Let’s talk about abandon

And by abandon, I don’t mean sad-eyed dogs and cats in shelters. I’m talking about the fun kind of abandon. Do you remember the last time you experienced abandon? If you didn’t remember that it is a noun as well as a verb, then I’d say it has been way, way too long.

Which brings me to a subject near and dear to my heart. Let’s talk about Halloween. Now, you get it, right? Remember how you used to enjoy Halloween with reckless abandon? The costumes, the role-playing, the chance to get wild, even on a school night, all fueled by a sugar high as you ate the best candy on the way home before your father got hold of your bag to “inspect” it. (My father used to grouse every year that no one gave out his favorite Hershey bars with almonds. Hahahaha, here Dad, have a Zagnut).

If you refused to grow up, you kept celebrating Halloween through your 20s and well into your 30s, just in a different way. And every year, as Halloween draws near, my friends and I reminisce about the fun, the adventure, the pranks and the scares. And guess what? No one ever got hurt on Halloween. No one ever got a razor blade in an apple or poisoned, kidnapped, or even hurt – much. (There was the Halloween when my best friend, Linda, and I decided to be a two-headed ghost and got tangled up in the sheet and fell in a culvert. But that was nothing a little Bactene couldn’t handle.)

And also, just for the record, none of us even thought about worshipping Satan, or going occult or becoming a Wiccan. We knew it was make-believe. And we knew it only lasted one night, so we made the most of it.

I know, I know. You’ll say times are different. People are different. Kids are different. But seriously, why are we trying to take the fun, the abandon, out of the one day of the year when everyone gets to be childish?

As adults, we should appreciate that we don’t have to shop for or wrap gifts for Halloween. Unlike other holidays, it’s not labor intensive – no baskets to fill, no turkey to carve, no tree to decorate. We can ignore Pinterest and all those magazines with time-consuming crafts. Put some pumpkins out (you don’t even have to carve them), buy candy, throw a store-bought costume on the kids and it’s done.

But no, now we’ve extended Halloween into a 10-day ordeal, with planned (planned!) activities held at times that are convenient for us and in ways we think are appropriate. Halloween is no longer for children, it’s for busy adults and I think we’ve got it all wrong.

So, to do my part, I will do something with abandon Halloween night, since we no longer get more than half a dozen trick-or-treaters.  I’m going to get some oil really, really hot and fry up what my mother used to call Swedish waffles. They are actually called rosettes and traditionally are made at Christmas. But we’re going to get all anarchist and make them for Halloween. You can still buy the cast-iron sets of rosette molds online. I’m going to use my mother’s set that turned up when we moved to our new house.

http://www.amazon.com/Fox-Run-4512-Rosette-Set/dp/B001AT1J1O/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1414437419&sr=8-2&keywords=rosette+iron

Rosettes are time-consuming and messy and fun and require at least two people. More is better. Take turns frying, scooping and sugar shaking. You make a runny, eggy batter, dip the hot molds into it and plunge them in the hot oil. The batter releases from the mold as it browns and shrinks and you get lovely, crispy butterflies, snowflakes and stars. Sift some powdered sugar over them and eat them as soon as you can without burning yourself. Now that’s abandon.

Swedish Waffles (Rosettes)

Peanut or vegetable oil

3 Tbsp. sugar

a pinch of salt

2 eggs

1 cup milk

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

1 tsp. vanilla

confectioner’s sugar

Over medium-high heat, bring oil to 375 degrees in a cast-iron pot or dutch oven. You’ll need about three inches of oil. Spread paper towels on two cookie sheets for draining and set aside.

With a mixer, beat the sugar, salt and eggs together until smooth. Add the milk, flour and vanilla and beat again until smooth. Heat a rosette iron in the hot oil for three minutes. Dip the hot mold into the batter, up to 1/4 of an inch from the top. Immediately dip the mold into the hot oil. The rosette will brown and release itself from the mold. Scoop it out and drain on paper towels. Sift confectioners sugar over the drained rosettes.  Heat the mold between each use at least one minute in the hot oil.

