12.08.2011

Traveling Pies

No, not pies that travel from one's palm to another's face. More like, "Over the river and through the woods to Cousins' house we go..."

The week before Halloween Sister-in-law Amy called to discuss Thanksgiving. She intended, upon arrival from the Washingtion D.C. area, to bake four pies from scratch. I was in full support of her plan as I am most plans involving dessert, but was preoccupied, searching for a previously-worn Indiana Jones costume for one of my sons. I promised to revisit the subject on or after November 1.

So early November pie discussion resumed. Two apple, two chocolate mousse, maybe one, does anyone even eat pumpkin pie? Frozen pie crusts, definitely. Haagen Daz vanilla for the apple, whipped cream for the mousse. Ask the apple people at the Farmers Market, "Which ones for pie?" And finally, when to bake them? Time would be tight, but failure was not an option.

Wednesday morning we prepared the apple pies at our house to be baked at my dad and stepmom's where there are two ovens, saving about 90 minutes. Transporting the raw dessert was a piece of cake: put the pies on a tray, put Aunt Amy in the cramped third row of our mid-sized SUV, and put the tray on Auntie's lap. Drive 40 minutes to destination. No stopping short.

But there was some stopping and accelerating, after all. As sugary-buttery liquid dripped from the pans Amy winced and wondered, how will seepage affect the final product? In 24 hours we would know.

Meanwhile the chocolate mousse pies, which she baked at my mother's house in the afternoon, were transported in the trunk of my dad's car, stored overnight at his house, and brought to cousin's the next day.

Did I forget to mention the pumpkin? Ah yes, we polled the crowd Wednesday night and determined pumpkin pie must show. So Thursday morning two bakers who never baked such a pie went for it. We transported numbers five and six (are you counting? that's six, not four, pies in all) from our house to our cousin's on a tray, on Aunt Amy's lap. This time I insisted she sit in the second row.

In the end all that remained was one pumpkin pie, 3/4 of a chocolate mousse, and 1/2 an apple. Amy voiced that perhaps one of each would have sufficed.

I shook my head. "Are you crazy? Can you imagine looking to see what's left and seeing only that?" I said, motioning toward the empty pie pans. "Tragic. That would have been just tragic."

"I agree," a cousin chimed in. "You don't want people holding back because they're worried there isn't going to be enough."

That's exactly right. No holding back. Not on Thanksgiving. Especially when it comes to pies that have travelled so far.

11.08.2011

Five-minute Soup

My chiropractor says he will never make one of my soups. The work, the mess, the time! Soup from a can is as far as he will go, even when a brilliant blogger offers directions, encouragement, love, and Jedi mind tricks.

So I accept you with your heels dug into the abyss. Namaste.

Okay I lied. Here's Plan B, a middle ground, if you will. Whether or not my chiropractor abandons the can remains to be seen.

9.27.2011

Fish, Glorious Fish

Yesterday at 10:35 a.m. I happened upon the New England Seafood Company. The door was locked but the sign read, "Open 10 a.m." I peered in and saw a guy. So I knocked. The guy opened the door. I asked, Are you open? He said, Well the restaurant doesn't open until 11, but if all you need is fish by the pound, I can help you. Okay, I said, it's a deal.

Then I told him to write Open at 11! on a post it and slap it on the door. Potential customers are passing by, I elaborated, confused by the locked door and misleading signage. They may never return. That would be sad. He agreed.

After I paid for one pound of fish, I reminded him Post it! as I walked out the door. The female Larry David, that's me.

Back at home, I removed the fish from the paper (which gets stinky fast), placed the fillets in a casserole dish and took a fresh-check whiff. I recently showed this technique to a friend. As we prepped tilapia, she told me she often worries whether fish she buys is fresh and safe to eat. I told her to put her face one inch from the fish and smell it. If you run to the next room it's spoiled. Otherwise, forge ahead. If you get sick after using this technique, you don't know me.

