Thursday, November 22, 2012

Happy Thanksgiving!

I LOVE Thanksgiving because it is all about is Giving Thanks and simply that! So, be grateful, enjoy your family, eat a wonderful dinner and appreciate the freedom we all have here in America. God Bless Us Every One! Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 19, 2012

Punch? Here's 3 to make for the holidays!

When I was growing up, almost every gathering included some kind of punch. I am not sure why it's gone out of style -- maybe it's because you have to make it as opposed to buying it? I don't know, but I do know that if you want to entertain with style and stay on budget, punch is a great way to go!

My MIL entertained beautifully, as did my mother and grandmother. These southern ladies almost always served punch when they partied. So, party like it's 1965 and serve punch next time you host a gathering!
                                                    
Here are 3 to try during the holiday season. All of them include alcohol in the recipe, but give options to serve them with or without. You can add or subtract the alcohol, according to your taste and preference. Enjoy and Happy Holidays!

Cranberry Punch
1/2 gallon cranberry juice
2 750ml bottles champagne or other fizzy wine, such as prosecco OR ginger ale
1/4 c. triple sec or Grand Marnier (orange liqueur)
Sliced oranges
Chill your ingredients and pour it them into a punch bowl.
This is nice if you freeze an ice ring made from cranberry juice with a splash of orange juice. Put some sliced oranges and a few maraschino cherries in the ring before freezing, and it will look pretty while it keeps the punch cold! Use a plastic ring mold, like you'd make jello salad in or a bundt cake pan. We served this last Christmas -- with the champagne -- and it was a BIG hit!

Hot Spiced Apple Cider

1/2 gallon apple cider
2 c. orange juice
2 tsp. whole cloves
1 whole nutmeg
2 - 3 whole cinnamon sticks OR 1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1/4 c. fresh lemon juice
1 pint apple brandy (optional)
1 orange, sliced
Combine cider and sugar in a large pot. Add the spices to the pot. If you like, you can tie the spices up into a little pouch, like a bouquet garni. (**see cooks note). Bring the punch up to a boil and add the orange juice, lemon juice and brandy, if using. Turn it down to low and allow to simmer about 15 minutes. Serve warm.
** You can purchase cheesecloth specifically for this purpose at most fabric stores or kitchen supply stores (like Bed Beth and Beyond). I don't tie my spices up. Instead, I stud some orange slices with the cloves and let the oranges, nutmeg and cinnamon sticks float around in the punch.  I pour the finished punch into a crock pot set on low heat and let it simmer on the counter or the table. That way frees up your stove and lets people serve themselves. Lovely hot drink to serve at Thanksgiving or on New Years Day!

Pink Lady Punch
1 quart cranberry juice cocktail
1 1/2 c. sugar
1/2 quart pineapple juice
1/2 quart grape juice
2 quarts ginger ale OR 2 bottles club soda OR 2 bottles brut champagne
Chill all the juices and ginger ale or champagne. Dissolve sugar in the juices. Add the ginger ale or champagne. Makes approx. 32 1/2 c. servings. A ring mold made from grape or cranberry juice would be nice in this punch, maybe with some maraschino cherries in it. Even ice cubes made from the juices with one cherry in each would be cute! This is CLASSIC Lady Punch!
Break out that punch bowl and PARTY!

Friday, November 9, 2012

Quick and Easy, Healthy Marinara Sauce

When we say spaghetti at our house, we mean meat sauce. That's what spaghetti meant to my family when I was growing up and that's what it means when my kids ask for spaghetti. My mom was a pretty good cook, but there were a few dishes she really made well. One of them was meat sauce. She simmered it all afternoon and made enough to freeze so that we could have it again. I've tinkered around with her original method over the years, but it's still pretty close to what she made and what her mother made.

All that being said, over the years I've added different sauces to my cooking rotation (here's one). Lately, I've been making a super healthy marinara sauce. I got my inspiration from Giada on the Food Network, but have tweaked it just a little but, like I almost always do. For one thing, since it's just me and the hub around the house most of the time these days, I only make enough sauce to feed the 2 of us. It's a quick and easy sauce and full of veggies, so you can feel very virtuous when wolfing down your pasta. I found some delicious chicken meatballs by Sabatini at my local big box store, and often add 2 or 3 per person. Couldn't be easier! Whether you are vegetarian, trying to cook a little healthier of just need something good and quick to get on the table, you are going to love this recipe, I promise! If you are serving more than two, just double it. (This picture shows the sauce with the chicken meatballs added, but it's super good without them, too.)
Vegetarian Marinara Sauce with Chicken Meatballs
Vegetarian Marinara Sauce
2 T. olive oil
1 small onion
2 - 3 garlic cloves
4 baby carrots or 1 regular carrot
1 stalk celery
1  14.5 oz. can organic diced tomatoes
1/4 c. dry red wine
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
a pinch of freshly ground black pepper
1 tsp. dried basil or 1 T. minced fresh basil
1/4 tsp. sugar
Put the onion, garlic, carrots and celery into a mini food chopper and pulse until they are of uniform size and well chopped. If you don't have a mini food chopper, chop them all together until they are finely diced. Heat the oil in a heavy bottomed, deep skillet over low heat. Add the veggies and saute' them until they are soft and fragrant. Add the tomatoes, salt, pepper, basil and sugar. Bring the sauce to a boil. Cover the skillet, turn the heat down to low and cook for 30 minutes. Serve over your favorite pasta. If you are adding meatballs, simmer them for at least 20 minutes along with the sauce. This is a thick and chunky marinara, so stir it often and keep the heat low. Serves 2.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Do it the right way: Baked Potatoes and Bloody Marys

Loaded baked potato
This may seem like a silly, almost no recipe kind of post, but I think that lots of people have forgotten how to make "real" baked potatoes. I am guilty of it myself, at times. You're in a hurry, you wash a potato quickly and then shove it into microwave. Edible? Yes. Delicious? NO.
When you've got the time, do it the right way, especially if you've got company coming. The potatoes really do taste so much better done this way.

Company Baked Potatoes
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Wash and dry your potatoes. Rub them lightly with some olive oil and place them on a baking sheet. Pierce them 2 or 3 times with a fork. Sprinkle them liberally with some kosher salt. Bake for at least 45 minutes -- it may take as long as 1 hour 15 minutes, depending on the size of your potatoes. Test them by inserting a slim knife; they are done when the blade slides in smoothly and meets no resistance. The skins will be crispy, and the insides fluffy. Delicious!

And while I am on my high horse about doing things the right way, here's the way we make Bloody Marys at our house, without using a mix. It's my husbands favorite cocktail, so it needs to be right!!

