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

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Happiness on Hand

If you could look through your computer to see me at mine you'd see me smiling and, let me rush to add, while fully dressed!  No blogging while in pajamas going on over here - no sirree!  Lately I'm smiling a lot because I'm happy for several good reasons.

One large helping of happiness is being served up by our wonderful Fall weather.  We've woken up to temperatures in the high 50s two mornings running. Though that may seem like nothing to you folks living in necks of the woods with four seasons per year, around here we have "Way Too Hot", "Just Right" and "Pretty Chilly" for our weather options.

The weeks of late September - mid November are typically "Just Right" weather and that makes them a local treasure.  For the small subset of us not allergic to anything floating in the air on this side of the calendar wheel, the pleasures of open windows for the few weeks of cooler Fall weather leads to outright giddiness nonTexans might not fully appreciate.  Although California, I am guessing with your current weirdly hot weather you are feeling us a little bit more today, am I right?  I thought so.

Cooler weather here means finally firing up the oven without needing to turn up the air conditioner.  It means appreciating oven hot foods as opposed to sticking with pepper hot foods and their contradictory tendency to cool a body off.

Cooler weather also means football, naturally.  You do remember I am writing this from Texas, yes? Football is an obsession here on every level.  High School, College, Pro teams - it matters not.  If you play it we will watch.  And watching football calls for special comfort foods, especially when the home team sputters.  While I can't recall how it got started, for several years now any list of football season comfort foods pretty much begins and ends with Muffaleta sandwiches.

Muffaleta sandwiches need one crucial ingredient - one I am always happy to have on hand.  Whenever olive spread (or olive salad - it's called different things different places) is in the house, or rather in the refrigerator, I am smiling.  I throw mine together from a combination of recipes - you can find dozens online.
I typically use two parts green olives to one part black olives and then throw in any of a number of pickled pepper pieces, some chopped celery or carrots, roasted red peppers, olive oil, red vinegar, salt and freshly ground black pepper.  I process it in pulses until it looks just right.

I make olive spread ahead to keep on hand because it always tastes best after it sits around a while. The flavors stick to themselves for starters, sort of like boys and girls at a middle school party, lined up against opposing gymnasium walls.  But you give them some time in the refrigerator, the tastes introduce themselves, get started swapping stories, and before you know it they are all old backslapping friends and the sum is much much greater than the total of the individual parts.

It is that great summed up olive salad more than any other single ingredient that makes a great Muffaleta sandwich.  And it is that great Muffaleta sandwich that transforms watching any football game into a good time no matter how my team is playing.

For non-football dinnertimes, and tonight is one instance of such, I am always happy to have a batch of Pioneer Woman's Buttered Rosemary Rolls cooling on the counter.

This is a do-over. The first time I made these a couple of weeks ago, I botched the rise by waiting too long afterwards to bake them. The poor babies fell and never quite got back up on their yeasty feet.  They were tasty, sure, but not gorgeous like they were meant to be.

This time I baked them promptly with gorgeousness as promised.  I left them in the cast iron skillet and will simply reheat them in the residual heat left over after I finish roasting a chicken.  Er, I will if I can keep from hiding in the coat closet and eating them all by myself that is.  They smell soooooo good.

I used a mixture of mostly rosemary with a little fresh thyme thrown in to echo the herbs I will sprinkle on that aforementioned chicken I plan to roast for dinner tonight.Because as I write this, I have  a wonderfully fresh Dewberry Farms whole chicken air drying in the refrigerator.  Isn't it happy looking?  Looking at it is making me smile, anyway.

I've read air drying encourages the crispest possible skin after roasting.  Friends, I'll be honest.  It's that crispy skin I'm after.  The rest of the chicken will be delicious but mostly it represents what I'll use to fill up on after I've eaten my portion of skin.  The prospect of roasted chicken skin - ohhh baby yes, I am grinning at that.
Finally I am airing out the ivories due to the handful of jalapeño peppers fresh from our garden sitting on the counter.  I'm pretty sure I have enough to put together a new batch of Homesick Texan Lisa Fain's Bread and Butter Jalapeño pickles featured towards the bottom of her post on what constitutes "Texan" potato salad.

This miniature harvest is coming just in the nick of time.  Besides potato salad, I've added pickles from the first batch I made on to every sort of sandwich or burger imaginable.  You can color me S O L D.  I need me some more.  Life is way too short to even try and get by without their sweet heat.

