Archive for the ‘Intermediate’ Category

Lidl + Travel = Pasta Friday!

February 16, 2018

An impending trip always prompts some interesting meals as I try to use up vegetable odds and ends and other perishables.  Tonight’s fridge exploration resulted in a few broccoli crowns; some medium cheddar; the last of some Iberico ham; and a quart of milk that needed a purpose.

So what does Lidl have to do with it?  Last weekend I went to Lidl for the first time.  This is a dangerous, and somewhat frustrating, place for me.  Frustrating because I can’t possibly do the entirety of my grocery shopping there.  I have too many brand loyalties.  Some things Lidl sells only in larger quantities than I need. (I’m looking at you ramen noodles and green onions).  Some things I need, Lidl doesn’t carry at all.  (Um, decaf coffee, please)!

For me Lidl is an expensive place.  That’s the dangerous part. I bought all kinds of stuff I didn’t need.  It’s an amazing place to shop for European meats and cheeses.  Thus the Iberico ham.  I also picked up some lovely feta and Irish butter at a very good price!  Lidl also has lots of “special” items that are advertised at a special price with a sign that says something like “get it before it’s gone!”  I’m a sucker for that stuff.  So I also came home with some frozen scallops.  (What?!  I’ve never bought such a thing in my life).  I bought some truffle oil.  Now, that was a good deal and I do really like it.  I bought a package of orecchiette pasta with a seasoning packet attached.  Ridiculous.  I never buy seasoning packets except for taco seasoning!  So, I went in to look around and pick up eggs and milk.  I came out $42 later with my eggs and milk and a lot of other stuff.  Which brings us to tonight’s dinner.


It’s Pasta Friday!  I didn’t want to do anything too complicated.  I did want to use the broccoli and the ham rather than toss them before I leave town.  I had milk and cheese.  You see where I’m going with this.  Macaroni and cheese with some extras!  Alas, no macaroni.  Searching the cabinet – ditalini? Nope, too small to have with the broccoli.  Farfalle?  Nope, the cheese sauce kind of falls off.  Spaghetti?  Um, no.  Wait!  I have a bag of fancy orecchiette – little ears perfect for holding cheese sauce!  The seasoning packet is in the cabinet and likely to make an appearance mixed in olive oil and served with bread.

I thought we’d discussed cheese sauces in the last few weeks so I didn’t take any pictures, but I was wrong!  I’ll have to do another cheese sauce soon and do a better job.  There’s a lot of satisfaction in being able to make a good cheese sauce.  Here’s the basic idea.

Make a roux:  melt butter; whisk in flour; whisk in a small amount of milk;  whisk in a little more milk; whisk in a little more milk.  Getting it?  A little milk at a time, whisking constantly.  The whisking will make sure you don’t have lumps.  Bring the heat up enough to make the sauce bubble. This is how it thickens.  If it gets too thick, whisk in a little milk.  If it gets too thin, let it bubble until it thickens.

Tip If you put in too much milk and it won’t thicken enough by bubbling, make a slurry and add it in.  A slurry is a little flour mixed with a little milk or water.  That’s how you can add more flour and not end up with lumps.

Salt and pepper to taste.  That’s a white sauce.  To your white sauce add grated cheese.  I used medium cheddar tonight.  I like sharper cheddar so I have no idea why I even have it.  To add a little more tang I added some dijon mustard.  YUM!

Tip Grate your own cheese.  The pre-grated cheese is fine for topping tacos, but not for melting.  Manufacturers have to use an additive to keep the shredded cheese from sticking together in the package.  The coating keeps the cheese from melting smoothly.  You’ll have little uneven dots in your sauce where the cheese didn’t quite melt.  That might be a trade you’re willing to make to avoid having to grate your own cheese.  Fair enough.

For the pasta and broccoli save yourself the trouble of dirtying two pans.  Just make sure you have a large enough pot and enough water to accommodate both.  Bring the water to a boil and add the pasta.  When the pasta is about half done add the broccoli.  Drain them together and return them to the cooking pot.

Add your cheese sauce and fold it in.  Folding instead of stirring will help keep the broccoli whole.  Unless you’ve overcooked it, which is what happened to me.

You’ll see below that the broccoli does have plenty of whole pieces, but there’s also an awful lot of teeny tiny floret pieces spread throughout.  I underestimated the time it would take for the pasta to cook and I added the broccoli too early.  In a cheese sauce, where you’re going for something pretty smooth anyway, it’s not a big deal.  In a pasta primavera or something light like that it would be a bigger problem.

I just heated the ham in a pan until it started to crisp and chopped it.  Add the ham at end.  Save some for the top.  It just looks nice.  Or leave it out if you want a vegetarian meal.

So that’s how Lidl + travel produced my pasta Friday this week!  Hard to beat macaroni and cheese no matter how you make it!



