Thursday, October 28, 2010

Wonder Woman I Am Not

I don’t make costumes. Instead, my kids pour over websites roughly entitled "lazycostumes.com" and select their favorite TV character, rock star or princess of the moment.

Sometimes I feel a bit guilty about this short cut. My mom always made our costumes herself even though she could barely sew. Like my children, I would start dreaming up costume ideas in August. The actual costume-making itself began around October 29th or 30th. This usually involved rummaging through the closet to approximate the look of the desired character. To become Sandy from Grease, I wore a poodle-ish skirt and spent the evening looking dewy-eyed singing “Hopelessly Devoted To You.” It was a stretch at best.

Despite her artistic shortcomings, Mom always put in a solid effort. Her finest work was when I wanted to be Wonder Woman a la Linda Carter. She made me a pair of blue bloomers covered in white stars; Bought a can of spray paint (her costuming tool of choice) and drew a poor rendition of Wonder Woman’s insignia on a t-shirt. I even wore a gold spray-painted cardboard tiara, and blue power bracelets made from electric tape. After all of her hard work, I complained that my hair wasn’t blackish-blue like the real Wonder Woman.

The tricky thing about raising kids without your mom around is that you don’t have her live input. Would Mom have supported me for ordering costumes online? Perhaps she would, saying: “Homemade Halloween costumes are overrated! If I could reclaim those evenings of inhaling fumes from spray paint, I would do it in a heartbeat.” Or would she reminisce about those heart-felt, albeit lame, outfits. Unrealistic costumes, she would argue, were an invaluable lesson in creativity. Better to become Wonder Woman in your mind than own the right gear.

Most likely, the truth lies somewhere in between. However, here’s the (sort of) wonderful thing about raising kids without your Mom: You can make up whatever you want, and forge your own damn tradition. Forget guilt; forget trying to do it right. It’s your family, your life, and it works for you. I think this is the attitude that mom would have appreciated the most.

That’s why I am quick to set aside all Halloween-related guilt (a sentiment that certainly came in handy when I polished off nearly an entire bag of candy corn, remembering only afterward that candy corn always makes me nauseous). In my family, we order our costumes online, and if your kid looks trashy and possibly inappropriate –so be it. These are their memories.

My kids and I do, however, enjoy baking together. So this year, we baked a batch of Erika George’s Pumpkin Spice Bars for a Halloween party. Though truly Halloween-y, the pumpkin flavor is a winner with adults all season long. To cut down on the chaos, you can bake the pumpkin part ahead of time, letting kids frost and/or decorate later.

If none of this appeals to you, orange cupcakes and candy are plentiful at the grocery store this time of year. No judgment, I promise.

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ERIKA’S PUMPKIN SPICE BARS

Our friend Erika George served these delicious desserts during a visit to her home in Portland, Oregon. I have since incorporated them into my baking repertoire, and passed it on to countless friends. Always a home run.

Ingredients:
2 cups graham cracker crumbs (roughly 2 packages; I usually crumble in food processor)
7 Tbsp butter, melted
1 2/3 cups plus ¼ sugar, divided
2 cups all purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
2 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
4 eggs
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin puree
1 cup vegetable oil
Cream Cheese Frosting (recipe below) OR 1 can (16 oz) cream cheese frosting

Directions:
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 15X11-inch pan with foil; set aside.
2. In a small bowl, mix graham cracker crumbs, butter and ¼ cup sugar until well combined. Spread mixture into prepared pan. Using a measuring cup with a flat bottom, smooth mixture to form an even crust.
3. Bake crust until fragrant, about 6 minutes; let cool completely.
4. In a medium bowl combine flour, cinnamon, baking powder, baking soda and salt. In a separate bowl, beat eggs, remaining sugar, pumpkin puree and oil; stir in flour mixture.
5. Using rubber spatula, spread the pumpkin mixture evenly over the cooled crust in pan.
6. Bake until filling pulls away from the pan, 25-30 minutes; let cool completely in pan.
7. Frost the top of the cooled bars with cream cheese frosting.

