Sunday, September 11, 2016

Picky Eater

 My lovely little boy doesn't like crusts on his sandwich.  Because I don't like to waste anything, I find this to be totally and utterly irritating. 
  So, in the morning when one of us makes his sandwich for the beach cooler or the lunchbox, we diligently cut off the crusts before spreading Nutella or butter for a roast beef sandwich, whatever his taste buds dictate that day.  The crusts are tossed into a plastic bag stored in the freezer awaiting their future fate on our dinner plates.  Every time I opened the freezer door this summer, the bag, growing larger by the day, tumbled off of its perch onto the floor.  Annoying. 
  Unfortunately, all I could think of to make with these crusts was breadcrumbs which I found to be even more annoying because, really, how much breadcrumbs does one possibly need?  Until yesterday, when it occurred to my overworked brain that I could make a number of variations of the bread pudding variety.  DUH.
  The first recipe that came to mind was a long lost strata recipe made with goat cheese, loads of heavy cream, chunks of salty ham and rosemary, if I recall correctly.  Sadly, I have no idea where this recipe is now.  Also, I know my kids would not dare even try a bite, so that would leave me with a large pan of incredibly fattening fare to eat myself, although I'm sure Rob would help out.  But it is a really delicious dish for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
  Next, I remembered making "Good Morning Bread Pudding" at the Kids' Culinary Camp I taught a number of years ago at Highfield Hall.  Now this is something Ava and Declan would surely be glad to eat.  And what about that delightful, creamy sweetened bechamel and bourbon sauce to go with it?  Talk about naughty.
  With a few hours to spare on Saturday morning, I set about using up all those frozen crusts.  As I preheated the oven and whisked the eggs, Declan came sauntering into the kitchen, glanced into the pan that held the thawing crusts and declared, "I'm not going to like that."
  Have I mentioned how much this picky kid makes me absolutely insane?
  Needless to say, I wasn't very patient or nice with my retort, "It makes me angry that you decide what something tastes like before you even try it!"
  Declan slunk away and hid under a blanket on the couch.
   It must have been the smell of brown sugar and cinnamon baking in the oven, the scent of vanilla cooking in the sauce on the stove that brought him around.  Once I pulled the pudding out with its crispy, crunchy top and soft underbelly of eggy goodness, both kids came into the kitchen, noses sniffing the air, bellies growling.  Ava tried the sauce first and declared it a hit.  Declan gingerly did the same, then poured a bit too much on his plate.  He ate every last morsel before he held his stomach in protest against
another bite.
  That kid drives me nuts.

Good Morning Bread Pudding
(makes one large pan)

2 cups whole milk
1/4 cup butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
3 eggs
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups stale bread, torn into pieces

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Grease a large casserole dish or a 9x11 baking dish.
In a medium saucepan, heat milk and butter on low until butter melts.  Remove from heat.  In a large bowl, combine sugar, eggs, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla.  Whip with a whisk until whites and yolks are thoroughly combined.  Slowly add milk to egg mixture, stirring the entire time as not to cook the eggs.  Place bread in greased pan.  Pour milk and egg mixture over bread.  Bake for 45-50 minutes until set.  Remove from oven and allow to cool for a few minutes before serving.  Serve with warm maple syrup and Bourbon Sauce (recipe follows).

Bourbon Sauce

2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoon flour
1 cup whole milk
1/3 cup sugar
1 pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon bourbon

In a medium sauce pan, melt butter.  Add flour and stir with a whisk to create a roux.  Allow butter and flour to cook for about 5 minutes.  Be careful not to brown the roux.  Heat milk for 30 seconds in microwave.  Slowly add to roux, stirring with whisk to prevent lumps from forming.  Add sugar and salt.  Continue stirring for 3-5 minutes until mixture bubbles and thickens.  Add vanilla and bourbon.  Cook for 2-3 minutes more.  Serve warm with bread pudding.

