Sunday, December 18, 2011

Picky Eaters at Your Holiday Table?

So, Santa's already arrived, the stockings long plundered and all bets are off for getting the sugarplums to eat well at the Christmas dinner table? Meanwhile, you're already feeling a bit like the Grinch just trying to get one holiday meal cooked, much less a special meal for the picky crew.

It's time for some holiday magic. Or, at least an easy few recipes that both the adults and kids alike will enjoy. This elf is not above using the holidays to get kids to eat red and green vegetables, either.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a peaceful holiday meal!

Red, Gold, and Orange Salad

This recipe pairs a kid-favorite of in-season, sweet winter citrus and cheese with vegetables for a colorful, tasty introduction to beets. If your kids have already rejected red beets, switch it up to golden beets for a milder flavor. The red and gold colors with green herb accents in this dish make it a stunning and festive seasonal salad the adults will love too.

2 large red beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

2 large golden beets, peeled and cut into 1-inch cubes

1 small fresh fennel bulb, trimmed, cored, and cut into eighths

2 shallots, quartered

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 (15-ounce) can mandarin orange sections, drained (or 4 clementines, peeled and sectioned)

1{1/2} cups coarsely crumbled feta cheese

{1/4} cup chopped fresh mint leaves (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Coat a 9-inch square baking dish with cooking spray.

2. Place the beets, fennel, and shallots in the prepared dish. Drizzle with the olive oil and balsamic vinegar, sprinkle with salt and pepper to taste, and toss to coat. Roast until tender, about 1{1/2} hours. Let cool to room temperature.

3. Toss the roasted vegetables with the orange sections. Sprinkle the feta over the mixture, and garnish with mint, if desired.

Serves 4 to 6

Recipes courtesy of The Cleaner Plate Club, Storey Publishing

Carrot-Orange Soufflé

We all wish for peace on earth this season, but this dish may at least bring some peace at the holiday table by eliminating the battle for bites of vegetable. The sweet, light almost mousse-like vegetable dish is an easy one for kids to like and an elegant classic side for the bigger kids-at-heart.

2{1/2} pounds carrots, about 12 medium, peeled and chopped into 1-inch pieces

{2/3} cup sugar

{1/4} cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3 tablespoons plain low-fat yogurt

3 eggs

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon baking powder

{1/2} teaspoon salt

{1/4} teaspoon ground mace or nutmeg

{1/2} teaspoon vanilla extract

{1/2} teaspoon orange extract

1. Steam the carrots until very soft, about 30 minutes. You can do this in an electric steamer. Alternatively, fill a large pot with a couple inches of water, set a steaming basket in it, and bring to a boil. Set the carrots in the basket, cover, and let steam. Let cool completely.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

3. Place the carrots in a food processor or blender, and pulse until puréed. Add the other ingredients separately in order, from the sugar through the extracts, pulsing as you go. Run the food processor until all the ingredients are well mixed.

4. Spray a soufflé dish with cooking spray. Pour in the soufflé batter. Bake for about 50 minutes, until the sides are puffed up and just golden on the edges and the center is set.

Serves 8 to 10.

Recipes courtesy of
The Cleaner Plate Club, Storey Publishing

Ham, Tomato and Broccoli Mac and Cheese

If you are tasked with extra picky eaters joining the holiday table this year, try this trick: Use the holiday colors to sell a bit of vegetable in a kid-favorite like Mac and Cheese. You may even call it Santa’s Mac and Cheese if that will help!

1 medium head broccoli, florets only (save the stems to use in broccoli soup or for crunch in salads)

1 cup roasted tomatoes, recipe below

1 {1/2} tablespoons butter

3 scallions, sliced, whites and 1 inch of the greens parts

2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour

1 cup low-fat milk

{1/2} cup vegetable broth

1 {1/2} cups grated Monterrey Jack cheese

Pinch of ground nutmeg

Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

{1/2} pound small pasta

1 pound of ham, diced small (in {1/4}-inch cubes)

{1/2} cup panko bread crumbs (or regular bread crumbs)

1. Steam the broccoli for about 5 minutes, until crisp and bright green, but no longer raw. You can do this in an electric steamer. Alternatively, fill a large pot with a couple inches of water, set a steaming basket in it, and bring to a boil. Set the broccoli in the basket, cover, and let steam. Let cool. Chop fine.

2. Make the cheese sauce. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the scallions and sauté for a couple minutes. Add the flour and whisk. Cook this roux for a bit, until it smells nutty and is golden. Add the milk and the broth and heat for about 5 minutes, whisking as you add. Add the cheese and nutmeg and continue whisking until the cheese melts and the sauce is thick. Season with salt and pepper to taste, remembering that the ham is going in and it is salty.

3. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

4. Bring a large pot of water to a boil and cook the pasta according to the package directions. Drain.

5. Toss the pasta, sauce, chopped broccoli and ham in a large bowl. Layer {1/2} of this mixture in a 2-quart casserole dish (oven safe). Spread the roasted tomatoes for a middle layer of “filling” and top with the rest of the pasta mixture. Melt the remaining {1/2} tablespoon of butter in a small bowl in the microwave, about 20 seconds, and toss with the bread crumbs. Sprinkle over the top of the casserole. Bake for about 15 minutes, until the bread crumbs are golden brown.

Serves 8.

Recipes courtesy of The Cleaner Plate Club, Storey Publishing

Roasted Tomatoes

The recipe makes three cups so you can use the remaining portion for an easy, quick (red and white) bruschetta appetizer with goat cheese for the big people! Which is a nice bonus when you can make two dishes at once on a busy holiday!

1{1/2} pounds cherry tomatoes (about 4 cups), halved

{1/4} cup extra-virgin olive oil

5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped

1{1/4} teaspoons crushed red pepper flakes

1 tablespoon chopped fresh marjoram, or 1 {1/2} teaspoons dried

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon chopped fresh basil

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees F.

2. Toss the tomatoes, olive oil, garlic, crushed red pepper, and marjoram in a large bowl. Place the tomatoes in a single layer on baking sheets. Sprinkle generously with salt and pepper to taste.

3. Roast until the tomatoes are blistered, about 35 minutes. Top with the chopped basil.

Makes about 3 cups.

Recipes courtesy of
The Cleaner Plate Club, Storey Publishing

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Christmas Brunch Ideas

If you want something special for Christmas brunch, but don't want to work that hard, some of these recipes are a great fit. By the time we make Christmas Eve dinner and survive the holiday events leading up to Christmas, well, let's keep it simple.

