Tuesday, December 28, 2010

7 Quick Takes Tuesday, and A Walk To Remember Party Preview


Every Friday Jennifer Fulwiler hosts the meme "7 Quick Takes" on her blog, ConversionDiary.com. Even though today is Tuesday, I've got a few little things to share with you before the New Year's Feast (more on that in Take Number 6 and 7), and I figured now was a good a time as any to put my first Quick Takes post here. I post them pretty regularly over at my other site, Musings of a Catholic Mom.


I hope you all had a blessed Christmas, filled with love and laugher, and especially good food and good books! We spent the holiday in Atlanta with my brother-in-law and his family, and ate like kings. My mother-in-law brought her famous pasta sauce, and on Christmas Eve we ate rigatoni with sausage, meatballs, and Grandma B's "gravy." Breakfast Christmas morning was a hashbrown casserole with sour cream and cheese, and a ham-and-egg dish that was out of this world. (When my sister-in-law cooks, you can bet you'll have an amazing meal.) My brother-in-law brought out a big ole slab of salmon that he had caught in Alaska and smoked at home, and OH, MY, it was the best smoked salmon anyone had ever tasted. Dinner (after the fish soup--more like a bisque, and much better than the oyster stew I usually make for Christmas) was prime rib--which I have never attempted to cook, but since my sister-in-law made it seem so easy, I'm definitely going to try it sometime. No more Costco spiral ham for Christmas at our house. Dessert was Grandma B's homemade cannoli.

I didn't take any pictures of the food (Why??) but here's what her table looked like just before Christmas dinner:


It's a long drive from our home in Virginia to Atlanta and back, and since Joe did most of the driving, I was able to re-read Nights in Rodanthe and most of The Guardian during our trip. I took lots of notes--well, not LOTS, just writing down some food ideas, and I can't wait to cook the delicious meals in those books. (I'm especially enjoying re-reading The Guardian, since it is probably among my top three favorite Nicholas Sparks books.)


By the way, do you remember my lasagna dilemma? Turns out I didn't need to worry, because Grandma B's special pasta sauce recipe is NOT a secret, and I'm free to share it with whomever I want. She only has two secret recipes, both of which are complex desserts that I have never attempted to make. (I thought her cannoli was secret too, but I was wrong on that one as well.) I'm looking forward to sharing the sauce recipe with you when I make it--I'm pretty sure someone cooks lasagna in Dear John, at least they do in the movie. That's quite a number of books away yet; I don't know if I can wait that long!


Yesterday I ran across this post on BlogHer.com, which said if you want to have a really good food blog, you should be a great storyteller, a great photographer, you should post at least once a week, AND all the recipes you post should be your own. That's quite a challenge to undertake, I must say. I hope I'm an okay storyteller (not nearly as good as you, Nick!), and I'm learning to take halfway decent photos, but it would be quite a challenge to post here every week--and even more of a challenge, I think, to use all original recipes. Some of the things I'm making here I've never tried before--that's why, for instance, I asked Paula Deen to help me with my fried chicken. (Speaking of which, I made it again a couple of weeks ago, and guess what? I went easy on the salt this time and it was the BEST fried chicken EVER. Goodbye Popeye's and KFC!) I will try to post recipes that I already use when I can, like our favorite beef stew--although most of them I got from cookbooks, the Internet, or other people. (When I make the roast chicken for Nights in Rodanthe, I had planned to try a new way of cooking it since I've roasted chicken the same way for years, and even though it's delicious, everyone is getting tired of it. I'll think about that one.)

And besides, if I post here every week, pretty soon I'll run out of books.


Which brings me to my next project--New Year's Eve A La A Walk to Remember.

Want to know the unique thing about this book? Not that it's about teenagers (the only other book about two teenagers falling in love as far as I know is The Last Song); it's this: Nobody cooks anything. But there's enough food in A Walk to Remember to give me something to work with, and I'm excited about the meal I'm putting together.

So what's the story? Landon Carter is seventeen years old, and he lives in Beaufort, North Carolina in the 1950s. He's always been sort of a troublemaker, especially in the eyes of the town preacher, Reverend Sullivan. The Reverend has a daughter, Jamie, whom he has raised since her mother died in childbirth. Jamie doesn't have any friends, really, and is looked upon by her peers, including Landon, as somewhat odd--certainly not the type of girl that boys want to go out with. When Landon ends up with a starring role in the school play alongside Jamie, he begins to get to know her better and--you guessed it--the two fall in love. There's a lot more to this story, of course; in fact, in his memoir, Three Weeks With My Brother, Nick says he cried when he wrote it because--oh dang, I don't think I want to tell you why because I might give away too much. The movie is good, too, but very different from the book. (You want to know a secret? I never actually read this book--but I did listen to the audiobook at least four times. As far as I know it's the only one that Nick recorded himself. I wish he would read more of them--I think hearing JoBeth Williams read Nights in Rodanthe might bring back memories of her yelling, "CAROL ANNE!! STAY AWAY FROM THE LIGHT!!" Nick's voice, on the other hand is nice and soft and soothing. Okay, enough of that.)

So here's what we're making: Landon and Jamie go out to dinner on New Year's Eve, and eat sea bass and salad. I've found a couple of recipes for sea bass that look pretty easy--I've never made it before--in fact I might try and make an appetizer out of it. My mother is helping me with the salad--she's got a couple of great ones, and I hope I can decide which one we'll make. And Landon and his friends like to hang out at this place called Cecil's Diner and eat hush puppies; my kids are excited that we'll be eating them too. (On a side note--for this blog, I'm trying not to cook things people eat in restaraunts, because every other post would be shrimp, hush puppies, and sweet tea. Although, I might have to revise that rule a little bit if I'm going to follow the advice given in Take #5 and post once a week--in fact, in A Bend in the Road, when Miles goes to his favorite diner he always orders barbecue, and I'm tempted to make that since it's a favorite in our house. We'll see.)

