Friday, October 29, 2010

Ingredients

Gourmet cooking (or at least my version of it) is all about ingredients, love, and confidence.  Technique can be learned.  Experience and knowledge come with time and practice.

Love is very important in cooking. Does that sound fanciful and silly?  Not to me!  Love of people is first and foremost.  If you are a single person and cook mostly for yourself, you can appreciate the notion of taking care of yourself!  Giving yourself the very best in health, taste, and experience.  It all rests on your shoulders :)  If you are IN LOVE and cooking for your sweetheart, then you know what it means to want to please.  Food can create romance, excitement and a feeling of great care.  Spending some time in the kitchen creating a delicious meal for your love gives great pleasure to both the cook and the eater.

My arena is family.  I have a husband that I love in epic proportions.  He's my best friend, and we've enjoyed eating together for 24 years (19 married).  We discovered good food when we were in college, and despite pizza and burgers being the mainstay of our diet, we enjoyed the trip to the gourmet cheese shop for some brie, pate', prosciutto, baguette, olives and some nice wine.  When I graduated and began living in my own house, that's when I discovered my love of real cooking!  And I had this skinny boyfriend that could eat and eat, so I cooked and cooked!  We had friends over often, and I cooked for them.  I branched out to having family holidays at our house, and I loved the challenge of putting the huge meal together, and then seeing the looks and hearing the sighs of contentment filled me with great pleasure.

Then all these sassy kids came along, and it was about quantity as well as quality!  Turns out my kids like to eat good food too, and it still gives me great pleasure to spend time planning and cooking and serving, only to watch husband and children gobble and sigh and thank me profusely.  Knowing that I pleased and filled them with tasty and nourishing food is a great source of happiness for me.  We have a large extended family and lots of friends that we enjoy having over for meals, and it never ceases to amaze me at the energy I get from having company.  Food shows love.  Love of food shows love for the cook!

Since I wrote about confidence in the first post of this blog, I'll leave you to re-read that in your spare time.

And now we get to ingredients.  In case you missed it, I'm kind of fussy about ingredients.  What goes into the food I cook, or what is in the products I purchase, is very important to me!  Whole, natural, organic, simple things are at the top of my list.  Not only are they the best for us in terms of health, but they are far above all others in terms of taste.

Whole grains - like whole wheat flour, brown rice, whole oats, stone ground corn - all have oodles of flavor.  They stand alone on their own for flavor, but also enhance and stand up to other ingredients.  Fruits and vegetables in their whole and natural state taste amazing!  Frozen has a place, but fresh should usually come first.  Meat that has been raised with integrity and care is both good for humans and good for animals. 

Wouldn't you rather eat a chicken that has been running around eating bugs, or a cow that was allowed to graze on grass in a field, or fish that swim in their native waters?  Eggs from chickens that have happy homes and air to breathe taste completely different than eggs essentially forced from miserable hens in cages who are fed a disgusting diet of soy and chemicals.  If you have not watched the movie "Food, Inc." please take the time to do so.  "Fast Food Nation" is definitely worth seeing, too, though I would say it is not for younger children. 

The flavor of beef from a cow that has grazed peacefully on grass is not even comparable to factory-raised, feed-lot beef.  There is a rich, intensely beefy taste that can only be described as heavenly.  What about the products that also come from cows - milk, cheese, yogurt and butter?  I guarantee that the cow's life and diet and care determine the flavor and integrity of those products as well.

Buy local!  Sounds corny and trendy, but it matters.  Supporting small, local farms keeps them in business, helps them to continue to raise and produce excellent products, and enhances the life of your community.  Visit a farm, see the crops and the animals and the garden.  Go to farmer's markets and co-ops and TALK to people.  Talk a lot.  Find sources and make friends.  If a farmer cares about his family and his animals and his land, he is more likely to care about the people who buy products from him as well.  He will go out of his way to please you, because YOU, the consumer, are his life-line.  Whew!  Gotta be careful not to get into an anti-factory-farm-big-government tirade here :)

That brings us to FAT.  One of my favorite things in the world, and essential in gourmet and delicious cooking.  Real fat, full fat, animal fat.  Butter from happy cows, naturally rendered lard from happy pigs, extra virgin olive oil, virgin coconut oil.  You should hear me wax poetic about heavy cream.  Think of it this way:  if the product has gone through nothing harsh or chemical to get from source to your kitchen, buy it.  If it has been refined, heated, whipped, 'fat reduced', treated and abused, leave it on the shelf.  And if you are concerned about the "dangers of saturated fat" then I strongly encourage you to read both sides of the research - medical and natural - and draw your own conclusions.  Again, pick up a copy of "Nourishing Traditions" and see what Sally Fallon has to say on the subject.

SALT is my friend.  But only real salt.  That's actually the brand I buy:  Redmond Real Salt.  It is a salt taken from ancient sea beds and the minerals are left intact.  The salt most Americans buy is "table salt" which is bleached, dried, heated, and treated with chemicals.  It has a sharp bite and bitter taste to it, straight on the tongue.  Redmond Real Salt has a delicate flavor that works perfectly in all cooking and seasoning.  No, I'm not a paid spokesperson :)  There are other fine natural sea salts on the market - just make sure it's not lily white.  Do you love seasoned salt?  Maybe a Lawry's type of thing?  Skip it, and buy something to mix with your good salt.  I get a 14.5 ounce bottle of "Kirkland Organic No-Salt Seasoning" at Costco and add it to a shaker with my salt.  It has 21 organic herbs and spices.  And it goes on everything.  Right now it's on pumpkin seeds roasting in the oven!  The container at Costco costs a few dollars and lasts a very long time.  I even make the salt blend and give it as gifts.

SWEET, how we love sweet here in America.  I am not one of those healthy people who avoids sweets.  I'm a mom of 6 kids, for pete's sake - they want sweets!  Moderation in all things, I say, and we try to be judicial.  When you are cooking with sweeteners, like anything else, you want to look for the best quality and most natural form.  Organic cane juice crystals are my go-to for a 'white sugar' substitute.  Regular white sugar is bleached, refined, heated, treated and crystallized.  Skip it.  Pure maple syrup is great for baking and of course topping pancakes.  Raw honey from a smart and local beekeeper is our preferred honey.  We use it in bread, tea, on toast, and as a base for some home made sore throat or cough remedies.

