A taste of nostalgia

You know it has happened to you. A friend, a native of a certain area, goes on and on and on about the fantastic whatever served at a long-standing locally owned restaurant. And by long-standing, I mean a place they visited as children with their families.

When you finally go, order the famous whatever, and take your first bite, you are instantly puzzled. You take another bite, then another and you watch your friend’s eager face as you mentally scramble around in your head for a polite answer to “Isn’t that the best thing you’ve ever had?”

Because, nine times out of ten, the answer is “No.”

You briefly think they are playing a joke on you, getting you to eat something so bland, or weird or just wrong, just so they can laugh at your discomfort. But, nine times out of ten, you’d be wrong about that.

What you are experiencing is trying to taste someone else’s nostalgia. That’s like trying to get inside someone’s dreams. Not going to happen. And face it, we have all been on the nostalgic end of this scenario, as well.

The link between food and memory is so strong it can warp reality. It can make a grown man weepy over a soggy barbeque sandwich. Strong women get misty-eyed over vinegar-soaked tomatoes and onions served on toasted white bread. And you just nod and appreciate their walk down memory lane, because you have been there.

You remember feeling safe and excited, crammed into the family car for a vacation, which always included a stop at a family eatery chain. You gulped down exotic hot clam strips, followed by decadent peppermint ice cream, and the bickering and resentments stopped for a while – at least until you got back in the car.

But years later, if you took a friend to that place and ordered the same thing, you’d see that look come across their face as they tried to chew the rubbery clams and deal with the gumminess of the ice cream. To you it would still taste divine, flavored with memories and seasoned with wistfulness.

Memory food is not limited to restaurant fare. The other day, some friends were discussing childhood favorites that seem inedible now. As adults, we taste the chemicals in the processed food that we loved to see spilling out of our lunch bags in days of yore. We blanch at the dishes our parents or grandparents sometimes threw together  – the salmon cakes, fish sticks, and canned pears stuffed with cottage cheese.

Then everyone got a little choked up thinking about their favorite dish that they would move mountains to taste one more time – grandma’s baked spaghetti, dad’s beef liver and onions, granny’s pickles. The people may be gone, other people have long lived in their homes, but they still exist is photos and memories and recipes.

So, I’m going to share my mother’s recipe for corn pudding. Because it still tastes as fantastic today as it did when I was a kid. People at potlucks eat every last bite, and ask for the instructions. And that can’t all be about nostalgia, or maybe it can. Either way, I bet you won’t get that puzzled look on your face after the first bite.

Corn Pudding

Serves many

3 cups corn, cut fresh off the cob or frozen

3 Tbsp. butter, melted

1/2 tsp salt

1 cup milk, brought to room temperature

1 Tbsp. sugar

3 eggs, well beaten

a pinch of nutmeg

1 Tbsp. corn starch (optional, see below)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9×13 casserole dish.

If you are using frozen corn, add the 1 Tbsp. of corn starch along with the corn.

Mix the corn, butter, salt, milk and sugar in a large bowl. Fold in the beaten eggs and pour the mix into the casserole. Bake uncovered 50-60 minutes until the custard has set.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Bring on the frost, please

When did summer become winter?

More than a few people – whether southern natives or transplants from cooler climes –  have stated that they feel trapped inside by heat indexes. We find ourselves scurrying from home to office to car as if the hounds of hell are on our heels.

I’m guilty of drinking my morning coffee on the deck and then retreating inside for the rest of the day, only to venture forth when the dogs have to go out. And they didn’t get a lot of long walks this summer. They spent much of it on the couch with me, while I binge watched the entire seven seasons of The West Wing I somehow managed to miss on its first go-round.

This inactivity (coupled with my lack of enthusiasm for smelly gyms) has made me a little cranky and flabby. So, you can bet that with the first whiff of coolness, I and thousands like me will probably hurt ourselves in our eagerness to get moving outdoors again.

Until then, cooking light with the continuing abundance of fruits and vegetables is still a high priority. OK, by light, I mean not as much cheese and meat. Or, actually, not as much meat. Less cheese is never an option around here.

I did change up our squash casserole dish this summer. No eggs, cheddar, or long cooking time. It comes out flat and crispy and cooks in half the time. Part-skim mozzarella and a  creamy blue cheese, like Saga blue or Cambozola give the yellow crooknecks a savory boost.

