Welcome to austinagrodolce … My family and I garden with more intention and enthusiasm than allocated budget or overall design plan. It shows. Wildlife populations don't seem to notice our lack of cohesive design, they just like the native plants here. It seems by growing local we've thrown out a welcome mat. Occasionally, we're surprised at who (and what) shows up.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Gifts To Go

It is a wonderful thing to get an edible gift over the holidays. People drop in unexpectedly, stay longer, family members gather at meal times, including those grown children who ordinarily aren't around for dinner any more.

Bottom line is I am often called upon to prepare more food than I expected for more folks to enjoy.

So, a little something extra to pad the pantry is always a good thing.

Plus, portable potables are the ideal hostess gift. You get invited somewhere to share a meal? What nicer "thank you" is there than to depart, leaving your host/hostess with something wonderful to eat they didn't have to prepare or clean up after?

With that in mind, I share a new recipe for me that worked out beautifully, is entry level cook proof, makes sufficient quantities to share and keep, and is just plain versatile and delicious. What, you wonder, is this wunderkind of the Holiday Delight table?

Onion Marmalade. Yup. After having this featured in three of my recent favorite restaurant meals lately, I was determined to have some on hand. A quick search of even my expanded grocery store's supplies left me in the lurch, so off to the internet I headed to find a recipe. I found seven- used one - and here it is for you to try:

Onion Marmalade Recipe

6 large yellow onions, thinly sliced
3 cups sherry or red wine vinegar
3 cups sugar
2-4 bay leaves
20 black peppercorns, cracked

Place all ingredients in a non-reactive, thick-bottomed pot over low heat. Simmer until almost all liquid has evaporated and onions are translucent. Set aside to cool. Place in glass jars and refrigerate. Will keep for 4-6 months.

This savory jam is well-matched with pates and terrines, or on roasted meats and chicken. Recipe from: Executive Chef Staffan Terje, Scala's Bistro, San Francisco, California

One caveat: "Simmer until almost all liquid has evaporated..." took the better part of 4 hours. Not like it took more than a casual check every now and again, but not something to start when you need to leave the house in short order.

Our favorite way to enjoy this treat (so far) is atop warmed Brie.

Friday, December 7, 2007

Stress Reducer

One of the smartest ways to handle holiday stress is to cook ahead, or to cook dishes that have components that can be re-combined with new ingredients in ways that find you spending less time in the kitchen and more time with your family and/or guests.

Roast Chicken with Herbs and Butter is one of those simple recipes, more a technique really than a recipe, and depending upon the quantities prepared, you can find yourself with a delicious meal and past that, with roast chicken ready and available for use in any number of other dishes.

The only way to go wrong with this recipe (and believe me, if there IS a way I will find it), is to overcook this and be left with dry chicken whose flavor has all gone into the pan juices. The best way to avoid this for me has been to get the chicken pieces sorted out according to size in two pans, and take the pan with the smaller pieces out 10 minutes after turning to rest and finish cooking through. Another option I employ is to cut the chicken breasts into two pieces if they are especially large. And, again, it is best to test for doneness after 10 minutes unless you know your oven (or your protein) really well.

Two meals or more from the energy of one? That always makes for a pretty Merry day in my book.

Without further ado:

Roast Chicken with Herbs and Butter

4 (skin on) chicken breast halves or 8 thighs or drumsticks or any combination
8 pats of butter for a total of 2-3 tablespoons
4 teaspoons fresh rosemary leaves (or 2 tsp fresh tarragon, or 2 tbsp snipped fresh dill) or to taste
salt and pepper
1 lemon, cut into quarters

Heat oven to 500 degrees. Loosen skin of chicken and insert a pat or two of butter, depending on size of pieces, and a portion of herbs under the skin.

Sprinkle skin with salt and pepper and place pieces, skin side up, in a roasting pan just large enough to accommodate chicken.

Roast, turning pan from front to back once after 15 minutes (do not turn pieces).

Chicken is usually done when nicely browned, 10 to 15 minutes later (about 30 minutes total). You can cut into a piece or two to make sure juices are running clear.

Serve hot or warm, with lemon wedges.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 40 minutes

Monday, December 3, 2007

Season's Eatings

There is nothing quite as satisfying as baking up treats to share with people you love. The breads featured in the photo are part of an array of yummies a small group I belong to at my church offered up to go with our weekly Fair Trade coffee recently. It was fun to make them and more fun to watch them being devoured with appreciation by people I worship with week in and week out.

