Sunday, November 17, 2019

Over the River and Along the Winding Coast of Maine

 



 It takes just about five hours to get to Camden, ME from here and another four hours to get to our final destination in Lubec, ME, but it always seemed so much longer a trip than that.  In fact, I always thought it was a twelve hour drive, and it could have been with all of the stops that we made and possibly a few wrong turns due to some navigation arguments.  We made the trip from Cape Cod to northern Maine to the eastern most town in the U.S. from pre-dawn to dusk on the day before Thanksgiving to visit my grandfather.
  I'm sure the goal was to leave by 4:30am, to get most of the driving done during the short amount of daylight in late November.  My father was always the one behind this grand idea.  But by the time everyone got settled into the car with our heavy winter coats locked in the trunk to make more room in the backseat for all three of us kids, it was probably closer to 5:30am.  As we made our way north, through the still sleeping city of Boston, I imagined what life was like in those tall buildings lit up like Christmas trees, and tried to read all of the billboards as we sped through the city.  Not long later, as the glamorous city life faded out of site, we eventually made our way to the big rest stop at the New Hampshire/Maine border and knew that we still had many miles and hours to go. 
  Camden was our lunch destination.  A tiny town on the coast with it's quaint harbor and main street of local shops.  It was at the harbor where my father parked the car and my mother took the red and white Playmate cooler out of the trunk so we could enjoy our homemade sandwiches as early as 10:30am, before any restaurant would possibly be ready to serve lunch.  We unwrapped chicken salad sandwiches on homemade white bread and got to drink a can of Coke or Ginger ale.  Wise Potato Chips were an extra treat, something we did not have regularly at home.  This was a special, once a year trip, after all.  To finish it all up, Val's chocolate chip cookies or brownies studded with semi sweet morsels, but these were an everyday affair as Val always made sure there were sweets in the house for us to snack on.  We probably walked around the harbor, checking out the fishing boats that were still in the water, ready to go out and get their catch.  It always seemed chilly after sitting in the hot car for so long, fighting for space with my brother and sister, trying to read a book to get through the long ride.  I'm sure my father could have stayed for hours, inspecting the skiffs, talking to fisherman, looking at ropes and nets and who knows what else, but my mother was eager to see her father whom she only got to visit maybe twice a year.
  Finally arriving in Lubec, after what seemed like many, many hours later, at the home my grandfather made with his wife, Norma was an event in itself.  The weather brisk, the sun beginning to set and Norma was hard at work putting the finishing touches on her ladies' hair in the shop that my grandfather built for her attached to their home where you could enter through a door in the living room.  We kids had to go in and meet the customers sitting in the chairs, vinyl black capes draped over them, hair in curlers.  They all seemed to know our names and ages and so much about us even though we had never met.  They said things like, "This must be Karyn!" when talking to my sister and asked me about second grade and my Brownie troop. It was a small town hair salon, where everyone shared everyone else's business, good, bad, happy and sad. 
  Hungry from our trip and itching to stretch our legs, we helped to bring the bags from the car to the upstairs bedrooms with the dark paneling where we would sleep under the eaves.  Then, we got to check out the drawer of sweets and homemade bread filled with Great Grammie's recipe for Date Filled Cookies, brownies, pumpkin bread and so many treats made by Elmira, Norma's cousin and other ladies from church groups and town clubs. There were not too many people who came from as far away as Massachusetts to visit Lubec very often and my grandfather made sure that pretty much everyone in town knew when we would be arriving. 
  The next day, on Thanksgiving, there was turkey and pies and all of the things that make the holiday special. On Saturday night, we had hot dogs and beans because that's what Grampie and Norma ate every Saturday night.  And early Sunday morning, we got ready to head back to Cape Cod.  Except for the long trip in the car, the arrival and the departure, the fine details of those Thanksgiving weekends are little fuzzy. I mostly remember the taste of chicken salad on my favorite bread of all time, the salty crunch of the potato chips at our  picnic on the harbor, the sweet softness of the date filling in the cookies, my grandfather's silliness, the fun and laughter from one of his endless pranks and Norma saying, "Oh Donald!" in exasperation.   Now, the farthest I travel with my own children to celebrate Thanksgiving is four miles down the road to Val's house.  There is so much in our culture about travelling on Thanksgiving: "over the river and through the woods" and as much as those trips to Maine are a special part of my childhood memories, I am so very glad that I don't have to go far to celebrate with family and friends.  I will just have to make my own picnic lunch on Wednesday, the day before, at Falmouth Harbor, instead.

Chicken Salad
(Makes enough for 4 sandwiches)


2 ribs celery
salt
black pepper
2 split chicken breasts (bone in, skin on)
celery salt
Hellman's mayonnaise (about 1/3 cup)

  Heat one inch water in a large sauce pan with a tight fitting lid.  Add 1 rib celery, 1 teaspoon salt and 1/2 teaspoon black pepper to the water.  Once the water boils, reduce to a simmer and add chicken breasts.  Cover tightly and cook for 10-15 minutes until meat is cooked through.  Remove from heat and keep chicken in pan with lid on for 5-10 minutes. 
  While chicken is resting, finely dice remaining rib of celery.  Add to a mixing bowl with 1 teaspoon celery salt and 1/4 teaspoon black pepper.  Remover meat from chicken bones, discard skin.  Finely chop chicken meat and add to the bowl.  Mix in just enough mayonnaise to hold chicken salad together.  Taste and adjust seasonings by adding more celery salt and/or black pepper.
  To make sandwiches, spread 1/4 chicken salad on one slice of bread and top with a second slice.  Cut in half and wrap in wax paper.  
  


