A cheap, quick dinner with endless possibilites


Back in design school, we used to say that if you needed design work, you could have it cheap, good, or fast, but you could only pick two options of the three. This is a dinner that defies the unwritten laws of good design: with this meal, you can have them all.

A few posts ago, I mentioned that we were hosting a brunch a couple days before Christmas. I won’t honor the brunch with its own post, simply because, as is usual in those settings where the kitchen is a den of chaos from last-minute preparations, I didn’t take a single photo. It was a great time, though, having a house full of new friends who are easy-going enough to not mind the relative circus, and who all saw fit to spend some precious holiday time with our family. Definitely a heart-warmer, in my book of life.

One of the dishes I served was a frittata. The original plan was to go the tried-and-true asparagus/smoked meat route, but in the end I wanted to experiment, and go a more true-to-season direction (asparagus, while easy to get, isn’t really in season just yet). Since I’m so fond of stealing ideas from my favorite restaurants in Athens, I took a leisurely internet stroll over to the 5&10 website and pillaged their late-fall brunch menu. I walked away with a frittata with roasted mushrooms, cream cheese, and herbes fines.

I had no idea what herbes fines were. A quick search later, I found out that they are the more delicately-flavored herbs (“fine herbs”) used in Mediterranean fare: parsley, tarragon, chives, and chervil. Unlike the herbs found in a bouquet garni, their flavors don’t withstand long cooking. Makes sense for a frittata, since the omelet-type dish is cooked very quickly. The second ingredient unfamiliar to me was the roasted mushroom; I’ve used mushrooms in many ways, but never roasted. Turns out, it’s as easy as it sounds — you coat mushroom caps with some olive oil and salt, and bake them in the oven for about half an hour. The roasting intensifies the flavor, giving every morsel an earthy meatiness that won’t overwhelm the eggs.

Last, there was the cream cheese, which I felt was pretty self-explanatory. Substitutes could be homemade cream cheese, yogurt cheese, or ricotta (it might be too bland, but worth an experiment) — any mild soft cheese would lend a balancing creaminess and flavor without hijacking the dish.

The best things about a frittata: it’s a very budget-friendly dinner (even locally-produced pastured eggs will only put you out $2.50 for enough to amply serve 4 people as a main course) and, like its cousin the omelet, has limitless possibilities for fillings. Just sauté your fillings (or pre-cook them in another manner), then put them in the pan before adding the eggs. Add your cheese at the same time, or mix it, grated, into your beaten eggs before pouring into the pan. The main requirement is a stovetop- and broiler-safe nonstick pan — we have a 12-inch nonstick that I use only in situations as these where it’s completely necessary (otherwise, I avoid Teflon); for the photo above (I know — it’s not a great one — food photography after dark is not my strong point), when I halved the recipe to serve 2, I used a well-seasoned cast-iron pan, and it worked perfectly.

Frittata with Roasted Mushrooms, Cream Cheese, and Herbes Fines
serves 4-6 as main course

  • 8 oz mushrooms (button or cremini), wiped clean and stems trimmed flush with cap
  • 2-3 Tbsp olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 3 Tbsp herbes fines (combo of at least two of parsley, chives, tarragon, or chervil), finely chopped
  • 1 Tbsp butter
  • 8 eggs (local, pastured eggs if you can get them)
  • 2-3 oz cream cheese (block or soft)

About an hour before dinner (or, earlier in the day), preheat the oven to 450º and adjust your baking rack to the middle position. In a medium bowl, drizzle the mushroom caps with olive oil, then add 1/4 tsp salt and pepper to taste. Toss well, making sure the mushrooms get coated with the oil (they will absorb it quickly). On a parchment-lined baking sheet, place the mushrooms stem-side down, spaced across the surface of the baking sheet, and roast for about 15-20 minutes, or until the bottoms are browned. Using tongs, flip the mushrooms and continue to bake another 5-10 minutes, or until the tops are browned. Remove to a bowl, and drizzle with more olive oil if they seem dry. Set aside or refrigerate until ready to use. Before using in the frittata, chop the mushrooms into quarters.

Preaheat your oven broiler, and move the baking rack to the upper third of the oven.

Heat a 12-in nonstick oven-proof skillet over medium heat, and add the butter.  While the butter melts, lightly beat your eggs in a large bowl with a pinch of salt and pepper and the herbes fines. Once the butter is melted, pour the eggs into the pan and stir with a rubber spatula. Add the chopped mushrooms to the eggs, scattering them evenly over the pan. Continue stirring, gently, until the egg starts to set through, about 4-5 minutes. Toward the end of the cooking time, dot pieces of cream cheese over the surface (if using a block, just break off chunks with your finger; if using a softer cheese, use a small spoon and dollop the cheese on top). Once frittata is almost fully set (it will still have some spots of liquid egg on top), transfer to the oven.

