Saturday, February 28, 2009

Plan K (Asian Asparagus)


We've had a frantic weekend here at the Wiles household. Every single, best-laid plan was upended, revised, revised again, and in a couple of instances, entirely scrapped. Plan A evolved into Plan B, and suddenly, we were at Plan K, which was shaky at best. Arriving at that rickety plan was an exercise in nimbleness, negotiating, among other things, vomit, flight delays, dog diarrhea, birthday parties, Icee-soaked shoes, the possibility of snow, and car swapping. Plenty of reasons to renege on that idea of a "wine-free" Lent, if you ask me.

But that's the parenting gig. If you're not quick on your feet, you're not dead in the water -- you're just dead. Or you may as well be.

Consider a typical weekend night with a teen and pre-teen. You're going to be home for dinner? Great! You'll be an hour late? OK. Oh -- now half an hour early? I can deal. You're bringing two friends, maybe three? I can stretch. Oh -- it turns out everyone wants to go to the movies and make a meal of Mountain Dew, popcorn and Mike & Ikes?

DO I LOOK INSANE TO YOU? Don't answer that.

Could be time to simplify. I think I'll start by making one of the simplest things I know -- Asian Asparagus. It's not a meal, and since it's served cold, I don't really think of it as a sidedish. I got the recipe from my sister, who claims she could eat the whole dish herself. I actually have. Morning, noon and night, it's simply that good.

Asian Asparagus

1 bunch of asparagus

2 tablespoons soy sauce
2 teaspoons toasted sesame oil
1 small clove of garlic, minced

Blanch asparagus for one minute and drain. Immerse in ice water, drain again and pat dry.

Combine asparagus with remaining ingredients in a plastic bag and marinate, refrigerated, up to four days, turning occasionally. (Note: Tastes best if allowed to marinate overnight before the first sampling, but if you just can't wait, give it at least four hours. Otherwise, the garlic taste is too sharp.)

Friday, February 27, 2009

Friday-Night-Pizza-Night (Blue Cheese Dip)


It's Friday-night-pizza-night at the Wiles house.  What started as an end-of-the-week, someone-else-needs-to-cook treat is now a fully established tradition.  Initially, as I saw the custom settling in, I was uncomfortable.  Really, pizza again?  Shouldn't the kids be exposed to more variety?  What if they only eat cheese pizza for the rest of their lives?

Turns out though, we weren't the only ones.  Friday-night-pizza-night is rampant in homes with school-age children.  No matter whose house they're at, kids count on it.  But I am so over it.

When they were little, it was kind of cute.  We'd jump into our jammies, pop in a special movie, munch on some raw vegetables and blue cheese dip (not that the kids would ever actually eat the dip -- gross!), snuggle down and await the man-of-the-day to arrive -- the pizza delivery guy.  Even the dog recognized him.

But sometime after my 332nd slice, I just got over it.  True, we did move on from cheese to one-topping pepperoni (large, hand-tossed), but I'm done.  Would it kill us to add something approximating a vegetable (even olives!) to our order?  Probably.  According to my calculations, it took eight years to add the pepperoni.  In another eight years, it'll just be me, the cat and the dog here.  I'm not ordering pizza for them.  Not even with olives.

The one thing I don't tire of is the blue cheese dip.   It's easy to make and requested by everyone I know but didn't birth.  I suppose I should be proud though, because although the kids won't get close to any dip (not even ranch), they do accept that other people are different.  Darling Daughter will even ask, as we leave to have dinner at someone else's house, "Aren't you supposed to bring dip?"

Good with nearly any raw vegetable, and particularly tasty paired with steamed asparagus or sugar snap peas, blue cheese dip has gotten me through many a pizza night.  Of course, I also like it spooned into baked potatoes.  Or scooped up with Fritos.  Or a spoon.  But I suspect that's just me.

Killer Blue Cheese Dip
(All amounts are approximate.  For the first four ingredients, I use an amount that's about the size of my fist.)