Now you all will fuss and tell me how expensive these things are, or that you live in a rural area and can't get to a gourmet shop or natural foods store, or there's no Costco for 800 miles.  Stop fussing! as I holler at my kids.  If you're reading this, you have internet and therefore you can order everything I mentioned while you sit in your jammies.  Ok, maybe not a side of beef, but everything else.  And cost?  I promise you this:  when you cook with the very best ingredients and eat whole foods, you will eat less.  No joke.  And guess what?  You don't have to change everything this week or month or year!  Replace one item at a time - start with salt!  Or butter!  Or eggs!  If you don't taste and feel a difference, please let me know.

I am not a doctor, I don't even play one on television.  I quit watching doctor shows when ER went off the air.  Still bitter about that one.  Anyway, please don't take my advice without doing your research and even talking to your own health care professional. 

Then, tonight, bake a nice organic potato, and top it with real butter, full-fat sour cream, real salt and freshly ground pepper, and a little bit of freshly snipped chives or green onions.  Then sit down, close your eyes, and really taste it.  Taste each ingredient, each part of the experience.  Eat it slowly.  You don't need a steak or even a salad to go with it.  Think of the farmer that grew the potato, the cow that ate grass and contributed to the butter and sour cream.  Think of some ancient sea far away that provided the salt.  Be grateful that you can find these things at your store!  And then open your eyes and look at your family.  Count your blessings, tell them you love them, and listen to their "thanks!" for the good food.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Salad Dressing

Not to be TOO sassy, but did you know you can make your own salad dressing?

And that you can save oodles of money, as well as benefit your health and wellness?

Yep. 

This one's for Brenda!

We here at the Sassy Family tend to eat mostly all natural and organic foods.  We're far from perfect and consistent, but generally we eat healthy stuff.  What that means at our house might look different than what it means at yours.  We eat butter, salt, cream, whole milk, meat, veggies, sugar, fruit, grains, etc.  I have a particular affinity for cheese.  And peanut M&Ms.

Now, let's talk salad dressing.  There's funk in that stuff at the grocery store - even in the all natural stuff, the funk is lurking.  Soybean oil, MSG and all his relatives, colors, preservatives, additives, gums, thickening agents.  And if you do find a brand that has good ingredients, you might pay four or five bucks per eight ounce bottle.  Eek!  You can make your own for much less money, which means you can splurge on some really good greens and maybe some goat cheese or shaved fennel or dried cherries.

So get out your bowl and whisk, or a simple pint jar with a lid, and let's get mixing and shaking!

Vinaigrette
This is the most basic of all dressings, and one which you can build upon to make oodles more.  Keep in mind the standard ratio of one part acid (vinegar or citrus juice) to three parts oil.  If you lean toward less tart-piquant, then increase your oil.  If your mouth says tangy, do the opposite!  Once you get the basic recipe to your taste, you can add cheese, different herbs, cayenne pepper, chopped nuts, etc.

1/4 cup white or red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 1/2 teaspoons dijon mustard
1 garlic clove, crushed or finely minced
1/2 teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon dried tarragon (this is very French) - you can use basil or dill if you prefer
3/4 cup extra virgin olive oil, or 1/2 cup evoo and 1/4 cup grapeseed oil or other oil

Whisk together everything except the oil, or place in a jar, tighten the lid and shake well.  After the salt and sugar are dissolved, gradually whisk in the oil to make a nice thick dressing, or add it all to the jar and shake vigorously.  That's it!  But please taste it, from a spoon, and adjust the seasonings to your liking :)

Greek Vinaigrette
The above recipe, using oregano for your herb, increase the sugar to 1 1/2 teaspoons, and add some crumbled feta cheese if that turns your crank.

Citrus Vinaigrette
Use a combintion of orange, lemon or lime juice in place of some or all of the vinegar, and increase the sugar to 1 1/2 teaspoons.  Omit the herbs, but zest your orange or lemon or lime peel and add a teaspoon to the dressing - yum!

"French" Dressing
A point to note - true French dressing is the first recipe listed here - a basic vinaigrette.  The reddish-orange gooey stuff Americans eat is something different altogether, but if that's your favorite, here's a good recipe.

2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon finely minced onion
1 teaspoon dry mustard (or dijon mustard)
1 teaspoon paprika
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon celery seed (optional)
4 1/2 teaspoons red wine vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons lemon juice
1/2 cup plain olive oil, or grapeseed or other oil

Whisk all ingredients except the oil, for one minute.  Gradually whisk in oil until smooth and creamy.

Poppyseed Dressing
1/2 cup honey
1/3 cup white wine vinegar
2 teaspoons dijon mustard
2 teaspoons poppyseeds
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons finely minced onion (or 1/2 teaspoon onion powder)
2/3 cup plain olive oil, or grapseed oil

Whisk all but oil together for one minute.  Gradually whisk in oil until smooth and creamy.

Maple Salad Dressing
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup pure maple syrup
3 tablespoons white wine vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 cup plain olive oil, or grapeseed oil

Whisk all but oil together one minute.  Gradually whisk in oil until smooth and creamy.

Blue Cheese Dressing
1 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup plain yogurt
1 tablespoon lemon juice
4 ounces crumbled blue cheese
salt and pepper to taste

Whisk buttermilk, mayonnaise, yogurt and lemon juice.  Stir in blue cheese, add salt and pepper to taste.

Ranch Dressing
1 tablespoon finely minced onion or shallot
3/4 cup sour cream
1/4 cup buttermilk
1/4 cup mayonnaise
juice of one lemon (2-3 tablespoons)
1 teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons minced parsley (or 2 teaspoons dried)
3 tablespoons minced chives (or 2 teaspoons dried)

Whisk all ingredients together.  You can make this a cucumber ranch dressing by adding one cucumber, peeled, seeded, and grated.

