Monday, June 16, 2014

Beef and Cabbage Buns and Elsie Smith

In my last blog post, I mentioned Elsie, our housekeeper, and wrote that I couldn’t remember the meals she had prepared for us while my mother was away. That was not exactly true. I wasn’t able  conjure up the dinners she prepared for us on that one occasion, but I sure can remember at least one or two things Elsie made for us, and a few other tidbits about this wonderful woman who was a part of my family for over 20 years.

The first thing about Elsie Smith: she called everyone Honey. And it wasn’t just “Hi Honey!” It was “Honey, you’re mommy just called, and Honey, she won’t be home for another hour, so Honey, I made you a sandwich for an after school snack, Honey. Now go do your homework, Honey”. It wasn’t like she didn’t know our first names or anything, she just called EVERYONE Honey, and she loved calling everyone Honey!

Elsie joined our family shortly after my sister was born in 1963. She worked for another woman in our neighborhood and came highly recommended when it became apparent that my mother needed some household help with 3 children under 5. Elsie came every Friday for the next 2 decades and she became a beloved fixture throughout our growing up and into young adulthood. When Mom and Dad felt they could venture away for a weekend without us kids, Elsie was there to mind us with love, affection and a steel hand resting inside a velvet glove. She loved the music of  the hunky 1960’s singer  Engelbert Humperdinck, but when she found out that was not his real name, she promptly shifted her allegiance to Trini Lopez. She had her scruples, after all. She even named a cockatoo she received as a gift "Trini". Elsie was someone you always wanted on your side. 


The Reilly kids, circa 1968

Elsie was a good, honest woman, of German heritage, and she had a clear, unvarnished view on life, which is why she was such a good housekeeper. She wanted to keep everything in order, Honey, and she did so in the Reilly household every Friday, Honey! She was also a simple cook, so when she stayed with us when my parents were gone, her repertoire was equally simple – grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, Campbell’s Soup and the like. But I do vividly remember something she made for us once, and it must have been a special occasion: a seasoned beef and cabbage mixture, encased in slightly sweet bread, baked and served warm. Beef pies! Bierocks was what she called them. And they rocked! Bierocks were a onetime culinary taste treat for the Reilly children circa 1968. For some reason, we never got Elsie to make them again and it was pure folly to ask that my mother make them.  I still have that combination of ground beef, cabbage, cheese and dough lingering on the back of my palate.

A few years ago I purchased America’s Best Lost Recipes by the Cook’s Country magazine. (They are also the America’s Test Kitchen folks, so it’s a viable resource). I loved reading through the family favorite and time tested recipes – 7Up Cake, Cheese Crusted Olive Balls, Mile High Bologna Pie among them.  


7 Up Cake Photo by Margie MacKenzie














Cooking is not an exact science, and the outcome of what one is preparing can be effected by the humidity or dryness of the kitchen, the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the skill and patience of the cook. My experience with Runsas falls into the later category. I’ve always had issues with all things dough – pastry and bread – so perhaps I should cut myself some slack. 

What should have looked like this:
photo from Cook's Country

Looked like this:
photo by Margie MacKenzie
Though my Runsas/Bierocks were pretty darned tasty (thanks to the sweet bread dough which wasn't all that hard to make), I felt I had failed. I had failed by not creating a beautiful doughy package of savory delight, but also in not completely capturing the flavors I remember so well from that one time Elsie made them for me. It just wasn’t the same, much like my mother’s attempt at preparing Spaghetti Casserole for my brother, my sister and me years ago. I guess there is truth in the saying, “You can’t go home again”. I will have to have Elsie's Runsas as my taste memory to go along with all the other wonderful memories I have of this very loving woman.

So if you are an intrepid soul, or someone who really knows how to work with dough and fillings, give Runsas a try, and please, Honey, think kindly of Elsie Smith, honey, while doing so, Honey! She'd be so happy, Honey! And so would I!