Broil for about 3-4 minutes, until the top is puffy and brown. Remove from the oven and immediately slide onto a serving platter. Cut into wedges and serve immediately.


Overnight, over-the-top Sticky Buns


Twas the night before Christmas,
and all through the fold
tensions were climbing
for Carters young and old.

The Wee One was ill,
intense fever-management underway;
phone calls to doctors, lukewarm baths,
and the older two left solo to fight play.

Evening plans discarded,
a hasty dinner we eat.
Hyped-up children thrown in bed,
and Mom and Dad are beat.

So Mom begins to do
what always betters her head
she rolls out a rich dough
for the mornings’ breakfast spread.

Sticky buns. A new experiment,
a probably-once-a-year feat.
The next morning, thankfully, all is better;
The gooey rich buns a welcome morning treat.

I’ve been meaning to try my hand at sticky buns for a long time now. Even before our Christmas Eve went awry, I was planning to make them to eat on Christmas morning (so it wasn’t an entirely chaos-induced, spur-of-the-moment venture begun at 8 pm). Even pre-meditated, it was very therapeutic, working with the dough — for some reason, my most tranquil moments often come while solo in a quiet kitchen, rolling out pie crusts and bread dough (even more so when a glass of wine sits nearby on the counter).

I’m not kidding when I say they might be a once-a-year feat. Not because they are all that difficult, but because they are richer than just about anything we eat for breakfast, ever. I’ve never been one who handles sweets in the morning very well, so even when we do what we call “special breakfast,” we try to keep things on the healthier (but still delicious) side.

These buns aren’t as bad as some, but they are totally loaded with maple syrup, refined sugar, and white flour (though I do sneak some whole-wheat into the recipe). They are not a brioche or croissant-based roll, so they aren’t the flaky kind of sticky bun. They are a soft milk-and-egg bread dough, with a sweet cinnamon filling, and a maple-pecan glaze that bakes into the upper layers and then oozes over the sides after you turn them out. Soft, sweet, buttery, and amply sticky.

I created this recipe to be plenty for about 6 people (if everyone gets two, which — truly — is more than plenty). They bake in a 9×12″ pan, and the best part is that you make them the night before, and let them rise in the refrigerator. When you wake up the next morning, they go straight into your oven and are ready to eat in about 45 minutes. Your house is filled with the scent of sweet cinnamon and baking bread, and you can sit about at leisure with your first cup of coffee while watching the kids open gifts from grandparents. And continue work on that knitting project that’s supposed to be finished in less than a week. Pretty much a perfect morning, in my book.

This recipe would double easily, if serving a crowd. Just divide your doubled dough after the first rise, let it rest, then roll out two different rectangles, and double all the filling/topping ingredients. If you’re feeling adventurous and are not wanting to donate 3/4 cup of precious maple syrup to the bun cause, you could try an equal amount of homemade caramel sauce (omitting the called-for butter in the topping below since it’s already in the caramel sauce). Just promise to let me know how it goes.

Overnight Maple-Pecan Sticky Buns

for the dough:

  • 1/2 cup water + 1/2 cup whole milk, warmed to about 115º
  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 2 1/2 Tbsp honey
  • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat flour
  • 2 1/2 – 3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
  • 2 tsp instant yeast
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt

for the topping:

  • 1/4 cup butter, melted
  • 3/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 3/4 cup pecans

for the filling:

  • 1/2 cup brown sugar (or sucanat/rapadura)
  • 2 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 2 Tbsp butter, melted

About two hours before bedtime, mix together the water/milk, melted butter, honey, wheat flour, 2 cups of all-purpose flour, and yeast (either in a large bowl or in your standing mixer fitted with dough hook). Mix well, until a rough ball of dough forms. Cover bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let rest for 15 minutes.

Add the eggs and salt, and knead the dough, slowly adding the remaining 1/2 – 1 cup all-purpose flour. If you’re using a mixer, the dough should knead on a low-medium setting for about 6 minutes. The dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl, and be smooth but still shiny, tacky to the touch but not super-sticky. If the dough is too dry, drizzle in a little extra water as it kneads. Removed to a lightly-oiled bowl, turn to coat, and let rise in a warmish place (I use my microwave since it’s over my oven and tends to stay warm) until doubled, about 45 min. – 1 hour.

Meanwhile, if you haven’t already, toast your pecans. Place on a foil-lined baking sheet, and toast in a 325º oven (I use my toaster oven) for about 5-10 minutes, until fragrant and lightly deeper in color (watch them carefully so they don’t burn). Remove to cool, then chop coarsely, and set aside.

Remove dough to a lightly-floured work surface, knead briefly, and let rest, covered for 10 minutes. While the dough rests, make your filling and topping mixtures: For the filling, combine the brown sugar and cinnamon in a bowl. For the topping, melt the butter and maple syrup together (microwave is fine, just watch it so it doesn’t boil over and cause a big mess).