It is versatile enough to handle other throw-ins, like mushrooms or tomatoes. But if you do decide to toss these in, you will have to saute the mushrooms or roast the tomatoes first. Otherwise, they will add too much moisture to the dish.

Quick Pan Squash

Serves 4 as main dish

Preheat oven to 350 degrees

4 cups yellow squash, sliced into thin rounds

1 medium sweet onion, diced

6 oz. soft brie/blue cheese, like Saga or Cambozola

1 Tbsp. dried thyme

cracked pepper to taste

6 oz. part-skim mozzarella, shredded

Layer squash evenly in a 9×13 casserole dish. Sprinkle onions on top. Dot the casserole with small pieces of the soft cheese. Sprinkle with thyme and pepper and cover with shredded mozzarella.

Bake for 20-25 minutes, until cheese is brown.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nova for dinner – hold the schmear

green egg

 

 

One of our favorite trends today is breakfast for dinner, though we’re not a fan of the cloying name given to it – brinner. So, we’re not going to use that term.

Instead we will invoke different customs and times that placed  “dinner” anywhere  from mid-afternoon breaks to early evening pre-suppers. It follows that if dinner can be practically any time, it can be practically anything, without a new name.

Which brings us to smoked salmon. You either love it or hate it, whether it’s the dilled Swedish gravlax, Nova or lox. With its sugary, salty, fishy taste, cured salmon has traditionally been paired with briny capers, sharp onions, fluffy cream cheese and a chewy bagel.

Yeah, but here’s yet another confession. We like our bagels toasted with butter and not much else. Yep, not a big fan of cream cheese as a sandwich spread. Also, we haven’t really found a bagel we love around here – not for lack of trying.

If you are a salmon fan, you know how well it pairs with other things, like baked potatoes and scrambled eggs. However, in an experimental mood, I wanted to try it with a fried, over-easy egg. And when I spotted the soft corn tortillas in the fridge, it came together.  After all, caviar (another love it or hate it food) is the perfect companion for sliver-thin blinis, so why wouldn’t Nova and corn tortillas be just as perfect?

Answer: they are.

You can cook and assemble this combo in no time. Which makes it great for one person or a bunch. If your making more than two tacos, use separate pans, and a helper to cook the eggs and the heat the tortillas. Then top them, fold them and hand them out for your own food truck inspired dinner. Be prepared to make more. They are that good. If you don’t want to use smoked salmon, use regular cooked salmon – but please not that canned stuff. No one will thank you for that.

Nova Tacos

Feeds two

2 Tbsp. butter

4 soft corn tortillas

4 eggs

4 oz smoked salmon

1/4 cup finely diced red onion

1 cup of watercress or arugula

salt and pepper to taste

Melt  a tablespoon of butter in each of two large skillets over medium heat.

Crack eggs into one skillet and cook until whites are done and yolk is still runny.

egg

In other skillet, briefly heat each tortilla, about 15 seconds on each side.

tort

Place tortillas on plates, top with eggs, salmon, onions and greens. Sprinkle with salt and pepper.

nova egg

You can fold them and eat them like tacos, or serve them open face to be eaten with a knife and fork.

 

Continue reading Nova for dinner – hold the schmear

Use it or lose it sometimes makes a great recipe

The old “use by” date challenge was facing me – again – when I opened the fridge this morning. I don’t know what kind of time warp happens in my refrigerator, because items that I swear I just put in there are suddenly teetering on the edge of badness.

Today’s contestants were a full container of ricotta cheese and half a jar of fig preserves that was opened in August. No mold – check. No bad smells – check.

Time to get busy.

The great thing about ricotta is that it is so versatile. Think outside the lasagna and stuffed shells, and you have options for desserts, apps and dips.

I decided on making a sweetish appetizer that could also make a great brunch dish or dip. You can make it ahead of time and heat or reheat just before serving. This is winning points all around, but the biggest score is its simplicity. We’re quickly approaching the open house/pot luck/drop by season, so why not have a winning recipe in your corner? And don’t worry about those people you know (and we all know them) who hate figs. The preserves add just the right amount of sweetness without making this taste like a Fig Newton.