But. With all that baking I was not doing anything real to feed hungry people who can't feed themselves, and this time of year especially I feel we are ALL called to do just that. As we waddle away from the officially designated Feast Day of Thanks, I am reminded there are still folks, right here where I live, who do not have enough nutritious food to eat on a daily basis. I know I want to do something, but what?

As I was out collecting leaves to mulch one of my garden beds last Monday, I got my answer. My across the street neighbor asked if my husband and I would "mind" having her Brownie Scout Troop stop by Sunday afternoon as part of their "Caroling for Cans" event. I told her we'd be delighted.

Yesterday Troop 844 went door to door in our neighborhood to share a couple of songs in return for collecting non-perishable goods for the Capital Area Food Bank. In addition to being some of the cutest carolers EVER, they are learning, as six year olds, that they are able to do something important to help other people less fortunate than themselves.

Did we "mind"? So far that miniature serenade has been one of the highlights of our holidays.I know I can't eradicate world hunger but I can do something. I can donate to my area food bank. And now I have. Won't you join me?

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Something Fishy (Thanksgiving #3)

Well I promised a trio of posts, and here is my last tribute to the Thanksgiving holiday for this year.

At the prospect of facing turkey and those side dishes again, including all that pie, not to mention turkey sandwiches, by the time we are a couple of meals out from Thursday I am looking for something really different for dinner.

Some would see this as the perfect reason to eat out, but that is cheating. The real challenge here is to come up with something you don't hate to cook and past that, can consume with relish. Not easy after the binge that is Thanksgiving.

So I wanted something special for dinner. Something different. Something not too tricky to prepare. Something warm and stand alone.

As I so often do, I turned to the internet. I'd picked up some orange roughy Tuesday at the grocery store in anticipation of the need for a non-poultry protein option for Friday night's dinner. What I needed was a novel way to prepare it that would be quick, but would hold while I waited for my physician husband to finish what was turning out to be a gruesomely extended day of surgery and inpatient hospital visits.

And there it was. Dad's Fish Stew. A deliciously quick and easy solution to my problem. And here it is...give it a try and I think you'll agree. "Dad", whoever he is, was really on to something with this combination. Onion, tomato, garlic, some fish chunks gently cooked in wine and clam juice, along with just the right zip of spices really filled the bill. Mom may know best, but Dad gets a star for the stew.

Dad's Fish Stew
6 tbsp olive oil
1 cup of chopped onion
2-4 garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 cup chopped fresh tomato
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/4 teaspoon oregano
1/4 teaspoon thyme
Tabasco, pepper, chipotle powder, chili powder or hot paprika to taste
8 ounces clam juice
2/3 cup dry white wine
1 to 1 1/2 pounds orange roughy (any firm white) fish fillets cut into 1 inch chunks
Salt to taste
Cooked rice

Heat olive oil in large heavy pot over medium high heat.

Add chopped onion and garlic and sauté 4 minutes.

Add parsley and stir two minutes.

Add tomato, tomato paste and cook two minutes longer. Add oregano, thyme, pepper, tabasco and other additional seasonings as desired.

Add clam juice, wine and fish. Simmer until fish is cooked through, around 10 minutes. Salt to taste and adjust seasonings as needed.

Serve hot over cooked rice. (Side note: reheats very well! Delicious the 2nd time)

Serves 4

Challenging (Thanksgiving Post #2)

Thanksgiving is not, for my family of fairly particular palates, the right time to go too far out on a limb. We like what we like. That does not mean, however, that we avoid trying some new tricks now and again.

I was re-elected main cook and bottle washer this year for our feast. My son the chef was coming off a string of 11 nonstop stints at the very exclusive Spa where he works. Among the challenges he routinely faces there are guests like a recent one, who asked him to prepare a different dessert for several evenings running that had to be both gluten and fruit free. I was happy to step back up to the counter and let him have a well deserved day off.

Mom in charge meant our usual menu was reinstated. After dozens of Thanksgivings, I have the timing for this meal down pat. I can shop and cook ahead leaving just enough to do on feast day for optimal results without risking being too tired to fully enjoy the results. My daughter graciously volunteered to help, which tweaked my timing a bit as I attempted to identify which dishes she'd like to get hands on experience with, and then synchronized preparing those with her availability.

