Thursday, May 31, 2012

Grandma's Chicken Salad

Dirty Little Secret by The All-American Rejects
Oh Joey, Joey, Joey!  You make me laugh!  He has ruined Chicken Salad as the wholesome down-home food that it is.  I'm talking about Joey Tribbiani - one of the characters on the TV show "Friends."  There's an episode in which Phoebe is at the hospital to deliver triplets.  At one point Monica and Rachel are giving Joey a hard time about how he can make even the word "jello" sound dirty.  He responds by demonstrating how easy it is to make anything sound dirty - even "Grandma's Chicken Salad." Watch.  Now I can't ever say it without getting a little giggly - because I CAN'T say it in any other way than Joey's "dirty" way.  There really isn't anything at all naughty about Chicken Salad.  It's a perfect food, actually!  Perfect for groups of two to two hundred!  And this time of year we need to have ideas of things to feed groups.  Why?  Because in the next month or two we will be celebrating more things than any other time of the year!  It's graduation!  It's Father's Day!  There are weddings galore!  And Independence Day, too!  In short, you've got company coming!

I came by this post today because I was talking to a friend yesterday and she was asking for ideas on what to feed large groups of folks.  It's that time of year when there are lots of things to celebrate.  Right now, it's graduations of all sorts!  This particular friend's oldest child is graduating from high school.  Family was starting to arrive from out of town later that day and she was wishing she had given more thought to what she would be feeding the ever-growing list of house guests!  She didn't want to spend a great deal of time in the kitchen because she loved being able to visit with them all.  I gave some suggestions before I had to go, but I kept thinking about it the rest of the day.  What are my go-to quick meals for crowds this time of year?

It just so happened that, later that day, I found myself in a bit of the same predicament.  I had over-scheduled my day - all with very fun things I wanted to do, but tightly scheduled all the same.  It came time for dinner and I hadn't been able to get to the store yet this week.  I don't have house guests but I do have a husband that is usually pretty interested in eating dinner after a long day of work!  Suddenly I find myself, in the eleventh hour, heading to the grocery store.  What was I going to fix for dinner?!  I usually draw up a menu every week. I'm usually very organized.  But I just haven't had time to be organized this week!!

I find it interesting that I went straight to the roasted chicken hot box at the front of the store.  I stood there, staring at the gorgeous golden birds, all juicy and sweating in their sauna.  I was waiting for them to tell me what would be good AND quick for dinner tonight.  I swear one of them as much as whispered to me, "Psst!  Chicken Salad Sandwiches!!"  Honest!  I nabbed the wise bird and put him in the basket.  I did a mental check of my produce bins and pantry at home and knew that the only other thing I'd need to pick up was some good substantial bread. 

I was in and out of that store and home again in less than 20 minutes.  I pulled the meat off of that bird and gave it a chop and let it cool further while I chopped and sliced the rest of the ingredients, which are few in number.  Dinner was ready in no time!  Even if you don't have most of the ingredients on hand at home, it still only requires a short run through the grocery store.  It's a quick assembly that will taste fresh and your guests will appreciate your extra effort, albeit a very little effort!

This is the end result of my endeavor!
I love that you can see the buttery pieces of the almonds as well as the grapes, chicken, celery, and even a speck of the black pepper and lemon zest!  It all rested on some arugula leaves inside that multi-grain bread!  Delicious and satisfying and ready for enjoying out on the patio!

What are your go-to quick meals?  I'd love to know!

Chicken Salad
serves 6
3 c. cubed cooked chicken
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green onions, sliced thin
1 c. red seedless grapes, halved
1/2 c. almonds, chopped (I used the Spanish Marcona almonds from Costco)
zest and juice from 1 lemon
5 sprigs fresh thyme, leaves stripped
1/2 c. mayonnaise
1/2 c. sour cream (I use Daisy Low-fat)
1 T. honey
salt and pepper to taste

In a large bowl, combine the chicken chunks, celery, green onions, grapes, almonds, and zest and stir to evenly distribute ingredients.  

In a smaller bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, thyme, mayonnaise, sour cream, and honey.  Taste and add more honey, if needed.

Add the dressing to the larger bowl and stir to mix well.  Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Spread on bread or croissants, adding leafy greens such as arugula, romaine, or spinach.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Pause and Reflect

The Ballad of the Green Berets by Sgt. Barry Sadler
Before I knew The Star-Spangled Banner, My Country 'Tis of Thee, or America the Beautiful, I knew The Ballad of the Green Berets.  My grandparents had the record and they had this wondrous stereo system that I'm pretty sure was avant-garde for the times.  Their actual turn-table was in the dining room and you could listen in the house, but you could ALSO listen to what was playing out in their garage!  I'd go up to visit and, inevitably, I'd ask my grandmother to play this record - over and over and over again.  I liked that I could go anywhere they were and still hear it.  I could skip out to the garage where my grandfather was always working on something or I could stay inside on my grandmother's heels.  Putting myself in their situation now, I wonder that they didn't just shriek "Enough is enough!  Choose another record!"  But I don't remember them doing that.  It's as though they enjoyed the song as much as I did.  Both would be singing along to it - over and over and over again.  These trips down Memory Lane sometimes leave me with a melancholy heart, missing these wonderful people who gave me such choice memories.  But, mostly, my heart is grateful.  I was a lucky kid.  We are a lucky people.

Memorial Day in my hometown of Warren, PA meant several things.  Most importantly, it meant there was going to be a service down at Crescent Park to honor our military heritage.  The high school band would play patriotic tunes, guns would pay tribute, and the haunting notes of "Taps" would reverberate throughout downtown.  Afterward, families and friends would gather together for picnics, celebrating what was hoped to be the end of another long and cold winter.  This is also the weekend that the municipal pool would open - and stay open until Labor Day.  School would be out in about a week.  In short, Memorial Day meant summer was around the corner, and, in an area that gets pretty beat up from lake effect snow off of Lake Erie, summer is worth getting very excited about!

