Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Granola and a good friend

Granola by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When I was a new mom, I knew one thing for sure: I didn't have the first clue what I was doing. So I did what sensible mommies do: I paid someone to teach me how to play with my baby. I confess here that beginning when my daughter was 5 months old and could barely sit up, I drove 45 minutes from my home to the Gymboree play program, where other new mommies took off their shoes, sat in a circle and clapped and sang and learned how to play all over again. My baby daughter didn’t make friends there, absorbing the colors and sounds and trying to avoid the screaming toddlers was consuming enough, but Gymboree was really all about the moms, and I made a keeper of a friend.

Mary Jo is the girl that everyone wants to be friends with, the leader of the nice pack. I tend to shyness in groups, but Mary Jo is the kind of girl who is everyone’s friend, and she became my first new mommy friend by giving me a compliment that I hold dear to my heart - she said I was a little bit granola. She redeemed this odd comment by saying that she was a little bit granola, too. In fact, she was a full-blown seitan-eating vegetarian. I think she said I was “granola” because my husband and I were building our house at the time (really building our house, as in “my husband comes home every afternoon from his office job, puts on his jeans, work boots, and tool belt, and builds our house.”)

Mary Jo and I spent the next couple of years dragging our babies around Atlanta - the zoo, the museums, the parks. She introduced me to her Merry Band, a lively bunch of mommies from the ‘hood, flip-flop and sunglass-wearing girls who talked about stuff I had no clue about - potty training, SUVs vs. minivans, kindergarten. It was my first taste of the mommy network that I’ve relied on ever since, the women who reach into their well of personal experiences and share.

Granola ingredients by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

When our babies grew old enough to start school, we stopped calling each other. This was before long-distance friendship was easy with Facebook. The excuses were many - she lived so far away, about an hour’s drive in dreadful traffic; she had boys (three of them!) and I had girls; her husband played golf and my husband liked to fish. We still exchange Christmas cards, hers with black and white photos of angel-faced boys. But we don’t call each other anymore.

I miss you, Mary Jo, my granola friend. You’re the reason I have a minivan and why I think of you every time I make granola. And if you read this, get on Facebook so I can watch your boys grow up.

batter bowl
Measure granola ingredients directly in batter bowl. By Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

I make this granola every week or two. It comes together very easily in a batter bowl that has marks on the side - no dry measuring cups needed.
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup maple syrup
1/4 cup honey
3 cups old-fashioned oats
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/4 cup unsweetened shredded coconut
1/4 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup roasted sunflower seeds

1. Preheat oven to 325. Measure oil, syrup and honey into a small saucepan and heat to a low boil; remove from heat and let cool.

2. In mixing bowl, combine dry ingredients. Add oil and syrup mixture and stir in to the dry ingredients. Spread granola mixture onto a lined sheet pan. (I use a Silpat, foil or parchment paper would work). Bake at 325 for 25 minutes (I use convection), stirring once halfway through.

3. Remove from oven and let cool. If you like chunky granola, do not stir during the cooling. If you like a crumbly texture, stir several times as it cools. Keeps well in an airtight container at room temperature.

dried fruit
Dried fruit by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

This granola mom likes granola with dried fruit, which should be added after the granola is baked, or the fruit will burn in the oven. A favorite breakfast or dessert is a yogurt parfait with vanilla yogurt (or plain, if you must), dried fruit and a generous handful of granola on top. This is even better in the summer when you can use sweet local blueberries instead of the dried fruit.

granola parfait
Granola Parfait by Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

Text and images copyright Lucy Mercer, 2010.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

In Search of the Perfect Crunch

These are my favorite chips right now: Doritos cheeseburger chips. Everyday Doritos are addictive enough, but the ketchup/mustard/cheese/pickle/smoky flavor matrix means a bag doesn't last very long in my house. Can't get enough.

Another favorite crunch, although I the heat keeps me from pigging out on them - wasabi peas. I guess they are freeze-dried peas coated with spicy wasabi. I grab a handful when I'm cooking and also toss them in green salads. A note: kids don't like these. Beware of the child who does.

Have you tried these? What are your favorite crunchy snacks?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Another Salon Kitchen Challenge Winner!

My year of Salon Kitchen Challenges is going strong, with a fourth win, this time in the Tax Day dinner category. The challenge was to make a meal appropriate for tax day that reflected whether or not the participant received a refund or not. The story is posted below, an edited version ran on Salon.com. I expected all kinds of controversy because I wrote about Jesus and taxes, but maybe most folks agree with me? or maybe the food looked so good, they didn't mind the Sunday School lesson.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Salad Days for Caesar


Despite the old chestnut about the certainty of death and taxes, April 15th used to sneak up on my husband and me, even though we always got money back. That is, in our salad days, when making amends with Uncle Sam wasn't a priority. The past few years have been kind of hard on our finances, along with a lot of American families, so this year, we filed the return in January and promptly received a modest refund which will cushion our budget for a few months.

