i've got that grillin' feeling: fajita marinade

     Sounds like a bad country song. But the weather is warming up. Somehow, my brain translates this natural occurrence into a need to cook with fire...  I'm the grill guy at my house. My husband researched the grill, of course, went to the store and got the grill, but there the relationship ends.
      I adapted this marinade recipe from one I found in a magazine article, probably in the 1980s.  I have no idea of the exact year or publication, but it is so good, I use it for everything.
Seriously, why would you buy a bottled marinade?
Basic beef or pork marinade
¼ c. each fresh squeezed orange and lemon juice
1/4 c. pineapple juice
¼ c. each dry white wine and soy sauce
2 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
Fresh ground black pepper
Blend marinade ingredients together. Pour over skirt steak. Refrigerate overnight. Grill meat for a few minutes, until medium rare. Allow to rest, then thinly slice.
Basic marinade for chicken, portobello mushrooms and veggies, like zucchini and carrot sticks, onions and peppers: 
¼ c. each orange juice, white wine and soy sauce
2 T. brown sugar            
2 garlic cloves, minced
Blend ingredients together in a gallon-sized zipper bag set in a large bowl or in a plastic marinade container, like from Tupperware.  Place washed chicken breast in marinade and leave in refrigerator for about an hour.  Grill until done. Allow to rest for fifteen minutes. Slice in thin strips.
Shrimp or seafood marinade
1/4 c. each, freshly squeezed lime and orange juices
1/4 c. ponzu sauce
1 clove garlic, mashed
zest of 1 lime
1 T. cilantro, finely chopped
pinch of red pepper flakes
1/4 c. dry white wine
Blend ingredients as described above. Place shrimp or seafood in marinade and refrigerate for 15 or twenty minutes. Drain marinade and discard. Grill seafood, then allow to rest for a few minutes.

let's review: mrs. wilkes' boarding house

    A bunch of lady friends stopped by Mrs. Wilkes' for lunch a couple of weeks ago. You should have been there. It was my first time... a boarding house virgin. The line was wrapped around the block, hungry patrons growing anxious as we moved slower than rush hour traffic. I am a really big skeptic when it comes to places that tourists line up for... I usually run the other way.
     This particular day was a breezy, spring stunner... sunshiny, but cool enough for a lightweight jacket or sweater. I was thankful. Twelve of us waited for our turn in the dining room. Family style dining, just like your grandmama's house.
     We stepped through the portal to see large tables filled with bowls of vegetables from one end to the other. Yellow squash, mashed potatoes, green beans, baby limas, mac and cheese, greens, baby peas with buttered noodles, field peas and snaps, rice and rutabagas. I probably forgot a few. There was meatloaf smothered in gravy, beef stew and fried chicken. Pitchers of sweet tea and a basket of cornbread and biscuits flanked the table ends.
     We stared in amazement at the vast array, trying to decide where to start. Well, start we did... by giving thanks to the Lord for our time together. As we passed dishes in a clockwise direction, we all felt like children at our grandparents' table on a Sunday after church.
     The food was delicious and we were stuffed by the time a lovely lady arrived with a tray of peach cobbler and banana pudding. We had to pick one. I chose peach. As we exited the dining room, we were instructed to take our plates off the table, just like home... this was a former boarding house, after all. The line seemed just as long as it was when we went in. People asked us if it was worth the wait. We assured them it was.
     Now, if you've read much of what I write, you're most likely asking yourself, "What happened to the Food Maven we all know and love? The one who hates fried stuff and makes us eat our veggies?"

     Relax. I'm still the same food nazi when it comes to healthy eating, but give yourself a break once in awhile. I did, however, eat tons of vegetables... and a tiny little chicken wing.
And a little dish of peach cobbler.

Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room on Urbanspoon

wild mushroom farfalle with gorgonzola and sage

     Here's the recipe for bowtie pasta with Gorgonzola I mentioned in the mushroom mania post. If you love mushrooms like I do and Gorgonzola cheese, then you'll like this. Get your tissues ready... it may make you cry. It is so delicious!
     It is very simple to make, a great choice for a fast evening meal. Takes mere minutes to prepare. Try experimenting with a mix of wild and button mushrooms. I love the flavor of fresh sage as well.
     If you live with, or are an incurable carnivore, you can add a little chicken or even shrimp to this dish to make it meaty. As a side note, though, this is a great way to participate in 'Meatless Mondays.'
1/4 c. dried porcini mushrooms
1 c. warm water
1 T. butter
1 T. olive oil
1 onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
3 c. fresh mushrooms, any type, torn or roughly chopped 
fresh sage leaves, chopped
1 c. dry white wine
2 c. dried farfalle noodles
1/2 c. Mascarpone cheese or heavy cream
1 c. crumbled Gorgonzola cheese
salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
two boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into cubes, seasoned with salt and pepper
About an hour before beginning to cook, place dried mushrooms in warm water to soak. After an hour, drain mushrooms, squeezing out excess liquid. Reserve soaking liquid and give the porcini a rough chop. Put a deep pot of water on high right now for the pasta.
Place butter and oil in a large flat pan. Heat on medium, add onion and chopped porcini. Soften for a minute or two, then add garlic, fresh mushrooms, sage, a tiny bit of salt and lots of black pepper. Let them brown a little. Pour in wine and soaking liquid, scraping any browned bits off the bottom of the pan. Reduce heat and let it simmer a minute or two.
The pasta water should be ready. This is a good time to cook it. Don't forget a generous amount of salt for the pasta water. While the pasta cooks, add the Mascarpone and Gorgonzola.
This is the moment when the magic happens. The mushrooms and garlic begin making friends with the Gorgonzola. The aromas of sage and garlic dance around your stove. This is where I usually tear up... sniff, sniff;)
Drain pasta reserving about a half cup of the starchy water.
Toss hot farfalle immediately into the Mushroom-Gorgonzola sauce. Stir to blend. After tasting, add more seasoning, if needed and toss in a few more sage leaves. If the sauce becomes to tight (dry,) add a little pasta cooking water to loosen it up. Serve right away with a little Parmesan to pass around.
For the carnivores:
If you must have a little meat in your dish at every meal, here you go...
While sauteing the onion and garlic, throw in the cubed chicken breast I mentioned above. Make sure it is nearly done before proceeding. Continue with recipe as directed.
Gee... all of a sudden I have a craving for Farfalle with Mushrooms. Guess what we're having for dinner?

the well stocked pantry

     With the right ingredients, you can rise to any occasion thrown your way without much hand-wringing, bloodshed, OR wailing and gnashing of teeth.
     Last minute dinner guests, a stormy night in, or simply the desire to eat well without leaving the comforts of home… not a problem.
     And the best argument of all for maintaining a few well chosen staples: No more high-fat, cardboard-tasting, fast food!
     The following are a few suggestions. This list is not a mandatory pantry bible, with frequent security checks by the Staple Police, but a few suggestions that you can tailor to suit your own particular tastes and needs.
Healthy fats and oils:
Extra virgin olive oil: dark greenish-gold with a fruity taste. This is great for lower-heat cooking and non-cooking uses such as salad dressings, dips and marinades.
Light olive oil: paler yellow and mild flavor. It will not scorch as quickly when subjected to higher heat.
Coconut Oil: from Wiki, "Coconut oil is an edible oil extracted from the kernel or meat of matured coconuts harvested from the coconut palm (Cocos nucifera). It has various applications in food, medicine, and industry. Because of its high saturated fat content it is slow to oxidize and, thus, resistant to rancidification, lasting up to two years without spoiling." Rancidification? Do you think that's a real word? Surprisingly, coconut oil doesn't make everything you eat taste like you're throwing a luau. I love it in rice.
Oil sprays: Buy olive or coconut oil sprays and avoid chemically made oils, like canola.
Sesame oil: Good to keep on hand for any of your oriental dishes... a little goes a long way.
Vinegar: Vinegar types and flavors are as varied as ladies’ shoe styles. Names like apple cider, red wine, champagne, raspberry, rice wine, sherry and balsamic may boggle the mind. Vinegars made with different ingredients have different purposes. Be brave, be creative! Next time you are at the store, pick up a new vinegar and experiment.
Other lovely condiments:
Honey (raw and local)
Mustard: Yellow, Dijon, dry mustard, course grain, spicy brown and sweet hot, to name a few.
Sesame tahini paste
Soy sauce
Sun-dried tomatoes
Spice mixes in a tube
Tomato paste in a tube
Teriyaki sauce
Dry goods:
Bullion cubes, paste or powder
Flour: All-purpose, wheat, bread flour and self-rising are a few types.
Grits and cornmeal, white or yellow
Mushrooms, dried (like wild mixed, porcini and shitake) and canned
Pasta: Spaghetti, Rigatoni, Penne, Farfalle, Gnocchi and Pappardelle. Orzo and small pastas for soups such as stars, ditilani (small cut pasta) or alphabets.
Rice: Wild, Arborio, Basmati, yellow, white and brown
Sugar: White, brown, raw or turbinado.
Yeast, fast or instant
Canned goods:
Anchovies... yes, trust me. they are useful for more than pizza topping. Available in a can or jar. The jar can be resealed & kept in the door of fridge after opening.
Beans, canned: Cannellini, garbanzo, Pinto, Red, black and baked.
Broth or stock: Beef, chicken, seafood and vegetable.
Evaporated milk: low-fat or fat-free available
Greek black olives, green olives stuffed with pimientos
Pimientos, diced, in jar
Roasted Peppers, red or yellow
Tomatoes: Crushed, whole, diced, fire roasted, stewed, sauce and paste
Tuna: packed both in oil and in water
Fresh stuff:
Potatoes: red, Idaho, dutch baby and sweet, just to name a few. Keep track of these and use them before they spoil. Potatoes can be added to scrambled eggs, roasted in oven, mashed or fried. You can even make gnocchi, (pasta dumplings) out of them.
Onions: sweet or yellow. shallots, garlic... don't store these with the potatoes. They're not good neighbors.

