Dinner tonight

It's finals week for my girls. The stress level at my house has reached an apex and we need some meals that will provide comfort, that can be eaten quickly, and won't require a knife and fork. I looked at my meal choices for the week and realized if I stuck to this plan we probably wouldn't sit down to a meal together. The girls would grab a bowl or plate of whatever was offered and sit at their desks until I could lure them away with a snack or some other break.

Now that is not my idea of a great week. I love our time together as a family, so tonight we are having ribs. You can't grab some and return to reading a book or editing a paper while eating ribs. Keyboards do not have a strong affinity for rib sauce. True fact. The girls will have to sit at the table with us, answer questions, and hold a conversation for at least a few minutes before they run back to their rooms to hit the books.

Ribs take a bit of effort, and I can't believe I decided to make them on a school night. These need a braise and then I elected to slosh them with some sauce and run them under the broiler as the natives students were getting restless. The recipe as written below directs you to cut them into individual ribs, deep fry them until crispy, and then coat them with the sauce. I liked my version but I think they would have had a little more flavor if I finished them on the grill. The smoke and caramelization would have upped the flavor of the sauce. However you choose to cook them, they are tender and tasty, and will keep your kids around long enough for you to hear about their day.

Spicy Baby Back Ribs
Serves 4-6
1 orange
1 lemon
2 bay leaf
1 teaspoon white peppercorns
2 whole star anise
1 teaspoon whole cloves
1 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 sprig each thyme, rosemary and oregano
1 small knob peeled ginger
1 stalk lemon grass
4cloves garlic, peeled
4 tablespoons salt
3 pounds baby back pork ribs
3/4 cup hoisin sauce
1/3 cup oyster sauce
1/3 cup black bean chile-garlic sauce
3/4 cups sambal chile sauce
1/3 cup rice wine vinegar
3/4 cups orange juice
Peanut oil, for frying
Toasted sesame seeds, for garnish
Sliced scallions, for garnish.

Juice the orange and lemon; reserve the rinds. In a large pot, combine the juices and rinds with the remaining braising liquid ingredients and 16 cups water. Place the ribs in the large pot, cutting them up, if necessary, to fit bring to a simmer over high heat, and then turn heat to low and simmer, covered, 45 minutes to 1 hour or until the ribs are tender but the meat is not falling off the bone.
Remove ribs from braising liquid and discard liquid. 
Cool ribs for about 1 hour. Slice into individual ribs and refrigerate, uncovered, until cold, at least 2 hours.
Meanwhile, make the sauce: in a bowl, whisk the hoisin, oyster and black bean and sambal chile sauces with the rice wine vinegar and orange juice.
In a large heavy pot, heat enough peanut oil for deep-frying, to 350 degrees. Fry the ribs in batches until golden-brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Drain on paper towels. Toss the ribs with the sauce in the bowl until completely coated. Serve garnished with sesame seeds and sliced scallions.
Yield: 4-6 servings

Cooks note: For times sake, or if you hate the idea of deep frying, you can follow my method. After braising the ribs I placed them on a foil lined sheet pan. I coated each side with sauce and let them sit for 20 minutes. I preheated the broiler, slicked more sauce over the ribs and then broiled them until they were warmed through and the sauce had become sticky. About 10 minutes.

Dinner with Henrietta

From time to time I tell you about a book that I'm reading or something my bookclub read. The other evening we got together to talk about our latest book, "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks". Fascinating book, a well told story, the back story to some very critical medical science, and the hard truth of ethics, race, and economics.

Henrietta Lacks was a poor Black woman in Maryland. She was diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer and the tissue taken from a biopsy of her cervix, for diagnostic purposes, was given to a research lab at Johns Hopkins Hospital. These are the infamous cells at the center of the story. These are the cells that have lived on and on and have been a part of medical history in this century. We are all, to some degree, in debt to Ms. Lacks and her immortal cells. You'll have to read the book for the full story, and I think you should. The author did a wonderful job retelling the events of Ms. Lacks life and that of her family and friends. I think she did Ms. Lacks proud in the telling of her story. That's all I'm going to say about the book though because I want you to read it!

Along with the book we share a meal together. Quite often the meals outshine the books, we're spoiled with some pretty good cooks in this group.

My friend Julie made Basic Green Soup from the Splendid Table, using this vegetable stock. It was a brilliantly green soup, velvet textured, and deeply flavored from that fabulous stock. I made a fennel salad with blood oranges (they are in season and oh, are they ever gorgeous), and Susan made caramelized oranges for our dessert. It was a lovely evening all around and we are grateful to Ms. Lacks and her immortal cells, she provided a group of friends a reason to get together for dinner.

