Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Celebrating Spring with a VW and Crepes -- Part I

Getting my Volkswagen Beetle out of storage after the winter is a sure sign of spring. We put it away every winter for three months (of six!) mostly to save some money on car insurance. Another reason, though, is that although VWs do pretty well in snow, they have low ground clearance, making it a little dicey on some of our back roads. We have a truck and an SUV, so the VW just goes into hibernation.

I’ve also been known to underestimate its ability to clear an obstruction on the road. Once, I thought I could straddle a dead deer on the road. B-i-i-i-i-i-g mistake! I dragged the poor thing down the road with me and kept part of it in the undercarriage. It took a lot of extra hosing down -- and time -- to get rid of the mess. That happened well over fifteen years ago, but it’s one of those stories that gets retold often, and often gets more dramatic in each retelling. Sometimes I tell it on myself -- just to beat my husband to the punch and make sure he gets it right.

I do love my Volkswagen, though. I’ve had four. Number 4 is my first non-convertible. I had a yellow convertible Beetle, a blue convertible Rabbit and a grey convertible Cabriolet. (It was Number 3 that dragged the deer.) This black one is pretty special, too. It’s a 2001, has 31,000 miles on it (thanks to storage) and regularly gets 30 miles per gallon. It has heated leather seats and it’s turbo-charged. I love it when I’m on the interstate and someone behind me thinks they just have to pass that little Beetle and I’ll just punch it and surprise them, gleefully, I have to add. The only thing I don’t like about my car is that it doesn’t have a CD player. Easy enough to fix, I suppose, but I probably won’t.

My Volkswagen’s first outing this year was a trip to the local post office. The post office in Fisher, which also houses a store, is exactly 1.2 miles from our house. So it was a perfect run to make sure the sleepy battery was charged. I cajoled Jackie, our postmaster, into taking a picture of me in the VW to celebrate its first outing. Jackie kindly obliged. Jackie is not only our postmaster, she’s also chief of the local volunteer fire department. Of course, she’s the storekeeper, too, or as she puts it, “I’m the Sam Drucker of Fisher!”

Since I’m inclined to associate celebrations of any kind, even the VW’s first outing, with food, I wanted to make something special and springlike to commemorate the day. I decided I was going to make chicken and broccoli crepes, because I had chicken and broccoli in the fridge.

I love crepes. The first time I ever made them was a long time ago, but I remember thinking to myself as I was making them at the ripe age of 25 that I was a cooking diva and that these weren’t nearly as hard as I’d imagined. They’re a lot like pancakes. And they were fun to make.

Cooking crepes is a not a quick job, though, and takes a little planning, and a little practice. Like pancakes, sometimes the first one doesn’t come out right. The recipe for the batter I use comes from the first “Three Rivers Cookbook” published as a fund raiser in 1973 by the Child Health Association of Sewickley. It remains one of my favorite cookbooks. The smears can attest to it. A "Mrs. Edward A. Montgomery, Jr.," supplied the crepe recipe and I thank her. It’s never failed me. The first time I made these crepes, I was making cannelloni (another Mrs. Edward A. Montgomery, Jr., offering,) probably my all-time favorite dish to make, even better than lasagna. (I’ll save that for another post.)

I know that there are sweet crepes, too, but I’ve never made them. The ingredients for the savory crepes are simple. Another good thing about the crepes is that they freeze well, making it almost possible to have a spur of the moment celebration. Part II of this post – tomorrow -- will have the crepe filling. (You have to let the batter chill for two hours anyhow.)

Entrée Crepes

1 C cold water
1 C cold milk
4 large eggs
½ t salt
2 C all purpose flour
4 T butter

Place the water, milk, eggs and salt in a blender and combine well. With the blender still running gradually add the flour. Refrigerate at least 2 hours before cooking.

When ready to cook, melt about a ½ tablespoon of butter in a small frying pan over medium heat. Using about ¼ cup of batter per crepe, pour into pan and quickly swirl to cover the bottom of the pan. When bubbles start to form, turn crepe with a spatula and cook briefly on the other side. Add more butter as needed, about every other crepe. Put parchment paper, or wax paper, between crepes after they’re cooked so they don’t stick together. Makes about 24 crepes.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Revisting White Lasagna

Sometimes, a cooking creation just goes blah. Not bad. Not good. Maybe so-so. That’s what happened when I decided I had a hankering for a white lasagna. I didn’t follow any particular recipe. Most recipes I did find for white lasagna were also vegetarian and I’m afraid I wanted meat. What I made was an amalgamation of stuff I’ve read and morphed into my cooking brain.

