Scalloped Potatoes, the “Recipe”!

Ok, so now that you have the background on the significance this dish holds in my family, I can tell you how to make it. Kinda. It turns out different for me each time and I am ok with that. Adds a bit of excitement. If you, however, like things to be predictable, you have certainly stumbled into the wrong territory here. Turn back now and return to the safety of your cookbooks, hurry!

I’ve used all kind of potatoes in this dish and any of them will work. Use what you got. Russets, golds, reds, purples, whatever. I’ve even made this with some sweet potatoes thrown in with russets and one time I made the whole thing with parsnips instead. I was getting a CSA box at the time and had to do something with them. For the record, it was good, but maybe even a little too delicate for my taste. I crave this dish when I want something hearty and comforting, decidedly not fancy or challenging to my palate in any way. Just  being honest!

This dish can easily be made vegan with non-dairy milk. I steer away from cow’s milk myself, but I do add cheese. I like sharp ones such as an aged cheddar or even a blue. Stronger cheeses don’t require adding as much to give good flavor.  Sometimes I’ll add ham or hot dogs (Reserve judgment! Its family tradition). Green onions are a nice addition, leeks would also be good. Anything oniony combined with a sharp cheese is perfection in my world. I’ve gotten more creative with add-ins in the past (green peas, sausage, peppers, jalapenos), but these days usually stick to the basics (potatoes, cheese, some onion thingy, plus or minus a pork product).

Heat oven to 375, 400, something like that. Grease a baking dish, I use butter or whatever. Slice potatoes into rounds, peel them or not, I don’t care. Put the potato slices in a big mixing bowl and sprinkle them with flour or cornstarch. Dice up some butter (vegan or regular) and toss that in the bowl. Grate and add some cheese, or leave it out. Same with the onions and other mix-ins. Salt and pepper. Pour over some milk (I use unsweetened almond or coconut), it should be pretty wet, but not soup. Toss it all together until there aren’t any big clumps of flour hanging out. Tip that all into the pan and kind of pat it down. Add more grated cheese to the top if you want. Cover with foil and put it in the oven. Cook until the potatoes are tender; I don’t set a timer or watch the clock, but I think this takes about 30-40 minutes generally. Then remove the foil and let the top crisp up. I’ve even been known to up the heat to broil on this step when I’m impatient. You are going to want to dig in right out of the oven, but you will be rewarded it you wait a little bit first for it to cool. Plus avoid tongue burns that will definitely ruin the experience!

The Historical Significance of Scalloped Potatoes

This dish is legendary in my family. I am the youngest of 6 (sadly, now 5) and this was a crowd pleaser when we were growing up. My mom totally rolls her eyes at us when we (still) ask her to make it. From her perspective at 81 years old, it is too fussy and time consuming and she ain’t got no time for that. My mom would never be accused of being overly sentimental, but that is definitely a big part of her charm!

I first started making it for myself and my hungry, clueless-in-the-kitchen college roommates. And it WAS time consuming. At least how it was written in The Joy of Cooking, which was my only cookbook at the time and I had yet to learn to bend recipes to my will. There was peeling, soaking, layering and pre-cooking involved. But I did it anyway because it was a taste of home and a bit of comfort to all of us big kids living away from our parents for the first time.

Many years later, my dear (late) chef brother opened my eyes to a better way. He did that a lot! He was probably my biggest role model and  inspiration in cooking without rigid recipes. He was a classically trained chef, but ironically, never followed a recipe and made it all look effortless, fluid and fun. Maybe the recipes were in his head, IDK. Anyway, he took all kinds of liberties and was something of a MacGyver in the kitchen (you’ll have to be as old as I am to get that reference). I remember one time I was hanging about while he catered a fancy meal for a bunch of fancy people at an estate deep in the wine country of St Helena, California. VERY far from any kind of market. He was making a skewered chicken app and forgot the skewers. Without a moment’s hesitation, he ripped some rosemary stalks from the yard and threaded the meat onto those. Genius! Looked and tasted fucking amazing. He would do shit like that all of the time. Miss him so.

So back to scalloped potatoes – my brother and I were together one Christmas far from home and decided to make the old family favorite. So I started to peel and chop and was about to start parboiling, layering and pre-heating the milk when he (thankfully) stopped me. “You know you can just mix that all up in a big bowl and toss it into the baking dish right?” Mind. Blown. Duh. So I’ve made them that way ever since and it is way more fast and fun and I never measure a bit. Just trust myself to make it look right, even if it is different every time. Which is part of the fun.