Bloody Mary Cocktail for 1
Fill a tall glass with ice about 2/3 of the way full. Pour in 1.5 oz. of vodka, a dash of Worcestershire sauce, 3-4 drops of hot sauce, a pinch of celery salt and a pinch of hot pepper flakes (optional) or Old Bay Seasoning. Squeeze a wedge of lime into this mixture and then fill the glass with V8 juice. Stir well. Garnish with black pepper, celery, olives and a pinch of kosher salt. Voila, a wonderful cocktail! Cheers!
Best Bloody Mary

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Very Best Homemade Rolls

The Very Best Homemade Rolls
A while back, in a holiday post, I wrote about making the "Best Dinner Rolls on the Food Network" for my Christmas Eve dinner (see post here ). They  were good, but even using a bread machine, took a lot of time. The reason for this was that the flour had to be added in increments, so you couldn't really leave them alone while the machine did the kneading for you. In addition to the time commitment, the rolls were slightly hard or crisp on the top, and that wasn't exactly what I was looking for. That experience has sparked the detective in me to search for an easier way to make rolls that had the delicious, soft, yeasty taste that I have memories of from childhood. And, after several tries at different recipes, I think I've nailed it! I found the recipe on food.com and made only one little change. Voila, I've found the perfect roll for your holiday feasts. It's easy, it's delicious, they freeze beautifully and everyone will LOVE them, I promise! Gather up the ingredients, dust off your bread machine and prepare to be praised for your wondrous cooking abilities! These rolls are the bomb!

Very Best Homemade Rolls
1 c. milk
1/2 c. melted butter
2 T. of sugar
2 eggs, lightly beaten
1 1/2 tsp salt
4 c. bread flour
2 1/4 tsp. dry yeast (I use the kind in a jar labeled "Bread Machine Yeast")

Put all ingredients into your bread machine in the order suggested by the manufacturer. The ingredients above are listed the way they go into my machine.
Select "dough" setting and turn it on. When the cycle is complete, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide the dough into 24 pieces ( think I only did 22, chalk it up to my spatial dysfunction!). Shape them into balls. Place on a greased 13" X 9" cookie sheet as shown:

Rolls after they have risen
Cover and let rise in a warm place for about 45 minutes. Bake at 350 degrees for 13 - 16 minutes, until rolls are golden brown. Serve or freeze and enjoy the compliments. Start counting down now and Happy Holidays!


Sunday, October 7, 2012

Chicken Fricasse with Mushrooms


Chicken Fricasse' with Fresh Green Beans on the side
Here's my next installment of cooking like Julia: Fricasse' de Poulet a' L'Ancienne. Roughly translated, this means, Old Fashioned Chicken Fricasse with Wine Flavored Cream Sauce, Onions and Mushrooms. I guess the Ancients were into cream sauce with wine and mushrooms? Who knows.
I must confess that my impressions of chicken fricasse were not memorable. I don't recall having had this dish as a child but do remember hearing it spoken of... in a book? on TV? I honestly don't remember. I came across this recipe while continuing my random experiment of Cooking Like Julia (see here ). My choice was also dictated by the fact that I had a ziploc bag of random chicken parts in my freezer that looked like they needed to be cooked. I scaled down the recipe to feed the two of us, since the offspring are currently off doing their own things.
I kept the spirit of the recipe true to Julia, but added in a little of my own kitchen knowledge, tailoring it to suit our tastes. The final dish was creamy and tasty, with tender chicken and savory mushrooms. This scaled down recipe will make about 3 servings. We like to have one extra for someone to eat for lunch later in the week!

Chicken Fricasse' with Mushrooms
4 - 5 pieces of chicken (I had 2 thighs, 1 breast and 2 wings)
2 T. butter
1 stalk celery, thinly sliced
4 baby carrots, sliced
1 small onion, thinly sliced
1 T. flour
salt and pepper
1 1 /2 c. chicken stock or broth
1/2 c. dry white wine
1 small bay leaf or 1/2 of a larger one
1 T. chopped fresh parsley
8 oz. cleaned and dried white mushrooms, halved
1 tsp. butter + 1 tsp. olive oil
1 egg yolk
1/4 c. half and half or light cream
a little lemon juice
pinch of nutmeg
fresh parsley for garnish
Prepared egg noodles, risotto or rice
Dry the chicken on a few paper towels. Melt the butter over medium heat, in a heavy skillet ( I used a non-stick one). Add the sliced celery, carrots and onions. Cook the vegetables until they begin to soften. Push them aside and add the chicken, skin side down, to the skillet. Raise the heat slightly and let the chicken cook for about 5 minutes, until skin starts to stiffen slightly and just begins to brown. Turn it over and let it cook for another 3 - 4 minutes. Remove the chicken from the pan and sprinkle the pan with the flour, a pinch of salt and some pepper. Stir the flour into the drippings so that it is completely absorbed. Cook the flour and veggies a few minutes, and then add the broth and wine. Stir well so that the flour mixture dissolves into the broth. Return the chicken, add another pinch of salt and pepper, the bay leaf and parsley. The chicken should be almost covered by the liquid: You may add a little more broth or water if you need to. Bring the dish up to a simmer. Cover and cook, covered, over low to medium heat for 30 minutes. The chicken is done when the juices run clear when pierced by a fork or knife tip.
In a separate skillet, melt 1 tsp. butter, with 1 tsp. olive oil. When the foaming of the butter subsides, add the halved mushrooms and cook until they begin to brown. When they are browned, squeeze a little lemon juice over and add them to the chicken and vegetables in the larger skillet.
At this point, you may put the dish away to be served later that day or as much as 2 days later. Refrigerate the entire fricasse' covered to be reheated and finished as you like.
To finish the dish, remove any loosened skin from the chicken (this is especially easy to do w/the thighs. I used a boneless skinless breast so had no skin to remove from that). Skim off any accumulated fat from the top of the sauce. (Reheat the sauce if you have refrigerated it.) Beat the egg yolk into the cream with a fork or whisk. Take a spoonful of the sauce from the hot dish and add it into the cream mixture. (This is called tempering -- you do it so that the yolk won't "scramble" when you add it to the sauce in the pan.) Mix in the hot liquid and then add another spoonful. Repeat. Once the cream mixture is heated stir it into the sauce in the skillet, mixing well to incorporate and distribute the cream completely.
Grate in a little fresh nutmeg if desired. I think this gives the dish some depth and flavor. Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning. Remove the chicken from the pan and arrange it over some buttered egg noodles, rice or risotto. Pour over the sauce and garnish with some fresh parsley. Garnish with fresh parsley. I prepared fresh green beans to go along with it, but Julia suggests Petit Pois or asparagus. Broccoli would be good as well.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Best Onion Soup


The best onion soup ever!
We like it so much, I've even bought special bowls to serve it in.
Who knew? My mom cooked like Julia too!
I never knew, until I decided to make onion soup yesterday. I've been making onion soup since I was about 12 years old. My mom made it several times a year, and since she deemed it easy to make, it was one of the first things she taught me how to cook. Yes, I know, that's a little nerdy, wanting to learn to cook at such an early age, but the truth is, I've always loved being in the kitchen with the grown up ladies.

