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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

A New Year's Surf n' Turf Shout Out to All Guys: Caesar Salad, Sauteed Shrimp, Grilled Steak, Baked Tomato, and a Dirty Martini

My good friend Hank who lives in a converted church in Lincoln, R.I. reacted to a piece I wrote about Skinny Bitch's vegetarian advocacy with a strongly worded email:
hmm, let's see-give me a pack of Camels....a 5th of bourbon and for lunch I'll have tuna and steak tartar....with bacon.
Clearly what's good for the goose is not good for my friend Hank. And I have to agree with him--except for the "pack of Camels"--all the rest sounds good.

So for Hank and all other guys, here's my version of a dream meal: Caesar Salad, Sauteed Shrimp with Shiitake Mushrooms, Grilled Steak with a Baked Tomato, and a Dirty Martini.

Baked Tomato

Get the tomatoes started while you prepare the rest of the meal, so they'll be ready to serve when you've finished the other dishes.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

4 tomatoes, farmers' market fresh, washed
2 tablespoons bread crumbs, preferably homemade
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Cut the top off the tomatoes, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt and black pepper, top with a sprinkling of bread crumbs, and drizzle with olive oil (again).

Put on a Silpat sheet or piece of aluminum foil on a baking sheet. Bake for 30-45 minutes or until the tomato has started to collapse.

Caesar Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 garlic clove, skin off
1/4 teaspoon sea salt
4 anchovies
1 egg, farmers' market fresh
1/4 teaspoon Worcester sauce
2-3 drops of Tabasco, optional
2 hearts of romaine
3-4 tablespoons olive oil depending on taste
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup Parmesan or Romano cheese, freshly grated
1/2 cup croutons
Black pepper

Method

Use a wooden bowl if you have one. Sprinkle the sea salt on a wooden cutting board. Mash the garlic back and forth on the salt with the flat side of a chef's knife, then sweep the garlic-salt mash into the salad bowl.

Boil water in a small saucepan. Add the egg and cook for 4 minutes. Remove the egg, let cool, then open, scoop out the yolk and white with a small spoon, and add to the salad bowl along with the Worcester sauce, Tabasco (optional), olive oil, and lemon juice.

With a fork, mash the anchovies into pieces against the side of the salad bowl and dissolve them in the dressing. Mix well.

Tear the romaine leaves into pieces, add to the salad bowl, top with the grated cheese, croutons, and season with the pepper. Toss to coat the leaves. Taste and adjust the flavors by adding more lemon juice or sea salt.

Sauteed Shrimp with Shiitake Mushrooms

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound shrimp, washed, shelled, deveined
1/2 pound shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, ends trimmed, sliced thin
2 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
2 shallots, peeled, finely chopped
2 teaspoons sweet butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Heat a frying pan, drizzle with olive oil, season with sea salt and pepper, add the shrimp and 1 teaspoon of the butter. Cook until pink and lightly browned on both sides, 5-6 minutes total. Remove from the pan.

Drizzle olive oil into the same pan, add the mushrooms, garlic, and shallots. Saute until lightly browned, add the other teaspoon of butter. Season with salt and pepper. Move the mushrooms to one side and return the shrimp to the pan to reheat.

Serve either mixed together or separated on the plate.

Grilled Steak

Yield: 1 serving
Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

1 10 oz. steak, T-Bone, Porterhouse, Rib Eye with the Bone-in, washed, pat dry
Olive oil
Sea salt and black pepper

Method

Preheat the grill or broiler. Drizzle olive oil on a large plate, season with sea salt and black pepper. Dredge the steak through the olive oil. Put on the hot grill or on a tray in the broiler. Turn every 5 minutes until done to your taste.

Put on a plate, cover lightly with a piece of aluminum foil for 5 minutes, then transfer to a dinner plate, top with the juices, and serve immediately.

Dirty Martini

Yield
: 1 serving
Time: 2 minutes

Ingredients

3 jiggers of vodka, freezer cold
Vermouth to taste
1 cocktail olive
1/4 teaspoon olive juice

Method

I avoid the shake vs. stirred debate by keeping the vodka in the freezer. Stick a toothpick in the olive and put into the bottom of the martini glass. Add the vodka, vermouth, and olive juice.

Flourless Chocolate Cake with Roasted Walnuts

And for the ideal dessert: a piece of flourless chocolate cake with roasted walnuts, topped with whipped cream. Recipe will be forthcoming. Until then, here's the photograph.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Holiday Vacations, Vietnamese Food & A Lobster Roll Lunch

How lucky we are that holidays allow us to take time off from our daily routines. Right now we are enjoying the in-between time that begins with the day after Christmas, extending until the day before New Year's Eve. In the retail world this is the make-or-break period when the year's profits will tip one way or the other. Besides the year-end sales, a few other price breaks are helping make the season merry.

