I’ll tellyawhatIwantwhatIreallyreallywant…

If I were a Spice Girl, I think I’d be Bitchy Spice.

The way I see it, bitchiness is really a two-headed monster. Her left head bears an ugly countenance; eyes filled with maliciousness and anger. Warts all over the place. The right is a bit more dignified, straightforward. Her features are strong and square, but not ugly. The left mouth spews words with hurtful intent, while the right responds boldly…assertively. In other words, bitchiness isn’t all that bad. Although its first face certainly conjures negative connotation, there is another more positive aspect to ‘being bitchy’ that is worthy of at least a crumb of respect.

But what does this have to do with food, pray tell? Well a lot, actually. Where would the food world be without an ounce of bitchiness? I’d conjure to guess it would be pretty bland. And that’s because spice is the bitch of the food world.

A heavy hand of any spice will ruin an otherwise well-assuming dish. Ever had an over-salted portion of fries? We’ve all been there. Now, imagine the best fries you’ve ever tasted. Salted just so, they bring out the French fry’s straightforward potatoiness. Salt enhances the texture and enlivens an otherwise pretty boring vegetable. So methinks it is fair to say that when used correctly and in the right proportions, spices add a new brilliance to food; dare I say a straightforward ‘bold assertiveness’…see where I’m going with this???  Salt makes the potato say, “Yeah, I’m a French fry. You got a problem with that? Eat me!”

The wonderful thing about spices is there are literally hundreds to choose from, if not thousands. Several faces of food bitchiness, if one is to continue this metaphor. Each spice adds its own personality to the mix. Combining them creates infinite possibilities that completely change the flavor profile of even the simplest of foods. I think everyone needs to experiment with spices. Mix and match their personalities to create your own little pop group. Here’s mine:

Smoky Spice      Smoked paprika is a spice that should be in everyone’s repertoire.  It’s basically sweet paprika that’s been slow-smoked over oak.  To me, its aroma is almost campfire-y.  Woodsy but still well-rounded like regular paprika with a hint of sweet and spice.  Its color, too, serves as a food enhancer.  It’s the secret ingredient in my oven-baked back ribs, and also adds an unexpected twist to your basic deviled eggs.

Exotic Spice       Cardamom is not often used in American cooking, but its sweet, pungent, floral-y flavor makes it perfect in cookies and pastries.  It’s no wonder I like it so much;  cardamom is a relative of ginger, my second choice for the role of exotic spice.  Cardamom adds a pleasant note to butter cookies that’s unusual and other-worldly.  Pair cardamom butter cookies with coffee…now that’s a phenomenal way to start the day!

Blended Spice     Penzey’s sandwich sprinkle isn’t really a spice per se but one of my favorite herb and spice blends.  It’s flavor profile leans strongly toward Italian, but has far more applications.  I use it to flavor freshly-made croutons, or, as the title suggests, to add zing to my turkey sandwiches.  It’s also the secret ingredient to my bruschetta.

Traditional Spice      Cinnamon is a universal go-to spice and for very good reason.  It, like cardamom, is versatile in both sweet and savory dishes.  Cinnamon provides the undertones to a traditional Greek pastitsio.  But it also adds extra flavor to Sunday pancakes.

Angry spice     Any spice list wouldn’t be complete without the addition of some sort of chile pepper.   My pick for adding heat to a dish is good ol’ cayenne pepper.  Yes, it’s hot, but it also has a solid backbone.  Like salt, cayenne rounds out and accentuates the other flavors in a dish.  It also adds a slight bite.  That’s why many folks add just a dash of cayenne to not-so-spicy things like hollandaise.  If you take away all that heat, it’s really very effective as a flavor enhancer.

So there you have it.  A little bitchiness is good.

“This is me.  Take it or leave it.” – Melanie Chisholm, aka Sporty Spice

Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine percent vodka

New Year’s Eve, 3 years ago.  Snow is softly accumulating on the deck outside while the Martin family is enjoying a warm evening in.  The kids are already spent and sprawled on the floor, quietly sleeping after enjoying our traditional New Year’s Eve festivities – appetizers for dinner and several rounds of board games.

