Category Archives: Potluck-Friendly

GAME DAY CHILI

Every once in a while, we human beings are bold enough to take an idea, a possibility, a “what if” or a “hmm, could we?” and allow it to germinate in our mind, to take us over, to use us and pull us into creation mode.  Then, if we’re crazy enough, we begin to speak our idea aloud—we tell other people, they tell other people.  And before we know it, we are wed to the thing, we are given by it, we find ourselves sitting at the kitchen table (right, Julie?) in our pajamas, working and working but the work almost doesn’t feel like work.  Or at the very least it feels like the right kind of work to be doing.

For me, I find it’s all too easy to watch the news, to read the paper, to look at the world and think “I wish I could help,” to feel deeply for the suffering of others and then put that all aside and move on.  But not Julie van Rosendaal.  She created something, a beautiful something, something I am very proud to be a part of:

Inside this cookbook, you’ll find recipes and gorgeous photographs from some of the best chefs and bloggers on the internet, a group in which I’m honored to be included.  While the book was put together in record time (just under three weeks!), it’s lost absolutely nothing in terms of quality.  Preview a handful of the pages online; they’re gorgeous.

You can purchase the soft cover edition for $25, the hardcover for $50.  Every penny raised from sales will go straight to earthquake relief efforts in Haiti, via the Canadian Red Cross & Doctors Without Borders.

I think the Blog Aid cookbook would make a great birthday, housewarming, wedding, Mother’s or Father’s Day gift.  Or just buy it as a statement of faith, a vote on the side of hope and good work, a testament to the fact that one woman’s idea can become food in a child’s mouth, medicine for a wounded man, glossy cookbook pages you hold in your hand.

GAME-DAY CHILI (among other Superbowl food ideas)

I hardly ever make chili the same way twice—depending upon what’s in my pantry, spice cabinet, freezer, & fridge, all kinds of meats and seasonings have made their way into the pot.  Don’t be afraid to mix meats—pork, venison, beef—and change up the type of beans you use (if you use beans at all).  If you have a crock pot or slow cooker, now is the time to drag it out!  It serves perfectly for chili-making.  Don’t worry if you don’t have one, though, you can still brew up some perfectly good chili the old-fashioned, stovetop way.

Every chili has some “signature moves”—mine are dark beer, cinnamon, & a little cocoa powder.  All three of these do a little something to the flavor…you can’t pinpoint what you’re tasting, but it tastes good.  Mushrooms may seem like a strange ingredient, but they bump up the “meatiness” quotient of the chili without you actually having to add meat at all.  Control the heat to match your own preference, and bear in mind that big pots of chili usually get hotter after a day or two in the fridge!

ingredients:

2 lb. ground sirloin

1 cup chopped crimini or white mushrooms

1 onion, diced

3 carrots

3-4 cloves garlic, minced

1 serrano or 2 minced jalapeño peppers (if you like/can handle the heat!)

4 T chili powder

1 T cocoa powder

1 tsp. chipotle chili powder

1 tsp. allspice

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

½ tsp. cayenne pepper

½ tsp. cinnamon

4 cups beef stock

1 dark beer (I used Negra Modelo)

1 28-oz. can fire-roasted, crushed tomatoes

2 14-oz cans kidney beans (but only if their presence won’t offend your sensibilities)

2 T Worcestershire sauce

2 T chipotle peppers in adobo sauce

1 dried ancho chile (you could certainly use another type)

a few dashes of liquid smoke

vegetable oil

potential accompaniments: white rice, spaghetti, tortilla chips, Fritos, cornbread, cheddar cheese, sour cream, scallions

Mix all of the spices in a small bowl.  Bring a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan over medium-high heat, then  brown the meat, in batches if necessary.  As you cook the meat, add in some of the spice mixture to each batch.

Once the meat has browned, transfer to a crock pot or large, heat-proof bowl.  Drain most but not all of the accumulated fat—swirl in a little vegetable oil, then sauté the onions and garlic for a 3-4 minutes before adding the carrots & mushrooms.

If using a crock pot or slow cooker, once the vegetables are soft, add them to the beef.  Pour in all of the remaining ingredients and cover, cooking for full cycle or at least two hours before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

If cooking on the stove, return the meat to the pot and add the remaining ingredients.  Bring to a boil, then simmer for at least an hour before serving.  Check for spices & salt.