Runsas - Beef & Cabbage Buns

COOK'S COUNTRY, AMERICA'S TEST KITCHEN

YIELD
 8 servings


INGREDIENTS

Dough

o    3/4 cup warm water (100 degrees)
o    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
o    1/4 cup vegetable oil - I use Canola oil
o    2 TBS sugar
o    1 large egg
o    3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
o    2 packages rapid-ride or instant yeast
o    1 teas salt

Filling

o    1 TBS unsalted butter, with 2 TBS melted
o    1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
o    1 large onion, finely chopped
o    1/2 small head of cabbage, finely chopped, about 3 cups
o    Salt & Pepper to taste
o    8 slices cheese - American, Cheddar or Gruyere


INSTRUCTIONS

Dough
For the dough: Lightly grease large bowl with cooking spray. Mix water, sweetened condensed milk, oil, sugar, and egg in large measuring cup. Mix flour, yeast, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. With mixer on low, add water mixture. After dough comes together, increase speed to medium and mix until shiny and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface, shape into ball, and place in greased bowl. (To make dough by hand: Combine dry ingredients in large bowl, make well in center of dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, and mix with wooden spoon until shaggy dough forms. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface and knead until shiny and smooth, about 10 minutes.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Filling
Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook until just beginning to brown, about 6 minutes, breaking up any large clumps. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to paper towel-lined plate.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan. Add onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add cabbage and toss until just beginning to wilt, 2 to 4 minutes. Return beef to pan and season with salt and pepper.

Assembly & Baking
Adjust oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 2 baking sheets with cooking spray. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Working on lightly floured work surface, roll each piece of dough into 7-inch circle. Place one dough round in deep cereal bowl and top with one slice of cheese. Spoon 3/4 cup filling over cheese and pinch edges of dough together to form bun. Transfer bun, seam side down, to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, cheese, and filling, placing 4 buns on each baking sheet. Cover buns with plastic wrap and let rise until puffed, about 20 minutes.
Bake buns until golden brown, about 20 minutes, switching and rotating position of baking sheets halfway through baking time. Brush buns with melted butter and serve.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sriracha, Potatoes and Sandwich Failures

I don’t know where it came from – Depression-era frugality or a strange organizational compulsion – but my mother had the oddest habit of taking a certain amount of a condiment – mayo, relish, mustard, horseradish – out of its original container and placing it in a smaller jar which would fit on the shelves of the refrigerator door. The larger vessel was then placed in the back of the lowest shelf, waiting to refill its little friend. Mom would write in blue marker the name of the condiment on the side of the smaller jar in order to avoid confusion over the contents. This system worked pretty well as long as one made sure to read the side of the jar. The mayo jar was the most frequently used, but there were times when it was washed and never refilled and replaced, which accounted for a mistake or two.

As I’ve written previously, my mother was not the most avid home cook. My father was even less so, but he surprised us once.  When I was in elementary school, I remember my mother going away for a long weekend to visit her sister. Dad was in charge of dinner for one of the nights she was to be gone – our housekeeper Elsie made up the difference with several basic 1960's favorites which have faded from my memory. But Spaghetti Casserole, a vestige from his bachelor days, was Dad’s contribution to our weekend sustenance and my siblings and I devoured the concoction of ground beef cooked with onions, mixed with several cans of Franco-American Spaghetti and then baked with grated cheddar cheese on top. It was a special dinner for us, probably because it was the first one Dad had ever prepared. When Mom, upon her return and with our pleas, replicated Dad’s recipe exactly, we turned our noses up. I think the recipe came from the can of Franco-American Spaghetti, so Mom couldn’t have gotten it too wrong; nonetheless, it just wasn’t Dad’s.

Other then tossing a tri-tip on the grill, the only thing I remember my father ever preparing, beside Spaghetti Casserole, was an occasional peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich. If he knew that Elvis added bananas and then fried the thing, he would have been mightily offended. Frying compromised the ingredients and it made for so much more work. Though he would offer to make his favorite sandwich for us, I don’t think my siblings nor I ever accepted, and Mom would have nothing to do with Dad’s bizarre specialty after he had beaten her in the Spaghetti Casserole Bowl.

Fast forward to the late 1970’s and I am home for the summer from college. Whether it was mandated that I do so, or I volunteered, I cleaned the kitchen late one Saturday morning. I took great pride in getting it spic and span and I even reorganized some of the cupboards (yes, I probably alphabetized the spices and dried herbs, what few there were!). I’d just finished my labor of love when Dad came in from the family room. He pulled a loaf of Wonder Bread from the bread drawer, a jar of Jiff peanut butter from the pantry cupboard, iceberg lettuce from the crisper and a small jar of mayonnaise from one of the refrigerator door shelves. He proceeded to prepare his masterpiece, slathering the mayo on one slice of the bread and a thinner layer of peanut butter on the other - he preferred a higher mayo to PB ratio - and topped both with a crackling piece of iceberg. He sliced it perfectly on the diagonal, placed it lovingly on a melamine plate and returned to watch the Dodgers game, leaving the detritus of his snack strewn across the newly cleaned counter top.

