Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Summer Holiday Food: Part 1

I have a confession to make. I hate summer. I know many of you wait all year for June, July and August, but not me. Give me cool weather, sweaters, and even snow any day over 90-plus degree heat and drippy humidity.

(Okay, the thunderstorms can be exciting—as long as no one gets hurt. I’ve always enjoyed a good show by Mother Nature.)

The upcoming 4th of July weekend in Kansas is scheduled to be a scorcher, starting with temps in the 100s tomorrow and Friday, and then cooling to the 90s for the foreseeable future. With that in mind, I was thinking of some easy summer recipes that may come in handy for your Independence Day weekend get-togethers.

First up—breakfast. As I stated in a previous post, this is not my favorite meal of the day. However, I do like to have a little something to ward off starvation until lunchtime. A few years ago, I made a Blueberry Muffin Cake recipe created by writer Susan Gagnon and published in the Concord Monitor newspaper in New Hampshire. It was yummy, but way too cake-like and sweet for my breakfast tastes. The author even suggested serving it with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream, so I believe she envisioned it more as a dessert than breakfast. But I really liked the idea of the one-pan convince of a muffin cake instead of muffins.

Today I dug out the original recipe and made some changes so it would be a bit more breakfast-like and healthier. First I cut the amount of sugar in half. Then I switched one cup of the regular all-purpose flour to whole wheat flour. And finally I exchanged brown sugar for regular sugar and added pecans in the topping.

Almost immediately after I put the coffee cake into the oven, yummy smells started to fill the kitchen. It looked just as good as it smelled, and the taste was just what I wanted--sweet with blueberries and a brown sugar topping, but not too guilt-inducing sweet.

However, some of you might not like the amount of whole wheat flour in the recipe. If you’re not accustomed to whole wheat baked goods, use only a 1/2 cup of whole wheat flour and 2 cups of regular flour instead of what the recipe calls for. And if you like sweet treats for breakfast, use a whole cup of sugar in the batter instead of half a cup.

This coffee cake would make a nice, easy treat to serve holiday guests on their way to the lake, park, or beach. Just sit a few sliced squares out on a plate next to the coffee maker, tea kettle, or juice/milk pitcher. I enjoyed a piece this afternoon with an iced coffee, and can’t wait for another square with my morning coffee tomorrow. (I may even sneak a piece for a late night snack!)

Blueberry Muffin Coffee Cake

For the cake:
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter, softened
1/2 cup sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 cup milk
1 1/2 cup flour
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 teaspoons cream of tartar
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon lemon juice
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 pint blueberries
For topping:
1/4 cup (4 tablespoons) butter, chilled
1/3 cup flour
1/2 cup brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 cup chopped pecans

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and spray a 7-by-11-inch baking dish with non-stick cooking spray. With a mixer, cream together the butter and sugar. Add the egg and beat well.

In a separate bowl (I use the measuring cup), mix milk and baking soda together until soda is dissolved. In another bowl, mix together both flours, cream of tartar, and salt. Add the flour and milk mixtures alternately to the butter-sugar-egg mixture, stirring well after each addition. Add the lemon juice and vanilla. By hand, fold in the blueberries. Pour batter into baking dish.

Place all the topping ingredients into a bowl and crumble together by hand until the butter is in small bits. Sprinkle over the top of the cake batter.

Bake for 30 to 40 minutes. Cool for 30 minutes before serving. (I know it’s hard, but try to wait. It will be worth it!)

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Lawrence Food Tour: Part 1 of ?

I love my new home city, Topeka. My sweetheart, Michael, grew up here and is helping me explore all of the different food offerings the city has available, which I plan to share with you along the way. We live in the downtown area, and I’ve just begun to scratch the surface on the food places within walking distance of our apartment. So stay tuned.

However, go east on I-70 a few miles and you will come to the city of Lawrence, home to the University of Kansas. The downtown is filled with shops, bakeries and restaurants, most of which have a great reputation. There are so many places that a food tour would need to be broken into multiple parts to cover them all, not counting return visits to places newly added to your food favorites list.

I’ve made short trips to this city before, each time vowing to spend a longer amount of time discovering all of the delicious taste sensations available. This past Saturday, Michael and I did just that--The Lawrence Food Tour, Part One of Many.

We started with lunch at Mirth Café (745 New Hampshire, This is the type of place you would expect to find in a university town, with rustic brick walls, tables decorated with flower-filled wine bottles, and an espresso machine creating rich, dark coffee nirvana. It’s easy to imagine Bob Dylan in one corner plucking out a new tune, J. K. Rowling at a table writing Harry Potter’s comeback, a family enjoying breakfast in front of large street-side windows, and two sweethearts sharing bites of each other’s meals.

In my case, that last scenario was reality! Michael, ordered Mirth’s Big Breakfast, with two scrambled eggs, potatoes, sausage and wheat toast. (And, of course, he drenched it all in ketchup.)

