Monday, December 28, 2009

Reindeer Games and Chocolate Cake

I hope that everyone had a happy Christmas and will have a happy new year. Christmas at our house was a great success as usual. The children received most all of the items on their wish lists, with the exception of my daughter’s Lexus SUV.  I feel her pain because I didn’t receive mine either.  Maybe next year.

My son is now the proud owner of a new guitar, an assortment of band t-shirts and a new thermometer for his fish tank. My husband and I exchanged smaller presents since we have agreed that we if we never bought anything else in our lives, we would still have too much stuff. My favorite gift was a huge assortment of mascaras. His favorite from what I can assess must be the small backpacker’s super absorbent towel that Santa delivered. Our dog Scruffy even had a month’s supply of beefy flavor treats and a toy bunny with a brand new squeaker stuffed in his stocking. We’re all pretty happy.

It was just the four of us at home this Christmas. Since it's pretty crazy in Texas this year (my book about these shenanigans is in the works) and my husband’s family wasn’t much better, we decided to stay close to home. I love waking up Christmas morning in my own bed, making a cup of instant (yes, instant, not drip) coffee the way I like it and opening our presents by the light of our own tree. Oh sure, I miss the variety and drama of a good ole south Texas Christmas with the family, but this year I decided to keep up to date via long distance.

When I was a child, I loved watching all of the excitement of a fireside family showdown but as you get older the chances of getting sucked to the middle of it increase dramatically and I wanted no part of that. My daughter was telling me about a website where you can read actual forwarded texts that are sent in by everyday people. One of her favorites said, “Its not Christmas till my mother cries.” This must have been sent in by one of my cousins because in my extended family Christmas just isn’t Christmas without a few tears. After listening to Charlie Sheen's wife's Christmas Eve 911 call, I take comfort in knowing that we're not alone.

Oh, I guess it really wasn’t all bad growing up in my family. In fact, when I think back on my favorite childhood Christmases, I seem to always go back to those mornings at my grandmother’s farm when everyone would open their presents together. We would then play with each other’s toys while our young mothers, with Dippity-do soaked pin curls scotch taped to the sides of their faces, would joke and laugh while preparing such 60’s favorites as Green Jell-O and Cream Cheese Mold, Ambrosia Salad and a gooey chocolate layer cake that I have no idea what it was called.

About three or four o’clock in the afternoon, after begging for any old scrap of food for what seemed like hours, we were ushered to our appropriate places. The younger ones of us were escorted to the kiddie table and the grown-ups took their places at the main table.  I loved sitting with the kids where the population knew how to gross each other out with their mashed potatoes.  The grown-ups just didn’t know how to have fun with their food. 

This year at our little celebration, there wasn’t any division of the generations by table. The four of us all sat together and shared stories and ate the prime rib that took about an hour longer than I thought it would and laughed. We watched videos together after dinner instead of engaging in a Andre Cold Duck infused row like the generations before us, and somehow we still managed to have a good time.

I must admit that I do miss most of my crazy family members who now have either drifted apart or passed away. I keep them alive by relying on my memories of them, cooking some of their wonderful recipes and by having a glass or two too many of inexpensive champagne with my dinner. Maybe those grown-ups knew a thing or two about having a little fun after all.

I'm not sure if this was the exact recipe that my mother used to make, but if there's a better chocolate cake in existence, I'd like to try it. This recipe has been a staple in American homes forever but if I introduce it to just one new person, my work here is done. Try it just once and I guarantee that it will make a regular appearance on your table.

Buttermilk Sheet Cake

1 cup (250ml) water
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/2 cup (125ml) vegetable oil
1/2 cup (113g) butter or margarine
2 cups (280g) all purpose flour
2 cups (400g) sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 cup (125ml) buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs, beaten

Preheat oven to 350 F (180C).

In a large saucepan, bring to a boil the water, cocoa, oil and butter or margarine. Mix the flour, sugar, salt and soda in a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the hot mixture and mix well. To this add the buttermilk, vanilla and the beaten eggs; continue mixing. Pour the batter into a greased and floured 9”x13” oblong baking pan. Bake in the preheated oven for approximately 20-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the middle. Remove from the oven and frost in the pan while still warm.

1/2 cup (113g) butter or margarine
3 tablespoons cocoa powder
1/3 cup plus 1 tablespoon (100ml) milk
1 pound (500g) icing sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

In a large pan set over medium heat, melt the butter with the cocoa powder and milk. Stir in the sugar and vanilla; whisk until smooth. Add the chopped nuts if desired; stir well and spread on the warm cake. Let cake cool before cutting.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Recession Cooking in the Deep Freeze 101

Brrrrr! Last week, after two days of cold and snow, we have finally started to warm up a bit. There was a huge storm blanketing the country and Colorado was smack, dab in the middle feeling the brunt of the intense cold. One night our temperature got down to -15 degrees. Needless to say, this south Texas transplant only opened the door to let my dog out to do his business (poor thing). I didn’t go to the grocery store for four days which was a record for me. I usually go everyday or every other day at the most for something or other. This is the reason that a bottle of milk usually costs me $40.00 by the time I leave the store. It was really a test of skill and imagination around here to whip up something delicious and new without leaving the house for supplies. After this exercise, I now feel confident that I could not only win at “Ready Steady Cook!” but I wouldn’t need any professional help to do it. The following recipes are some that I made during my time while I was shut in. I'm passing these recipes on to you in paragraph form this time because I really didn't use exact measurements for them. These are just guidlines for recipes that I hope you make your own by adding a bit more here or a bit less there or adding a few of your own favorite ingredients.

Luckily for us, on my last trip to the market before storm I took advantage of some after Thanksgiving sales of big meat. I got a big bone in ham and a pork roasting joint that are always inexpensive but that day I only spent $10.00 for both. I love taking the ham (about 5 pounds or 2 – 1/2 kilos) and slow boiling it for an hour or so to remove the excess salt, then placing it in 300 degree F (150C) oven for a couple of hours to heat through. I sliced about half of the it for dinner that night and sandwiches the next day, then froze the rest to use later. The pork joint is easier because all I do to it is rub it down with my favorite spice rub, place it in a preheated 325 degree F (160C) oven, uncovered for about an hour and a half a pound (500g) or, in my case about 6 hours. It may look dry but my 4 pound (2 kilo) joint was fall off the bone tender and juicy when I removed it from the oven (be sure to let the meat rest for ten minutes or so before slicing). This is a breakdown on how I used my leftovers for the next few days.

Day one: I sliced it and served it the traditional way with gravy and mashed potatoes.

Slow Roasted Pork Joint

Day two: I shredded the remaining roast, made some barbeque sauce (click on the "Sauce" heading on the left side of this page for the recipe) and some coleslaw, used about 2 cups of the meat, divided it equally among 4 toasted hamburger buns, topped it with the sauce and the coleslaw and Bob’s your uncle, that night we enjoyed great pulled pork sandwiches. My family didn’t even think about it being leftover from the night before. Serve these incredible sandwiches with crisps or chips and your family will love you forever. Don’t have buns? This is great on jacket potatoes too.

Pulled Pork Sandwiches with Slaw and Homemade Barbeque Sauce

Day three: I incorporated a bit of my leftover sliced ham from the freezer, pan fried it, placed it on a split French baguette that has been lightly spread with wholegrain mustard. I added a couple of the cups of shredded pork joint which I had warmed, a couple of thick slices of room temperature gruyere cheese, and some dill pickle slices. I closed the sandwich, cut it into 3 equal portions, buttered the outside of the bread and placed it in a hot non-stick pan. I then took my “kitchen brick” which is a plain old building brick that I have covered in foil and placed it on top to press down the sandwich. After a few minutes when it was browned, I turned it over and repeated the last step. The result is a delicious Cuban sandwich that your family will love. I usually serve it with a mayonnaise and mustard mixture on the side to spread on the sandwich if they seem to be a bit dry.

Cuban Sandwiches

There was still a little bit of meat leftover and I made a simple pasta sauce by frying a couple of rashers of diced streaky bacon until they are almost crisp, adding a small diced onion, a handful of diced mushrooms, a finely diced carrot, 2 finely diced stalks of celery. Sauté the vegetables until they begin to soften, and then add a large crushed garlic clove, sauté for a minute longer before adding 1/2 cup red wine and 2 tablespoons tomato puree. Stir the mixture well before adding a 1/2 cup of water or vegetable or meat broth, then add the remaining shredded pork (1-2 cups) and simmer slowly to cook off the alcohol. While this was cooking, I prepared about 1/2 pound (250g) ziti (or your favorite pasta) according to the package directions, drained it and tossed it with the sauce. Add salt and freshly ground pepper to taste before serving it with grated parmesan cheese. This will serve 4 – 6 people.

Shredded Pork Pasta Bolognese

With the some of the remaining ham I made a ham, cheese and red pepper quiche. I preheated my oven to 375 F (190C), took a store bought pastry crust and lined a pie pan with it, mixed 5 large eggs, 1/4 cup (65ml) cream, 1 cup diced ham, 1/4 of a large red bell pepper, finely diced, a couple of tablespoons very finely diced onion, 1 jalapeno pepper (optional, without seeds and membranes) and a cup of my favorite shredded cheese. Give this all a good stir, pour it into an uncooked pastry case and pop it into the preheated oven and cook it for 30 – 40 minutes or until it is brown and firm in the middle. Sorry there's no photo of this great quiche but we ate it so quickly, I quite honestly forgot.