I was pissed as hell and came into the family room insisting that he clear the counter  himself. He refused and a vigorous argument ensued, which I eventually lost when my mother intervened and told me to take care of Dad’s mess. I snorted loudly and sighed heavily as I began the process I had completed just minutes before. I first grabbed the jar of mayo and angrily screwed on the lid. As I was placing it in an empty slot on the refrigerator shelf, I noticed written in blue ink down the side of the jar “Horseradish”.

Just then, from the family room came a volley of expletives I didn’t hear repeated until years later in a Quentin Tarantino film. With a sardonic grin, I joined Dad in the family room with the offending material in my hand, shaking it in his face and saying, “You should have read the jar!” The remainder of my tidying brought me a vengeful satisfaction.

Dad and I didn’t speak of his PB-Lettuce-Horseradish debacle that day, but it did come up at dinner a few days later. I delighted in telling the tale to the rest of the family and I thought I had the last laugh, when Dad, without missing a beat, had the audacity to say that he actually liked it! But I don’t remember him making one of those awful sandwiches ever again, with or without horseradish. Years later, when reminded of his unique creation, he declared that I had made up the entire tale. Knowing winks from the rest of family confirmed my side of the story.

So, is there a moral to this tale? There are two, actually: 1.) Always read the labels, or in some cases, the blue ink, on the jars in your refrigerator, and  2.) Try to keep your condiments in their original containers to avoid any confusion that moral #1 may create. Oh, and a third: Do not combine peanut butter, iceberg lettuce and horseradish, no matter what!

What's the current favorite condiment in my fridge that I may or may not properly label? Sriracha mayonnaise.

Sriracha is the latest “it” hot sauce and and part of a recent lawsuit by the city of Irwindale, California, where Huy Fong Foods is headquartered. The lawsuit has been settled and Sriracha will now be flowing freely, whether you purchase the Huy Fong Foods brand, with its famous rooster logo, or a private label squeeze bottle such as one available at Trader Joe’s.
My sons have had Sriracha as their go-to hot sauce for years. I've been slow on the uptake. I'm now a true believer.

And how do I make my Sriracha mayonnaise? Read the recipe below and you’ll find out. Though served with roasted potatoes here, you can sub this spicy, colorful sauce for any plain, old white mayo on a sandwich or in a dipping sauce. Just remember to properly label the container in which you store it! And experiment with Sriracha as you would any hot sauce.




Salt & Vinegar Potato Wedges with Sriracha Mayonnaise
Serves 10 as an appetizer
Margie MacKenzie, adapted from a recipe from Epicurious

Potatoes
2 lbs Yukon or red potatoes, cut into wedges
1 cup white vinegar
1 TBS kosher salt, or more to taste
Olive oil
Minced Chives, optional

Sriracha Mayonnaise
1 cup Mayonnaise
4 TBS Sriracha sauce, or to taste
Potatoes
1.      Place the potatoes wedges and 1 cup of vinegar in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are soft, but hold their shape. Remove potatoes from the vinegar/water mixture and allow to cool on a sheet pan.
2.      Heat oven to 450 degrees. Toss cooled potatoes lightly with olive oil and more salt. Roast for 20-25 minutes, tossing the pan occasionally, until the potatoes are crispy and golden on the outside but still creamy on the inside. Add additional salt to taste, if desired. Remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with minced chives, if desired. Serve with Sriracha Mayonnaise.

Sriracha Mayonnaise


1. Combine the mayo and the Sriracha sauce and refrigerate until the potatoes are ready. Serve with room temp potatoes. May be made 1 week ahead and kept well sealed in the refrigerator.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

Oh, Fuyu...Persimmons, that is!