Originally, Memorial Day was intended as a day to honor our fallen soldiers, started after the Civil War.  Over the years, however, it has grown into a day where we remember all loved ones who have passed away.  This is a holiday-worthy reflection. 

I love that my hometown was steeped in pride and gratitude for our military history.  I grew up with a deep respect for those who have served and those who still serve our country.  My father and two of my brothers served in the United States Marine Corp and my oldest brother served in the United States Air Force.  My husband served in the U.S. Navy Reserves.  I admire them all for their commitment and their bravery.  

Chances are that you know someone who is serving or has served.  Take a moment to pause and reflect.  Remember your heritage, military and otherwise, and take stock in what you're contributing to your name to pass on to the next generation.

And, while I'm in the mode of telling you what to do today, make this Berry Cobbler.  It's super easy and has a very low "monkeying around" factor.   You're probably going to a picnic or some sort of gathering today.  Take this along.  You're going to need something good to go with memories - and this is that "something good."  The red and blue from the berries make it a fitting and patriotic offering.  The delicious flavor overall makes it fitting for loved ones - both present and past. 

Berry Cobbler
printable recipe card
2 lbs. mixed berries, I used blueberries and raspberries
Juice of 1 lemon
3/4 c. granulated sugar
3 T. cornstarch
1 t. ground cinnamon
1/2 t. ground nutmeg

Cobbler topping:
2 1/4 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 c. granulated sugar
1 t. baking powder
1 t. salt
1 t. baking soda
6 T. unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 egg
1 c. buttermilk
Zest from 1 lemon
1/4 c. turbinado sugar or granulated sugar

Vanilla Ice Cream - for serving (optional)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Lightly spray a 9X13 baking dish.  Set aside.

In a bowl, combine the berries. If you use strawberries, you'll need to remove the stems and slice into pieces about the same size as the other berries you're using.  Zest the lemon, reserving the zest for the topping.  Squeeze the juice of the lemon over the berries and top with the sugar, cornstarch, cinnamon, and nutmeg.  Toss to evenly distribute the ingredients and pour into the baking dish, spreading them out evenly.

In another bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, baking soda, and zest.  Add the pieces of butter and mix with two knives or a pastry blender until it resembles coarse meal.  In a small bowl, mix together the egg and buttermilk.  Add to the flour/butter mixture and stir until it  comes together and is well combined.  Using a small scoop or a large spoon, place dollops of the topping all over the top of the berries.  There will be spaces - that's OK.  Sprinkle the turbinado or granulated sugar over the top of the cobbler crust.  Turbinado sugar is just a very coarse grade of sugar and I find mine in the natural food section of my supermarket.

Bake for 35 minutes, until golden brown and the topping is cooked through and the berries are bubbly.  Let cool but serve warm.  Serve with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Spring Pasta-bilities!

Spinning Wheel by Blood, Sweat & Tears
I love this band!  They are so iconic of the 60s and 70s and I adore David Clayton-Thomas' vocals.  He brought this song with him when he joined Blood, Sweat &Tears in 1968 and it went gold for them.  Every time I'd look at these pasta wheels in this salad, this song started playing in my head and made me think of all the happy picnics and BBQs of my childhood.  Aunts and uncles visiting, cousins running  around, Grandpa making his amazing chicken tied to the spit and us kids lining up to suck on the strings as he removed each one.  The table would be lined with bowls of salads and plates of desserts.  And, most likely, someone brought a radio.  And, most likely, this song was played.  And, if the picnic lasted long enough, it was probably played several times.  My hometown DJ loved BS&T - therefore, I loved them, too!

Pasta salads form a big part of the spring and summer menus at my house.  I don't know why I don't think of them as often during the cooler months.  I'll have to work on that!

One of my first culinary successes was a pasta salad.  My college-aged son had come home for the summer and had found his way into a group of fun kids his same age.  They'd plan all sorts of fun activities for the evenings.  One night he informed me that they were going to have a BBQ at someone's house and he had agreed to bring a salad to share.  He started asking about how he would go about making that and, as I explained it, I thought to myself that perhaps I'd just make it for him.  He was home for the purpose of helping us around the yard and, as he was gone away to school most of the year, I didn't get the opportunity to do things for him like a mom likes to do for her kids.  I wouldn't say I baby my kids - but I do enjoy helping them out - especially when they are so appreciative.  And he has always been a gracious soul.  So I said, "How about I just make it for you?"  His quick response - nay, his very quick response of, "Ok!  Hey, Mom, I'd really really appreciate that!" made me realize that that was exactly what he was hoping for all along!  Did I mind?  Not in the least.  Like I said, this kid is not shy about showing gratitude.

So as I went in to my house I realized that I was no pro when it came to pasta salads.  I hardly knew how to go about making a green salad let alone a pasta salad!  Why had I offered to do this?  He probably had more skill in the kitchen than I did!  I realized that the desire to help my son had overpowered common sense and all reason and had dimmed my recollection that I was not a whiz in the kitchen - yet.  So there I stood, in my pantry, wondering what I was going to do - with no time to get to the grocery store.

I asked myself - what is it that I like about the good pasta salads I've had?  I came up with these key factors:
     Moist - Ever had a plate full of pasta salad that's short on dressing?  Ugh!
     Texture - If everything is squishy it's boring.  I like crunches that are dry (i.e., nuts) and crunches that give a splash of moisture (i.e., bell peppers).
     Fresh Flavors - Nothing imparts freshness like fresh herbs!
     Pasta Perfection - Overcooked pasta = Not going there!  No way!  No how!  
     Color - Pick ingredients from all rainbow hues and catch my eye!

