But he is here on a mission

With a job to do.

As a teen he accepted Salvation's plan

And if his life should

End in this foreign land

He is safe and secure in his Father's own hands.

-Ethyleen Tyson

Dec. 12, 2007

This was written by a local poet and it was read at the lighting of the community Christmas tree.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Postmortem: Turkey Day

That's me, above, surrounded by my brothers. It's been awhile since we've had a sibling picture, and I liked it better when I was taller than my younger brothers.
Nearly a week later, and my house is returning to a somewhat normal status following the Best Thanksgiving Ever. There were 16 of us gathered in my cozy kitchen and dining area (and living room, too), and we feasted on this potluck menu:

Appetizers: Cheddar Cayenne Coins and Maple Glazed Walnuts from Fine Cooking magazine

Roasted, Dry-Brined Turkey (13 pounds, buttered and roasted at 400 for just over two hours)

Smoked Turkey Breast (9 pounds, Cajun marinade, smoked for about six hours)

Cornbread Dressing (never stuffing)

Mashed Potatoes

Homemade Gravy

Sweet Potato Casserole
Cranberry Casserole

Deviled Eggs

Watergate Salad (green Jell-o fluff)

Cranberry Relish (homemade with fresh cranberries)

Cranberry Sauce (from the can, carefully opened to fully display the ridges)

Homemade Crescent Rolls (they take days and are worth it)

Boiled Rutabagas (a family tradition)

And for dessert (all homemade)...

Apple Cake

Cheesecake with raspberry or blueberry topping

Peanut Butter Chocolate Cake

After the meal, my dear husband went to work on our favorite Thanksgiving dish: the turkey soup. He carved the meat off the carcass and made a rich broth with it. The soup was finished with potatoes and some of the turkey breast meat. Two fine meals on T-day.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Mom's Apple Pie

This fall, with the abundance of fragrant and delicious organic apples from Farmer's Fresh, I got serious about pie making and baking. My mom is a wonderful cook, and bakes terrific cakes, but has always been intimidated by pie pastry, so, although I've learned a lot at my mom's apron strings, pie crust is not one of them.

My favorite resource is America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, and I used its recipe for this Double-Crust Apple Pie. The pie was loaded with about a dozen organic apples, mostly Golden Delicious, but a few Fujis in there as well. The Golden Delicious apples were spectacular, deeply fragrant and floral, and the crust was perfect.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

The Terror, Oops, I Mean UTTER JOY that is Thanksgiving

Or at least the preparation leading up to Thanksgiving. First of all, who in hockey sticks decided that children need to have the entire week off from school? We started school August 4th, for goodness' sakes. So, instead of a peaceful week reading Gourmet and Food & Wine and Fine Cooking, choosing recipes, shopping for ingredients and assembling the meal of the year, I'm making bologna sandwiches and picking up clothes (or yelling at my kids to pick up their clothes). I can't even send the little darlings outside to ride their bikes - this November cold snap gives us a sunny, but windy and chilly 45 degree high for the day.

Deep breath. Here's what I need to accomplish for the day: Cheddar-Cayenne Coins from FC's "How to Cook a Turkey," and a double batch of Crescent Rolls from a long-ago Cook's Illustrated. I've already made the Maple & Ginger-Glazed Walnuts from "How to Cook a Turkey" and my great battle will be keeping my mitts off them throughout the day.

Tomorrow will be Cleaning Day, because it doesn't matter how gorgeous and delicious the feast will be, if my oak floors are grody and the bathrooms need refreshing, that's all anyone will remember. I must point this out about every jaw-dropping T-Day spread in the food magazines. They may emphasize planning ahead, but not a one mentions how to entertain the kids while you're cooking, and who will scour the house so it's presentable for family and friends.

Now that I've got that off my chest, I can return to the kitchen. I may even be out of my pj's by lunchtime. Or not.

Friday, November 21, 2008

The Glory of Muffins

I received a phone call from the room mom the other day, asking me to send in a bag of chips for the kids' class party before the Thanksgiving break. The teacher will allow her fifth grade students to watch a movie and have a special snack. I laughed when my room mom friend asked me for chips. I said that if she wanted something homebaked, I'd be happy to oblige. To myself, I was thinking, "please, if you care at all for me, don't force me to make a third trip in three days to the supermarket!"

Fifth grade certainly is different from kindergarten and first grade, when daylong Thanksgiving feasts were celebrated and the children wore pilgrim hats and collars. Of course, the children always preferred to be Indians, with pasta beads around their necks, brown felt dresses and feathers in their hair. I treasure those years and probably still have at least one cardboard native headdress in the closet.

Back to fifth grade and my all-purpose home-baked goodie: morning glory muffins. Sort of a carrot cake muffin, these are loaded with fruit and love. They are a bit time-consuming to make, mainly due to assembling all the fruit. But they keep well and most children like them. You will get more praise from the teacher, however, because they have an aura of healthiness about them probably due to the fact that they're not covered in blue frosting like so many other sent-in treats.

My go-to recipe began with one in Susan Purdy's The Family Baker, which is probably my favorite baking book. Her recipes are true blue and never fail to please. Here is my adaptation of the recipe.

Morning Glory Muffins

1 cup packed Craisins (sweetened, dried cranberries)
1 cup crushed fresh or canned pineapple, drained
1 Granny Smith apple, peeled, cored, chopped
1/2 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
4 large carrots, peeled and grated to yield 2 cups
3 large eggs, at room temp
1 cup canola oil
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups unsifted all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tsp. ground cinnamon
demerara or sparkling sugar for topping

1. Preheat oven to 350 and coat muffin tins with baking spray or use paper liners.

2. In a large bowl, combine all the fruits, coconut and carrots. In another large bowl, whisk together the eggs, oil, sugar and vanilla. Place the sifter over this bowl, measure into it the flour, baking soda, salt and cinnamon, then all at once sift these ingredients directly onto the wet mixture. Stir everything together until just blended; do not overbeat. Stir in the fruit mixture.

3. Divide the batter among the muffin cups, filling almost to the top. Sprinkle the topping sugar on each muffin. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes, until the muffins rise, are crusty brown on top, and the top of the muffin springs back when touched. Remove the muffins from the oven and let cool in the pan for five minutes or so, then remove to a wire rack. Try to keep your mitts off the muffins for at least another 10 minutes - hot fruit can burn your mouth (voice of experience). Totally optional, yet heavenly: a dab of softened cream cheese on a warm muffin half.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

My Favorite Sandwiches

Lunch most days is a sandwich. Here are my favorites, and a few that I just want to think about:

1. Multi-grain bread, swiss cheese, sliced Fuji apple. grilled

2. White sourdough bread, steamed asparagus tips, cream cheese. This is my honeymoon sandwich.

3. Turkey breast, cherry relish, ciabatta. I heard this described on the radio last week and can't wait to try it.

4. Peanut butter & granola on multi-grain. When I'm too busy to think about what I should be eating.

5. Whole wheat bread, buttered, thinly sliced radishes and egg salad. Halcyon days of summer.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Good Gravy

With Turkey Day a week away, I'm pleased to report that the gravy, she is done and in the freezer. This was quite easy to accomplish because I roasted a bone-in turkey breast for a weeknight supper and after slicing off the extra meat for sandwiches, was left with a carved-up carcass just crying out to be used for a higher purpose. The lovely bones of the turkey were enhanced with the remains of two roast chickens from the deep freeze, a few roasted vegetables and a bay leaf or two or three.

The broth was chilled overnight, the yellow fat skimmed off the next day and then clarified with an egg-white raft, and it really worked! The resulting caramel-colored broth was rich with collagen and ready for its turn as gravy, (known in my household as the sixth block of the Food Pyramid).