Friday, September 9, 2016

September, School Days and Dinnertime

  No time for melancholy or sadness over the end of summer.  The scary feelings and anticipation of the first day of school have passed.  We are now at the end of the first week of school.  The leaves haven't yet changed and the air is still humid but there is a distinct, pervasive vibration that September brings.  Excitement and newness in the classroom signifies the end of freedom for a long while.  Flip flops and bare feet trapped inside sneakers and socks.  Books, computers and lockers replace sun, surf and sand castles.
  I always loved going back to school, so I try to convey this excitement to my kids even though this summer that just ended was almost too good to let go.  A whirlwind of activity: going here, going there.  Packing coolers, applying sunscreen, meeting friends, floating down a lazy river, jumping off the dock over and over again, eating ice cream instead of a well rounded dinner.  Exhausting. But completely filled with just about every fun summertime activity you could ever think of.  All of the memories stored in photos on my computer and phone.
  The crowds are gone, the mood in town is calm, slow.  Even the supermarket is all of a sudden, eerily quiet.  No waiting in line at the deli for lunch meat.   And the house is empty for most of the day which isn't a huge change from this summer.  The only difference is that now, I am in it and the kids are working hard at reading, writing and arithmetic.  The morning starts out great: sweet relief once they get on the bus especially after a particularly rough morning.  A sibling's harsh words, red rimmed eyes.  A swing of the backpack, the door slams. I open it and say, "Good bye, I love you, have a great day!"  She barely looks back at me.  The hours slowly creep by.  NPR and the Food Network voices fill the void that silence creates.  It's a bit lonely, really.
  The house springs back to life again at 3:17pm with another door slam and a "HI MOM!!!!"
"So, guess what?  Today, Lola totally went to the wrong class during 6th period and didn't realize until half way through that she wasn't supposed to be at band, she was supposed to be in science, she said, "OH NO! I'M IN THE WRONG CLASS!" so she ran down the hall and her notebook and ruler came flying out of her hands!" 
 The ultimate junior high embarrassment.  But all is well signified by giggles and a smile.
  I guess it went o.k. today?
 Five minutes later: "Hi Mom! What smells good?  What are you making? Can I have something to eat?" Dirty, sweaty, filthy boy hands reach for a handful of grapes.
"I was talking to Mom and you interrupted!!!"
Sibling rivalry, bickering and laughter. Household balance restored.
  The smell of roasting root vegetables, softening onions and crispy chicken skin fills the air in the kitchen.  Just last week, I would never have attempted to slowly bake a chicken for dinner, opting instead for a quick meal of pasta, grilled cheese or possibly a take-out pizza at the beach with a sunset swim. But now it's time again for those comforting meals at home.  The ones that signal that even after a crappy morning fight and misstep at school, everything is really going to be o.k.  Grab some fruit or sneak a cookie while you do your homework.  Because dinner will be ready soon.

  I've been trying to amp up my game in the roasting department.  It's not something that I naturally gravitate to when thinking about mealtime. This recipe is Ina Garten's with a few added details that have helped me.  Also, I substituted potatoes for the fennel in her recipe. I don't like fennel and my kids would likely pass out if I didn't serve potatoes with something like this.

Perfect Roast Chicken
(adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten, queen of roast chicken)

1 roasting chicken (5-7 pounds)
Kosher salt
ground black pepper
1 large bunch of thyme
1 lemon, halved
1 head garlic, cut in half crosswise
2 tablespoons butter, softened
1 large yellow onion, cut into 1/4's
a handful of carrots cut into 1" pieces
6 potatoes, peeled and cut into 1" pieces
olive oil
good bread

  Preheat the oven to 425 degrees
  Remove the chicken giblets.  Rinse the chicken inside and out and pat dry.  Liberally salt and pepper the chicken inside and out.  Stuff the cavity with 1/2 bunch of thyme, lemon halves and garlic halves.  Smear the butter all over the chicken and sprinkle again with salt and pepper.  Place the onions, carrots and potatoes in a roasting pan.  Toss with salt and pepper, a couple of teaspoons olive oil and remaining thyme.  Spread the vegetables evenly around the roasting pan and place the chicken on top.  
  Roast the chicken for 1 1/2 hours or until a thermometer reads 165 degrees when inserted into the thickest part of the thigh.  (Calculate approximately 15 minutes per pound for cooking time.)  Remove the chicken and vegetables to a platter, cover with foil and allow to rest for 20 minutes.  Slice the chicken and serve with the vegetables along with some good bread to soak up the delicious juices.


Monday, August 29, 2016

Tastes Like Home

 Until I was 15 years old, I never realized that there are people out there who don't know what a quahog is. Not to mention, those who cannot properly pronounce the word.  My summer job in a restaurant just around the bend from the ferry boat that carried mobs of tourists to Martha's Vineyard consisted of busing tables, giving directions and answering what I considered to be really dumb questions about Cape Cod that had obvious answers.
  "What is a  'kway-hogg'?" They would ask me.  I kept myself from rolling my eyes and answered as sincerely as I possibly could for what seemed like the fiftieth time that day.
  "A 'coe-hog' is a hard shelled clam.  The stuffed 'coe-hog' is chopped up quahog meat, added to stuffing, peppers, onions and linguica.  You'll like it.  You should order one."
  In my defense, I had never been outside of my small hometown on Cape Cod except for a yearly family excursion to my grandfather's house in Maine for Thanksgiving.  I was unaware of the reality that the majority of what we call quahogs are concentrated along the coast between Cape Cod and New Jersey.  So, how could the rest of the world, the tourists from Ohio, Michigan and everywhere else, know about quahogs?

