Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frizzy Hair and Margaritas

Ok, I know that it’s only February and winter in the Rockies has a long way to go, but I am done. I say this every year, but this year I mean it. I really have had enough. After four months of cold weather, my hair is like straw, my nose bleeds intermittently, and my heels and hands have crevasses so deep they look like the surface of the moon. I spend as much money on body lotion as I do on gasoline each month. The static electricity is so bad that sitting on our polyester sofa or walking across our nylon carpeting, can turn an activity as simple as answering the phone into an exercise in excruciating electrical pain. Even our dog gingerly taps his paw on the sofa before jumping up so he can just get the spark and shock over with. I had never seen a dog wince in pain before we moved here. Oh, the price we pay for straight hair.

My life wasn’t always so arid. Six years ago, I was living in the middle of the mold and mildew belt of south Texas. No kidding, the average humidity is 80 percent. My naturally curly hair kinked up so badly I’d have to get out the hair dryer and restyle it several times a day. I bet you thought that big hair was a style that Texas women want. I’m here to tell you, it’s a by product of the humidity. They’ve just found a way to work it. Even though I wore a bush on my head the whole time we lived there, my feet were soft and crackless. Sometimes you just can’t have it all.

Speaking of mold and mildew, I flew into Houston last Wednesday for my annual birthday tour. It’s wasn’t my birthday thank goodness, because I’m starting to feel a bit beaten up by them. I flew down to celebrate with my step-mom, my sister and my niece. Their birthdays are all within a day of each other which makes it pretty easy on me as far as the traveling goes. This year we celebrated by spending Saturday doing a little boutique shopping followed up by a matinee performance of Miss Saigon. A close friend of mine told me that this was her favorite musical so I was really excited about seeing it. We did enjoy it, but I do wish she would have told me about the adult content so I could have warned my nieces that they would be exposed to “F” bombs and simulated sex all while sitting next to their grandmother. Good times!!!

Before my departure from Denver, I stocked up the fridge with all sorts of goodies for my guys to eat in my absence. I’ve finally figured out that the only way the things I cook for them get eaten is to leave a menu on the fridge with the dining possibilities for each night. I know that it sounds like I was micromanaging a bit, but it’s really self-preservation. This way when I come home I know that they’ve not only eaten well but I don’t have a melt down when I have to throw away all the food I so lovingly made those two ingrates.

Now all of the Margaritas, fantastic Tex-Mex and great gulf coast seafood are just a mere memory and it’s time to get back to normal. My washer is humming and swishing all those clothes that were waiting for me upon my return. The refrigerator is empty and begging to be restocked because my two guys did their job and ate everything I left. I am happy to tell you that my freshly blown hair is perfectly coiffed and my feet are soft and supple, for now. Maybe I can have it all…well, for the next day or two at least.

I’m going to present you with a first for my blog. For this entry my recipe is going to be for what I believe is a really good strawberry Margarita. I went all out this time while I was back home and drank more of them than should be legally allowed by the calorie police. I don’t ever feel the need to make my Margaritas with gold tequila or Grand Marnier. I think the perfect Margarita is frozen and made with a decent tequila and Triple Sec or Cointreau. I know that some people associate certain drinks with seasons of the year but not me boy, I am an equal opportunity drinker. So, if you are ruled by such traditions, please turn the heat way up before you plug in the blender.

Strawberry Margarita

1/2 cup (125ml) water
1/2 cup (125ml) granulated sugar
1/2 cup (125ml) freshly squeezed lemon or lime juice or a combination of both
8 nice size strawberries, rinsed and cut into quarters, plus 4 extra whole berries for garnish
3 ounces (90ml) tequila
2 ounces (60ml) orange liqueur
2 heaping cups of ice

Place water and sugar in a microwave safe bowl or sauce pan. Heat to simmering and stir until sugar is dissolved, set aside and cool.

Place cooled syrup, lemon or lime juice, strawberries, tequila, orange liqueur and ice in the bowl of a blender; blend until smooth.

Pour into chilled wine or Margarita glasses and garnish with a strawberry on the rim of the glass.

Makes 4 – 10 ounce drinks

My strawberries happened to be nice and sweet and this recipe was delicious. Taste your strawberries before blending to determine if you need to make and add more syrup. Increase the syrup by using double or half again as much water and sugar as called for.