I grew up in a Southern California track home neighborhood that bordered what we would now call semi-rural development- larger parcels of land, zoned for horses, chickens and other "farm animals". Back in the day, we called this area The Heights, as in La Habra Heights. Citrus trees abounded - this is in Northern Orange County after all - as did avocados trees.  As kids, my siblings, friends and I considered the Heights our backyard, spending entire afternoons running through the orchards or navigating the banks of the Hacienda Creek. It was the Creek that provided the most fun, and it was the Creek with a capital C. Its course would change each year depending on how much rain we'd had the previous winter. Whole new islands and inlets would be created on which we'd pitch a make-shift camp as our base of operations. We'd role play as orphans, left in the Creek by ne'er-do-well parents to fend for ourselves on crayfish (never caught one, though they were reputed to live in the Big Six Foot Deep Pond) and what we could pilfer from friendly neighbors' (our real parents') pantries. My friend Keri and I actually convinced some children, not from our neighborhood but traversing the Creek one day, that we were orphans and they brought us candy for 2 days! OK, maybe I'm only imagining that that happened, but it just goes to show what fun we had playing in the Creek.

One other thing the Creek had, in addition to crawdads and faux-orphans, were persimmon trees,
a whole orchard of them. I'm not sure to whom they belonged but they never seemed to get harvested. Every fall our neighbor Cora would wander down to the creek side orchard and pluck enough fruit to make persimmon cookies.

My family were among the lucky recipients of these cookies. They were puffy, doughy and ample enough to give a youngster a nice enough sugar high, but in all honesty, they didn't taste very good. I don't know if it was Cora's recipe, her baking ability or that persimmons just didn't taste very good. I loved the cookies because I loved Cora, but I didn't really love the cookies - do you get my point? I gave up on persimmons after that.

Like many foods I've grown to love as an adult - figs, and oysters among them - persimmons now whet my appetite come Autumn. The Hachiya is the soft-skinned fruit, astringent varietal. This is the fruit that Cora picked to make her cookies. They need to be totally soft and ripened to be used in any culinary enterprise. Maybe because I didn't love Cora's persimmon cookies, I've avoided the fruit all together for lo' these many years. But...

...I discovered the Fuyu varietal and I rediscovered persimmons!


Squat, taunt, and a stunning orange, the Fuyu is eaten easily out of hand and provides crispness and a somewhat herbal flavor to salads and fruit platters. I love adding them as a surprise. Are they apples, oranges? What is this mystery fruit? I then discovered a beguiling appetizer - Goat Cheese Persimmon Wedges...



Goat Cheese Persimmon Wedges
MARIA HELM SINSKEY
photo by Kameron Flores-Maxfield
This appetizer is so easy, so colorful, so flavorful, it makes me wish that persimmons 
were available year round. But if persimmons were available year round,  I'd miss all the anticipation I have for autumn, when persimmons make this time of year so special.

    • 1/2 cup salted roasted almonds, very finely chopped
    • 1 1/2 teaspoons chopped flat-leaf parsley
    • 4 ounces fresh goat cheese, softened
    • 4 Fuyu persimmons, sliced crosswise 1/4 inch thick
    • Aged balsamic vinegar, for serving

INSTRUCTIONS

    1. In a small bowl, mix 3 tablespoons of the almonds and the parsley with the goat cheese. Divide the mixture into 6 equal pieces and roll each into a ball. Using a 2-inch round biscuit cutter, stamp out 12 rounds from the persimmon slices.
    2. Sandwich each goat cheese ball between 2 persimmon slices, pressing to flatten slightly. Roll the edges in the remaining almonds and refrigerate until firm, at least 10 minutes or overnight. Cut each round into quarters and transfer to a plate. Drizzle lightly with balsamic vinegar and serve.



And why do I now love Hachiya persimmons? Because of my friend Lois' Persimmon Pudding. I may not eat Hachiya's any other way.

I joined a book group in 1994. We were a gathering of women with young children and I was one of the members with the youngest kids. I learned from my sisters with older children and I grew up as a mother, and as a person,  with this amazing group of women. We have not only shared our opinions about books - and boy, have we read the best of them over these nearly 20 years and have had some pretty intense discussions - but we have share triumphs, disappointments, and more importantly, the every day stuff that is life. Lois' Persimmon Pudding is always the dessert at our December gathering.

