discovering date bread

This gallery contains 4 photos.

Last week’s cocktail post mentioned a resolution to school myself in basic mixology and part of that goal will be sharing progress here. But in keeping with the title of this blog, food must also star. In that vein, my … Continue reading

not-too-unhealthy cheese, bacon potato wedges

Not a football fan. If the Vikings hit the Super Bowl (unlikely), I’d root for the home team, but still don’t think I’d care overly much. Even the commercials often disappoint after all the hype. I hear you could even catch this year’s Super Bowl commercials online BEFORE the Super Bowl. Whas’ uuuuuup indeed.

But we talk food here, right? And since having kids, it’s been our family’s Super Bowl tradition to spread a plastic tablecloth on the living room floor and watch the game while we eat (relatively) unhealthy fare.

After hosting a big event Saturday night, I didn’t have much get-up-and-go as far as meal ideas for Super Bowl supper. Knowing I wanted to lean toward the carb/cheese/bacon end of the spectrum (tradition must be respected:-)), I microwaved two very large baking potatoes for about 6 minutes, then cut them into wedges. Spritzed with olive-oil cooking spray, they roasted at 425°F just until they started browning (8 minutes?). Next, they were sprinkled generously with shredded cheese and chopped bacon strips. (While heating the potato, I’d baked six or so bacon strips on a wire rack over a baking sheet, again at 425°F. This is The Best Way to Make Bacon–grease drips off onto the baking sheet and you pull the bacon at your preferred doneness, whether its just cooked through, deeply browned and crispy, any point in between.) I also microwaved frozen broccoli florets, which went over the potato wedges along with a handful of leftover caramelized onions. They roasted another 7ish minutes, then were served on a bed of shredded lettuce and topped with grated Parmesan cheese (the kind from a can! only on Super Bowl Sunday;-)), a spoonful of full-fat sour cream, and toss of sliced ripe olives.

I’ll admit to being impressed with my hastily thought through and thrown together meal. It had the bacon, cheese, sour cream bit–potatoes, too–but I managed to get the greens in there as well. Served with root beer floats, we watched the game and helped the girls with eleventh-hour Sunday evening homework. Unstructured, casual, and just plain fun. Tomorrow we’ll sit at the dinner table and eat our well-balanced meal–no TV, no homework. But tonight we enjoyed breaking (multiple) family rules and it tasted good.

almost-potato skins

almost-potato skins

an awesome burger

I do 99% of the meal prep in our house, if only because I like to be in charge of what we eat. When I’m grocery shopping and making breakfast, lunch, and supper, I can make the meals I enjoy and feel good about putting on the table.

But sometimes I wonder if I should back off and let my hubby do some of the cooking. He’s a decent cook and while not as adventurous and health-driven as I (raised on meat-and-potatoes he was), can still pull off a great meal. His latest: Tomato-Topped Burgers.

Yesterday, I returned home from a long bike ride just after noon. Realizing what time it was on the ride, I’d made mental plans to quickly pull together turkey sandwiches with sliced garden tomatoes and sides of carrot and cucumber sticks and watermelon slices once home. But opening our front door, I was greeted with an amazing waft of savory. Hubby was grilling burgers.

My daughters and I agree that his burgers are the best. They’re seasoned with salt, pepper, and a brush-on marinade he picked up from his mom. (Measurements are never taken, but it’s a glug or so each of soy sauce, red wine, and Worcestershire mixed with a dash of garlic powder or salt.) Not only had he grilled his fantastic burgers, but he’d covered each patty with a thick slice of a just-picked tomato while they grilled. The juices from the tomatoes kept the lean burgers moist and the tomatoes themselves cooked down slightly, rendering them extra tender and even more richly flavored. The texture and flavor combo was brilliant.

I was impressed with the difference that the simple addition of a tomato slice made. The burgers were awesome and made me think that maybe I should let hubby do more of the meal prep. Even though I love being in charge in the kitchen, it was a great pleasure to be treated to an amazing meal.

camp fare

Our family recently camped our way through South Dakota–Badlands, Black Hills, and the like. I wasn’t at all sure that it would go well as our week-plus trip would be the longest we’d camped with our girls. My husband and I enjoyed camping pre-kids, but our first forays into the camping wild with babies were disasters, so we’ve been cautious with our travel plans. With our youngest at age 6, we figured we’d give it another go. And I’m pleased to say that things went extremely well.

