June 30, 2016

Dear friends,

Everyone makes cold peanut noodles now but no one makes spicy cold soba noodles with basil-mint pesto. That’s because Nina Simonds and I just dreamed it up. Nina came up with the idea in her book, “Asian Noodles,” and I customized it to what I had in my cupboards.

The noodles are a home run for spicy-food lovers. Thin, slippery buckwheat noodles are bathed in a highly seasoned, medium-hot pesto sauce that clings to the pasta. It’s the kind of dish that would look unremarkable on a potluck buffet table, but be gone by the time you fetched the dish to take home.

I served the noodles with grilled steak Sunday. The recipe was a hail Mary after I discovered we had no potatoes, no rice and no vegetables on hand. I paged through Simonds’ noodle book and lifted the recipe for the pesto because my basil plants are beginning to produce excess leaves, and lord knows I have plenty of mint out back.

Simonds tosses the noodles with chicken and a vinaigrette, but I like the noodles with the just the pesto, which I changed to make more sauce-like. Specifically, I added some of the Vietnamese Lime and Chili Sauce I always have on hand. I use the sauce on salads, in stir fries and as a dipping sauce.
I’ve shared the recipe several times but include it again for those who missed it. It keeps for ages in the refrigerator.

If you don’t have the time or ingredients to make the Vietnamese sauce, substitute one-fourth cup lime juice mixed with one-fourth cup soy sauce.

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SPICY COLD SOBA NOODLES
6 cloves garlic
1 cup fresh basil leaves
1/2 cup fresh mint leaves
1 tbsp. Szechuan chili oil
1 tbsp. toasted sesame oil
Vietnamese Lime and Chili Sauce (recipe follows) or 1/4 cup soy sauce mixed with 1/4 cup lime juice
10 oz. (3 bundles) soba noodles

Drop the garlic cloves one at a time through the feed tube of a food processor with the motor running. When chopped fine, remove lid and add basil, mint, chili oil and sesame oil. Pulse to chop leaves. Drizzle Vietnamese sauce or the soy-lime juice mixture through the feed tube with the motor running, using just enough liquid to produce a loose slurry. Set aside.

Cook soba noodles in boiling water for 2 to 4 minutes, or until noodles are tender but not mushy. Drain well and transfer to a boil. Scrape pesto into bowl with noodles and toss to coat evenly. Chill. Toss before serving. Makes about 6 servings.
VIETNAMESE LIME AND CHILI SAUCE
10 cloves garlic, finely minced
Grated zest of 2 1/2 limes
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. lime juice
5 tbsp. distilled white vinegar
3 tbsp. Plus 1 tsp. nam pla (Vietnamese fish sauce)
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. Soy sauce
7 1/2 tbsp. Sugar
5 fresh small red chilies or 1 or 2 jalapenos (or to taste), seeded and minced, or 1 tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/4 cups papaya or mango nectar or unsweetened pineapple juice

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar. Keeps for weeks in the refrigerator.

TIDBITS

• You know those semi-awful drinks made with protein powder? Until now I’ve added the protein to fat-free milk and blended it with lots of ice to make a “milkshake.” Sometimes I glam it up with cocoa powder. Pretty good (and good for you), but not half as good as turning the milk-protein mixture into ice cream. Zowie.

The protein powder gives the ice cream a creamy texture and rich flavor, and a cup of it can really fill you up. Currently I use Pure Protein powder, which has 26 grams protein, 2 grams of sugar and 160 calories per scoop. Add a cup of skim milk, freeze it in an ice cream machine, and you have an outrageous, guilt-free snack.

• My computer hates me again, so please resend your email. My mail program refused to forward any mail to me for roughly the last two weeks, so if you sent an email during that time, could you please resend it? I don’t get a ton of emails to my newsletter, so every one is precious. On another matter, why don’t you write more??

THE MAILBAG

From Tracey:
Hi Jane. Thinking of your upcoming knee surgery. Hope it goes well and that recuperation is as speedy and comfortable as possible!

Dear Tracey: Thank you so much. I’m having a knee replacement at the end of August. I need recipes for meals I can make in a toaster in the living room while reclining in a tilt-back chair.

I’m not about to let a bum knee derail my summer plans, though. Before I’m sidelined, Tony and I will hitch up our camper for a month-long trip to Vail, Colo., Idaho’s hot springs, and Yellowstone National Park. I will see everything from the window of our pickup while Tony hikes, kayaks and zip lines. I hope to do some campfire cooking, too, so I’ll keep you posted.

June 22, 2016

Dear friends,

The first night of our vacation to the shore we had carryout from Cracker Barrel in our camper at a highway rest stop in West Virginia during a rainstorm of biblical proportions. What is wrong with this picture? Yes, Cracker Barrel. Not the roadside rest or camper or even West Virginia. I can handle all that, but starting our retirement travels with a meal from Cracker Barrel?

Well, the meal was delicious. I’m not kidding. I dashed into the restaurant (choices of dining spots at the highway interchange were limited) and ordered two of the first item I saw on a wall menu: Campfire Chicken. It’s a goof-proof summer special of seasoned bone-in chicken pieces cooked in foil with carrots, onions, cherry tomatoes and new potatoes. When we opened the packets a few minutes later at the rest stop, the aroma filled our 24-foot camper.

Tony, the dog and I huddled around the table eating while the rain sliced sideways against the windows. We were happy and cozy.

The food got better after we settled in at the shore, but still, the Campfire Chicken was not bad. I kept thinking about it, and ways I could make it gourmet-worthy. After we returned home, I laid in supplies and experimented. The result is a kind of Northern African-inspired dish that can be cooked on the grill or in the oven.

I used bone-in chicken, as Cracker Barrel does, and cooked it in a foil pouch with cherry tomatoes, olives, dates, lemon wedges, onions, carrots and chunks of sweet potatoes. A spice mixture of cinnamon, coriander, ginger and turmeric pulled it all together.

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FOIL-WRAPPED CHICKEN TAGINE
1/2 tsp. powdered ginger
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/2 tsp. coriander
1/4 tsp. turmeric
1 tsp. salt
1/2 tsp. fresh-ground pepper
4 bone-in chicken leg-thighs, breasts or a combination
2 slender carrots, cut in halves and the fat ends sliced lengthwise
1/2 of a large sweet onion such as Vidalia, peeled and cut in quarters
8 grape tomatoes
1/2 cup pitted Kalamata olives
1 lemon, cut vertically in 8 wedges
4 large pitted dates
1 large sweet potato, pierced and microwaved until almost tender
4 tsp. olive oil

In a custard cup, mix together ginger, cinnamon, coriander, turmeric, salt and pepper. Set aside.

Trim any excess skin or fat from the chicken. Wash and pat dry. Place an 18-inch length of foil on a counter and place another piece of foil, the same size, crosswise on top to form a cross. Place one-fourth of the carrots in the center and arrange one chicken piece on top. Arrange one-fourth of the onion, tomatoes, lemon wedges, olives and a date around the chicken. Cut the potato in 4 chunks and add one to packet. Sprinkle one teaspoon of the spice mixture over the chicken and vegetables. Drizzle with one teaspoon olive oil.

Bring foil up around ingredients, scrunching and pinching to seal. Use remaining ingredients to make three more packets.

Oven method: Place foil packets on two baking sheets and bake at 400 degrees for 50 to 60 minutes, switching positions in oven after 30 minutes.

Grill method: Place over medium-hot coals (about 20
briquettes or medium on a gas grill). Cover with vents half open. Grill for about 40 minutes, depending on heat, or until juices of chicken run clear.

Makes 4 servings. Note: The lemon wedges may be eaten rind and all. They are soft and delicious when cooked.

HELP U COOK

A word, please, about oven tending. When you open an oven door mid-bake or mid-roast, do you leave it open while basting, checking the temperature with an instant-read, or prodding a piece of meat for doneness? Stop it.

Do you leisurely switch the positions of baking sheets mid-bake, letting too much heat escape? Stop it.