Lower gas prices definitely help. Filling up for half the cost of a few months ago continues to be a treat. On the food front, while many commodities continue to cost more, a very few have come down in price. One in particular, lobster, surprises and delights. Mark Bittman recently wrote about lobster prices coming down on the East Coast. Even in LA, prices have fallen. At Gelson's, the upscale supermarket, lobster has been on sale for most of December.

For the holiday our family makes a yearly pilgrimage to a week's time share we bought when the boys were young. Less than two hours drive and we're in our home away from home.

Driving south from LA, we have an excuse to stop in Little Saigon, where we can have lunch at Ha Noi and shop at ABC Supermarket. At Ha Noi we had three of our favorite dishes: a shrimp spring roll, pho ga (noodle soup with chicken), and vermicelli noodles with bbq pork and shrimp.

In Vietnamese supermarkets like ABC, the cost of fresh produce, meat, poultry, and seafood tends to be 1/3 to 1/2 the price in mainstream markets. Which means we splurged and bought a lobster and lots of produce, shrimp, and a crab.

Our first lunch on vacation was a simple one: lobster salad and a Persian cucumber salad. The salads are easy to make, fresh tasting, and delicious courses to serve over the holiday or to help you welcome in the new year.

Lobster Salad

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

2 lobsters, 1 1/2 pounds each
1 cup corn kernels
1 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped
1 stalk celery, washed, finely chopped
1/4 cup capers, finely chopped
2 scallions, washed, ends trimmed, finely chopped, white and green parts
1/4 - 1/3 cup mayonnaise
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)

Method

The lobsters can be steamed or grilled, either technique is fine. Use the one that's easiest. If steamed, boil 2" of water in a large pot. Hold the live lobsters, head down in the boiling water for 10 seconds. Cover, reduce to a simmer for 10 minutes. Take the lobsters out of the pot, let cool so they can be handled, remove the meat, and clean away the liver.

If you want to make lobster fume for sauces or a soup, reserve the cooking water. Add any liquid inside the lobster and all the shells to the cooking water, simmer for 20 minutes, reducing the liquid by half, strain, and discard the shells and solids. Add the fume to a finely diced saute of olive oil, celery, potatoes, carrots, onions, and garlic, simmer for 30 minutes, strain, use the fume as the base for a pasta sauce or lobster-vegetable soup.

Saute the corn in olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned. Cut the lobster into bite sized pieces and mix with the other ingredients. Season to taste with sea salt, pepper, and (optional) a light dusting of cayenne.

The lobster salad can be served many ways: with romaine lettuce leaves, grilled rolls or a halved baguette with drizzled olive oil or a heated tortilla, either traditional or ones made from brown rice (found at Trader Joe's and favored by my wife, Michelle).

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Yukon Gold Latkes

For dinner on the first night of Hanukkah my mother always started with a romaine lettuce salad topped with scallions and Lawry's French Dressing. Then there was a brisket of beef with carrots and mushroom gravy. But the real stars of the meal were the latkes served with apple sauce and sour cream.

My mother's latke recipe was handed down from her mother: grated potatoes, eggs, flour, a little salt and pepper. She'd fry them in vegetable oil and serve them as soon as they were browned. So simple and yet the result was so soul-comforting: crispy on the outside, soft inside, with just the right amount of oil and salt. There are few dishes that are as satisfying as food and so emotionally evocative.

Like most kids, my sister, Barbara, and I waited eagerly at the table. As soon as the plate full of latkes was passed around, we emptied it. I kept count, because I didn't want her to have more than I did. They were that good. When my grandmother was in town, she and my mother made Hanukkah dinner together. Their relationship was competitive to say the least, so there was always considerable discussion about the right way to make the latkes: flour vs. matzo meal; onions or no onions. My grandmother liked to point out that she had given my mother her latkes recipe but my mom insisted that she hadn't remembered it correctly.

These days we look forward to celebrating all the nights of Hanukkah but the first night is special. That's when both our sons are certain to be home. Now that they're off on their own, we're happy when we can be assured they'll share a meal with us.

Michelle likes to make the Hanukkah latkes and they're always delicious. Her recipe is similar to my mother's. This year I asked her to make a small adjustment. I wanted her to use Yukon Golds instead of Russet potatoes because they're sweeter and less starchy.

