Tuesday, May 18, 2010


When I was growing up, my exposure to different kinds of vegetables was, shall we say, severely limited. We subsisted on the same parade of veggies: canned corn, canned green beans, raw carrot sticks, a frozen veggie mix that included lima beans (much to the dismay of my siblings and me), and occasionally lettuce in the rare form of a salad or on a sandwich. Now, don’t get me wrong. I had tried many different vegetables: Stringy celery with peanut butter, a dull-colored, limp, steamed broccoli, frozen corn on the cob that had been drowned in a bath of butter. One time my mom made steamed zucchini. It was limp and waterlogged and it kind of tasted like earwax. She actually didn’t make us finish that.
I tried canned spinach that my grandpa made, and carrots that had been cooked with honey and raisins. By this point, I had pretty much decided that I liked vegetables: Canned corn and canned green beans. Just about everything else I had tasted was bland and overcooked or smothered in something I didn’t like.
When I was five or six, I would get the salad bar when my family went to Sizzler. My parents thought it was hilarious. I really like salad. We never seemed to have it at home and I thought the wonderful buffet of bacon flavored bits, canned pineapple, black olives and cut up ham pieces was divine. It was a delightful experience to create your own masterpiece. When I became a teenager I started cooking meals for the family once every week or two. I really enjoyed it. I remember my first: mom’s turkey meatloaf, baked potatoes and salad.
My mom had always taught me that every meal needs vegetables to balance out the plate. She would buy flats of canned corn or green beans from Costco so those were the usual accompaniment to a meal. That or the very rare salad. I actually preferred salad, and if I was the one cooking I would load it with tomatoes, carrot shreds, olives and shredded cheese.
As I came into my teen years I enjoyed cooking more and more. My cream cheese pumpkin roll became a staple at church potlucks and I began to bake lemon meringue pies, pumpkin pies (from actual pumpkins that I cooked), pumpkin bread and an orange meringue pie that was my own creation. I began experimenting with foods more and more and making up my own recipes for things.
It was at this crucial point that I discovered an intense pleasure overwhelmed me when I went to the store and saw the produce aisle. There were so many things I had never tried and, to me, looking at the stunning rainbow of fresh fruits and vegetables was like looking at the myriad of colors offered at an art supply store. My mind went so many places at once.
I loved loading those lightweight plastic bags with tomatoes, lemons, oranges and other similar fare. I didn’t venture too far, I was a little intimidated by things I wasn’t familiar with, and I had no idea how to cook any vegetable from its fresh state. I didn’t really progress much farther in my cooking experimentation until I got married. At just twenty we settled down into our little nest and different vegetables started making their way onto our table.
I think we had two different kinds of vegetables in addition to salad the first time we had my parents over for dinner. I started with a bamboo steamer that was given to me as a wedding gift and loaded it with vegetables. I simply dressed broccoli and carrots with salt and pepper and actually enjoyed eating them. My husband is a great sport and even though he declared he wasn’t very fond of vegetables, he soon began finishing his servings and asking for more.
My next big task was green beans. I remembered eating Thanksgiving dinner with friends and a woman had cooked who was a food editor for Sunset magazine. She made these green beans that had bacon and red onions in them and they were out of this world. I decided that I was going to make green beans that rivaled my memory of hers.

