Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Cooking Software - An Early Evaluation

Some of you may know that for years, I've been using MasterCook software to organize my recipes, store my menus (yes, that's right. I keep track of what I serve people when they eat here. I don't like serving people the same thing twice), and separate recipes I want to try from recipes I've tried and definitely want to keep. I've been a loyal customer up until this year. The software was familiar, fairly user-friendly, and met my needs pretty well, although it wasn't very pretty.

But as someone IN the software industry, I know you have to keep on your toes, keep up with the trends, fix bugs, add enhancements, and WORK to keep your audience. And sadly, MasterCook has not done any of these things. Near as I can tell, the last time the software was updated, besides a couple of patches for bugs, was four or five years ago. I'm not going to bore you with all of the industry changes that have happened in that time, but I will tell you that if you haven't bothered to make your software compatible with Windows 7 yet... well, you don't care much about keeping customers.

Granted, MasterCook is only about twenty bucks. But it's pretty useless to me if some of the major features won't work on the latest operating systems. Plus, their restore function absolutely stinks. I've had three major hardware crashes and replacements this year, and every single time, I've had to do a pretty heavy amount of tap-dancing to get my recipes back into the software when I've reloaded it. And every time I did it, I lost all the images. Frustrating doesn't even BEGIN to cover it. I consider backup/restore functionality basic to a software that stores as much data as this, and it ought to be simple. Maybe other people don't have a problem with it, but it sure didn't work for me, any of the three times I tried to use it.

So after reading some reviews, I decided to give Living Cookbook a whirl. I downloaded a free trial, which is a VERY nice feature. I'd have been royally pissed if I'd spent thirty five bucks on it to find out, for example, that I couldn't import my stuff from MasterCook. But it could. Not elegantly, by any means. I had to do them each individually, which was a pain in the buttocks, but it did at least get them all moved over eventually. First thing I did was test the backup and restore, and it works fine.

There are some things I like better about MasterCook, and some things I like better about Living Cookbook, and some things I don't like about either one - for example, I think that they should give some good graphic artists a crack at helping design layout and flow. Living Cookbook is very data driven and the gui is not beautiful. It's OK. But it's basic file structure. There's no way (that I've found yet) to browse recipes by looking at pictures, which is kind of how I like to get inspired most of the time. See what I mean? Kind of boring. Easy to navigate, but not exactly pretty to look at.

Their menu feature isn't as easy to use, either, but I'm getting used to it. The shopping list shows way too much crap (I'm not going to sit and enter cost of things per oz., and I don't want that on a shopping list column), and it took me a while to find how to hide things on the list. It SHOULD be a simple right-click and hide when a column is selected, but it's buried in menu functionality.

For now, I'm reasonably satisfied with it. I'll let you know as I use it, but it looks like this is the one I'm going to be sticking with. They do update it, the Help is pretty good (coming from someone who writes Help for software, you GOTTA know I'm picky about that), and it's pretty well-organized. I have my cookbooks set up again the way I like them - by course and split into "To Try" and the ones I'm keeping. I'm about finished switching between the two of them, and should go full blown with Living Cookbook this year. I'll keep you posted on how it goes.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cold Night a fahr, Miles Davis and some Chili

You know why I love being a grownup? Because I can choose to sit outside by the fahr with my husband, eat dinner, then come in and putz with my blog instead of cleaning the kitchen, which I know I SHOULD do, because no one is standing over me saying "You have to clean the kitchen before you go do your blog." Which, if I did, would put me that much closer to bedtime, and you poor people would miss out on my chili and quesadilla recipes! So there you go.

I'm going to have to be seriously creative on dinner blogging tonight, because you know good and well I don't have any damned pictures.

It's cold as (insert your personal metaphor here). I'm kind of partial to "a well-digger's @$$", but you use what you like. Anyway, for here, it's cold. The temperature is dropping steadily, and it's supposed to dip into the 20s. Hey, that's COLD here. We're beach people! So I decided I was feeling kind of chili-like tonight, and I didn't feel like Wych Fowler's, so I did my own.

A brief (or maybe a long) aside, since my email just came in and my brother just sent me this. Ordinarily, I'd keep up with it myself, but I kind of hid in a hole after about April, so I lost track. Do you people realize it's a decade in the 2000s? Holy crap! A Rush of Blood to the Head and Kid A are almost a decade old??  No way!!  I have a good number of these albums. I remember hearing the new Norah Jones album on NPR, buying it, and listening to it on our sailboat. We'd take dinner ingredients down to the marina, listen to Come Away With Me, cook dinner, look at the stars, and sway with the boat wakes that came through the ICW. Now we don't have the boat anymore (fine by both of us) and we enjoy our dinners outside by the fire. But a decade? Ten whole years? This is evidently what getting old is about. I listen to these records and the ones I know bring back specific memories of places we've been, things we've done and stages of life we've experienced and, (in some cases thankfully), left behind. (Again, I claim, 2009 was kind of a woofer of a year.)