No-Egg Caesar
I personally don't have a problem using raw eggs if I know the farmer and they are fresh, but this one will appeal to everyone.

4 garlic cloves, minced
1/2 teaspoon salt
12 anchovy filets
2 tablespoons capers, rinsed (optional)
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon lemon zest (from 2-3 lemons)
1/3 cup lemon juice (from the above lemons)
1 teaspoon dijon mustard
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese

In a bowl, mash together the garlic, salt, anchovies and capers (a fork works well for that).  Add lemon zest and juice, mustard and pepper, mix well.  Gradually add olive oil, whisking until smooth and creamy.  Stir in parmesan cheese.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Meal Planning - Part 1

Part 1 implies there will be a Part 2, right?  If my addled brain can remember, there will be such an entity.

I personally cannot live without meal planning.  I have to plan, write down, and shop for a week's worth of meals.  The two main reasons?  I'm a planner.  There is great delight in lists and organizing and filing, at least as far as my wiring goes.  It's so nice to see a page on the refrigerator showing me (and my sassy kids) what is up next for their endlessly empty bellies.

The second reason is a pretty basic one you can all relate to, no doubt.  QUICK, it's 5:00 and your husband will be home soon and your kids are whiny and hungry and fussing with each other - do you know what you're going to feed them in an hour?  Is anything simmering, boiling, baking or roasting?  Oops.  Then, in the increasingly pathetic tradition of most busy Americans, out comes the frozen pizza, chicken nuggets, boxed or frozen this or that.  Or a quick call to dad to stop at Chipotle (ok, that's not a bad deal), or a call to the pizza man.

Now I am all for those evenings where you say "hang this, I'm putting frozen pizza in the oven!"  And we have those evenings around here.  Even when there's something tasty planned for dinner, with all the ingredients sitting in the fridge or pantry.  But mama's had one of those days and out comes the chips and salsa.  Hey, there's vegetables in there!

You might be thinking - "Easy for her.  She's home all day with her kids, she can be cooking and baking during the day, easy as pie."  Nuh-uh!  Between teaching school, house management, kid management, exercise (not very often), errands and everything else, my plate is pretty full.  I do have the luxury of BEING here, which means I can take something out of the freezer, start some bread rising, begin a sauce.  Sometimes I get some dinner components going at lunch time - which makes for great chaos.

I must plan.  Planning is about saving money, saving time, eating healthy, enjoying variety, and feeling secure.  That's not just wistful lingo, it's a real emotion I have when I am planned and organized.  And meal planning allows me the great pleasure of cooking interesting and sometimes gourmet foods.

The general approach that works for me is to sit down on Thursday afternoon or evening and plan a week's meals, starting with the next day.  Which is also when I grocery shop - Friday afternoon.  I have my calendar next to me to see what we have going on in the evenings, or even days.  If I'm going to be gone a good part of the afternoon, I'll plan a crock pot meal for that day.  If I have a light day of school and am caught up on house things (never), I might take some extra time to do something special.  If we're on the run for an evening, or if the man and I have a date, I plan a pizza or scrambled egg or 'enchiladas from the freezer' meal.

I often plan breakfast and lunch, too.  It helps to know when I'll have time for pancakes or french toast, or when it's a morning where the kids make their own eggs and toast.  That's our standard breakfast around here - eggs and toast.  Everyone from age 7 on up can make their own.  With lunches, if I write it down, I'll make sure it's on my grocery list or in my pantry, but leftovers are pretty common around here for lunch.

Before I work it all out, I usually have to see what's hanging around the freezer.  I don't know about you, but it bugs me when I buy something I already have in the house.  After a quick inventory of fridge-freezer-pantry, meals are planned, the grocery list is made, and I'm ready to roll on Friday.

I write down main dish, starch, vegetable and salad.  We eat a green salad almost every night.  Yes, my kids all eat salad.  They have since they could manage tiny chopped lettuce.  I could write for hours on picky kids and getting them to eat.  In fact, I might do that one day here.  But we have salad.  Almost always with home made dressing (talk about cheap and gourmet!).  There's usually another vegetable with the meal.  Sometimes a starch, but not always.  Our main part of the meal is meat.  Yep, how very un-food-pyramid of us.  The bottom of our pyramid is NOT grains, sorry.  The kids get the bulk of their carbs at breakfast and lunch.

Enough preaching.  You cannot imagine the great feeling you and your husband and kids will have knowing that the whole week is ready to go.  And please believe me when I say that this whole deal is FLEXIBLE.  Many days I get sidetracked by pesky kids and simply cannot get the chicken roasted.  Which is why there is soup and enchiladas and pizza and chili in the freezer.  The other great benefit for you is when you clean up your kitchen (or have your kids do it), you can check your plan for the next day's dinner - this is the time to put beans to soak, or transfer the roast from freezer to fridge.

Give it a try this week.  Report back.  Or tell me how you like to plan your meals.  I'm always learning.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Butternut Squash Soup

Oh, how we love Butternut Squash around here.  Ok, not all of us love it, but the ones that do really really really love it.  Especially my 5 year old daughter.  The child actually smacks her lips.

Usually, we bake it in the oven, scoop out the flesh, mash it with butter and salt and maple syrup, and sprinkle some cinnamon on top before we eat it.  Simple and delicious, and awfully good for us, too.

One day last winter I had a Butternut Squash soup at a friend's house and it was amazing.  She said it had apples and curry and other good things in it, and of course I planned to make some of my own right away.  And of course I never did get around to it.

So, last week I bought two perfect, medium sized squash.  And today I bought some Granny Smith apples.  I thought I was ready to go, but I'd neglected to read a recipe for it - how much more could there be to the whole deal, right?

