Saturday, March 31, 2012

Oh, Sophia !!!

Sophia Loren, what have you done !!!!!

You were the standard for beauty back in the 50's , and many women aspired to your measurements, fashions and eyebrows. Many an eyebrow plucking was done with you in mind. Your complexion was another goal , inspiring many a purchase of Noxema and Ponds Cold Cream.That was bad enough, but your culinary contributions have been the stuff of endless controversy to this day ! A simple pasta dish should never be the subject of such debate ! You had to go to Italy to film on location, encounter a group of coal producing men who offered to make you and the film crew a dish that was sort of a regional recipe. That was good- but did you have to write down the recipe and tell people it was exact ? Didn't you know that words like authentic and exact to a chef is the same thing as waving a red flag in front of a bull ?? What were you thinking ????

Spaghetti Carbonara is the controversial thing your brought back, and endless debates as to the dish having cream or not have rolled on and on and on. Foodies will quest for an authentic article. Me , if it contains cream and eggs, I am so there ! I have no idea if it is authentic-I only know this is good !

This is how I make it, and I do not remember who's recipe this was originally

Pasta Carbonara
   1 pound bacon, diced into 1-inch cubes
   salt and pepper
    6 eggs, at room temperature
    1/2 cup heavy cream, at room temperature
    1 1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
    1 pound dried penne
    4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley leaves

Heat a large saute pan, until hot. Add bacon and saute until golden brown and crispy, about 5 minutes.
 Season with black pepper and remove pan from heat.In a medium bowl, beat the eggs and cream. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in Parmesan, reserving 2 tablespoons for garnish.In a large pot, boil 6 quarts of salted boiling water. Add pasta and cook until al dente, about 8 to 10 minutes. Drain pasta in a colander.
Do not rinse with water; you want to retain the pasta's natural starches so that the sauce will stick. While the pasta is still hot, return it back to the pot. Add the browned bacon and mix well. Add the cream mixture and coat the pasta completely. It's important to work quickly while the pasta is still warm so that the cream mixture will cook, but not curdle. Add remaining Parmesan and chopped parsley.

Serve. Dig in, think of Sophia and ask yourself if this dish would be any better using an authentic recipe or not.

Friday, March 30, 2012

Breaking up with Zucchini

Every cook has a food that becomes a challenge. For me , it has been the zucchini ! There seems to be only one way to prepare it where it does not suck the life out of a dish, and that is carpacio style ( raw with olive oil, lemon juice, parm cheese and salt). In anything else it becomes like a very rude party guest with a bronchial infection. Why must a readily available, affordable veggie trip me up ?  Why does not happen with other related foods like cucumbers and melons ? Couldn't this happen with lobster or Kobe beef ? The other day I cooked my absolute last zucchini of my life in the following dish- Ratatouille over Ravioli 
Looks pretty, includes eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes, garlic, basil and salt and pepper, but never has there been a more bland dish ! The zucchini absorbs flavor, but then sends that flavor packing to a tropical island where it can hide for all contact forever. Even the cheese flavor from the ravioli disappeared. After waking up my bored to death taste buds with water ( which incidentally had more flavor), I saw the look of politely restrained aversion on my families face and vowed never again to use zucchini in a dish .

Then in a couple of days I thought about the rules of basic good cooking ( start with flavor, bring it to its best and add more flavor), and came up with this very tasty dish

Salsiccia e melanzane oltre la polenta (Sausage Eggplant over polenta)

1 lb Italian sausage, cut into small pieces
1 Sicilian eggplant, cut into cubes, salted and drained
3 red bell peppers, cut into chunks
3 plum tomatoes, cubed
1 lb button mushrooms, quartered
4 cloves garlic, de germed and sliced
1/4 cup olive oil
polenta ( warm or cooled and cut into squares)

In a large pot, heat the olive oil and cook the garlic until golden. Add the sausage and cook until golden, then add the sausage and brown on all sides. Next add the peppers and tomatoes and cook for about 5 minutes, or till they begin to release juice. Then add the mushrooms and eggplant, bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to medium. Let cook for 30 minutes and serve over polenta

My way of making polenta may not be according to the book, but it works and is tasty. In a large pan I bring 8 cups of liquid to a rolling boil ( usually half chicken stock and half salted water) , and then whisk in 1 cup of yellow cornmeal- I use cornmeal because it is what I have on hand.Stir constantly and when the cornmeal begins to thicken I add a half stick of butter and continue to whisk. ( Some people add cheese, some people add cream, some add milk- there are a lot of variations). After a few minutes - a.k.a. my arm gets tired and I get bored with stirring- I pour it onto a greased cookie sheet to cool and cut into shapes OR I pour it into bowls to top with something. The cookie sheet method wins when I know dinner could well be delayed .

I'm sorry zucchini - it's not me. It's you !!! I can't say it's been fun. I will meet you again in muffins and as a salad, but you are never going to be included in hot dishes again.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Brain and bone cells are dying- send fat !

We live in an age of information. Within minutes of an event, we hear about it. If anyone , anywhere experiences something that someone might perceive as an injustice on some level, minutes later someone will raise a grassroots awareness campaign that allows people to know about the thing- but does absolutely noting to remedy the situation or help the victim. And then there is health information. Like much of the "scare stories" out there, they are based on someone's observation of something , and almost always that someone missed or failed to notice a large part of the facts and acted on the small part they observed only.

Back in the 1940's, there was a young scientist who collected data and observed that (mice running into a door and) eating high fat diets were dying early. Therefore, fat ( not the door) was evil and should be removed from the diet.( not literally, but his findings were based on such observational information). Thus began the low fat insanity. Doors however were completely innocent. This observational study then led to the concept that dietary cholesterol was also evil, sugar was good because it is fat free, Statins as a wonder drug and a lot of other nonsense. By 1980, with the full inclusion of Ansel Keys bad observations, heart disease took a sharp upswing, aerobics was in fashion( calories in , calories out /cardio is necessary myth), diabetes was on the upswing , ADD/ADHD rates exploded and suddenly a lot of Autistic children were entering the world. Coincidence ?

NOT in the least. The human body requires fat for the absorption of several fat soluble vitamins amongst other things. If you eat a low fat diet and eat foods high in these vitamins or take supplements, you are not nourishing your body. You are creating super urine and nothing else.What are the fat soluble vitamins you ask ? Vitamins A,D,E and K. Vitamin D has been talked about a lot these days. Years back it was known to be nesisary for bone development and health, but recent research has shown it to be important in the prevention of colon diseases including cancer,autoimmune diseases like Arthritis, Fybro and Diabetes ( yes, diabetes is an autoimmune disease) and hypertension. You need FAT to be able to absorb this nutrient. Vitamin K is produced in the intestines with proper bacteria ( eat Splenda and other artificial sweeteners including Stevia  and you will destroy this one) that is important in the function of blood clotting. It enters into the bloodstream with FAT.( notice a trend here ??) Vitamin A  aids in reproduction and the transmission of DNA ,helps your eyes and mouth to stay moist,allows  your eyes adjust to sunlight and more ( skip the fat boys and we can make a killing on Transitions lenses and Restasis drops !!!) Once again , your body needs FAT to absorb this nutrient.

