Thursday, August 9, 2012

Dirty Little Food Secrets

It’s around noon on a Tuesday and I’m parked on a quiet, secluded suburban street, crouched down in the driver’s seat praying that no one drives by and sees what I’m doing.

Oh, the shame.  But I had to try it.  Just once, I promised myself.  Just once because I knew how bad it was for me, but it was only the ONE time.  One time wouldn’t hurt, right?

It was so good, my mouth hurt.  Tears came to my eyes.  It was as wonderful, but oh-so-bad, as I thought it would be. 

I had just eaten a Locos Taco – the Dorito-wrapped taco from Taco Bell.  And I loved it.

When I was kid, I loved iceberg lettuce with Miracle Whip on Wonder Bread.  I miss that sandwich.  Given the opportunity today, I would eat an entire box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese.  In the privacy of my own home, I pour so much Frank’s Red Hot Sauce on my pizza, it drips down my hands.  And I truly love Nacho Cheese Doritos.  But you probably will never see me eat any of these things.  

Some things just need to be kept in the closet, or the front seat of my car on a quiet street, as it were.

“Oh, I’d NEVER eat that!”  A woman I met was telling me about a dish her husband (who is a chef at a popular restaurant here in Denver) has on his menu - A deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hotdog stuffed with cheese & jalapeños.  This man is a cheffy GENIUS.  Bacon?  Cheese?  Jalapeños?  Fried?  Hotdog?  In polite circles, this quintet of culinary words should not be uttered in the same recipe.    

The next week, I asked AJASCIT (Assistant Junior Apprentice Chef In Training, AKA my husband) to take me out to lunch.  I told him about this new restaurant I wanted to check out (ahem).  “Let’s have an early lunch.  I want to get there right when it opens because it might get busy.”  I was thinking that the less witnesses to my degradation the better.

We were the only people in the restaurant.  Good.  I opened up the menu and casually said to my husband, “Oh, look.  This sounds interesting.  A deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hotdog stuffed with cheese & jalapeno.  That’s what YOU should order.”  He looked at me like I was insane and said, “I’d NEVER eat that!”  Shoot.  He was supposed to be my cover and all of a sudden Mr. Chef Boyardee was too embarrassed to order a simple hotdog.

Well, we WERE the only people in the restaurant, so I figured, what the heck.  I’m going to order it.  No one will know other than the server and my husband and he loves me no matter what.

“I’ll have the hotdog,” I said to the server when she came to take our order.  “I’m sorry?” she replied, as if she hadn’t heard me.  “I’ll take the HOTDOG,” I said a tad too forcefully.  Just saying “hotdog” didn’t sound quite as bad as “I’ll take the deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hotdog.  With fries, please.”  Again she looked at me, not a little confused.  Maybe this was her first day and she didn’t know the menu.  People were starting to arrive for lunch and I couldn’t bear the idea that anyone would hear what I was ordering.  I didn’t want to fully speak it aloud, so I just pointed to the item on the menu.

“Really?”  She said incredulously.   She wasn’t being sarcastic or mean.  I could see that she was truly shocked.

I lifted my chin and said with conviction I wasn’t truly feeling, “Absolutely.”

AJASCIT gave me a look that said how proud he was of me for not caving into society’s mores.  Then he ordered a grilled chicken sandwich, no cheese and a side salad.

A short time later, the restaurant was totally full.  Damn, there would be witnesses.  I was just about to ask AJASCIT to switch seats with me so my back could be to the dining room (better to shield the view of my shameful lunch) when our dishes arrived.  There it was, in all of its glory.  Crispy, glistening bacon was spiraled  perfectly, so beautifully around the hotdog like an edible, luscious barber pole.  The cheese was oozing slightly from beneath the bacon.  I could see little flecks of bright green jalapeños mixed in with the cheesiness goodness.  

All of a sudden, the restaurant patrons weren’t there.  The shocked server didn’t exist.  I couldn’t hear what was AJASCIT was saying because the angels in my head were singing so loudly.  I took a bite and almost passed out.

It was stupendous.

So yeah.  You can fib and tell everyone all day long that if the end of the world was near, you'd have caviar, chateaubriand and foie gras.  You know where I'll be?

In the drive thru at Taco Bell.

After I had my deep-fried, bacon-wrapped hot dog stuffed with cheese & jalepenos, of course.

Below is a recipe that combines a bunch of my dirty little food secrets in one bite.  I mean, what could possibly be better than a snack made of mac & cheese, bacon, jalapeños and Doritos – THAT YOU CAN EAT WITH YOUR HANDS?

Have one.  Your secret is safe with me.