Roll your rested dough into a 15×20″ rectangle. Brush entire surface with remaining 2 Tbsp of melted butter, then sprinkle the sugar/cinnamon mixture evenly over the top. Roll the dough, starting with a long end, into a 20″ log (jellyroll-like). Using a serrated knife, carefully cut log into 1 1/2″ pieces (you’ll end up with about 15).

Pour your syrup/butter mixture into the bottom of a 9×13″ glass baking pan, then sprinkle the chopped pecans evenly over the mixture. Place your rolls into the pan (they will fit rather loosely), and loosely cover with oiled plastic wrap. Place in refrigerator to rise overnight (alternatively, let rise in a warm place until doubled, then bake).

The next morning, pour yourself a cup of coffee, remove the rolls from the refrigerator (discard plastic wrap), and preheat your oven to 350º.  Bake for 30-35 minutes, until well-browned on top. Let rest for about 5 minutes in the pan, then turn the rolls out onto a cooling rack set into a rimmed baking sheet (this will catch all the extra goo). Let rest another 5-10 minutes (if you can wait that long) and enjoy.


In defense of Alton’s pinwheels


(I promise, this is the last post featuring my current obsession with things chocolate and peppermint.)

I went to a link last week, for a recipe I’d used before: Alton Brown’s pinwheel cookies. I made them last year, and remembered their being a bit labor-intensive for a cookie; but, in my humble opinion, well-worth the effort. Out of five possible stars of success, this recipe had a success-rate of four. Which is still pretty high, in the online-rating world. Remembering some of the hitches from last year’s cookie-making adventure, I wasn’t surprised to read some of the bad reviews (typos are the responsibility of the disappointed comment-leavers):

Yuck. I had planned to package these up and mail them to grandparents for Christmas, but I tossed them all in the trash instead. What a huge waste of time

I saw these on the TV show & they looked really great! However, I agree with the other reviewers, the flavor is lacking, and they take alot of effort (aren’t easy to make at all). Overall a big disappointment !!!

And my personal favorite:

I never dropped the F-bomb so many times in my life.

But there were plenty of good reviews, too — ones I agree with. The cookies are, unquestionably, not slice-and-bake easy. You basically make a simple sugar cookie dough (I increased the salt in the original recipe to 1/2 tsp), and then divide the dough into two batches which you then flavor: one half with chocolate and one with peppermint. Then you roll out the doughs separately, and stack them on top of each other, and roll them up jelly-roll-like. Chill, then slice the log into cookies. Sounds straight-forward, but in reality the doughs can get finicky.

The primary criticism comes from people who have trouble with the chocolate (the bottom and outer layer of the roll) dough breaking up as you roll it. I had more trouble with this when I made them last week than I did a year ago: and I’m almost certain I used different brands of chocolate. Last year, I used Baker’s, but this year I splurged on Ghirardelli. It could be that the fat contents of the chocolates are different, so that the Baker’s is more malleable once mixed into the dough. I did find that the more I handled the chilled dough, the less the chocolate broke apart. So, kneading the chocolate dough briefly before rolling might help. Also, roll it out on waxed paper, and use that to help form the jelly roll.

The second criticism came from people who said they were bland. This, I think, comes down to preference and expectations. What these cookies are not is peppermint bark. They are not that chocolaty, not that pepperminty, not that sweet. What they are is more like a chocolate-peppermint shortbread. With the subtle crunch of candy in each bite. I find them to be a delightful holiday afternoon cookie, being an almost perfect accompaniment to a cup of black tea with milk.

And they really are beautiful. Even if, like me, you struggle with your roll and some bits of chocolate fall off. You can easily piece them back together on the cookie sheet and they bake up nicely. The last tip, should you choose to tackle these vortexes of holiday flavors, is to most definitely bake them on parchment paper — the peppermint candy can cause them to stick to a naked cookie sheet, leaving you in the same position as the poor exclamatory soul from comment #3 above.

Since I don’t really want to get a letter from Food Network’s attorney for Christmas, I won’t re-write the recipe. But you can easily get it here, without joining anything. Let me know if you end up in your kitchen having murderous thoughts about Mr. Brown (or, like me, love the cookies so much that if someday you went missing, the first place your husband would check was the current location of Mr. Good Eats himself).

In other holiday news, we’re hosting a brunch tomorrow, a small gathering of friends who are still in town. If time and flavors allow, I’ll share details. The menu is off to a good start: I made my first loaf of challah yesterday, and it baked up beautifully. More to come.

Because nothin’ says The Holidays like serial procrastination


I need to see a therapist, if for no other reason (and really, what other reason could there be?) than to find out why I am a classic procrastinator. I know — I’ve heard schpeels on NPR about how it’s all based on how self-centered a person you are. The more you procrastinate, the more you gaze at your navel. It’s all about me, right?