I’ve made lasagna hundreds of times. I even tried a couple specialty versions – a Mexican lasagna, with beans, cheddar and pepper jack cheeses and tortillas substituting for pasta; and a German lasagna, with corned beef, Swiss cheese and sauerkraut. All very good experiments.

So I wanted to experiment one more time with lasagna and make white lasagna rolls. I decided I’d spoon some ricotta-spinach filling onto lasagna noodles, then roll them up and pour a creamy, a little cheesy, white sauce over everything and bake. Pretty simple.

What I got was pretty simple, too – simply bland, even anemic. Time to ramp things up!

So it was back to the drawing board, without abandoning the basic concept, just spicing it up some. My first version depended on parmesan cheese alone to get the cheesiness I wanted. The second time, I added mozzarella. (I have to admit, I was trying to cut down on the calories.) I also added lemon zest and fresh nutmeg to the ricotta filling. That was all that was needed to change the taste. (And a little bit of freshly chopped Italian parsley on top to change the look.)

White Lasagna Roll-ups

12 cooked lasagna noodles
½ lb sweet Italian sausage
1 t fennel seed, crushed
1 - 15-oz container ricotta cheese
1 - 10 oz package frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed dry (about 1 cup)
1 egg, slightly beaten
¼ t nutmeg
¼ t lemon zest
¼ C butter
¼ C flour
2 C milk
½ C chicken broth
¼ t nutmeg
½ C parmesan cheese
Salt & pepper to taste
1 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
¼ cup Italian parsley chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
1. Break up sausage in skillet and brown, adding fennel seed as it cooks. Drain and set aside.
2. Make sauce: In large saucepan, melt butter. Add flour. Over medium heat, add milk all at once, stirring often until thickened. Reduce heat. Slowly add chicken broth, stirring. Add nutmeg and salt and pepper to taste. Add drained sausage to sauce.
3. Make filling: In bowl, combine ricotta cheese, egg, spinach, nutmeg and lemon zest.
4. To assemble: Spray 13 X 9 pan with non-stick spray. Spread about ¾ cup sauce in bottom of pan, enough to cover bottom. On work surface, lay lasagna noodle flat. Place two large tablespoons of filling (about ¼ cup) and spread over noodle. Starting at one end, roll up and place, seam side down, in pan. Repeat with the remainder of noodles. Spoon remainder of sauce over lasagna rolls, covering each roll. Sprinkle mozzarella over rolls, too.
5. Bake covered with foil that has been sprayed with non-stick spray for 30 minutes; remove foil, and bake an additional 15 minutes, until cheese is lightly browned. Sprinkle with parsley.

P.S. So is it “lasagna” or “lasagne”? All I know is when I ran spell check, it said lasagna.
P.P.S. Mom's china looks great, doesn't it?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Hunting for Chicken Cacciatore

A local supermarket advertised a giganza meat sale last week and I came home pretty happyand not too much poorer. For around $80, I got 4 pounds of boneless, skinless chicken breast, 10 pounds of pork loin and 12 pounds of New York strip steaks. I’m no math whiz, but that averaged out to something like $3 per pound. (I passed up buying a T-shirt once that read: “English Major. You do the math.” Have to get it.) Back home, I repackaged everything with my vacuum sealer -- love that thing – and put the meat away in the freezer. It's a comforting feeling, knowing that we're well-stocked, and pretty inexpensively at that.

Seeing all those pretty red steaks made me hungry for them that night, but it made more sense to do something with the chicken tenderloin pieces I’d trimmed. But what? Same ol’, same ol’? I often dip them in egg, then a mixture of Parmesan cheese and seasoned bread crumbs, and brown them in butter and oil, which I really like, but I wanted to be a little more adventurous. I decided on Chicken Cacciatore, because I knew I had some peppers and celery. But that’s pretty much saying I was going to make meatloaf or lasagna. There are thousands of recipes for “Pollo Alla Cacciatora."