Having all this yumminess on hand is a lot like having money in the bank.  Money in the bank makes you happy, doesn't it?  I say to you "Here!  Here is money for you to put in the bank!" and you smile, right?  Right?

What about you?  Is there an ingredient or the prospect of a particular dish that reliably puts a smile on your face?   What's money in the bank yummy in your book?  Feel free to share in the comments section.  Who knows... your comment may be just the ticket to put a big grin on somebody else's face.  It'll definitely make me smile.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Rosemary Vinaigrette Grilled Chicken Cutlets and Rustic Apple Tart

Between a banged up ankle keeping me off my feet (read:no cooking for me which means no cooking at all around here) and the energy required to support moving my daughter's stuff back in and getting her unpacked, we have found ourselves eating take out food as often as not.   

So lately whenever I actually put together dinner all on my own, it feels something like a victory.  Not so much "din-ner!" but more "taaa DAAAA!".

Recently I put together a few very simple elements that in combination were very fanfare worthy.  Grilled marinated chicken cutlets, heirloom tomatoes, cheese mashed potatoes followed by a rustic apple tart for dessert.

What gave cause for hooraw was that the fruits, veggies and protein were all certified organic.  Securing organic ingredients lavishes a bit of extra love on family or guests.  When that kind of food love is available, I mostly just try not to do anything to get too much in the way of the flavors.

I'd spotted this recipe for a rosemary vinaigrette on the Simply Recipes site.  It was featured with grilled fish, but since we'd just been to Perla's Seafood and Oyster Bar for a birthday celebration, I figured to use it to grill some chicken.

Sidebar: I often hesitate when trying out recipes calling for much rosemary.  As much as I enjoy the aroma and flavor, I know from experience it can quickly overpower.  That said, I have tons of rosemary growing in beds around our house.  It loves the heat here and as long as it is provided good drainage, will even tolerate the occasional 8-10 inch tropical storm rain (hello Hermine!) without suffering unduly.

The resulting vinaigrette was fragrant and fresh, speaking its name softly on the palate.  I used grapeseed oil since I wanted to grill the meat and the olive oil called for can break down unfortunately over high heat.  If I were going to use this only as a fresh dressing, and it was quite delicious drizzled lightly over purple cherokee tomato slices, I'd go with a lovely light and fruity olive oil quite happily.

I took my rosemary vinaigrette, combined it with a bit of mayonnaise and slathered it all over a whole skinless boneless chicken breast that I'd sliced and pounded into cutlets.   This process accomplishes three things.  Boneless skinless chicken breast meat doesn't really taste.  As something of a blank culinary page it is up to you the cook to add flavor to keep it from being the bore at the table.  Chicken breast is also a very lean protein. Without added fat and a quick cooking time it can easily become dried out and tough.
To give you an idea of the serving size, all these and two more pieces besides came from one whole breast.  I am guessing each piece was 2-3 ounces.  With pieces this small you can pile them artfully on the plate should you want to show off a bit.  Your call.
My solution is to slice and pound the breast meat into cutlets, sometimes referred to as scallopine.   Rather than flouring and frying as is standard with cutlets,  I marinate mine at room temperature for 30-45 minutes then throw them on the grill.

Using this technique I get a good ratio of surface area to marinade.   My habitual addition of a bit of mayo to the marinade means the meat is quite well protected from drying out. The thinness of a cutlet allows me to get a good sear on the outside and after about 3 minutes per side my chicken is just cooked all the way through while staying wonderfully tender and moist.

You can make a marinade from any of your favorite vinaigrettes.  The basil vinaigrette I made recently would easily would work in this application as would any of a number of bottled offerings if you are pressed for time.

The final special touch was a quick rustic apple tart technique snagged from an article I found decades ago about cooking with your children.  That is to say, cooking with your children there in the kitchen, helping out.  If you are wanting to cook your children, well, please move along, nothing to see like that here!

You take 2-3 apples, varieties that are slightly tart and able to withstand baking work best. Peel and slice them into 1/2 inch pieces. In a bowl combine your apples with a generous splash of lemon juice (to prevent browning and add brightness), then toss well with a tablespoon of AP flour, a 1/4 cup of sugar, a generous sprinkle of cinnamon and some freshly grated nutmeg.

Pile your apples on a pie crust that has been laid out on a baking sheet on top of foil.   I used the kind you can buy in the refrigerated section of the grocery store because, well just because I always use those.  One of these days I'll get good at making pie crust but that is not me, not now.  If you are a whiz in the pie crust making category then I honor your prowess - use your own recipe, rolled out to the size of a 9 inch pie crust.