When Landon stops by Jamie's house early on in the book when the weather is warm, she offers him a glass of lemonade. I have a great recipe from Fine Cooking magazine for stawberry pink lemonade, and we'll make that for the kids. For the adults? Lemon drop martinis. I'm looking forward to experimenting with a couple of recipes for those between now and Friday night. And if I have time, I might make a few Christmas cookies like the ones the kids have at the orphanage where Jamie volunteers, the day Landon and Jamie drop in on their Christmas party.

So there you have it. Have a Happy New Year, and be sure to stop by here in a week or so and see how everything turned out!

And for Jennifer's most recent 7 Quick Takes post, go here; for mine, go here.

Merry Christmas! (You know it's still Christmas until January 6, right?) See you soon!

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Bend in the Road: A Lasagna Dilemma

Background: Miles Ryan is a widowed father still grieving the loss of his wife Missy in an hit-and-run accident. He is doing his best to raise his son, Jonah, without her. A sheriff's deputy in New Bern, North Carolina, he spends much of his free time obsessed with finding the driver of the car that killed his wife. He meets Sarah Andrews, Jonah's second grade teacher, when she offers to tutor Jonah after school. I'm sure you can guess where this is heading--pretty soon Miles and Sarah start spending time together outside of the school setting. What makes their relationship dramatic is the fact that Miles still misses his wife, and he's so intent on finding her killer that sometimes it's all he can think about. Meanwhile Sarah is recovering from a painful divorce, and she's recently moved to New Bern from Baltimore to start a new life. Despite all of their baggage and Miles' bouts of moodiness (she's a saint, that Sarah, and a great mother figure for Jonah, too) they fall head over heels in love.

One October evening when Jonah is sleeping over at a friend's house, Miles and Sarah take a ghost tour of New Bern (several of Nick's books take place there--fitting since that's where he lives. I've never been there in person, but I hear it's a fabulous little town), and afterward they head over to her place. Sarah prepares a warm, romantic meal--lasagna, a favorite in my house; with French bread, salad, and (most importantly) a bottle of wine. They enjoy their dinner by the light of a blazing fire.

So what kind of dilemma would I possibly have about lasagna? My mother-in-law, Grandma B, gave me her special pasta sauce recipe (or "gravy" as the Italians call it) years ago on the condition that I would never share it with anyone. It's one of her secret family recipes that's been handed down through many generations. It's been a while since I've made her sauce, and I was tempted to make it last weekend for my "Nicholas Sparks Thing," as my family calls it. I knew I couldn't share the recipe with you, though, and I thought it would be a little bit cruel to tell you all about the delicious lasagna I made with this amazing sauce, post pictures, and then say, "Oh, sorry, I can't tell you how I made it. You're on your own for this one." Another choice might have been to make her sauce, and find a different recipe to post. I scrapped that idea as well, though, because I want to post what I actually prepare. My final solution was to find a totally different recipe and save Grandma's for another time when I'm not blogging about it. (My fourth option could have been to go with my usual sauce-making method: pop open a jar of Ragu'. Not this time.)

UPDATE: Guess what? Grandma's recipe is NOT secret. I'll get to share it with you after all.

When I did a Google search on lasagna, the first one that popped up came from AllRecipes.com. (That site might soon be my favorite one for recipes, since I've found so many great ones there.) After browsing through several other recipes, I decided to go with the first one:

World's Best Lasagna

1 pound sweet Italian sausage
3/4 pound lean ground beef
1/2 cup minced onion
2 cloves garlic, crushed
1 (28 ounce) can crushed tomatoes
2 (6 ounce) cans tomato paste
2 (6.5 ounce) cans canned tomato sauce
1/2 cup water
2 tablespoons white sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons dried basil leaves
1/2 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 teaspoon Italian seasoning
1 tablespoon salt
1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
4 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
12 lasagna noodles
16 ounces ricotta cheese
1 egg
1/2 teaspoon salt
3/4 pound mozzarella cheese, sliced
3/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese


1.In a Dutch oven, cook sausage, ground beef, onion, and garlic over medium heat until well browned. Stir in crushed tomatoes, tomato paste, tomato sauce, and water. Season with sugar, basil, fennel seeds, Italian seasoning, 1 tablespoon salt, pepper, and 2 tablespoons parsley. Simmer, covered, for about 1 1/2 hours, stirring occasionally.
2.Bring a large pot of lightly salted water to a boil. Cook lasagna noodles in boiling water for 8 to 10 minutes. Drain noodles, and rinse with cold water. In a mixing bowl, combine ricotta cheese with egg, remaining parsley, and 1/2 teaspoon salt.
3.Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C).
4.To assemble, spread 1 1/2 cups of meat sauce in the bottom of a 9x13 inch baking dish. Arrange 6 noodles lengthwise over meat sauce. Spread with one half of the ricotta cheese mixture. Top with a third of mozzarella cheese slices. Spoon 1 1/2 cups meat sauce over mozzarella, and sprinkle with 1/4 cup Parmesan cheese. Repeat layers, and top with remaining mozzarella and Parmesan cheese. Cover with foil: to prevent sticking, either spray foil with cooking spray, or make sure the foil does not touch the cheese.
5.Bake in preheated oven for 25 minutes. Remove foil, and bake an additional 25 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes before serving.

Sure does smell good...

I cheated just a little bit by using those oven-ready noodles that you don't have to boil, and pre-grated cheese instead of slicing up a hunk of mozzarella. That one was because I didn't read the ingredients carefully before going to the grocery store.

