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.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

Chicken in Reisling

I was reading an article in the most recent Cookstr newsletter about the future of cooking and eating in "these, our troubled times" wherein various chefs and food industry types were predicting 2009 will be all about less expensive cuts of meat, comfort foods and "peasant dishes".

I like peasant dishes personally. In my experience the terms "rustic", "country style" or "peasant" are code for "not too complicated", "no high concept techniques involved" and "less expensive ingredients". All good.

Inspired, I began casting about for a braised chicken recipe, some sort of one pot wonder, when I stumbled across this on Epicurious.A recipe from the March 2008 issue of Gourmet Magazine for Chicken in Reisling.

The Hub, while not much of a wine drinker, well, actually not much of a drinker at all, is somewhat fond of the slightly sweeter German wines. I figured this recipe would hit two birds with one stone (we aren't into senselessly killing birds around here, just maybe getting their attention, ok?) by satisfying my desire for something not too complicated or messy, and simultaneously pleasing his palate, employing a Reisling to do the heavy lifting flavor wise.

We were not disappointed. There was a bit more mess than I'd anticipated because once you read all the way through the recipe, you'll note the potatoes are peeled and cooked separately, then stirred back in to the final dish. So OK, a two-pot wonder. I can be flexible (really, I can!).

This recipe makes 4 good sized servings. The sauce is very rich and this is another case where you'll want a good bread available to get every last drop of it off your plate.

One more note about reading all the way through? I'd assembled all my ingredients but had forgotten to go get my parsley out of the garden. It was after dark. Did I actually take a tiny flashlight out that I could hold in my mouth while snipping parsley for dinner?Maybe. What's your point? And now the recipe from Epicurious (photos mine).

Chicken in Reisling
Though coq au vin made with red wine is perhaps the best-known incarnation of the French dish in this country, most regions of France have unique versions that take advantage of local wines. Alsace's dry Riesling lends a gentle richness to this creamy, comforting meal. 

Yield: Makes 4 servings
Active time: 30 min / Total time: 1 hr
* 1 whole chicken (about 3 1/2 pound), backbone discarded cut French style into 8 pieces (see cooks' note, below)
* 1 tablespoon vegetable oil
* 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
* 4 medium leeks (white and pale green parts only), finely chopped (2 cups)
* 2 tablespoons finely chopped shallot
* 4 medium carrots, halved diagonally
* 1 cup dry white wine (preferably Alsatian Riesling)
* 1 1/2 pound small (2-inch) red potatoes

* 2 tablespoons finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
* 1/2 cup crème fraîche or heavy cream
* Fresh lemon juice to taste


Preheat oven to 350F with rack in middle.

Pat chicken dry and sprinkle with 1 teaspoon salt and a rounded 3/4 teaspoon pepper. Heat oil with 1 tablespoon butter in a wide 3 1/2- to 5-quart heavy ovenproof pot over medium-high heat until foam subsides, then brown chicken in 2 batches, turning once, about 10 minutes total per batch.
Transfer to a plate.Meanwhile, wash leeks and pat dry.Pour off fat from pot, then cook leeks, shallot, and 1/4 teaspoon salt in remaining 2 tablespoons butter, covered, over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until leeks are pale golden, 5 to 7 minutes. Add chicken, skin sides up, with any juices from plate, carrots, and wine and boil until liquid is reduced by half, 3 to 4 minutes. Cover pot and braise chicken in oven until cooked through, 20 to 25 minutes.While chicken braises, peel potatoes, then generously cover with cold water in a 2- to 3-quart saucepan and add 1 1/2 teaspoons salt. Bring to a boil, then simmer until potatoes are just tender, about 15 minutes. Drain in a colander, then return to saucepan. Add parsley and shake to coat.

Stir crème fraîche into chicken mixture and season with salt, pepper, and lemon juice, then add potatoes.
Cooks' note: A chicken cut French style yields 2 breast halves with wings attached, halved crosswise for a total of 4 breast pieces, 2 drumsticks, and 2 thighs. If you don't want to cut up a whole chicken, you can use 3 pounds chicken parts.

Not so fancy plating aside, I still would not hesitate to serve this to guests. Most of the messy work can be done ahead, and the braise should hold well in a low oven prior to adding the cream. You could work ahead, welcome and relax with your guests, then do your last bit of prep right before time to serve.

I used an inexpensive Reisling in the sauce last night.It was plenty tasty at a third the cost of the recommended Alsatian Reisling. You could spring for a pricier wine to impress guests if you wanted to, but really any Reisling you enjoy enough to drink will suffice.

We were only the two of us last night so I have gracious plenty leftovers to play with. In my quest to eat less animal protein, next time I try this out I will halve the amount of chicken called for and see if it isn't still a completely satisfying dining experience.

