Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Pasta e Fagioli soup

I don't eat at Olive Garden very often; I try to never eat at chain restaurants unless I have to do so.  I travel occasionally for work, and notice that most places that support manufacturing facilities often have every chain restaurant known to man and so I can expect to be invited dine at least one of them; Olive Garden is usually in the mix.  Or the inevitable Panera boxed lunch, or Subway.  Even factories in the middle of acres of cornfields often manage to provide a Panera boxed lunch (sub sandwich, cookie, chips, pop).  It must be part of Panera's business model to locate themselves near midwest industrial parks.    When I am asked for my preference, I always suggest that I'd like to try whatever the town's specialty is.    I don't get to travel to exciting locales, instead, I am usually going to a place that might end in "-ville".   My boss often adds "-ville" on the end of any city we are going to just for fun, even if it doesn't actually have it appended to it's name.  By asking about the local favorites, I find out about the local favorite salad dressing in Cozad, Nebraska or the delicious cream cheese filled blueberry muffin from a bakery in Montpelier, Ohio or the best takeout pizza in Cleveland.   If I was always eating at Panera or Starbucks, I would never have found these local food gems.   But sometimes, people think that the Olive Garden is the best restaurant in their town, so I will go there on occasion, but it's never my first choice.  I realized that perhaps I was a bit of a food snob when my son was going to the Olive Garden with a group for the homecoming dance, and he was concerned about it because he doesn't like olives and thought that is all they might feature there.   He was 15 years old and never had been to an Olive Garden in his entire life!  He made up for lost time - all during football season, he'd go there with his friends for team dinner because they really serve huge portions.

When I go to Olive Garden, I always get the same thing: the unlimited minestrone soup and salad.   I rarely eat pasta at's too easy to make at home.   I try to eat as many vegetables as possible on business  trips because it is really easy to gain weight eating out for 3 meals a day.    So I confess, I've never tried the original Olive Garden Pasta e Fagioli soup, but when I was talking to my sister the other day, she said it was one of her favorites and she made a copycat version of it and thought it was great.   After eating tons of rich foods this holiday season, I thought soup would be a good meal for the day before Christmas Eve, so I trolled the internet for a recipe.   I found one that I thought I could start with, however I wanted to use dried beans instead of canned and increase their proportion.  Also, I thought it was silly to cook the pasta separately, so I changed that, too.   The result was a very good hearty soup; more like a chili and full of lots of vegetables.   The men in the house usually rebel as soup served as a meal, but I didn't get too many complaints this time!  It is very filling.

Pasta e Fagioli a la Mothers Kitchen

1 c dried red kidney beans
1 c dried great northern beans
1 pound ground beef
1 small onion, diced
1 large carrot, diced
3 stalks celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 teaspoon oregano
1 teaspoon basil
1/2 teaspoon thyme
2 14.5­ ounce cans diced tomatoes (undrained)
1 15­ ounce can tomato sauce
1 1/2 c V­8 juice
1 c. water
1/2 pound (1/2 pkg.) ditali pasta
1 T white vinegar
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1/2 teaspoon pepper

Cook dried beans your favorite way and drain.   My favorite way is to cover beans with water and pressure cook them for 25 minutes.  Meanwhile,  brown the ground beef and add vegetables, garlic and herbs and cook until vegetables are soft, about 15 minutes.   Add tomatoes, sauce and juice and cook for about 30 minutes.   Add water, beans and pasta and cook until pasta is al dente, about 10 minutes.  Add white vinegar and season with salt and pepper.   Serve with parmesan cheese.

Tuesday, December 23, 2014


When I was a girl, I loved the story of Heidi  and the description of the melted cheese she ate....even though I didn't really like cheese at all when I was young.   Later on, I learned that was raclette cheese, and the Swiss custom of melting it fireside. A cheese originating in the Swiss canton of Valais, home of the Matterhorn, today Raclette is also produced in the French regions of Savoie and Franche-ComtĂ©.   I went to a raclette demo at Morgan and York, a specialty wine and cheese shop here in Ann Arbor, and fell in love with the raclette party.   The Swiss now make raclette grills just for this purpose:

raclette grill

Also, Morgan and York rent out the grill, which is what we did for our latest gathering.   The cheese is heated up underneath the grill and you grill whatever you'd like to eat with it on top.   Recommendations include vegetables, shrimp, charcuterie.  The traditional accompaniment for all this cheese is baguette and some cornichons and pickled onions.   For our party this year, we included braseola, pancetta, shrimp and kielbasa.   For vegetables, we had brussel sprouts, parboiled first and halved, asparagus, and small potatoes that had been boiled in very salty water and halved, along with the requisite pickles.  It's supposed to be 1/2 lb of cheese per person and remove the rinds, but that seems like a lot to me.   We didn't remove the rinds.  

To drink, we went with Gruner Veltliner (a white wine similar to sauvignon blanc) because once in the Alps, why not stay in the Alps?  The kids just drank diet coke.  The table was made ready...

I think we got about a pound and half of cheese for 7 people, but we could have eaten more.   We had teenage boys eating with us, so that could explain it.   It's really easy to eat too much cheese when you eat it this way.   We put all the toppings we could fit on the grill and just picked what we felt like putting cheese all over....everyone eats what they want...

One warning however....this cheese, like all really good cheese, is stinky when melted.   To quote one of the teenagers: "This cheese smells so bad but tastes so good!".   Even our fussiest eater loved it: "Anything is even better with melted cheese on it".   The Swiss have it right; raclette is a great winter time activity.  

