Sunday, September 21, 2008

Good friends + good food = great weekend

This weekend Jeff came out from the city to help me do some long-overdue closet cleaning. The walk-in closet on the main level was such a mess that I was ready to scream. For some months it has been to the point that I am embarrassed for anyone to see it. I was so glad for the weather to warm up this spring so that visitors wouldn't have to hand me coats to hang up in there...because it would always work out that someone would be ready to leave and I wouldn't be right on hand, so they'd venture in themselves to try and retrieve their coat. How mortifying. So with the season starting to edge toward cooler weather, I decided it had to be addressed. And no one is a better organizer than Jeff. Thank God he's willing to help me out when I get into this kind of bind!

At any rate, Friday night, Jeff came out on the train and we all enjoyed an appetizer of chips and homemade salsa, and a nice dinner of crab cakes and baked marinated salmon with some green beans and carrots. Jeff and I also enjoyed some wonderful pear martinis that Jeff shook up. Wow, were those good.

On Saturday, I made pancakes for breakfast. Then we spent a good part of the day cleaning the closet while Jess went to the Bronx to photograph a rugby game. For lunch, we hit Chipotle because we didn't want to mess with cooking lunch and dinner. We did some shopping for dinner while we were out, as well as picked up some things we needed from Home Depot.

By Saturday evening, we were done with the closet and it looked fantastic. The only thing left to do was clean up the closet inside the closet, which is our pantry. That has also been a wreck for a number of months. It tends to get that way when you keep buying goods to put in it but run out of room, so you stack them wherever they fit. That job I saved for today, since I knew I could knock it out in about an hour with the larger closet cleaned up.

So Saturday afternoon, having eaten our lunch, we were working on shredding old documents and going through boxes. I threw a chicken on the stove to boil (salted water, 1 tsp. sugar, 3 ribs celery with leaves, 2 springs fresh rosemary, 10 peppercorns, two shakes of poultry seasoning, 1 medium onion, quartered, and two large carrots, cut in half lengthwise and then in half across). I have been craving homemade chicken and noodles for weeks (not soup - it's a thick dish of chicken with handmade noodles), and I had decided I would make those and a dish of puréed cauliflower "mashed potatoes"as a side. The cauliflower is a dish that Jess taught me to make a number of years ago, and it's really good. Once the chicken was finished cooking, I had a nice big pot of broth to work with. I drained off about 4 cups of it to cook the cauliflower in, and the rest would be used to cook the noodles for chicken and noodles. Jeff took the chicken off the bone while I made the noodles.

Throwing the finished noodles into the broth, they were boiled until they were almost done; then the chicken gets thrown back in and a flour slurry is used to thicken the broth to the desired consistency. When it's done, the chicken has fallen apart into thin shreds and the noodles are swimming in a delicious sauce.

Meanwhile, the cauliflower had finished cooking in the broth and was about ready to fall apart. Straining off the broth, the cauliflower went into the food processor and was puréed until very, very potatoes, except the consistency is a bit thinner. The purée was emptied into a small casserole dish, adding about a tablespoon of fresh chives and a pinch of rosemary and baked for about 30 minutes at 350 (which removes more of the water and gets them to a nice consistency). Jeff was very surprised by it..."it really doesn't taste like cauliflower!" You can dress it up with some sour cream, which we did, but it really didn't need it. The broth (esp. homemade!) gives it a nice flavor and creaminess that doesn't require butter or milk. You would never imagine puréed cauliflower would be good, but you'd be wrong.

While we were working on dinner, Jeff got creative with the bartending. As we had cleaned out the closet, we had to organize my rather large stash of Monin syrups, which included cherry, caramel, Sangria, peach and a few others. Side note: Monin makes the absolute best syrups you will ever use, for coffee, drinks, or whatever you're making. Do visit their store.

So Jeff shook up some cherry cosmopolitans using the Monin cherry syrup and some of my new favorite vodka, Tito's, and they were just killer. If you like vodka (Michelle, are you listening?) you have to try Tito's. I am a Ketel One and Grey Goose fan and Tito's beats them both hands down. And it's less expensive. What could be better? Don't believe me? Read the rave review at LiquorSnob and you will understand why you must try it. I am fairly certain you won't spend the money for Ketel One or Grey Goose ever again. Oh, and by the way, for you real snobs, it beats Chopin and Belvedere, too. Tito's is definitely the best.

The meal was fabulous as were the drinks, and we all came away stuffed. Plus there were plenty of leftovers of the chicken and noodles. The three of us ate our fill, with about two servings each, and still I had three quarts left, which I froze for another day.

