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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Happy Birthday Ted

You know how in some families the birthday person gets to pick their favorite meal?  In our house, I am not aware of anyone having a favorite food, let alone a favorite meal.  The result is that I have to be creative and come up with something special without a lot of guidance.

Tomorrow is Ted's birthday.  I will spare him the public humiliation of telling you exactly which birthday it is, but it's a big number (it's more than 55 and less than 57).  I actually think he would rather forget about it, but I like the opportunity to buy him presents.  (If I can't justify buying myself something, why not get him some good stuff?)  I also like the opportunity to have birthday cake, although again, I'm not sure he's as much a fan of birthday cake as the rest of us are.

Ted likes meat so his birthday dinner is going to be a beef tenderloin, which is always a treat.  Beef tenderloin isn't something I make often.  It just seems a little "dressy" for an average Monday night.  But, since we have an occasion, I'm going for it.   The shallot and red wine sauce adds a little something extra.  With the roast, we're going to have oven roasted potatoes, which are always yummy and very easy to make.  Some sauteed haricots verts and we have a dinner fit a king.  (Don't for one moment think I am referring to Ted being a king all the time.  He can be a king tomorrow, and then it's back to normal.)

I would like to tell you I was whipping up a birthday cake, which I would be, but Kate and I were away at a tennis tournament all weekend and now it's Halloween.  Things are, shall we say, a little hectic around here.  So, I do get brownie points for ordering a cake in advance.  I'll be pulling out the "Rosenthal birthday tablecloth" as well.  We have had this tablecloth since Charlie was little and it makes exactly four appearances each year.  I'd say that it's going to be a really nice celebration.  Happy birthday Ted!

Roasted Beef Tenderloin with Caramelized Shallots and Red Wine
(Fine Cooking Magazine, 2005)

1 2 1/2 - 3 pound beef tenderloin roast
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 large shallots, halved and thinly sliced lengthwise (about 1 cup)
3/4 cup dry red wine
1 sprig fresh rosemary, plus 1/2 teaspoon chopped
3/4 low salt beef stock

Position a rack in the center of the oven and heat the oven to 450. Brush or rub the beef with the oil and put the beef in a 9x13-inch roasting pan lined with aluminum foil.  Season the beef generously with salt and pepper.

Roast the beef until an instant-read thermometer registers 120 - 125 for rare, about 25 minutes; 125 -130 for medium rare, about 30 minutes.  (The temperature of the beef will rise 5 degrees as it rests.)  Wrap the beef in the foil that lines the pan and let it rest on a carving board for 10 -15 minutes.

While the beef rests, make the sauce.  Melt 2 tablespoons of the butter in a 12 inch skillet over medium heat.  Add the shallots and cook, stirring often, until they soften and turn golden brown, 8 - 10 minutes.  Add the wine and the rosemary sprig and bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  Boil until the volume of the wine and shallots reduces to 1/2 cup, about 5 minutes.  Reduce the heat to low.  Remove the rosemary sprig and stir in the chopped rosemary.  Cut the remaining 2 tablespoons cold butter into small cubes and add a few of them at a time to the sauce, stirring to melt each addition.

Unwrap the tenderloin and stir any accumulated juices into the sauce.  Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper.  Slice the meat and serve with the sauce.

Roasted Potatoes

3 pounds potatoes
1/3 cup olive oil
1 head garlic, separated into cloves
2 tablespoons fresh rosemary, chopped
kosher salt and pepper

Preheat the oven to 425.

Wash and dry the potatoes.  Cut the potatoes into 3/4 inch pieces, making sure they are all about the same size.  You don't have to peel the potatoes.  Toss the potatoes with the olive oil, salt, pepper, and the garlic cloves.  Roast on a large rimmed baking sheet in a single layer for about an hour.  Turn once or twice during the roasting time.  They will be done when they are crispy and brown on the outside and soft on the inside.  Season with more salt and pepper.

Friday, October 29, 2010

A False Start

Okay.  So I'm human.  Last week I vowed to get on my elliptical and I even passed along a recipe that didn't taste low-cal.  Well, I've been virtuous, for me, in terms of eating more carefully.  But the elliptical, let's just say that that didn't pan out quite as planned.

You hit a certain age and losing weight becomes kind of an avocation.  It's just never done and it's something that you just keep working at.  Lose a couple of pounds.  Gain them back.  And so on.  I have started to feel like I would have to amputate a limb in order to lose five pounds for more than a week.   It's a bummer.

But, the good news is that there's always tomorrow and the day after.  And eating well can be shockingly satisfying.  Take, as an example,  today's recipe for Salmon Baked in Foil.  My friend Mona once served this at a dinner party, and not because it's "skinny." It's delicious and does a good fake out in the lower-in-calories-than-you-would-think department.  That's a winner every time.

So, tomorrow is a new day.  I'm not promising anything, but maybe the elliptical will be calling my name and I'll answer.  In the meantime, I think I'll make some salmon for dinner.