Lois Ballentine's  Persimmon Pudding 


1 cup sugar
1cup flour
1 cup persimmon pulp
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla (or ½ tsp vanilla and 1 tablespoon rum)
½ cup milk
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons melted butter
½ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Mix dry ingredients.  Add rest.  Stir well.  After filling, cover mold tightly with foil and put in top of double boiler. Add lid and steam on top of stove for two hours.

 For a double recipe I like to pour the pudding batter into a metal bowl that has been put into the basket of my pasta cooker (with and inch or two of water in the bottom of the pot).  I cover the bowl with aluminum foil and then put a lid on the pot.

I have tried a variety of sauces.  Whipped cream sweetened with powdered sugar and flavored with vanilla is the simplest and is well liked.

Lois, thank you!

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Just Parsley...No Sage, Rosemary or Thyme

Oh, the lowly parsley. Some of us have only encountered it in its curly form, accompanied by a wizened orange slice, as a garnish on the plate of that included pancakes, eggs, hashed browns and bacon. A few chopped sprigs may have been randomly sprinkled over an omelet or added at the last minute to give a soup or stew some “color”. Parsley may have never crossed your mind as an herb; it may have just been something green on you plate. You may have even been told that chewing a bit of that curly sprig from your plate may help with bad breath. Not bad advice, but parsley has many other uses.

One of the mainstays in my mother’s cooking repertoire when I was growing up was Lipton’s Chicken Noodle Soup.  This was a soup mix that came in a box and if memory serves me right, there were dried noodles, a gelatin “egg” that contained the chicken flavoring and a foil packet that contained other stuff, among them dried parsley. My sister called this “Green Things Soup” because of that dried parsley and we loved it as part of a dinner that also included grilled cheese sandwiches with Velveeta brand cheese. I do not even want to think about the other contents of that foil packet and their possibility of now being labeled carcinogenic. But, hey, we’re talking the ‘60’s here! My mother made a pitcher of TANG every morning because the astronauts drank it in space and she fed us bacon! Wait, bacon is not bad! 

Parsley often plays second fiddle to other herbs that provide a much bigger punch. Bouquet Garni, a combination of herbs used when preparing stock, soups and stews, is a classic example. And we all remember Scarborough Faire and its chorus of “Parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme”. 

Those of us who spend time in the kitchen know that, with its clean, grassy flavor, Petroselinum crispum can hold its own as the focal point of many dishes.

My cousin Nancy, who lives in Tiffin, Ohio, is a dedicated home gardener. She has her own bee hives and chickens, so eggs and honey are prolific in her home. And she knows her herbs. Here's what she has to say about parsley:


Here's what I know from trial and error: It's an easy to grow biennial. It needs full sun and well drained soil. Flat leaf has more flavor, but I prefer curly leaf because it chops better. Love it in salads and Middle Eastern dishes.


I will differ with my dear cousin on the curly parsley. Though it may be easier to chopped than the flat-leaf Italian version, I just cannot get that chain restaurant breakfast and its weak attempt at garnishing out of my mind. Curly parsley always says, "Grand Slam Breakfast" to me!

Parsley is the star of Chimichurri, a sauce, or condiment, closely associated with Argentine cuisine, and has now been used in a variety of ways.

Here's a favorite Chimichurri recipe from  Eating Well - Served over a grilled rib-eye steak, you've got one great summer dinner!


photo from Eating Well magazine


  • 1 cup packed flat-leaf parsley leaves, (1/2-1 bunch)
  • 1 small clove garlic, chopped
  • 3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
  • 4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground chipotle pepper, or cayenne pepper
  • Chop parsley and garlic together on a cutting board until the parsley is finely minced. Transfer to a medium bowl, add vinegar, oil, salt and chipotle (or cayenne) pepper; stir to combine.

How have I been spotlighting parsley this summer? In pasta salad!



Pasta Salad with Parsley

Margie MacKenzie, Nutmeg Kitchens

  • 16 oz of shaped pasta - fusilli, penne, rotelli, your choice
  • 1/2 cup Olive oil
  • 1/2 cup Red wine vinegar
  • 1 pint cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 2 cups Kalamata olives
  • 2 cups cubed Mozzarella cheese
  • salt and pepper, to taste
  • 1 cup chopped fresh Italian parsley, reserving some to garnish the salad
  • Parmesan Cheese

  1. Cook pasta according to package instructions.
  2. Toss warm pasta with vinegar and oil. Add the vegetables and salt and pepper to taste. Toss to combine with chopped parsley and Parmesan. Garnish with reserved parsley. Serve at room temperature. Adjust flavors - more oil, more vinegar, salt or pepper and more parsley to suit your palate.


