Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Inventing Hogmanay Traditions

I've been reading up on Hogmanay. It's about time, given that I'm mainly Scottish and Hogmanay is a uniquely Scottish celebration. Hogmanay is, is fact, the Scots word designating the last day of the year and the celebration extends into Ne'erday, a contraction for New Year Day. In other words, the Scots have their own take on doing the turn of the year celebrations, involving fireworks and music and lots of adult beverages and food and merriment. There is "first-footing" and gift giving and swinging fire balls and all kinds of wonderful stuff. Makes dropping the ball in Times Square look kind of tame.

I won't be swinging any fire balls but I decided, in honor of the occasion, I would institute a new food tradition in my household. After careful thought and particular attention to the muted growling from my tummy, I decided the perfect Hogmany dish would be -- tah dah! -- chicken enchiladas!

Okay. Enchiladas are not ordinarily associated with things Scottish, I'll admit that. If I used some Scotch Bonnet chili peppers in them, I might be stretching the connection hard enough to fit. Or if I could find my tape of bagpipe music, I could play that while eating the enchiladas. It only takes a little imagination to Scotchify this south-of-the-border dish. Not too much imagination, though. I did have a brief vision of haggis-stuffed enchiladas but decided that was a bit too advanced for my brand new tradition.

Anyway, the recipe I want to share with you is not for the enchiladas, per se, but for the enchilada sauce. This is tweaked from a recipe I found at Recipezaar. If you go there and type 109685 in the Search box at the top of the page, you'll be taken to the original recipe, which we're told comes from a woman who was born and raised in Mexico City. I figure that gives it the chops for authenticity, don't you?

My version netted me around 5 cups of sauce, which was 2 cups more than I needed. Not a problem -- I just poured the remainder in a quart canning jar and popped it in the freezer for later use. And this am da way it goes ...


In medium-sized sauce pan, combine:
3 tablespoons chili powder
3-4 tablespoons flour (I used 4)
1 teaspoon cocoa powder
1/2 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon cumin

Measure out 3 cups water. Pour in enough to make a sloppy paste. Set pan on medium heat, slowly add the rest of the water, stirring constantly. Keep stirring until mixture thickens. ("Thicken" is a relative term. It would coat the spoon but wasn't as thick as, say, gravy.) Add 8 ounce can of tomato sauce, stir in and remove from heat. Cover with lid until ready to use.

A note about the tomato sauce ... I only had a 6 ounce can of tomato paste. What I did was, I scooped the paste into a 2-cup measuring cup, added 2 cans-worth of water and a half-teaspoon of sugar to cut the acid and stirred it well. That gave me almost 2 cups of sauce, twice as much as needed for the recipe. However, we're told measurements for this recipe can be very flexible so I just used the whole 2 cups. Worked just fine.

No matter how creative you get with this sauce, don't leave out the cocoa! That's the secret ingredient. Very important.

As for the enchiladas, you can pretty much stuff them with whatever you happen to fancy. I poached a chicken breast in chicken broth and then shredded it with a fork. It's amazing how far a single chicken breast will go when it's been soundly forked. Then I tossed the chicken with about half a finely minced sweet onion, a couple of tablespoons of finely minced canned jalapeno peppers and about a cup of cottage cheese. This made enough stuffing for 8 enchiladas, with enough left over for me to eat like a salad as a reward once I got the goodies in the oven.

Ladle some of your sauce in a baking dish, soften your corn tortillas, 2 at a time, for 30 seconds in the microwave. Drag each tortilla through the sauce and plop some stuffing in the middle. Roll it up and place it in the baking dish. (You can use a dinner plate for the stuffing and rolling but I find it easier to just work right in the baking dish. You'll build the last enchiladas right on top of the ones you've already placed.)

Once they're all tucked in, pour sauce all over everything, sprinkle shredded cheese over the top and put in a 350 degree oven for 25 to 30 minutes.

I'll tell you what ... as far as brand new traditions go, I think this one is a keeper. And who knows? Maybe one of these fine Hogmanays, I'll be brave enough -- or senile enough -- to actually do the haggis-stuffed enchilada.

Oh! Dear Coffee Mates -- have a fantastic Hogmanay and an even better Ne'erday!

Monday, December 29, 2008

Trifling With Truffles

If you don't give me the recipe, I shall have to hurt you.

That's what I told Albert (my grandson-the-chef). He and Holly made up some marvelous goodie baskets for Christmas giving and the item that had me quivering with total bliss was a bag of the most fantastic choccy cookies I have EVER eaten. That's the truth.

I don't think he really believed I'd harm a single hair on his head but, just in case, he dropped by earlier this evening so I could copy off the recipe. Lo and behold, it turns out to be one from a favorite recipe site of mine, RecipeZaar. If you haven't checked it out, believe me, it's worth many enjoyable hours of browsing.

Anyway, rather than typing up the recipe here, I'll link you to the appropriate page so you can easily print off a copy for your files. Go to: Ultimate Chocolate Truffle Cookies and prepare to be tempted beyond endurance.

The cookies are aptly named because biting into one is almost identical to biting into a chocolate truffle. Moist and silky-tender. And decadent. We can't forget decadent.

I really don't think I'm going to tinker with this recipe, which is very unusual for me. That decision falls under the heading of "Don't fix what ain't broke." Okay, one thing I'll do different. I won't dust them with powdered sugar because they really don't need any dusting. Uhmmm. Well. I guess I could dust them with cocoa. That sounds reasonable. I'm just not a big fan of powdered sugar.

I don't have any pictures of the cookies to show you. Can't take pictures of something you've already eaten and, since I just got the recipe, I haven't made any new ones to immortalize digitally. Not to worry -- there are four photos of the cookies on the page at the other end of the above link. Both sugar-dusted and plain, now that I think of it.

One note of caution: it might be wise to run off several copies of the recipe if you plan on sharing these cookies with family and friends. Otherwise, one of those folks might hurt you.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Echoes of Ralph

Almost all the Christmas goodies are done. Just a few things left to whip out before the big day tomorrow. I'm walking a sort of tightrope here, in terms of flavor, freshness and shelf life. The cheese spreads improve with a couple of days of "ripening" and the spiced nuts will hold just fine but the lemon curd needs to be fresh. That sort of thing.

So I'm sitting here with my morning mug of sacred brew and it occurs to me I haven't yet played my favorite Christmas video. The one that's a cartoon of Santa and the reindeer singing "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas." So I fired up Google and tapped in "Christmas video" and got the usual plethora of choices. As I started skimming down the list of links, the fourth one from the top caught my eye. The Jingle Cats singing "White Christmas." Hmmm. Wonder what that's all about.

Didn't take me long to realize Ralph must have pointed me to this one. Really. I mean, I got a sort of mind meld thought projection of the kind Ralph was fond of implanting. Usually his telepathic messages had to do with food but this time, very clearly, I got "heavenly choir." And I'm chuckling, thinking, "Yeah, Ralph. I guess you'd think this feline chorus sounds heavenly." And just about then, lo! An angel cat appeared onscreen, complete with wings and halo.

It's a fun video with some cute cats and there's even a cameo appearance by a big dog. Something for everyone, I reckon. And I even noticed, over in the sidebar, is a link to the very video I started out to find. Ralph is nothing if not considerate.

So here it is, Coffee Mates ... a Christmas video for your viewing pleasure, from me and Ralph. With that, please feel utterly surrounded and blissed out with hearty "Ho, ho ho's" and wishes for a wonderful holiday season.

The Jingle Cats - White Christmas - Funny videos are here

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Begin With a Pile of Cheese ...

Seems to me some of the most magical things can happen whenever you find yourself in possession of a big pile of shredded cheese. Take the above splendiferous mound of cheddar, freshly grated on the smallest of the three shred choices on my grater. That was my beginning salvo in the quest for one or more tasty cheese spreads fit for Christmas giving. What I was looking for was something that could be slathered on toast or French bread and broiled until hot and bubbly -- and then devoured with moans of delight. I'm big on moans of delight.

After an awful lot of time spent in the company of trusty Google, I narrowed the search down to two candidates -- a zesty beer cheddar and a more subtle rum cheddar. Both recipes meet my F.E.D. requirements (fast, easy, delicious) and both are so good I can't pick a clear winner. So be it. You know what they say -- two cheese spreads are better than one. Or something like that.