Salmon Baked in Foil
(Everyday Italian, 2005)


1 14 ounce can diced tomates in juice, drained
2 shallots, shopped
1 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
1 1/2 teaspoons chopped fresh oregano or 3/4 teaspoon dried
1 1/2 chopped fresh thyme or 3/4 teaspoon dried
1 teaspoon salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 salmon fillets (about 5 ounces each)

Preheat the oven to 400.  In a medium bowl, stir the tomatoes, shallots, 2 tablespoons of the oil, lemon juice, oregano, thyme, 1/2 teaspoon of salt, and 1/4 teaspoon the the pepper.  In the center of each of four large sheets of aluminum foil, spoon 1/2 teaspoon of oil.  Place 1 salmon fillet atop each sheet of foil,  and turn to coat with the oil.  Sprinkle the salmon fillets with the remaining 1/2 teaspoon each of salt and pepper.  Spoon the tomato mixture over the salmon.  Fold the sides of the foil over the fish and tomato mixture, covering completely, and seal the packets closed.  Place the foil packets on a large, heavy baking sheet.  Bake until the salmon is just cooked through, about 25 minutes.  Using a large metal spatula, transfer the foil packets to plates and serve.  (You may want to unwrap the foil packets in the kitchen before serving.)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ready for Its Close Up

Food, like women, benefits from having a stylist.  As we all know, Jennifer Aniston doesn't wake up looking red carpet ready.  (Okay, so maybe the body is red carpet ready, but I'm sure she has puffy eyes first thing in the morning.  After all, she is over 40.)  Anyway, food, like Ms. Aniston, sometimes needs a little help to look its best.

Enter the stylist.  The food stylist can make burnt toast look sexy.  

It is not often that I make something that is photo ready.  As hard as I try to "style" the food on the plate, it usually falls short.  So it was just amazing to me that the Halloween Peanut Butter and Toffee Candy Bark featured in this month's Bon Appetit came out ready for its close up.

First of all, it was so easy to make.  Melted chocolate and chopped candy.  All the good stuff.  Reese's Peanut Butter Cups, Heath Bars,  Butterfingers, Reese's Pieces, Peanut M & M's.  Need I say more?  (It's a good thing I made this at 8:00 in the morning.  It just didn't seem right to have a Reese's for breakfast, though I considered it.)  Melt, spread, sprinkle, press.  Done.  So easy.

And, the end result was as stunning as this year's Dior over the knee boots.  (Mind you, I do not have over the knee boots legs but my friend Deborah does.   She bought them and they're traffic stopping.)   This bark is that good.  In fact, that picture at the top. It's my bark.  It came out so great that Kate is breaking with the tradition of bringing Frank (see my post dated October 12, 2010) some of her Halloween candy after the holiday and bringing him this instead.  High praise from my daughter.  Hopefully Frank will admire the beauty of the bark and then the beauty of her forehand.

You can make this bark with any candy you like.  Maybe wait until Sunday (if you can wait that long) and see what the kids bring home from trick or treating!

Halloween Peanut Butter and Toffee Candy Bark
(Bon Appetit, October, 2010)


1 pound bittersweet chocolate
3 2.1-ounce Butterfinger candy bars, cut into irregular 1-inch pieces
3 1.4-ounce Skor or Heath toffee candy bars, cut into irregular 3/4 inch pieces
8 peanut butter cups, each cut into 8 wedges
1/4 cup honey roasted peanuts
3 ounces high quality white chocolate
Reese's Pieces and/or yellow and orange peanut M & M's

Line a baking sheet with foil.  Melt bittersweet chocolate in heavy medium saucepan over low heat until melted and warm (not hot) to touch.  Pour chocolate onto foil: spread to 1/4 inch thickness (about 12x10 inch rectangle).  Sprinkle with Butterfinger candy, toffee, peanut butter cups, and nuts, making sure all pieces touch the melted chocolate.

Put white chocolate in heavy small saucepan.  Stir constantly over very low heat until chocolate is melted and warm (not hot) to touch.  Remove from heat.  Dip spoon into chocolate: wave from side to side over bark, creating zigzag lines.  Scatter Reese's Pieces and M&M's over, making sure candy touches melted chocolate.

Chill bark until firm, 30 minutes.  Slide foil with candy onto work surface: peel off foil.  Cut bark into irregular pieces.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Chicken Is Your Friend

Chicken.  Yawn.  Think again.

If you were to ask my daughter Kate, she would tell you that we have chicken every night.  This is patently untrue, but, I must admit, we do eat a lot of chicken around here.  What?  Should we be different from every other family in the universe?

Here's the thing about chicken.  It is boring but it's a basic.  You can put anything with it and it goes.  I mean, how excited do you get when you go out any buy a new pair of black pants?   Not so much.  But, thinking about what you can wear with those pants, well for me at least, that gets my heart racing.

So, instead of thinking of chicken as dull, think of chicken as your friend.   (I didn't say chicken had to be your best friend, just one of your many friends.)   You don't have to fall over with excitement at the thought of chicken for dinner, but it's not too bad either.

I, like all of you, have a million chicken recipes.  And that's the key.  Recipes.  Don't slap some lemon pepper on the chicken and call it an entree.  No wonder you're bored.  Get out the cookbooks and try a few new recipes.  That's what I do.  I never "wing" it, with chicken.  (Pardon the pun, but it just had to be said.)

