When You’re Here, You’re Family. 20% Gratuity Optional. An Olive Garden Adventure.

“When you’re here, you’re family.” So goes the popular refrain to lure us into the red-sauce joint known all across America as The Olive Garden. When it’s wintry and cold, my desire for pasta, butter, and cheese skyrockets. This recipe delivers all three in record time, and you can eat it in your PJ’s. It’s been a few years since we’ve been to the Garden, and I’m not sure if I’ll ever go back once I cobbled together two Fettuccine Alfredo recipes and finally achieved pasta perfection. The late 70’s Metropolitan Museum of Art cookbook had one such recipe, claimed to be from an observer who watched Alfredo himself in Rome. The key was to do as Alfredo did: “turn the heat off when you add the cheese.” Duly noted. And Chuck Williams, the late departed founder of Williams-Sonoma, suggested steeping sliced garlic and butter in the cream. Game-changer. And now that the Olive Garden sells their signature dressing and croutons in stores, it’s a small matter to make your own Olive Garden-inspired house salad if you want an “authentic” experience! And, you won’t be a supporting a corporate-owned business that destroys creativity and ingenuity. More on that next.

I always wondered why one of our department’s favorite professors at university always mentioned the Olive Garden in snide side remarks. This went on for three classes over a several-year timespan. The Olive Garden seemed to be his ideal example of banal comestibles and ho-hum middle-class fantasies. “When you and your date are at the Olive Garden…” or “So you can get a good job and bring your girlfriend to the Olive Garden,” to “You know you’ve made it when you are eating at the Olive Garden and you can have all-you-can-eat breadsticks!” These comments, delivered in a Gallic accent at the crescendo of a humorous tale, would inevitably cause titters of laughter amongst us students. I assumed because of his French background it followed that his gastronomic sensibilities were offended by the ubiquitous Italian –American chain restaurant.

It was only until my final semester and class with Professor X that I learned the secret of his disdain for the Olive Garden. He shared that many moons ago he had been a salad prep chef at The Olive Garden. The rules were rigid and specific for the number of olives, tomato slices, peperoncino peppers, croutons, etc. that would go into each salad prepared assembly-line style. The order in which these items were added was precise and from a manual, enforced by a draconian manager. Imagine the inventiveness of this salad chef when he decided to create a splash guard of a to-go box top between the critical assembly line items of croutons and dressing. The dressing, applied from a ladle, would invariably splash on the croutons, making them un-crispy and unappetizing as salad prep continued through the evening. His supervisor immediately noted the deviation from the official Olive Garden rulebook, and a confrontation ensued, ending with our protagonist telling his boss in no uncertain terms, “Take this job and shove it!” It was a memorable story, accompanied by the message that the more education and degrees we got, the less bullsh*t we would have to take from our workplaces. For anyone who has toiled in customer service jobs where you feel more like a robot/slave than a human being, the words were welcome succor. And so in closing, I raise my glass to the spirit and substance of the “Olive Garden Story.” Make this at home and perform your own quiet act of revolution. Breadstick recipe not included.

Fettuccine Alfredo

 1 pkg. dried fettuccine pasta (try to find a brand made in Italy)

1 ½ cups heavy cream, approx.

4 Tbsp. unsalted butter, cut into cubes

¾ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, freshly grated(non-negotiable)

two cloves of garlic, sliced thin

freshly ground black pepper

Bring water to boil to cook pasta. Begin to steep garlic in cream and butter, keep at a very low simmer to infuse flavor and reduce/thicken cream and butter mixture.

Cook pasta, drain. Do not rinse with water. Remove softened garlic with a slotted spoon. Raise heat to medium. Add about half of pasta to cream/butter mixture, using tongs to toss and allow warm past to absorb hot cream sauce. May add additional pasta, but do not be concerned if mixture is loose. Add generous grind of black pepper. No need for salt since the cheese is very salty. The cheese (added next) will thicken sauce up naturally. TURN OFF HEAT (to keep cheese from becoming grainy) and toss, toss, toss until cheese, pasta, and sauce become one. Transfer to platter or individual bowls with your tongs, sprinkle with chopped Italian parsley, and serve immediately.

