Friday, December 18, 2009

Baked Ziti - Take It Easy, Make It Easy

We're down to the wire with holiday preparations around here. Everything is in the works, but nothing is completely done.  Not to worry though!

I used to panic about this time every year. Now I'm much more likely to pick up a book, watch a Christmas movie, go to lunch with a friend or bake something. It took me way too long to learn to enjoy the Christmas season, so I guess I learned to make up for lost time.

Christmas Day always arrived, whether I was "ready" or not. Creating Christmas perfection left little time to enjoy the month of preparation, and by Christmas Day I was in no mood to be merry and bright. Then I decided to simplify -- do less and enjoy more.

Now when life gets busy during the holiday season, I know something has got to give. Dinner gets easier. We want something fast, comforting and delicious.

Baked Ziti is perfect for just such days.

I used to make this dish with browned ground beef, or sometimes without any meat at all. Now I prefer the richer, spicy flavor from browned bulk Italian sausage in the mix, especially when added to a jar of Newman's Own Sockarooni sauce, with it's nice bits of green pepper and onion. 

Of course, if I have homemade sauce in the freezer, that's perfect. But it's difficult to beat the total ease of these five simple ingredients when I have shopping . . . wrapping . . . mailing . . . decorating . . . Christmas cards . . . 

And if the stars align and everything comes together perfectly, I just might make two batches at once and put the second casserole in the freezer for later. Now that takes fast and easy to a whole new level.

Rolling into the new year with a dinner already made in the freezer! Things are looking good for January!

But for now, let's just take it one day at a time. And take it easy. And make your life merry and bright for all the days leading up to Christmas. 


1 lb. Italian sausage
1 jar pasta sauce ( I like Newman's Own Sockarooni Sauce)
1 16 oz. container part-skim ricotta cheese
1 13.25 oz. box penne pasta ( I like Dreamfield's)
½ c. freshly grated Parmesan cheese
6 slices provolone

Crumble and brown Italian sausage; drain grease or rinse sausage under running water. In a bowl, mix cooked sausage, sauce and ricotta cheese until well blended; set aside. Cook penne pasta according to package directions; drain and add to sauce mixture. Pour mixture into a large baking dish. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese over top of pasta and then cover with provolone. Bake at 325 degrees for 30 – 45 minutes. Cheese on top will be slightly browned and bubbly. Serves 6 – 8

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Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Season’s Eatings – Cookbooks Make Perfect Gifts

(my monthly food column for Heartland Women)
December 2009 

I have a dream. It’s a dream about a cookbook. Not just another cookbook to add to the hundreds already in my collection though. A special cookbook. My own cookbook. I want to write my own cookbook . . . see my name in big letters across the cover. . . admire it on local bookstore shelves . . . and yes, click it on! Wouldn’t that be exciting, amazing and wonderful? I’d be published! 

For food bloggers, cooking and writing about food is fun. Bloggers love to share their favorite recipes and create new ones and, since the family is going to eat anyway, why not write about it? Cook, eat, write, repeat. Simple. Anyone can do it! 

Writing about food, or at least good writing about good food, is not quite so easy. And writing a cookbook-worthy blog requires more than just typing a recipe on the computer keyboard and clicking “publish” on the screen. It takes time, talent and organization to plan meals, shop, prep, and cook something good enough to put out there two or three times a week. 

And then there’s the part of blogging that my friends and family like most of all – the pictures. The best blogs feature lovely pictures of food prep and/or finished dishes to entice, educate and encourage readers. The food does not always cooperate. Even with a good camera, most meat looks like a brown blob on a plate and beef stew looks like . . . well, we won’t go into that here. Anyway, while I’m searching for the perfect angle to capture steam rising in a seductive swirl above an enticing plate of food – everyone else is waiting, with fork in hand (and scowl on face), to eat that food. They are not amused! 

After the pictures are snapped and edited, everything leading up to the actual work of writing is done. So what would you say about that stew, for instance? Smells heavenly, tastes divine and looks like something the dog wouldn’t eat – or already had! Good! Just keep that sense of humor and indomitable spirit to your list of credentials, and you’ve got it made. 

But the cookbook, ah the cookbook. It’s the icing on the food blogger’s cake! Yeah, the fun really begins when you go from sitting at home in your jammies writing about last night’s dinner to negotiating with publishers, agents, and editors about legal stuff, edits, and marketing strategies. 