Did I just hear the collective deafening silence of The Internets?

So, yeah, I procrastinate. To make it a double-whammy come December, at the same time — I believe I’ve mentioned before — I’m on the thrifty side. These two personality traits combine a few times a year, and when they do, it’s not unlike baking soda and vinegar. An explosion of anxiety occurs, and I bring down into my miry pit four (or more) innocent victims, making them wonder whatever happened to all the good cheer that’s supposed to be happening right now. It always starts with good intentions, and a crystal-clear moment when I think, “Hey — I can make that!”  And I get excited, and commence with the daydreaming about me and my two older children making holiday memories by working together, peacefully, laughingly, as tiny little hands help Mommy with The Project. So then, my kindergartener will go into school and hand her teachers their gifts, and will say, “Yes, I helped my Mommy make it.” And the teachers will ooh and aah, and lift me onto their shoulders, carry me down the hallway of the school, and before a ceremony of lavish proportions, crown me School Mom of the Year.

Wait — did I just write that?

I mean, yes, of course. We all want people to like the gifts we give. But this whole homemade thing — it’s really about an obsession with not spending money on things I can make (by the way — if I EVER on this website type the phrase, “I’m thinking about recovering a piece of furniture,” then please, for the love of sanity, call the IPD and warn them of a potential incident that could effect the public good. Tell them to put out an APB for a crazed woman running down the streets of Broad Ripple waving a staple gun and flinging upholstery tacks at innocent bystanders). See, when I saw this post from another food blogger, I immediately commented, with glee, “I’m doing this!!” (and yes, I did include multiple exclamation points). And I thought ahead: I thought, if I’m making custom tea blends for my kids’ teachers and some family members, then I should order the ingredients. And I ordered, pondering the prices and volumes for only 5 or 6 days while my online shopping cart stayed full (gotta love cookies).

But there’s always a rub: the containers. The tea containers had to be cute. Not a cute-yet-un-reusable sort of way, but the cute where the person actually uses the container again. I had these simple round silver tins in mind, but when I went to order them from this site, the shipping was going to cost as much as the 15 containers. This is exactly the type of thing that will keep me from ordering, on principle alone. Nevermind that I’ll spend the next week of my life, needing to pop extra melatonin to sleep at night, trying to find a local source for the tins so I CAN SAVE FIFTEEN BUCKS.

Let me ask you: is a week of your life worth a ten and a five?

Well, I’m happy to say that I decided mine is. Problem is, I decided it after the week was gone. So I found myself carting a 1-year old and 3-year old out in sub-freezing weather to hit thrift stores to see what else I could find. Normally, I love going to thrift stores — I am a person who experiences inexplicable joy while digging through junk that someone else deemed it necessary to give away. Again, more fodder for the therapist (I wonder, are the procrastination and junk-store-diving related?). But all of that joy fades fast when you’re trying to keep four hands from picking up every breakable piece of refuse in the store.

It was actually a successful trip. I found six silver tumblers. All of them tarnished — there’s something I love about tarnished silver — and I could immediately see that they would work for the tea, and that they would make lovely cut flower vases on someone’s breakfast table or guest bath vanity. At a dollar each, they fit the bill.

That was Tuesday. Wednesday was a wash — a Christmas party at the preschool seemed to consume the whole day. So today, I was out again, with two children under age 4, trying to get all the last odds and ends to make it work (the gifts go to school tomorrow, and with us to see family on Saturday). I was grumpy, and angry at myself for once again doing all things of this nature at the 11 o’clock hour. I was impatient with my preschooler, and pushed the nap limits of the baby. Today, I would most definitely not be lifted on anyone’s shoulders and be proclaimed School Mom of the Year. Lifted on a gurney and carried off to a place where your tea comes by way of a Lipton bag in an insulated plastic cup? Perhaps.

And this is the real problem: here I am. Blogging at 10pm, and they’re done. In the bag, ready to go to school tomorrow. I finally found the little round tins for the rest of the gifts, and my daughter did joyfully help me pick out ribbons and write all the cards. But this wrinkle on my forehead — a vertical line right between my eyebrows — it got deeper this week. It’s my procrastination flux capacitor. If I were a Botox-type of woman, that’s where they’d be sticking the needle. And it just leaves me wondering: how do I change this? I’m in my late 30’s, and I’m still wondering when will this change.

But then I look at that photo up there, and think, “Hey, I made those.” That’s the thought I’m left with, and it’s the one that will once again start the whole process, and land me here. In this strange and mysterious place of exhaustion and satisfaction and — dare I say it — joy.


Try it, try it, and you may! Try it, and you may, I say!

