Thursday, December 18, 2014

Have A Figgy Old Fashioned Christmas!

'Tis the season for all things figgy. Figgy puddings, trifles, cookies and such just seem to fill the Christmas bill.

It's also the time for cocktails redolent with the spices and deep, rich flavors we associate with the season. In the spice vein, that might include cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cardamom and allspice, while in the classic holiday fruits category, raisins, figs, dates, oranges, cranberries and the like would qualify. Which brings me to this year's Dinner Plan-it holiday cocktail, the Figgy Old Fashioned.

Made with a Black Mission fig, warm spice simple syrup, bourbon (or rum perhaps for yet another, sweeter twist) and kissed with a touch of orange bitters, it's a cocktail that will have you remembering Christmases of old by a crackling fire with those you love. Cheers, friends...lots of Christmas cheer to all of you!

Figgy Old Fashioned

  • 1/2 oz fig simple syrup* 
  • 2 dashes Regan's orange bitters
  • 2 oz good bourbon - I used Bulleit or a good spiced rum like Pittsburgh's own Maggie's Farm for a sweeter cocktail
  • 2 Amarena Fabri or Luxardo cherries - reserve one for garnish
  • 2 strips fresh orange peel - reserve one for garnish
  • 1 or 2 whole cloves for garnish

In a cocktail mixing glass, muddle one cherry and the simple syrup together. Add spiced rum and stir well. Strain into Old Fashioned glass (what else would you use?!) over a large ice cube and stir well, add the bitters, twist the peel over the surface of the drink and lightly swipe the orange side of the peel around the rim of the glass. Garnish with another cherry and a clove studded orange peel.


* Fig Simple Syrup: 1 C sugar, 1 C water, 1/2 C dried Black Mission figs - cut in halves or quarters, 3 green cardamom pods - cracked lightly, 1 cinnamon stock - 4" long, 4 whole cloves. 

In a small pot, bring sugar and water to a boil and all the rest of the ingredients. Immediately reduce heat to bring the contents down to a simmer and continue simmering for 5 minutes. Let cool in pot, then strain the liquid into a small bottle. You're all ready to make cocktails now!

NOTE: Try using big, plump Medjool dates (be sure to remove the big pits in the center before adding to the pot) instead of figs if you wish...equally fabulous!

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Saged Potato Dumpling Turkey Vegetable Soup

Today's recipe didn't start out to be a "Quickie," but the potato dumplings were such a snap to put together it ended up as just that.

The actual soup, on the other hand, can be as quick or slow as you wish it to be. This time, I made my turkey stock from scratch, the slow way. Next time I may just use good turkey or chicken stock from a carton and make it a true quickie.

All I added to the stock were fresh green beans, small cuts of carrot, slivers of celery, cubes of red and white potatoes (with the skins on for color and the vitamins and minerals!) and lots of leftover turkey meat. 

The soup itself was put together and cooked the day before I planned to serve it. We all know soups and stews are better the next day, right? By the way, that's what makes this a make the soup the day before and make the dumplings only the day you serve it!

Back to those potato dumplings...the first time saving step is that you use leftover mashed potatoes. Who doesn't have leftover mashed potatoes after Thanksgiving or Christmas?! When it was almost dinnertime the next day, I got going on the dumplings. 

To build savory stuffing flavor right into the dumplings, I sauteed celery and onion in butter until soft, added dried sage, poultry seasoning, flour, an egg and a little salt and pepper and the dumpling batter was ready to drop gently into simmering soup. Once they all floated prettily to the top, it was done.

And there you have it, a deliciously easy way to use up the last bits of Thanksgiving (or Christmas!) in this simple, satisfying and thrifty post-holiday quickie. Enjoy!

Saged Potato Dumpling Turkey Vegetable Soup

Soup (make this the day before the dumplings):
  • 4 quarts turkey stock, either homemade or a good packaged one - I like poultry seasoning added to the stock, but that's up to you
  • 3 C fresh green beans cut into 1" pieces (or use frozen!)
  • 4 medium potatoes, scrubbed and cut into cubes - leave the skins on for vitamins and minerals (I used both red and white potatoes for color and to use up what I had on hand)
  • 3 stalks celery, cut into thin slivers
  • 3 medium carrots, peeled, cut into coins
  • 1 small onion, diced
  • 4 C leftover turkey pieces - for us, it's usually dark meat and errant pieces of white meat that didn't make it into sandwiches...good way to use up the whole bird when your gang prefers the white meat!

Bring the stock to a boil in a large soup pot, add all the veggies and the turkey, then reduce the heat to bring the stock down to a simmer. Cover and let the soup simmer for an hour or so, cool and refrigerate overnight IN the soup pot.

Dumplings (before dinner the next day):
  • 1/2 T butter
  • 2 T onion, minced
  • 2 T celery, minced
  • 1 1/2 t poultry seasoning
  • 1/2 t ground sage
  • 1/2 t salt
  • generous amount of freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 3/4 C leftover mashed potatoes, brought to room temperature
  • 2/3 C flour - I used Namaste gluten-free all purpose flour to make these GF
  • 1 egg
Before you start making dumplings, put the pot of soup you made yesterday on the stove and bring to a simmer.

In a small skillet, melt butter and gently saute the onion and celery until tender, but not browned. Add poultry seasoning, sage, salt & pepper. Saute a minute more while stirring to awaken the will smell like stuffing in your kitchen all over again! (That's a good thing around here!) Remove from the heat and let cool while putting the dumplings together.

In a large bowl, mix together the room temp mashed potatoes, flour, salt and pepper and the egg until thoroughly combined. Add the cooled veggies and mix again until thoroughly combined. Now you're ready to drop the dumplings into the waiting, simmering soup.