Friday, November 1, 2019

Scalloping Season



  

 It's this time of year, usually while I am driving and I can allow my thoughts to drift for a moment.  I catch a glimpse out of the corner of my eye of cranberries in a flooded bog, ready to be harvested and the electric yellow, orange and red of the surrounding trees against a crystal clear blue sky and I recall late fall days at school, going to football games with friends and eating scallops, lots of scallops for dinner on what seemed like every night for weeks on end.
  Back in the late 1980's when I was still in high school, I remember my mother wearing my father's old jacket from his skating rink days, only taking it off to drive us to practice, pick us up from school or make dinner.  During these weeks of October, her days were spent opening scallops and the jacket kept her warm and protected from the gooey, snot like scallop guts that ended up in the trash bucket along with the shells.  Her task was to finish opening bushels and bushels of scallops, as many as a commercial license was allowed to procure before my father arrived home with more. This was a time when bay scallops were ridiculously plentiful and my father called it "a bonanza".  Each day, he left before dawn, in the crisp early fall air, took off in his boat, then returned in the late afternoon.  He unloaded his catch, the scallops heaped high in their baskets, shells clapping open and shut, making clicking noises and forcing the scallops on the top of the piles to tumble onto the concrete floor and continue there, clapping, slowly: open, shut, open, shut.



  My field hockey teammates and I were working on costume ideas for the upcoming Thanksgiving Day Parade.  Each high school class and fall sport made a float in the back of a pickup truck or on an old trailer used for hauling leaves and branches.  We decorated these vehicles with our school colors: maroon and white using crepe paper streamers, and poster boards designed with magic marker slogans meant to inspire our football team, the Falmouth Clippers to glory on Thanksgiving Day.   "Go Clippers!" "Beat Barnstable!" was about as creative as we got and we tired easily of the task, turning instead to a silly game of make shift field hockey in my dirt driveway, devouring the rest of Val's homemade chocolate chip cookie and goofing around.
  I'm still not sure if she was glad to take a break from all that scallop opening, her hands chapped and raw, tiny cuts along her fingers from the sharp shells and shucking knife, to help us make costumes for the float that year.  Her talent, along with cooking and gardening, has always involved the sewing machine for which I have many fantastic Halloween costumes and my sister has her wedding dress to show for it. We had hatched an idea to make angel and devil costumes featuring angels with maroon "F"'s on their costumes for Falmouth and red devils to represent our evil rival, Barnstable. Val mustered up what little patience she had left from her long day and helped us produce brilliant costumes amidst our teenage giggling and foolishness. I'm sure there are photographs somewhere documenting her hard work and all the fun we had as dressed as devils, we pretended to drag the float carrying the Falmouth Angels along main street the day before Thanksgiving to the pep rally at Fuller Field.
  Sadly, there is no longer a pre-Thanksgiving Day parade made up of Falmouth High School students, no longer a pep rally on that Wednesday.  The kids all have the day off from school and lots of families use the time to travel out of town.  There are not as many scallops in the bays, either.  Those "bonanza" days have passed, as the cycles of nature determine. But every October 1st, without fail, my father still gears up his boat and launches it in the early pre-dawn morning hoping for a mess of scallops to bring home for dinner.  I get excited when I see the local fish market marquee lit up with the words, "Bay Scallops".  It proves there still are some out there, hiding in the muck and sea grass they call home.  It's as if all is right in the world for a moment: the cranberries, the football games and the friendships just like they always were.

  If you can find them or you know a shell fisherman willing to give up some of their catch, this is the easiest and just about the most perfect way to prepare bay scallops.

      Broiled Scallops

shucked scallops, about 1/2 cup per person
butter
paprika

  Preheat broiler.  Lay the scallops in one even layer in a square, metal 8"x 8" pan.  Dot scallops with small pats of butter.  Sprinkle with paprika, salt and pepper.  Place under broiler for 3-5 minutes until scallops just begin to turn white and some of them begin to split on the edges.  Remove from oven and serve immediately.


Sunday, September 29, 2019

The Easiest Way to Grow Tomatoes


Red and yellow tomatoes on a flowered tray.
Perfectly ripe tomatoes.

