Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Passing It On

If you had asked my ten, fifteen, or even 20-year-old selves if I would grow up to enjoy cooking and write about my experiences in the kitchen, they all would have laughed at you. Even when I married my husband at age 26, the priest tried to squeeze "and cook for you" into the vows as a joke. Our guests erupted into giggles, and even then in the House of God, I could not make any culinary commitments. Growing up, I always viewed cooking as a tedious chore. It's amazing how much can change in 10 years.

And so, less than a week away from my 37th birthday, I found myself at Williams-Sonoma on a Saturday morning, watching my 6-year-old son roll out pie dough to make decorations for Thanksgiving pies. What the heck happened??

Saturday morning at Williams-Sonoma, working on pie crust.

A photo posted by @kmiracane on

My own culinary adventures didn't really begin until my husband and I moved to the Poconos in 2005. Before then, my repertoire consisted of Rice-a-Roni, Lipton noodles, and recipes from a 4-ingredient cookbook. I eventually worked my way up to a 6-ingredient cookbooks. Not exactly the stuff gourmet meals are made of. But when we moved my full-time job because a part-time contract position because I wasn't commuting from PA to Jersey City on a daily basis, and I found myself with extra time on my hands. So I decided it was time to learn to cook, and Rachael Ray was my first teacher. I became a student of Giada DeLaurentiis. The next thing I knew, colleagues at my new job were jealous of my leftovers, calling them a gourmet lunch. Somewhere along the line, I became a good cook.

And then I became a mom. Suddenly it wasn't just about eating a meal. It was about nourishing a growing boy. I became more selective in what I cooked, making sure I used as many fresh ingredients as possible. And he became my first audience, sitting in his high chair, eyes on me, as I explained what I was making for dinner and why I did it the way I did. I credit those early days for his current culinary interest. Well, that at the Food Network. (He wants to compete on MasterChef Junior and Chopped. He wants to be a judge on Cutthroat Kitchen.)

Stirring the vinegar mixture for homemade pickles.

A photo posted by @kmiracane on

So last week I let him cook dinner. He has helped me in the kitchen plenty of times before. We've made ice pops, lemonade, pickles, and had Kid Cook Saturdays last winter. But this time he did the bulk of the work under my supervision.

He made an easy chicken marsala recipe, the kind you find on a can of cream of mushroom soup. He pounded the chicken and browned it in butter. He measured out the marsala wine and deglazed the pan. He added the soup and whisked until it heated through. When he added the cutlets back to the pan he said to me, "Mommy, we should add those juices, too, for flavor." I taught him how to bend the asparagus so the fibrous ends snap off. I let him drizzle on the olive oil and sprinkle the grill seasoning over the stalks. No measuring spoon! Just knowing by eye how much is the right amount. The pride beaming from him over his meal could have lit the night sky.

I don't know if he will compete of MasterChef Junior or Chopped, or be a judge on Cutthroat Kitchen. But I do know he will eventually leave the nest and be able to cook for himself. He won't fall into the unhealthy habit of processed and fast foods. And he will continue to experiment with his palate way beyond the fare we are conditioning children to eat today -- hot dogs, chicken nuggets, pizza, burgers, grilled cheese, and macaroni and cheese.

And maybe, just maybe, he'll sit his son or daughter in a high chair and narrate the making of a meal. Maybe he'll roast asparagus and explain why Grandma like grill seasoning best. Maybe he'll insist on as many fresh ingredients as possible, having learned cooking is not just a chore, it's how we nourish our body and soul, and pass it on.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Pumpkin Spice and Everything Nice

I suspect it may be impossible to walk into any type of coffee shop and NOT see a pumpkin beverage on the menu. Even the supermarkets carry pumpkin coffee creamer. This gourd is everywhere!

My problem is while I am a huge pumpkin fan, I am not the biggest coffee fan. I do enjoy tea, though. And during these warmer autumn days, it's nice to have something cool to drink. So as part of my list of 25 things to do this fall, I decided to take the original Thai Iced Tea recipe I make during the summer months, and swap out some ingredients so it would be perfect for the season.

Iced Pumpkin Chai Latte

A Country Cooking Original Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 2 1/2 cups
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 whole star anise pods
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 1 chai tea bags (I use Celestial Seasonings decaf India Spice)
  • 3 pumpkin tea bags (I use Celestial Seasonings Sweet Harvest Pumpkin)
  • 6 tablespoons sweetened condensed milk
  • whipped cream to your heart's content
  • a sprinkle of cinnamon, if desired

Directions:

  1. In a saucepan over medium heat bring water, sugar, star anise pods, and cinnamon stick to a boil. Remove pan from heat and add tea bags. Allow to steep for 1 hour.
  2. Discard anise, cinnamon, and tea bags. Whisk in sweetened condensed milk. Pour into container and chill for at least one hour.
  3. Top with whipped cream before serving, if desired.

Just some notes:

  1. I like to make this the night before and let it chill overnight in the fridge.
  2. The original recipe called for 1/4 cup sugar, but I cut that in half because I found it to be too sweet.
  3. In the summer, I use 4 chai tea bags, omit the cinnamon, and when I add the tea bags I also add fresh mint to steep. Better than any Starbucks drink!