Salad Ingredients (In the style of the Olive Garden)

One head iceberg lettuce, washed and torn

One head butter lettuce, washed and torn

Grated carrot

Purple cabbage, shredded

Peperoncino

Sliced vine-ripened tomatoes

Whole Ripe California Olives (you can pick how many!)

Croutons

Italian vinaigrette-style dressing

Chinese Chicken Salad aka Cheaters Baby Shower Chinese Chicken Salad

The first time I had Chinese Chicken Salad at a restaurant, I decided it was my favorite thing ever. Moist and succulent chicken, crisp romaine lettuce, shredded cabbage, carrots, and cilantro topped with crispy wonton strips and a sesame dressing. It’s a creation more Chinese-California, but it hit all the right notes. However, making it at home ran into a few issues- why was my chicken flavorless and dry, and the dressing was so tricky?

 

Enter the baby shower. We’ve all been to them. Cheese and wine, gifts, cupcakes, with tears and laughter. They are events that tend to bring out epic weirdness in women, because unless you’ve been smoking something, this isn’t a sisterhood, it’s a competition. The thought bubbles ran like this… (I don’t have a baby, I’m never going to have a baby, why did I tie my tubes, I’ll never get married, why doesn’t my boyfriend ask me to marry him, I’ll be 70 and living with a cat). I was plotting my escape from the drama when a delicious salad appeared.

 

My attendance was worth the first unctuous bite. Crispy, crunchy, and refreshing. Filling but not heavy. Savory but not spicy. I got a few secrets from the salad-maker, waited ‘til the presents were opened, and made my escape. Since then it’s become a standard in my repertoire. It relies on a couple of genius store-bought ingredients and fresh veggies. The lettuce can be prepped and veggies shredded in advance, and the chicken can marinate for a couple of days. Then, when you get home from a long day, it’s not a terrible amount of work to cook the chicken and wonton strips and assemble your salad.

 

Salad:

I large head of romaine lettuce or 3 romaine hearts, washed and dried

purple cabbage, shredded

carrots, shredded

chopped cilantro (may omit)

 

Chicken:

2 Chicken Breasts

(marinated for up to 2 days in refrigerator with Soy Vay toasted sesame dressing and sauce)

Pat marinated chicken breasts dry, sprinkle with salt and pepper and rub with olive oil. Place in a hot cast-iron grill pan and sear both sides, creating hatch marks and lowering heat to finish cooking.

 

Wonton Strips:

1/2 package of Naysoya wonton wraps, cut into strips

Vegetable oil

 

Heat 1 ½ inches of vegetable oil in saucepan for frying. Add one strip to ensure oil is hot enough, it should sizzle and rise to the top. Fry strips in small batches and remove with a spider (wire sieve) to a paper-towel lined plate to absorb any oil.

 

Assembly:

Slice warm chicken breast and top in individual bowls filled with chopped romaine lettuce. Sprinkle with carrots, cabbage, cilantro, and fried wonton strips. Top with sesame dressing to taste. Enjoy!

Phillipps Bakery: Cookie Memories, Part I

Every time we would visit Sacramento during my childhood we would visit Muzio Bakery for the best Italian bread, and Philipps Bakery on Folsom Boulevard in East Sacramento for the best baked goods. Walking into the small bakery in a brick storefront was exciting and a little scary. You knew that between you and the baked goods were angry bakery staff (women) who seemed to resent all baked goods, but especially you, the customer, as they placed your selected sweets in pink cardboard bakery boxes. My Dad was the master at selecting the best, and he always got four varieties of cookies: sugar, vanilla and chocolate piped cookies, and spice cookies. The bakery never had any names listed for the items and you ordered by weight.

 

I was probably 18 before I had the courage to place my own order. It was greeted with a growl, a grimace, and a heave of disgust. This was the price you had to pay for some of the best cookies you would ever have in your life, the bakery version of Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi.

