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Sunday, April 20, 2014

A southwestern twist on tuna

Easter's over, and it's time to get back to watching what I eat more carefully. In the last couple of days I cooked with more bacon than I have in two months. I never used to use bacon grease but since I'm increasingly in favor of more natural things and suspicious of artificial, I've gone back to my mom's habit of keeping a small jar of bacon grease in the fridge (I buy uncured bacon). Besides, the flavor can't be duplicated. Last night I used bacon grease to brown onions and celery for sloppy Joe--it really added a wonderful dimension to the flavor of the dish. Then today I made German potato salad and once again used bacon and the grease from cooking it to brown celery and onion--and of course crumbed the cooked bacon into the salad. But now it's back to healthy things--tuna salad and the like!
So Friday night for an appetizer when friends came for happy hour, I made southwestern tuna:

2 7 oz. cans albacore tuna, packed in water and drained
1/4 cup mayonnaise
3 Tbsp. chopped red onion (I used scallions and it was great)
3 Tbsp. chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp. grated lime peel
1 tsp. lime juice (I used a whole lime--they don't have that much juice)
1/8 tsp. ground cumin
1/8 tsp. chili powder

Mix it all together and chill. Serve with crackers (I used Ritz--delicious but there goes the diet again)

Question: who eats ham salad? At Easter dinner, we had ham and I mentioned that I buy a thick slice, flake it in the blender and make ham salad. Everyone at the table--six other adults--made a horrible face. Surely I'm not the only one who loves ham salad.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Getting over my fear of phyllo dough

I missed Potluck with Judy last night, and I can only plead a lovely evening with guests, the late hour and a tad too much wine. I served spanakopita, a longtime challenge for me. I’ve been intimidated by using phyllo dough for years but decided this weekend I was going to have an adventure. Saturday I made the spinach filling, along with a cucumber salad, so that Sunday all I had to do was work with the phyllo—a thought which hung over me like a challenge all day long.

When it drew close to time for my guests to arrive—an hour—I was in a quandary. I didn’t know how much time it would take to layer the phyllo. Didn’t want to do it too early, because I’d heard all those warnings about not letting it dry out. On the other hand I didn’t want them to arrive and find me up to my elbows in transparently thin sheets of dough and a pot of melted butter. I finally went ahead and fixed it, baked it, and left it in a warm oven. It was done about the time they rang the doorbell.

Working with phyllo was not nearly as complicated as I expected—in fact it went more smoothly than I expected. I layered the pie plate with nine sheets, carefully brushing butter on each one. I have a small paintbrush that I use for a pastry brush, and it worked great. Put the spinach mixture in and then folded the excess dough over. Topped it all with six more sheets of phyllo (they really are thin) and cut off excess. I admit I did not make pretty edges, but they sufficed.

When this masterpiece came out of the oven it was a lovely deep golden brown, puffy and wonderful.

I have no recipe for you because I stole it from a website and I didn’t like the filling that much. Too many spices, and honest, I think frozen chopped spinach might have a better texture, though you’d have to work hard to get it dry enough. So I’m on a hunt for another recipe, and I will try again.

But here’s a recipe that was successful as a side dish:

 Cucumber salad

2 cucumbers, peeled and sliced thin

½ large red onion, sliced thin

3 Roma tomatoes, sliced thin or chunked

Mix together:

1/3 c. plain Greek yogurt

¼ tsp. Dijon mustard

 1 Tbsp. white vinegar (I always have it on hand for cleaning solutions)

2 Tbsp. milk

½ tsp. sugar

A bit of chopped parley

A bit more chopped dill

Pepper and salt to taste.

Stir dressing into vegetables and refrigerate at least half a day. I made it the night before and it was good. One guest said, “You know, you think cucumber salad—well, okay. But this is really good.”

For an appetizer, my guests brought a dip of avocado, cottage cheese, lime and I can’t remember what, but it was so good. I’ll get the recipe soon.

