Archive for October, 2008

Many of you already know that I am probably the MOST devoted follower of the Barefoot Contessa (aka Ina Garten) out there.  I swear by her recipes because they are almost always really flavorful and not too difficult and they make people HAPPY to eat them.  Seriously – something about her food feels either perfectly cozy and hearty or special-treat fancy, without being snobby.  And she is such a merry person, too, on her Food Network shows.  Michael’s not-so-secret fear is that I will throw in the towel and just decide to be fat so that I can be as good a cook and as happy and jolly as Ina Garten. 🙂

I have 3 of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and although I’ve made many of the recipes, I’m still trying new ones.  I recently made her Blueberry Coffee Cake Muffins from the Barefoot Contessa At Home.  I want to share this recipe because I think it’s a good basic to have on hand.  I don’t think it quite compares to the old-fashioned goodness of my great-grandmother’s blueberry muffin recipe, which I would like to make again soon (just to be sure, of course – in the name of science) which is more bisquit-y and dense.  These were quite light and sweet.  But they whipped up FAST – about as much time as it takes to mix up a bunch of brownies – and I discovered that they freeze really well. 

I really made them because, well, I was hungry.  I work from home and so it is easy to satisfy those urges that suddenly pop into your head, as this one did, when I saw a box of frozen summer blueberries in our freezer.  Happily I had all the ingredients on hand so it was a nice warm, sweet late breakfast treat.  Once I’d satiated myself, however, I had 22 muffins left for just the two of us.  So I left a few out and packed 2 freezer bags with the noble idea of saving them for when company visits.  Unfortunately the last bag just came out this morning so it doesn’t look like they are going to make it that long.  But it was good to know that they freeze really well and are still nice and moist when thawed.  They are heavenly when heated and spread with REAL butter (don’t use that processed stuff!).

Two quick tips:

1. The Barefoot Contessa must use some jumbo muffin pan that the rest of us don’t have.  Her muffins and cupcakes say they make 16 but I actually fill up 24 normal muffin cups with the batter.  If you only fill up as many as she suggests you’ll end up with overflowing muffin cups and either messy muffins or a messy pan. 

2. Ina’s suggestion of using an ice cream scoop to fill muffin cups is really brilliant.  I only recently started following that advice and it really was so much easier to get muffins equally sized. 

Here’s the link to the recipe.  Bon appetit!




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Gas vs. Electric

I just realized I’ve created my own soapbox here to expound upon my BIGGEST pet peeve in my new kitchen.  I’m happy to have this opportunity to publicly say – WHY GOD, WHY are there still electric stoves in kitchens!?!?  I HATE my electric stove.  The funny thing is, I don’t think I’d ever used a gas stove until I lived in New Orleans, and it actually took me a little while to get used to it.  But in the 5 years since, I’ve grown not only used to it but terribly fond of the old gas stove.  There’s something about the little click-click-click as it’s igniting that is so full of anticipation.  And for those of us who are visual learners, it couldn’t be easier to manage your heat because you can SEE that cute little blue flame flickering away.  Most importantly, the heat responds quickly – it gets warm quickly when you light the stove and adjusts quickly up or down. 

Let me assure those of you who don’t cook on electric stoves – this is NOT the case with those annoying little coils.  The situation is slightly improved from when we first moved in, but here’s the worse case scenario which happens about once a week in my kitchen.  I put a pot of something on the stove to heat up.  Being spoiled by the instant gratification of my old gas stove, I want heat quickly, so I crank the dial up to the max.  While waiting to get some boiling action, I empty the dishwasher, wipe down the counters, chop something, open a bottle of wine.  I peek in the lid.  Not a bubble.  I sigh and turn back to the sink to load the dishwasher.  Pull a few more ingredients out of the fridge.  Take another look.  NOTHING.  Suddenly there’s a shout from the living room and I head in there to see what interesting thing just happened in either football or politics. 🙂  In about a minute, I hear the sound of water, or worse, soup, spilling all over my stove and burning on the hot coils.  For the next several times I use that burner there’s a thin stream of smoke heading towards the heavens and the smell is so bad even Nola (the dog) comes in to stare at me accusingly.  I’ll likely be dealing with this beast for the next 3 years but my sweet husband promises me, while consoling me as I spout potty words, that he’ll get me a gas stove for the next place we live.  For the rest of you, if you have any choice about it, I urge you to toss those electric nightmares and get a sexy little oh-so-responsive and helpful gas stove.  Cooking is so much more enjoyable that old-fashioned way.

