26 December 2007

Christmas Dinner

In the days leading up to Christmas, the buzz around work and with friends was about food. Some want to know what others are having for Christmas dinner because they don't like their great aunt's cooking. Others spark the conversation because they really want to talk about their own meal.

Well, Seth and I didn't go to anyone's house at Christmas, so I guess I fall into the latter.

I will come back to that meal, but first I have to gush about how the past few days have been excellent despite getting a one-day weekend and then working every day this week except Christmas. On Sunday, I spent the afternoon making tamales with Christiane. It was an exhausting, time-intensive process that makes you respect so deeply this dish made with a few simple ingredients. Masa, lard and pork demand time, attention and, most of all, patience. The result wasn't bad, either. Plus Christiane paired it with a great frise, avocado, radish, cilantro and lime salad and her beautiful pomegranate salad, too. I made Oaxacan black beans and a roasted tomatillo salsa.

On Monday evening, Christmas Eve, Seth and I made Italian. We had a fun dinner where we cooked together, drank wine, and ate a lot of it standing around the island. We started with artichoke stuffed mushrooms, then we roasted eggplant and fennel and tossed with olive oil and parm, and the main dish was spinach ricotta gnocchi in a sage butter sauce. The gnocchi wasn't quite right -- it didn't have enough of a toothsome bite. That said, it tasted great. If measuring by our enjoyment of the process, the meal was a success.

But Christmas dinner is what everyone talks about. Friends and co-workers alike, told me their prime rib stories. Dina even made a last-minute stop by our house to borrow horseradish sauce since her in-laws deemed it a must-have with the beef.

I was cooking for two, though. And prime rib, a whole turkey or a ham just seemed excessive. I asked Seth what he wanted for the meal, and I enthusiastically agreed: We would have lamb prepared in a fenugreek curry like our favorite Indian restaurant -- make that favorite restaurant -- serves.

It's a dish we discovered on our first trip to Vancouver, B.C. On the recommendation of a hotel clerk, we ventured out of the core downtown to Vij's. The food, the environment, the staff, all clicked. It's the restaurant trifecta and nothing less that happens there. We've since returned twice, taking friends and family with us to share the experience.

So, here is the recipe Marinated Lamb Popsicles, courtesy of Vij's.


4 pounds French-cut racks of lamb, cut into chops
1/4 cup sweet white wine
3/4 cup grainy mustard
1 tsp salt

4 cups whipping cream
1 tbsp salt
1 tsp paprika
1/2 tsp ground cayenne
1 tbsp dried green fenugreek leaves
1/4 cup lemon juice
3 to 4 tbsp canola oil
3 tbsp finely chopped garlic
1 tsp turmeric

Lamb: Combine wine, mustard, salt and pepper in a large bowl. Add lamb and coat well in the marinade. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 2 to 4 hours.

Curry Sauce: In a large bowl, combine cream, salt, paprika, cayenne, fenugreek leaves and lemon juice. Heat canola oil in a medium pot and saute garlic until golden. Stir in turmeric and cook for 1 minute. Stir in cream mixture and cook on low to medium for about 5 minutes, or until it is gently boiling.

Finish Lamb: Preheat stove-top cast iron grill or barbecue grill on high. Place lamb on grill for 2 to 3 minutes per side.

To serve: In a shallow bowl, place lamb popsicles in curry sauce to serve family style. And, given their name, you eat them by hand.

03 December 2007

Puppy Chow

Seldom does a day go by that I don't feel a little tug for home. Not my house. Not any house, really. Home to me is more of a state of mind. It's that little place in life where I needn't think of memories to feel warm inside.

Home is where my family is. It's the big, flat horizon dotted with round hay bales and oil pumpers. It's dirt so red it turns streams and lakes into liquid rust. It's the smell of my grandparents' house, and the warmth of my mother's kitchen. It's my sister-in-law Sarah's singing, and the dozens of people -- related by blood or love -- who create the entire menagerie that is my in-laws' family.

The holidays are when I yearn for these moments most. Perhaps it's because I know that's when everyone else is getting together. It's also because that's where much of my recent memory of that place has been created.

So, as I decorated my Christmas tree last weekend, I sifted through a box of ratty tissue paper, creased a hundred times from being wrapped, folded and unwrapped over a couple dozen years. My mother created a tradition for my sister and I of giving us each an ornament each year for the holiday. She did this because when she got out on her own, she had no ornaments for her first tree. This way, she thought, Angie and I would never have a sad, bare tree.

Just before I set up the tree each year, I think about those pretty trees all coordinated with colorful glass balls, miles of ribbon and lights that seem to illuminate every last pine needle. My tree, I think, will be filled with an old mishmash of ornaments.

Alas, as I began unwrapping them and placing them on the tree, I am reminded why I can't part with the idea of putting them up: The ornaments are one of the few links that connect my Christmas memories with today. There's the little wooden clown that Pop carved for me, and a handful of painted ceramic pieces Mom created.

When the tree was decorated, I was happy. I showed Seth the ornaments from our past Christmases together, as I've kept the tradition alive for us of a new one each year. I always try to find something that reflects us in that time. Last year, it was a beautiful glass ball with a snowy house inside. I'm still hunting for the perfect pick this year, but I surely will find it soon.

There are dozens of little packaged up memories each of us has of holidays. Some are warm, and some are surely sad. I hope we're all fortunate enough to find links to the warm ones whether it's through ornaments, traditions and yes, of course, food. Although there are lots of holiday foods I love, there's one little guilty pleasure that makes me think of nothing other than Christmas as a kid -- Puppy Chow.

