Sunday, December 28, 2008

The New Christmas Potatoes

The thing about holiday meals, it seems to me, is that it is so easy to fall into a food rut. In the name of tradition, we decide not to venture from the dishes we're used to making for any given holiday. Case in point: my first Thanksgiving as cook. Everyone has come to expect certain foods when eating Thanksgiving dinner at my house, regardless of who's (wo)manning the kitchen. Thus I felt I could make no substitutions to previous years' menus. Additions, yes, but serious revisions, no. Does that happen to you?

The same thing seems to happen with Christmas. (Though I must admit that I can easily fit into the character of enabler of food tradition/repetition. I never make potatoes savoyard, for example, so I look forward to eating them every Christmas Eve at my aunt and uncle's house.) We usually have Christmas Day at my house. We usually have a ham. We usually have the candied sweet potatoes that my grandma likes; the seemingly holiday-ubiquitous mashed potatoes; the 7-Up Jell-O salad my mom remembers from nearly every Christmas in her life; some steamed vegetable, with or without lemon butter or Hollandaise; and the egg bread that essentially serves as my cousin's entire Christmas meal, as well as his stocking stuffer the night before.

Well, most of that happened this year. When I got home following fall semester finals, my mom was planning her Christmas Day buffet, a task that should be easy when the entire menu is essentially set. But then she started thinking about the potatoes: we'd just had a ton of regular mashed potatoes at Thanksgiving, let's not be too repetitive; we couldn't make potatoes savoyard because we always have them Christmas Eve; we needed to be careful not to repeat the potatoes my mom's sister would serve at her dinner on Christmas Eve; so what to do? I consulted Nigella, of course.

The end result, I must say, was fantastic. Not too much of a change from mashed potatoes to wreak holiday havoc, but different enough in execution, taste, and texture to keep things interesting. I wholeheartedly encourage little holiday tradition rebellions like this one. Although, if they all turn out as tasty as these potatoes did, you might be marking the end of one tradition with the beginning of another.

Smashed Potato Gratin
from Feast by Nigella Lawson

5 lb all-purpose potatoes, + 1 potato for insurance
6 c whole milk
1 tbsp kosher salt
1 stick celery
8 scallions
2 sticks butter
4 tbsp semolina

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Butter two shallow roasting pans (we used a 9"x13" and a smaller casserole).
Peel and chop the potatoes and cut them into approximately 1/2"x1 1/4" chunks. Put them into a saucepan with the milk, salt, celery, whole scallions, pepper, and 1 1/2 sticks butter. Bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes.
Fish out the celery and scallions. If you cooked your potatoes in a large pot, it's easiest to lightly mash them in the pot before pouring them into the perpared roasting pans. Otherwise transfer the potatoes to the pans than then mash. You can leave the pans made up to this point to sit for a while.
When you are ready to put the potatoes into the oven, sprinkle over the semolina and dot with the remainging butter. Cook the smashed potato gratin for 30 minutes or until hot through and beginning to catch and scorch in parts on the top.
Serves at least 12.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Christmas Kiss Cookie Bonanza

In a departure from our traditional household Christmas baking menu, my mom and I opted to bake on a theme this year as opposed to making any and every Christmas cookie requested by various members of the family. The result, fresh from this evening, is what I'm calling the Kiss Cookie Bonanza. Hershey's, eat your heart out.

Our dessert trays contain seven variations on the kiss cookie:
  • Peanut butter cookie with a milk chocolate kiss
  • Butter pecan cookie with a caramel kiss and a sprinkling of sea salt
  • Chocolate cookie coated in powdered sugar with a mint truffle kiss
  • Chocolate cookie coated in granulated sugar with a candy cane kiss
  • Chocolate cookie with marshmallow fluff and a cocoa kiss
  • Cherry cookie with a dark chocolate kiss
  • Pistachio cookie with a white and milk chocolate hug

Happy Christmas!

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Literary Cookie Season

Later this week I'll be whipping up a batch or two of shortbread for a tea party in celebration of Jane Austen's birthday. It may seem an unnecessary occasion to celebrate, but really, when it comes to excuses for baking cookies of all varieties, what better excuse than something literary? Books and bite-size treats seem to go hand in hand, especially when little cookies allow the reader to indulge without huge threat of pages sticking together as a result of jam hands. At least in theory.

Also in favor of a literary cookie is the fact that so many cookies exist that one can generally appropriately match a treat to the text in question. A prime example: Russian tea cakes to celebrate the final discussion of Tolstoy's War and Peace in my friend's lit class. That's what we made last Tuesday, and I heard they were a hit. There's something remarkable about having a satisfied mind and satisfied palate.

What cookie/book pairings can you think of?

Russian Tea Cakes

1 c butter
2 c powdered sugar
2 tsp vanilla
2 c flour
1 c pecans, finely ground

Beat the butter (at room temperature) until it is fluffy. Add 1/2 c of the powdered sugar and the vanilla to the butter and beat the mixture until well-blended. Beat in the flour, then beat in the nuts.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and chill for at least 30 minutes in the fridge.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Roll the dough into medium uniform balls and place on a parchment-papered cookie sheet. Bake each batch 18 minutes, then allow the cakes to cool 5 minutes on the baking sheet.
Toss the still-warm cookies in the remaining powdered sugar and set on a cooling rack until fully cool. Store in an air-tight container.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Sunday in December

How does a good student spend the Sunday before the last week of college classes for the semester? I would guess not by cooking all day, like I did. But alas, the holiday season means holiday treats as gifts. And I'll be darned if the girl doing her thesis on food doesn't turn out some tasty morsels for her friends to enjoy.

I started off today with some wonderful shortbread bites, quite reminiscent of Scotland if I do say so myself. Try them. They're worth making a bit of a mess first thing Sunday morning.

Elfin Shortbread Bites
from the New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book

1 1/4 c flour
3 tbsp sugar
1/2 c butter
2 tbsp colored sprinkles

Whisk together the flour and sugar in a medium bowl. Cut in the butter using a pastry blender (or, lacking one as I was, your hands) until the mixture resembles fine crumbs and starts to cling. Stir in the sprinkles, and form the mixture into a ball and knead until smooth.
Roll or pat the dough onto a parchment-papered cookie sheet until about 1/2-inch thick. Cut into 1/2-inch squares and separate the squares over the cookie sheet.
Bake in a 325 degree Fahrenheit oven for 15-19 minutes, or until the bottoms start to brown and/or the smell of butter starts to emanate from the oven. Transfer the cookies, on the parchment paper, to a wire rack to cool.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Thanksgiving: Success

Here's the run-down of Thanksgiving at my house:

Guests: 14
Estimated dinner time: 3 p.m.
Actual dinner time: 3:03 p.m.
Turkey weight: 17.7 lbs
Turkey cooking method: Brining overnight a la Nigella, then cooked by combining the Nigella and Joy of Cooking methods
Most successful appetizer: onion tart with mustard and fennel

