Category Archives: Food

Cupid: Worst Chocolate Valentines Gifts

Romance wasn’t built in a day.

There is probably nothing more frustrating about women than finding out that doing what they want, is not what they want. When it comes to romance, your favorite female wants you to surprise her by getting her what she really wants.  Just don’t ask her what that is.

‘What are you getting mom for Valentines?’, my twin girls asked the other night. They appeared in front of the couch, blocking the TV, in a casual way that guaranteed they were going to take this information directly back to the source of the question.

‘What do you think she’d like?’ I asked, trying to remember how many days I had to come up with an answer.  The girls looked at each other, then at me.

‘Something special’, they said. ‘Not just chocolates again’

They were referring to the one year, which shall never be forgotten, that Dad went all out and brought home about nine different kinds of chocolates.  In the store, it seemed like a great idea.  I imagined her being surrounded, and luxurious.  She imagined I’d scooped the entire closeout candy shelf into the cart at the last minute to avoid getting a real gift.  Alright, so I’d had to work late and couldn’t think of anything else.

‘Ok’, I said, trying to see around them to the screen, ‘no chocolate this year.’  They looked at each other again.

‘You have to get her chocolate, Dad’, they whispered.  They had that look like they would just like to reach out and slap the side of my head, if they dared.

‘She doesn’t like when I give her candy’, I reminded them, very quietly. ‘ She says it makes her…clothes too tight’.  This got big eyes and open mouths at each other, and then they ran off.  What a report that was going to make.  I’ll really have to pull one off this year.

If you’re hunting for something for Valentine’s gifts, remember that chocolate is almost always expected as part of the festivities.  And for that special Valentine chocolate gift, the most important thing to remember is, keep it romantic.  The following are actual chocolate gifts that should NOT be on your list.  Unless this is what she really wants.

1. Chocolate Perfume Ok, you’re thinking you can take care of the proverbial two birds with this stone.  It’s chocolate, and it’s perfume.  It’s got no calories.  It’s pretty cheap compared to what you find in Macy’s.  So, why not make some hubcap earrings to go with it?

2. Chocolate American Express Card Apart from the fact it’s a whopping full ten pound paving stone of chocolate, and a gazillion calories, what kind of message are we trying to send here, exactly?

3. Chocolate Ammo It comes in it’s own ammo tin, it’s .50 caliber, and the only question you should have if this is your gift of choice is whether there actually is something more to life than hunting.

4. Anatomically Correct Chocolate Heart anatomically correct chocolate heart Maybe you were thinking, well, no, actually, you couldn’t have been thinking if you ordered this.  Does the word ‘creepy’ come up often in your relationship?  It will.

5. Chocolate Bra edible chocolate bra No doubt you can’t believe somebody actually came up with this.  Your wife won’t believe you did either. Yes, she’ll get what you have in mind, and no, she won’t.

Now, get out there and get her something she really wants.  And if you figure out what, please, let me know.

Fish Cakes Mad

Great gratin to the rescue.

(The recipe’s below.)

As a general rule, I hate fish cakes.  It’s just one of those things.  Few foods will drop my appetite faster than the hint of one cooking.  If fish cakes suddenly became the only meal available, I’d scrape moss and eat bugs.

This came to mind the other night when I walked in late to find my wife making fish cakes.  Actually, my first reflex was to think hard whether today was our anniversary.

Let me explain how I got into this situation.  It’s actually my father’s fault.  Dad was cut from a sheet of stainless steel.  When I was growing up, he was never confused by subtleties.  Things were either black, or white.  Which is why the idea that romance might require a bit more than a hallmark card with flowers on it, did not automatically occur to him.

Matters came to a head one birthday when he actually gifted my mother a large, brightly wrapped box brimming with vacuum cleaner.  In his mind, he was saving his wife unnecessary labor.  All those new, nifty attachments.  A modern shiny replacement for the old upright.

