Cranberry cordial

Ask and you shall receive. I’ve finally posted my famous recipe for cranberry cordial, a homemade cranberry liqueur I’ve referenced and teased you with for years now. My secret is out. Everyone I’ve ever given it to can now see how lazy I am – making a big deal about this easy-as-pie concoction.

Serve it chilled in wee cordial glasses like the ones I tracked down at a thrift store somewhere on the 101 between here and Los Angeles on a road trip with my dashing husband back when he was simply dashing, or use to make the best kirs or kir royales you’ve ever had. I’ve used big batches of the stuff to doctor up the second (maybe third) crappiest sparkling wine at the market into delicious cocktails that made for very festive gatherings indeed. I wish you many such events in the coming weeks, or, rather, as many as you can stand.

Christmas
cocktails
cranberries

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Pecan cacao nib cookies

Have you noticed that I don’t post a ton of sweets here? I’m not a real dessert-y sort of gal. A bite or two of whatever usually does it for me, much to my son’s chagrin. The poor thing has taken to lapping up a spoonful of honey for dessert more than once while pulling a face at the offer of a juicy ripe satsuma or a bitter square of dark chocolate studded with almonds and sea salt.

These pecan cookies, however, whether studded with crunchy bitter cacao nibs or delicate shavings of dark chocolate, are right up my alley, they are buttery and crisp and not all that sweet but perfect with a cup of coffee or a spot of tea, and they aren’t out of place with a dram of whiskey either. They are inspired by cookies from the fabulous Alice Medrich. I once made them with finely chopped chocolate when I couldn’t find cacao nibs. They were, to some palates, even more delicious.

Find other cookies I genuinely adore at this list of potential christmas cookies.

Christmas
cookies

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Elizabeth David’s ragù sauce

I was recently asked to attend a cookbook club. Members all cook a recipe from a book, get together to eat the results, and discuss the book and whatnot. I can attest that it is a delightful way to wile away a Saturday afternoon. The book for this gathering was Elizabeth David’s French Country Cooking. I made the honey hazelnut cake, which was good but not exciting. One of those old fashioned cakes that is as good for breakfast as it is for dessert or tea. As I flipped my way through that book it just made me want to read more Elizabeth David again and so her various books came down from the shelf and I soon noticed a few other items I’d like to cook, including her ragù.

The recipe called for “teacups” of things (that’s 6 ounces or 3/4 cup to you and me), and wanted me to put chicken livers in the sauce, which I didn’t really feel like doing. The best part, though, is that she insists that you add the ragù to “hot pasta in a heated dish so that the pasta is thoroughly impregnated with the sauce.”

Reading Elizabeth David just points out what a hack I am. I don’t ever write about impregnating things.

This ragù recipe, however, ain’t too shabby.

p.s. All you cranberry cordial-wanted fanatics, the recipe will be up soon. Very soon.

pasta

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Cream of wild rice soup

I had a hard week. Stressful. Anxiety producing. At one point just a wee bit scary. Nothing went quite how I’d wish it would. I felt overwhelmed and, at points, disheartened. Everything is much better now – no need to worry – and part of what cured my ills was a big pot of cream of wild rice soup.

I left the thickening work to the heavy cream by leaving both the flour and the potatoes out of it, I used pancetta where traditionalists would use ham, I tossed in some fresh thyme, and I added fancy-pants leeks instead of homey onions, but it was a fair reproduction of the soup I grew up with. My mom never made it – why would she when Lund’s had such a fine frozen version for sale? – but there was always a quart or two in the extra freezer in the basement, usually slotted into the shelves on the door this time of year, what with the freezer being full of ducks and pheasants.

My family gobbled it up just as happily as I used to. And they agreed that the generous grinds of black pepper at the end are key.

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wild rice

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Thanksgiving pies

My Uncle Denny may be best known both here and in my mind for his superlative smoked salmon, a fish he catches, cleans, and smokes himself. It is actually smoked, not cold-cured or salt-cured, but set in a smoke house filled with smoke from a hot fire, a process known as hot smoked to some, kippered to others, or, simply, smoked. Instead of transforming the salmon  into the silken slabs of gravlax, the smokes dried the fish a bit, highlighting the oils which remain free-flowing in even the coldest of waters and that make salmon so delicious, and makes it easy to flake into salty bites.

Yet it is from him that I first learned a) pumpkin pie need not come from a can, and b) you need not confine yourself to pumpkin when making what he calls “gourd pie.” It takes no discernible effort for me to picture him in the kitchen of their old house – the one with a giant hand-cranked coffee grinder built into the kitchen wall, with baskets and pan hanging over the counters, and a wood-burning stove in the living room – manning the blender on a Thanksgiving morning, whipping up a half dozen of his gourd pies to bring to the Thanksgiving potluck and soccer game while my cousin, who is now finishing up law school, pulled at my hand hoping I’d read the stack of picture books he’d assembled to him.