Everyone’s got a different spin on what cacciatore is. When I told my husband what was for dinner, he asked, “What’s ‘cacciatore’ again?” I told him it was chicken stewed in a tomato-vegetable mixture, which I guess is a pretty good quick-and-dirty definition.

Because I knew I’d be writing about the dish, I thought I better read a few recipes before I dove in. I knew that cacciatore meant hunter-style in Italian, but that’s where my knowledge ended. Whether the dish has tomatoes in it or not, boneless chicken or not, peppers and/or mushrooms or not are all wildly debatable.

Here are some of the morsels I learned in my cursory research:
* Usually, a cut-up chicken is browned then simmered in a tomato sauce, often with mushrooms.
* I read that “The dish is kind of a hunter’s solace; domestic poultry replaces the pheasant or hare that got away, the porcini being all that could be salvaged from a day in the forest.”
* The dish was developed in central Italy, probably in the Renaissance period (1450-1600) when the only people who could afford to enjoy poultry and the sport of hunting were the well-to-do.” This was another tidbit I found.
* Sometimes, the chicken pieces are dredged in flour before browning, which makes a nice gravy, when wine or broth is added.

All very interesting. I surmised from this reading that “authentic” cacciatore uses chicken pieces, not boneless breast, and preferably the dark meat of the legs and thighs, and usually does have mushrooms. I didn’t have any fresh mushrooms that day, but one green pepper and plenty of onion and celery. So maybe the version I made was more like an light Italian stir fry, not a chicken stew. But it was good Chicken Cacciatore, or Kitchen Catch-a-story, as I called it when I was little.

This was more than enough for dinner for two, so the leftovers became a soup the next day for lunch. I added chicken broth and a half-cup of cooked rice. Instant meal #2.

Chicken Cacciatore (Quick and Easy)

1 pound chicken breast, cut in 1 inch pieces
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 green pepper, cut in ½ pieces
1 sweet onion, cut in ½ inch pieces
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 15.5 oz can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
½ pound cooked pasta or 2 cups cooked rice
Parmesan for serving

In a skillet over medium–high heat,brown the chicken breast pieces in 1 tablespoon olive oil until lightly browned. 3-4 minutes. Remove. Add 1 tablespoon olive oil to pan and add peppers, onions, celery and garlic. Cook 3-4 minutes or until softened slightly. Reduce heat to simmer, add chicken, tomatoes and Italian seasoning (I like Penzey’s Tuscan Sunset , a salt-free Italian seasoning) and cook, covered, 15-20 minutes. Serve over with pasta or rice. (I used bow-ties. My husband doesn’t like them: too slippery to easily fork.)

Don't forget the Parmesan!

Friday, March 12, 2010

Man Can Cook: Shepherd's Pie

Used to be, way back when, that home and hearth were the sole domain of the woman of the house; at least that’s how the domestic goddess image was popularly portrayed. Remember Donna Reed? And Jane Wyman on “Father Knows Best”? Men cooked, it’s true, but they were either highfalutin chefs, “Cookie” on the wagon train, or master of the grill. Men weren’t the everyday cooks who kept the family well-fed and happy.

Times have certainly changed. You only have to look at the roster of Food Network or PBS cooks to see the kitchen is the new man’s cave. Look at “Guy’s Big Bite”! This past week, I read that launched a new site called, a website dedicated to the “unique culinary interests of men.” I really didn’t think they were that much different – you like to cook, or you don’t -- but everyone deserves a niche, I guess.

This normalcy of men performing the feat of every day cooking is refreshing. But I didn’t need a website or news article to tell me that. It’s much closer to home. My daughter’s Valentine Day’s date was with a man who cooked for her, in his own well-equipped kitchen, “the best eggplant parmesan” she ever ate. We have a neighbor friend – a man my age – who talks more cookery, recipes and food with me than most women. My husband, while not particularly fond of cooking per se, is great company in the kitchen and loves to kibitz and “advise.” And my sons-in-law are prime examples of the new age male cooking.

Both of them cook -- a lot. And well! And not just at the grill. They have busy schedules with kids, their wives work and their varying schedules are such that it just makes more sense for the man of the house to do his share of the cooking.