I hope these recipes inspire you to cook frugally with the knowledge that you can make something fresh and delicious a couple of nights in a row with the same main ingredient.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

There's More Than One Way to Stuff a Turkey

As per my promise, I tried my Beer Can Turkey on Thanksgiving. Since I used a jar filled with white wine, my husband thought that maybe Mason Jar Turkey might be a bit more appropriate and I have to say I agree. I slept until I woke up (about 8 am), had my coffee, and got down to business. I set my oven for 325 degrees before I set about unwrapping and washing my 9-1/2 pound turkey. Ever since I watched a television show a few years ago about chicken processing and they showed thousands of them swimming in a “fecal soup” as they called it, I wash my poultry thoroughly. I know that the folks at Jennie-O thought that they were doing me a real favor by inserting a plastic truss inside, but since I was going to insert a glass jar up his rectum, I spent the better part of five minutes trying to remove it. Once the truss was removed, I rubbed the whole turkey down inside and out with a little olive oil, garlic, season salt and a good grinding of pepper. I then filled an empty 26 ounce (737g) glass pasta sauce jar about 2/3 of the way up with some chardonnay, then I added some lemon slices, garlic and salt. I then sat the jar in the middle of a glass 9x13” baking dish, gently sat the turkey down on top of it so that the jar propped it up. I then covered the neck opening with foil to prevent the moisture from escaping and popped it in the preheated oven where it cooked for 2-1/2 hours.

After the cooking time, I reached for my meat thermometer that is always in a cream pitcher next to my cook top. There was nothing there, vessel empty. Since I had been in the UK for two weeks, I figured that it must have accidentally gotten moved to one of my utensil drawers. No, no meat thermometer there. I racked my brain, tore my kitchen apart, cursed, and stomped my feet. I finally decided to strangle my husband once he returned from his morning walk because the Karen Harris jury trial had convened in his absence and had found him guilty and imposed the death penalty. Problem solved.

Luckily for my husband, I decided to take a shower and chill out. It was during this refreshing moment of solitude that a thought occurred to me. My son had been using my husband’s instant read thermometer barbeque tongs for sometime to check the temperature of his aquarium water and I was suspicious as to whether or not he had decided to upgrade his equipment during my absence. I tiptoed into his room and looked at my sleeping angel curled up all warm in his bed. I quietly made my way to his dresser and looked around the base of his aquarium and there it was, my $15.00 meat thermometer that had certainly been swimming with the fishes a couple of times a day, everyday for the past two weeks. I snatched it up in a huff, stomped towards the door, walked out and slammed the door behind me. How in the world was I going to disinfect my thermometer? I was so careful to cleanse my turkey and not cross contaminate my countertop or any utensils to keep my family safe from harmful bacteria only to be faced with having to jam a fish germ covered spike into the upper thigh of my much anticipated Mason Jar Turkey. Boys! Some parents of teenagers have to lock up the liquor cabinet. I guess I have to lock up my kitchen gadgets when I go out of town from now on.

I decided to go commando with my thermometer. I got out the disinfectant from under the kitchen sink and got the hot water stoked up. I scrubbed and dipped the spike until I felt like it was clean, then I did it again. I finally felt comfortable enough to check the temperature of my turkey. I shoved the thermometer into the thickest part of my turkey’s thigh and watched it until the numbers stopped at 178. Knowing that it would continue to cook for awhile I pulled it from the oven and allowed it to rest for 30 minutes. After its resting time I gently lifted the turkey off of the jar and placed it on a cutting board and began slicing. The result of all of this work was the most delicious turkey I have ever eaten. Normally dark meat people, I convinced my family to try the white meat first for blog review purposes. After the first bite they were hooked and now two days after Thanksgiving, all I have left in the refrigerator is a plastic bag full of dark meat. I guess I can proclaim this a success.

All of my side dishes turned out well enough. I have to admit that I’m not much of a stuffing maker. It seems like no matter what I do, I’m just not satisfied with the taste. My favorites seem to remain my step mom’s cornbread stuffing and the pork, sage and onion from Mark’s and Spencer; some things just can’t be improved upon. Well, that’s about it for this entry. I guess I’d better go, I’m out to hit the shops for the post Thanksgiving Day sales. This year I have something in particular that I’m looking for, a new $15.00 meat thermometer.

Mason Jar Turkey

I have to admit that this isn't one of my better photos but it gives you and idea about how the turkey looks after it's done still sitting on the jar.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Thanksgiving turkeys and pumpkin rolls

Thanksgiving is in a couple of days and since we live a thousand miles from my family, I will be doing things my way again this year. I’ve always looked upon Thanksgiving as the middle holiday. Sandwiched in between Halloween and Christmas, it is the starter course to the main dish of Christmas. When I was a girl, even though there were no presents involved, Thanksgiving was still pretty special because it meant getting together with my mom's family which was always an adventure. I would watch my mother begin the ritual a week in advance. Now I know that I’m no youngster but looking back these must have been near prehistoric times because my mother prepared a pterodactyl or a bird the size of one every year. Our refrigerator was totally dedicated to its thawing for what seemed like weeks. This giant fowl consumed the bottom shelf of our refrigerator for days, often leaking a watery pink liquid that was one of the only things that upon discovery could make my mother curse.

Finally Thanksgiving eve would arrive and my mother’s plans would be announced. She would wake up at 4:00 am (this is where things began to go wrong), season and prepare the bird and place it in the oven for its 12 hours cooking time (about 8 hours too long), for an estimated mealtime of 4 p.m. I hated this. Who eats a meal at 4 p.m.? I mean what do you call this meal? It isn’t lunch and it isn’t supper. I guess that’s why they really call it Thanksgiving. By the time you get to eat, you are starving and truly thankful for anything, even the petrified carcass sitting on the dining room table.

About 5:30 p.m. we would finally sit down for our meal. The turkey would always look beautiful but under that golden brown moist looking skin were breasts so dry they defy all description. Imagine that, thirteen hours in the oven and it was dry. Who knew? I love my mother and my love for cooking and eating was born at her knee but I always wondered why such a brilliant home cook would repeat this procedure year after year. I really think that it was some 60's rumor that if you didn’t bake the holy hell out of your bird, you would certainly kill your family and friends. In an effort to counteract all of the baking time and replace some of the moisture that escaped during the cooking, my mother would get creative. My two favorites were the turkey baked in a brown paper grocery bag and the other was adding oysters to her stuffing. Why she would take a perfectly good batch of cornbread stuffing and foul it with a couple of quarts of raw oysters in its liquor is a mystery to me. I really couldn’t tell you how it tasted because for some reason, I chose to eat only side dishes that year.

So here I am now, all grown up with a family of my own to torture on Thanksgiving. I’ve figured out how to combat the dreaded dry turkey, it’s called a thermometer. Between watching for the proper temperature and a couple of rashers of streaky bacon draped across the breasts, my turkeys usually turn out pretty good. Never one to leave well enough alone, I’m going to try my own version of the brown paper grocery bag this year, the beer can turkey. Karen and I tried this with chickens while I was in Nottingham with spectacular results only she had a specially made baking dish. Since I’m going to have to improvise, I figure all I need is a small turkey and a large glass jar filled with wine and spices. Then I plan on standing the turkey upright with the jar shoved up its bum and pray that it doesn’t topple over during the cooking. I will give a full report how it works on my next blog entry.

After all of this turkey talk you might be surprised that my recipe is for a sweet and not a turkey but I've got this recipe that I really want to share with you. I love traditional pecan pie but I must admit that pumpkin isn’t my favorite. I feel a little anti-American making that admission with the country’s love for pumpkin and all, so I thought that I’d try to find an alternate recipe that might be more to my liking. Last year our neighbor brought over a delicious pumpkin roll with a cream cheese filling so I thought I might give it a try. After much exhaustive research (I tore the label off the Libby's pumpkin tin and found it on the back), I finally located the recipe for this glorious dessert and present it to you here today. I usually prefer to stick with original recipes but this one is so good I’m going to make an exception. I hope you love it as much as I do.

Happy Thanksgiving everyone and all joking aside, enjoy every moment that you spend with your loved ones on this special holiday, even if you spend it eating dry white meat.

Holiday Pumpkin Roll

This is such an easy and delicious dessert. Although my photo is nice, I have to admit that I rolled it the wrong way (long side) and tried to reconstruct the pinwheel pattern with so-so results, but it really doesn’t matter how it looks because it is so delicious. Just imagine if you rolled it properly! This makes a great little holiday gift. Who needs cookies?!

3 large eggs, beaten
1 cup (200g) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (165g) canned pumpkin (or 2/3 cup of mashed sweet potato)
3/4 cup (75g) plain flour
1 teaspoon (5ml) baking soda
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) allspice
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
1 cup (125g) icing sugar for dusting

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180C.

Mix all ingredients in a large mixing bowl. Line a jelly roll pan that is approximately (9x13) with parchment paper or grease and flour well; spread mixture evenly in pan. Bake for 15 minutes. Press the center to make sure that the cake springs back and is done. Immediately turn out onto a linen kitchen towel which has been generously sprinkled with icing sugar. Remove parchment paper and sprinkle with more powdered sugar and roll up, beginning with the narrow end, in the linen towel; set aside until cool. Unroll, spread with filling, re-roll and sprinkle with more powdered sugar. Wrap with cling film and refrigerate. Store in the refrigerator.


2 tablespoons (30ml) butter, softened to room temperature
8 ounces (226g) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract
1 cup (125g) icing sugar

Mix well with electric mixer until well blended. Refrigerate until ready to use.

Easily serves 8.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Halloween, haggis and happy birthdays

I just got back from my annual trip to Nottingham. It started out as a real nail biter and ended as one as well thanks to the unpredictable winter weather in Denver. It is often humbling to realize that Mother Nature, not you, is often in control of your travel plans and if you don’t believe it just try and catch a plane during a snow storm. To make a very long story short, I made my connection in Houston by the skin of my teeth, flew on to Newark and in to Birmingham the next morning. The most surprising aspect of the whole trip was when my 2 bags, loaded with my UK hosts' wish list of American products and my clean underwear, came rolling out on the conveyor. It is times like this that make you appreciate the simple things in life.

