I hear it’s fantastic, if you’re into that sort of thing.

The Best Vegetarian Chili I Never Tasted

I love a challenge. I hosted a baby shower for the radiant and ever-gracious Jess D last Sunday, and it was a rare occasion to find more vegetarians and vegans on the guest list than otherwise. Regretfully, I may have harbored a tinge of culinary resentment toward the sans-meat crowd back when I had endless, uninterrupted prep time before parties to spend on crown roasts, sushi, and various fowl. But now that I average two diaper changes while waiting for my morning coffee to percolate, I’m grateful whenever the time-consuming task of meat preparation is rendered null.

Obviously, my tried and true Vegetarian Appeasement made the spread, but I needed one more vegetarian entree, having been physically unable to hold back from applying the bacon topping to You Ain’t Leavin’ Mac & Cheese. Somehow, I was able to locate the recipe for a meatless chili I made six Labor Days ago, combing through search results on Epicurious until I found one with a familiar, ridiculously long list of ingredients.

‘Vores of all walks claimed to enjoy the chili, but one should never take guests’ compliments as honest criticism. I’ll admit that I don’t eat chili of any kind, ever, so I had no idea what was going on in those bowls. However, Mr. P revisited the leftovers twice, legitimizing it as an official victory.

I find it inordinately satisfying to approach meals I prepare and events I host as competitions with myself. None of my children put up a fair fight at anything other than Candy Land, and I no longer work in an office environment (where competitive baking is always encouraged), so I have no choice but to set my own bar progressively higher in order to routinely best past selves. A disconcerting side effect of my approach to staying sharp has been my inner monologue’s shift to a dialogue, with definite manager and underling roles.

In addition to barking orders at my underling and maintaining a high level of hustle in the kitchen, my manager enforces our unnecessarily rigorous weekly schedule, ensures everyone is dressed and fed by eight, and gets us all strapped in the car and on our way by nine. My underling wonders if my manager has been overbooking us lately, but the former doesn’t get a say. Fortunately for my underling, my manager (who’s also in charge of menu planning) is a voracious carnivore, and while this chili is now a standard in our vegetarian repertoire, we’re still not eating it.

And to All, a Loosened Belt

A Delicious Christmas Dinner to All…

This year is the second of my recent decade-to-lifelong election/takeover as Christmas Dinner Host; thank you again for being so gracious about the whole thing, Mrs. S! In the case that you, too, are preparing the yuletide feast, but have yet to finalize your menu, allow me to suggest one that seamlessly combines New England tradition with festive flair, and reinforces that your children never prefer their future spouses’ cooking to your own. Speaking of children, while they are often delightful, we don’t consider them actual people when determining food quantities, especially turkey poundage. That leaves my diner total at ten, requiring a twenty-pound turkey to ensure enough white meat for all with a few leftovers to sustain Mr. P during his annual Christmas night toy bender.

20-Pound Butter-Basted Roast Turkey with Giblet Gravy*

The Wood Sisters’ Pork Stuffing

Whipped Russet Potatoes*

Mashed Butternut Squash with Honey and Crushed Red Pepper*

Fo Show Green Beans (Green Beans with Toasted Almond Butter)

Red Pearl Onions Tossed in a Balsamic-Brown Sugar Glaze*

Orange Scented Cranberry Sauce

Dessert will be a gingerbread train cake with an individual car for each plate, and of course we’ll have a wasply assortment of spirits ranging from wine and sherry to gin and rum as liven-uppers for the nog and cider.

*The recipes for the unlinked dishes involve little more than their descriptions, and I’ll trust you to use your judgement when determining quantities. After all, if you weren’t confident in your potato whipping or onion boiling skills, you wouldn’t have any business hosting the most stately of annual feasts.

Weather you celebrate the holidays with faith, aesthetic, or a combination of both, I wish all of you a transplendent meal, and a quiet moment afterwards to consider how delightful it is to be you.

