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.