Sunday, December 25, 2011

Christmas Dinner for Two

Celebrating with the families yesterday meant a nice quiet day at the lake for The Chef and me. But dinner for two at our house doesn't mean hamburger or tuna salad. Since we didn't have to cook for a crowd, a great big turkey was a little out of the question and we opted instead for one my very favorite things of all- to cook and to eat- roast chicken.

Roasting a chicken is one of the easiest things to master. They key ingredients are simple: a chicken, an apple, an onion, salt and pepper, butter and a MEAT THERMOMETER. Always choose a chicken as large as you can find for roasting. They cook better and more evenly and are much juicier. If your chicken has been frozen, make sure it is COMPLETELY thawed before roasting. Always rinse the chicken inside and out, make sure you remove giblets, if included, and pat the skin dry with a paper towel. At this point you probably want to know what the heck the apple is for. I always, always, always stuff whole poultry (chicken, turkey, cornish hens) with a quartered apple and a quartered onion. If it's cornish hens, cube the apple and onion smaller, and if you're roasting a turkey, add a carrot or two and a stalk of celery or two, with the leaves, cut into big chunks. Sounds weird, but you'll thank me later.

Pat the chicken dry all over and rub all over with softened butter. Sprinkle with salt and pepper, and if like (and I do !!) sprinkle your chicken all over with herbs- today I used Fines Herbes from Penzey's, crumbled thyme from my garden, freshly cracked black pepper and sea salt.

Put the chicken on a rack on a roasting pan and add 2 cups or more of chicken broth/stock to the bottom of the pan. Roast at 325-350 degrees until the chicken is browned, the skin is crispy and the meat thermometer registers 170 degrees (ALWAYS test in the meatiest part of the thigh, being careful not to touch bones when testing). I basted the chicken 4 or 5 times during roasting with the pan juices and had to add a cup of water once. This is especially important if you want to use the drippings for gravy. I stink at making gravy so since we're having a rice dish, I'm not making gravy. After removing from the oven and testing the temperature, let the chicken rest for 15 minutes or so to redistribute the juices before carving.

With our chicken we had a little rice pilaf, green beans almandine, roast acorn squash from our garden and homemade cranberry sauce. All easy to make, all delicious !!

We kind of "wing it" when making rice, but it's pretty easy adjust seasonings to what you like.

Wild Rice Pilaf

1/2 cup wild rice, uncooked
1/2 small onion, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
salt, pepper
1 tb Fines Herbes

I melted the butter in a small saucepan and sauteed the onion and garlic briefly, then added the rice, a little salt and pepper, and about a tablespoon of dried chives. I added 3 cups of chicken stock to the pot and brought to boil, covered and simmered about 30 minutes- the rice isn't fully cooked at this point. Then I added 1 cup long grain rice, brought to boil again, covered and simmered for about 10 minutes then removed from heat and let stand about 15 minutes. Before serving, fluff with a fork.

Green Beans Almandine- probably one of the easiest sides ever. I melted a tablespoon of butter in a skillet and toasted a palmful of slivered almonds until golden and butter is just beginning to brown. I cooked frozen green beans just until done (steamed) then drained well and tossed with the almonds, butter and a big pinch of sea salt.

The acorn squash came from our garden and have been hiding out in the cabinet just waiting to be eaten. Another super easy side dish, I made these just like my mother always did, split in half, removed the seeds,  and filled each with a tablespoon of butter, a tablespoon of brown sugar, a pinch of salt and a pinch of cinnamon. Roasted in the oven alongside the yummy chicken, they take about an hour to an hour and a half.

I looooove cranberry sauce. I just can't imagine roast bird of any kind without them !! And I do buy canned sometimes but with a half a bag of fresh cranberries hiding out in the freezer it was super easy to throw them in a small saucepan with a cup of sugar, pinch of salt, cup of water and......a couple dashes of Tabasco sauce for a hidden kick.

We still have cake balls from yesterday so no dessert was necessary, and I will be sneaking slices of bread with butter and cranberries later tonight !!

2011 is on the way out- and I'm not too sad to see her gone. It was a year of pretty intense ups and downs, and ending on a high note, with everyone in this house happy at work, healthy and looking forward to the future- all I can say is Merry Christmas and Happy New Year !!

