November 28, 2013

Indulgent Oyster Dressing

Oyster Dressing
It's not that I'm against traditions--there are many that I love--but, for the most part, I'm not very good at doing the same thing over and over, year in and year out. This is particularly true of just about anything to do with Thanksgiving.

Maybe my inability to stick to Thanksgiving traditions has to do with the years I spent working in restaurants and hotels; I worked on the major holidays. Even after I left those days behind and Mr. B and I were first married, he worked on the holidays--one year, Mr. B was in Hong Kong for Thanksgiving! Eventually, though, our lives settled into a semblance of normalcy and we went about enjoying Thanksgiving together. Trouble is, without any family nearby, we were left to our own devices.

Some years we wound up gathered around a friend's holiday table, while other years we wandered the beach and munched cheeseburgers. Other years, we cooked our own feast, roasting a turkey, mixing cocktails, watching football--just the two of us. While Mr. B was attending to the details of selecting the wine, heating up the hot tub, and setting the table, I would hum away in the kitchen creating all the glorious side dishes. And really, while the turkey is good, it's the side dishes that really make the meal.

No matter what we did from year to year, both Mr. B and I always dreamed of sinking our forks into a mound of oyster dressing--there's just nothing quite like that briny, pillowy soft goodness. Of course, I made the traditional family recipe, but along the way, I couldn't help tinkering with tradition and coming up with a recipe all my own.

It took me many years to arrive at what I consider the perfect oyster dressing. In fact, I just finalized this recipe yesterday. It's a play on the traditional family recipe, my famous mushroom bread pudding, and few new ingredients because, well, I just couldn't resist.

The final result is so delicious that I'm hoping we don't gobble it up before we get to our destination dinner table later this afternoon.

November 25, 2013

A Perfect Pair

Green Tomato Chutney and Parmesan
 If the old adage "The best things in life are free" has any truth to it, then it must encompass green tomatoes. Ah, the last crop, that no matter how warm the days, the nights are far too cold for one last harvest. So there they hang, big pale green orbs on dried out, almost dead plants. And then, just before the birds set upon them to pick them apart, I pluck them from their vines and carry them off to my kitchen where I'll turn their paleness into heavenly delights.

Recently, I sang the praises of the most delectable Green Tomato Casserole that I made after discovering it in Edna Lewis's cookbook. But, there were far too many green tomatoes to use them all up in that dish, though, I assure you, it was so good, so tasty, that if my senses had left me, I would surely have given it a try. Instead, I decided to cook up a batch of my green tomato jam, which is much more a chutney. Thankfully, I had enough tomatoes leftover to net a good half dozen jars.

Perhaps, you're wondering what the devil you'd ever use this luscious condiment on. Or rather, you already know how delicious it is dolloped on roasted chicken or as a glaze for a country ham. However well-acquainted you are with this mix, I implore you to try it spread over lightly toasted crostini and topped with a thin sliver of aged Parmesan, Gouda, or really good cheddar.

This is the perfect appetizer to set out for your Thanksgiving guests to munch on while they're waiting to sink their teeth into the turkey. The sharp, spicy flavors and hint of sweetness pair perfectly with wine. Put any remaining jam into a pretty serving bowl and set it on the dinner table where it will proudly compete with the cranberry relish for top billing.

November 22, 2013

Fennel and Citrus Roasted Chicken

Citrus and Fennel Roasted Chicken
Roast chicken may be the simplest of meals, but mastering the recipe can be anything but easy. Too many people are disappointed by dried out, flabby, flavorless roast chicken. I'm sure it was this very disappointment that big grocery stores sought to capitalize on when they started offering rotissiere chicken already cooked up and ready for any shopper's basket.

 Years ago, Mr. B introduced me to brine. It's a simple step that goes a long way in ensuring that the chicken you pull out of the oven is tender, moist, and flavorful. Admittedly, there were times when against my better judgement and in the interest of time, I forged ahead and roasted my chicken without first letting it sit in a brine, and I will say that every time, no matter what flavoring agents I used, I was always sorely disappointed. Suffice it to say, there is not a flavor profile in the world that will compensate for a dry bird.

I've played around with the brine and often add other ingredients to the mix. Rosemary or juniper berries are wonderful flavoring agents, and I can't say enough about the wonders that pure maple syrup and good bourbon will do for a turkey, but mostly, I like to use a simple salt and sugar brine then add flavor by roasting the bird with a variety of fresh herbs and fruits.

