Monday, June 29, 2015

Letting Kids Control Your Menu

Stuff Your Own Tortillas (photo by Andy Mills)
When I was growing up in Western Pennsylvania, I had almost no say in what the family ate for dinner.  My mother cooked it and served it, and my father, brother and I choked it down.  On Monday nights, if Dad was out at his Kiwanis dinner meeting, my brother Steve and I begged for Chef Boyardee Spaghetti.  It came in a can, and the noodles were as soft as pudding. 

I’m sure my mother obliged us because all she had to do was get out the can opener, dump the spaghetti into a pot and turn on the gas.  We lapped it up and begged for more.  It was the best-tasting dinner we were likely to have in any given week.

Flash forward to Sunday dinner, when I regular feed my son Kevin and his family.  Kevin, my cookbook collaborator, grew up eating whatever I put on the table, so he’s usually an easy guest.  His wife Jody is a vegetarian.  Sometimes I cook vegetarian for everyone.  Sometimes I make a second entrĂ©e for her.  Then there are their three boys—also vegetarians but picky vegetarians.

After years of experimenting, I have finally built up a repertoire of dishes we will all eat.  They’re mostly vegetarian, although in some cases meat is served on the side.  Stuff-Your-Own Tortillas is our current favorite.  It’s an effective way to use up leftovers, and diners can eat what they want.  Everybody’s happy.
Stuff-Your-Own Tortillas – serves 4 
1 15-ounce can black beans
2 ripe avocados (optional)
2 cups cooked and shredded chicken, turkey, pork or beef
2 cups shredded lettuce
2 cups grated cheddar or jack cheese
Hummus (optional)
8 8-inch flour tortillas 
Drain and rinse the black beans and put them in a bowl.  
If using avocados, cut them in half, remove and discard the seed, peel and then cut into 1/2-slices. Put them in another bowl. 
Put the meat, lettuce, cheese, hummus (if using) and salsa in separate bowls.  When you’re ready to eat, set all the bowls on the table. 
Heat the tortillas.  I like to heat each one individually in a dry frying pan, with the heat on high, for about 15 seconds per side, or until each side puffs up a little.  Don’t overheat them, though, or they’ll snap in half when you fold them. 
If that’s too much trouble and prevents you from sitting down to eat with everyone else, here’s a quicker (although not quite as tasty) way.  Make 2 packages of 4 tortillas each, wrapped in foil, and heat in the oven at 400 degrees for about 10 minutes, or until they are hot but not steaming. 
Ring the dinner bell.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 7

Portobello Mushroom Stuffed with Fresh Breadcrumbs
(Photo by Andy Mills)
To use up leftover or stale bread, make fresh breadcrumbs. Pulse the bread in a food processor for a few seconds or crumble by hand. If you don’t need the breadcrumbs right away, freeze them. They will last for several months.

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Friday, June 26, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 5

It may seem obvious but, whenever possible, buy the store brand. It's almost always cheaper than the well-known product sitting next to it on the shelf. Little-known fact: the store brand is often made by the more famous label. If you don't like one store's self-branded products, try a different store.

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Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Why Doesn’t the Doctor Say, “Take 2 Chocolate Bars and Call Me in the Morning?”

I just heard that scientists are telling people that chocolate is good for them, especially dark chocolate.  At first I thought someone was reading my mind.  Then I realized that nearly everyone I know believes in the healthy power of chocolate.
Photo by Jenny Craig
Even movie and TV stars adore chocolate.  I know this from personal experience.  Yes, I write cookbooks, but in my other job I interview celebrities for newspapers and magazines around the globe.  Seldom do my two worlds collide, except in the case of chocolate.
Photo by Jenny Craig
Julia Louis-Dreyfus and I spent many happy minutes together recently talking about her HBO series “Veep” and the good old days of “Seinfeld.”   Then she happened to let slip that she enjoys baking.  Soon she was telling me about a chocolate icing recipe she loved that used semisweet chocolate, milk chocolate, whipping cream and instant expresso powder.  Unfortunately it required 3 hours of chilling in the fridge before using. 

I countered with my 2-ingredient superfast chocolate icing recipe that’s ready in 10 minutes (see below). 
Over the years I’ve asked many notables about their relationship with chocolate.  Only one admitted he was immune to its charms.  

Sandra Bullock: “Chocolate is the greatest gift to women ever created.  It’s something that should be had on a daily basis.” 

Ron Howard: “I love Hershey bars, Butterfingers, ice cream, chocolate sauce on top of the ice cream, brownies and chocolate chip cookies.  I’m lucky I’m not 200 pounds.”

Anjelica Huston: “I like dark, bittersweet chocolate, preferably Swiss.  It’s one of the great reasons for living.”

