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.

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!)

Eating Responsibly

I've been thinking about eating lately. It is not just the enticing presence of Halloween candy in the house. Thanksgiving looms large in my culinary imagination.

A friend of ours who hunts dropped off not only Nilgai sausage, but also Hungarian Pheasant and Quail he'd recently killed, field dressed and frozen. I am thinking of ditching the ubiquitous turkey this year altogether and featuring these local Birdlets instead.

You see, I've been thinking more about eating responsibly lately as well.

This found me doing some really fun reading about CSA- Community Supported Agriculture. CSAs are typically small farms where the harvest is divided and consumed by folks who pay for a "share" each week, every other week, at whatever interval the farm can reliably produce.

This has also found me doing some really not so fun reading, about some of the problems encountered by relying on huge agribusiness concerns to provide safe and conscientiously raised/harvested/slaughtered products for grocery store chains.

It is discouraging. Disgusting, actually. Many of the national companies that used to exist independently (and thus be subject to the pressures of a market asking for safe food and positive practices as an employer) are now merely subsidiaries of a few giant conglomerates.

ConAgra is one example. ConAgra is the bottom line beneath lots of the food companies I think of independently. Like Peter Pan. Hunt. Or Butterball.

ConAgra and other FrankenConglomerates are so large they are seemingly beyond having to answer complaints or follow the rules and regulations most of us naively seem to think are effectively protecting us, and the food we eat, from abusive practices.

That Butterball Hotline you might have seen as such a friendly way to help novice cooks get that bird on the table minus heaped criticism from the in-laws? Turns out it could reasonably serve double duty as a sexual abuse hotline for the BIRDS THEMSELVES.Yeah. You read that right. A little over a year ago, PETA filed complaints about Butterball/ConAgra employees at one plant not only kicking live birds, but sexually abusing them.

I don't want to think about what anybody would want to do of a sexual nature with a live turkey or what kind of a factory setting or workplace philosophy would allow that to happen.

I do know I can't in good conscience buy a product from a company tolerating such behaviors until outsiders stepped in and complained.

I might not be a vegetarian yet, but a few more reports about the gross (and I mean that in EVERY sense of the word) abuses regularly tolerated in agribusiness may force me there, albeit reluctantly.

Is there any way to keep eating and avoid participating unknowingly in such fantastic disrespect for life?

Think local. In my area, Johnson's Backyard Garden is one option. Think small. Tears of Joy Salsas on 6th Street fit that bill. Think organic. Think Fair Trade. Whenever possible, know the people who raised your food, or at the very least know the company behind the products you are buying. With an internet connection (and a strong stomach) you can investigate on your own. Some sites do a lot of the legwork for you.

Co-Op America for one. Their Responsible Shopper can help you determine if a company deserves your support.
The days of living and harvesting our own food for our families may be behind most of us. That does not mean we have no choice over what we prepare and serve our families.

The arrogance of a corporation so large it feels it can ignore baseline decency for factory conditions and employee requirements is not what I want to support with my food budget. How about you?

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Crispy Parmesan Crisps


1/2 pound Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated, (about 2 cups)
1/4 cup whole wheat flour
2 tablespoons chopped fresh chives
2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
1 teaspoon fresh cracked pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine cheese, flour, chives, parsley and pepper in a small bowl.

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

Spoon cheese mixture onto parchment in 3 inch circles.

Bake 10-15 minutes, until crunchy and golden around edges.

Remove and cool completely. Cheese crisps may be stored in airtight container for up to one week.

Saturday, October 27, 2007


There is just something about this time of year. It has started to feel like Fall, even here in Central Texas. The cooler temperatures in the early morning and once the sun sets in the evening, are invigorating. We may not have an abundance of fall foliage to enjoy, but there are shifts in the coloration to appreciate, and the cooler temperatures are soooo welcome.

It brings out something industrious in me, and it whets my appetite for rich, hot, savory soups and stews.

One of our favorites over the years has been a rather ambitious recipe I adapted from Emeril Lagasse, courtesy of the Food Network. It is a Butternut Italian Sausage soup with fried sage leaves as a garnish.

