Thursday, December 31, 2009

A Saucy New Year to You!

Image taken from the NYT Blog Diner's Journal, 2/15/08

I have written before that I do not make resolutions at the New Year; instead, inspired by my niece, I set nice, gentle goals for myself.

I have learned to make my goals as broad and as generous as possible, so I will not be too hard on myself when I fail to achieve them (or they change direction, as I like to think of it).

I would like to learn how to be more organized at home so that I can do more of the things I want to be doing rather than avoiding the things that I don't want to be doing (and therefore not doing much of anything at all). Toward that end, I want to be realistic about how many things I can do in a day, and not give myself impossible tasks.

I want to make more of the food that I consume and rely less on processed, prepared foods. My attention was caught by an online article at National Restaurant News that mentioned that five fast food items were included on a list of the "Ten Most Memorable Product Launches of 2009." I find it interesting that five of the ten products were launched by fast food providers. I get a little leery of any food that is considered a "product." I wonder how much real food is involved in their production.

One project about which I am most excited is something I am going to do with a friend of mine. She mentioned to me a few months ago that she had found some recipes for Worcestershire Sauce, mustard, ketchup and some other condiments and she planned to make them. I had just read an article in Saveur magazine about making your own condiments, which had greatly intrigued me, seeing as how I have been delving more and more deeply into making as many things as I can from scratch.

"I'm in," I said. "Do you want to do something together?" She agreed, so we are getting together in a couple of weeks to make a plan. We are going to start with Worcestershire sauce, since that requires a few weeks of fermenting before it is ready.

We have decided not to make mayonnaise a part of the project, mostly because it does not have a long shelf life and you have to be ready to use all of it within a week of making it. I have made it before anyway (for this blog event), so that is fine with me.

If the project goes well, I expect to be exploring more do-it-yourself food preparation. I've been thinking about making my own nut butters, and I am eager to try my hand at pasta.

I already buy little from the processed, pre-packaged aisles at the grocery store. My main goal for the new year is to buy even less. I will post reports as I progress.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Cooking on a Budget: Lentil Soup with Spicy Greens

Ok, Christmas and Chanukah are over and the New Year looms ahead. Is anyone out there going to be sorry to see the ass end of an ass year disappear around the bend? Things are looking just a little bit brighter for 2010. Let's hope the trend continues to move in an upward direction, and that before long everyone is working who wants to be, everyone has health care who needs it, and nothing gets in the way of the Season 4 premiere of "Mad Men".

You've been eating leftover turkey and its accoutrements for the past week and you're looking for something different to serve while you watch those Bowl games (didn't think I even knew they played football on New Year's Day, did you?), or something to sop up all of those evil vapours left by the copious amounts of alcohol you consumed the night before. You want to start the New Year with a healthy note, but you still want to feel like you're eating something meaty and satisfying. You want to feed a mess of people, but you don't want to have to go to a lot of trouble.

Look no further, ladies and gentlemen. I've got the perfect New Year's Day dish for you. It's healthy, it's filling, it's meaty (although I suppose I should just say up front that there's no meat whatsoever in it), and - gosh darn it - it tastes good!

What could be better on a cold winter day than a nice warm bowl of soup, chock full of lentils, carrots and celery? Not much, that's for sure, but a healthy dose of spicy mustard greens seals the deal.

It can be a little scary if you haven't done it before, so I will give you a quick look-see at how it's done.

You heat a tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat in a large skillet. You add a tablespoon of brown mustard seeds and shake the skillet around to make sure they all get covered in the oil.

When the seeds start to pop (don't worry, you'll know), place a lid over the skillet until the popping noises stop. It doesn't have to be a tight-fitting lid. If your skillet does not have a lid, like mine, just take the biggest lid you have and lay it in the skillet as low as it will go. You just want to keep those little devils from popping out of the skillet and onto your stovetop.

