Archive Page 2

Sometimes Things Just Get Lost in the Translation

My mother and I may have had differing opinions on the merit of onions in the grand scheme of things (see “Cepa Allium, Revisited), but one thing we were in total agreement about was the supremacy of Creme Brulee as a dessert.  Whenever we would eat at a restaurant, if creme brulee appeared on the menu there was no question about what we both were having for dessert.  Hopefully all who are reading this have experienced creme brulee firsthand and know that it is a thick, rich chilled custard topped with a layer of crackly caramelized sugar.  So, one fine spring day my mother and I were browsing through a cooking gadget store and came upon a cooking torch.  A cooking torch is like a squirt gun sized girly version of your basic manly blow torch.  The box it came in was illustrated with a full color photograph of our revered Creme Brulee.  We were hungry.  We were suckers for the wily folks on Madison Avenue.  We had Mastercard.  We bought two, one for each of us.  At home we quickly whipped up the custard for the brulees and put them into the refrigerator to chill.  As it got close to the time they would be ready, we decided we’d best put together our little torches.  Now another thing my mother and I shared is a total bewilderment about all things mechanical.  And the assembly directions were, at best, sketchy.  Not to mention that they’d obviously been written in some language involving kanji characters and translated into English.  So we took it slowly, intent upon our task – my mother reading the steps as I carried them out.  Suddenly my mother starting laughing.  Hysterically.  Tears were rolling down her cheeks.  I asked her what was so funny.  She attempted to tell me but was overcome with another paroxysm of mirth.  She pointed helplessly at a particular paragraph of the directions.  It said (and I quote):  “SO IMPORTANT!!!  Do not put point of flame in face of friend.”  This particular idea had never even crossed my mind.  Needless to say, I joined her in the whole laughing/crying thing.  And yes, for those of you who know me painfully well – I snorted.  When I am laughing uncontrollably, I snort.  It is quite embarrassing and totally destroys the  aura of refinement and gentility that I try to maintain at all times.  But I can’t help myself – the snorts just happen.  We eventually did get the torches assembled, they worked quite well and the faces of no friends were harmed during the making of our creme brulee.

Creme Brulee

18 egg yolks (did I mention that you could possibly drop dead from a coronary immediately after eating this?  However, you would die happy.)

1 quart heavy cream

1 3/4 cups sugar

1 vanilla bean, split

sugar

Place the cream in a heavy saucepan.  Add the vanilla bean and heat over medium high heat.  Whisk the egg yolks with the sugar in a large bowl.  When the cream is just about to boil, pour about half of it over the egg yolk mixture.  Add this back into the remaining cream in the pan.  Cook over medium heat, stirring constantly but not whisking (whisking will produce a foam which you don’t want to happen.)  Cook until mixture thickens but do not boil.  Strain the brulee.  Scrape the seeds from the vanilla bean into the custard.  Pour the brulee into individual ramekins and chill for at least six hours.  Sprinkle a small amount of sugar over the top of each.  Caramelize, using a cooking torch – hold the flame a few inches away and move around until the sugar is golden and bubbly.  This makes about 8 servings but it will depend on the size of your ramekins.