Spicy Mac & Cheese Dorito Bites
Makes 24 bites

Softened butter for greasing the pan
1 Tablespoon Panko bread crumbs
1 Cup elbow macaroni, cooked al dente in salted water
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Tablespoons all purpose flour
½ teaspoon salt
¾ Cup whole milk
2 Cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated
2 large egg yolks
8 slices cooked bacon, minced
¾ Cup fresh jalapeno, minced*
1 Cup finely crushed Nacho Cheese Doritos

Special equipment:  24 count non-stick mini-muffin tin

  • Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  • Heavily butter the mini-muffin tin and sprinkle the tablespoon of panko over the muffin cups lightly.  This will not coat the cups completely.  Not even close.
  • Melt 2 Tablespoons of butter in a medium sauce pan over medium high heat.  Whisk in flour and salt.  Cook for two minutes, stirring constantly.
  • Add the milk in a steady stream while whisking the butter/flour mixture.  Bring to a NEAR boil, lower the temperature and continue whisking until the mixture becomes thick, approximately three minutes.
  • Add the cheese & stir until the cheese has melted.
  • In a large bowl, combine macaroni, yolks, bacon & jalapeño.  Add the cheese mixture & stir well to combine.
  • Spoon about a Tablespoon of the mixture into the prepared muffin tin cups, pressing slightly to compact it into the tin.
  • Liberally sprinkle crushed Doritos over the top of the bites.
  • Cook for 15 minutes.  Cool the bites 10 minutes and serve.

Tips and Shortcuts: 
  • Disclaimer:  The author of this recipe is not liable for any harm that may arise as a result of eating this dish.  Like a heart attack.  Or morbid embarrassment.
  • *If you don’t prefer spicy, be sure to seed & devein the jalapeño.
  • *The smaller you chop the jalapeños, the hotter the dish will be.  More surface area = more spice.
  • For gosh sakes, please don’t skimp on the butter when greasing the tin.  You want to be able to remove them easily.
  • You can make these up to one day ahead.  Cook as directed & refrigerate.  Reheat at 350 degrees on a cookie sheet for 5 minutes.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

The Giant Zucchini Road Trip

“You know, you’re supposed to EAT that,” GL deadpanned as she eyed the Extra Large Zucchini Nevin was handing to me.  GL’s mind tends to lean toward the gutter.

My mind to tends to lean toward the next thing I’m going to eat.  I was fantasizing  about Zucchini Bread, of course.  A gigantic amount of zucchini bread.

I’ve never understood people who complain about the amount of zucchini growing in their gardens.  They make a big deal out of how much zucchini they had to give away, how sick they are of eating zucchini.  There seems to be a simple remedy to this:


And it’s the same folks – every year – who pawn their mighty amounts of the green squash on whomever comes to visit.  Then they make it sound as horrible as possible as they hand this gift over, practically throwing it at you like you were playing a game of “Hot Potato”.  “Oh, you take it!  I don’t want it!  Get it out of my house!  I don’t want to see another zucchini for the rest of my life!!!”

Until the next year, of course.  When they plant another 50 bazillion zucchini plants that produce about 200 bazillion zucchinis.

I hope none of my zucchini-growing friends read this (Hi Nevin), but I developed this very simple system …  My friends plant, water & weed.  They grow lots of zucchini.  They give zucchini to me.  The End.

I was the lucky recipient of a truly Giant Zucchini once.  It was so special, so rare, I felt that I needed to share my Giant Zucchini with as many people as I could.

So I took my Giant Zucchini on a road trip.

AJASCIT (Assistant Junior Apprentice Sous Chef In Training – AKA my husband) and I were visiting friends in Southern California.  We had driven from Denver to SoCal, spending a week near Newport Beach.  We were about to leave to make the two-day trip back home when our friends presented us with a parting gift.  “Here’s something to remember us by,” they snickered.  They handed me a 27 foot long zucchini.  From the looks of it, our friends had been injecting steroids into this puppy for quite a while, possibly in a misguided and illegal effort to win a blue ribbon at the Orange County Fair.

“Thanks,” I said.  What was I supposed to say?  I can’t take your Giant Zucchini because I might be put in jail if they find this in my possession?  I took the zucchini, held it in my arms like a baby, and solemnly walked to the car.

“What the Hell are we going to do with THAT?” AJASCIT said once we got out of earshot of our generous friends, barely hiding his disgust.  We had two days of travel through the hottest part of the country at the hottest part of the year.  A Giant Zucchini wasn’t in our game plan.  A GZ baking in the back of the car in 115-degree heat wasn’t going to work.   But we had a cooler.  We could keep it in the cooler!  I had held it like a baby.  I had bonded.  That Giant Zucchini was going to make it to Denver if I had something to do with it.

We weren’t even out of town before I felt the need to share the magnificence of this Giant Zucchini.  We had to gas up, so as AJASCIT was putting the petrol in, I grabbed the GZ and ran up to the first person I saw. 

“Here!  Take this!” I said as I handed the stranger the GZ.  I grabbed my camera and took a shot.  Strangely enough, he didn’t seem surprised to be handed a Giant Zucchini and seemed even less surprised to be asked to be photographed with it.  Obviously, the GZ had magical powers.  Charisma.  I quickly said my thanks, grabbed the GZ and scurried away…

We hit the open road.