As soon as the popping sound stops, lift off the lid and add the 1/2 teaspoon of red pepper flakes. You can increase or decrease the amount of red pepper flakes to suit your taste. Wait about 30 seconds, long enough for the flakes to absorb some oil and start to darken, and then add the mustard greens.
It will seem like there is too much to fit in the skillet, but don't worry about that. Just pile the greens as high as you need to in order to get them all in the skillet. At this point, it's easier to switch to tongs and keep moving the greens from the bottom to the top so each leaf has the same amount of time over the heat.

Eventually, the greens will cook down and they will all fit into the skillet. From here, you just want to cook them a minute or so longer to make sure they are all wilted. They will continue to cook in the soup so you don't have to worry too much about it.

Just add the greens to the pot of soup and you are good to go.

If you insist on having some meat to start off the new year, you can easily brown some cubes of chuck along with the onions and add beef broth instead of water. Or if beef is too much and lentils aren't enough, you could use chicken broth instead of water.

If you wanted to get a little fancier you could use the French petite green lentils, which adds about 85 cents per serving. I like it just a tad better, but it's mighty good with the plain old brown ones. And for the price, there's no better way to start the new year.

Home Cookin Chapter: Soups and Stews

Lentil Soup With Spicy Greens
Serves 6

3 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
2 large onions, finely chopped
6 garlic cloves, minced
1 tsp ground cumin
1 tsp ground turmeric
2 quarts water
2 cups French green lentils, picked over and rinsed
2 large carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 celery ribs, finely chopped
2 bay leaves
1/2 tsp thyme
1 tsp salt, or more to taste
1 Tbsp brown mustard seeds
1/2 tsp hot red pepper flakes
1 lb. mustard greens, swiss chard, or kale, washed and coarsely chopped
salt and pepper to taste
1 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in large soup pot over medium heat. Add onions and saute, stirring frequently, for about 10 minutes, until onion turns golden brown. Add garlic, cumin, and turmeric and cook, stirring, for another 2 minutes.

Add water, lentils, carrots, celery, bay leaves, thyme, and salt. Bring soup to boil; lower heat to simmer, and cook over low heat for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In large skillet or saute pan, heat the remaining tablespoon of olive oil over medium heat. Add the mustard seeds and cook, stirring, until seeds begin to pop. Cover loosely until the noise from the popping seeds has mostly stopped. Add the red pepper flakes and the greens and cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes, until the greens have started to wilt. Stir the greens into the soup and simmer over low heat for 15-20 minutes, until the greens are tender.

Taste and adjust the seasonings, adding additional salt, freshly ground black pepper, and 1-2 tablespoons of lemon juice.

adapted from The One-Dish Vegetarian, by Maria Robbins (St. Martin's Griffin, 1998)

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Off to Austin

I'm off to Austin for my yearly holiday visit. T-shirt and shorts, here I come! If I can get there.

Unfortunately, I have to get through this first. We're in the middle of a doozy of a winter storm - ice, sleet, rain, wind. I may not get any further than the airport.

I am expecting the worst and hoping for the best. That way, I might hit something in the middle and I may actually get to Austin before the end of the day.

Wherever you are going for the holidays, I hope you arrive safely and have a wonderful time.

In the meantime, let's get a little festive:

Courtesy of OlderMusicGeek on Youtube

Monday, December 21, 2009

Skillet Sausage, Cabbage and Potato

My cooking has reached a point where I am as likely to wander into the kitchen, see what's available, and whip something up on the fly as I am to plan what I am going to make and shop accordingly. This pleases me for several reasons. For one thing, there is a certain freedom in knowing that I have the experience and palate to look at several disparate items and figure out how to put them together into a cohesive, flavorful dish.

For another, it allows me to buy ingredients based on what looks freshest, costs less, and offers me the most inspiration. And when I do buy the ingredients for particular dishes, I can find quick uses for any leftover items.

This Skillet Sausage, Cabbage and Potato is a good example. I had a quarter of a cabbage left from an earlier dish, and I almost always buy more potatoes than I need for any given dish. I almost always buy cabbage for specific uses, and it's not something we ate often in our house when I was a child, so I'm not used to dealing with extra.