You Could Just Have a BLT, But a BELT is Better!

My sweetie loves BLTs and so does my mom. I’ve never really been a big fan, but I do understand their appeal, in theory. Very simple, good quality elements come together and elevate the whole sandwich.

How could I put my own spin on it though and make it more appealing to myself?

Then it hit me – no one eats BLTs for breakfast, but they should! I think there could be a niche for them there in my world. I am all about the savory breakfast after all!

I always cook my bacon in the oven these days on a foil lined sheet pan to make the cleanup easy. No more standing over a pan patiently turning bacon strips while the fumes coat my hair and then having to deal with the disposal of a shitload of grease. For my sandwich I chose pepper bacon and then picked some cute lil’ cherry tomatoes and basil from my yard. I chopped those guys up along with some white onion. Tossed all with olive oil, salt and pepper then roasted in a slow oven on a lined sheet pan til soft and squishy. Cooled them down and ran them through the food processor with some balsamic vinegar. I left it pretty chunky. Once the bacon was done, I fried up an egg, toasted an English muffin and spread some of the tomato onion mix on there. Then layered the egg, bacon and lettuce. My egg got a shot of Tabasco, but you don’t have to.  

Slightly Slimy Spinach Gets a Second Life as Joe’s Special

We buy a lot of greens in this house. For smoothies, salads, tacos (I’ll tell you about that one later), but frequently, despite our best efforts, the greens turn on us. You know, when the leaves look fine one day and then a wet, inky blob the next? Total bummer. You just have to throw that shit out.

But what about when there are just a few rogue leaves polluting your bag of otherwise perky greens? I’ve got the perfect vehicle – Joe’s Special.

Joe’s special has a special place in my heart because my dad loved it and so do I. It was something we would excitedly order whenever we went out for breakfast and happened to find it on the menu (rare) or would cook up for ourselves on leisurely weekend mornings. I still make it at times and think of him; miss him. I take a lot of liberties with it though (duh, see name of this website). And in my adult life, I have learned that it is also a perfect dinner when I want something easy, meaty and satisfying.

Sautee up some chopped white onions and add some crumbled up ground meat or meat-like product. I’ve used everything from vegetarian TVP to leftover hamburger patties; in these pictures it happens to be turkey sausage. Cook until the meat is no longer pink, if using raw. Then add your spinach to the pan and cook it until it is shrunken down; no worries if there are a couple of slimy bits in your greens going in, they will still taste ok once cooked. I’ve also used other greens here like baby kale, arugula, but spinach is traditional. I like to season with garlic salt and lots of black pepper. Sometimes I add some chopped jalapeno if I’m feeling spicy. Then add some scrambled eggs to the pan, or tofu if you are going veggie. Cook til the eggs are how you like them. The proportions are totally up to you – I tend to go heavy on the spinach and lighter on the meat and eggs, but you do you. If you are feeling cheesy, feta is super yummy on this. In my mind, Tabasco is the perfect finish. Serve with toast, wrapped up in a tortilla or all by itself.

Summer Fruit Cocktails

Ever have the disappointment of picking a bad watermelon? Crack it open ready for a firm fleshed taste of summer and instead finding a sodden, mushy mess? Ugh. Been there. But do not despair, just add booze!

This idea was born out of necessity. We were going to a family barbecue and had promised to bring signature drinks. We have become known in certain circles for creating special cocktails for different events. It is creative, fun and we like it.

We were having a heck of a time getting this one to come together though. I really wanted to make use of a somewhat funky cucumber mint vodka we had lingering in our bar, but it just tastes weird on its own. Adding gin and making a play on a vesper helped, but still wasn’t quite up to snuff. Taking it more in the direction of a vodka tonic was better, but still not great.

Coincidentally, I made a watermelon misstep that saved the drink! Watermelon pureed in the blender with fresh mint and cucumber then combined with the cucumber vodka, gin and seltzer made an incredibly refreshing cocktail just right for a backyard barbecue. All kinds of riffs you can do with this one too. Use any melon or combo of melons. Use vodka, gin or both like we did. Use a flavored sparkling water or even a clear soda if you like it sweet, or maybe tonic water if you want a bit more bite. Sad summer fruit instantly redeemed.

Summer Fruit Cocktails – Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion KC is me Summer Fruit Cocktails – Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion KC is me IMG_9800 IMG_9800

 

 

 

 

Bagel Breakfast Strata

Bagel Breakfast Strata? Sure, why not?!