It’s adult time and now I feel like enjoying a cocktail to ring in the new year.  I want something sweet and boozy.  Rummaging through the stockpile, I find an old can of frozen pink lemonade concentrate, a bit of vodka, and some other things.   Hmmm…I have the beginnings of something tasty!  On the deck outside I place my martini glass upside-down in a nearby tuft of snow.  I begin mixing and matching until I develop a cocktail so perfectly pink and strikingly reminiscent of the taste of a pineapple gummy bear, it’s too good not to make again and again and again and again.

With three shots of alcohol and very little mixer, the eponomyous Pink Gummy Bear cocktail became an instant hit with me.  I drank three of them in an hour and quickly passed out.

Fast forward to last weekend.  The Martin boys discovered the slushie machine in the back of a kitchen cabinet and begged me to make a few.  I obliged, using a strong blue Kool-Aid concoction blended with some ice.  They invited their friends over and, before I knew it, I had turned my kitchen into a slushie bar for the entire neighborhood.  Good.  Kids are taken care of.  After all that work, I decided I needed a slushie myself.  So, again I returned to the liquor cabinet and created a summery mommy-style slushie spiked with vodka and Grand Marnier.  Delicious…so good in fact I drank it too fast and gave myself one hell of a brain freeze.  Luckily, my husband was there to console me and capture the moment for all to see and posted it on Facebook.

My point is this…like food, cocktails are an interesting and fun way to explore a variety of tastes and flavors.  Push the margarita to the back of your repertoire!  Dig out all those dusty liquor bottles from your cabinet and make something new.  Like cooking, a well-balanced cocktail has the right mix of flavors – sweet and savory, astringent and refreshing, fruity and herbal.  And you can use just about anything in the kitchen to add dimension to your drinks.  Take a look at the list below to see what I mean…

Vodka – vodka is pretty flavorless, so it lends itself to pretty much anything.  The myriad of flavored vodkas give at-home mixologists a ton of different options to play with.

Grand Marnier- A must-have in my house.  Sure it’s expensive.  It’s cognac sweetened and flavored with oranges.   It gives a nice, round sweetness and a bit of body to a cocktail.  On many occasions, I’ve found a drink lacking “that something” and have added Grand Marnier to fix it.

Gin – I love the herbal, slightly citrusy flavor of gin.  I think it’s most refreshing on a really, really hot day.

Limoncello – Another summer time favorite.  Encapsulates summer in a bottle with intense lemon flavor without a lot of bitterness.  Great backdrop for berries.

Herbs and such- Their essential oils impart all kinds of dimension and sophistication to cocktails.  Try basil for a licorice twist or even some lavender!!!

Kool-Aid – Yeah, I’ve done it!  I’ve been known to add a little somethin’somethin’ to some Kool-Aid.  Don’t knock it til you try it.

Fresh Fruit – It’s sweetness and slight acidity offer a nice balance to many cocktails.  Plus, eating boozy strawberries are the best!

Really anything makes for good mixological experimentation.  You see, your kitchen is a laboratory of different options.  Mix, muddle, infuse, imbibe.

Just don’t experiment before you have to pick up your kids from a play date.  That would be bad.

Food isn’t perfect and neither are you

It’s Thanksgiving Day and I’m about 13-or-so years old.  My mother is in the kitchen of our rural New Jersey home frantically putting the final touches to our annual feast.  The turkey is resting on the counter and the sides are being prepared.  Soon, the smells of warm spiced pumpkin waft through the air, signaling it’s time to take the pie out of the oven.

A bit of background is warranted here.  I grew up in a house in New Jersey that we rented from an angry Russian immigrant.  He built and decorated the home himself and was clearly proud of his work.  Maybe in the USSR the decor of the house was state-of-the-art, but in the US of A it was a strange mish-mosh of colors and textures.  Case in point:  the kitchen was nightmare.  It was adorned with blood-red patterned carpeting that needed constant vacuuming.  From the kitchen ceiling hung a Tiffany-esque pendant light with red and yellow stained plastic panels.  So between the carpet and the lighting, the entire kitchen cast a funky red hue on everything in that room.

OK now back to my story…

We are all at the table savoring the tastes and smells of a traditional Thanksgiving feast.  Fat with good food in our bellies, my mother returns to the kitchen to plate a slice of pumpkin pie for each of us.  The plates arrive at the table with a large dollop of (fake) whipped cream on top.  We dive in.

