Why this blog?

"If you are careful," Garp wrote, "if you use good ingredients, and you don't take any shortcuts, then you can usually cook something very good. Sometimes it is the only worthwhile product you can salvage from a day; what you make to eat. With writing, I find, you can have all the right ingredients, give plenty of time and care, and still get nothing. Also true of love. Cooking, therefore, can keep a person who tries hard sane."
from John Irving's novel, The World According to Garp

Monday, January 24, 2011

Pigs In A Blanket

Unless I'm making something special for some kind of family gathering or doing a big family dinner, this is as close to cooking as I usually do on the weekends.  It's our favorite weekend breakfast, suitable for munching while playing PS3, writing, reading, or watching TV.  Pure junk food, too - for pity's sake, if you have this for breakfast, eat a banana, too.  And oh yeah, it works great as a party food, too - not classy, but I guarantee you won't throw any out afterwards.


1 package of cocktail sausages (I use regular Lil Smokies by Hillshire Farms, my sister cuts up hot dogs)
1 tube of refrigerated crescent rolls (the kind you whomp on the counter to open)

Preheat oven to 375 degrees.  Spray a sheet pan with cooking spray.

Open up the cocktail sausages.  Whomp open the crescent rolls.  Unroll the crescent roll dough and cut the rectangles apart, but NOT the triangles - you'll get four big rectangles.  Cut each rectangle into six reasonably equal strips.  (I cut'em in half first, then cut each half into thirds.)  Wrap each strip around a cocktail sausage.  Put it on the pan.  You don't have to worry about leaving too much space between each one; the dough isn't going to rise much.  I fit all of mine on one big cookie sheet, four across and six down.

Bake until golden brown, about 7 minutes.  (Watch'em after 5; they burn fast.) 

You'll have about a third of a package of sausages left.  This past weekend, I bought two tubes of rolls, too.  Saturday we had all pigs in blankets; Sunday we had half pigs in blankets and half crescent rolls with butter.  This makes 24 units, obviously, which in our house serves 2.  More motivated cooks with less piggy eaters could make scrambled eggs and such to go with them and make this recipe go much further, I'm sure.  I dip mine in mustard (horseradish mustard is AWESOME on these); Max prefers his plain.  And I suspect he could eat the whole batch all by himself if I weren't around. 

Friday, January 21, 2011

Tuna Noodle Casserole

People who cannot abide the sight, smell or taste of canned tuna will find the very idea of this recipe appalling, and that's fine - I feel the same way about sushi.  But when it's cold and dark outside, and I'm tired and hungry, this is something that fills me up in every way.  Gorgeous Sister #1 has perfected something similar with canned white meat chicken, but you'd have to ask her about the seasonings for that one. 

I also learned something with my last post about the cookies - it's a helluva lot easier to use a standard recipe format.  So I'll try to split the difference, give a good ingredient list then ramble at will on how to put it together. 

Tuna Noodle Casserole


1 lb bag of egg noodles or box of seashell pasta
1 large can of tuna or albacore, packed in water, drained
2 cans of cream of mushroom soup
Generous sprinklings (about a teaspoon):
      Minced onion
      Dried sage
      Garlic powder
      Dried parsley flakes
      Black pepper
      Red pepper flakes
3 cups of shredded sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees.

Cook the noodles by the package directions - for me, 11 minutes in a full rolling boil gives me al dente noodles, perfect for this casserole.  While the pasta is cooking,  I mix together the tuna, the soup, and all the seasonings.  And yes, I know what that looks like.  And yes, I have smelled it.  To me, it smells good, I swear. 

Drain the cooked pasta thoroughly.  I drain it in the colandar (colender?  Hansel?  Haaaan-sel??!?) in the sink first, then pour it back into the hot pot to steam off the excess water.  Mix in the sludge-looking other stuff thoroughly until all the noodles are coated and there's tuna throughout. 

Spray a two-quart casserole dish with cooking spray or grease it with butter.  Spread half of the tuna noodle mixture in the dish, cover it completely with cheese.  Repeat with the other half. 

Bake at 375 degrees for fifteen minutes, until the cheese is completely melted and starting to brown in spots. All of the ingredients are basically cooked when it goes in; you're just melding flavors and melting cheese. Serve hot.  This makes about six generous servings.  Refrigerate any leftovers and reheat in the microwave with a sprinkle of water for 2-3 minutes. 