Eat a Pie, a Pizza Pie

Memory is a curious thing.  It’s a constant source of wonderment to me – why do we remember the things we do?  I remember the seemingly most random and trivial things from my past while things that I think must have been important – even life changing – totally elude me.  I know my father was laid off for an extended period of time due to a union strike  during my later childhood.  This was probably a period fraught with uncertainty and The Grown Ups certainly must have been acting weird and a little stressed.  But I don’t recall it.  At all.  But I do remember my Uncle Jake bringing us balloons one time when he came to visit.  Extended unemployment vs. balloons that probably popped within the hour?  Go figure.  Now I do have a rudimentary grasp of The Big Stuff we remember – the sources of national and international trauma.  I can remember precisely where I was standing in the halls of Herndon High School when they announced over the PA system that President Kennedy had been shot.  Even today, almost 50 years later, I could take you to the exact spot.  September 11th?  I can replay in minute and technicolor detail in my mind the sequence of events when I learned that the twin towers had gone down.  For this type of memory we have our highly evolved brains to thank.  When our bodies go into “flight or fight” mode, our adrenal medulla secretes norepinephrine.  It acts as a  printer of sorts that fixes information into our long term memory.  But balloons?  Much as I love my Uncle Jake, I just don’t get the balloons.  So, what I’m getting to in my own circuitous and roundabout way is this – my son Austin as a toddler had this little sweatshirt that he loved.  It was turquoise and bright yellow.  It had this little Italian guy on it tossing a pizza in the air and saying (via the familiar cartoon balloon) “Eat a pie, a pizza pie.  Mozzarella, too.  Sausages, mushrooms, lots of goo.”  Every pizza I have eaten since has brought forth the memory of that cute little boy with the curly brown hair and big blue eyes wearing his little blue and yellow sweatshirt.  These are the random memories that make being a human being so great – I get to treasure that little piece of my life over and over thanks to some  synapse that formed for reasons that science does not yet (and may never) totally understand.  And getting pizza in the bargain isn’t bad either.  And (as you might expect) here is a recipe for a favorite pizza around the Walker household.  A quick dinner for a busy day when you can’t spend a lot of time in the kitchen.

Spinach Alfredo Pizza

one pizza crust (make it or buy it) about 14 to 16 inches is good – if you can find it, Udi’s makes a pizza crust that  is a very good gluten free alternative

1 jar alfredo sauce

1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

1 10 oz pkg frozen spinach, thawed and squeezed until as dry as you can get it

1 can Rotel

8 oz (more or less) of Provolone cheese slices, torn into largish chunks

8 oz (more or less) of shredded mozzarella

Put your pizza shell on a pizza stone (recommended) or a cookie sheet.  Mix the alfredo sauce, parmesan and sqouzen spinach (that may not be a word but it should be) together; spread over the pizza shell.  Top with the drained can of Rotel, distributing it evenly.  Lay on the Provolone.  Lay on the mozzarella.  Bake at 425 for about 20 minutes.  Then eat a pie, a pizza pie and treasure your own memories.

Tortilla Soup: A Retrospective

When we lived in the Great State of Texas (and I say that with all sincerity – Texas will always be my hearts’  homeland) there was a restaurant called Tia’s that served the best tortilla soup.  I’m not sure what it was about this particular tortilla soup that made it so amazing, but amazing it was.  At that point in my life, I was too busy changing diapers and chauffeuring children hither and yon to stop and analyze a meal that I enjoyed.  It tasted great and I didn’t have to make it myself – that was enough.  Today, in the leisure of the waning years of my life I would very likely be quite intent upon figuring out what was in that soup that made it so good.  In any case,  we ate there every chance we could.   But life has a way of moving on and our life moved us far away from Texas and Tia’s and their wonderful tortilla soup.  But wherever we were, if we were eating out and the menu included tortilla soup we would order it, hoping to find some that matched Tia’s level of tortilla soup excellence.  We found good tortilla soup – even very good tortilla soup – but never tortilla soup to compare with Tia’s.  So I gave up.  However, lately I have once again gone into  search mode, but for a recipe rather than a restaurant since celiac disease has rendered my happy go lucky restaurant eating days  mostly obsolete.  And late last year, I think I found it!  Now, it’s been so long since I have had the real deal (Tia’s has been out of business for many years) that I couldn’t say for sure that this is just like theirs.  But it is good.  It is very good.  It is very, very, very good.  And it is easy to boot, which is a big plus.  You can make it in a slow cooker so it can be waiting for you when you get home from wherever you have been, tired and world weary and in need of the type of the comfort that only a big bowl of wonderful homemade soup can give.

Lin Walker’s Official Favorite Tortilla Soup in the Whole Wide World

2 cans diced tomatoes (I’m really a fan of the fire roasted diced tomatoes if you can find them)

1 qt of chicken broth

2 or 3 garlic cloves, minced

1 Tbsp unsalted butter

1 cup of your favorite salsa

1/2 cup chopped cilantro

4 large carrots, chopped into 1/4″ rounds

2 Tbsp ground cumin

1/8 tsp cinnamon

2 large boneless, skinless chicken breasts

toppings: Monterey Jack cheese (shredded), sliced avocados, chopped cilantro, tortilla chips, sour cream, some limes to squeeze on top

Combine all the ingredients except the chicken breast in a slow cooker and mix well.  Add the chicken.  Cook on low for 4 to 6 hours.  At this point the chicken should be cooked and easy to shred so take it out and shed it with two forks.  Return to the slow cooker and mix it in well.  Serve with your choice of the topping ingredients (and why you would eliminate any one of them is beyond my comprehension.)