Here's how I made the broth:

1. I took three poultry carcasses and cleaned them of any nasty looking bits. A smidge of meat is ok, but skin isn't necessary. I hacked the carcasses into several pieces, to make them fit better in the stockpot.

2. Into my largest All-Clad Dutch oven, I poured a glug of canola oil. I suppose you could use olive oil, but that seems like such a waste. In went the veg, all roughly chopped: one carrot, one onion, one stalk of celery. The barest amount of salt to aid the vegetablees in releasing their liquid. Caution is the rule with salt in stockmaking: remember that the liquid will reduce considerably. After about 10 minutes of judicious stirring, add the poultry bones and then cover with cold water from the tap. Do not be tempted to use hot tap water, it may speed the process, but hot tap water may have more minerals in it which could alter the taste of the broth.

3. Toss in a bay leaf or two or three, and let simmer away on stovetop for at least one hour, and not more than three. Be careful to monitor the liquid level and refresh if it gets too low. If a scummy film appears, use a spoon or small sieve to scoop it out. It's always a good idea to skim frequently while stockmaking.

4. When the broth is finished, remove from heat and let cool. The easiest method is to fill a sink with water and ice and place the stockpot in it, accelerating the cooling time. Place the cooled broth, covered in the fridge and the next day, skim off the fat. While the container is still cold, pour three egg whites into the cool broth and set the pan over low heat. Gradually, the broth will heat and the egg whites will cook and gather all the scummy debris from the broth. This may take up to a half hour, so be patient. Occasionally and very gently, use a spatula to pull the egg white off the bottom of the pan. When the broth is clear, remove the pan from heat and scoop out and discard the cooked egg. Let the broth cool.

5. The cooled broth can be further clarified by pouring it through a strainer lined with paper towels. (I tried coffee filters, and my goodness, wasn't that a waste of time.) Take the resulting amber nectar and save for gravymaking at a later time.

Ok, it's gravy time, and here's what you need to do:

1. In a small saucepan, pour a glug of canola oil. This sounds a bit familiar. Add these vegetables, all roughly chopped, one carrot, one onion, one stalk celery. Toss in a bay leaf or two or three. Maybe a pinch of salt, but be vewy careful.

2. Stir the vegetables until they are nice and caramel-colored, about 10 minutes, then add 1/4 cup all-purpose flour. Stir this into the vegetables for an additional 5 minutes or so. Then gradually add 4 cups of warm broth. Strain the broth through a sieve, discarding the solids. Cool and store the gravy in the fridge for a day or so, or place in the freezer until Thanksgiving Day.

3. On Turkey Day, stand by the stove, lovingly stirring the gravy, adjusting the seasoning and admiring your kitchen skills. Homemade gravy without lumps, and not requiring a packet or a pocket or a jar. Just a few essential items from the fridge.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Shirley Corriher is a Purple Crayon

Monday night, I managed to get out of my house, dodge the dishwashing and kid-washing, and go to an actual book signing event and talk with actual adults. The Margaret Mitchell House and Literary Center featured "Good Eats" host Alton Brown and cookbook author Shirley Corriher discussing her new title "Bakewise."

"Bakewise" is the long-awaited follow-up to "Cookwise: the Secrets of Cooking Revealed," which was published more than 10 years ago. I guess you could say that "Bakewise" has been in the oven for a long time. I guess low and slow does the trick.

Corriher's premise, much like Harold McGee's, is that once you know the science behind baking and cooking, your creativity can take over and your cooking life will be all that much more exciting. Sort of like Harold, the imaginative crayon-carrying boy in Crockett Johnson's "Harold and the Purple Crayon." Of course, you know this book, "One night, Harold decided to walk in the moonlight..." There wasn't a moon, so Harold brought along his purple crayon and drew the moon. Harold and his purple crayon are an expression of the power of creativity. If your world doesn't feature a moon, use a crayon and put it in there. The same goes for cooking: if you want to make the best pound cake, use the best tools, ingredients and techniques. And take along "Bakewise," your purple crayon, the scientific knowledge you need to be creative.

The book signing event was a giddy night for Atlanta baking and Food Network geeks. The audience chuckled over Corriher's animated explanations of proteins and acids. Alton Brown, whose show frequently features Corriher as a food science expert, kept the night light with questions both technical ("diastatic or non-diastatic malt syrup?") and relevant (his daughter's pursuit of a spherical chocolate chip cookie).

And for those FoodTv fans who just haaaave to know: Corriher is as giggly and animated as you would expect; Alton carries a manbag, dresses like a law student from "The Paper Chase" and is engaging and witty with both children and adults.

Now that I'm home with my copy of "Bakewise," I'm determined to figure out how to make a ginger cookie that is truly tender and chewy while still as flavorful as my favorite (see below). I'm even considering trying Shirley's "Even Greater American Pound Cake," although I'm very attached to my classic pound cake, for ease of preparation as well as superior texture and taste. I think some serious scientific experimentation is in order.

Green Bean Soup: Color Me Convinced

Thanksgiving is near and as I reflect on all that I'm thankful for in 2008, things as varied as change coming to the White House, no more diapers, and low gas prices, I must say that joining a CSA program has been a highlight of the year. Each week since May, my kitchen has been filled with fresh, organic produce, provided by Farmers Fresh Food. The glorious summer bags loaded with juicy sweet blueberries and homely but heavenly heirloom tomatoes were bookended with the greens of spring and the greens of fall. Chard and spinach filled the spring bags, while kale, arugula, turnips and lettuces came in the past couple months.

A consistent player throughout the late summer and fall has been the weekly one pound bag of green beans. Before this year, I only made green beans one way: cooked to death in pork stock, like any true Southern cook should. This method works very well for the flat, hearty Romano or pole beans that came in the summer. But what about the skinny, delicate haricots verts that are available now? Here's my latest discovery, and what a revelation it is, because it combines a technique and a vegetable that don't get much play in my house: green beans pureed into a soup. If you're still with me, then you're braver than I. Green bean soup sounds like baby food to me. Blech. We don't do those little jars in my house anymore. The kids eat real, whole foods, just like the grownups.

Facing an abundance of green beans and knowing that more would be in my near future, I made the soup and now I'm hooked. Try it. And if you think of a clever name to tell the kids, let me know. Both of my girls pronounced the soup delicious, although they weren't crazy about the name "Green Soup."

Green Bean Soup with Lemon Scallion Butter

Lemon Scallion Butter

1/2 cup chopped fresh scallions
1/4 cup unsalted butter
grated peel of one lemon
Two tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 small garlic clove, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

1 medium onion, chopped
1/4 cup unsalted butter
2 pounds green beans, trimmed and chopped
4 cups chicken broth, or vegetable broth
1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste
1 cup cream or half-n-half, optional
Freshly ground pepper

1. To make lemon scallion butter, combine the first five ingredients in blender or food processor until well blended. Set aside.

2. To make the soup, cook the onion in the remaining butter until translucent. Add the beans and cook for about 5 minutes. Add the chicken or vegetable broth and salt. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat and cook until the beans are tender, about 15 minutes.

3. Puree the soup in the blender, food processor or food mill. When using a food processor, I find it easier to remove the green beans from the broth with a slotted spoon and puree them until smooth. Put the pureed beans in a separate pot, adding broth until you get the consistency that you like. Warm the soup over low heat and add the cream, if you're using. The dairy is nice, but it mutes flavor and I like my soup intensely green and lemony.

4. Find your nicest soup plates and pour out a portion of the soup. Place a spoonful of the lemon butter in the middle of the soup. Makes about 4 reasonable servings.

