(Tiny?) Bites of Decadence.

7 Layer Bars
Inspired by this.

Drool. I'm sorry, what did you say?

This dessert has achieved a level of notoriety among my friends–this is the only dessert they ask for. Don’t think that my cookies, brownies, pies, or cakes aren’t delicious–they just aren’t The 7 Layer Bars. (It should be noted that the original recipe is called something completely accurate and boring. My name came about because of the sheer height of these squares–at almost 3 inches tall, they are a thing of beauty. The recipe seems like you get 12 squares, max, from the 9″ x 9″ pan. Don’t be fooled–the only person who could get down a portion that size is my husband.)

Mid-afternoon snack.

Batter:
1 cup butter, softened
1 3/4 cups firmly packed brown sugar
2 eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 1/2 cups all purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
3 cups uncooked quick oats

Filling:
1 (14-ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
2 tablespoons butter
1 (12-ounce) package semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 cup chopped walnuts

1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Lightly grease a 9" x 9" baking pan.
3. Cream together the butter and brown sugar.
4. Add the eggs and vanilla.
5. Stir in the flour, salt, and baking soda.
6. Add the oats, and mix well.
7. Press a little more than half of the batter into the prepared pan. Set aside the rest of the batter.
8. For the filling, melt the chocolate with the milk, butter, vanilla, and salt in a double boiler. (Can also be melted in a saucepan over low-medium heat, stirring constantly until chocolate is just melted.)
9. Pour over the batter in the baking pan.
10. Sprinkle the top with the nuts.
11. Spoon the remaining batter over the filling.
12. Bake for 30 minutes, until the batter is golden brown. Cool for at least 2 hours, preferably overnight.
13. Cut into 20-25 squares and stuff your face.

Fast Food At Home (minus the clogged arteries)

Veggie Burger and Fries

Seconds before ravenous eating commenced.

Oh, how I love french fries. Of course, what goes better with fries than a burger? Why not put the real star of the show at the beginning where it belongs? To me, that’s all a burger is, really–something I eat so my dinner doesn’t wholly consist of a greased-up potato. But what I don’t love is the stomach ache that is sure to follow a trip to your local fast food joint. Those little wedges of starchy joy instantly make me feel like I need to wash my face and go to the gym.

I’d never give up fries, but I could sure do without the guilt. These fries are parboiled, baked, and broiled for ultimate crisp, served with a veggie burger that’s 1000 times better than those hockey pucks you find in the freezer at your local grocer.

Veggie Burgers

2 teaspoons olive oil, divided
1/2 small onion, grated
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 carrot, shredded
1 small zucchini, shredded
1/2 cup instant oatmeal
1/4 breadcrumbs
2 tablespoons shredded Cheddar cheese
1 egg, beaten
1-1/2 teaspoons soy sauce
1/4 flour

1. Heat 1 tsp. olive oil in a skillet over low heat, and cook the onion and garlic for about 5 minutes, being careful not to brown. Add the carrots and zucchini, and cook for 2-3 minutes. Remove pan from heat, let cool slightly.

2. In a bowl, mix oats, breadcrumbs, cheese, egg, and soy sauce. Add in cooked veggies. Refrigerate 1 hour or until cool.

3. Heat 1 tsp of olive oil in a nonstick skillet over medium-low heat.

4. Place the flour on a large plate. Form the vegetable mixture into 3 or 4 (depending on how big you want them) patties. Drop
each patty into the flour, lightly coating both sides.

5. Grill patties 4-5 minutes on each side, or until heated through and nicely browned.

Fries

2 large potatoes, sliced into 1/2 inch strips
1 tablespoon of olive oil
Salt, pepper, garlic and onion salt

1. Preheat oven to 400.

2. Put sliced potatoes in cold water and bring to a boil. Boil for 3-4 minutes ONLY. Potatoes should not be completely cooked, otherwise you will end up with very mushy fries.