Egg Nog French Toast
For the toast:
3/4 cup eggnog
1 egg, beaten
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. vanilla extract

6 slices egg bread like challah or brioche, or a whole grain like honey wheat.
1 tbs. butter

1/4 cup grade B maple syrup
1/4 cup pecan pieces
1 tsp. bourbon
1/2 tsp. cinnamon

Heat the butter in a skillet. Soak bread, both sides, in the eggnog mixture. Brown on each side until golden.

Warm the syrup in a sauce pan with the bourbon, cinnamon, and pecans. Top the toast with syrup. Enjoy.

This dish is similar to one I had at a favorite breakfast place with the best ever scones. The place closed, but not because of the food quality. I miss the scones terribly and decided to make my own version of the smoked salmon recipe.

Smoked Salmon on Herb Waffle with Creme Fraiche
for the waffles
1 and 3/4 cup cake flour (not self rising)
1 tbs. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
1 cup cream
3/4 cup lowfat milk
1/2 cup canola oil
1 tsp. dijon mustard
2 tbs. chopped flat-leaf parsley, plus 1 tbs. for garnish
2 tbs. chopped dill, plus 1 tbs. for garnish
1 tbs. chopped chives, plus 2 tsp. for garnish
pepper to taste

For the rest of the dish
12 oz. smoked salmon
6 oz. roasted tomatoes (recipe) (or sundried, packed in oil, or in the Whole Foods cheese aisle)
3 cups mesclun (spring mix) greens
6 oz. creme fraiche (or sour cream)

For the waffles, sift together the dry ingredients. Make a well in the center of the bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk the eggs then add the cream, milk and oil and mustard. Whisk well. Stir in the chopped herbs, reserving the others for garnish. Add a few grinds of pepper and whisk.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, mixing just until incorporated, do not overmix. Cook about 3/4 cup of batter in a round, belgian-style waffle maker for each waffle. The recipe should make at least six waffles with a "spare" just in case.

To serve, place the warm waffle on a plate, top each with 1/2 cup greens, then 1 oz. tomatoes, then 2 oz of slices of smoked salmon. Add a dollop of the creme fraiche and garnish with the reserved chopped herbs.

Main Dishes for Brunch
Shirred Eggs
Breakfast Panini
Hashbrown, Chard, Tomato and Ham Frittata

Breads, Pancakes and Waffles
Orange Brioche French Toast with Bananas Foster
Pumpkin Gingerbread Waffles

Salads (Seasonal)
Red Wine Poached Pear with Arugula
Clementine, Fennel and Pomegranate
Arugula Salad with Bleu Cheese Crostini, Roasted Pears and Grapes and Honey-Wine Syrup
Red, Gold and Orange Festive Salad

Poundcake with Blackberry Wine Sauce and Honey Chocolate Ganache
Assorted Christmas Cookies

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Cookbooks for Christmas

The book reviews, courtesy of Andrews McMeel continue...

I'll be giving a few books to family and friends this year. They don't read the blog, I think, so the secret is safe with just us.

The Brisket Book
For my brother-in-law who believes that the four food groups are beef, pork, seafood and, well, whatever else is on the table, we'll be serving him The Brisket Book, A Love Story by Stephanie Pierson. We eat only grassfed beef, so the recipes in here work well for leaner meats, think arm roasts and rump roasts, too. The book has a lot of detail and background on cooking methods and gathers recipes from various chefs, barbecue champs and home cooks.

We tried the Class Braised Beef Brisket recipe, which, is the one recipe in the book, I think, that needs a few more details. First, the oven temperature is notably absent, (refer to the front section that discusses braising method and choose the lower temperature and longer time option). Second, the spice crust has a lot of salt in it, when you go to reduce the liquid from cooking into the sauce later, it's way too salty. Either use half the salt in the rub, or thicken the pan sauce with a slurry or roux. Reducing it only intensifies the salt.

For my niece in college with her first apartment, learning to cook, there will be three books wrapped up. Her brother kids her that she can boil water, but can't make the pasta even on a box of Mac and Cheese. For her, Robin Takes Five, 500 Calories, 5 ingredients or less, 500 calories or less, five nights a week, 5 pm. It's a good set of basic, fast and healthy recipes that are not too complicated for a new cook. They are not boring recipes, which is a pleasant surprise given the five ingredient limit. Chinese Five-Spice Roasted Chicken with Mandarin Duck Sauce, and basics like Spinach and Feta Turkey Burgers are healthy, but tasty 500-calorie meal options.

Once she gets some confidence, her next book to dive into will be Poor Girl Gourmet, Eat in Style on a Bare Bones Budget. I cooked a lot with my roommates in college, it became like a second family. Learning to eat well on a budget is also a lifelong skill that will be very handy. Rigatoni with Roasted Butternut Squash, Sweet Italian Sausage, and Fried Sage is way sexier than anything that came out of our college apartment kitchen, except perhaps Richard's Monster Cookies he would bake when he got sick of us girls dieting too much. I hope my niece has as many good memories and good friends from her college experience as I do. Sharing a meal sure helps that sense of a second family.

She's also going to get Grilled Cheese, Please! so she can start with the basics and eat well without being intimidated. There's some good basics like Cubano and Monte Cristo in here and a lot of ways to eat vegetables. My niece does not eat a lot of veggies, so putting them between crisp bread with good cheese may be a whole new idea that works for her. I hope she'll explore new foods, too, like the Arepas with Black Beans and Plantains "grilled cheese."

Of course, I will also be wrapping up a copy of The Cleaner Plate Club for my niece. After all, her aunt wrote it. She's kind of under obligation to get that one.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

It's the season for my annual book gift guide, courtesy of Andrews McMeel. Also known as, "Oh man, how did this pile of books to review get so tall?" Since they have been around a bit, I have had some time to organize the pile.

Unless Santa stuffs a bookcase down the chimney, I am going to have to do a major book donation to the local library for the new additions to find a home. Which means, yes, a few of these will be giveaways. I won't tell anyone if you regift them, either.

First topic, of course, baking. Maida Heatter's set of books, Cookies, and Cakes are as jammed full of recipes as her German Oatmeal Cookies are of fruit, chocolate and nuts. Homemade fig newtons and homemade graham crackers are worth a try, given these were both childhood favorites of the packaged variety. There are also a lot of recipes for chocolate drop cookies that might help me recreate my Aunt Annie's chocolate cookies she used to put M&Ms on. She made these every time we went to visit.

