26 December 2009

Southern Comfort Revisited

This is a rare photoless posting. But the comfort and satisfaction of this recipe are worth sharing even without photos. And besides, chicken and dumplings is a pretty bland photo subject.

I almost followed this Southern Living recipe to the proverbial letter, but it was just too bland. (Thanks here to my parents for renewing my SL subscription each year.) So I added 1 tablespoon of white pepper, and it set this recipe on fire. (Not spicy fire; it just made it freakin' good!)

Here's what to do...

Greg's Adaptation of Southern Living's Easy Chicken and Dumplings

6-quart pot w/ lid
large wooden spoon for stirring
ladle for serving

4 cups broth (for this recipe, Greg recommends his own low-sodium low-fat turkey broth made from the carcasses of the neighbors' Thanksgiving birds)
1 can cream of anything soup (SL magazine says chicken soup, but I think a cream of veggie would be great)
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning (hello, salt!)
1 tablespoon white pepper (black pepper will work, but you'll have speckles in your finished product)
1 store-bought rotisserie chicken, meat pulled into bite-size pieces (white and dark), about 4 cups
1 small can pop-em-open biscuits
1/4 cup flower for dusting the canned biscuits
4 carrots
4 ribs celery

Yep, that's one TABLESPOON of pepper. The Southern Living version of this was just too bland. This pepper really flavors it up without being too spicy.

Put the first 4 ingredients into your 6-quart pot. Cook on low while you decimate your chicken, pulling each bit of meat and flavor from the bones. Save that carcass for more broth.
Add the pulled chicken to the pot. Simmer while you...
Dice your carrots and celery. (Greg recommends his new Kramer chef's knife. :-)
Pop open the biscuits. Dust them in the flour and then press them into 1/4-inch disks with your hands. (If you really want to mess up more implements, you can get out your rolling pin.) Cut them into 1/2-inch strips, and cut the strips to 1 inch each.
Drop the biscuit bits into the simmering chicken mixture one-by-one, stirring after each few additions to ensure that the used-to-be-biscuits don't stick. If you don't stir, they will and you'll wind up with chicken and dumpling.
After all the used-to-be-biscuits are added, continue to simmer for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.
Remove from heat. Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Serve with salad or something else seemingly healthy if you need to remove any guilt.

29 November 2009

Cutting it Close

Happy birthday to me! I just returned from Williams-Sonoma with my birthday present to myself -- a Kramer chef's knife. I can't wait to slice stuff!

09 November 2009

Coleslaw - Variations on an Ancient Theme

A few weeks ago I was watching Tyler Florence on Food Network and he made a butternut squash coleslaw with honey goat cheese dressing. It looked like a delightful variation on this ancient salad theme (Wiki "coleslaw" to get the whole story.), so I decided to give it a go. Over the weekend, Tom made and incredible venison meatloaf. For tonight's supper, I decided to make warm meatloaf sandwiches with the left-overs, the butternut coleslaw, and corn on the cob. (It was on sale at Newflower, and I couldn't resist!)

The sandwiches were simple -- warmed wheat telera rolls (sort of like soft 6-inch baguettes; Wiki it, too), left-over meatloaf topped with pepper jack, jalapeno onion mustard, horseradish, and mayo. The four ears of corn were even simpler -- shucked, individually wrapped in plastic wrap, and microwaved for 8 minutes.

The fun dish of the evening, though, was the coleslaw. Here is Tyler's recipe (thanks to www.foodnetwork.com) with my embellishments in Italics:

Butternut Squash Coleslaw with Honey Goat Cheese Dressing

large bowl
vegetable peeler
big-honkin' knife to cut the squash
large pot or Dutch oven with 5-6 cups heavily salted water

4 ounces creamy goat cheese at room temperature
1-1/2 tablespoons honey
3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 teaspoons apple cider vinegar
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and pepper to taste (LOTS of pepper!)
1 medium butternut squash
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup coarsely chopped toasted walnuts
2 tablespoons chopped parsley leaves

In the large bowl, combine the cheese and next 5 ingredients.
Whisk until completely combined and creamy.
Fire up the pot of water to boil. You'll use this to blanch the squash shortly.
Cut the stem from the top of the squash. Peel the top half of the squash (the cylinder) with your vegetable peeler using the bottom part (the bulb) as a handle. Cut the top half (the cylinder) off of the bottom half (the bulb). Save the bulb for another purpose. Cut the cylinder in half making two shorter cylinders and then again length-wise making four half-cylinders. Use your mandoline to make long, skinny matchsticks (julienne).
When the water is at a rolling boil, blanch the julienned squash for 2 to 3 minutes until al dente. (Thanks to neighbor Susan for this idea. The original recipe calls for raw squash sticks, and we think that would have been too bitter and grainy.) Immediately drain and rinse under cold water to stop the cooking and cool the squash.
Toss together all of the ingredients with your tongs, ensuring that the dressing is evenly distributed. Serve immediately.

Tyler's recipe says it makes 4 servings. IMHO, it could easily have served 6 or 8 -- especially with the heavy meatloaf sandwiches and corn. This would pair really well with ham, bratwurst, or any other salty meat. The combined sweetness of the squash, cheese, and honey makes a really nice offset to the saltiness of the meat.

