Wednesday, April 17, 2019

Vacation Eating

 Alone for dinner tonight.  Alone all day, really.  Without any pressing things to do- nothing that needed to be attended to immediately which is not exactly the norm for me.  This means that I can easily be sucked into watching The Real Housewives of Wherever argue about something ridiculous but I somehow managed to tear myself away to spread some mulch around the edges of the driveway and flip the channel to a cooking show, an old style "dump and mix"show where the host actually demonstrates how to make a recipe rather than a competition with weird ingredients and lackluster results that one would never dream of making for dinner.  I was looking for some sort of inspiration and motivation to cure my binge watching tendencies.  And there was Rachael Ray working her 30 Minute magic with dried chiles, making a chilaquile sauce.  I have a big bag of the exact type of chiles that I purchased for some crazy reason I cannot remember.  Every time I come across them in my pantry, I question what I can possibly do with all of these chiles but always end up passing over them for lack of ingenuity or inspiration. 
  The sauce that Rachael made is a little bit like a smoky salsa.  She tossed tortillas in it and topped them with cheese, melted it all in the oven and garnished the whole thing with all the typical toppings: avocado, cilantro, etc and over easy eggs.  I don't really like that combination, with the eggs on top of all that but I do love nachos.  So, I made my own version of this one pan dish, an individual, perfect for one person portion with ingredients that I had in my refrigerator.  Of course, this could be stretched to feed a crowd (the sauce recipe makes quite a large batch) but, as I mentioned at the beginning, I am alone for dinner tonight, left to my own devices to create a mini meal.
  While my chilaquile sauced nachos where beginning to bubble in the oven, I rummaged around in the downstairs fridge for the perfect beverage accompaniment: an ice cold beer.  But not the fancy, newly popular micro brew type that Rob usually has stashed in there. What I really wanted was something like a Miller High Life in an ice cold bottle, light and refreshing, old school and just right to go with my nacho meal for one.  Sadly, among the bottles of Sam Adams in various flavors, and tall cans of Guinness, a few Mayflower Porters and a single Harpoon IPA, there was nothing to offer for what I was craving.  Back to the beverage drawing board.  Tequila.  Only a few ounces left in the bottle.  I wonder who has been drinking a lot of Margaritas?  I managed to find a lime that needed to be used today or end up in the compost bucket tomorrow morning along with a small can of pineapple juice on hand for last minute marinades and occasions like this one. 
  This type of relaxing, improvisational meal making is my favorite type of cooking.  Vacation style cooking, when hungry mouths are not crashing through the door with heavy backpacks full of books yelling, "I'm so hungry!  What can I eat???"  When I don't have to hurry up and get it all on the table before ballet class and baseball practice.  When I can make whatever I am craving regardless of children's tastes and aversions.  I don't have to hear, "Do I like that?  I don't think I like that!!"  Don't get me wrong, I enjoy making meals that others, especially my children, enjoy.  And I love the madness of the wild energy coursing through the walls of this house, the challenge of meeting everyone's needs, helping them to thrive.  But sometimes it's really nice to prepare and eat whatever I really want, without question or concern for anyone else's opinion or palate. While my nachos are hot and garnished to perfection, my cocktail is ice cold and many more bad television shows beckon. I can relax with my feet up for a few more hours of bliss before the hungry mouths return. This is truly a vacation.

Chilaquile Sauce
(Adapted from Chilaquiles by Rachael Ray)
Makes about 2 cups sauce

6 to 7 New Mexican dried chiles
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
1 small onion, chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 teaspoon paprika
1 teaspoon dried oregano
4 large cloves of garlic, chopped
1/2 cup water
1 cup chicken stock
1 (28 oz.) can diced tomatoes
2 teaspoons honey
1 teaspoon unsweetened cocoa powder

  Remove stems and seeds from dried chiles.  Place in a large skillet or pot and toast over medium heat for about 2 minutes.  Remove chiles and set aside.  Add oil to pan as well as onion and jalapeno.  Cook, stirring often until onion is softened, about 5 minutes.  Add the paprika, oregano and garlic.  Stir mixture and add water.  Allow the water to absorb then add chiles, chicken stock, tomatoes, honey and cocoa powder.  Stir to combine.  Simmer for about 10 minutes until chiles soften.  Remove mixture from heat.
  Puree mixture in batches in a blender or food processor.  Save about 3/4 cup of the sauce for nachos.  Refrigerate the rest in an airtight container.

