Monday, July 27, 2009

Menu Plan, dadgummit

I have felt lost without a plan of attack for dinners these past few weeks. In fact, last week, we hosted a garage sale, and homemade dinners completely fell by the wayside. I am now really sick of restaurant and take-out food and ready for something homemade.

On another note, my garden has also fallen by the wayside. It is being consumed by weeds. In fact, one of my sugar snap pea plants is actually missing; I can only assume the invasive weeds ate it for nourishment. The only redeeming factor is that we haven't had much rain. Had we had more rain in the past week, I'm sure the weed situation would be completely out of hand. So this week, even though I have a lot of other neglected stuff to do, I plan to become reacquainted with my garden. Last night, I even pulled a few weeds from the onions and picked cucumbers and green beans. Hey--you've got to start somewhere.

P.S. My basil is also going crazy, but in a good way. This week, I MUST make some pesto before my precious basil goes to seed. I do wish my tomatoes would ripen up so I could have some fresh caprese salad--is there anything better?

Homemade pizza: Chicken with garlic cream sauce and spinach

Grilled Pork Loin
Corn on the Cob
Zucchini patties

Fried Chicken
Roasted Green Beans

Dinner at a friend's house

Grilled Steak
Fried potatoes with garlic and dill



Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Biscuits and Sausage Gravy

The whole idea of biscuits and gravy used to repulse me. Of course, as a lactose-intolerant kid, I used to loathe any cream-based sauce of any kind. I remember going over to the Andrews' house and being served Chicken A La King and thinking that I was going to die if they made me eat it. Heck--I wouldn't even eat Mac and Cheese. How un-American was I? Given those things, it's probably understandable that I wouldn't go for a milk-based sauce served over soggy bread.

Then college came. You learn so many things when you're in college, don't you? How not to kill your messy roommate, how to sneak food out of the dining commons, how to write a senior thesis in under 72 hours...and, most importantly for this post, how to appreciate the beauty of gloppy white sauce.

I remember the first time I had sausage gravy: we'd gone to visit a friend of ours who had recently started waiting tables at Bob Evans. We went at breakfast, because that's when you eat at Bob Evans, and Nate, our friend, recommended the Sunshine Skillet. It consisted of an open-faced omelet topped with hash browns, sausage, country gravy, and cheddar cheese, and was served with one of their fantastic buttermilk biscuits. Hello--he had me at hash browns and cheese. I ordered it.

Sweet fancy Moses, it was good.

I thought I might die of heart disease right there, but my, my, it was good.

My affection only deepened when I sopped up the extra gravy on my plate with the biscuit. Suddenly, my eyes were opened to the glory of biscuits and gravy.

For years, unless I went to Bob Evans, I stayed away from that sausage gravy in particular. It just didn't seem prudent for my waistline to eat too much of it. But a couple of months ago, we went out for breakfast as a family and I revisited it at long last. The doctor had recommended that we feed Ruby all sorts of high-fat stuff, so I decided to take one for the team and order biscuits and gravy to share with my daughter. It was the least I could do.

Well, Biscuits and Gravy has since become a staple of my Saturday-morning eating-out experience. Thankfully, we don't do it that often. It has been a few weeks since I've had it, though, and I was getting a taste for it, so last night, I made it for dinner.

Sweet fancy Moses, it was good.

So I thought I'd share it with you.

Biscuits and Gravy

Biscuits (from The Complete Guide to Country Cooking)
2 c. all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 c. shortening (sometimes I use margarine)
3/4 c. buttermilk (SEE NOTE AT BOTTOM)

1 lb. bulk sausage
1/4 c. flour
approx 2 c. milk
salt and pepper to taste
1/4 tsp. thyme (optional)

For the biscuits:
Preheat oven to 450. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut in the shortening or margarine with a pastry blender or a fork until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Stir in buttermilk. Turn out onto a lightly floured surface and knead a few times, just so it isn't too sticky. Roll to 1/2-3/4 in. thickness and cut out with a biscuit cutter (I used a thin-edged cup). Place 1-inch apart on a lightly greased baking sheet, and bake for 10-15 minutes.

Notes on successful biscuit making:
1) Don't overwork the dough. Use a very light hand.
2) Brush the tops with a little melted butter before baking to achieve a really beautiful brown crust.
3) If you don't have a suitable cutter or cup to cut the biscuits with, you can always just use a knife and cut the dough into uniform squares. Who cares what shape the biscuits are?
4) Buttermilk: I don't keep it on hand, but you can imitate it with 1 tsp. vinegar or lemon juice, and enough milk to make a cup. Let sit for five minutes, then use as the recipe requires.