In the interest of furthering your friendship with chicken, here's a recipe that's sure to please.  You might even find yourself looking forward to getting together.

Chicken Parmesan
(Everyday Italian, 2005)


1 tbl. olive oil
1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme
1 tsp. chopped fresh rosemary
1 tsp. chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
4 chicken cutlet (about 3 oz. each)
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup marinara sauce (recipe below or use prepared marinara sauce)
1/4 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
8 tsp. freshly grated parmesan cheese
1 tbl. unsalted butter, cut into pieces

Preheat the oven to 500.  In a small bowl, stir the oil and herbs to blend.  Brush both sides of the cutlets with the herb oil and sprinkle with the salt and pepper.  Heat an large, heavy ovenproof skillet over a high flame.  Add the cutlets and cook until just brown, about 1 minute per side.  Remove from the heat.

Spoon the marinara sauce over and around the cutlets.  Sprinkle 1 tablespoon of the mozzarella over each cutlet, then sprinkle 2 teaspoons of the parmesan over each.  Dot the tops with the butter pieces, and bake until the cheese melts and the chicken is cooked through, about 5-10 minutes.

Basic Marinara Sauce
(Everyday Italian, 2005)


1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
2 small onions, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
2 celery stalks, finely chopped
2 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
1/2 tsp. salt, plus more to taste
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper, plus more to taste
2 (32 oz.) cans crushed tomatoes
2 dried bay leaves

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium-high heat.  Add the onions and garlic and saute until the onions are translucent, about 10 minutes.  Add the celery, carrots, and 1/2 tsp each of the salt and pepper.  Saute until all the vegetables are soft, about 10 minutes.  Add the tomatoes and the bay leaves, and simmer uncovered over low heat until the sauce thickens, about 1 hour. Remove and discard the bay leaves.  Season the sauce with more salt and pepper to taste.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

A Good Man is Hard to Find

I've been married for 22 years and for the last eight there's been another man in my life.  That man is my butcher, Mark.   You know what they say, that behind every great man is a woman. Well, behind every great cook is a great butcher.  In fact, Mark can take most of the credit for almost everything that comes out of my kitchen.  He's an artist with a knife. Anything I want -- stew meat, chicken cutlets, a leg of lamb -- is perfectly trimmed to my specifications. Mark makes me look good.

Here's the thing.  You're only going to be as good as your ingredients.  Garbage in, garbage out.  Poorly trimmed meat can do you in.  Perfectly butchered meat can make you shine.  Ask any good cook, and they'll tell you that they have a favorite green grocer, a favorite cheese shop, and a host of favorite purveyors of all things food.  A favorite butcher is usually at the top of the list.

It's funny, because when I lived in Los Angeles, the land of plenty, I bought all my meat at Gelson's Market.  Now, Gelson's is the Rolls Royce of grocery stores, but it's a grocery store nonetheless. Aside from a kosher butcher shop where I occasionally bought a chicken, I don't think I ever even gave a thought to actually seeking out a butcher shop.  When I moved to Pittsburgh and surveyed the selection of meat at my local "gourmet" grocery store (and I use that term loosely,) I knew that I had to look further.  That search led me to the Shadyside Market and ultimately to Mark.

A good butcher will make cooking easy.  If a recipe calls for one-inch cubes of beef for a stew, your butcher can do that for you better than you could ever do yourself.  Need a leg of lamb tied, your butcher can do that for you much faster than it would be for you to struggle with the "e how" instructions you download.  (Does anyone besides a butcher actually know how to tie a leg of lamb anyway?)  I even have Mark pound chicken breasts for me.  He can get them to an even thickness much easier than I can.

So, my suggestion to you is that you search for a butcher.  It might not be easy to find a good one, but a good man is hard to find.

And, here's a recipe that will make you shine, with the help of your secret weapon!

Filet of Beef au Poivre
(Barefoot in Paris, 2004)


6 filets mignon, cut 1 1/4 inches thick
kosher salt
2 tbl. coarsely ground black pepper
3 1/2 tbl unsalted butter, divided
1 1/2 tbl. olive oil
3/4 cup chopped shallots (3 to 4 shallots)
1 cup canned beef broth
1/2 cup good Cognac or brandy

Place filets on a board and pat them dry with paper towels. Sprinkle the filets with salt and then press the black pepper evenly on both sides.  Allow to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes.

Heat 1 1/2 tablespoons of the butter and the oil in a large saute pan over medium high heat until the butter almost smokes.  Place the steaks in the pan and lower the heat to medium.  Saute the steaks for 4 minutes on one side and for 3 minutes on the other side, for medium rare.  Remove the steaks to a serving platter and cover tightly with aluminum foil.

