I think it all started outside ballet class. My buddy Lad and I would kill the hour between the stampedes of tutu-clad children talking about food. We’d chat about his background as a restaurant manager, I would talk about my time in culinary school, and we would trade bon mots about the merits of good cheese or good wine or poor meat cutting. We started trading recipes, then food magazines, then obscure equipment catalogs, and eventually we organized playdates where we would selectively ignore the children as we spent important hours discussing KitchenAid mixer attachments and contemplating the next big meal. A few years ago, our talk of a metaphorical big meal evolved into an actual, physical big meal, and thanks to our pent up culinary energy, the final menu that night included seven courses, six appetizers, two different varieties of pizza, and lovely 10-inch chocolate ganache and candied kumquat tart, all to serve our party of four. It was grand. It was feastish. It was gluttony at its best. And that night we made an oath that we had to do it again sometime, just as soon as we could find more eaters.
Fortunately for us, we met our friends Heather and Chris outside of the following year’s ballet class. They are foodies and wine drinkers and excellent fun, and we now have a regular Friday play date and solid table of six who will pretty much cook and/or eat anything. When we can get it on the schedule, we have a proper Saturday night supper club, where we hire a sitter, show up at someone’s house with buckets of mise en place, and then get rippingly drunk and try to out do each other in the kitchen.
Each of us has our preferred roles in this little suburban kitchen gun show: Lad is the grill man, Heather and Chris do excellent Latin American dishes, and Lad’s wife Melissa and I trade off on hostess duties and dessert. Although he doesn’t cook, my husband’s role is to show up and eat, critique the dishes (he has excellent taste), and put on amusing music when we’ve killed our sixth bottle of wine. To keep things semi-cohesive, we pick a culinary theme to base our menu around, and so far, we’ve done tapas night (winner: Chris’s empandas), pork night (winner: bacon wrapped Tater Tots with sweet chili sauce), and various things on the grill (Lad’s marinated beef tenderloin is a favorite). This round, it was birthday boy Chris’s choice, so we settled on Italian.
So here’s the problem.
There are five of us who like to cook, and all of us are looking to do a pull out all the stops, use-the-good-balsamic-vinegar type dish. I was lucky enough to get the pasta course, but with the 19 appetizers that are already coming and a giant Sunday-gravy-stewed braciole as the main, there’s no way I can do anything nearly as interesting as I’d like without busting our guts like a wafer thin mint. Out goes my homemade orecchiette with broccoli rabe and sausage (thank you, Martha), out goes my pistachio pesto spaghetti with Stella Fontinalla cheese (from the Splendid Table cookbook How to Eat Supper, thank you, Lynne), and out goes my ravioli stuffed with herbs and homemade ricotta that would be absolutely perfect to celebrate spring. The right thing to contribute, of course, is polenta – rich, hearty, earthy polenta that will soak up the sauce from the braciole – which I’ve decided to make using stone ground corn meal from a north Georgia mill and loads of Parmigiano-Reggiano and black pepper. My dish is going to be more sturdy than sexy, so I don’t think I’ll “win” this time per se, but I do have one little trick up my sleeve. If I can find the produce, I have a recipe for honey-drenched roasted figs dotted with fresh goat cheese that I can sneak in as a late-in-the-game cheese course before dessert. Now THAT is some sexy s$%t.
Is it wrong that I’m trying to figure out a way to add in more food to this already over-burdened meal? Is it wrong that I feel the need to buy the big bottle of limoncello and the big bottle of Frangelico to have for our post-prandial sipping? Is it wrong that I considered ordering 00 flour off the internet weeks ago in preparation for this event?
Of course it’s wrong. Of course it is.
Because clearly we need more eaters.
