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ready for the ridiculously delicious?

February 25th, 2011 | 11 Comments »

Once again, Marx Foods tempted me with unique goodies to develop an original recipe for their Ridiculously Delicious Recipe Challenge. This particular challenge was open to anyone who won a prize in the previous year through any contest sponsored by Marx Foods. My second place finish in the Iron Foodie Contest last December earned me bragging rights to join in the fun.

This time, what was sent from Marx Foods offered up some very interesting items; Grains of Paradise, Szechuan PeppercornsDried Tepin Peppers, Juniper Berries, Coconut sap sugar, Dried Tart Cherries, Iranian Saffron Threads and Dill Pollen.

The only item I’d worked with before was the Szechaun Peppercorns. I’ve had a small amount of these for several years and love their tingling heat. Of course I was familiar with saffron, dried cherries and coconut sugar, but the rest were a bit of a mystery, and produced some copious head-scratching. For the first challenge I was required to use two of the eight items sent to me, and right away, two thoughts became very clear; I was either going to have to go with a sweet recipe, or with savory. But I had to determine which was the best to start. You see, if you advance in this challenge, the next step is to take one of the 15 recipes that advance and re-make it on your terms, with three of the remaining ingredients from the mystery box. So do I use up the easy sweet items first? Or go with the harder savory, leaving the sweets for last?

Ultimately, I knew I had a lot more leverage with the sweet options; already I could determine a half dozen options for utilizing those dried cherries, the coconut sugar and even the saffron into something delectably sweet. So after consulting several top-notch food loving friends of mine (you guys know who you are…. many thanks for your input) what I came up with was this amazing Szechaun Shrimp Cake with Chili Mango Dipping Sauce.

If you’re a fan of crab cakes, these will certainly appeal to you. Chopped fresh shrimp, bread crumbs, spices and brown rice are mixed with an egg and several heaping teaspoons of ground Szechuan peppercorns to create a mouth tingling cake that’s dredged through panko bread crumbs before being seared in oil. The outside is crunchy and crisp, the interior moist and tender and the whole thing leaves your mouth bathed in the subtle citrus heat of the peppercorns. Szechaun peppercorns aren’t an actual peppercorn; they’re called a flower pepper and are one of the five ingredients in Chinese 5-Spice Powder. They’re also known to work well with hotter spices, which seemed a no-brainer to pair with the Dried Tepin pepper in making a killer sweet-spicy dipping sauce with mango.

Dried Tepin peppers, also known as a birds-eye pepper, or a chiltepin, are tiny berry shaped peppers with a Scoville heat unit in the 40,000-70,000 range. If you aren’t familiar with the Scoville scale, it’s a measure used to determine the heat of chilies. For reference, jalapeno peppers are around 2500-8000 range; Habanero and Scotch Bonnet peppers are from 100,000-350,000 and law enforcement grade pepper spray runs in the agonizing 5,000,000-5,350,000 range. Yeee-ouch. So yeah, the tiny little Chiltepin pepper may sound like it packs some heat, but it’s a subtle warming heat that’s intense but brief, and not at all unpleasant. Paired with the sweetness of mango, it provided just a perfect balance of sweetly spice that was lovely smeared on the hot crispy Shrimp cake.

Szechuan Shrimp Cakes

1/2 pound raw shrimp, finely chopped
1/2 c. fresh bread crumbs
1/2 c. cooked brown rice
2 T. minced fresh cilantro
2 t. ground szechuan peppercorns
1 t. each garlic and onion powder
1/2 t. sea salt
1 T. fresh lemon juice plus 2 t. lemon zest
1 egg, lightly beaten

Panko bread crumbs for dredging.

Combine all ingredients in a bowl and mix gently with your hands until incorporated. Place bowl in refrigerator for 30-60 minutes to allow flavors to blend.

Heat a large skillet over medium high heat with oil of choice. Place panko on a shallow plate. The shrimp mixture will make 3 good sized cakes, or up to six smaller ones. Determine which size you wish to make and scoop the amount out with your hands. Form the cake and dredge both sides with panko crumbs. Place in skillet and cook until golden brown, then flip and cook the other side, covering the pan, until the shrimp is fully cooked, about 15-20 minutes. Serve with dipping sauce.

Chili Mango Dipping Sauce

1/2 ripe mango, diced
6 Dried Tepin Chilies
1 T. chopped cilantro
1/2 c. water
1 c. plain greek yogurt
2 T. honey

Combine all ingredients except yogurt and honey in a small saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring occasionally until fruit is very soft and the peppers collapse, about 10 minutes. Add a little more water if it evaporates. You’re looking for a thick syrupy texture, with the fruit still intact when it’s ready. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.

