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Sunday, October 30, 2011

October Snow Storm = Grilled Cheese on Sunday 2 Ways

Somehow, the planets, stars and atmosphere aligned in such a manner the East Coast was pummeled with an October snow storm. Not just a few flurries or flakes, but a full blown, volume on 10 Nor'easter.

The Autumn leaves mix with a heavy wet snow... is it pretty, scenic or simply an anomaly?

The last of the blooms suspended in the cold, then covered in snow which quickly melts away, drip by drip in the strong sunbeams under a magnificent post-storm blue sky.

Snow crystals melt into droplets, the wind whips them along and it sounds like a second snowfall.

Walk along pathways, young trees bend in a full bow. Yes, a tree can fall in the woods, no one can hear it, but yet it exists. Still adorned with brilliantly colored leaves, boughs rest upon the winter white carpet. The calendar really does still say, "October."

It is the pine tree who seems most comfortable sprinkled in winter. A preview perhaps of a season to come, a time of jingle bells, rosy cheeks and red velvet. It is the pine tree wearing the frozen precipitation like a pair of last year's jeans, cozy and familiar.

Done wondering about with the camera, a hungry growl begins and it brings a question, "What to eat?" Well, snow fall comfort food menus do include grilled cheese - don't they? For him, squishy white bread from childhood with a layer of ham and American cheese.

For her, the less traditional with a touch of nutritious upgrade. Multi-grain bakery bread with a fairly thick layer of tomatoes and melty, magical mozzarella. The breads are crusty and crisp. The cheese will burn the mouth and skin if not eaten with care.

Many are without power, cell phones are not working reliably and the forecast for the week ahead includes temperatures reaching the mid-60's by mid-week. Perhaps the holiday bird will be barbecued rather than stuffed and roasted under a rainbow filled sky or a harvest moon.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

A Toast to the Bride to Be

My niece Molly will be married this November and so a celebration in the form of a traditional home hosted Bridal Shower was recently held.

The gathering included friends and relatives from near and far and while the routine may vary with or without games, the agenda is typically guests arrive, food is eaten, gifts are opened then time for coffee and dessert with a bit of socializing sprinkled throughout.

It is a time for the families of the bride and groom to break the ice before the wedding and for the future bride, it is a time of question and answer sessions. What color will the bridal party wear? Where will you live? Will you honeymoon and if so, where?

On this October Saturday, guests arrived and were greeted with an appetizer buffet designed to appeal to all palettes. Cheese platters and crackers for the lovers of tradition.

A bruschetta served in an oversized margarita style glass was accompanied by toasted bread rounds or could be eaten with tortilla chips as a unique salsa. A homemade guacamole was also available for tortilla chip dipping pleasure.

Fresh vegetables can almost always be found for dipping and these were positioned along side a spinach dip in hollowed out bread.

Once a majority of ladies had assembled, the main course was placed on the dining room table, also buffet style for the ease of the host as well as the guests. A grilled chicken ceasar salad, a zippy penne a la vodka with a bit of heat, various sandwiches; tomato and mozzerella, chicken salad and a variety of meats were served.

Following the meal, the wedding party took on a variety of tasks including handing the bride-to-be the stacks and stacks of gifts to open, writing down her every word, turning the unbroken ribbons and bows into a work of art that while some wanted her to place on her head it was argued to be a bouquet. Just a few hours later, the last gift was placed on a pile, notes were completed and handed off to one of the bridesmaids and the guests did their own version of a 7th Inning Stretch.

The mother of the bride announced, "Everyone, Emily will now read some of the things that Molly has said while opening her gifts that may be heard on her wedding night." The laughter began slowly as Emily read, "Oh, just what I always wanted," or, "It's so cute." When she said, "You are going to love this. My Mom does this and now so do I," the laughter filled the house while both mother and daughter blushed a bit and laughed along good naturedly.

A dessert buffet - what could be better?

The freshest mixed fruits among the finest pastries and sweet bites...