Using a spoon, take a small amount of dough (maybe a tablespoon each), roll each spoonful into a ball, then drop each into the gently simmering soup. Continue until all the dough is gone or make just as many or few as you want for the soup. (If you don't use all the dough, you can refrigerate it and use it for pan-fried dumplings the next day as a side dish.)

Once all the dumplings have risen to the surface of the soup, give them one more minute and then the soup and dumplings are ready to serve.

NOTE: You can easily make this with a leftover roast chicken!

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Cinnamon Bourbon Cranberry Sauce

The cranberry. Know what I like about that festive little Christmas red berry that brightens the holidays? Everything.

The tiny garnet orbs are tart little gems (they DO remind me of garnets and rubies!) that help us celebrate both Thanksgiving and Christmas by way of sauces, jellies, desserts, breads, salads and in stuffings, roasts, chops, stews and such, too. So versatile, they do double duty for both sweet and savory dishes equally well.

When the kids were small, we used to string fresh cranberries to decorate our Christmas tree. It kept their little fingers busy while the resultant loops and scallops of red were gorgeous on our tree! Best of all, the kids really felt a part of making our holiday special. Now, everyone's too busy to sit and string cranberries for hours. I miss those times. 

Kimber may not be stringing cranberries these days, but she is the chief cranberry cooker in our family. Every year she comes up with something new in a cranberry sauce to brighten our table and our tastebuds. This year, her sweet and tart little Thanksgiving number was soooooo good, we think it was the best cranberry sauce rendition ever. Really...who doesn't love a kick of bourbon in their cranberry sauce?!

Christmas menu planning has already begun in our house...have you started your next holiday menu yet? Maybe you and your own family might just enjoy this cinnamon-y, orange-y, slightly boozy, sweet and tart cranberry sauce just as much as we did.   

Cinnamon Bourbon Cranberry Sauce

  • 1 C sugar
  • 1/2 C water
  • 2 sticks cinnamon, use nice and fresh sticks that are the 4-5" size
  • 12 oz bag of fresh cranberries (Did you know the test for a fresh cranberry is to drop it on the counter? If it bounces, it's fresh!)
  • 1/4 C bourbon - Buffalo Trace in this case
  • 1 orange, both zest and juice - zest the outside of the orange first and then juice the naked orange halves
  • 1/2 C golden raisins

In a large, deep, heavy bottomed pot, stir together the water and sugar, add the cinnamon sticks and bring to a boil. Immediately lower heat to medium and let simmer until the mixture develops a medium caramel color. Stir occasionally until it comes up to color - maybe 15 minutes, more or less - then add cranberries, bourbon, raisins, orange juice and zest. It may be a little difficult at first, but stir until mixture is smooth and comes to a boil. 

Immediately reduce the heat to low and cook until the cranberries have popped and the sauce has thickened. Take out the cinnamon sticks carefully with tongs so you don't burn your delicate fingers! Let cool to room temp before serving. You can make this a day or two ahead.

NOTE: Yeah...this makes amazing ice cream topping!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

The past and the now. Old and new. A new recipe with familiar roots. With all of the preceding, there was first a history that led to the present and so it is with today's recipe.

Back in the early days of Phillips Restaurant in Ocean City, Maryland...back when Phillips offered some of the best seafood in town...there was a particular crab dish my sister, Jeanie, and I couldn't get enough of - Crab au Gratin.

Crab au Gratin was a  decadent dish of huge crab lumps and nothing else but a blanket of rich,  cheddary sauce cuddling the crab. No fillers, no extraneous ingredients hidden anywhere, just simple cheesy crabmeat. Perfection. And then Phillips changed. Their crab was brought in from all over the world instead of remaining locally sourced. The bigger Phillips got, the less we enjoyed the food. We sought better and went elsewhere.

In the intervening years since our crab and cheese indulgences, lobster mac n' cheese became a thing. Aha, another variety of crustacean and cheese sauce! Would it be as wonderful as long lamented Crab au Gratin? It wasn' least the version I had wasn't. Instead of a beautifully browned and crusty top layer of cheese sauce, what came on my plate was more like stovetop mac and cheese with bits of lobster hiding amongst the pasta elbows. Finding lobster was a search and rescue mission.

Besides, as succulent as lobster is, it's no match for sweet Maryland crab. Why not do my own version? Why not crab mac and cheese? How about a base of pasta and cheese with a light blanket of sauteed spinach, crowned by a thick layer of giant Maryland crab lumps and caressed by a rich, cheese sauce? My new crab dish became a sort of fusion of macaroni and cheese meets Greek pastitsio meets lasagna. Once again old inspired new.

Speaking of new, Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna was the covered dish I took to Friendsgiving last night. A casual gathering of friends - both old and new - celebrated an early Thanksgiving with good food (Duxelles Roast Turkey, Bourbon Vanilla Bean Cranberry Sauce, Bourekas, Cheesecake-Stuffed Baked Apples w/Homemade Caramel Sauce...just the highlights) and drinks (fine wines - both homemade and store-bought - and a delicious Peanut Butter Cup cocktail), great stories, lots of laughs and even a few misty-eyed moments. It was an evening of made-over tradition...old to new...that I'm looking forward to again next year! 