Place contents in a blender or small food processor, add the honey and blend until a thick puree forms. It can be as smooth or as chunky as you desire. Blend about 1/3 of a cup with the plain yogurt and whisk smooth. Add more puree if you like a fruitier flavor.

it’s all about the quality

February 22nd, 2011 | Comments Off

Can you believe it’s almost March? For me, that’s always a fun change because the very first day of March is my birthday, but almost better yet, March around these parts means Spring begins, even if it’s only the official beginning of the season. While April is the month to usher in the soft scent of Springtime, March, in one 30 day span will bid goodbye to winter and hello to the sweetness that is Spring in Minnesota. No other month holds as much promise for us, the winter and snow weary, as the coming of March.

The best part of Spring, besides the ending of cold temps and the continual snowfall is that fresh foods start the slow trickle back into our menus. The Farmers Markets open up one by one, showcasing the best of Spring fare. Although I do love the root vegetables, the slow aromatic braises of wintertime, filling the kitchen with a warmth that shutters out that wind and chill, the lighter fare of Spring, and then of course, Summer have such an appeal. Mostly though, I think it’s just because after this endless winter of snowstorm after snowstorm, I’m probably craving green in any form I can find.

If you’ve been around here, even for a brief time, you know that I’m all about the quality of my food. I like it fresh, I like it from scratch and I like it to be well made, even minimally prepared. The fancy food has it’s place, and once in a while it’s a nice treat, but honestly, I can swoon over a superbly fresh salad, lush with dark leafy greens and a palette of colorful vegetables with a simple vinaigrette sprinkled over the top.

Last month I talked about the predictable ease of enjoying the food at Panera. If I’m craving a bowl of soup, with a chunk of fresh bread to dredge through my bowl, I don’t really need to think too hard about where I can get that, outside my own kitchen.

But what I like even more about Panera is the freshness of ingredients in their salads and sandwiches. The salads snap with the crisp crunch of the lettuce, spinach, spring mix and other greens in them. The sandwiches are topped with an array of dark leafy greens instead of a boring bland iceberg or a limp green leaf lettuce. The aroma rising from the chunk of bread you twist apart to dip in your soup is lush with yeast and you can taste the flavor of the carrots in their delicious and all natural Chicken Noodle soup. The apples snap with an exacting crunch. And people love the bread at Panera so much that they’ve given all their impassioned fans a place on their Facebook page to write their very own Ode to Bread. You can see a short video on the company’s website about their passion for baking those popular loaves. I know a lot of people really appreciate the availability of the calorie content of all their menu items right there in the store, so you can make the best choices for your dietary needs. The staff is also very helpful in assisting customers with food-allergy related questions about the menu, especially helping them to determine the soup and salad items that are gluten free. And I love that they use Stonyfield Farms organic yogurt in their smoothies. That’s one of the best yogurts available.

Have you set up your MyPanera rewards card yet? They like loading a nice surprise on there when you do. I got a gooey cinnamon roll, all for free, added to mine just for beginning to use it. The more you use it, the more rewards you will receive. Who doesn’t like free? Especially if it includes their decadent baked goods.

Fresh, easily accessible and warmly predictable, a quick lunch or dinner at Panera is a good thing, all over the board.

If you’re interested in more information on how Panera finds inspiration for sourcing their ingredients, please visit this link on their Facebook page.

Do you Twitter? Follow Amy, the official @panerabread tweeter for up to date information.

DISCLAIMER:
I was compensated financially for writing this post. All content is my own viewpoint and opinion.

classic ragù and soft polenta

February 20th, 2011 | 6 Comments »

There’s still enough wintertime for this dish…….. especially with yet another major storm bearing down on Minnesota.

There’s still enough of winter for a slow stove-top meal, one that fills your kitchen with a heady fragrance, a simmer that beckons one and all from the cold and wind to a wide shallow bowl of tender meat and vegetables, rich with rosemary and basil. Winter still has us in it’s grasp despite the longer hours of the day, our luck changing as we see traces of the sun through our dinner hour, a few more precious hours of light in the afternoon when school is done. Pick a slow weekend day if you can, to enjoy the hours with a bubbling pot on the stove, as sun moves to twilight. Or place it all in a crock pot before you head out the door for work, then come home to a sensational smell, and a hearty rustic dinner. This is the quintessential Winter meal; it’s warm and rich and soothing and amazingly good. It’s rustic and simple and easy to prepare. And it makes good on the promise of chasing the cold away.

Recently I attended a dinner that featured organic Muir Glen tomatoes, and as we gathered our coats to leave, smiling from content tummies, chatting heartily with each other, the sponsor of the meal handed everyone a gift bag that held a small cookbook of tomato recipes, plus a sampling of some of Muir Glen’s finest canned tomatoes. The dinner, highlighting Muir Glen’s specialty selection of canned tomatoes, the Meridian Ruby variety, was held at five locations with their resident chefs around the country, the local establishment being Corner Table in Minneapolis. The small booklet that came with the gift bag had recipes that made my eyes dance with delight, and the very first one listed was the traditional Ragù recipe from Cascina Spinasse in Seattle. The restaurant serves traditional Northern Italian fare, which includes this hearty meat-based sauce; slowly simmered pork and beef, with minced carrot, celery, onion and garlic to round out the flavors. Add wine, Muir Glen’s fresh and flavorful Meridian Ruby tomatoes and let it bubble contentedly on the stove for a few hours. Who needs a plane ticket?