As I've mentioned recently, I've been perusing "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by my cooking hero, Julia Child, since her 100th birthday celebration ( more here ). Since it was sitting right in front of me, I looked up Julia's onion soup recipe and GUESS WHAT? It is almost exactly the same as the one my mother taught me, many years ago, in our kitchen in Tampa, FL. Mom's ingredient portions were a little different, and she used all butter, but mostly it was the same! That actually makes sense, if you think about it: After all, we lived in Paris (yes Paris, France) when I was born, and that was at the same time Julia was there, learning to cook. I've secretly dreamed that maybe Mom might have met Julia, but that was pure fantasy on my part!  Maybe it happened?!?!! Or more likely, Mom learned this recipe from her French baby nurse, who helped her for several months after I was born. We lived in a little tiny house, outside Paris, in a suburb near the Loire valley. "Madame" as Mom always referred to her, came every day, and helped with me and general housekeeping duties, including some cooking. It's very likely that it was from Madame that mom learned this recipe.

I've called this scaled down version of the recipe "Onion Soup for 2" and by that I mean two main course servings. The recipe actually makes about 5 cups of soup, enough for 4 as a starter course.

French Onion Soup for 2
3 yellow onions, medium to large size, sliced

Onion Soup, simmering on the stove.
1 clove garlic, smashed and rough chopped
3 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1/2 tsp. sugar
1 T. all purpose flour
1 clove garlic, chopped (optional)
4 1/2 cups beef stock or bouillon (canned is fine, that's what Mom always used and Julia endorses her decision)
1/2 c. dry white wine
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
2 - 3 thick slices day old, toasted and dried french bread, cut bite sized cubes
2 - 3 slices Swiss cheese
2 T. grated Parmesan cheese

In a heavy bottomed pot, melt butter with olive oil over low heat. Add the onions, 1 tsp. salt and sugar. Cook until onions begin to brown. This process takes rather a long time, at least 30 minutes. You must do it over low to medium heat so that the onions brown and do not burn. Stir occasionally during the process, making sure the onions don't stick and are cooking evenly.
When the onions have browned, add the sliced garlic and saute for another minute or 2 (this is my addition, and not absolutely necessary. We like a little garlic taste, but it's optional.) Sprinkle the onion mixture with flour, and stir it in completely. Continue to cook for a minute to brown the flour a little bit. Add the beef stock or bouillon and the white wine. Season the soup with a little more salt and some pepper -- taste the broth to determine how salty it is so you don't over-season. Bring the mixture to a boil, turn it down, and let it simmer, covered, for at least 1 hour. Keep the heat low so that the mixture barely simmers along, developing the rich flavor characteristic of good onion soup. Julia recommends cooking the soup for 2+ hours, but I find that one is plenty. If you leave it on low or put it in your slow cooker, you can probably simmer it for hours, filling your home with a comforting, homey smell.

This soup can be eaten as it, but we like to gussy it up a little, the way it is most often served in America, and often in France. To serve the soup, place some bread in the bottom of a bowl, like this:
Place some swiss cheese on top of the bread and carefully ladle the hot soup over the bread and cheese. Sprinkle each bowl with a little Parmesan and let the soup sit for about 5 minutes until the cheese has melted and the soup has cooled just a little bit!
Bon Appetit! 

Friday, August 24, 2012

Cooking Like Julia

As I mentioned on the occasion of Julia's 100th birthday (here), I've had out my "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", reading it for pure pleasure and inspiration. I have the Anniversary Edition, given by my loving son a few Christmas's ago. It includes a lengthy introduction written by Julia herself, toward the end of her life, as well as a section written by her editor Judith Jones. If you love to cook this is a must own cookbook. I was given "The Joy of Cooking" when I first set up housekeeping over 30 years ago, and while that book is invaluable as to the mechanics of cooking, this book is invaluable if you want to cook with style.
Yesterday, I prepared Saute de Boeuf a la Parisenne, which simply translated means Beef Saute in the Parisienne Style. The Parisienne style is apparently, with cream and mushrooms. This is, essentially, a French version of Beef Stroganoff and was written before sour cream was widely available to the home cook. 
Julia's introduction for this recipe praises it's quick preparation and the advantages of prepping ahead for serving to company. I totally agree that it came together very quickly, but must comment that it is not the prettiest dish I've ever prepared. However, having said that, I must also admit that the taste was ABSOLUTELY DIVINE! I had some beautiful, new potatoes, freshly dug by my step-father on his nearby farm, so I opted to use those, as opposed to rice or risotto. Julia mentions all three as possible accompaniments to this dish, and I think buttered egg noodles would work as well.
I used exactly the cut of beef suggested by Julia and made only one small adjustment. The original recipe called for Madeira, which is fortified wine from Portugal, or dry white vermouth. When I went to the grocery store, they did not have Madeira. I thought I had dry white vermouth at home, but I was mistaken: I had sweet vermouth, which is used in making Manhattans. The two can NOT be substitued for one another. SO, I googled substituting something else for Madeira and discovered what I believe was a good alternative. It's amazing what you can find on the internet!
The directions to this dish are very particular, a trait shared by all of Julia's recipes. She was first and foremost a teacher, long before the days of celebrity chefs! Her advice for drying the mushrooms and the beef thoroughly before cooking is invaluable to the success of this dish. She also specifically mentions allowing the foaming of the butter to subside before adding the ingredients, an indication that the pan is at the correct temperature to begin cooking. That's a great tip, especially for a newer cook.

Remember what I said? It's not the prettiest dish I've ever made! Let me also say that I halved this recipe, so the prepped mushrooms and beef pictured below are less than the amount in the recipe.

Saute de Boeuf a la Parisienne, served over lightly mashed new potatoes


Beef Saute with Cream and Mushrooms
First, prepare the vegetables:
1/2 lb.cleaned,  fresh mushrooms, dried on a paper towel( halved and quartered)
2 T. butter                                                                             
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
3 T. minced shallots or green onions
1/4 tsp. salt and a pinch of pepper
Heat a large, heavy skillet and melt the butter and oil. When the foaming of the butter begins to subside, add the mushrooms and cook for 5 minutes, stirring and tossing to brown them on all sides. Add the onions or shallots to the pan and cook for another 2 minutes (I used sliced green onions). Remove the vegetables to a dish.