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I’ve recently found a great way to use up leftover bread that was a big hit in our house.  Not sandwich bread, but the nice, more expensive kind you get to eat with soup.  I’ve been taking the leftover couple pieces and cutting them into large cubes which I then sautee at a medium-high heat with butter and olive oil.  Season them with whatever you like (I’ve been putting herbes de provence, salt and pepper on mine) and as soon as they start getting a golden crust on the sides, pull them out and let them cool.  They add a really flavorful crunch to salads, and look kinda fancy too, which is great if you have company. 🙂  If you’re not ready to use them right away (and they are definitely better fresh!), I’ve also cubed leftover bread and put it in a plastic baggie in the freezer, to thaw and make into croutons the next time we’re eating salad.  Bon appetit!!!

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I’ve been excited about making spaghetti and meatballs sauce for a few days, because I was planning to make my sauce in the slow cooker.  My mom never used a slow cooker so I’m new to this technique, and have been experimenting with it for the past year or so.  I thought this would be a great way to make tomato sauce since ‘real’ Italian tomato sauce/ragu is supposed to cook slowly for hours and hours.  I cooked mine for 6 hours today and I think I’m sold on this new method!  I think it could have cooked even longer – actually, the remainder is still bubbling away – and only get better. 

I don’t follow a specific recipe for tomato sauce; my mom uses my Aunt Sarah’s recipe which is basically sauteed onions and garlic,  mixed with spices, tomato sauce and tomato paste.  I start with that base and then throw in anything interesting from the fridge or spices that sound good to me that day.  I put a LOT of spices in this one – dried basil, oregano, thyme and herbes de provence, plus chopped fresh basil and parsley (leftovers I had on hand).  I seasoned it generously with salt, pepper and sugar (sugar breaks down the acid in tomatoes).  In fact, I overseasoned it with all those spices, because although it made the house smell delish, it knocked me over when I lifted the lid.  At hour 4 I added more crushed tomatoes and tomato paste to diffuse all that flavor and thicken it up.  The finished product at hour 6 had a great thick consistency.  It tasted just a bit too acidic, I thought, so I think I’ll add a little more sugar next time the next time.

The meatballs, however, were glorious.  I threw seasoned breadcrumbs, an egg and parmesan cheese in with the ground beef and then fried them in olive oil and finished them in the oven for about 10 minutes.  They had a crisp and flavorful crust and made the whole meal.  Yummy!

Slow-cooked Spaghetti and Meatballs

So the final verdict is that the slow cooker is a great way to get a deeper flavor in your tomato sauce, but make sure you add enough sugar to break down the acid and get your spice/tomato balance right from the beginning so it can all cook together the whole 6-8 hours (I’m going for 8 next time…).  It’s worth that extra time – I can’t think of anything cozier than a steaming plate of spaghetti and meatballs on a chilly fall night! 
PS: After adding some sugar and letting the remainder of the sauce cook an additional couple hours after we ate, it mellowed out into a darker, smoother, thicker sauce with a very deep and complex smell and flavor.  8 hours is the way to go, and I don’t think I’ll ever make sauce in a pot again!

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The Impetus to Blog

Sometime back in September, I started thinking about Thanksgiving dinner. We’re hosting my husband Michael’s family for Thanksgiving this year, and I started to think about what variations on the traditional I should start experimenting with in preparation for the big meal in November. Now, there are those who think it’s a just a teensy bit early to start thinking about a meal two months in advance. One of those people is my husband. I tried to explain to him that there was an awful lot to think about – do we want to incorporate traditional dishes from both of our family traditions into one mish-mash but homey meal? Or do we want to pick a ‘theme’ and have a Southern Thanksgiving or New Orleans Thanksgiving ? And didn’t he think it was VERY significant that this was our first Thanksgiving we were hosting in our married life and we should be intentional about what the Skena Family Thanksgiving Tradition would be about??? His response was – you should start a blog.

I think maybe he feels like all the thought that I put into thinking about food and meal-planning is so extensive that other people should have to share the burden of listening to such obsessive-compulsive trainwrecks. But I also think he appreciates that I think so much about it, because he gets to enjoy the fruit of those musings, and he certainly doesn’t want to think about it himself. Either way, although the idea initially terrified me, I’ve been realizing in the past few weeks exactly HOW MUCH time I spend thinking about food. Or reading about cookbooks. Or watching the Food Network. Or compulsively checking once more on Amazon.com the date that the new Barefoot Contessa cookbook is released (Oct 28!!!). It did begin to make sense that all that energy could be channeled into something amusing, if not productive. I really cannot imagine this being of interest to anyone else, but I guess that’s what people always say when the start a blog – and I like reading other people’s blogs, so who knows, perhaps this will be followed by a few of my loving friends who also have too much time to waste on the internet. 🙂 Mainly I think it sounds like a fun distraction, and since I am after all a grad-school widow now (just kidding, sweetie!) I can use some cheap entertainment. So, I’m going to give it a whirl. Let’s see what happens!

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