I wanted to make my own French bread in my bread machine. I consulted my Bread Machine Cookbook but didn't find a recipe that I liked, so I went online and found a good one at--where else?--AllRecipes.com:

French Baguettes

1 cup water
2 1/2 cups bread flour
1 tablespoon white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
1 1/2 teaspoons bread machine yeast
1 egg yolk
1 tablespoon water


1.Place 1 cup water, bread flour, sugar, salt and yeast into bread machine pan in the order recommended by manufacturer. Select Dough cycle, and press Start.
2.When the cycle has completed, place dough in a greased bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover, and let rise in a warm place for about 30 minutes, or until doubled in bulk. Dough is ready if indentation remains when touched. 3.Punch down dough. On a lightly floured surface, roll into a 16x12 inch rectangle. Cut dough in half, creating two 8x12 inch rectangles. Roll up each half of dough tightly, beginning at 12 inch side, pounding out any air bubbles as you go. Roll gently back and forth to taper end. Place 3 inches apart on a greased cookie sheet. Make deep diagonal slashes across loaves every 2 inches, or make one lengthwise slash on each loaf. Cover, and let rise in a warm place for 30 to 40 minutes, or until doubled in bulk.
4.Preheat oven to 375 degrees F (190 degrees C). Mix egg yolk with 1 tablespoon water; brush over tops of loaves. (I skipped the egg wash since Moe is allergic to them.)
5.Bake for 20 to 25 minutes in the preheated oven, or until golden brown. (source)

My family was lurking behind me as I took the bread out of the oven, waiting impatiently for me to hurry up and take a photo so they could all have a sample. Most of the larger loaf was gone by dinnertime.

Our favorite Virginia wine: Cabernet Franc from Horton Vineyards.

The lasagna was a little bit runny. Seems I always end up using twice as much ricotta and egg as the recipe calls for. It was delicious, nonetheless, and almost as good as Grandma B's. I even made a little one for Moe, with dairy-free "cheese" and of course, no egg.

We didn't have a fire, but we ate by the warm glow of this

and this.
When I started this blog, I planned to cook Nick's books more or less in the order they were published. While that's still my plan, I find I'm having to skip around just a bit. I'm planning one more project from A Bend in the Road, but I'm saving that one until after New Year's--possibly even until Valentine's Day. There are two more from The Rescue as well (lots of cooking and eating happening in that one), but I'm saving one for warmer weather, and one for when I'm feeling a little braver.

Meanwhile I'm thinking about what to prepare for a New Year's Eve party, inspired by A Walk to Remember. (By the way, did you know December 31 also happens to be Nick's birthday?) I might even ask a friend or two to help me out with that one (you know who you are, Mwah Ha Ha!!) I might even give you a little preview beforehand if I can get my act together once Christmas is over.

I hope you all have a safe and blessed Christmas (Grandma B says she's making her pasta sauce to bring to Christmas dinner!), and I'll meet you back here to ring in 2011!

Friday, December 3, 2010

The Rescue: Warm Beef Stew and Cornbread on a Chilly Sunday

On the last few pages of The Rescue (don't worry, I won't give away the ending--read this post for a quick description of Taylor and Denise and their romantic story), Denise makes beef stew for Taylor and Kyle, Denise's four-year-old son. It's late in the fall, and the air is turning colder. Denise has to tuck her hands into the sleeves of her sweater when she goes outside to talk to Taylor and Kyle, who are having a grand old time digging in the dirt.

On the Sunday after Thanksgiving, the air was chilly at our house. While the men in my life were outside blowing and raking leaves and hauling them to the road (and you could say they were also playing in the dirt--their shoes and their coats and their clothing were covered in grime when they finally came inside) I made our favorite beef stew and some cornbread to go with it. Now, I told you earlier that Moe and I were the only ones who liked beef stew--well, now I'm taking that back. Everyone loved it, even Joe. "I thought you didn't like beef stew," I remarked when Joe raved about how good it was. "I don't," he said. "But I like THIS beef stew." When Curly was born, a friend brought a batch of it for us to enjoy, and I will admit I wasn't too excited because I had never really liked beef stew. It was so delicious that I asked her for the recipe. And when I read about Denise preparing a pot of stew for the men in her life, I knew exactly which recipe I would use--it's the only one I've ever made as far as I know. But first, the cornbread. Which isn't mentioned in The Rescue; but at our house, cornbread is a must when we're having beef stew. Or chili, for that matter.

Golden Sweet Cornbread (courtesy of AllRecipes.com)

1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
2/3 cup white sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 egg
1 cup milk
1/3 cup vegetable oil

1.Preheat oven to 400 degrees F (200 degrees C). Spray or lightly grease a 9 inch round cake pan. 2.In a large bowl, combine flour, cornmeal, sugar, salt and baking powder. Stir in egg, milk and vegetable oil until well combined. Pour batter into prepared pan. 3.Bake in preheated oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. (source)

Because of Moe's food allergies, I had to make it with Egg Replacer. The last time I made this cornbread, it was quite crumbly (the egg replacer works well as a binding agent but real eggs work better) so this time I tried substituting honey for half of the sugar. I was asked my the menfolk if I would please make it that way again. I'm happy to oblige.

Now for the main attraction:

Hearty Beef Stew

2 T all-purpose flour

1/2 t salt

1/4 t ground black pepper

1 lb. beef stew meat, cut into 1-inch pieces

2 T vegetable oil (I use olive oil, but that's just me)

1 small chopped onion (about 1 cup)

1 cup (2 stalks) thickly sliced celery

2 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 3/4 cups (one 14.5-oz can) diced tomato, undrained

1 cup (2 small) peeled, thickly sliced carrots

1 t. beef bouillon (a splash or two of Worcestershire sauce is a good substitute in a pinch)

1/2 t. ground or dried thyme (or about 1 T chopped fresh thyme)

1 large potato, peeled and cut into 1-inch pieces

Combine flour, salt, and pepper in medium bowl. Add beef, toss well to coat. Heat vegetable oil in a large saucepan or soup pot on medium-high heat. Add beef, onion, celery, and garlic.

