Sunday, February 22, 2015

Book Review: The Tie that Binds by Kent Haruf

The Author is a Storyteller and it's Wonderful

A murder in Small Town America

I have read and loved another book by Kent Haruf so I was excited to read another one of his novels. Plainsong featured a host of characters living in Holt, Colorado that alternated between each of their stories. What was so wonerful about the book was it displayed life in small town America with a focus on community with all its flaws displayed along with other more positive aspects of this group of interwoven lives.

The Tie that Binds also takes place in Holt, Colorado but this time it's one person who tells this interesting story over a cup of coffee with the reader at his own home. He recounts the tragic tale from the beginning of why an 88 year old woman is sitting in a hospital bed, recovering, so that she can stand trial for killing her brother.

Of course there are a lot of reasons that this took place and of course she is not a cold blooded murderer. The story for why it happened and what's wrong with why she is going to be put on trial is told by her neighbor, a cattlefarmer named Sanders Roscoe, whose family has been interwoven with Edith Goodnough's kin for over three generations. Sanders knows the history of Edit and her family in a way that both the sherriff and new reporter from Denver would never have a glimpse of and he wants to tell the story of a woman who plodded through life taking care of everyone before herself.

After reading this book I found out that this was actually Kent Haruf's first novel and I have to say it's a wonderful piece and I look forward to reading more of his books as it was equally as good as Plainsong.

Book Review: Think Twice by Lisa Scottoline

Interesting Premise but Extremely Hokey

Twins Separated at Birth with Very Different Mindsets. . . 

But are they more alike than they appear? It's a pretty formulaic story that could have worked if there wasn't all these cliches and stereotypes that were supposed to be the author's version of developed characters. In some cases, I wasn't even sure why certain characters were even in the story and at the end everything was wrapped up in a neat bow.

I guess some people would think this book was fun but about halfway through I knew I was just reading it to get it done. Not worth the time.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Mexican Cantina Spice Rack + Additional Storage

Maybe "Mexican Cantina" isn't the right description but it works for me!

Years ago, when we bought our first house together, I wanted to make it our own but we didn't have a lot of money to gut a kitchen and put in new cabinets. We decided to go for an overall Mexican Cantina theme, by hanging fake chili peppers all about (even some light up ones), paint the bad kitchen wallpaper an adobe brown, and putting Terracotta sun tiles just about everywhere. There was also a project to strip the paint off the 1920's steel cabinets which involved industrial strength boat stripper but that's a story for another day. . .

Well that kitchen was a house ago and this new one has some updates but it was kind of ironic that the paint color, that was in place when we moved in, wasn't all that different from the last house. Because someone took the time and money to professionally paint this house, I couldn't justify painting it again. I'm really not the best house painter so I'm leaving well enough alone!

It really lent an excuse to recycle some of our kitchen objects from the old house, including a couple of strands of chili peppers (even the ones that light up) and this spice rack. This spice rack was a quick do it yourself project. The rack itself was part of a McCormick Spice Island set we got years ago (it probably was a wedding gift) full of all the spices you may need to stock a kitchen. I actually just went on to find a picture of what this looked like before we decorated it and with the spices it now goes for about $180 on Amazon but it's a newer version! Here is what ours looked like unadorned (as it's an older version) and I will go on record that I'm pretty sure that we did not spend that much money but it was also close to 15 years ago too. Spices have become more expensive.

This project is very simple. I think the most difficult part was collecting bottle-caps which did take some time to collect as we wanted various ones rather than about 25 Dr. Pepper ones to adorn this rack. I ended up soliciting friends, asking for the throwaways at casinos, and trying beers when we went out to restaurants. We ended up with so many that my son used 100 of them for a "100 Day of School Project" which we limited to soft drink varieties. . .

What we did was drill a little pilot hole in each cap first and then fasten it directly on the wood with a decorative little nail. Nothing fancy, really. . . But I do think it adds a certain level of kitsch to our kitchen. I like how that sounds. . . Kitsch in our kitchen. Say it with me. . .

Now when I first started cooking the rack was able to sufficiently hold all the spices I needed. I think I was pretty basic. The most exotic spice I had in those days was probably Cayenne Pepper or maybe some Garlic Salt. But over the years, I have really learned to appreciate a wider variety of spices with the introduction to so many different cultures. Often I will encounter a new recipe that will require a hunt for new ingredients. We recently tried a Paneer Makhani dish that required fenugreek leaves. Now I could find the powder at quite a few locations but the leaves were elusive. Add items like specialized curry and pepper powders, saffron, cardamon pods, flavored salts, and other choice flavorings and the system has simply been overloaded.

Over the years we have had to add other modules to the spice system. You can actually see the progression. We had the little wire basket in the middle at the old house as well and for a long time that helped with overflow but when we moved we found ourselves soon in the same situation. I was actually chucking spices or hiding them in cupboards. What invariable would happen was I would think we did not have a spice and end up buying it again.

The latest addition to our system is the IKEA item at the bottom of the picture. It's actually two flat trays that can hold a bunch of assorted items. It's made up of two of the baskets, a rail that we cut down to fit in our small section of the wall, and some hooks. My thought is that if I eventually need to I could add a second row to this as the spices continue to expand.

I should probably not tell you this but our spices, with the exception of some oddly shaped items in the middle wire basket, are organized in alphabetical order. I know that's pretty strange but that's who I am.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Restaurant Review: Clawson Steakhouse

Restaurant or Icon?

We must have passed this place about 1000 times before we tried it.

It's been there for years. The parking lot is always filled with overflow across the street and by other businesses. We have heard about it repeatedly as a destination of other folks. Why hadn't we tried it sooner? Well there were a couple of reasons. . . From the outside it looks very dated, starting with the old sign that you can see from 14 Mile Road with what looks like a drawn picture of a steak that looks more like ham and the old stone facade on the building. Secondly I've never been a plain steak for the sake of steak kind of person and typically steakhouses are really about just cooking that slab of meat.

But last night was the night. My husband called ahead and found out that they will not accept reservations for two so we walked in and put our name in. We came back twenty minutes later and were able to be readily seated, in an actual very cozy corner booth. The decor is really a step back in time but it's dimly lit which actually makes it a little more intimate. The bar really was iconic, with old retro seats with arms and there is a live band and dance floor in the other section. My husband described it as "Love Boat Decor" and it really kind of is!

The menu is pretty straightforward from what you would think about at a steakhouse. Lots of different kinds of meat but there were a few surprises including Opa! on the appetizer section of the menu, and a couple of veal and steak selections with a Bearnaise sauce.

I can say that portions here are generous, and come with a bunch of little extras. We were given hot dinner rolls and breadsticks pretty soon after being seated. The rolls were rather good with a crusty outside and a little bit of saltiness. We started out with an appetizer of calamari which was above average and came with a tomato basil sauce that was reminiscent of ammoglio. The calamari was your basic ring version but the coating was very good and they were a very nice texture.

Entrees come with both soup and a garden salad. The soup selections were clam chowder and French onion. We chose the onion and it had a generous layer of baked cheese on top and a very nice crouton. It wasn't the heartiest version of French Onion I have ever had but it had a good flavor. I should note that the food is served pretty "no frills" including some very plain basic plates without any garnish unless you consider the piece of green on our calamari plate.

The garden salads came with your choice of dressing and I really thought that the blue cheese was quite good. The lettuce was mostly iceberg but it was crisp and fresh and had cucumbers and cherry tomatoes with it.

Entrees also came with a choice of sides such as baked potatoes and pasta. I chose the pasta with the meat sauce and it was also very good. The pasta was fresh spaghetti and came with a generous portion of meat sauce and a side of fresh Parmesan cheese. 

So of course this is a steak restaurant so I should talk about the steaks. That is always more difficult for me because as I said before, I'm not one for just a slab of meat. I ordered the Steak Lorenzo which featured a sirloin steak topped with shrimp, asparagus and Bearnaise sauce. The steak was a hunk of meat. It was a large hunk of meat and it was prepared to order but they just don't excite me. The shrimp with it was delicious and I liked the sauce. I always like crisp asparagus so that was good as well.

We also ordered a Sizzler which was a New York Strip steak with their version of Zip sauce. While I personally am not a big fan of that particular cut of meat, and I prefer my meat more rare (it was ordered Medium Well), it was quite good. The sauce was delicious and it was a good quality steak.

So final verdict, this is an experience rather than just a dinner. If you like simple, straightforward food, and lots of it, for a reasonably fair price, I recommend it. If we go back I would try the veal instead of the steak and I think it would be very enjoyable.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Gnocchi with Mushroom Cream Sauce

Brought to you by. . . A New Cookbook!

Sometimes (well mostly always), gifts are the best.

To me, gifts are the things you won't buy yourself. I recently went to lunch with two dear friends and had no idea that part of the agenda was to bring belated holiday gifts. Apparently, the challahs I baked in lieu of Christmas cards, made me deserving of tangible objects this year. Both of these friends are "foodies" and I received many wonderful items, including "new" vintage cocktails supplies (shakers and glasses) as well as some wonderful chocolate bars with that special balance between heat and sweet, and some popcorn that I had previously seen on Shark Tank. I also received this new cookbook called "America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook: A Faster, Smarter Way to Cook Everything from America's Most Trusted Test Kitchen".

Now this is one of those examples of a gift being something you won't buy yourself. As a rule I don't buy cookbooks anymore, although now I'm seeing I may have been to harsh with this rule, because with the accessibility to the Internet in all its forms I thought I really didn't need them. I have easy access to the Food Network's host of recipes online and Pinterest offers me a variety of eye candy. . . When we moved I actually purged most of my cookbooks that had been collecting dust with a few exceptions. . . mostly cookbooks with sentimental value and ones that focused strictly on breads. This new cookbook however really is changing my perspective.

If you have ever watched America's Test Kitchen on PBS, you already know the extensive research that they do for you on the show. I feel like I'm doing a commercial but I am not getting paid for this. . . simply watch an episode to see. . . They offer a subscription on their website (see the link) for access to all their recipes and I'm thinking that having the cookbook is just easier. I will give you just one example. . . My husband watched an episode in the summer that featured barbecued ribs. They examined what kind of ribs to use, how to prepare them, how to smoke them, what kind of rub to make, a homemade BBQ sauce that was analyzed and tweaked for the most flavor, etc. etc. They used corn cobs as part of the smoking process with water and showed the viewer how to set it up in the charcoal grill. Hmmm, charcoal grill. . . alas we did not have one as we had used propane for years. Not surprisingly we made our first purchase of a Weber charcoal grill after repeatedly watching the episode and taking notes.

So all this being said, America's Test Kitchen impresses me but it's typically a ton of work to make one of their recipes based on this experience. However, this cookbook features QUICK recipes designed for families so this is a new twist. All of the recipes take less than an hour, from prep to at the table, and I need that. They also feature many shortcuts that I appreciate, teaching you how to do things quicker and actually recommending some store bought items down to the best brand for the recipe.
I have been playing around with several of the recipes to tweak them for our family and taking notes. Anyone that cooks with picky eaters knows that sometimes you make the recipe one time, almost if not 100% exactly as written, but the revise it over time to get it right. I have done that with a couple so far that I will feature over the coming weeks but today, I'm almost going to do it exactly as it's a new one. 

I'm especially interested in this version of Gnocchi because they use the vacuum packed ones that I often buy at Trader Joe's. Not frozen and not dried ones that you typically buy at the grocery store. I have made recipes where you boil them or alternately put them in a skillet with sauce and let them simmer. This recipe asks you to first boil them and then actually put them in a nonstick pan with a little butter to brown them a bit, before adding sauce. I thought that was pretty interesting so we are going to try this tonight. I'm actually typing this first part of my blog article before I cook them as I had some prep work to do ahead of time.

The recipe called for two types of mushrooms. Cremini and porcini mushrooms are used. The cremini mushrooms are often called "baby bellas" and were fresh, only requiring a quick trim at the stems and then slicing them thinly. The porcini mushrooms came dried and had to be rinsed before they were minced. My initial thought was the porcini mushrooms were kind of expensive as it was 6.99 for a little bag of dried nothings, but when I saw that I was getting an ounce (which I know is really nothing) and I only needed a 1/4 ounce for the recipe, I did some quick math. These smell really earthy. The cat came to check them out and he's typically not interested in anything that isn't cheese or meat, so I'm thinking they will add a dimension of flavor to the dish. My mincing was a little difficult to achieve with these dried chewy things but I think it will be okay.

I did have some other "cheats" that perhaps the cooks who created this book may frown upon but I'm always trying to save a little time. I have a confession to make, I hate working with fresh garlic cloves. I'm not very good at it, despite watching countless techniques with knives so I often use the jarred stuff. Yes, I'm admitting it and I'm not ashamed. This recipe also called for shallots and I'm not above using the jarred form of these either. I also am not using my homemade chicken stock for recipes as it takes a lot of time to prepare so I'm cheating with Trader Joe's broth in a box. I do it all the time. Also, no fresh herbs around here, they would never last. Thyme in a jar. Yes a jar, and I don't have any parsley so we are skipping that from the recipe.

Speaking of spices I think I may have an issue but I bet most of you also do if you love food and cooking. Here is my spice rack. . . It started out with the first basic rack on top but over time I have had to add new components to make this work and hold everything. If you squint you may see that they are organized in alphabetical order. Yes, I'm sick that way. I have learned that it really isn't my fault. I recently had to take a S.E.L.F. assessment to determine what personality type I was. I came up with an "E" and of course there are shortcomings with all of the types but I did learn that my "tunnel vision" is completely normal for me and that I like to organize CD's in alphabetical order. So my CD's are spices instead of songs. . .  These things can't be helped sometimes.

Part II: The Actual Recipe

The recipe called for the gnocchi to be cooked first, and then drained and sauteed in a bit of butter. We thought that was interesting, as I mentioned before, and we also decided after tasting the recipe that it was quite good. It added a whole new dimension to the texture and flavor of the dish. While I don't think that I would perhaps make this recipe again, as is, I would definitely use this technique with the gnocchi with other recipes, including a homemade Alfredo sauce. This recipe itself was a little too much like a broth and not a thick sauce.   

While most of the recipes in this book are simple takes on more complicated dishes, I found myself wondering why I had to go through that many steps for a cream sauce. I did like the addition of the porcini mushrooms and will probably add that as a new step or ingredient to my own recipe, but I wouldn't repeat this recipe in the book "as is". I make my own ad hoc Alfredo on a regular basis and even add mushrooms and it's never been this complicated, and it's actually much heartier and flavorful.

The finished dish was not bad, but it was not exemplary. I will definitely use my own recipe next time with some of the new tips I learned. . . I also thought that some grated cheese on top would add garnish and some more flavor so you will see that pictured in my photo.

Tips we learned from this dish to adapt for others:

1. Adding dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed and then minced, to fresh mushrooms for a more earthy flavor.

2. Cooking the vacuum packed gnocchi per directions on the package but sauteing them in butter after before adding to dishes.

3. Sprinkling some flour on the mushrooms as they cooked as a thickening agent (I would note that you can't rely on only that and should make a roux for the actual sauce - that's where I think this recipe went wrong).

Please don't use this post as a criticism of the cookbook. Many of the other recipes in here are very very good. I will post reviews of the two beef dishes we tried once I play around with them a little more. They were delicious!

Gnocchi with Mushrooms and Cream Sauce

From The America's Test Kitchen Quick Family Cookbook with notes

1 lb. vacuum-packed gnocchi (I use Trader Joe's)
Salt and Pepper
4 Tablespoons Butter
12 oz of creminin mushrooms, trimmed and sliced thin (these are often called Baby Bella)
2 shallots minced (I used the kind in the jar)
1/4 oz dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed and minced
2 garlic cloves, minced (jar!)
2 teaspoons all purpose flour (this will not make a roux!)
1 teaspoon fresh thyme, minced (I used jar)
2 cups low sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/4 cup white wine
3/4 cup frozen peas, thawed
2 Tablespoons fresh parsley (I omitted)

Bring 4 quarts of salted water to a boil in a large pot. Add the gnocchi and cook until the gnocchi are tender, and float to the top, about two minutes. Drain.

Melt 2 tablespoons of butter in a 12 inch non-stick skillet (I don't have one with a lid so I used a regular one and it was fine) over medium high heat. Add the gnocchi and cook, stirring occasionally until golden brown, about 5 minutes, transfer to plate.

Melt the remaining butter in the empty skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and shallots and cover, until the mushroom have released their liquid, about 4 minutes (I found it was closer to 7). Uncover and continue to cook, stirring often, until the mushrooms are well browned, about five minutes (closer to 10).

Stir in garlic, flour, and thyme, and cook until fragrant about 30 seconds. Stir in the broth, cream and wine and simmer until the sauce has thickened slightly and reduced to about 2 cups, about 8-10 minutes. Stir in the browned gnocchi and peas, and cook until well coated and cooked through, about a minute. Sprinkle with salt, pepper and parsley and serve. I added grated cheese instead.