Monday, November 30, 2009

Lemon Bars

Fellow blogger Cafe Pasadena kvells about Europane's lemon bars here. I have been known to sneak off to Auntie Em's between classes and devour a monster-sized lemon bar without sharing one crumb. But the best? The absolute best? Home made. Melting shortbread topped with a tangy layer of meyer lemon sunshine, still faintly warm from its time in the oven. Gentlemen, (and ladies) start your juicers! (Or preheat your oven, to 350 degrees)

Into one cup softened unsalted butter beat one half cup powdered sugar. Gradually mix in two cups of flour. Spread dough across the bottom of a 13 x 9 pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes until light brown.

As the crust finishes baking, pour 2/3 cup fresh lemon juice into two cups of sugar. This dissolves the sugar wonderfully. Beat four eggs, add 1 tsp baking powder, 1/2 tsp salt, then pour in the lemon sugar mixture while blending. Pour the mixture on top of the hot crust, and return to the oven. Bake for 15 minutes or until bubbly and lightly browned. Cool completely on rack, sprinkle with powdered sugar.

Another recipe of mine whose origins are from a women's magazine, long, long ago. Wanna get fancy? Grate some lemon zest into the shortbread as you mix it.

For the price of one upscale bakery lemon bar, you've got an entire batch. These lemon bars also have mystical properties. They definitely win friends and influence enemies.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Stuffed and skint

Okay, you ate way too much and you're too broke to go the movies today, much less Christmas shopping. What to do, what to do? How to idle the day then evening away?

A few recommendations:

Go back to bed (or stay in bed), taking your favorite novel with you. Loaned it out? Grab your favorite book from childhood. Drink hot cocoa/hot coffee/hot tea

Antsy? Take a walk and enjoy this marvelous time of year.
Antsy AND irked by household guests? Start vacuuming. At 6 in the morning. (Ah yes, we were house guests once when this happened).

6pm and still in bed? Raid the fridge for leftover dressing. My brother-in-law likes making a stuffing sandwich for his post-Thanksgiving snack.

However you spend this quiet day, I hope you unplug and opt for reality of the nonvirtual kind. What are you up to?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

And the rest is gravy...

Along with canned roasted peppers, I don't understand why people buy canned gravy. Or those little packets of flour with salt added. Gravy! It's delicious, it's what frugal people used to make, and it's easy!

One part fat (drippings or butter)
Equal part flour.
Three parts liquid (stock or water or milk)

During Thanksgiving I get a fat separator and place a cup of fat siphoned from the turkey in a saucepan. I gradually sprinkle in a cup of flour, whisking. I cook this over medium heat so the flour is cooked through and doesn't have a raw taste. I add three cups of broth, either canned or from the turkey, gradually, it thins and thickens and cooks. Now, the fun part: season to your taste.

Recommended: salt, pepper, dried thyme and tarragon. Some people have poultry seasoning in their cupboards, that'll work too.

Wait! That reminds me--this recipe for a fellow blogger, mashed potatoes:

One medium peeled russet potato per person, and one for the pot. (This means no waxy new potatoes, white or red. They don't mash right.) For this recipe let's say 6 potatoes. Slice in half, and cover with water in a saucepan. Add half an onion. Bring to a boil, lower the heat, and simmer until the potatoes are tender, 20-30 minutes. Drain.

Now here's the fun bit. Drop in two tablespoons of butter (if you're into 15 year old nouvelle parisienne cuisine, add a pound of butter and puree--you're done, and so are your guests) and a liquid. What'll it be? Normal: milk. Variations include: buttermilk, sour cream or yogurt. Your dietary preferences decide. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Want a zing of garlic? Use garlic salt or a tablespoon of garlic powder. Easy.

Really, in our family, mashed potatoes are just an excuse to pour on the gravy.

This just in: besides many, many other things, I am grateful for not hosting Thanksgiving this year. Our refrigerator just passed away last night, in its sleep.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Gobble, gobble

A wickedly funny fellow blogger asks about turkeys. A simple recipe. Does she know who she's talking to? Does she realize she's talking to a compulsive cook who made a turducken for the fun of it! Simple? Where is the challenge in that? The drama the catharsis the tears? The momentary sense of accomplishment? Or-- does she know deep down that I made that elaborate recipe but once, and have a secret standby in my pocket? Hmmm. She's deep, that one.

Turkeys are problematic and I blame the media: movies, commercials, print ads. Each and every one of them has a glistening deeply browned turkey, occasionally framed by mini pumpkins or crab apples as garnish, waiting to be divvied up by the knife-wielding patriarch. Fine slivers of dry white meat are piled upon polite guests' plates. Even Shirley Corriher buys into this by basting her brined turkey with a butter/corn syrup mixture.

What about brining, someone asks? Been there. The stuffing, which in my opinion is the point of Thanksgiving, tasted like the sea.

Bleh, I say. Double bleh.

I know my weaknesses. And presentation is one of them. I don't care what the damn thing looks like, if it tastes of heaven. So I pull out my secret weapon: the Reynolds oven bag. I follow its directions, after having stuffed my bird with Mrs. Cubbison's corn bread (I follow those directions, too. And when I don't have fussy guests, I add oysters to the stuffing. WOW!).
This variation on turkey bag roasting I learned from my mother: roast it breast side down. You won't have a beautiful bird. Instead you'll have a moist and tender one. Uh, one more tip. Just be sure the damn thing's defrosted before you begin.

What? Too understated? Too simple? Too commercial? You'll have to go elsewhere, then.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Need a head start?

Mark Bittman gives 101 ideas for a head start on the day right here.

Here's my head start: a case of champagne. That should get you through the day, come burnt turkey, braised feelings, or even sitting at the children's table. Oh, heck, do I have to wait til next Thursday?

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Sweet something on the side

Nothing like the prospect of dining with family members and their significant others to up the anxiety level. Why not allay the prospect of negative feelings with a forkful of good stuff?

I'm not sure of the source of this recipe, I clipped it out of one of those humble women's magazines (between the diets and the dessert recipes) ages ago.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

Peel 1 1/2 pounds sweet potatoes. Cut into cubes, place in saucepan, cover with water, bring to a boil and simmer until tender. Drain. Add 3 tbls butter onto the hot potatoes, 1/2 cup sugar, 1/2 cup milk with one egg beaten into it, and 1 tsp vanilla. Mash the mixture coarsely, pour into a (2 qt) baking dish.

Mix 1/3 cup flour with 1/2 cup brown sugar. Cut in 2 tblsp cold butter; add 1/2 cup pecan pieces. Sprinkle the dry mixture evenly on top of the mash. Bake for 25 minutes.

I'm not hosting Thanksgiving this year, and my only task for that meal is gravy. (More in another post). I will miss this sweet side dish so much, I'll have to make it for another meal.
Like roast pork and braised red cabbage, a perfect fall combo.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Elite dim sum

To celebrate a birthday, we had dim sum on Sunday. That choice is a crowd pleaser, because 3/4s of the family is sick of rice and beans, and the other quarter can't wait to go out to a restaurant.

Elite is really my favorite spot because...drum roll... a) instead of being surrounded by kind women proffering the wares off of their carts (once my son dashed ahead of us, by the time I got to the table he had 10 steaming containers on the table!) you order off the the menu. b) there are photos on the menu, explaining exactly what it is. I don't know where you eat Chinese food, but that in itself is revolutionary. So often I have felt glum and out of the loop, while people who could speak to the waiters in their language got something surely delicious. Sunday we got a few of those dishes we never knew how to order, like the scallop dim sum, and the sticky golden buns.

Dish after dish after dish. We devoured the duck, the macau pork, the har gow. But still the plates came. We ate the shrimp and asparagus in rice noodles, and bao. Good grief, did we really order three different bao? We ate quickly, to clear the pots for the next round. We spilled hot tea; we splattered the creamy goo of one bun all over the teapot. We continued to eat until we stuffed ourselves. Then we ordered another round of shu mai, and ate some more.

Can't wait for the next birthday there.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

California Dreamin'

This was originally published on La Bloga:

Unfolding Stories, Unfolding Lives

There's a Middle Eastern grocery store that I often visit, for its ingredients and excellent produce prices. One afternoon, not too long ago, guilt forced me to shop without my young daughter.

That afternoon I stood lifting my plastic sacks of beans, rice, chiles, fava beans out of the cart and onto the counter while my daughter exhibited her usual irrepressibility, causing the cashier, to smile at her, offer her a candy, and then say in mildly accented English, "She reminds me of my own daughter."

Ah, and what is your daughter up to now, I asked.

"She was going to be a doctor. She was an excellent student. And a happy girl. Up until the day she died. Car accident."

The cashier rang up my purchases, glanced at my daughter, then turned away and began wiping her tears. I stammered something about being so sorry. I didn't bring my daughter shopping with me again. I couldn’t bear the longing in the woman’s look.

Awhile ago we were house hunting in the Pasadena area. We finally settled on a home in Altadena, but occasionally I drove through a charming neighborhood to keep tabs on a home we didn't make an offer on, one that seemed so inviting, so full of the promise of family life, with its two storeys, its gables, a child's nursery in the attic, that it seemed destined for a happy family. As time passed I noticed baby accessories then toddler toys sprouting on the front yard; I caught a glimpse of the parents playing with their children. A sense of pleasure filled me, that of a mother of toddlers watching others like herself.