Angry Cooking

Angry Chicken

I decided to shelve a 986-word rant regarding my threshold for inconsideration and incompetence across all age groups having possibly been crossed. It turned out that being stood-up for a blind play date with all three kids at Funworld, and my resulting expulsion from a playgroup I’d never been to, did not, in fact, kill me. Nor did the overly audible comment from a woman behind me in line at the Hallmark store as I waited to have an ornament boxed so I could quickly remove my whiny children from the public sphere. Please don’t bother getting irked on my behalf at her declaration of “I don’t understand people who have more kids than they can handle.” In exchange for her helpful insight, I provided her with something to work on with her therapist for the next several years. And Sally the Entitled’s incessant reproachment of my parenting still hasn’t plateaued, but fortunately, I have an abundance of faith in myself, and rubes, barbs, and gripes haven’t debilitated me. On the contrary, my fury-induced blood pressure spikes result in waves of some of my best cooking.

It was a rare occasion yesterday afternoon when, although I had adequate hustle and elan to cook something delicious, I considered the prospect of a trip to the market as appealing as participating in organized running. I may send Simply Recipes a Christmas gift; I had chicken, mushrooms, and tomatoes, and not much else, but the resulting Chicken, Mushrooms, and Tomatoes with Port Wine caused an elated Mr. P to unconsciously hum quietly until he admirably gave up just before the bite that would have killed the evening.

I’m sure you’re aware of my penchant for a well-executed cream sauce, but this is a refreshingly dairy-free combination of shallot and mushroom, and the tomato manages to restrain itself to a supporting role. The final reduction is spectacular, and even better when drizzled over whatever accompanies your chicken; in retrospect I would have gone with rice, as my choice of egg noodles proved to be a slippery one.

So even though the end of my tether is in clear sight, the pairing of productive, passionate ire with a reliable site for new recipes culminates in several days of Michelin-worthy dinners at Chez Peña, before my wrath cools back down to mild irritability and Mr. P resigns himself with grace and dignity to another long stretch of family-restaurant-tier cooking. But not tonight. Tonight, I summon my last sputters of anger for Sherry-Dijon London Broil with caramelized shallots and rice pilaf.

Sorry, Chef Ramsey, they can’t all be “the most magnificent.”

TMI Chicken Soup

The first day of Mr. P’s long awaited nine-day Thanksgiving break found all five Peñas sick as dogs. We, the house-bound four, had been chewing on this particular bug for twenty-four hours, initially tipped off by Billy the Kid’s impressive reverse-vacuum all over my bedspread, while Mr. P efficiently wrapped up all loose ends at work on Friday before succumbing to the inevitable, compounded by the standard general start-of-vacation collapse. By the time I dragged the king comforter out of the dryer two hours after its ordeal, I was in full denial of my own doom. I was not ill. By Saturday afternoon, I was still the most functional, but only because I refuse to negotiate with disease, my ability to ignore discomfort having increased tenfold after carrying twins with a perforated appendix.

Note to potential and current gestators: if you point to the side of your enormous pregnant belly and tell your doctor, “this hurts and I can’t eat,” don’t downplay the pain and nausea, or you’ll receive the standard “why don’t we take a look after the baby comes.” I’m betting that liability near-miss still keeps a certain OB/GYN up at night. I’d heard of women being sick while in labor, but getting off an operating table seconds after receiving an epidural and seconds before a c-section, throwing up, and remounting just as all feeling drained from my legs reassured me that I possess excellent time management and multi-tasking skills. Unfortunately, it also detracted from focusing on the miracle of life and whatnot. Had my concerns been addressed, however, I might not have come out the other end fifty pounds lighter and then I wouldn’t have been able to enjoy creeping out Mr. P with my ultra-slender “tween starlet calves” for a month before returning to my preferred state of sturdiness.