Both young men are named Dan. It’s very confusing. We tried calling them Dan 1 and Dan 2, but that didn’t work because:
1. It was too Dr. Seuss-like; and
2. It sparked some friendly discussions about age and/or rank.
So, we have to use their initials to differentiate them. It’s not very personal, but it works.

This is about Dan Z. (Dan K will have his turn in this hopper soon enough, but Dan Z is first; after all, he’s the older one!) Dan is a great experimenter in the kitchen and loves to try new things. This winter, he tried cheese making at home, with fair-to-moderate success. He’s made butter. Makes a mean cheesecake and probably makes his own mayonnaise. He is famous in his neighborhood for his homemade pita chips and ice cream. (Not together.) His favorite TV cook is Gordon Ramsay. He can whip up a great meal with whatever’s available. He makes greens-and-beans, bangers-and-mash, and one of his newer reliables, Shepherd’s Pie.

He’s had such an ongoing success with Shepherd’s Pie, that it was his daughter Emma’s request for her birthday dinner last month. When I asked him to share his recipe, he sent an e-mail, announcing: “Here’s the receipt.” As I expected, it wasn’t a real recipe, in the new world sense. It’s a receipt in the old world sense: a set of instructions, and a list of variable ingredients, describing his technique, his preferences and tips. I did edit his spelling, former English teacher that I am. But (most) everything else is uniquely Dan!

Dan’s Shepherd’s Pie

1 lb or so ground sausage, or turkey
(Turkey is healthier and better tasting than beef; low fat meat works the best.)
1 red pepper
1 green pepper
1 sweet onion
Several carrots
A stick or 2 of celery
Can of diced tomato
Handful and a half of bread crumbs (We use Italian flavored.)
Potatoes to make mashed potatoes (Enough to add 1-2 inches in a 12" pan) butter (Everything tastes better with butter.)

Start potatoes in boiling water. Make your favorite mashed potatoes. (I add butter, milk and a heaping spoonful of sour cream.) Turn oven on to about 350 degrees. (Our oven temperature doesn't work right, so it is probably hotter than that.)

Sauté peppers, carrots, celery in a pan in a bit of olive oil or butter. (We use a 12" oven-proof sauté pan.) Add meat and onions. (My wife doesn't know this, but I add some sugar with the onions to make them sweet.) I add Emeril’s Original Seasoning Mix before the meat is browned. Finally, add the can of tomatoes and simmer. Add pepper to taste and add any type of seasoning you like. I use thyme, Spanish paprika, and garlic, usually, but might add whatever. When done, flatten out meat mixture in bottom of pan and add bread crumbs, enough to have a thin coating. With rubber spatula, layer mashed potatoes on top of meat mix in pan. Flatten out. With a fork, make peaks all around the mashed potatoes. Fling little tabs of softened butter on top of mashed potatoes. Bake in oven for 10-15 minutes or until peaks start to get golden brown. (I never really set a timer.)

I’ve yet to make it Dan-style, but I will. I know it’s a hit around their house. Dan ended his e-mail with a Gordon Ramsay shout out:


But this was my favorite part:

Disclaimer: Following this receipt does not guarantee you will enjoy it, and will not taste the same as when I make it.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Girls Night In: A Toast to Paul

Last weekend I was in Florida visiting with my daughter Amy and my sister Lynn. My daughter lives in Tampa, my sister flew in from New Jersey and I flew in from Pittsburgh. Although we did see each other at Christmastime up north, we don’t see each other enough. Nothing like face time. (And hug time.) The little reunion was not the purpose of the visit, though. We were gathering to participate in what is called a “casting” of a replica of a coral reef into which my sister was placing her late husband’s ashes.

Let me try to explain, as briefly as I can: Back in the early 1990’s, a couple of college roommates in Florida became concerned about the erosion of coral reefs. After some research, they developed a way to make reef balls, made up of primarily concrete as a means to save the delicate coral reefs. And they successfully placed the reef balls in the ocean and helped preserve the marine eco-system.

One of the men’s father-in-law had mentioned, long before he died, that he’d like his ashes put into one of the reef balls, thinking how nice it would be for this fisherman to be surrounded by grouper and snapper after he was gone. That’s how Eternal Reefs got its start in 1998.