Maryland Crab And Spinach Mac N' Cheese Lasagna

  • 12 oz. elbow macaroni, cooked al dente - I use Barilla gluten-free pasta to make this GF - use your own favorite macaroni, of course.
  • 1 lb Maryland jumbo lump crabmeat, picked through carefully for any shell or cartiledge - don't break up the lumps, please.
  • 4 T butter
  • 4 T cornstarch
  • 2 C milk
  • 1 C half & half
  • 1 1/2 t Old Bay seafood seasoning - accept no substitute!
  • 1/2 C sharp cheddar, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Swiss, shredded - plus extra for top
  • 1/2 C Italian Parmesan blend shredded cheese, plus extra for top
  • 2 oz cream cheese, softened
  • 1 t olive oil
  • 3 C sliced fresh spinach, stems removed
  • 1 clove garlic, pressed or minced finely

Preheat oven to 400 degrees and butter a shallow baking dish (2-3 quart size). Set the baking dish aside.

Melt butter in a medium sized pot over medium heat. Whisk in the cornstarch until the mixture is smooth. Gradually whisk in the milk, stirring until smooth, then add the half & half and whisk until smooth and the mixture thickens. Add 1/2 C each of cheddar, Swiss and Italian blend cheeses. Reduce the heat and stir until the cheeses are completely melted. Add cream cheese and Old Bay - stir until the cream cheese is completely melted. Set aside and keep warm. 

In a non-stick skillet, add the olive oil and warm over medium heat. Add spinach and garlic and cook until the spinach wilts. Set aside.

In a large bowl, add the cooked macaroni and pour 2/3 of the cheese sauce over top. Stir gently to thoroughly combine. Pour the mac n' cheese into the bottom of the buttered shallow casserole dish.

Pat any liquid in the pan of spinach off with a paper towel. Distribute the spinach evenly over the top of the macaroni and cheese layer. Gently scatter the gorgeous Maryland crab lumps over the spinach layer, spoon the remaining cheese sauce evenly over the crab and sprinkle the extra shredded cheeses over all.

Bake for 25-30 minutes until the top is beautifully browned. 

NOTE: I use cornstarch to make this gluten-free. If gluten isn't an issue, feel free to use all purpose flour.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

Even though the taste of umami was identified relatively recently, great chefs have been instinctively working with it almost forever. More potent than your common, ordinary food tastes, 'umami' definitely pushes the boundaries of everyday taste sensations. 

When I started working on my pork chop rub/paste, I didn't set out to produce an 'umami bomb." Just so happens, that's exactly what resulted! What's an umami bomb? A dish that's built of almost (or completely) umami ingredients. 

Let's back up here. I guess your first question is, "What IS umami anyway?" In addition to the tastes of sweet, salty, bitter and sour, it's a savory flavor. Think of the taste sensation you get from meats, especially pork and beef. To take it a step further, especially the flavor of cured or smoked meats. Not just meats, and seafood are rich in umami, the earthy taste of mushrooms, cheeses - particularly Parmesan, feta and blue veined varieties and even vegetables such as asparagus and garlic come into play, too. 

Fermentation produces vinegars, soy sauce and fish sauce that have double the wham with more than one umami trigger - fish sauce has both fish AND is fermented, Worcestershire sauce is also fermented and contains anchovies. Enough background. Just how did umami favors result in a totally delightful dish?

As I said above, I started with pork chops - umami already. There were dried porcini mushrooms in the cabinet so I put those in my spice grinder with black peppercorns and a few Szechuan peppercorns - whirrrr whirrrrr - porcini peppercorn dust. Next I added tamari, balsamic vinegar and garlic, mixed them into a paste, rubbed the chops and let them marinate overnight. 

Once grilled the next day, the flavors were deep, dark, rich, mysterious and intense. Total umami success! 

Uber Umami Porcini Pork Chops

  • 1/4 C dried porcini mushrooms
  • 12 black peppercorns
  • 5 Szechuan peppercorns

  • 1 T granulated garlic
  • 2 large garlic cloves, pressed or minced finely
  • 1 T wheat-free Tamari or soy sauce (I use wheat-free Tamari to make this gluten free)
  • 1 T balsamic vinegar
  • 2 T roasted peanut oil
  • 1 T agave
  • a sprinkling of Porcini & Salt  - a finishing salt that's mixture of sea salt, porcini mushrooms and herbs (I get mine at Gourmet Delights) to finish!

  • 4 nice, thick bone-in pork chops - I like center cut loin chops

Start martinating these the night before for maximum umami-ness or 4 hours in a pinch.

In a spice grinder, buzz the dried mushrooms and the black and Szechuan peppercorns together to a dust. Transfer to a medium bowl.

Add the rest of the ingredients (except for the pork chops) to the porcini peppercorn dust and mix to a well-combined paste, then evenly coat both sides of the pork chops with ALL of the paste.  Put the chops into a zip top plastic bag, squeeze out all the air, seal and refrigerate overnight.

The next day, grill the chops and serve with a sprinkle of Porcini & Salt for extra porcini - AND umami - emphasis!

NOTE: This was one of the last dishes I got to make for Mark, who gave it a highly enthusiastic thumbs up and a request for me to make them again SOON. We both thought they'd be pretty amazing smoked!

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

It has been QUITE a while since there's been a quickie on Dinner Plan-it. It's time!

What's even better than Apple Crisp? A crisp with oatmeal raisin cookie dough baked onto the top. Here's how to make what amounts to an oatmeal cookie apple pie ala mode dessert that's sure to be a family favorite.

Oatmeal Raisin Cookie Apple Crisp

  • 6 C apples, peeled, cored, sliced approx. 1/4" thick
  • 1/2 lemon 

  • 1/2 C flour (I use a good gluten-free all purpose flour to make this GF)
  • 1 t cinnamon 
  • 1/8 t nutmeg
  • 1/2 C sugar
  • 1/4 C brown sugar
  • pinch salt
  • 1/3 C butter, softened
  • 1/2 C oats (I use certified gluten-free oats to make this GF)
  • 1/3 C raisins
  • 1/4 C pecans, chopped

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

Butter a shallow casserole dish (I used the 2 1/2 quart size French White Corningware oval casserole dish (approx. 8 1/2" X 11") - it's the perfect size!) and scatter the apple slices evenly in the dish. Sprinkle the juice of the lemon over the apples to keep them from turning brown while you make the topping.

