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Thursday, October 22, 2020

The trouble with enchiladas

Growing up in Chicago, I didn’t know an enchilada from a tostada. We simply didn’t eat Mexican food—perhaps because there was little of it, perhaps because my father’s taste in food was strictly British. I didn’t have Mexican food until I moved to Fort Worth in the mid-sixties, and I distinctly remember being very wary the first time I ate at Joe T.’s. Today I often crave Tex-Mex, though I am not a fan of anything in the pepper family, and I shy away from anything very spicy. The thing about Tex-Mex, to me, is that at its best, it’s not spicy.

Which brings us to enchiladas. My very favorite kind is spinach, but they’re rare and not often on restaurant menus. I used to love Tres Joses where the spinach enchiladas were the best but, alas, apparently not good enough to sustain the restaurant. So if I can’t have spinach, I’ll take chicken with sour cream, thank you. But I don’t like to make them.

Jordan makes wonderful cheese enchiladas and chicken. She goes through the whole process of softening the tortillas and making the filling and rolling the tortillas into enchiladas? Me? I’m discovering with age and my tiny kitchen I really like shortcuts. And I particularly don’t want to fry tortillas on my hotplate. I love to make King Ranch chicken instead of enchiladas because you tear the corn tortillas into big pieces—no frying, no prep, just layer them in the casserole.

Then I happened on a chicken enchilada pie recipe—don’t remember where I found it. But I tried it one evening, with some reservation because I thought it would be too close to King Ranch. Not at all! Quick, easy, delicious—and addictive! I didn’t mess with the recipe at all, except that I had an unmeasured amount of homemade taco seasoning in the freezer and used all of it in place of the package called for. With the first bite, I thought the taco seasoning was too prominent, but it softened and in leftovers I was not at all aware of it. Just for fun, I’m including my taco seasoning recipe with the pie directions.

Chicken enchilada pie

One rotisserie chicken, skinned, boned and diced—about three cups

1 pkg. taco seasoning (or make your own)

1 can Rotel (I prefer lime and cilantro flavor)

3 cans green chilies (recipe calls for four, but I cut it down)

1 can cream of mushroom soup

16 oz sour cream

Fresh corn tortillas

Grated cheese

Green onion (optional)

Jalapeños, chopped (optional)

Toss the chicken pieces with taco seasoning until all are thoroughly covered. Separately, mix Rotel, 2 cans chillies, mushroom soup, and 8 oz. sour cream. Add chicken.

The recipe called for frying tortillas, but I didn’t do it. I did cut them in half, so I could line the pan with sort of moon-shaped tortilla pieces (I could just as easily have torn them into large pieces.) Make layers of tortillas and chicken mixture—you should have three layers of tortillas and two of chicken.

Mix remaining sour cream and one can of chilies. Spread evenly over top layer of tortillas. Top with plenty of grated cheese—I prefer cheddar, but you could mix in some Monterey Jack.

Bake at 375o for twenty minutes or so until heated through and the cheese is bubbly. Sprinkle with chopped green onions for serving. You can if you wish sprinkle some jalapeños over it also, either before or after baking. But I’m not going to do that.

Ever read the ingredients list on your favorite brand of taco seasoning? I bet there are some artificial flavors and colors, some preservatives, a lot of stuff you don’t necessarily want to put in your body. Making your own is simple and cheaper. And you probably have most of the ingredients on hand

Homemade taco seasoning

1 Tbsp. chili powder

¼ tsp. garlic powder

¼ tsp. onion power

¼ tsp. oregano

½ tsp. paprika

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. finely ground black pepper

Crushed red pepper to taste, optional

           Store unused portion if any in the freezer


Thursday, October 15, 2020

Cincinnati chili


This is National Chili week—what better time ot talk about Cincinnati chili. We Texans know northerners can’t make a decent bowl of chili, but the thing about Cincinnati chili is that it doesn’t even try to approach the Terlingua model. It is its own dish, and in 2013 the Smithsonian named it one of “20 Most Iconic Foods in America.” Detractors call it that “weird cinnamon chili.” Chili purists best not read on.

Apparently Macedonian immigrants first made this dish in the 1920s but it really came to fame in 1949 when an immigrant named Nicholas Lambrinides opened a restaurant that happened to have a breathtaking view of Cincinnati’s skyline. He called his creation Skyline Chili, and today it’s served in a chain of restaurants or you can buy it canned. A dinner kit is also available. I think a friend who lives in the Cincinnati area told me she buys a mix.

The distinguishing things about Cincinnati chili are, yes, the cinnamon and the fact that it is served over spaghetti and topped with grated cheddar. I first heard of it when I researched my book, Texas is Chili Country. At the time I dismissed it as a regional oddity, but recently I came across a recipe and decided to try it. My version, which cobbled together two recipes, was a successful experiment—a critical father-and-son audience approved—but I learned a couple of things I’d do differently.

Please note: start this the day before you intend to eat it.