The first dish to run out: slider stuffing (much to my brother's delight and my mother's dismay)
Best leftovers: green bean casserole
Hours I napped, having fallen asleep on the couch after everyone left: 2
My first Thanksgiving as head cook: a success

Slider Stuffing

10 White Castle sliders, no pickles
1 1/2 c celery, diced
1 1/4 tsp ground thyme
1 1/2 tsp ground sage
3/4 tsp black pepper, coarsely ground
1/4 c chicken broth

Cut each of the sliders into about 9 pieces and place in a large bowl. Add the diced celery, thyme, sage, and black pepper, stirring to combine. Add the chicken broth and stir until everything is moistened. Transfer the stuffing into a buttered casserole dish and bake for 1 hour at 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Green Bean Casserole

20 oz. frozen french cut green beans
1/3 c chopped onions
2 tbsp butter
2 tbsp flour
1 tsp salt
1/4 tsp pepper
1 c sour cream
1 c shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Cook the green beans according to package directions and drain. Saute the onion in butter until translucent. Add the flour, salt, and pepper, stirring to blend. Add the sour cream, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until sauce is smooth and thickened. Add the cooked beans and pour into a shallow baking dish. Sprinkle the top with shredded cheddar.
Cook at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 15-20 minutes.

Note: You can make this dish a day ahead and refrigerate it until you're about ready to heat it. It works best if you wait to top the casserole with the shredded cheese until just before it goes in the oven.

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Thanksgiving Prep

I exist in a land of lists right now. Lists of books left to read this semester (3), various writing projects due before finals (5, totaling about 50 pages), and preparations for Thanksgiving, just to name a few. All that craziness, combined with an attempt to not have a hugely stocked fridge over the holiday when I'll be back home, means I haven't been cooking the most exciting dishes. But I can attest to the general yummy-ness of Amy's Pesto Tortellini Bowl. If you care.

In my grand attempt at my first Thanksgiving, nearly all of my food energies are going toward planning and pre-planning for the rapidly-approaching Turkey Day. What does that mean for you, dear reader? You get to see my menu. Photos and recipes will come next week. Unless something disastrous happens and we end up eating pizza at my house for Thanksgiving. We'll see.

Onion Tart with Mustard and Fennel
Veggies and Dip
Mixed Nuts

Roast Turkey
Classic Stuffing
Slider Stuff (yes, the kind that involves White Castle)
Mashed Potatoes and Gravy
Sweet Potatoes
Cranberry Sauce
Green Bean Casserole (not of the cream-of variety)
Egg Bread

Hot Apple Cider

Pumpkin Pie with Whipped Cream
Cranberry Apple Tart

Monday, November 17, 2008

10 Reasons to Own a Slow Cooker

  1. Slow cookers are the easiest way to a hot meal on a cold day.
  2. You can make a huge variety of soups and stews with little to no work on your own part. That's right, no slaving over a stove until your arm is sore from stirring.
  3. The flavors of your ingredients meld and mellow in a way only slow cooking allows.
  4. It's economical. The longer cooking time means you can use the cheaper cuts and still get perfect, pull-apart tender meat.
  5. When you come home after a long day of work, school, etc., your house will smell wonderful.
  6. Dinner is ready when you get home. Since you threw everything in the slow cooker in the morning, you've maximized your relaxation time as well as the tastiness of your supper.
  7. Slow cooker recipes usually make things in larger quantities. Which means leftovers. Which means less cooking throughout the week with the guarantee of yummy meals.
  8. You can invite people over for dinner on a whim without stressing (hey, it's already cooking!) and hugely impress them with your tasty fare.
  9. Slow cookers (at least all the new models) are extremely easy to clean.
  10. It's remarkably easy to adapt all sorts of recipes for the slow cooker.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Chicken and Noodles for Chilly and Busy Days

The seasonal weather has finally arrived…which means, happily (for someone with a busy schedule, at least), crockery cooking. This past week I broke out my slow cooker for the first time since last winter. And my, was the fare delicious. After deciding to make good on my self-promise to use my New Better Homes and Gardens Cook Book more often, I started off the chilly season with their beef stew recipe. I had a few friends over for dinner that night, and the stew was so good it was gone before I could snap a single photo.

This week I’ll be cooking a variation on a family recipe: my Aunt Kathy’s slow cooker adaptation of my Grandma Ethel’s chicken and noodles. Tonight I’m eating at the Elms, DePauw’s presidential mansion, so there’s no need for me to make a dinner; that means I won’t be posting pictures of the chicken and noodles until Monday after supper.

But for those of you too anxious to wait and see what the dish looks like before cooking it up for yourselves, here’s the recipe. Like any good family recipe, measurements are imprecise and depend entirely upon your taste and texture preferences. Have fun with it. And enjoy.

Slow Cooker Chicken and Noodles
from Ethel Koester via Kathy Connor

boneless, skinless chicken breasts
water and/or chicken broth
onion, chopped
carrots, grated or chopped
chicken soup base
noodles (egg or Amish tastes best, unless of course you have homemade…)
corn starch (optional)

Place the raw chicken breasts in the bottom of the slow cooker. Sprinkle them with parsley, then cover pour over the water and/or chicken broth until the chicken is covered. Place the chopped onion and grated carrot in the slow cooker as well. Add some of the chicken soup base for a stronger chicken flavor. Season with salt and pepper. Cook on high for 4-5 hours or low for 8-10 hours.
Add the noodles to the slow cooker with 30 minutes left in your cook time. If the broth is still particularly thin after the noodles have been added and cooked, add a bit of watered-down corn starch to thicken it.
Note: If you refrigerate leftovers, be aware that the noodles will continue absorbing some of the liquid. While this doesn’t affect the taste any, the texture will be noticeably thicker upon reheating.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

When You Repeat a New Dish for the First Time

What with my seemingly infinite amount of homework and the fact that I haven't done a real shop since sometime in October, I haven't been able to try any new dishes lately. I did, however, have time to repeat a dish I tried for the first time in September; a dish which, luckily for your blog reading, I have not yet written about and which is particularly tasty. Just a hint of spicy; easy to make; pasta; cheese; how can you go wrong?

For my birthday this summer, my parents got me two cooking-related items: Sky High: Irresistible Triple-Layer Cakes and a recipe card collection from America's Test Kitchen. While Sky High is by far the more fanciful of the two, for a college student with my life, the recipe card collections has proved most useful. It's got a slew of simple meat, pasta, poultry, and fish recipes, all of which photograph beautifully and just call out to me to try them. Too bad cooking for one means more days of leftovers than opportunities to try something new! (This last dish lasted me four days, I think; all of them were delicious.)

The combination of a little bit of heat and the pasta in this dish make it particularly suited for this time of year -- at least, this time of year when November in Indiana realizes it should be crisp and chilly as opposed to 75 degrees and begging for me to walk around barefoot. So take my advice: find out where they keep the chorizo in your grocery store, find a good book to cozy up with while this simmers, and get cooking!