No surprise that one of my favorite parts of camping is the food. I enjoy planning meals, packing the food, then making things happen at the campsite. For sure there are restaurant stops (lunches usually), but breakfasts and evening fare are made over the campfire or on a campstove.

Our campfire cooking was curbed as soon as we crossed over into the western part of South Dakota as their extreme heat and dry weather meant Burn Ban. S’mores would have to wait for another trip. The first night’s meal proved our camping skillet to be in sorry shape. Next trip, we’d bring the cast-iron, but this go-round we found that anything we heated, even if over a low flame and for a short time, ended up overcooked (read: charred).

Girl Scout gumbo in a skillet

Just the same, our camp meals were fantastic. After a long day of travel or a long sleep in the tent, whatever we cooked up on that stove was divine. Pasta sauce, ground beef, and spaghetti noodles; Girl Scout Gumbo and rice (my oldest, who had recently been to Girl Scout camp, took charge here); steak and veggie stir-fry with barley; hobo dinner (sans campfire, the ground beef, potatoes, onions, carrots, and bell peppers cooked in a skillet instead of in the usual foil packet); burgers and fried potatoes. But the best meal I ate? Our pancakes and eggs.

No photo of this meal as it wasn’t much to look at. But it absolutely hit the spot that morning. I’d just come back from a run and felt I’d earned a good meal. My husband had already cooked up pancakes for the girls and had (thoughtfully) left a tin cupful of batter for me so I could fry mine up fresh. I cooked up a ‘cake or two, also adding our last egg to the skillet. The stove was on a slight slant and food ended up running together in the skillet. As well, the pancake batter cooked up unevenly in our piece-of-junk skillet. Once plated, my breakfast consisted of unevenly cooked and misshapen pancakes attached to an overcooked egg. Doesn’t sound appetizing. But eaten outside, topped with butter and rivers of pure maple syrup, and served alongside my wonderfully caffeinated hazelnut instant coffee, it was absolutely the best meal I had on the trip.

Camp food aside, there are fun food spots we found while driving around SD that deserve a shout-out:

The best apple fritter I’ve ever tasted at Baker’s Bakery & Cafe in Custer City.

under glass

in our box

Huge slices of pie and an awesome birthday cake malt at Bobkat’s Purple Pie Palace, also in Custer City.

pie time

straight out of a dr. seuss book

hubby’s choice: blueberry

apple pie with moose tracks ice cream–favorite order of my 10-year-old

Bison stew (world-famous if the signage is to be believed) and Buffalo Sweat beer at the Mount Rushmore cafe.

Fine dining it was not, but fun to find beer and bison at the foot of Mt. Rushmore.

Downhome chuckwagon fare at the Circle B Ranch–roasted venison in a peppery garlic gravy, baked potato, cowboy salad, applesauce, biscuits, and ginger cake.

cowboy supper at the Circle B

Donuts (again, said to be world-famous) at Wall Drug Cafe. Wall Drug also had amazing ice cream, made in-house. I have no pictures from this stop (my bad), but cakespy did a better job than I could have, so will send you there.

Assorted truffles at Silk Fudge in Keystone.

white Russian, sea salt

I’m grateful to have taken a longer vacation with my family this summer. Its success means there will be more to look forward to, allowing us opportunity to cook the campfire meals we couldn’t on this trip. The s’mores await.

the List and the dari-ette

Today my youngest and I waved my oldest daughter off to Girl Scout camp, then made plans to check off another fun food spot on my List.

Most folks seem to have Bucket Lists and for good reason. It’s smart to be purposeful about what you hope to accomplish in a lifetime. No Bucket List for me, though. My List comprises all of the many restaurants and food trucks in Minneapolis/St. Paul that I hope to visit.

This List isn’t written down, but mention of a restaurant that intrigues puts the spot on my List. I’m fully aware that I’ll never make all of the places on my List. I’ve also seen restaurants shutter before I’ve had a chance to stop by. But over the past three or four years, I’ve slowly ticked off a fair number of new restaurants. And for someone with young kids, it pleases me very much that I’ve made the effort to get out there.

So about today: The weather was amazing; it seemed a good day for a drive-in. I’ve read reviews of the Dari-ette, said to be one of the last remaining true drive-ins in the area, and figured this was absolutely the day to hunt it down.