Nottingham hasn’t changed much since I first laid my eyes on it. Oh sure there are subtle changes, restaurants that have closed and reopened under new names, a new modern art museum on the edge of the Lace Market and the silencing of the little old man who played the xylophone in the market square by his death a few years ago. The one thing that I find most comforting in life, is knowing that 5,000 miles from my front door, the oldest pub in the world is still open for business in this city’s center with no sign of closing its doors anytime soon. If you haven’t figured it out yet, I love this place and to arrive feels like I’ve slipped on a well worn favorite pair of shoes.

I arrived early on the morning of the 30th of October which gave me a little time to sleep off the jetlag, head to the store and get cooking. Karen’s village has embraced Halloween and I have to say that she is the inspiration behind it; not because she forces the issue but because she has made it so much fun over the years that you can’t help but get swept up in it. I do have to say though that the day takes on a darker tone there than it does in America. Where I have Snow White, Cinderella and Buzz Lightyear ringing my doorbell in Colorado, witches and the masked character from the movie Scream, seemed to be the popular costumes with the children here. One thing is the same however, the delight at having someone drop a handful of candy into your Halloween bag, is a universal thrill. I can’t tell you how lovely this quaint little village is by jack ‘o lantern light. Karen had a house full of guests that seemed to really enjoy the huge pot of Chicken Chili (which we have dubbed the official food of Halloween, find the recipe on ), a mild version of Texas Caviar, and hotdog bites in homemade barbeque sauce (recipe found on this blog) that was a particular favorite with the children, and lots of wine; great night all around.

On the 9th of November we left Nottingham for London to attend the Corporate Expatriate Relocation Conference and Exhibition which was put on by the people who are also responsible for publishing the American in Britain magazine. I loved meeting the publisher and finally putting a face to the name. After walking around the exhibition floor, we made our way to Notting Hill and Portobello Road to just shop around and have lunch. Since our train didn’t leave until 21.00, we had plenty of time to shop Oxford Street as well. I love London. It is without a doubt my favorite city in the world.

We had a couple of birthday celebrations for Karen who turned 29 again while I was there. It was at one of these that I was treated to haggis and neeps by Tim and Allie who live next door. I was very tentative because just the idea of sheep’s offal is a little off putting to me. I am here to report that it is actually quite good and the neeps (cooked and chopped potatoes and yellow turnips) that are traditionally served with it were a perfect accompaniment. It is now official, I will eat anything. At both of these celebrations we served salads as I was trying to perfect my favorite bleu cheese dressing recipe. I have to say that there is nothing better than this dressing with beetroot especially when it is grown at the bottom of Karen and Chris’s garden. As a matter of fact, I got to cook with a variety of homegrown produce provided by the village residents. Thanks to Tim for his hard work in providing us with fresh Swiss Chard, beetroot, celery and purple carrots and also thanks to Jane for giving us fresh eggs and freshly frozen raspberries for my first attempt at making a traditional Victoria Sponge which, if I do say so myself, was a culinary triumph. I’m a bit disappointed in myself that while I lived in England I spent too much time looking for American cooking ingredients instead of just enjoying the beauty that traditional English recipes have to offer. Oh well, better late than never. Instead of the run of the mill birthday cakes for Karen’s dinner and luncheon we prepared a lemon cheesecake with raspberry coulis and a Chocolate Lush (recipe found on this blog on my 4th of July '09 entry) both were delicious and huge hits with Karen’s guests.

Before I knew it, my time in Nottingham was over and it was time to fly back into the snow. I missed two weeks of beautiful weather in Colorado only to fly back into a winter storm. I don’t have much time to recuperate from my jetlag on this end of my trip either. As I type this the washer and dryer are humming and we are deep into birthday plans for my son Kevin’s 15th tomorrow. Thank goodness that his tastes are simple. A birthday pie or some churros are usually at the top of his wish list which is ok by me. Little does he know that he will also be getting a day off of school so we can stop by the DMV to get his learner’s permit. Let the wild rumpus begin! Oh well, I need some new stories anyway.

My new blog readers from Nottingham will be happy to know that I am a woman of my word and am attaching the recipe for my Herbed Bleu Cheese Dressing. This dressing is the difference between a good salad and a great salad. It is great poured over simple salad greens or even better drizzled over pear slices with crisp bacon crumbles and some glazed pecans.

Herbed Bleu Cheese Dressing

Not only is this a great salad dressing, it is also a wonderful dip for fruit, vegetables and, of course, chicken wings. I prefer making this the night before so the flavors have a chance to marry but if you don’t have the luxury of time, at least one hour will do. If mixture seems a bit too thick, add a small amount of milk at a time until desired consistency is reached. I usually don't endorse name brands but after making this several times in England using different brands, I have to say the brands noted below produced far superior results in my opinion.

4 ounces (113g) bleu cheese crumbles
1 cup (250ml) mayonnaise (I prefer Hellman's)
1/2 cup (125ml) cups buttermilk (In England, I think Sainsbury's is best)
1/2 cup (125ml) double cream or heavy whipping cream
1/2 teaspoon (5ml) garlic powder
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) dried thyme
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) dried or ½ teaspoon (2.5ml) fresh chopped dill
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) dried parsley
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) freshly and coarsely milled black pepper
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
Pinch of ground paprika or cayenne pepper for color and a spark of flavor (optional)

In a medium size bowl, combine all of the ingredients and gently whisk until the mixture is smooth and creamy but still with lumps of bleu cheese. Refrigerate for at least 1 hour or until ready to use. Store unused dressing in an airtight container in the refrigerator. Dressing may be stored for 7 – 10 days, if it lasts that long.

Yield: Approximately 2 cups (500ml)

Glazed Pecans

1 cup pecan quarters
1 tablespoon (15ml) butter
3 tablespoons packed soft brown sugar
2 tablespoons (30ml) water

Place pecans in a small frying pan that has been set over medium high heat. Stirring frequently, dry toast pecans until they are a golden brown and their aroma is released. Add butter and melt, add sugar and stir until the sugar is dissolved. Add water and stir well; cook for 30 seconds stirring. Remove frying pan from the heat and allow nuts to cool in the pan, stirring occasionally.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

First Anniversary Update by the Queen of All Things

For as long as I can remember when my sister gets mad at me she likes to call me controlling as if that is going to hurt my feelings. My only reply to that is a heartfelt “I know!” You’re going to have to work a lot harder than that to hurt my feelings, Missy. I’m sorry, but I really don’t think that that is such a bad thing.

We controlling types always have an answer for questions like “Where would you like to go for dinner?” or “What movie would you like to go see?” Where as those who have no control over their lives and never have an answer for anything, must quietly resent sitting in life’s backseat, having their lives ruled by the decisions of others. I don’t blame them, I’d hate that too. Maybe they ought to try blogging, what great therapy. This is my kingdom and I am queen of all things. All I can hope is that I am a good queen and that I often make my readers smile.

It’s hard to believe that I’ve been a blogger for a year now. When I first started doing this, I had no idea whether I’d still be hanging in there a year later or not. Well, if nothing else, I’ve proven to myself that I’m persistent, I love to write and I love to cook (which I already knew).

I wish that my mother and father, who have both passed away, had had a blog or a diary.  Just think of the things that I might have discovered about them. Having their thoughts written down on paper would have been priceless to me. I hope my children will someday take the time to read my blog and get to know me in a whole new way. Instead of just being that know-it-all at the bottom of the stairs yelling up at them to hurry up or go back up and brush their teeth, they might see me for the woman that I really am with insecurities and fears and most importantly, hopes and dreams.

I’m getting ready to pack my bags and head to Nottingham for my annual visit. As usual, I’ll be mooching off of Karen and Chris for a couple of weeks (boy, now that’s what I call true friends). A few things have changed since my last visit. For those of you who may have read my entry titled, A Mad Dash to Nottingham, it may come as no surprise that my friends lost their well loved 22 year old cat, Sammy. He is now pushing up daisies in a warm, sunny spot in their back garden.

Their oldest son Alex left for university a couple of weeks ago so their house will be a bit quieter this visit even though their younger son Conor is still around to stir things up a bit. Watching Alex make decisions about his future has been an interesting process as he is not only a scholar but he is also a rock star. No kidding, he is the lead singer and guitarist for a band called Frontiers. They just played at the Reading and Leeds Festival on the BBC new bands stage.

These guys are getting some great national airplay and reviews. It’s exciting to see good things happen to a talented group of young musicians. I hope they make it big for several reasons one of which I have to admit is pretty selfish. I have a beautiful young daughter with very expensive tastes that only a rock star or professional athlete could support. I may have to bring her with me next time so they can get reacquainted.

Since one of Karen’s other friends from America (that floozy) messed up my Fourth of July plans when she beat me to the guest room at Karen’s house, my trip got bumped out until November. It really worked out well because the timing puts me in Nottingham in the middle of things. I arrive the day before Halloween so I’m bringing a box of my handmade Peanut Butter Truffle Eyeballs.

Karen always has some fun Halloween party planned so these will be a fun addition. A few days later is Guy Fawks Night and the whole country gets fired up and let’s be honest folks, any reason for the British to get excited is alright by me. The night before I leave is Karen’s birthday and she turns twenty-five…again. I’m hoping to cook her birthday supper as my swan song. I’m going to bake her a cake although after living high altitude for the past six years, I’ve basically given up baking so I’m pretty rusty but she’s pretty forgiving, as good friends are.

I’m really pleased to tell everyone here that I’ve had an article published in the fall 2009 edition of American in Britain entitled Karen’s Recipe for Success. I am just thrilled to be in the same magazine as Housedoctor, Ann Maurice. My article is very similar to the material that I include here on my blog.

