Thursday, December 25, 2008

merry christmas to you

the boy and i just enjoyed caesar salad with pancetta and crab cakes (maryland style - the only kind worth eating IMO) and a few glasses of bubbly. what are you having?

it's a very quiet christmas for us here in alpharetta. i can't even remember the last time we were alone together for christmas; and i'm not complaining one bit because after last year's fiasco, we needed some peace and quiet for a change. i am totally enjoying it.

wishing you all the very best christmas, wherever you may be.

cin cin

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

some advice...

... when doing a quick clean with Easy Off on a non-self-cleaning oven, don't wipe down the inside with the oven light on, unless you want to pick up shards of glass from where your wet sponge hit the hot light bulb.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

salted butter caramels

So you’re feeling the need to make something en masse this Christmas but don’t know what to do? Make these.

These caramels are so easy to make, and so incredible. I’ve made them several times lately, for birthday gift boxes and Christmas gifts. The only thing that changes with each batch is the amount of salt I use. I don’t know why, but I can’t just say, “Use one tablespoon of kosher salt per batch”, because the next batch I make might be too salty. Or not salty enough. And the only variation I do is that I use unsalted butter; I don’t think I’ve ever bought salted butter, except while in France. This particular batch of caramels in the photograph above ended up not being as salty as I would have liked, so I sprinkled some fleur de sel on each one prior to wrapping. This seemed to bring the salt level up to make an absolutely perfect caramel.

Making the caramel won’t take you long; what does take time is cutting, rolling and wrapping them. make sure you watch something mindless on tv while doing this, as time will go by much more quickly.

I buy silver and gold candy wrappers from the craft store to wrap them in. I’m kinda lazy in the way that I don’t feel like cutting up bits of parchment to wrap them with, because my bits end up uneven and rather ugly. and who wants ugly? not me.

Monday, December 15, 2008

totally unrelated to food, but happy news

i'm an auntie again!

the boy's sister gave birth about a half hour ago to a 7 lb 4 oz baby boy, who came out with a full head of black hair (compared to my niece, his sister, who was born with a full head of red hair).


now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

just how big and gay our household gets at Christmastime

Discussion while putting ornaments on the Christmas tree last year:

The boy: who put those Dale ornaments up? I don’t want those. In fact, throw them out.
Me: what? But you love Dale. You LOVE DALE. When did you stop loving Dale?
Boy: no way. Not since he went to The Enemy.
Me: the enemy?
Boy: Hendrick.
Me: since when is Hendrick the enemy?
Boy: since they have cheaters on their team. Like Cheaty Johnson.
Me: huh? Cheaty Johnson? Oh, you mean Jimmie Johnson? I like him. He’s cute.
Boy: that’s what I said, Cheaty Johnson. He’s not cute, he’s a cheater.
Me: you don’t like him because he’s a winner.
Boy: I don’t like him because he and his crew chief are cheaters.
Me: so you mean to tell me that even though you were a huge Dale Jr fan that now you’re not? And these ornaments you insisted on buying last year, that you did a SONG and DANCE for at Target saying you couldn’t live without, they need to go in the trash?
Boy: yes.

Discussion while putting ornaments on the Christmas tree this year:

Boy: where are the #20 ornaments? How come they’re not on the tree?
Me: because a few months ago you decided you didn’t like Tony Stewart anymore since he’s going to The Enemy. They’re over there in that box.
Boy: yeah but Joey Logano will be the new #20, so we can put those up.
Me: dude, you’re killing me.
Boy: dude, don’t call me Dude.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

christmas goodies

and so it has begun, the mad dash to cram every single waking moment (when i'm not working) with all things Christmas. i normally don't start my candied apples until a few days later in the month, but i had a package to send out to my buddy charles (he who sends me the odd gifts), so this weekend i started out small and made just 4. two went to charles, one to MA and Ken, and i've one left in the fridge to whomever wants it (speak now or forever hold your peace). i've got a list from the boy of all his Chosen Ones, so i'll be making about 10 to 15 more in the next couple of weeks.

also in charles' package was a big tin full of coconut macaroons (not to be confused with macarons; i'll one day attempt), which i dipped in chocolate and topped with macadamia nuts. the thing about macadamia nuts is that nobody turns them down. they are so decadent and buttery (and kind of pricey), so they're perfect for this time of year when you're willing to be decadent and buttery yourself. i split up the rest of the cookies which didn't make it into charles' box and sent half with the boy to his workplace and half with me to mine. the boy said he set them out and came back a few minutes later to find them all gone and people scrounging for the macadamia bits out of the bottom of the container. and this is the reason i bake. i don't bake for me; i bake for other people. i don't have a huge sweet tooth, so when i do want something sweet i make a ton, eat one, and give the rest away. the visual i have of a bunch of guys fighting for the last crumbs of macadamia delights me to no end.

the recipe comes from Day 1 of the Twelve Days of Cookies newsletter from the Food Network. i signed up for it a few years ago and they automatically renew it every year. not all of the cookie recipes they send out appeal to me; i'd say maybe one or two every year if i'm lucky. i nicknamed these Evil Good because they really are that. just you see for yourself.

it totally pays to have a scale for this recipe, so break yours out when you start measuring out ingredients. don't eyeball anything.

alton brown's paradise macarooons (aka Evil Good)

2 (7 to 8 ounce) packages sweetened shredded coconut (or one big package)
2 ounces sweetened condensed milk
Pinch kosher salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 large egg whites at room temperature
5 ounces granulated sugar
12 ounces semisweet or milk chocolate chips
a couple of squirts of canola/vegetable oil
finely chopped dry-roasted macadamia nuts

preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.

Combine the coconut with the sweetened condensed milk, salt and vanilla in a large mixing bowl.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites on medium speed until foamy. Gradually add the sugar and continue to whip the whites until medium peaks form, 6 to 7 minutes.

Gently fold the egg whites into the coconut mixture. Scoop tablespoon-sized mounds onto a parchment-lined half sheet pan and bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until golden brown. with a spatula, immediately transfer the macaroons to a cooling rack. if you don't get them off the sheet as soon as possible, they will harden and never ever come off. cool completely before topping.

melt the chocolate with a couple of squirts of the oil by however method works best for you (either microwave or melted in a Pyrex-type bowl over simmering water). Dip the cooled cookies in the chocolate mixture, sprinkle with the chopped macadamia nuts and return to the cooling racks to set. devour, or ship to whomever you want. macaroons ship particularly well if you package them correctly.

Friday, December 5, 2008

a bleak day for the french tart

i discovered, while attempting to buy something from their online store this morning, that the Mojo HD channel is no longer. and apparently they went off the air 5 days ago, so that tells you how behind the times i am. i feel a terrible void in my heart. what is a girl to do with no new episodes of three sheets or after hours with daniel to look forward to? zane lamprey succeeding in getting a frenchman to chug Cristal champagne is one of tv's most classic moments ever.

i will miss you dearly.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Not remotely food related

One of my cousins is pregnant with twins; this is pretty great news because she and her husband have been trying for years. She’s only a couple of months along, but waited to tell the whole family about it at Thanksgiving. Well, except for me; she told me a week earlier because I wasn’t going to be in California for Thanksgiving.

Fast forward to this past Friday. I’m on the phone with my mom. Before I could even say anything about the news, my mom says, “N has sure put on some weight!”

Me: “She’s pregnant. Didn’t she tell you?”
Mom: “Mais, bien sur she told us she was pregnant, but she didn’t have to go put on any extra weight, did she?”

This coming from the woman who probably weighed a buck oh five when she gave birth to me, which explains a lot.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

the boy's favorite yeasty rolls (or T-Day minus 2)

way back when, we had a bread machine. like all new bread machine owners, you get all excited to make bread all the damn time, because you can. eventually i stopped using it to bake in, and only used it for kneading. and eventually i stopped using it for kneading when i got a kitchen aid mixer. and sometimes i don't even use that because i discovered that i really enjoyed kneading dough by hand, which is why i like making fresh pasta. but that's another story.

we gave the machine away a few years back, but i still occasionally find a bread machine recipe i printed out from the web tucked away into a book (like the tomato garlic bread, and the jalapeno cheese bread - i don't remember either one of these being terribly successful). one of the recipes that was successful, however, was one i think we found on, for a good yeasty dinner roll. i adapted the recipe for non-machine use, and it's made an appearance at our thanksgiving table for at least the last six years.

this makes 12 rolls. they don't keep terribly well (they're okay the next day, but after that they're rather stale). but they're terrific the day of. just remember that they need to rest for a few minutes when they come out of the oven.

The boy’s favorite yeasty rolls

for the dough:
3 cups bread flour
3 tablespoons white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
¼ cup dry milk powder
1 cup warm tap water
2 tablespoons softened butter
1 teaspoon active dry yeast or one package of yeast

for the glaze:
1 egg white
2 tablespoons water

Put all of the dough ingredients in your stand mixer fitted with a dough hook. Mix on medium speed for 5 to 7 minutes; you may need to add a sprinkling more of flour or a drop of water in order to get the dough to scrape up the bits from the bottom and form a smooth ball. You’ll know when the dough is ready when it is elastic and smooth-looking, and not too sticky. Remove dough from work bowl; knead by hand for a second or two and form into a ball. Place dough into a large oiled bowl, and turn to coat with oil. cover with plastic wrap and set in an out of the way non-drafty area for one hour (or until doubled in size). Alternatively, if you’re making this the night before, put covered oiled dough bowl into the fridge to retard overnight. Take it out of the fridge to bring to room temperature before proceeding to next step.

After it’s doubled in size, punch it down lightly and turn it out onto a lightly floured surface. Using a bash-n-chop/bench scraper/sharp knife, divide the dough into twelve equal pieces and form each piece into a nice round. Place rounds onto a parchment-covered cookie sheet and cover with a kitchen towel. Set these out of the way until doubled in size. In the meantime, preheat your oven to 350 degrees F.

When ready to bake, beat the egg white with the water. Remove the kitchen towels and using a pastry brush, lightly brush the tops of the rolls with the egg wash.

Bake for 15ish minutes until the tops of the rolls are golden.

Remove the rolls from the oven, put each roll face up on a rack and let stand for at least 15 to 20 minutes before eating.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

T-Day minus 7

I was going to post about my Dad’s stuffing, but I left the darn recipe at home (and home is not where I am currently). But I will instead talk about the #1 tradition that the boy and I indulge in every Thanksgiving since we’ve been together.

Behold the nutty Irishman. I cannot think of a better way to wake up on Thanksgiving morning. There have been countless Thanksgivings where I woke up in a panic due to all the things that needed to get done before guests arrive. The boy and I decided, Enough of that. So here goes:

1. While still in pajamas and still with bedhead, make a pot of coffee.

2. While coffee is brewing, make whipped cream {do you need a recipe for this? Okay. If it’s just the two of you, put ½ cup (or however much you want, adjust for more) of heavy whipping cream in a bowl – don’t you dare buy fat free! Today is not the day for fat free anything! – and with a hand held electric beater, beat until almost stiff peaks form. Don’t have a hand held mixer? Get a whisk and start whisking, and I take my hat off to you. I don’t have patience or arm muscles for that. I have the skills, but what it all boils down to is that I don’t feel like wasting that much energy first thing in the morning. When you’ve nearly reached stiff peaks, add a tablespoon or two of granulated sugar (sweeten to your taste) and a drop or so of vanilla extract. Beat a little more, and voila. Whipped cream}.

You could go the easy way out and get (I shudder even typing this - Cool Whip or the Readi Whip, canisters used by all the kids to get high off of), but why deny yourself one of the good things in life? Homemade whipped cream takes mere minutes to make and tastes infinitely better than anything you can buy ready made from the store.

3. Next! Get some big mugs. Pour coffee into mugs and leave some room at the top (1 ½ to 2 inches should do it). Add a shot of Baileys Irish Cream. Add a shot of Frangelico (hazelnut liqueur). Stir. Add a couple of tablespoons of your fancified whipped cream on top. Park your butt on the couch in front of the Macy Day Parade and make fun of the Rockettes kicking their little hearts out in the chilling New York cold.

After one (or sometimes two) of these, the day seems so much smoother. The panic from earlier? What panic?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

as seen on Craigslist this week

"Experienced chef needed for in home private holiday work. Family in sandy
springs needs Holiday chef from dates Dec 24-30th. This job will require three
meals a day with light snacks in between. All meals must be of the highest
quality. This family has very high standards. Please be humble and very service
savy. You must have a great positive attitude and no ego. Compensation: day rate
based on 10-12 hr work day "

i pity the person who eventually takes this job, if it even gets filled that is. it's been my experience that people who don't cook who have "very high standards" tend to be a huge pain in the ass.

(thanks to Mrs B for sending me the link)

T-Day minus 15

this morning when i got to work and looked at the calendar i was dismayed to see that it is already November 12th. i ask you, where did 2008 go? it surely felt like a blur. and i dont know if i have anything to show for it.

after what seemed like an exceedingly long day at work, i came home for a tryst with the elliptical machine, then gave myself a well-deserved glass of wine and sat in a bubble bath accompanied by Nigella Lawson's Feast. the boy gave me this book a few years back, and i know that i read through it at the time, but had completely forgotten about it. so i sat back and read her first chapter about Thanksgiving and Christmas. after a few minutes reading, it was all i could do to remain in the bath and not rush out, getting foamy footprints all over the carpet. that one chapter got me in the mood for Thanksgiving; it was like a shot of B-12 or a heavy dose of Nyquil without the sluggish after effect. in fact, i feel quite sane and awake right now. i know it's a bit early for it (although the tv ads have beaten me to it), but today i suddenly feel like we've started the 2008 holiday season, and i don't feel too badly about it being so early.

like a lot of cooks, our Thanksgiving menu doesn't vary that much year to year. there may be the occasional addition of something, or removal of a dish that wasn't too popular in previous years; but for the most part our menu has remained the same. i'm willing to bet yours hasnt changed much either in a few years. if you're new at this, welcome! welcome to a lifetime of treasured memories. some will be good, some may not be, but it definitely won't be boring. one year you might find yourself in charge of the meal and you'll have no help. you will look at a room full of faces, all turned towards you, eager and / or doubtful. and you'll get scared, and you'll think, "There is no way in fucking hell that i'm going to pull this off". i'm telling you right now, you will pull it off. be confident. and if something funny should happen, like oh say for instance you forgot to pull out the baggie of innards from the inside of the turkey before shoving it in the oven, you will laugh at that memory in years to come. it may not seem so funny at the time (and you probably wish that the ground would open up and swallow you whole) but i guarantee that you will not forget that particular thanksgiving ever again. and what is life without memories? they definitely keep me entertained when i'm on one of my interminable deployment calls in the middle of the night.

for the next couple of weeks leading up to T-Day i've decided to post some of the recipes of dishes that i know shall make it on my Thanksgiving table this year. i may or may not have pictures for each dish; after all, i only started taking pictures of food about two years ago and it's sometimes hard not to dig in without commemorating the moment. i oftentimes purposely don't take pictures of a dish because i'm famished and want to eat Right Now, and then regret my decision 15 minutes later (like the red cabbage braised in red wine that the boy made the other night. sigh). so i'll do the best that i can.

i love this particular combination of roasted shallots and cranberries. i'm more inclined towards savory dishes rather than sweet, so when i saw Andrea Immer make this on the Fine Living channel a few years back, i felt obligated to try it. however, she calls for 18 whole roasted shallots, which seem like a lot even for an allium lover like me. and just to make sure i wasn't totally deranged, i ran this recipe by my mom last year, who also agreed that it seemed like a lot of shallot (it's not often that we are in agreement so i take it where i can get it).

you can make this recipe a few days in advance, and i urge you to do so because i feel that a cold stay in the fridge melds the flavors well together.

roasted shallot and cranberry sauce
, adapted from Andrea Immer Robinson

8 or 9 shallots, peeled and cut into quarters
1 tablespoon canola oil
2 teaspoons fresh thyme, minced
5 tablespoons balsamic vinegar
1/2 cup sugar
1 cup red wine
2/3 cup ruby port
1/3 cup light brown sugar, packed
one of those bags of fresh cranberries from the produce aisle
1 tablespoon parsley, chopped (optional)

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Toss shallots with oil, thyme, and liberal amounts of salt and pepper on a rimmed baking sheet or cookie sheet. Bake until golden brown and start to smell yummy, about 20 to 25 minutes.