Cream Cheese Frosting:
1 3 oz package cream cheese, softened
6 Tbsp margarine, softened (I use Smart Balance)
1 Tbsp Half & Half (I often use whole milk)
2 cups powdered sugar
1 tsp vanilla

Beat all ingredients in mixer until smooth.

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Please consider this my Sunday night post. Come Halloween night, I'll be too hopped up on sugar to put together a sentence.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

JOYS OF THE BUTTERNUT SQUASH

Glancing over the last few blog entries, I shudder to think how much ground meat my family has consumed. Y’all must think I live on a ranch with my own slaughterhouse. I’ll say it first: Take a break from the meat, already!

Perhaps this explains why I have had butternut squash soup on the brain. At the grocery store, I would gaze longingly at the squash's lovely pear-shaped form and pale orange flesh, and marvel at the convenience of those pre-cut packages. Yet I hesitated, primarily because I could not figure out the nutritional value of centering a meal on this starchy soup. Where’s the protein? The leafy green element? (As my husband and kids will tell you, I’m a big fan of the balanced meal.)

Finally, I could resist the pull no more. I bought the enticingly shrink-wrapped package of squash, and vowed not to let it spoil. Then, I dreamed up a menu of all the coziest, autumnal foods I could imagine: A bit of sliced pan-fried turkey sausage, roasted brussels sprouts, and crusty bread –all framed around this wonderful butternut squash soup.

The meal worked like a dream. For one thing, it’s nice to eat a light meal where soup is the focus. I would even recommend bagging the sausage, and sprinkling some almonds into the soup instead. It felt sort of like I was sampling appetizers at the bar of a good restaurant with a nice glass of Malbec.

Such an adult delight could not have been more perfectly time. I ate the butternut squash soup after throwing a birthday party at Chuck E Cheese. For those of you have yet to experience Chuck E's, think Vegas for kids with a cheap Disney motif –only louder. Much louder. Chuck E's is known for its shockingly bad pizza (which my children wax poetic about in their post-Chuck E's daze). Rather than gobbling a couple of slices during the mouse’s big singing show, I opted to abstain for the butternut squash soup that awaited me at home. I came incredibly close to breaking during the big finale.

Finally, I was home with sleeping kids and 365 days until the next birthday party. I turned on the playoffs, poured myself a glass of wine, and sat down to that much-loved butternut squash soup. A simple delight only a grown up could love.

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BUTTERNUT SQUASH AND CIDER SOUP

I picked this recipe up at Canyon Ranch in the Berkshires. They recommend garnishing with sliced apples, which I think is too sweet. Also, I think this would work just as well with vegetable stock, rather than chicken. Finally, I’ve added a touch of salt. Canyon Ranch is not big on sodium, but frankly this soup can use some.

Ingredients:
• 1 medium shallot, minced
• 1 small clove garlic, minced (or add more if you are garlic-obsessed like me)
• 1 teaspoon, olive oil
• 3 cups peeled, seeded, and cubed butternut squash (about 1 pound)
• 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock
• ¾ cups apple cider
• ¼ cup nonfat sour cream

1. In a medium saucepan over low heat, sauté shallots and garlic in olive oil, being careful not to burn.
2. Add squash and stock and cook until soft enough to blend. Pour into blender container and blend until smooth.
3. Add cider and sour cream and continue to process until well mixed.
4. Serve immediately


AMY BODIKER’S THAI CURRY SQUASH SOUP

Here’s another wonderful approach from my best friend Amy Bodiker. Trained as a professional chef and a leader in the sustainable food movement for fifteen years, Amy came up with this recipe last fall, incorporating some Thai flavors she found in her pantry. I love how she uses every ingredient to last drop. Check it out. This one is brilliant.


Ingredients:
4 cups squash puree
1 can coconut milk
1 tsp. red curry paste dissolved in 1/2 can water
Juice of one orange
Kosher salt to taste

Directions:
1. If using whole squash, roast as described above. Save the seeds and toast for garnish, directions below. When cool enough to handle, peel skins off and mash the squash in a bowl with the back of a spoon. (Alternatively, puree with a food mill or use a hand blender directly in the soup pot).

2. Add squash and one can coconut milk into soup pot. Stir to combine and set the heat to medium. The heat will help to dissolve the milk solids.