Malai Palak (Indian Creamed Spinach)

February 11, 2018

Another recipe from my Rasika cookbook, it’s been on my list for a couple of weeks. I had just a little of the chicken curry left and this was nice to have alongside.  It’s nothing like the creamed spinach you may be used to, served with steak and filled with cheese and cream and butter.  I’m not knocking that, but this is definitely not that.  No cheese and with much less cream.  It turned out slightly more like spinach sauce or soup than I expected.  It tastes good and the onions give it some texture, but it still might be nice for it to be a little bit toothier.

I did make a couple of substitutions.  I used part of a jalapeno instead of a Thai green chili, less heat and a pepper slightly easier to come by.  I looked for fenugreek leaves and fenugreek leaf powder, but no luck.  Of course I combed the interwebs looking for a suitable substitute.  Here’s what’s weird. Some sites listed maple syrup and some sites listed fennel and others celery leaves.  Odd.  Maple syrup seemed kind of out there.  You have to buy a whole fennel bulb or a jar of fennel seeds.  I’m not a huge fan of fennel so I wouldn’t have a lot of use for the leftovers.  That left me with celery leaves.

For the spinach:

  • 1 large clamshell of spinach (10oz)
  • handful celery leaves
  • 3/4 C water

Blanche the spinach in boiling water and transfer immediately into a bowl of iced water.  That’s how you keep the bright green color.  Drain.  Add spinach, celery leaves, and water to a blender.  Process until smooth.


Here’s the spice/aromatic part of the ingredients list: (my photo disappeared!)

  • 1/4 C canola oil
  • 1/2 t cumin seeds
  • 2 T minced garlic
  • 2 1/2 C diced onion
  • 1 T minced ginger
  • 1 t diced jalapeno
  • 1/2 t turmeric
  • 1/4 C cream
  • salt to taste

Here’s what you do:

  • Heat the oil in a large pan.  When it shimmers add the cumin seeds and garlic. Brown the garlic.  30 seconds.
  • Add the onions.  Cook until the onions are brown. 5 minnutes
  • Add the ginger, jalapeno, and turmeric.  Stir 30 seconds.  Add the spinach.
  • Stir constantly for 5 minutes.  Be careful of the splatter.
  • Reduce the heat.  Add cream and salt.  Bring to a boil  Cook another 5 minutes.

Here’s how it went:

Other than the fenugreek, this recipe is pretty easy and pretty good.  It’s beautifully bright green.  It has a toasty flavor with just a little heat.  I did end up with a green polka dotted kitchen.  There’s a LOT of splatter when you add the spinach.  It’s a great side dish.  I imagine it will be good served over rice.  The cookbook offers adding cubed paneer  or potatoes as good variations.  Palak paneer makes a good entree and adding some potatoes would give some weight to the spinach as a side.  All in all, two thumbs up!  My array of Indian food at home is increasing!


UPDATE:  This is absolutely a multi-use vegetable side.  It makes a fantastic topping for scrambled eggs and an amazing sauce for pasta!

Super Bowl Sunday Shrimp: Etouffee

February 4, 2018

I’m in a disagreement with the NFL (I think Roger Goodell is a complete tool) and I have the hot hates for both of these teams so it’s unlikely I’ll watch much of the game tonight. Still, that shouldn’t preclude me from participating in the food extravaganza that is  Super Bowl Sunday.  I braved the grocery store yesterday and came home with shrimp etouffee and BBQ shrimp, or at least the components.

I have afternoon plans so I did all my prep when I got home from my volunteer gig at the SPCA.  Chopping done.  Shrimp peeled.  (Imagine my delight when I realized that they were already deveined!)  Shrimp stock on the stove.

Here’s what you need:


1 Tbsp Creole seasoning (like Tony Chachere)
2 Tbsp Unsalted Butter
1/2 Cup Onion, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Celery, Finely Chopped
1/4 Cup Bell Pepper, Finely Chopped
1/8 Cup Flour
1/2 Cup fresh Tomatoes, diced
2 Cups Shrimp Stock
2 Tbsp Minced Garlic
2 tsp Worcestershire Sauce
1 tsp Hot Sauce (I like Frank’s)
3 Tbsp minced Italian Parsley
1 lb Good Quality Shrimp, Peeled and Deveined, Save shells for the stock
1 Tbsp Unsalted Butter

The stock almost makes itself here.  You’re already chopping celery, onion, pepper and garlic.  Put the ends and leftovers in a small pot as you go.  Add a couple of lemon slices, some salt and water.  Let it simmer, partially covered, for an hour or more.  Keep an eye on it so you don’t lose too much liquid.  Add water if you need to.  Easy peasy.  Drain it into a bowl or measuring cup.  You’ll need about 2 cups.


Here’s what you do:

  • Melt the butter in a pan.  Add the onion, celery, pepper and garlic.  Saute until they begin to soften.
  • Add the flour.  Whisk the flour into the vegetables and stir constantly for 3-5 minutes, or longer to taste.

The key to etouffee is the roux.  The roux makes the gravy.  Etouffee means “smothered” so the gravy is everything. The longer you cook the roux, the darker it gets in color and in flavor.  This recipe calls for a blond roux, 3-5 minutes.  I cook mine 5-7 minutes for just a little extra brown.