But I digress. We were talking about chili, weren't we? And tonight, we happened to be sitting outside by the fire, drinking wine, waiting for the chili to simmer, listening to Miles Davis Kind of Blue. Which I have been, off and on today. I reckon family joy, a big party, a new ukulele, and a lot of sugar finally caught up with me. I had a minor crash this morning.

Which is one reason that chili and a fahr were perfect tonight. I got to play creative in the kitchen without much chance of failure, (seriously, it's HARD to eff up chili), and still have plenty of sit by the fire and snuggle time with my Pootie Pie.

Beef and Black Bean Chili
Caramelized Onion, Mushroom and Black Bean Quesadillas

I've been threatened by my husband if I don't get these recipes down, so I'll put them here for posterity. He enjoyed them large. I'm going to pretend it didn't have to do with the red wine he had while he was waiting for dinner.

Beef and Black Bean Chili
Honesty, what ISN'T in this? Chili is one of those "oh, THAT looks good" kind of dishes, where everything goes in. And yes, Texans, there are BEANS in this chili. Deal.

Serves 8 dainty eaters, 6 normal eaters, 4 big eaters, and 2 people who are eating too much.

1 medium yellow onion, diced
2 Tbs. olive oil
3 large cloves garlic, minced
1 Tbs. chili powder
1 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. paprika
2 canned adobo chilis plus 1 tsp. sauce from can.(No, not two CANS. Two CHILIS)
1 tsp. kosher salt (or thereabouts)
1/2 tsp. fresh ground black pepper (more or less)
1 lb. lean ground beef (yeah, you can use turkey, but, I'm not a fan. Just use lean ground beef.Seriously. It's better.)
1 can diced tomatoes
1/2 bottle beer (I prefer Negra Modelo, you pick what you like, but a dark beer works best here. What you do with the other half is your business.)
2 cans black beans
1 Tbs. Reduced Fat Sour Cream for garnish (Do NOT use that non-fat kind. I don't know what's in that stuff, but it tastes like my parents' warehouse and they sell pool and spa chemicals)

In a heavy saucepan over medium heat, sautee the onion and the garlic in the olive oil until translucent (I'm going to copy that somewhere so I can just cut and paste it, as many recipes as it's in). Add the meat and toss in a GENEROUS pinch of kosher salt. Don't be stingy. Salt on the front end, not the back end. You won't have to use as much. Add the rest of the spices. Put in a few healthy grinds of black pepper. Stir occasionally until beef is browned. Add half the beer and "reserve" the other half for whatever use you see fit. Dump the can of chopped tomatoes and half of one of the cans of black beans into a food processor with the chiles. Zap it a few times until it's reasonably pureed, and dump that in the pot. Add the remaining can and a half of black beans. Simmer while you listen to Miles Davis outside by a fire and drink a glass of wine. Come back in and cook the quesadillas.

Caramelized Onion, Mushroom and Goat Cheese Quesadillas

4 whole wheat tortillas
1 small yellow onion, sliced thinly (a vegetable)
1 Tbs. olive oil, or if you insist, butter (shh!)
1 tsp. dark brown sugar
1 pinch kosher salt
2 cups mushrooms, chopped (another vegetable)
2 oz. goat cheese
2 oz. skim mozarella
butter, for cooking the quesadillas

In a medium frying pan, sautee the onions over medium low heat in the olive oil. Add the brown sugar and salt and stir a very long time, until the onions are caramelized, about 10 - 12 minutes. Don't skimp on the time. You want them dark golden brown. Remove them from the pan and turn the heat up to medium high. No, higher. No, get on in there and turn that heat up. Wait - that's too much, back off a little. That's good. Now, put in another Tbs. of olive oil and toss in the mushrooms. See what I mean? You need some heat for those. You want them good and seared. Stir them around until they're nice and browned, about 6 - 7 minutes. Add the onions and mix together. Remove that from the pan and clean it out. Put back on medium low heat and add a small pat of butter, about 1 tsp. Put in a tortilla. Spread the onion and mushroom mixture and top with half the goat cheese and half the mozarella. Top with another tortilla. Cook until brown on one side, then flip. Cook until brown on the other side and keep warm in an oven at 200F. Cook another quesadilla the same way. Slice into quarters and serve with the chili. Preferably by a fire. With your sweetie.

Food Goals for 2010 and broccoli soup

Whew. I'm still reeling from the past month. I said we were on the fast train to the holidays right before Thanksgiving, and I wasn't freaking kidding. I feel like I've been run over by busload of Twilight fans. Good lord.

Time to get up, straighten my shirt, so to speak, dust myself off and start thinking in terms of goals for the new year, which as far as I'm concerned, starts today.