Meanwhile, pour all but 1 tablespoon of fat from the saute pan. Add the shallots and cook over medium heat for 2 minutes.  Add the beef broth and cook over high heat for 4 to 6 minutes, until reduced by half, scraping the brown bits from the bottom of the pan.  Add the Cognac and cook for 2 more minutes.  Off the heat, swirl in the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter and 1/2 teaspoon salt.  Serve the steaks hot with the sauce poured on top.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Something to Braise About

I love braised meats.  And stews. Basically I love anything that has to cook at a low temperature for a long time.  I love to open up the dutch oven and there it is...  a meltingly delicious pot roast or stew.  There's just nothing quite like it.

Now, I didn't always have such an appreciation for what my mother would have called "gadempta" meat. (This is yiddish for meat falling apart.)  When I lived in Los Angeles, it never really got cold enough for braised meat.  Sure, we had the occasional brisket, but mostly the style of cooking was a little lighter.  That's because it just doesn't get cold enough for a good, hearty stew to really shine.

Now I live in Pittsburgh and the story has changed considerably. Needless to say, in Pittsburgh it gets cold and gloomy as early as October or November and stewed or braised meat is almost a weekly occurrence in my house.  In fact, grilled fish seems oddly out of place in January.  There are those hearty individuals who, with snow on the lawn, are out at the barbeque.  That would not be me.  The snow falls, and I am hunkered down in the house for the duration.  After all, I am a Californian and any kind of precipitation is a reason to stay in the house.  (Although I do have numerous pairs of really cute boots and coats that make the occasional trip out a fashionable one.)

Nonetheless, pot roast is a favorite wintertime dish around my house.  There are a thousand ways to make pot roast. but a couple of things are always the same.  Use a chuck roast and cook it at a low temperature for a long time.  Other than that, there are no hard and fast rules.

I've made a lot of different pot roasts in my time, and I'll probably be sharing a couple of different recipes in the months to come. This recipe is pretty basic but is really delicious and very easy (although, truthfully, pot roast is always easy to make).  It's good with mashed potatoes, boiled or steamed new potatoes, or noodles.

It'll stick to your ribs, and there's nothing wrong with that!

Pot Roast #1


1 3-4 pound beef check roast
6 carrots, peeled and cut into two inch slices
2 large onions, sliced
2 large sticks of rosemary
1 bunch of thyme
3-4 cups beef stock
salt and pepper
1 tbl. olive oil or vegetable oil

Preheat the oven to 275.

Season the roast liberally with salt and pepper.  Heat the oil in a large dutch oven until it's very hot.  Sear the roast all over, 2-3 minutes on each side, and remove to a plate and set aside.  Add the carrots and onions to the pot and saute until softened and onions are slightly browned.  Remove the vegetables to a plate and set aside.

Add about 1 cup of the beef stock to the hot pot to deglaze.  Scrape all the little browned bits with a wooden spoon.  Return the roast and the vegetables to the pot.  Add enough beef stock to come about two thirds of the way up the sides of the roast and the vegetables.  Tuck the rosemary and thyme into the broth and bring the pot to a boil.

Tightly cover the pot and place it in the over.  Cook, without opening the lid, for about 3 hours.  When you test the doneness with a fork, there should be no resistance.  If there is, cover the pot again, and cook for another half hour or so.

Remove the rosemary and thyme.  Slice the meat and serve with the vegetables.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Why I Love Ina

Many cooks tell stories of how they learned to cook watching their mothers or their grandmothers.  As I have mentioned, my mother was no slave to the kitchen and my grandmother, well, lets just say that my mother came by her limited culinary skills honestly. So, it's a source of endless amusement to both my sister and me that we can each boil a pot of water, let alone cook a whole meal.

My road to edible food was a rocky one.  My husband, Ted, still tells the story of the "Key Lime Slime Pie."  I wanted to make a key lime pie but didn't actually read the directions completely enough to know that I had to cook the filling on the stove first.  I did, however, pop the whole assembly into the oven for a couple of minutes to brown the meringue.  The meringue was stunning. The lime curd was uncooked and slimy.  No matter how many successful key lime pies I have since turned out, the Key Lime Slime Pie will always be the one talked about.

So, you ask, why do I love Ina?  It's easy.  Ina Garten taught me to cook.  Not one on one, mind you, but every afternoon at 1:30 on her Food Network show Barefoot Contessa.  I watched her demonstrate how to make things like lobster pot pie and shortbread, and she made it look so easy.  Ina gave me the confidence to give it all a try.   Her relaxed approach to cooking made me feel like we were friends hanging out in her kitchen. There's no one who likes hanging out in the kitchen more than me.  And on the subject of Ina's friends, I want to be one.  She seems always to be sending them home with big pots of stew or making beautiful gift baskets with homemade granola bars for them.  She even invites their kids over to make homemade pizzas.  No one in their right mind would have invited my kids over to make homemade anything when they were little.

I still watch Ina almost every day.  By now, I think I've made every recipe in each of her five cookbooks.  Ina has been such an inspiration to me over the years that I have taken to giving her cookbooks to newly engaged brides.  I figure that I should pay it forward and help them out.  Just like Ina helped me.

