Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Salon Kitchen Challenge Update

This week's Salon Kitchen Challenge entry on tandoori chicken wings wasn't the winner, but my unbroken streak of mentions continues! This is my 13th consecutive entry in the weekly contest. My goal is to participate in year's worth of challenges. My brain and palate are being stretched each week - this was only my second cooking experience with tandoori, which was a big hit with my family.

I already have an idea for the next contest - it's April Fool's and must be a food that doesn't look like food. My kids will love this one!

The Wing's the Thing

Chicken wings are not meant for tea parties. Greasy, saucy and sloppy, they are a guilty pleasure, best served with a handy roll of paper towels. They must be mouth-watering from the git-go, brown and succulent, and require a dipping sauce to suck all the juicy goodness from the bone.

They are one of those foods that I eat only in restaurants, mostly due to the fear of frying factor - I’d rather not subject my kitchen light fixtures to airborne grease. My husband agrees - but he believes that fried wings are the only way to go. If you don’t see scorch marks on the ceiling, the cook obviously hasn’t put forth sufficient effort. If the wings are to be worthy, the cook must brave the shrapnel-spitting cauldron of boiling oil. As if that isn’t intimidating enough, our two daughters can detect a speck of ground black pepper at three hundred paces, while my husband and I like our food with some kick. This leads to a house divided, sort of like what we witnessed this week when Congress voted on healthcare reform.

My goal with a home-cooked chicken wing recipe was to find a relatively clean cooking method and a family-friendly spice level. After giving it some thought, I developed a strategy of roasting wings in a spicy warm tandoori sauce that my girls love. High-heat oven roasting (a technique endorsed by Pam Anderson at Three Many Cooks) browns the wings and keeps them juicy inside. The tandoori marinade is a winner - my family set upon these wings with the same ferocity as a GOP strategist on a yellow-dog Democrat.

And for the grown-ups who like to kick it up, I created a spicy Tikka Masala sauce to serve alongside. The wings are fine without the dip, but they make a pretty picture together - ochre wings and rosy sauce.

Roasted Tandoori Chicken Wings with
Tikka Masala Dipping Sauce

4 pounds chicken wings, tips clipped


2 cups non-fat plain yogurt

8 cloves garlic, peeled

4-inch piece ginger, peeled

1 tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. ground cumin

1 ¼ tsp. garam masala

1 tsp. salt

Juice of 1 lime

Place marinade ingredients in food processor and puree. Place chicken wings in a shallow container and pour marinade over the wings. Let marinate at least 4 hours. Pull the chicken from the marinade and place on foil-lined baking sheets sprayed with canola spray. Bake at 450 for 30 minutes. Start with skin side down and flip halfway through roasting.

Tikka Masala Dip

1 small onion

2-inch piece ginger

5 cloves garlic

3 tbsp. butter

¼ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. garam masala

½ tsp. cumin

¼ tsp. cayenne

¼ cup cashews, ground in the food processor (optional)

1 (14.5 oz.) can crushed tomatoes

1 tsp. sugar

Salt to taste, if needed

½ cup half n half (or more)

1. In the food processor, blitz together the onion, ginger and garlic to make a paste. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat and add onion-ginger-garlic paste. Cook gently, then add spices and stir for about a minute. Add ground cashews, then tomatoes and sugar. Season with salt and pepper. When cooked through, add half-n-half to arrive at taste and texture you desire.

2. Serve wings with tikka masala dip alongside. And lots of napkins.

A note on clean-up for these and other wings: don’t even bother with the cheap single-ply paper towels, for wing clean-up, go to the auto parts store and get what the mechanics call shop towels and industrial strength soap. You can thank me later.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Salon Kitchen Challenge Winner!

My Grasshopper Cake story won this week's Salon Kitchen Challenge in the category Green Foods. After considering wasabi, lettuce, cabbage, guacamole, and lime Jell-O, I settled on a reinterpretation of Grasshopper Pie and a meditation on my gardening frustrations. The story is also published below and on Open Salon. The Salon story has a very funny comment by a reader.

