Thursday, May 14, 2015

Berry Care 101





Blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, raspberries…I love them all, especially when they are freshly picked and tasting like sunshine.




However, few things are more discouraging than spending money on fresh berries only to have them go bad before you use them up. Thank goodness Cooks Illustrated magazine published a great cleaning method that keeps the fruit around longer.

Wash the berries in a bowl with three parts water and one part white vinegar. Then drain and rinse. (For other fruits and vegetables, fill a spay bottle with the water-vinegar solution, give them a spritz, and then rinse.)
           
To dry, place more the sturdy ones like strawberries and blueberries into a salad spinner lined with three layers of paper towels. Then spin until dry. Delicate raspberries can be laid out onto paper towel-lined counter or baking sheet and allowed to dry. (A fan blowing on the berries will speed up the process.)
           
Once cleaned, place the berries in a container lined with paper towels and keep in the refrigerator. Leave the lid opened a bit to allow any excess moisture to escape.
           
The extra berries I purchase are headed straight for my freezer to enjoy the rest of the year. After the berries are cleaned and dried, I place them on a rimmed baking sheet lined with waxed paper. Then I pop the sheet into the freezer. Once they are completely frozen, I remove the berries from the sheet and place them into a zippered freezer bag.
           


Both fresh and frozen berries work well in so many recipes, from smoothies to pancakes. When using the frozen ones, most recipes will tell you if they need to be thawed out first. When in doubt, thaw the berries.




Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Chilled Strawberry-Mint Soup



I love when strawberry season arrives. While I occasionally buy organic berries at the supermarket (I feel they have the best flavor), my favorite place to get them is at the Saturday morning downtown farmer’s market. If you have only eaten berries from the store, please do yourself a favor and find a freshly picked pint. It will be life-changing! When the season arrives, I always purchase one container to eat right away and one or two extra to freeze for later in the year.

One of my favorite strawberry recipes is this chilled strawberry-mint soup that I first tasted at the Canterbury Shaker Village in New Hampshire. This soup is the perfect remedy for a hot, humid summer day. I bought the strawberries, spearmint, and honey all at the farmer’s market. A batch can be made when the berries are fresh, and then frozen to enjoy all summer long.

Chilled Strawberry-Mint Soup
Serves 6 to 8 people
Adapted from The Shaker Kitchen by Jeffrey S. Paige.

This recipe needs to chill at least 8 hours before serving, so plan ahead. Note: If using frozen strawberries, measure or weight them first, and then allow them to thaw. Be sure to include any juice that comes from the thawed berries into the recipe.

1 cup sugar
1 cup loosely packed spearmint leaves
2 pints (20 ounces) fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
3/4 cup honey
1 quart (32 ounces) plain yogurt
For garnish: Plain yogurt, sliced strawberries, and spearmint leaves
           
Place the sugar and spearmint leaves into the bowl of a food processor. Whiz together until the leaves are very finely minced. Add the strawberries and honey and process until smooth.           

Pour the strawberry mixture into a bowl. Add the yogurt and whisk until smooth. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 8 hours, or overnight. Serve cold. Garnish with a dollop of yogurt, a couple of strawberry slices, and mint leaf.  This soup can be frozen to serve at a later date. Just allow it to unthaw in the refrigerator before serving.


Thursday, May 7, 2015

My Mom



I call my mom every day. She once told me, “You don’t have to do that. I know you’re busy.”

I replied, “But I want to!”

My mom is my first best friend. She is my biggest fan (though The Picky Eater gave her a run for her money.) She never scoffed at my dreams and always supported me in any adventure.


When Dad wanted me to go to college in my home state of Missouri, Mom understood my need to venture outside of my childhood area. When I would leave school for periods of time to work as a nanny along the East Coast, she understood my desire to see parts of the world I only knew from books and television. When I wanted to spend five weeks exploring Great Britain, Mom understood, even though it meant returning to school mid-semester.



When I settled down in New England for almost 20 years, she understood. When I went years between visits home, she understood. When I felt the need to move back to the Midwest but chose Kansas over Missouri, she understood.


And in this past year, the darkest year of my life after loosing The Picky Eater, she understood. She offered support—both moral and financial—as I waded through my grief and started to move forward in life once again. She did all of this while dealing with her own grief after loosing Dad.