Back to the present, with a mere low-grade fever and repulsiveness confined mostly to my head, the task of making chicken soup with rice fell to me. When visiting Epicurious, I prefer to to limit my options to recipes that boast four entire forks, but three and a half are apparently the mediocre standard in this case, so I settled on one that conformed to Mr.P’s request for “not weird.”  I found the absence of onion unsettling, so I threw in half a chopped yellow, and combined a tablespoon each of fresh thyme and parsley, scoffing at the direction to limit myself to one or the other. Then I salted and peppered the dickens out of it.

I regard chicken soup as a food of necessity, and since one can’t taste much of it when one needs it the most, and wouldn’t make it if one didn’t need it, it doesn’t really matter that this one is exceptional to a fully functioning palate. The rice leaves relatively little broth, but just enough to avoid the dreaded bisque effect. The carrots and celery remain brisk and cheerful, having just cooked through upon serving, and lend an appealing primavera quality that’s often appetizing to an invalid. I suppose Epicurious’ three-and-a-half-forks rating is, indeed, appropriate; even at it’s best, chicken soup is still just chicken soup.

Cow and Chicken

Chicken Chicharrones

I resent Chick-fil-A for three reasons. Long before I’d been unlucky enough to live within a drivable distance to the fast food establishment that considers itself above operating on Sundays (I am a staunch advocate of separation of church and chicken, so that’s reason number one), I worked in the screen-printing sector for a spell, where I came across the ambiguous logo for the first time. I assumed the pronunciation was “chick fillah,” and figured the company had been founded by a surly aviculteur with a strong Boston accent, who supplied chicken filling for nuggets, patties, and the like. Obviously, reason number two addresses the all too common liberties taken with the alphabet.

Reason number three arose the first time I acquiesced to BK’s pleas for a Chick-fil-A kid’s meal from our mall’s food court, a routine I was unaware Mr. P had allowed to develop. I’ll note that our mall, though relatively close by, is actually in another state, one that boasts a long line of historically bad ideas. To my delight, I saw that the nuggets looked homemade, identifiably chicken, and lightly breaded. But then I tasted one, and a specific rage rose up out of my chest, one reserved for the slap in the face that is misleadingly appealing fare. I don’t know if the trademark “flavor” originates intentionally from a specific “seasoning,” or if I’m just experiencing the complex flavor profiles of grease, but those obsequious cow mascots need to offer at least bearable fare if they don’t want to end up in my sandwich.

I recently came across a recipe for chicken chicharrones on the always reliable simplyrecipes.com, and jumped at the chance to impress Mr. Tilde with some flavors from the mother protectorate. Upon plating the piping hot, shimmering with oil yet obviously crunchy little chunks, I noticed a hint of physical resemblance to the insipid little orts slung by CfA, but hoped that half an hour marinating in rum, lime juice, and soy sauce would yield a much more palatable product. Palatable is an understatement, and elastic waistbands are called for once again, as well as a table-side candy dish filled with Tums. A squirt each of lime juice and hot sauce are legally mandated in this case, and I find diners are especially delighted if the lime wedges are presented in a small communal bowl.  I’ve never been much of a deep-fryer, especially when peanut oil is involved, but I’m going to need to start that new gym membership, now that I’ll be eating this three nights a week. And when I finally have a few too many chicharrones sometime after Christmas, I’m coming for you, beefcakes.

I like the idea of vegetables…

Squash Savers


Not only was it a delightful day in all ways save for infant temperaments, but one packed full of smug superiority, my second favorite vice. BK and I got an invigoratingly early jump start on the day, giving a friend a lift to work at eight, then we slowed down by the house as Mr. P chucked in the girls, and off we traipsed to our local farm where we fed goats and bunnies and picked a pound of nice fat blueberries. I’ve learned to bring Wet Ones along on our pickings, as Billy the Kid brazenly over-samples to the point of facial evidence, and I dislike receiving cool looks from any sort of help. Back home, we picked our first summer squash, and I created the following recipe to render the yellow vegetable adequately palatable, mostly by masking the crap out of it with ingredients I like, such as eggs and crackers. The resulting side dish was victoriously satisfying, but even more delicious was the nap I unintentionally took with the girls after lunch.