parTAY: 6 easy tips for a memorable event

     If you are planning an event larger that you've ever done, remember these key steps.
First, relax and breathe. You'll do just fine. Now, let's plan:
     Make up your mind now to enjoy yourself. Follow a few simple steps, be ready for the unexpected and you'll be just fine.
     Everything I have learned to do has been by trial and error... and I do mean lots of error. And remember that the World won't stop turning, even if things go horribly wrong. Hahaha... don't you feel better?
     First, after planning the date, location and time, identify the reason for this event. Come up with a THEME. Some of you theme lovers out there are doing a little happy dance right now, aren't you?
     Now, mentally study your guest list. Who are they? How well do you know them and their food preferences? Are there vegans or allergy sufferers on that list? Plan your MENU accordingly. Consider the current season of the year as well.
     Utilize free food websites and food blogs for menu and planning ideas. Food Network has menus grouped by type of event already made up. Their expertise can make your life so much easier! If you need to enlarge a recipe, go to allrecipes.com or just do the math. 
     Next, get out your recipes and write the ingredients down in list form. This way, you can be ready to go shopping. Take inventory of what you have on hand to avoid duplicating. This will save money while rotating pantry staples.
     Write out the quantities beside each item and where you plan to buy it. Consider items that are pre-made or easy to assemble, like salad mixes, frozen or bakery-made desserts. This gives you more time to concentrate on the main course.
    Set a day or two for SHOPPING. Consider where you will store items bought in advance. Around my house, freezer space is prime real estate! Do you have an extra fridge or freezer, or a trustworthy neighbor with a little room to spare?
     Make a TIMELINE, traveling from the present day, up to the date of the event. List tasks beginning with anything that could be made a month or so ahead and frozen, maybe part of the main course or a dessert.
     Work toward the date of the event, breaking down every job and maybe delegating a few things, if you can. Include everything on your timeline... sending invitations, housekeeping, decorating, setting the table and making YOURSELF party ready.
     Do you remember the old adage that said, "How do you eat and elephant?... One bite at a time?" Now that you have made your timeline, relax and follow the schedule. Breaking event tasks into tiny bits makes life more manageable.

     On the day of the event, remember to clean as you go. If you have someone to DELEGATE the serving and cleanup duties to, enlist them early in the planning stages. This will certainly pay off at the end of the day.
     I have hosted plenty of events that I never got to enjoy because I was refilling dishes or washing them. After enlisting some help, be sure to find some way to thank them afterward as well. A thank you note, a Starbucks gift card or volunteering to return the favor will be greatly appreciated.
     Leave time to DRESS prior to the event. No one will be impressed if you attend your own function looking like a scullery maid, disheveled and stained with the food you're serving.
     Fix your hair. Powder your nose and add some color to your face. Wear something clean and please... comfortable, but stylish shoes. 
 Now, go have fun! You deserve it, you fabulous thing, you!

