Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Wonderful Winter Weekend

“Wonderful” and “winter” are not really words that I think belong together, except for the lovely alliteration. But then again, how can you look at the beaming smile of my stepdaughter with her two sons, and not smile yourself, whatever the weather?

Winter took a minor break this past weekend and allowed us to enjoy a great time with our two grandsons (and their parents, of course!) It was just the burst of sunshine we needed at the end of February when it seems that we’ve had winter for six months. Spring does not seem just around the corner, no matter what our neighbor Punxsutawney Phil might say.

We’ve had two feet of snow dumped on us in the past few weeks, we’ve had frigid temperatures, freezing rain, icicles that have to be measured with a yardstick, and far too much shoveling, scraping and plowing.

But the sun was kind last Saturday, the wind moderate, and no new snow. So the little traveling family made it to our house with no trouble. We had some inside play time while we caught up on each other’s news since our last get together a month or so ago and awed at the boys’ growth. They are almost 1 and almost 4, their birthdays one day after the other next month. The younger grandson is stretching out his little fireplug frame, sporting two more teeth, babbling more and on the verge of walking on his own. The older boy has quite an imagination (and a good memory) and regaled us with colorful stories of his emergency room visit the day before and the leaking roof at home.

I continually marvel at their busyness and curiosity and their happy temperaments and have to think it’s got a lot to do with their parents. I love watching them interact. Seeing loving discipline and playful affection in action is a delight. Although Grandpa and I might be just a little prejudiced, they’re great kids, all four of them!

We decided to have our lunch before we had our outside playtime. It was going to be a soup-and-sammy lunch. I had told everyone ahead of time that we were going to have grilled reubens for lunch, just in case anyone might not like them. (No objections.)

But I didn’t tell them we were going to have broccoli soup, too. As I headed to the kitchen, I announced that I was going to heat up the soup. I was almost out of earshot before I heard:

“Did she say soup?”
“Yes, didn’t she tell you that?”
“No. But YES! We said on the way up that we hoped there was soup, too.”

The reubens were great. It’s just assembly, after all; although I like making them at home because sometimes they’re kinda greasy ordered out. You can control all that at home. And the kids liked the soup so much, they asked for the recipe. Ooops! It was one of those make-up-as-you-go-with-what-you-have-on-hand-with-just-kind-of-a-game-plan.

I did my best to re-create the concoction:

Broccoli Soup
The February 20, 2010 Version

2 T flour
2 T butter
1 cup milk
4 oz mild cheddar cheese, shredded
½ cup chopped carrot
½ cup chopped celery
½ cup chopped onion
1 T olive oil
1 bunch broccoli, chopped
1 32 oz box chicken broth
½ cup uncooked instant rice
1 8-ounce brick Neufchatel cheese, softened
1 t dried tarragon
Salt & pepper to taste

1. Make a light cheese sauce: In a saucepan, melt the butter. Blend in the flour. Slowly pour in the milk, stirring. Keep stirring until thickened. Add the cheese and stir until it’s melted. Remove from heat.
2. Place the oil in a stockpot on medium heat. Add the carrot, celery and onion and cook, stirring occasionally, until the vegetables are softened.
3. Add the broccoli and rice. Add chicken broth to cover. (Add more broth if needed.) Bring to boil and then turn down to simmer, cover and cook 8-10 minutes until broccoli and rice are tender.
4. Again, add more broth if needed.
5. Add the cheese sauce and stir till blended. Then add the Neufchatel cheese and stir until melted. Makes 6-8 ample servings.

Later, my husband told me that the sandwiches were great and the soup was good; but he likes his soup a little thicker and cheesier. I took it as I do all his critiques: thought for food!

Friday, February 19, 2010

Lenten Suffering? I think not.

Eating fish during Lent is not as big a deal for Catholics as it used to be. It’s certainly no sacrifice. So many more people are in the habit of eating more fish often, and many people are vegetarians, or vegans. (Someday, I’ll sit down and figure out the difference. Right now, I’m still a meat lover.)

Good quality fish and shellfish are so easy to come by these days, even in regular grocery stores, even in the boonies. You don’t need a fish monger. “Lenten Specials” are everywhere. There’s hardly a restaurant or fast food place that isn’t featuring some fish favorite, and around here, they’re all pretty much under $10. This week, we saw a gang ad in the local paper that highlighted no less than 50 area restaurants advertising fish specials of some kind. And all the churches that are hosting fish dinners! We could make a Lent full of minor road trips just by traveling to all the different churches having fish, shrimp, even crab dinners on Fridays!