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Jewel Cookies

I hate to be "bah humbug" and all but Christmas cookies are very often not as good as they look. Years ago, I used to sit next to a gal at work that baked a ton of cookies for everyone during the holidays, and gave us all beautifully wrapped plates of them. She spent days on it - and the cookies looked fantastic, but tasted really bland and had a tough texture. I bit into one that was so bad, I actually had to fake blowing my nose so I could spit it out into a Kleenex! I tried to put them out by the coffee pot at work - engineers are notorious for eating any free food they can get their hands on, but even these beauties were left uneaten. When she wasn't looking, I threw most of them out in a garbage can on the other end of the building. Like Santa does each Christmas eve, I left a couple cookies on the plate with a few crumbs so that she thought that her cookies were well received. She had spent so much time on them.

A recipe for a cookie that's often featured in Christmas cookie platters - the "jewel" or "thumbprint" cookie is a frequent Christmas cookie offender. I've had many terrible versions of this cookie - tough dough, rancid nuts, fluorescent red and green maraschino cherries placed in the centers (a sin committed by yours truly in junior high). But done right, these cookies are sublime! Did you preserve some raspberry jam last summer? Now's the time to crack open a jar and make this cookie. Strawberry jam would work well it it, too. I got this recipe years ago out of Martha Stewart Living, but a tweaked it to make it better.

Jewel Cookies

3 sticks unsalted butter
1 c light brown sugar, packed
2 eggs, separated
2 t vanilla extract
1/4 t salt
2 2/3 c flour
2 c roasted pecans, finely chopped
1/2 c tart jelly - I prefer currant jelly

Preheat oven to 350 degrees and line baking sheets with parchment paper. Cream butter and sugar. Beat in egg yolks, vanilla, salt, and then flour. Shape into 1 inch balls. Brush each ball with beaten egg whites, then roll in chopped pecans and place 2 to 3 inches apart on baking sheets. Press center of each ball with your thumb, and fill with 1/2 teaspoon jam. Bake 10 to 12 minutes until just golden around edges. Cool on a rack.

Makes about 2 dozen

Saturday, December 13, 2014

"Miracle" cleaners myth busted!

Every day, a new facebook post shows up in my feed about a miracle cleaner that will take care of the toughest kitchen cleaning tasks, so I decided to put a few to the test....I had a cookie sheet that my daughter had burned cookies looked like this to start:

One of the facebook miracle cures was to mix together baking soda and hydrogen peroxide to a paste, and let it sit for a while and the burned on grime is supposed to magically wipe away.   Other people swear that Barkeepers friend, a mild cleanser, would do the same I decided to give that a shot too:

On the top half of the pan, I put a paste of Barkeepers Friend, on the bottom, I spread out the paste of baking soda and peroxide:

....and then I let it sit for 4 hours.....the result????

Well I guess that wasn't the miracle I was looking for.   The only way I am going to get that pan clean is with a brillo pad.   Sorry, but this was no miracle.   Also, there's another one floating around where you clean your oven door glass with a mixture of Dawn dishwashing soap, vinegar and and baking soda.   I tried that one too and it doesn't work.   The only thing that will work is putting the oven in self cleaning mode.

Saturday, December 06, 2014

Whiffletree Recipes

In my effort to preserve recipes from favorite Michigan restaurants, I'm posting a couple from one of Ann Arbor's favorites, the Whiffletree was on the corner of Huron and Ashley, and it burned down in the late 80s, before I lived here.   It was a favorite recipe of many locals; I am sorry I never had the chance to visit it.  Here are two recipes from Ann Arbor's Cookin' a Mott Children's Hospital fundraiser cookbook no longer in print.  I simplified them to make them more clear, but tried not to change them too much, however there are a few things I probably would do differently like just use egg yolks instead of the 2 whole eggs in the mousse. and fresh herbs in the gazpacho.

White Chocolate Mousse

3 c. vanilla wafers
1/2 c. butter, melted

In a food processor, process wafers until they are are crumbs.  Add melted butter and mix, press in the bottom of an 8 inch springform pan.

1 lb white chocolate
10 egg whites
4 c. heavy cream
2 whole eggs
4 egg yolks
3 oz. white creme de cacao

Chop white chocolate into small pieces and and in a medium size bowl, microwave on high in 30 second intervals, stirring after each interval, until melted.  Set aside to cool to 95 F.  In the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the 10 egg whites until stiff,  Then separately whip the cream until stiff peaks form.  In the bowl with the melted chocolate,  add the whole eggs, egg yolks and cream de cacao and whisk until smooth.    Add some of the egg whites and whipped cream and whisk it a little more, then fold in the remaining egg whites.   Pour mixture onto the crust and freeze.

1 lb frozen raspberries, thawed and strained.  

Top mousse with raspberry sauce.

Chilled Gazpacho Soup

1 small onion, peeled and chopped
2 small cucumbers, peeled and chopped
1 med. green pepper, seeded and chopped
1 clove garlic, chopped
1 t.. basil
1 t. oregano
1/2 t, thyme
1/4 c. olive oil
1/4 c. vred wine vinegar
juice of 1 lemon
1 tt. salt
1/2 t. ground cumin
8 oz. black olives, diced
15 oz. can whole tomatoes
1 fresh roma tomato
1 46 oz. can tomato juice

In a blender, add all ingredients except tomatoes.  Let stand 1 hour.   Add tomatoes and tomato juice.   Serve chilled, garnished with a slice of avocado, a spear of cucumber, ctourons and a dab of sour cream.