I like that the book places a few extra recipes for "sides" like ice cream and chocolate sauce tucked away in the back, the same position in the freezer where I try to hide our ice cream so I actually get a second bowl. Cookie recipes are here.

The cakes companion book also contains classics and a few non-traditional items. I got a moment of vindication for my love of putting vegetables into dessert when I read Heatter's recipes for beet cake, and her carrot cake that has more carrot. My own recipes for "beet brownies" and carrot-raisin cupcakes don't seem so crazy when I learn that a James Beard award-winner has done the same thing. She aces me, however, with sauerkraut cake and tomato soup cake recipes, a classic chocolate cake with mashed potato for density and moist crumb, and a sweet potato cake. I'm humbled. And inspired!

I thought these would be an amazing present for a friend of ours who made me a gorgeous Italian Wedding cake (three layers of heavenly perfection) for my birthday. But, I think I could use a lesson or two from the pages. She's mastered cakes really well. And, I have already gifted her with Judith Fertig's Heartland.

For those of you who like photos of the finished baked goods, take note, these editions have good explanations in the recipes, but no photos. If you have previous Maida Heatter dessert books, the recipes may be familiar as these two editions are a greatest hits compilation of the best recipes.

Keep or no? I have to ask myself this question for every book I review with an obsessive 400-plus cookbook collection that needs dusting. Ironic, since I rarely use a recipe to cook with, but I love to just read cookbooks the way some folks read novels. Keep! And, I'll part with some my less proven baking books to make the shelf space.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Easy as No Pie: Pumpkin Panna Cotta with Bourbon Pecan Toffee

Do you ever struggle with the pie crust? I love making pies at the holiday, but I will admit, my crust is more "rustic" than perfect. I bought a pie dish with fluted edges, in fact, just so I could get a decent-looking pie out of the oven.

They taste good, don't get me wrong. But there are moments where I am rolling the dough and it's just not going my way, and I think, "Whoever made up the saying 'easy as pie?'" It's not that easy.

Well, here's easy for you. So easy, no oven is required. And no eggs, either in case you have an egg allergy in the family.

Pumpkin Panna Cotta with Bourbon Pecan Toffee Sauce
1 envelope gelatin
1/4 cup water
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup plus 3 tbs. milk (not skim)
1 cup pumpkin puree, canned is fine, not pie filling
1/2 cup honey
1/2 tsp. Ceylon cinnamon (milder flavor)
1/8 tsp. nutmeg
Seeds of 1 vanilla bean, (save the bean and put in sugar for vanilla sugar!)
pinch salt

Place 1/4 cup water in a sauce pan. Add the gelatin and let soften for one minute. Heat the saucepan gently, stirring until the gelatin is well dissolved.

In a food processor, add all the other ingredients and blend well. Drizzle in the dissolved gelatin as you pulse. Strain this through a fine mesh sieve over a large measuring cup. Divide the mixture among eight small ramekins or dessert dishes. Place in the refrigerator to chill, at least four hours before dinner.

Prepare the bourbon pecan toffee sauce. When cooled, top the panna cotta with the sauce. You can do this well ahead of dinner, place back in the refrigerator. Relax, you did not have to struggle with pie crust and dessert looks amazing (even though it was very easy).

Toffee Sauce:
  • 1 3/4 sticks (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter
  • 1 1/2 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
  • 1/3 cup chopped and toasted pecans, plus 8 whole pecans for garnish
  • 1 oz. boubon
In a 1 1/2- to 2-quart heavy saucepan melt butter over moderate heat. Add brown sugar. Bring mixture to a boil, stir often. Stir in cream and vanilla, reducing the heat to a simmer, and simmer until thickened slightly. In a small saucepan, flame the bourbon, do not do this right under the hood of the stove. Flames will come up out of the pan. Be very careful. Let it burn off, then place a lid over the pot to be sure the flame is out. Add the bourbon to the toffee sauce and stir well. Add the toasted pecans. Allow to cool to room temperature before topping the chilled panna cotta. You can do this ahead, and place the desserts back in the fridge.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Cucina Povera, Then and Now

I review cookbooks, since I blog and own nearly 400 cookbooks, I guess that qualifies me! Anyway, thanks to Andrews McMeel for keeping my mail box full lately. I'm doing my best to keep up with the new stack to review.

A couple of the books are standouts, ones I will keep and treasure. This one, titled Cucina Povera, Italian for basically Peasant Cooking, made me stop and think. The book opens with stories from Italians who lived through hard times, often with World War II as a backdrop, and how the culture approached food during these difficult days. Food was revered, all the more because it was scarce. It was hunted, gathered, grown. Saved from scraps and reinvented for the next meal.

It's quite a contrast to our current economic crisis and the cheap calories, often in forms that do not resemble anything food.

Just Desserts: Thanksgiving Recipes

Vanilla Sweet Potato Pie with Brown Sugar Pecan Crust
This one is a long-standing favorite and the original pie recipe that started my annual "create a new pie" quest. I still make this one every year.

Red-wine Caramel Apple Tart with Gorgonzola on a Walnut Crust
I cook a lot for the whole family, but once in a while, my grown-up taste buds need something complex and not too sweet for dessert. This is worth the effort.

Ginger Pear and Cranberry Tart
This is my second favorite Thanksgiving dessert (after the sweet potato pie). It's elegant and unexpected.

Roasted Fig and Pear Crumble
I've been crazy about figs since I was a kid and discovered fig newtons. Married to pears in this dish, it's a nice, easy dessert for the season if you don't have time for making pie crust!

Pumpkin Seed Brittle
Peanut brittle classic gets a spicy, fall update that makes a perfect garnish for Thanksgiving desserts, or just by itself. The full recipe uses the brittle as a topping for a poached pear and gorgonzola cheese salad with arugula. Sumptuous and amazing salad for the holiday table. If you are going potluck and just have one dish to bring, this one will impress the whole family and be a real stand out on the holiday table.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Sweet Potato, Kale, and Farro Side, Thanksgiving Simplified

If you are looking for a new twist on the sticky-sweet marshmallow and sweet potato classic dish, here's an idea for a lighter, healthier (and make-ahead simple) side: Sweet Potato, Kale and Farro. It also makes a great Meatless Monday Main for fall, too, since farro, also known as emmer, offers some protein and fiber.