First, a hearty thank-you to everyone who left a comment on my! first! GIVEAWAY!  I had so much fun reading all of your coffee (or, hot-drink-of-choice) stories. It was a fantastic range of experiences; the accounts spanned the globe, and involved grandparents, first loves, aunts-in-law, and little sisters. So, like the judge of the middle-school talent contest, I would say, “You’re ALL winners,” except that you’re not. In the end, after some comments were removed, either by self-stated lack of desire for the frother, or by being directly related to me (ahem… Dad, you didn’t really want the frother, right?), I was left with numbered entries matched to names that I fed into a field at random.org, and it spit out a number. That number was (according to the website) randomly attached to Sarah, in California, who will soon be enjoying her bargain Capresso coffee topped with a little frothed milk. Congrats, Sarah!

Outside of my Santa-like responsibilities yesterday, I had an experimental day in the kitchen. Since reading skimming much of Nourishing Traditions, I decided we needed to try and incorporate some organ meat into our diet. Mainly, I had in mind, for the Wee One, who is now 14 months and will eat just about anything, especially if it has a little banana or applesauce added. Honestly, I didn’t even seriously consider the rest of the family eating organs until I came across this post from Kimi at The Nourishing Gourmet. It’s a recipe for chicken liver paté, and she made it sound so un-paté-like. Translation: edible. See, I grew up in a world where paté was the stuff of Silver Spoons (who else learned about the world via 80’s network television?), not my home in Clinton, Mississippi. I probably couldn’t have answered correctly the definition of paté had it been on the SATs.

But a few years ago, for our fifth anniversary, Tim and I splurged on an unbelievable dinner in Atlanta, at a little place called Bacchanalia. I can’t begin to describe it, or I’ll get carried away to a fantasy land of emotional  culinary recollection (if you’re just dying to read about it, I can happily fulfill that need for you). But it is true that, start-to-finish, our least favorite dish of the night was the paté. It’s hard for both of us; more for Tim than me, but still difficult. My earliest memories of liver involve fried ones, from Kentucky Fried Chicken. My mother loved them, and would occasionally treat herself to some, and always offered to share. I vaguely remember taking her up on it — once — and never again. I’m not good with gamey. A pun, when I think about it, since it really comes down to a mental game for me. I associate the flavor of the liver with the function it provides in the body: cleaning out toxins.

Last weekend, I purchased my first package of livers from pastured chickens. They are really cheap — go figure — so it seemed like an inexpensive way to experiment. Yesterday afternoon, I delved into paté-making. It involves sautéeing onions, garlic and spices with the livers, then adding some wine, anchovies, and other spices before puréeing in a food processor. The sauté step was much better than I expected (though the raw livers are just weird to handle and turn a scary red color just before browning while being cooked). The smell was pretty much like cooking chicken. But then I transferred everything to the processor, and gave it a whirl. When I opened the lid, my processor was filled with what can best be described as canned cat food. I half-expected my old cat Millie (who now lives with my generous sister since we have a little one with severe cat allergy) to show up and start licking the bowl. I girded my loins and proceeded. Lining three ramekins with plastic wrap, I began to fold the creamed meat into the saucers. At this point, with any other dish, EVER, I would taste it (the meat, mind you, is fully cooked — it just needs to refrigerate to set) — but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. I just stuck everything in the refrigerator, quickly shut the door, and hoped that sometime before I pull it all out I’ll have decided that it’s different. That it’s for me to spread on a cracker, not to feed to my phantom feline.

Tim got home from work, and saw the fallout from my afternoon excursion. Have I mentioned before, that he really is a very good sport about all of this? So he and I have a discussion, about why we don’t like liver. About the whole lint-screen-for-the-human-body thing. Tim considered the process of making paté — didn’t it just involved mixing the meat with enough other flavors that you couldn’t taste the meat? — and wondered about why in the world we eat something that you don’t want to taste. Darned good question. Needing a pep talk, I was reading this morning again about why livers are even good for you. Oh, right. They contain large concentrations of the vitamins and minerals that help our livers remove toxins. So, there is, in fact, a purpose.

So here I am, on a Friday morning, blogging about a food I don’t want to eat rather than actually trying it. I think I’ll go by The Goose this afternoon and pick up some of those incredible rosemary artisanal crackers. Maybe those will do the trick; spread the thinnest possible layer on the heavily-scented crackers, hold my nose, and hope for the best?

Better yet, consider this a taste of my own medicine. We are not softies at the table when it comes to our kids’ dinner; while I don’t expect them to eat spicy (or livery) foods, they must at least try the sweet butternut squash. When they pitch a small (or large) fit, we usually quote that line from the end of Dr. Seuss’s Green Eggs and Ham. And when they do finally try, there has been about a 50% success rate of them actually liking it, and eating the rest. So I hereby pledge: this evening, with my family chanting Dr. Seussisms in support, I will try it, and I may. Try it and I may, I say.

But only if I can get those rosemary crackers.

