tidings of joy

December 18th, 2016

When I was a junior in college, Mother decided to compile a book of recipes featuring family favorites. It took her nearly a year, typing it out on a typewriter at the kitchen table. She heartily welcomed suggestions from her devoted eaters, and when it was finished, she xeroxed four copies and assembled them into loose leaf notebooks. There are only four copies, one for each of her children.

I have a cookbook collection of more than 500 books, but the only one I ever reference is the one Mother wrote. Sometimes I’m in the mood for a taste of the past and nothing delivers that as divinely as something Mother once made. My copy, unfortunately, is rarely in the same location as I am and I have to contact a sibling for an occasional memory jog.

My Christmas in Russia in 2000 was a memorable one. I prepared a four course feast for my landlady and her family, featuring Mother’s Seafood Gumbo. Of course I didn’t have the family recipe book with me, and spent a small fortune telephoning my younger brother’s wife in Virginia to get the recipe. The required seafood wasn’t available, so I used smoked duck, and my dear guests seemed to enjoy this foreign taste from Cajun Country.

This Christmas, I decided to make a treat for the folks I work with, and choose a ginger cookie from Mother’s Recipe Book, which of course is not with me here in Illinois. My sister came to the rescue with the recipe and two days of baking yielded 120 perfect little cookies; bagged, tagged and beribboned.

Thank-you, Mom!

Stratford Hall Ginger Cookies

Stratford Hall Ginger Cookies

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chicago throwdown

April 24th, 2016

Relocating to the Chicago area on New Year’s Eve was neither welcome nor fun, but the job that was its impetus had potential. There are no oceans, no mountains, and no mature trees. It’s a flat parking lot with gale force winds that keep debris airborne. The food markets, however, are outstanding and easily surpass anything in California, New York, North Carolina, and Europe.

The folks I work with are talented, collaborative and hospitable. Another rarity! Thus, I couldn’t remain grumpy for long with superior food and people in the midst. There’s a large population of gourmands at work and many meetings either begin or end with some reference to recipes. My cohort, Marcelo, and I were chatting about Italian smoked meats one morning in the office galley and within no time we’d agreed to do a cooking throwdown.

Marcelo chose Chicken Enchiladas Suizas as the competitive dish, something I’d neither eaten nor cooked. Fine by me! There were dozens of details to iron out and it was decided that our software teams would be the eaters and the judges. The Enchilada entree was rounded out with Guacamole, Salsa, Tortilla Chips, Ensalada Verde with Cilantro Lime Vinaigrette, Puerto Rican Rice and Beans, and Mexican Wedding Cookies, all of which needed to be transported to work, baked off and/or assembled prior to serving 18 hungry guests.

Debbie and Charles helped to set and decorate the long table. The Enchiladas came straight from the cafeteria oven, piping hot, and got their final garnishes. The guests arrived promptly and were served with remarkable speed. Silence prevailed as people began eating and it seemed to be an appreciative silence. All of the plates were clean 20 minutes later, which suggest proper table manners or tasty-tasty food or both! The ballots were tallied, and Marcelo was the winner by a wide margin. A loss for me that I couldn’t have enjoyed more!

Chicken Enchiladas Suizas

Chicken Enchiladas Suizas

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the other turkey

November 27th, 2015

I stumbled upon a patch of mint in the side yard last week and the prospect of creating a Thanksgiving meal suddenly changed from dreary to dreamy. I’m amongst a tiny minority of people who don’t like turkey and an even tinier minority of people who don’t like potatoes, so a Thanksgiving meal is especially challenging, although I’ve certainly performed that chore of love dozens of times.

The mint-inspired possibilities started to percolate and a Meze platter was beginning to take shape with a decidedly Turkish flare. Some Acılı Ezme Salatası, a warm and spicy Patlicanli Pilav, a nutty Amolesilli Lobio, and a cooling dollop of Cacik seemed just the ticket for a tasty Turkey dinner.

I discovered Turkish cuisine while living in Vienna, Austria and it has always remained flavorfully memorable. Austria can also thank Turkey for its now famous Viennese Coffee House Culture.  During the second Turkish siege in 1683, which was thwarted, several sacks of strange beans were found and presumed to be camel feed. It was coffee!

