Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Happy Halloween!

Joining us this Halloween is one of my favorite dogs! Thank you, Sawith 65, for making your beautiful Golden Retriever a YouTube sensation and a howling success!

Happy Halloween, Dollinks! I'm off to stir up some Double, Double, Boil, and Trouble - a witch's brew, of course!
xox   Nicole

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Dinner Party Series: Guidelines and Tips

As regular readers know, I love color! If you think that means only the bright reds, yellow ochres, deeply saturated blues, turquoises, and pale greens you’ve seen on this website, you’d be very wrong. I love color in every shade and hue, and am especially interested in color’s effect on perception and mood. That’s why today’s Dinner Party Guidelines and Tips focus on setting a beautiful table. I’ve done several other blogs on tablescaping, because it’s a subject close to my heart. You'll find them indexed under that heading.

I recently found these pretty, complementary plates at Cost Plus World Market in Oregon, and marveled at how inexpensively almost anyone can set an elegant table for a very small outlay. 

The traditional blue-and-white "Willow" pattern makes its mark in 
gray. Paired with a square plate, it takes on a contemporary look
This beautiful jug complements the gray
Willow-pattern china I sourced in Oregon

But wait ... There’s more! (as the TV pitchmen say) 

I went online in search of serving pieces that would tie in with these beautiful plates. Just look what I found on an auctioneers website - 
this beautifully shaped jug in the same classic design

Although it sold quickly, you can always search for another. Twelve inches high, it’s described as a “mulberry pitcher in the ‘Pelew’ pattern, made by E. Challinor.”  The opening bid? A mere $70. 

The plates above are $7.50 apiece. Each piece of matching cutlery (sigh!) was less than $2.00. 

The perfect match for the gracious dishes, above

Although you may be thinking bargain! I found the dishes above too expensive, and didnt buy them or the beautiful pitcher. But wait ... There really is more! I bought my Thanksgiving place settings in a California WalMart store at $2.50 a plate! You’ll see them next month, when I blog another in my Dinner Party series - this one titled Thanksgiving

What else didn’t I buy? I didn’t buy any ceramic pumpkins masquerading as soup bowls. They’re beautiful, but have only limited use (i.e., Autumn) and may present a storage problem.

Pumpkin-shaped soup bowls

Beautiful and trendy, but worth buying? You decide!

I’ve said it before and will say it again: If you see it, love it, and it fits your cupboard and your budget, buy it. If you aren’t sure, wait 24 hours before plunking down your dough. A well-considered purchase will give you, your family, and your guests years of pleasure. The satisfaction you feel from an impulse buy will probably be short-lived.

I check eBay and Craigslist for bargains when I search for interesting table settings. Many people no longer want Mom’s fine china. The seller wants to get rid of it, and I want to love it and use it and give it a good home. If the price is right, why not? One of my daughters-in-law even bought a collection of matched Waterford drinking glasses for the flat price of $50! 

Consignment stores, antique stores, and newspaper ads are other excellent sources for bargains in china and silver plate. Half the fun is in the hunt! 

I have one more tip: If you can’t find what you want, make it. I’d yearned for a nice red pitcher for years. I feel very, very proud of the serviceable, attractive pitcher I made in a ceramics studio last summer. On it, I wrote the word Believe.” If you believe you can do it, you can. My completed pitcher cost $25. Given the memories it already holds, it truly was a bargain.

When all else fails, DIY ... Do It Yourself!

Monday, October 29, 2012

Shepherd’s Pie

I have a certain fondness for shepherds. I once flew so low over Scotland that I spied one running his sheep on the emerald grasses bordering the seas west of Scotland. It gave me a thrill. Peeking through a farmer’s fence, I once watched a ewe drop a lamb sticky with birthing fluid. Within minutes of her licking the baby clean, it  rose on wobbly stick legs. Another thrill. I was once wildly in love with a shepherd, but it was not to be. Rin-Tin-Tin had already been taken. 

Just as shepherds hold a warm place in my heart, Shepherd’s Pie holds a warm place in my stomach.With its mashed potatoes, vegetables, hot gravy, and meat (Oops! I’ve just given you the recipe!), it’s the ultimate comfort food. Whether you make this easy dish with cooked leftover roast beef, pork, lamb, or poultry, the method remain the same. The meat can be ground or chunked as you desire. For dinner last night, I made my pies with chicken. Here’s how!