  • Whisk in a little stock, forming a paste
  • Add the stock a little at a time and keep whisking
  • Let the etouffee thicken as you add stock.  Use the stock to loosen and the heat to thicken as needed

When you add the first bit of stock the roux will form a paste.  It will ball up almost like a dough as you stir. See above. A whisk will help smooth this out.  You really do have to whisk the whole time.  If you walk away it will stick to the pan and likely seize up.  That’s how you end up with glumpy gravy.   It’s the bubbling temperature that makes the liquid thicken so once you’ve got the stock all in and the texture that you want, turn it way down.  You still need to stir as it simmers or you’ll get a skin on top, but not constantly.


  • Simmer 20-30 minutes, stirring frequently

If the sauce gets too thick add a little stock to loosen it up.  If you run out of stock you can use water just as well.  Stir occasionally, but you can do other things at this point.   This simmers 20-30 minutes so this is your opportunity to put the rice on or make a salad or find yourself a beer.  Tonight, I cheated.  I used leftover rice.  Not even my rice.  Chinese takeout rice.  No joke.

Tip If you know you have a week with a couple of rice dishes in a given week stop by your local Chinese takeout place and buy a quart of rice.  It reheats just fine in the microwave if you add a little water and cover it.

At the end up the simmering time you’ll have a beautiful caramel colored etouffee.


  • Add the shrimp and parsley.  Simmer 7-8 minutes until shrimp is cooked through
  • Add butter
  • Serve with rice

If you’ve cut the temperature back for the simmer, turn it back up some when you add the shrimp.  You need a pretty decent simmer to cook the shrimp quickly enough that they don’t get rubbery.  Be sure to give large shrimp 7-8 minutes.  Don’t go by color.  When you cook them this way they’ll turn pink on the outside before they’re cooked all the way through.

Adding the butter at the end gives the sauce a nice shine.  Doesn’t hurt the flavor any either.  If you’ve added a lot of stock or water to make the consistency right, you may need to add extra Creole seasoning and/or hot sauce.  You can always make that available for each person to add to taste as well.


Tip  If you’re making this for guests do everything up through simmering the etouffee before folks arrive.  You can let that sit until you’re ready for it.  You may have to skim it, but probably you can just bring it back to a simmer and add a little water to get it ready for the shrimp.

Here’s what I thought:

It’s shrimp in spicy gravy.  Of course it’s good!  I actually prefer the roux a little darker.  I just got impatient tonight.  The recipe I started with called for homemade Worcestershire sauce and homemade Creole seasoning.  I’m all about doing things from scratch, but this seemed like overkill to me.  And I left out the thyme because I don’t have any.  I didn’t miss it.

This is darn good Super Bowl food.  Easy to make for a crowd.  Good with beer.  Eat with a spoon.  A very nice step up from chili.  Enjoy!


Shrimp and Grits

January 28, 2018

After running with some dogs at the Richmond SPCA, I spent my day cleaning the house.  I’ve had a sick pup so the rugs needed some serious attention.  I knew that after a day with the carpet shampooer I’d need a nice dinner.  Shrimp and grits is the best way to combine comfort food with treating yourself a little fancy.  And there are a million ways to make it.  Some people feel very strongly that there’s one “real” way to make shrimp and grits.  I can be happy with them just about any way they come.

Tonight I went a little fancy with grits cakes.  I made the grits this morning so they’d have time to cool and firm up.  I like my grits stiff enough to eat with a fork so the texture is right.  Use quick cooking grits for this. Not instant.  Never instant.  For savory dinner grits like this I often use some kind of stock instead of water and/or milk.  I had some chicken soup base in the freezer so I diluted that and added some salt.  At the end a little Parmesan and some butter.

Tip Have you ever had grits at a restaurant that tasted like nothing?  And no matter how much butter or salt you add, they still taste like nothing?  It’s because whoever made them, they didn’t salt the water.  You have to salt the water.  The salt has to cook into the grits.  If it doesn’t, you can never put enough salt on top of them to make them good.

Ok, if you want to make grits cakes your grits should be thick enough in the pot that they stick to a spoon.  Then you spread them in a jelly roll pan that has parchment paper lining the bottom.  Let them chill in the fridge for a few hours.  Then you can cut them in whatever shapes you like.  Tonight I used a biscuit cutter to make pretty rounds.  You could just as easily use a knife to cut squares or triangles.  With rounds you’ll have some edges leftover.  I’m all set for breakfast for a few days!

For the shrimp: peel them, remove the tails; devein them.  Please remove the tails.  It’s messy to remove the tails with a knife and fork and weird to have them left in your bowl at the end of the meal.  Besides, you end up leaving the tail meat behind.  Leave the tails on for cocktail shrimp or peel and eat, but if you need utensils to eat the dish, do yourself and your guests the courtesy of removing them.  Then run the tip of your knife down the back of each shrimp to remove the vein. You can use the flat of your knife to scrape the vein out.  Or, you can buy them already peeled and deveined.  Just don’t buy them already cooked!