Next, prepare the beef and sauce:

Drying the cut beef, not too pretty, but necessary!
2+ lbs. tenderloin of beef; the tenderloin butt and the tail of the fillet are usually used, excess fat and white tendon removed, cut into pieces that are about 2" long and 1/2" thick, drained and dried on a paper towel
2 T. butter
1 T. extra virgin olive oil
1/4 c. Madeira OR 1/4 c. dry white vermouth OR 1/4 c. dry red wine + 1 T. balsamic vinegar (this is the sub that I found by googling, and I had both things in my pantry)
3/4 c. beef stock or canned beef bouillon
1 c. heavy whipping cream
2 tsp. cornstarch blended with 2 T. of the whipping cream
Salt and Pepper
1 T. butter
To Serve:
Cooked, slightly mashed new potatoes OR steamed rice OR risotto
Top with some fresh parsley for garnish or a few snipped chives

In the same pan you prepared the vegetables, melt the butter and oilover moderate heat. When the foaming subsides, add the prepared beef, in  a single layer. (My pan was large enough to do this but if you use a smaller pan, saute the beef in batches so that it sears correctly.) Season as you cook with a little salt and pepper. Cook the beef for only 3 - 5 minutes, so that it is browned but still rare. Remove the beef from the pan and set aside. Pour the wine and beef stock into the pan and scrape up the browned bits on the bottom of the pan. Boil it rapidly so that it reduces to about 1/2 cup of liquid. Whisk in the cream and the cream and cornstarch mixture. Simmer 1 minute and add the mushrooms and onion back into the sauce, for another minute or 2. The sauce should have formed a liaison (thickened slightly, Julia's own description). Taste the sauce for seasoning and add a little more salt and pepper if needed.
At this point, you can add the beef and turn it off and save the dish to be served later, OR heat it briefly and serve immediately. When reheating, cover the pan and heat only 3 - 4 minutes, being very careful not too cook it too long. You just want to warm the dish. The beef should be rosy red in the middle when you serve it. Add 1 T. of butter at the very end of the cooking, to add extra richness to the dish ( I eliminated this step, and it was plenty rich, believe me!).
Serve the beef in a casserole or on a platter, surrounded by steamed rice, risotto or lightly mashed new potatoes. Decorate with parsley or snipped chives.
Serves 4 - 6
Julia recommends serving this with some fresh green beans or peas. I opted for a salad, since I've got tons of lettuce in my garden. She also recommends a Bordeaux wine. We had a bottle of Pinot Noir, so that's what I served.
Bon Appetit!

Friday, August 17, 2012

Make Some Barbecued Ribs at Home


Barbecued baby back ribs for dinner!
My husband LOVES barbecued ribs. We like the smaller, baby back, pork ribs, as opposed to the larger spare ribs or beef ribs. When we were dating and first married, there was a rib joint called "The Farmhouse" not too far away, here in Richmond, VA,  They had the BEST bbq ribs! You could smell the smoke a mile away and they tasted as good as they smelled. The owners kept their sauce recipe a secret, but many folks swore up and down that there was peanut butter in it! That's right, creamy peanut butter. I never knew exactly what their secret was, but man, oh, man, they were some tasty ribs. They almost fell off the perfectly cooked bones, and they weren't too fatty or tough. That place closed a long time ago, but the memories of those ribs has stayed with us, as we've worked on trying to create the perfect rib recipe at home. Cooking ribs is considered "Manly Man Cooking" at our house (See another recipe here) , so there's always been plenty of input from the hub and the sons. Opinions are never in short supply around here!!

What is a perfect rib? Well, in our opinion, it's gotta' be tender, a little spicy, not too fatty and very flavorful. By watching The Food Network rib competitions, I've learned that the meat shouldn't fall completely OFF the bone, or the rib can be eliminated from the competition. Therefore, the trick seems to be to get them so tender that the meat almost falls off the bone. After trying out numerous recipes and tasting ribs all around Richmond and other places we've visited, this is the recipe and method that I've come up with for home cooks. I am sure it would be a little better if we had a smoker, but I think I've got that almost covered by my cooking method. Tender and tasty, the slow cooking in the oven, paired with the soaking and rub, guarantees a moist rib that's not too fatty.

The very first thing I do, is to soak the ribs in beer. I remove them from their package, put them into a large baking dish and then pour over the beer. I use one can for for each rack. I let them sit for an hour or two, turning them over a few times. Next, I drain off and discard the beer. After draining, I return them to the pan and season the ribs with a dry rub. I roast them covered with foil, low and slow in the oven, before finishing them on the grill with some sauce. Here's my recipe for the dry rub for a single rack of ribs, which will feed 3 - 4 people. Double or triple the recipe if you need more than one rack of ribs. (More instructions follow the Rub Recipe.)

Dry Rub for Ribs
1 T. McCormick Grill Mates Mesquite Seasoning
1/4 c. brown sugar
Ribs with the dry rub.
1 tsp. garlic powder
2 tsp. paprika
2 T. chili powder
1/2 tsp. celery salt
1 tsp. Kosher salt
1/2 tsp. black pepper
a pinch of dried red pepper flakes (optional)
1/4 tsp. cayenne pepper (optional)
1 tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. dried oregano
a pinch of dried thyme
Mix everything together and sprinkle on the bottom and top of the ribs, rubbing it into the meat so the rub sticks to the ribs. Eliminate the cayenne pepper and/or the dried red pepper flakes if you don't like things spicy.  Place the rack on a large cookie sheet or baking pan, and cover with foil. Bake at 300 degrees for 1 hour.

Preheat your grill the way you normally do it. We use our gas grill, but any kind will work fine. You can soak wood chips and use them if you wish -- we've done that and the ribs are always good, whether we do or don't.
Slather the ribs with your favorite sauce and cook them on each side, basting with more sauce, for about 15 to 20 more minutes, until the sauce begins to brown and caramelize on the ribs. The ribs are already cooked from the time in the oven, so you don't need to worry about temperature or undercooking the meat.

Baby Back Ribs on the Grill
Finally, a word about sauces: Commercial bbq sauces are so good that we don't make our own, but "concoct" one, using our favorites. I like to mix 1 c. Sauers Barbecue Sauce with 1 c. K.C. Masterpiece Original Barbecue Sauce and 1 T. Texas Pete Hot Sauce. A lot of people swear by Sweet Baby Rays Barbecue Sauce, but we find that a little too sweet. Since we don't like our sauce really sweet, I cut the sweetness of the K.C. Masterpiece with the Sauers. "Sauers" is a regional tomato and vinegar based sauce, made here in VA. In addition, since we like a little kick I add the Texas Pete, but you could totally leave that out, if your family prefers the ribs milder.
Try this, for your family or for a backyard cookout. It's a crowd pleaser!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Happy 100th Birthday, Julia Child!

This week, August 15, marks the 100th birthday of my favorite chef and inspiration, Julia Child. I LOVE reading about Julia Child and her adventures as a late starter and author. I feel a personal connection, since I was born in France the same time Julia was there learning all about the way to cook. It's a vague connection, I know, but it's my little delusion. I devoured "My Life in France" by Julia herself, and am looking forward to reading "Dearie" a newly released biography of Julia by Bob Spitz. I have watched "Julie and Julia" several time and think that Meryl Streep nailed Julia's presence and spirit. I also watch "The French Chef" anytime they run those classics on PBS. If you have not seen Julia in action, you've got to check her out. She is a riot and absolutely FEARLESS in the kitchen! SO, in honor of all things Julia, I've been re-reading her masterpiece, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", a must own cookbook for anyone who truly loves to cook!

