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Bread baking for all

Bread baking for all

So many cooks, new and seasoned, are intimidated by baking bread. No need to fear because even failures are usable. Some of my worst loaves have become the best breadcrumbs, the tastiest croutons, and the most comforting bread puddings. You don’t need any special equipment to make bread, either. Bread has been around for about 30,000 years and, I assume, there were no Kitchenaids stashed in the back of the cave somewhere. We’re going to start off with a basic white bread, a recipe my mother taught me when I first asked to learn to bake bread. My Aunt Barbie will say that was when I was 6 or 7 years old, because she regularly reports that I was an over-achiever as a child, but I recall it to be more like when I was 12 or 13. Whatever age, bread is easily baked by anyone and you will gain confidence to experiment with other ingredients and make more complex breads if you practice making bread regularly. This isn’t like learning to play the clarinet or oboe, where your family will don noise-canceling headphones when you practice. No, your family will make pitstops through the kitchen to check on the progress and hold rock-paper-scissors championships to determine who will get to test the latest loaf. Sometimes it’s the winner; sometimes it’s the loser. There are three important things to remember about baking bread: patience, perception, and personality. Don’t try to rush the process. Take the time to observe how the ingredients work together. Study the yeast bloom. Inspect the rising dough at regular intervals. Feel the texture, density, and weight of...
I’m back in the kitchen!

I’m back in the kitchen!

The last entry on this blog was about 14 months ago – WAY too long ago! Many of you know this extended and unexpected hiatus was due to the demands of graduate school. I held the unreasonable belief that the workload for grad school would be similar to the breezy schedule I maintained when I completed my BA degree the year before. I could not have been more wrong. I am happy – ecstatic, really – to report that my master’s degree work is done, my diploma delivered, and I am back in the kitchen again! Life sometimes takes weird twists and turns. It is usually better to just hang on and enjoy the ride, steering when you must, but also mindful to take those roads not yet travelled when you can. Writing this food blog has been one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. I have met some wonderful people while I learned the ropes of food writing (you know who you are!) and I am a better writer and cook as a result. I am excited to continue this effort with some new bells and whistles I now have in my breadbasket as a result of the graduate program I completed. Thank you to those loyal fans that have sent notes (and not-so-subtle hints) that you expected this forum to continue when I was done dallying in school. I promise you will not be disappointed after the long wait. Now, let’s get...
Food Safari 2014:  Digging for Diamonds

Food Safari 2014: Digging for Diamonds

There are times when you have a meal that is so delicious, aesthetically pleasing as well, that finding the right words to describe it is difficult.  The aroma reaches you before the plate is set before you and your mouth salivates as your eyes begin the feast. Those meals are truly memorable beyond words; your senses remember them, too. That was not the case on our second stop of the Food Safari 2014 in Murfreesboro, Arkansas. Perhaps we made the wrong selection of restaurants.  There was only a handful from which to choose. This is not surprising for a small town of less than 1,800 residents.  We wanted to eat a little early and perhaps that limited our choices as well. Ultimately, we chose the place with the biggest billboards around town.  Lesson learned. I suspect the only reason anyone goes to Murfreesboro, Arkansas in the first place is the Crater of Diamonds State Park located there.  The park is the only diamond-producing site in the world open to the public and the only active U.S. diamond mine. The history of this unique state park is as colorful as the diamonds hiding under the earth there.  John Wesley Huddleston bought the property in 1906 to homestead and farm with his family.  It was not long before he found a few diamonds on the property, igniting a diamond rush to Arkansas that put the town on the map. We went to the park with the same fervor to find the next largest gem on the property.  Our grandson, Michael, from Nashville, and our friend, Roxann, from Louisiana, prepared for a...
Food Safari 2014: Cajun Landing, Alexandria, LA