George Clooney: “Everyone should have chocolate on a regular basis.  Chocolate cake is the best of chocolates.  Chocolate chip cookies are okay.  Chocolate candy is good, but chocolate cake is the way to go.  What’s the icing? It better be chocolate.  Some people do that vanilla thing.”

Scott Wolf: “I love chocolate cake with vanilla frosting.   Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting is good, but I’m a vanilla man.”

Jackie Collins: “I love chocolate.  I’ll go to the drugstore in the middle of the night to get Almond Joy and Peanut Butter Cups.  I’m not addicted to anything else, but I get chocolate cravings.”

Jodie Foster likes chocolate so much that she admitted: “I don’t eat it because otherwise I remember how much I love it, and I’d eat it every day.”

Only Timothy Dalton, who played James Bond in “The Living Daylights” and “License to Kill” in the late 1980s, dismisses the joys of chocolate: “I don’t eat chocolate daily by any means.  There are lots of things I like better than chocolate.”
Photo by Jenny Craig
To satisfy your chocolate craving, here is a quick fix. 
Two-Ingredient Chocolate Icing – enough for a 2-layer cake or large sheet cake
(adapted from my book “Chocolate on the Brain”)   
1 1/4 cups chocolate chips
1 cup sour cream 
Melt the chocolate in a heavy frying pan over very low heat, stirring constantly.  When the chocolate is almost melted, turn off the heat and set aside to cool.  The heat of the pan will melt the remaining chocolate. 
Stir in the sour cream and mix thoroughly.  If the chocolate separates into flecks, resume heating over very low heat for about 30 seconds, or until the mixture warms up enough for the chocolate to blend into the sour cream. 
Remove from the heat and let cool to room temperature before spreading over the cake.
                         For more chocolate recipes get “Chocolate on the Brain”

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 6

Cooking with fresh tomatoes automatically makes your dish better—except for one thing. Pesky tomato skins like to stick in your teeth. Tomatoes don’t peel like carrots. Here’s the secret to removing the skin without throwing away half the pulp:

Fill a small pot half full of water and bring it to a boil. Drop the tomatoes into the boiling water and cook for 30 seconds. Remove them with a slotted spoon and run them under cold water. Cut out the stem end of each tomato and pull the skin away. It will peel right off.

Photos by Andy Mills
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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Hey! Can I Have Seconds?

Mississippi Mud Pie (photo by Andy Mills)

That’s a question I like to hear.  Whenever I serve Mississippi Mud Pie, I hear it a lot.  And I can always say YES because this is a dessert that serves a lot of people.

Here are two other reasons to add this recipe to your favorites.  It’s probably the easiest dessert you will ever make, unless you think washing and polishing an apple equals dessert.  To create a Mississippi Mud Pie, all you have to do is make a pie crust out of crushed cookies and fill it with a lot of ice cream.  You can even buy a pre-made graham cracker crust, although it won’t taste as good. My favorite ice cream for this recipe is Denali Extreme Moose Tracks.

Mississippi Mud Pie can easily serve 15 kids or 8 greedy adults, and that leads me to reason number two.  This pie may not be as fancy as a Baskin-Robbins ice cream cake, but it will cost you $5-$6 to make, as opposed to $25-$40. 
Mississippi Mud Pie – serves 8-15 
1/2 15-ounce package double-filled sandwich cookies (about 15 cookies)
2 tablespoons butter
1 1/2 quarts (48 ounces) ice cream (1 flavor or several flavors adding up to 1 1/2 quarts) 
Begin preheating the oven to 375 degrees. 
Put the cookies and butter into a food processor and process until the mixture has become crumbs.  Transfer the crumbs to a deep dish pie pan, if you have one, or a regular pie pan.  Press the crumbs into the pan, using a fork or your fingers, to make a thin crust that goes up the sides at least 1/4 of the way.  Bake for 5 minutes and then let cool. 
While the pie crust is cooling, remove the ice cream container(s) from the freezer and set in the sink to begin to thaw.  After 10 minutes, the ice cream should be soft enough to transfer, spoon by spoon, into the pie crust.  If you’re using more than one flavor, informally divide the flavors into sections.  When all the ice cream is in the crust, push it down gently with the back of a spoon to make sure it fills the entire bottom of the crust.  If you like, make fancy swirls on top.
Cover with foil or plastic wrap and store in the freezer until ready to serve.  The crust can be hard to cut so have a pair of scissors handy.
           For more chocolate recipes get “Chocolate on the Brain”

Friday, June 12, 2015

Mom Money-Saving Tip 4

Don't always stick to your shopping list. Today I spotted 20-ounce packages of ground turkey breast on sale for $2.99, a $3 savings. So instead of buying the chicken breasts I had planned to get for tomorrow’s dinner, I bought a package. I figured I’d make meatballs, add a jar of spaghetti sauce, sprinkle with grated mozzarella cheese and serve meatball sandwiches. I already had the sauce and the cheese at home, so all I needed was a loaf of French bread. When you go shopping, it helps to have a few simple recipes in your head or on your smartphone.