4 oz. blue cheese (and better blue cheese, such as Maytag or sigh, Clemson, really is better), crumbled
About 3/4 cup (or more) of sour cream
About 3/4 cup (or less) of decent mayonnaise
About 3/4 cup (no kidding) of minced fresh Italian parsley
About 1/4 cup of finely minced celery (optional)
1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
Generous shake of Tabasco
3/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
Generous grinding of pepper

Stir everything together.  Taste.  If it still needs "something," try a bit more lemon juice or salt.  Then, if you can stand it, stash it in the fridge for an hour or two, to let the flavors mellow.  Serve with fresh celery, carrots, lightly steamed asparagus, radishes, etc.  And a spoon.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Lenten Dilemma, Pt. 2 (Pan Roasted Chicken)

Day Two on the Lenten wine abstinence plan, and a partial bottle of sauvignon blanc in the fridge has made its presence known.

There's no way it'll be drinkable after the 38 remaining days of Lent.  Too bad, because it's the good stuff, not that roll-the-dice stuff I sometimes buy from the half-price, markdown cart at the grocery store, with the questionable labels and even more questionable taste.  Yes.  I get it.  Lent is all about temptation -- resisting it, that is -- but come on!  Am I really supposed to dump it down the drain?

What to do, what to do?  Well today, when life gives you wine, you make pan roasted chicken.  At least I do.

I love a good roast chicken.  Although a simple dish, it can be hard to get right and easy to mess up.  (Fabio, of Top Chef fame, won a cooking challenge by preparing the perfect roast chicken, which the judges declared five-star-restaurant-worthy.  Sadly, he was eliminated the next week.  I'm still grieving.)

Dried-out white meat is a culinary sin, and the only thing to be done with limp, colorless skin is feed it to the cat.  If he hasn't had anything else to eat for a few days, he may deign to nibble at it.

Usually, I roast a whole chicken on the grill, with fresh herbs and lemon slices stuffed under the skin, and a can of beer stuffed in, ahem, its cavity.  Not only is the resulting chicken tasty and moist, but clean-up is minimal.  Cooking outdoors means the mess stays outdoors.

Last month, though, I found this recipe in Food and Wine.  I modified it slightly, but it's still yummy -- simple, with big flavors.  Well worth the time spent cleaning up the pan.  And the perfect way to finish off that bottle of sauvignon blanc.


Pan Roasted Chicken with Pancetta & Olives

1 chicken, cut into pieces, breasts cut in halves
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme
1 teaspoon chopped fresh rosemary
1 teaspoon sea salt (or kosher salt)
fresh ground pepper
pinch of red pepper flakes
5-7 (depending on size) garlic cloves, peeled
4 oz. pancetta, diced fine
1/2 cup (depending on what's left in the bottle) dry white wine
12 oil-cured or Kalamata olives, pitted

Preheat oven to 450.  Toss chicken with oil, herbs and salt and pepper.  Arrange, skin side up, in one layer in a 17 x 11 pan.  Scatter garlic and pancetta on top, and roast until chicken begins to brown -- about 20 minutes.  Drizzle wine over chicken and scatter olives on top, and roast until chicken is done and skin is golden brown -- 20-25 more minutes.  Let stand 10 minutes and serve with noodles and drippings.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Lenten Dilemma

When I was a kid, I had no concept of Lent.  My parents didn't go to church, and if Lent was ever mentioned in the Presbyterian Sunday school classes we kids attended, I don't remember it.  Easter was king, marked by colossal chocolate bunnies, frilly new dresses, patent leather Mary Janes, and occasionally, shiny purses to match.  Lent, well, wasn't that the stuff Mom was always insisting I scoop out of the dryer trap?  ("Yes, after every load!")

Now, I actually look forward to the calming and contemplative season of Lent, which is the 40 day period before Easter.  I appreciate the deliberateness and thoughtfulness during this period.  After the indulgences of Christmas, I'm soothed by the simpler church services of Lent.

Parts of it, though, still confuse me.  Take today's Ash Wednesday service.  I'm always grateful to attend this mid-day service at my Episcopal church.  I'm touched, and somewhat honored, when the priest administers ashes in the shape of the cross, on our foreheads, as a sign of repentance.  As I exit the silent church, though, my dilemma begins.  To keep the gray smudge on my forehead or to avail myself of the Handi-Wipes safely stashed in the car?

A reverent Christian, I think, would keep the mark, right?  Or does that come across as boasting?  ("See, I'm a good Christian, I went to church today and it's not even Sunday!)  Not wiping off the mark also invites the following remark -- at a minimum, 347 times --  "Hey, you've got something on your forehead."  And I can assure you, at some point, a really good friend will try to wipe it off for you.  What then?  "Hey, keep your fingers off my ashes!"?  What's the protocol here?

