Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Good Gravies!

I like gravy.  Not surprising considering I was raised in the south.  I pretty much like all kinds of gravy: sausage gravy,  brown beef gravy, chipped beef gravy... and, I’ll eat gravy on just about anything: toast, biscuit, potatoes, pasta, eggs, a spoon... I’ve noticed that there’s a very blurry, if existent, line between gravy and sauce... I think if you make it in a well-seasoned cast iron skillet and pour it over biscuit or mashed potatoes, it’s gravy.  If someone in a fancy restaurant makes it and garnishes it with parsley or other green leaf, it’s sauce... I reckon.  Maybe there’s more to it, but that’s my take.

As a kid I remember eating biscuit and red eye gravy at Grandmother’s house.  I think the red eye gravy is just coffee mixed with fried ham drippings... nothing more... but it was good.  Things taste a lot better when you don’t know from whence they come or how quickly they’ll clog your arteries!

My sons seem to be pretty fond of gravy.  Of course, I don’t call it gravy, I make up fancy names for it so they’ll try it: Beefy Stroganoff, actual Stroganoff, Pasta Alfredo with sauteed peppers and onions, Lucy’s Meatballs and even this Yum-O-Tastic Goop on Potatoes, which, when I made it last night, I didn’t refer to by name, but rather as, “It’s stuff you like poured over mashed potatoes.” 

They love mashed potatoes.

I don’t know if its traditionally Latvian or if it’s the Russian or Scandinavian influence, but when I was in Latvia, I got ahold of a lot of really good gravy! 

In case you don’t already know, we adopted my sons from the small Baltic nation of Latvia when they were 13.  So, they spent the first 13 years of their lives eating these gravies or sauces.  To adopt them we had to make three separate trips to Latvia and stay there for nearly a month total.  I was REALLY nervous about this, seeing as how I’m not too adventurous with my food choices and amy very suspicious of anything that wasn’t in my grandmother’s cookbook.  I packed about 50 granola bars for our first trip, figuring that I could, if necessary, survive off of these.

Thankfully, I don’t think I needed to eat a single one.  The cuisine of Latvia was awesome and not too dissimilar to that of the Southern US.  For many meals I had meat with some sauce, potatoes and a “salad” which was usually chopped up cucumber, onions and tomatoes.  Of course, there was soup -- LOTS of soup.  LOTS of YUMMY soup.  but that’s a whole story unto itself.

Last night I had to use nearly my full repertoire of cooking skills -- french (thank you Julia Child),  Southern(thank you Grandmother) and Latvian, learned from Ineta Murane, the daughter of the director of the orphanage where my sons lived.  I had only $3.25 left in my food budget.  I searched the fridge, freezer and pantry and found two chicken breasts, milk, 1.5 sticks of butter, various herbs and spices and a few usual staples including two onions, a bag of potatoes, garlic, Parmesan cheese, some broccoli and a bag of frozen mixed vegetables.  So, I concocted the following, and served it with a side of broccoli.  I chose to leave the “mixed vegetables” to strengthen its freezer burn. 

