Easy as Pie

So, here’s the thing.

Dewey’s cake: Best.Cake.Ever.  If I lived closer to Winston-Salem, I’d weigh 800 pounds.

I love carbs.  Carbohydrates and the yummy fat that goes on and around them.  Heck, two of my favorite foods—potato salad and birthday cake, are both gloriously fat adjacent carbs.

A life-long love affair.  Petey Who?

But I have a big beef with the comingling of certain starchy types.  Namely bread or pastry with potatoes.  I don’t eat spud subs, potato pizzas or pie.  But it’s not because I don’t think they’d be tasty because I so think they would.  It’s something else entirely.

I guess we could call it nutritional conscience.

It’s like wearing way too much jewelry, driving a super flashy, crazy loud car, or beating a basketball opponent 75-13.  It’s arrogant, in-your-face, over-kill.  And no good can possibly come from it.  Whether it’s karma, the ultimate sin of tackiness, or the urgent need for a coronary by-pass, some things just ain’t fitting.Last time I was at Costco I picked up one of their dump truck-sized boxes of mushrooms.  I wanted to do something other than the usual mushroom vehicles of gravy, or salad, or soup.  I decided to make a pie.  The earthiness of mushrooms and potatoes make them perfect for each other.  But potatoes and pastry crust are a no-go combo.

So, I let the spuds be the crust.

Mushroom Pie with Hash Brown Crust

hash brown crust

For Crust:

4 cups shredded potatoes

6 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon salt

salt & pepper

An hour or so before baking, grate the potatoes into a colander.  Sprinkle with teaspoon of salt, and stir so salt’s evenly distributed.  Let sit in colander for at least an hour.  Then place spuds into kitchen towel and twist it around to get the most water out you can.

Preheat oven to 450.  Pour melted butter into shredded potatoes.  Season.  Toss until everything’s well-coated.

Place spuds into 9-inch pie pan sprayed with cooking spray.  Press into bottom and sides in even layer.

Bake for 20 minutes, then turn on low broiler and cook 10 minutes or until lightly browned and dry.

When done, remove from oven and set aside to make filling.


mushroom pie2 slices crispy bacon, fat reserved

24 ounces mushrooms, cleaned and sliced

1 yellow onion

2 tablespoons fresh thyme

1 tablespoon tomato paste

1 tablespoon Worcestershire sauce

1/2 cup white wine

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup low-fat milk

2 eggs

1/2 cup hard cheese, such as Parmesan, Manchego, aged Cheddar, grated

15 gratings of fresh nutmeg

1/4 cup fresh parsley, chopped

salt & pepper

Preheat oven to 325.  Put mushrooms and onion into heavy-bottomed pot with butter, thyme, salt, and pepper.  Turn on medium-high and cook until totally dry and browned, stirring occasionally.

While the mushrooms cook, whisk together dairy, eggs, nutmeg, and cheese, reserving 2 tablespoons cheese.

Add tomato paste and Worcestershire.  When color of tomato paste has deepened, pour in wine, scraping up browned bits.  Cook until the veg are completely dry.  Spoon into potato crust and smooth top.

Slowly pour egg mixture over ‘shrooms.  Sprinkle top with reserved cheese, parsley, and bacon.

Bake for 25 minutes, then turn on low broiler and cook until set and lightly browned. mushroom pieRemove from oven and let sit 15-20 minutes before serving.  Serve with something green.  Feeds 8.

It was really tasty. It was less eggy than a quiche, but it did have a custard-y component.  And the watchword here is dry.  Make sure the shrooms are cooked to Sahara-level desiccation.  The drier the ingredients, the better the final product will be.

Because even though you may disagree with me about carbo-overload, nobody wants wet pie.

Wet pie.

Thanks for your time.



Notes on a spinach salad

When I was first given the opportunity to write this weekly love letter to food and the Bull City, I was completely at sea.  I had all kinds of questions.

What can I write about?

What can’t I write about?

What if nobody likes my recipes?

What if I stink at this?

To my surprise, I really only had two commandments.  The column should have something to do with food.  And, it should be warts-and-all-honest.  That’s why you have access to multiple humiliating facts about me, and all of the friends and loved ones about whom I write enjoy aliases.

So sit back and relax.  I’m about to share two strange personal mental facts, one mildly embarrassing, and one just plain bizarre.

First, the red-faced factoid: unlike the vast majority of preschool-aged children, I don’t know my right from left.  I’m not completely ignorant, if I really think about it, I can usually get it right two times out of three.  But it’s not instinctual the way it is for everyone else.  For the love of all that’s holy, do not ask me for directions.

The other odd fact is I hear numbers in a rhythm in my brain, and so remember them forever.  I know phone numbers from junior high, zip codes from places I haven’t written to in decades.  Driver’s license number?  Petey’s social?  Expired credit card numbers?  Yep, yep, yep.

And this, unfortunately, is pretty much it for my arithmetical prowess.  I’m straight-up bad at math.

But there’s one algebraic formula that I know inside and out.

