Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Confessions of a Dump Cook

Ok, I confess. I’m a dump cook. I rarely use a recipe unless I am baking. I think it’s genetic—an inborn trait written on my very being at birth. My very first memory bears this out. I am about two years old and it is an early morning in spring. My mama is still in bed. There is a white Formica table pushed up against the wall beneath the dining room window. The bright sunshine backlights the curtains a brilliant yellow. It is dazzling and I crawl up on the table entranced by the beauty of the sunshine. How lovely—there is a tub of strawberry jam left up here from supper last night. It is a very pretty red. I’m hungry. Dipping my fingers into the jam, I bring them to my mouth. It is sweet and yummy. How pretty, I think as I take another scoop and this time smear it across the brilliant yellow curtains. The sun shines through illuminating the jeweled pictures I create. It is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen and I turn to get more jam.

I do not remember my mothers’ reaction upon finding me—just how beautiful the red jam was on the yellow curtains with the sun behind—but it was my first experiment in ‘dumping’. She tells me that when she found me, I had the entire jam tub, upended on top my head like a hat. Many such experiments followed. Playing with food was fun. One memorably spectacular disaster involved a bag of melted chocolate chips, peppermint oil and coconut. I was nine. You cannot imagine my disappointment as I dumped the whole mess down the garbage disposal so my mother would not find I’d wasted food.

Playing with food is still one of my favorite activities—a little of this, and a little of that. Sometimes it works and sometimes I again dump the whole mess in the trash. The following recipe is a ‘dump’ recipe. I don’t have measurements—it’s a little of this and a little of that. The nice thing about ‘dump’ recipes is that they can be the canvas for many dishes. Here I offer an easy Alfredo pasta sauce that can be used as the base for Pasta Primavera, Chicken Alfredo, or Chicken Artichoke Penne. Be as creative as you like. It’s fun.

Easy Alfredo Sauce
Measurements are approximate.

1-2 Tbs Extra Virgin Olive Oil
3-5 cloves garlic—pressed or minced very fine
1 package low fat cream cheese (for richer sauce use full fat cream cheese)
1-1 ½ C half and half (can also use fat free half and half)
¼ tsp freshly grated nutmeg
½ tsp fresh ground pepper

Put olive oil in skillet over medium-low heat. Add garlic and cream cheese. Smash cream cheese and garlic together. Cheese will begin to melt as it gets hot. Add half-and-half and whisk gently until sauce is smooth and thick. Add nutmeg and ground pepper. Sauce can now be added to any pasta dish. (If the sauce is too thick, add more half-and-half.)

For Auntie Eileen:

Chicken Penne Pasta with Sun-dried Tomatoes and Artichoke Hearts

1 T Extra Virgin Olive Oil
2 boneless, skinless, chicken breasts—diced
½ onion—cut in half and sliced thin
1-2 tsp dried thyme (fresh basil would be good too)
Salt and pepper
1-2 jars marinated artichoke hearts-drained
6-8 oz sun-dried tomatoes in olive oil-drained
1 recipe Alfredo sauce (above)
2 C penne pasta
Parmesan and/or Romano cheese

Prepare Alfredo sauce as above and set aside. Boil water for penne and cook until al dente. While pasta is cooking, sauté diced chicken, thyme, and onions in olive oil until chicken is cooked through and onions are tender. Season liberally with salt and pepper. Combine cooked chicken, artichoke hearts, sun-dried tomatoes and pasta. Pour Alfredo sauce over pasta and mix to combine. Garnish with parmesan cheese. Serve immediately.

Photo Credits: Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike License

(From commons,)

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Spring Scramble

Spring has, and always will be, my favorite season. I love the way the trees come to life with new buds and the brilliant purple of crocus growing valiantly through the snow. The countryside slowly turns from white and brown to a verdant landscape radiant with new life. It is a time of renewal, in every sense of the word.

Spring is also the time of one of my favorite vegetables—asparagus. Growing up in Montana, asparagus would grow wild along the road and I remember walking by these green shoots, standing as soldier sentinels, on my way to school. How my mother loved when my brother and I would pick, and bring it home to her. At the time, my tastes had not matured enough to appreciate what a treat it was. Now there is practically no way in which I do not enjoy asparagus. Smothered in garlic butter, stir-fried, steamed with cheese sauce or in a scramble for breakfast, it delights my soul with the promise of spring.

My mother-in-law, Ruth Detwiler, taught me this delicious recipe.

Spring Scramble

Serving for one

2 Eggs
5-6 Spears Asparagus—cut on the bias
2-3 Fresh Mushrooms—sliced
1 T milk
1 tsp. butter
1 Tbs Cheddar Cheese—grated (optional)
Salt and Pepper to taste

In a small bowl wisk together the eggs and milk. Add salt and pepper. Melt the butter in a non-stick skillet over medium-high heat, swirling to coat pan. Place asparagus and mushrooms in skillet and immediately add eggs. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese if desired. Using a spatula gently push, lift, and fold the egg mixture until
Enjoy with a piece of whole-wheat toast for a nutritious breakfast.

