Sunday, January 26, 2014

The Gratitude Jar.

On January 1, 2013, at the behest of my optimistic friend, Amy, we started Gratitude Jars. These personally decorated jars would hold little scraps of paper on which we would scribble the good moments of 2013, and then on January 1, 2014, we would open them and read them, reflecting back on the year with contemplative joy. Sounds great, right? Of course, right! Amy got busy in her typical Amy fashion, creating a masterpiece of a jar, with rhinestones and tags and fufanklers and wuzzles. See?

Amy fashioned a shrine of sorts, with her magical crystal ball, a reclining cherub and a photo of her beloved mother. And of course, a lovely work of art in the backdrop from what I'm sure is one of her friends with fabulous taste. Filled with colorful bits of paper, seriously, you could pay big bucks for this thing at Pier One. Here's mine, a more utilitarian version, shall we say?

Semi-filled with out-dated business cards and still sporting some wax from the many candles that have dripped in there, it is less than fancy. It's counterpart puts to it to shame, actually. But that's ok! It's what's inside, right? Let's take a look in and see what inspired me to put pen to paper, fold and chuck into the austere Gratitude Jar this year..... (I will only be posting the G-rated items, for all you concerned parents out there, I know this is great bedtime story fodder...) 

Jan 8- "Was inadvertently exposed to active TB. Did not get it." Yes, that's a real plus right there. Go me! Go auto-imune system! 2013 rocks so far!

Jan. 11- "Bought a guitar!" Yes, yes I did. And one day, I will actually play it....

Feb. 5- "Mumford and Sons!" This needs no clarification. 

Feb. 14- "Sang 'House of the Rising Sun' at Mama Mia's with the guitarist. NOT KARAOKE." Well, that was a moment for sure. It wasn't videoed or recorded in any fashion, so you'll have to take my word for it. There was applause. 

Feb 21- "Winter Book Club"- yes, in an effort to have more cerebral undertakings in my free time, I started a book club. Why, well, because it's fun to have HOMEWORK, that's why....

Feb 25- "Did not step in puke today." Really? I blocked this episode out, but I'm sure it's true. Soooo glad I wrote it down, for reflection's sake. 

March 21- "Elaine is here!!!" Best visit from my dear friend from Alabama. We had a hoot. 

March 30- "Easter eggs with Lisa, Dan and Charlie." I think that's a blog post somewhere. It was colorful. And Willow was a champ. Beat the whippersnapper to the frisbee. 

April 11- "Made scallops, oatmeal and syrup edible. TOGETHER." Ha, take that, CHOPPED. 

May 2- "Did not murder today." I will spare you the details. But this was a real accomplishment. 

May 19- "Polenta Sunday." While I did not need to call the cops, it was a wild party. I just decided to make it an annual event, this second. 

June 1- "F-ing yard sale is f-ing over." Oh, that f-ing yard sale. Work for days and days, make 92 bucks selling stuff out of the house just because I could. Guy looking for an iron- you got a deal, dude! And I'm wrinkly. 

June 2- OFF TO NC WITH AMY. It says, in little letters underneath, "Best time EVER." It was incredible and I have a whole calendar to prove it. 

June 16- "Learning to live with less." Ah, an interesting positive lesson in a bad thing? For sure. 

June 22- "Saw Grace and told her I loved her." Saying good-bye is hard, but it's worse if you are unable to do it. 

July 28- "hummingbird." 

August 2- "Shot guns with Cousin Ron." Ah, yes. That was insane. "Say hello to my little friend." BLAM.  

August 10- "Helped install a ceiling- got to use NAIL GUN!" (August was the month of shooting things.)

August 15- It's actually illegible. If I had to guess, I think it says, "No more inkwells." 

Undated- but it was late August- "Sleepover with Elvis!" LOVE having a Dobermann around the place!!

September 6- "Boat ride on the Susquehanna!!" I love a boat ride. It was a great vacation overall. Lots of quality time with both Mom and Dad- and I participated in a photography challenge called Shootember which re-ignited my love for taking photos. Here's my favorite. 

September 20- Just the date, no comment. Sometimes just letting time pass is an achievement.