I don’t complain about taxes. I complain about health insurance premiums, but not taxes. Tax money gets my children educated, the roads paved, and the water to my house, among many things. When I hear people complain about taxes and government, I remember how Jesus handled the issue. “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” (Mark 12:17).

If you’re not familiar with the scripture, the story goes like this: the Pharisees and the Herodians were trying to trip up Jesus. The Jews in Judea were required to pay a tax, a denarius (a day's wages), but the coin used to pay the tax featured the Roman emperor’s image and proclaimed that the emperor was divine. Some Jews felt that by paying the tax, they were submitting to Roman rule, which led to the learned men to ask Jesus “Is it right to pay taxes or not?”

Jesus recognized the trap and asked to see the coin used to pay the tax. He asked whose image was on the coin and they said, “Caesar's” and Jesus replied, “Give unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” I like the next verse: “and they were amazed at him.” This scripture has a lot to say about duty to the government, but I think the key is the part about God. I can give to the government what it requires, but I give God what's really important - serving Him with my time, my heart, my life.

These days, I seem to serve God best by spending my time and my heart and my life in the kitchen. In thinking of a fitting meal for the ides of April, I decided to honor another Caesar, he of Cardini and the famous Caesar salad. Caesar Cardini was from Italy, but he created the eponymous salad at his restaurant in Tijuana, Mexico, in the 1920s. It’s a remarkably simple recipe - greens, garlicky croutons, Parmesan and a creamy dressing that is tangy and salty and unforgettable. Because this was good year in terms of a tax refund, I loaded up my salad with shrimp and avocadoes.

caesar salad

Loaded Caesar Salad with

Lemon Garlic Shrimp and Avocado

Caesar Dressing

2 large egg yolks

1 tablespoon lemon juice

1 tablespoon white wine vinegar

½ teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

1 tablespoon Dijon mustard

2 anchovy fillets, minced

1/4 cup olive oil

Salt and pepper to taste

1. Combine all ingredients, egg yolks through anchovies, in a blender and blitz until combined. Slowly add oil until emulsified. Store in refrigerator until needed.


3 cloves garlic, minced

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

1 loaf rustic white or whole wheat bread, crusts removed, cubed into 1-inch pieces

Pinch of salt

1. In a 350° oven, toast bread cubes for 10 minutes. Combine olive oil and garlic and toss with toasty bread cubes. Season with salt. Return to oven and toast for another 5 to 7 minutes, until golden brown and fragrant. Remove from oven and let cool until ready to use. Store leftovers in airtight container.


Lemon Garlic Shrimp

1 pound large shrimp (31/35‘s)

3 cloves garlic, minced

½ stick (4 tablespoons) unsalted butter

3 tablespoons lemon juice

Salt and pepper to taste

1. In a skillet over medium heat, melt butter. When butter foams, add shrimp and sautee for five minutes, or until just pink. Add garlic and stir, then lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper. Use as garnish on salad.

Assembling Salad

1 head Romaine lettuce, washed, trimmed and sliced into 1-inch pieces

Caesar dressing

Parmesan cheese

1 avocado, split in half, pitted and sliced into 1-inch pieces

Lemon Garlic Shrimp


1. If making individual salads, start with a bed of greens and drizzle dressing over all, toss to coat greens. Add shredded Parmesan cheese, shrimp, avocado pieces and croutons.

2. If serving family style, put out a large platter and cover with greens. Drizzle the dressing over, add the shredded Parmesan and toss to coat greens. Place shrimp, avocado pieces and croutons in corners of the platter and serve.

This is a satisfying meal using easily obtainable ingredients. I estimate the total at $14.08, which includes the homemade bread used for the croutons. Here's the breakdown:

Eggs .25

Anchovy .75

Romaine lettuce 1.49

Bread, homemade 2.00

Parmesan 1.00

Avocado 1.00

Lemons .50

Shrimp 5.59

Butter .50

Pantry staples .50

If you’re feeling flush, serve with a grilled flatiron steak, baked potatoes, and rich fudgy brownies for dessert. I bought a flatiron for $6.94 and the brownies probably have about $3.oo worth of ingredients in them, so for about $25, you can create a feast worthy of Caesar.


© 2010, Lucy Mercer.

For more about what Jesus said regarding taxes (among other subjects) check out "What Jesus Meant" by Garry Wills, © 2006.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Incredible, edible egg salad

Egg salad is a humble and filling concoction. It can be as simple as leftover hard-boiled eggs and a jar of Hellmann’s or, with a little finesse, a show-off sandwich spread and star of an elegant appetizer. The secret is to employ the magic of the eggs, letting eggs do double duty as the bulk of the salad and the binder, which means, in this case, making mayonnaise from scratch. Mayonnaise from scratch need hold no fear for the home cook. One fresh egg yolk, less than a cup of fresh oil, a few minutes of your time and a sturdy whisk are all it takes to make a luscious, homemade mayonnaise that will elevate your egg salad from ho-hum to va-va-va-voom.