For this version of shrimp and grits, there’s bacon.  Can’t go wrong there.  And again, I have plenty leftover for breakfast!  The only other ingredients are peppers, onions, garlic, more stock, white wine and lemon juice.  I added a little flour as well to thicken the sauce, but you could easily cook the sauce down instead.

Reheat your grit cakes in the oven and serve the shrimp and sauce over them.  Yum!  I even did one as a beautiful appetizer.  Perfect for an elegant dinner party or dinner for two or as the start to a lovely dinner for one!


Here’s what you need:

For the grits


  • 4 C stock
  • salt
  • 1 C quick grits
  • 1/2 C Parmesan
  • 1 T butter

For the shrimp


Tip  I keep a few of those little wine bottles around for occasions like this.  If you need a little wine for cooking, but don’t plan to open a bottle for drinking, they’re just the right thing.  It’s not the best wine you’ll ever have, but it’s absolutely drinkable.  And if you’d drink it you can cook with it.  For me, this is a great way to have 1/2 C for a recipe and one glass with dinner.

  • 3 slices bacon, cooked crisp, 1 T bacon grease reserved
  • 1 pound large shrimp, peeled and deveined
  • 1/2 bell pepper, diced
  • 1/2 onion, diced
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 T flour
  • 1/2 C stock
  • 1/2 C white wine
  • 1/2 lemon
  • salt, pepper, Tabasco to taste
  • sliced green onions for garnish

Here’s what you do:

For the grits

  1. Bring the stock to a boil.  Add salt to taste.
  2. Stir in the grits and cover.
  3. Stir often to keep them from sticking to the bottom.
  4. Cook 15 minutes or so until the grits are cooked, but still slightly toothy.

For the grit cakes

  1. Spread the cooked grits into a jelly roll pan lined with parchment.
  2. Chill in the refrigerator 2-3 hours or up to overnight.
  3. Cut into shapes.
  4. Place on a baking sheet.
  5. Heat in a 300 degree oven 8-10 minutes, until warm through.
  6. Keep warm for serving.

For the shrimp

  1. Fry the bacon, drain and set aside.  Pour off the grease, leaving 1 T in the pan.
  2. Add the pepper, onion and garlic.  Stir until they soften.
  3. Stir in flour until it disappears.
  4. Add stock and wine.  Stir until the sauce begins to thicken.
  5. Add the shrimp.  Cook 3-4 minutes, flipping 1/2 way through.
  6. Squeeze the lemon over the shrimp.  Add salt and Tabasco to taste.
  7. Serve over the warmed grits cakes, topped with the green onions.

Pile O’ Vegetables

January 23, 2018

On Tuesdays I run with friends at 6am and am usually showered and ready to roll by 7:15.  Sometimes I grab some breakfast and start my workday by 7:30 and other days I try to get some household stuff done before the workday begins.  Today was the latter.  TV watching got in the way of my usual weekend trip to the grocery store, so I made the grocery run this morning.  First, let me tell you that early Tuesday morning is not a good time to hit the Kroger.  Apparently it’s restocking time.  Many shelves were sadly empty and many aisles were blocked by boxes and pallets.  I forged ahead though and bought mostly vegetables.

I still had some time after I got home so I chopped cauliflower, radishes, broccoli and mushrooms for roasting.  I halved an acorn squash for the same.  My day ended with a pile of roasted vegetables and zero plan.  Zero.  I spent about 30 minutes looking for recipes for roasted vegetable casseroles and roasted vegetable pot pie.  I don’t even like pot pie.  Again, a big fat zero.  So this is a completely made up dinner, which is why there aren’t so many pictures.  I’ll do better next time.

In the end I decided to pull together a sauce for the vegetables to serve on top of mashed acorn squash.  I purposely stayed away from cheese sauces and mustard sauces.  I ended up with a white sauce, a bechamel, flavored with vegetable stock, milk, balsamic vinegar, salt and pepper.  It’s pretty good really.  I only made one serving of the complete mixture so I can still do whatever I want with the leftover vegetables and sauce.


We’ve covered roasting vegetables already, so no mystery there.  And I’ll do a better demo of making a white sauce later, but here’s the idea.  Once you master a bechamel you can do just about anything with it.  It’s a great base for a cheese sauce; a mustard cream sauce; a lemon sauce.  And for this sauce.

Melt butter.  Stir in flour.  Add liquid a little at a time, stirring constantly.  That’s how you avoid lumps.  We’re talking about gravy here, really.  Tonight I added the vegetable stock first and then some milk.  Stir, stir, stir.  It will bubble and thicken as you go. If it gets too thick add in a little more liquid.  If it’s too thin let it bubble up and thicken.  But keeping stirring!  If you don’t it will seize up and you’ll have glop.  Once I had just about the consistency I wanted I stirred in some balsamic vinegar.  Tasted.  A little more.  Tasted.  A little salt.  Tasted.  Done.