I'm not a big resolution-maker. That's just not how I roll. But I do like the concept of starting fresh and leaving the old behind. And let's face it - 2009 really was kind of a stinker of a year for a lot of us. While it's not the worst I've had by a long shot, I can't say I'm sorry to see it go. (Buh-BYE!) In the interest of starting fresh, I do like to throw a few loose goals out there. Usually I don't have witnesses. But the four or five of you get to hear them - you're so lucky!

Loose goal number 1. Try one new dish per week, focusing on vegetables. Something I've never made before, maybe something that doesn't even especially appeal to me, just to broaden my side dish repertoire. I have a tendency to fall back into the old, easy and familiar, and sometimes boring, especially when I'm pressed for time. Or lacking in initiative.

Loose goal number 2. Get back into meal plannning. The past several months I've been terrible about planning menus and sticking to them. Oh, I have all KINDS of excuses, from having MasterCook software problems, switching to a new software (that will be a separate blog - WHAT a pain in the kiester), working longer hours, not having time, etc. Regardless, the result was a lot of thrown out ingredients (mostly produce). That seriously chaps my hide. It's wasteful and shows poor planning on my part. I'm starting that right now by using up my Christmas party leftover broccoli for the soup below.

Loose goal number 3. Learn to play my ukulele that I got for Christmas. No, it doesn't have anything to do with food, but it's uber-coolio.

Booyah, people!

My brother says I now have to gain 400 pounds if I'm going to do it right.

Loose goal number 4. Be consistent with the blog and try to take better food pictures. Now, some of that is obviously equipment related (lack of lighting), but I shall try.

Loose goal number 5. Assemble my simple cookbook. I've promised one for my husband's sister and the kids for lunches and I've done diddly on it. I've collected lots and lots of great information, and it's whirling around in my head, but I need to get serious and start pulling stuff together and figure out how I want to print it.

I think that's gracious plenty for a year, along with the general "live healthy, try to be content, and be kind to people." (Sometimes I have to remind myself to play nice, you know.)

So to all my friends out there, (and if you're reading this, I consider you a friend), have a very happy, healthy and kind 2010. Let me hear from you, from time to time!


Broccoli Soup
After the party, I was left with a good deal of leftover Costo broccoli. In the interest of getting my vegetable on and not tossing produce, I took the remainder and made broccoli soup out of it. No cream, no cheese, no goop - I'm detoxing from all that. I just needed clean veggies. So here's my recipe for a healthy and hearty lunch soup.

1 medium yellow onion, diced
1 Tbs. olive oil
1 stalk celery, diced
1 medium Yukon Gold or Idaho potato, diced
4 cups broccoli florets
kosher salt
4 cups chicken stock

In a large, heavy pot, sautee the onion and celery in the olive oil over medium heat. When the onion is transluscent, add the potato and a generous pinch of kosher salt and fresh ground pepper. Stir to incorporate, then add the broccoli and the chicken stock and a pinch more salt. Simmer over medium-low heat until the broccoli and potatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Puree the soup in batches in a blender or food processor, or do like I do and use an immersion blender and splatter it all over the kitchen so it looks like you brutally murdered Oscar the Grouch. Taste it and add more salt, if you think it needs it.

BE CAREFUL if you use a blender or a food processor. Hot soup builds up steam in those things and can blow the lid right off the blender. Not that I know this from experience or anything. Leave the little middle part out of the top of the blender or processor so steam can escape and don't try to blend it all at once. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Saturday, December 26, 2009

Party Time!

Saturday I was up and at 'em bright and early to get busy for the party. It was definitely a bustling kind of day, and since it's been a week already (a week! already!) it's kind of a blur. Here's the menu:

Smoked Trout Dip with Rosemary Crackers
Curried Almonds
Spiced Pecans
Prosciutto-wrapped greens

Green Salad with Apples, Goat Cheese and Apple Cider Vinaigrette
Beef Stroganoff with Noodles
Grilled Salmon
Wild and Brown Rice Pilaf
Broccoli with Parmesan Bread Crumbs
Homemade Rolls (thanks to my mother-in-law!)

Alfajores (Chocolate covered caramel filled cookies)
Peppermint Sugar Cookies
Clove Snaps
Potato Chip Cookies
Crisp Mocha Bars

Much Beer and Wine

We wound up with about 42 people, and there was enough food left that I know no one went hungry and not so much left that I felt like I'd made way too much. The breakdown went like this:

Smoked Trout dip (finished)
Nuts (finished - thanks Nat and Mom!)
Beef Stroganoff (beef seared and stored, sauce made and stored separately)
Wild and Brown rice pilaf (made and ready to reheat - thanks Nat!)
Broccoli with bread crumbs (made and ready to reheat - thanks Nat! - she and I agreed though that this one didn't really reheat well. So I'll be looking for a different vegetable dish.)
The cookies had all been made ahead and frozen.
Made the prosciutto rolled greens (late in the day)
Made the salad dressing
Put together the Beef Stroganoff and simmer it (late in the day)
Cooked the noodles and put them in the warming tray
Prepared the salmon for grilling
Figured out what was going in what and where it was going on the tables

