Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Guardian: Grilled Steak with Cucumber-Tomato Salad

Mike and Julie missed out on this one.

Mike came over to Julie's house one evening for a romantic dinner for two. (Read more about these lovebirds from The Guardian in my previous post.) Julie prepared a couple of steaks, Mike grilled them, and they threw together a salad of cucumbers and tomatoes. Quick and easy. The table was set, the food ready to serve, and they decided to take a quick trip to the bedroom. They didn't emerge until morning.

Who can resist a good steak dinner? Not my family. This was probably the easiest meal I've prepared for this blog: I made my own rub for the steaks, one I invented a few years ago for a contest that Rachael Ray had for her show that I never entered; my own cucumber salad that we eat a lot during the summer when the cucumbers and tomatoes are in season; and baked potato "fries" that I prepare from time to time when I need something fun and simple to make with potatoes.

The Rub

(These amounts are estimates. I tend to cook Rachael Ray style, by "eyeballing" things rather than measuring them):

2 T smoked paprika
2 t. onion powder
2 T Kosher salt
A pinch of crushed red pepper
About a teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
A tablespoon or two of rosemary, either fresh or dried

I even sprinkled the steak with a little meat tenderizer, since I had some that I'd bought for another steak dinner from one of Nick's books.

(The mortar and pestle is for crushing the rosemary into smaller pieces. The dried rosemary I get at Costco tends to have long leaves, and crushing them helps bring out their flavor and aroma.)

I don't always remember to do this, but I like to drizzle a little olive oil on the steak before coating them with the rub.

As always, Joe was in charge of grilling the steaks.

The Cucumber Tomato Salad

One large or two small cucumbers
One ripe tomato
Half a red onion
Fresh or dried dill and/or basil (optional)
Olive Oil
Red Wine vinegar (Balsamic vinegar works well too; it makes the salad a little more tangy)
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Cut up the cucumbers however you'd like. I usually peel off some of the outside and leave some, so the cucumber looks like it's striped; then I cut it in half lengthwise and slice up the halves. If you like your cucumbers peeled, unpeeled, sliced, diced, or whatever--you're the cook. (The same goes for the tomatoes. I don't usually seed them, but that's only because I'm lazy.) Slice the half onion thinly and separate the pieces. Mix in a little olive oil, vinegar, dill, and basil, and stir. Add salt and pepper to taste.

(I don't think I added any herbs this time, just some salt and pepper. It was delicious anyway You can't really go wrong with this simple salad.)

The Fries
A few good-sized Russet potatoes
Olive oil or cooking spray

Wash and cut the potatoes into strips. (I don't peel them, but you can if you want.) If using cooking spray, coat a baking sheet with some, put the potato strips on the pan, salt liberally, and spray the potatoes. If you're using olive oil, you can put the potatoes on the pan, salt them, drizzle them with oil, and stir them to coat. Bake at 400 degrees for about half an hour, turning once. You can cook them for a longer or shorter time depending on how crisp you like them. The boys asked me if I would fry them next time. I guess they taste better fried; I figure this way is probably healthier. And delicious, with or without ketchup!

Nick doesn't say what Mike and Julie did with the uneaten steaks the next morning. Probably fed them to Julie's dog, Singer. (If he's anything like my dog, they would have emerged to find them gone. We've learned not to leave food out at my house.)

We ate every bite.

(There's that dang green astro-turf tablecloth again...)

Next I'm taking on something a little more challenging: pork medallions in Marsala sauce, stuffed mushrooms, and a fun vegetable dish I found in the latest issue of Fine Cooking magazine. I can't wait to see how it turns out. After a brief blogging hiatus (mostly so I can catch up on home and work duties), we're diving into The Wedding, and there's all kinds of great food in that one, let me tell you! I'll try not to be gone too long. We've got many more books left and so much good food and wine to share!