 

Picture a chilly night that caps off a long day of either fun or work. You’re hungry. You’re short on time and you need a dish that will make people sit up and notice that the day is not yet over and there is still fun and flavor to be had.

Then check your freezer for those frozen shrimp you bought by the cooler-full at the beach this summer.

Because it’s time for BBQ Shrimp. To clarify, you do not need a grill to barbeque shrimp. You just need a bottle of the most important ingredient: chili sauce.

2014-03-26 17.16.58As you may know from making those famous party meatballs from the 1980s, chili sauce, is not, in fact, very spicy. That means that even though you are making a dish with BBQ in the title, even timid eaters can probably stomach it.

With chili sauce in hand, it’s time to make this easy one-pan (OK, two pans) meal. Do not be intimidated by the apparently long list of ingredients because you will already have most of them in your kitchen and basically you just dump them all together. Bonus: no onions, so no stinky chopping.

Ok, I was being a little sneaky. This dish is quick because you have to make the sauce and marinate the shrimp in the refrigerator a few hours before you cook it. So it will take a little planning.

When serving up BBQ shrimp, you basically need two things – bread for sopping up sauce and plenty, and we mean plenty, of napkins. Things get messy because the shrimp are served unpeeled and you have to dig in the sauce and peel them. But that’s half the fun. Nothing builds comraderie at the table like a sloppy, labor-intensive feast. Think of the friendships you have forged over cracking and eating blue crabs or clams. And, as any wing fan knows, you’re not having fun until the sauce hits your elbows.

BBQ Shrimp

2-3 pounds unpeeled shrimp (allow half a pound per person)

6 Tbsp. butter

6 Tbsp. olive oil

4 Tbsp. chili sauce

1 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 lemon, sliced thinly

Juice of another lemon

3 cloves garlic, chopped

2 tsp. minced parsley

1/2 tsp. paprika

1/4 tsp. oregano

2 bay leaves

1 tsp. hot pepper sauce of your choice

1/4 tsp. cracked black pepper

Rinse the shrimp, drain and spread in a single layer in a shallow pan.

Place the remaining ingredients in a large saucepan over high heat and bring to a boil.

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Immediately reduce the heat and simmer, uncovered, for 10 minutes until sauce thickens:

BBQ sauce is just the right viscosity
BBQ sauce is just the right viscosity

Spoon the sauce over the shrimp in the pan and refrigerate 2-3 hours.

2014-03-26 17.46.17When you’re ready to cook. preheat the oven to 300 degrees and bake the shrimp 20-30 minutes, until all shrimp have turned a nice pink. Serve in bowls with crusty bread, and of course, those napkins ready and waiting.

The best souvenirs are edible

C

We celebrated our 25th anniversary in a big way by flying across the country to the exotic port of – Portland, Oregon.

When we told people our destination, their reactions ranged from puzzled to flummoxed. The most common question, after “Why?” was, “Oh, do you have family there?”

No, no we don’t. We’ve always wanted to see the funky, friendly, often foggy and soggy town because of its reputation for great food, breathtaking scenery and world-class local beer and wine. We were never disappointed with any of these.

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Tumbling waters in Columbia Gorge
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View from pedestrian bridge at railroad station
Tea at the Chinese garden
Tea at the Chinese garden

We crammed a lot of small meals and hours of walking, and quite a bit of beer and wine sampling into a too-brief week. And we’d do it again. Because, folks, despite its reputation as a freewheeling town, Portland is very, very serious about its food and drink.

Sipping a comforting latte in a cozy coffeehouse on a dreary afternoon, I saw a sign that boiled the essentials of Portland’s local food craze down to a simple PBJ. The café only served this one food item. But the description ran something like this: “Try our PBJ, with peanut butter ground on order, jam from nearby Meadowsweet Farm, on artisan bread baked fresh right around the corner, with a smear of homemade butter.” Serious.