Next up: chicken wings. Not an area where I shine, I admit. After three months of weekly challenges (and three wins!), it may be time for a week off. Unless, of course, someone can point me in the direction of a no-fail, blog-worthy recipe!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Asparagus Soup Surprise

I love asparagus and was thrilled when this week's Salon Kitchen Challenge was on the subject of my favorite green vegetable. (The story is posted on Open Salon and also below.)

In Francis Lam's weekly wrap-up, I garnered an honorable mention, which continues my unbroken streak of mentions in 2010. Now, if I can just figure out a way to get paid to do this...

Another note: just when you think your children will eat only hot dogs and nachos, they surprise you. Laura, age 11, spied the asparagus soup, dipped her pinkie in it and tasted. "Mmmm. Can I have this bowl, Mom?"

The picture above is the bowl she brought back to me.

We'll always have asparagus

We don’t choose the touchstones of a romance, they choose us. The little jokes, the comments that are benign to others, but hysterically funny to just us, are part of our story. Rick and Ilsa had “As Time Goes By,” and they had Paris. Scott and Lucy had an oil refinery (more on that later) and we will always have asparagus.

Creamy asparagus soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Early in our courtship, we discovered that we liked to cook and tried to make meals together. I think we were putting together the ingredients for a stir-fry, and Scott bought asparagus. I probably said “eeww” because, truly, we eat what we’re fed at home and if your mother doesn’t eat asparagus, then neither do you. He told me I’d like it, and being a trusting sort of girl, I gave it a try. I was a convert from that first crispy, green, soy-drenched bite.

Since that time, I've stalked the verdant stalks like Euell Gibbons, savoring that earthy, mineral taste. But it's more than a taste and texture. Asparagus holds the promise of spring and renewal. That first bite in the early days of March shakes loose the heavy flavors of winter and prepares us for the produce yet to come. First asparagus, then blueberries, then tomatoes, zucchini, squash, all the abundance awaiting us. I look for the green stalks in early spring, and get embarrassingly giddy when they get nice and fat and the price drops.

Asparagus spears by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Each spring, when asparagus is plentiful, I make a sandwich that reminds me of our honeymoon, when we traveled to St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands. My husband’s uncle worked for the Hess Oil Refinery there and he treated us royally during our stay on the island. We ate at the best restaurants - I remember seafood at Top Hat, goat stew at the Buccaneer and conch fritters somewhere else. We snorkeled, we toured a historic sugar mill, we shopped for souvenirs, we saw the sights, concluding with every honeymooner's wish - a tour of the oil refinery. It was actually very interesting, just not what I expected to do on the trip - we’re probably the only couple who got a lecture in sweet light crude and other petroleum products on their honeymoon.

Back to the asparagus: down a narrow alleyway in Christiansted, we sat at a tiny restaurant for lunch. I wanted something simple like soup and a sandwich, found French onion soup and spied “asparagus sandwich” on the menu. I asked the waitress about it, and she said that it was a favorite dish of the cook’s. Keep in mind that I was a new bride and “asparagus sandwich” had the pleasant ring of girlie shower food. I ordered it. The soup was ok, but the sandwich was better. Sourdough bread, lightly toasted and spread with cream cheese, topped with steamed asparagus tips, sprouts and vinaigrette. I still make a version of this sandwich, and always think of St. Croix when I do. I’ve changed it up a little, losing the sprouts and seasoning the cream cheese.

asparagus sandwich
Asparagus Cream Cheese Sandwich by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Crucian Asparagus Sandwich

4 ounces cream cheese, softened
Tablespoon or two of chopped fresh chives
Salt and pepper to taste
2 slices sturdy white or wheat bread (for open face, 4 for lidded version)
8 to 10 asparagus tips, about 2 or 3 inches in length

1. Toast the bread to desired degree of brownness. Place asparagus tips in a microwave-safe container and cover with water. Zap for 1 minute. Carefully drain hot water from the asparagus and then cover with cold water and ice cubes to set the bright green color. Drain cooled stalks on paper towels. Stir together softened cream cheese, chives, salt and pepper.

2. Assemble sandwiches: Spread cream cheese on toast, and neatly align asparagus tips on top. This can be served open face (very pretty) or with a lid.

This little sandwich just cries out for a companion, like a bowl of Creamy Asparagus Soup, adapted from Julia Child’s “The Way to Cook.” It’s a convenient partner for the sandwich, using the stalks for the soup and some remaining tips for garnish. Notice that it’s “creamy” not “cream of.“ Instead of adding dairy, rice is cooked with the onion and then pureed to give body without adding the calories of cream. I like this trick because it doesn’t diminish the intensity of the asparagus, like cream would. The celadon color is enchanting.

Creamy Asparagus Soup
Creamy Asparagus Soup by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Creamy Asparagus Soup with Lemon Chive Butter

1 onion, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons butter
½ cup long-grain rice
4 to 8 cups of stock - vegetable or chicken
1 bunch asparagus
Salt to taste, pepper if desired

1. In a saucepan, melt butter and saute onion until soft, but not brown. Season with a bit of salt (¼ teaspoon or so). Add rice and stir. Add four cups of stock , cover, and cook rice until nearly soft, about 10 to 15 minutes.

2. While rice is cooking, trim asparagus by removing the bottom ¼ of the stalks. Chop remainder into 2 inch pieces. Save the asparagus tips and place them in a bowl and cover with water. Zap in microwave for one minute. Pour off hot water, add cool water and ice cubes. When cool and color is set, dry on paper towels. Save for garnish.

3. When rice is soft, stir in asparagus stems and let cook for about 5 minutes, pulling it off the heat before it loses the brilliant green color. Blitz in food processor or blender until smooth. With the processor, this takes several minutes, until the puree fluffs up. Taste for seasoning and gradually add stock to desired consistency. I prefer a texture somewhere between thin puree and thick soup. A note on seasoning: I’m not a fan of white pepper - I think it tastes like soap, but if you need pepper in your soup, you may want to add it. I think salt is all the seasoning this needs, especially if you make the lemon chive butter.

Lemon Chive Butter

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon snipped chives
1 teaspoon or so fresh lemon juice
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine all ingredients.
2. Serve the soup, garnished with reserved asparagus tips and a spoonful of lemon butter.

Serve this meal in spring, and you may hear, just faintly through the night, a piano and a song, our song:

“You must remember this
A kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh.
The fundamental things apply
As time goes by.

“And when two lovers woo
They still say, "I love you."
On that you can rely
No matter what the future brings
As time goes by.”

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Salon Kitchen Challenge: Hot Drinks

This week's story on candy bar hot chocolate is an Editor's Pick on Open Salon! Read it below, or click over to my page at Open Salon. If you enjoy food writing with attitude, check out the cover of Open Salon. Tuesday covers feature food stories. "Big Salon" has a terrific food page every day, click here.

Liquid candy: the best hot chocolate

Hot chocolate, the body-and-soul-warming beverage of snowy days, is essentially a liquid candy bar, so what if it were really a liquefied candy bar? The best cup of hot chocolate is traditionally made with chocolate melted and combined with dairy, either cream or milk, and topped with marshmallow. This sounds like a candy bar - chocolate, either dark or milk; sugar; marshmallows. In fact, it sounds just like a 3 Musketeers bar, which makes a stupendous cup of cocoa - the sweet milk chocolate is rich and the melted, toasty nougat dissolves and adds body, that creamy mouth-feel that the food writers go on about. Two ingredients, one cooking vessel, one serving mug, so very easy.

