Sunday, August 31, 2008

Sunday Night Supper

Bathed-in-Butter Roasted Chicken
Braised Green Beans with Cherry Tomatoes and Onions
Cantaloupe Rainbows with Honey and Lime Dressing
Creamy Vanilla Rice Pudding
Today's menu was filled with tried-and-true favorites. The dog days are wearing on me and my mind is turning to the comforts of cooler weather and heartier cooking. While the baby napped on the sofa, I roasted a whole chicken in a cast-iron skillet. My method combines two techniques: the first is brining, and the second is a high-heat roasting technique that I first read about in Fine Cooking. I will write later on the butter-basted roast chicken.
The braised green beans are from Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison. The CSA bag includes green beans each week -- big, fat pole beans. I cooked them with country ham last week, so I thought I'd try a vegetarian option this week, and they were yummy. The cantaloupe was a satisfying texture, but lacking in sweetness, so I spiked it with bit of honey and lime, an all-time favorite with my older daughter.
And for dessert, rice pudding, using the method in America's Test Kitchen Family Cookbook, first cooking a cup of rice in 2 cups of water, then adding four cups of whole milk and 2/3 cup of sugar, before simmering and stirring in a teaspoon of vanilla. The last of summer's peaches will top off individual servings. In fact, it's dessert time now....

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Goodbye, Summer

This was the beginning of summer at a Braves game in June.
Lindsey is 2 and Laura is 9.
School has been in session for a month and the leaves are already falling.
Goodbye, summer 2008!

Monday, August 25, 2008

It's the Funniest Thing...

I've cooked a lot lately, but it's mostly the same old stuff I've already written about. I'm also busy with other projects, namely finding a permanent work situation, so I haven't had time to craft the articles that I dearly want to write. In the meantime, I've found a few items that have made me laugh so hard, I cried. Here they are:

1. This is an excerpt from Dan Quayle's Wiki page. It made me long for the good ol' days when we worried what vegetables the President ate, not whether the Commander-in-Chief had the IQ of a vegetable.

"Contributing greatly to the perception of Quayle's incompetence was his tendency to make public statements which were either self-contradictory ("We don't want to go back to tomorrow, we want to go forward"), logically redundant ("The future will be better tomorrow"), obvious ("For NASA, space is still a high priority"), geographically wrong ("I love California. I practically grew up in Phoenix."), fallacious ("It's time for the human race to enter the solar system"),or painfully confused and inappropriate, as when he addressed the United Negro College Fund, whose slogan is "A mind is a terrible thing to waste," Quayle said "You take the United Negro College Fund model that what a waste it is to lose one's mind or not to have a mind is being very wasteful. How true that is."

As Vice President, Quayle was asked his thoughts on sending humans to Mars. His response was stunning for the number of errors he made in just a few short sentences. "Mars is essentially in the same orbit [as earth]....Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe."

2. The blog Cakewrecks. When my day is overwhelming, like today when I was trapped in the car with two very unhappy and vocal children, I long to get home and take a look at this eccentric little blog. Be sure to check out the story about the firefighter cake!

3. Confessions of a Shopaholic by Sophie Kinsella. Maybe not laugh out loud funny like the cake blog, but brain candy that does its job - putting the reader in another, more frivolous time and place. A bubble bath for the brain, if you will.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Menu for High Summer

In high summer, I like to cook early in the day and reheat supper just before serving. This morning, I made my standard mac and cheese, which is not really special, but it's mild and creamy, just the way my kids like it. Field peas and okra were farm-fresh and served as side dishes beside the ham steak, which needed just five minutes on the griddle to cook through. The real star of the meal was a Double-Crust Apple Pie, made with hand-picked farm apples given to me by a friend. Another reason to love summer - just this week, I've been the lucky recipient of home-grown cherry tomatoes and Granny Smith apples!

Ham Steaks
From-Scratch Macaroni and Cheese
Field Peas
Double-Crust Apple Pie

Friday, August 15, 2008

Friday Night's All Right

Grandmaw Peacock's Chicken & Rice
Cornmeal Fried Okra
Purple Hull Peas Simmered with Country Ham
Brown Sugar Pie

Friday, August 8, 2008

Treasures on the Bookshelf

I am happiest in a kitchen and surrounded by books. That's why my glorious kitchen features about 20 feet of bookshelf space around the perimeter, and since the shelves are near the top of 12-foot ceilings, they are thoroughly cleaned just a few times a year. August is proving too hot to do much outside, so indoor projects, like the dreaded dusting of the bookshelves, are taking over.