I once brought it up with some Northwest friends who had no idea what it was, so for those of you in the same boat, relax, it is not dog food. All I know is that I don't really remember my mom making it, but we always had some around during December. It's the kind of treat neighbors and friends give one another back where I come from.

Here's to holiday memories past and present, and just like the Puppy Chow, sprinkle anything with that much powdered sugar, and it has to be good!

Puppy Chow

1 cup chocolate chips
1/2 cup peanut butter
1/4 cup butter
1 teaspoon of vanilla
9 cups of Rice Chex mix
1 1/2 cup powdered sugar

In a small saucepan slowly bring the chocolate, peanut butter and butter to a low heat. Stir to melt and combine. Add the vanilla. Turn off heat. Pour the dry Chex into a large mixing bowl. Drizzle the chocolate mixture over the Chex and stir until all pieces are coated. Dump the Chex mixture into two gallon zip bags. Divide the powdered sugar equally and dump each portion into the separate bags. Seal the bags and shake to coat. Pour the mixture onto a baking sheet to cool completely. Store in airtight containers.

12 November 2007

A good find

On my way to the grocery store last Saturday I decided to stop by Goodwill. Although I won't ever take Seth along on one of these treasure hunts, I can't resist them.

Sure, most of the time there's just a bunch of smelly junk someone else didn't want, so why would I? But sometimes you score, finding just the right thing for the right price. As I strolled down the aisle crowded with a disorganized mass of kitchen tools, I spotted a Bundt pan. It was in good shape, not a scratch on the nonstick coated inside. The outside of the pan was a pale avocado green -- the exact shade that was on my mom's hand mixer when I was a kid, and probably that of thousands of other kitchen appliances in the 1970s.

Cozy inside many of those avocado green ovens were Bundt cakes baking away in their deep circular shape with fluted edges. It was 1966 when the Bundt hit it big in this country. That's when a cake baked in a Nordic Ware Bundt pan won a Pillsbury baking contest. The Minnesota company created the pan in 1950, and in 1970 gave Pillsbury the right to use its trademark name in a cake mix.

So, an avocado green bundt pan made its way to my kitchen via Goodwill via some woman my mom's age cleaning out her cupboards, or something along those lines. And to make sure it didn't have the same fate in my kitchen, I made a Bundt cake last night.

I researched a few recipes online and settled on this one in part because it was right for the season, but also because it was the only one that I had all the ingredients for in my kitchen. As for the buttermilk, I soured my own with vinegar.

Here goes. It was delicious and dense.

Pumpkin Spice Bundt Cake with Buttermilk Icing, epicurious.com

For cake
1 1/2 sticks (3/4 cup) unsalted butter, softened, plus additional for greasing bundt pan
2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour plus additional for dusting pan
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 1/4 cups canned solid-pack pumpkin (from a 15-oz can; not pie filling)
3/4 cup well-shaken buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
3 large eggs

For icing
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons well-shaken buttermilk
1 1/2 cups confectioners sugar

Special equipment: a 10-inch nonstick bundt pan (3 qt)


Make cake:
Put oven rack in middle position and preheat oven to 350°F. Butter bundt pan generously, then dust with flour, knocking out excess.

Whisk together flour (2 1/4 cups), baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, allspice, and salt in a bowl. Whisk together pumpkin, 3/4 cup buttermilk, and vanilla in another bowl.

Beat butter (1 1/2 sticks) and granulated sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer at medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, 3 to 5 minutes, then add eggs and beat 1 minute. Reduce speed to low and add flour and pumpkin mixtures alternately in batches, beginning and ending with flour mixture and mixing until batter is just smooth.

Spoon batter into pan, smoothing top, then bake until a wooden pick or skewer inserted in center of cake comes out clean, 45 to 50 minutes. Cool cake in pan on a rack 15 minutes, then invert rack over cake and reinvert cake onto rack. Cool 10 minutes more.

Make icing:
While cake is cooling, whisk together buttermilk and confectioners sugar until smooth. Drizzle icing over warm cake, then cool cake completely. Icing will harden slightly.

Cooks' note:
Cake can be made 3 days ahead and kept in an airtight container at room temperature.

04 November 2007

(Not so) hidden treasures

Last week I read a newspaper story about the mommy cookbook rage of recipes that disguise healthy ingredients so the kiddos are none the wiser. The story explored the possibility that hiding foods could create lifelong bad habits instead of short-term dislikes.

I don't have kids, so my thoughts are merely that -- thoughts -- not tried and true kitchen practices.

Over a glass of wine last night several of my mom friends were discussing Jessica Seinfeld's recently released "Deceptively Delicious." Much to the other moms' surprise, Dina pulled out baggies of frozen pureed cauliflower, sweet potato and spinach ready to be slipped in her boys' food. The reaction was at first amazement and then a sigh, as we remembered Dina's attention to all things domestic. She has patience, creativity and dedication most of us will always envy when it comes to running a household.

She warmed up a leftover sweet potato pancake she'd made earlier in the day. The recipe was one of Seinfeld's. Luke, she says, rejected it. We, however, gobbled it up.

That recipe was fabulous and one worth repeating, not so much as a deceptive dish but instead as a delicious one. Other recipes from the book, however, are hard to swallow.

Although I can't help but balk at the idea of spinach in brownies or avocado in chocolate pudding, I, too, have gone down this path. As evidenced by an earlier post, I have used squash in mac and cheese, a dish I named Faux Cheese. I also shared a recipe for an avocado smoothie, which could likely land in a "Deceptive" book in this country but is a heavenly treat in other cultures.