I have no doubt that some herbs would do this sauce a lot of good, but my brain just wasn’t firing tonight.  This is a super good sauce for these vegetables.  It’s a nice balance for the sweet squash too.  I’d make one change.  I love the shiitake mushrooms.  And they’re fantastic in the sauce.  They aren’t so good with the acorn squash.  I think for the leftovers I’ll separate the vegetables from the squash.  Maybe a little honey for the squash.

The last part of this is frizzled onions.  I saw this in one of the recipes I perused today.  I’ve never frizzled an onion. And I might not have tonight either except that I’d already sliced the onion and poured the oil in the pan.  Basically you heat the oil until it shimmers and add a handful of onion strings.  No flour needed.  Stir them around until they start to brown.  Get them out quickly or they’ll burn in the blink of an eye.  Wait for the oil to come back to temperature before adding the rest of the onion strings.  These are a lovely topping for pretty much anything.

So, I’ll definitely eat the leftovers, just in a slightly different configuration.  I can’t say that you’re missing a ton by not having a recipe that would allow you to replicate it exactly.


Catfish Curry

January 2, 2018

Yep, catfish curry, Thai style.  It’s really flipping cold in Virginia this week and I wanted something warm.  I also had a drawer full a vegetables that I bought with a plan I have long since forgotten.  And also some catfish that needed a plan ASAP.  Curries are pretty flexible about what you put in them and I adore anything in coconut broth, so here we are.

You’ll need a few pantry staples if you want to be able to throw a curry together on the fly.  All of this is readily available in the Asian foods section of a standard grocery store.  Curry paste – red, green, yellow, all of the above.  Coconut milk, the canned kind, not the refrigerator kind.  Lite is fine.  I only use regular coconut milk if a recipe specifically says that Lite won’t work.  Fish sauce.  It’ll be in a bottle, not a jar.  And it’s funky, but adds a lot of depth.

Pretty much every fish curry recipe you’ll find calls for “firm, white fish.”  Something like haddock or cod or sea bass.  If you’re worked with catfish you know there’s nothing firm about it.  It dang near falls apart when you cut it in pieces.  Still, it’s what I had and mild enough that I figured it would work.  I actually started with a Chicken and Vegetable Curry recipe from my Cherry Bombe cookbook.  That’s how flexible Thai curries are.  Fish instead of chicken.  Cauliflower instead of bok choi.  No jalapeno.  Add brown sugar.

You really can kind of wing it as long as you pay attention to your substitutions and their cooking time.  It takes fish much less time to cook than chicken and cauliflower much longer than bok choi so I adjusted accordingly.

What do you need?


2 T oil (canola, safflower, something plain)

1/2 an onion, 2 cloves garlic, 1 inch peeled fresh ginger – all chopped fine

2 bell peppers, sliced

2 portobello mushroom caps, sliced or diced

1/2 small head of cauliflower, cut small and pre-roasted

2 T green curry paste

1 can lite coconut milk

1 T fish sauce

2 catfish fillets, cut into 1 inch chunks

1 diced jalapeno (optional, and not included above)

1 pinch brown sugar (optional)

How do you do it?

It looks like kind of a long list of ingredients, but it’s really easy to make.  Do all your chopping ahead of time.  Keep items that go in the pot together, together on the cutting board.  Then you can just scrape them right off the board into the pot.

I recommend dicing your own onion, garlic and ginger.  The flavor is just nicer.  But if you have to choose between ordering a pizza or using frozen diced onions and garlic and ginger from a jar, do what you have to do.  Be aware that there’s water in the pre-chopped things so when they hit that hot oil they splatter!  Be prepared!

Heat the oil in a medium stock pot or large pan.  Add the onion, garlic and ginger.  Saute 3-4 minutes.

Add the mushrooms, peppers, and cauliflower.  Saute 5 more minutes.

Stir in the curry paste.  Cook 2 minutes.

Add the coconut milk and fish sauce.  Bring to a low boil.

Add the catfish.  Make sure it’s covered by the liquid.  Reduce to a simmer.  Simmer 10-15 minutes until the fish is cooked through and the sauce thickens a little.

Stir in a pinch of brown sugar.

Serve as a soup or over rice.


How did it turn out?

It’s ugly, but it’s good.  Not my favorite curry, but good.  I think it needs another vegetable.  I’ve got some carrots that I can roast tomorrow and add in to the leftovers.  They’ll add some sweetness and some texture.


Vanilla Cupcakes with Whipped Chocolate Buttercream and Thai Ginger Salt

February 10, 2013

It’s potluck night!  We had a potluck birthday this week so I volunteered to bring dessert.  Cupcakes are easy to serve and easy to pawn off leftovers.  I had elaborate plans for the frosting so I opted for a vanilla cupcake.  Be aware that my elaborate frosting plans were all foiled by my lack of ability to read a recipe all the way through and see how much time it takes to make said frostings.  Stay tuned. At some point in the future you’ll see a Dulce de Leche frosting and a Salted Caramel frosting.  Hard to complain too much about chocolate though!