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Tale of Two Lasagnas

Headlines can be deceiving. This actually has nothing to do with lasagna. Well.......not directly anyway. Today while talking over how to plan our day tomorrow, what time we have to be everywhere, what we need to bring, etc, we realized that not only will we be having lasagna for dinner at my family's Christmas Eve, we are also having lasagna at The Chef's family's Christmas Eve. That's a lotta pasta !! Oh well, we did the same thing on Thanksgiving- turkey at one house and turkey at the other.

Since we don't have to cook the meal I get the easy way out- making desserts again. This is a time in my life when new traditions are being created so I've chosen to make something new for one dessert- Red Velvet Cake Balls. And in keeping with some of the old traditions I'm hoping to recapture with my family, I've chosen a very old recipe, Watergate Cake.

Ohhhh cake balls. I've been reading about these guys for some time now, looking at all the photos on Pinterest of the fabulously decorated cake balls (mine will NOT be that fancy !!) The actual cake balls are super easy to make- the dipping and decorating are pretty time consuming. But...the chef is at work til late, and I have nothing else to do out here in the country so....melting white chocolate, dipping cake balls and experimenting is on the agenda for me tonight.

I have seen cake balls in every flavor imaginable. Red Velvet Cake is a childhood favorite of mine. My mother, when I was a young girl, worked at the Hyatt House in Des Moines. They had an amazing pastry chef on staff and always had the most incredible desserts. Once in a while she would bring something home for my sister and I, and Red Velvet Cake was my favorite of all. Their chef used the classic Waldorf Astoria recipe, and that is also what I always use when making this heavenly cake.

To make the classic Waldorf Astoria Red Velvet Cake:

1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups sugar
2 eggs
2 ounces red food coloring
2 tb cocoa (heaping)
1 cup buttermilk
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1 tsp vanilla
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp vinegar

Cream shortening, sugar and eggs together with mixer. Make a paste of food color and cocoa, add to creamed mixture. Add buttermilk alternating with flour and salt. Add vanilla. Add soda to vinegar and blend into batter. Pour into 3 or 4 greased and floured 8" cake cakes (I used a 9x13 pan for this recipe). Bake at 350 for 25-30 mins. Cool completely.

To make the cake balls, crumble the completely cooled cake into large bowl. Using store-bought cream cheese frosting, start by mixing in about 1/2 the can of frosting- mix thoroughly, adding more frosting if needed until mixture is evenly moistened but NOT gooey.

The frosting "dissolves" into the cake and should mix in completely.

Cover mixture and chill for a couple hours minimum. Roll chilled mixture into balls and place on cookie sheet.

Freeze for an hour or so to set the mixture, then dip into melted chocolate or candy coating of choice. I am using about a pound of white chocolate.

Return to cookie sheet and chill until firm, decorate as desired.

Mine aren't as fancy as some I've seen but for a first timer, they were pretty delish !!

Another old favorite of mine is Watergate Cake. Once a staple in church cookbooks and potlucks, it has pretty much disappeared from the dessert menu. But it will always be one of my favorites. I'm making a much simpler version this time because I have to drive quite a ways with it in the car, but if I were making this for dinner guests at my house, I would make 2 layers, split them, brush layers with Di Saronno before filling and frosting with the pistachio mousse, which would have had about 1/4 cup of the milk swapped out with Di Saronno.

Watergate Cake

1 (18.25 ounce) package white or yellow cake mix
3 eggs
1 cup vegetable oil
1 cup 7Up or Sprite (use can use sparkling wine for an extra touch)
1 3 oz package instant pistachio pudding mix
1/2 cup or so chopped maraschino cherries
additional pistachios, chopped, if desired.

Mix all ingredients in large bowl.

I added a little bit of green food coloring to brighten the color. You don't have to.

Pour into prepared cake pans. You can do layers, Bundt, 9x13, cupcakes- whatever you like. This time I am doing 9x13 because I have to transport the cake and it's much easier than trying to hold up four layers in the car.

For the frosting I use a "mousse" style frosting I have been making for years and works great with any combo of pudding/cake flavor.

1 envelope Dream Whip
1 box instant pudding (pistachio for this recipe)
1 1/2 cups cold milk
food coloring if desired (I used a bit of green)

Combine all ingredients in bowl, whip with mixture until firm peaks form. 

Frost cake, decorate as desired. Store in fridge.

I'm not overly thrilled with the cake as a 9x13 cake but the bright red cherries and green fluffy frosting do look a little festive! I think this cake flavor would make great cake balls too !!

