No Runs, No Hits, But Eros

It’s insidious.Through TV, movies, and popular culture people have been programmed with this fabricated notion of what “true love” looks like.  It’s a steaming chowder of those vampire/mortal epic romances, one full cup of Ryan/Blake and Channing/Jenna, a dash of that home-flipping reality couple from Texas, and pretty much anything starring Ryan Gosling.

And, buying into it only brings frustration and hurt feelings: “If he loved me, he’d read my mind and know I want him to recreate that scene in Say Anything!”  “If she loved me she’d be happy to watch six hours of golf with a bucket of wings and a six-pack! The beer’s imported!”I admit I totally fell for it.  Growing up many of my favorite movies had happily ever after endings, and I read enough hearts and flowers literature to fill a frumpy, middle-aged, multiple cat-owning, never been kissed library.

And poor old Petey paid the lovey-dovey-ding-dong price for it.

Every year until The Kid was born, I’d make him get dressed up and inform him he was taking me “somewhere nice” for dinner.  And to me at that time it meant the restaurant at a local mid-price hotel for something like beef Wellington for two or gloppy Stroganoff containing unidentifiable shards of meat. So we’d head home, $100 poorer, with four sore feet from uncomfortable shoes, and two bellies full of indigestion.

Romantical, ain’t it?

So here’s the thing.  Just because that’s how everybody thinks you’re supposed do Valentine’s Day doesn’t mean you must.  I promise, the Cupid squad will not raid your house and run you in on crimes against courtship.

The Cupid squad don’t play.  They’ll cut a bitch.

You know what’s way more romantic than doing something that you’d never normally do because that’s what’s expected?

Having fun, and enjoying each other’s company.  And if you don’t have to get all dressed up and go out and eat overpriced, indifferent food prepared and served by indifferent people who’d rather not be there, so much the better.

So, here’s a much happier, less stressful V-Day date: get take-out.

Really. 

And by takeout, I’m not talking Burger King, unless that’s your jam.  For me, Chinese is always a quick way to my heart.  It could be a big box full of Mexican, or deli sandwiches, or a vat of spaghetti and garlic bread, or barbecue and all the fixin’s.  There’s some kind of takeout that you both love—go get it.

Then make a living room picnic.  Put on your comfiest pajamas, eat your takeaway feast, watch a fun movie, or play Twister, or have a double solitaire marathon, or listen to music and tell each other how awesome you are.

The important thing is to remember.  Remember why this human, out of all other humans is the one you want to be in the rocker next to yours at the home.

And for dog’s sake, turn off the beeping, blinking, distracting tethers.  I promise when you die, you won’t go out saying, “Why didn’t I watch one more chainsaw juggling sloth video on Youboob?”

Here’s the other thing.

That’s my idea of a Valentine’s Day dream date (No, it is not sad and dull. Maybe you’re sad and dull).  Your selection may vary according to the condition of your bank account, its participants, and your dating habits.  

So, go on a pub crawl, or a hike, or shoe shopping if that’s your bag.  Just don’t do something so forced and manufactured that it’s no longer romance but a painful chore.  You do you (both).

Anyway, do you think Saint Valentine would want you to celebrate his day by being miserable?

I think not.castielThanks for your time.

Outdo Cupid on Valentine’s Day

This is a very special column.Normally this column is written for those of you who have an affinity for all things culinary.  Cooking, dining, food history, tips and recipes; it’s all fodder for the person who knows their way around a kitchen.  I write for the person whose refrigerator contains more than panty hose, batteries, and cocktail olives.

But this week’s column is for Petey-level cooks who desire to be heroes on February 14th.

If I disappeared tomorrow, my ever-loving spouse would probably be hospitalized for malnutrition and most likely scurvy within weeks.  His diet would consist of frozen pizza, microwave popcorn, dum-dum suckers and fast food.But even he could pull off this recipe.  I promise.

If you can read a recipe and follow simple instructions, you can create a delicious, impressive treat that will wow your significant other.It’s a combination cookie and candy.  There are layers of buttery shortbread, creamy caramel, decadent chocolate, topped with a light sprinkling of flaky sea salt.  It’s normally known as ‘millionaire’s shortbread’.  But because this version is so deceptively easy, I call it, ‘Windfall shortbread’.

The shortbread portion is adapted from a recipe by Martha Stewart.  But it’s simple to prepare.  As for the chocolate, the type is up to you.  Grocery store chips or gourmet artisan bars, pick either.  Milk chocolate, dark chocolate, a combination, or even (heaven forfend) white; choose the recipient’s fave.

Making caramel from scratch is an extremely tricky business, with candy thermometers and napalm-like molten sugar.  Even for professionals, the results might be perfect, or instead, toffee-like, watery, or one big rock.  Pre-made caramels guarantee consistent, perfect results every time.

Windfall shortbreadmarthas-shortbread

1 1/3 cups (2 sticks plus 6 tablespoons) brown butter, room temperature (brown butter is optional-regular salted butter is perfectly acceptable instead)

2/3 cup sugar

¾ teaspoon salt

The beans scraped from 1 vanilla bean

3 1/3 cups all-purpose flour

Make brown butter: melt butter on medium-low in small saucepan.   Watch it constantly until it foams, and then browns.  When it smells nutty and the milk solids are caramel-colored, remove from heat and pour into a bowl.  Cool until it solidifies and is room temperature.