Come on! We're fixin' to eat!

04 October 2009

The Big Buses

Anybody who has been to Dulles airport in the DC nether regions is no doubt familiar with the big buses, or "transit lounges", as they call them. They are soon to be things of the past.

My family lived in Fairfax, Virginia, in 1968-69, and when Uncle Jim, Aunt Margie, and Chuck visited, the boys drove all the way out to Dulles to check it out. COOL! At that time, there were no remote terminals at Dulles, and Fairfax was the distant suburb. The big buses went directly from the swoop-roofed terminal to the planes. Now, Dulles has been encased by the 'burbs, and people commute to the district from Leesburg. YIKES! I desparately wanted to fly somewhere in 1968, but that was not in the cards.

Recently, though, I was dealt that hand! I got to fly into Dulles and take the big bus from Terminal B to the main terminal. Flying now is not as glamorous as I imagined it was in 1968, but it was still cool on the big bus. Flying may not have been glamorous back then either, but my vision of flying at age 4 was a United jet on "Hawaii Five-O" (still one of my favorite shows) arriving in Honolulu and each passenger being leid after descending the stairs from the plane. (I flew American Airlines to Hawaii in 2003, and that didn't happen.)

They are now almost finished with an underground train system to replace the big buses. Airport security has already gone underground, and the trains appear to be about ready for business, too. Is it the end of Dulles as I know it?

I wonder if they are going to sell the big buses. I wonder if they are street-legal in Texas, where everything (except the political brain) is bigger. I would imagine that they are, since the original Hummer H1 is. Does anyone want to pitch in and share one? That could be a fun drive from Dulles to Dallas! (Hey! Just change the vowels!)

21 September 2009

A Sordid Weekend

Saturday, Tom and I went to see Del Shores' "A Sordid Affair". It was absolutely hillarious, except for the two bizarre homoerotic dance numbers that were interjected immediately before and after intermission. I'm not sure why they were there, because the talking material was perfectly suited for the mostly homo crowd that was in attendance. Leslie Jordan, a fellow southerner, brought down the house with his non-tiring monologue about his life experiences. It was a great show, and I highly recommend it. Leave the kids or easily-offended folks at home; it's all no-holds-barred comedy.

We took the train to the show. Dallas is about 40 years behind the rest of the country in rapid transit, but about 50 years ahead of the rest of Texas on this. The red and blue lines both come through Mockingbird Station, so we parked Elizabeth Taylor (my car) there and had lunch. We were headed for a taco restaurant, but Tom saw a sushi spot, so we diverted there. It was adequate and expensive. I had a glass of Chardonnay for $9 (I can get a BOTTLE of the same stuff at the Kroger, just yards away, for half that price) and Tom had a small bottle of sake for $19. YIKES!

We took the red line (never mind that all DART trains are yellow; but that's much nicer than Houston's "fright rail" trains that are worthy of Darth Vader) downtown, which is just 2 stops away from M-bird Station.

We arrived at the Majestic Theater, Dallas' only remaining early-twentieth-century grand theater, about half an hour before the show. The lobby was filled with "family" members, and we ran into our friends, Clark and J.W. (not Marriott). The theater doors opened shortly, and we enjoyed the show. What a freakin' hoot!

Yesterday was Sunday, and that means brunch day for me! I revisited my old stand-by, frittata, and it was once again a hit. This one included eggs (DUH!), spaghetti (pasta makes these things great!), cream, carmelized onions, asparagus, bacon, and Parmesan cheese. For sides, I made Parmesan biscuits and steamed broccoli. It was the perfect way to start the day! Bring on the week...

26 August 2009

Another One-Dish Wonder

I love left-overs. The problem is that we usually just have odds and ends left over, not complete meals. A few weeks ago I grilled some lamb chops on my Big Green Egg. We had 7 or 8 left over, so I sucked-n-saved 'em and put them in the freezer.

I was watching Food Network over the weekend and Emeril made a beef pot pie. I thought that would be an excellent re-purposing of my left-over lamb; never mind that pot pies are hearty winter dishes and it's a 100-degree summer day here in Dallas. I went online to find a recipe and came across a very simple one at AllRecipes.com. I adapted it to what I had in the refrigerator and pantry, and the result was fantastic.

I didn't have enough lamb in the freezer for the recipe, so I augmented it with some cubed steak.

My mother taught me the simplicity of making my own pie crusts several years ago when Tom and I were visiting my parents in Atlanta. We made Aunt Pearl's fried apple pies on that visit. (That will have to be a future blog posting.) This pot pie recipe works great with a home-made crust, but also works fine with the store-bought variety. It just depends on how much time you have.

Here's the scoop...