I get it that as kids we have a variety of reasons to like and dislike certain foods. When I was little, I hated peas. I wasn't repulsed by all things green as Seth says he was; it was a texture thing for me. I hated the way peas popped in your mouth. Fortunately, though, I did not become a life-long pea-hater.

Sometimes adults are picky, too. The main customer in my kitchen -- Seth -- has his moments. But, in time, I've expanded both of our veggie-loving horizons. I respect the fact that he hates Brussels sprouts, and even though I love the taste of fresh Brussels sprouts quartered and sauted in olive oil and sea salt, I will not force him to eat them. Nor will I puree them and slip them into his dessert.

What I will do is look for vegetables he does like and find ways to prepare them that turn a ho-hum product into a tasty tidbit. Carrots are peeled, quartered, tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and grilled. Peas, fresh mint and parm are tossed with pasta and olive oil for a great salad. Spinach or arugula take the place of less-nutritious iceberg lettuce on sandwiches.

I am a big believer in fresh, healthy ingredients making it to the dinner table. Food should taste good and be good for you. That is, after all, how nature intended it. Over time, though, our tastes buds have become confused. We've come to crave unhealthy foods, giving rise to the success of fast-food giants. We're no longer hard-wired to accept healthy foods easily. The solution is too complex for merely one cookbook to solve.

Just as natural is the desire for parents to provide good, healthy food for their children and families. By all means, make food healthy however your family will eat it. However, don't believe that all of the good tips are found in books.

Use your imagination, involve the kids when they're old enough and lead by example. Get creative and come up with dishes personalized to your family. There's no right or wrong. Cooking good foods doesn't have to be complicated, nor should it feel forced. And remember, just like any other cultural characteristic such as language, mannerisms or family dynamics, food tastes are learned through everyday experiences.

Banana Walnut Pancakes

These 'cakes get an extra nutritional boost with whole wheat flour, fruit and protein in the form of walnuts. To keep them super healthy, skip the butter and syrup and eat them sans utensils!

1 cup whole wheat flour
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 beaten egg
1 1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons cooking oil
1 over-ripe banana, mashed *
1/4 cup chopped walnuts

Mix dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl.

In another bowl combine beaten egg, milk, oil and mashed banana. Combine the dry and wet ingredients and stir just until combined. The batter will be lumpy.

Spoon batter onto a medium-hot griddle. Once several bubbles form, about two minutes, flip to finish cooking.

* See previous post for tips on ripened bananas.

03 November 2007

A dessert for non-bakers

I always used to say I'm not a baker. I said it so often, in fact, my friends offer to bring desserts to dinner parties because they know this. To be honest, though, it was merely a routine excuse.

It's true, I don't enjoy baking the same way I enjoy cooking. A cook is allowed to create as she goes, making adjustments here and there. It doesn't mean a cook will always be satisfied with her results, but with many dishes, she gets several attempts to rectify a wrong turn.

To be a baker takes patience and precision -- two qualities that do not come easy for me. A true baker understands the chemistry that a marrying of ingredients creates. She also typically sticks to recipes, not for a lack of creativity but a quest for consistency.

I would love to be a baker. I get by with some fluffy layered biscuits, and I stuck with the Battle of the Meringue Pie. But I ruined several dozen oatmeal cookies because I insisted on butter, not shortening, and my hot oven turned the dough to a soupy mess before they baked.

So, much to my surprise, I made a dessert recently that had friends asking for the recipe. I sheepishly acknowledged that I found it online. My friends didn't care, and perhaps, knowing my baking history, they pegged it as a recipe they could easily recreate themselves.

That, of course, is true. It was a bread pudding, perhaps one of the easiest desserts around. It doesn't present as beautifully as a layered dark chocolate cake or wine-poached pears, but the taste is just as delightful. Served warm from the oven, this Pumpkin Bread Pudding would make a great Thanksgiving Dinner dessert instead of the traditional pumpkin pie. The Banana Raisin Bread Pudding could be a welcome alternative to a holiday season packed with repeat desserts.

Bread puddings start with basic custards, and with a little imagination, they could be easily adapted to create other flavor profiles. Don't overlook the importance of starting with a delicious bread. Since not all breads are created equal, sample some first and look for breads that are soft, dense and tasty on their own. Sweet breads are an excellent choice, but skip any quick breads as they wouldn't stand up well to the custard. I made both of these recipes with challah, the traditional Jewish bread that has a soft, eggy texture similar to brioche. Julia Bakery in Vancouver makes an excellent challah -- I used the raisin challah for both recipes.

Banana Raisin Bread Pudding, Everyday Food

Butter, room temp, for baking dish
2 large eggs
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups whole milk
12 ounces challah bread, cut into 1 1/2-inch chunks
3 bananas, sliced on the diagonal*
1/2 cup raisins

Preheat oven to 350 degrees with rack set in lower third. Butter a shallow 2-quart baking dish and set aside.

In a large bowl, whisk together eggs, vanilla, salt and 1/2 sugar until combined; whisk in milk. Add bread, bananas and raisins. Toss gently to combine. Set aside to let bread absorb liquid, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Transfer mixture to baking dish; sprinkle with remaining tablespoon sugar. Bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, about 50 to 60 minutes. Let cool 10 minutes before serving.

* I substituted over-ripened frozen bananas instead. When my bananas go bad, (much to Seth's dismay) I throw them in the freezer where they turn black. To use, place one in the microwave, skin on. Microwave on high about 1 to 2 minutes, until inside is squishy when squeezed. With a knife, make one lengthwise cut to the skin and spoon out the soupy banana. This technique is great for an all-over banana flavor that I love to use in everything from pancakes to breads.

