Eating my young

Fifi, Jacques, Pierre, Coquette, et al

Happy Mother’s Day!! Ok, perhaps “Eating my young” isn’t exactly the best title for a post on Mother’s Day, but bear with me. Remember back a month or so ago when I mentioned I’d jumped thumbs-first into gardening? Turns out when you put those seeds from the cute packets into the dirt and water it frequently, (well, fairly frequently – I mean geez, you have to keep that crap up), stuff happens. Crops stuff.

Crops may be a bit of an exaggeration. Let’s just call them crops in training. Specifically, radishes. The cutest little baby radishes you’ve ever seen. I’m not sure they are supposed to be so little, but since putting “baby” in front of vegetables makes them fancier (and a dollar more at the market), I’m going with the premise that I am intentionally growing ultra-chic baby “French” radishes. Why French? I have no idea. I bought the seeds in Lowes in Salt Lake City, about as far from France as you can get. But hell, the sweet little seed pack said they were, and since it was right about that “water frequently” thing, I can go with Fifi and Jacque radishes.

Anyway, after I dug the trench, sprinkled the petites grains de radis over, slapped some dirt on their tiny little tetes (ok, I’m carrying this french thing a little too far), and watered, worried over, covered up when they were cold, told them they is smart, they is kind, they is important, this ←happened. This crap actually works! And as a good mom, I just had to see what was going on under that tousled head of green leafiness.

So I pulled one up. “What little adorable red and white root are YOU! Who’s a good radish. YOU ARE!” Then, I did it. I couldn’t help myself. I ate my baby.

Before you get all judgy on me, think about what you would have done. You raised them to be wonderful. Your job as a parent is to prepare them for life, give them what they need, and let them go. In this case, I let Fifi go into my mouth, providing all the crisp, peppery goodness I raised her to be. Did I feel guilty? Maybe a little.  I got over it by the third one.

Happy Mother’s Day!

I don’t really have a recipe for you this time, just a favorite preparation. Radishes with Sweet Butter and Sea Salt. I’ve been eating radishes on buttered bread with salt and pepper since I was a little girl. My father was “chef”, the radishes from our tiny backyard garden. There’s really not much better. And just in case you think this is too simple to serve to guests, don’t. One of the best restaurants in my old home town (Prune in NYC), features this dish on their menu and has since they opened. Preparation is simple – fresh radishes, washed and left with their greens attached (they make a great handle), good sea salt (Maldon or another flaky one is great for this), good sweet butter (slightly cool but not hard), and a crispy baguette or thick slice of artisan loaf.  Add a latte or chilled glass of rosé and you have the perfect breakfast, lunch, snack or appetizer, and a great way to celebrate Mother’s Day!

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Hello Gorgeous…

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Last month the calendar told me it was now fall, and when it did I felt my first real pangs of homesickness for the east coast. A particularly rainy September in my new world brought it on, and as the sog soaked into Hood River, I pined openly for crisp days past and brightly colored fall leaves that crunched under foot. But now, as the left coast October closes around me in spectacular fall splendor, it’s only fair to give my new autumnal surroundings its due. So, gentle readers, get ready for some serious scenic gushing…

2013-10-26 16.52.06There is a trail along a creek a few blocks from my house and I hike it most days either early in the morning or right around sunset. Oh my poor Facebook friends… Since I moved here, the friended gang has been inundated with pictures of this creek in various stages of late summer, early, and now mid autumn. Most of my pre-relocation cyber-pals know I tend to get clicky with the iPhone camera when I spy something that stirs me, and have graciously thumbs-upped through countless pixs of urban walks along the Hudson River or the High Line. Naturally when I moved to Oregon, I felt compelled to share my new views with curious friends and family, many of whom unhesitatingly supported my new mid-life renaissance, but didn’t really know where this planet ‘Hood River’ was, let alone what it looked like. I have a feeling they know now. Perhaps a few pictures would have sufficed, but I just can’t help myself.  Each time I think I’ve snapped enough, I turn the corner and there is something that takes my breath away with its stunning beauty.  Sunrises are spectacular, sunsets indescribable, and when you add in tons of trees, vineyards, orchards, and farm land vying for autumnal attention, and it’s hard not to get visually intoxicated.

Words are nice, but a bit superfluous when it comes to describing a beautiful picture, especially when you have them. So here you go – a view of my new world in fall. As far as words, I have just two – HELLO GORGEOUS!

DSC070922013-10-22 14.18.422013-10-12 17.13.102013-10-28 08.38.38

2013-10-28 08.33.35©cookinginmyheels.com

2013-10-26 17.30.32©cookinginmyheels.com

©cookinginmyheels.com

2013-10-26 17.15.262013-10-17 18.45.18With fall thoughts come musings of squash. Well, for me it does. Varieties abound, especially when you live near a farming community, and I’m often looking for new ones to supplement my recipes for pumpkins, butternuts and acorns. This year I met a lovely couple of local farmers named Ian and Dawn who introduced me to the delicata. A perfect size for one or two, its sweetness reminds me of butternut but even better, and it’s easy to clean and cook. Inspired by my new squashy find, I came up with this recipe, Delicata Squash with Mushrooms, Breadcrumbs and Hazelnuts, with the things I had on hand.  Since I now have wonderful local chanterelles, they were the mushrooms I used, but creminis or any other mushroom you have work just fine too. Serve along side roasted chicken, fish or meat, or all by itself with a green salad. Hello gorgeous!