Fennel and Parsley Salad with Oranges and Dried Cranberries
4 bulbs of fennel, trimmed of fronds and tough outer ribs removed
2 cups whole leaves of Italian or flat leaf parsley
3 oranges
½  cup pine nuts
½ red onion sliced thin
½ cup dried cranberries
½ cup crumbled feta cheese
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup olive oil
1 teaspoon honey
salt and pepper to taste

Remove the root end of each fennel bulb, and then cut each bulb in half.  Lay cut side down and thinly slice. Place in large mixing bowl and set aside.
Wash and dry parsley as you would lettuce. Add to the fennel.
Using a sharp knife remove all the peel and pith from oranges. Then, over a bowl to catch any juice, remove the segments from the membrane, so that each segment is free from any pith or seeds. Squeeze any excess juice from orange membrane into a bowl and set aside for the dressing. Add the orange segments to the fennel.
In a sauté pan over medium high heat toast the pine nuts until lightly browned and fragrant. They burn easily so stir often. Once the pine nuts are evenly browned place in a bowl and set aside to cool.
Add the sliced onion to the reserved orange juice, let sit for 10 minutes then add the onions to the fennel, reserving the orange juice, along with the cranberries and feta cheese.
In a jar with a tight fitting lid place the red wine vinegar, olive oil, reserved orange juice, honey, a pinch of salt and some ground black pepper. Shake the dressing to combine well. Pour over fennel, top with pine nuts and toss well.


I love citrus season and it seems that everywhere I go of late I am surrounded by oranges. At the market today I picked up Clementines, Bergamots, Maltese, Demi Sanguine (light blood oranges), and regular old naval oranges.
There is a beautiful bowl of Clementines sitting on the sideboard, the Bergamots have perfumed the kitchen, and their sunny gold colors have just brightened up my day.

I love to use oranges in cooking. I like to use the juice in marinades, the zest in salad dressings, the flesh works well in both sweet and savory dishes. The different varieties we have here will provide much inspiration throughout the citrus season.

One of my recent favorite orange recipes is this little beauty.

I made this for a brunch last weekend. It is a wonderfully moist cake made with almonds, oranges and the fruitiest olive oil you can find. It keeps like a champ, isn't terribly sweet, and makes both the grown ups and the kids happy. I have to say that one of my favorite things about this cake is that the oranges came off the neighbors tree (I sent Andy on a "recon" mission), and the olive oil was fresh, cold pressed, and unfiltered from local olives. It is the most gorgeous olive oil I have ever tasted.

Moist Orange and Almond Olive Oil Cake (Torta di Mandorla)
Adapted from Gina DePalma – pastry chef at Babbo
2 cups all-purpose flour

1 cup almond flour

3 teaspoons baking powder

2 teaspoons kosher salt

6 large eggs

1 ½ cup granulated sugar

1 cup plus 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil

1 teaspoons pure vanilla extract

½ teaspoon pure almond extract
Grated zest of 1medium orange, chopped fine

1 cup orange juice
For the Brown Butter Glaze:
4 tablespoons unsalted butter

2 cups confectioner’s sugar

6 tablespoons whole milk

A few drops of fresh lemon juice
Candied finely sliced orange peel or toasted sliced almonds for garnish, optional

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 14” X 4” loaf pans and set aside. See note.
2. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, almond flour, baking powder and salt to combine them and then set aside.
3. In a large mixing bowl whisk the eggs lightly to break up the yolks. Add the sugar and mix until well combined. Add the olive oil and briskly stir until the mixture is a bit lighter in color and has thickened slightly, about 1 minute. Next add the extracts and zest, followed by the orange juice and mix until smooth.
4. Add the dry ingredients to the bowl and stir until they are thoroughly combined; continue blending until you have a smooth, emulsified batter, about 30 more seconds.
5. Pour the batter into the prepared pans, and bake the cake for 30 to 45 minutes. The cake is done when it has begun to pull away from the sides of the pan, springs back lightly when touched, and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove the cakes from the oven and with a skewer poke holes all over the top of the cakes.
6. While the cakes are baking, make the glaze. Melt the butter over medium heat in a small, heavy saucepan. When the bubbles subside, lower the heat and watch the butter carefully, swirling it in the pan occasionally to distribute the heat. When the butter begins to turn a light tan color and smells slightly nutty, turn off the heat and let the butter sit. It will continue to darken as it sits.
7. While the butter cools, sift the confectioner’s sugar into a medium bowl. Whisk in the milk until completely smooth but thick, then slowly whisk in the butter. Taste the glaze and add a few drops of lemon juice to balance the sweetness. If desired, stir in the toasted almonds. Spread glaze onto the top of the cakes and letting it seep into the holes, let the cakes sit until set and dry. If you would rather use the orange peel on top of the cakes pour over ¾ of the glaze, place longs very thin strips of peel over the tops of the cakes and then gently spoon the remaining glaze over the orange peel to help them adhere.