 

On our subsequent trips to the neighborhood, the bakery changed formats: Its name changed to New Philipps Bakery, and less items were for sale. It finally closed down and reopened, rumored to be taken over by the granddaughter-in-law of the original owners, as a newer Philipps Bakery, which seemed to only make fancy wedding cakes. It closed its doors over a decade ago, and it became a paint store. Now it might be a yoga studio or a cutesy bistro. The cookies are alas, gone forever.

 

But not quite. Like all great taste memories, a dedicated baker can search for clues, templates, and hints and cobble together a facsimile of a favorite recipe. That was my motivation for recreating the spice cookies and the sugar cookies from Phillips Bakery. I’m still working on the chocolate and vanilla cookies. To wit, recipe #1 (Hermits) was formed from three recipes, practice, errors, and finally, success. It took more years than I would like to admit, but the spicy, crunchy, chewy cookie is now back, although Phillips bakery is long gone.

 

Recipe: Hermits in the style of Philipps Bakery

Hermits are an old New England name and recipe for  crunchy spice cookies made for sailors on long voyages. The spices kept the cookie preserved, and the dry texture encouraged a long storage life in a dark chest, hence the name hermits.  This is my version, a little chewy, a little crunchy, and chock-full of nuts, spices, and luscious dried fruit We’ve never had them last long enough to find out if they keep well for a fortnight, let alone a trip around the world on a clipper ship. This makes a double batch so you can share with family, neighbors, and friends.

 

4 c all purpose flour

1 tsp. soda

½ tsp. salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1 tsp. ginger

½ tsp nutmeg

¼ tsp cloves

2 C dark brown sugar

2 eggs

2 sticks butter

2/3 cup molasses

2 tsp. lemon zest

2 tsp. vanilla extract

½ cup dark raisins

½ cup golden raisins

1 cup dried fruit bits

(Note: Sun-Maid sells this, a combination of finely diced raisins, apricots, dried apples, peaches, and cranberries. It’s rather irreplaceable in this recipe and hard to find in stores now so I order it directly from Sun-Maid’s website).

1 cup chopped pecans

1 cup chopped walnuts

 

Whisk flour with salt, spices, and leavening. Cream butter for two minutes, add sugar and mix until fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well. Add molasses, zest, and vanilla. Add flour mixture to butter mixture gradually, blend in dried fruit and nuts until all is well mixed.

 

On two greased cookie sheets, divide dough into two long strips, evening out and patting down with hands dipped in ice water (dough is sticky). Bake at 350 degrees for 20 minutes. Let cool five minutes, divide into slices, using a bench scraper to divide dough width-wise into 2 ½ inch slices. Separate slightly. Return to oven, lowered to 250 degrees and bake for another 15 minutes. Remove from oven, cool five minutes. When cookies are still warm blend together confectioner’s sugar, vanilla, and half and half to make a glaze, just thick enough to be stirred with a whisk. Use a pastry brush to brush on warm cookies. The cornstarch in confectioner’s sugar will be activated by the warm cookies and provide a shiny, tasty, and simple glaze reminiscent of that on store-bought iced oatmeal cookies.

 

 

 

 

 

White Bean Soup, 2.0

White Bean Soup, My Version

I crave soup when it’s cold out. The body and spirit cries out for nourishment and warmth and this soup always delivers, my grown-up version of Campbell’s Bean With Bacon soup. That soup was my hands-down favorite as a child, probably a takeoff of the famous Senate Bean Soup, with its navy beans, onions, and ham hocks. I created this to capture that taste memory but enhanced with extra goodness. Enjoy this convenient version with fresh veggies, prepared chicken stock, and both ham and bacon in a tomato base. The best thing is you start with canned beans, making prep simple.