P1010063Vanilla Cupcakes 

I love cupcakes.  Love them, but I’m picky about them.  Finding a vanilla cupcake that’s worth eating all by itself is likely to be a lifelong quest for me, but this is as close as I’ve found in a while.  These are light, but not crumbly and they taste like vanilla instead of like nothing.  A good start.  Another nice thing about these is that the tops are flat so they’re easy to decorate if you’re so inclined.  The tops also have something of a crust on them so they can hold up weighty frostings and other decorations.  This may be the perfect party cupcake.

I also love buttercream frosting.  Who doesn’t really?  Again, I’m picky.  Frosting that’s all butter and powdered sugar doesn’t quite cut it any more.  This has plenty of both, but also chocolate, milk, liqueur and vanilla.  I substituted milk for the cream in the recipe and used Bailey’s instead of Kahlua.  I used what I had.  Worked fine.  I have to give credit here to Homestead Creamery.  They made the butter and it’s the best butter on the planet.  I don’t normally use it for baking, but I should always use it in frosting.  Such creamy yumminess. 

Baking is a science to be sure, but frosting is more of an art. For the baking part – be sure you put your eggs and butter out early so they come to room temperature before you use them.  For the frosting – I rarely follow measurements or directions when I make frosting.  Start with the right amount of butter and then add everything else to match your favorite taste and texture.  I tend to go lighter on the sugar than most recipes call for and a little heavier on the real flavorings  – chocolate, peanut butter, what have you.  The most important thing is that you can’t take liquid out so be sparing with it.

What makes these cupcakes extra special is the Thai Ginger salt.  Sweet creamy chocolatey goodness with just a hint of salt and a touch of gingery bite.  The salt was a Christmas gift from a friend.  Very cool.  I love getting unique kitchen stuff!  Kudos to Drizzles in Cape Charles, VA for putting some very cool stuff out there!

Good? Got raves from the potluck girls!
Easy? Not bad at all.
Good for company? Cupcakes are for sharing – mostly
Special shopping? If you can’t find ginger salt use kosher.

Vanilla Cupcakes with Whipped Chocolate Buttercream and Thai Ginger Salt



1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup butter, softened
1 cups sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1/2 cup milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract


Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
Line 1 muffin tin with cupcake papers.

In a small bowl, combine the flours. Set aside.

In a large bowl, on the medium speed of an electric mixer, cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugar gradually and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the eggs, 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Add the dry ingredients in 3 parts, alternating with the milk and vanilla. With each addition, beat until the ingredients are incorporated but do not over beat. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the batter in the bowl to make sure the ingredients are well blended. Carefully spoon the batter into the cupcake liners, filling them about 3/4 full. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the cupcake comes out clean.

Cool the cupcakes in tins for 15 minutes. Remove from the tins and cool completely on a wire rack before icing.

Whipped Chocolate Buttercream


1 cup good quality dark chocolate
1/2 cup (1 stick) room temperature salted butter
2 tablespoons milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 tablespoon liqueur (I used Bailey’s)
1-2 C sifted confectioners’ sugar (to taste)


Put the chocolate in a large microwave safe bowl. Heat in the microwave 20 seconds at a time. Stir thoroughly after each interval until the chocolate is melted. Cool for five minutes. Add the butter, cream, vanilla, liqueur, and mix on medium speed until the mixture thickens. Finally add the confectioners’ sugar in small batches until the mixture holds a medium peak. Slather the icing over the cupcakes with an offset palette knife.
Sprinkle with salt before serving.

Pumpkin Soup

October 27, 2012

This month’s potluck was the first Fall potluck.  I signed up for soup.  Pumpkin soup is the obvious choice for October and had the added benefit of using a few items from my overfull freezers.  Part of the pumpkin was from 2011 and part from 2010. Gotta love a Food Saver. Then two bags of chicken stock.  So that’s four bags out of the freezers. A small dent in the cache, but a dent nonetheless.

A pureed soup is both easy and a pain in the butt.  It’s easy in that you basically just put all the ingredients in a pot and cook them until they get soft.  It’s a pain in that you have to run it through the blender in small batches.  It’s also easy in that there’s not exactly a recipe.  I used the pumpkin, a carrot, an apple, an onion and some wild ginger in with the chicken stock.  That’s what I had in the vegetable drawer.   Feel free to use vegetable stock if you’re going for a vegetarian soup.  It’s a pain in that you have to have a second pot to put the puree in as you work the batches through the blender.

Here’s the key to using fresh pumpkin.  Cut the top and scoop out all the gunk just like you do for carving your Halloween pumpkin.  Set the top back on slightly askew and roast it in a 350 degree oven until a fork goes in easily.  Once the whole pumpkin is roasted and cooled, the rind will basically fall away.  It’s much easier than trying to cut the rind away from raw pumpkin.

