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I think this is my summer of Retro Cooking.  And, by that, I mean that I seem to be gravitating toward recipes that were at – or should have been at – all those birthday parties and barbecues we went to in the 80s.  Such recipes feature a lot of cans of things you can buy at any old grocery store, and pretty much thumb their noses at the recent (and worthwhile, for sure) ideas of eating local, eating fresh, or eating organic (I know, I know – the horror!)  But they’re also really easy and really tasty.  And that – right now, when making even one more peanut butter sandwich for The Lad’s lunch seems like too much effort – seems really smart.

I want to see people, to entertain, and do all the things that make summer summer.  But everything these days seems so last minute! I know I’m not facing a new problem: everyone is busy, and everyone is looking for something that is both delicious and easy, and that’s been true forever; and that’s why back-of-box recipes and mothers-little-helper ingredients exist, and why some of them have been passed down from one generation’s recipe box to another to another.  Sure, I’d love to have the wherewithal to make totally new, totally-from-scratch recipes all the time.  But what I’d love even more is to have a life and serve up something great at the same time.

This salsa is a perfect example – my mom had it at a friend’s party, asked for the recipe, and then made it for one of her parties, where I tasted it and had to have the recipe rightthenimmediatelythere.  And this recipe is nice because it’s not retro the way that Jello salads made with Miracle Whip and fruit cocktail are retro (that is, profoundly icky retro.)  In fact, this is a keeper because it balances convenience and freshness, and because you can make it ahead, and because your guests will be asking for the recipe that day because it is just that addictive good. And, with the exception of the “secret ingredient,” you probably could get even the canned items in organic versions, if that’s what floats your boat.  Otherwise, hit your local grocer, chop a few veggies, pop open a few cans, and enjoy.

Fiesta Salsa (makes about 4 cups – or enough for two days’ worth of light fare parties)
1 bunch scallions, including green tops, chopped fine
1 red pepper
, chopped fine
1 yellow or orange pepper, chopped fine
1 14.5-ounce can black-eyed peas, drained and rinsed
1 12-ounce can shoepeg corn, drained and rinsed*
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup apple cider vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
2 tablespoons Try-Me Tiger sauce**

*  It must be shoepeg corn.  Regular canned corn will be gummy.  Of you prefer to use frozen corn, the same is true, and you’ll want to steam and cool the corn before using it in the recipe
**  Tiger Sauce is a cayenne-based sweet-and-spicy condiment.  Look for it where you find Tobasco and other condiments.

Combine all ingredients, mixing well.  Refrigerate overnight, though this improves with age and can keep for up to a week refrigerated in an airtight
 container.

Serve these with tortilla chips; the “scoop” kind work particularly well.

That old adage about a picture being worth a thousand words is totally true.  But sometimes, they’re the wrong words.

Because, let me tell you this: the finished product of this dip is ugly.  Really, really ugly.  The kind of ugly that made me choose to just post the only-slightly-ugly uncooked phases of its origins.

But, gracious, folks, this is one of those times when the book should not be judged by its cover (or its nutritional profile.)

Here you have three simple ingredients – cream cheese, cheddar cheese, and chili.  You mix and you layer; you bake, and you reassure your friends it’s delicious, and everyone scoops it up with tortilla chips.  Read More

I don’t know if you’d ever noticed, but I have a bit of a sweet tooth.  I think it seems even more predominant on this blog, if only because sweet things tend to be more attractive.  (Really, it’s easy to style a cookie and make people’s mouths water, but it’s pretty hard to make even the world’s easiest and tastiest Cod Veracruz look like anything more than a jumbled heap of tomatoes and onions.)  Maybe one of these days I’ll find the time to do some more reading or take a real class on food styling and photography, but until then, you might just have to assume you’re getting a dessert from me.