Good books usually come out in the fall, just in time for Christmas. That’s when the book tours begin too. Authors criss-cross the country by plane or load up the car and hit the road for several weeks leading up to Thanksgiving. Readers like to meet authors and authors want maximum exposure for their books at bookstores, kitchen shops, radio stations and, with a little luck, appearances doing live cooking demonstrations in front of TV cameras. And one more thing – book signings. Lots of book signing. Hours of book signings. Is that Kathy with a “K” or a “C,” and a “Y,” an “I,” or an “IE?” 

I have three food blogger friends who have just had their first cookbooks published this fall, just in time for Christmas. I’ve followed their blogs and watched their progress through most of the book publishing process, especially the book tours. All three of them are different in how they approach their food and their writing, but they are all excellent at what they do. It’s been fun to get to know them and to see their success from bloggers to authors. 

I’m recommending all three of these cookbooks as great gifts for the cooks on your list, not just because I know the authors, but because the recipes are good, really good. Good enough to eat!  

Keep cooking, keep reading and have a Merry Christmas! 

Make It Fast, Cook It Slow – The Big Book of Everyday Slow Cooking by Stephanie O’Dea 

Remember the slow cooker (that’s a Crock Pot®, without the ®) you keep on the shelf and haul out a couple of times a year – once to make chili and once to make beef stew? Well, clear a spot for that baby on the counter and get ready to make it work for it’s keep. 

In 2008, Stephanie O’Dea made a New Year’s resolution to cook with her slow cooker everyday for a whole year. Her idea was to enjoy the convenience of a slow cooker, while feeding her family money-saving and delicious meals. And now she has a cookbook to prove that it worked! 

Stephanie’s book has over 338 recipes, divided into 16 different food categories, from Appetizers to Take-Out Fake-Out. She uses lots of common panty items and staples. She helps keep grocery costs down for her family, buying meat when it’s on sale. And best of all, her philosophy is “I don’t like to cook before I cook” eliminating a problem many of us have with slow cooker recipes – it’s supposed to do the cooking for us, not the other way around! 

Each recipe includes a “verdict” on its success but, of course, no failures were allowed into the book! Stephanie decided to eliminate the pictures in her book to keep the price down for the big 400-page  paperback book. Pictures are still available for every recipe on her blog. There’s also an unexpected bonus feature in the book. Because the O’Dea family must maintain a gluten-free diet, all of the recipes are also gluten-free, if you choose! 

Give this book to busy moms, hungry families, financially challenged college students, food lovers who can’t cook, anyone swearing off white bag drive-thru syndrome, gluten-free eaters and the kitchen clean-up crew members. 

Stephanie’s Black-Eyed Pea Soup
1 lb. black-eyed peas, soaked overnight
1 yellow onion, diced
1 c. diced carrots
1 c. diced celery
1 lb. spicy sausage, sliced
6 c. chicken broth
4 garlic cloves, chopped
½ tsp. kosher salt
½ tsp black pepper
Tabasco sauce 

Use a 6-qt. slow cooker. Put the drained beans into the stoneware with the vegetables and the sliced sausage. Pour in the broth, and stir in the garlic, Italian seasoning, salt, and pepper. Cover and cook on low for 8 hours, or on high for about 6 hours. Before serving, use a handheld immersion blender to smoosh up some of the beans. Don’t blend too much—just enough to get the broth thicker and creamy-looking. Ladle the soup into bowls, and add Tabasco sauce to taste. Serves 8.
Stephanie’s Verdict – This tastes amazing. Perfect to eat on New Year’s Day for prosperity and good luck. 

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The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook by Jaden Hair
When Jaden Hair walks into a room the energy escalates. She’s smart, talented, creative, funny, hard working and energetic with a quick smile and easy laugh. It’s easy for everyone to see she knows what she’s doing and she loves her work.  

Jaden, lives with her husband and two young sons in Florida, where she blogs, writes a newspaper column, and makes regular TV appearances. Her work ethic and energy are amazing. And now, Jaden has written a cookbook that makes me want to cook Asian food every night! 