I have put a beaten egg in this before, but it didn't add anything much taste or texture-wise and made the casserole take longer to bake, so now I leave it out.  There are those who would insist you need something crunchy on top, like breadcrumbs or crumbled potato chips.  If you want that, feel free; just don't tell me about it.  <shudder>  Seriously, if you do put a topping on it, dot it with dabs of butter first so it doesn't burn or dry out and bake it as long as it takes to make the topping crunchy. 

This was one of the first things I ever cooked for my husband, and he loves it.  He also proved his priceless worth as a husband because of this dish.  One night we were both exhausted and starving, and I had dragged myself to the kitchen to make this while he was working on something else in the living room.  I went through the whole process, waited for it to bake, reached into the oven to take it out - and promptly dropped it in the middle of the kitchen floor.  Hot tuna noodles and cheese went EVERYWHERE, and I screamed a series of words no proper lady should know. 

He came running in, certain I had done myself some dread injury.  To his eternal credit, when he saw what had happened, he didn't laugh until AFTER he had hugged me and told me that 1)it smelled delicious and its loss was a tragedy, and 2)we were going to KFC to get a bucket of chicken.  Then he laughed his ass off.  Now it's become a tradition in our marriage; I make this, but he's the one who takes it out of the oven. 

Chocolate Chip Cookies, Sort Of

The past week, the hubby and I ate dinner with Gorgeous Sister #1 and her family three times - we were invited, I swear.  But by the second night, I was starting to feel kind of like a moocher, so I thought I should take something for dessert.  After doing a quick inventory of my pantry and what was still left over from my holiday baking, I thought I could probably just manage a batch of chocolate chip cookies.  Let me start by giving you the recipe I used - which is excellent; it's the one on the chocolate chip bag.  Then I'll tell you what I actually ended up doing.

Chocolate Chip Cookies


2 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup (2 sticks) butter, softened
3/4 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 large eggs
2 cups (12-oz pkg.) of very famous brand of semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 cup chopped nuts


Preheat oven to 375 degrees F.

Combine flour, baking soda and salt in small bowl.  Beat butter, granulated sugar, brown sugar, and vanilla extract in large mixer bowl until creamy.  Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Gradually beat in flour mixture.  Stir in chocolate chips and nuts.  Drop by rounded tablepoon onto ungreased baking sheets.

Bake 9 to 11 minutes or until golden brown.  Cool on baking sheets for 2 minutes; remove to wire racks to cool completely.

Okay, that's the recipe.  But as I was assembling ingredients, I realized I was going to have to be a little flexible.  First of all, I knew going in I didn't have any nuts, but honestly, who ever turned down a chocolate chip cookie just because it didn't have nuts? 

Next I realized I didn't have two sticks of butter.  I had about two-thirds of a stick of butter in the butter dish.  Well, damnit.  My first resort was to call Gorgeous Sister #1 next door to see if she had a stick and a half of butter.  (And no, I was not remotely bothered by the irony of borrowing butter from her to make cookies intended to soothe my conscience for mooching dinner off her in the first place.)  Sadly, she didn't have any stick butter either.  (Clarification:  stick butter comes in sticks and is actually margarine at my house unless I buy real butter for some special purpose; tub butter comes in a little plastic tub and gets smeared on stuff, oftentimes under Vegemite.) 

At this point, a sane woman would have given up, but I wasn't ready to admit defeat.  Once I start imagining eating cookies, I have a hard time letting go.  I went back to the cabinet and discovered a can of Crisco shortening.  I had a dim recollection of an episode of Good Eats where Alton Brown explained something about cookies made with butter are more one thing and cookies made with shortening are more something else (chewy versus crispy, I think, but I cannot for the life of me remember which is which), so if you want a cookie that's a little bit of both, mix the two.  This gave me just the rationalization I was looking for.  I ended up using 1/2 cup of shortening, 6 tablespoons of stick butter, and 2 tablespoons of tub butter, resigned to the prospect of a substandard but still-sweet finished product full of chocolate chips. 