3. Scoop a teaspoon of red curry paste into the spent milk can. Add a splash of water and swirl to clean up remaining milk and stir to dissolve the curry paste. Pour curry slurry to the soup and stir to combine.

4. As the soup comes to a gentle boil, add salt to taste.

5. Off the heat, squeeze into the soup the juice of one orange. Use your hands to catch the seeds. If you’re feeling zippy, microplane some of the zest in as well.

6. Check the seasonings. Correct with more salt, juice, or even curry paste to your taste. Add more water (or stock) if a thinner consistency is desired.

7. Ladle into bowls and serve with a garnish of toasted seeds.


ROASTED SQUASH SEEDS

Amy B says: "This is messy work, requiring a strong stomach if you’re sensitive to texture. If you like nothing more to get your hands dirty -- have fun!"

1. Cut squash and scrape out centers. Put seeds and pulp aside into a bowl and set aside as you tend to the squash.

2. With your fingers, remove pulp from seeds. I do this in a sink, slapping my hands against the sides and dropping pulp directly down the drain. In my experience, this isn’t an exact science -- some seeds will be lost. The faucet comes in handy when goopy fingers loose their edge in actually removing the seeds from the pulp.

3. With clean hands, place seeds on a foil covered sheet pan. Sprinkle generously with kosher salt.

4. Place pan in low oven and toast seeds until nutty brown and thoroughly dry.

Monday, October 25, 2010

FOOTBALL CHILI COOK OFF'S KICK OFF: Cincinnati Style

When it comes to blood lust, I plead guilty. I love nothing more than spending Sunday afternoon watching a group of oversized men brutalize each other with military precision. That’s right I am an avid football fan. Blame it on The Jeanne.

Football was a matrilineal tradition in my house. My grandmother spent most fall weekends perched in front of the game, cold beer in hand. She raised Jeanne to do the same. And thanks to Mom, I too savor a finely-executed pass or a sweet sack.

While Jets fans permeate our ranks (Joe Namath still holds some serious sway over my Aunt Bet and her clan), I was raised a Giants fan. This was a glorious thing in the 1980s. Every Sunday, Phil Simms, Mark Bavarro and Lawrence Taylor (the namesake of our ill-behaved dog) would work their magic, and Mom would yell. Loudly. Her voice rose about five octaves, taking on the feverish pitch of blood lust. Come fourth quarter or OT, she usually let loose with her favorite catch phrase: “The opera ain’t over to ‘til the fat lady sings!!!!!!” At this point, brother and I would shrink with embarrassment. Surely the neighbors could hear. So be it, said The Jeanne. Unbridled enthusiasm is part of the fun.

Chili was also an integral part of our fun. Mom’s chili repertoire was vast and delicious, ranging from chopped steak to vegetarian. The recipes varied, but Mom’s symphonic timing remained the same. She spent early afternoon chopping and mincing ingredients, calmly commenting on the game at hand. As the day progressed, the house would gradually take on a spicy scent, hitting an aromatic crescendo by the fourth quarter. The chili --and Mom's yelling-- was usually finished by dinner time.

To honor this long standing ritual, I introduce to you: The Official Football Chili Cook Off 2010, a series of chili recipes introduced sporadically throughout the rest of the NFL season. Why bother kicking off midseason? One word: Texas. Tonight at 8:30 pm ET, the NY Giants will meet their age-old nemesis, the Dallas Cowboys. I detest the Cowboys. One of the Jeanne’s Golden Rules of Fandom was to hate the Cowboys, and I learned it well. Call it Blue State elitism, but that’s how we gals roll.

Given that Dallas is 1-4 and G-men are not as hot as I had once hoped, a milder chili seems fitting. (Save the five-alarm for when the season really heats up.) I can think of no better than Cincinnati Chili.

Unbeknown to many, Cincinnati joined the chili pantheon in 1922 when a Greek restaurant owner introduced his Mediterranean-inspired version. The Kovers have been devotees ever since Dad brought the recipe back from a business trip in the early Eighties.

