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

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!

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Vintage Chocolate Cake

For my friends and family, I always offer to make them any treat they want for their birthday. It can be a birthday cake, cookies, pie, muffins…anything. One of The Picky Eater’s brothers wants baked beans for his birthday!

Inevitably I get asked for chocolate cake. I've made many different types, but those recipes created a cake that was more like a brownie than a cake—rich and dense (yum!), but not fluffy like, well, to be honest, a boxed cake mix. (No!)

I decided to go old-school in my search for a go-to chocolate cake, and I found a great recipe in an old Pillsbury Family Cookbook from 1963. It’s called Family Treat Cake and is very simple to make. The batter even reminded me of a boxed cake mix. Of course, I had to tinker with the recipe. I swapped butter for shortening and added vanilla and instant espresso powder to enhance the chocolate flavor. The cake was still a bit dense, but more cake-like than any other.

I also found a recipe for Creamy Chocolate Frosting. This is a butter-type frosting that also uses heavy cream in the mix.

This cake was a success both times I made it. Looks like I've found my go-to recipe.

Vintage Chocolate Cake

Makes 1 9 x 13-inch cake

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant espresso powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened
2 cups sugar
3 eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup boiling water

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spray the bottom of a 9 x 13-baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. Set aside.

In a medium bowl, add the flour, cocoa, salt and espresso powder. Whisk together until combined. Set aside.

Place the softened butter into the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment. On high speed, gradually add the sugar to the butter until it is all combined and fluffy. Lower to medium speed and add the eggs, one at a time, until well combined.

Measure the milk into a measuring cup, and then mix in the baking soda. Mix the milk-soda mixture into the cake batter. Add the vanilla. Add the dry ingredients all at once and mix at low speed until well blended. Then mix in the boiling water.

Pour the batter into the prepared baking dish. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cake comes out clean. Set on a wire rack to cool. Frost with Creamy Chocolate Frosting.

Creamy Chocolate Frosting

1/4 cup unsalted butter, softened
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 pound confectioners’ sugar
6 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/3 to 1/2 cup heavy cream

Add all of the ingredients to a large mixing bowl. Beat, starting on low and increasing the mixer speed, until the frosting is smooth and fluffy. Add additional cream as needed. 

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Penne alla Vodka

For some reason, this Penne alla Vodka dish makes me think of spring. It must be the peas.

I developed this recipe years ago, inspired by two different versions. One was from my favorite Italian restaurant in New Hampshire, and the other was a recipe in Lidia’s Italian-American Kitchen by Lidia Bastianich.

I took my favorite elements from both and created this rich, satisfying vodka-cream sauce. The cream added at the end gives it a smooth, velvety texture while also taming the acid in the tomatoes.

Penne alla Vodka
Serves 6

3 slices bacon, diced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 large onion, diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 28-ounce can whole San Marzano tomatoes
1/2 cup vodka
Salt, to taste
Crushed red pepper, to taste
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
1/2 cup peas, fresh or frozen
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Put a large pan of water on to boil.

Place the can of tomatoes in the bowl of a food processor. Pulse a few times to break up the whole tomatoes. (This also works well by putting the tomatoes in a bowl and using a handheld immersion blender.) Set aside.

In a large skillet, sauté the bacon until crispy. Remove the bacon and set aside, reserving 1 tablespoon of the bacon fat. Add an additional tablespoon of olive oil into the skillet with the bacon fat, and then the diced onions. Sauté until the onions are translucent. Add the minced garlic and saute for just 30 seconds. Then pour in the tomatoes. Bring to a simmer and season with salt and crushed red pepper. Add the vodka and keep simmering while cooking the pasta.
Add salt to the boiling water, and then the penne. Cook until the pasta is just done, about 10 minutes.   

When the pasta is almost finished cooking, add the cream, peas and bacon to the sauce. Drain the pasta and add it to the sauce, stirring to combine. Turn off the heat and add the Parmesan cheese, stirring to combine.

Garnish with more grated parmesan, if desired.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Cheese and Potato Frittata

Because it’s spring…

Because everyone prefers to be outside enjoying warmer weather than spending a lot of time in the

Because simple, inexpensive, and tasty recipes are always good to have on hand…

I present my Cheese and Potato Frittata recipe, an easy to make dish that works for brunch, lunch or a light supper. Best of all, you can adjust it to fit your tastes. Add some green peppers or asparagus. Use pepper jack cheese instead of cheddar and serve with a side of salsa. Sprinkle green onions over the top. This basic recipe can be the foundation for whatever your food imagination can picture, but it also tastes great just as it’s written.   

Cheese and Potato Frittata
Serves 4 to 6
2 tablespoons oil
1 1/2 pounds potatoes, thinly sliced
1/2 large onion, thinly sliced
1 tablespoon butter
5 eggs, beaten
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
Salt and pepper, to taste
In a heavy, oven-safe skillet, add the oil. Add the potatoes and cooking until one side is brown. Turn the potatoes and add the onions. Continue to cook until the potatoes and onions are browned and tender.
Preheat the broiler. Add the butter around the edges of the potatoes in the pan and cook until melted. Pour the beaten eggs over the mixture. Using a spatula, sift the mixture around so the eggs touch the skillet and cook. (You can also shake the pan to do this.) Once the eggs are just runny on top, sprinkle the cheese on top and place the skillet under the broiler. Cook until eggs are set, cheese is melted, and the frittata begins to brown slightly. Season with salt and pepper.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie

“May you always be blessed with walls for the wind, a roof for the rain, a warm cup of tea by the fire, laughter to cheer you, those you love near you, and all that your heart might desire.”
A traditional Irish toast.

I had so many people comment about my Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie recipe after it was in yesterday’s Topeka Capital-Journal I decided to post it here. Trust me. It tastes as good as it looks! The recipe comes from one I first received from an Irish pub in New England, and it works equally well with either ground beef or lamb.

I hope your St. Patrick’s Day is one filled with fun and joy, plus a little bit of blarney. I also hope this Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie is on the dinner menu.

“May you be in Heaven three days before the Devil knows you’re dead.” –another traditional Irish toast

Sweet Potato Shepherd’s Pie
Makes 4 servings

2 pounds ground beef   or lamb            
1/2 onion, diced                                   
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
4 teaspoons ground coriander
1 teaspoon ground cumin
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup frozen peas
4 tablespoons flour
2 14.5-ounce cans low sodium beef broth
1 ounce Irish whiskey, or to taste         
3 cups mashed sweet potatoes  (see below)

In a saute pan over medium heat, melt butter, add onions, and cook until soft.  Add in ground beef or lamb and spices, and then saute until cooked through. Add the peas. Add the flour and cook for 1 minute, and then pour in the broth and whiskey. Bring to a simmer and cook until the desired thickness is reached.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spoon the meat mixture into a casserole dish or individual serving dishes. Cover the top with the mashed sweet potatoes. Place the dish onto a rimmed baking sheet to catch any drips, and bake until the sweet potatoes start to brown on top, 20 to 30 minutes.

Sweet Potato Mash
2 pounds sweet potatoes, cut into cubes
1/2 cup unsalted butter
1/2 cup half and half
Salt and pepper, to taste
Cover the cubed sweet potatoes with water in a large sauce pan, and bring to a boil. Continue to boil until cooked through. Strain potatoes and return them to the pan. Add the butter and half and half, and mash with a potato masher, being careful not to over mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.