Some from fine bakeries, others fine kitchens and one unique treat served with chocolate and honey flavored graham crackers. Some food party specialists may offer a version, but one recipe for the cannoli dip cheese ball on the right is:

1 - 8 oz. pkg. cream cheese

1/2 cup softened butter

1/4 tsp. vanilla

3/4 cup confectioners sugar

3/4 cup mini chocolate chips

Mix, form into ball, chill then serve. A simple sweet treat!

Tradition reappears with a cake frosted in the design included in both the shower and wedding invitations.

In addition to a well stocked assortment of wines, a refreshing champagne punch was served in the most elegant glass dispenser (the bride's mother tells me they are available at Home Goods). The champagne punch consisted of champagne and pineapple juice, perhaps mixed with gingerale, lemonade and sparkling water and served with fresh strawberry garnish. My contribution to the festivities was to bring additional champagne which was used to make more punch. It was once a tradition for relatives on my husband's side to bring a case of champagne along when they visited and I contemplate keeping champagne on hand to celebrate all of life's occasions.

I've never given a toast at a bridal shower and though we are no longer gathered together, I would like to offer Molly a few words with my raised glass, "May you always have the ability to be happy, have love in your life and see the joy all around you."

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Memory Sauce

It's not just about the food, meals often have memories attached, stories to be told and shared. Creating this sauce has more than one; learning how to make sauce at all from scratch from my Italian mother-in-law, acquiring the tomatoes from my sister's garden, my sister's future mother-in-law's intentions with the tomatoes before a quick change of plans trip to the hospital and finally, our meal.

Recently, while on vacation at the beach, I brought what I thought were the ingredients to make home-made sauce with my mother-in-law, Rita. Of course, I forgot some key things like oregano and Parmesan (which I refer to as stinky cheese and mostly, I don't like), but we were able to buy what was needed and make a wonderful pot of sauce (gravy) to have with our spaghetti (or as she refers to all pasta, macaroni). The gravy was filled with sausage, meatballs and left-over steak. It was rich and fulfilling, leaving the table fairly quiet during the meal as everyone enjoyed the food! While many may not think of sauce when they think of the beach, these two memories are now permanently attached for me.

Home for a few weeks, my sister and her family headed out for a week away leaving her future mother-in-law, Marion in charge. Marion watched over the garden, their home and dog, Sophie with care. Unfortunately, she became quite ill on the day she intended to blanch quite a bushel of tomatoes and so my Mom escorted Marion to the hospital, my son cared for Sophie and I was given custody of the tomatoes. And so, the sauce begins...
Tomatoes are peeled and placed in a large dutch oven on the stove until they cook down and are soft. This step is the one I found to be most intimidating, Rita and I used canned tomatoes and many other steps came first. You may blanch the tomatoes first to easily remove skin, I peeled them cold and placed them in the pot.

Once the tomatoes cooked down, an immersion blender works beautifully to create the smooth sauce base.
Safety tips: Always make sure the immersion blender is indeed immersed before turning it on and NEVER try to unclog or touch the blade while the appliance is on.

Season! Salt, pepper, oregano, bay leaves all from the spice cabinet. The sauce simmered awhile longer and then for this batch, it rested in the refrigerator overnight for part 2 the next day. Before going to bed, Marion had been released from the hospital and checked on - all is well.

On the morning of Day 2, beef short ribs are seared, then the sweet sausage is browned and both meats are added to the pot.

Meatballs are created using a mix of ground chicken and ground beef, bread crumbs, egg, more oregano, salt, pepper and the stinky cheese (just a little so the taste does not overwhelm). Once they are browned, they are added to the sauce.