Delicata Squash with Mushrooms, Breadcrumbs and Hazelnuts

2013-10-11 18.49.48

Serves 2

  • 1 Delicata squash, halved lengthwise and cleaned of seeds and membranes
  • 2 TBSP roasted hazelnuts
  • ¼ cup fresh breadcrumbs
  • 1 ½ TBSP butter
  • 1 tsp olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2-3 TBSP finely chopped shallot or onion
  • 2 ounces mushrooms, torn or chopped to bite-sized pieces. (Use what you have available – I used chanterelles, but creminis work beautifully too.)
  • 2 tsp aged good balsamic vinegar, or balsamic crema (this is available in most supermarkets now as ‘balsamic cream’)

Preheat oven to 425°F. Line a baking sheet with foil, then drizzle the cut side of squash half with olive oil and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Roast cut-side down on the foil for 20 minutes until soft. Take squash out of oven, cover with foil to keep warm, and turn oven down to 350°F.

Chop the hazelnuts and add to a bowl. Melt 2 tsp butter in a pan and sauté the breadcrumbs until toasted and lightly browned. Add to the bowl with the hazelnuts. Wipe out sauté pan; add the remaining butter and teaspoon olive oil and sauté the chopped shallot or onion with a good pinch of salt until softened, about 3 minutes over medium-high h heat. Add in the mushrooms; turn heat down to medium-low and sauté until the mushrooms have given up most of their liquid. Add onion/mushroom mixture to bowl with breadcrumbs, hazelnuts.  Drizzle lightly with olive oil, add a few grinds of black pepper and toss well.

Stuff the squash with the mushroom mixture and bake at 350° for about 10-15 minutes until everything is heated through and the top is crunchy. (You could assemble these ahead, stow in fridge and bake them off right before dinner – just bring to room temperature before baking.)

Drizzle with balsamic or balsamic cream and serve. Calories: approximately 230 per serving.

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Speaking Swedish

I knew I had to exchange it, but couldn’t remember the price and if the credit would be enough for the next thing on my “need for the house” list.  So I looked at the receipt. There were two gruntals, an enje, three breims, an expedit, several korkens, a nordis, a ribba, and one, no two dvalas. Okaaay…. I still had no clue the price of the item I wanted to return, because I have no clue which of that smorgasbord of Swedish retail on the receipt was the item I sought. Reading an Ikea receipt is actually pretty entertaining. Maybe it’s just me, but by the time I get down to the final item, I’m transformed into a muppet Swedish Chef. I can’t help it. And I bet you a jar of lingenberry jam and a package of Knackerbrot that by the time you’ve read off 6 entries you’ll be bork-bork-borking too.

©cookinginmyheels.com

©cookinginmyheels.com

I love Ikea, especially when I have a home to furnish and significantly diminished means to do it. There’s something very reassuring about that big yellow and blue cathedral of allen wrench assembled merchandise. They paint big white arrows on the floors so you don’t get lost. They show you exactly how the things in those flat boxes stacked ceiling high are supposed to look after you’ve applied that allen wrench over and over again. Just walk through the life-sized dollhouse upstairs. Oh that’s what an enje is! And it goes so nicely with that lappljung ruta. Yes, Ikea and I have been friends for a very long time. Even when I had the bank account for “real furniture”, I’d always come back to Ikea to fill in the gaps. Maybe it was because if I could find a reason to go to Ikea, I would have an excuse to buy cardamom crackers and Swedish fish. Or perhaps it’s the satisfaction of knowing that by the time I’ve built my expedit or lövbacken, I’m an expert in deciphering cartoon pointing finger construction schematics. I’m an expert because I’ve usually constructed whatever I’m making backwards first, taken it apart, and build it all over again. It is probably more solid that way anyway.

In my often uncertain world, there is great comfort in knowing that Ikea is nearby to supply me with stylish affordability. Now if only I could figure out what the heck a gruntal is…

With the end of summer comes an abundance of some of my favorite farmers market buys. This week I found sweet corn and a lovely mild swiss cheese from the folks at Cascadia Creamery. Together, they became a creamy Herbed Corn Gratin, and the perfect summer side with grilled steak, chicken or fish.

Herbed Corn Gratin

Serves 4

  • 1 tsp soft butter
  • 3 ears corn
  • 1 tsp finely chopped herbs (I like a combination of thyme and sage, but basil would be great too)
  • 2 eggs
  • ½ cup cream
  • ½ cup milk
  • 1 ½ TBSP fine corn meal
  • ¾ tsp salt
  • ¼ tsp pepper
  • ½ cup shredded swiss, mild fontina or your favorite melting cheese
  • 1 TBSP grated parmesan

Preheat oven to 375°F. Butter a 2 quart casserole dish with the teaspoon butter. Shuck the corn and cut the kernels off. You’ll need about 1-½ cups kernels total. Measure out ½ cup kernels and set aside. Take the remaining cup and put into blender. Add all of the remaining ingredients except the cheeses to the blender, in the order they are listed. Blend until smooth and pour into buttered casserole. Sprinkle the ½ cup corn kernels over the casserole, then the swiss cheese, and finally the parmesan. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until the middle is just set and top is golden brown. Serve immediately. Calories: about 245 per serving.

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Reaching the Heights

At 25 you think, “no problem”. At 70, “I’m a little tired, but no biggie”. When you hit 115 you are a little less cocky, your pace slower, your breath more labored. By 286 you’re thinking, “what… are they serious?” And at 413 you have decided whoever thought this up had better be sitting in the reserved section of the 7th circle of hell as a reward. Well, that’s what went through my thoughts as I discovered “the stairs”. What are “the stairs”? Well, in simplest of terms they are a conveyance. A means by which a pedestrian can get from the Heights, where I live, to downtown, where my Sunday Times lives. In between said habitat and bulky newsprint reminder of back east is a considerable hill and the aforementioned stairs. All 413 steps of them.