Before I lay out the actual recipes, a couple of tips may be helpful. You can run these through the blender if you wish but it really isn't necessary. Vigorous beating with a spoon does the job quite nicely and a bowl is easier to clean than a blender. It also helps if everything is room temperature and it's even better if you fine-grate the cheese. Also -- very important -- these recipes are highly flexible. Amounts are subject to personal taste and substitutions or additions are limited only by your creativity or current supplies. For example, instead of beer, I used ale -- because that's what I had on hand. I'm sure that garnered me a more robust flavor than beer would have done. For that matter, you can even use a different kind of cheese -- or a mixture of cheeses. It's your call. Isn't that fun?

3 cups finely shredded cheddar cheese
1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon hot sauce of choice
1/4 teaspoon each salt and pepper
2 ounces beer or ale

Beat vigorously with spoon until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for several hours for flavors to blend. Keeps several weeks in refrigerator.

1 cup finely shredded cheddar cheese
1/4 cup (2 ounces) softened butter
1 green onion, chopped
1 teaspoon dry mustard
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 tablespoon rum

Beat vigorously with spoon until well mixed. Cover and refrigerate for several hours for flavors to blend. Keeps several weeks in refrigerator.

Okey-dokey, that's the basic stuff. You can fiddle with amounts to suit yourself or you can fling all kinds of other stuff into the pot. I didn't have any green onions on hand for the rum cheddar but a tablespoon of dried onion flakes worked just fine. I also seasoned the batch with some Mrs. Dash chipotle seasoning. Loves me that hot stuff. Oh ... and the rum was Captain Morgan Spiced Rum. Worked just fine.

So I whupped up a batch of each, put them in small covered containers, popped 'em in the fridge -- and tried to make myself forget about them long enough for the magic of flavor fusion to occur. When I finally allowed myself to haul out the two spreads for their debut on a couple of slices of bread, one thing became clear immediately -- the rum cheddar, with it's butter content, needs to come to room temperature to be easily spreadable. The beer cheddar is a looser mix and spreads without a problem even when cold. The second thing that became clear was that the flavors of both definitely improved with "ripening" time -- especially the one with the ale. If that trend continues, they'll be so good tomorrow, I'll probably pass out with ecstasy.

And there you have it, fresh out from under the broiler. The sample on the left is the rum cheddar and on the right, the ale version. Besides using the spreads this way, I can imagine plopping a heaping spoonful in the middle of a baked potato or into a bowl of steamed veggies. Or you could mix in some sour cream and salad shrimp for a totally cool chip dip.

See what comes of a simple pile of cheese?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Rainbow Bridge Traffic

Sometimes the camera gives us some interesting effects when capturing the eyes. Ralph didn't really have eyes that look like big opals but I wouldn't doctor up this photo for anything. Somehow the jeweled look is just appropriately regal. Ralph could be a royal pain in the patoosh but, by God, he was always royal.

Yes. Past tense there. Without any real warning, something inside of Ralph broke down or wore out last night. He collapsed on the rug and wasn't able to get up. I held vigil with him, stroking and talking, until he seemed to relax enough to doze. Sometime between 12:30 and 1:00 a.m., he stretched out and groaned. As I pet him and talked to him, he relaxed again. And then he just left. Slipped away.

Oh, I'll still sense him around for awhile. That always happens when loved furkids decide to cross the Rainbow Bridge. You catch tantalizing glimpses of them out of the corner of your eye, like after-images.

Needless to say, I slept little last night. But I thought a lot about the years I got to spend with a feline character who was both sweet-natured and sassy. In one way, it seems unkind to lose him during the holiday season but in another, perhaps it's fitting. After all, he came to live with me when my friend Jack joined us for Christmas dinner and gifted me with young Master Ralph the Toddler. Thank you, Jack. He was a gift that kept on giving.

Aside from his professional role as a Mighty Hunter, Ralph occasionally deigned to lend some of his charismatic presence to my book shop. He slept peacefully in a basket or empty box until a customer came in. Then he greeted them in his own dignified fashion -- "You may worship me while you browse." -- and followed them around to make it easier for them to grovel at his feet. One of my favorite pictures of him is the one above, where he is sitting in all his fluffy glory, surveying the kingdom.

Empty boxes were always one of Ralph's favorite things. Not just any empty box, you understand. He had to check them over, each and every one. Those he deemed worthy of his patronage had to be left laying out for whatever period of time he chose to use them. A week, two weeks -- or until the corners split and spoiled the cozy fit.

I expect Ralph will have an interesting time of it over there past the Rainbow Bridge. Investigating all the interesting boxes and hunting meece and getting acquainted with the other furkids. I wonder if he will have an attitude adjustment before long. See, Ralph was never properly socialized with canine furkids and emphatically disapproved of them. Just wait until he runs across Midgie. He won't be able to resist her affection. Well, not for long anyway. He's got to hold out for just a bit to save face. Royalty, you know.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Modern Day Glady-ator

The only racewalking I do is between here and the bathroom.

Okay, now I'm really in trouble and it's all the fault of a sweet liddle ol' lady clear over in Hawaii. Maybe you've heard about her. Gladys Burrill, also known as the Glady-ator, just turned 90 this past Sunday. So I'm clapping and cheering and thinking how grand that was and then, oh Lordy, she laid the smack on me.

She isn't satisfied with reaching such a great age with her health intact and her brain still nimble. No. She has to make the rest of us -- at any age -- look like a bunch of namby-pamby wimps, that's what. This woman is about to enter her FIFTH racewalking marathon in as many years!

Channel 9 KGMB has the video interview with transcript here. Go ahead. Check it out. I'll still be here when you come back. I'll have some coffee ready for you. It helps with shock, you know. Yes, I'll even add a splash of golden nectar if you want.

You're back. Good. Isn't she something else? Wow. Okay, I see you've stopped shaking so I guess you're ready for this next bit. See, I know zilch about marathons so I clicked over to the web site for the Honolulu Marathon just to see if I could figure out exactly what our Gladys would be doing. I mean, she's saying she'll break the record for her age group if she finishes in 8 1/2 hours. And I'm thinking, whoa! Walking for 8 1/2 hours? Paint me yellow and call me a cab!

If I understand this correctly, the walking marathon, as opposed to the running marathon, is a distance of 10K -- about 6.2 miles. Doesn't sound so bad, right off the top, eh? I remember way back in the day, I could do the 1 mile between my house and the supermarket in 15 minutes without fainting. Heh. According to some quick Googling, average speed might be more like 20 to 30 minutes per mile. I really don't think Gladys will be going for that particular speed, however. If she's aiming at 8 1/2 hours, she's going to be pacing herself at more like an hour per mile, with rest stops. Lots of rest stops.

Well, gee. I think she's absolutely fantastic and come December 14th I'll be cheering her on, for sure. She is just utterly inspiring. And I'll tell you this -- it is only my extreme admiration for her that keeps me from smacking her silly.

Why? Well, just think about it. Any time we find ourselves with a perfectly legitimate need to do a little therapeutic whining, there will be the Glady-ator, smiling and NOT whining and making the rest of us feel guilty for wimping out. Good grief, I'll probably have to eat twice as much chocolate to overcome the angst. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to racewalk to the bathroom again. All that coffee, you know.

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Harwich Who Dunnit

Imagine you are strolling along a wooded path in a nature preserve. Birds are flitting and chittering among the winter denuded branches of the trees and anonymous little critters scurry about their business, hidden in the brush and drifts of leaves. Everything is peaceful and, above all, normal.

Until you come to the end of the trail. Suddenly things are not so normal at all. There before you stands a lovely, obviously well-maintained upright piano and its accompanying bench, cover lifted, keys shining in the winter sunlight, ready for someone to sit down and begin to play.

The piano isn't making a sound but you could swear you hear the theme music from Twilight Zone. You anxiously look all around you. Are you really alone? Did the phantom pianist just step behind a nearby tree to retrieve some sheet music? Who is this phantom pianist, anyway? And if he -- or she -- is resorting to concerts in the woods, is there something terribly wrong with him -- or her? Or maybe it's just that the poor pianist can't practice at home because the neighbors keep calling the cops?

Okay, I'm indulging in blatant speculation here, I admit it, but I'm far from the only one. Since its discovery Saturday, the Baldwin in the above photo has become probably the most famous piano in the country. As of this writing, nobody knows where it came from or how it got to its spot in the woods near Harwich, Massachusetts. All they know is it took several cops to load it into a truck to bring it in to the police station so it must have taken several folks to get it out there in the boonies in the first place.