With this criteria in mind I chose my pasta and then raided the produce bins in my fridge looking for greens, reds, oranges, yellows, purples.  I made sure my textures were covered and selected fresh herbs that would work.  I carefully cooked my pasta and cooled it immediately with cold running water to make sure it didn't continue to cook and go mushy.  Everything was going smoothly until I discovered that I didn't have enough of the one dressing I was planning to use.  Hmmmm.  What to do?!  I only had the last bits of a few different kinds of dressings - ranch, poppyseed, and honey mustard.  Out of desperation I just dumped them all together and - Voile! - a hit was born!  When I gave it a taste at the end I couldn't believe how amazing it all tasted and that this delicious dish was born from ME!  All the fresh flavors helped but it was that dressing combination that set it on the winner's pedestal!

I proudly sent it off with my son to his BBQ and was happy to get the good reviews, along with the very empty bowl, when he returned home.  I finally had something to take and share at a function that I could hold my head proud and claim.  I finally was one of those people that got asked for recipes!  It felt good!

What goes into my pasta salads may change according to the season and what I have on hand, but I know that the crowning glory comes from using a creative dressing with multiple layers of flavors.  I try to always have those three dressings on hand from spring through early fall because, when a pasta salad is this good, I feel like it can be the star of a light summer meal any time.

For the recipe today I used a pasta shape that was fun and stacked easily on a fork.  
I took a walk through my salad and herb garden which happens to be planted out around my patio this year.
I searched my produce bins for my rainbow colors and set to chopping!  For those of you who like a road map to follow, I've included a recipe!  This salad is perfectly capable of holding the "Main Entree" slot on any meal!

Spring Pasta Salad
serves 10
8 oz. dry pasta, such as penne, wheels, farfalle
2 medium tomatoes, seeded and chopped
1 yellow bell pepper, chopped
1 c. small carrots, chopped
2 T. minced chives
2 green onions, sliced thin
2 stalks celery, chopped
2 oz. sharp cheddar cheese, small cubes
1/2 c. sliced almonds, toasted
2 sprigs fresh dill, chopped
1 stem fresh rosemary, minced
3 stems fresh thyme, leaves stripped
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 c. ranch dressing
1/2 c. poppyseed dressing
1/2 c. honey mustard dressing
salt and pepper to taste

Cook pasta according to package directions and drain.  Cool immediately by running cold water over while in strainer.  Set aside.

Use a mixing bowl that is twice as large as the serving bowl you'll be using.  As you finish chopping and mincing each ingredient, add it to the mixing bowl.  You will need plenty of space in which to mix the ingredients well without worrying about them falling out all over the counter!  Add the drained and cooled pasta and the dressings and give it a thorough stir to make sure the flavors are well dispersed.  Season accordingly.  

Monday, May 21, 2012

Evil Pumpkins and Snakes

Believe It Or Not by Joey Scarbury
This song was the theme song for a TV show called The Greatest American Hero which aired back in the early 80s.  It was a fun show but my favorite part was the theme song.  I love songs that give you an immediate lift - much like an ice cold glass of Diet Coke!  There's just no holding down your spirits as they soar along to this song.  You are, literally, walking on air!  As I am today!  I've got super heroes on my mind.  Those fathers that work so hard for us, those husbands that are the most amazing fathers - and grandfathers - sons who take such joy in their own sons, and grandsons who detect and ward off the invisible threats in the world.  And Banana Bread.  Banana Bread can mend broken hearts, make you forget boo-boos, make a smile magically appear, and just the aroma will wake up the Super Heroes at your house.  Banana Bread a super hero?   You better believe it!

I know I posted a Banana Bread recipe a few months ago - one laden with chocolate chips and candied ginger and destined to leave you weak in the knees bite after bite.  But I want to visit banana bread again today - firstly for the pleasure of it now but mostly for a post I have coming down the road.  I highly recommend making two loaves - doubling the recipe - so you can enjoy a loaf today and then again when I make that other post next month.  Let's just say that that trip to Atlanta has left me with more than Bacon Cheeseburger Hand Pies to share!

I gave you some ideas for Mother's Day so it's only fair that I start giving you some Father's Day options as well, right?  My husband loves Banana Bread.  It's gone about as fast as I make it.  He has several slices as it comes out of the oven and, after those settle, he's usually back for a chaser a couple hours later - you know, a bedtime snack sort of thing.  I'll also come down to the kitchen the next morning to find that a few more slices have disappeared from the plate and I know they found their way into a plastic baggie and are probably sitting on his desk and being pecked at throughout the day.  We've been married almost 34 years - I kinda know these things.

Chances are you have a Banana Bread lovin' man in your house as well.  Maybe he's not into all the stuff I put in that first recipe I shared so this recipe is tamed down just a little.  I'm going to add some pecans this time and a little streusel for the top.  I'm also adding some chunks of not-so-overripe bananas for a little creamy bite now and then to counter the crunch of the pecans.  Like I said, it's a preamble for another recipe idea to be shared at a later date and I'm thinking that chunks of banana AND pecans would be perfect!   Awesomeness awaits!!  Stay tuned!

And, now, I must go because the Banana Bread aroma at this house woke up this little Super Hero 
and he has informed me that he's fighting off some evil pumpkins and snakes that are apparently lurking at my front door.  They're probably waiting for a chance to pounce on the Banana Bread as soon as it's out of the oven.  Sounds like a job for TWO people!  Avengers, schmengers! I've got Super Will!!