In the spring, I plant a garden. Please, please, do not mistake this for an organic hipster garden that is planted as a teaching moment for the children or a Southern Living-style kitchen potager with rows of boxwood-lined paths. The garden I have consists mostly of leggy sproutlings purchased at Walmart and hastily thrown into the ground as I yell at the children to put the spade down and stop flinging dirt at their sister. My garden ain’t pretty, and it generally doesn’t yield much that we can eat, but I plant it because I have to. I required by law to do so because one day I will be an Old Italian Person, and if I’m going to cavort through the tomatoes with my grandchildren like Marlon Brando in The Godfather, I have to have the kind of skills that Old Italian People have. That means I have to have a garden, even if it is purely ceremonial. In that sprit, come springtime, I usually scratch out a spot and plant tomatoes, basil, and oregano along with some other half-hearted herbs that quickly die from neglect.
This year, however, I was feeling aspirational. I decided I was going to have a REAL garden, dammit, so I got cocky and purchased mail-order seeds from the online store at Monticello. Now, I know in my heart that I am more of a Ben Franklin than a Thomas Jefferson. Ol’ Ben was a sloppy journalist with a penchant for French food and theatrical dinner party stories. Jefferson was worse than all fiends of Pinterest combined. But my visions of porticos and bourbon got the better of me, so I ordered seeds – real, live little seeds in the packets and everything – before I realized I hadn’t grown anything from seed since I sprouted an avocado pit in kindergarten.
“No matter!,” I said to myself. “The internet knows everything!,” I said, so when my seeds came a few weeks ago, I looked up the date of the last frost in the Farmer’s Almanac, bought little plastic terrariums, counted out the Genovese Tomatoes and Texas Bird Peppers and Prickly Spinach, and watered my seeds into the coconut husk pellets as I was told. I then put them on top of the dog’s cage (a cool indoor place out of direct sunlight), where I have since visited them each morning to say warm and encouraging things and see if they have grown.
And guess what? Out of the dozens of seeds I planted and the money and time I spent, I am now the proud owner of exactly three sad, stalky, 1-inch-high tomato spouts, each with leaves smaller than a chunk of spinach you might floss from between your teeth.
Honestly, I am not surprised. I think they know I am a Franklin, not a Jefferson. I think they know I can’t have nice things like Prickly Spinach. I know they look longingly at my stack of Martha Stewart Living magazines and wonder why they had to come to live here while their brethren get to stay up late, get fancy row tags, and eat organic chicken poop.
I still have grand hopes for these tomatoes, however, so I am giving them a few more weeks on the dog cage before they go into the garden. Let us hope that their plucky spirit will sustain them as they face the Georgia clay, the high probability of trampling, and those awful redneck neighbors I plan to buy for them at Walmart.
In honor of this fine, fine holiday I am walking pensively in the rain, listening to the soundtrack to the movie "Once," and eating the whiskey cake above from Douceur de France in Roswell, GA. Wishing you all the chance to do the same, and reminding you that if you vomit green beer into the bushes, it's much less conspicuous.
Happy St. Pat's!
While cruising Twitter the other day, I stumbled on a link to an article on pairing Girl Scout cookies with different kinds of bourbon. That seemed like a fine way to spend five grand worth of cash and calories, but it occurred to me that since I don't have a bottle of 20 year old Pappy Van Winkle hanging around, there might be cheaper beverages I could choose to quaff with my Thin Mints. After a quick online search of “Girl Scout cookie pairings” I learned that the internets were way ahead of me on this, and someone, somewhere has already paired Girl Scout cookies with just about everything.
You can pair wine with Girl Scout cookies:
You can pair beer with Girl Scout cookies:
(Even the Today show has some suggestions on that front:
There’s an “adult beverage” pairing:
And of course, the provacateur for this post, the Girl Scout and bourbon pairing: http://gobourbon.com/bourbon-girl-scout-cookie-pairings/
These are all fine, fine things indeed, but in all my five minutes of searching, I was surprised to see that no one had taken the time to do a Girl Scout cookie/milk pairing. (Internets, you’ve heard of drinking milk with cookies, right?) I feel it is my duty to right this wrong. In that vein, I present to you my simple guide to the best milk choices to go with your brightly colored box cookies of choice. Please, enjoy responsibly.
