Friday, December 30, 2011

Since You've Been Gone

January 4th, 2002 seems like a lifetime ago. And it seems like yesterday.  It's hard to believe, sometimes, that I left work a little early on that Friday, stopped at the store for a few things, and came home and discovered that you'd had a massive heart attack and died on the kitchen floor earlier in the day.

I called 9-1-1 and hoped they'd somehow breathe life back into you, even though through my shock, I was pretty sure it was too late.  The paramedics, including a fire truck, soon filled our tiny street, and got the neighbors buzzing.  Turns out, Ritchie, our neighbor the paramedic, was the one who confirmed what I'd feared the most. 

Hours passed waiting for the coroner's office and whatever paperwork needed to be processed, while you laid in the kitchen.  Police and detectives arrived in succession; searched outside, walked around with notepads, and sequestered and questioned me several times.  The juvenile division detective with the bad toupee asked me several times, several ways, when was the last time I saw you.  Finally they took you away.  But left the sheet carelessly tossed in the corner of the kitchen floor. Calling your parents was the hardest phone call I've ever made in my life.

People came. Brought food I couldn't eat and answered phone calls I couldn't take.  It's a sobering reality when someone 46 years drops dead with no warning.

Who knew that a few weeks earlier, when we had a conversation after your father drug you to the funeral home to pre-plan your parents funeral, when you told me that you thought the whole process was ridiculous ("Fuck that. Cremate me and have a big fucking party."), that I'd be doing just that.  My mother picked out the ugly urn that looks just like a Kleenex box; don't blame me for that.  We had the big F'in party in May, around our anniversary, which I still can't remember if it is the 24th or the 25th. I haven't seen or heard from most of those people since.

People came. Brought food I couldn't eat and answered phone calls I couldn't take.  It's a sobering reality when someone 46 years drops dead with no warning.

Your father showed up the next day, and true to his completely self-centered nature, started immediately whining about who would take care of them and administer the Living Trust he had made his personal pet project.  He went into high gear torturing the lawyer (and me) re-writing the Trust, which entailed near weekly phone calls and visits.  I could barely deal with one deceased Mitchell and he couldn't stop drilling me about what I'd need to do when the last two died.

I drug myself back to work but the 'career' I'd worked hard to climb the ladder in had already become a mind-numbing, boring series of repetitively stupid meetings, conference calls, and the corporate babble du jour threatened to drive me crazy.  My contempt filter switch flipped and progressively got worse.  Working with stupid people pulling down six figure salaries while constantly being told to whittle budgets and lay off the those at the bottom of ladder wasn't working really well with my current state of mind.

In April, your mother got breast cancer.  I found a lump the day I was taking her for surgery. A big one. I cried, by myself, while the doctor said I needed a mammogram ASAP, and I told him I was busy that day. (Turned out after a biopsy, that mine was benign).

After the surgery, it became apparent your mom could no longer stay at home.  Turns out not planning a first floor bath and bedroom in that Dutch colonial was the fatal flaw that sent us scrambling for assisted living accommodations in an urgent, need it now situation - just like I figured it would go down.  You can just imagine how much fun it was touring places with your father.  We found a place close to the house in Wadsworth where he could visit every day.  She complained bitterly about the food, which I found mildly ironic, since she wasn't the best cook.  Then I discovered that complaining about the food is one of the main activities in nursing homes.

I tried drowning my sorrows and it turned out that, like stuffing one end of a pool float in the water, the other end just kept popping out of the water. Your parents had no one else, so they just couldn't help calling me constantly, not really to ask how I was doing, I don't think they ever did actually, but to constantly test me to make sure I was going to take care of them to the bitter end.

I did stupid things with inappropriate people, all the while trying to tread the water of sanity while your parents constantly grabbed me by the ankle and pulled me back underwater.  Mostly I was just numb. All of the time. No one apparently understood; no one offered to help.  I thought about suicide. A lot.

I finally couldn't take the bullshit of my corporate life.  On almost exactly my tenth anniversay, I quit.  Regardless of what a couple of the self centered assholes I worked with think, I did not get fired.  I could have have made them work at firing me; I didn't have the energy to stay that course, so I called bullshit and left.

I gardened and cooked and tried to get some sense of calm in the never ending undertow of need of your parents.  Then I remembered the gift certificate for the personal chef that we bought your parents as a gift, and my new career was born.  Then I chickened out when I was offered a chance to go back to the corporate life.

The first few days back in the office your father ended up in the hospital, taken in by an ex-employee of the assisted living your mom was in, who was 'helping' by driving him to appointments and cleaning the house. He had two tumors taken out of his brain and was never the same afterwards.  Was lucid for a few days, then totally out of it.  The 'cleaning lady' caused extra trouble by telling them I was just trying to take their money, when in fact SHE was, and I eventually had to have the hospital staff ban her from visiting then reporting back to your mother with tales that made her hysterical.  None of this worked out very well with my new job. One of the first few days I had to leave to change the locks and figure out what to do with Bob, the cat, who had apparently from the smell, decided the house was his litter box.

The stress really threatened to kill me.  With the federal privacy laws, your mother would call the hospital where your father was and they would say he wasn't there.  She would call me hysterical. The only way I could stay on top of it was to camp out at the hospital trying to talk to a doctor, then go to your mother in assisted living.

My cousin, an Air Force veteran, who had a bunch of young kids, was killed in a tragic car accident right before Good Friday in 2006.   I took off work to go to the funeral and when I returned my boss called and told me I was fired.  To be fair I'd already told her I wanted to quit so I wasn't too broken up.  I'd hated every single second of being back in corporate prison.  I went back to the personal chef plan. It was easier to launch a new business while juggling your parents than report to a boss that wasn't me.