Preheat oven to 275 degrees. Butter a 9X13 baking pan, and line bottom with buttered parchment paper with enough overhang on sides to act as handles.

In bowl of electric mixer fitted with paddle, cream butter and sugar on medium speed until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add salt and vanilla scrapings.  Beat to combine.  Add flour, 1 cup at a time, beating on low until combined, but still crumbly.

Pour dough into prepared pan and press it down.  Level and smooth the top, using something like a metal measuring cup to pack it into a nice, neat, even layer in the pan. The pieces will separate easier after baking if you slice before baking.  Cut into 2X2-inch pieces by lowering blade all the way through.  Don’t saw, you’ll disturb the shortbread’s surface.  To forestall it from bubbling up, prick each piece with a toothpick about 4-5 times—push it all the way to the bottom. 

Bake shortbread until evenly pale golden, but not browned, 70-85 minutes. Transfer pan to wire rack to cool.

Time for the caramel:Unwrap 1 ½-11 ounce bags of Kraft caramels, and place in a microwave-safe bowl.  Pour in 1 ½ tablespoons milk.  Nuke for 1 ½-2 minutes or completely melted and silky.  Pour over cooled shortbread in pan.  Place in fridge for 20 minutes.

Chocolate layer:Melt two 10 ounce bags of chips or five 4 ounce baking bars, of your choice.  Put in large bowl and microwave on 15 second intervals, stirring after each.  When completely melted, pour chocolate over the cooled caramel; smooth top with spatula.  Sprinkle with flaky finishing salt.  Allow to fully set.

When set, lift up shortbread with parchment and place on cutting board.  Using serrated knife, gently break off pieces at original cuts.  Store in an airtight container.  Recipe makes approximately 18 pieces.

Wrap these up nice and pretty, present them to the object of your affection, and then drop the mic.Because my friend; you just won Valentine’s Day.

Thanks for your time.

Let the chocolate chips fall where they may

Each year by this point in January, I’m getting mighty tired of all the commercials for gym memberships and advertisements for nutritional supplements.Instead of working out and eating steamed fish, it all makes me want to lie immobile on the couch and eat milk duds.

I might feel that way, but the truth is I do still try to move around some, and eat reasonably well.  But just because I consume fresh fruit and veg and whole grains doesn’t mean I never eat anything just because it tastes good.

And I really do sleep better when I have a few bites of something sweet before bed.  So last Friday night, when, because of the snow and ice I wasn’t sure if we’d have electricity in the morning, I made a pan of brownies.I started with a mix, which I usually do.  But this batch was the best batch I’ve turned out in years.  The Kid and I loved them, which isn’t very surprising.  But the shocker was that Petey really liked them as well.  Not being a self-indulgent choco-phile, he doesn’t usually eat my brownies anymore.  He says they’re “too much” (but where chocolate is concerned, please explain to me what is too much).

I think these were better received because I didn’t go overboard on any one ingredient.  I added espresso, but just enough to heighten the flavor, not give you a coffee-favored punch in the nose.  There were chocolates, but not a surfeit of any one type.  They were salted, but only enough to give each bite the tiniest little salty crunch.

As a woman I can testify to the fact that some days only a satisfying chocolate treat can keep me from committing mayhem on loved ones and strangers alike.  These mahogany-colored confections, accompanied with copious amounts of red wine, would be a huge hit when shared by a group of women.

Best.Book.Club.Night.Ever.Boxed up and tied with a pretty red silk ribbon, then handed over for Valentine’s Day would ensure extra credit (I actually started to write ‘brownie points’ here) for the next 364 days.

I call these “Golf Brownies” because there are 4 (fore, get it?) kinds of chocolate in them.  Unfortunately, Petey doesn’t appreciate the humor of the moniker.  But bless his heart, he’s got lots of other very good qualities.

*Recipe note-For chocolate extract, I use Nielsen-Massey.  It’s available online and at local fancy cooking stores.  Maldon salt, found at the same kind of places, and lately some mega-marts, is a very large, flaky finishing salt for sprinkling.

Golf brownies

golf brownies

1 13X9 family size package Pillsbury milk chocolate brownie mix

1 teaspoon instant espresso powder dissolved in ¼ cup very hot water

2/3 cup vegetable oil

2 eggs

2 tablespoons Hershey Special Dark cocoa powder

1 teaspoon pure chocolate flavor

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

½ teaspoon kosher salt

1-11.5 ounce bag Ghirardelli milk chocolate chips

1-2 teaspoons Maldon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.  Put all the ingredients except Maldon salt into large bowl.  Mix well.  Pour into 9X13 pan sprayed with cooking spray.  Liberally sprinkle Maldon salt on batter and bake.

Bake 13 minutes, spin pan 180 degrees and bake for 14 more.

Remove to cooling rack and allow to cool completely.  This recipe makes 2 dozen reasonably-sized pieces, or 6 extra-large PMS pieces.