I guess the same was true when I was a child, mostly because people didn’t cook fish at home much. I hated Lent back then. It was either fish sticks or tuna fish salad or an outing to the local Knights of Columbus hall for fish dinner, which I didn’t like back then. I also think I was one of those rare kids who didn’t like macaroni-and-cheese from the box. I do remember once when my mom got creative a la Sandra Lee and poured a can of condensed Manhattan-style clam chowder over frozen, unbreaded fish fillets (a rarity, then) and baked them. I thought that was great, but I don’t remember it being repeated. Dad must not have liked it.

The first time I had fish that I really liked was when my husband cooked up some freshly-caught crappies for my birthday dinner. We were on a fishing trip in Black Lake, New York, with his parents and a couple of their friends, and it happened to be over my birthday. My husband decided he’d treat me to a fresh fish dinner, my first. I was really overwhelmed by just how good the fresh fish were. (It also could have been the fact that he was cooking.) He just cooked the fish, lightly dipped in beaten egg, then dry pancake batter seasoned only with salt and pepper, in butter. Not exactly a low-cal meal, but definitely delicious.

I’m now used to cooking a lot of fresh fish myself, thanks to over a decade’s worth of fishing trips to Canada where we’ve always caught our limit of walleye, and then ate our limit as well. The picture at the top of this post is one day’s catch! My sister-in-law Lori and I are pretty proud of all the different ways we’ve come up with to cook the walleye. Cajun, with lemon and garlic, with bacon, blackened, grilled, pan-fired, broiled – you name it, we’ve done it.

This morning on our walk, I talked to my husband about this post and asked him about his childhood memories of Lenten meals. They were much the same as mine: peanut butter sandwiches, grilled cheese sandwiches and tomato soup, cheese pizzas, fried fish from the local tavern. (None of which sound bad at all!)

Times have changed, though. When I asked what he’d like for dinner tonight, he was thoughtful for a minute, then said, “How about that grilled shrimp and scallop dish I like, or the shrimp fettuccine, or, maybe the Thai thing.” Now I was thinking about a maple-glazed salmon, but I guess we’ll go with the Thai Shrimp. After all, he found the recipe while breezing through magazines in a hospital waiting room. (I did have to adapt it some.)

Here it is:
Thai Shrimp
1 cup chicken broth
1 T cornstarch
3 T rice vinegar
2 T soy sauce
2 T water
1 T sriracha hot chili sauce*
1 T minced gingerroot
1 t minced garlic
1 pound uncooked, peeled shrimp
2 t sesame oil
1 can artichoke hearts, drained (not in oil)
3 T green onion, chopped
1 head bok choy

1. In bowl, place chicken broth and add cornstarch, stirring until smooth. Then stir in soy sauce, water, chili sauce, ginger, garlic. Set aside.
2. In large skillet, stir fry shrimp in sesame oil until pink. Remove from pan and keep warm.
Stir soy sauce mixture. Add to pan and bring to boil. Cook stirring about 2 minutes until thickened. Add artichokes and onions, top with bok choy. Reduce heat. Cover and cook 5 minutes, until bok choy is wilted. Return shrimp to pan and heat through.
3. Serve with rice.

* The original recipe called for Thai chili sauce, which I could not find. I’ve also added fresh mushrooms, about ½ pound, cooked with the shrimp.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Impromptu Guests

I was working at my computer one day when I kept hearing a strange tapping. It wasn’t rhythmic. I couldn’t detect a pattern. Started. Stopped. Then, every once in a while, a bit of a crash/bang/thump.

Every time I got up to investigate, I found nothing. No picture had fallen off a wall; no book had dropped off a shelf. Nothing. Finally, after a couple of trips (like answering the phone to find no one there) I finally spied it -- the psycho-cardinal.

She tried and tried to get in. Whether she just saw her own reflection or something pretty in the room, I don’t know. Maybe she was having a frustrating day and just felt like banging her head. The window has the marks to prove she must have hurt herself.

But the unexpected "knocking at the door" got me thinking about impromptu guests and all those times you need, or want, to whip up something quick. (My husband hates it when I “disappear” into the kitchen for what he thinks is too long; unfortunately, our kitchen isn’t big enough to invite company.)

If we didn’t live so far from any town, I suppose we could be like normal people and order a pizza or takeout, but then someone would disappear for at least an hour fetching the food. I’d rather have the company.