Thin Mints and ice cold 1% or 2% in a short glass. Thin Mints are rich but mentholated, which means that the lower fat milks have the right amount of creaminess without being too cloying. If you are eating the Thin Mints straight from the freezer – as you should – the ice cold milk is key to keeping things in the same temperature range so as not to shock the toungue. The short glass is to provide you an artificial stopping point: when the milk is gone, you can decide to control yourself or to fill up your glass and get the other sleeve.
Samoas and organic whole milk. Coconut, chocolate, and caramel are the stately, aristocratic flavors you’d find in a fine glass of port, so it’s only natural to go with the “fortified wine” of milks: whole. Organic milk will give you the grassy, barnyard notes that marry well with the slightly burnt, slightly sour caramel twang. Does this seem too rich? Imagine the creamy, fat-laden milk washing the coconut from between your back teeth, and you will not doubt that more richness is a good thing. Pace yourself, though – after the third Samoa, you may get cocky, but your tummy can’t handle the fourth one. Trust me.
Do Si Dos and homemade chocolate milk. Who needs a peanut butter cup when you can chomp on a crumbly peanut butter sandwich cookie and then swallow a glug of Hershey’s-syrup-laden milk? Just as a fine Cabernet does with steak, the cookie and the chocolate milk will have your palate anticipating a taste of the other. Save a sip of milk to savor last, though, or you’ll just have to go get another cookie and start over, and then you have to make more chocolate milk and it’s a whole thing.
Trefoil shortbreads and bourbon. Plain shortbread cookies? These are really useless with anything but bourbon. Please see the parings above if you have some milk you don’t know what do with.
So what do you think, Dear Reader? What are your thoughts on the cookies not listed here and the milks they love? Discuss. Douchey wine-paring description words are welcome.
My brother-in-law (my sister’s husband) is currently in hospice nearing the end of his life. I write that not to be a bummer, but because during my life I have been increasingly and sometimes involuntarily educated about what happens when we near the end. The hospice nurse gave a good analogy: dying is a transition, just like birth. It can be messy. It can be noisy. And it comes with certain signs, just like labor. One of the signs, as with labor, is you stop eating. Your whole being is so focused on what’s next, basic sustenance isn’t important any more. Breathing becomes your vicarious nutrition; you don’t need the clumsy vitamins and minerals. And the casseroles, those inevitable casseroles that come, aren’t really for you. They are for the spectators. The ones who must cope with your transition. The people who need the calories. Your job is just to breathe.
Since, honestly, I spend my day looking forward to when food will go into my mouth next, this end of consumption got me thinking about that fact that most of us will be having an accidental last meal. Indulge my morbidity, but even if we know we are going to die, we don’t really know if it’s going to be at tea time, after elevensies, or as we scarf a freaking breakfast bar in the front seat between sips of coffee. We have grand plans for what we would like to have for a last meal, to the point of discussing it late at night in bars, but who among us – save those on death row – actually get to order it from the menu?
My brother-in-law has been hospitalized for more than a month. He probably had lukewarm chicken broth and melty orange Jell-O as his last meal. My mom, who died in an ICU, could technically have claimed ice chips. But both of them were known for lively appetites during their heyday. My mom was a Julia Child gourmand: a bon vivant and 1960’s/70’s era housewife who schlepped through cooking dinner for four children most nights of the week so she could occasionally have people over who would appreciate her killer asparagus en croute or tempura or crepes from the electric crepe maker. My brother-in-law was of simpler tastes, but I have heard him pontificate broadly about the traits of a good covered-dish mostaccioli. They both, at some point, ate the last of their favorite thing. My mom always loved crabmeat-stuffed shrimp. My brother-in-law dug cheesecake. They ate the last without realizing it was the last. And, as with all things related to death, that is both frustrating and comforting.