But I had the cabbage, and one russet potato, and some vague idea of putting the two together. I realized I could round it out with the Italian Sausage I had in the freezer and some swiss chard left over from one of my more ambitious pizzas.

I didn't write down what I was doing so I can't provide a recipe here, but I can describe the technique that I used, which can easily be translated to just about any ingredients you have handy.

I chopped half an onion, cubed the potato and thinly sliced the cabbage wedge. I heated a little bit of grapeseed oil in the pan and added the sausage and let it render for a minute or so, then I added the onion, potato and cabbage. I let it all cook together until the sausage was browned, seasoning it with a little salt and pepper. When the sausage was browned, I added a 14.5-oz. can of diced tomatoes, thyme and oregano. I brought it to a simmer, lowered the heat, covered it and let it cook for about 15 minute, until the cabbage and potato were tender. I added the Swiss chard and cooked it for another 5 minutes.

With the sausage, this made a satisfying main dish. Without the sausage, it would make just as satisfying a side dish.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

Just Don't Call It a Bagel, Please

I had never heard of Bruegger's bagels, but apparently there's one in Oak Park. Their claim to fame? Authentic kettle-boiled bagels fresh from the oven.

My father made bagels when I was very young. All I remember is that I got to roll them into snakes and form them into the doughnut shapes before he dropped them into a pot of boiling water, then baked them. I also remember that they were delicious, and the benchmark against which I measured every other bagel I ever ate.

I also grew up in a time when the only people who knew about bagels were New Yorkers and Jews. My best friend when I was 9 or 10 was at our house in Houston one morning and saw a bagel for the first time. I couldn't believe she didn't know what it was and promptly cut one in half, toasted it, spread a schmear of cream cheese on it,and presented it to her. I was ripe with expectation at her enjoyment of a newly-discovered treat.

She took a bite and made a face. "It's hard," she said, "and not sweet at all." She was expecting a doughnut, both in taste and texture, and was horribly disappointed. I didn't care. I loved my bagels - plain, poppy seed, garlic, onion and my all-time favorite: sesame seed. My idea of heaven is a toasted sesame-seed bagel with cream cheese and lox.

Once bagels became more widespread, it was inevitable that they would morph into more unusual flavors. While I do not, and never will, consider blueberry and cinnamon raisin to be legitimate bagel fare, I can grudgingly accept that others do, and that they happily consume them on a regular basis. It's almost as if, because they look like doughnuts, people keep trying to sweeten them up.

But I cannot wrap my mind around this new product that Bruegger's Bagels is introducing for the holiday season: the cinnamon-roll bagel.
The Cinnamon Roll Bagel is prepared using softer bagel dough combined with brown sugar, cinnamon and vanilla. After the bagel has been baked, it is drizzled with vanilla icing. -- from
I've become reconciled to the fact that people seem determined to sweeten up a savory roll. But a cinnamon roll bagel? Why? What purpose does it serve? If you want cinnamon roll flavor, why not just eat a cinnamon roll? Why ruin a perfectly good bagel?

I mean really. I don't know what it is, but it certainly isn't a bagel.

Image taken from

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Some Christmas Fun

Not quite feeling that Christmas spirit yet? Check this out. I fed it every Christmas carol I know and it always came up with something. Well, almost always.

It's been around for a while but it's still funny. I especially liked "Jingle Bell Rock," "Lovely Weather for a Sleigh Ride Together with You," and "Carol of the Bells."

Photo from

Monday, December 14, 2009

How to Make Pizza

Once you get the hang of it, pizza is really easy to make. It takes time, especially if you want to cook it the same night you mix up the dough, but if you make it on a regular basis you can make the dough ahead of time and just have it there when you're ready for it. In fact, the longer the dough sits in the refrigerator, the better pizza I think it makes.

And, as with many things, less is usually more. A few simple, basic ingredients makes an outstanding pie.