Cincinnati Chili

2 lbs. ground beef

1 6 oz. can tomato paste

4 cups water

1 8 oz. can tomato sauce

1 large onion, minced

6 cloves garlic, minced

3 Tbsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp cinnamon

¾ tsp. ground allspice

A pinch of ground cloves (the original recipe called for ¼ tsp but I found the clove taste too strong—when you ca clearly identify one spice out of all, you’ve used)

¼ tsp. cayenne or to taste (recipe called for ½ tsp)

2 tsp. kosher salt

2 Tbsp. Worcestershire sauce

1 Tbsp. apple cider vinegar

1 oz. unsweetened chocolate

Cooked spaghetti

Grated sharp cheddar cheese

This goes together like nothing you’ve ever made before. In your large chili kettle, sauté the tomato paste—no oil, no nothing, just the paste. It’s not as easy as it sounds. You have to continually stir and scrape to keep it from burning. You’re done when the tomato smell is rich and toasty—only takes a minute or two. Add the water and ground beef. No, you really haven’t browned the beef first. Just add the raw ground meat and stir until everything becomes a mush. Simmer until it looks like a meaty paste and the meat is cooked.

Take the pot off the burner and let it cool enough to refrigerate overnight. The next day, scrape the congealed fat off the top. Bring the mixture to a simmer and add the remaining ingredients, except the vinegar and chocolate—once again, you don’t sauté the onion or garlic. Just put it in raw.

Simmer for at least a couple of hours, letting the flavors blend. Now you can either serve or refrigerate and re-heat later to serve. Just before serving stir in the vinegar and chocolate. Serve over spaghetti and top with grated cheddar.

Thursday, October 8, 2020


That wonderful Greek spinach pie has been on my cooking bucket list for a long time. I printed out the NYTimes recipe for skillet spanakopita and kept it in my file. But every time I looked for a new recipe, I passed it by—the phyllo was scary and all those steps intimidating. Daughter Jordan forced my hand by bringing home all the ingredients from the grocery. I couldn’t ignore all that fresh spinach!

I can’t share the recipe with you because I really don’t want to tangle with the Times legal department, but I can tell you about some of the changes and shortcuts I took. I ended with what I call deviant spanakopita, and, my oh my, was it delicious. All those intimidating steps really aren’t that bad once you take it one step at a time.

Facebook has a page called “The New York Times Cooking Community,” and a thread on there convinced me I am not the only one hesitant about phyllo. But someone had a suggestion that started me on my experiment—use puff pastry instead of phyllo. Not being a purist, I thought that sounded good. We also substituted a handful of green onion for the leeks, because the store did not have leeks. As you can see, I deviated from the beginning.

As I sauteed spinach in butter, it dawned on me that with two large bags, I only had two-thirds of the amount of spinach the recipe called for. Dilemma: did I want to have thinner filling or add a can of spinach (I am one of the few I know who eats and enjoys canned spinach but I recognized it would drastically change the dish). I’ve tried commercially prepared spanakopita, and the thing I don’t like is there’s too much phyllo for the spinach. I want thick filling, like you get when the Greek Orthodox Church has a bake sale. I decided what I needed was a smaller pan than the ten-inch cast-iron skillet the recipe called for. I used a pie pan. The advantage of that change was that I can put a pie pan in my toaster oven but can’t fit a skillet. We would have had to run it into the main house to bake.

But I didn’t adjust the other ingredients—feta, lemon, eggs, Parmesan, nutmeg, dill, etc. Theoretically I should have reduced each by one-third, but I didn’t. The result was a filling more pungent than traditional spanakopita, quite lemony. Jordan assured me she was raised by a woman who thought there could never be too much lemon (gosh, I wonder who!), and she loved every bite. I did too.

When I put the bottom sheet of pastry in the pie plate, all four corners overlapped, so I pulled them up into what looked like a galette. The recipe called for putting the skillet on the stove for a few minutes to brown the bottom crust and then baking. I skipped that step, went straight to baking, and couldn’t tell that it mattered.

After about twenty minutes in a 350 oven, we had a lovely looking dish that would serve four amply. But it was only Jordan and me—son-in-law and grandson aren’t one bit interested in something with spinach. So we had a ladies’ supper one night and delicious lunch another day.

If you’re really into cooking, I recommend an annual subscription to Sam Sifton’s cooking column in the NYTimes. I think it’s something like $42/year. But if you just want to make spanakopita, recipes abound on the internet. I hope the shortcuts I’ve discussed will help you. Big thing: don’t be frightened away from trying it.

Thursday, September 17, 2020

The Canned Soup Controversy

I don’t know about you, but I’ve cooked with canned soup all my life. It’s not quite that I wouldn’t know how to cook without it, but close. How do you make tuna casserole or King Ranch chicken without cream of mushroom soup?

Several years ago I wrote a memoir/cookbook and submitted the manuscript to a university press known for cookbooks. The critique was fairly damning. The reviewer called my recipes “faux gourmet.” The particular target of scorn was King Ranch casserole for which the anonymous critic claimed one should always make their own Bechamel sauce in place of the canned soup.  