In a large bowl, mix together the butter and sugars with a fork. Add the rest of the ingredients and combine thoroughly with the fork - I've been known to just use my fingers (clean, of course!) and work the mixture until it's crumbly and combined.

Crumble the oatmeal cookie dough over the apples. Cover the dish with foil and bake for about 20 minutes. Remove the foil and continue baking another 20 minutes or so until the apples are bubbly throughout and the cookie topping is beautifully browned. 

Cool about half an hour and serve warm with scoops of vanilla ice cream. 

NOTE: I like to use a nice tart apple that doesn't cook down to mush. You want an apple pie type apple, not an applesauce type apple. Try Granny Smiths, McIntosh or (my favorite) Stayman Winesaps. 

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Angry Orchard Beef, Pumpkin & Apple Stew

Giant orange orbs are appearing everywhere these crisp, chilly and windy days, whether they're scattered across the hills and fields of our beloved local farms or piled high in grocery store bins. Pumpkins are everywhere! Even in my CSA box.

That big ol' sugar pumpkin presented a few possibilities. Should I just plunk it out on the porch with my other warty pumpkins, gourds and rusty mums? That would be the easy way out. I did briefly consider roasting pumpkin chunks and making a roasted pumpkin and cinnamon syrup for fall cocktails, but decided on a hearty and warming stew instead.

I just happened to have a nice chuck roast in the freezer, so I pulled that out and after it was thawed, cut it into nice sized cubes, browned them and started building the base for the stew. The hardest part of the stew? Cutting and peeling the pumpkin! Ugh. Maybe the porch sitting pumpkin idea was better after all. But no, I soldiered on and peeled that sucker! 

After browning the beef in batches and then putting just a little caramelization on the pumpkin pieces, I simply added peeled potatoes (also from my Dillner Farms CSA box), lots of onion, a nice big peeled and cubed apple (yep, CSA, too!), poured a bottle of Angry Orchard hard cider over all, put on the lid and simmered the mixture away for a few hours. Oh, it smelled wonderful all throughout the house!

Best of all, the pumpkin-y, apple-y, onion-y and richly beefy conglomeration of flavor was worth every bit of the pumpkin peeling process. Here's a little hint...don't feel like peeling a pumpkin? Try subbing in peeled butternut squash in those plastic containers from the grocery store instead. It works!

Angry Orchard Beef, Pumpkin & Apple Stew 

  • 1 T olive oil
  • 2 T unsalted butter
  • 2 1/2 pounds chuck roast, cut into stew-sized cubes
  • Salt and pepper to taste - use to season the meat liberally before browning
  • 4 C fresh pumpkin, cut open, seeds removed, cut into strips and the rind peeled, cut into cubes (or buy pre-peeled butternut squash at the grocery store - perfectly acceptable substitution!)
  • 2 large onions, approx 2 C,cubed 
  • 1 1/2 t fresh garlic, minced finely or pressed
  • 4 C peeled and cubed red or Yukon Gold potatoes - don't use Russet potatoes as they have a tendency to fall apart
  • 1 bottle (12 oz.) Angry Orchard Cinful Apple hard cider - or another variety, but I like the subtle cinnamon hint it infuses the stew with
  • 1 1/2 C apple - peeled, cored, cut into cubes
  • 2 t Beef soup base - I like Better Than Bullion, it's gluten free!

In a heavy bottomed enameled cast iron Dutch oven, melt the butter and oil together and bring it to high temp. Add the salt and peppered beef chunks - in 3 batches - and brown well on all sides. Remove each batch to a bowl as each is done.

When all the beef is browned, add the pumpkin pieces to the oil and brown, giving a nice caramelization to the edges. Then add the onions and garlic and stir well until the onions and garlic are softened. 

Add the beef back into the pot along with the potatoes, pour the bottle of Angry Orchard over all, stir everything up from the bottom, cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Let it go for about an hour, then add the apple and the soup base. Stir well again, cover and let it simmer for another 2 hours or so until the beef is tender.


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Paw Paw Ice Cream or Concord Grape Sorbet...One Difficult Decision

This week's Millie's Homemade ice cream CSA presented we fortunate subscribers with a choice: a pint of native Western PA paw paw ice cream or harvest fresh concord grape sorbet? Tough decision, right? I love choices where there are no wrong answers. I chose paw paw. 

Why? Because I've been dying to try paw paws for many years. From the time we moved into our house in the North Hills 28 years ago, all those fruit tree catalogs tempted me with descriptions of the exotic sounding fruit tree. The fruits look like a large mango with a flavor description of a banana crossed with citrus. Described as having a custardy texture, I SO wanted to try them. 

The trees themselves were unlike any local tree I'd ever cool and tropical looking! Somehow I never got around to ordering a pair. Yet another gardening regret in hindsight as paw paws have become the darling of the fall fresh and local scene. Blew that one!

I was tickled to see the last Cure'ated dinner (at Cure in Lawrenceville with Chef Brian Voltaggio of Volt in Frederick, MD (and of Top Chef fame)) used paw paws in every course. (I was first on the waiting list for this dinner if someone cancelled. They didn't. Damn.) And now, I was being offered paw paw ice cream delivered directly to my door? Yes, please.

Now that I had a pint of my dream paw paw ice cream in my hot little hands, would I be disappointed after years of imagining the exotic, yet local, fruit's flavor? Not on your life. It was everything I'd imagined and more! Just a hint of banana with a subtle melon nuance and a smidge of pineapple in the forefront delighted my tastebuds. THIS is ice cream to savor!