I have noticed that many of my friends have no sense of urgency when opening and closing an oven door. If you open the door of a preheated oven and walk four steps to a counter and back to fetch your casserole or unbaked pie, you might as well start preheating all over again. The heat escapes quickly, throwing off not only the timing but the quality of the food.
Try to keep open-door time to a minimum. Have everything you need – food, utensils, hot pads – at your fingertips. Open the door, immediately do what you have to, and shut the door as quickly as possible. If the task requires more than a few seconds of time, remove the food from oven, close the door, and prod or baste at leisure. Then get it back in the oven pronto.

TIDBITS

Where are all the pawpaw trees? I want one so badly I can almost taste it. More accurately, I want a pawpaw badly in order to taste it. I’ve been obsessed since I read a description of the fruit. It reportedly has a creamy texture and tropical flavor that’s a cross between a banana, mango and pineapple. Does that sound great or what?

Pawpaws grow wild in groves in Southern Ohio. They can be grown in Northern Ohio, too. When I was a kid, I remember the pawpaw tree beside the back porch of my grandparents’ neighbor.

Pawpaws are the largest tree fruit native to North America, yet I have never tasted one. How is that possible? I have written about food from my home base in Ohio for 34 years. I have tasted fresh lychees and dragon fruit, rare Japanese haskap berries and Spanish blood oranges, but not a single home-grown pawpaw.

I tried to remedy that this spring by finding a tree and growing the fruit myself, but the biggest pawpaw tree I could find locally was 18 inches. Hey, I’m 66. I can’t wait that long.

Scheduled knee surgery will keep me from attending the 19th annual Ohio Pawpaw Festival Sept. 16-18 at Lake Snowden near Athens, about two hours Southeast of Columbus. I am heartbroken. The festival website is http://www.ohiopawpawfest.com. If you go, would you please, please bring me back a pawpaw?

THE MAILBAG

From Cindy P.:
I am laughing to myself about Tony’s creation (the hotdog face). He’s a big kid inside, isn’t he?

While I don’t make food with faces for myself, I indulge the kid in me by using a lime-green Grinch waffle iron that my daughters bought me for Christmas one year. I think of my daughters every time I use the thing and have it displayed in open, industrial shelving in my kitchen. I don’t care what anyone thinks of it. I love it.

Speaking of waffles, the best I’ve ever eaten are at Brown Sugar Kitchen in Oakland, Calif. The chef/owner puts cornmeal in the waffles and serves them with an apple cider vinegar syrup. OMG. My version — I also add cornmeal, even in the form of grits or polenta, to the batter. No, I don’t use a recipe but I did look at her cookbook to figure out what she did and then I based my version on that. This weekend, I was craving the syrup as well, so I heated some butter, maple syrup, and a tiny bit of balsamic vinegar, and poured that over the waffle. Slightly different and VERY good.

Dear Cindy: I’ll tell Tony you liked his fried hot dog face. He needs no encouragement, though.

Your waffles (with the Grinch iron! Yes!) sound really great. For some reason, I crave things made with cornmeal lately. Putting balsamic in the butter-syrup topping is brilliant.

From Pennie:
I have a food question about mushrooms. You are supposed to wipe them off with a wet paper towel, but I have issues with that. First, they don’t seem as clean as rinsing them. (Aren’t they grown in manure?) And second, it takes a heck of a lot of paper towels to clean a bunch. Am I doing it wrong?

Dear Pennie: Mushrooms are not grown in manure. That’s just a – ahem – dirty rumor that the Mushroom Council spends a lot of money each year to refute. As for the wiping/washing issue, I, too, used to brush and wipe the things, but no more. It’s tedious and doesn’t really clean them well, as you point out.

Mushrooms are porous and will soak up water, which would make them difficult to cook. But that will happen only if you let the mushrooms loll around in the water. If you clean them under running water and dry them right away (here’s where the wiping comes in), they will not ooze an ocean in your sauté pan. And if they do ooze too much, simply turn up the heat and boil it off.

June 3, 2016

Dear friends,

In my continuing quest to have my ice cream and my figure, too, I made yogurt pops last week. Not just plain frozen yogurt pops, but coconut frozen yogurt pops with a mango swirl.

As I write this, on day five, the flavors have finally mellowed and deepened in the freezer. The chalky, bland hints of plain frozen yogurt have faded, leaving a tart tang that works in harmony with the pronounced coconut and fruity mango flavors. So if you make these, be patient. Do not gobble them up immediately.

Also keep in mind that these are low-cal pops. To make something like this taste good takes a bit of time. Most coconut yogurt pop recipes on the Internet call for stirring canned cream of coconut into plain yogurt for texture and flavor. That’s easy, but the product has a ton of calories. Instead I use cookbook author and columnist Mark Bittman’s technique of making a cooked custard to combine with the yogurt. Unlike Bittman I make my frozen yogurt with reduced-fat dairy products, and infuse the custard with shredded, unsugared coconut to produce my favorite flavor.

The custard base helps the texture. So does churning the yogurt-custard mixture in an ice cream machine. That whips air into the mixture as it freezes, which prevents the yogurt pops from hardening into little wands of ice. I’m lucky to have a countertop compressor machine that requires no pre-freezing of the bowl or messing with ice and salt. Any type of machine may be used to churn the mixture, though.

These yogurt pops are going to seriously improve my summer. Now, if I could just figure out how to make a low-cal Dairy Queen Peanut Buster Bar.

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COCONUT-MANGO YOGURT POPS
1 1/4 cups skim milk
1 cup shredded unsweetened coconut
4 egg yolks
1/4 cup Splenda granulated (or 1/2 cup regular granulated sugar)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
2 cups fat-free plain Greek yogurt
1 ripe mango
1/2 tsp. lime juice

Bring milk to simmer. Remove from heat, stir in coconut and cover. Let stand for 1 hour.

Bring milk almost to a simmer again. In a small bowl or 2-cup measure, beat eggs with a fork. Slowly add about a half-cup of the hot milk mixture to the eggs, beating rapidly. Whisk hot egg mixture into the milk-coconut mixture in pan. Stir in Splenda or sugar. Stir constantly over medium-low heat until custard thickens enough to coat the back of a spoon. Do not allow it to bubble or the eggs will scramble.

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Cool to room temperature (set bottom of pan in ice water to cool quickly).

Stir yogurt into cooled coconut custard. Dip out one-half cup of mixture. Cover remaining mixture with plastic wrap. Peel and cube mango and puree until chunky-smooth in a food processor. Measure out one-half cup and stir in lime juice. Combine with the half-cup of the coconut mixture. Cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate both mixtures until thoroughly chilled, preferably overnight.

Churn each mixture separately in an ice cream machine if possible, or at least churn the plain coconut mixture. Spoon soft-set coconut-yogurt mixture into ice-pop molds, alternating with a couple of thin layers of the mango mixture. Freeze 4 or 5 days to allow flavors to deepen. To eat, run under hot water and remove from molds. Makes 7 or 8 half-cup ice pops.

TIDBITS

Bomba Tacos & Rum finally opened in Fairlawn in the former Hudson’s space, where walls were knocked out and Hudson’s cozy vibe was considerably lightened up. The restaurant offers tacos, rice bowls and lots of rum – more than 75 varieties including rum cocktails. I can recommend the mojito.

The restaurant is part of a home-grown chain that started in Cleveland in 2007 with Paladar Latin Kitchen & Rum Bar. The offshoot Bomba chain has three locations so far – Akron, Rocky River and Hallandale, Fla.

The “Latin American” food isn’t exactly Latin American; it is “inspired by flavors, ingredients, and dishes from Central and South America, Cuba and the Caribbean,” co-owner Andy Himmel told the Herald in Miami, where authentic Latin American food can be found on almost every corner.

“A South Florida Latin American cuisine’d restaurant hailing from Ohio is like a Peoria-originated Chinese restaurant opening in Shanghai,” the Miami writer noted.

But although you won’t find ropa Viejo or steak palomino on the menu, most of the food is pretty good and the atmosphere is fun.