You see, producing meat, even when done according to responsible and sustainable methods, still adds more to the progressive climate disruption problems we are encountering than growing vegetables does. I am hopeful offering dishes with a complex sauce will keep even the most dedicated carnivore (aka the Hub) from feeling they have missed much by "only" getting 4-6 ounces of meat in their serving.

I am feeling pretty good so far about my forays into new culinary territory this week. Both poultry dishes, the chicken in sour cream with mushrooms on pasta, and this, chicken in Reisling, turned out to be fairly inexpensive, reasonable to prepare, and pleasing to the palate.

I have one more experiment in mind this week before both an out of town guest and LawSchoolGirl arrive on Saturday. I typically stay away from trying anything brand new when I have company in the house. And LawSchoolGirl has the pickiest of our family's picky palates, so next week will probably not find us "boldly going" anywhere new.

And that's perfectly all right. It may not be bitterly cold here in Central Texas this February (today's high is predicted to reach 80 degrees!), but it is yet winter in our heads and hearts. Comfortable foods with their rewarding familiar tastes will be the order of the day as our family regroups for a bit of a breather.

I am curious. What is your approach to having visitors to feed? When you have house guests or family in town, do you stick with the familiar and the comfortable or do you take that as your opportunity to branch out and try something brand new? Feel free to sound off in the comments column and let me hear what you think.

Thursday, February 19, 2009

My Blog's Better than Your Blog

Sung to the tune of the Ken-L-Ration jingle...
My blog's better than your blog. My blog's better than yours.... Wait!


This is not false modesty on my part. I have proof.

You are probably already aware there are more food blogs in the webiverse than you can shake a cyber spoon at. Google "food blogs" and you will get the following: "Results 1 - 10 of about 133,000,000 for food blogs. (0.12 seconds)".

There are also any number of "authorities" out there, experts purporting to advise the erstwhile food blogger as to how to create and maintain a "successful" food blog. Google "how to write a food blog" and you get about 29,400,000 hits. That is a lot of free advice.

Some commonly shared hints include:
1) Fill a need. Don't try to be all things to all readers. Focus on a cuisine or a concept and stick to it.
2) Invest in professional design for your site and be technically proficient with a camera. Good photographs are important.
3) Have a good index and clearly tag recipes so they can be easily located and retrieved.
4) Write well. There are any number of ways to retrieve recipes off the internet. You have to offer more if you want folks to spend their time reading your blog.5) Don't put photos of your cat on your food blog. (That last one being my own tip. Do as I say, not as I do.)

Do I observe these rules? Mostly, I do not.

Does that going against conventional wisdom show in terms of my readership? Well, hell yes it shows, why else would they call it conventional wisdom? Sorry. Got a little cranky there for a moment.

As a matter of fact, if you eliminate my family (something I have routinely threatened to do but I promise kids, I never really mean it!) what I have probably would not legitimately qualify as a "readership". More like a "reader-dinghy" but I think even that may be overly generous. Let me try again. On a good day, what I have in terms of folks reading here might be best described as a reader-kickboard. Nope. Still too much. Reader-pool noodle?If you are into being part of a small group, if you like to consider that as a form of elitism or superiority, then great. I've got your blog right here by golly. On the other hand, if it is a widely shared experience and lots of company you want, you will want to read elsewhere. To show you what a good sport I can be, I'll even give you a head start finding Elsewhere'sville.

The UK Times Online has compiled a list of their "50 Best Food Blogs", found here. As the article notes, one of the blogs listed fielded 800 comments on a post. 800 comments! You know you've really got something going there. And not to be a blog tease - the 800 comment blog (although 180-300 seems more the norm) is The Pioneer Woman Cooks, by Ree Drummond. Several other of the Times tapped blogs I routinely read, and the rest I am determined to check out pronto. 50 Best, after all. These blogs are certainly doing something right.

Congrats to all the UK Times mentioned 50 Best Food Blogs. Being designated as one of 50 Best out of the potential 133,000,000 hits on Google (duplicates notwithstanding) is quite an accomplishment. And seeing as this is the UK Times putting together the list, that means these bloggers have not only hit the big time, but they have hit the big time internationally. Bravo, web gente!

On a more local note, congrats as well to ChefSon, author of Austin Gastronome, for being invited to participate in the recent Austin Food Bloggers Tasting event at Uchi Restaurant. (You say you weren't invited and didn't hear about this before now? Yeah - neither did I.)

ChefSon reports it was not only fun to meet some of the "folks behind the blogs" but it was fairly amusing to watch certain technically inclined bloggers (mostly male) compare equipment.