Pumpkin Bread Pudding, Bon Appetit

Bread pudding ingredients
2 cups half and half
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 cup (packed) plus 2 tablespoons dark brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
10 cups 1/2-inch cubes egg bread (about 10-ounces)
1/2 cup golden raisins

Caramel sauce ingredients
1 1/4 cups (packed) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
1/2 cup whipping cream

Powdered sugar

For bread pudding: Preheat oven to 350°F. Whisk half and half, pumpkin, dark brown sugar, eggs, pumpkin pie spice, cinnamon and vanilla extract in large bowl to blend. Fold in bread cubes. Stir in golden raisins. Transfer mixture to 11x7-inch glass baking dish. Let stand 15 minutes. Bake pumpkin bread pudding until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare caramel sauce: Whisk brown sugar and butter in heavy medium saucepan over medium heat until butter melts. Whisk in cream and stir until sugar dissolves and sauce is smooth, about 3 minutes.

Sift powdered sugar over bread pudding. Serve warm with caramel sauce.

14 October 2007

Notes from an uninspired cook

For some reason I've been an uninspired cook lately. Of course, I could go on with excuses, but come on, it's all the same isn't it? Busy with work, crazy schedules, feeling blah, yadda, yadda, yadda.

Perhaps it's a form of immersion journalism, though. I am finally getting serious about something I've been thinking about for years -- saving the dinner hour in our culture. Perhaps resuscitating it is the preferred term.

Don't worry, I'm not going all holier-than-thou. I'm not even thinking big -- well, too big, that is. I'm thinking about my community. I've finally found a platform, and that has provided a new kind of inspiration. So, I am doing research and creating a documents meant to help families come together around their own dinner tables.

This is a huge undertaking, but with the way food, obesity and politics are colliding, the time is right. People are willing to listen. The trouble, though, is that the way we eat, the literal way food finds its way to our mouths, is so deeply wedded to our own familial cultures that is becomes a very difficult and personal habit to change. Meals become rituals that are passed down from one generation to the next. Some of them start in the drive-through at McDonald's, and others with the slick plastic-covered brick of Ramen Noodles. Fewer and fewer start with raw foods. The end result is generations of people who know only how to cook from boxes and kids who have trouble identifying simple fruits and vegetables in their original form.

My goal is to help families plan healthy meals, shop for groceries and cook healthy meals for their families. Sound simple? We'll see.

08 September 2007

Pie lies

I thought I was done writing about pie.

Last weekend I was chatting with my mom on our usual Sunday evening phone call. She told me she'd been reading my blog. "Your pie looked good!" she said.

Then, she said something that made me laugh. At first.

"Susan says Grandma used Jell-O in her pie."

My mom must have been talking with her sister about the pie, when Susan mentioned that she was sure their grandmother, Grandma Peach, didn't make her custard from scratch, taking some help from Jell-O, the gelatin mix that has been helping home cooks since the late 1800s.

This really should come as no surprise. The 1950s were a roaring time for the powdered gelatin. And although I do not know it for fact, I also imagine that decade as the time when Grandma Peach began making pies. In the early 1940s, she and her husband operated a gas station in tiny Seminole, Oklahoma. As World War II rations set in and business dried out, Peach and Ira Wilson drove to Portland, Oregon, on their own gas rations. There, they took jobs in the Kaiser Shipyards, working not far from where we live today. Peach welded in the keel of huge ships. Ira, whose arthritis afforded him civilian status, managed welding rods and supplies. The tiny trailer they lived in near Gresham surely lacked counter space much as Peach likely lacked the energy.

So, it makes sense -- in my mind at least -- that the post-war era was a time for Peach to use Jell-O. Smart ad execs pushed a Jell-O campaign that touted the product as the "Busy Day Dessert" on television shows such hosted by the likes of Roy Rogers, Red Buttons and Bob Hope.

And days were busy for Peach, who was then in her 30s. She and Ira returned to their small Oklahoma home after a year and a half of hard work and a hard life in Oregon where my grandmother remembered being treated as a second-class citizen -- not only the daughter of poor shipyard parents but an Okie, too.

Back in Oklahoma, Peach and Ira spent their days at the gas station where my mother remembers playing as a young girl. The tiny brick building's floors were covered in sawdust and then swept up to absorb the greasy pools, my mom recalls. The work was dirty, the days were surely long. But long days of tough labor were as much a part of Peach's routine as afternoons in the kitchen were to other women of her generation.

Grandma Peach was a good cook -- a result of years of practice feeding a family and not a passion for the science or art of cooking. She likely knew that using Jell-O in her pie produced consistent, good results. A recipe with such promises was certainly one to repeat.

I do not know if she ever even made the lemon meringue pie with a true egg custard. Either way, she probably didn't know why the custard was difficult, only that the Jell-O made it easy. The custard must be slowly heated to kill an enzyme in the yolks that can cause a soupy mess instead of a soft, firm lemony mass that cuts with a knife. The gelatin in the Jell-O recipe skips the eggs entirely, providing structure to the corn starch and sugar ooze.

Writing this now makes me realize all the more that the Jell-O isn't a bad idea. It's practical. It's good, and it frees up your afternoon to drink a beer in the back yard or blog about last night's dinner or, in the case of women such as Peach, a little time to hang laundry on the line.

So talking about it now doesn't make my heart sink as it did when my mom uttered the "J" word. And to be honest, I'm glad I didn't know before. It gave me the drive to make the pie from scratch. I thought I needed some great from-scratch cook in my past to justify my own infatuation with food. I was searching for a connection to Peach, and for a split second I thought that connection was crushed.