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The fun of improvising

I fixed a good supper for a friend the other night, but I’m not going to give you the recipe. Instead I’ll tell you what I’ll do next time.

I happened into a wealth of asparagus recently and then came upon a recipe that looks wonderful even if not on the new diet I’ve begun—so far unsuccessful. Anyway, it involved Texas toast spread with melted butter on both sides and broiled; crab salad, which is a whole other story. I know crab is expensive but how much could ¼ lb. cost? This was a special guest I haven’t seen in a while, and I decided to splurge. So I asked the fishmonger for ¼ lb. crab, and he pointed me to a freezer case. Among other things, it held one lb. containers of crab priced at $23. I ended up paying $8.50 for canned crab which, once I opened it, didn’t have much flavor. But you mixed that with mayo, a bit of Dijon and lemon, a pinch each of cayenne and paprika. I dutifully did that, though I’m always tempted to leave out cayenne—in this case I’m really glad I didn’t.

Spread that on the toasted bread; top with shredded Monterrey Jack and then raw asparagus halved lengthwise, and top that with three thin slices of Jack cheese. Broil until cheese is bubbly and brown. Made a beautiful dish, but I couldn’t get my phone to go from video to photo so, as usual, no picture. And it tasted as good as it looked—but I couldn’t taste the crab. The cayenne added just enough bite, and the cheese was good but not cheesy enough for this cheddar fan.

So I offer this recipe for Asparagus with cheese for two:

2 slices sourdough bread, not thickly sliced (Texas toast would, I decided, be too much bread and might get soggy in the middle

Melted butter

Shredded cheese, enough to cover both slices of bread—I’d use cheddar or, as I did the other night, the Jack/Colby combination

1 scallion, sliced

Pinch cayenne

Quick splash Worcestershire

1/8 tsp. dry mustard


Four or five slices asparagus per person, halved lengthwise

Sliced cheese


Mixed shredded cheese with scallion, cayenne, Worcestershire, and mustard. Add just enough mayo to bind. Set aside.

Melt about 2 Tbsp. butter and brush both side of bread. Place on lightly greased cookie sheet and broil, watching closely and using tongs to turn. Remove from oven but leave broiler on.

Spread cheese mixture on toast; top with asparagus and sliced cheese. Broil until cheese is bubbly and just a bit of brown.

For me, this would be a main dish. If you’re feeding a carnivore, give him or her a sautéed chopped steak to go with it. And a good thing—you’ll probably have enough asparagus in the bunch for a side at another meal.
And tonight's supper on this cool, rainy day? Vegetable soup is in the crockpot. My oldest daughter has an elaborate recipe for minestrone that involves so much chopping that she makes three batches at once and freezes it. My idea of vegetable soup is to clean out the freezer and vegetable drawer--those bits of broth in boxes in the freeze and the half packages of peas and corn; from the vegetable drawer, a wedge of cabbage shredded, that half zucchini, some of those baby carrots, and a bag of spinach bought specially for the soup. From my front porch, sprigs of oregano and rosemary. It's like making salad, you start up with a little, keep ending, and before you know it you have enough for an army. But it smells good.



Sunday, March 30, 2014

Toying with tuna

I’m an addict. I admit it. My vice is tuna fish. My youngest daughter used to say my house could run on white wine, cottage cheese, tuna fish, and Paul Newman’s vinaigrette. I use tuna lots of ways—several versions of salad, casseroles, individual dishes with rice or tiny pasta. I have a recipe for crab/asparagus/cheese on toast (asparagus on toast is a very British thing—my mom used to do it for my dad) but I’m thinking of substituting tuna for the crab.

My current favorite tuna salad is a 7 oz. can albacore in water, drained and chunks broken up, plus juice of one lemon (use one of those good juicers so you get it all), 1 scallion chopped, 1 stalk celery, chopped, a bit of Dijon mustard, and enough mayonnaise to bind—not too soupy, please.

