Thursday, March 31, 2011

Birthday by Mail

My darling niece and soon to be goddaughter, recently celebrated her 2nd birthday.  Since I live so far away and couldn't attend her party, I decided to make a special care package filled with all of her favorite things.  I made it a point to ask ahead of time what my niece was currently interested in, so that her uncle could get exactly what she wanted.  My inquisitive, adorable, smart and energetic niece is all about Curious George right now.  She loves to have books read to her and is so attentive when  you do, so I thought what better way to celebrate her special day? 
This is Audrey as Snow White.
Absolutely adorable!

This was her birthday by mail package.  In the box I tucked in several Curious George books, some PBS DVDs that she enjoys watching and an adorable Curious George monkey doll.  Baked to order and packaged in clear cellophane bags, were my Oatmeal Cookies and a batch of Cranberry Coins that she simply loves. 

You don't need me to tell you that she enjoyed and loved everything in this box.  Although she's only allowed a cookie every now & then, I take great pride in being able to bake her the best of the very best.  Uncle David never skimps on his ingredients.  If you  have special little ones in your life that are celebrating a birthday, and you want to show them how much you care, take the time to arrange a box filled with, not only a gift or two, but also with something homemade.  They'll love you for it.  Happy Birthday Audrey! 

Much Love,
Uncle David

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Cranberry Coin Cookies

I made these refrigerator cookies last Christmas for my extended family and my dear niece quickly became an aficionado of them.  The recipe comes from a Martha Stewart Holiday 2010 publication and I've since made them several times.  Dried cranberries are among my favorite things because they are tart, tangy, chewy and so good.  Although this recipe doesn't call for it, I like to add 2 teaspoons of freshly grated orange zest.  Cranberries and orange complement each other wonderfully.  The nice thing about this type of cookie dough is that you can freeze it ahead of time and slice & bake it whenever the mood strikes you. 

Here's the cookie dough all finished.   Even though I use a stand mixer, I still like to give my dough a final
stir with a large spatula.  I want every slice to have a good amount of cranberries.

The dough is divided among 2 pieces of plastic wrap.

I pull the wrap over the dough and press firmly with the palms of my hands as I roll it into a log.  What you want to have is a log that is the same circumference from tip to tip.  Twist the plastic wrap at the ends to seal shut.

The inner tube from a spent paper towel roll gets split open and I place my dough in it.  As the dough chills, it will retain its rounded shape instead of flattening out on one side.  I learned this from Dorie Greenspan.  A very good thing.

Again, I took some liberties here with this recipe.  Roll the chilled dough in a dish filled with fine or coarse sanding sugar until completely coated.  This gives the cookies crunch and a lot of sparkle. 

Here they are cooling on a rack.  Their texture is delicate, melt-in-your-mouth and their taste is sweet and tart all at the same time.

Indeed, these are wonderful to make for the Christmas season because of their festive red color, but they're delicious any time of year.  I hope you give these cookies a try for your kids or nieces and nephews.  Not only is this an easy cookie to make, it's a wonderful cookie to have in the cookie jar.  Cheers!

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Oatmeal Cookies

There are so many versions of oatmeal cookies out there, that I usually have a hard time choosing a favorite.  A good oatmeal cookie has to have dried fruit (almost always raisins) and no nuts for me.  Chocolate chips in my oatmeal cookies?  I don't need them, but they're a nice touch.  This version has dried cranberries, dried apricots and some spicy candied ginger.  Whenever I make a batch to share with friends or family members, they always give me that puzzled look and ask me what's in them.  As soon as I say candied ginger, they pay attention.  Try making these and see if you can eat just one.  I'm not so sure you will. 

The Ingredients
  • 1 1/2 cups rolled oats (not instant), coarsely ground
  • 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1 cup dried cranberries, chopped
  • 1/2 cup dried apricots, chopped
  • 4 tablespoons candied ginger, finely chopped
  • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
  • 3/4 cups packed light brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs, room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Preheat your oven to 350° F

In a large bowl, sift your flour, baking powder, salt & cinnamon.  Add your coarsely ground oatmeal and all of the dried fruit.  Mix well.  In a separate bowl, beat your butter and sugar until creamy and well mixed (either using a stand or handheld mixer).  Add your eggs one at a time and beat until the mixture is no longer slick.  Add your vanilla and slowly add your dry ingredients.  Mix thoroughly, but don't overbeat.

