December 18th, 2014

The good thing about living at the beach during the off-season is that there’s no one here. Mile upon mile of empty beach for me to dance on and sit by in appreciative silence. I’ve ruined two pairs of sneakers flirting too aggressively with incoming 12-foot waves. There are four neighbors who walk beneath the deck along the tree line each day: an eight point buck and his three doe-friends.

The down side to living at the beach during the off-season is the dearth of food availability. The nearby markets have trimmed their produce, dairy, seafood, and meat counters to the barest minimum, leaving only the center aisles properly stocked with cans, boxes, and bags of processed “things to eat”. These “things” are not food and I won’t consume them at any time, ever.

Thanks to the modern day marvel of overnight shipping, I can get in some rather glorious and (perforce) pricey seafood, cheese, and meats, and it all arrives snuggled in a cooler with dry ice. Unfortunately, there is no mail-order solution to fresh veggies and I have to make the weekly 50-mile trip south in order to load up on greens and reds and yellows and purples.

Becoming a wizard at repurposing leftovers is an unexpected reward, propelled in part by my general laze that doesn’t like driving 50 miles for a carrot. The freezer has become my friend. It houses numerous small bits and bites, which, in the aggregate, become an inventive recipe. Some frozen bread heals, toasted and soaked in an egg custard were combined with fried ham sausage, red bell pepper, and a combo of leftover bits of cheese. Thirty minutes later, miniature stratas emerged from the oven, enough to create yet another leftover. No road traveled: priceless!

Mini Sausage and Red Pepper Stratas

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tasty giving

November 28th, 2014

Digging through the outer reaches of too many external hard drives, I unearthed a recipe book that I began in 2005 titled, “Tasty Giving.” It features gifts from the kitchen and includes such predictable things as candies, flavored popcorns and preserves along with the less predictable infused vodkas, cakes baked in jars (with a five-year shelf life), exotic biscotti, and even homemade crackers.

The book grew to 463 pages before it was abandoned to the more necessary writing tasks that actually pay good money, but a delight nonetheless to rediscover so serendipitously, and perforce I had to surf through the exhaustive Table of Contents and select something to cook!

Fudge sounded like a good idea, except that I don’t have a candy thermometer here at the beach house and refuse to buy yet another one, so I made the fudge the no-brainer way, requiring only four simple ingredients: semi-sweet chocolate, condensed milk, vanilla and pecans. As long as you avoid scorching the chocolate, you really can’t fail in achieving a delectably decadent and silkily-textured pan of chocolate wonder.

Some was shipped out by mail and more heads north by car next week for local deliveries. I kept four pieces for myself, which lasted four days. I also got to lick the spoon.

Tasty giving – pass it on!

Toasted Pecan Fudge

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breakfast at the hotel

November 23rd, 2014

Including both vacations and business travel, a calculator is required to add up all the hotel breakfasts I’ve consumed in my life, and of those thousands, there are only three stand-outs. Caneel Bay Plantation in the Virgin Islands serves the freshest fruit on earth along with a hummingbird that hovers above the raw sugar bowl. Hotel de France in Vienna, Austria serves a piping hot Gulaschsuppe amidst its lavish buffet and is the only way to begin a snowy day spent hiking down through the Wienerwald.  Lastly, there is the Ritz Carlton in Shanghai, China that, goodness knows how, renders up the most perfect bacon in either hemisphere.

The other side of this coin distinguishes itself, for the most part, with plastic cutlery and barely edible microwaved eggs and grey sausage patties. One does a quick U-turn past the yogurt cooler and grabs an indifferent cup of brown liquid casually named “coffee” before heading out to a busy and challenging day.  One learns quickly to have no expectations when it comes to the hotel breakfast and thus is never disappointed.

Imagine my surprise earlier this week while staying at a Sheraton in Herndon, Virginia and discovering that the silverware was actually made of metal, the coffee was Starbucks and the orange juice both fresh and properly chilled. My stony face at 6:45 a.m. started to relax into a smile, especially when the bread turned out to be top-shelf and the toaster in proper working order. Big delights continued with a chafing dish offering up corned beef hash and poached eggs, crispy and soft and delectably savory. Three thumbs up for this hotel breakfast and the first thing I did when I got home was to reprise the whole thing!

Corned Beef Hash

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November 11th, 2014

A few weeks ago I sent a rolling pin to a friend of mine in Virginia with hopes that she’d make her own pastries and biscuits instead of buying the more expensive and much less tasty commercial varieties. Yesterday she emailed me and asked for my basic pie dough recipe. This is a positive sign, to be sure, that her future will be more tender and flaky!

