Baked French Toast Casserole for a Snowy Morning

We accumulated a lot of bread loaves and not very much snow this Christmas. In fact, it did not snow until three days after Christmas, and it was not until very late at night at that. Meanwhile, the artisanal bakery bread was getting crusty.

Snow finally arrives for our Vermont Christmas
Snow finally arrives for our Vermont Christmas

For each dinner, another loaf landed on the kitchen island and yet not much was eaten because we were enjoying cheese and crackers before dinner and then plenty of options on our dinner plates. The bread was getting lonely.

Ad hoc French toast casserole
Ad hoc French toast casserole

We decided we should try a French toast casserole and started looking up recipes online. Our intent was to soak the bread in the French toast egg and cream mixture overnight, per most recipes. We enjoyed a lot of company for dinner, binge watched Death in Paradise mystery episodes and totally forgot to soak the bread. The snow and sleet came down all night as we slept, bringing us, belatedly, the winter wonderland. This morning, I tackled the bread, breaking it down with a knife and my hands to fill a bowl with about 3 cups of bread chunks. Turns out, it did not matter at all that the bread was not soaked. Then, I melted about a tablespoon butter in a casserole dish. Next, I sprinkled that with a couple of teaspoons of light brown sugar. Setting aside the dish, I whisked three eggs with a few dashes of vanilla extract and ground cinnamon. I measured in two cups of milk and a cup of half-and-half cream. Finally, I placed the bread into the buttered and sugared casserole dish and poured the egg and milk mixture over it. The dish went into a 400-degree oven for 45 minutes. I had checked it after a half-hour and it looked firmed up around now softened bread chunks. I put it back in for the next 15 minutes to brown and it had a bubbling liquid percolating within the nooks. We let it rest about 10 minutes and dug in. This was absolutely delicious with maple syrup. I plan to make this again very soon for a New Year’s brunch.

Vermont maple syrup seals the deal
Vermont maple syrup seals the deal

Ingredients: stale bread, butter, brown sugar, eggs, milk, cream, vanilla and cinnamon. Plus, maple syrup.

Find Your Holiday Balancing Act with Take-It-Easy Meals

Christmas 2015 is in the books. Yet, there is still New Year’s and any additional Christmas gatherings you may have in the interim. We still have another family gathering for a special dinner tomorrow night. As I write, I am fending off an inclination to walk back over to the cookies and chocolates beckoning from the countertop. This time of year requires balance in our cooking and I find that eating simple outside of entertaining keeps me feeling centered. Here are a couple of recent dinners fixed between the more extravagant meals eaten around the holidays. (I cannot believe how creamy an over-the-top oyster mushrooms pasta dish was at a restaurant the other night. Geesh.) We had pork chops with grilled green tomatoes,

spinach atop garlic and olive oil before being covered to cook

and another night we had grilled salmon with baked potatoes. The grilled green tomatoes are a new favorite. Cooking sliced green tomatoes on an indoor grill really brings their flavor to life, especially in the winter. Another go-to dish to bring everything together is sautéed spinach. Start per usual for sautéed veggies by cooking sliced garlic in olive oil on low. Once the garlic is gold, add spinach (straight from a bag) and a pinch of salt, then cover. About 5-7 minutes later, you should have soft, garlic-y spinach ready to plate. The salmon was in a special weeknight display at the grocery store, which served as a reminder to try to eat a little healthy at this time of year. Granted, it was served with twice-baked potatoes. The cheesy potatoes may just offset the healthiness of the salmon, but that’s OK. That’s kind of the point of the salmon. For the potatoes, I first baked them an hour at 375 degrees.

twicepotatoes2
baked potatoes dressed with paprika and spinach

Then I scooped out the middles and placed that potato meat in a bowl with grated parmesan cheese, a dollop of sour cream and spices. I spread that mixture back into the potato shells and broiled them until the tops took on a nice crust.