Given all the publicity and general hoorah, why hasn't anyone come forward to claim it? Perhaps the owner is away on a trip and has no idea the piano has gone walkabout. I'm thinking the cops could backtrack by way of the serial number, from manufacturer, to storefront, to buyer. Oops, wait a minute. I just thought of something. Maybe the owner was behind in payments and the piano was about to be repossessed and maybe he figured he'd make 'em work for it. Nah. Scratch that idea. That's just mean. I prefer a more whimsical explanation for the mystery.

Or maybe even no explanation at all -- because, like magician's tricks, some mysteries are a lot more fun if you don't know how it's done.

By the way, has anyone heard from the Phantom of the Opera lately?

Sunday, November 23, 2008

It's a Ponderful Life

That's what I've been doing this past week -- pondering. What a strange word that is. Ponder. Pondering. Pondered. It's sort of -- uhmmm -- ponderous. But I digress ...

There's been plenty of ponder-time because my dial-up hamsters have been unusually flaky and erratic. Sometimes they seem to be practicing slow motion. Other times, they fling me off my connection in a manner very much like the hamster flung himself off the wheel in the video for the last post. It was really hard to maintain my appreciative attitude today when that kind of behavior made it cruelly difficult to listen to the radio feed for the Raiders-Broncos game, I'll tell you that. I think my particular hamsters have a mean streak because they kept cutting out the feed just as something exciting was about to happen. I missed a lot of the good stuff.

I forgave them, though, when the final score came out Raiders 31 -- Broncos 10. Oh frabjous joy! Hope lives again in my heart.

On another front entirely, much of my time this past few days has been spent researching and experimenting with a particular kind of recipe. You may recall that we did that choccy cake in a coffee mug gig a while back. One of the things I discovered is that there are two distinct trends in the cake-in-a-mug experience. One: most of the recipes you find are for chocolate cake. Two: for variety in flavor, you have to go with mixing up boxed cake mix and boxed instant pudding mix.

Okay, I ixnayed the boxed mixes right up front. What I'm looking for is something easily and quickly made with basic ingredients most likely to be on hand in any kitchen. More important, since this is a microwave project, I'm trying to produce a cake that does not come across as a microwave cake. You know -- tough and rubbery and dry and just icky. Also -- and this may shock you -- I'm looking for something in flavors other than chocolate.

Listen, you can't do chocolate ALL the time. That's just excessive and probably dangerous. Besides, I would consider myself inadequate if I were only equipped with a single obsession. If one cultivates a variety of obsessions, one will be much more flexible and capable of satisfying raging urges. Choose one from Column A and two from Column B. Or something like that.

Yet another ponder point under consideration is a recipe without eggs. I just feel uncomfortable using a whole egg for one little bitty coffee mug-sized cake. That seems ostentatious. And uneccessary. There are perfectly fine ways to do an end run around the egg. Powdered whole egg or powdered egg white is one way to do it but, dayum, that stuff is expensive. Using bananas or applesauce is, I think, the better way to go.

I managed a really close nearly successful mug cake today using fresh minced apple. It was delicious but just a teensy tad too moist. Too much apple. I will give it another shot tomorrow, adjusting the proportions. If it works out, I'll share the recipe with you. If it doesn't, I'll just have to do some more experimenting.

I know. It's a grueling job but I'm willing to make the sacrifices necessary to bring a pleasing result to your table. Don't thank me. Just send chocolate.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Hampster Powered

Timmy had Lassie the dog. Roy Rogers had Trigger the horse. James Qwilleran had Koko and Yum Yum the cats. On Green Acres, Fred and Doris Ziffel had Arnold the pig. And let's not forget that modern day heroine, Stephanie Plum, who has Rex ... the hamster.

Hamster? What kind of a hero companion is a hamster? Ah, see, that's the reaction of folks who don't understand hamster power. But hamsters are used to being underestimated. They go through their lives quietly enhancing our lives -- and never getting any credit for it.

What? Exactly how is your life hamster enhanced? Here. Let me give you a clue. Play this short video and see if you begin to get a glimmer. Go ahead. I'll wait.

Poor little guys. I hope they didn't throw up when they staggered away.

But the point I'm making here is that the hamsters had a wheel. Hamsters always have wheels and they are compelled by their DNA to make the wheels turn. And turn. And turn. And we all know turning wheels produce energy. And energy runs other stuff.

One of the major "other stuff" that operates off the energy generated by hard-working hamsters is your dial-up connection. Those of you who have graduated to high speed connections probably don't care -- why should you? But those of us who have to wait 5 minutes for 30 seconds of video to download, we know about hamster power, by golly.

I, for one, have learned to be more patient now that I realize my enjoyment of the Internet rests on the revolutions produced by thousands of tiny, furry little critters. When a download slows to a frozen molasses drip, I say to myself, "Hey, just go get a cup of coffee and let the little guys take five."

I hope this information is as enlightening for you as it has been for me. I'm sure I'm a better person for finally appreciating the unsung efforts of some of our little furry friends.

I can't help but wonder, though -- what creature is powering the high speed connection?

Saturday, November 8, 2008

Kudos & Tin Can Bread

Wow! You Coffee Mates just blow me away! Look at all those comments for the last post. Now -- look at the big grin on the front of my face. Yeah. Y'all did that -- and I wish I could hug every one of you. I'm going to print off the whole comment section and save it, by golly. And, by the way, Bill (Old Guy), if I haven't mentioned it before, you are a punster par excellence. And I do love puns.

And I guess everyone loves show biz. Bonnie said she wanted a picture of the show. You meant the Wives Club show, right? Well, I think I still have a couple of snapshots laying around but I'll be darned if I know where.

Jo, you asked what part I played. Actually, several of us played more than one skit -- or act, or whatever -- because we had a limited talent pool. In one skit, I was a liddle ol' lady getting tipsy at the bar, in another, I was one of the goofy Newfie paperhangers, where we did a sort of Three Stooges routine with ladders and buckets of flour and water paste. Wherein I managed to splash some of the paste on the Wing Commander's wife's lovely blue dress because she was sitting dangerously close to the stage. Fortunately, she was totally gracious about it. (sigh) My favorite skit, though, was my stand-up comedy bit. With the help of a spare "body" of foam rubber and duct tape, I became Fat Aunt Fanny -- sort of a Phyllis Diller with heft. Wore an orange flowered mumu, high top tennis shoes and wore the most godawful wig you ever saw. It was total fun.

Now -- as a thank you for all the great comments, I'm going to share my neat new sandwich with you. Although God took pity on me yesterday and broke our run of rotten weather by letting the sun shine on my birthday (thank you, God), today we were back to rain squalls and wind flurries -- in short, business as usual. It didn't take much gazing out the window to have me yearning for a nice hot toasted cheese sandwich, that's what. Only problem was, I had so much fun with family yesterday, I forgot to make any bread. But that's okay -- as it turns out, I found a flavor suggestion that sounded good and this is how it went ...


In your bread machine:
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 egg, slightly beaten
salt to taste
1/4 cup finely minced sun-dried tomato
1/3 cup finely grated Parmesan cheese
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 cups all purpose flour
1 package (or 1 tablespoon) yeast

Put the machine on the dough cycle and let it do its thing. In the meantime, dig out those two tall tomato juice cans you saved. (Okay, you may want to save a couple of juice cans for future use. I just happened to have these two on hand -- for exactly this kind of project.) Give the cans a good spritz with your nonstick spray and when the dough is ready, divide it into two equal parts and plop them into the cans. Spritz the tops of the dough, cover the cans, let rise for about an hour. (If you want to make the bread in a regular bread pan, this recipe makes one standard loaf.)

I didn't want to put the cans on the lowest rack because I was afraid the bottoms of the bread would burn. On the other hand, being the cans were tall, I was afraid the tops might scorch as the loaves baked. So what I did was, I put the bread in a cold oven, set it at 400 degrees and turned it on. After 15 minutes, I turned the heat down to 350 degrees and baked the bread for another 15 minutes. They came out perfectly! Whew.

If you happen to get the juice cans that are banded with ridges, you will notice that gives the baked bread handy built-in cutting guides. Shooweet! What I like about doing the tin can bread is that you get a great size for snacking sandwiches -- as opposed to full-meal sandwiches. The can slice is only slightly smaller than regular sandwich bread.