And you know what? When Lauren delivered my pint to the door, I was lucky enough to be gifted a bonus pint of Concord Grape sorbet, too. I hit the ice cream lottery! 

One taste of this intensely grape-y sorbet had me imagining a tall glass of gin and tonic with a big scoop - or TWO - of this gorgeous deep purple grape sorbet bobbing in a bubbly tall glass. So that's exactly what we enjoyed last evening. Ahhhhhhhh...a perfect purple-y adult float. Cheers to Millie! And her homemade chilly delights.

Millie's Concord Grape Gin & Tonic Float

Serves 1

  • 1 1/2 oz.  Bluecoat gin
  • 2 nice big scoops of Millie's Homemade Concord Grape Sorbet (or another brand if you can't get your hands on Millie's - I bet blackberry would be pretty amazing, too!)
  • Fever Tree Naturally Light Indian Tonic Water (or regular, not light) - enough to fill the glass

In a nice tall glass, add the gin and a little tonic. Mix. Add hefty scoops of sorbet and pour enough tonic to fill the glass. Gently stir and serve with a straw. (I love my metal spoon straws...dual purpose!)

Friday, October 17, 2014

Spinach & Parm Meatballs And Sausage With Hot Banana Pepper Sauce

Staring at the takeout menu, the decision is always the same when a hot hoagie is the night's craving. Meatball or hot sausage?  Okay, maybe a steak n' cheese might figure into the equation, too, on occasion. But generally, it's meatball or hot sausage for me.

And then there's the gluten issue getting in the way of simply ordering from a takeout menu. Except for Mandy's Pizza in West View (thank you Steve for doing amazing GF pizzas, hoagies, calzones and pastas ALL in a GF version!), usually if I want a hoagie, it's going to be homemade. As long as I'm doing my own meatballs or hot sausage, why not make it the way I really want it? Why NOT do both meatballs AND sausage in the same sandwich so there are no potential life altering decisions to be made? Why not indeed. So I did.

Every good meatball or sausage hoagie (did you know I still say "sub" sometimes from my years in Maryland?) starts with a doggone good tomato sauce. Since I still have hot banana peppers from the CSA, that's where I started. And really, Italian hot banana peppers are just made for a good sauce on an Italian hoagie! After starting with the peppers, I added lots of garlic, San Marzano tomatoes, fresh basil and good red wine. Good start.

My meatballs are a nice light version with chopped fresh spinach and a hefty amount of Parmesan, as well as fresh bread and heavy cream to be sure the meatballs stay light and tender. Because the sauce itself packs a nice wallop of heat, instead of my usual hot sausage, I used sweet Italian sausage and let the sauce carry the heat for the dish. 

Once the sauce, meatballs and sausage had simmered on the stovetop for a while, all that was needed were good, crusty hoagie rolls (or Udi's GF baguettes for me) and a nice smoky provolone to tuck into the sandwich to get all gooey and melty. Just like takeout!

And the leftovers? Turn the sauce, meatballs and sausage into an easy casserole for a dinner the whole family will love! Who doesn't like double duty dinners?! 

Spinach & Parm Meatballs And Sausage 
With Hot Banana Pepper Sauce

  • 3 T olive oil
  • 2 large sliced banana peppers - HOT ones!, tops removed, seeds removed, sliced across into thin wheels
  • 4 large cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1/4 C fresh basil, chopped
  • 1 T Kosher salt
  • lots of freshly ground black peppercorns
  • 2 - 1 lb 12 oz cans of San Marzano tomatoes in puree w/ basil leaf
  • 1/3  (or more?) C good red wine

  • 1 1/3 lb lean ground beef
  • 1 egg
  • 2 T Italian flatleaf parsley, chopped
  • a generous 1/2 C fresh spinach, chopped - measured after chopping
  • Kosher salt & freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 1/2 t granulated garlic
  • 2 T heavy cream
  • 1 slice firm bread, crumbled finely - I use gluten-free bread to make this GF, but if gluten isn't an issue use something like Pepperidge Farm

  • 1 pound sweet Italian sausage links, cut in half and browned in a skillet

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

Start with the sauce. In a large pot, add the olive oil and add the banana peppers and garlic. Saute gently until the veggies are softened, but not browned. Add the basil and stir in well, then add the salt & pepper, tomatoes (crushing each tomato with your hand and fingers as you put it in) and wine. Stir well, bring to a boil and immediately reduce heat to a simmer. Let simmer gently while making the meatballs & sausage.

In a large bowl, mix all the meatball ingredients well, but lightly. Make meatballs about the size of golf balls and place on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake for 40 minutes until beautifully browned. 

Add meatballs and browned sausage into the sauce and simmer an hour or so. Don't let the sauce reduce too much, but just to a nice spoonable consistency. Stir occasionally, making sure the bottom isn't burning. 

Serve on good crisp hoagie buns with slices of provolone, if you wish. To make these GF, I use Udi's baguettes. Fabulous!

NOTE: What to do with leftovers besides more hoagies? Cut each meatball in half, and the sausages, too. Cook rigatoni or medium shells, drain and add meatballs and sausage with enough sauce to coat the pasta well. Add cubes of mozzarella and some parm, mix well, pour into a large shallow casserole dish, cover with more shredded mozz and bake at 400 degrees just until the casserole bubbles nicely. Serve with a good salad and garlic bread. Easy dinner! 