At a roadside market in Zion National Park.  He was so sweet that I bought a turquoise necklace from him after this picture was taken.  Well, OK, I would have purchased the jewelry anyway.

This was the second person I asked at a convenience store when we stopped for snacks.  
The first guy asked me for $20 for the privilege .  

The valet at the hotel.  He looks confused.  
Maybe he thought it was his tip.

AJASCIT wasn’t very patient with my GZ obsession.  
Or it could have been the fact that I felt the need to shop at every stop.

AJASCIT, the Giant Zucchini and me at dinner.
I have no comment on this picture. I will leave that to my
smutty-minded friend, GL.

My mountain neighbor, Steve, showing the GZ the respect and adulation it deserved.

Hud, looking as confused as the Valet Guy.  We were away for more than 10 days.  
“Mom & Dad Went To Newport Beach And All I Got Was A Lousy Zucchini.” 

Alas, the road trip was over and I still had a giant zucchini on my hands.  Yes, I had held it like a baby.  Of course, the GZ had made many friends – both real and bribed – all over the Southwest.  But I needed to eat it.  Even dirty-minded-Ginny would know that was my only choice.

How many loaves of zucchini bread will a Giant Zucchini make?

Eight.  But it’s HEALTHY zucchini bread.  Unless you eat all eight loaves, of course.

Nevin's Extra Large Zucchini met the same fate.  But it made only six loaves.  Six yummy loaves of Low-Fat, Low-Sugar Lemon Zucchini Bread.  Which, I assure you, is easier to give away than whole zucchinis.  

Unless you're giving them to me.  I will take your zucchinis all day long.

Lemon Zucchini Bread
Makes 2 loaves

Vegetable Oil Spray
2 Cups all-purpose flour
1 Cup whole wheat flour
1/2 Cup sugar
½ Cup packed light brown sugar
1 Cup rolled oats
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
2 Cups shredded zucchini
1 Cup no-sugar-added applesauce
3 Eggs, lightly beaten
½ Cup unsweetened apple juice
2 Tablespoons lemon zest
2 Tablespoons olive oil

  • Lightly spray two 4 ½ X 8 ½ loaf pans.
  • Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.
  • Combine all dry ingredients until full incorporated.
  • Add remaining ingredients to dry ingredients.  Mix – do NOT overmix!
  • Pour equally into loaf pans (about half full) & cook 50 minutes or until done.  A sharp knife or toothpick should come out clean when pierced into the bread.
  • Cool 10 minutes before removing from pans.  Slice & serve with soft salted butter.

Tips and Shortcuts: 

  • If you’re using a Giant Zucchini like I was, scoop the seeds.  
  • Don’t peel your zucchini.
  • Don’t be alarmed at the lack of sugar – the applesauce makes it plenty sweet!
  • Chocolate chips would make an excellent addition.  But then it wouldn't be so healthy.  Oh, who cares? 

Monday, July 16, 2012

Undercooked Carrots At A Fancy Eyetalian Dinner

“You’re not the only ones who can cook, you know,” My husband said.  “I can cook, too.”

Every few months, The Michigan Hill Chefs Association (MHCA) hosts a Chefs’ Dinner, a themed sit-down multi-course meal for 12 – 16 friends.  There are four members in the Association: Cbk is the Dessert Sorceress.  CD is the King of Seafood. CS (married to CD) is the Magician.  And then there’s me.  We even have chef’s  jackets embroidered with our names and the MHCA logo to wear during our events.

My husband was feeling left out, I believe.  And I think he was more than a little jealous of the jackets.  But just because he throws a half bottle of Chianti into jarred marinara for his famous turkey spaghetti, that doesn’t mean he’s worthy of a jacket. 

The Chefs and I took pity on him and gave him an assignment for the next dinner.  His task?  Minestrone Soup.  The theme was Northern Italian, so we thought we’d give him something that he couldn’t mess up, basically vegetable soup.  But in order for him to fulfill the task, he needed a little coaching.

A few weeks before the event, we made the soup.  I patiently explained to him the difference between dice, slice, chop and mince.  I showed him how to hold his knife correctly, with his index finger curled over the blade and the rest of his hand firmly gripping the handle.  I told him why the vegetables needed to be cut the same size, saying that it wasn’t just about how the soup looked, but it was also important because the vegetables needed to cook evenly.  He was a very good student and the soup came out perfectly.  It was beautiful.

The next week, we did it again.  This time, he insisted on flying solo.  I was sitting at the kitchen table reading a magazine when I heard it.

Chopchopchopchopchopchop.  Fast.  Too fast.

“What are you doing?” I said, acting all nonchalantly as I walked over to him.  As I got closer, I was horrified to see that he’s wasn’t holding his knife correctly. His other hand, fingers extended, was dangerously close to the chopping action. 