Yum-O-Tastic Chicken Goop on Potatoes
(serves about 8 hungry people)
This is sort of a take on a Tetrazzini sauce, but served on potatoes and jazzed up a little.  It takes less than an hour from beginning to table.  All measurements in this recipe are “ishes” meaning you can do a little more or less, depending on taste.  I’ve written in every little step here, to try and help you keep the timing down and have it all ready together.  Adjust as needed.
A totally optional step is to begin with browning some bacon, remove bacon before it’s crisp, but make sure it’s cooked.  Set bacon aside.  Leave a little (just a little) bacon grease in pan and add the butter to this to saute onions, garlic and mushrooms.  Add the bacon back into the sauce along with the chicken when recipe indicates.
  • 8 - 10 potatoes (med-large potatoes)
  • 2 Boneless, Skinless chicken breasts, or a couple of cups of cooked chicken
  • 1 large onion, sliced
  • 1 lb. fresh mushrooms
  • 5 or more cloves of garlic, diced
  • 1/2 cup butter (1 stick) for sauce
  • 1/4 - 1/2 stick of butter, for mashed potatoes
  • 2/3 cup of flour
  • 1 - 2 cups chicken or mushroom stock -- maybe more
  • 1/2 cup white wine (cooking wine is ok, but the better the wine, the better the sauce)
  • 2 cup cream (I actually use whole, raw milk, but cream would be good, too)
  • 1 - 2 cups whole milk for mashed potatoes
  • 1 cup Parmesan cheese
  • 1 tsp Garlic pwdr
  • Salt
  • Pepper
  • Nutmeg
Cook Chicken.  I prefer to put some water, onions, carrots, thyme, Adobo, Garlic and whatever other non-broccoli veggies I have laying around into a pressure cooker, add chicken (even frozen) and pressure cook until done (use mfg recommendations, I think about 10 minutes does it).  This provides you with your chicken AND your stock.

Put on salted water for mashed potatoes. 

Peel and cut onion in half, then slice onion -- this gives you little thin onion semi-circles. 

Measure or weigh the mushrooms.

Peel and dice garlic -- I cheat and buy the pre-diced stuff.  Not as good, but easier!

Peel potatoes.  Cut them into quarters (or sixths or eights, depending on potato size).  Set aside -- you’ll need them real soon -- when water boils.

Melt butter in a skillet or sauté pan -- I use my cast-iron skillet -- on medium-high heat.  Add mushrooms, onions and garlic plus a little Adobo or salt and pepper.  Saute until the edges of the onions begin to turn golden.  This kinda take a while.

When water comes to a rolling boil, place potatoes in boiling water.  This cooks for about 20 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender.  I also know they’re ready when the water starts to look really starchy because the very edges of the potatoes are disintegrating.  Under-cooked potatoes are nasty!

Measure out cream and wine -- into the same measuring cup is fine.  NOT the stock though.  It’s for later.  But, go ahead and measure it out as well -- just in a different cup.

Add in flour and stir -- don’t stop stirring or you’ll burn it all.  At this point you’re just cooking the flour to remove the flour flavor.  Just a minute or so is probably enough.  Ideally you’d have removed the veggies and done this separately, or even browned the flour before adding to butter, but I just can’t get into that -- so I do it all together and it seems to work. 

Immediately after “cooking the flour” add the cream and wine.  Stir to combine and work at it until it’s a smooth (other than the veggies) sauce.  No flour lumps!  This shouldn’t be difficult, because you used a hot fat (butter) before the liquid.

Dice (or shred) chicken.  A dice will make a nicer sauce, shredding is easier -- your choice.  I dice.  Add this to the sauce.

Turn down to low heat.  As sauce cooks, keep a good eye on it -- if it becomes too thick -- which it will -- add stock to thin.   The stock will be “absorbed” into the sauce and you’ll have to repeat this process a few times.

When potatoes are ready, drain well and return to pot.  I leave the heat on very low to cook out any remaining water and to make sure that my milk and butter don’t make the potatoes cold.  Some folks heat the milk/butter, but I find that unnecessary.

Add butter and a few big splashes of milk to potatoes and begin mashing.  As needed, add more milk.  I think most folks tend to use too little milk and the potatoes are dry and too stiff.  Keep in mind that the liquid will continues to absorb into the potatoes for a while, so very slightly soupy potatoes will be nice potatoes in a few minutes. 

About 2 - 3 minutes before you want to serve this, add the parmesan cheese, garlic powder and nutmeg.  Stir to melt cheese.  Taste and season as you like.  I tend to go VERY heavy on freshly ground black (or white) pepper.

Serve a good helping of potatoes in the center of the plate, top with sauce.