Do you ever have one of those moments where you want to say something but you’re completely afraid to?  Clearly our Thanksgiving dessert contained an odd and unexpected ingredient.  Unable to stand it any further, I finally pipe up.  “What’s wrong with the pie?” I ask.  “I didn’t want to say anything, but it does taste bad,” my Dad chimes in.  Then my dad removes the pile of cream atop his slice to reveal a very green-hued pie underneath.  Perplexed, my mother runs into the kitchen to investigate the error.  “Oh my God, I put sage in the pie instead of cinnamon!!”  Of course, in the red-hued kitchen, the pie looked perfectly normal.  In the light of day, it was something else entirely.

Even the best of cooks have their own shortcomings.  I can’t cut a bagel (or a roll, bun, etc) into two equal halves.  Ever.  Whenever posed with the task of cutting something in half, a wave of terror takes over my face.  I feel like all eyes are on me.  Panic eventually erupts from within and I succumb to the pressure.  I turn the task over to my husband, who with a knowing grin on his face, obliges.  I can’t make gravy, either.  I possess all the tools and know-how to make a good gravy, but the end result is always abysmal at best.  I don’t even try to make gravy anymore.  I always leave that job to my grandmother.  When she dies, I’m screwed.  Thanksgiving will be perpetually ruined because I can’t make gravy.

There’s a part of me that believes perfection is the true enemy of food.  Some of our warmest memories of family and friends are centered around  really bad food experiences.  My grandmother once made mimosas with pink champagne.  When mixed,  the orange juice became tainted by the pink hue of the champagne and turned the otherwise delightful concoction into a lovely shade of mud brown.  Still tasted good and we all had a good laugh.  And for that, it was a moment in time we all will cherish forever.

No recipe this post.  Review what’s been posted so far and embark on a journey with someone you love.  Burn some bread, deflate some egg whites, smoke the family out of the house.  Then laugh it off and try again.  Sometimes, bad food makes the best memories.

Dissecting my love-hate relationship with dairy

Life in the Martin household has been rather hectic as of late.  With summer vacation in full swing, there’s not much time to sit down for a family dinner.  My schedule reads like instructions on the back of a shampoo bottle:  Get up, go to work, take kids to practice. Repeat.

Yep, somehow dinner gets bypassed.

So imagine my surprise when practice was cancelled and the entire family spent an evening at home.  Unfortunately, it was toward the end of the week so foodstuffs in the pantry were at bare-minimum levels.  However, a few ingredients survived the week and I whipped up a batch of spaghetti and meatballs.  I was thrilled to have my family gather ’round the table for a Norman Rockwell kind of moment. Except I forgot one thing…

Adam, my youngest, is on a tomato sauce strike.

In a panic that my feel-good moment may be ruined, I’m standing at the sink rinsing the sauce off the spaghetti and meatballs, hoping he will be none-the-wiser.  It didn’t work.  Somehow, he could still ‘taste’ the tomatoes and had a complete meltdown at the table.  Norman Rockwell, meet the Martin family.

I don’t understand why Adam reacts so violently to lasagna, and spaghetti, but he will eat an entire saucy pizza.  I mean all these dishes are basically the same thing, right???  But before I jump on Adam’s case, I did some soul-searching.  At some  point in our lives, all of us have had a love-hate relationship with some kind of food.  And here’s where today’s story really begins…

I never drank milk as a child.  To this day I find a tall, cold glass of straight-up moo juice one of the most vile things on the planet.  Possibly the universe.  Tell me, then, why I love all things dairy?  Yogurt, cheese, and ice cream are all delicious ingredients I couldn’t live without.  Indeed, cheese is in my top three (bacon, chocolate, cheese….but not necessarily in that order).  But milk?  On its own?  You’ve got to be crazy!!  If you need more calcium in your diet, eat more cheese.  That’s my motto.

