Saturday, June 28, 2014

St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake

Not every cake has its own provenance or Wikipedia page, but St. Louis Gooey Butter Cake does.  While not everyone who has consumed this dense and chewy sweet morning cake knows the origin, we locals do, which serves to prove that even baking mistakes can work out beautifully, and perhaps, better than the original. 

There are a number of recipes for this cake; seemingly everyone has his or her own version.  Some have added pumpkin, chocolate, even butter pecan, but nothing beats the original, the recipe of which appears in one of my favorite cookbooks, St. Louis Days, St. Louis Nights, a '90s product of the local Junior League. 
Give it a try, and let me know what you think.
I think you're going to like it...a LOT!

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Thursday, June 26, 2014

Come for Pasta!

Sometimes I get stale. I admit it. Sometimes, I take a look at what I have and wonder how I can spend another moment looking at the same stuff. This is particularly the case where table linens are concerned. I mean how many times can I use the same tablecloth?  I do try to mix things up a bit. I'll use glass chargers, or colorful placemats, or top the table with an afghan. But there are days when I just completely run out of ideas, and think that I have thrown absolutely everything but myself on top of the table and now have come up completely dry. 
So when my cousin asked if I wanted a tablecloth and napkin set that was too small to fit her new, larger dining room table, I jumped at it. Sight unseen, I said yes. And then I saw it and I thought, huh, this looks vaguely familiar. The napkins, I think, were a gift from me. It was also something totally out of my comfort zone. 
Colors in a combination that I'd not used before, and stripes! Never in my life have I used a tablecloth that was striped. I do love a challenge though, and this got my creative juices flowing.  It also sent me to rummage through several closets looking for what might work, and mixing up and layering things that I would have never considered before. 
The end result is this table set for a pasta dinner. I like it!  The Fitz and Floyd salmon chargers I have only used with the similarly colored Coquilles set of dinnerware. What a nice backdrop it provides here for the painted pasta bowls. 
The multiple colors in the stripes also allowed me to use a trio of glasses in a variety of colors and styles. 
Water will fill the clear glasses, red wine will be served with the pasta in the cranberry colored glasses, champagne will fill the cobalt blue flutes and be served with the tiramisu. 
My favorite round placemats tone down the stripes, pressed glass crescent bowls will hold Italian salad. 
The Pottery Barn flatware, heavy antique replicas, are the perfect touch for this comfort food meal.
The centerpiece, a favorite that I use again and again, has been adorned with empty cheese boxes with a nod to antipasto.
I used no coffee cups in this setting, opting to serve espresso in cups purchased in Europe years ago to finish the meal. 
Buono Appetito!

Tablecloth and Napkins - Crate and Barrel
Water glasses - Mikasa Marquis
Wine glasses - Crate and Barrel
Placemats - Pier 1
Flatware - Pottery Barn
Chargers - Fitz and Floyd

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

How to Roast Peppers

I am a girl who likes instant gratification.  Patience may be a virtue, just not one of mine.  And when it comes to roasting peppers -- many of them naturally smoky in their own right -- I see no advantage over using charcoal vs. gas.  The latter, with its ease of control, makes roasting a breeze, getting all of them done evenly and virtually at the same time.  The job can be easily done while you relax with a cocktail, this one, perhaps.

If your pepper roasting fear has kept you from involving yourself in the roasting process as, frankly, it has me, let me urge you to put those fears aside and dig in. It’s a breeze, and now is the time to do it while the weather is warm (boy, is it!) and a grill is handy.

Peppers can be roasted over a flame on a gas stove, or broiled in an oven if a grill isn't available. The overall intent is to char the skin, giving the pepper that roasted flavor, and then remove the skin to reveal the flavorful flesh. I've had mixed results (read: complete disaster) when roasting indoors, so for the most part never bothered with any recipe that called for roasting peppers. Thanks to number two son (rewarded here with what is surely the world's best jarred salsa) who encouraged me (did the actual work) that is all behind me.  We (okay, he) roasted poblanos, courtesy of Melissa’s Produce.
 For the pepper roasting neophyte, here is what you do.

Step 1:
Ignite your gas grill, or get a good fire going in your charcoal grill and set the grate in place. 
Step 2:
Line up peppers on the grate and let them roast. You will hear some sizzling and popping noises as the skin begins to char. Use a long tongs to turn them to allow for even roasting. 
Step 3:
When they are evenly charred, toss them into a paper bag. When all of the peppers are roasted and in the bag, roll the top of the bag down to close.

Step 4:
Set the bag aside, on a heat resistant surface, and let them hang out there until they are cool enough to handle. Once cool, simply peel the skin off.  Honestly, it comes off in big sections like you are peeling a banana.