  My garden, if you want to call it that, is overridden with weeds and flowers. Tall green leafy things suddenly sprout over night.  The Black eyed Susans which actually grow as if they are weeds, take over everything else that I attempt to deliberately grow in that small patch along the side of my house.  I like the flowers since it looks somewhat intentional.  So, I let them do what they want along with the nasturtium and zinnia.  The flowers seem to be the most successful of my plantings.  The kale is growing pretty well, too.  But these are plants that don't need any special care aside from watering when they are seedlings, so I can't really take much credit there.
  Tomatoes are another story.  I do not grow these from seed.  I take care to tie them up when the plants get tall enough.  I watch them closely.  But somehow, they just don't ever yield that much for me.  This year, I thought it would be different.  I purchased a few plants from Tina, a woman who sells starter plants at the Falmouth Farmers' Market every spring.  I figured I couldn't go wrong.  It all began so well, the plants were hardy.  They grew tall.  I tied them up.  They flowered and then the tiny green fruit came.  The fruit grew.  I checked every morning in anticipation.  Then one day, I found that something had eaten half of one of the tomatoes.  GRRRR.  Definitely not a rabbit, it was too high up.  Val suggested a raccoon.  No, my set up is so flimsy that a fat thief like that would likely pull it all down with its weight.  I tied tin pie plates and pinwheels to the stakes, hoping to deter squirrels.  But whatever that tomato eating varmint was, it was brave and wily enough to eat around my attempts to thwart it.
  Never mind.  I can and do always go to Val's for the best tomatoes, anyway.  Her rows of plants are neatly tied to strong metal netting and stakes.  Not a weed in sight along the well mulched paths between plants.  No, instead she has bright yellow, red and multi-colored Dahlias marking the rows of tomato plants.  It's ridiculously gorgeous and instagram worthy.  Maybe this is why I gave up the annoying task of weeding sometime back in July.  Because I know just down the street there is a garden paradise that I can access whenever I want?  The place where I pick juicy, red, ripe tomatoes that are not half eaten by raccoons or squirrels or whatever.  And if I don't have any time to pick them myself?  Well, somehow a small pile of them may magically appear on my kitchen counter while I am at work accompanied by a clipping from the local paper that she thought may interest me and my empty container that held the cookies I made for her last week.  That is definitely the easiest way that I know to grow tomatoes.


Sunlight on garden rows in late September
The heavens shining light on perfect rows of tomato plants

Flowers and plants growing in a country garden on Cape Cod
Strong metal stakes and wire netting keeping everything in check.

Garden Fresh Salsa
(makes a small bowl)

3 medium size ripe tomatoes
1 small jalapeno, ribs and seeds removed
1 small handful fresh cilantro or parsley leaves chopped to make about 1/4 cup
3 teaspoons olive oil
2 teaspoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon cider vinegar
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
tortilla chips 

  Cut the tomatoes in quarters and gently squeeze out any excess juice and seeds.  Chop the seeded tomatoes into tiny pieces.  Finely chop the jalapeno, leaving out the membrane and seeds, unless you like a lot of heat.  Add the chopped cilantro or parsley.  Mix in the olive oil, lemon juice, vinegar, sugar and salt.  Allow flavors to meld for about 20 minutes.  Serve with tortilla chips and margaritas.




Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Holding on to Summertime





paddle board and Adirondack chair in the summer sun
 
 What is it about August that I dislike so much?  The hot, humid heat in the early part of the month is a given.  The sweaty, sticky feeling of the oppressive air at 6:00am, just as the sun is rising letting you know that you're in for another day of being trapped in doors, a slave to the A/C or putting your chair in the water while watching your hooligans at the beach.  There is absolutely no relief other than spending all day in the freezer aisle of the supermarket which is its own quiet hell especially while this town is still packed to the gills with tourists. And those neon ice pops and 2 for 1 ice cream deals will lull you into to believing that frozen dairy is a substantial enough dinner.
  Or maybe it's the thought of going back to school, back to reality?  That dull weight of feeling that it's the end of the summer, the end of fun, the end of freedom, the end of long days spent reading on the beach, wading in the waves, daydreaming while laying in the cool grass and looking up at the clouds floating through the bluest of skies. Wait-is this how the kids feel, or is it really me?  The kids seem a little sad but ready.  Their excitement to get back to school, back to friends, back to fall sports is a feeling I knew so well.  It's electric, the anticipation of possibility and what the school year might bring.  Exciting.
  I used to love back to school when I was their age, too.  I even loved it when I worked in retail long before they came into my life.  All those fall colors, heavy sweaters, tall leather boots and cool new denim styles.  I couldn't get enough of it. And when the kids were little and took so much of my daily energy just to keep them happy, clean, fed- alive, I was glad to get a little rest when Tuesday after Labor Day came around, again. But now, not so much.

 house overlooking dock on a salt river on Cape Cod
 
  Maybe it's because they are getting older and it's becoming so obvious that they need me less and less.  I can see the end to all this back to school stuff in sight, now.  I feel a little sad this year.  Ava is going into her second year of high school and my little man, Declan is finishing jr high.  There are not many more "back-to-schools" left before the college years begin.
  If I could just somehow bottle it all up, keep it going forever, now that would be something, wouldn't it?  Keeping all the best times: jumping off the dock on a perfect sunny day, puffy clouds in the sky, a light breeze in the air, feet in the sand, and forgetting about the bad times: when your thirteen year old boy doesn't understand why you won't let him dive head first from 12 feet high into the murky salt water below.  Then pouts with his back to you until Gramma Val arrives to buy him an ice cream.  (All better, now.)  In an effort to hold onto all of it til the bitter end, I'm trying to pack it all in: a trip to the water park, a Labor Day party at Val's house, as many hours spent on the beach and paddle boarding as humanly possible.  There are only a few days left until September swallows summer up and lazy afternoons on the beach turn into after school cheering for the kids on grassy fields, homework and sweatshirts.

homemade cucumber pickles


  When I am really desperate to hold onto summer, I make pickles.  How else to preserve all that bounty from the garden?  This year, my little garden produced lots of cucumbers and not much else.  Feel free to sub out other vegetables for this quick pickle, such as green beans or fresh corn.  If you are canning to save all this garden goodness for later this winter, please consult the correct canning instructions such as those found here: https://www.bhg.com/recipes/how-to/preserving-canning/canning-and-preserving-charts/  Otherwise just quickly make this recipe and keep in the refrigerator.  Eat them within 2 weeks.

