Sunday, January 31, 2016


I bought seeds the other day.
The woman behind me in line commented, "Wow, you're hopeful."
Her tone implied that she did not approve of my purchase on such a blustery, January day.  The look on her face said, "How dare you imagine the ground thawing, daffodils blooming, while it's 15 degrees out and the wind is is so strong it makes your eyes water and your nose run?" 
To tell the truth, I set out to buy a new winter hat.  I was already tired of wearing my favorite one that does not smoosh down my hair.  It's very important to me that my hair does not get smooshed, so finding the right hat to add to my wardrobe is challenging and requires a lot of legwork.  When the wind is whipping down the back of my neck and the tips of my ears are cold because I forgot my favorite hat at home, it makes me think of looking for a hat.  It does not make me think of buying seeds to plant in the early spring. But I didn't tell her that.
I'm not sure if it is intentional that the seeds are displayed adjacent to the cold winter wear.  Probably not as this is a discount store filled with a hodge-podge of merchandise from patio chairs to bagels and bed sheets and power drills.  But upon just seeing the neatly organized shelves of small paper packages adorned with brightly colored photographs of every flower you can possibly grow in coastal New England (and at 40% off!!), how could I resist?
At first, I thought I would pick up a few packages of seeds for cold weather greens like spinach and Swiss chard, the ones I would plant right away in April.  That's reasonable, right?  But then, I decided, "No, get it ALL now."  Who knows when I will remember to come back?  Who cares what I already have at home in my seed collection stashed in an old shoe box?  So, I didn't just buy some seeds.  I bought so many seeds I could barely carry all the little packages without dropping a few every step I took as I made my way to the register.  I must have appeared deranged as I unloaded my arms and dumped packets of marigolds, lettuce, green beans, snap peas and every herb you can imagine growing onto the counter for the cashier to ring up.  I'm sure that snotty customer who stepped in line behind me thought I was as crazy as someone who buys a snow shovel during a heat wave in July.  But I really didn't care.  I just responded,
"At this price, if you don't get them now, the seeds will be gone when you're ready!"
 Who is the wacko now?

Since it's far too early to plant seeds to grow my own, I'm thankful to find beautiful bunches of Swiss chard in the supermarket at this time of year.  I like to sautee it with garlic and add a dash of balsamic vinegar.  It adds some spring time freshness and some zing to any winter dinner.

Sauteed Swiss Chard
(serves 4)

1 large bunch Swiss chard
2-3 cloves garlic
2 teaspoons olive oil
salt and pepper
1-2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Wash and dry Swiss chard.  Tear the leaves from the stems.  Chop the stems into 1/2" pieces and tear or chop the leaves to 2" pieces.  Dice the garlic cloves.  In a medium to large size skillet, heat the olive oil on medium.  Add the garlic and chard stems and cook until softened (about 3 minutes).  Add the leaves.  Toss in the hot oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper.  Cover pan and let the leaves wilt for about 2 minutes.  Uncover, add the balsamic and toss to coat.  Serve immediately.
Also great tossed with crumbled goat cheese!

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

A Big Pot of Chili

 I do love a party.  A gathering, a get-together.  Having friends over for dinner.  This must somehow stem from the Saturday nights of my childhood when Val would invite her friends over for a simple meal and a heated game of Scrabble or sometimes, penny poker.  After we kids ate dinner, we ran around, listened to the new original Grease Movie soundtrack (double album!), "Beauty School Drop Out" (side one)  over and over again on my record player in the bedroom I shared with my sister Karyn. 