Wade did the buffet table and made a cool centerpiece of various glass vases filled with water dyed red and green, interspersed with some votive candles. He's a clever dude, that Wade. John and Mom and Wade and Natalie also set up the photo room, then Paul Stephan came by to loan us his lights for that. Here's the stage, all ready to go:

The chair was draped with cheap red fabric. The branch is from a dead cedar out back that John and Mom spray-painted green, then flocked with snow. (I told them next time take a live branch off the cedar that ISN'T dead and then they don't have to spray paint, and I don't have to clean up cedar bits.) Note to self: We have some tree removal to do this spring.

Everything came together beautifully, and my team of workers vacated around 3:00 or so to go change into fancy pants for the party. I like to do the Holiday Bash as a dress-up affair. When you work at home in khakis and Chucks 364 days a year, it's nice to get dressed up once a year.

People started arriving right on time at 7:00, and before I knew it, the house was filled. Such a great feeling! I made the rounds and made everyone promise to get their picture taken while they were there. John worked hard for the party. I did give him a couple of breaks. But they were short. Figured he ought to at least get to eat, though. So I let him out.


We had a lot of fun with that photo room. It started out pretty civilized, with your standard prom-type picture.

Jack and Beth

But as the evening wore on, people loosened up, Melissa's faux fur was "borrowed", and the pictures got a lot more interesting.

Yes, that's my husband with Melissa. He managed to get pictures with most of the women.

Note that Melissa has been relieved of her coat. Here's P. with Natalie. Thanks, Nat!

A couple of drinks and some tin foil later, the faux fur discovers its calling. A pimp coat.

Fast Eddie.

Well, you get the idea.

I think it's fairly safe to say that a good time was had by all. Phillip and I agreed that this was definitely our favorite party of all the ones we've done. Big holla to my family for all their help and for making the trip. It was great to have them all here.

Happy Holidays to you and yours! Have a safe and happy season, and we'll be back to regular blogging about the post-gorge gruel and water diet next week!

Smoked Trout Dip
This is one I made up years ago and it continues to be consumed in large quantities anytime I serve it. I usually like to serve it with Carr's Rosemary Crackers, but obviously you could use anything you like.

1 4 - 6 oz. package smoked trout, crumbled
6 oz cream cheese
6 oz sour cream
2 Tbs fresh thyme, chopped
1 tsp dijon mustard
black pepper

1. Mix all ingredients together. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Family Visit Part 3 - Party Prep

Friday saw party prep begin in earnest. My elves showed up (also known as my Christmas Bitches) and I put them straight to work. Well, most of them. Phillip was getting the back yard ready, Dad was busy feeding my dogs junk, and John seemed more interested in taking pictures of them with his iPhone than in taking pictures of the food and the cooking.
The perpetually starving Dinky

Steamboat - notice how much more dignified he is.

When I pried John away from the boys, I set him to work putting up outside lights and figuring out what he wanted to do for the photo room. I had decided a long time ago that for this holiday party, I wanted to set the office up as a makeshift photo booth and make sure that everyone who came got their picture "tooken". While Mom and Dad were visiting here in October, we swung into a cheap pottery place that had cheesy Christmas decorations and props, and I asked Mom to help me gather some up for that. She got pretty stoked about it and I finally said "Why don't you guys just come back for the party?" Lucky me, they did, and also got John and Natalie to come. And if I haven't mentioned it enough already, John is a photographer. I win! I win!

To recap: John, setting up outside lights and planning the photo room. Phillip, outside cleaning and setting up the backyard. Dad, feeding my dogs crap. That left the womens in the kitchen. Mom and Nat (John's wife) pushed up their sleeves and told me to put them to work.

Now I have to say, I don't play well with others in my kitchen. I'm not used to it, and we have a tiny galley kitchen that's not really ideal for multiple cooks. But it worked out pretty well, all told. I handed out the recipes from my cooking software, and everyone just got down to business. By 1:00, we had everything done that could be prepared a day ahead and I looked around and blinked and said "Wow. I guess we can go to lunch." So we did. And a little shopping. No way I would have had time for that if I was working this party alone.

Back home for a little rest, and my family scooted back to the B&B to change clothes for Christmas dinner. (Natalie said she smelled like food from cooking all morning and she was tired of it.) I got dinner ready while they were gone.

Salad with Honey Lime-Cumin Vinaigrette
Pork Cubano
Black Beans and Rice

Toasted Egg Nog Pound Cake with Ice Cream and Dulce du Lece

The pork had been cooking on low heat in the clay cooker all afternoon. All I had to do was simmer some black beans, make rice and a salad.