Drizzle one tablespoon of the balsamic vinegar over shallots and toss to coat. Continue roasting until shallots caramelize, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove from the oven.

In a saucepan over medium high heat, combine the wine, port, brown sugar, remaining four tablespoons of vinegar and sugar, and bring to a boil, stirring until sugar dissolves. Add the cranberries; cook until berries pop, stirring occasionally, about eight minutes. Mix in parsley (if using) and shallots. Transfer to bowl with tight fitting lid, and chill overnight.

Saturday, November 8, 2008

sweet potato and carrot tagine

i made this for lunch one day when i was working from home a few weeks ago. i've been wanting to use the tagine more often, and found a recipe that seemed pretty tasty to me. i'm always on the lookout for recipes involving sweet potatoes, because a long time ago I watched a show on the Style Network about skin and skincare, and one of the nutritionists who was interviewed said that they are one of the better-for-you vedges. however, i do fall into the Savory Sweet Potato Camp, meaning i prefer my sweet potatoes in savory dishes. we never had sweet potato pie or sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows at our Thanksgiving dinners when i was growing up, so i don't have an affinity for sweetened sweet potatoes like some people have. to me, the idea of sweet potatoes topped with marshmallows makes my teeth ache; however, i will not knock it until i try it. and i might try it one day; just not now, and not today.

this recipe errs on the somewhat-sweet side, but not unpleasantly sweet for my taste. i found the use of prunes intriguing, and besides, their after-effect is always welcome as long as you eat them in moderation (if you catch my drift huhuh). if you don't have a tagine, you can use a Dutch oven or a heavy bottomed pot with a lid. this made enough for several lunches, served with pita wedges.

i made the vedge stock while on a conference call. who says i can't multitask? vegetable stock takes but an hour to make, and more than likely you do have all the ingredients on hand in your "rotter" drawer. it freezes beautifully as well, and makes a great base for a brine. i suppose you could use chicken stock in this recipe, but sometimes it won't hurt you to use an all-veggie stock.

i think this would be a welcome addition to anyone's Thanksgiving table if they were craving something a little more unusual than the regular sweet potato fare.

Tagine of Sweet Potatoes and Carrots in Honey Sauce (Tagine Batata Hloowa)
adapted from "The Vegetarian Table: North Africa", by Kitty Morse

30 frozen peeled pearl onions
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 pounds sweet potatoes, peeled and cut into large, even chunks
4 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
1 and 1/2 to 1 and 3/4 cups veggie stock (see recipe that follows)
1/4 cup honey
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 cup pitted prunes
salt and pepper
1 tablespoon sesame seeds

Heat butter and oil over medium high heat in tagine. Add the onions and cook until thawed and tender, stirring occasionally, about 10 minutes. Remove half of the onions and set aside.

Add the cubed sweet potatoes and carrots, and cook until lightly browned, stirring occasionally. once browned all over, add stock, honey, cinnamon, ginger, prunes, salt, and 1 teaspoon of black pepper, and stir until blended. Cover tagine, reduce heat but keep it simmering for at least 30 minutes. Check after 30 minutes to see if vegetables are cooked through; it may need more time. Top with the pearl onions you set aside earlier; replace lid for a couple more minutes.

In the meantime, toast the sesame seeds in a dry pan over medium heat (be careful not to burn them). Set aside. When ready to serve, turn the heat off, remove lid from tagine and top with sesame seeds.

Veggie Stock

2 large onions, peeled and cut into large chunks
3 or 4 celery ribs (leaves removed), cut into chunks
4 or 5 whole peeled cloves of garlic
2 or 3 carrots, peeled and cut into chunks
a handful of peppercorns
bouquet garni (i used leftover parsley stalks, some fresh thyme, 2 bay leaves, all tied up with twine)

Toss all of the above ingredients in a stock pot. fill with water until vedge is covered. Bring to a boil, then turn heat down and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Strain through a fine mesh sieve or chinois into another large pot or huge bowl. and there you have it, your very own veggie stock.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

cheesy bake

I’ve been eating so much ground beef lately (made a monster meat loaf this past weekend), that when it came time to think about dinner last night, I was in the mood for something different. I like the flavor of ground turkey; I feel as though it lends itself well to baked pasta dishes and doesn’t make the dish feel very heavy. When the boy and I were first dating, he used to make something we called Cheesy Bake, which was a baked ziti dish somewhat similar to this recipe. I can’t recall the exact ingredients, so I decided to recreate it since it’s been a number of years since we’ve had it last.

This will feed a bunch of people (about 8 good servings), especially if served with some garlic bread and a green salad with a nice acidic vinaigrette. You could omit the ground turkey altogether if you want something vegetarian, and you could omit the wine if you don’t have any around, although I think it brings a nice flavor to it. Also, make whatever tomato sauce you feel like, but I like the use of all the fresh herbs in this one and it’s quite flavorful. The sauce shouldn’t take you long to throw together.

I like the use of romano, because romano is fantastically salty and sharp. If you don’t feel like splurging on romano, you could use all parmesan, but for heaven’s sake, DO NOT use the stuff in the green can. I have no idea how or why, but we’ve got one in our fridge. I did not put it there. i’m going to blame the elves. They come in the middle of the night and do things like leave half empty soda cans lying around. You know how when you do laundry, you always end up missing a sock or two and you have no idea what happened to them? It’s the elves. They also like to take big bites of cheese, leaving teeth imprints on the cheese, before replacing in the fridge. I’m going to drop kick an elf if I happen to catch one.

Cheesy Bake (baked ziti with turkey)

Couple of tablespoons canola/vegetable oil
Couple of tablespoons of olive oil
1 tablespoon of butter
1 lb ground turkey
Salt and pepper, to season turkey
1 small onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 28 oz can of crushed tomatoes
A couple of slugs (about a ¼ cup) of red wine
1 cup basil, rolled up and chiffonaded
3 tablespoons minced oregano
1 tablespoon minced thyme
½ to 3/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1 teaspoon salt
Black pepper
1 lb ziti
½ lb good mozzarella cheese cut into small cubes
½ lb good mozzarella cheese cut into slices
½ cup grated parmesan
¼ cup grated romano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Bring a large pot of water to a boil, and cook the pasta until almost al dente, then remove from heat, drain, and set aside.

Heat the canola oil in a large skillet over medium heat, and add the ground turkey. Brown the turkey while breaking it up with a wooden spoon. When all the pink is gone, drain, set turkey aside.

In same pan, heat the olive oil and butter until melted, and add the onion. Sauté for a few minutes before adding the garlic. Cook for another minute or two before adding the crushed tomatoes and the wine, and bring to a simmer; cook for 5 minutes. Add all the fresh herbs, the salt, pepper, and red pepper flakes; stir and simmer for 5 minutes. Sauce is done.

Butter a large lasagna pan. Toss cooked turkey, sauce, cubed mozzarella, the romano cheese, and ¼ cup of the parmesan together, and pour into pan. Put the slices of mozzarella on top, sprinkle with the remaining parmesan, and bake for 30 minutes until bubbly.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On How I got schooled in all things NASCAR, or I Ain’t a Virgin No More.

Let’s just say that I don’t think I’ve fully recovered from this weekend yet.