Now, here's the kicker ... at a site called The CookMobile, a suggested variation on the classic grilled cheese sandwich called for a layer of blackberry preserves, a layer of chopped onion, some chopped nuts and a slice of cheese. One is encouraged to try other jam flavors, too. And I just happen to have some orange marmalade that was jumping up and down and yelling, "Me! Use me!"

So I sliced me a couple of slices of the bread and buttered one side of each slice. Spread a light layer of marmalade on the unbuttered side of one slice, stacked on some of the shredded cheese left over from my cheese puffs the other day -- and cooked the sandwich to a lovely golden brown. And went "Nom, nom, nom!" with every delicious bite. Yes, it was great.

But now I'm really slapping myself. Did you notice what I forgot? Yeah. No onions. No nuts. Dayum! Ah well. I have plenty of bread left. I can do the other goodies with the next sandwich.

Friday, November 7, 2008

For My Next Decade ...

The secret of my longevity? Always being part-way through a murder mystery -- you can't possibly leave before discovering who done it.

Seventy. Seven-oh. Seven decades. I keep rolling variations of that number set around in my mind, trying to get used to it. See, I've had ten years to adjust to giving my age as sixty-whatever. I was comfortable with that. So used to it, I didn't even notice.

But this morning, at approximately 5:30 a.m. Pacific time, my chronological clock turned over to seventy. Oh my, that's a whole new sound. A whole new flippin' decade. More than that -- it's a whole new image.

See, I've always thought of folks in their seventies as being way more mature and dignified and, damn it, wise, than I'll ever be. Being seventy is like wearing someone else's clothes and discovering they don't fit. Being seventy is like going to a fancy dress ball in blue jeans and moccasins. Being seventy is like entering college before you've graduated from high school.

You would think that, at seventy, I could look back over the last seven decades and recite a long list of all the wondrous events that have occurred -- and I can, yes indeedy. Like a long list of assorted presidents, men on the moon and Elvis on Ed Sullivan from the waist up. Several wars, civil unrest, Bob Hope and permanent press fabrics. But that's a fairly universal list, common to all of us. It's more fun thinking of personal landmarks over the last seventy years.

Like how a big old Look candy bar was only a nickel when I was seven. By interesting coinkydink, my weekly allowance was exactly five cents. I'll tell you, they don't make Look candy bars like that any more. Of course, nickels don't buy as much any more, either.

I remember hatching out an abandoned wild duck egg once by keeping it tucked in my bra, day and night, for several days. It hatched out on my pillow early one morning. Poor little thing. I tried to keep it alive but corn meal gruel didn't seem to do the job. My siblings and I gave it a good funeral, though.

Oh, yeah! There's the time I ran away from home. Although I had, in general, a very happy childhood, there were certainly moments of (cough, cough) teenage angst. During one of those disaffected periods, I decided to take the fifty dollars I'd won on entries at the county fair and buy a bus ticket on the Greyhound, headed for the race track at Santa Anita. In those days, horses were the great passion in my life. I packed a little overnight bag with spare jeans and shirts, some junk jewelry and a swimming suit. (What WAS I thinking?) Caught the bus at the grocery store here in town and headed out for my big adventure.

When Mom stopped at the store on her way home from teaching school, the ratfink grocer squealed on me. She called ahead and a teacher friend scooped me up at the restaurant where the bus was making its dinner stop. My great escape got me all of 45 minutes down the road from home. Minus what I had to pay for bus fare.

I guess that's about how my life has gone all these years -- one adventure after another. Some are just little adventures, like being part of the NCO Wives Club nightclub show at the Air Force base in Goose Bay, Labrador. After a week of performances on base, the whole crew was flown to Saglak, a radar outpost on the DEW Line where we put on the show for 112 very lonely men. When we got back to the base, I told my husband, "You'd better treat me good, mister, because I've got options!"

Then there are the big adventures, like the month Mom and I spent in Thailand when my brother was working there. I loved the country and the people and the food. And I got to ride an elephant, pet a leopard and was hugged and mugged by a chimpanzee.

Of course the best adventures are the ones you have with family and friends. The wonderful world of the Internet has managed to expand that kind of experience for all of us. Just think of how many terrific folks we all meet and get to know through blogs and mailing lists. Like you Coffee Mates. Yeah, YOU. As long as I can keep enjoying that kind of adventure, I guess I won't worry too much about this strange new Seventy image. I'll either grow into it -- or tailor it to fit.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Cheese For Your Inner Mouse

Oh, Coffee Mates. Have I got something fantastic for you! No, those are not Snickerdoodles in the above photo. The resemblance is only superficial, I assure you. For one thing, these little guys are only about an inch across. That's a Very Good Thang because, I guarandurnedtee you, there is posilutely, absotively no way on God's green earth that you can only eat one. The physical dimension might be dainty but the flavor dimension is huge.

They're called Cheese Puffs but, unlike most recipes of that name, they are not the cream puff-style puff. These are more like a shortbread cookie, all buttery and tender-crunchy and overflowing with the most marvelous cheese flavor you can imagine. Mind you, this batch was made with regular cheddar cheese. Had I used sharp cheddar, the flavor excellence would have probably put me into a state of blissful shock.

The extra added attraction of the recipe is that it calls for minimum ingredients, minimum time involved and minimum effort. Here am how it goes ...


1 cup shredded cheese
1/2 cup all purpose flour
1/4 cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon dry mustard

Set your oven at 400 degrees fairyheight. Grate your cheese. In a medium bowl, mix flour, mustard and butter, working the butter in until you have pea-sized lumps. Add the cheese and continue working the mixture until the dough comes together and starts cleaning the sides of the bowl.

Using a teaspoon, scoop out dabs of dough, roll into balls somewhere between hazel nut and walnut size, then place on cookie sheet about 1 inch apart. You should get 2-dozen of the little rascals. Slip the pan in the oven with the rack in the middle position. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until golden brown.

That's really all there is to it but let me add a couple of points.

I have a grater that gives me three different sizes of grate: macho, medium and mini. I can't say for sure that it makes any real difference but using the mini, or fine, grate -- and with the cheese at room temperature -- the mixing seemed to go much easier than it might have otherwise.

This is one of those basic recipes that lends itself to lots of variations. For this batch, I added a sprinkle of cayenne pepper, which gave just enough heat to leave a comfortably warm sensation in my mouth after I swallowed the last bite. I could have added any number of other seasonings, like onion powder or garlic powder or any of the Mrs. Dash salt-free mixtures. (Notice there is no salt in the recipe, other than what's in the butter and cheese.) For that matter, very finely minced chili pepper or onion or garlic would have probably gone well.

Just for laughs and giggles, the next batch I make I think I'll flatten with a fork and maybe bake only 10 or 12 minutes. No particular reason except perhaps that form would lend itself more efficiently to the task of scooping up some nummy dip.

Like my Inner Mouse really needs more snacking calories.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

It Really IS a Wonderful World

I didn't expect it quite that soon. At 8:00 p.m. Pacific time, it was announced. That beautiful strip of West Coast states, Washington, Oregon and California, turned a brilliant blue on the electoral map (They don't call us the Left Coast for nothin'!) and it was a done deal. Well, except for the fact that I took the time to snitch the above picture from the Daily Kos site. I don't think they'll object because they had several laying around.

When the word came down, I just sat here with a huge Satchmo grin on my face. Remember Louie Armstrong? I can't recall ever watching him perform without finding myself grinning back when he smiled his huge smile. It was an automatic reaction I wouldn't have stopped even if I could.

Well, I'm happy, of course. And grateful. And more than a little bit in awe at the tremendous response of people everywhere, rolling out in unprecedented numbers to cast their votes. I really believe the heavy political activity on the Internet made all the difference. And if the newly elected folks in the White House and Congress are impressed by that, just wait until they see how we netroots folks use the same tools to hold their feet to the fire and insist they do the job they've just been hired to do. Hah!

Because this election is only the first step. It's going to take a lot of work and involvement from all of us to start cleaning up the wretched mess of the past eight years. I don't expect it will be even close to magic wand-waving time. We'll be butting heads as well as working together, winning a few here, losing a few there -- but, dayum! Dare we hope we actually have folks in place who will help us restore our constitution and our self-respect?

If so, it isn't just "Obama Wins!" We ALL win, in this country and abroad.