In fall and winter, this soup is perfect with homemade buttermilk biscuits with shavings of good quality ham. In spring, I'd go with a chicken salad sandwich on white bread, cut into triangles.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Of Cookies and Proust

Perhaps no literary reference is appropriated as much as Proust's consideration of the madeleine in "Remembrance of Things Past." Go ahead, the next time you're browsing baking books at Borders, you will find that nine out of 10 recipe headnotes for madeleines will mention Proust. Considering that "Remembrance" is seven volumes long, I have doubts that so many food writers have truly read the book. I'm not a dilettante, I will not pretend that I have read Proust, although I have a copy of the first volume, "Swann's Way," somewhere in my home. However, I've read the allusion enough to submit my own substitute for the madeleine: the soft ginger cookie, a chewy disc, crackly with sugar, fragrant with cloves, cinnamon and the eponymous ginger, anointed with a puddle of raspberry jam right in the epicenter.

These cookies come from Becker's Bakery in Nashville, Tennessee, the Bakery of My Childhood. Bear with me as I reveal a bit of family history: my mom is a Nashville native, specifically of Brentwood, now a cornucopia of conspicuous consumption, but 60 something years ago just a small farm town near Music City. My mom likes to describe Brentwood as horse country, before all those country music stars built (really big) houses there. Although Dad's an Alabama native, he moved to Nashville in the early 60s for work, and then met and married Mom. My parents lived across the street from Mom's parents for several years, during which time my brother and I were born. Beginning in the mid-60s, better jobs called my parents to move to Texas and then South Carolina and finally, in 1978, Georgia. For me and my brothers, (two more would eventually come after me), the twin highlights of our childhood summers were a weeklong trip to the beach over the 4th of July holiday, and a week visiting my grandparents in Nashville. That visit always included a trip to Opryland, the Nashville Toy Museum, some really cool old folks, and Becker's Bakery at (I think) 8th Avenue.

I still remember the wood floors, wood display cases and fake wedding cake. Mom remembers the screen door in the back. While my brothers and I plastered our sticky hands on the display cases and shouted out the names of the treats, Mom would purchase the butter cookies, spritzes of pastel stars, in green, yellow and pink. We could each pick out a waving gingerbread man, one arm up and one arm down, sprinkled with red sugar. And no fewer than 2 dozen ginger cookies would come home with us. Or at least make it to the car, because I doubt they lasted more than 15 minutes with my sugar-crazed brothers (and me).

Every few years, we make a pilgrimage to Nashville, and that visit always included a trip to Becker's, until about 5 years ago when the store on 8th Avenue closed. There's still a Becker's in Donelson, on the north side of town, but the sentimental favorite near my mom's former home is no more. My daughter cried real tears when we told her. She was more upset than when I gave away her dog.

I have searched on top shelves and low shelves to find a recipe to equal Becker's, and this is the closest. It includes ground walnuts, which I don't think are in Becker's, but it makes for a tasty cookie. The texture is not quite as soft as Becker's, either, and I find that they are better after sitting for a day. These cookies are lovely on an autumn day, when you can sit with a cup of chamomile tea and curl up with a book, Proust perhaps, in a chair by a window with a clear view of the scarlet maple dropping its leaves.

Ginger Cookies

2 1/4 cups flour
1/2 cup ground walnuts
1 3/4 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
3/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed brown sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup Grandma's molasses
1/2 cup granulated sugar for coating the unbaked cookies
1/4 cup (approximately) seedless raspberry jam

1. In a bowl, stir together flour, walnuts, soda, salt, ginger, cinnamon and cloves; set aside. Preheat oven to 350.

2. In mixer bowl, combine butter and brown sugar; beat until well blended. Beat in egg, then molasses. Gradnually add flour mixture, beating until blended.

3. Spread granulated sugar in a shallow pan. Drop cookie dough by heaping tablespoons (I use a scoop for consistency) into sugar. Roll cookies to coat well, shaping them into balls as you roll.

4. Place about two inches apart on lined cookie sheets (I use Silpats, but parchment will work, too). With your thumb, make a small depression in the center of each cookie. Fill each thumbprint with about a 1/4 teaspoon jelly. I find that a baby feeding spoon, the narrow kind with the long handle, is just perfect for scooping the jelly and placing it on the cookie.

5. Bake the cookies until they are brown and feel firm when touched lightly, about 15 to 18 minutes. Cool on wire racks.

Makes about 30 cookies. Which means doubling is probably in order because these cookies go fast!

Sunday, November 9, 2008

Abundance of Riches

(Above) A sink of pure green: collards.

I was seduced by something green this week. Not a winning lottery ticket, sadly, but a 2 for $5 special on collard greens at the market. Big, fat bundles of the most perfect, clean greens I've ever seen. No slime, no grit, no half-eaten yellow leaves, just beautiful, cabbage-y collards ready to take home.

Here's a fact: you will never find recipes for collards in a Rachael Ray 30-minute meal cookbook. Cooking greens from scratch is a labor of love, which as another way of saying, a boatload of tedious work. But it is love for me, because, just like changing a newborn's nappies, cleaning and chopping collards, is a way to show your family you love them. That is, if your family likes greens, which mine don't. But someday they will, I just know it, which is why I bought the two humongoid bundles of drab green love and brought them home.

Not only are Rach's cookbooks devoid of greens recipes, so is my other fave ckbk, America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. I forged ahead with making standard Southern-style greens in smoked pork stock, a la Gift of Southern Cooking. Only after I cooked the greens did I think to look in Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone and where I spied a half-dozen collard recipes, all of them worthy of trying. Maybe next time.

This is what I did:

1. I pulled out my two largest pots and filled them half-full with water. Into each, I chunked a smoked turkey leg. I buy these in the supermarket, in the shrink-wrapped packages, and keep them in the freezer. (A good Southern cook should never be without porky or smoky seasoning, so, so I also buy smoked turkey wings, and country ham scraps or seasoning cubes, and freeze those, also.). I let the turkey legs boil while I washed and trimmed the collards.

2. In my vegetable sink filled 3/4 with water, I rinsed the collard leaves then began pulling off the stems. This is the tedious part, but a child can be taught to help, all you do is fold the leaf in half and pull out the tough stem, which should then go in your compost bowl. As Elle says, Rinse and Repeat with the remaining collards.

3. I took the clean greens and bundled them, something like a cigar of basil to be chiffonaded (is that a word?), and then sliced them into inch-wide ribbons. I let the chopped greens boil for at least an hour, covered for most of the time. When I left the house for the afternoon carpool run, I covered the pots with foil and placed them in the convection oven on 200 for about two hours.

Notice that I have not seasoned these greens yet. In my mind, greens take much less salt than you would imagine, and I never know how much they're going to cook down and how salty the seasoning meat is, so I wait until the end to sprinkle with a bit of kosher salt.

Now, to serve the greens. Some folks use pepper vinegar, and I always keep a bottle on hand, but I personally like red wine vinegar, just a splash. A perfect autumn supper would be a big bowl of collard greens, swimming in pot liquor, a wedge of warm buttermilk cornbread and a side of fresh black-eyed peas. My kids would take one look at that meal and request cornflakes, the if-you-don't-like-the-meal default, so here's the rest of the menu:

Autumn Menu

Roasted Cajun-Spiced Turkey Breast

Southern-style Collard Greens

Roasted Sweet Potatoes

Macaroni and Cheese

Friday, October 31, 2008

Rainy Day & Night in Georgia

I've never experienced a nor'easter, but last week experienced the Georgia version: a sopping wet day, sometimes a gully-washer, other times just drizzly, but overall, a day to spend indoors, stirring at something on the stove. Which implies that I have all the ingredients on hand for something on the stove. Which I don't. Which is why, on a truly nasty rainy Friday morning I went to Wal-Mart, of all places, to find ingredients for my soul-satisfying Seafood Chowder.