I ordered the Ultimate Grilled Cheese—not an over exaggeration for its name. This is the best grilled cheese sandwich I’ve ever tasted! Cheddar, feta and provolone cheese is melted between two slices of white or wheat bread (I had white this time) with fresh spinach leaves and a spread of pesto--hey, I think I can make this at home! I had it with a side of the house salad made with fresh baby greens, cucumbers, homemade garlic croutons, feta garlic dressing and fresh Parmesan. And of course, I ordered a latte to appease my coffee addiction. (Notice Michael's line of jellies waiting for the toast.)

Next, after spending some time (and money) in an antique mall on Massachusetts Street, we went to Brits, a quaint small shop that stocks everything British (929 Massachusetts Street, I’ve always been an anglophile and I stock-up on the imported items I remember from my two trips to the UK. This time I picked up some McVitie’s Digestives biscuits (a wheat and wholemeal cross between a cookie and a cracker) and Nestle Toffee Crisp candy bars (crunchy rice puffs with caramel, covered in chocolate). I also purchased the book Full English: A Journey Through the British and Their Food by Tom Parker Bowles, the brother of Camilla Parker Bowles, otherwise known as the Duchess of Cornwall and wife of Prince Charles. I have seen Tom Parker Bowles on television a number of times and can’t wait to read his take on British cuisine.

Michael and I also made a stop at the Great Harvest Bread Company (807 Vermont), where we tasted the Italian herb bread—mmmmm! I left munching on a snickerdoodle cookie, and we took home a wonderful loaf of challah, a braided Jewish egg bread.
Our final food stop for the day was dinner with my soon-to-be sister and brother in-laws’ family at Bigg’s BBQ (2429 Iowa, It's an unassuming restaurant with the best barbecue I’ve had yet since my return to the Midwest! I ordered a smoked turkey sandwich with spicy fries on the side. The turkey was tender and filled my taste buds with just the right amount of smoke flavor. I topped the sandwich with the Bigg’s spicy barbecue sauce. (Please ignore the poor photography--I'm still learning.)

Michael had the smoked half-chicken with potato salad and baked beans. He ate it all, so it must have been good!

His sister, Lisa, had the burnt ends, which turned out to be one-inch cubes of smoked brisket with barbecue sauce. She gave me a taste, and it, too, was tender and smoky. For dessert, I had a deep-fried brownie--rich and sinfully wonderful. However, I enjoyed even more the homemade ice cream that came with the dish. It tasted like what my Mom and Dad churn for summer cookouts. Lisa’s husband, Don, is a bread pudding addict, and he ordered the white chocolate bread pudding. He said it was the best he’s ever had, and now he doesn’t want to order bread pudding anywhere else! 

Part one of the tour was such a success, I'm already looking forward to part two, once I've fully recovered from this one. I'm still full! Now I need suggestions of where to go next. So all you Kansans, let me know your favorite spots in Lawrence, Topeka, or anywhere! Until then, I think I'd better start a new exercise routine.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ketchup and Goulash

Everyone in a successful relationship has to learn to live with the other person’s quirks. We all have them. In our household, they include how to place the toilet paper roll on the holder (I like it to roll over the top and Michael--best known as The Picky Eater--likes it to roll from underneath), where to put the dirty dishes (I put them to the left of the sink and The Picky Eater puts them to the right), and the car radio (he leaves it on when he gets out of the car and I turn it off.) These types of quirks are minor ones we all learn to compromise over so we can live in harmony. No sweating the little stuff!

There are also food quirks we learn to live with each day. The Picky Eater likes Miracle Whip on his sandwiches and I like mayonnaise. (I think this is a Midwestern taste since I also grew up with Miracle Whip and only changed after I moved east. I still use it for potato salad.) I like all kinds of vegetables, including asparagus, broccoli, cauliflower, and beets. The Picky Eater will only eat corn, green beans, carrots, celery, and tomatoes, plus basic lettuce salad with lots of Dorothy Lynch or Ott’s salad dressing. He also likes to eat a big breakfast, complete with eggs, sausage, hash browns and toast, while I don’t like to eat breakfast much at all. If I do, it’s usually just yogurt or cereal.

We both quickly learned there are two food items that we will never be without in our house—coffee and ketchup. The coffee is for me—the day just doesn’t start right without it. And I like the expensive stuff in the bag, not the can. (What can I say—I’m a coffee snob.) The Picky Eater doesn’t drink coffee. (He loves Earl Grey tea, so I forgive him the coffee thing.)

The ketchup is for Michael. He loves the stuff and puts it on just about everything! I call him a ketchup fiend, and his daughter Jaime is just as bad. I keep saying we should buy stock in a ketchup company so we can recoup some of our ketchup expenditures. I do like it on my hamburger and French fries, but I can live without it.

Not long after we met, The Picky Eater started asking me to make goulash. My first question was what kind—the traditional with chunks of beef and paprika, or the kind I knew from my childhood made with hamburger, elbow macaroni, and tomatoes? (What people in New England call American chop suey.) He said wanted the kind with lots of ketchup that his daughter makes.