There are many ways to make a pizza, and as I have been experimenting I don't make it the same way twice (other than the dough, of course). But at the same time I have been experimenting, I have also been developing a basic cheese pizza that is my fall-back for when I don't have a lot of new, exotic ingredients to try, or just don't feel like messing with anything fancy.

It doesn't take a whole can of tomato puree to make one batch of pizzas. I just put the rest in a container and leave it in the refrigerator for the next batch. If too much time passes before I make another pizza, I will use the tomato puree to make pasta sauce or add it to a vegetable sauce. A little bit of tomato is never a bad thing to have hanging around.

If you decide to tackle pizza, I hope you have fun playing around with all the different things you can do with it. But if you're a little nervous about it, and want to start with the basics, here's a nice, standard guide to get you started. You can find the recipe for the dough here. Note the updated amounts on the white whole wheat and the bread flours.
So here's the mise en place for the dough. As you can see, there's not a lot there. The bowl on the left has the water; the bowl on the right has white whole wheat flour, bread flour (this is Bob's Red Mill Brand; I just bought a bag of King Arthur's to compare), salt and sugar. Whisk all of those dry ingredients together before you get started.

Waiting in the wings are the active dry yeast and olive oil.

Warm the water (I zap it in the microwave for 1 minute) to between 105-115 deg. F.

Add the yeast to the warm water and whisk them together vigorously. In the olden days, you would combine the yeast, sugar and water in a little bowl to proof the yeast to make sure it is still alive, but if you are sure your yeast is fresh, these days it is not necessary to proof it. As you're whisking in the yeast, you should notice bubbles forming (click on the photo to see what I mean). That should be proof enough.

Once the yeast has mixed thoroughly with the water, you can add the olive oil. That's 2 tablespoons of olive oil.

I just dump them right into the bowl. It kind of sits there on top, since oil is lighter than water, but that's ok. It will blend in when you add the dry ingredients.

Which you should do next. Normally, you should add the dry ingredients in smaller increments because you never know for sure how much you're going to need. Depending on how humid it is or how you've measured out your flour, sometimes you need more or less.

That is why some people say you should always weigh your dry ingredients rather than measure them. I grew up measuring, so I'll most likely continue to do it that way. Whatever floats your boat.

But for pizza dough, I just dump all of the dry ingredients in at once. So far it hasn't been a problem. At this point I switch to a wooden spoon and stir until a soft dough forms. Sometimes it forms faster than others, and sometimes it forms more easily than at other times. For those times when the dough just isn't coming together, I will get rid of the spoon and start kneading it together in the bowl with my hands. It doesn't really matter how you make it happen; at this point you can't overwork the dough.

Next, turn the dough out onto a well-floured surface, and then sprinkle flour over the dough as well. That should be just about all of the extra flour you will need. You want the dough to be a little moist, but not so moist that it sticks to your hands.

Start kneading the dough. You knead by taking the end of the dough furthest away from you and folding it over towards you, then with the ball of your hand(s) you push it into the dough. Then you turn the dough one quarter and repeat. You want to knead the dough until it is smooth and elastic.

Through practice, I have established that my dough gets nice and smooth and elastic after about 300 kneading strokes, so I just count them out. I don't know how long it takes, but it isn't really long at all.

Before you know it you have a nice, smooth ball of pizza dough. Notice that virtually all of the flour that I had scattered on the counter has been absorbed into the dough.

If you want to make your pizza right away, you would cover the dough in the bowl in which you mixed up the dough and let it rise to double its height (about an hour), and then you can pick up down below where you shape the dough into the pizza pan. I think the dough is much better if you make it ahead of time and let it rise in the refrigerator overnight, or for a couple of days. Some say the flavor has time to develop more fully over time. I agree. So I cut my ball of dough into two smaller balls and dust them with flour.

I put each ball in a storage bag, and then tie the bag closed. The instructions I have seen say to wrap the balls tightly and then seal them. I tried that once and I thought the dough was going to burst out of the bag. Instead, I squeeze the air out of the bags, but leave room in them for the dough to expand. That seems to do the trick.