After dinner, we did our Christmas with each other. Then Wade arrived. Wade is John's old college roommate, and Mom and Dad are crazy about him. He's living in Greensboro now, and decided to come down for the party. Mom and Dad didn't know he was coming, so it was a nice surprise for them.


He joined us for dinner. I made sure everyone was fortified, because we had a long, busy day ahead on Saturday.

Pork Cubano

This is an adaptation of a recipe my good friend Ronda shared with me. She does hers with pork tenderloin and cooks it a shorter time. I do mine in a clay cooker with a butt roast and cook it all afternoon on low heat. The result is a shredded mess of tender pork that's great for eating on top of black beans and rice, or as a sandwich, which is what Phillip has been doing with the leftovers.

1 cup orange juice
1/2 cup lime juice
1/2 cup dark rum
1 large onion, large chop
6 cloves garlic, smashed
1 Tbs. oregano
1 1/2 Tbs. chili powder
2 tsp. salt
1 bay leaf
1 tsp. fresh ground black pepper
2 lb. pork butt shoulder

Mix first 10 ingredients in a large bowl. Place butt roast in slow cooker, dutch oven, or in my case, a clay cooker. Cook over low heat (350 in oven) for 4 - 5 hours, turning roast occasionally to keep it wet. Shred pork when done and serve with black beans and rice.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Family Visit Part 2

Second day of the family visit, John and Nat helped me grocery shop for the party - Costco, Red Bank Wine and Fresh Market. Then we picked up P., who wisely opted out of shopping, and had lunch at Catch downtown. Man, that place rocks. Mom and Dad arrived around 2:00 and we took them to the Verandas, where they were staying and where John and Nat decided to move. (We have a tiny house, one bathroom, and only have an aerobed, which wasn't too comfortable for Nat, since she'd hurt her back recently.)

Rooftops of Wilmington from the cupola of the Verandas, taken by my brother.

Then it was home to feed Snack-Man (my dad). He needed some sour jelly worms pretty bad. Once fortified, a batch of us hit the streets for the Teeter to finalize food shopping for the party. There was a considerable amount of errand-running for this soiree, lemme tell you. No telling how many miles we put on the car last week.

We didn't even bother bringing the loads from the shopping back to the house. No way we were squeezing one more thing in my house. Fortunately, my mother-in-law lives about four blocks from us and has a spare (and thankfully empty at the time) fridge in their garage. So she got to house the party food for me. Everything that didn't need to be refrigerated just got piled on the washer and dryer on the laundry porch at home. Yes, it was chaos. Always is.

Dinner was up next so we tidied ourselves up (some better that others - it took me all of two minutes to spill something on my shirt) and headed over to Marc's on Market, where they had set us up in a private dining area. Good call, since we're a rowdy bunch. (Not really). We waddled back satisfied and tired, ready to GET AFTER IT the next day.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Family Visit Part 1

Happy Holidays, peeps! I've had a great season so far. Last week was family visit, party prep, and then the Almost Annual 305 Holiday Bash.  Busy! And of course, no time for blogging. But everyone has gone home, the party aftermath is put away, and I'm gonig to break down last week for you into several entries.

Wednesday last week, my younger brother John and his most excellent wife Natalie arrived. Wow. It already seems so long ago. A lot happened in a four-day span. Anyway, they got here and we had a nice afternoon visit, and I honestly don't remember what else we did. I started dinner around 5:00, I think.

Pics compliments of my brother's iPhone
First meal of the week:
Carrot Soup
Turkey Roulade
Sweet and White Mashed Potatoes

The turkey roulade is a new one from Fine Cooking. It was good, but yes, it is slightly fussy. So I got that ready in the morning so all I had to do was stick it on the grill to cook. (I grilled it in the roasting pan.)

The Carrot Soup you've seen here before, but here's the recipe for it, if you want it.

Carrot Soup
serves 4

1 Tbs olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cup carrots, chopped
1/2 tsp ground thyme
3 -4 cups chicken stock (thanks, Jenn!)
kosher salt and pepper, to taste

Heat small to medium saucepan over medium heat. Add olive oil, then sautee
onions until transluscent, about 4 minutes.

Add chopped carrots and sautee until tender, another 4 - 5 minutes.

Add thyme and a generous pinch of kosher salt and stir, then add about 3 cups of the chicken stock. Simmer about 15 minutes, then puree with an immersion blender or put in a blender or food processor and puree. Return to pot and reduce heat to low. Stir and add more chicken stock to thin if needed. Serve when reheated through.

The white and sweet mashed potatoes are a favorite of mine and go very well with any kind of roast bird.

White and Sweet Mashed Potatoes
serves 4

1 large russet potato
1 medium sweet potato
2 Tbs. butter
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup parmesan cheese
1/4 tsp. nutmeg
1 tsp. salt

Boil white and sweet potato skin on in a large pot of salted water. Pierce with a fork to check doneness. When soft, after about 45 minutes, push potatoes through a ricer. Add remaining ingredients over low heat and stir gently until incorporated. Serve warm.

