Wasn’t that anticlimactic.

Now that I’ve begun accompanying my recipes with photos, I’m quickly developing an obsession over back-shooting the last four months. I won’t send out a mass mailing each time I update a post, but keep in mind that sooner or later you’ll be able to look at pictures of all the wonderful food I make. It seems the best way to accomplish this is to get in the habit of taking nightly pictures of dinner, so of course the first meal of the update had to be a delicious but rather unphotogenic subject.

In more me news, Mr. P, my web developing genius, is hard at work perfecting my new site, to which this page will be rerouted after the widely anticipated unveiling. I understand that this particular post is a bit superfluous, but I noticed earlier today that I had so far written fifteen times this month, much less than I would have liked, but at least with a sixteenth entry, I inch past the 50% mark. I know that’s not your problem, but it is my web log, and I happen to require a small victory today.

I need to fill the void. Literally, my new cake plate’s empty.

The Rolo Cookie

It seldom occurs to me to combine cookies and candy, but I happened to flip past the card for these in my recipe book earlier this evening, and within half an hour Mr. P was heading out to get Rolo’s and butter while I flash-bathed Billy the Kid. My supportive and helpful husband made it to the counter with milk, paper towel, butter and the candy, when he heard “that’s a lot of Rolo’s you got there,” from the local 7/11 fly, who got so excited upon learning that they were for the cookies, Mr. P had to drive around the block twice to avoid unexpected entertaining.

Almost everyone has had these at a kid’s party or bake-sale: the chocolate, brownie-ish cookie surrounding a melted disc of caramel. I have a feeling that if these aren’t worthy of thisiswhyyourefat.com, a version substituting butter cubes for the candy would be a shoe-in. Might I suggest that you wait until an opportunity for sharing presents itself before making these to avoid serious self-loathing and distension.

2-1/2 C flour
3/4 C cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 C sugar
1 C brown sugar
1 C butter, softened
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
40 Rolo’s

Cream together the butter and sugar until fluffy, then mix in the brown sugar until everything’s the same color. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat until the mixture is smooth. Mix the dry ingredients in a medium bowl before adding to the batter, and stir with a spoon until it’s easier to just go in with your hands. Combine and knead until a dough forms, continually rubbing the mass along the inside of the bowl to incorporate all the dry ingredients. Shape the dough into a ball, wrap it in foil or plastic, and stick it in the fridge for half and hour.

Set your oven to 375. Roll the dough into 1″ balls, then flatten slightly and press a Rolo into the center. Shape the dough around the candy so that it’s completely hidden. Roll the loaded balls in granulated sugar to coat, and place them at least 2″ apart. Bake single sheets for 8 to 10 minutes, then transfer the cookies to a wire rack to cool. I’d advise you to wait 5 whole minutes before biting into recently 350-degree liquid sugar, but some lessons have to be learned the hard way.

It was much too cold to leave the house today.

Because You Can’t Be Trusted Cake

A candle-lit cake for Billy the Kid

If you’ve ever tried to halve a double-layer cake recipe in an attempt to minimize potential gluttony, you probably wound up cutting more calories than planned as you deposited the unfortunate anomaly directly into the trash bin. Almost all recipes can be doubled with little repercussion, but a division symbol has no place in the kitchen. Betty Crocker perfected the formula five or six decades ago for the “Dinette”, a single layer of moist vanilla cake slightly denser than the traditional double-stack. It’s also well-suited for my sudden late-night baking compulsions, as I can always come up with an egg and some Crisco, even at my pantry’s leanest.

1-1/4 C flour
1 C sugar
1-1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
3/4 C milk
1/3 C shortening
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla

Set your oven to 350 and grease and flour a square or round 8″ cake pan. Cream together the shortening and sugar by hand until fluffy, then mix in the egg and vanilla, beating until smooth and airy. Add the dry ingredients and stir them in while pouring the milk in a slow stream. Once the mixture is combined, throw the bowl under the mixer (or use a hand-held) and beat it on high for 2 minutes. Pour the batter into the pan, even it out with a spatula, and bake for 28 minutes or so, peeking in after 20 to make sure everyone’s behaving.