Delicious, and although I refused to whip and then strain before serving - we like hearty soups at my house - I'd stayed pretty close to the original recipe all along. Drawbacks were the time and effort it takes to prepare.

When an Emeril Lagasse recipe is classified as "medium" difficulty - they aren't kidding around. For home cooks, that kind of time and energy, even for a retired type like me, can be hard to come by.

So when recently I found a laughingly simple recipe for a pumpkin soup that is more heating and combining than actual cooking, I figured - why not try a blend of the two recipes?

As opposed to my Ham Kedgeree fiasco, I knew I had a reasonable shot at a happy outcome this go-round. For starters, I know what the original soup is supposed to taste like. I've played with this recipe a bit already, and it is a forgiving blend of flavors.

As a little fun on the side, I made peppered parmesean cheese crisps to float on the soup. My husband isn't crazy about butter fried sage leaves as called for in the original recipe, so I know he'll be happy for a substitution.

For my bowls, as the recipe calls for, I will fry the sage leaves, and serve the finished soup garnished with green. For my husband's bowls - a flotilla of peppered cheese crisps.

That's the great advantage of home cooking at times - you can customize to your heart's - and your sweetheart's -content.

Having a lovely homemade soup for Saturday lunch to enjoy while the football games distract the rest of the world is one of nicest ways I know to settle in for an afternoon. In case you agree - here's the blended recipe:

Texas Deb's Pumpkin Italian Sausage Soup - Serves 4
1-15 ounce can pureed pumpkin
3 cups chicken stock
1/2 onion, chopped
2 tbsp olive oil
1 teaspoon garlic, chopped
1/2 pound Italian sausage, casings removed
1 teaspoon sage
1/2 teaspoon marjoram
1/4 tsp cumin
1/2 cup heavy cream
teaspoon cider vinegar
salt, pepper, to taste
8-10 fresh sage leaves for garnish (optional)
2 tbs butter

In a large saucepan over medium high heat, brown Italian sausage in olive oil, breaking up into small pieces. After about 6 minutes, add the chopped onion, and then as the onion becomes translucent, the chopped garlic. Reduce heat slightly to prevent scorching as needed.

Add chicken stock, sage, marjoram and cumin, stirring well to scrape pieces off bottom of pan. Add pumpkin, stirring well. Salt and pepper to taste. Simmer 30 minutes.

While soup simmers, in a small separate saute pan, heat 2 tablespoons butter over medium high heat until edges brown. Add small whole sage leaves and cook until crisp, 1-2 minutes. Drain on paper toweling. If using unsalted butter, sprinkle leaves with salt while hot.

After soup has simmered 30 minutes, add cider vinegar, stir to combine. Add heavy cream to soup, stir again, and correct seasoning as needed.

Serve soup in bowls garnished with crispy sage leaves.

Or crispy parmesan cheese crisps.

Bon Appetito!

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Some days

Yesterday afternoon I was sitting at my computer, considering the ingredients I had and wondering how I could combine them in some novel way. I was wanting to use up some ham and cooked rice without going the fried rice route since I was the only person eating.

Naturally I smugly turned to the internet. Wondering to myself how anybody ever managed to prepare meals without the luxury of thousands of recipes at their instant beck and call, I started a search for dishes with ham and rice as the main components.

Pretty quickly I came across a recipe based upon a classic Indian dish from British colonial days.Kedgeree seemed to fill the bill. This particular recipe, abandoning the more classic use of smoked fish as the main protein, used ham, rice, hard boiled eggs, cream, curry powder, parsley and a little butter. Very fast, simple, easy, and I had everything I needed right here.

Investigating the history of the dish a little further, I came up with a couple of interesting tweaks to use up even more of the ingredients I had sitting around, items that were getting dangerously close to moving from "produce" to "compost".

So I broke one of my cardinal rules. I changed the recipe for a dish I have not only never prepared before, but never eaten before.

I don't know how Kedgeree is "supposed" to taste or turn out and yet I decided to alter amounts and include other ingredients, based upon my reading about the dish.

