A Perfect Summer Sunday in New Jersey

Summer is a great time in New Jersey and one of the things I look forward to is Sunday brunch with friends.  Life and the weather have gotten in the way this year.  The weather this weekend, however, was perfect – not too much humidity, brilliant blue sky, a cool breeze to balance the blazing sun.   So, yesterday was the first time I was able to have Jackie (friend) and Mia (golden retriever) over for brunch.  So much fun!

We cooked, relaxed on the deck, ate and laughed while making sure Mia didn’t jump in the pool.  I decided to make eggs baked in crepe cups and a pot of green tea.  Jackie surprised me with a wonderful cinnamon Amish loaf (yummy!) from What’s For Dessert? in Wall, NJ, and fresh pineapple (also yummy!).  Everyone needs a friend like Jackie – kind, happy, encouraging, and willing try my kitchen experiments!

The crepes were made, and the ingredients for the eggs prepped, before they arrived.  Munchkin (my shih tzu) was close at hand to quickly “clean” the floor of anything that might fall while I was cooking (she was sorely disappointed).  Next I lined six large silicone muffin forms with one crepe each, not sure if the eggs would fit in four or six cups; four was all I needed. ( The eggs are a post in and of themselves so I’ll write about those tomorrow.)  Jackie looked wistfully at the two empty crepe cups, sighing “how sad, they’re empty”.  I looked up, saw the pineapple and we tried something new – pineapple cups.  Everything was delicious although the pineapple cups need some tweaking – I’ll write about those in detail, good or bad, with my second attempt.  Today’s topic, however, is crepes.

Crepes

I’ve loved crepes as long as I can remember; plain or stuffed, sweet or savory (savory is my favorite).  I can’t remember whether the love affair started at a french restaurant in NYC when I was kid or if it started one summer on a Greek Island a lifetime ago (crepes are very popular in Greece).  It ends up my husband also loves crepes, or what he used to call “my grandmother’s french pancakes”.  I had no idea what he was talking about until one day I made crepes and he exclaimed, “Nana’s french pancakes!”.  I had one of those “duh!” moments; why hadn’t I made the connection earlier?  Regardless, I would tweak the recipe, try different pans, until I came up with something he liked.  Hubby’s preference?  Large thickish crepes, rolled and sprinkled with granulated sugar.  My preference?  Small, thin, stuffed with blue cheese (or any cheese for that matter).  After years of using a frying pan I finally gave in and bought a large, cast iron crepe pan.  It’s actually also great for frying an egg or making a grilled cheese sandwich.  My only complaints about the pan are that it isn’t the size crepe I prefer and it’s too heavy to flip the crepes.  Last year I gave in and bought myself a smaller, classic, steel crepe pan.  Now I’m trying to make super thin, gossamer like crepes – no repeatable success yet but I’m having fun trying.  The first time I used the steel pan I discovered the flash point of butter – yup, spontaneous flames on my crepe pan.  Now I keep the heat much lower.  By the way, I wanted to repeat the flames for a picture to post but my husband refused to be my photographer.  He didn’t like the idea of intentionally causing a fire on the stove; go figure!

Crepes are easy to make, freeze quite well, and are versatile.  I can make them on the weekend then pull out some out in the middle of the week, heat them in the oven (wrapped in foil), whip up a filling for me, pull out the sugar for him, and voila’ we have dinner!  I prefer weighing the flour instead of going by volume; it give me more consistent results.  Still, I did include the volume measurement for, well, good measure.

Ingredients

1 1/2 c all-purpose flour (216 g)
1/4 tsp salt
4 large eggs
1 1/4 c milk
1/4 c water
2 Tb butter (1 oz; 28.35 g) melted
Additional butter for coating the pan
Yield:  approximately 20 6-inch crepes

Ingredients

Bring the ingredients to room temperature. Combine the flour and salt in a medium-large bowl, making a well in the center. Add the eggs to the well.  Whisk the eggs gradually incorporating the flour.

flour well with eggsAdd half the milk and continue whisking until all the flour is combined.