Onion is sauteed in the pan after the meatballs and garlic. While it slowly simmers and the anticipation builds, I am texting with my sister as she makes her way back home. I wish the story ends with all of us at a big table, enjoying the meal, but sometimes what we wish for and reality are simply not possible. Thin spaghetti is cooked and mixed with sauce, served in the special pasta bowl I received as a gift. Italian bread is sliced and placed on the table. Only 3 of us enjoy this first attempt at sauce prepared fresh from garden tomatoes, but plenty is frozen and waiting for a time when it can be shared and new memories can be created.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Farmer's Market then Lunch - all before the Hurricane

A Saturday at the local Pine Bush Farmer's Market - well, not the whole day but about an hour. The theme was "Tomato Me Crazy" with a tomato contest for Best Tasting, Heavyweight, Most Perfect Visually and Weirdest which could be the strangest variety or appearance. It was my first time at a tomato contest so I wasn't sure what to expect.

The cherry tomatoes pictured above are (from top to bottom) Tumbling Tiger, Sun Gold and Yellow Pear varieties all grown by a local gardener. I was lucky enough to taste the Sun Gold and they won for Best Tasting. The fruit broke quickly under a bit of pressure in my mouth and squeezed a burst of juice that was like a bit of liquid sunshine.

The fruits looked simply succulent.

Bell peppers... so many options...

Picture perfect squash and more...

And tons and tons of tomatoes - ok, maybe just quarts and quarts.

One side effect of shopping at a Farmer's Market is incredibly hunger! Wonder if they have ever considered having a station where people can rinse, prepare fresh produce, cut up or peel or what ever has to be done then have a few tables for people to eat on the spot! Wouldn't that be a wonderful alternative to fast food?

For us, we went to a local restaurant and the closest thing I had to fresh produce was a mountain size salad with cubed turkey, bacon crumbles and sweet/tart craisins.
A crunchy loaf of Italian bread gently held a saucy, fried and tender chicken cutlet topped with stringy, melted mozzerella.

A grilled chicken wrap dripped with juices from fresh tomato, served with the crispest french fries... somehow we all ordered a little piece of the ingredients I bought at the market: tomatoes, mozzerella, bread.

That night, the storm came and Madame Irene did knock out our electric as expected. Once the wind and rain died down Sunday I was able to toast some bread on the grill, slice the tomatoes and mozzerella and have an incredible, fresh afternoon snack. We don't really rough it around here!

Monday, August 22, 2011

Name this Sausage and Clam Dish

A longtime fan of the Food Network, it took a little bit of charming until I was also addicted to the Cooking Channel. What I love are actual cooking shows (ok, I admit to liking some of the reality shows as well) but I started out with wanting to know the science from Alton Brown and seeing new dishes from Ina Garten and Giada and while I'm confessing, yes, 30 Minute Meals influenced my dinner table.

So, one night after a wonderful seafood filled vacation, I turned on the Cooking Channel and Kelsey Nixon was whipping up dishes inspired by her trip to Spain. One of them had clams and chorizo and so I was inspired and made some adaptations.

The strange part at the dinner table is my husband always wants to know 2 things when I serve a new meal:

1. What's this called?

2. Where did you get the recipe?

I often don't really have an answer since I simply go by memory and make changes I see fit. I have used our own names in dishes or places like Chicken Woodstock. Maybe you can help name this dish...

In a very large pot (think Paella friendly), I sauteed some mild white onion and green bell peppers with salt and pepper in olive oil.

Next, open an adult beverage of choice to quench thirst which will likely develop while cooking...

Add 4 slices chopped, cooked bacon and about 1 pound sliced sausage to the pot.

Once sausages are cooked through, add one diced tomato and about 1 cup chicken stock.

I then opened the spice cabinet and grabbed pinches and sprinkles of:

Garlic powder

Crushed red pepper

Black pepper

Old Bay


and 2 Bay Leaves

From the fridge - half a stick of butter

Scrub the clams

Add about 3 cups of clam juice

The freshly scrubbed clams

The juice of half of a large lemon plus the zest

Cover until the clams open (about 6 minutes or so)

on medium - high heat

I served the dish over rice with crusty bread - maybe you have other ideas.