And the vegetables he’s chopping?  A sloppy mess.

Before I know it, I’m yelling at him,  “That’s not how I told you to hold the KNIFE!  You’re chopping too fast!  That’s not a dice!  That’s a mince!  You’re not doing this right!!!  JEESH – YOU’RE GOING TO CUT YOUR FINGER OFF!!!”  I became Gordon Ramsey, minus the profanity  (well, OK, maybe there was a little profanity).

Right in front of my eyes, my wonderful, successful and gorgeous husband became a three year old.

“I can do this MYSELF!!!” 

You can guess how it all turned out.  The soup was visually unappealing.  Some of the veggies were mush.  The carrots, which were supposed to be diced, ended up sliced as big and thick as my thumb and weren’t cooked through at all.  It wasn’t good.

“I think it’s GREAT, “ he said.  “And everyone at the dinner next week is gonna think it’s great, too!” 

This was a problem.  He’d been to previous dinners and he knew the level of quality the chefs provided.  For crying out loud, I was making Poached Egg Ravioli in Truffle Butter Sauce as a starter for this dinner.  What would everyone think once this brown messy soup with giant chunks of uncooked carrot appeared at the table?  I needed help.  I needed the Chefs.

I emailed everyone that night, telling them what happened.

“He’s certainly not ready for a jacket.  That’s for sure,” CD wrote back from his and CS’s home in Texas.  “He just an Assistant Junior Apprentice Sous Chef In Training, y’all.”   

I replied, “AJASCIT!”  We MHCA members love our acronyms.

Cbk wrote back, “When I try to type in AJASCIT into my computer, it keeps auto correcting to ‘Tahiti.’  Sounds kinda good.”  Cbk is a transplanted Mississippi gal living in Florida.  (God, I love the Chefs’ accents.  I can even hear them when I read their emails.)

Clearly the chefs would be no help.  I would just have to suffer the embarrassment of AJASCIT feeding our guests not-so-good soup.

The evening of our Italian dinner, I kept praying that the Fritto Misto, the Poached Egg Ravioli, all of it would make our guests forget the Minestrone Soup.  But AJASCIT would have none of that. 

“Did you know I made the soup?  It took me two hours just to cut the vegetables!  I simmered it for four hours!  Did I tell you I made the soup?”

When the soup was served, he went on and on and on, telling everyone every single small detail of the recipe.  He was throwing around phrases like “mise en place” and bragging about his excellent knife skills.  Everyone said that they loved it – of course.  The Chefs looked down at their bowls and then at me.  I knew what they were thinking:  The damn carrots weren’t cooked.

Next up…  My Poached Egg Ravioli.  I worked for weeks perfecting my homemade pasta and my technique.  This dish was the BOMB.  I served it and they ooohed and ahhhed  and exclaimed it to be one of the most delicious and unusual things they’d ever eaten. 

“But my soup was really amazing, wasn’t it?” AJASCIT wouldn’t shut up about that stupid soup.

Jesus.  I just served a friggin’ POACHED EGG IN A RAVIOLI

After dinner, my husband went up to the chefs to get their compliments, er, I mean opinions.  “It was good, really really good, wasn’t it?” he asked.  CD, an incredibly eloquent man, said in his Texas drawl,

“Just because it’s good, don’t make it right…  And your carrots weren’t cooked.”

Months later, AJASCIT/Tahiti still talks about that soup.  And I still tell him that his carrots were wrong.

Below is a recipe for much easier cheese ravioli using wonton skins in place of homemade pasta.  Yes, cheating doesn’t make it “right.”  But unless you’re a guest chef at a MHCA Chefs’ Dinner, it’s OK to stick with “good.”

Pesto Ravioli with Tomato White Wine Sauce
Serves 8 First Course or 4 Main Course

2 Cups Tomato, seeded, peeled and diced*
1 Cup Dry White Wine
1 Cup Low Sodium Chicken Broth 
1 Package Wonton skins or Egg Roll Wrappers, quartered
1 Cup Fresh Mozzarella, finely diced*
1 Cup Shredded Mozzarella
1/4 Cup Ricotta Cheese
1/4 Cup shredded Parmesan Cheese
3 Tablespoons Pesto
1 egg, beaten
2 Tablespoons coarse cornmeal
¼ Cup Fresh Basil, chopped roughly
Parmesan shavings, optional (see note)
Small bowl of water
Salt & Pepper