Mix in the melted butter.  Add the remaining milk and the water.  Make sure the milk and water aren’t cold otherwise the butter will solidify, which is what happened and you can see in the picture below.

butter solidified

Continue whisking the batter until it’s smooth.  Cover and let rest at least 30 minutes.  At this point you can refrigerate the batter overnight.

Warm the crepe pan over a low to medium low heat and coat with butter.  Ladle a small amount of batter on the pan and immediately swirl the pan to coat the bottom.  I use a 1/2 ounce size ladle and no more than two scoops for one crepe.  I usually need 1 1/2 scoops but was able to make one crepe with one scoop.crepe batter in pan  My pan makes 6 inch crepes.  Cook the crepe until the steam stops, then flip to cook the underside, again waiting for the steam to stop.  Move the crepe to a warm plate and repeat the process, using all the batter.  You can wrap them in foil and freeze them for future use.  To warm the crepes  pre-heat your oven to 350 F.  Loosely wrap the crepe stack in foil sealing the ends well.  This will allow the crepes to steam and not dry out.

stack of finished crepes

What the heck is a Greek Salad anyway?

This year I’ve made a real effort to bring my lunch to work.  It generally isn’t anything very complicated and I alway try to keep the calories down.  Fruit with yogurt, leftover grilled chicken; you get the idea.  Trying to  add some variety the other day I decided to make a salad: mixed greens, tomato, olives, salonika peppers, no onion this time (it was for work after all), a wee bit of cheese, oil, and seasoning.  Straight forward, simple, relatively healthy, easy to eat out of a plastic container. Lunch Salad showing mixed greens, feta, olives, salonika peppers, oregano, black pepper The feta and oregano got my mind to wandering (not that it takes much for my mind to wander) – what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  I know it’s a stupid question, the answer to which won’t be some earth-shattering revelation, yet I wanted to know and still do.  I see it on menus, I see “real Greek” dressing in the supermarket but what makes it “Greek”?  Is it the cheese, the olives?  Is it the use of oil and vinegar and oregano? Was it made by some “real Greek” holed away in the basement of some factory?  I really want to know.  Is it still a Greek salad if the oregano comes from Mexico or Italy? What if salad oil is used instead of olive oil?  And what about the feta?  My guess is that most restaurants use some american made feta-like cheese made from cow’s, not sheep’s, milk.  At what point does a “Greek” salad become just a salad?  I started to ramble on about this to my husband.  He decided the car windows needed to be cleaned and headed off to the garage.  He also doesn’t eat salad, or veggies in general, but that’s another story for another time.  Back to my salad conundrum.

I grew up in a Greek-American home.  My Father was from the Athens suburbs and my Mother, although of Greek heritage, was from that exotic locale known as the lower East Side of Manhattan (NYC, not Kansas).  Thus I cannot speak to all the different regions of Greece or their subtle salad nuances.  Still, I can’t remember ever having a Greek salad like those on menus here in the States.  My mother had two interpretations of a Greek salad:

1)  “green” salad – romaine lettuce cut into ribbons, seasoned with fresh dill, olive oil, salt and pepper.  She might add some scallions and maybe some wine vinegar.  Yup, that’s all it was.  It had dill so I avoided it at all costs as a child.  Incredibly I actually found that recipe in a greek cookbook one time.; and,

2)  “tomato” salad – tomatoes, feta, oregano, salt, pepper, and olive oil.  She might add some sliced onion, preferably red, and she might add cucumber.  She never added vinegar; tomatoes are already acidic.  Growing up this was my preferred salad at home.

These are also the salads I remember from my many trips to Greece, so you can see my confusion.  I love anchovies but remember those being served on the side, never in my salad.  The brined peppers?  Nope.  Same for olives.  All those things I remember being served as mezethes -small nibbles to eat with a drink before dinner.  I looked to the internet to find some sage’s guidance without luck.  Do you know what makes a Greek salad “Greek”?  Do Italians feel the same about “Italian” salads?  Do the French make “French” dressing?  Does any of this matter if it tastes good?  Probably not.