Canned soup recipes have probably been around as long as canned soups, and probably been controversial just as long. The critic’s comment sounded like snobbery to me, but a lot of people simply prefer not to use canned ingredients. One person on a web forum about canned soups said she objected to tomato soup recipes, because they left an aftertaste. I don’t particularly like beef-based soups, like vegetable beef, and I dislike the smell when someone is heating one in the office microwave. What do I really mean by canned soups? Creamed soups, such as chicken, mushroom, and celery. But then there’s that good bacon/spinach dip recipe that calls for cheddar cheese soup (not always easy to find). There are also products like instant or condensed broth or dried onion soup mix, from which almost everyone makes that sour cream dip that disappears as soon as you put it out. But I’m talking those basic creamed soups.

Some people object that canned soups are high in sodium and fat. Yes, but you can buy low sodium and low fat. Others simply prefer not to use canned soups and make white sauce, as the lofty critic did, or use one of the recipes for substitutes on the web. Trouble with those recipes is by the time you’ve made them, you’ve avoided prepared soup but used at least four other prepared ingredients, gone to a lot of trouble, and probably (I don’t know this for sure) produced a pretty tasteless or artificial-tasting product.

All this is leading up to the Grandma’s Chicken Casserole which I fixed the other night. It was deceptively simple and so good! I have no idea where I got the recipe, but if you gave it to me and are reading this, please let me know. I’d like to give credit where credit is due.

Grandma’s Chicken Casserole

1 rotisserie chicken (I used the traditional seasoned one), meat diced

2 cans cream of mushroom soup, undiluted

2 cups sharp cheddar cheese, grated

3 cups Ritz crackers, finely crushed

Arrange the diced chicken in a casserole dish. Spoon the soup evenly over the meat. Cover with shredded cheese, and top with Ritz crackers. Bake at 350o until thoroughly heated and crackers begin to brown. You could probably halve this easily.

Want that queso recipe? I served it at parties, but I also sometimes put tortilla chips in individual bowls, spooned the queso over them, and told my kids, “Here’s dinner.”

Colin’s Queso

1 lb. hamburger       

1 lb. pork sausage – mild, medium or hot, according to your taste; I use medium

1 16 oz. jar Pace picante sauce – no other brand will do, but again you have your choice of mild, medium or hot

1 can mushroom soup

1 lb. Velveeta, cubed

Yes, I know. I almost never use Velveeta, but it is the only thing that works for this recipe.

Brown the meat and then dump all ingredients into your crockpot. Heat on medium, stirring occasionally, until cheese melts. Serve hot.

For years I’ve thought there was only one way to make King Ranch chicken, but I’ve lately realized there are many versions. If you want mine, which is easy and really good, please let me know. Write me at





Thursday, September 10, 2020


A Potato Salad Mystery

Potato salad isn’t just for July 4th and Labor Day picnics. In some form or another, it’s with us year-round for family meals, restaurant meals, whatever. It’s a staple of the American diet—and yet, few people agree on the “best” potato salad. I once knew a man who ordered cheesecake everywhere it was on the menu because he was always looking for the “perfect” cheesecake. That’s sort of how I feel about potato salad.

I have my likes and dislikes: generally I don’t care for the heavy-on-the-mustard potato salad my daughter likes. Nor do I care for the mashed potato salad that is so common in barbecue joints. I like the version offered at Red, Hot, and Blue because it has large chunks of potato and hard-boiled egg. My son-in-law on the other hand would recoil from any dish that had had-boiled eggs in it. I think my favorite, make-it-at-home recipe is the County Line potato salad—from the Texas barbecue chain with that name. It has lots of dill relish in it. My daughter-in-law Lisa has a similar recipe that uses the relish and pickle juice and is delicious.

And then there’s potato salad without mayonnaise, usually with a vinegar and oil dressing. I make a hot German potato salad that Christian loves. It has a sauce thickened with flour and based on, gulp! bacon grease. Which reminds me that Jordan found a recipe for potato salad with bacon in it. She was intrigued; me, not so much. But you see the wide variety of things that fall under that oh-so-general label of potato salad.

My friend Elaine has no problem deciding which is the “best” potato salad. Elaine grew up in Sweetwater and pretty much longs to live there still. She makes frequent weekend trips to her hometown and when there, always eats at a place she refers to as Mrs. Allen’s. Actually it’s Allen’s Family Meals, a small building on one of the main roads through Sweetwater. Inside, diners sit at a common table and strangers soon become friends. Food is served family style.