Today, I sent Jeff home with a gallon of frozen chicken broth and a pint of homemade salsa. It was the least I could do for all his help!

Cherry Cosmopolitan
2 parts vodka
1 part Triple Sec or Cointreau
3 parts cranberry juice
twist of lime juice
1 part Monin Cherry syrup

Pour all into martini shaker with crushed ice and shake vigorously. Strain into glasses. Drink responsibly and always have a designated non-drinking driver.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

"Missed it by that much!"

Earlier this year, in the spring, Jess and I were contemplating the purchase of a house on a relatively little-known area of Texas beachfront. It was one of those few "best kept secrets" in real estate, with homes very near the water still going for less than $100 grand. Hurricanes have come through in recent years past, and done some damage, but never much. The last hurricane to really cause significant damage to the intended purchase was Alicia in 1983. Alicia's rains and winds caused flooding in the neighborhood that did significant water damage to many houses in the small subdivision where our intended purchase is, but had only flooded the utility room on the lower floor with about 18 inches of water. These houses are all on stilts, and a few didn't survive that hurricane, toppling off their stilts. Our house choice was a little different from other houses in its subdivision: it has telephone poles for stilts, which make it pretty rock-solid, and it is the highest lot in the subdivision, making it the driest. In the hurricanes since Alicia, where other houses would get water damage, this house came out with nothing. Other houses would have glass or structural damage, this house would come away virtually unscathed.

We really liked this house. Close, long-term friends of ours from Houston have owned it for more than twenty-five years and we have visited it several times together. I have been there more than a dozen times over those years and spent a lot of great evenings there, walking on the beach after a great homemade dinner of fried shrimp that had been caught in the Gulf that morning, or ordering fried fish from the local take-out place that had the best cole slaw, onion rings and waffle fries, and enjoying them with a movie video. The house isn't fancy; in fact, it's pretty plain. Very beachy, minimalistic, with a nice big deck, 2 large bedrooms with a small bath and a great room that houses living, dining, and kitchen areas. And at the ground level, as I mentioned, a tiny utility room with a washer, dryer, and all the plumbing pipes in it. It isn't large, rather, it's cozy, and it's strictly a relaxation place. The third row of homes from the beach, you can easily see out to the water from the deck, and on highly windy days when the surf kicks up hard, you hear the water. But other than that, pretty quiet.

The community is a mix of retirees, people who make summer rentals, and a smattering of permanent residents. It's very friendly. There's a small grocery store, a video rental store, a few restaurants...all in all, a small town with not much to do, except to relax.

We really wanted to buy the house from our friends; it was going to be a nice setup, since we would have them maintain the care of the house during the year and use it as they wished, but we would own it. They needed to sell but didn't really want to since they had owned it for so long and had so many memories there. Our purchase of the house would allow them to use it as they always had except for those weekends when we would want to visit...and even then, they would have been asked to come out and spend the weekend with us while there.

During the preliminary negotiations to buy, an inspection revealed that there were a number of significant structural issues that would have to be fixed before the bank would loan us the money to purchase. The cost to fix the problems was going to add at least 30% of the purchase price to the cost of the house and that would just be more than we could afford to invest. We spent more than a few days discussing what to do. In the end, we had to call our friends and tell them them the news of the inspection and that we just couldn't buy it. It was heartbreaking.

Because of the structural issues with the house, it was now going to be a challenge for our friends to sell. They would probably have to fix a number of things before selling, and that would mean investing a significant sum of money that they didn't really have available to spend just to get the house up to the standard that would allow it to sell. We felt bad, but what could we do? We had made our best effort.

In the months since then, we've come to accept the fact that it wasn't to be and have been putting the money that we would have been spending on a second mortgage payment against the principal on the house we own now. It's been nice to see the mortgage balance dropping precipitously as we have been making a nice dent in it. If everything continues as it currently is, we will pay off the house in less than seven years from now. The good feelings about that have helped us cope with the disappointment of the deal falling through on the beach house.

Oh, I forgot to give you an important detail: the house is located on a narrow strip of land in the Gulf, south and east of Houston...just a few miles east of Galveston, to be exact. An area most likely unknown to you before this weekend, you might have heard of it now that the Bolivar Peninsula has flooded, with damage like this not seen in over 100 years. The entire Gulf coast community of Crystal Beach, which the house sits smack in the middle of, has virtually been leveled according to all reports. Videos from helicopter and jet flyovers are showing horrific damage. Though a few houses appear to be standing, most have been reduced to matchstick piles of wood in the seven miles of beachfront that the community covers. We have heard that most of the businesses in town were destroyed.