Oh, I just looked at my watch – it’s getting late and I haven’t had dinner.
I think I’ll make a Greek Salad.

The infamous dill burger

In my previous post I mentioned that dill and I have always had an uneasy relationship; that the mere site of it brings back memories of good food gone bad.  One of the worst cases of food mutilation by dill I ever encountered was in August 2004.

That particular summer we went to Greece.  It was an introduce-hubbie-to-some-family/go-to-the-Olympics/do-a-bit-of-touring type of a vacation.  My relatives live in the suburbs of Athens so one of the first destinations was the Acropolis.  That day we first meandered through Plaka, the tourist shopping area at the foot of that ancient hill.  I know it’s touristy but I like the long narrow streets of the old area; it’s touristy in a good way.  As lunch time approached we decided to stop for a bite to eat.  Where to go was the question.

Each of the restaurants had chalkboards outside advertising specials targeted at tourists.  We finally settled on a small shop with a corner entrance because it had two things going for it – they advertised french fries cooked in vegetable oil (olive oil is traditional but my husband prefers vegetable oil for his fries) and air conditioning.  The thermometer was already close to 100 F this  particular August day so air conditioning was definitely a bonus.  A pleasant waiter sat us, giving us english menus; perfect since my Greek is poor and my husband doesn’t speak the language at all.  I was looking forward to one of the traditional dishes on the specials board.  My husband was probably going to play it safe with a hamburger.  Sure enough, he settled on the hamburger.  I had already warned him that often times veal is used in lieu of beef for the “bifsteki” so his tastebuds wouldn’t be shocked.  We ordered our food and shifted our focus to the day’s itinerary.  A few minutes later our food arrived.

It’s funny how you don’t realize just how hungry you are until a plate of hot food is put in front of you.  I dug into my lunch with total abandon; I was starving.  Don’t ask me what I had, I just know it was very good.  My husband tried some french fries – tasty, fresh; a good start.  I continued devouring my meal.  Next he took a bite of his burger and paused.  Something wasn’t quite right; I reminded him it might be veal instead of beef.  He chewed, he swallowed.  He looked confused.  He attempted a second bite, and a third.  He dropped the burger and told me something was definitely wrong.  It wasn’t about the meat itself, there was something else that didn’t make sense.  If he didn’t know better he would swear it needed a shave.  A SHAVE???  I immediately dropped my fork and grabbed the burger.  I didn’t see hair (whew) but something didn’t look right; were my glasses dirty?  I took a bite and froze.  Dill.  It was full of dill.  I hate dill.  The hair wasn’t hair and my glasses weren’t dirty, it was uncut dill fronds sticking out of the burger.  The meat was merely used as a binding agent to hold the dill together.  It was impressive how dill could masquerade as meat.  I couldn’t chew.  I couldn’t swallow.  Discretely into the napkin it went (luckily there weren’t many people in the restaurant at the time).  Was there enough soda in all of Greece to get the taste out of my mouth?  Probably not.  Would we ever return to this establishment?  Definitely not.  We politely paid our check and headed out, stopping at the first ice cream stand we could find.

Tzatziki, food shopping and stuff

If there is one thing my husband and I will always have in common it’s that neither of us like to go shopping.  We’re buyers.  If we need something we go, we buy it and leave the store.  This also means we put off food shopping as long as humanly possible. We recently reached that point again – it was time for the dreaded trip to the supermarket.  The stores are so big in our area that it can take twenty minutes to get from the entrance to the dairy products without stopping along the way.   A list was needed if we were to get out of there the same day we went in.