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Anything to avoid Christmas shopping

Everyone knows I hate shopping. The Chef hates shopping. We confine even our grocery shopping to once a month because we HATE the stores. So of course, two Grinches wouldn't want any part of Christmas shopping. Heck to the NO !!

It was pretty comical- the great lengths we went to in order to avoid actually leaving the house for the store. The Chef declined an invite to go with a buddy to Mens' Disneyland- Best Buy and Guitar Center. He busied himself with concocting a big pot of lentil soup. We agreed to go to the store when the crowds die off for the day. He did housework !!!

 He hinted at cookies, and his favorite is Oatmeal Raisin.

So while he did the housework, I threw together his favorite cookies- Oatmeal Raisin. No walnuts or pecans in the house but I did find a tub of slivered almonds in the cabinet. I roughly chopped them, tossed them in a hot dry skillet for a few minutes and threw them in the dough with the raisins.

Frog's Oatmeal Cookies

1 cup butter (NEVER NEVER NEVER use margarine or you will have hockey pucks, not cookies)
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups flour
1 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda
3 cups oats- I always use Quaker Old Fashioned- the long cooking kind
1/2 cup chopped almonds, toasted
1 cup raisins

Cream shortening and sugars, add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Sift together flour, baking soda and salt. Add to creamed mixture and mix well. Add nuts and raisins. Add oats last, mix well.

Spoon onto cookie sheets in rounded tablespoons. Bake at 350 degrees for about 10 minutes.

The Chef and I have several "He Said She Said" recipes - you know what I mean, we each make the same thing but in a very different style- like pizza, spaghetti sauce, and lentil soup. My version is thick and homey and very German. His version is very Italian style- lots of tomatoes and big bold spicy flavors. The broth is rich and tomatoey with just the slightest hint of heat from the banana pepper.The vegetables are cut in big chunks and make it seem more like a stew than a soup. This is a serious, stick-to-your-ribs big bowl of awesome !

Joe's Lentil Soup

1 bag lentils, rinsed and picked over (DO NOT soak !!)
1 14oz can diced tomatoes with juice
1 onion, chopped
2-3 cloves garlic, chopped
5 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 cup fresh or frozen corn kernels
1 cup fresh or frozen cut green beans
4 stalks celery, sliced
thyme, bay leaf, chives, parsley, salt and pepper
4 cups chicken stock
4-6 cups water
3 tb beef soup base
1 kielbasa sausage, cut into chunks
small handful dried banana pepper slices with seeds (We have dried banana peppers from our garden. If you don't have banana peppers (fresh is ok to substitute) or can't find them you can substitute a pinch of crushed red pepper but use sparingly, it's much hotter than banana pepper)

In large soup pot heat 2-3 tb olive oil. Saute onion, garlic, celery and carrot for a few minutes. Add all ingredients to pot.

Bring to boil, reduce to simmer, simmer until vegetables and lentils are tender. Serve in big bowls with lots of crusty bread for sopping up the broth.

After all this cooking and good food we seem to have a big case of the LAZIES..... and it's doubtful that any Christmas shopping is going to be finished up.'s just prolonging the agony......

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Joe's Version of Church Cookbook Food

Comfort food. Gramma's famous casserole. Church potluck. Doesn't that just make you feel all warm and fuzzy and good inside. Around our house we don't normally make those "church cookbook" kind of dishes. But every once in a while we get that serious craving for really good comfort food. And what fills that bill better than Tator Tot Casserole ??

Everyone has a version of their own. Some people use tomato soup, others cream of mushroom soup. Some add veggies, some don't. My version and Joe's version are also vastly different. Tonight Joe shares his version.

Joe's Tator Tot Casserole

1 lb ground beef
1/2 onion, chopped
1 cup frozen green beans
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can mushrooms
1 small bag cheese
tator tots- enough to cover pan

Brown ground beef and onion, drain and season with salt and pepper. Combine with mushrooms, green beans, mushroom soup and just a splash of milk.

 Mix well and turn into 9x9 baking dish. Bake at 400 degree 20-30 minutes until heated through and beans are cooked. Meanwhile, place tator tots on cookie sheet and bake until almost done.

Remove casserole from oven, cover with hot tator tots.

 Sprinkle cheese over.

Return to oven until cheese is melted and just beginning to brown and sauce is bubbly.