This is how I make it:

1. Start with a good size Dutch oven. I use my All-Clad stainless and put it on a medium heat. Take five or six slices of bacon, stacked and sliced in 1/4 inch lengths. Fry the bacon until crispy and the drain in paper towels, reserving the grease. Pour the grease into a separate metal container and measure out two tablespoonfuls back into the pan, still on medium heat.

2. Chop two medium-size onions and sizzle those in the bacon grease with the barest pinch of salt, if you must. Everything in this chowder has salt in it, so go easy. You can always adjust the seasonings at the end. After the onions are soft and bacony, add 3 minced cloves of garlic, and stir for just a minute. Chop one stalk of celery and add to pot, cooking until soft.

3. Add one 15 oz. can of low sodium chicken broth, or water, plus one small bottle of clam juice. Open three cans of chopped clams (I prefer the chopped to minced, which look like cat food), and add to the soup, juice and all. Toss in three bay leaves and a bit of freshly ground pepper, perhaps a few thyme leaves if the plant is near the kitchen door.

4. Peel three medium all-purpose potatoes and cut into 1/2-inch dice. Put these into pan and let simmer away. When the potatoes are soft, add one pound of frozen flounder, chopped into 1-inch squares. You may also want to add sea scallops, if you have those, too. Shrimp are nice, but an extravagant touch if you ask me. Let the seafood cook through, perhaps five minutes or so.

5. Just before serving, add a staggering amount of half-n-half, perhaps three or four cups, warm up the soup, then adjust the seasoning. Serve with warm cheesy garlic bread, or just the little hexagonal soup crackers. This will restore your soul on a lousy day.

Halloween Cakes

Graveyard Cake
Above is from Halloween 2008, a graveyard cake, not quite as fancy as in years past, but homemade, delicious, and lots of fun for the kids to create. The headstones are Pepperidge Farm Milano cookies, the ghosts are Peeps and the border is pretzels. No prizes, but still a fun project.

Pound Cake Pumpkins by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Halloween 2007, featuring one cute kid and three big pumpkin cakes. I baked pound cake batter in every Bundt pan in the house and frosted two together to make pumpkins. The leaves are fondant, created by the cute kid. This cake was very heavy, delicious, and won the school's award for creativity!

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Makin' Bacon

Remember the old dog food commercial where the dog ran through the house chanting in a gruff voice "bacon! bacon! bacon!" I can't remember the product, but I think of the ad every time I make brown sugar bacon for my kids. They are bacon fiends and this is their favorite preparation. I know it's not health food, but for every few weeks, it's nice to see them truly excited about food.

This recipe is all over the internet, sometimes called Candied Bacon, or Sugared Bacon, and it's really very simple: just thick cut bacon, sprinkled with sugar and baked in the oven. I've tried many brands of bacon, but I've always had success with Oscar Mayer Hearty Thick Cut Bacon.

Brown Sugar Bacon

1. Prepare the pan: take a sheet pan and cover it with foil. Do not skip this step -- the grease and sugar from this dish are a bear to clean from a naked pan. If you have a cooling rack that can go in the oven, put this over the foil. It will help keep the bacon from frying in the grease, again helping with the cleanup.

2. Preheat oven to 350. Lay out 1/2 the package of bacon strips on the cooling rack grid. This is enough for my family, but if you have two pans and cooling racks, and a large enough oven you can cook the entire pound at once.

3. Sprinkle brown sugar (dark brown is better, but light brown will work) lightly over each slice, perhaps a 1/2 teaspoon on each slice. If you want to kick it up, you can put a sprinkle of cayenne pepper over the sugar.

4. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes. I use convection, so your time may vary.

5. Drain bacon on paper towels, being careful not to let the sugar side touch the towels or you'll have paper-coated bacon slices.

6. Don't worry about calling the kids to the table. The smell of bacon will waft through the air and draw them to you.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Clean Out the Fridge Saturday

My Saturday was spent in the kitchen, trying to replace the chaos in my fridge with orderly packages and containers. I discovered that I have a hoarding disorder, perhaps brought about by the recent Wall Street rollercoaster ride. The vegetable drawer, for example, contained:

5 red, ripe tomatoes
3 zucchini
15 apples (ready for a pie)
1 large hand of ginger
4 limes
3 lemons
5 green tomatoes
1 lb. green beans
2 heads butter lettuce
1 bunch mustard & other greens
2 lbs. carrots
3 celery hearts
5 red onions
3 cooked sweet potatoes
1 butternut squash, intended for soup, or perhaps roasting
1 bunch of radishes
1 bunch of herbs that includes basil, lemon grass and some tiny yellow flowering tarragon stems

I also found in the dry storage: 4 sweet potatoes, 3 baking potatoes, 3 yukon gold potatoes, 15 red potatoes and 6 yellow onions.

Here's what became of the produce:

A. One absolutely luscious double-crust apple pie, stuffed to the brim with Golden Delicious, Fuji and Gala apples. Sure I poured off about a 1/2 cup of juice in the bottom of the plate, but that did nothing to dampen my pride.

B. A lovely salad with butter lettuce and radishes. I may cry the next time I eat iceberg lettuce from a bag. The lettuce and radishes are from my CSA and are the essence of freshness.

C. Evelyn's Briami. Probably the best roasted vegetables on the planet. I've mentioned Evelyn before. She's Evelyn from Athens, Greece, and you can find her on RecipeZaar. Her recipes are all about simplicity and good ingredients and tasty results. The briami recipe, which she assures me can be used with a variety of vegetables, can be found here.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Something to Chew On

As I physically and mentally prepare for the meal of the year, I find comfort in Laurie Colwin's words.

"Although turkey is delicious in itself, it is burdened with context as the say in the literary criticism racket. A turkey without seasonal angst is like a baseball game without the national anthem, a winter without snow, a birthday party without candles. For better and worse, the exhaustion, the exhilaration, the expectations, and the complications are a kind of emotional condiment, the secret element that gives turkey its essential spirit."

from More Home Cooking by Laurie Colwin

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Ban the Blue Box

I have probably never eaten as much mac and cheese in my life as I have eaten in the past 10 years of feeding young children. My husband and kids love the blue box brand, and I admit to keeping a box in the pantry for really, really crazy times when I need to feed the kids in a fast, efficient way and my brain just can't wrap around the idea of pulling together a real meal.
But for those times when I want to feel like a real mom, the kind who irons dresses with puff sleeves and sashes and curls hair with pretty ribbons, I make my homemade mac and cheese. This is not one of those complicated four-cheese dishes with a crumb crust. This is an everyday stovetop recipe, one that I found in my Pillsbury Cookbook, the ringbound basic book that I received at a bridal shower (Thanks, Brenda!). It's very simple to make, and a little lighter than regular mac and cheese, because there's no butter. Be sure to use whole milk, though, for a creamier texture.

Creamy Macaroni and Cheese

8 oz. uncooked elbow macaroni
1/4 cup flour
2 cups milk
8 oz. (2 cups) shredded American cheese
1/8 tsp. pepper
Just the slightest bit dry mustard

Cook macaroni to desired doneness as directed on package. Drain; rinse with hot water. In jar with tight-fitting lid, combine flur and 1 cup of the milk; shake until well blended. Pour into medium nonstick saucepan; add remaining milk. Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly, until mixture boils and thickens. Add cheese; continue cooking until cheese is melted, stirring constantly. Add cooked macaroni and pepper. Heat thoroughly. Serve to ravenous kids who will scarf it down and beg for seconds.
I like to make this early in the day, when the kids are at school and I have time in my kitchen. It reheats quite nicely in the microwave.