Banana Pecan Bread
makes 1 loaf
printable recipe card
1 stick unsalted butter, softened (113 g)
1 c. granulated sugar (200 g)
1 egg
2 c. all-purpose flour (274 g)
1 t. baking powder
1/2 t. baking soda
1/4 t. salt
2 slightly overripe bananas
3 T. milk
1 T. vanilla extract
1 c. chunked pecans, toasted
1 ripe banana, cut into chunks

1/4 c. flour
1/4 c. sugar
1/4 c. rolled oats
1/4 c. chopped pecans
1/3 c. butter, softened

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a 9X5 loaf pan.

In a mixer bowl, beat the butter and sugar together until light and fluffy - about 3 - 5 minutes.  Add the egg and mix until well combined.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt.

In a third bowl, mash together the 2 more ripe bananas, milk, and vanilla extract.

Starting with the flour mixture, add half and mix until just starting to come together.  Then add half of the banana mixture and mix a few turns.  Add half of the remaining flour and mix a few turns.  Then add the remaining banana mixture and mix a few turns.  Follow with the remaining flour mixture along with the pecans.  Stir until it just comes together.  Finally, fold in the remaining banana chunks.

Spread into the prepared loaf pan.  Prepare the streusel by combining all ingredients and stirring together until well combined and crumbly.  Sprinkle the streusel across the top of the batter.
Bake for 1 hour or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.
Let cool in the pan for about 5 minutes then remove and cool on a rack.  If you are taking my advice and cooking one to be frozen to use with my post next month, go ahead and bake it an extra 5 minutes.  Then cool and double wrap in plastic wrap and then freeze.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Bacon Cheeseburger . . . Pie?

Georgia On My Mind by Ray Charles
Hoagy Carmichael wrote and recorded this song back in the 30s but I think Ray Charles' and Willie Nelson's recordings are the most recognized!  Both did a great job - but I'm sticking with Ray on this one!  Although it is said that the song was written about Hoagy's sister, it became clear that it flows sweetly as a homage to the beautiful state as well and was made the state song in 1979.  I recently made a trip to Georgia.  I've passed through this state many times flying and driving here and there all over the world but it's never been THE destination.  This time it was and all I can say is WOW!  It was a short trip but packed with pleasant discoveries around every corner!  One of the best discoveries was the food!  It all started in an Italian restaurant called La Pietra Cucina in Midtown Atlanta that happened to have a good Zagat rating, which was well-deserved.  From the helpful guidance of the best server I have ever had - ever - we enjoyed an outstanding meal and were then given tips to other foodie delights in town, like Pie Shop, on Roswell Road.  We almost didn't make it there.  Thank goodness for traffic!

A couple weeks ago I was in Atlanta, Georgia on a trip with my husband.  We were only going to be there a few days and were hoping to make the most of our time.  We were happy to find that that's an easy quest around there!

One day we decided to drive over to Augusta.  You see, my husband is a big fan of golf.  And, as many of you may know, The Masters is a major golf tournament played annually in Augusta.  We had just missed being there for this year's event, but we thought we'd head on over and get a souvenir.  We checked the website and it did, indeed, have a pro shop.  Eager to see the countryside a little closer than thousands of feet in the air, we hopped in the car for the two hour drive over!  With no problem at all we drove straight to . . . the guard house?  We knew it was an exclusive golf club - members only and all on a short but "Who's Who" sort of roster.  But we figured, naively, that there would be a place where one could get a logo golf ball or towel.  Well, the friendly guard at the gate sympathized with us but told us "No sir" and "No Ma'am" that such an opportunity did not exist unless we were ticket holders to and attended The Masters or we were guests of one of the members.  Guess who was neither!  He did, though, suggest we try looking for some in the excellent antique shops down on Broad Street - which we did with success!

We headed back to Atlanta but, when you mix heavy traffic with road construction and car accidents, a two hour drive tends to slowly extend to almost four hours, and we were forced to cancel a dinner reservation at a hot spot in town.  We started thinking about those places that the server from La Pietra Cucina had mentioned for a Plan B.  He had asked if I liked pie.  Silly man!  I am the Pie Lover of All Time!  He professed his own love of pie and said that there was a little shop in town, simply called Pie Shop, that served the good stuff - all made in-house - sweet AND savory - flaky crusts filled with fresh local offerings!  As I recalled his descriptions I googled the place on my phone and found that we could be there before closing!  Yes!

He was right in that it was a little hard to find - not along the main drive but out behind a nail salon!  I was a little hesitant at first.  The place was deserted except for us and the server behind the counter and the place only seated about 12 people!  Shouldn't a great pie place be 1.) overflowing with people and 2.) have seating for all those people that swarm here - as happens in really good eating places?  Hmmmm.  We were hungry, though, and he had proved so very right on his other tips that we decided we were staying!  Wahoo! So glad we did!  We decided to share a Potato Leek Au Gratin pie for our dinner and I chose a Chocolate Ganache Pie for dessert while my husband had a Strawberry Hand Pie.  And, out of curiosity, I had her throw in a couple of these little two-bite Bacon Cheeseburger Hand Pies.  Everything was delicious but those little Cheeseburger buddies were AWESOME!!

Right away the chef in me comes out and I declare to my husband that "I can make these at home!"  He said it would be great with him if I did.  As we were finishing our meal the server came over and asked how things were.  When I told her how much I loved the little Bacon Cheeseburger Pies she got real chatty and, before I knew it, I had all the info I needed to recreate them!  Thank you!  It took two tries to get the pastry right - you need to work the fat into the flour in a more finer crumb than I usually do.  It creates a softer pie dough as opposed to flaky.  For these little guys, the softer crumb is better.
These little hand pies will be great for picnics, school lunches, appetizers - they will be welcome anywhere!  Tasty treats for hands of all sizes!