Thursday, September 10, 2009

Hands Down the VERY Best Salad Ever, Ever, Ever

I like to script things out in my head. Sort of a “what if” scenario. Like, if I’m talking to my mom about not wanting to let baby girl come visit her because she returns my child all spoiled and bratty and she says that ‘m just being tooky (yeah, tooky -- don’t look at me, ask her) and then I’ll say, well, I wouldn’t have to be so tooky if you weren’t such a hippie and would actually discipline my kid and then she’d say that I wouldn’t say that if I wasn’t such an uppity conservative and then I’d gasp at being called a conservative and look all offended, shocked and hurt and say that I’m only a conservative when you look through her bleeding heart fantasyland glasses and she’d remember that she got new glasses this week and she’d tell me about it and about the woman she met in the waiting room at the eye doctor whose daughter’s boyfriend once met Prince and now he can’t get past it and keeps dressing like something out of Purple Rain and the woman wonders what will happen if her daughter marries this guy and will the kids have any chance of being normal and then just when the lady was about to tell about her husband’s pet monkey who plays some musical instrument mom got called into see the doctor who still, after all these years -- doesn’t remember that her one near-sighted eye and one far-sighted eye cancel each other out and tried to tell her she needed bifocals much to her horror and then gave her the wrong prescription and then I’d remind her that she DOES need reading glasses and that would remind me of my stepdad’s reading glasses that he CLEARLY got by using his secret personal time machine and traveling back to a dime store ladies department in 1982 and mom would get a good laugh out of that and we’d wonder together what on earth we were all thinking when we wore those oversized glasses... you see how it goes... none of this discussion actually took place but it COULD have taken place and just in case it DOES take place, I’ve scripted it out real nice.

We eat out way too much. It’s rather like an addiction. I think I’m a pretty good cook. I actually enjoy cooking. When we eat out, I usually find myself scripting out the interview where I’m applying for the job of head chef and I’m explaining to these clowns how to properly make Bolognese or that you can’t use skim milk in bread pudding or ... or...

I don’t really understand why we eat out. I like my food better than most restaurants’. I suppose it has something to do with being served and not having to scrape dishes, although my mom would say it’s because I evidently have too much money lining my big-business, money-grubbing wallet and that I feel the much deserved guilt for joining “the man” and am trying to buy my way to happiness -- or some such nonsense. Okay, she probably wouldn’t reference “the man” but she’d find a way to work George Bush (Jr. and Sr.) into it.

This is the really long way of saying that after I eat out, I like to try recreate and perhaps even improve upon the dishes I’ve had. Recently we’ve eaten at O’Charlie’s and Longhorn. They both have salads that I adore. But, since I don’t have a Fry Daddy and can’t seem to make a really GOOD chicken tender in the oven, I’ve modified the two salads and come up with what I believe is the ultimate (although not diet-friendly) salad.

Rain’s Spring Green and Strawberry Salad

as usual -- it’s all give or take, I don’t think I’ve ever measured a single ingredient in this “recipe”

1/2 bag Spring Green Mix
1/2 bag Baby Spinach
1 Carton Fresh Strawberries (frozen won’t do, so don’t even think about it)
1 cup Pecans, shelled and halved
Some Blue Cheese Crumbles
4 TBSP more or less Butter
1/3-ish cup Brown Sugar
Sweet Onion (preferably Vidalia)
Marzetti’s Light Berry Balsamic Dressing (or other berry balsamic dressing)

Pre-heat oven to 400.

In a microwave-safe dish (ugh, yes, microwave) melt the butter. Stir in the brown sugar and nuke in 30 second increments until bubbly and gooey, stirring between each.

Coat the pecan halves in the brown sugar goop and pour into a single layer on a baking stone (or cookie sheet, lined with parchment paper might work) and place in oven for 10 - 15 minutes --- until you start to smell the pecans roasting. Don’t burn them!

Mix the spring greens and baby spinach in a large salad serving bowl.

Slice strawberries and toss into the salad mix.

Cut ends off of onion, then cut in half. Using 1/4 of the onion (cause sweet onions are usually large) make slices of the onion as paper think as you can. These should end up being little semi-circles of onion -- not cubes, or anything like that. Toss onions into salad.

