Archive | January, 2011

Not Just for the Holidays

26 Jan

Back in high school, way back when, I had a boyfriend that was often a main figure at our dinner table.  He acted as an older brother to my sister, Jenn, messing around with her like any good brother would do.  I specifically remember one instance where they were throwing a nerf ball back and forth in the house, and my mom happened to come in between a pass, thus receiving a clean shot right to the behind.  “Nice block!” Zach exclaimed leaving my mom open-mouthed and laughing at his reaction to hitting her in the butt with the ball.

But aside from the memories of the older bro role to my sister, the many, many football games, and the giggling effects of a silly high school romance, I remember our Hors d’oeuvre Dinners.  OMG, Zach loved them.  Anytime I told him that my family was having hors d’oeuvres for dinner, we would hear his old, rusty El Camino pull up the drive within minutes.

Even without Zach’s enthusiasm, I knew how fun hors d’oeuvres were – or “deserves” as Jenn called them.  Growing up hors d’oeuvres meant pigs in a blanket, fresh veg, nuts, hot crab dip, Ruffles chips, shrimp cocktail, and the ever-special A&W Cream Soda (when I become of-age, that cream soda seemed to get a bit stronger and was served in a martini glass… not quite sure what happened there).  Sometimes the food items would vary and change a bit but there were always the expected, and appreciated, staples to nosh on.

The best things about the Hors d’oeuvres Dinner were that 1) my mom was only cooking for a matter of minutes (thus able to enjoy in the fun), and 2) it meant we got to eat with little plates and fancy cocktail napkins crowded over the living room coffee table, usually during a great football/basketball game, movie, or previously agreed upon TV show.  Simply put, hors d’oeuvres for dinner was a treat, one we never took for granted.

Although now, I’ve put my own twist on the meal.  Rob picked up the love of the tradition in the first creamy dip into guacamole and first flaky bite of a pig in a blanket (both of which, surprisingly, he had never tasted before meeting me).  Keeping true to tradition, we always have our staples: nuts, good cheese, and sliced red peppers.  But I’ve started mixing it up a bit with doing things like spicing up the nuts, adding my BBQ spice to popcorn, making rustic crackers, boozing up olives, and marinating dried fruit.  We have even given degrees of intensity to our Hors D’oeuvres Dinners by labeling them as a “good spread” or a “European Dinner” (the latter is a lighter meal, consisting of a bread, some fruit, and usually some cheese with wine). A few days ago, I even jazzed up Rob’s favorite hors d’oeuvres staple – pigs in a blanket – by taking some sweet veal sausage (seen in the pictures to the right), wraping it in a mustard and caramelized onion dressed puff pastry, kind of like a sausage en croute.  But as far as I’m concerned, he can keep all the little piggies and their flakey outerware – my new fave, hands down, are my boozy olives.

Let’s go back to that martini that sneakily replaced my innocent cream soda.  Unarguably, the best thing about a martini is that last green olive left in the bottom point of the glass, perfectly balanced and macerated in the last sip of smooth, and by that time salty, vodka (I prefer vodka martinis over gin – Scandinavian, remember?).  That olive just sits there, waiting to be stabbed by the accompanying colorful plastic sword toothpick, and then devoured.  Seriously, is your mouth watering yet?

Well, with the pressure of the mathematical education of small people held in my hands, a Tuesday night isn’t exactly my ideal time for enjoying a martini.  But then, like a giant pimento slapping me across the face, I found the loophole!  I can still enjoy the olive without the drink!  So, I poured some vodka, lime juice, olive juice, and a few red pepper flakes into a dish, popped the concoction into the fridge, and awaited the tasty treat to work it’s marinating magic.

Two hours later, I had hit the jackpot.  The spicy, boozy, briny, tangy jackpot.  Let me just say, martini olives are not just for the holidays anymore!  But martini and hors d’oeuvres lovers beware: only indulge in a few (it would be a shame to get tipsy off of olives, though I can see why one may be tempted).

Though we have, and always will have, our Hors d’oeuvres Dinner staples and go-tos, it has been a blast coming up with new tastes that give us an indulgence during the week.  Rob and I still carry on the tradition of eating with small plates, fancy napkins, and sitting in front of a good flick, but we are still continually adding more to the menu.  Especially mid-week, when we feel we deserve it…. hey, maybe that’s how Jenn came up with the “deserves” phrase.  (Or maybe it really just was the speech impediment.)