Cameras that is. [This is a family blog- get your mind out of the gutter.] ChefSon also merited further mention on one of Austin's premier foodie network sites, Addie Broyles; Relish Austin. Addie is sort of the Perle Mesta of Austin food bloggers. When Addie invites you to an event, you know you've made it into the inner circle.

Way to go ChefSon! We are proud of you kid.

As for me I have a post on Chicken in Reisling to finish. My reader-pool-noodle awaits.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Love Me Tender(s)

I haven't used many Whole Foods recipes lately although I still regularly read their emailed newsletters.

You know, I need to be careful when I set myself up to receive an emailed newsletter. I sign up for something and I feel obligated to read it, at least cursorily, before I can delete it.  I am reluctant to stop many of them, even after I go a stretch without seeing anything there I am interested in. I guess I am secretly convinced that next issue will be The One.

What I mean by The One is the issue that will have two or three articles or recipes I will find illuminating, life altering, revelatory and fulfilling. If I unsubscribe I might miss something spectacular and then where would I be?

Yeah. I gotta get out more.

Anyway, the Whole Food featured recipes have tended (for me) to hop erratically around, hitting the way too much trouble (Chilean Chicken Pie), or the way too weird ingredient combination (shrimp watermelon and goat cheese salad) marks as often as not.

Recently however, they featured a budget dinner idea that struck me as something I wanted to try here at home.  Sour Cream Chicken and Mushroom Pasta.  

I already had organic chicken broth, organic sour cream, and some of our well liked No Yolks broad noodles on hand, so only needed to pick up mushrooms and chicken tenders off the list.

I hit Wheatsville to shop for ingredients.  They did not have chicken tenders, but had a package of Grateful Harvest Turkey tenders.  I like cooking with organic turkey, it has great flavor (as opposed to the bizarrely no flavored birds grown in CAFOs).  Turkey tenders it would be. 

I decided to use two cups of mushrooms and I was a bit sloppy with the paprika so I am guessing I ended up with closer to two teaspoons when all was said and stirred in. Perhaps my heat was a bit high, a common failing of electric heat sources as opposed to gas flames, because when I was ready to add the noodles the sauce had boiled down a bit too far. Would this looks-so-easy dish prove to be trickier than I thought?

Naaaah - no worries - a glug or two of chicken broth and a quick reheat brought my dinner entreé back to plating readiness. I served the paprika influenced orange noodles with steamed organic green beans and a few slices of a nice baguette from the Old World Bakery in Kyle.  

There is a word in Italian for that piece of bread you use to sop up the extra sauce.  I can't recall the term at the moment but I know why they have a special word for it.  Using a piece of sturdy bread to make sure none of a delicious sauce is left to waste needlessly away on a plate just makes good plain sense.  It is ever so much more delicate to swirl your bread around and pop it in your mouth than to hold your plate up and lick it clean.  Or so I'm told.....The sour cream tenderloin and mushroom pasta is very delicious. The smokiness of the paprika worked really well with the mushrooms in the sauce, and the turkey tenders cooked through without drying out at all - one complaint I often have with teensy pieces of simmered poultry. 

We each had a generous serving and we still have two servings left that ought to reheat nicely for lunch or another go round at dinnertime. Next time I might bump the mushrooms up to three cups. This sauce cooks just long enough (25 minutes or so) that the mushrooms could stand to have a stronger presence in my thinking. Or you could cook them separately and stir them in so they don't cook down quite so much but that defeats the only-uses-two-pots advantage of this.

I am sure I spent more than $3.17 per serving because I used organics wherever I could. The only ingredients that were not organic were the salt, pepper, and the noodles. Those were at least Kosher - well, two out of three - never seen Kosher pepper have you? I didn't even try to tally up the additional cost per serving for using organic because using organics is not about the math for me. 

Actually, in an ideal world, nothing is about the math for me. I will just go ahead and say it - Math sucks. Yeah. There you go. Math sucks. I said it and I'm glad. Deal with it.

It will be interesting, as this recession processes, to see how rigidly adherent to my "organic options are always better" policy I can be if/when the pennies need to be pinched a little harder. I suppose that would be considered another reason to ease away from so much animal protein in our diets. Meat and seafood are always pricier than their alternatives. Not to mention carbon footprints (although ooops - there - I just did!).

If you are a stroganoff fan, this dish will be right up your alley. As simple as it is, and that is as much why it appeals as anything, you could certainly use it as a starting point and dress it up with the addition of other seasonal ingredients or proteins. You'll want to keep that flour in there to thicken the sauce some way, but otherwise, you could pretty much pull this together 48 different ways, 48 different weeks.