It’s the potato salad that draws Elaine. In fact, I’m not sure but that it’s what draws her back to Sweetwater. The trouble is Mrs. Allen apparently doesn’t give out her recipe, and Elaine can’t duplicate the dish. So she brought me some potato salad and a list of ingredients without any quantities or proportion. I can’t duplicate it either. It’s a mashed potato salad and one look identifies the pimiento, but the other ingredients are more elusive. Elaine’s note says “a capful of vinegar and sugar to taste” but there’s no indication of how many potatoes take a capful of vinegar. Here’s Elaine’s list:








I can definitely taste the vinegar and sugar—a tiny bit too sweet for me—and there is the occasional crunch of minced onion. But the mayo is pretty well masked, and if there are eggs, they must be pulverized. The salad is creamy smooth.

If it were up to me, I’d cut back just a bit on the sugar and add more crunch—green onions and finely diced celery probably. But I haven’t a clue how much vinegar, sugar, and mayo are really in it. And as Elaine’s note says, the vinegar and sugar are what distinguish this version of the staple.

Elaine and I would appreciate any help, so if you come up with an approximation of Mrs. Allen’s potato salad, please write me at I’ll ask Elaine to be the official taster.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Pork chops and corn pudding


If, as my mom always told me, food is half eaten with the eye, last night’s dinner was no great shakes. It was colorless. If I’d been serving company, I’d have used some garnishes or a dark vegetable to spark it up. But it was just family (an attitude my dad always fought against, insisting you saved your best manners for your family—I have a hard time getting the grown kids and grandkids to accept that!) On the other hand, the part of the meal that was eaten with the taste buds and not the eye was a great success.

I had to give up some preconceived notions to fix this. Unlike a lot of true gourmets, I have never been opposed to cooking with canned soup. There are some great recipes out there, particularly for cream of mushroom and cream of chicken. But I draw the line, most of the time, at packaged dry mixes. Last night’s recipe used Hidden Valley Ranch dressing—too late  I remembered that there are directions online for making your own, though I’m not sure that’s a big improvement. Most recipes call for buttermilk powder, something few of us have on hand. I did find that you can buy it at Central Market for $7.99 a pound. Wonder how long it would take to use up a pound.

Anyway, back to the pork chops. Central Market had big lovely Berkshire chops on sale last week. Even on sale, they were not cheap, so we settled for three chops for the four of us—a good decision since we had leftovers. For years I’ve avoided pork chops because, like chicken, they can be dry if not accompanied by a sauce. But then I found this recipe, and we tried it.

Slow Cooker pork chops

3 or 4 meaty pork chops (not those skinny little ones)

Cream of mushroom soup

Cream of chicken soup

1 packet ranch dressing mix

Put chops in cooker, cover with combined soups, and sprinkle dressing mix over it. Cook on low 6-8 hours. The meat literally falls off the bone and is moist and delicious.

Corn pudding sounded to me like a perfect side for pork chops. I have a standby recipe that feeds two, but I was afraid it wouldn’t be enough. I found a version of that same recipe online that feeds 8-10, so I halved it. It was a great success. I know that because the resident teenager ate three helpings and licked the bowl clean.

Quick and easy corn pudding

2 cups corn kernels (cut fresh off the cob would be best, but I used frozen – be sure to defrost first)

1-1/2 Tbsp. flour

½ Tbsp. sugar

¼ tsp. salt

1 c. milk

2 eggs, lightly beaten

If you want, you can chop half the defrosted corn in a process. I skipped this step, but I think it would be a good idea. Mix everything together except milk and eggs. Mix those separately and then pour over corn mixture. Stir to make sure it’s evenly distributed.

Bake at 350o about 40 minutes or until the center is firmly set (it may take a little longer).

Honest, this meal took less prep than anything I’ve cooked in a long time, especially since Christian oversaw the pork in the crock pot in the main house. Took me five minutes max to prepare the pudding, and Jordan cooked it in the house. My toaster oven is not deep enough, and I don’t trust the temperature. I’m lucky to be able to send things into the house when my tiny kitchen isn’t equipped to handle them.