Red Meat Pot Pie

large mixing bowl
2 medium saucepans
9-inch pie pan

1 pound cooked cubed red meat (I used beef and lamb)
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup water
1 can beef broth (14 ounces)
3 large carrots, diced
3 medium potatoes, cubed
1 cup frozen green peas, thawed
3 tablespoons cornstarch
1/3 cup water
2 pie crusts

In one of the saucepans, saute the already-cooked meat in the olive oil to warm through and give a nice carmelization, about 3 minutes.
Add 1 cup of water to cover and simmer the dickens out of it until the meat is VERY tender, 2-3 hours. Drain the meat into the mixing bowl and discard the liquid.
Preheat oven to 350.
In the other saucepan, cook the potatoes and carrots in the beef broth until almost tender, about 20 minutes. Don't over-cook them our the finished product will be mushy. Remove the vegetables from the pan into the bowl with the meat, preserving the broth. Add the thawed peas and stir to combine the mixture.
Dissolve the cornstarch in the 1/3 cup of water, then stir into the broth in the saucepan. Cook over medium heat until thickened, about 3 minutes.
Place one of the pie crusts in the pie pan. Fill with the meat and veggie mixture. Pour the thickened broth (now a gravy) over the filling. Top with the other pie crust and fold over the edges and seal.
Poke 12 or so slits in the top crust so it can vent.
Bake at 350 for 35-40 minutes, until the top crust is golden brown.
Let stand for 5-10 minutes before serving.

Serve it with a large serving spoon; don't try to cut it into wedges like a dessert pie.

07 August 2009

When in Rome ...

Signage? What Signage?

We loaded the toaster and left the villa on Saturday morning, headed back to Rome for the final leg of our Italian adventure. We made an encore visit to Orvieto for lunch and then headed to Fiumicino (the town where Rome's airport is located) to turn in the toaster and begin our big city fun.

Like most major cities, the route to the airport was clearly marked. Unlike most major cities, however, there was ZERO signage to guide us to the rental car return. We circled once, twice, and finally surrendered to the Hilton hotel to inquire. "Go back into the airport entrance; follow the signs to 'covered parking' [Yes, this morsel of signage was in English. Go figure.]; pass entrance A and entrance B, and enter at entrance C; Hertz is on level 4 inside the covered parking." Do most tourists who rent cars in Rome just know this stuff?

Once the toaster was returned, it was a short haul to the Leonardo Express (the train from the airport to the city) platforms for the 35-minute ride to Rome. The hotel is just two blocks south of Termini, Rome's main train depot, so that leg of the journey was going to be easy. Or was it? ...

Street signage in Rome is almost nonexistent. We walked the two blocks south of Termini, hoped that we were on the right street, and finally happened upon Hotel Contilia, our home for the next four nights, a few blocks to the west. We were initially skeptical of the neighborhood -- at the conjunction of Chinatown, the Middle East quarter, and Termini -- but we soon learned to appreciate the vibrance of the area. The mixture of hotels, apartments, sidewalk cafes, and ethnic markets give the area a great energy.

When in Rome, Eat With the Americans

Something we have learned in our travel experiences is to do a walk around the area surrounding the hotel -- sort of a "self-orientation" to learn where the nearby markets, restaurants, and other services are located. On this trip, we found a nice-looking pizzeria where we would return for dinner.

We arrived for dinner around 9:00 PM, Italy's defacto dinner hour, and were seated on the patio with a commanding view of the patio and dining room. As other patrons arrived and were seated nearby, we quickly realized that everyone within earshot was North American. Apparently the look of this place has an uncanny attraction for us.

We would come to find out that it was not just that pizzeria that was chock full of North Americans; the whole city of Rome was full of us. Very full. The typical tourist attractions were packed.

25 July 2009

La Dulce Vita

At Home in Colle Ciupi

While the villa is officially in Monteriggioni, it is just a kilometer from a family hamlet called Colle Ciupi. "Colle" is Italian for hill, and Ciupi is apparently a family name, as we saw several mailboxes labeled "Ciupi". We made the quick commute from the villa and found a tiny collection of homes built around an even tinier church. This place obviously doesn't get much tourist traffic; we were greeted by a pair of locals with machetes attached to their belts. They were surprisingly not unfriendly in their buongiornos, and were not aggressive or offensive at all. The machetes never left the belts.

We walked around the village, admired their church and gardens, snapped some photos, and then headed to the Coop in town (Monteriggioni) for dinner provisions. We're firin' up the grill again tonight!

A bit about the Coop... Coop is a chain of markets (note the lack of "super" prefix) scattered throughout Tuscany (and maybe elsewhere; we've only been in Tuscany). They are small, but are packed with a plethora of produce, meats, cheeses, exotic [for us Americans] soft drinks, liquor, wine, and fantastic Tuscan treats -- fresh olives and marinated artichokes. There are only four aisles, but every square centimeter of space is used for maximum marketing. One of the final items from which to choose is a grocery bag. If you didn't bring your own sacks, you can select however many you need before you get to the cash register -- .10 Euro. No pity for the unfortunate tourist who doesn't pack canvas bags. (Julie did!) I *love* this kind of market -- easy in, easy out, easy going, easy on the planet.

Dinner included pork sausage (casings still connecting the links), seasoned turkey breast filets, grilled zucchini slices (these zuccs were spherical, about the size of oranges), green beans, and a few other sides.