Another way I make it is to flake the tuna in a small food processor, then add the lemon, scallion, a healthy squirt of anchovy paste, and enough mayo to bind. Sometimes I make it with hard-boiled egg, or pickle relish, or cilantro and canned chillies. Tuna offers unlimited possibilities.

I don’t buy tuna at the grocery (I’ll get to an exception in a minute). I order it, by the case, from the Pisces cannery in Coos Bay, Oregon. They don’t fish with nets, so dolphins swim alongside their boats. Their albacore is canned and then cooked, which means it is only cooked once, instead of twice like most brands that are cooked, canned, and cooked again. You can tell the difference in taste and texture both. Pisces makes plain tuna, smoked tuna, salmon and smoked salmon, though the salmon is seasonal and often hard to get. It has more to do with large canneries and politics than supply and demand, but I love to get salmon when I can. Salmon cakes are high on my list. Pisces fish is more expensive—I readily admit that—but to me it’s so worth it.

I also order tuna salad a lot and I can tell you my favorites—right now they’re Swiss Pastry Shop and McKinley’s. I had a tuna sandwich recently somewhere else that was so juicy, it soaked through the bread and made it hard to pick up. Usually I prefer a tuna salad plate to a sandwich—get the taste of the tuna and avoid the bread.

Recently, I’ve discovered another tuna that I love. (Forgive the blurry picture, please.)I don’t’ usually use this blog to tout a product but here goes: I saw Tonino’s Tuna advertised in one of the food magazines I take and then found it on the shelves at Central Market. It’s in a smallish jar—I doubt it’s seven oz.—packed in olive oil and available in several flavors. I like it with oregano or garlic. Don’t want to try the red pepper and can’t see much advantage in the water packed. The texture is solid—great chunks of tuna—and the flavor delicious. Because I’m a cottage cheese freak, I mix it with that but you could drain and toss in a salad for a healthy and delicious meal. Or eat it plain. Save it for occasions--it's not cheap. Today I'm going to a birthday party for a neighbor--he's getting a jar of Tonino Tuna with oregano for a gift. I consider it an introduction.

Remembers tuna casseroles? Did your mom make them and now you can’t bear to think of them? Try this—the neat thing is you can determine your own veggie, carb, and seasonings.

1 cup white wine
Assorted herbs
1 can mushroom soup
1 7 oz. can albacore tuna, drained and broken into chunks
Cooked or canned vegetable of your choice (I like green peas)
Cooked rice, noodles, whatever you want (I usually use egg noodles)
Season to taste
French’s French-fried onion rings or other crumbly topping—shredded sharp cheddar mixed with crumbled potato chips would be good
Throw a bunch of herbs in white wine—parsley, thyme, sage, rosemary, oregano, tarragon, whatever comes to mind; I’d avoid Mexican flavors unless you deliberately want that taste. Boil wine hard until herbs are black.
Stir in remaining ingredients except topping. Season with salt, pepper, a dash of Worcestershire if you wish, perhaps a big pinch of dry mustard. Use your imagination.
Add topping and bake at 350o until casserole is bubbly and topping browned. Should serve four.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Straightening out pasta

The other night a friend wanted to go out to dinner, and I wanted to stay home so I prowled through my cabinet and fridge and then my appalling collection of recipes for something I could fix without a trip to the store. Came up with a recipe called Pasta Carbonara with Anchovies. My friend looked over my shoulder and said she guessed I was fixing pasta carbonara, to which I replied, "Not really. Anchovies, not bacon." But the recipe called for an egg sauce, which I though was more typical of aveglemono than carbonara. So I did some research.
It turns out what I made didn't really fit either category, but it sure was good. Aveglemono traditionally has a lemon taste and is not so much a pasta sauce as one for vegetables or leftover ground meat (I swear I've made it for pasta with veggies, but who is a Scot to quarrel with the Italians?). Typically it uses two or three eggs, separated, and you use the beaten whites as well as the yolks, along with broth (warm).
Carbonara is a pork pasta sauce in which pancetta or guanciale (made from pork jowls or cheeks) is cooked in olive oil (or lard) and combined with raw eggs, pecorino or parmagiano and cream, away from the heat so that you don't curdle the eggs.
What I made was neither carbonara nor aveglemono but a cross, and it was delicious.