Traditional cooking methods and those "grandma cooking" type recipes often included fat with those foodstuffs that were high in the fat solubles.Broccoli with cheese, Greens and Fatback, wilted spinach with bacon fat dressing and so forth. Not because Grandma had some secret key to the nutrition kingdom, but she understood and respected the most powerful key we have. Taste! Fat simply tastes good. We, as humans, were given taste buds and appetite for a reason- it naturally leads us to those things our body needs. Not a modern taste bud that has been so assaulted with  chemicals passed off for food for so long that it no longer knows what an actual carrot is, but one that eats actual food. When we kick the chemicals out of our diets , our tastebuds and appetites return to a normal state and we begin craving real food.

Here is one dish that features two foods high in vitamin A. Combined they make for 100% of your rda vitamin A and the fat used helps your body to actually absorb it.

Conchiglie con Spinach Pommedoro

1 lb medium Conchiglie ( shells)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter( no substitute)
2 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1/2 small onion - minced
1 clove garlic - minced
2 cups fresh spinach
1/4 cup cherry tomatoes - halved

 Place a large pot of generously salted water on to boil. While boiling, add pasta and cook until al dente. Drain.  Into a medium saute pan add butter or oil. Cook over medium heat. Add onion and garlic and saute until softened. Add spinach and tomatoes and cook just until spinach has wilted. Season with salt and pepper
Add drained pasta to saute pan. Toss to combine.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Naughty girls need food too!

I believe I live to eat rather than eat to live.I encounter food ideas in things I read, lessons I teach about geography and history, in TV shows I watch and more. Most things spark my curiosity , compel me to find the ingredients and then learn how to cook it. Three meals a day, seven days a week and so many ideas leave no room to waste time on bad or uninteresting food !  There are dishes I want to make because the flavor contributions sound so interesting, those that strike me as a kind of magic because of the transformation and then those that appeal because of their history. The following dish is one of those. Pasta Puttanesca is it's name, and the story behind it is interesting to say the least.

Translated to English it means "Whore's Pasta", and there is some debate about the exact reasons that it came to be. Some have said it was created because all of the ingredients could be stored on the shelf so that the ladies could make a fast meal between clients without having to go to the market. Others have said that the Ladies of the Evening  were only allowed into the markets for a few hours on certain days of the week, so they had to stock up foods till their next market trip. I have third theory- when they made money they stocked up these things so that they had food to eat if they fell our of favor with the local gents. No matter what the reason, this pasta is quick to fix, can be complete pantry items ( use canned tomatoes instead of fresh) and very delicious ! As to the anchovy's, this was the first time I ever tasted them and I found them to be like salty, oil packed tuna and not the horror story many like to paint them as. They decompose into the sauce and all you are left with is flavor that melds beautifully with the other strong flavor. There are literally a million versions of this recipe, and here is mine inspired by David Rocco


1 lb penne rigate ( penne with ridges)
1 pint cherry tomatoes, chopped
1 can anchovy fillets, roughly chopped
1 tablespoon capers
1 small can sliced black olives
1 cup walnuts, roughly chopped
1 head garlic, de germed and sliced thin
4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1/4 cup dried parsley
salt and chili pepper (fresh or dried) to season

In a large pot, boil water for pasta. In a saucepan pour olive oil and saute till garlic is golden.
Add anchovies and walnuts- cook for a minute. Add tomatoes, cover and let cook 5 minutes.Add the olives, capers and red pepper- ook till pasta is about a minute before the al dente stage. Place pasta in the saucepan with a little pasta water and let cook till pasta is al dente. Sprinkle with parsley and serve.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Posion Squares

Every family has funny moments that become those heirloom stories or jokes that get passed on. Weird little occasions  like where someone had to use a non traditional measuring utensil birth family expressions like "fill it up to the first duck" . Every family has them, and some have them for so long that no one remembers their origins it seems. One of those in my family is the story of Poison Pie.

When my father was a little guy, he loved pie. Cream pies were his favorite. One of his aunts was a very talented baker, and for some family gathering she decided to make a pie. The story goes that it looked beautiful and had a mountain of what appeared to be whipped cream on top of it.  My father took a piece happily, put a big forkful in his mouth, and after one chew spit it out and proclaimed with horror "Auntie, you made a POISON pie !!! My father was anticipating the sweetness of a coconut cream or Banana cream pie, but was instead introduced to Lemon Meringue Pie. Not the taste bud impact he was hoping for ! After a while he grew to love  Lemon Meringue Pie, but he always jokingly referred to it as Poison Pie. Dad has been gone for a few years but every-time I see any recipe that involves a lemon custard , I think of it as poison pie variations.

This is a recipe that is far from poison- in fact, with the final taste they may become one of your favorite things on earth. Super easy to make- so easy that this is a recipe my son discovered and makes. Daddy has asked him to make these for pot luck gatherings, and they have been very well received.
Lemon squares

2 cups flour
1/2 cup powdered sugar plus extra for garnish
2 sticks cold butter, cut into cubes enter(no substitutions)
4 eggs
2 cups of sugar
1/4 cup flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1 tsp salt
1 tablespoon lemon zest
half cup fresh squeezed lemon juice

preheat oven to 350°. Put 2 cups of flour, powdered sugar, and butter into a food processor. Turn it on and whisk till mixture forms a ball of dough. Or use a pastry knife, mix the flour and sugar and cut the butter into the mix.

Line a 9x12 baking dish with parchment or non-stick foil. Press the dough into the baking dish, with hands. Prick with a fork. Bake 20 min. Remove from oven.

While crust is baking, make the lemon filling. Break the eggs into mixing bowl and whisk until your arm gets tired. Then add the sugar, quarter cup flour, baking powder, and salt. Whisk until all the lumps dissolve. Whisk in the lemon juice and zest and blend.

Pour the lemon mixture over the baking crust. Bake another 25 to 30 min., until slightly brown at the edges. Remove from the oven. Wait for it to cool and remove from pan. Sift powdered sugar on top and cut into squares .
Baked and waiting for the sugar shower and cutting. These should be stored in an airtight container in the fridge.
Poison indeed :-) Just for the record, here is a picture of the "poison" victim as a young man, hunting with his father many years ago

Monday, March 26, 2012

Sunday Gravy- A gateway drug

About 2 years ago, I was a different person. I was on a mission to lose weight , using the things that the "experts" say you must do to lose weight. My favorite thing to cook was a stir fry thing because it looked pretty and had flavor. Through nutritional studies, I learned a whole different way of thinking about weight loss , the body, and in the process I came across something called Sunday Gravy that changed my life .