Pay attention to the basics when making your egg salad sandwich. Eggs should be properly boiled, no mineral gray ring covering the chalky yolk; whites just set, not rubbery. Creamy mayo, but not too salty. A little kick, maybe pepper, maybe hot sauce. Onion? No way, but perhaps a hint of chive. Crunch? Celery is for sissies and potato salad. I prefer radishes for a peppery bite and crunch. The bread must be toasted, and wheat is the only way to go. The blandness of white bread offers no contrast to the creamy egg salad.


Homemade Mayonnaise
Adapted from the Gourmet Cookbook and online sources

1 very fresh egg yolk

½ teaspoon Dijon mustard

¼ teaspoon salt

¾ cup canola oil

1 ½ teaspoons lemon juice

1 teaspoon white wine vinegar

Pepper to taste

1. In a small bowl, place egg yolk, mustard and salt. Whisk until combined. Drop by drop, pour and whisk ¼ cup of the canola oil into the mixture. This will take up to 10 minutes (for me, at least). After the oil is thoroughly combined with the yolk, whisk in the vinegar and lemon juice. In a slow stream, add remaining oil. Take your time and make sure you do this right. If the mixture ever looks like it’s separating, stop pouring in oil and whisk the heck out of it, to combine. If you do this right, you will see the mixture change from dark yellow to lighter and creamier, ultimately a thick sauce, not fluffy like the stuff from the jar, but creamy and delicious, just the same.

hb eggs
Hard Boiled Eggs

Everyone and his dog has a recipe for perfect hard-boiled eggs. My advice is to keep trying until you find one that works for you. Here’s my method:

Start with a saucepan and insert a steamer basket (if you have it - this makes it easier to remove the eggs and also keeps them from bouncing around on the bottom of the pot). Place 6 eggs on opened basket, cover with cold water, bring to a rolling boil, cover and cook for less than a minute. Pull covered pan off the heat and turn kitchen timer to 13 minutes. Some folks say 12 minutes, some say 15. All I know is that mine were cooked perfectly at 13 minutes. Have an ice water bath nearby and plunge the cooked eggs into the cold water. When cool enough to handle, peel away the shells. Old eggs are easier to peel due to the air pocket, fresher eggs stubbornly hang on to their shells.

pastry blender & eggs

Egg Salad

½ cup homemade mayonnaise

6 hard-boiled eggs

Salt and pepper to taste

2 teaspoons chopped chives

thinly sliced radishes

Assemble sandwich:

1. To properly chop the eggs, I employ the same tool that I use to make a pie crust: a pastry blender. Halve the boiled eggs into a bowl and mash them up with the blender, you may also use a fork.

2. While mixing the spread, toast the wheat bread, use homemade if available.

3. Gently fold the chopped eggs into the mayonnise. Texture is what you’re after. Taste and correct seasoning. It may need more mayo for moisture or acid for contrast. Will probably definitely need pepper.

4. Spread a thin layer of mayo on bread. Then layer radishes, then egg salad. Apply lid to sandwich. Grab a good book, pull up to the counter and tuck in.
egg salad sandwich

Oh, and here's the bonus: a canape: Egg Salad with Chives on Radish Rounds. How simple is this, a baby spoonful of egg salad on a sliced radish, with a sliver of chive on top?


Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Sand Castles & Salon

My story for the April Fools' category in the Salon Kitchen Challenge rated a mention in the weekly wrap-up and is an Editor's Pick at Open Salon. I'm now one-fourth of the way through a year of challenges and still having fun. Since January, I've had three SKC winning stories and now five Editor's Picks!

The stories submitted by the other writers are always interesting - this week's winner made sushi from Rice Krispies, but my favorite is a story that uses cookies to explain optical illusions, such as the Kanisza triangle. Here's the wrap-up.

The next category is egg salad, a deceptively simple-sounding challenge. My egg salad is kind of plain, so I'm looking for ideas to jazz it up, especially additions that will appeal to my kids. Let me know if you have a killer egg salad recipe!

Saturday, April 3, 2010

Easter Eggs

Each year before Easter, I buy the egg dye kits, lots of eggs and let my girls have fun dying eggs. It's not a particularly messy project, and very simple to accomplish. The results are just beautiful. The picture at top is the Paas eggs. Good ol' Paas. The package hasn't changed in 40 years. I've used the coloring cups in the past, but they are more expensive and dye fewer eggs, so this year I used the traditional package.

The eggs at the bottom are from a kit called Dudley Majestic eggs and involved kneading a package of dye and then coating individual eggs in a plastic bag. The eggs are spectacular - very unusual.

A couple of notes: I can't imagine eating colored eggs, so I just leave them at room temperature and enjoy them as decorations on the table. They can be used in an egg hunt, but we also put out candy-stuffed plastic eggs so the kids get something better than a (very pretty) rotten egg. And when shopping for eggs, look for the medium size - they are usually the best deal when you buy in quantity.

I wish the blessings of Easter and Passover to my friends and family this year.