Best bets: Chunky guacamole, fresh-made, with a list of add-ins you can specify; chicken tinga taco with chipotle sauce, fresh cilantro, onion and hot sauce; and lamb barbacoa taco with plenty of lamb. Skip the empanadas, which taste like they’re made with egg roll wrappers.

The menu and other pertinent details can be found at http://bombatacos.com/fairlawn-ohio/.
SMASHED SWEET POTATOES

I figured if chef Roger Thomas can smash redskins, I can smash sweet potatoes. They turned out pretty good, too.

Choose small, roundish sweet potatoes and cook them in the microwave until tender but not falling apart. Gently smash them between your palms to split the skin in four places around the sides. Marinate for 20 to 30 minutes in a mixture of 2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce, 1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger and 1/2 teaspoon sugar, flipping potatoes once. (Increase amounts for more than two potatoes.) Grill on both sides until crisp.
EEK!
Remember the big package of hot dogs Tony lugged home and I refused to cook? One morning last week I found him in the kitchen making the horror show below for his breakfast. I didn’t say a word; I just got my camera.

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THE MAILBAG
From Michele:
Liver and onions at the Ido Bar & Grille for the man who asked in your newsletter.

From Jocelyn:
I am not a liver and onions fan but my son loves it. Whenever he is in town we go to the Ido on South Main Street in Akron. He can have his treat and I can have just about anything else. One of my favorites is the almond-crusted halibut, delicious.

From George, Akron:
Liver and onions can be had at Rose Villa in the Portage Lakes area.  It’s pretty good.

From Jan C., Uniontown:
My hubby and I like the liver and onions at Rose Villa in Portage Lakes. Comes with good bread, salad, good veggies, and potatoes. Their fresh-cut fries are crispy the home fries too. Yummy and quite reasonable. Met a friend there for dinner a week ago and we all ended up having the liver.

From Martha K.:
Re: liver and onions — tell John to try Edgar’s Restaurant at Good Park, Lanning’s and the 
Ido Bar & Grille.

From Marilyn K.:
Regarding good liver and onions, Farmer Boy restaurant on Cuyahoga Falls Avenue in Akron makes a delicious plate of liver and onions. Real yum ! I tell my hubby it isn’t good for his cholesterol but he will be 90 later this year and is still running around the city, so why stop him now ? Enjoy  !!!

From Debbie:
I’ve never had them myself, but they are on the menu at Lanning’s. They come with the tableside mini salad bar and a side. The menu shows $24. But that includes the excellent service and view of Yellow Creek (if you dress appropriately – if you wear jeans, you can sit in the bar area. Still very nice and the same great service).

From Mary P.:
Years ago I had some of the best liver and onions at Denny’s Restaurants. They have a new location on Home Ave near Chapel Hill. In fact, across from Steak and shake. Hopefully, they still offer it and it’s as good as way back when.

From Sura:
Liver and onions is a simple dish best eaten at home. I’ve never found a restaurant that makes it as good as fresh homemade, and it’s so easy.

Dear readers: Thanks for helping John (and a lot of us, I bet) find the best liver and onions in the area. I can’t wait to try the liver at the Ido and Rose Villa.

May 26, 2016

Dear friends,

Tony is getting into the swing of this retirement thing. Last week he decided on his own to do the grocery shopping. He went to the store without a list and brought back a 3-pound package of hot dogs and some boneless chicken breasts. Period.

“You can make some chicken!” he said as if the idea was novel, although we eat chicken all the time. Hot dogs are another story. I don’t think I’ve cooked any in the 10 years we’ve been together and I’m not about to start now. What was he thinking?

The next morning I padded downstairs to find Tony frying six hot dogs and two pieces of bread in a wide skillet. That was his breakfast, or would have been had I not convinced him to stop at two hot dogs for his cholesterol’s sake.

I had no trouble using up the chicken. The weather was mild and the grill beckoned. I wanted to make chicken kabobs but with more flavor than plain meat grilled on skewers. I didn’t have plain yogurt for an Indian-type marinade, but I did have canned coconut milk. I used an Indian technique of pureeing onions and garlic with a bunch of dried spices and added that and lime juice to the coconut milk. A couple of hours was long enough for the flavors to permeate the meat.

The kabobs are flavorful on their own but if you want to get fancy, you could serve them with a mango salsa or cucumber raita. We like them just the way they are.

I like Tony’s hot dogs just the way they are, too: In the package, in the freezer.

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GRILLED CHICKEN CURRY KABOBS
•    2 1/2 lbs. boneless, skinless chicken breasts
•    1 tsp. ground cumin
•    1 tsp. ground coriander
•    1 tsp. salt
•    1/2 tsp. cayenne pepper
•    1/2 cup rough-chopped sweet onions
•    2 cloves garlic
•    Juice of 1 lime
•    1/2 cup canned coconut milk
•    6 long wooden skewers, soaked in hot water

Trim chicken of fat and cut into long, 1/2-inch to 1-inch-wide strips. In a blender combine spices, onions, garlic and lime juice. Puree, stopping and clearing sides with a rubber spatula several times. Add coconut milk and process until smooth. Combine chicken and spice mixture in a gallon zipper-lock plastic bag and gently squeeze to coat chicken evenly. Refrigerate and marinate for two hours.

Prepare a medium-hot charcoal or gas fire. Thread chicken onto the skewers accordion-style. Grill for about 6 minutes or until cooked through, turning skewers to brown all sides. Makes 6 servings.

HELP U COOK

The difference between squeezing two tablespoons or one-fourth cup of juice from a lime is 15 to 30 seconds in the microwave. Put the whole lime on the turntable and nuke on high until the rind is soft and warm. Age also affects the quantity of juice (citrus fruit dries out as it ages), but you can’t do anything about that. You CAN put the lime in the microwave, though. I never juice a lemon or lime without it.

THE MAILBAG

From Fran F.:
After leaving a Sunday gospel concert at the Civic Theater, we went to Everest Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls, the Nepali/Indian restaurant you mentioned several weeks ago. They did not have a Sunday buffet and the sign in the window advertised a lunch buffet from 11 to 2 p.m. weekdays and Saturday. The lunch buffet is $8.99 and the weekend Saturday buffet is $9.99.

We arrived at Everest at 4:45 p.m. and the sign on the door said they would be back at 5 p.m.   We sat in the parking lot until 5:05 and then pulled away.   By the time we got out of the parking lot and passed in front of the restaurant the “open” sign came on. We turned around and went back.

We ordered Butter Chicken and Curry Chicken as entrees and had a Mango drink.  The food was tasty but the entrees only included the meat and a shared bowl of rice.  Our bill was $31 without tip.  I felt it was a bit overpriced for the amount of food we got.
Dear Fran: Thanks for sharing your experience. Sounds like the buffet I had is a much better deal.

From John O.:
Where can I get good liver and onions in the Akron area?

Dear John: I’m a liver and onions fan but I haven’t eaten it in a while and can’t remember where I had it. Can anyone help?

May 18, 2016

Dear friends,

Tony is home! With a serious case of jet lag! I know it’s serious because he is too tired to eat. A bowl of spaghetti sits untouched in the refrigerator.

“My favorite,” he moaned sleepily when I placed it in front of him Sunday at about 6 p.m. That would be 7 a.m. Japan time. He conked out before the first forkful.

Tony arrived bearing gifts. The aunts sent me really cool T-shirts, purses and handcrafts. His cousins and high school buddies sent food, and his dear mother sent me all of her jewelry. I wish I could be with her. But I’m here, still cooking for just myself until Tony snaps out of it.

Mostly I’ve been making simple things like scrambled eggs and sandwiches. That changed when I found fresh, sweet cherries for $1.99 a pound. They were part of a sale celebrating the grand re-opening of the remodeled Acme No. 1 in West Akron. The store is modern and inviting, and it was packed with bargains last weekend.