It all started on Friday. We were having stellarly gross weather. It was chilly, drizzly, traffic sucked; and it took me two hours to get to the Atlanta Motor Speedway after work. However, as soon as I got there, I was transported to a different, rather magical world.

I wasn’t sure how much I’d enjoy my time there, and frankly I was a little afraid of what was in store for us; but I have to tell you, I had the best weekend of my life. Our friends MA and Ken rent part of a block of campsites that the same people occupy year after year. I’ve never met a nicer crowd of folks. They immediately included the boy and I into their group and made us feel welcome. These aren’t the kind of people who pull up their shirts to get Mardi Gras beads (although there was quite a bit of that and other Things and Stuff going on at other campsites, but we ignored them for the most part). these are just good ol’ Southern folks who spend several weekends a year driving around to various races, make and eat great food, and drink a lot of bourbon and moonshine.

Speaking of moonshine....

The minute I got there, I was introduced to Billy Ray, a bounty hunter who lost his wife at Talladega (she passed away of congestive heart failure). He gave me a two-minute rundown of why moonshine is so important to NASCAR (and let me have a big swig of his bottle), and then the initiation started.

What initiation, you say? Yeah, that’s what I said too. Since it was our first time camping in the infield, the boy and I were marked as Infield Virgins and had to take part in the Infield Initiation. Our hosts take this shit very seriously, so there is no laughing during the ceremony, as I learned the hard way when the bucket I was wearing as a hat was slammed down hard on my head (I thought for a second that my nose broke, but fortunately that was not the case). Billy Ray was our Master of Ceremonies.

Me looking scared out of my gourd. It was scary at first; Billy Ray went from Nice Drunk to Mean Bastard Drunk in a matter of seconds (he then calmed down considerably and was nice again). Plus he was parading around a stick that eventually caught fire which he kept banging on our bucket hats and threatening to poke us with. I honestly have no recollection of what speeches were made, and the evening after this Ceremony took place is really fuzzy to me, so fuzzy that when I looked at the pictures the next morning I had no recollection of half of this even taking place.

After all speeches were complete, they made us drink a big huge cup full of moonshine, bourbon, Sierra Mist, Coors Lite, and hot sauce. We chugged it down...

... and surprisingly didn’t throw up afterwards, but did have to chug something else to get the taste of the brew out of our mouths.

I then ran around and sat on people’s laps and told them all how wonderful they were.

This is me sitting on Billy Ray (left) and Bob’s (right) laps. Bob plays Santa each year, and starts growing out his beard in April. Bob is the coolest Santa I’ve ever met. I don’t think they minded me sitting on their laps. Heh.

We made everything that we planned on making foodwise, but with one exception; we smoked the pork tenderloins instead of doing the cornbread stuffing with apples. We feasted on grilled oysters (some of our campsite friends are from Louisiana), chili, a gumbo that had alligator meat in it as well as the other usual ingredients, freshly caught trout.

This is Mr. Quinlan shucking oysters. He and his son, whom I also called Quinlan (I never caught their first names and everyone just kept calling them both Quinlan), and another friend of theirs did the majority of the cooking. As soon as they were done cooking breakfast, they’d take a brief rest and start on lunch. It was wild. I think I gained 5 lbs in three days of marathon eating.

We knew our friends Stephanie, Sperry, and Chris would be camping in the infield on Saturday, but we weren’t sure where they would be located. Imagine our surprise when Saturday afternoon three carloads of people (including about 20 of Chris' friends from Minnesota) pulled into the campsite directly next to us. It went all downhill after that (but in a good downhill kind of way, ya know).

From left to right: Ken, Greg, the boy, shotgunning a beer at 9 am on Saturday. Goodtimes.

It all happened far too fast; that’s usually the case when you’re having a good time. We’ve been invited back to the next Atlanta race in March 2009, and I’m totally there. It was an eye opening experience as well. If you want to see a slice of Americana, be included in something really strange, totally insane, and ridiculously fun, you need to not only get yourself to a NASCAR race but camp out there if you can. I’ve never seen a more patriotic crowd in my life. Also, they are fiercely loyal to whichever driver they deem their favorite, and take the whole thing extremely seriously. It’s an experience I’ll never forget.

Thank you to Ken and MA for including the boy and I in your lives.


Friday, October 24, 2008

On flooring it and hanging a left.

Although it’s raining like hell outside right now, I’m super excited because later tonight I’m headed down 75 South to the Atlanta Motor Speedway. I thought I’d not be able to get there until tomorrow morning, but as it turns out I have no after-hours deployments in the wee hours tonight, so I’ll go after traffic subsides. WEEEEEEEEEEEEEE.

The boy and Ken are already there. The boy called this morning to ask me to bring more blankets and maybe a knit hat or two, as last night was a wee bit cold. They set Ken’s camper up last night, and they’re right next to turn 4.... so if you tune in this weekend and happen to catch any of the NASCAR races, look for the drunky people shouting “HOOTY HOO!” standing on a camper right at turn 4, and that will be us.

I’ve kind of neglected to mention to my mother where I’ll be spending the weekend, because she deems events like these rather “low class” and "full of low lifes” (her words), and scoffs at the idea of camping for the sole sake of seeing cars floor it and hang lefts. Her mind would be changed if I told her that a lot of the drivers date models who don’t dare show up at the track without their big ass Chanel sunglasses and 4+ carat diamonds. But frankly, I don’t feel like getting into this conversation with her, because she just won’t understand the draw and appeal of going to such an event, even if i make up a lie and say that Carla Bruni would be there.

I’ve got some serious grocery shopping to do after work. So far, on my menu, we’ll be making

Bobby Flay’s Cuban burgers
The boy’s chicken wings
Hippie tacos
Cornbread and apple stuffed pork tenderloin

I know MA has a bunch of food she’s bringing as well, so I think that between the both of us we’ll have enough to feed us all. There will be 6 of us camping there, but I’m sure we’ll be making friends and sharing food with the neighbors. Besides, I think we’re supposed to hook up with some friends of ours while out there. The brother of a friend of ours works for Brian Vickers, so I’m sure we’ll run into our friend and her boy while out there (hi Stephanie!).

Tonight, though, when I get out there, the minute I unload the car, I’m making some mulled wine. It’s definitely the weather for it. You don’t need to follow an exact recipe for this, but I’ll give you a list of what I put in mine:

One bottle of red wine – make sure you use a good drinkeable wine, but I wouldn’t spend over 10 bucks on it.
3-4 whole cloves
1 cinnamon stick
A dash or two of ground ginger, or a scraping of fresh ginger
small pinch of grated nutmeg
1 to 2 tablespoons of sugar
1 to 2 tablespoons of honey
the peel from one citrus fruit (tangerine works well - it's what i have on hand)
A squeeze of juice from said citrus fruit
A small amount (about half a shot) of brandy or cognac (optional)

Combine all ingredients in a small saucepan, and bring to a simmer. Taste it; I personally prefer it to not be too sweet, but you can always add more sugar or honey if you like (the dryer the red wine you use, the more sweetness you’ll need). Serve in heatproof mugs.