Cook, stirring frequently for 6 to 8 minutes or until beef is no longer pink and vegetables are tender. Add tomatoes with juice, carrots, bouillon, and thyme. Bring to a boil. (I usually end up adding a little water of beef stock as well.) Reduce heat to low; cover. Cook about 5 to 10 minutes and then add the potatoes. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 15 to 20 minutes more, or until beef is tender. When cooking the beef, etc. in the oil, it will probably stick to the bottom of the pan, but after adding the licquid it all comes up and mixes with the rest of the stew. This recipe makes 5 servings; I almost always double the recipe so I'll have leftovers for the next day.
A few hunks of local Monterey Jack cheese on top complete this yummy comfort food.
We lit our Advent wreath. See the red candle? It's supposed to be pink (ahem, rose). We're pretending.
I hope I'll share one more Nicholas Sparks food project before I tell you about my A Walk To Remember New Year's Eve party I'm planning. I'm hoping to cook venison burgers ('cuz Taylor cooks venison for Denise because she's mad at him and he wants to make up--but I'm getting ahead of myself), but so far I haven't found any deer meat I won't have to pay an arm and a leg for. I'm holding out hope that I can order some from our new butcher for a reasonable price, but I might have to skip it and cook lasagna instead. Which I think I'm going to do anyway, so if you're REALLY lucky you'll get TWO meals before Christmas.

Oh, by the way, I finished Nick's latest book, Safe Haven. I think it's my new favorite. Everything you love about Nicholas Sparks, but more edgy. An edge-of-your-seat page turner with a fabulous twist. You've outdone yourself with this one, Nick, and I can't wait to read it again and fix that stuffed shrimp and bacon-wrapped Brie.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

The Rescue: A Champagne "Brunch," Of Sorts

Background: When Denise Holton moves to her mother's hometown of Edenton, North Carolina with her four-year-old son, Kyle, she has no clue how much it will change her life. Kyle struggles with an auditory processing disorder that makes it difficult for him to speak clearly, and Denise works diligently and lovingly to help Kyle through his difficulties. (If you've read Nicholas Sparks' Three Weeks With my Brother, the memoir he co-wrote with his brother Micah, you might recall his emotional accounts of similar challenges that he and his wife Cathy faced with their son Ryan.) One stormy night as Denise and Kyle are driving home from a long day of tests in Raleigh, she swerves to avoid an oncoming car and skids across the wet pavement into a tree. Denise is knocked unconscious, and when she wakes up she discovers the back door open and Kyle gone. Enter Taylor McAden, a firefighter who is called upon to help with the search. He finds Kyle after many hours hiding in a duck blind in a nearby swamp. He immediately bonds with the little boy, and his natural fatherly connection to Kyle eventually leads to a romance with Denise. (The fact that Taylor blames himself for his father's death makes him wary of relationships, and gives The Rescue a nice healthy dose of melodrama. I love it.)

One night Taylor and Denise go out to a nice restaurant for dinner while Taylor's mother watches Kyle for the evening. When they return to Denise's house, they top off the evening with strawberries and champagne. The next morning ('cuz he stayed at her place all night, don't ya know), Taylor cooks them all pancakes, eggs, and bacon. Now, I cook pancakes, eggs, and bacon all the time. This was going to be a no-brainer. Then I thought, why not have a champagne brunch? Okay, a champagne breakfast-for-dinner. We could pretend it was brunch. With my favorite pancake recipe, some strawberries, a little twist to my usual scrambled-eggs-with-cheese, and some little two-serving bottles of champagne I found, I could put together a quick and delicious meal that Taylor and Denise would love.

I used my favorite pancake recipe from my favorite cookbook, The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook:

2 cups all-purpose flour (sometimes I use half white flour and half whole wheat. Not this time.)
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
3/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons sugar
2 large eggs, lightly beaten (or 1 heaping tablespoon Egg Replacer with 1/4 cup water)
2 cups buttermilk (since Moe is allergic to dairy, I use a combination of soy milk, rice milk, and "regular" milk)
1/4 cup vegetable oil

Combine first 5 ingredients, stir well. Combine eggs, buttermilk, and oil in a bowl; add to flour mixture, stirring just until dry ingredients are moistened. For each pancake, pour about 1/4 cup batter into a hot, lightly greased griddle. Cook pancakes until tops are covered with bubbles and edges look cooked; turn and cook other side. (It says you can save any unused batter in a tightly sealed container for up to one week. I always cook all of the batter and if there are any leftover pancakes, the boys eat them for breakfast during the week.) Yield: 18 4-inch pancakes.

After cooking a few "plain" ones,

I added a little grated apple and some cinnamon. We all have different tastes when it comes to what we like in our pancakes.

For the eggs, I chopped up an onion and a red bell pepper, and sauteed them in olive oil until they started to get soft. .

I cracked about eight eggs into a bowl, added a little milk, salt and pepper, and a teensy bit of cheddar cheese. (Curly was in charge of cooking them.)

Once the eggs were cooked to a consistency that I--er, Curly--liked, we put them into a serving bowl and sprinkled shredded cheese on top. Just before serving, we melted the cheese in the microwave.

A couple of strawberries and a nice thick slice of bacon on the side--Brunch (uh, Dinner) Is Served!

Champagne for the grown-ups. The boys had sparkling apple cider in their mugs.

Today I found a new butcher in town. You don't know how excited that makes me, because now I can get local free-range meat year-round, and I can get just the amount and the cuts that I want. My next project will probably be beef stew (which Moe and I both love, and the rest of them don't care for--too bad for them), and I might even take a stab at venison later if I can get it for a reasonable price without having to buy half a deer or something. This new butcher will love me and my blog, and Nick might just be his new best friend--although I would probably be a regular customer anyway, with or without this crazy cooking adventure of mine.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Message in a Bottle: Delicious Grilled Steak (Courtesy of Garrett Blake)

"So what's so special about these steaks?"