I put them in the bottom shelf of the refrigerator and forget them until I am ready to make my pizza - at least 8 hours, as long as 3 days.

When I am ready to make pizza, I take the dough out of the refrigerator. I set my timer for an hour and leave the dough to come to room temperature while I go take care of other things.

You can see how much the dough has risen, even in the refrigerator. Realizing that you can let dough rise in the refrigerator has liberated me with my breadmaking and other yeast-related goodies. If I don't have time to complete the full process at one time, I can just put it in the refrigerator until I am ready to pick it up again. Within reason, of course.

After the 1-hour timer goes off, I reset it for half an hour. At this time I turn on the oven and set it at 450-475 deg. F so it can start preheating.

Also at this time, I grate the cheese (if I don't already have some grated cheese on hand) and get all of my other ingredients together. Here are the ingredients that are going into this baby: Tomato puree, salt (oops, not pictured), dried Italian spice mix (I make it myself - 2 parts oregano to 1 part basil and 1 part thyme), grated mozzarella cheese, sliced zucchini, chopped olives, fresh basil (lucky me - I had some on hand!), and grated parmesan cheese. Usually, the 30-minute timer goes off just about the time I've assembled all the ingredients and have them ready.

I sprinkle a little cornmeal over my baking dish to keep the pizza from sticking. I've learned not to use too much, or my pizza can taste a little too grainy. A little grainy is good - it reminds me of the pizza they serve at the pizza place, but you don't want too much.

Getting the dough out of the plastic bag can be a little tricky, because the flour in which they were dusted has become absorbed by the rising, and the dough is pretty sticky by now. Here is what I have found to be the best way to get the dough out of the bag with the least amount of hassle. (Although it isn't rocket science; you could probably just turn it out and dump it onto the counter. I just like to go from bag to hand to baking sheet, if I can.)

I start by sprinkling a little bit of flour into the bag and then putting my hand into the bag, turning the floured side over so the bottom of the bag is on top. I carefully peel away the bag, and then sprinkle a little bit of flour on the newly-exposed side of the dough. Then I grab it in the middle and start turning it around, letting the dough lengthen and fall a little more with each turn.

I have not come anywhere close to mastering the technique that will let me shape my pizza that way, though, so after it has formed a round, flat shape, I put it into the baking sheet and stretch it out from there.

One trick I have learned is to take the dough from the middle and stretch it out to the edge. If you just start pulling the edges it stretches out the middle too fast and it will start to tear before you can get the dough out to the edges of the baking sheet. Start in the middle, and the dough stays thicker all the way through, and you can still get that pizza crust thing going on the edges.

Sometimes the dough will fight me a little. As you can see here, it isn't staying all the way out to the lip of the sheet. When that happens, I just cover it with a towel and walk away from it for 5 minutes. By the time I get back it has relaxed enough that I can stretch it out that last little bit so it comes out to the edges of the sheet.

I like to pre-cook my crust, so I put it on the bottom rack of the oven and cook it for 4 minutes. I got this tip watching Sarah Moulton make pizza on her PBS show "Weeknight Meals." Since I don't use a stone and I don't know that my oven gets really hot enough for professional quality pizza, I find that cooking it before I top it keeps it crisp while everything else is cooking.

You may find that this step is not necessary, in which case, you can just skip it and start topping your pizza.

The first thing I put on my pizza is the tomato puree. I use it straight out of the can. Some people like to make fancy sauces, and sometimes I will do that, but the tomato will cook in the oven and this is really fast and easy. Just be sure to season your puree! The first time I used it I forgot and it wasn't quite so spectacular.

You want a light hand with the sauce. If there's too much sauce, your crust will be soggy and won't support the ingredients. I usually use a ladle to spoon it over and smooth it out; 2 ladles full is usually enough ( 3/4 to 1 cup).