The building was on the rickety side, but had plenty of character. My daughter wanted spaghetti (the menu leaned heavily toward old-school Italian-American), so I ordered a side of that with my turkey sandwich. The best part was the ice cream, of course. My Heath bar flurry had ribbons of hot fudge sauce and my daughter’s root beer float was lovely.

turkey sandwich, side of spaghetti, Heath bar flurry

We ate on a step near our car as the four outdoor tables were taken, and when I looked up at the vintage Dari-ette Drive-in sign with the amazingly blue sky behind it, I was crazy happy. Something about making it out to another fun, independently owned food venue, and sharing these moments with my daughter, thrilled me. An overly intense reaction to lunch at a drive-in, maybe, but for me, trying a new restaurant is something that matters.

Perhaps my List is simply a Bucket List for someone who loves all things food. Definition aside, I look forward to continuing to move through this list and am glad today offered me (and my daughter) another chance to explore.

the chain, monster cookies, and cookbooks

As much as I’d like to think I’m not a food snob (I like Peeps–food snobs don’t like Peeps), I do tend to turn my nose up at chain restaurants. I prefer to visit one-of-a-kind spots. The food is often (though admittedly not always) better than what’s offered at chains and–just as important–my money goes to entrepreneurial folk, not Corporate America. I also appreciate the unique look and feel of independent spots. One of my first positions out of college was as manager of a well-known coffee chain. I will never forget the thick manual instructing exact placement of everything in the store. It included a diagram for the spacing and position of everything on the condiment bar; precise measurements dictated distances from the cream pitcher to the sugar packets to the nutmeg shaker, etc. Holy cow.

So, my family knows: Whenever possible I prefer eating at independently owned food venues. Today we road-tripped north to my in-laws and time constraints meant that fast-food was on the menu. Supper at Subway. Instead of complaining (which I often do), I gamely ordered a spinach, turkey, and avocado six-incher on whole wheat. It was tasty enough and I could have done much worse than a healthy turkey sandwich.

Sitting around a table at Subway–a table that looks like every other table at any other Subway in any other city in America–I looked over at my oldest who was laughing. My husband laughed at whatever she had said, then my youngest started in. As I joined in, it occurred to me that I was enjoying my family and I was enjoying my meal in a–gasp!–chain restaurant. I admitted to myself in that moment that even though food is paramount in my life, it’s still always going to be secondary to relationships. This isn’t to say I’ve changed my mind about chain vs. independent. One-of-a-kind will always win in my book. But the experience took a small notch out of my (still not admitted to) Food Snob status.

My postscript (the first of two, so keep reading) is yet another of my mother-in-law’s amazing baked goods. At the end of our road trip, we found a platter piled high with Monster Cookies that she had baked for our arrival. They were amazing and yummy. No chain will ever be able to match the taste and texture of a fresh-baked homemade cookie.

monster cookies à la amazing mother-in-law

monster cookie minus a bite

Monster Cookies

parenthetical comments are mine

  • 1 1/2 pounds peanut butter (preferably super-chunk)
  • 1/2 pound butter or margarine (pick butter), softened
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 6 large eggs
  • 4 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
  • 9 cups quick-cooking oats (use old-fashioned for more texture)
  • 1/2 pound chocolate chips
  • 1/2 pound candy-coated chocolate candies (m&ms of course:-))

Heat oven to 350°F. Grease baking sheets.

In bowl, beat together peanut butter, butter, sugar, eggs, baking soda, and vanilla until mixed well. By hand, stir in oats, chocolate chips and chocolate candies.

Drop batter by tablespoons onto baking sheets. Bake 12 minutes or until just lightly browned. Watch closely at end so cookies do not burn. Makes 72 cookies.

Lastly, I’d like to invite you to check out a post I wrote for Megan Kocher’s blog for the Kirschner Cookbook Collection. I’ve written about this collection here before, and was lucky enough to be asked to write a post for the Official Site. I feel so strongly that this collection has a lot to say about women and history and was thrilled to be able to put my thoughts in print. I’d like to share it here as well.

party recap and the pickled red onion

Last post was all about the prep for a family birthday party. (Happy 10th birthday, Clare!) The hamburgers were made with beef we buy from a farmer friend. With only ten pounds in our freezer, I stretched it with two pounds of ground venison. (My husband’s sister must never be told as she claims to hate the flavor of venison–fooled her good.)