Let the cake sit out of the oven in the pan for 10 minutes, then run a knife around the perimeter before inverting it onto a wire rack to cool. I always frost this with Chocolate Buttercream Frosting, and as a follower of the never-halve rule, there’s usually half a batch leftover from the previous Dinette sealed in a plastic container in the back of my fridge.

As a mother and baking enthusiast, I find few things more gratifying than watching BK slip into a trance as he savors and relishes each mouthful of a cake I’ve just made, emitting barely audible grunts and sighs of delight as his beard of frosting takes shape. I decorate most of my cakes with my little fella in mind these days, and he goes crazy for a ring of maraschino cherries and a circle of nonpareils (set a light-weight round cookie cutter in the center and sprinkle generously, then press the nonpareils down gently to assure adherence).

Whether you use your small canvas for a burst of creativity, or just spread some Nutella over the top and cut it into quarters, you can only do so much damage, so go ahead and make this Friday cake-for-dinner night.

Save the Cheese Plate

This week’s menu has been, so far, a revisiting of the most recent additions to our family’s dinner canon. I haven’t been able to get enough Baked Shrimp in Tomato Feta Sauce, and my Inside-Out Chicken Cordon Bleu has become a weekly meal. Mr. P made pork chops sautéed with red onions and white rice a few days ago, and while we’ve been going to bed happy every night, I have nothing new to show for myself.

However, I’ve been meaning to address an item that gets frustratingly little coverage, one that offers comfort and solace to so many in the midst of social insecurity and anxiety, and one that graces 80% of parties, receptions, cocktail hours, cookouts, and holiday dinners: the cheese plate. While there’s nothing wrong with some sliced block cheddar, a sleeve of Ritz crackers, and an open container of pub cheese, I think we can do a little better than that. First, it’s imperative to understand that while cheese holds the platterial scepter, its magnificence is best showcased when supported by an entourage of meats, grains, and fruits.

Never forget that this is the cheese’s show. The selection should offer several representatives of varying textures, tastes and colors. My standard assortment includes first and foremost a springy yet creamy Muenster, a soft and room temperature Brie or Camembert, an extra sharp Cheddar, some Pepper Jack, and the occasional log of goat cheese. A honey-drizzled, pecan-studded baked Brie served with thickly sliced warm baguette rounds is a mouthwatering indulgence for Winter spreads, and for a cuisine-specific event (i.e. Greek, Provençal), you of course want to present only cheeses from the celebrated country or region.

The supporting accouterments should be tailored specifically to the elected cheeses’ cumulative personality. I generally outift my previously detailed fromage coalition with several kinds of crackers (water, stone wafer, butter, melba), as well as thin slices of pepperoni, seedless red grapes and sweet midget gerkins. For large groups, I take advantage of the opportunity to omit the expected vegetable wheel by (lightly) garnishing the cheese plate further with cherry tomatoes, baby carrots, and snow peas or slices of green bell peppers.

The possibilities for accessorizing your cheese are endless, and you can find inspiration throughout your grocery store, at the dried nuts and fruits bins, among the berries and tropical fruits, and in the bizarre and wonderful pickled section. Watermelon rind is a favorite of my lovely mother, Mrs. S, in spite of her coolness toward the fruit as a whole, and I find it to be an excellent palate cleanser.

I hope I haven’t given the impression that I’m above spray-cheese on Wheatables for the occasional late night witnessesless snack. But for the company, let’s forgo nozzles and jazz things up a little. Just remember to start with the cheese and then build its staff; otherwise, it isn’t really a cheese plate.

These are a few of my favorite things.