Sweet Potato, Kale and Farro Side
2 lbs. sweet potatoes (or butternut squash), peeled and diced 1/2 inch cubes
4 shallots, peeled, roughly chopped
2 tbs. sage leaves, chopped
2 tbs. olive oil
1 cup farro, rinsed and drained
2-1/4 cup chicken or vegetable stock
1 bunch kale, washed, stemmed, torn into small pieces
1/4 cup dried cranberries
Salt and pepper to taste
1/2 oz. Parmesan cheese, grated, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

On a greased baking sheet, toss the sweet potato, shallots, sage and olive oil. Roast for 25 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes to prevent over-browning, or until the sweet potato cubes are fork tender and golden brown on edges.

While the sweet potato is cooking, place the rinsed farro and stock in a saucepan with a lid. Cover and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to a simmer. Simmer for about 20 minutes, or until the grains are al dente and the liquid absorbed.

To serve: Combine the sweet potato, cooked farro, and kale and toss gently to combine, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Garnish with the dried cranberries and Parmesan.

To make ahead for Thanksgiving:
Roast the sweet potatoes and prepare the farro as above. Let cool. Wash and tear the kale, then store in fridge in a plastic bag. Combine the cooled sweet potatoes and farro, and store in fridge.

The day of Thanksgiving, while the turkey is out of the oven and resting, cover the farro and sweet potato mixture with foil and reheat in the oven at 325 for 15-20 minutes. Then season, toss with the kale and garnish with the dried cranberries and Parmesan.

Serves 10

Monday, November 07, 2011

Thanksgiving: Simplified, Fall Kale Salad

I looked up the word "feast." It not only means a huge meal, it also means "a delight." Historically, feasts are celebrations that often follow lean times or fasts, or as in a harvest feast (like Thanksgiving) a large meal at the end of the harvest to prepare for the lean winter days ahead.

Certainly, the economy is awful and many of us are cutting back right now. In many ways, it feels like we are fasting as a nation. Time-wise, I often feel stretched thin, too. My work schedule is hectic with trying to maximize productivity now, and the bottom line. I feel pulled to do more and more volunteer work in the face of ever-growing needs.

With headlines full of occupy Wall Street and budget struggles, escalating obesity rates and food insecurity both, never-ending wars, and a pop culture filled with "celebrities" that seem to be rotting from their own excess ... it feels like a good time to cut back ourselves, to simplify and center ourselves on what is most important — our health and time to enjoy family and friends.

This year's menu is inspired so much by my own need to simplify, to eat healthy and well, to enjoy seasonal foods, simply prepared, and shared with loved ones. To spend less, but still have a "delightful" feast. And to create an authentic celebration amidst a period of emotional, financial and cultural "fasting."

Seasonal, local, fall flavors like pears, apples and cranberries lend themselves so well to those traditional rich, savory dishes and sauces, and desserts. However, they also taste great in lighter dishes — dishes you can feast on, relatively guilt-free and that still fulfill the "delight" aspect of a feast.

This kale dish is light, very healthy, but full of seasonal goodness with kale, pears, apples, cranberry and pumpkin seeds. I hate throwing out leftover salad that wilts from the dressing, it's wasteful. The kale here stands up to the dressing, and you can save the leftovers for the next day! By tossing the fruit with the vinaigrette, it prevents browning and you can do the chopping and prep well in advance of the meal, making it easier on you, too.

Fall Kale Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette
for the salad
1 bunch kale, washed and torn into small pieces, discard stems
1 apple, diced
1 pear, diced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

for the dressing
2 tbs. cranberry sauce (canned)
1 tbs. honey
1/4 cup white balsamic vinegar
1/3 cup olive oil
1/2 tsp. orange extract

The day before Thanksgiving, wash the kale and remove the stems. Tear into small pieces, and dry in a salad spinner. Store in a plastic bag, in the vegetable crisper of the fridge, with a paper towel to absorb excess moisture. Add the pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries together in a small container.

Three hours before dinner, whisk the salad dressing together and fold in the apple and pear. Store in the refrigerator.

Before dinner, place the kale on a platter, blend the dressing and fruit again in case the oil has separated. Toss the kale with the fruit and dressing. Sprinkle the pumpkin seeds and dried cranberries on top. This should just take minutes.

Thanksgiving: Simplified, Fall Kale Salad

I looked up the word "feast." It not only means a huge meal, it also means "a delight." Historically, feasts are celebrations that often follow lean times or fasts, or as in a harvest feast (like Thanksgiving) a large meal at the end of the harvest to prepare for the lean winter days ahead.

Certainly, the economy is awful and many of us are cutting back right now. In many ways, it feels like we are fasting as a nation. Time-wise, I often feel stretched thin, too. My work schedule is hectic with trying to maximize productivity now, and the bottom line. I feel pulled to do more and more volunteer work in the face of ever-growing needs.

With headlines full of occupy Wall Street and budget struggles, escalating obesity rates and food insecurity both, never-ending wars, and a pop culture filled with "celebrities" that seem to be rotting from their own excess ... it feels like a good time to cut back ourselves, to simplify and center ourselves on what is most important — our health and time to enjoy family and friends.

This year's menu is inspired so much by my own need to simplify, to eat healthy and well, to enjoy seasonal foods, simply prepared. Not to spend too much, but still have a "delightful" feast, prepared with love, on our table. And to create a celebration amidst a period of emotional, financial and cultural "fasting."

Seasonal, local, fall flavors like pears, apples and cranberries lend themselves so well to those traditional rich, savory dishes and sauces, and desserts. However, they also taste great in lighter dishes — dishes you can feast on, relatively guilt-free and that still fulfill the "delight" aspect of "feast."

This kale dish is light, very healthy, but full of seasonal goodness with kale, pears, apples, cranberry and pumpkin seeds. I hate throwing out salad that wilts from the dressing, it's wasteful. The kale here stands up to the dressing, and you can save the leftovers for the next day! By tossing the fruit with the vinaigrette, it prevents browning and you can do the chopping and prep well in advance of the meal, making it easier on you, too.

Fall Kale Salad with Cranberry Vinaigrette
for the salad
1 bunch kale, washed and torn into small pieces, discard stems
1 apple, diced
1 pear, diced
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup pumpkin seeds (pepitas)

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

Orange-Ginger Pumpkin Bread

I have a small thing about pumpkins. Okay, not so small. And, it's true that I stock up on about 200 lbs. (or more) of pumpkins, squash and sweet potatoes annually. Before you contact "Hoarders" with my info, just know that I do actually cook my stash. And bury the evidence in the compost heap. By spring, no one would ever know.