Perforce, I now have pie on my mind, and biscuits. Visions of biscuits dripping butter and jam or spread with a country ham pate and a tiny slice of pickle dance in my head. So today I made buttermilk biscuits but was unable to unscrew the lid off the new jar of jam. Visions were replaced with curses! The biscuits were uber tender and light, nevertheless, and sufficiently divine with just a small pat of butter.

Buttermilk Biscuits

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bread demystified

November 4th, 2014

From Syria we get pocketed pita, from France crusty baguettes, from Italy golden foccacia and chewy ciabatta, from America homey sandwich loaves, from India na’an and from Germany porous fladenbrot. And I’ll bet you don’t realize that they are all the same recipe.  What gives them their respective signature is simply the manner in which the dough is proofed, shaped and baked.

Bagels are great example.  The Caraway Rye Bagels pictured below are nothing more than Caraway Rye Bread rendered differently and it’s that unique difference that manages to spin a simple dough into a chewy ring of magic.  Eaten fresh from the oven or toasted on one side, homemade bagels can tear through a package of cream cheese with frightening speed!

Caraway Rye Bagel

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the perfume of hunan

July 4th, 2014

I’m pleased to say that my abysmal stint in Changsha ended on a very high note, thanks to a young friend named Zhou Qiaoting. How we became friends is a story in itself that I’ll save for another day.

My single, deep disappointment, after four weeks working in Hunan province was that I hadn’t experienced the local cuisine, and the reasons were many and varied, some valid, some not. This changed a few days before I returned home on a most memorable evening with Zhou Qiaoting.

We set out, in the hot rain, sharing an umbrella, up a narrow lane just off Jianxiang Road, to a tiny noodle restaurant operated by three brothers whose resemblance to the young banjo player in the movie Deliverance is uncanny. The noodles are made outside on a small counter adjacent to a large cauldron of steaming soup.

We took a seat on small plastic stools and selected a noodle dish from the photos on the wall. First came a small bowl of broth from the big cauldron. Something made from chicken stock, lightly perfumed with five-spice powder and a few shreds of cilantro. Piping hot soup on a piping hot rainy night. It was divine.

In between slurps, I watched one of the brothers stretch, twine, and whirl a ball of  fresh dough into long noodles at his outdoor counter and shortly thereafter two bowls of steaming noodles were plunked in front of us, dressed with an array of vegetables, a mild sauce, and some unknown bits of meat. It was slippery work trying to grab the noodles with chopsticks, but I had four weeks of hunger providing a dexterity I don’t usually possess. It was so good, I groaned – repeatedly.

The meal was successfully restorative, not just to my furnace but also my temple, and with a lighter mood did I return home, inspired to try my hand at something akin to the Noodle Shop’s offering. A simple noodle, a simple broth, a simple herb, and five-spice powder – the perfume of Hunan.

Hunan Soup for the Soul

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shanghaied in changsha

June 7th, 2014

Or, how I became a petty thief.

There are many situations wherein one’s morale, sanity, and general equilibrium are keenly connected to food. I’ve know this first hand, repeatedly, in two types of situation; while on tall ships at sea held from shore by weather, and while in foreign-speaking countries under challenging work conditions. What price sanity? No price too great, and that’s how I became a petty thief in Changsha, Hunan, China.

I work in a factory with a hand full of Germans, two hands full of Americans, and 80,000 Chinese. Working conditions are fairly brutal, to my way of thinking, if a lack of water, lack of lunch, lack of coffee, and lack of chairs and desks can be called brutal. It’s a twelve-hour work day, seven days a week.

I took a taxi to the supermarket today, along with a suitcase, to stock up on survival goods for the week ahead.  Oolong tea, green tea, rice crackers, dried fruits, an unknown selection of small Chinese snacks (none of which included the ubiquitous pickled and shrink-wrapped chicken foot), some paper plates, three ping-pong balls, and a paring knife. I need the knife to peel the apple I steal from the hotel every morning.

Pocketing an apple in a pair of stove-pipe slacks doesn’t work. Hiding it under a folded newspaper and sneezing at just the right moment gets one past the security/hostess stand at the 5-star hotel in which I currently reside.  An avaricious manager in the restaurant determined after several weeks that the company I’m with looked ripe for some fleecing, and suddenly started charging us $8.00 for a paper cup to carry out our morning coffee.

Apples, bananas, and an occasional yogurt were exacting prices in excess of ludicrous, and I, for one, was not going to get shanghaied in Changsha. I eat quite well now at the factory, and the golden moment in the midst of the long day consists of a sandwich, secretly assembled the night before from scraps on my plate from the dinner buffet. Small shreds of chicken tossed with a spicy Hunan pepper condiment, plopped onto some French bread and glued together with butter, swallowed into a zip-lock and dropped into the paper tote bag by my feet.

It’s really very delicious, and not simply because I steal it.

Hunan Pepper Condiment

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