  • ·     Combine the tomatoes, wine & broth in a medium saucepan.  Bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium low.  Reduce by half.  Season with salt & pepper.
  •    Combine the mozzarellas, Ricotta, Parmesan, pesto and egg.  Season to taste with salt & pepper.
  • ·      Line a cookie sheet with foil and sprinkle the cornmeal evenly over the foil.  It will not cover the sheet completely.  This is to keep the ravioli from sticking to the sheet.
  • ·      Set out four wrappers and cover the rest of the package with a towel to prevent them from drying out.  Brush the outer edges with a little water and place one teaspoon of the cheese mixture in the center.  Fold in half to make a triangle, trying to pinch out as much air as possible.  Make sure the ravioli is completely sealed.  Place on the lined sheet.  Repeat.  Do not let the triangles touch.
  • ·      Bring a large pot of heavily salted water to a rolling boil.  Place eight to 10 ravioli in the pot.  Stir gently.  Cook 2 minutes or until the ravioli float to the top and the edges are translucent.
  • ·      Carefully remove cooked ravioli with a slotted spoon.  Place three ravioli on a small plate, top with 2 Tablespoons of sauce and garnish with a pinch of chopped basil and a couple of Parmesan shavings. 
  • ·      Repeat with eight to 10 more raviolis.  Sauce & garnish as directed.  Serve.

Tips and Shortcuts

  • ·      * Diced means small cubes.  Not big honking hunks.
  • ·      Use wine you would drink.  For goodness sake, please don’t use “cooking wine.”  If you are uncomfortable using alcohol in your recipe, double the chicken stock.
  • ·      Shave curls of Parmesan using a vegetable peeler and a wedge of fresh Parmesan.
  • ·      Ravioli can be made ahead.  Freeze uncooked ravioli on the cookie sheet.  Once frozen, remove them and place them in a zip lock baggie.  Take out as many as you need and cook as directed.   
  •     If you don't want to peel & seed a tomato (very easy - email me directly for directions), it's OK to use a drained can of diced tomatoes.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Give Beets a Chance

I don’t wanna eat them,” my 5-year-old self said to my mother.

The foul food?  The puckery ends of a hot dog.  Sure, I ate the middle part, but something about the weird ends really bothered me that day.  Apparently, they also bothered our dog, George.  I surreptitiously threw the offensive bits on the floor hoping he would eat the evidence.  Even HE wouldn’t touch them.  George ate garbage and he wouldn’t eat the damn ends of those hot dogs. 

At the end of dinner, my mother discovered them under my chair.  I don’t remember the exact chain of events, but those pieces of hotdog found their way back to my dinner plate.  I certainly hope she rinsed them, considering the garbage-eating dog and everything.

“You ate the middle but you won’t eat the ends?  They’re the same thing!  They taste the same!  If you don’t eat them, no dessert.  And no Lassie,” my horribly unfit and abusive mother said to me. 

I thought I was in the clear here, in spite of my foolhardy attempt to poison the dog with those pieces of unsightly processed meat.  You see, we had a simple food rule in our house:  You Don’t Have To Finish It. You Just Have To Try It.  I figured that since I ate the MIDDLE of the hot dog, that was totally within the “Try” requirements of our family food rule.  But the fact that I had happily and readily eaten entire hot dogs, ends and all for probably as long as I could eat solid food was not lost on my mother. 

My mother silently cleaned up around me.  The rest of the family – Dad, Jen & Kevin, went into the living room and turned on our black & white TV to watch "Lassie" (our second favorite family TV show after “Bonanza”.  

The show was about to start and I was sitting at the kitchen table alone, staring down those two little bites and giving my mean mom the evil eye.  Even George, our dog, had abandoned me, probably pissed off that I had tried to kill him earlier.

When my horrible mother finished cleaning up, she took my plate and wordlessly put me in my room.  What?  No Lassie?  NO ICE CREAM?  As fate would have it, the room I shared with my sister was just off the living room where everyone was watching television.  I could hear every word of the episode I was missing and the sound of every family member's spoon-clink as they scraped up the last bit of vanilla ice cream and Hershey’s syrup from the bottom of their bowls.  It was torture.

After my Lassie-and-ice-cream deprived evening, the next time I faced down a hot dog, I acted the martyr and choked down the ends first. 

Mom was right.  They did taste just like the middle.

Food aversions aren’t always about taste.  Sometimes, it’s just the way it looks.  I have issues with guacamole: something that color shouldn’t be that consistency. My 70-something-year-old uncle has never willingly eaten a mushroom because of the way it feels in his mouth.  My grandfather detested onions because of childhood trauma that had something to do with gathering an untold amount of onions from his parents’ garden as a child.  I have a friend who refuses to eat a sandwich because…  Well…  I’m not really sure why she won’t eat a sandwich, because that’s really weird.

I love beets.  They’re pretty.  They’re delicious.  They’re easy to make.  My husband’s dad was horrified by beets (his words, not mine).  They are a commonly and unnecessarily reviled food. 

But trust me on this recipe.  It’s good.