I went through my usual routine for making a list (a list that would again be forgotten at home like those before it) checking the various nooks and crannies of the kitchen.  I looked in my spice and pantry cabinets.  Each was well stocked to the point that it might explode at any moment.  That left the refrigerator.  It’s always the refrigerator that taunts me.  First I checked the expiration dates and various bins – there’s always something to offer to the garbage gods – and then took inventory of what remained.  I saw yogurt, fresh dill (“fresh” always being a relative term in my fridge, but in this case actually fluffy and fresh), and garlic.  This brought to mind one of my favorite sides for grilled meats – tzatziki.  Of course I would need to get some cucumbers otherwise I was set.  My eyes kept going back to the dill.  Dill and I have always had an uneasy relationship.  It is a flavor that can go so quickly from non-existent to overpowering (at least to my palate).  Memories came back to me about otherwise wonderful dishes where the cook had a heavy dill hand; not pleasant.  Still the one memory that is clearer than any other – the infamous dill burger.  I often wonder if tzatziki could have saved the dill burger?  I guess we’ll never know.

What is tzatziki?

Tzatziki is a wonderful garlic and cucumber yogurt sauce often served in Greece.  Here in the US you’ve probably had it served with gyros.  I love it, it’s easy to make and a wonderful accompaniment to grilled lamb, pork, or chicken.  Many of our friends like it spread on a piece of pita bread.  One of the keys to making an excellent tzatziki is the yogurt; it needs to be thick.  Cucumber is very wet and will loosen the yogurt.  I always use Greek yogurt (Fage is my favorite but there are other good brands out there).

Ingredients
1 cup of thick plain yogurt
1 cucumber, medium to large, peeled and grated then chopped (note: your choice to leave or remove the seed core)
1 to 2 cloves of garlic, crushed and finely chopped (we like a lot of garlic)
1 to 1 1/2 tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons fresh dill, finely chopped
1 teaspoon vinegar (white or wine; just remember if using wine vinegar to use white wine vineger not the red one; red gives it a pinkish hue)
salt to taste

Combine the ingredients in a bowl and mix by hand.  Refrigerate it for at least a couple of hours, and preferably overnight, before serving.

My tips

Most of my ingredients have ranges because there are so many variables – how much garlic do you like?  Are you using extra virgin olive oil or light olive oil?  Play around, make what you like.  Like so many other dishes, there is no one definitive recipe for tzatziki.

Cucumber  I like to peel the cucumber and then use the grating plate in my food processor.  Once finished I gently squeeze the gratings to release some excess water.  I don’t want to create a yougurt soup but I also don’t want to lose all the flavor.  I then take the gratings and chop them up.  I find this gives me the best texture.  Some people simply finely chop the cucumber without ever grating it.  Experiment and see what works best for you.

Garlic  There is no such thing as too much garlic, or at least for me.  You might disagree so  put in only as much as you feel comfortable adding the first time.

Yogurt  Growing up, when Greek yogurt wasn’t so readily available, my mother would take a large container of American yogurt, put a strainer over a large bowl, line the strainer with coffee filters (the Mr. Coffee bowl style ones worked best), and put the contents of the container in the lined strainer.  This went into the refrigerator.  She would periodically stir it to make sure it drained thoroughly and check that the bottom of the strainer wasn’t touching the liquid accumulating in the bowl.  A day or two later she would have this wonderfully thick yogurt and the bowl would have between 3/4 and 1 1/2 cups of liquid in it.

Why no photos?  We decided it was too nice out to go shopping so we put on our swimsuits and jumped in the pool, thus no cucumber.  It’s important to have one’s priorities!  Still, I thought you might like the recipe.  I’ll update the post with pictures in the future.

What about the dill burger?  Expect to learn more about the dill burger in my next post.  That’s one recipe that is hopefully lost in the annals of time.

The art of bland food (aka Don’t make this at home)

My lunch today triggered many thoughts and memories that I wanted to share with you but cannot.  Last night I promised to report on what happened in the kitchen and a promise is a promise.  So here is what I cooked and the results; the salad story will have to wait.