So I had a couple of forgotten everything bagels and a neglected tub of chive cream cheese that were begging to be used. This rainy Sunday morning, inspiration struck! What if I made these into a breakfast strata? For those not in the know (or younger than 50) , a breakfast strata is a baked eggy, custardy, brunchy kind of casserole thing that uses cubed bread as a base.

I love bagels. The chewy salty outside of a well-made, REAL bagel is sublime. But not nearly  as perfect without a cream cheese partner. I could have simply used the bagels mixed with the eggs and other stuff here, but incorporating the cream cheese as well was simply irresistible. Might just be crazy enough to work.

How to add the cream cheese though? Mix it in with the eggs and milk? Spread it on top after baking? There had to be an answer…then it hit me. Keep it simple stupid!

Heat up the oven to 350. Grease up a baking dish, I used 9×13. Spread cream cheese on a couple of bagel halves, I don’t care what kind of either one you use. Stick the 2 halves together and then chop them up into cube sizes. Toss those into the baking dish with whatever other stuff you want or need to use up. I added chopped red and yellow peppers, a handful of spinach, sausage, some purple onion and a small can of diced green chiles. Then I mixed up some eggs and (almond) milk with salt and pepper and poured that right into the baking dish (you need enough of the egg mix to saturate everything). Mix it all together until everything is moist. At this point you can cover this and let it sit in the refrigerator for a while so the bagels soften up a bit to make it more custardy. Even leave it overnight. I baked mine right away the first time because I’m impatient and it was fine, but letting it sit for at least an hour before baking was better. Bake until done ( eggs set, not runny, brown on top). Let it cool a sec before you cut it. It is good hot, lukewarm or even cold straight from the fridge.

The Humble Bean

Who doesn’t love the creamy lardy goodness that is refried beans? Whether at your local Mexican joint with a fishbowl sized margarita on the side or at home out of a can, they satisfy, right? What if I said you can make them at home cheaper, healthier, tastier and pretty damn easily? Don’t believe me? Here’s how:

 Step 1: Get yourself a slow cooker! Godsend. I start this in the morning before I leave for work.  I pick out some dried beans, usually pintos, sometimes black beans for this. I throw enough beans in to cover the bottom of the pot then add a couple of inches of water above the bean level. I put in a big spoonful of coconut oil (but any oil would work here, you could even use lard ?) then add bay leaves, a couple of whole dried chilis, sometimes a couple of smashed and peeled garlic cloves if I’m feeling it. Then I set it to low and forget it until I get home from work later.

The house smells great when I get home and here’s where the magic happens. Turn off the heat on the cooker and drain the water. I am not super thorough on the water drain because a little bean juice helps the alchemy that ensues. Remove the bay leaves (toxic to eat, I always put in 3 so I know exactly how many I need to fish out later), take out the peppers, but leave the garlicky goodness (if using). Then I add some salsa, (red, green, whatever you like) or if I’m out of salsa sometimes I’ll substitute V8 juice. Just some extra liquid to flavor things and help thin the mixture for the immersion blender that will turn everything nice n’ creamy dreamy. A regular manual potato masher works too, but is more work and hard to get them really creamy. Might need to add liquid as you go along to get the desired texture and you can leave it as chunky as you want. We tend to go a little more liquidy in our house. I’m usually adding spices and seasonings and correcting as I’m blending but you can add it all in the beginning or the end. I use typical Mexican spices like chili powder, cumin, sea salt, sometimes oregano. Spice blends work here too, you could even just use a packet of pre-made chili or taco seasoning.

We use the beans to make all kinds of yummy meals including tostadas, tacos, tortas, burritos. You can also add meat to any of these, if that’s your thing.

Stuff To Make With Beans

Tostadas: Take those crisp corn tortilla shells you can buy near the other tortillas in the grocery stores and top them with a smear of the homecooked non-refried beans from the slow cooker. Then sharp cheese and a simple coleslaw made from shredded cabbage, colorful peppers, onions, cilantro and a dressing of plain yogurt/sour cream/mayo whatever you have on hand mixed with seasoned rice vinegar, salt, pepper and celery seed. And of course Marie Sharp’s habanero sauce!

Tacos: Get those cute lil’ tiny corn tortillas and put a dollop of beans on there, some quick pickled red onion, cilantro and cotija cheese. Add taco sauce or salsa.

Burritos: Beans, cheese, white onion and salsa. Classic.

Torta: Any combination of the above on a bolillo roll for a tasty Mexican style sandwich. I always add fresh cilantro to mine, but I realize some people think it tastes like soap.