Your dad lasted two years in the nursing home, completely unaware of who he was, or anyone else, including me or your mother.  Most of the time he thought he was back in the Navy. Once he flirted with me, which was a little creepy. He was violent and prone to falling out of his wheelchair, which prompted calls to me nearly every night.  He was in hospice and when he was taken off all of the drugs he'd been put on when he made going to doctors his main hobby, he actually got better physically and they eventually kicked him out. I had to clean out the house and auction it; it was in such bad shape I was happy to get anything out of it.

The economy took a shit and fortunately he was out of it when his portfolio took a massive hit when the markets started to tank.  Your mother was blissfully clueless as I wrote huge monthly checks for their care.

Pneumonia finally claimed your father, and by then your mother was at peace because he'd really been gone for over 2 years by then.  She ended up in the hospital nearly every year, usually around Christmas, and turned into a completely different, crazy person.  Finally a nurse told me there was a condition called hospital psychosis.  The minute she was wheeled through the hospital door she'd start hallucinating. She'd spin fantastic tales of parties and being taken to the roof for testing and telling me how the swans in the picture in her room where constantly changing direction.  Her neighbor's phone would ring and she'd grab her call button and scream into it "Stop calling me!".  Then she'd return to her room at the facility and melt back into her old self with barely a memory of being in the hospital.

Then she fell. Injured her shoulder, and that was the beginning of the end.  I sat with her in the hospital all day. It was the Indians home opener; they couldn't pull off a win for her last game, sadly.  She was out of it and I told her it was ok to go. She went peacefully in her sleep that night.

I've honestly lost track of when I became the last Mitchell standing, but roughly seven to eight years. I cleaned up the paperwork, which not surprisingly, did not go as smoothly as your father had hoped, including a six month battle with the IRS to get back a sizable refund, which resulted in me having to start a totally pointless probate process, that unfortunately, is still not closed.

Finally I had some time to release the stress and live my life without the constant weight of having to make sure someone else was ok.  Played in the garden, ate better, went to the gym every day.  Built my business and met a lot of fun people.  Turned down jobs that just weren't appealing.  I felt happy for the first time in a long time.  I made lots of chef and foodie friends.

Then a year ago I went for a slightly overdue mammogram.  Then got the 'come back for more tests' call. And as those tests progressed, I found out this time I wasn't so lucky.  I suspect the years of constant stress  probably gave the cancer cells a helluva kick start.  Had surgery, then chemo, and radiation. It was a long winter.

Jake, who will always and forever be my favorite cat, snuggled close the entire time I was in treatment.  He was either on my lap, or he started burrowing under the covers with me in bed. At seventeen, he wasn't a kitten anymore, and right before my last chemo he stopped eating and I knew it was time.  So I sent him to keep you company.  It nearly tore my heart out. I still miss him.

I'm better now.  Older, fatter, grayer, probably wiser.  I've shed all of the things and people that don't add any joy to my life. I try not to add anything or anyone that doesn't make me happy. I finally got the kitchen of my dreams. I am blissfully debt-free. I am happy.

I now know that you only get one soulmate. I think about you, and miss you, every single day. I sometimes think back to that conversation a few weeks before you were gone, when I begged you to take better care of yourself because "If you drop dead before you're fifty, I am going to be really pissed."

I wish I'd said instead "Because if you die before me, you're going to take a piece of my heart with you forever."  xoxoxo

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Dine-In Diva's Guide to Buying Pots & Pans

As the holiday season approaches, new pots and pans (and other kitchen gadgets) often appear on wish lists, but how do you decide just exactly what are the right pots and pans for you? With a myriad of finishes, sizes, types, and manufacturers, the task of selecting a workable collection can be daunting, especially for the beginner cook.

Whether you are purchasing them as a gift, or for yourself, the first question you should ask, is 'What do I cook?' The number of people you cook for also can influence your purchases.

Should you buy a set? Besides the expense of buying a collection, vs. individual pieces, there is a likelihood that some of those pieces are going to go unused, so it wouldn't be my preferred method.

I think there is a tendency to lean towards the set your mother used, and my first set was the same as my mother's, a heavy duty Club Aluminum set consisting of a dutch oven, a large frying pan, and two sauce pans, each with a heavy lid with a large plastic handle.  Club Aluminum is apparently out of business, no doubt due to the persistent reports that cooking in aluminum contributes to Alzheimer's Disease, but a quick search on the internet reveals there are still plenty of devotees, with sources to buy replacement parts, and plenty showing up on EBay as collectibles. And I am sure my mother's avocado green pieces are still in service.

Since I really didn't know how to cook when I got married, I graduated to a set of completely non-stick pans, probably Calphalon.  I really think non-stick everything was invented because people didn't know how to cook and freaked out when something stuck to a pan; in fact I overheard a couple complaining in Williams Sonoma that things stuck to the Le Creuset they were browsing and I wanted to shout at them - "IT'S BECAUSE YOU DIDN'T GET THE PAN HOT ENOUGH AND THEN LEAVE THE FOOD ALONE".  But I decided that probably wasn't going to change their minds and kept that information to myself.

I had the dark anodized set and it was hard to see what was going on in the pans most of the time, which wasn't totally critical, since I wasn't that proficient anyway.  The set itself, was functional enough, and like high thread count sheets, until I cooked with some stainless All Clad, you probably couldn't have convinced me it was THAT much better.  Of course now I am ruined for both the All Clad and the high thread count sheets.

Attempting to create and use fond, the delicious brown flavorful bits, left in the pan after browning and sautéing, is virtually impossible in a non-stick or anodized pan.  You're cheating yourself out of an important flavor component by not learning the technique properly, using the proper equipment.