And what about the tradition of "giving up" something during Lent?  If I give up chocolate, does that sufficiently represent self-denial?  Or is it actually self-serving, because it might help me lose weight?  A few years ago, I gave up caffeine, resulting in the most miserable Lent my family's ever experienced, culminating in me dragging them all to the sunrise service Easter morning, solely so I could sooner race to my neighborhood Starbucks for the venti non-fat, two pump, sugarfree vanilla latte I'd been craving.  Which (and this is a true story), I then promptly upturned in the car, requiring hours of cleaning on Easter Sunday.  Yep, message received.

This year, my teenaged son is giving up candy, which I'm embarrassed to admit is a significant denial for him.  To prepare, he took a Sour Patch Kid sugar plunge last night that is surely affecting his schoolwork today.  My job today is to purge his room, removing all evidence of Halloweens, Christmas stockings and Valentines past.  As part of the cleansing, incense may be necessary.  And an exorcist.

After much deliberation, my daughter is "giving up" arguing with me.  Now there's a challenge.  This, from the same girl who, last week, declared me unfair and locked herself in her room for 30 minutes because (wait for it) I asked her to take her (freshly washed, dried and folded) clothes to her room.  Never mind that the kids have been responsible for putting away their clean clothes ever since they could successfully negotiate the stairs.  What was I thinking?

And me?  I'm giving up wine, which prompted the following response from my beloved daughter, "Are you giving up all drinking?"  My son gallantly leaped to my defense, "Well, she doesn't even drink beer!  (uncomfortable pause)  Um, do you, Mom?"  Beloved daughter, though, was relentless, "She orders those fancy drinks at Zen!"

Busted.  I do love those ginger martinis.

And so, the solemn Lenten season begins -- sugar-free, argument-free, alcohol-free.  Pray for all of us.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

What's For Dinner? Part One.



"What's for dinner?"

The question itself doesn't unnerve me. I enjoy cooking, I plan ahead, and I'm confident that, in a pinch, I can pull together a passable, and usually tasty, meal in less than 20 minutes. No, the question doesn't bother me, because I have a response. It's the response to the response that I dread.

It's gotten to the point that I've told my children not to raise "the question" -- not to even think about raising it -- unless they are prepared to reply either 1) "That sounds good," or 2) "Yum," or 3) something of that ilk. To no avail. To some degree, they get it, but not entirely. Since they know I'll promptly downshift into "lecture-mode" should they respond the way some classmates do (one routinely tells his mom, "That's disgusting"), my kids now choose not to respond at all. Which. Drives. Me. Insane.

Them: What's for dinner? Me: Grilled salmon with asparagus. Them: (anybody else hear crickets chirping?)

"That's rude!" I shriek. "Why ask the question if you don't want the answer?" Whereupon they blandly regard me as if we've not yet been introduced. As if the dog is the one who asked the ridiculous question. As if they've never heard my banshee-like response before. Or more likely, as if they've heard it a few thousand times and are now inured to it.

It's exhausting. But kids can surprise you. A few evenings ago, my normally reserved daughter dared to pose "the question." (Do they never learn?) I braced myself. I considered giving her a simple, but silent, smile. Knowing, but not telling. Kind of like the Mona Lisa. After all, I didn't have to respond. I'm an adult. But my ego got the better of me. I knew the answer and had to blurt it out -- "Shrimp bog!"

Perhaps the planets were in line. Maybe she'd been able to sit with the "right" friend at lunch. Maybe that cute boy on the bus had smiled at her. I truly don't know the reason she coolly responded, "I was hoping you'd say that."

OK. Add that to the list of acceptable responses. In fact, make "I was hoping you'd say that" number one.

Shrimp Bog

6-8 slices of bacon, diced, fried crisp, grease reserved
1 clove garlic (minced)
1/2 Vidalia onion, chopped (optional, because it's "gross")
1/2 red bell pepper, chopped (optional, because it's "disgusting")

1 cup raw rice
2 cups chicken broth
generous splash of Worcestershire
generous splash of lemon juice
1/2 of one (14 oz) can of diced tomatoes
sprinkle of red pepper flakes
pinch of nutmeg
salt & pepper

1 pound raw shrimp, peeled and deveined

In a large, lidded skillet, saute garlic (and onions and bell pepper, if you choose) in reserved bacon grease. When tender, stir in rice and saute for a few minutes. Stir in broth, worcestershire, lemon juice, diced tomatoes and seasonings. Cook on low, with lid on, for 10-12 minutes (rice will not be done). Put shrimp on top, return lid, and continue cooking for 5 minutes, or until shrimp is done. When done, fluff rice and serve mounded in bowls, with reserved bacon sprinkled on top.