Mid-morning on turkey day, there I was, waiting for my kids to arrive and my husband to get back home from making rounds at the hospital, and I was bored. I arranged and rearranged the room. I played around with the table set up, and chose the music I wanted to set the mood. As I triple checked that I hadn't actually forgotten some major essential component of our meal, I was restless, looking for something new and more creative to do. I decided to devise something of a challenge for my daughter with regards to the dressing she and I were going to make.

I downloaded and printed up recipes for making dressing from scratch, including one for "poultry seasoning", and waited for my daughter to arrive.

Then I proposed to her that we try something different this year than the admittedly reliably delicious option of going with Pepperidge Farm dressing prepared by the instructions on the back of the bag. I called it "A Gifted/Talented Challenge".When my daughter was in grade school, she was part of the G/T program. The Gifted/Talented kids had demonstrated they could read and parrot information, this program was devised to challenge them to use their intellects to move past parroting and into demonstrating mastery of various types of knowledge. To get them thinking creatively, outside the box, or bag.

So I put out the bag and I put out the basic ingredients for dressing and let her choose. "By the Bag" or the "G/T" challenge?

Demonstrating how incredibly smart she truly is, my daughter opted for a combination of the two.

I've shared how serious we are about wanting Thanksgiving foods to be "just so". My daughter knew that if the dressing we came up with from the basic ingredients and recipes I'd located was delicious but too differently so? She and I both would be fair game for a series of comparative compliments that might veer dangerously close to thinly veiled criticism.

So she put together some dressing from scratch, which she then prepared along with some of the bag components in the classic style. The combination dressing hit all the expected notes yet had a little something extra, which elevated it just enough to warrant the effort.

I am thankful for a LOT this year. All 4 of us together at the table for one. Two adult children who are not only capable, but actually creative in the kitchen, is another. Yet a third thing I am grateful for is a new recipe for a dinner "post-turkey day" that is so far removed taste-wise from roast poultry that it proved just the thing for our jaded palates. Stay tuned - that recipe will be posted next, because as we all know, good things come in threes......

Pirates in the Kitchen - Thanksgiving #1


My favorite choir director consistently reminds us that we need to leave the "r"s alone when we sing. Arriving early and then holding on to those "R" sounds can transform any sacred anthem, no matter how spiritually intended, into something that more closely resembles a sea shanty. For those of you not so chorally inclined, think back to your REO Speedwagon days.The lead singer, Kevin Cronin, he used to rrrrrreally hang on to the "R"s. Turn on the way back machine and channel your mid-80s self. Bad perm, tight pants, that's it - now listen in your head - "can't fight this feeling any morrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrre....". That's what I'm talking about.

So what does this have to do with food or Thanksgiving? What, you don't think I have a point for all this pirate talk? Oh ye of little faith.

Brined turkey!

Yeah, after spending an inordinate amount of time searching for a source of Poultry Giganticus that isn't the subject of a PETA cruelty investigation, I finally found a reasonable source (division of Cargill Meats) of fresh, uninjected turkey breasts, and at my regular local grocery store, no less.

I bought two split breasts, not quite Dolly Parton sized, each one coming in at around two pounds. They do come larger, but those DD cup turkeys are from birds that have been so genetically twinkered with they can't reproduce on their own. They taste about as much like real turkey as the test tubes they begin their lives in, so I opt for a more "normal" version.

I sought. I bought. I brined.

There are scads of recipes for brining out there. Some general guidelines are 1 cup salt and 1 cup sugar plus a source of some acidity plus aromatics. If you have time to leave the bird (or bird pieces) in the brine for several days which is optimal to allow the flavors to permeate and develop, then you can cut the salt back to 2/3 cup.

Caveats: Brining poultry is a salmonella stew waiting to happen so you must allow room in your refrigerator and give some thought to potential contamination control. Some swear by huge ziplock bags as a way to eliminate potential splash problems. Others start with a frozen bird in a bag in an ice cooler in the garage. They don't live in Central Texas however where the temperatures are just as likely to be in the mid-80s in the run up to Turkey Day as not. I opted for a stock pot with a nice snug lid, one large enough to have room between brine level and the top of the pot. I kept bleach type wipes handy and, I was careful not to slosh.

Another consideration is your pan juices from a well brined bird can be a little salty for gravy. I discovered that with more moist and flavorful meat on my plate, the gravy is no longer the star it once had to be. I made gravy without the pan drippings this year and nobody cared because everything else on the plate already tasted good. To me, that's the point. Savory moist food, not amazing gravy poured all over dried out meat and dressing.