October 26- "Mike!!!!!" Let's just say there is no one more important than the designated driver, and the smart friends who insist you have one for Halloween parties. CHER and Diana Nyad are forever grateful. 

And that was it. Not really as epic as I would have liked, but I fully blame my lack of commitment to the task, and as of this January 1, things are a little different. My gratitude jar is appropriately adorned, it's already full of notes and special moments. It's next to my daily affirmation bowl, and my favorite cookbook. Positive energy abounds. Happy 2014, all. Hoping it's a good one. 

Cauliflower Mulligatawny

Friday, November 15, 2013

Knock knock. Who's there? Pho. Pho who? Pho you!

A craving for noodles and broth made me hunt down a recipe for that famed Vietnamese soup, pho. Asian cuisine and I have been doing a perilous dance for a few years now and I step on its toes constantly. While I wish I had the finesse and sensibility to create authentic Asian dishes, they always elude me just a bit. I'm not sure if it's the balance of sweet/salt/sour/bitter/emame or the total lack of experience,  but I never feel they are quite up to snuff. But why stop trying? I have a small following for my Thai fried rice (thank-you, ladies!) and I still think that my cellophane noodle dumplings are pretty awesome, but for the most part, my Chinese/Thai/Japanese/Vietnamese attempts have been sort of mediocre. So sure, let's try one  more!

The first step, as always, was research. The Vietnamese cookbook was helpful as far as ingredients, but it completely assumed I was a smart Vietnamese person who had been cooking at Vietnamese gramma's ( I don't have one of those) knee since I was a young kid. Some of the techniques completely escaped me.  So, off to YouTube I went. I was appalled. APPALLED. I watched exactly 4 videos on pho-making. Um. Hey. I don't want to add granulated bullion and MSG pho powder and WHAT?? I'll say one thing about my cooking. It is not filled with crap. I am pretty sure that Vietnamese gramma would not be adding powdered chemicals to her pho. I knew I sure wasn't going to. I went back to the book.

The recipe for Pho Ga (chicken pho) was pretty straightforward. Take some ginger, burn it over an open flame. Yup. Really. Then do the same with two onions, skin on. Burn 'em, wreck 'em. This gives pho the smoky base that authentic pho-eaters are used to. (I was excited about becoming one of those.)

After cooling the ginger and onion, it is peeled and set aside with cilantro, fish sauce, turbinado sugar, anise, coriander, black pepper, cloves.  A whole chicken was also involved. There was some cleaver work with the chicken, so I put June to work. The chicken had to be boiled for 15 minutes and then dumped out into a "clean sink" - I swear, every recipe said something about the clean sink procedure- and washed to remove the impurities. The pot also needed a quick wash, and then it was returned to the stove with a fresh fill of water and all the ingredients.  Soon the kitchen smelled like pho-heaven.

While the stock cooked, the rice noodles were prepared. I am a mad lover of the rice noodle. It's versatile, takes the flavor of what you add to it and can be prepared in advance. They can be found in many forms, I chose two. Rice stick is terribly thin and long- feel free to cut them with a knife or scissors after softening them in water. Personally, I like the challenge of getting them from the bowl to me without dropping- but I'm odd. I also had some linguini-type, and I cooked those as well. They took longer so I did them separately. (I always make too much when I have company over. Bad habit I can't seem to break.)

Once the stock was cooked and strained, and the chicken pulled off the carcass, it was time to assemble the garnishes. Mung bean sprouts, serrano chilies, mint leaves, Thai basil, scallion, and lime wedges. I also added baby corn because it's adorable and I love adorable food. Each garnish should be in bowls for guests (or you) to add as they like. Sriracha and hoisin bowls are also common for dipping the hot meat. Did I really just say that?

Each pho bowl gets a handful of noodles, and the hot stock is ladled over. Chicken is added, and then each pho-eater gets to garnish their own bowls. The hot stock and the cool garnishes are a wonderful contrast- and the stock has a smokey-licoricy, rich flavor that makes you dip in over and over. It's pho-nomenal. See what I did there?

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Confit of garlic revisited.