3. Drain in a colander and place under cold running water. Shake off excess water, and dry potatoes on paper towels.

4. In a medium bowl, add the potatoes, olive oil, and your seasoning preference to taste, stirring to combine.

5. Lay fries on a cookie sheet in a single layer. Cook for 25 minutes, turning fries once halfway through.

6. Place fries in broiler for 2-5 minutes–please watch carefully, these fries burn easily. Serve with ketchup or nothing at all.

My chicken’s getting out its winter wardrobe.

Chicken Cacciatore

Everyone knows that chicken skin has little redeeming nutritional value (except Mr. Smith, who insists that it’s high in vitamins and “flavorines”), but a recipe that calls for it suffers terribly from its omission. Don’t make the well-intentioned mistake of substituting boneless, skinless breasts for the following dish, unless you’re feeling a little heavy in the jowls and could use a jaw workout. Cacciatore means hunter in Italian, and evidently Italian hunters of yore had lots of peppers, onions and tomatoes on hand, an enviable step up from the questionably edible fare being consumed by my ancestors on the great island of potatoes and oats. My mother has made this for as long as I can remember, and every time I review the recipe, I’m surprised that oregano is missing from the ingredient list. Being a New Englander, I assume I’ll need basil and oregano for anything Italian, but the combination of the spices that are called for below produces a distinctly subtle and woodsy flavor, so hang back on enhancements until you give it a try. Especially you, Mrs. Hamilton.

1 small cut-up chicken (official pieces)
flour
olive oil
1 onion, chopped
1 green pepper, chopped
1 C chopped white button mushrooms
3/4 C chicken stock
1/2 C dry white wine (real wine)
1/4 C tomato paste
2 tbsp brandy
1 tbsp capers
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 bay leaf
1/8 tsp thyme
1/8 tsp majoram

Set your oven to 200. Dredge the chicken pieces in flour, and really pack it on. Heat the oil in a large, deep pan or pot over medium-high until it’s hot, and sear the chicken for 5 minutes on all sides, dividing the parts up into shifts if space necessitates. Afterward, put them on a heat-proof plate and stick it in the oven to warm.

In the same pan (do not rinse!), still over medium-high heat, add the onions, peppers and mushrooms, and saute for 5 minutes, turning occasionally. Add the wine, enjoy the steam show, and let it cook for 2 minutes before adding all the other ingredients. Stir it up well, then put the chicken back in and bury the pieces in the sauce. The liquid should cover the chicken; add water to bring the level up if needed. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and simmer for 30 minutes. Check the thickest part of one of the breasts to make sure nothing’s still pink.

The only remaining question (which, by the time you’ve completed the above steps, you’ll have answered) concerns the alarmingly absent starch. There are three ways to go: boiled red potatoes, white rice, thick slices of the paradoxical store-bought “artisan” bread (you know, bread from the fancy real-bread section). The bread works best if you’ll be having company and bragging about how you braised the meat.

Sometimes you want your dinner in a bowl.

West Meets West Rice and Sausage

Thanks go out to Sra. C for this hearty, sinus-clearing, one-pot meal. My mother in law freely admits that she’s an easily distracted cook, but when it comes to white rice, she’s always on her game. Plain Puerto Rican white rice is one of the most difficult things for an outsider to master, but that will be an entirely separate post, and a snarky one at that.

The base for this button-popper is a sort of sauce called sofrito, a Puerto Rican staple used in many rice dishes, soups and stews. Every home cook on the island has their own signature recipe for the blend of peppers, onions, garlic, tomatoes and cilantro, but the two essential ingredients are an herb called recao, and ají dulce, a sweet pepper grown on the island. The red color comes from the annatto oil in which the vegetables are cooked, and oh yeah, that stain’s not going to come out. Since I have neither access to the necessary peppers nor a life-long cultivated sense of pride in the matter, I use Goya sofrito, which comes in a jar found in, you guessed it, the international section.