Monday, February 23, 2009

Comfort Food (Sausage Pasta)


Although I'd been a copywriter for years, as recently as one year ago I could not have written a blog. Not that I didn't want to. I daydreamed, even fantasized, about it. My husband of 22+ years had moved out. Our children felt eviscerated and humiliated, our family was stunned, and our friends didn't know which way to turn. I had to hire a lawyer and got to hire a therapist.

I wanted to write -- even felt it would be cathartic -- but my thoughts were tainted. The topics that came to mind were either piteous or vitriolic or both. My fingertips on a keyboard would have been venomous. Satisfying in one way, perhaps, but not my style.

What I could do, of course, was cook. And luckily for me, the kids wanted me to cook. Despite earlier claims, they couldn't live by Chick Fil A alone (at least not more than once a day). Not surprisingly, they wanted comfort food.

"Comfort food" varies from person to person and family to family, of course. Neither meatloaf nor mac 'n' cheese nor lasagna makes the top 10, or even top 25, cut for my son or daughter. Nope. They want "sausage pasta." Although not imaginatively named, it's the one dish they regularly request. It's the one that they'll always choose -- knocking the beloved Chick Fil A out of the ring. Even when they have friends for sleepovers, where pepperoni pizza is de rigueur and "real" food disdained, "sausage pasta" is allowed. It transcends teen and pre-teen dining requirements.

My son recently had a school assignment requiring him to write about a food that evokes powerful memories for him. I was honored that he wrote about my "sausage pasta," which I'll serve again tonight. Here's the recipe he included in his essay:

Sausage Pasta

3 links sweet Italian sausage, grilled and sliced
3/4 pounds penne pasta
3 cups broccoli flowerettes
1 lemon, zested
1 can chicken broth
1/2 cup cream
oregano
red pepper flakes
sea salt and pepper

Cook penne pasta according to package directions. About one minute before pasta is done, add broccoli. Cook additional minute, then drain well and return to pot. Gently stir in cream and lemon zest. Stir in sliced sausage and broth as needed. Season to taste with oregano, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper and juice from zested lemon. Eat. Enjoy.



Sunday, February 22, 2009

Serendipitous

Kids have lots of favorites.  Favorite blankets, stuffed animals and toys.  Later, they have favorite foods, teachers and friends.  Even on into college, students can name a favorite professor, a favorite spring break destination, and let's be honest, a favorite beverage.

I think I'm too old for favorites.  I'm stumped when the question pops up on Facebook.  There's no way I could name a "favorite" movie or song.  True, a routine channel scan comes to a dead halt if Field of Dreams or Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally pops up on the screen.  And An Affair to Remember?  I'll only peel my eyes from the screen to locate the Kleenex.  Still, are any of these "favorites"?  I don't think so.  I'm also a sucker for Animal House, Major League, and to my children's unceasing incomprehension, The Princess Bride.  But to name one movie I couldn't live without?  Can't do it.

A favorite color?  No way.  Not now, anyhow.  When I was three, though, I laid claim to the color "blue" (same as my September birthstone, the sapphire).  My best friend, Nancy, had an August birthday.  That meant she was stuck with green (peridot).  Too bad for her.  Over the next 10 years or so, she'd occasionally suggest swapping colors, but I was resolute:  blue belonged to me.  There was no way I was giving up blue.  Do you remember the jarring lime greens of the late 60s and the murky avocado greens of the 70s?  Huh uh.  Blue was mine.  What happened to those strong feelings of ownership?  Now, my only response to the "favorite color" question  posed by my 11-year-old daughter is, "it depends."  (My bedroom, notably, is now painted green.)

Despite accusations to the contrary, I don't even have a favorite child.  OK, stop.   I know no one is supposed to name one child as superior, but as any mom can tell you, each kid, by turns, falls in and out of favor.  I'd feel guilty, but I think it's mutual.  I know full well when I descend below my kids' "favorite" line.  I just hope it's not so apparent in the reverse.