Spinach salad computation.

Along with ranch dressing, this is another food I ate for the first time at Mama Cat’s table.

Her components remain the classic elements of anything calling itself a spinach salad.

Spinach: Years ago, when purchasing spinach at the grocery store, it was usually mature, and curly-leafed.  The pre-washed baby variety is currently everywhere.  Curly-leafed is now so rare, it is literally almost extinct.  I like a 5-6 leaf to bite ratio.

Mushroom: About ¾ cup of thickly sliced mushrooms should be in a main-course sized serving.  Use button, cremini, or portobello.  The ‘shrooms are important, but should be of a milder type, so as not to hijack the rest of the elements.

Red onion: Slice them paper-thin into half-moons.  Use about ¼ cup (although true raw onion-haters, like Petey, can be forgiven for omitting).

Bacon:  Was there ever a lovelier word?  The only constraint here is your own concern for cholesterol levels.  I use 3-4 slices, cooked until very crispy, and broken into the bowl at the very last minute, so as to retain that crispiness.

Eggs:  Two per, hard-cooked.  But hard-cooked skillfully.  No green yolks or funky odors.  To achieve this, place eggs in a pot of cold water and add a handful of salt and 2 tablespoons vinegar.  Bring to a boil over medium-high heat.  At that point, remove from heat, cover and let sit for 13 minutes.  Then drain and peel right away under cold water.

Cheese: Not in that first salad, but optional and acceptable.  Diner’s choice as to type.

Dressing:  Ranch, of course.  But the original, made from a packet with mayo, and real buttermilk (use fat-free buttermilk, you’ll never notice the difference).

Just like all of cooking, balance is key.  Balance between flavors and balance of textures.  You need sweet, sour, salty, and bitter.  You need silky, crispy, juicy, and soft.

All you need is a fork and a bowl...

All you need is a fork and a bowl…

The one item which would have perfected the balance of that first salad was something sweet and juicy.  Tomatoes or berries are traditionally used for this.  But last week I used fresh clementine segments, and it was really good.

You can also add nuts, or replace your bacon with them (1/4 to 1/3 cup).  It will bring the same crispy, salty crunch.  They’re also much more nutritious.

And because it’s a salad, each forkful will have a varied combination of ingredients and amounts.  So each component should be tasty on its own, and play well with everything else.

With a little practice and experimentation, you can produce your own stellar salad equation.  But if you stumble, just add more bacon or ranch, and it’ll be tasty enough.

Thanks for your time.

Pink Sauce

Originally published in the Herald Sun September 2011.

So, The Kid came home a few days ago, finished with six months of summer internship and first-time completely independent living. Petey and I filled the fridge with childhood favorites like Clementines and RC Cola, and counted the hours.
I made a big pot of childhood’s favorite guilty pleasure; pink sauce.
Despite being the child of an Italian girl from Jersey, I have never liked red sauce (called Sunday gravy by my mom and her sisters). Consequently, I never made it. If Petey or The Kid wanted spaghetti and meatballs, they had to leave home, and get their fix on the streets.
Because I wanted to make some kind of spaghetti for the family, but mainly because I’m always looking for something thick and yummy to ladle onto carbs, I came up with this coral-colored, indulgent concoction.
I invented this recipe before I could really cook, and The Kid has loved it for years. This sauce is not for the faint of heart. It should be no more than an occasional treat if you want to fit into your jeans or look your doctor in the eye. Fat is flavor, and can be the culinary equivilant of false eyelashes and push-up bra for the novice cook.
A big pot of this bubbling velvet starts the day before the finished dish. I make a batch of meatballs. My walnut-sized offerings are made with a mixture of ground veal and pork. Before the meat even comes out of the fridge, I make a panade. A panade is a bread ripped into tiny pieces and soaked until saturated.
My soak is egg, cream, shredded Parm, finely chopped garlic, chiffonade of basil, a splash of both olive oil and marsala wine, and salt and pepper. When the bread and the soak are one, I break the ground meat into small pieces and lightly mix, almost fold the mixture together. If you go nuts and mix your meatballs too much, they will be rubbery and dry.
I can’t fry a spherical meatball to save my life. So, I bake them, on a cooling rack over a cookie sheet, at 350 for twelve minutes, and a few minutes minutes under the broiler, flipped once. This gives them some color that translates to flavor in the finished product.
To get them uniform in size, I use a smallish cookie/portion scoop. I roll them into balls, sprinkle them with salt, pepper, and a little bit of freshly ground nutmeg. About eighteen or so go in the sauce, and any extra go in the freezer for future use.
The sauce itself is pretty simple. I brown 10-12 Italian sausages that I’ve cut into one inch slices. I remove them from the pot and carmelize about 1 1/2 pounds of sliced mushrooms, a small onion chopped, and five or six chopped cloves of garlic. Then I add back the sausage and a can of tomato paste. When the paste has cooked to a deep burgundy, I deglaze with a cup of marsala. When the wine is almost gone, I dump in a quart of chicken stock and 2 cups of cream. Into it I put a couple of tablespoons of sundried tomatoes, 1/2 cup shredded Parm, a tablespoon of sugar, 2 tablespoons of chopped basil, a drizzle of olive oil, and salt and pepper to taste.
When it comes to a boil I thicken it slightly with a peanut butter colored roux and add the meatballs. It then slowly cooks for hours on the stove top.
When we’re ready to eat, I toss in another handful of chopped basil for fresh flavor.
I serve it on spaghetti, bake it into ziti, and use it on a ton of other things. The Kid is convinced it would be tasty on an old tennis shoe. Tonight we’re having leftover sauce on rice, my personal favorite.
Thanks for your time.

