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.

Thursday, December 31, 2009

You Are Welcome! Happy New Year!

Oh readers, I am certain you are well organized, menu planned ahead, shopping trip(s) taken care of already. I know you have baked, chopped, prepped in all sorts of ways to assure your gathering, or intimate dinner, or snuggle in to watch favorite movies, or whatever forms your New Year's Eve/Day celebrations will take, are all ready to roll food and beverage wise. You have done your homework, you know your customs, and you have everything on hand you need to make sure you have a lucky and prosperous and well fed start to your New Year.

However, there is one not so secret weapon in any prepared host or hostess arsenal that you may have missed and I am going to share it with you here and now. This is such a great concoction that even if it does not bring luck or prosperity all by itself, having it on hand may mean you really don't care so much about either.

What could be that good? The World's Best Mustard Sauce, that's what. The absolutely Makes Everything Taste Better Mustard Sauce.

I originally uncovered this Makes Everything Taste Better Mustard Sauce as part of a pork tenderloin recipe offered so long ago, well prior to internet wanderings, that I did not save the source when I typed it up to put into my notebook.

Sidebar: Yes I have a notebook, The Notebook really, and it is filled with typed out, page protector sheathed wondrousness. It never crashes or requires any sort of connection and I can often judge, by the stains or spots that appeared pre-sheating, how much we loved a particular preparation, just in case it has been that long I might have otherwise forgotten.

You see I type something out, print it, I fix it, we eat it, and if we like it I typically fix it again with tweaks that I note in pencil on the page. Once I have arrived at what we consider close enough to perfection, I type the recipe up again, tweaks included, and then slip it into a page protector which then is shoved into The Notebook (with category dividers I mostly completely ignore).

Occasionally, something is so good as is, it gets fixed several times before I bother to locate a sheet protector for it. Those lovelies finally get their plastic home but only after they have earned all sorts of splatter and splash marks indicating they were well appreciated.

Back to your soon to be beloved recipe:


1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon dry mustard powder (I use Coleman's - who can resist that sunny yellow can?)
2 tablespoons chopped chives or very finely chopped green onion tops

Combine all ingredients well. Cover and chill at least two hours, preferably overnight.

And there you have it. Simplicity that, dare I say it, approaches perfection. The resulting sauce is an ideal side for a platter of sliced meats and cheeses. It goes well with any roasted or grilled meat, it rides happily atop any number of prepared vegetables, it is good on a sandwich and even better dolloped on a slice of quiche.

I have said, (over and over and over again, yes, yes, it is a favorite expression my family has heard WAY too many times) that this stuff is so good I'd be happy to eat my shoes, so long as they were well coated in this most delicious of mustard sauces.

And now I share it with you: the proud, the few, the readers of this blog.

You will very likely love-love-love this sauce and find all sorts of ways to work it into your meals from now on. Your lives, if not your waistlines, will be better for knowing of it.

So yes readers mine. Happy New Year! And, you are welcome!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Grateful for Gratin

In what was to prove a significant rookie error decades ago, I agreed to schedule the Hub's and my wedding ceremony in late December, over what was then his Christmas break from med school. I was a bit giddy with it all actually, so perhaps I could be forgiven for not understanding at the time that having our anniversary fall between our two mother's birthdays, not to mention just prior to Christmas followed shortly by the Hub's early January birthday would create an ongoing celebrational identity crisis.

Adding to the fun, perhaps I have not mentioned here how tricky Hub is to shop for gift wise? Planting a third gift opportunity proximal to both Christmas and his birthday was just plain dumb on my part. The ongoing gift idea distribution angst I experienced in the years that followed? I have nobody to thank there but myself.

And eventually the coup de grace was revealed. We got married during a commonly observed school break. This means, lo these years (and years!) later, when it came time to celebrate our anniversary as empty nesters, our nest was temporarily full again. Come late December, all absent students return home for the holidays. D'oh!