In front of the family, my mother bit her lip.  I don’t know what was said privately.  But my mother made fish cakes for dinner that night.  Oily, pungent canned tuna and bread crumbs, fried crispy brown in oil.  The house reeked for days.

Now dad, raised on a North Dakota farm with plain boiled potatoes, as far from an ocean as it was possible to be, was not a fan of fish in any form.  I don’t know if he’d ever actually run across anything with fins before he left home.  I think he privately doubted humans were intended to eat any creature that swam in its own pee and smelled like it.

But he’d raised his children to clean their plates of whatever dinner was put in front of them.  So he sat with his back straight and silently ate his fish cakes.

After that, fish cake nights would appear every so often.  And I never developed a taste.

‘What’s for dinner?’ I say.

‘New recipe’, my wife says, over a bowl of potent canned salmon and spices, already being formed into patties.  The dog is on station, alerted by the smell, hoping for an accident.

‘And rice’, she says.  And its clear, if I’m going to get something to eat, I’m going to have to make it myself.  What have I forgotten?

‘You said you’d make dinner tonight’, she says, solving the riddle, and then I remember, she’d asked me to cover.

‘Coming up’, I reply, and wonder whether somewhere, silently, dad’s smiling.  It’s a brave new world, pop.

Now, the only way to make up for a lousy main dish is to load on the sides.  And if possible, make something that will stand on its own.  I happen to have just the recipe.  And, while it’s pretty simple to make, it’s actual cooking, not just opening a box.  Julia Childs made it.  It even has a French name: Gratin Dauphinois.  So, it qualifies as fixing dinner.  And, Dad would approve.

You’ll Need: a 9 x 13 baking dish, cheese grater, knife or mandoline (the slicing tool, not the musical instrument), medium sauce pan

Ingredients:

  • six large russet or other starchy potato
  • 1 unpeeled garlic, cut in half
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/8 teaspoon pepper
  • 1 cup (4 ounces) grated Gruyere or good Swiss cheese
  • 2 cups boiling milk or (it’s better with) cream

How To Make:

  1. Preheat the oven to 375 F / 190 C.  Peel and slice the potatoes into rounds 1/8 inch thick.
  2. Bring the milk or cream to steaming hot in the saucepan, but don’t let it boil over.  When it tries, turn off the heat.
  3. Rub the cut side of the garlic clove all around the baking dish.  Then smear, to cover, the baking dish bottom and sides with 1 tablespoon of the butter.
  4. Spread half the potato slices in the baking dish, top with half the remaining butter, and half the salt and pepper.
  5. Put the rest of the potatoes in a layer on top.  Add the remaining butter, salt pepper, and then sprinkle evenly with the cheese.
  6. Carefully pour the milk or cream into the baking dish.
  7. Put a baking sheet (with a lip) in the oven on a shelf about one third of the way from the top.  Put the baking dish with potatoes on the baking sheet.  (Pull the shelf partly out to help keep from spilling.)
  8. Bake about 30 minutes. You’ll know when it’s done when the potatoes are tender to a fork, the top is golden brown and bubbly.
  9. Let it set out of the oven about ten minutes before serving.

Champagne: Chic or Chicken?

Champagne chicken sauce recipeOne man’s champagne diet.

Now that the yearly New Years service is over, it’s safe to admit.  I don’t like champagne.

That will probably get my ticket yanked with a segment of the liquor industry, the high-stepping party crew and modern romance food aficionados, but there it is.  Sure, I raised my glass and drank with everybody else.  But, it’s kind of like clapping for the neighbor’s child’s recital.  Not to be confused with actual enjoyment.

Is champagne really the right New Year’s drink in the first place?  For a hearty sendoff of one year and the fingers-crossed hopes for a new one?  Seems to me the occasion deserves a draft Guinness, or a shot of  Bushmills, a decent merlot or the like.  A touch of bitterness, followed by a moment of impossible-to-ignore fullness of flavor, and a real loosening of expectations.