Bacon Cheeseburger Hand Pies
Printable Recipe Card
makes 12 small pies
1 recipe of pie dough, working the fat in until a uniform crumb appears

1/4 lb. ground beef
1/4 of a white onion, minced
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 c. grated cheddar cheese
4 dill pickle chips, minced
2 slices bacon, cooked and crumbled
1 egg

Heat a skillet over medium-high heat.  Add the ground beef and onion and stir until the beef loses it's pink color and is crumbly.  Season with salt.  Remove from heat and cool.  I like to put the meat mixture on a chopping board and run my knife through to make an even smaller crumble.  It handles easier, I think.

Prepare the pie dough and roll out until 1/8" thick.  I used a 4 1/2" round cutter to make my little circles.  These made larger pies than the ones at Pie Shop but I wanted to have more than two bites!  I found that I could reroll my pie dough once without compromising the quality of the dough.  I ended up with 12 pie dough circles.

Make an egg wash by beating the egg with 1T. water in a small bowl.  Using a pastry brush, brush the outer edges of the circle.  Place 1 1/2 T. of the meat mixture just off center of the circle then top with a few little pieces of the pickle, a few crumbs of the bacon, and 1 T. of the cheese.  Or more.
My daughter and I decided that more cheese, as usual, would be a good idea next time!
Fold the circle in half, being sure to enclose your little bundle of treasures, and press the edges together.  Use a fork or a pastry cutter to seal and trim the edges.
Once all are filled, place on a parchment lined sheet tray and give the tops a brush with the egg wash and pierce lightly with a fork.  Chill while you preheat the oven to 400 degrees.
Bake at 400 degrees for 20 - 25 minutes, until golden brown.
Patio Dining Perfection!!

Monday, May 14, 2012

Birthday Pie!

Coming Back To Life by Pink Floyd
This is my favorite song by my favorite band - it's nice when those two favorites collide like that.  And seeing as how today is MY birthday, I can pretty much do as I want, right?!  Actually, this song goes perfectly with my recipe as well.  It's a song about getting over the hurts in life, not holding grudges, taking the bitter - or sour - with the sweet.  The way life is geared, it's impossible to experience it and only have happiness and good all the time.  Would we even appreciate the blessings if we didn't have the trials around to help shine the spotlight on them?  I don't think so - although I still find myself daydreaming "if life could just stay as great as it is right now!"  I like to take the advice of Pink Floyd and focus on the wonderfulness that is my life.  I don't ignore the negative but I try to digest what it is that I'm supposed to be learning from it and move on.  I haven't always been able to do this - aging, though, does have it's perks and the mellowing of one's heart is the biggest perk of all.  Life is fragile - we need to give it the respect it deserves - ALL of it!  I adore, swoon, and sigh at the opening notes of this song.  Pretty much my response to Lemon Meringue Pie!  It's life in a pie.  You have the tartness of the lemon curd countered by the sweetness of the Swiss Meringue all held together by a flaky crust!  It's magic!

I used to have a birthday cake on my birthday - just like everybody else.  I was happy with that option.  To tell you the truth, though, it never occurred to me that I even had an option.  Cake is the official birthday food, right?  The only debate was concerning the type of cake - but cake it would be!  

I have never felt picked on because I had to have cake - I have now had 52 birthdays and everyone of them have been keepers!  Cake has been invited to over half of those.  It's just that I had a revelation years ago and it changed my birthday scenario from that point on.

I was visiting with my maternal grandmother on one of my visits back "home" to Pennsylvania.  She and I got to talking about foods we loved.  I don't remember anything else from the conversation other than what happened when I shared with her my love and adoration of Lemon Meringue Pie.  She just got this little smile on her face.  "You DO?" she asked.  I stated again that, yes, indeed, I loved me a good Lemon Meringue Pie!  She replied, "Did you know that that is your grandfather's favorite pie as well?"  It pleased me to no end to know this.  I was just tickled beyond belief to know I had this connection with him.  What she said next is what really got me thinking, though.  She said, "Every year he wanted Lemon Meringue Pie for his birthday, not a cake!  So I made it for him every  year!"

WHAT????  You can DO that?  You can single-handedly mess with cultural traditions like that?  Birthday PIE?  Oh, I was loving what was going on in my head in those few moments right after that revelation.  This is how it went -  "Well, why not?  It is YOUR day, right?"  "You are supposed to be able to do what you want."  "You get to pick what you have for dinner, why can't you pick what you want for dessert?" Hmmm.  "Can candles stand up in a Lemon Meringue Pie?  What do you do about the candle issue?"  "If I had to choose between the ritual of blowing out the candles and eating pie, which would I choose?"  "I'm pretty sure I'd choose pie over candles - oh yeah, definitely pie over candles!" 

My grandmother watched as I ingested this new info.  I'm sure she wasn't surprised in the least when I announced that from that day on I would have birthday pie - just like Grandpa!  I made sure my husband knew as he has planned the majority of the birthdays in my life - (and he always does a magnificent job, I might add.  Friends are a little jealous - but I just happen to have a thoughtful husband.)  Now, I appreciate the difficulty this added to his preparations each year because Lemon Meringue Pie is not as easy to come by as a cake - but he has managed to pull it off and get his hands on that pie year after year. 

This year I am making my own pie.  It is not a labor at all.  I get the keenest of joys in each step of this beautiful creation - salivating throughout the whole process.  I envision the end product.
I am never, ever disappointed.  Some results are prettier than others, but they all taste fabulous!
This birthday is already off to a terrific start as I was greeted first thing this morning by a young man who calls me Grandma and belongs to these fabulous legs:
He brought his mom and sister up for a visit and, while they were still sleeping, he and I had a wonderful time as he "helped" me with my final pie preparations this morning.  He insisted I stop what I was doing and don my chef hat and the lensless 3D glasses from the toy box.
He was right.  Everything did go better after that point!