Two dollars a pound is probably as low as these seasonal treasures are likely to go. I’ve seen cherries elsewhere, though, at $3 to $4 a pound -– unusual for this time of year. Cherries usually aren’t that inexpensive until supplies peak around the Fourth of July.

Most of our cherries come from Michigan and Washington State in late June and early July. The early cherries are coming from California, which must have a bumper crop this year.

I know just what to do with them. I like the idea of tossing pitted cherries into a salad with smoked turkey and salty feta cheese, or pureeing some and freezing in alternating layers with vanilla yogurt in ice pop molds. I will probably get around to those projects when I recover from my dried-cherry experiment.

Because I was able to afford a few pounds of cherries, I thought I would dry some. I like the idea of controlling the moisture level, producing half-dried cherries (like my half-dried tomatoes) to freeze and add bursts of flavor to my breakfast yogurt next winter. They’d be great in muffins, too.

I found two ways of drying cherries: In the microwave and in the oven. I tried both, but first I had to pit the dang things. Do not believe Internet advice to punch out the pits with a chopstick. The cherry is placed atop the neck of an empty wine bottle and the chopstick is plunged into its fleshy midsection, pushing the pit through the fruit and into the wine bottle below. Surrrre. I tried this with several empty narrow-necked bottles, including a wine bottle, and punched my medium sized cherries without exception into the bottles, pits and all. I punched gently, I stabbed wickedly; the result was the same.

The second Internet-touted method, which I’ve used before, is to insert a paper clip into the cherry and drag out the pit. I must have lost either patience or dexterity (maybe both) as I aged because I HATED fishing around with that paper clip. By the time I captured the pit, my hands were a sticky pink and the cherry was a pulpy mess. I did not attempt cherry number two.

I finally resorted to a paring knife, slicing each cherry in half and digging out the pit with the knife tip. I could pit 18 cherries in 5 minutes, enough to fill a 11-by-17-inch baking sheet. Not bad, but I recommend you go buy a cherry pitter.

In an 1100-watt microwave, the cherry halves dried in 17 minutes on the defrost setting. The cherries were pitted and placed directly on the clean glass turntable, cut sides up, about 1 inch apart. If you go this route, start checking after 10 minutes, keeping in mind that the fruit dries more as it sits.

In an oven set to 200 degrees, the cherry halves dried to my taste in 1 1/2 hours. They were concentrated and wrinkled but still slightly juicy. If you want fully dried fruit leather-type cherries, increase the time to 2 to 2 1/2 hours. The halves were placed cut sides down 1 1/2 inches apart on a foil-lined baking sheet. Tip: When you take the cherries from the oven, slide them, still on the foil, onto a counter and loosen them with the side of a fork. Then cool and eat or freeze.

My conclusion is that that microwave is a bad way to dry cherries. It’s easy to turn them into burnt little disks, even using the defrost setting. A couple of my thinner cherries became cherry chips.

Also, unless you remove the cherry halves from the glass turntable immediately, you’ll have to saw them off with a serrated knife. Then you must soak the turntable a long time and probably scrape it with a spatula to remove the dried cherry residue.

The oven-drying method was a lark in comparison. But why bother at all? Because half- or almost-dried cherries taste amazing compared to the over-sweetened commercial kind.

My half-dried cherries should taste especially good in a batch of coconut drop biscuits. The recipe is from James Villas’ excellent little cookbook, “Biscuit Bliss.” Villas writes that he likes to serve the “rather dainty” biscuits with coffee after an elaborate dinner.

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COCONUT-CHERRY DROP BISCUITS
3/4 cup frozen unsweetened flaked coconut
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tbsp. sugar
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. chilled vegetable shortening
1 cup whole milk
1 egg, beaten
1/2 tsp. vanilla extract
1/4 cup dried or 1/2 cup half-dried sweet cherries

Preheat oven to 300 degrees. Spread the frozen coconut on a large baking sheet and toast, stirring often, until golden, about 30 minutes. Transfer to a bowl and cool.

Increase oven temperature to 425 degrees. Grease the same baking sheet and set aside.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the coconut, flour, sugar, baking powder and salt. Cut in the shortening with a pastry blender until the mixture is crumbly. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, egg and vanilla. Add to the dry ingredients along with the cherries. Stir just until the dough is very soft and still slightly wet.

Drop the dough by scant tablespoons onto the prepared baking sheet about 1 inch apart. Bake at 425 degrees in the upper third of the oven until golden, about 12 minutes. Serve hot or at room temperature. Makes about 20 biscuits.

From “Biscuit Bliss” by James Villas.

HELP U COOK

It’s hard to remember which foods freeze poorly so here, in one place, is a list:

Sour cream becomes thin and watery.

Mayonnaise separates.

Cream cheese develops a watery texture.

Cooked egg whites become rubbery.

Icings made with egg whites become foamy.

Custard pie fillings become watery or lumpy.

Raw egg yolks thicken.

Heavy cream won’t whip but may be used in cooking.
Cooked grains and pastas soften.

Fruits and vegetables with a high water content become limp.

Many seasonings change in flavor, to wit: Onions, garlic, cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and pepper intensify in flavor; salt, thyme, rosemary, dill, sage and basil pale in flavor.

THE MAILBAG
From Isabel T.:
I think it was last year that you had a recipe for an asparagus tart with slices of lemon. I made it once and can’t find the recipe.

Dear Isabel: That was my take on an asparagus and lemon version of tarte tatin. Asparagus spears and sautéed lemon slices are arranged in a skillet over a butter mixture, covered with puff pastry and baked. When done, the tart is inverted onto a serving plate to show off the asparagus and lemon. Wedges of the warm tart are a lovely spring side dish. Thanks for reminding me of this recipe.

UPSIDE-DOWN ASPARAGUS-LEMON TART
1 sheet of frozen puff pastry
1 firm lemon, sliced thin
14 to 16 spears asparagus, cut 4-inches long (tip end only)
1 tbsp. oil
2 tbsp. butter
1 tsp. sugar

Thaw pastry according to package directions. Slice lemon and cut and wash asparagus. Place an 8-inch oven-safe skillet over medium heat. When hot, add oil and butter. After butter melts, sprinkle sugar evenly in skillet. Arrange as many lemon slices as will fit in skillet in a single layer. Cook, turning once, until the edges begin to turn golden. Remove from skillet with tongs.

Remove skillet from heat. Arrange asparagus spears in a spoke pattern in the skillet, with the tips the center. Place lemon slices in a pattern on top of the asparagus.

Unbend puff pastry sheet and roll briefly with a floured rolling pin to remove creases. Use a 9- or 10-inch round cake pan as a guide to cut pastry in a circle. Place pastry circle over asparagus and lemon slices in pan, tucking edges down along the insides.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 25 minutes, until pastry is cooked through and starts to turn golden. Remove from oven and immediately invert onto a plate. Sprinkle with coarse sea salt. Serve warm or at room temperature.
From Annie:
Hey Jane, I got my peas and onions in early but it is taking longer to get more garden tilled up for the potatoes and fava beans.  I grew most of my own tomato and pepper plants this year and they are ready when Mother Nature is ready to let me put them in.

Every year I plan to go to Crown Point to the heirloom plant sale.  I haven’t been able to get there yet and am planning to go come heck or high water this year.  Do you have the specifics yet?

Dear Annie: I hear you. As I write this (Monday), my basil and eggplant seedlings are covered with plastic cottage cheese containers to ward off the frost. I was hoping to enjoy corn before the Fourth this year when I saw farmers planting in April, but now I doubt it.

Crown Point Ecology Center’s organic plant sale at its farm in Bath began last weekend but has expanded from two days to many more this year. The details are at http://crownpt.org/annual-organic-plant-sale/.
From Lin in France:

You want to know about new-to-me plants? Well, last year I grew a “pigment de oiseau” in a pot on my terrace. These are the tiny peppers you typically find in the spicy oil you drizzle on pizza. Then I strung them on a length of yarn and dried them in the kitchen. This spring I went to a plant fair and talked with a fellow who grows hundreds of different varieties of peppers and asked him what he would recommend and he sold me two: Kashmiri and Varigata. They will also have to tough it out in the pot and with limited sun on my terrace…we’ll see how they work out.

