Tuesday, December 28, 2010

What’s cooking? Pasta with Collards and Sweet Italian Sausage

When we made our reservations for Christmas in New Jersey, we told ourselves, “It hardly ever snows before January.” At least, that was what I said. My husband was less sanguine. But our recently married son is working crazy hours as a first year law firm associate, and our med school student had time off and was looking forward to seeing his NJ friends. So up we came.

And then the Blizzard of 2010 hit. It was already snowing Sunday morning when I convinced my husband – as a time-saving measure only, as I’m sure if we ever decide to get a divorce it’ll be in the produce aisle – to go with me to the grocery store. What madness. Although New Jersey regularly gets its share of snowstorms, the people never seem prepared. They react to the forecast as if they’d be stuck inside for a couple of weeks, clearing the grocery shelves of everything but a few jars of anchovy paste and some cleaning fluids.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Party On!
What’s cooking? Champagne Cosmopolitans

The first holiday party was Sunday, and already I’m exhausted.

It was our neighborhood party, and in addition to being on the Social Committee (but of course), I volunteered to make my roll-out cookies. And as long as I was making one batch, it seemed like no big deal to make two and send one to two kids who are sons of families in my church and are stationed in Afghanistan.

As usual, no good deed goes unpunished. It took me TWO full days to decorate them all – two full days in which I blissfully immersed myself in a world of tiny gold and silver balls, squiggles of icing, and a full color palette of sanding sugars and edible glitter. And I’ve recently discovered a new line of edible metallic glitter – red and gold and copper and brass, so fine that you apply them by dipping an eye shadow brush into the powder and oh so delicately tapping on the brush. It’s a mind-numbing process, but the effect is so beautiful I spent waaay more time than I should have finding extra places where I could dab a little metallic glitter.

I was feeling particularly creative this year, adding designs of red and green stripes to the tiny stockings, embellishing the hats of the snowmen with minuscule flowers, and completely obsessing over the possibilities for my new ornament shapes.

My husband knew enough to steer clear of the kitchen island, where I had set up shop, and didn’t even mind that we had pizza two nights in a row. Needless to say, after the party that night, I slept NINE hours. But now that I’m fully rested, I'm thinking maybe I should make some for my sons,... Somebody just shoot me, please.

My other contribution to the neighborhood soirée was a most festive drink that we used to serve at our annual soup party in New Jersey. It was a little more dangerous to serve them in New Jersey, because those parties were catered by yours truly, and the dinner part was, well, often somewhat later than I planned, with the result that a few of the guests got a bit snockered by the time the food showed up. But for the neighborhood party in Texas, the food was mostly catered, and that danger didn’t present itself. So with the caveat that you should not overindulge on an empty stomach, I can heartily recommend these for a holiday gathering. They’re simplicity itself to make, beautiful to serve, and delicious.

Champagne Cosmopolitan (adapted from Gourmet magazine, December 1999)
Makes 10 drinks

1¼ cups Cointreau (or Grand Marnier or Triple Sec)
1¼ cups cranberry juice cocktail or pomegranate juice
½  cup plus 2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lime juice
3 tablespoons superfine granulated sugar
chilled Champagne or other sparkling white wine

Stir together Cointreau, juices, and sugar and chill, covered 2 to 6 hours. Just before serving divide among 10 champagne flutes and top off with Champagne. Garnish with sugar-coated fresh cranberries or fresh raspberries or twists of lemon or lime. If you use pomegranate juice, drop a few fresh pomegranate seeds into the glass.

Kitchen Goddess Note: You can make a number of alterations to this without hurting the flavor: substitute pomegranate juice for the cranberry; use regular juice instead of cranberry cocktail; leave out the sugar for a less sweet drink; and substitute the cheaper Triple Sec for the Cointreau (Cointreau being just a high-end Triple Sec). It’s really best when cold, though, so if you’re serving a large group, keep the base ingredients chilled in a pitcher, then top off with champagne in a flute right before serving. I like to greet guests at the door with a tray of them – it gets people into a festive mood from the start.

Happy Holidays!!

Friday, November 19, 2010

My Season of Red and Orange
What’s cooking? Sweet Potato Ginger Soufflé

I’ve long had a love-hate relationship with fall. It’s the end of warm weather for a good six months; the leaves, while briefly beautiful, are a lot of work to clean up; and my garden reminds me of Medusa on a bad hair day.

But it’s not just the leaves that turn red and orange these days. So many gorgeous foods are at their peaks in these months that I wander the farmers’ markets and the grocery aisles just dreaming of what to cook. Pomegranates, apples, cranberries, oranges, beets, carrots, radishes, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, and butternut squash. And I’m sure I’ve left some out.

I start most days with pomegranate seeds mixed with creamy Fage yogurt and a spoonful of honey. Seeding a pomegranate is so tedious, there are times when I want to scream at it and throw it in the trash. But those little jewels with their bright, sweet-tart flavor give a lively start to even the dreariest day, so it’s well worth the effort. They also add wonderful sparkle – in look and taste – to a spinach salad. In the store, look for the fruit with the deepest red skin, because underripe pomegranate seeds taste...well, “bleah” is the best I can do to describe the sensation. Then park yourself in front of the television, find something interesting to watch, and seed the whole thing at once. One good pomegranate will do for several breakfasts or enough salad for 8-10. And the calories are practically nothing.

I found acorn squash at the farmers’ market last weekend. Ok, it’s green on the outside – but deep gold on the inside, so I think that counts. Split one in half, remove the seeds, and roast the halves face down on a greased pan at 400º for 45 minutes. Then turn them over, swab each inside with a half tablespoon of butter, and sprinkle on a tablespoon of brown sugar. Then send those babies under the broiler until the sugar bubbles. Whew – it’s like dessert, and it’s a vegetable!

As much as I love sweet potatoes, I’ve never been a fan of those casseroles with the marshmallows on top. So I was thrilled to find what I regard as the best ever sweet potato recipe, from one of those thin Williams-Sonoma cookbooks that I don’t think they print any more. Although they call it a pudding, it’s really more of a heavy soufflé. When we lived in New Jersey, my sister-in-law and I used to make one together every Thanksgiving – until our children grew up, and we had to make two. It’s a bit of work, but you can trust me that this is absolutely the best sweet potato dish you have ever had.

Kitchen Goddess note: In regard to nutmeg, you can use the already grated stuff in the jar, but it’s really nothing to buy the little nuts and grate them yourself on a fine grater or one of those rasps. The aroma of freshly grated nutmeg will tell you the difference in a way that words cannot hope to. I actually bought a small rasp made just for grating small stuff like nutmegs and hard chocolate, but then you knew I would have, didn’t you?

Sweet Potato Ginger Soufflé
from Chuck Williams’ Thanksgiving & Christmas

2 lb sweet potatoes
finely grated zest of one lemon
½ tsp salt
⅓ c crystallized ginger, finely chopped
1½ c heavy cream
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
4 egg whites

Cut the unpeeled sweet potatoes into fourths and place them in a large saucepan with cold water to cover. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat, and simmer covered for 30-40 mins, or until tender. Drain and cool.

Meanwhile, preheat oven to 350°. Butter a 2-quart soufflé dish.

Peel the cooled sweet potatoes and place in a food processor. Process to a smooth purée. (You should have about 2½ cups of purée.) Transfer the purée to a large bowl and stir in the lemon zest, salt, and crystallized ginger. Stir in the cream and add nutmeg to taste.