As a child, my mom and dad would make what we called Spaghetti Sauce. When I first saw Sunday Gravy, I thought that it was the same thing. Not even close ! My mother followed the concepts that so many other Americans follow when they think of Italian cooking. Take some meat, a good amount of onions, celery and such, tomato paste, a lot of water,a bunch of spices and THAT's Italian ! My mom would always add a whole lot of sugar "to cut down the twang". Irish Spaghetti at best, my friend. My mother, through no fault of her own was not a cook.When sauce in a jar came about, homemade spaghetti was a thing of the past. Why spend hours cooking when Ragu was so easy ??

True Sunday Gravy is a tomato sauce that  you slow cook a lot of meat in, use minimal vegetables and often no herbs. Spaghetti, incidentally is the name of a pasta shape. Calling any red sauce served on any shape of pasta is kind of like calling a dish butter when it is served on popcorn, butter, fish or toast. With Sunday Gravy the juices from the meat combine with the tomatoes and the magic happens. When it is served in many cases, the meat is taken out and served separate from the sauce, and the sauce is then mixed with pasta. It is  AWESOME !  The slow cooking of the meat adds incredible flavor and nourishment to that simple tomato. Sunday Gravy freezes well, gets better with age, and can be made a variety of ways. Every family seems to have it's preference. Here is mine. The meat changes according to what is on sale- in true Italian style of what is available and in season

Sunday Gravy

3 cloves garlic, chopped
1/2 cup olive oil
3- 5 lbs assorted beef , lamb or pork- best if it includes some meats on the bones- more if desired
( not chicken or fish- they would turn to rubber with this slow cooking-possibilities include neck bones, short ribs, oxtails - other meats should include some Italian sausage)
4 large cans tomato puree ( I prefer San Marzano tomatoes)
1 T sugar

In as large of a pan you can get your hands on ( stock pot or large pasta cooking pot), sweat the garlic in the oil. Brown your meats and leave any bone meats in the pot. Pour in the tomato sauce, bring to a boil and reduce heat to the lowest flame possible. Cover and let simmer for an hour. (refrigerate remaining browned meats) After an hour ( or two) add the non bone in browned meats , cover and simmer another 2 hrs. It can go all day on a slow simmer- stir occasionally so the bottom does not burn. 

After eating this for dinner, cool the sauce down and package into meal sized containers. With the pot I use I am able to get 6 additional meals . So much better than the jar sauce ! Once I tasted the awesome impact of such simple ingredients created with just time, I became hooked on real Italian cooking. I hope that if you try this it will become as life changing for you  !

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Eggs and Worms

It was grocery shopping day the other day. I plan my menus for a week, make a list of what things I need in the coming week and stick to the plan unless extraordinary events happen. When it is one of those weeks , I wind up with surplus things. If they are pantry or freezable, no problem. If they are produce, it becomes a must use it up thing. Such was the case this week- the abnormally hot weather saw a couple of changes in menu plans ( normally we are in the 50's at this time of year- we spent a week in the 80's). So I went through the fridge, found my surplus items and though that they would make an interesting egg dish- fitting in with the meatless Friday thing. The use of eggs for a meatless dish instantly made me think of  one sibling I shall refer to as The Worm.

I was raised nominally Catholic- which meant we were Catholic in name only. We occasionally went to Mass ( The Worm and I on our own and our parents would never attend), went to CCD for a short time and observed a lot of the "cool" Catholic things like Rosaries from our grandmother. Three things remained absolute must do  Catholic behaviors- Baptism, Burial and Meatless Fridays. I loved it, but The Worm hated fish, and entered into something I called "Logical Sport B*tching" over the whole meatless thing was brought up. Why was beef, pork and chicken bad when milk, cheese and eggs were okay? In those days no one used terms like Vegetarian, Vegan, Lacto ovo vegetarian or so forth- they just lumped it all as meatless. The Worm was a borderline "Mrs Literal" and anything that she felt defied her rules of logic became something that she would argue over, for ,about, because of, in spite of- much in the same way people would train for and participate in a sport.( She still does this). It was amusing, aggravating, interesting and just plain "The Worm". Such concepts didn't bother me because I understood the logic but could never figure out how to put it into words. Years later I learned all of the technical reasons why Lenten foods are what they are ( it's not a cut and dried thing and is partially historical and symbolic), but to this day whenever the idea of eating eggs in Lent comes up, my thoughts turn to The Worm.

Back to the kitchen  !Here was what I had to work with :
With some chopping and a skillet, it became this tasty, colorful number:
 I call it Use it Up Poached eggs

3 pints grape tomatoes , cut in half
3 big handfuls baby spinach
1 bunch green onions, sliced
4 eggs
salt and pepper to taste
butter and olive oil

In a large skillet with a lid melt about 2 T butter with as much olive oil and sweat the green onions. Add the tomatoes, crush slightly and cover so the juices are trapped. In about 5 minutes add the spinach and cover till wilted. Stir the mix and crack 4 eggs into it,season with salt and pepper, cover and cook for about 5 minutes, till the yolk is set.

Friday, March 23, 2012

A Fish called Wantcha !

Fish are the humblest of creatures. Easy to obtain, go to meal for those on some form of reduced dining ( fasting, weight loss, health improvement and so forth), but for some reason one of the trickiest things for people to cook . Be it the skin, the tiny bones, the smell or the possibility of overcooking , they often become something to get when you go out only. Leave it to the professionals, as it were. Often  those professionals include the Gorton's fisherman or some drive through option. Often tasty, but is it really that tricky to come up with yummy fish at home ?

Not at all, if you select a very friendly variety and cook it with some time honored techniques. Large fish like cod, halibut and turbot  live in colder waters, grow large and have almost no pin bones. Their taste is mild , which makes them enjoyable to most people. They are also the most commonly used fish for fish sandwiches and fast food fish so people are familiar with their taste. Time honored methods are cooking at a high heat for a short time and using herbs that accent the mild flavor. Parsley , lemon and butter are hands down winners  for a very classic baked fish.

Lemon Cod  with parsley

1 cod fillet
salt and pepper to taste
2 pats butter
small handful of parsley, chopped
1 slice fresh lemon

In a baking pan place the cod filet, sprinkle with salt and pepper. sprinkle with chopped parsley according to your tastes ( I like it because in my mind it looks like seaweed), 2 pats of butter and a lemon slice. Pop in a 425 oven for 20 minutes, or till the fish is opaque and flaky.

Think a simple piece of cod looks too bland ? Pair it with a salad riot !
This one is made with baby spinach, radicchio, sliced fresh fennel , green onions and cherry tomato halves. Sort of the Italian Flag colors laid out on a plate.