Back to my ceremonious whiff. It was a good, long one, because the fish smelled sweet, like candy. I couldn't believe it.

So if fish is on your list, listen up: New England Seafood Company,  3341 N. Lincoln Ave., between School St. and Roscoe. There's even a loading zone right in front. Don't forget to grab dessert at Dinkel's Bakery, a few doors south.

7.28.2011

Granola

My new favorite store-bought treats are Wholesome Junk Food Bite-lettes, itty bitty cookies made by Laura Trice. Low sugar, great taste. Try them, try them you will see!

Lucky for me this baking genius/doctor in her spare time also has a cookbook. I nabbed it at the library and found this granola recipe which made me very happy.

I know, plenty ready-made granolas crowding store shelves. Gluten-sugar-nut-free, with nuts, responsibly farmed oats, eco-friendly bags. But I tire of them quickly.

So, another box of granola left on the shelf, another homemade creation to share.

6.27.2011

Fruity Sangria

Two summers ago seven days after my oldest headed off to sleepaway camp for the first time I, feeling lopsided with him gone, called my friend Gayle to see if her family might meet us at the park. I was hoping to be balanced out by some noise and chaos. "Funny you should call! I'm actually already here with a friend and her kids. See you soon!"

Around noon we arrived to find her gabbing away, serving sandwiches and chips to any/all takers. The husbands got a game with a ball going. I went home to gather more lunch supplies, comfy chairs, and blankets. My equilibrium began to return.

It was a rare, spectacular summer day for Chicago, sunny, breezy (but not too breezy), zero humidity, 74 1/2 degrees. In other words, San Diego. A day to bask in, which we did, for hours finding no reason to leave: our kids were getting along, our husbands doing what we asked (right away), and additional friends joined in. Our impromptu gathering was morphing into a day long event.

Dinner became a discussion around four (casualty of being a parent). One person said, "Let's order pizza." Another lobbied for Mexican. I ran home to load up my Radio Flyer with cheese, crackers, grapes, chips and a pitcher of Sangria for happy hour. Soon a pizza guy showed up and the kids charged the stack of boxes asking, "How many pieces can we have?" As many as you want, we said as we sipped our drinks, the sun beginning to set. We wouldn't wrap up until dark.

Eight (or nine?) hours at the park 1/2 block from our house still sits on our top ten of favorite summer, or any, days thus far. Not bad for a Chicago neighborhood many only see as a place to park when going to a Cubs' game. I have only one regret from that day. My older son missed it.

6.03.2011

Lime Vinaigrette


Recipe

This recipe is from Joy of Cooking, originally called Parsley Lime Vinaigrette.

Whisk together in a small bowl:
  • 2 tablespoons fresh lime juice
  • 2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin (or oregano)
  • 1 teaspoon honey (or agave)
  • A pinch or two of salt and cracked pepper

Add in a slow steady stream while whisking:
  • 1/2 cup olive oil

Stir in:

  • 1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

5.11.2011

Aunt Amy's Marinated Grilled Chicken

We Americans love our chicken, whether it's wings or drumsticks, roasted or fried. As long as, at least in my house, and I'm quoting Chris Rock here, Daddy gets the big piece of chicken. Once he does the kids grab their favorite parts and start gnawing. My 9 year-old eats a drumstick from the top down, marrow before meat. As husband Todd says, animals eat animals.

Here's a chicken recipe my sister-in-law made for us that we love. Though it's adapted from a Tyler Florence recipe, the kids call it, "Aunt Amy's Chicken."

4.30.2011

Aunt Dawn's Protein Bars

My husband razzes me when I refer to my high school BFF & E (you know, BEST FRIEND FOREVER AND EVER!) as "Aunt Dawn," for not only is she not my aunt, she's not our kids' aunt either. But calling her by first name is just not, well, lovey enough. So "Aunt Dawn" she was crowned and that's what the boys call her.