Everything else I had, but the search for butter-type products had taken so long, I no longer had the time to wait for pan after pan of cookies to bake.  Besides, I was so frustrated with the whole process by the time I started mixing, I ignored my grandmother's advice and years of experience and mixed the wet ingredients with an electric hand mixer, so after I put the flour in, I had more of a thick batter than a dough.  Still undeterred, I stirred in the chocolate chips, sprayed a jelly roll pan with cooking spray, and smashed the dough-batter in with a wooden spoon.  Getting it spread evenly was hell and gone the hardest part of the whole process.  I baked it for twenty minutes until it was darker brown around the edges and still kind of puffy in the middle, yanked it out of the oven with oven mitts, and carried it across the yard to cool on my sister's kitchen counter - no baking racks used, wire or otherwise. 

I have to say, the cookie/brownie/big square bars of sweet we ended up with were pretty damned good - we've been munching on them all week, and I've yet to hear a complaint.  But I would definitely recommend using the original recipe first if you can; there's no denying it's better. 

Monday, January 17, 2011


When I was a little kid, my mom's spaghetti was my favorite food - no question, no wavering; if you asked me what my favorite food was, I said spaghetti.  It was what Mama cooked for me on my birthday or when I was sick; it was what I begged my grandmother in Virginia to make for us every Saturday night when we'd make our monthly weekend visit.  Over the years, we've refined the recipe - one of my gorgeous sisters found the genius finishing touch when she started adding the fresh bell pepper, I think.  But the basic outline has remained the same my whole life, and I still love it.  Foodies and Italian cooking purists will faint, no doubt, but they're welcome to pour their al dente whole grain orecchiette back into their extra virgin olive oil and organic basil pesto and eat it without me. 

This past Saturday night, the Thunder from Down Under and I realized we are broke beyond bearing, so broke we couldn't afford to go out to eat.  But by damn, we had the stuff to make spaghetti.  I called up Gorgeous Sister #1 (Gorgeous Sister #2 being somewhat more solvent and eating out with friends) and told her to bring her hubby and her kid over for spaghetti night. 

I found two foil-wrapped lumps in the freezer that together made between 1.5 and two pounds of ground beef. (Side note:  Why can't the grocery store package ground beef in two pound packages instead of 1.34 lbs or 1.79 lbs or whatever?  I always have to either have too little or buy two and have too much and end up with all these little frozen meat wads.) I browned the meat over high heat with a generous sprinkling of dried minced onion (between 1 and 2 tablespoons, I'd say; a small onion's worth) and about a teaspoon of minced garlic bottled in olive oil.  (I keep a jar in the fridge at all times because life is too short to smash garlic just to have spaghetti, but dried garlic powder makes God cry.)  I drained the fat from the meat and put it back in the pot with a can of Hunt's spaghetti sauce, 'flavored with meat,' over medium heat.  This is the cheapest non-store-brand sauce you can buy, usually about a dollar a can, and I swear to you it makes the best spaghetti sauce base, better than any of the brands in jars.  Trust me just one time, and I promise you'll never spend five bucks on a jar of sauce again.  I added two small cans of tomato sauce, half a teaspoon of Italian seasoning, a half a teaspoon of dried basil, two shakes of dried red pepper flake, and a generous pinch of sugar.  After this was all stirred together, I beheaded and gutted a green bell pepper, sliced it in quarters, and laid it on top.  I turned the heat up to high, brought the sauce to a boil, then knocked it back down to a simmer and left it alone for half an hour, stirring every ten minutes or so. 

I cooked a two pound box of regular spagetti in my humongous pasta pot - let your salted water come to a full rolling boil before you put in your pasta, then cook for exactly 11 minutes.  I have a love/hate relationship with that pot.  It's the only one I have big enough to cook pasta or soup, but it's so big, it's hell on earth to wash it.  I have tried every possible angle and configuration to fit it in the dishwasher, but it just will not go. 

For the bread, I cheated and used a perfectly yummy frozen product with what they claim is five different cheeses on it.  But if you want to make my grandmother's classic garlic bread, it's easy - slice most of the way through a loaf of 'French' or 'Italian' bread from the deli section of the grocery store, making slices that are barely held together at the bottom.  Slather butter in all of the cracks and sprinkle in garlic salt (not garlic powder, garlic salt - God still cries, but only for your high blood pressure). 

Usually I would make a tossed salad with this or at least open up a bag of pre-washed salad and dump it in a bowl.  But Saturday night, we lived dangerously and saved room for ice cream instead. 