  My childhood existed around these shelled creatures, loaded by the bushel into burlap bags that smelled of sea water, salt, mud and sweat.  After long days at his full time job working for the local electric company, my father, Dick spent his nights and weekends out on the "flats"  hauling up rakeful after rakeful  of shellfish, muck and assorted sea treasure found on the ocean floor.  He pulled it into his small craft then culled his catch, throwing back the seed and sorting through the rest.  The prized little necks and top necks for raw bars at swanky parties, cherry stones for clams casino featured as "specials" on seasonal restaurant menus and  the biggest ones, the chowder clams with the toughest, chewiest meat and the most juice used for clam chowder and stuffed quahogs. As he continually went through this process over and over again for hours at a time, he mentally calculated the price he would receive at market the next day when my mother dragged us kids to sell the smelly bag full of shellfish before heading to the beach for our early morning swim lessons. 
  Unfortunately, during those years, I did not understand or fully value the level of sacrifice to provide extra income for our family.  (Now that I lose sleep wondering how to pay for my own kids' needs, I often think about how quahogs paid for my college education.) Back then, I also hated the intensely strong, briny taste of those hard shelled clams.  To look at the meat as my mother chopped it up for stuffed quahogs or to watch as my dad slurped down a raw little neck seasoned with just a squeeze of lemon, made me gag.
  I honestly don't know when I came around the bend, when it happened that I actually liked the taste of shellfish.  Was it out with friends after work in a local dive bar, ordering cups of hot, steaming chowder and a beer, the bottle sweating and the label peeling off?  Maybe sampling a bite of stuffed quahog: savory stuffing studded with crispy, fried linguica?  Perhaps at a fancy, wedding in a country club I would otherwise never attend, a full raw bar on ice to show off the wealth of the bride's family?  I probably threw back a few raw bivalves topped with spicy cocktail sauce after being emboldened by the free drinks at the open bar.  Your guess is as good as mine.  Whatever the reason, and however I came to appreciate and truly enjoy the fruits of the sea doesn't really matter to me now.  I love that salty chew of the meat in a creamy chowder, the briny taste of the ocean in one gulp of raw fish on the half shell and best of all, I can't get enough of a good stuffed quahog, a meal in itself with the calorie count to match.  That buttery, salty stuffing, a squeeze of lemon, a few dashes of Tabasco sauce and an ice cold beer to wash it all down.  Heaven.

Stuffed Quahogs appear on almost every menu in restaurants on Cape Cod.  Even Mexican and Italian places often have their own versions of this local classic.   It's fun to make the rounds and sample everyone's version of what they believe to be the "best".  However, I still think my family's recipe is hands down the winner.  It's a bit of an undertaking to make a batch but if you do, add your own flair and call them your own "secret" recipe.

Stuffed Quahogs
(makes about 15)
Double or triple this batch and freeze stuffed quahogs individually up to 6 months.

1/2 package linguica
1 large onion
1 sweet red pepper
1 stick unsalted butter
1 box Ritz crackers (at least 3 sleeves)
3 dashes Tabasco sauce
15 chowder quahogs:meat, juice and shells (top and bottom)
optional: salt and pepper 

for serving:
lemon wedges
Tabasco sauce

Remove casing from linguica and cut into small pieces.  Cook on medium high in a large skillet until the edges become crisp, about 8-10 minutes.  Drain on paper towel.  Once cooled, cut into even smaller pieces/crumbles. Set aside cooked meat.

Dice onion and red pepper. Melt butter in a large skillet.  Add onions and red pepper.  Saute until softened, on medium high heat, about 10 minutes.  Smash Ritz crackers in a large bowl or pulse into small pieces using a food processor.  Add Ritz to butter mixture.  Stir to coat. Add Tabasco and cooked linguica.  Chop quahog meat into small, bite sized pieces (works well if quahog meat is slightly frozen).  Add to stuffing.  Add enough quahog juice to moisten stuffing, being careful not to add too much. Cook for stuffing for 7-10 minutes until a thermometer registers 165 degrees.  Taste and season with salt and pepper, if necessary.

Remove skillet from heat.  Allow to cook for 5 minutes.  Scoop stuffing into cleaned quahog shells, mounding up stuffing.  Top with matching shell.  Wrap each stuffed quahog in plastic wrap.  Keep in refrigerator up to 5 days or freeze for up to 6 months.  

To serve: bake stuffed quahogs in a 300 degree oven for 15 minutes or microwave individually on high for 1 minute.  If not heated through, add 30 seconds.  For frozen quahogs, heat in oven for an addition 10 minutes or microwave on high for approximately 2-3 minutes each.  Serve warm topped with a pat of butter, fresh lemon wedges and Tabasco sauce on the side.