Champagne?

I  first got suspicious when I learned champagne was actually a  wine mistake.  Centuries ago in France champagne grapes were harvested so late, winter cold would sometimes stop the wine fermenting, only to restart in the spring. This caused the yeast to go nuts and produce more gas than usual.  Bottles exploded, the wine fizzed, that kind of mess.  Until one day, as they were dumping another ruined batch, some prince or another wandered in, tasted the stuff, and offered to pay good money.  They couldn’t unload it fast enough.

Now, I’ve got nothing against the champagne industry, who’ve carried on this lucrative tradition, or folks who enjoy bubbly white wines.  I’ll just suggest my favorite way to dispose of this French mistake and its domestic cousins is over shrimp, salad, or as below, to sauce a chicken.  It’s a delicious way to dress food, one pan, man-simple cooking.  And what were you planning to do with all the half-empties anyway?

You’ll need:

Large cast iron or other heavy skillet (big enough to hold the chicken), baking dish (to keep chicken warm)

Ingredients

  • 4 chicken breasts
  • salt and pepper
  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
  • 1/3 – 1/2 bottle of champagne
  • 1 cup chicken broth
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1/2 teaspoon tarragon

How To Make:

  1. Salt and pepper the chicken breasts.
  2. Melt the butter in the skillet, and when it starts to foam, add the garlic.
  3. Add the rest of the butter and heat for one minute at medium heat.
  4. Add the chicken skin side down and brown it, then turn it over, about 5  minutes for each side
  5. Add the champagne to the skillet and cook for 10 minutes.
  6. Add the chicken broth and tarragon, and cook another 15 minutes.
  7. Take the chicken out, place in a baking pan, cover and keep warm (in the oven, set to its lowest temperature would work).
  8. Add the cream to the pan, raise the heat medium high to bring the liquid to a gentle boil, and stirring, let the sauce reduce in volume by about one half. This can take 15 minutes or more, depending on how much liquid you have at this stage.
  9. Return the chicken to the sauce, coat it well and serve, pouring the extra sauce over the chicken.
Some folks like to spice this dish up with red or cayenne pepper, add sautéed mushrooms, some shallot or onion, that’s up to you.  Great with rice.
Best of the New Year to you.

Ladies of the Night Dessert

Bottom’s up in the kitchen.

The other day I went looking for a nicer than average dessert to make, and stopped when I found one that promised to put buttery caramel, apples, toasted walnuts and moist cake in your mouth all at the same time.

The recipe below got me smiling partly because of the occasion.   My engineer brother spreads a special family dinner at Christmas.  He and his wife never fail to impress.  Since we arrive with a small army of locusts, I usually offer to add something to the menu.  And around the fourth or fifth try he usually accepts. This year, he suggested I bring desserts.

While my wife and daughters got busy turning out special cookies and decorated cupcakes, I hit the laptop.  And I eventually uncovered this recipe, for an apple upside down cake.

‘That’s tarte tatin, ‘ my brother said, ‘it’s French.  You sure you don’t want to just pick up a pie or something?’

I wasn’t about to back down, or ask him what it meant, so I tried Google Translator.  It came back with an empty box.

Now, my command of French is really thin.  It wasn’t enough to keep me from riding shuttle buses for hours around Charles De Gaulle airport, looking for my departure terminal.  Which by the way is how the French cunningly disorient tourists and other terrorists. But that’s another story.

The point is, you’ll have to settle for my best explanation here.

By my understanding a tart is someone… well along the way to prostitution.  So it didn’t surprise me when a link I managed to turn up confirmed tarte tatin was a specialty of two French sisters who were awfully popular with hunters around the Loire Valley.  In fact, the French call this dessert tarte des demoiselles Tatin, which apparently works out to “the tarts are two unmarried women named Tatin.”

Which leaves to the imagination why the cake is upside down.