Do you remember those Xochitl tortilla chips I was telling you about?  Well, this is a good time to feature them.  Placing a few chips artfully on each bowl of soup helps you get some mileage out of that heftily priced bag.  People don’t tend to go hog wild on the chips when they’re an accompaniment to soup like they do when they’re scooping up salsa with them.

A Bunny Tale

Most years I recover from the whole Thanksgiving/Christmas/New Year’s marathon along about Easter.  I can barely muster any enthusiasm for Valentine’s Day.  I even use a cake mix for those little heart shaped cakes I was talking about (see “Still Learning After All These Years.”)  And I don’t even believe in cake mixes.  St. Patrick’s Day?  Well, I don’t really “get” St. Patrick’s Day anyway.  The rainbows.  The little black pots of gold.  The slightly deranged looking little men who look as if they might bite if provoked.  I have been known to cook a corned beef brisket and serve it with the obligatory cabbage but that’s about it.  No wearing of the green.  And certainly no drinking of the beer and speaking in an annoying Irish brogue.  But by Easter my celebratory DNA has kicked back in.  Of course, when the kids were small this was a very good thing as the Easter Bunny must hop along, leaving baskets of joy in his wake.  I remember one particular Easter as the mother of young children quite clearly.  We had just moved into our first home on Emory Oak Lane in Dallas.  Everything was brand spanking new and we were still working the bugs out of some things.  Like the smoke detector, which was ultra sensitive and seemed to go off at the slightest hint of heat, let alone smoke.  Well, the night before Easter found me up at midnight, happily baking sugar cookies and listening to music.  Enjoying that all too rare event for a young mother – children sleeping and having a moment to myself.  The cat was asleep on the dining room table where I was assembling Easter baskets, the dog was curled up peacefully on the floor by my feet.  Suddenly the smoke detector decided that the temperature had exceeded it’s comfort zone and began blaring as only a smoke detector at midnight can blare.  The cat, yanked unceremoniously from his slumber, jumped straight up in the air and came down – BAM! – in the midst of the jelly beans and chocolate bunnies, scattering them hither and yon onto the floor.  The dog, ever alert to the possibility of food, immediately set into the fray, devouring jelly beans and chocolate bunnies as quickly as possible.  I scooped up the dog  and made haste to the smoke detector, sure that my entire brood  would appear at any moment, wondering at the pandemonium and discovering that no, Virginia, there really isn’t an Easter Bunny it’s just your Mother and by the way there isn’t any Santa Claus either.  So there I was, a wriggling Dachshund clutched in one arm, madly waving a dishtowel with the other in the general direction of the smoke detector, waiting for disaster to strike in the form of wakened children.  I finally disarmed the smoke detector and salvaged what was left of the Easter basket contents.  The children slept on.  All was well.  Only the cat seemed to have lasting damage – he was always jumpy after that.  So, where was I going with this?  Oh yes, I was going to share another Easter recipe with you.  This one is for scalloped potatoes, which are rather ho hum in their usual state.  However, THESE scalloped potatoes are anything but.  I encourage you to try them, if not for Easter then sometime soon.

Scalloped Potatoes with Leeks

2 Tbsp unsalted butter

2 leeks, trimmed, thinly sliced and rinsed well (about 1 cup and you do know that with leeks you only use the white and very pale green parts, don’t you?)

6 potatoes, about 2 1/2 lbs, peeled and thinly sliced

1/2 tsp sea salt

1/8 tsp freshly ground nutmeg

freshly ground pepper to taste

8 oz Gruyere cheese, shredded (about 3 cups)

1 cup heavy cream

1 cup chicken stock

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a 9 x 13 pan.  Melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat.  Add leeks and cook until translucent, about 3 to 4 minutes.  Arrange 1/3 of the potatoes in the prepared dish, slightly overlapping slices.  Sprinkle with half of the salt, half of the nutmeg, pepper, followed by half of the leeks and 1/3 of the cheese.  Repeat layers.  Top with the remaining potatoes and sprinkle with the remaining cheese.  Combine the cream and the chicken stock; pour over the potato/cheese mixture.  Cover with parchment and then with foil.  At this point it can be refrigerated overnight.  Bake for 30 minutes (add some time if you’ve refrigerated it).  Increase the oven temperature to 425 degrees, uncover the dish and cook until it is golden brown and the potatoes are tender – about 45 minutes.  Let rest for 15 to 30 minutes before serving.