Boozy Olives (inspired by a recipe in Canal House Cooking Vol. 3, and the enjoyment of eating the last olive out of my martini glass).

  • 1/2 c green, pimento stuffed olives
  • 1/2 c vodka
  • 1 tsp olive juice
  • juice from 1 lime
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes

Mix all ingredients together, and place in refrigerator for at least 2 hours.  Serve with a bit of the marinating liquid (and, of course, the little sword toothpicks).

Marinated Figs

  • 1 c dried black mission figs
  • 1/2 c white balsamic vinegar
  • 1 c champagne
  • 1 bay leaf

Add all ingredients to a small saucepan.  Bring to a quick boil, and then simmer on low for 15-20 minutes, letting the liquid reduce until syrupy.  Let cool (can sit at room temperature for hours), and serve with the marinating liquid.  And a fancy cocktail napkin.

A Knead to Improve

24 Jan

Last week was formal assessment week at our school.  Do you remember taking tests as a kid – or maybe even as an adult?  For me, testing was horrendous.  Stressful.  Horrific!  Needless to say, I was never a great test-taker, no matter how hard I studied.  In high school, I was one of those dreaded students who preferred written essay or short answer exams, for the simple reason that I was given opportunity and space to fully explain my thoughts.  If I was ever given a True/False test, I clear chalked it up to the 50/50 chance Gods, praying that my over-interpretation and over-thinking of one measly word in the question would prove beneficial.  Alas, I never mastered those types of tests.  Even to become a California credentialed teacher I had to take an 85-question T/F citizenship test which I, patriotically, passed by one point.  I’m sure my rambling has been made clear: Tests stress me out.

So while seeing the 500+ students at my school last week for formal computerized testing, I made a conscious effort to not pass my test anxieties onto them.  Although a new sort of anxiety filled the humming computer room air when I realized that these test scores would be the indicator for our district on exactly whether, and how much, my students are improving.  Being an intervention math specialist for the school, I work with kids grades K-4 that need the extra help in math.  Coming from a year of middle school, the age-group is refreshing, and watching them grasp and apply concepts in our small groups is incredibly rewarding.  But, like a lightning bolt shocking and freezing me, I watched as my students guessed at answers, or didn’t use the tricks we had practiced, leaving me, well, fried by the end of the week.

I was in desperate need of some comfort food, and one of my favorite pantry soups is my Spicy Tortilla Soup.  I came up with the recipe years ago when my fridge was empty minus a half eaten rotisserie chicken, and many pantry items were dangerously close to their expiration dates.  I was surprised, and still am, at how filling and belly warming this soup is.  We enjoyed the soup (although it was a bit spicy for Rob’s taste) with cheese and tortilla chips, but I woke on woke on Sunday morning still feeling anxious about the District’s reaction to my students’ impending scores.  I needed comfort in a different way.  I needed to knead.

Bread is amazing. It can be soft, hard, chewy, crunchy, tasteful, yeasty, sweet, sour, or many other mouth-watering adjectives that make me wonder if that Atkins guy was just plain crazy for giving up such a simple delicacy.  I have always been a fan of bread (just ask my mom about the time I tried to rip into a loaf in the grocery store as a baby).  I love it simply with good extra virgin olive oil and cracked black pepper, or soft butter peeking through thinly spread layers of jam.  Rich, tangy Sourdough is particularly my favorite, but yesterday morning I wanted to get down to earth and find comfort in a humble baguette.

The way my kitchen is set up my “pastry” area faces the living room, which has a perfectly placed “antique” (Target) wall-clock.  After much coaxing and encouragement, I watched my yeast finally bloom (the one thing

that’s worse than watching water boil).  I mixed the dough and turned it out onto my floured counter and went to work, keeping my eye on the clock, as to not over-knead.  I love the earthy feeling of bread dough, still warm fromthe blooming yeast, sticky and soft under my hands.  Repeatedly and methodically using the fluid back and forth, pushing and folding motion of kneading, I felt completely relaxed.  I was also consoled by the fact that I was fully in control of the chemistry experiment softening with each turn.  Satisfied, and a little floury, I covered by dough and placed it in front of the fireplace, giving it a small well-wish, “Rise, dough, rise!” (which warranted a giggle from Rob).