Quick Vegetable Pickle
(makes one 16 oz jar)

1 large cucumber, sliced 
1 jalapeno, sliced (remove seeds and membrane if you like it less spicy)
3/4 cup white wine vinegar
1/2 cup water
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt

  Pack sliced cucumbers and sliced jalapeno into a 16 oz canning jar.  Heat vinegar, water, sugar and salt until boiling.  Stir to dissolve sugar and salt.  Remove from heat and pour slowly over cucumbers and jalapeno in jar.  Allow to cool.  Cover tightly and store in refrigerator.  Enjoy within 2 weeks.










Friday, August 2, 2019

The Saga of the Summertime Berry Tarte


berry tarte with flower pie crust cut outs and knife

 I've written about all of this before in stories about my personal issues with being competitive: http://www.notesfromvalskitchen.com/2008/07/andrea-norris-aka-sarah-vallely-or-whos.html and how I have passed these tendencies onto my own children:   http://www.notesfromvalskitchen.com/2017/07/best-in-show.html
For a while, I was able to let most of it go, to mainly support my children in their efforts. I matted and framed various pieces of their artwork, helped them come up with recipes and even assisted pulling hot baked goods out of the oven when the timer went off if the cook was a  little too scared to handle it.  But this year, I could not quell the urge.  I needed to enter something in the Barnstable County Fair and I really wanted to win a blue ribbon.
  I have been craving and working on various pie projects throughout the year.  Pinterest, other cooking blogs and instagram have stoked the flame of trying to attain perfection or at the very least, some very tasty treats.  In February, when I am at my most bored, I entered a pie contest thrown by Providence Performing Arts Center in honor of their production of "Waitress", a musical about love and pie.  Although the person in charge of entries emailed back with a very positive response, I heard nothing else about my sweet/tart "Pucker Up Pie" made with a raspberry Nilla Wafer crust, a tart lemon filling and raspberry whipped cream on top.  I am still wondering what the winning recipe was. I have been tinkering with savory pies topped with roasted red peppers and caramelized onions, sweet hand pies with peaches and raspberries and even brought out some old stand by's like strawberry rhubarb and apple.  So, it should come as no surprise that I thought I would be up to the task of taking home a blue ribbon from the Barnstable County Fair with a pie creation this year.
  Inspired by so many pretty pie photos on the internet, decorative tops of pie crust cut out leaves and flowers and dusted with sugar, cooked until golden brown, I decided that this creative touch could mean the difference when it comes to winning.  Also, I wouldn't make a traditional American pie, instead, I went with a more "European" style tarte but still using regular pie crust.  My test tarte looked beautiful as it went into the oven, pretty cut out flowers adorned the top of it, filled with blueberries and strawberries.  And when it came out, bubbling fruit juices and crispy, flaky crust, it looked good, too, except for those pesky purply colored blueberry drips that ran down the sides.  I decided I could perfect this and felt confident that all would be well with another tarte I would actually deliver for judging.
  An interesting story must have some sort of conflict.  The second tarte that was supposed be absolutely gorgeous, showing ultimate pie baking skills and  without any fruit juice drips, was not what I expected.  Sure, it was pretty and looked scrumptious but those darn blueberry stains dripping down the sides of the crust, sent me stomping out of the kitchen.  There was no way I had time to recover before the baked entries were due on Monday morning at 8:00am.
 That night, in bed,  I tossed and turned and kept myself up way past midnight trying to think of a recipe that was creative and delicious enough to grab me a top prize.  I finally came up with one: scones made with white and dark chocolate and studded with dehydrated strawberries.  I called them, "Strawberries Love Chocolate Scones" because I believe that a good name can help my cause. 
  When I woke up at 5:00am on Monday morning, I got to work right away and popped the scones in the oven, typed up the recipe, drizzled the scones with chocolate and decorated them with strawberries.  I was ready just in time with my scones and the kids' entries: S'Mores Cake made by Ava and Declan's  "Breakfast Candy": caramels made with maple syrup and bacon.  As Ava and I gently loaded up the car as not to jostle any of our delicate work, Ava asked my where my tarte was.
"Oh, I don't think I am going to enter it.  It doesn't look perfect." I said, trying not to sound as deflated as I felt.
"Mom, it's not supposed to.  The contest is for amateurs, not professionals.", she said.
So true.  And I was acting a little like a prima donna, not at all setting a good example for the kids, especially when I nearly had a tantrum the night before over the whole thing.  I begrudgingly went in the house and quickly wrapped up my "Summertime Berry Tarte".  "At least, I should win something for my scones.", I thought to myself.
  The ladies who take in all the baked items before judging fawned over the tarte and were equally upbeat about the scones but their excitement is no indication of winning.  They are just happy to be allowed to taste some of the entries once the judges are through.  As I walked out the door, I knew I needed to release my mental hold on winning.  So, I did my best to put it out of my mind until Thursday, when we would be back to enjoy the fair: the junk food, the rides, the petting zoo and perhaps, the prizes.
  This story ends with me beating myself up for being my own worst critic.  Clearly the judges felt differently about my scones and my tarte.  Those what-I -thought-would-be blue ribbon winning scones, only won a red, second place ribbon, beaten out by some fancy red and green sprinkled cookies. But the tarte was the real break out surprise.  They awarded highest scores for flavor, texture, uniform shape, degree of difficulty and even neatness/appearance.  I guess there is something to be said about an amateur attempt at making something delicious even if it is not absolutely perfect in every way.  My being ridiculously overly competitive with myself to the point of almost self sabotage is not my best showing through.  So, let me please remember this as I gaze upon the fancy red, white and blue ribbon bestowed upon my work.  And let me come up with something even better for next year's competition.

