Tag Archives: Recipes

Travel

There’s a song we sing at the beginning of every car trip–well, every trip that’s longer than an excursion to the grocery store. The song is from a musical I’ve never seen, based on a Rumor Godden novel I haven’t read, but I love the original cast recording. The song is great fun to sing as we venture down whatever highway is next.

Take me where you want to go, make it anywhere at all…

A weekend jaunt to Paris would be nice.  Christmas in the Bahamas sounds like fun.  A marathon run along the Great Wall of China would certainly be memorable.  But those destinations and a thousand more are still a little out of reach.  We’ve gone to the theatre many times, visited family and friends, and become regulars at Home Depot, but time, energy, and budget have not yet permitted more extravagant travel.

For my birthday, she gave me a subscription to a service called Taste the World.  Every two months for a year, we’ll receive a package that takes us on a virtual-culinary visit to someplace new.  In addition to food, each trip-in-a-box contains recipes, cultural information, and a playlist of appropriate music. Of course we could go to a French or Szechwan or Ethiopian restaurant, but cooking with the ingredients ourselves seems more fun than choosing something from a menu.

The first box arrived. It’s very classy looking, about 8 inches square and 4 inches tall, pale green in a shade that reminds me of Tiffany blue–but maybe I’m thinking of jewelry stores more than usual these days. We opened the box with anticipation. We’re going to Marrakesh!

The box contained organic couscous, orange-peel cookies, tinned sardines, kefta rub, couscous sauce, and culinary Argan oil.

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The accompanying booklet was filled with poetry, beautiful photographs, a link to the on-line playlist, and a few recipes. Oddly, they weren’t recipes that call for the items in the box.

We put the booklet aside, ported the playlist to the stereo, and figured out what to do for dinner.

The couscous was simple enough: toast it in a dry pan, add some boiling water, cover, and wait, then fluff with a fork.

I was a little disappointed in finding pre-made sauce–at first thought, it seemed like using a jar of Ragu to represent a trip to Italy. But there was a time when tomato sauce was exotic to American cooks, so I tempered my expectations and opened the jar. The sauce was sweet, a little smoky, and a little tangy, tomato-based and fairly thin. Pouring it over couscous alone sounded awfully boring, and not much of a main dish.  She doesn’t like sardines–and after my tinned-fish pizza experience, I wasn’t game for them either–so I pulled some chicken out of the fridge and simmered it in the sauce along with a little onion and red pepper.  Chick peas would have been appropriate, too, but we only had dry ones at hand and didn’t want to wait until morning for dinner.  I chopped some spinach and added it, too–there should be greens! She was concerned that it was such a lot of spinach, but it cooked down to almost nothing in no time flat.

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Dinner was great. Was it authentic? I don’t know. We poured a jar of sauce into a pan and cooked some chicken and vegetables in it. We probably had all the ingredients for the sauce in our pantry, though we might not have used them in the same combination. (Without a recipe, who knows?) The couscous tasted like any other couscous I’ve had–microscopic grains of pasta. We didn’t use the kefta rub on the chicken, fearing the sauce would be too spicy. The argan oil will wait for a day when we have flatbread in the house.

The orange cookies were breakfast on Saturday morning. They’re cute little things, looking as much like dog biscuits as treats for people–dense and grainy, made partly from almond flour, faintly sweet and nuttily fragrant, with a piece of candied orange peel in the center. They were fun, served with a ramekin of whipped cream for dipping. I wouldn’t buy them from a market shelf, but they might be fun to make if we had a recipe.

Based on this box, I’m not inclined to call my travel agent and book a trip to Marrakesh. Based on this box, I might not even be really inclined to order a second Taste the World box. But I do look forward to finding out what’s in the next one, and to where we might “go.” And to where we might go.

As the boat says to the river…

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Rice, Twice

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“I’d kind of like fried chicken,” she said.

Since I had no time machine with which to go back 24 hours to put some chicken in buttermilk, any fried chicken I could offer would be second-best, and second-best would not do. We were on a late-evening train home; dinner needed to be quick, tasty, and more nutritious than a pint of ice cream and two spoons.

“What I’d really like is rice with Thai peanut sauce.”

She’d had the last of some Thai take-out for breakfast on Sunday and had really enjoyed it. “Okay, then,” I said.

Immediately she backpedaled, I guess thinking I was going to drive around looking for a Thai place that was still open–a fool’s errand in the suburbs on a Monday night.