Mulled in cinnamon, Worcestershire sauce, and pickling spice, Cincinnati chili feels more comforting than electrifying. Because the texture is smoother than traditional chili, Cincinnatians can eat theirs over pasta or on a hot dog.

Toppings vary widely. As The Jeanne will detail below, you can choose from a combination of cheddar cheese, kidney beans, chopped onions or crushed oyster crackers. Opt for all of the above and you’ve got a “Four-Way.”

But the best thing about CinciChili? It's not from Texas. Death to the Cowboys. Go Blue.


CINCINNATI CHILI

Ingredients:

1 quart of water
2 lbs lean hamburger (NO joke. A fattier cut adds way too much grease.)
4 medium onions, chopped fine
2 cloves, garlic
2 tsp chili powder
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 tsp cumin seed or ground cumin
2 tsp salt (or according to taste)
1 can of tomato paste
Placed in tea ball:
1 tsp red pepper
3 bay leaves
2 Tbsp pickling spice (I had no idea what this was. Thanks to Amy Bodiker, I came up with a blend of all-spice, mustard seeds, coriander seeds, and celery seeds. Next time, I would do cloves too)

Directions:

• Crumble raw hamburger (not browned) into water. Add all ingredients. Bring t a boil, then simmer for 3 hours.
• Serve over hot dogs

o 2 Way: Spaghetti topped with chili
o 3 Way: Spaghetti topped with chili, grated cheese and topped onions
o 4 Way: Same as others but with kidney beans


NOTE: Stay tuned for Butternut Squash soup later this week.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Casserole Reclaimed

Last night, my daughter and I were rifling through the recipe box when we hit upon a Jeanne classic. “Hamburger Corn Casserole!” my daughter exclaimed. “That sounds really good!” I cringed. Mom’s casserole consists of hamburger meat, canned cream of corn and Fritos. Who am I? Betty Draper?

We ate this dish quite regularly when I was a kid, particularly during the years when our schedules brimmed with afterschool activities. I absolutely loved the crispy topping formed by the Fritos and cheese. In fact, when Mom was sick in the hospital, I tried to soothe my frayed nerves by preparing her casserole for dinner. The crust came out tough as nails. I mentioned it to Mom the next day, to which she asked with grave concern:”Did you use real cheese? Oh. Well, it works a lot better with Velveeta.” Really. Velveeta. I gave up on Hamburger Corn Casserole then and there.

I was still feeling sheepish, when a friend made an observation I hadn’t considered. “If more people had casserole recipes, more people would cook.” She was right. Casseroles are an easy way to get a balanced dinner on the table. I had a nutso “soccer mom” cliché of an evening – homework, afterschool activities, and meetings. Surely, Hamburger Corn Casserole was a better nutritional option than the frozen chicken nuggets my children hold so dear to their hearts.

Casseroles are also incredibly cost effective. My Dad told me he and Mom used to make a casserole with tofu when they were really broke. (“It was cheap, and GOOD,” he insists.) I anted up big bucks for Grass-fed Obe hamburger meat, and my total bill for the casserole still came to just $12. Not bad.

Then I glanced at the bottom of the index card where Mom had scribbled in capitals, “An Old Stand By.” I had to give it a try.

As for the Velveeta, sorry Jeanne, but that’s where I draw the line.

Hamburger Corn Casserole
“An Old Standby”
Cooking Time: 1 hour; 25-30 minutes active time

1 – 2 lb hamburger
1-2 onions
1 bell pepper
1 tsp of chile powder
Salt and pepper to taste

Sautee above ingredients (First cook hamburger, and then add onion and pepper.)
Put hamburger mixture at bottom of casserole
Add creamed corn
Then add rest of hamburger mix
Top with more corn and Fritos
Bake at 350 degrees for 30-40 minutes.

NOTE: Interestingly enough, Mom did not include any cheese in the recipe. I sprinkled some cheddar cheese on top. Baked it for 30 minutes covered, and then 10 minutes uncovered. The cheese did not have the same cardboard consistency I remember from years ago. Give this a shot if you want they cheesy topping.