It seems fitting to add this YouTube video clip of Satchmo doing a special version of "What A Wonderful World." Listen to his prescient lead-in words and you'll see what I mean.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

A Pretty Good Day

Okay, I has voted. I can has tickle-nose drinkie now?

Not yet, Grasshopper. We drink the tickle-nose stuff after all those votes are counted. Either to celebrate or to drown our sorrows.

But I did. Vote, I mean. God bless Oregon. We let us vote by mail. And I popped my vote in the Out of Town mail slot at the post office this afternoon. Oh frabjous joy. And, yes, I voted for Obama. Gladly. Urgently. Emphatically. That's feeding America's Good Wolf, that's what I think.


On a completely different subject, I learned the neatest trick today. If you have a gazillion plastic shopping bags to store, you might appreciate knowing this. Should you go to Cafe Munchkin, you'll be able to view step-by-step photos of the procedure. In a nutshell, though, you just lay the bag out flat and fold it in half the long way. Fold it in half again. Then do the "flag fold" up the length of the bag, starting by folding over a triangle at the bottom and continuing the triangle fold, left and right, ever upward. When you get to the handles, just tuck them into the pocket that is formed by the fold and, presto! A neat, compact little triangle that stores in minimum space, ready for whatever recycle project you have in mind.

Yes, I know. Ask for paper instead of plastic. Better yet, use reusable bags for shopping. And I do. I have a set of four colorful string bags I take grocery shopping every time. I love them. But, one way or the other, somehow I end up with oodles of the plastic bags anyway. That's okay. They are wonderful for tying up garbage that could skunkify your atmosphere. Or to store stuff when you're out of boxes and baskets. Or to cut in strips and crochet or knit into purses or rugs or really wild hats. Or whatever. Googling plastic bag crafts will amaze and amuse you.

How about that. I did something constructive and then I learned something new and I didn't even have to break a sweat. I'd count that as a pretty good day.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Humbled by Excess

HEAD SYBARITE REPORTING FROM DECADENCE CENTRAL: This, Coffee Mates, is what happens when you get carried away and forget to moderate your immoderate behavior. That breathtaking pie in the above photo is the banana cream pie I mentioned in last night's post. It really should have been topped with whipped cream but all I had handy was a partial tub of Cool Whip that had been lurking in the freezer for months. It tasted somewhat flat and greasy and there was no way I was going to sully a perfectly good pie with something like that. (Radiating Huffy and Self-righteous.) No. A different topping entirely was surely required. Which is why I hunted down a recipe for hot fudge sauce and used that as topping.

I went too far.

Separately, each component of the above semi-masterpiece was wonderful. Really. Up to a certain point, the combination of components worked in a grand complementary chorus that added dimension to the whole. Until I added the choccy topping. Never thought I'd say this but, truthfully, the topping was -- uhmm -- over the top. Mae West assured us there was no such thing as "too much of a good thing." She was wrong. Darn it.

With that caveat, I will share the recipes for each of the aforementioned components. It is up to you to maintain the self-discipline to use the hot fudge topping on ice cream, where it belongs.

Have you ever been in the mood for a pie but just didn't feel in the mood to mess with the muss and fuss of a crust? Yeah, me too. Which is why I decided to go for a shortbread crust that went directly from mixing bowl to pie pan and could be patted into place. It goes like this:


1 cup flour
1/4 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup ground nuts
1/2 cup butter, melted and cooled
1 teaspoon vanilla
1/2 teaspoon salt

Mix dry ingredients together. (For nuts, I used honey-roasted cashews with sesame seeds. Just drop your choice of nuts in a blender and pulse them until they're the texture of corn meal.) Add butter and vanilla and mix until dough gathers together and cleans the sides of the bowl. Drop into lightly buttered pie pan and press into place as evenly as possible. Prick crust with fork and chill in freezer for 15 minutes or refrigerator for a 1/2 hour. This will keep the crust from poofing up so you don't have to blind bake it. Bake in 350 degree oven for 15 to 20 minutes or until it becomes golden brown. Let cool before filling. This is how it will look when you're done.

Okay, next step is the filling. Something easy and quick but high in the delicious factor. For that, I would urge you to click over to the BellaOnline site where Karen Hancock has an outstanding recipe for microwave cream pie along with some of the several variations possible -- including the banana version I did. I only had to use two bananas, chopped and tossed with lemon juice, to fold into the filling. Oh -- it only took 3 minutes to cook the filling (I boiled the milk on the stove.) and I gave it a good whisking at the end of each minute.

Okay. Pie crust -- check. Filling -- check. Topping -- ahhhh. I really believe this project would have been rendered a complete success had I used a light, fresh whipped cream topping. But, nooooo, I had to commit a chocolate felony. Ah well. At least I did end up with a most excellent recipe for fudge topping. And here it is:


1/2 cup sugar
2 tablespoons baking cocoa
1 1/2 tablespoons corn starch
1/2 cup cold brewed coffee
2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Mix dry ingredients together, then whisk in coffee. (You can use water or, for a richer sauce, milk or cream.) Microwave 1 minute, whisk well, microwave 1 minute more. The sauce should be nicely thickening now. Whisk in the butter and microwave another 30 seconds. If it's now the degree of thickness you want, add the vanilla, whisk and serve. (The original recipe specified "2 to 4 minutes" cooking time. Your mileage may vary.)

After I made the sauce (which is every bit as good as it looks), I let it cool while I sipped a mug of coffee. Then I pulled the pie out of the refrigerator and slathered the fudge sauce on top, trying not to moan with anticipation. Then I chopped up a handful of the candied pecans and artfully scattered them over everything. What followed was a dutiful photographic session, cutting the first slice out of the pie and sitting down with a fork and a healthy degree of lust.

Well, it's delicious and scrumptious and ... and ... awesomely, overwhelmingly rich. See where I stopped to take the last photo? That's also where I stopped eating. Could not bring myself to take another bite. I have been blissed out and brought to my knees. Later tonight, I'm sure I can work up enough appetite to finish it off. And I've learned a valuable lesson.

Hot fudge topping is not for cream pies. It is for ice cream or for body painting.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Going Moderately Nuts

It's been said that one should strive for moderation in all things -- including moderation. Which means, I'm convinced, it is good for one to be moderately immoderate on occasion. That is, while I don't dive headlong into full-blown decadence, wading about in the sybaritic shallows can be a lot of fun.

My idea of decadence has modified somewhat over the years, anyway. I blame Sean Connery for that. He doesn't write. He doesn't send flowers. I have no choice but to adjust my focus on more easily attainable self-indulgences. Such as really wicked culinary temptations.

Like (Salivation Alert!) candied nuts.

Now, I've been making candied walnuts for years, from a recipe given to me by a friend way back in the seventies. Yeah. The olden days. Unfortunately, I lost the recipe and hadn't been able to find a decent replacement. Until -- oh, thank you, Lord and Google -- today.

This is absolutely the easiest -- and tastiest -- candied nut recipe I've ever tried. No cooking a syrup to softball stage. No oven baking. All the magic takes place in a skillet on top of the stove. And I only had to modify one teensy little thing. Let me tell you about it.

First of all, just about any kind of nut can be fixed this way. Heck, mix 'em up if you feel like it. You can do this with whole nuts or half-nuts or chopped nuts. What I used today happened to be pecan bits. I rarely buy the pecan halves, which cost more, because I almost always chop the durned thangs up anyhoo.

Before you do anything else, fix whatever surface you're going to use to cool the nuts. You can lightly butter a cookie sheet or lay out a sheet of parchment paper or a silicone baking mat. You'll be spreading the nuts out in a single layer over the entire surface. And they'll be very HOT so judge your cooling surface accordingly. (Wax paper -- not a good idea.)

So okay. Put a non-stick skillet on medium heat and melt 2 tablespoons of butter in it. As soon as the butter is melted, toss in 1/2 cup of sugar and 1 tablespoon of kosher salt. That is not a typo. The original recipe calls for a mere quarter-teaspoon of salt but what I'm going for here is what I had with my lost recipe -- what I call the Kettle Korn Effect.

For those who have never had the good fortune to experience Kettle Korn (or Corn), it's simply popcorn that's been popped in a mixture of oil, sugar and salt, resulting in a lighter coating than caramel corn --but oh my stars and garters, the flavor. That's why we need a whole tablespoon of salt -- so we can obtain the precise salty-sweet taste that is utterly and unequivically addictive. And there is no cure so you might as well learn how to do it your own self. Otherwise, you're liable find yourself exploring dangerous neighborhoods, looking for a dealer to supply your next fix.