Thanks to the twice yearly All Clad factory sale, coincidentally that is going on this weekend, I have accumulated quite a collection, but there is a core collection of pieces that I use most frequently, and the winners are:

1 - All Clad French non-stick skillet 7.5"  - about the only thing I want non-stick for now is my morning eggs, so this one gets used nearly every day. Get a larger one if you are making more than 2 eggs at a time

2 - A large, heavy bottom stock pot - this doesn't have to be a fancy brand, but it does have to be heavy and feel sturdy, stainless steel preferred. I've tried cooking with the cheap, thin ones, and it's just no fun. You'll use this for boiling water for pasta, making stocks & soups, blanching water for veggies, so get a minimum of an 8 quart size, bigger if you can afford it and store it. You can also use a larger one, fitted with a rack or towel in the bottom, as a makeshift canner for small batches of jams.

3 -Large Saute/Skillet/Frying Pan Stainless Steel - there are a variety of sizes available, you are looking for something in the 10" - 12" range (14" if you have a big family, and a big stovetop). The sauté pans have straight vs. sloped sides in the skillets, and will hold a larger quantity of food, so I am recommending this 3 quart stainless steel sauté pan, over the others because you will get the most use from it. Make sure it can go directly into the oven - the All Clad is safe to 500 degrees. Use this pan to sauté or sear roast meats and vegetables.  A lid is nice, but honestly I very rarely use a lid with this pan, and when I do I use a a universal lid or foil.

Caramelizing Onions 

4 -  2 or 3 quart saucepan with lid - for making grains, heating soup, making sauces. I am, of course,  partial to my All Clad, but as long as you find a sturdy one, you'll be fine.

5 - 5 to 6.5 quart enamel covered cast iron dutch oven  - The best in this class is Le Creuset, which is pricey, but if you don't get too hung up on getting your preferred color, and there are lots of pretty ones, you'll find them often at TJ Maxx or Homegoods.

In fact my first Le Creuset was a beautiful lime green 9.5 quart that I scored at Homegoods.  I loved that pan so much that I started using it as often as possible.  Shortly after I got though, I was shopping for a personal chef client, and when I opened the hatch of my truck, the pan shot out, barely missing my foot, and bounced off of the asphalt, leaving it with a pretty sizable crack.  While they are warrantied for normal use, I am pretty sure this would not have been considered normal.  I couldn't bear to throw it out, so it is now a flower pot on my front porch.  I bought the Lodge version to replace it, but I never fell in love with it like I did the Le Creuset, which I eventually replaced with an orange version at Homegoods.

For soups, stews, and braises, including tender pot roasts, this is my go to pan.  I also use them when I make jams and jellies. It is also an essential tool for the popular no knead bread.  If you are getting one mostly for the bread, make sure you get one with a metal handle (there was a rash of handle thefts when the plastic ones melted, and Le Creuset now sells the metal lids separately), and I probably wouldn't use a Le Creuset for it, because the high heat will discolor your pan. (You can see the discoloration on my green one below from baking bread in it) I saw a nice one at Sams Club for about $40, and TJMaxx and Homegoods have knockoffs.

Stock Pots and Le Creuset hard at work on soup and stock day 
6 - 2 to 4 rimmed half sheet pans and parchment paper  - I am partial to the ones from Sams Club, sold in a 2 pack for around $12. They are a little more heavy duty than "cookie sheets" and are probably my most used pans - I can get 6 at a time in my oven if need be.  Even with the parchment liners, which I buy in bulk and pre-cut to fit, they will turn ugly in no time, but at that price when they get too nasty, I just replace them.

My other preference, is to keep your most used pans on a hanging rack; mine was custom designed at a sheet metal shop to fit over the window. They also crafted the hooks.  You have to use the pans though, otherwise you've created a dusty, sticky centerpiece.  I like a tiered rack for the Le Creuset because they are heavy and bulky to store.

*Disclaimer: I have an Amazon affiliate account and your purchases through any of my links will put a few pennies in my account.  I earn enough to buy a couple of cookbooks a year.  I promise there isn't enough for a nice vacation or I'd already be gone.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Pastured Pork Chop with Spiced Pecan Apples

A few simple ingredients 
If you've stopped eating pork chops because you think they're too dry and flavorless, you probably have two issues: Overcooking, and factory farmed meat. Both are easily correctable.  The USDA has lowered the temperature for cooking pork to 145 degrees (vs. the previous 160 degrees), which cooks it to a a juicy, tender, lightly pink, medium rare.  (And despite what my mom says, you are not going to get trichinosis) This is when your Thermopen really comes in handy. You can get pasture raised pork at your nearest farmers market. Mine came from my CSA farm, Brunty Farms.

Take your pork out of the fridge at least 30 minutes before dinner and let it rest and lose it's chill a bit while you prep the rest of your dinner.  Super cold meat plus super hot pan equals cooked on the outside, but not the inside. Pat the chops dry and rub with some Penzeys Bicentennial Rub on each side. (rub has salt, sugar, black pepper, orange peel, turmeric, and coriander)

Core and chop your apple while a couple of teaspoons of butter melts in a skillet.  Add the apples and sauté until they soften and turn a nice golden brown.  Add a splash of apple cider if you have some, and drizzle with a spoonful of Pecan Praline vinegar. There is a commercial brand available at large supermarkets, but I got mine at The Olive and The Grape at West Side Market.  It's an infused, thick, slightly sweet balsamic with a spiced pecan flavor.

Remove the apples to a bowl, then wipe out your skillet with a dampened paper towel.  I did not do that you can see that my fond got a little too dark to be usable for a finishing sauce.  This is a stainless pan, which I prefer to a non-stick when searing meat. Never fear, the pan is as clean and shiny as new - I added a bit of water and scraped most of it out while it was warm, and finished cleaning it with a bit of Bar Keepers Friend.

Brown the chops in a bit of butter and bit of olive oil.  These chops weren't that thick and probably only took about 5 minutes a side.  If my fond had been usable, I would have deglazed the pan with some cider and scraped the brown bits from the pan with a wooden spoon.  Maybe added a bit of butter and a little more of the pecan vinegar.

