Wednesday, December 19, 2007

I Suspect This May Be What's for Dinner Tonight...

I received an email from my husband with this attachment:

Hey, there are worse things to have for dinner, I guess. Glad he's putting his time at home to good use!

Soon to Return!

WOW it's really hard to post when you have no internet access! Comcast comes tomorrow to set everything up, and we're all moved in (details on the First Meal coming--it was prime rib--but no pictures, as the camera was packed of COURSE).

I'll be back this weekend with a holiday post. I've spent the last few days unpacking cookbooks, and planning what to serve my holiday guests, so I've spent a ton of time thinking about food.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Dinnertime at My House

The Scene: Interior, dining room, night. Three CHILDREN are eating dinner. Their FATHER is in the kitchen nearby, performing various cleaning tasks. Their MOTHER (me) has just taken their baby SISTER to her room to ready her for bed. The MOTHER can be heard returning to the dining room area as the scene opens.

ALEX: Patrick, what are you doing?

PATRICK: (rubbing cucumber slice over the dining room table) Cleaning.

ALEX: Please don’t clean with the cucumber slices

Brief pause while PATRICK eats a chicken nugget. MOTHER enters the room and sees PATRICK, now with a banana in his hand.

ME: Patrick, please—we don’t clean the dining room table with a banana.

PARENTS exchange a glance, rolling their eyes at one another.

I must have spent 15 minutes scrubbing dried banana crud off my dining room table last night.

Monday, December 10, 2007

A Nice Little Lunch

I was finally able today to eat lunch the way I like to. I’m home, you see, and so I had access to my stove, my refrigerator, and the grocery store. Sadly, what I don’t have much access to is equipment. I have two skillets, one stock pot, and one mixing bowl (and that’s the one to the stand mixer) left unpacked. Also, I don’t have a ton of food in the house. We’re trying to keep shopping to a minimum to avoid having to move more than we already do (I believe the three containers of cocoa powder we currently have must have been mentioned four times to date, and not by me).

So I made a quick stop at the grocery store for fresh vegetables. Leeks and mushrooms sounded nice and fall-to-winterish, so I picked those up. In the cabinet I had part of a bag of polenta, so I thought that might be good with the vegetables.

Of course, with all but three cookbooks packed, I had no recipe for polenta. (And for the record, those three books are Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen, Williams-Sonoma Entertaining, and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, which it just occurs to me would have the ratio of liquid to polenta, but I didn’t think to look in it; it’s not that any of those books are so treasured and loved, it’s just that two of them were acquired after I packed all the other books, and one of them happened to be in an obscure place in the kitchen and was overlooked). Recipe? I can hear you rolling your eyes, You need a recipe for polenta? Come on, that’s lame. Well not a recipe, per se, I can just never remember how much liquid goes with how much polenta. The generally accepted answer is 3:1, it seems, based on the internet search I did.

And I’d like to wander off topic here for a second and talk about people who rate and comment on recipes on recipe sites. The polenta recipe was on, and it was for “polenta.” Not polenta with anything in it or on it, just polenta. Cornmeal, water, salt. People made comments like “it was bland,” and “it needed something more.” Um, duh? Anybody who reads cornmeal, water, salt, bring salted water to a boil, add corn meal and whisk until thickened and thinks that’s going to be exciting needs to turn over their spatulas right now. And one woman used what was clearly finely ground cornmeal, dumped it all into the water at once, and got a lumpy goopy mess. The recipe clearly states “coarsely ground cornmeal” although it does go on to say that fine cornmeal could be used. I’m always one to err on the side of caution with substitutions—I prefer to make a recipe exactly as written the first time, because my rationale is that that’s the method that was tested most rigorously. At the very least people who comment on recipe sites need to learn to spell. The herb is marjoram, not marjorim.

Sorry, that’s a subject about which I’ve always felt the need to vent. Back to lunch. I think I got the tenderest, least woody leek in all of North America. It may be a cliché to say I was able to cut it like it was softened butter, but that’s just what I did do. I rinsed it carefully (it was also the least sandy leek in North America, bless its heart), sliced it into little pale green rainbows, and sautéed it in ½ tablespoon of butter and a ½ tablespoon of olive oil until it was just starting to color. Then I slipped some sliced crimini mushrooms in with it, and let that all cook down.

But what, I thought, am I going to do to season this? I was vaguely reminded of a recipe of Amanda Hesser’s from her wonderful book The Cook and The Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside. My husband got it for me for my birthday one year, and while I was disappointed at the time, I later read it through and found it to be delightful, full of good ideas, and very charming. In what I believe was a Fall recipe, she made creamed leeks on toast. And with creamed leeks on toast, could creamed mushrooms on toast be far behind? I think not. Only we have no bread in the house worthy of creamed-really-nice-fresh-vegetables-on-toast. But since I was already sold on polenta, this was something of a moot point anyway.

And in checking to confirm that I had heavy cream, and that it was still good, my attention was grabbed by the huge jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard in the refrigerator. I had been kicking myself, you see, for not buying any fresh thyme at the grocery store, because a thyme-scented creamy sauce is quite a heavenly thing, but one with a little jolt of Dijon would be just as good, I told myself.

I also noticed that there was even some white wine left over. This is so rare an occurrence in my household that I can count on one hand the number of times that’s probably happened. It’s like that old joke that went around the internet many years ago, offering the “real woman’s” response to certain “Martha Steweart-ish” housekeeping and cooking tips. The last one read: “Freeze leftover wine in ice cube trays, then empty into a plastic bag and keep frozen for use in cooking.” And the “real woman” response was “What leftover wine?” Ha! I resemble that remark! (But I confess I’ve always wanted to be the type who had things like stock, wine, and tomato paste frozen in my freezer for any need; and just think—a white wine ice cube would be perfect in a glass of warmish white wine. It wouldn’t dilute it!)

So with those ingredients at my elbow, I slugged a glug of white wine into the pan with the now-golden leeks and mushrooms, scraped up the brown bits (as they say), added a dollop of Dijon mustard, and poured a little heavy cream over the whole, stirred away for a minute or two, then turned my attention to the polenta.

I made the polenta in the usual way, except I made a half recipe (1 ½ cups of liquid to ½ cup of polenta), and I used half milk, half chicken broth. In retrospect, I might have upped the liquid just a tad. I found the resulting product to be just a shade on the crunchy side. To be fair, I did cook it up and then scarf it down, so it didn’t have any time at all to “rest.” Still, another ¼ to ½ cup of liquid wouldn’t have hurt. I also debated stirring blue cheese into the polenta, or draping a slice of it over top of the mushrooms and leeks, but abandoned this idea as being lily gilding.

I dished the polenta into my one remaining bowl, pulled out a spoon, and ate the whole thing in one sitting. This really is enough for two people, especially if it were a side dish. I didn’t even stop to take pictures of it, although there were two reasons for that. First, I didn’t have the camera (my husband has it with him). Second, it’s not a very photogenic dish. The sauce is kind of a grayish-brownish color, and while the polenta is a pretty yellow shade, it’s really just a bowl of undefined mush. However, here’s the recipe for my nice little lunch (which, because I used it in the dish, I did not have with a glass of wine; I had water instead).

Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms Over Polenta

½ tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, divided
1 leek, cleaned and sliced crosswise
Approx. 1 dozen mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Freshly ground pepper
¼ cup white wine
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons heavy cream
¾ cup chicken broth (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
¾ cup milk (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
½ cup polenta

Heat olive oil and ½ tablespoon butter in a skillet large enough to accommodate all vegetables comfortably. Sautee leeks for 3-5 minutes over medium heat until just starting to brown. Add mushrooms to leeks and cook down until mushrooms have released their liquid and are coloring nicely. I added salt and pepper to taste right after I added the mushrooms, although you could wait until after adding the mustard, since that may change the amount of seasoning required.

Add white wine to pan, stirring to deglaze. Add Dijon mustard and stir through vegetables. Pour cream into pan and stir to distribute. Do not let the mixture return to the boil after adding the cream.

Bring chicken broth and milk to the boil, add polenta in a slow stream and whisk until liquid is absorbed and polenta has reached desired consistency (I like mine somewhat dry). Add ½ tablespoon of butter to the polenta.

To serve, spoon leek and mushroom mixture over polenta.

This makes two side dish helpings, or one single serving for a somewhat piggish, but hungry, person.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Eating In, Eating Out

I came across this (which is Grub Street’s critique of Bon Appetit’s attempt to court younger readers by changing its logo, and an overall assessment that BA was boring, dated, and for old farts) by way of this (which is Adam Roberts’ spin on the subject, discussing restaurant review blogs versus cooking or recipe blogs) today, and just have to toss my own two cents into the blogsphere.

I love eating in. I actually prefer it to eating out. Josh Ozersky says that magazines like Bon Appetit are intended for people who “have big houses and plenty of time on their hands.” I completely disagree. Bon Appetit (and its brethren) is for people who like to cook and eat. People who like to invite guests for dinner. You don’t have to have a ton of time on your hands (lord knows I don’t), or a big house (ditto), in order to appreciate food magazines like Bon Appetit.

How boring would the world be if everyone entertained in restaurants? How dull would gatherings be if they always took place on neutral ground? Half the fun of inviting people over is welcoming them into your personal space, the other half is feeding them. Food magazines provide ideas for interesting ways to do the latter.

Studies have shown that right after 9/11 people began eating out less and spending more time at home. I still do this, not out of fear, but out of love for my family, my home, and my friends. One of the happiest weekend days I’ve spent recently was a Sunday on which we ran a couple of errands in the morning, then had some friends and their twin daughters over for lunch. The kids ran around and played, while the grownups drank Mimosas, ate a goat cheese and caramelized onion tart, and a green salad. I can’t wait to get moved into my new house so I can do even more of that.

Houses today are even designed for people who want to be able to cook and entertain at the same time. Look at the open kitchen, the kitchen-great room combo that allows the cook to interact with the guests in the great room. Hell, look at kitchens that are big enough to entertain in. While I’m sure there are plenty of highly reflective appliances that never see a drop of grease, I know there are plenty that do.