So, I’ve developed an easy repertoire of “go-to” meals and snacks. My friend Susie taught me how to make a killer salsa (a big can of diced tomatoes, drained, ½ jar pepper rings, also drained, ½ small onion chopped, and a teaspoon of the pepper juice. Simple. Great. I’ve also known her to take a can of drained black olives and season them with olive oil, salt & pepper and oregano. More simple. More great.)

I keep a pretty well-stocked pantry and we usually have a variety of cheeses and crackers on hand, or when something more substantial is called for, there’s always an omelet or frittata, even a plain ol' fried egg sandwich.

But my favorite go-to meal is a sausage-pasta-spinach-tomato dish. There has to be a great name for it and I can’t remember how I started doing it, but here it is: You’ll need a pound of sweet Italian sausage, a 15-ish ounce can of diced tomatoes (as opposed to Susie’s “big” can), a bag of fresh baby spinach (a box of thawed frozen spinach will do in a pinch), and a cup of cooked pasta – shells, bow ties, rotini, etc. If I’m feeling real creative or not rushed, I’ll grate some fresh nutmeg into it, too. Or add a chopped onion. Or a couple ounces of feta or a handful of olives. (Then I could call it Mediterranean Pasta Toss.)

You really just need the four main ingredients to make a super simple supper, though. While the pasta is boiling, brown the sausage (and onion, if you want, maybe some garlic), then add the tomatoes and simmer. Then add the cooked pasta. But don’t add the fresh spinach until you’re just about ready to eat it. You just want to get it wilted. And don’t forget to grate some nutmeg on top to make it a bit special. And grated cheese, too.

What’s really great about this is that if I make it for just my husband and me, the leftovers are great reprised as a frittata!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

The Mystery of the Hard-Boiled Egg

You’d hardly think that something as simple as how to hard-boil an egg would cause much discussion, but in my little corner of the world, it has.

Here’s the scoop: For my entire life, I’ve made hard-boiled eggs – successfully, I need to add – the same way. I put eggs in a pan, cover with water, put on the stove. When the water comes to a boil, I turn off the heat, and let the eggs sit, covered, for 20 minutes. When they’re cool, I peel them.

Never a problem. Not until Dude’s eggs. One of the advantages of living in the jingle berries, aside from the peace and quiet, is getting fresh eggs from a great neighbor like Dude. Dude is a 70-something farmer who lives down the road and he’s been called Dude ever since he was seven or eight. (He can’t remember who christened him that or why but it stuck.) We started getting eggs from Dude’s chickens regularly a few months ago. They really are richer somehow; the yolks are more yellow and they seem to have more flavor, without any doctoring.

I know that fresh eggs are more difficult to peel when hard-boiled, and so when I was planning to make one of my husband’s favorite treats – pickled eggs – I let the eggs sit in the refrigerator for a good week or so to age them a bit before trying to cook them. But when I did, oh, they were so-o-o-o hard to peel. Seemed to take forever, and the eggs were all pock-marked. Didn’t hurt the flavor of the pickled eggs any; they just looked funny.

When I reported my misadventure to Dude, he told me that he’d never had a problem, even though his cooking method was similar. There are a couple slight differences: He’d let them sit a whole day in the warm water, then he'd put them in the fridge overnight. The next day, he would peel them. Now Dude really has only been cooking a lot in the past few years since his wife passed away, but I knew he knew what he was doing.

One day, he told me that he’d had a bunch of extra eggs, so he thought he’d hard-boil a dozen for me. The next day, he – untypically – called in the middle of the day, sounding a little frustrated and left a message saying, “Gotta bunch of torn-up eggs for you down here, if you want ‘em.”

Turned out that he’d had the same trouble I’d had this time. He even enlisted his grandson to help him peel the little devils, and Chas got frustrated, too: “This is going to take a long time, Papa.”

So I decided to research a bit and after Googling “how to hard-boil farm fresh eggs” I learned a lot. Some recommendations said, after starting the same way I usually did, to put the cooked eggs into ice water for a minute or two, like blanching vegetables, then back into simmering water for another minute or two. There were several recommendations using an ice water bath. One piece of advice was to add ¼ cup vinegar to the cooking water and boiling for 30 minutes. But I decided to trust the advice of the American Egg Board, and I learned all sorts of other things about eggs to boot – how to be sure to avoid the green stuff (don’t cook too long), how to center the yolk (lay the eggs on their side in the fridge). The egg board also says they're really hard cooked not hard-boiled, because boiling toughens them too much.