Truly, brownie mix is one of the greatest benefits of living in this great country of ours.

usa brownies

Mmmmm…America…

You can have them ready for the oven in minutes, and they will obediently bend to your will, mood, and pantry.

For texture, try adding broken pretzels, nuts, or Oreo pieces.  Before baking, drop dollops of dulce de leche, peanut butter, or Nutella on  top.  Then using a sharp knife, swirl it enough to produce a marble-like effect.  Go a little sideways, and mix in crispy bacon, cracked pink peppercorns, or diced, candied ginger.

My point is that sometimes, like when it’s day three of being trapped in in the house with your entire family by snowmageddan, there’s nothing in this word that will do but a freshly baked brownie.                                                       Thanks for your time.

Elementary School Romance

Special Note: Starting next week, The Henderson (NC) Daily Dispatch will be running a weekly original column by me as well.  I will also post it on the blog. d.

I’ve written before about how Petey is the perfect spouse for me.

But on the fancy/romance scale, he lands well above Blackbeard, but somewhere below Pepe Le Pew.  Hi heart’s in the right place, but he eschews elaborate trappings—he is absolutely and completely unpretentious.

More romantical than him…

But less than him.

So I started thinking about what would be a welcome Valentine’s dinner for him.

He wouldn’t want anything with complicated sauces, or something that has to be put together with tweezers.  I also don’t think he’d be impressed by a dish that comes to the table on fire.

Plus, me and open flames?  Probably not the best idea.

This is why we can’t have nice things.

What I came up with was bacon-wrapped tenderloin, boxed scalloped potatoes (hear me out before you make up your mind about them), peas and carrots, and an apple crisp.

The steak comes with some uncomfortable questions.

How many of you have made a tenderloin, and desired to cloak it in bacon?  And how many of you ended up with the meat marred by flabby, greasy uncooked bacon in the finished dish?  And why can restaurants serve up perfect, gorgeous crispy bacon around the food?

The answer is par-cooking.  It works like a charm.  I checked in with one of my favorite restaurant chefs, James Clark at the Carolina Inn, and he said that’s what pros do as well.

bacon filet

I’d marry it.

He bakes the bacon until it’s half-cooked, and I microwave, but the result is the same.  Partially cooking it before wrapping will ensure a brown, crispy, and delicious belt for the finished steak.  Then wrap, and cook the meat to your liking.

About the spuds: I told you that my spouse doesn’t go in for fancy, and the potato dish for his special dinner is the perfect illustration of this.

At the supermarket, in the aisle with the Hamburger Helper and their ilk, are potato kits.  Amongst them are scalloped potatoes.  The store brand is just as good as the name brands.  You shouldn’t pay more than a dollar.  In fact, the last box I bought was 85 cents.

They’re easy to put together, and cook at an appropriate temp for the steak, if that’s how you choose to finish it.  I’m almost ashamed to tell you, but I enjoy them as well (though they wouldn’t be on my special dinner menu).

For a veg, Petey enjoys the ubiquitous elementary school side dish, peas and carrots.  But not the colorless, flavorless, canned version from childhood.  Mine are fresh, colorful, tasty—and easy.

Pretty and tasty

Peas and carrots

1 ½ cups frozen peas

3 carrots, washed, peeled, and cut into ¼ pieces

½ cup chicken stock or water

3 tablespoons butter

½ teaspoon sugar

½ teaspoon salt

¼ teaspoon cracked black pepper

Put everything except peas into skillet, cover, and cook on medium until the carrots are crisp/tender.  Uncover and cook until the liquid’s mostly gone.  Add peas and cook until hot and liquid’s thickened into a buttery sauce.

Taste for seasoning and serve.  Serves 2-3.

For dessert I came up with chocolate pudding.  Then I realized that chocolate pudding is a childhood favorite of mine.  Petey’s always loved apples and cinnamon.

The way to Petey’s heart.

Petey’s caramel apple crisp

For filling:

4 apples, peeled, cored, and sliced into 1/8 inch slices

½ cup sugar

1 tablespoon flour

1 teaspoon vanilla

½ teaspoon cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon nutmeg

Pinch salt

Juice of ½ lemon

Crumb topping:

1 cup rolled oats

½ cup flour

1/3 cup brown sugar

4 tablespoons butter

¼ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon vanilla

For plating:

Vanilla ice cream

½ jar favorite caramel sauce

Preheat oven to 350.  Grease 8×8 baking dish and layer apple into it.  In a separate bowl, whisk together rest of filling ingredients and pour over apples.

In another bowl, mix all topping ingredients except butter.  Put butter into bowl, and with fingers, mash butter into mixture until it’s in lumps.

Sprinkle over apples, and bake 30 minutes.  Let sit 15 minutes, then slice and plate.

Heat caramel sauce until bubbling.  Put scoop of vanilla ice cream on crisp, then sauce top.  Serves 6-8.

When everything is said and done, I’m pretty lucky.  My husband may not recite sonnets below my balcony, but I’m no Juliet.

Yeah, this ain’t us.

And besides, we don’t have a balcony.

Thanks for your time.