Adam Roberts defends both positions (the eating out and the cooking in) by saying that while eating in may be warmer and more, well, homey, it doesn’t involve the potential excitement of eating out. While eating out, he says, you may have some really neat unexpected experience (he cites a case in which he saw Maggie Gyllenhaal having lunch with her mom). I’ll give you that, but that assumes that you care about watching celebrities eat soup. I confess I do not. Which isn’t to say that I don’t like eating out, but my reasons for eating out are that I don’t want to do dishes, not that I care about who I might see, or by whom I might be seen. I don’t mean to slam Adam—I agree with him that there’s something be said for both perspectives.

But really, given the choice, I’d far rather eat in. I think it’s much more satisfying. You get exactly what you want to eat, seasoned exactly the right way. You can take as much time as you want; no waiter will ever give you the feeling that s/he wishes you would leave so they can turn your table. The noise level can be whatever you want it to be; if you’re into loud music, no problem. If you want a quiet conversation, it’s easy to arrange. And I love food magazines that bring me a monthly array of choices suited to the season—ethnic, fast, elaborate, basic.

When I read a recipe, I can get a pretty good idea if I’m going to like it or not. If I don’t think I will, I won’t make it, obviously. While I’m cooking, I can then taste as I go along—does it need more salt? More oregano? The end result is what I want to eat, seasoned the way I want it. I’m in control of the ingredients. And if I’m serving it to someone, it’s so much more personal than buying them dinner. The time I’ve taken to prepare them a meal shows that I care—we’re all busy. We all struggle to find time to get things done. If someone uses some of their free time to cook for me, that’s very special. Picking a restaurant is thoughtful, of course—you’re taking the other person’s tastes into consideration and trying to find something they’ll enjoy—but it’s not the same as devoting your own time to preparing a meal for them; thinking about what they'd like, choosing the ingredients, preparing the recipe, then serving it personally and watching their reaction.

Which brings us back to magazines like Bon Appetit. They give me ideas for different things to make for any occasion, and the recipes are tested so I’m fairly confident they’ll work (human error is always a possibility—just look at my muffins). My brother-in-law and his wife are coming for Christmas this year, and I’ve been planning the menu for three months now. This is a food lover’s dream—guests for multiple meals! People who also enjoy food! Bring on the magazines so I can pick fun, new things for us to try!

The Home Stretch!

And here, because I just can't wait, is a picture of our house almost finished.

They're painting now (that's Eric the painter you can just barely make out in front of the front door), and then the plumber and electrical guys come in to finish up their little bits of work.
Move in date is December 14!!

My Mother's Recipe File: Fish & Seafood

I finally posted the recipe from the Fish & Seafood section of the recipe file at My Mother's Recipe File. Here's the link.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007


This has really nothing to do with food, but here's what I faced when I headed home...

Of course, this kind of weather does have some benefits...

You can't tell from the picture, and by the time I was in a position to get a shot of it, it had faded, but this is a full rainbow.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Failed Muffins

Here's a recipe you won't be getting. The recipe was for blueberry muffins, which I made as dried cherry/dried blueberry muffins, but which clearly failed miserably. I have no idea why. My husband thinks it's because of that "weird" baking powder I insist on using. I make my own using cream of tartar and baking soda, which makes single acting baking powder, which wouldn’t cause this kind of an explosion. In fact, what should have happened is that they shouldn’t have risen enough using single acting baking powder.

I made them exactly as the recipe described. The only thing I can think of is that someone (who shall remain nameless, but let’s just say he has the same initials as my husband), put self-rising flour in the flour jar, instead of plain unbleached flour. It could happen, and then there would have been twice as much leavening in the muffins. But we’ve made cookies and other things with that flour recently, and not had this kind of weird rising problem, so I just don’t know.

In any case, the muffins were a total failure, and I was sort of pissed off to tell you the truth, because I had dumped and entire bag of dried cherries in them. Dried cherries, if you’ve never bought them, are not cheap. At my grocery store they go for about four bucks a bag. I was doubly bummed, because they looked so great in the picture that accompanied the recipe, and I was really looking forward to them.

Sorry, but you’ll have to live without a blueberry muffin recipe for today. When I get my New England Cookbook by Brooke Dojny out of its box, I’ll post her recipe for blueberry muffins, which were outstanding.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Rainy Day Musings

The rain is a solid mass falling from the soggy pile of clouds above. I had to drag my reluctant children through this watery onslaught into their daycare, then slog onto and off of the ferry to my office. I had an umbrella, but on the Seattle side, the handle broke, leaving me to juggle my Pumpkin Spice latte, my bag with my computer, and my lame duck umbrella, and with the ABBA song “Waterloo” playing an endless loop in my head (don’t ask—every morning some occurrence lodges an irritating long-forgotten ditty in my head and I spend the rest of the day trying to rid myself of the earworm). Now I’m sitting in semi-gloom, figuring out how long I have to stay in my office while people drag in and see me here, so I can get credit for showing up, before I could cut out and go home (somehow the homeward slog seems less…sloggish).

And what would I do when I got home? Well, read magazines, for one. I have a stack (which includes the last four issues of Gourmet, the December issues of both Sunset and Martha Stewart Living, and the November and December issues of Cottage Living, plus some extras like Dwell and Body + Soul), or I could read one of the four books I have going—“Alva and Consuelo Vanderbilt: The Story of a Daughter and a Mother in the Gilded Age,” “Edith Wharton’s Ghost Stories,” “The Omnivore’s Dilemma,” and “Marcella’s Italian Kitchen” (a steal on the remainder table for $9.98--I may already have a copy of this that my mother bought in the 1980s, but I wasn’t sure so I grabbed it anyway; if I unpack and find I have it already, well, my sister-and-law will likely be offered the new copy).

I could watch Christmas movies. I simply adore Christmas movies, the sappier the better. Nothing depressing, please—no dark comedy (sorry, Tim Burton, but I really don’t care for The Nightmare Before Christmas). Give me sweetness and light. Give me boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl-boy-gets-girl-back. White Christmas, Holiday Inn, Christmas in Connecticut (bonus—this one is food-centric), National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, The Santa Clause, The Year Without a Santa Claus, How the Grinch Stole Christmas (animated and Jim Carrey), A Charlie Brown Christmas, Miracle on 34th Street (Natalie Wood version only, please).

I even love Christmas movies that are only tangentially Christmas movies—Meet Me in St. Louis (Judy Garland sings “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” to that precocious little snot played by Margaret O’Brien), Love Finds Andy Hardy (Judy Garland at age twelve with Mickey Rooney; the only thing Christmasy about it is that they decorate a tree—the events could have taken place any time during the year), Little Women (the first few scenes take place at Christmas, that’s it), Trading Places (again, the events could have taken place at any time of the year, but Eddie Murphy is a scream—“Beef jerky time!”)

What I could not do with any great success is cook. We have, you see, eleven days until we move into our new house, so we’re packing. Yesterday I packed most of the plates, all but one coffee mug (only because it was on a top shelf and I couldn’t reach it), most of the cereal bowls, and a few of the salad plates. I also packed the pizza pan, the broiler pan, several cookie sheets, and the huge aluminum bowl I use for rising when I make double and triple batches of bread. I suspect my kids are going to get a lot of delivery pizza the next few days.

But the more important questions hang heavy on my mind. First, how will I organize the new kitchen, and second, what will I cook first in it??

In mulling the second question, I was thinking of a book I read called “House: A Memoir” by Michael Ruhlman, who is also very well known for his books on chefs and the food world. This one (which I recommend—a fast, interesting read) is about his experience with the renovation of an old house, including the gutting of the kitchen. When the kitchen was done, he said the first thing he made was a roast chicken, feeling that a roast chicken is the homiest thing you can make.

I can see that, and I’ve toyed with roast chicken. Whatever it is that gets made, it must use my new stove (or range, as the appliance people say), and preferably the oven part. So roast chicken is possible, but if I make that, only Alex and I will be eating it. My children wouldn’t touch roast chicken because it’s not ground up, reformed, breaded, and (most importantly) dinosaur-shaped. If I could get a regular roasting chicken in the shape of a dinosaur, I’m quite sure they’d suck it down.

Real estate agents often encourage people to bake cookies before houses are shown to prospective buyers, on the theory that the homey smell of chocolate chip cookies makes the buyer feel like they’ve wandered into an episode of Leave It To Beaver. And there’s something to be said for that. So chocolate chip cookies are a maybe too. Those my kids would eat. But my husband just made chocolate chip cookies this weekend, so I’m feeling a little CCC’d out. However, we are talking about eleven days from now.

Bread presents itself. It’s elemental (as is the roast chicken), the smell is homey, it requires time and effort, but not too much (I do have to get ready for Christmas, after all). My kids might eat homemade bread (if I didn’t tell them I’d made it). But somehow bread just doesn’t tickle my fancy.

Or do I do something a little more complicated, but that my kids might eat? Homemade pizza, for instance. I could make the sauce myself (excuse to use the stovetop), and they’d eat it, I know. But I really want a pizza stone, and so far I don’t have one (Santa). Plus my kids will be coming off a longish spate of delivery pizza as we shut down one kitchen and prepare to open the other, so they may not want pizza by then. We might go crazy and give them hot dogs for their first dinner in the new house (wacky, that’s us).

Some kind of soup and maybe biscuits would be nice. Again, like the pizza this lets me use stovetop and the oven, the soup isn’t terribly labor intensive, and the biscuits are quick. My kids wouldn’t eat the soup, but they’d eat biscuits. The question would be, what kind of soup? It would have be something that used chicken broth, because I have about two gallons of it frozen right now, and I need to use it. I’d like to do a vegetable soup, and I have a butternut squash sitting on my counter. The downside to this is that my husband doesn’t like butternut squash soup. He thinks it’s too sweet. I know—I didn’t find out about this character flaw until after we were married. I might be able to make a nice cream of cauliflower or something, I suppose.