This article focused on my thoughts and experiences upon our arrival into the UK and how we ultimately settled in and had the time of our lives. I will be publishing the article in it’s entirety on my accompanying blog which is located at www.karen' Please stop by and take a look. Thanks so much to American in Britain’s Editor, Helen Elliot for being gracious enough for giving me this wonderful platform to showcase my writing and my recipe for Chicken and White Bean Chili. I hope this is only the first in a series of articles to come.

On a sad note, I got a call a couple of days ago that my great Aunt June who was the inspiration for my story, Dewberries and Copperheads passed away peacefully in her sleep. She takes with her many great recipes and a lifetime of experience in the kitchen. She was just a simple country woman who loved nothing more than her family and friends. She had her priorities straight alright. I’ll promise to always smile when I think of her and those delicious dewberry cobblers.

Peanut Butter Truffle Eyeballs

Ok, here I go, I'm breaking my own rule and I'm including a recipe with a hard to find American ingredient like white chocolate bark coating. Other than visually, it has no advantage over regular chocolate. In fact, it is inferior in flavor, it's just a fun look for Halloween. These do take awhile but if you are willing to take your time and be patient, you will really be pleased with the results. I first made this recipe with a group of mothers from my children’s school in the form of oversized Easter eggs as a fundraiser. I remember thinking then that these delicious rich sweets would be even better in two or three bite size form, so that’s what I’ve been doing ever since. If you prefer, melt a pound and a half of milk or plain chocolate in a double boiler with a tablespoon or two of vegetable oil, mix well and gently dip the truffles in it, sprinkle with crushed peanuts or sprinkles and allow to set for a couple of hours before trimming and serving. Decorated to look like eyeballs, Easter eggs, Christmas balls, dipped in chocolate or whatever, the important thing is to have fun with them make them your own.

3 – 4 ounce sticks (339g) butter, softened to room temperature
3/4 cup (375ml) peanut butter (I like crunchy, my son likes smooth)
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) vanilla extract
1-1/2 tablespoon (22.5ml) light corn or golden syrup
4 – 6 cups icing or powdered sugar, plus 1 cup extra for decorating
1 – 24 ounce (680g) package white chocolate bark candy melt coating (or you can also use 24 ounces of chocolate chips melted with 2 tablespoons vegetable oil and mixed well)
1 – 1 pound (500g) bag candy coated chocolate candies (such as Smarties or M&Ms)
Red and Black paste food colouring
1 – 2 tablespoons (15 – 30ml) milk

Place butter, peanut butter, vanilla extract, light corn or golden syrup in a large bowl and blend on the medium speed of and electric mixer until well blended. Slowly mix in icing sugar one half cup at a time until you have a thick and heavy yet smooth mixture about the consistency of toothpaste.

Line a couple of cookie sheets with paper towels that are at least 3 – 4 sheets thick. Scoop truffle dough in rounded teaspoons and roll in round balls between your palms. Place truffles side by side on paper towels. Recipe makes approximately 48 truffles. Place a double thickness of paper towels on top of truffles and let set overnight (approximately 12 – 18 hours).

Place your candy melts or chocolate in the top of a double boiler and allow to melt. Gently dip each truffle in the chocolate and carefully transfer to a waxed paper lined tray; repeat until all truffles have been dipped. A couple of words of caution here, be careful not to be too rough when dipping the truffles because if they begin to break apart the peanut butter could cause your chocolate to become grainy. If you like, you can gently tap excess chocolate from your truffle but too much tapping can cause the truffle to break apart which can spell disaster for your chocolate. The amount of dipping chocolate called for is just barely enough so there isn’t too much for waste so if you feel a bit unsure your first time you may want to buy extra to give yourself a bit of “wiggle” room.

After the truffles are dipped and before they set up, without picking up or moving, gently push an iris coloured M&M or Smartie in the center of each “eyeball”; allow to harden. After the eyeballs have hardened, gently pick up each and carefully trim extra chocolate from the bottom of each with a sharp paring knife.

In a small bowl, mix 1 cup of icing sugar with just enough milk to form a very thick icing to decorate. Remove 1/3 of the icing and mix with black paste; place in a small zipper seal bag and set aside. Mix the remaining 2/3 of the icing mixture with red decorating paste and place in a zipper seal bag; clip a tiny piece from the corner of the bag and squeeze squiggly lines onto the surface of the eyeballs to look like veins, repeat with all of the eyeballs. Clip a tiny hole from the corner of the bag holding the black icing and squeeze a black dot in the center of the Smartie to resemble a pupil; repeat with all of the eyeballs. Allow to dry.

Truffles are best stored covered in the refrigerator and will keep that way for about a week.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Ginger Haired Babies and Pizzas on the Barbie

My two grown nieces just left here after a five day visit. My younger niece, Kheili had flown up for a friend’s wedding and her sister, Melanie had decided to come with her. All of this just happened to take place on my birthday weekend which made it doubly special for me. Accompanying them, were Melanie’s thirteen month old fraternal twin boys, Harper and Hayes. I don’t even know where to begin with these two. Everyone says that the babies in their families are cute and these boys are no exception. They both have red hair so they make absolutely everyone smile as soon as they see them. I mean, you KNOW that these two are trouble. They have creamy white complexion with rosy red cheeks and noses to match. My arms ache as I write about them. My niece and her husband affectionately call them “Big Truck” and “Pretty Boy” so let me tell you, in case you haven’t gotten the picture, they are cute with a capital “C” times 2.

For a couple of days prior to their arrival we dug through drawers, in tops of closets and under beds trying to find things to amuse our two little visitors without sending them to casualty. We came up with a few things that were pretty much left unscathed by my son Kevin’s own childhood; a big yellow bucket of plastic Duplo blocks, a squishy yellow spiked ball, a couple of plastic handled cups (I know kind of lame but they loved them) and a 14” tall Robocop doll (sans removable arms) that now only repeats two of his four original sentences “Hands up Creep” and “Drugs are trouble.” I kind of like this toy because I believe that boys are never too young or too old to hear an authoritative voice shout these two phrases just in case they ever consider coloring too far outside of the lines. Kevin is a great kid at 14. You never know, maybe we have Robocop to thank.

It has been a long time since we have had to suffer the agonizing effects of toddler toys in the floor. I have forgotten how stepping on a Duplo block in tender bare feet will bring a toddler, teenager or grown-up to their knees. Who needs land mines? Throwing a couple of hundred of these babies down in the dark would be a great booby trap for wartime combat. All you would have to do is figure out how to get the enemy’s shoes off. On second thought, that might be a bit cruel and unusual even for the worst of enemies. It was with great relief that I placed them back at the top of the closet where they belong.

After an action packed five days, a couple of bottles of good wine, lots of great food which included two birthday cakes (one tasted so good, we went and bought another), I sadly watched my two beautiful girls pack up that precious little wrecking crew and board the plane bound for Texas. I wish we’d gotten to the zoo like we planned but there just weren’t enough hours in the day. It’s all that napping, crying and diaper changing that are the big time wasters. Now all that’s left are a couple hundred thousand fingerprints and a wheelie bin full of “wild” nappies. Thank goodness, the trash man cometh.

I’d love to end this story with a paragraph about how much those little boys just loved my garlic mashed potatoes or my Bistro Chicken more than anything they had ever eaten but I'm afraid that's just not the case. I think that they really loved my Jell-O Jigglers the best and there’s not much of a story in that. I've decided I'm going to share my recipe for Barbequed Pizzas with you here today. I have been wanting to find the right time to share this recipe with you all summer long and I guess that it's now or never. If you have never cooked your pizzas on the barbeque, please give this recipe a try before the cold weather chases you inside for the winter. It is such a treat. The crust is crisp and very reminiscent of rustic brick oven pizza. We dined on these the second night the girls were here with a crisp salad dressed in a French vinaigrette and a cold Pinot Grigio. You do have to plan ahead a bit and mix the crust together at least 8 hours in advance but it’s worth the effort because it’s so easy to throw together at meal time.


If you’ve run out of end of summer garden party ideas, here’s one for you. I cook one side of the pizza base on a well oiled barbeque grill. If you have a gas grill, you can do this well in advance of your party, it’s a real time saver. Then when I'm ready, I heat my barbeque back up and have my guests place their favorite toppings on the cooked side from a topping bar that I have set up and then I return the pizza to the grill to finish the cooking process. Everyone has a great time with this, especially children. This recipe makes 4, 8 - 10” pizzas. I really prefer fewer toppings rather than more. The simple flavors of tomatoes, cheese and maybe a few artichokes or a sprinkling of pancetta is perfection. This recipe can be easily stretched by adding an additional cup of all-purpose flour without the addition of any other ingredients to the dough. I call for all purpose flour here because I prefer the crispness it produces as opposed to a chewier dough that some other flours may produce.

Pizza Dough

2 cups (320g) all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon (5ml) sugar
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 - .25 oz package (7g) active yeast
1 cup warm water
4 tablespoons corn meal (optional)
Oil or non-stick cooking spray for the barbeque

Mix dry ingredients together in a large bowl. Form well in center and mix in water. Mix the dough until it forms a ball. Knead to a smooth, elastic texture. Place in a well greased bowl, turn over to oil all sides and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate for at least 8 hours.

After 8 hours, remove dough from the refrigerator and roll it out onto a well floured surface. Divided it into 4 equal portions, roll into round balls and flatten into discs that are approximately 1/8” thick. Dust a surface with ½ of the corn meal and place discs on surface to rise while you preheat the grill to medium high. Sprinkle the dough with the remaining corn meal, press gently with fingertips.