So when Denny and my Aunt Nancy as well as my parents were in town the weekend before my dad’s birthday, we had a little dinner to celebrate. I took extreme advantage of my guests and made a range of pies to fill in my Thanksgiving offerings over at Local Foods. Pumpkin pie, chile pumpkin pie (seriously, that bit of ground dried chile is awesome in pumpkin pie!), and a bourbon pecan pie (made with maple syrup) were all on offer. Following my fine uncle’s example, the pumpkin pies were made with freshly roasted winter squash, with something labelled a “red kabocha” at the market. It looked suspiciously like a red kuri pumpkin to me. Check out that gorgeous color.

Whether you roast your own squash to make your own pie or not, I wish you a happy Thanksgiving and hope you spend it with people who make you laugh and who slowly but surely, without too much fuss and without distracting from the animated conversation already in the works, pay you the ultimate compliment and finish all the pie.

(Still menu planning? Find a gaggle of my Thanksgiving desserts recipes over at Local Foods.)

Thanksgiving
chiles
pies
winter squash

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Posole

I had a birthday dinner for my dad this weekend. It was small, it was loud, it was delicious. It was an alliterative meal of padron peppers, posole, and pies. I’ll tell you all about the pies later, but for the moment I need to spread the posole word.

You can find lots of recipes for posole out there, and I’m sure they are all fabulous. I will say, however, that many of them seem unnecessarily complicated. Posole is a simple dish of pork and hominy seasoned with chile. Not much more is really required. Some salt is going to help things along, and some garlic and a bit of oregano help deepen and round out the flavor.

I kept it frighteningly simple. Rustic, was my dashing husband’s comment, and I took it as a compliment. The bowls were emptied, re-filled, and re-emptied, which I take as the most sincere of compliments people can pay a cook.

Get the recipe for posole. I like to pile a bit of lime cumin cole slaw on top, letting the shreds of cabbage sink down into the posole, adding crunch and freshness to every spicy rich bite.

corn
pork
soup

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Spaghetti squash “noodles”

My dashing and I have some classic marital opposites-attract divisions. I would like the house to stay in a state of perpetual spotless delight; he is a big slob. I think 3 o’clock means 3 o’clock; even our son knows his father’s “half an hour” has nothing to do with 30 measurable minutes. One thing we can really agree on though is this simple truth: spaghetti squash sucks.

We had both, at separate points in our lives, been served spaghetti squash topped with marinara sauce and told it was a delightful substitute for pasta. Maybe you like that kind of nonsense, but we sure don’t.

I once had to come up with a spaghetti squash recipe for work so I tossed with with a jalapeño-infused cream, smothered it in cheese, and baked the living daylights out of it. Of course that was good (check it out). My local foods site for About.com had a noticeable dearth of spaghetti squash recipes, and the people, they seem to really want to eat spaghetti squash. So I got to thinking, and thinking. And then it occurred to me: Spaghetti squash isn’t much like pasta, but it is somewhat like rice vermicelli. So I made a family favorite — pork and rice noodles — using spaghetti squash as the noodles. Everyone agreed: very tasty. It’s so good for you it’s almost wrong, but the mild sweetness of spaghetti squash works with the spice in this dish remarkably well.

Get the recipe for Spicy Spaghetti Squash “Noodles”. Note: You will need some cooked spaghetti squash to make it.

noodles
pork
winter squash

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Call me old-fashioned

Sure, I’ve made doughnuts before, but I’d never made my very favorite type of doughnut: a lightly glazed sour cream old fashioned.

Or, to be more specific, a lightly glazed sour cream old fashioned doughnut from Top Pot in Seattle.

Then my food writing world pal Jess Thomson worked on Top Pot Hand-Forged Doughnuts: Secrets and Recipes for the Home Baker and there is was, on page 96, the recipe.

So after dinner I mixed up the dough (no big deal) and set it in the fridge to chill while I slept. I set my alarm to wake up a bit early (time to make the doughnuts!), and sipped coffee while I rolled and cut the dough.

I overestimated how long that would take (the rolling and cutting took less than 15 minutes), so I sipped more coffee while I read in the quite of the morning. About fifteen minutes before my friend and neighbor dropped off her kids that I oh-so-nicely agreed to take to school that morning, I heated up the oil and started frying.

I learned, from Jess, that old fashioned doughnuts are made from a cake-like dough, fried at a lower temperature than other doughnuts, and turned twice while frying—a combination that gives them those crunchable grooves and petals that hold a simple glaze oh so beautifully, especially when you do as Jess says and dip still-warm doughnuts in a still-warm glaze and let them set up for at least ten minutes before crunching into them.