Deluxe Angled Potato Ricer This gets by far the most use of any of my single-item-specific kitchen tools. Ever since I discovered that these exist and purchased what turned out to be a rather high-end model, any potato that comes through my door can expect an eventual thorough ricing. It no longer occurs to me to worry about unseemly lumps in my whipped, mashed or twice-baked potatoes, a peace-of-mind well worth the few extra minutes of cleaning spent poking stubborn starch pills through the mesh. The model to which I’ve linked has a few recently-incorporated bells and whistles, and I hope that the addition of rubber to the pot-rester’s wavy teeth hasn’t compromised what I find to be a flawless design.

Onion Goggles Mr. P gave me these in pink a few years ago, and I’ve since gifted another three pairs. The relatively simple design completely prevents stinging and tears while you chop onions, leeks, scallions and shallots. The only drawback is that eventually (and you will only make this mistake once), you’ll unconsciously reach a finger up under the foam seal to rub/scratch your eye area, resulting in an ocular gas chamber that will leave you standing with your head in the freezer for about ten minutes.

KitchenAid Euro-Peeler This bad boy peels it all. Apples, potatoes, cucumbers, mangoes, rhinoceros, and about anything else with which you feel like playing “Can I Skin It?” It’s also my only bladed utensil that I haven’t cut myself with, and that counts for something.

Catskill Craft Perfect Pastry Board Another on-the-nose gift from my doting partner, this board transforms the top of my washing machine (the previous owner wasn’t much of a cook) into an additional knuckle of counter space, while performing exceptionally as both pastry board and carving station, a convenient juice-groove running around the perimeter of the reverse side.

My, what a moderate amount of space you have!

Egg Fry Rings My brother, C, gave me a set of these a few Christmases ago, and aside from being adorably specific, they allow you to cook four fried eggs simultaneously in one pan. They may have just been intended to destroy the Egg McMuffin, but I find the practical space-saving application equally brilliant. Nature may not be able to pull off a perfect circle, but Williams-Sonoma is more than happy to correct her work.

Rice: it should be so simple.

Infuriatingly Enigmatic Puerto Rican White Rice

The dinner menu should ideally vary as much as a debutante’s wardrobe, with no single item making more than one appearance over the course of a week. While my ongoing attempt to embody this principal provides me with a sense of abstract superiority and adds a flavor of Russian Roulette to Mr. P’s anticipatory ride home, a particular basic food group strikes fear into my heart once every seven days: starch. The seven weekly starches are as follows: baking potatoes, red potatoes, pasta, fresh bread, noodles, packet rice, white rice. Yes, I just admitted that I buy Rice-a-Roni, Near East, etc. I can hardly tolerate them, but Billy-the-Kid loves the rice pilaf and broccoli/cheese varieties, so I take one for Team Peña every now and then.

The white rice, however, sets me on edge like no other culinary undertaking, not even the crown roast of lamb of the spring of 2007 or the duck a l’orange the following summer. White rice is done Puerto Rican style in Mr. P’s casa; when we first lived together in 2000, I was unpacking groceries one day when I noticed him standing frozen and silent, staring in bewilderment at a package of Uncle Ben’s, before slowly lifting his head toward me with eyes full of pity and second thoughts. A few hours later, I was introduced to Goya’s Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain Rice, “a favorite for generations and a staple in the Hispanic diet…known for its role as a must-have for many classic meals.” I’d write this off as generic marketing tripe, except Canilla has, in fact, been used for generations in Mr. P’s family. The passing down of brands is evidently more continental than I would have expected.

The most maddening aspect of preparing Puerto Rican white rice (it’s probably identical to those of a few other countries, but I’m not married into their cuisines) is that anyone raised on it can detect minute imperfections, which just don’t register on an outsider’s palate, regardless of how many years you invest practicing. The best a newcomer can hope to achieve is a 75% success rate after 5 years of at least monthly practice. My resident Puerto Rican describes the ideal white rice as “unsplit, separate and well-defined grains (not mushy or sticky), with just enough salt and oil so that you don’t taste them, but you’d miss them if they weren’t there.” I’ve included photos because describing the desired final appearance is more than I have left this late in the evening (note that the top of the rice has been fluffed with a fork – when you take the lid off it will be flat, fluffing should be performed immediately before serving).

