The Most Glorious Season

If someone held me at gunpoint and forced me to pick a favorite season, it would have to be autumn. And they could probably just use a squirt gun and I would cave in. I just absolutely adore autumn. Now spring, with its thousands of shades of green – that’s pretty impressive. Summer with its vibrant light and the general lazy feel of the days (even though they seldom are!) – that’s a good time of year, too. And winter with the absolute quiet that happens sometimes during snowy winter nights – ya gotta love winter. But autumn has my heart with it’s soft, incredible light. And the smell of leaves as they’re burning. And the colors – the colors are just so unbelievable you can hardly believe you were lucky enough to be born into such a world. So here we are on the autumnal equinox (autumn “equal night” for those of you who aren’t familiar with Latin – I personally had Latin drummed into my fourteen year old little pea brain. One of two days in the year where the day and the night are equal lengths, the other being, of course, the vernal (or spring) equinox.) So I’m happily thinking autumny thoughts and dreaming about favorite autumny edibles like apples and pumpkins. Todays’ recipe is a favorite amongst favorites here at the Walker household. I believe it originally came from Fine Food magazine.

Apple Cranberry Crisp

(recipe can be doubled and baked in a 9 x 13 pan)

3 lbs apples (about 4 to 5 medium large – I like to mix varieties such as Braeburn, Gala, Golden Delicious and that apple to end all apples, the supernal Honeycrisp)
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 tsp finely grated orange zest
1 Tbsp unsalted butter
3 Tbsp freshly squozen orange juice
pinch of salt
1 cup granulated sugar

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Butter the sides only of a 9 inch square baking pan.

Peel, quarter and core the apples. Cut into 3/4 inch thick slices. Put them in a large bowl and sprinkle on the cinnamon and toss until the spice is evenly distributed. Combine the cranberries and orange zest and chop them together – just until the cranberries are a little smaller pieces (you don’t have to go all crazy here.) Add to the apple mixture and toss welll. Put the butter, orange juice and salt into a small microwavable dish and heat until the butter melts – about 45 seconds. Watch it. Butter and microwaves are unpredictable in my experience. Swirl to blend and pour over the apples – toss to coat. Add the sugar and toss again. Pour the apple mixture into the prepared pan and make into an even layer.

Pecan Topping

1 1/4 cups all purpose flour (gluten free flour works great in this recipe)
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup cold, unsalted butter – cut into 1/2 inch chunks
3/4 cup coarsely chopped pecans

Combine the flour, brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and salt in a medium bowl. Rub the butter in with your fingertips until it is well blended and the mixture in clumpy but still a bit crumbly (it should hold together if you pinch it.) Mix in the pecans. Refrigerate until ready to use if you’re doing this step first.

Sprinkle the topping evenly over the apple mixture. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes until the top is golden brown and crisp and the apples are tender. Let set for 30 minutes. Serve warm with Blue Bell Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream. If you don’t have Blue Bell in your area then you have my deepest sympathies.

Texas When I Die

Tanya Tucker had it right when she sang – “when I die I may not go to heaven, I don’t know if they let cowboys in, but when I die let me go to Texas, ’cause Texas is as close as I’ve been.”  I’m not sure what it is about Texas that I love so much but love it I do.   Growing up in the grand old commonwealth of Virginia, Texas – a young upstart of a state by Virginia standards – seemed like some sort of foreign country.  A place of cowboys, prickly cactus, scorching heat,  rattlesnakes and cattle skulls bleached white in the roaring sun.  Nothing there to appeal to a girl from a land of gentle blue mountains and endless acres of lush green forests.  I never, ever thought I would live in Texas.  And when I did I went there totally prepared to NOT love it.  The first time I set foot on Texas soil was when I  moved there in the early days of 1979 in the middle of one of the worst ice storms I have ever seen to this day – not the sort of scenario that endears a place to ones heart.  But (as I said in a poem I wrote in the sad days sixteen years later when I finally had to leave Texas) “imperceptibly my heart put down its roots, and grew and flowered in the bigness there, and settled easy into the mesquite and cedar and the startling suddenness of blue northers.  And I became a part of it all, and it all became a part of me.”  I left Texas seventeen years ago this month but my heart, my heart keeps turning back to Texas.  And I never thought I’d live in Texas.

Black Eyes of Texas (yeah, yeah, I know all you Walkers already know and love this recipe but this is for the non-Walker readers!)