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Thursday, June 11, 2015

Who Wants Boring for Dinner?

Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad (photo by Andy Mills)

I’ve never approached new things in the normal way.  Take my bowling style.  I have an impressively awkward backhand spin—all because no one ever taught me the right way to bowl.  But in the kitchen an eccentric approach can pay off.  It certainly did yesterday when I pulled out two raw boneless chicken breasts from the fridge and wondered what to do with them.

I could have boiled or baked them and served them plain.  A basic cooked chicken breast is a good diet food.  It’s good for putting on muscle.  It’s also one of the most boring foods on the planet.  Who wants boring for dinner?  Not me. 

Chicken Caesar Salad isn’t 100% boring, but it’s close.  Not boring at all is my Blackened Chicken recipe.   Brainstorm: why not combine them? 

Blackened Chicken calls for more spices than any other recipe I have.  I smothered those chicken breasts in spices, fried them, cut them into pieces and added them to some chopped romaine lettuce and croutons.  Not boring at all.
Blackened Chicken Caesar Salad – serves 3 
1 large romaine lettuce
2 chicken breasts
1 teaspoon garlic powder
1 teaspoon onion powder
1 teaspoon fresh or dried rosemary
1 teaspoon dried thyme
1/2 teaspoon dried basil
1/2 teaspoon black pepper
1/2 teaspoon chili powder
1/2 teaspoon cumin
1/2 teaspoon dried oregano
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons canola oil or more if necessary (divided use)
Bottled Caesar or other favorite dressing
1 cup croutons (optional) 
Wash romaine and pat dry. Cut or tear the leaves into small pieces and put in a large salad bowl.  Set aside. 
Slice the chicken breasts in half horizontally through the middle.  You will have 4 thin cutlets.  Set aside. 
Combine all the spices and salt in a soup bowl or plate and mix thoroughly. 
Put 1 tablespoon oil in a large frying pan and begin heating over medium-high heat.  
Put 1 tablespoon oil in a soup bowl and lay 1 chicken cutlet in the oil.  Turn it over so both sides are oiled.  Then place the cutlet in the spice mixture and then turn it over so that both sides are covered with spices.  Put it into the hot frying pan.  
Quickly prepare the remaining cutlets in the same way and cook in the frying pan.  Cook for about 4 minutes per side, or until the center of the chicken is no longer pink.  Cut into the thickest piece to check that it’s done. 
Remove the chicken to a cutting board and cut into bite-size pieces.  Add to the salad and toss.  Add the dressing or serve it on the side.  Add the croutons, if using.  Serve.

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Mom Cooking Tip 5

Lots of recipes call for homemade chicken or vegetable broth, but who has time or inclination to make it? Not me. Canned broths and bouillon cubes have too much salt. I prefer chicken or vegetable base, which comes in jars. Because the flavor is concentrated, you need just a tablespoon or 2.

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Thursday, June 4, 2015

Are You More Adventurous in the Kitchen Than a Chimpanzee?

Couldn't-Be-Easier Avocado Appetizer
According to a recent study involving scientists from Harvard and Yale, chimpanzees could cook if only they knew how to work a stove.  That gives me hope that everyone can make a meal if they try. 

I do have proof of this concept.  Many years ago Bart agreed to trade places with me for a week.  I would sit at the typewriter and compose wonderful stories while he would care for our two toddlers and cook. 

He took an unusual approach to the cooking aspect.  Instead of planning meals with dishes he liked, he started with recipes beginning with A.  I guess he thought he would work his way through the alphabet by the end of the week, but 7 days later he hadn’t yet gotten to B.

Never again did we switch roles, although I did applaud his Homemade Applesauce, Apple Pie, Apple Pancakes, Artichokes, Angel Hair Pasta and Armenian Lamb Stew.  My favorite was his Avocado Appetizer, a ripe avocado cut in half with the seed removed and some salad dressing in its place.  I still serve it today.
Couldn’t-Be-Easier Avocado Appetizer – serves 2 or a greedy 1 
1 ripe avocado (see NOTE below)
Salad dressing 
Rinse and dry the avocado.  Cut the avocado in half through the stem end, so that you will have 2 ovals.  The seed will be stuck in one of the halves.  Gently remove it by levering it up with a knife or the tines of a fork. 
Place the avocado halves on plates and fill the hole left by the seed with salad dressing.  Serve with a spoon, with which you scoop out bites of avocado. 
NOTE: To test for ripeness, gently press the skin of the avocado.  It should give slightly.  If it’s rock hard, set it aside for a few days to ripen.  If it’s very soft, it’s too ripe and likely to be filled with brown spots.  Choose a different avocado.
           For more recipes, order "Help! My Apartment Has a Kitchen!"