Food Safari 2014: Cajun Landing, Alexandria, LA

Our first outing made for an auspicious beginning to our food safari summer.  James and Roxann selected Cajun Landing  for their regional favorite in central Louisiana.  Their website boasts “the best seafood in Alexandria-Pineville.”  Since this is the only restaurant we visited, I can only say this: the others have a high bar to beat.  Cajun Landing lives up to its promise of excellent seafood and land-lover fare, the ambiance was charming old-Louisiana, and the staff couldn’t have been more friendly or attentive. Clayton was our server.  He is the newish, young assistant manager at Cajun Landing and he is a delight.  Though not sure what he was getting into with our group, he was more than up to the challenge.  He remembered our names throughout dinner and sparred with us at every comical turn.  When I started rearranging table adornments and moving plates of food to a better light source, he began to understand how seriously we took our mission but he was very accommodating. We tried several appetizers including alligator tail, New Orleans style crab cakes, stuffed mushrooms, and Cajun popcorn.  The last is a tasty little morsel of breaded and fried crawfish.  Crawfish was first on my have-to-try-but-I’m-nervous-about-eating-it list and I really loved them.  The stuffed mushrooms, my husband’s favorite thing, were filled with a shrimp and crab meat stuffing, light and full of flavor.  The mushrooms were fresh, not spongy or dried out as is served in some places.  Roxann recommended the crab cakes as very similar to my own, one of her favorites, and I do not disagree.  There was more crab than breaded filling and the...
4,000-mile Food Safari of 2014

4,000-mile Food Safari of 2014

Last week we embarked on a 4,000-mile food safari across the eastern United States.  Over the next 30 days, we will travel to 16 states searching for local-favorite restaurants serving the best regional cuisine.  We have no idea what we will find and taste on this trip but we are excited by the possibilities. Visiting restaurants and eating local food isn’t our only quest on this trip.  We will also learn to make the favorite dishes of our hosts and we will bring those lessons to you, newbies in the kitchen, so you can learn to make some regional favorites, too.  We have packed our cameras and recorders, bringing you into kitchens everywhere we go. Our 16-year-old grandson, Michael, will be with us during the first part of our trip.  He learned early in life that Grandma and Grandpa Lee are always up for an adventure and he is (usually) happy to be a part of whatever escapade we dream up next.  Michael is a daring diner, willing to try different foods and eager to be a part of our food safari.  Though he will only be with us for the first week, he is sure to provide unique insights and we are thrilled he is with us for that leg of the trip. From Louisiana to New Jersey our friend, Roxann, will travel with us.  Roxann is not just well familiar with some of our antics; she is often right in the thick of it with us.  She is a joy to travel with – and we have traveled together quite a bit over the years – and she does...
Bacon Cheeseburger Quiche

Bacon Cheeseburger Quiche

Potluck dinners can be such a crapshoot. Sometimes you end up with all desserts. The next time there’s a crockpot graveyard of casseroles. You can’t really have a potluck and then dictate what everyone brings so you take your chances and hope it will all balance out. In my neighborhood we have a potluck dinner every Friday night. It began a few years ago when four couples arranged to meet at the pool after dinner. The instructions were simple: bring a snack and your sippy-cup. ‘Snack’ was defined as a bag of chips or a plate of cookies. ‘Sippy-cup’ is a euphemism for our drink of choice. In the pool we watched a symphony of colors transform the Florida skyline into darkness as we shared accounts of where we came from and how we ended up there. The second week about 15 people showed up; lots of snacks, even more sippy-cups. We had lots of laughs in the pool and played with more fervor. The turning point came in the third week. More than 20 people came to play and share in the weekly pool-sunset ritual. A bevy of bottles graced the round plastic picnic table and someone schlepped another table from home to hold all the snacks. A cooler of Jell-O shots circulated the room like an old actress looking for a new part. The pool was a comical war zone with water machine guns and dueling pool noodles. People began talking about the weekly pool party; it was not entirely kind. Shenanigans like ours were a threat to the elders in our community. Our unseemly behavior was...
Easy-Peasy Pie Crust

Easy-Peasy Pie Crust

Making pies, specifically the piecrust, is the bane of every new cook.  We’ve experienced all the usual piecrust calamities:  tough as shoe leather, soggy like bread soaked in milk, crusts that look like a patchwork quilt lining the pie plate.  It may be easier to purchase a ready-made crust or the rolled uncooked piecrust dough, but your pies, and your guests, will know the difference between those and your homemade piecrust. I promise you, with practice and patience you can make the perfect piecrust every time. I don’t know where my mom found the recipe and method for making piecrust but this is how I learned and have been making pie crust since I was 10 years old.  It has never failed me, providing I take my time and follow the same process each time. Begin with cold ingredients. Room-temperature ingredients always result in a more difficult pie crust experience.  I said that very nicely but I think you’ll get the point.  Put the flour and shortening in the freezer at least one hour before you’re going to make the pie crust. Before you begin making the dough, fill a small glass with ice and then cold water.  This will enable the water to get very cold until you’re ready for it. Do not overwork the dough.  The more you touch the dough, including rolling it out, the tougher the final piecrust will be. Follow these two rules and you’re halfway there. Other tips and tricks my mother taught me: Measure the flour into the bowl by scooping up the flour in a measuring cup and scraping off the excess with...
Sunday morning favorites:  Sausage cups