 

don't forget salad
don’t forget salad

To further ensure you are getting enough vegetables, make a simple salad. Romaine, bell pepper, tomatoes and green onions are easy to gather, chop and toss with any dressing you like, and complement any number of meats or fish.

 

 

Christmas Reflections on a Red Bicycle

The Christmas Story kid had the Red Ryder and my overwhelmingly fantastic Christmas present 30 years ago was this, my Shogun 10-speed road bike. My Dad and I were just discussing how pumped I was that Christmas morning when all the presents had been opened and then he surprised me by rolling this out from another room. This was my primary mode of transportation around my hometown until age 17-18.

my first road bike, a mid-1980s Shogun 100
my first road bike, a mid-1980s Shogun 100

Since then, it’s been stored in garages and a barn, until today. I’m taking it back! I rode it today and the gears and brakes work. I still love this bike as much as the day Santa gave it to me. My brother-in-law helped me pull it out from within a stack of bikes. At some point, he had given it a tune-up so it was ready to roll, albeit without much air in the tires. I pointed it at the dirt and gravel driveway and rode downhill, pumping the brakes. When I got down to a country road with a much steeper hill, I opted to just ride a little bit around in a circle before heading back up the driveway. The air felt a somewhat crisper, even on a warm Christmas for the East Coast. There is something freeing and empowering about being seated atop a road bike. Drawing in windy breath activates all the senses and I feel grateful for being alive. There is a timelessness to this sensation. I loved riding this bike around my hometown. It freed me from having to ask for a ride to a friend’s house. I remember placing a field hockey stick across the handle bars to get to and from summer sports clinic. There may have been some occasions when my high school friends and I would pull up to a party on a 10-speed. Growing up in New Jersey, we did not get driver’s licenses until age 17 and most of us were not given a car, so the bike was crucial for creating your own life outside home. I got on this old bike this Christmas and felt that same sense of freedom and self-identity. I noticed how comfortable the bike still fits (I am an inch taller than I was in high school). Similarly, I love the way my Specialized Dulce Elite fits and feels. When I was shopping for that bike, a salesman gave me good advice while I was checking out a less expensive alternative. He cautioned against compromising on price. Mind you, he was offering me that less expensive alternative. But, he said, buy a bike you absolutely love so that you will always want to ride it and not let it collect dust. He was right. When I get on my Dulce Elite, I feel embraced by it and it is easy to ride. Even after dozens of miles, the bike holds firm and keeps me going. Getting back on the Shogun, I had that same sensation of knowing this is my bike and my ticket to freedom.

Palm trees, Christmas cookies and holiday rainstorms

palm tree Christmas cookies

Our family Christmas traditions include trimming the tree together, writing riddles on gift tags about the presents within the wrapping, and baking butter cookies with cutout shapes. Last summer, while visiting family in Vermont, I found a palm tree cookie cutter at a bake shop and decided it would be perfect for Gulf Coast Christmas cookies. We live in Houston, which is full of palm trees. Also, there may have been palm trees surrounding the Nativity in Bethlehem, making the shape even more appropriate for the holiday. This year was the first for the palm tree Christmas cookie and I used the occasion to alter my mother’s basic butter cookies recipe. In addition to butter, sugar, vanilla and flour, I added a bit of orange extract, a pinch of ginger and a healthy sprinkle of cinnamon. Some of the cookies were sprinkled with colored sugar, in line with tradition, while others were pressed with mini chocolate chips and chopped cranberries.

cookies on a Santa plate
cookies on a Santa plate
pretzbark
pretzel bark heads into fridge to firm before being broken into chunks