Friday, January 14, 2011

Chicken Pie

I've been home a lot this week because we've had several inches of snow and ice, so I've been cooking a lot of comfort food.  (And eating a lot of chips, it must be said.)  Chicken pie is one of those dishes that you can make as simple and cheap or as fancy and complicated as you want - I kind of split the difference on this one.  I had the time to roast the chicken myself, but I didn't even try to make pastry - the Pillsbury dough boy makes better pie crust than me; I have come to accept this.  And by the way, any resemblance between a homemade chicken pie and those little frozen things called 'pot pies' is purely coincidental.  I have no objection to those; there are times when they feed an essential TV-dinner-loving morsel of my soul.  But they ain't chicken pie.

About mid-afternoon, I took a whole, 2-pound fryer out of the fridge, unwrapped it, washed it off, took the giblets and neck out of the body cavity (it has to be done, so hitch up your sweats and do it; the chicken can't care any more), rubbed down the skin with the end of half a stick (4 tablespoons) of butter, then put it in one of those oven browning bags with the rest of the half-stick of butter, a big yellow onion, cut up, and a generous sprinkling each of salt, pepper, and dried rubbed sage.  (Fresh sage would work, too, of course, but I wouldn't buy it special for this dish.)  I tied it all up in the bag as instructed on the package (shake a tablespoon of flour inside before the food goes in, cut six slits in the bag after it's tied up) and put it in a 350 degree oven for the next two hours until it was roasted through and golden brown.  I took it out of the oven, cut open the bag, and let it cool for another 45 minutes to an hour. 

I skinned the chicken and stripped the meat off the bones, then cut it into small bite-sized chunks and put it in a heavy soup pot with the strained drippings from the pan.  I added a can of cream of mushroom soup, a can of hot water, a half cup of packaged chicken broth, a bag of slightly defrosted frozen mixed vegetables (carrots, green beans, corn, peas - all of which you could add separately if you wanted, but again, why bother?), and four small boiling potatoes, peeled and diced to be about the same size as the carrots in the mix.  (If I'd had a mix that had potatoes in it, I would have used it, but since I didn't, I had to peel potatoes.)  You could use canned mixed vegetables, too, I suppose, but they'd end up squishier in the finished pie.  I cooked all of this down on medium-low heat until the liquid was reduced to about half and the potatoes were just soft - about thirty minutes.  Then I mixed two tablespoons of corn starch with two-thirds of a cup of hot water until the starch dissolved, then mixed it in to thicken the broth and give it a silky sheen. 

I sprayed a long, oval ceramic casserole dish with non-stick cooking spray - my mom always used a round, deep-dish casserole with a lid, and I would prefer that, too, but I don't have one. I took three of the pre-made Pillsbury pie crusts (the refrigerated kind, not the frozen) out of the fridge and softened them slightly per the package directions.  I lined the bottom of the casserole with one and a half, pressing the edge together tight, then poured the filling inside - I actually ended up with more filling than I needed, so I put the excess in a freezer-tight container and stuck it in the freezer.  I'll make one of those little pot pies later.  Then I put on a top crust made from the other one and a half pre-made crusts (no need to press the edges together on top; they'll bake together nicely), crimped it together all around the edge with a fork, trimmed the excess, cut a few slits in the top in a star pattern, and stuck it in the oven at 400 degrees.  The filling was already cooked, so it was just a matter of baking the crust through - 30 to 45 minutes, depending on your oven.  I let it cool for about ten minutes before I served it, just to let the juices settle and thicken. 

We ate it all on its own, but a green salad would go with it well.  It served six adults generously with enough for one person's lunch left over. 

Friday, January 7, 2011

Au Gratin Potatoes

Growing up here in the Beautiful South, my go-to starch has always been rice, either with gravy or in a casserole.  My mom, who was from Virginia, made awesome mashed potatoes, and I've made them myself a few times and considered them almost worth the trouble.  But last night was the first time I had ever tried to make au gratin potatoes that didn't come out of a box.  We were having pork chops cooked in applesauce (another favorite of Max the Aussie that I'd never tried before I started cooking for him), so there was nothing to make gravy from, and we needed a starch.  I looked in the pantry and saw I still had half a bag of potatoes left over from making potato salad, and we always have cheese in the fridge.  So I decided to give it a try.  (To give you an idea of how rarely we cook potatoes, my niece is five years old and watches her mommy cook almost every night, but last night watching me was the first time she had ever seen a raw, peeled potato.  She was so impressed she had to take one out to the living room to show her uncle.) 