After the first night's candle was lit and placed in the menorah, presents were given and opened. Then Michelle made latkes as fast as she could and they disappeared as soon as they arrived at the table. In the end, there were only two left. Michael ate those for a late night snack. The family's opinion was unanimous. The Yukon Gold latkes were a keeper.

Yukon Gold Latkes

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

4 pounds Yukon Gold potatoes, washed
2 eggs
1/4 cup white all purpose flour
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper (optional)
1 medium yellow onion, peeled, finely chopped (optional)
1/2 cup parsley, washed, finely chopped (optional)
4 tablespoons safflower or canola oil

Method

Peel the potatoes and keep them covered in a bowl of lightly salted water so they won't discolor. Using the large holes, grate the potatoes by hand. Keep the grated potatoes submerged in the bowl of water.

Take a handful of grated potatoes. Gently squeeze out the water so they are "dry" but still light and fluffy. Put the grated potatoes into a second bowl and mix together with the eggs, flour, and olive oil. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the parsley and onions (optional). Mix well.

Heat the oil in a large frying pan or griddle. Use a parsley leaf to test the oil. When it sizzles, the oil is hot enough. Form the latkes and fry them in batches. With our griddle, that means we can make 4 or 6 at a time.

Each side will take 4-5 minutes. When they're golden brown on each side, remove them to a plate with several sheets of paper towels to drain off the excess oil. Finish with a light dusting of sea salt.

Serve with sour cream and apple sauce.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

One for the Table Gets Ready for the Holidays

Amy Ephron's One for the Table recently posted a holiday special called "Xmas on Your Doorstep." Regular contributors were asked to talk about,
... their favorite things that come in the mail at Xmas. We always think that one of the nicest things to do, if you can’t be with someone at the holidays, is to send something that can be part of their holiday meal, Xmas dinner, Xmas breakfast. A favorite jam, a basket of muffins, crab cakes, caviar (although this may not be the year for that), an apple pie, candleholders, a smoked ham or turkey, or even barbecued brisket!
Steven Zaillian, Alan Zweibel, Agatha French, Emily Fox, Susan Dolgen, Lisa Dinsmore, Andrea Pyenson, David Israel, Seale Ballenger, and Brenda Athanus remembered with fondness gifts that came in the mail that were as varied as "Mexican wedding cookies" and "a small shovel".

I contributed my own more conflicted response, detailing what was a continuing debate in my parents' household during the holiday season. My father was all in favor of Mail Order Food. My mother was not.
Mail Order Food

lattdad.jpg

I associate mail order food with my father. When I was growing up, he and I had very few connections. He took me to only one professional football game. He never came to Back-to-School Night and had no interest in any of my hobbies. I remember him as dour, not very talkative and disapproving. I was part of his second family and he was, I’m certain, just a bit too old to have a young kid running around.

Added to that, my father was burdened by tragedy. He was the eldest son of a prosperous Jewish family in Odessa on the Black Sea. Unfortunately when the Russian Revolution swept across the country, Bolsheviks rampaged through his neighborhood, lining up and shooting many people, including my father’s family. Being Jewish and well-to-do were two strikes too many at a time when “line them up against the wall” was meant literally.

Luckily for my father, when all this happened, he was studying at the University of Kiev. He learned later that his mother had survived because she had very thick hair. When she was shot at point blank range, the gunpowder was apparently so weak that the bullet merely lodged in her hair, knocking her unconscious and otherwise leaving her unharmed. My father never returned home to Odessa, having been told that he needed to flee the country, which he promptly did.

This is a long way of saying that my father spent his entire life reacting to this tragic event. The few times I remember him being happy was when he watched wrestling on TV (remember Gorgeous George?) and when the mail order food packages arrived during the holidays.

lattparents.jpgI was convinced that those packages reconnected him with happier memories of his family in Odessa. I remember watching him at the dining room table as he unpacked the treats he'd ordered: wine soaked cheddar in crocks, salamis rolled in herbs, specialty English crackers, chocolates from Belgium, tins of anchovies and sardines, glass jars with Italian antipasti, pasteurized caviar from the Caspian Sea, and cellophane wrapped packages of Russian black bread. He would get out a plate and encourage my mother and myself to share them with him. It would take him several days to finish everything and in that time he would munch away contentedly, a smile on his face.