Brining works, bottom line. I won't take time here for the chemistry, the blogger at Cooking for Engineers has done that already. Try it once and you will discover brining delivers meat that will roast without drying out or losing all it's flavor to the pan.

So there you have it. No need to walk the plank for dried out turkey any longer. The easiest solution for a wonderful turkey or turkey breast is just that. A solution. Brining. Arrrrrrrrrr. Aye!

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Blog Imitates Life

We are rapidly coming up on one of my favorite holidays. Thanksgiving is, for me, centrally a sacramental meal. 

Despite varying levels of rookie nerves around what I've been asked (or worse - volunteered!) to cook for the meal, or puzzling how to multiply a recipe that feeds 4 comfortably into a quantity to satisfy 5 times that number, I always enjoy the idea of preparing food for family and friends.  

In my adult life I have experienced Thanksgiving meals in every convolution I'd ever imagined. Immediate family, extended family, "chosen family"; meals for two and meals including up to 30 others.  I've shown up with only my appetite, cooked the entire meal, prepared all but the turkey, and brought dishes to pot lucks.   

Some celebrations it is easier than others to remember not only what we are thankful for, but why we ought to stop and offer thanks.  There was one memorable Thanksgiving meal shared with my exhausted husband, then a surgical intern in the Air Force in San Antonio, Texas.  We celebrated that year in the nearly empty hospital cafeteria, seated across from a woman who had a swollen bandaged nose, and two black eyes.  Looking down at my meat, gravy and three ice cream scooped portions of sides, I realized with new intensity how lucky we were to be in there because my husband had work to do on other folks.  

Over the years our family has settled upon a preferred lineup for the holiday menu.  Experimentation is fabulous for some, but our merry little band features some significantly picky eaters. I learned early not to arbitrarily challenge my family's Thanksgiving expectations.  If I want to try something new, if possible I offer it in addition to the item it might replace, until we are comfortably assured of everybody's acceptance.   A new recipe would have to significantly improve upon a family favorite to warrant consideration for substitution. And I have learned the hard way "improve" is all in the eye - or the mouth - of the beholder.

One required recipe I can claim as my own is my version of Cranberry Relish.  Granted, my variation is only an inspired addition to the recipe on the bag, but I was the first person to think of it in my circle of friends and family, so I claim it as "mine".  I have yet to run across anybody else who has tried this at all, much less anybody who will claim to have been doing it for longer than I have.  

Ladies and gents - the very best whole berry relish you will ever wrap lips around consists of the recipe that comes on the bag along with - drum roll please - the addition of one large seeded, rough chopped jalapeño. I put 5 of the jalapeño seeds into mine which provides just the right amount of fire for the tenderest mouth amongst us.  The peppers vary some in heat from year to year but that formula has proven a fairly reliable path towards reproducible results.  

I add the chopped jalapeño along with the berries, and that's it.   I do like to mash the berries up a bit as they cook with the back of a spoon, although I don't strain the results.  

This sparkling combination of sweet and tart and hot (calling forward the title of this blog and of this post) elevates the sauce to a whole new level.  People who say they don't like cranberries have told me they like the sauce prepared this way. Try it this year in addition to your usual cranberry sauce, and see what you think.   

Who knows? Maybe you will have one more thing to be thankful for...

Friday, November 16, 2007


1. the friendly reception and treatment of guests or strangers.
2. the quality or disposition of receiving and treating guests and strangers in a warm, friendly, generous way

We are having musical guests for worship at our congregation this Sunday. The University of Texas Trombone Choir will be providing special music at both services. [I will only confess here the struggle I face to abstain from the myriad "brings a whole new meaning to Hook Em Horns" comments that arise so naturally from their visit. I am supposed to be a better person than that, so I'll let them all go undocumented in this setting. Just know they are out there.....]

In response to their spending the morning with us, beside an honorarium, we are offering them breakfast. "We" being members of the Senior Choir.

As these things go, the more experienced among us in feeding large groups spoke up first, determining what would be reasonable to offer. There will be 27 musicians, their director and however many guests they bring. Probably in the neighborhood of 30, mostly college students, and mostly male. Although many of them are currently unfamiliar with breakfast as an early morning experience, I've no doubt their appetites will adjust accordingly.