Back to my sister: Her husband died in 2007 after a tough time with cancer. Always the most generous of souls, he wanted his body to serve some purpose. So he made plans to have his body donated to the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine in New Jersey. My sister wasn’t quite sure what she wanted to do with the ashes later, still in their sealed box, until she just happened to spy an ad in the New York Times. My sister believes that if Paul had known about Eternal Reefs, he would have wholeheartedly agreed with the idea. I think so, too; it’s in the same spirit.

And so our little trio embarked on our journey from Amy’s home in Tampa to Sarasota – just an hour’s drive – and helped cast the reef. Eight other families were doing the same thing that day. As the concrete truck came to Paul’s reef, Lynn placed Paul’s ashes into the concrete as it streamed into the mold. (Paul’s mold was #7 in line. Paul, who liked to gamble, would have liked the lucky number.) After about a half-hour had passed, we then “decorated” the top rim of the cast with shells and stones she had saved from vacation trips. My daughter also suggested we add our thumbprints, which we did. Next month, after the mold has completely set, Lynn will return to Florida, this time to Miami, where the reef will be dropped and a memorial service will be held.

It wasn’t a somber day at all: emotional, not maudlin; orderly, not structured. It was an event Paul would have liked because it was meaningful, but not fussy.

We weren’t sure how long the day would last. Turned out to be about three hours. We hadn’t made any firm plans for the day. After the casting, we found a nice shore side place to have lunch and take a walk along the beach.

Of course, after lunch we planned dinner! We’d already decided we were going to have a nice quiet evening in, cooking together. On the ride home, we planned our menu. My sister is just an excellent cook. Always has interesting things to make, simply and with fresh ingredients. And although it’s not 100% authentic, I wanted her to show me how to make something she’d told me about some time ago: short-cut ravioli using won-ton wrappers. The rest of our dinner was roasted pork loin, broccoli rabe, and Amy’s specialty: peanut butter no-bake cookies!

Making the ravioli wasn’t hard, merely somewhat time-consuming. But once you got a rhythm going, it was easy. I got frustrated a couple times at my filling oozing out, but Lynn showed me how not to put too much filling on and being firm in sealing the edges. I’ve read that many people have had trouble making these: filling oozing out in the water while cooking, or dissatisfaction with the fake “pasta.” You do have to be firm in sealing and as far as it not being pasta, well, it isn’t. It is what it is, a short-cut substitute that’s a pretty good one.

We chose a pre-seasoned pork loin as a time saver. And Lynn showed me how simple preparing the broccoli rabe was. She cooked the cut rabe stalks briefly in boiling water, then placed them in ice water. Then, after the roast was ready, and the ravioli cooked, she reheated the rabe in the microwave with garlic butter. They stayed a bright green; the blanching effectively perked up what was a pretty wilted-looking bunch, the last at the store.

Dinner was delightful. The time spent cooking with my daughter and sister, precious. It was the perfect ending to a lovely day. Paul would have liked the idea that we celebrated the day with a great dinner at home, instead of going out. We shared stories abut Paul, and had a toast or two. He always preferred dinner in. Who wouldn’t, married to a great cook like Lynn -- and such a special person.

Squash Ravioli with Sage Butter

1 package frozen butternut squash
1 C ricotta
¼ C. parmesan cheese
2 T. chopped fresh parsley
½ t. chopped fresh thyme
1 package won-ton wrappers

Thaw squash. In bowl, place ¾ cup squash (reserve the remainder for another use), the ricotta, parmesan, parsley and thyme. Season with salt and pepper.

Place wrappers on work surface. Have small bowl of water handy, for sealing. Place a tablespoon of filling in center of wrapper. Brush edges with water, or use fingers. Fold in half, one corner over to the other, forming a triangle. Press firmly all around to seal.

Cook ravioli in pot of boiling salted water until just tender, about 1 minute. Carefully drain. Serve with Sage Butter Sauce.

Sage Butter Sauce

5 T unsalted butter
15-18 small fresh sage leaves
¼ C chicken broth
Melt butter in a medium frying pan over medium heat until the white milk solids have browned, about 5 minutes. Add sage and chicken broth and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer until sauce is reduced and slightly thickened, about 3 minutes. Season with salt and freshly ground black pepper.