I know, this was already a blog post. I had a ton of garlic and needed to make it more fridge stable. Then I needed to take it's picture. I'm sorry for the repeat,  but I can't help myself. Just bask in it's beauty....  Want to make it for yourself? Here's how.... Confit garlic recipe

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

We don't need no stinkin' gadgets. (Or do we??)

September 2, 2013-

Something has gone horribly, horribly wrong. It seems, while I wasn't paying attention, some alien creature came along and sapped us of our ability to make a simple breakfast sandwich without this monstrosity of a one-trick-pony. I was unaware. In my oblivion, I had been toasting the muffin, cooking the egg AND frying the bacon in a time-consuming, laborious manner that would put (I guess) most people down for a nap. How was I to know that there was a betterfastereasier way? Hamilton Beach knows. They know that we, as a country, are too busy, too frazzled, unable to fork open our Thomas's, or pan fry our bacon. Too tired to cook a perfect egg, and certainly too addled to layer the whole thing correctly or neatly. Hamilton Beach has provided the answer.

First off, it comes with clear directions (please note you still have to fork your muffin yourself) which helps out a lot. Because we all know that the assembly of a breakfast sandwich can be downright baffling. Does the egg go on the top? The bottom? Decisions like that. Life's just easier if we don't have to decide. Now, the downside is, we don't have a lot of room for creativity. Muffins need to be a specific size, and apparently, HB does not have my penchant for bacon. I have no interest in the Canadian style, unless it's on my Eggs Benny. So, I'm finding this appliance a little fascist. And I'm not seeing cheese, AKA the glue and heart of the breakfast sandwich. But, that's all me. For all I know, there could also be some kind of anti-cheese movement of which I am oblivious.

Next comes the actual technique. It appears the bottom muffin sits on the heated plate on the base of the sandwich-maker, then a metal plate slides into place where the egg is cracked on it (if you have ever cooked an egg in a pan, you KNOW how that goes, I don't see my egg keeping to the four inch circle, and maybe I shouldn't judge without actually trying the thing myself- but I really do see potential for a big, runny mess if this sucker doesn't get hot enough.

This gives a better perspective of the sliding plate that holds the egg- once it's perfectly cooked, just pull the plate out and the egg will sit in perfect alignment on the lonely, cheese-less muffin bottom. I can feel the sense of accomplishment already. It's the kind of accomplishment one feels as the "good try" ribbon is pinned on, even though maybe you only beat two trees. Where's the challenge? Where's the creativity? The skill(et)? Sure, I can cut my cheese into a circle or break my bacon into jigsaw puzzle-like pieces, if I must. 

In a perfect world, this piece of equipment replaces the breakfast-time use of a pan, a spatula and a toaster. Wow. There's a savings. 

I have to come clean, I never added this post to my blog because it felt, well, wrong. Here I was, trashing something that I hadn't even tried. In the spirit of  fair play, I made an effort to set things right.

October 5, 2013-

Well, I'm the begrudging owner of this little thingy. 

While paying for it at the register, the clerk said to me,  "Oh, I was going to get my son one of those! He's in college." I had to keep my mouth shut, because as we all know, I was buying it to prove no one EVER needed to own such a one-trick-pony. Then she said, "But instead, we got him those Jimmy Dean microwave sandwich things. You can buy them in bulk at BJ's." I was torn between pointing out the uselessness of a microwave breakfast sandwich, but then thought better of it because, well, frankly, I didn't really care. I wanted to get my little robot home and finish my blog post.

 Rebel that I am, I surprised myself by reading the directions. They were short, so it's OK. I plugged in Gizmo (it's name. I name everything.) and a huge, clanging, whirring sound emitted from it's inner core. Not really. But that would have been cool. Or some kind of sizzling sound-effect. It silently heated up, only clicking once when the light went from red to green, which I could only assume meant "Start your cooking engines!" and off we went to the races.

I forked my muffin (heh, heh) got out my round meat product and round cheese. After lightly spraying the outside of the muffin with Mr. Misto, the bottom was placed in the lower round, then the cheese, then the meat. The cooking disk slid into place. Another spray from the Mister, and then the egg was cracked in. "Burst the yolk" was clearly stated in the instructions. I really didn't want to, but I did anyway. Experimenting could come later.