I am who I am because of my mom.


A nasty virus is keeping me from visiting Mom this weekend, but I’ll be there in a couple of weeks to celebrate her birthday. However, my heart, thoughts and prayers are with her daily.



If you’re thinking about a treat for your mom, may I suggest my mom’s favorite angel food cake. It is easy to prepare and delicious.

Yes, Mom, I’ll bring one with me when I come!  


I love you! 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Celebrate Cinco de Mayo



Just like everyone is a little Irish on St. Patrick’s Day, we all become a little Mexican on Cinco de Mayo. Most Americans mistakenly think May 5th celebrates Mexico’s independence, which is actually on September 16th. Cinco de Mayo is the celebration of a band of Mexican fighters and their victory over the French army in 1862. In Mexico, it is largely a regional celebration, while in the States, it’s more of an excuse to have a good time, Mexican-style.

On my Carnival cruise vacation in February, I went on two food-and-beverage-themed excursions, and came away with these recipes perfect for Cinco de Mayo.


The first excursion was the Tequila Experience at Discover Mexico Park in Cozumel. I participated in a professional tequila tasting. Set up like a wine tasting, we learned to judge the aromas, color, body and aging of three different tequilas: White tequila, which ages 15 days in stainless steel tanks before it is ready to bottle; rested tequila, which is left at least 2 months in wooden tanks or barrels; and aged tequila, which spends at least 1 year in wooden barrels.

When the tasting started, our group was fairly quiet. By the end, we were all chatting and laughing, to which our guide, Eric, noted, “That’s what tequila does. It makes friends.”

After the tasting, we enjoyed a wonderful Mexican lunch, complete with a Mango Margarita. What makes this drink unique is the addition of chili sauce swirled inside the glass, and the rim coated with chili powder instead of salt. The combination of the spices with the sweet mango was perfect.



The second excursion was called Salsa and Salsa, where the participants learned to make salsa and to salsa dance! Our guide, Carlos, took us to the Piedra de Agua Hotel in Merida. Waiting for us on the tables in the restaurant were platters of ingredients so we could make salsa and guacamole.




We made a basic salsa and, my favorite, Drunken Salsa, with beer and tequila. The guacamole was the traditional recipe and it is now my go-to choice when I make it at home. (I often enjoy it for lunch since it is so easy to make.)



After our cooking session, we enjoyed our salsa lesson in the hotel’s beautiful courtyard. Carlos was the instructor, and since I didn't have a partner, I danced with him. It was so much fun learning to salsa with a handsome dance partner who knows
how to do it well.

If you have the chance, I recommend both of these excursions. They were fun, lively, and tasty. Best of all, I have three terrific recipes to satisfy my Mexican food cravings.      

Mango Margarita
Serves 2

The original recipe calls for Tajin brand chili sauce and chili powder, also called snack sauce and snack seasoning. Check for it in the import food section of your favorite grocery store or Mexican food shop, or order on  Amazon.com. Otherwise, just use your favorite chili sauce and powder brand.

2 ounces sugar syrup
2 ounces triple sec
2 ounces tequila
1 ounce lime juice
Mango pulp, to taste
Ice
Chili sauce
Chili powder

Place the sugar syrup, triple sec, tequila, lime juice, and mango pulp into a blender. Add ice and blend until thick and smooth.

Wet the rim of the margarita glass and dip it into the chili powder. Then swirl a small amount of the chili sauce along the inside of the glass. Pour in the blended margarita mixture and serve.     

Guacamole
Serves 2
 
1 avocado
1/2 Roma tomato, diced
1/4 large white onion, finely diced
1/2 Serrano chili, finely diced
1 lime
Cilantro, chopped, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

Scoop the flesh of the avocado into a bowl or mortar. Mash with a fork or pestle. Add the tomato, onion and chili. Stir to combine. Squeeze in the juice of the lime, and then stir in the cilantro, salt and pepper. Serve with tortilla chips.