And I humbly submit to you here that I was rewarded with a lesson in why I ought NOT break my rules.

The Kedgeree was not awful, it was not inedible, but it was certainly not anything I'd want to serve or eat more of. I actually tossed out the serving I had left over. This is significant. I was raised by my Mother, who grew up during the Depression, not to do that. In her version of the world, you don't throw away "perfectly good" food. Ever.

But this wasn't either. Perfect. Or good. It was just, well, kind of blech....

So my brief foray into Indian Colonial cooking was a flop. The information I was able to retrieve over the internet gave me a false sense of mastery and insight into a cuisine I know very little about. Certainly not enough to double seasonings or substitute ingredients on my own. Live and learn. To my relief, since I was fixing dinner only for myself, at least I did not subject anybody else's palate to my experiment in Kedgeree terror last night.

The next time I am brashly tempted to get away from where my combination of technique and experience comfortably co-exist, I will recall this failed dinner and hopefully be reminded to take things at a pace that better suits me. It is not that I won't experiment, or be adventurous with trying new things, but a good cook knows her limitations.

Just for today, I won't weigh in on the flap raised by a New York Times reporter who had the temerity to report on "authentic" Tex-Mex. I will simply point out for starters that early on he refers to "espadrilles" as native Texas footwear.

Granted, the guy is supposed to know about food, not shoes, but somebody somewhere at the Times ought to have caught a potential gaffe that large. His article includes "without apology" in it's title, but I doubt Mr. Drape will get away without saying he is sorry to any Texans he might run across in the next, oh, ten years or so.

Not unless he commits a larger error in between now and then.

Maybe this guy needed a lesson about HIS limitations as well.

Monday, October 22, 2007

La Dolce Vita

Or, to be slightly more ethnically accurate given the history of the Fredericksburg area, das gute Leben. Not exactly Bright Lights, Big City, but that wasn't what we were looking for.

This past weekend my husband and I met up with two dear friends in a beautiful lease house in the Hill Country. We talked, laughed, counted cattle for our friend's brother, then shopped until we wanted to drop. Of course, we also ate and drank. I've been told there aren't any good restaurants in Fredericksburg. I'd have to disagree. We had a fine lunch at Wildseed Farms, finishing up after chopped 'cue and cold beers with the fudge they sell on the spot.

Wildseed Farms is a misnomer, actually. Besides all the seeds and plants offered, they also sell Texas wines, lunch, ice cream, and a wide variety of jams, jellies, honey, dressings, salsas, and just about every variety of Texan specialty you could think of. My husband is a pushover for their Mustang Grape Jelly. Last time I was there I'd bought one small jar that barely lasted us two weeks. This time I stocked up.

There is also a top notch HEB in Fredericksburg. On the advice of one of their employees, we ended up with the best 'brats I've ever stuck a fork in. I can't tell you the brand name, not because I am trying to keep secrets, but because our cookout captain for the evening tossed the packaging before I could get a good look.

We had good cooks and willing kitchen cleanup help in our midst. So between what we brought and what we bought, we ended up with a wealth of resource materials to put together two fabulous dinners and a great breakfast to supplement our meals "out".So yes, we missed the hullaballoo that will be the Texas Hill Country Wine and Food Festival. I maintain, we didn't really MISS anything. We had an amazing time, enjoyed ourselves thoroughly and I will offer for proof the fact that our friends were crushed not to be able to rent the place for their return to holiday with family (the ones with the ranch where we counted cow/calf units) AND were already planning to bring two of their friends from Temple to enjoy the house on a return visit.

Ahh....La Dolce Vita, das gute Leben - no matter what language you're using, friends, a comfy place to share, good food and good wine...THAT is the good life.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Goldilocks and the... Italians?

Yeah yeah, I know - it is supposed to be bears. Goldilocks and the Three Bears.Three bears, three bowls of porridge.

One too hot, one too cold, and one juuuusssttt right.

My point is, Goldilocks determined for herself which one was too hot, which one was too cold, and which one was just right.