La Dulce Vita

Today is our last full day at the villa. We decided to do a scenic drive through Chianti and visit Chianti Sculpture Park near Pievasciata. (Google it.) I programmed Eliza for the town, and we were off. At one point however, when she, in her programmed English accent, told us to turn left, we jumped the gun by about 20 meters and ended up at a former monastery which is now part of the University of Siena. What a fortunate fumble! The formerly sacred site was surrounded by vineyards and olive groves, and the place was the definition of bucolic. (I have never written that word, so you know it must be a special place.) Inside the former monastic walls, the grounds were impeccably planted and pruned, with infinite floral and vegetable gardens. There was some sort of US [not "of America"] faculty conference convened, and they were apparently taking a smoke break. I trust that those cigarettes were sacred. (Isn't it interesting that to get from sacred to scared, you just swap 2 letters?) We consulted with Eliza, made the quick trip to the sculpture park, and began the art tour.

If you are ever in Chianti, don't miss this place. It is far enough off the beaten path so that tour buses don't bother. It is secluded, serene, and sensational. As you arrive at the private park, you are greeted by the first sculpture -- a queue of plaster people waiting to buy tickets at a box office. Our collective initial reaction was "Whoa! Where did they come from?", which was followed by laughter and a sigh of relief when we realized what the artist had done to us. We completed the loop of sculptures, many of which were interactive, and left the park with two carloads with smiles.

We had passed through the tiny town of Pievasciata on our way to the park and noticed the "My Way" wine bar and art gallery, so we returned there for a delightful light lunch of cheeses, melon, cured pig meats, beef carpaccio, olives, bread, and wine. *This* is la dulce vita.

After returning to the villa, we sat on the patio discussing our travels. Several questions arose about various aspects of our adventures, and nobody could come up with good answers for many of them. Finally, Sonny summed things up: "This is Italy; there's no time for practicality."

Tomorrow, we're headed to Rome...

21 July 2009

Successfully Seeing Siena

Our first day in Siena had been not completely successful; remember "Black Sunday"? We returned on this morning to a much calmer and better-stocked city. We found fairly easy public parking at Il Stadio (the city's football [soccer for us Americans] stadium), which is conveniently located near all of the city sites.

We started our revisit with a quick tour of the Cathedral of San Domenico and Santa Catarina (St. Catherine). The outside is a kind of drab beige brick, and the inside is not up to the French or Italian Gothic standard, but it's bland material structure is way more than made up for in the story of St. Catherine. I can't recount it all here, but in a nutshell, she's the one who convinced the Pope to move the Catholic Church from France back to Italy. Rick Steves' book has a great down-to-earth recounting of her story.

From there, it was time for lunch. (Imagine that. More food.) We settled into a small trattoria where we enjoyed more Tuscan fare. After lunch, we split into two missionary camps: the shoppers and the Internetters. (Guess into which camp I fell.) We reconvened at the drain of Il Campo (a work of art in itself), had some gelato, and decided to return to the villa for what was to be one of our best and most memorable meals.

On the return to the villa, we needed to get some fuel for the fleet. We drove into the Siena Esso station to find it closed. It turns out that they were out of petrol. Hmmm...

For dinner we decided on bistecca alla Fiorentina (steak Florentine). We visited the local Coop Market and had the butcher hack us off three T-bone slabs. We got some accompanying veggies, and then headed back to the villa to fire up the grill and get things cookin'. After a feast of steak, chicken, zucchini, and more, we relaxed on the patio before heading to bed. Tomorrow was to be a big, big day in Florence...


The plan was to get up early and leave the villa by 8:00 for the scenic drive to Florence, about 50km away. We were on our way to the autostrada by 8:15, but had to stop for petrol (see above) on the way. We pulled into the Total station in Montereggiano to find the "chiuso" (closed) signs posted. Julie inquired and learned that there was a strike of some sort, so fuel was not being transported for two days. Luckily, we had planned tomorrow as a do-nothing day at the villa, but how were we to get to Florence today?

Enter TrenItalia. Instead of driving the trek to Florence, we decided to go to Siena and take the train. (The drive from the villa to Siena and back is just 1/8 tank of gas.) We got to the station, easily parked in their lot, and were off to Florence via rail. While many European trains travel industrial routes (which is why the industry is there in the first place), there is not much industry in Tuscany so the rail routes are surprisingly scenic. We past vinyards, villas, vegetable gardens, and a variety of other pretty places. And because Florence's Santa Maria Novella (SMN) station is in the heart of the historic city, we didn't have to futz with finding refuge for the unfueled Fiat (and Lancia).

Florence in a Flourish: Chasing Julie

We arrived at SMN at 12:30 PM, about 3 hours later than planned because of the strike, just in time for lunch. Julie has spent much time in Florence, so she knew of a great little (REALLY little) restaurant close to the station. It was so small, in fact, that four of us had to sit outside and four sat in.

After a great lunch, we were off to the races; we had a lot of ground to cover in our condensed schedule. Piazza della Signoria. Ponte Vecchio. Santa Croce. Accedemia. (We had a reservation to see Michelangelo's David at 16:00 thanks to Julie's planning.) Bar. Whew. Finally a rest. We had beer, water, water, and water, and rested for a good 45 minutes. Some of us shopped at a nearby stationery store while others of us continued our rest and cool-down.