"Parsley - the jewel of herbs, both in the pot and on the plate."
  - Albert Stockli

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

It's Hot! Watermelon is Cool!

It is hot, just plain hot, and I am not singing along with Buster Poindexter. It’s hot here in the Bay Area! And I do not like hot, at least not this hot. And it is hot across the Southwest where wild fires have been raging.

Nineteen elite firefighters were killed Sunday while battling a wild fire in Yarnell, Arizona. They were doing what they were trained to do – to fight wild fires and to keep people and structures safe. My prayers go out to the families of these brave men and the community that will miss them so dearly.

My family lived next to a fire station, Woodside FireProtection District Station 8, for 18 years.
When my sons were wee ones, the three of us would almost daily pay a post-afternoon nap visit to the “Fire Boys”, as my sons called them. We became good friends and good neighbors with the men, and eventually, the women, who staffed Station 8. They provided us with care and friendship that exceeds the best of what a neighbor can do. Yes, they actually rescued our kitten from a tree, with a neighbor's barking dog at their heels. Firefighters still do things like that. And they risk their lives. I always said a prayer whenever I heard their truck go out. 

We now live in Redwood City, not far from a busy fire house. I hear the siren daily. I say a prayer each time I hear that siren – a prayer of thanks and of hope that all will be safe.

When it's hot, I don't feel much like eating. Cooking, yes, as I do for my catering and personal chef clients. The family ends up having refrigerator forage nights if I haven't planned something for the grill, which usually isn't lighted until after sundown.

I've found a nifty culinary way to cool down that doesn't require any actual cooking - Watermelon! Native to Southern Africa, watermelon has traveled the world and can be called a truly global ingredient. Sliced and eaten out of hand with a pinch of salt as we all did as kids on hot summer days is perfect, but  Citrullus lanatus has grown up along with my palate.  I now make watermelon the focal point of a summer salad that has my family and clients swooning.

The bright red watermelon - a salute to our brave firefighters!

Watermelon, Feta & Arugula Salad with Honey Vinaigrette


Watermelon and Feta Salad with Honey Vinaigrette

INGREDIENTS

    • 4 TBS Cider Vinegar
    • 1 TBS Dijon mustard
    • 2 TBS Honey
    • Salt and Pepper
    • 4 TBS Olive Oil
    • 4 TBS Vegetable Oil
    • 1 small watermelon
    • 16 oz crumbled Feta cheese
    • Arugula
    • Chopped Mint, optional

INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Place vinegar, honey, mustard, salt and pepper in a jar with a tight fitting lid. Shake until the ingredients are combined. Add the oils and shake again to combine. Taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and even vinegar and honey if necessary. You should have a combination of sweet and sour, with neither flavor overpowering the other.
    2. Cube watermelon according to the recipe below.
    3. Toss arugula in the dressing, arrange cubed watermelon over it and top with the feta and chopped mint. Drizzle some leftover dressing over the cheese. Enjoy!

For a favorite appetizer 

Watermelon-Tomato Cups with Feta and Mint

Watermelon-Tomato Cups

Adapted by Margie MacKenzie, from GIADA DELAURENTIS

INGREDIENTS

    • 1 small seedless watermelon
    • 1 pint cherry tomato
    • 1 bunch fresh mint
    • 16 oz crumbled feta cheese
    • 12 small appetizer cups, bamboo or other similar "tasting" cup
    • 12 wooden cocktail forks

INSTRUCTIONS

    1. Slice the top and bottom off and then make four straight cuts down the sides to create a rindless cube. Cut the cube into 1 1/2 inch thick slices and then each slice into 1 1/2 inch cubes.
    2. Slices the cherry tomatoes in half.
    3. Remove mint leaves from the stems. Roll 5-6 leaves together lengthwise and then slice into very thin ribbons (chiffonade); repeat with remaining leaves until all are sliced.
    4. To assemble: place 2-3 watermelon cubes and 2-3 tomato slices, depending on the size, into the serving cup. Drizzle with Honey Vinaigrette then sprinkle with a few basil ribbons and then with some crumbled feta. Serve with wooden cocktail fork.