So it should come to no surprise that macaroni and cheese is one of my all-time favorite comfort foods.  It’s a concoction that celebrates cheese in a way that no other food really can.  Pasta is a blank canvas that provides structure and definition to a dish that highlights cheese’s best attributes.  Because of its straightforward ingredient list, people seem to think that mac in cheese is easy to make.  Cook some noodles and make a cheese sauce with any sort of cheese on hand, right?  Not so!  Even journey-cooks like myself live by a few tenets as we add a bit of this-and-that to our dishes.  Macaroni and cheese is no exception.  So even though I refuse to follow a single mac-and-cheese recipe, I have found that if you follow two simple principles, your end product will always be delicious.  Here they are, the Two Commandment of Mac and Cheese

  • Thou shalt make creamy mac and cheese
  • Thou shalt make mac and cheese that tastes like cheese

Yep, that’s the secret.  Make it creamy and make it taste like cheese.  And to do that you need to keep on reading…

Two Commandment Mac and Cheese

Cook the pasta till al dente – no more than that.  Drain the pasta and let it sit in its warm pot while you create your individualized cheese profile.  Find cheeses that, when combined, hit these four important notes:  creamy, salty, nutty, sharp.  If you don’t hit all four of these notes, your mac and cheese will taste like wet pasta.  Nothing more.  Grate the cheeses  you’ve selected and let it hang out for a bit on the counter.  Make a béchamel with butter, flour and that nasty-tasting bovine liquor known as milk. (or ‘melk’ as my Uncle Mike calls it…go back and read “Melk and other mispronounced food words”).  Add some salt, maybe some nutmeg, and the cheese off heat.  If it’s still not sharp enough – it needs to be sharp- add some powdered mustard.  Pour over the  warm noodles and stir, stir, stir.  Serve with some crunchy seasoned bread crumbs on top.  Pair it with a glass of wine that cuts through the fat of the dish.  Keep the milk for culinary purposes only.

Unraveling the symbiotic relationship between foodies and their financial advisors

Memorial Day has already passed us by, folks!  For most of you, this holiday informally rings in the summer season.  Graduations, barbeques, and pool parties soon inundate the social calendar and we find ourselves without a minute of down-time.  For my co-workers and I, Memorial Day holds even greater significance.  You see, the company I work for provides a gem of a benefit so valuable that its minions patiently await for its arrival all spring long.  It’s the gift of time.  From Memorial Day to Labor Day, the company shuts down promptly at 1pm on Fridays to allow us some space to jump-start our weekend plans.  I take this opportunity to spend some quality time with myself and I have found a new place to do it – Standard Market in Westmont, IL.

The Standard Market is like no grocery store you’ve ever seen – there’s not a single box of Cheerios in the place.  Nope – no dry goods.  Only produce, wine, cheese, baked goods, a delicatessen, and a kick-ass butcher.  That’s it.  The place is a muse-box of sorts for those who love good food.  It encourages shoppers to ‘start from scratch’, providing the most fundamental of building blocks for fantastic culinary creations.  Oh, and I forgot to mention that they also make a wide array of pre-prepared salads, dips, spreads, condiments, and heat-and-eat meals.

So this is where my financial advisor comes in to the picture.  If it wasn’t for Mark, the man who relentlessly reminds me that my kids need to go to college, I’d spend my entire salary in this store.  And then some.  Spend a little, save a little – that’s his motto.  He reminds me that my personal economic situation is its own biofeedback system.  Spend some money and enjoy it.  Spend too much, and I won’t have enough to spend in the future.  He keeps me balanced and as long as he does, he makes a nice profit, too!

OK, back to Standard Market…

I’m meandering through the produce section looking at fruits and vegetables and become inspired by the things I see.  I mean, this place has morel mushrooms…fresh freakin’ morels for $70 a pound!!!  I pick up some fingerling potatoes, heirloom tomatoes, plump peppers, some citrus, and some cheaper mushrooms.  I walk by the cheeses and select some that is infused with lavender pollen.  Then, a fresh baguette somehow makes it way into the cart.  And some roasted red pepper goat cheese spread.  And some couscous salad.  Oh, and that pulled pork looks delicious!  I think I need some.  The butcher has some chicken, spinach, and artichoke sausages…yes, I need those too.  And freshly brined chickens.  And some beautiful beef tenderloin.

And that’s how I spent $150 on three bags of groceries.  Mark would not be pleased.