Was I motivated to write an informed review of my friend’s book? A selfish desire to enjoy a homemade old fashioned doughnut with my coffee on a dreary run-of-the-mill Tuesday morning? A maternal need to make my son’s favorite breakfast (sadly, he knows just how awesome homemade doughnuts are)? A narcissistic desire to have two delightful little girls think I’m the bee’s knees? No one much cared, we just happily ate the results, leaving a thin layer of sugar and joy all over the house.

doughnuts

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Georgie

At our family cabin in northern Minnesota there are, as is the custom, many family photos, including a fine selection of oldey timey black-and-whites of my great-grandparents engaged in various antics. This lady here? She’s my great-grandmother, Georgie McGregor Bronson. She died when I was seventeen. Seventeen! I used to drive over and visit her. She would say I was an angel sent from heaven for coming to cheer her up with what, I now understand, was my sheer youth and existence. Let’s just say this: that wasn’t the usual reaction to me at the time.

So here she is, bathing, in the lake in which I bath every summer. Her daughter was the grandmother I adored. As a kid I swam at that very dock with both of them and pretty much every other member of that side of the family.

But all that is besides the point. I love the picture for those reasons, but I post it here because of words she said to my mother when she was fairly close to dying and was pretty much a fairly cheery pile of skin and bones: all my life, I wanted to be thin, what good does it do me now?

She wasn’t a heavy woman by any stretch, but she wasn’t tall and she had a “nice bosom,” so I suppose she never felt particularly svelte either. Of course, we have photographic evidence above that she was a normal sized, even thin by many many standards, person above.

I bring this up because, if you’re anything like me, you want to feel healthy and look good but not obsess about your weight or be weird and develop what I like to call an “under-control adult eating disorder.” The thing is, maintaining that balance becomes increasingly difficult as middle-age spread sets in and what you need to do just to keep wearing your own clothes is less and less fun.

For example, I would like to be able to eat cheese. Lots of cheese. I love cheese. Every single kind. I don’t want to binge or anything, but I would very much like to eat, say, a couple ounces of cheese everyday. And I used to do so. Happily. Every afternoon around 4 or when I got home and started fixing dinner, I would joyfully eat two or three ounces of cheese. Sometimes more. You know what? That’s no longer such a good idea for me. I’m afraid copious amounts of cheese may have to go in the same pile as smoking: something I’m going to put off for now, but when I hit 80, watch out!

In short, I’ve been working through what it means to work in food and have food be such a big part of my life and such a source of pleasure and camaraderie, while also taking quite seriously that I’d like to pretty much stay this size. Well, I’d actually like to be the size I was before I hurt me knee, which is just very slightly smaller than I am at this exact moment. Seeing how quickly I put on a few while laid up and then what it takes to take off a few at this point in the game is fairly depressing.

So, when I opened New York Magazine and saw this, my inner Joan Rivers shouted “can we talk?”

There are so many ways to read this page it boggles the mind. The skinny-women-are-the-ideal/skinny-women-are-freaks dichotomy is super fun to process, for starters. But as someone who loves food, let me say this: The model may very well believe that she eats “like a normal person,” and maybe she does, but to me it looks like she spends all day barely staving off hunger and then orders the least appetizing dinner I can imagine. Barley soup, a tuna wrap, and cole slaw? Each element sounds okay, but as a meal? Together? That shit ain’t right. There is not a single food episode (I can hardly call most of them “meals”) that she eats that a human could possibly look forward to. It’s all just so Spartan and sad. The ballerina, on the other hand, with her holier-than-thou attitude and bizarre eating schedule (which, to be fair, seems designed around maximizing her energy for performances while keeping her bird-like and lift-able), at least has a few things in there that sound tasty. A crab cake with chopped salad and Pinot Noir? Sign me up!

As someone facing the dreariness of a slowing metabolism, I can’t help but think that the model, who is young and naturally slim, is seriously wasting her time. She could be downing cereal swimming in half-and-half, snacks of steaming macaroni and cheese, troughs of trifle. She could, I bet, ditch the “light butter” and spread her “whole wheat flatbread” with avocado butter, a concoction as decadent as it sounds which a friend and I made way too much of in college, to no ill effect. Instead she lists “ice water” as part of a meal.

It’s enough to make an old lady cry. Instead, though, I hope that when my son and perhaps future grandchildren and even great-grandchildren look at what will be old photos of me someday in the future they will remember that I was active and fun, just like Georgie. And that I never served them barley soup, tuna wraps, and cole slaw. Ever.