For your convenience, to follow is the recipe off the Whole Foods website:

Sour Cream Chicken And Mushroom Pasta
Serves 4

3/4 pound chicken tenders
1/4 cup all purpose flour 
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon butter 
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 cup sour cream
1 cup chicken broth 
1 1/2 cups sliced mushrooms
1 1/2 teaspoons paprika
1/2 pound dried fettuccine or bowtie pasta 

Put chicken, flour and salt and pepper into a large bowl and toss to combine. Set aside. Melt butter in a skillet with olive oil. Add chicken and brown on all sides. Stir in sour cream, broth, mushrooms and paprika. Cover and simmer on low heat for 25 to 30 minutes. Prepare pasta according to package instructions. Drain well, then transfer to bowls and spoon chicken and its sauce over the top.

Per serving (about 11oz/301g-wt.): 600 calories (220 from fat), 25g total fat, 11g saturated fat, 75mg cholesterol, 990mg sodium, 65g total carbohydrate (4g dietary fiber, 6g sugar), 28g protein

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Snakes on a Plane for Dinner

WARNING: Every single thing mentioned in this post is not for the faint of heart. As in, everything that follows is potentially bad for - could STOP - your heart, cold. Read on at your own risk!

Maybe you managed to resist the impulse to see that certain movie starring Samuel L. Jackson he claims he participated in on the strength of the title alone... "Snakes - On a Plane!".

The cinematic equivalent of a TV commercial hawker promising breathlessly, incredulously, "But wait - there's MORE!!", the phrase "snakes on a plane" quickly morphed into family shorthand for "over the top".

This could be over the top bad, as in "wait - it gets worse, he didn't just wreck his car...", or over the top good. That honor used to go to the phrase "poison tigers" which was old and tired and ready to rest. (You're welcome, poison tigers!)

Certainly for every one of the (very) many who watched the movie because they thought nothing could be worse than being trapped inside an airplane with dozens of poisonous snakes there was somebody else who watched it with a shiver of delight because hell yeah!, nothing beats snakes - on a plane, baby!! (except snakes on a plane battled by the iconic Samuel L. Jackson).

What you are legitimately wondering now, does this have to do with food or fun?  Sit tight my children and I will tell you.

Cheese Grits! But wait, there's more!!

Cheese Grits with Shrimp!

Worth the ride right there, sure, but hold on - I am not finished yet.

Cheese Grits. With Shrimp... Cooked.......


BACON FAT!!!!If that thud I just heard was your jaw hitting the keyboard, I feel you. I saw this recipe in the Serious Eats "Dinner Tonight" column by Nick Kindelsperger and realized that whether or not I already had most of the ingredients on hand (which I did - go figure!) I would be making this for dinner and, PRONTO!So I did.  It did not disappoint dear hearts. It most certainly did not.

The original recipe calls for cooking bacon then using the "oil" (seriously - we are pretending that stuff coming out of cooking bacon is oil and not fat?) to cook shrimp in right before you throw the shrimp, the crumbled bacon and some chopped scallions back on top of the (had me at cheese) grits.

I didn't actually have bacon handy but honey chile, my Momma grew up in Virginia, OK? As in "Yes, Virginia, we DO all have a jar with bacon fat sitting in our refrigerator".  And I do.  When I want to quick sizzle something extra delicious style I have the best sizzle maker there is readily available - bacon fat.I followed the recipe as written with the exception of actually cooking bacon to get my "oil" which also meant no crumbled bacon to throw back on top. Maybe because I was already delirious at the prospect of bacon fat cooked shrimp for dinner, I tossed a few red pepper flakes into the hot "oil" right before I put the shrimp in to cook. 

And, yes, whatever you call it, once you use bacon fat/grease/drippings/oil to cook something, you elevate that something to an entirely new, over the top, snakes on a plane level of rich sumptious porky fat goodness.  When you are already talking about something as delicious as shrimp, sugar, now you got yourself a little somethin' somethin' goin' on, you hear?

Yuppers, this dinner would have been celestial alignment delicious with the crumbled bacon pieces added on top but trust me when I tell you it didn't even need to go there. What we ended up with was one of the most delicious and inexpensive dinners we've shared hereabouts. This bowl of shrimpy, cheesy, bacony goodness prompted a spontaneous "You can fix this for dinner any time you want" from the Hub.

No higher praise than that.

Granted, he had to speak up to be heard over the sounds of our arteries slapping shut, but nothing's perfect.We had a lovely salad, dressed up with gorgeous organic grapefruit sections, alongside the grits. The salad also features scallions and arugula from our own garden but more on that in a moment. We can eat salad for a week after to make up for this bit of cardiac clogging, ok? Ok! (note I state we "can" eat salad for a week, not that we "will". Just stating the possible, not making any promises...).