Just let me know - what should the dish be named?

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Fed Well on Vacation

The family, the time together, the beach and yes, the food. Something special is sprinkled into the meals on vacation - breakfast is a bit slower and later blending with lunch, the foods that need a few extra minutes of time which one simply doesn't have when they are rushing off to work are enjoyed. One of the first meals I shared with my son on vacation was a late breakfast, as we arrived too early to pick up our keys and decided eating was a wonderful and appropriate activity since we were both starving from leaving early with little food in our bellies.

I ordered the Eggs Florentine. A base of toasted English Muffin, topped with sliced tomatoes and sauteed spinach with a perfectly luscious poached egg. Crisp yet tender center breakfast potatoes on the side with a small slice of fresh, ripe and sweet watermelon made a fairly balanced plate.

I watched as a nearby table received a fruit plate and though I was relatively full, felt we could certainly share more of the sweet and succulent fruit. We did our best. The tender flesh of the melons yielded their juice with the slightest pressure and the berries though sweet were firm and burst on the tongue.

The next memorable meal was not photographed at a seafood restaurant, but the memories remain. A thick, creamy and hearty New England Clam Chowder, a Clams Casino appetizer with crisp bacon, a main course of soft shell crab and I worried I would not be able to fit into my bathing suit the following day. The tastes, the textures, the laughs and stories we shared at the table... but we were not all together yet. A party of 6, it would be two more days until my sister would arrive with her sons.

We cooked a traditional family Sunday dinner the next day. Though the menu was not beach related, we dined on ham, macaroni and cheese, tossed salad, fresh corn on the cob and sat together around the large dining room table in our rented vacation house. Fed Well with food and life.

On the afternoon my sister arrived, we had a snack of fresh bruschetta made with her own garden tomatoes and basil over toasted Italian bread. Also for snacking were shrimp and a variety of chips and dips.

Later that day, we are all gathered and decide to try an Italian restaurant. The 9 of us have varied interests in all things, including the menu. The 2 young boys order quesadillas, 2 order the cannelloni stuffed with lobster and shrimp, 2 traditional veal parmesans, one chicken parmesan, a gyro pita, and I had the crab meat ravioli. Too full to order dessert, we walked it off later at the Wildwood Boardwalk.

In the rental agreement, we noticed the promise of a gas grill and subsequently planned to mix in some home cooking. Closer inspection of the grill revealed an empty propane tank and so the sirloin steaks my sister brought would have to instead by broiled. The meat was tender and flavorful accompanied by my version of red potatoes with green bell peppers and onion, other sides were pan fried mushrooms and onion with the final side of fresh from my sister's garden zucchini and squash.

Though my sister could not stay the entire week, we enjoyed eating the remaining fresh produce after admiring the colorful centerpiece.

Our final seafood dinner out was at Carmen's by the bay. We were able to watch boats come and go and feel the open bay breeze. It just so happened to be my birthday! Those of us who simply love seafood ordered the following meals and yes, we all offered the others a taste:

Designed as an appetizer, this full bowl of clams, mussels, scallops, shrimp, lobster tail and crab claw were in a buttery bath seasoned with perhaps a bit too much Oregano, but simply luxurious nonetheless.

Carmen's Seafood Spaghetti was actually Angel Hair pasta smothered in a full bodied tomato sauce, with split lobster tail and a number of fresh mussels.

Ever popular, simple and satisfying, crab legs served with drawn butter. Lip smacking, finger licking joy from the sea.

The vacation continued and I made homemade sauce with meatballs, sausage and the leftover sirloin with my mother-in-law one night. We ordered delivery pizza which we jazzed up with our own bell peppers with onions or the left over sausage (or simply ate plain) and yes, we indulged in the time honored birthday cake. Mine was from Carvel with the chocolate crunchies separating chocolate and vanilla ice cream, and the blue icing which can stain anything. Of course I blew out the candles and made a wish... but that's a secret.