Party guests brought raw veggies, veggie salads (thanks for the Pinterest chickpea salad, Traci–so good!), and bowls of fruit–the perfect sides for our meal.

party spread

Beverages included lemonade (made with water, sugar, and my favorite lemon concentrate), rhubarb lemonade (same lemonade mixed with a homemade rhubarb puree), and cucumber water.

beverage station

This was followed by birthday cupcakes and root beer or dreamsicle floats. Adults were offered a shot of Pinnacle whipped cream vodka with their floats; it added a lovely creaminess as well as the hit of booze.

birthday treats

The party was indeed loads of fun and one of my favorite dishes on the table was the pickled red onions set out to garnish the burgers. After seeing these pink-tinted onions on a condiment bar at a local food truck, I had to make my own. Though I’ve never been a fan of pickled foods, these pretty pink onions grabbed me; they offered the perfect combinations of sweet and sour, tender and crisp. I found an easy-to-make recipe, then made a large enough batch that I’d have plenty of leftovers. I can use what’s left on sandwiches, in salads, on pizzas. A handful stirred into tonight’s braised collard greens made for nice color, texture, and flavor contrast.

pickled red onions–the perfect condiment

Pickled Red Onion

I multiplied the recipe by four.

  • 3/4 cup water
  • 3/4 cup vinegar
  • 6 tablespoons sugar
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon crumbled dried oregano
  • 1 large onion, thinly sliced and rings separated

In large resealable plastic food-storage bags, combine all ingredients except onion; seal bag. Shake gently to dissolve sugar. Add onion; reseal bag. Refrigerate at least 24 hours. Store refrigerated. Makes about 1 cup pickled onion.

party prep

Tomorrow we celebrate my daughter’s 10th birthday with 50 or so friends and family. We have out-of-town houseguests tonight and I don’t do well with last-minute chaos, so most of the food prep had to be done earlier. Our freezer holds 62 frozen burgers and about as many homemade burger buns. Seventy kitty cat-frosted cupcakes sit in the refrigerator. Tomorrow we’ll buy the ice and the ice cream (root beer floats!), make the lemonade, and chill the beer and wine.

Party guests have been invited to bring a dish to share, so I don’t know exactly how the menu will play out. But I look forward to seeing everything come together tomorrow. I’ll follow with photos of the final spread, but as of tonight, this is how it looks:

serving dishes, etc.

kitty cats under wraps

frozen burger buns

I love a big party, so have been trying to throw a few of my own. They’re a chunk of work, but do-able as much of the food prep, paperware shopping, etc. can be started far in advance. There’s always a flurry of last-minute set-up come party day, but I try to call on family for help with those tasks.

Life gets so busy and parties offer a break from that busy-ness: Eat good food. Drink good wine. Laugh with friends. To me, the extra work of host(ess?)ing is worth it as I enjoy bringing people together to eat, drink, and be merry. I’m going on good faith that tomorrow’s birthday party will be loads of fun. And after the guests have gone and the last dish has been washed, I’ll start looking for another opportunity to invite folks over to celebrate.

cupcake redux

Those who love to play in the kitchen–whether cooking or baking–are usually fairly flexible. If we run into snags (and maybe it’s just me, but I run into plenty), we either toss out what we’ve done and begin again OR take a different path and see where it goes. I’m almost always in the second camp as I hate tossing something I’ve already spent time on.

Take a recent project: frosting my oldest daughter’s birthday cupcakes. Her party is this weekend and I’ve been making and freezing cupcakes for weeks. Now that the party is days away, it’s time to think about frosting. My original plan was to make three: white, chocolate, and caramel. I found fun recipes (check out Baked Explorations–lots of crazy-good recipes, all very do-able) and the chocolate frosting went off without a hitch. The caramel came next and involved stirring homemade caramel sauce into a white buttercream. I made the mistake of stepping away from the caramel (oops) and returned just in time (so I thought) to take the pan off the heat. But the temp had crept just past 300°F and my “caramel” crystallized as I stirred in the cream and butter. I tried to melt it down over low heat, but you can’t change the laws of chemistry. No go.

Not willing to give up, I knew the buttery cream that wasn’t melding with the overheated sugar mixture would add great richness to any frosting; I stirred some into the whipped butter base that was waiting for the caramel sauce. I added extra powdered sugar for thickness and chopped the hardened caramel (almost brittle, really) into very small pieces and mixed those into the final frosting for crunch. It took a few more tweaks with brown sugar, vanilla, and salt, but I got to a place I liked. After all the extra ingredients, I had plenty of caramel frosting. No need to make a third flavor. I was done.

With a cup or so of chocolate frosting and maybe three times as much of the light-brown caramel, I started thinking kitty cats. The birthday girl had included our orange tabby’s picture on her party invites. Why not turn these cupcakes into cat faces? I’m not much for putzy cake decor, so wanted to keep it simple and use what we already had. A few mini m&ms and candy corns later, I had a cute–if slightly demented–kitty cat staring back at me.