Sunday, March 20, 2011

The Guardian: Mike's Creole Burgers

Background: Julie Barenson is a young widow in her late 20s who resides in the small coastal town of Swansboro, North Carolina. She lives in a cottage with her Great Dane Singer, a gift from her late husband, Jim, who died of cancer far too young. Mike Harris, Jim's best friend from childhood, is a thirtysomething mechanic working for his older brother Henry, who has a shop just down the street from the beauty salon where Julie works. Julie and Mike have remained close friends since Jim's death, but their friendship has never developed into anything more than that. Julie has some close female friends, as well--especially Mabel, her boss and the owner of the salon, and Emma, Henry's wife; but Mike is often the person Julie confides in when she really needs someone to talk to. So why the heck aren't these two dating? Probably because since Jim was Mike's best friend, they both are a little bit frightened of pursuing a romantic relationship. One day tall, dashing, charming Richard moves into town and catches Julie's eye. Richard asks her out and the two of them begin dating. This is enough to drive Mike to distraction (since he's been secretly in love with Julie for years, of course), and as he learns more about this mysterious Richard fellow, he begins to suspect that Richard is just a little bit "off," and he's pretty sure it's not just his own jealousy talking. Turns out Richard is a dangerous psychopathic nutjob who's been charming Julie into trusting him, wining and dining her and luring her into his sinister trap. When Julie finally realizes that Richard is a little bit wacko, she dumps him. Meanwhile, it's beginning to dawn on Julie that the right man for her has always been right under her nose. Mike and Julie start spending more time together, and eventually their relationship becomes more than platonic.

For one of their first official "dates," Mike invites Julie to his house for dinner. He's been a bachelor all his life and really doesn't know how to cook, so he whips up just about the only thing he knows how to prepare: a little dish he calls "Creole Burgers." What the heck are those, you ask? Julie wonders the same thing. In fact, she's quite skeptical when Mike sends her to the grocery store to pick up ingredients for them, which include ground beef, some canned Campbell's Chicken Gumbo, mustard, ketchup, and sweet pickles. She discovers, and Mike confirms, that it's kind of like a sloppy Joe with a Cajun twist. I will say I was a little skeptical, too, especially when I discovered that the Campbell's Chicken Gumbo on our grocery store shelves is actually Campbell's Chunky Chicken and Sausage Gumbo. The ready-to-eat variety that you don't have to add water to. Would this make the Sloppy Joes too runny? I guessed we'd find out soon enough. I used my bread machine to make my own buns, using a recipe I like from my bread machine cookbook:


1 egg (or 1 1/2 heaping tsp Ener-G Egg Replacer beaten with 2 T water)

7/8 cup milk (I use soy and/or rice milk)

4 1/2 tbsp butter or margarine

3 Tbsp sugar

3/4 tsp salt 3 cups bread flour (regular all-purpose flour works just fine)

1 tbsp yeast 3 tbsp milk*

sesame seeds, optional*

Put all ingredients except 3 tbsp milk and sesame seeds in bread pan in order suggested by your bread machine instructions. Set for white bread dough stage. Press Start. When dough is ready, remove from bread machine and punch down. Cut into 9 equal pieces (or 8 for bigger buns). Let dough rest 5 minutes while you butter one large or two medium-sized baking sheets(I spray them with Pam. For hamburger buns, roll each piece into a ball and flatten it to form a patty about 3 inches wide and 1/2 inch thick. For hot dog buns, roll each piece into a 6-inch rope and flatten to 1/2 inch thickness. Place rolls on baking sheet. Cover loosely and set in a warm place to rise for 20 minutes. Preheat oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly brush tops of rolls with milk and sprinkle with sesame seeds, if desired*. Bake 12 to 15 minutes, until a skewer inserted in roll comes out clean. (From The Complete Bread Machine Book by Margie Lambert, p. 127)

*Since Moe is allergic to milk and sesame seeds, I leave these off.

Fresh from the oven. Boy, do these make the house smell good. (*UPDATE: I just realized I already posted this recipe, when we made barbecue. Check it out!)

In The Guardian, Mike browns the ground beef (I threw a little bit of chopped onion and garlic in with mine, just because I feel the need to do than when I'm cooking ground beef), dumps in the chicken gumbo, and adds a little mustard and ketchup.

