Feb 28, 2010

Divine divan?

I haven't had Chicken Divan in years. In fact, the first time I had it was probably the first, last and only time. My brief introduction to this dish is due to some good friends from our days in Tulsa who moved away about the same time we did. As I search for different recipes to put on my weekly menu, for some reason Nancy's chicken divan came to mind, along with a happy memory of her great hostess skills.

So we're giving it a shot today. Being a part-time etymology geek, it also made me wonder why it was thusly named, and so I went hunting for clues. Apparently the dish got its name from a New York City restaurant of the mid-1950s; the Divan Parisien Restaurant. (And it's pronounced dee-VAHN, in case anyone else was wondering.) The Paula Deen version is the "easy" version, relying on a cream soup base, but other versions are truer to its French aspirations, and use a white sauce with flour, butter, chicken broth, milk and sherry, with heavy cream whipped and gently folded in just before pouring over the chicken and broccoli. (Sounds...well....divine, doesn't it?)

In other news, my new square Fiesta dinner and salad plates are on their way. I hope they arrive in time to use them on Friday night, when I'm hosting a little post-birthday soiree for my husband and his sister, whose birthdays are one year and two days apart. (Still don't know how their mama did it, but my hat is off to her. Maybe the desserts should include HER favorite birthday cake, too?)

Today our 3rd graders finished our six-month study of the book of Acts, which we celebrated with milk, juice and Krispy Kreme donuts, then an Olympic-style rubber duck "marathon" where the kids teamed up to answer Acts trivia questions in order to move their ducks ahead. Every year, I am amazed and humbled by how much these kids learn and remember from week to week.

Since our "wrap party" coincided with the closing of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver, I gave each of them an Olympic-style medal, which they were proudly sporting during worship. (Another reason I love, love, LOVE teaching 3rd graders: the blissful lack of jaded cynicism that will afflict them soon enough. Plus, they're still shorter than me.) I owe a big debt of thanks to my two wonderful co-teachers, and so their families will be coming over for a meal in a couple weeks. Hopefully by then our weather will be showing signs of spring, because this extra-long winter is starting to wear on us all.

Feb 22, 2010

Flour power (?)

Everybody who takes their breadmaking seriously seems to have a thing for certain flours. King Arthur always ranks high on the list, and for good reason - good product, good value, good corporate philosophy, etc.

I've always balked at paying a premium of almost double for 5 pounds of flour, regardless of how sterling the company's reputation is. But Saturday I broke over and bought not just a bag of King Arthur flour, but also a bag of Kroger's white whole wheat flour. (Gotta slip that fiber in wherever I can!)

The latest batch of crusty white bread(thanks for the recipe, mom) was made with the King Arthur flour, and served to our dinner guests last night along with hot chicken salad, broccoli and rice casserole, a salad and black forest pie - yummy!

This week will start some serious recipe testing: sourdough (the sourdough starter is ready - yay!!!) and either the no-knead dough or 5-minute-a-day artisan bread will get an audition.

In other news, I'm toying with trying e-mealz.com for recipe menu ideas. Granted, I can usually come up with my own menu, but at some point the creative well runs dry. And anything that might help economize our food budget, while also providing me with a shopping list and menu seems like a pretty good idea.

Saturday was a blissful 58 degrees and Sunday was 67, but showers began by 9 pm and are supposed to bring another cool down and even snow flurries by tomorrow. Ahh, the roller coaster of late winter. It's a good thing I like roller coasters.

On Saturday, I pruned my 'Princess Diana' clematis, so it went from this:

to this:

I think that was almost as hard as taking my babies for their first haircuts. But it needed to be done--a careless tug on a weed growing up through the trellis last fall had apparently ripped a stem, causing dieback and browning. Fortunately, the 'Princess' is in pruning group #3, which loves getting a hard pruning in early spring. Only time will tell if it was the right move, at the right time. Come on spring!!!

Feb 19, 2010

The laundry fairy rides again!

Once upon a time, in a faraway land, there was a busy wife and mom who had a laundry fairy. (And a cleaning fairy, cooking fairy, grocery shopping fairy, and errand-running fairy. But this story is just about the laundry fairy.) The laundry fairy came every couple of days, gathered up all the dirty laundry, washed, dried, folded it and put it away for everyone. The busy wife/mom loved her laundry fairy...

Wow...wouldn't that be nice? Well, unfortunately my laundry fairy is just about worthless. She shows up once or twice a week - at best - and sometimes she doesn't even stick around to get all the clothes washed, dried and folded! Anyone know of a good place to search for a new laundry fairy?

