Sunday, November 30, 2008

Deceptively Delicious Debates

DD: “Cream cheese frosting? What’s that? I don’t want it.”
Me: “Oh, did I say cream cheese? I meant delicious creamy caramel frosting”
DD: “Then why did you say ‘cream cheese’?”
Me: “Mommy misspoke.”

I’m not above lying to my kids. In this case, I had made a special pumpkin spice cake with caramel cream cheese frosting for Thanksgiving (recipe below), and DD is fond of all things pumpkin. But she’s also suspicious of anything new. Deceived, she tried the cake and loved it.

But the primary secret of the meal? I put parsnips in the mashed potatoes. When referring to this dish with adults, I adopted a code: “How did you like the potatoes with the . . . other potatoes?” DD happily ate the potato parsnip puree without knowing that her creamy spuds had been adulterated.

But my Jessica Seinfeldian tricks only work on DD. Anyone with an inordinately picky child had to laugh at the whole Seinfeld wife vs. Sneaky Chef controversy. Oh yeah. We’re supposed to believe that these women were the very first mothers ever to slip furtive ingredients into their little one’s meals? How could Mrs. Seinfeld have plagiarized an idea that every desperate mother has come up with on her own?

DS began his life with the kind of nourishing, carefully orchestrated diet that that most babies of overeducated, health-conscious, formerly vegetarian, type-A mommies provide. I mashed sweet potatoes, pulverized avocadoes, and introduced whole grains only. And then, around age 2, DS began to refuse his old favorites. One by one, it seemed, my child was jettisoning the foods of his balanced and varied diet. My former omnivore now ate only a handful of items. Frustrated, I read books on picky eaters, nutrition, and development. (It was only later, when he was diagnosed, that I learned about sensory issues and the restricted palate of kids on the spectrum.) And yes, of course, I attempted to sneak in the veggies.

But unlike the dupes of Seinfeld and Sneaky, DS always knew something was up. “This spaghetti sauce tastes weird.” “I don’t like this ‘milkshake’” “Is this the kind of chicken I usually eat?” Food had become a battle. And as the cliché goes, you have to choose your battles. I decided not to make meals into war. So I chose to ignore those parents who take a “holier than thou” attitude about food, and I opted to “cater” to my picky child.

And what do you know? He’s not so picky anymore. He still prefers a narrow range of foods, but he willingly eats many, many new flavors—from sushi to crab cakes to raw spinach—and I’m confident that he’ll have many more culinary adventures when he’s ready.

As for DD? What she doesn’t know won’t hurt her. And sometimes (when it’s not frosting), it might make her healthier.

Here are some pictures from our Thanksgiving feast:

Pumpkin Spice Layer Cake
with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting (from Bon Appetit)

3 cups of flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 15 oz. can pure pumpkin
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel

1 1-pound box powdered sugar, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 8 oz. package of cream cheese, room temp.
1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temp.
Candied orange peel (I omitted this)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour two 9 inch cake pans. Whisk first 9 ingredients in large bowl. With an electric mixter, beat pumpkin, sugar, and oil in another large bowl. Add egges one at a time, beating between. Mix in orange peel. Add flour; beat on low speed just to blend. Divide batter between pans. Bake about 33 minutes, until tester comes out clean.

Frosting: Sprinkle 1/2 cup powered sugar over bottom of small nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat until sugar melts (do not stir). Continue cooking until sugar turns deep amber, stirring occasionally about 2 minutes. Carefully stir in 1/2 cup cream, vanilla, and salt. Stir until any caramel bits dissolve. Stir in remaining tablespoon of cream. Strain into small bowl. Cool to room temp. Sift remaining powdered sugar into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in a large bowl. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Beat in cooled caramel. Cover and chill until firm enough to spread, about 2 hours. Frost cooled cake.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

You Should Be Cookin', Turkey!

Many foodie households began their preparations weeks ago. For me, serious work on Thanksgiving started yesterday, although the planning has taken weeks. So far, I’ve made homemade turkey broth for the gravy, cranberry sauce, and cookies for the kids. Today, I will salt the turkey, bake the sweet potatoes, make the desserts, prep some of the appetizers, and finish the last minute shopping (the oysters need to be fresh, you know!).

What’s the menu, you ask? Why, I’d be delighted to share . . .