In a separate bowl, using a mixer set on medium speed, beat the egg whites until soft peaks form. Add about a quarter of the beaten whites to the potato mixture and combine well. Then, using a rubber spatula, gently fold in the remaining whites. Spoon into the prepared baking dish.

Bake until risen and slightly golden on top, 40-50 minutes. [Kitchen Goddess note #2: I often have to bake it an hour. It’s done when the top is firm but the center is just a bit jiggly.] Serves 8.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Preserving the Season
What’s cooking? Quick "Preserved" Lemons

Some two or three years ago, I read for the first time about preserved lemons. I thought they sounded way cool as a condiment – they come out of Moroccan cuisine, and while I have no idea what that means, they apparently are best made from Meyer lemons, which I greatly love.

Here’s the story: you take 8-10 lemons, slit the sides, jam them together in a large jar with enough salt to choke a kosher horse, and after about three weeks, the skins become pickled and are apparently great in relishes or lemon-herb butters, in salads, to dress up cooked green veggies, and as a flavoring in soups. (FYI: Meyer lemon season runs for the next 3-4 months, so if you want to try preserving some, check out this site for a more cogent description of the process.)

Friday, October 29, 2010

How I Know I'm Not Young Any More
What’s cooking? Cornbread-Sausage Stuffing with Apples and Grapes

I lost my cellphone a few months ago. There’s hardly anything more disruptive to your life, but once it’s gone, there’s not much you can do about it but start reconstructing your contacts from scratch. I decided to make the best of the loss, and upgrade to one of those phones that actually has a real keyboard on it, rather than the phone pad I’d been limping along with for so long. I’m sure it’s an age thing, but it made me completely understand the need for abbreviations. (“Let’s see, the O is on the 6, so that’s three touches...beep beep beep beep – oops, not FOUR touches...arggghhh.”) Making matters worse, one of my sons is a voice-mail-avoider, so pretty much the only way to get a message to him is via text.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

A Fun, New Cookbook
What’s cooking? Bacon and Pecan Pralines

I’m back! Back from the wedding abyss. Back from the beautiful fall colors in New Jersey. Back to the Austin days when you can leave all the windows open and luxuriate in the warm breezes of October. Frankly, I don’t know which place I’d rather spend these months in.

Austin is a town of outdoor events. Start with South by Southwest (SXSW), the massive week-long music (and now film and interactive) festival that makes Woodstock look like a meeting of the Tuesday Ladies Lunch Club. Then there’s the Texas Hill Country Wine & Food Festival in April, part of which is an outdoor fair. Only a couple of weeks ago, we celebrated Austin City Limits – a glorious weekend of music held in Zilker Park. And this weekend was the Texas Book Festival, which occupied the center of town and many of the rooms in the capitol building. Admission was free, and presentations ran all day long, with opportunities to hear lots of authors and get signed copies of their books.

Friday, September 24, 2010

Pardon the Interruption

You may be wondering where I've been these past few weeks. There's a song by the group, Sugarland, with a line that goes, "Life is a runaway train you can't wait to jump on." That's pretty much how I feel about weddings, too, these days. My son is getting married in nine days, and as much as I love the planning and the list-making and the excitement -- and, of course, the soon-to-be daughter-in-law -- I have a feeling I'll be really glad when it's over. But it may be another week or so before I can get my head into anything else, so please excuse the hiatus. I've got a bunch of recipes I'm aching to try, and I promise to share them all.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Falling in Love Again -- with Tomatoes
What’s cooking? Green Tomato and Lemon Marmalade

I didn’t grow up liking fresh tomatoes. In fact, for most of my life, I avoided tomatoes as tasteless and of a texture I didn’t like. And even when farmers’ markets began sprouting up all over New Jersey, I took a pass on the tomatoes.

Then on the trip south to deliver our first born to college, we left a few days early to check out the mountains of the Carolinas, where my husband envisioned retiring. (That would be before I convinced him that we needed to go to Austin.) We found a bed and breakfast that was straight out of a Tennessee Williams story, and I called for reservations. When I told the owner where we were coming from, he said, “New Jersey? I’ll give you a discount if you’ll bring me a cooler of Jersey tomatoes.”

That’s when I began to suspect there was something special about them.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Gladys’s 99th – Happy Birthday!
What’s cooking? Apple Pound Cake

Not everyone gets good in-laws. And very few get really great in-laws. I am one of the lucky few. Adding to that good fortune, yesterday, my mother-in-law celebrated her 99th birthday.

It’s amazing what can happen in 99 years. In addition to outliving fellow 1911 babies Ginger Rogers, Ronald Reagan, and Mahalia Jackson, Gladys has watched a sea change in our daily lives. Just to give you an idea of what was happening in the world when she was born, here are a couple of milestones from the year of her birth.

■ An expedition led by Roald Amundsen was the first to reach the South Pole.

■ Chevrolet officially entered the automobile market in competition with the Ford Model T.

■ President Taft presided over the dedication of the New York Public Library.

■ The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the largest industrial disasters in the history of New York City, caused the death of 146 garment workers, almost all of them women, who either burned or jumped to their deaths because ladders couldn’t reach them on the 9th or 10th floors. It was the worst workplace disaster in NYC until September 11, 2001.

■ Calbraith Perry Rodgers, a pioneer American aviator trained by Orville Wright, made the first transcontinental airplane flight across the U.S. The trip took from September 17 to November 5, and included some 69 stops, both intentional and accidental.

■ The number of motor vehicles in the U.S. was 470,000.

My sons can’t imagine life without cell phones or computers; when Gladys was born, there also were no electric traffic lights (invented in 1912), household refrigerators (the earliest, in 1922, cost almost twice as much as a car), zippers (1913), or ballpoint pens (1938).

So we celebrated on Sunday, with a family gathering at which Gladys’s daughter (my fabulous sister-in-law) baked one of her mom’s most delicious cakes.

Gladys’s Apple Pound Cake

2 cups sugar
1½ cups vegetable oil
3 eggs
3 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vanilla
3 cups finely diced apples
1 cup walnuts, chopped
1 cup coconut

Preheat oven to 350º. Combine sugar, oil and eggs in bowl and beat until thick and creamy. Sift together the flour, soda, and salt (or combine the dry ingredients in a separate bowl, and stir well). Beat the dry mixture into the wet, and stir in the vanilla. Fold in apples, nuts, and coconut. (Kitchen Goddess note: It's a stiff batter, but take heart – it’s a great cake, and needs no icing.) Pour into a greased and floured tube pan. Bake at 350º for 1 hour 20 minutes.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Top 10 Herbs and Spices
What’s cooking? Summer Salad

On an airplane a couple of days ago, I was reading the latest issue of Writers’ Digest, in which the editors took on a theme of “Top Ten” and pretty much wore it out. But you know how something like that will get inside your brain, so before I knew it, I had pulled out my notebook and begun writing down a few of my own Top Tens, mostly to do with cooking. I’m going to try not to wear it out here, today, so I’ll take just one, and write about the others over the next few weeks. It’s a cheater’s way to write – after all, you don’t have to develop any flow to the text; but for a now-and-then sort of thing, it’s fun.

I’ll start with my 10 Favorite Herbs and Spices, because I want to tell you about a simple and delicious salad I made as I was trying to pack. And one of the ingredients is in this list.

