Monday, November 29, 2010

Chicken, Mushrooms and Cream - A Perfect Trifecta

This is not the blog about Julia Child.  They have their own book and movie.  Not me. 

However, I have a deep and abiding love and respect for Julia Child, her books, recipes, television shows, and her general personality.  I have learned much from her masterpiece "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and am grateful for her great accessibility over the years.  She made gourmet food understandable for the average American cook.

Chicken, mushrooms and cream belong together.  It's a basic fact of life.  Oddly, they are all simple, cheap, pedestrian foods.  Yet, when combined with a few other supporting ingredients, they are elevated to the stature of greatness.  Here's what we had for dinner at Chez Sassy tonight, and it's a repeat of an oft-favorite dinner.  Try it, you'll be sold on it's luscious simplicity.  My version is an extremely abbreviated of Julia's classic.

Saute of Chicken, Mushrooms and Cream

8-12 ounces of crimini or white button mushrooms
3 tablespoons butter
salt and pepper
8 chicken thighs (skin on, bone in)
olive oil
2 tablespoons minced shallots
1/2 cup dry white wine, or dry white vermouth
1 cup heavy cream
Fresh parsley, chopped

Wash and stem mushrooms, halve or quarter, depending upon size.  In a very large skillet, heat butter on medium heat.  Add mushrooms and saute until soft and brown, season with salt and pepper.  Remove from pan with a slotted spoon and set aside.  Add chicken, skin side down, and brown for 3-4 minutes.  Turn and brown on other side.  Season with salt and pepper.  Turn heat down, cover and cook until nearly done, about 30 minutes, turning and basting with pan juices.  Remove chicken to a plate.  If needed, add a tablespoon of olive oil to the pan.  Saute shallots for a minute, do not brown.  Add wine and deglaze pan, scraping up all the brown bits, simmering for a few minutes.  Add cream to pan, and simmer for a few minutes.  Return chicken to pan, skin side up, and add mushrooms.  Baste with pan sauce.  Continue to simmer for about 10 minutes, basting once more with pan sauce.  Adjust seasoning.  Transfer to a serving dish, sprinkle with parsley and serve with rice or buttered egg noodles, a green vegetable, or just a simple green salad with vinaigrette dressing.

Saturday, November 27, 2010

Wrap-Up, and Countdown (and Turkey Hotdish, and a Sandwich)

Thanksgiving was wonderful!  Such a good day with family and friends.  We ended up with 18 for dinner, ages 3-84, and then a couple extra folks came for dessert and games.  Husband and teen son did all the dishes and left the kitchen in tip-top order.

The meal was, I must say, mighty fine.  The true stars were the salad, green beans (mmmmmm, bacon), and the potatoes.  Frankly, the stuffing was rather dry, but had good flavor.  The turkey turned out nice and moist and everyone seemed happy with the different twists on the menu.  I was too full for dessert, but managed to force down some of the chocolate cherry bread pudding late in the evening.  Bliss.  All in all it was a great day, and we all feel truly blessed.

We spent yesterday eating leftovers, listening to Christmas music, and enjoying Nana and Papa, who have to leave today.  I actually did he crazy get-up-early-and-shop thing!  Woke at 5, laid there contemplating my choice for an hour, then hit the shower and got out the door by 6:30.  I drove a whopping half-mile to my local Target, loaded up, and then went to our terrific local toy store, and kept them in business for another day.  You can imagine how much shopping Santa has to do for 6 kids and a husband who have all been more nice than naughty all year.

Guess what it's time for?  COOKIE BAKING!  I make an obscene amount of Christmas cookies, at least a batch every other day.  Many go in the freezer, some to the neighborhood cookie exchange, and the rest get devoured by my skinny and starving children.  They are all hollering "What are you making first, Mom?"  Yesterday the votes were Rum Balls, Peanut Butter Balls, and Brown-Eyed Susans.  Apparently, I need to make a trip to the store for supplies, because the season is upon us and we obviously didn't get enough to eat this weekend.

So stay tuned.  I'll be posting all my favorite cookie recipes, plus a Stollen I'll be making for Christmas Eve, various appetizers and treats, and in between, some healthy and delicious dinners I'm making for my family.

What in the world is HOTDISH, you ask?  It's what you eat in Minnesota.  The rest of the country calls it "casserole" but the Scandinavian-German-Farmer-Simple folks here in the Northern Plains have their own name for this phenomenon. 

When you have a bunch of leftover turkey, mashed potatoes, stuffing, gravy and cranberries, you simply must make hotdish.  Or hot turkey sandwiches, or turkey-wild-rice soup.  Or put it all in the freezer and order pizza.

This is neither Sassy nor Gourmet, but your family will love it.

Turkey Hotdish
Vegetables (corn, peas, you know)
Mashed potatoes
Grated cheese, optional

Get out at least a 9x13 baking dish.  Butter the bottom and sides, and lay down a layer of stuffing.  Next comes a layer of turkey, then any vegetables that didn't get eaten.  Pour a thick layer of gravy over all of this.  For the cranberries, you have two choices - either add a layer to the dish here, or serve them on the side.  I don't like them mixed, but you might.  Now you can get fancy and thin out your mashed potatoes a bit, spoon them into a bag, and pipe them into pretty designs on top of your dish.  OR, you can spread them like frosting.  Whatever does the job.  Sprinkle on a bit of cheese if you are in the mood, and pop the whole thing into a 350 degree oven for at least 30 minutes until it's piping hot and the potatoes are starting to get golden and crispy on top.  That, my friends, is HOTDISH!

If you're feeling rather full and a tad more civilized, try this sandwich:

Turkey Cranberry Sandwich with Dill Cream Cheese
2 tablespoons cream cheese
1/2 teaspoon dill
pinch of salt and pepper
Milk or cream
Leftover turkey, thinly sliced
Romaine lettuce
2 slices whole grain bread, or 1 whole wheat tortilla

Blend cream cheese, dill, salt and pepper with a few drops of milk, until smooth and creamy.  Spread on both slices of bread, or all over the tortilla.  Layer the turkey, cranberries and romaine lettuce.  If using a tortilla, roll it up, secure with two toothpicks, and slice in half.  Serve with chips and a tart dill pickle.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Thanksgiving - Prepping Food and Love

Tomorrow is shopping day!  I'll be picking up my de-boned and butterflied turkey breasts from the meat department, plus the rest of my groceries for the meal.  The man plans to hit Trader Joe's wine shop for a few bottles of white (either Sauvignon Blanc or an un-oaked Chardonnay) and a few bottles of red (Pinot Noir works best for turkey dinner), and a bottle of Prosecco for the two of us to toast the day, before company arrives.

