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.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Stuffed Shells and Aliens

I was in the sixth grade when I burned my first meal.  

I grew up in the 1970's in a small town in Western New York, but I might as well have grown up in the 1950's.  Great for growing up (no bike helmets, unlimited firefly-catching, no soccer games) - but not so great for food.  Like most of my friends, 99% of the time our meals consisted of meat and potatoes.  The rest of the time, we had pepperoni pizza.  Cream of Mushroom Soup was an all-purpose sauce.  Pour it over chicken?  Yes!  Pork chops?  Yes!  Ground Beef?  HELL, YES!!!   I came of age in a part of the world where every family had Jello molds... and knew how to use them.  

To simplify grocery shopping and to make it easier on my working mom, we ate the same meals every week, rotating with the days:  

  • Monday – Spaghetti with Ragu from the jar and ground beef
  • Tuesday -   "Beef Stroganoff" with ground beef, egg noodles and cream of mushroom soup
  • Wednesday - Chicken breasts covered in pizza sauce (a specialty)  
  • Thursday - VERY well-done pork chops to avoid that pervasive and nasty trichinosis
  • Friday – Pepperoni pizza
  • Saturday - Hamburgers (my favorite)
  • And Sunday - Ham at Grandma’s (not my favorite)

My best friend, Adina, was coming over for dinner.  Adina was a vegetarian.  In my family, that’s the same thing as saying an alien was coming to visit.  On a WEDNESDAY.  Clearly, chicken was not an option.  It also meant that my mother was FINALLY GOING TO BE ABLE TO COOK SOMETHING ELSE.

I was never aware of her planning the meal.  I was twelve.  I wasn't one of those I-learned-how-to-cook-standing-on-a-chair-next-to-my-Italian/Polish/Whatever-Grandma. My mom would occasionally ask me to brown the ground beef or pour the pizza sauce over the chicken before she got home from work, but most nights I sat at the table at 6 pm and dinner was served. It's all I knew. Looking back, I'm sure my mother was excited to finally make use of those Time-Life “Good Cook” books she collected over the 70’s and 80’s. 

My mom settled on Stuffed Shells. She stayed up very late the night before the vegetarian/alien came to visit – cooking the shells, preparing the stuffing, stuffing the shells.  Exotic and heady stuff for a woman who, until then, had never had the opportunity to cook any of the fancy food from her fancy cook books.   It was to be an epic meal.

The next morning, she wrote out my list of chores to complete after I came home from school that day, blessedly abbreviated since I would be entertaining a guest.  The abbreviated list consisted of one thing: put the shells on to cook at 4 pm.  I’m going to cut my mom some slack here, because I’m sure she was living on about 3 hours of sleep after all that cooking, preparing, stuffing and whatnot.  But from what I remember, my dearly beloved, overtired and exhausted mother wrote only:  “Put The Shells On At 4”.   Please remember that there are a number of factors going on here…  1) I’m 12 years old.  2) My best friend is at my house for the first time and I’m pretty sure we were obsessed with the Grease soundtrack at that point.  3) In my life, I had only ever browned ground beef and poured pizza sauce over raw chicken.  4) There’s a good chance that she wrote more instructions than “Put The Shells On At 4.”  But I was a pretty smart kid.  My mom put the red sauce-covered shells in a big pot.  The SAME pot she cooked the Monday night Ragu + ground beef.  That pot always went on the burner.  So would this pot. 

Fast forward one hour…

Mom comes home, the vegetarian/alien and I are dancing and singing along to “Summer Nights” (Adina and I would sing along to both Danny & Sandy’s parts since we both couldn’t agree on who would be Sandy) and all of a sudden I hear a shriek from the kitchen.  I ran in and there was a particular odor coming from the pot.  Not smoky, exactly.  It was acrid, like a piece of burned plastic on a piece of metal.  With that smell, I could already taste it and it wasn’t good. “Why didn’t you put the pot IN the oven like I asked????”,  my normally calm and composed mother demanded.  “Didn’t you read my note?”  Because I had my best friend over, I believed that normal house rules wouldn’t apply.  My response to my mother was, in a word, inappropriate. 

“Well, your NOTE was WRONG!”, I said. 

She called in for cheese pizza.  But while the rest of the family and Adina-the-vegetarian/alien ate pizza (on a WEDNESDAY!), my punishment was to eat one of those shells, and not just a bite.  I had to eat an entire one of those damn weird smoky/metallic burned stuffed shells.  I can still recall that taste as if it were yesterday.  For years, I wouldn’t eat a stuffed shell.  I believed that that one incident was an indicator that I could not and would not ever be able to cook. 

Yes, it got better, just like everything gets better after your preteen-angst and trauma.  My friend Adina (the vegetarian/alien) wouldn’t approve of my version of stuffed shells, but, man, I still can’t bring myself to make them like my mom (or should I say I) made them that day…

Stuffed Shells with Chicken & Peperonata
Makes 24 Appetizers

For the Shells
24 jumbo shells, cooked according to package directions in salted water – do not overcook. Cool to room temp.
3 oz Pancetta, finely chopped
1 small onion, finely chopped (about ½ cup)
1 small garlic clove, minced
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
1 large egg
1 pound ground chicken
3 tablespoons flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1/2 cup freshly shredded parmesan cheese
1/4 cup Panko (Japanese bread crumbs)

For the Peperonata
½ cup roasted red pepper, chopped
1 teaspoon red-wine vinegar
Pinch of red pepper flakes
1 ½ tablespoons drained capers, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Line a cookie sheet with non-stick foil or parchment paper.

Cook pancetta and onion in 1 tablespoon olive oil in a non-stick skillet over medium low heat until onion is softened and pancetta is slightly crispy, about 10 minutes.  Turn off heat and stir in garlic.  Cool slightly, at least 5 minutes.

Lightly beat egg in a large bowl, then combine with chicken, pancetta mixture, parsley, ¼ cup parmesan and panko.

Gently stuff each shell with (heavy) 1 tablespoon of the mixture, being sure not to overstuff or rip the shells.

Arrange shells 1 inch apart on the cookie sheet and place INSIDE the oven.  Cook for 20 minutes.

While the shells are cooking, make the peperonata.  Combine the chopped red pepper, vinegar and crushed red pepper.

Let the cooked stuffed shells rest for a few minutes.  Garnish with the peperonata, a pinch of chopped capers and serve.  Eat with your fingers.

Tips and shortcuts:
·      Cook a couple of extra shells.  There’s always one or two that rip before you have a chance to stuff them.
·      Slightly undercook (and I mean by 1 minute or less) your shells.  Liquid will be released during the baking process and will add additional moisture to the pasta. 
·      If you don’t have access to pancetta, use bacon, but be sure to drain thoroughly before adding to the stuffing mixture.
·      Resist adding the garlic too early when cooking the pancetta and onion.   The garlic will cook sufficiently once you add it off-heat to the hot pancetta and onion.  If you can smell it, it’s cooked.  Remember it’s going to cook more in the oven.  Overcooked garlic is fine as a fancy garnish, but it’s bitter as an ingredient.
·      You can use a prepared roasted red pepper tapenade or roasted red pepper pesto in place of the peperonata.  Or basil pesto.  Or just a drizzle of good quality jarred pasta sauce.