Salt, pepper, another slice of cheese (my own idea) and the top muffin. Then the lid was closed, and I set a timer for 5 minutes. It doesn't even look like it is in there, does it?

 Willow was dubious. She does not like gadgetry.

DING! Five minutes later, I slid the egg plate away, and the egg plopped onto the meat and cheese. Lifting the lid revealed a perfectly serviceable egg sandwich.

But then we saw this.... lacy cheese!! The muffin was surrounded by the most perfect, golden, crunchy ring of lacy cheese ever seen. Even Willow was impressed.

Since I had a Super Taster in the building, we cut the thing in half, each taking a bite. For a first attempt, we both agreed, it was pretty darn good. Sure, the egg was over-cooked to our taste and it could have used a little more pizazz, but that was ok. It was not a fail.

I had more testing to do, however. The next day, I packed Gizmo up and carted him off to work, to see if he could handle a little mass production. 

It did, with aplomb. Staff was fed, and eggs were cooked perfectly, once I figured the timing out. I had to admit, this was not a bad thing to have around. Clean up was just a quick wipe with a wet sponge on the hot surfaces, and the ring could be washed in the dishwasher. I didn't lose any egg at all, except for once (my fault) when I didn't have the ring perfectly aligned. Beginner mistake. I also added bacon and hot sauce, omitting the ham, and it was delicious. At another test session, I heated up a left-over turkey burger, with cheese on an English muffin. I wanted to use a whole wheat thin, but the rings were too small. It heated the burger up perfectly, not over-cooking something that was fully cooked already. 

Am I sold on the Hamilton Beach Breakfast Sandwich Maker? Yup. I've used it many times since, and it has yet to disappoint. I plan on spending a day with it doing some more daring recipes, and I'll be sure to share that here. As for me, well, I guess it's time to have a more open mind about kitchen gadgets. While I don't see me getting on board with the tortilla bowl pan, I can no longer say with any conviction that it WON'T happen. 

Monday, November 4, 2013

Leftovers.... Bucatini style.

Got leftovers? I do. All the time. Need ideas for putting those leftovers together to make a quick and tasty dish that doesn't taste like leftovers? I get that. All that's needed for this meal is a little leftover cooked pasta, cooked veggies, some kind of protein, if you so desire, a few eggs and a hot pan. 

In this case, I scored some leftover pasta from dinner made by a friend and brought it home. Dinner was delicious, bucatini pasta, haricot vert, garlic, hot pepper flakes and parmesan. A simple, tasty dish, just like Mama would make. Not MY mama, but someone's Italian mama.  At home, a day later, I pulled the pasta from the fridge and heated up the cast iron skillet. A little splash of olive oil heated to shimmering, and in went the pasta. I cut up some of my country French chicken breast that was left from another meal, shaved up some extra parmesan and sprinkled on a few extra red pepper flakes. Don't mess with the pasta at all, just let it sit there and sizzle. It's busy making a nice pasta crust on the bottom. 

 After about 10 minutes on medium heat, beaten eggs were poured over the pasta and chicken, followed by a generous sprinkling of cheese and a grind of black pepper. Don't toss it or stir it, just let it cook. Rule of thumb- use 1 egg per how many servings you want. I used 4, for about 2 cups of pasta. My end results look like they could feed 4 people if they aren't THAT hungry, 3 if they are.

 The eggs are cooked on the stove top until the edges are firm, and then it's slipped under the broiler to cook the rest of the way.

This browns the cheese a little bit and makes some of the top pasta crispy.

Sometimes I'll invert the pie over a board and serve it bottom side up, but I liked the way the chicken and green vegetables looked, so it stayed right side up. Love the way the little holes in the pasta showed up on the cut side.

Sliced into wedges, this makes a nice lunchbox addition (I know it's my lunch for the rest of the week!) or with a little green salad it can be a good supper. The variations of pasta, veggies, cheese and proteins are limitless. A little imagination and you can have a satisfying meal in a matter of minutes, and you don't have to tell anyone it's leftovers!