Believe it or not, these are the same cupcakes from bacon birthday cupcake post. Not as pretty, but better suited for a 10-year-old’s birthday party.

I get that this cupcake looks terribly homespun. I have no future as a Cupcake Wars contestant for sure. My “cat” looks childishly simple, sad, and slightly devil-ish. But our party guests will get that these cupcakes are supposed to look like cats. And these guests will absolutely enjoy the cupcakes’ tender crumb and knock-out chocolate flavor (complete with a Hershey’s kiss dropped into the batter of each). Most important, my daughter will know I personalized her birthday cake. The cupcake’s appearance isn’t even a little bit spectacular (though again, the flavor is!), but as with all of the “playing” I do in the kitchen, things don’t always go as planned. And in the end, my baking (and cooking) projects come from the heart and are great fun.

bacon birthday cupcakes

It’s been a crazy busy week. The girls have had end-of-school events during the day and in the evenings. I’ve had a slew of business meetings and even managed to sneak in two nights (!) of going out with friends. Tonight, we continued our busy-ness by celebrating my husband’s birthday with dinner out and a magic show. Good time had by all.

Of course his birthday also meant cake. With very little unscheduled time during the week, it would have been understandable to either buy a cake or mix one up from a box. (This is what normal people do.) But I couldn’t do either. It’s partly a matter of pride, but more so that I enjoy baking too much to give the pleasure of making a family birthday cake to someone else. And bottom line: from-scratch cakes taste too good to have anything but.

Inspiration for a birthday cake was easy to find: One of my outings this past week involved an amazing meal at the Dakota Jazz Club & Restaurant. It finished with a wedge of chocolate-cola cake drizzled with a bourbon caramel sauce and sprinkled with candied bacon crumbles. The sauce and bacon took a decent piece of cake completely over the top and I wanted to create the same magic for my husband’s birthday. But this week, I just couldn’t make the time to bake and frost an entire cake, make a sauce, and caramelize bacon for crumbling.

In my search for a cupcake recipe for my daughter’s late-June birthday bash, I had found a chocolate doozy I wanted to try. It made sense to give the recipe a trial run and set four ‘cakes aside for my husband’s celebration. I also wanted to personalize it for him, so dropped a few peanut butter chips into the batter for those four cupcakes. (He’s a huge fan of peanut butter cups.)

A half-full can of chocolate frosting in my daughters’ baking supplies (yes, they have their own supplies) tempted me, but I really really really like homemade better. Rather than take the time to find and follow a recipe, I beat together a chunk of softened butter, handful of baking cocoa, larger handful of powdered sugar, touch of half-and-half, and dash of vanilla. Thick, rich, and yum. Remembering the amazing chocolate cake at Dakota, I crumbled a half-slice of re-crisped leftover bacon over each cupcake. This was decadence: chocolate, peanut butter chips, and bacon.

I encourage anyone who needs to pull a birthday cake (or cupcakes) off to give homemade a go. It can be done, even when you’re busy. I set ingredients out for Ultimate Chocolate Cupcakes with Ganache Filling (from America’s Test Kitchen magazine, though I skipped the ganache) one night and mixed and baked in a few spare moments the next morning. Two days later, they were quickly frosted and topped. (I only had four to work with and froze the others for another day.) They were indeed “ultimate” and adding peanut butter chips and bacon made them even more so. My husband would have been fine with a storebought cake or one made from a mix. But I needed to go the extra baking mile. It was fun and satisfying and the results were amazingly delicious, more than worth any extra time it took.

from-scratch chocolate cupcake for the birthday boy

bacon on chocolate

pizza night

A recent purchase of some amazing pepperoni and a bag of shredded mozz that’s been in my freezer for a while meant that tonight was Pizza Night.

Homemade pizzas were always something to look forward to growing up. Family members topped portions as desired and the results were always tasty. The crust came from a box (or pouch?) and made for a great pizza crust–tender, doughy, chewy. These mixes are still available, I’d bet. Even easier would be unrolling a can of dough. Easiest? Buying a premade crust.

I love making my own, though, as it’s a simple dough: very little kneading and only a brief rise. And the biggest reason for baking your own anything: It’s always going to taste better. (That said, I’ve purchased premade dough from a farmers’ market vendor and it turned out the best pizza crust I’ve ever had.)