Oh what the hell, here's a bonus recipe for the casserole:

Meatballs, Sausage & Shells 
Quick and Easy Casserole

  • 8 oz. large shell pasta - I use gluten-free to make this GF - cooked just under al dente to allow for time in the oven
  • 4 C leftover meatballs and sausage, each cut in half
  • 1 C leftover banana pepper sauce
  • 4 oz. sharp provolone, cut in 1/2" dice
  • 4 oz. firm mozzarella, cut in 1/2" dice
  • 4 oz. fontina, cut in 1/4" dice

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees.

Drain the shells and return to the pot. Add the sauce and stir gently to coat, trying to separate the shells. Add the halved meatballs and sausage and the cheeses, again trying to separate the shells so they're evenly distributed with the meats. 

Spray a shallow casserole dish with Pam and pour the mixture into the dish. Bake for about 50 minutes until the cheeses are melted and the casserole is bubbly.

Easy, family pleasing dinner! 

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Millie's Homemade Ice Cream - Maybe The Best CSA Ever!

Oh, how the excitement around home has been growing! CSA time was a l m o s t here! Not our farm CSA, that one is nearly at an end, I'm talkin' our ICE CREAM CSA!  And our first delivery came on Saturday. Let the celebration begin!

First, a little background. Our ice cream CSA is by Millie's Homemade Ice Cream right here in Pittsburgh. They use only the finest of local farm fresh eggs and cream to "create artisanal ice cream and sorbet that will fill your belly and warm your heart." That's according to Chad and Lauren, the talent behind the product that not only does what it promises, but soothes your soul at the same time. With ice cream!

Just like a perfect present in it's presentation, isn't it? Appropos.

Who is the talent behind the ice cream? None other than Chad Townsend, formerly the talented chef at Salt of the Earth in Garfield, and his lovely wife and business partner, Lauren. He brings his years of expertise in discovering combinations that are sometimes subtle nuances of gentle flavors or other times little (big) parties in your mouth. I'll be sharing the excitement of each flavor as the CSA weeks unroll.

Our inaugural Saturday CSA delivery was a gentle, beguiling little number of Lemon Verbena ice cream. You know we popped the lid and dug into the pint of soft green goodness the instant it was placed into our hands! Smooth, sweet, silky and lemony herbal notes danced and swayed gently in our mouths. 

It may look a little soft, but that's perfect tasting consistency to me!

We dreamed of running into the kitchen to whip up a batch of perfect shortbread cookies to accompany the deliciousness in front of us, but you KNOW we simply spooned and enjoyed it straight from the carton! And, when reason returned to our (ice cream cooled) fevered brains, plopped the pint into the freezer to finish off the next day. Still sans shortbread. Of course.

Where can you get your own Millie's Homemade Ice Cream? Especially since the CSA is long since filled up? Every Friday you can get your fill at the Livermore in East Liberty (124 S. Highland Avenue) by the cup or by the cone. In the meantime, I'll be by my front door on Saturdays (not so) patiently awaiting my precious pint of ice cream or sorbet to appear at my door. There may or may not already be a spoon in my hand when it gets here.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Italian Vinegar and Oil Pickled Hot Peppers - And Good Neighbors

A small canning jar, sparkling like sliced yellow sapphires and studded with an occasional sliver of ruby, passed from my neighbor's hands into my grateful ones. I had been gifted a precious jar of Joanna's annual Italian Vinegar and Oil Pickled Hot Peppers. As I've told Joanna often, they are the best doggone pickled peppers that have ever gilded a hoagie!

This year, I got something even better...the recipe! Well, not better than the actual peppers, but the tools to do them myself! 

Serendipitously, there were bags of hot banana peppers available for swap out at my Dillner Family Farms CSA pick up for a couple weeks in a row. Anticipating collecting enough of the firm long yellow peppers for Joanna's recipe, I swapped out zucchini or lettuce or even some potatoes until I had enough peppers for a small batch of my own jarred pickled hot peppers. 

Finally, canning night. Following Joanna's recipe carefully, I brought vinegar, sugar and water to a boil. I'd already prepared the jars, sliced the peppers and readied the garlic, salt and olive oil. The jars were lined up on the counter filled with their colorful contents just waiting. I poured the boiling liquid carefully over the contents of each jar and capped each one securely. 

After a while, I heard the reassuring soft pop of each lid indicating the seal had worked. That made no difference to me really, because I lack confidence in my safe canning abilities (it has been MANY years since I could call myself an accomplished canner) and refrigerated all 4 pints of peppers as soon as they came to room temp. Better safe than sorry, you know!

Have I mentioned before that I have the best neighbors in all of the North Hills? I'd even venture to say in all of the Greater Pittsburgh area! 

Italian Vinegar and Oil Pickled Hot Peppers

  • 4-6 C hot banana peppers, cleaned, stem ends cut off, sliced thinly
  • 8 large garlic cloves, peeled, stem end cut off and left whole
  • 8 teaspoons Kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons good olive oil

  • 2 C white vinegar
  • 2 C water
  • 1 C granulated sugar

  • 4 pint jars with rings and lids or 8 half pint jars with rings and lids

In a pot on the stove, boil the lids for the jars for 5 minutes. Remove, dry thoroughly and set aside on a clean, dry cloth. Run the jars and rings through the dishwasher. Have everything ready to go when the jars and rings immediately come out of the dishwasher.

If you're using pint jars, add 2 garlic cloves to each jar along with 2 teaspoons salt and 2 T olive oil. (If using 1/2 pints, use 1 garlic clove, 1 t salt and 1 T olive oil to each jar.) On top of those ingredients, cram the pepper rings as tightly into each jar as possible while still leaving about 1/4-1/2" between the contents and the tops of the jars. 