My recipe ended up calling for chicken broth (currently out), apple brandy (don't have), apple cider (didn't buy).  I guess this was one of those times when I had to punt and really work with what was in my pantry and fridge.  It was a time of proving that cooking and tasting and being creative and tasting some more is really the best way to cook!  Maybe not the best way to cook, but it's a way I really enjoy.  Recipes are my friends, don't get me wrong.  But often they are a jumping off point to making something special.

Here's what I did.  And three out of the eight people in this clan loved it.  The other five either didn't want any "right now" or have a major gross-out factor with squash. 

BUTTERNUT SQUASH SOUP

1 large yellow onion, chopped
2 tablespoons butter
2 medium butternut squash, peeled and cubed
2 Granny Smith apples, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine (I often use extra dry white vermouth, on the recommendation of Julia Child)
Curry powder - to taste - I used about 2 teaspoons
Salt and pepper to taste, approximately 2 teaspoons of salt and 1 teaspoon pepper
1 teaspoon dried thyme
A splash of brandy (regular worked in place of apple)

On low heat, saute the onion in the butter til soft and translucent, about 7-8 minutes.  Add squash and apples, plus the wine and enough water to cover.  Season with salt and pepper, curry and thyme.  Simmer 20 minutes until squash and apples are tender.  Stir in the splash of brandy.

Either puree with a hand-held immersion blender, or in batches in your regular blender.  Return to the pot and taste for seasoning, adding more salt, pepper and curry to your liking.

I saw an idea of serving the soup topped with popcorn that had been sprinkled with cayenne or curry, and that sounded darn tasty.  But I didn't have any popcorn.  And I ran out of steam.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Friday Night

Wanna know what Sassy and her kids are doing for dinner tonight?

Mr. Sassy is traveling, so it's Mom and the kids.

So we're calling Dominos Pizza.  Seriously.  My kids chose that.  I make great home made pizza, we have a delicious local place that makes their own crust and sauce and uses interesting toppings.  But no.  My sassy kids want Dominos.

That's ok by me.  We're having a friend join us, and we'll sit in front of the fire and watch "How To Tame Your Dragon" and eat doughy, bland pizza and enjoy being together.

I hope you all have a great weekend.  If you're in the mood for home made pizza, use some of that Red Sauce from the other day - it makes a great pizza sauce.  Love your kids, enjoy the the love of the ones you're with, and count your blessings.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

PANTRY BASICS - What I Can't Live Without

Since "gourmet" cooking is all about high-quality ingredients put together in a simple way, it's actually not terribly complicated to put together a great dish or meal.  This means your pantry, refrigerator and freezer needs to have some basic items.  Each family has their own favorite flavors and tastes - the following is a list of things I find myself relying upon again and again.

In the pantry you'll find non-perishable items.  This might include canned items, baking components and dried herbs and spices.  I confess, I am not and may never be a home canner.  My garden is fair-to-partly-cloudy most years, and this year was a particular dud.  Other than the herbs I grow and dry myself, I depend upon my grocery store to keep my pantry stocked.  I've also included some things that are kept in the freezer (for freshness) and refrigerator (because they are open and in use, right?).

If you have most or all of the following things around, you can make a complete and balanced meal loaded with nutrients and flavor.  Meat and fruits and vegetables and cheese (and butter!) are things we usually have around, but there are times when cooking from your pantry and staples can be a fun and interesting challenge!  Pick one day a month (or week) to meet that challenge.

If the list seems daunting, choose one or a few new items to add each week from your regular grocery budget.

Must Haves:

Canned
Tuna
Salmon
Sardines
Anchovies
Tomatoes - including diced, crushed, sauce, paste and whole, peeled Italian
Tomato soup (Amy's is my preferred brand)
Pumpkin
Pickles, both dill and sweet
Extra virgin olive oil
Virgin coconut oil
Grapeseed oil

Baking Supplies
Flour, unbleached
Sugar, organic unbleached
Brown sugar
Powdered sugar
Chocolate chips
Chocolate, baking, both unsweetened and semi-sweet
Cocoa powder, unsweetened
Vanilla extract
Almond extract
Baking powder
Baking soda
Molasses
Almond paste
Honey
Espresso powder, instant
Cornstarch

Herbs and Spices
Basil, oregano, thyme, parsley, dill, rosemary, sage, tarragon, coriander, cumin, turmeric, chili powder, chipotle (powder and whole), cayenne, chile flakes, mustard, garlic powder, garlic salt, onion powder, seasoned salt (home made), black peppercorns, ginger, nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves, allspice, cardamom, poppyseeds.
SALT  :)  Both regular and kosher, Redmond Real

Pasta, Grains and Beans
Spaghetti
Pasta - various shapes and sizes!
Oats, regular rolled
Oats, steel cut
Rice - brown, white and wild
Cornmeal
Beans - black, pinto, great northern, red lentils
Popcorn
Wheatberries (I have a mill to grind flour)

Dried Fruit and Nuts and misc.
Raisins, currants, figs, unsweetened coconut (freezer) and apricots
Pecans, whole almonds, sliced almonds, slivered almonds, raw sunflower seeds (all in freezer)
Yellow onions (throw away your flakes, right now)
Garlic (throw away your jarred stuff, right now)
Shallots

Refrigerated (because they are already open!)
Vinegars - apple cider, red wine, white wine, balsamic, rice
Jams/jellies - raspberry, grape, apricot
Mayonnaise
Mustard - yellow and dijon
Soy sauce
Worchestershire
Lemon juice
Ketchup
Capers
Horseradish
Pickle relish
Maple syrup, the real deal
Dry vermouth (more on this in the 'cooking with wine' entry to come)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

RED SAUCE - with a side of Movies, Books and Music

Every home cook needs to know how to make a killer, knock-out, flavorful, make-your-mama-proud Red Sauce.  And every cook needs to understand that it is a medly of components.  Not just excellent ingredients, but love, and passion, and music, and attitude.

Have you ever seen the movie "Big Night?"  If you love food and cooking and Stanley Tucci, then it's a must-see.  It's been around for several years but I'm sure Netflix has it.  It is a movie that helped form my love for cooking with passion.  Plus, the soundtrack is AWESOME.  If you're more about restraint, check out "Babette's Feast."

