every girl needs a greek chorus

a blog about hope


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Let Freedom Ring

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If it doesn’t rain tomorrow night, I’ll gather with friends for a barbecue and fireworks display. Everyone will bring a dish to share, which means that I’ll find at least one new recipe that I can’t live without.

What will I contribute?  Appetizer, snack, side, salad, or dessert?  Last year, I took Red Velvet Cupcakes, reflecting the patriotic colors.    Although the grilling will be continuous, the food, wisely, is served indoors, but, since the event lasts from the dinner hour until the last rocket explodes after dark, I want to take something that holds up. Mayonnaise spoils easily.  Salad wilts after it’s dressed.  What could be more American (U.S., I mean, with apologies to my friends in Canada and the rest of the Western Hemisphere) than corn?  The other hemisphere may think of it as fodder for animals, but we know how scrumptious it is in so many different ways.

With friends, we once rented the cooking school LaVarenne at Château du Feÿ in Burgundy for a grand week of eating, cooking, and drinking wine with four other couples.  One evening, the doyenne herself, Anne Willan, invited us for a glass of wine and tour of the grounds.  She showed us the gardens and told us that when she instructed her French gardener to plant sweet corn, he was appalled to learn that they intended to eat it.  Happily, as food missionaries, they converted the Frenchman to eating corn!

Grilled veal chop marinated in lemon, olive oil, and rosemary, a perfect foil for the spicy corn pudding.

Simple, grilled veal chop marinated in lemon, olive oil, and rosemary, a perfect foil for the spicy corn pudding.

So, I think I’ll make this savory corn pudding, which works wonderfully with grilled food.  Over the years, I’ve adapted several recipes into this one.  In its most elegant version, I make a sauce and garnish with okra, which won’t work for a barbecue buffet, but the spices in the pudding make it appetizing, even at room temperature.  I use Silver Queen corn, which makes my pudding a creamy color with bright spots of red bell pepper, tomato, and green herbs but golden yellow corn works, too.

Summer Corn Pudding

Ingredients:

3 Tablespoons butter

¼ cup minced sweet onion

3 cups of fresh corn kernels (about 6-8 ears)

1 ½ cups half-and-half

3 eggs, beaten

1 teaspoon sugar

¼ teaspoon allspice

½ teaspoon cumin

⅛ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

¼ teaspoon cayenne

1 ½ teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons fresh lime juice

1 red bell pepper, roasted, skin removed, chopped

1 Tablespoon fresh flat leaf (aka Italian) parsley, chopped

2 Tablespoons fresh cilantro, chopped

Garnish:

¼ cup seeded, chopped tomato

1 Tablespoon snipped chives

Preheat oven to 350°.  Butter a 2-quart round or square baking dish; set aside.

In a medium skillet, melt butter over medium heat.  Add onion and sauté until soft.  Stir in 2 cups of corn kernels, lower heat and cook for two minutes.  Remove from heat and set aside.

In a blender, blend together eggs, half-and-half, sugar, nutmeg, cumin, ground pepper, cayenne, salt, lime juice, and remaining one cup of the corn kernels until smooth.  Stir in bell pepper, parsley, and cilantro.

Pour hot water into pan underneath the casserole dish.

Pour hot water into pan underneath the casserole dish.

Place an oblong baking pan on oven rack.  Place the buttered casserole dish in the pan.  Pour the corn mixture into the casserole.  Pour hot water into the oblong pan to a depth of halfway up the outside of the casserole dish.

Bake in the preheated oven for 1 hour and 15 minutes, until almost set (meaning that the center barely wiggles).  Remove from oven and leave in the hot water.  Let sit for 15 minutes, during which time, the center will finish cooking.  Garnish with chopped tomato and chives.


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The Mayonnaise Wars

mayonnaise-vs-miracle-whipWhat is your family eating on the Fourth?  Families have been torn asunder by variations in holiday traditions, especially by what goes on the buffet.  While we’re celebrating the Great Melting Pot that is the Land of the Free, I’ll bet that you’ll encounter some cultural variation of potato salad on that table.  (And, I hope, it will be properly refrigerated.)  A hamburger is a hamburger is a hamburger, but how our mothers or grandmothers concocted their potato salad is often debatable.  At least, it was in my family.

One of the tricks of creating and maintaining a happy relationship with another person is accepting their eating habits and preferences, and I’m not talking about meat-vs-meatless.  We may grow up liking green pepper in our meatloaf and wind up with someone who just can’t abide it.  You may grow up with mayo, while your beloved’s life was spent with Miracle Whip.  And in my case, I don’t like either one.  I was an innocent bystander in my family’s Mayonnaise Wars.

I was a really picky eater as a kid (and am still fussy).  I still eat my hamburgers plain, with nothing on them, “just meat and the bun,” as The Veterinarian used to explain to the faceless speaker at the drive-thru.  No mustard on my hot dog, even if it’s one of Detroit’s beloved “Coney Islands.”  No mayo slathered on my Philly cheesesteak — or the cheese, either, for that matter.  Just meat and grilled onions.  Bottles of ketchup and mustard last for months at my house, unless The Daughter is spending a lot of time there.  I’ve started writing the date opened on the top of my mayonnaise for my own safety, and I always open a new jar, if I’m preparing food for friends or strangers.

The Veterinarian accepted my taste (and texture) preferences and relished (pun-intended) taking anything off my plate that I wasn’t going to eat.  He was a mayo eater, on anything, tuna salad, deviled eggs, hamburgers, cheesesteaks.  My family swears by Miracle Whip, in tuna salad, deviled eggs, and egg salad.  My Sister was always in charge of the deviled eggs at Easter, which meant she made two batches, one with Miracle Whip for her and My Mother, and one with mayo for The Daughter and The Veterinarian.  I found them both abhorrent (the dressings, not my family) and accept that something creamy must be used to bind tuna salad, pasta salad, and, most of all, my celebrated Chicken Tarragon Salad.  I just don’t want to taste or feel it.