Ina Garten's Lime Curd Tart
(Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, 1999)

Tart Shell:

3/4 cup unsalted butter at room temperature
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 tsp. pure vanilla extract
1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
Pinch of salt


4 limes at room temperature
1 1/2 cups sugar
1/4 lb. unsalted butter at room temperature
4 extra-large eggs at room temperature
1/8 tsp. salt

Preheat the oven to 350.

In the bowl of an electric mixed filled with a paddle attachment, mix the butter and sugar together until they are just combined. Add the vanilla.  In a medium bowl, sift together the flour and salt, then add them to the butter and sugar mixture.  Mix on low speed until the dough starts to come together.  Dump onto a surface dusted with flour and shape into a flat disk.  Press the dough into a 10-inch-round or a 9-inch-square false bottom tart pan, making sure the finished edge is flat.  Chill until firm.

Butter 1 side of a square of aluminum foil to fit inside the tart and place it, buttered side down, on the pastry.  Fill with rice or beans. Bake for 20 minutes.  Remove the foil and beans, prick the tart all over with the tines of a fork, and bake again for 20-25 minutes more, or until lightly browned.  Allow to cool at room temperature.

Remove the zest of 4 limes with a vegetable peeler or zester, being careful to avoid the white pith.  Squeeze the limes to make 1/2 cup of juice and set the juice aside.  Put the zest in a food processor fitted with a steel blade. Add the sugar and process for 2 to 3 minutes, until the zest is very finely minced.  In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, cream the butter with the sugar and lime zest.  Add the eggs, 1 at a time, and then add the lime juice and the salt.  Mix until combined.

Pour the mixture into a 2-quart saucepan and cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 10 minutes.  The lime curd will thicken at about 175 degrees F, or just below a simmer. Remove from heat and set aside.

Fill the tart with warm lime curd and all to set at room temperature.  Once set, serve immediately or refrigerate until ready to serve.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Salad Days

I have come to the conclusion that there is very little you can't make better yourself.  Sometimes, as with bagels (more on that another time),  it's not really worth the effort.  But often, that little bit of time it takes to do it yourself makes a world of difference. Now, I am no advocate of making work for myself, so when I'm telling you it's worth making your own salad dressing, you have to believe me.

I have kind of a love hate relationship with salad.  When I make a salad to serve with dinner, I must admit it's often an after thought and the finished product is uninspiring.  Some romaine lettuce, tomatoes, mushrooms, and maybe a couple of olives.  Nothing to write home about, right?  But add a homemade lemon vinaigrette to that and all of a sudden, the salad's a lot more interesting.

Last summer we were in Cape Cod and we happened upon a store called Gustare (www.gustareoliveoil.com).  They had dozens of vinegars ranging from balsamic to grapefruit to chocolate.  They also had a wide variety of olive oils to choose from as well.  "Why," I asked myself, "do I buy salad dressing when I could make my own using a really unusual vinegar?"  I bought a selection of oils and vinegars and have been having a great old time ever since.

The really nice thing about making your own salad dressing is that you can whip something up that perfectly compliments whatever you're having for dinner.  If we're having fish, I like a citrus vinegar; beef demands something a little richer and heavier, like an aged balsamic.

Making a vinaigrette is not brain surgery.  Just a couple of ingredients, a whisk, and all of sudden a mundane salad becomes something far more interesting.  Give it a try!

Dijon Vinaigrette


1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. fresh garlic, minced
3 tbl. champagne vinegar
salt and pepper
1/2 cup olive oil

Combine Dijon, garlic, and champagne vinegar.  Add the olive oil and whisk to form an emulsion.  Season with salt and pepper

Lemon Vinaigrette


3 tbl. fresh lemon juice
1 clove garlic, minced
1/2 large shallot, minced
1 tbl. fresh oregano, minced
1 1/2 tsp. italian parsley, minced
salt and pepper
3/4 cup olive oil

Combine the lemon juice, garlic, shallot, oregano, and italian parsley.  Whisk in the olive oil to form an emulsion.  Season with salt and pepper.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

An Apple a Day

I met Emily a few years ago at our daughter's camp visiting day up in Maine.  We bonded over the drama of raising teenagers (she has one in college and one in high school, just like me) and our love of a really good chocolate cake.  Kate wasn't the only one in our family to make friends as camp!

Emily is a terrific cook, and I always love sampling recipes she sends my way.  The recipe for apple muffins below is a good example of how she personalizes her recipes.  I've put Emily's changes in parentheses (and I made the muffins according to her changes).

So, I just took these muffins out of the oven, and I am here to tell you that they are to die for.  There's not a lot of muffin going on -- the muffin is really just holding the fruit together.  They smelled so good when they were in the oven that I practically risked third degree burns to try one as soon as they came out.  I was not disappointed.  They just scream autumn with the apples and raisins, and the cherries are a really nice addition.  Next time I make them I'm going to use the nuts -- what could be bad unless you have a nut allergy?

We are going to see Emily and her family in a couple of weeks, and I am so looking forward to dinner.  I know it will be delicious and who knows, maybe she'll send me off with a couple more recipes that I can share with all of you.