Just right only makes sense in relationship to her and for her. It was, ethical considerations aside, to be her porridge.

I say this because there is, if not a raging debate, at least a gentlemanly disagreement boiling up over how to prepare and serve pasta.

One school, led by the renowned Italian chef Mario Batali (who has a bearish quality, I'll grant you), says Americans overcook and over sauce their pasta. Batali says pasta is meant to be nearly crunchy in order for the nutlike qualities of the grain to shine. He says to think about saucing the way you'd add condiments to a hot dog or burger. You want to grease up the noodles but there should be no sauce pooling on your plate. Just well dressed pieces of truly "al dente" pasta.

The other school, with the New York Times "Minimalist" columnist and cookbook author Mark Bittman leading the charge, maintains that you ought to try even less pasta with more sauce, to accommodate the lower carb preferences of many Americans. He states if you use wonderful seasonal ingredients to throw together a deliciously healthy vegetable laden sauce you'd be silly to fret over offending Italian sensibilities. Go ahead and throw a bit of pasta in to accentuate your sauce and no worries, says he.

Whether or not another viewpoint is called for I will weigh in with my two cents here.If you are preparing pasta and sauce to share with people you enjoy? There is NO WRONG WAY to do that. Al dente or no, sauce laden or barely coated, if you are wanting to share your gifts in the kitchen with others then you are already on the right track. Decide for yourself what you want to prepare and how you wish to serve it, and forge ahead.

Concerns about the "correct" way to do things are for authorities. If you are happy with how your meal tastes and your friends or family agree? Who could, or even should, argue with that?

Getting Down to Busy-Ness

A friend and I were talking about how hard it is to coordinate getting together with people. Everybody is so busy.

My friend was trying to put together a dinner with two other couples. She asked them to indicate, on a calendar displaying four weeks including weekends, when they were available. One couple, out of town for 10 of those days and busy for many of the others, indicated one day they had free and clear. The other couple, (did you see this coming?) is free nearly every night except that one.

We were also talking about weekends and how precious they've become. This woman and her husband have a lake place south of San Antonio that is very remote. No telephone service there, no television set. Whenever they visit they are completely out of touch until/unless they head into the nearby small town and check the store there for newspapers and access to a phone.

When asked if she looks forward to retiring there full time she claims she wouldn't do it. She says, even if she is not going to participate, it is important for her to know about and feel at least marginally connected to the outside world.

She cited as her example, how in the Austin paper there are all these listings of concerts, speakers, museum openings, art shows, festivals, rallies, and retreats. The events and activities are varied and constant. She and I have in common with regards to this amazing array of potential fun that we mostly don't go. But we both DO like knowing about the activities.

We also talked about holiday seasons and how it had become important to each of us to be very selective in what we chose to do. (Only how many shopping days left?...sorry...) There are hundreds of activities that are all good choices individually, but trying to do them all runs counter to their purpose, enjoying the season. So we choose.

I mention all this for two reasons.

First, my husband and I will spend the weekend in Fredericksburg in a very cool lease house called "Inspiration Hill" with another couple we've known for years. We two couples haven't weekended together before, so this is new and we are all really looking forward to the extended time together.

We will be exploring Fredericksburg and the surrounding environs the weekend BEFORE the annual Food and Wine Fest in the area. Bad timing? I don't think so. I'd tried booking the house (a long time ago) for that weekend but it wasn't available. The more I thought about it, the more I began to appreciate that the 4 of us will be exploring on our own without the hundreds or thousands of extra visitors they might expect to show up for a designated weekend.

So we will wine and dine and make our own fun, which we are quite capable of doing. And we will do so without more than the usual crowd surge expected for the area in lovely weather on a regular weekend.

The other reason I say this is an opportunity I will unfortunately miss even though it represents La Dolce Vita. Life in Austin is indeed sweet. So is life out of town when it involves a weekend with dear friends.

I believe it crucial to create opportunities to spend time with people who are important to you. It is equally important that those shared times have as part of their structure, SHARED TIME, and not just time spent in proximity along with hundreds of other people.