We tend to wander around and let serendipity lead us to great food when we’re on vacation. But, the one place we knew we absolutely had to find was Pok Pok, a funky, Asian fusion restaurant that borrows all the best from food truck cooking and serves it up on patios covered with plastic to protect diners from Portland’s frequent downpours.

We knew we’d have to wait a while, but, being the Portland geniuses that they are, the owners have opened a bar across the street, where you can drink heavenly cocktails garnished with, of course, local vegetation while waiting for a table. We ordered the actual dish we came for, Ike’s Vietnamese Fish Sauce Wings, which have been featured in Food and Wine magazine and touted among foodies nationwide.

The wings are marinated in a fish sauce mixture, which makes them salty and addictive. My husband almost stopped breathing after his first bite, saying simply, “THAT IS SO ***** GOOD!”

We devoured the plate, and considered ordering more when we actually got to our table.

Turns out Pok Pok wings are not hard to make. You just have to plan ahead, because the wings need to marinate for at least four hours. They are not for the faint-hearted eater, as the fish sauce is pungent and really, really salty – two of my favorite things. The mint, cilantro and fried garlic mellow the dish out and create that perfect “Wow” moment. Red wine actually paired well with the wings, but a brisk IPA would probably be even better. Just make sure to stay in the Portland groove and make it a local Charlotte beer.

Pok Pok Wings

1/4 cup fish sauce

1/4 cup sugar

5 cloves garlic, chopped coarsely

1 1/2 pounds chicken wings

2 Tbsp. vegetable oil

3 cloves garlic, minced

Enough vegetable oil to cover wings for frying

1/3 cup cornstarch

2-3 Tbsp. chopped cilantro

2-3 Tbsp. chopped mint

In a large zip-top bag, combine fish sauce, sugar and 5 cloves of crushed garlic. Seal and shake until sugar begins to dissolve. Add wings and marinate in refrigerator at least four hours.

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When you’re ready to start cooking, heat the 2 Tbsp. of oil over medium heat and saute garlic until it’s golden. Set aside to drain on a paper towel.

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Heat oil in a large pan until it’s 350 degrees. (Really hot oil is the secret to great fried anything.)

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Remove wings from bag and pour the marinade in a small saucepan. Pat the wings dry (dry meat is the other secret to great fried anything.)

Pour cornstarch on a plate and coat the wings. Fry the wings, without crowding, for 8-10 minutes.

While wings are frying, bring the marinade to a boil over medium-high heat and boil down until it’s syrupy.

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Put the wings in a large bowl. Pour the sauce over them and toss. Add the cilantro, mint and fried garlic and toss gently.

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Serve immediately. (Like you could stop anyone from grabbing them.)

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Spaghetti sauce kicks off our salute to the hand-written recipe

I have a long-time habit of bHauying vintage cookbooks at estate sales and junk stores. I love the kitschy graphics on ’50s tomes and the impossibly complicated recipes from the 1970s when everyone was trying to be like Julia. The introductions are usually a hoot.

This is one of my favorites from “Creative Cooking” by  Nicholas Roosevelt in 1956: “With the lack of domestic help in the country more housewives are doing their own cooking and the focal point of the family is back in the kitchen – the warmest, savoriest and friendliest of rooms.”

They are also honest. The introduction to the Women’s Guild of St. John’s Church in Richmond, Va. collection is almost as long as the book’s title: “The Guild Cookbook: Containing 429 Famous Recipes…Old and Modern…of Prized American and Foreign Dishes” (1951). The ladies state that, “Since, for the most part, the Guild membership is composed of ladies descended from West Europeans, some of these recipes have served, not one, but several generations of people, who, while appreciative of good food, are at the same time careful and thrifty.”

And yep, true to their thrifty claim, there on page 48 is a recipe for Vienna Sausage Scalloped with Apples. Since I know you and I will never make this, let’s just say it is layers of sliced apples dotted with butter, sugar and cinnamon, topped with sliced Viennas.

As much joy as I get from the cookbooks themselves, It’s bonus time when I find hand-written recipes on brittle yellow paper tucked inside. I save these scraps of spidery writing, because this is an even more fascinating glimpse into the past.