Thursday, August 27, 2020

Boiling eggs, poaching chicken, and simplifying enchiladas

If you look for advice on hard-boiling eggs online, you’ll find at least two dozen methods. A confusing mix. I’ve done it various way, the latest being to bring them to a boil, immediately remove from the heat, and let them cool until I can handle them. Sometimes they peel easily, sometimes not; sometimes they burst in boiling, and I have to make egg salad instead of deviled eggs. I think now I’ve found the solution, but it takes careful attention.
Start the eggs in cold water. Add a splash of vinegar so that the whites won’t spread if they do crack. The minute the water reaches a slow boil (you just begin to see bubbles on the surface), turn down the heat. I’ve finally learned to do that on my hot plate (thank you, daughter Megan) and can now keep it just above boiling. Leave the eggs at this slow boil for ten minutes (time it carefully); at the end of the ten minutes, immediately drain the hot water and run cold water over the eggs. Since cold water in a Texas summer is not really cold, I put a couple cups of ice cubes in the water and let the eggs sit until they are cool enough to handle. Refrigerate for at least a couple of hours. Peel under cold running water (I was astounded that son Jamie didn’t know to do this.) Perfect eggs for devilling, neither over- nor under-cooked.
If I’ve been unhappy with my hard-boiled eggs, I’ve been really frustrated trying to poach chicken. I dutifully put in celery tops, onion, peppercorns, etc. but a friend and I agreed the chicken is always tough. I coped by buying rotisserie chicken but that’s more expensive, and I hated the boning chore. (Daughter Jordan recently taught me that if you bone them while still warm from the store, the meat slides off the bone; I’d been sticking them in the fridge and boning when I needed them.)
The other day I decided to try poaching again. The Bon Appetit method calls for putting 2 lbs. chicken in 4 cups of water and adding 3-1/2 tsp. salt. Yes, that’s a lot of salt but it will make the meat moist but not salty. Then bring the water to the same slow boil you use for eggs but flip breasts immediately and remove from heat when the surface begins to roll and bubble. Let sit ten minutes. I did that and had chicken that was raw in the middle. So I put it back on that low boil. I think I kept three chicken half-breasts at a low boil for another ten minutes and then removed them to a cutting board to rest, cool, and collect themselves. Not only was it moist and flavorful, it shredded easily for my chicken enchilada recipe.

Chicken enchiladas made easy
2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breast
1 pkg. taco seasoning (or make your own—recipe in Gourmet on a Hot Plate)
2 4 oz. cans green chilies (divided use)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 can Rotel (I prefer the mild with lime)
2 cups sour cream (divided use)
Corn tortillas
Cheddar cheese
Poach chicken and cool. Shred and place in mixing bowl. Sprinkle with taco seasoning and stir well. Separately mix 1 can chilies, mushroom soup, Rotel, and 1 cup sour cream. Add to chicken mix and stir well.
Grease a flat, rectangular casserole dish—preferably the standard glass one. Cover bottom with flat tortillas (no, I didn’t fry them first). Add half the chicken mixture. Cover with more tortillas. Add remaining chicken mixture. One more layer of tortillas.
Mix remaining green chilies and sour cream. Cover top of casserole. Then cover it with grated sharp cheddar. Bake at 350o until heated through. Serve immediately.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

Down and dirty, quick and easy

Thanks to mystery author Debra Goldstein for a recipe that caught my imagination, although I must say not in a good way. Making a guest appearance on the blog, Mystery Lovers’ Kitchen (August 16), she shared her recipe for Jell-O in a Can. Now Debra will tell you she does not cook, and she’s created a main character, Sarah Blair (even has her own series) who’s afraid to be in the kitchen. So here’s what you need for Jell-O in a Can:
1 20 oz. can sliced pineapple
1 3 oz. package Jell-O gelatin, flavor of your choice
1 cup boiling water
Open pineapple and drain but leave slices in the can. Separately mix gelatin into boiling water. Let is cool a bit and then pour into the can. Chill until set. To get it out in one piece (a good trick), run a knife around the inside and coax it onto a platter, like you would a can of jellied cranberry sauce (another thing on my never-never list). Slice between pineapple rings and arrange attractively on the platter. The beauty of it is, of course, that it’s quick and easy.
And sometimes you need quick and easy, no matter how much  you like to cook. Here are a couple of my favorites:
            Chili-cheese dip: Mix one 15-oz. can Wolf chili without beans with 16 oz. of Velveeta, cubed. Throw it in the crockpot until the cheese melts. Stir. Serve warm with tortilla chips.
Want to get fancy? Turn it into what I call Colin’s queso after one of my sons. Brown a lb. each of ground beef and pork sausage, crumbling it as it browns. Put in the crockpot and stir in one can cream of mushroom soup, one 16 oz. jar Pace Picante sauce and that cubed lb. of Velveeta. Stir when cheese melts and serve warm with tortilla chips. I used to put chips in a bowl, pour the queso over it, and tell my kids it was supper.
Onion soup-sour cream dip: is there anyone in the world who doesn’t know how to do this? But maybe you’ve forgotten about it because it’s so retro. Simply mix one pack onion soup dip with one pint sour cream (do not use low-fat—that’s a disaster). I swear one night I watched a friend gobble this down and turn to his wife to ask, “Can you get the recipe for this?” She smiled and said she thought she could figure it out.
Cream cheese-crab spread: Arrange a block of cream cheese on lettuce; splurge and open a can of flaked crab meat; douse it all with bottled cocktail sauce. Serve with crackers. Messy but good.
And here are a couple ideas I cribbed from responses to Debra’s column:
Tortilla snacks: Lay out tortilla chips on a cookie sheet; top each with a small slice of cheddar and then a slice of pickled jalapeno. Broil about three minutes.
In the spirit of “Not everything is an appetizer”:
Fruit cocktail pudding: Drain a 15 oz. can of fruit cocktail (yes, it’s still on the market) and a can of mandarin oranges; Mix in bowl and stir in one dry packet of instant vanilla pudding. Chill and serve. (The retro cookbook From Calf Fries to Caviar has several fruit salad recipes that use Jell-O instant pudding mix that way.)
Pumpkin dessert dip: Mix one 15 oz. can pumpkin puree with one 8 oz. container of creamy Cool Whip. Serve with apple slices and gingersnaps for dipping. Want to get fancy? Put a bit of cinnamon in it.
Want more retro quick-and-easy recipes? Read Debra’s favorite cookbook, Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book (check out her Lazy Day Beef Stew among other goodies). Or read one of Poppy Cannon’s books like The New Can Opener Cookbook  or Poppy Cannon’s all-time, no-time, any-time cookbook.
Want to relax and read while the crockpot cooks supper? Check out the Sarah Blair series: One Taste Too Many, Two Bites Too Many, and the new one, Three Treats Too Many.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