Shepherd’s Pie:

3 large russet potatoes, peeled and chunked
2 whole garlic cloves, peeled
¼ c. butter or margarine
2-to-3 tbsp. milk
1-½ c. thick chicken gravy (see Note
4 boned and skinned chicken thighs, in chunks (about 1-½ c.)
1-½ c. frozen mixed vegetables
Paprika, as garnish

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Bring potatoes and garlic to a boil in lightly salted water. Reduce heat, simmering 15-to-20 min. Drain and mash potatoes with garlic. Stir in butter and milk. Mash should be thick, rather than soft. Set aside and keep warm. Stir gravy in saucepan over medium heat. Add raw chicken chunks, heating through until no pink remains, about 10 min. 

Divide frozen vegetables equally between two individual casserole dishes. Pour hot gravy with chicken chunks over vegetables, filling casserole ⅔ full. Spread with mashed potatoes to edge of casseroles. Sprinkle potatoes liberally with paprika. Place casserole dishes on baking sheet to catch oozing gravy. Bake 30 min., or until gravy bubbles under potatoes. Let stand 10 min. at room temperature before serving. Serves 2.

Note: This dish is an excellent use for leftover gravy.

Bring potatoes and garlic to a boil; reduce heat to simmer
Mash with butter and milk. Set aside and keep warm.

Save and freeze trimmed chicken skin and bone for the stock pot 

Four trimmed thighs yield about 1-1/2 c. chicken chunks

Add chicken to gravy, cooking about 10 min.

Use individual casserole dishes

Ladle hot gravy and chicken chunks over mixed vegetables

Spread with potatoes. Sprinkle with paprika before baking.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Dinner Party Series: Traditional Sunday Roast Beef

On the spur of the moment last weekend, we invited our daughter-in-law and two of our grandchildren to a simple family dinner. We all have busy lives, and with the exception of Thanksgiving and the holiday season, we don’t gather family members around the table as often as wed like. 

Paper napkins signal "informal" 
- but still offer jaunty flair
For dinner last weekend, I served a simply prepared 4 lb. Bottom Round Roast (also known as an Outside Round or Silver-Side Round). As a two-person household, we have roast beef only rarely, so I’d forgotten that bottom rounds are one of the least flavorful and least tender cuts, with tough muscles, plenty of connective tissue, and almost no marbled fat. 

I slammed the thing into a 350 deg. F. oven with nothing more than a little seasoning - mistake! That laissez-faire approach works well for a more tender cut of beef, but this particular cut was tougher than an army drill sergeant. Still, we managed to chew our way through it while I made a mental note to remember that not all roast beef is created equal. 

For the right way to cook a Bottom Round Roast, see the excellent recipe at Not surprisingly, low, slow cooking and a little moisture produce a delicious roast. A tough cut should always be served a little undercooked and thinly sliced. 

We had so much fun talking that - whoops! - the roast sat in the oven longer than it should have, at a temperature higher than it needed, to be sliced thicker than a plank. Cooked wrong, sliced wrong, each slab of gray meat lay on the plate like an accusation. The children’s tiny jaws worked furiously, like squirrels trying to choke down nuts.

To keep everyone in good humor, I served the kids Perrier, told them it was champagne, and pretended not to hear their mother whisper: “You don’t have to eat the meat if you can’t chew it.” 

I’ve always maintained that you can disguise any cooking disaster with one of three things: A massive blob of whipping cream, a huge spray of parsley, or liberal lashings of gravy. Our dinner featured all three: Its success was guaranteed! 

(Tip: When you make a mistake, don’t draw attention to it. For me to have said: “Ewwww! This roast is tough!” wouldn’t have made it any less so. This was a good time for me to keep my mouth firmly closed. Besides, I was focused on chewing, as were we all.)

Having roast beef always reminds me how economical a roast actually is. From this evening’s roast come tomorrow’s sandwiches and ample leftovers. The day after our family dinner, I made a Shepherd’s Pie, and still had plenty of roast for another day!