I stuffed the Ricotta and Fig Dip into mini puff pastry cups, but it would also be great as a dip for gingersnaps, (giving everyone a break from the ubiquitous pumpkin/cream cheese dip). Or you can make a quick brunch dish by baking it inside a puff pastry, with the bacon served on the side.

Ricotta Fig Dip

6 pieces of bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled

16 mini puff pastry shells

1 cup ricotta

1/2 cup fig preserves

juice of half a lemon

1/2 tsp. dried thyme

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

In an oven-proof dish, mix the ricotta, preserves, lemon juice and thyme. Cover with lid or foil and place in oven.

Bake the puff pastry shells according to package directions at the same time the dip is cooking.

Remove the shells from the oven, and let the dip bake another 10 minutes.

Take the dip from the oven, remove the lid and let it cool five minutes.

While dip cools, remove the tops from the pastry shells.

Spoon the dip into each shell and top with crumbled bacon. Serve immediately.

To make this dish ahead of time, cook and crumble the bacon and refrigerate. Make the ricotta mixture and refrigerate or freeze it. (If frozen, let it sit at room temperature for 30 minutes before baking). Reheat the bacon in a skillet over low heat.

New trends have old roots

If you forget that America is a young country, as civilization goes, just look up “2016 food trends.”

Everything old – like, really old – is new again. Actually, some of the new predicted stars are ancient. Grains, such as farro, kamut and millet have been found in Egyptian tombs.

Another prediction is that we will move away from the sticky, sweet toppings and add-ins that kind of negate the advantages of yogurt, in favor of savory flavors from herbs, and garlicky sauces featuring vegetables. This will be welcome news for every tzatziki sauce lover out there.

And, since you can’t open a menu, or even visit a fast food drive-through without encountering sriracha sauce these days, it was inevitable that cooks are looking at other hot sauces to meet our new demand for savory heat. Many of the condiments chefs and home cooks will reach for have been used around the world for, you guessed it, a really long time.

Go ahead and practice pronouncing these sauces and pastes, including sambal, gochujang, dukka, yuzu and togarishi.

Today, however, we’ll start with a sauce that’s easier to find and that plays well with everything: harissa.

A blend of chilis, garlic, olive oil and spices that usually include dried mint, cumin and coriander, harissa is every cook’s friend. It comes as a paste or sauce and has origins in North African countries, including Morocco, Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria. Like most sauces, harrisa recipes differ from region to region and cook to cook. Some add tomatoes, some add rose petals.

For now, harissa is almost impossible to find in local grocery stores, which is OK, because it is easy to make at home, where you can customize its heat.

Even if you are not interested in being a trend jumper, you’ll soon be thinking of ways to add harissa to your every-day dishes. You can add it to yogurt for a dip, use it in marinades, or mix it with maple syrup and brush it on vegetables before roasting.

Of course, like most hot sauces, harissa really goes well with eggs, any way you cook them. Last Sunday, on a murky morning, my husband made a breakfast bowl of roasted new potatoes, sautéed onions and scrambled eggs. A fabulous comfort food, that could only be enhanced by a big dollop of harissa.

So, let’s get a jump on the coming year and make some harissa. Once the sauce is ready, you can put it in a glass container, cover it completely with a layer of olive oil, screw on the top and put it in the refrigerator, where it will keep for three weeks.

Here are some chili suggestions:

For moderate heat use a combination of Guajillo and New Mexico chilis

Bring on the heat by using Arbol chilies

Impart a smoky flavor with Chipolte or Marita chilis

For a rich sauce, use Ancho and Pasilla chilis

Harissa

16 dried chilis (any combination you like), with stems and seeds removed

1/2 tsp. caraway seeds

1/4 tsp. coriander seeds

1/4 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. dried mint

3 Tbsp. olive oil

1 1/2 tsp. salt

5 cloves of garlic, peeled

juice from one lemon

Soak the dried chilis in a bowl of boiling water for 20 minutes.

While they soak, add the caraway, coriander, and cumin to a small skillet over medium heat. Stir and toast the spices about four minutes until they are very fragrant.

Using a mortar and pestle or spice grinder, grind the toasted spices with the mint, then pour into the bowl of a food processor.

Drain the soaked chilis on paper towels, then add them, along with the olive oil, garlic and lemon juice to the food processor.

Pulse the mixture for about two minutes, until a smooth paste forms.

