blondie bake-off

Blondie bake-off

15 July 2014

She looks normal, my friend Jenny – slim, medium height, blond and cheerfully energetic – but she’s the Takeru Kobayashi of sugar. I have a sweet tooth, as does my husband and all of my kids, but in a sugar-eating contest the six of us would be groaning with pain under the table while Jenny could keep putting away pies, cakes and cookies with contented ease.

Descended from a line of great bakers, Jenny’s been in training since birth on both the production and consumption of sweets. Her lovely mom Angie, the image of Mrs Claus with perfect snowy hair and twinkling blue eyes, was the kind of mom who had fresh-baked cookies waiting every day after school, and each Christmas she baked scores of caramel sticky buns to give out to friends and family. When having lunch out with friends, Jenny’s impish dad Bob would order two slices of pie and a pint of Guinness – and at home could eat a whole of Angie’s fresh pies in a single sitting.

Because of her unreliable oven at home, Jenny often bakes in my kitchen. She loves not only the double ovens but – bless her patient heart – the enthusiastic child labor as well. Her sons are grown, but she still rolls out decorated cookies for them every Hallmark holiday, and my kids love to create with her rainbow collection of edible confetti.

But blondies drive Jenny crazy. Every so often she attempts a batch, using an index card handwritten with her aunt’s recipe. Every time they are cakey, and she wants chewy. This has been going on for years.

I came to Ohio this summer waving a new blondie recipe for us to try: Cook’s Illustrated’s blondie recipe featured by Food 52 in its “genius recipes” column.

In the blogosphere, there are two leading blondie recipes: Mark Bittman’s from his 1998 classic, How to Cook Everything, popularized by Smitten Kitchen in 2006, and Cook’s Illustrated’s from 2005. The two recipes are similar – flour, brown sugar, melted butter, egg and vanilla – but Bittman uses only egg for leavening, while Cook’s Illustrated adds baking powder.

Someone has already done a side-by-side comparison of the two recipes (thanks, How to Eat a Cupcake!) and found them near identical, with Bittman’s recipe just a bit fudgier. But Jenny wants chewy, not fudgy, and since the Cook’s Illustrated recipe is sized at twice Bittman’s, it seems a better base for our crowd. read on…

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summer chopped (taco-ish) salad

Chopped taco salad

9 July 2014

At the end of our friends’ visit to Ohio last summer, Paul left wistful for more pie, and Venus dreamed of Jeni’s ice cream. This year they came again for a longer stay, and we indulged in so much pie and Jeni’s that by the end, the only food they wanted more of was this chopped taco salad.

Funny how it’s hard to find a good salad at a restaurant, but it’s easy to make a great one at home. A home cook is unlikely to match the skill of a trained chef, but as Nancy Silverton points out, the salad-maker in a restaurant kitchen is typically a less-than-enthused newbie. To do better at home simply takes a bit of care.

Taco salad is as comforting as salad gets. It’s a salad, but it’s also a meal. You can have a pile of spicy taco meat on top, or a scoop of guacamole. It’s easy to eat – no knife needed. You can even eat it with chips.

The heart of this salad is a big bowl of marinated veggies – cucumbers, tomatoes, sweet peppers, olives and black beans – glossed with olive oil, red wine vinegar, garlic and oregano, and topped with crumbly cheese. It’s a lovely summer chopped salad in its own right, ready to eat and wilt-free. And from here you’re only two steps – cold greens and warm taco meat – from an unbeatable taco salad.

marinating salad read on…

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standing henckels knife

Kitchen geekery

27 June 2014

The fact that I cannot buy anything casually is tied directly to my hard-knocks immigrant training not to throw useful things away. Anything I buy, I’m likely to keep forever – which means I’d better love it.

So the things I geek out over in the kitchen are multi-use, smartly designed items that are priced well for their quality. Whether it’s a can opener or a cooktop, I do my research to make sure I get the best one at the best price.

I know these are not the things that will matter on my deathbed. But I can’t help myself.

Stackable wine glasses

Take these glasses, for example. I’m not oenophile enough to stockpile multiple shapes of wine glasses, especially considering the impractability of tall-stemmed glassware around energetically gesticulating children. I like stemless glasses, but there’s something cooler about these casually squat stemmed glasses: they stack.

crate and barrel eddy glass

I love the efficiency of stacking, because my no-waste philosophy is to stock a quantity of durable, inexpensive dishware and glassware so that I can have a crowd of kids and adults over without buying and throwing away a bunch of disposables. Stackable glasses take up half the cabinet space of singletons.

stackable wine glasses

These short-stemmed cups are also stable enough for kids to use for drinks, or ice cream. They fit well in a dishwasher. And they’re just $3 each or $30 for 12 at Crate & Barrel. Sold! read on…

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kitchen dining table

Kitchen, the sequel

18 June 2014

Well, we did it. We finally moved into our new place, more than three years after we bought a leaky old house on a lot with potential.