Since this day was so long ago, I honestly don't remember much else about it. A whirlwind of activity, I tell you!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Christmas Visitor Prep

Man, oh Manischewitz, yesterday was packed. PACKED, I tell you! I started out the day bathing two 150 lb long-haired dogs, then moved from that to laundry and house cleaning. Then together we launched into much driving, much parking, much standing behind large, slow, oblivious people waiting to get by... Holiday Spirit my Aunt Fannie's Bloomers!

It was a zoo out there! And I have a message for ALL you holiday shoppers. PAY ATTENTION!! (That's what I wished I could yell at the five people we saw in the grocery, blocking the ENTIRE aisle with their carts and standing there reading labels while six people stood waiting to get by.

This is what traffic looked like in New Hanover County and in all the stores yesterday.

Well, OK, not really. It wasn't that orderly.

We did the whole Costco, Target, wine shop, Fresh Market, Harris Teeter and Liquor Store run with AC Moore thrown in there for sheer torture. Oh lordy what a may-uss. Everyone in town was out. At least we didn't have to go to Best Buy. It took us five hours, then we were home and had to put all that crap away. Well, of course, I couldn't do that until I'd cleaned out the fridge, which I couldn't do until I'd taken out the garbage... you get the picture. It was 5:30 before I was finished and then I proceeded to pour myself a generous glass of wine and start some supper. We did the catfish and kale salad again since we scored some catfish at the Teeter. Don't know why, but we haven't been able to find catfish for months.

So wined up and fed, I felt a lot better. This morning I got up, got my coffee on, and put my husband on a plane for KY. He'll be back tomorrow. Today I am taking advantage of no distraction to finish getting ready, and I'm almost there! My brother and his wife are coming to stay on Wednesday and I'm seriously stoked. (She said "I hope you're not saying 'my stupid brother and his bitchy wife are coming to invade my space for four days.'") Nope! I'm excited. And my parents will be here the day after that. So I have Bran Buds and skim milk for Natalie, nonfat vanilla yogurt and granola and orange juice for Mom, Cliff bars and dried fruit and nuts for John, and totally awesome old-school 8 oz. glass bottles of Coca-Cola, roasted pistachio nuts and sour jelly worms for Dad. (I am my father's child. We prefer to eat like second graders most of the time.) I have reservations at Marc's on Market for Thursday night, I have a turkey breast for the turkey roulade I'm cooking for John and Nat Wednesday night, and I have everything I need to make the Pork Cubano for Friday night. Plus all the aforementioned snack food and plenty of booze. This house looks like the inside of Harry and David.We're bursting at the seams with candy, cookies, wine, beer, liquor and food, and I don't even have the stuff for the party yet.

Now don't get the impression that I'm being all generous to my family. I am totally buttering them up so that I can immediately pimp them out as my Christmas elves as soon as they step off the plane. We have a major 'do coming Saturday, and they're our helpers. Fed and happy elves do better work.

This afternoon, I'm putting together two things for their visit - Egg Nog Pound Cake and Apple Sambo. I'm thawing some butter for the pound cake right now, and the apple sambo I'll do and put in the fridge. Whatever we don't eat will go on to serve at the party. I've done these for years and years and don't even remember where the recipes came from. But for your perusal, here you go. And Happy Pre-Holidays, people! (I'm in a much better mood now that I'm home.) Maybe I'll get pictures for you once I'm finished.

Egg Nog Pound Cake
3 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
½ tsp. salt
1/8 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 c. unsalted butter, room temperature
2 c. sugar
3 eggs
1 c. eggnog mixed with 1 tsp. vanilla and 2 Tbsp. dark rum

2 Tbsp. Dark rum
2 Tbsp. water
¼ c. sugar
Preheat oven to 325 F. Grease and flour a tube pan.

For the cake: Sift flour, baking powder, salt and nutmeg together. In a separate bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping down the bowl twice. Add eggs one at a time, fully incorporating each egg. Scrape the bowl down again. On low speed, add the dry ingredients alternately with the eggnog mixture. End with dry ingredients. Mix thoroughly and spread evenly in prepared pan. Bake for 45 – 55 minutes. Cool in pan for 15 minutes, then remove. Brush on glaze while cake is warm.

For the glaze: In a small bowl, blend rum, water and sugar. Warm on low heat until mixture thickens. Brush on with a pastry brush.

Apple Sambo
2 qts. apple juice or cider
2 - 10 oz. cans apricot nectar
1 ½ tsp. whole cloves
6 cinnamon sticks
1 ½ c. light karo syrup
¼ c. lemon juice

Combine all ingredients and simmer.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Venison and Fingerling Potatoes

First of all, and most importantly, here's our tree. It's up today. Thanks to me. Yay, me! Pootie was working on writing the exams for finals next week. Poor Pootie.