We headed to the outdoor market and strolled the endless stalls of stuff. Our sole purchase was a prized possession for a dear friend. It was now around 18:00 and we were ready to head home to the villa. We headed back to SMN and made the 19:10 direct train to Siena.

We had yet another great Tuscan dinner in Siena, played a game of "What's your most embarrassing momemt?", and made the short drive back to the villa. Another full day in Tuscany accomplished.

12 July 2009

Italian Encore, Parte Una

My first trip to Europe was in 1991 when Tom and I visited Italy. He was skeptical of coming to Italy, having already visited Amsterdam, London, and more. But I wanted to come to Italy. He conceded. And he's never regretted it. We threw 3 coins in the proverbial Trevi Fountain, and eighteen years later, we're on our way back!

This trip is different, though. First, we are older now and have different travel priorities and objectives. Second, we have many new friends now and have shared travel stories and experiences with them over the years. And third, and probably most changed, we no longer want to cram as much into a trip as we used to; our preference now is to travel at a pleasurable pace, enjoy the journey, and learn more about the locality and the locals.

And so begins our return to Europe: The Italian Encore...

God love a GPS

A few months before our departure, I found someone on eBay who was selling a memory card with maps of western Europe for my now aging Garmin GPS. We and several friends rented a villa near Siena. The directions provided by the owners in advance of our trip seemed logical enough: left on via della blah blah, right on via di yada yada... So much for logical directions; the GPS paid for itself pronto.

We arrived at the villa after a couple of missed turns (even today's technology has trouble with these medieval routes), settled into our room, and thanks to the Richeys, had a lovely dinner of insalata , fennel w/ olive oil, prepared meats, crackers w/ pate, olives, and pasta. It was a great start to a great stay.

Siena Savvy

Siena is the closest city of size to the villa. Like most Italian medieval towns, it was built on a hill and was surrounded by walls with just a few gates that allowed access. That helped the locals ward off the evil intruders. (Remember, Italy was not unified as a single nation until the mid-1800's. Prior to that, all these "city states" operated somewhat independently. I'm an American tourist, not an Italian scolar, so I'm WAY simplifying this.)

And like many of these old cities, the city center is closed to most traffic. (In fact, Siena was the first city in modern Europe to do so.) So you park outside the ancient walls and walk a long way to the heart of it all.

It was Sunday afternoon, so most of the shops were closed. Nonetheless, we walked the streets, working our way from the remote parking to il Campo, the heart of the city center. It was around 2:00 PM, so we settled in to a restaurant for lunch. Our waitress was not having a good day; she called it "Black Sunday". The wine and beer had not been delivered; the produce and meat had not been restocked; and the women's toilet was clogged. Two hours later, stomachs full on whatever foodstuffs the kitchen had available, we continued our tour of the town.

For Sunday evening, Julie had arranged for a catered dinner at the villa. We returned from Siena and the caterers were hard at work. They prepared a wonderful four-course dinner of risotto, veal in cream, pasta, roasted chicken, salad, and chocolate-and-strawberry parfaits. Two courses into it, you say "I cannot possibly eat any more", and you repeat that phrase after each of the remaining courses. We all slept well this night.

Clutch Day

I mentioned that many of these Italian towns are built on hills. Today was going to be "hill day" -- tours of San Gimignano and Volterra, two very dramatic hill towns. San Gimignano is known as the city of towers because the rich folks that used to live there built tall towers adjacent to their houses to hide their riches from the invaders. (Remember, these towns fought with each other until unification.) After Florence overtook San Gimignano and the gates and walls were no longer necessary, the residents used their towers to hide their riches from each other. (Had this been in the U.S., these folks would have had this stuff proudly displayed for all to see and envy.)

As mentioned earlier, most Italian towns have wisely closed their historic centers to traffic, making for fantastic Fiat-free footing. Because of that, parking was impossible; the town was crammed with cars like sardines. (I can say that because I'm closer to Sandinia than you right now!) We decided to abandon San Gimignano and return either later this day or another day.

Thus began "clutch day". Since there were eight of us, we were in two cars -- Julie driving the Lancia they rented and Sonny driving the Fiat they rented. (We'll get to the Hyundai we rented later...) Both had manual transimssions. In our efforts to get out of the traffic-tangled town, we wound up somehow in the restricted traffic area of the historic city center. Oops. Let the clutching begin. The GPS was not much help here, because she (Claire named my GPS "Eliza".) was not well versed in which streets were now pedestrian-only and which were open to vehicular traffic. We ran into several dead-ends, up one steep hill, down another. The clutches were burning. (Literally, we could smell them.) Finally, we encountered a local policeman who pointed us in the direction out of town.

On to Volterra, about 15 curvy kilometers away...

As we headed down San Gimignano hill, we breathed a collective sigh of relief. Julie's and Sonny's clutch legs were getting a well-deserved rest, and the others of us were enjoying Tuscany's expanse of color and texture. In the distance around several bends in the road appeared Volterra, high atop another hill a few kilometers away. Most of us reacted favorably to the natural and medieval awe; Julie's reaction was, "Oh, [expletive]! Don't tell me that's Volterra on *that* hill!" It was clutch time again. Clutch reingaged, we ascended to Volterra and quickly found public parking at the base of the city walls.