For Starters:

Endive with Smoked Trout and Herbed Cream Cheese (Epicurious)

Roquefort Bleu Cheese with table water crackers

Smoked Salmon “Tartare” with lemon and olive oil chips (Epicurious)

Spiced Pecans (Saveur)

The Main Event:

Herb-Roasted Turkey with Shallot-Dijon Gravy (Bon Appetit)

Creamed Potatoes with Parsnips (Epicurious)

Green Beans with Pancetta

Oyster Stuffing (Saveur)

Sweet Potato Casserole (Saveur)

Cranberry Sauce with Dates and Orange (Gourmet)

Yeast Rolls

The Final Countdown:

Classic Pumpkin Pie (Eating Well)

Pumpkin Spice Layer Cake with Caramel and Cream Cheese Frosting (Bon Appetit)

Since I’ve got to get cookin’, I don’t have time for bloggin’ . . .

But I am here to provide a special service. To fill a need you may not know you have. Let’s say you’ve been in the kitchen all day, intensely focused on baking, basting, and brining, and then it hits you . . . What will the folks eat tonight? Some of you have guests arriving, and they’re going to expect a meal. What do you feed people the day before Thanksgiving? Well, I've got an easy, fast, and light solution.

Fast Shrimp Gumbo

2 Cups of frozen okra

2 Cups of frozen corn

2 Cups of frozen lima beans

4 Cups of chicken broth

1 Can of diced tomatoes

1 onion diced

½ green pepper diced

3 tablespoons of olive oil

3 tablespoons of flour

12-16 oz. of fresh or frozen shrimp, cleaned and peeled

salt and pepper and Tabasco sauce to taste

Heat oil in a soup pot, and saute green pepper and onion until soft. Add flour and cook until you have peanut-butter colored roux. Add tomatoes and chicken broth and bring to a boil. Add vegetables and let simmer for 45 minutes to an hour. Add shrimp and serve as soon as they turn pink. Season with plenty of salt, pepper, and Tabasco sauce.

Happy Cooking!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Accidental Joy and Ginger

Caught up in traffic and dwelling on the difficulties of my book, I arrived home last night in a dispirited mood. The emotional wreckage I found when I walked in the door didn’t help. My daughter started crying because she hadn’t been awarded a certificate or a badge or something at school for being a “super, terrific student.” My son’s teacher had sent notification that DS’s smart-alecky answers on his science homework were unacceptable. So we redid the homework, this time pulling the answers from the reading rather than from our you-know-what. And we made a “you’re a super terrific student” award for DD, complete with curlicues, hearts, and flowers. Temporary peace achieved.

In the interim, I checked in on my blog, out of habit more than expectation. And what to my wondering eyes should appear? A sweet tag from CaptnRachel aka Tha Pizza Cutta. A random act of kindness to buoy my spirits! A random act that calls for random information from me. And then I tag six bloggers, and so on, and so on. Random ripples across the blog-o-sphere.

So here are The golden rules of tagging:
*Link to the person who tagged you
* Post the rules on the blog posted
*Write six random things about yourself
*Tag six people at the end of your post
*Let each person know they have been tagged by leaving a comment on their blog
* Let the tagger know when your entry is published

Here are some random facts about NCFoodie:

1) I went to a Star Trek convention when I was 12 (in a year I won’t mention b/c it will date me).

2) I once modeled nude for an art class. (I don’t recommend it.)

3) I love See’s Candy. Nothing’s better than a custom-made box (extra caramel, extra nuts, all dark chocolate) arriving on your doorstep. And I like including a friendly gift-note to my self. Seriously. Something like, "Dear Future Self: You are so going to appreciate me for sending you this candy. Love, Current Self."

4) My high school boyfriend is now a fairly well-known actor on a cultishly popular tv show.

5) I was Tina Fey as Sarah Palin for Halloween. You betcha!

6) I adore frozen margaritas. (Preferably on a beach in the Caribbean but will take them anytime, anywhere.)

I’m happy to tag the following bloggers. Come out and play . . .
/: Beautiful pictures and incredibly delicious sounding recipes. Visit her blog today! Jennifer Adams is a terrific writer who knows her wine and food. Her blog is always eloquent and always informative. Wonderful personal story, great philosophy, and some very yummy recipes. If you like your food writer to have a scientific background, balance is the place to visit. Smart entries, great recipes, and a little education along the way. Nazarina A is a food artist. You will be in awe. A relative newcomer who’s hitting homeruns with her recipes. Everything looks tasty!

