Sunday, September 22, 2013

The Suburban Mouse and the Downtown Girl

Once upon a time lived a suburban woman. She was raised in the suburbs. She owned houses in the suburbs. She mowed grass and planted gardens. In the suburbs, she shoveled a lot of snow, drove everywhere, rarely walked except in a specific effort for exercise, and spent hours upon hours of her life in cars.

And when she moved to the Chicago area, it was to an apartment in the suburbs. Then one day, the woman and her sweetie were sharing a lo-o-o-ong commute from the suburbs into the city...yet another 1.5 hour one-way commute. It just became too much.

The woman and her sweetie found a place three doors – that's right: three! – from her office. His new commute: 3.9 miles. Her new commute: two blocks. And life was good once again.

The couple had grown up in Detroit – original home of the American automobile – so it was with trepidation that they sold their two cars and bought one hybrid. Now, they fill the gas tank every three weeks or so instead of twice a week. The money they spend on tolls went down by about 75%. 
Even the cat loves highrise living.

And they began to walk - to the grocery store, the park, the drug store, the bank, the post office, the department store. To breakfast, lunch and dinner, if they are so inclined. The sweetie lost eight pounds in the first three months, without changing anything but the amount of walking he does. (Not so the woman, but life can be cruel.)

In particular, they love the amenities of a downtown highrise - the rooftop pool and fitness center, the door staff, parking attendant, onsite dry cleaner, package service - even the taxi call light. These did not exist in their suburban lives.

And oh, the parks, festivals and concerts! The accessibility of the lakefront! The museums and cultural center! The lights! The sounds!

Her family – who by this time had moved from the suburbs to a rural area, thought she had lost her ever-loving mind. The city! Why on God's green acre would anyone want to live surrounded by...cars, trucks, buses, building, concrete...and other people?

From her vantage point overlooking a luscious green park surrounded by attractive highrises, the woman smiles. Maybe she has lost her ever-loving mind. And maybe she sounds like an advert for city living, but that’s okay. Who knew a suburban girl could grow up to be a happy high-rise dweller? Definitely not the end.

Sunday, July 28, 2013

How Brownies Should Taste

What's a sure-fire crowd-pleasing dessert that's quick to make, easily portable and (nearly) infinitely variable? Brownies!

Once upon a time, I rarely made brownies except from a boxed mix - I didn't want to bother with making them from scratch when the mix-based brownies were good (though I added a squirt of chocolate syrup to box-mix brownies to improve the choco flavor). Then, a miracle occurred - the Make-a-Mix Cookery book.

I now make my own brownie mix. One batch of mix makes dozens - nay, hundreds - of brownies. I once gave my mother's friend, Millie, some mix and the baking instructions. Her reaction, after making them: "This is how brownies are supposed to taste."

The mix recipe is from the cookbook, but the frosting, variations and notes are mine.

Master Brownie Mix* (recipe can be halved or quartered)
6 cups all-purpose flour
4 tsp baking powder
4 tsp salt
8 cups sugar
8 oz. can unsweetened cocoa powder
2 cups vegetable shortening

In large bowl, sift together flour, baking powder and salt. Stir in sugar and cocoa. Using a pastry blender or a fork, cut in shortening until evenly distributed. Place in a large airtight container, label and store in a cool, dry place. Use within 10 to 12 weeks. Makes about 17 cups of mix.

To bake brownies:
2 eggs, beaten
1 tsp vanilla extract
2-1/2 cups brownie mix (above)
1/2 c chopped nuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour an 8-inch square pan. In medium bowl, combine eggs, vanilla and brownie mix; beat until smooth. Stir in nuts. Spread in prepared pan. Bake 30-35 minutes, until edges pull away from the sides of the pan. Cool, cut into 24 bars (or 16, if you like them bigger).
 
Connie's Variations
  1. Frost your brownies using the following frosting:

    Basic cake frosting
    1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, room temperature

    1/2 cup vegetable shortening
    1 tsp vanilla extract
    3 to 4 cups powdered sugar
    cream or milk

    Place butter and shortening in large mixing bowl. Beat at medium speed until light and fluffy. Add vanilla, beat again until incorporated. Add powdered sugar a cup at a time, alternating with a tablespoon of cream or milk and beating between additions. In all, you'll want to beat the frosting for about five minutes, aiming for a smooth, light consistency. If too stiff, add more cream a teaspoon at a time. If too loose - if it doesn't hold it's shape without being stiff - add more powdered sugar, 1/4 cup at a time.

    Above all, take your time - your patience will be rewarded. Variations:
    • Cream cheese frosting: substitute 4 oz. cream cheese for butter.
    • Vary the flavor by using different extracts and flavorings in place of the vanilla. Use fresh lemon, lime, pineapple, mango or other juice in place of cream.
    • Beat in melted chocolate - what's not to like?
    • To tint frosting, stir in good food coloring (I prefer gel) a drop or two at a time until you get the color desired.

