Sometimes what your true love needs is a little nip. A nip to their tastebuds that is, and candied ginger is a great vehicle for nipping. With Valentine’s Day around the corner I decided to play with some non-chocolate* possibilities for my true love. This recipe is a rift on a scone I’d had at the farmer’s market last summer. Filled with cornmeal and chunks of candied ginger it was crumbly-delicious with just the right amount of ginger zing. Nibbling as I strolled through the outdoor market turned out to be the perfect way to eat this scone since each bite ended with a small shower of crumbs.
A few days ago it was my birthday and I went around humming, “It’s my birthday and I’ll cook if I want to” to Leslie Gore’s tune It’s My Party. Seriously, my family had been repeatedly asking me for several days what I wanted to eat for dinner on my birthday. I realized it wasn’t important what we ate, or frankly who cooked it, just that we all ate together. Okay, there was one small exception – somebody besides me had to make the cake. After all a gal can have somebody else bake the cake because hey – it’s her birthday (and you’re welcome because now you have both Leslie Gore and the Beatles singing in your head).
I admit I’ve been in need of something safe, sure, and warm of late. In addition to the mini polar vortex we’ve been experiencing around Western Massachusetts, these past weeks have seen some epic fails in my kitchen. Just before New Year’s Day I’d hoped to post a hot chocolate recipe with homemade marshmallows. The only problem was that no only did the hot chocolate recipe end up with a funky aftertaste of chalk (definitely not what I was going for) but I somehow botched up not one, but two batches of marshmallows. Really two!! How can you wreck marshmallows? Apparently there are so many ways.
To celebrate edging into my mid 50s, and to take my mind off my culinary mess-ups, I decided to go back in time and make one of my favorite dishes – Swedish Meatballs. I love Swedish meatballs. I loved them when my Mom used to make them for us in her electric frying pan with gobs of butter and sour cream, they’re my guilty pleasure whenever I swing into an Ikea store, and clearly from this old photo they’re something I used to try my hand at when I first started cooking dinner for my family back in the early 70s.
The kids took their turn in the kitchen first and made me a gluten-free, vegan chocolate raspberry birthday cake (not that I am GF or V, but they did it because well, they could and turned out it was awesome!!). Then I got my turn in front of the stove and tweaked the classic Ikea Swedish meatball dinner in celebration of birthday #54.
Not having easy access to lingonberries I grabbed a bag of Massachusetts cranberries and made this sauce, leaving out the cinnamon and dropping the sugar to 1/3 cup. I subbed sweet potatoes for regular potatoes and boiled and mashed as per usual.
My last adjustment was to the meatballs themselves. I morphed a Joy of Cooking recipe with one that my Mom used to use from Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cook Book. The biggest changes were that while I, the birthday girl, am not dairy free many of my family members avoid cow dairy. So these Swedish meatballs are dairy free. There was some discussion at dinner around the fact that you probably couldn’t label cow meat dairy free since cows are mammals, which on a metaphorical sense I understand, but from a food sensitivity view-point I don’t know that I fully agree with. Regardless, these Swedish meatballs were the perfect Proustian blend of one of my Mom’s early forays into foreign foods, their Ikea incarnation, and the way my family eats today.
1 small onion minced
1 Tablespoon oil
2 pounds ground beef
2/3 cup bread crumbs (I used Panko)
3/4 cup water
1/2-1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1/4 teaspoon white pepper
5 Tablespoons minced parsley, divided
Oil for frying
Preheat the oven to 225ºF. Sauté the onion in the Tablespoon of oil a few minutes until it starts to become translucent. Scrape it all into a large bowl, then add the water, bead crumbs, eggs and spices, mixing all together. Next add the beef and 3 Tablespoons of the parsley and beat by hand for 3-4 minutes. The water, in combination with the thorough mixing, is what helps make these meatballs less dense than most meatballs.
Heat a 1/4 – 1/2 inch of oil in a heavy fry pan to medium high. Roll the meatball mixture into small balls, about the size of walnuts and then cook in the oil until they are well browned on all sides. Depending on the size of your pan and the number of meatballs you have sizzling at any one time this can take from 6-9 minutes. As the meatballs are browned transfer them onto a jelly roll pan in your oven. They need to cook a little more, but you don’t want to dry them out. Cooks tip: any meatballs that fall apart in the fry pan are for the cook to taste test.
Once the meatballs are all browned and in the oven make the gravy. I made mine from the pan drippings, but I found there were too many burned bits so in future I would just make the gravy separately. Also this is where I went the dairy free route. If you or your family don’t need to be dairy free use all butter for the oil and margarine and regular sour cream. Also I always have homemade chicken stock on hand so I used that, but if you’d like you can use canned low sodium beef broth.