One of our shared loves is baking. Neither of us goes a week without whipping up something from scratch. "I've got such a taste for my sour cream coffee cake," she'll say. "Glad my cousins are coming over so I have an excuse to make it." Her son's friend once saw her baking cookies and asked "Is this one of those houses that has the things to make the things?" Yes, she told him, I own ingredients to make cookies, several different kinds of them, from the beginning. Dawn and I joked the only delicacies this boy finds at home are Chips Ahoy. Poor child.

These protein bars save Dawn from missing breakfast when she's running out the door to work early in the a.m. and are much better than packaged breakfast or protein bars or even a bag of cereal. Nothing beats a homemade creation. Especially when made with all of the "things to make the things."

4.23.2011

Baking

For me baking is like a reflex. I'll get the urge and BAM! Eggs are cracking, vanilla's flowing and the next thing you know there's a bowl of batter on my counter. I may be mid conversation with my husband and suddenly start grabbing ingredients from the cabinet. "What are you doing?" he'll ask. "I think a banana bread...oh wait a second," I mumble as I check the freezer. "Did I use those frozen bananas last week? Oh well. Guess chocolate chip cookies it is." Minutes later fresh baked goodness is well on its way.

4.10.2011

Strawberry Banana Smoothie

Yesterday it was 45 degrees in Chicago. Today, 88. I won't dare to wear shorts (might bring snow tomorrow) but instead jeans,  a t-shirt and shoes without socks. Close enough.

After a brisk walk in the warm, midday breeze, I was jonesin' for cold one. No, not a beer (no alchohol before 5 for me). A smoothie. I looked to the Gluten-Free Goddess for inspiration.

4.08.2011

Dijon Vinaigrette

In honor of my almost 12 year-old son's recent debut as a mixed greens eater, I'm posting another salad dressing that's been my go-to lately. It's from a cooking class I took last year at The Chopping Block. The only real labor involves chopping a shallot. Then it's a little vinegar here, a dash of salt there, and so on. All in all, a five, seven on a bad day, minute experience. Well worth it.

3.16.2011

Baked Fish

Back in the day my fish cooking failures were so extensive Husband Todd practically begged me to abandon the genre. If you're going to stink up the house, he said, the end result ought to be edible. Hence, a moratorium on home cooked fish was declared.

Alas, my desire to try again won out. This time I did the research (previous attempts did not involve Google) and found a recipe for baked tilapia in parchment paper turned out just okay after two tries. So I searched and found one from Joy of Cooking that has produced zero complaints from Todd or the one son who eats fish. Only requests for more.

2.25.2011

Mushroom Barley Soup

Ah, yes, another soup. It's still February, for three more days anyway, and I expect to be cold for at least one of them. Mushroom Barley to the rescue!

This recipe came from Angel Gayle, special soup correspondent from down the street. If you've been following my blog, you've heard of her by now. If not I'll summarize: her homemade soups are typically a delicious, healthy mish mosh of who knows what depending on what's in her refrigerator, how much time she has and what her mood is like. So recreating them is usually impossible. There are, however, a few exceptions (a.k.a. actual recipes) like this one. Hallelujah.

Recipe

For a vegetarian version skip the cubed beef and substitute vegetable broth for beef broth. Since I have not done this I can't vouch for the taste.

In a large pot (7-8 quarts or so), heat over medium until hot, 2-3 minutes*:
  • 1 tablespoon vegetable oil

Add:
  • 1/2 lb. beef tenderloin* cut into 1 inch cubes

Brown the meat* but don't cook it all the way. When the soup simmers later the meat will cook through.

Next add:
  • 1 onion, diced small, about 1/2 inch (or smaller)
  • 2 carrots, diced about to same size as onion

Simmer about 5 minutes, stirring a few times. Stir in:
  • 12 oz. fresh mushrooms, diced to about 1/2 inch

Simmer until mushrooms' liquid is released and some of the liquid has evaporated, 3-5 minutes.