So, sure, breakfast casseroles. One woman offered to bring a version featuring ham, another with bacon. A third said she will bring one with sausage. I offered to bring a 4th, an "in case of large appetites" buffer zone of sorts, and in the spirit of variety said I'd bring a meatless casserole, something with green chiles.

Thus began my search for a meatless breakfast casserole. Not vegetarian really, these casseroles all are egg/cheese concoctions, but I wanted to offer something filling, satisfying, deliciously interesting in taste and texture.

I came up with the following. I test ran a version for dinner last night and based upon that will make two additional tweaks to the recipe which I will then prepare and share Sunday. Here's the final Agrodolce Approved Version:

Cheesy Potato Green Chile Breakfast Casserole
8-10 servings

1 -16 ounce package shredded potatoes
12 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2 - 7 ounce cans diced green chilies
1 cup onion, chopped
1 tablespoon oil
3 cups shredded sharp cheese, divided
large bag (8-9 ounces) jalapeño potato chips
salt and pepper to taste

Preheat oven to 350º.

Lightly spray a 9 x 13 baking dish with cooking spray.

In a medium skillet, sauté onions in oil until translucent.

Sprinkle sufficient chips over bottom of casserole dish to cover well, gently crush in place with potato masher. Add chips as needed until you have an even 1/4 inch layer of crushed chips.

In a large bowl combine potatoes with sauteed onion, two cups of cheese, and one can green chiles. Season to taste. Mix well and gently spoon potato mixture over chips in baking dish.

In a separate bowl whisk together eggs, milk and the remaining can of chiles. Pour over the potatoes and top with the remaining cup of cheese.

Bake at 350 degrees for 55 minutes. Check the center for doneness by inserting a knife. Serve warm with picante sauce.

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Ay yi yi yi

I am the Frito Bandito....

Well no, I am not. But I used to sing the song and I still really (REALLY) like Fritos.

In a bit of mid-1960s political naivete, the Frito-Lay corporation (based in Dallas, Texas no less) had a mustachioed bandito who was constantly tricking people out of their bags of Fritos. This eventually offended people who had enough commercial clout to get the ads pulled, although reportedly the Bandito image was not considered widely offensive by "the Hispanic viewing public.".

I can't say - maybe it was the non-viewing public who had their snack chips in a wad?

Frito-Lay eventually pulled the ads and stopped using the song on TV - but that didn't stop us from singing it with gusto in schoolyards or lunchrooms, not for years. An entire generation of Texans grew up thinking the song that begins "Ay, yi yi yiiii" is only an advertisement for delicious corn chips and not "Cielito Lindo". (This might explain why Cielito Lindo never made it big on the karaoke circuit.)

This corporate cultural insensitivity is made all the more interesting when you discover the inventor of the corn chip was one Gustavo Olguin. In an article for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bud Kennedy reports Olguin emigrated from Mexico to San Antonio to escape persecution for his political cartoons. While in San Antonio he was a soccer coach as well as a snack food innovator, but he eventually sold his fledgling corn chip business to one Elmer Doolin for a paltry $30. Speculation is that Gustavo became homesick and simply decided to go back across the border.

Doolin, to give credit where due, did change the recipe and process slightly, and came up with the wonderful name, "Frito". His salty fried corn chips were the entree to bring him top billing in the eventual snack food giant, Frito-Lay. Just to show the invention of the Frito was no fluke, Doolin is also credited as inventor of the Cheeto. Go Elmer!

Doolin came by his snack food wizardry honestly. Doolin's mother, according to some sources, was the one who took the corn chip to a higher level with the original concept for Frito Pie.

Frito Pie, in case you are amongst the piteously uninitiated, is an amazing concoction comprised of a bag of Fritos, a cup or so of hot chili, grated cheese and chopped onions. You take the bag, open it veeerryyy carefully, pour in the rest of the ingredients, grab a Spork and try not to hurt yourself. Purists say that is IT, others add mustard. Me, I like it either way.

The bags aren't as thick as they used to be. Frito Bag Puncture related injuries are a serious deterrent for some but only go to show who's a "real Texan" and who's a "damned Yankee" say afficianados.

Little known sociological statistic - a standardized beer/Yankee slur ratio runs 3/1 except during football season when the "Yankee" epithet is freely substituted for by filling in the name of any team stupid enough to be scoring more points than said beer drinker's. Ah, the sporting life.

I digress.