Cooks note:
Cake can be cooked in two 9 inch round cake pans.

A Celebration of Good Things

We hosted a party last weekend. A sort of housewarming, kick off to the new semester, Fete de la Revolution (it was after all the one year anniversary of the Tunisian revolution), and well, why not have a party.

Mozart Klugen, chocolate with marzipan from Vienna

Friends of ours host an annual Chocolate, Cheese, and Wine party every January. We thought it was a brilliant idea and completely stole it. Before the Christmas holiday we sent out invitations asking everyone to pick up some chocolates, cheese or wine on their travels. We slated the party for the first weekend after the break, and invited everyone to bring their goodies to share. It was a great time to catch up with friends, hear about their travel adventures, and to have fun sampling some special treats.

Chocolate Almonds from Riquewihr France

Dark Chocolate from Euphoria Chocolates Oregon

Chocolates from Prague

Pimento cheese, a comforting fondue, and Aged (real) English Cheddar, played nicely with the purchased and homemade specialities of Chocolate Cheesecake, Bourbon Brownies, and these......

I saw this recipe on the blog Kevin and Amanda and it seemed like the perfect thing to make for a chocolate themed party, but there were problems. I don't have ready access to cake mixes, or sour cream and so modifications were in order. I used my favorite Sour Cream and Chocolate Cupcake recipe using creme fraiche instead of sour cream and I also made a few alterations to a brownie recipe to use as the filling.  The brownie batter was chilled, formed into balls, frozen and then dropped into the cupcake batter before baking. The brownie batter bakes a bit but becomes a very soft fudgey, almost molten filling. Once topped with the frosting I dare say they are hedonistic! You should have a party just so you can make these cupcakes! 

Fudge Brownie Filled Chocolate Cupcakes with Cocoa Buttercream
idea adapted from kevin & amanda recipes adapted from here and here
Makes 24
Fudge Brownies:
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 cup boiling water
4 tablespoons melted butter
½ cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla
2 cups sugar
1 ¾ cups all purpose flour
¾ teaspoon salt
Sour Cream Chocolate Cupcakes:
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups granulated sugar
1 cups sour cream
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup water
1 ¼ teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons vanilla
½ teaspoon baking powder
2 eggs
4oz unsweetened baking chocolate, melted and cooled
1 ½ cups semisweet chocolate chips

For the brownies:
In a large bowl whisk together until smooth the cocoa, and boiling water. Stir in the butter and oil. (Mixture may look curdled.) Add eggs, and vanilla and continue to blend until smooth.  Add sugar until well incorporated and then mix in flour and salt with rubber spatula until combined.
Refrigerate batter until firm. Form 24, 1inch balls from the brownie batter. Place on a cookie sheet and freeze until firm.

For the cupcakes:
Place all cupcake ingredients in large bowl, and beat with an electric mixer on low speed 30 seconds, scrape down the sides of the bowl. Beat the batter on high speed for 3 minutes, scraping bowl occasionally. Divide batter evenly among muffin cups, filling each a little less than1/2 full.
Place one frozen ball of brownie batter into center of each cupcake.
Bake 20 minutes or until toothpick inserted into cake part, not center with brownie filling, comes out clean. Remove from pan; place on cooling rack. Cool completely.
Once cooled, frost with Cocoa Buttercream and serve.

Cocoa Buttercream
1 ½ cups unsalted butter softened to room temperature
4 ¾ cup icing sugar
¾ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
½ teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
4 tablespoons milk

Beat butter using the paddle attachment of stand mixer until the butter is light and fluffy, approximately 5 minutes.  Sift powdered sugar and cocoa into the mixing bowl. Turn your mixer on the lowest speed (so the dry ingredients do not blow everywhere) and mix until the sugar and cocoa are absorbed by the butter. Increase mixer speed to medium and add vanilla extract, salt, and milk/cream and beat for 3 minutes. If your frosting needs a more stiff consistency, add a little more sugar. If your frosting needs to be thinned out, add additional milk 1 tablespoon at a time.

Dinner Chez Moi

I had a colleague ask me how I put together dinner every night for my family while working full time.  Now this is not the question of the ages, millions of women all over the world do this daily and probably with much more thought and finesse than I do.

The process goes a little like this...
On the way out the door in the morning I scan the freezer or pantry and pull out something to build a main dish around. This morning it was chicken breasts. Into the fridge they went to defrost. When I got home the questions from my daughters started as to what we would be eating.