Many years ago my friend Billy gave me this ultimate hot chocolate recipe, and it’s an ideal way to use up leftover holiday candies. Three weeks after Valentine's Day, I still have a stash of pink- and red-wrapped milk chocolate hearts and kisses, plus caramel Rolos and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups (known in the South as "Reese-y's" and around my house as "Nature's Most Perfect Food"). At the supermarket, I picked up original 3 Musketeers ("whipped-up fluffy chocolate on chocolate taste") and new-to-me 3 Musketeers Mint with Dark Chocolate ("whipped-up fluffy chocolate on mint taste"), both in the fun size. On a whim, I tossed a box of Junior Mints into the basket. Add a sunny but cold Saturday afternoon in March, and some eager taste testers, and we were ready for a hot chocolate throwdown.
3 musketeers & reese's
The recipe is pretty much a ratio, approximately 4 ounces of chocolate candy to 8 ounces of milk, beginning with a small amount of chocolate and adding more to taste. I began with milk heated on the stove and mixed up individual servings by placing the chocolate in the bottom of a measuring cup, topping off with milk, then heating in 15 second increments in the microwave.

The results are in: my personal favorite is the 3 Musketeers Dark Chocolate Mint bars. The dark chocolate takes the edge off the sweet and the mint adds a crisp note. There is a pleasant toasty marshmallow taste and the nougat contributes to the texture and body of the beverage. My second place vote goes to the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup. Rich, chocolaty and peanut buttery, two great tastes that taste great together, as the ditty goes. A slight grittiness from the p.b. is the only detraction there. Rolos are a sentimental favorite - try them with popcorn sometime. They make a sweet, thick cocoa, with a pleasant caramel kick. Aggressive stirring is required to incorporate the caramel into the milk.
The young testers gave a universal thumbs up to the dark horse entry, hot Junior Mint. The deep chocolate color was the most appealing of all the cups and the extra sweetness appealed to the sugar-crazed kids. The preschool tester favored the simple 3 Musketeer version, with additional marshmallows.
Master Recipe for Candy Bar Hot Chocolate

Yield: One 8-ounce cup of hot chocolate


8 ounces whole milk

3 fun-size 3 Musketeers bars (or 10 small Reese's pb cups or 16 Rolos or 4 oz. Junior Mints or 8 Hershey's Milk Chocolate Kisses or Hearts)


Heat milk on stovetop or in microwave, just to scald. Place candy in bottom of mug and pour milk over. Whisk, whisk, whisk until candy is melted. Taste and add more chocolate, if necessary. You may want to place the mug in microwave for 15 seconds at a time to further dissolve the chocolate. Garnish with marshmallows or candy canes, or try this idea from the 3 Musketeers website - shavings from a frozen 3 Musketeers bar!

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Salon Kitchen Challenge: Bean Stews

Last week, I posted two entries to the Salon Kitchen Challenge bean stew contest. The first was about green bean soup and the second a dessert riff on red beans and rice. Both appear below. The dessert recipe got a mention in Francis Lam's round-up.

This week's challenge is for hot drinks and I'm planning a hot chocolate tasting with the girls this afternoon. Wish me luck!

My world is small, but my kitchen is big

This is how I know I’m crazy, if crazy can be defined as thinking about desserts every waking minute. You see, this is the story I wasn’t supposed to post. Explanation: for most of January and February, I’ve cranked out ice cream and cookies and all manner of sweets for the Salon Kitchen Challenge. After last week’s entry of Baked Alaska with Roasted Banana Coconut Ice Cream and Jamaica Blue Mountain Coffee Ganache, I thought I’d lost my mind. It was something that popped into my brain the previous Wednesday and, like an earwig, just wouldn’t let go until I finished the story Sunday night. The challenge has transformed me into the Sweet Tooth Fairy, who dreams in ganache and meringue.