If you're in charge of cooking this year's Thanksgiving turkey, this recipe could be just the practice you need to master next week's big bird. While this recipe will need some tinkering--and a larger vessel--to accommodate your turkey, soaking it overnight in a simple brine will make your guests clamor for seconds.

November 21, 2013

Best Ever Butternut Squash Soup

Perfect Butternut Squash Soup
Several years back, I became obsessed with butternut squash soup. I'm not sure where I got the idea, because when my obsession began, I'd never even eaten butternut squash soup. I do however, have a very vague memory of making it one Thanksgiving for 25 people, which required finding 25 soup bowls.


Thankfully, my original recipe was simple and tasty and now, years later, I've developed a new technique to turn out velvety, deeply hued, nutritional goodness that will keep your guests clamoring for more. While this is the perfect recipe for your Thanksgiving feast, I like to keep pitchers of it in my refrigerator for a quick lunch or satisfying snack.

Before you get started, this isn't one of those overly cloying and sweet butternut squash soups--this soup is savory and earthy--just the way butternut squash is supposed to taste. The bottom line? This is the best ever butternut squash soup.

November 20, 2013

Something Fishy

Mr. B's Craving
I never have to worry about Mr. B coming home with stray lipstick on his collar. But sometimes, the man will come up with cravings that make me wonder what he's been up to, or rather, which food blogs he's been visiting.

I'm not paranoid, but certainly, you can see my concern over a recent request. One afternoon as Mr. B and I were catching up on the day's events, we naturally began discussing our dinner plans when Mr. B said to me, "Hey, you know what I'd really like to have for dinner tonight?" I couldn't imagine, so I encouraged him to go on.  And just like that, without a moment's hesitation he blurted it out: "Tuna melts."

As one could well imagine, I was stunned. I'd never in my life made tuna melts. Where, I wondered, did he come up with this idea? Just like any intelligent wife looking to trap her husband into a confession, I yawned, feigning boredom, and randomly asked a few questions, but try as I did, Mr. B never copped. I could see that I would have to take a more direct tact.

"Wherever," I asked, "did you come up with the idea for a tuna melt?" He shrugged his shoulders. "I don't know. Isn't it weird? I can't even remember when I last had one," he said, "but, I know I want one."

I eyed him suspiciously; surely, I'd be able to detect any cracks in his demeanor. "So," he asked, "will you make them for dinner?" I nodded. Mr. B is a lucky man to have a wife like me, I thought, as I wandered off to make tuna melts.

Retro? You bet. Delicious? True enough. Regular menu fare? Undoubtedly.

November 19, 2013

Easy As Pie

Apple Crumb Tart
Mr. B has learned to live with me. Not that I'm a hard person to live with, but I definitely color our lives with my creativity. Living with a creative person is fun--and unpredictable. I know this first hand because Mr. B has his creative side, too. While he lets his creative juices loose on his drum set or guitar, I like to throw down in the kitchen.

Contrary to what many people think about me, I don't do much planning when it comes to cooking. Sometimes I get an idea in my head and it takes me days to execute it, but usually, my creativity strikes when I'm rummaging around in the refrigerator for a snack. That's usually when I spy some forgotten item and then BAM! I decide to make something--right then and there. Mr. B has learned to accept this trait in me; he's used to walking in the kitchen to find me immersed in some random cooking project, pots and pans strewn about, flour on the floor, and the oven cranked up.

But, like any great artist, I keep a few tools on hand so I don't have to waste my creative juices on mundane tasks. Take the other day, for example, when I opened the refrigerator and saw the apples. These weren't your typical grocery store apples, gassed to last for months; these were farm fresh apples, imperfections and all, and they appeared to be fading ever so slightly. I knew I'd need to use them quickly and then just like that, I was making this apple crumb tart. Thankfully, I keep a stash of cream cheese dough tucked into the back of my refrigerator to get me from inspiration to execution in under an hour. The best thing about this dough is that it's versatile enough to go from sweet to savory, depending on your mood. I like that in a dough.

Just as I was taking the tart out of the oven, in walked Mr. B. He didn't even bat an eye at my early morning artistry, but he did pause for a moment to remind me that I should probably pick up some ice cream at the store.

November 18, 2013

The Perfect Peanut Butter Cookie

Two-Bite Treats
I've always loved a good peanut butter cookie, trouble is, some recipes turn out cookies more like hockey pucks than delectable treats.