Amazing how much prep has to go into the whole deal, isn't it?  Many families do pot-luck style holidays, which takes some of the heat off the hostess.  But there's still the shop-prep-cook-clean house frenzy that comes with it all.

Thanksgiving is a pure holiday.  By that I mean, it's all about food and family.  No gifts, little decor, and really only one big day.  The focus can be on the people and the sharing of food and thanks.  That's what makes it so pure!

We here at Sassy HQ are very thankful for many things.  A family in harmony is one of them.  We all love each other, get along, enjoy each other's company, all that jazz.  No fights, no cold silences, no grudges.  That is a blessing indeed.  We have good health, jobs, homes, cars that mostly work, and many of the simple things that make for a happy life.

We try to be aware of those who are not so blessed.  My favorite thing to do is invite the lonely, unloved, or unlovely to share in our feast.  Orphans, strays, and misfits are people that need the invitations more than anyone.  Do you know such people?  Can you put another chair at your table?  Scrounge an extra plate in the cupboard and fill it with food and love?  There's probably someone in your neighborhood, office, church or wider circle of acquaintance - INVITE THEM.  Trust me, whatever blessing they get out of the whole deal, yours will be ten-fold.

18 people will sit down to eat at our house on Thursday.  We're hoping for a few extras to show up for dessert and games later.  God has blessed us tremendously, my husband's business is going well, and we have food to share.  We will give hearty thanks to the One who has blessed us, and thanks to each other for love and family and big-hearted joy.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Thanksgiving 2010 - The Menu

This is the big one.  The meal I look forward to planning and preparing ALL year long.  We usually do the turkey-stuffing-gravy-taters-cranberries deal, but not this year! 

This is the year for fun.  Husband says so.  His sister cooks the traditional turkey dinner at Christmas, so we're going to change it up for Thanksgiving.

I can't tell you how much I enjoy the whole process, which makes me weird in the eyes of some.  I love the reading of recipes, gazing at pictures, gathering recipes and ideas, writing out my menu and shopping lists, and the shopping itself (except for that whole paying part).  I love stuffing my fridge and cabinets, and spending several days preparing things ahead of time, and hovering in the kitchen in a merry frenzy.

May you and your family have a wonderfully satisfying, cozy, filling and joyful Thanksgiving with your family and friends.  There is much to be thankful for!


Rolled Turkey Breast

Potato, Red Onion and Havarti Gratin

Almond and Rosemary Panko Stuffing

Cranberry-Orange Relish

Spicy Cranberry Chutney

Maple-Cinnamon Butternut Squash

Green Beans with Bacon Vinaigrette

Mixed Greens Salad with Fennel and Apricots

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding

Haralson Apple Pie

Pecan-Walnut Pie


Rolled Turkey Breast
12 green onions (scallions)
6 pound whole fresh turkey breast, deboned and butterflied
2 large garlic cloves
6 ounces mixed dried fruit
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/3 cup pine nuts
1 bunch fresh thyme
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons pure maple syrup
salt and pepper

Place turkey, skin-side down on a clean surface.  Crush first garlic clove and rub into the flesh.  Lay 3 whole scallions on the flesh, arranged mixed fruit on top, scatter cranberries and pine nuts and 1/4 cup thyme leaves over the entire surface.  Season with salt and pepper.  Roll breast up tightly and tie with string.  Crush second garlic clove and rub into the skin.  Preheat oven to 375, lay remaining scallions in a roasting pan and lay turkey on top.  Pour olive oil and maple syrup over turkey, season with salt and pepper, and scatter remaining thyme branches in the pan.  Roast 1 1/2 hours or until thermometer reads 155 F.  Transfer turkey to a platter and tent with foil, let rest 5 minutes.  (If you want a sauce, you can add a cup or two of broth to the roasting pan, place it on your stove top, and boil for 5-10 minutes til reduced, strain and serve with turkey).  Slice turkey and serve.

Potato, Red Onion and Havarti Gratin
2 1/2 pounds Yukon gold (or other) potatoes
1 cup very thinly sliced red onion
3 cups half-and-half
2 teaspoons salt
pepper to taste
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh tarragon, or 1 tablespoon dried
8 ounces thinly sliced havarti or fontina cheese

Preheat oven to 375.  Peel potatoes and slice very thinly.  Place potatoes and onions in a pot with the half-and-half, salt and pepper.  Stir well, bring to a boil and then lower heat and simmer 15 minutes.  Transfer half the potatoes, onions and cream to a shallow ovenproof baking dish.  Sprinkle with the tarragon.  Add remaining potatoes, onions and cream.  Sprinkle with remaining tarragon.  Cover completely with an even layer of cheese.  Press down lightly.  This may be refrigerated for a day.  To bake, place on a baking dish and bake 40 minutes (or an hour if refrigerated), until golden.

Almond and Rosemary Panko Stuffing
4 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup finely chopped celery
2 cups chopped onion
2 teaspoons dried basil
2 teaspoons dried oregano
1 cup sliced almonds
2 cups panko bread crumbs
2 slices firm white country bread, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
1/2 cup grated Grana Padano cheese
1/2 cup chopped prosciutto
salt and pepper to taste
1 3/4 cups chicken stock
1 large garlic clove, crushed
1 tablespoon finely minced fresh rosemary

Melt 2 tablespoons butter and the olive oil in a 4-quart pot.  Add celery and onions and cook for 10 minutes until soft.  Add basil, oregano, and almonds and cook 2 minutes.  Stir in panko and bread cubes and cook 2 minutes until coated.  Transfer stuffing to a large, shallow baking dish.  Stir in cheese and prosciutto, and salt and pepper to taste.  Add garlic to chicken stock and pour over bread mixture.  Mix well.  Stir in rosemary and dot with remaining butter.  Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake.  Bake at 375 until golden brown and crispy, about 1 1/2 hours.

Cranberry-Orange Relish
1 - 12 ounce bag fresh cranberries
1 cup sugar (or half sugar, half honey)
1/2 cup orange juice
1/2 cup water
chopped zest from 2 oranges
chopped flesh from those 2 oranges
1 cinnamon stick

Place all ingredients in a sauce pan, simmer until most of the cranberries have popped and are soft.  Remove cinnamon stick before serving.

Spicy Cranberry Chutney
12 ounces fresh cranberries
2 large, tart apples, chopped
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup water
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
1 tablespoon chopped fresh ginger
several gratings fresh black pepper
pinch of salt
large pinch of crushed red pepper flakes (or to taste)
1 teaspoon cinnamon

Place all ingredients into a sauce pan.  Simmer over medium heat until thick and saucy.  Refrigerate or can until ready to use.