Feel free to substitute other berries or even use chopped peaches and plums.  Just be aware, those fruit juices tend to drip down the sides during baking, no matter what you do to try and stop it from happening.

Summertime  Berry Tarte
(makes one tarte)

Tarte dough:
1 cup All Purpose flour, plus more for rolling out
1/3 cup Crisco
2 tablespoons cold butter
pinch of salt
¼ cup water

Filling:
1 cup fresh or frozen strawberries
1 cup fresh or frozen blueberries
1/3 cup sugar
1 ½ teaspoons cornstarch
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
pinch of salt

3 tablespoons milk or cream
¼ cup turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.  Using a large mixing bowl, combine
1 cup flour, Crisco, butter and salt with a pastry cutter until small, pea
size pieces form.  Slowly add water and combine until mixture comes
together and cleans sides of bowl.  (You may not need all of the water.)
Form dough into a round and wrap with plastic.  Place in refrigerator.

In another bowl, combine berries, sugar, cornstarch, nutmeg and salt. 

Remove dough from refrigerator.  Roll out on a floured board to
approximately 12” in diameter.  Gently place rolled out dough over an
8” tarte shell, laying the dough inside and touching the bottom of the
tarte pan.  Using a rolling pin, roll over the top of the tarte pan to cut
the dough.  Set the tarte pan on top of a rimmed baking sheet lined with
parchment.  Pour the fruit filling inside the tarte shell.  Using very small
cutters such as the type for cake decorating, cut out flowers and leaves
with the leftover rolled out dough.  Brush each cut out with milk and
place in a decorative pattern over the fruit in the tarte shell.  Continue
until the tarte is completely decorated.  Sprinkle turbinado sugar over
the top of the decorations and fruit.  Bake in the oven for 40-45 minutes
until the edges of the dough are golden and fruit is bubbling.  Remove
from oven and allow to cool for at least 2 hours before serving.

blue ribbon and best in show ribbon



 

Tuesday, July 23, 2019

Miss Kentucky


    My friend, Deb loves winter.  She spends most of it at her escape home in New Hampshire where she gets her fill of downhill and cross country skiing, fireside dinners and snuggling under heavy blankets to keep warm.  But summer on Cape Cod is really where it's at for this Irish-American girl with roots in Kentucky. 
  Without fail, every year, on July 4th, at the annual Quissett village parade complete with decorated antique cars and kids on bikes tossing candy to spectators, she laments, "Summer is almost over!" as she waves a flag and cheers on the bagpipes and folks dressed in Revolution era costumes.
  Ah, no.  It's really just beginning as the kids have only been out of school for a week.  But Deb likes to make the most of everything.  To squeeze out every moment and enjoy it all to its fullest.
  So, here I am writing during the last week of July, reminding her (and me) that we are actually only half way through at this point on the calendar.  There is so much more fun to be had, sunsets on the beach, midday dips in the ocean , cucumbers and tomatoes fresh from the garden and ice cream heaped on cones dripping down our arms.
  We should all have a friend like Deb.  I can stop by anytime, still wearing my bathing suit at 6pm, dirty, sandy beach feet that I have not yet had time to rinse off and a messed up head of hair from my large brimmed beach hat.  It is summer, after all.  So, when she says, "Tap on over for a drink."  while Ava is at dance (tap) class down the street from her home, I don't hesitate.  I know she means it.
  I love that Deb puts together sliced salami, sharp cheddar cheese, pepperoncini and Ritz crackers.  I bring my new creation, "Fancy Cocktail Popcorn" to test out on her because I know she is game to try just about anything I make. She drags a wooden bench next to two Adirondack chairs on the terrace by her front door where marigolds, lavender and parsley are mingled together in over sized terracotta pots, white lights strung on the pergola overhead and a fan, plugged in and placed by our feet to compensate for the sticky summer heat and lack of a breeze on this late July evening.
  In honor of Deb's Kentucky heritage on her mom's side, I created a cocktail with bourbon and gently sweetened peach iced tea.  Mint and frozen raspberries and peach slices round it out and dress it up.  Although, it's really Craig, her husband and high school sweetheart, who is the whiskey drinker, Deb embraces the concept of a Kentucky bourbon or even and Irish whiskey cocktail to honor her ancestors on both sides of her family.  She praises how pretty the drink looks as I snap a few photos.  She takes a few tiny sips but I know, that she is ready to switch over to her signature beverage: Kendall-Jackson Chardonnay poured over a large wineglass filled with ice. 
 We savor the moment on this summer night, have a quick catch-up, then it's time for me to get going to pick up Ava from class.  I think about the perfect ending to this hot, humid July day.  It is just about over and I'm ready to get out of my bathing suit and into my pajamas.  As the sun begins to set behind the tall pines in Deb's yard, I back the car out of her driveway, take a deep breath and think to myself, "I'm so glad this summer is far from over."