This drink totally screams fall and winter to me. One of my favorite memories of mulled wine (or a variation of it) is skiing down the slopes in the French alps with my mom, and stopping every now and then at one of those chalet restaurants to grab a hot wine, chug it, then get back on the slopes. Except we didn’t call it hot wine, we called it grog, and I’m pretty sure there was more than just a small amount of brandy or rum added to each of our cups. Hot wine makes skiing much more enjoyable, and I’ m sure it’ll make me feel as though tonight's rainy evening is not that big of a deal.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

tainted food and boys

my friend Caprice briefly dated this guy named Ryan years ago when we lived in Florida. Ryan and the boy i was dating at the time really loathed each other (to the point of stabbiness), so the four of us didn't ever hang out together. eventually, i dont remember exactly why, Caprice and Ryan broke up and he went back to his old girlfriend (he might have been still dating her during the time he was with Caprice - this was something like 15 years ago so you'll have to forgive my foggy memory). it was one of those un-pretty, decidedly unattractive breakups that we all sadly fall prey to once in a while.

a few months later i was at work, waiting tables during lunch rush, and we got slammed in about 2 minutes after opening. we usually had the same group of servers who worked during lunch, girls like me who were taking a break from college until they figured out what they wanted out of life, and some career waitresses as well. if we got a table of people we didn't care for, repeat offender customers like the weirdo middle-aged professor accompanied by a young female student (different student each time) or plain ol' someone we didnt want to wait on, we'd agree to switch tables with each other. so anyway, this particular day, we got slammed, and i looked towards the front entrance when who should be standing there but Ryan and his hoochie.

immediately, i turned to Lori, the daytime manager who was also waiting tables that day and begged her to take the table, as they went and sat in my section.

"No can do. I'm so deep in the weeds i think i'm gonna cry".
"PLEASE! i'll give you ten bucks to take it. he dumped my friend on her ass. i dont want to look at his face".
"Sorry, chach, normally i'd say yes, but i can't do it".

defeated, i slumped over to the table where Ryan and hooch were sitting, and took their drink order. i pretended not to recognize him at all, made myself pleasant, even though he was glaring at me so hard that i could feel his eyes burning into my brain. i came back with their drinks and proceeded to take their order.

"You guys ready to order?"
"Yeah, i'll have the chef salad, and could you please not spit in it".

i looked up, shocked, and my jaw dropped as i stared at him. his hooch was also staring at him, but in more of a pissed off way. clearly he hadnt mentioned to her that he knew their friendly server.

"I'm sorry... what did you say?"
"i said, DON'T SPIT IN IT".

i think i laughed.

i got a pretty decent tip from them (she paid). i wonder if he ever told her how he knew me - probably not.

the thing is, i hadn't even thought of spitting in his food. if there is one thing i never did in all my years of waiting tables and tending bar, that was to fuck with customers' food. i may have not liked a lot of my patrons, especially this particular one, but i didn't think to do anything funky to his food that would, God forbid, lead to me losing my job (there weren't many available jobs in Gainesville in those days). so i may not have liked the jackass who broke my friend's heart, and i probably should have asked him to leave the restaurant when i first saw him come in, (and frankly, he should have turned around when he saw me and walked out the door), but it didn't occur to me to screw around with his food.

but there are people out there who wouldn't think twice about it. a lot of guys on the line would talk about phlegm globbing food if it was going to a customer they didn't like. after that fleeting moment of vindictivness has passed, after you've dropped a piece of food on purpose, put it back on the plate and sent it out, does it really make you feel that much better? i guess a lot of people would answer Yes to that question, but i just dont get it. i once had to be the middleman in a fight betwen a cook and a customer. the customer sent the food back saying it was too spicy to eat, so the cook, angry that his food got sent back, poured hot sauce all over it and had another server send it back out when i wasn't looking. i had to deal with the angry patron, pushing him out of the swinging doors that led to the kichen while he shook his fists and screamed; meanwhile the cook was just laughing it up. i just don't get that mentality.

i had one last Ryan sighting a few years later. i was hanging out with my ex (the same guy i had been dating when Caprice and Ryan were dating) one night at a crowded bar; it was about a week or so before i moved to Savannah. actually, i have no idea why i was hanging out with the ex, but i do remember ignoring him and pretending he wasn't there because he was being his own special brand of dick. so anyway, who should slide up to the bar right next to me but Ryan , with some sorority girl on his arm. Ryan and I recognized each other immediately, and i began to laugh. Ryan also recognized my ex, and this made me laugh even harder, because he probably thought that the horrible ex and i were still together. the ex had no idea what i was laughing about, didn't recognize Ryan, and was really pissed off at me because he thought Ryan and i were making eyes at each other.

i took a cab home.

Monday, October 20, 2008

french onion soup and a croque monsieur for lunch

It finally feels like fall here in Atlanta, and I love it. i love the change of seasons, although they’re saying on the news that it’s just a little unseasonably cooler than it ought to be right now. I don’t mind.

Today I’m wearing a thin fabric scarf loosely wrapped twice around my neck and tied in the back. I thought I looked good, fashionable, with the season. The PM from Chicago flew in this morning, and when he walked through the office door I said, “Hi”, to which he replied, pointing at his neck, “Hi. You trying to hide a hickey?”.


I woke up yesterday morning bright and early, and even though it was so cozy and warm in bed, I hopped out of bed because I had a hankering for some soup. And not just any soup, I wanted French onion soup. I rushed off to the grocery to pick up a few things, and while there I thought, “Wouldn’t it be nice to have a hot Croque Monsieur along with a bowl of soup for lunch?”, and I agreed with myself that yes, indeed, I would like that very much, and I knew a couple of boys at home who wouldn’t mind it either.

I normally make French onion soup with red wine, but I didn’t have any of that handy and I couldn’t go out and get some – Georgia laws are ridiculous and backasswards, one cannot buy alcohol on Sunday - so stupid. However, I did have plenty of white on hand, so I had to make some modifications to a recipe I had, and it turned out fine. You can also add a dollop of booze, like Cognac or brandy, before the final simmer, but my Courvoisier bottle is almost empty, and i like to save it for when i get an hankerin' for a good steak au poivre.

French Onion Soup

2 ½ pounds onions (I used a combination of Spanish and sweet), halved and thinly sliced into half moons
3 sprigs fresh thyme
2 bay leaves
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 stick unsalted butter
1 tablespoon olive oil
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup dry white wine
5 cups beef stock (preferably your own)
1 cups water
1 teaspoon black pepper
grated or sliced Swiss cheese
grated parmesan cheese

Put butter and oil in a large Dutch oven, and turn heat to medium; once melted, add the onions, thyme, bay leaves, brown sugar, and salt. Cook, stirring frequently, until onions are caramelized (this step will take close to an hour). Turn the heat down if the onions start to burn. Add garlic and cook for 2 minutes. Add flour and cook for 1 minute while stirring with a wooden spoon. Add wine and cook for 2 minutes, stirring and scraping up any yummy brown bits on the bottom. Add stock, water, and pepper and simmer, uncovered, stirring occasionally, 30 minutes. Taste for seasoning (you might need more salt).

Slice your baguette on the diagonal into thick rounds and toast them (you’ll need enough rounds to cover the tops of ovenproof soup bowls, so figure out how many rounds you’ll need based on that).

Turn broiler on. Ladle hot soup into ovenproof bowls, top with a baguette round, some grated Swiss and parmesan, and put under the broiler. Keep an eye on this so that it doesn’t brown too much, it should take a couple of minutes (don’t walk away). Carefully remove bowls from broiler and let sit for a minute before digging in. The cheese will be piping hot and you might be unfairly rewarded with a huge blister on the roof of your mouth if you get greedy and dig in too early.

I used the Croque Monsieur recipe from Barefoot in Paris, recipe which can be found here . Since Gruyère can be a bit on the pricey side sometimes, I used mostly Swiss, with some Conté that I already had on hand leftover from a Costco run a while back. These are definitely a knife-and-fork kind of sandwich, as cheese will ooze out all over the place in a very pleasant sort of way.

I thought that this might be a cheese overkill kind of lunch, what with the gobs of it in the sandwich and béchamel, but how often do I eat this way? It was the perfect meal to welcome the first good autumn weekend we’ve had.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

smoked duck and andouille gumbo

i like to read in the bath. as long as i have some Mister Bubble to keep me going, i can read until the water turns cold. i normally don't take bubble baths in the summer, because it's just too damn hot, inside and out. but now with the advent of fall upon us, i've been taking leisurely bubble baths after my afternoon work out. not only does it help soothe the muscles, but it helps quiet my overly active brain.

a week or so ago, when the wind started to blow cold one evening, i hopped into the tub along with The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes And Reveries, which actually isn't mine; it belongs to J, who used to live with us in Maryland but i guess it got gobbled up amongst all of my other cookbooks and now it's MINE ALL MINE MUHahaha. (Okay, just kidding J, you can take it back now. but can i borrow your How to Cook Everything book?). so i was flipping through the soup book when i ran across a recipe for smoked duck and andouille gumbo, and since the recipe looked doable, and as we have a smoker, i told myself i'd be making it soon. the boy said it sounded good, and besides, it would give him an excuse to use the smoker. as if he needs an excuse to use the smoker. that smoker has gotten more use than the oven has in the past couple of months.