Spicy Pasta Bake with Chorizo
from America's Test Kitchen Fast & Fresh Recipe Card Collection: 64 Suppers, 30 Minutes or Less

1 lb chorizo sausage
1 onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
3 c low-sodium chicken broth
1 (10-oz) can Ro-Tel tomatoes
1/2 c heavy cream
12 oz penne
salt and pepper
2 c shredded Jack cheese

Cook chorizo and onion in a large heatproof skillet over medium-high heat until lightly browned, about 8 minutes. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
Stir in broth, tomatoes, cream, pasta, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/2 tsp pepper and bring to a boil. Cover the pan and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer, stirring frequently, until pasta is tender, about 15 minutes.
Adjust oven rack to upper-middle position and heat the broiler.
Taking the pan off the heat, uncover the pan and stir in 1/2 c cheese. Top with the remaining cheese and broil until the cheese is melted and spotty brown, about 3 minutes.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Election Night (and into the wee morning hours) Snacking Menu

I've been doing a significant amount of research for my thesis; and while I'm generally saving making broader connections and larger conclusions about this research for this winter when I have no other course commitments, occasionally I'll find little pieces of information or recipes that I can't help but link to one another. One such amusing category, and the reason for this special edition Election Day blog, I'm calling election food.

It all started last winter when I was perusing my mom's cookbooks for a good coffee cake recipe to serve on New Years Day. Both because it sounded delicious and because I found its connection with a presidential candidate entertaining, I selected Lenore's Coffee Cake; Lenore Romney is Mitt Romney's mother. The coffee cake was good, and I mentally filed it away as a recipe worth repeating before I went on with my life.

Fast forward to September. Soliciting for recipes for the Honor Scholar Community Cookbook I'm creating as a part of my thesis, I got an e-mail from one of my professors claiming she had a cookbook I might find helpful for my research. As an interesting side note, she added that it is authored by Rose B. and Nathra Nader. Also known as Ralph Nader's mother and sister. Ta-da, the election food category was born.

To these recipes from presidential candidates' family members I've added recipes from other candidates that have been published online. What I give you is a suggested menu for an Election Night party that goes until the wee hours of the morning, when (hopefully for real this time) the results are official. I hope you enjoy.

(Oh, and I don't want you to think that by not providing a recipe from Sarah Palin I am purposely under-representing the Republican ticket. I don't have a recipe from her simply because I couldn't find a genuine Palin recipe online. And I didn't want to pull a Cindy McCain and plagiarize.)

Election Night (and into the wee morning hours) Snacking Menu

Naders' Chicken Spread

(from Ralph Nader's mother and sister in It Happened in the Kitchen: Recipes for Food and Thought by Rose B. and Nathra Nader)

3 1/2 lb chicken
2 medium onions
3 celery stalks with leaves
1/2 bunch parsley
1/2 tsp poultry seasoning
1/2 tsp thyme
1 cinnamon stick

Boil chicken in cold water, barely covering, for a few minutes. Throw water out and rinse the fowl, removing the skin. Return the fowl to the pot, cover with cold water, add the cinnamon stick, salt, and pepper, and cook until done. Grind the meat finely with the celery stalks including the leaves, parsley with stems, and onions. Season with salt, poultry seasoning, and thyme. Sever on crackers or whole wheat or other dark bread.

Senator Barack Obama's Chili
(from Good Morning America)

1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
several cloves of garlic, chopped
1 tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground turkey or beef
1/4 tsp ground cumin
1/4 tsp ground oregano
1/4 tsp ground turmeric
1/4 tsp ground basil
1 tbsp chili powder
3 tbsp red wine vinegar
several tomatoes, depending on size, chopped
1 can red kidney beans

Saute onions, green pepper, and garlic in olive oil until soft. Add ground meat and brown. Combine spices, then add to the ground meat. Add red wine vinegar. Add tomatoes and let simmer until tomatoes cook down. Add kidney beans and cook for a few more minutes. Serve over white or brown rice. Garnish with grated cheddar cheese, onions, and sour cream.

Senator John McCain's Ribs
(from Good Morning America)

Dry Rub:
1/3 part Garlic Powder
1/3 part Salt
1/3 part Pepper
3 lemons

Turn the grill down to low temperature. Mix together garlic powder, salt, and pepper, then cover both sides of the ribs with the rub. Grill ribs, bone side down, for 90 percent of the time. It will take about an hour to an hour and a half. Squeeze the lemon on it frequently, because that makes it taste a lot better.

Senator Joe Biden's Favorite Oatmeal Raisin Cookies
(from the kitchen of Mary Ann Kelley 2007, as printed for Yankee Magazine)

1 c shortening or butter
1 c firmly packed brown sugar
1/2 c granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/2 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp salt
3 c old fashioned oats
1 c raisins
nuts (optional)

Heat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Sift flour, soda, cinnamon, and salt together. Beat together the shortenings and sugars until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add flour mixture, oats, and raisins and mix well. Use portion scoop and drop dough onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake 10-12 minutes (should be golden brown in color).

Lenore's Coffee Cake
(from Lenore Romney, mother of Mitt Romney, in Get Smakelijk)

1/2 c butter
3/4 c sugar
2 eggs
1 2/3 c flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1 c sour cream
1 tsp vanilla
1/2 c brown sugar
1/2 c pecans, chopped
1/2 c raisins, optional
2 tsp cinnamon

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Use a greased 9"x9" baking dish. Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each. Sift together flour, baking powder, and baking soda. Add to creamed mixture alternately with sour cream. Stir in vanilla. Pour half into baking dish. Combine brown sugar, pecans, raisins, and cinnamon. Sprinkle over batter in baking dish and cover with the rest of the batter. Bake 35 minutes.

Please make sure you vote today!

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Halloween Weekend

Today, like the entire weekend, is dreadfully busy, so this will be a short post. Never fear, however; check back Tuesday for a special election-themed post. I don't like to disappoint.

Melt your chocolate chips slowly to prevent any extra trips to your local baking aisle.

The Betty Crocker costume was a hit at the two Halloween parties I attended this weekend, as were the white chocolate corn puffs I took along and which I so briefly mentioned before. While my intention had been to tint the white chocolate a bright Halloween orange with food coloring, my lack of orange (or red and yellow) food coloring precluded me from doing so. I don't think any party-goers wanted to complain.

So simple; so strange; yet so good.

White Chocolate Corn Puffs (or A Very Easy Party Treat)

1 pkg. white chocolate chips
1 pkg. generic brand baked corn puffs (the kind found in the chips aisle, not the cereal)

Melt the chocolate chips in a double boiler over medium-low heat, stirring with a heatproof spatula, until smooth. Remove from heat.
Pour the corn puffs in a receptacle of some sort, be it a large bowl or casserole dish. Drizzle the melted white chocolate over the corn puffs. Use the spatula to turn the mixture, making sure that the corn puffs get an even coating of white chocolate. Let cool, stirring periodically to prevent the puffs from forming one giant lump.
Note: If you don't pay close enough attention to the chocolate chips in the double boiler, they will go straight past the melted stage and seize up into an unusable chalky mass that is not fun to scrape out of your double boiler. And then you have to go buy more chocolate chips, so please, be vigilant.