More time passed and as I drove by I noticed that the father appeared ill.

Now as he pushed a stroller up the tree-lined street he was bald. This home began to hold a morbid fascination for me, and I purposefully drove up that street more frequently. I caught a glimpse of him in a wheelchair, then he disappeared from sight completely.

Oh no, I thought to myself.

A "For Sale" sign appeared. Then that family was gone.

Twenty years ago I took a train from Boston to New Haven, during a time in my life someone I loved fiercely was dying, and my life was spinning into dizzying, sickening, circles. The young lady sitting next to me reluctantly struck up a conversation, but somehow it turned to her plans, once she graduated from Brown in month.

"I am going to California. One day I'll run a major film studio," she announced matter-of-factly. "And I know exactly how I'm going to do it."

In the midst of my own grief, being sideswiped by life seemed more probable, but I was fascinated by someone whose life's plan was so clear to her.

The cashier of my produce store stopped showing up. When I asked about her, another woman said, in a pitiless voice, "She was a teacher in her own country. What was she doing here?"

Through a friend in the neighborhood I found out that that young father did indeed die, and his widow moved back east, to her family.

As I think about them now, I prefer to imagine that the cashier is a teaching assistant somewhere, if not a teacher; that the survivors of that father have found something wonderful, if not to replace him, but to enrich their lives. And that driven young woman? I like to believe that her name flashes on the screen at the beginning of the TV shows I watch, or at the end of the films I see.

So many stories if we merely open our eyes and ears to perceive them. Then fill in the blanks to suit our own needs.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Cookbook Corner

Really, this woman has it all. Looks, wealth, personal tragedies, a sense of humor, and killer cooking sensibilities. Oh, plus the posh British accent. I picked up this book at the library the other day, and there are dozens of recipes I look forward to trying. She does, like Sandra Lee, pull ready-made items from the pantry, but unlike Sandra Lee, Nigella Lawson's combinations sound utterly appetizing.

A couple of summers back my husband's aunt served dinner in her garden (that's what the Brits call a back yard.) We crowded around a picnic table, and hid from the rain (that's what the Brits call summer). To end the fabulous meal, because this aunt is an amazing cook, she ladled out a very strange concoction. Well, this volume of Nigella's has the recipe for Eton Mess (that's what the Brits call dessert heaven). You can find it right here.

Wednesday, November 4, 2009


There are two kinds of recipes that I prefer: complicated and delicious or simple and delicious. From Diana Kennedy, this is one of the latter.

You will need:
2 pounds of cubed pork shoulder or butt. Place it in a heavy saucepan, add a teaspoon of salt, barely cover with water. Heat on high until boiling, then reduce heat to a simmer. As the water cooks away the pork becomes tender, (add more water, if still tough) then cooks in its own rendered fat, giving it a partially crisp exterior. Stir a little at the end to brown evenly. Total cooking time: 45 minutes to an hour.

Use for soft corn tortilla tacos. Garnish with guacamole or pico de gallo. (Yeah, yeah, my kids will hate me, but) rice and beans, too.

Monday, November 2, 2009

Challah Bread Pudding

Around the Jewish holidays of Rosh Hoshanah and Yom Kippur my mother-in-law or my husband picks us up a wonderful round or loaf of challah bread, rich and moist and eggy. I'm pretty sure we could devour it all in one sitting, but I usually end up stashing half of it in the freezer for a cool day when I feel like making bread pudding.

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Take four cups of cubed challah, dry it out a bit. ( I place it in my oven with the pilot light, for an hour or so). Place in a large mixing bowl. Add a cup of cubed apples or pears, which have been sauted in a tablespoon of butter and two tablespoons sugar. To bread mixture add half a cup of raisins, if you like.

Beat four eggs; beat in 2/3 cups sugar, a teaspoon vanilla. Beat in three cups of milk.
Pour the liquid mixture over the bread cubes. Gently pour that into a baking dish.
Place the baking dish inside a water bath. Okay, what does that mean? You take your smaller baking dish, the size of a brownie dish, where your bread pudding is. You place that in a larger dish, 13 x 9 inches, for example. Now, you pour hot water into the larger pan, until the water comes more or less up half the side of the smaller dish. Why? To ensure that the eggs don't decide to go hardboiled right in the middle of your much-anticipated dessert.

Bake until set in the center, 45 minutes to an hour. Serve warm, room temperature, or cold.