Gumbo Day turned out to be this past sunday; actually it started saturday night when we quartered the duck and put it in a brine. and by "we" i mean the boy, who's far more handy with a knife than i am.

don't be daunted about cutting up a duck; it's similar in structure to a chicken, so do as you would with a chicken. it's goose that you ought to be afraid of. okay, kidding. don't be afraid to cook a goose, but do be warned that it's got a whole other bone structure than what you're familiar with, and can be a pain in the ass to dissect. but that's for another blog post.

the thing about this particular recipe in the book is that it basically stunk. i read it a couple of times through on sunday morning, and i didn't care for the lack of direction it gave for smoking the duck (the authors assumed you would know how to do this, which fortunately for us we do, but what about anyone else?). and i didn't care for their directions on how to make a stock. not that i need directions on how to make that, and i'm not going to give you any myself but i will direct you to people who do (see further below for links on how to make stock). now i guess you could use canned stock, but then why would you? it's not very often that you get to eat duck - and since you're using the reserved fat to make the glorious roux, why ruin it with oversalted canned stuff from the store? you really have no excuse for this particular recipe. it's already going to take you a good half a day to smoke the duck and do everything else, might as well get up a little earlier and make a day out of it... and this coming from the person who does have some containers of store-bought stock on hand. you can read the pros and cons of using store-bought stock in Ruhlman's manifesto. i do realize that he's right, though. making stock is easy and better for you, as you are controlling the ingredients that go in. it's time consuming, which turns some people off, but that is what days off are for. i'm an advocate of making my own yogurt and absolutely will not buy any at the store, which is kind of the same thing with stock. i ought to make it more often. i have no excuse.

back to the recipe itself. i found the ingredients list shamefully lacking things that will brighten up the gumbo. we ad libbed a bunch at the end, and i (sort of) took notes of what we did so that i could rewrite this thing.

i don't suppose you need a smoker to make this; you could use one of those smoker boxes and put it on your regular grill, keeping an eye on the juice (if gas) or stoking charcoal often. because the thing about smoking is it has to be low and slow. the duck will take you around 2 1/2 hours to smoke (if not more), and that's after it was quartered. if you keep it whole, it will take much longer.

we've found a lot of good duck smoking tips on the web, notably from this source. behold the power of Google. let your fingers do the walking.

Smoked Duck and Andouille Gumbo
loosely adapted from "The Soup Peddler's Slow & Difficult Soups: Recipes And Reveries", by David Ansel and Liza Ferneyhough
makes at least 10 good sized servings

for the brine:
1 quart of apple juice
1 tablespoon black peppercorns
1 cup kosher salt

for the stock:
several chicken carcasses plus whatever bones you salvage from the duck
mirepoix (50 % onion, 25% celery, 25% carrot), chopped up in big hunks
bouquet garni (thyme, parsley, a bay leaf or two, tied up with kitchen string)
a tablespoon or so of peppercorns

for the rest:
1 duck
1 cup flour
2 onions, diced
3 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers, diced
1 lb andouille sausage, sliced in half lengthwise and then into half-rounds
1 lb okra (you can use frozen, pre-chopped)
1 6 oz can tomato paste
couple tablespoons of thyme, basil, chopped up
dried oregano
several pinches of cayenne
several pinches of white pepper
1/4 cup of hot sauce (such as Texas Pete)
a few dashes of Worcestershire
filé powder
couple cloves of garlic

the night before you're making this, cut the duck up into quarters, saving wings and backbone for stock the next day. cut incisions into the duck fat layer, without piercing the meat (see video on previous post). make a brine by bringing the apple juice, peppercorns, salt to a simmer on the stove for a few minutes. remove from stove and cool the liquid down with many ice cubes. place duck pieces in a tupperware or bowl large enough to house it comfortably, pour the brine over, cover it well and put in the fridge overnight.

the next morning, get yourself some coffee and prepare to make stock. this will take you a while, so start early. i usually start with the largest pot i own, and add two or three carcasses that i've saved from roasting a chicken, which i've dug out of the freezer, and throw in those duck wings and neck from the night before. add mirepoix and bouquet garni, and water to cover. i'm not going to give you a dissertation on how to make stock, because there are several excellent resources out there. a quick Google search pulls up:

- from Simply Recipes

- a video on the Epicurious site - i havent watched it myself yet, since i'm not on the home computer. looks like Bon Appetit has a video on their site as well.

- plus i bet you that some of the French cookbooks on your shelf have directions on how to make stock, so go take a look through them.

turn smoker on and bring it to 225 F. rinse the duck, pat dry with paper towels, and salt and pepper the pieces. place duck in smoker, skin side down with a clean drip pan to catch that all-important fat (you'll be using it later, so it's important that the drip pan is clean). using dry wood chips (we used apple), smoke for 2.5 hours or until the duck reaches an internal temperature of 165 F.

remove duck from the smoker, put it to the side until it's cool enough to pull the meat off. with your hands, shred meat into whatever size pieces you want that look good to you, and set aside until later in the recipe. throw out the layer of fat that remains on the duck. don't throw the bones out; put them straight into the stock you've got going on the stove.

your stock will probably take a few more hours, so keep it on low, skim the scum off the top every once in a while, and go do something productive like paint the guest room... which is what i was supposed to be doing this weekend. anyhoo....

by then, your stock should be ready. strain it, discarding all the solids. put it back on the heat and let it reduce a little bit more.

make roux: strain the reserved duck fat drippings, and add 3/4 cup of it to a large Dutch oven over medium heat. if you don't have 3/4 cup's worth, you can use peanut or canola or vedge oil to make up the rest. immediately add 1 cup of flour and start stirring like mad with a wooden spoon. this next part will take you about an hour (no lie), so make sure you've got a movie going in the background or some music. i wouldnt walk away from a roux, especially one made with such a decadent base. just stir and stir with a wooden spoon. you might have to add a tablespoon or more of flour as you go, if the roux is too liquidy. as the authors state, "you're attempting a controlled burn of the flour".

again, low and slow is the way to go. when in doubt, lower the heat and keep stirring like crazy. you want a dark roux. this will be the final color of the gumbo, so it's important that you get it right. finally, after you've had a Guinness, and when the roux reaches the color you want (preferably a dark lovely caramelly chocolate), add the chopped onion, celery, and peppers. stir to combine thoroughly, ensuring that all the vedge is evenly coated. let this cook for a few minutes, and add the garlic.

move your stock, which is now happily ready, next to your Dutch oven, grab a ladle and get ready to go. slowly add a couple of ladlefuls of stock to the rouxed vedge, and stir. that liquid will be absorbed pretty quickly. add a little more and stir. basically, add as much liquid as you feel comfortable with, to get the consistency you want. keep in mind that once you add the okra, it will get even thicker. it's hard to gauge how much stock you'll need; you will need a lot, but you'll probably end up with extra, which is never a bad thing. just freeze it for another use.

stir in the andouille, okra, tomato paste, herbs, cayenne, filé, hot sauce (to taste - we used about a quarter cup), whatever else you're using. i don't give exact measurements on some of these ingredients, as i tend to like things a bit on the hot side, so add and taste, see how you like it. add salt (to taste - sort of. you dont want to oversalt it, yet you still have another 15 mn of simmering to go, so err on the undersalty side. you can always add more but can't subtract).