I decided to use the shitake and crimini mushrooms, chicken stock, an entire package of dry chuka soba noodles (bad decision 1), carrots, blackened caraway seeds,  cilantro, white pepper, cayenne pepper, canola oil, limes, and dried crushed garlic (bad decision 2).  Honestly I had no choice about the mushrooms and chicken stock – they had to be put in their place after their behavior the previous night. prepped ingredients  I decided against the baby bell peppers and the rice vinegar.  They didn’t try to intimidate me the night before.  The other things I didn’t use started a string of bad decisions:  measuring tools (bad decision 3), including my scale (bad decision 4); salt (bad decision 5); I need to watch my sodium intake so I rarely cook with it); and wine (bad decision 6).    This is one of my “wing it” nights.  Ironically I ended up eating wings but that’s unimportant.  What matters is what I did and why you should avoid doing the same thing.

What I did

After heating my medium cast iron pot, I added one tablespoon of oil (the only thing did I measure), tossed in the carrots to cook a bit, stirring occasionally to make sure they browned evenly.  carrots in pot  “Occasionally” became “oops, I forgot” because the siren song of the cheese in the refrigerator trapped me.  The carrots were seasoned with the dried garlic as well as the white and cayenne peppers.  I normally use fresh garlic but was lazy, hence the dried garlic that was bad decision 2.

While the carrots cooked I decided I wanted to try to get that grilled look on the noodles, similar to the way they look when you order yakisoba.  I soaked them for a few minutes in near boiling water and transferred them to the pot (bad decision 8, a/k/a the king of bad decisions this particular night).Chicken stock, crimini mushrooms and more seasoningspices were added to the pot.  I checked this periodically and noticed I had a pot of noodles, not soup, so I added more chicken stock.  This is also when I recognized bad decision 1 – using the entire package of noodles.  It wasn’t just “too much” as in more than a portion; it was “too much” as in four times too much.  It was what-the-heck-was-I-thinking “too much”.  It’s a good thing I like leftovers.  It’s also a good thing I could afford to toss it if it was inedible.
The ridiculous volume of noodles continued simmering.  I added the shitakes when the criminis looked like they had succumbed.mushrooms in pot  The blackened caraway seeds joined the the pot shortly afterwards.  The volume of noodles required yet more broth if I wanted to have soup.  I shut off the pot as soon as it was again simmering; it was pretty much done.  Spooning some into a bowl I realized that I still didn’t have soup and the noodles were cooked too long.  I never understood this about noodles – how can they indefinitely absorb liquid and still look like noodles?  Why don’t they stop absorbing liquid?chuka soba noodles in pot  How about some sort of color agent that disappears when they’re ready, similar to wall spackle?  I squeezed the juice out of a whole lime into the bowl and added fresh chopped cilantro. Lime, chicken, and cilantro go well together so the flavor wasn’t bad at all, just a bit bland.  Truth be told, it was really bland.  Not horrible; there wasn’t enough flavor to be horrible.  It was impressively bland.  And difficult to eat.  Let me enlighten those of you who are unfamiliar with chuka soba noodles:  these are the noodles used to make ramen and they’re ridiculously long.  I’m convinced the package, which contains two blocks, really contains only two noodles each folded up and down to look like a block.  They require a deft hand to eat when cooked properly; do not attempt to eat them when they’ve been overcooked.  It’s not pretty.

What I would do differently

Add a few drops of sesame oil for flavor
Use 1/4 the amount of noodles
Not pre-moisten/cook/immerse in liquid the noodles prior to adding to the pot
Add the noodles much later so they didn’t get mushy and also to have a more liquid result or find noodles that know when to stop cooking
Add either cut up grilled chicken or tofu or both
Add more carrots
Replace the garlic with fresh chopped onion and plenty of it
Melt the onion with the carrots
Add a bit of chopped scallion right before serving or much more cilantro
Add a bit of Salt
More blackened caraway seeds – they add a nice kick and crunch
More lime juice

In other words, I would do everything differently.  I put the rest of the brothless noodle soup in the refrigerator and had some Domino’s chicken wings.

Do you have a kitchen experiment gone awry?

Hell Road Paving, Inc.