Judy's Spaghettti with Anchovies

12 oz. spaghetti (I used linguine and less than 12 oz. because some spilled on the floor, and I had to grab fast to keep the dog from eating it--I had visions of dry spaghetti exploding in her stomach)
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic coves, mashed
2 oz. can anchovies, drained and chopped
1/2 tsp. lemon zest (I hate shaving zest but the dish could have used a whole tsp if I'd felt ambitious)
1 Tbsp. oregano
1/4 cup chopped parsley (I used chives because they grow on my porch)
2 large egg yolks
salt and pepper

Cook pasta al dente and drain, being sure to catch a half cup cooking water.
In large, deep skillet, heat olive oil, garlic and anchovies. The original recipe called for thin-sliced anchovies, but I prefer mashed--when I get a bite of straight garlic, it's almost overwhelming to me. Cook over medium heat until the anchovies sort of melt in. Add oregano and chives, and then dump in the rinsed pasta. Stir and heat briefly.
Meanwhile in a deep bowl, whisk the reserved pasta water into the egg yolks (I didn't use a deep bowl and splashed it everywhere). At this point, I thought it looked hopeless. I had this dry pasta and watery eggs, but I persevered. I added thee watery egg  yolks to the pasta and in no time at all a wonderful silky creamy sauce appeared. I left salt and pepper up to the individual diner, but found I wanted more of each on my pasta.
We agreed it was rich and earthy but we didn't taste much anchovy--a whole can is a hefty dose of that particular fish. When I did dishes, I discovered a lot of anchovy in the bottom of the skillet so my advice is to stir well.
This was good the next day as lunch but is much better eaten immediately after fixing it.

Original recipe is said to serve four. We had only one serving left over.

Serve with a geen salad. I had some marinated veggies left from another dinner and dumped them over some greens, using the marinade as dressing. Proud of myself for pulling supper out of the cupboard and the fridge. Just wait till I have veggies in the back yard.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Cincinnati Chili

Chili is a Texas dish, right? Texans made the first chili of record as well as the first pre-mixed spice for the dish. The most famous canned chili—Wolf Brand—was born on a Texas ranch and made here for years. For goodness sake, it’s our state food. So what can possibly be good about Cincinnati chili? Author Jim Jackson—er, Seamus McCree of fictional fame--sets us straight, provides a recipe, and even suggests dessert.
Cincinnati Chili
My name is Seamus McCree. My creator, James M Jackson, signed me up for this gig. Geez, he puts the words, “The quintessential Cincinnati eating experience is Skyline Chili and Graeter’s Ice Cream,” into my mouth, and now he tells me I have to provide details for those who aren’t familiar with the cuisine.
Haute it is not. We’re talking fast food, and in Cincinnati the perfect place to experience it is on Ludlow Avenue in the Clifton area just north of the University of Cincinnati. That happens to be only a few blocks from where I “live.”
First the basics: Cincinnati chili is not your ordinary Tex-Mex. This chili is usually served over spaghetti (see below for details) and comes in three variations: three-way, four-way and five-way. Three way adds finely shredded Colby cheese on top (feel free to substitute Cheddar; I do that all the time). Four-way adds either diced onions or red kidney beans. A five-way includes everything. While you wait for your fast food, the staff will serve you oyster crackers (which some people—not I—will add to the top of their chili).
You can buy the sauce in cans or the whole thing frozen, but it’s not hard to prepare and the recipe is below. Here’s the Skyline website I should mention that there are other brands of Cincinnati Chili – but for a Cliftonite like me, only Skyline counts.
And when you have finished your repast, a block and a half down Ludlow is Graeter’s Ice Cream ( ) for dessert. I figure the exercise of walking that distance justifies the calories of the ice cream. My favorite flavor is black raspberry chocolate chip. They drip the chocolate into the vats while they are making the ice cream, so sometimes you end up with chunks the size of a small candy bar with your ice cream. I haven’t found any flavor I don’t like. For those near Kroger food stores, I’m told even those in Savannah carry Graeter's.
Here’s the recipe for the Cincinnati chili sauce, which is better if you make it ahead of time.