If you are a pie lover as I am, you might want to consider joining those of us who have birthday pie instead of birthday cake.  I have discovered that there are many of us out there and we hold no shame in bucking tradition!  Pie lovers unite!  Now, you'll excuse me if I have a breakfast of some pie and kick back while I listen to Mr. Gilmour.  Ahhh!  I feel myself "coming back to life!"

Lemon Meringue Pie
Printable Recipe Card
1 single crust pie shell, baked and cooled

Roll out dough and place in a pie plate.  Prick pie dough all over with a fork and add pie weights or dry beans to the shell to keep the dough from puffing up.  Bake at 400 for about 15 minutes until golden.  Cool.

from Martha Stewart
1 c. sugar
1 T. lemon zest
2/3 c. fresh lemon juice, about 4 large lemons
8 egg yolks
1/4 t. kosher salt
1 c. water
1/4 c. cornstarch
1 1/4 sticks unsalted butter (10 T.), cut into small pcs.

Place a fine-mesh strainer over a bowl and set aside.

In a medium saucepan, whisk together the sugar, zest and egg yolks then whisk in the lemon juice and salt.  Mix the cornstarch and water together and add to the mixture along with the pieces of butter.

Place pan over medium-high heat and whisk constantly until the butter has melted and the mixture has become thick enough to coat the back of a spoon.  Do NOT boil.  Bubbles will just start to form around the edge of the pan.  This will take about five minutes.

Remove from heat and pour through the strainer and stir, working the curd through the strainer and into the bowl, capturing any lumps in the process.  Immediately pour the strained lemon curd into the prepared pie shell.  Press plastic wrap against the surface and refrigerate until set - about 3 hours or overnight.  The plastic wrap keeps a film from forming on the surface.

8 egg whites
1 1/2 c. sugar
pinch of kosher salt

Prepare a double boiler by placing a glass or metal bowl over a larger pan with an inch of simmering water.  The bottom of the bowl should not touch the water.

Whisk together the egg whites, sugar, and salt in the glass or metal bowl.  Place over the simmering water and whisk continually until the sugar has melted.  The liquid will start to get frothy and you won't be able to feel grains of sugar when you rub some of the mixture between your fingers - about 120 degrees.  At this point, place the mixture in the bowl of your mixer and beat on high for about 5 - 8 minutes until you have a very stiff peak.  The meringue will be like satin.

Spread or pipe the meringue over the top of your pie, spreading completely to the crust.  Place under the broiler to toast the top.  You can also use a handheld torch if you have one.  Watch closely as the meringue burns very easily and quickly!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

My Little Debbie

My Life Would Suck Without You by Kelly Clarkson
So this is a song about a couple that's broken up and now they realize it was a mistake.  He shows up at her door, begging for mercy.  She admits her own downfalls and begins to list all the reasons that they belong together.  On the chorus she rocks the ever tender sentiment that we all dream of someone saying to us - "My life would suck without you!" - emphasis on the suck, mind you.  So what in the heck does a song like this have to do with sugar cookies?  Sugar Cookies and Kelly Clarkson are the two great loves of my youngest child, my daughter, my baby girl, who is turning 22 today.  And even though my opening account of the song sounds a little tongue-in-cheek, I am also a big Kelly Clarkson fan - and I love this song, too!  We frequently text this message to each other - for no reason other than to let the other know that we're thinking of them - and to give them something to smile about - the exact same results you get when you share a sugar cookie . . .

My little Debbie is a pint-sized bundle of surprises.  I should have known what I was in for when I was in the last phase of labor with her and the hospital fire alarm went off.  Just as she made her grand entry into the world the alarms were blaring, red lights were flashing - there was hustle and bustle both inside my room and outside in the hall. Yep - that should have been my clue!  Instead, I have happily opted to continually be amazed by this child.

I don't know about other families, but our last child was sort of like the family pet.  I mean this in the best possible way - like a teacher's pet - although, as I recall, she did have that panting like a puppy and licking people phase.  Hmmm.  She was our fifth child and we knew she was our final edition.  Everyone adored her.  Everything she did was hilarious.  She was everyone's favorite "toy."  I mean, why use a plastic potato prop when "the baby" rocked the Mr. Potato Head spectacles so much better!  Our fourth child, who was only 22 months old when we brought home the new bundle, was fiercely protective of her new little sister.  It's a wonder Debbie ever learned to walk or talk with so many people anticipating her every need.  But, boy, did she learn to walk and talk.  And dance!  

As you all know, we all dance in the kitchen, but Debbie has perfected the art of dancing in her car - while driving!  I call it "car-eography."  It is quite the spectacle to see and I am usually reduced to fits of tears - the laughing-so-hard-you-cry kind of tears.  Her movements are full of emotion and pack quite the interpretation of the song of the moment.  My personal favorite is her spectacular and thoughtful production of Celine Dion's "It's All Coming Back To Me Now."  Um.  It really defies . . . well, explanation . . .  gravity . . . reason?  Yeah - all those.  Her sister, the fiercely protective one I mentioned earlier, is a cohort in most of these extravaganzas.  But more about her later - her birthday is in July.

 Debbie is the one who got me thinking about culinary school.  She was originally going to be the chef of the family.  She ultimately decided against it but the seed was already planted in my head.  She, however, has been a great supporter of my endeavor, and, having had some culinary training in high school, is able to talk "shop" with me on occasion.