Monday, September 29, 2008

She's Back in the Kitchen & Taking Names

After a brief hiatus spent job-hunting and adjusting to having two young children in school, not to mention aimless hours searching for gas stations with fuel to sell, I've returned to the kitchen, my source for solace in the approaching autumn. The light through the window has changed, it's amber coming through at a different angle, backlighting the spider web on the porch. My soul seeks comfort food, but my warm house isn't quite ready for day-long braises and Dutch ovens bubbling over with stewed chicken and bready dumplings. Ratatouille, thick with chunks of eggplant swimming in fresh tomato, I've found, speaks to my soul and lets me walk away from the table without needing a starch-induced nap.

There are at least two approaches to preparing ratatouille: the one-pot method, where each item is chopped and added to the pan gradually. This yields a tasty, but homogeneous stew. My preferred method requires roasting some of the vegetables, namely the eggplant, to give some textural variety to the final product. My favorite is derived from the Gourmet Cookbook. Here is the recipe, with my variations noted in parentheses.


4 large tomatoes, peeled and chopped
8 large garlic cloves, thinly sliced
1 cup copped fresh flat-leaf parsley (I left this out, due to my garden's parsley crop failure)
1 cup plus 2 tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil (I don't think I used this much. I just added a bit as I went along)
1 (2 lb.) eggplant, cut into 1-inch cubes (I use 3 or 4 Japanese eggplants, peeled, halved lengthwise and sliced into 1-inch cubes)
2 1/4 tsp. salt (I didn't measure salt, but tasted as I went along)
2 large onions, (halved and then cut into 4 wedges per half)
3 assorted bell peppers, cored, seeded and cut into 1-inch wide pieces
4 medium zucchini, quartered lengthwise and cut crosswise into 3/4 inch think pieces (I used yellow summer sqash instead and peeled it first, just because I always do)
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

Combine tomatoes, garlic, parsley, basil and 1/3 cup oil in a 5-quart heavy pot, bring to a simmer and cook, covered, stirring occasionally, until tomatoes break down and sauce is slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.

(The instructions then describe salting eggplant, which I did not do because I used the Japanese eggplants. They are petite and do not require salting to remove the bitter liquid.)

Meanwhile, heat 3 tablespoons oil in a 12-inch skillet over moderate heat. Add onions with 1/4 tsp. salt and cook, stirring occasionally, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes. With a slotted spoon, transfer onions to a large bowl. Add 3 more tablespoons oil to skillet and cook bell peppers, with 1/4 tsp. salt, stirring occasionally, until softened, about 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer peppers to bowl with onions. Add 3 more tabespoons oil to skillet and cook squash with 1/4 tsp. salt, stirring occasionally until softened, 8 to 10 minutes. With slotted spoon, transfer squash to bowl with other vegetables.

While squash is cooking, add remaining oil to skillet and cook eggplant over moderate heat, stirring occasionally, until softened, 10 to 12 minutes.

Add vegetables, remaining 1 tsp. salt, and pepper to tomato sauce and simmer, covered, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are very tender, about 1 hour. Season ratatouille with salt (and a few generous grinds of black pepper). Cool, uncovered, and serve warm at room temperature.

A container of ratatouille in the fridge is as good as having a jar of peanut butter in the pantry. This versatile stew can be eaten warm or at room temperature. It's also excellent with garlicky sausage bits stirred in or perhaps some flaky white fish, which reminds me of my uncle's seafood stew served when I was (quite a bit) younger.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Labor Day Grill

Ta Tonka Fromage Burgers
Grilled Sweet Corn
Creamy American Potato Salad
Glazed Carrots
Fudgy Brownies

The Ta Tonka Fromage is a family joke -- it's bison burgers with cheese. On a vacation in New Mexico, we learned that the Native American word for buffalo is Ta Tonka, so we celebrate that little nugget of knowledge each time I make the burgers. I mix a pound of bison meat with 1/2 of an onion, finely chopped, and splashes of ketchup, soy sauce and whatever steak sauce is kicking in the fridge. This mixture is shaped into patties, grilled and served with American cheese slices, because I'm the kind of food snob who only buys Kraft Singles, not the store brands. You'll find very few convenience foods and "cheese food" type ingredients in my home, but I like Kraft singles for superior meltability and kid-friendly packaging.

The potato salad is from America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook and it uses a technique that I wrote about for Greek potato salad - tossing the warm potato chunks in seasoned red wine vinegar. This was a very good potato salad, with the expected dollop of Dijon in the mayo, sliced, boiled eggs and chopped sweet pickles, not pickle relish. It was quite tasty and the recipe page shall be bookmarked.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Night Supper

Bathed-in-Butter Roasted Chicken
Braised Green Beans with Cherry Tomatoes and Onions
Cantaloupe Rainbows with Honey and Lime Dressing
Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding
Today's menu was filled with tried-and-true favorites. The dog days are wearing on me and my mind is turning to the comforts of cooler weather and heartier cooking. While the baby napped on the sofa, I roasted a whole chicken in a cast-iron skillet. My method combines two techniques: the first is brining, and the second is a high-heat roasting technique that I first read about in Fine Cooking. I will write later on the butter-basted roast chicken.
The braised green beans are from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. The CSA bag includes green beans each week -- big, fat pole beans. I cooked them with country ham last week, so I thought I'd try a vegetarian option this week, and they were yummy. The cantaloupe was a satisfying texture, but lacking in sweetness, so I spiked it with bit of honey and lime, an all-time favorite with my older daughter.
And for dessert, rice pudding, using the method in America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, first cooking a cup of rice in 2 cups of water, then adding four cups of whole milk and 2/3 cup of sugar, before simmering and stirring in a teaspoon of vanilla. The last of summer's peaches will top off individual servings. In fact, it's dessert time now....

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Goodbye, Summer

This was the beginning of summer at a Braves game in June.
Lindsey is 2 and Laura is 9.
School has been in session for a month and the leaves are already falling.
Goodbye, summer 2008!

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's the Funniest Thing...

I've cooked a lot lately, but it's mostly the same old stuff I've already written about. I'm also busy with other projects, namely finding a permanent work situation, so I haven't had time to craft the articles that I dearly want to write. In the meantime, I've found a few items that have made me laugh so hard, I cried. Here they are:

1. This is an excerpt from Dan Quayle's Wiki page. It made me long for the good ol' days when we worried what vegetables the President ate, not whether the Commander-in-Chief had the IQ of a vegetable.

"Contributing greatly to the perception of Quayle's incompetence was his tendency to make public statements which were either self-contradictory ("We don't want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward"), logically redundant ("The future will be better tomorrow"), obvious ("For NASA, space is still a high priority"), geographically wrong ("I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix."), fallacious ("It's time for the human race to enter the solar system"),or painfully confused and inappropriate, as when he addressed the United Negro College Fund, whose slogan is "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," Quayle said "You take the United Negro College Fund model that what a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

As Vice President, Quayle was asked his thoughts on sending humans to Mars. His response was stunning for the number of errors he made in just a few short sentences. "Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as earth]....Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."

2. The blog Cakewrecks. When my day is overwhelming, like today when I was trapped in the car with two very unhappy and vocal children, I long to get home and take a look at this eccentric little blog. Be sure to check out the story about the firefighter cake!

3. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. Maybe not laugh out loud funny like the cake blog, but brain candy that does its job - putting the reader in another, more frivolous time and place. A bubble bath for the brain, if you will.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Menu for High Summer

In high summer, I like to cook early in the day and reheat supper just before serving. This morning, I made my standard mac and cheese, which is not really special, but it's mild and creamy, just the way my kids like it. Field peas and okra were farm-fresh and served as side dishes beside the ham steak, which needed just five minutes on the griddle to cook through. The real star of the meal was a Double-Crust Apple Pie, made with hand-picked farm apples given to me by a friend. Another reason to love summer - just this week, I've been the lucky recipient of home-grown cherry tomatoes and Granny Smith apples!