I also loved reading about her lifelong friendship with Simone Beck, her co-author of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", along with Louisette Bertholle. Here is something that Simca said that reflects the way I cook, especially in the summertime, when the produce is so plentiful and delicious that very little needs to be done to make it shine:
"There is no technique, there is just the way to do it. Now, are we going to measure or are we going to cook?"
Simone Beck "Simca" co-author with Julia Child, as quoted by Frances Mayes, in "Under the Tuscan Sun".
This year, we've been lucky enough to reap the bounty from 2 neighbors who share, a woman in my husbands' office who sells her homegrown produce very cheaply and an abundance of herbs and lettuces from my very own garden. Is there anything better that classic Salade Caprese with homegrown tomatoes, fresh mozzarella and a few ribbons of basil? I like to drizzle ours with a few drops of olive oil, a splash of balsamic vinegar and a pinch of coarse salt. SO yummy and SO easy!


Another cold and fresh favorite is pasta salad with lots of veggies. Any combination of vegetables will work, but the method is always the same. See my method here:
Farmers Market Pasta Salad

Not everyone at my house loves cold soup, but I do and so does my youngest son.  Cold Cucumber Soup is an absolute must have for the summertime refrigerator! Gazpacho is easy and fast too, and uses up a bunch of veggies. SOOO good for you too, makes you feel healthy when you eat it!

Eat your veggies! And pick up a book about Julia  -- it'll keep you laughing and inspired in the kitchen. Happy 100th Birthday, Julia!!

Thursday, August 2, 2012

Trader Joe's Night at Our House



General Tsao's Chicken Stir Fry with Chicken Shu Mai Dumplings
If you read my blog, even occasionally, or know me just a little bit, then you know that I love to cook. However, I must admit, some nights, I just don't feel like spending alot of time in the kitchen. We are spoiled enough around our house, though, that we won't compromise too much on taste and quality. Somtimes, that can present a bit of a dilemma. TAA DAA, Trader Joe's to the rescue. If you live in an area with a Trader Joe's, you are in luck. Their prepared foods are actually pretty good, and believe me, I am kinda' picky. If you've not made the trip to one, I bet you'll be pleasantly surprised.

My friend de cuisine told me about the General Tsao's Stir Fry Sauce:
TJ's General Tsao's Stir Fry Sauce

All you need to do to make some pretty good stir fry is to cut up some meat and/or veggies, stir fry them for a minute, and then add the sauce. I used 2 small boneless, skinless chicken breasts, a bunch of green onion, 2 cloves of garlic, a small green pepper and a small red pepper. If you were really feeling lazy, you could buy a bag of frozen, pre-cut Chinese style veggies (I bet they sell them at TJ's!) and add some to the pan with the meat and pour the sauce over the whole thing. EASY and EASIER!!


I sprinkled on some dried hot pepper flakes, because we like things a little spicy. Lastly, pop on a lid and let it simmer a few minutes while your rice cooks. This is a good alternative to take out -- not only is it inexpensive, but you can control certain parts of the meal that are not always so good for you. For example, I only used a teaspoon of peanut oil to saute my chicken and vegetables.
Chicken and veggies, simmering away in the stir fry sauce
Another healthy addition that we like is to add some brown rice to the meal. I bring 2 1/4 cups of organic chicken stock to a boil and then add 1/2 cup brown rice and 1/2 cup white rice. Stir the rice into the liquid. Bring the pot back to a boil, cover it, turn it down and let it simmer for about 25 minutes, until all the liquid is absorbed.

To round out the meal, but not put any further stress on myself, I also purchased a box of Chicken Shu Mai Dumplings at TJ's:
TJ's Chicken Shu Mai
They are super easy to prepare: Heat a skillet and add just a drop of peanut or vegetable oil. Sear the shu mai on high heat on both flat sides. Pour in a little bit of water, just enough to cover the bottom and cover the pan to let them steam for about 10 minutes.
Shu Mai seared, and ready to be steamed
Now, honestly, you've gotta' admit -- How hard is this? IT WAS EZ! I heated up a few cashews in the microwave and sprinkled them over the top of our General Tsao's Chicken, and VOILA it was almost like eating in a nice restaurant! Anyone can do this, and it really tasted good! Give it a try, and make some take out at home! Let me say, I know, I know, this is NOT really cooking and it's cheating and all that stuff.....but it was a busy day and I was over the kitchen and I managed to turn out a fairly healthy, good tasting meal in about 30 minutes without trashing up my kitchen or breaking the bank, so just go with it. Give yourself a break, it's OK, I promise. I give you my official permission to make this and call it dinner, call it cooking, whatever you want.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Remembering Nate and Shrimp Scampi

Delicious Shrimp Scampi, a family favorite
 I couldn't let July go by without making shrimp scampi, a long time family favorite. I can't take credit for the recipe. I first had a homemade version while we were on vacation at the river, one night when it wasn't my turn to cook. We used to go to the river with our cousins and take as many kids with us as we could round up. Some were in college or working, but the the younger ones stayed all week, and loved it. This was a dish the whole group enjoyed eating. Many huge baking dishes full of shrimp were produced in that 60's style kitchen with crab nets and silly sayings adorning the walls. That old cottage on Fishing Bay has become beloved in our collective memories. What fun times we had, and this dish always reminds me of those happy, summer days. After hot days spent fishing, tubing, boating and checking on the crab pots that floated next to the pier, this dish ALWAYS hit the spot. Slice up a few of the tomatoes you picked up at the farm stand on the way to the cottage and YUM, that's a fine dinner! As an added bonus, a pound or two of shrimp can feed a crowd without breaking the bank -- and that was a good thing -- since we always had a crowd. Not only our collected crews, but any cousin, aunt, uncle or family friend who happened to be nearby might show up at any time. We all like it that way, the more the merrier.... (Our family has always loved to get together!)

Our middle son, who passed away suddenly and unexpectedly 4 years ago this summer, loved those days on the river. He loved fishing and crabbing, and he absolutely loved shrimp scampi. He was a funny kid with a compassionate nature. He'd skewer you with his wit, but it was so funny, you'd have to laugh along with him. His many voices and accents still ring in the air around our house, as does the music he made with his guitar. Last week he should have turned 24 and it's our family tradition that you get to pick what you want for dinner on your birthday. In his honor, we made his favorite.  (Here's my first post about him and a picture of the handsome young man)

I have updated this recipe a little from the original.  Now I add a some lemon zest, instead of just placing a sliced lemon on top. I also add a little dry white wine, so I can cut out some of the butter that was included in the original recipe. The wine will help to keep the dish nice and moist. Don't eliminate the butter -- it adds a wonderful richness that makes the dish shine. Last night I made my own breadcrumbs, but that was simply because I didn't have any in the pantry. This recipe is very easy to make, and very forgiving. For example, I had a few scallops left in the freezer that it was time to eat, so I chucked those in. Also, since my herb garden overfloweth, I added fresh basil, but dried herbs will work as well.
To accompany the scampi, I made a simple salad and topped a baguette with some ripe tomatoes, garlic and basil, mixed with a little olive oil. It was delicious.