Let me sum up our story so far.
1) Gustavo's gift must never be forgotten. Close the border? How stupid would THAT be!
2) No matter what amazing thing you have done, your Mom can probably think of something even better to do with it. (call home!)

The end to this crunchy little story is that in doing my "research" I developed such a deeply amazing craving for Fritos, I knew I had to eat some. Pronto.

I didn't have the ingredients on hand for Frito Pie (a mistake that won't happen again I assure you) but I did have some leftover guacamole and the rest of a bag of Frito Scoops.

As everybody who has ever wrangled avocados knows, left exposed to air they turn brown in about 3 seconds. No matter how carefully you treat leftover guacamole, unless you bathe it in lime juice or cover it with plastic wrap actually touching the guac, creating an airlock of sorts, you are simply adding an unnecessary step where the container takes up space in your refrigerator until you are forced to throw it out. Hastily re-refrigerating guacamole without taking time to protect it from the air is a self flagellating way to help you recall days later how good that guacamole WOULD have tasted, if only....

Which is what I'd done with my last batch of guac. Following the rules, it duly turned brown in the time it took to type out this sentence. In my debilitated Frito Crave craze, I was SO determined to have something for my Frito Scoops to lend function to their form, I threw caution to the wind. I hurriedly scraped all the brown off and ate the guac. My only brief nod towards food safety was the addition of "tex-mex clorox" - some wickedly hot salsa.

My husband called and innocently asked what I was doing. "I am eating lunch", I told him. "Honey." I asked sweetly, "will eating brown avocado kill you?".

My husband is a brain surgeon. Our family and friends routinely refer questions about the potential lethality of a practice to him.

"That depends" he answered cautiously "on why it is brown in the first place.".

After a brief romantic exchange on the relative harmlessness of eating oxidized fruit, he rang off and I licked the final remnants of guacamole to eat with one last Frito as a chaser. But not before advising him, "If you come home and I am dead on the floor, you will know to list Cause of Death as Eating Brown Guacamole on the certificate.".

See why he calls home to talk to me on his lunch break? How fun a couple are we?

Whatever. It was worth it.

Thank you Gustavo, wherever you are. And Elmer. Ay yi yi salute you.

Friday, November 9, 2007

Hunter Gathering

According to some sources ancient civilizations broke out into two types of folks. Some drank Coca-cola, and others preferred,.... no wait, that's not it. Some used Miracle Whip on their sandwiches while others chose....wait, what?

Here we go - some were settler types, growing crops, domesticating animals, and others were hunter-gatherers, wandering around living off the bounty of the land.

Recent reasonably successful attempts at growing tomatoes aside, I fall squarely into the modern version of the hunter-gatherer type. The fullest expression of my hunter gathering artistry was demonstrated in the mastery exhibited week to week as I shopped in "my" grocery store.

I shop several times a week.  As a frequent visitor, I was easily able to put together my shopping list in order of appearance, starting from the right hand side of the store, where I pick up toothpaste and OTC allergy medicines, past the dairy products, and working my way to finish up over where I get my wine and fresh produce.

In a diabolical plot meant to sabotage my next 2 months of grocery shopping (JUST in time for the holidays and don't think they didn't factor that in..) the management of my store (hereinafter referred to as the Evil Menace) abruptly decided to redesign the store.

Ignoring the fact this "redesign" has led to random empty stretches of shelf where the entire selection of laundry products used to be, arguably offense enough, they are rearranging all the aisles, eliminating the middle shortcut altogether.  This abandons the hapless shopper who mistakenly heads up the wrong row forcing an interminable trek across the width of the building. 

The shelves are higher as well.  MUCH higher. The end effect is a sense of being trapped inside a maze with looming wall of products, twisting what should be a frolic for food into a much creepier "abandon hope all ye who enter here" outlive, outlast vibe.

I would not be surprised to find exhausted shoppers crouched mid-aisle, feverishly making a meal on raw oriental noodles as they give up every hope of finding their way out, much less locating the can of Mandarin Oranges they innocently thought to run in and buy.

I swear I saw a trail of crumbs in there the other day, as one wily shopper was trying to have a shopping trip take less time and be less psychically painful than a root canal.

A conversation with an assistant manager trying to suss out the "WHY!!??!!" of this grocery store chaos revealed they are planning on offering new products and felt they needed the additional space. Taking out the middle aisle, adding higher shelves, and rearranging the entire inventory was the "only way" to achieve their wish to accommodate more of what we, their customers, were asking for, he brightly assured me.