Drunken Salsa
Serves 2

1 Roma tomato, roasted
1 green tomato, roasted
1/2 white onion, roasted, and chopped
2 garlic cloves, roasted
1 dried pasilla chili, chopped (available online or substituted ancho chili.)
1/2 ounce Mexican beer
1/2 ounce tequila
Cilantro, chopped, to taste
Salt and pepper, to taste

The tomatoes, onion, and garlic can be roasted over an open flame or in a 450-degree oven until the skins are charred and softened.

Place the chopped pasilla chili into a mortar or the bowl of a food processor. Mash (or process) until the chili is broken into fine pieces. Mash in the garlic. Then add the tomatoes and mash together. Add the chopped onion, beer, and tequila and mix well. Add the cilantro, salt and pepper, to taste. Serve with tortilla chips. 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Picnic Tips with Apple and Brie Sandwiches





Perhaps the easiest way to make a meal into an event is by going on a picnic. The most basic lunch or dinner seems special when dining alfresco.

To be ready at a moments notice, keep a picnic kit packed with the essentials so you can grab and go. The kit can be a traditional basket, backpack, tote bag, cooler bag, or a cooler or suitcase-on-wheels. Just be sure to keep in mind your picnic location. You don’t want to find yourself wheeling a picnic kit over rocky terrain or carrying a heavy basket up a remote hillside.





The kit should contain the basics:

  • A blanket, sheet, or tablecloth to sit on and a plastic tarp in case of dampness.
  • Dinnerware, such as heavy-duty paper plates, napkins, and plastic utensils, which are available in many fun colors and designs. For the environmentally conscious, pack reusable plastic dinnerware and cloth napkins. Just tote everything back home to be washed.
  • Serving utensils
  • A sharp knife
  • Cutting board
  • Bottle opener
  • Corkscrew
  • Paper towels and hand wipes
  • Garbage bag
  • Insect repellent
  • Sunscreen

When you’re ready, all you need to add is the food and you’re all set. For a picnic, the rule of thumb is to keep cold foods cold and hot foods hot. Start by picking food that taste just as good cold as hot. (One of the reasons fried chicken is a popular picnic staple.) Also, keep the menu simple. Nothing too
fussy.

One of my favorite picnic meals is this apple and brie sandwich. Just pack up the ingredients and assemble the sandwich on site. It is simple to make but gives a picnic an elegant flair. (Don’t worry about keeping the brie cold unless it will be a long time before you dine or it is an extremely hot day. Brie tastes better at room temperature.)

Apple and Brie Sandwich
Serves 2
4 slices good sturdy bread
2 tablespoon bottled mango chutney
1 apple, sliced
6 slices brie cheese
1 small bunch watercress (optional)
           
Spread mango chutney on each slice of bread and layer with apple, brie and watercress. Cut in half and serve.


Thursday, April 16, 2015

Dinner for One or Two...Plus Welsh Rabbit






“Another advantage to cooking for yourself is that you have only yourself to please.” –Judith Jones, from The Pleasures of Cooking for One





In my lifetime, I’ve had ample opportunities to cook just for myself or one other person. As a single woman in my 20s, a meal was often pre-packaged and microwaved, or from a take-out container. As a divorced food writer in my 40s, I learned to adjust my favorite family-sized meals to satisfy my needs. As The Picky Eater’s wife, I followed those same adjustments, allowing for meals sized for two instead of one. Now, as a widow, I’m once again cooking for myself.


As I wrote in this blog post soon after The Picky Eater passed away, I was amazed how preparing a simple meal of Minestrone Soup brought me such comfort. I was taking care of myself by doing something I loved. As the months passed, I learned to enjoy cooking a meal just for me as a way to wind-down from a hectic day.

In my experience, the freezer is my best friend for one-or two-person cooking. It allows me to prepare favorite dishes, such as this Baked Ziti, and divide it into smaller containers to bake for future meals. If I have leftovers, I’ll divide them into individual portions to freeze. For example, a turkey dinner’s leftovers can become a quick microwave TV dinner when divided and frozen in individual containers. Leftover pies and cakes can be cut into single servings, lined up on a baking sheet, and frozen until solid. Then pop the frozen pieces into a freezer-safe container or bag, and dessert is ready anytime!


Also important is having a well-stocked pantry and refrigerator. This gives me the freedom to follow my meal-time cravings without resorting to processed or take-out food. The Judith Jones book mentioned above is full of great pantry suggestions, as well as teaching readers how to take one ingredient, such as a pork loin, and create multiple meals. (FYI: Judith Jones is the editor who put Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking out for the world to enjoy.)