Ye who would Rage Against the Dying of the Light might feel cheated by that notion; that you might miss your chance to savor the thing you truly love once more. The more Eastern-minded might reflect serenely and joyfully on the fact that you got to enjoy it at all. The reality is that most of us might contemplate this subject, then make a vow to eat more consciously – to go out of our way to eat dessert or order the steak or visit that one diner we always used to go to. Some of us will make good on those vows. Some may have to reflect fondly to get their taste. The lesson I take is that it is worth filling our lives and our mouths with our favorite flavors as often as we can. Elvis made a habit of flying his plane to Colorado just to get one particular sandwich. In my mind, that's not a bad way to spend your money.
As for this round of transition, when my brother-in-law will be in charge of only his breath, I am merely a spectator. I am here to help and to hand out the casseroles – to my sister, to his children, and to the plentiful other family members he will leave behind. We will eat. We will need the calories. We will digest the clumsy nutrients. And for dessert, you better believe there will be cheesecake.
I remember the first time I tasted buttermilk. I remember it because it has been seared into my memory like the top of the Staff of Ra was seared into that bespectacled dude’s palm in Raiders of the Lost Ark. I was over at a friend’s house for the afternoon, and while she was happily manhandling her Barbies, I snuck into her kitchen to get a snack. I opened her fridge (which for a little kid is the equivalent of opening a friend’s medicine cabinet at a party) and scanned until I saw a tall, skinny carton on the top shelf. “Buttermilk,” I thought, picturing rich, fat globules of delicious butter floating in sea of sweet, cold milk, and I looked around quickly before putting my lips directly on the carton and upending it into my mouth. This is where those of you who have tasted buttermilk laugh knowingly to yourselves. It is where the rest of you need to picture what it would be like to chug a bottle of Italian salad dressing.
Buttermilk is filled with chunks and acid and terribleness. It is what is leftover after you take all the good stuff out of milk. It is the kind of thing that farmers or Amish people or doomsday survivors use in recipes because they don’t believe anything that contains protein should go to waste. Or at least that’s what I believed for many years after that incident. However, I made two recipes this week that converted me to the idea that buttermilk may just be okay. Better than ok. It might, in fact, be right up there with chocolate chips as a tool you can use to make any number of baked goods or make any number of baked goods better. Chuck some flour, salt, and maybe an egg or two into a bowl and add buttermilk, and you can make waffles, biscuits, bread, cake, and even pie without much else. And if you need dinner on a Friday night, having buttermilk in the house means you can serve your children homemade buttermilk pancakes instead of ordering pizza, and you’ll feel like a healthy, wise, nutrient-giving domestic goddess and save 20 bucks to boot.
The links below are for the two recipes that gave me a newfound respect for buttermilk. I hope they convince you that it’s something you should have in your fridge on a regular basis. And, should you walk into the kitchen one day to find one of your daughter’s little friends, wide-eyed and horrified, with the carton of buttermilk in her hand and a yellow, curdled mustache on her upper lip, just smile knowingly and offer her a glass of water.
Mom’s Buttermilk Pancakes (from allrecipes.com)
Buttermilk and Cake Mix Banana Bread (from dvo.com)
I made a TV dinner tonight. Not as in I opened a package and cooked one, as in I made a recipe that consisted of things that were not a TV dinner, and it turned out to taste almost exactly like a TV dinner – specifically a Swanson’s Turkey Dinner with Gravy. You know, the one that has a big section of industrial turkey and gravy, a teeny serving of bread stuffing cubes that were hard as a rock if they were not submerged in the sauce as they cooked, whipped potatoes in the top left, peas and carrots on the top right, and a fruity cobbler-esque dessert in the middle that was hot as molten lava and inevitably had an escaped pea or carrot in it. That exact dinner, or at least the turkey and stuffing part, accidentally happened to me tonight. It was not entirely unpleasant, mind you, it was just a bit bizarre, like the moment you realize the tune of the ABC song is also “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” (Did I just blow your mind with that? Welcome to the Thunderdome.)