Of course, apple pie would be a good choice too. Or perhaps apple turnovers. We’re in the heart of apple country (well, OK, we live near the heart of apple country—still, apples are a local food by any definition), and I have a wonderful recipe for Shaker hand pies that I’ve been wanting to try. I love the Shakers (more on this in another post), because their simplified way of living was just what we should all aspire to anyway—eating close to home, using the freshest of ingredients to make simple dishes that are comforting and delicious.

Anyway, this is a long debate I’ve been having for some time, and that I will continue to have for the next couple of weeks (or rather, ELEVEN DAYS—not that I’m counting), and I’ll be spending plenty of time thinking of just the right thing to make first in my new kitchen. Something homey, basic, warm, cozy, yet something meaningful. The same kinds of things that suit a rainy day--soup, bread, pie, cookies, a nice roast--are all the same sorts of things to make for a "first ever meal" because they're satisfying, but without being complicated or requiring a lot of fancy tools or ingredients. So this grey, rainy day is the perfect time to give it this subject the attention it deserves. I'm off to surf the internet for ideas.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Dijon, Walnuts & Crisp Crumbs

Lately I am just addicted to Brussels sprouts. Maybe it’s that I keep seeing ways to cook them that look so tempting, or that they’re very available right now (both in mesh bags, and on the stalk, which looks fun but I’ve never had the courage to buy them). Last night we had them with pork chops and blue cheese mashed potatoes. The recipe was from the current issue of Fine Cooking.

The sprouts get roasted with mustard, and then scattered with buttered toasted crumbs and (according to the recipe) toasted walnuts. Since my husband doesn’t like walnuts, and he was the one making the dinner, I didn’t get to try it with the walnuts.

The article recommends quartering the sprouts to ensure that they cook evenly, and that there’s lots of surface area to come in contact with the pan and get nicely crispy and brown. Then they get tossed with a sauce of mustard, olive oil, Worcestershire sauce and caraway seeds. The caraway seeds added an interesting layer of flavor that I’ve not had in Brussels sprouts before.
They get roasted for 20 to 25 minutes, during which time you’re supposed to be making the bread crumb and walnut topping. Since we had no fresh bread out of which to make bread crumbs, we pulled out some crumbs I had made and frozen. They were just fine for the job. The crumbs and the nuts get toasted in a tablespoon of butter until they start to get toasty, then they get set aside on a paper towels to await the roasted Brussels sprouts.

For serving, the Brussels sprouts are scattered with the topping and served immediately, and then, if you’re me, devoured immediately. The only downside I can see to this recipe is that it wouldn’t make good leftovers (not that that’s a problem I have—I can eat a lot of Brussels sprouts in a sitting) because the crumbs would get soggy and probably greasy.

Here’s the full recipe. It worked perfectly, with no modifications at all.

Roasted Brussels Sprouts with Dijon, Walnuts, and Crisp Crumbs
Serves 6 to 8, unless you’re serving me, in which case it only serves 2

¼ cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
½ teaspoon caraway seeds, toasted lightly and crushed
¾ teaspoon kosher salt; more to taste
Freshly ground black pepper
2 lbs. Brussels sprouts, ends trimmed, cut through the core into quarters
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 cup coarse fresh bread crumbs
½ cup chopped walnuts

Position racks in the top and bottom thirds of the oven and heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment.

In a large bowl, whisk ¼ cup of the olive oil with the mustard, Worcestershire sauce, caraway seeds, ½ teaspoon of the salt, and about 10 grinds of pepper. Add the Brussels sprouts and toss to thoroughly distribute the mustard mixture. Spread the sprouts in an even layer on the two baking sheets.

Roast until the cores of the sprouts are just barely tender and the leaves are browning and crisping a bit, 20 to 25 minutes (if your oven heat is uneven, rotate the pans midway through cooking).

While the sprouts are roasting, make the topping: Line a plate with two layers of paper towel. Heat the remaining 1 tablespoon oil with the butter in a medium (10”) skillet over medium-high heat. When the butter has stopped foaming, add the breadcrumbs all at once; toss to coat with the fat. Reduce the heat to medium, add the walnuts and the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt, and cook, stirring constantly, until the crumbs are browned and slightly crisp, and the nuts are golden, 4 to 6 minutes. (The crumbs will start to sound “scratchy” as they get crisp.) Dump the bread crumb mixture onto the paper towels to drain the excess fat.

Transfer the sprouts to a serving bowl and season to taste with salt and pepper if necessary. Sprinkle the crumbs over the sprouts just before serving.

Recipe from December Fine Cooking (issue #89)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

The Well Fed Network 2007 Food Blogger Awards

It's always interesting to see what gets nominated in the various categories...check out the announcement regarding nomination and voting deadlines on The Well Fed Network.

Monday, November 26, 2007

One Pan Cinnamon Rolls

Since we’re moving into a new house in two weeks and five days (not that anyone’s counting), I’m not doing a ton of elaborate cooking these days. But yesterday morning I decided I’d make my kids a sort of cinnamon roll cake thing that I saw in an add for Fleischmann’s RapidRise Yeast. It was a one-pan recipe, using a 9 and a half inch pie plate. I just happened to stumble on a 9 ½ “ pie plate at the grocery store last week, or I wouldn’t have been able to make it. I have 9” pie plates, and 10” pie plates, but not 9 ½ “. It was a Pyrex one, and it was $4. I decided it was fate, and I was meant to make the cinnamon roll recipe.

I found this recipe in an ad in the November issue of Everyday Food, and have been eyeing it for a couple of weeks. It sounds so easy, and looks so good. In reality, it is both easy and good. You mix up some dry ingredients—including two packages of RapidRise Yeast—with some water and a little melted butter. The dough then gets sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar, and topped with a Karo syrup-based sticky sauce.

It’s a good recipe to do with kids, because there’s little measuring, and is made in just a couple of steps. I would suggest you put the pie plate on a sheet of wax paper, parchment paper, or a cutting board if you’re letting a little person stir the wet and dry ingredients together. Pie plates don’t have very high sides, and the likelihood that a child will slop some of the dry ingredients out of the pan is pretty good. Mine did. With a piece of paper of some kind underneath it, you can just scrape whatever gets pushed out back in.

Once the dough is mixed, it doesn’t cover the entire pan, but it will expand during cooking to fill it up. I think I might reduce the sugar in the cinnamon sugar mixture down a bit. It was a pretty generous covering. And be sure the sticky sauce part covers all the cinnamon sugar mixture. If it doesn’t, the sugar just stays granular and falls off when you serve the cake. I left the nuts out of it because my children don’t like nuts, but I’d like to make it again with the nuts, just to see.

I think the nicest thing about this recipe is that you put it in a cold oven. The gentle heat of the oven warming up lets the yeast activate, whereas putting it into a hot oven would just kill the yeast before it could work. But it means you can make this recipe on a moment’s notice, without worrying about remembering to preheat the oven.

I prefer to make things like cinnamon rolls, quick breads, scones, etc, because then I can control what goes in them. There are only two tablespoons of sugar in the batter itself (which is more than compensated for by the sugar in both the cinnamon sugar topping, and the sticky topping, which is nothing but corn syrup and brown sugar; still, I like that I can control the sugar content if I like). I might even try swapping out some of the white flour for whole wheat flour. It probably wouldn’t impact the texture or flavor much, and it could make them a tad more healthy.

When I was a kid I never got homemade cinnamon rolls. It was yet another thing in the long list of stuff my mom never made me. I did get the kind that came in the can you unroll and then it pops and scares the hell out of you. They taste a lot like the cardboard the tube is made of. I hate those popping can things. When I was in college, my roommate and I used to eat a very elaborate dinner every night, consisting of a pan fried boneless pork chop, some kind of green vegetable, and a can of those popping biscuits. We’d alternate who had to open the can because we were both always afraid of the pop part. This recipe takes only slightly longer than opening the cardboard tube, and it’s far less startling.

I’ve made cinnamon rolls from scratch myself dozens of times, but my usual complaint is that they take forever. I did find a recipe in one of the Cook’s Illustrated cookbooks for some that took only about 45 minutes, but they were still a big production to make, with rolling out the dough and sprinkling the filling in and so on. The benefit to these is that preparation is minimal, which I like. They’re not Cinnabon by any means, but they’re fine for a quick weekend breakfast.

This photo is not mine; the real thing in my kitchen was a dismembered mess before I could get a picture of them. I cooked them for the stated time, but I think they could even have gone five or ten more minutes without determent to the finished product. They were just done. They were nice and moist, but just this side of done, which means they would be a little more cakelike if they stayed in the oven a few more minutes. I’d make these again for a quick brunch for friends, or for my family when they were craving cinnamon rolls. I also want to try some more of the one-dish recipes that are on the Fleischmann’s web site. There’s a fudge cake thing that looks good and easy. If it’s as easy as the cinnamon rolls, it could be a great weeknight or casual dinner party dessert.

Here’s the recipe:

For the batter:
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
2 envelopes Fleischmann's RapidRise Yeast
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup very warm water (120° to 130°F)
2 tablespoons butter, melted

For the Cinnamon Sugar Topping:
1/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

For the Caramel Pecan Topping:

1/3 cup Karo Light or Dark Corn Syrup
1/3 cup brown sugar2 tablespoons butter, melted
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Mix batter ingredients in a pre-sprayed 9-1/2 inch deep dish pie plate. Combine Cinnamon Sugar Topping Ingredients in a small bowl and set aside. Stir together corn syrup, brown sugar and butter in a small bowl. Add pecans and mix well. Top batter evenly with cinnamon sugar topping. Spoon the caramel pecan topping evenly over the batter. Bake by placing in a COLD oven; set temperature to 350°F. Bake 25 minutes, until lightly browned and firm in center. Cool slightly; serve warm.

Serves 8 (or two adults, and three small children who REALLY like cinnamon rolls)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Salad Daze

Thanksgiving is close at hand, and my aunt is having all sixteen of us at her house this year. About two weeks ago she gave out the assignments for contributions. My other aunt is bringing pecan pie, my grandmother is bringing a crudités platter, my cousin is bringing a vegetable, and I was assigned a salad. When she asked me if I would bring it, my aunt said, “Not really a green salad—we’ll have vegetables—but, well, I don’t know. Do whatever you think is best.”