In practically any other circumstance, I simply can't commit to a favorite.  It limits my options.  It puts me in a corner.  And perversely, I don't want to risk alienating friends by naming a favorite (candidate, ice cream flavor, restaurant) with which they don't agree.

The exception (and you knew there'd be one) is that I do have a favorite word:  serendipity.  I love the way it sounds. -- sleek and smooth at the beginning, and then, dippy and giggly at the end.

And who can find fault with the definition?  Serendipity, noun, 1. delightful coincidence.  "Delightful?"  Are you kidding?  How can you deny any word that includes "delightful" as part of its definition?  Or how about this definition -- "an aptitude for making desirable discoveries by accident"?  Something great happens without making any effort?  Count me in!

Then there's the actual usage of the word.  While uncommon, it's not a show-off word, like "eponymous" or "erudite."  And it's not goofy, like "bamboozle" or "bodacious."  Serendipity is a word you can actually use (but not too often, as it is fairly memorable).

Here in Charlotte, there's even a "Serendipity Lane."  Can you imagine?  If I lived there, I'd beam every time I pulled into the driveway!  Talk about a mood-setter!

Maybe what draws me to "serendipity" is the sheer possibility.  The possibility of something surprising just around the corner.  The chance that I'll hear a funny joke.  The potential of re-connecting with a long lost friend.  The prospect for unexpected joy.

So when asked which ice cream I like the best, I may fumble.  Sublime, but hard-to-find Cinnamon?  Readily available New York Fudge Super Chunk?  Sweet, savory and lucscious Butter Pecan?

Tell you what.  How about you pick?  And I'll just be happy -- delightfully and coincidentally so!

Saturday, February 21, 2009

I cook. (Waffles)


I cook. When I'm happy, I cook. When I'm worried, I cook. When I'm celebrating, when I'm mourning, when I'm hurt, when I'm invigorated, I cook.

Why is that? I'm a single mom, so I'm the only grown-up at the table.  It's not that my kids are "foodies." In fact, I've had to insist to them that, as a matter of good manners, every meal should end with "Thank you for dinner. I especially enjoyed/loved (pick one) the chicken/roast/sausage ('cause let's face it, the protein is the best part of the meal for them). May I be excused?" (And, optionally, "May I clear your plate?")

And although I've always been driven by achievements and acknowledgements (report cards, GPAs, job reviews), no one is ever going to check my freezer and note approvingly that I always have four or five quarts of chili (stew beef, not ground, with beans), a few quarts of "real" chicken stock (not broth) and a couple of containers of pasta sauce (Italian sausage, not ground beef) on hand.

Let's face it, while I spend plenty of time watching Food Network, it's not as if it's reciprocal. Rachael and Giada and company are not watching me and wondering what I'm going to whip up in the 20 minutes between violin and baseball practices.

I just cook. I try to make it balanced. I try to make it nutritious. I try to make it fresh and tasty. But in the end, perhaps I just do it for me. Gratifyingly, now and again, people actually ask me to cook. The college-age daughter of a dear friend recently called, asking for my blue cheese dip recipe. Last fall, my sister "needed" my slow cooker pulled pork recipe. And my 11-year-old daughter said, just last weekend, that waking up to the smell of homemade waffles was the best part of her day. She says that, when she has friends sleep over, they count on me making waffles.

In this instance, the recipe isn't even my own. I got it from the Food Network and only modified it slightly. But trust me (and my kids and their friends) -- these are the best waffles around. Just look at what they're named!

Waffle Of Insane Greatness
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
1/4 cup cornstarch
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1/3 vegetable oil
1 egg
2 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Pinch of nutmeg (optional)
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon (optional)
First step, unless you're only serving one other person, go ahead and double the recipe. These waffles are that good.

Then, in a medium bowl combine the dry ingredients, mixing well. Add the buttermilk, oil, egg and vanilla and mix well.

Now here's the hard part. The batter has to rest for 30 minutes. Seriously. Use the time to set the table, chop up some strawberries, brew some coffee and get the paper. Now you're ready.

Preheat your waffle iron. Don't use a non-stick spray - you don't need it.

Follow the directions on your waffle iron and serve these insanely tender, crispy waffles with butter and syrup. Or, in our house -- confectioner's sugar and whipped cream.

Now sit back and wait for the compliments. For a 46-year-old mom, it's like getting straight As.