Garlic salt. OK, right off the bat, this probably doesn’t qualify as either an herb or a spice. But I keep it in my spice cabinet, and both garlic and salt are flavor enhancers. (I buy the Lawry's brand, which has freeze-dried flakes of parsley in it; maybe the parsley flakes help it qualify for this list. But if you’re going to clench your teeth and mutter curses at me for this, you’d better move on.) In any case, I put it in almost everything that’s not dessert. I add it to a lot of soups, and sometimes I sprinkle it on salads that don’t want a strong garlic taste. Garlic salt and lemon pepper are my standard seasonings for meat or seafood of almost any kind, especially if I’m grilling or broiling, and not adding any sort of sauce. So naturally, my number 2 is...
Lemon pepper. Lemon definitely doesn’t qualify as an herb or a spice, but it does make the flavor of so many things sparkle. And in combination with garlic salt, lemon pepper helps bring the flavor out on most kinds of protein.

Mint. I’m starting to believe that southerners have a specific taste bud that periodically sends out a call for mint. Sort of like oregano for Mexicans and basil for Italians.(This may be why English food has a tendency toward bland – I can’t think of a single herb that’s particularly English.) Whatever the reason, I will happily add mint to a range of dishes. Fresh fruit, salad dressings, ice cream,... And the drinks: lemonade, iced tea, mojitos, even plain old water with ice and lemon.

Thyme. A staple of my chicken soup, which is, ahem, fabulous. (Soon, soon, I will post it. Just gotta get out of this summer heat.) Actually, many broth soups call for fresh thyme in the bouquet garni. It’s easy to grow, and pretty hardy. And if I’m baking chicken breasts for a salad, I always throw a sprig of fresh thyme and a thin slice of lemon on each breast – it gives a great flavor to both the chicken and the broth that accumulates.

Dill. Dill is the lemon juice of the herb garden. There’s a sparkle to it that really perks up the flavor of broth soups, of baked chicken, and many kinds of fish. It’s another staple of my chicken soup. Fresh dill is also good in a salad.

Ginger. I’m going to distinguish here between fresh ginger and powdered ginger. I love fresh ginger, but it’s already on a list of my 10 favorite ingredients for cooking, which I’ll write about in a future posting. So here, I’m just talking about the powdered form. One of my favorite baked chicken recipes, called Bobbie’s Chicken, is from the first Silver Palate Cookbook. It uses an obscenely large quantity of powdered ginger and powdered mustard to create a rub that produces – oh, my goodness – just the best baked chicken ever. And my friend Pam has a ginger snap recipe that I’m hoping she’ll let me post one day. Ginger is another of those sparkly spices that do more than add flavor – they make your mouth do an oh-wow thing. Which must be good, yes?

Cumin and Chili Powder. I can’t seem to talk about one of these without the other, so I’ll stop trying. Maybe that’s because chili powder actually contains cumin. But sometimes you want more of that earthy, roasted flavor that cumin alone imparts. Of course, any good chili recipe requires both of these spices, but have you ever considered mixing them with a tiny bit of sugar and tossing sweet potato spears in it? Oven-roasted sweet potato fries will make you weep.

Nutmeg. This stuff is one of the best fall flavors I know. It’s essential in my Aunt Marcy’s pumpkin chiffon pie, wonderful if grated on top of whipped cream for many desserts, often found in sweet rolls, and completely amazing when grated over cooked fresh spinach. The grating part is so easy, I stopped buying grated nutmeg years ago. Buy the nuts in a jar and get a fine grater (or rasp) – you’ll never regret it.

Basil. I left this for last because it’s a key ingredient in today’s salad recipe – not because I like it any less than the others. In fact, pesto is a strong contender for My Favorite Pasta Sauce. [See my July 31, 2009, post for the recipe.] After Sun Gold tomatoes, it’s the best thing I grow in my Austin garden. And among farmer’s market lunches, nothing could be simpler than sliced tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, topped with a bit of olive oil and balsamic vinegar. But the following comes very close (and, in fact, is not too different).

Kitchen Goddess Note: I recognize the heresy of using bottled salad dressing, but Julie’s Caesar Salad Dressing (from The Silver Palate brand) is really good, and you will note that this is a salad made as I was literally on the run. So there.

Leaving for the Airport Summer Salad

1 medium tomato, cut into half-inch cubes
2 ounces fresh mozzarella, cut into half-inch cubes
1½ cups watermelon, cut into half-inch cubes
1 peach, peeled and cut into half-inch cubes
2 tablespoons fresh basil leaves, sliced into thin ribbons
2 tablespoons Julie’s Caesar Salad Dressing (Silver Palate brand)

Toss it all together and enjoy. Serves one hungry person – or two, if it’s not the only thing on the menu.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Out of the Frying Pan...?
What’s cooking? Corn Salad

As of about three weeks ago, my husband and I have become part of the great North/South seasonal migration. After last summer’s 66+ days over 100º in Austin, we decided we’d been maybe a bit hasty in our flight from the frozen Northeast. At least for the summer months, we figured we’d hide out in New Jersey, where we remembered temperatures mostly in the 70s and 80s, with the occasional night that didn’t even require air conditioning. So we found an apartment in Jersey City – near the water and the energy of NYC – and prepared to be cooler this summer.

Well, it was theoretically a good idea. But not so much this year. So far, since we’ve been here, temperatures in Jersey City have rivaled – rivaled, you hear? – those in Austin. In fact, for the first few days after we arrived, it was actually cooler in Austin. Maybe we’ll just stay inside.

But even with the heat, I am so thrilled to be back in the land of the farmers’ markets. They do have farmers’ markets in Texas, but none that I have seen can hold a scented candle to the fresh produce of the Northeast. (The photo here is from the market on Martha’s Vineyard, which we visited last year.) And it turns out that even in the urban heart of Jersey City, a handful of small farmers’ markets are blossoming. I’ve discovered a list of NINE markets, nicely scheduled so that there’s at least one every day of the week except Sunday, which is fine by me because that’s the day I wander back to Summit, where the best farmers’ market of all (in my humble opinion) takes place.

Another nice thing about coming back to our old stomping grounds is the opportunity to see friends we’ve been missing. And last weekend offered a sort of bonanza of New Jersey’s best when we visited friends who made an amazing salad that featured Jersey Fresh corn. Kitchen Goddess note #1: I added the olive oil when I made it a couple of days later, just because it seemed like a nice touch; but Kathrin, who is much thinner than I am, left that out. It’s terrific either way. Kitchen Goddess note #2: Kathrin grilled her corn, but I had no grill available, so I boiled mine, for 3 mins. The key is not to cook it too much, as a tiny bit of crunchiness is essential to the freshness of taste.

Kathrin’s Corn Salad

6 ears corn, grilled or boiled (3 mins)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, quartered, or 1 large tomato, cut into half-inch dice
2 avocados, cut into half-inch dice
½ c chopped cilantro (or more, depending on how much you like cilantro – and I love cilantro)
juice of 2 limes
1 Tbl olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

Using a sharp knife, cut the kernels off the corn into a bowl. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Serves 6-8.