Pumpkin on its own is kind of a neutral flavor.  (If you’re using canned pumpkin be sure you get the plain pumpkin and not the pie filling).  When you add apple and carrot you add a little sweetness.  I also add a little brown sugar for that.  The ginger adds a little bite.  Wild ginger is milder than the ginger you get in the grocery store so you can add a little extra.  If you want a little extra bite throw in some cayenne.  You’ll feel the ginger on your tongue just a little and the cayenne at the back of your throat.  Then add a little salt for balance.  A little cream makes it taste and feel richer than you expect.

This soup was a hit with 3 of the 4 of us at potluck.  Our fourth generally doesn’t care for pumpkin.  The flavors are more complex than you might think.  And overall it’s pretty healthy.  Lots of good vitamins from the pumpkin and little enough cream that it doesn’t ruin the health benefit.  It makes a perfectly good meal all by itself in my opinion and it’s even better the next day.  The perfect Fall food.

For those of your getting ready for Hurricane Sandy and the accompanying “Frankenstorm” this would be great to have around!

Good? So good.
Easy? Kinda.
Good for company? Absolutely.
Special shopping? Nope. Just be sure to get a baking pumpkin.

Pumpkin Soup


3 C mashed pumpkin
3 C chicken or vegetable stock
½ large onion, diced
1 apple, cored, peeled and diced (I used Honeycrisp)
1 carrot, peeled and diced
1 T minced fresh ginger
½ T brown sugar
¼ t salt
¼ t cayenne (more or less to taste)
¼ t white pepper
½ C heavy cream


Simmer pumpkin, apple, onion, carrot and ginger in the chicken stock until the vegetables are soft. Ladle a small amount of the vegetable mixture into a blender. Put the top on and hold down with a kitchen towel. Puree until smooth. Put the puree in a clean pot or large bowl. Repeat until all of the vegetables have been pureed. Add a little water if needed to get a smooth mixture. Be careful not to make the puree runny.

Return all of the puree to the soup pot. Stir in cream. Simmer 2-3 minutes. Adjust seasonings to taste.

Hoppin’ John – Not Just for New Year’s Anymore

October 1, 2012

Recently a friend inquired about my “death row meal.”  I didn’t list Hoppin’ John, but I might have to add it to the list.  This has everything going for it today.  It’s cool and gloomy out so this is a perfect comfort food.  Black-eyed peas are in season so I got them fresh at the farmers’ market on Saturday when I got the turnips.  Of course when you get turnips at the farmers’ market they come with the greens still attached – bonus!  The pepper plants around here are still producing – another check mark for South of the James market.  Dinner scores high on the “buy local” scale.  It’s mostly veggies and rice so it scores high on the cheap scale too.  I used smoked turkey instead of ham hock so it’s not bad on the healthy scale either.  Hoppin’ John is a good luck food for New Year’s, but maybe it will bring a little luck to the beginning of October too.

If you take a look at my New Year’s version of this dish you’ll note that it takes a couple of hours to put together.  This is a Monday and not a holiday so I didn’t have 2 hours.  It’s hard to rush the pot liquor, but I decided that 45 minutes was long enough.  In that time I was able to get all of the stemming and chopping of the greens and the chopping of the peppers and onions done.  A few things worked in my favor too.  The black eyed peas were very fresh – just a few days out of the field.  The fresher they are the faster they cook.  And the turnip greens were a little wilty so they cooked quickly also.  I used white rice instead of brown so that’s half time there too.  I cooked the rice in the black eyed pea water so it was almost boiling when I started.  I know, now I’m reaching, but I was hungry!

One note about this.  If you’re going to bother to make the pot liquor and stem and chop greens do lots of them.  You can always freeze the leftovers or eat them plain at another meal.  Ditto with the black eyed peas if you’re using fresh ones.  Go ahead and cook them all.  Mash the leftovers for black eyed pea cakes or serve them as a side dish.

My only complaint about Hoppin’ John is that my kitchen is a disaster. It takes four pots to put this together:  one for the greens, one for the rice, one for the peas and one for the peppers and onions.  You can use that last one to combine everything at the end.  It’s a great combination of flavors (earthy, green, smoky, sweet and salty) and textures.  Serve it with a little sweet cornbread and plenty of butter on the side.  And, of course, a big pitcher of tea.

Good? This is a favorite food of mine so it’s much better than good.
Easy? Not exactly. There are lots of things happening simultaneously.
Good for company? Absolutely. Who doesn’t need a little extra luck?
Special shopping? Nope, if you’re lucky you’ll hit the farmers’ market jackpot like I did.

Hoppin’ John


1-1 1/2 gallons of water
1 smoked turkey wing
2 T salt
1/4 t cayenne
greens from one bunch of turnips, stemmed and chopped
2 T butter
1 C fresh black eyed peas
1 T olive oil
1 red bell pepper, diced
1 onion, diced
2 garlic gloves, minced
1/2 C cooked rice


In a large pot heat the water and turkey wing to a boil. Add 2 T salt and cayenne. Simmer 45 minutes. Add chopped greens and 2 T butter. Simmer until greens are soft. Remove the turkey wing and pull the meat from the bone. Chop the meat finely. Discard the skin and bone.