We entered the town through one of the gates and found a pleasant, breezy, uncluttered village of cobblestone streets and brick storefronts. The place was not uncrowded, but it also was not pedestrian packed as we figured San Gimignano must have been.

As it was now approaching mid-afternoon and our appetites had been aroused by the adventure up and down San Gimignano hill and up Volterra hill. We stopped at a sidwealk restaurante for lunch, as it was now approaching mid-afternoon. Touristy, yes; but tasty, too. We continued our walkabout the town. The vistas from Volterra are beyond words, so I'll just throw in a few pictures...

We returned to the villa and prepared the ideal meal -- a variety of cold and warmed-up items from meals gone by. (We had a bounty of fabulous food left after Sunday's catered feast.)

Tomorow, we are off to see Siena in earnest (hoping that Black Sunday is over).

24 June 2009

Tennessee Traditions

Tradition is that my mother prepares one or two lasagnas, freezes them, and then reheats them in her RV's oven early in the trip for all to enjoy. This year was no exception. Tom and I arrived at Cades Cove on Monday afternoon, and Mother already had the lasagna in the oven. That evening, we ate and yakked and ate and yakked and on and on for most of the evening. The little girls (my great-nieces) ran and screamed and the big girls did the dishes. (I rinsed and dried.)

Tom and I headed back down the mountain to civilization (Townsend) for our first night at Dock's Motel. Dock's is a funky little find and a bargain. The accommodations are campy, cozy, and clean.

Tuesday was next, and that was my, Tom's, and Lynda's [sister] turn for dinner. Let's back up a bit. Our oldest sister, Lori, is the planner and the enforcer. That is a good thing. Lori assigns nights for each of us to cook -- we share the dinner responsibilities among all of us throughout the week. I guess this is one of the responsibilities of being the big sister. Again, a good thing.

I had planned the menu for the evening a few weeks ago (Lori is great about doling out the responsibilities weeks in advance) and tonight was kabob night -- Salt Lick dry rub seasoned chicken and veggies on bamboo skewers. Tom and Lynda were great chopping the ingredients while I prepped the mini Weber grill. I fired up the charcoal in the chimney I brought from Dallas, and soon we were off and cooking. As you know, I'm a bigot for my Big Green Egg, but I must give the little black Weber accolades for being "johnny-on-the-spot" (not to mention that it is about 300 pounds lighter).

The kids hated the kabobs -- I learned that mature tastes don't always work well with youthful expectations. Granny [my mother] came to the rescue with PB&J sandwiches. Thanks, Mother! In the ultimate vendication, though, my great-niece, Stephanie, approached me after dinner and asked when she would be grown up enough to like food like my kabobs. She's well on her way!

Tomorrow, the next traditions kick in...

10 June 2009

Tennessee Roots, Here We Come!

Every summer, my family (parents, sisters, and their offspring) trek to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park for a family reunion. Everybody camps -- the family at Cades Cove inside the park, and I and Tom at a nearby cabin. (Cold water and no electricity are not for us. We have to drive 20 minutes each way to link up with the rest of the family at Cades Cove, but hot water, Wi-Fi, electricity, and air conditioning make it worth the drive.)

We're now in the outbound stage of this year's trip. This year, we drove from Dallas, making the trek to Townsend, Tennessee, over four days. Granted, we could have done it in two (or even one in a pinch), but we like to travel at a leisurely pace and see the sites along the way.

We departed Dallas on Friday afternoon and arrived in Little Rock, Arkansas, early in the evening for our overnight stay at the Capital Hotel.

The Capital recently underwent a US$25 million renovation, and the result is a stunningly beautiful hotel property. (I'm guessing it was pretty before, but now it's incredible.) Our hotel package included a 3-course dinner at their award-winning restaurant, Ashley's. The meal was excellent, and the conversation with Chef Cassidy was equally informative and entertaining. If you ever have a chance to try their seared fois gras on crisp watermelon, don't miss it! Cassidy, thanks for a great meal!

Saturday morning, we visited the Clinton Presidential Center (we highly recommend it), and then made the quick jaunt to Memphis.

We couldn't pass through Memphis without spending a night with the ducks. We dined at the Rendezvous and returned to the Peabody for a nightcap and a good night's rest.

The Rednezvous is a great understated (until you see the crowd waiting outside) spot in a basement on an alley a half block north of the Peabody Hotel. The dry ribs are fantastic, and the ambience is that much better.

Sunday took us to Byrdstown, Tennessee, and the home of my paternal grandparents (now deceased), where my Uncle Gib Taylor now lives. We had dinner at one of Byrdstown's finest, The Bobcat Den. (Too bad their high school's mascot is not the cougar!) One of the menu specials was Roast Beef Manhattan, something with which I was not familiar. When I inquired, the waitress kindly explained that it is a roast beef sandwich. Cool! That's what I'll have. Tom had the roast beef dinner special, and Uncle Gib splurged on the fried oyster dinner. (All of these indulgences were to be offset by carrot juice the following morning.) The food was delivered, and come to find out, a Roast Beef Manhattan is said sandwich with a BEEF GRAVY FROSTING! It was decadent, if not sodium- and fat-loaded. Uncle Gib made us delicious pecan waffles and bacon for breakfast on Monday, with coffee said carrot juice on the side. I am certain that the cholesterol and fat from the Bobcat melted away. Thanks, Uncle Gib!

