Thursday, December 31, 2009

Food Traditions

Growing up, my Grandmother was in charge of New Year's Day dinner. It was a tradition that could be counted on each year like clockwork. My Grandmother was a first generation American raised by German parents and surrounded by German relatives. Through this holiday meal, she shared with us, the traditions that her parents taught her "from the old country".

Dinner was always a pork roast (luck), sauerkraut (gelt), mashed potatoes with gravy, spinach (wealth) and apple sauce (health). Once all the food was on the table, my Grandmother would remind us that each of the items on the table held a special significance for the coming year. The pork was for luck. The sauerkraut represented gelt or money. The spinach was for wealth. Grandma doubled up there to make sure we were covered. Apples were to ensure good health. I cannot remember what the mashed potatoes and gravy were there for except that she always served mashed potatoes and gravy with her meals. No matter how many times she told us, we were always asking the same question each year -- "what does spinach represent?", "what is the sauerkraut for?", etc.

For the turn of the century, my husband and I were in Germany. In the back of my mind, I was expecting to find that my traditional New Year's meal was an American amalgamation of German tradition kind of like corned beef and cabbage to the Irish -- not really something they ate in the home land. I was surprised to find how close my Grandmother came to the traditions on saw on menus and all around me. It was comforting to know that despite some interpretations, our family meal was true to the culture from which it came.

My Grandmother is no longer with us. Sadly, lung cancer took her in 2002. But, she is always with me. Especially on New Years. As I shopped for my holiday groceries, I couldn't help but think about all the New Year's Days when she was standing in the kitchen making her gravy and talking about the New Year's Days gone by with her family. Tomorrow, I will again, honor her memory with my meal. Although, I do make some tweaks -- apple sauce is replaced by apple pie, red cabbage has been added to the menu this year, and I cook fresh spinach instead of the frozen chopped spinach loaded with butter that was a staple of her meal.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas from Ally's Kitchen to Yours!

Whether you celebrate this wonderful holiday or not, I hope that you are having a day filled with love and laughs. It's a holiday, so eat, drink and be merry!

This Christmas was not all about the kitchen. I did ask for a few non-kitchen items since a girl cannot live without some of those things that she won't always buy for herself.

One kitchen related item that am super excited about Santa bringing me is my new blender. I have been wanting this one for a while. I use my blender for lots of things like making soups, gravies and purees, so I need a heavy duty blender with a glass carafe. My current blender is still in good shape, but the plastic carafe has a huge crack. Need to replace that and put the one on the bar for those fun mixed drinks that you can't get enough of come summer time. So far, the blender looks great on my counter, but I haven't put it to work. I'll let you know what I think after I kick the tires, so to speak.

And, of course, I was blessed with some new editions to my cookbook obsession collection.

I plan on working through both of these great books in the coming month or two, so check back for updates on the recipes that I make and what I think about them.

I was particularly excited about The Pioneer Woman Cooks because it was autographed. I've been watching Ree's book tour schedule to see if she was coming to my area, but no such luck. So, when I put on my Christmas wish list that she was having a book signing near my parent's house, I didn't think much of it. But, to my surprise, my parents went and met her. They said she was super nice and told great stories. Here's Ree signing my book. Too bad, I didn't know that my Mom was going or I would have sent her with a few questions. Oh well, I guess that would have ruined the surprise after all.

Christmas dinner chez moi is a small affair. Just me and my guys - exactly how I like it! We're having Beef Wellington (Gordon Ramsay's recipe), oven roasted fingerling potatoes (my recipe) and Roasted Tomatoes (Barefoot Contessa's recipe). For dessert, it's Apple Crisp (my Grandmother's Pennsylvania Dutch recipe) served warm with fresh whipped cream.

I'm off to start cooking. Merry Christmas from Ally's Kitchen to Yours!

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Irish Oatmeal

Irish Oatmeal, porridge, pin head oats, steel cut oats -- so many names for such a wonderful way to start your day. For most of us in the US, McCann's is the brand we see in our local grocery store. The first time I bought a can of oats and cooked it up according to the directions, my oatmeal turned out chewy and the oats had a bit of a bite to them. I did everything that the directions suggested and couldn't understand what I did wrong.