But not today! Today, I steered wildly off course and made a savory version of a traditionally sweet dish.  Inspired by a blogger at Food52 who grew up eating savory French toast, I decided that making my own version was an ideal way to sell the breakfast-for-dinner concept to my distinctly dubious family.

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We’re heading South this week, to the land of chicken fried and barbecue and sweet tea. Now, I’m a New Englander through and through, and if it weren’t for family ties and the value inherent to children learning about all the places that they come from, I’d be hard-pressed to be heading toward more heat, more humidity and bugs bigger than your average SmartCar in the middle of August.  But the food … well, that’s where the South really finds my soft spot (well, the music, too, but this isn’t a music blog.)

I can remember my first visit south of the Mason-Dixon, again at the height of summer, to attend  a family event with Husband, long before he was my husband. We were in eastern Tennessee, and the whole extended family – most of whom I was meeting for the first time – went for a meal at a local restaurant.  All I remember about the meal is the dessert menu, recited by a local girl, and including what seemed like hundreds of pies, pronounced both rapidly and with an easy southern drawl: “Peach Pah, Strawberry Pah, Pecan Pah, Chocolate Cream Pah, Lemon Meringue Pah, Blueberry Pah, Cherry Pah, Razzleberry Pah, Apple Pah, Key Lime Pah …”

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The Internet is really one big wild card when it comes to – well – just about anything.  From forwarded e-mails to YouTube videos, the rule seems to be that there’s one gem for every one or two hundred throw-aways.  And it’s really rare to come across something truly special.

This is no less true for recipes; you can find a thousand versions of lasagna (or meatloaf or chocolate chip cookies), but good luck stumbling on one that you want to make again, never mind one that you want to make again rightnow. But we keep looking, and keep trying the recipes out, waiting for the one that proves that the Internet is more than information overload, that equivalent of the video we keep watching, the e-mail we just have to send along.

Well, here it is – the Evolution of Dance or dancing hamsters of recipes.  Originating with Marcella Hazan, doyenne of Italian cookery, this brilliantly simple tomato sauce has been passed around the Internet, blogged to death, incorporated into taste-making chefs’ own standards, and praised enthusiastically by cooks and diners the world around.  It’s my go-to sauce these days, and I have yet to serve it without the recipe being requested.

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Memorial Day.  Something about the unofficial start of summer makes me feel like a kid again. Hamburgers and hot dogs on the grill.  Planting the flower beds. Popsicles.  Running through the sprinkler.  Oh, and ice cream sandwiches.

But when’s the last time you had a really good ice cream sandwich? Chocolate chip cookies flanking ice cream tend to be too tough to chew, and cut up the roof of your mouth.  That’s almost as bad as those push-up freeze-pops, and childhood-memories-be-darned, I’m too old to hurt myself for the sake of dessert.  Sure, the paper-wrapped Hood ice cream sandwiches do the job in a pinch, especially if you’re after nostalgia.  But they don’t taste like much.

These ice cream sandwiches achieve what those supermarket sandwiches only strive for: a chewy, chocolaty cookie that provides a sturdy package for the ice cream.  And they’re so easy, it’s almost ridiculous.  The only problem I had was not eating the cookies before I put the ice cream in them.

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This is a spin on the much-blogged-about French yogurt cake (gataeux au yaourt), but I like to call it a muffin cake, because it shares the moist crumb and subtle sweetness that characterizes good breakfast muffins.  And because that somehow makes me feel better about eating it for breakfast.

Now, this is in no way some original idea.  Clotilde over at Chocolate & Zucchini turned many people on to the traditional French recipe a few years back, which is so easy and so versatile that it’s often the first thing that French children learn to bake.  The recipe and interpretations of it regularly make rounds in the food blogging universe.  I’d seen it when she first posted it, and filed it away as something to try.  In the meantime, Deb over at Smitten Kitchen revived and revised it as a lime cake with blackberry sauce about a week ago.  Her method simplified the cake even further (one bowl!) and reminded me that I’d been meaning to make a version myself.

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