Apple Muffins
(Adapted from The Breakfast Book by Marion Cunningham)


4 cups diced apples, peeled or unpeeled  (I used unpeeled)
1 cup sugar  (I used brown sugar)
2 eggs beaten lightly
1/2 cup oil  (I used vegetable oil )
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
2 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 cup raisins
1 cup broken walnuts -- leave in large pieces

Instead of the nuts, I added 1 cup dried cherries

Preheat the oven to 325.  Grease 16 muffin cups or use paper liners.

Put three mixing bowls on the counter.  Mix the apples and sugar in the largest one.  Put the eggs, oil, and vanilla in the second bowl and stir to blend well.  In the third bowl, put the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt and stir the mixture with a fork until blended.

Stir the egg mixture into the apples and sugar.  Sprinkle the flour mixture over the apple mixture and mix well.  It will be very stiff.  Sprinkle the fruit and nuts over the batter and mix until evenly distributed.  Spoon into prepared muffin tins.

Bake for about 25 minutes, or until a straw comes out clean when inserted into the center of a muffin.  Serve warm.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Let's Get Crunchy

I am not a crunchy person, but I do love a good bowl of granola.  Not the overly sweetened variety that's available commercially, but something a little more sophisticated.  Something that's not too sweet and has just the right amount of crunch.  For years I have been working on coming up with the perfect balance, but there's a reason so many granolas miss the mark.  It's because it's hard to do.

After about a zillion tries, I have come to the conclusion that it's all in the baking.  You have to bake it low and slow.  And you have to pay attention because it works best if you bake it in a single layer and give it a stir every ten minutes or so.  This will help produce the golden color and crunchy texture.  Okay, I know it's a pain, but you're going to the trouble to make it so just go for it.

I don't like my granola too sweet, and the recipe below is just right. Sometimes I think that granolas have too many ingredients instead of just the right ones.  It's cloying and heavy and quite frankly, not a great way to start out the day.  They often have too many different kinds of dried fruit (including raisins that have the texture of stones.) This granola is fairly simple and relies only on chopped apricots to add the chewy factor after it's baked.

You can use the nuts I use (pistachios and pumpkin seeds) or substitute in the same amount of whatever you choose.  Go with the olive oil.  I think it's lighter and not as greasy as vegetable oil.  If you like dried fruits other than apricots, be a rebel and go for it.  (But, if you use raisins, make sure they're soft.)  This is your chance to be a culinary artist!  Create!

Olive Oil Granola with Dried Apricots and Pistachios
(Adapted from New York Times, 2009)


3 cups old fashioned rolled oats
3/4 cup pure maple syrup
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
3/4 cup chopped dried apricots
1 1/2 cups raw pistachios, hulled
1 cup raw pumpkin seeds, hulled
1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut

Preheat oven to 300 degrees.  In a large bowl, combine the oats, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, coconut, maple syrup, olive oil, brown sugar, cinnamon, and candamom.  Spread the minture on a rimmed baking sheet in an even layer and bake for 45 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes, until golden brown and well toasted.

Transfer granola to a large bowl and add apricots, tossing to combine.

Makes about 9 cups.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Back in the Saddle Again

My recent forays into exercise and getting into shape have been somewhat ill fated.  A couple of years ago, my friend Heidi turned me on to exercise boot camp.  That ended abruptly when I tore my meniscus and found myself myself in physical therapy instead of boot camp after knee surgery.  Then, last summer, I decided that a daily brisk walk was just the ticket to physical fitness.  That ended on my first attempt with a stress fracture in my foot and a giant boot.  Not only was it painful, the boot was ugly.

But, I love to eat and if you love to eat, then exercise is a dirty little requirement.  So, it's time to take off  the clothes hanging on my elliptical and--carefully--get back in the saddle again.   Just a few minutes every day to start and then, if I don't send myself back to the orthopedist,  I'll increase over time.  I'm holding out hope that all will go well.

So, now that I'm going to be a mean, lean exercise machine, I should probably pull out a couple of those low cal recipes that I counted on after my kids were born when I was trying to lose the baby weight.

Now, I have to preface this by saying that, for the most part, I don't really believe in low calorie cooking.  It just doesn't taste as good as the more caloric options.  I don't object to low calorie foods on principle.   What I don't like is when high calorie foods masquerade as diet foods. Why eat skinny mashed potatoes when you can eat creamy, delicious buttermilk mashed potatoes?  Sure the skinny ones are lower in calories but they're not nearly as satisfying.  I'd rather eat less and eat tastier.

Still, sometimes low calorie cooking can be really delicious.  This recipe for Moroccan Meatball Stew is a good example of something that really should be more fattening but isn't.  This is a family favorite and when you try it, you'll see why.

Moroccan Meatball Stew
(Adapted from Simply Delicious, 2002)


1/2 lb. lean ground beef
1/2 lb. lean ground veal
2 tbl. cilantro, minced
2 1/2 tsp. paprika
2 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. black pepper
1 tsp. olive oil
1 onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
14 oz. can diced tomatoes
1/2  (6 oz.) can tomato paste
3/4 cup water
1 tbl. chopped parsley, to garnish

Combine the beef, veal, 1 tbl. of the cilantro, 1 1/2 tsp. of the paprika, 1 tsp. of the cumin, 1/2 tsp. of the salt, and 1/8 tsp. of the pepper in a large bowl.  Shape into 24 one-inch meatballs.