Monday, September 8, 2014

Out of the Box

School is in session here. That means, homework, after-school activities, quicker dinners, and earlier bedtimes. The quicker dinners, for me, are the more difficult adjustment. Without those lazy summer days, I feel more pressure to get dinner on the table by a certain time. And if I end up working late, that means having to put dinner together fast.

Now, when I was first learning to cook, before I discovered 30-minute meals, most of the recipes I made came from either the back of a can, a soup mix envelope, or a 4- or 6-ingredient cookbook. These recipes have I have long since abandoned, scoffing at their simple ingredient list and turning to more complicated recipes that will challenge my skills in the kitchen.

But sometimes, you gotta go back to the basics.

And as I lamented while trying to come up with last week's menu, my husband suggested I go through some of my older recipes. They may be simple, but I can get them on the table much faster than what some of my usual dishes.

And he was right.

So with school now in session, if there are any busy weeknight ahead of you, you might want to bookmark this recipe. It's fast, easy, and tasty. What more could you want?

Chili Mac Skillet
Recipe from Del Monte

Ingredients:

  • 12 oz. ground beef
  • 1 15.25 oz. can corn
  • 1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
  • 1 15 oz. can red kidney beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 4 oz. diced green chilies, drained
  • 3/4 cup uncooked elbow macaroni, or other small, short-cut pasta
  • 2 teaspoon chili powder
  • 1 cup water
  • 1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese

Directions:

  1. Cook beef in large skillet until brown; drain. Stir in corn, undrained tomatoes, beans, chilies, macaroni, chili powder, and water.
  2. Bring to a boil; reduce heat. Simmer, covered 12 to 15 minutes or until macaroni is tender.
  3. Sprinkle with cheddar cheese, if desired. Cover and let stand 5 minutes until cheese is melted.

Note from the Kitchen: I made a corn bread and we stirred some into our individual servings. It was delicious, and I highly recommend it.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

#BestSummerEver

Country Living magazine put out a list this year: 50 Ways to Have the Best Summer Ever. My family has been checking items off this list throughout the summer. We drank lemonade on our front porch, visited our farmer's market, made our own popsicles, and made something with fresh peaches.

Two items on the list are "make a dish with your backyard bounty" and "make a summer soup."

And we checked both of those off the list with this vegetable and polenta soup.

I got some push back from my husband when I told him I was making this. To say he is not a fan of polenta would an understatement. But this soup won him over. The polenta, despite the recipe title, is not a star ingredient. It sings background, thickening the soup, perfect harmony to the fresh vegetables up front and center.

So as summer days become fewer and fewer, make the most of what the days and your garden have to offer. Dive into a steaming bowl of this soup.

Rustic Vegetable and Polenta Soup

Recipe slightly modified from Giada De Laurentiis
Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 2 medium carrots, peeled and diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 1 medium onion, chopped
  • Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh basil
  • 2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
  • 3 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 3 plum tomatoes, seeds removed, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 2 medium zucchini, diced into 1/2-inch pieces
  • 4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (substitute vegetable broth for a vegetarian dish)
  • 1/3 cup instant polenta, such as Gia Russa
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter at room temperature
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving

Directions:

  1. In a large, heavy saucepan, heat the olive oil over medium-high heat. Add the carrots, onions, 1 tablespoon salt and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring frequently, until the onion begins to brown, about 6 minutes.
  2. Add the basil, rosemary, garlic, tomatoes, and zucchini, and cook for 3 minutes. Add the broth and bring to a slow boil. Slowly stir in the polenta and cook until the soup thickens and the vegetables are tender, about 8 minutes.
  3. Stir in the butter and season with salt and pepper.
  4. Serve with Parmesan cheese and crusty bread.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Tickled Pink

When I first started learning to cook, I would write out recipes on index or fancy recipe cards and keep them in cute boxes or in binders. Over time, this became a bit labor intensive, so I started just printing the recipes, putting them in sleeve protectors, and storing them all in your average binder from an office supply store.

So, given how much time my sons spends in the kitchen with me, it was no surprise when his aunt gave him a Yankees binder the first words from his mouth were, "I can keep all my recipes in here!"

And keep his recipes he did. We have bought kid-centric and parent magazines over the years, torn out recipes we could make together, and stored them in his binder in protective sleeves. So when summer rolled around, he flipped through and said, "Mommy, we need to make lemonade."

And so we did.

He essentially made this himself with my supervision, which gave him a great sense of accomplishment and pride. And it warmed my heart to see that smile beaming from his face.

So as summer comes to a close, tickle yourself pink with this delightful drink.

Pink Lemonade

Recipe from Yum for Kids
Serves 6

Ingredients:

  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1 cup water
  • 4-6 lemons
  • 4 cups cold water
  • 1 cup cranberry juice

Directions

  1. Add sugar and water into a small saucepan and heat until the sugar has dissolved.
  2. Squeeze the juice out of the lemons using a juicer, or squeeze by hand, to produce approximately 1 cup of lemon juice.
  3. Add the cold water, lemon juice, cranberry juice and sugar water to a large pitcher. Refrigerate for approximately 1 hour before serving.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

From the Farmhouse

For me, nothing is more comforting and soothing than a big bowl of soup. It's the food equivalent of a great, big hug. It warms me, both figuratively and literally.