After piling your coated apples in the center of the crust, gently fold the edges up around the apple pieces leaving 3-4 inches exposed in the center.  Bake at 425 degrees for 20-25 minutes depending on your oven.  You want the apples tender and the pastry just golden brown.  A tart yields 4-5 servings.

There you have it.  The rosemary vinaigrette marinade for the grilled chicken cutlets and rustic apple tart were two easy touches elevating dinner to something with a little more ooomph to mark the end of a very long day coming at the end of a very long week.

Home cooking doesn't have to be  difficult or complicated.  When all is said and done, whatever you get on the plate will be saying "I love you".

Sunday, September 12, 2010

A moving experience

You know how allergic reactions can develop some of the time?  You are exposed to something, nothing much happens, you get a false sense of "this doesn't bother me" and so you get a little cavalier, don't worry about it the next time you are in contact.

The second go round things are just a little different though, and maybe you think, "Wow, I am glad this is not too big a problem for me because I can see how if this was worse it could be real trouble.".

Then that third exposure rolls around and you are realizing, "Whoa, OK, maybe I am reactive to this.  I am going to need to be careful here and limit my exposure.".

Well folks, that is how it is with me and moves.

The Hub paid for medical school, residency and a post-training fellowship by joining a branch of the military.  They took care of his tuition and books and provided a stipend during his schooling and he paid them back year for year with military service after.   It should come as no surprise then to hear that required us to move around fairly regularly as a young family.

Houston for medical school.  San Antonio for internship.  Salt Lake City for a residency and fellowship and then California for the "paying you back for school" years of service at a regional military medical center.

Admittedly, the first few moves, while exciting in their own way, were entry level.  We didn't own much, so packing it up and hauling it someplace new to unpack again was not much of a big deal.  And when you are in the military, they may ask you to move but by golly in those years they also handled the logistics very supportively.

Eventually however, debts paid, we gratefully resumed civilian status.  Along the way we'd accumulated a house full of stuff.  And two (amazing, wonderful - I love you so so much kids!) children.

All our moves past that point were just about as complicated and frazzling as anything I am ever supposed to be wrangling needs to be.

Along the way I discovered three things about myself and the process of moving.  

First I learned to prepare and have on hand a bag loaded with rolls of toilet paper, a couple of light bulbs, a box of trash bags, extra rolls of tape, a box cutter, a marking pen, bottles of water, Advil and a music source.  That combination has gotten me through many a long day.

A second major lesson has been the wisdom of access to loads of high carb sugary treats along with caffeinated drinks to get through the initial push.  I am not advocating this as a healthy life style believe me, but then again I don't see moving in or out of a place as healthy per se.  Moving is hard physically and emotionally, even when it represents an exciting new stage of life.  For me the combination of hard physical labor and emotional stress cries out for those two major food groups: sugar and caffeine.

Third truth is that moves make me crazy.  Correction.  At this point in my life, any move, large or small, ramps me up to Psycho Plus.  My family knows this about me and depending on how fun they are finding the move themselves, they give me a little extra head space to accommodate.  I do my best each and every time but I gotta tell you with each subsequent exposure, my reaction to even the idea of moving, escalates.

With that in mind, understanding there is a truck of stuff coming from Michigan to Austin to re-feather our nest for the short term (our daughter relocating back home for a stint), I wanted to make some sort of sweet loaf.  I knew it would come in handy to help fuel the upcoming extra trips up and down stairs to get her stuff unloaded and sorted into place.  And I knew I would rely on that sweet treat to feed the monster caloric requirements of my impending Move Psycho-Meltdown.

I put together a tried and true banana bread, bumped up a level with some chopped nuts as additional  energy source.  I've used this recipe for years.  I keep a stash of overripe bananas in the freezer so I can whip up a batch when the impulse strikes, and I've taken to swapping out Splenda for half the sugar called for.  It holds the calorie count down a bit and doesn't have any noticeable effect on the taste or as importantly, the texture.

See what I mean?  Hellooo gorgeous.  It may have been too long since the last time I made banana bread however because this loaf just about disappeared in two days. That meant I had movers arriving a half hour after the birds get up tomorrow and precious little sweetness left to gobble down with my coffee as fuel.  No can do, folks.