1 16-oz pkg spicy Italian sausage
2 C uncooked medium grain white rice
4 C boiling water
1 8-oz can Spanish style tomato sauce
1/2 C sofrito
1/2 C vegetable oil
1 tbsp capers
1 tsp garlic powder
1 tsp salt
1 tsp black pepper

Slice the sausage into 1″ rounds, keeping the casing intact on as many chunks as possible. Heat 1 tbsp of vegetable oil in a large saucepan over medium-high, and brown the meat on all sides (it does not need to be completely cooked), then transfer the sausage to a bowl. Leaving the drippings in the pot, add the tomato sauce, sofrito, oil, capers and spices. Mix everything together and cook it over medium heat for 5 minutes. Add the sausage and rice, then pour in enough boiling water to come up 1″ above the rice. Stir once, and boil uncovered over medium-high until all the water is absorbed. Turn the heat down to low, cover the pot, and cook for another 30 minutes.

I trust that by this point I’ve got you feeling appropriately nervous about undercooked meat, but I assure you, this method gets the job done.

He’s Lebanese, right?

My husband is the Puerto Rican Ben Kingsley. What I find most interesting (and charming) about the ethnic assumptions strangers frequently make about him is that they all want to claim him as one of their own. “Because he’s so obviously Jewish?” someone asked when introduced to Mr. P at a party and told by the host he reminded her of her husband. The local pizzeria proprietor in our old neighborhood couldn’t be convinced, and repeatedly asked if he was sure he wasn’t Lebanese. Right after 911, friends and family suggested he give the beard a little time off because of his uncanny resemblance to an Egyptian hijacker. That the hijacker had died hijacking went unmentioned. When I met Mr. P for the first time back in ’99, I thought “Penya” must be Italian and started researching Lasagna recipes. Then I got wind of the tilde. Cuban by way of his father, it was his Puerto Rican mother, Sra. C, who did all the cooking, so most of my attempts to recreate the comfort foods of his childhood hail from the Territory as opposed to the Republic. The following is a common P.R. Thanksgiving main dish, and for the years that I’ve made it in place of a roasting a whole bird, I’ve gotten delightful reviews and tryptophan poisoning tantamount to that of a traditional WASP turkey dinner.

Pavo en Fricasé

1 substantial but modest turkey, cut up into official pieces, with skin

4 garlic cloves, minced
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 packet Sazón (in the “international” section with the Goya products)
salt and pepper

4 oz ham, chopped
1 large bay leaf
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 hot pepper, your choice
1 C seeded, peeled and chopped tomatoes (submerging the whole tomatoes into boiling water for a few minutes will shrink the skin for easier removal)
2 C chicken stock
1/2 C green olives, sliced
1 tbsp capers
2 pimentos, chopped
olive oil

Mix the garlic, oregano, vinegar, Sazón, 1 tsp salt and 1/2 tsp pepper together, and rub the resulting paste all over the turkey pieces. The annato in the Sazón will stain your fingers up through your next two shampoos if you don’t use rubber gloves. Rub the seasoning under the turkey skin where possible. Wrap it up on a plate and chill it for 4 hours.

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat in the deepest pan you have. Saute the onion and ham for a few minutes to brown slightly. Transfer them to a bowl, add a little more oil to the pan, turn it up to high, and then put all the turkey in, shoving the pieces together to give each as much pan-contact as possible. Brown the turkey on high for three minutes, then turn the pieces over and brown for three minutes more.

Now add back the onions and ham, as well as the bay leaf, pepper, tomatoes and chicken stock. Stir it all up with the turkey in what will be the most awkward spoon-work of your life. Keep the heat on high until the liquid boils, then add only as much water as necessary to cover the turkey completely. Cover the pan, turn the heat down to low, and simmer for 30 to 45 minutes, until the turkey is cooked all the way through. Remove and toss the pepper and bay leaf, and add the olives, capers and pimentos. Heat uncovered over low for 5 minutes to warm up the last ingredients.

This should be served with medium-grain white rice, prepared according to package directions; Canilla is Sra. C’s brand of choice, therefore our brand of choice. Putting some of the sauce on the rice is a great idea.