Dear Lin: You have a whole slew of European heirlooms to try. What fun!

From Isabelle Gordon:
In my recent move I lost your buckwheat cakes recipe, one that Tony liked that I think came from a restaurant.  It was like the recipe that I grew up with.  I’m not sure how my request works but I would love to be able to find the recipe.  Thanks in advance.

Dear Isabelle: Unfortunately, I don’t have a searchable database yet. That recipe was from way back when Tony and I met, I think. That would make it 2006. Does anyone have this recipe?

May 11, 2016

Dear friends,

After a nice Mother’s Day brunch, all I needed to make the day complete was a call from my step-son. The call came in early evening. Nico has not missed a Mother’s Day since he moved to Colorado three years ago. Hearing his voice almost makes me forget that hair-pulling senior year when he rebelled against Tony, me, school and the universe.

Nico has changed. He is once again the charming, smart, funny kid who asked deep questions and laughed with me at goofy TV shows. He’s that kid but more mature and thoughtful. I wish I could have shared brunch with him. He was always an enthusiastic and adventurous eater.

But then, so is my dog, who shared the riff on huevos-rancheros-meets-eggs-Benedict I made Sunday. Oscar isn’t as good a conversationalist as Nico but he likes my cooking just as much.

We’re both kind of smitten with the crispy corn cakes I made as the base of my Benedict. I wanted something more substantial than corn pancakes but less leaden than traditional hoecakes, which are basically water and corn meal stirred together and fried.

My hoecakes are cross between the two. I lightened the batter with a smidgen of self-rising flour and added oil for tenderness. The result: They’re sturdier than pancakes but more tender than hoecakes, with the latter’s pure corn flavor.

I topped the cakes with frizzled ham and green onions charred in a dry skillet. I poached the egg for 4 minutes in almost-simmering water in a covered skillet. If I were more ambitious and had calories to burn, I would have topped the stack with a ribbon of jalapeno hollandaise sauce. Instead I used smoky chipotle salsa, which was almost as good.

Too bad Tony didn’t get to taste this. Maybe I’ll make it on Father’s Day, when he will be safely back home.

POACHED EGGS, HAM AND CHARRED SCALLIONS OVER HOECAKES

For the hoecakes:
1/2 cup yellow corn meal
1/2 cup hot water
2 tbsp. self-rising flour
1 tbsp. Canola oil
1/4 tsp. salt

Combine corn meal and hot water in a bowl and let stand for 10 minutes. Stir in remaining ingredients and let stand a few minutes longer.

Pour about one-sixteenth inch oil into a hot nonstick or cast iron skillet. Adjust the heat to medium. When the oil is hot, Spoon in one-fourth of the batter, spreading to form a thin disk about 4 inches in diameter. Cook until edges are brown and crisp. Flip and cook until reverse side is golden. Keep warm in a 200-degree oven.

Everything else:
8 thin green onions, trimmed
6 oz. shaved ham
4 eggs
Salsa (optional)

Heat a large cast-iron skillet over medium-high heat. Place onions in dry skillet and cook until dark brown in places on both sides. Remove from pan with tongs and set aside. In same skillet, warm hand until the edges frizzle.

While ham warms, break eggs into a nonstick skillet of barely simmering water. Cover and cook, barely simmering, until whites are set but yolks are still runny, about 4 minutes.

While eggs cook, place a hoecake on each of 4 luncheon-sized plates. Top each with 1 1/2 ounces of the ham and 2 green onions. Carefully remove each egg from the water with a slotted spoon and slide onto the onions. Serve with salsa if desired. Makes 4 servings.

HELP U COOK

While making a pot of soup last weekend I was reminded of all the restaurant utensils and cookware Tony brought to our marriage. I can’t imagine how I cooked without them.

I actually used to use either a wooden spoon or a serving spoon to stir soup, spaghetti sauce and chili. Using giant, long-handled restaurant spoons makes much more sense. I now have foot-long regular, slotted and strainer spoons hanging beside the stove.

If you are still cooking with amateur equipment, visit a restaurant supply store and pick up some inexpensive utensils. While you’re there, grab a pizza peel and one really giant (5-gallon) pot for making stock. A meat saw can come in handy, too. Last week I used mine to hack through a wood dowel, but that’s another story.

THE MAILBAG
From Linda:
Regarding your pork belly article, my favorite meal as a child was roast pork. If my mom asked me on my birthday what I wanted that was my answer…but they seem to have “leaned” all the flavor out of U.S. pork, so what a delight it was to discover good old fat pork here in France! I had a 24-hour roasted pork meal at a restaurant last autumn and was instantly transported back to my childhood. It was pork belly rolled and roasted low and slow, then only a couple of slices on the plate was enough to put me into orbit!

Dear Linda: Some good old-fashioned pork is produced here in Ohio, but you have to search for it and it’s expensive — $4 to $5 a pound if you buy in bulk. Those who are interested should Google “Ohio heritage pork.” We envy you, Linda.

From Sandy T.:
You haven’t mentioned your garden this spring. Have you given up or if not, what new things are you planting this year?

Dear Sandy: Gardening without Tony to plow or Rototill is tough. I’m waiting for him to return from Japan to do most of my spring planting. Meanwhile, I shoveled enough soil to plant a row of sugar snap peas out back and French breakfast radishes and lettuces in the trough on the deck. I’m also trying to grow eggplant in containers this year, after disease and root-gnawing critters wiped out the eggplants in my garden last summer.

My perennial herbs are flourishing and I planted basil last weekend. I’ve harvested a few stalks of asparagus, but my old patch has all but stopped producing. I spent time weeding the new row I planted last year (but can’t harvest until 2018), along with new rows of blueberry and blackberry bushes. So I guess I am gardening, but in a low-energy kind of way.

My new item this year, to be planted when Tony returns, is Japanese sweet potatoes. I had to send away for the plants. I’d love to hear about new plants (new to you) that you and others are trying this season or that you’ve had success with in the past.

May 5, 2016

Dear friends,

I could say the universe conspired against my pork-belly cookout Monday, but I don’t think the universe gives a damn what I do with pork belly. I am so weary of people blaming everything on the universe or, worse yet, fate (“everything happens for a reason”). Take a humble pill, people! Take some responsibility!

Ok, that’s out of my system. Anyway, I had planned to grill-smoke the handsome hunk of pork belly I got at Sherman Provision in Norton but we had no charcoal lighter fluid and the fire-starting wand was nowhere to be found because Tony had put it somewhere and he is still in Japan and the day was overcast and I miss him terribly and oh, to heck with it. I came inside and tossed the meat in the oven.

I say “meat” loosely because pork belly is mostly fat. It is bacon before it’s cured and sliced. It is seriously delicious, and just what I needed on a dreary day.

The pork belly trend is still roaring in upscale restaurants, where it graces salads, grits, sandwiches, tacos and more. The texture can be crisp or soft and pillow-y depending on how it is prepared. Most chefs begin by brining the pork belly so I did, too. I sliced off the rind (which toughens during cooking) and rubbed both fatty and meat sides with salt and sugar, and marinated it overnight in a plastic zip-lock bag with equal parts bourbon and water.

After giving up on the grill, I looked to chef David Chang for advice on roasting. I used his technique from “The Momofuku Cookbook” of roasting in a pan just large enough to snugly hold it. My 2-pound hunk of pork belly fit in a large loaf pan with no room to spare. After an hour at high temperature and an hour at low temperature, it was done. Chang wraps and chills the cooked pork belly to ensure neat slices, but I had no problem slicing the warm meat with a serrated knife.

I had planned to dice the pork, crisp it in a skillet and nestle it in tacos with cilantro and a squeeze of lime, but I didn’t. It had started to rain and I didn’t feel festive. I photographed the pork and ate a couple of slices standing at the counter. The rest is in the freezer waiting for Tony’s return. Pork belly is an indulgent meal to share.