I garnished the chop with some chopped Sweet and Spicy Pecan from Trader Joes. You could use this recipe if you don't have a TJ's nearby.

Pastured Pork Chop with Spiced Pecan Apples 
Serves 2, can be easily doubled

1 - 2 teaspoons Penzeys Bicentennial Rub
2 pasture raised, bone-in pork chops2 teaspoons butter
1 tart apple, such as Granny Smith, diced
1/4 c. apple cider
1 teaspoon Spiced Pecan Balsamic Vinegar
1 teaspoon butter
1 teaspoon olive oil
1/4 cup of Sweet and Spicy Pecans, roughly chopped

Pat chops dry and rub with Bicentennial Rub. Let rest at room temperature at least 30 minutes.

Melt butter in large skillet, then add chopped apples and sauté until softened and golden brown. Add cider and reduce until glazed, then add vinegar and toss to coat.

Wipe skillet with damp paper towel.  Add butter and olive oil and heat to medium high. Add chops and cook approximately 5 minutes on each side for thinner chops, until center temp, not touching bone reaches 140 degrees (will come up to 145 while resting).

Serve pork chop atop apples and garnish with chopped pecans.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

10% Discount, Free Shipping on My Favorite Shopping Totes

I get a lot of compliments while shopping because I almost always have a least one of these Reisenthel Shopping Totes with me.  I love them because the construction is sturdy, the single handle makes it easy to carry, there is a small zippered pocket for your keys and cash, and it's easy to clean and disinfect.

I have a few knock-off versions, but the Reisenthel's are my favorite, and are really worth the $40 price tag.

At the farmers market with my tote
I am now an official affiliate of A Touch of Europe, which sells the full line of totes, in a lot of fun colors and prints, plus their line of bottle carriers (I have the lime green one, of course).  The link to shop is to your top on the right side.

Because I believe Black Friday should be spent in your jammies (at home please), eating leftovers, here is a an on-line code for you to get 10% off your order, and free shipping on over $50 orders, from Thursday through Tuesday.  Happy shopping.

BLACK FRIDAY 6 Day Sale Touch of Europe

Thursday, September 8, 2011

I've been Jamming

So I've been a blog slacker. It's been nearly a month since I posted.  But I have a good excuse.

First,  I went back to work with bang with an annual all day client event in August, which thanks to my friend, Mary Beth Brinkerhoff, of For Goodness Taste, who was the best sous chef ever, everything went great and the client and guests were all very happy. 

The event, between the planning, shopping, execution, and clean-up consumed the better part of ten days.  I didn't check my garden for a few days, so imagine my surprise when I went out and discovered this:

Baby Chuck
Chuck Jr., went into the live trap, which wasn't baited at the time, so I hadn't checked it. Originally I put in an ear of corn, which the chipmunks promptly feasted on without tripping the trap.  He looked hungry (well, and a little pissed off), so I gave him some shredded squash.  Then I took him to live on a nice farm.  Unfortunately as far as the garden goes, the damage is done. 

Moving to the indoor critters, apparently stocking up on cat food on sale turned out to be a bad idea.  It must have been a bad batch, because the entire crew turned up their noses at most of it, including the resident pig, Bubba, and what little they did eat appeared on the living room carpet. It was like having an undiapered baby running loose for a few days.  Not pretty. 

So a Saturday morning discussion with my handyman, as we were compiling the most recent list of things we needed from Lowes to keep this place from falling apart, turned to the living room floor.  As in "Hey, let's measure the room and take a look at the hard flooring options and price it out".  Which turned in to this:

New cherry laminate flooring going down
This cherry laminate, which was perfect, was on clearance for about $1 a square foot.  And they just happened to have enough boxes, plus a few spares, so rather than debate it and lose it, I bought it on the spot.  Monday, the carpet and seven billion staples on the floor came out, and by Tuesday, the new floor was going down. 

Of course you can't have new floors without painting the walls.  I spent a long winter curled up in the recliner riding out the post chemo weeks.  Especially towards the end, I really wished that the walls were a little sunnier, so I finally made that happen.  The living room is now "Arizona" (Behr), with the far end is a few shades darker, "Crispy Gingersnap", the same as in the kitchen.  The mantel got a nice coat of "New Leaf".

Welcome to Arizona

New Leaf
Is it finished? Uh, no.  But it's getting there.  New drapes, furniture slipcovers and pillows purchased, trim and a little more painting, and it's a new room.  Even partially done, it makes me happy.

Since I hadn't actually planned to tear out an entire 400 square foot room and redo it, just to make things more fun, in between coats of paint and trips to Lowes and Home Depot (speaking of which - hey Home Depot, I'll gladly ring and bag my own purchases, just let me know when my health insurance benefits kick in), I had a kitchen full of ripening fruit that was destined for jam.  Peaches, nectarines, and figs.  Lots of figs.

This Fig Jam with Fennel Pollen is my favorite of the fig recipes I made.  And this Tomato Jam with Bourbon was the most surprisingly delicious - I made three batches, and gave away a lot of them already. Highly recommended.  The Peppered Peach with Rosemary is pretty awesome too.

Figs from West Side Market
My Jam Session
Pretty Pickles
 So that's my excuse.  I've been jamming.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Fresh From the Garden Bread Pudding

The weather has been picture perfect beautiful this week. Mild temperatures, low humidity, gentle breezes - it's what everyone wishes the weather was like more frequently around here.  My garden looked lush and full of promise with ripening fruits dangling from the tomato plants and the squash seemingly producing new fruit, ready to eat, every day.

Then Chuck showed up.
What's left of my squash plants
Chuck's Hidey Hole Behind my House
In a single day, Chuck managed to eat most of the leaves off of my squash plant, the tops of my cucumber plants, 2 entire parsley plants, a lemon basil plant, and what few tomatoes the chipmunks haven't already eaten.  We ran into each other three separate times that day and neither one of us was none to happy to see the other.