I am sure that Nathan would have approved. We still miss him every day. Here's to you, Kid!

I hope you enjoy this as much as we do.


Shrimp Scampi
Prepping the shrimp, with
olive oil, garlic and lemon
zest.
1 lb. raw shrimp, peeled, tails off and de-veined
1 lemon; 1 1/2 tsp. zested, then sliced thinly
1/3 c. extra virgin olive oil
1 heaping Tablespoon minced garlic (~6 cloves)
8 basil leaves, sliced thinly OR 1 tsp. dried basil OR oregano OR 1 tsp. Italian seasoning (eliminate salt if your mixture contains it)
1 tsp. kosher salt
fresh ground black pepper OR dried red pepper flakes, if you like it spicy
1/3 c. dry white wine
4 T. cold butter
1/2 c. breadcrumbs (you can use Italian Seasoned breadcrumbs,but cut back on the herbs)
Cooked pasta, we like vermicelli or thin spaghetti (about 1 lb.)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
In a bowl, mix together shrimp, olive oil, garlic, basil and 1 tsp. lemon zest. Spread the shrimp in a single layer in a baking dish and pour over the white wine. Sprinkle with the kosher salt, a little pepper and the breadcrumbs. Cut your butter into little chunks and scatter these across the crumbs. Dot the top with the lemon slices. Bake for 25 - 30 minutes until the top browns lightly and the shrimp turn pink. (Do not over cook! The shrimp will just get tough and shrink up.)
Serve over hot, cooked pasta. I like to garnish it with a little fresh basil, as it's not a very colorful dish. This amount will make at least 6 - 8 servings, depending on what else you are serving and how hungry you are!


Our Nate, about age 15, with a shark he caught fishing in the Bay one summer.
He loved every minute of that trip!
 



Friday, July 20, 2012

Guest Cooks in the Kitchen!



Two kind of sandwich rolls and pasta salad. AAAH, the kindness of others...
When our kids were little, we would often start our dinner conversation by saying, "Everyone tell one good thing and one bad thing that happened to you today" and that would always start get the conversation started. If you have never tried this strategy with your own family, give it a try, it really works! Of course, there was always one comedian in the group who would say, "My good thing is that I did not have a bad thing". We'd let that go one time, but the next time we'd call a "no fair" on him.
This week, I had something good and something kind of bad happen to me. Let's get the bad stuff out of the way: I got a little sicky and had to stay home, laying low for a few days. NOW, for the good thing: My son and and his nice girlfriend made us dinner! Let me say up front, that the nice girlfriend did most of the work and all of the supervising, but he helped and actually had major influence over the pasta salad. It was a delicious meal, a different twist on pizza/calzone/sandwich roll and quite tasty! She made some pizza dough and wrapped it around 2 different fillings. One roll was filled with spinach, that they flavored like spanikopita, with lemon, garlic, feta and green onions. The other roll was filled with salami, cheese, roasted red peppers, banana pepper rings and I am not sure what, if anything, else. Whatever, they tasted crazy good! They also made a good pasta salad, with fresh basil from my garden and kalamata olives! Look at the beautiful sandwich rolls, fresh from the oven:
Delicious pizza/sandwich rolls, hot from the oven! The brown stuff is ooey, gooey CHEESE!

The pasta salad was good too, but it could have used a little broccoli, or cherry tomaotes, for color if nothing else. They agreed, but hey, it was the Italian kids' very first try at making his favorite, pasta (see more about the Italian kid here)! Isn't it nice to have someone do something nice for you when you don't expect it? AND they even did most of the cleaning up! It occurred to me that the rolls would make a great item for casual entertaining. You could cut them into as many pieces as you need and the ideas for filling them go on and on! This time, they used a pizza crust mix and it worked out great, but you could make your own, buy a ball of dough from the deli or get the kind in the refrigerated case near the ready to bake rolls, etc. All of those should work just fine.

WOW, I am a lucky lady! Someone cooked for ME! Love that, gotta' admit it! And eating together with your kids and their friends, priceless...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Chicken Divan? Divine!

Chicken Divan, Caesar Salad and Homemade Bread --YUM!
It doesn't get any more old fashioned than Chicken Divan. I suspect that originally the word was DIVINE pronounced with some kind of hokey French accent, but I really don't know. There are lots and lots of recipes out there for this dish, many including sour cream, cream of something soup or mayonnaise. Since I am not a big fan of mayo, I've never included it in any incarnation of the recipe. This is a very basic, layered casserole version of the dish that can be made a day or two ahead of time and reheated before serving. One of the nice things about this recipe is that you can use leftover chicken, buy a rotisserie chicken and pull off the meat or cook up 2 or 3 of those boneless, skinless breasts from the big box stores.
I remember my mother and my grandmothers serving this dish at luncheons and showers back in the 60's and 70's (I've included a picture of the stylish ladies below). Ladies love it but men do too! Even my college age son (see the Italian kid from a previous post here) gave it a thumbs up when I made it recently. I like that you get protein, vegetables and starches all in one dish.
This dish has always been one of my favorites, so I see no reason not to include it in my dinner rotation, even if it is not as chi-chi fusion as many dishes now in style. If you haven't made this in a long time or have never made it, give it a try. It's not that hard to do and comes out looking and tasting fairly elegant, in a timeless, old fashioned kind of way! NOW, the biggest problem could be: What is it exactly-- Chicken DI-van or di-VAN? I don't honestly know, but I do know it's pretty darn good, almost you might say, divine.

Chicken Divan
2 - 3 c. cooked chicken, cut into bite size pieces
2 c. cooked rice**see Cooks Note
1 bunch broccoli florets, about 2 c., steamed
Cheese Sauce (recipe follows)
3 slices crisp cooked bacon

First, make your cheese sauce:
3 T. flour
3 T. butter
3/4 c. milk (lower fat is fine)
1/4 c. dry white wine
2/3 c. cheddar or Gruyere cheese plus a little more for topping
salt and pepper

Melt the butter and whisk in the flour. Pour in the milk and wine and continue whisking over medium heat until the sauce bubbles and thickens. Add the cheese and a pinch of salt and pepper. Taste the sauce and correct the seasoning.
Spray a 9X9" baking dish (or a 3 quart oval or round) with a little cooking spray. Layer in the cooked rice, chicken and broccoli in a fairly attractive pattern. Pour over the cheese sauce and sprinkle with a little more cheese.
At this point you can refrigerate the dish (covered) for up to 2 days. Be sure to bring it to room temperature before you bake it! Bake at 350 degrees for 35 - 45 minutes until hot through and bubbly. Top with crumbled bacon. Serves 6.
**Cooks note: Other ways to serve this dish include over toast points or English muffins. When served over toast or muffins, a sliced tomato is often included before layering on the chicken, broccoli and sauce. My family likes the bacon on top but that is an optional thing.