PORK BELLY WITH BOURBON AND BROWN SUGAR

pork.jpg

  • 1 piece (about 2 lbs.) pork belly
  • 2 tbsp. salt
  • 2 tbsp. packed brown sugar
  • 1 cup bourbon
  • 1 cup water

Use your sharpest knife to slice the rind from the pork belly, leaving as much fat as possible on the meat. . This can be achieved by angling the edge of the blade toward the rind while slicing. Discard rind or save for pork cracklings.

Rub the salt and sugar over both sides of the pork belly. Place in a gallon plastic zip-lock bag with the bourbon and water and seal. Refrigerate overnight.
Preheat oven to 450 degrees. Remove meat from bag and discard brine. Place pork belly fat side up in a pan just large enough to hold it snugly (a large loaf pan works well). Roast uncovered at 450 degrees for 1 hour or until fat has browned, basting after 30 minutes.

Reduce temperature to 250 degrees and roast 1 to 1 1/4 hours longer. The pork should be tender but not falling apart. Cool for 30 minutes before cutting into 1/2-inch-thick slices with a serrated knife. Serve at room temperature, or gently warmed in a skillet, or crisped in some of the rendered pork drippings.

Some serving suggestions:

• Scatter a few slices over a salad as an appetizer.

• Tuck several pieces in a bun and top with a vinegar-based coleslaw.

• Serve over cheesy polenta or grits.

• Cube and fry with potatoes for an upscale hash.

• Swap it for bacon in a BLT.

HELP U COOK

The next time you grill steaks, season them with a ridiculous amount of salt and pepper and remove them from the grill way too soon. These two tricks should give you the best steaks you’ve ever cooked.
Most of us under-season meat before cooking. We sprinkle on some salt and pepper, as we would season food at the table. But to really bring out the flavor of meat, you should rub almost a teaspoon of coarse salt into each side of a steak, and follow that up with lots of pepper. Then grill. It won’t taste too salty.

Also, plan ahead to allow your steaks to rest about 10 minutes before serving. Not only will they be juicier, as the moisture is evenly dispersed through the meat, but they will finish cooking off the fire. Yes, the meat will continue to turn from bloody to pink or from pink to medium-well while resting off the heat. So if you like medium-rare, remove the steaks from the heat when they’re still fairly rare.

TIDBIT

While shopping at a Nepali market in the North Hill area of Akron, I saw a flyer for the 2-month-old Everest restaurant, located where Raj Mahal used to be on State Road in Cuyahoga Falls. Then I saw a mention by Katie Byard in last week’s Beacon Journal. I had to go.

The restaurant has Nepalese and Indian food, and both are represented on the daily buffets. I stopped by last Sunday and loved the bone-in curried chicken, butter chicken, pakora (turmeric batter-fried vegetables) and the thick, soft flatbread.

The restaurant is at 2033 State Road, phone 234-706-6630. It is open for lunch and dinner daily except Tuesdays. The Sunday buffet is $9. I was told I could see the daily menu on the restaurant’s website, but it hasn’t been posted yet. The website is https://everestrestaurant.net.

THE MAILBAG

From Jim S.:
My grandmother and mother each made the hot bacon dressing the same way you wrote it up.  We kids always called it dandelion dressing, but out of dandelion season we ate it on spinach too. It’s also great on wilted lettuce–pour over torn iceberg lettuce and sweet onions.  (I write this and I’m back on my Aunt Ferne’s porch for summer Sunday family dinner.)  As your mother said, “Yum!
 
Dear Jim: I hope these old recipes don’t die out. They invoke a lot of family history. My grandmother poured the hot dressing over curly endive in the winter.

From Kathy C.:
I was just reading this week’s newsletter and had to smile at the dandelion discussion. When I was a kid, my Sicilian grandmother would stop the car (or have my father stop if we were all together going somewhere) if we were driving by a big open field so she could pick the greens.  She loved them.  I didn’t learn to appreciate them until much, much later.

Dear Kathy: What a great memory. My family didn’t forage for anything except blackberries, which may be why I’m so crazy about foraging now. In the 1980s and 1990s I used to see elderly women picking wild grape leaves along Riverview Road in Akron in the fall, and I’d long to be invited into their kitchens to watch them cook.

April 20, 2016

Dear friends,

Because of a mythical May yard sale I may or may not have, I made Uzbekistan flat bread last weekend. In culling my cookbook collection for the sale, I keep finding recipes I ABSOLUTELY must try in books I’ve never cooked from until now. The result is just two dozen books so far in the sale pile and flat bread out the kazoo.

Thank god I froze half the dough because the half I used yielded six 8-inch loaves. My husband is in Japan tending to his ailing parents, leaving the dog and me to deal with any culinary excess. The dog was game, but sanity prevailed. We split one loaf, I burned one and I gave the remaining four to friends down the street.

The flat bread sounds exotic but actually is homespun comfort food. The thin, golden-brown loaves have puffy, soft rims and are about 8 inches in diameter – just enough for one or two people. In their cookbook, “Home Baking,” Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid call it “Silk Road Non.” Non, they explain, is the word for bread in much of central Asia. In India it’s spelled “naan” or “nan” and, as in India, the Uzbek version is baked in a tandoor oven. You won’t confuse this chewy, yeasty non with thin Indian naan, however.

I like this flat bread recipe because the dough can be made one day and baked the next, and the loaves cook in just 5 to 8 minutes. On the down side, unless you have an oven shelf lined with unglazed quarry tiles, you can bake just one loaf at a time on a pizza stone or two on a baking sheet. I used a pizza stone.

The Uzbeks add rendered lamb fat (!) to the dough, but melted butter may be substituted.

The recipe calls for mixing and kneading the dough by hand, which was a minor pain. After making it once, I feel sure it can be mixed and kneaded with a KitchenAid.

The dough disks are sprinkled with salt and, if desired, chopped chives before baking. I used coarse sea salt but will skip the chives the next time because they tend to burn.

If you make the bread, you could top it with cheese and other pizza goodies. But at least once you should try the simple salted version. It’s cool to know you’re enjoying the same bread that’s eaten in Tashkent and Samarkand.

SILK ROAD NON

67f5cce202b04a03a6b7ee30dfe1c545.jpg

  • 2 tsp. active dry yeast
  • 3 cups warm water
  • 7 to 9 cups all-purpose flour or 2 cups whole wheat flour and 4 to 6 cups all-purpose
  • 1 tbsp. salt plus extra for sprinkling (I used coarse sea salt for sprinkling)
  • 4 tbsp. rendered lamb fat or melted butter

Dissolve the yeast in the water in a large bowl. Add 3 cups of the flour (if using whole wheat flour, add it and 1 cup all-purpose), one cup at a time, stirring well until a smooth batter forms. Stir one minute longer, always stirring in the same direction. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for up to 3 hours.

Stir in 1 tablespoon salt. Add 3 tablespoons of the fat and fold in. Continue to add flour, a cup at a time, stirring and folding until the dough becomes too stiff to stir. Turn onto a well-floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, 8 to 10 minutes.

(Note: Jane suggests mixing and kneading the dough with a heavy-duty mixer.)

Place dough in a clean, oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap and let rise until doubled, about 2 hours. Or refrigerate overnight. Place a rack in the upper third of the oven and place a large baking stone or unglazed quarry tiles on the rack, if you have them. A baking sheet may be substituted. Preheat to 500 degrees.

Turn the dough onto a floured board and cut in half (you may freeze one half for use later). Cut each portion of the dough into six equal pieces. Two at a time, flatten the pieces and roll to 8-inch circles. Alternate rolling to give each piece time to relax. Place on a floured surface and cover with plastic wrap and a towel. Keep the unused dough covered as you work. Continue until all of the dough has been rolled.

