Lola Granola Bars — The Weekender

by in Recipes, December 7th, 2012

Lola Granola Bars - The WeekenderWhen I worked full-time in an office, I both looked forward to and dreaded the weeks leading up to the holidays. The excitement came from knowing that soon I’d be on vacation, spending time with my family, far away from the office. The dread came from the fact that, soon, the break room would feature an ever-replenishing array of candies, cookies and treats from co-workers and vendors.

As a girl with an insatiable sweet tooth, this end-of-year extravaganza of sugary morsels was deadly for my long-standing goal to eat reasonably. Every time I walked into the room to fill my water bottle or make a cup of tea, I’d take a cookie or two back to my desk with me. While I never obeyed this solution unfalteringly, I did find that if I kept some better snacking options in my desk drawer, I’d have more success at avoiding the minefield of treats in the kitchen.

If you’re faced with regular access to an equally tempting holiday treat table, here’s my advice: make granola bars. Homemade granola bars are far better than the ones you buy at the store because you know exactly what’s in them, you can customize them to your liking, and you get a heck of a lot more bang for your buck.

Before you start toasting your oats, read these tips

Greek Noodle Casserole — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, November 30th, 2012

Giada's Greek Noodle CasseroleThough winter isn’t officially here according to the calendar, early sunsets and chilly nights mean that it’s fast approaching. As someone who loves daylight and loses steam once the sky goes dark, it’s around this time each year that I put my antihibernation plan into action.

During these darker months, my natural inclination is to burrow down — to stay close to home and not surface again until the warmer days return. While this might have been an appropriate survival strategy during another era, in my current life, it initiates a most unpleasant spiral of isolation. This is no good for anyone.

And so I fight back against this tendency to hole up using food. I throw dinner parties and invite friends over for spur-of-the-moment potlucks. I organize brunch outings. I make extra large batches of soup and carry it to harried neighbors. And at least once a weekend, I make an extra large casserole, just in case.

These days, one of my favorite recipes is Giada’s Greek Noodle Casserole. It’s essentially a slightly simplified version of Pastitsio and ends up tasting like an exotic, homemade version of Hamburger Helper. For those of us who grew up on the stuff (it is what my dad would make on nights when he was in charge), that makes this endlessly comforting and familiar. Perfect for combating short days and cooking as your Weekender.

Before you get cooking, read these tips

Turkey Cheesesteak With Wisconsin Cheddar — The Weekender

by in Holidays, Recipes, November 23rd, 2012

Turkey Cheesesteak With Wisconsin CheddarWhen it comes to consuming Thanksgiving leftovers, my parents are of two fairly divergent schools of thought. My mother likes to enjoy replicas of the original meal for a night or two after the event, after which she gracefully transitions to open-faced turkey sandwiches and, eventually, a large pot of soup.

My father’s approach is a bit messier. As soon as the Thanksgiving dishes are washed, he begins to anticipate a full week of a dish we’ve taken to calling “Mo’s Turkey Mash.” He layers diced turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes, any remaining green beans and puréed squash in a serving bowl, adds a generous pour of gravy and microwaves the whole thing until suitably warm. Then he works it with a soupspoon until it reaches a homogenous distribution. Then it’s ready to eat.

As far as leftovers go for me, I have a limited capacity to eat the exact same thing over and over again. I like a replay of Thanksgiving for lunch on Friday, but then I’m ready to start reimagining the leftovers into something wholly different. Some years, I’ve opted for a creation I like to call “Turkey Pot Shepherd’s Pie.” It’s essentially the insides of a pot pie, topped with mashed potatoes instead of a pastry crust. Other times, I’ve done a thick turkey chili with the leftover meat.

Here are a few tips to get you started

Brisket Bowls — The Weekender

by in Recipes, November 16th, 2012

Rachael Ray's Brisket BowlsMy husband and I have been together now for five years and married for three. We’ve hit all manner of speed bumps and road blocks as we’ve negotiated towards peaceful co-habitation, but none have been more difficult than establishing an array of dinnertime meals that are able to make us both happy.

I come from a family with solid hippie tendencies. The dinners of my childhood tended to feature items like brown rice, beans in place of meat and kale (well before it was trendy). We had lots of fresh vegetables and tart yogurt was billed as a treat.

Scott’s family tended towards a more processed diet. There was a lot of meat, string beans only came out of cans and Velveeta was viewed as a viable cheese for sandwiches and after-school snacks.

Finding our middle ground in the midst of these divergent origins has been tough. We’ve each had to surrender some ground in order to share meals. I’ve stopped shoehorning kale into every meal and Scott has added several lines to the list of vegetables he willingly eats.

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Sunny’s Spicy Spinach Panzanella — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Recipes, November 9th, 2012

Sunny's Spicy Spinach PanzanellaMy Grandma Bunny was known for her spinach salad. It was one of her most regularly requested recipes by friends and made an appearance on her table at nearly every family gathering. She would search out adolescent leaves, wanting greens that would relax upon dressing and tossing, but not wilt immediately. Palm-sized leaves were avoided, as they were too old to be eaten without the application of heat.

Once the right spinach was chosen, it was washed carefully (I think this was in part to give an eager grandchild an opportunity to help). I’d climb up on a stool next to the kitchen sink and swish the leaves around until Bunny was certain they’d released all their grit. Once they were clean, she’d shake off the big droplets and heap them into a large pillowcase that was fitted with a drawstring. She’d take the pillowcase outside and twirl it around over her head. More efficient than a salad spinner and far more entertaining for small children.