And as my parents used to say, “You Don’t Have To Finish It.  You Just Have To Try It. “

Roasted Beet Salad with Goat Cheese & Caramelized Walnuts

Makes 6 Servings

1  Large beet (bigger than a baseball) or 2 smaller beets, rinsed but unpeeled

¾ Cup  Whole walnuts
¼ Cup  Brown sugar
¼ Cup  Water

1 teaspoon  Dijon Mustard
1 Tablespoon  Honey
1 Tablespoon  White wine vinegar
2 Tablespoons  Olive Oil
1 teaspoon  Kosher salt

4 oz   Good quality goat cheese, crumbled

·      Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
·      Wrap beet(s) in tin foil and bake for 1 ½ hours if using a large beet.  Test after 1 hour if using smaller beets.  Peel beets (see note).
    Cut  into wedges and set aside.
·      Combine walnuts and sugar and water  in a sauté pan over medium heat.  Stir frequently until the sugar becomes dark.  Remove walnuts and cool on a piece of foil or parchment paper, being careful to make sure the walnuts aren’t touching.  The nuts will harden upon cooling, so you want to be sure they aren’t in a big clump.
·      Combine Dijon, honey, vinegar, olive oil and Kosher salt for vinaigrette.
·      Arrange beets on a plate, sprinkle walnuts over the top & drizzle vinaigrette and goat cheese.

Tips and Shortcuts
·      Beets are done when a sharp knife easily slides through.  Set aside to cool. 
·      When beets are cool, take a bunch of paper towels and place the cooked beet inside the paper towels and rub vigorously.  This gets rid of the skin and avoids stained hands.  But it’s handy as a lip stain.
·      The whole dish, unassembled, can be made ahead. 
o   Up to one day ahead, roast the beet(s) and cool.  Peel and wrap in plastic wrap or place in a plastic baggie and refrigerate. 
o   The walnuts can be made up to one week ahead and stored in an airtight plastic container at room temperature.
o   Make the vinaigrette the day before to let the flavors meld.

Monday, June 25, 2012

If You Can't Stand The Heat...

It’s hot outside.  And I don’t do heat.

Growing up in Western New York, heat showed about 8 ½ minutes per year, typically appearing on July 16 at 12:47 pm, give or take a minute or two.  Oh, but when that heat showed up, I was miserable.  I’d whine and cry and make a big deal out of walking around our non-air conditioned house with a washcloth draped over my head, fashioned like an undersized terrycloth bridal veil.

And if July 16 fell on a Sunday, you can bet my dad had to carry me out of church like a rag doll after I passed out from the heat during 12 o’clock mass.

I live in Colorado now and what we have out here is “dry heat.”  As in, “I know it’s 90 degrees, but it’s not bad because it’s a DRY heat.” Dry-heat, shmy-heat.  Hot is just HOT.  It was 102 degrees outside yesterday and it’s shaping up to be a repeat today.  We’ve had record-setting high temperatures and frankly, I’m sick of it.  Who wants to cook when it’s like this?  It makes me cranky.

This last Father’s Day, it was 95 degrees.  Even though his three kids couldn't come for dinner (Texas and Kansas are long drives from here and the third had to work), my husband asked me to make him Thanksgiving Dinner for Father’s Day.

Two problems…

#1 – He's not MY father.
#2 – I serve my signature 5-hour-butter-hand-basted turkey once a year at the end of November for one reason:  It’s not 95 frigging degrees outside.

The answer was, “no.”

When I first started catering, I proposed menus would “wow” my clients, made EVERYTHING from scratch and served it all with a smile.  That’s because I started my business in September.  It’s not hot in September.  Smiling in the kitchen is easy in September.

“It’s a small family gathering,” the client told me.  “Just immediate family for my sister’s birthday.  Twenty five people.”  Small?  It was mid-May and this was one of my very first catering gigs for someone other than friends and family.  Together, we decided on a barbeque theme because of the outdoor party setting, but stepped it up a notch in terms of menu.  Planked Salmon, roasted corn salad, citrus wild rice, a bunch of fun stuff that wasn’t your run of the mill weinies & burgers.  I also said that I would make homemade sweet potato chips with lime zest – a huge hit at much smaller previous gatherings I'd catered.

The day before the event, record high temperatures were predicted.  It was the end of May and the weatherman said that temperatures would hit the mid-nineties.  We have a swamp cooler in our house, but it hadn’t been opened up for the season yet.  My kitchen was gonna be an  oven with all the cooking I had to do, but I had to make the sweet potato chips because I’d never have enough time to make them the day of the party.   They’re pretty labor intensive.  But it was really danged hot.  Bandana-wearing, sweat-flying kind of hot.  All day, I kept waiting for it to cool down so I could get the oil going so I could do those darn potato chips.

Flash forward.  Picture this…

It’s one in the morning.  My husband gets out of bed and stumbles into the kitchen, still half asleep.  “What are you DOING?” he asks, even though it’s clear what I’m doing.  “I’m making @#$%!#& potato chips!” is all I can say.  I’d like to think that I’ve got a zen thing going on while I’m making these chips since it’s a pretty repetitive process, but in reality, all I can think is, “I hate making @#$%!&# potato chips.  I’m never eating another @#$!&# potato chip for the rest of my life.  Potato chips @#$%!&# suck.  Really really suck.” 