“Well, that wouldn’t take 20 minutes,” I said, having sorted through what I imagined what other than peanut butter I might need. She asked what I meant. “It takes 20 minutes to make rice.  I can come up with the sauce in less time than that.”

“You know how to make Thai peanut sauce?” she said, as if I’d been holding out on her all these years.

“No, but I can improvise. Find me a recipe.”

She Googled. We didn’t have the exact ingredient list of any of them, but I could get pretty close.

By the time she’d changed out of work clothes, rice was in one pot, oatmeal for future breakfasts was in another, the cherries I’d bought from a fruit cart were washed and draining in a colander, and the sauce was coming together in a big measuring cup.

The timer beeped.  I turned off the stove, pitted a few of the cherries, and offered her the sauce to taste. It needed another few drops of hot sauce–easier to add more than to take some out!–and a little more lime. Easy adjustments to make. The rice was ready to fluff, bowl, sauce and serve.

Thai-ish Peanut Sauce

1/2 cup peanut butter
1 T hot water
2 t lime juice
1 t hot sauce (sriracha preferred, but if it’s 10:30 PM in the suburbs, Tabasco will do)
1 t powdered ginger (fresh would be better, but not that much better; use less if you have fresh)
1 t soy sauce
1 T cream (or, more authentically, coconut milk)
1/2 t honey
1/2 t parsley, chopped

Stir all together. Add a little more hot water if necessary to help thin and warm the sauce. Serve over rice or noodles, with vegetables or protein as desired, topped with a sprinkling of sesame seeds. Serves 2.

I had bowl of Rice Krispies, topped with a little granola and some wonderful pitted cherries. I liked the rice-and-sauce, but we didn’t have much rice–I’m sure I had forgotten to put it on the shopping list–and I wanted something a little lighter anyway.

That’s not true, in fact. We had plenty of rice, but most of it was brown. “It is a perfectly interesting grain,” she said of the brown variety, but it isn’t rice. “That’s funny,” I said, “when I have the white stuff, I think the same thing.” The case of White v. Brown may be taken up another day–or maybe it won’t. Perhaps, as in Creamy v. Crunchy, the Court will throw out the case and tell the participants that they must learn to coexist. If there is Thai Peanut Sauce, the peace will be easily won.

Still, after dropping her at the train this morning I swung by the market. IMG_0068

Making (Someone Else) a Home

"White. A blank page or canvas. So many possibilities." --Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

“White. A blank page or canvas.
So many possibilities.”
–Lapine, SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE

Getting a home ready to put on the market is a challenging proposition. We’ve done lots of work on the Country House–and had even more done by professionals. There’s been new flooring installed, new carpeting, and new ceilings. There’s new paint everywhere. We’ve done enough de-cluttering to stock several thrift stores, and filled the recycling bin nearly to bursting almost every week.  I’m finishing the last of the electrical work, and alternately being amused and incensed by the thought that a prospective buyer might lose interest in a home that had almond colored light switches and outlets rather than white ones. (Ew, almond!) She’s artfully arranged furniture and stored small appliances in cabinets in a way that makes rooms and cabinets look big and uncluttered. We’ve made the house a blank canvas on which someone else might picture their life.

Until that someone is found, we’ll live as if we don’t live there: no family photographs on display, no dishes left in the sink to wash when we get home from work, no laundry left to fold later. It’ll be tricky. But, yes on the prize, as they say, we will do what we need to do in order to make it possible to find the City House we both want.

This morning, she admitted to being cranky and hungry. She worked so hard last weekend to get the kitchen counters perfectly clean that she can’t bear the thought of using them to prepare a meal.

That stops now.

I put off changing the last outlets and switches until tomorrow, and made a batch of pineapple fried rice that she can reheat in the microwave. I washed the dishes and wiped down the countertop when I was finished.

Dinner is still served at the Country House. Even if we use paper plates and keep our toothbrushes out of sight.

House-on-the-Market Pineapple Fried Rice

Mix together:
1/4 cup teriyaki sauce
2 T brown sugar
2 t lime juice
1/2 t minced garlic
Pour into a zip-top bag; add two pork chops and close, squeezing out as much air as possible. Leave overnight, or at least a few hours.

Remove the pork chops and discard the extra marinade. Dry the pork chops with a paper towel; tuck this immediately into the trash. (Resist the temptation to empty the trash right away; there are vegetables to clean.)