  This is a refreshing way to drink bourbon on a hot summer night.  Named in honor of my dear friend who's mother hails from Kentucky.  
  
Miss Kentucky
(makes one cocktail)

 1 1/2 oz. bourbon
4 oz. sweetened peach iced tea (see recipe that follows)
1/2 oz. lemon juice
4-6 mint leaves, plus a few for garnish
frozen peach slices 
frozen raspberries
ice

  Fill a shaker full of ice.  Add bourbon, iced tea and lemon juice.  Crush mint leaves in your hands and add to shaker.  Shake vigorously for 30 seconds until your hands stick to the shaker.  Strain into an ice filled rocks glass.  Garnish with extra mint leaves, peach slices and raspberries.

Sweet Peach Iced Tea
(makes 18 oz.)

4 Celestial Seasonings Country Peach Passion tea bags
18 oz. boiling water
1 tablespoon honey

  Steep the tea bags in a large heat proof container of boiled water for a few hours until cooled to room temperature.  Remove tea bags and discard.  Mix in honey until dissolved.  Store tea in a covered container in the refrigerator for up to one week.


 
 

Friday, July 12, 2019

Peach Melba Hand Pies

  

  Val used to make mini turnovers filled with homemade jam out of the leftover pie crust while she was assembling one of her pies.   These turnovers weren't fancy.  They were often odd shapes as they were made from the trimmings of the pie crust.  It didn't matter to her.  The pie was really the star of the show.  The leftover crust dough would have been tossed out in the compost, but she had three kids who inevitably began creeping around the kitchen whenever she set foot in its direction.  So, she took the discarded pieces, plopped a small amount of jam on each one and folded them over, finishing each one off using the tines of a fork to crimp the edges.  She put these in the oven along with the pie and pulled them out before the pie was finished.  Once they came out and cooled for as long as we kids could stand to wait, she let us snack on the delectable morsels with their now molten filling burning our little impatient tongues.  This kept us from asking for a slice of her beautiful pie before she was ready to serve it.
  At this time of year (summer) the pie flavor was strawberry rhubarb, peach or even blueberry.  The effort required to turn out a perfect pie crust on a hot, humid summer day and have it come out flaky and light then baking it in a high temperature oven, thus heating up the entire house to unbearable was quite a feat.  But Val was always up to the challenge, knowing that even just one bite of one of her award winning pies would make it all worth it.  So, it was usually for a special occasion or gathering when Val got out her mixing bowl and pastry cutter on a sticky late July day.
  Of course, Val's pie always stole the show on the dessert table at any event.  She would wait to slice that gorgeous creation with the perfectly latticed top, lightly browned to perfection until dessert was served.  Well after all the hungry husbands oohed and awed over it, practically drooling just thinking about the crispy, flaky crust and soft, sweet, layered fruit inside.  Their wives pulling them away by the arm while the ladies peppered Val with questions like, "How do you have the time to bake?" and "Is that crust homemade?"  As if it could or would ever be store bought.
  The crust is the elusive magic, any pie baker will tell you.  It can behave badly in humid weather and requires a light hand.  For heaven's sake, don't overwork it!  The crust is the part that I crave the most-with just enough fruit filling maybe that's why I think about those scrappy little turnovers so much?  A good crust to filling ratio is essential to my ideal pie and some crispy sugar on top seals the deal.
  I'm not sure of the exact year that Val won one of her many blue ribbons at the Barnstable County fair for Peach Melba Pie but you can bet it had a lot of admirers clamoring for the recipe.  Sweet, firm peaches and bright, red raspberries nestled under that golden crust that gently cracked when sliced.  We were excited that Val won but saddened by the fact that we wouldn't get a slice of the pie since the judges probably devoured all of it.  But I am sure that we got to eat the turnovers, probably gobbled them all up before the blue ribbon winner came out of the oven.

  The idea for these little hand pies came from those yummy jam turnovers.  Just the right size to savor while standing in the kitchen. no fork or plate needed.  Of course, I can't  resist using up all the pie dough scraps.  My version of keeping everyone at bay while baking the main event is topping them with cinnamon and sugar and baking them like pie crust cookies.

Peach Melba Hand Pies
(Makes 12)

Crust:
2 cups AP flour plus extra for rolling out
2/3 cups vegetable shortening (Crisco)
4 tablespoons cold butter
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup cold water

  Place 2 cups flour, shortening, butter and salt in a large bowl.  Using a pastry cutter, work the ingredients together until small, pea size pieces form.  Make a mound with the mixture and make a hole in the middle.  Pour 1/4 cup water over mound and blend with a fork.  Add more water and continue blending until mixture pulls away from the sides of the bowl.  Do not overwork!
  Form two rounds.  Place on a heavily floured board and roll out with a floured rolling pin.  Cut round pieces out of the pie dough using a 4 1/2" cutter ( I use a can from a large pineapple juice that is about 4 1/4" in diameter.)  Place cut rounds onto a parchment lined baking sheet.  Collect scraps and place to the side.  Continue by rolling out second round of pie dough and cutting into about six more smaller rounds.  Lay a sheet of parchment over the first six and stack the second six on top.  Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 15 minutes or up to 24 hours.  Trim scraps into square-ish shapes and layer onto another parchment lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for 15 minutes to 24 hours.