Sweet Inspiration

first pecans

Being a Hokie fan is not easy this year. They are making more false promises, flubbed plays and bad calls than this year’s crop of presidential hopefuls.

But, we can’t waiver in our loyalty, even as we watch yet another dejected crowd shuffle out of Lane Stadium before the game is over – that just doesn’t happen at Virginia Tech.

So, we watch and when we watch, we snack. And when we snack, we seek the comfort of salty/sweet perfection. During this season, we have used Chicago Mix popcorn (a combination of caramel and cheese popcorn) to dry our tears. But looking for a change last Saturday, I spied the bottle of flat root beer that I had been meaning to pour out.

And, who knows where kitchen inspiration strikes? I thought that pecans cooked in a little butter and root beer would ease our pain. Unlike a few of my previous inspirations, this one actually scored.

pecans cooking

And by scored, I mean got gobbled up almost as soon as it cooled.

As the root beer evaporates, it leaves behind its signature flavor and gives the pecans a nice sheen and chewy/crunchy bite. Next time, I’m going to try cooking them in the new non-alcoholic butter beer I just saw at the grocery store.

finished pecans

As the Hokies continue to either win, lose or just fall apart, we will continue to watch because now we have a great excuse to eat pecans.

Hey, I’m reaching here.

Root Beer Pecans

1 Tbsp. salted butter

1 cup pecans

1/2 cup root beer

salt to taste

cayenne pepper (optional)

Melt the butter in a skillet over low heat. Add the pecans and cook and stir about three minutes. Add the root beer and cook, stirring occasionally, until the root beer has evaporated. Pour the pecans on a plate and sprinkle with salt and a little cayenne pepper, if desired. Allow pecans to cool completely before serving, so they will crisp up.

Forget the parmesan, eggplant shines in caponata

caponataWell, the calendar, and the trees, say fall, but around here, the heat lingers and lingers. Our taste buds have grown weary of salads, but no one is ready for hearty fall casseroles and soups.

Caponata, a side dish of Sicilian origin, fills the gap between Fall and Indian Summer. It’s hearty, but light, and while it can be served hot, it is much better at room temperature or with a little chill factor.

Technically a relish, caponata serves as main dish around here. Scoop it up into warm pieces of pita and let the Mediterranean flavors take you away to sunlit shores. Actually, the other day, I made some for lunch with a friend, and we scooped it up with warm pieces of Indian naan bread. I love it when a hands-across-the-water dish comes together. Traditionally, caponata contains anchovies, capers and olives to give it that taste of the sea. Even this salt lover thinks that’s a tad too much.  So I ditch the anchovies and olives and add golden raisins. Or, confession, regular raisins, because I rarely keep the golden kind in my pantry.

The trick to caponata is low heat and plenty, plenty of olive oil when you sauté the eggplant because it sucks the oil up like a sponge. In fact, tests have shown that eggplant fried in oil absorbs four times more of the liquid than potatoes. If you want less oil in your dish, use a pot with a nonstick surface.

As fruits go, (a member of the nightshade family, eggplant, like the tomato is the fruit of the plant), eggplant is low in nutrients and offers an average amount of fiber. But its rich texture and ability to play well with others make it a frequent guest at dinners around here.

Use small eggplants for caponata, because the larger ones are often bitter on the outside and pulpy on the inside, and no one wants to deal with that.

Caponata

1/4 cup olive oil

3 small eggplants, diced

2 tomatoes, diced

1 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. capers, drained

1/4 cup red wine vinegar

1/4 cup golden raisins

1/4 cup pine nuts

1/4 cup fresh basil leaves, torn

In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat until the oil shimmers. Add the eggplant and cook, stirring occasionally for 10 minutes, until eggplant has softened and started to turn golden brown.

Add tomatoes and juices, onion and garlic. Cook and stir another 10 minutes.

Add capers, vinegar and raisins. Cook, stirring occasionally, another 10 minutes.

Meanwhile, heat a small pan over medium-low heat, add the pine nuts and toast until golden brown. Remove from the pan and set aside to cool.

Taste the caponata and add salt, if necessary. Pour the caponata into a serving bowl and allow it to cool to room temperature. You can serve it then, or refrigerate it. Stir in the toasted pine nuts and basil just before serving.