In the Fall of 1999, I went to Ireland for the first time. We stayed in B&Bs and enjoyed Irish oatmeal at each location. One morning, I decided to ask the host her secret to the porridge. It was so creamy and wonderful that it had to contain heavy cream, half and half or at a minimum whole milk. I was surprised to learn that there was no dairy in there at all. She said that she always uses Odlums Oats. And she cooks them the night before. In the morning, she reconstitutes and cooks down a second time. It was such a simple answer. We hustled over to the local Tesco and bought a few bags of Odlums Oats to bring back home with us. I've since run out of Odlums and am back to the McCann's, but with the new technique in hand, my oatmeal turns out great every time. And since I do the majority of the cooking the night before, its easy to send my family off with a wonderful porridge breakfast on a weekday.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

I love a ba-raise!

Comfort food. Nothing conjures up more memories in the brain than comfort food. For me, comfort food involves two things... braised meat and mashed potatoes. Whether its pot roast, Beef Bourguignon or short ribs, for me, there is nothing like meat cooked for hours at low heat in a wonderful gravy served over mashed potatoes (horseradish or garlic preferably). It starts with the smells wafting through the air of the preparation -- onions and garlic sauteing in butter -- yummy! Then, the aroma coming from the kitchen as the braise works it magic. Culminating in that wonderful, warm and homey meal.

When I braise, I turn to my trusty Le Creuset dutch oven. I prefer the way that the cast iron maintains the heat and is seasoned just right from many a meal cooked before it. I know I've recently gone on about the right tool for the job and all, but I started braising in my dutch oven before I had a braiser and it just works for me. So I stick with it.

The funny thing about braising is that I was doing it long before I knew what it was called. My Grandmother used to make her famous "Beef Cubes". She took stew beef that she browned and then cooked in a gravy for hours until the meat was fork tender. She also made a Beef Burgundy that ran a close second in my book. My Grandmother was a product of the depression and raised in a German household. Her cooking was simple and not very inventive, but she cooked with love and I have fond memories of many of her meals. Before she passed away, I asked her to teach me how to make her "Beef Cubes" and that has been the foundation of my Beef Stew, Beef Tips and Beef Bourguignon. This recipe is the foundation of my braising repetoire.

Oil (olive, canola, whatever you prefer that can stand high heat)
Small onion, finely chopped
A few cloves of garlic, minced
Stew beef (enough to feed your crowd, I usually use about 1 pound for my family)
1 Tablespoon of flour
Beef broth

  1. Cover the bottom of a braiser or dutch oven with oil. Just enough to cover the bottom of the pan. Be sparing. Cook over high heat until oil is heated through.
  2. Add chopped onions to the pan and cook until translucent.
  3. Add minced garlic and cook briefly. Just until it becomes fragrant.
  4. Add beef and cook until brown all over.
  5. Add flour and stir until flour absorbs liquid in pot.
  6. Add enough beef broth to cover the meat and stir to form a sauce.
  7. Bring to a boil and then reduce heat to low and let simmer for a few hours with the pot covered.
There's the foundation! Here's where the recipes will diverge.
  • For Grandma's tradition, beef cubes, I add salt, pepper and paprika and let it go.
  • For Beef Bourguignon, I add pinot noir or burgundy, thyme and mushrooms to the above.
  • For Beef Stew, I start from Grandma's and add veggies
And, on and on, and on... The possibilities are limited to your imagination and your palette.

Monday, December 7, 2009

A Favorite Kitchen Tool

I love my mandoline. I am seriously in love with this tool. Mine looks a bit different, but this Oxo tool gives you an idea, if you have no idea what I am talking about.

When I first asked for one, I was told by a foodie friend that it was a waste of money. Because it's only good for stir fry veggies. Oh contraire, mon ami! It's the best tool I have for slicing all kinds of veggies. I've even used it to slice garlic into thin slices. This morning, I used it to slice potatoes for home fries and while I was at it I sliced the onions that went in there, too. Cucumber salad would not be the same without it!

Don't get me wrong, I have a knife set and some pretty good knife skills, but I'm human. My slices are not always thin enough or uniform enough for my purposes. That's when I whip out that mandoline and slice away. The adjustable settings make it great for paper thin slices to chip size chunks.