On day two I headed to Copley Feed for some fox urine, which as one of my friends so aptly put it, is supposed to give groundhogs the heeby jeebies. Sold out. As was the garden center. Apparently Chuck had been fox peed out of other gardens leaving me as the hostess of his new favorite salad bar. I ended up buying a couple of other spray concoctions one of which contained herb oils and putrescent eggs. Mmmmmm.

Day three as I headed to gym I spied some road kill. Apparently Chuck headed down to the gas station for a six-pack and some smokes and didn't look both ways before crossing the road. Unfortunately as I started typing this post I spied out of the corner of my eye one of his kin bolting across my back yard. Sadly Bill Murray was not behind him with a golf club.

Tonight's supper was inspired by a stale partial loaf of ciabatta bread I bought at the farmer's market, one of my few remaining yellow squash, and survey of garden and CSA bits and pieces that need to be eaten.

Bread puddings aren't just for dessert. A savory bread pudding is the perfect way to use up stale bread, some vegetables, meat and cheese. With milk and eggs as on hand staples, you can pretty much come up with a different combination every time.

Fresh From the Garden Bread Pudding

Fresh From the Garden Bread Pudding

Sturdy leftover stale bread - cut or torn into approximately 1" pieces - enough to cover the bottom of a buttered 9 x 13 or 1 1/2 quart oval dish
1 T. olive oil
Chopped onion, shallot, or leeks - a cup or so
Couple of cloves of garlic, chopped
Other fresh or leftover cooked veggies (I used a small pepper, an ear of corn, stripped off,  a small yellow squash, and four chopped plum tomatoes)
Meat, if you are in the mood - bacon, pancetta, ham, leftover roast beef, pork or chicken
Fresh herbs - I used basil
Cheese - a cup to a cup and a half of shredded cheese of choice (I used smoked mozzarella tonight)
1 c. milk (half and half, cream, whatever you've got)
6 eggs at room temperature (or put in a bowl of warm water while you prep the rest)
Salt and Pepper

Heat the oven to 375 degrees. Grease the bottom and sides of your dish with butter. Put the bread cubes in the dish.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet. Saute the onion and garlic a few minutes until it begins to soften. Season with salt and peppers. Add your other raw veggies and saute for a few minutes. Season again. Put the vegetables (and any cooked meat you're using) on top of the bread cubes in the dish. Top with desired chopped herb(s).

Whisk the milk, eggs, and a teaspoon of kosher salt and several grinds of fresh pepper together.

Pour the milk mixture over the bread and add the shredded cheese. Toss to combine everything.

Bake on the center rack from 25 - 35 minutes until the top is puffed and golden brown. Insert a knife blade in the center to check if custard is set.

Friday, August 12, 2011

I'll Have What She's Having: Oven Fried Duck Fat Frites

Oven Fried Duck Fat Frites
I've been back on Weight Watchers for about a month now.  My original plan to start at the beginning of July derailed pretty quickly when I celebrated the 4th with some delicious duck fat fried wings and finished the first week at the amazing Brunty Farms plated landscape dinner.  I actually gained 3 pounds the first week! 

It hasn't been too difficult once I got in the groove, but I derailed a bit with three long work days in a row last week, which turned into non-gym days coupled with a few less than stellar food choices.  On the first day the wheels came off I just decided to go for break even for the week, which is exactly where I ended up.

I did take measurements when I started, so I decided to check them this week. Even though the scale only shows a seven pound loss, I've lost a inch on my thighs and hips, and an inch and half on my waist.  Not too shabby.  It feels good to be sweating it out for an hour at the gym and to be back at my weight training class.

So, back to the duck fat.  Not surprisingly, the WW site doesn't list duck fat in it's on-line point calculator.  Should you eat it every day? Uh, no. But I'd rather see WW acknowledge it rather than spending so much effort encouraging members to eat fake foods because the points are low.  I looked it up elsewhere and calculated that one tablespoon is 3 points, which is not bad in the big scheme of things.  A cup of raw potato is 2.  Five point frites - I'm in!

I thought about grilling them, since I was grilling a Black & Blue burger, plus a small yellow squash from the garden, and a few thin stalks of broccoli, but I ended up going with an oven fry.  Here's how it went down.

Oven Fried Duck Fat Frites
 One Serving

 1 medium russet potato, peeled, and sliced into 1/4" fries
1 T. duck fat,
3 cloves of garlic, smashed
sprig of rosemary, chopped

Soak the peeled potato in hot water while the oven heats to 450 degrees.  Go ahead and stick a half sheet baking pan in the oven while it preheats.

Melt duck fat inn a covered dish in the microwave for a minute.  Drain potatoes and rinse with cold water.  Pat them dry.

Toss potatoes in a bowl with the duck fat and season generously with kosher salt and pepper.

Remove baking sheet from the oven and add the potatoes.  Bake for 10-12 minutes, then turn them every five minutes until they are crispy and golden brown on all sides.

Toss them in a bowl with the garlic and rosemary and check seasoning.

Eat.  Enjoy every crispy bite. Moaning is optional, but recommended.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Lazy Days of Summer Cooking: No Recipe Summer Pasta

My Latest CSA Pick-Up, Week 8
After a slow start to the CSA season, the veggies are coming fast and furious as we near the halfway mark in the season.  This week brought another bag of dragon tongue beans, pickling cucumbers, a couple of onions, a couple of tomatoes, a zucchini, a yellow squash, new potatoes, cabbage, blackberries, lemon zucchini cookies, plus a chicken and a half dozen eggs.