Nachos for One 
(Can be adapted and expanded to feed more hungry people)

2 large handfuls tortilla chips
3/4 chilaquile sauce (see recipe above)
3 oz. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
2 tablespoons sour cream
1/2 avocado, chopped
1 tablespoon cilantro, chopped
hot sauce such as Cholula
any other nacho toppings you like: pickled jalapenos, chopped raw onion, etc.

  Preheat oven to 425 degrees.  Place one large handful of tortilla chips in a small skillet, pie plate, etc (anything that can go from oven to table) and top with half the chilaquile sauce.  Sprinkle half the cheese on top.  Top with remaining chips, sauce and cheese to create two layers.  Place in oven for 5-10 minutes until cheese is melted and bubbling.
  Remove from oven and top with sour cream, avocado, cilantro and a drizzle of hot sauce.  Add other toppings, if desired.  Serve warm with a fork.

Sweet 'n' Sour Margarita
(Serves one)

1 1/2 oz. tequila
1 1/2 oz.  pineapple juice
1 oz. lime juice (juice from 1 lime)

  Fill a martini glass with ice and water.  Set aside.  Fill a shaker with ice.  Pour tequila, pineapple juice and lime juice over ice in shaker.  Cover tightly and shake for a count of 10 until ice cold and your fingers begin to stick to the outside of the shaker.  Pour out the ice water in the martini glass.  Pour the contents of the shaker along with the ice into the chilled martini glass.  For a frothy cocktail, do not strain.  Enjoy.

Sunday, April 7, 2019

Hot Dog Night

Grilled hot dog in bun on a white plate with zucchini relish and French's Classic Yellow Mustard