When was the last time you had a Big Mac?

Big Macs don’t seem as popular today as they were twenty or thirty years ago. I guess it’s the calories … and the snob appeal of saying you don’t eat fast food. I know I’ve fallen into both traps. And when I asked a friend if she used to like a Big Mac, she declared emphatically she’d eaten too many of them during her harried days holding down a job and going to school. “Never gain,” she said with emphasis.
But when I asked Christian if he used to like them, he said, “I still do.” And that’s how we had a Big Mac salad for supper one night. It’s a salad entrée and offers you everything but the bun.
The recipe calls for Thousand Island dressing. Not all of us keep it on hand. Sure, you could buy a bottle, but why buy a bottle when you only need 2 Tbsp. per person. Then that bottle might sit in the fridge until you finally question its shelf life and throw it away. It’s easy to make your own.
Big Mac Salad (single serving)
¼ lb. lean ground beef
¼ cup shredded sharp cheddar
2-1/2 cups shredded lettuce (use iceberg for a good, crisp crunch)
¼ cup diced tomatoes
2 dill pick spears, chopped
2 Tbsp. Thousand Island dressing
Salt and pepper
            Mix together and serve immediately.
Thousand Island dressing
1 cup mayonnaise
¼ cup yellow onion, minced
2 Tbsp. ketchup
2 Tbsp. sweet pickle relish
1 tsp. lemon juice
½ tsp. sweet paprika
¼ tsp. salt
Mix ingredients well. If possible, refrigerate 24 hours before serving. This will dress at least four servings of the salad. Leftovers will keep in the fridge about a week.
One more response to my plea for chicken recipes, this from Ann Kane, who reminds us that there was a time when any new recipe carried the million-dollar moniker: Million $ cookies, cake, dip, and salad. This recipe first appeared on the back of Lipton's onion soup mix. It is, according to Ann, not something you’d want to eat every night but a pleasant change.
Million Dollar Chicken
6 skinless, boneless chicken thighs
1 c. mayo
½ c. mango chutney          
¼ c. peach jam
1 Tbsp. yellow mustard
½ c. water
1 pkg. onion soup mix
Preheat oven 375 degrees. Place chicken in a baking dish. Mix remaining ingredients together and pour over the chicken. Bake for 60 minutes. Serve the chicken with sauce over top.

Wednesday, August 5, 2020

Chicken salad and potato salad

You, dear reader—yes, you!—are a big disappointment to me. After my call last week to share chicken recipes, I got exactly one recipe. Thanks to Mary Kay Hughes for sending along her version of chicken salad:

Mary Kay’s chicken salad

Meat from one rotisserie chicken, finely chopped
One cup finely chopped celery
One minced clove of garlic
Dash of salt and onion powder
Duke’s mayonnaise (adjust to desired creaminess) Spoonful of sour cream
Blend well and serve as a sandwich or as a dollop on a plate surrounded by sliced tomatoes.
So let’s move right along to potato salad. I consider myself a connoisseur of potato salad. I once was married to a man who ordered cheesecake every time he saw it on the menu, because he was looking for the perfect cheesecake. He never found it, of course, because he compared everything to New York deli cheesecake. I’m the same way about potato salad. I order it everywhere and am disappointed at least half the time.
My mom learned to make potato salad from a hospital cook who advised pouring vinaigrette over still-warm potatoes, then adding onion, celery, yellow mustard, and mayonnaise. I’ve grown up and do it differently these days, but my youngest daughter still craves what she calls, “mustard potato salad.”
I do not like mashed potato salad, especially what we generally get in too many barbecue joints (Heims in Fort Worth is an exception), and I do not like yellow or salad mustard. I have tried making a non-mayonnaise salad, with a strictly vinaigrette dressing—like German potato salad only served chilled instead of warm. It’s good for a change, and it meets the requirements of my older daughter who dislikes all the white things—mayo, sour cream, cream cheese, goat cheese. A favorite we like is a lemon potato salad, the recipe from a friend—it, too, is without mayonnaise. I think I shared it here not long ago.
What I like best is a mixture of mayo and sour cream, but the absolute best recipe to my mind is County Line potato salad, from the barbecue restaurant by that name in Austin, but it makes enough for Coxie’s Army. I have halved it, and it’s still a lot. You can find the recipe all over the internet.
This weekend when my oldest, Colin, and his family were here, daughter-in-law Lisa brought potato salad that was much like County line but didn’t make so much. Colin says it’s his favorite, and Lisa says she’s always going to make it that way from now on.
Here’s the recipe:
Lisa’s potato salad
3 lbs. potatoes, cooked and cubed
½ c. sweet onion, diced
4 hard-boiled eggs
2 Tbsp. dill pickle juice.
½ c. dill pickles, chopped (or use dill relish)
½ c. mayo (I might use ¼ c. each of mayo and sour cream)
¼ c. mustard
¼ tsp. pepper
2-1/2 tsp. kosher salt (sounds like a lot of salt—you might start small and taste)
Pinch of paprika
            Pair that with Mary Kay’s chicken salad and you have a great, light summer meal.