I had a crazy busy week last week.  I did my first food styling gig for one of the many movies that are filming in town. Lest you think that sounds glamorous, rest assured that I spent the better part of 18 hours over a two day period tucked in the back of garage waiting to crank out as many identically decorated pancakes as it took to get the scenes on film after multiple takes.

To complete the rest of my glamorous week, I fulfilled a five year old gift certificate by flipping crepes for 70 guests.  There were so many people in the house, that I set up in the driveway. Which was fine until it started raining.  The toppings bar was whisked inside, but I remained outdoors, and finished cooking my crepes standing at the back of an mini-van, sheltered by the opened hatch.  Makes you want to sign up to be a personal chef, doesn't it?

The good news is that I had the foresight to add most of a quart of buttermilk to the bag containing my cut up chicken, so that when I got home from crepe fest a little earlier than I anticipated (and soaked down to my undies), I only needed to drain the chicken, pat it a bit, give it rub down with some mixed spices, and get it on the grill.  Twenty five minutes later, and a kiss with some BBQ sauce the last few minutes, and dinner was nearly ready.

Buttermilk Brined Chicken
I haven't been to the Saturday farmers market for several weeks since I was either purging during the last ever garage sale, or helping prep with Dave Martin at Veggie U.  So I was excited to finally get to go this past weekend.  The booths were positively bursting with summer goodness!  I traded a new never used juicer for some tomatoes (chimpmunks have decimated most of mine in the garden), lettuce, broccoli, red onions, and some beautiful eggplants.  I also scored some sweet and juicy yellow sugar plums and freshly pulled corn on the cob.

Sunday night I made this recipe from Eating Well - Provencal Summer Vegetables, with a few twists of course.  I didn't have any leeks on hand, so I thinly sliced the CSA onions on a mandoline and used in place of the leeks.  For the cheese topping, I used a delicious local cheese from Blue Jacket Dairy.   I made a perfect side for a leftover grilled chicken leg/thigh.

Provencal Summer Vegetables

Of course there were leftovers.  And the extra veggies that didn't make it into the above recipe I roasted after tossing with a bit of Olive Tap's Basil Olive Oil. So as I began thinking about Monday's dinner, I knew there were leftover roasted veggies, fresh corn, beautiful small broccoli with tender stems, plus nearly a pound of ricotta cheese leftover over from crepe fest (I made a crazy good filling with ricotta, cream cheese, fresh orange juice and zest, and a bit of powdered sugar).

It's hot, I don't really feel like cooking much, and that is exactly where having a plan and some big picture concepts of how you are going to tackle that CSA share before the next week rolls around, come in handy.  So consider this a sneak preview to one of my "No Recipes" in my book Seasons to Savor: Eating Locally, Seasonally, and Simply. 

No Recipe Summer Pasta 

2 - 4 ounces per person of  whatever pasta shape you have on hand (reserve some pasta water)
1 c. or so of cooked or roasted vegetables, leftovers basically
fresh raw veggies of choice - something you can toss in the pasta water to cook briefly, like fresh corn or broccoli
'sauce' - a bit of butter, or olive oil, or ricotta or cream cheese
fresh herbs of choice - I used basil
grated cheese for topping
Salt and Pepper

Cook your pasta as directed on package in salted water.  Reheat your cooked veggies in microwave (or oven) to heat through.  Toss in your raw veggies the last few minutes the pasta is cooking.

Drain, reserving a bit of pasta water.  Return pasta & veggies to warm pot, add desired 'sauce' components (one or more) including a spoonful or so of reserved pasta water, tear some herbs and add, season, then toss with tongs to combine. 

My No Recipe Summer Pasta

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Gadget Love: Strawberry Huller/Tomato Corer

I'll admit, I was skeptical, but I read several glowing reviews of the Chef'n StemGem Strawberry Stem Remover in magazines this spring, so I sprung for one on my last visit to Sur la Table.

I gave it a workout yesterday with two huge Sam's Club containers of strawberries.  It took me awhile to figure out the best way to insert the claw, and I ended up pulling off the green caps, then aiming the open claw, and plunging it over  the stem, then letting it go.  A gentle twist, and viola, out comes the bitter hull.  A push of the button and it pops right out into your discard pile. 

I doubt it would be effective on the small, ripe, local berries, I prefer, but on the standard supermarket ones, it works well, and leaves you with more edible berry than slicing off the tops. I had to use the knife to trim a few particularly large ones, but once I got the hang of it, the tool did the job.

Lest you scoff at yet another uni-tasker, I tried it this evening on some heirloom tomatoes, and it worked great on those as well. 

The plump shape and bright color will make it easy to find in the drawer.  It's a keeper.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

BBQ Bonanza With Chef Dave Martin at The Culinary Vegetable Institute

Me with Chef Dave Martin
What do you get when you combine beautiful, freshly picked seasonal vegetables, herbs, micro greens, and gorgeous proteins with an energetic, crazy-fun chef with a gift for combining seasonings and flavor profiles that honor the ingredients without overwhelming them?  Simple, you've got season one Top Chef favorite, Chef Dave Martin at the amazing Culinary Vegetable Institute in Milan, Ohio.

I met Chef Dave at the CVI last year when he was in town for the monthly CVI Earth to Table dinner, coincidentally held on Mother's Day weekend, so his mother and sister were in attendance at the dinner, which was so sweet.  It was refreshing to see that he was just as much fun in person, and that focusing on his true passion in food - doing events and teaching vs. restaurant work,  just like it did for me, really makes him happy.

We subsequently became Facebook friends, and I was really touched when he sent me messages occasionally during my cancer treatments to check in and see how I was doing.  When he was in town about a month ago for a dinner at The Wooster Inn with Certified Angus Beef Brand, he invited me to be his guest and we had a great time.

I wanted to repay his kindness by offering to help prep for his BBQ Bonanza class at CVI.  The written menu blew me away, and I looked forward  to working with the stunningly gorgeous produce of Chef's Garden.