The Dog or the Ballerina?

Easter is fast approaching.  In reality, Easter isn’t approaching any faster than say, the day before Easter or the day after Easter, but you get my drift.  Easter  is the day that concerns us because it  carries some implications of a culinary nature for most families.  There is food to be prepared and that food  probably has some tradition behind it.  And expectations.  My family, for instance,  will be expecting ham, scalloped potatoes and – most importantly – Berries Pavlova for dessert.  If you don’t already have a dessert that means Easter to your family (and maybe even if you do) I urge you to try Berries Pavlova.  I am putting out this recipe a full ten days ahead of the holiday to give you time to mull this decision over.  And to psych yourself up as this recipe appears a bit daunting when you first see it.  But like most daunting things in life, if you just take it a step at a time before you know it you’ll have a truly remarkable dessert and a large sink full of dirty dishes!  A word on the origins of the name of this dish – no, it has nothing to do with Pavlov’s infamous slobbering dog.  It was actually named after the legendary Russian ballerina, Anna Pavlova.  The elegant Ms. Pavlova visited both Australia and New Zealand in the early years of the 20th century.  Both countries claim to have created this dish in her honor and both countries regard it as their national dessert.  No one seems to know which claim is true. No matter – if I was a country I would claim it as my national dessert, too – it’s that good.

Berries Pavlova

the Pavlova shell: (can be doubled – use a 9 x 13 pan)

8 egg whites, at room temperature

pinch of salt

2 1/2 cups superfine sugar

4 Tbsp cornstarch

2 tsp white wine vinegar

1 tsp vanilla extract

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Beat the egg white and salt on medium high speed until peaks form, about 3 minutes.  Beat in the sugar a little at a time, then turn the mixer up full blast to fully incorporate the sugar.  Add the cornstarch until blended in and then the vinegar until blended in and then finally the vanilla.  Put the meringue in an 8 x 8 glass pan.  Pop it in the preheated oven and immediately reduce the temperature to 300 degrees.  Bake for 1 1/2 hours, then turn the oven off and prop open the oven door slightly.  Let the meringue cool down completely.  It can be stored at this point for several hours.

the Berries

2 pints strawberries

1 cup blueberries

1 cup blackberries

1 cup raspberries

1/2 cup sugar

1 Tbsp balsamic vinegar

Rinse the berries.  Hull and halve the strawberries.  Place the berries in a large bowl with the sugar and vinegar.  Set aside to macerate (this is what berries do when they sit in close companionship with sugar and vinegar – it’s a berry thing) for 30 minutes.

the rest of the drill:

Meanwhile, whip up some heavy cream – about a pint of it – along with a bit of powdered sugar if you’re so inclined.  Scrape the seeds from one vanilla bean into the whipped cream and fold in.  Chill the mixture until ready to serve.  For the final touch, toast about 1/4 cup of pistachios and roughly chop them.

putting it all together:

Cut the meringue into serving size squares and put onto a plate.  Top with the berries.  Top with the whipped cream.  Top with the pistachios. Take the first bite.  Sigh with pleasure.  Be so glad you took the time to make this.