As far as I can tell from my perch on the ladder, there are two benefits to this semi-annual project: I can artfully rearrange my collection of pottery and find a few cookbooks that I'd forgotten about. Today's high-altitude adventure yielded a few lost treasures:

1. Chez Panisse Cooking by Alice Waters and Paul Bertolli. I have no idea how I acquired this book. It has a red remainder mark on the top edge, so I'm comforted that I didn't pay full price. I've only glanced through this book before and find the hand-tinted photographs disturbing and the glossy heavyweight paper off-putting. The style of the book seems more appropriate for a coffee table book, although the format is too narrow for the book to lay open at any double-page spread. Here at the height of summer produce, I'm willing to give the recipes a try, after all, Waters and Bertolli are supposedly genius cooks, not book designers.

2. Taste of Summer by Diane Rossen Worthington. I bought this book on a bookstore customer's strong recommendation. She was a gourmet cook and was stunned, absolutely shocked that I didn't own a copy of Taste of Summer. To be honest, I look through this book each summer and vow to make something, anything. The pictures are sumptuous and the recipes appear to be clearly written. I scan the recipes and kick out ideas for grilling (not my thing), recipes featuring tomatillos (couldn't begin to tell you where I'd find those fresh), and lobster (no room in the budget since gas is $4 a gallon). I'll look in next week's CSA bag and see if I can make anything fit.

3. The Summer Book by Susan Branch. This is more my idea of a cozy cookbook to curl up on the sofa with. I've had mixed results with Branch's recipes, but I always enjoy reading her books. The pages are like illuminated manuscripts, each recipe crafted and embellished with poetry, calligraphy and whimsical drawings. A blueberry and apple pie recipe caught my eye. I may have to give that a try during the last days of what is turning out to be an excellent blueberry season.

4. Dori Sanders' Country Cooking. I pull this book from the shelf every so often, mainly because Sanders is one of my all-time favorite novelists. My 10-year old daughter read Clover this summer and declared it one of the best books she's ever read. Sanders writes her books at her family's peach stand in Filbert, SC. I can't say we shared the same red clay childhood, but she writes about a place and people that I remember with affection.

5. Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone by Deborah Madison is a big surprise. Not just because it's about 700 pages and can be employed as an effective weapon if one is desperate. Just leaving this book open on the counter is a joy. The fresh tomatoes and green beans and onions in this week's CSA bag were made into a ragout, using Madison's recipe. It's the kind of book that makes me want to cook and cook and cook. And eat and eat and eat.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Fieldhands' Dinner

Unlike most Southerners, I was raised to call the noontime meal "lunch." I endured occasional ridicule for this habit by other children who believed the noontime meal was properly called "dinner" and the evening meal "supper." In my house, we called the evening meal "dinner" or sometimes "supper." Potato, potAHto, I say, let's just eat. Today, we made a proper Southern dinner, or noontime meal, fit for farmhands and heavy laborers.

This morning my girls and I made a blueberry pie, using the plump, sweet CSA berries from Haven Farms and the small, tart berries from the local u-pick. A lot of heavy mommy labor went into acquiring those berries (not days; cranky kids) and they deserved first-class treatment. I used the pastry recipe from Damon Lee Fowler's New Southern Baking, adding a tablespoon of sugar, and it turned out fine, flaky, golden and tender. I ad-libbed the filling - four cups of blueberries with the zest of one lemon, the juice of half the lemon, a tablespoon of cornstarch and 1/2 cup of sugar. The cornstarch didn't do its job holding the pie together; the result was a tasty lemony blueberry soup in a pie crust. After removing the initial slice, the filling merged in the middle, creating a blueberry lake worthy of Willy Wonka. The latest Cook's Illustrated suggests using a grated Granny Smith apple to bind a blueberry pie, and I will definitely try that next time.