Our leading man, Garrett, has invited Theresa to his beach house for a steak dinner. They've only just met a couple of days earlier, and he wants to impress her by cooking something delicious. He shares the secret recipe for grilled fliet mignon that his father had passed down to him. When Theresa asks what it is about HIS steaks that make them better than most, Garrett is happy to demonstrate.

Clearing his mind, he poured some brandy into a shallow bowl. "There's a few things. First, you get a couple of thick filets like these. The store doesn't usually cut them this thick, so you have to ask for it special. Then you season it with a little salt, pepper, and garlic powder, and you let them soak in the brandy while the coals are turning white."

He did this as he spoke, and for the first time since she'd met him he looked his age. Based on what he'd told her, he looked at least four years younger than she was. "That's your secret?"

"It's only the beginning," he promised, suddenly aware of how beautiful she looked. "Right before they go on the grill, I'll add some tenderizer. The rest of it involves how you cook them, not what they're flavored with."

As I've been skimming and speed-reading Nicholas Sparks' novels these last few weeks for ideas for this blog, I'm discovering that Nick very rarely specifically describes how to cook something. Even though people often cook and share meals together (and I suppose if I paid attention to most novels I read, that would be true for just about any story, no matter who the author is), most of the time it's just a casual mention of the food that's on the table. What's eaten isn't as important as the drama. When I cooked these steaks, I wanted to follow Nick's--er, Garrett's--method as closely as I could. (I already cheated with Noah's crabs. I wasn't about to do that this time.)

Now, I NEVER use meat tenderizer, EVER. I don't have anything against it, mind you; it's just not something that I do. But I reluctantly plunked down 6 bucks for a package of it the other day, thinking to myself, "This sure as heck better be worth it." (See what a loyal fan I am, Nick? You know that when I finally break down and buy that dang crab pot, I'll be thinking of you.) When I went to pick out the meat, the store only had three filets in the meat section, and since New York Strip was on sale, I bought a little of both. I don't think Nicholas will begrudge me for trying to save a little money, especially since we were cooking for five people instead of two. Anyway, I already had some brandy on hand (I have no idea why. Probably leftover from some exotic concoction we were trying to make last New Year's or something.)

Following Garrett's directions, I seasoned the meat, put them in a shallow dish, and poured the brandy--cognac, to be precise; I still don't remember why we had it in the first place--while my husband fired up the gas grill. (Garrett cooked with charcoal, so no, I didn't cook it EXACTLY like he did.)

"Will you show me the rest of your secret recipe?"

"With pleasure," he said, as they rose from their seats. In the kitchen he found the tenderizer and sprinkled some on top of the steaks. Then, removing both filets from the brandy, he added some to the other sides as well. He opened the refrigerator and removed a small plastic bag.

"What's that?" Theresa asked.

"It's tallow--the fatty part of the steak that's usually trimmed off. I had the butcher save some when I bought the steaks." "What's it for?" "You'll see," he said.

Of course, the steaks I bought were already cut, and there wasn't much fat on them to cut off. I managed to find a little bit on the New York Strips, though, and cut it off and saved it just like Garrett had. When I explained to my husband the Grill Master what he was supposed to do, he thought I was nuts, but he humored me. I love my husband.

He took the tallow, which had been cut into smaller pieces, and put the pieces on the briquettes, directly below the steaks. Then he leaned over and blew on them until they burst into flame.

"What are you doing?"

"The flames from the tallow will sear the juices and keep the steak tender. That's the same reason you use tongs instead of a fork."

This didn't quite work as it should have, probably because we use propane instead of charcoal. The tallow pieces that we managed to get under the steaks did not burst into flame, and some of them fell down underneath the heat source.

I don't know if it was the brandy, the tenderizer, or that they were pretty good cuts of meat--but let me tell you they were AMAZING. Our youngest son Moe (for the record, that's not his real name. For blogging I call our boys Larry, Curly, and Moe, and my husband is called Joe. That's not his real name, either) was particularly impressed. This is definitely going in my "To Definitely Cook Again" pile. As for the meat tenderizer I bought, it will NOT go to waste.

Garrett served baked potatoes and salad along with the steaks. He had a store-bought bag of salad in his refrigerator and Theresa added some tomatoes. I wanted to put one together myself, so I used some things I happened to have: lettuce and watercress I had picked up at the farmers market, plus I still had some red cabbage leftover from our picnic. I found this recipe online for a watercress salad with oranges; my version was a lettuce-watercress-cabbage salad with mandarin oranges. That one wasn't the big hit that the steaks were, but that's because the men in my life are picky eaters. I thought it was yummy, especially with honey-mustard dressing. (Unfortunately I was so excited about the watercress and oranges and honey-mustard that I forgot about putting in tomatoes. Shoot!)

I found these great potatoes at our local farmers' market.

Easy-peasy honey mustard dressing. Larry ate the salad only because he liked the dressing.


When they'd finished eating, Garrett and Theresa took a walk on the beach. We don't have a beach, so we went trick-or-treating instead.

(See my other blog, Musings of a Catholic Mom, for more adventures from last weekend. The italicized passages in this post are from Chapter 8 of Message in a Bottle.)

I think my next project will come from one of my all-time favorite Nicholas Sparks books, The Rescue. There is a lot of cooking and eating going on in that one, so I'm not entirely sure what I will be sharing with you next. Maybe--just maybe--a champagne brunch? Stay tuned!