If you are roasting hot peppers, be sure to wear gloves during handling.  Once they are peeled, remove the stem, veins, and seeds.  They should look like this.
 To keep for future use, place them on a parchment-lined cookie sheet, place the sheet into the freezer, and leave them for about thirty minutes. Once frozen, remove them from the sheet and put them into plastic bags (and then, of course, back into the freezer). 
Label the plastic bag. When a recipe calls for roasted peppers, no matter the season, you'll be all set. Just remove as many pieces as the recipe requires and leave the rest for later.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Mango-Pineapple Aguas Frescas

I have been crazy about Agua Frescas ever since trying it for the first time last year. With my new love of mangos, this recipe for a Mango-Pineapple Agua Fresca in a recent Parade Magazine caught my eye. Talk about cool and refreshing (not to mention a healthy thirst quencher on those 90+ degree summer days); I think this is going to be my go to drink of the summer. It can easily do double-duty as a hydrating drink throughout the day, and with the addition of rum (the original recipe suggested vodka or gin, but I found rum the most flavorful) it smoothly transitions into cocktail hour. Make up a pitcher and keep it in the fridge. Delicious!

Mango-Pineapple Aguas Frescas
Parade Magazine, July 22, 2014

3 cups chopped mango (I used
2 cups chopped fresh pineapple
4 cups water
3 tablespoons sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice 

Combine all ingredients and purée in a blender. Pass through a fine mess strainer* twice, and serve over ice. Makes about 8 cups. 

For a grown-up version, add 1 to 1-1/2 cups gin or vodka to the batch. 

*I found that this did not easily pass through a fine mess strainer, so I used a regular strainer and it worked just fine. It will leave you with a delicious pulp about the consistency of applesauce. Chill it and then heap it into a peach half atop a lettuce leaf for a fruity summer salad.

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Sunday, June 22, 2014

Corn & Blueberry Salad and a Book Review

Food in jars has surged in popularity over the last number of years, and no one is more appreciative of this clever way to store, serve, and display food than I am. That's why I didn't hesitate for a moment when I was offered a copy of a new book to review, Mason Jar Salads and more by Julia Mirabella.I am in love with this book!  Its subtitle is 50 Layered Lunches to Grab and Go, but it is so much more than that. Lunches, yes, but dinners, side dishes, and the convenience of having a fresh, delicious meal at arm's reach makes this book a necessity in every kitchen library. Imagine a busy day, no time or energy to prepare a meal, but a delicious and healthful one readily at hand, previously prepared and stored in the fridge in a Mason jar. This is the stuff dreams are made of. 
It's a lovely book, loaded with mouthwatering pictures - so important in cookbooks - with an incredible variety of succulent salads from more commonplace green salads (though there is nothing at all common about these ingenious recipes and unique combinations) to breakfast, pasta, rice, snacks, you name it! I'm talking curried chicken salad, chili, potato salad, and ratatouille.  I may need to buy an additional fridge, and certainly cases of Mason jars, to hold the ample and diverse jarred meals included in this book. The Porcini Mushroom Risotto is excellent, the Mango Salsa I could eat right from the jar. Who needs chips when you have something this good?
If you are a fan of homemade salad dressings like I am, let me tell you that this book is worth having for the vinaigrette recipes alone. I have had a different salad dressing every day this week and am stymied as to which one I like best. All of them have a summery freshness that makes me feel as if I am dining at an Oceanside resort.
One of my favorite salads so far is the Corn and Blueberry Salad with Lime Vinaigrette.  I have been crazy about the inclusion corn in salad ever since first having it in Italy in 2000. They must have had a bumper corn crop that year because every restaurant in every city we visited featured corn in the salad. I love that tasty, colorful little addition. Blueberries are another favorite, undervalued in salads, I think, providing a blast of juicy deliciousness and welcome hint of sweet. I customized the original recipe (shown below) by using a mixture of romaine lettuce and my own homegrown sorrel (a spring green that is thriving in our 90+ degree heat), and layering it in a quart jar. Sorrel has a bit of a lemony taste making it perfect with this salad combination.  It pairs beautifully with the lime vinaigrette and really makes the flavor of the berries pop. This salad, and many others, are restaurant quality, and make a satisfying and filling meal when paired with a crusty piece of bread or tasty biscuit or muffin. 
I highly recommend this wonderful book. No matter how many cookbooks you have in your collection, make room for this one. You'll thank me later.

Corn and Blueberry Salad

2 ears of corn, for about 3/4 cup kernels
1-1/2 tablespoons Lime Vinaigrette (I used 2 T.), recipe below
1 to 2 tablespoons finely chopped red onion
1/2 cup cucumber slices (half- or quarter-moons)
1-1/2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
1/2 cup blueberries
1 pint-size Mason jar

Remove the husks and silks from the corn. Pour enough water into a pot to cover the corn and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the corn and boil for 5 minutes. Remove the corn from the water and let cool for a few minutes, then slice off the kernels.

Layer the salad ingredients in the Mason jar, starting with the vinaigrette, then the onion and the cucumber. Finish with layers of corn kernels, cilantro, and blueberries. Seal and refrigerate until ready to use.

Lime Vinaigrette

2 tablespoons lime juice
1 tablespoon chopped fresh cilantro
Pinch of salt
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Dash of hot sauce (optional)
3 tablespoons olive oil

Whisk together the lime juice, cilantro, salt, pepper, and hot sauce (if using). Slowly add the olive oil, whisking, until the dressing thickens.