Brown the pork chops in a hot skillet, then set them aside. Add a little oil to the skillet and sauté:

1 cup sliced mushrooms
1/2 medium onion, diced
2 ribs of celery, diced
1/2 bell pepper, in strips
1 cup grape tomatoes

Remove vegetables; add to the skillet and brown slightly:
1 cup pineapple chunks

Meanwhile, slice the pork thinly.  It will not be cooked through yet, and that’s all right. Return pork and vegetables to the skillet, along with:
2 t soy sauce
2 T pineapple juice
2 t ketchup

Toss the meat and vegetables in the sauce until coated, and until the sauce is slightly thickened. Add:
2 cups white rice, cooked and cooled.

Stir a bit until rice is slightly coated with sauce. Add:
1 egg, lightly beaten

Stir and cook another minute or so.

Remove from heat. Refrigerate and reheat when ready. Wash the dishes and empty the trash.

The Enemy of the Good

Why, yes, I am enjoying watercolor effects.

Late in the evening I had an impromptu conference with the Artistic Director.  I also had an organic cheese puff. Or maybe 3. Hey, he offered.

The topic of conversation was our leading man, who was struggling with the high notes in one of his songs. The solution was obvious: change the key. Our director, a voice teacher by profession, was convinced the actor could become comfortable with the high notes in time. She’s probably right. And I can probably run a six-minute mile to keep pace with our assistant stage manager. But not before we open in a week and a half.

AD agreed to order the music in a new key. I heard that the actors were almost up to my next cue, so I hustled to the piano. I went back to his table during the next dialogue scene.  He held out the bag of cheese puffs.  I declined with thanks. What I really was seeking was advice about another song, in which four actors sing backing vocals to a featured performer. They’re supposed to sing these vocals–in high, tight harmony–while dancing up a storm. They’re perfectly good dancers, but none of them actors is a high tenor.

“Can you thin out the harmony, or have them sing in unison?”

“That’s exactly what I want to do, but I wanted to hear you say it.”

After our Act II run-through, I gathered the guys, demonstrated a new vocal part, which they sang effortlessly, with great confidence, and great relief. I worked with the leading guy, too. He understood why I wanted to make the change, but he felt like he was letting us down. I did my best to convince him otherwise. We like him. We like his acting, his ease on stage, his chemistry with the leading lady. And we like his singing. His vocal mechanism just isn’t ready to sing those high notes, any more than I’m equipped to cut my mile time by almost half.

Looking back at both of these songs, I probably should have insisted we make the changes even before the first rehearsal. But none of us wants to do less than our best. Even if the composer won’t be in the room, we want to honor her intentions. We want it to be as it should be. We want it to be perfect. But the perfect can be the enemy of the good.

She has this problem at work, too.  She and her colleagues were, by their own admission, A students who felt awful if they didn’t score 100% on every test and get all the extra credit points. Often as not, though, their not-quite-perfect work is better than someone else’s A. They’ve taken to calling themselves “The B+ Girls.”

I put some rotini in a pot of water just off the boil, turned off the heat, and ran an errand that took longer than I expected. The noodles were a little softer than I’d meant, but I’m okay with that.

B+ Pasta Salad

Combine in a large bowl:

1/2 lb. rotini (or other curly, the better to hold dressing) pasta, cooked in salted water then drained. Don’t beat yourself up if the pasta is a little past al dente.

1 carrot, in smallish pieces.

3 ribs celery, or thereabouts, sliced somewhere near thinly.

1/2 cup pepperoni—but salami would do, or even ham—sliced or cubed.

1 hard-boiled egg, chopped. Don’t even try for a perfect dice.

1/2 cup mozzarella cheese–sliced or grated or in little balls. Fresh if you have it, but don’t make a special trip to the market.

6 peppadew peppers, roughly chopped.

1 cup marinated mushrooms–and don’t give a moment’s thought that you didn’t marinate them yourself.

3 cups spinach, rinsed, dried, and torn or sliced into pieces.

Toss with:

1/4 cup viniagrette dressing (from the back of the fridge), augmented with
a little brown mustard (any variety you grab), and
a splash of olive oil.

Add pepper to taste. (Between the pasta cooking water, the dressing, the pepperoni, and the mushrooms, you won’t need salt.)

This is best after a night in the refrigerator, but if you need lunch in a hurry, it’s pretty good right away.  And certainly better than takeout.

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Sweet Traditions

Two more layers of creamy goodness will top this lemon-covered shortbread. Talk about gilding the Easter lily!