Thanks, Rachel for making me an "it" girl. Your comments made my day!!

To keep with our theme of haphazardness and its pleasures, I also offer a random cookie recipe, accompanied by six relatively random statements:

1) Don’t use spray oil on the cookie sheets. It gives these delicate cookies an odd aftertaste.
2) The recipe underestimates the amount of crystallized ginger you’ll need. Chop about twice as much.
3) These cookies go well with tea.
4) Add more lemon zest for more lemon flavor. Duh.
5) I had to bake them longer than the recommended time.
6) In the words of Lolcat: “I can has cookeez?”

Ginger & Lemon Cookies
from The Best of Fine Cooking: Cookies

1 Cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
3/4 Cup plus 2 Tablespoons sugar
3 Tablespoons finely grated fresh ginger
1/2 teaspoon finely grated lemon zest.
1/4 teaspoon table salt
2 large egg yolks
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
2 1/1 Cups flour
2 Tablespoons chopped crystallized ginger
1 lightly beaten egg white

Position rack in center of oven and preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line three large cookie sheets with parchment. In a large bowl combine butter, 3/4 Cup sugar, grated ginger, lemon zest, and salt. Using an electric mixer on medium, beat the mixture until well blended and light, 2-3 minutes. Scrape the bowl; add egg yolks and vanilla; continue mixing until blended. Add flour and mix on a low speed until dough is blended and just comes together. Shape balls of dough into 1-inch balls, set them 1 1/2 inches apart on cookie sheets. In shallow dish, mix remaining 2 Tbs. granulated sugar until blended. Press the dough balls flat with the palm of your hand, brush the tops with egg white, sprinkle on the ginger-sugar mixture. Press with bottom of metal measuring cup to ensure that the topping adheres. Bake one sheet at a time for 11-13 minutes. Let cool and store in airtight container.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


As usual, you are right. It will be a challenge. How can I please myself and please everyone else, too? I don’t hide my gourmet ambitions. Hence, this aspirational blog (a neologism I’ve seen everywhere lately). So you’ve probably guessed how I view Thanksgiving. As an excuse to plan an elaborate feast that demands at least three days of cooking. When else do we get a day off from work just to prepare and eat a meal?

Before we had children, DH and I treated this holiday as a day of indulgence. It was “Name your favorite food, and I’ll cook it” Day (with some requisite thankfulness thrown in). So we ate lobster, home-made egg rolls, and chocolate mousse with our grad school pals, while other households waited for their Butterballs to brown. But those wild days are gone. Now Thanksgiving is a time when grandparents visit their grandchildren. And these familial relations, big and small, sit down with expectations. Indeed, for many of the consumers invited to our table, tradition matters more than flavor.

But I welcome the challenge. In those decadent days of mousse and lobster, I was playing without a net. Now I must work within the tight constraints of custom, nostalgia and undeveloped palates. As I flip through the new Bon Appetit, I have visions of fennel and rosemary in the mashed potatoes, pumpkin spice cake instead of pie, and shallots in everything (except the cake).

But I’m well aware that most folks have an unnatural attachment to a specific Thanksgiving dish. More often than not, these ‘must-haves' involve either Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup or marshmallow topping. After checking with DH, DS, and DD, my own net begins to form: apparently, this menu will require gravy, creamed potatoes for the gravy, and yam casserole the way Nana makes it (i.e., with lots of brown sugar). So the obvious questions popping up (like a turkey thermometers in my brain) are . . . Will revolution ensue if I don’t make pumpkin pie this year? Will people fast if I experiment with an Asian-flavored Turkey? And . . . where can I add a chutney, relish, or compote?

Don’t assume my desire to avoid French’s fried onions is food snobbery. I like “cheese in a jar” fer gosh sake. And I’m not innocent of kitschy Thanksgiving longings either. I’ve had, for many years, an inexplicable loyalty to canned cranberry sauce. Yes, I’m talking about the gelatinous, quivery kind that holds its form—ridges and all—when it slips from the tin. I would never kick those perfectly sliced magenta disks off my plate. (And not only because I’m a lady who keeps her feet off the table).

