About Me

I have been cooking my way through life for over 50 years, beginning with mud pies as a child. I've turned a corner now and feel a Renaissance in my life. Recipes and Random Thoughts is my personal spin in a blog about how to prepare good food and how it prepares you for life. I want to share with you, honest to goodness food punctuated with perspective from the special memories and moments that have marked my journey.

Monday, October 27, 2014

The Dreaded Tuna Noodle Casserole - Redeemed

I knew it when I came in from play at the neighbor's house.  Daddy's car was missing and the kitchen was dark and quiet.  There was no sign of dinner except for the little red light on the oven.  Then my mother appeared in her slip with rollers in her hair.  That was it, they where going out and I would be left at home with a baby-sitter.  Daddy had gone to pick up some dried up spinster or widow Mother had spied at church.  My Mother  took the dreaded tuna noodle casserole from the oven and said I could eat on the rug in front of the den TV and watch Flintstones and Jetsons if I didn't spill anything and added I could stay up until 10.  Then she vanished to her bedroom to finish dressing, painting her eyelids in peacock blue eyeshadow, dowsing herself in Bal de Versaille perfume and donning high heals and rhinestone earrings.  I never had one of the many teenage baby-sitters in our neighborhood who brought the Elvis or Buddy Holly records, played with your Barbie and giggled on the phone with a boy.  Oh no! Just the retired missionary or elderly Sunday school helper who couldn't even play Pick up Sticks or draw with crayons.  So I sat sulking in front of the TV, picking at the dreaded tuna noodle casserole so many woman found miraculous  in the Campbell Soups advertisements in Ladies Home Journal.  Boiled spaghetti, a can of tuna, a can of cream of mushrooms soup topped with cheese.  Need I say more?  I ignored the babysitter as much as possible and watched TV until she nodded off.  Then snuck to my parents bedroom to try and refashion myself after mother's hair and make up and spill a lot of perfume all over me.  The baby-sitter and I rarely spoke.  I brushed my teeth and went to bed quietly just to avoid them.

Eventually, the golden arches showed up in my town and drive thru replaced the DTNC (dreaded tuna noodle casserole).  Daddy called McDonalds the tomain tavern and told me I'd have pimples if I continued to eat French fries and milk shakes.  So what?  I loved the action as much as the food and my mother sure wasn't opposed to it.  The teenagers and college students where there and it was as close an encounter as I could get with their heavenly world for the time being.

So why should I try and redeem that loathsome DTNC? Just call me sentimental or I like a challenge.
Sunday night is typically a one pot meal at my house and this fits the bill.  You'll have to open a can of tuna but not a can of soup.  I have to admit I had leftover broth from a scallop dish that really helped flavor this but clam juice is a decent substitute.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

8 oz Farfalle, cooked according to package directions and drained
12 oz can chunk lite water packed tuna
4 tbls butter + more for casserole or ramekins
1 cup milk
1/4 cup all purpose flour
1 cup clam juice (fresh fish stock if you have it)
2 sliced green onions
1 cup frozen green peas
8 oz sliced mushrooms
1 tsp fish sauce
2 tbls dry sherry
1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
1 cup Panko bread crumbs mixed with 2 tbls melted butter

Melt the butter and sauté the mushrooms until soft and they release moisture.  Add the sliced green onion and cook 2 more minutes.  Add the flour and combine.  Add the milk and clam juice slowly to make a thick sauce. Season with salt and pepper and add the sherry and frozen peas.  Butter ramekins or casserole and  spread the Farfalle evenly on the bottom.  Pour the tuna mixture over the pasta and top with Parmesan.  Bake for 30 minutes and top with the buttered Panko. Bake 5-10 more minutes until golden.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Tips for Caramel Confidence

dry method with butter & cream
Caramel is sugar cooked to a temperature where it breaks down to its components glucose and fructose and then dairy ingredients added, most often, cream and butter, then flavorings (vanilla and salt).  Cooked sugar can take the form of brittle, icing, sauce, or candy, to name the most familiar. I've already published a caramel sauce recipe(Sept. 15 2014-Apple Walnut Cake with Caramel Sauce) and frankly, any form of caramel takes practice, so these are some tips that will give you confidence when cooking sugar.  I usually get it right 99% of the time but there's that occasional moment  of distraction or something in the chemistry  that turns my favorite dessert sauce to a burned, lumpy nasty mess in a second.  There are some basics of cooked sugar that should lessen your chance of disaster when attempting a caramel of any style.  No matter how you make your caramel, it will add a fabulous complexity of flavor to any dish.

There a two methods for making caramel: wet and dry.  The dry method is simply heating sugar in a dry pan until the sugar liquefies and browns.  This requires careful attention to heat and color without a candy thermometer.  Use a wide surface heavy fry pan for this method so the sugar is distributed in a thin even layer. This encourages more even browning.  The technique for moving the melting sugar may be swirling the fry pan and never stirring or stirring the sugar a little in the beginning to get the flow going but after that point a stirring device will cause crystallization to form around the spoon so swirling is desirable as soon as the sugar starts to liquefy. Add, butter, cream and flavoring (salt & vanilla) once the sugar liquefies and you have a caramel sauce.  The finished, cooled sauce should be smooth and thick enough to fall in a ribbon from a spoon.  It will thicken more as it cools.

perfect dry method caramel sauce
The wet method adds a little water to sugar,  then boils the mixture to a certain temperature.  Using a heavy, wide sauce pan you must always be on guard to keep any crystals from forming on the side of the pan because it can cause a chain reaction and turn the clear syrup to opaque and grainy.  The wet method is a little more forgiving as the water slows the heating and there are various techniques to avoiding crystallization. Washing down the sides of the pan with a damp pastry brush or covering the pot with a lid to trap steam will dissolve those crystals.  Don't stir the syrup until it starts to show color.  This is an indication 80% of the water has evaporated.  Use a candy thermometer for accuracy and keep a bowl of cold water handy to cool the temperature down when you see the right color.  Submerge the bottom of the pan for a quick cooling method.

wet method cooking with a thermometer

Know what temperature you need.  Caramelization begins around 320 degrees when the sugar melts.  At 340-350 degrees, the color progresses to medium brown and, when cooled, will still be hard but not brittle.  At 365-380 the caramel is dark brown and will cool to a softer texture.  This is where to add cream and butter, etc. to make sauces or candy.  Anything above 410 degrees is "black caramel"  typically only used by professional bakers.