I have a generous but firm quiet-time policy to ensure my babies get at least twenty minutes of sleep during the day, and BK can either nap with me on the couch or play quietly in the office or his room with a variety of toy options, including (and I will not apologize) the iPad. But even the ultimate attention magnet only buys a half hour at most of distraction for a three-year-old, and I usually get just a short lie-down before I have to engage El Torito in something far away from my napping time-bombs. So I awoke disoriented and suspicious two hours later, and followed a trail of strewn berries into the kitchen to find my little man closing the fridge door, hands clawed and straining to transport many more blueberries than they were able to hold. Evidently, BK had quite a little afternoon for himself. After ditching his pants in the bathroom, he based himself on the office recliner with the iPad, making routine trips to the fridge to reload, while watching some sort of ridiculous anime in Japanese he found on the hulu app.

12 1/4″ slices from the widest part of a summer squash
1 C finely crushed butter crackers
1 egg, lightly beaten
1/2 tsp onion salt
1/2 tsp dried basil leaves
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 C grated mozzarella
1/4 C grated Parmesan
Canola oil

Combine the cracker crumbs with the spices and salt and spread them out on a plate. Heat about a quarter cup of canola oil in a large skillet over medium-high. Once it’s hot, dip a squash slice into the egg, coating completely, then lay it on the crumbs and turn/pack to coat. Put it in the hot oil and repeat with the remaining slices. After all have been in for 1 minute, start flipping the slices over with tongs, beginning with the first one that went in. Once flipped, let them cook for another minute or until they’re crisp and golden-brown – no amateur pale spots!

Transfer the slices to a plate lined with paper towel to blot the excess oil, then arrange them on a rack placed over a cookie sheet. Top each with a sprinkle of parmesan and mozzarella, and broil them on high at the second-highest rack level for a minute or two until the cheese just starts to brown. Serve them scalding hot to avoid any trace of actual vegetable, and don’t forget to hide your berries!

Mama’s Little Id

Not-Cheese-Pie


A week of rain always makes me feel terribly guilty about my lack of creativity regarding indoor toddler-appropriate activities. So when Billy the Kid announced he wanted “cheese pie” while watching an episode of Angelina Ballerina (all characters are mice – I know the American Cheese Council has a hand in this), I jumped at the chance to make what he wanted for dinner with him. In my book, “cheese pie” means someone’s selling quiche to a small child. I’d never actually made one but only because I always forget about them as a dinner option. My mother’s sister, the unparalleled Mrs. V.P, makes a quiche that hints there just might be a heaven after all, and when she hosts a lunch, I find that I’m glad I don’t generally seek it out elsewhere, because I don’t think any other could compare. I found a straight-forward enough undertaking on none other than Simply Recipes, so I strapped everyone into their respective car seats, then at the market, their respective cart seats.

Since “cheese pie” would somehow have to encompass dinner, I selected a quiche that called for a variety of BK-approved ingredients, like bacon and chopped sautéed mushrooms that I added to the recipe (I’ll admit, though, they can be a wild card). Even forgoing the classy but pungent gruyère for a foolproof cheddar, I have no idea what possessed me to assume I could get away with a sprinkling of green herb, and sure enough, although he prepared it with me and witnessed every single item’s incorporation, BK stared with perplexed fury at his slice of not-cheese-pie he found at the dinner table.

After explaining, bargaining, guilting and sighing passive-aggressively, I pulled out all of the foreign bodies from the top half of BK’s slice, so that he could have exactly what his ballerina mouse friend had eaten for lunch. The clash of wills anticlimactically resolved, my charming but belligerent heir immediately switched tactics to absolute refusal to eat. Cue bed-time call, tantrum, wails, pleas, demands, and, finally, my put-this-day-in-the-ground nightcap.