Speaking of music, when you make a good Red Sauce, it helps to have something behind it to get the cook in the mood.  It might be Frank Sinatra, it might be Dean Martin.  Maybe a little Mel Torme, or Bobby Darin.  Anything with some swing or sass.  And if you're one of those people who can manage internet music, find the song "Buona Sera" by Louis Prima.  It is a quintessential Red Sauce Song.  Interestingly, it's also featured in the movie "Big Night."  You see, Louis Prima is supposed to come to the restaurant owned by these two Italian brothers for a big dinner, that might save their restaurant from going under.  But I digress . . .

Another great movie food scene is in "Goodfellas."  Now, I am NOT recommending this as a family movie.  Uh-uh, no way sir-ee!  But do you remember when the wiseguys are in prison, and the one guy is in charge of the garlic for the sauce?  He shaves it paper-thin with a razor blade.  Now that's passion.  Did you know that Italian-Americans call Red Sauce "Gravy?" 

I never watched the TV series "The Sopranos" but obviously was aware of it.  We're too cheap for cable at our house.  Anyway, some years ago the cast was featured on a morning talk show and they were promoting the cookbook that went with the show.  Oh my, they were a hoot.  Wavering in and out of character, shouting over each other, all seated around a big table covered with a red-checked tablecloth and tons of Italian-American food.  Needless to say, I got the cookbook.  I use their meatball recipe.

So I guess I'm more about Italian-American food.  Never have been to Italy (or Europe for that matter, sigh).  Sigh again.  There's something about the culture of Italian-Americans that draws me.  Maybe that's why I like mobster movies so much.  Not the violence or the language, but the families and the strong bonds of unity.  Unless, of course, someone's cousin needs whacking.  It seems like food is ever-present in these movies, even as a backdrop to the real story.

If you want a lucious and interesting look at real, gourmet Italian cooking, all within the confines of a luxury yacht during the height of the summer season, then check out "Mediterranean Summer" by David Shalleck.  It's a true story about a chef hired to cook fresh, seasonal, local foods for a very elegant, uber-wealthy couple and their many guests aboard the yacht.  No repeats.  Tiny galley kitchen.  It's mezmerizing.  Plus I got a really good tip for Red Sauce from the book.  There's even recipes at the back!

Time to get cooking!  Put on your apron because you SHOULD get messy making Red Sauce.  When you take a taste and it's way too hot, some will likely dribble down your chin and onto your shirt.  Trust me on this one.  Any time you're working with tomatoes and oil, an apron is in order.  I wear one no matter what I'm cooking, actually.

RED SAUCE

Get out a nice, big pot.  I use my dutch-oven for this sauce, the heavy cast-iron kind with enamel inside.  But any stock pot or sauce pot will suffice.  As long as you're making this, you might as well make a LOT, right?  Because it freezes well.  And when I tell you that a heavenly breakfast is a couple of eggs fried in a skillet and surrounded by Red Sauce and a piece of bread on the side for dipping, you'll be glad you have some extra tomorrow.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil
Garlic
Canned tomatoes, preferrably Italian "plum-style" or roma
Fresh parsley
Fresh basil
Fresh oregano
Red wine
Salt and pepper

Options
Anchovies
Red chile pepper flakes
Sugar

Yes, no quantities.  But I'll talk you through the process and tell you how I'm making mine this afternoon.  My parents are coming for dinner and I'm serving their favorite Spaghetti and Meatballs.

Turn on your music, and pour yourself a splash of the red wine you'll be using in the sauce.  If you don't drink wine, fine by me.  But use the real deal in the sauce, please.  A red table wine is fine, or a Chianti, Zinfandel or Pinot Noir.

If Frank or Louis are going, you're ready.  Get your big pot and put it on low heat.  Add a quarter cup of extra virgin olive oil.  When it gets warm and shimmery, add some chopped garlic.  I always chop my garlic by hand with a knife.  Crushed with a press releases way too much of the garlic oil and can overpower the sauce.  Just peel a few cloves (probably 3-4) and then smash them on your cutting board with the side of your biggest knife - a strong thrust with the heel of your hand.  Don't worry, you won't get cut.  Once the cloves are sort of broken, chop them up and add them to the oil.

PLEASE do not let the garlic get brown.  Soft and fragrant is the goal here, which is why I use the lowest heat possible.  After a few minutes of that, open up two, 28 ounce cans of tomatoes.  Did I mention San Marzano is a great kind?  Mmmmmm.  Now this is the fun part, if you like to get tactile (and you should):  hold the can over the pot and pull the tomatoes out with your hand and crush them by hand!  It feels really nice and squishy.  Make sure you dump the liquid in from the cans, too.  If you don't like the hand-crushing deal, just dump them into the pot and they will break down as you cook the sauce.  I saw someone on TV use a potato masher to accomplish the task.  Whatever.

Give the pot a good stir to get that oil mixed into the tomatoes.  Bring it to a simmer, and add the red wine - about a half-cup or so.  This is also the time to add the salt and pepper and please don't skimp here.  One day soon I'm going to blog about salt to help you get over your 'salt is bad' mind-set if you have one.  TASTE the sauce now.  Did Louis Prima get to the part in the song yet where they are lingering by a little jewelry shop?

While that is humming and cooking the alcohol out of the wine, chop your herbs.  If you don't have fresh, you can use dried.  Fresh is so much better, but I live in the North and buying fresh herbs in winter makes me croak at the price.  So dried is often what I use in the cold months.  Dried from my garden, if all is right in the world.  Take a handful of Italian parsley (the flat kind), a smaller handful of oregano, and about a dozen basil leaves.  Dried would be a tablespoon of parsley, 2 teaspoons each of oregano and basil.  Put all your fresh herbs on your cutting board and chop away.  If you like bigger pieces, great.  If you want them minced fine, go for it.  No rules here.  I like a medium chop.  Add them to the pot and give it a stir again.

Keep your heat at low or medium low.  You want a gentle simmer.  Your stovetop and counter also want a gentle simmer.  After 10-15 minutes, taste again (glad you're wearing an apron yet?) and see if you need salt or pepper.  This is also the time to add sugar if you like a sweeter sauce, maybe a couple teaspoons.  And a nice pinch of red chile pepper flakes always makes for some interest, but only if you like spicy sauce.  You choose the amount, it's your kitchen and your family.  I won't use any for my parents tonight.  But have the shaker on the table, it's a nice idea for individual tastes.

Your sauce is done.  Really, it is.  None of this all day cooking business.  Your Italian grandmother might have had her pot on the back of the stove all afternoon, but I find that 30 minutes of total cooking time is plenty.  I want to taste the individual flavors and textures.

A word about the anchovies:
This is a new deal for me.  I learned it from "Mediterranean Summer" and it is THE BOMB for flavor.  And I promise your sauce will NOT taste like fish.  Don't be squeamish - you eat anchovies in caesar salad dressing all the time, silly.  Mashed up.  Just like you'll do here.

Buy a tiny jar or can of anchovy fillets.  Take about 4 of them out, drop them into the oil-garlic part of the sauce at the beginning, and mash them around to make a paste.  Proceed with the rest of the sauce as directed.  It adds incredible depth of flavor and something complex that I can't explain but you'll know when you cook it.  Try it just once.  Trust me.  It's very sassy.

But, alas, there'll be no anchovies in today's sauce at my house.  If, and I mean a really big if, anyone in the world could detect them in the sauce, it would be my mother.  And then we'd all be in big trouble.  Sigh.

ENJOY.  Mama Mia!

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Homemade Broth

When I was a kid, my mom had a friend who had an annual "soup" party.  Everyone was supposed to bring a pot of soup or a salad or dessert, and they'd feast.  The hostess took great pride in her homemade soups, because she made it truly from scratch.  She saved bones and trimmings in a bag in the freezer, then made broth from those, which she then turned into her famous soup.  However, she rather bluntly collected bones from the plates of other dinner guests throughout the months.  She'd say "oh, don't throw those away, I save them to make soup!"  I remember my mom telling that story to me, and feeling rather squeamish with her that a once-gnawed beef t-bone or chicken leg would be going into a pot of FOOD.

I got over it.  Years later as a young woman on my own, I loved to watch cooking shows.  And it was then that I learned that you put all that good stuff - bones, necks, backs, skin, fat, bits of meat, knuckles, etc., into a large pot along with aromatic and root vegetables, cover it with water, and let it boil away for hours on your stove top.  What a revelation!  So began my journey into the wonderful world of broth.

Little did I know that not only was there delicious flavor to be had from those bones and trimmings, but the end product would literally brim with nutrition and goodness.  Some years ago, I began reading and learning all I could about health and wellness.  Turns out that the long, slow simmering of meat bones and vegetables results in a pot full of minerals, natural geletaine, vitamins, and trace nutrients.  No wonder Jewish grandmothers have always known to make chicken soup from scratch to cure the common cold!  Like so many things, this knowledge has been lost along the way.

If, when you read through this post and recipe, you might decide "oh, the canned or boxed stuff from the store tastes fine."  Or perhaps, "bouillon cubes have always worked for me."  STOP.  Listen.  I am not a health care professional, but there's something in that broth-can-box-cube routine that has been linked to oodles of health issues.  MSG (monosodium glutamate) is not your friend!  Nor are the cousins autolyzed yeast extract, hydrolized vegetable (or soy) protein, yeast extract, and sodium caseinate.  They are all neurotoxins which means they mess with your brain function.  Headaches are only the beginning.  Do your research.

Homemade broth is a key ingredient in gourmet cooking.  For that matter, it's a key ingredient even if you're just a simple home cook, or wanting to be one.  So even if you don't give a hoot about health or nutrition, if you do appreciate flavor (and you know you do!), you simply must take an afternoon and make a pot of broth for your family.  It takes but a few minutes to dump the ingredients into a large pot of water, then the magic happens all by itself while you take a nap, do laundry, watch a movie, or even get a good night's sleep.  In fact, a great plan is to get it simmering before you turn in for the night - your house will have a bit of built-in extra heat and 8 hours is a perfect amount of time.  You can strain it in the morning!

I personally only make beef and chicken stock.  Lots of people make fish, veal, venison, and vegetable stocks.  It's all the same basic idea.  Quantities depend upon the size of your pot and the amount of bones you've accumulated!  Keep a large freezer bag going, and when it gets full, pull it out and make broth. 

CHICKEN (or BEEF) BROTH

4 - 6 pounds of chicken (or turkey or beef) bones including necks, backs, wing tips, anything leftover.
Don't forget the skin!  You'll be straining the broth and skimming the fat, but there's lots of flavor to be had.  You can also purchase beef soup bones from your grocery store.
4 large carrots, peeled quartered
4 large celery stalks, quartered
1 large onion, skin left on, quartered
1 whole head of garlic, cut in half
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns
2 tablespoons salt
2 tablespoons vinegar (key ingredient, pulls nutrients out of the bones!)

Extras: (these are important, if you have them!)
Fresh parsley, a large bunch, stems and all
Fresh thyme, several whole sprigs, or a tablespoon of dried
Fresh sage, or a tablespoon of dried
Celery leaves, the fresh and healthy ones
Dark green leek or green onion tops, the stuff you might throw away normally
One or two apples, unpeeled and quartered

You dump all of this into the largest pot you have.  If you have two pots, fill them both up - might as well, right?  Cover the contents with water - about an inch above the top.  Bring it to a boil, then lower the heat to a simmer.  6 hours is the bare minimum for broth nutrition, 8-12 hours is excellent.  Your goal is to extract as much flavor and goodness from each item in the pot!  Don't cover the pot with a lid, you want the liquid to reduce and intensify the flavor.

Once you've decided that the pot of strange looking but delicious smelling goo is finished, turn off the stove.  Let it cool for a couple hours before you strain it.  You can strain it hot, but you have to exercise great caution.  I usually cook the broth in one pot and then strain it into another.  Press the solids in the strainer to extract all the liquid you can muster.  Do NOT save the solids and think you can salvage any of the meat or veggies for soup.  Yuck.  Start fresh, please.

Put a lid on your pot of strained broth and refrigerate it overnight.  In the morning, you should have a pot of chicken jello.  Ok, not really, but it should wiggle and jiggle, and have a layer of solid white-ish fat on the top.  Peel or scrape off the solid fat, toss it out, and your broth is ready to freeze.  You might need to warm it slightly to make it easier to handle (jello is slippery, eh?).  I put mine in plastic, one quart freezer containers - the taller kind that stack well.  Leave about an inch of space for expansion, mark the lid with date and contents, and freeze for later glory.  Or, be really cool and make a pot of soup with some of it that very day!

Here's to your good health!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Soup! Glorious, Simple, Healthy Soup!

Yesterday afternoon I spent some lovely hours with a friend named Jill.  We make 3 different kinds of soup, watched football, and ate a digusting amount of pizza.  We might have sipped on some of the wine we used in the soup :)

The poor girl got in over her head with a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture)!  Those are a great way to get fresh and seasonal produce, but if you don't stay on top of your share, you can find yourself with a fridge and counter full of alien-looking things that need some cooking asap.  So she called, I answered.  And we cooked!  For a single lady, she was able to put several, single-serving containers into her freezer and feel great about her lunches in the weeks ahead.  Yay!

We made Potato Leek Soup, Cream of Broccoli Soup, and Vegetable Beef Soup.  Today I happen to be making soup for dinner, so I'm throwing in that recipe as well.  Leftover Turkey Soup!


Potato Leek Soup

I kind of love Julia Child.  A teeny bit.  Ok, a lot.  This is a "Jill" version of her Potage Parmentier.  I make it without amounts or thought, but each time it's velvety and lovely.  The only way to write this recipe is in coversation style.

Take about a pound of leeks.  Trim off the root ends, trim off the dark green parts, and you're left with the white and light green parts which are tender.  Slice each leek lengthwise and then into 1/2 inch half circles.  Dump all of this into a large bowl of cold water and swirl it around.  Choose not to be digusted by the dirt and sand that settles to the bottom - thank goodness you're eating something that was grown in the dirt!  Rinse them off and let them dry a bit.

Get a soup pot going on the stove on low-medium.  Plop about three tablespoons of butter into the pot and when it's melted, add the leeks.  Add a bit of salt and pepper now, please. Let them soften and shimmy while you work on the potatoes.

Peel and cube about a pound of potatoes of which kind you are in charge of choosing.  I like Yukon Gold, but red, or russet or whatever you have will be just fine.  Add these to the leeks when things are soft in there.

Right away, you can pour in your liquid(s).  You need two quarts in total, and this can comprise of chicken stock, water, and/or vegetable stock.  Use a half-cup less than two quarts and this last half cup should be a nice white wine.  If you don't like wine or don't have it, I am sorry for you, but you can use all water and/or stock with fine results.  If you even dare reach for that nasty cooking wine from the grocery store, we need to talk.  Carry it over to the sink, pour it down the drain, put the bottle in your recycling bin and vow to never purchase the horrid salt-fermented grapes-preservatives-funk ever again.  Thank you.

Now that your liquids are in there, turn up the heat so it comes to a nice bubble.  Add some thyme, fresh if you have it, dried is ok.  Pinch in a bit more salt, lower that heat to a gentle simmer and cook until the potatoes are finished.  Test?  Take a small knife or fork and pierce the biggest one - did it crack or pierce easily?  Done.

At this point, if you have a handy dandy hand held immersion blender you can use that to puree your soup.  Otherwise, cool it a bit and run it through your blender in a couple batches.  When it's smooth and pretty, back in the pot it goes and this is the nice part - stir in some heavy cream.  If you think fat is bad, well then I'm sorry for you again.  But you can serve this soup without cream if you like.  Otherwise, use about a quarter cup of cream

Taste for seasoning, adding more salt and pepper.  When you serve it, chives are nice to sprinkle on top.


Cream of Broccoli Soup

6 cups chopped broccoli (fresh or frozen is fine)
1/4 cup butter
1/2 cup chopped onion
6 tablespoons flour
salt and pepper to taste
4 cups milk (I use whole)
2 cups chicken broth
2 tablespoons fresh parsley, chopped
dash of nutmeg

Steam or boil the broccoli until it is very tender.  If you want to save the liquid from this and use in place of some of the chicken broth, great!  Set aside the broccoli.
In a soup pot, saute very gently the onions in the butter.  You want them soft, not browned.
Sprinkle the flour over the onions and stir until all the butter is absorbed.
Slowly add in the milk, whisking to keep it smooth. 
Add the chicken broth (or broccoli water).
Simmer for a few minutes to cook off the flour taste.  Add salt and pepper.
Add the broccoli and parsley to the pot, simmer for a few minutes.
At this point, you can serve it 'chunky' or you can blend it for a smooth soup.
Stir in the dash of nutmeg to your taste, and serve with a sprinkle more on top!


Vegetable Beef Soup

This one is WIDE open to variation.  Here's what Jill and I did:

1 pound ground beef, browned and set aside
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 large onion, diced
2 cloves of garlic, smashed and chopped
4 stalks of celery, sliced
2 quarts of beef broth
4 potatoes, peeled and diced
2 purple-topped turnips, peeled and diced (try them, you'll like them!)
4 large carrots, sliced
4 roma tomatoes, chopped (a can of diced would be fine!)
Fresh oregano, about a palm full, chopped
Fresh parsley, a nice handful, chopped
Salt and pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, saute the onions, garlic and celery in the butter/oil.  When they are soft, add the beef broth and the potatoes, turnips, and carrots.  Season with some salt and pepper.  Bring to a simmer, and cook until the vegetables are mostly tender.
Add the tomatoes and herbs, the browned ground beef, and more salt and pepper to taste.  Simmer for 10 minutes or until it tastes good and all the flavors have done their magic. 
Serve this soup with crusty bread or popovers!  And a green salad at the end!


Leftover Turkey Soup

This is our dinner tonight.  Yesterday, I cooked a turkey breast in the crock pot with fingerling potatoes and carrots and some white wine.  My crew ate freely of it and put the pot in the fridge with the remains for me to figure out today.  Thankfully, there's plenty of meat, a bit of broth, and enough potatoes and carrots to chop up and make into a soup.

I'll add some home made chicken stock from my freezer.  And other good things.

First, I'll take a big soup pot and saute up some onions and garlic in a good amount of butter.  Then I'll sprinkle on some flour and let that shimmy and absorb.  I'll pour on my stock and a good splash of white wine.  When that is a bit thickened, I might add some whole milk and some more stock.  Husband prefers brothy over creamy, so I like to please him  :)  When the base looks right, I'll dump in the turkey, potatoes, carrots and probably a handful of chopped herbs.  My herb garden is still alive and thriving, so I'll likely use sage and thyme and parsley, all good for turkey.  Plenty of salt and pepper for flavor.  After 15 minutes of simmering, another taste will tell me if I need any more seasoning, a splash more wine or perhaps a splash of lemon juice to brighten up all the flavors. 

This pot of goodness will be served with home made biscuits and a green salad.  There should be enough left over for our lunch tomorrow.  That's the goal, anyway.

Enjoy your soups.  I think my next post ought to be about home made stock (broth) - right?

CONFIDENCE

Now there's a word, right?  Confidence.  Occurs naturally for some (way too much so for some), needs practice for some, and can be horribly elusive for lots and lots of people.  Especially women!  And especially in the kitchen.  Trying a new recipe, trying a new food your husband or kids might hate, and trying your hand at something you have deemed impossible or too time-consuming - those things can all zap our confidence in the kitchen.  So then we boil up a big pot of pasta, dump on a jar of spaghetti sauce, and call it dinner.  AGAIN.

Walk to you kitchen right now, put your hands on your hips and stick one of those hips out.  Grab a wooden spoon for a prop - it'll be helpful.  Now put a little backbone into your voice, wave that spoon and look around your kitchen.  Repeat after me:  "This is my kitchen.  I am the queen of this domain.  These are my appliances, my knives, my spoons.  This is my pantry, my fridge, my salt and my pepper.  I am IN CHARGE here and I am going to use ALL of this to the great pleasure and joy of myself AND my family!"

Now sit down before you feel too foolish. 

Seriously, moms (and dads and teens and grannies)!  You can make small changes that will affect your confidence in very large ways.  You can try just one new thing each week and still come out ahead.  Plan your meals, make your shopping lists, find recipes here at Sassy Family Gourmet, and even dust off your cookbooks that look so pretty on your shelf. 

So if you're in the spaghetti-pork chop-hamburger-casserole-fish sticks rut - take a breath and believe that you can get your family out of it.  You can cook a beautiful roast chicken (even though those rotisserie ones from the grocery store are soooo easy and soooo good), and you can surround that roast chicken with herbs and mushrooms and little finerling potatoes and lovely glazed carrots.  And you can make a simple pan gravy or sauce from all the goodness leftover and your family will sigh and gobble and rise up and call you blessed!

In the future I plan to write about things like meal planning, list making, pantry-stocking, equipment, figuring out what side dishes to serve to round out a simple meal.  I'll probably preach a bit about ingredients and horrify you with words like butter, salt, wine, cream, sugar and bacon (mmmmmmm, bacon!).  I hope to show you that good ingredients and products are completely worth their price and that you can save money in many ways to make it all worth it.

I'm just a regular mom, honestly.  I live in the suburbs, home school my six children, wish I didn't have a muffin top over my jeans, and I even serve frozen pizza often.  Some of my kids are picky.  My husband is a gem who loves my cooking.

I'll leave you today with my meal plan for the week.  Have a great day, and be confident and sassy in your kitchen!

Monday:  Turkey Soup (made from Sunday leftovers!), Homemade Biscuits, Green Salad
Tuesday:  Crock Pot Garlic Beef Roast, Steamed Broccoli with Lemon and Herbs, Mashed Potatoes, Salad
Wednesday:  Spaghetti with Homemade Meatballs and Sauce, Baguettes, Wedge of Iceberg and Tomato Salad (my parents are coming for dinner, Dad's favorite meal!)
Thursday:  Salmon Patties, Wild-Brown Rice Pilaf, Green Beans
Friday:  Pizza (ordering it from local place, treat cause hubby's out of town)
Saturday:  We'll be at a wedding
Sunday:  Roast Chicken (two of them!), Butternut Squash Soup, Caesar Salad

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Getting Started

Since I'm the Sassy Mom of a bunch of sassy kids, I figure the best way to please those kids is with a treat, right?  And what a better way to kick off my blog than with a brownie recipe.  Here's promising to post pictures, links and all sorts of bells and whistles in the future.  For now, start your coffee pot and make sure you have some cold milk ready for your kiddoes.

Double Chocolate Almond Brownies

4 squares unsweetened chocolate (one ounce each)
2 sticks butter (hush up and use real butter)
1 - 3/4 cups sugar
4 beaten eggs
1 - 1/2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
a pinch of salt
1 - 1/2 teaspoons almond extract
1 - 1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup sliced almonds

Grease (with butter) a 9x13 pan
Preheat oven to 325 degrees

Melt together the chocolate and the butter, being careful to not over cook (stove top on low is great, microwave needs great prudence).  Cool slightly.  Stir in sugar.  Add eggs, mix well.  Stir in almond extract.  Add flour and salt, stir until combined but don't overbeat the poor batter.  Add chocolate chips and give a final stir.  Pour into your greased pan, the sprinkle the almonds on top.  Bake at 325 for about 30 minutes.  Cool if you can stand it, then cut them up and let your kids dunk them in their milk (while you dunk yours in your coffee).

Enjoy!