After hitting “publish” in last week’s Frozen Treats challenge, I’d had enough. Please, oh, please, I telepathically conveyed to Francis Lam, please choose a green vegetable for the next challenge. And I think my Carrie-like telekinetic powers must really work because this week’s challenge is a vegetable that is sometimes green, beans, specifically soups and stews that include beans. When the challenge was announced Tuesday, my first thought was green bean soup, which I make mostly for myself from the weekly CSA box bounty. I’d been thinking about the soup for awhile, in anticipation of spring. Make it vegetarian, put some Cheddar crackers alongside, a change of pace from the hearty fare that was sure to be submitted. I even had the longing-for-spring headnote already composed. Done deal.

And then Linda Shiue sent me a message through Open Salon. Linda is one of my first OS friends and I look forward each week to her stories about food, travel and medicine. I’m amazed that she accomplishes so much so well - she’s a physician, mommy, writer, cook. Linda and I trade messages each week wishing each other luck in the SKC. She says it with style - bonne chance. I wish her the same. When the winner and runners-up are announced on Tuesdays, we trade comments and messages and act like we have no clue what we’re turning out for the next challenge, when (I think) we know pretty much know what our stories will be.

In this message, I joked to Linda that maybe I would turn the bean soup into a dessert and she mentioned the Taiwanese treat of red bean ice cream. Well, that got the wheels of my brain turning, I’d heard of red bean ice cream, but had never tried it. How to make that into a soup? Maybe a fruit soup? What goes with red bean? Mango? Guava? Passion fruit? Bingo! Turns out there are recipes online for passion fruit soup and I took a little bit from here and little bit from there and mentally constructed my soup. Found a recipe for red bean ice cream, too. Then to the grocery store to find red bean paste and passion fruit. And I got bupkis. Three stores. No red bean paste. No passion fruit. Not wishing to expand my carbon footprint any more than necessary, I thought about giving up and just submitting the green bean soup story alone. But I couldn’t turn my brain off. Then I thought about red beans and rice, and decided a riff on rice pudding might be clever and yummy. That seemed like sweet on sweet, so I added chunks of cinnamon-dusted mango. Thanks to Chow, I found a recipe for homemade red bean paste, so I bought a bag of beans and started cooking.

The result is tasty, but to be honest, but it needs some work to take it over the top. I’m not sure what red bean ice cream is supposed to taste like, but mine tastes like vanilla with pleasant little chunks of bean.

red bean ice cream and rice pudding and mango chunks

Recipe notes: the rice pudding/soup is from the America’s Test Kitchen Family Cookbook. The red bean ice cream and homemade red bean paste are from Chow.

As I hit “publish” on this, probably the only sweet entry in this week’s SKC, Red Beans and Rice with Cinnamon-Dusted Mango, I‘d like to channel the Sage of the Airwaves, the immortal Casey Kasem, and send out a long-distance dedication to Linda Shiue. Bonne chance, mon amie.

My world may be small by some folks’ standards - I live in a suburb of a sprawling metropolis. I rarely drive more than 30 minutes from my home, and that’s usually a big deal. The local supermarkets are, shall we say, somewhat lacking. I will say this - I found red curry paste and red chile paste, but no red bean paste. I didn’t find passion fruit, but I came home with carambola, kiwi, pineapple, mango and Meyer lemons. My kitchen and my imagination are huge. One of these days, I’ll taste real red bean ice cream, but I guess until then I’ll take Casey’s advice, “Keep your feet on the ground and keep reaching for the stars.”