Once I got around to eating my first slice of the since chilled product this afternoon, my lingering resentment disappeared, and I’m pleased to report quiche just acquired a bi-weekly menu slot. Cheese pie, my britches.

And I’ve been added to yet another watch list.

Chicken Ham and Basil What?

Picture coming eventually. Mr. P. ate the designated model.

Every now and then I create something other than a person, and I’m beside myself with smug delight over my new oeuvre. A few weeks ago I found a recipe for Chicken Prosciutto on my go-to site for new recipes, and I remembered having seen some prosciutto in the deli bin the previous month. I didn’t have sage on hand, but had some basil, and instead of Fontina, figured I could substitute a parm/mozz blend. (Un)forunately, a quick call to Mrs. Hamilton confirmed my fear that no lunch meat can stand up to three weeks past its expiration date. I may have detected a slight note of confused distaste in her tone; I know one probably assumes I’m a freshness tyrant, but I was genetically blessed with a cast-iron stomach (except when gestating), and worked in fast food as a teenager, so I’ve developed an it’ll-cook-off outlook toward food-borne pathogens. The tradeoff is that I’m pathologically obsessive about meat temperature, and I’ve turned off the scald-proof mechanism on my kitchen sink (soap should serve as a backup when washing dishes; the water should be hot enough to burn off all bacteria).

So the only thing my refrigerator had in common with Chicken Prosciutto at this point was chicken. I borrowed a few of the techniques from the found recipe, slicing each breast into two fillets before pounding them to one eighth of an inch, and frying the basil leaves in a stick of butter, using them in the chicken, and frying the chicken in the resulting basil butter. But here’s where I went a little I-wonder-what-would-happen-if…

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts, tenderloins removed, sliced into two fillets each, pounded within a millimeter of their lives
6 thin slices of deli ham (I used Hannaford Inspirations Wildflower Honey Ham, because I’m Frasier)
12 fresh basil leaves
1 stick butter
1 C breadcrumbs
2 eggs, lightly beaten in a shallow bowl
6 long, thin slices of mozzarella
Vegetable oil
Salt and pepper
Toothpicks

Heat the butter in a large skillet over medium-high. Once foaming, add the basil leaves and let them fry for 1 minute, then turn and fry for another 30 seconds before transferring the leaves to a paper towel. Turn the butter down to warm. Trim a pounded chicken fillet of any fly-aways, then lay 2 basil leaves on top. Place a slice of ham on top of that, folding in any edges that protrude. Fold the bottom third of the fillet to the center, hold it in place while folding the top half down as far as it will reach, and secure with a toothpick. It should be packed up tightly enough to prevent anything from sliding out the sides. I will refer to the resulting unit as the briquette (loaf, knuckle, and chicken fist were runners up).

Assemble all of the briquettes before starting to cook. Mix up the breadcrumbs with some salt and pepper, and spread them out on a large plate. Increase the heat on the basil butter to medium-high and add 3 tbsp of vegetable oil to the pan, swirling to incorporate with the butter, and give it a minute to get hot. Dip a briquette in the beaten egg, then coat completely in the bread crumbs, packing them into the sides. Immediately place it into the hot butter/oil. Repeat for the remaining briquettes, and once the last one goes into the pan, flip the first one over with tongs, and proceed to flip the others at thirty-second intervals, in the order they went in. After the final flip, cook for an additional 2 minutes, then check one to verify doneness (I like to designate Billy the Kid’s portion as the tester, as I have to cut it up anyway). Transfer the briquettes to a wire rack placed over a pan or cookie sheet, top each with mozzarella, and broil on high for 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the cheese is melted and hinting at browning.

As with all breaded and fried proteins, have lemons or at least lemon juice on hand. Since each briquette is half a chicken breast, you can serve them in decadent pairs — just remove the toothpicks upon plating unless you happen to be spite-hosting. In that case, set the table with disposable linens, invite at least 1 vegetarian paramedic, and combine 10 drops of Visine with the bottled lemon juice. You’ll want to have a lawyer on retainer, but that’s just good sense in general.