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Happy Hour

I think that it should be mandatory that everyone, at some time in their lives, work in a restaurant. It really doesn’t matter in what capacity you work, be it a bus boy, bartender, bar back, or waiter just as long as you spend at least a year serving the public. Not only is it usually downright fun working in a food and beverage environment but you see some things behind the scenes that will stay with you for life. Most importantly you will learn how to speak in public, be assertive, and the how and why of generous tipping. In addition you can also learn some of the industry’s tricks of the trade.

Things like dusting dropped food off before being happily presented to an innocent diner, scraping mold off of bread before serving and the legendary desecration of a complaining diner’s food or drink. Now, I didn’t see these things happen very often but they do happen. One thing probably every former food and beverage worker might tell you is, if you are going to square off with your server, do it after you have your order in front of you.

Bartending was my favorite job in the food and beverage world, but coming in at a close second was cocktail waitressing. During my time serving drinks I waited on Julia Child, Calvin Klein, ZZ Top lead man Billy Gibbons and screen legend, Gene Tierney. Even though they were the most famous customers I waited on, they were far from the most interesting. My most entertaining customers were the happy hour office groups on Friday evenings.

It would start out innocently enough with five or six happy men and women out to have a good time drinking cocktails on the company. After a couple of drinks, one by one the wiser ones of the group would say their thanks and head home. Inevitably, the crowd would wind down to the boss and an employee of the opposite sex sitting too close and having one drink too many. More than once I felt like slipping the woman a note that said, “Run now. You will regret this on Monday morning.” But, being a good waitress and wanting to secure a big tip, I’d cheerfully bring another round and keep my opinions to myself. The things I’ve seen and overheard could have brought down a marriage or two. Thank goodness I was never subpoenaed.

Personally, I preferred working at boutique hotels and fine dining establishments over high volume, inexpensive places. Not only was the money great but the employees’ nationalities were so diverse that they resembled UN delegates in aprons. Their origins ranged from Mexico to Austria and South Africa to Belgium. I learned some very valuable skills from these people, everything from cursing in Spanish to recognizing a good piece of strudel when I saw one. We had a blast and, on occasion, we even got to dine on day old chilled lobster and drink slightly flat Dom Perignon. Those were the days.

All of this cocktail talk has made me hungry for some of those fantastic little nibbles that are served with them. I love dips and spreads and boiled shrimp but what I really love to pair with cocktails, especially wine, is cheese straws. I’m not talking about puff pastry sprinkled with cheese then baked. No sir, in my book that’s a cheater’s cheese straw. I’m talking about cheesy little crispy bites that are tangy and buttery and addictive. Here’s my favorite recipe. Don’t worry if you don’t have a cookie press or pastry bag. You can roll the dough into a log, chill it until it is firm, then slice it in 1/4” slices before baking up little cheese crackers on a non-stick baking sheet.

Ultimate Cheese Straws

1 stick (113g) butter, melted
8 ounces (250g) medium cheddar cheese, room temperature, grated
1 cup (110g) all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon dry mustard
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 – 1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, 180C.

In the bowl of a food processor, combine all of the ingredients; process until the contents are combined and form a ball in the processor bowl. Transfer dough to a pastry bag or cookie press fitted with a large star tip; pipe dough into 2” long straws on a non-stick cookie sheet. Place in the preheated oven and bake for approximately 20-30 minutes or until they are brown around the edges and crispy; cool and serve.

Makes approximately 70 straws.

If Kraft Old English cheese in the small 5 ounce jar is available in your area, try the following recipe:

1 stick butter, softened to room temperature
1 5 ounce jar Kraft Old English cheese spread
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon granulated garlic
1/2 teaspoon onion powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/2 -1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Place all of the ingredients in a medium size bowl. Mix well with a spoon or process 30 seconds or so in a food processor or until dough forms a ball. Transfer to a cookie press or pastry bag that has been fitted with a large star tip. Pipe dough onto a non-stick cookie sheet in 2” straws. Place into the preheated oven and bake for 20 – 30 minutes or until edges are brown and straws are crispy.

Makes about 60 straws.

Feel free to customize this recipe to suit your own taste. In the past I've added Parmesan cheese, bacon bits, finely chopped sun dried tomatoes and herbs to the dough with great results.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Rock Stars and Cheesecake

Last night was Grammy night. Is it me or are all the awards show starting to look pretty much alike? Song of the Year, Album of the Year, Record of the Year, It seems like I saw them give the same award four or five times last night. Add that to the fact that it kind of seemed like they were scraping the bottom of the idea barrel with a few of their acts, and you have a pretty bland evening.