I have no standby recipe, though featured a favorite in an earlier post. Tonight, I found a new recipe that looked promising in my well-worn King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook. I had to make some adjustments as I didn’t have the full amount of whole wheat flour called for. But adding cracked wheat (about 1/4 cup) and a few tablespoons of soy flour to make up the difference made for a more interesting final crust. The 2 tablespoons of honey in the dough gave the crust a distinct yet delicate sweetness that worked well with the whole-graininess. But the larger amount of white flour (almost 2 cups) made it tender and springy. I’ll use this recipe again.

The girls enjoyed their yummy pepperoni and I sprinkled onions and garlic on my portion. I tossed some mixed greens on my slice once on the plate and loved how pretty it looked. A few crushed chili flakes gave it zip.

Pizza Night wasn’t nostalgic in the sense that our pizza looked or tasted anything like what I remember growing up. But I like knowing that I can make a childhood memory work in my kitchen. I wonder how my daughters will play Pizza Night when they’re grown?

Whole Wheat Honey Pizza Crust

from King Arthur Flour 200th Anniversary Cookbook

  • 1 cup hot water (I used 100°-115°F water as that’s what works to activate yeast)
  • 2 tablespoons honey
  • 1 tablespoon active dry yeast
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour (Didn’t have this much, so used about 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, about 2 tablespoons soy flour and enough cracked wheat flour to make 1 cup. Made up the remaining 1/2 cup with the all-purpose flour.)
  • 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour (used 2 cups to make up for not using enough whole wheat flour)

In large bowl, combine water, honey, and yeast; let stand 5 minutes or until bubbly. Stir in salt. Add flours; stir vigorously to form dough. On lightly floured surface, knead dough a few minutes until smooth.  Cover with clean kitchen towel. Let rise 10 to 15 minutes.

Heat oven to 400°F. Roll or stretch dough to fit pizza pan. Parbake 5 or so minutes. Remove from ovenl top as desired. Bake until topping are heated through and crust is golden. Makes 1 (15-inch) crust.

homemade pizza with delish crust

un pique-nique

It was just my girls and me for supper tonight as my husband worked late. A bag of lentils in my pantry had me thinking lentil soup and a gift of a tomato flat meant that BLTs would accompany.

When mealtime rolled around, my youngest asked if we could eat outside. It’s been a beautiful and unseasonably warm 80°F day and al fresco dining seemed a lovely idea.

The components were simple and the picnic was served up on our front lawn. The girls enjoyed the sandwiches and at least tried the soup. Reheated (frozen) green beans added the vegetable group. Leftover cookies (which just keep getting better) are always a welcome finish to an outdoor meal. Nothing fancy. No waterfall or other picturesque nature in the background. But it was an easy way to freshen up mealtime. And not having to sweep up under the table? Bonus.

taking it outdoors–soup, sandwich, cookies

Café Lentil Soup

  • Olive oil
  • 4 stalks celery, sliced
  • 4 carrots, sliced
  • 3 cups lentils
  • 1 or 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 4 cups chicken stock
  • 2 cups water
  • 1 (10-ounce) box frozen spinach, thawed and drained
  • 1/4 cup chopped parsley
  • Splash sherry vinegar (could also use red wine vinegar)
  • 1 teaspoon salt or to taste
  • Freshly ground pepper

In large stockpot, heat small amount of oil over medium-high heat. Add celery and carrots; sauté 3 to 5 minutes or until slightly softened. Add lentils, garlic, onion powder, and bay leaf; sauté 2 to 3 minutes or until garlic is fragrant. Add chicken stock and water; cover. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer 20 to 30 minutes or until lentils are tender, adding additional stock or water as needed. Stir in spinach and parsley; cook until heated through. Season with vinegar, salt, and pepper. Cook 5 to 10 minutes to blend flavors. Adjust seasoning as desired. Remove bay leaf before serving. Makes 8 servings.

chow mein circa 1980s

I’m sure there are other children of the ’80s who have this memory: A hole-in-the-wall (no sit-down dining, only take-out) Chinese restaurant where my parents occasionally picked up an order of chow mein and rice for supper. We transferred the food from its white take-out containers to our dinner plates and I remember thinking it was fun eating directly from take-out containers. Such rebellion. Our spot was named Wong’s and of course it’s long gone.

Even without Wong’s and spots like it, Asian food is easier to find now more than ever and its scope is so much broader (stir-fries, spring rolls, noodle dishes, rice bowls, pho, and then some). But back in the day, in suburban middle America at least, chow mein was plenty ethnic and exotic.