But for my mother, those packages were an issue of contention. To her they were an extravagance. We had to watch our expenses in those days and we couldn't afford such luxuries, but my dad was old school and felt that this was one of his few pleasures and he should be indulged. Unfortunately my father had inherited his family's love of the good life without having inherited their wealth.

img80m.jpgMy dad died some years ago, my mom in 2006, but when the holiday catalogues start to arrive around Thanksgiving, I relive their debate about mail order food. The catalogues I enjoy the most are from Williams-Sonoma and Sur La Table with their exquisite photographs and seductive descriptions. I look lovingly at the boxes of Handcrafted Toffee, Cream-Nut Milk-Chocolate Peanut Butter Clusters, Perfect Endings Cupcakes, Chocolate-Dipped Peppermint Moravian Cookies, wheels of Stilton Cheese, the D'Artagnan Pate Collection, and the Niman Ranch Applewood Smoked Ham. And I am seriously tempted to buy something.

Then I look at the prices and return to my senses. My mother taught me all too well. Her reproof to my father that mail order food is too expensive rings in my ears and, besides which, as she and my grandmother always said, "Never buy retail." And yet, that smoked ham sounds really delicious, as does the handcrafted toffee, and there would be the added pleasure of connecting with my father who, for all his many faults, did imbue me with a love of good food.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Couscous Steps Up to the Plate as a Main Course

Traditional couscous has a home in the flavorful cuisines of North Africa. Tunisia, Morocco, Egypt, and Libya have perfected a small grained, steamed couscous that contrasts well with their spicy sauces. Preparing authentic couscous requires a steamer and considerable patience. The result, while delicious, is too time-consuming for most people.

Instant couscous is now widely available, made with either white or whole wheat flour. Requiring only 10 minutes in a hot water bath, this small grained version is perfect for a grilled vegetable couscous salad.

There is also a larger pearl-sized, "Israeli" couscous, which is prepared in a manner similar to risotto. The grains are first lightly toasted in olive oil, then a liquid is added. The grains soak up the liquid as they cook and expand 2-3 times their original size. With the addition of vegetables or meat, this version can easily be a main course.

Couscous with Vegetables

Aesthetically I like to keep all the ingredients about the same size as the cooked couscous grains. Because couscous is a pasta, it will continue to absorb all the liquid it's given, so the couscous should be served as soon as it is cooked. Don't put in too much liquid or you risk overloading the grains and making them mushy.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

1 cup Israeli couscous
1 medium yellow onion, washed, peeled, finely chopped
4 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1 carrot, peeled, finely chopped
1 celery stalk, washed, trimmed, finely chopped
4 brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, finely chopped
1/2 cup Italian parsley, washed, finely chopped, leaves and stems
1/2 cup corn kernels
2-3 cups liquid, water
1 tablespoon sweet butter
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Over a medium flame, heat a tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. Add the couscous and lightly brown. Remove from the pan.

Add another tablespoon of olive oil, seasoned with sea salt and pepper, and saute the onions, carrots, celery, garlic, parsley, corn, and mushrooms until lightly browned. Add the butter and put back the toasted couscous, stir well, pour in 2 cups of water.

Heat uncovered for 5-10 minutes, stirring to prevent burning. Taste a couscous grain. If it needs more liquid, add a cup of water, stir, and continue to simmer another 5 minutes. Taste and add more sea salt and pepper as needed.

Serve immediately.

Variations

Add 1 cup chopped spinach leaves, no stems, when you add the liquid.

Add finely chopped broccoli or squash or red peppers or tomatoes to the vegetable saute.

Use meat stock (chicken, beef, or veal) instead of water.

Add finely chopped chicken meat or sausage to the vegetable saute.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Tofu, the Other White Meat

Tofu has a bad rap: good for you but tasteless. Conventional wisdom has it that tofu is acceptable ornamentally in miso soup or the occasional stir fry but is simply too bland to be featured in a main dish.

At some Japanese restaurants, I had seen "Tofu Steak" on the menu. It struck me that tofu wasn't like steak but it was similar to chicken breasts. I began a series of experiments. Using firm tofu, I cut it loose from its Asian moorings. I tried grilling, sauteing, and roasting.

My favorite so far is an oven roasted tofu with a topping of crispy shallots, garlic, parsley, and shiitake mushrooms. A little bit of olive oil, sea salt, and pepper was all I added. Besides being quick and easy to prepare, healthy, and affordable, the tofu was delicious.

Please send in any of your own favorite tofu recipes.

Roasted Tofu with Crispy Toppings

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

1 package firm tofu, preferably organic
6 large shallots, peeled, julienned
4 garlic cloves, peeled, julienned
1/4 cup finely chopped Italian parsley
1/4 pound shiitake or brown mushrooms, washed, thin sliced
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Saute the shallots, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms in olive oil over a medium flame until lightly browned. Remove from the pan and set aside.