Sooooooo yummy !!  Cut through the cheese, scoop the yummy casserole onto a plate and KEEP AWAY FROM ME !!!!!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Joe's Amazing Sunday Sauce

Something really wonderful happens in an Italian family's kitchen. Mama, gramma, nona, whatever she may be known as, often spends hours and hours laboring over a hot stove, chopping garlic and onions, mincing herbs, crushing tomatoes, stirring and stirring and stirring so her family can enjoy a giant platter of that amazing Italian tradition- Sunday Sauce.

Well we don't have an old Italian grandmother working in the kitchen, rather a tall, dark and handsome Italian chef !! But his version of Sunday Sauce........ ohhh yaa.......

Joe's Amazing Sunday Sauce

2-3 cups diced tomatoes (canned with juice)
1 cup tomato paste
3 cups water
3 or 4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tb crushed dried basil
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
several grinds freshly cracked black pepper
about 1/4 lb pork- Joe used trimmings and odd pieces of pork loin roast
olive oil

Heat olive oil in large pot and brown the pork all over. Add garlic to pan and cook and stir a minute or so. 
Add all remaining ingredients, stir to combine well. Allow to simmer over low heat for at least 6 hours until pork is very tender and sauce is reduced. Serve over pasta with freshly grated parmesan cheese.

Some people use other meats in their sauce, and that's ok too. If you like meatballs, throw them in there. Or slice up some Italian sausage or crumble some in there (brown in a skillet first to remove excess fat). Each family has their own version of this sauce, as unique as the people in the family !

*Picture of Italian gramma cooking is courtesy of She is not our grandmother.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Pork and Fat Asses

It's been a while since The Chef and I cooked anything "new" to share with everyone. We've been sticking with the usuals- roast, pizzas, simple dinners. But it's the weekend, and a crummy football day so between a big day of cleaning and cooking- we got a lot accomplished.

I'm going to start off with The Chef's part of dinner. We scored a really nice pork loin at the grocery store and decided not to roast it like we originally planned. Instead, he trimmed it up, cut 8 nice thick loin chops and set aside the rest. Half the chops went in the freezer for later and the other half were sauteed in a mixture of butter and our secret homemade meat rub. They were perfect, tender, juicy and delicious. I finished mine with a couple tablespoons of my apple sage jelly melted in the pan drippings and glazed the chops.

What to serve with these wonderful chops ? I decided on one of my family's favorite recipes- we lovingly call it Fat Ass Potatoes (and when you see the ingredients, you'll know why). You might know them as funeral potatoes or brunch potatoes though. Incidentally, the ingredients used in this dish are NOT low fat or fat free products. I've tried using them but they just don't hold up well in the baking and separate into this greasy gooey mass. I don't normally eat alot of deep fried high fat foods anyway, so once or twice a year this won't kill me. I don't recommend substituting those products, so this really is a once in a great great while side dish.

Mom's Famous Fat Ass Potatoes

1 2 lb bag frozen hash browns
1 small bunch green onions, sliced or 1/4 chopped onion
salt and pepper
1-2 cloves minced garlic
couple tablespoons chives
1 stick butter, melted (use BUTTER not margarine, because margarine is mostly water and doesn't perform well in this dish)
1 can cream of chicken soup
1 cup sour cream
1 small bag shredded cheddar cheese

Melt butter, combine with sour cream, onions, seasonings and soup.

Add cheese and frozen hashbrowns. Mix thoroughly.

Pile into 9x13 dish that's been sprayed with cooking spray.

Bake at 400 degrees about an hour. If you have a roast in the oven at a different temperature, you can bake these at the same temp, just add more time as needed. I also make these in the crockpot alot- on high for at least 4 hours or low at least 8 hours.

Some people like to top this with crushed potato chips, but I think they are naughty enough !! They get a nice brown top and browned crusty edges, I think the topping is just not necessary, but if you like to add that, by all means, do so.

WARNING: Fat Ass Potatoes are addicting. And the crusty brown heaven !!!

As I said before, the Chef set aside the trimmings from the loin- not fat and stuff, but meat chunks that he cut off to make the rest of the loin uniform and even. Anyway, those he sauteed with a little garlic and olive oil and added lots of yummy Italian ingredients like tomatoes and herbs  to make that classic Italian staple- Sunday Sauce. And even though we didn't eat it today, tomorrow I will come home from a hard day at the office and know I will have an amazing home-cooked pasta dinner waiting for me. You can bet there will be plenty of photo ops tomorrow too !!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Refilling the Cookie Jar

When the cold wind is howling outside there is nothing better than cranking up the oven and baking something yummy.  Tonight's dessert was an easy choice- the Chef loves cookies but other sweets not so much, so just for him......