We left Byrdstown Monday morning, headed for Townsend and Cades Cove. The trip was scenic and uneventful, except for an unexpected 30-minute construction delay on the Tellico Lake dam in Lenoir City. We checked in at Dock's Motel, and then headed to link up with the family in Cades Cove. Let the fun begin...

05 April 2009

Brunch is Served...

As most people know by now, brunch is my favorite meal to prepare. It's so versatile; you can serve sweet, savory, meat, seafood, vegetarian, or any combination thereof.

Our friend, Jacque, had a dinner party Saturday night and served pasta primavera with a gardenful of fresh vegetables. She had lots of unused veggies after dinner was done. I had some grilled chicken left from my dinner on Friday, and that plus Jacque's veggies gave me an idea...

Fritatta (an open-face "Italian omelet") is one of the most simple yet sublime recipes in my repertoire, and it's so versatile that you can throw just about anything into it. Jacque's vegetables and a few left-over and fresh items in my fridge proved to be a marvelous medley for our mid-day meal. Here's the line-up:

Garden-Fresh Fritatta

large non-stick oven-proof skillet*
meduim bowl

3 tablespoons olive oil
2 cups mushrooms, sliced
1 cup orange bell pepper, chopped
1 medium yellow onion, chopped
2 cups zucchini, chopped into quarter-rounds
1 cup cooked spinach, chopped (I used left-over Parmesan-spinach dip)
2 cups blanched asparagus, sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
2 cups grilled chicken, diced
12 eggs, at room temperature
1/4 cup heavy cream
2 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 cup shredded Parmesan cheese

*My skillet is oven-resistant, but its rubber-insulated handle is only oven-proof up to 300F. I learned this tip on Food Network: Wrap the handle with foil, shiny side out to deflect the heat. This will keep the handle safe for the few minutes it will spend under the broiler.
  • Heat oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms, bell pepper, onion, and zucchini. Saute until almost tender, 3 or 4 minutes.
  • Lower the heat to low and add the spinach, asparagus, and chicken to heat. (Remember, they are already cooked, so we just need to warm them.)
  • Break the eggs into the bowl, add the cream, and beat with a whisk or electric mixer until frothy.
  • Increase the heat under the skillet to medium, then add the eggs. Stir them around as if you are scrambling them, and as they start to set, stir in the tomatoes, then stop stirring to allow the mixture to set.
  • Turn on your oven's broiler.
  • As the edges of the fritatta begin to dry (they lose their shine) and the center is still shiny and jiggly, turn off the heat. Cover the top of the fritatta with the shredded Parmesan.
  • Place the skillet under the broiler to set the center of the fritatta, and to and melt and brown the Parmesan, 3 or 4 minutes. Remove from broiler and allow to rest for 5 minutes.
  • Using your rubber spatula, loosen the sides of the fritatta from the skillet (because it's non-stick, this should be easy to do), then slide the spatula underneath the fritatta to loosen the bottom. Slide it out of the skillet and onto a cutting board.
  • Cut into 8 wedges and serve hot.

Bacon and biscuits make a great accompaniment, but the fritatta also stands proudly on its own. Break out the bubbly and blend the bloody Marys... Brunch is served!

23 March 2009

Bagna Cauda

Last year, my friends in Argentina introduced me to bagna cauda (BAHNya COWda, as we'd say in the U.S.), an Italian fondue loaded with garlic and anchovies.  I didn't experience it while I was there, but I experienced it vicariously through them.  It's a party food, not unlike fondue in the U.S. in the 1970's (although I only experienced that in Garrett Middle School home economics class in 1976; remember that, Robert and Mark?).

We and some friends are going to Italy this summer and renting a Tuscan villa for a week.  In advance of that trip, each of us going is hosting a dinner party at which we plan various aspects of the imminent holiday.  Tonight was my and Tom's night, and based on what I learned from my friends in Argentina, I chose to prepare bagna cauda.

Bagna cauda, like fondue, is a stand-up-and-eat-it food.  Remove all the chairs from your dining room and remind your guests to wear comfortable shoes.

After a little research and many questions to my friends below the Equator (thanks, Karina!), I planned our evening.  Bagna cauda serves as the dipping sauce for crudites (bite-sized raw veggies), bread, and meats, such as meatballs and chicken.  On the Internet I found a recipe for Creamy Bagna Cauda.  There were several other recipes for oil-based bagna cauda, but being a product of the southern U.S., why would I NOT choose the creamy version?  There are several steps to the recipe (see below), but each step is simple, and the finished product is everything I expected, and much, much more.

For the dippers, I chose a variety of raw, par-boiled, and cooked stuff.  They are listed below the recipe.  Thanks to whatscookingamerica.net for the base recipe. (I served 6 adults and 3 hungry kids with this recipe, and had about 1/3 of everything left over, so adjust the volumes to your needs.)  Here's the scoop...