That last bit I mention just for effect. It really is not a downside. I love having my kids around, wedding anniversary or not. And yes, LawSchoolGirl is currently back in town. Which I am tickled three shades of pink over. So it turns out the Hub and I were observing our 35th (yes, yes, I got married when I was negative 12 years old) wedding anniversary this past weekend and as these things happen, the Hub was on call for a busy emergency room.

With no way to guarantee an uninterrupted meal time, we'd planned to celebrate our big day with a a nice quiet steak dinner at home. Including all available family members. In this case, since ChefSon was working, that meant LSG would be joining in on the fun.

LSG stated she felt a bit like she was horning in (although I promise you boys and girls, once you get to anniversary number 35, if you've been trying even a teensy bit you've already covered the Wow! bases pretty thoroughly). To alleviate that she proposed she would take over the major cooking duties. And in typical LSG style, as her gift to us, she upgraded the extremely simple menu I'd originally planned.

The first to fall was grilled steak. LSG had pan cooked steak at ChefSon's since she'd been home this year and was determined to share the technique. I had previously voiced my all too typical resistance to trying something new when something familiar was already appreciated. However, since LSG would now be doing the cooking she had the chance to gracefully overcome my objections.

It was decided: to top our dinner menu, pan cooked steak with a beurre rouge jus (and yeah I may be taking liberties with the French but come on....it is our anniversary dinner!).

Next to go were the horseradish mashed potatoes. LSG likes horseradish and she likes mashed potatoes, but she was feeling ambitious. A bit of an internet search produced a recipe for a horseradish gratin that got rave reviews on Epicurious. A quick check to see we had requisite ingredients on hand and et voila! Horseradish Gratin it would be.

I went out to harvest thyme for the steak and potato dishes, and while I was out there in the garden beds anyway, secured arugula and baby lettuce to add to organic romaine from the store for our dinner salad.

I'd already purchased a tiramisu cake (Hub's favorite hands down) and a nice Prosecco for toasting. I decided I'd make a Prosecco vinaigrette for the salad and before you could say Bob's Your Uncle! our Very Special Anniversary Dinner Menu courtesy of Preternaturally Talented Guest Chef LSG, was complete.

The gratin turned out to be pretty simple to put together.

We halved the recipe, figured out our substitutions, gathered our ingredients, and away we went. We assembled our mise en place.I showed LSG how I tie bouquet garniWe carefully sliced the potatoesLSG cooked them in cream until just tenderOnce the garni was removed (we put our garlic in the garni proper since in the comments section for the recipe site people stated they'd run into trouble removing the garlic which was the same color as the cream in the pot) and the potato cream mixture was placed into a buttered shallow baking dish, LSG sprinkled on the grated cheeseShe baked it for 30 minutes and then checked for color. It was gorgeous!Addendum: Here is the recipe as we prepared it, just to be friendly...
Potato Gratin with Horeseradish and Parmesan [printable version]
adapted from Shaw McClain's Yukon Gold Potato Gratin Recipe for Epicurious 10/06
1/2 bunch fresh thyme
1/2 tbsp fresh black peppercorns
1 bay leaf
2 garlic cloves, peeled and smashed with back of knife

1 1/2 pounds potatoes peeled and cut crosswise into 1/8 inch slices
1/2 tablespoon sea salt
2 cups heavy cream

1/8 cup prepared horseradish
1 cup Parmesan cheese, coarsely grated

Place a rack in middle position and preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Generously butter a 1 1/2 gratin dish (we used a deep dish pie plate).

Make a bouquet garni with first four ingredients.

In heavy 3 saucepan combine potatoes, bouquet garni, salt and cream. Set over moderate heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to low and simmer uncovered until potatoes can just be pierced with a fork (begin to check at 10 minutes).

Take off heat. Remove bouquet garni and discard. Stir in horseradish.

Spread potato mixture in buttered dish and sprinkle with cheese. Bake until top is golden brown and potatoes are tender, 30-40 minutes. Let stand 15 minutes before serving.

I chose not to share photos of the finished plates in toto, but I rush to assure you the gratin recipe was amazing and lived up to several reviews where folks stated though they were full from their meal, it was hard to resist standing around polishing off the remainders. This dish tastes that good. The pan cooked steaks were done just to medium rare, and the herbed buttery red wine pan reduction sauce elevated every morsel to perfection on the plate.