Rich hot chocolate (dairy-free, soy-free)


* There’s still time to get your comment in for the Aerolatte milk frother giveaway. I’ll be closing comments at midnight tonight.

We woke up Monday morning to our first snow in Indiana. It would have been a perfect moment for all my southern friends and family to say, “See! We told you… you’re gonna FREEZE up there!” except for the fact that my home state of Mississippi beat us to the snow punch, having a similar light dusting three days before us.

School wasn’t canceled, but I had one home recovering from strep throat and another home with suspiciously red eyes (it turned out to be nothing more than a bad cold). So it was like a real snow day — the one where school is canceled — and since everyone was feeling ok, we got bundled up and ventured outside.

It was wet, yucky snow. But the kids managed to scrape up enough to make those icy, painful snowballs, and hurl them at each other. Fun times, until the 3-year old gets one in the face. Weeping, gnashing of teeth, and mommy decides it’s time to come in for hot cocoa, since that’s what you do on snow days, and since it’s a good way to stop the madness.

It’s been challenging, this past year, to find alternative recipes for my little allergic guy. Something happened just before he turned three, and he all-of-a-sudden was very aware of all he had been missing. Sometimes, there’s nothing that can be done, except replace one treat with another (he can never have a piece of store-bought birthday cake; so I will do my best to bring a replacement to the party). But hot cocoa? On a snow day? There had to be a solution.

And, of course, there was — one good enough that my son and his big sister were pleased (she often doesn’t want his dairy-free treats, opting instead for the cow’s milk version — lucky me, making two of everything). I recently removed most of the soy from our diet, so the base for this hot cocoa is coconut milk tonic (just a can of coconut milk with water, sweetener, and vanilla added — recipe is below), which I use as a dairy replacement in many baked goods and in my son’s morning granola. The tonic is a great substitute for store-bought soy or rice milks, and is cheaper, with many health benefits. I think it makes a smoother, richer cocoa than ones made with soymilk, and the coconut complements the chocolate in a way that soymilk does not (no chalky soy aftertaste). It does retain some coconut flavor, which can be detected mildly in most recipes; but it’s not like gulping down a bottle of pina-colada mix.

So this recipe will first make a quart-jar of coconut milk tonic. You’ll use about half of it for the cocoa, and can reserve the rest for a second small batch, or for baking/drinking (I drink about 4-6 oz of it every day).

Hot Cocoa (dairy-free, soy-free)
(makes 4 6-oz cups, plus a leftover half-quart of coconut milk tonic)

For the coconut milk tonic (adapted from a recipe by Sally Fallon):

  • 1 can full-fat coconut milk (I like 365 brand and Thai Kitchen)
  • 2 1/2 cups water
  • 2 Tbsp maple syrup
  • 1 tsp vanilla

Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan, and stir thoroughly (you can warm the mixture if your coconut milk has a lot of solids that won’t disperse — but heating it is not necessary). Pour all but 1 cup of the tonic into a quart-sized glass jar. You will make your cocoa directly in the pan, starting with the cup of tonic.

For the cocoa:

  • 3 Tbsp cocoa powder (I prefer the flavor of dutched cocoa for this, i.e., Hershey’s or Droste)
  • 3 Tbsp sugar
  • heavy pinch salt
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 2 more cups coconut tonic

To the 1 cup coconut milk in your saucepan, add the cocoa powder, sugar, and salt. Stir over medium heat until almost simmering, until the cocoa and sugar are dissolved. Stir in the remaining 2 cups coconut tonic. Heat until desired temperature, then remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Ladle into mugs and enjoy immediately.

Preserving lemons


A few weeks ago, I saw a recipe for Israeli couscous with butternut squash and preserved lemon on David Lebovitz’s blog, and immediately wanted it for dinner. A quick scan showed that I had everything to make it, excepting the preserved lemons. The recipe assured me that I need not skip that ingredient (as if said item being in the name of the dish wasn’t hint enough). The obscure citrus addition rang a memory bell, though, and sometime later that day I vaguely recalled having preserved lemon in one of our dishes during our evening with The Four Coursemen (featured in last month’s Food and Wineour Athens boys are just growing like weeds!).

Anyway, I decided preserved lemon was something I needed in my house. As usual, a google search answered all of my nagging questions, and it’s as easy as pie. Well, it seems to be right now, but I’ll know for sure in a few weeks when the lemons have actually finished all that preserving (should I talk to them, whisper words of encouragement? can I trust the chemical exchange that occurs as the acid and salt cohabitate?).

As they say, only time will tell. In the mean, should you feel the desire to also make David’s couscous before we ring in 2010, you need to get a couple pounds of organic lemons (I try not to push organic ingredients if unnecessary; but when using the peel of the lemon, be it by zesting or preserving, it is best to avoid pesticides since they are so concentrated in the skins — and hey, they’re usually on sale around now) and boil a quart-sized canning jar. Grab a quarter cup or so of  salt, and then gather the patience to wait a couple weeks (when you find that stash of patience, send me an email with its general location).