This is what your cookie dough will look like.  So chock-full of good things.

On a silpat or parchment lined baking sheet, portion out your dough using a 1" ice cream scoop and space about 2" apart.  Dip the bottom of a flat glass in some water and flatten out the cookies just slightly.

Pop them into your preheated oven and bake for approximately 14-16 minutes or until they're slightly browned around the edges.  No darker!

Yield: Shy of 3 dozen cookies.

These oatmeal cookies are a bit more sophisticated than the ones your used to.  Trust me, though, when I tell you that they are absolutely and positively addictive.  If you're like me, you're going to want to make a second batch to give to your friends and relatives.  These cookies are sure to please kids of all ages.  Enjoy making them!  

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

My Favorite Roast Chicken

Roast chicken is something I really love to eat and it's something I really love to make.  This recipe is one that I turn to quite often because my family loves it.  The bird always comes out juicy and succulent, never dry and tough.  One thing I strongly recommend is that you buy a free-range, organic chicken from a reputable butcher.  I'm lucky to have several sources, including my local Whole Foods, so I tend to make this dish several times a month.  The great thing about this recipe is that it can be customized to your family's liking.  Add some spices to give it some zip, tuck in some herbs underneath the skin or change the citrus to a lime or orange if you wish.  Let's begin!


 The Ingredients
  • Organic free-range chicken (3 1/2 to 4 lbs.)
  • One large onion peeled and sliced into rounds
  • 4 sprigs of Italian flat leaf parsley
  • 1 lemon well washed
  • 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter (room temperature)
  • salt and pepper
Rinse the chicken under cool water, pat dry and let it sit out at room temperature for 30 minutes.  Preheat your oven to 350° F.  Line the bottom of your roasting pan or other oven-proof dish with your sliced onions and place the chicken on top.  Lift the skin from each breast and tuck a teaspoon of butter on each side, along with some salt & pepper.  Massage it in very well.  Salt and pepper the cavity and tuck in the sprigs of parsley.  With the heel of your hand, roll your lemon on the counter back & forth (this helps release the juice) and then pierce it about 20 times with a paring knife.  Stuff it in the cavity. 
Rub the remaining butter all over the chicken (if it's at room temperature it will smear nicely) and salt and pepper well.  Truss your chicken and tuck the wing tips underneath.  Don't forget to salt and pepper the onions.
The chicken is ready to be put into the preheated oven.  I'm using a 12" stainless steel All-Clad frying pan for this.
As soon as you put the chicken in the oven, set your timer for one hour.  After the hour is up, immediately raise the oven temperature to 400° F  and set your timer for 20 minutes.  The higher temperature will brown & crisp the skin beautifully. 

Remove the chicken & test for doneness.  An instant-read thermometer inserted into the thickest part of the thigh should read 180° F according to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.  I take it out at 170° F because it will continue to cook as it sits.  
The chicken should rest for 10-15 minutes before you carve into it.  While it sits, I treat myself to a chicken wing, some onion slices and a glass of wine.  It's my weakness!

I hope my family's favorite roast chicken soon becomes one of yours.  Leftovers can be made into a number of dishes like my Fried Rice or some chicken salad.  When you're done picking the bones clean, place them in a freezer bag and save them for making my Chicken Stock 101.  You'll be glad you did. Cheers and bon appetit everyone!

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Spring Birthday Tablesetting

We had a small birthday luncheon for my mother-in-law last weekend and I'd like to share with you some of the little things that made it special.  With the menu already in place, it was time to decide how to set our table.  The color green, in keeping with the arrival of spring, quickly became my theme.  Walking around the house, with all the snowdrops blooming and with many patches of moss in the woodland, I began to think of ways to arrange them.  I also wanted a bit of bright color, so I bought some daffodils from my local florist and began from there.  This is what I did.

Moss was gently placed in soil-filled cafe au lait bowls.  Use a small bristle brush to remove any stray dirt and water your moss immediately.  You'll notice that the daffodils are sitting in tepid water awaiting their turn.  My snowdrops were perfect by themselves.