END NOTE: My daughter LOVED it. She did, however, assiduously pick out the onions. Next time, I might halve the amount of onions.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Chicken for the Disney-Fried Soul

I have spent the last six days cavorting with cartoon characters, flying on elephants, and watching countless movies that require oversized 3D glasses. That’s right, I went to Disney World. Fantastic as the experience was –the look on your kids’ faces will knock the cynic right out of you— we are wiped out. Tonight I need a dinner that requires minimal brain power and no grocery shopping. I need a go-to meal.

Given the copious amounts of fast food we consumed at Disney, playing the Amalfi’s card was not an option. Yet when I rifled through Mom’s recipe box in search of an answer, I discovered something far better than take-out. Marie Corina’s Italian Chicken.

Our neighbors in Ithaca during the 1970s, the Corinas had eight –eight!— teenage kids. Legend has it that Mom first met them when two of the Corina boys climbed on our roof to rescue a cat. She shouted at them from her window, they thought she was a bitch, and somehow a friendship was formed. In my opinion, Mom leaned out her window that day with a plan. She had probably seen the Corina kids around the neighborhood, hence sizing them up for the gold mine they were –eight potential babysitters—and yelled at them to stake her claim.

The Corina house was the coziest place in the world. My brother and I could perch on their plaid sofa for hours, watching TV and enjoying the constant foot traffic of people and pets. The Corina kids made everything fun. In the dead of winter, they played a game known as “Hot Buns Burn-Off,” in which you competed to see who could sit on the radiator longest. Last man sitting won.

Dinner took place around a huge dining room table, bodies crammed onto benches and shouts for more potatoes echoing throughout the room. After the first five minutes of chaos, a quiet would usually settle over the table as people focused on their food. At this point, Marie Corina would sigh, “The sound of happy mouths.”

Clearly, Marie knew how to feed a crowd.

I figured if Marie’s chicken could transform eight hungry kids into “happy mouths,” surely it would soothe my little family's frayed nerves. Besides, this simple chicken dish was also my mom’s go-to weeknight dinner. As I cooked it this evening, my house began to smell the way I remember weeknight dinners. It was the scent of a predictable, serene night at home. The perfect antidote to a post-Disney malaise.

Marie Corina’s Italian Chicken


Ingredients:
• 1 package of chicken parts, remove all skin and wash well
• 1 ½ cup bread crumbs
• ½ cup grated Pecorino Romano cheese
• 1 tsp garlic salt
• Pepper
• ¼ cup parsley (I skip this lest my daughter whines “I don't want the green stuff!” It's just not worth hassle.)
• 2 Tbsp olive oil

Directions:
• Mix together bread crumbs, cheese, garlic salt, pepper and parsley in large bowl or dipping tray.
• Dip chicken in crumb mixture, place on foil-lined baking sheet
• Drizzle oil over chicken
• Bake at 350 degrees for 1 hour or until crispy.

NOTE: This is the official recipe. However, I usually just sprinkle the bread crumbs, cheese and seasoning directly on chicken in baking sheet, drizzle the oil, and bake. The other way probably blends the flavors more evenly. My way requires no thinking. Your call.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Our Moussaka Day

Once in a while, a day springs up where everything gels together so perfectly you expect to hear a movie director announce, “Cut!” as you drift off to sleep. Hollywood magic must have been at play the day Mom and I made moussaka.

An early Saturday in October, the weather was much like this weekend –cool, clear, and generally delightful. The leaves were just beginning to crisp up, turning the colors of freshly baked bread. Nevertheless I woke up complaining. A recent college grad, I was living at home, commuting into Manhattan for a job passing out faxes at the New York Post at night. Phrases such as, “I’m fat" and "I have no life!” flew from my mouth at regular intervals. In other words, I was a joy to be around.

Somehow Mom mustered up enough patience to ignore my whining and suggested we visit Cold Spring, a beautiful town on the Hudson. We spent the afternoon tooling around shops, maintaining an ongoing patter of conversation the entire time. On the way home, stopped by a farm stand. Standing over a mound of noble-looking purple eggplants, Mom casually mentioned: “This reminds me of the moussaka I used to make back in Ithaca.” And the next thing we knew, we were heading home to make it.