Kitchen Goddess note #3: This works fine as a buffet item, but if you are serving it plated, I’d recommend using a leaf of butter lettuce (also known as Boston or Bibb lettuce) to hold it.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Soup to the Rescue!
What’s cooking? Cream of Broccoli Soup

I really didn’t want to go grocery shopping yesterday, and we’d eaten the only frozen pizza we had a few nights ago; so once again, I was in a dinner quandary. The night before, I’d used up the zucchini and yellow squash and mushrooms in a throw-it-all-in pasta dish, and I shy away from the same sort of thing two nights in a row; so pasta was out. I had a package of chicken tamales in the freezer – one of the great benefits to living in Texas is that very good tamales are broadly available – but was still stuck for what to go with them.

It didn’t have to be Mexican food, I decided. But something not too spicy, to balance the tamale seasoning. In fact, my choices were what you would call extremely limited: to wit, one slightly sad head of broccoli. But I know what to do with veggies that are past their prime: it’s called SOUP. I checked out a couple of recipes and took what looked like the easiest one, which was also the one with the A that I noted at the top of the page. I winced slightly when I saw that my notes also said it takes 2½ hours, but overweening optimism won me over – surely, I can be faster than I was the last time. This is the sort of mindset that gets me into trouble.

Kitchen Goddess Tip: Life became a lot easier once I got past the Felix Unger pristine approach to cookbooks. So: TAKE NOTES. Grade a recipe the first time you make it, note how long it took, and if the garlic flavor is too strong or it needs more salt, write that down. These are the sorts of things you won’t remember – trust me.

For the broccoli soup, I started with the Culinary Institute’s Book of Soups, and adjusted to fit the ingredients at hand. The CIA called for a leek, which would have been lovely, but I didn’t have one. I discovered a fat shallot among my onions and threw it in along with a couple of tablespoons of chives from my garden. And I upped the amount of celery they suggested. I added a bit of butter (for flavor) to the vegetable sauté, and went a bit heavier on the lemon juice. The result was fabulous, and when I realized it was all going into the blender, I stopped obsessing over carefully chopped broccoli, so it took much less time. We had it hot with the tamales, and today, I ate it cold for lunch.

Cream of Broccoli Soup

1 pound broccoli
2 tablespoons olive oil
½ tablespoon butter
1 small onion, chopped (about ¾ cup)
1 medium shallot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped (about ½ cup)
2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3½ cups chicken broth
¼ cup heavy cream, warmed
2 tablespoons lemon juice
salt and white pepper to taste (you can use finely ground black pepper, but it’s not as pretty)

Trim the tough outer skin from the broccoli stems and set aside about ½ cup of the better looking small florets for garnish. Coarsely chop the rest of the broccoli – stems and florets. (Remember, this is a cream soup, so the whole thing is going into the blender. No need to be dainty about the broccoli cuts. Admittedly, the trimming will take some time.)

Heat the oil and butter over medium heat, add the broccoli, onion, celery, shallot, and chives. Cook, stirring frequently to coat all the veggies with the oil/butter, for 8-9 minutes, until the onion is translucent. Add the flour, stirring almost constantly to keep it from burning, for another 4 minutes.

Add the broth, whisking if necessary to eliminate chunks of flour, and simmer 45 mins, stirring occasionally. Make sure you scrape up and incorporate any flour residue that has stuck to the bottom of the pot. Toward the end of the 45 mins, steam or boil the reserved florets until tender and set them aside.

Purée the soup well (I run it a good 2 minutes), then add the cream and lemon juice and salt/pepper and blend again briefly. Serve immediately, garnished with the reserved florets. If you don’t want to serve it immediately, return it to the pot and reheat (do not boil) before serving. Or chill it for a couple of hours and serve cold. Serves 4.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Me and Dr. Scholls -- Gellin’
What’s cooking? Strawberry-Watermelon-Cucumber Salad

The thermometer here in Austin has been in the 90s almost every day for the longest, and all I could think of was... gelatin salad. I’ve been a molded salad snob for years, disdaining the green wobbly squares with floating bits of  pineapple and celery that would invariably appear on the menu at my mother-in-law’s house. She’s a wonderful woman and way too fond of Jello salad.

But in the midst of this summer heat wave, I was desperate for something cool that didn’t involve a lot of calories. I looked around my cupboard but had too little powdered gelatin for a salad, so – against all my better instincts – I made do with a package of sugar-free orange Jello. I mixed it with a heavy cup of grated carrots and an orange that I peeled, sliced and chopped into small segments, then added the juice of half a lemon to balance the sweetness of the Jello. Quite tasty – cool with crunch, and a dollop of creme fraiche took away even more of the sweetness.

Still, I yearned for the clarity of a plain gelatin base. So the next time I went to the store, I picked up a couple of boxes of Knox, and wandered the produce aisles for what to put with it. Strawberries are still in season, so I started with those. To add crispness or crunch, I chose an English cucumber – less bitter than the standard garden cuke, and with a thinner skin. And in a moment I can only describe as inspired, I discovered some seedless watermelon in the frig. I cubed everything – half-inch cubes for the fruit and quarter-inch cubes for the cucumber – to give it a more attractive presentation. For flavor and the hint of sweetness, I included minted simple syrup in lieu of some of the water. Wow. It tasted light and fresh, and it looked like jewels suspended in champagne.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I may be in my own little world, but it’s okay, they know me here...
What’s cooking? Salad Monique

I spent four days last week at the beach, writing with another woman who is both a lifelong friend and a writer. We drove to the Texas coast, to a tiny fishing village named Port Aransas. Basking in relative obscurity, Port A lolls at the far north end of Mustang Island – a home to as many deep-sea sport fishing boats as crusty shrimpers. A place so laid back that dressing up mostly means a clean pair of flip-flops. And running south from the town, 18 miles of broad creamy beaches. The BP disaster hasn’t reached this part of the Gulf Coast, but early June is still seaweed season, so the crowds are minimal. For the past 10 years, my friend and I have been going there to write for a week, and we typically go in the spring, when the place is really deserted, so just seeing others on the beach was a bit of a shock. But what really hit us was the heat – the index was 105 one morning, and that was all it took for me to decide that a view of the ocean was all I really needed.

My family took a house on this part of Mustang Island every summer when I was growing up, and I guess when you are a kid and the bottom line is that you get to go to the beach, the heat becomes less of a factor. But when you’re an adult who has spent the past 30 years in New Jersey, I can tell you it makes a difference.

There’s something remarkable about how just watching the waves stirs up the creative juices in my head, and even though I’d been feeling completely blocked, it took less than a day for the ideas to start flowing. The Texas coast between the mainland and Mustang Island is an amoebic pattern of vast shallow bays – more green than blue – home to herons and whooping cranes and roseate spoonbills, and the flatness of the land begins to draw the tension out of me long before we can actually see the ocean.

By the time we got home, I’d had my quota of fresh seafood for about a month, so all I really wanted to eat was a salad. I remembered a recipe I’d found when I was reviewing the famous chefs’ cookbooks, an amazing concoction at the front of Eric Ripert’s Return to Cooking. It’s sort of a Kitchen Sink Recipe – it takes a good hour just to assemble the ingredients. But I promise it’s worth the trouble. And while this recipe says it serves 6, my husband and I shared it as our dinner and were fighting over the remains.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Disaster Dinner

I made a certifiable disaster for dinner a few nights ago – lovely artichokes that didn't get completely done, and some fish that stuck to the pan and tasted "bland" (my husband's word). To his credit, he was very cautious with this criticism, not wanting to have me stop cooking altogether; but in a preemptive strike, I had already said I didn’t think the fish was a success.