Heat a large non-stick skillet.  Swirl in the oil and then add the onion and garlic.  Saute until softened, 3-5 minutes.  Stir in the diced tomatoes, tomato paste, water, the remaining 1 tbl. cilantro, 1 tsp. paprika, 1 tsp. cumin,  1/2 tsp. salt, and 1/8 tsp. pepper; bring to a boil.  Add the meatballs, reduce the heat and simmer covered, until the meatballs are cooked and the sauce thickens 30-45 minutes.  Garnish with the parsley just before serving.

Serve over couscous.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

My Friend Mona

Shortly after I moved to Pittsburgh, I met Mona. Our daughters were in second grade together, and Julia invited Kate over for a play date. Back in second grade, the mommies were part of the play date equation. There was the requisite drop off and chat, and then the pick up and chat. (Now that Kate is much older but not driving, there is no mommy chat, but instead a cell phone call from the curb to Kate telling her to hightail it out to the car.) I knew the moment I walked into Mona's house that we were kindred spirits. The scent of a delicious Portuguese stew was in the air, and she had just finished baking muffins. Our get to know you talk quickly turned to all matters food, and I felt immediately like I had made a friend.

Our friendship blossomed over plates of pasta at La Prima in the Strip District and walking tours of the  specialty food shops on Penn Avenue. Thanks to Mona, whose "foodieness" makes me look like a neophyte, I still buy my cheese and pasta at Penn Mac and my sausage at  Parma Sausage.   She introduced me to La Prima Espresso, where I believe every person in Pittsburgh with even a drop of Italian blood goes for his or her morning espresso. I wouldn't dream of buying my coffee beans anywhere else.  Mona made me feel welcome in a city so different from Los Angeles that I quickly began to feel at home despite the presence of snow on the ground and the lack of a Neiman Marcus.

Mona's culinary skills extend far beyond just knowing where to get the best ingredients in Pittsburgh.  She can whip up a pie crust like nobody's business and can customize a recipe as simple as the quick muffins below.  "Oh," she'll say to me, "I made muffins last night but instead of the chocolate chips, I split the batter and added blueberries and almonds to some."  I have to admit that, until I got to know Mona, I would never have had the confidence in the kitchen to play around with a recipe.  But, thanks to my friend Mona, basic muffins have become anything but.

Mona remains one of my closest friends, and we still talk a lot about food. She has just remodeled her kitchen so I am sure there will be some really wonderful meals coming out of that beautiful Wolf range. I hope we are invited.

Mona's Quick Muffins


1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 cups sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1/2 cup oil
1/2 cup milk
1 egg, beaten
1 cup chips, berries and/or nuts

Preheat oven to 400.  Sift dry ingredients together.  In a separate bowl, combine the wet ingredients.  Add wet to dry and stir until just combined.  Add chips, etc.  Fill greased muffin tins 3/4 full and bake 18-20 minutes, until golden brown.

Makes 9 muffins

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Not My Mother's Chicken Soup

I do not come from a family of cooks. My mother was not what you would call a gourmet, and, to my knowledge, my father never prepared anything more complicated than a "p'nup" and jelly sandwich. On Jewish holidays, my mother would make chicken soup, which was really "essence of chicken soup." It always tasted as if the chicken had kind of done a sprint through the water but hadn't actually settled in for a  long, hot bath.

So, it's probably not surprising that up until a couple of years ago, I always bought my chicken stock in a box. Before that, I bought it in a can. I never even gave any thought to the fact that homemade might actually be better. In fact, I would make chicken "soup" from time to time, but I never really made the connection between chicken soup and chicken stock. (Looking back, it's a little scary to think about how little I knew about cooking generally.) But I digress. Homemade stock really is better. It's richer, less salty, and healthier. After all, when you make it yourself, you know exactly what you're putting into it.

Ina Garten actually inspired me to make my own chicken stock. She said it was easy, and in her recipes she always makes note of the fact that homemade is preferable. So, believing that Ina knows best, I thought I'd give it a whirl. Ina did know best, and I've never looked back.

It is surprisingly easy to make homemade chicken stock, but it takes time and can be a little messy. Let's face it, it's not worth making it if you're not going to make a lot. Fishing all the chicken and vegetables out of the finished stock can be, well, a little splashy, but the end result is well worth the cleanup.

This recipe makes about 7 quarts. For storage, I use one quart plastic containers, which I buy at the restaurant supply store. Label the containers with the date and then freeze them for up to three months. I guarantee you'll never go back to the box again. And, if someone gets a cold and needs some Jewish Penicillin, all you have to do is heat up a container and add some noodles. Sure beats the box.