Simmer for 15 more minutes. serve over rice with some crusty bread hunks. and then go wash the clothes you wore all day and take a shower, because you're guaranteed to be smelling like a smoked piece of meat yourself.

UPDATE: I forgot to mention that the original recipe didn’t require a brine, and called for steaming the duck first before smoking it. I think a brine is vital for this – after all, you’ll be smoking the duck, which could possibly dry it out. Brining brings moisture to the meat. Also, the idea behind smoking it is cooking it slowly via smoke. If you make the mistake of steaming the duck first, the chances of you getting meat that is completely permeated with lovely smoke flavor is kinda slim.

I did say I had problems with the recipe, and these are just a few of the changes we made.

Monday, October 13, 2008



i wanted to post a different video, one where the boy cracks the backbone of the duck, but apparently the video is far too big for blogspot. and i'm not really familiar with technology and stuff and can't figure out (yet) how to post the biggun'. and i'm not a good cinematographer either.

anyway, this duck, which i named Hans for no particular reason, was broken down last night, then brined overnight, so that we could smoke it today. and what would i be smoking it for, you ask?

all good things to those who wait.

(sorry for the second reference to Silence of the Lambs in two days. i've got that movie on the brain).

the sounds in the background are (a) the tv in the kitchen was showing The Ninth Gate, and (b) the tv in the living room was playing a commercial for bad 70s rock.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

oh la vache! *

In keeping with theme of this week (all things Mediterannean and North African), I decided to make lavash. Lavash is another common thread amongst the countries in those regions; everyone has their own version of it and call it something different. But it's basically the same thing: a flat bread. I've got an enormous amount of hummus at home, and I'm out of pita, so I decided to make lavash crackers.

When we moved to Alpharetta, the boy got a job baking bread at the now-defunct Rainwater (Chef Jay Swift was running the kitchen back then – he's now opened 4th & Swift in town, and I'd love to go there some day). The boy made breads until some spots opened up in other parts of the kitchen – it's not that he's not fond of bread and pastry making, it's just not his "thing" (having said that, all the awards he won in culinary school were for bread and pastry, so go figure). The lavash cracker was one of the restaurant's signature breads that they provided in baskets to every table, and those first few months of his tenure there, the boy would come home and tell me animated stories about how much he loathed making it. I'm really not quite sure why, although I'm sure he's told me why and I just plumb forgot. They used this set of rolly flattening machines to get the lavash to the just right thickness, and I think every once in a while the damn thing would break or not work properly. It's been ages now since he's even made it, but when I told him this week that I was going to make lavash, he snarled. Funny how those kinds of memories stay with you forever. I bet you that even in 25 years if I mention the word "lavash" to him, he'd still snarl.

To be honest, this was probably the easiest bread I've ever made. Ridiculously easy. You can make it in the space of a few hours, or you can start it and plop it in the fridge overnight, like I did. You will be required to knead the dough by hand, because it is pretty tough, and I don't think your stand mixer can handle it. it almost reminds me of pasta dough in it's consistency, just not as smooth.

After spending the night in the fridge, i took it out to bring to roomish temperature yesterday afternoon while i went and did something else for a while (attended a production call, if you should know). and then i retrieved the pasta roller attachment from my kitchen aid mixer, because i thought, Why not? it has the consistency of pasta, and if they used something similar at Rainwater, why can't i?

it just seemed to go much quicker using the pasta roller attachment, but if you don't have one of those, you could always definitely use a good old fashioned rolling pin and give your shoulders a workout.

i split my portion of lavash in two to make it easier to smoosh through the roller. i started with the widest setting first, only making one pass through each setting until i got the lavash to my desired thickness (i went through 4 settings and stopped there). after i passed each piece through the second setting down, i cut those pieces in half since they were getting pretty long; i ended up with four long, thin strips of dough. this is the dough after going through the first setting; and it will look not unlike those strips of skin that Buffalo Bill took off the backs of his victims in The Silence of the Lambs. well, it did to me.

the original recipe calls for bread flour; but apparently i'd run out of it some time ago and hadn't remembered to buy more. i used regular all-purpose flour, and the end result turned out really well. the next batch i make will be made with bread flour, because i'm curious to see what the difference will be.


adapted from "The Bread Baker's Apprentice", by Peter Reinhart

Makes 2 sheet pans of crackers

1.5 cups all purpose or bread flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon yeast
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup of water (room temp)
seasonings (i used kosher salt, za'atar, black sesame seeds, paprika, cumin. you can use any mixture of whatever you want that you think might go well).

In a mixing bowl, stir together the flour, salt, yeast, honey, oil, and just enough water to bring together in a ball. you may not need the whole 1/2 cup of water.

Sprinkle some flour on the counter and transfer dough to the counter. Knead by hand for at least 10 minutes. The dough will feel not unlike pasta dough, if you've ever kneaded that before. When ready it should feel really smooth and firm. Oil a bowl and put the dough into the bowl while rolling it around to coat it. cover with plastic wrap and put aside for 90 minutes or until it's doubled in size. Alternatively, you could put the bowl in the fridge overnight and take it out a couple of hours before using, until come to room temperature.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees F. Here you have two options: you can roll by hand, or if you've got a pasta roller, you could use that.

if rolling by hand:

Sprinkle flour onto the counter and transfer the dough there. press the dough into a square with your hand and dust the top of the dough lightly with flour. roll it out with a rolling pin into a paper thin sheet. you may have to stop from time to time so that the gluten can relax. cover it with a kitchen towl or plastic wrap if it needs resting. When you've rolled it out to desired thickness, let it relax for 5 minutes. Line sheet pans with parchment or silpat; carefully life the dough and lay it on the parchment. snip off excess dough with scissors if it overlaps.

if rolling by machine:

cut dough in half, and starting with the widest setting on your roller, pass each piece of dough through only once. move down to the next setting and pass it through once. you may have to cut your dough lenghts in half vertically if it starts to get too long. go down to the next setting and pass the dough lengths through once. do this until you've reached your desired thickness (i did mine through 4 settings. When you've rolled it out to desired thickness, let it relax for 5 minutes. Line sheet pans with parchment or silpat; carefully life the dough and lay it on the parchment. snip off excess dough with scissors if it overlaps.

Mist the tops of the dough with water from a spray bottle and sprinkle a covering of seeds and spices onto the dough. you can alternate bands of seasonings or sprinkle them all over, up to you. you can precut the dough into triangular shards with a pizza cutter or ridiculously sharp knife (if using a knife, be careful not to pull too much on the dough when running the knife through). if you don't want to precut them, you can always break them into shards once they are done baking.

Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, keeping an eye on them to ensure you get even browning. you might have to switch the sheet pans around from top to bottom half way through baking. Once they are browned to your liking, remove pans from oven and let the crackers cool in the pan for 10 minutes before snatching one and running off with it.

I'm not sure how long these will keep; i've got mine stored in a Ziplock baggie right now, but i plan on taking them to a party later where i'm sure they'll be snatched up.

*Holy cow! But it's a play on words. Lavash, la vache.... get it? yeah. Clear as mud.