Winging it is always a bit dicey, and I had definitely been winging it with the fish. Having already been to the store that day, and neglected to get an entree (what was I thinking?), I looked for something I already had, that would go with the artichoke recipe (which I really wanted to make). I found a package of tilapia filets in the freezer, which seemed like a nice combo of textures.

I didn’t really have a plan, just figured if I threw it in the skillet with some herb butter left over from a garlic bread I made not long ago that it would work out. I will definitely plan better next time.

The artichokes were too big for the recipe, which called for medium artichokes cooked in butter and chicken broth. And the parts that actually got done were really tasty, so I will figure this one out at a later date.  But you know, you get what’s in the grocery store, and my store had only fairly large artichokes. So even though I nearly doubled the cooking time, they were undercooked. And at some point, with your husband pacing the area around the kitchen like a mountain lion, you say to yourself, “It’ll be fine by now.” Which of course it wasn’t.

Hey, these things happen. And I think the healthiest approach is to announce the awfulness and get on with your life. So we went for ice cream instead.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 2

For my next life, I want to come back as Michael Ruhlman. Among his dozen published books, you will find collaborations with Eric Ripert (of Le Barnardin), Anthony Bourdain (“No Reservations” on the travel channel), and at least three books with Thomas Keller, the self-taught wunderkind of The French Laundry in Napa, and Per Se in NYC. It’s the sort of stuff I dream about.

Cooking from these books is another issue altogether. Ripert’s A Return to Cooking is a sort of journal with recipes and art – the reader (if you ever actually take the time) follows him and a group of his friends on outings to Sag Harbor, Puerto Rico, Napa, and Vermont. One of the friends is an artist, so the text is interspersed with vibrant, full-page,Van Gogh-esque paintings of the food and the chef, which makes this tome an excellent coffee table book. But there’s virtually no organization to it – other than by geographic site – and Ripert seems to have uncanny access to foods that are either bizarrely specific (Vialone Nano rice and the Pebeyre brand of truffle juice – truffle juice, really...) or way too exotic for my kitchen, like pibales (baby eels – still alive when you buy them!). On the other hand, in perusing the book for this review, I came across an interesting salad that I made for dinner last night, and both my husband and I were wowed. Look for that in my next post.

Painstaking and fussy are two of the words that come to mind in describing the dishes in Thomas Keller’s first opus, The French Laundry Cookbook. Of course, the photography alone will make you pick up the phone for reservations – you just want the dining experience. Like the food, the book is elegant and spare, airy and precise. And impossible to reproduce. Yet there are discourses on basic processes – like Keller’s Big Pot Blanching method for cooking vegetables – that are simple enough for the least aggressive home kitchen and will produce amazing results. And if you actually want to reproduce the restaurant’s signature cornets of Salmon Tartare with Sweet Red Onion Crème Fraîche, Keller takes you step by excruciating step through the process. To his credit, Keller recognizes the impossibilities, and suggests being flexible – attempting a sauce, for instance, while simplifying the meat or fish that it goes on. There’s some highly instructive and helpful material here on tools and techniques that could make a real difference for normal cooks, as well as some encouraging advice about using common sense.

Common sense and basic techniques recur as themes of Keller’s newest work: ad hoc at home. (Did you think I’d forgotten? Oh, ye of little faith...) And it turns out that the man actually now has a restaurant called Ad Hoc. The focus here is on the uncomplicated – iconic American dishes like creamed corn and fried chicken and strawberry shortcake. A perfectly marvelous section toward the back gives simple recipes for a wide range of what Keller calls “Lifesavers” – tapenades, flavored oils, chutneys, pickled fruits, and preserved lemons – that, reading through the section, you feel will on their own elevate all sorts of preparations.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Tiptoeing through the Chefs’ Cookbooks – Part 1

Okay – I confess. When I started this post, I was going to review my latest find, Thomas Keller’s ad hoc at home. And then,...I decided any review should really pit this book against its truest competitors, i.e., the cookbooks of other great chefs. And since I have quite a few of those, it became another of those what-the-heck moments, and what my husband always refers to as a random strike, when my brain goes off at a full tilt. So of course this process has taken me quite a bit longer than I expected, but I’m getting there. Just as a show of faith, I’m going to give you the first half now. I’ll be back in a couple of days with the rest, which will – I promise – include ad hoc at home.

How do you know when you find a great cookbook? You can’t rely simply on the author being a great chef – I have cookbooks by Daniel Boulud (Daniel, db Bistro Moderne, and Café Boulud) and Georges Perrier (Le Bec-Fin in Philadelphia) and Eric Ripart (Le Bernardin), and while I enjoy reading them all, I don’t think of those books as great cookbooks. (I also have A Day at elBulli by Ferran Adrià, but his food is so far out there that I think of the book as more like science fiction, and don’t even shelve it with the others.) The photography in each is luscious enough that you can practically taste the dishes, and it’s fun to imagine what it must be like to inhabit the kitchens of these creative geniuses, to peek over their shoulders or be privy to their thoughts; but these are not where I turn to figure out what to cook for a cozy dinner party unless it’s a really special occasion.

I should add here that all of these chefs except perhaps Georges Perrier have multiple books to their names, so maybe the comparison isn’t fair. But my library is my library – my universe for this task is defined by it.

Boulud’s Cooking in New York City offers a sort of romp through the day at a top-tier NYC restaurant... There’s some fun stuff about the craziness of the kitchen and the shopping and the deliveries, but the recipes are presented in a jumbled mess of type that’s 11-point on some pages and shrinks to 9-point on others. And complex? Tomato Tarte Tatin (can you say that five times fast?) takes up a full page, in six separate procedures: for the pistou sauce, the puff pastry, the tomatoes (no simple peel and chop here), the caramelized onions, the herb goat cheese (which of course you must make yourself – and who is this guy Herb?), and the frisée salad. It’s a dish that promises to be an all-day affair in the making. And this would be for an appetizer. Needless to say, I haven’t found much that I’ll tackle in his book.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I've just become aware that the pasta recipe in my last post had 4 CUPS of parmesan. ACK!!!! No, that was supposed to be 1/4 cup. This must be what comes from writing in the wee hours. So sorry – hope I haven't ruined anyone's dinner.

For anyone just now reading that post, I've corrected the recipe. But here it is – again – with the appropriate quantity of Parmesan.

Pasta with Asparagus and Peas

1 Tbl butter
1½ Tbl shallots, minced
1 lb asparagus (I prefer the thinner stalks for this recipe), trimmed and cut into one-inch pieces
8 oz frozen peas, thawed
salt and pepper, to taste
¼ c heavy cream
8 oz dried pasta (I used ½ box of bowtie pasta)
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese
¼ c fresh basil, slivered

Cook pasta in salted water as directed. Meanwhile, in a large sauté pan, cook shallots on medium-low heat about 4 mins. Raise heat to medium, add asparagus and peas, salt and pepper. Cover and cook 7 mins, or until asparagus is firm-tender. Remove cover and add cream. Simmer vegetables in cream until the cream thickens (~2 mins). When pasta is ready, drain it and add it to the vegetables, along with the Parmesan cheese, stirring well. When the cheese is melted and well incorporated, add basil and stir well again. Adjust seasoning. Serves 2 with leftovers.

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Another Year, Another Asparagus Recipe
What’s cooking? Pasta with Asparagus and Peas

It was a great birthday. I slept late, ate breakfast out on our screened porch, then had my coffee with the cat out in the kitchen garden. Some days, you just have to let yourself do nothing, and if your birthday isn’t one of those days, then you are missing something.