I get to go be with her for her birthday this year.  We have plans to spend the day shopping.  I'm going to surprise her with a plate of these cookies AND a roll of the dough.  I'll freeze it first then, right before I leave for the airport, I'll take it out and stash it in my carry on bag.  It's only an hour and fifteen minute flight.  It should work out perfectly.  

As I started to decorate the cookies I got a little carried away and the first one came out like this:
Way too much frosting for Debbie!  She has a low tolerance for sweet things.  She most definitely did NOT get this from me!  I have yet to discover my sweetness threshold!  I backed off the frosting a bit - but I know she will most likely scrape it ALL off anyway and just enjoy the almond flavor of this spectacular cookie!  It's from this recipe booklet which was in a stack of recipes I got from either my mother or grandmother when I first married.
It has long lost it's cover but I can only deduce that it's from Pillsbury as to it's constant reference to that particular brand of flour.  It is the only sugar cookie I have ever made.  Why change when it's so darn good?!

I look forward to my time with Debbie today - just as I have loved every single second of her existence thus far.  My little Debbie.

Sugar Cookies
Printable Recipe Card
3 c. flour (400 g)
1 c. sugar (200 g)
1 1/2 t. baking powder
1/2 t. kosher salt
1 c. butter, softened
1 egg
3 T. cream or milk
2 t. almond extract or vanilla

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.  Add the butter and mix together until it becomes coarse crumbs.  In a small bowl whisk together the egg, cream, and almond extract.  Add to the mixer bowl with other ingredients and mix just until it comes together.  Wrap dough well in plastic wrap and refrigerate for 30 minutes to an hour.  Or you can freeze the dough at this time for later use.  Thaw by placing in the refrigerator a day ahead of planned use.

When you're ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400 degrees.  Line a sheet tray with parchment paper.  Roll the dough to 1/4" thick.  Cut into desired shapes.  Bake for 5 - 8 minutes, rotating pan halfway through.  This makes a thick and soft cookie.  If you prefer a more crispy cookie, roll the dough thinner.  You don't want these to get much brown at all - only a slight tinge of tan around the edges.  Overbaking makes a dry cookie.  Frost with buttercream frosting - use any flavor you desire in place of the vanilla.

Monday, May 7, 2012

The Very First Kitchen Dancer

Green Satin by Les Elgart
Les Elgart wrote the theme song from "American Bandstand."  The Les Elgart Orchestra has all sorts of music that's always great background music for cooking and entertaining.  You just can't beat that big band sound!  Green Satin has an exotic feel to it and is a pretty kicky song.  iTunes informs me that I've purchased the clean version of this song - huh?!  The drums must go pretty crazy in the explicit version - or maybe it's the saxophones.  ANYWAY!  The song is great and you really do feel like a sheet of satin as you listen.  Green Satin is a good nickname for this Jello salad recipe although I have to admit that to get my kids to even try it I had to come up with a nickname that wasn't so elegant - green slime!  It was the days of Nickelodeon and that game show where the contestants got "slimed" with a green goo.  It was the highlight of the show and my kids thought it was cool.  So when I made this and they asked, semi-snarling, "What's this stuff?"  I quick-wittedly came up with "Green Slime Jello!"  They ate it right up - and even requested it again and again!  But, for today, it's going to be Green Satin - or Aunt Dort's Salad, which was good enough for me growing up!

Aunt Dort is my grandfather's sister, Dort being a nickname for Dorothy.  I don't remember her living close by when I was growing up in Pennsylvania.  She would come for visits occasionally.  I remember one visit in particular - the one during which I met her for the very first time.

I had strolled up through the woods (the shortcut) to my grandparents' house and had positioned myself at the breakfast table with my grandpa.  Grandma was busy bustling around the kitchen fixing breakfast.  Grandpa was in the middle of his usual round of teasing when, all of a sudden, out from the back bedroom area and through the dining room, this woman came dancing and twirling in the prettiest peignoir set I had ever seen.  For those unfamiliar with this term - it's a robe and nightgown set that is usually nylon and lace and, oh-so-delicately configured and flows like fluid.  You look and feel like you're on a cloud!

This woman sang as she swirled on into the kitchen and my eyes were as big as pancakes!  Who WAS this woman?!  My eyes darted about at Grandma and Grandpa, seeing if they had any idea that this crazy lady had snuck in through the back door!  Why they weren't fazed in the least!  They were acting like this was what happened every day at their house!  Now, I didn't live with them, mind you, but I lived close enough to know that this most definitely didn't happen every day at their house!

The lady continued to dance and sing about for a minute or two.  I'm quite sure I didn't blink or swallow for the entire performance.  When she stopped singing and dancing, and my grandparents stopped laughing at my reaction, they introduced me to my Great Aunt Dort who was visiting from Seattle.  I saw the resemblance to my grandfather immediately and, now knowing that she was family, my shock turned to the keenest intrigue and curiosity.  I absolutely love and adore the vivid characters that make up my family tree.  I always have appreciated ancestry and the stories that make up who I am and why I am.  And, boy, was I excited to know that I had such a creature as this amping up my gene pool!  I would have to credit this single, solitary experience for my penchant for dancing in the kitchen.

When I skipped back home and very animatedly recounted the whole story to my mom she just laughed and laughed.  She assured me that "That's Aunt Dort alright!"  She had affection in her voice as she said it and I glowed with warmth with this new connection.  I couldn't wait for the chance to see her again!