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Random thoughts about chicken

Ever since my birthday dinner, chicken has been on my mind. These are some random thoughts about the various ways we fix chicken. Shhh! I’m not telling the hens who live just behind my cottage.
Fried chicken was not served in the home of my childhood. My Canadian father, always proper in a British way and a stickler for table manners, did not like food you picked up with your hands, except for a sandwich at lunch. Consequently, fried chicken was never on the table, and to this day I have never cooked it in my long cooking life.
Several years ago, good friend Carol Roark and I were going to lunch one day. She suggested Buttons Restaurant because she had a craving for good fried chicken. I followed her lead and ordered chicken with green beans and mashed potatoes. I was hooked, and fried-chicken lunches became a tradition for the two of us. The only difference was that I like dark meat, while Carol orders a half breast—too much dry meat for me. I confess I want more crust, less chicken.   But the restaurant changed hands and good, old-fashioned fried chicken disappeared from the menu.
Carol and I looked for a new place to get a chicken fix and decided on Drew’s Place, a soul food restaurant. Most restaurants, from upscale to fast food, serve boneless chicken, what for some reason is called chicken-fried chicken. It isn’t the same. Trust me.
We made a date to go to Drew’s Place on March 19 this year. Of course, by March 19 none of us were going anywhere if we didn’t have to, and we surely weren’t eating in restaurants. Drew’s Place got put off until one day a neighbor’s husband bought chicken for lunch. I was hooked again, and for my birthday I requested—and got—fried chicken from Drew’s Place with green beans and mashed potatoes. It was every bit as good as Buttons.
To me, the distinction between bone-in and chicken-fried chicken is major. So is the spice level in the coating. These days, spicy chicken—perhaps from a Cajun influence—is all the rage. We have a chicken restaurant near us, but several people have warned me it’s too spicy for my northern-raised palate. I like a bit of spice, enough to give flavor, but I don’t think chicken should set your mouth on fire.
Another option comes to mind—rotisserie chicken from the grocery store. It in no way compared to bone-in fried chicken, but I use it in salads and casseroles. Poaching chicken is tricky—I find I often get it too tough. I think it’s a problem of overcooking, boiling the chicken too long or too hard, Suggestions online for poaching vary wildly but most recommend bring water to a boil and then simmering. Most say put chicken in the pot along with seasonings—celery, onion, peppercorns, whatever—bringing the water to a boil and then simmering. Some directions say as long as fifteen minutes, but Martha Stewart calls for simmering three minutes and removing from stove. I’ll keep experimenting, but meantime I buy rotisserie chicken—and fuss about having to bone it.
Rotisserie chicken is tender, its texture right for everything from Cobb salad to chicken enchiladas, its flavor pure chicken. Several flavors are sometimes available. Central Market offers traditional and classic (I have no idea how they differ) but also lemon pepper, Tuscan, jerk spiced, tamale chicken, and Nashville hot. The flavor of all these spices is mostly on the skin, and its there that rotisserie chicken fails. It can’t compare with fried chicken.
Another random thought about chicken—salad, this time. Do you like chunky chicken salad or one with flaked meat? I first had “smooth” chicken salad in a now-gone restaurant and decided it was wonderful! I like a pure flavor and mix flaked chicken (use a food processor) only with chopped green onion and sauce it with a mix of mayonnaise and sour cream with a healthy dash of lemon juice. No grapes and pecans for me!
Got a wonderful chicken recipe? Send it to me at, and I’ll share it, with credit given.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