A couple of notes before I close. Long ago and far away I got a tip from Andrea Meyers, Instructional Designer, Education Consultant, Mom, blogger and cook extraordinaire, about taking the root tips of the scallions you buy at the store and planting them in your garden rather than tossing them on the compost pile. I have been carefully doing so for a while now, and have several stands of scallions in the back garden beds. Now when I want a pile of yummy green oniony tops for a dish?I just haul myself out back with the shears and smugly get to clipping. I hear you can do the same with leeks although I haven't successfully pulled that off yet (or else I've lost track of where I planted that leek root...things are getting a little busy back there true enough.).I also harvested arugula we planted earlier this Fall for our salad. Anything for another opportunity to say "It doesn't get much more fresh or local than this!"*. That also means this dinner with the two dishes using scallions and the salad using both scallions and arugula grown in our garden, qualifies to be featured in Andrea's Grow Your Own Roundup for February. You can get the details about GYO here.

[*Yes. I am that person. Deal with it.]

Do give this wickedly simple and decidedly delicious dish a try on your own. Maybe even while watching "Snakes on a Plane". Just be careful about having a spoonful in your hand in case watching the movie makes you jump. You won't want to lose one iota. For those of you who are sure your cholesterol numbers are low, I can be all business too. Here is a suitable-for-printing version of the original recipe:Shrimp and Grits with Bacon  - serves 4 -
1 tablespoon butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 large onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 cups milk
3 cups water
1 cup grits
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, finely grated
8 ounces bacon, chopped
20 medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined
1/4 cup scallion, chopped
Salt and pepper

1. Add the butter and olive oil to a saucepan set over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the onion and cook until soft. Add the garlic and cook for another minute. Turn the heat to high and pour in the milk and water. Bring to a boil and slowly whisk in the grits. Turn the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes. When done, dump in the cheese and stir until it is melted. Season with salt and pepper and set aside.

2. Add the bacon to a large skillet set over medium-high heat. Cook until golden browned and crisp. Remove and drain on paper towels. Pour out all but 3 tablespoons of the oil.

3. Set the skillet back over medium-high heat and when nearly smoking, add the shrimp. Cook until pink, about 1 1/2 minutes per side.

4. Scoop some of the cheese grits into a bowl and top with the shrimp, chopped bacon, and scallions. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

Saturday, February 14, 2009

My [Alternative] Valentine's Day

What is Valentine's Day all about?  That depends on who you ask.

The guy in my go-to liquor/wine shop locally told me he had 2-3 women come in to their store within the span of one afternoon earlier this week all furious and asking the question "What is WRONG with men today!?". This led to a phone conversation with LawSchoolGirl whereupon I speculated at least one of those women had been subjected to a panicky preemptory Valentine's Day Dump. She assured me there is no metric by which such behavior is allowable. A pre-holiday breakup can only take place at least 2 weeks prior to said holiday and still qualify as anything less than chicken sh*t. That is a pretty low bar, all things considered.

Anyway. Most folks who are blissfully unaware of such masculine shenanigans will agree, a legitimate Valentine's celebration will essentially include some sort of nice meal, chocolates, flowers and/or a card.

I mostly agree. I don't like trying to eat at restaurants on Valentine's though. Too many two tops with folks lingering over wine and special order soufflés, meaning the poor wait staff are working extra hard for smaller tips and, importantly, not out schmoozing with their own sweeties.
(click on the following poem to see a larger version you can actually read..)
My idea is to prepare a nice local home made meal for my honey. At some point I will raise a toast to those Texas chefs and restauranteurs who are still in the race for a James Beard award, hopeful that m/any of them will get home in time to at least share an exhausted kiss with their Significant Other tonight. Go Texan - read about who is in the running from our area here.

Candy is dandy, but I am off chocolates for a while. Two reasons. I am trying (hard!) not to be forced into the realm of all elastic waisted or muu-muu style outfits. Secondly, and this I am serious about, the fact that the vast majority of chocolate involves the use of child slave labor really puts a huge buzz kill on the whole enjoying chocolates deal. Unless you are careful to buy Fair Trade chocolates, much of the cocoa in the chocolate we buy in the US is harvested using child labor. Share the love - take a minute to tell Hershey, M&M/Mars and Nestle to stop labor rights abuses now. Take action on this at International Labor Rights Forum here.