Ok, I agree…. a plane ticket to Italy would be fine, yes. BUT…. this dish is far cheaper.

As it cooked, simmered and blended on the stove, filling my kitchen with it’s rich scent, I felt like I’d be selling such a beauty short by serving it over boring old pasta. I know it would taste fine, sure…. but its decadence and hearty flavor made me wish for a creamy soft polenta to top it with. After all, if this Ragù was traditional Northern Italian fare, then a bowl of creamy polenta would be a natural base.  And there I kind of balked. It’s a good thing the pot went in the refrigerator overnight so I could mull on how best to tackle this need.

Because you see, several years ago I went through a phase where I repeatedly tried polenta, in as many forms as I could manage. I tried it with white corn meal, in true Southern Grits fashion; I tried it in solid form, broiling or searing small cakes of it to golden perfection before topping it with whatever I was experimenting with at the time. I tried recipe after recipe of soft polenta and every single time I ended up disappointed, or worse, really turned off. I decided that maybe I just didn’t like polenta, but then I’d try it in a restaurant and be bowled over with how delicious it was. And I loved cornbread, corn muffins, hush puppies and corn fritters, so what was it about polenta that I couldn’t manage? I’m pretty sure it was the cooking method, but by the time I figured it out, I was so over making it at home. And I haven’t attempted it since.

This time, I was determined, and after consulting with my friend Shaina, I armed myself with some of her knowledge and feedback and headed into the kitchen. Thirty minutes later, a pot of superbly creamy and flavorful polenta was waiting for the rich and hearty Ragù. The first bite made me swoon, eyes rolling in delight. It was, through my hands and a little attention, the most delicious food I’ve ever made at home, and it was happily making it’s way to my mouth. I cook a lot. And I cook really well, but this was the first time I think anything I’d made could stand up to the food served in a good restaurant.

But then, I suppose when you have with a recipe that comes from one of Food and Wine’s Best New Chefs of 2010, that’s probably a good start.

Spinasse Ragù


1# each ground beef and ground pork (i used 93/7 ground beef)
1/2 t. salt
1/4 t. fresh ground black pepper
2 small onions, peeled and cut to large pieces
2 carrots, peeled and cut to large pieces
2 stalks celery, with leaves, cut to large pieces
4 cloves garlic, peeled
2 T. olive oil
1 t. crushed dried rosemary leaves
1 14.5-oz can Muir Glen Organic Meridian Ruby tomatoes (or use equivalent of other kind)
1 c. dry red wine
1 quart good chicken stock
1/2 t. ground nutmeg

In a 4-qt dutch oven, brown the meat with salt and pepper over medium heat until no longer pink. Drain fat using a colander over a large bowl. Discard fat, set meat aside.

In large food processor, place onions, carrots, celery and garlic and process until finely chopped. In same dutch oven, add olive oil, vegetables and rosemary, cooking for about 15 minutes or until vegetables start to brown.

Add tomatoes and meat to pan, stir to combine. Cook approximately 15 minutes, until tomatoes darken slightly. Add red wine, increase heat to medium-high and cook until liquid reduces by about half. Add chicken stock, reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 3-4 hours. Stir in nutmeg in final minutes of cook time.

KATE’S NOTES: For extra richness in this dish, I added about a half cup of heavy cream with the chicken stock. I think it made an exceptional addition. When you add the stock, the mixture will be very loose, like a soup. It will reduce as it simmers though. I did not cover the pan as it cooked, but I doubt it will make much difference, although it may take longer for the liquid to reduce if it’s covered.

From Cascina Spinasse, Seattle Washington, and Chef Jason Stratton
from the Muir Glen Tomato Vine Dining Tour recipe booklet


 

Creamy Soft Polenta

1/2 c. stone ground corn meal
1 c. fat free milk
1 c. water
1 t. butter
Salt and pepper as needed

In a heavy medium saucepan, bring milk, water and butter to a boil then add cornmeal in a thin stream, whisking constantly. Once cornmeal is added, whisk for several minutes to insure smooth consistency. Bring to a simmer, reduce heat to low and cover the pan, leaving lid ajar to release steam. Simmer polenta for about 10 minutes, stirring often to keep it from scorching, then add 2-3 tablespoons of water. Stir to combine, replace cover (leaving it ajar) and simmer for 10-15 minutes more, stirring regularly, scraping the bottom to prevent scorching. Add about 2-3 more tablespoons of water at this point, stir to combine and cook for about 5 more minutes, stirring regularly. Taste for texture; it should be smooth, and not at all grainy. If any graininess remains, add a few more tablespoons of water and cook until smooth. Serve immediately. Makes about 2 servings

KATE’S NOTES: Be aware that Polenta, as it cooks, bubbles like molten lava, and it can be dangerous if not kept partially covered. Keep the heat low to prevent the bubbles from exploding violently. And when you stir the polenta as it cooks, make sure you are scraping the pan bottom thoroughly. I used a flat edge wooden spatula for this. A heat resistant rubber spatula would also be a good option.