Because I enjoyed that chow mein as a child, it’s still something I seek out. I love the fall-apart-in-your-mouth celery, the savory chunks of meat, the tiny flecks of onion, and, most of all, the thickened and savory gravy that binds it all together. Served on a pile of steamy rice, it’s comfort food that brings me back.

I’ve never found a chow mein recipe that creates what I remember this dish to be, so I tend to make it up as I go along when the craving hits. Chow mein was on tonight’s menu as it seemed a good vehicle for the leftover chicken in our fridge. I managed to get proportions right (doesn’t always happen) and was pleased with the final dish. It’s a healthier version of the chow mein of my childhood as it’s loaded with veggies, leaving meat as accent. I also tossed in baby corn as it was in my pantry and I’m a huge Chinese 5-spice fan so had to use it. It’s not exotic and it’s not fancy. But it is hearty, healthy, and full of flavor. And for me, it’s comfort.

chow mein cooked up in cast-iron

on the plate

Chicken Chow Mein

Amounts for all ingredients are approximate.

  • 1 teaspoon peanut oil
  • 1 cup chopped onion
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons chicken stock
  • 4 cups chopped celery
  • 1 (15-ounce) can chopped baby corn, drained (sliced water chestnuts would also work well)
  • 1/2 teaspoon grated gingerroot
  • 1/2 teaspoon Chinese 5-spice
  • 1/4 cup stir-fry sauce (I used a tasty black stir-fry sauce which is bottled and sold by a local chef)
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch mixed into 2 to 3 tablespoons water
  • Sliced almonds
  • Soy sauce

In large skillet, heat oil over medium (or so) heat. Add onion and garlic; stir-fry 3 minutes or until fragrant and onion starts to soften, adding stock as needed to keep pan from drying out.  Add celery, baby corn, gingerroot, and 5-spice. Stir-fry 5 minutes, continuing to add stock as needed, until celery starts to soften. Stir in stir-fry sauce; cook until vegetables are coated and celery is tender. Add cornstarch slurry; cook, stirring frequently, until sauce is bubbly and thickened. Serve sprinkled with almonds. Season with soy sauce as desired. Makes 4 servings.

getting ready to party

Tomorrow we celebrate my youngest’s birthday with her friends. Ten 6-and-unders in our backyard (if it rains, we’re toast) playing circus. We’ll do games, cotton candy, cupcakes, and homemade ice cream. (Will also set out bowls of carrots and grapes to satisfy the Nutrition Police in me.)

My cotton candy maker gets mention in a previous post. I’ll put another kitchen toy to good use at the party: our “soccer ball” ice-cream maker. Anyone who has tried homemade ice cream knows how amazingly creamy and sweet and rich it is. There’s no comparing it to store-bought.

My parents introduced me to homemade ice cream early on. Back in the day, we’d take turns turning the handle on our hand-crank churner to make a batch of ultra creamy, pale yellow (used egg yolks freely in the pre-salmonella days), and heavenly vanilla ice cream. Fast forward to 2012 and it’s easy to find affordable electric ice-cream makers; they make amazing ice cream in under an hour with very little effort from the “cook.”

Why, then, do I make ice cream by running around kicking a ball for nearly 30 minutes? A lot of work, yes, but it’s a fun party activity for kids–they seem to have endless energy. It’s a good way for grown-up kids to make ice cream, too, as you work off some of the calories you’ll be inhaling when the ice cream is done.

Here’s how it works: Ice cream ingredients go in one end of the ball; ice and rock salt in the other. The lids are sealed, then the ball is kicked, tossed, and rolled for 10 minutes or so. Next, it’s break-time as the frozen cream mixture is stirred to mix and fresh ice and salt are added on the other end. The lids are resealed and it’s another 10 to 15 minutes of shaking, etc. before the ice cream is ready to enjoy.

Tonight I have ingredients, equipment, and a recipe, but the final product has yet to be made. I’ll post pictures of the ice cream and cotton candy in the near future. But now, I need to get some sleep. I’ll need to be well-rested when the circus-goers take over my backyard.

ice cream waiting to be made

Homemade Vanilla Ice Cream

No eggs in this recipe. Think of the fun you could have with stir-ins: cinnamon, mini chocolate chips, colored sprinkles, crumbled candy bars, crushed cookies, fresh fruit.

  • 2 cups heavy cream*
  • 1  cup whole milk
  • 1 cup 2% milk
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 3/4 cup + 2 tablespoons sugar

In bowl, combine all ingredients until blended. Transfer to ice-cream maker. Continue according to ice-cream maker instructions.