Maple Cinnamon Butternut Squash
One large butternut squash, halved lengthwise and seeds removed
4 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons pure maple syrup

Place squash, flesh side down, in a baking pan, add 2 cups water.  Bake at 350 until a knife inserted into the thickest part moves easily.  Cool slightly, scoop flesh into a large bowl.  Mash with the remaining ingredients.

Green Beans with Bacon Vinaigrette
2 pounds green beans, trimmed
6 slices bacon
2 shallots, minced
2 tablespoons cider vinegar
2 tablespoons whole-grain or dijon mustard
2 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil and add beans.  Cook until barely tender, 4 - 5 minutes.  Drain and run under cold water to stop cooking (or plunge into an ice bath).  Transfer to a serving bowl.  Cook the bacon in a skillet over medium heat until crisp, about 6-8 minutes.  Drain, cool and crumble.  Discard all but 2 tablespoons of the bacon drippings from the skillet and return to medium heat.  Add the shallots and cook, stirring for 1 minute.  Stir in the vinegar, mustard, oil and 1/2 teaspoon salt and 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  Add the dressing to the beans, add the bacon, and toss to combine.

Mixed Greens Salad with Fennel and Apricots
1/2 cup sliced almonds
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup lemon juice
1 tablespoon honey
salt and pepper
12 cups mixed greens
2 small small bulbs fennel, halved, cored and thinly sliced
4 scallions, thinly sliced
1/2 cup dried apricots, quartered
2 ounces shaved grana padano cheese

Toast almonds in a skillet until just golden.  Whisk together oil, lemon juice, honey, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon pepper.  In a large bowl, combine greens, fennel, scallions, apricots, cheese and almonds.  Toss with dressing just before serving.

Pumpkin Cheesecake
8 ounces goat cheese
1 1/2 cup sugar
2 - 8 ounce packages cream cheese
1 1/4 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup sour cream
3 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon dried ginger
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt

Beat goat cheese and sugar, add cream cheese and beat one minute.  Add remaining ingredients and beat 10 minutes until smooth.  Transfer to a graham cracker or ginger snap crust in a spring form pan.  Bake on a rimmed baking sheet at 350 for 1 hour and 15 minutes.  Refrigerate for 6-8 hours before serving.

Chocolate Cherry Bread Pudding
2/3 cup orange juice
8 ounces dried cherries, chopped
1 - 16 ounce loaf country bread, cubed
1/4 cup melted butter
8 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped
6 eggs, beaten
3 cups whole milk
2 cups half and half
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla

Bring orange juice to a boil and pour over cherries in a small bowl, let stand 1 hour.  Do not drain!  Preheat oven to 350.  Toss bread cubes with melted butter, place in a 3 quart baking dish.  Sprinkle 1/2 the chocolate over this, add 1/2 the cherry/juice mixture.  Mix eggs, milk, half and half, sugar and vanilla, pour over bread.  Press down.   Bake, covered 45 minutes, then uncover and bake 30-45 minutes more until set.  Sprinkle with remaining chocolate and cherries.

Haralson Apple Pie
The magic here is the apples.  If you don't live in Minnesota and can't get Haralson apples, use Granny Smith.  Please make your crust with all butter or lard.  I use the Betty Crocker cookbook for this one :)

Pecan-Walnut Pie
1 1/4 cups light corn syrup
1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
3 large eggs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 teaspoons vanilla
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup pecan halves
1 cup walnut halves
1 pie crust for a 9 inch pie

Heat oven to 350.  In a large bowl, whisk together syrup, sugars, eggs, butter, vanilla and salt.  Stir in pecans and walnuts.  Fit crust into pie plate, place on a rimmed baking sheet, pour filling into crust, bake until center is set, about 45-50 minutes.  Cool completely before serving.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Nana Rolls

Disclaimer:  Remember that stuff I said about whole wheat flour being good for you?  Set that aside for just now.  There's a time and a place for white flour and THIS is the time and place, right here, right now.

Who is "Nana?"  She was my husband's paternal grandmother.  Who also happened to be an amazing cook and baker, gardener, canner, and all those other cool things that grannies used to do.  She won so many ribbons at the State Fair for her various canned and baked goods, that the press came calling.  Nana appeared in newspaper ads as a spokeswoman for a national yeast brand.  She was featured in articles and interviews.  My husband still remembers the sound that her basement closet door made - it was a swishing-fluttering noise made by the layers and layers of ribbons she hung there.

When it turned out I liked to bake, the recipe was passed along to me.  One batch had me believing this was the stuff from which legends were made.  I entered those rolls in my county fair that summer and won a purple Grand Champion ribbon.  Yep.  I've won ribbons for whole wheat bread and pumpkin bread, but only one recipe garnered the Grand Champion prize:  Nana Rolls.

I'm the odd baker that will share a winning recipe.  What do I care?  Sure, you can have the amounts and steps!  The touch and love are up to the individual :)  Pay attention at the end to a few variations I've tweaked over the years.  This is essentially Nana's recipe, with a few minor changes to make it my own.  Make sure you time the baking to have them fresh out of the oven in the mid-afternoon.  You'll need, of course, some Swedish egg-coffee to go along with them, but if you lack that desire or skill, regular coffee, tea, or milk will suffice.  If it's winter, make some cocoa, will ya?

Nana Rolls
1 cup milk
1/4 cup butter
1 tsp salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 tsp yeast (one packet)
1/4 cup warm water
1 tsp sugar
2 eggs, beaten
4 1/2 cups unbleached flour, divided

Heat the milk and the butter so the butter melts and the milk is approximately 100 degrees (blood warm).  Stir in the salt and sugar until dissolved.  Combine the water, yeast and 1 tsp sugar in a small bowl and let foam for a few minutes.  Dump the milk mixture into a big bowl, and add 2 cups of the flour, stirring to combine.  Add the beaten eggs and the yeast mixture, stir to combine.  Add 2 more cups of flour to make a soft dough.  Turn out onto a floured surface and knead, adding more flour to make a smooth and elastic dough, about 10 minutes.  Shape into a ball and place in a greased bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise until doubled.

Punch down the dough and shape into rolls.  I make a knot shape (like a little fat pretzel), but you can make horns, rounds, fans, whatever you like.  Let rise again, covered, until doubled.  Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes until light golden on top.  I put parchment paper on my baking sheets which prevents sticking and burning.

Eat them warm with jam, butter, honey, or just stuff one in your hungry mouth plain!

Variations: (remember that loaves take longer to bake!)