 The Menu
Getting Started...

Cool French Green Bean Salad with Purple, Green & Yellow French Beans with Sherry & Pomegranate Molasses Vinaigrette

Heirloom Tomato Caprese with Berkeley Tie-Die, Big Yellow Zebra, Cherokee Purple, Copia, Dr, Wyches, Great White, Pineapple & Velencia Heirloom Tomatoes stacked with Lime and Lemon Basil Leaves, Fresh Buffalo Mozzarella and sprinkled with Rogue River Bleu Cheese, Nueske's Cherry wood Bacon and Thai Basil Oil

Summertime ‘Pickle Me This' -Ver 2.0
 A medley of pickled garden veggies to include Cherry Bomb & French Breakfast Radish, Dragon, Red, White & Pink Carrots, Romanesco Broccoli, Orange Cauliflower and more

‘Crave' House Salad-Bibb & Lolla Rossa Lettuces , Olive Leaf Arugula and Gold Leaf Spinach dressed with a Fresh Lemon & Chive Vinaigrette and topped off by Roasted Mushrooms & Shaved Parmesan

Animals, Animals, Animals....

Grilled Buttermilk Marinated Free Range Chicken with Dave's Roasted Poblano BBQ Sauce

Smokey Rubbed Certified Angus Beef Brand Hanger Steak with Groovy Gorgonzola

‘Out of this World' Chimichurri Marinated Certified Angus Beef Brand Skirt Steak

Hoisin and Apple Cider Marinated ‘Duroc' Pork Tenderloin served with Dave's Killer Peanut Sauce

All About the E2T....

‘Hells Bells'-Fire Roasted Cherry Bomb, Green Jalapeno, Hungarian Wax and Poinsettia Peppers

‘Don't Cry for Me, Milan'- Bianca DiMaggio, Candy Apple & Red Cippolini Onions marinated overnight in Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Greek Oregano , Thyme, Sea Salt and Green Peppercorns and Grilled to perfection

Roasted Fingerling ‘Tata Salad' SANS Mayo- Enjoy this tasty Salad of Roasted Red Thumb, French,

Purple & Peanut Fingerling Potatoes with a Tasty Asian Lime & Ginger Vinaigrette (without any mayo in sight)

Summer Squash & Eggplant Medley- Santana, Lao White, Kermit & Bambino Eggplant along with Magda, One Ball, Gold & Green Zucchini with secret sauces for dipping

The Sweet Stuff....
Butterscotch Pudding with Nutmeg Cashews and Salted Cream

House made Crème Fraiche Ice Cream Sundaes with ‘from scratch' Hot Fudge & Caramel Sauces with Banana & Penny Royal Mint

The CVI Kitchen

After an hour drive, most of it on the turnpike, I arrived at the Culinary Vegetable Institute bright and early at 9:00 am to help prep for the 4:00 class and dinner for nearly 80 guests, which included the family of one of Dave's Make a Wish kids.

The menu started with Dave's demo on making a beautiful caprese salad, using some of the amazing heirloom tomatoes from Chefs Garden.  Garnishing the salad was an amazing cherry wood smoked bacon from Nueskes, which would tempt even a vegetarian. 

Trays of Heirloom Tomatoes

So beautiful
Dave Martin's Stacked Caprese
To complete the lesson on salads and vinaigrette making, Dave's Crave Salad with Mixed Greens, Spinach, and Shaved Parmesan, plus a beautiful Grilled Green Bean and Mushroom Salad was also served.  The mushrooms, which I shot with my phone, and lost the shots, were breathtaking. Two large boxes contained 3 different types, including a golden Chanterelle, that tasted like bacon when they were roasted.

Colorful Mixed Beans & Shrooms
On every table were platters of pickled vegetables:

Pickled Vegetables
There are no photos of the proteins - there was way too much going on in the kitchen during service to even think about taking any, but there were four, including chicken, pork with an amazing peanut sauce, and two kinds of beef.  Dave has a new line of delicious rubs and BBQ sauces, and everyone got to try them in meat courses, along with some skillfully made sauces that perfectly complimented each protein.

The vegetables that accompanied the meat courses were these melt in your mouth tender grilled onions with fresh thyme:

Onions with Herbs
And a duo of baby eggplants and baby squash punched up a bit with a spicy Asian dressing:

Baby Eggplant
Baby Squash
A selection of roasted peppers that Dave called "Hell's Bells:

Hell's Bells
I think my favorite vegetable dish was the roasted fingerling potato salad. The multi-colored potatoes were sliced thin, roasted until crispy, then tossed with a spicy Asian dressing accented with fresh lime juice and ginger.

Roasted Fingerling Potato Salad
There were two desserts - a butterscotch custard topped with a salted whipped cream and nutmeg cashews, and a creme fraiche ice cream sundae, topped with a two sauces that will be available from Dave's Flavor Quest line this fall - one chocolate and one caramel. Both are amazing. Micro mint from Chefs Garden completed the desserts.

Creme Fraiche Ice Cream
After the dinner, Dave posed for photos, sold copies of his second book Flavor Quest, Volume 2 (guests received a signed copy of Flavor Quest, Volume 1 with their ticket price), as well as his BBQ Sauces and rubs.

Flavor Quest, Volume 2
Chef Dave Martin in the CVI Kitchen
If you missed this fantastic meal, you'll be pleased to know that the Culinary Vegetable Institute holds monthly Earth to Table dinners, featuring a different chef and menu each month.

On August 27th, one of my favorite local monthly events, Dinner in the Dark, will be held at CVI (on a Saturday vs. the usual Monday).  There are still tickets available, and I guarantee you it's worth the drive and you won't be disappointed.  (the 'dark' part is that you won't know which 6 local chefs will be cooking that evening, nor what they are making, until you arrive; don't worry, the lights will be on and you won't be blindfolded).  Go to Eventbrite to buy your tickets, which include the six course meal, beverage pairings with each course, plus tax & tip.  Just show up and feast!  I'll be there, will you?