©cookinginmyheels.com

©cookinginmyheels.com

I discovered the stairs about a week after I landed in my new home. Having heard about them when I visited a few months earlier, I was looking forward to checking them out firsthand. After all, living in the Heights is great but many of the swell things this town has to offer are downtown. Walking seemed the best way to get there, and hey, I walked everywhere in Metropolis so this seemed a no brainer to me. I strolled over to their start. What a cool way to get to where I was going flashed through my thoughts, and I began my descent. Cutting through the woods and past houses tucked in on the hillside…what a lovely stroll. Oh look, another set, neat. And another. Oh geez, there’s more. By the time I reached the final steps, which were more ladder than stair, my legs were shaking. I sat on a bench at the bottom and took a moment to regroup and bask in the glow of my achievement. Though a little wobbly, I had tackled “the stairs”. OK, that was a lot, but I handled it. Bravo kiddo, all that Highline walking back east paid off.

It’s funny how you can forget pain. Or at least forget impending pain. As I wandered around town, window-shopping, popping in for an ice coffee here, a conversation there, I forgot one very important thing. I had to get back up to the Heights. Up…the…STAIRS. Remember when you were a kid, and wished you could fly? Yeah… The first time I came to Hood River, I remember thinking how exceptionally well toned the locals calves were in this town. I now know why. Windsurfing Capitol of the World, feh! Muscular Calves Capitol is more like it.

It’s been three weeks since I first met the stairs. Have I attempted them again? Let’s just say my calves are well on their way to world-class status…

Cucuzza!

On what I’m certain will be a lengthy list of the things I love about my new world lays access to abundant tasty produce. This week I gave myself the challenge of coming up with something for this post from the weekly Farmer’s Market and $10. In that ten-buck bounty was squash blossoms, bright saffron yellow and tender as velvet, they are a rare and quickly fading summer treat I look forward to droolingly every summer. Rather than fry them in a tempura-like batter (a recipe I love), I decided to just peruse my fridge to find something equally alluring to stuff them with, and serve atop a salad of farm fresh greens and ripe figs. The result was my Herbed Goat Cheese Stuffed Blossoms, as beautiful to look at as they were delicious to devour.

Herbed Goat Cheese Stuffed Blossoms

Serves 1 (Easily doubled or tripped based upon how many blossoms you can get)

  • 4 Squash Blossoms, stamens (the inside bit) removed
  • ¼ cup spreadable goat cheese (or if you have a log of goat cheese, just add some milk or better yet cream to loosen and smooth out so it isn’t so crumbly)
  • ¼ tsp anchovy paste, or one anchovy, finely minced
  • 1 TBSP Tomato Jam (2 finely minced sundried tomatoes in oil can substitute)
  • 1 TBSP toasted pine nuts, finely chopped
  • 1 tsp flavorful olive oil
  • A grind or two of black pepper
  • 1 tsp grated lemon zest
  • 1 tsp minced fresh herbs (I used a combination of thyme, parsley and basil)

Mix all of the ingredients together. Taste for seasoning, and add a pinch of salt and/or a grind of black pepper if needed. Let sit in refrigerator about 20 minutes. (This mixture is terrific on crackers or crusty bread too, if you wanted to make a double or triple batch.)

Carefully open up the blossom and spoon in a heaping teaspoon of the cheese mixture. Gently pinch and twist the top of the flower together to close. Repeat with the other blossoms. You could just serve these as they are with a drizzle of good olive oil on top as a starter. The night I made them I had them atop a salad of mixed field greens dressed with lemony vinaigrette and quartered ripe figs. Open up a chilled Rosé, add some crusty bread and you have the perfect reward for getting up those 413 steps! Calories: approximately 250 per serving

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A Clearer View

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©cookinginmyheels.com

For the past few weeks my thoughts have been occupied with something other than food. Actually, more like the past many weeks. There are big decisions on the horizon, so I’ve been doing all the things they tell you to do when noodling something important. I’ve gone on long walks, tried visualization, made many lists and prayed to everyone up there in an effort to come to the right verdict. Hell, if I were able to meditate for more than a minute or two before getting distracted by what I want to make for my next meal, I’d meditate too. It’s funny the things people do to find clarity, especially when life-changing events loom. Some seek spiritual guidance through prayer, others make countless checklists and spreadsheets, and some just trust and leap. Me?? I cleaned windows. At least that’s what I did the other day to shift the karmic equilibrium and find what I hope will be the right path. Yeah sure, washing windows to find “clarity” is just dripping symbolism but cut me some slack. It actually helped.

Usually when I’m in some sort of mental turmoil, I cook. This is cooking in my heels, right? And since diving up to my elbows into a recipe is my go-to tactic, the whole cleaning windows thing came as a bit of a shock to me too. Regardless, there I sat contemplating (with my box of tissues) as I wondered what was next, what was there to do, what would I do, when the sun broke through the clouds and streamed through the window just at the right angle to warm my back. Taking this as some sort of sign, I smiled, looked up and thought… “GEEZ that window is FILTHY!” Suddenly I was off, a paper towel wielding, glass cleaner spritzing gladiator. And after all the windows were sparkling (and I was sufficiently exhausted), I started to laugh at my nuttiness. I know that the next chapter is going to be a major adjustment, change really sucks sometimes, and making that change at this stage of my life scares the hell out of me. But I’m also starting to get a little excited about the next chapter too. Did cleaning my windows make the difference? Probably not, but for next few days at least, I have a much clearer view.