Born in Hong Kong, Jaden learned to cook from her mom, via cell phone. Since then, the passion she discovered in the kitchen has led her to embrace elements of Asian cooking, well beyond her Chinese heritage. In her book, too, her extensive knowledge and information about Asian ingredients crosses borders and demystifies the whole Asian food experience. I want to copy the amazing ingredient pages, staple them into a little booklet and carry it with me to the international market. I’m sure Jaden’s already working on that! Most of the recipes can be made with Asian ingredients found in most supermarkets. 

The pictures in The Steamy Kitchen Cookbook are good enough to eat and sure to have you craving Asian tonight. And, as if that’s not enough, Jaden’s recipes are designed to be fast, easy, family-friendly and delicious. This is the only Asian cookbook I need in my collection and my kitchen – at least until Jaden’s writes her next one. You’ll be seeing more of her, I’m sure! 

Give this cookbook to armchair travelers, adventurous cooks, heat and spice lovers – a little or a lot, foodies without access to good Asian restaurants, meal-in-a-bowl fans and the chopstick challenged. 

Jaden’s Asian Crab Cakes
2 eggs
1 lb. good quality crabmeat
1 tomato, finely diced
1 green onion, finely minced
1 tsp. grated fresh ginger
generous pinch of salt
freshly ground black pepper to taste
2 tsp. fish sauce
1 tsp. freshly squeezed limejuice
1 – 3 tsp Sriricha chilli sauce
¼ c.  plus 1 c. panko breadcrumbs
2 tbsp. high-heat cooking oil
1 tomato, finely diced, for garnish
1 green onion, thinly sliced for garnish 

Sriracha Mayo
1 tbsp. Sriracha chilli sauce
1 tsp. freshly squeezed limejuice
½ c. mayonnaise 

1.   In a large bowl, beat the eggs. Add the crabmeat, tomato, green onion, ginger, salt, black    pepper, fish sauce, lime juice, chilli sauce and ¼ c. of the panko breadcrumbs. Mix gently.
2.   With your hands, gently form 8 equal-sized crab cakes. Do not squeeze too hard. It’s easier if you form the crab cakes on a clean, flat surface and pat gently to form the cake.
3.   Set a frying pan over medium-high heat. When it is very hot, add the cooking oil and swirl to coat.
4.   On a plate, spread out the remaining 1 cup of panko breadcrumbs. Using a small spatula, gently lift one of the crab cakes and set it on top of the breadcrumbs. Spoon some of the breadcrumbs on top of the cake and press gently to adhere. Immediately transfer the crab cake to the frying pan and bread the remaining crab cakes, each time transferring to the frying pan after breading. Sauté the crab cakes for 2 minutes on each side, until golden brown.
5.   Prepare the Sriracha Mayo by combining the Sriracha, limejuice and mayonnaise in a small bowl. Stir well to blend. Top each crab cake with some of the Sriracha Mayo and top with diced tomato and thinly sliced green onion. Serves 4.

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The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Recipes From An Accidental Country Girl by Ree Drummond 

Ree Drummond lives on a cattle ranch in 
Oklahoma, but that wasn’t the life she had planned. Before a trip back to her hometown in Oklahoma and falling head over high heels for her future husband, Ree lived in Southern California where life included manicures, pedicures, Thai food and sushi. Today she lives on a remote working ranch with Marlboro Man, cooks for assorted ranch hands and kids, home schools her four “punks,” takes amazing pictures, writes about her love story and life on the popular blog and shoos cows off the front porch.

Ree cooks hearty and nourishing midwestern fare – honest food for kids and cowboys. It’s the simple, easy comfort food found on the dinner tables throughout the Midwest. Real food like Mom made at home, before fast food became a way of life and trendy culinary and dietary gurus dictated what was in and what was out. 

While some find fault with her “simple” dishes and her use of prepared pantry ingredients, beef, butter and cream, it’s good to remember she lives on a cattle ranch, miles from a grocery store of any size, and feeds kids and hungry ranch hands – just like the pioneers who settled the frontier. Real food for real people – no apologies needed! 

In a world where it is sometimes difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys, or the heroes from the villains, it is refreshing to find a woman you’d want for your friend and neighbor – if she had neighbors. Someone who is very comfortable in her own life – even if it isn’t the one she planned. Someone who makes living on a ranch in the middle of nowhere with cowboys, kids and cows seem like a dream come true. 