Poor fish- it get's a bad rap pretty often when it is lumped into the classification of Peasant  Food  or humble fare. Nothing could be further from the truth . Fish can be an elegant, delicious dish. Good cooks and Chefs know this fact.The potential good in fish was not overlooked by a man from the past who hung around with fishermen. During a pretty memorable moment he asked his friends to gather up fish and bread and made tuna fish sandwiches for over 5,000 people. Try doing that with Sliders .

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Only some stale bread, but it became a feast.

The horrors of the past- we have all heard about them. Parents who had to walk 16 miles uphill each way to get back and forth to school, children being smacked with rulers in the name of corporal punishment while in school and lunches featuring a boiled egg and little else. Grandparents being so poor they ate flour soup or only ate meat once a week. I think parents pass these tales of horror on in an attempt to make their offspring appreciate all of the sacrifices made for them and the world of privilege they now live in.  Sad thing is that in painting this sort of picture they set up an instant aversion to anything from the past. Rotary dial phones, being able to see a television program only at the time the network aired it, fans with blades that could actually cut your fingers off and creative uses for what is usually tossed in the trash today-bones, veggie trimmings and stale bread- all become very bad things.

The first two items can be used to make a bone broth that is delicious, nutritious and the base for many a tasty recipe.The third could be used as croutons, breadcrumbs or a brilliant , tasty side dish called Panzanella Salad. It's what Italian Grandmas used to do with bread that had become too stale. Never ever waste good , real bread. Elves will visit you in the middle of the night , wipe out the phone book on your cell phone  and hide all of your pens. The horror !

So in order to avoid tragedy and annoyance, let's turn this
into this:
It's a snap !

Stale bread – 4-6 slices – cubed OR 3-4 stale rolls
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
4 ripe tomatoes – roughly chopped- OR 1 pt grape tomatoes, halved
pinch pepper
6-8 fresh basil leaves – roughly torn
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

 Into a medium sized serving bowl add bread.

 Drizzle the red wine vinegar over bread. Season with pepper. Add tomatoes, basil. Drizzle olive oil on top.
 Toss with two forks to combine. Allow to sit and marinate prior to serving.
 Taste ? Really flavorful ! If you enjoy bruchetta or salad with croutons, you will like this one. It makes for a fast, no cook side for those days when you fire up the grill or need  a little something to round out a meal. Italian Grandmas are never wrong. And that flour soup ? What they didn't tell you it was broth thickened with a roux and combined with whatever veggies or meat they had. The original cream of whatnot soup, and yummy comfort food . Without the modified food starch, "natural" flavors, thickening agents and hydrogenated fats.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Simplicity, like revenge, is a dish best served cold

The weather here has been almost summer-like for the last week. While it may be a very welcome feeling for some, it has not been so for me. I HATE the summer.Not the activities or clothing choices but rather that heat is always accompanied by humidity here. It feels like living in someone's mouth for 3 months out of the year. Winter has the advantage that if you are cold, you can throw on another layer. With heat, you can only shed so many layers before it becomes illegal and a scary thing for the neighbors to view. Winter offers freedom of personal comfort-summer means slavery to the elements. By strange coincidence, the heat happened to fall on one of the heaviest cooking times of the year for me- the three festivals of St Patrick's Day, St Joseph's Day and Ostara/Alban Eilir ( Spring Equinox). In normal years the weather is still cold, and all that baking/stewing/boiling is a welcome thing. When you are on the verge of clicking on the air conditioner, not so much. About two days after I had planned and hopped for the eats, they announced that we were in for an extended, unprecedented warm spell, so I was stuck. It also lead me to fall in love with this delightful salad featuring these :
blood oranges and...
fresh basil. The combination is delightful together ! Basil brings out the sweet in orange and then sits like a rich but refreshing undertone to the dish. Best of all it is served cold, which makes for a very different and refreshing salad. Makes sense- it comes from a land of heat, beautiful citrus fruits and abundant herbs. Sicily !

Insalata di Arance e Cipolle ( Sicilian Orange Salad)

    3 navel oranges
    3 blood oranges
    1 medium red onion, sliced into paper thin rings
   bunch of fresh basil cut into a chiffonad
    3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
    Freshly ground black pepper

Peel the oranges, and remove all the pits. Slice into 1/4-inch-thick rounds. Arrange the slices on a large, shallow platter. Lay the onion slices on top of the oranges and sprinkle with the oregano. Drizzle the olive oil over the salad, and season generously with black pepper. Makes 4-6 servings.
Happily, the weather is supposed to break in a day or two, and I may be encouraged to bake some bread and so forth once it does. But till then I am a real fan of any dish served cold, and so much better if it is delightfully simple !
This post is linked to Real Food Wednesday

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Surprize ! That never came from a chicken !

Some things in life are really surprising. A chance encounter with a new person becomes your life long BFF, that accidental wrong turn brings you to discover a new favorite place and so forth. It can happen with food as well. We become culturally conditioned that certain foods go together and certain foods do not. Biscuits and gravy go together, while biscuits and lemons- not so much. Then one day, if we are lucky, we come across a way that combines what we believe to be inharmonious foods in a very delicious way. The following dish is one of those.

It includes potatoes and eggplant
two foods that most people would not normally combine. Why exactly is an eggplant called an eggplant ? It does not look or taste like an egg. Who knows. Who cares ! One thing is for certain- it is from the botanical family called nightshade, and that family includes things like tomatoes, peppers and potatoes. Most of these got their start in Central America. Columbus brought these back into Europe, where they did fantastic things with them . This dish was shown on an episode of David Rocco's Dolce Vita, and I figured out what it should be called in Italian - always makes a dish sound more exotic !

Melanzana patatina fritta con Trapanaise

1 pint grape tomatoes
4 garlic cloves, de-germed and sliced
a bunch fresh basil leaves, torn
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil , plus extra for frying eggplant and potatoes
salt to taste
2 eggplants, cubed
3 large potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced into strips
1 lb pasta mufalda
1 cup pecorino cheese, freshly grated ( or any hard cheese you like, freshly grated)

 Place tomatoes, garlic and basil in a large mortar, or smash with an immersion blender(this is a raw sauce)
Add extra virgin olive oil, salt and use a pestle or immersion blender to crush the ingredients into a paste. If it looks too dry, add more olive oil.Crush the ingredients until the pesto sauce is even in consistency.