It’s about 178 degrees in my kitchen and I still have two more hours of potato-chip-making in front of me. In order to maintain the correct oil temperature, I can only cook five or six chips at a time - basically, less than a single handful every three minutes.  Standing over the hot oil is so uncomfortable and sweaty that I was wishing I didn’t have any clothes on.  But the spattering hot oil and probable unsanitary conditions made that an imprudent choice. (Note to all former clients: at no time did I ever prepare any of your meals naked.  But I thought about it.  Especially if your party took place in the summer.)

I finished the damn chips at three in the morning.    The client loved my @#$%&!# sweet potato chips.  It was a great party.  I never made those chips again.

Here’s a recipe for my twist on a Caprese Salad.  No hot oil necessary.  Totally appropriate for a scorching day.  I’d give you the recipe and some pictures for those chips, but it was more than 103 degrees today.  Standing over a hot stove just wasn’t in the cards.  It’s not ladylike to curse so much and I can't pull off that undersized terrycloth bridal veil look as well as I could when I was ten.

Tomato Mozzarella Salad with Shallot Vinaigrette
Makes 6 servings

3 Tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon kosher salt, plus more for finishing
½ teaspoon white sugar
3 Tablespoons fresh basil, chopped rough, divided
½ Cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tablespoons shallots, minced
3 large ripe tomatoes, cut into ¼ inch slices
8 oz fresh mozzarella, cut into ¼ inch slices
2 Tablespoons drained capers (optional)
Freshly ground pepper

Dressing:  Combine vinegar, salt, sugar, 2 Tablespoons basil and all of the olive oil in a blender or mini food processor.  Pulse a few times.  Remove to a small bowl and add shallots.  Set aside.

Arrange tomato & mozzarella on a platter, alternating red and white. 

Drizzle a small amount of the dressing over the top of the tomatoes & cheese.  Sprinkle a few capers over the top (optional) and garnish with the remaining chopped basil.  Finish with ground pepper and kosher salt.

Tips and shortcuts:
·      Use the freshest tomatoes you can find.  This dish thrives on its most basic ingredients. 
·      If you can find “fancy” mozzarella, this is the time to use it.  I tested this recipe with store brand fresh mozzarella, market house-made mozzarella and bufala mozzarella (the kind derived from a water buffalo, not the kind of cheese made in the lower west side of Buffalo, NY.  Which I’m sure is delicious).  The bufala (pictured) was oozy and luscious.
·      If regular tomatoes aren’t in season, grape or cherry tomatoes can be used.  In the wintertime, I think they are quite good while regular tomatoes are notsogood.  Cut the tomatoes in half and use boconccini mozzarella (small balls) or mozzarella cut into comparable sizes.  Don’t use the bufala.  Toss the tomatoes & cheese with the vinaigrette and garnish as directed.
·      Use coarse sea salt or flake salt to finish the dish, if available.  It adds texture as well as flavor.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

My Very Own Fabulous Birthday Party

Growing up, I never had my own birthday party.  I don’t mean that I never HAD a birthday party…  It’s just that I always had to share it.  With seven other people.

Dad: January 9th.  My birthday: January 18th.  Dziadzi (my Polish Grandpa): January 21st.  Cousin Patti: January 22nd. Cousin Debbie: January 30th.  Sis Jennifer: January 31st.  Brother Kevin: February 2nd.  Uncle Doc: February 8th.

Apparently, there’s not a heck of a lot to do in April in Western New York, if you get what I’m sayin’.

Every January, being mindful that the actual party date didn’t fall on anyone’s “real” birthday, we celebrated everyone’s special day(s) with a big sheet cake with all the names on it and eight candles – one for each one of us to blow out. The candles would be lit and we would all sing, “Happy Birthday to you…  Happy Birthday to you…  Happy BIRTHDAY dear UncleBobDziadziKellyPattiDebbieJenniferKevinUncleDo-oc… Happy Birthday to you!”  Not only did I have to share my birthday party, but I also had to sing the birthday song  - to myself.

I was having lunch with EmDee a few years back and I was whining to her yet again about how no one cared about my birthday, about how no one really loved me, blah blah blah.  You need to know that EmDee always, and I mean ALWAYS has a plan.  In a previous life, I'm sure she was that kid (there was always one in every neighborhood) who convinced you that it was absolutely feasible to build a fort in the woods behind your house with a couple of 2 X 4’s and some duct tape if you would only pilfer that Phillips head screwdriver and a socket wrench out of your dad's tool box.   

EmDee suggested that I throw myself my own party.