3 1/2 C cold water
2 C Canilla Brand Extra Long Grain White Rice
1/3 C vegetable oil
1 Tbsp salt

The proper vessel for cooking this would be a caldero, a cast aluminum pot with a tight lid. Something horrible happened to mine a few years ago and I haven’t replaced it, so I’m forced to make due with an all-purpose medium aluminum pot with a slightly thinner surface. You don’t need to make any adjustments to the recipe depending on your vessel, just keep in mind that the caldero is basically one of the ingredients, and you’ll be greatly rewarded (75% of the time, at best) if you invest a few dollars in one at your supermarket. Seriously, it’s a shockingly inexpensive cookware item.

Heat the water in your pot over high. Add the salt and oil and wait for it to come to a rolling boil. Add the rice, and stir once. That means one rotation of the spoon around the pot. Believe me, I understand. As soon as the water is boiling again, turn the heat down to low-low, but not the “warm” setting, if your burner has one, and cover the pot. Leave it alone. You might be inclined to give it a good stir or two — don’t do it. Let it cook until you don’t see any water when you lift the lid, not even any starchy goo. Skim a small spoonful off the top and nibble a few grains between your front teeth – if they exhibit any crunch or snap whatsoever, the rice is still raw, and it needs to be cooked until there’s no hint of al dente. Once the rice is done, leave the heat on and remove the cover. Let it cook for a few more minutes to dry out some of the condensation before serving.

If your first attempt is catastrophic, you might be inclined to give up and move on, and I really can’t blame you after washing my hands of risotto; I can’t even bring myself to link to the posts. But, if you’re now intrigued by the challenge, I’ll advise you as to the probable culprit in what I assume turned out to be sticky, al dente mush. The heat has to be low enough so that the the insides of the grains have enough time to cook, but not so low that the water temperature drops below a simmer, resulting in a warm, starchy bath. It’s difficult to tell once the water level drops out of sight but hasn’t yet completely evaporated, which is why the nibble-test is crucial.

After living with the arroz-monkey on my back for almost a decade, I still get smacked with a yearly train-wreck when I least expect it, so don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it, more or less, eventually.

Aunt Linda

My father’s sister passed away last weekend, and since then, a seemingly endless reel of already sepia-toning memories flickers in my periphery; I try to catch individual images and chase down the narratives, sometimes successfully, but I don’t suppose the congruency that can seem so suddenly urgent really matters.

Most of my early memories are set at her home in Middlebury, CT, where she lived for the better part of my life, her standard-sized two-story house laid out in an unusually high number of small, cozy rooms, where she somehow created a portal to another dimension in which regular carton-ed orange juice tasted like hotel freshly-squeezed, amazing home-cooked brociole and oxymoronically appealing vegetables emerged from a tiny stove, and raisin-foraging in the cereal box was not only permitted, but encouraged. During summer visits, she’d drive us for the better part of an hour to get the best ice cream within a fifty-mile radius, and on one such drive I learned an invaluable lesson regarding the impropriety of a child who offers its elder unsolicited advice on lifestyle choices and habits. I recalled that drive the weekend before last while visiting Aunt Linda with my brother, C, who shared a similar anecdote. Even at the time as a child, I appreciated the logic of her stance as well as the cheerful way she conveyed that the subject was closed. I thanked her for it, we shared a chuckle, and then lit up a couple of cigarettes.

Evenings during sleepovers were spent hunkered down in her big, soft, fluffy bed. Her room was fully equipped with A/C and TV/VCR (in the early 1980’s this was pretty big to a kid) and we’d settle in for the night with snacks and movies. My brother and I were around 5 and 10 years old when the three of us watched Airplane! for the main attraction, and even as she lamented over what our parents would say, she was doubled over laughing at Barbara Billingsley’s jive and the iv-ripping guitar-playing nun.