*  I have used half whole wheat and half white flour with great results, and a teeny bit less guilt.
*  I have added cardamom to the first flour addition and it makes a nice, very Scandinavian-tasting roll.
*  I have rolled out ropes of the dough and braided them for pretty loaves.
*  I have been in a hurry and just plopped the dough into my regular bread loaf pans.  This makes great sliced bread or toast, but I do NOT recommend for sandwiches - too sweet.
*  If you are really in the mood for some yum, roll the dough out into a big rectangle, spread it with butter, sprinkle it with cinnamon sugar (and chopped nuts if you like), then roll it up, slice it into rounds, put them in a greased baking pan and you've got cinnamon rolls that will make you weep.  If you like caramel-topped rolls, grease that pan heavily with butter and sprinkle with plenty of brown sugar before you add the rolls.

Here's to your Nana!

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Apricot Chicken

Have you ever cooked something and looked at it and said, "This just doesn't look fabulous!"?  Like something was missing?  Not taste, it tastes fine.  But looks.  Welcome to my dinner tonight.

I love this recipe, but I haven't made it in ages and now I remember what I forgot to get at the store - COLOR.  Seriously, it matters.  Or at least it sure should.  I am not the queen of presentation, and I do not decorate cakes nor make radish roses.  However, I do like a colorful and flavorful pile of food on my table. It's part of the "pleasing the eye" aspect of cooking.  Missed the mark tonight.

Apricot Chicken is a sweet-sour-savory dish.  Chicken, onion, apricot jam, vinegar, mustard, broth, dried apricots.  Other than that bit of orange in the apricots, it's rather beige.  So I'm going to give you a recipe based on what I SHOULD have made, not what my family will be gobbling up in a few minutes.  Suffice it to say, I neglected the peppers.

Apricot Chicken
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cubed
1 large onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 red pepper, chopped
salt and pepper
2 tablespoons apple cider vinegar, or white wine vinegar
2 tablespoons Dijon mustard
2 cups chicken broth
a large handful of dried apricots, snipped into thirds
1 cup apricot jam or preserves

In your largest skillet, heat the olive oil.  Add the chicken and saute for 5-7 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add the onion and red and green pepper, saute 5 minutes.  Splash in the vinegar and mustard, simmer for a minute, then add the broth, apricots and jam.  Turn the heat down and simmer gently for 10-15 minutes until its nice and saucy.  Check for seasoning, I feel like it needs a good bit of salt to counter the sweet and tangy nature of it all.

I'm serving it over Trader Joe's Brown Rice Medley, and a big dish of Oven Roasted Sweet Potatoes with Thyme and Olive Oil.  And a Green Salad.  Ok, there's some color.

Least favorite text message from husband:  "Going to be late."  Grrrr..........

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Banana Bread - Amped Up

We've all made banana bread, right?  Funky brown nanners in the fruit bowl just begging to be smashed and baked into sweet goodness.

Plain old regular banana bread is fine.  But BOY there are some great things to add and change to make a really yummy, moderately healthy and family-pleasing loaf.  So get out a really big bowl, a wooden spoon, and turn on your music.  If you have the inkling, let the kids help.  Otherwise, boot them out to play in the snow, they need the fresh air and exercise.

This recipe makes two loaves, which is the smallest amount I'd make for my brood.  Feel free to halve the recipe for one regular loaf.

Sassy Banana Bread
1 cup butter, softened
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
4 eggs
2/3 cup hot water
2 cups mashed bananas, about 4 large bananas
1/2 cup coconut flakes
2 cups whole wheat flour
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 teaspoon salt
 1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
1 1/2 cups semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped pecans (or walnuts)

Preheat oven to 350.  Butter two 9 inch loaf pans.  In a large bowl, using a wooden spoon, beat together the butter and sugars.  Beat in the eggs.  Stir in the hot water and mashed bananas.  Add coconut, flours, salt and soda, stir until combined.  Stir in the chocolate chips and nuts.  Pour into prepared pans.  Bake at 350 for 70-80 minutes, until the cracks on the top look dry and/or a toothpick inserted comes out clean.  Cool in the pan for 15 minutes, then turn out onto a rack and cool completely.  Freezes great!

Friday, November 12, 2010

Cranberry Bread

Snow in the forecast!  That usually means baking around here.  Too early for Christmas cookies, but there's nothing like cranberries to seem like November, right?

When you teach your children at home AND love to cook, very often school translates to the kitchen.  One of our favorite childrens' books is Cranberry Thanksgiving by Wende and Harry Devlin.  It was published in 1971 and the lovely illustrations reflect this.  The story is timeless - being a friend to those who are friendless, along with not judging a person by their outer self.  When Maggie gets to invite someone to dinner on Thanksgiving, her grandmother advises her, "Ask someone poor or lonely."  Amen.

The other great line from the book is regarding the dinner itself.  " . . . everything cooked with crisp edges and tender centers."  Amen again!

And any book with a hero named Uriah Peabody has GOT to be good.

This is my slightly modified version of the recipe that is included with the book.  Buy the book, get it from the library, or borrow it from me, and read it to your family at least a dozen times in the next two weeks.

Cranberry Bread

2 cups unbleached, all-purpose flour
1 scant cup sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
5 tablespoons cold butter
3/4 cup fresh squeezed orange juice
1 beaten egg
1 tablespoon grated or zested and chopped orange peel
2 cups chopped cranberries, either fresh or frozen

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Butter a glass (or metal) 9 inch loaf pan.

In a large bowl, combine flour, sugar, powder, salt, and soda.  Cut in butter until coarse crumbs form (use a pastry blender, two knives, or your fingers in a rubbing motion).  Stir in the orange peel, then the juice and egg.  Fold in the cranberries.

Spoon batter into the prepared loaf pan, and bake for 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes until a toothpick comes out clean.  Serve, as Maggie's grandmother did, with "pale, sweet butter."

If You're Feeling Saucy

And you should be! 

Using the right ingredients and a bit of thoughtful attention, home cooks can make a variety of simple sauces to complement and enhance the flavors of a dish.  Sauces can look pretty, taste delicious, make the tongue happy, and give a real sense of "moving up to the next level" in the kitchen. 

It's pretty easy to cook a steak and serve it on a plate, but it's another thing altogether to pan-fry it to medium rare perfection, remove it to the plate, splash a bit of red wine into that pan where all the goodness resides, simmer it down for a bit, and swirl in a pat of butter.  Pour that over the steak and watch the expressions change on the faces of your eaters!

In my kitchen, there are two basic types of sauces:
1.  Sauce in a pan on its own with no help from another pan (common white sauce)
2.  Sauce in a pan that takes advantage of previously cooked food in that pan

There are plenty of other types out there, but these two categories serve me well and don't stretch my brain or skills farther than a busy household can allow.

