Monday, November 29, 2010

Dinner at Mom's

Here I go again.

I'm trying to hijack another dinner at my mother's house.

She invited us over for New Year's Day and said she'd make some lemon glazed honey mustard chicken. When I asked my mother how she makes it, she got defensive. She wanted to know why I was asking so many questions. Then she confessed: it comes from a packet.

"But I embellish it,'' she said.

Maybe it's because I've read enough Michael Pollan's to only want to eat "real food," but anything that comes from a packet tastes of chemicals and preservatives to me.

So I did what I always do. I offered to host dinner at my house. I want to try a recipe for cholent, a Jewish stew printed in last week's New York times that cooks overnight. Adapted from "Quick & Kosher: Recipes From The Bride Who Knew Nothing" the stew has molasses and smoked paprika and simmers for 15 hours in a crock pot. For now I can only imagine how good it, tastes but I am hoping to find out soon.

"Should I bring my chicken, too?" my mother asked. I didn't get a chance to politely say no. Nor did I win this one yet. There is still a month of negotiations, but I have a feeling everyone who will be around that dinner table is on my side. I could make the stew at home and bring it to her house, which has some advantages, namely she has a dishwasher and we wouldn't have to get our apartment ready for company. But I am not that familiar with the ins and outs of crock pot cooking and I'm not sure how well it will work if I travel with the stew and than reheat it.

I could take the high road and just eat whatever my mother wanted to cook and not say a word. But then again, isn't life too short to eat bad food?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Prepared Food Thanksgiving

Growing up in a house where very little real cooking happened put a whole different flavor on Thanksgiving:  flavor that came from a mix, out of a can or from our freezer.

I was flipping through a holiday cooking magazine last night and came across an ad for Grands Cinnamon rolls. Memories of Thanksgiving at my mother’s house came flooding back. Frozen cinnamon rolls were a big Thanksgiving treat at our house. I was in charge of frosting the rolls from a plastic container that came hidden at the end of the frozen tube.

My mother served sweet potatoes with marshmallows that came from a package. Her frozen root vegetables were also covered with some brown sugar glaze out of a packet.

The cranberry sauce came right out of the can. It held its shape sitting on a saucer on the table throughout the entire meal. As a kid I thought how gross it was that my father was eating this ringed jelly substance that did not resembled real food.

The year the turkey came out burnt to a crisp was the last straw. My mother was upset. I was right out of college and couldn’t help making a snarky comment. It wasn’t a very happy holiday.

For years I would stop in Edison at a friend’s house on my way home to pick at his mother’s wonderful leftovers. His mother used to brine her turkey and it was fall off the bone tender. Sometime in my late 20s I realized a holiday meant to be about wonderful home cooked food and feeling thankful didn’t have to leave me hungry.

I convinced the guy I was dating at the time to invite my parents and I over for the holiday. It was a watershed food moment. I watched his mother boil sweet potatoes, carefully peel them, mash them and cover them in a dish with marshmallows. We had lots of people around the table and wonderful food. It’s how I always envisioned how the holiday should be.

This year we are heading to Jeff’s sister’s house down the shore. It will be a small group: my husband and I, his father, my parents, his sister and brother- in- law, Steve, who is the most wonderful cook I’ve ever met. His sister started rattling off all the appetizers they plan to serve. Just listening made me full. She lost me after pumpkin ravioli in a brown butter sauce.
I can never get off enough time around Thanksgiving to try to make dinner myself. But I plan to bring a
cranberry-pomegranate relish courtesy of a Martha Stewart recipe, a pumpkin pie and my husband will make his favorite Paula Deen corn casserole recipe.

Martha Stewart Food Everyday

I doubt there will be anything from a can or a mix. I am sure it will all be wonderful and remind me of what I have to be happy for – my wonderful new extended family and an end to the prepared food Thanksgiving.


Thursday, November 18, 2010

Reading Terminal Market

Here is a shameless plug for my friend Mary Rizzo's new blog Eating Reading: Consuming one of Everything at Philadelphia's Reading Terminal Market . I've been to Reading Terminal Market in Philadelphia a few times, but mostly late in the afternoon. The buzz she describes in the morning makes it seem almost worthwhile for a night owl to get up at the crack of dawn to check it out. Because I can never wake up earlier enough, I haven't been there when the Amish merchants are open. But I imagine shopping at their stalls is like returning to a moment frozen in time, which is what makes these markets such special places.