Stay cool and stop by your local fire station and say thank you!

Happy Independence Day!

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

It's Raining French Onion Soup

It is June 25, 2013. It rained at my house today. For those readers east of the Mississippi River, that revelation may not seem too surprising. You are used to hot, humid and wet summers. We Californians are not.

I remember visiting my Aunt Ginny in Louisville, Kentucky in 1967 (and yes, I know how pronounce that fine city's name correctly and have fond memories of my Kentucky uncle - see my blog post about Black Eyed Peas). It was mid-June, it was hot and humid and it rained one day, and continued to rain, and it rained so much that the street outside Aunt Ginny's home filled with enough water that it was like a wading pool. My brother, sister and I ran outside in our day clothes, into the pooling water with our mouths open to catch the falling drops. We kicked up enough water that we almost drowned 4 year old Laura, but she was laughing too hard to notice. If we had seen the film, we would surely have been imitating Gene Kelley in "Singing in the Rain", so happy were we to be playing in the rain on a hot summer day.

Aunt Ginny stood on her front porch, with my mother, in astonishment. "Haven't they ever seen rain?", she asked. "Not in June when it's 90 degrees", was Mom's reply. It does not rain in California in the summer.

I have one other memorable summertime rain experience. I worked at Knotts' Berry Farm, the Buena Park amusement park, during the summers while I was in college. (It is vastly different from when I worked there 30+ years ago, but I will not dwell on that.) It rained on August 16, 1977 - a really unusual weather pattern for Southern California - and the park closed due to that rain. I did not have to report to work that day.

Now, I have no way of knowing if these two events are linked, and I'm not going to start any conspiracy theories, but it rained in Southern California on August 16, 1977 and Elvis Presley died that same day.

My best friend Pam was a huge Elvis fan and as a way to help her mourn, I suggested we go for a rain walk. We were goofy enough as 19 year olds that a lack of umbrellas, put away until winter, was no obstacle.  We  jumped and splashed  in our day clothes through the water that pooled on the streets of our suburban neighborhood, not a care in the world, temporarily forgetting the death of an American icon. I was my 9 year old self in St. Matthews, Kentucky once again!

The rain today has not been enough to flood our neighborhood street. It's not cold enough for pot roast and mashed potatoes - the temps are quite sultry and almost tropical so I'm imagining myself in Hawaii.  But I guess there is enough foul weather that my younger son has asked for French Onion Soup for dinner. Thanks to the well stocked pantry, I have all the ingredients on hand. We may not run out into the street, delighting in the rain, but we have dinner.

Photo by  Steve Hunter, Fine Cooking Magazine

MOLLY STEVENS, FINE COOKING, ISSUE 47

French Onion Soup

YIELD
 Serves 6

INGREDIENTS

    • 4 Tbs. unsalted butter
    • 6 large yellow onions (about 3-1/4 lb. total), sliced about 1/8 inch thick
    • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
    • 2 tsp. all-purpose flour
    • 1 cup dry white wine (not oaky), such as Sauvignon Blanc or Pinot Grigio
    • 8 cups homemade chicken or beef broth, or low-salt canned chicken broth
    • 1 sprig flat-leaf parsley, 1 sprig fresh thyme, and 1 bay leaf tied together with kitchen twine
    • 1 baguette, cut into as many 3/8-inch slices as needed to cover six soup crocks
    • 1 to 1/2 cups (about 6 oz.) grated Gruyère cheese

INSTRUCTIONS

    1. In a large, wide soup pot (at least 4-1/2 qt.), melt the butter over medium heat. Add the onions and season lightly with salt and pepper. (It might seem like you have far too many onions, but they'll cook down to about one-quarter of their original volume.) Cook the onions gently, stirring frequently, until they're very soft and have begun to turn a dark straw color, 35 to 45 min.
    2. When the onions are ready, stir in the flour and cook for 3 to 4 min., stirring frequently. Pour in the wine and increase the heat to medium high, stirring and scraping to loosen any caramelized juices, until the liquid is mostly reduced, 5 to 8 min. Add the broth, toss in the tied herbs, and bring to a simmer. Season to taste with salt and pepper and simmer for 20 to 30 min. to infuse the broth with onion flavor; the onions should be soft but not falling apart. Remove the herb bundle and taste the soup for seasoning. The soup can be made ahead to this point and then cooled and refrigerated for a few days.
    3. To serve -- Heat the oven to 350°F, put the baguette slices on a rack, and toast lightly (7 to 10 min.); set aside. Increase the oven temperature to 450°F. Bring the soup back to a simmer. Set six ovenproof soup crocks on a heavy baking sheet and ladle the soup into the crocks. Float a few toasted baguette slices on top, enough to cover the soup surface without too much overlap. Top the bread with a handful (about 1/4 cup) of the grated Gruyère. Slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and just browning in spots, 10 to 12 min.
    4. Melted, bubbly, just barely golden cheese is what you're after. Serve the soup right away, while the crock is hot and the cheese is still gooey.