1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef, browned and drained of excess fat

1 small onion, finely chopped

garlic, salt and pepper to taste

1 can cream of mushroom soup

1 can cream of chicken soup

1 can enchilada sauce

1 can Rotel tomatoes with green chiles

1 can black eyed peas, drained

1 dozen corn tortillas, cut into quarters

2 to 3 cups shredded cheese

several shakes of Tabasco sauce

Brown the hamburger with the onions, garlic, salt and pepper.  Drain excess fat.  Add the canned ingredients and the Tabasco.  Cook over medium heat until hot and bubbly.  Layer a 9 x 13 pan with half the tortillas, half the meat, half the cheese.  Repeat.  Bake at 350 for about 30 to 45 minutes or until heated through.

Perfect Potato Salad

Last weekend I made the First Potato Salad of the Season.  Now I realize that one can have potato salad year round – it’s nearly always available in its ready made incarnation at just about any grocery store.  But for me, potato salad just says summer.  And in my opinion, it is one of the best things about summer.  I’m not much for some of the other things about summer – the heat and humidity that settles like a soggy blanket on the middle section of the country for the duration, the chiggers that make sitting on the lawn – heck, even just walking across the lawn – a game of Russian Roulette as to whether or not you will be spending the next ten days in a torment of itching and scratching.  But potato salad now, that is a fine, fine thing about summer.  I am the first to admit that I am extremely picky about my potato salad.  As a matter of fact, there is only one potato salad that I like and it is mine.  The secret to a fine potato salad is the dressing and then you can put just about anything you want into it and it will taste good.  I grew up with the following potato salad dressing recipe adorning my potato salad and it forever spoiled me for any other.  The original recipe came from my paternal grandmother.  I don’t know where she got it.  My mother (whose relationship with her mother-in-law was strained at best) once said in an effort to be diplomatic, “Granny brought two good things into my life.  Stanley (my father and her husband) and her potato salad dressing recipe.”  She brought some other good things into my life (she was a better grandmother than mother-in-law) but I have to concur with Mom – Daddy and her potato salad dressing were her crowning achievements.

Have a glorious summer and may the chiggers leave you alone!

Potato Salad Dressing

2 eggs, lightly beaten until combined

5 Tbsp sugar

1 Tbsp prepared mustard

2 Tbsp apple cider vinegar

1 1/2 to 2 cups mayonnaise

Put the first four ingredients into the top of a double boiler – whisk together to blend.  Cook over a simmer until thick.  Cool.  Add the mayonnaise.

Now, you may ask, what else?  Myself I like to use Yukon Gold potatoes – “cooked and skunt” as my mother used to say.  Chop them into bite size pieces.  I don’t know exactly how many I use – maybe 2 1/2 lbs?  I just add to the dressing until it looks right – you want each potato piece to have a nice thick glaze of dressing.  I put them in while they’re still a little warm so they can absorb the flavors.  Then I chop up a bunch of sweet pickles – I like the little baby sweet gherkins.  A couple of ribs of celery chopped up fine.  A bit of finely chopped onion (so as not to get a big honking piece of onion in your bite of potato salad unless you like that sort of thing.)  A couple or three or four chopped up hard boiled eggs.  I use the lesser amount of mayonnaise in the dressing recipe – I like the stronger flavor.  This will need salt and pepper to taste after assembling.

Motherhood, Apple Pie and Boa Constrictors

Although I have been a mother for going on 39 years now, I still face Mother’s Day with mixed feelings.  I just don’t feel like I’m quite up to Hallmark card standards.  I guess I’m still waiting for the “real mother” to show up and reveal me as an imposter.  I cringe when I remember some of the things I did in my capacity as mother – either from ignorance, poor judgement or sheer exhaustion.  I comfort myself with the fact that I raised seven truly wonderful human beings so I must not have done anything too egregious.   I did bring one trait  to motherhood that served me very well and that is – I’m not afraid of snakes, spiders or rats.  You would be surprised how handy this particular trait comes in when you’re raising six sons and one adventurous daughter.  Snakes are not in the least bit slimy and are actually quite beautiful to behold.  Tarantulas, unlike their hyped up movie persona, are not vicious eight legged demons, lying in wait for an unsuspecting Two Legs to walk by so they can attack.  They are quite gentle, shy even, and would prefer to just be left alone to their spiderly ways.  And rats are probably one of the best pets you can let your children have.  They are intelligent, clean and altogether better natured than the nasty little hamsters that dominate the rodent pet market.  One of my defining moments in life came as a result of one of my children, Austin and his pet boa constrictor, Grendyl.  The uninitiated among you may not realize that when it comes time to shed their skin, snakes go through a lot of  stress.  This has something to do with their eyesight being compromised in the process – I never did quite understand the mechanics of the situation – and they can get a little testy.  The dutiful adoptive snake parent may at times have to assist in the skin shedding process by bathing the snake so that the skin will shed more rapidly.  One time Grendyl, who was rather large, was having a particularly difficult time shedding and Austin asked me late one Saturday night to help him.  So we ran a tub full of water and plopped six feet of grumpy boa constrictor in.  Austin went off to get something and as I sat there tending Grendyl I had an epiphany of sorts:  It is midnight and I am bathing a boa constrictor.  In my bathtub.  How. Did. I. Get. Here?  When you contemplate motherhood as a sweet young thing, that just isn’t the kind of future you envision – bathing a boa constrictor at midnight.  But in the end, it is those moments – unanticipated, unplanned and sometimes even unwanted – that bring the sweetness and immeasurable joy to family life.  So, to my children, thank you for the chance to bathe boa constrictors, to spend sleepless nights rocking your feverish little bodies, to see you dressed up for dances – looking so grown up that my heart broke, and also to see you dressed up in a gorilla suit jumping out at unsuspecting motorists when they stopped at the corner.   And everything else, the everyday mundanities of motherhood that add up to a life that I have enjoyed living and look back on with pleasure.  Nothing much that I planned on but everything that I needed.  I love each of you with my whole heart.