I season my tomato with salt and the Italian spice mix. I use both items generously and I make sure every bit of the sauce is well seasoned so there is flavor in every bite.

Next, I cover the tomato puree with the grated mozzarella cheese. I start from the outside and work my way in so the cheese covers all of the tomato sauce. For some reason, I don't know why, if I start in the middle and work my way out I don't go all the way to the edge of the tomato sauce. And you want to make sure that the cheese covers all of the sauce so it will cook together into a delicious gooey pizza edge.

After the cheese come whatever ingredients I have decided to use. In this case, I had some zucchini and green olives in the refrigerator, so I sliced up the zucchini and chopped the olives. I just layer the slices evenly around the dough, and then I spread the olives evenly after that. I don't always have fresh herbs on hand, but having basil meant I could also chiffonade some basil leaves and spread those on top of the zucchini and olives.

Last of all comes the grated parmesan cheese, so it will bubble and brown and give my pizza a nice, cheesy top.

I bake it on the bottom shelf of the oven for about 15 minutes, until the crust is a deep golden brown, the pizza ingredients are done, and the cheeses have melted and are bubbling.

Remove the pizza from the oven and slide it off of the baking dish. Cut immediately and serve hot.

To reheat, I have found that what works best for me is to preheat the oven to 350 deg F. and heat the slices on a baking sheet for about 10 minutes. I used to reheat pizza in the microwave, but it really makes a difference if you heat it in the oven instead.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Six Weirdest, Scariest Processed Foods

There are a lot more than six, but this is a start.

I especially like the mental image produced from the idea of people stuffing handsful of Crisco into their mouths.

My mother used to break Oreos in half, eat the chocolate side, and give me the side with the filling, which I didn't particularly like, but it was the only way I could get the other chocolate half. Thanks, Mom.

Edited to add: It looks like Oreos no longer has trans fats in their Oreos. Looking at their list of ingredients, however, I still don't think I want to eat them.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Baking Class: Applesauce Spice Cupcake Pudding with Caramel Sauce

Let me just say that it was not my intention to make Applesauce Spice Cupcake Pudding when I started putting together the butter, flour, applesauce, and spices. I had a recipe that came from my sister-in-law for an Applesauce Spice Cake that I was trying to adapt into cupcakes.

I learned something new right off the bat. Not all cake batters translate to cupcakes without some kind of adaptation. Rather than rise up into a nice rounded top, the batter spread out over the surface of the cupcake sheets and stuck there, making it impossible to remove the cupcakes from the sheets without the tops pulling off of them. The cupcakes were of a moistness that would have made for a rich, marvelous cake, but it was a sticky moistness that made getting them out of the paper problematic once I did manage to get them out of the baking sheet.

In other words, one big fat mess of a failure. I knew I could not cover them with the cream cheese frosting that is supposed to accompany them. I also knew that I could not share them with anyone in their current state.

But I had two dozen of them and I couldn't just throw them away. Other than their appearance, there was nothing wrong with them. I put on my thinking cap. I was determined to make some kind of lemonade with those lemons.

Maybe it's the time of year, but it was just a tiny little stretch to come up with bread pudding. I had seen Ina Garten make one with croissants, so I knew you didn't have to use bread. You just needed something bread-like. These were perfect. They were already broken up, it shouldn't take too much effort to break them up even more. All I needed was a little something to bind the broken pieces into a whole.

I looked through some of my old standby cookbooks and found a basic bread pudding in The Settlement Cookbook that was about as simple as could be. Milk, eggs, sugar and spices mixed together, poured over the broken up cupcake pieces, left to soak for a while, then baked for about an hour. It seemed simple enough.

It was simple, and delicious. I used the same spices for the pudding as I had used for the cake, and it was nice and warm and spicy. But it needed a sauce, something to contrast a little with the soft texture and spicy taste. As soon as I thought of caramel sauce I knew it would be perfect.