I wish more of these old fashioned food markets still existed where you can talk to the people who made the cheeses, grew the vegetables and raised the animals we eat for dinner. I know there are a few still tucked away including the Paterson's Farmers Market in New Jersey which caters mostly to the city's Middle Eastern population. My favorite there is the stall that sells fresh loose spices.

I hope I can help Mary with her mission to eat one of everything at Reading Terminal Market. What a delicious idea!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Best Pancakes Ever!

Last week was the kind that I hate. It was really hectic and I didn’t get to make dinner at home any night. So when the weekend rolled around and I finally got back in the kitchen, I decided it was time to make us a treat…a wonderful Sunday brunch.

I took a suggestion from the Food Network magazine to use pumpkin pie spice in pancake batter. How could I resist. Pumpkin pie spice is just a blend of spices, which I didn't have at home so I made my own with this simple recipe I found online. I’d never seen a recipe that required 2 minutes of prep time before:

Pumpkin Pie Spice
mix together:
1 teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
Recipe adapted from

Then I used some left over buttermilk I had in the fridge from making corn bread for the pancakes and threw in some walnuts pieces:

1 large egg
1 cup all purpose flour
I cup buttermilk, shaken
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
Generous handful of walnuts

In a medium bowl beat egg with hand beater until fluffy
Beat in remaining ingredients just until smooth
I like to add a little more buttermilk for thinner pancakes...a few tablespoons at a time

All I can say is yum. It was the perfect taste of fall. I think using real maple syrup also helped. I'm proud to say I've come a long way from the days of eating Eggos out of the freezer at my mother’s house!

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

More Cheese Please? Maybe not.

I just read the New York Times article "While Warning About Fat, U.S. Pushes Cheese Sales." The U.S. Department of Agriculture's Dairy Management office worked with Domino's Pizza to create a cheesier pizza. One slice has two-thirds of the recommended daily allowance of saturated fat. 

Ick! Just reading about it made my stomach hurt.

All this while the government also tries to convince us to eat healthier...including cutting down on saturated fats.

It's such a contradiction, I can hardly get my head around it. But it reminds me a lot about what Michael Pollan said when I saw him at Rutgers University last month. He talked about the development of nutrition guidelines. When the government wanted to promote something simple like "eat less read meat" the industry went nuts and we ended up with much more complicated guidelines that actually talked about eating more of other foods. The simple idea of cutting back on hamburgers and steak was tossed out the window.

Michael Pollan also talked about our never ended stream of food fads and how certain foods fall out of favor. Before everything on the supermarket shelves was low carb it was fat free. People like my mother devoured that stuff. Everything in her house was fat free from the yogurt, to the milk and cheese and bread. All snacks in the house were fat free...even the cookies. I remember thinking two things: It can't be good to cut all fat our of your diet. And this taste gross.

Well, Michael Pollan said the fat that was taken out of food had to be replaced with something, so most of those fat free foods were loaded with sugar to preserve some semblance of taste. My mother thought she was eating healthy, but she had actually replaced one bad thing with another.

I think his most interesting point was that our problem is we don't think of food as a whole anymore. We've broken it down to its nutrient parts. Now that eating omega-3s is the big fad we can artificially add into into anything like our cereal and our milk, instead of eating foods like walnuts that contain it naturally.

That New York Times article reminded me of why I try to avoid fast food restaurants. I think when it comes to my diet, I'll listen to Michael Pollan before I take the advice of the government.

Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Sugar and Spice

I am hoping someone can help me with my quest for the perfect spicy cookie. I've been searching for a the best recipe with pepper or chili powder so the flavor will linger and dance on my tongue. I'd settle for a recipe that includes allspice and cloves because I love the tingling sensation those spices add.  But my first choice is something peppery that could earn an interesting Mexican name that channels some Aztecs God or something.

I came pretty close this weekend with Martha Stewart's Mexican Hot Chocolate Cookie recipe. The dough was rolled into balls and dipped in sugar, cinnamon and chili powder before baking.

I made the cookies to bring to  dinner party. Our hosts kept telling us that we didn't need to bring anything but I didn't want to show up empty handed. And since I worked all day before the party, I needed something I could make the night before and grab on my way out the door. What travels better than a tin full of cookies?