Lest you think I ignored the kitchen during my window-washing frenzy, I didn’t. After putting the cleaner away, I broke out the asparagus, leeks and goat cheese for this Spring Asparagus and Leek Tart. My goal was to lighten up the traditional quiche recipes we all love, and this one does the trick. Great with a green salad for a light lunch, it would also make a great addition to any brunch buffet,

Spring Asparagus and Leek Tart

Serves 6-8

For the vegetable mixture

  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • 1 cup chopped leeks
  • 8 oz. (trimmed) asparagus
  • 1 tsp lemon juice
  • Pinch salt

For the custard

  • 1 tsp chopped fresh tarragon
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • ¾ cup milk (whole or 2%)
  • 1 egg plus 2 yolks
  • 5 oz. room temperature goat cheese
  • ½ cup shredded gruyere or swiss, divided into two ¼ cup portions

For the crust

  • 4 oz. (6-8 sheets) Phylo dough
  • Olive oil cooking spray

Preheat oven to 350°F.

Cut off the tips of the asparagus (about 2-inches long) and set aside. Chop the rest of the asparagus into ½ inch pieces. Heat the olive oil in a skillet; add the leeks, asparagus and a pinch of salt and sauté over medium-low heat until the leeks are softened and asparagus tender. Remove from heat and stir in teaspoon lemon juice. Set aside to cool.

In a medium bowl, whisk together the eggs, milk, goat cheese, lemon zest and tarragon. Stir in ¼ cup of the gruyere. Set aside.

Put a 10” tart pan with removable bottom onto a cookie sheet so it’s easy to move in and out of the oven. Spray with the cooking spray, (or you could brush with olive oil if you don’t have the spray). Lay one sheet of Phylo into the pan, making sure you cover the rest with a damp towel so they don’t dry out. Spray the dough with oil. Continue with the remaining pieces, spraying each layer and staggering the points of Phylo so there’s overhanging dough all around the pan.

[Recipe Note: Phylo likes to tear, a lot, and if you try to fight that you will make yourself crazy. In this recipe it really doesn’t matter. The only thing you have to worry about is making a relatively even thickness in each layer so it bakes evenly. So if it tears, just put the pieces in the pan, making sure you do have dough overhanging the pan.]

When the vegetables are completely cool, add to the custard, mix well and pour into the prepared pan. Take the overhanging dough and tuck in around the pan making a raised crust around the edges. Spray or brush edges with oil. Arrange the reserved asparagus tips decoratively on the top of the tart, and sprinkle with the remaining ¼ cup gruyere.

Bake 30-40 minutes until the custard is set and the cheese has brown a little. Let cool 5 minutes before serving. Calories: about 240 per serving (6 servings.)

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And the Oscar goes to…

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©cookinginmyheels.com

For over ten years I’ve celebrated Hollywood’s annual glitz-fest (and it’s associated observer’s snark-fest) at an Oscar party thrown by my good friends. Since we are all avid cooks and eaters, the one result I always know for sure is even if the show is awful, the food will be great. This is probably why while others wonder who’s going to win, what they’ll wear, and who’ll lose their nominated acting skills when it comes to hiding their disappointment at not winning, I’ll be thinking about food. To be fair, I’m usually thinking about food, regardless of awkward host moments and tear-filled acceptance speeches. But this year’s annual Tinsel Town fete got me thinking…there really should be an Oscars for food.

It wouldn’t be all that different from Sunday’s broadcast when you give it some thought. The pre-show red tablecloth a buffet of mostly appealing nominees (and a few of questionable taste), circled by a flock of pundits issuing running commentary like “can your believe they put THAT sauce on that fish”, and “this year saffron is the new black truffle!” The less popular categories go first, Best Foreign Entry (I’m pulling for porcinis), Best (recipe) Writing, Best Costume (plating) and Best Makeup (garnishing). Thankfully, the academy choses to leave out Best Hair. This year’s supporting category looked like a contest at first, but by ceremony time everyone knew that roasted fingerlings with pancetta was a shoo-in. Then we get to the ‘big’ award. Best producer is always a hot contest between cow, chicken, goat and sheep, but the dark-horse soybean could make a last-minute grab due to the growing Hollywood vegan vote.

OK, maybe I’m stretching it a bit here. But with a likely 5-hour odyssey of programming and maybe 40 minutes of good content, a gal’s got to find plenty to occupy the mind when George Clooney isn’t on screen.  Luckily, my stomach will have plenty of great food to occupy it too.

Dear members of the Academy – I’d like to submit my Mushroom Ragu for your consideration in the Best Supporting Sauce category. This dark rich sauce is perfect with a burger, steak or a roast, and can play a leading role on pasta, potatoes or my favorite, polenta. Hopefully you’ll like it…you’ll really like it! 😉

Mushroom Ragu

Mushroom Ragu©cookinginmyheels.com

Mushroom Ragu
©cookinginmyheels.com

Makes about 1 ½ cups

  • ½ TBSP olive oil
  • 1 TBSP butter
  • 1 package (10 oz.) sliced cremini mushrooms
  • ¼ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
  • ¾ cup boiling water
  • 1 tsp lemon zest
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 tsp chopped thyme
  • ½ tsp finely chopped rosemary
  • ¼ cup chopped onion
  • 1 tsp tomato paste
  • 2-3 TBSPs dry sherry
  • 1 TBSP corn starch
  • 1 TBSP soy sauce
  • A good squeeze of lemon (about ¼ of a lemon’s worth)
  • Salt and pepper

Add the dried porcinis to a bowl and cover with 3/4 cup boiling water. Let steep for 15 minutes. Scoop out the mushrooms and chop, reserving the mushroom liquid.

Sauté onions, mushrooms, herbs and a pinch of salt in the butter and oil over medium heat until the onions are wilted, the mushrooms have given up most of their liquid and the pan is just moist, about 7-9 minutes. Add the garlic and a few grinds of pepper and sauté another minute or two until the pan is dry. Add in the tsp of tomato paste and cook 1-2 minutes until the tomato paste is a dark mahogany color. Remove the pan from heat and deglaze with the dry sherry, scraping up any browned bits in the pan. Strain the mushroom liquid into the pan. Bring to a simmer.