Pour the boiling vinegar, water, sugar mixture over top contents of each jar, again leaving 1/4-1/2" clearance at the top. Make sure the rims of the jars are squeaky clean and place the lids on top of each jar. Tighten the rings securely and allow the jars to cool to room temperature. Each lid should "pop" as it seals. If not, and I don't trust it, refrigerate the peppers. 

Allow the peppers 3 weeks or so to reach the pickling sweet spot and serve  on sandwiches, in salads, however you enjoy the most!

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

A Maryland Get Away, The Kimber Effect And Sweet, Sweet Memories

Over the life of Dinner Plan-it, I've given you little insights into various adventures I've enjoyed there with friends and/or family in the great and beautiful state of Maryland. (Okay, sometimes MORE than a little, you know I LOVE the state!) Never has time spent in Maryland NOT been memorable!

Generally, you get snippets of Maryland adventures like last year's vacation in Ocean City and the food and drinks at Hooked or more lengthy tales like a Food With Friends get together in Annapolis or Kimber's and my visits to Fells Point in Baltimore. This time I thought we'd take you along on our long weekend to Ocean City to experience (vicariously) the foods, the sights, the smells, the oddities, the simple pleasure of being at the beach. Are you packed? Let's go!

We start out early, after the dawn but before the morning rush, heading for the turnpike. Eastbound, our first observation is we should have packed more gluten-free foods unless I want to gorge on a selection of salty, oily potato chips from multiple metal racks at the Oakmont rest stop. Fresh GF food? Forget it. Lesson learned. 

Back in the car, we cruise straight to Bob Evans in Breezewood to simply fill the holes in our bellies. That we did, then back on the road with images of glistening waves, squawking  seagulls and glittering sand luring us on. The beach is our quest.

As we drive, we talk about Ocean City beach trips of the past and the many interesting weather events we've encountered over the decades. Hurricanes and Nor'easters are no strangers to our OC beach vacations. In fact, we realized that when Kimber is along, storms are the norm! We simply face the fact that Kimber is a magnet for - well, let's just call it less than satisfactory beach weather. 

There was one particularly memorable storm - I think it was Hurricane Emily - when Kimber was in high school that winds whipped up the seas into giant mounds of seafoam against the dunes and sand felt like it was shot from a sandblaster against our faces. Our windbreakers sounded like a platoon of helicopters landing! Why were we out there (along with one of her friends) in that kind of weather? Why wouldn't we be?! Type A tendencies, you know.

Making great time, we are! We crossed the beautiful Bay Bridge, dazzled by the ships and boats and familiar crab pots bobbing in the bay and we drew closer to OC with the temp at 81 and glorious skies all around.  Into farming country, we make note of the multitudinous farmstands on the westbound side of Rte. 50 to make our last-of-the-season produce purchases more efficient on the way home. Good plan.

And then, in the distance, we see the familiar signs and businesses that welcome us to our happiest place. (I've been going here since I was 5 years old with parents, grandparents, uncles and many, many friends. Many, many sweet, sweet memories.) 

Yeah, we could have gone that fast way that takes us north of downtown Ocean City, but that sucks the life out of all the years of recollections - that first smell of the ocean that wafts through the open windows and sunroof as we cross the drawbridge, the perennial line of placid seagulls grabbing for dear life to the roofline of M. R. Ducks on the righthand side, looking for (and saying hello to) the Boardwalk, the spot where the real yellow Volkswagon VW Bug used to be perched high on a pole above the Paddock (Eek! It's a country/western bar now.), Fish Tales (hello!), Macky's (hiya!), Seacrets (guilty pleasure still at my age). 

I forgot something in all my excitement. As we approached the bridge, the clouds gathered, the temperature dropped from 81 to 74 and the winds kicked up. Significantly. Yep, The Kimber Effect still holds. Comforting to know there are constants in life. We always prepare for the not so positive ones and enjoy the moments we're given as they're given. So our first stop was Hooked for lunch and a well-crafted cocktail. We earned it. The Kimber Effect worked to our advantage this time!

Nice and spicy with a house pickled jalapeno and pickled tomato to boot!

While we sat at the bar, ate a wonderful crabby lunch and chatted up the staff, the rain came, the rain cleared, the sun came out and we were on our way to check into the hotel. 

Mmmhmmm...the first of many crab dishes to ensue. Real Maryland crab dip and fresh made chips at Hooked.
(Hooked participates in the Maryland True Blue Crab program

You KNOW its real!)

As if we needed evidence that the Kimber Effect had cleared, we checked in only to be queried whether we might be interested in exchanging our King Suite room with the pull out sofa (only room available when we made the res - SunFest weekend, you know) for a room with 2 queens? Oh, and the 2nd night would be free. BOOM! The Kimber Effect dissipated in grand style before our very eyes. Done. Deal.

View from our balcony towards the Big Assawoman Bay - Kimber Effect on the way out.

View from our balcony towards the Atlantic - Kimber Effect banished!!!

First thing on tap? A walk on the beach! This is, of course, the reason we drove 7 hours to begin with.

So maybe the windy part of the Kimber Effect remained. The beautiful part!

Not yet ready for dinner - since we'd packed in such a late lunch - we decided to head north to Delaware. On a booze quest. Always fun to peruse the shelves of distant states to see what interesting rums, bourbons, liqueurs and unknowns might be lurking in unfamiliar territory. 

Our first stop was Lighthouse Liquors in Fenwick - nice selection in a relatively small store! Here we picked up Dogfish Head Brown Honey Rum. Yes. THAT Dogfish Head. We also found Abuelo 12 Year, a Panamanian rum I'd been searching for since we sampled its delights at Porco Tiki Lounge in Cleveland almost a year ago. Grabbed that one, too! Although they didn't carry some of the items on our list, they were kind enough to tell us about this place up in the outlet mall! Be still my heart.