My grandmother had a pre-wrapped gift box. I’m sure it had once been a beautiful thing, but by the time I came to know it, it had seen better days. Its glittered and flocked exterior showed plenty of wear. The ribbon wrapped around its lid was more than a little frayed. The bow formed by that ribbon would never be as pretty and puffy as when it was new.  But every Christmas, it came out of her closet, and was filled with a token gift for her youngest son, my uncle. And on the day after Christmas, she’d take the box back and put it back into her closet to wait for the following year.

After she passed away, my mom found the box and continued to use it for her baby brother’s Christmas present–which was usually a small batch of his favorite cookie, wrapped carefully in plastic so it didn’t damage the box. (The rest of the cookies were presented in a more practical container, usually a zip-top bag.) As time went on, those orange flavored cookies with a faint orange glaze might not even have been my uncle’s favorite, but they were tradition.

My grandmother’s recipe collection is in storage while renovations on the Country House are underway. This might not be her exact recipe, but it’s close.  While she was living, nobody but my grandmother baked the orange cookies; then, only my mother did. One of my cousins does it now for her dad.

We don’t have many solid food traditions here. Turkey on Thanksgiving, sure. But we’ll have fried rice on New Year’s Eve, or popcorn for Christmas, or pancakes any night of the week if that’s what we feel like doing. That might change; we’re still figuring things out.

Her aunt–who is as much like a big sister to her as anything else–is known in the family for her lemon squares. They’re requested for every big family occasion, and nobody else makes them. Her aunt gave us the recipe–not because she’s handing over the reins, but because we’re far enough away that we aren’t encroaching on her turf. I’m honored. And delighted. I made a batch last Easter, surprised that I so enjoyed a recipe that had ingredients I’d never otherwise use: Cool Whip? Pudding Mix? I’m a from-scratch guy! 

When we were invited to a friend’s home for Easter dinner, her aunt’s lemon squares the first thing it occurred to us to bring. We tag-teamed: I baked the shortbread crust before I left for rehearsal; she took it from there. Creamy, tart, and addictively delicious, they were of course a hit.

I’ve seen variations of the recipe on lots of sites, so I don’t know that her aunt invented this treat; it seems to be a family tradition that only she made them.

And now we do, for Easter. Pudding and Cool Whip. Life is full of surprises. And unexpected traditions. I think I’ll bake some orange cookies at Christmastime. I’m looking forward already to next Easter.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box--but it's every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

At the end of Easter dinner, one remaining Lemon Square might look as forlorn as an old Christmas gift box–but it’s every bit as delicious as new, and as full of love.

Perch, Pouch, Poach

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I spent most of the weekend perched on a bench. I wasn’t made to sit out a game while the rest of the team played for the championship–although there’s almost no team sport in which that wouldn’t be an appropriate place for me. It was a very busy rehearsal and performance week: performances of a school play I directed and accompanied, Palm Sunday masses at the church where I’m the music director, and rehearsals for a musical at a theatre a few miles north. Everything went well, if not perfectly.  The kids were pleased, and so were their parents; the masses went off without any significant hitch; rehearsals were productive. Lots of time on piano and organ benches, though. By the end of it all, I could not have been more fried if the baptismal font had been full of peanut oil.

Meanwhile, she barely perched for a moment. Now that the last of the major renovations are complete, she’s been working on the house: re-setting rooms where work is completed, making lists of small things yet to be done, storing items we won’t need while the house is on the market, and making the closet transition from winter wardrobe to spring clothes.

(Of course, that last item may have been tempting fate; it snowed this morning.)

Amid all this musical and domestic activity, there wasn’t much time in the kitchen. We took a visiting collaborator out for dinner after the show on Friday–nothing fancy, just a quick bite at a diner before her train back to NYC. I brought home Awesome Burgers after the show-and-church extravaganza of Saturday. It was time for Sunday dinner before we knew it. Daylight Saving Time had kept us going on our afternoon chores until mid-evening. Fortunately, we had a plan. (And, even more fortunately, her afternoon errands had included a trip to the market so our plan could be executed.)

Salmon Pouches with Cilantro-Lime Rice

Preheat oven to 400F. Toast 1 cup white rice in a dry saucepan; add 2 cups boiling water and 1/2 tsp salt. Cover and keep on low heat for 20 minutes.

Rinse and trim 3/4 lb. green beans. Place a third of the green beans in the centers of 3 12-inch pieces of aluminum foil.

Lay on top of the beans a 4-oz portion of salmon fillet. Sprinkle with salt, pepper, and a little dried dill. Add a thick slice of lemon. Gather the foil and fold each pouch to seal. Place pouches on a low-lipped pan or cookie sheet and bake for 15 minutes.