Dissolve the cornstarch in the tablespoon of soy sauce and a tablespoon of water. Add to the pan and stir 2-3 minutes over a slow simmer. The sauce will thicken as you stir. Turn off heat and squeeze in a quarter lemon. This sauce freezes well, so I will often make a double batch and stow half until I need it (like when I want it over a humble baked potato for dinner.) Calories: approximately 115 per half cup.

If you like what you read here, please help me spread the word. Meantime, I’d love you to join me on Facebook (please click the ‘like’ button). Thanks! 🙂

My NEW Thanksgiving

Prepare yourself, because my next sentence could be considered heresy. I don’t make turkey for Thanksgiving. I haven’t for about ten years. Now before you fly off the handle and gather your pitchforks and torches, let me explain. I’ve never been all that crazy about turkey. It’s a rather flavorless bird. Oh sure, I grew up eating it every Thanksgiving like all of you, have countless recipes aimed at making it THE best turkey ever, blah…blah…blah.  Yet despite excellent cooks and creative methods from brining to stuffing things under the skin to wrapping in bacon to immersing in a giant pot of bubbling fat in the driveway (thus preventing that pesky burning-the-house-down tradition that seems to make the news every year), when all is said and done, I find turkey boring. Which, by the way, is the reason every year there is another new crop of recipes for the “best turkey ever.” And let’s just admit it once and for all. The best part of the holiday menu is all the stuff un-turkey on your table. The sides rule and you know it.

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It’s not that I suffered some turkey-trauma as a child. I had a lovely and very traditional Normal Rockwell-y holiday. Growing up we were anywhere from 16 to 22 around the table. My grandparents would board a train from Brooklyn at dawn and make the trek over the boroughs and thru the suburbs to our home. And the bird usually rode along with them. Since my grandmother was a cook in a deli and could therefore get a turkey the size of a small child to feed our hungry horde from her butcher, scoring the turkey was her job. The beast, sides, breads, pies and all the rest would land on the table at precisely 2:00 PM, and the great feast would ensue. It really was a lovely meal and one I looked forward to every year, but to me the turkey was never the point. The vast majority of real estate on my plate would be filled with every side on the table blanketed in delicious gravy, and I’d gleefully make my way through it and then some.  Year after year the usual fare continued, as family passed on and we kids grew up and away to our own tables. I would make a turkey with all the trimmings too because, well, that’s what you’re supposed to do. Then somewhere around 10 years ago the thought hit me. Why was I making something the centerpiece of my table, put all that time and effort into trying to coax it into being interesting, and at the end of the day it was still, well, turkey.  Couldn’t I be still thankful, still gather with family and friends, still keep the spirit of the day in mind and heart and not make that boring bird? That was the moment my NEW Thanksgiving began.

Since that day Thanksgiving has transformed to a day for playing with food together with family and friends. Rather than usual fare, our menu has become a food adventure. The only rule is the recipe has to be one we haven’t tried before. Weeks before the holiday we pour through clipped and dog-eared pages from magazines or cookbooks, searching for the one for that year. We debate and discuss the ingredients, what have we always wanted to try, what looks interesting and fun. The first year it was Thanksgiving in Algiers, with Algerian lamb shanks. Another year brought us to Provence with Provencal short ribs. Brisket has had starring roles twice, once crusted in horseradish and once braised in merlot with prunes. We laugh, drink wine and have a blast, together. The meal is never boring and always delicious. So what if the menu is not pilgrim-esque. The feelings and warmth in the kitchen and around the table is the same. We still gather together, express gratitude, share hopes, remember times past and laugh and love. Isn’t that, and not turkey, really the point of it all?

So, what’s on the menu this year? After a little debate, Fennel Crusted Pork Loin with Potatoes and Pears came out the winner.  The recipe was clipped from Real Simple magazine years ago and had all the prerequisite qualities. It was a roast, thus making the kitchen warm and cozy and filling the house with wonderful smells. Plus it will be a great meal to go with my mom’s apple pie, which is the only thing we MUST have on Thanksgiving every year. After all, some traditions you just don’t mess with.

I’ve also included a recipe I think will go beautifully the pork, Butternut Squash Caponata.  While this is not my idea originally (I saw Mario Batali make it on TV last week to accompany that other white meat), when I looked up the recipe on the show’s website it wasn’t listed. So I figured I’d try to reinvent it, adding in a few adjustments of my own. The result may not be exactly what Mario had in mind, but it sure is good!

Fennel Crusted Pork Loin with Potatoes and Pears  (From Real Simple Magazine)

Serves 4, and can easily be doubled for 8

  • 1 tablespoon fennel seeds
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil kosher salt and pepper
  • 2 pounds boneless pork loin
  • 2 red onions, quartered
  • 1 pound small white potatoes, quartered
  • 3 firm pears (such as Bartlett or Bosc), cored and quartered

Heat oven to 400° F.

Using the bottom of a heavy pan, crush the fennel seeds. In a small bowl, mix the seeds, the garlic, 2 tablespoons of the oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/4 teaspoon pepper. Rub the mixture over the pork, then place the pork in a large roasting pan.

In a bowl, mix the onions, potatoes, pears, 1 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper, and the remaining oil. Scatter around the pork, trying not to overcrowd the pan or the heat won’t distribute properly and the food will steam. Roast until cooked through, about an hour and 10 minutes (internal temperature 160° F). Transfer the pork to a cutting board and let rest at least 5 minutes before slicing. Serve with the roasted fruit and vegetables. Calories: about 415 per serving.