 I indulge in a hot dog, once, maybe twice a year.  I need to be in the mood.  Usually, when I am feeling springtime in the air for the first time, after the long, cold winter, a breath of typical Cape Cod raw, dampness, sun shining a bit of warmth on my face as I rake leaves off the flower beds and begin to think about planting seeds for my tiny vegetable and herb garden patch by the deck.  This past Saturday was one of those days.  With temperature hitting 60 degrees, bright blue sky, very little wind rendering the water on the Child's River so calm it looked like glass.  On days like these, everyone, it seems, comes out of their houses as if finally emerging from a deep winter hibernation, neighbors walking dogs and sprucing up yards.  It was a good day to get moving on all the ideas I have accumulated and written on a never ending to-do list: Clean gutters, fix shed ramp, put out deck furniture, *LAWN*, etc, etc. But all I ended up doing was going for a long walk and upon arriving back at home, inspected the tiny growth of the daffodil bulbs I planted last fall poking through the dirt along the driveway and swept the sand that all those muddy boots left from the three steps that lead into the house.  I guess that was enough progress for the first beautiful, spring like day.
For all the meager progress on the yard and to-do list, I never thought ahead about dinner until I could smell brush burning coming from down the street which made me think about barbecues and summertime and hot dogs with blistering skins sizzling on the grill.
  "Remember hot dog night?"  Declan asked as he bit into his grilled dog, plain on a toasted bun, no condiments for him in spite of the array of mustards, relishes, ketchup and anything else you might imagine to dress up meat on a bun spread out on the table.
"We should bring that back."
  On Tuesday nights when the kids were little and Rob worked a second job at the gym down the street, leaving me to shuttle Ava and Declan to ballet and Tae Kwan Do scheduled at the same time, my dad, would step in to assist and in return, I invited him for an early dinner with me and the kids featuring hot dogs browned in a cast iron skillet, buns warmed in the toaster oven and whatever I could scrounge up to go along with this fancy feast: frozen corn or peas microwaved with butter and salt, a salad made from left over greens, tomatoes and cucumber and if I was really organized, perhaps potatoes, cubed, with skins on, tossed in olive oil, salt and pepper and roasted for 30 minutes in a hot oven.  "Grampa Dick" arrived during the mayhem of me yelling at the kids to get into their required uniforms, the dog barking and the hot dogs on the verge of burning.   He announced himself with a knock on the door; as I waved to him to come in, he greeted me with, "How can I help?"
  I poured glasses of milk and Grampa helped the kids serve their dogs, then he addressed his two hot dogs choosing from the various accouterments that were hastily tossed onto the table.  Piccalili made with cabbage from Val's garden, French's Classic Yellow Mustard, Dijon and Nance's, ketchup for Ava, Vlassic dill pickle relish and if I was able to stash any away, Zucchini relish made the summer before with bread and butter pickling spices, red peppers and zucchini also from Val's garden.  His technique: place all condiments inside the bun before topping them with the hot dog to secure all the additional tastes inside and insure that everything ends up in his mouth and not falling out onto his plate as he takes a bite.  Genius.  My dad's choices for dressing the hot dogs on his plate may have changed from week to week but without fail, every Tuesday night before he took his first bite, he would to declare to himself and anyone else who was listening:  "This is so grand!"
  I had forgotten how "grand" hot dog nights used to be.  A visit from Grampa, a short meal spent together to catch up before heading out the door for the kids' activities.  An easy dinner that satisfies everyone and if you are creative enough, week after week, no two hot dogs had to be the same: the combinations of condiments and dressings and sides are virtually endless.  Just about anything goes with a hot dog.  It's time to bring back hot dog night. So, if you come knocking on my door this Tuesday night, bring your appetite and get ready to dress up your hot dog.  It's going to be a wonderfully grand night!

Sunday, March 10, 2019

Birthday Dinner: "Chicken Parm"

store bought birthday cake

  I don't make chicken Parmesan or "chicken parm" as it will be called for the purposes of this story.  Not because I don't like it.  I actually love it.  I can't get enough of crispy, shallow fried chicken dressed with a tangy tomato sauce and melted mozzarella.  I don't make it based completely on principle.  I will not make it because of an incident that happened ten years ago, on my 40th birthday when I had to head to the supermarket to purchase my own birthday cake so that my little children could watch me blow out a candle on my big day.  Since it didn't look as if their father, my husband had made any plans to celebrate, it was entirely up to me to make this happen.  But while I was there, I thought about how I really did not want to make dinner on my own birthday and maybe, just maybe he would pick up on this if I just dropped a hint.  So, I called him while he was at work:

"Hi, what do you want for dinner tonight?"  I said in a hopeful tone.
"I don't know, how about chicken parm?"  He responded.  WTF?  He was clearly not getting my hint.
"Are you crazy??? I don't want to cook that on my birthday!!"  I shouted into the phone alarming all the old ladies shopping in the bakery section of Roche Bros. Supermarket.
"Well, how about something easy like roast chicken with rice and some vegetables?"  Such a stupid man, still clearly not understanding this situation, at all.  He has no ideas what it takes to just roast a chicken.
"Never mind.  I will think of something.  Bye."  I slammed my phone into my purse.  He was lucky I even ended the conversation by saying good-bye.  
 To his credit, my husband did call me back a few minutes later and offered to make a "stir-fry" which I declined since he had no idea how to make it.  But I did appreciate the thought.  Seriously, though, who would suggest that the birthday person should make a labor intensive dish like chicken parm on their own birthday for the rest of the family to consume?  Not to mention the fact that I was still in the process of purchasing my own cake.  I was pretty pissed off.
 Fast forward to the following year on my 41st birthday.
My husband, Rob, announced that he would be making dinner for my birthday and what would I like?  I quickly snapped:  "Chicken parm."  He looked at me blankly for a moment then asked where he might find such a recipe, as if this meal was in my normal, weekly repertoire. (It's not.) I promptly told him that I didn't know and opened a book and began reading, completely ignoring his puzzled expression.  I had been holding onto to this for a year now, just waiting for the right moment to get him back.  He was on his own for this one.  
  He knew that take-out or anything pre-made from the grocery store would not be acceptable to me and I did not offer any suggestions.  It would be entirely up to him to source recipes, ingredients and to figure it all out in the kitchen.  The pressure was on as I was clearly not in the mood for a meal that would only earn an "A" for effort.  This dish had to deliver or I would have to drink a lot of wine to get through it.
  When Rob is in the kitchen, on few occasions, but it happens, I prefer to stay away.  I don't want to see the various abuses to my favorite tools or the mess splattering and adhering itself to the stove top and walls.  Also, I was a little afraid for him of the final outcome.  Although I did manage a peek at a few pages printed out from the internet before he snatched them away and banished me to another room until dinner was ready.
  It seemed like an eternity, waiting to be called to the table.  The kids kept checking to see if I was spying, smells of sauteed garlic and olive oil wafted through the air and the sound of a mallet being slammed on the butcher block piqued my curiosity.  My senses told me that  this dinner certainly held some promise.  By the time I was finally asked to sit down, the wine was poured and I was served a perfectly golden crisp chicken breast, pounded thin, to an even thickness, coated with just enough tomato sauce and melted mozzarella, I was pretty convinced.  After taking the first bite, I was a full convert.  This meal was an achievement, worthy of the finest Italian restaurant located in the North End of Boston.  
  That's the problem with great accomplishments, people want you to repeat them over and over, again.  So, since my 41st birthday, I am sure you can guess what my birthday dinner request is and who is required to make it.  Since then, Rob still asks me every year, "What would you like me to make you for dinner on your birthday?"  And I still snap back in my sassiest tone, "Chicken parm."  Then I leave the room as if to make a point.  I don't offer to shop for ingredients or to figure out any part of the meal.  I leave it all up to him and the kids to make me the best chicken parm dinner I will have all year.  My mouth is watering just thinking about it.

  This is the recipe Rob uses every year to make his famous "Chicken Parm".  Please note, he leaves out the Cubano chili pepper in the sauce recipe.



4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, pounded thin
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
4 large eggs, beaten with 2 tablespoons water and seasoned with salt and pepper
2 cups panko bread crumbs
1 cup vegetable oil or pure olive oil
Tomato Sauce, recipe follows
1 pound fresh mozzarella, thinly sliced
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Fresh basil or parsley leaves, for garnish
Tomato Sauce:

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large Spanish onion, finely chopped
4 cloves garlic, smashed with some kosher salt to make a paste
Two 28-ounce cans plum tomatoes and their juices, pureed in a blender
One 16-ounce can crushed tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
1 bay leaf
1 small bunch Italian parsley
1 Cubano chile pepper, chopped  ***(Rob leaves this out)
Salt and freshly ground pepper

1.      Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.
2.      Season chicken on both sides with salt and pepper. Dredge each breast in the flour and tap off excess, then dip in the egg and let excess drip off, then dredge on both sides in the bread crumbs.
3.      Divide the oil between 2 large saute pans and heat over high heat until almost smoking. Add 2 chicken breasts to each pan and cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 minutes per side. Transfer to a baking sheet and top each breast with some Tomato Sauce, a few slices of the mozzarella, salt and pepper, and a tablespoon of Parmesan. Bake in the oven until the chicken is cooked through and the cheese is melted, about 5 to 7 minutes. Remove from the oven and garnish with basil or parsley leaves.
     Tomato Sauce:
  Heat olive oil in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and cook until soft. Add pureed tomatoes with their juices, crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, 1 cup water, bay leaf, parsley, Cubano pepper, and bring to a boil. Season, to taste, with salt and pepper. Reduce heat and cook until slightly thickened, about 30 minutes.