Me: Chicken....and....
Them: Pasta?
Me: No, let me think.
Them: Rice?
The picky one: No sauce!
Me: Give me a minute. Hey! Why are there only 3 chicken breasts in the package? Who only puts 3 chicken breasts in a package. Now what?

I do what any Mom does when faced with the uncertainty of what to cook for dinner. I watched an episode of Modern Family. Oh that Gloria!

Back to the kitchen.  There is hummus. Good. But no pita. Bad. There is lettuce, and cucumber, and tomato. Good. Oh and yogurt. Ah Ha! We had a salad at a friends recently that started with a base of hummus and was then topped with lettuce, red onion, tomato, cucumber, olives, feta and then dressed with tzaziki. Drat no olives or feta, but there are capers. I'll saute the chicken and slice it for the top of the salad and we're in business.

And so there you have it the schizophrenic kitchen murmurings of a working mom. I don't have a recipe for this per se, as with many salads things just sort of come together on the plate.

Mediterranean Salad
Serves 4

1 head of Romaine lettuce, cleaned and chopped
1 cucumber, chopped
1 large tomato, chopped
1/2 red onion, chopped
2 tablespoons Balsamic vinegar
1/4 cup olive oil
Chicken breast, cooked and sliced
2 tablespoons of capers drained

In a small bowl combine the balsamic vinegar and the olive oil.  Add to this the cucumber, tomato and red onion. Let sit for 15 minutes.
On a plate spread about 1/3 cup of hummus. Pile on top a few large handfuls of lettuce. Spoon over the lettuce 1/4 of the cucumber mixture and some of the tzaziki. Add the chicken, sprinkle on a few capers and viola!

Some nice black olives, sun dried tomatoes, feta and pine nuts would be a nice addition.

Back Home

Overlooking Carthage
Photo by Julie Bredy

We are back from our travels, settling back into life: laundry, orthodontist appointments, grocery shopping. There needs to be a better re-entry than yesterday I was strolling through quaint Alsatian cobblestone streets to today I'm driving the kids to the orthodontist and pre-treating laundry.

In Singapore we had a lovely woman who lived with us, Miss Gay. She ran the house and took very good care of us. I knew that our first night home from anywhere we would have the most tender, well flavored chicken adobo. The meat would be falling off the bones, the sauce was perfect for spooning over rice. Heck it was perfect for drinking with a straw. She also made green beans that were out of this world, I don't know what she did to them but there were never enough.

I sat in the kitchen on Tuesday and was abruptly reminded that there would be no chicken adobo, no green beans tonight. We were on our own. That meal was our coming home meal in Asia. What would be our coming home meal now? I ransacked the pantry and freezer, hmmm, there was a butternut squash the size of a 3 month old baby (I really am not exaggerating, it weighed 12 pounds), and there were chicken thighs in the freezer. I set about breaking down the squash and roasting it but I wasn't sure what to do with the chicken. Gay used to also make a great roast chicken (always the moistest chicken on the planet. Who consistently makes moist roast chicken?), and she used a mix of ginger, paprika and lemon peel. Voila! We are in business. While I'm still not sold that this will be our comfort, coming home meal, it hit the spot.

Lemon-Ginger Roast Chicken Thighs  
Adapted from Epicurious
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 tablespoon minced peeled fresh ginger
2 teaspoons grated lemon peel
2 teaspoons paprika
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon ground black pepper
8 large chicken thighs.

Preheat the oven to 400°F. In a small bowl stir together the olive oil, ginger, lemon peel, paprika, salt and black pepper. Rub this mixture over the chicken thighs and place the chicken in a 9X13 inch baking dish. Roast until the juices run clear when pierced or until thermometer inserted into thickest part of thigh registers 180°F, about 35-40 minutes.
Transfer chicken to serving platter. Pour pan juices into medium bowl, spoon off fat and discard. Drizzle juices over chicken and serve.

Caramelized Butternut Squash
1999, The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook, All Rights Reserved

2 medium butternut squash (4 to 5 pounds total)
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F.
Cut off and discard the ends of each butternut squash. Peel the squash, cut them in half lengthwise, and remove the seeds. Cut the squash into 1 1/4 to 1 1/2-inch cubes and place them on a baking sheet. Add the melted butter, brown sugar, salt, and pepper. With clean hands, toss all the ingredients together and spread in a single layer on the baking sheet. Roast for 45 to 55 minutes, until the squash is tender and the glaze begins to caramelize. While roasting, turn the squash a few times with a spatula, to be sure it browns evenly. Taste for seasonings and serve hot.