Add:
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon pepper

Stir for one minute.

Add:
  • 1/2 cup diced tomatoes
  • 4 cups beef broth
  • 1/2 cup pearl barley

Cover and bring to a boil, then turn down heat to low, but high enough to keep it simmering. You can stir once in a while, and taste to see if it needs more salt or pepper. Cook until barley is tender, about 50 minutes, often less.

Stir in:
  • 1/2 cup flat leaf parsley, chopped

**Extra! Extra!**
  • To know if oil is hot enough I like to hold my palm close to the surface or quickly dip a finger in the oil. Risky, yes, so do so for a nanosecond!
  • How in the world did beef tenderloin end up in this soup? "To make it more of meal," I was told by Gayle, who added the pricey ingredient to the recipe. You can certainly leave it out, but it makes the soup divine.
  • If you have never browned meat before, Google it!

2.10.2011

Mama Reuven's Chocolate Cake

In the summer of 2008 we took our first family trip to Israel. The kids went crazy over Burger King on the beach in Tel Aviv, while Todd and I swooned over kosher sushi, challah from the shuk (open air market), and the New York style pizza (go figure).

But it was at the home of our dear friend, Sagi, where we really hit the food jackpot. Sagi's mom, a.k.a., "Mama Reuven," produced a feast for 50, though we numbered seven. The dining room table was packed with goodies like spinach pie, roasted vegetables, lasagna AND a pasta dish, and surely one or two I can't recall. Dessert was chocolate cake (warm and ala mode!) that stunned us. "What is this?" I asked. I mean, I knew it was chocolate cake, but the velvety texture and balanced richness made me wonder how she created this magic flavor. "It's Mama Reuven's triple chocolate cake," Sagi said. Triple chocolate, sure, that made sense to me, but I knew there was more to it.

Back home, the cake haunted me. I wanted to deliver this triple chocolate wonder to my people. So I pestered Sagi for the recipe and after about a year he delivered the fully translated version, in need of a measurement conversion here and there and directions like "let butter sit outside for a little bit" changed to "let butter soften at room temperature." The ingredient that sets this cake apart from others? Heavy whipping cream. Ah ha!

I've made the cake twice and while I'm certain it's not quite the same as the original, I think I came pretty close. Mama Reuven gave me her blessing to post her recipe, so here it is. Wait until you see the ingredients. They're sinful.

Recipe

Preheat oven to 350. Grease two English cake baking dishes or two 8 x 8 baking pans with butter or oil. Set aside.

In a medium sized bowl combine:
  • 1/2 cup cocoa powder
  • 1 1/2 cups all purpose flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt

Whisk together until well combined. Set aside.

In a large bowl combine:
  • 3/4 cup butter (1 1/2 sticks), at room temperature and starting to soften
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • heaping 3/4 cup sour cream
  • 250 ml heavy whipping cream (1 small carton)

Mix with electric beaters or if using a stand mixer, use the cookie batter paddle. Mix about 5 minutes until ingredients are very well combined.

Add one at a time:
  • 2 eggs

Mix well. Add flour mixture and mix until combined. You can finish with a wooden spoon to avoid over mixing. Divide batter evenly between the two cake pans and place them in the oven. Set timer for 28 minutes, though it may take up to 40 minutes*. You'll check it after 28. Meanwhile make the frosting.

In a small sauce pan or double boiler* heat:
  • 250 ml heavy whipping cream

When it's hot, but not boiling, add:
  • Heaping 3/4 cup 58-60% cocoa chocolate chips*

Stir to melt chocolate and turn down heat if it bubbles. Remember, hot but not boiling.

After chocolate and cream are combined well add:
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla, or an espresso shot mixed with a tablespoon or so of water*

Remove frosting from heat and set aside. You may need to give it a stir or two until you're ready to frost so it doesn't solidify.