I tried a few different things, and, honestly, they were good to start with. Sautéed in bacon grease and braised in chicken stock, they were garlicky, still a little crunchy and absolutely delicious. How could I go wrong? I have made many variations and they have all been a hit with my family. I have to admit, I am a little leery of straying too far because, let’s face it, how could they get much better?
I have added several other vegetable recipes to my repertoire, some that were bestowed by somebody’s grandma (like Parsley carrots-so easy but out of this world!) and some that were discovered in magazines and cook books.
Whenever spring’s first offerings begin making their way to the produce aisle I get giddy with an excitement that is usually reserved for children around Christmas time. When I look at the gleaming plethora of fresh, perfectly ripe vegetables, I fantasize about new recipes and different combinations. I can’t wait to rush home and make roasted asparagus with tomatoes and bacon, my special green beans or simple new potatoes with butter. In the summer, fresh corn with lime, butter and cayenne pepper finds its way to our table almost once a week and my freezer begins to fill with fresh picked blackberries and strawberries, awaiting their transformation into jewel-toned jams or pancake toppings.
In summer, the Famer’s Market comes to our city and California’s Central Valley offers a stunning array of vegetables, fruits and nuts that are grown within this area of our state. Perusing the fresh zucchini, yellow summer squash, huge bunches of fragrant basil, rosy red tomatoes, crisp green beans, red and yellow onions, and heady garlic, I want to buy bunches of everything. This is the time of year I make pesto, and freeze it for later use. There are also tantalizing pickles of all kinds, roasted and flavored nuts, honeys, preserves and dressings that inspire and delight.
Even in late September, when the first, bright orange pumpkins, sweet butternut squash and garnet yams make the scene, to announce that autumn is truly here, regardless of what the calendar says, my mind runs wild thinking of soups, breads, desserts and muffins.
My fridge and freezers fill up with cooked pumpkin, shredded zucchini and butternut squash, and my fridge holds a store of broccoli, the years last asparagus and of course carrots, celery and green beans. Different lettuces crowd my produce drawer and tomatoes, apples and citrus sit in bowls on the counter and there is a special section of my kitchen for red potatoes, russet potatoes and onions.
One place stays free of vegetables, though.
My pantry.

Green Beans with Bacon

Serves 4

I TBS Bacon Grease

2 Slices Bacon

1 lb. green beans, trimmed and cleaned

¼ cup finely chopped shallot (or red onion)

2 cloves of garlic, minced

½ cup chicken stock, homemade preferred

1 tsp freshly ground coarse black pepper

Salt to taste

Melt bacon grease in a large, heavy bottomed saucepan over medium high heat. Cook bacon pieces until crispy. Remove from pan, reserve. Add green beans, shallot and garlic, tossing to coat with bacon grease and brown lightly on all sides. Raise heat to high. Just as the beans begin to darken, add chicken stock and immediately cover. Continue cooking until most of the liquid has been absorbed, around five minutes. While the beans are cooking, chop the bacon into small pieces, reserve. Removed lid, toss beans in remaining liquid, add the bacon, black pepper, and salt to taste. Continue tossing until there is about two tablespoons of liquid left in the bottom of the pan. Serve immediately.

Variations: Add 5 oz. chopped mushrooms when you raise the heat to high

Add a half a chopped tomato after the beans have finished cooking (adds beautiful color!)

Drizzle a little balsamic vinegar at the end for a zesty flavor

Add ¼ cup orange or lemon juice with the chicken stock and reduce the chicken stock to ¼ cup. Add the finely grated zest of the fruit at the end and a ¼ tsp. red pepper flakes

Monday, May 10, 2010

Thoughts of Pizza

The recipe that I want to tell you all about right now is one of those things that someone just told me how to make.
There is a woman I have known for about twelve years who is a fantastic cook. She has inspired me to make so many different dishes. As a teenager growing up I remember going to her house and there was always food. I decided then and there I wanted to be like her. I have tasted her food over the years and I find myself asking over and over again, "How did you make that?". Hers was the first cheesecake I tried and the recipe I am writing about today I had for the first time at her house.

We start with pizza dough. I will include a recipe for homemade pizza dough, which I like to make and divide in half and freeze one half for later. You then cook up some Italian sausage (I use spicy) add lots of garlic and some spinach. I put mozzarella in it, but my friend doesn't. Sometimes I serve it with marinara for dipping. She uses frozen spinach, but I prefer fresh. Now, when you read about this you will probably think, 'what's the big deal?' It is a big deal. It is absolutely amazing and delicious. There is never a scrap left over. My sister who is not a big veggie person gets excited when I tell her I am going to make it. My sons eat it and my husband gorges himself every time we have it (seriously).
You have to try it.