A good balance is required so you are fed both personally and experientially. And that, my friends, is my basic recipe for La Dolce Vita - the sweet life.

An important side note: Thursday, October 18th is National Meat Loaf Appreciation Day! Whether or not you make one - be sure to appreciate a meat loaf, won't you?

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Tastes like....chicken

Some days, especially when the weather is fine, I have a hard time calling it quits working in the yard while I still have the energy and the will to put together a great meal for dinner. Today, I'd not only determined I wanted to honor that fine old tradition of a main meal for lunch on Sunday, but I also had a little help "deciding" to stop weeding, moving rocks, and futzing around in the garden beds out back.

The appearance of this fine specimen, under the last rock I moved, was all I needed to determine it was "time" to leave nature well enough alone and head indoors to see what I could cook up for lunch today.

[Disclaimer: OK - nothing really to give you scale in this photo. This snake, which is most likely a non-poisonous Texas Rough Earth Snake, was less than a foot long at best. The appearance of snakes of any size, generally prompts me to decide to move indoors. Especially when I find one so accidentally and at such close proximity to any of my own body parts.]

Left overs, re-runs, whatever you call it when you have food left, enough to offer as either a meal, or a reasonable meal component, doing something inventive with what you have rather than simply re-heating and re-serving can be a challenge.

Now there are some things - pizza comes to mind - that do very well with a simple heat up in the oven. Pizza, if anything, is more delicious the second time around, just as it is.

But today I had the vegetables left over from that (too) Lemon(y) Roasted Chicken dish, and since I'd re-used the cooked chicken thighs in gumbo and on a pizza successfully already, I was interested in seeing if I could reincarnate the remaining red onion, skin-on red potatoes, mushrooms and pancetta in some way that would serve as a reasonable side dish with today's lunch.

I decided to reheat, drain that doggone lemony pan juice away, and (cue Devo here) whip the remainder in my food processor with some half and half and butter added. Whipped Mixed Vegetables would be a close descriptor, minus the pancetta.

Due to the potato skins, mushrooms and pancetta this dish came out with a pinkish semi-poi look to it. Not unappetizing exactly, but enough so you'd probably ask "what's in this?" before you shoved a fork full in your mouth. Unless you trusted the cook totally. And in my house? My tastes are eclectic and different enough from everybody else's that folks might taste, sure, but they will certainly ASK first.

So I decided to run the whipped vegetables up under the broiler with a topping of parmesan and Triscuit crumbs. This gave it at a nice golden brown topping, and put some texture back in since I'd pretty much pulverized it.See for yourself.

The happy ending to my story for today was our Sunday Luncheon of a grilled chicken breast, organic green beans sauteed in olive oil with garlic and brown mustard, and that Poi Pretender Vegetable Do-Over.

Everything was delicious, and now I've got the satisfaction of having used the rest of the Lemon Etc all up in ways that did not further offend my favorite co-diner, along with having the large meal of the day behind us.

Sure, sure, I know that no matter how fabulous a lunch we had, my husband and I will both require another meal in 5 or so hours. And yes, I will probably cook something for that meal. But. I won't feel obligated to put together a hot anything, and if I am either exhausted from yard work (or from thinking really HARD about why I am not out doing yard work) I will give myself permission to throw together something light and easy with no personal recrimination attached.

Worship, yard work, a lovely shared meal with my husband. What a great way to start a new week. I hope you are having a similarly good start to yours, but if not? Call a "do-over" and let Monday be your official beginning. The one sure thing you can count on in cooking is that no matter how good - or awful - a meal may be, there is always going to be a "next time".

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Cleaning Up Part 2

The subject of substitutions brings us back full circle to the recently attempted Lemon Roasted Chicken Thighs recipe, origin of the Sprig search. I liked it, my husband thought the lemon was "too much". He did not declare himself as "allergic" to lemon though, so I will rerun the recipe at some point trying to alter the balance of acidity in one of several ways. Here I'll offer another tip of the toque to my son who gave me several suggestions for tweaks. I can use a Meyer Lemon, which apparently resembles a citric lemon/orange love child. Less acidic, but much harder to find in my regular shopping haunts. I can use half and half lemon and orange juice, resulting in my own FrankenMeyer substitute. I could try using a preserved lemon which is generally less tart overall than commercially available lemons.