Ham Steaks
From-Scratch Macaroni and Cheese
Field Peas
Double-Crust Apple Pie

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Night's All Right

Grandmaw Peacock's Chicken & Rice
Cornmeal Fried Okra
Purple Hull Peas Simmered with Country Ham
Brown Sugar Pie

Friday, August 8, 2008

Treasures on the Bookshelf

I am happiest in a kitchen and surrounded by books. That's why my glorious kitchen features about 20 feet of bookshelf space around the perimeter, and since the shelves are near the top of 12-foot ceilings, they are thoroughly cleaned just a few times a year. August is proving too hot to do much outside, so indoor projects, like the dreaded dusting of the bookshelves, are taking over.

As far as I can tell from my perch on the ladder, there are two benefits to this semi-annual project: I can artfully rearrange my collection of pottery and find a few cookbooks that I'd forgotten about. Today's high-altitude adventure yielded a few lost treasures:

1. Chez Panisse Cooking by Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli. I have no idea how I acquired this book. It has a red remainder mark on the top edge, so I'm comforted that I didn't pay full price. I've only glanced through this book before and find the hand-tinted photographs disturbing and the glossy heavyweight paper off-putting. The style of the book seems more appropriate for a coffee table book, although the format is too narrow for the book to lay open at any double-page spread. Here at the height of summer produce, I'm willing to give the recipes a try, after all, Waters and Bertolli are supposedly genius cooks, not book designers.

2. Taste of Summer by Diane Rossen Worthington. I bought this book on a bookstore customer's strong recommendation. She was a gourmet cook and was stunned, absolutely shocked that I didn't own a copy of Taste of Summer. To be honest, I look through this book each summer and vow to make something, anything. The pictures are sumptuous and the recipes appear to be clearly written. I scan the recipes and kick out ideas for grilling (not my thing), recipes featuring tomatillos (couldn't begin to tell you where I'd find those fresh), and lobster (no room in the budget since gas is $4 a gallon). I'll look in next week's CSA bag and see if I can make anything fit.

3. The Summer Book by Susan Branch. This is more my idea of a cozy cookbook to curl up on the sofa with. I've had mixed results with Branch's recipes, but I always enjoy reading her books. The pages are like illuminated manuscripts, each recipe crafted and embellished with poetry, calligraphy and whimsical drawings. A blueberry and apple pie recipe caught my eye. I may have to give that a try during the last days of what is turning out to be an excellent blueberry season.

4. Dori Sanders' Country Cooking. I pull this book from the shelf every so often, mainly because Sanders is one of my all-time favorite novelists. My 10-year old daughter read Clover this summer and declared it one of the best books she's ever read. Sanders writes her books at her family's peach stand in Filbert, SC. I can't say we shared the same red clay childhood, but she writes about a place and people that I remember with affection.

5. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison is a big surprise. Not just because it's about 700 pages and can be employed as an effective weapon if one is desperate. Just leaving this book open on the counter is a joy. The fresh tomatoes and green beans and onions in this week's CSA bag were made into a ragout, using Madison's recipe. It's the kind of book that makes me want to cook and cook and cook. And eat and eat and eat.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fieldhands' Dinner

Unlike most Southerners, I was raised to call the noontime meal "lunch." I endured occasional ridicule for this habit by other children who believed the noontime meal was properly called "dinner" and the evening meal "supper." In my house, we called the evening meal "dinner" or sometimes "supper." Potato, potAHto, I say, let's just eat. Today, we made a proper Southern dinner, or noontime meal, fit for farmhands and heavy laborers.

This morning my girls and I made a blueberry pie, using the plump, sweet CSA berries from Haven Farms and the small, tart berries from the local u-pick. A lot of heavy mommy labor went into acquiring those berries (not days; cranky kids) and they deserved first-class treatment. I used the pastry recipe from Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking, adding a tablespoon of sugar, and it turned out fine, flaky, golden and tender. I ad-libbed the filling - four cups of blueberries with the zest of one lemon, the juice of half the lemon, a tablespoon of cornstarch and 1/2 cup of sugar. The cornstarch didn't do its job holding the pie together; the result was a tasty lemony blueberry soup in a pie crust. After removing the initial slice, the filling merged in the middle, creating a blueberry lake worthy of Willy Wonka. The latest Cook's Illustrated suggests using a grated Granny Smith apple to bind a blueberry pie, and I will definitely try that next time.

Fieldhands' Dinner
Pan-Fried Ham Steak
Pole Beans Simmered in Pork Stock with Potatoes and Onions
Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes
Corn on the Cob
Sliced Fresh South Carolina Peaches
Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits
Homemade Blueberry Pie
This must be a good year for green beans; each week I find at least a pound, sometimes two in the CSA bag. They are labeled Romano beans, and are broad and flat, about 6 inches long, usually green, but this week, a pale yellow. I'm sure there are many recipes for fresh green beans, but, honestly, I'm happy with Southern-style beans cooked in pork stock. I've come to this method from several sources, mainly Fanny Flagg's cookbook, and the always-popular Gift of Southern Cooking.
Before I prepped the beans, I put a 2 quart pot of water on to boil, and dropped in a handful of country ham scraps. These ham scraps can be found near the bacon in the supermarket, in cryovac packages, not necessarily in the refrigerated case. Whatever amount is left over, I seal in a bag and toss in the freezer. You could also use a smoked ham hock or turkey wings or legs, but the best flavor will come from the country ham.
While the pork stock is simmering, you may feel the need to skim any foam that rises to the top. Sometimes cooking Southern vegetables is a lot like making stock -- "skim, skim, skim" is the mantra. This is the time to prep the beans -- just get into a comfy chair with two bowls and the bag of beans. A helpful child snugged up close is optional, but nice. For the beans, snap each green end off, and break the pods into 2-inch sections. Use one bowl for discards, the other for keepers. Rinse the bean sections well and place in the bubbling pork stock. Add two or more small red potatoes, peeled and quartered, if necessary, and one large onion, peeled then sliced in wedges. Let simmer uncovered on cooktop for about two hours, until beans are tender. Be cautious about salt -- you will definitely need it, but the pot liquor concentrates as it cooks down.
I'm so proud that I finally know how to properly cook Southern green beans. I could grab the can of Allen's Seasoned Southern Style when I'm in the store, and in the coldest days of winter, I certainly will, but when I have fresh organic pole beans on hand, it's easy and tasty to make my own.

I'll Have What She's Having

"When it comes to forming a philosophy or a political position about what to eat, I leave that to each one of you to work out. But whether you place your vegetables at the center of your plate, reserve that place for meat, or find comfort somewhere in between, enjoy, eat well, and raise a glass to life!"

--Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Queen of Chicken Casseroles

I took a Tex-Mex turn today, stirring up my version of the King Ranch Casserole, a tasty dish popular with can opener cooks. I'm not a food snob, my kids love the blue box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or is it Cheese and Macaroni? Not.) and there's always a couple cans of Campbell's in the pantry. I have, in fact, made the can opener version of King Ranch, which involves opening cans of Cream of Chicken soup, diced green chilies and Ro-tel and stirring them together with sour cream. This sauce is layered with cooked chicken and tortillas and topped with cheese before baking.

While reading through Art Smith's Kitchen Life, an excellent home cooking resource, I came upon his version called From-Scratch King Ranch casserole. OK, I love Art, but I find it difficult for a cook to call something "from scratch" when you open three cans and a jar (in this case, chicken broth, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and chopped green chilies). At least the recipe called for cooking chicken thighs in the broth and then creating a spicy veloute to layer with the chicken and tortillas.