When it comes to peanut butter cookies, I like a cookie that's dense and rich--almost truffle- like in the interior, but still with a good crumb. Does that make me sound like a high-maintenance cookie eater? Maybe, but unlike some people who fall into only one of the two cookie camps--chewy or crispy--I can easily sink my teeth into either one or the other without discrimination.

My favorite peanut butter cookie recipe is one that I've been making for years. The recipe came right off the back of  a bag of sugar and it appealed to my sense of laziness. It requires only 4 ingredients and consistently turns out some of the best peanut butter cookies that I've ever put two lips to.

So what was I doing messing with tradition when instead of reaching for my well-used cookie sheets and I reached instead for my mini muffin pans? Admittedly, it was laziness once again--the mini muffin pans just happened to be a wee bit closer to my outstretched hand. However, I had another reason: I wanted to make a cookie that was a cross between a decadent truffle and a chewy cookie, but, I also wanted my cookie to have a bit of that crumbly texture to it that requires eating it over a napkin--or the kitchen sink.

Too much to ask for you say? I think not! Where would our culinary history be if we didn't go into the kitchen, steeling ourselves against possible failure, and taking a few risks? Exactly. The result of my fearlessness with peanut butter cookie dough and the muffin pan? An amazing little bite of peanut butter heaven. These cookies are everything I ever dreamed of, except be forewarned--these are two-bite treats and you could easily find yourself eating them by the dozen.

November 17, 2013

Get Shorty

Braised Short Ribs with Gremolata and soft polenta
Who doesn't love a good comedy? And while I'd like to sit here all morning and rehash the plot of the 1990's movie, Get Shorty, I have more important things to write. Don't get me wrong, I love John Travolta as Chili Palmer and who better to play Shorty than Danny Devito? But, seriously, we need to talk about short ribs.

Over the last several years, short ribs have become a hot food trend appearing in everything from quesadillas to grilled cheese, and with good reason: when cooked properly, the meat is tender, rich, and well-flavored. However, short ribs are fatty and need a little extra special attention; you can't just braise them and spoon the sauce over the meat or you'll be overwhelmed by the grease and underwhelmed by the dish.

There are 3 cuts, or kinds, of short ribs: boneless, English cut, and flanken style. Most likely, you'll find the English cut in your grocery store. This cut has the meat on top and the bone underneath, but sometimes, there will be a thin cut of meat under the bone, too. When making short ribs, you want to get the English cut as the marrow and bone will flavor the cooking liquid and add to the richness of the finished dish. Boneless short ribs are excellent for a meaty ragu and flanken style short ribs are crosscut (with bones separating the meat) and are fabulous marinaded and grilled Korean style.

Here's something else to learn: if you don't see a particular cut at your butcher counter, you can special order--by the number. Interestingly, meat cuts vary in name, not just geographically, but sometimes even by store. If you're serious about getting the right cut of meat for your next recipe, visit the North American Meat Association website and sign up for access to their meat cuts guide. Then, the next time you're in the supermarket, you can saunter over to the butcher and order your meat by the number.

Until then, let's get shorty--ribs, that is...

November 13, 2013

The Last Crop

Green Tomato Casserole
I've been dying to make fried green tomatoes, but summer faded and then fall, too, and honestly, I just couldn't drum up much enthusiasm. Fried green tomatoes are best served with a spoonful of shrimp remoulade and that's about as summery as it gets.

But, I haven't lost my enthusiasm for green tomatoes. In fact, I've become even more obsessive about them over the last several weeks , especially since I have a good view of my withering garden right from my kitchen window; I've been eying those green tomatoes for awhile now, so when my good friend M handed me Enda Lewis's cookbook, The Gift of Southern Cooking, I took it as an omen. Of course, Edna Lewis would know what to do with green tomatoes and when I opened the book to the exact page that this recipe was on, I knew a greater force was at work.

What can I say about this casserole other than if I were on a long walk to the electric chair, I would request it for my last meal. It is ethereal and full of flavor; the thyme and nutmeg are magical in pairing with the bitterness of the green tomatoes and the buttery bread crumbs. It's everything that Southern food should be--simple, flavorful, and soul-satisfying.

I encourage you to make this recipe, even if it means climbing over your fence and sneaking undetected into your neighbors yard to steal the last of his tomato crop. I encourage you to do whatever it takes to get your hands on green tomatoes; this dish will not disappoint you.