Holding back the urge to check for growth every 5 minutes, I was delighted to see, and smell, my risen dough.  Shaping and repeating the rising and waiting process, the dough was egg-washed and finally, delicately placed into a screaming-hot oven with a pan of water to create a sauna-like environment (enhancing chewiness).

A few hours after the initial meet and greet of flour, yeast, salt, and water, I was greeted with bread galore – my present for investing time, love and simplicity into technique and ingredients.  And really, there is no better smell then bread baking.  

It turns out that almost every single one of my students’ test scores improved from their beginning of the year assessments, showing growth.  In freaking out, I didn’t give my kiddos enough credit, as they have worked very hard, and many will “graduate” from my class.  A new group of students will be meeting with me soon, and I will most likely worry about how they will improve, and they will most likely humble me with how they progress.  As for last week, I worried for nothing.  But the stress did lead to some tasty bread.  🙂

Whole Wheat Baguette (makes 4 small baguettes)

  • 2 1/2 c all purpose unbleached flour, plus more for dusting
  • 1 c whole wheat flour
  • 1 package active yeast
  • 1 tbsp kosher salt
  • 1 3/4 c warm (110 degree) water
  • 1 egg lightly beaten
  • 1 tsp olive oil
  • 2 tsp water

In small bowl, mix the yeast with 1/4 of the warm water, stirring with a fork.  Yeast will bloom and look foamy on top of the water – takes about 5-10 minutes.

Meanwhile, mix the all purpose flour, whole wheat flour, and salt in stand mixer (with dough hook attachment) or a large bowl with a whisk.  Add yeast mixture to flour/salt mixture, as start mixing.  Slowly add the rest of the water, while mixing, until the dough comes together to form a ball.

Turn out dough onto floured surface and start kneading.  Dough should be sticky; keep dusting lightly with flour if it sticks to the surface.  Knead for 6-10 minutes, until dough is still slightly sticky but also smooth.  Put dough into lightly floured bowl and cover with warm damp towel.  Let rise for about 1 hour.

After risen, punch down dough and separate into 4 baguette shapes.  Place on parchment paper-lined sheet tray, re-cover with towel and let rise until doubled in size.

Preheat oven to 450 degrees.  Score slits onto the top of the baguettes, and paint the egg wash mixture (egg, water, and olive oil) on the baguettes.  Put into oven with a small pan filled with hot water on the bottom rack.  Bake for 15 minutes at 450 degrees, and then turn down oven to 400 degrees and continue to cook for about 7 minutes longer.  Cool on a rack.

Slice.  Serve.  Savor.  Enjoy!

Like Teflon

18 Jan

Life really can throw us for a loop sometimes.  I’ve learned – admittedly the hard way – that it isn’t so much what is thrown, but how that situation is handled.  And the best way to handle any situation is with grace and strength, with a genuinely kind heart.  This is what Mrs. Jones has taught me.

For the last eight years, my parents’ next-door neighbors have become an extended part of our family.  We call them our “grandparents next door,” and they have called us their “girls next door.”  The Jones’ and my family would have dinners, daily chats, and we always scored the coveted spot on the lawn by the lake next to our houses to watch the 4th of July fireworks.  They told us incredible stories of their lives – places they’ve lived, houses they’ve built, military experiences, and the fact that Mr. Jones was once a spy operating in Russia for the CIA helped keep us not only entertained, but open-mouthed and amazed by his experiences.  Also, to my delight and appreciation, Mr. and Mrs. Jones would often be members of my test kitchen staff when I came up with new recipes to share.  Even if they had already eaten dinner, they would always take the invitation to stop by and have a bite.

Sadly, Mr. Jones is no longer with us to share his stories, his humor, his humility, and his friendship.

This past weekend was the Memorial Service for Mr. Jones, and despite the circumstances, I was happy to be taking a short trip back to Irvine to see my mom and to see Mrs. Jones.  The service was beautiful and it was wonderful (though not surprising) to see all of the people Mr. Jones had touched.  But aside from the beautiful flowers, touching music, and memorable shared stories, I noticed Mrs. Jones.  Lovely and elegant, she hugged every person she saw; despite the tears in her eyes, she had a smile on her face, genuinely happy that people were celebrating her husband’s life.  Unlike the feelings I had welling up inside (and showing on the outside), I never saw her break down, or lose her graceful exterior.  Yes, she was obviously sad and hurting, but she is also a true Officer’s Wife – strong yet gentle, courteous yet genuine, together and calm.  I admire her in so many ways.