Filling and finishing touches:
3 cups fresh or frozen sliced peaches
1 cup fresh or frozen raspberries
2/3 cup sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup turbinado sugar

1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1-2 tablespoons milk or cream

  Preheat oven to 400 degrees.
  Remove pie crust rounds from refrigerator.  Grease a 12 cup standard size muffin tin.  Lay each one of the cut rounds into the muffin tin, pushing down and gently folding the dough so that it fits and will hold the filling.  Mix peaches, raspberries, sugar, cornstarch and salt gently in a medium size mixing bowl.  Fill each of the pie crust in the muffin tin with the mixture.  Bake for 20 minutes until the edges of the pie crusts are golden and the fruit filling is bubbling.  
  Meanwhile, combine 1 tablespoon sugar and 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon in a small bowl.  Remove square-ish scraps from refrigerator and brush each one with a small amount of milk or cream.  Immediately sprinkle with sugar and cinnamon mixture.  Place in oven and bake for 10-15 minutes until edges are golden.  Remove from oven and snack on these until pies are ready.
 When the peach pies are beginning to turn golden around the edges, after about 20 minutes of baking, remove from oven and sprinkle each pie with some turbinado sugar on the filling.  Place back in oven and bake for an additional 5 minutes until edges of pie crusts are gently browned.  Remove from oven and allow to cool in muffin tin for about 20 minutes.  Gently remove each hand pie and serve. 



Friday, June 21, 2019

Strawberry Gourmand

  Something should have stopped me from buying all those strawberries but when it comes to fresh, native berries, I really do not have any willpower, at all.  And, when Val and my aunt, Janet offered to help pick them, well, how could I say, "No."?  The berries were practically leaping into the boxes I brought.  Probably too many boxes, I realize now.  But it's just so damn exciting to go strawberry picking at Andrews' Farm after a long New England winter.  Let's just say that I really supported the local agriculture that day.  Six flats of berries at only $3.99 per pound is a steal but that doesn't mean I didn't break the bank a little bit. 
lots of little strawberries

  "What are you going to do with all of these?" my aunt asked.  She had a large container for herself that I am sure will be gobbled up by the time she gets to her home in New Hampshire.  Val planned to share her one flat of berries, as well.  I was going to make jam and stash some berries in my freezer along with some of Val's rhubarb for when I really need a fix next February in the form of a strawberry rhubarb pie. Although I suffered a small hit of sticker shock, I did not realize at the point of sale that I probably did not need all that I had hoarded. 
  Once I got home, I began to analyze my haul.  It turns out, two flats would likely have been enough.  So, now what?  After making a double batch of Val's recipe for strawberry jam, freezing multiple berries on sheet pans and stashing some in the refrigerator for immediate consumption, I still had two full flats left.  I was a glutton.  I was obviously greedy.  Now, I had to pay by coming up with creative ways to utilize this delectable, delicate fruit.  It would be the ultimate sin to let it go to waste.
  My right hand was already stained deep red, and my left thumb and forefinger sore from the scraping of the paring knife as I hulled and cut up each berry.  As I continued to work: washing, hulling, cutting, I remembered I have a dehydrator for fruits and vegetables.  After dusting it off and slicing enough berries to fill four trays, I plugged it in and inhaled the strawberry aroma it gave off in my office where it's whirring fan did the job of shrinking and concentrating the essence of strawberry in each piece.  The result is intense strawberry flavor for cookies, cakes and even to dress up a bowl of breakfast cereal.  But wait!  I still had a lot more berries to use and they seemed to be getting riper as the day wore on. 
  So, I roasted some in the oven with balsamic vinegar, a touch of sugar and a pinch of salt.  Not sure yet, how I will use these.  Perhaps on a cheese plate to drizzle over a slice of brie cheese or some homemade ricotta?  Sounds good to me.  And last but not least, today I made some strawberry syrup from berries macerated in sugar and lemon juice.  I cooked the juices down then added some pomegranate syrup, black pepper and a pinch of salt, an idea I lifted from one of the many jam making cookbooks I have on my shelves.  This proved to be a nice addition to my Rhubarb Margarita recipe, another springtime ritual that I look forward to but hopefully have the foresight to put on the brakes early, before I overindulge.
  After two days of picking, washing, hulling, slicing and processing berries, I hope I have learned my lesson.  Less is not necessarily more but I should slow down when it comes to strawberry picking.  It's early in a summer season full of so many of my favorite produce.  My freezer is already pretty full and I need to save room on my basement shelves for pickles and other preserves from the garden.  It's important to pace myself considering all the abundance that summer on Cape Cod promises.  Now, if I can just remember this lesson in August when the tomatoes are heavy on the vine...

homemade strawberry jam on a porch table


  This jam tastes like my childhood.  Every time I make it and take the first bite while testing a batch, it brings me back to elementary school lunchtime:  peanut butter and jelly sandwiches on Val's homemade bread neatly wrapped in wax paper.   