I turned to a recipe for a sour cream pound cake  The recipe stated it could be halved and baked in a loaf pan (the original calling for a tube or bundt pan). Congratulating myself smugly in advance, I thought it would be just the ticket.  A loaf of pound cake would be just enough to get us (read:me) through the high energy requirements of the move without leaving us with a lot of leftovers to fatten up on after the last flattened boxes were hauled to the curb.

Remember a really long time ago when you started reading this post how I was talking about reactions escalating in severity due to repeated exposure?  Well here is where we discover what it looks like when I say how [Oprah voice] cuhRAYzee even a small move now leaves me.

I said I wanted to have this cake on hand for the energy boost it could provide.  That would come chiefly from the sugar in the recipe, right?

And even if I was trying to be a bit careful with that sugar intake, I routinely make and had just made a loaf of banana bread with a half and half Splenda and sugar mixture and it turned out great. So why then, WHY is it that I purposefully made this pound cake with all Spenda and no sugar?

Oof.  What was I thinking?  Just look at this.  The top is caved in and those gaping holes simply do not say "delicious cake".  I swear when I leaned in for a close shot I heard them whispering "be afraid, be very afraid...".

Lesson learned.  Using half Splenda in a recipe is hunky dory if you are OK with using Splenda at all.  Even in my pre-move nutso-ness I realize some of you are just not cool with sugar substitutes.  A few of you may even be writhing around out there sensing our Splenda use is singularly responsible for polar melting and oil spills, not to mention China's rising economic domination.

I get that, truly I do and as odd as it may sound, every other ingredient I used for the recipe was organic.  Some of the ingredients were both organic and local.  So there, let that sink in for a moment, ye lovers of Mother Earth.  My sad deflated little loaf cake may just be its own punishment for my transgressions......

The taste is what I am looking for, regulation pound cake mid-level sweetness (as opposed to the frozen at the store super sweet monsters that nobody-doesn't-like) but that texture is just really really wrong.  An aberration I suppose I ought to have expected from the combination of FrankenSugar and organics.
Who am I kidding?  What with the movers on the way, texture issues or no, I'll be eating every crumb of this.

Once the dust settles, I'll try the pound cake recipe out again with half sugar and half Splenda as I wish I would have yesterday.  If that works out well, I'll share the recipe.  Until then, hold a good thought for me as we face what look to be Indiana Jones Nazi-face meltingly high temperatures and humidity tomorrow for hours with our doors standing wide open.

There may not be enough pound cake in the universe for that.

Move-savvy as I fantasize I am, there is always wisdom out there to be shared.  If you have any sure-fire-can't-miss Move Smarts to share feel free to post 'em in the comments section.  Certainly any excuse to space out in front of my computer as I sit here NOT STRESSING ABOUT TOMORROW will be a welcome treat.

Meanwhile, pass me another slice of that pound cake please?

Saturday, September 11, 2010

September 11, 2001 - Hope

It has been nine years.  

I remember very clearly - my daughter was still in high school on 9/11/01.  She had left for school early that day and was in the newspaper room.  As usual they had the television on.

I was at home, sitting at my computer reading on the internet, oblivious.  

The telephone rang.  It was my daughter.

"Mom, something bad is happening," she said.  "Turn on your TV.".  Then she had to go.

I turned on the television and I don't even remember what channel we were on - it wouldn't have mattered by then -pretty much every channel had switched to live coverage.

And thus began one of those days when I spent almost all of my time standing, sitting, pacing, and staring in horror.  Most of it with the sound off - the images saying what needed to be said.

Nine years and the impact remains.  Physically.  Emotionally.  Spiritually.

The world is both different and is yet the same place. I am both a different person and yet the same.  

Life, death, pain, joy, hate, love.  They are and always have been part of this troubled world.  

Hope is part of our world, too.   I hold hope in my heart.  Hope for my children, and for yours.  Hope for our future, hope for our healing, hope we can keep from repeating past mistakes and learn to live together in peace.   

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

One of these things

We watched a lot of Sesame Street on PBS around these parts way back when.  Some of the regular features shaped the way people in our family categorize and refer to the observed world to this day.  

Only in this case, one of these things,

is a lot like the other.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

The wages of cooking are

a full load of clean dishes in the dishwasher waiting to be unloaded, flanked by both sides of the sink filled with dirty dishes waiting to go in.
However, to counterbalance.... redemption just might take the form of basil and tomatoes in the windowsill
in combination with temperatures in the low 70's throughout the morning hours.  What bliss.  Happy Labor Day Weekend everybody.  Hope yours is everything you want it to be.