Back to the cakes. Check them after 28 minutes. You can insert a toothpick and if it comes out clean or with some crumbs, they are done. If it's wiggly, set the timer for another five minutes and keep checking until done.

Then remove pans and cool them on a rack or trivets for about 5 minutes. With a fork, poke holes in the cake carefully, then pour the frosting over the cakes. Let cakes sit for about 15 minutes, until they're no longer piping hot. Cover with foil keeping it away from the frosting by either tenting the foil and/or putting 4-6 toothpicks in the cakes to prop it up. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve.*

Serve cakes cold, room temperature or warmed. To warm, preheat oven to 300, cover cakes with foil (remove toothpicks) and check every five minutes. Remove when frosting is melted a bit.


**Extra! Extra!**
  • My first go at this recipe it baked 28 minutes, but last try I used low fat (instead of regular) sour cream which I believe gave the batter more moisture so it took almost 40 minutes. I'm sticking with the full fat stuff for next time.
  • Fill a pot with about 2 inches of water and find a stainless steel bowl that fits on top without touching the water. Bring water to a boil and add ingredients to bowl. Keep the water simmering and steaming and your ingredients will melt without scorching. You can also use a regular small saucepan but watch the heat; you don't want the mixture to boil or it may burn.
  • Let's talk about chocolate, shall we? Use the good stuff: Ghirardelli or some other premium brand. That goes for the cocoa, too.
  • I use vanilla since I don't own an espresso maker, but I imagine a splash of leftover morning coffee might do the trick nicely as well.
  • If you live with others, look out for sabotage. This cake takes an hour to make and only seconds to disappear. Don't get stuck having to show up to your dinner party with Dunkin' Donuts instead.

2.02.2011

Grandma Goods

When my grandmother visited from Florida (typically for Jewish holidays) our house smelled like heaven and the vibe was good. As a kid I took for granted coming home from school to the combined scent of gefilte fish and Chocolate Whatchamacallits (more on that later), finding her poised at the kitchen counter donned in a blue and red housecoat, surrounded by bags of Jew foods awaiting their fate, but I later grew to relish every moment. My grandmother filled our house with joy.

One full day was spent making gefilte fish. Hers was homemade, all but unheard of in the 1980s. From a jar or Jewish deli is where those salty hunks of the Chosen People’s “spam” came from in other people’s homes, and with good reason I assure you.

First she’d gather a boatload of raw fish, different types of white fish, I believe. By the time I’d witness any action, shopping was done (she and my mother) and chopping had begun. She used an ancient wooden bowl, roughly the size of a kitchen sink, probably brought over from the old country (grabbed fleeing a pogrom?) and a wooden-handled chopper with a crescent-shaped blade (that scares me to this day).

With both hands she'd grip the chopper, pointing her elbows outward, mincing the fish for hours, spinning the bowl every ten seconds or so, occasionally sweeping her wrist across her forehead to push a hair back, hands glistening with fish oil. When the fish would reach baby food consistency, my grandmother was banished to the outdoors for what I call “Gefilte Fish, Step Two,” a.k.a. “this really stinks up the house for weeks so maybe your mother can cook the fish outside, dear.”  My dad would fill a huge electric pot (also ancient looking) with gallons of water and set it on a bench on the backyard deck. Once the water began to boil, she would sculpt, with bare hands, the mini football shaped pieces eventually to be served atop pieces of romaine, sliced carrots on the side. Into the steaming water (or was it chicken broth?) went each “Gefilte” to simmer until cooked through. (My father claims she smoked simultaneously, cigarette ash sometimes landing in the pot.) If early fall (Rosh Hashanah or Yom Kippur), bees would swarm her and my dad would run outside to shoo them away.

Had I stood by her side, today I might be making gefilte fish twice a year instead of doing triceps curls twice a week but the process looked no fun at all. So from afar I watched my grandmother love every minute, careful not to touch her for fear of staining my favorite sweater.