Learning to cook means that you taste as you go.  Once you’re an experienced cook, sometimes you can even smell when something’s seasoned correctly or even done.  I can see and smell when broccoli or asparagus is done.  I can see and smell when the dressing for my celebrated Chicken Tarragon salad is correct, because I can smell the appropriate amount of tarragon.  I’ll give you the recipe for my Chicken Tarragon Salad another time, but, first, let’s play with our food.

We haven't even talked about favorite mayos!

We haven’t even talked about favorite mayos!

Some dishes just don’t need a recipe, and potato salad is one of them.  I didn’t grow up eating potato salad because the only thing in it that I liked were the potatoes and the chopped celery.  Not only do I not eat mayo, but I don’t eat egg salad because I also don’t eat eggs.  Nor do I eat green pepper, raw or cooked, because it talks to me all night long instead of making the long, slow journey through my GI tract.  I avoid raw onion, unless it is really sweet, like a Vidalia.  Maui sweets are only barely acceptable.

The Veterinarian liked potato salad, and, what else are you going to serve with all-American hamburgers, hot dogs, and baked beans?  I taught myself to make potato salad by recognizing the look and smell of the dressing.  I would mix together mayo and a little prepared mustard and make him taste it.  He would say, “More mustard” or “More mayo” or whatever.  Eventually, I could tell by the smell and the color when I had achieved the correct balance.  When I could do that, I could make any quantity without measuring anything.  It was the balance that made the difference.  “Do I smell only mayo?”  Add a little mustard.  “Is the smell too sharp?”  Add a little mayo.

With July 4th right down the block, you should experiment and make your own potato salad to please yourself.  What kind of potatoes do you like?  I prefer russet/Idaho for almost every potato dish.  I like their flavor and texture.  You may like redskin or new potatoes or even fingerlings, although I would stay away from the dark purple ones with a creamy dressing, because they look disgusting together.   Scrub your potatoes and poke them with a fork.  Starting them in cold water, bring to a boil and simmer them in their skins until a sharp knife inserted into the center meets resistance.  You have to practice this one, because cooking times are dependent on the thickness and type of potatoes, 20-30 minutes. Properly cooked potatoes for salad need to be stiffer than potatoes to be mashed, riced, or baked, or they will completely collapse in the dressing.  When done, remove from the hot water and immediately rinse in cold water.  Drain and finish cooling on a rack.

When cool, you can peel the potatoes or just cut them into reasonably bite-sized chunks, small enough to fit into your mouth, big enough to be identifiable as potatoes.  Set aside.

Here comes the fun part, the dressing.  In a large bowl, combine mayonnaise and prepared mustard until you like the flavor.  For six large potatoes, I would start with one cup of your favorite chilled mayo or Miracle Whip and add one teaspoon of mustard at a time until you like the flavor.  Do you like the mustardy-taste?  Add more.  It’s like chemistry class, but you’re unlikely to cause an explosion (unless you don’t keep that mayo refrigerated).

Here’s where your potato salad becomes yours.  You can add any or all of the following ingredients.  Beyond the mayo/Miracle Whip thing, The Veterinarian liked crisply fried bacon bits in his potato salad.  My Mother likes finely chopped green pepper.  I always made my potato salad to suit me, not them, and used mayo, bacon bits, one mashed hard-boiled egg (because I hate eggs but acknowledge their contribution), chopped celery, minced sweet onion, and finely chopped red bell pepper (which isn’t bitter and doesn’t talk to me all night long).  I also season mine with coarse sea salt, freshly ground mixed peppercorns (black, white, green, and red), a little celery salt, and a little onion powder.  The latter two further disguise the mayo taste, for me.

Again, you need to taste it as you go along, and taste it just before you serve it, as the flavors will blend as they sit in the refrigerator.  I only like just enough dressing to hold all the veggies together.  If you like your potato salad creamier after you’ve tossed it all together, in a separate bowl, stir together a little more dressing and add gradually to the salad.

I’ve also seen people use fresh dill, celery seed, shredded carrots and radishes, and chopped pickle.  I even make an elegant warm potato salad that uses a little truffle oil as a condiment.  You toss warm dark purple and white fingerling potato chunks with a vinaigrette made with Champagne vinegar, a little Dijon-style mustard, 1 Tablespoon of minced shallots, and a very light olive oil, then drizzle on the truffle oil just to give it flavor.  The warm potatoes soak up the dressing and look swanky on a plate with a steak or that grilled chicken that I wrote about last week.  But it’s still potato salad, no matter how you gussy it up, and for the celebration of our nation’s declaration of independence, I think we ought to keep it humble, just potatoes and mayonnaise or Miracle Whip or whatever.

In The Mayonnaise Wars, love eventually conquered all.  For The Veterinarian’s memorial service, My Sister made 12 dozen deviled eggs, all with mayonnaise, in his honor.  It was the first platter emptied on the long reception tables with his favorite foods, including expensive French cheeses, which just goes to show you that we are a nation of folk who take comfort in the humble, so who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Let the Grills Begin!

Father’s Day is upon us!  Summer is here and so is the traditional grilling season.  It used to be a novelty to cook outside before the advent of gas grills, when men did most of the grilling.  I remember my dad building charcoal fires and fanning flames.  He would terrify My Mother by shooting lighter fluid from the bottle at coals that wouldn’t catch fire properly.  I saw a man do that with a bonfire recently.  Ah, men.  Always the heart of 12-year old boys.  Gotta love ’em.  smh

Grilling Indoors

One of the reasons that we bought our house in 1981 was its indoor grill.  A modified A-frame, it was built in 1968.  The open brick chimney goes up through the central portion of the house, dividing the living room from the kitchen/dining area.  On the living room side is a raised hearth and fireplace.  On the other side is a built-in grill.  What a luxury in the winter or on a rainy day to build a charcoal fire and grill!  Or, for Thanksgiving or Christmas, to burn a log while we eat.

About 10 years ago, we won a fancy stainless steel gas grill and put it on the deck outside our back door. The charcoal grill is rarely used any more, because it’s so easy to pop out the back door and fire up the gas grill in any kind of weather, as easy as turning on the stove.  If I decide to have Caesar salad with grilled chicken, I just fire up the grill and make my one little chicken breast half.  I wouldn’t bother if I had to make a charcoal fire.

One of my favorite recipes translates especially well to grilling at home, at a picnic, or even on a boat. The chicken transports handily in its zippered plastic bag, and the mess of the marinade is easily disposable.  Anybody can make this chicken.  You can grill it on a grill or in a grill pan,  or even bake-and-broil it.

Here’s what it takes:

1 large zippered plastic bag

1 cup prepared Dijon-style mustard

¼ cup olive oil

2 teaspoons of your favorite hot sauce (I use 1 Tablespoon Tabasco); or to taste

6-8 chicken parts (meaty parts, like legs or thighs; I always use skinless, boneless breasts)

Gas, electric, or charcoal grill; stovetop grill pan; broiler pan for oven

Instant-read meat thermometer

ONE Tablespoon

ONE Tablespoon of Tabasco — you read that right.

In the plastic bag, combine mustard, oil, and hot sauce.  Add chicken parts and securely close.  Shake chicken in mustard mixture to coat thoroughly.  Place on a pie plate or glass baking pan and refrigerate for 2-6 hours.  The pie plate keeps your refrigerator from becoming a mess, should the bag leak, and gives you something to carry the chicken to the grill.

To grill:

Season cold grill or grill/broiler pan with a little vegetable oil.  Moisten a paper towel with a little oil and, holding the towel with tongs, wipe the grill.  Oiling the grate keeps the chicken from sticking.

Preheat gas grill or oven to 350° (convection oven to 325°) OR

Preheat grill pan for 1 minute on medium-high.

Remove chicken from plastic bag (melted plastic is toxic and too chewy, in case you didn’t know) and spread mustard coating evenly over chicken.

IMG_5290Place chicken parts on grill or in grill pan, cover, and grill for 7 minutes.  Turn 1/4 to make the “diamond-shaped” grill marks and grill 3 more minutes.

Wash out the pie plate so it’s clean for the cooked chicken.  Never put cooked chicken on a dirty plate.  (Google:  salmonella)

Turn chicken over, placing thickest part of chicken closest to the heat, but not directly over the flames and grill for 7 more minutes, or until thermometer inserted into the thickest part reads 160° for boneless breasts and 165° for thighs and breasts on the bone.  If it reads less than 160, clean the thermometer and cook the chicken a little longer.  (Again, Google:  salmonella)

Test until thermometer reads 160.

Cook until thermometer reads 160.

Serve with grilled vegetables and potato salad.  Or just a hearty green salad.  Overachiever that I am, in chilly weather, I serve it with toasted walnut risotto and asparagus roasted or grilled with garlic oil.  And lots of crusty bread with dipping olive oil.  And red wine (trust me on this) or a gigantic chardonnay.

Leftover chicken is delicious on a salad or mixed with a little mayonnaise into a salad or diced up in a cream or pesto sauce over pasta.  The possibilities are endless!


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A Sweet Little Fishy Story

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Caramelized Salmon

When we adopted The Daughter, we were old.  I’m not kidding.  We were 47, which is pretty old to adopt your first child, an 8-year old.  As My Mother said, “At least she’s housebroken and has all her shots.”  We learned that there’s a perfectly good reason that young people have children; you need a lot of stamina and patience, which certainly diminishes over time.

We all had a lot of adjusting to do.  Some of it was easy.  The Veterinarian covered fixing breakfast for her every morning at the ungodly hour of 6 am, an hour when I’m not sure who I am, much less where the kitchen is located.  Our long-awaited princess would wake up to his special omelets or French toast or garnished oatmeal.  None of that oatmeal out of an envelope.  This stuff was cooked and sweetened and spiced and bathed in warm milk.  I don’t think he ever prepared himself for one of our “date nights” as well as he prepared breakfast for her.  My responsibilities included lunch, dinner, laundry, and chauffeur, the same things I’d been doing for him for 27 years.

In the beginning, the kid never grumbled about the food she was served, once we weaned her from chicken nuggets, which we did immediately.  She loved to try new foods.  A week after her arrival, we traveled with her to New Orleans on a business trip, where she told the waiter at Commander’s Palace that the Parmesan cheese being grated, tableside, onto her salad smelled like “throw up.”  Being N’Awlins, the waiter laughed and said, “It sure does, honey.”  She scarfed it down.  A month later, we knew we were in BIG trouble when we took her to the Cheesecake Factory, and she told the waiter, “I’ll have the grilled chicken Caesar with freshly grated Parmesan, please.”

We persevered in introducing her to new foods.

“Do you eat fish?”

“Uh-huh,” she shook her blond head up and down, blue eyes peering out of her little wire-rimmed glasses.  She bore an uncanny resemblance to Felicity, the American Girl doll, with her dimpled arms and cheeks.

“Do you like fresh salmon?  It’s not like that stuff in a can.  I’m going to coat it with sugar and sauté it in a hot skillet.  You’ll like it.”

Her head bobbed.

She was more than willing to eat caramelized salmon, asparagus in nutmeg butter, and herbed rice with toasted pine nuts.  I thought I was a genius.  Surely, there were few households with an 8-year old eating gourmet cuisine.

At Christmas that year, our family was invited to a “casual-chic” Christmas party at the swanky home of some benevolent friends.  She was introduced to the host’s little nephew, and the two trotted off into the big house, while we headed to greet the roast pig that was lounging on the dining room table.  About 20 minutes later, one of the guests came up to us.

“Are you with the little blond girl with the glasses?”

“Uh, yes,” The Veterinarian and I looked at each other in panic.

“I’ve never seen a child that young eat so many raw oysters.  How’d you get her to eat them?”

“She’s eating raw oysters?”

“She and a little boy are on the deck slurping them down as fast as they’re shucked.  It’s pretty funny, actually.”

We hurried outside to find her surrounded by a crowd of amused adults, poking at shellfish on a gas grill.  In 20 minutes without us, our host had taught her to eat raw oysters and steam mussels on the grill.

“These are really good,” she giggled.

“How many have you eaten?”  Pictures of partially digested shellfish reappearing on the backseat of our car swam before my eyes.  She shrugged.  “Ok, kiddo, let’s go have some potatoes or bread.  How about some bread?  Lots and lots of bread.”

As the months passed, she started to exhibit food preferences.  Food she was willing to eat when she came to live with us was suddenly unacceptable.  In the spring of her first year with us, her school’s PTA solicited favorite family recipes. Thinking I was the Best Mother Ever, I dutifully contributed our family’s favorite meal, caramelized salmon, asparagus with nutmeg butter, and herbed rice with toasted pine nuts.

“Ha!  No pasta salad recipe from this family,” I smugly typed up my contributions.  No boring cereal-based snack mix.  No crescent roll-wrapped wienie chunks.  No sirree.  We might be older than any of the other parents, but with age comes knowledge and sophistication, the kind of sophistication that can be useful to a child.  I’ll show you how to parent, you snarky people.  You won’t make room for my kid in your scout troop?  (“Your daughter should have started in first grade,” I was told, “because our troops don’t have any room for newcomers.  Maybe you should start your own troop.”)  Ha!  We don’t need your stupid scouts and your stupid cookies and dorky crafts.  Our kid plays the cello and eats fish that isn’t chopped up into “stix.”

In September, the family cookbooks were distributed and came home in The Daughter’s backpack.

“Oh, look,” I squealed like a — like a — well, like a little pig, “here’s our recipe!”  The Daughter looked over my shoulder and screwed up her face.

“Caramelized salmon?”  she asked.

“What?”

“I hate that stuff,” she shuddered.

“What do you mean you hate that stuff?  It’s our family’s favorite meal,” I protested.

“No, it isn’t.  Steak is my favorite meal.  Steak with Béarnaise and garlic mashed potatoes and broccoli.  Or spinach soufflé.”

“You don’t like asparagus with nutmeg butter?”

“Blech,” she spit out her tongue.

“What about the rice?” I asked timidly.

“I hate those nut things.”

“You mean the toasted pine nuts?”

“Whatever.  They’re like bugs.”

“You eat smoked salmon.”

“That’s different.  I love smoked salmon.”

“But — but — you always clean your plate.”

“Yeah, well, I know it means a lot to you, so I ate it, but I’m never eating it again.”

The honeymoon was over.  I had been hoodwinked by an 8-year old, but I took heart; one of her favorite foods was broccoli, and she knew the word Béarnaise.  I flipped through the cookbook.  Actually, I didn’t know if I could explain to the other mothers that my kid ate raw oysters and escargots and real sushi (not California roll) and all kinds of mushrooms, when I wasn’t sure it was acceptable in our community to have mothered an under-age foodie.

Now that The Daughter lives on her own, she has rediscovered cooked salmon (she’ll eat it pan-roasted with an aged balsamic garnish, but still not caramelized) and asparagus and rice (without nuts), so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

CARAMELIZED SALMON

Sugar coat

Sugar coat

This may seem a little tricky, but it’s deceptively easy to make.  The sugar doesn’t really sweeten the fish but adds a glossy coating.  If you aren’t familiar with cooking sugar at high temperatures, here are some very simple points to remember.

When heated, sugar changes property significantly.  It melts, browns, and, as it cools, will harden on your utensils and in the pan and affix to anything it touches, like hot glue, and about as dangerous.  Excess sugar will burn in the pan, so turn on your exhaust fan before starting.  Because the caramel hardens to anything it touches, you will need to put each fillet on its individual serving plate.  Not to worry!  Because it’s completely soluble in water, clean up is a breeze.

Ingredients:

Two cups of white, granulated sugar, measured into a pie plate

Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste

2 four-ounce skinless salmon fillets, about ½ – ¾ “ thick (Note:  fillet means boneless)

2 Tablespoons olive oil

Directions:

Season salmon with salt and pepper to taste, and press one side into the sugar until it is lightly coated.  Carefully turn over and press into sugar.  Leave the fish in the sugar while you prepare the pan.

Heat the oil in a heavy skillet over medium heat for 30 seconds.  You don’t want the heat to be so high that the sugar caramelizes before the fish cooks.

Caramelizing salmon - don't worry, all that burnt sugar dissolves in water.

Caramelizing salmon – don’t worry, all that burnt sugar dissolves in water.

Carefully place each salmon fillet into the oil.  Cook 1½ minutes without moving, jiggling, swishing, etc.  Then lift one corner of the fillet to peek at the color of the coating.  It should have started to brown but not burn.  (If the fillet browns too quickly, remove the pan from the heat and reduce temperature to medium-low.)  Cook another minute, then carefully lift the fillet.  The sugar coating should have all caramelized; if not, cook another 30 seconds.  Again, you don’t want the sugar to blacken, but a little blackened edge is ok, if you need to get the fish cooked.

When lightly caramelized, turn the fillet over to the other side and cook another 1½ to 2 minutes.  Remove to each individual serving plate.


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The Myth of Red Velvet Cake

Red Velvet Cake with Buttercream Frosting

Red Velvet Cake with Buttercream Frosting

There are red velvet cakes, and then there are Red Velvet Cakes.  In the past five years, that staple of Southern cooks has been co-opted by trendy websites, blogs, magazines, chain restaurants, and cooking shows.  Somewhere along the way, the original recipe has permutated.  I, myself, have adapted the recipe that was passed on to me by My Mother, who got it in the 1950s from her sister who lives in Atlanta. Turns out, it may not have originated in the South at all.

As in religion, mythology explains the creation of something.  It doesn’t mean it isn’t true, it only posits a basis for everything that came after.  A search on Google shows as much speculation about Red Velvet’s origins as it does about its ingredients.  Some say it is based on so-called “velvet” cakes of the 19th century, which incorporated a little cocoa or almond flour to soften a cake’s texture.  Some say that the characteristic “red” color began with the redness of the cocoa or that of the brown sugar that was used.  Some say it originated at the Waldorf-Astoria.  Some say it originated at Eaton’s Department store in Toronto.  Some say its current incarnation was promoted by the Adams Extract company in Texas.

As with religion, no one can agree, so I’ll stick with my own lore of what a Red Velvet Cake should be, how it should look, and how it should taste.  I simply NEVER buy one in a bakery or restaurant, because they never correspond with the mythological essence stored in my brain.  I am a Red Velvet connoisseur.  I’ve been eating them for over 50 years.  It is my birthday cake of choice, and a birthday cake should always be exactly what I expect it to be when the fork hits my mouth.

The red color has always been controversial.  Before anyone was talking about carcinogens in food, one of my fourth grade classmates objected to the Red Velvet cupcakes that my mother sent to my class in honor of my 10th birthday, in 1962.

“EWWW!!!”  Teddy Rollo (name changed to protect the innocent) shrieked, after biting into one.  “It’s OX BLOOD!!!”  He dropped it on the floor.

“No, it isn’t!”  I shouted at him, as kids all over the classroom spit out my favorite cake.

“Then, why is it red?”  He stuck his buck-toothed, freckled face in mine.

“It’s food coloring!”  I snapped.

“Oh, for goodness’ sake,” our teacher yelled over the clamor.  “It’s cake!  There’s no blood involved, Teddy.  Settle down, class!”

“It’s just too weird,” one girl said to me apologetically and shrugged.

I was horrified to see half-eaten and uneaten cupcakes dumped in the trash.  What was the matter with these kids?  My mother had slaved over three dozen cupcakes for nothing.  I felt bad for her.  I felt bad for myself, and then I saw several untouched cupcakes left in the box for me, me, me!

Ten years later, the Soviets released a study that concluded that Red Dye No. 2, whose common name is amaranth, was a carcinogen.  Responding to public outcry, the FDA began its own study, which concluded that, in high dosages fed to female rats, there was a significant increase in the number of malignant tumors in the rats.  It was banned in 1976.

Uh-oh.  Would this be the end of Red Velvet Cake?  Nope.  Even though Red Dye No. 4 was eventually also prohibited as a food dye, Red Dye No. 40 continues to be acceptable in the US, despite the fact that it is banned in Europe, which, along with Canada, approves of Red Dye No. 2.  Did you follow that?  I had to google them all several times to make any sense of it.  Long story short, I buy my Red Dye No. 40 in bulk, so you can’t take Red Velvet Cake away from me.  I use two full ounces of it in mine, so that I get that authentic oxblood color.  I see those wimpy pink imposters that only use one ounce.  Tsk-tsk.  smh

Perfection!

Perfection!

I prefer a good French buttercream or my faux French buttercream frosting made with hot milk and granulated sugar, because I’m not a cream cheese frosting fan.  I find that the tang of the cream cheese clashes with the almond flavoring in the cake, and, if the cake is made traditionally with buttermilk and the vinegar-baking soda mixture, it doesn’t need any more tangy-ness.  In my so-called research, I found Red Velvet cupcakes frosted with almond-flavored cream cheese that might be tolerable, but I’d still rather have the frosting that my brain and stomach tell me belongs on Red Velvet cake.  Why mess with perfection?

My Sister made me a Red Velvet Cake for my birthday yesterday because she is The Best Sister Ever.  The cake was soft and tender; the frosting did not have a single crunch of undissolved granulated sugar (my biggest challenge in making that frosting).  And I had a big giant slice of perfection for breakfast this morning, also a family tradition.  After all, there are no calories on your birthday or the morning after, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!

 

RED VELVET CAKE

Ingredients:

2 oz red color

3 Tablespoons cocoa powder (do not used Dutch-processed)

½ cup vegetable shortening, softened (I use ¼ cup unsalted butter and ¼ cup shortening)

1½ cups sugar

2 eggs

2¼ cups all-purpose flour

¼ teaspoon salt

1 cup buttermilk

1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

2 teaspoons almond extract

1 Tablespoon vinegar

1 teaspoon baking soda

Directions:

Preheat oven to 350°.

Grease three 8” or two 9” cake pans with butter and line the bottoms with buttered parchment paper.  Set aside.

In a separate bowl, sift together the flour and salt.  Set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, blend food coloring and cocoa to form a paste.  Add the shortening and sugar, and cream thoroughly.  With mixer running, add eggs one at a time until blended.

Mix in ¼ of the sifted flour mixture, alternating with ¼ cup buttermilk.  Stop mixer and scrape bowl and beaters.  Continue adding the remaining flour, alternating with the remaining buttermilk, beating thoroughly and scraping the bowl and beaters after each addition of buttermilk.  It’s important that the flour doesn’t clump into ugly white blobs in your pretty red batter.

Stir in the vanilla and almond extracts.

In a small bowl, stir together the vinegar and baking soda and then stir the mixture into the batter.

Pour batter equally into the prepared cake pans.  To decrease the number of large air bubbles trapped in the batter, run a sharp knife in an “s” shape through the batter in each pan.  Lift each pan about 1” off the counter and let drop onto the counter.  The larger bubbles will rise to the top and either break or can be broken with a toothpick.

Place pans in preheated oven and bake 30 minutes.  Insert a tester (toothpicks work just fine) into the center of each layer.  If it does not come out clean, bake another 5 minutes and retest with a clean tester.  In my oven, an 8” layer is usually done in 30 minutes.  The thicker 9” layers may take an extra 5-10 minutes.  But be careful that the edges of the cake don’t become brown.

When tester comes out clean, remove pans from the oven and place on a wire rack.  Let cake layers cool in the pans for 10 minutes.  You should see the cake’s edges pull away from the pan as it cools.  If not, gently run a plastic knife around the edge and wait 5 more minutes.

Place another cooling rack on top of the pans and flip.  Remove pans from the layers and the parchment from the cake and cool completely.  Frost with your favorite white frosting.

CAUTION:  I always lick the bowl and beaters, because I’ve been doing it for over 50 years, but it makes my mouth really red.  It also might give me salmonella, if the raw eggs in the batter are bad.  I don’t worry too much about it.  The red dye probably will kill me first.


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Queen of All I See

I tend to swear a lot when I drive alone in my car.  Other drivers aggravate me when they tailgate, drive too slow, drive too fast, fail to signal, abruptly cross lanes of traffic to exit, stop in the middle of the road, drive without headlights, come at me with their high beams, don’t clear the snow off their windshields, play music too loud, park too close to my car, bang my car with their doors, park in restricted spaces without authorization, and on and on.

However, I am a lady.  It would never occur to me to set their car on fire.  Or smash their windshield with a baseball bat.

Instead of a bat, I want a magic wand.  I would wave my glittering wand in their direction and POOF!  The offender would disappear instantly, transported to their final destination — their earthly destination, that is — so that they couldn’t endanger anyone else.

When an inconsiderate fool with 20 items gets into the express lane for 15 items and under, instead of shoving my cart into their backside, I would wave my wand and POOF!  They would be transported to the end of the longest line in the store.  While they wait contentedly, they could enjoy the tabloid headlines: Sleep your Fat Away, Baking Wedding Cakes with Three Common Household Ingredients, Self-Mowing Lawns, etc., etc., etc.

When a clerk talks on her cellphone while waiting on me, instead of slapping it away from her ear, I would use my wand to send her on a break and replace her with one of the wacky characters from the British television classic Are You Being Served?  We customers would be gently amused and served tea out of fine bone china while our purchases are wrapped in discreet packages with elegant ribbon.

When my flight is delayed for mechanical issues, instead of ranting and raving to the gate agent, I would wave my wand and POOF!  I would be transported with my loved ones to a private beach on my own private island — in a comfy chair under a shady palm tree with an infinite supply of good books — and a cooler full of iced beverages — and nothing to do all day — forever.  No jerks.  No fools.  No swearing.  Queen for Eternity.

With a private chef.  My idea of heaven includes a skinny me eating all my favorite foods, guilt-free, no fat, no calories, no carcinogens, and food that I didn’t even know existed.  Ambrosia.  The Nectar of the Gods.  All that crazy good stuff.  Transports of delight.  Even food that I can’t stand.

IMG_5067When I was a child, I ate three vegetables, corn, green beans, and potatoes.  It’s a wonder that I survived, isn’t it?  When I learned to cook, I discovered a whole new world of earthly delights.  For example, asparagus.  I always hated asparagus when I was a kid, because it came in a can and was a slimy, drab olive green.  It smelled bad and tasted like the can.

What a treat to find out that the real thing, properly prepared, tastes almost sweet, especially when garden-fresh.  I look for stalks that are a uniform diameter, either all tiny or no bigger than ½” in diameter.  I look for heads with tight “petals,” preferably almost purple.  If I’m not preparing it immediately, I cut off the bottoms to even them up and stand them in ½” of water.   When ready to cook, I break off the tough bottoms by flexing the stalk until it snaps.  (It actually does the work for you.)  If they’re larger than ½”, I scrape them with a vegetable peeler.

IMG_5073Don’t be intimidated by asparagus steamers.  Even I, the collector of obscure cooking equipment don’t have one.  Just follow these super-easy directions:

In a skillet large enough to lay the asparagus in one layer, bring 1” of water to a boil.  Gently lay the prepared stalks in the boiling water.  Reduce heat and simmer for 3 minutes or until a bright green, never drab green.  If your stalks are under ½” in diameter, reduce cooking time to 2 minutes.  Turn off heat, remove skillet, and carefully drain the stalks.  Return stalks to the hot skillet and roll in 2 Tablespoons of butter and 1/8 teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg.  If desired, sprinkle with freshly squeezed lemon juice and sea salt to taste.  Serve immediately.

After 40 years, I’ve learned what asparagus smells like when it’s properly cooked.  When it’s overcooked, it smells like that stuff in the can.  Of course, asparagus is one of those foods whose fragrance returns to haunt you a few hours after dinner, if you know what I mean.  Of course, I’m a lady and wouldn’t dare use the “p” word…wink, wink.

DATE UPDATE:

Things have been really sloooow.  100 men (I assume they were all men) viewed my profile last week.  I like to reset my view counter each week to see how many men I have frightened away.  Of the 100 potential suitors (that sounds idiotic, even to me), several were brave enough to wink, like, or favorite me.

An attractive man winked at me, so I returned a wink, but he did not respond, so I still don’t understand the purpose of winking.  Maybe he was winking at someone else.  If he winked at me in public, I would have made eye contact and smiled.  If he turned away, I would have looked around to see if he was winking at someone else.  You know, that embarrassing moment when you realize that someone is not waving at you, as you wave back at them? Maybe it was a pity wink.

I received another message from match.com about a different attractive man that read, “So-and-So is interested in you.”  He only lives 15 minutes from me, so I read his profile and, thinking that I should have written to the other guy instead of just returning a wink, I commented on a photo of him on a sailboat, asking where he was when the photo was taken.  That was three days ago. My email box says the message hasn’t been read.  Does that mean that it was deleted or just not read? Maybe I shouldn’t have commented?

No one tells you these things.  I googled “Online Dating Etiquette” and found conflicting information.  Maybe he didn’t read it (match says he’s been online every day).  Maybe he deleted it (no way of knowing).  The “experts” say that I should just move on to the next guy because the more that I look and the more that I answer the more chance I have that the next guy who is interested or winks or shows up in my “Daily Matches” could be THE one.

I’m having my doubts.

More from the “experts”:  Guys who wink instead of writing are “players.”  Guys who wink instead of writing are just shy.  Guys who click “interested” without writing are just shopping.  Guys who click “interested” fear rejection.  Guys who are still married say they’re “currently separated.”  Guys want confident women who write to them first (ha!).  Guys of a certain age don’t like women who initiate contact.

You should answer every email, even if you aren’t interested.  It’s ok to ignore email from guys you don’t like.  Send a second email, if the guy doesn’t respond.  Never send a second email, if the guy doesn’t respond.  Don’t lie about your age.  It is expected that everyone shaves a couple years off their age.  Contact guys who want much younger women because much younger women don’t want them, anyway.  Don’t contact guys who want much younger women because they’re delusional.

Where’s Emily Post when you need her?  This is why manners are de rigueur to me.  We all understand the rules of the game when we follow proper etiquette.  Hey!  Guys!  How about just being honest?  If you don’t intend to start a conversation, DON’T DO ANYTHING.  If you’re married, talk to your wife!  Why frustrate two women?

In browsing what the site calls “Matches,” there was a 63-year old guy about 30 miles from me who said he’s a veterinarian.  I looked at all of his photos but didn’t recognize him.  Okay.  So, maybe I don’t know every veterinarian in Maryland (could be industry or government), but I know most of them.  And, yes, he didn’t want a woman older than 55 (wth is with these old guys?).  I wrote to him anyway, saying that my late husband had been an avian veterinarian and asking if he was in private practice.  As a divorced man, I guess he doesn’t want another long-suffering veterinarian’s wife, because I ain’t heard from him, either.  Silly me. I’m only one year younger than he is.  My email box says the message hasn’t been read, either, whatever that means.

On Sunday, I received a first email from a man inviting me to a “music circle” at his brother’s house on “Friday night” at which I “wouldn’t be expected to sing or anything” with a “group of men with guitars.” That sounds like the plot of a slasher flick.  No, thanks.

You may be amused to hear that the widower who doesn’t like the French emailed me that I am geographically undesirable.  For once, distance worked in my favor.  I didn’t need to bring out the wand and make him disappear, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!


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Secret Ingredients

I received a wonderful gift for Mother’s Day.  My Mother fixed dinner for us.  We were in shock.  In the TVLand of the 1950s, the stereotypical mother cooked three fabulous meals a day for her grateful family.  Mine did not.  At least once a week, My Dad would walk into the house, note that the stove was empty, and say, “I guess we’re going out to eat.”

Although it seemed like a great treat to have her fix dinner for us, there was some trepidation on our part.  For the past 40 years, I have been the family cook for Important Holidays and Other Significant Occasions.

“She says she’s making roast beef,” My Sister informed me.

“What?!”  I was incredulous.  I’m the succulent beef roaster, served with freshly-grated horseradish root, port-laced au jus, glazed carrots, and crispy Yorkshire Pudding.

“Mm-hmm.”  She muttered.

“But she doesn’t like to cook.  Maybe we should order out Chinese or Italian.”

“I offered, but she said she wanted to make roast beef,” My Sister sighed.

I considered bringing a bottle of red wine, because I can eat anything, even mushrooms, if I gulp them with copious amounts of wine.  My Mother thinks that all meat should be served well-done, which means gray and dry.  After living with The Veterinarian for 42 years, I now eat beef medium-rare and, occasionally, even carpaccio, if the kitchen is trustworthy.

When dining out with My Mother, we pray that she orders fish.  I have seen her fight with waiters over meat that she said was presented still “mooing” and have seen chefs in perfectly fine restaurants refuse to serve her prime rib well-done.    We grovel with the waiter when she orders beef, begging them for an “outside cut.”

It turns out that we needn’t have worried.  She made pot roast, one of  my favorite recipes.  Still, she grumbled.

Secret Ingredient

Secret Ingredient

“I couldn’t find canned French onion soup at any of the grocery stores,” she said, “no Campbell’s, no Progresso, not even a generic store-brand.”

The key to her pot roast is two cans of Campbell’s French Onion soup.  It’s the only soup that I ever cook with, and I only use it to make pot roast, because, well, it tastes like Mom’s.  It isn’t too salty, like that dry soup mix, and it doesn’t have mushrooms.  You simply dredge a piece of lean chuck roast in flour with salt and pepper, brown it on all sides in hot oil and drain on paper towels.  Then, you pour one can of the soup in the bottom of a Dutch oven or slow-cooker, top it with the meat, whole peeled carrots, and celery (with the leaves), pour another can of soup over the top, bring to a boil, reduce the heat to very low and simmer for at least 2-1/2 hours.  Alternatively, you can cook it, covered, in a 325° oven, which My Mother did.  Hence, roast beef.