That uncertainty struck me. Just what is a salad these days? I’ve been pondering this. The first order of business was to check out what the various accepted definitions of the word are. According to The Random House Unabridged Dictionary (I haven’t yet taken the plunge and subscribed to the OED online), there are several variations:

1. a usually cold dish consisting of vegetables, as lettuce, tomatoes, and cucumbers, covered with a dressing and sometimes containing seafood, meat, or eggs.

2. any of various dishes consisting of foods, as meat, seafood, eggs, pasta, or fruit, prepared singly or combined, usually cut up, mixed with a dressing, and served cold: chicken salad; potato salad.

3. any herb or green vegetable, as lettuce, used for salads or eaten raw.

4. South Midland and Southern U.S. greens.

Any of various dishes consisting of foods…prepared singly or combined, usually cut up, mixed with a dressing, and served cold? It seems that we’ve expanded the definition of salad to include just about anything mixed with dressing, so long as it's served cold.

The Oxford Companion to Food starts with the derivation of the word, from the vernacular Latin sal, meaning salt. The first salads were raw vegetables dipped in salt. From there it moves to several early definitions of a salad as being a mixture of herbs, other greens, and a dressing. Herbs and being served cold seem to be the common thread in the Oxford Guide. Even when speaking of chicken salad, it’s described as chicken cut up small with, among other things, herbs, and served cold (or at room temperature; in any case, not hot).

I combed through my (greatly reduced) cookbook selection and found that salad pretty much runs the gamut. Chilled salads, warm salads, room temperature salads, salads that did contain lettuce, herbs or greens of some kind, salads that contained no lettuce, herbs or greens. Truly, as the Random House Unabridged Dictionary says, it’s just about any food cut up and mixed with dressing.

So where does that leave an overanalytical food freak? Well, I was considering a Brussels sprout salad with a warm bacon dressing and maybe some pine nuts. But I hesitate because I’ve been to lots of Thanksgiving dinners over the years (38 in fact) and at not one of them did we ever eat at the time the hostess was planning we would eat. It’s always at least a half an hour to 45 minutes later. Not that I’m criticizing my hostesses, because I’ve been the hostess who served Thanksgiving dinner half an hour to 45 minutes later than originally planned. I’m worried that the salad would be fine when we arrived, but that the bacon fat would congeal and become downright unappealing during the wait for dinner. So I think that’s out. Plus I wouldn’t want to seem like I was competing with the green vegetable category (not that my cousin would see it that way, but I’m very sensitive about stuff like that when it comes to food).

I also thought about something like a spinach salad with goat cheese, and perhaps some crumbled bacon in a vinaigrette dressing (bacon again—it’s kind of an obsession of mine). My concern is that with the cheese and the bacon, the salad might be too heavy. We want something on the light side because it is, after all, Thanksgiving dinner.

I can always go with the basic green salad—mixed greens, maybe some baby greens or arugula—with my standard blue cheese dressing. I think everyone in my family likes blue cheese (the adults, anyway), but I can’t be sure. I have one uncle who will literally eat anything (and has), and I know both my aunts and one of my cousins love blue cheese, but I’m not completely certain on the rest of the family. And I know the kids don’t like it (not that I really expect the kids to eat salad in the first place—most five year olds aren’t huge consumers of salad). Of course, to be safe, I could always just use a vinaigrette dressing. But that’s so boring. And besides, my aunt kind of said she was thinking of something other than a green salad.

I toyed briefly with a shredded carrot salad with some Middle Eastern flavors, but that’s just not Thanksgiving-y. And things like cole slaw and similar are right out—too summery. Potato salad would compete with the mashed potatoes, and again, too summery.

A Google search for “salad recipes” turned up approximately 2 million hits. The first are obvious enough—, something called, Then we move into the magazine hits—Real Simple, Eating Well. The choices quickly get very specific—cajun recipes, potato salad recipes, fruit salad recipes.

Let me digress right here and say that I don’t really care for fruit salad and I don’t think it belongs at Thanksgiving dinner. The husband of one of my closest friends completely disagrees, and always requests it be served, but I think that’s just wrong. Fruit salad is more of a summer dish, more of a breakfast, or possibly lunch dish, and really has no companions on a plate with turkey, stuffing, gravy and the like. It’s out of place. It just doesn’t go.

But none of this solved my problem of what kind of salad to take to Thanksgiving. I want a salad that’s suitable to the season—uses fall vegetables and doesn’t have too many out of season flavors. I also want one that’s not too heavy so that we won’t all be loaded down when dinner is over. And then too, I want one that doesn’t seem to be competing with any of the other components of the meal. I finally found what I think will be perfect in the Bon Appetit Cookbook.

Fennel, Watercress, Radicchio, and Parmesan Salad

¼ cup olive oil
3 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
½ teaspoon fennel seeds, crushed
1 large fresh fennel bulb, trimmed and thinly sliced
1 large bunch watercress, thick stems trimmed
1 small head of radicchio, thinly sliced

1 4-ounce piece Parmesan cheese

Whisk oil, vinegar, 2 tablespoons grated cheese, and fennel seeds in a small bowl to blend. Season dressing to taste with salt and pepper. Toss sliced fennel, watercress, and radicchio in a large bowl. (Can be prepared 8 hours ahead. Cover dressing and salad mixture separately. Refrigerate salad mixture.)

Using vegetable peeler, shave cheese pieces into strips. Rewhisk dressing to blen. Toss fennel, watercress, and radicchio with enough dressing to coat lightly. Add cheese strips and toss to blend. Serve, passing remaining dressing separately.

Serves 4.

So I think this will be perfect—cool, crisp fennel, slightly peppery watercress, slightly bitter radicchio, all of which will balance the rich butter and gravy dishes that are the centerpiece of the Thanksgiving meal. Then the Parmesan is there to make things a little interesting. It’s not just a plate of greens with vinaigrette dressing. Yet there’s not so much extra stuff that we’ll get filled up on salad and not be able to eat dinner, or that the salad will feel heavy and too entrée-like. Nor will it compete with the green vegetable dishes. The fact that it can be prepped 8 hours ahead is a bonus too. No need to worry about vegetables discoloring or wilting. Problem solved!

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Modern Apron/My Mother's Recipe File at Sweetnicks

The blog Sweetnicks has a weekly feature in which Cate O'Malley posts links to recipes that are high in antioxidants, and/or have lots of fruits and vegetables (to help as all eat 5 or more servings of vegetables a day). This week my Penne wtih Chicken and Brussels Sprouts recipe is one of the featured recipes. Head over to Sweetnicks and take a look!

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

My First Cookbook

I’ve reading other peoples’ websites and blogs and seeing recommendations for “beginner” cookbooks. Specifically I saw advice to a young woman who was going to be renting her first apartment for the summer on her college break (it was an old post, clearly). Many people recommend Joy, about which I have moaned before. There were some other recommendations that had me wondering what they were thinking as well. Here (for those who care) is my running mental commentary on what I saw. I’m just using this particular list as a sort of representative of what people recommend as first-time cookbooks for someone starting out. There were lots of responses to this particular blog entry, so it seems like a pretty good sampling.

Silver Palate New Basics
This is actually one of my favorite cookbooks, but I don’t think I’d recommend it for someone just starting out. It’s got too much party food, and too many things too intimidate the novice. Lukins and Rosso assume a certain familiarity with cooking basics. Also, it tends to call for quite a few specialized ingredients that someone new to cooking may not understand, have, or want to invest in (some of them can be pricey).

Martha Stewart’s Basics
This isn’t the actual name of the cookbook, and I can only assume that this person is suggesting The Martha Stewart Cookbook. I own this one too, and unless the beginner is interested in knowing how to make hors d’oeuvers, and fruit tarts, this is not the book I’d recommend. I use it for a reference for lots of things, but mostly for party food. I can’t think of a single think I’ve ever made out of it for a regular weeknight dinner. If you want a book full of things to cook on a daily basis, this is not it. It’s a good cookbook, but not for everyday food. There are two new ones that are The Martha Stewart Living Cookbook, and both are also pretty good, although the recipes may be somewhat time-consuming, but if you don’t have kids or other responsibilities, they’re reliable recipes.

The Apartment Vegetarian
This is a cookbook I’ve never heard of by a woman named Lindsay Miller. The person who recommended this book was offering it as an example of what they themselves had bought, but the person asking about setting up a first kitchen didn’t say they were a vegetarian specifically. I’m not much for vegetarian cookbooks (I own one), so I can’t say if it’s any good or not. I would say that unless someone specifically asks about vegetarian cooking, I’d not recommend a vegetarian cookbook as their first purchase. There are so many bad ones out there that a novice could easily be turned off of cooking altogether, which would be sad. IMO, of course.

The Good Housekeeping Cookbook
I own the 1957 edition of this, and it’s very June Cleaver, with recommendations for which cuts of meat make the best pot roast and that sort of thing. I know they’ve updated it, and it’s probably a fine choice because I’m sure it includes lots of good information about technique and basics. It’s probably not very exciting (unless they’ve seriously spiced it up since 1957), but it wouldn’t be a bad choice. Not the most interesting, perhaps, but a decent place to start. My only concern would be that it probably offers most recipes to serve four or more, and the single person cooking alone doubtless doesn’t want to eat the same food for three days in a row.

The Gourmet Cookbook
This is the one that was published a couple of years ago by Gourmet magazine. I’d shy away from it, because Gourmet’s focus is and has always been more dinner party food than what to eat for dinner every night. They have had columns over the years that offer simple dinner suggestions, but even then their ingredient choices are expensive or somewhat exotic or both. Again, this one might be intimidating to someone just starting out.

Rachael Ray Express Lane
Sure, if you want 20 recipes for hamburgers, and another 10 for pasta, have at it. Also, you need to be able to tolerate an eye watering degree of cutesiness.

How to Cook Everything
This is probably the most interesting and sensible suggestion made. Someone cooking for themselves may still find the portions overwhelming, but if they learn to divide by 2, they’ll have a pretty solid cookbook. In addition to having good basics, Bittman also has enough fun stuff that can actually be eaten for meals, not just served with drinks. This book is a good middle ground between the how-to-roast-a-chicken instruction manual, and the chapters and chapters of hors d’oeuvres and dessert recipes.