But I know I’ll take more pleasure in planning and cooking a cranberry sauce than I could ever get from opening a can. Maybe this year I’ll add orange peel and dates? Or pears and honey? Mmm, that recipe with port and dried figs looks good . . .

In anticipation of the holidays, I made these incredible Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars. Enjoy:

Cranberry Streusel Shortbread Bars

From the Best of Fine Cooking: Cookies:

1 Cup plus 5 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled until just warm

1 Cup Sugar

¾ teaspoon Salt

2 large egg yolks

3 Cups plus 3 Tablespoons of Flour

12 oz bag of fresh or frozen cranberries, picked over, rinsed, and drained

1 Cup Sugar

The Crust:

Line a straight-sided 13 x 9 inch metal pan with foil, letting the edges hang over for easy removal. In medium bowl, stir butter, ¾ cup sugar, and salt. Whisk in egg yolks. Stir in the flour to make a stiff dough. Transfer 2 cups of the dough to the prepared pan and press the mixture evenly over the bottom. Prick the dough all over with a fork. Refrigerate for 30 minutes. Then bake in center of oven at 325 degrees for 20 minutes.

The Streusel:

With your fingers combine the remaining ¼ cup sugar with the reserved dough until crumbly.

The Cranberry Topping:

In a medium saucepan, bring the cranberries, sugar, and ¼ cup water to boil over high heat. Reduce heat to medium and boil for about 8 minutes until liquid is reduced to thick syrup. Let mixture cool for 10 minutes. Spread cranberry mixture over crust. Scatter streusel topping over cranberries. Bake near top of oven at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Let pan cool completely before removing bars from pan. Lift the foil sides, transfer to cutting board, and separate foil from bars by sliding a spatula between them. Cut into squares.

Monday, November 10, 2008

I am going to make it through this year

On the Wednesday after the election, DH and I had tickets to see The Mountain Goats. But we didn’t want to go! Don’t get me wrong: I love the Mountain Goats. Had I been guaranteed a place to sit and an 8:00 PM start time, I’d’ve been a menthols ad: alive with pleasure.

But we’d stayed up late on Tuesday, eager to see NC turn blue. Our fatigue was worse for the cruddy cold we couldn’t shake. Even when healthy I nod off at the hour most bands begin. The final nail in the coffin? Twinges in my back warned me not to stand for three hours.

Accepting the limitations of age is not a singular revelation. We don’t just realize we’re old and then live sensibly with the knowledge. Instead, we find ourselves surprised each time we must yield to the pull of aches or weariness.

But don’t feel bad, dear reader. We gave our tickets to the neighbor boy, whose joy (mixed with our relief) countered any lingering stabs of disappointment. When the babysitter arrived, we had new plans. Dinner out to celebrate Obama’s win, then home to a cozy fire. We headed to Panciuto in Hillsborough, a relatively new restaurant, as yet untried.

Once we walked in, we saw that the hostess’s request that we arrive before 8:00 PM was motivated by a wish to close early. We were the last table seated in a restaurant sparsely filled. Sure, Hillsborough may roll up its sidewalks at 10:00 PM, but a staff’s desire for a short night should remain unknown to the patrons. Or so says the former waitress in me.

But the restaurant had a welcoming, warm glow, and I love the concept: Italian food with a local, southern “inflection.” Bread and pasta made in-house. And a complimentary glass of prosecco to start the meal. That’s an authentic touch . . . in Rome we watched waiters dodge scooters and cars to pass around glasses of prosecco gratis to customers waiting in the streets.

Too tired to split a bottle of wine, I had a glass of a Super Tuscan red and DH had Gavi de Gavi. We shared a starter: grilled bruschetta with herbed ricotta, prosciutto, fried egg, arugula and vincotto. Fantastic! The creamy ricotta perfectly balanced the salty prosciutto and peppery arugula. The egg was remarkably fresh, with a bright, plump orange yolk; the flavor took me back to Tuscany, where we ate farm-fresh eggs just laid at La Pievena’s farm. If you’ve never had a really fresh, organic egg, you’re missing out. It’s a completely different food than the supermarket sort.