I will make the pie again. I think I'll chance the soupy mess with the egg yolks even though I've been given a free Jell-O pass.

Perhaps what I inherited from my great grandmother was the tenacity of her work ethic.

27 August 2007

A Pie to be Proud of

So this is the pie, take two.

It turned out well. That is to say, better than the first attempt. The custard was firm, and each individual slice held its shape. If Grandma Peach's Lemon Meringue Pie means nothing to you, reader, skip down and read the past two posts first.

For those of you who know of Peach's Pie (I am hopeful that readers exist), you know why this was special. And how fitting that it came as the cap to a truly special evening.

Last night we hosted a Sunday Supper in honor of our home's 100th birthday. We thought there was no better way to toast our house than by filling it with friends -- our Northwest family -- and eating a fabulous meal. The night was nothing less.

Four couples, four kiddos, a couple of bottles of wine and, the food.

We had a 5 pound hen I bought from Millennium Farms. I spatchcocked the bird, let him soak all day in a brine of water, brown sugar, whiskey, molasses, crushed red pepper and black pepper corns, and, of course, lots of salt. Then, we charcoaled the guy on our new, old-school Webber.

Alongside the bird was a wild salmon fillet grilled in a foil packet with a little salt, lemon zest, oil and fresh herbs. I also made skins-on mashed potatoes with loads of butter, salt and cream. Then some oven-dried tomatoes served with fresh, blanched green beans, olive oil and sesoning. And a few ears of grilled corn and bread.

Then one added touch that, in my mind at least, elevated the meal to a true Sunday Supper -- gravy.

From the spatchcocked bird, I reserved the neck and backbone. I boiled this down in some heavily salted water, and after reducing for several hours, I discarded the bones, and used the liquid for the gravy base. (For the kitchen techies, this was a day of wonderment in the world of corn starch with the custard, meringue and gravy!)

The result of a day's worth of work in the kitchen was phenomenal. Not just the food, but the conversation, the kids, the love. The evening wasn't about verbose toasts or even reflection. It just was. A meal time, a dinner hour, a family thing. The casualness and routine of the night explains the lack of photos. It was just like I remember dinners at Mom and Pop's, Saturday night fish fries at the lake and the informal meals that turn into block parties at the Princes'.

The kids were the first to scatter from the table. Then slowly, the gals cleared plates, and the boys moved to the living room for a little all-male chatter. We washed dishes and talked, until the kitchen was clean. Then, Dina grabbed dessert plates and forks, and we sliced the pie.

The conversation had drifted outside to the front porch, where little ones were preoccupied with the swing and Wiley The Dog. We sat outside on the late-summer evening, catching up, sharing stories, laughing, and, most importantly, enjoying the company.

Sunday Supper was the perfect celebration for our house, our home. And eating pie on the porch may someday become a memory, or perhaps a tradition, for my family.

Peach, I think, would be proud.

25 August 2007

The Problems with Pie

So, I've been purposefully avoiding this post.

The last one was written as my pie was chilling. I was feeling good about it, then.

Well, it turns out, it was merely OK. The meringue was great. I could have beaten the egg whites just a bit stiffer, and I probably loaded too much atop the pie, but overall, it held up, tasted great and had wonderful texture. The custard on the other hand was not so good.

I'm probably selling it a little short. The flavor was wonderful; it was merely a problem with the consistency of the custard. It didn't hold. It was too runny. There was no way to get a perfect wedge of pie. And although it is no surprise, it certainly didn't look like the beautiful pillowy pie in the picture of the cookbook.

So, since it wasn't a flavor issue, I'm thinking that with some tweaking of technique that I can get it down. And by tweaking, I mostly mean practice on my part. I'm going to believe that the recipe is good, and my practice is rusty.

That said, we still enjoyed the pie. Seth was probably irritated how I was critiquing every bite. But, alas, he knows me well, and likely anticipated this, or was nonetheless surprised by my analysis of the creamy yellow custard.

To vindicate myself, I have to share a happy accident. These happen in kitchens all the time. Christiane once told me some great story about a kitchen accident that turned into a wildly popular item. I can't remember the story, but the theme rings clear. It's like when Christiane made her great cheesecake recipe in mini-muffin molds. They tasted great, but for some reason, the centers of the cakes depressed after cooling. The look was less than attractive, so we fixed them by piping a whipped strawberry cream cheese frosting on top. They turned out beautifully and tasted great.

We ended up making the recipe again, the next time, counting on the depression to hold the yummy frosting. A fabulous mistake turned great!

Well, on a recent weeknight I arrived at home tired from work. Knowing we'd probably eat out the next night, I decided to cook dinner. I stepped in the back yard with Wiley and found inspiration in the garden. With a yellow squash and tomatoes, I set out to make a pasta sauce.

I anticipated a thin cream sauce with tomatoes and squash over pasta. I sauted onions and garlic, then added squash and tomatoes. As I was moving along, I decided to add some cream and puree the mixture once it was cooked down. The puree was much thicker than I anticipated, so I attempted to thin it a bit with my pasta water. As I left it bubbling on the stovetop while my pasta finished cooking, I took a taste.

At first I was wildly disappointed. It was a texture thing, just not at all what I expected, and it was a little bland. I added some seasoning and some fresh grated parm. Once the pasta was cooked, I added it into the sauce pan and stirred. The sauce, thick from the pureed squash, clung to the pasta quite well.

The result looked very much like a mac' 'n' cheese. The orange-tinted sauce (achieved by the yellow squash and red tomatoes) coated the corkscrew pasta (Roa's brand I buy at Safeway. Noting the brand and type of pasta is important because it really impacts the way pasta interacts with sauce.). I topped with a little more grated parm and some toasted pine nuts.