I have an alibi that smells like pumpkin bread, too. And soup. And pie. Cookies, cake, stew, gratin ... the latest recipe is for bread, though. You can make this into a cake, however, or muffins or cupcakes.

Orange-Ginger Pumpkin Bread
Dry ingredients:
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup whole wheat pastry flour
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tbs. baking powder
1/4 tsp. baking soda
2 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. ground cloves
1/2 tsp. ground mace, or nutmeg
1/2 tsp. ground ginger

Wet ingredients:
1 cup packed brown sugar
1 cup pumpkin puree (canned or homemade)
1/2 cup milk, 2 percent is okay but not skim
2 eggs, beaten
2 tbs. plus 1 tsp. organic canola oil
3 tbs. butter, softened
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1 tsp. orange extract

1/4 cup candied ginger, chopped
1/2 cup raisins, if you want them

First, decide what type of pumpkin dessert you want here. For a loaf pan, use 9x5x3. For muffins, you'll make about 12 normal sized muffins. If you are making a cake, you may have to double the batch depending on your cake pan of choice. You'll need to base the cooking time for a cake on the recipes that come with the pan there.

Preheat oven to 350. Grease or line your pan/muffin pan/cupcake papers, etc..

First, mix the dry ingredients well with a whisk. This makes sure the spices and leavening are evenly distributed. It's harder to do this if you add the dry ingredients one at a time to the wet ones.

Next, in your mixer bowl, add all the "wet" ingredients, and mix well. Add the dry ingredients slowly, mixing on low speed as you go. Beat on higher speed for a minute. Fold in the candied ginger. Raisins, if you like them.

Pour the mixture evenly into your pan(s). Bake as follows:
• For cake, "guesstimate" the time from recipes that come with your cake pan, check in advance of the time so you don't overcook. My cute little pumpkin cake pan took about 50 minutes.
• For the loaf pan, about 60 minutes
• About 18-20 minutes for standard muffins
• About 10-12 minutes for mini muffins

Check to be sure they are done in center, of course. If this is a dessert such as cake or cupcake, or you just love cream cheese frosting, because, who doesn't, then you might like the recipe below.

Orange Cream Cheese Frosting (1/2 batch of frosting, double for a cake)
4 oz. block of cream cheese, softened
1/4 cup butter, softened
2 cups powdered sugar
2 tsp. orange extract
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract

Mix the butter and cream cheese well, add extracts. Beat in two cups of powdered sugar until fluffy.

Thanksgiving: Simplified, Cranberry-Applesauce

I can recall a lot of stressful holidays growing up. The unattainable quest for the perfect holiday gathering ruled our household for the weeks before the date. It never made sense to me because the "guests" were our family and closest friends — the very people who should love you the most "as is."

Now that I am a grown up, well, supposed to be a grown up at least, and it's our house and our kitchen for the Big Meal, I do my best for a stress-free season. Note, this is not an "easy holiday meal" post to lure you in with false hope of whipping out dinner in minutes and having time for that hour massage at the spa before the guests arrive.

It's not going to be totally easy. That size of meal for twelve is going to take some effort. I just don't want you or I to stress about it or aim for some kind of unrealistic myth of holiday perfection. Tell your inner perfectionist to, uh, "stuff it" and just breathe. It will be okay.

Part of reducing the workload of holidays is making as much ahead as possible. Another bonus is this lets me use the local ingredients I sourced from the farmers market in October.

This Cranberry-Applesauce is a nice upgrade on the classic "cranberry sauce" that often appears on Thanksgiving tables in a wiggly, translucent can-shaped form that no one ever eats. How does it come of the can perfectly shaped like that, anyway?

You can make this recipe now, and freeze. Just take out of the freezer and put it in the fridge three days before Thanksgiving. Check to make sure it thawed the day before. One dish done and one less worry on the main cooking day.

8 Gala or Granny Smith Apples, cored, peeled and sliced thin
1 cup apple cider
1 pint fresh cranberries
1/4 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup honey
1/4 tsp. cardamom
1/2 tsp. Five Spice Powder
pinch salt

Place the apples and cider in a large pot, cover and heat to a simmer to cook apples.

Put cranberries in a smaller saucepan with the brown sugar and honey. Heat on medium until the berries burst and give up their juice and the sauce begins to thicken. Add the cardamom and the five spice powder and mix.

Stir the apples to break them up into a chunky "home style" applesauce. Mix in the cranberry sauce. The end result is a lovely red color with a warm and subtle spice to it that goes well with many holiday dishes.

Friday, October 21, 2011

One Potato, Two Potato ... Volunteering with Kids

As we were driving toward the volunteer day, and I saw a sign promoting the Arts at the Arboretum event. We usually go to this fun day in the park. Would my kiddo be mad when she found out we would miss it this year, for a "Potato Drop?" We had people coming for dinner, too, we were so busy, too busy for one more thing in our day?

No, I thought, and what we are about to do is way more valuable than getting some face painting and our dinner guests would understand if things were late to the table. Just shove over, mom guilt, I thought, I'm doing the right thing.

This was my kiddo's first volunteer gig. And not a small one at that. Forty-two thousand pounds of potatoes were waiting for us to load into different trucks, vans and cars for delivery to food pantries all over our city and surrounding area. Forty-two thousand pounds of food, and still, less than a pound of potato per person in need in our area; over 60,000 people food insecure, and that number is growing daily.

I hesitated, was my kiddo at only six really ready for this? Age six? I kept driving through my doubts. We headed to the volunteer event. No time like today to find out.

I got a great surprise. Not only was my kid well-behaved, but I watched her be the first one, big or small, to jump into the back of a truck and load sack after sack. Seriously, thousands of pounds of potatoes herself. Then, when done there, jump down and run to the next vehicle to load. Over and over. She was a rock star.

I was amazed, just glowing really. I learned that six is not too young to count, not to young to make a difference for others. As a mom, this has to be my proudest moment, but I sure can't take a bit of credit here. It was all my child's achievement, all her doing. It was also the love and support of the 100 strangers around us, cheering her on, helping one another with joy, and heart. The whole day was charged with the job of this village of people who took a beautiful Saturday morning to help put food on the tables of thousands. The worries I had vanished and I felt lighter, more sure and happy than I had in a very long time.

As a parent, I've worried more than once, "Am I teaching my kid the right values? Am I doing okay?" It's hard to explain to a child just how lucky she is to have food on the table each night, good food. All I can do is show her and hope she'll embrace the lesson.