The cookies were wonderfully chewy but the flavor was too subtle for me. It might have been the chili powder. Maybe I need something stronger?

At least my host and hostess seemed to enjoy them. But my quest for the spicy cookie will continue.

Thursday, November 4, 2010

"Make it Happennnnn"

Last weekend a friend introduced me to the most amazing coffeehouse ever: Rim Cafe in Philadelphia's 9th Street Italian Market. Behind the counter was owner Rene Kobeitri, master of making wonderful coffee and hot chocolate drinks. My friend swore she had the best espresso ever at Rim Cafe.

We walked in on a chilly night. One look at the menu and I knew I had to try the hot chocolate volcano.

Rene assembled our drinks in front of us, first filling a mug with whipped cream. He then poured in the hot chocolate creating a volcano like affect as the whipped cream erupted in the mug. 

By then I thought I found heaven. But it only got better. Rene started taking out homemade blocks of chocolate. One was flavored with ginger, Another with peppers. One was white chocolate. I lost track as he shaved bar after bar into our hot chocolate. He described each bar as he loaded our drinks with chocolate.

All Rene's stories are punctuated by his two favorite phrases: "Oh my Gid" and "Make it Happennnnnn" which he made my husband and I promise we would do after leaving the cafe.

I'm not sure what was the best part. Meeting Rene or drinking his hot chocolate. And I can't forget to mention the old school Italian musicians who were playing in the background. Jeff certainly seemed to enjoy it and I know I can't wait to go back.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Wedding gifts

Last night I finally broke out the Crockpot that we got as a wedding gift. My husband’s boss had made it sound like an appliance no working woman should do without so I had added it to our registry.

The verdict? I love it! I made a Chipotle Chicken Stew recipe from my Crockpot Cookbook. It took me about half an hour to get all the ingredients together in the morning and then I let the stew cook all day. Dinner was ready by 6:30 p.m. This recipe is so simple I could do it before work. And having dinner ready when I got home left me with enough time to make Martha Stewart's Buttermilk Cornbread.
The Crockpot is really perfect for us since our biggest problem trying to eat healthy is that we get home from work at 8 p.m. and still having to go to the grocery store and make dinner. I might add another half of a Chipotle next time to give the stew more flavor but here is the recipe I tried:

Chipotle Chicken Stew

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken thighs, cut into cubes
1 tsp salt
1 tsp ground cumin
1 bay leaf
1 chipotle pepper in adobo sauce, minced
1 medium onion diced
1 can (15 ounces) navy beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (15 ounces) black beans, rinsed and drained
1 can (14.5 ounces) crushed tomatoes, undrained
1.5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup orange juice

1. combine all ingredients in a 3- 6- quart crock pot.
2. Cover. Cook on low for 7 to 8 hours, or on high for 3/5 to 4 hours. Remove bay leaf before serving.

Number of Servings: 6

Monday, November 1, 2010

How I learned to cook no thanks to my mother

I’m not sure if my mother has ever chopped a vegetable. Her idea of baking from scratch is adding a dash of cinnamon to a muffin mix. She doesn’t like spice and it’s a struggle to ever get her to go out to dinner anywhere but at her favorite Chinese restaurant.

Needless to say when I started living on my own I didn’t know anything about cooking. I used to make pesto from a packet. But luckily I knew a lot of wonderful cooks. I would watch them chop vegetables and add seasoning to recipes when I visited them for dinner.

My life changed when I started renting an apartment on a pick your own farm in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. I picked blueberries, opened up a used Pillsbury cookbook I bought and made muffins. The blueberry exploded like fireworks. It was the most incredible thing I had ever seen or tasted.

I love food. I love flavor. I love anything my mother would consider unusual like adding cinnamon to a Moroccan chicken dish.  I have a kitchen full of appliances and subscription to several cooking magazines.

I’ve started this blog to share my food obsession. I hope you’ll use this to share recipes and your favorite food stories with me too.

Who was the worst cook?

My husband, Jeff, and I are debating whose mother was the worst cook. I think he might have me beat. He just told me his mother messed up Stove Top Stuffing. How is that even possible?

Can you top that with an even worse cooking story?