I prefer the dry method for sauces and in making caramel. For this post both techniques did develop a few lump which I just strained out with a gravy stainer.  Lowering the temperature will usually help them dissolve. Any recipe could dictate which method you need but it is the dedicated home cook who can master both, so give both some effort.  Your friends and family will be impressed.

Beware of molten sugar.  It's hotter than boiling water and can adhere to the skin and cause serious burns!!  Don't taste until it cools.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

The Table Favor

It's nice to add a table favor for a special occasion meal. We always had a table favor for Christmas Eve dinner.  It was usually personalized with your initials and someone had gone to a good bit of trouble to make it.  My favorite, will always be the red blinking Rudolf nose we all unwrapped with dessert.  It seemed to suit the festive atmosphere after too many toasts.  Our friends wore them as they drove home that night and got quite a few stares when they stopped for a red light.  As children, birthday parties were notorious for goodie bags and favors. Sometimes, I thought it was the only reason to accept an invitation and the contents of the goodie bag were dumped out immediately when you got in your parents' car and examined and rated. It only seemed fair to me, that if I was to grace a party with my presence and bring a wrapped gift, I should receive something for the trouble.  Brat!

I used to do a lot of very clever decorated cookies, thanks to the inspiration of Martha Stewart.  I sold quite a few as a "little something" at Valentines or a stocking stuffer at Christmas.  Wrapped in little cellophane bags and cinched with a bit of raphia, they where a hit.  I've long since retired from that labor intensive endeavor but recently had a request from an old friend for a bridesmaids luncheon table favor.  I only do these for special people when I'm in the mood and this was one of those occasions.  Designer wedding cookies have become soooooo elaborate but I found just the thing using a heart shaped cutter and just white icing.  Each is an individual styled gown bodice.  They are cute and the MOB (mother of the bride) gave that squeal of delight that let me know I'd hit the mark.

I'm looking forward to resuming decorated cookies for my grandchildren and anyone else deserving.  They are definitely a labor of love and quite gratifying.  A pot roast or souflee is easier.  A sabayon is elegant and sushi takes skill but nothing satisfies my culinary ego like a pretty decorated cookie.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Butternut Squash Risotto with Baby Leeks

It always pays to have a well stocked pantry and freezer. I'm usually in the kitchen early enough to give dinner thorough consideration and my complete attention, but not today.  I had no plan and got home later than usual but with my first butternut squash of the season and some baby leeks I could whip up one of my favorite comfort meals - butternut squash risotto.  I've never seen "baby" leeks before so I had to grab them, but regular leeks or 1 cup of diced onion works just as well. I always have olive oil and wine on hand so keeping Arborio rice, Pancetta, Parmesan, fresh thyme and homemade chicken stock readily available insured a delicious and cozy evening meal  for two with just a quick stop at the grocery for the fresh vegetables.

Risotto doesn't have a reputation as an efficient meal but it can be done in about 45 minutes if you use the narrow end of a larger butternut squash and save the bulb end for later (skipping the scooping of the seeds).  Use a vegetable peeler and a sharp knife to make short work of the prep.  The baby size leeks were quick to slice and chop (remember the folds of the leek must be thoroughly washed for sand but this baby size had none).  I thawed the stock in the microwave and warmed it in a separate sauce pan until ready to use but store bought is fine.  I had already grated a good bit of a chunk of Parmesan and had it ready in a zip lock bag.  Now this is NOT a Rachel Ray 30 minute meal or a Ree Drummond 16 minute meal.  Adding the chicken stock in 1 ladle at a time does take a bit of patience, so have a glass of wine and unwind.  If you want to prepare this in advance, incorporate 2 cups of the stock, cover and then finish the remaining stock just before serving.  It takes 3-5 minutes to incorporate each addition of stock.

1 tbls olive oil
2 oz diced Pancetta
1 tbls butter and more as necessary
2 cups diced butternut squash (1/2 inch cubes)
1 cup white part leek sliced to 1/4 inch (or substitute,1 cup diced onion)
1 tsp chopped fresh thyme (or substitute 1/2 tsp dried thyme)
1 1/2 cups Arborio rice
1 cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
salt & pepper

In a large fry pan, heat the oil and add the Pancetta over medium heat.  Cook Pancetta until fat is rendered and meat has just turned brown.  Remove Pancetta and drain on paper toweling.  Pour off all but 1 tbls fat.  Reduce the heat and add the butter and butternut squash and saute' until slightly browned, then add the sliced leeks and thyme and cook another minute or two. Season the vegetables with salt and pepper. Remove vegetables and set aside.  Add more butter and the rice and cook stirring until the grains look milky white.  Deglaze the pan with white wine. Stirring up and loosen all brown bits.  When the wine is almost absorbed, add chicken stock 1 ladle at a time, stirring constantly.  Add the next ladle as the liquid is absorbed after each addition.  When all the liquid is added, return the Pancetta, vegetables and the Parmesan and combine.  Add a little water if necessary.  Adjust the seasoning. The rice should be creamy.