Aunt Linda eventually retired and moved to another town, and as an adult, the setting of her memory shifts to my parents’ house, specifically the kitchen, otherwise known as the smoking room. She talked about that with my brother and me last weekend, the warmth and connection fostered by the “stage” of the round kitchen table. We’d stay up late when she visited, talking, laughing, smoking, drinking, competitive cross-wording, playing the annual game of dictionary. As the evenings drew on, sleep would pick us off one by one, usually my mother first, followed by C, me, (and eventually Mr. P), until the waning roars of her and my father’s laughter and the grinding coughs of the ice-dispenser finally died off completely around 3 AM.

That table’s also where I broke down late at night on Billy’s first Christmas, having forgotten to pack enough formula, and subsequently losing it over my general incompetence as a mother. She and my brother listened and hugged me and then with absolute concern and authority, she looked into my eyes and told me the one thing I needed to hear: “you’ve got to take it easier on yourself.” I’m sure that everyone I knew had told me the same thing a hundred times, but she got it right. She always got it right.

We all have people without whom nothing will be the same, not that we won’t recover from the loss, but that the world simply cannot be viewed through the same lens knowing they’re no longer in it. She was one of these people for me, and already my world is different without her. But it should be. I’m smoking a memorial More as I finish this, one that I found last weekend in an open pack she left at my parents’ house during what we didn’t realize was her final visit. It may just be all it represents, but it tastes pretty good, and it smells like she’s sitting next to me, quietly doing a crossword.

I think I’ve handled this rather well.

Baked Shrimp in Tomato and Feta Sauce

Every once in a while, I so successfully execute a new recipe that Mr. P’s eyes glaze over and professions of eternal fealty and adoration ensue. I’m almost certain that after tonight’s dinner he would have carried out Project Shift-It for me, had I asked. Conceived as an act of psychological retribution for the most earnestly incompetent and commitless manager under whom I’ve ever worked, I devised this lulling fantasy during his weekly departmental status meetings as a means of distraction from the overwhelming urge to plunge the nib of my Bic pen through my retina. Project Shift-It involves detailed disguise preparation, unmarked vehicle acquisition, strict adherence to universal bandit precautions, breaking and entering while target is out, and the rotation of all furniture and movable objects in the main room, one wall clockwise.

Getting back to dinner, I contained my urge to alter anything about this recipe for Baked Shrimp in Tomato Feta Sauce from Simply Recipes, a site that’s quickly earning my trust and esteem. Let us hope we are not disappointed. I used my new cast iron pan and served it over spaghetti, accompanied by thick slices of an erudite “boule.” My only suggestion is that you have the salt shaker handy. The slight snap that the onions retain is a delightful contrast to the tomatoes’ amorphishness, and I learned that, if you add enough, parsley actually has a flavor. I won’t retype the recipe here, as that’s tacky and basically plagiarism, so now I’m going to use my extra few minutes of freedom to sneak in some decoupage.

I needed a win.

Stolen Chicken

Mrs. Pena is back in the saddle. I’ve been repeatedly browsing a site I stumbled upon a few weeks ago, and in spite of my recent and concerning spike in dinner misses, this evening I mustered up some fortitude, selected a recipe based on an attractive photo, and was indescribably relieved with the breathtaking final result. That said, some last-minute finagling and adjustments were vital, and I’ll admit it was touch-and-go at one point. My version did not resemble the referenced photo; it was darker with a richer sauce — more rustic (here I’m applying the ironic Pottery Barn definition). Obviously, I suggest you go with the following recipe versus the linked. I also concede that Mr. P is right; this web log does indeed need photos.

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts
6 oz cremini mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 C chopped shallots
3 tbsp finely chopped sage
2 tbsp finely chopped parsley
1 1/4 C heavy whipping cream
1 C dry vermouth
3 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp honey (Mr. P saved the day with this addition)
salt and pepper

Pound the chicken with a meat tenderizer (a rolling pin works in a pinch, but get the disinfectant bath ready) to a thickness anywhere between 1/3″ and 1/2.” Salt and pepper the breasts on both sides, then put them on a plate, set it aside, and attend to the tiny chicken particles all over your counter and surrounding cupboards.