We were done early. As we walked toward the car, I heard, "Mom, I want to go load backpacks, I want to help with bingo, why can't we go do more today?"

"Patience, kiddo." I said. "We'll do more of this. A lot more." And I fell in love with my child again, a hundred times over again and again. Six is not too young, neither is 16, 26 or 66.

Jessica at O the Joys asked me to help promote this fantastic effort: October 16-22 is “Make Your Mark Week” – A week of young people making a difference through simple acts of service. It culminates on October 22nd, Make A Difference Day. Not too late to get your family involved.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Gnocchi with Green Beans and Tomato-Butter Sauce

I'll be the first to admit, I get tired. There are rare weekends where I just don't want to cook. Work gets busy, life gets busy. I found myself just tossing some green beans into the steamer for a quick vegetable. Casting a guilty glance at the kitchen counter loaded with heirloom tomatoes, I stopped. Fresh green beans, heirloom tomatoes. Why am I wasting this opportunity?

Honestly, with very little extra effort, plain green beans became a delicious summer dish. The key to the richness in the broth is a French term, monter au buerre, or "finish with butter." This makes a perfect vegetarian main dish for a Meatless Monday Meal. Even when don't feel like cooking.

1 lb. green beans, stemmed, cut to 1-inch pieces
1 clove garlic, minced
1 tbs. olive oil
2 lbs. heirloom tomatoes, peeled and diced
2 stems fresh oregano, leaves only
2 stems, fresh marjoram, leaves only
1 lb. gnocchi
1/2 cup water from the gnocchi boiling
Salt and pepper to taste
1.5 tbs. butter

Start the water for the gnocchi and prep the veggies. This one comes together fast. Steam the green beans for about 5 minutes until crisp tender.

Add the oil to the skillet and heat when you start the green beans. Add the garlic, saute one minute. Add the tomatoes and their juices. Bring to a simmer for about 5-7 minutes until tomatoes soften and the juices reduce by one-third.

Put the gnocchi on. It only takes a few minutes to cook. After about five minutes, there should be enough starch released into the cooking water. Ladle 1/3 cup cooking liquid from the gnocchi pot into the tomatoes to help the sauce "tighten up." Add the herbs and the cooked green beans. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

As a last step for the sauce, swirl in the butter to "finish" the sauce and add a bit of richness. Skim out the gnocchi onto a platter, top with the tomato and green bean sauce. Garnish with shaved parmesan, if desired.

Congratulate yourself on cooking even when you felt tired.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

98 Percent of Packed Lunches Unsafe for Kids to Eat

How to keep your kid's lunch safer for meal time

Over 98 percent of packed lunches for preschoolers were deemed unsafe to eat in a recent study published in Pediatrics. The study measured the temperature of 1361 perishable items packed in 705 preschoolers’ lunches. Only 22 items were kept stored at a safe temperature for consumption.

Sometimes the source of the issue was obvious; 39 percent of the lunches were not packed with ice packs. In some cases items such as teething rings and juice boxes were used as “cold packs.” Using just a thermal lunch carrier, as 91 percent of lunches were packed in, was not enough, either, to keep foods safe.

Other sources of the issues were a lot harder to understand. For example, 90 percent of lunch items packed with multiple ice packs were still at unsafe temperatures. And, 11.8 percent of lunches were stored in a refrigerator, but still had temperature issues.

So, what’s happening here? How can parents keep packed lunches safer?

  • Pack it cold. Keep it cold.
    Placing warm items into a lunch sack with the cold items may cause them to not stay cold enough to be safe. For example placing a warm apple in the lunch alongside the sandwich that needs to stay cold will cause the sandwich to elevate in temperature, or placing cold lunch meats in room temperature breads just before the lunch goes to school. Pack the lunch the night before, and place all items in the refrigerator overnight, even items that do not have to be refrigerated such as the bread for the sandwich.

  • Think about safe temperature zones.
    Use a lunchbox with two compartments, one that stays cold for only cold items, and place room temperature items like a granola bar in the room temperature compartment. It will be easier to keep the cold items colder and safer.

  • Use the safer types of lunch boxes and multiple ice packs.
    Use a well-insulated cooler-type lunch box with multiple, large ice packs, preferably lead-free with BPA-free containers. However, if you know your child’s lunch will be stored in a refrigerator, the insulated lunch box may prevent the lunch items from being chilled well, too. The key is knowing the lunch box will be placed in the refrigerator promptly if you are not going to use and insulated carrier and ice. In the study, researchers noted that teachers “often failed to use the available refrigerators and left lunches at room temperature for an average of 2 hours before refrigeration.”

  • Keep it cold longer before you pack it. Pack the cold lunch items from the refrigerator directly into the lunch box with ice just before leaving home to minimize the time your child’s lunch is exposed to unsafe temperatures.

  • Toss the leftovers for safety.
    Tell your child to discard the leftover food after eating, so you know your child doesn’t snack on the leftovers later when they are not safe to eat.

  • Consider packing less perishable items. If you are concerned, or can’t keep the lunch cold enough, pack lunch items that are less perishable. Think nut butter instead of meats or cheese. Avoid things like mayo and eggs. Try bananas or oranges, or grapes instead of cut melon. Have your child buy cold, unflavored milk at school if available.

These tips were kindly reviewed by Dr. Jennifer Shu, pediatrician, CNN Health Correspondent and author of Food Fights, Baby and Child Health, and Heading Home with Your Newborn.


Temperature of Foods Sent by Parents of Preschool-aged Children Fawaz D. Almansour, Sara J. Sweitzer, Allison A. Magness, Eric E. Calloway, Michael R. McAllaster, Cynthia R. Roberts-Gray, Deanna M. Hoelscher and Margaret E. Briley Pediatrics; originally published online August 8, 2011; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2010-2885

Monday, August 08, 2011

A Bowl of Eat Local Wisdom: Lemongrass Tomato Soup

Cross-posted on Mother Earth News and Farm Aid's

When my little girl and I head to the farmers market, we leave the house with an empty market basket and open minds. Of course, she already has her list in her head — cheese bread from the local baker, honey sticks from Joli’s bees, and fresh sheep’s milk cheese with rosemary. It’s a great list for a six year old, really.

As for this bigger kid, I’ve finally learned not to make a list mental or otherwise. What ends up on the dinner table on Saturday night just … happens. Almost always, it’s one ingredient that catches my eye. One flavor that makes my imagination work, and the recipe comes to me in that moment.