One or two at a time (or as many as will fit in your oven), prick the dough rounds all over with a fork to within 1 inch of the edges. Brush the tops with some of the remaining butter. Sprinkle with salt. Slip a floured peel under each dough round and transfer to the oven, opening and closing the oven door as quickly as possible. Bake 5 to 7 minutes or until flecked with gold. Use a long-handled spatula to lift the bread from the oven. Cool on a rack for 5 minutes or so, then wrap in a cloth to keep warm. Continue with remaining breads. Makes 12 rounds.

From “Home Baking” by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid.

HELP U COOK

Chocolate-dipped strawberries are a luxurious treat that are easy to make at home if you add a bit of oil to the melted chocolate. You could use coating chocolate, but chocolate without the additives tastes better, I think. The only problem is it tends to thicken up in the pan quickly, making for frustrating dipping.

Here’s the fix: Add 1 1/2 teaspoons neutral-flavored oil (such as canola) to the chocolate before melting on the stove or in a microwave. Skewer each berry near the blossom end with two toothpicks at right angles to each other. After dipping, the toothpicks help the berries stand upright (like a miniature Christmas tree stand) while the chocolate sets up.

From Annie:
We are adding an addition this year for my in-laws and doing some remodeling. The kitchen will probably be outside for most of the summer so any grilling hints or recipes would be appreciated. I still rely on Roger’s Smashed Potatoes for grilled carbs every summer. I change up some of the spices to vary the taste.  But maybe with all the grilling, we can skip some carbs so I can also slim down and keep up with my husband.

Dear Annie: Sounds like a good time for you to cook once to eat twice. Think big – two whole chickens, pork roasts, butterflied leg of lamb, a dozen hamburgers you can chunk up and warm later in the microwave with seasonings for a taco bar.

The leftover chicken can be shredded and used in lots of cold entrees including my favorite chicken papaya salad (remember that recipe?). And don’t forget to haul out last summer’s recipe for grilled pizza, which cooks in about 30 seconds.

You can sauté on the grill, too. Use a cast-iron or another heavy-duty pan to make cheesesteaks, for example: Quickly sauté thin-sliced beef, tuck into hoagie buns with slices of American cheese, and clap a lid on the pan until the cheese melts.

I envy your vegetable sides this summer. If I were relying on a grill, I would keep a bowl in the fridge of a rotating variety of grilled summer vegetables dressed with olive oil and minced garlic.

You could even add them to your tacos. Come to think of it, even though I’ll have a stove, summer-long grilled vegetables sounds like a good idea.

Some other ideas: Grilled ratatouille, couscous salads (the couscous fluffs in five minutes in boiled water from the microwave), and big-bowl salads made with greens and grilled meat. I’m sharing a repeat of an Asian steak salad I made once with fresh greens and herbs from the garden and a Vietnamese dressing I make in big batches and keep in the refrigerator all the time.

When I created the recipe I wrote, “I cooked the asparagus and snow peas very briefly in the microwave, not even bothering to put them in a bowl. I made my favorite Vietnamese dressing and tossed it with the thin-sliced beef, chopped vegetables and minced herbs. I mounded the fragrant salad over arugula and garnished each plate with a few cubes of papaya. It was the bomb.”

ASIAN STEAK SALAD WITH CILANTRO AND MINT

8 oz. cold grilled steak
1/2 cup Vietnamese Lime and Chili Sauce (recipe follows)
1/2 of a medium-sized cucumber, peeled and diced (1 cup)
2 green onions, sliced
1/2 cup asparagus spears in 1-inch lengths
1 small handful (about 15) snow peas
2 tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 1/2 tbsp. chopped fresh mint
2 cups torn salad greens
1 cup cubed tropical fruit (1-inch chunks) such as papaya or pineapple (optional)
Coarse sea salt

Slice meat very thin across the grain. If strips of meat are longer than 3 inches, cut to size. Place in a bowl and toss with the sauce. Add cucumber and green onions. Scatter asparagus directly on the glass carousel of a microwave oven and microwave on high power for 30 seconds. Refresh under cold running water; drain and add to salad bowl. Repeat microwaving process with snow peas. Refresh, then add to bowl. Add cilantro and mint and toss well.

Place salad greens in the center of two salad plates. Arrange fruit chunks along one side. Toss beef salad again and mound on greens, dividing evenly between the two plates. Sprinkle lightly with sea salt. Makes two servings.

VIETNAMESE LIME AND CHILI SAUCE
(jumbo recipe; may be cut in half)

10 cloves garlic, finely minced
Grated zest of 2 1/2 limes
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. Lime juice
5 tbsp. Distilled white vinegar
3 tbsp. Plus 1 tsp. Nam pla (Vietnamese fish sauce)
1/2 cup plus 2 tbsp. Soy sauce
7 1/2 tbsp. Sugar
5 fresh small red chilies or 1 or 2 jalapenos (or to taste), seeded and minced, or 1 tbsp. crushed red pepper flakes
1 1/4 cups papaya or mango nectar or unsweetened pineapple juice

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar. Keeps for weeks in the refrigerator.

April 13, 2016

Dear friends,

What a sweetheart. Not only did Tony give me a bye on cooking his birthday dinner last week, he chose my favorite restaurant for a celebration. Although we hadn’t been to Russo’s Restaurant in Cuyahoga Falls in at least five years because of Tony’s work schedule, I didn’t need a menu. A guy at the bar was working his way through a Navajo taco when we arrived and one glance was all it took.

“I’ll have what he’s having,” I told the waitress.

The dinner plate was a riot of colors. Big, puffy rounds of fried bread peeked out here and there from their blanket of crawfish, scallops, whitefish, sautéed peppers and fresh salsa, crowned with a swirl of sour cream and showered with chopped green onions. This extravaganza tastes as good today as it did 21 years ago when chef David Russo put it on the menu of his previous restaurant, Liberty Street Brewing Co. in Akron.

If your eyes have strayed down to the recipe already, you’re probably snorting. Yes, it is long and involved. But Dave Russo’s Navaho taco is the kind of food that inspires fan followings and twitter accounts (not that the tacos are that social yet). Some people would do anything for one of ‘em – even prepare a four-part recipe.

Russo gave me the directions years ago. I have made the tacos and can report the recipe works perfectly.

If you want to wow friends or family, this recipe will do it.

I suggest you stir together the seasoning mix, chop the vegetables, toast the cornmeal and make the salsa one day, and prepare the filling and fry bread the next. Or if you live nearby and have $30 to spend, just go to Russo’s (www.russoskitchen.com).
Tony poached about half of my Navajo taco, which I grudgingly allowed. It was his birthday.

DAVE RUSSO’S NAVAJO TACOS

SALSA:

•    2 tomatoes, diced
•    1/2 cup chopped onion
•    1/2 cup chopped green pepper
•    1/2 cup chopped red bell pepper
•    2 jalapenos, seeded and chopped
•    1/2 cup chopped cilantro
•    1 tbsp. white wine vinegar
•    Juice of 1/2 lemon
•    1 tbsp. brown sugar
•    1/2 tsp. salt

Combine everything in a bowl, stirring well.

SEASONING MIX
:
•    1 1/2 tsp. oregano
•    1 tsp. onion powder
•    2 tsp. salt
•    1 1/2 tsp. cumin
•    1 tsp. garlic powder
•    1/2 tsp. black pepper
•    1/2 tsp. white pepper
•    2 tsp. ground New Mexican dried chili pepper
•    2 tsp. ground guajillo chili pepper (or use all New Mexican pepper)

Combine all ingredients in a lidded jar.

FILLING:
•    1 tbsp. toasted corn meal
•    1/4 cup olive oil
•    14 oz. of your choice of chicken, steak (cut into strips about 2 inches long and 1/4-inch thick), or peeled shrimp
•    1 red bell pepper, in julienne (very thin) strips
•    1 green bell pepper, julienned
•    1 medium red onion, julienned
•    1 tsp. minced fresh garlic
•    1/2 cup peeled, seeded and chopped ripe tomatoes
•    1/2 cup chicken or beef broth

In a dry skillet over medium heat, shake corn meal until toasted medium dark. Set aside.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil. Sprinkle 1 tablespoon seasoning mix over chicken, steak or shrimp, coating all sides. Add the meat or seafood to the hot oil. Brown meat, stirring constantly (if using shrimp, sear on both sides and remove from the pan and set aside).
Add peppers, onions and 1 tablespoon of seasoning mix to pan. Cook, stirring, about three minutes. Add garlic and cook 1 minute more.
Stir in toasted cornmeal, then tomatoes and broth (if using shrimp, return to pan now). Simmer 3 minutes, until sauce has reduced and thickened. Keep warm.