Proud of my newly acquired treasures, I go home and dump the contents of the bags on the kitchen counter.  This is where the fun begins!  How do you manipulate these beautiful ingredients to create one cohesive and delicious plate of love?  My building blocks are quite simple – fresh produce, good-quality meat, and some yum-yums on the side.  Looks like some kabobs are in order.  Now that is a delicious way to end the day.  I think I’ll invite Mark over for dinner…

Beef tenderloin kabobs with grilled potatoes

Open the cheese infused with lavender pollen.  You gotta see how that tastes!  Try it with some simple crackers.  It’s heavenly!  Wash it down with a swig of wine.  Now prep the meat and vegetables.  Cut the tenderloin, some red onion, and a few bell peppers into same-sized chunks.  Dress the veggies and meat delicately with soy sauce, Worcestershire, lemon, olive oil, and herbs.  Skewer the meat and veggies.  Start with a cherry-sized heirloom tomato and end with a mushroom cap.  Halve some good-sized fingerlings (or thickly slice some Yukon Golds) and toss in olive oil, salt, pepper.    Place on a hot grill and let the fire lick at the kabob until slightly charred.  Grill the fingerlings alongside.  Place the finished skewers atop the grilled potatoes so the juices drip down onto the potatoes, flavoring them with all that charred goodness.  Rip off a hunk of that fresh bread and drag it through the roasted red pepper goat cheese spread.  Finish your wine.  Savor that money you just spent  because you have to go back to work on Monday to make more of it so you can finance your foodie habit.

I’m baaaaaack…didja miss me?

So says this busy part-time blogger whose been incessantly asked to begin posting again.  And so I will oblige.

It was a hectic spring in the Martin household, folks!  After working through a ‘surprise’ medical diagnosis and the loss of a much-loved family pet, it’s time to count our blessings and reflect on the things that make life worth living every day.

Spring is a great time to do just that.  It is the season of renewal.  Tulips emerge early from the just-thawed soil as a colorful reminder of springs past. As the days grow longer the plants in our family garden grow stronger each day, nourished by the warm sun and more-than-abundant rain.  Just the other day, I was snooping around the neighbors’ gardens to see the fruit- jewel of late spring emerge from its flowers – the cheerful strawberry.  They’re baaaaaccccck…didja miss them?  I sure did.

Imported winter strawberries stink.  I mean those little red nuggets packaged in plastic clamshell baskets are really just sneaky doppelgangers that just look like the real thing.  And they cost a small fortune.  Definitely not worth the time or money during the winter months.  Then spring comes with the promise of longer days, renewed life and yes FRESH STRAWBERRIES.

In the spring, small perennial plants emerge from their underground runners bursting with white flowers that eventually swell and turn red…all at once.  And so the home gardener or even the spring shopper that is eager to pick up seasonal produce is faced with a very serious dilemma.  What do I do with all those strawberries before they go bad?  Never fear, strawberry salsa is here!!!

Strawberry salsa is a refreshing take on the favorite Mexican condiment.  Macerated till glossy and accented with balsamic vinegar and a hint of mint, strawberry salsa is a great way to savor most everyone’s most favorite springtime fruit.

Strawberry Salsa

Pick a day that is warm and sunny.  Wake up and enjoy your coffee outside.  Put on some clothes and steal some fresh berries from the neighbor’s patch.  Or buy them at the store if you’d like to stay friends with the neighbors.  Finely chop the strawberries and macerate in a small amount of sugar.  Add a dash of balsamic and a bit of mint.

Spray some flour tortillas on both sides with non-stick cooking spray and cut into wedges.  Bathe the wedges in a cinnamon/sugar bath and bake in a warm oven until they are crisp.  Scoop.  Eat.  Repeat.

 

A Hill of Beans

I think beans get a bad rap.  Sure they give you gas, but legumes pack a healthy punch in your humdrum everyday diet.  Beans are full of protein and fiber, which help to keep you satiated longer while lowering cholesterol.  They make a good accompaniment to a host of ingredients and flavors and aren’t all that difficult to make.  So it gives you gas.  All the more reason to make them on a cold, blizzardly weekend when you don’t plan on going anywhere.

And so I sit this weekend, watching the news and keeping my East Coast friends in my thoughts. Seeing these mountains of snow on the television doesn’t do much for my initiative to leave the house.  I think I’ll just stay in.  Perfect weekend for making a homey, hearty dish that takes a long time to finish.  And since I’m not going anywhere, I don’t mind farting all evening.