One of the first farmers we visit at the market is a Thai family. Over the years, they have added new ingredients to our menus weekly; small green Thai eggplants, water spinach, fiery peppers, amaranth leaves, and some kind of greens that have no name in English and taste heavenly sautéed and paired with fish. Their table is a weekly source of inspiration for me, and this week is no exception, offering up lemongrass and cilantro.

Across the way is one of my regular stops, heirloom tomatoes in a rainbow of colors beckon next. The farmer knows me well due to my pumpkin addiction. Come fall, I’ll buy over 100 lbs. of his exotic squash. He nods at my kiddo and puts in an extra pint of heirloom cherry tomatoes just for her along with my four ears of corn and three pounds of heirloom tomatoes.

Two more stops, one for a head of red Russian garlic. I promise the farmer there that if he would just bring in the scapes in spring, I would buy these. For now, he’s been giving them away to restaurants, not realizing consumers would buy them. The last stop is the farmer on the end who only comes to market in August with fifty different varieties of peppers. I get a basket of the sweet ones that include chocolate-colored peppadews. He hands a curly, red sweet one to my kiddo and puts in a couple of extra hot pepper varieties for me.

Along with the ingredients for my recipe, somehow my basket is overflowing with a tiny heirloom melon that smells heavenly, a larger watermelon, peaches, berries, and beans to shell later.

On the way home, the kid and I stop at the grocery store. We won’t even need a hand basket. We’re here for just limes, ginger root and fish sauce, and a pound of sustainable seafood — a few things that cannot be sourced locally. The final ingredients come from home; okra from a friend’s garden and three kinds of basil, lemon verbena and mint from my own.

As I serve dinner that evening, a tangy, tart and spicy Lemongrass and Tomato Fish Soup, I realize our meal is a reflection of all my Eat Local food values in single bowl:

1. Buy as much locally, in season as possible from small, family farms.
2. Grow what I can myself.
3. Cherish bounty from friends’ gardens.
4. Buy only ingredients that cannot be grown locally at the store, buy USA products first before sourcing from other countries.
5. Buy organic when possible.
6. Embrace the cultural diversity of the farms in my food shed.
7. Support farmers who grow heirloom and rare varieties.
8. Buy only sustainable seafood.

Smash a bit with a mortar and pestle:
2 cloves garlic
4 stalks lemongrass
½ bunch cilantro
1-inch piece of ginger, peeled and cut into three pieces

Add to:
8 cups vegetable stock.
And simmer for 20 minutes. Strain off the solids and return liquid to the pot.

Mix in a small bowl:
1 tbs. fish sauce
1 tbs. soy sauce
1 tbs. sugar
3 tbs. white wine vinegar
Juice of three limes

1 lb. sustainable white fish, cut into four portions.

Add to the infused vegetable stock. Bring back to a boil, then lower heat to simmer. Simmer for 15 minutes until the seafood is cooked.

4 large tomatoes, peeled, cored and chopped into small wedges
Kernels from 4 ears of corn
4 okra sliced

Add to the soup, simmering for another 10 minutes. Place one piece of fish in each bowl, add soup and vegetables.

Garnish with:
Leaves of basil, mint, cilantro, lemon verbena, sliced hot peppers, and wedges of lime. Serves four.

Wednesday, August 03, 2011

Too Hot in the Kitchen: Cold Dishes for the Heat Wave

Yesterday the thermometer shot up to 113, a new record high. I can contain the excitement over setting a record, but I can't contain my newfound desire for fall. Heading into the kitchen and firing up the oven is about the last thing on my mind. It's already like an oven all around us.

We're eating a lot of salads, smoothies, and cold drinks around here. Popsicles for dessert. The oven is taking a summer vacation other than roasting a few items early in the day. Here's what's not cooking in the kitchen lately besides me:

Fried Green Tomato Salad with Roasted Corn, Okra and Tomatoes
3 green tomatoes, sliced
1/4 cup corn meal
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbs. canola oil

4 ears of corn
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 pint okra
1 tbs. olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
1 tbs. fresh basil

1/4 cup red wine vinegar
1 tbs. Dijon mustard
1/3 cup olive oil
salt and pepper to taste

2 cups salad greens

Preheat the oven (if it needs it lately) to 400. Shouldn't take long.

Cut the kernels off the corn cob over a baking sheet, keeping the milk that comes off the cob. Slice the cherry tomatoes in half lengthwise. Slice the okra horizontally, 1/4 inch thick. It makes little star shapes that way. Salt and pepper to taste, toss with the olive oil. Roast for about 15 minutes, or until just golden on the tops. Stir once or twice during roasting. Remove from oven and let cool to room temperature. Toss with the chopped basil.

Mix the cornmeal with the salt and pepper. Dredge the tomato slices in the cornmeal mixture to coat. Heat the oil in a skillet. Add the tomato slices and brown on each side, about three minutes per side. Set on paper towel to drain while you prep the salad plates.

Whisk the dressing ingredients together.

Place 1/2 cup greens on each of four salad plates. Add the tomato slices. Top with 1/4 cup of the roasted corn mixture. Drizzle with the dressing. You will have leftover corn and okra, but this is a great side dish and one less thing to cook tomorrow, when it's even hotter outside.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Greek Home Cooking

The cookbooks to review are stacking up a bit, so I have come up with a new plan. We've built a bit of a supper club around the books to review, and each host/hostess gets to keep the book they cook from and we review the dishes from the dinner.

The "test" book for the review provided by Andrews McMeel, was Food from Many Greek Kitchens by Tessa Kiros. I think the best part of the book is the photography and the introductions to each recipe that provide the history of the recipe and context of when it is enjoyed. Recipes are organized around a blend of holidays and traditions, such as Fasting Foods, Easter and Baker's Foods.

Many pages in the book are used for setting the scene; travel photos and full page scenery to give the feel of Greece and frame the flavors of the dishes. It's pleasant to just flip through the pages and daydream about dusting off my passport. I found the vegetable dishes most appealing from the recipes we tried. The beets with yogurt and pistachios was a surprise best hit. I made it the way the book had written for the dinner. Since then, I have adapted the recipe to have more tanginess and less raw garlic. My version is here (scroll down).

We also made Artichokes and Fava Beans, which was a nice change of pace from the simple favas with pecorino that I usually make, lemon pairs well with artichokes and fava. Mint and artichokes are what the Flavor Bible refers to as a "holy grail" pairing, something I discovered by accident serving my kid steamed artichoke with the lemon-mint dressing I had on hand. A holy grail pairing is something like melon and prosciutto or tomatoes and basil, where the combination of the two ingredients is flavor perfection.