Now along about now you are probably expecting a recipe for apple pie.  Sorry.  Apple pie is the rightful domain of my wonderful mother-in-law (Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!) and my sister-in-law, Charlotte (Happy Mother’s Day, Char!)  My apple pie doesn’t hold a candle to theirs.  And besides, when you’re bathing a boa constrictor nothing will do but a heavy dose of chocolate.

Mississippi Mud

1 cup butter

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

2 cups sugar

4 eggs

2 tsp vanilla extract

1 1/2 cups flour (a gluten free flour mix works well in this recipe for those whose digestive system balks at gluten)

pinch of salt

1/2 cup chopped nuts

10.5 oz pkg miniature marshmallows

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a 9 x 13 pan.  In a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter.  Remove from heat and stir in the cocoa until smooth.  Mix in the sugar, eggs and vanilla.  Mix in the flour and salt and then fold in the pecans and half the marshmallows.  Spread evenly in the prepared pan.  Bake for 25 to 30 minutes, until the brownies start to pull away from the sides of the pan.  Take out of oven and dump the rest of the marshmallows over the brownies.  As the marshmallows melt, spread them around.  Let cool in pan.

frosting:

1/3 cup unsweetened cocoa powder

1/2 cup butter

4 cups confectioners sugar

1 tsp vanilla

1/3 cup milk

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter.  Add the cocoa and stir until blended.  Mix in the confectioners sugar and vanilla.  Gradually beat in the milk, a tablespoonful at a time until frosting is a good spreading consistency.  Frost the brownies.

A Tale of Two Salads

This time of year I start to get obsessed with salads.  Despite the drop dead gorgeous weather we tend to have in the Midwest this time of year, there’s that faint unsettling undercurrent of Things to Come.  Those things being  killer humidity and scorching heat.  The sort of things that make turning on an oven about as appealing as a root canal or a colonoscopy.   Many people start thinking of the grill as an alternative to the oven.  I myself am severely grill impaired and have the additional psychic handicap of having once set our deck on fire.  It didn’t have anything to do with a grill, but still – the scars remain.  So salads are what I start thinking about.   I make a pretty good salad on my own with whatever happens to be in the fridge – it doesn’t have to be a classic salad ingredient for me to toss it in.  And I’ve got the salad dressing “oil to acid” ratio down pat so I can whip up a salad dressing without a problem.  What I’m saying is – I know you don’t need a recipe to produce a salad.  But most recipe books have recipes for salads and since I am an avid reader of cookbooks, I run across recipes from time to time that I decide are worth trying.  So today, I’m going to share two salad recipes with you even though it’s going to make for a long post and you may lose interest before I’m through.  But if you hang in here with me, I can promise you’ll  leave with two excellent recipes.

Salad #1

Most salads (at least the lettuce based ones) kind of sit there politely on your plate, unassuming and willing to be part of the team, whatever the team may be.  They play equally nicely with any number of entrees.  Not this salad!  The flavors  are pretty assertive.  This salad has chutzpah and it demands recognition in its own right.  Now I really, really LIKE this salad, but I’m still not quite sure what to serve it with – there just seem to be a lot of things it doesn’t “go with” easily.  But maybe I’m not being open minded enough.  Maybe I’m becoming rigid and inflexible in my thinking.  Whatever – it is a very good salad and you really should try it, even if you just make it to eat by itself.  It would be really good as a solo culinary event with a nice crusty slice of bread slathered with butter.  W-a-a-a-a-ah!  Have I mentioned lately how much I miss being able to have a nice crusty slice of bread slathered with butter?  Ah well.  The original recipe came from the talented Kalyn Denney of kalynskitchen.com fame.  I have only minimally revised it to my taste.  She called it “Peperoncini Chopped Salad with Romaine, Red Bell Pepper and Feta.”  That seemed like too much of a mouthful to me for ordinary household usage.  If someone asked me what we were having for dinner I fear I would forget what I was talking about before I got to the end of the name.  So I renamed it to be more in keeping with my short attention span.  And I think the name fits.