I, too, am an Officer’s wife, though only 4 1/2 months into the role.  I’m also notorious among my family for reacting to situations in ways that are, well, reactive (really, just put on the sound track to The Lion King and you’ll understand).  And as my mom puts it perfectly in a way that speaks to my inner level of understanding (as only a great mother can), I need to be “like Teflon.”  Whatever slides on, slides right off.  Non-stick goodness that always looks clean and complete (if you’ve ever tried to make pancakes in a stainless steel plan, you’ll fully understand the analogy).  Mrs. Jones has got the Teflon thing down pretty well.

Mr. and Mrs. Jones loved gardening.  They understood the importance of organic and sustainable practices way before Alice, Jamie, and Emeril solidified the trend.  So the dinner I made for my mom the evening of the service would have hopefully made them proud.

Arguably, one of the best Farmers Markets in California is at UCI, where farms from all over the Central Valley and Southern California gather to sell their straight-from-the-ground goodies.  For years I was fortunate enough to live only 15 minutes away, and I would always go see the same vendors.  There was Farmer John, the Sausage Guy, the Lebanese Fruit Lady, the Snow Mountain Fuji Apple people, and the Cute Herb Guy, among many others.  It was always so easy to spend half a paycheck in such a fruitful market, but this time I limited myself to only the ingredients I would need for my Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with Seared Scallops.  I’m happy to say that every ingredient I used, minus the scallops, olive oil, chicken stock, and s&p, were grown and picked around 50 miles from my mom’s kitchen stove.

I made dinner slowly that night, trying to respect the ingredients and the techniques used to prepare them.  As my mom and I sat down to our humble yet tasty dinner, we knew Mr. Jones would probably have liked to be a taste-tester once again, and we would have wanted him there.  But we had to settle for a “cheers” in his honor.

The soup and scallops were warming and satisfying, and I went to bed remembering Mr. Jones, and thinking about Mrs. Jones – her strength, her devotion, and her support of a very important man who was not only an officer and international spy, but also the father to their kids, her partner, and her friend.  So, Mrs. Jones, here’s a “cheers” to you as well.  Thank you for showing me what a true Officer’s Wife can be.


Butternut Squash and Apple Soup with Sage Seared Scallops (serves 4)

  • 1 small-med butternut squash, peeled and diced
  • 1 large Fuji apple, diced
  • 1 large leek, rinsed and sliced
  • 2 garlic cloves
  • 4 c low sodium chicken stock
  • Sea scallops (as many as you wish – I use 3-4 per person), foot removed
  • 2 tbsp butter
  • 2 sprigs fresh sage
  • 1 1/2 tbsp olive oil
  • s&p

In a 425 degree oven, roast the butternut squash with a drizzle of olive oil and some s&p (mix with hands and place on sheet tray).  Roast until surfaces are lightly browned, turning once, about 30-40 minutes.

Meanwhile, saute the leeks in the olive oil with some s&p until tender, and then add the garlic.  Saute until fragrant.  Add the roasted butternut squash and the apple, and let cook, stirring often for about 5 minutes.  Add the chicken stock, bring to a boil, and then drop the heat and simmer for another 5 minutes.  Using an immersion blender (or a stand blender), blend the soup until it is completely smooth.  Still on a simmer, add a sprig on sage, taste for s&p, and cover.

To make the scallops, heat up the butter and the other sprig of sage in a heavy bottomed pan (cast iron works great).  When the butter is sputtering and the pan is searing hot, place the scallops (seasoned lightly with s&p), in the pan.  Do not turn the scallops UNTIL they release themselves from the pan.  If you feel the scallops tug back when you go to turn them, wait a few seconds and try again.  Otherwise you will leave a lovely layer of those precious scallops in the pan, which is so sad.  When both sides are seared (about 2 minutes each), take them out of the pan to rest for just a second.

Ladle the soup into a wide, shallow bowl, and place the scallops (3-4) in the middle of the bowl.  Add a fried sage leave (from the searing pan) for garnish and serve with crusty bread and buttery wine.


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