I Googled goulash with ketchup, and there are recipes out there with it as an ingredient. But just to be sure, I asked Jaime for the recipe. When she e-mailed it, I was surprised. The ingredient list included tomato soup and cheddar cheese soup. No ketchup! When I asked about the missing ingredient, she wrote that she just squirts in a little ketchup since she and her dad both like it.

So I made the recipe and included 1/2 cup of ketchup, and then had The Picky Eater come in to test it. His immediate response was, “It tastes like tomato soup [which he hates]. Did you put ketchup in it? It needs more.”

I kept squirting and he kept tasting until we got it just right. My best guess is I put in a total of 1 to 1 1/2 cups of ketchup. Even though it’s not the goulash I grew up with, I did like it. Michael devoured it!

Yesterday I decided to make my childhood version of goulash. As I was cooking, The Picky Eater kept asking, “Do you have a backup plan just in case this doesn’t work?” I suggested he keep an open mind, and that we had ham sandwiches in an emergency.

When we sat down to eat, the goulash was—okay. It tasted good, but something was missing. My mom put chili powder in hers, and I know some people put Italian seasoning in the dish, so perhaps that was the issue. The Picky Eater grabbed his ever-available bottle of ketchup and put in a small squirt. He then started to eat away and said he liked it. So, I decided to give it a try, and it turns out ketchup was the missing ingredient. I loved it! It doesn’t take much—I would only add about 1/2 cup to the recipe, but it really makes the dish!

Here are both recipes so you can try them out for yourself. And now I have a new-found respect for ketchup!

Jaime’s Goulash

1 pound ground beef
1 (10.75 ounce) can Campbell’s Cheddar Cheese soup
1 (10.75 ounce) cab Campbell’s Tomato soup
1 1/2 cups water
2 cups uncooked medium shell-shaped pasta
1 cup ketchup—or to taste

Cook beef in skillet until browned. Pour off fat. Add soups, water, pasta and ketchup. Heat to a boil. Cook over medium heat 10 minutes or until pasta is done, stirring often.

Linda’s Goulash

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound ground sirloin
1 medium green pepper, diced
1 medium onion, diced
2 (8 ounce) cans no salt added tomato sauce
1 (14.5 ounce) can no salt added diced tomatoes
1/2 cup ketchup
1 1/2 cup water
2 cups elbow macaroni
salt and pepper to taste
Italian seasoning or chili powder (optional)

Brown ground sirloin in a deep skillet or Dutch oven until just brown. Add onion and green pepper, and continue to cook until onion is translucent. Drain off any excess fat. Add remaining ingredients, lower the heat to simmer, cover and cook for 15 to 20 minutes, or until the macaroni is soft. (This dish also tastes good with a little parmesan cheese sprinkled on top!)

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

My New Life—Part 2

One year ago, after almost 20 years of living in New England, I drove I-70 into Kansas and a new life. I settled into a great house in Meriden, renting a new basement room from my friend Derrick. He and his 12 year old daughter showed me around my new area. I was writing for both Kansas and New Hampshire magazines, plus I returned to a career as a Montessori preschool teacher—something I did for four years in Massachusetts and New Hampshire. All was well.

Then my life completely changed—again!
In an effort to meet new people and see even more of my new state, I signed up on I was a little nervous at first, but I knew a great couple, Tara and Tim, who met through this dating Web site, married, and just had their first child. Plus, I wasn’t necessarily looking for a relationship. After my divorce and a couple of misses in the romance department, I was more interested in having fun, meeting new people, and seeing what the Topeka-Lawrence-Kansas City areas had to offer.

I got responses right from the start! Derrick’s daughter and I sat at the dinning room table looking over the profiles. She proved to be a very insightful advisor regarding which men I should reject and the ones I should consider. We still joke about the one we nick-named Psycho Santa. Imagine the Unabomber crossed with Santa Claus. I still shiver at the memory!

I started communicating with three men via e-mail. One in particular, Michael, seemed very nice. He asked me out for dinner one Thursday evening, which happened to be Veterans Day. We arranged to meet at the local Dillon’s grocery store parking lot, and then I would follow him north to the Prairie Band Casino for dinner. I had heard good things about the food at the three restaurants housed in the casino, so I was looking forward to the evening.
Michael turned out to be the love of my life!

Believe me, I was as surprised as anyone to have found the man I had been looking for my whole life on my first time out in the online dating world. Michael is 52 years old and has his own business as a currier. He has two grown children—Mike, Jr. who is married, just graduated from law school and going for his MBA, and Jamie, who is also married and just graduated from college with a marketing degree.

Long story short, I now live in downtown Topeka with Michael. (The state capitol building is right outside our door!) On June 6, he proposed to me in the same grocery store parking lot where we met. We are getting married on Christmas Eve morning.

Now that I’m settled in my second new home of the year, I promise to write more frequently. There is a lot to talk about! And don’t worry—food will be a large part of the conversation. I have a bunch of new recipes and restaurants to share!