2 lbs. ground beef
1 qt. water
4 small onions
4 cloves garlic
1 tsp cinnamon
5 whole cloves
1 tsp crushed red pepper
4 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp salt
2 large bay leaves
2 Tbsp white vinegar
1 Tbsp Worcestershire sauce
2 8-oz. cans tomato sauce
½ oz. bitter chocolate
1 generous tsp allspice
4 Tbsp chili powder (optional if you like it hot – I leave it out)

In blender, puree garlic and onions with a small amount of water. Add raw beef to 1 qt. COLD water. Crumble FINE as water comes to a boil. Add pureed mixture and remaining ingredients. Bring to a boil, reduce heat, simmer for 3 hours. Refrigerate overnight. Skim fat and reheat to serve.
Let each person add cheese, onions and red kidney beans to preference. The cheese should be finely grated. Onions minced. Beans (canned) drained and rinsed.

Caution: Do not wear your finest clothes eating Cincinnati Chili. Unless your napkin does a better job than mine, some of the sauce may end up on your front.
Caution II: Savor the Graeter’s Ice Cream. Eating it too fast can cause brain freeze.

Thanks for having me,

~ Seamus

 Cabin Fever Cover

James M. Jackson writes the Seamus McCree mysteries, Bad Policy (March 2013) and Cabin Fever (coming April 2014), published by Barking Rain Press. Bad Policy won the Evan Marshall Fiction Makeover Contest whose criteria were the freshness and commerciality of the story and quality of the writing. Known as James Montgomery Jackson on his tax return and to his mother whenever she was really mad at him, he splits his time between the Upper Peninsula of Michigan woods and Georgia’s low country. Jim has also published an acclaimed book on contract bridge, One Trick at a Time: How to start winning at bridge (Master Point Press 2012).


He regularly blogs at Writers Who Kill (


Sunday, March 2, 2014

The magic of avocadoes

I've been eating--and entertaining--high on the hog lately. The quail of last weekend,  a wonderful lamb meatloaf last night with oven-crisped asparagus, and tonight a beef cutlet with anchovy butter. All good, rich, and fun to fix. Except the asparagus. By the time I got it dipped in egg white and then a mix of parmesan, flour and panko, I swore I will never again cook anything that is dipped into egg and then crumbs or flour. I get the egg on my fingers and it creates great clumps of the breading--a mess. The asparagus, however, was delicious--even Jordan who doesn't really like asparagus--liked this, and Christian said he'd do it next time.
But for me the hit of the evening was an avocado salad dressing I got from Facebook. Avocadoes are good for you, they're obviously delicious, and I was growing weary of traditional salad dressings, though I know we should all eat our dark, leafy greens. So here it is:

1 lg. avocado, ready to use; peeled and cut into chunks
2 tsp.. lemon juice
1/2 c. Greek yogurt (I forgot to buy Greek and used regular--not as good for you, but you can't tell)
1 tsp. hot sauce--way to much; I sprinkle a few drops
1/4 c. olive oil
2 garlic cloves
3/4 tsp. salt

Throw it all in the blender. The avocado is hard to blend--chunks keep reappearing. You have to scrape down the sides and continue to blend until you don't see chunks. But this is really good and healthy.
I discovered too that it makes a terrific appetizer dip. I've served it with veggies and crackers, and it's a hit. Unlike guacamole, it's still good the next day, though I wouldn't trust it beyond that.

In my continuing effort to avoid prepared foods, I have run into a problem--the other night I fried bacon so Jacob and I could have bacon and eggs--breakfast for supper. But I had no empty can and nothing to put the bacon in. Anybody have a good solution? So many things that used to come in cans--like coffee--come in plastic these days! A dilemma.