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Message in a Bottle: A Fall Picnic (Sailboat Optional)

Background: Theresa Osborne is a newspaper columnist living in Boston. One morning as she's jogging on the beach in Cape Cod, she happens upon a bottle in the sand. Upon closer examination she discovers a note inside, a sad love letter from "Garrett" to "Catherine." She decides to print the letter in her column, and learns that other people have found similar letters in bottles to Catherine from Garrett. After doing some digging she tracks him down to Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina and decides to travel there to meet him. After all, she's been divorced for three years, she's a little lonely, and who knows? From his letters Garrett Blake seems to be a sensitive and caring person, and he might be available. When they finally meet, Garrett and Theresa hit it off right away and Garrett invites Theresa to go sailing with him that evening on Happenstance, the boat that he and his deceased wife restored together. What does this have to do with food, you ask? Well, Theresa accepts Garrett's invitation, and volunteers to bring a picnic supper--sandwiches, coleslaw, and potato salad. Now, Theresa was only in town for a visit, and staying in a motel nearby, so she probably went to the local Food Lion and picked up dinner at the deli. This wouldn't be much of a blog if I did the same thing, so I decided to pack a picnic lunch like the one Theresa brought, except I made everything myself. We took our picnic to a local park. Of course, I had some help--from Rachael Ray, Fine Cooking Magazine, and my mother-in-law.

Rachael Ray's Italian Sandwiches:

Ciabatta bread, sliced
1 container store-bought pesto
1/4 pound sliced salami
1/4 pound sliced provolone
1/4 pound sliced turkey
1/4 pound sliced mortadella
Iceberg lettuce, torn into leaves
Plum tomato, sliced

Slather bread slices with the pesto. Build your sammie by placing a couple slices each of salami, provolone, turkey and mortadella. Top with lettuce leaves, sliced tomato and another slice of bread. Cut diagonally across sandwich to make 2 triangles. (source)

We can still get fresh local tomatoes--I don't usually see the plum variety, but last Saturday they must have been put there just for me!

Our local artisan baker had run out of ciabatta, so I got a nice sourdough instead.

I'd never heard of mortadella before I found this recipe. It's kind of like bologna with stuff in it--like olive loaf, only better. The one I found at the deli had pistachios.

Classic Potato Salad (courtesy of my favorite magazine, Fine Cooking)

For the dressing

1/3 cup sour cream
1/3 cup mayonnaise
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 Tbs. Champagne vinegar
1 tsp. kosher salt
1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

For the salad

1/4 cup plain rice vinegar
Kosher salt
3-1/2 lb. Yukon Gold potatoes, scrubbed clean
3 large hard-boiled eggs, diced
1-1/2 cups thinly sliced celery (include the leaves, roughly chopped)
1 cup small-diced sweet onion
3 Tbs. capers

Make the dressing

Whisk all the dressing ingredients together in a small bowl.

Make the salad

Combine the rice vinegar and 2 tsp. salt in a large bowl. Let sit to dissolve the salt. Put the potatoes and 2 Tbs. salt in a 6-quart pot and add enough cold water to cover by 1 inch. Bring to a boil over high heat and reduce the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook the potatoes until barely tender when poked with a fork or skewer, 20 to 25 minutes. If the potatoes aren't all the same size, remove them as they are cooked. Gently drain the potatoes in a colander and set aside until just cool enough to handle. Using a paring knife, peel the potatoes by scraping off the skin. Cut the potatoes into 3/4-inch chunks. Add the potatoes to the bowl with the vinegar and gently stir with a spatula to coat. With your fingers, pull apart any pieces that are stuck together. When the potatoes have completely cooled, gently fold the eggs, celery, onion, and capers into the potatoes. Fold in enough dressing to generously coat the potatoes (you may not need all of the dressing). Season to taste with salt and pepper. Serve at room temperature or refrigerate until cool. (source)

My mother-in-law, or "Grandma B" as we like to call her, makes a delicious coleslaw, and she doesn't use any mayo or Miracle Whip or anything like that. In fact, when we've come to their house for a visit, our oldest has been known to request it. Now, Grandma B has a few family recipes that she has shared with me and my sister-in-law that we've been instructed NEVER to give to ANYONE, but luckily she got her coleslaw recipe years ago from a co-worker.


3 cps sugar

1½ cups vinegar

1½ cups water

1 large spoon prepared mustard

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon garlic powder

½ teaspoon oregano

¼ cup salad oil

½ teaspoon whole celery seed

Mix well place in sealed container and refrigerate at least 24 hours before using.

I shredded the cabbage and made the dressing the night before (and halved the recipe), and put the slaw together right before the picnic. It wasn't as yummy as hers, but it was still good. And Moe, who has food allergies and normally can't eat coleslaw, can eat this one. Not that he would, mind you; we encouraged him to try just one bite, but he wasn't interested.

Garrett provided the Coke and 7up for the picnic. Of course, he had no idea that Theresa had found his letter to Catherine or that she had come to North Carolina specifically to meet him. They had a lovely evening together, and thus began their romance.

We didn't go sailing, but we did take a walk through the park to this lovely little creek,

and the kids pushed each other on the tire swing. Right after they ate. No one got sick, thank goodness.

Up next: Garrett Blake's Grilled Steak.

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Biscuit Do-Over: Success!

Recently on a busy weeknight I decided to cook "Breakfast-For-Dinner." What was on the menu? Why, biscuits and bacon, of course! My oven worked perfectly this time, and the biscuits turned out just right. A little bacon and some fruit on the side made a quick and delicious meal. Noah and Allie would be proud--they were a busy couple of kids, those two, after all.

For the story of my burnt biscuits and too-salty chicken, click here.

One slight correction--in my last post I told you that my mother got the recipe from her Betty Crocker cookbook. Actually, it was a Better Homes and Gardens one. The error has been corrected, and I apologize to anyone who consulted Betty Crocker and didn't find it. (Not that anyone did; I can probably count on one hand how many people read this blog...and many thanks to those who do stop by!)

This weekend we'll be packing a picnic basket with love (a la Message in a Bottle), and hopefully a blog post will follow very soon after.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

The Notebook: Fried Chicken 'n Biscuits

If you're looking for a low fat, low salt, low calorie meal, you've come to the wrong place. In The Notebook, the two starry-eyed lovers Noah and Allie reunite after twelve years apart. (you can read my summary of the book here.) After spending a blissful night together, they cook biscuits and bacon for breakfast, and fried chicken and more biscuits for lunch. Personally, I didn't think biscuits and bacon was worthy of an entire blog post, especially since that's something we often cook at home on leisurely weekend mornings. And because this blog is partly for me to branch out and try new things, I knew making real fried chicken--not the oven-fried variety, which is a no-brainer--would be a challenge in and of itself, because I've never actually tried it. I'm always worried about undercooking the chicken and giving everyone salmonella. For me anyway, I've felt I'd have a better idea of how long chicken needs to cook (for pieces, that's about an hour at 350 degrees) and I didn't think I had the confidence to try frying it. I also wanted to try a different biscuit recipe. I usually follow the one in my favorite cookbook, The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook; for this challenge I called my mother for her recipe. She sent me one from her 1962 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook she's had since she married. (Mom says that it saved her life because she didn't know how to cook when she married; I can't imagine why because her mother was an amazing cook, and Mom is too!) I also decided to revisit the sauteed vegetables from my last post, minus the okra and mushrooms, and give it a little twist--bacon. (I didn't want it to feel left out, after all.) Since I'd never fried a chicken before, who better to call on for help but Paula Deen? Here's her recipe I used: 3 eggs 1/3 cup water About 1 cup hot red pepper sauce (recommended: Texas Pete) 2 cups self-rising flour 1 teaspoon pepper House seasoning, recipe follows 1 (1 to 2 1/2-pound) chicken, cut into pieces Oil, for frying, preferably peanut oil Directions In a medium size bowl, beat the eggs with the water. Add enough hot sauce so the egg mixture is bright orange. In another bowl, combine the flour and pepper. Season the chicken with the house seasoning. Dip the seasoned chicken in the egg, and then coat well in the flour mixture. Heat the oil to 350 degrees F in a deep pot. Do not fill the pot more than 1/2 full with oil. Fry the chicken in the oil until brown and crisp. Dark meat takes longer then white meat. It should take dark meat about 13 to 14 minutes, white meat around 8 to 10 minutes. House Seasoning: 1 cup salt 1/4 cup black pepper 1/4 cup garlic powder Mix ingredients together and store in an airtight container for up to 6 months. (source) Other than a little too much of the seasoning on the chicken--I had a lot of it left over and would have had even more--it turned out delicious, even if it was a little salty.

Since Moe is allergic to eggs I took a few tablespoons of Egg Replacer mix and added a little water until it was about the consistency of egg. It worked just fine.

Here's the biscuit recipe from my mother's 1962 Better Homes and Gardens cookbook:

Biscuits Supreme

2 cups Sifted all-purpose flour

4 tsp. baking powder

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. Cream of Tartar

2 tsp. Sugar

½ cup shortening

2/3 cup milk

Sift together flour, baking powder, salt, cream of tartar, and sugar; cut in shortening till mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Add milk all at once; stir only till dough follows fork around bowl. Turn out on lightly floured surface; knead gently ½ minute. Pat or roll ½ inch thick; cut with biscuit cutter (Cut straight down; do not twist). Bake on ungreased cookie sheet in very hot oven (450o) 10 to 12 minutes. Makes 16 medium biscuits. Mom's note: I use dry milk for all of my baking, adding 1/3 cup (per cup) right after I cut in the shortening. Then, you just add 2/3 c. water. For this recipe, just use the whole 1/3 cup.

(Sharon's note: Moe is allergic to milk, but only slightly; I used half soy milk and half real milk in these biscuits.)

I guess this is what "follows fork around bowl" looks like.

I don't have a biscuit cutter; I always use the outside part of my Pampered Chef Measure-all cup. I'm not sure why the recipe says to cut straight down and not twist, but I did my best. Of course, this was the day my oven's thermostat decided not to work properly causing the oven to overheat and burn the biscuits! Luckily I rescued them while they were still edible; the boys liked them because they were doughy in the middle. (The oven has worked just fine since. Go figure.)

For the vegetables, I halved and sliced a medium-sized onion, diced up a jumbo-sized carrot (this made about a cup of chopped carrot) and chopped a medium-sized zucchini. I fried 4 slices of bacon and set them aside, drained the excess fat, and added a little olive oil to the pan. Once the olive oil was hot, I added the onions and carrots and sautee'd them until they started to get soft, then added the zucchini. I had some Emeril's Essence on hand and threw in a couple of tablespoonfuls of that. (You can see my first attempt at this for my crab feast here; putting in more seasoning definitely helped. You can make the seasoning yourself--here's the recipe--and I think I've seen it in the spice aisle as well.)

Once the vegetables were cooked, I crumbled up the bacon and mixed it in. My husband convinced the boys to try them, saying they didn't tase like vegetables but like bacon instead. I wouldn't go so far as that but the bacon really made a big difference.

Just look at the size of these carrots at the farmers' market! I love using fresh local produce.

Don't forget the veggies! Of course I HAD to make mashed potatoes to serve with them. The boys said I forgot the gravy, because after all, gravy ALWAYS comes with the mashed potatoes when we bring it home from Popeye's or KFC.

So the biscuit is a little brown. Next time I make biscuits I'll use my mother's recipe again, and hopefully they'll cook properly. They should go great with bacon.

My next project: a fall picnic. I was hoping to do that this weekend but I don't think I'm going to have time. I promise to bring that to you soon, though, while the weather is still warm enough for picnicking.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

I was tempted...

...to buy this last night when I stopped in at Border's.

Nick's new book, Safe Haven, just came out last week. I hope I have the willpower to wait until it comes out in paperback, or at least until the price for the hardcover comes down a little. I wonder what we'll be cooking for this one? We still have quite a number of books to get through first.

At our house, fried chicken a' la The Notebook is on the menu this weekend; stay tuned! (I think we'll be watching the Dear John movie, too. I'll let you know what I think. Chances are I'll like it.)