I have not yet preserved lemons, but I have a recipe on hand for one technique to try and my son has indicated he might invite me over to learn his technique next time he makes a batch. How fun is that!

So there is hope my friends, a light on the horizon for the Lemon Roasted Chicken Thigh recipe. Now that I have nailed down what constitutes a "sprig" and I have a battery of tweaks lined up to avoid another batch of too-lemony results, I am golden to give that recipe another try.

Because as you can see, even uncooked, this dish looks good. And the entire time it baked, my entire house filled with savory smells. Can't beat that.

I will use the leftover cooked thigh meat, sans the declared "too lemony" vegetables and broth in a couple of ways this weekend. First I'll try using it as a pizza topping, and then I have plans to put the rest to work in a gumboesque concoction I have in mind. I want to try to use up one last pumpkin beer, some leftover grilled Nilgai sausage, organic tomatoes and I'm not sure what else. For lack of a recipe name, this Fall Flavor Celebration will serve as a pantry roundup to herald our return to cooler temperatures.

As to what else I've tried lately with success? I didn't blog separately on this topic, but I took the technique the New York Times Minimalist Mark Bittman advises for making your own hamburger meat here and put that to good use in mini meat loaves for one meal, and my own nostalgic version of Houston's Mighty Bites for the other.

For security reasons I didn't take a photo of the Mighty Bites. Mighty Bites are essentially mini cheeseburgers with onions grilled in, served on Parker House Rolls. If you saw them you'd want to kidnap me and insist I make them for you until your heart failed. Seriously, they are that good.

We used to get a bag full of them regularly in our poor med student family days. They'd run the occasional special offering three Mighty Bites for a dollar and we'd load up, rarely waiting until we got home to take the first bite. I don't even remember if they sold fries with those burgers. And I love French Fries.

I am pretty sure the one tiny Mighty Bites Restaurant in Houston has vanished, but as long as I can stand at the stove I will willingly recreate them for my family. And one of these days, maybe I will break the whole process out for you here. If you're lucky.....

Here is one of the mini meat loaves and they were predictably yummy. My meat loaf tricks are to use sausage ground into the meat in combination with some of Emeril's Essence.

I've done this enough times I don't feel the urge to yell "Bam!" any longer, but the results are consistently pleasing. I don't buy Essence commercially, I grabbed the recipe off the internet and throw the easily found ingredients together myself. Essence has a pretty high flavor profile, so I tend to use it judiciously. Otherwise whatever you've made is just so much texture with a similarly overwhelming spicy kick to it.

I think I have tied up most of the loose ends I left as stepped away from my computer long enough to work with my daughter the activist and her employer Atticus Circle and their partner organization Soulforce this week to help save the world. Their national week long event called "Seven Straight Nights for Equal Rights" has it's own website and the Austin action I was part of was outstanding. You can read about it here
and here.

Now I am heading back outside to enjoy the rest of this beautiful afternoon, knowing my culinary future is well in hand. That is a wonderful feeling and I am hopeful you will all have a similarly wonderful afternoon with the confidence having your own adventures in dining well planned can bring.

Will our favorite version of pizza be acceptable with chicken meat aboard? Will the gumbo type pantry round up be a real celebration of combined flavors or will I find myself wishing our dog, aka the canine disposal unit, was still around to dispose of the leftovers?

I'll be back to tell- hope you'll return to find out.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Cleaning Up Part 1

First things first. My son (have I mentioned he is a chef?) came over and demonstrated for me what would reasonably constitute a "sprig". Turns out I was pretty solid with my guesstimate, using the stems provided for sale at my grocer's as a general measure.

Chef/son tells me that when it calls for a "sprig" in a recipe, that generally indicates a precise amount will not be necessary for the dish's success. I am intimidated by such a cavalier approach to ingredient amounts, but in some cases, it is allowable to be vague.