  2. Stir in some fun:
    • Chopped walnuts plus mini-marshmallows for a rocky road flavor
    • Chocolate chips, or white chocolate, raspberry, butterscotch, etc.
    • Coconut and chopped pecans for a German chocolate flair
    • Spices such as cayenne pepper
    • Chopped peanuts and caramels (cut in little bits) for a Snickers Bar-like brownie

  3. Ice cream sandwiches: Spread batter in a larger pan and bake it for a shorter time (just watch for the edges to pull away from the pan to know when it's done). When cool, cut into 2 or 3" squares or use a round cookie cutter. Scoop slightly softened ice cream onto one brownie, top with another brownie, gently pressing down. If you like, dip the sides into brownie crumbs, sprinkles or chopped peanuts. Then wrap tightly and freeze until firm.

* (excerpted from Make-A-Mix Cookery, Eliason, Harward and Westover, H.P. Books, Tucson, AZ, 1978.)

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Hot weather, cold supper

I eat out a lot. A LOT. And I live in Chicago, so I'm surrounded by terrific dining opportunities. But every once in a while, I feel obligated to cook dinner. I mean, cooking and baking are my hobbies, right?

Anyway, it's been hot and muggy - very uncomfortable cooking weather. I've been thinking about a cool pasta salad. Using my sister's pasta salad as inspiration (thanks, sis!), tonight's dinner was delicious. Here's the recipe:

"Cool Me Off" Chicken Pasta Salad
4 generous servings

Ingredients:
8 ounces dry pasta
2-3 pieces of cooked chicken
1-2 cups chopped fresh vegetables 
8-10 kalamata olives, quartered (optional - yeah, right!)
3-4 ounces hard cheese, cut in a small dice or shredded
1/2 bottle Italian salad dressing 
2 tablespoons McCormick Salad Supreme seasoning

Directions:
Cook pasta - in fact, do this ahead of time, in the cool of the night, then drain and chill. If you must cook it just before serving, drain and run under cold water until pasta feels cool.

While pasta is cooking, chop the chicken, vegetables, olives (if using) and cheese. Add to drained, cooled pasta in a large bowl. Add about a third of a bottle of Italian dressing and the salad seasoning. Toss well and taste. If too dry, add the rest of the dressing. Add more salad seasoning if needed. 

Serve with homemade bread and a chilled cider.

Notes:

  • Between the salad dressing and the seasoning, you won't need to add salt and pepper.
  • Pasta:  I used penne, but rotini also works well - holds the sauce well. Macaroni is okay.
  • Chicken: I used one super-huge breast, prepared according to Alton Brown's 40 Cloves and a Chicken recipe.
  • Vegetables: I used sweet peppers and tomatoes; broccoli, cucumbers and celery work well too. I don't recommend carrots - too hard.
  • Cheese: I used cheddar, but Swiss, shredded (not grated) parmesan or asiago or provolone also work well
  • Dressing: I used Newman's Own Lite Italian
  • Seasoning:  I'm not kidding. Keep this in your cupboard.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Stumbling Along

It has been five months since my last post. What, you may ask, have I been doing in that time? I have been stumbling.

I discovered StumbleUpon.com quite a while ago. For those unfamiliar with the site, here's how it works: sign up, set your interests, install the Stumble Button in your browser. Then, whenever you want to aimlessly wander the Web without actually thinking, just click Stumble.

Yes, I stumble several times a week, and I have gained a new perspective on blogs and those who write them. (Yes, I understand the irony of that statement.) This is what I've learned:

  • There are some very talented people out there. Chefs, crafters, writers, historians, photographers. I've stumbled upon some true winners.
  • There are some very sophomoric people out there. StumbleUpon comes with a "thumbs-up" and a "thumbs-down" button. I use the latter for potty humor, racism, sexism, violence, and just plain stupidity.
  • There are a lot - a LOT - of average people out there, and they all want to be famous.
One thing that surprises me is the low quality of work in many of the how-to blogs. I would have thought that if someone was planning to write a tutorial about whatever his or her specialty, the blogger would put his or her best work on display.

Unfortunately, that is often not the case. It's sad to find unappetizing photos of food (with comments like "OMG!!! To die for!!!"), sloppy crafts, or incomplete instructions. Worse than that - long, rambling commentary without actually giving the instructions promised.

The above sounds mean, though it's not meant that way. It's just my observation. Let me point you to some of the better blogs. I hope you enjoy them, maybe learn something or just smile a bit.
  • CookingComically.com - The recipes are pretty basic, but they are presented cleverly, with the help of a comic book hero. In fact, a graphic cookbook is in the works, and Tyler, the author, now has an online store with a self-designed apron and t-shirt. 
  • HungryNative.com - Okay, I really like the logo most of all. This site features restaurants and regional favorites (Massachusetts), plus some original recipes.
  • CravingChronicles.com - I see a theme here. More cooking. This blogger tends to be chattier than I like, but she's a good photographer and her recipes are yummy.
  • JamesDarrow.deviantart.com - I don't know who James Darrow is, but this site featured a fascinating tutorial on bookbinding. Yes, as in making your own book (and it's not a cooking blog).
  • BookshelfPorn.com - Don't get excited - it's not that kind of porn. The site features photos of interesting and unique bookshelves, libraries, and book collections. It's just made for geeky bibliophiles.
  • SmittenKitchen.com - What's not to love? Variety, integrity (doesn't accept free stuff like some sites), beautiful make-you-drool food photos, step-by-step instructions - it's all there. Me like.
There are lots more, but it's late and I'm tired. Go stumble. Find something different. Have some fun.