 

DISCLAIMER:
I attended the dinner at Corner Table as a guest of Muir Glen and did not pay for my meal. The promotional products were
free of charge as well. I was not paid to endorse or even mention Muir Glen Meridian Ruby tomatoes, Chef Stratton’s restaurant, his recipe or any other information found here. The opinions in this post are strictly my own.

odds & ends

February 17th, 2011 | Comments Off

There’s been a few happenings around here that need warrant of a mention.

The Cooking Connections Chat I co-hosted on The Motherhood happened last week on February 9th. I talked about this prior to the actual night.

The chat, hosted by Vera and Bill Sweeney was a swift half hour of spirited talk about how we connect with each other through cooking and food. There’s a transcript of the entire chat, with comments upon comments and if you’re interested in reading through it, you can find that here.

I’m really enjoying all the aspects of the community I’ve found within The Motherhood; they have a lot of message boards to utilize, covering all aspects of life and parenting and I enjoy being able to share bits and pieces of what I do with the people there. There are A LOT of really useful chats to be found as well and you are bound to discover something useful to you there.

Another happening that occurred recently was that a Twitter connection of mine asked to interview me for a blog post he wanted to write about brand loyalty. Gregg Voss writes the blog Brand Empire where he explores what can make or break a particular brand. I had attended a dinner at Corner Table in Minneapolis, sponsored by Muir Glen tomatoes and Gregg was interested in delving further into my relationship with this particular brand of canned tomatoes, and what my ideas were about supermarket brands in general. If you are interested, you can find the blog post that he wrote here.

There are other fun events coming up, as well as some delicious posts that I’ve queued up for you. I’ll be off learning my new job in the coming weeks but rest assured you’ll get plenty of content still. A new job!?! For money!??? Yes, really! It’s an exciting new adventure that’s perfect for me and I’m thrilled to start. Wish me luck!!

this kind of love

February 13th, 2011 | 18 Comments »

It’s Valentine’s Day again. And again, we aren’t really celebrating. We never do. It’s a Hallmark holiday, and love, any good love deserves celebration 365 days a year.

Instead, I’m going to tell you a story; a story about a man and a woman, who met each other with a little help from God, and a website called Match dot com. In this story, the man and woman lived a block away from each other, and she was raising a nice little boy all by herself. She liked his smile; he liked her red hair. And little by little, they fell in love and decided that they should marry and when they told their families, there were loud shouts of excitement. Everyone was happy.

And on a mild summer day in a tiny quaint town on a picturesque and majestic river, they held each others hand and said ‘I will’ when the pastor asked them about the divine love, and the journey ahead of them. Then the little boy joined them, they all held hands again, promising to be good to one another as a family, and to love each other, even in their imperfections. They never got to just be a couple. From the moment the rings went on, they were a family, all three of them. And afterwards, they held hands once again -it was a big day you know, for hand holding- while a prayer was said before the first meal they’d share as husband and wife. On that beautiful day, everyone ate a picnic lunch at colored tables, topped with glitter and balloons, while happy children in smart suits with ties and beautiful dresses ran around the room, and leaned in anticipation on the table that held a cake, because it was a celebration, after all, and celebrations meant cake. And the cake was good. Everyone was so happy.

And soon enough, the man and the woman decided they wanted a baby, so they crossed their fingers, prayed and tried, but there was no baby, month after month. They prayed more, and they hoped hard, and everyone they knew prayed with them. The little boy was happy and excited; he’d wanted a brother or sister ever since he could remember, like from the age of 4 and he was eager to be the best big brother he could possibly be. But there were problems, it seems. There were terrible pains in the woman’s belly; pains that scared her and made her fearful that maybe she couldn’t make a baby like God had designed her to do, and so she went to a doctor, and listened as he talked about tests, and listed names of things that sounded odd and scary. And the man held her hand to soothe her (see? more hand holding), and he held her shoulders tight against him and comforted her because all of it was so scary, and there were serious faces and lots of ‘Hmmm’ and ‘Huh’ when the doctor read her charts. On the night before a surgery that would give them all the answers, she wept from the uncertainty and cried to the man’What if you don’t want to stay married to me if I can’t have children?’ The man laughed because he thought that was so silly. But the woman was very serious. The nurses soothed her as she wept before the surgery again. She was very scared. What if she didn’t wake up?  The kind doctor, his eyes crinkling as he smiled through the mask that covered his face, assured her that she would be fine, and soon she was deep in a sleep so black and solid and thick that it seemed like only two minutes passed before she opened her eyes again. There was so much pain, and her mouth was dry and she really, really wanted to see the man. So she waited, and took her pain medication, got up and moved around and did everything she was asked in hopes it would get her to see the man sooner. It took forever for the nurse to wheel her into a room where the man was waiting for her.