One son sent me the cutest flower arrangement I think I’ve ever seen: a flower cupcake. It’s right here on my desk, where it looks like it’ll last for a while.

And the other son sent Thomas Keller’s new cookbook, ad hoc at home. This book, of family-style recipes, is rapidly becoming one of my favorites, even though I haven’t made anything from it yet. I’m a big fan of Keller – his gazpacho is a staple of my hostessing menus, and his instructions on cooking vegetables changed my life – but some of his concoctions get just a little too precious for a kitchen with a staff of one. I’m thinking in particular of a white truffle custard – and you know, I always keep a bit of white truffle in my pantry – served in a hollowed out egg shell. Oh, please. The dishes in this new book, however, are designed for serving to a group of friends who don’t care if you’re using liquid nitrogen or tweezers or an immersion circulator. (More on this book in my next post.)

So for my birthday, my husband wanted to take me to dinner at a nice local place, but we’d been out the previous couple of nights, and had plans for the next couple of nights after that. And sometimes, I just get a hankering to cook something. It was one of those nights.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

A Great Gift Idea

You know, I started off my last post talking about the binder of family recipes my Aunt Marcy gave me when I left home for a career in NYC. The whole idea was to link that thought to the recipe book I put together just recently for my daughter-in-law-to-be. But my mind’s ability to wander off into the woods, following any random trail, seems to apply even when I’m writing. I apparently am in desperate need of some mental breadcrumbs.

Maybe it’s the siren call of Spider Solitaire. I’m something of a, ahem, professional at it. At least I would be if there was such a thing. The problem is that I replay the same game over and over until I win. Which can take much more time than I’m willing to admit. And so, I digress, again.

Back to the recipe collection I assembled for my DILTB. Let’s call her Sue. Some time ago, I discovered a website called Tastebook, which is somehow affiliated with epicurious. I played around with the site, but never really got cranked until Sue came into the picture, which gave me a real reason to put a book together.

The Tastebook people have a broad selection of attractive photos you can use for the cover, and they offer a dedication page that can even include your own photo. Then you choose recipes from some online sites, or enter your own recipes on a formatted page (with photos there, too, if you want). And you can add personal notes to any of the recipes. It’s pretty simple, and the book looks great. They even managed to get it to me in time for it to be a sort of reverse-Mother’s Day gift for Sue. Pretty cool. (And by the way, they didn't pay me to say all this.)

The only downside to this little (?) project was that I spent the entire weekend before typing in various family recipes, and cooking a number of them so that I could take photos of them for the pages. This is the sort of activity that drives my adorable spouse straight up the wall. (“Aren’t we going to eat this? Stop taking pictures. The food’s getting cold, and I’m hungry.”) Ah, what we sacrifice for art.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

From My Mother’s Kitchen
What’s cooking? Corn Pone Pie

When I left home in Texas for a job and apartment in New York, my Aunt Marcy gave me a binder with a starter handful of family recipes in it. Mostly, they were her recipes with a couple from my grandmother, who only cooked things with lots of sugar in them. My mother’s recipes were largely absent, I suspect because I don’t remember ever actually seeing her use a recipe.

She was an artist, and in a less culturally restrictive time, I doubt she’d have cooked much at all. (N.B., The photo above is one of her paintings. I have now decorated two kitchens around its colors.) But women in those days weren’t supposed to spend their time painting or building collages or working with mosaic tiles, so I suspect she was more than a little grateful for the advances in packaged food that made those activities possible. As a result, frozen TV dinners, Kraft macaroni and cheese, and instant mashed potatoes were regulars in our house. But when she decided to cook, she relied mostly on instinct; and her instincts, while not fancy, were good.

As with her art, my mother’s cooking was eclectic, and often involved mixing things up in a skillet until they tasted good. If the meal included shrimp, most of the time it became gumbo and was served over rice. Turkey morphed into tetrazzini, with mushrooms, cream sauce, and pasta; and chicken or pork evolved into chop suey served over those crunchy Chun King noodles.

But my favorite dish started with a pound of ground beef, which she turned into a simple chili that was topped with corn bread and went by the name of Corn Pone Pie. It is only as an adult that I’ve discovered that Corn Pone Pie appeared on other people’s tables, and in fact is about as common in the South as pimento cheese. Ok, maybe not that common, but pretty well known just the same.

I started early serving the dish to my little Yankee children, and they liked it as much as I ever did. Maybe it’s the name that makes it sound like such a friendly concoction, but I suspect the corn bread is what gets my sons.

The best thing about this recipe is that you only need to add a green salad for a complete meal.

Mumzy’s Corn Pone Pie

For the chili:
1 pound ground beef (can substitute turkey without loss of flavor)
1 medium onion, chopped
1-2 cloves garlic, mashed (This would be the Texas version; in NJ, we say crushed.)
1 green pepper, diced (optional)
1 16-ounce can diced tomatoes
1 teaspoon chili powder (more, if you like)
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 dash Tabasco
1 16-ounce can kidney beans or pinto beans
salt and pepper to taste

For the corn bread:
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
¾ cup yellow corn meal
3 tablespoons sugar
4½ teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 egg
⅔ cup milk (at room temp)
⅓ cup melted butter

Preheat oven to 425º.

In a deep, oven-proof skillet, cook together on medium heat the ground beef, onion, garlic, and green pepper (if using), breaking up the meat with a spoon into bite-sized pieces, until the meat is fully cooked. Add the tomatoes, chili powder, cumin, Tabasco, beans, and salt and pepper to taste. [Kitchen Goddess note: As you may guess, there’s a lot of flexibility in this recipe, depending on how you like your chili. Feel free to experiment.] Simmer the mixture on top of the stove for 10-15 minutes, while you make the cornbread batter.

For the cornbread topping, sift together into a medium bowl the flour, corn meal, sugar, baking powder, and salt. In a separate, small bowl, beat the egg well with a fork, then stir in the milk and melted butter. Pour the liquid mixture all at once into the dry, stirring with a fork only until the flour is moistened. (It’s okay if the mixture is lumpy – the point is not to overstir.) Spoon the batter on top of the chili mixture. Bake 25-30 minutes until the corn bread is done.  Serves 4-5.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Spring in My Step

What a glorious month! The wildflowers are exploding all over Texas; and in New Jersey, where we just spent a long weekend, the tulips and daffodils had poked their heads up along all the city sidewalks, and redbud trees blazed everywhere. And while I haven’t exactly been hibernating, our big screened porch has me yearning to invite friends for dinner. Which may be why I volunteered our house for the neighborhood spring get-together.

Usually, this is the sort of madness I set myself up for and then, as what my husband describes as the “cumulative reality” of the event approaches, I spend a great deal of time muttering to myself, “I don’t know why I do these things. What was I thinking?” Ok, yes, I do know. I love entertaining. Bringing friends together for good food and lively conversation is part of it, but mostly I love the planning. Putting together a menu is my favorite activity, but then there’s the centerpiece and the napkins and the silver and the china or maybe stainless and pottery, or maybe even a mix and match. You have to have sort of a “What the heck” attitude, but if the colors work or there’s a nice mix of textures, ...well, what the heck. I particularly like mixing my own silver with my mother’s and my grandmother’s. I don’t have a full service of either, but my mother apparently never used her cream soup spoons, so I have lots of those, and my grandmother had a complete set of sherbet spoons – they have a small notch, presumably for digging into the icy dessert – and I can use their dinner forks if I alternate them with each place setting. Can you tell I really get into this?