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CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE

I don’t buy the theory that everything happens for a reason.

crumb cake slice cut out

After watching my father go from perfectly fine to totally incapacitated in the course of three weeks, after witnessing some of the best people I know be unable to conceive and carry a healthy baby, after being privy to the pretty hellish family backgrounds of some of my students, I’m extremely resistant to the line of thinking that asserts “there’s some good reason for this totally shitty thing that’s happening.”  In my world, shitty things just sometimes happen.

I do, however, believe that if something shitty should happen, you might as well find an angle on the situation from which you can learn something, be grateful for something, grow, and/or laugh.

So.  As you might imagine, I’m not very good at standing around and not doing things.  Not good at going to Costco with my best friend and letting her put everything in my cart and load everything into my car.  Not good at letting Jill do the cooking.  Not good at standing around at a Halloween party, unable to pour drinks.

I’m going to back to the doctor today, but I have to say the experience of the last few days has made me grateful and thoughtful.  I see now how accustomed I am to assessing my value via the things I can do: baking, helping, fixing, mailing packages, cleaning, grading, writing letters, blogging (which I’m doing anyway—shhhh!)

What I’ve been forced to realize is that, even if I never contributed another action in my life, I would still be loved.  I’d be valued and of importance.  I’d be useful simply for being myself.

And that’s a pretty big thing to get.

CRANBERRY VANILLA COFFEECAKE
ever-so-slightly adapted from Gourmet, December 2008

If your hands are in even slightly better shape than mine, MAKE THIS CAKE.  The food processor & stand mixer do most of the work, and this cake tastes like fall, nostalgia, home, & butter all rolled into one.  Fresh cranberries are readily available these days, but if you must, you can substitute thawed, frozen ones.

Because I prefer my breakfast cakes a bit tart, I’ve dialed back the sugar by a quarter cup from the original recipe and added a bit of lemon zest.  Feel free to go for a sweeter version if you’d like.

cake ingredients: crumb cake slice 2

½ a vanilla bean, split lengthwise
1 ½ cups sugar
1 cup cranberries
2 cups flour
2 tsp. baking powder
¾ tsp. salt
1 stick (½ cup) unsalted butter, softened
2 large eggs
½ cup whole milk
zest of one lemon

oven: 375°
pan: 9-inch round cake pan (I used a spring form)

Butter the pan & line the bottom of it with a round of parchment paper.  Butter the parchment, too.  Trust me.  It’s easier this way.

Use your food processor to make vanilla sugar: scrape the insides of the vanilla bean* into the bowl of the food processor along with the sugar.  Pulse to combine.

Remove vanilla sugar from bowl & reserve ¼ cup for the topping.  Pulse the cranberries with another ¼ cup of vanilla sugar until finely chopped.

To make the cake batter, whisk together the flour, baking powder, & salt.  Beat together the butter & remaining vanilla sugar (1 cup) until pale and fluffy.

Add the eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition.  Scrape down the bowl, then add the flour mixture & milk alternately.  Begin & end with the flour!

Stir in the lemon zest; be careful not to over-mix.

To assemble the cake, spread half of the batter in the pan (don’t worry if it looks a little thin).  Because the cranberries tend to give off a lot of water, use a slotted spoon to remove them from the food processor & spread them in a circle over the batter, leaving a slight border.

Top the cake layers with the remaining half of the batter (again, don’t worry if it looks thin!)  Top with the crumble—see below—and bake for 45-55 minutes.  The cake will pull away from the pan & become light brown.  If using a regular cake pan, cool at least 25 minutes before turning out the cake.  With a spring form pan, wait 15-20.

*Don’t throw away that vanilla bean half!  Save it for flavoring purposes, the simplest of which is to store it in a jam jar with some extra sugar, which you can then add to your coffee, tea, baked goods, etc.

crumble topping:

¼ cup vanilla sugar (see above)
1 T flour
1 T unsalted butter, softened

Blend the ingredients with your fingers & scatter over the top of the cake.

Cake will keep, well-wrapped, in the refrigerator for a week.

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MARINATED SALAD

I can’t take any credit for this recipe. All of it goes to Veena.

marinated salad top view

This is one of those dishes that acquires a following, the kind that makes people come back for seconds and beg a recipe card, the kind they start making themselves and hooking others onto. Like those charts they showed us in high school about how quickly & widely an STD can spread, only far less terrifying.

There’s nothing unlikeable about this dish (I know, Emma, I can hear you protesting—go ahead and leave out the capers, okay?)

a) You can make it ahead of time, in fact, in tastes much, much better that way.

b) It lasts an incredibly long time in the fridge.

c) Works equally well in all seasons.

d) Is dirt cheap.

e) OH YEAH, it’s also crazy-delicious & good for you.