Cut the tofu into equal sized slabs, 2"x3"x1/2". Drizzle olive oil in the pan, season with sea salt and pepper, dredge each piece of tofu in the seasoned olive oil, put into the pan, cover with the shallot saute, put into a preheated 350 degree oven for 20 minutes.

Serve with a side of sauteed or steamed broccoli or a green salad.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Spinach Salad For a Change of Pace

As much as I enjoy arugula, red leaf, and romaine salads, there are times when I need a change. At the farmers' markets these days there is a good supply of regular spinach and the Bloomsdale or heirloom variety, the one with the crinkly leaves.

The nutty flavor and sturdy leaf structure of spinach invites the addition of flavors. So many ingredients go well with spinach. Personally, I like scallions, tomatoes, avocado, olives, grilled corn, and carrots go well with spinach. If you're ok with meat, add crisp bacon, chopped hard boiled eggs, grilled shrimp, sliced chicken breast, or julienned ham.

Any favorite salad dressing will do. We tend to like a simple dressing of olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar, seasoned with sea salt and pepper. The dressing can also be heated to create a wilted spinach salad.

Spinach Salad

Because all the grit has to be removed, spinach is a little more work to clean than arugula or lettuce. If the spinach leaves are still connected to their roots, cut off the root ends while the leaves are tied together. Separate the leaves and put them into the sink with a lot of water. Shake the leaves and remove to a colander. If you want, double rinse by spraying the leaves while they're in the colander.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes

Ingredients

2 large bunches spinach, washed thoroughly, stems removed
2 scallions, trimmed, finely chopped
1 carrot, washed, trimmed, peeled, thinly sliced into rounds
1 avocado, washed, peeled, roughly cut
10 cherry tomatoes, washed, quartered
4 brown mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
1/4 cup grilled corn kernels
1 tablespoon roasted almonds, hazelnuts, or pine nuts, roughly chopped (optional)
1/2 cup croutons (optional)
2 eggs, hard boiled, finely chopped (optional)
4 pieces bacon, crisp, finely chopped (optional)
10 grilled shrimp, washed, peeled, deveined (optional)
4 slices chicken breast, grilled or sauteed (optional)
1/4 cup julienned ham (optional)
Olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, reduced to 1 tablespoon
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Make the salad in a large salad bowl. Tear the large leaves into bite sized pieces. Leave the small leaves whole. Add whatever toppings you like. Make the olive oil and reduced balsamic vinegar dressing or use whatever dressing you like and serve as a salad course or as a main course.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Best Post-Thanksgiving Comfort Food: Turkey Dumpling Stew

Usually on Thanksgiving between 20-25 people come over for dinner. This year we had a smaller group. With 10, we had time to talk and there wasn't quite as much work getting the meal ready. Out of habit, though, we bought the same size turkey we always buy, a 25 pounder. So we assumed we'd have a lot of food left over, enough for several days of sandwiches.

When we looked in the refrigerator on Friday, we were surprised that we had very little cranberry sauce, almost no stuffing, and only enough white meat for a couple of sandwiches. But, happily, we did have a lot of dark meat and almost a gallon of turkey stock we'd made Thanksgiving night.

For our day after Thanksgiving dinner, I didn't want to spend a lot of time in the kitchen and I wanted a good comfort meal. Dumplings with anything is always great, but with richly flavored turkey stew, there's nothing more satisfying.

Turkey Stew with Dumplings and Vegetables

Yield: 4-6 servings
Time: 45 minutes

Ingredients

4 cups cooked, shredded turkey dark meat
6 cups turkey stock (fat removed)
2 carrots (washed, peeled, ends removed, chopped into thick rounds)
2 sweet potatoes (cooked, skins removed, roughly chopped)
1 medium yellow onion (peeled, ends removed, roughly chopped)
1 ear of corn (kernels removed) or 1 cup of canned or frozen corn
1 celery stalk (washed, ends removed, roughly chopped)
1/2 cup brown or shiitake mushrooms (washed, thinly sliced)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)
1/2 cup Italian parsley (leaves only, finely chopped)
1 small bunch spinach (washed thoroughly, stems removed)
1 cup flour
1 tablespoon sweet butter
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 - 3/4 cup half and half
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

In a dutch oven or a frying pan with tall sides, sauté the carrots, garlic, celery, mushrooms, onions, corn, and parsley in olive oil until lightly browned. Season with sea salt and pepper. Add the shredded turkey, cooked sweet potatoes, and turkey stock. Simmer. Drop in the spinach and cook for 10 minutes or until the spinach has wilted. Taste and adjust the seasonings.