Heat up extra virgin olive oil in a saucepan and fry eggplant until golden.
Place fried eggplant on an absorbent paper towel to drain excess oil.
Season the eggplant, while hot, with salt.
Do the same to fry up the potatoes.
Place pasta in a pot of boiling salted water. Stir initially to prevent from sticking.
Drain the spaghetti when it is al dente­.
Place the spaghetti in a large mixing bowl, add the pesto sauce, half the quantity of eggplant, potatoes, pecorino cheese and mix thoroughly.Toss in remaining eggplant and potatoes and toss with cheese. Serve.
It makes for a very tasty and hearty dish ! While potatoes and tomatoes can be thought of as going together ( think french fries and catsup), potatoes and eggplant not so much. But it works and it works well ! It's yet another meatless dish that can make the whole Meatless Fridays in Lent seem like Feasting Fridays in Lent.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Strange things are poking out of the ground

It's that time of year where every day brings a new surprise from nature. What was brown and dry yesterday urns to green grass overnight. The plain soil suddenly has something green and fragrant popping out of it, and you start hearing Tiny Tim playing in your head, inviting you to do things that the neighbors would probably disapprove of. Tiptoe-ing through any flour bed is generally a bad thing for the plants ! At the supermarket , crops of seasonal veggies start appearing. One of my favs this time is Asparagus ! It is a nutritional good guy, inspiration for many dishes, and reminds us that everything in nature looks weird at some point in it's development. When asparagus is fully grown, it's a gigantic fern like shurb, but at the stage where we eat it, it can resemble a dinosaur like plant waiting to happen, or.....

Canned asparagus is a crime against nature. Frozen asparagus is somewhat better , but still too mushy for my tastes. I like to eat it where it is , what my father termed as, scared. Exposed to just enough heat to begin to break down the cellular walls of the plant. Blanching ) placing in boiling water for a moment and then plunging into ice water) is an excellent way to do this. This recipe has you preforming this exact form of cullinary art.
Sesame Asparagus Salad

1 bunch asparagus, trimmed (thin is better)
2 tablespoons plus 2 teaspoons dark sesame oil
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon rice vinegar
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon soy sauce
1 teaspoon honey

Trim the woody ends off of your asparagus and then cut into roughly one inch pieces
 Fill a saucepan with water and bring to a boil, and get a bowl and fill it with very cold water. When the water boils, drop the asparagus sections in and boil for 1 minute- no more ! Remove immediately and place in the ice cold water- this stops the cooking process. Your asparagus should look vibrant green
Next, assemble your dressing ingredients
In a small bowl, measure the dressing ingredients and whisk to combine. Pour over the asparagus and refrigerate for 2 hrs.

Simple as that ! While your dish chills, you will be free to entertain temptations placed inb your head by Tiny Tim. It's spring after all and tulips will not be around forever !

Sunday, March 18, 2012

So the snakes found you and whacked you with a Shillelagh

Yesterday was a busy day, and there was little opportunity to blog. It happens to us all ! Sadly it was not something fun like attending various St Pat's day celebrations. Those sorts of days are a thing of my past. The events were fun, but the morning after was not so much fun .One of the reasons  is that the alcohol had a long time to enter into my system without anything in my stomach to absorb all of those beers, shots, etc and slow the delivery to my bloodstream down. The other day I was reminded of this fact when I was watching something on Cooking Channel and watched a chef create a kind of end of the night dish. She called it something to stem off the midnight munchies, but I remembered the combo if fat, starch and protein would work very well to have a less painful morning after a night of indulgence with abandon. I do not have a name for it, but I can say this version is pretty yummy and fairly easy to make.
Late night Fries, eggs and Cheese

Handful of french fries( I made mine from scratch with a frier, but frozen in the oven may be safer)
handful shredded cheese ( mozzarella here)
2 eggs, sunny side up

Cook the fries and place in a bowl. While still warm , top with cheese. Fry two eggs, season and slide on top.

Keep in mind, this is not haute cuisine, nor is it necessarily diet food. It is simply comfort type grub that hill make for a morning with less whacks to the head from those snakes that St Pat drove out of Ireland. Snakes carrying rocks. Doing Irish Step Dancing. On your head. And in the meantime, I offer you this hangover blessing:

 Hangover Blessing
May the road stop rising to smack you,
 may the wind stop trying to take off the top of your head
the sun be gentle and stop frying your eyes
the rain stop being such a banging , banging drum
and until we meet again
May God turn the volume down in your head.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Pound cake and pounds

I get awe-struck by certain things in food history. When I think about the first person who looked at a leaf of something and decided it was good to eat, I wonder at the courage and ingenuity that it took. Then I think about the first person who discovered how to get milk from cow and I think some of those leaves might have done something to the person's logic or courage. It's fascinating to think about. Then one day man discovered that food taste better when cooked, and about a week later he discovered the baked good. Well, slightly later than that. In the 12th or 13th century he started adding fruits to batter and a sweet treat was born. These were baked in less than reliable cooking devices until sometime in the late 1600's when the oven was born. By the mid 1700's the cake as we know it was born, and from that time period comes one of the most versatile, long keeping, delicious creations still around today- the pound cake. It can have changes in flavor, turned into peti fours, turned into strawberry shortcake, sandwiched with ice cream and so much more. A pound cake made from scratch will keep for about 3 weeks where it will happily serve you as a snack, dessert and springboard for some fun creation.

Pound cake is incredibly easy to make. Grab some loaf pans, your ingredients, mix and bake. Originally it was created  using a pound of flour, sugar, butter and eggs. Those measurements were based on the concept that "a pint is a pound the world round"- hence the name pound cake. The actual measurements used today are based on volume and not weight . Leavening agents are also used now to create a more consistent, lighter product.

Perfect pound cake

2 cups butter, softened
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
6 eggs
3 cups cake flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder

preheat oven to 350 Fahrenheit. Cream the butter and sugar in a mixing bowl until fluffy. Add the vanilla extract. Add the eggs one at a time, beating for 30 seconds with each. Divide the batter between two pans. Smooth top with rubber spatula. Bake 60 to 65 min. Loosen with a knife, and flipped onto a cooling rack.

Think eating pound cake, pasta, sugar, meat, fat, etc will pack on your own pounds ? If you eat any of these without any consideration to your appetite ( meaning eat a cake a day or such) you will gain weight. If you eat according to your appetite, your weight will move to what is normal for your body based on genetic information and many other things. It is proving true for myself and my family. We stopped dieting, stopped exercising, ate real food and the weight is coming off . No guilt, no angst, no effort. No scale either- our clothes are proving to be the indicator. Hubby has dropped 2 pants sizes, son dropped on size and I have dropped 2 underwear sizes ( I rarely buy clothes because my needs are not that great these days. No need for the latest steampunk fashions to go grocery shopping or so forth). But...but...what about cutting out fat ? Cutting carbs ? Calories ? Truth is, the human body NEEDS all food groups ( unless there is an allergy , sensitivity or such). The metabolic system requires things like sugar in order to work at a level where the body temperature is at 98.6 or higher in order to process nutrients properly. Read Matt Stone's blog for some mind blowing thoughts on all that we have been told about losing weight, health and more.