The Betty Crocker-font nametag did wonders for costume recognition.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

A Taste of Austen

Five months ago I was in Bath, England. During the tail end of my semester in Scotland, I took a week for a little British holiday, during which I toured up to the Isle of Skye and made short stops in Bath and London, where I saw some old friends. Let me tell you, I never thought I'd be old enough to have "old friends," let alone to see them in far-off places like London, but that seems to be the direction in which things are heading.

But anyways, Bath. As in the sometime setting for Jane Austen's Northanger Abbey and Persuasion, and the place where Austen herself spent five years of her life. For a Jane Austen fan (like me), going to Bath is a pretty big deal. Not only is Somerset gorgeous, but the city itself is still pretty much as it was during its Georgian heyday. Which means I got to walk the path that Anne Elliot and Captain Wentworth walked after they finally admitted they still loved one another, dreamily ambling down the foliage-covered path eating some tasty strawberries and Cheshire cheddar I picked up at the morning market.

Savoury Cheddar scones fresh out of the oven

While I went through the Jane Austen Centre's museum portion once, I had lunch at the upstairs tea room twice. There's just something fun about sitting in an old Regency tea room and making your food selections from a menu of dainties named after Jane Austen characters. My favorite savoury was Mr. Elton's Cheese Scone, which was good enough to momentarily excuse the fact that Mr. Elton is a heel. My favorite sweet? Darcy's Millionaire Shortbread, of course.

I've been wanting to recreate the warm cheese scone served with chive cream cheese for quite some time, and yesterday I finally got around to it. And while there's a little something extra to a scone served in a magical literary place, the homemade version was well tasty, too.

Scones served properly, split with a bit of cream cheese

Savoury Cheese Scones with Chive Cream Cheese
inspired by the Regency Tea Room, adapted from Nigella's How to Be a Domestic Goddess

for the scones:
3 1/3 c all-purpose flour
1 tsp salt
2 tsp baking soda
4 1/2 tsp cream of tartar
3 oz grated sharp Cheddar
1/4 c cold unsalted butter, diced
2 tsbp shortening, in small lumps
1 1/3 c milk
1 large egg, beaten

Preheat oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit.
Sift the flour, salt, baking soda, and cream of tartar into a large bowl. Stir in cheese. Rub in the fats. Add the milk all at once and mix briefly. Turn dough out onto a well-floured surface and knead, lightly, to form a dough.
Roll or pat to about 1 inch thickness, then use a cutter or slicer to make 10 to 12 scones. Place on a baking sheet, then brush the tops of the scones with the egg wash. Cook for 10 to 12 minutes, until risen and golden.

for the chive cream cheese:
8 oz cream cheese
fresh chopped chives

Beat together the slightly softened cream cheese and chives. Try to make sure the mixture is pretty even, then dish it up into a pretty little bowl and serve with the warm scones.


Sunday, October 19, 2008

Weekend Getaway

My cousins picked me up on Friday evening on their way up to Michigan. Although they both now live and work in Chicago, they call Big Rapids home; my aunt and uncle have a fantastic house on gorgeous property up there, and it's a treat whenever I get to visit. I simply love getting to spend time with family. And not only were the fall colors fantastic this weekend, but simply everything about the weekend was cozy. Now I also have a handful of new additions to my "to cook" list, inspired by the tasty variety in which we partook over the course of the past 48 hours.

-French onion soup
-homemade salsa and chips
-Skyline chili bonanza (3-ways and chili cheese fries)
-homemade apple crisp

-eggs, potatoes, and homemade breakfast sausage
-homemade sauerkraut
-chicken and noodles (my Grandma's recipe, updated... oh, the thesis implications!)
-white chocolate corn puffs

How do these dishes translate in terms of my "to cook" list, you ask?

I'll be making a Cooks Illustrated French onion soup in my Le Creuset as soon as the afternoons in Greencastle have a serious chill. I'll be experimenting with enchilada casserole 2.0, using the homemade salsa in place of enchilada sauce. I'll be recreating the chicken and noodles with the assistance of my crock pot. And I'll be tweaking the white chocolate corn puffs to make them Halloween party-appropriate.

Because if you're going to a party as Betty Crocker, dessert is the perfect accessory.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Inauguration Weekend

Friday afternoon, DePauw officially got a new president. After all the week's pomp and circumstance leading up to the inauguration ceremony, Friday was itself quite relaxing. I attended the ceremony with friends; we went to the lawn reception that followed and tasted desserts I can only describe as quaint because of their littleness; we stared in disbelief at the several open bars available to whomever could produce proof of age, student or otherwise; we sat on my lawn watching a rather impressive 30 minute fireworks display; we went to the Third Eye Blind concert and wondered at just how into the spirit of the day our fellow students felt.

Fireworks over Julian

Yesterday I sat on my porch and watched the Old Gold (equivalent of DePauw's homecoming) parade pass down my street, and after that it was a complete return to regular college life on campus. Translation: lots of work to do.

I think the gold firework looks like a weeping willow or falling stars. A friend things it looks like spears. I'll let you decide.

But I know I can manage because I have a few fun study breaks planned for today. In addition to going to church for the student mass and chili supper (free homemade dinner!), I plan to peruse this Sunday's special food issue of the New York Times Magazine. Oh, and I'll be taking a dessert break to have the leftover piece of marshmallow pie I whipped together Friday evening.

Marshmallow pie in 90 minutes flat

Because who invites people over to watch fireworks and doesn't offer them pie?

Doesn't it look marshmallow-y and wonderful?

Marshmallow Pie

1 ready graham cracker pie crust
2 c whipping cream
8 oz large marshmallows (about 30)
1 oz white chocolate, grated
rainbow mini marshmallows
rainbow sprinkles
8 maraschino cherries
4 squares white chocolate, cut in half diagonally

Pour 1/2 c whipping cream into a medium saucepan. Over low heat, melt the large marshmallows into the cream, stirring constantly. When the marshmallow cream is liquid, remove from heat. Allow to cool back to room temperature.
Whip the remaining 1 1/2 c whipping cream with a hand mixer until soft peaks form. Using a spatula, fold the marshmallow cream and grated white chocolate into the whipped cream. Pour the mixture into the pie crust.
Place rainbow mini marshmallows along the edges of the pie, and sprinkle a liberal amount of rainbow sprinkles on top. Refrigerate for one hour.
Decorate the pie with the maraschino cherries and white chocolate triangles, one for each of 8 pie slices. Refrigerate again until ready to serve, at least one hour.
Note: If you decide you want a pie more than three hours before you plan on serving it, feel free to make your own graham cracker crust. I'm sure it will taste better and make you feel better, too.
Note: If you're like me and don't really give yourself time to run by the grocery store, make and assemble the pie, and chill it properly, go ahead and stick it in the freezer instead of the refrigerator. Worked for me.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

An Ethnic Treat for the Masses

This past week has been somewhat of a doozy. To supplement my regular schedule of classes, homework, and work, it seemed all sorts of meetings sprouted up throughout the week. Not to mention the fact that I spent the better part of two days creating, editing, and formatting my poster for this Tuesday's Honor Scholar Senior Thesis Poster Presentation. That's right, everything thesis has been thrust to the forefront of my life.