Also, be sure and visit Dave's website to buy the BBQ sauces and rubs, and stay tuned for those delectable chocolate and caramel sauces.  (there are also some tees with his Top Chef signature phrase...)

Monday, August 1, 2011

Gadget Love: Microwave Omelet Pot

Sure it's super simple, and quick to make an omelet on the stove, but this handy ceramic pot is perfect for the dorm room, or for kids that aren't quite ready for the stove version.  I bought it to use during chemo (when my egg consumption became life sustaining), when I wasn't quite up to using the stove. You can even pre-mix your ingredients right in the pot and stick it in the refrigerator until you're ready to microwave.

I like it because it's ceramic; I just don't think it's a good idea to microwave anything in plastic. Pros of the ceramic is that is dishwasher safe, cons are it gets hot quickly in the microwave, and oven mitts or potholders will be needed to remove it.

To make a quick omelet, rub the inside of the pot with a bit of butter, add chopped veggies, herbs, or other cooked ingredients, add one or two eggs (or whites only), season, whisk with a fork, cover, and microwave 1-2 minutes.  Carefully remove from the oven using potholders or mitts, and either eat it straight from the pot, or pop the omelet out onto a plate.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Brunty Farms Plated Landscape Dinner

Fresh Landscaping

Last Friday, on a perfect summer evening,  I was one of the lucky forty one guests who scored a ticket to one of Spice of Life Catering's Plated Landscape dinners, this one held at my CSA Farm, Brunty Farms.  Jeff and Mel, and many of the CSA members worked very hard to get the farm in tip top shape, including finishing some landscaping in front of the farmhouse, where we were greeted with a refreshing welcome cocktail of Blueberry Lavender Lemonade with Watershed Vodka (from Columbus, OH).

Blueberry Lavender Lemonade w/Watershed Vodka

While we were sipping our cocktails and waiting for all of the guests to arrive, spicy cold Carrot Ginger Soup shots were passed, and a delicious pork terrine with crostini and coarse mustard were our pre-tour appetizers.

Ginger Carrot Soup Shots and Pork Terrine

Jeff Brunty and Melanie Schenk led the group on a tour of the farm and showed us where the meat chickens were being raised in tractors in the pasture, where they are moved frequently after grazing on the grass and fertilizing the pasture.

Chef Ben Bebenroth, Jeff & Mel

We then moved on to meet the laying hens, who were getting ready to roost for the evening, and this poor lost lamb, who got separated temporarily from the flock and cried plaintively, until she figured out how to get back to the group. 

Mel and the Laying Hens
Lost Lamb

We then trekked up the hill to the greenhouses housing the older chicks and baby turkeys, next to the the pig pasture.  The pigs figured we might be bearing food, so they moved their way from the back towards us. This tiny red one escaped the farm for a few days, and Jeff and Mel assumed she'd met her fate at the hands of one of the coyotes roaming the park.  Then there was a knock on the door, and a neighbor holding the wayward pig, who had wandered quite far from the farmhouse.

Lil Red

We then headed to sheep pasture, where a long table was set for dinner, flanked by tents housing Spice of Life's outdoor kitchen.  The temperature was perfect, humidity low, and bugs virtually non-existent.
We were greeted with an appetizer of Brunty Farms Chicken Wings, fried, with some fiery spices.

Table set-up in sheep pasture

The first course was an earthy, chilled beet soup that was perfectly accented by a touch of tangy goat cheese.  A salad course followed, which was perfectly balanced, which I forgot to photograph.

Cold Beet Soup with Goat Cheese

There was lively conversation at the communal table, as strangers became friends.  Farm dog, Riley, fresh from the groomer, was transfixed by the band, whose cello rested on an unattainable tennis ball, and violinist kept taunting him with a 'stick' he wouldn't throw.

Riley the Wonder Dog

The tables were decorated with cattails and other greenery foraged from the farm.

Farm Fresh Centerpiece

The sheep grazed around the table, led by the feisty ram, Caesear, who, did indeed ram a few guests, but could be deterred with a firm shove. 

Sheep, wondering why we were grazing in their pasture

The next course was amazing - Pappardelle made with Brunty Eggs and mushrooms from Killbuck Valley Farms.

Pasta with Mushroom

When I saw Ben Bebenroth manning the fryer,  I was a happy camper.  When the Buttermilk Fried Chicken Thigh with Garlic Gravy and farm fresh green beans was served, I was even happier.  The thick delicious crust had a beguiling combination of spices that the Colonel could only dream of.

Fried Chicken Thigh, Garlic Gravy, over Farm Fresh Beans

As the sun began to set over the table, the final savory course, a Brunty Pork Loin, over ratatouille appeared.

Dinner Underway
Pork Loin atop Ratatouille

By the time dessert appeared, a creamy vanilla custard with cherries, darkness had descended, and the table was aglow with candlelight.

Vanilla Custard with Cherries

Each course was paired with a wine, and the pairings for the most part were spot on. My only criticism however, involves the wine service.  There was only one stemless wine glass on the table per guest, and it seemed like every time I turned around a server appeared with the next wine before the last was finished. Putting out two glasses would have solved the 'dump or come back dilemma' and made the wine service seem less rushed.

Jeff and Mel

I've really enjoyed working with Jeff and Melanie the last few years.  At 25 and 24, respectively, they have wisdom beyond their years, and the youth and energy required to take care of an astounding number of animals in a caring, sustainable way.

Everyone had a great time.  I'd highly recommend getting a seat at one of Spice of Life's remaining dates if you can.  And getting your hands on some of the most delicious eggs available locally, from Brunty Farms.