But nobody was happy. No one was smiling. There was no joy.

Right away her eyes asked him the question, and he knelt in front of her, grasping her hands tight in his like he always had while he carefully said ‘We can’t have any babies.’ and then when the woman fell into his embrace sobbing and apologizing, he held her close to him, stroking her back and said to her  ”I still want to be married to you.” and even in the hardest moment of her life, through a pain she never felt like she deserved, she knew that the only thing that mattered was that one sentence, and the love that had been sealed with a kiss in front of a hundred people in that lovely river town, under a prayer on the wall of the church with a ring on her finger and a vow to hold fast forever. The happy had been stolen.

There would be no shouts of joy in their families for them, announcing that a new life was on the way. Instead, there were tears, a lot of embraces and sorrow, and life moved on for everyone but the woman and the man. They faced a challenge now in their married life that they never expected, and certainly not this soon, still in their newlywed phase. The woman had no idea that she could cry so much, that she could experience such a pain within her heart. She learned to move, stepping one foot in front of the other and exploring her new normal, but the pain within her clenched hard and left her in agony. She leaned on the man, and he leaned on her and the life that they’d started together sometimes slowed down a lot in those moments, shoulder to shoulder, fending off a world that had turned hard and raw. They tried to remember all the good in their lives; the beautiful home, the love between them, the young man who was growing in front of their eyes. But she learned how deeply she could miss someone she’d never even met. She learned to smile when someone announced they were expecting. She learned a lot of things, like how hard God cried along with her, how to lean on Him, her faith and her need to move forward despite the desire within to simply lay down and never stir from that spot.

But moving forward was agony, and it was slow and for so long it felt like the happiness would never return.

So finally, the most painful part of this season passed, but now almost 8 years later, it isn’t gone. It never will be; it still simmers below the surface of her heart. But the love, the one that started on that mild August day, in 2002, with hand holding, the shouting children and the cake and celebration, it’s strong and powerful and seems to get better with every year that passes. The woman feels the inevitable ups and downs of sharing a life, a home and everything with the man, but knows that the hardest peak they’ve ever had to climb came early, a journey that was so difficult and treacherous that they learned quickly how to lean on each other, how to guide each other through, how to survive against what very well might have been an insurmountable sorrow. The man still grasps her hands when she needs the support, his embrace is still warm and soothing. And on occasion when the inevitable pain of loss rises to the surface of her heart, she can turn to him and whisper ‘I miss our babies so much’ and he knows that all she wants is her shoulders drawn to him in silent understanding. The happiness has returned, but tarnished in too many spots that will never again feel shiny and new and full of promise.

And on Valentine’s Day, this kind of love is the only thing she needs. ‘Happily Ever After’ was suspect from the start and really, it only exists in stories of impossibly perfect people with straight white teeth, but what comes in real life is actually much better, far deeper, more powerful and with meaning that dashes the perfection of fairy tales to bits. She learned that happiness comes when the pain is hardest, even when you can’t see or feel it, when the only tether you have to life is a hand in the darkness. Happiness is never found in some box of chocolate, or a special dinner or a frilly card with a red heart, but in the blood and guts of life, of a real, honest, and hard life, the life that forms after the bomb drops and the smoke clears. Because this kind of love isn’t celebrated only once a year; it’s a feeling worthy of a daily toast, a celebration every night with a kiss before sleeping and the assured grip of warm comforting hands on the rough seas.

seeking banana bread perfection

February 10th, 2011 | 4 Comments »

All right, all right…. you don’t want to talk about Winter anymore. I get it. How about we talk Banana Bread?

I grew up with regular and repeated doses of good banana bread. How about you? In our house, Mom would watch those bananas closely, and as soon as a few of them turned to the perfect spotty stage of brown, she would snatch them from the basket, peel them and put them on waxed paper, then mash them to mush with a fork for her golden fragrant loaves of banana bread. With walnuts. Which I hated, and yet, the banana bread was so glorious and perfect that I would carefully pick out the icky nuts and eat the rest. My favorite was the top of each slice, the softest part that often got so moist and tender. I always saved it for last.

I never varied from that banana bread recipe I had. Whenever bananas in my first kitchen made it further than a bowl of cereal, or an afternoon snack smeared with peanut butter, I would do as Mom did, peel them down, mash them with a fork and make a loaf of banana bread. But, as I could now do as an adult, with my own hand mixer, a container for flour and sugar in my cupboard that was always full, with the familiar can of baking powder next to them, I would leave out those gross nuts. My banana bread was spartan. All it needed was banana. Sometimes a smear of soft butter would coat the slice, or maybe peanut butter went on the bread too. But I never needed a reason to stray from the recipe that I’d known all my life. It was banana bread perfection and it was Mom and it was all I needed. When she died, making a loaf of her banana bread was like evoking her memory in my kitchen, with my heart breaking again, through each press of a fork into the banana, turning the flesh to the proper level of mashed for the recipe. Then each bite of her bread would send my very adult mind reeling backwards into the kitchen of childhood, the sunny window, the deeply patterned blue carpet and my Mom, happily peeling spotty brown bananas, the old familiar bread pan on the counter next to her.

I’m not sure what happened the last time I made Mom’s Banana bread recipe, but the first bite put me off quite a bit. It tasted…. I don’t know, odd. Fake, I guess. I was really kind of shocked by the flavor. I’d grown up with this recipe; I’d made it dozens of times since I was a kid and here I was, by leaps and bounds an adult and quite the responsible one too, with a good job, a home and a child and yet, I looked at the slice of banana bread in my hand and it didn’t fit anywhere with the life that I’d found. It didn’t even bring Mom’s face to mind, her laughing smile and the way she would grab my shoulders and squeeze me just a little, making a delighted teeny squeak of her love for me. My mouth, my taste and my opinion had grown right alongside my life, and this recipe didn’t do it for me anymore. Part of me was crushed. It was the familiar flavor of a life that was now gone, and it was failing to bring to me the comfort I was seeking, comfort away from a world of bills, deadlines, a hectic job and single parenting. I didn’t get rid of the recipe because that might feel a little like experiencing Mom’s death all over again. But I haven’t made that particular version for a long, long time.

Ever since then, I’ve been on the lookout for the next best Banana Bread recipe. When the bananas in my house get past their prime, I simply place them in the freezer and wait it out. I search the wide range of recipes available for one that might take me home again, a feeling of nostalgia, of banana bread perfection, a slice that might elicit that memorable squeak of love I recall. At one point, I think I had 10 frozen bananas in there, and part of me mourns the loss of that constant. I have looked over dozens of recipes and rejected most of them; too much fat, too much oil, wayyyyyy too much sugar and in almost all of them, not enough Mom. So I keep searching, finding a few gems here and there to sample in my own sunny kitchen, with it’s warped old bread pans. And the bananas meanwhile, well, they tend to pile up in the freezer, silently waiting to succumb to a fork, a whisk and a hot oven to be baked into a memory that will sustain me through the years ahead.

I’m still looking for that ultimate, that perfect banana bread, and I find that I’m really enjoying the experiments I’m coming across. This current one I’ve found is really quite good, in a clever and surprising way. What appeals to me about this particular recipe is that it includes crushed graham crackers crumbs in the base. This gives it a texture that’s a bit more crunchy than you would expect, and the taste of the graham crackers is really pronounced if you share the slice with a steaming cup of coffee. It’s perfect together, like banana and chocolate, like mothers and baking; with the familiarity of ritual, an old trusted bread pan and a freezer full of fruit at the ready.

Banana Chocolate Chip Bread

1-2/3 c. graham cracker crumbs (approx. one standard package from a box)
1-1/2 c. whole wheat flour
1/2 c. natural cane sugar (you can use regular granulated too)
1 T. baking powder
1/2 t. sea salt
3 medium bananas (i like to mash two of them fully, then leave the third in chunks for texture)
1/2 c. milk (any kind will do- I like vanilla soy, and almond would be wonderful)
3 T. canola oil (or get crazy and use olive oil- it tastes wonderful)
2 eggs, lightly beaten
6-oz semi-sweet chocolate chips

Preheat oven to 350°. Spray a standard 9×5 loaf pan with cooking spray.

Place graham cracker crumbs, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl, and whisk well to combine.

In a large measuring cup, add bananas, oil, milk and eggs. Beat lightly with a fork to combine, then add to flour mixture. With a rubber spatula, carefully stir together until just blended with some streaks of flour remaining. Add in the chocolate chips and combine until mixture is fully incorporated. Scrape into prepared pan and bake for 50-60 minutes, or until top springs back when lightly touched and toothpick test comes out clean.

Allow to cool in pan for 30 minutes, then remove to wire rack to cool completely.

Need some other inspiration for banana baking? Try these:

Applesauce Banana Bread

Banana Poppyseed Bread

Peanut Butter Banana Bread

Whole Wheat Banana Pancakes

embracing a season

February 8th, 2011 | Comments Off

When I wrote this post, which was last week, it had just snowed a gorgeous fluffy three or four inches, the temperatures were decent for a February day and it was lovely, really. But today, when this post goes live, the weather has sunk once again into a deep, bone chilling cold, so I do realize that asking a Minnesotan to embrace winter is quite a stretch. Still, I’m posting this because when it was actually occurring with me, it was really beautiful, and it’s worth sharing even if today is merciless and cold. Also, the photos are not in black and white. It was just the light that day, low and monochromatic and beautiful in it’s own soft, gray way.


There are plenty of those in Minnesota who, right about now I realize, are really, really tired of winter. We’ve had a lot of snow, most certainly, and it causes quite a few headaches, especially if you commute to your work. I’ve been fortunate that being out driving in it hasn’t been necessary for me during the worst of the storms. I can sit home, warm and snug and the only hassle I need to deal with is getting the newest snowfall amounts off the driveway, up and over the six-foot high snowbanks lining the sides. It’s Mother Nature’s workout at it’s finest.

And I’m a cross-country skier, so naturally the more snow, and the more frequently it snows, the better the skiing conditions will be. After our most recent several inches of fluff fell, I slid my skis in my car on a quiet Monday morning and headed over to the regional park near our house where a perfect 3K trail is carved through woods and wide open areas. When I arrived, there was a snow-shoeing class going on, with young children and their parents. I locked my boots into my skis and slid off on the trail. Pretty soon, the rest of the world fell away and it was just me, the sheer glaring white of a fresh snowfall and an empty park. The weather was perfect, and with each stride I felt like I was propelling myself further away from the clenched teeth feel of everyday life and into some place where I could breathe deep, let go and just be.

Sometimes when I ski, the rhythm of the stride, the movements of my shoulders and my very breath all seem like they’re fighting one another to co-exist. It’s a struggle to sweep myself along the trail; I feel clumsy and breathless, like I just can’t make my body work the way it needs to. On other days, within the first 5 minutes, my body slips into the familiar patterns it’s known since I was a young girl, and every muscle, breath and reach feels like the well-oiled machine that it is. On this snowy and silent Monday, I had one of those perfect days where it all fit. And with the trail to myself, I stretched, flew, slowed, stopped and breathed in the clear cold goodness of a winter day.

At one point in the trail, both sides are closely guarded by long stands of large pine trees, with sweeping boughs of green. They line the path like sentries, watching as you pass. I like to stop on this part, to look around under the trees as it’s a good place for wildlife to lurk as the tree cover tends to prevent the snowfall accumulation on the ground underneath. Sometimes there are deer in those trees, silently watching me; one time I was blessed to see a bright red fox for one good look before he leapt off, thick tail flashing wildly. This morning, I glimpsed a quiet rabbit, ears placed against it’s back under one majestic pine, and I stopped to catch my breath and watch. It was nibbling on something, paying little attention to me. I was struck with how content it looked, sitting there in a thick fur coat, like this snowy day was just another part of life.

And in reality, it is. The animals know nothing else but instinct. They just know what to do and how to manage the seasons as they change. And we could pick up a clue or two from their behavior. I don’t think they hang around each other, complaining about the current snow, the cold temperatures, and how much longer it is until Spring, at least those that stay here year round. But it seems like human beings somehow become hard-wired to complain about what they can’t change. Somehow there’s a sense of entitlement to having life exactly the way you want it, all the time. When it’s cold we want it hot, then when it’s hot we wish it wasn’t. The glass is full, but we drain it, then want it full again; always wishing for what is not. I don’t love the bitter cold, but there isn’t a single thing I can do about it when it comes except wait it out, wrapped up snug in wool sweaters. No words that can be formed with my tongue will make any difference, and the more bitterness I throw at circumstances beyond my control, the higher my dissatisfaction with my life rises. And that’s no good for anyone.

This all was churning through my mind as I skied further on the trail that day, listening to the whirl of wind over the open snow, and the moaning of a train whistle nearby. Being content with winter is challenging, I’ll be the first to admit that. But it’s also inevitable where we live. The snow falls, the snow banks grow, the muck in the streets covers our cars and potholes are everywhere. Granted, that part of the season isn’t the prettiest, but out there in the park that day, with just the wind and the train, and the endless lines of brown branches against the leaden sky, there’s a beauty that shouldn’t be ignored. And the best part about Winter is that Spring always comes, like the sunrise, a new day and with a sweet breath of relief.

a ridiculously delicious challenge

February 7th, 2011 | 1 Comment »

Hey everyone…. remember the Iron Foodie Contest I entered last December? I made an amazing Warming Winter Soup with soba noodles, porcini mushrooms, fennel pollen seared tofu….. it was a mob of flavors in my mouth and it was good enough to earn me 2nd Place in the contest. And that distinction then paved the way for me to participate in yet another cook-off with fellow bloggers, sponsored by Marx Foods.

This, folks, is a complex and involved contest that yet again, like the Iron Foodie, offers us a chance to utilize some of Marx Foods gourmet products to create original recipes. The first part, however, is a short essay on which three of the following products you would like to have, and what ridiculously delicious thing would you do with them if you won?

The Goodie List
Kobe Beef Sliders
OR Kobe Beef Burgers
Whole Quail
OR Semi-Boneless Quail
Wild Boar St. Louis Spare Ribs Pink Salmon Fillets
Kangaroo Burgers
OR Ground Kangaroo Meat
Wild Mushroom Sampler
(contents may change)
Live Oyster Sampler Ultimate Chile Head Sampler
10lb Specialty Burger Sampler Mega Pantry Sampler
Pekin Duck Breasts Fresh Blood Oranges
5lbs Frozen Wild Huckleberries 20lb Heirloom Potato Sampler
1lb Fresh Daruma Wasabi Specialty Sausage Sampler
14lb Dried Bean Sampler 1lb Bourbon Vanilla Beans
Superior Spanish Saffron Threads Live Geoducks
Edible Flower Assortment &Microflower Blend

Selecting three of these was no easy task, made more complicated by the fact that if indeed you are the last one standing in this elimination type contest, those items you select in this stage will be the ones that you win. I have to be prepared to accept these items in my kitchen if I’m clever enough to rise above the other bloggers and sweep up the competition.

So my choices are the Specialty Sausage Sampler, the 20-lb Heirloom Potato Sampler and the Pink Salmon Fillets. And with these three choices, the ridiculously delicious thing I would do with them if I won would be to host a food sampling party and showcase these amazing items for anyone who attends. Simple, yes, but what a feast that would be!! How could you lose with 9 pounds of sausages made from Buffalo, Duck, Venison, Lamb, Boar, Pheasant, Elk and Rabbit? Imagine those luscious links, grilled to a crackling crisp, split along their sides from the heat to reveal the juicy meat inside? I’d pop open a jar of my homemade Roasted Garlic Mustard, break out the spicy dill pickles, add a crunchy slaw and make sure we had plenty of napkins for the lip-smacking goodness that would ensue from such a feast. Along side those delectable sausages would be served delicate, tender Pink Salmon in a variety of flavorful options such as Lemon and Fresh Herbs, and then seared with either Sweet Sesame, Orange Cranberry or my Spicy Maple glazes. I’d slice the potatoes and roast them to browned and tender perfection so that everyone can sample to their hearts content. Of course, we’d need some good micro-brewed beer for the sausages and several wine selections to sip alongside that salmon. It would be an utterly hedonistic feast to help usher out Winter and welcome the coming Spring. Mmmmm…. I can just about TASTE it!!

Our entries are due by Monday February 7th for consideration by judges at Marx Foods. Should we be selected to move to the next round, by the following week we’ll receive a mystery box of ingredients from Marx Foods. Two of those ingredients will be utilized for an original recipe of our choice. From there, it gets a bit more complicated. So first things first, I’ll send this in for consideration and cross my fingers.

New Cooking Connections virtual cooking class

February 3rd, 2011 | 7 Comments »

One aspect of this big wide food-blogging world I find myself in is the ability to share all aspects of cooking with people all over the globe, whether it’s swapping recipes with my friends here in Minnesota, or sharing cooking tips with someone in another state, the ability to make our world smaller with just a click, to share the wealth of food knowledge and understanding with each other is a wonderful gift.

So when The Motherhood approached me about being a part of their new virtual cooking school, I was happy to accept.
I’m co-hosting an upcoming class in the Web’s first-ever virtual cooking school, Cooking Connections,
and I would love for all of you to join me!  Here’s what you need to know to participate:

When: Wednesday, Feb. 9, at 8 p.m. ET/7 p.m CST

Where: TheMotherhood – here is the link to the page where the class will be held: http://www.themotherhood.com/talk/show/id/62132

And here is the registration page for all seven Cooking Connections classes: http://www.themotherhood.com/cookingconnections

What:
The class I am co-hosting is called “Cooking with Loved Ones Across the Country,” and it is hosted by Vera Sweeney, who blogs at Lady and the Blog, http://www.ladyandtheblog.com/.  During the class, we all will talk about how technology has changed the way people can cook together, and how we can connect with loved ones near and far to continue that ritual of cooking together!

The class is sponsored by ConAgra and hosted by TheMotherhood.

Feel free to come and just follow along with the Chat, or you can participate by creating a free profile with The Motherhood.
I hope to see you there!

My other fabulous co-hosts are:

Audrey McClelland, Mom Generations, http://momgenerations.com
Whitney Wingerd, Mommies with Style, http://www.mommieswithstyle.com
Colleen Padilla, Classy Mommy, http://classymommy.com
Melissa Chapman, Married My Sugar Daddy, http://marriedmysugardaddy.com
Victoria Pericon, 24/7 Victoria, http://247victoria.com/
Nancy Horn, The Product Mama, http://theproductmama.tumblr.com
Jennifer Leal, Savoring the Thyme, http://www.savoringthethyme.com/
Zareen Fidlon, Cooking with Z, http://cookingwithz.com/
Sarah Caron, Sarah’s Cucina Bella, http://www.sarahscucinabella.com