Now for the Chocolate Whatchamacallits, invented well before the candy bar, by the way. My grandmother’s story, which I’ve heard a time or two, is that she concocted the dessert “years ago” after tasting a “pretty good” homemade cupcake at “whatshernameagain’s” house. She took the recipe, which whatshernameagain was happy to share, added a bit of this and a little of that. The result was a party-in-the-mouth: mini chocolate cupcakes topped with a cream cheese-butter-chocolate chip mixture and chopped pecans previously sautéed in butter and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. Heaven in a paper muffin cup. And since they were chocolate and she couldn’t think of whattocallem’, the Chocolate Whatchamacallit was born.

“I’ve had one of those before!” you may be thinking. “At that party over Christmas, or from the bakery down the street.”

You are wrong. You may have eaten a chocolate cupcake with cream cheese topping, but if you didn’t get it from me, or my brother, a Chocolate Whatchamacallit it was not. Only those who have been properly trained can produce the real thing, or as close as possible. My brother and I are among the lucky few who learned the process first hand.

Sadly, not all my grandmother’s relatives have the touch. A cousin on my father’s side has arrived at family functions proud to present these beloved treats. Family members rush the tray, eager for a taste, but after a bite or two, heads shake.

“Not the same, nope,” someone says.

The baker is not insulted. “I followed her recipe exactly,” she says. “They should be the same.”

It’s not your fault, I think to myself; you’re just too far away from her on the family tree, and you probably didn’t pay close enough attention when she showed you how to bake them. That part is your fault.

So my family never passed up a chance for the real deal, always requesting Chocolate Whatchamacallits when she visited from Florida. To say she accommodated was an understatement. Seemed she never stopped baking those visits except to go outside for a cigarette.

When weekends home from college coincided with her visits, it was impossible to resist grabbing a stash of the goods on my way back campus. Major threat to “want to fit into jeans later.” My solution was to aggressively, yet graciously, dole out the contraband to roommates, friends, men on the street.

“This is the best cupcake I ever tasted!” people would say. Beaming I'd imagine my fellow students telling their hometown folks about the world's greatest baker.

“So my roommate forced this cupcake on me…baked by her grandmother. You’ve never had anything like it.”

“Tell us more!” shout family and friends of the lucky soul.

“There was a topping of some sort…cream cheese, chocolate chips and something else.” Licking her lips to stimulate the parietal lobe she gets it. “Chopped pecans sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar! That’s what it was!”

Too bad she leaves out the pecans were sautéed in butter. Nevertheless, her audience wants a taste. “You must bring them to us!”

She laughs. “Are you crazy? Those cupcakes won’t survive the first thirty minutes of my next drive home.”

In January 2000 my grandmother died at age 91. A year later at her headstone dedication, I showed up with a freshly baked batch of Whatchamacallits. After all, what's a family gathering without a little something to nibble? My relatives and I stood around her gravesite and indulged. My dad, wet-faced with tears and exploding with nostalgia, rolled his paper muffin cup into a ball and placed it, instead of a stone, on her headstone.

“That was the best Chocolate Whatchamacallit I’ve ever had in my life,” he said.

“Dad, seriously,” I said. “They can’t be as good as hers.”

“Actually,” he said, “I think they might be better.”

That was my day to deliver the joy.

1.26.2011

Squash Soup

The other night I brought this soup to a "chicks only" cocktail party at a friend's home. I decided on soup because, well, it's January and what better lifts mood and body temperature than a dollop of hot and savory goodness? Yes, this took me longer to prepare than a bag of chips and jar of salsa, but the result was well worth it.

As guests charged the pot to snag a ladelful, I wondered, why is it so uplifting to feed others good tasting homemade fare? Perhaps the delight on people's faces boosts my ego. Or maybe it's a female thing. To those who enjoyed, does it matter?