My version used what I had on hand - leftover roasted chicken breast meat, fresh sweet peppers from this week's CSA bag, and leftover homemade vegetable broth. I clean forgot about using tomatoes, a key ingredient in typical versions, and the recipe did not suffer for it. In fact, my recipe is better without tomatoes and the mushrooms in Art's version. Here's how I made

Queen Ranch Casserole
9 corn tortillas
2 cups cooked chicken, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups broth, vegetable or chicken, or use water
2 roasted red bell peppers, freshly made or from a jar, chopped
1 small can diced green chilies
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon grill seasoning
2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese or Mexican cheese blend
1/2 cup sour cream, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and position a rack in the center. Lightly coat a 9 X 13 inch baking dish with the oil spray.

2. Arrange the tortillas directly on the oven racks. Bake until the tortillas are dry, about 6 minutes. Remove the tortillas from the oven and let cool.

3. In a bowl, combine cooked chicken, chopped bell pepper, and diced green chilies.

4. In skillet, melt butter and saute onion. Add chili powder and grill seasoning. Cook until onions are soft. Whisk in flour and stir until smooth. Slowly add milk and broth and season to taste.

5. In baking dish, place three tortillas, breaking into chips to create a complete layer. Add half of chicken mixture and then cover with a third of the sauce. Top with a third of the cheese. Repeat these layers. Add the final layer of tortillas, cover with remaining sauce and cheese. Bake in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes, until bubbly and golden and the cheese has melted. Serve individual portions topped with sour cream.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Chicken Tonight

It was a classic 70s Mom moment: I pored through my cookbooks asking myself, "what can I do with chicken tonight?" Of course, the 70s mom would have have worried about ground beef, but I had a 1-pound package of bone-in chicken breasts about a day past its expiration and due for a date with the freezer.

I prefer bone-in poultry because I love to braise - making a hearty pot of chicken and dumplings or chicken stew that can simmer in the oven for most of the day, the chicken releasing its juices into a savory broth. In the summer, however, I avoid these kind of kitchen-warming projects. But my husband found some chicken breasts on sale at the market and I needed a quick and easy supper idea. I guess most folks would coat the breasts in barbecue sauce and grill them, but given the stormy weather, an indoor recipe would need to be found. I checked through two favorite cookbooks, a cherished ring-bound Pillsbury Cookbook, missing its covers, but still holding its own as a home cooking go-to resource; and my favorite cookbook, Big Orange, the America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, revised edition. My search this time yielded a Roast Chicken with Vegetables in ATK that used bone-in chicken breasts and required just one pan.

I cut up two carrots, six red potatoes and two onions, mixed them with a double glug of olive oil and a teaspoon of dried thyme (ATK test cooks are overly enamored with thyme, IMO; I will probably leave it out next time), spread them in a pan and baked them for 15 minutes in a hot, 450 degree oven. The chicken breasts were placed over the vegetables, brushed with a few tablespoons of melted butter (ATK is also big believer in doubling up on fats), and seasoned with salt and pepper. Both chicken and vegetables returned to the oven for about 30 minutes (this was convection, allow longer for conventional). When I opened the oven door, the aromatic chicken was a sight to behold - skin the color of aged cherrywood and juicy, tender flesh. The potatoes cooked in melted butter, olive oil and melted chicken fat were a guilty pleasure.

As always, the proof is in the leftovers - the kids gobbled up the chicken and veggies, so I have a just one plump breast left over for chopping up and making chicken salad. Rounding out the meal were steamed broccoli, wilted spinach cooked with bacon and bunches of champagne grapes for dessert.

Roasted Chicken Breasts with Root Vegetables
Steamed Broccoli
Wilted Spinach with Bacon
Champagne Grapes

Friday, July 25, 2008

Tomato and Corn Soup Menu

Summer Soup Menu
Roasted Tomato, Red Pepper and Corn Soup
Biscuits and Bacon
Southern Style Green Beans with Country Ham
Honeydew Melon Chunks with Blueberries in Honey-Lime Dressing

The soup is my variation of a recipe from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. This book has sat on my shelf for at least eight years. I've admired the bright orange binding for several years, but only started reading it a couple days ago, inspired by its new Gourmet Magazine Cookbook Club status. I feel a little like when I realized what Yertle the Turtle is really all about - this is a tremendous book, more of a cooking primer than the preachy vegetarian treatise I expected it to be. In fact, reading through the introductory material so far, I've yet to encounter the "I'm Vegetarian and I'm Saving the Planet, Why Aren't You?" sermon. Instead, there is all sorts of practical, basic cooking information. I've read a lot of Cooking 101 books and this goes beyond those and more - lots of valuable info on ingredients and equipment, even pictures demonstrating proper knife technique.
Tonight's soup is based on the Corn Soup recipe, using the Quick Broth instead of water. I loved the use-it-all-up stock method that incorporated the scraped corn cobs. My version of the Corn Soup turned out just a bit bland, so I upped the flavor with the really ripe produce on my kitchen counter - tomatoes and peppers. I slow-roasted the vegetables with a bit of garlic and olive oil, then pureed the cool mixture. I poured off some of the liquid in the corn soup and added the vegeatable puree, et voila, roasted tomato, red pepper and corn soup a la Deborah Madison. Excellent.
The Honey and Lime dressing is a trick I use to liven up so-so fruit, especially melons. I'm thoroughly convinced that I will win the lottery before I find a sweet honeydew melon. The melon my husband brought home was beautiful as all get-out, but tasted of green nothing. A tablespoon of lime juice and a drizzle of honey solved the problem.

Madison describes the quick vegetable tock as relaxed and improvisational, a riff on whatever soup is being made that night. For example, I added the scraped corn cobs to the stock as I prepared the soup vegetables, then poured the strained stock directly into the soup pot. Here is Madison's recipe, with my variations noted in parentheses.

Quick Stock
from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison
2 tsp. vegetable oil

1 onion, peeled and coarsely chopped (if the peel is clean, I add the onion straight to the pot without peeling)

1 carrot, coarsely chopped

1 celery rib, coarsely chopped

Trimmings from the soup vegetables, rinsed

2 bay leaves and several thyme sprigs or 1/4 teaspoon dried

4 or more garlic cloves, peeled and smashed

8 parsley branches, including the stems, or a small handful of stems

Additional herbs and spices appropriate for the soup

Heat the oil over high heat and add the onion, carrot and celery. While they're browning, peel the vegetables and add the trimmings to the soup along with the aromatics. Stir occasionally. After about 10 minutes, add 2 teaspoons salt and 2 quarts cold water and bring to a boil, then lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 25 to 35 minutes. Strain as soon as the stock is finished.

Sweet Corn Soup
from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison

6 ears corn

1 tablespoon butter

1 small onion, thinly sliced

1/2 cup grated waxy potato, such as Yellow Finn (I substituted a smallish red potato, hope that was waxy enough)

7 cups water; or Quick Stock (I thought this was about 3 cups too much liquid)


Half and half or milk, optional

Chopped parsley, basil, or other herbs, for garnish

Shuck the corn, remove the silk, then slice off the kernels. You should have about 4 cups. Use the flavor-filled cobs in the stock (yes, got that!).

In a wide soup pot, melt the butter, then add the onion, potato and 1 cup of the water or stock. Cover the pot and stew over medium heat until the onion is soft, about 10 minutes. Add the corn, 1 teaspoon salt, and the remaining water and bring to a boil. Lower the heat and simmer, partially covered for 10 minutes. Cool briefly, then puree in a blender in two batches, allowing 3 minutes for each batch. Pass through a food mill or fine straineer then return the soup to the stove and stir in the dairy to thin it, if desired. Taste for salt and serve sprinkled with herbs. When reheating, stir frequently and don't boil or the soup will curdle.