This coincidence was a happy accident to be sure, but it was also a bit of an epiphany. It made me realize that although we may dance around a particular flavor profile, we only rarely hit it on the head. It’s the same elusive thing we do when we try to recreate a famous family recipe. You use all the same ingredients as mom or Grandma or Uncle Larry, but it just doesn’t taste right. Then you go to their house, take one bite, and say “Yep. That’s it.” It’s not because they gave you the recipe wrong. It’s just because they’ve cooked it in the same pot or with the same water or with that same brand of soup or spice that they’ve been buying since you were a kid, so the profile is a perfect match to what’s etched in your memory. People search for years for that specific taste, and when you hit it, it’s like time travel. That’s what happened to me tonight. I wasn’t thinking about it or anticipating it, but when I took a bite of this casserole, I was 6, sitting at my laminate wood kitchen table in suburban New Jersey, trying to fish that one sad pea out of my cherry-apple lava dessert. At first, I was horrified – I mean for god’s sake, I went to culinary school and my sad freakin’ back of the box turkey/stuffing casserole tasted like a Swanson’s TV dinner – and then, I was a little proud. I made and fed to my family an exact taste of my childhood. Not kinda, not sorta, not “it’s almost as good as what my mom made.” I fed them the exact taste. Sure, some kids may get that moment with a roast chicken or a homemade birthday cake or something more exotic and classy, like ramen or pho or kugel, but for me, it was Swanson’s Turkey Dinner with Gravy. And you’d be hard pressed to find something more comforting – or more filled with sodium – than that.
AJ’s Turkey TV Dinner Casserole
1 14-ounce bag of dry, herb-flavored stuffing mix (I used Pepperidge Farm)
5 tablespoons butter
1 cup chopped celery
1 cup chopped onion
2 ½ cups chicken broth (I used boxed low-sodium broth)
2 cups cooked chicken breast, cut into bite-sized pieces
1 can cream of celery soup (Campbells, for me)
An additional ½ cup (or half an empty soup can) of chicken broth
Preheat oven to 350 degrees, and spray a two-quart casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray.
In a medium saucepan, melt butter over medium-high heat. Add the celery and onion and sauté, stirring occasionally, until soft but not brown. Add the 2¼ cups of chicken broth to the pan, and heat until boiling. Turn off heat, add the dry stuffing mix, stir to combine, then cover and let sit for 5 minutes.
While stuffing rests, in a medium bowl, combine condensed soup and ½ cup (or ½ can) chicken broth, and stir to combine. Stir in the cooked chicken.
Stir the stuffing to make sure it is fully hydrated, then take half the stuffing and spread it into a single layer in the casserole. Pour in the chicken and soup mixture and spread in an even layer over the stuffing. Scoop the remaining stuffing in generous spoonfuls and dot it over the top of the chicken. Cover with foil and bake for 20-25 minutes until hot. Remove foil and bake for an additional 5 minutes to brown and crisp top layer. Serve with pleasant childhood memories swimming between your ears and a stray pea, if desired.
As I was running errands the other day, I was listening to a podcast of NPR's The Splendid Table (one of my favorites, despite the fact I can never disassociate it from the famous SNL “Schweddy Balls” sketch). Lynne Rossetto Kasper, the host, was interviewing a cook and author who described a fabulous citrus marmalade made with pink grapefruit and lemon. I love me some pink grapefruit, and since I had one in the fridge, I decided that making a batch of marmalade would be just the thing to do on a freezing January afternoon while trapped at home with two small children. When I got home, I dug my grapefruit out and looked up the recipe.
Although I feel confident that the Lemon and Pink Grapefruit Marmalade recipe Lynne was discussing makes excellent marmalade, I have much too short an attention span to make any recipes that include the phrase “Day 1 …”, so I poked around on the net until I found this simpler recipe for Pink Grapefruit Marmalade, Nigella Style from learntopreserve.com. It’s adapted from recipe by Nigella Lawson, and since Nigella is a registered Brit, clearly she knows her marmalade.