One for the road

DisneyWorld may have re-opened, but I think a lot of families will be avoiding the “big” places and taking “small” vacations this year because of the pandemic. My local family and I just got back from a three-day stay at a friend’s lake house, and our safe trip during quarantine made me realize a lot of people will be renting short-term vacation homes rather than staying in hotels and motels.
For us, going to someone else’s house involved a lot of planning for meals, because we wanted to take everything we needed. No ordering in, no daily grocery runs. So we planned what we wanted to eat and made endless lists of what to take. And I borrowed a trick from my Austin daughter who takes chili and spaghetti sauce on ski trips. She makes them at home, freezes them flat in baggies, and packs them in her luggage. Nope, no spills or accidents so far.
Jordan and I decided spaghetti would be a good choice for supper one night at the lake house. I happen to have a delicious and slightly unusual recipe from my good friend Carol Roark. It’s her mom’s spaghetti sauce. Feeds four nicely, but I made a double batch, so we’d have one in the freezer at home.
Getting spaghetti sauce into a baggie without decorating the entire kitchen is a challenge. I am one of those who gets that stain-prone red sauce everywhere if I just look at it. But Lisa, my Tomball daughter-in-law, gave me a gadget for Christmas that really helped (according to Christian who did the bagging). It’s a plastic frame that hold a baggie open while you carefully ladle the sauce in. I have no idea where Lisa got it or what it’s called if you want to look for it, but you might prowl Amazon or Pampered Chef.
The night we had spaghetti Jordan kept claiming she’d labored over the sauce all day, but we all knew better. Dinner—spaghetti, garlic bread, and salad was ready in less than half an hour. Rather than serve pasta and sauce separately, she put them together in a pot and heated the dinner. Result was delicious. I like a rather thick spaghetti sauce in generous amounts on my pasta—and that’s what this was.
Here's the recipe with a couple of my changes. Carol uses eight ounces ground turkey; I prefer ground beef and use a whole pound.

Carol’s Mom’s spaghetti sauce
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, pressed (I use my microplane these days)
1 lb. lean ground beef
2 Tbsp. olive oil
1 6 oz. can tomato paste
1 14.5 oz. can diced tomatoes
1 14.5 oz. can tomato puree
½ tsp. each sage, rosemary, oregano, thyme, savory, marjoram, and basil
Salt and pepper to taste
            Brown the meat, crumbling as it cooks, and set aside. Cook the onions and garlic in olive oil until onions are slightly softened. Add spices and mix thoroughly. (It helps if you mix all the spices in a small dish, so you can dump them all in at once rather than searching the cupboard and putting in half a tsp. at a time.) Add tomato paste, puree, and diced tomatoes, and stir well. Stir in the ground beef. Simmer on low heat for about three hours or in a slow cooker for six hours. Serve with your favorite pasta and fresh grated Parmesan or pecorino (my choice lately).
Happy and safe summer travels.

Thursday, July 16, 2020

What are we having with that?

Summer Zucchini Bake
sorry, but I took a serving out before I remembered to take a picture
Choosing a side dish goes way beyond, “You want fries with that?” At my house, we plan meals ahead (not that we always stick to the plan) by making a list of main dishes—stir-fry, steak fingers, chicken casserole, fish, what have you. But too often we come right up on time to cook, and Jordan and I look at each other and ask, “What are we having with that?” The simple answer, for us, is almost always, “Salad.” But sometimes that’s not enough, and we want a real side dish.
Here are two that I find quick and easy yet light enough for summer. One is an old stand-by; the other something I just happened across.
The old stand-by is Louella’s Rice. This came from my oldest friend, Barbara Bucknell Ashcraft. (not her age that makes her old but the length of our friendship—we have probably known each other since sixth grade). Her stepmother was Louella, and she made this rice dish. Note that it is uses Minute Rice—I never use instant products if I can avoid it, but  it works best in this case. The recipe also calls for a prepared can of soup—again, I prefer to make my own, but the canned version works well here.
Louella’s Rice
1 cup Minute Rice, uncooked       
1 can cream of celery soup
1 cup sour cream
1 cup grated sharp cheddar
1 4 oz. can  chopped green chilies
Mix it all together and bake it at 350 for 20-30 minutes, until rice is cooked. Serves four nicely. Sorry, usually not any leftovers.
The other recipe makes use of summer’s abundant zucchini crop. Have you ever had a zucchini vine in your garden? If so, you know the desperation of what to do with all that harvest. Some have been known to leave bags of zucchini anonymously on the doorsteps of friends and neighbors. Next time, tuck this recipe with the bounty.
Summer zucchini bake
One medium zucchini, washed and slice in ¼” rounds
For the sauce:
1 Tbsp. butter
¼ cup sour cream
1 Tbsp. grated Parmesan or Pecorino
¼ tsp. salt
A good pinch of paprika
1 egg yolk
1 Tbsp. chopped chives (optional)
For the topping:
2 Tbsp. breadcrumbs
3 Tbsp. grated Parmesan or Pecorino
1 Tbsp. butter
Lay zucchini slices in an oven dish in a single layer as much as possible. In a separate skillet, melt butter. Add sour cream, grated cheese, salt, and paprika, and cook over low eat until it is a smooth sauce (two minutes or so). Remove from heat and stir in egg yolk and chives if using. Spread over zucchini. It will look like there’s not enough sauce, but it really works out.
Mix breadcrumbs and additional cheese and distribute evenly over zucchini and sauce. Dot with remaining butter. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes or until topping is golden brown.
And that’s what’s for supper!