My timeless and elegant Grandmothers, in the middle, with my stylish newlywed parents, 1953


Sunday, July 1, 2012

Antipasto and Lite Alfredo Sauce

My youngest son decided to become Italian this week, and pretty much demanded that I accomodate him by producing one of his Italian Favorites,  Pasta with Alfredo Sauce. I've been tinkering around with Alfredo sauce for years. The original recipe from my handy Authentic Italian Cooking cook book is, quite simply put, just too rich! I've tried blending up concoctions with lowfat milk and non-fat ricotta cheese, lightening up on the butter and lots of other tricks. I think I've finally found one that is both delicious and lower fat.

In addition to the demanded Alfredo, the Italian kid also wanted antipasto, just like you'd get in a restaurant in Little Italy, or Florence or wherever his imagination was taking him that day. Being the kind of mom who likes to please, I produced this:


My version of what comes before the pasta, Antipasto
I wrapped procuitto around little pieces of fresh mozarella and served that with my homemade Rustic Italian Bread (recipe here), pepperoncini, black olives and chopped fresh basil from my herb garden. I drizzled the whole plate with a little Extra Virgin Olive Oil. I probably should have added some kind of salami and another marinated vegetable, but that's what I came up with quickly. Marinated mushrooms would be a good addition.

Here's my favorite take on lightened up Alfredo Sauce. We were so excited to eat this dinner, with the pasta, grilled Italian chicken and a big salad, that I forgot to take a picture. It doesn't really matter in this case, because white pasta on a plate is visually not the most appealing. However, the taste makes up for the appearance so please forgive me for not taking a picture!

"Lite" Alfredo Sauce
1 T. butter
1 tsp. olive oil
2 cloves minced garlic
1 T. all purpose flour
1 c. 1% low-fat milk
2 oz. lite cream cheese (neufatchel)
1/2 tsp. salt
a little freshly cracked black pepper
1 c. parmesan cheese (recommend Parmigiano Reggiano) divided use
1 T. chopped flat leaf parsley (optional)
4 cups hot, cooked pasta, we like linguine, but fettucine is traditional
In a medium sized pot, melt butter with olive oil over low heat. Add garlic and saute' for a few minutes until garlic is softened. Stir in flour so that it is totally incorporated. Add the milk and stir, stir, stir. You may want to get out  your whisk, since you are dissolving the flour and butter into the milk. Turn up the heat a little and let the mixture start to bubble and thicken. Add the lite cream cheese, salt and pepper. Stir in 2/3 of the parmesan. Keep cooking and stirring til the mixture is thick and bubbly. Pour over the hot pasta noodles and toss well to combine. Sprinkle the top with the remaining parmesan and flat leaf parsley. Serves 4 - 6.
If serving 4, approx. 399 calories, 13 g. fat, 2 g. fiber, 821 mg sodium


Monday, June 25, 2012

Salty, Sweet and Crunchy, Oh MY!!

Here is the recipe for the dessert treat I made on Father's Day. This recipe has several things going for it. First, it's a no-bake cookie bar/fudge kinda' thing, and it doesn't heat up the kitchen. Even though we've got a/c here in Central VA it can still get hot in the kitchen. Secondly, since it's sweet and salty, it hits all the things that my family loves to eat. And finally, it's easy to keep the ingredients on hand and make this whenever your little heart desires!

I get this from the Nestle's website:
Here
Gotta' give credit where credit is due, the folks at Nestle's have been baking with us home cooks for a long time!

No Bake Sweet & Salty Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars
Salty and Sweet, these Peanut Butter Pretzel Bars were the bomb!
Non stick cooking spray
2 cups creamy peanut butter, divided use
3/4 cup ( 1 & 1/2 sticks) butter, softened to room temperature
2 cups powdered sugar, divided use
4 cups (roughly 1/2" pieces) broken small pretzel pieces, divided use
2 cups (12 oz. pkg.) semi sweet chocolate chips

Line a 13X9" pan with foil leaving 2" overhanging on the 2 shorter sides. Spray foil w/cooking spray.
Beat 1 14 cups peanut butter and butter in a large bowl until creamy. Stir in remaining cup powdered sugar, 3 cups of the broken pretzels and 1/2 cup of the chocolate chips. Spread mixture evenly into he prepared pan. Smooth top to as even a layer as you can. (An offset spatula would work best but a regular one will do. It's kind of hard to do, mixture is very thick and lumpy!)
Microwave remaining chocolate chips and peanut butter in a large, heat proof dish or measuring cup. Start out at medium power for 1 minute. Check and stir if you can, and then heat again for 30 seconds on high. Continue at 15 second intervals, stirring between each one, until all the chips are melted and the mixture is smooth and creamy. Spread mixture evenly over the top of the bars in pan. Top with remaining broken pretzel pieces.
Put pan in the refrigerator and let sit for at least 3 hours or until bars are firm. Remove from pan by lifting the overhanging flaps of foil. Cut into 60 pieces. Store them in the frig, they are too gooey to sit out on the counter!
Cut the Peanut Butter Pretzel bars into bite sized peices, after they have chilled. Don't make them too big, they are RICH!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Fathers Day, Crabs and Hushpuppies

It's Fathers Day weekend, so like most moms out there in blogland, I am busy worshipping the Father of My Children. It's his weekend, so he gets to do what he wants and eat what he wants. Last night, he wanted to pick crabs. Since this was going to be dinner, I whipped up some dessert and hushpuppies to go along with the crabs. (Dessert turned out great, but that's for another post!)

Picking crabs takes a long time, and when all is said and done, you really don't get THAT much meat, but what you do get sure is good! There's nothing better than Chesapeake Bay Blue crabs, and that's the truth! Pair them with some fluffy balls of fried cornbread with Vidalia Onion and man, oh, man, that's good eatin'! I don't know if you can get some Chesapeake Bay Blue Crabs to pick where you are, but I know you can make these hushpuppies. They were light and fluffy, with a crispy crust and surprisingly easy to make!
Crabs & hush puppies with all the fixin's!
Hushpuppies
2/3 c. yellow cornmeal
1/3 c. all purpose flour
3/4 tsp. salt
1 tsp. baking powder
2 heaping T. minced Vidalia Onion
1 tsp. hot sauce (I used Texas Pete)
1/3 c. milk
2 large eggs
vegetable oil for frying

Mix together your dry ingredients in a large bowl. In a smaller bowl, beat together the eggs, milk, hot sauce and onions. Add the wet ingredients to the dry ones and mix well.
 In a large, heavy skillet, heat about 1 to 1 1/2" vegetable oil until hot. The oil is ready when you drip a little bit of the batter in and it starts to sizzle immediately and floats to the surface. Drop the batter by rounded spoonfuls into the hot oil. Don't overcrowd the pan -- keep an inch or two between each hushpuppy.
Cook them for a minute or 2 on each side, flipping them once, until they are lightly browned and crisp looking. Drain them on paper towels. I like to eat them with butter, but my guys like to dip them into catsup and sprinkle on a little extra hot sauce.