Saturday Night Special

Emergency Dinner


I’m insanely competitive, but only with myself. Many mistake this for low self-esteem; on the contrary, I’m just not that concerned with everyone else. Since becoming a stay-at-home mother, I’ve had to institute policies that keep me on my toes, as the lack of a supervisor translates into the lack of a glowing annual review. For example, I try to cook as many meals out of the week as possible, not for the warm contentment that comes from nourishing one’s family, but because an uninterrupted string of “HCD”s (home-cooked dinner) on my wall calendar reassures me that I’m earning a nice pointy A. The only real feedback I get from my subordinates comes in the forms of screams, wails and tantrums, and the occasional “I love you” is usually a last-ditch attempt to elude the repercussional time-out nap. So my need to self-monitor/praise manifests in my psyche’s constant addition of items to my daily to-do lists, while conscious executive-me gripes through each chore, cursing the perfectionist work ethic instilled by a former Catholic (nicely done, Mrs. S!).

There are no corners that the tiny slacker who lives deep inside me and constantly undermines my cultivation of hustle won’t cut, so a good percentage of HCDs involves prepared foods, to my chagrin. I reserve jarred sauces for the end of the week, which usually finds me too disoriented and frazzled to be trusted with a measuring cup. It would be impressive, indeed, to screw up this mindless but tasty pasta dish, and I don’t offer it because I assume you need help putting spaghetti together, but to reassure you that even I don’t start every dinner at the farmers’ market. In fact, I avoid farmers’ markets as well as the California attitude they promote.

1 jar Newman’s Own Roasted Garlic and Peppers Sauce
1 16-oz box spaghetti (1/2 box per 2 eaters)
1 pkg sweet Italian sausage (5 or 6 links)
olive oil
salt

Cover and heat up the sauce in a medium saucepan over low while you fry the sausage in 1 tbsp olive oil over medium-high/medium until completely cooked (fill the emptied — not rinsed! — sauce jar with hot water and add as needed to the sauce to achieve the desired consistency). Toss the completely cooked (it’s never redundant) sausage into the sauce along with 1 tbsp of the pan sludge, and continue to cook over low, covered, stirring occasionally, while you boil well-salted water for the pasta and cook it. When the spaghetti is done (drain, but don’t rinse), so is the sauce. Look at all that free time! Let’s find some trim that needs a fresh coat of paint.

If you use a plate, you use a fork.

Buttermilk Fried Vehicle for Fried Buttermilk


I know next to nothing about the South. Why would I? I recoil from sun and heat, reserve physical affection for family, the Hamiltons, and Jess D, and prefer not to make eye contact with strangers, especially in crowds. When I first became aware of the “see something, say something” campaign at train stations and airports, I was slightly taken aback that the administration would assume I was in the habit of taking stock of my fellow passengers. Once the practice of noticing people becomes acceptable etiquette, the terrorists have won. No, I’ll keep my eyes quietly glued to my Maugham novel all the way to my grave, thank you very much.

As mysterious and stressful as I find Southern culture, the food is another story; I can be bought with fried chicken. My first successfully fried chicken (I usually wind up with fried chicken and fried flour) is courtesy of Simply Recipes, a site that garners more of my trust with every new recipe. I was nervous that the eight hours my refrigerator invested soaking the chicken in herbed buttermilk might be wasted, but the payoff was nothing short of magnificent. There was little conversation at dinner this evening, and both Mr. P and I were relieved that our new rice cooker botched the starch, opening up some unexpected gastronomical real estate. It’s not at all greasy, no small feat considering the two cups of oil you get going, and if you use grape seed oil without actually reading the recommended article on its health benefits, the sky is the nutrient-rich limit! A squirt of lemon juice rendered the whole thing intolerably good — so good that I’m still just a little furious.

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