Of course, a lot of sliced onions and beef broth will give the same effect, but I think that  piece of pseudo Swiss cheese in the soup can makes a richer sauce.  Yes, I’m delusional.  Although I’ve not read the soup can’s label, it’s probably a mess of chemicals, but I just don’t care.  It’s the taste and the memories that make the difference.

My Mother finds gravy a challenge, too, although this time it was nearly perfect.  She strains the broth to remove the vegetables and globs of fat and meat and reheats it in a saucepan.  Then her technique gets a little “dicey,” as she takes her ancient, empty jar of Taster’s Choice instant coffee crystals, into which she places flour and — yikes! — cold water, which she shakes vigorously, increasingly complaining that it won’t smoothly blend.  She stirs this into the hot broth and tries to stir out the inevitable lumps with a spoon.  This produces more grumbling.  I offered to make the gravy, but she wouldn’t let me near the stove.

Let me tell you how to really make gravy.  You start with two tablespoons of hot fat — strained pan drippings or butter — and slowly whisk in two tablespoons of flour, until the mixture is smooth and bubbling.  To make more gravy, use more fat and flour, in equal proportions. Then, and only then, do you slowly whisk in enough hot broth to make a thick gravy.  It’s better to have gravy that’s too thin, because you can always reduce it by simmering (or boiling, if you’re really pressed for time).  If it’s too lumpy, just pass it through a sieve.  No sweat.

With My Mother and My Sister, 1958

With My Mother and My Sister, 1958

All in all, our meal did just what a Mother’s Day dinner should do, evoke memories of family and love, which puts the comfort into food.  No one had to get dressed up or grovel with waiters or dodge the traffic in downtown Baltimore headed to hear the Artist-Once-Again-Known-as-Prince in his “Rally 4 Peace.”

DATE UPDATE:

I had two dates with a mostly pleasant widower a couple of weeks ago.  I don’t think I’ll hear from him again, which is ok.  We disagreed about voting (I do; he hasn’t for 20 years), current events (he doesn’t pay attention to the news; I do), and the hospitality of the French.  I have never had a bad time in France.  He hates the French.  That’s a quote, not a paraphrase.  He said that the French are only nice to me because I speak French.  I pointed out that The Veterinarian didn’t speak French at all.  I pointed out several occasions when the French have been extremely gracious to me, my family, or my friends, but he wasn’t convinced.

I told him about a train trip in France where some young people made rude remarks about Americans.  Two middle-aged Frenchmen sitting in front of us got up and chewed the kids out.  On their way back to their seats, the men came to us and apologized in English.  I replied in my choppy but intelligible French with beaucoup smiles.  Graciousness when traveling goes a long way to effective communication with others.

My date remained unconvinced, and in the end, I didn’t see myself traveling any place with him, much less through the remainder of my life.  Oh, yeah!  And he doesn’t drink wine.  Maybe that’s why he doesn’t like France.  Maybe that’s why I don’t like him.

I received an email from a man who said he was a medical researcher and teacher with a PhD.  He wrote to me, “Hi!  Cute photo!”  I read his profile essay, which said he was born in Canada, and skimmed his other profile information, noting that he had traveled a lot and lived abroad.

I thanked him for his compliment and said, “I grew up in Detroit.  Where in Canada were you born?”

His response?  “Hmmm.  I guess you didn’t really read my profile…”

Mystified, I re-read his profile, which still only said that he was born in Canada, but down below, under the notes section, where I noticed again that he refused to comment on his “Faith,” that he speaks English and French, and then, near the bottom, under “Favorite Hot Spots,” between “Love NYC and San Francisco” and “lived in Tel Aviv” that he was born in Montreal.  Oops!  My bad.  That’s why I was a better English major than chemistry major, failure to note the minutiae.

I replied, “Sorry.  I did read your profile, but the items under “Hot Spots” didn’t stick in my memory.  Bonne chance! [Good luck]”  I wanted to say, “Sorry, Professor, I read your profile but didn’t realize there would be a quiz.”  Yes, I made a mistake, but a little graciousness on his part would have been nice.

Yesterday, a man who lives 50 miles away in Washington, DC and whose profile claims to only be interested in women within 40 miles, asked me to Skype him.  I know how lame I sounded telling him that I don’t have access to the internet except through cellular data.  I told him I would be happy to correspond by email, citing my geographic undesirability.  Of course, he hasn’t responded.

Then, there was this guy, whose grammar is questionable: “Oh boy do I love the sarcasm.  I am that way as well.  Your profile is a great read & in person I bet it’s a million times better.  Now that I am retired I had made several considerations.  I opted out on all of them except for going to hell in a hand basket.  I haven’t been there yet.  Oh wait, I’ve got that covered.  I use [sic] to live in New Jersey…”

“Do I sound that wacky in my profile?”  I fretted.  I reconsidered myself and rewrote my profile to sound more gracious; sweet, gentle, kind, patient, forgiving, loving, tolerant, demure, meek, etc., etc., etc., a ruse that I have tried in the past without success.

Today, I received this from a man in Pennsylvania, “I enjoyed reading your profile.  It was clear, direct plain … and positive.  I do not seek a reply.  You have a very interesting personality.”

I translated this as:  “For God’s sake, don’t write to me, crazy lady!”

By the way, My Mother, who isn’t crazy about France, either, loved the blouse that I bought for her birthday last October and then lost and didn’t find in time for Christmas and finally gave her for Mother’s Day.  She gave me a giant Tootsie Roll, my favorite childhood candy.  We shared love and comfort on Mother’s Day, so, who am I to complain?  Life is good (mostly).  Soli Deo Gloria!