Hush Puppies draining on paper towels
And while I am posting on Fathers Day, I can't forget to mention my dad. Long gone, but not forgotten. He was a nice guy.
My dad, with his mom, going off to boot camp at age 17
That's him and his mom, circa 1941, right after he finished high school early, so he could enlist in the army and serve in WWII. He was a career army officer, who came up through the ranks and served his country in 3 wars, WWII, Korea and Viet Nam. Love you, Dad!

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Grilling Shish Kabob and Back Yard Living

I think Shish Kabob is one of  the easiest meals to make and yet still delicious. My family has always done it, especially when there were lots of us to feed, because it is very budget friendly. You can take an inexpensive cut of meat, cut it into cubes and marinate it and it will go a loooong way. While I am sure there are much more sophisticated marinades, I still use the same one my grandmother always made to cook outside in her big backyard in Hampton, VA. Vegetables were always plentiful and cheap, so it was easy to fill out the meal, paired with a big dish of rice.

Grilling shish kabob and eating it brings back so many happy childhood memories for me. My grandfather worked long, hard hours, so my grandmother and mother always "manned" the grill. When we visited in the summertime, there were always lots of cousins, aunts and uncles who ostensibly came to "see us",  but the reality was, our family always loved to get together. Any old excuse to eat outside was good enough! SO, out came the bags of charcoal and the long picnic table, set up under the crepe myrtles that were in the middle of the yard, and put us kind of in the shade. Corn would be shucked, mostly by the kids, pitchers of lemonade set out, along with a few cans of bug spray. Highballs were mixed, beers chilled in old metal coolers or washtubs and the party would be on it's way.

We tried to get dinner ready so that we ate as the sun was about to set and the temperature would start drop a little. My grandfather would arrive, just in time to get cleaned up and eat with the family. No man has ever been welcomed home so joyfully! Hot and tired as he was, he always had a big smile and hug for every one of us.

The timing of the meal was such that it was light enough and you could still see your food, but starting to cool off. We could just barely stand to be away from the fans and one huge, hardworking air conditioner that labored away overtime. We could only eat outside in the backyard if the heat and humidity had receded a little. The Virginia peninsula is a hot and humid environment, with notoriously sticky summers. The kitchen was always hot during the summer months, no matter how hard we tried to cool it, as was the "breakfast room". While eating outside was sticky, it was often hotter in the kitchen. Late 50's and even into the 60's, almost no one had central air in Virginia, especially in an old house.

After dinner, if the bugs weren't too bad, we'd lounge around the back yard, kids chasing lightning bugs, or organizing games of "No Bears Out Tonight" while the grown-ups sipped their libations of choice. If we were lucky, or it was a holiday, we'd wave sparklers with wild abandon, conjuring up spells and making rainbows in the night. There were always a few mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the lids, so we could collect the lightening bugs we caught. Rich chocolate cakes or strawberry shortcakes were usually the desserts of choice, but Grandaddy always retreated, sooner rather than later, to inside and the air conditioner and a bowl of ice cream. He'd had enough of the heat and humidity.

Big, fat, lemony smelling citronella candles in clear and colored oval glass holders would be lit and set down the length of the picnic table and next to the lawn chairs on little metal tables. Later, out would come my grandmother's mouth harp, and she'd softly warm up with "You Are My Sunshine". If the bugs got too bad, we'd retreat to the nearby screened porch.  Many nights we just stayed where we were, under the crepe myrtles. Those who felt inclined, would sing and sing and sing:  Old hymns and folk songs, sung and hummed in gentle harmonies, until the little ones would nod off and be carried away, to sleep on any available bed or couch. It was a dear, sweet way to grow up.  I can still smell the nearby marsh and creek, mixed up with scents from my grandmothers' flowers and the honeysuckle that grew in the hedge. How lucky we were...

Eating Shish Kabob over brown rice, outside on a perfect night on the patio!
Making Shish Kabob
This is a method, as opposed to a recipe. It's easy and inexpensive and guaranteed to be a crowd pleaser!
One large London Broil or Sirloin Steak, cut into 1:" cubes AND/OR
2 - 3 Boneless, skinless chicken breasts or thighs
1 green pepper, 1 large onion, 1 pint fresh mushrooms, 1 pint cherry tomatoes or 4 - 5 large slightly under ripe tomatoes
Zucchini and or yellow squash, cut into 1" thick rounds (optional)
3 c. cooked rice (at least this amount for 6 or more servings)
Metal or bamboo skewers
Marinade for the Beef: 1 c. Wishbone French Dressing, 2 T. Worcestershire Sauce, pinch black pepper, 2 tsp. Adolf's Meat Tenderizer, no MSG kind
Marinade for the Vegetables and Chicken: Your choice, 2c. Wishbone Light Italian or French Dressing, or mixture of one on one vegetable, one on another (see below for how I do it).

It's easy, cut up the meat and wash the veggies. Cut the peppers and onions to about 1' sized cubes. Leave the mushrooms and cherry tomatoes whole; If using big tomatoes, cut them into quarters. Put the meat in one bowl with the marinade, and the chicken and veggies in another. Keep the MEAT AND CHICKEN SEPARATE! Don't mix them in with the veggies or with one another (food safety, you know!).
Don't marinate the chicken, tomatoes or mushrooms until about 30 minutes before you plan to grill them. You can marinate the meat overnight if you like to cook ahead. I like to marinate the onions and peppers in French dressing and the chicken, tomatoes and mushrooms in Light Italian. I also prefer the squash and zucchini in the Italian dressing. My grandmother did everything in the French, and she did not include any chicken, so this is purely a matter of preference.
Shish Kabob skewers ready for the grill
When you skewer the meat, push it together on the kabob so one piece touches the other one, not loosely with space between each square. Same way for the vegetables, as shown in my pictures. (no chicken shown in the pictures) Skewer the meat separately from the veggies. I know the cooking shows on TV always have the meat and veggies skewered together, but I find that the harder vegetables take longer to cook than the meat and the softer vegetables. We usually skewer the the peppers and onions together and the tomatoes and mushrooms together or each on their own skewers. Same thing for the squash, if we are using it.

The big chunks of onions and peppers will take the longest, next the meats, then the soft veggies. We eat our beef rare, so we don't cook it too long, usually about 4 - 5 minutes on each side. Cook it longer if you like well done. Conversely, we prefer our vegetables a little more cooked, so they soften, so we cook them about 8 - 10 minutes on each side. Be sure to cook the chicken completely through, with no pink showing.
When we serve it, I like to put the rice on a LARGE serving platter and then just pile on the meat and veggies. Keeping them in separate piles, which I did when my kids were younger, allows each person to select their own choice of meat and vegetables. This is great served with fresh corn on the cob or all on it's own. Don't forget a chocolate cake or strawberry shortcake for dessert!

My Grandmother and me, picking flowers in her big backyard, under a crepe myrtle tree