The daffodils (they were less than $2/doz.) were measured with a ruler, so that they came up just over the rim of my little vase.  I looked for flowers with closed buds & green, healthy stalk tips.  The vase should be filled with tepid water and plant food (or a bit of sugar).

I set them aside as I began arranging the table.  The linens were pressed, the glassware was chosen and my silverware was taken out.

Here's an overview of the table.  The tablecloth was a minty green linen, the napkins were an olive green cotton, the napkin rings were Italian alabaster, the silverware was mismatched and the plates were Wedgwood white bone china.

Within hours, the daffodils began to open up just in time for our guests.  I placed them in the middle and arranged the snowdrops and moss down the length of the table.

Here's a closeup.  The salt & pepper cellars were filled and the glassware was sparkling.

The Menu:
Lemon Chicken Cutlets with Capers & Sherry
Steamed Asparagus
Herbed Orzo with Sundried Tomatoes & Kalamata Olives
Spring Salad with My Signature Vinaigrette
Red Velvet Cake with Cream Cheese Frosting

When making flower arrangements for the table, please keep in mind that they should be at or below eye level, no higher.  Tall flower arrangements are dramatic, but not good for conversation across your table.  As you can see, I'm not fussy about having everything match.  One of the fun aspects of setting a table is being able to mix textures, colors and materials.  Let the season dictate what you're going to serve and how you're going to present it.  By the way, remember to have fun in the process!   

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Snowdrops & Crocuses

As I was walking the grounds the other day, I came across a swath of crocuses & snowdrops along our driveway.  I was so pleased that these harbingers of spring had decided to flower now.  Although it's still technically winter, seeing these flowers scattered among the maples, locusts, ash trees and lindens made me hunger for spring.  After such a brutal winter with so much snow, any type of color is always a welcoming sight.  Take a look.  

The lavender-hued crocuses are blooming everywhere around our house.  This picture was taken on March 5th.
The crocuses vary in color from lavender to pale pink.  You can see that the leaves from last fall have not inhibited blooming.

Here in my hand is a pale mauve, single flower.  Simply beautiful!

Here is a closeup of a quartet showing their vivid yellow stamens.  These woodland varieties are spring-flowering, Series Verni, Crocus tommasinianus. 

Just look at these snowdrops (Galanthus) with their delicate, pendulous flowers.  Snowdrops are members of the Amaryllis family and they flower before the vernal equinox.

(Photo taken March 5th)

Here is a small patch of these flowering beauties underneath some partial shade from our maples.

You can see just how small these really are.  The flowers are held by a very delicate pedicel which causes them to droop.

A few of these are just beginning to open up.  The outer tepals open and reveal an inner flower which is marked with green tips.  Believe it or not, these flowers actually have a very delicate fragrance.

If you want to have these beautiful flowers around your house in the spring, you really should plant them in the fall.  Crocus bulbs do well in sunny spots and under deciduous trees.  They like good draining soil and should be planted 2 to 3 inches deep into the ground, with about 2 to 4 inches of space between the bulbs.  If you want a swath of them, simply dig a trench and begin placing your bulbs accordingly.  Snowdrops like shaded areas and soil with good drainage (remember, they will be dormant from late spring through the summer).  Unlike crocuses, though, the bulbs can be placed in groups of one to two dozen and should be planted about 5 inches into the ground.  Check with your local nursery and see what varieties of crocuses and snowdrops are available for your area.  These flowers are definitely a great addition to your home and make the arrival of spring a very good thing!

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Storing Silverware

For the longest time I did not take the storage of my silverware seriously.  To be perfectly honest with you, I was keeping my flatware in boxes that were tucked away in a closet.  I came to realize that this was no way to care for my silver, because I simply wasn't enjoying it.  Nowadays, I like storing my silverware in drawers because it gives me access to them at a moment's notice.  When I decided to seriously tackle this problem, I was reminded of what Martha did at her former Westport, Connecticut home, Turkey Hill.  She had a large kitchen island with built-in drawers where the silverware was stored.  Although I don't have that in my kitchen, there were some drawers that were suited for this task. 

These Shaker-style drawers were perfect.

I pulled those boxes out from my closet and began organizing by pattern and type.

I measured the interior of my drawer and cut some felt to line the bottom.  You can put pieces of velcro underneath the fabric so that your felt is anchored, but it isn't absolutely necessary.