Bruschetta

 I love this recipe when we have a shit ton of tomatoes to use up or we just feel like having a light summer dinner. It also works great as an easy but impressive appetizer.

We grow cherry tomatoes in our backyard pots, so that’s what I use, but any ripe tomato would work. We also grow basil, which is super easy, even for brown thumbs like me. There is no right or wrong here as far as proportions – I am more moderate in my garlic quantities, but my sweetie goes for the vampire repellant level.

Chop up some variety of ripe tomatoes. Ok to mix and match. Add as much chopped garlic as you like. Throw in some chopped up basil. Toss it all with some olive oil and balsamic vinegar plus salt and pepper to dress. Once I used a lemon balsamic vinegar and that was really good. You can get creative here.

 It is even better if you let this marinate a bit, even for a few hours. Just cover it and let it sit on the counter for a while. We usually go for a martini length of time here (time it takes to drink a martini).

Toast some bread slices and spoon tomato mixture on top, with or without grated parmesan or Romano cheese. Italian bread or baguette are best, but I’ve been known to use whatever bread we have lurking around in the freezer for this. It’s meant to be low stress, so use what you got. The toast is just a vehicle for this summer tomato goodness. You need to eat it right away though or else it will become soggy, but then you could just put it into a bowl, eat it with a fork and call it Panzanella salad instead!

Bruschetta Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion by kc is me

Bruschetta Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion by kc is meBruschetta Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion by kc is me Bruschetta Recipes Are Merely A Suggestion by kc is me

Asparagus Potato Soup

I love roasted asparagus! But what to do with the left over parts of the stalks? I have always just snapped the stalks to see where they naturally break in order to find the most tender parts for roasting, but it kinda hurts to throw so much of it away.

I tried using the reject parts to make vegetable stock once, but it tasted sort of weird and looked murky.  I do have a non-discriminating old dog who eats them like jerky sticks, but I really wanted to find a way to make them tasty, for human consumption. Enter this soup.

I chopped up the more tender parts of the leftover stalks into thin rounds and discarded the really woody end parts. Sautéed some shallots in olive oil (butter would be good here to, alone or in combo with the oil). Added most of the asparagus parts for a minute or so, but kept a few aside as well. Peeled a few  soft, sprouting, aged potatoes found in the bottom of a fridge drawer and diced them up. Added potatoes to the pot and enough stock to cover (I used veggie because The Vegans were dining with us) and simmered until potatoes were tender. Put the whole lot in my Magic Bullet with a bit of almond milk (but other milks or creams, unsweetened of course, would work) and blended til smooth. You could use an immersion blender here too. Leave it as chunky as you like. Then back into the pot, corrected seasonings with salt and pepper and added in the reserved asparagus parts. Warmed for a few minutes until the asparagus was no longer crunchy. Off the heat I stirred in a bit of truffle oil ( totally optional but really good) and served it with left-over bread croutons (see recipe).

Next time, If I’m  feeling more fancy, I may add some fresh tarragon to the seasoning of this soup since I now grow my own! I am happy with it though considering it is made from usually discarded remnants. And it happens to be vegan, for those who care about that stuff.

Breaking Breakfast Rules

Breakfast and its cousin brunch are often a desert wasteland for those of us of the savory persuasion. You have your breakfast cereals; sugary nuggets bathed in milk. What else is dunked in milk and eaten? That’s right, cookies. Basically they are the same thing. Or you stay over at a friend’s house and they go out of their way to make you a special breakfast… 10 to one you are getting pancakes or waffles. I can feel my blood sugar plummeting now. You say smoothie, I say fruit milkshake. And please explain to me how breakfast bars are any different from bar cookies?

Too much sweet! Don’t get me wrong, I like dessert. Just not for breakfast.

When I was a kid, I was the weird-o who made toasted cheese sandwiches or ate leftover cold pizza or even fried rice for breakfast. Travelling in Japan was a dream come true – savory breakfast stuff everywhere! Ramen, rice and miso oh my! Same with Eastern Europe; nothing wrong with charcuterie to start the day in my book.

My kids are apples that have stuck pretty close to my tree on the breakfast front. This has presented some opportunities for creativity over the years. One result was the development of savory oatmeal. Hear me out and don’t scrunch your face all up like that. Oatmeal is just a grain so no reason why it can’t be savory. Think rice pilaf or risotto and you kind of get the picture. So next time you are making oatmeal for breakfast (we use steel cut, but any variety works), cook it in broth instead and top it with savory delights like cheese, nutritional yeast, green onions, green chiles, salsa, beans, smoked almonds. It works.