While the fish is in the oven and the rice is steaming, zest a lime, and heat 1 tbsp oil in a small skillet. Rinse, dry, and chop some cilantro–maybe a quarter-cup.

When the oil is hot, sauté a cup of grape tomatoes until soft and slightly browned, about 5 minutes. Lower heat and stir in 1 tsp dijon mustard; stir to combine, then remove from heat.

Remove pouches from the oven and rice from the heat.  Quickly toss the lime zest into the rice and re-cover. Wait 5 minutes, then open the pouches and fluff rice with a fork. Stir in the cilantro, and a little lime juice to taste

Serves two, with leftovers for somebody’s lunch.

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I probably should have opened the leftovers-pouch when I plated the others; the other portions of salmon were more pink and the beans a brighter green–very spring-like. These are probably a little overdone, but they’ll still taste good.

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Cilantro-less rice.

She was so excited about seeing fresh herbs at the market that she bought mint instead of cilantro.  I didn’t add that to the rice, but she put it in a pitcher of rooibos tea.

Rooibus

“But I was supposed to make you dinner,” she said. I reminded her that she had made lunch. And done the marketing. And arranged the flowers I’d been given after the shows. And all manner of other making-the-house-beautiful chores that are much more challenging for me than spending some time in the kitchen. She could do the dishes if she wanted to, but with the fish in pouches cleanup was a snap.

I’m a fan of big, meaty fish steaks much of the time, but this salmon came out sweet, delicate, and very tender. It was the perfect, gentle dinner at the end of a weekend so busy there hadn’t been much “end” at all. This week will be just as hectic, but we’ve built in a break to see a friend’s show on Wednesday night. Tickets are already bought, and we’ve already got dinner plans: no last-minute fuss. Like a little pouch waiting to go into the oven. IMG_0039

Latch-Key Mac and Cheese

IMG_0036 Packaged macaroni and cheese is the first meal she was allowed to cook. It was an after-school snack when she got home before her parents did. She wonders sometimes that her parents let her come home to an empty house, but it was a simpler time back then, and she was a very smart kid. Boil and drain the noodles, add a lump of butter and some milk, stir in the packet of bright-orange powder, stir and enjoy. A pot of boiling water might be risky, but at least there are no sharp knives involved, and there’s no possibility of undercooking meat. As after-school snacks go, it’s probably better than a bowl of ice cream or an entire sleeve of Girl Scout cookies. She knows it’s not gourmet cuisine, but it is comforting and friendly and nothing in the world is going to change her mind on that subject. Well, maybe a recall of packaged macaroni-and-cheese. Even without a recall because they accidentally added metal shavings, there’s a lot of stuff in that orange powder that you wouldn’t put in if you were making it from scratch.  All you need, really, is macaroni. And cheese. We joke about the “extras” I try to put in M&C, like a pile of sautéed kale or a handful of pan-roasted tomatoes, but even I recognize that they are accompaniments rather than ingredients. We both laughed out loud when I saw this recipe: Fundamentalist Macaroni and Cheese The humor of The Awl’s essay, from which this is adapted, is lost in this simplification. Read the original for fun. Boil 1/2 pound of elbow macaroni until it is not quite al dente. Grate a pound of cheddar cheese–half mild, half sharp. Drain the macaroni. Wipe out the pot and rub with butter. Add the macaroni back into the pot, then stir in the cheese a handful at a time. Add about 1/2 cup milk. Bake at 350F until top is slightly brown and crunchy, probably about 40 minutes. That’s it. I made a batch. And it was really quite good. Not at all elaborate, not complicated, but very good. The cheese was neither too mild nor too sharp; the noodles were nicely sturdy. I thought it could use some kale, but that’s another story. She got home and was thrilled to see what I’d done, but since I’d also made tomato soup–it was a batch-cooking Sunday night–she opted for a grilled cheese sandwich with the soup for her supper. Turns out it doesn’t reheat all that well, though. The cheese separates a little in the microwave. Maybe it would be better if it were reheated in a pan on the stovetop, or maybe at a lower power level. Or maybe this is a recipe we use when we don’t want leftovers. My grandmother lived with my parents and me, so I hardly ever came home to an empty house.  I don’t remember the first meal I was allowed to cook.  It was probably something like Spaghetti-o’s, which are arguably no healthier than the Blue Box. Maybe I just had a cookie. Or three.