The main dishes we tried were Baked Fish with Tomato and Baked Lamb with Rice-Shaped Pasta. The fish dish was light and fresh. The lamb dish I would revise a bit, it was dry and needed more flavor for us.

We tested the book earlier this spring, so all the ingredients were in season. I got stuck deciding between Spinach Rice and Wild Greens Pie, so I made my own blend, Wild Greens Rice. Yes, I was lazy and did not want to make the pastry on a week night! But I do love spanikopita, and both these recipes reminded me of those flavors.

This is a book I would buy from its visual appeal alone, but there are many recipes that will inspire my own cooking. I've always loved Greek food and am excited to have this as a field guide to trying more.

My recipe versions:

Beets with Lemony-Mint Yogurt Dressing
1 lb. beets, roasted as below
2 cloves roasted garlic
1/2 tsp. salt
1 tbs. white balsamic
Juice and zest of 1 lemon
2 tbs. walnut oil
1 tsp. dijon mustard
1 tbs. honey
1/4 cup mint, chopped
1/3 cup fat-free Greek yogurt
3 tbs. crushed pistachios

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Wash beets. Cut the stems and root from the beets, wrap in foil. Save the greens for the next recipe. Cut the root end off a head of garlic, wrap in foil. Place both in the oven. Roast the beets for about an hour (longer if the beets are larger than 2 inches diameter). Roast the garlic for about 45 minutes.

When the garlic is done, unwrap and squeeze the cloves out of the peel. You can use the remaining garlic in many ways; such as blending with mayonnaise and lemon for an aioli. Unwrap the beets and using a paper towel, rub the skins off the cooked beets for easy peeling. Set the beets aside to cool to warm.

Blend the remaining ingredients, except pistachios, into the sauce and toss with the beets. Garnish with the pistachios and serve just room temperature.

Wild Greens and Rice
1 cup jasmine rice
2 cups water
2 tbs. olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
12 oz greens, mixed, baby kale, arugula, spinach, beet greens, turnip greens, collards
1 bunch parsley, chopped
1/2 bunch dill, chopped
4 green onions, chopped
2 tbs. mint, chopped
Juice of 1/2 lemon
4 oz. feta cheese crumbled
1/2 tsp. salt
black pepper to taste

Boil the water, add the 1 cup rice. Cover, turn down to a simmer for 20 minutes. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a larger pot. You will need room for the greens until they cook down. Add the garlic and saute for a minute. Add the greens and saute for about five minutes, or until just wilted, but still bright green. Remove to a cutting board and let cool enough to chop. Add the chopped herbs, green onions, lemon juice, salt and pepper. Fold in the rice and feta cheese.

Bake at 350 for about 10-12 minutes until the top just turns golden in places and the rice and greens are heated through. Goes well with chicken or fish.

Sunday, June 26, 2011

What to Bring to a Crawfish Boil

A funny thing happens when people know you like food and you publish a few recipes. Well, the not-so-funny thing is that first, many of your friends will no longer invite you over for dinner. I understand this. The better thing is that with your freer time you can take up some of those unusual invites that come your way because you are into food.

This invite came by way of my brother-in-law. Mostly the instructions we were given were 1) that it was a crawfish boil, and 2) we should bring a dish, 3) there would be some chef types around. Since I don't have a whole lot of Top Chef Masters on speed dial, I consulted my overloaded cookbook shelves. There. John Besh's My New Orleans.

What I love about this book is that the recipes are all organized around New Orleans' holidays and traditional events, such Chapter 1, Crawfish season. The only non-crawfish side dish listed was Red Beans and Rice, a basic, classic recipe using pretty much just beans and smoked ham hock and the trinity of Cajun food; onions, green bell peppers and celery.

I also love the personal photos and stories in the massive cookbook. No wonder it won an IACP award.

I followed the recipe other than a couple ingredients and one twist: I used a pressure cooker. Once you get over the fear that you are going to explode hot liquid all over your kitchen (been there and done that, no pressure cooker required), it's really not difficult. Plus, it cooks recipes like this in about third of the time. Here's my version:

1 large onion, diced
1 green bell pepper, seeded and diced
2 stalks celery, diced
2 tbs. lard (yes, I have a tub of lard on hand at home, after our tamale fest.)
1 pound dried red kidney beans
1 smoked ham shank or two hocks
3 bay leaves
1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
1 tbs. dried savory
Salt and black pepper to taste
Tabasco to taste
3 cups cooked rice

Ideally, you soak the beans overnight, then drain and rinse. Or, you can be like me, forget, then have to put the beans in water, bring to a boil and then cover. Turn heat off and go do lawn work for a couple hours before you can cook. I think I will remember to soak those beans next time. Drain and set beans aside.

Have spouse step in and do the next few steps while you shower the weeds and dirt off. Later, get poison ivy on your wrists, both feet and your nose. Again, you should really skip this step and move to the next one.

Okay, so heat up that lard in the pressure cooker pot, lid off. Sweat the trilogy (If trilogy threw you a curve, that means you skipped to the recipe and did not read the post! Onions, green pepper and celery) about 10 minutes. Add beans back in, hocks or shank, bay leaves, and cayenne. Add water to cover by two inches.

This is the step where you return from the shower and add savory in even though Besh's recipe does not call for it. Savory is heaven with a pot of beans.

Now, I'm going to guess you read the cooker manual and you have checked your gasket and all the safety tips, right? Right. Bring all the above to a boil, then turn down to a simmer. Lock on the lid. Make sure that (however yours is set up) it makes the right seal and you have the safety lock all set. Again, that manual thing is helpful for a rookie like me.

Twenty-five minutes later, start the rice. Another 20 minutes later(45 minutes total), your Red Beans should be done. Follow the instructions for releasing the pressure. Then, check the beans for doneness. If they are not done, just simmer on stove for a while longer, they should be very close (or the dry beans were too old). Taste and adjust salt, pepper and tabasco or Louisiana Hot Sauce depending on your preference.

Remove the bay leaves and discard the leaves. Take the hocks or shank out with tongs and put on a cutting board. It should be easy to use the tongs to pull the meat right off the bones. Chop the meat and return to the pot. Rice should be ready by now, too.

Show up at the crawfish boil, looking like you know what you are doing. Even if you don't. Realize on the way home from the party that you kind of itch in many places including your nose.

Which brings me to the final step, never itch your nose while you are weeding the lawn.