For entrees, I had the black spaghetti with shrimp, calamari, guanciale, and arugula in an oven dried tomato pesto, and DH ordered the butternut squash ravioli, shaved parmesan, wilted chard, toasted pumpkin seeds, sage, and brown butter. Since I had had black ink spaghetti with frutti di mare when we splurged at Corte Sconta in Venice (see “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Squid”), I should have anticipated my disappointment. Panciuto’s dish was too dry (oven dried tomato pesto still needs water and oil to make it silky on the noodles). Even worse, the shrimp and calamari were overcooked. Seasonally, the butternut squash ravioli scored points on ingenuity. The pasta had a respectable texture, but the sauce proved too sweet. Good choice if you like pumpkin pie for dinner.

We shared the pistachio dipped filo cannolis with ricotta-vanilla filling and chocolate ganache. They were fine. A little bland and the ganache could have been thicker, but I’m not the cannoli enthusiast in the family. DH reports that he’s had better in New Haven. One more note of authenticity: they offer espressos but no cappuccinos. As we learned in Italy, only tourists drink cappuccinos after breakfast.

Our conclusion: Panciuto could simplify its dishes and pay more attention to preparation. With its bounty of local meats, produce, and cheeses, the kitchen should rely on showcasing the ingredients without excess fuss (in other words, remove an accessory before going out). It may need more competition than Hillsborough currently provides. Without the demand of many discerning palates, a restaurant can get lazy or negligent, especially if it’s eager to shut down early. I’d return for the bruschetta but not much else.

Nevertheless, we were happy. The Mountain Goats played in the car, we went to bed early, and our mature decision to skip the show made us feel youthful in the morning. Nothing like a good night’s sleep to stoke a feeling of “yes we can.” And what do you know . . . Carolina turned the color it has always claimed to be.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Swimming Upstream

I’m drinking coffee, eating toasted Irish soda bread, and dreaming of Innisfree, when I glance at the clock on my laptop. It’s an hour earlier! The time fairy, who usually robs me of glow and spring, just gave me a wrapped gift of a daylight-savings hour. The benefit of forgetfulness is the delight of small surprises.

Typically I combat the unredeeming march of time with planning. I plan menus, schedules, lists, dates, goals, and breaks. Our household would fall apart without an elaborate dance of appointments, charts, and diagrams. DD visits her friend, while DS learns guitar, you pick up milk, while I start dinner. We labor to fit it all in, to keep it all running, but what falls away is spontaneity and the leisure of doing nothing. The seeming variety produced by a well-executed schedule turns into a rut after a few weeks.

In all truth, the family broke its routine yesterday, rocking the vote in downtown Chapel Hill. Among the wonders of the day: my ten year old son got a hug from Billy Bragg, played roadie for the dB’s, and acquired Mitch Easter’s autograph. DD ran around with a steady stream of playmates. For grown ups, hanging out is like pulling on a stiff pair of jeans that grow softer as you move. At first, the hours feel stolen and uneasy. But soon time slows down and so does your breathing.

Menu monotony is one effect of our scheduled life. I maintain that habits are comforting. We happily look forward to the same ole meals, relaxed in the knowledge that they’ll be tasty and satisfying.

Salmon tends to be my safety-dish. I order it unthinkingly and rely on it mechanically. And yet (and the revelation sneaks up on us) too much of the same is what made Jack a dull boy. The trick is dressing old things new, as Will puts it, and “Spending again what is already spent.”

Back when I knew how to hang out, I saw the salmon swimming upstream in Galway. And I ate wild salmon served in cream with Irish blokes who knew their Yeats.

Nowadays this cold water fish gets farmed in Latin America, where it wears fewer clothes and more zest. I made a mojito, turned on Astrud Gilberto, and let my northern thoughts thaw as they swam south with this recipe:

Salmon with Pepita-Lime Butter

(from Eating Well Magazine)

2 Tablespoons unsalted pepitas

1 Tablespoon butter

½ teaspoon freshly grated lime zest

¼ teaspoon chili powder

2 Tablespoons lime juice

1 pound salmon filet, skinned, cut into four portions

½ teaspoon of slat

¼ teaspoon freshly ground pepper

Toast pepitas for two minutes over medium heat in a dry pan. Place in a small bowl with butter, lime juice, and chili powder. Generously coat a large skillet with cooking spray, place over medium heat. Sprinkle salmon with salt and pepper, add to pan and cook until browned and just cooked through center, 2-4 minutes per side. Remove the pan from the heat. Transfer the salmon to a plate. Add the butter-lime mixture to the hot pan; stir until the butter is melted. Serve salmon topped with sauce.