Please note that there are actually wrapped presents under there, indicating that I am totally rocking this holiday season. (Not really. I need someone to light a fire under my heinie. I apparently think that the stores are going to just ship the perfect gifts for everyone to me without my input.)

The dogs are worn out from all the hard work they put in today.

Oh em gee, we are so tahred. 

The dinner I'm posting tonight actually has nothing to do with what we're actually having  for dinner tonight, which is cooking now and could be a major disaster, by the look of it. We'll see.  I'm going to post a dinner from two nights ago. Three nights? Two? I can't remember. A couple/few. You don't really care, do you? Neither do I. Here was the menu.

Green Salad with Dried Cranberries, Pecans, Goat Cheese and Apple Cider Vinaigrette

I entered the salad in Fine Cooking's "Build Your Own Salad Competition". It won't win, but I love it. I'd post a link but I can't find it. I need to send a suggestion about that... Anyway, I've posted it here before with the dressing recipe. It's fresh and tart and seasonal enough, but is a nice counterpart to heavy food. Which we had in the venison.

Seared Venison with Apple-Onion Chutney Sauce
Roasted Fingerling Potatoes

I honestly can't remember what went into the sauce. Sad, I know. Apples. Some onions. Chicken stock. Butter...though not much. I'm sorry. I suck as a food blogger. The potatoes are fingerlings that I tossed with olive oil, sea salt, pepper, and a little parmesan cheese. The venison was a gift from Derek. After receiving assurances that we weren't eating one of Santa's team, he said that he was "confident that he dressed and handled it properly". And since it was delicious, I expect he was right. He gave us a good-size bag of tenderloins. I just heated the cast-iron skillet up to 400 on the grill, salted, peppered and oiled the tenderloins, and seared them on each side. They were delicous, and we have gracious plenty left over. Pootie wants to make a salad out of the leftovers, so that's probably imminent. We sure as hell aren't wasting it.

Tonight's actual dinner, I may post later. It was decent enough, now that we've taken a break and eaten it, although no pictures. (I know, you're thinking, "no great loss there, honey!") I'll leave you with a little holiday calm though.

Peace out, people. I'm going to retire to maybe watch The Polar Express, if we own it, which I think we do.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Cookie Baking Extravaganzaaaahhhh

Whew! That was fun! I baked all day Saturday and most of the day Sunday. Hopefully the peeps at the office won't get their box and say "This is ALL??" (Update: Actually, one person DID complain that there weren't enough, and another complained that her toffee cookies weren't included this year. Oh well. I guess you can't please everyone!)

Here's how it all went down.

Saturday AM I scrubbed the kitchen down and vacuumed to organize my workspace and minimize the chances of a stray dog hair infiltrating my cookie dough. (In this house, that ain't easy.) Then I had to make a quick run to the grocery for parchment paper (thanks for the offer to borrow, Morgan and Jesse, but I needed a couple of other things anyway) and to Office Max to buy boxes for shipping. So it was noon by the time I got out the flour and butter, put the Christmas music on iTunes piped into the kitchen and got my cookie on. (!!)

Here's the list:

Coffee Crunch Bars

Clove Snaps

Peppermint Sugar Cookies (An old 1994 Bon Appetit Recipe)

Cranberry, White Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies

Chocolate-Covered Sandwich Cookies with Dulce de Leche (Alfajores) - these are actually for the party. They would have been a beast to try to ship and would have been a big hot mess when they arrived. And I don't have a picture of them yet.

Bourbon Balls (YEAH, baby!)

Potato-Chip Cookies (Do not go "ew" without you have not tried them. Huh. Look at that. I didn't get a picture of them. Oh well.)

White Chocolate Brownies

Cream Cheese Spritz Cookies Yes, I'm painfully aware that these do not look like Spritz cookies. I had technical difficulties. I'll get to that later.

Before I get started, now that you've already seen the end results, let me put it out there that I am not great with making pastries and stuff look pretty. I do OK plating food and making nice loaves of bread and I CAN make a pretty damned gorgeous cake. But little small fussy things like piping cookie icing and all that just isn't me. I lose patience. I like the big picture construction part - the ingredient selection and tweaking, the mixing, the rolling - that sort of thing. As you can see, my talent does not lie in constructing castles out of buttercream and a toothpick.

So baking we will go! And the end result will still taste good. It just might not be a show stopper.

Peppermint Sugar Cookies

I love these. They're the soft, thin, chewy cookies spiked with that great cool peppermint taste. It's a basic sugar cookie recipe with crushed peppermint candy added. I altered the recipe to add peppermint extract. I mean, seriously, why isn't it on there in the first place? I liked them better with it. More! Mint! This dough had to be refrigerated, so once it was mixed up, in it went.