So what exactly does make us fat ? Many things. But for most people , I believe it is a heavy reliance on food made with substances used to create a consistent taste, texture, and satiation. In nature , the taste, texture and aroma of anything it produces will vary from geographic location, soil conditions, rainfall and a million other things. So how exactly does something like a bottle of  Heinz Katsup taste the same today as the bottle you opened a year ago in another state and will be the same taste of the one you open next year on another continent ? The answer is chemical additives, often labeled as natural flavorings. It is the very thing that makes brand recognition  possible. Every box of Cheerios, every package of Arnolds Thins, every pack of Tyson chicken breast owes it's success to chemicals. And I believe it is those very chemicals that interrupt our metabolic system in some fashion that has cause the obesity epidemic. Sorry Clark Griswold, it is not better living through chemistry. It is fatter living through chemistry. I believe that the only way to obtain a normal body weight is to eat according to your appetite ( that is what it was created for- not something to make you feel guilty for having one) and eating food that comes as close to what nature produced. If you add something to it, make sure it is something you cold produce in your own kitchen (you can squeeze olives and churn butter from milk- you cannot extract oil from corn, soybeans or rapeseed , nor make anything a vibrant green color). You will have to take time and effort to prepare the things you put in your body, plain and simple. Kick out Betty Crocker, Campbells, Heinz, Hidden Valley and so on from your cooking, and in turn you will be kicking out the pounds. In the process you might discover that, like bathtub hooch made with rubbing alcohol in The 20's , the invention of process foods was equally as harmful to the body. While bathtub hooch made people blind pretty quick, the packaged food products have blinded us in a different way , and perhaps it is only now that we re beginning to see how that is harming us.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

In 1492, the first step was made to producing Colcannon

St Patrick's day is coming up. The wearing of the green , the drinking till you are green ( for many) and a lot of potato recipes. For some reason, many people think that the potato is the product of Ireland. It isn't. The potato was originally grown in South and Central America and brought back to Europe by good ole Christopher Columbus. Same is true with the tomato and corn. Consider that fact for a moment- before 1501, no one in Ireland had ever heard of a potato, let alone farm one or eat one. And no one in Italy had ever seen a tomato or corn, let alone grown or cooked one. Thus ends the historical pizza and polenta quest.  While the Irish embraced the potato as a way of heading off starvation ( and ultimately being brought to starvation because of it), the French did not accept it. I think they were too busy playing with ducks.The Italians, who quickly lost the belief that the tomato and potato were poisonous,  busied themselves with learning how to prepare these items.

While many have no problem seeing potatoes in Irish and English food ( Corned Beef and Cabbage is an  English dish), people have problems thinking of potatoes in Italian dishes. I think it is because of our American concept of what Italian food is , or should be. Italians had a longer growing season than the Irish, less rocky soil and no political reasons for small farms . As a result had a lot more potatoes to play with as well as more ingredients to combine them with. The result was a more flavorful dish. Potatoes even wound up in a form of pasta called Gnocchi. This tasty little cross between a pasta and a dumpling makes for a tasty comfort food option, to be sure !
Gnocchi with garlic and sage butter

2 12 oz packages potato gnocchi
¼ c butter
1 clove garlic, de-germed and minced
10 leaves fresh sage , chopped
¼ t salt
¼ t pepper
¼ c grated Parmesan cheese plus 2 T for sprinkling

Bring large pot of water to he boil . Add gnocchi and cook until they float to the surface. Drain. Melt butter in a skillet, and add garlic. Cook till golden , then add sage, salt and pepper, toss a minute, add cooked gnocchi, toss and add ¼ cup cheese. Toss. Sprinkle with remaining 2 T cheese and serve.

Now my mind  is contemplating the awesome possibilities of a slow roasted lamb breast served over gnocchi , or something like that. Fusion flavor- like so many of us Americans with roots tracing back to unlikely sounding cultural combinations . It could happen.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Guerre is still War

Words are powerful things. If you say the word Christmas, people are instantly drawn to thoughts of family, festivities and all that those things have proven to be in their experience. You say the word hate, and it evokes a very different feeling. Then everything changes if you speak the same word in a different tongue. Haine does not sound so ugly and Noel sounds more romantic. With this in mind, consider the following :

Alouette, gentille Alouette
       ( Lark, nice lark)
Alouette, je te plumerai
       ( Lark, I shall pluck you)
    Je te plumerai la tête
        (I shall pluck your head)
    Je te plumerai la tête
        (I shall pluck your head)
    Et la tête
        (And your head)
    Et la tête
        (And your head)
       ( Lark)
Still think of it as a cute French children's song ? It is a work song used by the Voyagers. Still want to shop at Target and worry about those colorful Mimes jumping out from anywhere ? Plucking larks (and other birds ) indeed !
Sadly, I must admit that I have a rather strong French ancestry , and thoughts of that song and sights of these visitor at my patio make me think of one thing- chicken dinner ! But not simply tossing a chicken in the oven. Something , as Paula Deen would say  "is better than it's mamma knew it" . This Pollo alla Olive fits the bill !

Pollo alle Olive

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
4 pinwheel chicken parts ( legs and thighs)
3/4 chicken stock
4 cloves garlic, de germed and chopped
14.5 ounces canned cherry tomatoes – chopped
4 fresh sage leaves – chopped
1/2 cup Pitted Black Olives – halved

1. Pour olive oil into a deep sided skillet. Heat over medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add chicken {skin side down} . Season with salt and pepper. Cook until chicken is browned on all sides. Turning as necessary. When browned, transfer chicken to a plate.
2. Add chicken stock to hot pan. Allow to evaporate to half volume. Add garlic, tomatoes and sage and pepper. Stir to combine. Cook for 3-4 minutes until mixture is warmed through. Return chicken to pan. Cover and allow to cook until sauce has thickened and chicken is cooked through. Approximately 20-30 minutes. Add olives, add salt to taste.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

The lies Popeye spread

Back in the day ( the day incidentally is any time frame of the past that you neglect to attach a specific date to out of forgetfulness or desire to distance yourself from the fact that you might be older than dirt) mom's wanted kids to be strong. Perhaps it was so they could involve them in a great number of household chores like cleaning out the basement, mowing the lawn or milking goats who would eat the lawn. Then again it might have been the desire to have children strong enough to grab onto tree limbs and not be blown away when the strong winds blew. Strong winds must have presented quite a danger because most "peasant foods" of the past seemed to be designed to add ballast to the body, as if it needed an aid to stay put through sustained high winds. Peasant food today is a whole different thing. No one was ever given strength and ballast through ramen or blue box mac and cheese. Just cardiac problems and a waist size that will make it unlikely to pass through most doors..