Oh, I didn’t realize you had plans for the evening…

You Ain’t Leavin’ Mac & Cheese

My good friend Mrs. Hamilton and I have collaborated on several projects, including corporate party planning, a cake or two, and the It’s Not Cheating if You Wear Rubber Gloves Coalition. It barely stings to admit that she makes the best macaroni and cheese I’ve ever eaten. After following her recipe exactly (the one exception being the type of pasta), I’m unsure whether the hint of inferiority in mine stems from the fact that food always tastes better when someone else prepares it and serves you, or if Mrs. H is just unbeatable in the kitchen.

2 boxes/6 C cavatelli pasta

1 1/4 sleeve Ritz crackers, crumbled
2 tbsp butter, melted
5 strips bacon, cooked crisp and crumbled, fat reserved

6 tbsp butter
4 tbsp flour
4 C whole milk
4 C shredded cheese (we both used a blend of cheddar and American)
2 tbsp bacon fat
salt and pepper

Set the oven to 350. Cook the pasta according to the instructions on the package, using 1/2 tsp of salt if none is suggested. Combine the cracker crumbs, 2 tbsp of butter, and crumbled bacon in a small mixing bowl and stir until the butter is evenly distributed.

Heat the 6 tbsp butter in a large, deep pan over medium heat until the foaming subsides, but don’t let it burn. Sprinkle the flour in and stir quickly to form a roux, letting the finished roux cook for one minute, avoiding any raw flour taste. Slowly pour in the milk with one hand, using the other to stir quickly. Allowing the milk to reach room temperature before beginning this process will enable you to maintain the pan’s heat. Look at you with your bechamel! Cook over medium heat until the mixture begins to simmer, and add the cheese, stirring until it’s melted. Finally, stir in the bacon fat. Then you can add pepper and salt as desired, but very little is needed after the bacon does its job.

Mix together the cavatelli and cheese sauce in the pot used to cook the pasta, then transfer to a 9×11 baking dish. Top with the cracker mixture, and bake at 350 for about half an hour, until the cheese bubbles loudly. Take it out of the oven and let it stand for at least 10 minutes before serving. This is one that I divide into two batches, then freeze the other half for later or use it to curry popularity with neighbors or waste management. As Mrs. H says, “shyum!”

The Cans in My Closet

My family takes throwing food away seriously. When I was five, my father’s mother passed away, his father having died several years earlier. While cleaning out her house, one more modern that that of their childhood, my father and his sisters were confronted with an unexpected pantry when someone opened the dishwasher. Grandma Dot kicked the dishes old school, as do I, so her unsolicited dishwasher became a convenient dry goods storage unit. Along with the usual family heirlooms, we inherited a big box of canned food. My father drove the motley bounty all the way from Falmouth, Maine, back to RI, and the cans found a new home in our corner lazy Susan cupboard. But everyone knows what happens when you bus in the kids, and the clique never mingled, the other cans giving the “northern island” a wide berth. Decades later, I’d be foraging in the cabinets for a snack and pull out a can of tuna with charmingly quaint packaging. “Yeah, that’s pretty old. Why don’t you put that back,” my mother would quickly offer, and a few more years would slip by. Once out of the cupboard, it’s easier to throw it out than put it back, so I always found my this particular neurosis of my otherwise practical parents amusing. The Bates Motel for tinned goods. But these days, when $10’s are the new $20’s, I’m gaining an appreciation for the continual state of panicked frugality of my grandparents’ generation. Right now I’m all over hot, comforting meals that can stretch to include a few lunches and leftover nights, and in that vein, I offer my family recipe for…

Old School Tuna Casserole

Get out your apron and heels. And the paprika.

1 pkg egg noodles
4 cans solid white tuna, drained and broken up
1 1/2 can cream of mushroom soup
1 small container sour cream
1 large cylinder French’s crispy onions
3 tbsp finely chopped black olives
2 tsp dried cilantro
salt and pepper
paprika

Set the oven to 350. Cook the egg noodles according the package instructions. Shoot for al dente, as the noodles will cook a little more in the oven later. In the meantime, use a fork to combine the tuna, soup, sour cream, 1/3 of the onions, olives and cilantro, flaking the tuna as you mix. Salt and pepper as you like. Now and then I’ll add 1 tsp of crushed red pepper. The resulting mixture will be a grim sight – don’t worry about it. Once the pasta is done, drained and rinsed, return it to the pot and stir in the disconcerting tuna mixture. Stir gently so as not to mash the noodles, but take the time to get an even distribution. It’s already looking a lot better, right?