Brown the sausage to a deep, caramelized brown. Remove the sausage, leaving behind the drippings in the pan. (If you don't end up with about 1/4 c. of drippings, add a bit of butter to the mix to equal about 1/4 c. total, when combined with the drippings.) Add flour to drippings, and whisk over medium heat for about a minute, or until the roux is the color of straw. Add milk 1/2-cup at a time, whisking continually over that same medium heat so the gravy thickens nicely, without lumps. Add the sausage to the white sauce, then season with salt and pepper to taste. I recommend lots of pepper. You can also add thyme here, if you wish to have a more savory sauce. And if the gravy gets too thick, just add a bit more milk. Serve over warm, split biscuits, then swoon.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Homemade Ranch Dressing

It really never occurred to me to make my own Ranch dressing until I saw PW do it on her site. It was last summer, and I was chained to the couch by kidney stone/stent pain and my midwife-recommended bed rest. There was no way I was trying it then.

By the time I was up to trying it, many of our herbs had gone to seed, and there was no way on this earth I was going to shell out grocery store bucks to buy fresh herbs to make this dressing that my children love, especially when they like the cheapo not-even-Hidden-Valley variety just fine.

But it's a year later, my garden has herbs to spare, and fresh Ranch sounds so much better than something that was once shelf-stable. I didn't look at her recipe when I made this today, so my ratios and method ended up a bit different, but the result was still fantastic. If you've got herbs growing in your garden, this is a delicious way to use them!

Homemade Ranch Dressing

1/2 c. mayonnaise (NOT salad dressing/Miracle Whip)
1/2 c. sour cream
3 Tbsp. milk
1 tsp. lemon juice
1 clove of garlic, minced, grated, or pressed (I used the minced stuff in a jar)
salt and pepper to taste
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh herbs of your choosing (but I used, and highly recommend, basil, thyme, dill, cilantro, and chives. I ESPECIALLY recommend the dill.)

Whisk together the mayo and sour cream, add the lemon juice, then add milk gradually, until the dressing is your desired consistency. Keep in mind that when it's chilled, it will thicken up a bit, too. Then add the garlic, salt and pepper, and herbs. You can taste it now if you'd like, but the flavors will be much better when the dressing has been allowed to chill for an hour or so.

Makes about 1 1/4 cup of dressing, and will keep for about 3 days, if it lasts that long.

You can also omit the milk, up the sour cream, and call it "dip" instead.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Remember Me?

Do you? I used to cook stuff and write about it? I still cook. But apparently, I have forgotten how to write. I've recently been convinced that I need to write more frequently, even if I end up churning out mindless drivel instead of meaningful content, so today represents a (hopefully lasting) shift in my bloggy persona. Today I will begin posting more often, and let the chips (and dip) fall where they may.

Today's topic: Gardening.

This year, for the first time ever, I planted a garden. We had a garden last year, but we also had a renter who took care of it. While last year, my garden responsibilities were limited to clipping basil and turning it into pesto and pesto-related treats, this year, I'm it. I'm our sole gardener.

Because I do very few things by half-measures, I am now slightly obsessed with our garden.

I really couldn't tell you what all last year's garden included, since I was on bed rest for the planting, and on infant-duty and sub-par sleep for the rest of the growing season. Besides: it was Shaun and Emily's garden, and we were just loaning them the land. Isn't ignorance what lazy landlords do best? I think there was broccoli, and I know there were cucumber plants and tomatoes and peppers and jalapenos, and two kinds of melon, and a truck load of parsley for our renter's fiancee's rabbit, Mrs. Bennett.

There were other things in that inaugural garden, but I'll be flogged if I can remember. The only thing I remember thinking was that there were certain things I couldn't imagine having a garden WITHOUT, and a bunch of those things weren't a part of last year's offerings. I remember thinking, why on earth wouldn't you plant green beans? Who plants a garden without green beans? Isn't it interesting how some people are so misguided about the vegetables they enjoy? Oh, I kid. But I knew for certain that if I were planting and watering and weeding, there were a few things I'd add to the garden, and a few things I'd subtract. In fact, I even made a Google document entitled "Garden '09 Wish List" so I could remember for this year what I thought really, really belonged in a garden.

Here's the list, constructed sometime last winter:
green beans


Sounds simple, doesn't it? But then planting season came around, and to those 12 must-haves, I added:
sugar snap peas
grape tomatoes
a potato that had sprouted in my cupboard
and a vine-y plant that spontaneously came up in our garden, and whose identity has still to be determined. I'd guess pumpkins, only we've never had pumpkins in our garden before, so we'll just have to wait and see.

And in the past couple of days, I planted four more pepper plants and two hot pepper plants the name of which I can't remember.

For those of you keeping track at home, that's 21 (TWENTY ONE) separate crops. 21 different things to manage in my first go-around as a gardener.

Am I a fool?

Don't answer that.

Tomorrow: Tending the crop also known as WEEDS.