 

Recipe:

 

3 cans (10 ounces each) white beans, drained

½ cup diced smoked ham

4 strips bacon, diced

1 large white onion, diced

2 tbsp. olive oil

6 stalks celery, diced

6 small carrots, diced

1 can (11 ounces) diced plum tomatoes in puree

1 carton chicken stock, or 2-3 cups

¼ tsp red pepper flakes

½ tsp kosher salt

½ tsp. pepper

garlic salt to taste

2 bay leaves

 

In large Dutch oven, sauté bacon in oil, when lightly crisp, add onion. Add diced celery and carrots, continue to cook until tender and fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Add beans, tomatoes, broth, ham, and seasonings. Cover, bring to boil, reduce to simmer, stir occasionally and keep at simmer for 1 ½- 2 hours. Remove bay leaves and serve with assorted crackers, bread, and cheese.

 

Of Chicken Pot Pies…and Piecrust

IMG_2763Do you remember the sublime delight of your own individual pot pie in the aluminum foil pie tin from the grocery store freezer and baked in your oven at home? I certainly do, but the anticipation of my very own pot pie for dinner diminished rapidly after the first few bites. Where was the chicken? The crust wasn’t too flaky, either. And finding peas was like searching for gold. Lots of work and not much payoff. Kiss those kiddie potpies goodbye with this luscious redux, so simple that’s it’s hardly a recipe and more like a template for a luscious crusty dinner. You’ll learn a few piecrust tips, too. And don’t tell anyone the secret ingredient, which I painfully realized was essential to the unctuousness of this dish when I insisted on a handmade broth and cream sauce which fell flat.

To start:

2 poached chicken breasts, chopped in largish chunks, or rotisserie chicken breasts, chopped

Butter and oil (2-3 tbsp. total)

6 stalks of celery, one small onion, 6 carrots

salt and pepper

2 tbsp flour

1/2 can cream of chicken soup

1-2 cups chicken broth

1 baked or boiled potato, cut in dice

1/2 cup frozen peas

finely chopped fresh parsley

Finely dice onion, chop celery and carrots into smallish pieces. Saute vegetables for 10 minutes in butter and oil. When vegetables are partially cooked, stir in flour for 1-2 minutes to heat mixture. Stir in cream of chicken soup. Stir to heat. Add chicken broth gradually, beginning with one cup and adding more if needed for a medium-thin saucy consistency.  Heat to bubbling; allow to simmer for 10 minutes;check for seasonings. Stir in peas and chopped potato. Right before taking off heat, stir in reserved chicken.

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You have your fabulous filling. Now for the piecrust. There are lots of ways to handle crust- but the best way in my opinion, is to make crust in the food processor! I’ve made tart crusts, pate brisee, and American piecrust in the food processor and I get more compliments when I use this French invention than when I slave and sweat with manual labor. Piecrust is something you have to put in your hours to gain some competence: you will create inedible pasty crusts, shattering crusts, and impossible to cut crusts. People will try to eat your pie crusts and they will not be able to, and you will bow your head in shame. You will screw up, and then one day you will have sublime flakiness that shatters in your mouth and you will never look back or buy a refrigerated piecrust, an abhorrence to all that is decent in the world. It’s worth the pain for the payoff. My other secret: Everything must be COLD! ice water, butter, etc. And my best secret: piecrust mix in the refrigerator. All I need to add is ice water.

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Piecrust Mix:

6 cups bread flour

2 heaping tsp salt

1 cup unsalted butter

1 cup shortening

Mix salt and flour in food processor. Add butter and shortening, cut into pebbly chunks in flour mixture with food processor blade in pulses. Don’t over -mix.  Put dry mix in refrigerator in tightly covered container.

When it’s time to make pie crust, pour some of your mix in a bowl, sprinkle with ice water, and form into a ball. Working quickly, roll into rounds. fold over, cut steam vents, and drape over filling.

Bake pie (large) for 40-45 minutes in 400 degree oven.

Individual potpies are lovely and bake in 25 minutes. Prepare to be transported to the childhood potpie you dreamed of but never had, now a reality!