Being strong was so important in the past that the youth of America was exposed to propaganda by this guy
His bulging biceps saved the day time and again, and they were obtained by the copious consumption of spinach. Caned spinach. That green, slimy substance of childhood horror. Often times it was put on the plate, stared at, pushed around with the fork and finally consumption was encouraged with a promise that it would make us strong like the a fore mentioned sailor. What mothers didn't know was that 1. there were better ways to serve spinach and 2. strength was not the only thing gained through eating spinach. Turns out that spinach is a powerful aid in fighting off inflammation, the mortal enemy of the body. Inflammation is a crippling factor with things like Arthritis, but it is also a major factor in heart disease. Compounds in spinach help us to fight off the inflammation response as well as increase our levels of protection against cancers of the Prostate, Ovaries, Lungs and more. It indeed makes us strong, but not in the way mother suggested.

One of the nicest ways to eat spinach is in salad form. Many a recipe has gone around for Wilted Spinach salad featuring a sweet sour dressing with bacon fat. Good eats, but I admit a degree of laziness with salads- I want them now when I want them, and the ingredients have to be low prep time.I like to make a spinach/sliced strawberry salad, but I LOVE to combine spinach with fresh blueberries !
wash, toss together and dress. This year I have determined that I will not buy ready made dressings again because of their factory fats and dubious ingredients ( aka natural flavorings), so this salad was the perfect time to make a yummy dressing from scratch. If sweet and sour dressing combos work on these salads, then similar items in that flavor pallet would work as well. Here is what I used

Maple Balsamic Vinegrette
1/2 c balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup REAL maple syrup( anything less is simply high fructose corn syrup and more sugars with flavoring)
2 t Dijon type mustard
1 c high quality extra virgin olive oil ( I prefer Sicillian olives for their flavor)
salt and pepper to taste

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and whisk till slightly thickened (emulsified)
This dressing will be thinner than bottled varieties, but guess what ? Dressing is supposed to be a light shower on the salad and not an electric blanket. Dressing is meant to enhance the flavors of the salad-not disguise them so you can pass off disliked ingredients to the unsuspecting.It's a vinaigrette - not hot fudge after all !

To make the dressing took all of 5 minutes out of my life, and most of that time was devoted to gathering ingredients. The taste was better than any bottled stuff. And perhaps it was because of all of the cans of spinach consumed in the past with my mother's wishes for a strong child, but the whisking didn't hurt my arms a bit !

Monday, March 12, 2012

Birds or beans ?

The weather here is finally starting to feel spring-like, and nature is responding. You can see tulips and daffodils poking through their beds like little green thumbs up signs of approval. Trees are beginning to show the first nubs of flowering buds, and several new species of birds can be spotted . Birds have been one "thing" that my husband and I share an appreciation of. Birds, as a matter of fact , seem to appear or play a part of interesting moments of my like. Listening to the mournful sound of loons on family vacations and feeling a deep soul level comfort for some reason ( I now understand the why - not important). The hysterical fear/comedy on  the occasions that sparrows would fly down the furnace vents and suddenly appear in our house (and the pandemonium that was created in attempt to get them out and not "kill"us). Yes- birds will crack open your skull, suck out your brains and gouge out your eyes. Thank you Alfred Hitchcock for that mental image. Spending several peaceful afternoons watching hummingbirds with my husband ,basking in the knowledge that I was once again pregnant and this one was going to go the distance so to speak. Years later, waking to the sound of birds with my husband next to me, making weird jokes about "the noisy, pointy birds"who were not feeling content with our plans to lay there "just a little longer", and voicing a strong opinion about it. 

For the first time, we have an actual patio, and through the winter I have been tossing birdseed out , simply because I took a scene in Mary Poppins to close to heart as a child ( "feed the birds, tuppence a bag"). In return, the geese, ducks and sparrows have provided non stop entertainment . This is a very good thing because most TV these days has no appeal to us, and the birds provide instant inspiration for homeschool lessons.Over the past week new species have begun to appear, and the show is becoming more interesting. Over the weekend we began window shopping for patio furniture  , discussing possibilities for the space ( I want to grow some herbs and greens) , and a better system of feeding the birds. I sat contemplating, and wondering if I might have to choose between birds or beans.

Green beans that is. While many people think green beans are okay or must be covered in a cream sauce and topped with french onions, we have discovered a new  to us way of eating and loving them, and they can work hot or cold. There is an Italian name for these, but I cannot remember what it is. Let's just call it Green Beans with Basil and tomatoes

Green Beans with Basil and Cherry tomatoes

1-2 lbs of fresh green beans
1 pint grape tomatoes
8 leaves of basil, cut in ribbons
4 cloves of garlic, de-germed and chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
1/4 cup butter (NOT margarine, real butter)
salt and pepper to taste

Get a 3 quart pot and fill it with water. Bring it to a boil while you work and assemble a large bowl with ice water and something to strain beans out of. Then get a dutch oven and begin to heat it.Wash your green beans and pick through any that look not so great.
 Line them up so one side is even and cut off the end that has a stick/stem

then cut into bite sized sections

Keep doing this until you get em all done. I find putting on some music or a TV show makes the work go faster. Meanwhile, get a pint of those grape tomatoes
and slice those babies in half. Yes, time consuming, but let the lyrics of The Ting Tings or Elvis take you away as you work. Or listen to the sounds of the birds ! Next, grab some fresh basil
spend some quality time sniffing  and wondering if you can grow  it this big and beautiful with your low light situation. Snap off about 10 leaves, roll and cut into ribbons ( a chiffonad)

Let the aroma take you away- it really does ! Next , grab a head of fresh garlic,

 break it open to release the cloves, peel , de-germ and chop.
You will have everything ready , and the process goes quickly from here. Place some salt in your boiling water . Place the olive oil in the heated dutch oven. Place the beans in the water for one minute and toss the garlic into the oil and start to sweat. Remove the green beans from the boiling water after a minute and place in the ice water to shock. This keeps them bright green and pretty. Next add your tomatoes to the dutch oven, smashing them slightly to help release the juice. Add salt to taste. When the tomatoes are sweated and partially broken down, drain the beans and add to the tomatoes. Cook for about 5 minutes, adding a spoonful of the bean cooking water if it gets too dry. Add in the fresh basil, toss and serve .

This one is good warm or cold. And as to the beans, my son and I grew them indoors one year as a homeschool science project, and got enough beans to snack on one day. I cannot help but be curious as to how many beans I could grow on the patio, and how much the birds and squirrels might molest them in their visits to our low brow avian cafe ? Birds or beans- I am going to have to think about this one.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

You mean there are other pastas ?