I’ve previously blogged a few of the recipes that were on our Traditional Sunday’s menu: I served the roast with plenty of Gravy, Roast Potatoes, Pennsylvania Red Cabbage, and a simple bowl of buttery sliced carrots mixed with tiny Brussels sprouts (Tip: Make a small X in the stemmed sprouts for fast, even cooking). 

If I’d thought to do so, I would have made the traditional Yorkshire Puddings that work so well with roast beef and Gravy. You’ll find my Roast PotatoesPennsylvania Red Cabbage, and the Yorkshire Puddings I should have made listed in the Index under Side Dishes (Tip: Always save, strain, and freeze bacon fat for future use. The potatoes, cabbage, and savory puddings all need a little bacon fat for their successful preparation; a different fat simply will not do for these recipes!). 

We finished dinner with the deliciously easy Company Plum Cake I blogged just over a week ago: It’s in the Index under Cakes: Fruit. I served this cake directly from the pan, passing around a whipping cream bomb. 

Had this been a formal, pull-out-all-the-stops dinner, the whipped cream would have arrived in a fancy little bowl and none of us would have punctuated lulls in the conversation with an idle squirt here, another there, and a third for good measure.

So heres the Gravy recipe that saved the evening! I’ll publish my recipe for Shepherd’s Pie tomorrow. These recipes aren’t in the least bit fancy or difficult - the emphasis at our Traditional Sunday Roast Beef Dinner was to relax, throwing together something fuss-free while still presenting a welcoming table setting for our guests. Experienced cooks will have made these two recipes countless times, but if you’re new at cooking or don’t normally prepare roast beef, slip into your aprons, Dollinks!

Nicole’s Gravy:

I don’t use precise measurements: Everything depends upon the size of the chunk of meat or poultry, how much fat you add, and how much the meat releases.  Once meat reaches desired doneness, remove it from roasting pan (Tip: If you aren’t sure, use a meat thermometer). Tent meat lightly with foil and allow to rest (10 min. for most meats; 20 min. for a turkey) before carving. Do not wash roasting pan!

Heat drippings in roasting pan over medium-high heat. Sprinkle in just enough all-purpose flour to absorb most pan fat. Whisking quickly, thoroughly combine fat and flour, adding extra flour as needed. Continuing to whisk, cook about 1 min. over medium-low heat. 

Gradually add homemade or commercial broth (see Index for How to Make Stock), whisking until gravy reaches desired thickness. Be mindful that gravy thickens upon standing, so don’t be too heavy handed with the flour. If floating fat remains on the surface, add more flour and liquid or simply skim it off.

Season to taste (and do taste it!) with garlic powder, salt, pepper, and any herb or combination of herbs you fancy. You may want to use a splash of red wine in your gravy, or sliced mushrooms, or a spoonful of Dijon-style mustard; I sometimes do. You may also want to “cheat” by adding a gravy browning agent at this point. There are plenty of brands available: All produce an attractive, nicely colored gravy. 

Because this gravy contains bits of meat and the occasional flour lump, strain it before transferring it to your gravy boat. Stirring the flour into cold broth before adding it to hot gravy may slightly reduce the number of lumps, but the smoothest and best gravies are always strained, in my opinion. Substitute cornstarch for flour at your peril: The result is often a far thinner, less “substantial” gravy for those who want only a pale drizzle.

I’ve had cornstarch-thickened gravy in chi-chi dining rooms, and found it extremely unsatisfactory. If you’re going to have gravy, for goodness sakes, have gravy! You don’t do this everyday, so enjoy the splurge! 

Note: I like to make lots of gravy. Not only do guests forgive my culinary bloopers, but leftover gravy is a superbly reliable addition to homemade soups, stews, and dishes such as Shepherd’s Pie. More on that tomorrow, followed by Tuesdays post of additional Guidelines and Tips for successful entertaining. And now I’m off to find some hungry shepherds! 

Tea lights are an understated center piece - another  
hint of informality 

Wooden serving platters emphasize the meal's relaxed feeling.  
Note the large sprays of parsley on the meat platter - my attempt
to disguise the notion that someone cremated the cow.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Jalapeño-Cheese Biscuits

You must taste Ron’s Jalapeño-Cheese Biscuits! As you will, when you make this recipe! With their generous helping of cheese and the sudden explosion of flavor from their chopped jalapeño peppers, Ron’s Jalapeño-Cheese Biscuits are my very favorite buns. 