Sunday morning favorites: Sausage cups

When my husband, Shun, and I were just aspiring restaurant owners we stumbled on an opportunity to spread our culinary wings.  The St Lucie County Audubon Society (Ft. Pierce, Florida) holds an annual field trip to raise funds for the local club and awareness of the local habitat.  The breakfast is held at Adams Ranch, a 50,000-acre cattle ranch located in a quiet little town about 45 minutes north of West Palm Beach and 2 hours south of Orlando. God’s country if there ever was a place. We were asked to provide breakfast for the 80 guests registered for the field trip, which usually ended up with 110 people.  There were some very important details surrounding this event about which we did not inquire before agreeing to cater it. The location selected by the planning committee was approximately three miles inside this 50,000 acre ranch. This spot sat adjacent to an open field where free-roaming cattle owned the land. There was no electricity at this location. Breakfast would be served to the first half of the group at 8 a.m. In order to serve breakfast at 8 a.m. we would need to be at the location no later than 6 a.m. Sunrise in Fort Pierce, Florida in February occurs between 7 and 7:15 a.m. One afternoon, about a week before the event, we drove to the spot so we would be familiar with the route.   At the first turn we would pass a house  where members of the Adams’ family lived.  We were cautioned to try not waking the dogs. We had to remember which legs to take at three y-intersections and we drew a little map...
The easiest French Bread recipe you’ll ever need

The easiest French Bread recipe you’ll ever need

One of my mom’s favorite cooking resources was her set of Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery.  This collection of 12 cookbooks contains more than 2,000 pages, 1,500 color illustrations and photographs, and 8,500 recipes.  Inside its pages are 50 specialty cookbooks for specific foods like cookies, Bavarian cooking, a potato cookbook, and more.  The 1966 publication by Fawcett Publications in New York was mom’s pride a joy. We spent many hours perusing the cookbooks looking for things to make.  Many of the recipes have a grade – A+, B-, C – and usually some commentary about the reason for assigning it that grade.  There are as many A pluses as D minuses because we cooked many a meal from those books. For my 18th birthday my mom gave me my own set, also the 1966 edition even though the new 1979 version was just out.  I would not have been happy with the new collection; I was eager to begin noting my own favorites and making my own comments.  I made all of the dishes my mom and I did and rated them in my own book.  I was thrilled to discover that whoever owned the set before me also gave grades and made comments so my set already had a history to share and learn from. One of my all-time favorite recipes in the Woman’s Day Encyclopedia of Cookery is for French bread.  Now, perhaps, all French bread recipes are this basic and easy to prepare but I would not know because I have never been tempted to stray from this recipe.  I’ve made other breads from other sources, but for French bread...
Sicilian Meatballs in red sugo

Sicilian Meatballs in red sugo

Everyone who has ever had a spaghetti and meatball dinner at my house is always surprised the first time.  I make meatballs they way I was taught by a family friend’s mother, an  Sicilian lady who came to America when she was 12.  I was about the same age when I  had supper at her house the first time. I was indignant as only a pre-teen can be because the meatballs were not like my grandmother’s meatballs.  The spices were the same, they were about the same size as my grandmother’s, but they had an extra ingredient that I didn’t think belonged in meatballs.  She added raisins. Who in the world adds raisins to meatballs, I thought. Apparently this woman really liked raisins because they were surreptitiously slipped in to many meals.  This woman made stuffed green peppers without meat but with raisins!  I was confused.  My taste buds were confused.  And I refused to eat a meatball or stuffed pepper with raisins. I’ve since matured, as have my taste buds.  Apparently this is the way Sicilians cook,  using seasonal fruits and vegetables in basic meal preparation.  Since the advent of fast food we Americans have faltered on that kind of food preparation, only recently has it come back into vogue.  We know Italy has plenty of grapes so it stands to reason they also have plenty of raisins.  That explains it, right? I am compelled to do a little more research.  Although Sicilian food has its strongest roots in Italian cuisine, there is also the influence of Spanish, Greek and Arab cuisine.  Because of their proximity to Sicily I understand the...