Mike and Julie slap the meat sauce on a bun, throw a sweet pickle and a handful of potato chips onto their plates, and dive in. Julie is pleasantly surprised at how good it tastes, and guess what? So was I.

Moe got to try them first, since it was a weeknight and he was off to Tae Kwon Do. This is Moe's plate; we don't much like sweet pickles, so we ate them with dill spears instead. And since I'm on a gluten-free diet these days and can't eat my oh-so-delicious homemade buns, I toasted a couple of slices of gluten-free bread, filled a bowl with the sauce and ate it like a thick stew. My family's consensus was that it was good, and that they'd enjoy having it again, but they like the sloppy Joes that I usually make (with this recipe from Rachael Ray) even better. I will definitely make this one again, though--once I've made everyone happy with Rachael's Super Sloppy Joes first.

The Guardian was the second Nicholas Sparks book I ever read (The Notebook was the first) and it's still one of my all-time favorites. I've been skimming and re-reading all of Nick's books to get food blog ideas and to help me remember plot details, and in most cases I'm going through them very quickly; even (I'm sorry to say) skipping over some sections to save time. With The Guardian, I took my time. I enjoyed it just as much the second time around. It's not just a love story; it's an edgy suspense thriller as well (and probably the only Nicholas Sparks book that includes the word "semen.") I won't tell you much more about it, other than the fact that creepy Richard is not too pleased with Julie's rejection of him and her budding romance with Mike. As for Singer the Great Dane? He's an ever-present figure in this saga, and once you've read it you'll realize he's a hero as well.

Up next: The steak dinner Mike and Julie cooked but never got around to eating. Stay tuned...

Monday, March 7, 2011

Nights in Rodanthe: Nutella-Stuffed French Toast with Sides of Bacon and Grits

Since Nights in Rodanthe takes place in a bed-and-breakfast, we can't leave this book without at least one yummy breakfast! One morning in Rodanthe, Adrienne fixed a wonderful breakfast for her guest, of grits, scrambled eggs, toast, and fruit. Later in the week after a blissful night together, Paul brought Adrienne breakfast in bed: Scrambled eggs, French toast, and bacon. (Read more about Paul and Adrienne and their bed-and-breakfast romance here.) All of these--except for the grits--are things I often fix for breakfast on leisurely weekends. I decided that since we would be having houseguests for Larry's confirmation, it would be nice to cook a fun breakfast for everyone, combining some of the things Paul and Adrienne enjoyed together.

I was pondering ways I could prepare French Toast that would be different than my usual method of dipping white bread into beaten eggs with milk, cinnamon, and vanilla, and frying them up in a skillet. The week before confirmation, this article appeared in the Food section of our local paper, describing all kinds of ways to prepare French toast. I had planned on putting together a casserole-type dish with bread and eggs and various other things, letting it soak overnight in the fridge and pop it in the oven the next morning. After the confirmation party on Saturday, I was so exhausted that I decided to scrap that idea and prepare everything on Sunday.

I went ahead and whipped up my usual egg-cinnamon-vanilla concoction, using half-and-half instead of milk. While I cooked some of the bread in the usual way, I tried what the newspaper article had suggested with some of it: after dipping the bread into the egg mixture and placing it on the skillet to cook, I put a blob of Nutella on each piece, dipped another slice into the egg, and placed that on top, cooking it grilled-cheese sandwich style.

Later I discovered it was better to dip only one side of the bread in the egg, so that there was only Nutella and no egg in the middle.


I had some grits in our pantry that I had brought home from our visit to Mabry Mill on the Blue Ridge Parkway last summer. (Click here to see my blog post about that adventure.) Larry and I both like grits, but Moe, Curly, and Joe don't, so I don't prepare it very often. Turns out that my brother-in-law LOVES them, and of course my Dad is a big fan of them, too. We didn't have any left over.
(If I were a real bed-and-breakfast proprietor, I wouldn't make my guests eat off of paper plates. )

Not everyone was keen on eating the French Toast, but that was perfectly all right. I did put out bread for toasting (mostly because Moe is allergic to eggs) but there were no takers; our three-year-old nephew decided he wanted Lucky Charms. I think that's what Moe ate as well. I decided to skip the scrambled eggs. I didn't want to overdo it; and besides, we might not have had enough for the French toast. I did manage to whip some up the next morning, though.

Next: A unique Sloppy Joe easy enough for a weeknight, and yummy enough for a weekend!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Nights in Rodanthe: Roast Chicken with Green Beans, Potatoes, and a Pretty Rockin' Salad

Background: Paul Flanner is a plastic surgeon who travels to the coastal village of Rodanthe, North Carolina in the dead of winter. It isn't a pleasure trip; a woman in his care had died on the operating table during a simple procedure, and her bereaved husband has requested a meeting with him. He checks into a bed-and-breakfast, where he is the only guest. The owner is out of town, and has asked her friend Adrienne Willis to look after it for the week. When Paul arrives and sees Adrienne for the first time, she is looking wistfully at the ocean, crying. A divorced mother of two teenagers, Adrienne is often struck with bouts of loneliness and regret, and when Paul enters her life as a guest at the bed-and-breakfast that isn't hers, she's ready to fall in love again. Paul is also a divorcee', and he has just quit his job as a cosmetic surgeon; once his stay in Rodanthe is over, he's boarding a plane to join his estranged son, who is a family physician in a small medical clinic in Ecuador. Paul and Adrienne spend the week getting to know each other, sharing their dreams and hopes and disappointments and regrets; all the while preparing for a fierce storm that is bearing down on Rodanthe.

On the first evening Paul and Adrienne spend together in the house, Adrienne prepares a dinner of roast chicken with green beans and potatoes. I figured this would be easy enough; I roast chicken all the time. Normally I use a method I learned from my all-time favorite cookbook, The Ultimate Southern Living Cookbook: Season the chicken with lemon-pepper seasoning, cut a couple of lemons in half, squeeze the juice all over the chicken, and put the lemon halves inside the bird. Take a few sprigs of thyme and put them in the cavity with the lemons, and rub chopped fresh thyme on the outside. Brush the whole thing with olive oil, cook at 350 F until it's done, basting the chicken with the drippings every 30 minutes or so. Since this blog is meant to be a bit of an adventure, I decided to try something different. I found this recipe online from a back issue of Martha Stewart Living:

Perfect Roast Chicken

1 six-pound roasting chicken
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium onions, peeled and sliced crosswise 1/2 inch thick
1 lemon
3 large cloves garlic, peeled
4 sprigs fresh thyme
1 cup Homemade Chicken Stock, or canned low-sodium chicken broth, skimmed of fat


1. Let chicken and 1 tablespoon butter stand at room temperature for 30 minutes. Preheat oven to 425 degrees. Remove and discard the plastic pop-up timer from chicken if there is one. Remove the giblets and excess fat from the chicken cavity. Rinse chicken inside and out under cold running water. Dry chicken thoroughly with paper towels. Tuck the wing tips under the body. Sprinkle the cavity of the chicken liberally with salt and pepper, and set aside.

2. In the center of a heavy-duty roasting pan, place onion slices in two rows, touching. Place the palm of your hand on top of lemon and, pressing down, roll lemon back and forth several times. This softens the lemon and allows the juice to flow more freely. Pierce entire surface of lemon with a fork. Using the side of a large knife, gently press on garlic cloves to open slightly. Insert garlic cloves, thyme sprigs, and lemon into cavity. Place chicken in pan, on onion slices. Cut about 18 inches of kitchen twine, bring chicken legs forward, cross them, and tie together.

3. Spread the softened butter over entire surface of chicken, and sprinkle liberally with salt and pepper. Place in the oven, and roast until skin is deep golden brown and crisp and the juices run clear when pierced, about 1 1/2 hours. When chicken seems done, insert an instant-read thermometer into the breast, then the thigh. The breast temperature should read 180 degrees.and the thigh 190 degrees.

4. Remove chicken from oven, and transfer to a cutting board with a well. Let chicken stand 10 to 15 minutes so the juices settle. Meanwhile, pour the pan drippings into a shallow bowl or fat separator, and leave onions in the pan. Leave any brown baked-on bits in the bottom of the roasting pan, and remove and discard any blackened bits. Using a large spoon or fat separator, skim off and discard as much fat as possible. Pour the remaining drippings and the juices that have collected under the resting chicken back into the roasting pan. Place on the stove over medium-high heat to cook, about 1 minute. Add chicken stock, raise heat to high, and, using a wooden spoon, stir up and combine the brown bits with the stock until the liquid is reduced by half, about 4 minutes. Strain the gravy into a small bowl, pressing on onions to extract any liquid. Discard onions, and stir in the remaining tablespoon of cold butter until melted and incorporated. Untie the legs, and remove and discard garlic, thyme, and lemon. Carve, and serve gravy on the side. (I skipped the gravy. Larry was very unhappy with me. I promised I'd make it next time.)

From Martha Stewart Living, September 1997 . (source)

The skin was nice and crispy, and a little saltier than my usual version. Maybe that's why Joe liked it so much.


I decided to cook the green beans and potatoes together, and as I was browsing recipes online, this one jumped out at me (I think it was the bacon that did it):


4 cups water
2 cups fresh green beans, cut into 1 inch pieces
4 small new potatoes, scrubbed and cut into 8 pieces
1 1/2 teaspoon of salt
5 slices bacon cut into 1" pieces
1/4 cup chopped onion 1/4 teaspoon of black pepper

Directions: Place the water, beans, potatoes and 1 teaspoon of the salt in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low, cover and simmer for 10 to 12 minutes or until the beans and potatoes are tender. Drain off the water, cover, and set aside. In a 12 inch skillet over medium high heat, fry the bacon and onion until the bacon is crisp and the onion is tender. Drain off all but 1 tablespoon of the bacon drippings. Add beans and potatoes and toss until well coated with bacon and onion. Sprinkle with remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt and pepper and serve. (source)

Looks like something Martha Stewart would make, if I may say so myself!


I made a little salad with baby greens, gorgonzola cheese, cranberries, and caramelized pecans:

Missy's Candied Walnut Gorgonzola Salad

1/2 cup walnut halves (I used pecans)
1/4 cup sugar
3 cups mixed greens
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1/2 cup crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
1 tablespoon raspberry vinaigrette
1 tablespoon white vinegar
1 tablespoon olive oil

1. Place walnuts and sugar in a skillet over medium heat, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves into a light brown liquid and coats the walnuts. Remove walnuts from skillet, and spread them out on a sheet of aluminum foil to cool.
2. Place in a large salad bowl the mixed greens, cranberries, cheese, vinaigrette, vinegar, and olive oil. Toss gently; add candied walnuts, and toss again. (source)

The pecans turned out perfectly this time! (check out my funny-looking ones here.)

Posting this now, I realize I forgot that Paul and Adrienne put cucumbers and tomatoes on their salad. Ah, well, this one was delicious, and I need to quit being so particular about the details, right?

In the book, they open up a bottle of Pinot Grigio, enjoy a delicious meal, and their lives are never the same.

(See that astro-turf tablecloth? I had gotten it out the previous weekend when we had a get-together for the Super Bowl. I couldn't resist leaving it on the table for another week. Fortunately it's one of those waterproof kinds that can be wiped clean over and over. Joe was very happy to see it finally put away.)

By the end of the week, the storm has passed and Paul and Adrienne are in love. Paul is off to Ecuador for a year; their parting is difficult and tearful but full of anticipation of their life together in the years ahead. What could be in store for Paul and Adrienne? Read the book to find out. (Or you could watch the movie, I suppose, but that would be cheating, now, wouldn't it?)

Next Up: A Bed-and-Breakfast Worthy Breakfast, and one that made my sister-in-law nickname me "Supermom." Boy is SHE delusional.