Last to appear was the tiramisu cake decorated with fresh cut flowers, one for every decade (old! I am so old!) we've been married.

A hint from an old married lady who has decorated many a cake with flowers through the years:If you want a cake decorated with fresh flowers to be a uniformly pleasing experience, be sure to use pieces of masking tape or thoroughly coat the cut end of the flowers with melted wax. If you use wax, let it sit until it cools and you can see you've achieved a good seal. This assures the stem does not stealthily share anything indigestible with your cake surface that will eventually find its way into the mouths of your dinner guests.See? Pretty enough to eat and safe to boot so your guests will live to properly thank you for your thoughtfulness.

All in all a meal to remember, with not one but two new recipes to relish repeating. Let it never be said that having talented grown children around to help their parents celebrate anniversaries is anything but a gift all its own. I am so grateful for my son and my daughter, both of whom are the shiniest reflections of 35 years of marriage I could ever imagine.

Folks, this will likely be the last blast from these quarters until after the holiday hooraw has settled. I do have plans for all sorts of familiar treats to have on hand for our Christmas day gift sharing feasting.... Crock pot chili with corn bread the night before, a routine developed years ago to accommodate last minute shoppers and other schedule crunches. Day of, Cava Mimosas, Egg Nog, sausage kolaches, banana bread, sausage cheese balls, spiced glazed nuts, Monte Cristo bake, and tortilla soup. That should be gracious plenty to keep body and soul together while our sensibilities are busy being delighted by Santa's efforts on our behalf this year.

It will be lovely. Fun and funny and amazing because it is all of us, together, doing what we do best. Eating and drinking while enjoying each other's company. I hope for nothing less for all of you, a wonderful celebration in whatever way you do it best. Happy Holidays to each and every one. See you next year!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Now, it is Christmas

The lights for the outside of our house went up the Sunday after Thanksgiving, a schedule we observe year in and year out, weather permitting.The paperwhite bulbs, started weeks ago in jars and little pots, have begun unfurling their delicate blooms.

The tree is up, the stockings are hung.Television schedules have been disrupted for "specials" and a few series have already aired the holiday version of their shows.

But truth be told, the something that really makes it Christmas for this family in this house, didn't happen until last night.

It is not shopping or decking the halls, it is not carols or special lights, not church services, wreaths, candles or any decorations at all that send the Now It Is Christmas signal to my brain.

Whether or not it would be considered sad beyond measure or merely expected, it is food that does that work, and for me, one holiday dish in particular.

How do I know it is Christmas? With the arrival of...Chex Mix!

I have, as long as I can remember, always preferred the salty crunchy treats over the sweet or chewy ones. Put out a bowl of mixed nuts or a plate of cheese and crackers alongside a plate of fudge and I'll be happy to let you have all the candy if you'll spot me all the rest.

I remember discovering what was to become my very favorite savory holiday treat at a neighbor's house, when I was about five or six years old. This was the home of my best friend, her Mom being my Mom's best neighborhood friend, their house being the scene of many a sleepover and shared meal where I had most of my first "otherness" food experiences.

This gathering was to be of the "bring a holiday treat to share" variety of open house and I had eagerly helped my Mom make several loaves of banana bread to take as our contribution. My Mom was not one to keep baked treats around our house, she usually didn't bake anything she wasn't going to give away, so the idea I'd actually get to eat some of what we'd baked was honestly the center of my excitement about going to the party.It was the potential of multiple slices of banana bread that had me obediently slipping into a dress my Mom felt required the support of a particularly scratchy stiff petticoat, an undergarment whose itchiness was the bane of my dressed up existence in those days.

It was that promise of banana bread in combination with a sociably distracted Mom, pleasantly diverted from her usual focus on staying between me and my goal of putting myself into a sugar coma, that had me on my very best behavior. I was helpful, polite, thoughtful, doing anything and everything I could to assure I would be allowed to accompany her to this neighborhood holiday extravaganza.

We'd finished baking the bread before lunch and after the loaves had cooled, filling the house with their enticing aroma, and I had finished a lunch I had no interest in, Mom carefully sliced the bread in preparation for fanning it out artistically on a platter, and let me have one end piece to eat.

Finishing the arranging, she wiped her hands on her apron and placed a warning hand on my shoulder. Looking me in the eye she gave me the lowdown on how the rules regarding my behavior at this party would go.

We would go to the party, she would put the platter of bread on the table set with food for the guests, and after that I was not to touch the bread until our hostess had taken the plastic wrap off. I was not to hover around the table and I was not to ask when we could have the bread.

Then, she said, I could take only one slice at a time. After I took that slice, a small one, I was to move away from the table and visit with somebody at the gathering while I ate it, and could only then walk! not rush! back to the table to take one more slice. The bread was to share with our friends and neighbors, she emphasized. There would be lots of treats on the table, and we were not taking the banana bread over to eat it all ourselves.

It was finally time. I watched my Mom place the plate with all those wondrous slices of banana bread goodness on the well stocked table. I grinned as my best friend's Mom took the plastic wrap off imediately, and told us to help ourselves to anything.

Then I realized there were too many grown-ups between me and my goal. Foiled, temporarily, I spooned a small handful of some sort of mixed cereals onto my plate and began to nibble. Clouds parted, angel choirs sang. More intrigued by the savory crunchy mixture with every bite, I asked my best friend if she knew what this most delicious treat was called?"Texas Trash" she told me, a favorite of her Mom's and the treat they had made the day before in large batches to anchor the table now covered with cookies and candies and breads of all kinds.

I went back for helping after helping, the banana bread quickly and completely forgotten as I ate pile after pile of salty crunchy wondrousness.

I eventually discovered the so-called Texas Trash was not a regional secret treasure but was really a variation of the nationally introduced Chex Mix. No matter the scale however, it was then and there, standing anchored close by a large bowl of toasted cereal pieces, that a food obsession bordering on addiction was born.

My friend's Mom made her mix with Spanish peanuts and Cheerios, a variation from the original recipe offering pleasing round shapes to contrast with all those squares. I somehow imprinted on that variant and the round brown Os became a look that came to represent how "my" Chex Mix must be. Over the years there have been multitudes of recipe tweaks offered by the cereal company themselves, not to mention the alterations that other families made to appease the taste buds of their nearest and dearest.

Chex Mix became available in bags, ready made, a cheesy version was introduced, but it matters not. We have tinkered with the recipe over the years, but finally landed upon OUR version (more Worcestershire sauce! no pretzels!) that serves as home base for all our Holiday Sanctioned Chex Mix focused holiday gnoshing.

And that simple fact remains: once the Chex Mix appears on the kitchen counter, the holiday eating game is officially ON. More so than cookies or candies or cheese balls or egg nog, it is the making, and eating, of mass quantities of Chex Mix that marks Christmas for me.

Here is the Base Recipe AustinAgrodolce way to make the merriest of mixes:
3 cups Corn Chex® cereal
3 cups Rice Chex® cereal
3 cups Wheat Chex® cereal
1 cup peanuts (light salt if I can find them)
1 cup Cheezits®
1 cup Cheerios®
6 tablespoons butter or margarine
3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder

I do it up old school, using an aluminum roasting pan I buy just for this purpose and just for each year, baking the mix in a conventional oven for an hour at 250 degrees, stirring every 15 minutes, because I remain convinced the time in the oven coats and toasts the pieces better than the more contemporary microwave version.Now it is your turn to share in the comments section - what is your "official" holiday food? What substance, by its very appearance, lights up the holiday palates around your neck of the woods? And if it is Chex Mix, do you have your own variation on the recipe that makes it special for you and yours?Cheezits® instead of Goldfish® crackers? All pecans instead of mixed nuts or peanuts alone? Rye chips? A special herb mix? Share it here and know you are potentially helping create a new holiday tradition for somebody, one crunchy munchy bite at a time.