I decided to try something new for me as well by making pretzel bark. I simple smashed up pretzels in their bag and smashed up some pecans in their bag. A rolling pin comes in very hand for this task. In a big bowl, I mixed the smashed pieces with chopped cranberries and then poured it out onto wax paper in a jelly roll. Finally, I drizzled on melted chocolate and melted white chocalate. That went into the fridge for a couple of hours before being broken into pieces. This turned out rather good, but I need to work on my chocolate melting and spreading technique. The proportion of pretzel to chocolate may have been too pretzel heavy. Still, it tastes delicious, especially if you are a chocolate fiend like me. After putting together the Christmas cookies and chocolate, I could not wait to get on a plane to visit my family in Vermont. Although the forecasts suggested otherwise, I was hoping for at least a hint of a white Christmas. When I packed up my vehicle to head to the airport in Houston, it was balmy and pouring rain. When the plane landed in Boston, it was warm and you could see the snow-less ground. I brought the rain system with me, thanks to El Nino, and we are gathered around in rainy Vermont for our family Christmas, butter cookies and all.

Stave off Wintertime Blues by Keeping Things Green

The Sage Leopard is very lucky to enjoy a big backyard that is home to herbs, citrus trees and native and drought tolerate plants, including Texas Sage and lantana. In southeast Texas, we are either inundated with rains or suffering in drought conditions. All the while, my cooking sage thrives in the garden, rain or shine.

gathering up the sage
gathering up the sage

At a certain point, it will brown and shrivel. I recently received an herb keeper as a gift, which is like an ice cube tray but made of silicone instead of hard plastic. I gathered up the sage from its pot on the patio to keep as much as possible. I washed and dried it, then chopped it with herb scissors. I placed about two tablespoons per cube in four cubes of the tray. This being the inaugural use of the herb tray, I opted to fill two of the sage-laden cubes with olive oil and the remaining two with melted butter. Into the freezer the tray went, resting on top of an ice cube tray with frozen Chardonnay (leftover from a Labor Day beach weekend box o’ wine) and next to our stash of Meyer lemon juice. We have a Meyer lemon tree that provides a prolific amount of juice. choppedsageAs for the olive oil in the herb tray, I used the basic one for cooking, not the high-end one for salads. Sage is a powerful herb for cooking and should be used in relatively small amounts compared to basil and parsley. It also needs to be received by a food strong enough to stand up to it, such as a pork loin roast. Another wonderful companion for sage are butter beans. I start by sautéing thinly sliced garlic in a saucepan with a little butter and olive oil. I fold in some sliced sage and make sure it is fully moistened. Meanwhile, open a can of butter beans and empty them into a colander in the sink to give them a nice rinse.

The Sage Leopard sits while dove watching with sage pot on patio in foreground
The Sage Leopard sits while dove watching with sage pot on patio in foreground

Place the washed beans in the saucepan, add salt and pepper, stir, cover and cook on low about 10 minutes. For a roast, place the sage and butter (or oil) with garlic in a Dutch over and sauté. Add the meat, browning on add sides on the stovetop before placing in the oven to roast. Now that I have preserved ready-to-go sage cooking cubes in the freezer, I am really prepared for at least four lovely sage dishes this winter. Plus, by cutting back the sage plant a lot, I have likely ensured that the plant will fully regrow with many more sage leaves.

 

Grilled green tomatoes

Fried green tomatoes are great, to be sure, but I always feel guilty eating them. Perhaps it is the fried part. Or, that they usually are dressed up with something creamy, such as goat cheese. Don’t get me wrong because I absolutely like all that. Fried green tomatoes remind me of living in Washington, D.C., where they show up on all kinds of menus. I would also get green tomatoes at the farmer’s market in the neighborhood church parking lot and make my own fried green tomatoes.

What if I grilled green tomatoes while cooking up pork chops?
What if I grilled green tomatoes while cooking up pork chops?

I’d dip them in an egg wash and pat the slices against flour before laying them down in hot olive oil. Well, that was pretty good. It’s not everyday food, though. Tonight, I went to the grocery story to buy pork chops and something else to grill. Browsing the produce section, I saw the green tomatoes, which came from nearby Mexico. A great thing about living in Houston is that even in winter, we have great produce, including tomatoes and mangoes. Today, there was a $2 pineapple special. I recently cooked pineapple and reflected, why not grill the tomatoes without any seasoning. This was a good idea. While those got started, I seasoned the pork chops with maple pepper and got them going as well. pork in progressI also sautéed spinach with garlic and added canned artichokes. Leftover beans were popped into the microwave and soon enough, we sat down to a quiet, simple and delicious dinner. greentomatoes plateAs I write, the Sage Leopard dog is groaning in his sleep on the couch next to a twinkling Christmas tree. All is good, even though I have not yet organized the Christmas card list. Yet.

Lasagna, wine and politics

Here I go again with the Italian food centered around meat cooked on the raclette grill.

lasagna for president 2016
Lasagna for President 2016

Well, it is so much better than cooking the meat on the stove. There simply is not any greasy, smoky, meaty, lingering aroma in the house. The meat cooks, it does not burn on our raclette grill. Moreover, the grill cleans in a jiffy. Usually, when I make lasagna, it is an elaborate process, starting with making an extra large vat of homemade tomato sauce. Meanwhile, I’m browning meat in a Dutch oven. Plus, there is the boiling water in the pasta pot for the lasagna. I just don’t have time for that, at least not on a weeknight. Tonight, I broke it down into a much simpler process, starting with the sauce. Lasagna takes a lot of sauce. The past couple of months, every time I cooked tomato sauce I made more than needed for that night, and poured the extra into a container for the freezer. The three containers of frozen homemade sauce became the inspiration for lasagna.

I also have meat on hand in the venison freezer, specifically Italian sausage. All I needed was a package of oven-ready lasagna (no boiling needed), ricotta cheese, shredded mozzarella and bagged spinach. Oh, and red wine. I set out the tomato sauce and venison sausage to defrost. I went Christmas shopping and bought the spinach and cheeses.

Three containers of homemade tomato sauce were liberated from the freezer for this meal
Three containers of homemade tomato sauce were liberated from the freezer for this meal
ricotta ready
smooth out the ricotta with an egg and water

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Once home, I took the sausage out of the casing and placed the meat on the raclette grill. Then, I set about further defrosting the tomato sauces in the microwave. For the ricotta filling, stir the cheese with an egg and water until smooth. Soon enough, it was time to assemble the lasagna. Coat a baking dish with olive oil spray and ladle in some tomato sauce before starting the layering: lasagna sheet, ricotta, meat crumbles, torn spinach leaves, mozzarella, and commence a new layer. Once assembled, I baked it in an oven preheated to 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Then, I kicked back. Now, I am ready to enjoy this easy lasagna, watch a political debate and work on the Christmas cards. The grill made this assembled casserole dish very approachable and easy on a busy weeknight. P.S. The red wine is for drinking with the meal and political debate.

No grease enchiladas, finally

It’s all about the equipment. Years back, I wanted to spend less than I knew I should on a new road bike before embarking on the training for a big long-distance charity ride. I ended up spending twice the supposed budget. I told a friend I did not feel bad about this outlay, that I had justified and rationalized it in my mind. Perhaps she could tell I was still trying to convince myself. She assured me, it’s all about the equipment. I remembered a bike salesman comparing two bikes with a wide price range between them and noting if I cloned myself, the me on the more expensive bike would zoom past the other. I’ve lived in Texas nearly a decade, so making Tex-Mex at home has become as routine as riding a bicycle. So has the mess. Not tonight. It’s all about the equipment.

pulled chicken getting toasty with peppers and onions on the raclette
pulled chicken getting toasty with peppers and onions on the raclette

I turned on our raclette grill and placed pieces of leftover rotisserie chicken on the grill. Next, I sliced peppers and onions. After everything got toasty and caramelized, I pushed the veggies over to the chicken and began bringing the tortillas to life. Frankly, they need a grill. Forget trying to heat them in a microwave — they’ll end up like soggy cardboard. Frying pans burn them. This was perfect. Meanwhile, I placed cheese with parsley in the little raclette pans to melt and somewhat cook the cheese.

cheese and parsley combining in the raclette pan
cheese and parsley combining in the raclette pan

With the tortillas properly cooked, I placed them on the dinner plates, nestled the chicken and veggies in them, and then poured on the cheese and some beans I had heated in a little pot. I added dollops of sour cream and called it dinner. This did not take long. And it was beautiful.

the simple enchiladas arrive at the table
the simple enchiladas arrive at the table

Sunday news, pancakes & grilled venison sausage

Our meal for the Sunday morning news talk shows
Our meal for the Sunday morning news talk shows

I’ll get right to revealing the family secret to pancakes. Add vanilla extract. This rainy Sunday morning, pancakes and sausage seemed like a perfect idea. I used to find it somewhat aggravating when my boyfriend cooked up venison breakfast sausage in a pan. I usually clean on weekends and then the whole house would be filled with sausage aroma all day and maybe the next day. The tradeoff was the sausage tasted pretty good. Now, with a raclette grill, there is no tradeoff.

grilling individual sausage patties in a raclette pan keeps them from getting overcooked
grilling individual sausage patties in a raclette pan keeps them from getting overcooked

The sausage tastes much better and there is no aroma permeation throughout the house. Since embarking on the raclette grill experiment, I’ve been very pleased with the resulting taste and quality of the grilling. Nothing overdone, nothing burned. The meat remains juicy and there is a subtle seal on the outside.

fluffy pancakes and no burn
fluffy pancakes and no burn

And, the house still smells clean. The grill top itself is easy to wipe clean in the sink. Voila, back to the Sunday news shows. The discussions on the Sunday talk shows have been difficult of late, but nothing could dampen my enjoyment of the pancakes and sausage.

His and hers hunting memories
His and hers hunting memories

Did I mention the Vermont maple syrup? My family lives in Vermont and I plan to soon pick up a new jug. In addition, at this rate, we need to get more venison this winter.

Always Keep Veggie Curry in the Freezer

veggie curry
Veggie curry and salad brighten up a rainy Saturday night

After hosting a group of ladies for a Mary Kay party this afternoon, I had absolutely no desire to cook. My man was on his way back from a fishing outing without fish when he called from the intersection nearest our Kroger. I was tempted to suggest pizza, but didn’t really want something that heavy. A container of frozen homemade vegetable curry called out from the freezer and I asked him to buy a rotisserie chicken. Typically, I don’t really want that either when it comes to quick food. But he picked out a great one. I defrosted the curry, cooked up brown rice and made a salad. It was a very good dinner. It was well-rounded and dressed up with mango pickle and mint chutney for the curry, and Greek yogurt dressing for the salad. (Feta dill for me, blue cheese for him). I’m not specifically advocating for veggie curry or any curry for that matter. The point is always have great standby dishes in the freezer. It does not have to be the entire meal. Curry does provide a wonderful, warm focal point. Other freezer standby dishes I favor are: portions of homemade tomato sauce made in batches, chili, Mexican bean soup, baked chicken and crock pot shredded pork.

Ingredients for veggie curry:

green lentils

diced sweet potato

green beans

red bell pepper

canned tomatoes

onion

curry powder and/or paste (I like Madras curry rather than yellow curry)

Directions (off the top of my head given I pulled this out of the freezer tonight): Saute onion in a saucepan in olive oil or butter. Separately, cook the lentils in water, per the bag instructions. Add curry powder and/or curry paste to onions and stir until thoroughly combined. Fold in diced sweet potato, drained green beans, chopped bell pepper and canned tomatoes. Fold in lentils. Simmer for about 20 minutes to let flavors combine. When serving, you could ladle some into a serving bowl and add buttermilk or light coconut milk there. I think I prefer it without the milk and it stores better without it. The beauty of curry is you can make it with whatever veggies you like or have on hand. Enjoy.