What goes into a simple dough

For those of you who can't stop by this Tuesday evening (although you should if you can, 6 p.m. in the Julian atrium), let me give you a run down and an update on the status of my project. Right now my tentative title is Pierogi Make Me Polish: Food and Constructions of Identity. Not to pat myself on the back too much, but I'm quite proud of the main title. Alliteration, reference to a fabulous dumpling... what else could make my project more enticing to the (hopefully) hoards of people meandering through the poster presentation?

Oh, that's right. Cookies.

Cherry pastry filling adds sweetness

By pure providence, when my mom brought my grandma's recipe box down here last weekend, I found her recipe card for Kolocky, a Polish version of what seems to be a pretty ubiquitous Eastern European treat of buttery cookie folded around sweet fruit filling. I made a test batch last week, and boy were they good, and especially so for someone who generally frowns upon using fruit as the main sweetener in a dessert.

Did I mention it really is a simple dough?

I'll be making about twelve dozen of these babies over the next few days leading up to Tuesday evening, and I'll have them available alongside my poster. I'm considering the Kolocky the edible embodiment of the three parts of my thesis:

1) Food and Ethnic Identity -- Kolocky are a Polish cookie;
2) Food and Personal Identity -- these particular Kolocky come from a recipe handed down to me via combination of my grandma's recipe card of ingredients and my mom's verbal instructions for making them;
3) Food and Community Identity -- I'll be serving these Kolocky to the Honor Scholar community at large.

This should help you visualize the assembly process.

Okay, so that last one is a bit of a stretch. But I'll have a whole stack of blank recipe cards and informational flyers for interested parties to actually submit their own family or favorite recipes to the Honor Scholar Community Cookbook I'll be creating as a part of my thesis. So really it all balances out.

Ta-da! Tasty Polish perfection.

Before I relay this incredibly simple and incredibly tasty cookie recipe, let me leave you with a few questions to get you thinking about the different parts of my thesis:

How does food help construct your identity?
How did immigrant women respond to new culinary limitations in the US?
How did they create the foods of home in this new land?
How did food serve as both momento and ethnic marker?
At what point do the foods people eat cease to describe what, ethnically, they are and instead describe who they are?
What foods do you cook and eat?
What do they say about you?
What community cookbooks are on your shelves?
Are you a member of these communities?
What are your favorite recipes?

I'd love to hear any and all thoughts on these questions, and again, stop by the poster presentation Tuesday if you're able. Otherwise just enjoy the cookies.

Straight from the recipe box

from the combined knowledge of my grandma and mom

1 lb oleo or butter
8 oz. cream cheese
5 tbsp powdered sugar
3 c flour
fruit pastry filling of your choice (I'll be serving up cherry, raspberry, and apricot)

Bring the oleo and cream cheese to room temperature. Cream them together, then mix in the powdered sugar and flour. Move the resulting dough into a zipperlock pastic bag and let it chill for at least two hours (this makes it much easier to work with).
On an extremely well-floured board or pastry cloth, use an extremely well-floured rolling pin to roll the dough quite thin. My grandma's official suggestion is rolling it "almost as thin as paper." Using a pizza cutter, slice the dough into squares about 2"x2".
Transfer the dough squares to a parchment papered cookie sheet. Using teaspoons or a small spatula, place pastry filling on each square from corner to corner diagonally. Fold the filling-less corners into the cookie's center, creating what looks like a flattened canoli (if you visualize food like other food).
Bake at 400 degrees Fahrenheit for about 15 minutes, until golden brown. Try not to burn yourself as you anxiously nibble an oven-hot cookie.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Porch Sitting and Picnicking

I must say that I got lucky, living in a cozy house/apartment with such a fantastic front porch. Not only does it allow me to sit in the fresh air and read, but it's also perfectly inviting for friends. Why, just this past week the porch was host to several impromptu chats and discussions and one planned toast in celebration of the birthday of F. Scott Fitzgerald. It's a multi-purpose porch.

Caesar salad tastes quite wonderful despite being so simple to make.

Then, yesterday, my parents game down to visit. My dad grilled burgers on his portable grill on the porch while my mom and I set up all the picnic-y foods I'd made for our comfortable September afternoon lunch. You know, the kind of lunch that you eat before walking over to the football game where your nose gets just a bit sun-burnt?

The food was good, our team won, and my nose is already less red today than it was yesterday, so I'm going to call the entire experience a success. And, now, I'm going to forgo any more chit chat and just give you these tasty recipes. My porch is beckoning.

Pesto ingredients, pre-processing.

Caesar Salad

romaine lettuce, chopped
shredded Parmesan cheese
croutons, preferably garlic, preferably homemade
Caesar salad dressing (recipe below)

Toss all the ingredients in a bowl and serve.

Caesar Salad Dressing
adapted from Smitten Kitchen

2 tbsp mayonnaise
1 tbsp fresh lemon juice
1/2 tsp Dijon mustard
1 small clove garlic
1/2 tsp Worcestershire sauce (pronounced WER-ster-sher, for those curious)
1/4 c extra virgin olive oil

Pulse ingredients in a food processor until combined and no large chunks of garlic remain. Store in the refrigerator until ready to serve, shaking to recombine before tossing with the salad.

It may look dull in color, but trust me, it's not dull in flavor.

Pesto Pasta Salad

3 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 c lightly packed fresh basil
1/4 c fresh parsley
2 cloves garlic
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp sugar
1/3 c grated Parmesan
1/2 c olive oil
8 oz cooked pasta, preferably fusilli

Pulse all but pasta in a food processor. Add to the pasta and toss. Refrigerate overnight. Bring to room temperature to serve, or don't. Whichever you choose.

GCB (Garlic Cheeseburger)
inspired by Marvin's in Greencastle, IN

hamburger patty
slice American cheese
GCB hamburger roll (recipe below)

Grill the hamburger patty to your desired done-ness, adding cheese for the last few minutes so it gets melty. Serve the cooked cheeseburger on the GCB bun, adding your preferred condiments as necessary.

My first experience working with dry active yeast was a tasty success.