Ron serves them hot, with a smattering of butter. Sometimes, he splits them open-face style, serving each half with - or without - a napping of Hollandaise sauce and a gently poached egg. Either way, they’re outstanding!

Ron makes these savory biscuits often, usually while I’m pondering a problem in particle physics or painting my toenails (You know I’m jesting! I never have time to paint my nails). These excellent biscuits deliver a hint of heat - without blowing the roof off your mouth. I know you’re going to love them!

Jalapeño-Cheese Biscuits:

2 c. all-purpose flour
4 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
3 tbsp. cold butter or margarine
5 or 6 slices canned, pre-sliced jalapeño peppers
¼ lb. sharp cheddar, diced as ¼-in. squares
¾ c. milk

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Trim parchment paper to fit medium-sized baking sheet; set aside. Combine flour, baking powder, and salt in large mixing bowl. Slice butter evenly over dry ingredients. Combine dry ingredients and butter with a pastry cutter, drawing the cutter toward you as you give the bowl a quarter turn. 

Chop jalapeño and cheese slices into a  ¼-in. dice (see Note)Sprinkle both evenly over flour-butter mixture. Mix with hands to ensure even distribution of buttery dry ingredients, jalapeños, and cheese. Add milk all at once, mixing with hands to ensure that diced cheese and jalapeño peppers are well distributed.

Knead dough 10 times onto lightly floured surface, patting into a 1-in. thick circle approximately 9 in. in diameter. Cut into 2-in. or 3-in. rounds with lightly floured biscuit cutter or drinking glass. Transfer unbaked biscuits to parchment-lined baking sheet. Dab or brush tops with melted butter. Bake 25-to-30 min. Serve warm or at room temperature. Yields 8 or 9.

Note: Don’t grate the cheese in this recipe. Dicing ensures it will melt in small pockets, producing a more flavorful biscuit. 

Combine dry ingredients

Typical size of canned jalapeño peppers

Work cold butter into dry ingredients with pastry cutter

Dice sharp, aged cheddar

Evenly distribute diced cheese and jalapeño
peppers over buttery dry ingredients

Add milk all at once

Quickly combine with hands or sturdy spoon

Roll into a 1-in. thick circle on lightly floured surface

Transfer unbaked buns to baking sheet

Brush with butter. Bake 25-to-30 min. 

Eat as-is or serve under poached eggs with 
maple-smoked bacon and fresh fruit. 
Well, Dollinks, more about table settings and menus tomorrow, as I launch another of my occasional Dinner Party series - this one for Traditional Sunday Roast Beef. I promise your mouth will be watering! 

Friday, October 26, 2012

Salsa Bites

This great recipe originates with the US Rice Federation. My friend Shelley gave it to me and several other friends who begged to know how to make the wildly popular spicy salsa, rice, and cheese nibbles Shelley brought to a recent party.

Salsa Bites:  

3 c. cooked brown rice
1 c. grated jalapeño Monterey Jack cheese (see Note)
4 eggs
One 16 oz. (430 mL) jar medium-hot, thick-and-chunky salsa
½ c. sour cream
½ tsp. each salt and pepper
Additional salsa and sour cream for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. With clean hands (I wear latex gloves), combine rice and cheese in large bowl. In second bowl, beat eggs until well blended. Stir salsa, sour cream, salt, and pepper into eggs. Add egg-salsa mixture to cooled rice-and-cheese mixture.

Spoon about 1-½ tbsp. of salsa-rice mixture into lightly greased miniature muffin pans.  Sprinkle crushed tortilla chips over filling, pressing slightly with back of spoon. Bake 15-to-20 min. or until slightly brown. Let rest in pans 30 min. before removing. Serve warm garnished with a dab of sour cream and a smidgen of salsa. Makes 4 dozen.

Note: No jalapeño Monterey Jack? Use plain Monterey Jack, adding a few chili flakes or a little chopped fresh hot pepper to the recipe.

Variation: See photo of Mini Salsa Pies, below. Bake these in lightly greased dishes at 350 deg. F. for 30-to-35 min., served with salsa and sour cream on the side.

Ready? Grab and grease those pans!
Cool rice after cooking

Combine with Monterey Jack cheese

Mix cheese and rice in one bowl; beat eggs in another

Add salsa, sour cream, seasoning to eggs ...