Flowers? Well maybe you'll try planting some rather than buying cut flowers this year? Or giving your love a flowering plant that can eventually be planted outside? Not only do the bees need our help, but the thousands of poor women who harvest most of those last minute grocery store bouquets are forced to work out in the fields while they are being sprayed with pesticides. They don't get health benefits and reportedly many are sexually abused.  Rarely are they allowed to organize to protect their rights. So yeah, if you can ignore their plight then, sure, have fun with your cut flowers. (As with chocolates, this does not apply to Fair Trade flowers - check with the vendor if you aren't sure where those flowers came from)

A card? My favorite Valentine's Day cards are also home styled. I am not personally acquainted with anybody working at Hallmark or American Greetings either one, so I don't find it reasonable to rely upon them to sum up my feelings, especially not with rhyming couplets. When it comes to telling somebody I love them, I think putting that into my own words, and as importantly, demonstrating that with my actions, is where it is at for Valentine's Day.So from me to you, a shared glimpse of the flowers blooming out back, along with a warm wish that however and with whomever you spend your time on Valentine's Day, you will be reminded you are a very special person, and are loved for who you are. Finally, the Mommy in me begs you to please accept this message however it is delivered and from whoever it is that takes the time and energy to see that you get it. Sure I hope we will all be careful with flowers and chocolates and worker's rights. The bottom line is, or it ought to be, there is no wrong way to say I love you!

Monday, February 9, 2009


Too often travel, instead of broadening the mind, merely lengthens the conversation.” 
Elizabeth Drew
I used to envy people who travelled for business regularly.  Travel is supposed to be broadening.Broadening is usually meant in the sense of "you learn new things" as opposed to "you gain weight", but typically when I am away from home for more than a day or so, both meanings apply.
Case in point. The Hub and I flew to Fort Lauderdale Florida recently, so he could attend a professional meeting.

Immediately we noticed airports and airplanes are all a lot emptier than we've ever seen before. Economic downturn becomes ever so much more a reality than a phrase when you are seeing firsthand the nearly empty corridors of what is more typically one of the busiest venues we ever purposefully visit (DFW airport).

Florida is a gorgeous state taken over all, even with its continued frenetic pace of development.Problem this trip, was the weather. Last week, Florida was significantly more wintry than central Texas.  That pretty much left us out in the cold. The weather for our visit in Florida was ironically unpleasant in ways that had folks unable to resist fatuous questions about where global warming was when you needed it. Both visitors and residents were donning extra layers and avoiding spending time out of doors.With gray windy skies and low temperatures the new rule, a trip to Florida becomes pretty much a waste of an otherwise perfectly good ocean and beach.
No red suits here. 
Even the local version of Baywatch were bundled up.
Or here. 
Good thing the lobby was scenic since it was the only comfortable place to hang.
I learned that while some resorts have gone to great lengths to create an ambiance of warmth and caring for your well being, sometimes room service will be only about getting food to your room, rather than doing anything to produce a good meal.

Mediocre food aside, I heart little jars. I have a weakness for anything small, but especially condiments when they appear in their own teensy single serving glass bottle. I know it is not environmentally groovy. I just adore the little bottles that show up on room service carts.   I think I'd bring them all home if I could.

I learned if you are bored enough, everything looks like it might make for an interesting photograph from 22 floors up...only to return home and be baffled by the multiple photographs of traffic islands.  I think I was thinking those shots could be tweaked in some way to become "artsy".

Traffic islands are not artsy. Not even shot from 22 stories up. Not even when the bright little red and yellow cars look like matchbox models.Or maybe, especially not then.

HVAC units for an entire resort complex. while impressive in scale, are probably not going to make for arty photos either, although these come close(r).I was reminded why it does not pay to park on the roof of a parking structure at dusk.
Cue Hitchcock
I determined those who are faint of heart ought not use that antique scale at home they also use to weigh themselves to first weigh a laden suitcase, and then stand where the precise scale at the airport for that packed bag will shine out the truth about how many pounds off that scale is reading.  It is better not to know.
Now the dust has settled, I am glad to have had the opportunity to travel with Hub. It reinforced for me how much I like where and how we live. I won't require slipping off ruby slippers at security checkpoints to understand.  There really is no place like home.
“Travel is glamorous only in retrospect.”  
Paul Theroux

Making Deux

A quick note here - the macaroni and cheese reheated pretty well.  

I used the microwave in several stages - added water and stirred back in to disperse the heat and moisture evenly.

I know lots of folks insist using a microwave is not "real" cooking, that they are useless and take up otherwise precious counter or storage space, blah blah blah...  In a situation such as this where I had something potentially scorchable to reheat and only an electric rangetop (as opposed to gas where I can control the heat instantly) to use, the microwave is a dish saver.

I thought the sauce was just the teensiest bit grainy when reheated but it also sat in the refrigerator longer than I would have let it except we were out of town.  If reused within a day or two I believe it would not lose anything in the way of taste or texture.Final verdict?  The Barilla US style macaroni and cheese dish is a winner.  It eats well, reheats reasonably, and was quick and easy to prepare.  Give it a try if you are craving something delicious and want a compromise between the blue box or spending two hours waiting for your macaroni and cheese.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Accent on Mac 'n Cheese

I have a thing for accents.

I admit to you up front, give me somebody spouting pure drivel as long as they do so with a crisp British accent (for instance) and I am thinking to myself, "how very astute - what wonderful commentary!".

It goes further than that. When I watch BBC news I feel smarter, that is how suggestible I am that the accent makes not only the speaker, but the listener as well.

Other accents I find provide a context of charming in a way that often overcomes content.Fabio on Top Chef has made comments on at least two shows now referencing his cooking, monkey asses, clam shells and fried bananas among other things. Unappetizing? Far from it. Because he has that Italian accent, rather than be at all put off I grin like a monkey myself and think, "haha - what a guy!".

It is similar for me when using food terms in a foreign language. Everything sounds better to me in somebody else's mother tongue.

So when I was reading in Emily Weinstein's Bitten Blog in the Times about "Addictive Mac and Cheese" and I saw somebody in the comments section reference a Barilla recipe for the dish, I checked it out immediata.

I was not disappointed. Rather than the ordinary garden variety Macaroni and Cheese recipes mentioned in the Bitten Blog there it was in all its accented wonder: Maccheronia al Formaggio all'Americana (American-Style Macaroni and Cheese). Delizioso, si?From the Barilla website:
Ease of preparation: easy
Prep Time: 10 minutes
Cook time: 15 minutes
Servings: 4-6

1/2 box (8 ounces) BARILLA Elbows
4 tablespoons (1/4 cup) butter
1 large onion, chopped
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
3 cups milk
1 1/2 cups cheddar cheese, shredded

HEAT milk in a small saucepan.
MELT butter in a 4 quart saucepan over medium heat. Add onions and saute until transparent.
STIR in flour and salt; cook for 2-3 minutes.
ADD milk and stir to blend. Bring mixture to a low, steady simmer.
ADD uncooked Elbows, cover and continue to simmer gently for 8 minutes, stirring occasionally. (Mixture will thicken as it cooks).
REMOVE from heat and add cheese. Stir gently until cheese is melted. Pour mixture into a 1-1/2 quart casserole dish, cover and let sit 5 minutes before serving

For a cheesier version, top with an additional 1/2 cup cheddar cheese and broil until cheese is melted .

Before we even got to the Italian name, this recipe already had two things going for it. First off, it requires a shorter prep and cooking time than most of the sworn by mac and cheese recipes being tossed about as "the best".

Secondly, I actually had a half box of Barilla elbows already sitting in my pantry.

Ah, Fate, and not just Fate, but Fate singing the siren song of cheesy noodles. With an Italian accent.


I mostly followed the recipe as printed. One exception I made was adding in 1/4 teaspoon of dry mustard. Adding dry mustard to macaroni and cheese recipes is for me a step similar to putting Worcestershire sauce into green bean casserole. It always makes for a better end product and elevates the taste to that next level. You might not notice either ingredient in either recipe, in fact you aren't supposed to notice them for themselves, but if you've tasted either recipe with them added and then get a batch without? You miss it.I put my mac into individual serving ramekins (OK I'll admit -partly so I could use the term ramekin here which is as much fun to type as it is to say) and ran it up under the broiler for a little color. I also added about a cup extra of grated blended white cheddar and monterey jack because I had it open and we were heading out of town so I wanted to use it up.

Finally, I discovered, as I was rummaging through refrigerator drawers as part of the usual "going out of town for a few days let's get anything that is going to stink when I come home OUT of here" search, a block of Emmentaler cheese that was, ahem, caff, "a bit" past its sell by date.Here I pause to cop to a pretty cavalier attitude when it comes to keeping and using cheese.

Chicken I am afraid of. If it smells the least bit off or is past a use-by date then I toss it out with deep regrets but no hesitation. Cheese on the other hand, I tend to shrug and think - "hey - this stuff just gets better as it gets older and is part of a process that uses mold development for flavor in many instances so.... eh - I will just cut off this icky part and eat the rest".

Let me rush to add I am no scientist, no food police authority of any sort and my attitudes and experiences with surviving such cheesy rehab projects without incident are not laid out here to suggest an exemplar for others.

Don't do as I did but understand in the spirit of full disclosure that I took the past-the-prime pricey Emmentaler and used about a half cup of it in my mac and cheese to spiff up the flavor profile.

You will note that this recipe calls for chopped onion. I am not sure where or how that got started, I don't think I've seen chopped onion in many mac and cheese recipes previously, but in the spirit of global understanding I duly chopped onions up and hoped for the best. I was not disappointed.

The results? Very, VERY good.