Barefoot Contessa
Again, too much party food, too expensive for a good basic.

The Fannie Farmer Cookbook
While this is a great source for things like instructions on how to make yogurt, or an English muffin recipe, I find very little in this book that really work as What to Have for Dinner. It’s a reference book to me.

Sally Schneider
Schneider actually has two books out these days, A New Way to Cook, and The Improvisational Cook. Both great books, but not beginner books by any means. They assume too much technical knowledge to be good starter books. Also, beginners in my experience want to be able to turn out things that everyone recognizes and is comfortable with. Schneider’s whole premise is that you too can be a creative cook and come up with different things on your own.

The New Best Recipe
This is the one put out by the editors of Cook’s Illustrated magazine. I love to read about food, but I find Cook’s Illustrated to be even beyond my obsessive/compulsive needs. They just seem to go on for pages and pages with substitutions for this and why this worked and that didn’t. The other things is, I can’t say what’s in this specific book, but I have a couple of their books that are kind of all over the board with their content. They have a few things that are fine for everyday eating, but a lot of what they perfect seems to me to be baked goods.

My own first cookbooks (or to be completely accurate, the first cookbooks I read, because I had a ton that belonged to my mother; I just didn’t use them all from day one) were Craig Claiborne’s Kitchen Primer, which was fine for fancy French sauces and instructions on how to make mayonnaise, and a basic James Beard (the name of which actually escapes me now). I wouldn’t recommend the Kitchen Primer to anyone starting out, unless their goal was to be able to make mayonnaise from scratch right away. The James Beard had a good discussion of things like braising, baking, broiling and what the differences were. I highly recommend James Beard (really any James Beard that isn’t one of his “single topic” books—bread, fish, etc.) as a first cookbook for anyone. He’s knowledgeable without being preachy, instructive without being condescending, and his recipes are ones you might actually use. Even after all these years, he’s still accessible and relevant.

What I’d really recommend for anyone who was just coming to cooking would be cooking magazines. Bon Appetit, Cooking Light, Fine Cooking—any of these has a nice variety of easy and more complicated recipes. When I was a beginner, what I wanted was things I could eat for dinner, not things to make for a dinner party. Then, once I had gained some confidence, I wanted things I could make for friends that weren’t too complicated. Cooking magazines have all of these things, and the ingredients are usually in line with the seasons. Another problem with being a novice is that you’re not always sure what’s in season. Cookbooks don’t always help with that. Cookbooks say “run out and buy some strawberries and make this tart!” but they tell you that all year long, and the novice may be reading the book in January and thinking “Hm, that does look tasty…” and find that the berries they can get (assuming they can get any) are tasteless and mushy. They may then blame themselves for doing something wrong, when in fact it was that their ingredients were poor.

Learning about cooking isn’t like learning about other things. You don’t have to start with the culinary equivalent of the cave paintings at Lascaux or with the Greek’s contributions to architecture. You can pick up a magazine and find a recipe for Spice-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin and make it, without having to understand the historical recipes from which it might take its cues. All you need to know is what’s in the recipe—what to combine to make the rub, how to rub it on the pork, how to roast the coated pork, and how to tell when it’s done. Cooking can be done in a vacuum, essentially. Sure, it’s nice to understand the nuances of recipes and the fact that this or that combination of ingredients will give something an Asian or Indian or Italian flavor, but it’s not critical to know it. Once a novice has some confidence that cooking really isn’t that hard, then they can learn all about the foundation recipes and the influence of the West on Eastern cooking and vice versa.

Beginners always go for the complex, the elaborate. I know I did. I think one of the first meals I ever cooked was chicken in a cream sauce with grapes (that was before I realized I didn’t like grapes in things). Cream sauce is notoriously hard to make, and I remember undercooking the chicken in my terror over how the cream sauce would turn out. This was during a period when I had expressed to my mother my desire to learn to cook properly, and she let me make dinners for a week or so (all of them similar to the chicken in cream sauce recipe—that is, containing huge quantities of cream, butter, and like ingredients). Finally she pointed out that we couldn’t continue to eat like that on a regular basis, that we’d wind up with heart disease. She started steering me to more reasonable recipes, and I learned to do things like roast a chicken, and broil a steak. She tried to show me that simpler things were actually better than the more complicated ones, which every cook learns sooner or later.

And just for laughs, here's the recipe for the Spice-Crusted Roast Pork Tenderloin I mentioned. It's from the December issue of Fine Cooking.

4 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil; more as needed for the baking sheet
1/4 cup plain low-fat or whole-milk yogurt
1 teaspoon Dijon mustard
2 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
Fresh coarsly ground black pepper
Two 1 1/2-lb. pork tenderloins, trimmed
3/4 cup fresh breadcrumbs (from a baugette or other white artisan-style bread)
1 1/2 teaspoon mustard seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon coriander seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon cumin seeds
1 1/2 teaspoon sesame seeds

Position a rack in the ceter of the oven and heat the oven to 450 degrees F. Lightly oil a heavy-duty rimmed baking sheet.

In a small bolw, stir together 2 tsp of the olive oil and the yogurt, mustard, garlic, salt, and several grinds of pepper. Spread this mixture over the entire surface of the tenderloins with your hands or a rubber spatula. (The pork can be slathered with the yogurt mixture and refrigerated up to 4 hours ahead.)

In a shallow baking dish, combine the breadcrumbs and the mustard, coriander, cumin, and sesame seeds. Roll the tenderloin in the breadcrumb mixture, patting so that the crumbs and spices adhere to the meat. Put the tenderloins on the baking sheet, gather up any remaining crumbs and spices, and pat them onto the top of the pork. Drizzle the remaining 2 teaspoons olive oil over the top.

Roast the tenderloins for 10 minutes, then lower the oven temperature to 325 degrees F. Continue roasting until an instant-read thermometer inserted in the center of each tenderloin reads 140 degrees F, 25 to 30 minutes longer. Transfer pork to a carving board and let rest for 10 minutes before carving it into 1/2 inch thick slices. Be sure to serve all the crumb coating that falls off during carving.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Healthy Habits

I realize a terrible mistake I’ve somehow managed to make. The other day, in some exchange, my oldest son Chris said “I don’t like healthy food—I only like junk food!”

A little bell went off in my head: I’m doing to my son what my mother did to me (don’t they say we all turn into our mothers sooner or later?) with regards to food.

The thing is, what my son says isn’t even true. Of fruits and vegetables alone he loves apple slices, cucumber, peppers (red, yellow or orange), orange slices, raw green beans (odd, but there you are), baby carrots, and bananas. A limited list in relation to what’s out there, I admit, but when you’re five, that’s pretty good according to pediatricians.

I’ve just started working through this, but somehow my mother through her comments managed to make me think I wasn’t a “good” eater. I convinced myself (or she convinced me to convince myself) that I didn’t like healthy foods. It’s true that I craved a great many typically junky foods as a child, but I wasn’t really encouraged to eat healthy foods in a positive way (in a positive way, that’s key). We seldom had fresh fruits and vegetables in the house. I got canned green beans, canned corn, canned beets, but very little in the way of fresh vegetables (other than lettuce and cherry tomatoes, and I didn’t like cherry tomatoes; nor, for that matter, did I like canned vegetables), and almost never any fresh fruit. It would never have occurred to me then (and it doesn’t always occur to me now) to eat an apple as a snack.

However, Oreos and Chips Ahoy! were around a lot. As were things like Stouffer’s Macaroni and Cheese, and frozen pizza. The reason fresh fruits and vegetables never made the cut is because those are things people generally like to pick out on their own, and I guess my mother didn’t trust the market that delivered our groceries to pick good ones. My mom worked and didn’t have time for “traditional” grocery shopping. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember that the market she used even had a produce section. If it did, it wasn’t much of one. We went there occasionally on the weekends to pick up one or two things, and I don’t really recall seeing fresh produce.

As a result of all of this, I had (and to some extent still have) a perception of myself as a person who doesn’t like healthy foods, and who doesn’t eat well. It is, of course, a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is, when I stop to think about it, I really love things that we categorize as “healthy”—butternut squash, as an example, or broccoli, or cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts. I love all those things. And yet, I still can’t get over the image of myself as an “unhealthy” eater. It’s weird, really.

My fear is that my son is headed down the same path. Up to now if he asked for candy, like as not I’d say, “No” and then go on to deride candy as junky and bad for you. I can easily see how a small child, who wants candy, could turn that into “I must be a junky eater, because I want that.” I think that’s what happened to me with my mom.

As a child, my mother loved sweets. She also has a bit of a weight problem, so her mother tried to keep her from eating candy and cookies. My mother admitted that for years her self-worth was tied to her weight. To circumvent my grandmother’s efforts, my mother used to go to a little store where my grandparents had a charge account, and buy whatever she wanted on their tab. I presume that at some point my grandparents figured this out, and nipped that in the bud as well, but I don’t know the full story. What I do know is that my mother’s relationship with food, and her food-related self-image were skewed at best.

As a parent, I know my mother wanted to avoid inflicting those food issues on me, but somehow she didn’t succeed. I think the problem was twofold—first was the subtle message she sent me that candy and cookies were junk and bad. And I drew that common childish conclusion: “If it’s bad and I want it, I must be bad.” Second was her own ping ponging food strategy. One day she was fanatically careful about what she ate, adhering closely to the tenants of whatever diet was currently in vogue. The next day she would say “the hell with it” and eat whatever she wanted, including a bag of sour cream & onion potato chips.

So with my mother’s history, and the subtle reinforcement in my own childhood that I was a less-than-stellar eater, it’s no wonder that’s how I ended up visualizing myself. The reality is that, like my son, I enjoy the occasional crummy hot dog, or bag of M&Ms, or McDonald’s cheeseburger, but lots of times what I want is something that is not only good, but good for me. I think for the last week, my son has scorned whatever protein was offered at dinner, and requested a bowl of apple and cucumber slices. He has then eaten every one of them. Kids have fads in eating, and cravings, just as we do. If we praise them for their “good” choices, and don’t make a federal case out of their requests for candy or other “junk” foods, they’ll come to see themselves as “good” eaters with an occasional craving for something “bad,” instead of the other way around. That’s certainly the strategy I’m going to employ, because I’d like to break this trend in this generation of my family.