Another key is investing in single or double serving containers. For example, I learned from The Complete Cooking for Two Cookbook by the Editors at America’s Test Kitchen how useful a loaf pan can be when downsizing recipes such as these lasagna and brownies recipes. However, downsizing a baked-goods recipe, such as cake, brownies, etc, can be tricky, since baking is an exact science when mixing ingredient amounts, which is why a cookbook like this one is good to have around.

  


Perhaps the best thing about cooking for one is, as Jones said, you have no one to please but yourself. Dinner can range from a full meal to just cheese, bread and fruit—whatever fits your appetite at the time.




One of my favorite simple meals is Jones’s Welsh Rabbit. The name can be confusing since rabbit is not an ingredient. Instead, this is a simple meal of a rich cheese sauce poured over toasted bread. You can use either beer or wine in the dish, as well as your favorite melting cheese. In this case, I used an ale with some gruyere.







Welsh Rabbit
Adapted from The Pleasures of Cooking for One by Judith Jones

1 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoons beer, ale or white wine
1 egg yolk
A pinch of dry mustard
5 or 6 drops Worcestershire sauce, to taste
Pinch of salt
2 ounces grated cheese of choice (cheddar, gouda, or any good melting cheese)
1 slice toasted bread


Melt the butter in a small heavy-bottomed sauce pan over medium-low heat. Whisk in the beer, egg yolk, mustard, Worcestershire sauce and salt. Stir until the sauce becomes slightly thick. Stir the cheese a small handful at a time, making sure each addition is melted before adding more. Pour over the toasted bread and serve. 

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Grilling Tips



At the first hint of warmer weather, outdoor grills are fired up all around the country. In fact, many of my friends in New England have been known to start their grills with snow still covering the ground.

Grill master and cookbook author Steven Raichlen once told me that grilling is the performance art of the culinary world and the best method for cooking just about anything. He said, “Grilling and barbecue are the world’s oldest cooking methods. They take you back to that mystical moment in human history when man became the only animal that cooks. It is something that is done all over the world but done differently in every region.”


I love the relaxed atmosphere around the grill. Everyone gathers together, chatting and enjoying cold beverages while the master of the grill prepares the meal. Living in a downtown apartment with no outdoor space, my grilling is now confined to a cast iron grill pan, a George Foreman grill, or a grill at the park. I'm thrilled anytime someone invites me over for a cookout! 


Unlike barbecue, which is done at a low temperature for a long time, grilling is hot and fast. Plus, according to every expert I've interviewed through the years, true grilling is done with the lid open! Once you close the lid, the food goes from grilling to baking.



Here are some tips for perfectly grilled food:

  • Do not have your grill heated to one single temperature. Ideally you will have a hot side and a cooler side. For a charcoal grill, this means banking the majority of the coals to one side.
  • Learn to check the grill’s temperature with the hand method. Hold your hand over the fire and count (one Mississippi, two Mississippi, etc.) Two to three seconds is a hot, high fire; four to five is medium-high; six to eight is medium; 9 to 10 is medium-low; and eleven to fourteen is low.
  • Before using, get the grate hot, brush it clean with a wire grill brush, and lubricate the grate with oil (a paper towel wad and tongs do the trick) just before you add the food. 
  • Do not use water to tame flare-ups. Just move the food to a different area on the grill until the flames subside.
  • Do not put too much food on the grill at once. There should be room to maneuver, whether it is to avoid a flame-up or to slow down the cooking if the temperature is too high in one area.
  • Put barbecue sauce on at the end to prevent burning.
  • Be sure to have the tools you need—long, spring-loaded tongs and a long-handled spatula. The tools should not be too heavy and fit well in your hand. An instant read thermometer and a timer are also useful tools.
  • Over-turning can be a problem, especially with something as delicate as fish. Figure out the approximate cooking time and then turn the food halfway through.
  • When you remove meat from the grill, the internal temperature will continue to rise as it rests. By the time you eat, the meat could be overcooked. Try removing the meat while it is just under the desired temperature by five to ten degrees.



Now, fire it up!