The Day I Discovered Paprika

Before yesterday, paprika was just a red powder I occasionally sprinkled on deviled eggs to give them a little color.  I had never given any thought to paprika as an Actual Ingredient.  So when I saw a recipe a couple of days ago with not one, not two but three entire tablespoonfuls of paprika as an ingredient, I was intrigued.  I decided to make it, despite the fact that it seemed more like a fall/winter sort of recipe.  Spring had officially arrived here in Kansas City but there was seven inches of new snow on the ground and the wind was howling so I felt I could make it despite what the calendar said.  But first, I needed to update my paprika supply – the little tin of it that I had was well on its way to antiquity.  So as soon as they plowed the roads, I set off to my local Penzeys to purchase the two suggested types of paprika – a sweet one and a hot one.  My ignorance was such that I didn’t know there paprikal variations to be had.  Hungary ( which, I learned, is the hub of the paprika universe) has an astounding number of varieties.  Spain is known for its smoked paprika , which is properly called pimenton.  They are all, regardless of country of origin, the ground dried fruits of the capsicum annuum (bell or chili peppers.)  When I got them home, I opened my jars and smelled them.  They smelled heavenly.  My little ancient tin had almost no smell.  Then and there I had a Scarlett moment where I flung open the front door and declared for all the world to hear “I will never use old spices again!”  I did startle the cat but no one else seemed to notice.  But I felt better.  And it IS a good idea- for in cooking, as in most things in life, you get out about the quality you put in.  The old “garbage in, garbage out” axiom.  So, if your paprika is as pathetic as mine was, buy yourself some new and try this delicious soup.  It’ll be good even without seven inches of snow on the ground.

Goulash

2 onions, cut in half both ways and then cut into thick slivers

2 cloves finely minced garlic

1 Tbsp olive oil

2 Tbsp sweet Hungarian paprika

1 Tbsp hot Hungarian paprika (the one I bought was called “half sharp” paprika)

4 cups beef stock

2 cans fire roasted diced tomatoes (you can use regular, but fire roasted are recommended)

2 cups finely diced cabbage

1 lb lean ground beef

1 jar (about 12 oz) roasted red peppers, cut into 1 inch dice

sour cream

Heat a large, heavy frying pan.  Add the oil and onions and saute for about 5 minutes – just until the onions start to color.  Add the garlic and saute another couple of minutes.  Then add the paprika and saute a minute more.  Remove from heat and put the onion/spice mixture into a large soup pot.  Deglaze the frying pan with some of the beef stock and then add it and the rest of the beef stock to the soup pot, along with the tomatoes and cabbage.  Heat the frying pan again and brown the ground beef well, breaking it into small pieces as it cooks.  Add to the soup pot.  Take about two cups of water and deglaze the frying pan again – then add the water to the soup pot.  Let simmer on very low heat for an hour.  Add the diced red peppers and simmer for another hour.  Serve hot with a little plop of sour cream in the middle.

Original recipe from Kalyn Denney at Kalyn’sKitchen.com

Cepa Allium, Revisited

As a child, it was a cause of great concern to my mother that I eschewed onions.  She considered this a grievous character flaw and was certain that I would come to no good as a result.  I would meticulously pick off every onion molecule from anything that was served.   If the onion couldn’t be picked off the food in question, I refused to eat it.  I think you could safely say that I really, really hated onions.  I am still not a fan of raw onion (I still pick them off and give them to Seth if he’s around – he loves them) but I have softened my stance when it comes to cooked onion.  I allow modest amounts of cooked onion in dishes.  The one exception to the “modest amount” rule is the glorious caramelized onion.  Caramelized onions hardly even taste like your regulation cooked onion, and bear no resemblance at all to the onion in its raw form.  They are a marvel on baked potatoes.  Atop a pizza with some gruyere cheese they approach the status of food of the gods.  Here’s the way to do them.

Slice as many onions as you want into medium thin slices.  I like to use sweet onions, maybe Vidalia.  Put them in a large saute pan that has a lid over very low heat with a tablespoon or two of olive oil.  Let them cook for about ten minutes.  Check them to make sure they’re not crisping up – you want the heat quite low.  Adjust the heat if you need to and then cover them up again.  Check them every ten or fifteen minutes.  They need to cook for quite a while – an hour maybe, possibly longer.  You want them to be limp and have turned a lovely brown color.  Sprinkle with sugar – about a tablespoonful for a good sized pan-full, less if you’re cooking a smaller batch.  Let cook for a while longer – ten or fifteen minutes.  Take off the lid and sprinkle generously with balsamic vinegar.  Leaving the lid off, let them cook a while longer.  You can turn up the heat a little – you’re reducing the liquid and it’ll go faster with more heat but don’t let them crisp!  I could eat these all by themselves they’re so good – Mom would be proud!