She immediately started in with, “Roses!  You need a LOT of roses!  White ones!  I have a friend in the business…” And then she says, “White Lights!  Out the back windows!  We could use thumbtacks to hang them!”  She’s on a roll now.  “On sale after Christmas!  You only need 10 or 15 or 20 strands!  And champagne buckets MADE OUT OF ICE!  And artichokes and green grapes for centerpieces!  And white candles!  And green candles!  Lots and lots and lots and LOTS of candles!!!”  She’s practically screaming at this point and I’m sure people were looking at us, but her voice started to fade away as I started daydreaming…

Beautiful little bites of savory puff pastries.
Creamy deviled eggs with crispy bacon.
Buttery phyllo dough folded around caramelized mushrooms & cheesy spinach.
Tasty shrimp wrapped with prosciutto sprinkled with a bit of fresh thyme.
Mini white pizzas topped with fresh herbs and the best cheese I can find.
House-made sausage stuffed inside yeasty hand-made rolls.
Beef tenderloin cooked medium rare served open-faced on crostini.
Ah, party food…

Weeks later, my confirmed guest list numbered more than 80 people.  I’d never cooked for 80 people.  The most I’d ever cooked for was eight people.  After extensive research (20 minutes on the Web), I discovered that 2 bites of 8 dishes per person was the recommended amount of food to prepare.  That didn’t sound like a lot, so I figured that 2 bites of 12 dishes per person would be better.

I settled on 10 dishes that would be served as one or two bite handheld-hors d’oeuvres, one plate of veggies and 4 big platters of cheese from The Truffle Cheese shop.   I cooked and cooked and cooked for weeks and weeks and weeks, storing everything in the freezer so my staff of low-paid teenage servers could just throw everything into the oven right before the party started. 

But goodness, it seemed like an awful lot of food.  I’m highly organized and I’m a very good cook.  But apparently, I’m not very good at math.  I never considered that 80 people X 2 bites per person X 10 individually-made hors d’oeuvres equals:


At the party, there was barely any room for EmDee's gorgeous flowers (thank you, friend-in-the-business) and candles and artichoke centerpieces – the tables were overflowing with all this food.  And as quickly as the food came out, empty platters returned to the kitchen.  Good Lord, these people were like locusts.  Two hours into the party, all the food was gone.  Well, except for most of the veggie platter and a few rinds of cheese.  It was a fabulous party. 

My very own fabulous birthday party.  Finally.

It’s just as much fun (or maybe more fun) to cook for a much smaller crowd.  And the math is easier.  Especially if you’re making these fancified deviled eggs.

BBQ Deviled Eggs
Makes 12 Appetizers

8 hardboiled eggs (see tips & shortcuts)
1 Tablespoon mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons sour cream (or more, as needed)
3 teaspoons Ranch Dressing MIX (dry)
3 Tablespoons BBQ sauce (homemade or your favorite)
1 teaspoon water

Garnishes (optional)
2 Tablespoons finely chopped cooked bacon
2 Tablespoons thinly sliced green onion

Peel eggs and slice in half lengthwise.  Remove yolks to a separate bowl. 

Place 12 egg white halves on a platter.  Set aside 4 egg white halves for another purpose.  Or pour hot sauce over the top of the remaining 4 halves and eat while preparing the rest of the dish.  That’s what I do.

Smash the eggs yolks with the back of a fork until most of the lumps are out.  Add the mayo, sour cream and Ranch Dressing mix and combine.  If the mixture is too dry, add a little more sour cream.

Mix the BBQ sauce with the water to thin it out slightly.

Pipe or spoon the yolk mixture into the egg white halves, mounding slightly.

Drizzle a bit of the BBQ sauce over the top, sprinkle a bit of bacon & green onion (if using) and serve.

Tips and shortcuts:
·      If you are serving hors d’oeuvres as the main dish, you don’t need to go overboard with the number of types of dishes.  My rule of thumb:  6 – 16 people = 4 dishes.  17 – 24 people = 5 dishes.  25 - 36 people = 6 dishes.  36+ = 8 dishes.  Never more than 8.  Make sure that the individually made dishes (tarts, pastries, etc) don’t make up more than half of your dishes.  And 1.5 bites per person are plenty.  Unless you invite my friends, who are locusts in human disguise.

Foolproof hardboiled eggs:  Carefully place (preferably) room temp uncooked eggs in a large saucepan.  Cover with COLD water & set burner to high.  Bring to a rolling boil, turn off the heat & place a lid on the saucepan.  Set the timer for 10 minutes and fill a large bowl with ice and water.  When the timer goes off, place the eggs into the water bath to cool.  Drain and use immediately or store covered in the fridge.

·      If you don’t have a piping bag with a fancy tip to fill the eggs, just fill a Ziploc sandwich bag with the yolk mixture and snip off a small corner.  Pipe the yolk mixture out by squeezing the bag from the far end.

·      This recipe would make an excellent egg salad sandwich.  Chop the cooked eggs roughly.  Add the mayo, sour cream and dry Ranch Dressing mix.  Toast 2 slices of wheat bread and smear (undiluted) BBQ sauce on both pieces.  Place egg salad and some crunchy romaine lettuce between the toasted slices and enjoy.