This process of cooking the elbows in milk yields a thick end product that will only withstand a little additional heat before it begins to move into too thick territory. This is not a mac and cheese recipe that will hold for long periods of time, clearly. I am not sure (yet) how it will reheat. I plan on hitting that button when we get back to town. I am quite certain I will need to add some liquid back in as I reheat, and we will see if that results in a broken sauce.

For our first go round I did not gild the lily with a crumb or tomato topping, and I did not put added cheese on top to brown under the broiler as was suggested at the Barilla site. I did throw on a little spanish smoked paprika just to keep the ghost of my Home Economics teacher, "remember children" [we were in Junior High - we were SO not children!] - "you eat with your eyes, first!", off my back and out of my head. 

I think with the second incarnation of this I might stir in some sauteéd mushrooms and see if/how that dresses it up. Not that macaroni and cheese needs to doll up.Firmly ensconced as it is in the category of a comfort food, macaroni and cheese is a dish that already says "I love you so I made this for you to enjoy". Is there really any other message a food ought to be sending?

With Valentine's Day coming up (a day I kind of hate but we won't get into that just now) I am suggesting that rather than going the way of decadent sweets or taking the route of fussy fancy foods, maybe you will want to try preparing a batch of something comforting for that person you love. Present it without fanfare, dressed up with just your smiling face and the statement "I love you so I made this for you to enjoy", and see where that gets you.

It would sure enough work on me. With - or without - the accent.

Monday, February 2, 2009

Fun to Say, Fun to Eat

Some words, particularly certain food and cooking terms, are simply fun to use.If you are channeling your inner adolescent, something that happens to me regularly, you may smile every time you toss "cut the cheese" into conversation, even if you are only talking about actually cutting a piece of cheese.

When cruising in more sophistimacated territory, you may find it pleasing whenever you can casually insert the proper French term for a cooking technique or ingredient. Let's be honest with each other, using French makes anybody sound more like a hard core foodie, oui?

But French is so last year. It is 2009, we have a new president and now we need to choose a new language to use that establishes our foodie chops.

Sorry France, we really enjoyed it while it lasted, but we just want to be good friends, OK? It is time to move on. It's not you, it's us. We'll call you after a while and get together for lunch or something. Really.

It is time we all engage in a new foodie language crush and I propose that language be Español. It is past time we recognize there are a multitude of underutilized Spanish terms that ought to become the new gold standard for the cool culinary conversation.Por ejemplo:

"Empanada" a small sweet or savory pastry type deal may be a so-so speaking experience. However, make those same empanadas teensier and call them "empanaditas" and now you're onto something sexy. [Prounounced Em-pah-nahd-dEEE-tas and yes, almost bite your tongue on that "d" sound and pretend you hail from Barcelona. Por qúe no?]Go ahead, try it! Find a private place, take a few sips of a nice Crianza and say it a few times to yourself. You know you want to.

Once you get "empanaditas" rolling off your tongue you may find yourself making the small pastries just for the excuse to liberally sprinkle the term into your conversation.

Of course, nothing stops you from talking about how you just might make them at some point in the future. Working that term into conversations is guaranteed to spiff up your foodie talk as long as you keep finding novel listeners who won't be inclined to call you on "illegal arbitrary use of a word bearing no relation to your life".

But empanaditas is only my second favorite Spanish foodie term to use. My all time, hands down favorite Spanish foodie term is......[cue flamenco heels drumming on the floor]..... "chicharrones".

While I am not a huge fan of what is commonly referred to by use of the term [fried bits of pork skin], when I spotted a post recently on Simply Recipes for Chicharrones de Pollo I knew I would have to try the dish out if only for the excuse to ruthlessly work "chicharrones" into my conversations for a couple of days.

Without even having read the recipe all the way through, I instinctively knew the promise of linguistic levity would be well worth the few extra calories.
We who are about to fry, salute you.
Imagine how much more fun I envisioned since, after reading the recipe, and doing a little shopping, I realized I could put together what at least would pass for a reasonable, if not a "healthy" version of the dish.
Chicken marinating
Allow me to elaborate.

I bought skinless boneless organic chicken thighs, used Splenda to replace the sugar called for, and served the delectable fried marinated chicken bits atop what would otherwise pass for an Asian salad, like so:Totally delicious.

In case you are one of those folks who feels they must have at least two sources for everything, here is another take on the process from Appetite for China.

Hmmm, Appetite for China you ask?  Is this a legitimate Spanish dish or a Spanish take on an Asian technique?  No se, hombre but really, who cares? Multinational Chicharrones de Pollo! Still totally fun to say.  So very 2009. Even more fun to say in between deliciously crispy and yet tender marinated chicken bites.  

Fess up -  spill your favorite foodie term in the comments section below. Is there a word or phrase that makes you grin every time you use it? Share the love...