So last night I began my journey making Sunday’s dinner, a hearty French cassoulet.  People get scared by cassoulet.  First and foremost I think the word scares them –  it’s French so it has to be complicated, right?  Wrong…cassoulet is simply a bean and meat stew baked with a crunchy bread crumb topping. 

Simple.  Straightforward. Delicious.

Now to be honest, I’ve never actually made cassoulet before.  But my research shows it’s simply a matter of cooking simple ingredients separately, then combining them for a final romp in the oven under a blanket of buttery bread crumbs.  Sounds like something that’ll take all day, but not overly complex.  Just what the doctor ordered!

Chicken and Sausage Cassoulet

Traditional cassoulet is usually made with combination of pork bits, sausage, and/or duck confit.  Since I want my kids to at least try this dish, I’m using chicken thighs, legs, and smoked sausage.  Whatever you use, choose meats that can take the beating of a good, long braising.

Put on your jammies (although you may already be in them if you haven’t left the house all day).  Submerge a pound of dried white beans in water for an overnight soak.  Adjourn to your bedroom to watch the rest of the Honey Boo Boo marathon on TV. 

In the morning, drain the beans.  Sweat some onions and garlic in a yummy fat (duck or pork or even olive oil).  Add the soaked beans, some water, maybe a ham hock, and some simple seasonings.  Cover and simmer for an hour or so until the beans are tender.  Most of the liquid should have been absorbed.  Let the beans hang out.

Next, get the meat going.  Brown the meats in yummy fat.  Take out the meat, and saute some more onions, garlic, maybe a carrot in the remaining fat.  Deglaze with white wine.  Now put everyone back in the pool.  Add some canned tomatoes, tomato paste, herb bundle, seasoning and chicken stock.  Let it cook down for an hour and cool slightly.  Pull any meat from the bones;  discard the bones and throw the meat back into the stew.  Combine the beans and the meat stew.  Push some sausage pieces deep into the mixture. Cover it with some buttery, garlicky bread crumbs.  Throw it into a low oven for a couple of hours.

Enjoy the deeply flavored stew with a chunk of good bread.  Adjourn to the bedroom and play a rousing game of ‘turtle’ with someone you love.

SAD and Summer Food

Congratulations, friends!  We’ve made it to the most depressing month of the year – February.

It really doesn’t matter what Punxsutawney Phil says today.  It’s cold and dark outside.  And it will be tomorrow.  And the day after that and the day after that.  I know there’s many of you reading thinking how incredibly negative this all sounds.  Maybe you’re thinking I’m being overly dramatic.  But the truth is I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), and I find it very difficult to live through the winter months.  I’m sad and tired in the dark.  I need the sun and (some degree of) warmth to lift my energy and spirits.  When I don’t receive adequate levels of these things, everyone around me suffers.  I become depressed, withdrawn, irritable.  But I didn’t realize how bad my SAD was until this past Christmas Day.

It’s Christmas morn in the Martin household.  The kids are exuberant with glee to see the swath of glistening presents under the tree.  They are awake at 3 in the morning.  Asleep in my room, I can hear them in the back of my woozy brain exclaim with delight as they rummage through the trinkets in their Christmas stockings.  And yet I’m still a little irritable.  They wake us at 6:30 unable to contain their joy any longer.  It’s time to grab a cup of coffee and open gifts.

So it’s my turn.  The children hand me a neatly wrapped box adorned with glittery red-and-green paper.  I open it and am a bit lukewarm to the gift I’ve just received.  It’s a Happy Lite.  For those of you not in the know, a Happy Lite is a full-spectrum light source that is meant to mimic the sun’s rays.  You’re supposed to sit in front of this light for at least an hour a day;  the idea being that exposing one to this pseudo-sun will assuage your SAD symptoms (and it does work, btw…).  But it’s definitely a gift that sends a message:  stop being so bitchy all the time.  Enough said!  I promptly plugged in the Happy Lite and set out in pursuit of happier things.

At this point in the story, I’m sure you’re all wondering, “This is a blog about food, not psychology!”  I encourage you to read on…

One of the best ways I can think of to uplift your soul out of the winter doldrums is to make a delicious array of bright, cheery summer-inspired food.  To me, that means two things:  fresh bruschetta and a glass of sangria.  Bright tomatoes spooned atop crunchy grilled bread is my favorite way to feel the sun’s rays from the inside out.  Wash it all down with a fruity refreshing summer sangria and you’ve got yourself a breezy summer’s day in the middle of February.