I'd never made caramel sauce before, so I went looking for recipes. I found the perfect recipe here on Elise's Simply Recipes. It came together quickly and was warm and buttery and sweet and rich and - for lack of a better word - caramel-y. In a word, yum. In two words, yum yum.

It was the perfect accompaniment for the spice cake pudding. It's buttery warmth wrapped around the spices in a velvet coat of sweet, rich flavor.

I'm not going to post the Applesauce Spice Cake recipe here - when made properly it should be served with the cream cheese frosting that usually goes with it and it will be delicious in its own right. What I am posting here is a recipe for turning any cake/cookie/baked good disaster into a triumph. Served with this luscious, gooey caramel sauce, you can even use regular old stale bread, which was the reason bread pudding was created in the first place, to find a use for that old, stale bread that had hung around the kitchen for a day or two too many.

12 cupcakes, 4 cups cried bread or cake cubes, or any other baked good that has outstayed its welcome
1-1/2 cups milk
2 eggs, beaten
1/2 cup sugar
1 tsp cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, ginger, or any other spices that you want to use; you can mix and match spices and amounts, but no more than 3 teaspoons of spices in all.

Preheat oven to 350 deg. F.

Place bread/cake cubes into a greased 1-1/2 quart baking dish. Beat together the milk, eggs, sugar and spices. Pour over the bread/cake cubes and let stand until the liquid has been thoroughly absorbed.

Bake for 35-40 minutes, until firm. Let cool before serving.

Serve with your favorite sauce.

Loosely adapted from The Settlement Cookbook, Third Edition, Newly Revised (Simon and Schuster 1965, 1976)

Monday, December 07, 2009

Roast Chicken with Lemon, Garlic, and Fresh Herbs

It's been a long weekend and I'm beat, so this post will be short and sweet. And roasty toasty delicious.

Last week I saw the roasting chickens at Whole Foods and decided to give one a try. I picked a nice, beautiful 4-pound baby. I thought about asking the butcher to cut it up for me, but I had a ride that I didn't want to keep waiting too long and decided I would have more options if I kept it whole.

My last serious attempt at roasting a chicken, while not exactly disastrous, was less than satisfactory. Considering how much lemon, thyme, paprika, and other spices went into it, the bird was bland. I don't think the problem was necessarily with the recipe; at the time I chalked it down to my lack of experience with the roasting technique.

I thought it was time to try again. I went online to see if I could find something that seemed reasonable. I finally ended up at this recipe at The Food Network website by Emeril Lagasse, of all people.

What I found particularly amusing about this recipe is that, while the ingredients and the basic instructions seem like they would work, the instructions are to roast the chicken in a 500 deg. F oven for 40-50 minutes. That just looked wrong, so I decided to check the reviews and see what people had to say about it.

The overwhelming majority of reviewers gave the recipe 5 stars, but they all also said they either burned the chicken the first time they made it, and then cooked it at a lower temperature with excellent results, or they had read previous reviews and knew to cook it at a lower temperature. The highlight was when one reviewer criticized the other reviewers for giving the recipe such a high rating when it had such a serious mistake in it. Because it is clearly a mistake, of which the site is unaware, or about which the site does not care.

The recipe itself is similar to many other roast chicken recipes out there (except for the cooking at 500 deg. part). Since so many recipes had the same basic instructions, I decided to take what made sense and run with it. I basically just threw every fresh herb I had in the refrigerator into the cavity and stopped it up with a lemon half (which you can see bulging obscenely out from under the breast in the picture above.)

I was quite pleased with the result. As you can see, the garlic burned to a crisp, but the skin was crisp and full of flavor, as was the meat itself. I ate the dark meat for a couple of dinners and I chopped and froze the chicken breast for some soup I wanted to make. The bones are in a resealable bag in the freezer, where it is their destiny to become a lovely golden slow cooker chicken stock.

I stuffed every fresh herb from my refrigerator into this bird, including a big old bunch of cilantro. I also used the Bell's Natural Seasoning in the rub. All in all, it was one of the best chickens I have ever eaten, and it was definitely the best chicken I have ever roasted.

