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small bites

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.

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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

Two weeks, ten pounds of sugar, three dozen jars, and who can say how many pounds of fruit later, and I think I have to ‘fess up:  I discovered “putting up,” and I am hooked.

This is funny, because I was the kid who never wanted peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – straight up peanut butter for me.  This is also funny because I’ve always said I could never can anything because I was intimidated by day-long efforts for a few jars of product, scared about the prospect of exploding jars, and terrified by the chance that I might poison my friends and family if everything didn’t go exactly as it should.

But a recipe in the latest Canal House Cooking for tomato jam was too unusual not to try, and made the process of actually preserving the goods seem straight-forward and oh-so-doable.  Thanks to that confidence booster and a handy and cheap buy-this-with-that offer from Amazon.com, and I had everything I needed to make my first batch of jam.  It was a huge success (though I’m having a hard time convincing anyone other than myself that tomato jam is the perfect thing to have with a salty cheese or with some kind of porky thing.  Really, it is!) It was much easier than I thought, and the perky little “pop” that those mason jars make as they cool and seal is incredibly satisfying – kind of like a gold star for a food geek.

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What are some of your food quirks?  We all have them – things we love for no logical reason (Sara Lee poundcake for me, toasted), and things we can’t stand, for reasons good or bad (mayonnaise.) Eggplant has also long been on my no-go food list.

But where I have no problem having never developed a tolerance for mayonnaise, I feel like eggplant is something that I should learn to like.  It’s apparently right up there with fatty fishes in terms of being “brain food,” and it’s loaded with anti-carcinogenic antioxidants and scads of unpronounceable chemicals that promote cardiovascular health. (Now that I write that out, perhaps it’s no big surprise that I don’t love eggplant, after all.)  Health benefits aside, it’s featured in world-famous French, Italian, and other Mediterranean dishes … my wheelhouse of culinary enjoyment.

Inspiration to give the dark purple nightshade another shot finally came via Pixar, and my kids’ recent bout of illnesses that have kept us at home.  I may be a few years behind on this, so you might already know that Ratatouille is a great flick.  I’d even say it’s a better movie for grown-up foodies than for (my) wee ones.  What you might not know, though, is that Remy – the secret rat chef – is modeled on and was “trained” by Thomas Keller, who makes even the most humble ingredients into unforgettable sensory experiences. Remy’s recipe for ratatouille was created by Thomas Keller for the movie – and so it struck me: if TK could get me to not only eat – but love, both foie gras and salmon tartar at his French Laundry, his recipe for the classic eggplant, tomato and zucchini casserole would almost certainly be my best bet for learning to like eggplant.

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Is it a vegetable disguised as a treat, or a treat pretending to be good for you?  It might be both.

Morning Glory Farm on Martha’s Vineyard always has the best zucchini bread, and I love to grab a loaf when I get on-island.  When I was there a few weeks ago, though, it was not only too early for the market to be open, but the farm stand was also rebuilding after a fire last summer.  Not having the chance to pick up the bread made me really want it – or want to at least track down the recipe.

Then came the Great Zucchini Incident, in which I made breaded zucchini sticks as a vegetable for dinner, and bad, bad things happened.  The failure of the side dish left me with a few extra zucchinis, and no one but me to eat them.  Flash back to the zucchini bread, and the mini muffin tins that I’d just found on sale: little muffins, with vegetables hidden inside.  It was an inspired solution!

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So, it’s been awhile.  Sorry.

Last night was the first time I’ve really cooked in over a week, thanks to first being “home alone” while Husband experienced the volcanic interruption, and the Lad and Lass were at my parents’. It was a good chance to get a leg up on spring cleaning (though you’d never notice it) and a girl is due her share of take-out, once in a while.  But I may have overdone it.

Then, it was more meals out during our Vineyard getaway at the end of the week, then we got back and celebrated my birthday – out, again.  Blessedly, that dinner – being a grown-up affair – did  not feature anything swimming in unnatural-looking cheese sauce or containing pressed chicken (more on the dearth of good kids’ food in restaurants another time.)

So, by the time I had to contemplate the market and what to make for dinner, I decided (a) that I was almost tired of eating, and (b) that I couldn’t really plan much past the meal at hand, so I would just get enough to make some soup.

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So, The Lad wants us to plant a vegetable garden.  On paper, this is a great idea: it would be an educational and rewarding experiment for our family; it hits all my nouveau-homemaker hot buttons, such as eating local, eating organic, teaching my kids to love fruits and vegetables, knowing the joy of tomatoes still warm from the sunshine; we already have a berry patch, and its products only reinforce the warm-fuzzy feeling that this concept of home gardening evokes in me.  Heck, this bucolic dream has  even, at times, inspired me to announce that we’ll be getting chickens or that we should start keeping bees (leveler heads have prevailed – so far.)

“The Homestead” is an attractive conceit, even in miniature.

But I also need to be honest with – and about – myself:  we lost a few crops of our berries last year to birds, berries, slugs and laziness (and berries are about the lowest-maintenance thing I could come up with.)  What’s more, my rule for what thrives under my care is simple:  If you can ask for food and water, I’ll likely give it to you.  Kids and cats do well; plants and goldfish do not.  This does not bode well for seeds hiding beneath a layer of dirt.  I worry about embarking on a gardening project where the overarching lesson to my impressionable children is that “Mommy has a black thumb.” Read More