Scores at Lighthouse Liquors in Fenwick.

Yes folks, raised stage, LIVE beach music AND outlet-priced discount liquors! Outlet store nirvana.
Well, you see the picture above. You can just image our reaction. Oh, and did we shop! Pusser's, Appleton Estate V/X and Wray & Nephew rums; my no-longer-carried-in-PA and long-lamented 360 Double Chocolate vodka - TWO bottles; Dolin's vermouth - both dry and sweet, nicely priced (relatively) Grand Marnier, and even some rhubarb and cranberry bitters thrown in for good measure filled our cart. A most successful trip already, yes? I'm already making a list for our next trip to Outlet Discount Liquors in Rehoboth!

After a thwarted attempt for dinner at Dogfish Head, we meandered back down Coastal Highway just in time for a prime spot at the Crab Bag. Yes, the second crab meal of the day.

Fat. Hot. Heavy. Just the way they should be.

The rest of the evening saw lots of shopping (LOTS!), leather jackets at end-of-the-season prices, Dolle's candies, frozen yogurt, stops in all of the surf shops - some more than once - and especially at our favorite open-late shop, Endless Summer where I picked up this little tiki number...for the bar, of course.

This little tiki surfer dude obviously catches only the fiercest of waves! 

Yawn. This was a long, productive day starting in PA this morning, to MD, DE and back to our room. Nitey nite. Another awesome day ahead!

Hmmm...what's with all the clouds?

First peak from the balcony. It will burn off!

So off to breakfast we go. Bloodies and Benedicts, please.

The brand new Barn 34 (where the Christmas shoppe used to be) is serving up some kickass food! The GF (no muffin) Benedict with fresh spinach, FRESH crab(!!), Canadian bacon, poached egg and homemade hollandaise was simply amazing. Pretty decent Bloody Mary, too!

Still cloudy. Let's head to the inlet before the crowds get there for SunFest. Nice time to stroll the beach, reflect on the past year and think about how much Mark would have loved this trip. Except for the shopping. He would have taken a little salt water taffy to the beach to enjoy with his beer while we hit the stores!


Time to hit the beach for REAL! will burn off.

Okaaaayyyy...sunning(ish) in the sand with a favorite beverage will brighten things up!

And it did.
(Sailor Jerry and ginger for Kimber (L) and Parrot Bay Coconut Rum, lime and Diet Coke for me (R). Don't judge. It was vacation.

And the clouds and wind rolled in again. No problem! We'd been wanting to check out Ocean City Brewing Company!

A light lunch, picklebacks and a flight of some pretty amazing beers at OCBC were just what the weatherman ordered! (So did we.)

More shopping, a late dinner and an early turn in were in order. Busy 2 days! Seems like more, doesn't it?

Sunday. Time to get up and check the skies to see whether we're sticking around to enjoy one last (crab) breakfast or hitting the road.

This view certainly made the decision easier.

This confirmed it.

And so, we bid adieu to the rain, drove back down Coastal Highway for one last time while saying our silent farewells. It was sweet. It was just what we needed to relax and refresh until next year. Reservations are already being made for August 2015!

Across the drawbridge, the rain eventually clears, we stop for pumpkins and apples and late tomatoes at one of the stands we'd reconnoitered just a few days earlier. Not interested in breakfast, we crossed back over the Bay Bridge watching the Eastern Shore fade into our rearview mirror. Until next year, you great big beautiful bridge!

While driving, we decided we'd stop at Wegman's (my standard fix when in Maryland!) for MD crabmeat by the pound and lunch at Brian Voltaggio's Family Meal. We stopped, spent hours in the Wegman's aisles - and the money to prove it - and then hit Family Meal. 

Our timing was spot on. Two prime spots right at the end of the counter opened up and we sailed past families and parties of 3 or more to our comfy perch. Knowing us by now, you also know we struck up a conversation with the men to our left and, of course, the staff. I think we convinced our countermates to visit Pittsburgh after telling them about the dining, cocktail and brewery scenes in town!

So lunch. The menu is classic diner and comfort food interpreted to the nines. But casual, friendly, family like and NO pretensions. The no pretensions thing at Volt was what I appreciated so much the times we've dined there.  

I started with cool, creamy perfectly seasoned deviled eggs generously dusted with crumbles of crisp bacon and I followed that with a bowl of cauliflower soup drizzled with basil oil and topped with a Parmesan crisp. Kimber and I shared duck fat fries with truffle oil, surrounded with 3 dipping sauces. Hands down our favorite was the onion dip one! Brought back memories of the 50's sitting around the black and white RCA, munching Ruffles with Lipton's California onion dip. Only in spades. 

Kimber chose the classic Reuben - so jealous I couldn't taste it and she crushed it before I got a pic!

Foreground - cauliflower soup, middle - deviled eggs, rear - duck fat fries with the magnificent onion dip!

For dessert - yes, we indulged - I chose the Banana Pudding with caramel and whipped cream, while lucky Kimber went the traditional MD route with a Smith Island Roll. Heaven

Sweet endings.
 Did I say endings? Not quite. A good cuppa Joe took that honor.
Having left Family Meal, we jumped back on Rte. 70, hit the Turnpike and were home in no time with nothing but sweet dreams of our all too short long weekend firmly planted in our brains. Well, that and the can of Fisher's Caramel Corn to make those remembrances even sweeter!

Ahhhh...home sweet - caramel-y sweet - home!
Thanks for joining us on our too short vacation. Hope you weren't bored! In my book, a Maryland visit is just what the doctor ordered. Anytime. I'm thinking a return to Fell's Point might just be the prescription next time!