And beat it ... just beat it!

Combine the two mixtures

Bake 15-to-20 min. as appetizer "bites" ... or ... Bake 30-to-35 min.
as individual dinner servings. Serve with salsa and sour cream.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Vanilla Butter Cake

This week has certainly lent itself to nostalgia. A few days ago, I wrote about a popular Canadian food writer whom I had never met, but who - through the many recipes she published - taught me how to cook. And now, quite unexpectedly, I’ve just heard the sad news about Maisie Pinkerton. 

Most of you didn’t know Maisie, who died at 89 years old this past March. Had I heard of her passing sooner, I would have said something before now. I met Maisie Pinkerton once and only once, not quite 40 years ago, but she was unforgettable. 

It was then a young, self-assigned journalist writing in the features section of the local newspaper. I’d received a tip about a whirling dervish of a woman who was a gifted cook - a story that wouldn't make it into today’s news pages, but was grist for the mill four decades ago. I sensed something of interest, took a gamble, and asked to interview her. 

Those were the days of recipes typically titled Cheez Whiz ’n’ Tuna Bake or Pork Chop Ketchup Surprise - the real surprise being that anyone would eat it. They were the days when great home cooks were rare, and when women who were great home cooks and great cooks in their professional lives, were even rarer. 

(Things are different, today. The explosion of recipes on the Internet and the number of people who eat out or consume frozen, prepackaged meals means that anyone with a clutch of recipes can pose as a great cook - and I do mean anyone.) 

Marion (Call me Maisie”) Pinkerton was the genuine article, having trained at London’s Cordon Bleu and having taught cooking in various locales before eventually becoming a caterer. Canada’s Maisie Pinkerton became Martha Stewart even before Martha Stewart became Martha Stewart.

I don’t remember everything we talked about all those years ago, but I do remember one thing that immediately and permanently influenced how I cook. Maisie taught me that cooking is a sensory experience - that you should taste, smell, and feel the food, mixing it with clean or gloved hands instead of a spoon. 

I feel as though Maisie’s sitting on my shoulder each time I advise you to beat a cake’s sugar-butter-egg mixture “until no grainy feeling remains when you rub some of the batter between your thumb and index finger …” I learned that from her. I also learned that good cooking often requires more intuition - determining which flavors and spices work best with a dish - and fewer actual recipes.

Maisie would probably have approved of today’s Vanilla Butter Cake with Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting. I do! I recently toted this cake - frosted right in the pan - to a picnic. No one complained - their mouths were too full.

Vanilla Butter Cake:

⅔ c. soft butter or margarine
1-¾ c. sugar
2 large eggs
3 c. cake flour (see Note)
1 tbsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1-¼ c. milk
1-½ tsp. vanilla

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F. Have all ingredients assembled and at room temperature before starting. Grease and flour a 9x13-in. cake pan (or a greased pan with parchment paper trimmed to fit the bottom). Beating at medium speed, combine butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, beating about 5 min. until no “grainy” feeling remains when you rub some of the batter between your thumb and index finger. With mixer on low speed, add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk and vanilla, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Bake 35-to-40 min., or until the cake tests done when a toothpick inserted at the center comes out dry.

Note: No cake flour? For each cup of cake flour required, substitute 1 cup all-purpose flour with 1 tsp. added cornstarch. 

You know exactly how to make a cake!

Easy: From Step 1 to completion!
Trust in your ability, Dollinks!

Vanilla Cream Cheese Frosting:

One 8 oz. (250 g) pkg. brick-style cream cheese, softened
2 tsp. vanilla (see Further Note)
1 c. sifted icing sugar (“confectioners” or “powdered” sugar)

Beat cream cheese with vanilla until well blended. Gradually add icing sugar until smooth and creamy. Makes enough to frost one 9x13-in. cake.


Citrus Cream Cheese Frosting:

Omit vanilla. Add 1 tsp. each finely grated fresh orange and lemon rinds with 1-½ tsp. lemon juice, proceeding as above.

Further Note: For a bright white frosting, use white vanilla, available in sensible supermarkets. For a tan-colored frosting, shrug your shoulders and measure out the standard vanilla extract.

Frost 'n' go: Dash to that picnic, Dollinks!