1 3-4 lb. chicken
salt and pepper
4 Tbsp butter, more or less, softened
2 Tbsp olive oil
1 tsp Bell's Natural Seasoning, or poultry seasoning
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 lemon, cut in half
6-10 sprigs fresh thyme*
6-8 fresh sage leaves*
large handful of roughly-chopped cilantro*
4 bay leaves

Preheat oven to 425 deg. F.

In a small bowl, combine the butter, olive oil, Bell's Natural seasoning, and garlic and mix well. Squeeze the juice from the lemon into the bowl and mix it in.

Season the chicken liberally with salt and pepper on all sides, and place on a rack in a roasting pan. Place one of the squeezed lemon halves inside of the cavity, and then add the thyme, sage, cilantro and bay leaves, followed by the second squeezed lemon half.

Rub the butter-oil-garlic mixture all over the outside of the chicken and in between the meat and the skin.

Place on a rack in the middle of the oven. Bake for approximately one-and-a-half hours, until the internal temperature of the thickest part of the leg is 160 degrees. Check after an hour, and if the skin starts turning too brown, place a piece of aluminum foil loosely over the breast.

Remove from the oven and let the chicken rest for 10 to 15 minutes before carving.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Baking Class: Jack Robinson Cake

Jack Robinson cake has been in our family for as long as I can remember. My mother made it maybe once or twice during my childhood. It's not chocolate, so it was not high on her list of dessert priorities.

I like chocolate as much as the next person, but it is not the only thing I like. Oddly enough, I'm not that crazy about most chocolate cakes, or chocolate ice cream. There's something about those vehicles that dilutes the effect of the chocolate for me. A good vanilla ice cream is dense, thick and rich to me. With chocolate ice cream, the cream and the chocolate balance out too well. It's the same thing with cake. The other ingredients balance out the chocolate, so it is not rich enough by itself and the other flavors don't have a chance to compete. There is one exception, I do have a killer chocolate cake recipe that has also been in the family for as long as I can remember. It's a secret for now and it's not my recipe, so I can't share it.

I do not know from where my mother got the recipe for Jack Robinson Cake. I do have a vague memory of it being called that because you can make it faster than you can say "Jack Robinson." I did not find much when I went looking on the internet, but one other person who posted the recipe said it was named for this reason, so I did not totally pull that out of thin air. I will say that it is not that fast a recipe to put together, and I could definitely not make it faster than anyone can say "Jack Robinson."

Another person who posted the recipe said it was given to her when she got married in the mid '50s, so the recipe is as old as I remember it being. It's posted on, and I even found someone who posted in French. But none of the postings have attributes, so I didn't uncover any other hints as to its origin.

Wherever it came from, it's delicious. It's basically a white cake that's covered with a brown-sugar meringue and baked for about half an hour. The meringue forms a sweet, nutty, slightly chewy crust on top of the cake. The brown sugar gives the meringue a toasty, caramelly warmth. It's a little on the light side, which makes it the perfect ending to a rich, heavy meal. I made it for my Thanksgiving dinner, and it hit the perfect end note.

You might not be able to whip it up faster than anyone can say "Jack Robinson," but don't let that stop you from trying. While it's not fast, it is easy, and it's a crowd pleaser.
Home Cookin Chapter: Cakes and Pies


2 cups flour
3 tsp baking powder
1 tsp salt
1-1/4 cups sugar
1/2 butter, room temperature
3/4 cup milk
1 tsp vanilla
2 eggs

Sift flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Add butter, milk and vanilla. Beat on low for 2 minutes. Add the eggs and beat for one more minute. Pour into 8-1/2 x 13-1/2 x 2" pan.


2 egg whites, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts

Beat egg whites until stiff but not dry. Add brown sugar gradually and beat well. Spread mixture on top of the cake batter, then sprinkle with the chopped walnuts.

Bake at 350 deg. F for 35 minutes.

Exported from Home Cookin 5.9 (

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