Then, I decided that I needed to try these recipes. I mean, after all, someone thought they were good enough to copy down and save. So, occasionally, I will be including a hand-written treasure in this column.

I won’t say that I will replicate each recipe without a few enhancements. Today’s recipe for spaghetti sauce sounded so bland, I had to add salt, oregano, basil and garlic.

It was copied on stationery from The Hotel Eutaw in Orangeburg, SC. This grand old hotel was built in 1927 with an unusual source of funding – three community organizations, including the Orangeburg Rotary Club. The groups hoped the hotel would be a boon to downtown, and for years, it apparently served as a focal point for the social scene. It stood empty and neglected for years until it was purchased by a company with plans to renovate it into studio apartments and retail space.

But, way back when this anonymous woman was whiling away some time in her hotel room reading the November issue of Good Housekeeping, this recipe caught her eye:

4 lbs. ground beef

1/2 lb fat back

2 1/2 lbs onions

14 large green peppers

4 large cans tomatoes

2 lbs cheese

6 pkgs skinny spaghetti

1 large bunch celery

1 bottle hot sauce

Fry fatback. Fry beef in drippings. Add onions, hot sauce, celery and peppers. Add tomatoes. Simmer, covered for four hours.

Since I wasn’t cooking for an army, I made one-fourth of the recipe. And, to add even more flavor and a little depth, I pulsed four carrots in the food processor and added them to the mix. I also added six cloves of sliced garlic, and a tablespoon each of dried oregano and basil. The recipe doesn’t say what to do with the fried fatback, so I ate it.

The resulting sauce was chunky, thick and kind of institutional. My husband said it reminded him of the sauce at Howard Johnson’s way back in the 60s and 70s. It was really even better the next day, when I ate it out of a thermos without any pasta.

 

Mmm, a potato and olive stew beats the lunch rush

Look, I don’t know who invented the 30-minute lunch break, but I would be willing to bet they were not foodies.

Seriously, by the time I clock out, grab my purse, and rush out the door, three precious minutes have elapsed. A 30-minute lunch means fast food.

But I don’t mean sitting in the drive-through at the ubiquitous chain restaurant, or grabbing yet another bagel and schmear. I mean making lunch. In the heat of the summer, I’ll retreat to the cool break room, which has a fridge and microwave. But this fall and winter, I would rather see blue or grey skies and people-watch while I dine.

My friend Tammy recently asked if she was the only person who loved slipping into a toasty warm, sun-bathed car on a frigid day. Nope. I love to retreat to my car, push the seat all the way back on its tracks and nosh while watching shoppers scurry along on their errands. I can make calls or listen to tunes and sing along (something discouraged in the break room). Even on the coldest days, I can crack the windows and get some fresh air.

So I’ve become addicted to eating lunch in the car. You’ve got to be creative with this. Nothing too messy or complicated will do. Think about it. You don’t have a table to catch crumbs, and you’re working in a tight space with few flat surfaces. It’s hard to spread cheese on crackers. I tried and ended up with crumbs everywhere and unfortunate leftovers on the steering wheel. I know that sandwiches seem like the perfect solution, but unlike many, much more evolved people, I can’t eat the same thing every day. Two days – tops. Then I have to move on.

Salads also seem problematic to me. The other day at the car wash vacuum station, I sucked up several shriveled olives and some unidentified object that apparently had jumped out of my container. Ewww. Now I put my salads in a wrap and that seems to work pretty well.

I’m thinking about getting one of those squat thermoses and bringing homemade soup a couple of times a week. It will stay hot in the car and I can just open up the thermos, grab a roll that I’ve warmed in tin foil on the dashboard and get down to the important business of laughing at drivers’ bad parking skills and apparent disregard for pedestrian safety.