Brush preheated barbeque liberally with vegetable oil or spray with non-stick cooking spray. Place pizza dough on barbeque and close cover. Bake for approximately 5 minutes or until dough is golden brown; remove from heat and turn where cooked side is facing up. Top cooked side with crushed tomatoes or olive oil and desired toppings. Return pizzas to the barbeque and continue cooking until they are golden brown and bubbly. I’m fortunate in the fact that my barbeque has a cover and a top rack so I can move my pizzas up and they can benefit from the more intense heat at the higher level inside my grill so they get nice and brown. If the bottom begins to burn, transfer pizzas to the top rack of the barbeque. If you don’t have a second rack, you may want to place it under your indoor grill or broiler for a minute or two to brown it a bit more.

Pizza Topping Suggestions

15 ounces (425g) tinned crushed tomatoes
Garlic infused olive oil
8 ounces (226g) thinly sliced fresh mozzarella or shredded Italian blend cheese
Sautéed asparagus
Sliced Mushrooms
Sliced bell peppers
Thinly Sliced Red Onion
Chopped tomatoes
Chopped artichokes
Roasted black or green olives
Chopped sun dried tomatoes
Italian sausage
Cooked Pancetta
Freshly grated Parmesan
Red Pepper Flakes

Monday, September 7, 2009

My life in dogs

I love it when the house is quiet and I’m left alone to concentrate on my culinary creations. I say alone, even when my husband’s at work and the children are at school, I am never truly alone. Since we are a family of dog lovers, I have had a string of loving companions by my side every moment of every day for my entire adult life. Over the years we have had some great dogs and some that were no more than terrorists in fur coats.

One of the bigger characters we adopted was a dog we named Roxanne. Roxanne was the first (and last) big dog that we ever owned or, should I say, ever owned us. When we rescued her from our local shelter she was shy and scared of her own shadow. I cringe to think what made a six month old puppy so frightened of everything. We worked with her tirelessly and it took a couple of weeks, but we gradually won her over and she was soon acting like she owned the place. Roxanne’s specialty was chewing; before we knew it, she had chewed the accent lighting off our deck in the back garden and disabled our air-conditioning by chewing the wiring in two. As if this wasn’t enough to make us want to kill her; she also took great pleasure in sliming our young daughter’s head and making her cry by either pushing her down or scratching her with one of her enormous paws. I hate to admit it but getting away from Roxanne definitely factored into our decision to move to the UK. We were sad yet greatly relieved when we dropped Roxanne off at her new home in the country with the sweet old lady who, no doubt soon after we left, was walking around her home in the hot Texas sun wondering why her air-conditioning had stopped working.

Sorry, I've gotten ahead of myself so let me back up a bit. When my husband and I got married, my dowry was a beat up Datsun 200sx and a beautiful blonde cocker spaniel named Kara. Kara was a well bred, gentle creature that never thought to growl or snap at anyone or anything. Never ones to leave well enough alone, we soon bought a black and white cocker spaniel to keep her company. Louie, as we named him, was a crazy little monster from the start. He loved knocking the trash bin over and making a huge mess while digging through it. He once ate a metre long piece of cling film out of the trash and had to have it extracted through his business end. He was an escape artist as well. He once made his way to freedom through a hole in the fence wearing one of my new bras that became looped around his neck while rummaging through our dirty clothes basket. Thank goodness that one of our more friendly neighbors brought him to our door before he got too far. Our relationship with him ended abruptly when he bit our baby. Even that adorable black and white spotted face couldn't save him from that one. Kara on the other hand was with us until she quietly slipped away from us from natural causes at a ripe old age. We still miss her.

We had a blissful five year gap between family pets during the time we lived in the UK. Upon our return back to the US, we could no longer put our children off with vague promises and adopted the critter that we still have to this day from our local human society. The day we adopted him, we were escorted into a small room packed with dogs of all sizes. The barking was deafening. Off in the corner, on the bottom row of crates that were stacked three high was this little white head peeking through not making a sound. I instantly fell in love with this silent little guy (check out his photo on my January 31, 2009 post titled, Weighing In). We took him home and named him Scruffy. We have lived happily together ever since. Oh sure, he has his faults but they don’t seem so bad next to a biter and a chewer. If you ask me, he’s right up there with Kara, a world class dog and to top it all off, he has only barked once or twice since we have adopted him. Good boy!

All of these dogs, as different as they may seem, all have one thing in common. They have all been an integral part of the canine tasting and clean up crew in my kitchen. Since there is always a lot of cooking going on, there is also a lot of food dropping goin on. Oh sure, some have been easier to please than others. Louie loved anything from chicken bones to cling film. One of his favorites was the occasional ice cube that would dislodge itself from our aging in-the-door ice dispenser and crash to the floor in a spectacular burst of ice shards. He would run over like a streak, greedily gobbling up every bit as if was raining beef fillets. With Louie around, there was no such thing as the five second rule, nothing lasted on our floor that long. Scruffy on the other hand is a bit more picky, he would never eat an ice cube, he detests eggs of any kind and prefers only red gummi bears. From one extreme to another.

The first recipe I have chosen to share here is a tribute to a great dog. It is just as simple as it is delicious; it is for my crisp and buttery croutons. Kara just lived for the day I dropped one of these on the floor. Since there are usually so many of these crowded on the sheet pan and they have to be stirred, chances are pretty good that a handful of them will land up spilling off the side of the pan. These are best when gently tossed with only the very best salad dressing. Coincidentally enough, the recipe for my extraordinary (if I do say so myself) Caesar salad follows. I am really doing my best to reinstate Caesar’s good name here. In years passed, Caesar dressing has gotten a bad name because so many restaurants passed off so many poor versions that no one really knows what good Caesar dressing is supposed to taste like anymore. As a college student, I tossed up hundreds of Caesar salads for members of Houston society to rave reviews which I feel makes me somewhat of an expert. Served with either a grilled steak in the summer or a comforting bowl of soup in the winter, this is a dish for all seasons.

Crispy Buttery Croutons

I know that this sounds like a lot of butter but they are just perfect when they are buttery and crispy. I usually double this recipe because in addition to being great as a salad topping, they are an awesome snack. This is a great way to breathe fresh life into any type of lightweight bread stuff that is about to go off. You’ll never buy store made croutons again.

2 ounces (1/2 stick) butter
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) garlic powder or 1 small clove garlic very finely minced
1/4 teaspoon (1.25ml) onion powder
6 slices stale sandwich bread
1 tablespoon grated Parmesan cheese

Preheat oven to 300F, 150C, Gas Mark 2.

In a small saucepan, over medium low heat, melt the butter with the garlic and onion powder. Set aside.

Place the bread on a cutting board. With a serrated knife, remove the crusts if desired and then cut into 9 cubes of equal size.

Place bread cubes in a large bowl; drizzle 1/2 of the butter mixture and cheese over the top of the bread cubes. Toss bread to coat. Pour the remaining butter and cheese on top and toss until the bread cubes are covered.

Transfer bread to a large shallow baking pan or cookie sheet; spread out in a single layer. Place in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 30 minutes, stirring every 10 minutes or so until the croutons turn a golden brown and are crispy all the way through. Remove from the oven and cool completely. Place any uneaten croutons in an airtight container.

This recipe makes enough for a couple of Caesar salads or one salad and a midnight snack.

For something different, feel free to add small amounts of herbs such as thyme, dill or sage to the butter.

Caesar Salad

Although its exact origin is unclear, one thing that is clear is that it has been a well loved salad recipe since the mid 1920s. For me, it had its origin in a little Italian restaurant in the Montrose area of Houston in the late 1980s where I learn to make it and it has since become one of my signature dishes. I love changing it up by adding chilled (never hot) chicken, shrimp or salmon or vegetables like avocado, asparagus, tomatoes or cannellini beans.

½ teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
1 large clove garlic
2 spring onions, dark green parts only, finely chopped
1 small anchovy (optional)
1-1/2 teaspoons (7.5ml) Dijon mustard
1 egg yolk
1/3 – 1/2 cup (80 – 125ml) olive oil
2 – 3 teaspoons (10 - 15ml) red wine vinegar
1 teaspoon (5ml) freshly squeezed lemon juice
Generous amount of freshly milled pepper
3 tablespoons (45ml) Parmesan cheese, grated, divided
1 medium head of Romaine lettuce, spines removed, torn into bite size pieces
1 heaping teacup of homemade Crispy Buttery Croutons

Pour the salt in the bottom of a large salad bowl. Take two forks, stab garlic clove toward one end with one of the forks. Holding the clove down with the fork, shave the garlic with the edge of the other fork until it is completely crushed. Add the spring onion and grind between the bowl and the fork. Repeat the same procedure as the garlic with the anchovy. If you don’t have any anchovies or don’t care for then like me, don’t worry, you’ll still have great results without them. Add the mustard and stir the contents of the bowl together. Add the egg yolk and stir well. Stirring quickly with the two forks or a small whisk, drizzle the olive oil slowly into the egg mixture. Stir until the yolk and oil emulsify and form a thick and creamy mixture which is the consistency of mayonnaise. Stir in the vinegar, lemon juice, a generous grinding of black pepper and ½ of the Parmesan cheese. Sprinkle the lettuce leaves and croutons on top of the dressing in the bowl. At this point you can either cover and refrigerate and wait until later to toss and serve, or gently toss. Sprinkle the top with the remaining Parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Serves 2 - 4

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Night Swimming and Midnight Buffets

It hasn't been much of a summer here in Colorado. A few days ago was the coldest day ever recorded in our state in the month of July. It has rained every afternoon for as many days as I can remember. This really wouldn't be much of a problem, but in Colorado summer storms are accompanied by thunder, lightening, hell fire and brimstone. My poor little dog is on his last nerve.

Everyone knows by now that I was raised in Texas. I guess that it is just conditioning but when I think of summer, Texas summers are what come to mind. The black pavement on the streets would become so hot that as kids, we actually fried eggs on them. We were always a bit disappointed that they didn’t sizzle, but as I remember, even though it took them about half an hour to reach a sunny side up degree of doneness, the results were pretty satisfying. I guess you could say that this was how I got my start in cooking.