Homemade Chicken Stock
From Barefoot Contessa Family Style, 2002


3 5-pound roasting chickens
2 large yellow onions, unpeeled, quartered
6 carrots, unpeeled, halved
4 celery stalks with leaves, cut in thirds
4 parsnips, unpeeled, cut in half
20 sprigs fresh parsley
15 sprigs fresh thyme
20 sprigs fresh dill
1 head garlic, unpeeled and cut in half crosswise
2 tbl. kosher salt
3 tsp. whole peppercorns

Place all the ingredients in a 16 - 20 quart stockpot.  Add 7 quarts of water and bring to a boil.  Simmer uncovered for 4 hours.  Strain the entire contents of the pot through a colander and discard the solids.  Chill the stock overnight.  The next day, remove the surface fat.  Use immediately or pack in containers and freeze for up to three months.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Frank's Favorite Cookies

My daughter Kate is a tennis player, and I often say that her coach Frank is the most important person in her life. This is no joke. My husband and I realized long ago that Kate is far more concerned with pleasing Frank than she is with pleasing us. It took me a while to accept this, but now that I have, we are all much happier.

Frank is a saint. The fact that he coaches tempermental junior tennis players all day long without killing them is a true testament to his skill not only as a coach but as a human being. This is not to say that Frank never loses his cool. In fact, around our house we call him the Vince Lombardi of tennis. He is tough and demanding and doesn't accept excuses, but the kids respond by rising to the challenge of being the best tennis players they can be.

Despite the fact that Frank demands top fitness and commitment from the high level junior tennis players he coaches, his own fitness standards are a little more relaxed. He is, shall we say, a snacker. He prefers Coke with "real sugar" and never met a cookie he didn't like. The kids all know this, and, throughout the day, everyone arrives with a little something for Frank. One kid brings Frank his favorite bagel sandwich, another will bring a six pack of soda, and it goes like this all day long. Needless to say, Frank is never hungry. Sometimes it looks like a courtside buffet.

Kate likes to bring Frank brownies and cookies. We're not talking just a couple of cookies or a brownie or two. No... she likes to bring him the whole batch. Now you must be thinking how nice it is that she bakes cookies for Frank but you would be wrong. Yes, it is true. I am a huge pushover, and it is I who bakes the cookies for Frank. I like to think that Kate would if she had the time, but given school and her hours on the tennis court, well, I'm the cookie baker. I have to admit, I don't mind. As I said, the man is a saint.

Frank's Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies
(adapted from Cooks Illustrated)


2 1/8 cups all purpose flour
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. baking soda
12 tbl. unsalted butter, melted and cooled
1 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg plus one egg yolk
2 tsp. vanilla extract
2 cups chips (chocolate, Mini M & M's -- whatever you like)
3/4 cup toasted walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 325. Line a couple of cookie sheets with parchment paper. Mix the flour, baking soda, and salt together in a bowl and set aside.

Mix the melted butter and the sugars until blended. (I do this by hand.) Mix in the egg, yolk, and vanilla. Add the dry ingredients and mix until just combined. Stir in the chips and nuts, if using.

Using a small scoop, (about 1 1/2 inches) scoop the dough on to the prepared cookie sheets. I usually put 9 cookies on each sheet.

Bake, reversing the cookie sheets' positions halfway through the baking, until the cookies are golden brown around the edges, about 15-18 minutes. Cook on the cookie sheets for a few minutes and then transfer to wire racks.

Makes about 2 dozen cookies

Monday, October 11, 2010

The Best Oatmeal

Oatmeal gets a bum rap. I've heard it compared to wallpaper paste and other equally gluey substances. This is clearly because the people saying mean things about oatmeal have never had the pleasure of eating a really good bowl of oatmeal on a cold winter morning. Now, I am not talking about that "instant -- just add water" stuff with the little freeze dried apple bits. I'm talking about the real thing -- oatmeal cooked in milk -- to a delicious, creamy conclusion.

The first key to really good oatmeal is, big surprise, the oats. I like McCann's Quick Cooking Oats. They cook much faster than steel cut oats and still have a really nice texture. These are quick cooking -- not instant, which kind of plump up and then wilt when you add the hot liquid.

Second, and I think more importantly, cook the oats in MILK NOT WATER. Nothing ever tasted better by cooking it in water. Use low fat milk if you must -- I know using whole milk would get the calorie police after me. When I first cooked oatmeal for my kids when they were little, I would use just milk. Ina Garten came up with the idea of cooking the oats in a mixture of milk and water, and it works perfectly.

And finally, oatmeal is like a little black dress. It's a great backdrop for accessories. Toppings like dried fruit, bananas, apples and cinnamon all work well and really take the cereal from ho-hum to delicious.

So, here's my recipe for The Best Oatmeal, with the help of Ina.

The Best Oatmeal

1 1/2 cups milk (lowfat if you must -- whole milk is better)
2 cups water
1 1/2 cups quick cooking oats (I like McCann's)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt

Heat the water and milk to a simmer. Add the oats and the salt. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to a simmer for about 5 minutes, stirring occasionally until thickened. Off the heat, add one (or more) of the following toppings. Cover and let it sit for a couple of minutes until everything plumps and softens.


1/2 cup dried cherries
1/2 cup golden raisins
1 banana, sliced
1 apple, peeled and diced
A little cinnamon
Maple syrup
Brown sugar