FRY BREAD
•    3 cups sifted flour
•    1 tbsp. baking powder
•    1/2 tsp. salt
•    1 cup warm water

Combine flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Slowly mix in warm water with a fork. Stir until soft but not sticky. If too sticky, add a touch more flour. Gather into a ball. Cover with plastic wrap and let stand 15 minutes.
Pull off egg size balls of dough. Pat or roll into flat disks 1/4-inch thick. Press thumb into center of dough round and pierce several times with fork.
In a large skillet, bring 3 cups of vegetable oil to 350 degrees on a deep-fry thermometer. Fry the cakes 30 seconds on each side or until golden brown. Drain on paper towels.
To assemble tacos, place one fry bread on a plate, spoon on some of the filling, and place a second fry bread overlapping the first. Spoon on more filling. Top with salsa and a dollop of sour cream. Makes about 4 servings.

TIDBITS

You can’t just stop a barbecue binge cold turkey. Tony and I couldn’t, at any rate. The first week after we returned from our jaunt to Tennessee he suggested we visit Carolina BBQ in Akron “just to compare.” Twice.

Then we found Dickey’s Barbecue Pit in Medina, which is as close to Memphis-style as we’ve found around here. The restaurant has slow-smoked ribs, beef brisket, chicken and pork, along with ham, turkey and sausage. It also has chopped brisket salad and quality sides including a rich mac and cheese and green beans with bacon.

Dickey’s is at 960 N. Court St. On Sundays kids eat free and everyone gets free soft-serve ice cream.
Takes the cake
Tony’s birthday cake this year was the best yet. Usually it’s pretty sad, because he has eliminated sugar and tries to hold down the carbs for health reasons. This year I discovered Pillsbury Sugar-Free cake mixes, and the chocolate cake I made was tremendous – moist and fine-textured, with a decent chocolate flavor.

To ensure a moist cake I under-baked it slightly, until the cake started to pull away from the sides of the pan but the top was still slightly puffy and could be dented with a finger. When cool, I filled and frosted the layers with whipped strawberry cream cheese and decorated the top with sliced and whole strawberries.

To make the whipped cream cheese, allow an 8-ounce package of low-fat cream cheese to soften at room temperature or zap it for a few seconds (out of the foil liner) in the microwave. Puree a handful of strawberries in a food processer, add cream cheese and process until well combined, sprinkling in Splenda to taste for sweetness if desired.

THE MAILBAG

From Marty L.:
When I wanted to make a strawberry pie for a “taste of spring,” I had a stroke of genius for making the blind pie shell. Instead of using a weighted empty pie pan on top, I found that my silicon lid cover was absolutely perfect. I left it inside the crust until it was set and just starting to brown, then took it out for the last 5 minutes for the inside to brown.

Dear Marty: Good idea, but I still think I’ll just chill the unbaked shell for 15 minutes and do away with weighting altogether.

April 6, 2016

Dear friends,

While we assess the frost damage and wonder whether we’ll ever see another fresh-from-the-earth vegetable, we can make something different and delicious from the same old root vegetables we’ve endured all winter. I had forgotten about the roasted vegetable and bacon salad I made for Father’s Day one year when Tony’s son was still a teen-ager and my in-laws were visiting. It’s a great side for grilled steak.

Roasting is one of my favorite ways to cook dense vegetables because not only is it easy – just wash, toss with oil and bake on a cookie sheet – but it deepens and sweetens the flavors of the vegetables.

I often splash a little vinaigrette on cooked vegetables to give them flavor without adding butter with its saturated fats.

While you wait for the peas and spring lettuce to grow, you could do a lot worse than this:

ROASTED VEGETABLE SALAD WITH BACON
•    3 medium yellow-flesh potatoes (14 oz.)
•    4 medium carrots (7 oz.)
•    3 cloves garlic, sliced
•    1 cup red onion in 1-inch chunks
•    2 tbsp. olive oil
•    1 1/2 tsp. coarse sea salt
•    1 1/2 slices bacon, diced
•    1 tsp. chopped fresh thyme

Vinaigrette:

•    1 tbsp. red-wine vinegar
•    1 1/2 tsp. Dijon-style mustard
•    1 tbsp. olive oil
•    1/4 tsp. sea salt
•    Coarse-ground pepper to taste

Scrub potatoes but leave skins on. Cut into 1-inch chunks. Scrub carrots and peel if necessary; cut into 1-inch chunks. Combine on a large baking sheet with garlic and onion. Drizzle with the olive oil and mix well to coat all surfaces of vegetables. Sprinkle with salt and dot with bacon.

Bake at 400 degrees for about 45 to 50 minutes, turning once with a spatula, until edges of vegetables begin to brown. Loosen from sheet with a spatula and transfer to a medium serving bowl. Sprinkle with thyme.

Whisk vinaigrette ingredients in a small bowl and drizzle over vegetable mixture. Stir gently. Serve at room temperature. Makes 4 to 6 servings.

HELP U COOK

After years of weighting down unbaked pie crusts with dry beans, rice and — when desperate — metal cookie cutters, I learn that baking blind is unnecessary if you chill the unbaked pie shell.

Baking blind is weighting a foil-lined unbaked pie shell and baking several minutes, then removing the foil and weights and baking a few minutes longer until golden brown. The foil and weights prevent the crust from forming large bubbles when baked without a filling.

In a book I’ve used for years, “Pies & Pastries,” author Janet Pittman writes, “If you use a metal pie pan or a refrigerator-to-oven pie pan, baking blind is not necessary. Refrigerate the unbaked shell 15 to 20 minutes before baking. Then bake 8 to 10 minutes until the shell is golden brown.”

Although she recommends 475 degrees for both blind and refrigerator-to-oven baking, I use 450 because I’m prone to burning the dang things.

TIDBIT

I hereby dub Rob Stern the poet laureate of food for the rappin’ rhyme he sent about my chicken-breading instructions last week. He can take it from here:

“Dry first, fry later” has a blank verse appeal, I suppose,
But for a prole dish
Like fried chicken (or fish)
We want poetry, not prose,
So let me propose that THIS is how it goes:

First dry it, then fry it.
Now, Jane, you try it.
Or… We can kick it up more,
Add directions to underscore
And increase our store
Of fried food lore

For the ultimate greasy, crunchy score.
Thus, here is how it could go:
Dry with a paper towel, yo,
Now into flour, keep up the flow,
Dip in egg quick, that’s the trick,
Breading last, working fast,
Now – oil hot?
In the pot!

The moment is fraught,
The culmination of all you’ve learned and been taught,
Will it all be for naught?!
No! (I thought not) –
It comes out golden brown.
Word spreads all around town,
Jane wins the hot chicken throw down,

I don’t clown,
You’ve achieved your fried chicken cap ‘n gown,
With distinction and renown,
By using your wit.
But, if you’re a nitwit,
And this is too much to commit
To memory, then just remember the very first bit,
To wit:
First dry it,
Then fry it.

Bravo, Ron! You get down!
Now, how about a haiku on baking blind?

THE MAILBAG

From Eric:
Have you ever gone to the best hamburger joint on Beil Street in Memphis?  They deep fry the patties in 100-year-old filtered grease, and the burgers are just yummy. Can’t remember the name.

Dear Eric: I did some nosing around and found info on Dyer’s Burgers at 205 Beale Street, where not only the burger but the cheese that goes on it is deep fried in ancient (but I assume continually replenished) grease. Sorry I missed it and those hand-cut fries. The website is http://www.dyersonbeale.com.