These are large British spoons that I began placing along the edge.  It makes a lot of sense to alternate their placement in order to maximize the space.

This drawer is almost full.  You don't want to overcrowd your silverware.

These pieces are plain stainless steel, but they're nice enough to care for in the same manner.

One last thing I like to do is place another piece of felt with the same measurements, over the entire drawer. 
This is optional.

Having my silver placed like this makes me want to use it more often.  If you have your silverware in their original boxes, by all means keep them there if you want.  Just make sure that you do use your silver on a regular basis and enjoy doing so.  This will not only reduce tarnish, it will also make even the most casual meal a bit more pleasant and special.  Cheers!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Caring for Silver

As I was going through some of my silverware this week, I noticed that a few of my cream soup spoons had a bit of tarnish on them.  It's always a good idea to wash and buff the pieces in question just to make sure.  After doing so, you may not even need to polish them at all.  Realizing that these pieces weren't going to get any better, I decided to polish them gently and effectively.  I didn't need to use a cream or compound agent for these spoons.  Let me show you what I did. 

The lip underneath this spoon shows some tarnish.  Although this isn't harmful in the least, it is a bit unsightly and not suitable for the table.

These poor spoons were indeed ready to be taken care of.  If your silverware is forged from a single piece, you can employ this method.

Place the silver in an aluminum pan (this is a square cake pan) and settle it at the bottom of your sink.  Don't overcrowd your pieces and don't overlap them.

Note: the pan has to be aluminum for this to work.

Sprinkle between 1/4 cup to 1/2 cup of baking soda all over the silver.  Bring a kettle of water to a boil.

Just to illustrate, this fork & knife have a shoulder that connects the mother-of-pearl handle to the silver tines & blade.  If you have silver pieces with several components to them, it's best to use a cream polish such as Maas

Using this method that I'm showing you will damage them.

Carefully pour the boiling water into the pan to completely cover the pieces.  I strongly recommentd that you do this in the sink to minimize splashing. You may detect a bit of an odor.

Note: this may discolor the pan a bit.

In less than a minute or so, you will begin to see the tarnish completely disappear.  Pour cold water into the pan.  When they're cool enough to handle, remove the silverware and rinse off any remaining baking soda that didn't dissolve.  Buff dry with a clean, white cotton towel.

This is what you'll end up with.  Don't these look much nicer than what I started with?  A very good thing indeed.

The next time you look at your silverware, determine whether or not it needs to be cleaned.  As I've stated above, if your pieces require a cream polish, do it gently and follow the established pattern of your silverware.  Make sure you remove all of the compound in soapy water before buffing dry.  Do this ahead of time so that you're prepared and not rushed.  One way I have found of keeping tarnish to a minimum, is by using my silver on a regular basis.  There is no need to wait for the holidays to bring out those heirloom pieces.  Start enjoying them now! 

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Spring Robins

One of the first things I look forward to in the spring is the arrival of the robins (Turdus Migratorius).  These cheerful songbirds become less visible during the fall and winter because of their roosting.   Once the weather starts getting warmer, though, they branch out and begin appearing on people's lawns in search of food.  I happened to be looking out my window this morning, when I noticed a small flock of robins hopping & bopping around the house.  There is still some snow on the ground and the crocuses are not out yet, but the birds are hungry and out in full force.  Last year, we seemed to have had a large number of robins around the property & I certainly hope that this year will be the same.  

Here's a cute little one on my lawn.

These two robins are sunning themselves on the glade
behind our house.  You can see that we still have a
lot of spring cleanup to do.

This one was pecking the ground in search of worms.
Against the trunk of this locust tree, the crocuses are
just starting to come out.  I can't wait!

Just look at this robin's orange breast.  Isn't it gorgeous?

These two decided to move to another spot.  Their
cheerful singing is such a pleasure to hear.

 The snow was no problem for this robin.  In fact,
I saw him pecking at it for a little drink of water.

I'm proud that the robins around our home have a pesticide-free environment.  Many people spray harmful chemicals on their lawns to keep them green and it's a practice I strongly advise against.  From berries to insects and worms, these birds will have no shortage of food this year.  I'm going to keep my eyes peeled for the other birds that make our home their very own.  Stay tuned!