I am further speculating "sprig" would generally be used in cases where there are are a variety of flavors expected to combine and when said sprigginess is neither intended to dominate, nor must be managed by amount in some way to prevent overwhelming the dish.

I share this information just to be democratic. I myself am not so much a recipe developer as a recipe tweaker type. After I have prepared something once or twice I might be inspired to either swap out an ingredient (necessity and a pantry lack often providing that impetus) or to pump up the profile of something or other.

As a for instance, my husband professes a food allergy to bell peppers, coconuts and liver. This is a long standing joke in my family, as he is specifically allergic to none of those items. He just really, REALLY doesn't like to eat them.

Whenever I am stubbornly trying a recipe that calls for major inclusions of any of the above, I either swap the culprit out for something less offensive, or find some way to leave it out of the dish altogether. It doesn't always work, but time and practice have taught me how far I can reasonably take certain substitutions.

For more on substitutions...stay tuned....

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Sprig has sprung

Most of the time I consider myself a veritable Mistress of the Universe when it comes to online searches. I suffer perhaps from a surfeit of overconfidence, based upon nothing more substantial than my ability to, say, find and print out the instructions for planting the Caesalpinia pulcherrima (Pride of Barbados) seeds I bought today.

Pride of Barbados is a gorgeous floral display masquerading as a low water use, neglect tolerant, deer resistant plant that flourishes locally in street medians. I personally have killed two of these otherwise sturdy specimens, leading me to speculate that overconfidence in my abilities extends past my internet search skills. But I digress.For dinner tonight I prepared a dish specially selected from recipes featured in the occasional newsletter thoughtfully provided me by Whole Foods Market.

The friendly folks at Whole Foods email a "foodie" type advertising circular posing as an informational exchange highlighting seasonally available ingredients and providing recipes featuring the same. I don't mind, in fact I subscribe to it and use their recipes regularly. I don't shop there often, but that is a topic for another post another day.

Today I was all about preparing their "Lemon Roasted Chicken Thighs with Chanterelles", which is where and why I bumped up against my technology snafu.

The recipe calls for 4 sprigs of fresh thyme.

No worries - I just happen to have thyme growing my garden and I'll allow as how I chuckle with delight each and every time I get to use some from my yard as opposed to having to go out and buy some, dried or fresh.

As I stood in my back yard, scissors in hand, gazing with admiration at my healthy flourishing thyme plants, (take THAT you persnickety Pride of Barbados show offs), I realized.

I have no idea what constitutes a "sprig".

Back inside I scurried to my faithful computer. I searched for "sprig equivalent". Aaank! Nothing. "Sprig substitute". Nope. "Sprig". Did I mean "spring"? *sigh*

I ended up cutting a length that approximates what I recall seeing as the length of the fresh herbs I can buy at my grocer's - around 4 inches. Having never prepared the recipe prior to this, I hoped for the best.

Results? I think the recipe is delectable. My husband was not so impressed with the inclusion of lemon. He was, however, able to eat his serving without discernible distress. Apparently while not a new favorite of his, not all that off putting, either.

So, a good recipe for somebody, but not one that will see another visit from us. I'll spare you the recipe at this point, but if you are interested, just let me know and I'll send it to you separately.

Meanwhile, back to whatEVER constitutes a "sprig"? Still guessing on that count.

Earlier today I speculated to one of my pastors that given 5 minutes and internet access I could determine for him the origin of the statement he included in his sermon that the church is always/only "one generation away from extinction".

I'll admit here I wasn't able to find the source of that quote in seven times that interval. I found it used, tweaked and referenced hundreds of times, but nary a sourced or original citation.

So, two strikes to my credit I'll bid adieu to the internet for just now. An amazing tool, a wonderful way to share ideas and recipes, and yes, a superhighway of information. Not the answer to every question certainly, but surely an engaging way to be reminded that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in my Google searches.All things in balance, my week is off to a mellow start. I've worshipped, spent time playing and talking with my entire family by turns, and prepared a meal that not only stretched my food horizons but gently reminded me of my technology limitations.

Not too shabby a start. Onward....