*The original recipe called for 1 quart cream, but this ice cream was way too rich. I played around with types and ratios of dairy and this is what I like best. Half-and-half (even fat-free) can also stand in for the whole milk.

from cobb salad to chocolate chateau

Spring break hit this week which could only mean one thing: road trip. Despite having no official travel plans, I was able to get out on a few small trips–all food-focused, of course.

On Thursday, a good friend and I were joined by our daughters as we day-tripped to Stillwater, a small destination city with quaint downtown shopping. Lunch, at Leo’s Grill & Malt Shop, was retro in decor and food. My butterfinger malt was rich with malt powder (yay) and the Cobb salad looked like a Cobb salad was supposed to–neat rows of ingredients. (Food pet-peeve: restaurants that toss chicken, bacon, romaine, blue cheese, and hard-cooked egg together and call it a Cobb. Don’t toss a Cobb.) The blue cheese dressing was thick and the bacon was good, though adding avocados would have made it more authentic. We shopped a bit, then hit Tremblay’s Sweet Shop for a collection of pay-by-the-pound candies before heading home. (I billed our visit to this store as a treat for the girls, but who am I kidding? I love candy.)

Cobb salad at Leo’s

Friday’s “road trip” came about when my oldest daughter asked if we could go on “one of our adventures” when her younger sister went to daycare. (I love that my daughter considers our outings “adventures.”) We had only a few hours, so stayed close to home and set off to explore a few St. Paul neighborhoods.

Our first stop was Dr. Chocolate’s Chocolate Chateau. (Yes, that is really what it is called.) The first floor had opened only a month ago as a retail chocolate shop. The upper three floors of this beautiful Victorian mansion are eventually slotted to hold a chocolate museum, hall-of-fame, event center, pastry shop, tasting room, and who knows what else. Dr. Chocolate certainly has big dreams.

The first-floor shop was stocked with wrapped chocolate bars sourced regionally and internationally as well as high-end chocolate candies and baking mixes. They also carry aprons, cookbooks, coffee mugs, and other gift-y items. The chocolate display case boasts at least 30 different kinds of truffles along with bricks of chocolate wrapped in gold foil (shades of Willy Wonka) and chocolate-dipped goodies such as fruit, cookies, and the like.

The truffles were front-and-center and seemed the thing to buy, though we limited ourselves to three total. I also bought a few chocolate bars (Cabernet, Chardonnay, and Aztec dark) as well as a chocolate Cabernet cake mix (packaged in a wine bottle) and a few smaller chocolates. It wasn’t an inexpensive trip, but it was fun to be there at the beginning of this store’s journey. Walking away with our bag of classy chocolate was simply (chocolate) icing on the cake.

Dr. Chocolate signage

Dr. Chocolate purchases

We left the Chateau to walk a few blocks to Cheeky Monkey, a fun lunch and dinner spot with impressive food. I’ve been a number of times, but especially enjoyed sharing it with my daughter. We chowed down on sandwiches (hers the Little Monkey with turkey and cheese and mine a roasted pepper, chicken, bacon, and gouda panini–delish, ate every last crumb) and enjoyed the complementary self-serve cucumber and lemon waters.

No time for dessert (we had chocolate waiting for us in the car, remember?), we drove over to Grand Avenue to do a bit of window shopping. I was thrilled to spend this time with my 9-year-old as I know that in not too many years she’ll prefer spending time with friends to spending time with mom. I’ll take as many of these “adventures” as she’ll give me.

Tonight my husband and I took the shortest road trip of the week by hitting the freeway for i nonni, an upscale Italian restaurant in a nearby ‘burb. The food and drink were amazing. From cocktail (gin with grapefruit, sage, and cucumber–refreshing!) to appetizer (cured, paper thin slices of strip steak) to entree (farro pasta with sea urchin roe and lump crab) to dessert (a game-changing figgy pudding–wow) to grappa (what else after an Italian feast?), the meal was one I’ll long remember. It was a splurge, for sure, but with two young kids and nearly 20 years of marriage under our belts, my husband and I don’t get out much. Tonight’s fancy-pants date made up for all of the going out we haven’t done in the past few months.

When Monday rolls around, the kids go back to school and I’ll buckle down to work projects again. And though I didn’t hit the beaches of Cancun or tour Disney property with my family, I enjoyed local spots–new and old, upscale and casual. I shopped, ate well, and spent time with friends and family. Spring Break 2012 gets high marks from me.