Preserved Lemons

  • 1 quart-sized glass jar with lid, boiled to sterilize
  • about 2 pounds (6-8) lemons (meyer lemons are preferred, but they were pricey, so I opted for regular organic ones, looking for smaller, thin-skinned fruits), plus more lemon juice if necessary
  • sea salt or kosher salt — 1/4 cup or more

Wash lemons. Using a paring knife, cut the knob off the tip of the lemon, leaving the stem end. Cut lemons almost into length-wise quarters, leaving the stem end intact (you don’t want the lemons to separate into individual sections).

Sprinkle 2 Tbsp salt into the bottom of the jar. Pack the cut sections of each lemon with salt — up to a tablespoon of salt per lemon — and push the sections back together to make the lemon whole again. Place the lemons in the jar, sprinkling a thin layer of salt between additions. Push the lemons down to exude some of the juices and to squeeze them in the jar. Sprinkle another layer of salt on top, and close the jar tightly.

Let sit at room temperature for a few days, opening the jar each day and further pushing the lemons to produce more juice. If after 2-3 days the lemons aren’t completely submerged in juice, add freshly-squeezed lemon juice to the jar until the level is high enough.

Let sit for a few weeks, turning the jars every so often to make sure the salt is dissolved. The lemons will soften when preserved. These will be fine at room temperature (though they are often refrigerated), and last up to six months. To use them in recipes, dice the skin and pulp together, or alternatively scrape the pulp (discard) and use only the diced rind.

A completely unsolicited product endorsement (and my first GIVEAWAY!)


A few years ago, I had a friend who loved Starbucks Mochas so very much that, while pregnant with twins, she drank so many of them that it was deemed a financially sound decision to invest in a $700 espresso machine. That, if she paid SEVEN HUNDRED DOLLARS for an espresso machine, it would pay for itself in the money she no longer gave to her local Starbucks. That, my friends, is a lot of mochas.

I did respect her research, and desire to go all-out and get a really good machine. And, yes, I’m not so naive as to think there aren’t people for whom that’s a mere drop in the bucket for what they might dish out for good in-house macchiatos. I’m just not one of those people. In my head, $2500 should get you something you can drive to Starbucks.

Around the same time my friend made her investment, I paid $10 for a once-used-wedding-gift Krups espresso machine from my friend Liz at her garage sale. It actually made a really nice cappuccino, in my unprofessional opinion, and we used it occasionally for about a year. Then one fateful night this microscopic little part from the end of the milk frothing wand fell down the sink drain. And of course, the engineers made it so this atom-sized metal thing was absolutely necessary for frothing the milk. And, of course again, the replacement part would cost me $10, plus shipping. Being the cheap frugal person that I am, I couldn’t bring myself to buy the replacement part, since it would cost more than the machine. So I did what any level-headed person would do: with a note attached, admitting the machine’s cappuccino-making defect, I sold it at my garage sale for $5.

Last winter, another friend in Athens came to my house one morning equipped with chai tea, whole milk, and a hand-held battery-powered milk frother. She made delicious cups of milky chai for us, and the touch of frothed milk made it seem extra indulgent. She went on, and on, about how much she loved her milk frother. She even had two kinds, both gifts, and shared with me her thoughts on the best one. It was this particular one that I happened to see online the last time I ordered some vitamins and toiletries from my favorite online store for these things. A little early Christmas present to myself, I thought, as I swiftly added one to my shopping cart before I had too much time to think about it.

It came in the mail about a month ago, and I stuck it in my pantry — no time to experiment. But the past few days, with my current longings for rich hot drinks and those delightful yen/yang flavors of peppermint and chocolate, the frother came to mind. Especially after reading this account from Carrie at Deliciously Organic — a homemade, better-for-you Peppermint Mocha. Deep, gutteral utterings were forthcoming, and my mouth was watering. Must. Make. Mocha.

I did it just like she says — even using the Teeccino instead of coffee, since I need to stay away from caffeine in the afternoons. The only thing I added was FROTHED! MILK!  And — the best part — the frother not only does that awesome cappuccino thing to your milk, but it also WHIPS your CREAM. And I only had to dirty a large pyrex measuring cup and my little handheld Aerolatte.

Seriously, this thing could be my Prozac, and get me through the cold winter afternoons straight ’til April.

I love it so much, I’m giving one away. One that I’m purchasing with my very own moneys. And shipping straight from the cheapest best online source to the winner’s front door (or alternate address if you’re afraid for me to know where you really live).

So, like these things usually work, all you have to do is leave a comment. I want to hear your favorite coffee-drink memory — you know, the one where coffee came closest to saving your life. No, really — you can just leave any comment. But just one. I’ll have one of my special helpers pick a name, at random, from the five or ten of you that respond between now and December 9th (Wednesday), and you, too, could be all frothy for the holidays. In a G-rated way.