Serves 6 to 8.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Supper for a Stormy Night

Tuesday Night Menu
Braised Pork Chops with Root Vegetables
Brown Rice Pilaf
Field Peas
Peach Kuchen

Peaches by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
A real thunderstorm settled over our town late this afternoon, with high winds that snapped the dry pine trees and hail that damaged cars. We were cozy in our darkened house, eating a comforting meal made special by the fresh summer vegetables and fruit. We began with my favorite pork chops, braised with carrots and potatoes and concluded with a Peach Kuchen.
The Peach Kuchen is from Beans, Greens, and Sweet Georgia Peaches by Damon Lee Fowler, a Savannah writer  whose books are packed with "must-try" recipes. I pulled "Beans, Greens," from the shelf earlier in the spring and have cooked steadily from it. The peach kuchen recipe is a custard tart with a press-in pie crust made with butter and cider vinegar. It is easy, easy and especially yummy with the dead-ripe peaches from my fruit bowl. My daughter ate two servings and plans to eat another slice for breakfast. In fact, this recipe would be perfect for a weekend breakfast, when you have the 15 minutes needed to cook the custard and 40 minutes for the kuchen to bake. The mango variation sounds nice for the winter months when we get South American mangoes.
Note: the 1 cup of sugar leads to a very sweet custard - I plan to cut the sugar by at least 1/4 cup next time. I also added a splash of vanilla to my custard.
Peach or Mango Custard Kuchen
from Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches
by Damon Lee Fowler

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar


1/4 pound (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened

1 tablespoon cider vinegar

4 large eggs

1 cup half and half
1 cup sugar (you may want to cut this amount)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 heaping cup peaches or mangoes, peeled, pitted and cut into cubes

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Combine the flour, sugar and a small pinch of salt in a mixing bowl. Work in the butter until the mixture resembles cookie dough (you can do this with a pastry blender or your fingers). Work in the vinegar, then press the dough evenly over the bottom and up the sides of an 8-inch square casserole or 9-inch round pie plate. Bake in the center of the oven until the crust is beginning to color, about 10 minutes. Remove it from the oven and reduce the temperature to 375 degrees.

2. Add water to the bottom of a double boiler. Bring the water to a simmer over medium heat. Break the eggs into a mixing bowl and beat until they are smooth. Whisk in the cream until smooth, and then stir in the sugar and a tiny pinch of salt. Transfer the custard mixture to the top half of the double boiler and place it over the simmering water. Cook, stirring constantly, until the custard is thick enough to coat the back of the spoon. Remove it from the heat.

3. Spread the fruit over the crust and pour the custard over them. Bake in the center of the oven until the custard is set and the crust lightly browned, about 40 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature.

Fowler suggests using raspberries, mangoes and peaches in this dessert, as well as blackberries, blueberries and sliced strawberries.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Waterfall Birthday Cake

Waterfall birthday cake with hula girls by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Every 10-year old girl deserves a blow-out birthday party at home, so Laura chose a Luau theme for her big day. Of course, we made the cake at home. Over the course of a day, I made three recipes of Yellow Cake and four batches of Buttercream Frosting. The layers are a single sheet cake with five round layers in graduating sizes stacked on top. The hula girls were hard to find at our party supply stores, lucky for me a friend had a few left over from a party. The blue icing is Wilton blue gel and every kid at the party had to see the tubes of leftover gel - it looked like toothpaste.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Cornbread Salad Days

There are few things more satisfying for a Southern cook than a freshly baked pan of cornbread, steaming and golden on the inside, crispy and bacon-scented on the outside. It's the natural go-with for a pot of chili or soup in the chilly days of winter. In summer, it sets off a meal of garden fresh vegetables. Sadly, my family doesn't share my love of cornbread and I can't bring myself to make less than a full pan, so I needed to reinvent cornbread today. I looked no further than Crescent Dragonwagon's masterwork, Cornbread Gospels, and the chapter entitled "Deja Food."

The recipe for Patsy's Cornbread Salad caught my attention, but since I was low on bacon (oh, the horror), I opted for Elayne's Southwestern variation, but inevitably came up with my own, might I say delicious, version. Here's what I did:

I crumbled up the remaining cornbread into big chunks and added one can of drained red kidney beans and two finely chopped leeks. I get wonderful young leeks from the CSA, otherwise I would use about a half of a chopped storage onion. I dressed this mixture with a half-cup of mayo mixed with 1/4 cup of barbecue sauce, 1/4 cup of sweet pickle relish and just the slightest bit of apple cider vinegar (to get the remaining barbecue sauce out of the bottle). I stirred this together and served it for lunch, to myself, of course, because the girls would rather have pb&j. They just don't know what they're missing. Elayne adds cheese to her salad, which I may do to individual portions, but I left it out of the big salad because I don't like the texture that cheese gets when left in a dressing. All told, the salad was a good excuse to make a pan of cornbread.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Shelling Peas

The farmer, who wore overalls, called them "purple hull peas," to be distinguished from the crowder peas he sold in bushel bags. He didn't have zipper peas, which was my stated mission at the Farmer's Market on Tuesday, but the purple hull peas were fresh, with no mushy or rusty spots, so I bought a pound of them for the very fair price of $4. "I like to shell peas," I told the farmer, but he must have been hard of hearing, no response, so I thanked him, and took my bag of peas of home.
I shelled those peas Wednesday night, sitting on my rocking chair on the front porch, talking on the cordless with my recently widowed friend, who wanted to share the trials of her life and really just needed a listening ear. For an hour, I listened, shelled and watched as the Little One played in the sandbox. The next night, the peas were the star of the evening meal. cooked with country ham.
Thursday Night Menu
Purple Hull Peas Cooked with Country Ham
Skillet Cornbread
Fried Cabbage
Cucumber, Onion and Yellow Tomato Salad
Banana Crumb Cake

The Cucumber, Onion and Tomato Salad is from Gift of Southern Cooking. It is an old South dish, dreamed up by frugal cooks who had put up all the pickles they possibly could and needed to use up the cukes still on the vine. I used the lovely yellow tomatos from our own vines, and a neighbor contributed the Kirby cukes. The cukes were crisp and fresh-tasting, but quite seedy, so I changed the slicing method from the traditional unpeeled disks, to peeled, seeded and diced. I salted a diced Vidalia onion to draw out the bitterness, before putting it in the salad - the recipe specified red onion, which I don't usually keep on hand. The yellow and green salad was brilliant and the very essence of summer.

The Banana Crumb Cake is an old reliable from Susan Purdy's Family Baker, my all-time favorite baking book. I haven't made this cake in a while, but the black bananas were ready for baking.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

A Bowl of Comfort

I tried Shrimp Paste with Creamy Grits from Scott Peacock & Edna Lewis' Gift of Southern Cooking. Three words - "calories" and "worth it." It is essentially shrimp sauteed with onions and garlic in butter and then pulverized in a food processor. It can be stirred into hot, creamy grits or spread on toast. I will certainly make it again, but for the regular, dinnertime rotation, I will make Breakfast Shrimp and Creamy Grits.

I usually keep plain quick grits on hand, no fancy stone-ground stuff, unless I'm lucky enough to chance upon some at a specialty store. I learned the hard way that, in order to protect your investment in stone-ground grits, you absolutely must store them in the freezer. My deepest, darkest kitchen nightmare involves creep-crawly weevils and stone-ground grits that I innocently left unused in the pantry for too long a time.

For the creamy grits, I follow the directions on the package, subbing half and half or milk or even cream for some or all of the liquid, and simmer until thick. This usually means two cups of liquid to 1/2 cup of grits. For the shrimp, I melt a couple tablespoons of butter and sautee a half an onion, chopped, until translucent. I add a pound of peeeled and deveined shrimp and stir in the pan just until it turns pink. The buttery, briny goodness is perfection when served over the grits. This is an excellent 15-minute supper, or a nice treat for a hearty weekend breakfast.