GCB Hamburger Rolls
adapted from Coconut & Lime

2 3/4 c flour
1/2 c milk
1/2 c water
1 tbsp butter
1 tsp sugar
3/4 tsp salt
1/4 oz active dry yeast
1 egg yolk
1 tsp water
Italian herbs
garlic salt

Bring the milk, water, butter, sugar, and salt to a boil in a saucepan. Remove from heat and allow to cool to lukewarm, between 80 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit.
Whisk together the flour and yeast in a large bowl. Pour in the milk mixture and stir until the dough starts to come together. Knead the dough on a well-floured surface for about 10 minutes. Place the dough in a greased bowl, covering with a towel until the dough doubles in size, about 1 hour.
Punch down the dough and divide into 6 roll-shaped balls, making sure the tops are smooth. Place the rolls on a parchment papered-baking sheet, then cover with the towel until the rolls double in size, about 20 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Whisk together the egg yolk and water to make an egg wash, brushing in on the tops and sides of the rolls. Sprinkle each roll with some Italian herbs and garlic salt.
Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown. Allow the rolls to cool, then slice.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Baked Pasta for Fresh Tomato Season

After scoring some fantastic tomatoes at the Lafayette Farmers' Market last weekend, I knew it was time to try the recipe from one of my favorite blog posts of the summer. Molly over at Orangette used her tantalizingly minimalist photos to secure this recipe a spot on my to-cook list back in June--before I'd even officially typed up the list. So I was quite happy when the perfect storm descended last weekend.

Thankfully, the food processor makes short work of saucing those tomatoes.

And no, I'm not talking about the 10 inches of rapid rainfall in my home county that caused floods meriting canoeing down my street. I'm talking about the purchase of the aforementioned tomatoes, the aforeblogged cool-ish weather, and the happy coincidence of tomato sauce recipes appearing on the Bitten blog.

My very own simple yet sensational homemade tomato sauce.

I quite happily made a total mess out of my kitchen sink and counter, using far more kitchen equipment than I usually allow a meal to require; keep in mind I don't have a dish washer. I even got to break out the 2-quart Le Creuset bestowed upon me by my aunt, the perfect prep for breaking in the gorgeous birthday gift 5-quart later this autumn.

Simple and pretty; how much better can it get?

I'm generally quite happy to try new recipes that require a big chunk of my time for two reasons: one, I find time spent on a dish is usually proportional to its overall taste and flavor; and two, I'm a college student and have plenty (and I mean plenty) to read in the downtime that is stirring, simmering, and baking. But if you're not usually a cooking-all-afternoon person, at least consider giving this dish a try. The gorgeous smell wafting through your house alone will make it worth the effort. And that's before you even take a bite.

This photo makes me wish I still had leftovers.

Baked Pasta with Homemade Fresh Tomato Sauce and Mozzarella
inspired by Orangette and Kerri Conan

2.5 lbs fresh tomatoes
2 tbsp olive oil
3 cloves garlic, peeled and minced
1/2 lb small pasta, such as shells
1/4 lb Parmesan, freshly grated
8 oz. mozzarella, sliced
fresh basil

For the sauce: Core the fresh tomatoes and pulse until relatively smooth in a food processor. In a 2-quart saucepan (or preheated round oven), heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the minced garlic and saute until it becomes aromatic, about 30 seconds. Add the tomatoes to the pot and dust with salt. Cook the tomatoes on relatively high heat; the sauce should bubble, as you're carmelizing the tomatoes as opposed to stewing them. Cook until the sauce is reduced by at least half, about 30 minutes, or to your desired thickness.

For the pasta bake: Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Cook the pasta in salted boiling water according to package instructions. Drain the pasta, tossing it with half the tomato sauce and grated Parmesan. In an 8''-by-8'' casserole, layer half the pasta mixture, half the remaining sauce, half the Parmesan, half the mozzarella, and half the basil. Repeat using the remaining ingredients. Cook for 15 minutes or until bubbling, then broil the top for an additional 2 or 3 minutes if your casserole dish is broiler safe. Briefly let cool, then dig in.

Note: Amazingly enough, this really does seem to get better as leftovers the next day. It's the one time I'm glad my dad isn't here to take over leftover disposal duty.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Welcome to Soup Season

While it's true that the weather generally stays warmer here in Greencastle than in my hometown, we've been having a pleasant bit of a cool streak. This past week the temperature has been almost entirely in the lower 70s, which, while not the perfection that was 55-degree Scotland, has been pretty comfortable. Reading on the porch is all the more tolerable in the 70s than in the high 80s, as it was when I first got here. And it's a whole lot easier to rationalize starting to work through my list of five soups to try this semester when the evenings are particularly cool.

Nothing warms an evening like hot, broth-y soup!

I broke out that list this week, cracking open The Deen Bros. Y'All Come Eat again this semester. And since I'm only cooking for myself, which means I can be particularly picky about my choices of ingredients, my soup was a bit of an improvisation anyways. I know it's not exactly the most photogenic soup, especially with my changeable photography skills, but it was tasty. I wouldn't automatically accompany it with grilled cheese sandwich dunkers as suggested in the cookbook; tomato soup is still by far the best for that. But it did its job to warm me up after I sat out on the porch reading just a bit too long.

Vegetable Beef Soup
inspired by The Deen Bros. Y'All Come Eat

1 tbsp olive oil
1 lb ground chuck
2 stalks celery, chopped
1 medium onion, chopped
1 14.5-ounce can petite diced tomatoes
1 beef bouillon cube
1 1/2 tsp Italian herbs
1 tsp garlic salt
1/4 tsp ground pepper
1 bay leaf
1 16-ounce package frozen mixed vegetables
1/2 c uncooked small pasta

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat. Brown the meat, breaking it up as it cooks for even cooking. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the browned meat to a paper towel-lined plate. Add the celery and onions to the pot, cooking them in the residual fat until they are softened.
Add 2 quarts water, the tomatoes, the bouillon cube, herbs, garlic salt, pepper, and bay leaf to the pot. Cover and simmer for 30 minutes.
Return the meat to the pot and add in the frozen veggies and uncooked pasta. Simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Discard the bay leaf and serve.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Chicken for Company

When my once and future roommate, who is studying in Washington, D.C. this semester, said she'd be at school to visit on Labor Day, she was expecting to get fast food or stop by the cafeteria. Being the friend that I am, I just couldn't let her do that. Instead, my current roommate and I threw an informal little dinner party. Great conversation, and I finally got to use all my place mats and set the table with all of my new dishes. It was such a pretty little set-up in our cozy little kitchen.

The finished product

Oh, and the food tasted wonderfully, too. In case you're into the actual food component of a dinner party.

Look at the marvelous pinwheeling!

Mozzarella and Pesto Stuffed Chicken

4 boneless skinless chicken breasts
3/4 cup pesto
4 balls fresh mozzarella, sliced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Using a meat pounder or rolling pin, pound the chicken breasts to a thickness of about 1/4''. Place the pounded chicken breasts on a greased or parchment papered baking sheet. Spread 2 tbsp pesto onto each chicken breast, then top with the sliced mozzarella. Roll the "stuffed" chicken breasts and secure with toothpicks. Spread the remaining pesto on top of the rolled chicken breasts, 1 tbsp on each. Bake uncovered for 45-50 minutes, or until the juices run clear.
Note: Technically this is a recipe for rolled chicken, as you roll the pounded chicken breasts as opposed to actually stuffing un-pounded chicken breasts. But rolled chicken makes me think of chicken rolled into a wrap, and chicken wraps make me think of cold chicken which makes me think of lunch, not a dainty little Labor Day dinner. So you can see why I'm sticking with "stuffed."

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Possibly the Very Best Thing I've Ever Made

What I made myself for dinner tonight was so good that I simply could not contain myself; I had to blog it tonight instead of waiting until tomorrow. Which actually works out well for you, because I still have another recipe for tomorrow. But right now the focus is all on the gnocchi.

Making the gnocchi dough calls for a potato volcano of sorts.

I've been a fan of the video podcast Crash Test Kitchen for quite some time now, but only recently did I go back and watch the episodes filmed before I subscribed on iTunes. Lo and behold, after watching quite a bit of idiosyncratic cooking, this masterpiece came to my attention. And since I got a bunch of fresh basil and some potatoes at the farmers' market this morning, I figured there was no better day to begin my foray into making pasta.

Just look at how cute they are!

That's right, for this recipe, you make your own pasta. It's actually surprisingly simple, albeit sticky, if you're making gnocchi. There's no rolling the dough impossibly thin to form noodles; instead you roll the dough into little logs, not dissimilar from a child with Play-Doh, then cut them. Really, it's a cinch. And the pesto was pretty much a snap, too, especially when I decided it would be silly to dirty the cheese grater on top of everything else and I just threw the Parmesan in the food processor with the basil, nuts, and garlic.

Heaven on a plate

Biting into my dinner was like eating a little bit of heaven; the gnocchi were like little pillows of air, and the pesto was light enough to match while still supplying terrific flavor. Upon further reflection, although only because I don't want to have started off my pasta-making endeavors with a difficult-to-repeat perfect 10, I came up with two ways this dish could possibly have been better. One, if I used my potato ricer, which is at home, instead of just a fork to mash the potatoes; this would have gotten rid of the very occasional lump in the pasta. And two, if my grocery store hadn't been out of pine nuts. But I must say, everything tasted better than fine with only a fork and some walnuts.

When all the gnocchi rise to the top, they're done cooking.

Potato Gnocchi with Pesto
adapted from Crash Test Kitchen

for the gnocchi:
4 large baking potatoes
1 egg
1/4 + 3/4 cups flour, plus some to coat the pasta

Bake the potatoes in a 400 degree Fahrenheit oven for one hour or until done. Scoop out the potatoes from their skins and mash together, making sure not to leave any lumps. Refrigerate for 20 minutes.
Sprinkle 1/4 cup flour on your flat working surface and place the mashed potatoes on top. Mold the potatoes in a volcano shape and crack the egg in the middle crater. Using your hands, work the egg evenly into the potatoes. Sprinkle 3/4 cups flour over the potato mixture and work it into the dough the same way. When the dough has the same consistency throughout, you're done. If it seems too sticky, add a bit more flour.
Cut the dough into 8 portions and, one at a time, roll each portion with your hands to create a log about the width of your finger and about a foot long. Cut each log into about 3/4-inch bits, then lightly coat them in flour to prevent sticking before placing them on a plate. Once you've cut all your gnocchi, place the plate in a refrigerator for 90 to 120 minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water to a full boil. Carefully dump the gnocchi into the water to cook; they will sink to the bottom of the pot. When all the gnocchi have risen to the surface, use a slotted spoon to remove the gnocchi from the water onto the serving plate. Don't worry about getting some pasta water on the plate; it will help to loosen the pesto.
Top with pesto and serve.
Note: You can make any sauce you want to go with these gnocchi.

A food processor makes fresh pesto easy.

for the pesto:
1 cup fresh basil
1/3 cup pine nuts (you can substitute walnuts if necessary)
1 clove garlic, peeled
pinch salt
pinch pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan
1/4 cup olive oil

Place the basil, pine nuts, garlic clove, salt, and pepper in a food processor. Secure the lid and turn the food processor on until the mixture is uniformly sized. Add the grated Parmesan to the mixture, and pour the olive oil through the open slot in the top of the food processor. Pulse until everything is just combined. Serve on top of your pasta.
Note: You can skip grating the Parmesan and allow the food processor to chop it along with the basil and pine nut mixture.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Cooking in College, Year Two

It may have something to do with working on a food-themed thesis, but I've been cooking a lot since I got back to school. Well, let's call it making pretty, tasty meals, some of which involve cooking. Forgive me, it's hot, and the kitchen isn't air-conditioned. But I've been quite happy with what I've turned out so far: a steak salad with Parmesan peppercorn dressing and a spicy pasta bake with chorizo, for example. I distinctly remember the first few meals I cooked for myself last year, in my first kitchen during my first semester without a meal plan. They mostly failed, or were mediocre at best. Not this time around.

I'm making a concerted effort to use the myriad of food resources at my fingertips, and so yesterday I made a list of all the dishes I've read or heard about that I want to make this semester. It's a long list of hopefully blog-worthy food. And I can officially check this one off, quite tasty enough to be a keeper.

Tandoori chicken with red potato and green bean saute

Every once in a while I have a taste for Indian food, so when I was shopping around the Spice House website at the recommendation of my best friend's brother-in-law, I decided to try the Tandoori Seasoning. And I must say, with such a great flavor from such a simple marinade, I was happy and my hankering for Indian food was satisfied. The potato and green bean side, easy as well, rounded the meal out beautifully. Week one of cooking in college, year two: success.

Grilled Tandoori Chicken

1 chicken breast (I prefer boneless skinless, and since I'm only cooking for myself, I get to choose)
6 oz. plain yogurt (or a similarly small container; I use non-fat)
1 tbsp Tandoori seasoning

Mix the yogurt and Tandoori seasoning to create the marinade. Put the marinade and chicken breast into a zip-top bag, making sure the chicken gets coated in the marinade. Let the chicken marinate in the fridge for 30 minutes.
Remove the marinated chicken from the bag and place on a grill (George Foreman is my pick, but that's all I have). Cook as long as you would a regular chicken breast, or 9 minutes on a George Foreman grill. Remove from the grill and serve.
Note: If you're not cooking for one, you can easily increase the recipe to serve as many as you want.

With such pretty, fresh ingredients, how can a girl go wrong?

Red Potato and Green Bean Saute
adapted from The Deen Bros. Y'all Come Eat

small red potatoes, cut into bite-size pieces
fresh green beans, trimmed
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, minced

Bring a pot of salted water to boil and add the potatoes. Cook until the potatoes are almost tender, about 15 minutes depending on their size. Add the beans and cook until they are tender, about 3 minutes. Drain well.
Heat the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic and cook for about 30 seconds, being careful not to let it burn. Add the potatoes, beans, salt, and pepper to taste and cook until heated through, about 2 minutes, stirring to coat evenly. Remove from the skillet and serve.
Note: Again, if you're not cooking for one, you can easily increase the recipe to serve as many as you want. I just don't want to be eating leftovers forever.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Summer's End

How does the end of summer always manage to sneak up on people? Tomorrow I move back down to school for what promises to be something of a culinary semester, at least if we're judging by the pile of cooking utensils waiting to be loaded into my car. It's been an eventful summer, full of swimming in lakes and a wedding. All kinds of good stuff. Nothing, however, compares to the family reunion of last weekend.

It's the Hungarian side of my family, and because neither you nor I have the time for me to recount all the craziness that has taken place at these reunions over the years, I'll give you two examples for your own consideration:
1) Every year at our stuffed-cabbage-featuring picnic, "the elders" (my grandmother and her brother) announce the winner of the Fetla Award. It goes to the person in the family who has done the stupidest or funniest thing in the course of the long weekend. The competition is fierce.
2) At our 2002 reunion in Indianapolis, the women all went to see My Big Fat Greek Wedding. We laughed doubly hard because, with a simple substitution of stuffed cabbage for stuffed grape leaves, that's our family.

I kid you not.

Look at the lovely colors of the Hungarian flag, all in a tasty summer salad!

Over the years we've all attributed the zaniness to our common ancestry for no better reason than we tend to end up surrounded by the colors of the Hungarian flag (also, most of the people who married into the family are normal). What better way to feature the red, white, and green than by commandeering the Italian Caprese salad? That's what I did, and let me tell you, it was a hit at the first (and last) annual birthday gala.

Magyar Salad
(formerly Caprese Salad)

fresh ripe red tomatoes
fresh mozzarella
fresh basil leaves
herb-infused olive oil

Slice the tomatoes and mozzarella in even-sized slices. To assemble the salad, repeat a pattern of sliced tomato, sliced mozzarella, and basil leaf until you run out of an ingredient. Drizzle the assembled salad with the olive oil and serve.
Note: Depending on your preferences, you can drizzle the salad with plain olive oil, olive oil and vinegar, Italian dressing, plain balsamic vinegar... please, just don't make it too complicated.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

Mom's Chili

As I get ready to go back to school next week, I'm filling up on all of my favorite foods from home. Tonight's dinner was my mom's homemade spaghetti, and later this week I'll have some fantastic grilled pork chops and my brother's homemade hamburgers. With all the chaos of getting my brother ready to go to college for the first time, though, it turns out there aren't enough dinnertimes remaining for all our favorites. Luckily for me, my mom will be making a huge batch of her chili, freezing it, and sending me back to school with a supply. Yum.

Once the meat is browned and the chili powder is mixed in, you can easily finish off this recipe in a slow cooker.

This recipe is an original; my mom created it by combining all the best aspects of her sister's recipe with the recipes from church chili suppers. It's been a family staple for years, even surviving my vegetarian phase (substitute the meat with BOCA ground crumbles or a similar product; my brother never even noticed). I like it with ditalini noodles and shredded cheddar on top. My brother likes it plain with saltines. It's tasty on a baked potato, and I'm planning to try some on a cornmeal-crust pizza sometime this fall. Go crazy.

Ditalini. Chili. Shredded cheddar. Mmm.

Mom's Chili

2 tbsp oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb ground beef or turkey
4 tsp chili powder
1/4 tsp cumin
1/4 tsp oregano
3/4 tsp salt
pepper to taste
1 beef bullion cube
2 6-ounce cans tomato juice
1 drop Tabasco
1 1-lb can red beans
1 1-lb can tomatoes

Brown the beef, onion, and garlic in the oil in a large stock pot. Drain excess fat. Stir in the chili powder and cook over low heat for 2 minutes. Add all of the remaining ingredients, stirring to blend. Cover and simmer the chili slowly for 2 to 3 hours, stirring often.
Note: You can also make this chili in a slow cooker. Brown the meat and add the chili powder on the stove, then transfer and add everything else to the slow cooker. Cook it on low for 8 hours or on high for 4 hours. This recipe is easily doubled or tripled.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Wisconsin Eating, Part Two

I'm back from my week-long vacation in Wisconsin, and what a fun and relaxing week it was. What with all the swimming, floating, pontooning, tubing, and attempted water skiing, it was a rather eventful week. And, thanks to the personalities who like cooking as much as I do, not devoid of good food.

Lake Kaubashine as the morning mist lifts

My Italian chicken sticks went off without a hitch, as did my grilled pizza (which required some degree of improvisation due to the time limits of the charcoal grill and the stickiness of Jiffy pizza dough without the hope of flour as a thickener). Really fantastic, though, were some of the other meals. Here's a rundown:

Baked Penne with Roasted Vegetables
Herb and Ricotta Stuffed Chicken
Vegetarian Four Bean Chili
Gorgonzola, Fig, and Pecan Salad
Fajita Explosion Salad (chicken with all the fajita fixings)
Fried Wisconsin Cheese Curds

Yes, I know fried cheese curds do not a meal make. But it was Wisconsin. And the cheese shop with the best cheese curds was only two miles away from our cabin.

Unfortunately for this blog, the only food I took pictures of the week was s'mores, and not even s'mores in their melt-y, messy glory, just the marshmallows. Let me tell you, though, they were delicious. And the marshmallows (look for yourself!) were toasted to perfection.

Behold: The perfectly toasted marshmallow

Since it seems somewhat silly to give a recipe for a classic s'more (graham + chocolate + toasted marshmallow), I'll use my camp counselor knowledge to give you a recipe for a perfect marshmallow-toasting fire.

How to Build a Fire to Toast the Perfect Marshmallows

an even number of firewood logs (at least 4)
kindling (such as dried pine needles or strips of newspaper)
medium-sized sticks (no green anywhere on them)
matches or a lighter

In your fire pit (and you should have one if you want to be Smokey the Bear safe) use the firewood logs to assemble a log cabin structure, two logs to a level. On the bottom of the log cabin, spread the kindling so that when it catches fire it exposes the flames to both air and the logs. Place the sticks above the kindling and between layers of your log cabin. When you've finished building this structure, it should look as though the kindling will set the sticks, then the logs, aflame.
Carefully light the kindling on two sides of the log cabin using matches or a lighter. Depending on your fire-building skills and experience, you may need to provide some encouragement to the fire in the form of air. If the flames look weak at the beginning, blow downwards into the kindling (e.g. fanning the flames).
Now comes the part that separates the burnt marshmallows from the perfectly-toasted: let the flames die down, just like you would with a charcoal grill. Once the flames stop trying to kiss your marshmallows, the residual heat within the log cabin will be optimal for quick-toasting as many marshmallows as you, or the 12 others on vacation with you, can eat.