Fieldhands' Dinner
Pan-Fried Ham Steak
Pole Beans Simmered in Pork Stock with Potatoes and Onions
Sliced Heirloom Tomatoes
Corn on the Cob
Sliced Fresh South Carolina Peaches
Homemade Buttermilk Biscuits
Homemade Blueberry Pie
This must be a good year for green beans; each week I find at least a pound, sometimes two in the CSA bag. They are labeled Romano beans, and are broad and flat, about 6 inches long, usually green, but this week, a pale yellow. I'm sure there are many recipes for fresh green beans, but, honestly, I'm happy with Southern-style beans cooked in pork stock. I've come to this method from several sources, mainly Fanny Flagg's cookbook, and the always-popular Gift of Southern Cooking.
Before I prepped the beans, I put a 2 quart pot of water on to boil, and dropped in a handful of country ham scraps. These ham scraps can be found near the bacon in the supermarket, in cryovac packages, not necessarily in the refrigerated case. Whatever amount is left over, I seal in a bag and toss in the freezer. You could also use a smoked ham hock or turkey wings or legs, but the best flavor will come from the country ham.
While the pork stock is simmering, you may feel the need to skim any foam that rises to the top. Sometimes cooking Southern vegetables is a lot like making stock -- "skim, skim, skim" is the mantra. This is the time to prep the beans -- just get into a comfy chair with two bowls and the bag of beans. A helpful child snugged up close is optional, but nice. For the beans, snap each green end off, and break the pods into 2-inch sections. Use one bowl for discards, the other for keepers. Rinse the bean sections well and place in the bubbling pork stock. Add two or more small red potatoes, peeled and quartered, if necessary, and one large onion, peeled then sliced in wedges. Let simmer uncovered on cooktop for about two hours, until beans are tender. Be cautious about salt -- you will definitely need it, but the pot liquor concentrates as it cooks down.
I'm so proud that I finally know how to properly cook Southern green beans. I could grab the can of Allen's Seasoned Southern Style when I'm in the store, and in the coldest days of winter, I certainly will, but when I have fresh organic pole beans on hand, it's easy and tasty to make my own.

I'll Have What She's Having

"When it comes to forming a philosophy or a political position about what to eat, I leave that to each one of you to work out. But whether you place your vegetables at the center of your plate, reserve that place for meat, or find comfort somewhere in between, enjoy, eat well, and raise a glass to life!"

--Deborah Madison, Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone

Friday, August 1, 2008

The Queen of Chicken Casseroles

I took a Tex-Mex turn today, stirring up my version of the King Ranch Casserole, a tasty dish popular with can opener cooks. I'm not a food snob, my kids love the blue box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese (or is it Cheese and Macaroni? Not.) and there's always a couple cans of Campbell's in the pantry. I have, in fact, made the can opener version of King Ranch, which involves opening cans of Cream of Chicken soup, diced green chilies and Ro-tel and stirring them together with sour cream. This sauce is layered with cooked chicken and tortillas and topped with cheese before baking.

While reading through Art Smith's Kitchen Life, an excellent home cooking resource, I came upon his version called From-Scratch King Ranch casserole. OK, I love Art, but I find it difficult for a cook to call something "from scratch" when you open three cans and a jar (in this case, chicken broth, tomatoes, roasted red peppers and chopped green chilies). At least the recipe called for cooking chicken thighs in the broth and then creating a spicy veloute to layer with the chicken and tortillas.

My version used what I had on hand - leftover roasted chicken breast meat, fresh sweet peppers from this week's CSA bag, and leftover homemade vegetable broth. I clean forgot about using tomatoes, a key ingredient in typical versions, and the recipe did not suffer for it. In fact, my recipe is better without tomatoes and the mushrooms in Art's version. Here's how I made

Queen Ranch Casserole
9 corn tortillas
2 cups cooked chicken, cut into 1/2 inch cubes
2 cups broth, vegetable or chicken, or use water
2 roasted red bell peppers, freshly made or from a jar, chopped
1 small can diced green chilies
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon grill seasoning
2 cups milk
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup shredded cheddar cheese or Mexican cheese blend
1/2 cup sour cream, for serving

1. Preheat the oven to 350 and position a rack in the center. Lightly coat a 9 X 13 inch baking dish with the oil spray.

2. Arrange the tortillas directly on the oven racks. Bake until the tortillas are dry, about 6 minutes. Remove the tortillas from the oven and let cool.

3. In a bowl, combine cooked chicken, chopped bell pepper, and diced green chilies.

4. In skillet, melt butter and saute onion. Add chili powder and grill seasoning. Cook until onions are soft. Whisk in flour and stir until smooth. Slowly add milk and broth and season to taste.

5. In baking dish, place three tortillas, breaking into chips to create a complete layer. Add half of chicken mixture and then cover with a third of the sauce. Top with a third of the cheese. Repeat these layers. Add the final layer of tortillas, cover with remaining sauce and cheese. Bake in a 350 oven for about 30 minutes, until bubbly and golden and the cheese has melted. Serve individual portions topped with sour cream.