Anyway, this takes a bit of time and several steps, but it’s worth it.  It’s a lot easier than making a pie.  You can do the whole thing in a cast iron skillet (extra Dad’s points for that) but that requires tossing hot metal into the air and catching the contents on a platter, so I’ve gone with a cheat here.  Bonny appetite.

You’ll need:

a 10 inch cake pan, measuring equipment, a 12 inch heavy skillet, saucepan, mixer and two bowls, and between two and three hours.

Ingredients:

  • 7 or 8 medium apples (gravenstein or other good cooking apple)
  • 6 tbsp butter
  • 1/2 cup dark rum
  • 2 tb lemon juice
  • 1/2 cup brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup toasted walnuts, chopped

For the cake:

  • 1/2 cup butter
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 1/2 tsp vanilla
  • 1 3/4 cup flour
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • 1/8 tsp nutmeg
  • 1/2 cup milk

Directions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F .
  2. Butter the inside of the cake pan well or use cooking spray to prevent sticking.
  3. In the saucepan, melt 3 tbsp butter with the brown sugar.  When it starts to bubble, pour it to cover the bottom of the cake pan.
  4. Peel the apples, slice into 8ths, core, and sprinkle with the lemon juice.
  5. Put 2 tbsp butter into the skillet, and when it’s melted, turn off the flame, add 1/4 cup rum and mix. Then put down a single layer of apple slices til the pan is filled, and cook over medium low heat til the undersides of the apples are just the color of your done-o-meter, a nice medium brown ale, like Newcastles: several minutes.  Don’t guess, lift them and check. Take them off the heat immediately.
  6. When the slices are cool enough to handle with a fork, line them up edge to edge in circles in the cake pan, cooked side down.  It’s ok if they overlap a little.  If you don’t have enough slices to fully cover, repeat the step above.  Sprinkle on the walnuts. Then set the pan aside.
  7. Mix the flour and baking powder together in a bowl.
  8. In a separate bowl, cream the 1/2 cup butter and 1 cup sugar together until its light and fluffy.  You’ll see.
  9. Add the eggs and vanilla and beat til light again.
  10. Now, in batches, add some flour and milk, and mix just until they’re combined. Continue in batches til it’s all in.  You don’t want to overmix the batter, as it knocks out all the fluffy air you worked to put in.
  11. Next, put heaping spoonfuls of this batter onto the apples, going around the pan from the center.  Then carefully spread the batter out so that the topping is covered evenly to the edge of the pan.
  12. Bake for about 45 minutes and check it.  When it’s done, a clean wood toothpick or skewer inserted in the center will come out clean.  Or, the top of the cake will spring back when touched with a finger.  Let it bake if it’s not done, but check every 5 minutes.
  13. Take the cake out and let it cool on a rack 10 minutes, not longer.
  14. Put a platter that’s wider than the cake pan over the top of the cake pan, and holding the two together, flip them over, so the platter’s on the bottom.  It feels like a tricky maneuver, but you can do it safely by holding the platter and pan together like a sandwich with your thumbs on top, and then rotating in one smooth turn towards yourself so your thumbs end up underneath.
  15. You can give it a good shake to free the cake from the pan onto the platter. If any apple slices are stuck to the pan, just take them off with a fork and replace onto the cake.

Just be careful, the sugar topping is blazing hot and sticks to skin.

Voila.

There are plenty of variations of this recipe, including some which claim to be authentic, but I’ve tested the one above personally, so if you go with the others, just be careful.  In my opinion, new recipes are like blind dates.

Dieting For the Holidays

There’s a reason it’s illegal to start any diet before January 1.

The other day dad was checking to see if he had the black or the brown belt on with the blue pants, to avoid the kind of fashion faux pas that gets wives wondering if they’ve married down in life.  To my surprise, this maneuver was nearly impossible without using the bathroom mirror.  The light by the bedroom mirror had gone.