inspector gadget

     If I was moving to a deserted island or required to make dinner in the sparsely appointed kitchen of a student's first apartment, here is a minimal list of tools I would want to have with me. The knives are first for a reason. Have you ever tried to prepare anything without a good knife? You may as well chew the item apart with your teeth! The other stuff is in no particular order... I just really love each of them:
Find really, really good and sharp knives. Spend as much as you can afford. I frequent discount stores like Homegoods, T.J Maxx and Marshall's searching for good deals on professional knives.
Never, never, ever put them in the dishwasher and as I have recently learned, don't let them lay around in a drawer, beating each other up. A restaurant supply store sells magnetic knife holders. I got mine for Christmas and still wonder how I ever survived without it! I love it SO much, I bought one for the church kitchen, as well.
Isn't it nifty?
A microplane can do the duty of several gadgets. It can zest citrus, grate nutmeg, fresh garlic and hard cheeses, such as Parmesan.
Silicone spatulas can scrape cake batter out of a bowl and also be used in a non-stick pan to make an omelet. They generally withstand heat up to 500 degrees without melting. 
I will not go back to the old, melty plastic ones.
A nice rolling pin. Get one that is a solid piece of wood. It can be used to roll out various types of dough, biscuits or shortbread and pie crusts, but also used to pound out a chicken breast or piece of veal (wrapped in plastic) to make a scallopini. If you are the owner of a refrigerator sans ice maker, it can also be used to crush ice by placing cubes in a gallon zipper bag and beating them with the pin. 
I found a couple at our local Homegoods for around four dollars.
A nonstick skillet or saute pan is indispensable for everything from breakfast pancakes to midnight fritattas and everything in between with a minimum amount of clean-up. You could cook almost anything in it, if you had to.
I love flexible cutting boards. I have several wooden ones including one made of bamboo and an old one my dad made out of a scrap of wood from an old church pew. These bendy boards work well for saving your countertops, and for moving cut food from counter to stove or dish.
What are your favorites? 

Roast Beef and Herb-cheese sammies

     Remember the herbed cheese spread I gave you the recipe for a while back? Well, it is good for more than just slathering on a baguette. I like to make a sandwich of rare, thinly sliced roast beef, tomatoes, arugula or spinach and broccoli sprouts, spreading the toasted bread with the herb cheese first, instead of the usual mayo.
     The wrap pictured below is a Joseph's flatbread, spread with herb cheese and topped with a handful of julienned carrots, some arugula leaves and three thin of slices of Boar's Head London Broil Roast Beef.
     It was what I had on hand at lunchtime. No rules. No worries. The garlic-ky roast beef, peppery arugula, sweet carrots and creamy cheese made for one fabulous sammie! Mmmmm.
For each sandwich you will need:
bread of choice
3-4 thin slices of rare roast beef
small amount of herb-cheese spread, like rondele, or homemade
Any of the following:
arugula or spinach leaves
sliced tomatoes
broccoli sprouts
shredded carrots
bacon slices, cooked
Toast bread.  Spread room temperature herb-cheese on bread.  Top with remaining ingredients of choice.  Cut in half and serve.
     You can really choose any type of bread. I've used flatbread, pita, ciabatta and pumpernickel. They are equally yummy. You can toast it or enjoy it cold. You can grill it to make a panino or wrap it up!
     Toppings are personal as well. Tomatoes, carrots, arugula, bacon? Whatever you decide. A dollop of spicy mustard would be lovely. Or a zesty horseradish cream. Come on... get creative!

Little Turkey Sammies with Cranberry-Honey Mustard

     The first time I made these, I was attempting to feed a bunch of ravenous VBS workers. We had quite a bit of donated dinner rolls on hand, plus turkey and cheese. I remembered that I had a can of whole berry cranberry sauce. I wanted to make a sauce that would go with turkey. Well, we all know what good friends turkey and cranberry are.
     This recipe will feed a crowd or one hungry teen-aged boy. If you are making just one sandwich, the sauce can be kept in the refrigerator for quite a long time. I have also made paninis and grilled turkey burger sliders, topped with cheese and this sauce... mmm! I suspect it would be a lovely relish to serve with a grilled pork loin... hmmm, dinner idea!
1 pkg. small, soft dinner rolls or sliced bread
1 pound sliced turkey
1/2 pound sliced cheese, sharp provolone or swiss
1 can whole-berry cranberry sauce
1 bottle honey mustard
Place a couple of slices of turkey on each roll.  Mix can of cranberry sauce with half of honey mustard.  Add more mustard to your own taste.  Spread on sandwiches and serve.
This is a great way to use leftover Thanksgiving items, like turkey, rolls and cranberry sauce.