Original Toll House Cookies

2 1/4 cups flour
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
1 cup butter, room temperature
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar,  packed
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs
12 oz package chocolate chips (I used half milk and half semi-sweet)

Combine flour, baking soda and salt, set aside. Beat butter with mixer until fluffy. Add sugars and continue beating until light and fluffy. Add vanilla and eggs. Add dry indredients. Stir in chocolate chips.

Drop by tablespoons onto cookie sheet.

Bake at 375 degree 9 to 11 minutes or until edges are just browning. Cool on rack.

Chocolate chip cookies remind me of being a kid. You can eat em while they're hot and gooey, dip em in your glass of milk, and be a kid again.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Gobble gobble !! In other words- EAT !!!!!

Happy Thanksgiving everyone !! When it comes to holidays, Thanksgiving has always been my favorite. I love everything about fall, the food (long simmering stews, roasts that cook all day, apples baking....), the smells (leaves burning, crisp fall rain, and the food....) and my birthday.

Sometimes the best part of a big holiday celebration is dessert !!! The Chef and I had to split our celebrating between two families this year- not uncommon for lots of families, but totally new for me ! And as always with my family, they knew exactly what the wanted me to bring- cheesecake. I considered all the different flavors and varieties.....and decided to go with a citrusy cheesecake paired with bright red raspberries, which I love.

Sunny Citrus Cheesecake

1/2 box vanilla wafers, finely crushed
2 tb sugar
1/4 cup melted butter
4 8 oz packages cream cheese, at room temperature
1 cup sugar
4 eggs
1 lemon
1 orange

In small bowl combine crushed cookies, sugar and melted butter. Press onto bottom of 8 or 9 inch springform pan. Set aside.

Beat softened cream cheese with mixer until fluffy. Gradually add sugar. Add eggs one at a time. Zest the orange and the lemon, mix into cheese mixture. Juice one half of the lemon and one half of the orange and add to mixture (about 1 tb lemon and 2 tb orange).

Pour filling into pan. Bake in a 325 degree oven for one hour until almost firm (still a little jiggly- will firm as it cools).

*NOTE* I always bake cheesecake with a pan of hot water underneath it. It helps prevent the top from cracking. Also, you can switch this one up with your favorite citrus zest and juice and of course, whatever fruit topping you like, or skip the fruit and serve as is.

Let cool, then refrigerate. Serve with fruit topping if desired (I used raspberry sauce).

The Chef's family had recently seen some of the photos of food that he and I make around the house- and of course, they saw the for their Thanksgiving dinner, pies were the requested dessert. You can't have Thanksgiving without pumpkin pie, so that was a definite must have.

The Old Standby Pumpkin Pie

1 unbaked pastry shell
1 can Libby's Pumpkin Pie Mix
2/3 cup evaporated milk
2 eggs

Combine filling ingredients and pour into crust.

Bake at 425 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce to 350 degrees and bake 50-60 minutes or until just set. Cool before serving.

But I had a terrible time deciding on a second pie !! But most people love apple pie, and with a cranberry twist it seemed to fit the bill for Thanksgiving.

Apple Cranberry Pie

pastry for 2 crust pie or 1 crust with crumb topping
5 or 6 Granny Smith apples (about 2 lb)
1/2 cup fresh cranberries, quartered
3 tb flour
3/4 c sugar, divided

In small bowl combine cranberries with 2 tb sugar- add about 2 tb water, cook in microwave for 1 minute. set aside to cool (can also cook on stovetop just for a minute or so until berries barely soften). Peel, core and slice apples into large bowl. Toss with flour, remaining sugar and cinnamon. Mix in cranberries. Pile into pastry-line pie plate. Dot with butter.

Add top crust, seal and flute. Vent crust. Brush with milk and sprinkle with sugar if desired. (Instead of top crust you can follow recipe for your favorite crumb topping such as Dutch apple).

Bake at 350 degrees about 1 hour until crust is golden brown and apples are tender. Cover edges of crust with foil for half the baking time to prevent burning.

It was a wonderful holiday, spent with family, good food and fun stories, football, grandkids and dogs and cats. Happy memories.....

My lovely mother-in-law enjoyed the apple cranberry pie !!

And that my friends, is another Thanksgiving in the history books. For me and the Chef, the start of new traditions perhaps ? I hope so.... I hope we have many more holidays together in our future.  And now..... the Christmas madness begins....................