As with the traditional dinner that features a large bird, this meal took three days to prepare, largely because so many varieties of beans needed to be soaked and then cooked. The house smelled of a magical combination of herbs, ginger, garlic, aromatic spices, and citrus and the finished plate a colorful painter’s palette of palate-pleasing textures.

Thanksgiving Treats

Thanksgiving Treats

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grandma and grandpa stetson

August 17th, 2015

Thinking back, my Grandpa Stetson smelled like an antique, and I mean that in the kindest of ways. He always wore a tweed wool blazer when joining us for Sunday lunch or a holiday dinner and the blazer was undoubtedly stored in a cedar closet in his ancient home in Greenfield, Massachusetts. He was very fond of that strange old-folks candy consisting of sugary pastel peppermints shaped in round disks. He also smoked a pipe. That faint bit of mint and tobacco added to his aura when I greeted his visits with a bird-like kiss to his faintly whiskered and perfumed cheek.

His wife, my Grandmother, died when I was seven, but I remember her just as vividly, albeit without any kind of smell, other than, perhaps, her most outstanding preparation of Scalloped Potatoes flecked with tiny bits of onion and ham. Grandpa and Grandma played Scrabble a great deal and it’s probably just as well that they never came to know how much money I’ve made at the game.

Grandpa Stetson was fluent in the ancient languages, Latin and Greek, and often shared the comparative rhythms in common with those languages when translating classic epics with titles too big for us children to wrap our tongues around. He insisted on perfect English from his three offspring, and his youngest child, my father, kept up that tradition with his unwitting four.

There’s a suitcase amongst all my possessions still residing in California that is chock full of hand-written recipe cards from Grandma Stetson, Great Aunts Gertrude and Lillie, and a score of other Stetson women kindred. It pops in my mind now and then, and now with greater frequency, and I want to hold those cards embossed with fountain-pen script, imparting great practice and procedure for cooks of all ages, once it’s all translated.

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham with Asiago Cheese

Scalloped Potatoes and Ham


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happy marriage

August 9th, 2015

Some people are meant to be together, just as some foods shine brighter in combination with something else. Both instances represent my favorite equation: 1+1=3. George Burns and Gracie Allen, beans and cornbread, Victoria and Albert, green eggs and ham, Marie and Pierre Curie, fish and chips, Scarlett and Rhett, and my favorite marriage of all time, chocolate and peanut butter.

Anyone who doesn’t remember the iconic Reese’s commercials featuring a man walking down the street eating a chocolate bar who collides with a man eating peanut butter from a jar is too young to be reading this blog. More to the point, anyone who walks down the street eating peanut butter from a jar probably needs something more than a random run in with a chocolate bar, and yet, this is how happy marriages seem to happen.

It’s all a bit of whimsical magic, I think, and with that in mind I set about conceiving a dark chocolate something with a peanut butter whatever. Some sixth sense had me purchase a quart of buttermilk at the store today, even though biscuits and cornbread aren’t crayoned on the calendar. I also bought a tin of Hershey’s Special Dark Cocoa and a pound of unsalted butter.

Clearly, someone had a cake in the back of her mind and when this morning dawned with a pleasant chill in the air and 5:30 a.m. not nearly as bright as it had been three weeks ago, she set about a-measuring and a-mixing and a-baking and again a-mixing and periodically, awaiting, and then a-cooling and finally a-frosting a batch of little Black Velvet Cakes with Freakishly Good Peanut Butter Frosting, a-sprinkled, willy-nilly, with Valrhona Chocolate shavings.

Black Velvet Cake with Freakishly Good Peanut Butter Frosting

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exclamation points

July 26th, 2015

Creating a new recipe often starts with a memory of something once consumed in a restaurant, or seen on a cooking show, or described in a book, or simply photographed in an old Gourmet magazine. My memory for food is freakishly detailed and vast. If that same capacity extended to all other facets of life, I’d be remarkable, but it doesn’t and I’m not!

In Moby Dick, Melville goes into such rapture over Clam Chowder that it lasts for an entire chapter. Rapture worthy or not, I’ve never been a fan of Clam Chowder, but the memory of that passage can easily inspire an Alder-Smoked Salmon Chowder, Lobster Chowder or just a simple Corn ‘n Tater Chowder!