Now. Where were we? Oh yeah -- you've melted the butter and added the salt and sugar. Now dump 2 cups of nuts on top of everything else and begin stirring with a wooden spoon. You don't have to stir constantly right off the git-go but you want to move everything around enough that all the nuts get well-coated. To start with, you'll see a lot of sugar granules clumping around in there but before long the sugar begins to melt and will start turning a liquidy, gorgeous deep brown. Stir steadily now and watch it closely. You don't want to scorch anything. When the sugar is well-caramelized, remove the pan from the heat and add 1 teaspoon of vanilla extract. It will sizzle and fizz but don't be alarmed -- it's just excited. Stir vigorously and inhale deeply.

Turn the nuts out onto your prepared surface and spread and separate them as much as possible while they're still hot. Let them cool for roughly half and hour and then finish separating them by mooshing them about in your hands. The nice thing about this is that you get to lick your hands before you wash them.

What? Of course you want to lick them. It would be depraved to waste that good flavor in soap and water. Of course, that's easy for me to say. Nobody is here to catch me at it except Ralph and I don't see how he could disapprove when you consider what he licks.

What's next? Well, you put all those incredibobble nuts in an air-tight container or a sealable plastic bag and put them in the refrigerator until you're ready to use them.

Okay. You store what's left after you sample enough to be sure your high standards of culinary wickedness have been met.

How will you use them? Let me count the ways. Besides the fine art of munching indiscriminately, try throwing a handful in your next tossed salad. Bliss. I am seriously considering multiple batches of this stuff for Christmas pressies. Hell, it might even entice Sean Connery. In the meantime, as a topping on ice cream or cakes or pies, candied nuts are hard to beat. In fact, the main reason I made this batch was so I'd have some to sprinkle on top of a banana cream pie.

Yes. And I'll tell you about that tomorrow. Any more decadence tonight would simply not be -- uhmm -- moderate.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Feeding Time

Okay, Coffee Mates, before we go any further I just want to make it clear -- some of my dearest friends are wolves (you know who you are). I'm going on the record with this just in case the following story somehow gives anyone the erroneous impression that wolves are in my metaphorical doghouse. So to speak.

This is a story I've long loved. If you google "two wolves legend" or anything similar you will find plenty of Native American sites that feature it. There is some variation but the basic story goes like this ...

An old Grandfather listened with sympathy when his grandson, full of anger, told of a friend who had done him an injustice.

"Let me tell you a story," Grandfather said. "I, too, at times have felt great hatred and anger for those who have taken so much, with no sorrow for what they do. But hate wears you down and does not hurt your enemy. It is like taking poison yourself while wishing it would kill your enemy.

"I have struggled with these feelings many times. It is as if there are two wolves inside me. One is good and does no harm. He lives in harmony with all around him and does not take offense when no offense was intended. He will only fight when it is right to do so, and in the right way."

"But the other wolf ... ah! The littlest thing will send him into a fit of temper. He fights everyone, all of the time, for no good reason. He cannot think clearly because his anger and hate are so great. It is a helpless anger for it will change nothing."

"Sometimes it is hard to live with those two wolves inside me for both of them try to dominate my spirit."

Terribly concerned, the boy asked, "Which one will win, Grandfather?"

Grandfather smiled and said quietly, "The one I feed."


I'm passing this story along because it looks to me as though the Appalling Palin has been feeding her own hateful wolf extra rations. If that wasn't bad enough, she's trying to feed everyone else's hateful wolves, too.

And, dear Lord, just listen to her. She is loving it. It's as though she believes she's been awarded a kind of 007 designation for character assassination (forgive me, James Bond) and she's going to push it all the way without a thought to collateral damage. At a time when most folks are feeling insecure and betrayed, more than anything we need what brings us together to climb out of the abyss. We most certainly do NOT need the kind of rhetoric that divides and destroys by feeding the hateful wolf of fear and anger and mob mentality.

That said, I have to admit I'm having trouble with which wolf I'm feeding my own self. There is, for instance, my unseemly glee when I fantasized dumping about a thousand fire ants in Palin's pantyhose. Let her pay for THAT rape kit! You betcha. Wink, wink.

Okay. I'm going to work really hard at staying upbeat and positive. I'm going to feed my good wolf and I hope everyone else does likewise because it would be terribly humiliating to find we've let ourselves be manipulated by someone so patently morally bankrupt. Look at the little wolf in the photo below. Such a sweetie. Let's feed that one and watch it grow.

Note: There is a wonderful web site called All About Wolves that features free downloadable photos of that cool critter. That has been my source for the above photos. Go see. Enjoy.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Cukoo's Nest, Revisited

"Society as a whole benefits immeasurably from a climate in which all persons, regardless of race or gender, may have the opportunity to earn respect, responsibility, advancement and remuneration based on ability." ~ Sandra Day O’Connor

Other than a presidential election, can there possibly be very many activities that will make you certain the inmates are truly running the joint? Even given the ever-widening gap between ethical politics (oxymoron alert) and Politics As Practiced, the utterly ludicrous course this campaign has taken since Sarah Palin was selected as John McCain’s running mate is surely a sign that Hell has frozen over like a wooly mammoth in a glacier. (Not to worry – with global warming, the glacier will be releasing Hell sooner or later.)

What were they thinking? Did McCain and Company cynically believe such a photogenic, personable female (yes, the camera does indeed love her) would (a) automatically pull in the female vote because Palin is a female and (b) automatically pull in the male vote because Palin is a “hottie” female? If that’s where they were coming from, they’d better get a new tour guide because this road is getting rocky real fast. I sincerely hope most people – female and male – are smarter than that.

Those of you who have kindly shared with me a mug or two of the sacred brew over the past few years – you know I rarely get political on this blog. I’m usually very wary of pressing my opinions on others. If we agree, I’d be preaching to the choir. If we disagree, we probably aren’t going to change each other’s minds and we run the risk of straining perfectly good friendships. Besides, let’s face it – this is not a blog that is read by vast numbers of people, no matter what their persuasion.

Still, sometimes I feel something is so terribly, vitally, utterly important that I just HAVE to stand up and be counted. This is one of those times so please bear with me, Coffee Mates. For the last two-plus weeks, I’ve been digging everywhere I can to find out who Sarah Palin really is and what qualifies her to be our vice president, if not (shudder) our president. At best, the news is not good. At worst, it’s terrifying. At least, that’s the way it looks to my mind.

But you make up your own minds. If it’s of any use to you, I highly recommend this most absolutely kickin' Alaskan web site, Mudflats. This woman writes with intelligence, humor and, I believe, fairness. If you scroll back through the entries since Palin hit the headlines, I think you’ll see what I mean. Be sure to read the (mostly) thoughtful comments following each of her posts. You certainly won’t be bored. Another site that may be helpful is the very new Women Against Sarah Palin site. Letter after letter from people who are angry, horrified and/or insulted by what is perceived as a cynical, self-serving and dangerous choice. (The above Sandra Day O'Connor photo and quote were "borrowed" from that site. Thanks, folks.)

Your mileage may vary. That’s as it should be. Different strokes for different folks. I just hope the majority of us choose the strokes that will, in the long run, be healing and productive for ALL of us.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Somebody Else Is Cooking -- Yay!

As much as I enjoy fooling around in the kitchen, you had better believe I absolutely quiver with joy when someone else is slamming those pots and pans around and producing meals that enhance my bliss status. Earlier this evening I got to enjoy just such an occasion. My brother and his wife are here on their annual vacation and they took me to dinner in Bandon. We opted for the Crow's Nest, which is the upstairs lounge affiliated with the elegant downstairs Wheelhouse restaurant.

The Crow's Nest has windows overlooking the boat basin with a table ledge beneath them so you can eat your meal while enjoying the view. The above picture is what we beheld while moaning and groaning in ecstasy through our calamari and crab appetizers. By the time we had put away the dinners that followed, the lights were coming on outside and there was a red-tinged fog bank veiling the sunset.

I had a tender, juicy chicken breast that was smothered with a cilantro-feta-pesto that was simply to die for, accompanied by steamed mixed veggies and roasted red potatoes. My brother keeps nagging me every year to try something else besides the chicken. For some reason, I always choose a chicken dish from any menu we peruse. It isn't that I've never done other things. I like prawns and crab and various fish offerings. It's just that there are always those intriguing chicken dishes to tantalize and tempt me -- and I can resist anything but temptation.