 We plotted tricks to play on the younger ones while the adults picked over a batch of Anne's Pineapple Chicken Wings, drank wine and beer (a Classic Coke for Val) and gossiped.  They cleared the table and set out the old board game with it's smooth wooden tiles. The competition seemed to go on for hours. Occasionally, there was a loud uproar over a "challenge" and an overly dramatic call for the heavy, hard covered Webster's dictionary kept upstairs on a bookshelf with other important reference books. All of the kids clamored down the stairs to watch the fireworks fly as the outcome was decreed. Was it really a word or not? These were high stakes games with bragging rights for the winner until next the next time when that person would hopefully be dethroned.  Wild times on Old Meeting House Road.
I used to love running into the kitchen, whispering in my mother's ear and interrupting the "adult conversation" to ask for a cookie and yet another glass of  Cott Cream Soda- a treat that we only got to have on such special occasions.  The goings on around the dining table, the raucous scrabble game, it was all so foreign to me.  It was as if I had discovered a secret society taking place right there in my own home.  Val usually agreed to my request if only to shoo me away and get back to discussing the topic at hand which was likely inappropriate for children lest we repeat our own version back at school on Monday.  The kids could always count on getting away with eating far to many homemade chocolate chip cookies and drinking the entire liter of soda while staying up way past our normal bedtimes.  That and listening to my sister's clock radio at full blast up in our bedroom, making up new disco moves and dropping cookie crumbs all over the floor. We all loved a good party.
So, it seems fitting that on January 1st, when the big letdown begins and the holiday hangover sets in, that I decide to pull out all the stops.  Nothing delays the doldrums and post vacation ennui like a big pot of chili and a handful of friends to share it. Margaritas don't hurt, either...all the mothers who spent the last 10 days with kids at home for Christmas break, agree with me on that one.  By the way, Chambord makes a nice, sweet contrast to the tartness of the lime and bite of tequila. (Please see Mommy's Favorite Margarita ). Tex-Mex on the menu can really mean anything:  along with the chili,  something BBQ, queso dip and lots of tortilla chips for the kids to nibble on.  Of course, there must always be desserts, too.  But I got increasingly tired as my preparations wore on and I couldn't really come up something that was a good match for my menu.  So, I made my usual lazy treat: S'mores Bars.  They were a hit along with Karyn's gluten free brownies and an assortment of leftover holiday cookies which I was glad to be rid of.  Kids and most adults will really eat anything sweet.
The afternoon was a blast and the weather cooperated so the boys and some of the girls (after changing out of their sparkly, party clothes) spent a good 5 hours playing football in the yard until Billie managed to kick a field goal so high, the ball ended up wedged in the highest oak tree.  But that didn't deter their energy as they quickly shifted to a spirited game of hide and go seek, behind the house, under the deck, with numerous breaks for sugary snacks and sodas pilfered from the cooler kept outside (no space in the fridge).  Once the sun hit the horizon to the west, we drained our margarita glasses and I packaged up the leftovers for Dick to have for lunch the next day.  My last guest to leave was my foodie friend who brings his slippers as a practice (why not be truly comfortable?) and enjoys sharing his half opened bottles of wine with me.  I later learned that he lied to me when he said he was bringing quite a large handful of chocolate dipped oranges (he cleaned out the bowl)  to his ailing wife who was huddled up at home with a fierce head cold.  It has just recently come to light that she does not like any sort of candied fruit.  Of course, the whole incident made me laugh as I am flattered by his deception to keep all the oranges for himself.  Even more flattering and fun is the fact that everyone stayed well past the designated time for the party to end and just about every morsel of food was devoured.  I hope they all enjoyed themselves as much as I did.  Now to plan for February....

 Spicy Turkey Chili 
(Serves 8)

3 tablespoons canola oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 chili in adobo sauce, chopped
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 medium jalapeno, diced (seeds and ribs removed, unless you like a lot of heat)
2 teaspoons granulated onion
2 teaspoons granulated garlic
3 teaspoons chili powder
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 package ground turkey meat
12 oz. lager (I use Bud Light)
1 32 oz. can crushed tomatoes 
1 cup chicken stock
2 cans black beans, rinsed

Heat the oil on medium high in a large pot. Add the onion and saute until translucent. Season with salt and black pepper. Add the chili in adobo, minced garlic cloves, and jalapeno.  Cook, stirring often until softened.  Add all the spices (granulated onion-cayenne pepper).  Cook and stir until mixture forms a sludge.  Add turkey meat and cook until browned on edges, breaking up the meat into chunks.  Add lager and reduce to half.  Add tomatoes, chicken stock and rinsed beans.  Mix well.  Adjust seasoning by adding more salt, if needed.  Allow to simmer for at least one hour before serving.  Goes great with cornbread (See recipe below) and the following toppings:

diced red onion
diced pickled jalapenos
sour cream
shredded cheddar 
diced cherry tomatoes
lime wedges

Easy Cornbread
(Adapted from the Quaker Corn meal can)
Makes one 8x8 pan or 12 muffins

1 1/4 cups flour
3/4 cup corn meal
1/4 cup sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 eggs, beaten
sea salt and black pepper

Heat oven to 400 degrees.  Grease an 8x8 baking pan or a 12 cup muffin tin.  Combine dry ingredients.  Stir in buttermilk, oil and eggs.  Stir until just combined. Pour batter into prepared pan.  Sprinkle sea salt and black pepper over the top of the bread or each muffin.  Bake for 20-25 minutes for a full pan of bread or 12-15 minutes for the muffins. Each should be golden around the edges and wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean.  Serve warm.

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Happy 2016! May I Present: "Dinner Guests"

 Happy2016! I clearly need to get back to posting on a regular basis after the madness of the Holidays and school vacation. Upon culling through some unpublished drafts for inspiration, I unearthed this gem from October 2014.  I got a good chuckle from reading it and I hope you do, as well.