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Looking for Spring in a Bowl of Soup

T.S. Eliot wrote that April is the cruellest month, a sure sign he was a depressive, according to my freshman English literature professor in her obligatory summary of “The Waste Land.” Eliot grew up in St. Louis and lived much of his life in England, which makes me think that his April is my February in Georgia, and this month is definitely cruel. Just when we see the early signs of spring - Bradford pear trees setting buds and the daffodils sending shoots above the mulch, the cold shuts everything down. I hate to complain - the snow last week was transformative and breathtaking, the fluffy Christmas card kind that settled on trees and tumbled to earth in a shower with each blast of wind.

trees in snow
Snow-covered trees by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

But in this Georgia girl’s heart lurks a Floridian’s tolerance for cold. It’s a sad state of affairs that I look forward to my senior years, dreaming of the days when I can be a snowbird, wintering in Sandestin. I will probably wear knee-hi’s with skirts and hang out with a geezer whose idea of fashion is white socks and black sandals, and I will never be late for the early bird special at Piccadilly Cafeteria. So be it, my toes and my nose will be warm. Blistered, even.

From Autumn through January, I put out the comfort food - hearty stews, homemade chicken and dumplings, day-long braises, sausages, potatoes, but in these remaining winter days, my mood embraces the promise of spring, even if the weatherman on Channel 2 doesn’t. Today, I will make Green Bean Soup with Lemon Butter and serve it with Cheddar crackers. This soup transitions well, from winter to spring and summer to fall. It uses fresh green beans, which can be found in markets year-round, and the Vidalia spring onions that are just starting to appear.

green bean soup
Green bean soup with lemon scallion butter by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Green Bean and Vidalia Spring Onion Soup with
Lemon Spring Onion Butter

Lemon Spring Onion Butter
1/4 cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
One Vidalia spring onion, trimmed, sliced, (whites and a fair portion of the greens)
Fresh juice from half of one lemon
1 small garlic clove
Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine first four ingredients in food processor and pulse until combined. Season to taste and set aside for serving.


2 Spring Vidalia onions

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound green beans, trimmed and broken into 2-inch lengths

3 cups vegetable broth

1/2 teaspoon salt, or to taste

Freshly ground pepper

Optional: any appropriate herbs that you may have kicking around - tarragon is especially nice. I can imagine that dill would be pleasant. You can never go wrong with chives. Just chop finely and garnish soup before serving.

Very optional: A dairy component such as cream or half-n-half, up to a ½ cup.

1. For the soup, melt butter in a saucepan and cook onion until translucent. Add the beans and cook for about 5 minutes. Add a ½ cup of broth or water to the beans, cover with a lid and let steam until the beans are tender, about 10 minutes. In a separate pan, heat the vegetable broth until very warm. Check on the beans after five minutes to ensure that they are at their brightest when you pull them off the heat. You want a spring green, not a camouflage green.

2. Puree the beans soup in a blender or food processor, taking all necessary precautions because you’re dealing with hot vegetable matter. Gradually add the warm vegetable broth. (I like a rustic puree, but if you're of the silky-smooth texture school, you may want to run the soup through a sieve.) Return pureed soup to the pan and add the cream, if you're using. The dairy is nice, but it mutes flavor and I like my soup intensely green.

3. Find your favorite 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 2 reasonable servings.

This soup is a perfect lunch accompanied by homemade buttermilk biscuits with shavings of good quality ham. In summer, I'd go with a chicken salad sandwich on white bread, cut into triangles. Today, buttery Cheddar crackers are on order, just a wee little nibble to serve with this virtuous soup. Three ingredients - butter, Cheddar cheese and flour, plus a pinch of salt and cayenne, if you’re feeling spunky.

Cheddar crackers
Cheddar crackers by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books
Cheddar Cheese Crackers
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup shredded Cheddar cheese
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

1. Preheat oven to 375. Combine all ingredients in a food processor and pulse just until mixture comes together to form a dough. Remove work bowl from processor and, using whatever little hands are available, form walnut-sized balls and place them on a lightly greased baking sheet (the slick wrapper from the butter works especially well for this purpose). Bake at 375 for 15 minutes, or until set, but not really brown. Remove from oven and let cool. Don't let them cool too long on the baking sheet or they may stick. When cool, place in a paper-towel-lined airtight container.

Text and images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.