Caldo verde


Soup is the meal by which a marriage is made.

No, this is not an ancient proverb; it’s the actual one-sentence account of how my marriage came to be. You know — a big pot on the stove, a simmering of more than just stock and beans, the fragrance of garlic and love in the air. If there isn’t a Harlequin romance with this beginning, then someone should write one.

How many stories of mine begin with a variation on the words, “Flashback: Knoxville, Tennessee, late 90’s?” This tale is no different; I was living in a fantastic apartment on 17th Street with another grad student. We had started an unofficial tradition of having soup on Sunday nights in the winter; someone in our or a neighboring apartment would make a large pot, and everyone would partake. Tim started showing up at the door, alongside a guy I was sort of dating. I assumed he was there to get to know my lovely roommate; turns out (I found out later) he was just there for the soup.

When things didn’t really go anywhere with the guy I was sort of dating, I wondered a bit when Tim showed up the next Sunday, all by his lonesome. Still thinking he was there for the roommate, I let my curiosity wane. (It never really struck me as odd that after we all ate soup, Tim and I would usually be the ones sitting and talking for the next hour or two.) When spring came, and he’d never gotten around to asking my roommate out, and the warm weather brought with it an end to simmering stews, he was still there. Sometime in April, I put two and two together, and after an initial rejection of his advances due to a minor age discrepancy (let’s just say he was an undergrad when I was a grad) I finally (and yes, still thankfully) gave in.

And you know? I’m still making soup for that man. God willing, I’ll be doing it until we are old, gray, and no longer able to chew much other than soup. These one-pot meals comprise our dinners about twice weekly in the winter months. There are the almost-weekly-standby’s, like The Best Tomato Soup (as easy as it gets). Then there are those I make only once or twice the entire season, like Mulligatawny (never eat it without thinking of the Soup Nazi). I enjoy using my own chicken stock, almost exclusively, because it is so economical, so much tastier, and so much better for you. But there are those times when the stock stock (sorry about that one) has run dry, and when that happens I rely on recipes where only water is needed.

Like caldo verde — a Portuguese greens soup. This is a hearty, comforting, flavorful soup if there ever was one, and is so without the use of stock. If you tend, like me, to have bunches of kale on hand throughout the winter, you’re most of the way there. It calls for half a pound of chorizo, but you can use linquica or andouille — any of the hard, red-seasoned, spicy sausages sold pre-wrapped in the meat section. When it’s on sale, I buy a few packs, and split them into half-pound (2-link) portions before freezing them — this way I always have some on hand. This soup is perfect if you are starting to feel congested; the spicy sausage will clear your passages while you eat (a bit embarrassing if you have company). It holds up well as leftovers, and even tastes delicious after being frozen — the potatoes will break down more, making a thicker soup the second go-around.

I can’t say enough good about it. While not a weekly menu item for us, suffice it to say it gets us through winter. A thick, buttered slice of bread on the side is the perfect accompaniment.

My recipe is adapted from one in The Joy of Cooking — the original suggests using partial chicken stock, but I have made it many times with just water and it still tastes wonderful (though, by all means, use it if you have it). I can’t remember what soups I made for Tim, ten years ago, that helped win his heart without my even trying. But if I were writing an instruction book on man-snagging-via-soup-making (and who’s to say I’m not?), this one would be in it. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, but also his cleared sinuses.

Caldo Verde (Portuguese Greens Soup)
adapted from The Joy of Cooking

  • 1 onion, chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 Tbsp plus 2 tsp olive oil, divided
  • 8 cups water
  • 4 medium (or 2 large) potatoes (any kind), peeled and thinly sliced
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 1/2 tsp pepper (more or less to taste)
  • 6-8 oz chorizo sausage (substitutes: linquica or andouille), thinly sliced
  • 4 cups well-washed and thinly-sliced kale (from a half-pound bunch)
  • 2 Tbsp fresh lemon juice

Heat 2 Tbsp oil in a soup pot or dutch oven, over med-low heat. Add onion and garlic, and cook, stirring, until translucent but not brown (about 5 minutes). Stir in water, potatoes, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, and simmer uncovered until the potatoes are soft, about 20 minutes. Use a potato masher to mash the potatoes in the liquid, thickening the texture of the soup.

Heat remaining 2 tsp oil in a skillet over medium heat, and add the sausage. Sauté, stirring, until brown. Add the sausage to the soup pot, then ladle a little of the soup into the now-empty hot skillet and scrape up any browned bits. Pour this mixture back into the soup pot. Simmer another five minutes, then stir in the kale. Cook another five minutes, until the kale is bright green, then stir in the lemon juice. Taste for seasoning, drizzle with olive oil, and serve.