In fact, I enjoy the planning so much that the dinner party itself is almost anticlimactic. And sometimes – just occasionally, mind you – I’m exhausted. But it’s a fun exhaustion, and I won’t give it up.

So the last dinner party I gave was a couple of weeks ago, when spring had finally arrived in Austin and my friend Anne was here for a visit. Anne and I have collaborated on many a dinner party, so even though she was the guest of honor, she dug in like a trouper. Strawberries are in season here, so we had big platters of them for dessert, along with some really yummy and light cookies from a Daniel Boulud recipe I found. Shelling the pistachios is the most tedious part, unless you can find them shelled in the grocery store, which I cannot. But other than that, these little sweets take almost no time.

Sacristan Cookies by Daniel Boulud

¼ c pistachios
2 Tbl sugar
1 sheet puff pastry, frozen
1 egg yolk
1 Tbl milk

Preheat the oven to 350°. Lay out the sheet of puff pastry, and GENTLY roll out the creases from being in its box. Whip together the yolk, milk, and ½ Tbl of sugar, and with a pastry brush, brush the mixture onto both sides of the sheet. Cut the pastry sheet in half, and cut each half into strips about ¾-inch wide. (Each pastry sheet is about a 9-inch square, so you should end up with two dozen strips that are 4½ inches by ¾-inch.) Pick up each strip by holding both ends and carefully twist it two or three times (making sure the pastry is thawed just enough to be malleable). Place the twists about 1½ inches apart on a baking sheet lined with parchment. Bake 10-15 mins or until golden. (DB says about 10 mins, but mine are never done in less than about 14 mins.)

While the pastry strips are baking, grind together the pistachios and the remaining 1 ½ Tbl of the sugar in a food processor until the mixture resembles finely ground bread crumbs. Pour it into a large shallow bowl or plate. When the strips are done and still warm, carefully roll them in the pistachio-sugar mix to coat. Set aside until ready to serve.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Assigned Reading
What’s cooking? Roasted Salmon with Shallot-Grapefruit Sauce

I’m cleaning out my office, in hopes of finding all the information I need to get my taxes done. Fortunately, I have a helper. His name is Max. And while he’s fairly critical of the process, we must press onward. I hate missing a potential deduction, so I do what I can for that errant nickel or dime. On the other hand, it hasn’t been a fruitless activity. I unearthed a couple of bills I needed to pay, some articles I felt sure would jump-start me on an essay or two, a fabulous recipe for salmon, and a handful of newspaper and magazine pieces I’ve saved. Many of these articles are what my husband describes as “assigned reading.”  That means that I read them and thought they were something that would be valuable – or at least interesting – to either him or one of my sons. These are almost always received with audible sighs and some eye-rolling, but I’m sure they’ll thank me one day.

I come by this habit honestly. Or maybe genetically. From the day I left home for college, and until they breathed their last breaths, my mother and father and grandmother would regularly send me articles from the local papers in San Antonio, where I grew up. They felt sure I’d want to know about various goings-on in my home town – weddings, parties, births, deaths, the whole cycle of life. And the occasional editorial or photograph. I miss that mail. Of course, back then, I was raising young children and didn’t have much time for reading what was going on in my own town, much less in San Antonio, but I did appreciate that warm feeling that comes from just knowing someone was thinking about me.

And now to that salmon recipe I found. It’s beautiful on the plate with some green veggie, like broccolini, and amazingly easy, once you get past the part about sectioning the grapefruit. (But even that’s not hard – keep reading.) It’s also delicious – the citrus is a really fresh taste, and I find that salmon’s strong flavor works really well with a slightly sweet sauce. The original recipe said it served four, but I made it for the two of us (my husband and me), and could barely keep myself from licking the pan. So I’d double it for four.

Kitchen Goddess Tip #1: I once did a side-by-side taste test with wild and farmed salmon, and the difference is stark.  So while I’ve made this recipe with both types, I heartily recommend you buy wild salmon if you can stomach the price difference, which is also stark.

Kitchen Goddess Tip #2: To section the grapefruit, slice about 1/4 inch off either end so that you have a flat base for slicing off the peel. Then with a sharp paring knife, carve down the sides of the grapefruit so that none of the bitter white pith remains. Holding the peeled grapefruit in one hand, slice into one section right next to that thin “skin” that separates them, and by turning your wrist with the knife, you can push the segment out. There’s a good video (less than 4 mins) here. I’m told that submerging the grapefruit in boiling water for 5 mins makes peeling it much easier; but, frankly, I could be done with the whole process before the 5 mins is up. It’s just not that hard. Go for it.

Kitchen Goddess Tip #3: For the honey, I prefer acacia honey, which has a much milder flavor than your basic wildflower honey.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

On My Own
What’s cooking? Orange and Olive Salad

I’ve been flying solo this week. With my hubby off at a bridge tournament, I’ve been luxuriating in doing it my way for the entirety of almost every day. Mostly, it involves a lot of puttering. The kitchen island is nearly invisible, littered with magazines open to where I left off reading, and recipes I’ve torn out but not yet filed, newspapers open to the continuation of that page 1 piece... and on it goes. Almost totally unstructured, and, oddly enough, not as productive as I had hoped. I had visions of clearing out the garage (amazing, isn’t it, how the garage clutters itself up even in a new house after only a year?), and writing every day. But none of that has happened. This has been a theme of life for me ever since moving to Texas.

Prior to the move, I’d spent two years building the house – monthly trips to Austin, memos on paint colors and tile layouts to the contractors, keeping track of light fixtures and plumbing fixtures and furniture to buy – with such excruciating organization needs that every day seemed chock-a-block with to-do lists. And in the last nine months before the move, there was the additional small matter of selling the house in New Jersey.

So now, with all that behind me, I feel a bit untethered. I’ve always maintained that creative people perform better in a box. The smaller the box, the more creative the solution that emerges. For instance, if someone tells me to “write something,” with no other requirement or guideline, I am stymied by the infinity of choices. But if I need to write something about a financial instrument (yes, I do that, too) or a bridge in Japan or a piece of kitchen equipment, ah, the creative juices just flow. So I’m discovering that a certain amount of structure is a good thing. But the kids are grown, the husband is retired, the house is built. This structure will have to be of my own making.

One of my little indulgences this week has been to spend time in my kitchen garden. Back in December, I sowed some lettuce seeds in the planter boxes there. And the Texas winter being as mild as it is, I’ve only had to cover them a couple of times to protect them from the frost, and now I have a really bumper crop of tender baby lettuces: Ruby leaf lettuce, baby romaine, oak leaf lettuce, and several varieties whose names are a complete mystery. But they look great, and they taste so tender and sweet, I can hardly keep my hands off them. I also planted several arugula plants, and after enjoying arugula salads all winter, I’m now letting them flower just to see what it looks like.

These days, my favorite salad – which really doesn’t need lettuce at all, but why not if you’ve got it? – is a great sweet-salty combination of orange slices and chunky olive purée. It appeared one Wednesday in Mark Bittman’s New York Times column, “The Minimalist,” and with oranges being always available, it works well all year long. Did I mention that it’s also fast and easy and gorgeous?