When they did have a good opportunity to put on an extravaganza, it kind of fell flat. For example, the Michael Jackson 3D tribute. It was really a good idea for the 150 people who managed to get by Target and pick up their 3D glasses, but for the other 30 million of us it was just 6 minutes of a fuzzy picture on our high definition televisions.

My daughter will laugh when she sees this, but if I were in charge, I’d have to fire whoever had that brilliant idea. She says that if I were an employer, I’d have no employees for all of the firings I would carry out. At least they had the good sense to let MJ’s beautiful children accept the Grammy for him.

As if the MJ debacle at weren’t enough, then someone had the bright idea to have an online vote for which of three nominated songs the public could choose and have Bon Jovi perform. I don’t think that anyone will be surprised that the four middle aged Bon Jovi fans who had nothing else to do but vote, voted for Living on a Prayer. Wow, I don’t know about you, but the suspense was killing me (NOT!).

Ok, before I start sounding like some disgruntled cynic, I’d better give credit where credit is due. Lady Gaga and Elton John started things off with a nice remix of Your Song. I never thought about it before but if Elton and Madonna were to have a love child, it would have to be Lady Gaga.

Beyonce and Pink were both great. Pink looked and sounded fantastic performing some sort of trapeze thing and singing Glitter in the Air. Beyonce, with her army of black Storm Troopers, did a great medley of songs. The Dave Matthews Band was fab as usual.

In my opinion, one of the more macabre highlights of the evening was seeing the resurrected Leon Russell perform again. I truly thought he was dead and was really glad to find out that he wasn't'.  I understand that he has had some brain injury and applaud him for getting back on stage.

Whenever one of these award shows or big sporting events are on, I of course get all wrapped up in the food I’m going to cook in order to make it a real celebration. If I would have known that the Grammy Awards was going to bring back a busload of ‘70s rockers like, Elton John, Leon Russell, Stevie Nicks, Carlos Santana and Jeff Beck, I would have cooked up some ‘70s favorites like French Onion Dip, fondue or maybe a little Tang to celebrate their heyday.

Instead, since my son has been after me to make a cheesecake for sometime, I gave in and last night was the night. I’ve tried lots of different cheesecake recipes but Tyler Florence’s Ultimate Cheesecake gets my vote for the Best Dessert Made with Cream Cheese Award. It is light, smooth, super creamy and pretty easy to boot.

I do caution you though, last time I made this in Nottingham for Karen’s birthday, I thought that I’d save a pound or two and use Asda’s store brand of cream cheese. I wasn’t pleased with the result at all. What I got was pretty good flavor but a grainy texture. So take it from me, whether you are making a cheesecake for rock stars, birthday girls or sons on Grammy night, spend the extra money and buy Philly or some other premium cream cheese, it’s really worth it.

Tyler's Ultimate Cheesecake 

2 cups crushed graham crackers or digestive biscuits
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 cup butter (113g), melted
1 pound (500g) cream cheese, room temperature
3 eggs, room temperature
1 cup (175g) granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups (500ml) soured cream

Preheat oven to 325 (170C) degrees.

Combine the graham crackers or digestive biscuits, the cinnamon and butter. Spray an 8” spring form pan with non-stick cooking spray. Press the graham cracker mixture into the spring form pan, using the bottom of a cup or glass to press into the corners. Place in the refrigerator for 5 minutes to chill.

In a large mixing bowl, whip the softened cream cheese until it is smooth, approximately 2 minutes; add the room temperature eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition. Slowly add the sugar, then the vanilla and soured cream. Pour into the chilled crust. Wrap the bottom of the spring form pan with a large sheet of aluminum foil, pressing foil to form a seal. Place spring form pan in the middle of a larger pan. Pour boiling water half way up the sides of the pan.

Place in the oven and bake for approximately 50 minutes. Check for doneness by giggling the pan. If the center giggles like firm jelly, remove from the oven and cool in the pan with the hot water. Cover loosely with plastic wrap before transferring to the refrigerator and chilling for at least 4 hours but preferably overnight. Store covered in the refrigerator.

Easily serves 10.

Tyler’s original recipe calls for the zest of one lemon to be added to the uncooked cheesecake. He also tops the cheesecake with a Lemon Blueberry Sauce. His recipe calls for 2 cups of fresh blueberries, the zest and juice of 1 lemon and 2 tablespoons of sugar to be cooked over medium heat until the sugar has melted. Allow the mixture to cool to warm before spooning over the cold cheesecake.

This topping sounds really great and I plan to try it sometime but we just love it plain with a bit of fresh whipped cream and maybe a few fresh berries on the side. It’s hard to improve upon perfection.