If the road to hell is paved with good intentions, I’m on the board of directors of Hell Road Paving, Inc., when it comes to dinner.  Each day as I leave the office I start my drive home with ideas of the nice (sometimes even healthy) meal I’ll prepare but 40 or so miles later my intentions slowly fade into oblivion.  Honestly, the drive home takes my drive to cook out of me.

Last night is a perfect example.  My husband had a meeting and wouldn’t be home for dinner so I thought I would make a light soup with some of the veggies that were in the refrigerator, yearning to be cooked.  His meeting also meant I had to pick up the dog from day care (don’t ask; it’s another story for another day).  I arrived home two hours after I had left the office, spending most of the two hours on highways.  Still, I pulled out the items for dinner.  A few vegetables, some chicken broth and noodles were placed in my usual ‘prep’ area on the counter as I went about feeding the dog.  And poured a glass of wine.  And remembered I hadn’t eaten much that day so I should nosh on something with the wine or I would get light-headed.  And decided it might be nice to watch a movie while I cooked, drank wine, and ate some cheese.  In the meantime the ingredients were waiting patiently to be washed, sliced and diced.

Given that hubby wasn’t home I decided to look for an old movie to watch and there on TCM was Joan Fontaine in Suspicion.  I could watch the movie and then cook!  Wine, cheese, and remote in hand I sat on the couch.  I would make my dinner after the movie.  I finished my glass of wine as the movie ended, put away the cheese and approached the ingredients on the counter just as I heard that Rebecca was about to start (it must have been Joan Fontaine/Alfred Hitchcock night).  I had never caught the beginning of that movie so I would just watch the beginning in the den and then watch the rest while cooking.  It was a good plan.  I thought the mushrooms in particular were looking a bit impatient but I shrugged it off.  Back onto the couch, with the dog and remote, I went and faithful to my plan I returned to the kitchen after the first fifteen minutes of the movie.  The ingredients were now looking rather intimidating, and I am certain that the chicken broth box was taunting me as Mrs. Danvers taunted the new Mrs. de Winter.  By this time it was well after 8:00pm.  My meal wouldn’t be ready before 9:00 or possibly even later I reasoned; I could just have some crackers and call it dinner.  The ingredients were whisked back into the refrigerator and I returned to the couch.

Today I can hear them taunting me from the refrigerator as they slowly go from picture perfect to not so pretty but edible.  What are they?  A carrot, some baby bell peppers, some crimini mushrooms, a few shitaki mushrooms, cilantro that is beginning to wilt, some fat-free reduced sodium free-range organic chicken broth and some limes.  I’ll figure something out and report on the results, good or bad.  The one thing I know is that my grandfather must be spinning in his grave.  Did I mention he was a chef?

I’m taking the plunge

Veggies in the morning

Hi.  I’m Chris and this is my life with food.  Memories, recipes, and kitchen disasters.

Those of you who know me are probably wondering why I’m bothering to blog now and what was the catalyst?  I’ve been writing a blog about random life observations for so long that I can’t remember when or how it actually started.  Granted, it did have one major flaw all these years – it never left my head.

pots001cropped

This year I also started a serious effort to lose many unwanted pounds.  I never liked the word “diet” (always sounded like a “little death” to me) and decided instead to make lifestyle changes, the first of which was eat out less and cook more.  Cooking again on a somewhat regular basis (“regular” being a relative concept) I found myself remembering holidays and everyday meals.  I could almost smell my mother’s cooking as I strained to remember her recipes for cauliflower with garlic and baby artichokes with fava beans.  Pulling out old cast iron skillets, I could remember tales of her father’s cooking.  Sometimes I also remembered kitchen disasters and all the silliness that makes life wonderful (elephant gray cupcakes, anyone?).  I realized I wanted to share and preserve these stories.  Having always enjoyed writing, a blog seemed a natural medium in the twenty-first century.  And that brings us to this, my first post.

So, my friends both old and new, if something makes you smile or you find a helpful hint or recipe, then my blog is a success.  Please visit as often as you wish, stay a while when you do, and enjoy.

C-