Swedish Meatball Gravy
4 Tablespoons oil
4 Tablespoons margarine
1/2 cup flour
3 1/2 – 4 cups rich homemade chicken stock
6-8 Tablespoons sour cream substitute (I used Toffutti®)
1-2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
Salt & white pepper to taste
This gravy is a basic roux sauce. In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt the oil and margarine. Add in the flour and cook a few minutes stirring constantly with a whisk. Turn the heat to medium low and gradually stir in the stock and worcestershire sauce (you’re still whisking like a bandit). Vary the amount of stock to change the thickness of your gravy. You may want to turn the heat up a bit to get the mixture to boil since it is only when the mixture has reached the point where it bubbles along the edges of the saucepan that you know how thick your gravy will be when you’re done. I just don’t keep it at the higher heat since your chances of burning it are greater. Whisk in the sour cream substitute and then taste for salt and pepper.
Once the gravy is made I pop the meatballs in for a few minutes so they’re thoroughly coated with the creamy sauce. Serve on a platter with the remaining parsley sprinkled on top.
Then after dinner, if you are the birthday gal, you can enjoy your cake and the re-lighting candles your teenagers placed on top. Note they were kind enough not to put 54 candles on the cake and they ultimately relented and gave me a cup of water so I could put out the candles which relit themselves several times. All in all a very warm and delicious celebration.
I know that right now most people are ramping up for the big turkey and pie day next week a.k.a. Thanksgiving. We’re going to see my folks and sister in Hudson, New York and I’ve already made and frozen the stuffing (I used this recipe minus the nuts and sausage), gravy and butternut squash. Next week I’ll make a few pumpkin pies and some rustic apple tarts. Maybe the kids will help with some applesauce when they come home from college. All in all I feel like Thanksgiving is pretty much under control.
While turkey day is more or less organized what seems to sneak up on me every year is the season of Advent. This year the first Sunday of Advent is November 30th. Fortunately for me there are four weeks to get ready for the mystery of Christmas. I need all of that time to switch gears and remember there is so much more I am getting ready for beyond the shopping, cookie baking, and jolly guy in the red suit. Since our kids are returning to college the first day of Advent I thought I’d pull out their Advent calendars now. Isabelle and Russell have one (as do my nephews, niece and goddaughter), and we have a few other ways of marking Advent – all homemade. Continue reading
It has been a golden weekend here in Western Massachusetts. Not so much the weather, rather it has been two days of pure gold with what’s been going on. Continue reading
I was toodling around the internet last week and came across this must have list of kitchen tools which included (I kid you not) an avocado dicer, banana slicer (while I wouldn’t advocate buying one it is worth spending a few minutes reading the awesome customer reviews) and strawberry huller. Who invented these things, and more to the point who buys them?
In general I am not a fan of gadgets or products that promise to do a dozen different tasks, but when I looked at the gadgets I listed above I thought to myself,
“Avocado dicer or paring knife?”
“Banana slicer or paring knife?”
“Strawberry huller or paring knife?”
I think a sharp little paring knife would do it all of those tasks and more.
So before you
get suckered into buying put these spiffy, fun-looking gadgets on your Christmas wish-list get a paring knife (or two) instead. Here’s what to look for – something with a 4″ blade that is wicked sharp. That’s it. It will take care of avocados, bananas, strawberries, apples, and so much more. You and your gadget drawer will thank me.
P.S. I admit I got a chuckle out of these Farfalloni pasta potholders, but not enough to pull out my wallet.
I remember when my kids were little hearing again and again the advice that they needed to have a routine. Routines were the mantra of experts, parenting magazines, and well-meaning friends. Of course if you skipped a nap or missed a meal there would inevitably be a parental price to pay (often in the form of a spectacular meltdown), but looking back what I recall from the months of baby and toddlerhood is not how we found and stuck to a predictable schedule, but rather how incredibly flexible my kids were. We had all sorts of adventures when they were little which ceased not because I suddenly bought into the idea that a regular regime was the best way for them, but rather because there were such rigid expectations at school. I’m not dismissing the benefits of routines, but in my experience they aren’t everything. Kids are, in my experience, pretty darn resilient – basically the humanoid equivalents of silly putty. The irony of this dichotomy between communal wisdom pointing towards regulated patterns and my personal experiences raising two kids is I now find myself gravitating towards the rhythm of a grown-up routine. Though perhaps what I seek is more rut than routine.
As Indian summer has slipped into fall Shawn and I started to find our new regime as empty nesters. Nothing radical, just a gentle morphing from two plus decades of parenting into a new pace of just us and the dog. It’s not that we stopped being parents because to be honest you never stop being a parent, but we were no longer expected to be part of the day to dayness of our children’s lives. We had to trust in the job we did of raising them to be independent, kind, curious, resilient young adults. There are no do-overs when it comes to raising kids. Once they are off to college, heck once they are in high school, you are essentially done with the teaching portion of parenting. For better or worse. As we gradually adapted to this new reality of empty nesthood and started to not only find different patterns, but to enjoy life sans teenagers, it all evaporated with fall break.