I have a confession- I LOVE pasta. It was not always the case in my life. As a child, there were only a handful of varieties seen at our table - elbows, shells, mostacholi, spaghetti , ravioli and egg noodles. Almost always coated in tomato sauce, cream of whatever or on very special occasions, cheese. Pasta was unimaginative, and had uninteresting names. Then one day my husband happened to set foot in what was to become our favorite store due to a car problem, and he noticed that they carried "all kinds of pasta" at a really low price. He is half Sicilian, but his family did not keep up with many of the culinary traditions.  At that time our son, a high functioning Autistic, would only eat pasta morning, noon and night.Pasta varieties at a low price was kind of like finding surplus money in a pair of old jeans. So we returned once the car was repaired, and I felt like I was discovering a wonderful, fun filled world. So many shapes ! So many hysterical names when translated !( orchetti- little ears, vermacelli-little worms,tagliatteli-little cut ones,campanelli- bell shaped pasta,farafelli- butterfly or bow tie shaped and so on). So many shapes, each designed for very specific sauce delivery !

Happily my son's diet has greatly improved, and he is overcoming many of the challenges of Autism . I keep looking for new horizons in pasta, just because it makes me giggle thinking about the translation of the names.. If it combines a fun shape with fresh vegetables , it's even better. This dish was inspired by one that I had seen on an episode of one a show hosted by Giada DeLaurentis, and struck me as a wonderful combo of flavors.

Conchigliette with red onion and citrus

8 cups chicken stock
1 lb small shaped pasta ( I used Conchigliette here)
1 navel orange
1 red grapefruit OR 2 mandarin oranges OR 1 blood orange (flavor preference)
1 red onion cut into moons and sliced thin
1/2 cup olive oil
1/2 cup fresh basil leaves, chopped fine ( or 1 T dried)
1/2 cup fresh mint , chopped fine ( ot 1 T dried)
1 handful fresh spinach, chopped fine
1 t  salt
1/2 t pepper

In a large pan, bring the chicken stock to a boil, add pasta and cook till done. Drain and pour on a cookie sheet to dry out slightly. Meanwhile, zest the navel orange and add the zest to the oil, letting steep for about 5 minutes. Add the salt and pepper and whisk. Gut the zested orange into sections ( remove peel and cut into sections, and do the same with the other fruit. Place the pasta in a bowl, add citrus fruits, chopped herbs and chopped spinach and toss. Drizzle the infused oil on the pasta mix and toss. Serve . This one can be made ahead and left to sit in the fridge for a few hours to let the flavors meld. And giggle at the knowledge that Conchigliette simply means little shells.

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Let them eat cake !

Ah, the weekend . Time to rest, have a little fun, maybe even party. Yeah, right! In our house, weekends mean errands, singing commitments, quests for needful things and more. Seems that holds true for most other folks as well. Between chauffeuring the kiddos to their commitments, grocery shopping, laundry and  home improvement projects , I think most of us work harder on the weekends than through the whole of the work week. And yet, there is something about the weekend that make us think of a little something special. For me it has been breakfast that  requests something different on the weekends. I blame my father for my attitude here. As a kid , on many weekend mornings , he would claim the kitchen and make oatmeal or something he called birch bark, canoes and eagle eyes ( bacon, potato slices and eggs sunny side up). My dad was a pretty decent cook, and we loved to eat his grub. Something about those memories just make serving cold cereal on the weekends so wrong. My husband is an egg hater, so it limits the choices that I have the ambition and brain cell capacity to make in the mornings.

The other day it dawned on me- why don't I bake coffee cakes for the weekend mornings ? Special, tasty, make ahead and will not weigh you down so much that you choose to pass over lunch. Good thing is that these can be made sweet ( fruit, fruit and cheese, nuts) or savory  as you desire. They look very impressive as well as tasting great.

Blueberry Cream Cheese Braid
Makes 2 braids
1 tablespoon instant yeast
1 tablespoon sugar
1 1/2 cup warm milk
2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
2 eggs
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/3 cup sugar
2 1/2-3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
Blueberry Filling
2 cups blueberries( fresh or frozen),1/4 cup sugar,1/4 cup cornstarch,1/2 cup water,2tablespoons lemon juice
Egg Glaze
1 egg
1 tablespoon milk
Cream Cheese Filling
3/4 cup cream cheese
2 tablespoons sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon egg glaze
For the sponge: mix the sugar, yeast, and flour together in bowl. Pour in the warm milk. Beat until smooth, then cover with plastic wrap and set aside for 1/2 hour.
Then place the sponge in a mixer and add the eggs, salt, sugar, and one cup of the flour . Beat until smooth. Then add the butter in small chunks and beat well. Add the remaining flour a handful at a time and mix in until a soft but kneadable dough is achieved and the butter thoroughly incorporated. You want something that feels like old lady skin or a baby's butt.Knead about 5 minutes, transfer to a greased bowl, cover and let rise till double in bulk.
Meanwhile, make the following :
Blueberry Filling: combine all of the ingredients in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat while stirring constantly. Reduce heat and simmer for 5 minutes, then remove from heat and let cool.
Egg Glaze: combine the egg and milk in a bowl and beat until combined.
Cream Cheese Filling: combine all the ingredients in a bowl and mix until combined

Once your dough has risen, turn out onto a greased surface ( baking spray or a silpat is better than a floured surface as it does not make your dough dry)
here is my dough, ready to go. Divide the dough into 2 balls, return one to the bowl and roll the other into a rectangle sort of shape. It does not have to be perfect- just an oblong sort of form about the thickness of a pizza crust. Then take a knife or a dough cutter and slash lines about every inch that are diagonal and covering 1/3rd of the width of the dough
Marvel at my choice of grey tee shirt and blue apron which hides stains so well ! Having slashed the one side, turn and do the same to the other
Once you have completed the slashing, add the cream cheese filling and then blueberries

Kind of smear the fillings to the edges of the cuts. My son volunteered to snap thee pictures , and he managed to catch my hand moving. I look like The Flash in motion as a result ! And now comes the fun part- turn the work in progress so that you are facing a narrow end and begin to fold the flaps in towards the center, one side and then the other, all the way up and tuck the ends in so the filling does not leak.
This creates a really fancy, impressive looking coffee cake that gives the impression that you can actually do something in the kitchen beyond burning toast and water . It's very good to create illusions !

Repeat with the second ball of dough and let them rise for about an hour. Meanwhile, as you wait, contemplate the universe, read a book or read a goose a collection of poetry. Whatever trips your fancy.
In about an hour the dough will rise and plump. Turn your oven to 350 and give th cakes an egg wash with a pastry brush. Or as I call them my cooking carpentry tools
Bake for 40 minutes- give or take. Use your nose- when it smells don, give it a check. If it looks golden brown, it is done. Remove and cook at least 1 hr before slicing. You can drizzle this with a glaze ( confectioners sugar with some water and lemon juice till it is the consistency you like) , or a simple sprinkle of powdered sugar. I left mine plain because my husband is not crazy about glaze or frosting.It seems almost unnatural, but everyone has their preferences. The fillings and dough make this coffee cake just slightly sweet, and it can stand alone.

After a breakfast like this, trips to the home improvement store or the little league practice seem a little brighter.