Attitude Salad

dressing:

1 tsp dried oregano (preferably Greek oregano but don’t stress about it)

1/2 to 1 tsp of minced garlic

3 Tbsp white wine vinegar

1 Tbsp brine from the jar of peperoncini

freshly ground black pepper to taste

6 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

Mash the oregano together with the garlic and then combine with the next three ingredients.  Then whisk in the olive oil a couple of tablespoonfuls at a time until it is well emulsified.  Let the dressing sit in a quiet spot so all the ingredients can get acquainted while you put together the salad.

salad:

4 to 6 cups chopped Romaine lettuce (I get the package with three heads in it, chop off the stem ends and then slice the lettuce into about 1/2 to 1 inch rounds.  I used two heads.)

1 cup sliced peperoncini (I buy Marzetti’s brand that is pre-sliced – it’s available here at WalMart)

1 red bell pepper, cut into short, thin slices

1/2 to 3/4 cup Feta cheese, crumbled

Put the lettuce into a big bowl and toss with the desired amount of dressing – you probably won’t need it all.  The leftover dressing will taste great the next day on a regular salad.  Add the peperoncini, bell pepper strips and the crumbled feta.  Add some more black pepper maybe.  Kalyn suggests (although she has never had any leftovers to contend with) that it probably isn’t a salad that keeps well once assembled.  When I made it we practically licked the bowl clean so I have no experience there either.

Salad #2

I first had this salad at Seth and Maddie’s home.  As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the truly lovely things about daughters-in-law is that they often come complete with wonderful recipes to share.  This is one of those.  Now this salad is one of those aforementioned polite salads that plays nicely with one and all.  It was originally called Berry Mandarin salad but Seth and Maddie refer to it as Barry Manilow Salad so that’s what it will be forevermore in my mind.  I am old enough and sappy enough to really like Barry Manilow so eating a salad that is named after him is not off putting to me. However, I know that many do not share my positive opinion of the man,  so call it whatever you like but try it – it’s really, really good.

Barry Manilow Salad

8 cups torn mixed salad greens

2 cups sliced fresh strawberries

11 oz can mandarin oranges, drained

1 medium sweet onion, sliced (or less!)

1/3 cup slivered almonds, toasted

4 bacon strips, cooked and crumbled

Combine all salad ingredients in large bowl.

Make dressing:

¼ cup sugar

2 Tbsp cider vinegar

2 Tbsp honey

1 ¼ tsp lemon juice

½ tsp paprika

½ tsp ground mustard

½ tsp grated onion

¼ tsp celery seed

dash of salt

1/3 cup vegetable oil

Combine all ingredients except oil in a microwavable bowl. Microwave to dissolve sugar. Whisk in oil and refrigerate. When ready to dress salad, blend the dressing in a blender immediately before adding to salad.

A Reliable Egg

A few weeks ago I read a novel in which a Mr. Ralph Truitt advertises in the newspaper for a “reliable wife.”  He doesn’t  specify what his definition of  a reliable wife is but does say that he is “compelled by practical, not romantic, reasons.”  So one might assume she didn’t have to be thin, young, beautiful or rich.  Just reliable.  Predictable.  No surprises.  Now if Mr. Truitt had consulted me first he could have saved himself a lot of grief.  Because if there’s one thing I know after living in this old world for over sixty years, the human creature is anything but reliable and predictable.  We seem to be swimming in a sea of random hormones, erratically firing synapses, flights of irrational fancy and sudden unexplained tangential interests – all of which make our reliability extremely unreliable.  But an egg now, an egg is a much less evolved life form than your average human.  I expect reliability from an egg.  I expect the white to be firm but not rubbery.   I expect the yolk to be runny and not at all solid.  If I have to start the day facing an overcooked lump of an egg yolk . . . well, I’d just as soon go back to bed.  Despite my expectations, the reliable egg eluded me up until about a month ago.  It didn’t seem like it should be all that complicated but as often as not my whites were not firm enough (you know, that gross gelatinous sludge on the surface of the egg that hasn’t quite cooked through but you know if you cook it any longer your yolk is going to go solid.)  Or the yolk had overcooked into that chalky pasty stage that sticks to the roof of your mouth.  Most unpleasant.  Enter the March 2010 issue of “Cooking Light” magazine.  Page 38.  Problem solved.  Hoover Alexander of Hoover’s Cooking shares his egg cooking secret. A simple method that creates a truly reliable egg.