Monday, November 12, 2007

My Mother's Recipe File Post

I finally was able to sit down and put together the first post for My Mother's Recipe File. Swing on over and check it out!

Friday, November 09, 2007

Bite Me

Somehow, there are certain bites of things that always taste best. The first bite, the last bite. This morning I realized that there’s another bite that always tastes best: the bite you don’t get. The series of events that brought this to my attention I refer to as the Toast Episode.

At 4:30 this morning, all of my children got up (how do they know when I stayed up too late and could use an extra hour of sleep?) They wanted breakfast. Patrick wanted muffins, Matthew wanted toast. There were no thawed muffins, so I lied and told Patrick we were out of them (I know, I know, I’m going to Hell for lying to my children). He agreed to toast instead.

I took the bread out of the package, and put one slice in the toaster, then the other. Patrick wailed in protest. You’d have thought I was smearing the bread with sulfuric acid and insisting he eat it.

“No, no, no, no, no! No in toaster!”

“You just want it like this?” I asked, holding up the slice of bread.


So I put it on a plate and handed it to him. “There you go,” I said.

“’Ahnt pieces,” he insisted. (Translation: I want it cut up into pieces.) So I cut the piece of bread into squares, put it on the plate, and put it on the table in front of him. He looked at it like a scientist who had stumbled on a very common and not very interesting specimen.

“’Ahnt butter.”

Butter. Okaaayyyy.

“I don’t suppose you could have told me that before I cut it into all those small pieces, could you?” I asked rhetorically. I spread each little square with soft butter and returned it to His Majesty.

“Butter,” I said.

Pause. Pause.

“’Ahnt jam.”

Jam. Fine. So put a tiny dot of jam on each little piece and set the plate back down in front of him. About this time, Matthew’s slice of toast was toasted, spread with butter and jam, cut into pieces, and set down in front of him. Patrick looked at his “toast” and then at Matthew’s. Clearly Patrick’s didn’t measure up, even though I gave him exactly what he asked for.

He reached over to Matthew’s plate while Matthew wasn’t looking, and took a piece of toasted, butter-and-jam spread bread off of it and ate it. Matthew looked back just as the square disappeared into Patrick’s mouth.

“Ahhhhhh, give it!” Matthew whined.

I intervened and explained that the piece was gone.

“All gone!” Patrick repeated proudly.

Matthew sulked. Clearly that was the very best, most delectable square of toast on the plate, perhaps the most delectable in the entire history of toast. And it was gone. All gone. And Patrick got it. I’m going to have to comb the phone book this morning and see if perhaps there’s a support group I can take Matthew to.

The fallout from this is that as soon as I post this, I’ll be thawing some blueberry muffins. I’m not sure Matthew could endure that kind of crushing blow two days in a row.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

Pictures from a New Kitchen

Now here are some saintly appliances if ever I've seen them. Not like some of those other transgressors I own.
The refrigerator. The cardboard comes off when the kitchen is complete, to avoid dings.

The refrigerator open. It's already cooling. How soon can I start putting stuff in the freezer?!? The funny thing is, my first thought was "Gee, it looks kinda small..." Then I looked at my crap Amana fridge in my rental house. Now this looks pretty spacious.

Where the stove will go. The installers keep referring to it as "the range." It won't actually be installed for a week or so, because they have to move the opening for the exhaust fan--it's too far forward, and in order to do that work, they need to be able to put the ladder right where the stove--excuse me, the range--would go. They actually need to rip out drywall and rebuild the soffit, so it's not a small effort, and it's easier for them if they can put the ladder right under where they're working.

For the curious, that thing way in the back next to where the stove will go is a pot filler sink. It has a really cool semi-commercial sprayer thing that's the faucet. It's just not installed yet.

AND THIS IS THE...RANGE! You can just barely see the foot of the installer over to the left (he was lying behind it working on it). Right now it's going to live in the family room until they get that fan vent moved. When I took this picture, the guy said "I sure hope you cook." And I said "Gosh, I don' you think I should learn how?" A comedian, that's me.

I don't have pictures of the washer, dryer, dishwasher, or exhaust hood. Because they're not exicting, really. Also, the hood was still in the box, the dryer and the diswasher were still on the truck, the washer was on its way upstairs. So no really good photo ops unless you wanted to see a shot of the inside of the Schmidt's Appliances truck.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

My Mother's Recipe File

Although my mother wasn’t much of a cook when I got older, in the early days of her marriage, she loved to cook and entertain. The evidence I have of this is in part the stories she used to tell me of having people over, and in part in the accordion recipe file I have that belonged to her. This file is easily 35 or 40 years old, and its sides are split, not unlike the bellows of a real accordion that has seen better days. On the front of it is a colored sketch of some fruit—grapes, peaches, a pear, some grape leaves, and the word RECIPES is in a rather narrow, austere typeface. It has an “aged” tint to it, which when it was new probably made it look charming and old fashioned, but now makes it look as though it had tea or coffee (or both) spilled on it repeatedly over the last 30 years. The picture and word on the front are oriented for a “portrait” presentation; I presume that the assumption was that the file would be stored upright like a book. Because this file has been bulging with recipes for as long as I can remember, it has never passed so much as a day in an upright position. It has always rested on its bottom wherever it lived.

For a long time it lived on my mother’s desk in our kitchen in Washington, D.C. This was its primary residence for many years, perched on a shelf at the end of the kitchen that was remodeled in 1979 in a brown and white color scheme that my mother, always one to take things to extremes, even carried down to her pots and pans. Le Cruset no longer makes brown enameled cookware, for which I think we should all be grateful. I don’t recall her ever using the recipe file for reference. It seemed as though she had done all her recipe collecting in the late 1950s and early 1960s and was content to consider her collection complete. She bought cookbooks—I recall The Good Cook collection by Time-Life, which was organized by topic (Poultry, Vegetables, that sort of thing, and I remember the Desserts book had the least-appealing looking dessert in the whole world on the cover, a sort of anemic molded blancmange/pudding thing festooned with blackberries that was having a berry colored syrup poured over it) that she bought over the years, several of which disappeared along with a few thousand dollars and two catering partners in a business deal turned sour (if I’m not mistaken, these folks are now running a hot dog stand in Denver). The others in the series have disappeared over the years, gradually given away as I decided they were just too dated (now I kind of wished I’d kept them, just for the sake of amusement; I’ve seen a complete set sell for around $85 on eBay).

But the recipe file, though just as dated, I still have. In my early 20s, when I became interested in food and cooking, and felt the urge to move to the “adult” world of learning how to prepare my own food, instead of having it prepared for me, I began collecting recipes and adding them to this trove. I’m amused to go back and flip through those recipes, and see not only what my mother collected, but what I added to the collection. In both cases, there are some strange choices, either because of the culture of the times, or because of the idiosyncrasies of the collector. For example, I have many handwritten index cards for such basics as Hollandaise sauce. Evidently I was under the impression that I had one shot at finding a recipe for Hollandaise sauce, and since I had found it, I’d better write it down. I must not have realized that there was a Hollandaise sauce recipe in just about any basic cookbook I cared to open.

The folders are labeled with food categories. There’s nothing terribly remarkable about them: Appetizers, Soups & Sauces; Salads & Salad Dressings; Fish & Seafood; Meat; Poultry; Omelets & Casseroles; Vegetables; Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods; Desserts; Miscellaneous. Although my mother didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, the section on Cakes, Pies & Baked Goods is by far the fullest. In fact, my mother used to say that what she had was a “fat tooth”—her weakness was for fatty, salty things like potato chips and dip. Vegetables appear to have the least representation in this collection. In Miscellaneous we find such gems as a recipe pamphlet called “Cooking Made Easy with a WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker” which is kind of interesting because to the best of my knowledge my mother never had a pressure cooker. I have a suspicion this booklet came from my grandmother, because the date in it is 1946, and in 1946 my mother was about ten years old. A tad young for experimenting with a pressure cooker, I’d say. But why did she keep it for so many years when we didn’t even own a pressure cooker? It’s too late to find out now.

And that’s the joy, and at the same time the frustration, of this recipe file. It even applies to the recipes that I cut or copied. Because I no longer have access to my mother, nor do I really have access to the person I was almost twenty years ago, I can only guess why certain recipes are saved, while others were discarded. In a couple of instances I might recall something about why I clipped a recipe, or see what the appeal was (or is), but there are so many that are just mysteries. My mother was a big gatherer of recipes, almost a chronicler of a form of cultural history, although she never did anything with her artifacts. I recall having seen in a scrapbook somewhere a handwritten note from some dinner guest she’d entertained in about 1960. It went something like this:

Dear Mrs. Langston,

I know you collect recipes and I thought I would send you this one for [whatever it was]. I hope you enjoy it.

All the best,

[The Author of the Note]

I don’t know where the recipe itself is (although it could be in the scrapbook, which is in a box in a storage locker, soon to be unearthed as we move into a new house). It could be in this very recipe file. Did she ever make it? What did she think of it? If she didn’t make it, why didn’t she? Why was she such a collector of recipes? Why am I? Is it genetic? You see how this could go.

As an exercise in, well lots of things, I am setting forth to make recipes from this file. I’ll work my way through from Appetizers, Soups & Sauces, back to Miscellaneous (don’t expect to see anything from the pressure cooker pamphlet any time soon). This will be a source of discovery about food, of course, and food of specific times (mostly the 1960s, 1970s, and into the early 1990s). Along the way I expect to do some self-discovery, as well as learn a few things about my mother. I will, at the very least, speculate on some things about my mother, since I can’t really say with any confidence that I’ve unearthed her true motive, or thought behind any given selection.