Especially when somebody else is doing the cooking. Not to mention the cleanup after.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Kneading & Needing

See that measuring cup piled with brown sugar? I just wanted to show you that making your own brown sugar produces an end result that is just as fluffy-light and moist as a bag of freshly opened brown sugar bought at the store.

See, I was about to embark on a cookie-making gig and it required half a cup of brown sugar. Oops! I'm out of brown sugar. I had heard you could add molasses to regular granulated sugar as a substitute -- and I do have molasses. Didn't recall measurements so a quickie Google run ensued. There are variations on the measurements but what I used was 2 tablespoons of molasses to 1 cup of granulated sugar.

The source of this particular recipe said to mix with a fork and store extra in a resealable plastic bag. Another source said to just add the molasses to the wet ingredients in the recipe to save the extra mixing. Since you have to pack brown sugar down firm when you measure it, I thought that latter method might not be as accurate so I opted for the mixing. I'm sure a fork -- or even a pastry cutter -- would do the job faster but I put a cup of sugar in a resealable sandwich bag, added the molasses, made sure it was sealed up tight and then just kneaded the bag until the sugar was evenly blended. Next time I'll use the faster method but it was fascinating to watch the sugar slowly transform as I worked the bag.

Here's the irony: this brown sugar "substitute" isn't really a substitute at all. All these years I thought brown sugar was simply sugar that hadn't been refined as much as the white. For certain categories of "natural" sugars, that's true. But the brown sugar we buy in our grocery stores is most likely to be the end result of granulated sugar that has had molasses added back in. Exactly like what I just did with my handy-dandy sandwich bag!

Which means I scratched brown sugar off my grocery list and added molasses. Heck of a deal.

So -- on to the cookie gig. On July 9th, the NY Times printed an article and accompanying recipe about and for chocolate chip cookies. It spread like a happy virus across the food blogosphere so you can't hardly check into a foodie site without seeing mention of these scrumptious goodies. Although I didn't follow their particular recipe, I did pay attention to the "secrets" they revealed in the article, such as a very light sprinkle of coarsely ground sea salt on top of the dough just before baking. Also, although I baked a dozen of the cookies right away, the rest of the dough will be kicking back and relaxing in the refrigerator for a day or two to see if the resulting cookies are indeed as superior as they claim. I figure it can't hurt -- and, for the first time, I don't feel guilty about not baking up the whole batch of dough in one fell swoop. Yay!

The recipe I sort of used is from Smitten Kitchen and she posted some luscious photos, too. I'll copy it here more or less as she laid it out because she's nice enough to provide amounts in grams for those of you across the Pond. You'll want to check it out at her site too, though, because I tweaked it a bit here.

Tweakable Chocolate Chip Cookies

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (120 grams) firmly packed light brown sugar
8 tablespoons (1 stick) (115 grams) unsalted butter
1 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla (she called for 1 teaspoon)
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
2 tablespoons plain yogurt (optional -- for moistness)
1 1/4 cup (175 grams) all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt -- or 1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 1/2 cups (200 grams) semisweet chocolate chips
1 cup (130 grams) walnuts or pecans, toasted and chopped fine

Put rack at upper third level in oven and preheat to 300 fairy height, 150 centipede.

Mix butter and sugars until smooth. I melted the butter instead of cubing it cold like she did. Mix in the egg, vanilla, baking soda and, if using, yogurt. Stir together flour and salt, mix into batter. Fold in chocolate chips and nuts. After the little mounds of dough had been placed on the cookie sheet, I put a light sprinkle of coarsely ground sea salt on top of each mound. I have one of those little bottles with its own grinder top that works perfectly for this.

Using a small ice cream scoop or 2 tablespoons, plop mounds of dough on a lightly oiled cookie sheet (or use parchment paper or a silicone mat) and bake for about 15 minutes. Everyone's oven seems to be a bit different so you might want to watch closely toward the end of the baking time. You don't want to cook them too crispy in the oven or they'll get horridly hard on you when they cool. Let them rest for a minute or two on the cookie sheet when you remove it from the oven. Then put them on a rack to cool completely.

I usually do just one pan of cookies at a time, in case I feel the need to tweak the dough for some reason. The first half-dozen cookies were fine but I thought they needed something. Aha! I grabbed 1/2 cup of my beloved dried cranberries, chopped them to little bits and folded them in. Believe me, cranberries share the same "marriage made in heaven" quality with chocolate as raspberries. The second half-dozen cookies were an improvement, with the delightful little flavor bursts from the cranberries.

There may be a bit more tweaking in the future of this batch of dough. I'm wondering about the flour. You know that some days, depending on the humidity, you need more or less flour than what is called for. Also, that 2 tablespoons of yogurt I added may have made the dough a bit looser than it should be. Keeping it in the refrigerator between batches helps but these cookies, though tender crispy outside and soft and chewy inside, tend to spread a bit more than I'm used to. Tomorrow I may add about 1/4 cup more flour. We'll see.

The cookies came out more of a caramel brown than pale golden. That's because I only had 1/2 cup of chocolate chips but I had a cup's worth of a solid semi-sweet chocolate bar I chopped up. The chopping reduced some of the choccy to powder which, of course, went into the dough just like the bigger chunks. And that's how come these cookies have a better tan.

And there you have it -- my Friday session of kneading (the brown sugar) and needing (a choccy fix). Do I know how to head into a weekend or what?

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Not Your Mother's Noodle

Question: When is a noodle not a noodle?

Answer: When it's a zoodle!

Have you tried them yet? Zoodles, I mean. Coffee Mates, this is so cool, so tasty and SO fun, you've just got to give it a shot. Take yourself a nice firm zucchini and, by one method or another, cut it into julienne strips. You can even just slice off flat strips with a potato peeler. I used my trusty V-slicer mandoline with the small julienne blade for the results you see above. At first glance, the strips look just like the square Chinese noodles.

You can use this treatment on other veggies, too but the ubiquitous zucchini seems to get the most attention, perhaps because they end up flexible like cooked noodles rather than rigid like matchstick french fries. Which leads me to another question ... if julienned zucchinis are called zoodles, wouldn't julienned potatoes be called poodles? I'm just asking.

Anyway, you can use your zoodles pretty much any way you'd be inclined to use pasta. You can have them raw -- as I did in the salad pictured above -- or you can cook them as I did with the Sorta Spaghetti you see below.

I zoodled one zucchini that was something like 6 or 7 inches long. Should have picked up more zukes but how did I know? Anyway, I threw some of the zoodles in a salad bowl and added finely grated carrots, chopped smoked turkey, chopped tomato and a glob of the dilled yogurt mustard from yesterday. I forgot to add some minced onion but it didn't matter. That was my lunch and it was lovely.

By the way, about grating the carrots? What I had was baby carrots. Do you know how fast you can shred your knuckles when you're trying to grate those little old baby carrots? It's shocking, folks. Just shocking. Since I was not terribly enthused about shedding blood today, I thunk and thunk about it -- and came up with a brilliant solution. Got a good grip on the base of each baby carrot with my trusty needle-nose pliers and whizzed right through the grating session just like I knew what I was doing. When the carrot got reduced to what the pliers were gripping, I had myself a nice little nubbin to munch while moving on to the next carrot.

The balance of the zoodles went into my Sorta Spaghetti. "Sorta" because I didn't have the makings for spaghetti sauce so I made a quick batch of Whatever-It-Is in a small sauce pan on LOW heat. I mixed a cup of tomato-chipotle bouillon, 1/2 cup of yogurt and a cup of grated colby/jack cheese, stirring until the cheese was melted. Oh! I also added a half-teaspoon of Realemon juice because I read somewhere that vinegar or lemon juice prevents the melted cheese from getting stringy. It works.

On the other burner, I had sauteed some diced onion and chopped smoked turkey in a bit of olive oil. When the sauce was ready, I poured it over the onion/turkey mixture and let it simmer just a bit. Then I threw in the rest of the zoodles and let everything cook for maybe another couple of minutes. The zoodles were still crispy-tender when I turned off the heat.