I decided to call the dish "Faux Cheese." It did, of course, have some cheese in it, but it turned out to be a way healthier version of homey mac' 'n' cheese. And I'm not even talking about fat content. I just mean healthier in the sense of a more well-rounded meal. It had some dairy, but it also had some great veggies. I even topped it with spinach leaf stems, chopped to resemble green onions. (When I buy spinach -- not the baby bagged kind, the real deal -- I rinse the stems, pat them dry and freeze them. You can easily pull them out of the freezer individually, slice them just like a green onion and add them to dishes for a little color and nutrition!)

So, looking back, it's probably good that I waited this long to blog about the pie. I have perspective. Instead of being totally disappointed about how it turned out, I am able to remember that seldom is there perfection in the kitchen. However, sometimes the accidents turn into unexpected surprises. That wasn't the case with the pie, nor a recent batch of oatmeal cookies in which the butter melted too quickly in the oven, causing flat, thin cookies, but, hey, the pasta was worth remembering.

To love to cook, to love the vibe in the kitchen -- the way the oven warms a cold winter morning or the open window whips the stove's flame on a breezy summer evening -- is why my kitchen is a haven in my home. And why, to cook is nourishment for my soul, not just my stomach.

05 August 2007

Lemon Meringue Pie

This entry could be one of many that falls under Peach. As in my Grandma Peach.

She was actually my great grandmother. My mother's mother's mother. I am a lucky woman in that I have the pleasure of knowing all four of my great grandmothers. I have lovely, and, yes, quirky, memories of them all. It should come as no surprise that I have the most of Grandma Peach.

For starters, Peach was the youngest of my great grandmothers, and she outlived the others, passing away two years ago at the age of 90. She also lived on the black angus ranch she and my Great-Grandfather Ira Wilson started in Seminole, Okla. It was family tradition that at least once each summer all of my mother's side of the family would gather at Peach's house. As kids, this was a real treat.

A hot, sunny afternoon at Grandma Peach's was a childhood dream. After a few hours climbling and crawling over and atop of stacks of dry, scratchy hay bales, the kids would climb into the back of Uncle Butch's rusty Chevy truck bed. We'd hurry for seats on the wheel wells and make sure not to step on the pile of rusted, cracking fishing poles. He'd ramble along, giving us a ride, point out cows, telling stories about them once we got close enough to identify their tag number. Eventually we'd wind our way to the top of a berm giving way to a red-tinted muddy pond where we'd smash stink bait around rusty hooks and drop them in the water. It wouldn't take long before the top white round of a bobber would drop below the surface. Even with the slow, old reels, the odds were great that even the littlest of kids would pull out a decent-sized catfish. We always threw them back, knowing that next summer they'd be even bigger.

After hours of play, we'd always wind up back in Grandma Peach's kitchen. When I was very young, Peach still cooked. She would often make her chicken and noodles, boiled corn on the cob and iced tea. But the thing in the kitchen that drew the kids were the pies. In the back of her kitchen, a china hutch and buffet lined the wall. The built-in piece was painted pale brown with a mirrored back and inexpensive flecked-laminate counter top.

And, without fail, there were always at least two pies -- a chocolate meringue and a lemon meringue. I was always drawn to the lemon pie, a vivid yellow lemony custard topped with beautiful, pillowy meringue. I remember them always having small beads of moisture on top, something I'm sure only sticks in my head because Grandma Peach would always mention the weeping pies, as if the pies were ruined.

Alas, they were not. I still remember the pies. Not just the smooth lemon custard, but the exact spot on the buffet where they sat. At some point I probably even knew the number of steps from the front door, past the washer, the dryer, the kitchen table and the main hall to the pies. I also remember that her lemon meringue pie was the gold standard in my mind. It was what the pie was supposed to taste like. It was golden; it was summer; it was delicious.

Today I got a hankering to make a lemon meringue pie. I don't have her recipe, but that didn't matter so much. The proportions would have been nice to know, but no words would even convey years of technique and talent.

I settled on a recipe from "Cookwise" by Shirley Corriher. It gave a great base of why each step was necessary, not quite the same as a teacher in the kitchen, but it would do.

It took me nearly two hours. It was complicated. Slowly cooking the custard by first tempering egg yolks and then whisking the entire mixture together. Working with corn starch to achieve the nice balance of smooth yet thick. Beating the egg white mixture into stiff peaks.

Once the pie was in the oven, I started the clean up. I thought back about how this really wasn't a high-pressure pie. It wasn't destined for a dinner party or a picnic, or even anyone at all, really. And yet, for some reason, I wanted it to work. I wanted the peaks to come out beautifully and the pie to slice into firm yet delicate pieces.

All of this, just for a memory. A memory of Grandma Peach's Lemon Meringue Pie. A memory of those great childhood summers spent catfishing, eating salted watermelon slices behind the house and gathering around the table in Grandma Peach's kitchen.

Perhaps I'll adopt this recipe as my own. I asked my mom about the recipe, and she said she might be able to find it, although she never remembers her grandmother referencing a recipe. Either way, it's important that I continue to bake it.

My children will never know their Grandma Peach, and they won't spend summer afternoons on her cattle ranch. But the pie, like a few other dishes of hers I make, can be a concrete connection, not so much to pass along the precision of my memories but to give an opportunity for my family's future generations to create their own.

23 July 2007

Sarah's Potato Salad

Most great dishes have a story. I'm not necessarily talking about gourmet or foo-foo food. I'm talking about regular old Sunday dinner food. I grew up in a family that regularly had dinner together, but I've always loved the (seemingly) old school idea of a Sunday Dinner. And I guess, albeit informal, Seth and I have established that routine.