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The problem with busy and the need for tuna pasta

A giant pet peeve of mine is how everyone talks about how busy they are. It annoys me on two fronts. The more obvious one being that since we’re all so busy it’s not actually unusual enough to warrant quite so much conversation space, can we agree on that? The second part is more troubling. How can one possibly explain what’s going  on when one’s life really is exceptionally booked? Not the normal busy of modern life with its commuting and dual-working couples and the bright and shiny objects that distract us on the internet (you’re welcome!), which is enhanced by the nonsense of parenthood for some of us (not all of parenthood is nonsense, of course, but shuttling people to birthday parties and bringing snacks and all that – you know what I mean, the nonsense part, the part that isn’t what you were thinking about when you thought to yourself “I should have some kids”), but the kind of busy that sort of smacks the wind out of your gut and can leave you paralyzed at your desk wondering how, how on god’s green earth, you can possibly get everything done. Sometimes that sense hits for a few hours, other times it comes in horrifying weeks-long recurring waves. What do we call that when we’re always “busy”?

So I don’t know what to say except I’ve been quite occupied. Of course, much of that occupation has been of my own creation (I am such a hard-ass boss!) and I even enjoy the bulk of the actual work, but if anyone else wants to drive my son to a “Pump It Up” birthday party on Friday night, I wouldn’t complain one bit.

Some of the flurry has been recipe work for others, so I can’t post about that. And the bustle and focus on writing work (which I love!) has meant meals haven’t been all that fascinating around here lately. A new-to-me version of tuna pasta has made several appearances, but an accurate picture of that looks like a dog threw up on your plate. I could style it all pretty, carefully placing tuna and herbs on the tangle of noodles so as not to overwhelm them, but that isn’t going to taste very good and it also won’t be what you end up with if you follow my suggestions below. What you will end up with, however, are empty plates, so I feel my journalistic integrity, or at least my claim to be writing non-fiction, is intact when I try and tempt you with the picture above.

Spaghetti with tuna pepper and lemon

This dish was made at the suggestion of a friend when we needed to eat lunch. These things were all hanging around the kitchen. I’ve since made it three times in the last ten days because it is easy, delicious, fast, and I usually have the ingredients hanging around my house. I try to eat more sardines and less tuna, but the intensity of my work schedule lately has brought out cravings for the deeply familiar. Things from childhood: tuna, peanut butter, apples, carrots, cottage cheese. Sardines would work beautifully in this dish, and are a much better choice in terms of keeping the ocean functioning for a few extra years. If you use tuna, you might want to do as I do and shell out the extra money for hook-and-line caught pacific albacore tuna (here are a few brands I like). I also have been known to make a delicious tuna tomato pasta or a tuna olive and caper pasta. This sardine pasta can really fit the similar bill, too.

Put a pot of water on to boil. While that’s heating up mince a few cloves of garlic, finely chop 4-8 green onions, and mince about a cup (less is fine) of whatever fresh herbs you can scrounge up — I particularly like a mix of flat-leaf parsley, mint, and basil in this dish.

At this point there are two ways to proceed: the faster way or the fewer dishes way.

Faster way: Put a large frying pan over high heat. Add about 2 tablespoons of olive oil, swirl to coat the pan, and add the garlic and a few red pepper flakes or a dried chile or two if you want some heat. Let that sizzle for a few seconds and add the green onion. Cook, stirring, until the onion is softened. Add about 1/2 cup white wine, if you like, and a can of tuna, including the juices in the can. Break up the tuna and cook, stirring a bit and perhaps reducing the heat to keep things cooking but not flailing around wildly in there, until the wine is reduced by at least a half, about three minutes.

During all this, when the water starts boiling, add enough salt to make it taste as salty as ocean water and  1/2 pound of spaghetti (this sauce, with a bit more olive oil, could stretch to cover a full pound, but I might consider adding more tuna at that point). Note that this sauce works very well with whole wheat pasta. Cook until almost tender to the bite, when it needs just another minute to cook, remove a cup of the cooking water, and drain the noodles.

Grate some lemon zest over the sauce mixture – about half a lemon’s worth. Add the herbs and at least 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (I’ve been known to add more, but I have a thing for black pepper) and stir everything together. Add the reserved cooking liquid, stir to combine, and dump in the pasta. Use tongs or two forks to help combine everything. Cook until the liquid is mostly absorbed and the pasta is al dente. Squeeze a tablespoon or so of fresh lemon juice over the whole mess, toss again, taste, and add more salt, pepper, or lemon juice as you see fit. This makes three or four reasonable servings or two “I cranked out the pages this morning and my brain needs carbs” starving-writer servings.

The fewer dishes way: Prep everything while the pasta cooks, but wait to cook the sauce in the pasta-boiling pot after you’ve drained the noodles.

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pasta

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