A few years later when I had outgrown my street side egg frying days, summer meant cut-offs, halter tops, Fleetwood Mac and freedom. No school, no work, no parental constraints. Since we lived in a town of not quite 6,000 people, parents weren't too concerned about what their teenagers were up to. I’m sure that they figured the shenanigan factor was pretty small. Boy, were they ever wrong.

By the summer before my senior year in high school, the drinking age in Texas was 18. This meant that we could actually load up a tapped 16 gallon keg in the back of someone’s pick up truck, and drive from location to location looking for a comfortable place to hang out for the night. I was never a big beer drinker so I was usually the designated driver even though back then if you were pulled over by the police and found to be intoxicated, the worst that usually happened was that your parents would be called to come and get you. I’m not saying it was right, that’s just the way it was.

In these days there was no shortage of places to set up shop. As you can probably imagine, rural Texas towns had an endless spider web of desolate country roads which is where we would head if everyone’s parents were home and there was no where else to go. We had landmarks that are still known to the local teenagers by the names that my generation gave to most of them. There was Twin Gates, The Slab, an old large trestle bridge known as Weber’s Bridge and my favorite, Mustang Creek

Mustang Creek runs under a nicely paved bridge in a seldom traveled part of the countryside. It was actually one of the few creeks in this area that was big enough to contain water even during a summer drought. Although it might be a friendly looking body of water during the daylight hours, night swimming in the wild is quite risky and you are constantly aware of the threat of being eaten by an errant sea monster lurking under the surface of the dark water. Add this to the distinct possibility of having the constable’s spotlight shining on your half naked body and a ticket for trespassing, and you felt like James Bond breaking into Goldfinger's hideout.

On one side of the road was a wide creek with a soft bank perfect for lying under the stars and talking, while on the other side of the creek was a pretty high cliff which was usually used as a diving platform after enough liquid courage had been consumed. As the girls laid on their backs in wet underwear (no skinny dipping for us) listening to Peter Frampton from a car stereo we would watch the boys jump to their almost certain deaths, and talk about other boys, graduation and big plans for the future. We had no idea how lucky we were to be at that very place at that very time without a care in the world.

After a night of too much laughing, too much drinking and just too much fun in general, we would frequently descend on someone’s house like a swarm of hungry locusts. We really couldn't have had it better. Since half of my friends came from Czech/German homes, which were affectionately known as Bohemians, and the other half of them came from Mexican homes, we had an invitation to an international buffet anytime we craved it. The Mexican mothers usually had lots of fresh tortillas or homemade tamales while the Bohemian mothers would have a refrigerator full of slightly more exotic ingredients. One good friend’s mother would usually have a kind of a terrine of sorts that consisted of pigs’ feet, bay leaves and peppercorns in jelly that would be cut in slices and have white vinegar drizzled over it. I know that it sounds a little gross, and it was a bit, but it was also pretty fun to eat at midnight. Follow this up with a piece of her heavenly poppyseed cake or one of her summery peach kolaches, and even the most voracious case of munchies was satisfied for the night.

Don't worry, I'm not going to do pig’s feet in jelly this time. I would like to do it some day because it really is delicious and it is just one of those heirloom recipes that should be keep alive. I thought this time I would do a Mexican style dessert recipe that everyone will just love. It is really easy and the results are spectacular.

Peachy Mexican Dessert Burritos

1 cup (250ml) water
1 cup (211g) sugar
½ cup (125ml) peach schnapps (delicious but optional)
½ cup (113g) butter
Pinch of salt
8 – 8” flour tortillas
1 large tin (29 ounce/822g) peaches drained and cut into bite size pieces
2 tablespoons (30ml) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon (5ml) ground cinnamon
½ cup chopped pecans, toasted

Place the water, sugar, schnapps, butter and salt in a medium size saucepan over medium heat and bring to a simmer. Cook until butter is melted; set aside until ready to use.

Lay one tortilla on a clean, dry surface and place a couple of heaping tablespoons of the chopped peaches in a strip slightly off center of the middle of the tortilla. Roll the tortillas up in a cigar fashion starting with the long side parallel to the peach strip. Place side by side in an oblong baking dish that has been sprayed with non-stick cooking spray. Pour the sauce gently over the top of the burritos; cover and set aside for 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees/180C/ Gas mark 4.

In a small bowl combine the sugar and cinnamon. Sprinkle over the top of the burritos and place the dish in the preheated oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes. Dish should be golden brown and bubbly. If dish starts to brown too much, cover with foil and return to the oven for the remainder of baking time. Remove from the oven and cool for 10 minutes.

While burritos are cooling, place the chopped pecans in a non-stick frying pan that has been set over a medium high heat. Watching carefully and stirring frequently, toast the pecans to a medium brown. Transfer to a plate to cool; set aside until ready to use.

Place one cooked and slightly cooled burrito on a serving place and drizzle a couple of tablespoons of the syrup over the top. Serve warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a sprinkling of the toasted pecans. If you don't care for peaches or want to change things up, feel free to use cherry or apple pie filling instead.

Serves 8

Monday, July 6, 2009

A Midsummer Night's Tale

Everyone in the UK will be glad to know that many of the 4th of July crazies are safely in residence here in Colorado. No kidding, yesterday as I was making my daily trip to Walmart, here came “Mr. Patriotic”, up from behind me on the interstate with a full size American flag draped across the roof of his car, tucked into his windows, blowing wildly in the wind. When I was in school, we were taught that there were strict rules about the American flag. As I recall, we were told that if it even touched the ground (no five second rule here) it was to be surrendered and ceremoniously burned by a military entity, so I don’t suppose wrapping your 1988 Chevrolet in it is proper flag etiquette. I guess that this rule has gone the way of many traditions, as dead as fish on Fridays.

When I was a very young girl, the 4th was a day of parades, family parties and fireworks. Since we usually visited my grandmother’s farm in the country, we would have to make our own fireworks display which was OK by us. After all of our relatives arrived and hours of begging, our fathers would pack all of the children into the back of the station wagon and head to the nearest fireworks stand. Now, I’m not really sure why we were always so excited because our purchase was the same year after year, hundreds of firecrackers, a handful of snakes (that never worked properly on my grandmother’s dirt driveway) sparklers (lots and lots of sparklers), a couple of bundles of bottle rockets, and, for dads only, the “ultra dangerous” eight shot Roman Candle. Did I mention this was a simpler time? Anyway, having blown our entire budget we would jump in the car and head back to my grandmother’s anticipating a night of dazzling pyrotechnics.

Waiting for the sun to set was pure torture for me and my cousins. Our parents held us off as long as they could before giving us a paper bag full of sparklers and firecrackers and a punk (or in a tight spot, a lit cigarette – remember, a simpler time) to set the lot ablaze. We headed out to my grandmother’s drought ridden crispy dry front garden and got to work on having fun. If my memory serves me, every year was much the same; we would all land up with sparkler burns, ringing ears due to multiple firecracker blasts and a grass fire that would usually have to be extinguished by a small brigade of inebriated uncles. About this time, all of the drama would catch the attention of the women in the family who would sharply question the sanity of the men and accuse them of “trying to kill their children” all the while wiping our tearstained faces and putting ice on our burns. Aahh, good times!

Mercifully, night would finally come. The men of our family would begin preparations for the big show by digging holes for the Roman candles and lining up thick returnable Coke bottles for the bottle rockets. We took our places on blankets that were thrown over the prickly ground and watched the grand finale, soaking up ever minute of splendor that $20 could buy. By the time the brief but oh so spectacular show was over, we were exhausted and comforted in the knowledge that all the men would soon be doctoring finger burns of their own.

This year I spent the day of the 4th refinishing furniture. Since it poured rain for a good hour, my husband and son decided that this was the year to ignite the “bombs” that they had imported from Texas and had been dangerously aging in the top of our closet for the past two years. Usually it is so dry here that fear of the sheriff and of burning down the state of Colorado keeps the big aerial fireworks packed away. The old sayings “Lock you up and throw away the key” and “Throw you under the jail” come to mind.

Like so many other “kids” across the country, my son and husband paced a hole in the carpet until the sun set and the night was aged to perfection. When they concurred that the time was right, they took their fireworks and walked out into the street and to the spot that had been carefully chosen during the daylight hours. All was right with the world until I caught my 14 year old son trying to light the first fuse. Before I could stop I found myself questioning my husband’s sanity and asking him if he was trying to kill my child. I guess some traditions don’t die after all. I’m happy to report that we had a beautiful show without any injuries, fires or arrests.

Since I was too exhausted after a day of sanding and staining, I’m embarrassed to say that all I could find the energy to make was hotdogs. Luckily, the day before I assembled this old favorite chocolate dessert and an updated berry version that I developed with the 4th in mind. I really think that it is the better of the two recipes. Since you make these a day in advance of serving them, they make a refreshing and easy ending for a dinner party or summer barbeque.

Red White and Blueberry Lush

Chocolate Lush

Red White and Blueberry Lush

I first tried this dessert in its chocolate form and was immediately hooked. Being an equal opportunity dessert lover, I soon set about changing the custard flavor, trying to reinvent the wheel. I tried lemon, key lime and mixed berries, searching for my favorite. Well… conclusion is that although I really like them all, the berry wins my vote. The original recipe calls for frozen whipped topping which you can use if you like, but I much prefer using real dairy cream and a little bit of extra effort. In my opinion the results are far superior. Word of advance consolation, sometimes you can cut neat slices and sometimes you can't but don't worry, it is just as delicious and pretty either way.

2.25 ounces (66g) coarsely chopped pecans
5 ounces (141g) butter, softened to room temperature, divided
1-1/3 cup (166g) all-purpose flour, divided
8 ounces (227g) cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 cup (132g) icing sugar
3 cups (750ml) whipping cream, divided
3/4 cup (88g) plus 3 tablespoons (45ml) granulated sugar, divided
2 tablespoons (30ml) cocoa powder (optional for making chocolate filling)
1/2 teaspoon (2.5ml) salt
2 cups (500ml) milk
3 slightly beaten large egg yolks
3 teaspoons (15ml) vanilla extract, divided
2 cups blueberries or mixed berries (for the 4th of July recipe, I used strawberries, raspberries and blueberries)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees 180C.

In a medium size bowl, combine the pecans, 4 ounces (113g) butter and 1 cup (144g) flour. Mix well and press into an even layer in the bottom of a 9 x 13” glass pan. Place in the preheated oven and bake until golden brown, approximately 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and cool.

In a large bowl, whip 1 cup (250ml) of the whipping cream and 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract to soft peaks. Add 1 tablespoon (15ml) of the granulated sugar and continue to beat to stiff peaks. Set aside in the refrigerator until ready to use. In a small bowl, combine the cream cheese and icing sugar; blend well into a smooth consistency. Fold the cream cheese mixture gently into the whipped cream; cover and refrigerate until ready to use.

In a large saucepan, combine the remaining 1/3 cup (22g) flour, 3/4 cup (88g) sugar, salt, cocoa (if making chocolate) and milk. Place saucepan over medium heat, stir constantly until mixture is thick and comes to a gentle boil. Stir and cook for an additional 2 minutes after it has come to the boil. Remove from the heat and add approximately 2/3 cup (160ml), 1/3 cup (80ml) at a time to the beaten egg yolks in a small bowl to temper before pouring back into the hot custard; stir well. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons (28g) butter and 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract; cover and set aside to cool completely.

Remove the cream cheese mixture from the refrigerator and spread evenly over the top of the crust in the baking pan. Pour the cooled custard mixture over the top of that. Place a piece of cling film over the top of the custard, gently touching the top to prevent a skin from forming on the top; refrigerate overnight.

A couple of hours before serving, place the remaining 2 cups (500ml) whipping cream into a large bowl; whip to soft peaks before adding the remaining 1 teaspoon (5ml) vanilla extract and 2 tablespoons granulated sugar, continue to whipping until stiff peaks form. Sprinkle the berries evenly over the top of the custard. Spread the whipped cream over the top of all, cover and return to the refrigerator until ready to serve.

Garnish the Berry Lush with mint if desired or the Chocolate Lush with chocolate shavings. Serve ice cold.

Easily serves 10.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Humble Pie and Artichokes

My daughter is home from college for the summer. I have the next three months to sleep soundly at night knowing where both my children are when I go to bed. I going to savor this because I know that my days are numbered. I figure that just about the time she settles down and begins life on her own, my son will start up with all of the normal teenage shenanigans, breaking curfew, talking back and the worst of all, driving (and that’s if we’re lucky); so I am really going to enjoy the next few months.

Since she will be cooking for herself next year at school, I decided that it was time to teach my daughter to cook in earnest. During her first year at university, she was required to live in on-campus accommodations which included her meals. Now I’m not saying that the food was great, I'm just saying that it was pretty good, well, kinda. At first she loved being free from my pattern of protein, carb and veg for supper. She was free to have whatever she wanted. If she wanted nothing at all, that was her choice too. Her life was good. By the end of the school year, she hated even walking by the dining hall. She tugged at my heartstrings by reporting that her suppers usually consisted of cereal and chips. I really hated it not so much because it was going to kill her but because we were paying about $8.00 a meal for Cinnamon Toast Crunch and fried potatoes. My son’s going to love college.

I decided that the first few things I would teach her would be something easy that looks hard, so she can be a rock star in the kitchen just like me back in the day (see The Patron Saint of Gravy posting). We made a date, she broke it. We made another date and she broke that too. My lecture soon followed about how she’s going to be sorry when she’s back at college and all she can cook is grilled cheese, scrambled eggs and French Toast. Just about the time I settled into a comfortable state of righteous indignation and figured I’d have the last laugh, her miracle happened. She was notified that she had won $11,000 in her first recipe contest. Boy, that shut me up.

I’m still waiting to give her that first lesson but, I think I’ll wait for her to ask me. Until then, I’ll be in my mommy fantasy world, planning on the dishes we will lovingly prepare together someday. One of the first recipes I’m going to show her how to cook is one of her favorites, a recipe that I call Ultimate Artichokes. It is my lighter version of a dish that we discovered at our favorite restaurant in Maui. If you stumble across some artichokes on sale at the grocery store, pick up a couple and prepare this simple recipe. It is a slight, yet nice departure from the same old same old steamed artichokes with butter and lemon.

The second recipe is one that might be a bit advanced for beginners but it goes so well with the artichokes that I’m going to add it to the line up anyway. This same restaurant in Maui greets their diners with this Jalapeno Pizza bread and it is enough for a meal in itself. I personally think that this, along with the gentle ocean breeze blowing through the open windows, just may be the reason for their success. In my humble opinion, one of these artichokes, a couple of slices of this bread, a cold glass of Pinot Grigio and my gorgeous family, are the components of a perfect meal, no matter where we eat it.

Ultimate Artichokes

2 large artichokes with thorny tips trimmed
1 large or two small lemons, divided
1 – ½ cups (375ml) water
2 teaspoons (10ml) vegetable (or chicken) bouillon granules or soup base
1 large garlic clove, finely minced
3 tablespoons (45ml) butter
Freshly milled black pepper
1 - 2 ounce (30 - 60g) piece of good quality Parmesan cheese

Rinse artichokes thoroughly. Cut the lemon in half and rub one half all over the artichokes. Pour water in the bottom of a large sauce pan. Bring the water to a simmer over medium high heat and stir in the bouillon and garlic. Place artichokes in the pan and cover with a tight fitting lid, reduce heat to medium and cook for approximately 45 minutes.

After cooking time, carefully remove the lid and lift one of the artichokes out of the pan with a pair of tongs. Holding firmly, turn artichoke to the side and pierce the bottom middle with a fork. If the fork inserts easily, the artichoke is done. Transfer cooked artichoke to a plate and cool until it can be easily handled; reserve the liquid in the pan.

Gently spread the center leaves of the artichoke and remove them by pulling firmly. Spread the outer leaves from the center and gently push outwards. With a tablespoon, scrape the choke from the heart and discard. Push the leaves back towards the center to keep warm.

Taste the liquid that remains in the pan. There should be at least one cup of liquid in the pan; if not, add a bit more water. If more water is added, a bit more bouillon may needed as well depending on taste. Return the saucepan with the liquid to a medium heat. Whisk in the butter and about a tablespoon of the lemon juice. Taste liquid and add more of the lemon juice if desired.

Place the artichokes back in the saucepan if needed to heat back up or place in a shallow bowl. Gently spread the leaves and pour equal amounts of the liquid in the middle and around the edge. Top with a grinding of black pepper and a good grating of the fresh Parmesan cheese.

Serve immediately.

Longhi’s Jalapeno Pizza Bread

Normally, I try to feature only my own recipes or my own unique version of the recipes of others, but I’m going to make an exception here. Other than just a few small changes, I felt I couldn’t improve much on this delicious recipe. Knowing how hard it is to sometimes find canned green chiles in the UK, just blacken a couple of green bell peppers under the grill or on the barbeque and use them instead. It doesn’t take much time and is so worth the effort.

1 – 4.5 ounce can chopped green chiles or 2 large green bell peppers, roasted and peeled with seeds and membranes removed, then finely chopped
2 -3 large pickled jalapenos (depending on how spicy you like it), finely chopped - A tablespoon or so of sliced pickled jalapenos can also be used. If you can’t find these, roast a couple of fresh jalapenos (be sure to remove the seeds and membranes unless you want atomic bread) with the bell peppers and use them instead
2 cups (228g) bread or plain flour, plus a bit extra for dusting if necessary
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
1 teaspoon (5ml) sugar
1 package dry active yeast
1 cup (250ml) slightly warm water
2 cups (227g) mozzarella or Italian blend cheese
1 tablespoon (15ml) cornmeal or polenta

Place the green chiles and the jalapenos in a small bowl and mix together; cover and set aside until ready to use.

In a large bowl or the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the dough hook, add the dry ingredients, sprinkling the yeast over the top. Pour the water over the top of the dry ingredients and either mix with your hands or the mixer until the dough is elastic. Let the dough rest for approximately 15 minutes before dividing into 6 small balls of equal size then roll between floured hands to make a 12 inch long loaf. Place each log approximately 3 – 4 inches apart on a large lightly greased baking sheet that has been dusted with the polenta. Cover the dough with a piece of cling film that has been lightly greased and place in a warm place to rise until it has doubled in size. This should take about 1 hour.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180 C, Gas Mark 4.

With a very sharp knife cut a slit down the middle of each piece of dough. Spread the equal amounts of the green chile mixture over the top of each with the back of a spoon covering as much of the top as possible. Sprinkle equal amounts of the cheese over the dough. Place in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 20 – 30 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown and bubbly. Cool for at least 10 minutes. Serve while warm or at room temperature.

Monday, June 1, 2009

April in Paris

Like most everyone else in the world, I have the same routine every morning. I get up, let the dog out, make coffee and turn on my computer. First, I check the spam in my mailbox then I move onto reading the food blogs of others. Normally, I don’t make a practice of mentioning other people’s blogs because I’m afraid that they will recognize themselves and burn my house down, but I'm going out on a limb today.