Monday, March 9, 2009


This is actually one of Marguerite's recipes, but I enjoy it so much that I thought I'd post about it. I believe the original recipe came with my grandma's (Marguerite's mom) waffle iron years ago. Marguerite doctored it up a bit to make it even tastier. Here's what you need if you wish to make these yummy waffles at your house:

1 1/4 cup flour (we use unbleached, but any white flour other than self-rising should work)
1 tsp. +/- cornmeal (optional--makes the waffles a little crispier)
2 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 tablespoon sugar
1 egg (we use white eggs, but I'm sure brown would also do the trick; we've never tried this with egg substitutes, but I don't see why you couldn't)
1 cup milk (we use whole milk)
1/4 cup oil (I like canola because it doesn't have an overpowering flavor)
1/2 tsp. vanilla (Marguerite likes to go easy on the vanilla because it is kind of pricey, but I think a whole teaspoon adds a little something)
Powdered (confectioner's) sugar (optional)

Combine the dry ingredients in a bowl and set aside; crack the egg into another bowl and beat it with a fork or spoon; add milk and oil to beaten egg; stir; stir in flour mixture; add vanilla last (for stronger vanilla flavor); bake in waffle iron according to iron's directions (ours clicks when the waffle is done, but yours may differ). Sprinkle powdered sugar or top, if desired (I think it tastes just like a funnel cake, only healthier, with the powdered sugar), or add waffle toppings of your choice. Makes approximately four round waffles in a standard waffle iron.

Sunday, March 1, 2009

For the Love of Pad Thai

As you know it all started with my love of Thai food—how to replicate the dishes I so loved. Chief among these was Pad Thai. It was a mystery. When I realized the recipe in my Thai cookbook didn’t come close to approximating the dish we were served at our local Thai restaurant I almost gave up hope. A search of the internet turned up nothing at the time, but I found a noodle recipe that came close, and for about a year, we made do with it. Delicious though it was however, it was not Pad Thai.

One day while visiting a large Asian food store, I happened upon a jar of Pad Thai sauce. Hallelujah! Of course, there were about six different versions to choose from—all expensive—so I chose two and went home to experiment. The results as you might expect, were mediocre at best, but it was better than nothing. Consequently, we would have Pad Thai only as often as I got to the Asian market to stock up, which was infrequently.

This is where I would probably still be if not for my Thai sister-in-law May. Her recipe for Pad Thai was simple and easy to make. It had the added benefit of not having a bunch of fancy ingredients that would be hard to come by and the recipe tasted like what I had come to expect of Pad Thai. I was delighted. While this recipe bears little resemblance to the street food so common in her homeland, I think you will find it a supreme comfort food.

A word about creativity: Noodle dishes in most Asian cultures are incredibly versatile. They take the “kitchen sink” approach, using whatever happens to be fresh and on hand. With that in mind, feel free to experiment with ingredients that go beyond those listed here. Street Pad Thai often includes tofu, soybeans, egg, bean sprouts, chives, red pork, fresh or dried shrimp, salted radish, carrots, scallions, lime, peanuts, pickled turnip, garlic, tamarind, and dried chili. We’ve also used crab with good results. Bottom line, be creative. I also wanted to include a very nice YouTube video of street Pad Thai which you will find here.

Auntie May’s Pad Thai

First, we make the sauce—much better than the expensive jarred version.
I usually make a double batch and then keep it handy in a quart jar ready for use in the pantry. This recipe makes about 1½ C of sauce which is enough for one package of noodles—it generously serves four and does not need refrigeration.

½ C Brown Sugar
½ C White Sugar
½ C Seasoned Gourmet Rice Vinegar
½ C Water
1 tsp Fish Sauce
¼ tsp salt

Place all of the above ingredients in a small sauce pan and cook until it comes to a boil and all the sugar dissolves. Set aside.

1 package of Rice Stick noodles.

Rice noodles usually come in packages of 14-16 ounces and a variety of widths. We like the wider noodle (about 5 mm) but any rice stick noodle will do. Soak the noodles in cold water for 1-3 hours if you can. Soaking in cold water will give you a nice, non-sticky noodle. (You can soak them for about ten minutes in hot water just prior to using but they will be sticky and you will have to watch that they don’t get too soft or they will turn to mush in your wok.)

Other ingredients:

2-4 Tbs Peanut or Canola Oil
4 Eggs
2 Boneless, Skinless Chicken Breasts, diced
1 16 oz. can Chicken Broth
1 bunch Scallions-julienne into 1” pieces
1-2 C Bean Sprouts
Peanuts, roasted, ground
1 Lime, Cut into Wedges
Crushed red pepper flakes or Thai chili powder

Now to the cooking…we make Pad Thai in two batches.

Heat your wok or large non-stick skillet to high. Add 1-2 Tbs of oil and heat until it shimmers. Add two eggs to the oil and scramble quickly, add diced chicken (1 breast) and cook for about 2-3 minutes. (Chicken will not be fully cooked.)

Next, add half of your presoaked rice noodles, ¾ C sauce, and 1 cup Chicken Broth to wok. Stir-fry until your noodles are soft and the liquid is absorbed. (About 6-10 minutes depending upon the intensity of your heat source and thickness of your noodle. If all the liquid is gone before your noodles are completely cooked, add more Chicken Broth or water.)

About 30 seconds before your noodles are done (taste them to see), add the scallions and bean sprouts, stir to mix and wilt the scallions.

Serve immediately.

Garnish with roasted peanuts, lime wedges, and Thai chili powder to taste.

Repeat process with second half of the ingredients.

Also, a note about fish sauce: In Thai cooking, fish sauce is, as you taste your noodles, if you like saltier dishes, add a splash or two of fish sauce as your Pad Thai cooks.

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