Spicy Italian Sausage Pizza Roll
1/2 recipe pizza dough (recipe follows)
1/2 lb spicy sausage (Jimmy Dean Hot is good)
10 cloves minced garlic
1 bunch of spinach, washed, trimmed and chopped
1 cup grated mozzarella

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Saute sausage in a pan over medium heat. Add a little olive oil if you need to. Once the sausage is browned and broken into small pieces add the garlic. Cook for about two minutes, stirring occasionally, then add the spinach. Cook for 2 or 3 more minutes, or until the spinach is completely wilted.
Roll out the pizza dough into a square, and spread the sausage mixture evenly around. Sprinkle the grated mozzarella over the sausage. Roll up the dough on the long side, tucking the dough as you roll. Place on a baking stone and put stone on the middle rack of the oven. Cook for 20-30 minutes, or until you can knock on the dough and it is firm. The crust should be brown.

Pizza dough recipe

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Shhh...don't tell

I was going through recipes in my mind, trying to decide what to write next. I thought about a main dish I had made recently, but then I realized, I have not posted a dessert in a while (that is because I am trying to give you other things besides desserts!)
And then, it hit me. This cake is fantastic. It is actually a beautiful union between a fudgy, delightful chocolate cake, and some brownies I had. This cake could stand alone and be perfect for birthdays, dinner parties, Easter, Christmas, Thanksgiving, or Columbus Day (trust me, you will be trying to find reasons to make this cake).
What makes this cake sooooo good? First, it is four layers high, which tends to impress in and of itself. But add to that fudge frosting, and the fact that you use a cake mix, and you have the makings of an easy, delicious dessert that can be made ahead. Add orange peel and you have taken it to the next level. Now, if orange turns you off, leave it out, but if you have ever enjoyed one of those chocolate oranges at Christmas time you will love love LOVE this cake. The zest of two oranges is all you need to take this cake over the top. Be careful with the frosting, it is what really makes this cake amazing!
Let me tell you something about this, you want to make two cake recipes if you want an extra tall cake. This is what I usually do. It turns out fantastic this way. I have listed the ingredients for a single batch, but you should try the four tiered version for company! You will also need to clean out your bowl to use it for the frosting. Do not try to hurry and make this cake before company comes. You want to start early in the day or even the day before.

Chocolate Orange Fudge Cake
1 box devil's food cake mix
1 cup water
3 eggs
1/3 cup corn oil
1/3 cup sour cream
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
zest of 1 orange

3 cups (1 1/2 bags) semisweet chocolate chips
3 cups sugar
1 cup milk
1 1/2 cup (3 sticks) butter, cut into pieces
1/3 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Position rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F. Butter 2 nonstick 8-inch cake pans. Cut parchment to cover bottoms of pans and place inside. Spray with nonstick cooking spray.
To Make the Cake: Combine the cake mix, water, eggs, oil, sour cream, vanilla, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Alternatively, use and electric hand mixer. Beat on low speed until the mixture is well blended. Increase the speed to medium if using a stand mixer (high for a hand mixer) and beat for 2 minutes. Stir in the chocolate chips and orange zest. Pour the batter into a prepared baking pans and bake until a knife inserted into the center of the cakes comes out clean, about 25 minutes. Transfer the pans to wire racks and let cool for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the cakes from the pans and let cool completely on the racks. If you are making the four layer cake, repeat.
To Make the Icing: Put the chocolate chips in the metal bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Alternatively, use and an electric hand mixer. Combine the sugar, milk, butter, and salt in a medium saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Let boil vigorously for exactly 1 minute. Pour the hot sugar mixture over the chocolate. Add the vanilla. Beat on medium speed until the mixture begins to thicken to a spreadable consistency, 10 to 15 minutes.
To assemble, place 1 cake, flat-side up, on a platter. Spread one quarter of the icing (about 3/4 cup) over the top of the cake. Top with the second cake, flat-side up and spread one quarter of the icing (about 3/4 cup) over the top. Repeat with layers three and four. Spread a thin layer of the remaining icing over the op and sides of the cake.
Note: if your kitchen is warm, refrigerate the cake for about 15 minutes after frosting the second layer. This will prevent the cake from sliding.

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