Mom preferred traditional moussaka with lamb. However I was not a huge fan of meat at the time (another boon to living with me). So, she cracked open her Moosewood Cookbook, and began to edit Molly Katzen’s recipe. (Mom felt that Katzen overspiced her food to compensate for the lack of meat. Blasphemy in Ithaca.) I acted as sous-chef while Mom put the indulgent Greek casserole together. She taught me how to make the cream sauce or béchamel,as she called it, using that crappy French accent of hers. Anyway, the sauce took quite some skill. I was in awe of her finesse.

We feasted by candlelight, drinking wine far into the evening. Twas heaven.

She must have thought so too because, sure enough, a recipe for moussaka was tucked into the recipe box. Rather than messing with the Moosewood, she left me her lamb version. No doctoring required.

I had designate this weekend for moussaka, when another perfect day struck. On a lark, my family visited our friends who recently departed for the suburbs. We spent the afternoon at an apple farm, where our kids frolicked through a corn maze and gorged themselves on donuts and caramel apples. My friend Betsy and I did our best to keep up the same ongoing patter of conversation that Mom and I once shared.

This evening, my brother’s family gathered to sample Mom’s moussaka recipe. As I listened to the giggles of Jeanne’s four grandchildren, I could not help to think that she somehow played had played cosmic role in our serendipity.

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Without further adieu, here is the moussaka recipe and all its magical power. Because this dish deserves a full menu and I returned from the farm with an abundance of apples, I am also including an apple recipe I found in the “box” from another old family friend, Bevy Nadel. (She was basically Mom’s Nigella). Enjoy!


Moussaka


This is a classic Jeanne. No formal ingredient list, and limited measurements. I improvised as best I could and included a list with measurements.

Ingredients
• 3-4 medium size eggplants
• ¼ cup olive oil
• 2 lb ground lamb
• 1 medium onion, sliced into thin wedges
• 3-6 plum tomatoes, sliced into wedges
• Salt and pepper
• 1 tsp oregano,
• 1 tsp parsley
• 1 tsp basil
• ½ tsp thyme (fresh is good)
• 1 ½ cup of white wine
• ¼ cup flour
• ¼ cup flour
• 1 ½ cups of milk
• 3 eggs
• 1 ½ cups of parmesan cheese
• breadcrumbs

Directions
• Wash and remove ends of eggplants. Do not peel. Slice about 1/3 to ½ inch thick. Sprinkle with salt, and let sit for 10 to 15 minutes. Sautee in olive oil. Drain and lay in bottom of casserole dish.
• Sautee ground lamb with thin wedges of onion.
• When browned, add tomatoes.
• Add seasonings, white wine, cover and cook until sauce is reduced by half.
• Make a white sauce (rouge) in a double boiler.
Constantly stir flour and melted butter at low heat to make a roux. Gradually blend in small amounts of milk until sauce is creamy enough to coat wooden spoon. But not too thick!
• Cool sauce
• Add eggs beaten thoroughly and mix in grated parmesan cheese
• Place meat mixture over eggplant. Pour sauce over meat, then sprinkle with cheese and breadcrumbs.
• Bake at 425 degrees for 30 minutes until golden brown.


Bevy’s Apple Cake


6 apples pared, cored, sliced. Bevy uses Granny Smith. But I used Macoun.
5 T plus 2 c of sugar
5 t cinnamon
3 c flour, sifted
3 t baking powder
1 t salt
4 eggs
1 c salad oil
¼ c orange juice
1 T vanilla

Grease a 10-inch tube pan (That’s a bundt pan without the fancy designs. I used a bundt because that’s all I have. That was a mistake because the cake is not to be served upside down. Use a tube pan.)

Combine apples, cinnamon and 5 T sugar and set aside

Sift flour, rest of sugar, baking powder, and salt into large bowl. Make a well in center and pour oil, eggs, juice and vanilla.

Beat with a wooden spoon until well blended.

Spoon 1/3 of batter into greased tube pan. Make a ring of half the apple mixture, drained of excess moisture on top of batter. Try to keep apples from touching side of pan.

Repeat with another 1/3 of batter, and rest of apples and top with last of butter.

Bake 1 to 1 ½ hours until done. Cool in pan.

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