I set the oven to preheat to 350 degrees and sprayed a one-quart casserole dish with Pam (I actually used a 9 inch square cake pan because all my casserole dishes were too big, and it worked just fine).  Then I peeled four medium potatoes and sliced them thin (pausing to rinse the one the princess took to marvel over). 

The sauce is basically the same cheese sauce I use for macaroni and cheese.  I sauteed 1/4 cup of onion in 2 tablespoons of butter, then added 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/8 teaspoon of black pepper, and 2 tablespoons of flour and whisked it together, then added 1& 1/4 cups of milk and whisked it over medium high heat until it thickened and bubbled.  Then I added 3/4 cup of shredded cheddar cheese and stirred it until it was smooth.

I put down a layer of potato slices in the casserole dish, overlapping them slightly, and covered them with cheese sauce, then added another layer and the rest of the sauce.  Then I sprinkled another 1/2 cup of shredded cheddar over the top.  I covered it all with aluminum foil and put it in the preheated oven to bake for 35 minutes.  Then I took the foil off and baked it 30 minutes longer, until the cheese on top was browned slightly at the edges and the potatoes were cooked through. 

It made four generous side dish servings.  This will never replace rice or mac & cheese for me, but it was a good, hot comfort food that went well with the pork chops.  I'll definitely make it again.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Pea & Ham Soup

When my husband and I got engaged, we called his parents in Australia to tell them, and one of the first things I asked his mom was, "What does he like to eat?"  Before she could answer, he called out, "Pea and ham soup!  Tell her how to make pea and ham soup!"  So she very kindly did.  I had never had it before, and I have to admit, the first time I saw it, all green and Exorcist-prop-like, I had serious doubts.  But it's actually pretty damned yummy.  This last time, I made it using the still-meaty remains of our honey-roasted Christmas ham, and it was outstanding - if you've got one available, I would recommend that over ham hocks.  My hubby claims his mom can make it taste wonderful with canned ham as a base, but I haven't been brave enough to even try that yet.

On my lunch hour, about six hours before we planned to eat, I melted half a stick (1/4 cup) of butter in a big, heavy-bottomed soup pot over low heat.  I chopped a medium onion very fine and sweated it in the melted butter until the pieces turned translucent - if you hear sizzling, your heat is up too high.  If it turns brown, you've cooked it too long; start over. 

To the sweated onion, I added the ham (the meaty bone or a couple of hamhocks, just enough to have about a cup's worth of meat in the soup when it all cooks down), a pound of split peas, seven cups of water, a cup of chicken broth, and an envelope of onion soup mix (the kind you'd use to make chip dip). I put a lid on it and turned the heat up to high.  When it started to boil, I stirred it and turned the heat down to low, just enough heat to keep it simmering.  Then I left it alone and went back to work.  My sweetie checked on it every half hour or so all afternoon to make sure it had plenty of liquid and to stir to make sure the peas weren't sticking to the bottom of the pot.  If it gets too thick, just add water.

Four hours later, I came home and took the lid off the pot - the whole house smelled wonderful, and my husband smiled at me and said, "I love you soooo much."  I fished out the hambone and all the chunks of meat and skin still big enough to catch with tongs and set it all aside on a plate to cool enough to touch while I seasoned the soup to taste - some freshly ground black pepper and a teaspoon or so of dried parsley flakes.  I didn't think it needed any more salt, but I noticed both my husband and my dad salted theirs in the bowl, so taste it for yourself and see.  I removed all the skin from the ham and chopped, tore, and shredded the meat into very-small-bite-sized pieces before adding them back into the soup.  I brought it all back up to a hard boil and let it cook down for another half hour.  Some recipes I've seen say blend it all up with a hand blender, but the peas cook down to nothing but a thick, vivid green liquid; there's no evidence they were ever separate objects at all.  And I like to be able to see and taste the chunks of ham. 

I served it with Jiffy corn muffins, and both my husband and my dad seemed to love it.  This recipe makes about six to eight servings, I think; I still have leftovers in the refrigerator.  My husband had another bowl for lunch today.  It was so thick, I had to add more water to it to heat it up, but it still tasted really good.