I’ll be keeping a record of this experiment over at I’ll still be posting here, but on a weekly basis I’ll be selecting a choice tidbit from the recipe file. Then I’ll make it and (try to) photograph it, and do a write up of it. I must offer these caveats at the outset as regards the photography: first, I’m not a professional food photographer (you probably already knew that), nor do I have a very good camera. Second, if you’ve ever flipped through cookbooks or pamphlets like the WEAR-EVER Pressure Cooker booklet, you know quite well how food was styled in those days (and if you’re not familiar with it, check out The Gallery of Regrettable Food. Actually, check it out even if you are familiar with it, because you’ll laugh yourself sick—but I digress.) In any event, the question must be asked, did food photographs look like that because they were taken in grainy black and white, and styled by people with zero talent? Or did they look like that because that’s what food looked like? I can’t say, but I will say that if it’s the latter, be prepared to be underwhelmed by my pictures. They may not be great to begin with, but if they’re mediocre pictures of weird or unappetizing foods, I hereby absolve myself of all liability.

Expect to see the first post early next week. I’m torn between Liptauer and Mushroom Hors d’Oeuvres. The mushroom hors d’oeuvres are by far the more palatable, but the liptauer has more humor value. So we shall see.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

I Never...

When I was younger, my friends and I played a drinking game called “I never” in which the object was to stay something completely humiliating or bizarre that you’d never done, and anyone who had done that thing had to drink. The idea, clearly, was to discover what outlandish things other people had done. (The game should, of course, be called "I've Never" to be perfectly grammatical about it.)

Something reminded me of this game a few weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about the culinary version of it. What cooking-related things have I never done that I think I should have done, or that I’d like to have done? So here’s my list. As you read through it’s not necessary to drink when you come across a thing you have done that I haven’t (unless you want to, of course, in which case, by all means, do so).

I’ve never made hollandaise sauce from scratch. Or béarnaise sauce. Or really any of those classic butter-based sauces. Probably because I’ve never served Eggs Benedict to anyone. Although I have served filet mignon, which I’ve had served to me with béarnaise sauce in restaurants, but since my husband hates béarnaise sauce, I’ve never made it to go with filet at home.

I’ve never poached an egg. I don’t know why—it’s just never come up. As I said, I’ve never made Eggs Benedict, and I’ve never had any other need to poach an egg. Nor have I ever really craved one. I’ve eaten them, but I’ve never made them.

I’ve never made pudding from scratch. As a child of the packaged food generation, pudding was powder out of a box mixed with milk. My mother never made pudding from scratch either (my mother never made a lot of things from scratch), so I guess it never occurred to me to think of how “real” pudding was made (or even considered that there was such a thing as “real” pudding) until I was an adult, by which time I didn’t like it so much anymore. I might make pudding for my own kids one day, since pudding is a very kid food.

I’ve never had any success with buttercream frosting. It always tastes iceboxy. And it’s always too…too much. I don’t know if it’s greasy or slick or heavy or rich or what the exact word is I’m looking for here, but real buttercream that I’ve made is always too much for me. I might have had other people’s buttercream and loved it (I can’t recall every single encounter with buttercream in my life), but when I make it for my own cakes, I always am not enamored of it. I want to like it—after all, I made it, and I made it with good ingredients—but I just can’t warm up to it somehow. Maybe this is just me, and not the frosting.

I’ve never made jam. I really want to, but I have a couple of things currently stopping me. The first is my four children. They don’t leave me a lot of time for picking berries, preparing them, cooking them, and putting them up. The second thing is my fear of botulism. Marion Cunningham, updater of the Fannie Farmer Cookbook, assures me that my fear is unfounded, and that it’s perfectly safe to put up preserves, but I’m still a little reluctant. That, combined with my conviction that all the lids would blow off the jars as I tried to “process” them, leaving my kitchen a mess and me a scarred shell of a woman, has kept me from making jam. In the next couple of years I’ll get over this and take the plunge. No doubt the details will be recorded here (assuming I survive the explosion[s]).

I’ve never had any luck frying chicken. In spite of the fact that I think this is one of the more important things every cook should know how to do, I confess that I pretty much suck at it. I know technically how to do it, but I’ve never had any success with the execution. Just like some people can’t make pie crust, or bread, or white sauce, I’m just a Fried Chicken Failure. It’s always burnt on the outside and raw on the inside. Maybe I’ll try again someday. Better make a note to do it before making the jam, in case the exploding jars take out my kitchen.

I’ve never made fish stock. I’ve never really had a need, to be honest. We don’t eat much fish, we don’t eat much fish soup, so I’ve never had either the components or the need. There are a few things I’d like to make that call for fish stock, such as bouillabaisse. As my kids get older, one of my goals is to start introducing them to more fish so that we all become more fish eaters (it just seems a crying shame to live a ferry ride + a short walk away from Pike Place Market—Home of the Heaved Salmon—and not eat more fish), so no doubt I’ll remedy this at some point.

I’ve never cooked a whole fish. See above. Also, the idea of a fish with its head on kind of ooks me out. I have a friend who insists that she doesn’t eat anything that ever had a nose (which I think is kind of an overly cute way of saying she only eats chicken and fish, and I’d like to point out that chickens do have noses, just not in the traditional sense that we as humans do, but whatever), and I for one am somewhat put off by a dish that can actually look me in the eye. Which isn’t to say that I won’t eat it, or I have a rule about not eating food that can stare back at me or anything like that. I just have some reservations on this one, and it’s going to take me a little time to get over them. I think we’re looking at a lot of fish filets and steaks until I can work through this one.

I’ve never made puff pastry or croissants from scratch. I’m a bit intimidated by this kind of dough, frankly. I, who stand as a mighty soldier before yeast, am a tad cowed by the whole butter-flour-fold it-turn it-refrigerate it type of dough. It just seems there’s more chance for me to screw it up. With bread dough, I toss in the yeast and it does its thing. As long as it’s not too old or too hot, it complies. With puff pastry, there’s more of me involved in the process, and therefore more chance that my fallibility will reveal itself.

I’ve never made pasta. This is something I’ve always wanted to do, and think it would be such fun, but I’ve heard that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to do, and this would be one of those things that I would try to make for a dinner party, and my guests would arrive to find me sobbing uncontrollably over a misshapen pile of goo. They’d try to comfort me: “Really, it’s great looking linguini!” and I’d wail, “It was supposed to be tortellini!!” Maybe one day when I’m feeling brave, and cavalier about the possibility of dumping a couple of pounds of flour right into the trash, and just have a few hours to do absolutely nothing at all, I’ll give it a try.

There are plenty of other things I’ve never done—made pate from scratch (my mom was big on doing this, for some reason--she never made pudding, or dinner, but she'd grind up chicken livers and wrap them in bacon...go figure), cooked on a woodstove (my aunts have both done this), tried brains or sweetbreads (I have an uncle who has eaten just about everything deemed edible by any group of people in the world). On the other hand, my aunts and uncle have never roasted a whole pig.

Friday, October 19, 2007

So You're Thinking About Throwing a Holiday Party This Year...

I once I read the menu for a holiday party someone threw and it was incredible. It must have had fifteen different items; several dips with both crackers and vegetables, a smoked salmon, cheeses, individual hors d’oeuvres, desserts, the works. The party was, as I recall, for about 25 people. I thought as I read about how much work that person must have put into making all that food, and wondering how much they had left over.

Many years ago BC (Before Children), my husband and I used to throw a holiday party every year for between 50 and 100 people. Also many years ago, I sold catering services, and a major component of selling the services was developing menu proposals. When the glamour of food service (ha!) faded, I moved on to project management. So with this combination—experience in catering, experience in project management, and many parties thrown for my own friends (as well as total strangers)—I’d like to share some of (or, you know, a lot of) the things that I learned on the subject of How to Throw a Party.

To define what I mean by party: a gathering of more than 8 people whose final destination is not the dinner table. I’m thinking of more of a cocktail party, although some of the planning suggestions could be applied to a dinner party. Planning is planning for almost all types of cooking, after all.

I was taught to think of planning a buffet of “heavy hors d’oeuvres,” which is usually what a cocktail party consists of, in much the same way one thinks of a meal. Or more accurately, in the way we used to think of meals—meat, starch, vegetable, etc. Transport yourself back to 1950s and 60s sitcoms when you start this exercise—channel your inner Aunt Bee. Break out that old Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook from the late 60s and check the section on “Meal Planning Tips.” There should be a protein dish or two—chicken, beef, or fish. An egg or cheese dish is good in case your guest list includes vegetarians (if it includes vegans, you’re on your own—I don’t do vegan). Then add a vegetable or two, something starchy, and perhaps something sweet and you’re all set. Really, seven items is plenty. If there are many more than that, several things happen—there are always one or two popular items you’ve never made enough of because you didn’t have time, so you run out of them; you always end up with tons of leftovers of one or two of your choices; and you drive yourself completely bananas trying to schedule the prep for all the things you decided to make.

In making choices, think about prep. A catering manager I worked with once sold someone a menu that included stuffed cherry tomatoes. We had to hollow them out with a paring knife, and then pipe herbed cream cheese into them. This would have been a terrific vegetable component, and a really nice change from the usual “crudités with random dip served in a hollowed-out cabbage.” I even recommend you consider them as a possible choice for your own party. But not if you are serving 150 people. Since you need to provide two to three of each individual hors d’oeuvres per person, that meant stuffing between 300 and 450 cherry tomatoes. I won’t even go into the horrors of transporting that many cherry tomatoes to the party site, with their artfully swirled herbed cream cheese atop them, and how the artful swirls get smashed down by the plastic wrap that is critical to keeping them upright on the sheet pans so that they don’t all fall over like so many drunken Weebles and go sliding into each other, smearing their herbed cream cheese all over the neighboring tomatoes…but I said I wouldn’t go into it.