Butternut Squash Caponata  (Inspired by Mario Batali from “The Chew”)

Makes about 4 ½ cups

NOTE: Try to chop the vegetables all about the same size so they cook at the same time

  • 4 cups or about 1 pound peeled and cubed butternut squash
  • 1 ½ cups chopped onions
  • 1 cup chopped fennel
  • 1 cup chopped celery
  • 1 TBSP unsweetened cocoa powder
  • 2 TBSP honey
  • ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, plus 1-2 TBSP to add into finished dish
  • ½ cup dried currants (you could substitute golden raisins)
  • ¼ cup toasted slivered almonds, pine nuts or hazelnuts
  • 1 TBSP olive oil
  • Salt & pepper

Sauté the vegetables in the olive oil and a generous pinch of salt over medium heat until they start to soften, about 10-12 minutes. Add in the cocoa and ¼ cup balsamic vinegar, honey and currants and toss well, scraping up any browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Continue to cook until the vegetables are tender but not mushy, about another 5-10 minutes more.  When the vegetables are done, turn off the heat and add in the remaining 1-2 TBSP balsamic and a few good grinds of black pepper. Taste and adjust seasonings if needed. The caponata gets better as it sits, so this is the perfect dish to make ahead and keep in the fridge until you need it. Serve at room temperature with pork, turkey, duck, or whatever you like. (It’s great with goat cheese on toast too.) Calories: about 100 per ½ cup.

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Attack of the Killer Cucumber!

I love this time of year. The air leans towards crisp, the leaves hint at a palette of gold and crimson, and my propensity for “glistening” lessens to the point where I can comfortably walk without shvitz (and makeup) running down my face. My affection for autumn began when I was a kid. Since I was born in late August, birthday presents almost always included “school clothes”. Fine with me, I love new clothes (and you thought it was just shoes….) Unfortunately, I’ve always had issues with holding off on wearing new things until they are “weather appropriate”. I’ve gotten a bit better over the years, but as a kid there was NO way I wasn’t going to wear that new item immediately. Since the first week in September is rarely crisp and Fall-y, picture an 11-year-old clad in new wool sweater and corduroy skirt, beads of sweat lining up on forehead and upper lip as she is about to burst into flames on the first day of school. But as soon as the temperature hit below 65, a fashionably dry kid was I.

I’m also mad about this transition time between the seasons, culinary-speaking. Farmer’s markets are busy clearing out the summer crops for pumpkins and apples, giving the cook on a budget plenty opportunity to load up on things that during the height of their growing season are priced like platinum. Meat should be $5 per pound, NOT tomatoes. And if you are lucky enough to have “connections” (a.k.a., friends or family with vegetable gardens), you’re in fat city. Gardeners are only too happy to pawn off zucchini, tomatoes, cucumbers, beans and anything else they can shove at you, because they have been drowning in it for weeks. To you, this culinary jackpot is like vegetable Christmas morning. To them the garden’s bounty has become a horticultural version of “Invasion of the Body Snatchers”….they’re EVERYWHERE!!! Whether you cook or not doesn’t really matter. They just want to unload the stuff, and if you don’t ask for something you’re likely to find produce tucked into any bag or receptacle you brought into the house. Gives a whole new meaning to the phrase “is that a zucchini in your pocket or are you just happy to see me…”

Another good thing about this embarrassment of end of season riches is a cook becomes far more creative. When tomatoes are new to the market, just eating them with salt and pepper is sublime. When you are up to your eyeballs in them, you sauce and jam, pie and pickle. Who among us hasn’t had zucchini bread, zucchini pie, zucchini soup, zucchini muffins, or zucchini lasagna? I’ve even had someone serve me zucchini candy along side zucchini ice cream! Awful, yes, but I admired their gumption. So since summer is now a memory, squeeze all you can out of its culinary cornucopia. After all, it’s going to be a while before that next perfect tomato hits the plate…

One of the things I remember growing up was the end of summer cucumbers in the garden. Just when you thought a cucumber couldn’t get bigger, there they were, lined up like green Louisville Sluggers threatening to take over the backyard, and possibly the neighborhood. So what do you do when ‘attack of the killer cucumbers’ hits? Make pickles of course, specifically Senfgurken (mustard pickles). Reminiscent of the sweet & sour flavor of bread and butter pickles (but bigger and much better), these are the wonderful homemade pickles I grew up on. Best of all, they are the perfect way to get rid of those giant cucumbers taking over your garden at the end of the summer.

Senfgurken (Mom’s Mustard Pickles)

Makes about 8 cups of pickles

  • 5 big fat cucumbers (about 5 pounds)
  • 1 medium to large onion, thinly sliced into half-moons
  • 3 cups apple cider vinegar
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 2 cups water
  • 2 tsp mustard seeds
  • 1 ½ tsp mixed pickling spices
  • 1 TBSP salt, plus extra salt for the jars

Peel and scoop out the seeds from the cucumbers. Cut into 1” thick slices – you should have 9-10 cups of slices. Soak the slices in a large bowl of water with 1 TBSP salt about 3-4 hours.

Add the vinegar, 2 cups water, sugar, mustard seeds and pickling spices into a large pot and bring to a boil. Drain the cucumbers, add to the pickling brine and when the pot has just come to a second boil, turn off the heat. Slice 1 large onion in half, then in very thin slices. Add about a teaspoon of salt (for a two cup jar, less for smaller jars) into the bottom of jar, then scoop in the cukes, lay thinly sliced onions on top, and pour syrup over. Tightly close the jars and let cool to room temperature, then store in the fridge for at least a week before eating. They get better the longer they sit in the brine.

These will keep in the refrigerator for quite a while, but once you try them, I doubt they’ll last long!