Then it was time to make the dressing. It started with a few slices of minced bacon and ended with slices of mushrooms, cooked until tender but not rubbery. That, along with slivered red onions, a little red wine vinegar, salt and pepper finished the salad. It was warm, savory and still wonderfully crisp.

Before you start toasting bread cubes, read these tips

Skillet Brownies — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Recipes, November 2nd, 2012

Skillet BrowniesOn Sunday night, a day before Hurricane Sandy devastated much of the mid-Atlantic, my husband and I had some friends over for dinner. We went back and forth, debating whether it was a good idea to encourage people to come out in what we were told was going to be ever-worsening weather.

After a brief consultation with the weather oracles and our invite list, we pushed on with our little gathering. I made two pots of soup. Friends brought bread, cheese, meatballs and wine. We sat around our living room for hours, munching our way through nearly all the food and appreciating the feeling of being part of a community.

When all that was left were empty bowls, a few crumbs and a cheese rind or two, I brought out dessert. Often, when faced with the challenge of choosing a dessert to serve to guests, I flounder. I waffle between making some ridiculously complicated confection that ends up tasting good but looking terrible or I choke entirely and dash out for cookies and ice cream.

Before you start baking, read these tips

Caramel Popcorn Balls — The Weekender

by in Entertaining, Holidays, October 26th, 2012

Caramel Popcorn BallsEach year around Halloween I find myself feeling nostalgic for elementary school — for class parties, costume parades on the playground and a plastic pumpkin bursting with candy. I also find myself craving my mom’s honeyed popcorn. It was her signature treat to give to friends and neighbors for the holiday.

After dinner when all the dishes were cleaned and put away, she’d fire up our yellow-and-white air popper and keep it running until she had filled a clean brown paper grocery bag with the popped corn. Once that task was finished, she’d melt butter and honey together into a thick syrup and pour it over the popped corn, using her longest-handled wooden spoon to help stir it all up.

The sweetened corn would then get spread across rimmed cookie sheets and would go into the oven for 10 or 15 minutes, to help set and crisp the kernels. The next day when it was cool, she’d package it up in plastic bags, secured with orange and black twist ties. My sister and I always got small bags in our lunch the day after she made it.

Before you start popping your corn, read these tips

Tuna and White Bean Pasta With Gremolata Bread Crumbs — The Weekender

by in Recipes, October 19th, 2012

tuna and white bean pasta Learning to make one or two pantry meals was one of the best things I ever did for my grocery budget. These are the dishes that you can easily cook up with the slow-to-perish items that you regularly keep in your fridge, freezer and cupboards. They are lifesavers on those nights when you get home late from work and you’re on the verge of calling for takeout. Knowing that you can throw together a pasta dish or something made from rice, beans and a tasty simmer sauce will keep your fingers from dialing your local pizza joint nearly every time.

I have several recipes that can be made from my kitchen staples and I turn to them regularly, particularly as the days get shorter and colder (who wants to dash out for last-minute ingredients when the wind is whipping?).

One of my very favorite pantry meals has been a quick baked pasta dish. You cook up any short, chunky kind of noodle you have knocking around the cabinet. While it boils, you simmer together onion, garlic, a big can of tomatoes and some frozen spinach. Once the pasta is done, you stir it into the sauce, scoop the whole mess into a baking dish, top with whatever odds and ends of cheese you have in the fridge and bake just until the cheese bubbles.

Before you toast your breadcrumbs, read these tips

Prosciutto-Roasted Bass With Autumn Vegetables — The Weekender

by in Recipes, October 12th, 2012

prosciutto roasted bass with autumn vegetables
During the summer I try and minimize how much I use my oven. The air conditioning in my apartment is adequate for dealing with Philadelphia’s steamy weather, but it begins to falter when I add all that radiant oven heat to the mix. So when cooler temperatures roll around, I’m more than ready to reconnect with the world of baking, broiling and roasting.

This last weekend, I was making a little dish to take with me to a birthday potluck. It was simple enough, just a bowl of lemony white bean spread and some crunchy baguette rounds. I’d cut the bread thin, so it would become akin to little crackers as it toasted and be a good partner for the smooth dip (this is a great way to give new life to day- or two-day-old bread).

As I stood by my oven and watched the bread to prevent it from burning, I saw a spark and then a small flame shoot out of the element (it’s electric). I quickly switched off the broiler, pulled my sheet of toasts off the rack and attempted to blow out the flame (for future reference, this is not a particularly good way to extinguish a kitchen fire). Thankfully, the flame died back almost immediately and I was able to investigate the damage. A chunk of the element was burnt away.

Before you pre-heat you oven, read these tips

Cast-Iron Skillet Focaccia — The Weekender

by in Recipes, October 5th, 2012

cast iron skillet focaccia
I bought my first cast-iron skillet in my early twenties. I didn’t have much of a budget for cookware in those days and all the advice I read said that cast iron was the best bang for my buck. All I really knew is that I didn’t want to deal with flimsy, peeling, nonstick pans anymore.

I was initially a little nervous about introducing cast iron into my kitchen, because I’d grown up with a mother who hated cast iron with a passion. She thought it was too heavy, fussy to care for and entirely unsanitary (because you’re not supposed to scrub it with soap. My mother is a firm believer in the power of a good, sudsy scour).

When my parents got married, she actually got rid of my dad’s beloved collection of cast-iron skillets. Forty-two years later, those long-gone skillets continue to be one of the few bones of contention in their marriage.

With this history, it’s understandable that I was uneasy about my own cast-iron purchase. Turns out my anxiety was entirely unwarranted. I fell hard for that first skillet, so much so that I added several others to my kitchen in short order. If my husband tossed out my skillets, I do believe it would be grounds for divorce.

Before you heat your skillet, read these tips