Back in the 1950s, every housewife knew how to make a basic white sauce.  Today there's a fear of fat and calories, combined with the relative ease of opening a can of condensed cream soup and dumping it on some chicken and rice.  Both have no place in the kitchen of someone who likes to cook!  A white sauce could not be easier, and once you have the base routine down, you can mix it up and create a whole host of different sauces.

Basic White Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons flour
1 1/2 cups liquid (milk, stock, wine)
salt and pepper

Use a good sauce pan, one with a reasonably heavy bottom.  Melt the butter on medium-low heat, then whisk in the flour until it is all absorbed.  Let this cook for about one minute.  You've just made a roux!  Gradually whisk in your liquid - whole milk is the easiest, but you can use a splash of white wine or a bit of chicken broth to replace some of the milk.  Whisk until there are no more lumps, then increase the heat to medium and the sauce begins to boil.  Stir and simmer for 2-3 minutes to fully cook the flour.  Season with a bit of salt and some pepper. That's it!

So now what?  Well, would you like a mustard sauce?  Stir in a few tablespoons dijon mustard to the finished sauce.  How about a cheese (mornay) sauce?  Stir into the hot sauce, off heat, 1/4 to 1/2 cup grated white cheese (swiss, cheddar, jarlsburg, goat, etc.).  Like a tomato cream sauce?  Add 2-3 tablespoons tomato puree and heat through.  Feeling herby?  Tarragon, basil, dill, parsley - any of these would add nice flavor.  Looking for a replacement to 'cream of mushroom soup?'  Add some finely diced and sauteed mushrooms to your finished sauce!

Capers, mashed anchovies, curry powder, horseradish, minced and sauted shallots, nutmeg - any of these can elevate a basic white sauce into the stuff of legends, not to mention making your broiled fish or pork tenderloin taste really great.

If you are looking for a thinner white sauce, simply decrease your butter-flour amounts (keep the proportions even, though!).  Thicker sauce requires more butter-flour amounts.  The liquid would stay the same.

Pan Sauce
Restaurnts call this a "reduction" and charge you plenty for it!

1 saute' pan full of browned bits of meat, onion, shallots, garlic, herbs and flavor
Red or white wine (or dry white vermouth) (or chicken or beef stock) (or water)
Butter or cream
Additional salt, pepper and herbs to taste

Remove whatever you've cooked from the pan (pork roast, chicken breasts, fish, steak, scallops, etc.).  If there is a large amount of visible fat on the top, skim most of it off, but retain as much liquid as you can!  Increase the heat in the pan until the liquid is really simmering.  Pour in your wine, stock or water and listen to the joy!  It will sizzle and sing, and during this concert, you need to be whisking and scraping any of the bits from the pan that will add to the flavor of the sauce.  How much liquid do you pour in?  Depending upon what's in that pan in the first place, about a cup.  Keep stirring!  After about 5 minutes or so of simmering, you'll notice the sauce beginning to thicken.  Take a little taste and see if you like it - does it need more pepper?  A pinch of dried herbs that ought to stand out more?  Need a brighter flavor?  Add just a splash of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice.  The sauce could either be done now, or enjoy the benefit of a "butter enrichment."  Isn't that a nice pair of words?  Turn the heat off and swirl in a pat or two of butter.  In lieu of that, adding a splash of cream is nice, too.

That's it!

A Thicker Pan Sauce
If you've cooked a roast chicken or other roast and would enjoy more of a "gravy" for the meat - go for it!  Hopefully, plenty of liquid has accumulated in your pan or pot from the roast and it'll be worth your while to make this gravy.  You can always add more broth to round it all out.

2 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons butter
additional seasonings
additional broth or wine or water

Skim most of the fat off the surface of the cooking liquid.  Remove any large pieces of skin, etc.  If you like a perfectly smooth gravy, strain it all through a sieve.  If the pan or pot allows, make the gravy directly in it.  If not, pour the liquid and scrape any brown bits into a sauce pot on the stove.  Heat this liquid to boiling and add a splash of white wine now, and up to 1 cup of additional broth.  Keep it simmering.  Mash together on a plate the butter and flour until it makes a paste.  Drop this into your pot by pinches, whisking each addition.  When the gravy thickens, keep it simmering for a few minutes to cook the flour.  If the sauce doesn't thicken to your liking, you can add a spoon of cornstarch you've dissolved in a 1/4 cup of cold water.  Taste for seasoning and adjust accordingly!

If you're used to the "slurry" method of gravy-making, go for it.  This is essentially a few tablespoons of flour shaken in a jar of broth til smooth, then slowly whisked into the simmering liquid.  Whatever works for you!

At the end of all this, just remember that there is a lot of good flavor out there to be had in cooking a typical meal.  Make it special with a sauce!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Enthusiasm for Upcoming Feasting!

No recipes, no great details, but just a brief blurb about my great excitement for the upcoming holidays.

Just for fun, we decided to birth five of our six children from right before Thanksgiving through the first part of February.  That makes three major holidays and five birthdays.  Yep.  Each Sassy kid gets to pick their dinner of choice, plus the cake of their choice.  This is in addition to the traditional breakfast of Swedish Pancakes.

Then throw in Thanksgiving, which is always at our house and includes 16-25 people.  Most everything made by me, from scratch, the whole she-bang.  Immediately following the day (plus usually an extra day of leftovers) we launch directly into Christmas cookie baking.  It would be simplistic to say I bake a few.  Perhaps a dozen kinds?  More?  Sure, why not?  Of course, let us not forget the Christmas food itself.  My SIL ponies up for the Eve, but I do the Day for our family of eight, and we try to plan a meal around one of our five combined ethnic heritages.  This year is German.

If we're not too fat or sick yet, New Year's Eve comes rolling down the street.  It happens to be the birthday of Sassy #3, so we have a deluxe birthday dinner, plus extra treats.  Just for kicks, we throw what's become an annual New Year's Day Skating Party which includes a couple other families and a big pot of chili made by me.  It's a great day to make other people's children eat up the rest of the Christmas cookies :)


For people who loathe to spend time in the kitchen, or cannot even fathom that amount of food and prep, rest assured that I do not fly solo.  My kids are all right in there with me, planning, tasting, rolling, baking, sprinkling, stirring and making monstrous messes.  It's mostly for them, so why not, right?  We all enjoy it tremendously, and I hardly ever lose my temper.

If you are a member of my husband's family, stop reading right now.  Ok?  For the rest of you, we're doing a rather different Thanksgiving menu.  Oh, sure, there'll be turkey and dressing and potatoes and cranberries and all that jazz.  But it's going to have flair and flavor and a major break from tradition.  We've wanted to do such a meal for several years, but each season about this time I say to the man, "It SOUNDS like a good idea, but your family will fuss!  They expect their usual foods!  They'll be disappointed!  They will rebel and declare the meal to relocate next year!"  And the man caves to my emotions and says "what the heck, I don't care."