I didn't see her much at all, though, since she lived so far away, and I wasn't able to form as close of a bond as I had hoped.  I now live in Washington state and a few years ago, while my mother was out here for a visit, we drove over to the Seattle area to visit Aunt Dort.  I asked if she recalled the dancing incident.  She did - very clearly - and we had a good laugh again.  She still had that vibrancy about her and it cemented in my mind the notion that seeking happiness and finding the humor in life can take you a long, long way.  Aunt Dort celebrated her 100th birthday last year.  Bless her heart.  This salad has made it's way to many a family gathering throughout my life.  With family gathering season beginning in earnest I thought I'd share it with you.

Aunt Dort's Lime Jello Salad
Printable Recipe Card
serves 12
2 - 20 oz. cans of crushed pineapple
2 T. sugar
1/2 t. salt
1 lg. package of lime Jello
1 - 8 oz. package of cream cheese
1 - 8 oz. carton of Cool Whip
1 c. chopped nuts, I used toasted pecans

In a saucepan, bring the pineapple, sugar, and salt to a boil.  Add the Jello and cream cheese and stir until dissolved and the cream cheese is blended well.  Stir in the nuts.  Place the pan in the refrigerator and cool for one hour.  Stir in the Cool Whip and blend well.  Pour into a 9X13 cake pan and chill until set - about 3 - 4 hours.  Cut into squares and serve with a dollop of whipped cream.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Two-Timing Beans!

Si SeƱor by Control Machete
I listen to latino hip hop music - it was introduced to my life when I started doing Zumba a few years ago. I'm a 50-something year old woman who has a groove inside that's been my constant companion since as long as I can remember.  I'm not saying that that translates into great dance moves or anything - all I can say is that I want to dance and I feel the need to dance - often.  Zumba was a great exercise choice for me.  But I don't need a Zumba class to get my moves on.  My kitchen has served as my dance floor for - oh - always!  I love a good beat - I can't resist a good beat!  I have to move to it!  The very first time I heard this song was in the movie theater watching the movie "Post Grad." (A very funny movie, BTW!)  This song came on in a scene and my reaction was instant and primal.  If you're wondering if I embarrassed my kids, I'll just let you know that they share this same inner "groove."  We all immediately started bopping around in our seats.  I have no idea what they're saying in this song and I hope it's nice - the translations I've seen just appear to be some sort of freeform poetry.  But I'm still in a Cinco de Mayo mode here and wanted to share my recipe for refried beans - that I don't "fry" with oil.  You can if you want, though.  I needed a song that was just as cool as these beans are and this one certainly is cool.  Since there's not much work involved you'll have plenty of time to do some dancing yourself!

I love the days I'm making refried beans for dinner.  The house smells soooo good!  But the best part, for me, is not what's at the end of the day but what's ready halfway through the day.  If I get the beans started at breakfast time, by the time lunch rolls around the liquid is flavorful and the beans are al dente - soft enough to easily chew but not soft enough to easily mash yet.

The lead photo to today's post is my lunch on beans day.  I ladle a couple of large scoops into a bowl, sprinkle in some salt and top it with finely chopped white onions and cilantro - much like what they put on your tacos at the taco trucks - and an avocado if I happen to have one on hand.  Oh this is good!  Really, really good!  I never served it this way to my family.  I'm not sure how they would have received it - but mostly I think I liked having this little secret meal all to myself.  Luckily, the family loved the beans and I happily made them for them - if only to have the beans at lunch!

This is a picture of the end-of-the-day product.  
I didn't lead with this photo because legumes just don't photograph well after they are smushed.  But believe me, they are very, very tasty!  

About 30 years ago a girl at my church had her Mexican mother-in-law come and teach a group of us how to make refried beans the "authentic" way.  I was NOT a big cook at the time but was geared up to learn how to make them for the first and foremost reason being that pinto beans were CHEAP!  And we were beyond POOR!  I needed a budget stretcher!  Certain that it was going to be this long and laborious cooking process I went armed with notebook and pencils to take meticulous notes.  

I clearly remember the evening because it was a revelation!  No notes were taken.  A simple handout sufficed.  Making refried beans is very, very, very easy!!!  It was something I could do!  Even with my limited abilities!  AND - the next biggest news, I could make them without fat - which means they could be a healthy addition to our diet.  I have made only one adjustment to the recipe over the years - that coming when I discovered my love of cumin. 

I'll use pictures to detail the simple process and include the recipe at the end of the post.
Let's get started!

It all starts the night before you're planning on making the beans.  This is probably the hardest part - remembering to get the beans to soak the night before.  Place the beans in a large bowl and cover well with water and let them soak overnight.  If by chance you do forget to soak overnight, you can put the beans in a pan and cover with plenty of water.  Bring to boil then reduce to simmer for 10 - 15 minutes.  Turn off heat and let sit for an hour.  Strain off the water then continue as follows.
In the morning, drain off the water and place beans in the crock pot.  Add fresh water and the chopped onion and spices.  
Stir well, cover with the lid, and turn on low.  Cook for 8 hours.
When ready to make refried beans, heat a large frying pan on the stove top.  If you want to use some oil, add it to the pan now so it can heat as well.  Ladle the beans from the crock pot into the frying pan, being sure to include some of the broth.
Mash the beans, leaving about a third whole.

At this point, cook the beans over low heat, simmering and stirring occasionally, until thickened - about 10 minutes.  If they get too dry, just add some of the liquid from the crock pot.  They are the right consistency when you can bring the spoon through and leave a trail that quickly closes.  Of course, it's personal preference as to which texture you prefer.  Just cook until you're happy with it!
Season to taste and use for burritos, tostadas, or as they are!

Refried Beans
makes about 8 servings
3 c. dry pinto beans
9 c. water
1 large onion, chopped
2 - 3 T. chili powder, your preference
1 1/2 T. garlic powder
Dash of cayenne, if desired
2 T. cumin
2 T. vegetable oil, if desired
Salt to taste