Melt the butter in a large pan over medium-high heat, add the shallots, and saute for 1 minute, then add the mushrooms and parsley and cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have softened, about 7 minutes. Evidently, cremini mushrooms have a much lower water content than the standard white button, so if you haven’t used them before, don’t freak out when they won’t caramelize the same way. Leave the burner on and transfer the entire mixture to a bowl.

Immediately put the olive oil in the pan, give it a few seconds to heat up, and add the chicken. If necessary, cook it in shifts and transfer finished breasts to a plate in the oven at 250. The breasts should take about 4 minutes per side, but always sneak a test-slice when in doubt.

Once all the chicken is relaxing in the oven (and I didn’t direct you to turn off the burner), pour in the vermouth and deglaze the pan with a spatula. Slowly pour in the cream while stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk until the color is consistent. Add the mushroom mixture back in, as well as the sage and honey, and bring the sauce to a moderate boil, stirring frequently. Don’t worry if it seems too boozy just yet, as it will reduce over the next 10 minutes, thickening nicely and losing a good deal of the alcohol taste. Wait until the sauce is basically done before adding salt and pepper, since you won’t get a real sense of the flavor until then.

Plate up the chicken and top generously; I find egg noodles to be fantastic vehicles for sauce supplementation. If it’s vegetable day, I’d recommend baby carrots steamed with butter and thyme. It was, in fact, vegetable day for us, and I found them wonderfully palatable.

I love the twentieth century.

Exactly Nine Spectacular Meatballs

The first time I made meatballs, I took the name at face value, balled up and fried some ground beef, and wound up with leaden orbs more suitable for sport than supper. Over the years, I’ve tried countless recipes and made dozens of balls, the majority of which have been inedible; I can’t get the soak-bread-in-milk-and-then-squeeze technique to result in anything other than frown-inducing weirdness. The successful exceptions have problematically yielded enough meat to feed a hockey team of third-trimester expectant mothers.

Perhaps I’m the last to discover the miracle of “meatball blend,” a mix of ground beef, pork and veal, combined and packaged in convenient one-pound units. No longer must a family of three ball in bulk. Last night, for the first time ever, I executed a leftover-less spaghetti and meatball dinner. May I present exactly nine spectacular meatballs.

1 lb meatball blend ground meat
1/3 C plain breadcrumbs
1 egg, lightly beaten
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano (use fresh if you want, and have fun with that moist bag of wilted herb in your crisper)
1-1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp pepper

Skin-to-raw-meat-contact alert! Mix everything up in a big bowl, combining first with a fork, then going in with your hands. Knead until you can’t detect any egg slime, then knead a little more. Roll up 9 3″ balls, and pack them tightly or you’ll end up with more of a meat-scone.

Heat 1/4 C vegetable oil in a large pan over medium-high (a cast iron seasoning opportunity, perhaps?) and add the balls once it’s hot but not smoking. Let them fry for 1 minute, then gently give each a quarter turn, and fry for 1 minute more. Keep quarter-turning in the same direction every 1 minute until the balls are brown around the middles. Then give each ball’s two remaining pink areas 1 minute, and your meatballs should be nicely sealed. Turn the heat down to medium and continue to cook and turn for about 5 more minutes (once brown, the meatballs will be much easier to move around without compromising their shape).

Now it’s time to sacrifice a ball. Remove one from the pan and cut it in half. It might be done, but it probably needs a few more minutes. After you determine the time left, throw the two halves back in the pan, cut side down, so they brown before going into your sauce.

Once you’ve transferred the meatballs to the sauce, pour most of the fat out of the pan, but leave 4 tbsp behind and use a metal spatula to scrape off anything stuck to the bottom. You say sludge, I say ambrosia. Either way, it will transform a jar of supermarket pasta sauce into something of which you’ll be eating much more than you had  planned.

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