Cream Of Insert Name Of Ingredient Here Soup

Originally published in the Herald Sun 9/13/2012

When I was pregnant, and The Kid was just about done cooking, one of my oldest friends, Kiki, came to help the beached whale that was me, and to make sure Petey had food to eat, and clean boxers to wear.
While she was visiting we ate, a lot. One of our favorite things was to get a fresh baguette and a big hunk of brie, and eat until the bread was gone, or we passed out, whichever came first.
One evening, for a change of pace, and some actual nutrition, Kiki decided to make us cream of mushroom soup, with a big salad.
At this point, the only cream of mushroom soup I had any familiarity with was the gray slimy glop in the can. And then, only as an ingredient in a casserole.
But Kiki had been to culinary school, knew what she was doing, and promised me the soup would be yummy.
In about thirty minutes, I waddled out to the kitchen to taste.
It was rich, creamy, and redolent of caramelized mushrooms, chardonnay, and thyme. I was a convert.
The best part of all was that my friend assured me that the soup was a breeze to make.
A few years later, I picked up a copy of The Silver Palate Cookbook at the Durham library book sale.
Leafing through it, I saw a recipe for asparagus sauce. It wasn’t a sauce for the vegetable, but a sauce made with asparagus, to serve on chicken, or fish.
Since it was in season, and there were tons of gorgeous ‘goose’ (Kid-speak for the spears) available, I decided to give it a whirl.
It was basically asparagus, sautéed with some onion, then pureed with water.
It was pretty darn awful.
So, there I am, standing in the kitchen, staring down at a big pot of beautiful, yet inedible sauce.
Then I remembered Kiki’s soup. So, I put in some chicken stock, and added some heavy cream.
I don’t know exactly what happened to it, but that pot of yucky sauce turned into a pot of silky, delicious cream of asparagus soup.
That was the day I figured out cream soups.
It’s less a recipe and more of a technique. You can use any vegetable you’d like. If you buy what’s in season, you’ll get the freshest, cheapest veggies.
For the directions, I’ll use broccoli.

Cream Soup
Serves 6
2 heads fresh broccoli cut into florets
1 yellow onion, chopped
4 Tbl butter
½ cup white wine
2 ½ cups low sodium chicken stock
1 ½ cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 Tbl snipped chives or chopped parsley
Blonde roux (equal parts butter and flour cooked on low until lightly browned)
2 cups shredded cheddar cheese
Holding back two cups florets, sauté broccoli and onion in butter, until onions turn translucent. Add wine, and let reduce until almost dry (called “au sec”; pronounced “oh seck”).
In a food processor or blender, purée cooked veg, adding a little of the stock to keep it loose enough to blend. Pour this back into your soup pot.
Add the rest of the stock and the cream.
To thicken the soup (you may not want to, but I like mine so thick a spoon almost stands up in it):
If you are using roux, allow the soup to come to a boil, and stir in roux until it is the thickness you like,
For the cheese, you want the soup below a simmer, not boiling, or it will separate and get grainy. Slowly whisk the cheddar in, a bit at a time, letting it melt completely before adding more to the pot.
Check for seasoning, and add the raw florets. When the raw broc has cooked in the soup for ten minutes or so, it’s ready.
Spoon into mugs and garnish top with chives or parsley.

The neat thing about this soup is that you can get really creative.
Using carrots? Garnish with chopped crispy bacon, and add a little cinnamon and freshly grated nutmeg (Don’t use the pre-ground canned nutmeg. It lost all the volatile oils, and flavor long before it reached the grocery shelf.)
Trying to make a mushroom soup as good as Kiki’s? Add fresh thyme, and maybe a bit of rosemary. And next time you make a recipe calling for cream of mushroom soup, you can use your own, homemade ambrosia, instead of that can.
Really, any veggy that catches your eye in the market will work, even a leafy veg, like spinach or cabbage. Just remember, if you choose hard vegetables like potatoes, or a fall squash, chop them a bit smaller, and par boil or toss them in a little olive oil and salt and pepper and roast them at 400 degrees for 15-20 minutes so they won’t have to cook from a raw state in the soup (which will take forever).
On a cool, rainy day, there’s nothing better than a grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of warm soup.
Actually, there is.
A grilled cheese sandwich and a mug of warm, homemade soup.
Thanks for your time.