Perhaps evaporate is too strong a word, since it wasn’t as if we were back to doing the dreaded bus run. For the span of a week and a weekend we found ourselves living with people who wanted to borrow the car, needed to be driven to doctor’s appointments and who were capable of consuming 3,000 calories a day. Trust me when I say that no empty nester I have ever known needs or is able to consume 3,000 calories per day. It was simultaneously glorious and overwhelming. There was lots of cooking, which meant there were also loads of dishes. I got hugs every time someone walked past me, which was wonderful. We heard details about classes, roommates, and professors which never made it into letters, texts or Skype calls. Comfort food was made and inhaled including Chicken Pot Pie Goo (basically chicken pot pie without the topping), Matzoh Ball Soup, Arlene Sullivan’s Molasses Snaps, Crêpes, and Carrot Soup. As much as I am figuring out how to enjoy this new phase of my life it was fantabulous to have both kids home for the break.
Then of course the vacation culminated, as they always do, with everyone packing up and returning to their real lives. First there was the 5-mile-per-hour snail ride past an accident clean up on the Massachusetts Turnpike as Russell and I headed back to Simon’s Rock. We debated the merits of getting out and walking versus staying in the car and poking along (we opted for the second option since there was so much stuff to carry) as we crept along. This two hour slow down was even more spectacular when we later learned it was caused by a three truck pile up which had occurred two days prior! Once Russell and I were past the clean up, off the thruway, and had fortified ourselves with some hot cider donuts at Taft Farms we unloaded his things and then I zipped over to the Amtrak station for one last hug from Isabelle. She and Shawn took the now very familiar, and thankfully this time quick, trip to the station in Springfield so she could pop back down to UNH. Then we parents got back in our vehicles to head back north to our very quiet house and our newish routine.
In our little corner of western Massachusetts fall is at the stage where it transitions from colorful, crisp and autumn-y to oceans of crinkly leaves underfoot, Canadian geese honking their way south, and snappy mornings which border on frost most days. I was craving something hearty and filling so I made a pot of Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup. As I puttered around the stove I realized that this soup is as flexible as my kids were when they were little. It is open to endless variations and can be adjusted and tweaked to please most (though unfortunately not all) palettes. For my vegetarian friends I would leave out the lamb chops and chicken stock and boost the vegetables and mushrooms. For my brother who abhors mushrooms I would delete the dried mushrooms, or because I am that kind of big sister I might leave them in, but chop them up so finely that there were no discernible mushroom bits for him to find and complain about. I love thick soups so there is a generous amount of barley in this recipe, but for people who want a bowl of something that is more of a soup than stew I could cut back on the barley. Do those people really exist? Nah, probably not. I guess the barley stays as is.
I used a combination of mushrooms which had been given to us as gifts. There were some wild Alaskan mushrooms our friend Eric had picked and dehydrated as well as handful of the Porcini my friend Rick brought back from Italy. Both had that delicious concentrated smell of earth and fall that I associate with dried mushrooms. This soup is one that gets better once it’s had a chance to meld flavors, but honestly it is great the first night too. Every time I make it I wonder why I don’t do so more often. Obviously it should be part of the new routine.
Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup
2-4 Tablespoons olive oil
1/2 – 3/4 pounds lamb shoulder
1 large onion, chopped (or you can use leeks)
3 carrots, peeled and chopped
3 ribs celery, chopped
1/2 – 3/4 cup dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiling water
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup barley
2 teaspoons thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Start by pouring the boiling H2O over the mushrooms and allowing them to rehydrated in a small bowl. While they are plumping up and making mushroom broth, sauté the lamb chops and olive oil in a large heavy soup pot until they are browned on both sides. Add the carrots, onions, and celery and sauté a few more minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, sprinkle on the thyme, cover and simmer for half an hour. When the mushrooms are ready pull them out of their soaking water (which you will save) and chop. Carefully pour all but the last few teaspoons of mushroom soaking water into the soup pot (the last little bit will have a smidgen of dirt that clung to the mushrooms and trust me when I say you don’t want dirt in this soup) then add the chopped mushrooms. Throw in the barley, cover and simmer another thirty minutes. Give the soup a stir every so often, but if you don’t no worries – it will take care of itself. Add salt and pepper to taste before ladling out a few bowlfulls.
To end I offer you my last fall flower – a nasturtium snuggled against the porch wall and a haiku to fall.
The trees have disrobed
Orange, yellow and brown leaves
Cover the dog shit.