The logic behind timing this all in the runup to Turkey Day? Well, that is just "one of those things".Uh huh.

I realize the perils of wandering a grocery store without a mental product placement grid in place might seem innocuous, but for a seasoned shopper who prides herself on surgical strike forays (in and out with a week's worth of groceries in less than 40 minutes!) this is cruel and unusual punishment.

For the Evil Menace that manages my store to have pulled this right before the Biggest Grocery Store Shopping Week of the Year? That I take personally.

What recourse I have remains unclear.  I could celebrate the foxhole style camaraderie built as fellow shoppers carp.  I could focus Pollyanna style on a sense of community evolving as shoppers actually speak to one another, ignoring this is mostly represented by expressions of anguish, wondering if their young children will survive without groceries and/or still recognize Mommy by the time she emerges, exhausted and spent, to sadly return home. 

Progress is relentless.  Progress rolls on, expanding grocery store product offerings no matter who lies crushed in the wake.  This smacks of inimical social engineering.  I am keeping a keen ear out for subversive messages embedded in the overhead music.  I'll keep you posted....

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Braised Beef

Simple things are best, and fall offers so many.
Even with cooler temps it is best to have something that will essentially cook itself in a low oven. What fills that bill? A small chuck roast, dredged in seasoned flour, surrounded by savory fall veggies, covered in liquid, and slow cooking in a low oven for hours (and hours).

At the end you have fork tender beef, and liquid ready to be reduced to an awesome sauce for serving.

The surrounding vegetables (IE carrots) can be served as sides, and this variation features Shitake mushrooms offered in the sauce as a last minute addition.

Any way you add it up, this is a Sunday dinner par excellence.

AND I have some beef and stock left over for hash later in the week. Doesn't get much better than that.

Saturday, November 3, 2007


Simple pleasures are the best it is said, and I'd have to agree. I recently read a food post about an extremely impressive dessert featured by a restaurant in San Antonio (Bin 555). The owner/chef willingly shared the recipe and I can see why. The list of ingredients and steps was daunting to say the least. I am fairly sure 99 percent of even the most serious foodies will simply read that, sigh, throw in the baking parchment and book a reservation.

In contrast, one of our favorite desserts around here is Bread Pudding.

We've done the low carb-high protein lose weight/get healthy bypass in our culinary journey. We discovered life with few or no carbs won't really last longer - it will just seem that way because you aren't getting to enjoy good bread, pizza, pasta, or...Bread Pudding!

Last night as we polished off the rest of the Chile Chicken stew left over from Halloween, I wasn't really cooking, so I decided to drag out this Bread Pudding recipe that is one of the simplest - and best - ways to enjoy a sweet finish to a delicious dinner.

One thing I like about this recipe is that most of the ingredients can be found certified as Organic. We've tried this dessert dusted with powered sugar and sprinkled with berries, drizzled with heated maple syrup, topped with vanilla bean ice cream, all to good result. You can throw in chopped pecans or add raisins or other chopped dried fruit if you wish. But you don't have to dress it up. This recipe is simply good, all by itself.

Bread Pudding

•3 tablespoons butter, melted
•3/4 cup sugar (diabetics - artificial sweetener substitutes well)
•2 cups milk
•3 large eggs
•2 teaspoons vanilla extract
•3 One inch thick slices of french bread, torn into small pieces
•ground nutmeg to taste

Drizzle butter into 8 inch square glass baking dish. Whisk together sugar, milk, eggs and vanilla in large bowl. Stir in bread.

Spoon mixture into pan. Sprinkle with nutmeg.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 15 minutes. Stir.

Bake 35 more minutes or until pudding is set. If desired - run up under broiler for a few minutes to brown top.
Serve warm. 4-6 servings

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Cooking Ahead

Part of the difficulties faced as a conscientious Mom, was that I read a lot. I paid attention to dire warnings about packaged foods and chemicals used to preserve shelf life. I knew I needed to avoid all those convenient, quickly thrown together "meal in a box" solutions devised as a response to the "what's for dinner?" dilemma that surfaced soon after I arrived back home from a long day at the office.

This sounds very high minded, but I unfortunately found myself frequently standing at my kitchen counter, staring at raw ingredients with a good hour's worth of prep and cooking time ahead of me, exhausted, while my kids clamored for "take out".