Every time I threaten to sack her lazy backside, my family - for some WEIRD reason - comes to her defense. "Don't fire the laundry fairy!" "We love the laundry fairy!" The way they carry on, you'd think she was related to them or something.

Today the laundry fairy decided to grace me with her presence. All I can say is it's about time she showed up. The cleaning fairy must have hitched a ride with her, because somehow the beds got stripped and re-made, the bathroom is tidy and clean, and the vacuuming and mopping is done. Maybe I'll give 'em another chance...

In other news, I gave Rachael Ray a chance this week, and she didn't come through. Sorry Rach but the salmon en croute was not so great. I'm thinking a little more flavor in the 'shroom and onion, a little less lemon "tang," and maybe some Hollandaise sauce inside the packets, or drizzled over the top. And asparagus - this is definitely a dish that calls out for fresh, tender asparagus stalks to go with. They're almost in season...a few more weeks and they won't be astronomically expensive.

Feb 16, 2010

It's beginning to smell a lot like brisket...

And yes, the title may be hummed to the tune of "It's Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas" - which it is that, too. In fact, if it were December, the white stuff on the ground would be a welcome novelty. As it is, it's just another cold, wintry day. Three days of snowfall. What can it mean? We've never had this much snow since we moved here in 2000. At least it's a good excuse to continue making comfort foods.

And so the crockpot is burbling away with a nice lean brisket, approaching tender perfection. A bowl of bread starter was puffing and bubbling along all day, basking in the radiant heat from the crockpot.

My family's favorite brisket recipe is called "Mrs. Ringle's Brisket" and was part of the Once-a-Month Cooking menu, where it was described as an overnight recipe, cooled and frozen in the morning. (Confession: I have no idea who Mrs. Ringle is.) I rarely prepare it overnight, as I've found the smell of food cooking wreaks havoc with my sleeping pattern: I tend to wake up and smell it in the wee hours, and then I can't go back to sleep. (It's not hunger, it just somehow offends my sensibilities - and olfactory senses - to smell food cooking all night.)

I braved the frigid temps long enough to dart into the greenhouse and find my 20-row seed starting trays. I think I have about 18 varieties of tomatoes, and another 4 or 5 of peppers, plus some eggplants. If my math is correct, I can parlay these into 24 six-packs, nicely filling two flats with 72 cells each. A manageable grouping of plants to keep indoors during the next 6-8 weeks, depending on weather. (Really must get the greenhouse fixed soon.)

In April I'll plant out 1 or 2 of each variety and offer the rest to family and friends. Of course, that assumes the seedlings are up and growing enough to survive a week of neglect at spring break. That week away has been known to throw a real wrench in my seed starting in past years. And can the seed trays stay safe from the threat of the paranoid nocturnal wanderings of Luci(fer), the Mainecoon feline? Only time will tell. Tomorrow, a bag of seed starting mix and a new grow light are on my must-get list.

Feb 15, 2010

Makin' Marsala Monday

We awoke this morning to more snow - a half inch or more covered the grass, and a sheen of ice lay on the roads. We slid across the parking lot at the YMCA before the crack of dawn...we're too old to be doing that sort of thing. We could fall and break something.

After the parking lot antics, I got in a 3 mile run, averaging somewhere around 10.5 minutes per. Not bad - just need to do it more frequently. Signed up DD for swim team again, and she got in about an hour in the pool on her own this afternoon. Spring break is just a few weeks away - South Carolina, here we come! Neither of us can do much about the pale skin that will be suddenly exposed to broad daylight, but who wants to be pale and flabby? A pretty good motivator to kick up the exercise regimen a notch or two.

Following Michael Chu's Cooking for Engineers' version of chicken marsala, I had to ad lib on the heavy cream (a little half and half, and a little butter), I served it up with some buttery/pesto-ey noodles, a fresh tossed Romaine salad and garlic bread. Not bad for a Monday night dinner.

Tomorrow is a stick-to-your-ribs family favorite: beef brisket in the crockpot all day. With some yummy au gratin potatoes on the side and probably some homemade bread, too. The weather forecast is shaping up to be another hearty dinner sort of day.

Since all the dinner leftovers wouldn't fit back in the fridge, I cleaned it out. And I discovered that indeed yogurt can go bad. And that you should always look at the date before you lick the lid. Mmmm.

Feb 14, 2010

T-2 and counting

I teach 3rd grade Bible class. From the first Sunday in September until the last Sunday in February, my co-teacher(s) and I diligently prepare and deliver over two dozen lessons to give a new group of 8- and 9- year olds a solid grounding in the book of Acts. We discuss who wrote the book, who the main characters are, where the church began, how people became Christians in the first century (and still do today); how the church was (and is) organized, why we have missionaries, and the important work they do. And most of all, we show these children how God's providence and power are seen throughout this amazing story that ties old testament promises into God's revealed plan for spreading the Gospel to a lost and dying world.

I love teaching this age group and helping them see history unfold and barrel straight for them. As always, the clock and the calendar race faster than I would like, and I am now down to two precious classes with this year's "crop" of third graders. We will wrap up with an Olympic event that involves doughnuts, ducks, a foot race and medals and then I will hand them off to the next teacher, and pray they continue to run the race and stay the course. And I will take some time off to recharge my own batteries and once again become a student in an adult class.

Today as we headed for class, it was snowing. In fact, the AP is reporting that 49 states have snow; Hawaii is the lone holdout. It is extremely rare for so many states to have snow simultaneously. I hear the global warming folks are shifting gears - the catchphrase is now "global climate change." Nothing like covering your bets, eh guys?

Last night's early Valentine dinner was marvelous - the "poached oysters with brie and petite croutons" (ahem, oyster stew all glammed up) was a truly memorable appetizer, and I will have to try to replicate it with the bits and pieces of information I wheedled out of the chef.

And next Sunday, company comes for dinner - yay! It should prove to be a good time with good friends. I've even managed to line up dinner guests for March as well...

Feb 13, 2010

Is it paste? (Or is it sourdough starter?)

Now I know why some kids eat paste. Flour + water + time = fermenting sourdough starter. AKA paste. Good news: it is bubbling along much better since I got it thicker and "feeding" it a couple times a day instead of just once a day.

Last night we tried a chicken cordon bleu casserole. I know, I know...the words "Cordon Bleu" and "casserole" never belong in the same sentence, let alone the same recipe.

But I don't have a pounding mallet and I didn't have any easy way to flatten the breasts for the classic dish, so I thought I'd give a casserole version a shot.

The idea has potential, but needs some serious modifications: the breasts may be better served by sauteeing for a few minutes to reduce the cooking time and wateriness; bread crumbs (not stuffing mix - it really overpowered the flavors); and a decent white sauce (sans cream-of-anything soup.) And a bit of Dijon mustard in the sauce. We're going to try it again one of these days with those changes and see what happens. I also fixed Spanish green beans. The beans were okay, but it's probably better with more tender snap beans, not Italian-style cut beans, and ideally made with fresh beans and tomatoes, instead of frozen and canned respectively. Read: it was not the best meal I ever fixed. Live and learn.

Next week's menu will have even more chicken dishes - chicken marsala and the old standby hot chicken salad for a make-ahead company's coming dish for next Sunday night.

Alas, my dreams of bagging square Fiesta plates at a deep discount were dashed when I discovered Belk only carries the 3-piece place settings, not open stock. I don't need the mugs or bowls (cute as they may be) and I *do* need salad or lunch-size plates. The hunt continues...

Feb 11, 2010

The dreaded four-letter d-word

No, not that one. Another d-word. d-e-s-k. Also answers to "center of my universe," "command central," "arch nemesis," "the black hole," "Bermuda triangle," etc., etc. You get the idea. This relationship is beyond love/hate - it makes the "War of the Roses" (the movie, not the actual war) look like a tale of wedded bliss.

This desk is where I spend the majority of my waking hours, and yet I can't seem to keep any semblance of order, at least not for very long...a day or two at most, and then the detritus slowly builds: papers that should be filed or round-filed, clipped coupons, pens, stamps, paperclips, checkbook, junk mail, is that a bottle of contact lens solution over there? Yep. They all lay here, silently accusing me of sloth and disorganization.

Today is a new day, a time for a fresh start. Today I am cleaning it for real (not just tidying the stacks, or transplanting everything to the floor in my classic Scarlet O'Hara "I'll think about that tomorrow!" maneuver.) Really, truly clean. Filed, tossed, put away. If I'm not heard from in 24 hours, someone put out an APB - you'll know the desk finally swallowed me whole.

In other news, the Dutch oven has been broken in: she gently cradled a pork tenderloin smothered in onions, garlic and seasoning yesterday, at 325 for 2 hours. Yum. The sourdough starter is still going, but it was getting a little watery, so I drained off the hooch and thickened up the flour addition. It bubbles, but doesn't double in size.

Weather-wise, it seems we are deep in the icy frost pocket of winter's thick coat. The 10-day forecast is bleak - the best we can hope for is to edge toward the upper 40s towards the end of the month, but not before we have a few more brushes with some snow next week.

Update: Okay, so it's late afternoon and the desk is *almost* done. (Where have I heard that before?) And as a reward for digging to the bottom? I found a sale ad for new Fiestaware. Square Fiestaware. Be still my beating heart...

Feb 8, 2010

The Lodge dutch oven is here!

As I was working at my desk today, I heard the familiar rumble of the UPS truck starting up and pulling away. (I didn't hear him pull up, but I was pretty engrossed in my work.) I knew what that sound meant, though - a package was here, and sure enough, it was my new Lodge dutch oven, in what can only be described as R E A L L Y (really) G R E E N. I think it's the most gorgeous piece of cookware I've ever seen.

So what to try for her "maiden voyage" into the oven? I know I'm not ready to delve into Coq au Vin or Boeuf Bourguinon, but maybe a humble pork roast or even ribs and sauerkraut...

And of course, there's always the no-knead bread recipe that needs a dutch oven to bake. This could be a very good week for bread, as cold as it is. Cold and snowy. A front is moving through, dropping a snowfall on us tonight. It was coming down hard enough that I didn't feel comfortable driving across town to Bible Bowl, so we stayed in and I whipped up a hearty sausage/rice bean dish, along with coleslaw and fresh fruit on the side. After dinner, DD and DH made a dash outside to make a snowman. Of course, he has to wear a UT scarf ;o)

This week's menu is going to necessitate some reshuffling from last week, since we wound up out on the town Friday night - the Grand Ole Opry was too much fun. Everyone should go at least once - twice if Josh Turner is there. That boy can sing. This week includes another treat: DH made reservations for dinner at The Acorn on Saturday - an early Valentine's Day dinner. (Yes, I'm totally spoiled.)

Feb 4, 2010

Serendipitous success!

Occasionally I stumble on a new recipe that is a hit. Today was one such moment. I spotted this recipe for slow cooker pulled pork; it was on the back of a box of Lipton's mushroom/onion soup mix (don't tell) and decided to try it. It was actually quite tasty (just be sure to de-fat the sauce before mixing back in the shredded meat. My Oxo fat separator is awesome for such occasions.

I made a side of Pickled Okra Salsa I picked up from a recent Southern Living magazine. It was interesting...almost like tabouleh. Normally I would have made a coleslaw to top the sandwiches, but I've got coleslaw coming up as a side dish later this week, so the salsa made for an interesting side and - in this case - sandwich topping.

Listening to early morning radio during carpool duty, I ran across a dip recipe for Greek yogurt + capers + diced shallot. Mix together, serve with shrimp. Sounds healthy, but maybe a little bland? Then again, perhaps the original recipe gets its zing from grilling the shrimp (err, prawns.) I found some Greek yogurt today, so we'll give it a shot. If it's good, it'd be a great Super Bowl dip for those of us snacking our way through the game and trying to be somewhat health-minded. Who knows, maybe it will be another sweet moment of success.

I'm now on day 5 of feeding the sourdough starter - just a couple more days until it's ready to be considered true starter. Even better: tomorrow night is date night with my husband at the Grand Ol' Opry, listening to Josh Turner - woohoo!

Feb 3, 2010

Happy groundhog day to me

I have always shared my birth day with Phil. (You know, the Yankee rodent from Punxsuatawny, Pennsylvania, who almost always sees his shadow.) Yesterday was so predictable - Phil saw his shadow, of course. I on the other hand, did not. At least not until much later in the day. So I am sorry that Pennsylvania is going to have six more weeks of winter, but I'm staking my claim on an early spring here in middle Tennessee.

To celebrate the day, my family took me to Maggiano's Little Italy on West End (or as Tom-Tom insists on spelling it as "W End Ave" and won't even help you find it if you don't. How do you pronounce that, anyway?) where they have, among other things, awesome bread. Maggiano's food is good, their bread is awesome. Balsamic vinegar and olive oil to dip it in, divine.

Giftwise, I scored big. The final Dutch oven choice was a 4-quart Lodge L-series in apple green. And two tickets to see Josh Turner at the Grand Ol' Opry. (We've lived her too long to keep saying "we really should go check out the Opry one of these days...")

I'm still feeding my sourdough starter, faithfully each day, using bottled water since ours is heavily chlorinated. Once the starter is ready (and my Dutch oven has landed), I will start a series of bread-baking tests, comparing 4 techniques:

1. classic sourdough
2. 5-minutes-a-day-Artisan Bread
3. NYT no-knead bread recipe
4. My mom's "Simple Crusty White Bread" recipe, which involves creating a starter early in the day or the night before.

If I get really ambitious, I'll take pictures of each, as well as notes on what I did, what we liked about each, and what adjustments I might make in future batches (except my mom's, because hers is already perfect ;o)