In a small pot cover black eyed peas with water and bring to a boil. Simmer until peas are tender, but not mushy. Keep warm.

In a medium stock pot heat olive oil until it shimmers. Add peppers, onions and garlic. Saute until tender, but still crunchy.

Use a slotted spoon to dish 1/2 of the greens into the peppers and onions. Repeat with 1/2 or more of the black eyed peas. Add the rice and chopped smoked turkey. Toss gently to mix. Serve with Tabasco.

Blue(berry) Velvet Cupcakes

August 20, 2012

I’ve been waiting 2 months to make these and they are worth every minute.  I have a friend who is a big fan of blueberries.  I bought extra berries at the farmers’ market in June so I would have them for his birthday cupcakes.  He’s also a big fan of red velvet cake and of cake that comes in cupcake form.  I decided that there had to be a way to combine blueberries and red velvet cupcakes.  This is what I came up with.  There’s some room for improvement, but they are darned good.

Those of you who know me know how picky I am about my red velvet cake.  Many bakeries put red food coloring in a yellow or white cake and call it red velvet.  Ugh.  Real red velvet cake has a dark and tangy flavor from the cocoa, buttermilk and vinegar that you put in it.  I’ll admit that the cocoa flavor in these isn’t as pronounced as I like.  I’m working my way through a container of regular cocoa so that I can get back to the Special Dark cocoa powder that I prefer.  For these I followed a Paula Deen recipe for red velvet cake, but instead of red food coloring I used the pulp from 3 cups of blueberries.  More tangy deliciousness. 

In order to get some blueberry flavor I had to use about 1/4 cup of blueberry pulp.  Since you only use about 2-3 T of red food coloring I had some extra liquid.  So, I added some extra flower to compensate.  It kind of worked.  The batter was a little thinner than I would have liked, but had the creamy, fluffiness about it that you expect in cake batter.  The cupcakes rose exactly like they’re supposed to and the tops were smooth and beautiful.  Unfortunately as they cooled they contracted more than most cupcakes.  That made the cake a little dense.  More the moist texture of a carrot cake or banana bread than the lightness of a normal red velvet.  But then, what’s wrong with banana bread?  Not much.

These are not easy.  A standard red velvet cake has a lot of steps.  This cake has all of those and you have to deal with the blueberries.  I froze some blueberries when they were in season early in the summer and thawed them for this.  I put them in my food mill to separate the pulp from the skins.  I had to do them in two batches and clean out the food mill in between.  It’s easy work with thawed blueberries. If you use fresh ones your pulp will be thicker, which might be nice, but you’ll have to work harder to work them through the mill.  Of course you could use a food processor, but you’ll end up with some pieces of blueberry skin in your cupcakes.  That’s not a great texture so the food mill is a better way to go.  If you don’t have a food mill, you can absolutely mash the thawed blueberries in a colander or sieve with the back of a spoon.  It just might take a little bit longer.

Now, the frosting.  Oh, the frosting.  God bless Paula Deen’s Grandmother Paul.  This is one of the top five frostings I’ve ever made and it’s wicked easy.  It starts out as a standard cream cheese buttercream:  cream cheese, butter and powdered sugar.  Nothing to it.  And then you whip in some melted marshmallow.  Heavenly.  It’s the lightest frosting I’ve made that still has that distinct cream cheese flavor.  No milk, no vanilla, no liquor.  Lots of yummy goodness.  It doesn’t stand up tall.  It more lays over the top like a blanket.  It does have a beautiful glossy shine. 

These are gorgeous and tangy and blueberry and sweet and wonderful.  Maybe I’m unduly influenced by the lack of desserts in my life lately, but I don’t think that’s it.  I think they’re really that good.  Definitely worth trying again to see if I can lighten the texture a little.  And if not, I’ll eat them anyway!

Good?  Unbelievably good.  And with all the antioxidanxt from the blueberries they’re almost a health food.
Easy? Not really.
Good for company? Most definitely.
Special shopping? Nope.

Blue(berry) Velvet Cupcakes


3 C blueberries, thawed
2 cups sugar
1/2 pound (2 sticks) butter, at room temperature
2 eggs
2 tablespoons cocoa powder
2 1/2 cups cake flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 tablespoon vinegar

1 (8-ounce) package cream cheese
1 stick butter, softened
1/2 C powdered sugar, or more to taste
1 cup melted marshmallows


Mash blueberries in a food mill or colander to separate the skins. Save the pulp. Discard the skins.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.
In a mixing bowl, cream the sugar and butter, beat until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and mix well after each addition. Mix cocoa and food coloring together and then add to sugar mixture; mix well. Sift together flour and salt. Add flour mixture to the creamed mixture alternately with buttermilk. Blend in vanilla. In a small bowl, combine baking soda and vinegar and add to mixture. Pour batter into 3 (8-inch) round greased and floured pans or into 2 lined muffin pans. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes for cake or 15 minutes for cupcakes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Remove from heat and cool completely before frosting.

Blend cream cheese and butter together in a mixing bowl. Add marshmallows and sugar and blend.