Put the entire mass into a 9×13 glass casserole dish and sprinkle the rest of the crispy onions evenly on top. Paprika the crap out of it and bake it at 350 for about half an hour, or until a fork inserted into the middle and held for 10 seconds comes out hot.

I don’t let peas anywhere near my dishes, but for the many of  you who are so inclined, you can prepare a package of frozen peas and mix them in before baking. To feed a large group on a tight budget, you can use chunk light tuna instead of solid and make an 8-person meal for under $15. I have a tiny family, so I usually separate it into two batches using square cake pans before baking, and freeze half for use within next month.

It’s snowing in October, so I’m harvesting the shepherd early.

Lambykin’s Shepherd Pie

When I die, bake me into this.


1 lb ground angus and 1 lb ground lamb, or 2 lbs ground shepherd
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 large package white button mushrooms, sliced
2 packets McCormick Brown Gravy mix
2 C water
salt and pepper
olive oil

4 large Russet potatoes
1/2 C grated cheddar
1/2 stick butter, cut into small chunks
1 C milk
1/4 C finely chopped parsley
paprika

Set the oven to 350. Stab the potatoes all over with a fork and rub them with olive oil before putting them on the middle rack.

Heat the oil in your pan (2 or 3 generous tbsp) over high. I’d specify that you use an enamel-lined cast iron, and that your olive oil be Berio, and that you heat the oil until it quivers but doesn’t quite smoke, but I’m not an arrogant asshole. Cook the onions until they begin to soften, then add the mushrooms. Continue cooking until the ensuing water released from the mushrooms evaporates. This will take a little while, as opposed to a while, defined later. Once the “vegetables” are soft and browned, transfer them to a bowl and set the bowl somewhere on the stove to keep it warm.

Add more oil to the pan and brown the meat, all the way. “The oven will finish it off” have been someone’s last words. Once the meat is completely cooked, toss the onions and mushrooms back in and combine gently. Get the 2 C water ready and have them in arm’s reach. Sprinkle the gravy mix over the meat mixture with one hand and stir with the other to distribute evenly. Immediately drop the empty packets, grab the water, and start stirring in, pouring slowly enough to maintain the pan’s heat. Once the gravy is bubbling nicely, turn the heat down to medium, add salt and pepper (however much you think is a good idea) and cook until it looks as thick as it’s going to get, about 10 minutes. Pour the mixture into any shaped casserole dish, size dependent on how thick you want to go (I prefer a deep glass pie plate).

The potatoes are going to be a while. Fortunately, you read the recipe in its entirety before beginning and either started the potatoes about 45 minutes earlier, or planned a good use of the next hour.

Once the potatoes yield little resistance when poked with a fork, take them out but leave the oven set to 350. Put the milk in a small saucepan and heat over low. Cut each potato in half lengthwise and, holding a half in a folded cloth or paper towel, scoop out the potato and run it through a ricer into a large mixing bowl. When all eight haves have been riced, add the butter, and bury the chunks in the hot potatoes to quicken melting. After about 30 seconds, add the cheese and stir to combine. With either a hand-held or preferably a stand mixer, beat the potatoes on medium speed and slowly add the hot milk. Increase the speed to high and whip until fluffy.

Drop the potatoes in dollops evenly over the now set meat mixture. Brush the dollops together to form a blanket over the casserole, spreading all the way to the edges. Sprinkle with parsley and paprika for an Ice Storm affect, and bake until the potatoes are piping (the meat will heat up faster), about half an hour.

A few notes: if you use butter instead of oil to cook the meat and vegetables, elastic pants merit consideration; if you can’t bring yourself to use lamb or shepherd, a 50/50 combination of beef and pork works almost as well. I only have one of these left in me before I reach my guilt threshold.

%d bloggers like this: