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Thursday, January 30, 2020

New uses for a tired dip

Though it baffles me, I know people are gearing up for Super Bowl watch parties, planning extravagant spreads of snacks and dips. And you can bet artichoke/spinach dip will be on many cocktail tables. It’s everywhere and has been for years. In fact, some might be getting a bit tired of it.

Recipes abound on the internet, but basically it’s fresh spinach, wilted, canned artichoke hearts, a bit of garlic, Parmesan, cream cheese or sour cream or both. And it’s baked and served warm with crackers or tortilla chips. Hellman’s has a recipe that features, you know, their mayo, and the Hidden Valley folks have a recipe that uses ranch dressing mix. I don’t suppose it makes a whole lot of difference which recipe you choose. They’re all quick and easy to do, and like the classic French onion sour cream dip, everyone loves it.

But recently I’ve found some recipes that give that old dog new life. It makes a couple of great vegetarian entrees. Easiest: a baked pasta dish. Cook pasta—rotini or shells or fusilli, something with a bit of heft, in boiling water per directions, but pull it off the stove and quickly drain about three or four minutes shy of the al dente stage. Mix it with a tub of prepared spinach/artichoke dip, cover the whole thing generously with fresh Parmesan or Pecorino, and bake, probably at 350 for 20 minutes. Watch how it browns. Theoretically, the pasta will finish cooking, and the sauce will thicken. A rich but good main dish.

Want to make your own sauce? Here’s a rough idea: Sauté a couple of cloves of minced garlic in olive oil. Add spinach to the skillet, in small bunches, and cook until it is wilted. Stir in one can drained, chopped artichoke hearts—or chop them yourself if need be. Not hard.  Stir in 4 oz. cream cheese, softened, ¼ cup sour cream,  and 1/3 cup mozzarella. Stir to blend and pile it into a casserole dish. Cover generously with grated Parmesan or Pecorino.

Recently, Jordan, my friend Jean, and I were having a girls’ night supper. I had found a recipe for open-faced sandwiches using this mix. It seems one mom of young kids and picky eaters was trying hard to find something they’d eat. Spinach/artichoke dip on toasted sourdough bread was a hit. We liked it too, and I regret not taking a picture.


1 bunch fresh spinach

½ tsp. salt

1 can chopped artichoke hearts

¼ cup Parmesan

2 Tbsp. mayonnaise

Juice of a lemon

Pepper to taste

2 oz. cream cheese cut into ½” pieces – leave the cheese chilled to do this, and it’s still a mess. Comes as close to ½” as you can and don’t worry about it. It will melt in during cooking.

4 slices sourdough

Just a bit of olive oil

6 slices provolone

            Toast the bread and brush one side with olive oil. Set aside.

Bring a little water, maybe ¼ cup, to boil in a large skillet. Add salt, and working in small bunches, wilt the spinach. Drain, cool, and  squeeze out all the liquid you can. Then chop the spinach. (You could probably use one package frozen chopped spinach at this point but be sure to drain it well.)

Press water out of artichokes and chop if necessary. Mix spinach and artichokes and then blend in Parmesan, mayonnaise, lemon juice, pepper. Gently stir in cream cheese, taking care not to break up small bits. Add more salt if needed.

Put toast slices on foil-or parchment-lined pan with sides. Pile spinach/artichoke mixture on, spreading to the edges of the toast. Otherwise those edges will burn. Top each toast with provolone, again covering the entire mixture.

Broil until cheese melts and browns in spots. It can get too brown before you know it, so watch carefully. I split this recipe and did it in my toaster oven in two batches.  Worked fine. Let slices cool just a bit before serving.

In both recipes, if you like a tang of hotness,  you can add dried red pepper to taste. I’m not a fan of spicy.

Thursday, January 23, 2020

Kitchen gadgets and herbs

A little over three years ago, I downsized from a 2000-quare-foot house to a 600-square-foot cottage. My health (mental and physical) was not good at the time, and my four children and their families did most of the downsizing. I had little say in what stayed, what went, but for the most part they were careful—and they knew, from furniture to clothes, what I treasured. But then there was the kitchen!

I have said the things I miss most were some of my cooking utensils—the meat tenderizer, the basting tube, a slotted spoon. Jordan and her family occupy my kitchen now, and I can tell them exactly where such-and-such a thing should be—but, of course, it’s not there because they’ve replaced with their own kitchen equipment. When I one day mourned the large orange Dutch oven I’d had for years, Jordan suggested I look at the soffit shelf in Colin‘s kitchen next time I visit Tomball. Sure enough, there it was, right next to the smaller yellow one once mine. I don’t have room for many pots and pans, so that’s fine. It’s the smaller utensils I miss.

Last weekend I had a lesson in chopping utensils. I wanted to make a salsa verde or green sauce that called for one full cup of minced mixed “fragrant” herbs. I’ll have you know it took me forever to mince enough Italian parsley, watercress, basil, and cilantro. I did it, but I was not a happy camper. Several years ago a friend gave me a chopping tool that has been really useful, once I retrieved it from the house where Christian had been happily using it.

Chopping herbs though presents special challenges. Little green bits get everywhere, and they stick wherever they land—counters, floor, dishes, your hands. And they’re hard to clean up—they cling to everything. Plus it’s tedious work. So after I got my cup of herbs, I vowed to order herb scissors from Amazon. I still had lots of herbs left, and I thought it would be best to go ahead and mince them and make more of this vinaigrette-type sauce because it will keep and you can use it on anything—fish, steak, poultry, cardboard.

My scissors came yesterday—I hope you can tell from the picture that each blade is really five blades. The scissors came with that neat little cleaning tool you see in the picture. What I didn’t realize is that you practically have to clean the blades after every two or three cuts. The scissors have an advantage—you can cut over a bowl, minimizing but not eliminating the scatter problem. This morning I found bits of green on the scissors handle, my phone, and odd places on the counters. It’s still tedious, boring work—and I have more to cut today.

Is it worth all this? The sauce was delicious on salmon, both the night we had it and the next day. And as I said, it can go on lots of meats. And it’s a great way to use herbs before they go bad. I have thrown out more than I like to admit in my lifetime.

The recipe says this keeps a week in the fridge, but I bet you can stretch that. The recipe also says it goes together in minutes. Hah! Only after you spend an hour mincing herbs.

Salsa verde

1 c. fragrant herbs, minced

½ c. red wine vinegar

¾ c. olive oil

1 tsp. kosher salt

3 garlic cloves, finely grated (use your microplane—another gadget I’ve gotten since I moved to the cottage)

1 shallot, finely chopped – my chopping blade does that

            Mix it all together and store in covered dish in the refrigerator. (See? I avoided saying “icebox dish” and “icebox,” both terms my grandson tells me are hopelessly old-fashioned).

            This is a repeat of a picture I posted earlier in the week, but here’s what the sauce looked like on our salmon.

Friday, January 17, 2020

More about beans

This is a postscript to yesterday's Gourmet on a Hot Plate column, because this morning I came across a recipe that was floating in the back of my mind but I couldn't quite bring forward. It's for beans with vinaigrette on toast--sort of like a marinated bean salad.

1 shallot
3 Tbsp. white wine vinegar
1/2 c. finely chopped herbs--cilantro, parsley, chives, basil, dill, etc.
1/3 c. olive oil
2 15-oz. cans beans, drained and rinsed - black-eyed peas, pinto, navy, black or a mixture
1 tsp. Aleppo-style pepper

Chop the shallot and marinate in vinegar. In a separate, larger bowl, cover herbs with olive oil. Add the beans and paper. Salt to taste, and add shallot/vinegar mixture. Gently toss to combine. Serve well chilled on toast of your choice. The bean mixture will keep in the refrigerator several days.

Thursday, January 16, 2020

Asparagus, mushrooms, and beans on toast

If you think the only things to put on toast are butter, jam or jelly, and possibly peanut butter, you’re missing some good eating. When I was a kid, my mom regularly served asparagus on toast and mushrooms on toast. I thought it was fairly exotic, since none of my friends at that at home, and I decided the custom was British, because Mom was always cooking to please Dad’s anglophile palate (we ate a lot of lamb or roast beef and potatoes and never ever seafood). Now I discover the custom is universal.

Asparagus on toast is so simple it barely deserves directions. Get the youngest, most tender shoots you can, steam but keep them still crisp and lay in elegant rows on buttered toast. I’m sure Mom always used her homemade bread for the toast, but if you don’t bake bread—and I don’t—a good crusty artisan or sourdough bread works well. For my taste, the key is to use a lot of butter.

Mushrooms offer more possibilities, though I have simply sliced mushrooms, sautéed them in butter, and piled them on good thick toast. Once again you want to have enough liquid (butter primarily) to soften the toast. Mushrooms release liquid as they cooki. Sometimes Mom added a dash of Worcestershire, a pinch of thyme, a bit or garlic, or a splash of wine, either red or white. You could also use Marsala or sherry. And I’ve seen recipes for what sounds to me like creamed mushrooms, where you add crème fraiche at the last minute. Again, the quality of the toast will make a difference, but in my household we’re partial to rye for mushrooms.

The surprise came for me a couple of years ago when I read a recipe for beans on toast. For the bare bones recipe I read you simply cooked your beans and put them on toast. So one day, son Jamie made a pot of pinto beans, seasoned with salt pork, at his Frisco home and drove to Fort Worth with them. We had a delicious lunch, and I though I’d discovered a new dish. Apparently not so. Shortly thereafter, I was to have lunch with a former colleague, and I tried to entice her to the cottage by telling her I’d serve beans on toast. “Beans on toast?” she said. “Isn’t that what we ate as kids? Let’s go out.” Yes, I was deflated.

But beans on toast isn’t exactly one dish. There are decisions to make, such as what toast and, more important, what beans? I never thought of putting baked beans—what I call northern beans—on toast, but apparently, it’s a standard dish. What an irony! For all her British cooking,  Mom never knew about the British trick of putting them on toast.

You can always make your beans from scratch, soaking overnight, seasoning and cooking all day. Or you can hope a can of baked beans. There are several good brands on the market, though I’m partial to Bush (maybe it’s that TV dog). I’ve even come across a suggestion that the Brits like to top off their beans on toast with a couple poached eggs.

So here are two recipes for you:

Best pinto beans ever

Cover a lb. of beans with cold water, add a couple tsp. salt, and soak overnight. In the morning, dice your salt pork and fry it along with a medium onion, diced. Get a nice brown on the salt pork without burning if you can.  Drain and rinse the beans and cover half again with fresh water. Bring to a near-boil and immediately turn down the heat to simmer. Add onion and salt pork to the skillet and—here’s the key—throw in five beef bouillon cubes. I know many of us don’t cook with those cubes anymore, but they’re perfect for this. Let those beans simmer all day until soft.

If you want to jazz up your beans, here’s a suggestion:

2 Tbsp. olive oil

½ lb. crumbed pork sausage (hot or mild, your choice)

3 garlic cloves, thinly sliced

½ tsp. dried oregano

Pinch of red pepper flakes (optional)

1 28 oz. can crushed  tomatoes

3 tsp, salt, divided use

5 oz. spinach, coarsely chopped

Those beans you cooked above or the equivalent in canned beans

4 Tbsp. butter

Italian rolls or ciabatta

Grated Parmesan or Pecorino

            Brown sausage in oil in large Dutch oven and crumble. Add garlic, oregano, and red pepper. Cook until garlic just begins to turn golden. Add tomatoes, 2-1/2 tsp. salt, and a cup of water. Bring to boil and cook until slightly reduced. Stir in spinach and let it wilt; then add beans. Keep warm.

Make some garlic butter, toast  Italian bread or ciabatta rolls with the butter. To serve, spoon beans over bread and top with cheese.

Makes a good, simple supper.

Thursday, January 9, 2020

Back to comfort food

Whether you toasted the new year in with champagne and caviar or beer and brats, the holidays are now behind us, and we’re back to ho-hum, the daily grind, everyday living. Many of us are ready to put the huge and extravagant meals of the holidays behind us and turn to some good, old-fashioned dishes like Mom used to fix. Maybe even some retro foods.

I have just gotten a shipment of the albacore tuna I order from a mom-and-pop operation in Oregon. The Pisces Fishing vessel does not use nets, so dolphins swim along beside their boats. Their catch—tuna and some salmon—is humanely harvested, field dressed, and quickly iced at sea. The fish are filleted fresh and hand-packed with only a bit of salt at a small, family-owned cannery (I am more convinced daily that we get our purest food from such small operators and not the big commercial processing plants, especially since the relaxation of regulations). Finally the fish is only cooked once, after canning—most commercially canned fish is cooked once before canning and once after. Take it from a lifetime tuna aficionado, the difference in taste and texture is remarkable.

So here I am with half a case of 7 oz. cans of tuna—the other half went to a son who love it as much as I do. I can only make so much tuna salad—but there’s always tuna casserole. Some people scoff at that dish as a retro food, “so sixties!” I love it.

Several years ago friends gathered on my front porch for a retro  pot-luck dinner—onion soup/sour with Ruffes. The entree was tuna casserole, with a side of that orange Jell-O dish with grated carrots and pineapple chunks. The onion soup dip was a hit, especially with one guy who asked his wife seriously if she could get the recipe. She smiled like a sphinx and said she thought she could. There was some hesitation about the tuna casserole, and one friend later confessed that she wondered to herself if she could really eat it. She did—and complimented it lavishly. Wish I could remember what the dessert was.

Back to tuna casserole. I make it after a recipe I found in a women’s magazine more years ago than I like to confess to. By now I make it from memory and have no idea where the original recipe is. The measurements here are sort of guesses on my par but this should feed four with some leftovers.


1 cup white wine

Assorted herbs

1 7-oz. can albacore tuna, flaked

3 green onions, trimmed and sliced thin

1 can mushroom soup, undiluted

½ cup frozen petite peas

6 oz. uncooked pasta (cut spaghetti, etc, but probably not tubes) or rice—your choice

French’s French-fried onion rings

            Separately cook pasta or rice and set aside.

Bring wine to a boil in a saucepan; throw in a handful of mixed herbs—thyme, oregano, basil, whatever (I’d avoid Mexican spices like cumin and chile powder unless you wanted a definitive Mexican tuna casserole). Add some black pepper and scant salt. Boil hard for three minutes or more until all the herbs turn black. Remove pan from heat, and gradually add remaining ingredients except onion rings. Taste for salt and pepper.

Spoon into a greased casserole or individual ramekins and top with onion rings. Bake at 350 for 20-30 minutes—watch color of onion rings as a guide. They should brown but not burn. Casserole just has to get hot. Serve immediately.

PS You don’t have to do that orange Jell-O thing; a tossed salad is nice with this.

Thursday, January 2, 2020

Welcoming the weary travelers home

Jordan, Christian, and Jacob have been in New Orleans. The trip, planned to see Baylor play in whatever bowl that is, was part of Jacob’s Christmas, but it was really a treat for all of them. The football game was surely a disappointment—Baylor lost to Georgia, 26-14. When I first checked the score it was 26-0, so I guess Baylor rallied which was probably heartening.

But they did the things tourists should do in New Orleans—dinner at Muriel’s, a visit to Washington Square, brunch at Brennan’s. Jordan sent me a picture of the Brennan’s menu, an obvious ploy to make me jealous. But I retaliated with a picture of the menu from my super New Year’s Dinner. I haven’t heard if they went to Pat O’Brien’s for hurricanes or had beignets at Café du Monde. So much to do in New Orleans, they may have missed some of the high points in three days.

As I write they are about an hour out, driving in light rain. So what does one do to welcome travelers home? Make chicken soup, of course. Only I made turkey soup. I’ve had a recipe in my file forever called “Crack Chicken Soup.” Sent it to a niece in the Bronx who says her children love chicken soup, and tshe reported favorably on it. But I never got around to trying it. Tonight seemed the perfect night.

\My friend Subie said the other night she wanted to make turkey soup out of the carcass of their Christmas bird, but she’d never done it. I gave her this recipe, and she hesitated a bit. “I wanted to make something healthy,” she finally said. This is definitely not healthy, with a packet or Ranch Dressing mix, cheese, and half and half. I gave Subie simple directions on how to do a clear soup, without a cream base. Couldn’t imagine she’s never done it.

Just in case: Cover the turkey carcass with water, bring to boil, and let it simmer—for hours, even overnight if you wish. Some Jewish grandmothers simmer it for days. The longer it simmers, the more flavor to the broth. Add carrots, onions, and celery if you wish. When you decide it’s done, fish out the solid parts or strain.

Sauté diced fresh carrots, onion, and celery in olive oil or butter until soft, pour in the stock if you’ve simmered the carcass or use prepared chicken stock in a box. Add diced turkey. Add spaghetti or rice or diced potato is you want. Season with salt and pepper and you should have a good soup.

Crack chicken has several different steps. When the vegetables have softened and the onion turned translucent, add a packet of Ranch Dressing. Stir thoroughly, add a can of cream of chicken soup, and the stock (about four cups). Stir the stock in slowly to incorporate the canned soup. Add eight ounces spaghetti, broken into small bits. Bring to a boil and then simmer maybe twenty minutes. Because I was delaying dinner, I let it simmer at this point a good long while. But eventually I added a cup of half-and-half and a cup of grated sharp cheddar.

Your soup is done! Surely it will welcome the weary travelers and bring us good luck in the new year.