Dang, I said to myself. I do believe I've made twice as much sauce as I needed. Then I had a second thought. Actually, the sauce was just right. I simply needed more zoodles. Ah well. We live and learn, don't we? I had all the zoodles for dinner -- bliss -- and tomorrow I'll add the bowl of leftover rice to the leftover sauce and, shazaam! More bliss. See how these things work out?

Just so you can doodle a bit with the zoodle gig, here's a link to the Health Discovery website and one of the forum pages. The Spirooli they're talking about is a kitchen gadget that spiral cuts veggies and fruits and is often used for making zoodles. Scroll down the page a bit to entry #8 and read the loooooong list of zoodle ideas offered by Aspire. I printed that part off for future reference for myself. Lots of good stuff there.

On a more serious note, our friend Bonnie went into the hospital today so they could do something about the painful problem she's been having with her back. Let's send plenty of healing mojo (aka prayer) her way. She's just been way too miserable for far too long. Time for fixin'!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Midnight Snackless

Well, I'm just having fun with all kinds of new stuff. For one thing, I'm discovering that terrific yogurt mustard from yesterday is very versatile, according to the seasoning you mix into it. Today, for instance, I gave it a good shot of lemon-dill seasoning with most excellent results. I also used the last of my red wine vinegar to make this batch so that item went on my shopping list for the next market run.

The other new "stuff" -- new to me, that is -- was learning to poach a chicken breast. I must probably be the last person in the world to poach anything. Don't ask me why. I've just never done it. Not even an egg. Now that I've tried it, I'm thinking, "Gee, how did I manage to miss out on such a neat way of cooking chicken?"

And it is. Earlier this evening I poached one chicken breast in a mixture of water, white wine and assorted spices like onion powder and chipotle and cumin and I don't know what all. It came out tender and juicy and very tasty. Cut it in slices, tossed it with some sliced tomato, topped it with a big glob of the dilled yogurt mustard and served it with a side of rice that had been cooked in tomato-chipotle bouillon. Made for a light but totally satisfying meal. But there is one thing wrong.

I don't have anything left over for my midnight snack.

Oh! Before I forget, John, did you catch the comment from Anonymous after the post about Swaptree? Just in case you missed it -- and that goes for the rest of you on that side of the pond -- go to Read It Swap It. It looks like very much the same sort of setup. Anonymous, whoever (whomever?) you may be, thank you for the tip!

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

All Wrapped Up

I love this photo. There's just something about widdle bunnies, isn't there? Even when they're happily devouring your garden, they're cute about it. In any case, I hauled this little guy into service because I want to express applause for a recipe I got out of Rosie Daley's book, "In The Kitchen With Rosie," which I featured yesterday.

First, I need to tell you this is a most excellent recipe book. Full of chatty stuff and good tips, all as bonus items behind some of the most dynamite healthy recipes you'll find. What's neat to note is that the book was published back in 1994 -- and it isn't even a minute out of date. I can hardly wait to try some of her other goodies but I am sufficiently stuffed at the moment to be willing to wait.

Being in the mood for wraps -- which I think is just a yuppie name for a type of sandwich most often made with tortillas -- I scored a package of flour tortillas at the market today. Unfortunately, there was only one package left and it was of those monster 12-inch fellers and that is not a resealable bag! Good thing I have plenty of duct tape.

Anyway, I ended up making two of those big boys -- the tortilla wraps, I mean. One is waiting in the refrigerator for later nom, nom, nomming. Half of the other is covered and standing in the wings for my usual midnight snack. The missing half is currently distending my happy tummy. And for those of you who are being careful about what you eat, this wrap stuff is so healthy it ought to be criminal. Consider: one 12" flour tortilla -- 360 calories. Divide that by 2 because I wimped out at the halfway mark so -- 180 calories.

Okay, I don't have a clue about the calorie count of what I put inside the wraps but I think it was probably quite reasonable -- one slice of smoked turkey, half of a caramelized Walla Walla onion (no sugar to caramelize it, just patient, slow cooking of thinly sliced onion rings over medium heat), several thin slices of a vine-ripened tomato, half of a thinly sliced small zucchini that has been sauteed to tenderness in a bare teaspoon of olive oil and seasoned with Mrs. Dash chipotle seasoning and a final layer of shredded colby jack cheese.

Okay, the cheese probably has as many calories as everything else put together but you can leave that out and still have a fantastic sandwich. But there is one other item that puts this concoction over the top -- and that's what I got from Rosie. (I hope I'm using only a respectful amount from the book and not breaking copyright laws. What they call a reasonable quote, I guess.) Anyway, this is the dip she serves with artichokes and she says there's only 63 calories per serving, including the 'choke (recipe serves 4).

Rosie Daley's Yogurt Mustard

1/2 cup plain nonfat yogurt
1 teaspoon Dijon-style mustard
1/8 teaspoon lemon pepper
1 teaspoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons minced shallot (1 small shallot)

Rosie suggested running the ingredients through the blender until smooth but I just stirred everything a bit with a spoon and put it in the refrigerator until I was ready to use it. Also, I didn't have any lemon pepper so I crumbled in one of my little chipotle cubes, which is supposed to equal one chipotle pepper. Didn't have a shallot either but 2 tablespoons of dried onion flakes plumped up just fine by the time I hauled the dip out for action.

What I did was slather some of it in the middle of the tortilla before laying down the slice of smoked turkey. Then, after everything else was stacked up, I globbed a bit more on as dressing and rolled the whole conglomeration up nice and neat. The finished wrap looked like a burrito on steroids, all bulked up and ready to kick sand in somebody's face.

I cannot TELL you what an amazing difference that sauce makes in the sandwich. If I'd had any left over after building the two wraps, I'd have used it for dip while eating them. Note to self: double Yogurt Mustard recipe next time. Correction: triple recipe next time.

I urge you to try this. It's astonishingly delicious, quick and easy and I'm thinking it's incredibly versatile. Imagine all the things you could dip in it -- without guilt. Now that's worth a serious round of clappity-clappity.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Swappin' & Grinnin'

No, I'm not advertising the book -- although it is a very good one. I popped the picture up there because it's the first book I scored from a terrific online site that specializes in the good old-fashioned art of trading. If you love books as much as I do, I think you'll want to check this place out.

It's called Swaptree and it's set up so members (the membership is free) can trade for books, DVDs, CDs or games and all you pay is the postage for sending off the item you're trading. They make it easy for you, too. All you have to do is enter the ISBN number or the barcode number and they'll pop up a cover picture of the item, plus basic information about it -- such as whether a book is hard cover or paperback, year published, author, etc. Then you rate the condition of the item and explain any dings or wear it may have.

As soon as you've entered the information on your Have list, signifying it's something you want to trade, you're told how many items are available to choose from. Sometimes you enter an item and, for that moment in time, there isn't anyone looking for it. Not a problem. It will happen, sooner or later. On the other hand, if you happen to enter an item lots of folks are lusting after, you will find yourself wading through hundreds of choices. The more things you have on your Have list, the more possible trades there are available.

But you don't stop there. You can browse through all the categories and click on anything you might want and it will be placed on your Want list. Now Swaptree can start working its magic, matching traders with each other. It can even set up three-way trades, which is pretty cool. Or maybe you see something you want right now. You don't mess around with the Want list. You click on Get Now! By the way, you aren't limited to category trades. If it's available, you can trade a book, for instance, for a DVD. Or whatever.

They have a rating system like eBay so you have a pretty good idea whether the trade partner will be okay or not -- and you'll have incentive to earn good ratings yourself. Swaptree encourages you to ship out traded items fast -- and they make that easy for you, too. They set it up so you can print off already addressed shipping labels right from the site, on regular printer paper, and will bill your credit card once a month for all the postage you use the previous month. Even with the $1.00 fee they charge at billing time, you still pay significantly less postage than you would if you ordered a used item from Amazon -- and the traded item itself is free! (You can opt to do the postage thing yourself if you want to.)

At first you're limited to 2 concurrent trades but that changes as you participate. I've only made 3 trades and they've upped my limit to 5 concurrents -- and there hasn't even been time for ratings yet. But I'm glad they're holding me down. I start browsing the available books and it's like being turned loose in a chocolate factory. My Inner Greedy Gertie tries to take over and she would put me in the poor house in a hurry if there wasn't some kind of damper on her enthusiasm.

If you will excuse me, while you're checking out the Swaptree playground, I'm going to distract Greedy Gertie by making her help me find a fantastic recipe in the new book. When one must accommodate greed, one can profit from re-ordering priorities.