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Skillet Cornbread

Returning to a home without a single piece of bread, a loaf, or a baguette is a sad state of affairs. The freezer was empty of frozen bread, so I set to work. It was time for cornbread. I had always secretly adored Jiffy corn muffins growing up, the sweet yellow crunchy bread absorbing butter like a sponge. Halfway between a dessert and a bread…just my thing! I have made many variations of cornbread since those early years, but I had always had a hankering for a good old-fashioned Southern skillet cornbread. It’s not too sweet, but it’s flavorful and crusty. It is best the first day, but refrigerated can last a little longer. I customized such a recipe from several existing ones, and pull out my trusty metal skillet, a $5 estate sale find that can go from stovetop to oven. Bread is ready in under 30 minutes from your oven- fresh, hot, and ready for some unsalted butter. Tastes great with stewed beans, zucchini, etc. cooked Southern-style with some good bacon or country ham.

IMG_2146Simply drizzle in a little vegetable oil in the pan, and add several tablespoons of butter. Heat in a 425 degree oven and watch carefully so as not to burn the butter.

Have your dry and wet ingredients ready:

1 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 tsp salt

2 tsp sugar

2 tsp baking powder

1 egg

1 1/4 cup milk

Mix dry and wet ingredients together. Pour into metal skillet with melted butter/oil mixture. Pour a bt of butter that rises on the sides on the top of bread. Bake for 20-25 minutes until golden brown and tester inserted in center comes out clean. Enjoy!

The finished product!

The finished product!

Waffle Weekends

The stack is getting started...

The stack is getting started…

My Dad has never been someone who enjoys making meals. He claims he always had a dream of being a short-order chef, to the extent that he has memorized some diner slang (“Adam and eve on a raft- float ‘em”). Granted, Dad’s scrambled eggs and omelets are delish. He says if he was on his own, he would live on sandwiches. I don’t doubt it. When my Mom worked weekend shifts at a hospital, he would make my sister and I the same dinner every night- burnt hamburgers. He would get distracted as we watched The Six Million Dollar Man on TV, and invariably the house would get filled with smoke as the burgers burned.

Yet, my Dad had a specialty in the kitchen growing up- waffles. I’m not sure how the tradition started, but I recall in the mid-80’s our kitchen on Saturday mornings filled with the irresistible scent of waffles and maple syrup. Dad’s waffles didn’t come from a box; he made them from scratch and cooked each one to order. He used a recipe called “Oh Boy” Waffles from a stained 30-year old cookbook. As the waffles rose in the iron, he would admonish the waffles: “Rise you sucker, rise!” Needless to say, we were a happy family on waffle weekends with the delicious treats and commentary. Dad always had his with peanut butter and jam, which I tried to like (but didn’t). I stuck with butter and syrup, and branched out to fruit and ice cream.

When I started to make my own waffles years later, I found out that “Oh Boy” Waffles don’t turn out as well as they once did. The waffles stuck to my waffle iron. Other recipes were auditioned, but my favorite is the basic waffle recipe that came with my $20 waffle maker. No need for fancy waffle makers- Belgian waffles are usually steamy and floppy, so a basic nonstick model that allows steam to escape does the trick. The only waffle rule I stick to is, never make a soggy waffle. Crisp is best, and any extras can be frozen or refrigerated and heated up in a toaster or waffle iron. I can never enjoy a waffle in a restaurant; they are never crisp enough. So, the only solution is to have a waffle weekend, which I did today. No one said, “rise you sucker rise,” but the waffles were delicious, and a special treat after a long week. Dad would approve. If we had waffle weekends across America, I’m convinced our happiness scale would go off the charts.

Basic Waffles

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbsp. sugar

½ tsp. salt

1 tbsp. baking powder

1 ¾ cups milk

6 tbsp. vegetable oil

2 large eggs

Mix dry ingredients in a bowl. Beat eggs in small bowl; add oil and milk. Combine wet and dry ingredients and stir with a spatula. Finish with a whisk. Let batter rest five minutes before using. Follow directions for waffle maker. Spray iron with nonstick spray when ready light indicates; put small amount of batter on iron for a “test” waffle. Proceed with remaining batter. Makes about eight waffles.

Waffles, ice cream, and strawberries

Waffles, ice cream, and strawberries

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