Val's Strawberry Jam
(makes 7 six ounce jars)

2 quarts fresh strawberries, crushed to measure 4 cups
7 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon butter
1 pouch liquid pectin

  Wash and hull berries, place in a large bowl.  Crush berries, leaving large chunks.  Measure fruit into a 6-8 quart pot.  Add sugar.  Mix thoroughly.  Add butter to reduce foaming.  Bring mixture to a full rolling boil over high heat while stirring constantly.  Quickly stir in pectin.  Bring back to a full rolling boil.  Continue to stir constantly and boil for one full minute.
  Remove from heat.  Skim off and discard all foam using a large metal spoon.  Immediately fill sterilized jars leaving 1/8" head space at top.  Carefully wipe mouth of each jar with a damp cloth then cover with sterilized lids and rings.
  To process: place each jar in a canning pot and cover top of each jar with at least 2 inches of water.  Bring water to a rolling boil and boil for 10 full minutes.  Turn off water and allow to rest for 5 minutes before removing jam jars from water.  Allow jam to rest overnight.  The next day, check that each seal is secure.  If a seal is loose, refrigerate that jar of jam and use within 2 weeks.  Otherwise, jam is best consumed within a year. Store in a cool, dry place.



Saturday, May 25, 2019

"Springtime" on Cape Cod


rhubarb crisp in cast iron pan with lilacs in the background



  No.  No, lady in the fancy SUV checking on the builder's progress of her new summer house overlooking the water in the much fancier part of my neighborhood.  No, it is not summer, yet.  She yelled out her window to me as she drove by while I was enjoying a brief spot of sunshine while on a short walk after work.
"Summer has come!" she bellowed.
I found her enthusiasm and her ignorance to be totally annoying.  I know that it can be exciting to see the sun after approximately thirty strait days of rain in April and that this afternoon the temperature has finally hit 65 degrees and it is an incredibly gorgeous day but this is only the second week in May... on Cape Cod.  Don't get too excited.
  The summer solstice marking the first day of summer is more than a month away.  And, as I just said, we are on Cape Cod. Anyone who has lived here for at least one or two spring seasons knows absolutely for sure that "there is no spring on the Cape."
  My father coined the phrase while working most of his adult life outside in all types of weather, repairing poles and electrical wires, dealing with wind, rain, snow and hot sunny days with barely a breeze.  A bitter cold day in February never seemed to bother him that much but rainy, raw days in late March, April and even late into May sends a chill into his bones. Still now, when he goes shell fishing, a most enjoyable pursuit in his retirement, he only selects the best days to go, often abandoning many of the miserable springtime days to working on a project under the cover and warmth in his workshop.
  Every parent of a baseball or lacrosse player knows of  the bone chilling temperatures, the wet dampness, the mist that seems like nothing at first, then ends up drenching all spectators and players by the end of the game.  They know of never really getting warm again after the sun dips behind the trees and the game is finally called.  They all rush to their cars to blast the heater on frozen hands and feet.  This is why I keep my winter coat in my car along with multiple heavy blankets, umbrellas, hats and gloves. Pity the poor mother who just got a pedicure in the early afternoon while the sun felt so warm and decided to wear flip-flops to the game, her feet now frozen and blue.  This is why heavy socks and big ugly rain boots is my main fashion statement during baseball season.
  I watch impatiently for seedlings to grow in my tiny garden and cross my fingers that there will be no late frosts once I decide to go for it and plant my herbs outside.  At his moment of the fancy lady's pronouncement,  the daffodils have barely gone by and the lilacs are still tight buds, they have yet to fully open and scent the air.  So, no, lady with the ridiculously large new house that will block everyone else's view of the ocean, I disagree with your blissfully silly remark but I understand your exuberance.  Yes, this afternoon of glorious sunshine is to be celebrated but don't pack your winter clothes away.  Make sure your umbrella, hat and gloves are at the ready and for heaven's sake don't wear sandals after 4:00 pm if you plan to attend any early evening outdoor sports event.  This is "springtime" on the Cape and I am sure Mother Nature is not done kicking our asses-just yet.

  Rhubarb is one of the only native fresh produce that grows in early springtime on Cape Cod.  It's bright, tart taste mixed with sugar makes a sweet and sour dessert that is delightful when topped with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.


Rhubarb Crisp
(serves 6)


6 cups chopped rhubarb
1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 teaspoons cornstarch
1/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger 
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg


1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup flour
1/2 cup quick cooking rolled oats
1/8 teaspoon salt

  Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
  Mix together rhubarb, granulated sugar, ginger and nutmeg.  Mix the cornstarch and orange juice to make a slurry and pour over the rhubarb.  Mix to combine.  Pour rhubarb mixture into an 8"x 8" baking dish or an 8" cast iron pan.
 Mix butter, brown sugar, flour, rolled oats and salt.  Cut butter into mixture using 2 knives or break off butter pieces with your hands until mixture is in crumbles.  Spread over fruit.  Bake in oven for 50-60 minutes until top begins to brown and fruit juices are bubbling along the edges.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for about 20 minutes.  Can be served hot or at room temperature with ice cream, whipped cream or straight out of the pan by the spoonful.

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)

ice
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.


      

     Ingredients:

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.