Killer heels

Important meeting today — now let me see…resume? Check. Briefcase? Check. Well-rehearsed pitch? Check. Killer heels? CHECK! Killer Heels? Whenever I want to make a good impression at a meeting, interview, pitch, whatever, a pair of killer heels are firmly affixed to my feet. They make me Bond…Jane Bond, and give me license to knock em’ dead! And yes, I’ve read what they say about high heels being bad for you, blah, blah, blah. But they say the same thing about butter so I don’t trust them. A great pair of heels empowers you. Put them on and you can’t help but stand a little straighter, a little taller (ok, a LOT taller), more powerful. In a word: Confident. That they also make your legs look fabulous doesn’t hurt either. Hey, I’m just sayin’… Over the course of my career there’ve been many times when I’ve been the only girl in the room and face it — it can be damn intimidating. But step up into a pair of 4½ inch Guccis and I’m QUEEN OF THE WORLD!!! The boys can’t do that! (Well, some can but I promised not to mention them by name.) Plus it’s a hell of a lot of fun to stand next to a puffed-up Napoleon as he spews and flaps, all the while towering over him like the Statue of Liberty, staring down at the bald spot peeking out under his bad comb-over. Yes, awfully sweet…

So whenever you need a little ‘boost’ in confidence, haul out some killer heels, (boys too, and you know who you are), climb on up and KICK SOME ASS!

Naturally, with killer heels go killer recipes and a killer cocktail. The wild mushroom tart and watermelon salad are great late summer supper party. They are pretty simple, much can be done ahead, and are sure to impress your guests. Begin with Limoncello mint sparklers, end with vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of good balsamic and you’ll slay ‘em!

Wild mushroom Tart (Adapted from Gourmet)

Serves 6

I found this recipe years ago on epicurious.com and have been making it ever since, varying the mushrooms around what is available. The original recipe calls for you to make the pastry dough from scratch first. Once I made it and burnt the shell while blind baking (yes, I DO burn things too…likely I was distracted picking out the perfect shoes to wear.) I was under a time crunch so I ran to the market and picked up a frozen pie crust.  Know what? I’ve been using one ever since!
  • 1 sheet or pie tin of ready-made crust (if you are using the unroll and bake sheet, put the sheet in a 9″ tart pan with removable bottom, or pie plate.)
  • 1TBSP unsalted butter
  • 1 TBSP vegetable oil
  • 3/4 pound mixed fresh wild mushrooms such as cremini, oyster, and chanterelle, quartered lengthwise
  • 2 TBSP finely chopped shallot
  • 1 tsp chopped fresh thyme
  • 3/4 tsp salt
  • 3/8 tsp black pepper
  • 1/2 cup crème fraîche
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 1 whole large egg
  • 1 large egg yolk

Make shell: Blind bake pie shell according to package directions. I like the roll out kind so I can put it into my 9” removable bottom tart pan. You can do same, or just make it in the tin it came in. Blind baking simply means to prick the crust with a fork all over so it doesn’t puff up, then put a piece of buttered foil, butter side down in tart or pie pan. Fill pan completely with pie weights, dry beans or dry rice –filling completely prevents the edges from shrinking. Bake according to package directions. Remove the foil with weights. If you use rice or beans, they can no longer be cooked, so I just put in a jar with a lid when cool and keep with my baking pans and use over and over again. Cool baked shell completely in pan on a rack, about 15 minutes.

While the pastry bakes, heat butter and oil in a large heavy skillet over moderately high heat until foam subsides, then sauté mushrooms, shallot, thyme, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1/4 tsp pepper, stirring frequently, until mushrooms are tender and any liquid given off is evaporated, 8 to 10 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool to room temperature.

[Timing note:  You can bake off the crust and make the mushroom thyme shallot mixture ahead of time, then pick up the recipe from there when you want to make and serve. That makes this a great recipe to do on an impromptu Friday after work supper party.]

Whisk together crème fraîche, heavy cream, whole egg, yolk, and remaining 1/4 tsp salt and 1/8 tsp pepper in a medium bowl until combined.

Fill and bake tart: Reduce oven temperature to 325°F. Scatter mushrooms evenly in tart shell and pour custard over them. Bake tart in pan on a baking sheet until custard is just set and slightly puffed, 35 to 45 minutes.

Cool tart in pan on rack at least 20 minutes, then remove side of pan if you are using a removable bottom tart pan. Serve tart warm or at room temperature. Calories: 370/serving

Watermelon, ricotta salata, pine nuts and arugula salad (Adapted from  Bon Apetit)

Serves 6

This recipe is based on Cat Cora’s watermelon and feta salad, and you could certainly substitute feta, walnuts and mint if you’d like to change it up. I’ve added arugula and olives to the original recipe to give it a little more substance. I often have this for dinner all by itself with pita chips (they make great croutons crumbled up.) It’s great when it’s so hot and sticky out that you can’t even bear the thought of turning on anything that gives off heat…(um, sorry fellas…)
  • 3 cups baby arugula, washed and spun dry (or use the pre-washed stuff to save a bit of time)
  • 24 pitted oil cured olives roughly chopped (these are the black wrinkly ones)
  • 3 TBSP thinly sliced fresh basil
  • 2 TBSP fresh lime juice
  • 2 TBSP extra-virgin olive oil
  • A 4-pound seedless watermelon, cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 6 cups)
  • ½ pound ricotta salata (salted dry ricotta cheese),  cut into 1/4-inch cubes
  • ¼ cup pine nuts, toasted

Whisk first 3 ingredients in small bowl. Season dressing with salt and pepper. Spread out arugula on chilled platter sprinkle with a pinch of salt and pepper and drizzle with 1 TBSP dressing. Place watermelon and ricotta salata in bowl, drizzle with remaining dressing and toss. Scatter on platter over the arugula. Sprinkle with pine nuts and chopped olives. Calories: 270/serving