Friday, September 10, 2010

The Notebook: A Crab Feast (But First, an Introduction...)

If you are a regular visitor to my other blog, Musings of a Catholic Mom, you'll know that I'm an avid reader and I love to cook. Since I love reading Nicholas Sparks--yes, I've read ALL of his books--I wanted to start a blog dedicated to both Sparks and food. (I was going to call it "Channeling Nick" but since we Catholics aren't into that sort of thing I didn't think that would be such a good idea.) If you've read any of Nicholas' novels, especially if you've read more than one, you may have noticed a certain pattern to his stories: In a small coastal haven on North Carolina's Outer Banks, a stranger moves into town from someplace up north, meets a boy/girl, and falls in love. Somewhere along the way the blissful couple must confront some sort of baggage that one or the other is carrying (more often than not, it's both parties who have issues), and try to overcome it so that their relationship can thrive. Often there's a deep dark secret involved. Anyhow, during the course of the courtship, the couple inevitably cooks a meal together. Sometimes the man invites the woman to his beach house and prepares dinner for the girl; often they end up cooking the meal together. (Occasionally the meal goes uneaten because the tension is just too much for them and they end up...well, we won't go there.) This scenario varies from story to story: in one or two of his books, the couple goes to a barbecue together where a feast is enjoyed by all; in his most recent novel, The Last Song, a father lovingly prepares meals for his rebellious vegetarian daughter. (I don't know if I'll be able to bring myself to cook the tofu breakfast burritos he makes, though; I hate tofu.) After dinner they go for a walk on the beach. Or something. The novel's climax usually involves some unfortunate twist of fate that threatens to end the couple's relationship. Sometimes they end up living happily ever after, sometimes not. In a few of the novels, a main character winds up dead, and the grieving guy/girl has to cope with life without his or her true love.

Years ago, before I had read any of Nicholas Sparks' books, I happened upon an interview with him on EWTN's The World Over with Raymond Arroyo. At the time I had seen some of his paperbacks in the checkout line, and his name was vaguely familiar. My first reaction upon seeing Nicholas for the first time was to think to myself, "Oh, my! He's cute!" Watching the interview, I learned that Nicholas is a devout Catholic, married for many years, and he and his wife have five children. He talked about how his Catholic faith shapes his life and his stories. ("But wait!" I hear you saying. "There's SEX in Nicholas Sparks' books! Outside of marriage!" True. Nobody's perfect. There are also many Christian themes in his books as well. People go to church and read the Bible. Clergy are respected members of the community. The men treat their women with respect; the ones who don't are the bad guys. Family bonds are essential, and children are welcomed, even if they are conceived out of wedlock. Curse words are few and far between, and even those are what most people would consider mild ones.) When Raymond asked Nicholas what his next project would be, Nick's reply was something like, "Um, well, It's a story about a guy and a girl who meet and fall in love in North Carolina." He shrugged and grinned sheepishly, and Raymond laughed and teased him, trying to get him to reveal more about the book. I wondered at the time what was so funny. Little did I know. When my family asked me why I wanted to write a blog about food that people eat in the books I read, I told them the truth: For fun. So here goes.

(He is kinda cute, you gotta admit...but that isn't why I read his books.)


Nicholas' first novel, The Notebook, tells the story of Noah and Allie, who meet and fall in love one summer in the 1930s, when they are teenagers. The summer ends, Allie goes back with her parents to Charleston where she is from, and Noah goes off to fight in World War II. Years later, after Allie gets engaged to a nice boy from a respectable family, Allie decides to pay Noah a visit. (The book also flashes ahead to the present day, in a nursing home where a woman suffers from Alzheimer's disease, and her husband reads to her the story of their love. The woman is Allie of course, and the man--well, I won't tell you but it's pretty easy to guess.) When Allie arrives, she finds Noah living alone in a fixer-upper of a house on the banks of some salty coastal river. After spending the day together catching up, you guessed it--they have crabs for dinner. Now, I will make a confession to you. In The Notebook, Noah catches the crabs right by his back door and cooks them up in a pot. He puts one part beer and one part water in a crab pot, adds some unidentified seasonings and some hot sauce, and throws in the live crabs. Now, I don't have a steamer big enough to cook more than three or four crabs at a time; and besides, when you buy crabs around here, they'll cook them up for you for free. I wasn't sure I was willing to plunk down $30-$50 for a crab steamer when it would be much cheaper and easier to get them already cooked. Plus, where I live it's fashionable to steam crabs in the Maryland style, with vinegar in your water, not beer. I'm pretty sure these guys were cooked that way.

Allie and Noah chop up some zucchini, onions, carrots and okra (we aren't okra eaters, but since I cheated on the crabs I wasn't going to cheat on that) and fry them up in a pan. When I prepared the vegetables, I put chopped onions and carrots into a skillet with some olive oil, and sauteed them for a couple of minutes; then I added the chopped zucchini and okra along with some salt, pepper, rosemary, and thyme. I also added some local shiitake mushrooms I had on hand, along with a little bit of Emeril's Essence for a little extra flavor. You can't have a crab feast without sharing it with someone, so we invited our next-door neighbors over and enjoyed a FABULOUS evening with them. They brought the beer and apple pie--and with a hunk of crusty bread and corn on the cob (no corn in The Notebook, but what's a crab feast without corn on the cob?), it made for a fantastic dinner. This was the first time their kids had tried crabs, and my husband had fun showing them how to crack them open and extract the meat inside. My friend said the vegetables were delicious, and I didn't think they were half bad. (Next time though, I'll skip the mushrooms and okra and put in more Emeril's Essence. Maybe I'll yell "BAM!" as I'm throwing it in, like Emeril used to do.)

My next project? Fried chicken. I'm a little skeered of that one, but I promise I won't cheat and invoke Popeye or Saint Colonel Sanders.