I was age six or seven when Julia Child’s show, The French Chef, featured a French Apple Tart. While constructing a blanket-shrouded fort in the TV room, construction had to pause whilst I became mesmerized by Julia’s episode and those twenty minutes became an inspiration over the next decades.  I only recently found the actual recipe and was pleased to discover that my recall was not far off!

Riffs on notable preparations in restaurants are, perhaps, the backbone of my recipe repertoire, and among my favorites are Pizza Buns from Brazil, Joe’s Special from California, Peanut Soup from Virginia, Kalbi from Korea, Huevos Rancheros from Belize, meat-filled Pelmeni from Russia, Garlic-Soy Bib Salad from China, and, I should never have uncorked this genii in a bottle. The list is endless!

A gastropub in New Hampshire is the inspiration for today’s appetizer. The chef deep fries Brussels Sprouts and dresses them with frizzled prosciutto, shaved Parmesan, toasted walnuts and a brief dribble of olive oil. My spin is shallow-fried in a cast iron skillet, keeping the Brussels crisp-tender and caramelized, with crumbled bacon, Asiago, the walnuts and olive oil and a bright squirt of lemon!

One big happy calorie, gratefully inspired!

Gastropub Brussels Sprouts

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piece of toast

February 22nd, 2015

Some things are just so simple good, assuming one can use an adjective to modify an adjective, that a simply expressed single word can sum up the experience, to wit, “wow”.

Sunday lunch snack, after a challenging week of ice and snow, consisted of a simple tartine (piece of toast), topped with cream cheese, hot-smoked salmon, freshly pickled red onion, fried capers, and a drizzle of olive oil.

A picture is worth a thousand words, so I shan’t say anything more.

Smoked Salmon Tartine with Pickled Red Onion and Fried Capers

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alternate routes

February 8th, 2015

I spent the afternoon plotting an overland journey around the world in eighty days, based on Jules Verne’s adventure novel from 1873. The biggest challenge is getting from Cairo to Bombay by way of Suez without stepping foot or toe into Saudi Arabia and that’s when my plotting hit the wall. An escorted trip to northern India might be more practical, but not nearly so thrilling.

In the meantime, I can eat the way Verne’s character, Phileas Fogg, might have done, on and off slow trains and slower freighters and the place to begin is with an unleavened flatbread called Paratha, whose pedigree dates from Vedic Sanskrit.  Housewives and boat cooks of South Asia make this fresh every morning.

To accompany the Paratha, a ground nut and pepper paste from Syria and perhaps a new version of Hummus with the addition of roasted garlic and Feta cheese wouldn’t go amiss. Some crunchy baked chick peas, fresh crudité, and a generous drizzle of olive oil adorn the plate and I am in for an adventure.

Paratha, Hummus, and Muhammara

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blue chip pickles

January 1st, 2015

Once upon a time, I lived in a farmhouse in rural Virginia, surrounded by fifty acres of cultivated soybeans. The front and back lawns were spacious enough to allow for large vegetable gardens that always yielded far more produce than could be consumed or given away. Canning these many vegetables became a daily event, usually performed in the morning when the combination of temperature and humidity were still tolerable.

Hundreds of jars later, the Blue Chip Pickle-of-the-Month Club was born and its lucky subscribers enjoyed an array of pickles, relishes, chutneys and conserves each month for the next year. That enterprise earned me more friends than it did income and remains a fond food memory.

Recent house hunting and travel have taken me through Williamsburg, Virginia several times where I twice got to enjoy dinner at the Waypoint Seafood and Grill. Diners are served a sectioned dish containing homemade Bread ‘n Butter Pickles, Country Ham Pate, and Whipped Sweet Butter alongside a breadbasket of Cornmeal Gems and sliced Baguette.

Aye, aye, aye… that introductory taste combination has no parallel. The pickles, in particular, are so tantalizing to the palate that I ordered a refill for dessert and they’ve been haunting me ever since. The haunt became a nag and with no tool other than desire did I create a batch of Bread n’ Butter Pickles quite in keeping with the Waypoint’s!

Day two of my delirious enjoyment set off a whisper from my inner baker that demanded some Artisanal Whole Wheat Molasses Bread as an accompaniment. I promptly obeyed. The pickles and the bread were soon joined by a knob of cheese, some sliced salami and a hard-boiled egg. A fitting Plowgirl’s Lunch for a girl without a plow.

Better Bread 'n Butter Pickles

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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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