I’ve served this alongside sandwiches and burgers, in the midst of a potluck spread, with pita & hummus, as an easy dinner-party vegetable. I bring it to work on a regular basis because it keeps so darn long and goes with almost anything else I decide on for lunch. This salad is also a great choice to make for a family who is grieving, just had a baby, or is in a similar state of overwhelm—you can provide a healthier counterpoint to the usually carb-and-cheese-laden dishes that tend to be delivered in such circumstances.

My mom’s been making this salad for as long as I can remember; the tradition in our family evolved such that we always had it on New Year’s Day, along with the equally famous shrimp creole (that’s coming this winter, ya’ll, don’t worry) & wild rice. Marinated salad works wonderfully alongside this main course, but also serves another purpose; allowing everyone to fulfill their black-eyed pea quotient in a tasty way.

If you are not familiar with the food commandments down here below the Mason-Dixon line, one very strong and non-negotiable one is that you must eat black eyed peas on the first day of the new year, or face twelve months of bad luck. For kids who were tortured by the taste, the compromise became one bean per month, but I’m pretty sure with this dish, you and/or your kids won’t have any trouble eating more than twelve peas.

MOM’S MARINATED SALAD

This is dead easy to make, I promise you can’t mess it up. Feel free to substitute fresh herbs for the dried or dried beans for the canned. You can also used canned corn instead of fresh, but since corn on the cob is so plentiful, cheap, & delicious right now, I recommend you go that route.

Any combination of beans will work, so throw in what you have on hand (cannelini beans are nice, as are pintos). Make sure not to use any with added salt or flavor. If you normally object to red onion, I heartily encourage you to try it here—the vinegar will cut much of the bite, and it just looks so much prettier than white or yellow would.

ingredients: marinated salad

1 can each:

dark red kidney beans

garbanzo beans (a.k.a. chickpeas)

black eyed peas

green beans*

2 ears’ worth of fresh corn kernels corn

1 small jar marinated artichoke hearts, roughly chopped

Drain the beans in a large colander & rinse. Transfer to a sizeable bowl, then add corn and artichoke hearts.  Heat the following in a small saucepan:

1 cup white vinegar

1 cup sugar

Once the sugar has fully dissolved and the mixture boils, remove from heat.

Stir in:

½ red onion, very thinly sliced

2 T capers

1 T dried parsley

1 T garlic powder (less if you aren’t a garlic fan)

1 tsp. chives, minced salt & pepper (be generous!)

Let the vinegar mixture sit for about 5 minutes, then pour over the vegetables. Mix thoroughly and then drizzle with a few tablespoons of olive oil. For the best taste, allow to sit on room temperature for 1 hour before serving or storing in the fridge for future use.

*If you want to use fresh green beans, you’ll need to blanch them first.

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: FRUIT SALAD

I grew up with a strange sense of family—if you ask me about them, I’ll say, “They’re all in India.  But my real family…” My parents have always been the only people I am related to by blood on the entire North American continent.  Actually, in the entire Western hemisphere.  There are relatives in India whom I feel close to, but they have always been a long plane ride or static-y phone call away.

fruit salad from the side

So my immediate sense of family has never been about blood or marriage, never about people to whom I was “actually” related. In fact, I’ve grown to kind of resent the implication that blood is somehow thicker than water, since all of my blood relatives lived two oceans away and didn’t know me.  Why do I need to be related to someone for them to be my family—and just because I am related to someone, what does that mean?  Why should I care about someone just because we share the same DNA?

My real family is the one my parents, then I, now Jill and I together, have chosen and created for ourselves.  I use the terms “sister,” “brother-in-law, “nephew,” freely, even though they don’t technically hold water.  Jill and I might not have a legal certificate that affirms such, but I have a mother-in-law who makes the best fried okra in the whole world, and a father-in-law who loves my chocolate cake.  These are the people who know me, who see me roundly and regularly, who have the authority and intimacy to nickname me and tease me.

In my book, adopted family is family, and so I proudly present this fruit salad, inspired by my best friend’s father, Bill, (also the father of our Blue Jean Sommelier), who in the last few years has become a kind of father to me and I am so grateful to him for it.  He’s generous and kind and loves food, so it’s truly as if we are related.