When pecans are ready, let them cool as long as you can wait (hot pecans will wilt the greens). Then toss those into the salad as well -- dregs of crumbly brown sugar goo and all.

Toss the salad. Top with blue Cheese crumbles. Let each person add the salad dressing -- cause it’s sweet, so kids will want more, adults probably less.

Dig in -- yum-a-licious!

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Crazy, Red-Headed Old Aunt Estelle

When I was a little girl, my mom's family all lived right near each other. I think the story went something like: Mama Wiehunt and Daddy Bill (my maternal great-grands) had a house on Sylvan Circle in Brookhaven. They had four kids: Willie May (aka Billie, my grandmother), Violet, Albert, and Estelle. The three girls were evidently as different as sisters could be -- right down to the color of their hair. Grandmother had black hair, Violet had blond hair and Estelle, well, she had red hair. And, in our family, that meant something. What, I'm not sure, but it "told us a lot about her." Legend has it that she actually willed her straight hair to be curly.

Anyway, I think the second house on the left past Mama Wiehunt and Daddy Bill's was Estelle and her husband John's. But, for most of my memory, they lived a few miles away in a big house with carpeting and stairs. You see, Aunt Estelle married a "Cheek" which meant she married into a family that was well-established in Dunwoody -- at least that's what Grandmother always told me. Most of what I remember about Aunt Estelle was stuff my grandmother TOLD me about her. Not that I didn't spend time with Aunt Estelle -- I did -- but because my dear grandmother never -- and I mean never -- shut up. And, when she ran out of new stuff to talk about, she'd talk about her sisters.

My other memories about Estelle were, of course, having meals. She made the BEST macaroni and cheese I ever had. She actually used spaghetti instead of macaroni. Whenever we had a family dinner I'd run to greet her and the first thing out of my mouth was always a query as to whether or not she'd brought mac and cheese. By the time I was old enough to start caring about recipes, Aunt Estelle was already gone to be with Jesus. So, I've done my best to create a recipe that brings to mind Aunt Estelle's mac n cheese.

The other memory -- since I'm on the subject -- was that Aunt Estelle had Fiesta Ware. Those beautiful, richly-colored plates and bowls that were mixed-matched. So I could be eating on an orange plate while my brother had a blue one and mom's was yellow. It was VERY groovy. No one in my family was groovy, so Aunt Estelle having groovy plates was a big deal.

Since I don't have her recipe, I've had to make up my own. The one thing I'll mention about this recipe is that a dish is never any better than the ingredients you put into it. If you use skim milk and cheap or pre-shredded cheese it's NOT going to taste right and you MAY not claim that you've made my mac n cheese. You must use the right stuff and realize that one or two servings of this stuff won't kill you.

Macaroni and Cheese

  • 1 box Cavatappi (this is spiral macaroni that is hollow and has ridges on it. See the picture? This is important to the texture, heft and cheeziness of the mac n cheese. You can use elbow macaroni if you MUST)
  • 1 tbsp dry mustard
  • 2 tbsp corn starch (you can buy non-GMO corn starch, and I recommend doing so)
  • 2.5 cups whole milk
  • 2 pounds Good-Quality Sharp Cheddar Cheese (Cracker Barrel or Kraft is fine)
  • 1 sleeve Ritz Crackers
  • 4 tbsp butter, melted

Bring a stock pot of water to a boil and pour in the Cavatappi. Return it to a boil and cook pasta for 7 minutes. Pasta should be al dente, or firm, but done. When this is done, strain it, return it to the large stock pot and add a little butter so that it doesn't all stick together. For heaven's sake don't go rinsing that pasta after your drain it. you need all of the starch on the pasta to help the cheese stick.

While pasta is boiling, in a large saucepan place the mustard and corn starch. Slowly add the milk, stirring with a whisk. Put this over medium-high heat and whisk occasionally until the sauce is thickened. While this cooks, grate your cheese.