To make the dumplings, mix together the flour, baking soda, sugar, season with sea salt and pepper in a bowl. Finely chop the butter, add to the flour and mix well. Slowly pour in the half and half, stirring until the batter has a thick consistency. Using 2 spoons, make dumplings and ease them them into the hot liquid.

Cover and simmer for 30 minutes. Serve with a salad and a baguette.

Variations

Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped scallions or Italian parsley to the dumplings.

Add 2 tablespoons finely chopped roasted red peppers to the dumplings.

Saturday, November 22, 2008

Thanksgiving Desserts

Before the sun comes up on Thanksgiving day, my wife and I are hard at work in the kitchen. There's so much to do that we're busy all day long. When our family and friends arrive, there's a flurry of activity to greet everyone. Once everyone is settled at the dinner table, there are glasses raised to celebrate our being together and toasts to those who could not travel to our house that year or who have passed on. Then we eagerly eat.

The feast goes on for hours as we hungrily enjoy Thanksgiving favorites and talk about what's going on in our lives and the world. When we've eaten all we can, we take a break to clean the table. Then most of us go for a walk around the neighborhood.

We walk in the dark, enjoying the cool night air and the exercise of our limbs. Refreshed, we come back to the house, its bright lights and fireplace inviting us to come home. And when we do, we find that the table has been reset, new platters of food laid out. It's time for dessert.

For so many years, this is the moment when the true collaboration of the meal is in evidence. Cousin Ron has made homemade ice cream, topping sauces, and a cheese cake. Cousin Leslie brings a pumpkin pie. Our friend and neighbor, Lesli offers us a huge bowl of mixed berries. Sometimes there is simply more than we can eat, but we don't care.

Seeing all the chocolates, candies, pies, cookies, tarts, fresh fruit, cheeses, bread puddings, and cakes makes us feel good without eating a bite. Then we dig in, having small slices so we can taste what everyone has made. But even those samples add up, so within short order we need another bracing walk in the cold to revive us.

Here are two of our favorite recipes.

Karen's Favorite Pumpkin Bread

Yield: 6-8 servings
Time: 1 1/2 hours

Ingredients

3 cups flour
2 cups sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 cups canned pumpkin
3 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 1/2 cups vegetable oil (safflower or canola)
4 eggs
1 cup chocolate chips

Method

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Beat the eggs together with the sugar until light and fluffy. Mix together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and cinnamon. Combine with the eggs and sugar. Add the pumpkin, vanilla, vegetable oil, eggs, and chocolate chips and mix well.

Carefully butter the inside of a bundt pan or 4 loaf pans. Pour in the batter, leaving 1/2" from the top. Bake for 1 hour for the large pan or 30-45 minutes for the loaf pans. Test with a tooth pick and let rest on a wire rack.

Serve at room temperature.

Banana Cake with Chocolate Chips and Walnuts

Yield: 8-10 servings
Time: 90 minutes
Ingredients

4 ripe bananas
1 1/2 tablespoons baking soda
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
1 cup plus 1 tablespoon sweet butter, room temperature
1 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar
2/3 cup half and half or 1 cup heavy cream
2 1/2 cups white flour
Pinch of sea salt
Pinch of cayenne
1/2 cup raw walnuts
1 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips

Method

Melt 1 tablespoon of butter and paint the inside of a 9 x 3 round cake pan, then put the pan in the freezer for 30 minutes. (The frozen butter prevents the batter from sticking to the pan.) On a cookie sheet bake the walnuts in a 350 degree oven for 20 minutes, turning every 5 minutes or so; let cool, roughly chop, and set aside.

In a bowl mash the bananas with a fork, add the baking soda and vanilla. stir well and set aside. In a mixer use the whisk to cream together the softened butter and both sugars. Add the eggs, mashed bananas, half and half (or cream) and whisk until blended. Mix in the flour half a cup at a time, being careful not to over-beat. Remove the bowl from the mixer. Use a rubber spatula to blend in the walnuts and chocolate chips. Pour the batter into the buttered cake pan; it will only fill the pan half-way.

Bake the cake in a 350 oven for 60-70 minutes, turning the pan every 20 minutes so the cake cooks evenly. Test to see if the cake is done by inserting a wooden skewer. If the top is browning too quickly, lightly lay a sheet of aluminum foil over the top. When the skewer comes out clean, take the cake out of the oven and place on a wire rack for 30 minutes. Remove the cake from the pan, putting it back on the wire rack to finish cooling.