Orange and Olive Salad (serves 4)

1 cup good black olives, preferably oil cured, pitted
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, plus more for dressing
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves (optional)
4 naval oranges, peeled, seeded, and sliced into rounds
Fennel seeds

Pulse the olives a couple of times in a food processor with a bit of the olive oil, then turn the machine on and quickly add the remaining olive oil, so the purée ends up being a bit rough. Stir in the thyme if you're using it, thin with more olive oil if necessary, and set aside. Kitchen Goddess note: According to Bittman, the olive purée keeps a month in the frig. I’m sure I’ve kept it longer, so when I make it, I tend to double the recipe so that the next time, all I have to do is cut up the oranges.

Layer 3 or 4 slices of orange on each plate, drizzle with olive oil, top with a good tablespoon of the tapenade, and sprinkle with fennel seeds.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Orange You Glad It’s Still Winter?
What’s cooking? Blood Orange Jelly with Brandied Whipped Cream

I know, it’s almost spring; but it’s still high season for citrus fruit, from the looks of things at my grocery store. Pink and white grapefruits, tangelos, clementines, navel and juice oranges, and a new favorite of mine, the Cara Cara navel oranges. Cara Caras are sweeter and less acidic than regular navel oranges, but the best thing about them is their color, which is a corally red. Not as dark as blood oranges – which I love – but blood oranges aren’t terribly juicy, and, holy cow, they’re so expensive it takes my breath away.

Talking about blood oranges reminds me of one of my favorite desserts: a blood orange gelatin dish. And a shining star in the low-fat, low-cal universe. For those of us who are still slogging away at the New Year’s Diet (yes, that would be me), it’s a handy alternative to my grandmother’s brownies, which I promise to give you one of these days.

It’s a recipe I found in an ancient issue of Gourmet. The magazine suggested that if you wanted to, you could substitute regular orange juice for half the blood orange juice. “No cheating for me,” I said to myself. Besides, I couldn’t imagine that you’d really need two dozen of those suckers to produce four cups of juice. When I got to the store and saw how much it was for those two dozen, I thought again, and decided I’d buy a dozen and get some ready made OJ for backup. Sure enough, I needed two cups of the regular stuff. But even then, the color was terrific; so I think I should try it with some Cara Cara oranges instead of the Minute Maid. What I don’t recommend is scrimping on the brandy in the whipped cream. Tres yummy, and so pretty.

Blood Orange Jelly with Brandied Whipped Cream (by Deborah Madison, in Gourmet, December 2000)

2 envelopes unflavored gelatin
1/2 c water
4 c strained fresh blood orange juice (from about 2 dozen blood oranges), OR 2 c blood orange juice and 2 c strained regular orange juice
3 Tbl sugar

Sprinkle gelatin over water in a large bowl and let soften 1 minute.

Bring 1 cup juice just to a boil and add to gelatin mixture. Add sugar and a pinch of salt, stirring until sugar and gelatin are dissolved. Stir in remaining 3 cups juice. Pour mixture into a 1-quart glass or ceramic or stainless steel mold and chill, uncovered, until set, about 8 hours.

To unmold, dip mold into a bowl of hot water for just a few seconds. Shake mold from side to side, then invert onto a serving plate. Kitchen Goddess Tip: Since I have had mixed results getting any sort of molded dish to unmold, I prefer to gel the mixture in a crystal or cut glass bowl and serve it from there, with the brandied whipped cream in a bowl to the side. Serves 6.

Brandied Whipped Cream (makes about 4 cups)

2 c heavy cream
2 Tbl confectioners sugar, or to taste
2 Tbl brandy, or to taste

Beat cream with confectioners sugar with an electric mixer until it holds soft peaks. Fold in brandy.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Baja-humbug to You, Too

The first signal that our vacation (to the Baja Peninsula) last week wasn’t going as well as we’d hoped was when I realized on the way to the airport that I’d forgotten to pack my camera. I’d remembered to include the little gizmo that allows me to transfer files from the camera to my laptop, just not the camera itself. But I’m an optimist, and I figured I could get copies of our friends’ photos.

The flight was smooth. We retrieved our bags, and as we waited in the customs line, I turned to my husband and said, “So where are your golf clubs?” Turned out they had mysteriously missed the flight, even though the rest of our luggage had not. Only an hour later, we emerged with a promise from the airline to deliver the clubs by the end of the next day.

We found the shuttle to our hotel easily enough, and as we headed to the front desk to check in, the strap broke on my purse – my only purse (after all, who packs multiple purses for a trip to the beach?). But we let the bellman carry our suitcases, so I just clutched at the broken bag and decided it was a good excuse to buy one there.

Saturday, February 20, 2010


I was single and living in New York when I bought my first cookbook. Unlike Nora Ephron, I didn’t get mine from my mother. When I left home in Texas, the only things I could actually cook – i.e., using heat – were hard-boiled eggs and canned soup. Among cold dishes, I could also make tuna salad. I approached kitchen life with all the enthusiasm of a Christian in the Coliseum.

But I was newly employed and living in Manhattan, and hard-boiled eggs and canned soup doth not a life make. And I really missed scrambled eggs. I couldn’t bear to call my mother for advice: she thought the stories of my incompetence in the kitchen were the stuff of stand-up comedy and worthy fodder for the neighborhood coffee klatch. My dad also cooked a lot of eggs, but my brother and I had always referred to the result as “flat eggs.” Not too appetizing, and certainly not anything I was eager to replicate. So I called my aunt, trusting that she’d be discreet and that the resulting scrambled eggs would be fluffy. She explained the process carefully, even as to how much was “a little” milk. (Though these days, I use water, to better effect.) I followed her instructions to the letter, and, lo and behold: scrambled eggs. I was joyous, triumphant, even – dare I say it? – egg-static.       

I’m a lot more comfortable with eggs these days, but whenever I make a dish that’s heavily egg-oriented, I remember those days and the joy of my own scrambled eggs.

So last night was one of those nights when I needed to pull dinner together quickly, and for speed, economy, and nutrition, there’s nothing like a frittata. They’re delicious, too, and the variations are endless. You can follow the gist of the instructions below, substituting your own selection of veggies, including mushrooms, and use whatever cheese strikes your fancy.              

Thursday Frittata (serves 2, with leftovers)

2 Tbl extra-virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 zucchini, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 yellow squash, cut into 1/2-inch dice
1 red bell pepper, cut into 1/2-inch dice
6 eggs
1 Tbl dried oregano
pinch of cayenne pepper
salt and pepper to taste
3/4 c shredded Cheddar cheese

Preheat the broiler. Heat the oil in a large oven-proof skillet over medium-high heat. Sauté the onion for about 5 mins, then add the garlic and sauté 1 min more. (Kitchen Goddess tip: Don't burn the garlic; burnt garlic tastes bitter.) Add the other vegetables, stirring to combine well with the onion and garlic and olive oil. Reduce the heat to medium, cover the pan, and cook until the vegetables are crisp-tender, about 5-7 mins.

While the veggies cook, whisk together the eggs, oregano, cayenne, and salt/pepper in a separate bowl. When the veggies are ready, spread them evenly around the skillet, and pour the egg mix over them. Cover and continue to cook over medium-low heat for 8 mins, or until the eggs are set around the edges and almost set in the center. Remove the lid, sprinkle the cheese over all, and place the skillet under the broiler. Cook until the cheese is bubbling and the eggs are completely set, about 2 mins. Cut into wedges and serve with fruit or a salad and a crusty bread.