Because of our work schedules for the past six years, Sundays have always been the day we'd cook a big dinner. Often friends will join us after an impromptu invitation. We relish the summertime Sundays where we spend an evening in the backyard with friends.

We did this last night with the Hovdes. It was a blast. We ate (in my opinion) THE summer Sunday dinner -- oven friend chicken, potato salad, green bean salad, potato rolls with honey butter and fresh peach cobbler for dessert.

I had a ball playing with Luke in the garden. Dina was shocked he at peas and blueberries straight from the plant. Much like his dad, I couldn't get him to try the tomato or a fresh little squash. He did sniff herbs though and made funny faces at the smell of mint, sage and rosemary.

One of my favorite summer sides, the potato salad, has become well-known among my friends. It's quickly recognized and always enjoyed. And while friends will say, "Amy's Potato Salad," I often mention it's really Grandma Sarah's Potato Salad.

I don't have a Grandma Sarah.

Sarah was the grandmother of an ex-boyfriend. (The one whose house was blown away by a tornado, so he moved in with me, causing me to realize we weren't meant to be. I don't make shit like this up!)

Sarah was a thin woman with big hair and a chain-smoking-habit that put more wrinkles on her face than time would ever have allowed.

I believe she probably lived most of her life on the lower end of the middle class. And while she likely never cooked with truffle oil or creme fraiche, her food was good.

She made this potato salad for everything. Her daughters did the same.

I don't know if Sarah created this recipe, or whether she plucked it from a Southern Living or the Sunday paper. I do know that in my book she owned it. She taught me to make it. And although it's been years since I last saw her, I still think of it as her recipe. Something of an unspoken respect among home cooks -- those who aren't creating meals to impress or fall in line with the trend. These are cooks who put dinner on the table for their families, shop for groceries on a budget, and prepare the same casseroles their mothers did.

All the while, without intention, these cooks create memories for family, friends and, sometimes, a grandson's ex-girlfriend.

Sarah's Potato Salad
5 pounds of Russet potatoes
1 bunch of celery, chopped
1 medium red onion, diced
2 eggs, hard boiled and peeled
3 cups of mayonnaise (no Miracle Whip, please)
1 4oz jar of diced pimentos (find them in grocery aisle near pickled asparagus and such)
S & P to taste

Peel, rinse and dice potatoes. Boil until tender in a large, liberally salted pot of water. Drain. Lay potatoes out on a cookie sheet to cool. Speed up the process by placing freezer bags filled with ice on top of them.
Chop one bunch of celery, dice the onion and egg. Combine celery, onion, egg, pimentos (juice and all), mayo, salt, pepper and potatoes in a large bowl. Gently mix to combine, making sure not to mash potatoes.
Season to taste. Chill, serve cold.

Note: Obviously, one only needs five pounds if you're feeding the entire church congregation. Scale down as necessary. Also, you can leave out ingredients you don't like, but do keep in mind that potato salad is not only about taste, but texture, too. The onions and celery add a delicious crunch.

10 July 2007

Ice Cream Memories

Making homemade ice cream has long been a tradition in my family. I remember the buzz of the ice cream maker on the front porch of my grandpa's lake house. My mom always made a recipe with sweetened condensed milk. The small, red and white Eagle Brand can of the syrupy milk still reminds me of the ice cream.

We seldom let the ice cream set up to get hard, leaving me with the impression that all homemade ice cream was soft, to be eaten only out of a bowl and never a cone.
My mom often topped her vanilla ice cream with fresh sliced strawberries or sometimes chunks were blended into the mixture.

Sure, ice cream isn't hard to come by. There's an ice cream shop and a Dairy Queen within walking distance of my house, not to mention the coolers full of the cream at my neighborhood Safeway. While I do enjoy a scoop of Ben and Jerry's Cherry Garcia, there's something magical about homemade ice cream.

Perhaps it's because the hum of the electric ice cream maker takes me back to my hot childhood summer evenings outside with my family at the lake. There's also a part of me who relishes the day I can pick up fresh berries at the farmer's market and turn them into the perfect summertime treat in a matter of hours. And every time I combine these five ingredients, I am transfixed by the simplicity of a recipe. Just a few humble ingredients, basic kitchen tools and the ice cream maker I bought for less than $20.

Sure, it takes some time to create, but frankly, what great memories don't?

1 1/3 cup milk
1 1/3 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup honey
1 egg
2 pints fresh blueberries

In a blender or food processor, puree half of the berries. Pour through a fine sieve, if desired.
In a heavy-bottomed sauce pan combine cream, milk and honey. Gently warm, stirring to melt all honey. Remove from heat. Cool liquid mixture.
Seperate the egg white and yolk into two bowls. Beat the whites to soft peaks and set aside (about 2-3 minutes by hand). Beat the yolk until light yellow in color (about 45 seconds). Gently fold the yolk into the white. Set aside for a moment.
Fold the berry puree into the milk and cream mixture. Then fold the egg mixture in, being careful not to overmix. Add in the remaining whole berries.
Transfer the ice cream mixture into the ice cream maker and follow maker's instructions. Be sure to allow ice cream to set up for a few hours in the freezer once it is made.

Variation: Substitute any type of fresh berry or other fruits such as peaches (which would need the skins removed).