Alfajores (From Fine Cooking)

This one is kind of involved. You have to make the Dulce du Leche, because I sure couldn't find it in my Harris Teeter. That's easy as falling down in an icy driveway, but a little time-consuming.

To make it, get a can of sweetened condensed milk and pop the top just a tiny bit or poke a couple of holes in the lid, so it's got some ventilation. Then take off the label (or, hey, if you're a rebel, by all means, take the label off first, THEN pop the top. Go nuts!) and put the can in a pot of water about 3/4 of the way up the can. Put it on medium low heat and simmer it- just barely bubbling. I simmered mine for about five hours - all afternoon while I was baking. Then I just put the cans in the fridge overnight. This is what you get the next day when you stir it up. Yes. CARAMEL, people. Oh, how evil. I tasted it to make sure it wasn't poison. Nope. Just thick, rich, caramel deliciousness.

The dough was another one that needed fridge time, so once it was mixed, in it went too.

Clove Snaps
Another refrigerator dough (and another Fine Cooking gem). Mixed up and in they went.

Cranberry, White Chocolate Chip and Pecan Cookies
This one is just your basic chocolate chip cookie recipe, except you add a cup of dried cranberries, a cup of white chocolate chips, and a cup of pecans. Frankly, I thought these were kind of "meh", and I won't bake them again.

Potato-Chip Cookies
These! Rock!! I've made these two years in a row now and corrupted my mother-in-law into making them too. Another Fine Cooking find. (Yes, I do actually cook from places other than Fine Cooking, but they ARE pretty much awesomeness on a cracker.) The cookies are like pecan sandies, sort of, but the pecan flavor is much more subtle. They're salty and crumbly and pretty much all-around perfect. Word of warning from experience - do NOT add more potato chips than the recipe calls for. It makes the cookies just melt and fall apart.  Personal aside: having an open bag of potato chips in this house is much more dangerous to me than having heaps of cookies all over the place.

So I'm knee deep in cookie dough and there was an awful lot of this going on. I could have used a scullery maid.

I switched to something simple next - White Chocolate Brownies. These aren't brownies with chunks of white chocolate. They're melted white chocolate, butter, sugar, etc. They make a rich, chewy, buttery bar and I've been making these for probably 15 years. Maybe longer. Poured a double batch into a pan and shoved it in the oven to bake. The end of those.

Cream Cheese Cookies
These were supposed to be Cream Cheese Spritz Cookies. What. A. Disaster. I have my grandmother's old spritzer - it's one of the hand-crank ones from the 1950s/60s. Holy Moses in a Basket! The dough was fine (fine, not great, which is why I'm not linking). Right texture, etc. But using the spritzer turned out to be too challenging for me. If someone had shown me how, I probably could have figured it out OK. But I couldn't even find anything on the internets that showed photos good enough to be able to figure it out. Add the fact that the retention ring has somehow gotten lost, so there was no way to hold the plates on the spritzer, and you have a mighty big mess on your hands. So I swore at the counter for a while, pulled the dough out, and tossed the spritzer in the sink.

Sorry, Grandmother

So I rolled the dough and cut cookies instead.

And they were just fine.

The next-to-last batch of the day I cooked were the coffee crunch bars. These are another easy one. Mix the batter, smear it on a cookie sheet, and shove it in the oven and do something else. They're also tasty.

Last up for the day were the Bourbon Balls. These are ridiculously easy. Grind up a bunch of Nilla Wafers (which always remind me of Grandmother - she always had those things around), with some pecans, add cocoa and sugar and corn syrup and finally half a cup of Maker's Mark, then roll them into balls. Personally, I don't like them that much, because of the texture. But they smell wonderful, and one of my work peeps requests them every year. I hope he doesn't eat them all by himself, or he probably shouldn't drive home.

Day 2 was roll out and bake day.

peppermint sugar cookies, ready for the oven

Cookie dough for the Chocolate Covered Caramel filled Cookies

Once the cookie dough had cooked and cooled for these, I assembled these. Again, I'm going to remind you this is not my forte'. I smeared the caramel in the middle and put two cookies together, which proceeded to separate and slide and ooze caramel all over the parchment paper. Then they got dipped in melted chocolate. I did manage not to get it in my hair, but that's about it. I'm just going to leave it at "they aren't as pretty as the magazine picture". They're in the freezer now, waiting for the party. At least they aren't oozing anymore.

Clove Snaps

Day 2 bordered on tedious for me, what with all the rolling and cutting little shapes. But eventually everything got cooked. Then photographed. These turned out better than a lot of my pictures, since there was actually some natural light in the kitchen. Hooray for daytime cooking!

Gotta say, after two days of this, I was ready to be done with flour, sugar and butter, and be done with being on my feet. I totally cannot hang with the pros. But it was fun, and hopefully it will make Christmas nicer for the folks I work with.