I reshelved raw ingredients, hopped back into my car, and caved in more times than I like to admit.

In order to simplify my life and provide healthier food for my growing kids, I decided to cook ahead for the work week during the weekends. I figured I could plan menus, shop for ingredients not on hand, and spend much of Saturday morning and early afternoon preparing dishes ahead while yet providing soccer game transport and/or movie drop off duties.

I searched out recipes for home prepared versions of my family's favorites. I spent hours reading nutritional labeling and chose ingredients and controlled preparation, all with their health in mind.

The Saturday Cook-A-Rama Strategy was at least a partial solution. Many days we spent so much time circling in the car after school that any type of dinner cooked and eaten at home still didn't work. Those days we did fast food, as healthy as I could find that my kids would accept. Other days I figured to try to have a head start dish, either prepared and only needing reheating, or close enough to ready, so I could face cooking dinner after a long day at work without triggering spontaneous weeping.

It wasn't perfect. There were still problems. I'd end up with a house so filled with food aromas they gently smacked you in the face like a warm wet washcloth as you walked inside. I'd have all this food prepared for dinner for other nights, in combination with such an extravagantly trashed kitchen there might be nothing left clean to cook in or with. Worst of all - nothing slated to eat for dinner that night.

I finally learned to either have something simple already prepared as a fallback meal before I hit "too tired", or to gracefully accept another night meant for take-out without seeing that as the crowning event in my being declared a personal failure as Mother, Wife, and Cook.

I dredge this up because I made one of my own (rare) original recipes to serve for Halloween Night dinner. Chile Chicken Stew. It is best eaten after it cools and is reheated - as are all stews according to my mind. I used to make this many Saturdays for a Sunday or Monday night meal. As a nod to our new Empty Nest, I made it early in the day, and will reheat it and serve it for dinner the same day. It will sit long enough before dinner for the flavors to blend and intensify, and I won't have to worry about trying to cook while answering the door to hand out candy.

This stew will not only stand up to my leaving it for stretches of time, but should fill us up so healthily and wonderfully that we won't be (too) tempted to turn off the porch light early, close the blinds, and pretend we aren't home while my husband and I polish off the remaining candy.Live and learn. Helpful practices are only helpful when they serve me, not when I become enslaved by my own standards.

Hope you have all had a Happy Halloween, however that works in your house.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Introducing Mr. Ina...

I have a friend, a very fine cook in his own right, who has designs on becoming the "next Mr. Barefoot Contessa". I am not sure how he figures to make this happen. I don't think he has ever met the BC and my friend is clearly madly in love with his current wife, who is also a fabulous cook. I think hearing Ina croon in her soothing voice so many times on her television show about "cooking this just for Jeffrey" or "planning something special for Jeffrey" has simply gone to his head.

I get where he's coming from. Who wouldn't enjoy having somebody spending much of their time and energy planning and preparing delicious meals and various soirees so all you have to do is walk in the door and et voila - a feast awaits!? I am often tricked into thinking - "what I need is a WIFE!", meaning by that, "what I need is a stereotypical people pleaser who is geared to expend all their effort into thinking up and acting out in ways that are meant to please ME." (me Me ME!)

Problem with that? Although I am constantly hoping to please my family when we dine together, primarily I cook precisely to please my own palate. As palates are as diverse as fingerprints, I am pretty sure nobody else in the universe can cook day to day in a way that will be so amazingly geared to my particular sense of what tastes good as I can for myself.

I think my friend and I are both stuck. Fortunately, Ina Garten is a generous woman and shares her recipes. The following is one I prepared for dinner recently and I found it to be my new favorite way to eat Brussels Sprouts. My husband liked them just fine, wasn't so raving about them as I was, but he agreed - these are worth a whirl. Try them and see if you don't agree?

Roasted Brussels Sprouts
The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook

1 1/2 pounds Brussels sprouts
3 tablespoons good olive oil
3/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.

Cut off the brown ends of the Brussels sprouts and pull off any yellow outer leaves. Mix them in a bowl with the olive oil, salt and pepper. Pour them on a sheet pan and roast for 35 to 40 minutes, until crisp on the outside and tender on the inside. Shake the pan from time to time to brown the sprouts evenly. Sprinkle with more kosher salt ( I like these salty like French fries), and serve immediately.

Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook Time: 40 minutes
Yield: 6 servings (4 if you like them as much as I do!)