You take a small skillet and heat it over medium heat.  Coat the pan with cooking spray or a brief swipe with a paper towel with a bit of canola oil on it (don’t burn your fingers.)  Break two eggs into the skillet and cook for 1 minute or until the bottom of the whites are starting to set.  Throw in about 3 ice cubes and immediately cover your pan and cook for two more minutes.  Remove from heat and drain off any excess water.  Sprinkle with sea salt and freshly ground pepper and serve.  What you get is this amazing hybrid of a fried egg and a poached egg.  You may have to tweak the number of ice cubes – your ice cubes may be larger or smaller than mine.  You may have to tweak the heat setting – it took me two times to know exactly where to set the dial for my burner.  You may have to tweak the time – some pans heat faster than others.  In any event, within a time or two or three you should have mastered it for your particular ice cube/burner/pan and be able to produce A Reliable Egg.  Satisfy yourself with that and just give up on the idea of the reliable human being.

From Chocolate to Curry

When Kadra was turning five, I asked her what she wanted for her birthday dinner.  She replied immediately and very firmly that her hearts’ desire was “chocolate cake with chocolate icing and chocolate kisses on top, chocolate ice cream and some chocolate milk.”  Do you see a theme emerging there?  Her mothers’ daughter for sure.  So her birthday arrived and I served chocolate cake with chocolate icing with chocolate kisses on top, chocolate ice cream along with some chocolate milk to wash it all down.  Kadra dug in.  After a moment she looked up at me with a look of utter bliss in her eyes, sighed and said, “Oh Mom, I L-O-V-E chocolate!”  The years have passed and she still loves chocolate but she has expanded her repertoire.  She now loves Thai food with an almost equal passion.  I asked her to do a “guest spot” on my blog about her search for the perfect Thai curry.  She agreed and, without further ado from her mother (who loves her very much,) here it is.

I have been searching for YEARS! for a curry recipe that tastes like the ones in the restaurants. You know, how you just can’t get enough of it, how you continue to shovel it into your mouth even after you’re full because it’s so dang delicious? Yeah.

I would try a recipe I’d find online, trying to replicate this deliciousness, and it wouldn’t quite be it. There was *something* missing. I’d try a different recipe, hopeful that this one contained the secret ingredient. “Ooh, maybe it’s fish sauce! Nope. Or maybe ginger! Nope, that wasn’t it, either…” I was beginning to think that the secret ingredient was indeed, Crack Cocaine. Well, I am so excited, I finally found the secret ingredient, and it’s not illegal, it’s… palm sugar! Palm sugar is made from the sap of the sago and coconut palms. You should be able to find it at your local Asian grocery (Here in sunny Portland, Oregon they have it at “Uwajimaya”.) It is sold here either in hard disks, or a softer version in a jar. Either one is fine- The “jarred” stuff is softer and can be easily scooped out, the disks can just be dissolved in the boiling mixture. This is a favorite around our house- we have it every 2 weeks or so, and often serve it to guests. I included some prices for fun, it’s a pleasingly inexpensive, quick and easy dish to make. This is just the basic red curry recipe, add meat, fruits, and veggies as you like. We like it with green beans, pineapple (which I will dump in from the can, juice and all), and tomatoes. Carne Asada soaks up the curry taste quite well, too. Ahem…

Crack Cocaine Thai Curry

-3 tablespoons olive oil
-(1) 114g can Mae Ploy red curry paste (“cat-food sized” can- 69 cents!)  (note from Mom:  I couldn’t find any red curry paste in anything resembling a cat food can.  I ended up using half of a 4 oz. jar)

-(1) 400mL can (13.5 fl. oz.) coconut milk ($1)-“1/2 a cocnut milk can full” of water

-2 tbs. palm sugar (2 bucks for a jar)  (another note from Mom: I had a hard time finding this – finally found it in a 1 lb bag and it was dry – what Kadra used was kind of moist.  So I added 3 Tbsp instead of 2)
-2 tsp. fish sauce

(P.S. Add your fruits, meats, and veggies, just whenever it seems to make sense) Heat the oil in a saucepan. Saute the red curry paste until it starts to heat through. Add coconut milk & water and bring the curry to a boil. Add the fish sauce and palm sugar, stir until the palm sugar is dissolved.  Serve with rice (serves 4). Bon Appetit!