I’ve got a dozen pickled eggs right now, so it will be a while before I need them. But the eggs in my refrigerator are going to sit there until Easter before I even try again.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

A Comfort Food Day

Last Sunday, it was -4 degrees. And it was windy. So, of course, it felt a whole lot colder than it was.

I didn’t know it was quite that cold when my husband and I left the house in the morning to take care of the horses. I knew my fingers were tingling as we mucked the stalls, and the water buckets were frozen solid, but since the sun was out, at least it didn’t look all that cold.

Now, we stick pretty close to a morning routine, no matter the weather. We get up, check the news, have some coffee. Then we don our barn togs, feed the dog, the cats and the horses. Then we go for a two-mile walk.

And during the walk that day, I planned to myself that as soon as we got back to the house, I was going to start a pot of chili. I wanted the smells of onions and garlic and peppers and tomatoes and cumin to fill the house and be as warming as the fire in the fireplace. And it was just as comforting as I expected.

There’s a big winter storm predicted for this weekend. And although we’re not going to get hit as hard as places more south, it’s a pretty good excuse to concoct another comfort food meal. And if I make something on the gas stove, it won’t be in any danger should we lose electricity.

I decided on a one-pot dish called “Student’s Ragout.” It’s a nostalgic meal, too, since it’s one of the first meals my mother taught me to make without a recipe. There is a recipe, but she’d made it so many times she didn’t need one, and that’s how I learned to eyeball some things without measuring.

As we chopped the vegetables for the stew together, I once asked why it was called student's ragout. I think she made up the answer. She said it was because students who had to live frugally had just a hot plate to cook on and just one pot. They could put the meat and vegetables in their one pot, cover it and let it simmer while they hit the books. Nice story, Mom. Sounded good to a ten-year old, anyhow.

Her recipe came from a cookbook called, “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook.” This particular cookbook was my father’s favorite. He’d often spout off one of the Mystery Chef’s helpful hints--"Put a piece of bread in your mouth while chopping onions and you won’t cry"--while he kibitzed in the kitchen with Mom.

The Mystery Chef was a radio talk show host from the 1930’s named John Macpherson. In his book, he explains that he called himself “The Mystery Chef” out of respect for his mother, who was more than slightly embarrassed that her only son had taken up cooking as a hobby in a time when that was definitely not the norm. When he eventually was broadcasting about cooking, in deference to his mother, he adopted the mystery moniker.

The book is a great read. Macpherson encourages everyday cooks to “Be an artist at the stove.” He doesn’t think of cooking, even the everyday stuff, as boring at all. In fact, we are inspired to “. . . use the creative ability that the Creator of All gave to you. The creative possibilities in the art of cooking seem to me practically unlimited.”

There are only five ingredients in the Student’s Ragout recipe. (Simple enough for the pauper students, right, Mom?) Here it is, in its entirety, from the 1945 edition of “The Mystery Chef’s Own Cookbook.” (His explanation for the name is at the end.)

The Student’s Ragout
Dinner cooked over a single burner. Serve 4 generously.

4 medium sized potatoes
2 medium sized carrots
3 medium sized onions
1 pound round steak, cut thin
½ pound sliced bacon (Canadian style)*
Salt and pepper
1 cup cold water

Prepare this dinner in a baking pan, large saucepan, or skillet with a lid. It is important to have a lid that fits the utensil.

Wash, peel and thinly slice the potatoes. Wash, scrape and slice the carrots. Peel and slice the onions. Cut the round steak across the grain into little strips about 2 inches long and half an inch wide. (First stretch the meat, and you can see which way the grain runs. You then cut across the grain. If the meat is cut with the grain, you have long, stringy pieces and it will be tough, whereas if you cut across the grain, meat will be tender.)

If ordinary bacon is used, halve the slices. Now place all the ingredients in the cooking utensil as follows:

First put the bacon in, spreading it over the bottom of the pan. Then distribute the steak in a layer over the bacon and sprinkle a little black pepper over it. Put in a layer of onions and carrots and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper. On top of all put the thinly sliced potatoes and sprinkle with a little salt and pepper.

Put the pan on the fire and start cooking. After 3 minutes add the cup of water and put on the lid. Cook for 45 minutes over a very slow fire, at which time water will have cooked into the ingredients, and you can serve a very delicious dinner, long a favorite with the students in the famous Latin Quarter of Paris.
*We rarely had Canadian bacon; it was too dear, a delicacy. We used regular ol' bacon.