DO NOT use pre-grated cheese. It's just plain nasty. One time, when I couldn't get the stuff to melt right and noticed that it had this white powder-y stuff on it, I researched it... just don't use it. It doesn't melt, it tastes bad, it's more expensive and, well, it's nasty.

Let the sauce boil for about 1 minute then turn off the heat.

Add most of the grated cheese, saving aside enough cheese to lightly cover the top later. Stir the sauce and cheese until all cheese is melted and pour over macaroni. Mix it all up. Pour it into 9 x 13" casserole dish. Top the macaroni and cheese with the cheese you set aside.

Take the crackers and pulverize them. I like to leave them in the sleeve and just mash them up in there. Just be careful not to tear the sleeve or you'll have Ritz Cracker dust all over your kitchen.

Pour the pulverized cracker crumbs into the melted butter and use a fork to stir until thoroughly mixed. Put mixture all over the top of the macaroni and cheese.

Bake in oven at 350 for about 30 minutes or until it is bubbling.


Thursday, September 3, 2009


I love real bread. Not that wondrous white stuff that Mom served me as a kid that started out so fluffy but was quickly shrink-rayed into tiny instant play-dough balls with a couple of good mashes. To be fair, every good mom served that stuff to her children way back in the olden days, and, it had its merits. It made wonderfully doughy dumplings in my cream of tomato soup Grandmother served when I was sick.

No, what I love is REAL bread.


Here’s a picture of the bread I made today.

I wish I could save the smell in a .sml file and post it here, but I’m not that technically savvy.

Here’s a picture of a dog who knows I’ve made bread.

See how nicely he sits? He knows there's bread.

Here’s a picture of a dog who knows Mommy is a sucker and will give him the first piece.

Doggie alien eyes are a side effect of bread deficiency... or the lack of Photoshop.

Here’s a picture of the first piece being devoured.

He may be old and blind, but he can devour a piece of bread in 2.8 seconds.

Here’s the lovely second piece, slathered with butter.

Don’t judge me! I’m eating freshly milled, whole grain bread -- see the nutritious flax seed in the background? A little butter is in order.

Like any good wife, I do not eat the bread of idleness. Rather, I make my bread with my own two hands. I push the button on the electric grain mill mill my own wheat flour from a carefully blended mixture of organic hard red and hard white wheat. Then toss it in the bread machine with a few other ingredients carefully blend it with other wholesome organic ingredients and ensure that it is properly kneaded and risen. Then I press the on button and impatiently wait 2 hours and 28 minutes until the machine beeps bake it to perfection.

Makes you want a slice, doesn’t it?

Makes you long for the days of yore when families farmed their own grain and made bread daily... or not...

Makes my soul serene.

So, here's the recipe. And, since this is my very own version that at one point started out as Sue Becker's recipe that I tweaked and twisted, I want to make certain that I take a moment to plug Breadbeckers, the place I get all of my grain, yeast, chocolate chips and other bread and pastry-making supplies.

Go there. Learn stuff. Live better.

They have a free "Getting Started Class" on September 19, 2009, sign up.

Bread, 2 Pound Loaf

This, like all of my recipes, has some "ishes" -- which means that it's not an exact measurement. HOWEVER, I will say that bread-making is a very exact science, so the measurements that I do give are pretty important. Now, you can make this recipe by hand or in a bread machine. What I think makes my bread so dang tasty is the particular bread machine that I use, the Zojirushi Home Bakery. If you actually own this or go out and buy one, give me a holler and I'll tell you my settings.

1.5 cups warm water
1/2-ish of 1/3 cup of Coconut Oil
the other 1/2-ish of 1/3 cup of Olive Oil
2 teaspoons salt
2 eggs
3 cups of freshly milled organic hard white wheat
1.5 cups of freshly milled organic hard red wheat
1 cup freshly ground flax seed
1 tbsp dry yeast

Place ingredients in machine in order listed. Bake according to manufacturer's directions for your bread machine UNLESS you have the Zojirushi, then ask me for settings.