Here’s the first soup I’m going to try:

Potato Stew with Olives

1/4 pound cracked green olives (the firm, meaty kind, not the flimsy pimento-stuffed ones)

juice of one lemon

2 Tbsp. olive oil

1 cup thinly sliced onion

2 cloves garlic, peeled and chopped

1 1/2 pounds red-skin, new potatoes, chopped into bite-size pieces

1 tsp. sweet paprika

1/2 tsp. cracked black pepper

1/4 tsp. of cayenne pepper

1 cup water

1 14.5 -oz. can of diced tomatoes

At least three hours before making the soup, combine half of the lemon juice and olives and let sit at room temperature, stirring occasionally. Or you can make them a day ahead and after three hours, refrigerate them, covered.

Heat the oil in a large saucepot over medium-low heat. Add the onions and sauté for three minutes, then add the garlic and sauté for two more minutes. Add the potatoes, paprika, pepper, cayenne and olives with their lemon juice. Stir to combine, then add the water, turn the heat up and bring to a boil. Cover the pot, lower the heat to simmer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the potatoes are tender, 15-20 minutes. Add the tomatoes and their juices and continue simmering, uncovered another 10 minutes. Add the remaining lemon juice and salt to taste.

Grilled cheese – we need to talk.

Funny how something simple can became “a thing,” isn’t it?  Way back, in the winter of 2013 (does anyone remember that far back?) I was making my usual grilled cheese for lunch. I took one bite, and even though it had just the right amount of butter and gooey cheese, I just couldn’t eat any more. My brain just said, “NO.”

I know I risk sounding like Andy Rooney, but why do we even bother to call it a grilled cheese? Does anyone actually slap their sandwiches on a hot grill? No. We take the sensible route and brown that baby in as much butter as we can stand.  But where was I? Oh, yeah, this sudden dislike was quite a shock. Grilled cheese has long been the go-to menu around here, whether we are busy with work, projects or play. We could always whip up a grilled cheese, add a salad or soup and call it a meal – happily.

But on that cold winter day last year, I must have reached my life-long quota on grilled cheese. I tossed the rest of the sandwich and fretted about it  – for about a minute. But later that night when I told my husband about this strange, acute aversion, he surprised me with his vehement declaration that he, too, was sick of one of our favorite things.

It wasn’t like me made them the same way all the time, either. We would throw in a combination of any kind of cheese we had around the house,  and add tomatoes, or salsa, chutney, relishes or pepper jelly.  But, apparently, enough was enough.

So 2013 became the Year Without Grilled Cheese.  We broke up with our long-time companion. No goat cheese with pecans; no pimento cheese; no brie with raspberry jam was crammed between two slices of bread and quickly sautéed. And nope, we didn’t even miss them. We did finally realize the inherent usefulness of the sandwich - the reason we ate so many of them as children. They are one of the quickest ways to use up stale bread. Our Depression-era mothers never met a bread heel they didn’t love.

So, we made bread crumbs instead.

Now, with a freezer full of crumbs and a rested palate, we’re thinking about dipping our toe back in the water this week. I’ve got a little bit of really ripe Gruyere and some chewy sunflower bread. We’ll see.

What we’re really worried about is that this aversion syndrome will suddenly rear its head in relation to our other two long-time favorites – chicken wings and - gulp – pizza. If that happens, well, we’ll deal with it – and eat a little healthier, too.

For those of you who still think grilled cheese should be the official sandwich of your state, here’s a doozy to keep you warm this winter – with or without the tomato soup.

Inside-out Grilled Cheese

1 Tbsp. butter

1/4 cup of your favorite soft, flavored cream cheese

1 small apple, sliced thinly

4 slices bread

1 cup sharp cheddar, shredded

Melt the butter over medium heat in a non-stick pan big enough to hold both sandwiches. (If you cook one at a time, use a tablespoon of butter for each sandwich.)

Evenly spread the cream cheese on one slice of bread, top with apples and place the other slice of bread on top. Press down.

Sprinkle the cheese over the hot butter in the pan. Place the sandwiches on top and press down. Cook until the cheese starts to brown and crisp. Flip the sandwich with a spatula and briefly warm the other side. Serve cheese-side up.