11 June 2007

The Picture

If there are any regular readers of The Dinner Hour, it's possible you were as surprised as I was to see the picture now on the "flag" of my blog. Seth did some redesign.
Well, it is me in the pic. I'm at some roadside gas station/restaurant in Morocco. Where, exactly, I do not know except to say that it is somewhere in the northwestern part of the country. It was one of many fabulous experiences in the country. You ordered your meat by weight and cut from the butcher. He then slides it through a window to an open kitchen bustling with cooks working over hot grills.
We took shelter in some shade seated at pleasant outdoor tables. After a short wait, a young man brought us a fresh ground meatball tagine with bread and small bowls of ground cumin in place of our traditional black pepper. It was our first of several great meals at small roadside restaurants in Morocco. For those of you unsettled by the photo, name the last place you ate where butchers worked so closely with cooks, the freshness of meat was so important and you could watch it all.

12 April 2007

Crock Pot Curry Shrimp

While the kitchen remodel is nearly complete (they say in two days we'll actually be in there completely), I would feel a little guilty if I didn't pass on at least one more cooking-without-a-kitchen recipe.

This is inspired by one of Christiane's creations. For those of you who don't know her, she's the chef at Around the Table. Of course, Christiane doesn't use a Crock Pot for this one, but hey, home cooks ghettoize the gourmet all the time!

One note about this recipe. It's not the kind of thing you can prepare in the morning, leave for work and come home to a great dinner. I'm sure with some tweaking you could come up with that, but this particular recipe is intended for the cook who's around to tend the Crock Pot but simply doesn't want to spend all day over the stove.

1 package of cherry tomatoes (the kind in the red mesh bag work great)
1 can coconut milk for every three to four servings you want
Root veggies such as carrots, potatoes and onions, peeled and diced into equal pieces
Shrimp (I buy a bag of the raw frozen and keep it around. They thaw very quickly in a little water.)
Olive Oil
Curry powder

Slice the tomatoes in half. Toss 'em in the pot with a liberal amount of olive oil and salt. Turn the Crock Pot on high and let cook for about an hour or until the tomatoes are mush and all of their liquid has been released. Add the coconut milk and curry powder. Season to taste. Add the veggies, stir and leave the pot alone for another one to two hours, or until the veggies are cooked through. At this point the liquid should be slowly bubbling. Turn the Crock Pot off and add the shrimp. Stir. The shrimp should cook within a minute or two (the smaller the shrimp, the quicker the cook time).
Serve immediately.

For a variation, skip the potatoes and add some cabbage. Serve over rice.

27 March 2007

(Insert title here)

So since my last post was labeled "Neglectful cook," I'm at a loss for what to call this one. What do you think?

Tired cook
I-only-cook-for-money cook
Burgerville-is-better-than-my-food cook
Cook without a kitchen

I'm hoping it's the last one. Check out the McPrince Chronicles to see the progress on the kitchen. We're told it will be only a short two weeks until we can be back in there. Technically it's two and half weeks if you'd like appliances, but hey, I'd be happy with a damn sink!

Our remodel has been trying to say the least. I don't like mess, but I tolerate it a heck of a lot better than Seth. And his not tolerating the mess makes me not want to tolerate him at times. Just kidding. But to say it's been easy would be a flat out lie. And in addition to our very own construction zone, work has been crazy for the both of us.

So, I promise this post really is about food and cooking, or lack thereof.

We have always known how important the kitchen is to our home, especially here at this house. But it wasn't until we were cordoned off from it that we realized how much the kitchen is the absolute foundation of our home lives. We have felt disjointed, unsatisfied and hungry for a cozy spot to spread out the paper and enjoy a morning coffee.

Seth and I miss lazy Sunday mornings capped off with banana nut pancakes or herb and cheddar scrambled eggs. We miss sharing a bottle of pinot around the island as we cook one of our Sunday dinners. I miss real oatmeal, sprinkled with brown sugar and walnuts in the mornings, and Seth, of course, misses his warm chai tea.

And while the food sounds great, it's more than our bellies that ache for nourishment. We need the time around the stove, the moment over breakfast and that lingering conversation at the dinner table.

And as soon as the dust clears, we cannot wait to break bread with friends again in our home.

Until then, here's a little salad that we've been eating a lot around here:

Mixed greens
Cheese (I like an aged white cheddar)
Olive oil
Balsamic vinegar
Salt and pepper

Thinly slice the apple, crumble the cheese and lightly chop walnuts. Toss the ingredients along with salt and pepper in a large bowl. Drizzle with oil and vinegar and toss to coat. Serve immediately.

Variation: Make the dressing in a separate bowl using 3 parts oil to 1 part vinegar, salt and pepper.

24 January 2007

Neglectful cook

So, I am beginning to understand why folks in the restaurant biz are never cooking at home.
They simply don't have time!
In addition to my crazy work schedule, Seth has taken a new post at The O, and is spending about hour commuting one way. We get evenings together, but we know no whistle that blows at 5 o'clock.

In order to get us a decent meal now and then, I busted out the Crock Pot. Seth made this recipe. Yes, he cubed all of the pork the other night. It simmered all day and was quite tasty that evening. We did the prep the day before and dumped it all in the pot the next morning. The recipe is taken from a book and comes to us through fellow Okie friends who now live here in the Northwest as well.

So enjoy the dinner, even when life is hectic!

3 pounds of boneless pork shoulder or butt
1 1/2 cups of prepared tomatillo salsa
2 cans chicken broth
1 medium onion
1 teaspoon ground cumin
3 plum tomatoes, sliced
Cilantro and sour cream for garnish

Trim fat and cut meat into 2-inch chunks. Slice onion. Combine all ingredients in the Crock Pot and cook on high for 6 to 7 hours.

I'm serving leftovers on top of rice tonight!