Greg's Creamy Bagna Cauda

large saucepan
medium saucepan
2 wood spoons
large sieve or strainer
small sieve or strainer
fondue pot or small crock pot
lots of bowls for serving all the dippers
2 bamboo skewers per guest (one per guest should do the trick, but lots of folks inadvertently throw theirs away and have to get another)

4 cups (1 quart) heavy cream
16 cloves garlic, peeled and whacked
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
10 finely chopped anchovy filets packed in oil, drained
1/2 cup fresh parsley, coarsely chopped
1 tablespoon red pepper flakes

[The stuff below is what you use for dipping, so this is variable according to your taste.]

4 stalks celery sliced into narrow 3-inch sticks
1 pint small mushrooms, sauteed in olive oil until tender
1 pound boneless skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1-inch cubes and sauteed in oil until cooked
24 bite-size meatballs, cooked (I used "Italian style" frozen ones from the grocery)
16 bite-size new potatoes, boiled until softened, about 8 minutes
1 bunch asparagus, trimmed and par-boiled
1 head cauliflower, cut into bite-size florettes
1 French baquette, sliced

And to prepare the bagna cauda...

In the large saucepan over medium-high heat, add cream and garlic; bring just to a boil, lower heat to medium, and cook, stirring constantly, approximately 15 minutes or until the cream has thickened and reduced by half. Take off the heat and let cool.

In the other saucepan, melt the butter. Add the anchovies to the butter, along with parsley and pepper flakes. Cook until the anchovies dissolve, about 5 minutes. If the cream has not cooled, yet, remove butter/anchovy mixture from heat.

When cream has cooled, mash the garlic with a fork. Force the cream and garlic through a sieve into the butter/anchovy mixture. Heat the sauce, stirring constantly until totally blended, but do not let it boil.  This is your bagna cauda.

Transfer the hot bagna cauda to the fondue pot or crock pot to keep it warm.  Place the pot in the middle of your serving table and surround it with the dishes of dippers.

To kick off your event, demonstrate how it works...  Take a plate, a napkin, and a skewer.  (Karina says that small forks work well, too.)  Place a round or two of baquette on your plate.  Stab a dipper, dredge it through the bagna cauda, let the excess bagna cauda drip onto your bread, and savor the flavor.

And here is the aftermath.  God love a dishwasher and a partner who makes the ideal clean-up crew!

16 March 2009

It's been a long time. But I'm back. This is another one of those recipes that Sandra Lee ("Semi-Homemade Cooking" on FoodTV) would just love, although there is no whipped topping involved.

A friend of ours, Sharon, is married to a man who like to hunt. The past couple of years we have been the beneficiaries of his desire to kill. He has given us venison burgers, backstrap, steaks, and sausage. A few weeks ago we thawed some of the ground meat and had a BYOT (build your own taco) dinner party. After dinner, there was a lot of taco-seasoned ground veal left over, so I decided to semi-homemake [wink to Sandra] some empanadas, savory stuffed pastry that I learned to love at Alcorta in Córdoba, Argentina. (Marcelo, thanks for suggesting that we order those!) If you're interested, there is a good history of the empanada on Wikipedia at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Empanada.

In the interest of keeping it semi-homemade [wink], I used roll-out store-bought pie crust dough. My mother taught me how to make fully-homemade pie crust dough, but in the interest of keeping my semi-homemade [wink] theme, I went with the store-bought. I made some with Pillsbury brand and some with Kroger brand, and the only difference I could tell was the dollar in the price. Here's the low-down:

Easy Empanadas
(makes 16 pastries)

large non-stick skillet
2 parchment-lined half-sheet pans
small bowl
pastry brush
6-inch round pastry cutter (I used the lid of one of my metal canisters)
rolling pin

2 boxes (2 crusts each) roll-out pie dough at room temperature
1 pound ground meat
taco seasonings (I used an envelope or store-bought stuff)
1 cup shredded sharp Cheddar cheese
1 egg
2 tablespoons water or milk
1 cup sour cream
1 cup salsa or pico de gallo

Heat oven to 350F.
Brown and season the ground meat in the skillet. Drain if necessary and set aside to cool.
Toss the cooled meat mixture and the cheese together.
Beat together the egg and water or milk in the small bowl.
Unroll a pie crust onto a flour-dusted surface.
Fold it in half, then roll it out lengthwise. You should be able to cut 3 six-inch rounds. Wad the leftover dough into a ball and roll it into another 6-inch round.
Using your index finger, moisten the edge of each round with the egg wash. This makes it easier to seal.
Spoon about 2 tablespoons of the meat-cheese mixture onto the center of each round of dough being careful to stay within the egg-washed egdes.
Fold the dough rounds in half and press the edges together with your fingers. Use the fork tynes to seal the edges.
Place the pastries on the half-sheet pan.
Repeat with the remaining 3 pie crusts.
Use the pastry brush to lightly "paint" the top side of the pastries with the egg wash.
Bake at 350F until golden brown, about 30 minutes, turning pans around after 20 minutes.
Serve hot with sour cream and salsa or pico de gallo.

Add fried or poached eggs on the side for an excellent breakfast. The runny egg yolks are a great "dip" for the flaky empanadas.