Give this cookbook to incurable romantics, horse lovers, cowboy wannabes, and women who feed good ol’ comfort food to their own hard-working cowboys and kids, at home or on the frontier. 

Ree’s Simple, Perfect Enchiladas
The Sauce:
1 tbsp. canola oil
2 tbsp. all-purpose flour
1 large (28-oz.) can enchilada or Mexican red sauce
2 c. chicken broth
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. black pepper
2 tbsp chopped cilantro, plus extra for serving
The Meat:
1 lb. ground beef
1 medium onion
8 oz. diced green chilies
½ tsp. salt
The Rest:
10 to 14 corn tortillas
canola oil for frying
½ c. chopped black olives
1 c. chopped green onions
3 c. grated sharp cheddar cheese

1.   In a saucepan over medium-low heat, combine the canola oil and flour.
2.   Whisk together and allow to bubble for 1 minute.
3.   Pour in the red sauce, chicken broth, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil.
4.   Reduce the heat and simmer while you prepare the other ingredients.
5.   While the sauce is simmering, prepare the meat. Finely chop the onion.
6.   In a large skillet over medium-high heat, brown the ground beef with the onion. Drain the fat, then add the green chilies. Add the salt and stir to combine. Turn off the heat and set aside.
7.   In a small skillet over medium heat, lightly fry the tortillas in canola oil just until soft. Do not crisp. Drain on a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat until all the tortillas have been fried.
8.   Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Spread ½ cup of the sauce in the bottom of a 9x13-inch baking dish.
9.   Next, dip each tortilla into the sauce in the saucepan.
10. Set the sauce-soaked tortillas on a cookie sheet. Onto each tortilla, place some of the meat mixture, black olives and green onions.
11. Top with a generous portion of grated cheddar cheese.
12. Roll up the tortilla to contain the filling inside.
13. Place the tortilla seam side down in the baking dish. Repeat with the rest of the tortillas. Stir the cilantro into the sauce, and pour the remaining sauce over the top.
14. End with a generous sprinkling of cheese.
15. Bake the enchiladas for 20 minutes, or until bubbly. Sprinkle the extra chopped cilantro over the top. Serve with beans, rice and margaritas . . . (if you’re into that sort of thing).
Makes 8 servings.

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FULL DISCLOSURE - All three of these cookbooks were purchased by me, for my own cookbook collection . . . and a few more for Christmas gifts . . .  shhhhh!

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Sunny Orange Maramalade Mornings

Several years ago, I stumbled upon a can of Seville oranges cut for making orange marmalade. The notion of making my own orange marmalade had never occurred to me, but reading the fine print at the bottom of the can, I discovered just how easy it could be.

I dearly love the sunny flavor of orange marmalade and have purchased many an expensive imported jar over the years. So, although I didn't know a thing about Seville oranges, nor had I ever seen one, I was ready to try my hand at orange marmalade. Could it really be that simple?

MaMade is produced in Spain and the Seville oranges are grown throughout the Mediterranean countries. The contents of the can were bright and my hopes were high. Pour the orange goo into a large saucepan with 4 lbs. of sugar -- that's a lot of sugar, I know -- but stick your finger in the orange goo and 4 lbs. will seem just about right. Seville oranges are also known as "bitter" oranges.


Apparently, the can of orange goo comes in either "thin cut" or "thick cut" peel. It seems the thick cut is difficult to find in this country, but the thin cut is a little easier to locate. I ordered mine from Amazon, since our local international market carries only those expensive, imported jars of ready-made marmalade.


So, when you mix the goo, the sugar and 12 oz. of water in a pan and let it boil for about 15 minutes, presto! . . . orange marmalade! Oh yeah, the instructions on the can say to "add a knob of butter to disperse the foam" while boiling. After deciding "a knob" is about the size of a walnut, I added it. Alas, no discernible dispersing occurred! I used a big flat spoon with little holes in it to skim the foam. I didn't want some unsightly yuck in the finished marmalade. No big deal -- skimming just took a moment.