Recipe

Sister-in-law Amy shared this recipe with me from her Moosewood Restaurant Daily Special Cookbook. She roasts the squash, onion, and garlic together as the original recipe instructs but I like to chop and saute those ingredients instead. I'm not sure which way is tastier, easier or creates less mess. If you hate chopping, roasting the vegetables first might be the way to go. Just leave yourself a lot of time.

I omitted the sizzling sage, which I found to be kind of pain, and instead added dried sage. I also halved the amount of olive oil.

In a large pot heat over medium heat, until hot:
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

Add and saute 5-10 minutes until translucent:
  • 2 large yellow onions, cut into 1 inch pieces

Add and stir about a minute, until fragrant:
  • 3-4 garlic cloves, minced

Add and stir for a minute or two, just to combine:
  • 40 ounces (doesn't need to be exact) cut up squash from the produce section, cut into 1 inch cubes*

 Stir in:
  • 1 cup no sugar added apple juice*
  • 2 cups low-fat chicken broth*
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 1/4-1/2 teaspoon dried sage
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 1 teaspoon salt, more to taste
  • ground black pepper, to taste

Bring soup to a boil then turn heat down and simmer 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes or so, until squash is soft enough to smash with a fork.

Puree with an immersion blender* (remove pot from heat when you do this) or let soup cool a few minutes and puree in a regular blender in small batches. Make soup as thin or thick as you want. If it gets too thick add more liquid.

Taste and adjust seasonings.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • I find cutting squash too time consuming and scary, but if you are skilled and willing, go ahead and buy a few whole ones. You'll need about 3 pounds worth.
  • You can play with the amount and types of liquid. Vegetable broth instead of chicken? Sure. More apple juice? Yes. But keep in mind more apple juice means a sweeter soup. Also, keep extra liquid on hand to thin out soup later, if need be.
  • Using an immersion blender can be fun, but take a minute or two to read the instruction manual so you don't end up with soup all over your kitchen and up your nose. Trust me on this one.

1.10.2011

Roasted Potatoes

Last summer while vacationing in a rented house in Michigan with my brother's family, I watched my boys joyfully wolf down Aunt Amy's roasted potatoes. I was never much of a potato lover, more of a bread eater, really. But since I recently slashed the amount of bread, pasta and other gluten foods in our house getting these potatoes right became a priority.

Angel/Sister-in-law Amy was there to help. The trick, she finally pounded into me, is to cook those suckers a good long while and if you don't have the time, don't bother. Then, after they cook for an hour or so, broil them until crispy.

Months later (last Saturday to be exact) I gave it a go working from Barefoot Contessa's Roasted Potatoes applying Angel Amy's methods. It was a perfect match. To me they tasted like they had been injected with a magic potion. My oldest son said they tasted like french fries. Score.

Recipe

These take about 90 minutes start to finish (including prep) so be prepared. I've added to Barefoot Contessa's original recipe the option for an extra 1/2 pound of potatoes for leftover lovers and to max out on the long cook time.

1 1/2-2 pounds small red, white and/or yellow skinned potatoes, unpeeled (not russets!), scrubbed clean
4-6 tablespoons olive oil
3/4-1 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2-3/4 teaspoon fresh ground black pepper
1-2 tablespoons minced garlic (about 3 cloves)
2-3 tablespoons minced fresh rosemary leaves (I used dried thyme, about 1/2-3/4 teaspoon)

Preheat oven to 400. Line a rimmed baking sheet with tin foil.

Cut the potatoes in half lengthwise. Put them in a bowl. Drizzle in the olive oil and stir them around with a spoon or your hands and get them well coated with the oil. Then sprinkle in salt, pepper, garlic and herbs. Give them a good toss. Arrange them on a rimmed baking sheet cut side down so they are flat. Push them around the pan a bit, keeping them flat, so they all soak up the oil and seasonings. If there's any oil/seasoning left in the bowl, spoon it out and sprinkle it on the potatoes. I especially like each piece to have a chard or two of garlic on them.