The first thing to do, according to this recipe, is to throw a grapefruit in a pan with some water and boil the m-er f-er for about two hours. Then, you chop the whole thing up, mix it with sugar and lemon juice, and cook it down. After 15 minutes of bubbling, the ingredients meld in the pan, and voila, you have beautiful jewel-like bits of grapefruit rind in a lovely, pungent pink jelly that you can now put in a jar and spoon on toast. Now, if you start with a perfectly ripe, succulent, sweet ruby red grapefruit, I am sure that is what you would get. What I started with was a questionable grocery store grapefruit that had been sitting in my fridge for two weeks. Then I boiled it for two hours.
I really should have known from the smell that it emitted, that this was going to be a fail. Unflagged, I chopped it up anyway. I took this stinky, bloated, body-temperature, inside-of-a-taun-taun-looking grapefruit and minced the holy hell out of it, hoping that the large quantities of sugar I put in next would magically cure whatever was wrong with it. It didn’t.
I put in more sugar, more lemon, and I even went so far as to put in one of the fat Madagascar vanilla beans from my pantry stash (which will usually fix nearly anything thanks to their magical vanilla powers) in an attempt to fix it. It didn’t.
What I made may have been pink, and it may have had the sexy little vanilla caviar specks in it, but whatever it was still tasted mostly like two-week-old boiled grapefruit. In the end, I did put the "marmalade" into a jar, but it was purely ceremonial. Eating it was like smearing the back of an envelope on toast.
So, grapefruit marmalade, I have learned a valuable lesson, one I am sad to say that the boys in 8th grade may have had right: When a girl has good grapefruits, it makes all the difference. I will plan to see you again another day, my friend, preferably when I can score some high quality Indian River ruby reds.
About once a year, we are lucky enough to see our dear buddies from Seattle. We hung together almost nightly for the three years we lived there, and not only are they quality people, they are the kind of foodies who will steam you multiple batches of fresh mussels in a Thai curry sauce just because mussels looked good at the fish market that day. Though their company is excellent, they present a small food challenge: half of the couple no longer does gluten, the other half aims high in the health category and eschews red meat and pork by general preference. Add to that the presence of two children under the age of 6 (unless you have personally lived with children under the age of 6, I encourage you to save your breath about making no special dietary accommodations for children), and you can appreciate the "oh @#$%" moment one might have while contemplating what to serve for dinner.
Ok, so no gluten, no red meat or pork, no crappy canned and processed food, and also kid friendly? Lucky for me, with a few minor modifications, one of my staples, chicken tacos cooked in the slow cooker, fits the bill. This is one of those recipes that's a great trifecta for low-key company: everyone likes it, it's easy to make, and you don't have to mess with it at the last minute. If you're feeding small children who claim they don't like tacos, give them tortilla chips instead of tortillas, and let them scoop this up along with salsa. Worst case, they'll eat 8 million servings of salsa, and that pretty much counts as a vegetable in quantity.
If that's still too much work for you, or you are not organized enough to get this together six hours in advance (*cough**cough*, I had a birthday party to go to, Jeez! *cough** cough*), do what we did on the busy Saturday night when we had our beloved Seattlites over: pour yourself a bourbon and order PF Changs. They have a nice gluten-free menu, and if you've had enough bourbon, someone else will have to drive to pick the food up anyway.
Slow Cooker Chicken Tacos (Gluten-free Version)
1 3- to 4-lb bag of individually frozen chicken breasts (about 4-6 breasts depending on size)
1 10-ounce can of Rotel (this is a mixture of chopped tomatoes and green chilies for those of you not from down South)
1 packet gluten-free taco seasoning (the internets say Ortega is gluten-free)
Throw the first three ingredients in a 4- to 6-quart slow cooker. (You do NOT need to thaw the chicken.) Cook on low 5-6 hours, until the chicken is tender and cooked through. Shred the chicken with two forks while still in the slow cooker, then stir to coat with the sauce. Serve with corn tortillas (check to make sure your brand is gluten free) and toppings such as cheese, salsa, chopped lettuce, minced onion, and chopped avocado.
Hi. I'm Amanda Dobbs.