Friday, October 10, 2008

totally unrelated to food

jerell is the richard blais of this season's project runway. so pissed that although he kept winning challenge after challenge, he got kicked off in the end. man's got incredible talent and will go far.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

on tabbouli

tabbouli (can be spelled different ways, including tabbouleh) is probably the healthiest thing i make. i ate it in abundance when i worked for a mediterranean restaurant in florida. during the time when service was slow, all the servers and cooks would sit around on the tall stools in the bar area picking the stems off of parsley and putting the leaves into huge oversized bowls (lord, i picked parsley for countless hours - that brings back some memories). i've seen it made with different ratios of bulgur wheat to parsley; at this particular restaurant, it was mostly parsley, around 4:1. i think (i could be wrong; i often am) that the ratio of bulgur to parsley changes depending on where one is located in the Middle East (like harissa - each North African country has its variation on it). so i'm not really going to give you a recipe for this; it's more of a guideline. i make it and i taste it along the way, and if i think it needs more of a certain ingredient, i'll add more.

what you'll need:

1 cup bulgar wheat
1 cup parsley leaves (at least)
1 cup mint leaves
1 cucumber
1 bunch of green onions
red onion
1 tomato
juice from 2 lemons
olive oil
an abundance of salt

soak the bulgur wheat according to the package directions. if your package doesn't have directions, pour the grain into a large bowl. if you want, you can squeeze some lemon juice over this and add some salt and pepper. frankly, i don't know if this makes any difference to the finished taste, but i like to do it this way. add 2 cups of boiling water, cover tightly with a piece of plastic wrap and put to the side for about a half hour or so. at this point, you can fluff it up and see if it's absorbed all of the liquid. if you taste it and it is cooked (as in, doesn't have a raw bite anymore), yet there is still liquid in the bottom, drain in a fine mesh sieve and set aside until ready to use.

roughly chop the parsley and mint and put into a large bowl (you could use a food processor for this, but i find that the leaves get processed into almost nothing, and i prefer a bigger chop on them myself). chop up the green onions (both white and green parts), and add to bowl. dice a quarter of the red onion and add to bowl. cut the cucumber in half lengthwise, seed it, roughly chop and add that to the bowl. i like to keep the skin on the cucumber, as i think it keeps longer that way without going mushy. if you've properly cleaned your produce, you shouldn't be squeemish about eating cucumber skin anyway.

stir all of this together, and add a liberal amount of salt, some black pepper, a couple of teaspoons of olive oil, and start adding lemon juice a little at a time. this is where you taste it as you go - do you need more lemon juice? more salt? prefer more red onion to give you more bite? well, chop up some more and add it. you might also feel as though it needs more mint or parsley.

when it's to your liking, e.g. not oily, but properly seasoned, it's ready.

oh, and that tomato? i do like tomato in my tabbouli, but i cannot stand smooshy tomato in my tabbouli. if you plan on serving this right away, chop up a tomato and add that now. if, like me, you plan on eating this for a couple of lunches in a row, don't add the tomato now. bring along a container of tabbouli, some pita wedges, and throw that tomato in your lunch box, and when you're ready to eat at your desk while surfing around on the spice house, fish out your pocket knife and roughly chop the tomato up into the salad. serve in between the pita wedge like a little sandwich.

what, you don't have a pocket knife? i thought everyone had one.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

dear jamie mcmurray: i'm sorry i almost crashed into your truck

so i'm driving home from work this morning around 11:30 am, because it's allergy season and i've got a sinus headache from hell that no amount of Allegra or fresh, unblemished, clean air can cure. sitting in front of a computer was making my brain itch, and not in a good way. so i was on my way home and merged onto 285 East and nearly crashed right into the biggest, brightest Barney purple truck. i saw the Crown Royal emblem on the side, and my first thought was, "Cool! whisky!", and then i realized that it was Jamie McMurray's truck, probably carrying all his car parts and whatnot, followed by several RV's and a string of other drivers' semi trucks on their way back from Talladega.

i scrambled to grab my CrackBerry out of my bag, which made me swerve some more (good going there, Frenchie), so that i could take a picture of the truck and send it to the boy, because there was no way anyone would believe me if i told them that i almost smashed right into a NASCAR driver's truck.

all this to say that we're going to the race in a couple of weeks at Atlanta Motor Speedway. and not only are we going to the race, but we're going the entire weekend and staying in the infield. and just typing that sentence brought out my inner redneck. i feel a whole bunch of WOO HOOs and showing of much skin coming my way. and of course, the obligatory gettin' drunk on crappy beer.

our friends Ken and MA (she who shares the same birthday as i do) have a permanent camp spot in the infield for said race, and they go every year with their camper. they were gracious enough to invite us along, and as much as i just announced that i'm turning into a good ol' Suthun redneck, i'm also totally excited about this. because there is nothing i love more than people watching, and you just know that the people watching there will be stellar.

but most importantly, more important than snickering at ill-fitting clothing and drunk people, is the food. Ken, MA, the boy, and I need to discuss the food situation soon, because tailgating is very important. i believe that the smoker is coming along, as well as someone's borrowed grill. i need to start spending some quality time researching food that travels well, food that keeps well, and food that shares well. anyone got any ideas?

so, in case you were wondering (because i can hear your brain clicking away), i'm not an avid NASCAR fan, but the boy is, so i guess that makes me a fan by proxy. and i don't really have a favorite driver per se. i like the ones who kind of drive dirty and cause issues (surprised there? hee). they say that deep down, all girls like the bad boys. i'll just leave you to figure out who it is i like best (and just to let you know, there might be more than one).

Monday, October 6, 2008

chicken tagine with apricots and spiced nuts

i've been aching to make a tagine lately. there are whole weeks where i crave making fresh pasta; others where all i want are roast beast sandwiches. and this past week, i've been craving making something in my tagine.

i don't know if it's so much the food, or the act of making something in the tagine that i have been craving. all i know is that it's been far too long since i've used it, as it has been sadly underused this year.

i think that the last time i had a full on North African meal was for my birthday last year. we grilled a leg of lamb and made several tasty sides from Kitty Morse's "The Vegetarian Table: North Africa", with much success. My problem is that i wasn't sure how keen the boy would be with a lot of the "different" (or odd) ingredients that a moroccan/tunisian/algerian recipe calls for. fortunately, a lot of that cuisine can be influenced by french and spanish, so there are a lot of familiar ingredients that one might have laying about in the pantry, so no special store run is really needed.

and part of me thought, Whatever. if the boy doesn't like it, then i'll just have nice tasty lunches for the rest of the week. but seriously, i've no idea why i was so vexed. because between the boy and J (who is, happily, back from Yuma for good), they licked the platter clean, literally.

i used this recipe from epicurious as the guideline, and made the fennel slaw on the side . make an effort to find bitter marmalade. i bought some made with Seville oranges, as blood orange marmalade can be kinda hard to find. seriously take a look at the ingredients on the marmalade jars in the grocery aisle. most are not just made with oranges, but with pear and whatever other fruit. you don't want a sweet marmalade, so make an effort to find something worthwhile; you won't be disappointed. those clementines with ginger syrup which are also part of that menu look really good, and although i didn't make them this time around, i am keeping a mental note to make them soon, especially as clementines are abundant at the Super H of late.

so i served this with rice instead of couscous (which would be more traditional, but i felt like having rice instead), and i announced that dinner was ready rather hesitantly to the boys, and they both tasted it and liked it; however they both said that they were really surprised that it wasn't spicy (e.g: hot) as they thought North African food should be. and then it dawned on me that in the very back of the fridge i had a container of harissa, so i brought that out and made the boys help themselves to a heaping spoonful of it.

let me tell you right now that harissa rules. the dish was good without, but spectacular with. i don't know why i don't use it more often; i use sriracha on everything, so i might as well start using up my stash of harissa.

i can't remember where i got my recipe for harissa; but i do remember that you soak chilies and then blend the whole thing in the food processor. i jotted down some notes on how to make it, and that note has been living on the side of my fridge under a picture of Michael Steele that i got in the mail about a year or so ago. my scribble says:

handful chiles de arbol
soak in water 30 mn
coriander + cilantro ground
seed, stem chiles
blend all w/ garlic + salt
OO or water. sundried tomato
cilantro, dried mint

measurements are up to the maker. i did it to taste. i hate to say it, but sometimes one doesnt need exact measurements; you just do it.

all in all, i can't express how pleased i am that the boy liked this meal.

next up, i plan on making a lamb tagine, and i want to used preserved lemons, as i spent the better part of today making some while i was cleaning my office (sorting paperwork, throwing away a lot of crap, putting up three bags of clothes to give away, and washing windows, if you must know).

this picture? that's my mom on a camel, in marrakech in 2002. and those would be Prada boots she's wearing. because, as she always tells me with the most serious face, one must be fashionable no matter where one is.