What a relief to have dodged that bullet. Had we lived in the area, as our friends do, it might have been easier to do all the things that must now be done in order to clean things up. There will be no way to know how the house fared for at least a week or more, but it's pretty evident that from the damage reports from within less than a mile of the house, that it will be a miracle if it is still standing, much less inhabitable. But for our friends, it might just be the break they need: a total loss would allow them to recover their money without having to invest additional funds to sell. While it will undoubtedly be a blow to them emotionally, the practical aspect has me thinking that it might be the biggest blessing in disguise ever for them. This puts me in a bizarre spot of hoping that the worst has happened. What a dilemma.

Monday, September 08, 2008


Last night, I boiled two chickens for making dinners later in the week. That made about 2 1/2 gallons of chicken broth, which I froze for later. But once I vacuum-bagged the stuff up and put it in the freezer downstairs, I discovered that I'm drowning in it. I cook chicken often enough that I have about 8 gallons frozen. Now I know that there are plenty of uses for broth, but really!

I'm thinking a big pot of chicken and homemade noodles would be good.

Friday, September 05, 2008

Salsa redux...

So I made another big batch of salsa tonight, because I still had a boatload of tomatoes that were going to go bad unless they got used...quickly. I could have given them to people at work, but why, when I could spend hours slaving making salsa?

Why? Because there are now an additional 9 pints that we will be able to give away or use ourselves! And there is no salsa yummier than this. None.

Actually, I had to do it in two nights, because to do it all in a day is too much. So last night I cut up the tomatoes, the onions, the yellow bell peppers and the cilantro.

Tonight, I minced the seven cloves of garlic and three kinds of hot peppers (nine peppers in all), and added the salt, pepper, sugar, vinegar, lemon juice and cumin. It turned out very nicely, and the best part was that out of the canner, it took less than six minutes for the jars to seal. Excellent!

Monday, September 01, 2008

Tomato update

I finished canning the salsa and now have 8 pints of it! I was very happy with how it came out; I adjusted my recipe slightly from last year and so it was a tiny bit hotter, had a better cilantro kick and just a slightly more vinegar taste, something that was missing last year.

This year, the salsa in its raw state before cooking for canning was terrific, but it had an almost ketchup-y taste to it (well, they are tomatoes). After cooking, some flavors intensified and the ketchup taste went away, thank heaven. It is so much better than anything in the store, and even better than last year's batch. After cooking, the minced garlic and the heat of the peppers were more pronounced, as was the vinegar and lemon juice. Overall, though, despite the work, it's quite satisfying to produce something in your kitchen like this that caps an entire season of work.

Here are some shots of the process. Sorry that I didn't get a shot of everything cut up. That has to be done in stages because there isn't enough room to get everything into one place and so I just didn't do it.

Start with a variety of ripened tomatoes.

Fresh peppers, onions and cilantro make for bright flavors.

Once all the ingredients are cut up, start the water boiling in the canning kettle.

You really can't can without all the proper tools. Besides the canning kettle and rack (pictured here on the left), you need a jar lifter and jar funnel to make filling the jars, placing them into the kettle and removing them much easier. They are a necessity, not an option. They are sold as a kit that Ball makes. If you decide to try this, you'll need to buy them.

Now you heat the salsa to the boiling point and continue boiling for 10 minutes.

It's all a dance, this. The jars have been in the dishwasher being sterilized, and they come out just in time (still hot) to be filled with the boiling salsa. Here they are, lined up and ready to go, with the funnel in the first jar.

The jars have the hot salsa ladled into them.

Jars are filled to 1/4 inch from the top.

When the funnel is removed, each jar rim has to be wiped down to remove all residue so that the seal will not be compromised.

The filled jars go into the rack...

...and the seal is placed, then secured with the jar ring.

The canning rack gets placed into the boiling water in the canner. The water must fully cover the jars by at least an inch (jars must remain completely submerged during processing). The lid is put on and the jars "process" for 20 minutes.

When the processing is finished, the jars are lifted from the boiling water and placed on a cooling rack.

As the jars cool, the vacuum seal is formed. You hear a "plink" noise when the seal has successfully formed on each jar, and the lid appears to be a bit concave. Only when the seal has been made is it safe to store the jars. Sealing lids may not be re-used from previously sealed jars, although rings may.

I thought you might want to see two of the larger tomatoes from this year's harvest. On the left, a Cherokee Purple; on the right, a Watermelon beefsteak. Cherokee Purples aren't so much purple as brown; they're odd-looking, but delicious.

And finally, the Watermelon beefsteak makes a really yummy BLT. No, that's not cheese, it's the tomato! And we didn't have lettuce today, so I had to settle for a BT.

By the way, stop over at Jess' blog for today's birthday party pictures!