Cooking Without a Recipe is Scary. At First.

And I think this is a good metaphor for life as well. We all are just trying to figure out what makes us happy, or in cooking, what tastes good. Recipes offer a promise that things will turn out well. The problem is, what tastes good to you or what makes you happy may not follow the recipe. Recipes are safe, predictable and offer a tested and trusted way to a specific result. But what if that is not the result that suits YOU? Or, what if the act of cooking, or living life your way is the reward in itself?

For much of my life I have stubbornly proclaimed that I am not a baker. Why? Because baking is more science-y and requires following the rules. Unlike other cooking, I couldn’t see a way to improvise to my heart’s content and also produce baked goods that were actually edible. I resisted baking for years and I lived down to my own expectations every time I did try it. I could not find any joy in the process of following a recipe.

Then something changed. I gave myself permission to screw around with baking recipes, treating them more like suggestions as I routinely do with my general cooking. Two things happened; I learned I could do it my way with good results and I was a whole lot happier baking. Now I turn out homemade pizzas, focaccia, muffins and cakes like nobody’s business. And they are uniquely, imperfectly, deliciously mine.

Now I’m applying that same found wisdom to my life. I have jumped ship and departed from the generally accepted recipe for a happy life. I no longer have a leash (steady job), but neither do I have a recipe to follow either. I am making this up as I go along, finding work that suits me and fits into the rest of my life. I’m a little (sometimes a lot) scared about it, but I just keep telling myself that I don’t have to follow the recipe and everything will still (probably) turn out ok. And I am already much happier in the process.

You See Useless Bread Remnants, I see Croutons!

In my house the heels of the bread loaves get the shaft. They collect, unwanted and unloved, in multiple varieties and bags in my freezer. (Yes, I keep my bread in the freezer, screw you for judging me).

But, croutons. Croutons are beloved. On salads, soups, right out of the bag (I’m looking at you Steven Shomler!), croutons kick ass.

Once in a while when I notice multiple bags of unloved bread in the freezer I pull them out to transform them into croutons. I use whatever combination I find; might be all sourdough or sourdough plus rye or Ezekiel bread. It doesn’t matter, variety is good. Except cinnamon raisin or other sweet stuff might be a little weird and I have not found gluten free breads very conducive to croutoning (too dense). Just let ‘em thaw enough to dice up into chunks as big or small as you like, but all roughly the same size. Toss in a big bowl with some olive oil and whatever seasonings sound good. I’ve used everything from Old Bay to Oregon Coast Wasabi seasoning salt, but Johnny’s Garlic Bread Seasoning is my go-to favorite.

Spread them out on a lined sheet pan (I use those silicone liners now, but foil or parchment paper worked fine before I got all fancy). Put them in a low oven, I go 250 degrees. Stir them around once in a while. Cook until dried out and brown. I think this usually takes about an hour, but it depends on how big your chunks are. When they look done-ish, I just turn off the oven and leave them in there to cool. It helps them get even more dried out and crunchy.

 

Elevated Beans on Toast

I saw a recipe list for high protein breakfast ideas that are plant-based. Typically and disappointingly, most of them were sweet. Being a committed savory girl, the beans on toast recipe caught my eye and ignited my creativity. Of course, I had to make it my own though, because recipes are merely a suggestion!

I toasted some Ezekiel bread. The stuff I eat when I’m feeling virtuous or just want that mighty grain texture. Mashed up a can of cannellini beans I had in the pantry with a splash of my beloved Sicilian Lemon balsamic vinegar from Navidi’s @navidiscamas plus a generous sprinkle of Tyna Mays-Schey’s Saucy Minx Tantalizin’ Tex Mex rub @saucyminxbbq. I don’t eat slabs of meat anymore, but this rub stuff is great as an all-purpose seasoning salt. Love her other varieties too.

So I spread the bean mash on the toast and then smashed an avocado with salt and lemon and smeared that on top. A couple of grinds of black pepper. I put diced red peppers and red onion, dash of Marie Sharp’s habanero hot sauce on mine. The kid avoided the veg (typical), but liked everything else.

I thought about this breakfast all day long because it was so good! My brain was filled with so many possible variations from changing up the bread, the beans and the toppings. Mashed pinto beans with chili spices on wheat topped with shredded cheese, tomato and green onions. White beans with garlic on Italian peasant bread with chopped tomato and basil dressed in olive oil. Rye toast with baked beans, sharp cheddar and white onion. MMMM the possibilities are endless! And this would be good for any meal, not just breakfast 😉