I joined a website sometime ago that randomly chooses five blogs everyday and features their titles on a sidebar that is located on my site. Some days checking out these titles takes me only moments, some days it may take me and hour or so. In addition to exploring these blogs, I sometimes click on the sites that they are following, then the sites that they are following and so on and so on. Before I know it, I am Gretel lost in the forest without Hansel or a handful of breadcrumbs. Usually when this happens, I do what I do best to get out of trouble in cyberspace, I push the power button.

A few days ago I ran across a blog that was talking about one of my favorite foods, Croque Monsieur. The dish that the author photographed was a dry looking stack of gray, white and pink that did justice to nothing that I have ever seen eaten on this planet. I do have to say in the author's defense, Croque Monsieur is not the most photogenic of dishes. Besides, I know what you must be thinking, “What about your horrible looking Hopping John or those less than appetizing Easy Peasy Brownies?” Point well taken, but I prefer not talking about my photographic failures here today.

If you’ve not had the pleasure of tasting this most delightful of all sandwiches, I’ll give you the quick rundown. Croque Monsieur is the French answer to the ultimate grilled cheese. It is a ham and cheese sandwich served on crispy toasted French bread, generously topped with a cheesy bechamel sauce and then placed under the grill (broiler to Americans) and cooked until it is perfectly brown and bubbly.

I first discovered this heavenly dish on a weekend trip to Paris. After a day of dragging two young children and one mother-in-law around all day to see the sights, we ducked into a little unassuming cafe across a side street from Notre Dame. It was rainy and cold and we needed a refuge from the rain and all of the whining. The cafe was warm, smelled of coffee and was brimming with patrons. My husband and I stood at the counter reading the menu for what seemed like and eternity. I don’t know about any of you but, the Parisians scare me a bit and the man behind the counter staring at us was no exception. I decided on ordering the Croque Monsieur only because I thought I could pronounce it, having no idea what might land on the table in front of me. I thought that I did pretty well but the "gentleman" behind the counter still made me say it twice just for his amusement.

I am proud to report that for once in my life, I ordered the best dish on the table. Usually I find myself yearning for someone else’s plate but not this time, I was in the catbird’s seat. Even my five year old abandoned her chicken nuggets (how my husband managed to order this I still do not know to this day) and dug her fork into mine. I don’t know if it was hunger, fatigue or relief at a successful order but we were both in heaven.

Now that I have once again made you endure one of my stories to get to my recipe, here it is. I really think that this recipe does justice to the one that I first ate on that rainy April day, 14 years ago. My now 19 year old daughter gives her hearty stamp of approval. She doesn't remember her first Croque Monsieur in that warm little cafe in Paris but maybe she’ll always remember mine.

Almost Authentic Croque Monsieur

5 tablespoons (70g) butter, softened and divided (this amount allows for a bit extra depending on how buttery you like your toasted bread)
2 tablespoons (24g) all-purpose flour
1 large clove garlic, crushed
1 pinch cayenne pepper
2 - 2-1/2 cups (500 - 625ml) milk
1/2 cup (54g) freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 ounce (170g) freshly grated Gruyere cheese (reserve a heaping dessertspoon)
Salt and pepper
8 large slices of fresh French bread
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 pound (250g) lean deli sliced ham

Place 2 tablespoons (28g) of the butter in a medium size saucepan over medium heat. When the butter is melted, whisk in the flour and the garlic. Whisking constantly, gradually add the cayenne and the milk and bring the mixture to a slow boil. Reduce the heat and, whisking frequently, allow mixture to simmer for a minute. At this stage the mixture may be a bit thin but with the addition of the cheeses and after it cools some, it will thicken up a bit. Since American flour, which is what I work with, may provide a different consistency than English flour, feel free to adjust the amount of milk you use (1/4 a cup, 62ml at a time) to reach the thickness you desire.

Add the Parmesan and one half of the Gruyere and whisk until the cheese is melted and the mixture is completely combined. Add salt and pepper to taste. Cover and set aside until ready to use.

Preheat oven to broil.

Place a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Spread both sides of the bread with a thin layer of the remaining butter and place in the hot pan and toast both sides to a golden brown. Remove from the pan and spread one side of four slices of the toasted bread with a thin layer of the mustard, equal amounts of the ham and the remaining Gruyere (with the exception of the reserved dessertspoon).

Transfer open face sandwiches on a non-stick baking sheet with a small lip around the edge. Place into the preheated oven and cook until the cheese is bubbly. Remove baking sheet from the oven. Top sandwiches with the remaining slices of bread then ladle the cheese sauce over the sandwiches. Finally, sprinkle equal amounts of the reserved Gruyere over the top. Place sandwiches back into the oven and, watching carefully, cook until the cheese sauce is golden brown and bubbly. Serve immediately.

Serves 4

Monday, May 18, 2009

Pub Grub: the good, the bad, the ugly

I miss the wonderful things about England; the beautiful rolling meadows outlined by ancient stone walls, the perfectly sculpted colorful gardens and well prepared English food. I also miss the not so wonderful things about England too; the urine soaked car park lifts, the Barbie and Ken size refrigerators, the lack of ice, the rationing of ketchup, and poorly prepared English food.

England has always had a bad reputation when it comes to its food and I don't really know why. My theory is that the reviewers must have been visiting the country’s more commercial, high profile pubs than the more quaint establishments where the really good English fare is served. The Peacock at Redmile, Stapleford Park, Langar Hall and Martin’s Arms (I could go on and on), are, in my opinion, the places that serve the best of the best. Oh, my heart aches for these most beloved of establishments. Thanks be to G*d and my husband’s fat expense account, I was able to try them all, several times over.

When we lived in Nottingham, our American guests were always eager to get to a pub to try Steak and Kidney pie followed up by a comical serving of Spotted Dick. We always obliged them since this usually occupied the number one spot on their “to do” list. The first couple of visitors to arrive on our doorstep were given our advice to pass on The Goose at Gamston and wait for our Saturday night booking at The Cottage, or my absolute favorite, Laguna Tandoori. Most listened, some didn't, so we finally gave up giving advice and just went with them.

Many people are shocked to discover that curry, not Spotted Dick, is the most popular food in England. I guess that must be their version of Tex-Mex. In fact, when I first started making the occasional curry, I found it an easy jump from my beloved Mexican recipes because many of the ingredients were already in my pantry. Cumin, coriander, chili powder and garlic are the bases for many recipes from both countries. Just add a bit of fresh ginger, garam masala or fenugreek, and voila, you've got a trip Mumbai without ever boarding a plane.

What brought this all to mind was a visit last week from my friends from Nottingham, Susan and Adrian. We had such a blast with them. We dragged them around our part of the world to see the Garden of the Gods, Manitou Springs and the most historic of all the sights, the casinos at Blackhawk. The latter is where we all made a small donation to the betterment of the owners’ deep pockets and hit the road back home swearing that was the last time we’d ever do that. Yeah, we've all said that before.

I did a lot of cooking when they were here. Susan, ever the healthy eater, was a real sport. Even though we started out healthily enough with Margarita Grilled Salmon and Texas Caviar, our diet took a gradual downhill slide and soon deteriorated to Chicken Fried Steak with gravy on their last night. Well, Adrian had never tasted this state food of Texas and I looked upon that as my call to duty. Susan’s just lucky that they were leaving the next morning or we would have had his other never eaten recipe, fried chicken, the next night. She got out just in time.

Since I have already offered up recipes for chicken fried steak and fried chicken, I’m going to feature my favorite recipe for my favorite curry, Chicken Korma. If you’ve never tasted or prepared this delicious dish, pull out the spices and cook something new and different. As I stated earlier, if you cook Mexican, you may have to pick a few things up at the grocery but not that many. Believe me, it will be worth the trip.

Creamy Chicken Korma

I have cooked this recipe so many times that I could make it in my sleep; that's how much we love it. I recommend making the garlic paste in your blender if you have one because it blends much smoother than a food processor or mini processor which makes for a very creamy finished dish. Try to remove as many of the bay leaves, cinnamon sticks, cardamon pods and cloves as possible before serving as this will save your diners from any unpleasant surprises.

5 garlic cloves, coarsely chopped
1 - 1" (2.5cm) piece of fresh gingerroot, coarsely chopped
2 ounces (50g) sliced almonds
5 tablespoons light olive or vegetable oil
2 small bay leaves
6 - 8 cardamon pods
4 cloves
2 - 1" (2.5cm) pieces of cinnamon stick
1 medium size onion, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon ground coriander
1/4 teaspoon (1ml) cayenne pepper
1 tablespoon (15ml) tomato paste (puree)
4 -5 medium size chicken breasts, cut into 2" cubes
1 to 1-1/2 (5ml - 7.5ml) teaspoon salt
3 tablespoons (45ml) cream
1/2 tablespoon (7.5ml) garam masala
1 teaspoon (5ml) fenugreek (optional, but I love the butterscotch like flavor that this spice adds to this dish)

1 cup (250ml) water

1 small bunch fresh coriander, stems removed and coarsely chopped

Place the garlic, ginger, almonds and 6 tablespoons of water into a blender and blend into a smooth paste; set aside.

Put the oil in a large non-stick frying pan and set over a medium high heat. When the oil is hot, add the bay leaves, cardamon pods, cloves and cinnamon; saute for 15 seconds or so before adding the onion and sauteing until soft and transparent.

Reduce the heat to medium and add the paste from the blender, the cumin, coriander and cayenne. Cook, stirring constantly for 2 - 3 minutes. Add the tomato paste and stir for a minute or so or until it is completely combined.

Add the chicken pieces, salt, cream, garam masala, fenugreek and water; cook, stirring frequently for approximately 2 minutes or until the mixture is simmering. Cover with a tight fitting lid, reduce the heat to low. Simmer gently for approximately 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the chicken is cooked through. Serve with rice and a sprinkling of the chopped, fresh coriander.

Serves 6