But just to be sure, I think I’ll keep the Happy Lite on for now…

Bruschetta and Summertime Sangria

Paint your toenails a pretty shade of pink.  Put on a pair of shorts and some flip-flops.  Play some Jimmy Buffett and start with making a lime-infused simple syrup.  Juice some citrus while the simple syrup cools.  Find a clear pitcher.  Add a bottle or so of Riunite (don’t knock it ’til you try this!!) to the pitcher.  Add the juice, a glug of Gran Marnier, and the simple syrup to the sweetness level you desire.  Add some sliced citrus and refrigerate til its cold.

Take Jimmy Buffett off the music player and put on some Beach Boys.  De-seed and finely dice plum tomatoes and sprinkle with salt and crushed garlic in a bowl.  While the tomatoes are getting juicy, slice a French baguette crosswise into 1 inch slices.  Paint with olive oil seasoned with Italian spices.  Grill the bread until crispy and golden.  For those of you too wimpy to brave the cold in your shorts and flip-flops, you can toast the bread in a hot pan.  Once the tomatoes are glistening, add 3 glugs of olive oil and 1 glug of balsamic.  Add some chopped fresh basil let it mingle.  Take a toast slice, schmear with some good spreadable cheese and top with the tomatoes and some juice.

Turn on your Happy Lite and enjoy!

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Chicken, Amen.

Growing up, Sunday in our house meant religious chicken.

I can’t remember how it started or how it got its name.  But what I can tell you is if it was Sunday, you were pretty much guaranteed to be eating chicken for dinner at our house.  It became a ritual;  half joke and half pseudo-sacrament, my mother would prepare bone-in chicken parts, either roasted or grilled and served with a side of rice.  So it came to be that religious chicken evolved into a weekly staple.  I remember one summer, my grandmother treated my brothers and I to a rare fast-food treat.  She took us to KFC for dinner.  Upon our sudden recognition of the day of the week (yes, it was Sunday), my siblings and I readily fell to our feet and prayed to the feast before us to the chagrin of my grandmother. I swear to you that’s a true story.

Like many memories, it’s the extremes we hold on to.  In this case, my childhood chicken flashbacks aren’t grounded in comforting smells wafting from the kitchen, nor do they recall feelings of nourishment and deep satisfaction.  No, my memories of religious chicken are more reminiscent of sawdust and char, enveloped in a sticky mess of Open Pit barbecue sauce.  If I close my eyes, I can taste it right now…

To be fair, my mother was actually a pretty good cook.  She made a mean spaghetti sauce from scratch and could make a cracker pie that would make your mouth water.  But when it came to poultry, her culinary skills clearly fell short.  I think it may have been an overarching fear of food-borne bacteria that would drive her to cook chicken to death.  Pork too.  I guess from that perspective she succeeded.  I don’t recall a single instance of ever getting food poisoning.  So for that, I give her an A for effort!

What my mother never clued into was that chicken needs to be seasoned from the inside out.  She could have also benefited from the use of a trusty meat thermometer.  Salted chicken always tastes better than plain, so I’m a firm believer in brining.  I also think seasonings always taste best when they are closest to the meat, so I add lots of flavor under the skin.  Finish the chicken with a sprinkling for salt and pepper before cooking, and you’ll have a roasted chicken you’ll pray for every week.

Religious chicken

Prepare a brine Saturday night.  Immerse an unadulterated, minimally processed chicken in the brine pool overnight.  On Sunday morning, dry the chicken thoroughly. Mix soft butter, fresh herbs, salt, pepper, garlic, and lemon zest.  Pretend you’re a massage therapist and give the chicken a good once-over under its skin using the butter mixture.  Rub any remaining butter on the outside of the bird.  Stuff the cavity with leftover herbs, lemon wedges, garlic, onion – whatever you have.  Season the skin with S&P.  Let him relax in the fridge for a few hours.  Roast the bird in the oven or on the rotisserie until thigh meat registers 175.  Let the bird rest for at least 15 minutes to redistribute juices in the meat.  Serve with risotto and grilled asparagus.

Carve and pray.

Bless us o Lord with these thy chicken parts which we are about to receive…