Not this year.  We're amping in way up.  Lighter, more flavorful, interesting twists, gourmet flourishes, and a (hopefully) completely satisfying and tasty feast.  If they want a regular turkey dinner, they can cook it themselves on Friday, right?

As long as I can beat my BIL at our annual, cut-throat Scrabble game, no one will get hurt.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Roast Chicken

It's been said that every home cook should have a good roast chicken in his/her repertoire.  I agree heartily!  It is one of the most simple things to make, it's delicious, healthy, economical and something everyone loves to eat (and smell cooking).

Now, go ahead and start the "but the grocery store rotisserie chickens are so tasty and cheap on sale and easy and convenient."  I'll listen.  And now I'm done listening.

Yes, they can be cheap.  Yes, if you're in the store and need a quick dinner, they are terribly convenient.  And yes, many of them taste just great.  We here at the Sassy house have eaten our fair share of them, and will likely continue to do so. 

What's cheap?  A good quality rotisserie chicken without nasty MSG and caramel color and "solution" injections costs $10 at my health food store, here in Minnesota.  My complaint is the SIZE.  We've got six sassy and hungry kids who need more than a 3 1/2 pound chicken for dinner.  We have made a meal out of one, with plenty of side dishes, but it barely works.  $10 for 3 pounds of cooked meat, including bones, isn't that cheap.  Even for a smaller family, you're left without any yummy "tomorrow" options.

To me, the main purpose of choosing to be the best home cook I can be, is to enjoy the process of it all.  I really, really do enjoy the process.  Planning, shopping, prepping, cooking and eating.  It's fun.  And ultimately satisfying.

So I buy chickens two at a time, usually.  If I can get them 4-5 pounds rather than the 3-pounders, I'm very happy!  It means one good meal with plenty of leftovers for soup, stir-fry, sandwiches, whatever we like.  And it means more BONES for yummy BROTH.

Start to finish the process takes about 2 hours.  Whatever you've imagined about roasting your own chicken might be different than how I do it.  Give it a try this way, and see if you enjoy the results.  And for my friend Julie who asked about whole chicken in the crock pot?  Not my favorite way to do it, unless it's a tougher, uber-natural-farm-raised chicken that does well with longer, slower cooking.  I like brown, crispy skin.  Crock pot makes nice, tender and juicy chicken that falls off the bones.

Thaw your chicken(s) if need be, and remove the packet in the cavity.  If you are into organs and such, have a good time with the contents of that packet.  If there's a neck in there, toss it into your freezer bag of broth-makers.  Washing the chicken is recommended by the health people, but I buy organic and clean chickens so I've been known to skip the step.  I once heard Jacques Pepin tell Julia Child (on TV) that he doesn't rinse his chicken, because if the bacteria survives 400 degrees for a couple hours, it deserves to live and make him sick :)  Rather cavalier, eh?

Get your oven preheated to 400 degrees.  Yep, not 350.  You'll be just fine, and you'll love the crispy skin!  Put plenty of salt and pepper in that chicken cavity, then put the chicken in your roasting pan (it should have sides that come 1/2 to 3/4 the way up the bird).  From here, there are a variety of flavors and ingredients you can use. 

I like to take a lemon and cut it in half, squeezing the juice on the bird.  Then I put one of those halves up the business end of that chicken, poor thing.  There's a reason that cavity is there - use it!  I also like to put herbs in the cavity.  A few sprigs of fresh thyme, parsley, and/or oregano are all great.  Thyme is my favorite.  I put more of the fresh or dried herbs, chopped and scattered on top of and around the pan.  At this point, add more salt and pepper to the outside of the bird.  Ready for the fun part?  Take many, many whole cloves of garlic, at least 10-20, peel them, and scatter them in the pan (a couple in the cavity is nice, too).  We use a lot because we love to eat them!  They get soft, brown, caramely, sweet and mellow.  So tasty!

The final bit of goodness is butter, about a half stick.  I've never been great at the "rubbing all over" part because the butter gets clumpy when it encounters the cold chicken flesh.  So I cut the butter into a few pats and lay it on the chicken.  Now - for the cooking!

Put that roasting pan in the oven and let it cook!  Yes, it's that complicated.  After about 30 minutes, you can baste or spoon the pan juices onto the chicken.  I like to tilt the pan to get the juice to run out of the cavity, too.  If the pan seems dry, add a bit of water, but no more than a half-cup.  You can then baste every 20 minutes or so.  The skin should be getting nice and brown and the liquid should be accumulating in the pan. 

If you're doing one larger bird (4-5 pounds) it might take the full two hours.  Done to me is clear juice when the thigh is pricked, a leg that is easy to move in the socket, and whatever your instant-read thermometer tells you is done for chicken.  Remember, it's going to rest for 20 minutes and it will continue to cook during that time!  I find 2 birds of 4 pounds each take about 2 or 2 1/2 hours at my house. 

On to the platter they go.  Cover with foil and set aside.  Don't forget to put the hunks of garlic on the platter!  Now take a good look at that roasting pan on your stove top - look at all that goodness in the pan!  Pick out or strain the chunks of skin or meat, or herb twigs, or whatever else looks disagreeable.  Then turn on a stove burner and get the liquid simmering.  Oops - before you do that, tilt the pan and spoon off the layer of fat from the surface. 

Simmering.  Now add some white wine, a half cup or so.  Simmer a bit more, scraping the bottom and sides of the pan to get all the brown goodness into your gravy.  Depending upon how much liquid is in there at this point, you may want to add some chicken broth to round it all out.  At this point, thicken!  With what is up to you - a slurry of broth or water and flour is common, or water and corn starch.  I've discovered about 2 tablespoons of butter mashed on a plate with 2 tablespoons of flour is a great way to thicken.  There's a fancy French word for this stuff.  Drop by teaspoon amounts and whisk into the simmering liquid - when it gets to your liking, you stop dropping!  If you want a bit of romance, stir in 1/4 cup of cream or milk and call it good.  Taste it, add any seasoning it's missing, and strain it into a gravy-serving-accoutrament.

Total time?  10 minutes of prep, 2 hours of cooking, 5 minutes for the sauce.  Your family will love you.

Do you like mushrooms?  Add some whole or halved button or crimini mushrooms for the last hour of roasting.  What about potatoes and carrots?  Put them in at the beginning.  Do you love southwestern-spice flavor?  Change up the seasonings!  If mustard suits you, add a couple tablespoons to the gravy.  Pearl onions are lovely in the pan with the chicken, and get brown and soft and oh-so-sweet.

Roast chicken is on the menu here tomorrow night for dinner, along with spaghetti squash and some rosemary bread from the store.  Might have to use rosemary in my chicken cavity . . .

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Meal Planning - Part 2

See - there's a part 2!  Told ya.  The old girl has a few memory connections working.

I heard some good advice years ago about how to meal plan.  Sit down with your family and ask them to name their favorite meals, or just their favorite main dishes.  Make a list!  Your clan might likely come up with 20-30 items!  That's a pretty good start.  We generally cook the same things each month, throwing in a new recipe here and there.  Some of those are rejected, and some go into the pile of "keepers."

Save that list you just made.  It can be a master list of "stuff my family likes and will eat and I won't have to ponder much."  You can probably keep the main ingredients of those meals hanging around your pantry or freezer, putting together a family favorite in a matter of minutes.

When you start with a main dish, or entree, you know you need to round out the menu for both balanced nutrition and pleasure.  Accompanying side dishes should complement the main dish and provide variety in taste and texture, even temperature.

At the Sassy house, we typically have a main dish of some sort of meat or protein.  Most often this is savory in nature.  It seems natural to provide a starch of one kind or another (potato, pasta, bread, rice), a cooked vegetable, and a salad.  You really ought to have a green, fresh salad with each meal.  It ends the meal on a good note, provides vital digestive enzymes, and gives you loads of nutrients you might have otherwise missed during the day.

On the one hand, a varation or two on the main theme is nice - repeat the rosemary from the roast in your herb bread, or duplicate the garlic in chicken marinade into the mashed potatoes.  On the other hand, it's fun to go the opposite direction with flavors, repeating nothing.  Do what pleases you and your family.

Here's a sample meal plan in our life this week, with some notes as to the why:

Monday:  Pan Fried Beef and Pork Steaks, Oven Roasted Potatoes and Carrots, Green Salad with Honey Mustard Dressing.  (I made a pan sauce for the pork steak with white wine, dijon mustard and apricot jelly, finished with butter.  This provided some zing and a bit of sweet to counter the savory-salty of the meat.  The potatoes and carrots gave us starch and a cooked veggie, and the green salad had a sweet-tart dressing that worked with the whole deal, and the dijon was repeated in sauce and dressing).
Tuesday:  Crock Pot Garlic Roast Beef with Mushrooms and Herbs, Rosemary Focaccia, Salad with Vinaigrette.  (I laid rosemary on the beef while it cooked, so repeated the herb with the bread.  The meat had the essence of rosemary, while the bread had the out-right taste.  The crisp and tart salad balanced the savory and cooked things).
Wednesday:  We had dinner at a friend's house!
Thursday:  Mushroom Beef Brown Rice Soup, Freshly Baked Whole Wheat Bread, Caesar Salad.  (The bread dips nicley in the soup.  The soup has meat plus carrots, celery, onion and mushroom and brown rice.  The salad needs to be perky and fresh with a bold flavor to balance the soup - caesar does the trick!)
Friday:  Salmon Patties with Mustard Sauce and Tartar Sauce, Trader Joe's Basmati Rice Medley, Green Salad with Poppyseed Dressing (I'll make the mustard sauce which is creamy and warm for those who like, a tartar sauce which is cold and tart for those who go that way.  The rice medley has veggies in it.  The salad has a very sweet dressing which is needed here.)
Saturday:  Home Made Pizza!  (This doesn't need much except good root beer for the kids, a carbonated malt beverage of local origin for the man, and some sort of red wine for the cook.  But the pizza will have all sorts of 'top your own' options of meat, veggies, anchovies, cheese, sauce, etc.)

Do you see the pattern?  Savory with sweet, cooked with raw, tart with creamy.  Balance, interest, contrast, flow.

Enjoy cooking for your family, or just yourself, or a house full of company.  They will thank you, and you will look back on your efforts with pleasure.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Crock Pot Beef Roast

We love roast at our house!  Chuck, bottom, rump, shoulder, pot.  Yum yum.  There are as many ways to prepare this as your creativity can conjure.  Take a break from the traditional roast-potatoes-carrots routine and try something new.

Why the crock pot?  Well, for one thing it's simple.  Plop in the roast and the seasonings and the extras, turn it on, and walk away.  Leave the house, go to work, shop, take a nap.  You might have to come back later and add something for the last couple of hours, but for the most part, the pot does the work.  Another fine reason is skipping the oven thing.  It heats up the house, takes more energy, and you (at least I do) find yourself checking it more often.  To me, the prime reason is flavor.  The very nature of the crock pot is flavor-locking, self-basting, low-and-slow cooking.  It allows the seasons to get deep into the meat, and the flavors meld into savory perfection.

Then there's the whole cheap factor.  Yep, I said cheap.  Who said gourmet and tasty must always cost more?  Roasts are often the cheapest cuts of beef you can buy, but they are full of the most flavor and offer the most flexibility in cooking.  Watch for sales at the grocery store.  And don't limit yourself to beef - think pork, lamb and venison  from time to time.

Please do not get rid of the pot liquid!  Please!  Strain it if you want to, put it in the fridge, let the fat rise to the top, skim it off, and then use the liquid for the base of a beef soup the next day with the leftover meat and veggies.  Or strain most of the fat, then bring it to a simmer in a pot on the stove, stir in a 'slurry' of flour and water, and let it thicken into a nice gravy.

DO NOT ADD LIQUID TO YOUR POT ROAST.  The roast will release plenty of liquid, in addition to the moisture from any vegetables or aromatics.  Sometimes an oven pot roast will cook dry and require liquid, but the crock pot method needs no such assistance.

Traditional Pot Roast
One beef roast, chuck or what you prefer
Salt and pepper
One large onion, sliced
Prepared horseradish
Fresh sage leaves (optional)
*Potatoes and carrots, plus celery if you like

Trim the beef if you think it needs it, but remember fat equals both moisture and flavor.  Salt and pepper both sides of the beef well.  Lay the sliced onion in the bottom of the crock pot, lay the roast on top of it.  Slather the top of the roast with the prepared horseradish, and lay a few fresh sage leaves on top of that.  If the roast is frozen (yep!  perfectly fine!), cook it on low 6-8 hours.  If the roast is thawed, low 4-6 hours should suffice.  *Add the potatoes, carrots and celery for the last 2 hours.  This is a good time to turn the roast over, and baste the veggies with the broth. 

*  Our preference is for oven roasted vegetables.  For some reason, they taste better to us than the ones cooked in with the roast.  Try them oven roasted one time, just for kicks.  Then you can go back to the pot-way later.  Chunk the potatoes and carrots and celery, toss with olive oil and seasoned salt, some pepper, too.  Roast on a baking sheet in the oven at 375, tossing them around once, for about 45 minutes to an hour.

Chipotle Roast Beef
One beef roast
Salt and pepper
Several garlic cloves
One sliced onion
One dried chipotle pepper (or two!)
Cumin, chili powder, coriander, oregano
Juice of one lime

Lay down the bed of onion, and slice the garlic to add to that bed.  Season the roast with salt, pepper, cumin, chili powder, coriander, oregano and lime juice.  Place on onion bed.  Drop the dried chipotle pepper into the pot, next to the roast, not on top of it.  Cook as above time indicates.  Turn it half way through, move the chipotle pepper around.

We love to shred this beef up and serve it in tortillas with lots of toppings, but it is equally good as a roast on a platter, served on top of polenta, or next to corn bread.  If you like spicy, chop up the chipotle, mash it into the pot liquid along with the onions and garlic, and serve all that juice on top of the roast.  Either way, save the leftover meat and do tortillas, nachos or enchiladas another day.

Italian Beef Roast
One beef roast
2 tablespoons tomato paste
Salt and pepper
One sliced onion
Several cloves of garlic, sliced
Dried oregano and basil
2 teaspoons fennel seed
Red, green and yellow bell pepper (or only one color if you prefer), sliced

Slather the tomato paste on the beef.  Season with salt and pepper.  Lay down the bed of onion and garlic in the pot, place the beef on top.  Sprinkle with oregano, basil and fennel seed.  2 hours before the roast is done, turn it over, and add the sliced peppers to the pot.  Baste them with the liquid.

This is great served over polenta, either creamy or wedges.  It would also be good with gnocchi, or another thick and hearty pasta.  Garlic mashed potatoes wouldn't be half bad, either.  Use a large, shallow serving bowl, a pretty one if you have it!  Put the preferred starch in the bottom, then set the roast on top, surround it with the vegetables, and pour the pot liquid over it all.  Who cares about the fat on this one, it's going to taste so good!

Garlic Mushroom Beef
(this is what we're having tonight)
One beef roast
Salt and pepper
One sliced onion
Several cloves of garlic, halved
Sprig of fresh rosemary
2 sprigs of fresh thyme
1/2 - 1 pound of mushrooms (baby bellas, a.k.a. crimini mushrooms, are great!), quartered

Cut several slits into the roast, and push a hunk of garlic into each.  Salt and pepper the roast well.  Lay the onions in the pot, lay the roast on top.  Lay the sprigs of rosemary and thyme on top of the roast.  3 hours before the roast is done, turn it over, and add the quartered mushrooms to the pot.  Baste with the liquid.

I serve this on a big platter with the mushrooms around it.  Tonight we'll have rosemary focaccia bread with it, and a salad.  I used a lot of mushrooms, so tomorrow I'll take the liquid (skimmed of fat), add it to some beef broth, plop in the leftover pieces of beef, mushrooms and onions, and simmer it into a soup.  At the end I'll add some quick cooking barley or some pre-cooked brown rice.  Knowing me, there'll be some dry white vermouth, or light red wine added to the soup while it is simmering.  I might throw in a handful or two of diced carrots.

BEEF - it's what's for dinner at my house :)

Monday, November 1, 2010

Ingredients - The Bad Ones - a.k.a. "Funk"

So if I told you what great ingredients are, and skipped the lecture on the funk, I wouldn't be a very good friend.

Funk rhymes with junk.  What I'm going to list here is junk, pure and simple.  The really frustrating thing is that funk is everywhere - at your grocery store, in your favorite products, and at your favorite restaurants.  The fast food industry cannot exist without funk, nor can most of your pre-packaged, convenient and tasty choices at the grocery store.

When you're done reading this post, some of you might say "Nah, she's a fanatic.  I eat fast food and packaged products all the time.  They don't have bother me or my family at all.  It's what we like.  She can keep her butter and whole wheat and leeks, I'm going to eat a Whopper."

You don't have a problem with funk?  Really.  How's your health?  Your weight?  Do you sleep well, wake feeling rested, have plenty of energy during the day?  How are your kids - do they have weight problems, behavior problems, attention problems, frequent illness?  How's your skin, your hair, your nails and your breath?  Should we even start talking about hormones?

Of course I'm no doctor, nor a nutritionist, nor have I had any formal training or study.  But I'm going to tell you that funk has no place in healthy eating or gourmet cooking.  If you want the very best in flavor, nutrition and experience, avoid the following:

MSG - also known as mono sodium glutamate. 
This is an icky "salt and flavor" deal that perks up the flavor of food that would otherwise taste gross.  MSG has several cousins that lurk in your food, also.  Watch for the names "hydrolyzed soy protein" and "autolyzed yeast extract."  How about "texturized vegetable protein?"  "Glutamic acid" and "yeast extract" and "spice extract" round out the list.  Some people are allergic to these compounds, some people just feel cruddy when they eat them.  It is not food.  Salt is food, so are herbs and spices.  Use them to enhance the natural flavor of your good food, and you will notice a world of difference.

High Fructose Corn Syrup
This is not sugar.  This is not corn.  This is a highly processed, extremely unnatural and refined product that might have started out as corn, but now it's basically a compound that will make you fat and addicted to sugar.  Swim away, fast.  Put down the soda, and make some real lemonade with real sugar.

This is the nasty stuff that makes hot dogs, ham, bacon, and sausage sit on a shelf without rotting.  It's what "cures" such products.  If you like head aches and such, then this is your stuff!  But if you like flavor and good health, look for the "uncured" meats that are more readily available than ever.  I can now buy bacon, sausage, ham and hot dogs at Costco that are nitrate free!  Yay!

Too many to list here, but do a google search and find all the ugly words that keep your frozen, packaged and processed foods happy on the shelf and in your cupboard for months on end.  Ish.

Artificial Colors
Nothing has been more linked to behavior problems in children than food dyes.  Your pretty Kraft mac and cheese, your Doritos, your Gatorade - all are pretty from funk.  Red peppers, orange carrots, green onions, purple cabbage, blueberries - these are naturally pretty and healthy.  Eat them in abundance!

When you cook with the very best ingredients, and avoid the funk you will notice a world of difference in flavor.  Trust me!  A hamburger, well seasoned with salt, pepper, garlic, and onion is out of this world in flavor!  You can taste the meat, and that is a very good thing :)  Funk is used to cover up and disguise otherwise sub-par food products.  Funk also makes you want to eat more of the product, and more of the funk, and you will eventually end up overweight and unhealthy.  I'll tell you my own obesity story one day.

Give your family the highest quality you can afford.  Simple and natural foods, seasoned with thought and love, prepared with care and attention, will bless your family in one of the sweetest ways possible.