I’m not exactly sure when I lost the clearance to see my waist directly.  And while there’s a small possibility my neck’s just gotten too muscle bound to reach the right angle, the holidays always seem to get me thinking about it.

This is the time of year we may find ourselves doing a double-take before recognizing the guy walking by in the mall store window reflection.  Who at first looked like they may have been shoplifting things under their shirt. The time of year we notice there’s just not enough suck-it-up left to make a difference when the saleswoman gives you a smile over the clothes she’s folding.

‘Can I help you find something’, she says, surrounded by pre-teen fashion and accessories, and somehow suddenly making it obvious that I’m the only male in the entire crowded department.  Just standing, and watching.

‘Just here with the wife,’ I say, taking a look around to find my wife, who is no longer anywhere to be seen in teens wear.  ‘To pick something out for the kids,’ I say, and watch as her eyes make the same circuit of the store mine did, and then come back to settle on the front of my shirt.

‘What do you think,’ my wife says from my six o’clock.  She’s arms upstretched, holding out pink and purple bangled quilt jackets, looking from me to the saleswoman and back.

‘I’m going to go check power tools,’ I say.

‘Stairmaster’s on sale’, my wife says, checking the color of my belt.

With four women in the house, weight is always on the menu.  It’s been decided that everyone gains it when I’m home, and loses it when I’m traveling.  Apparently dad’s gravity attracts stray calories into the house, which stick to the entire family.

And at no time is this more true than in the short cold days and long nights between Thanksgiving and New Years.  A stretch that for almost all of human existence has also been the start of the season most short on food.  With the kind of dieting no one would ever choose, an annual trial, forced and irresistable.  A season not of overeating, but one that culled the thin and weak from the herd.  And part of the reason, I suspect, we all still today have a hard-wired pull to feast and reach for the sweets and fat.  To hold the ancient fear of famine, and death, at bay.

These days, its clear, there’s too much of a good thing.  And, I intend to adjust my intake to resemble my expenditures. It’s time to lose some weight.  Try and reverse the slide from six pack to keg.

Just as soon as we eat ourselves into the new year.

Because while I’ll be careful to keep from overdoing this year,  I’ve decided the best diet to apply isn’t the one between Christmas and January 1.  It’s the one between New Year’s and Christmas.

Worst Gifts for Men Who Cook I Forgot

Last minute gifts we’d rather not get.

Santa’s helper has spoken to dad about the last please don’t get me this present for Christmas list and cleared up a few things, such as, why we’ve never been found in the kitchen dressed in a colorful apron.  And, do not see this in our future.

Since the last set apparently came as quite a surprise, a few more gift ideas have come to mind I thought I’d better share.   Not that we don’t like Santa’s gift ideas.  We do.  We have an entire shelf in the closet set aside as a showcase from previous years.

Let’s just say, if you see these wonderful items for men who cook, please, just leave them for somebody else.

1. Any Guy Fieri DVD I’m sure he’s an inspiration to many.  He’s an energetic guy, and all over Food Network, so he must be popular. There’s just something about him and food …. How can I put this?  I think my appetite has an allergy.  To him.

2.  Reusable Shopping Bags It’s not about being green.  It’s about getting out of the car, walking across the parking lot, around the store, going through the checkout, and back across the lot, holding one of these.  And not being exactly sure what message I’m sending.

3. Fine Food Magazines Sure, these are great for ideas, helpful tips, and fun reading. Right up to the moment the youngsters hold it up to their plate and want to know why daddy’s food doesn’t look anything like the one in the picture.

4. Food Dehydrator I’m sure there are plenty of dinner recipes that call for dried zucchini, bananas, and chicken.  And, they must be way better than using fresh.  Otherwise, why would anyone go to all the trouble of slicing up good food just to dry it out?