His is really a stellar, unusual take on fruit salad—tastes fresh, keeps well, and works with pretty much any combination of fruit (excepting bananas).  It’s a no-brainer in the summer, when the options are endless, but what I especially love about this recipe is that you can adapt it for the winter, using citrus, apples, even jicama for crunch.

BILL’S FRUIT SALAD

Bill says the key is to cut the fruit into smaller pieces, approximately half-inch cubes or slices.  I know halving the grapes may seem like a pain, but it makes a difference in the overall taste, I promise.  If you’re wary about the flavor of the crystallized ginger, feel free to cut back a bit.

Feel free to use any combination of fruit (adding mango, kiwi, orange segments) and keep in mind that this recipe double easily.

½ pineapple, cubed fruit salad from above

1 bunch green grapes, halved lengthwise

1 pint strawberries, hulled & quartered

1 pint of blackberries, whole

juice of 1 lime

2 T crystallized ginger, minced very finely*

½ cup sliced, NOT slivered almonds (Bill toasts his before adding them)

To start the salad, place the ginger in a big bowl with the lime juice—this will help distribute the ginger flavor throughout the salad.  Toss in all of the fruit and leave, covered, in the refrigerator for as long as you like.  Mix in the sliced almonds close to serving so they’ll keep their snap.

* I recently made my own crystallized ginger following this recipe and wow is it about 100 times more delicious than the storebought stuff (not to mention cheaper!)

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BLUEBERRY BOY BAIT

I confess: I have been selfish too long. I have kept these adorable dog pictures all to myself, but fear not! Today I rectify my mistake.

Behold, our Peanut Butter Dog Treat Giveaway winners:

Ares

That’s Ares, Christy‘s sweet puppy!

buster

meet Buster

maple

and Maple!  Both Canadian pups who live with Cheryl of the Backseat Gourmet.

I’m very pleased to report that all three recipient pups very much enjoyed their treats and strongly encourage you to make some for the beloved canine(s) in your life.

Now onto people food! This one could actually easily be part of the Summer Classics Series, because hey? What’s more summery & classic than an baked good with blueberries in it?

The thing is, though, and one of the reasons I LOVE THIS RECIPE is that it tastes just as good with frozen berries. Yup, true story. Especially if you buy lots of blueberries now, when they are cheap & delicious, freeze ‘em yourself, and use them all the winter long for smoothies, jam, & well, this.

blueberry boy squares

It’s got a funny name, too, right? According to Cook’s Country magazine, the original recipe dates back to 1954, when fifteen-year-old Adrienne Powell submitted it to a Pillsbury Baking Contest. She won second place and ostensibly man suitors, since the recipe is named for its effectiveness in capturing teenage boys’ attention.

Dare I suggest that its swoon-inducing effects are not, in fact, limited to the teenage boy variety? I say, whomever you may be trying to bait, this may be the way to do it.

I consider this one of my ”go-to” recipes for when I need to bake something big & comforting on short notice. It’s been handed over to friends who had a baby, friends who lost a baby, a colleague who lost a parent, new neighbors who moved in down the street.

Eat it as breakfast or as dessert, or (my favorite) as an afternoon snack with tea. I guarantee it tastes better than any blueberry muffin you’ve ever had, and so easy to make. Blueberry Boy Bait…getting the job done since 1954.

BLUEBERRY BOY BAIT

If you’re using frozen berries, don’t thaw them first or their color will bleed unappetizingly into the cake.
for the cake: blueberry boy bait & crumbs

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 T baking powder

1 tsp. salt

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened

¾ cup packed light brown sugar

½ cup white sugar

3 large eggs

1 cup whole milk

½ cup blueberries

1 tsp. flour, for the berries

oven: 350°
pan: 13 x 9 inch, greased & floured

Whisk the first 3 ingredients together & set aside. In a mixer bowl, cream the butter & sugars together on high speed until fluffy, about 2 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, beating until just incorporated.

Reduce the speed to medium & alternately add the wet (milk) and dry (flour mixture) ingredients:

a third of the flour mixture
half of the milk
a third of the flour mixture
half of the milk
last third of the flour mixture

Don’t worry about exact amounts, the point is to alternate, producing a much smoother batter than if you added everything at once.

Toss the blueberries with the teaspoon of flour before folding them into the batter—this will help keep them from all sinking to the bottom of the cake. Spread the batter into baking pan.

for the topping:cinnamon sugar

½ cup blueberries

¼ cup granulated sugar

½ tsp. cinnamon (I often use a whole teaspoon because I am a cinnamon freak)

Scatter the blueberries on top of the batter. Combine the cinnamon & sugar and sprinkle that on top of everything else. Inhale. Mmm, cinnamon sugar. Smells good now, will smell even BETTER during & after baking. Get excited.