Here's where Barefoot Contessa and I part ways: she says to flip them during cooking. I say leave them for one hour without doing anything. Then remove the potatoes from the oven and see if you can loosen one; if it looks brown on the flat side you should be able to flip the rest (if they don't look done, try 10 more minutes). Do so carefully as not to rip off the browned side. If you can flip them easily (no sticking) but they don't look brown (but hour's up) that's okay. They'll brown during the next step. However, make sure they look and feel cooked and a bit soft (you can pierce one with a fork).

After you flip them move the oven rack to the highest position and turn on the broiler. Put the baking sheet back in for 5-10 minutes until the flat side looks brown and crispy as you like. Check them often as they broil so they don't burn.

Let cool 5-10 minutes before serving.

Next day you can reheat them in the microwave, but cover with a damp paper towel so they don't dry out (thanks Angel Jackie for that suggestion).

I know, I know, this takes a while. So cook these when you're stuck at home doing something anyway, like waiting for the cable guy.

1.01.2011

Ribs

Ribs. Just saying the word brings a twinkle to my husband's eye. We've ordered them in from Smoque, Smokin' Woody's, Carson's, Fat Willy's and others over the years, but hands down the best ribs I ever ate came from an unknown little place in Boca Raton, Florida: my friends' backyard. They own a smoker and one visit the man of the house honored us with his talents. At 8 a.m. as we all sipped morning cups-a-joe, he began the process. Some 12 anticipatory hours later, finished product was before us. I remember nothing about the day but watching him walk in and out of the backyard with a smirk on his face, foreshadowing what lay ahead.

Was it worth the wait? Absolutely. And the cost of plane tix for four.

We have no plans to buy a smoker, though tempting. Space and weather here make such indulgence impractical. I often considered venturing into the world of homemade ribs sans smoker, but every recipe I found involved several steps, ingredients, and kitchen utensils, overwhelming me in an instant. I'd reach for the phone instead.

Then Grandma CC served us her homemade ribs. We all raved. How did they compare to our friends' 12-hour version? Not as good, I admit. But pretty great regardless. She told me they were easy to make and I didn't believe her. You be the judge.

Recipe

Buy 2 slabs of baby back ribs from a good butcher. Let them sit at room temperature while you turn oven to 350 and wait for it to preheat. Place a roasting rack* on a baking pan/cookie sheet lined with tin foil (for easier cleanup). Put both slabs, meat side up, on the rack. Put nothing on the ribs, yet. Ribs should sit out at least 15 minutes before going in the oven.

Then bake ribs (uncovered) on middle rack of oven for one hour. Take ribs out of oven and baste, meat side only, with liquid smoke* or any barbecue sauce*, homemade or bottled. Return ribs to oven.

Bake one more hour, basting once or twice during the hour, depending on how saucy you like your meat.

Remove ribs from oven, move oven rack to broiler level (that's the top position), turn on broiler (on high, if your oven has a hi/lo choice) and return ribs to oven.

HERE'S THE TRICKY PART. Don't leave the oven. Stand there, watch it. As the sauce bubbles, watch! Yes you can open the oven and watch. You want the sauce to caramelize (when the sauce cooks and gets sticky), without charring too badly, or it will catch on fire. This should take less than five minutes. The minute all the ribs have bubbled, take out the pan. (You can always put it back for more caramelizing if necessary.)

Turn oven back to 350 and move oven rack back to center. Bake 30 more minutes.

Remove ribs from oven and see how you did! You should be very proud.

Note: I have not tried to make more than 2 slabs at a time but as soon as I do, I'll update this post. Two slabs of ribs barely served my three men.

**Extra! Extra!**
  • Buy a cheap roasting rack (Target or the grocery store) that fits two slabs. The rack I had wasn't big enough so my ribs didn't all fit. Tragic.
  • Liquid smoke gives it well, a smoky flavor. I used Trader Joe's BBQ sauce but Todd would have preferred Open Pit.