November 11, 2013

Southern Fried

Pan Fried Chicken

Everyone has a favorite food. One which they may only crave occasionally, but when they do, the craving is so fierce and undeterred that it turns them from a rational and thinking being into a single-minded and irrational soul. The realization that food could could create such determined passion came to me at an early age when I discovered my unwavering love of fried chicken.

I’m not sure how I developed my fondness for fried chicken, but I’m sure it had something to do with the fact that we lived just up the street from a fried chicken restaurant. The entirety of their menu was comprised of baskets of fried chicken and steaming bowls of mashed potatoes served alongside pitchers of gravy. While I had a soft spot for the potatoes, it was the golden, crispy pieces of chicken that won my heart.

We only ate there once, but I remember it in vivid detail from the red gingham napkins and sky blue Pyrex™ bowls heaped with potatoes, to the gigantic plastic rooster that stood watch at the cash register.

In the summer when it was warm enough to open the windows, I would drift off to sleep as the smell of fried chicken came wafting through the house on the evening breeze. It’s not surprising, then, that the whole of my small being became obsessed with eating fried chicken, and while my mother wasn’t the sort to fry food, it didn’t stop me from relentlessly hounding her to change her ways. I mean, really, what sort of a mother won't fry chicken?

Thankfully, by the time I was a teenager, she'd had a change of heart and quickly mastered one of the best fried chicken recipes that I'd ever put my two lips on--it was magnificent with a thick, crispy golden batter that cracked between my teeth and succulent meat that was juicy to the bone. As you might imagine, I couldn't get enough of it, but since it was so much work, unfortunately, it only made the menu a handful of times each year.

I hate to think that I've become my mother (though I'd be honored), but when it comes to frying chicken, Mr. B would say I just don't do it often enough, so this weekend I relinquished to his demands and decided to feed my craving along the way. 

This recipe is a shout out to old school Southern fried chicken. It's fried in a pan and then crisped in the oven. It's fabulous, easy, and no work at all. In fact, it made me promise to fry chicken more often.

November 07, 2013

Fond about the Fronds

Fennel and Parmesan Spread
The holidays are just around the corner--ahem, Thanksgiving is just weeks away--and most people are in the market for a delicious appetizer, I decided to bring my Fennel and Parmesan spread back for an encore.

Of course, I have other reasons. I just finished catering a party for 175 people at a local art gallery last night, and after hand rolling 175 truffles--and then dipping them in chocolate--my fingers aren't so nimble today.

That's another story entirely, though, because I've discovered that catering is a lot like live theater and anything that can go awry will. Period. So, I wake up this morning with nothing but gratitude for Mr. B and his willingness to roll up his sleeves and get me through whatever I manage to get myself into--with amazing results. He definitely plays Ricky to my crazy Lucy episodes.

So, back to the catering event. I decided to put this number on the menu simply because it really is a fabulous little workhorse of an appetizer and people love it. I swear, I get more requests for this recipe than I can count. You don't need an oven to pull it off either, for it cooks wonderfully in a crockpot and you can whip up enough to serve an army. It's perfect with sourdough bread and a glass of white wine and it will go equally well with a Thanksgiving turkey or a Christmas roast.

Make this. You won't be sorry--and neither will your guests.

November 04, 2013

Peanut Butter and Pecan Banana Bread

Decadent Banana Bread
Last weekend, I got to thinking about banana bread. There's finally enough of a chill in the air to necessitate turning on the oven in the early mornings, not because I'm thinking about things to bake, but because this old house can get pretty chilly.

It seemed a shame to let all that gas go to waste, but I couldn't think of a thing to make, until I spied the last of the bananas that I'd bought the week before. They were a deep yellow and speckled like the sort of eggs that Welsummers lay.

I'm not sure how the whole thing came about, but somewhere between thinking about deeply speckled hen's eggs, drinking my second cafe au lait, and finishing off a crossword puzzle, it dawned on me to not only make a loaf of banana bread, but to stud it with peanut butter chips and toasted pecans, and then, just for fun, top it off with a drizzle of peanut butter glaze.

All before 8 a.m. Really, all before breakfast. So, when Mr. B walked into the house from his office just after I pulled it from the oven, he gave me that quizzical look that he always gives me when he can't quite figure out what the heck I've been up to. Surely, he could smell the banana bread, but he couldn't figure out what had inspired my early morning creativity. Instead, the best he could do was pour a another cup of coffee, take a deep breath, and tell me, "Boy, it sure smells good in here."