In the winter, I'll make a pot of soup at least once a week. I still make soup in the summer, but less frequently.

Except this summer.

While we didn't have many rainy days, we did have the cool, mountain summer I have been waiting 9 years for. And those cooler days provided me with a few extra opportunities to make soup for dinner.

I made this soup on what I knew would be a particularly busy day for me. This recipe was ideal because there wasn't a lot of prep work involved, and the slow cooker does all the work. The soup is light, yet comforting. And it was a great opportunity to use the zucchini I had picked from the garden.

So as autumn approaches, add this recipe to your arsenal. It'll warm your soul to walk in the house, the scent of the soup wafting through the air, and filling your belly after a day outside preparing for the winter ahead.

Creamy Farmhouse Chicken and Garden Soup

Recipe slightly modified from Crock-Pot: One-Pot Meals
Makes 4 servings

Ingredients:

  • 1/2 package (16 ounces) frozen pepper stir-fry vegetable mix
  • 1 cup frozen corn
  • 1 medium zucchini, sliced
  • 2 bone-in chicken thighs, skinned
  • 1 14-ounce can chicken broth
  • 1/2 teaspoon minced garlic
  • 1/2 teaspoon dried thyme
  • 2 ounces uncooked egg noodles
  • 1 cup half-and-half
  • 1/2 cup frozen peas, thawed
  • 2 tablespoons chopped basil
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon coarsely ground black pepper
  • Parmesan cheese, for serving

Directions:

  1. Coat slow cooker with nonstick cooking spray. Place peppers, corn, zucchini in the bottom. Add chicken, broth, garlic, and thyme. Cover; cook on HIGH 3 to 4 hours or until chicken is no longer pink in center. Remove chicken and set aside to cool slightly.
  2. Add noodles to slow cooker. Cover; cook on HIGH 20 minutes or until noodles are heated through.
  3. Meanwhile, debone and chop chicken. Return to slow cooker. Stir in half-and-half, peas, basil, butter, salt, and pepper. Let stand 5 minutes before serving. Sprinkle Parmesan cheese on servings, if desired.

Note: To make this a vegetarian dish, simply omit the chicken and substitute vegetable broth for the chicken broth.

Monday, August 25, 2014

The Next Big Thing

As a kid, there are so many great things about summertime: no school, later bedtime, swimming, bike riding, and the treats.

Oh, the treats!

Roasting marshmallows after dinner was cooked on the charcoal grill, going out for ice cream, chasing down the ice cream man, watermelon, Jell-o pudding pops, and ice pops.

When I scroll through my Facebook newsfeed now, I see ads for or someone I know is having a Pampered Chef party. But when I was a kid, it was all about Tupperware. And one summer, my mom bought ice pop molds. These mold were particularly cool because the base was a shallow cup with a straw, so you could drink what melted. We weren't particularly creative with our pops. We made either iced tea or lemonade pops. But my sister and I had fun making them, and they couldn't freeze fast enough for us.

I now have my own ice pop molds, allowing me to carry on the ice pop making tradition with my son. The first pops we made were these mandarin orange cream ones. The classic flavors of summer. But wanting to expand the ice pop possibilities, I bought a book of recipes. This summer my son and I were flipping through it when we came across a recipe for chai tea pops. My son lives chai tea, and demanded we make them.

These are no ordinary pops for those with an ordinary palate. These are serious, sophisticated ice pops .... made right in your kitchen.

Which got me thinking ... With the closing of Crumbs, I think gourmet ice pops could be the next big thing.

Chai Tea Pops

Recipe from Ice Pops: Recipes for Fresh and Flavorful Frozen Treats
Makes 8 - 10 ice pops

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups water.
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 2 bags black tea
  • 1 cinnamon stick
  • 6 whole cloves
  • 8 green cardamom pods, cracked with the side of a knife
  • 6 peppercorns
  • 1-inch piece fresh ginger, peeled and thinly sliced
  • 3/4 cup whole milk

Directions:

  1. Using a cheesecloth, bundle the cloves, cardamom pods, ginger, and peppercorns.
  2. Place the sugar, cinnamon stick, and cheesecloth bundle in a saucepan. Pour in water. Bring to a simmer over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally, until the sugar has completely dissolved. Remove the mixture from the heat and let cool to room temperature.
  3. Remove the tea bags, cinnamon stick, and cheesecloth bundle. Stir in the milk until blended.
  4. If using conventional ice pop molds, divide the mixture among the molds. Cover and freeze until solid, at least 4 hours or up to 3 days. If using sticks, insert them into the molds when the pops are partially frozen, after about 1 hour. Then freeze until solid, at least 3 more hours.
  5. If using an instant ice pop maker, follow the manufacturer's instructions to fill the molds and freeze the pops.