The cooking is quick, so remember to wash the jars, lids and rings, before you start to assemble the ingredients in the pan, and keep them warm until time to add the marmalade.  I placed the jars on a towel to minimize the risk some sort of cold-granite-meets-warm-jar-meets-hot-marmalade disaster. I also used a wide mouth canning funnel to ladle the hot marmalade into the jars -- no burns and no sticky mess to clean up! Four pounds of sugar can be really sticky!

So here is the finished product! Beautiful, isn't it? The MaMade can produced 5 pints of marmalade, which I put into little 4 oz. and 8 oz. jars. Just yesterday, my neighbor Dan and I were talking about opening a big jar of jelly, jam, preserves, marmalade or apple butter, only to discover we're tired of it before the jar is empty. Then the rest of the jar sits in the back of the fridge until no one remembers how long it's been there and nobody wants to eat it. Then it gets dumped in the trash. We agreed little bitty jars were much better, and much less wasteful in the long run.

Whether you are an orange marmalade devotee like me, or a willing but reluctant first-time home-canner, nothing could be easier than turning a can of MaMade Seville orange goo into lovely little jars of sweet-tart-chewy orange marmalade.

I'm really looking forward to the wide-awake citrus flavor burst to brighten my cozy winter tea and toast. Winter sounds a little sunnier and happier already!

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Can't Get Enough Cheese Wafers

There are a great many names and variations for this recipe. My recipe is called Cheese Wafers -- cheesey little shortbread-esque rounds. Plain or crunchy. Savory. Satisfying. Addictive.

The recipe is from my friend Gayle, in Mississippi. Southern girls seem to come into marriage armed with a box of handy little recipes to suit every occasion, and this is one of Gayle's. I've been baking them since 1977, when I first lived in North Carolina, but had never tasted a cheese straw.

I make them small, about the size of half-dollars when baked -- the Cheese Wafers, not the half-dollars. And I give lots of them as gifts.

I've tried hiding them from myself, but apparently I'm a lot smarter than I look. I always find them.

Christmas is a wonderful time of year for baking Cheese Wafers, because the recipe makes lots and is so, so easy -- just when time and money are at a premium.

Cheese Wafers are similar to the ubiquitous Southern-style cheese straws seen at parties and in very small bags or tins at pricey little boutique gift and gourmet stores. Sure, they're good. At $25 - $30 a pound! 

But this is all it takes to make them at home -- four ingredients you probably have in your kitchen right now!

In a matter of minutes you can dump four simple ingredients into a bowl, mush them up with your hands, roll them into little balls, smash them with a fork and bake. Oh yeah, and kids love to make them too!

One bowl . . . one measuring cup (if you don't leave yours in the flour canister, like I do) . . . one fork . . . one baking sheet (or two, for assembly line efficiency bakers.)

Four ingredients. Four items to wash. Forty-five minutes, start to finish. For about $4!

Five d-o-z-e-n Cheese Wafers!

Place a few of these on a pretty plate, in a decorative tin, a colorful box or a crinkly cellophane bag and you have the perfect gift for the hostess, sick friend, new mother, welcome neighbor, teacher or . . . just because. Add a cute and functional container (think mug, plate or bowl) you're still saving a ton of money over store-bought cheese straws!

Not the same old Christmas cookie.  Not the same old cheese straw. Something even better.

How about Cheese Wafers for Santa? He might be all cookied out by the time he gets to your house.

Step aside cookie elves -- there's a new elf in town -- with Cheese Wafers all 'round! 

2 sticks (1/2 pound) butter, softened
2 cups grated sharp cheddar cheese - 8 oz. block of cheese (I've had much better luck with quality name brand cheese than generic or store brand)
2 cups flour
several dashes of hot sauce - more is better! - (Tabasco, etc.)
Optional: 1 cup crushed Rice Krispies or finely chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  In a bowl, mix butter and cheese with hands until blended completely. Add flour and hot sauce (and optional Rice Krispies or chopped pecans) and continue to mix with hands until dough is formed. Roll mixed dough into balls about the size of large marbles and place on ungreased baking sheets. Flatten balls with a fork.  Bake for 15-20 minutes, until just lightly brown around edges. Cool and remove from baking sheet.  Store in airtight container. Can be frozen in airtight container for later use. Great served with cocktails or to accompany soups and salads.  Makes 5 dozen. 
Note: The dough could be shaped and flattened to cut into strips - for diehard cheese straw fans.

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