Whenever I feel like my family is not eating enough veggies, I break out the mandoline and my favorite veggie recipes and get creative.

If your kitchen is without a mandoline, I recommend you run to your nearest kitchen store and pick one up.

Kitchen Tools

I absolutely love buying kitchen tools. Nothing makes me happier than having the right tool for the job. Every year, my Christmas wish list is chock full of new things I want for my kitchen. More is more is my philosophy in so many ways. But, especially when it comes to the tools of my art. Alton Brown says that the only uni-tasker you should have in a kitchen is a fire extinguisher. Clearly Alton has not stood in a kitchen store because when faced with the plethora of choices, who doesn't need a zester that creates strips and one that just zests. Or a lemon press, lime press and orange press. OK, I exaggerate a bit on the presses, but you take my meaning.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Tomato, Tomahto, Let's Call the Whole Thing Sauce

For a long time, I bought jarred tomato sauce and wished I knew how to make it from scratch. I was convinced that it must be complicated with recipes handed down through the generations. Oh, was I so very wrong. Once I made it, I never went back. It's easy and tastes so much better than anything from a jar.

One of the big topics in my house related to tomato sauce was how much sugar was in it. Tomatoes are acidic, so it stands to reason that you would need to cut the acid with something. I grew up near Philadelphia, so I've heard many old world tricks like stirring with a wooden spoon at just the right time, but no one could tell me when just the right time was. "You'll just know it" was a common response. One recipe I looked at called for baking soda to cut the acidity, but that just didn't sit well with me.

My tomato sauce is at it's most basic. It's just a few ingredients which means that there really isn't anywhere for something to hide. To that end, I use whole, canned San Marzano plum tomatoes. These are the ones I prefer to use, but in a pitch I have used other brands.

A word about herbs, in a pinch, I use dried herbs, but I much prefer using fresh. As a matter of fact, I keep pots of basil and oregano year round so that I can cut my own and save money on the expensive little packages at the grocery store.

Oh, yeah and when I make sauce, I make it for a crowd. That way I have plenty of left over sauce for other uses or meals in a minute.

Ally's Quick and Easy Tomato Sauce
3 large cans San Marzano Whole Plum Tomatoes
2 large stalks of celery with leaves removed, finely diced (I use my food processor to cut)
2 large carrots (or a hand full of baby carrots), finely diced (I use my food processor to cut)
Olive oil (not Extra Virgin)
A few cloves of garlic (this is a matter of taste), minced
10 - 20 basil leaves (this is a matter of taste and size of leaves), chopped
5 sprigs of oregano (this is a matter of taste), chopped
Salt (I use Kosher Salt)

The steps:
  1. Heat a dutch oven over medium high heat.
  2. Pour in enough Olive Oil to cover the bottom of the pan.
  3. When heated, add the carrots and celery and cook until soft.
  4. Add minced garlic and let cook for a few minutes, as soon as the garlic becomes fragrant, it's time to add the tomatoes.
  5. Add the liquid from the cans and then crush the whole tomatoes by hand into the pan.
  6. Add herbs and stir.
  7. Season with salt and pepper
  8. Once the sauce comes to a boil, reduce the heat and maintain a simmer until desired thickness.
Typically, my sauce cooks for 30 minutes, but I have been known to let it go for up to an hour. Its not an exact science here. Tomatoes can vary in water content, so you need to go by the consistency that you desire.

Disclaimer: My Recipes

I'm a HUGE collector of recipes. I devour them. I learn them inside and out and then adapt them. But, once I have devoured and adapted the recipe, the precise measurements go out the window. So, when I do provide a recipe, there may be some approximations or some gray areas. I'll try to minimize them. With that out of the way, let's get cooking!

Welcome to my kitchen!

Hi! I'm Ally. Just your average stay at home with a small child and a desperate need to feed my creative side. Some artists work in oils or charcoals, I like to think that my medium is food. I love to cook, bake, discover wines and entertain. I'm that friend that invites you over just so I can try out new recipes on you.

For fun, I collect cookbooks. At this point, I've lost count of how many I have. But, suffice it to say that when a friend needs a recipe or idea for something, I'm usually the first place that they call.

I hope you will stop by my kitchen regularly where we can talk about anything and usually do.
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