Just before serving, dust the top with powdered sugar and shaved chocolate. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla ice cream or freshly whipped cream.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Thanksgiving Side Dishes

For my mother, Thanksgiving was the best day of the year. She enjoyed being surrounded by friends, family, and food. One day of the year when everyone was focused on being together and remembering how blessed we all are. She's been gone now for two years but this year, as we did last year, we'll toast her and remember how much she enjoyed Thanksgiving.

We all know that while turkey is the centerpiece of the meal, the side dishes and desserts reign supreme. Cranberry sauce, cornbread stuffing with sausages and dried apricots, mushroom and giblets gravy, salads, pickles, mashed potatoes, Brussels sprouts, string beans, squash...and the desserts: pies, custards, cakes, fresh fruit, cheese... Thanksgiving celebrates an iconic moment of generosity from strangers at a moment of crisis. Given the difficulties the world is facing for the coming year, we can use Thanksgiving to share with one another our hopes for the future.

Everyone has their favorite side dishes for the holiday. They need to be flavorful and easy to make. Here are mine: Roasted Whole Tomatoes, Arugula Salad with Hazelnuts, Carrots, and Avocadoes, Grilled Vegetable Couscous Salad, Blackened Peppers with Capers, Roasted Brussels Sprouts, and, my new favorite, Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms.

Baked Sweet Potatoes with Sautéed Shallots, Garlic, and Mushrooms

I prefer sweet potatoes that have a bright orange flesh. Find ones that are slender, appropriate as a single serving. For a dinner party, pick ones that are about the same size.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 2 1/2 hours

Ingredients

4 sweet potatoes, washed, skins on
2 teaspoons sweet butter
1 cup shallots, peeled, thinly sliced
1 cup brown or shiitake mushrooms, washed, dried, thinly sliced
6 garlic cloves, peeled, finely chopped
1/4 cup Italian parsley leaves only, washed, finely chopped
Olive oil
Sea salt and pepper
Cayenne (optional)

Method

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Wrap each sweet potato in tin foil, place in the oven, turn every 30 minutes. Depending on your oven and the size of the sweet potatoes, they can take anywhere from 1 1/2 hours to 2 hours. When the sweet potatoes are soft to the touch, they are done.

While the sweet potatoes are in the oven, drizzle olive oil in a frying pan, season with sea salt and freshly ground pepper, and sauté the shallots, garlic, parsley, and mushrooms until lightly browned.

Remove and discard the tin foil. Take a sharp paring knife and slice each sweet potato open the long way. Using your fingers, push the sweet potato in from the ends so the cut section opens like a flower. Add 1/2 teaspoon of butter and a light dusting of cayenne (optional). Top with the shallot-mushroom sauté and serve.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

An Oklahoma Road Trip: Chicken Soup and Apple Pie

On a trip through Oklahoma, I was reminded again how deliciously satisfying homemade food can be in restaurants off the beaten path.

We had traveled north from Tulsa, stopping in Pawhuska to visit Ryan Red Corn whose t-shirt company Demockratees is an internet sensation.

Ryan's politically savvy t-shirt designs speak to his reaction to the Bush administration's policies. With Barack Obama's election, Ryan has the opportunity to use his considerable talent to create more inspirational designs.

For breakfast Ryan and his dad, Raymond, took us to a local institution, Sally's Cafe. With a long counter out front and an over-sized table behind the kitchen, Sally's is an authentic diner from the 1930's.

Sitting at a table in the back where Sally was making pies, we had a country breakfast that was as good as it gets; farm fresh eggs, potatoes browned in butter, and home cured ham that was a perfect balance of sweet and salty. For dessert we had a piece of Sally's fresh apple pie, the crust perfectly flaky, the apples soft and tart with just a hint of cinnamon.

Heading south-west, we drove to Pawnee on our way back to Tulsa, passing through countryside that varied from open pasture land to starkly beautiful, wooded hill country. After the long drive we were definitely ready for a big lunch.

Just off Highway 64 in Pawnee, we stopped at Click's Steakhouse. Soup and salad were included in the lunch specials. Everything we ordered (steak, baked potatoes, fried okra, and a hamburger steak) was good, but the homemade soup revived us after so many hours on the road. I couldn't get Click's recipe so I'm offering up my own that adheres to Click's reliance on fresh ingredients.