Funny how much can change in three years. Suddenly I’m not the mom loaded down with kids in her arms. My first child just graduated from elementary school, and my last graduated from preschool. After stretching up half a foot in the last year, my oldest is about to be taller than me.

I’d become so used to family obligations increasing – more and more kids, plus my father-in-law’s illness, and my dad’s – that it’s jarring to find that the peak of those family demands has passed.

Gone is my dad, the quiet man with all the answers, and my father-in-law, bright source of fun and wit. My kids are independent and capable, and the oldest of my many nieces and nephews have now left the nest. The landscape has changed.

For the next 15 years, this house will be a gathering place for kids, family and friends. I’m glad it’s done. I would never do it again. read on…

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It’s never easy to get away when you have mouths to feed and people to care for, but it seems to me if you leave them with heaps of food, they notice you being gone a little less.

I didn’t win the Saveur award or the free trip to the award dinner in Las Vegas that went with it, but as a finalist I was invited. So I snagged a ticket for the short flight and went – to meet and celebrate a crazy talented group of food and drink bloggers, and to express my gratitude to the editors at Saveur for noticing the little garden to which I tend here online.

At midnight the night before I left, I piled a big hunk of beef in the slow cooker with onions, garlic, oregano, and other herbs. At noon the next day I raked it with two forks into juicy, tender shredded beef. I figured by the time they figure out how to enjoy it all (in tortillas, on toasted buns, mixed in pasta sauce or soup), I’d be back.

It felt odd, after having flown through Las Vegas so many times, to walk out of the airport for once. It’s a cartoonish place – a Statue of Liberty, an Eiffel Tower, a great pyramid, all reimagined with bling – and I never lost the feeling that I was in Grand Central Station, with crowds of people constantly flowing by in all directions.

But the people I met were genuinely warm and wonderful. We came from all over the United States, plus Australia, Italy, England and Canada. There were food industry professionals, writers, photographers and graphic designers, and also musicians, actors, lawyers and college students. But we connected immediately, with the ease and laughter of kindred spirits.

The fantastic team at Saveur put together a fun and toothsome program for us, going behind the scenes through the Bellagio kitchens, then donning aprons for food and cocktail making. read on…

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I’m happy to pull out this reliable recipe again, like a favorite pair of checked shorts, for the warm-weather season. Paired with bright green beans, this fresh dish is both vegetable and starch in one generous bowl, only needing a bit of grilled chicken to complete the meal, or even some hard-boiled eggs for an easy picnic.

Bathed in a lemony, mustardy dressing, this potato salad is equally enjoyable warm, room temperature or cold. With no mayonnaise, it’s a dish that can safely endure hours at a potluck or outing. I showed it to you guys last year with asparagus, but I think I love it with green beans even more.

This is a winner side dish for entertaining. Green vegetable? Check. Starch? Check. Gluten-free, easy to make, easy to transport? Bingo. Soft and crunchy, fresh and comforting, it’s a versatile team player.

Potatoes are a very good source of vitamins and fiber, and they are one of nature’s ultimate comfort foods. I love fluffy russets baked, mashed and roasted in the fall and winter, and when it’s warm, waxy new potatoes are a welcome change.

I’ve learned not to select food for company that needs too much last-minute attention. With dishes like this, I get to play the relaxed host, instead of shooing people out of my kitchen workflow. read on…

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Eggs over spinach, chickpeas and tomato sauce

9 May 2014 Breakfast
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As someone who cooks often, I am ridiculously appreciative when someone else cooks for me. At a recent brunch, I sampled this gorgeous dish – spinach and chickpeas in a spiced tomato sauce, with sunny-side-up eggs on top – and my memory of it was so glowing I wondered whether I had been overly biased […]

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Discovery Tuesday

6 May 2014 Brain food
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The latest food trend is…no food at all? Plus the right way to peel a banana, and some sweet and silly links to make you smile. Soylent beige It’s so Silicon Valley: a young engineer tires of eating instant ramen, corn dogs, frozen quesadillas and vitamin C pills with his limited funds. Does he figure […]

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Carrot ginger soup

24 April 2014 Food
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I came out of my quiet little blogging closet to drum up votes for the Saveur award (I was scared to have a vote count so dismal the Saveur editors would reconsider their nomination, so thanks very much to those of you who took action to my plea!), and now I find it funny that […]

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Breakfast of Hawaiians (rice, egg, Portuguese sausage) – and a wander through Hawaii eats

18 April 2014 Breakfast
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Is it too mean to write about spring break in Hawaii when it snowed again in Ohio this week? I’m not here to wax lyrical about the sand (soft and powdery), or the sea (warm and iridescent turquoise), or the air (marvelously dewy). The beach is the beach – but Hawaiian food is its own […]

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