Obviously, one of my favorite things in life is cooking and sharing with others.  I especially enjoy inviting dinner guests for a meal of old favorite recipes and usually one or two experiments mixed in for excitement.  In my life, there are a variety of people whom I invite for dinner.
Most often, I call up Val  at the last minute to ask if she and my dad, Dick want to come over for an early meal.  This option exerts the least pressure on me as hostess and cook.  I know my house does not have to be clean and that whatever I make, she will praise and eat being thankful that she did not have to come up with something for dinner that evening.  She arrives just before serving to occupy the children, returning a piece of clothing she had mended for me and offering a handful of flowers cut fresh from her garden.  Dick meanders in after strategically parking his truck, carrying a six pack tote filled with assorted beers and a cold can of Coke for Val even though I said not to bring anything. For them I make something crazy easy, yet comforting and I always keep my mother's favorites in mind.  Cranberry Pot Roast, my go to meal when I really don't have time for much, Val's absolute favorite from her childhood: Mashed Potatoes and Popovers because she makes these herself when entertaining.  The Popovers are easy but special and the recipe found in the Joy of Cooking is a snap to make. To lighten up an otherwise heavy and hearty meal, I always serve a simple steamed vegetable like broccoli or asparagus sprinkled with salt and pepper and a pat of butter.
Then there is our "foodie" friend who loves trying new dishes especially at places that only "those in the know" know about.  He is so hip and on the cutting edge that he even hates the term "foodie". Never one to shy away from my experiments and new recipes I source out from odd places.  He is always game to try just about anything as long as I don't cook pork and only occasionally employ bacon in a dish as he tries to keep Kosher. However he has proven himself to be a glutton with a capital "G". One one occasion, he consumed numerous helpings of Cock-a-Leekie soup, Cheddar and Chive Biscuits and after devouring the Chocolate Pot de Creme, he continued to dip Pepperidge Farm Milano Cookies (which he found on the pantry shelf) into the bowl of remaining whipped cream. Then he turned to me and announced, "I am going to throw up."  He considered his comment to be the highest of compliments and I took it as such.
But there is another type of dinner guest that scares me just a little bit. Usually they are new friends or families of our children's friends. In this particular instance, I have invited this very kind family over to reciprocate the many times we have been to their beautiful home.  The hostess usually has numerous families to the gathering and serves gourmet pizza from the tiny local market down the street.  This is a stroke of brilliance as the pizzas are quite good and the variety pleases adults and children alike.  She rounds out the meal with a salad of freshly picked greens and organic tomatoes, sliced watermelon for the children and for dessert, ice cream and brownies.  A meal that pleases the entire crowd.  Not to mention that her house is immaculate, brand new and the decorating looks as if it it came out of the latest Pottery Barn catalog. I am completely intimidated when I comes to having this family of four to our home for a meal.
First off, what to serve to please the entire group without making separate meals for the adults and the children?  As my panic mounts over the meal, I realize that I will need to hire a hazmat crew to clean all the spider webs that have accumulated these past months while I spent all my time with the children on the beach. And my yard looks like hell.  The overgrown flower garden creeps out into the weed infested lawn that hides clusters of dog poop that children inevitably step in even when you think you have all of it picked up.  The "play room" in the basement which is really just a sectioned off area decorated with throw rugs and an old couch, resembles a scene out of Silence of the Lambs. I am trying to tell myself, that this lack of attention to our home is bohemian style.  Maybe no one will notice if I invite them over after dark and only use candles for lighting.  I know I have to let the setting for the meal go, maybe I can wow them enough  with the food so they won't notice the surroundings.
After going round and round in my mind and consulting various members of my family, I finally settle on lemon, garlic and fresh oregano marinated chicken drumsticks that will be grilled, roasted potato "fries", steamed broccoli (for the kids) with a tarragon mayo (for the adults), roasted onion and cherry tomato salad with goat cheese and fresh chives and homemade bread. (As far as I'm concerned I wouldn't care if I went to a dinner party and my own kids only ate the bread.) For dessert, Val's Chocolate Zucchini Cake recipe which came to her by way of her good friend, Linda.  Declan requested this because his little friend seems to adore it.  And since we are inviting this family because of Declan's connection, he and I are making his favorite "Backyard Mint Ice Cream", a recipe out of "Jeni's Splendid Ice Creams at Home" by Jeni Britton Bauer.  For an appetizer I will serve homemade guacamole mainly because I have a lot of ripe avocados on hand and the kids always like tortilla chips. Dear God, I hope this meal is a success!
I should learn by now to chill out and let things happen as they will.  In my madness to make the house relatively clean and presentable, I asked Rob to clean the oven.  Previously that day, I had mixed the bread dough which needs 24 hours for an initial rise.  I should have known that my controlling ways and anxiety over this whole affair would send bad vibes into the Universe.  While I was at work, Rob called to tell me that there had been "an accident".  Of course I panicked.  My thoughts went first to the kids, then the dog, then I demanded, for him to cut to the chase.  While cleaning my disgustingly dirty oven, he managed to break the interior glass on the oven door completely in half.  Great.  Now how am I going to pull off this dinner?

Cancel the potato "fries", the Chocolate Zucchini cake and the roasted salad.  Substitute Homemade Hot Fudge and Whipped Cream for make your own sundaes.  Saute asparagus and cherry tomatoes instead of roasting.  Decorate the entire house with fresh flowers from Val's garden, banish Rob to the grill, and pour lots of wine.  I'm not sure who enjoyed making their own sundaes more, the children or the adults. But I do know this:  it's better to let go and roll with it than to panic.  Now if only I can remember to tell myself this the next time I invite "new" dinner guests. Oh forget it, I'm sure the Universe will find some way of reminding me.