So the moral of this story is, think about the degree of labor intensity. Does the preparation of any one item require you to fiddle around with each and every piece to some degree? If so, consider having only one, or at most two, of something like this if you’re hosting more than about 15 people. This is the reason why things like vegetable platters, slabs of smoked salmon, bowls of olives, and cheese boards are so popular. They rate almost a zero on the fiddle scale. On the other end of that spectrum, we have things like those cherry tomatoes (curse their souls), or something-on-party- toasts that need to be assembled, heated, and garnished, or the famous shrimp-wrapped-in-a-pea-pod. If you have to handle each component of an hors d’oeuvres for more than a couple of seconds, it’s going to be pretty labor intensive.

The question, though, is “What can I serve to a fairly large group that’s not a boring old cheese board, but is also not a fiddly thing requiring hours of individual attention?” There are some choices. One thing that I like to do is sausage in puff pastry. These look impressive, but aren’t really very time consuming. Cook Italian sausage (pork or turkey) in boiling water until they’re pretty well cooked through (10-15 minutes). Drain the sausage, and remove the casings. Cut thawed puff pastry into rectangles—about 3” wide, and about as long as your sausage. You want a little bit on either long end to tuck down over the end of the sausage. Wrap the rectangle of puff pastry around the sausage and press the seam firm, possibly using a little water to seal it. If your puff pastry is getting sticky, you can put the wrapped sausages in the freezer for 10 or so minutes to firm up. Using a serrated knife (I’ve found this works best), cut the wrapped sausage into ¼” slices, and lay them on a baking sheet. Bake them off in a 400 degree oven for about 12 minutes, or until the pastry puffs and browns a bit.

Really what you’re after is something where you’re making one part of the item in bulk, and doing a little fiddling with the finished product. Curried chicken salad in phyllo cups (you can buy these and they’re fine; if you’re determined to make them yourself, make them a couple of weeks in advance and freeze them so you’re not tearing your hair out making phyllo cups three hours before your guests arrive). Biscuits or muffins (either of which can have cheese, nuts, or herbs added to the batter) stuffed with a little meat of some kind (roast beef, turkey, ham), and served with a couple of interesting condiments—honey mustard, herbed mayonnaise, chutney spread. Homemade cheese “crackers” in which the dough is made, rolled into a log and chilled, then sliced and baked. These could be served with a fun dip or spread. Baked polenta “fries” dusted with grated parmesan and served with a warm marinara sauce for dipping.

Think about entrees you like and consider ways to make them into hors d’oeuvres. We did an office party for which the client requested a “holiday meal” theme. We served cranberry muffins with sliced turkey (an idea borrowed from Martha Stewart’s Entertaining book), mini stuffing balls served with gravy for dipping (prepare your favorite stuffing recipe—not one with tons of nuts or fruit in it, nor one in which the bread is in big chunks; it won’t hold together in balls—and using a melon baller, make little balls of stuffing, bake at 350 until crisp on the outside, about 10 to 15 minutes; serve with toothpicks for spearing and dipping), twice baked new potatoes (steam new potatoes and cool until they can be handled comfortably, cut in half, scoop out the top of each potato with a melon baller, reserving the “scoops.” Combine the reserved potato with butter, sour cream, chives…your favorite baked potato toppings. Using a pastry bag, pipe back into the hollowed out potatoes and heat in a 350 degree oven until hot through, about 20 minutes), baked sweet potato wedges dusted with a brown sugar-orange zest “glaze,” and a crudités platter with a blue cheese dip. Dessert was mini pecan pies (full disclosure: we bought these from a bakery. Never be afraid to supplement your own menu with something from a really good bakery; better to do that than to have your guests find you in tears because the fat wasn’t hot enough when you were frying the mini donuts and you wound up with a pile of half raw oil sogged donut dough.)

Another consideration is the various flavors, and, for lack of a better word, nationality of the food. The polenta fries with marinara sauce, on a buffet with tortellini skewers with pesto dipping sauce, and cherry tomato-and-mozzarella salad with a basil vinaigrette would be too much Italian (unless you were going for an all-Italian theme). For a holiday party that doesn’t have a specific ethnic theme, make sure that the flavors harmonize without being repetitive. If you choose an obviously ethnic dish—sautéed shrimp with Indian spices, or miso glazed beef skewers—try to keep the rest of the menu ethnically neutral. America is a melting pot, but the flavors of all cuisines don’t always blend as harmoniously, and in some cases may actually clash.

Once you’ve got a menu in mind, the next steps are to think about how to assemble it, and how to serve it.

Look at the recipes for your chosen hors d’oeuvres. Are there parts that can be made ahead? Can the whole thing be made ahead? If everything requires absolutely last-minute preparation, you might want to rethink your choices. Empanadas, for example, can be made in stages. The filling can be made a couple of days ahead and refrigerated. They can be assembled (I use the pre-rolled pie crust dough from the grocery store for these) a day or two ahead of time and kept covered in the refrigerator. They can be baked off right before everyone shows up, but they also taste fine at room temperature. Dips can be made a couple of days ahead. Biscuits need to be cooked at the last minute. See how timelines can slot together so you’re not trying to cram everything in the oven at once. It may be more realistic to buy some things already made. As nice as the idea of baking your own ham for ham biscuits is, Honey Baked is just as good and far easier to work with.

Storage space is also a consideration. If you don’t have a lot of room in your refrigerator, you may want to consider things that can be stored at room temperature, or in the freezer. Of course, if you live in a part of the country where it gets cold enough, and you’re throwing your soiree during the winter months, you may be able to use a garage as additional cold storage. This was the case at my in-laws’ house in Western Massachusetts (average winter high temperature: 0 degrees Kelvin). We could make baked goods or sauces, wrap them up well, and store them in the garage in a cooler for a day or two. Even if you don’t have a garage, if the temperatures are cool enough, an Igloo cooler sitting in the shade could be used for storage for a short time. When thinking about what to make ahead, think about where you’re going to put it until you’re ready for it again.

Another catering manager I worked with was always shopping on the day of the party. She was pretty badly organized and somehow she always realized that she lacked a platter, bowl, or pitcher for some critical menu item on the very day of the event. She would then bop off to the local Crate & Barrel, or Linens & Things or whatever and spend a couple of hours buying serving items while the rest of us toiled in the kitchen. From her I learned to think about what to serve and what to serve it on (or in) at the same time. Then I’ll know a couple of weeks before the party that I really don’t have a suitable sized bowl for a dip, or I’ll remember that the platter I’m thinking of using got broken two years ago at Thanksgiving and I need to replace it. It’s much easier to find just the right thing if you’re not in a rush, and if you’re working with someone to get everything ready, you won’t piss them off by being gone for half the day while they work themselves into a froth cooking and cleaning and decorating.

Look at each menu item and think about how people are going to eat it. Is it something fairly tidy that can be eaten in two bites? Or is it something that has a filling that might slip out so that someone might want to be holding a plate under it? For anything being served on a skewer, there are some special considerations: how are your guests going to get it off the skewer (if it’s chicken or beef, consider cutting the meat into pretty small chunks so that the teeth can be used to pull it off; you don’t want your guests to spear themselves in the soft palate while trying to gnaw the satay off of the stick), and then what will they do with the skewer when they’re done? Will there be a trash can right there (perhaps a very small one discreetly tucked under the edge of the tablecloth), or will you provide a tray or plate for “used” skewers? If you do this, I always recommend “seeding” the used skewer plate before everyone shows up. Eat one or two, make sure the skewers are recognizable as used, and put them on the plate. Either that or make up a little tent card that says “Used Skewers.” Some things are really better eaten with a fork—anything that might be drippy or sticky. I’ve served soup at hors d’oeuvres buffets with great success. Just provide small Styrofoam cups and spoons, and someplace convenient for people to toss them when they’re done

If you’re having enough people and want to rent china, it’s not terribly daunting, but know that most rental places are very busy around the holidays, and you’re generally required to return plates rinsed; they don’t have to be washed, but they shouldn’t have food clinging to them. Rental linens are generally pretty bad. Most of them are a polyester blend. Given the choice between rental linens and good quality paper napkins from the grocery store, I’ll go with the paper. Of course, you can always buy pretty printed napkins at party supply stores. These may cost a little more, but you may not want just a plain solid colored paper napkin. If you have enough of your own linens to provide for your guests, even if they don’t all match, I say go for it.

Be sure to have lots of napkins on hand, even if that means putting out your “nice” cloth cocktail napkins and having a backup pack of paper in the kitchen. People generally go through several napkins in an evening and you don’t want to run out. A tablecloth makes the easiest table covering (yes, yes, banana leaves stitched together would be hugely fun for a tropical theme, but if you’ve got time to do that…then do it. I don’t have that kind of time). Cut flowers are nice as decoration, but so are pots of herbs, or blooming plants. I’ve found that I got so into arranging the flowers that I got behind on food prep. One holiday we bought three dozen white roses, and when I got them home from the florist (the day of the party, mind you), I must have spent two hours wiring all their little heads to keep them from drooping. They looked outstanding, but I wound up feeling frazzled as the seconds ticked down to the arrival of the first guest and I was still putting the finishing touches on food.
Probably the most important rule of party-giving is: everything is going to take about 50% longer than you think it is. If you think it’s going to take you 20 minutes to chop the onions for the dip, and you’re making dip for 75 people, figure on 30 minutes. The only area where this is not the case is in baking times. Generally speaking, baking times tend to be pretty close if you’re using well-tested recipes. If you’re sautéing or browning, I’d suggest using the 50% rule, because it always seems that between the difference in the stove I’m using, and the variations in cookware, sautéing mushrooms until their liquid is evaporated for example, can take longer than a recipe recommends. Also, if you’re doubling or tripling a recipe, stovetop activities may take longer because of the increased volume of food.

I could probably go on for another page or two. Or twenty. After all, whole books have been written on this subject. This is only my 2 cents (or maybe 5 or 10 cents). I love throwing this kind of party, and I love to think about what to serve at this kind of party. Sometimes I’ll see a recipe in a magazine and plan an entire party around it. This is fun for me. People tell me I should become a caterer because I enjoy this kind of thing so much. These are mostly people who don’t know that I’ve already done that. I’d never do it again because it’s hard, hard work, and anyone who does do it has my utmost regard. I’ll just keep planning menus, and someday serving them to my friends and family for them to enjoy. And maybe pratting on about the logistics of it in blog entries.