Limoncello mint sparklers

Serves 6

These are just plain damn fine!  However, be forewarned — that limoncello will sneak up on you…(those innocent little lemons…shocking!) 😉

  • 1 cup loosely packed fresh mint leaves
  • 1 cup chilled limoncello
  • ½ cup fresh lemon juice
  • 3 cups chilled sparkling water

Combine mint and limoncello in a bowl, then gently bruise mint with a pestle or wooden spoon to release flavor. Chill, covered, 1 hour. Pour limoncello through a fine mesh sieve into a pitcher, pressing firmly on mint and then discarding it. (NOTE: this can be done ahead too and stored in the fridge until you are ready to serve.) Just before serving, stir in lemon juice, sparkling water, and enough ice to fill pitcher. Calories: 105/glass

Article first published as Killer Heels on Technorati.

Talking to strangers

I met Fritz the other day. This is obviously his touring ensemble.

Funny thing….when you stop going to an office or meeting with clients everyday, you stop talking to people. And you begin talking to yourself….a lot…OUT LOUD.  Yes, I’m afraid it’s true. It’s not just a word here or there, but a running conversation, BOTH SIDES!  Hell, I even argue with me! Something had to be done before people started to cross the street when they saw me coming. The solution? Talk to strangers! Ok, I know you were probably taught not to, but that was when you were 5. You are big now so go ahead, talk to ‘em.  I’m not suggesting you begin a heady discussion of existentialism or spill your soul (which is sure to amplify the crazy and those folks in the produce department at Whole Foods have long memories). Discuss the weather. Or better yet, FOOD! Talk to the check out person or the guy making your large ice coffee, dark, half a sugar. And if there is someone with a dog, TERRIFIC! Dogs are great icebreakers, provided they don’t pee on you when you say hello. Plus, if the person attached to the leash is cute you may get something more out of it than a brief respite from looking nuts chattering to yourself.

One of my favorite things to discuss is how to prepare something I’m buying in the market. The other day I was discussing fennel with the very friendly check out person in Trader Joe’s ….

 Roast Chicken Breast with fennel, 2 ways 

Serves 2 for dinner, or one with leftovers for sandwiches and whatnot.

This is my favorite way to make chicken breasts for dinner or to use in other recipes. Chicken roasted on the bone with the skin is juicier with far more flavor than the boneless, skinless kind, and you can always remove skin and bones before serving if you prefer. Or, nibble on the crispy chicken skin while removing the bones in the kitchen, then serve your oh so juicy and healthy chicken to your guests (shhh….it will be our secret.)

For the chicken and fennel, the first way:

  • 2 split chicken breasts, skin on bone in
  • 2 medium to large bulbs of fennel
  • 2 TBSP olive oil, or olive oil cooking spray
  • salt & pepper (if you have leftover rosemary salt from the roasted potato chips, it is great here too!)
  • Your favorite fresh herbs for chicken (in other words, 2 tender rosemary branches, about 4 inches long, or 6-8 small sprigs of thyme, or two large sage leaves)

Preheat over for 400°F. Line a sided cookie sheet or shallow baking pan with aluminum foil. Spray with cooking spray, or drizzle with a little olive oil.

Pat the chicken breasts dry, and make a pocket under the skin by loosening the skin from the meat with your fingers, leaving one side attached. Take sprig of rosemary, thyme or one sage leaf and tuck under the skin of the breast. Repeat with the other breast. Drizzle 2 TSP olive oil over the chicken and rub it over both the front and back of the breasts.  Liberally sprinkle both sides with salt and pepper (or rosemary salt if you have it).

Trim off the fronds/stalks off the fennel bulbs and remove any banged up parts of the outer leaves. Take one of the fennel bulbs and cut two one-inch thick slices crosswise at the widest part so you are making two cross-section rounds. These will be your roasting rack. Place the fennel on the baking pan and spray or sprinkle with 1 tsp olive oil and a pinch of salt and pepper.  Place each chicken breast on one of the fennel circles.

Bake for 35-45 minutes (if you are using a convection oven, it will probably be closer to 40, conventional oven, 45 ).The chicken is done when the internal temperature is 165 degrees. If you don’t have an instant read thermometer, you can cut into the chicken – if it is pink inside, it needs more baking, if it is not and the juices are clear, it’s done!

For the fennel, part deux:

  • Juice from ½ a lemon
  • 2 tsp good extra virgin olive oil
  • Salt & Pepper to taste

While the chicken is roasting, Take the remaining fennel bulb and cut in half vertically through the core.  Cut out the core, and slice the fennel into thin strips (about ¼ inch). Toss with the juice from ½ a lemon and a two tsp. of good olive oil. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Chill until chicken is ready.

When the chicken is done, take it out of the oven and let it rest on the tray for 5-10 minutes. If you like the vegetable with a little more color, pop the fennel back in the oven for those 5 minutes to brown it a little. Serve the chicken with the roasted fennel, and the chilled fennel salad.

Calories: For the chicken, approximately 300 calories/breast, 250 without the skin. For the fennel, either way, 135/serving.

Variations:  There are a lot of ways you can adapt this recipe simply by changing up what you tuck under the skin of the breast. I’ve done this with goat cheese, tapenade (olive paste), fig jam, apricot, peach or apple slices, brie. You can also mix in things to the goat cheese like dried cranberries or finely chopped fresh herbs.  And you can use other vegetables instead or with the fennel. Root vegetables work best here. I like 1 inch cross slices of onion, or better yet, slice a potato into 1 inch rounds and add that too. The juices will absorb into the potatoes and you will have amazing roast potatoes.