No need to shed any tears when slicing onions. I put on my trusty pair of Onion Goggles, pull out a big bowl and produce sliced onion perfection with my OXO Handheld Mandoline, one of the many wonderful items in my Camp Blogaway swag bag. Bon Appetit!

Saturday, June 22, 2013

It's Not Complicated!

Why do people make cooking so complicated? I went into my pantry the other evening, pulled out a couple jars of imported oven roasted tomatoes and crushed tomatoes and made a sauce for the Italian sausage ravioli I had in the freezer. Maybe it’s because I know how to cook, and cook for a living, that I can make a pantry raid into a successful dinner. It should not be all that hard for the average home cook. By doing a little research into how to keep a well stocked pantry and larder, anyone can provide their family with good food prepared with quality ingredients. Food TV is an excellent place for home cooks to find inspiration, and many people would never be in the kitchen were it not for Ina, Giada  or Bobby. Though I find there are far better televised food resources such as Jacques Pepin, Lidia Bastianich, Eric Ripert
Yes, Chef Eric is easy on the eyes and
 he knows how to cook!
 
Photo from PBS.org
and America’s Test Kitchen on PBS, if folks are shopping for and cooking with real ingredients because of “celebrity” chefs, I am happy. (Full Disclosure - I love Ina, I own all the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and use her recipes repeatedly. But don't get me started on Bobby Flay!)

What really chaps my hide are shows like “Chopped”, which is broadcast on The Food Network. I’m not a big TV viewer, but occasionally, when I need a guilty pleasure, I’ll pause on “Chopped” as I channel surf. I watch it with both hope and disdain.

I get nervous as the TV chefs scramble for real ingredients that will make the ridiculousness in that basket somewhat palatable. I root for them; in a strange way, I want them to succeed. These chefs are really going to concoct something out of  Stinky Tofu, Shad Row Sack, Marmite and Astronaut Ice Cream. Yes, those ingredients  have all been in that ridiculous basket, perhaps not at the same time, but just the same. I begin to wonder what I would do with those ingredients and then I slap myself. This is reality TV not real cooking! The chefs are so earnest in their pursuit of greatness. They look into the camera and speak of how their Marmite-Shad Roe Frittata with Astronaut Ice Cream Foam will have the judges swooning. Oops, left out the Stinky Tofu. Geoffrey will not be happy.

Chopped judge Geoffrey Zakarian.
He knows what he's doing!
Photo from The Food Network

Here’s where I move into disdain mode: You can hold your hands up to the TV and feel the warmth of these chefs’ sincerity as they speak about their love of cooking, how they learned to cook from their mother/grandmother/dying frat brother, and how the potential win of $10K will allow them to expand their 20 seat diner/help offset their high interest loan on said diner/lead to a gig on The Food Network. They then proceed to diss and degrade their fellow competitors. It gets really nasty, and we all now know that that is exactly what the producers of “reality” food TV want – blood and guts and Avocado Crème Brulee. This is my big sticking point with shows like “Chopped” – COMPETITION!

Cooking is not about competition. Cooking is about love. Cooking is about sharing one of the most fundamental elements a human can share. We cannot breathe for one another, but we can provide nourishment for one another. We celebrate and mourn with food; we charm and court with food; we impress with food and we humbly offer it when we have little else to offer. Food is love.

Cooking for friends and family is one of life’s simplest and purest pleasures. If you need some encouragement, use resources such as cookbooks, online blogs and video tutorials, and watch food TV (PBS preferred). Purchase quality ingredients from  farmers’ markets and trusted grocers. Cook those ingredients well. You have dinner. It’s not complicated.