5.  The Sensor Fresh Now, just because some of us aren’t afraid of a little meat that’s lost its pink color, and don’t want to waste otherwise perfectly good food and have to make an extra trip to the store, doesn’t mean we have to resort to this.  90 bucks for a device that sniffs ground beef and tells me it’s too old to eat?  And when have I ever served food so old it made anyone sick?  And not just because nobody would touch it.

There’s some perfectly good ideas at Last Minute Gift List For Men Who Cook over at http://www.dadsinthekitchen.com.

Vegetarian Beef Dinner for Christmas

Food controversy came to dad’s home recently, and challenged a manly tradition.

The Holidays are all about family.  And shopping.  Well, shopping and eating. And family.  In any case, for lots of folks the Christmas feast is important,  a time to gather and raise each others spirits when all the stores are closed.

And that makes choosing what to eat a big deal.  Particularly since everybody’s  home, and cooking chores get spread around.  If it’s turkey, my wife – who is the undisputed queen of stuffing – gets the honors, and if its prime rib, then dad’s pretty much out of excuses.  I mean, a man has got to be staggering incompetent not to be able to shove a roast in the oven and check the thermometer.  No, I mean it, to get out of this you have to be really who-emptied-the-Jack Daniels-in-the-eggnog staggering.

Unfortunately, things got ugly this year when we took the menu to the kids for the turkey or beef tie breaker.

‘We’re vegetarian,’ the twins announced, ten and holding hands, and as serious as young girls can be, which is dangerously serious.

‘Now…’,  I started, and my wife steered me off with the look.

‘…that’s great’, I smiled.  And why not?  As long as they eat healthy, what’s wrong with skipping  meat?

‘So, you can’t make meat any more’, they decreed.  ‘It’s not right.’

Looking back into my childrens’ bright eyes from the undisputed, will eat nearly everything pinnacle of the food chain, I weighed my words carefully.

‘We won’t make you eat any,’ I said.

‘It’s animals.  No one should eat animals any more. They have feelings too.’

‘Well, plants can feel’, I offered.  ‘That’s what scientists say,’ I said to my wife’s eye roll. ‘And we eat them.’

‘Plants don’t have faces, dad.  And they can’t be happy or sad.’

‘Well, you say that.  Maybe we just can’t hear them screa- ….’

‘I think that’s great’, their mom said. ‘Why do you want to be vegetarians, girls?’

‘We don’t think people should kill animals and eat them.’

Well, we’re just a few hundred thousand years late for that, I thought.  All fine and good, if people decide not to eat meat, in my opinion.  But, isn’t it really just about being squeamish?  The dawning realization that what we consume was once alive, and that we have to kill something living before we can feed ourselves?

‘Well,’ I said, aiming for philosophical, ‘it’s the circle of life.  Like, ‘Lion King’.  Completely natural.  What do you think Simba ate?’

It was out of my mouth before I realized, from the look on their faces, they may not have previously considered that particular image.  As a matter of fact,  Disney probably scrubbed every scene with cute dead antelope dangling from lion jaws, for that very reason.

‘Who wants ice cream?’ I said, rubbing my hands.

‘Lions don’t have a choice’, my wife said, and stood up and next to the girls. ‘Do you have something against vegetarians?’

‘Not at all,’ I said, feeling defensive. And when I feel defensive, I get glib. ‘Cows are vegetarians, and I like them just fine. For Christmas dinner, for example.’

‘So, you’d go ahead and serve beef?’ my wife the lioness said.  And I stood my ground.

‘Nobody has to eat it who doesn’t want to, that’s fine.  We can all respect each others’ personal choice.  Happy if the girls just want veggies.  But I want to be able to eat prime rib.’

My wife crossed her arms.

‘Girls, your father’s pretty set on this.  And, I guess it should be his right to have that beef he looks forward to.’

‘That’s settled then’, she said to me.

And as she turned to go, I could swear I saw her toss the girls a wink.

If you’re one of the men cooking beef yourself, I’ve put a list of tips and a complete how-to guide for prime rib roast at http://www.dadsinthekitchen.com.