Chicken Soup With Mushrooms & Rice

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 30 minutes

Ingredients

6 cups chicken stock (preferably homemade)
1/2 cup cooked rice (wild, Japanese, or Chinese)
1/2 cup brown mushrooms (washed, thinly sliced)
1/2 cup cooked chicken breast (shredded into bite sized pieces)
1/4 cup celery (washed, finely diced)
1/4 cup yellow onion (washed, peeled, finely diced)
1 tablespoon Italian parsley (washed, leaves only, finely chopped)
1 teaspoon olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Heat the olive oil and lightly brown the mushrooms, celery, onions, and parsley. Add the chicken breast and stock. Simmer for 15 minutes, taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Before serving, add the rice and simmer for 10 minutes. Serve with bread, rolls, or croutons.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Lo-Cal Breaded Fish Fillets

Growing up, "breaded" meant deep fried and slathered with batter. I didn't really like the thick coating but I loved the crunch. Years later I stumbled on a technique that sautes instead of deep fries and avoids batter, adding crispness without the heft (the technique works for fish and chicken breasts as well).

Breaded Fish Fillets

At the Palisades Farmers' Market we have fresh fish every Sunday. The sole works well for this technique but any white fish fillet would be delicious. By cutting the fillets into 2"-3" pieces, the fish is easier to handle.

Yield: 4 servings
Time: 20 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound fresh fillet (preferably a white fish)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1/4 cup olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Wash, pat dry, and cut into pieces 2"-3" in length. On a large plate drizzle the olive oil and season with sea salt and pepper. On a second large plate sprinkle the bread crumbs. To coat each piece of fish on all sides, dredge the fillets first through the seasoned oil, then through the bread crumbs and set aside until you've breaded all the pieces.

Spatula the remaining seasoned olive oil into a large frying pan and heat over a medium flame. Add all the pieces and cook until each side is lightly browned, about 5 minutes on each side.

Serve with a salad or a side dish of sauteed vegetables (garlic spinach, broccoli and carrots, or tomatoes, parsley and onions) and a topping of capers in a butter sauce.

Monday, November 10, 2008

When Fun Was 90 Proof

A dear friend, Valerie Peterson, has published her second book and just in time for the holidays. Her first book extolled the virtues of cookies and gave detailed directions on the care and baking of the most imaginative cookies I've ever seen.

Now she has turned her sights on holiday drinks. She has written a funny, nostalgic handbook of holiday drinks called Peterson's Holiday Helper. Each drink has specific instructions with photographs that recall a more settled time.

I recommend her book to anyone who wants to discover a new favorite drink or as a stocking-stuffer gift for the holidays. Peterson's Holiday Helper is a keeper.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

The Frugal Cook Uses Sauteed Beet Greens to Advantage

Buying beets at a farmers' market has the added advantage that not only are the beets fresh but so are the greens. I'm always amazed when I hear people ask to have the tops taken off and discarded. Beets are delicious and so are the greens. Sauteed with garlic and onions, they can be eaten as a side dish, added to pasta, put into soup, or used on sandwiches.

Sauteed Beet Greens

Yield: 1 cup
Time: 60 minutes

When you buy beets, look for a bunch with the freshest looking leaves. At home, cut off the damaged or discolored ones and discard.

Ingredients

1 bunch beet greens
1 medium yellow onion (washed, peeled, and thinly sliced)
4 garlic cloves (peeled, finely chopped)
2 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
Sea salt and pepper

Method

Carefully wash the greens in water to remove all the grit. Cut off the stems and finely chop. In a large frying pan, sauté the onions and garlic in olive oil seasoned with sea salt and pepper until lightly browned. Add the stems and toss together with the onions. Drizzle with a tablespoon of olive oil. Cook over a medium-low flame, stirring frequently to avoid burning for about 10 minutes.

Roughly chop the beet greens and add to the frying pan. Drizzle another tablespoon of olive oil over the greens and toss well with the cooked stems and onions. Because the greens need to cook slowly to bring out their sweetness, this is a preparation best done when you have other reasons to be in the kitchen. Cook for another 30-45 minutes until the greens have wilted and caramelized. Stir frequently. Taste and adjust the seasoning with sea salt and pepper.

Variations

Brown 1 piece of finely chopped bacon with the onions and garlic or 1 Italian sausage finely chopped.

With the onions and garlic sauté 1/2 cup thinly sliced brown mushrooms.

Uses

Toss together with pasta and other sauteed vegetables seasoned with olive oil and grated cheese, or with sauteed Italian sausage rounds.

Add to chicken soup.

As a topping on an open faced sandwich with avocado or fresh tomatoes or cheese or crisp bacon.