Bake until a toothpick comes out clean from the center of the cake, approximately 45-55 minutes. Cool in the pan before serving up the thick squares. Stores well in an airtight container for the better part of a week!

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: BLACK BEAN SALSA

Before I do anything else, allow me to show you a magic trick.

cilantro
Ladies and Gentlemen, right here before your very eyes—one bunch of cilantro, ends trimmed, placed upright in a glass with a bit of cold water.  Doesn’t look like much, you say?  Not very impressive, you say?

Well.  Little do you know!  Arranged this way & covered with the very plastic bag it came home in, I can keep cilantro fresh & useable for a month!  I am not exaggerating!  It IS magic—I love cooking with cilantro (obviously, I am not one of those people for whom it tastes like soap) but I hated having to throw it away after it became wilted & spoiled too quickly.

No longer, my friends!  We can all thank my dear friend Arianne’s mom Georgia (yes, she is as awesome as her name) for this tidbit.

Now, onto the recipe at hand…I love black beans.  They’re cheap.  They’re yummy.  They’re versatile.  AND, they’re good for you.  You can’t say that about everything in my pantry, I assure you.

Make this dish, please.  Make it now.  In fact, you have to make it now because the reason it tastes so darn good is when you take fresh, sweet corn, add smelling-of-sun summer tomatoes & ripe avocados, can you really go wrong?

black bean salsa

No, I didn’t think so.

This little concoction is great for a potluck/casual party, or just for dinner.  It tastes just as good the next day, with the exception of the avocadoes, which turn an unappetizing, slimy brown.  Ew.

So if you’re planning for a big crowd, make this as-is—there won’t be any left, I promise.  But if you’re making for a smaller crew / want to take some for lunch later in the week / need to mix this ahead of time, I recommend combining everything BUT the avocadoes first.

Then, reserve whatever portion you’d like to have for later & store it in the fridge until you’re ready to add avocadoes & eat up!  I like this dish a little more towards room temperature than cold, so you might want to take it out a bit before you plan to serve.

(If I may be so presumptuous as to suggest—it’s real, real good with blue corn tortilla chips.  I’m especially partial to Garden of Eatin’.)

BLACK BEAN SALSA corn off the cob

2 cans black beans (plain, no flavoring or added salt)

3 of the prettiest tomatoes you can find

3 ripe avocados

2-3 ears fresh corn

2 limes

a handful of fresh cilantro, roughly chopped

1 tsp. cumin

1 tsp. salt

optional: half a jalapeño, seeded & minced

Drain & rinse the black beans in a colander—shake well to rid of all liquid.  Shuck the corn & cut the kernels off into a large mixing bowl.  Add the black beans to the corn, then cube the tomatoes and add them as well.

Add the juice of both limes, cumin, salt, & jalapeño, if using .  Stir everything together & sprinkle in cilantro.  If serving immediately, add cubed avocados & fold gently.  Taste & add salt if needed.

Serve with chips or as a side.  Also excellent with grilled fish or meats.

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BLACKBERRY UPSIDE-DOWN CAKE

I am a sucker for road-side produce.  You know, you’re driving along (especially this time of year), and suddenly you see a spray-painted piece of particle board, declaring “FRESH PICKED CORN” or “STRAWBERRIES” or “OKRA.”

blackberries in a bowl

Or, you know, “BLACKBERRIES.”  When I drove to San Antonio from Houston a few weeks ago, to visit my dear friend Arianne (of key-lime-pie loving fame), I stopped about 45 minutes outside of town to buy some insanely good peaches and these ripe, Rubenesque blackberries.

What I love about this cake is the way that it works equally well for dessert as it does for breakfast. Throw it in the oven at the start of dinner, and it will be warm and ready to serve by the time your meal is finished. Bake it Sunday night, set it next to the office coffee pot, and endear yourself to all of your coworkers on an otherwise grumpy Monday morning. It would also make a lovely housewarming gift, hey-you-just-had-a-baby offering, or potluck contribution.

Frankly, I think this cake is the main reason my friend John puts up with our old, incontinent dog for whom he and his wife Courtney (an important BJG taste-tester/inspiration/dish-washer) often dog-sit.  It may actually be the only reason he puts up with me, come to think of it.

The finished cake will keep, wrapped well in saran wrap & foil and refrigerated, for about a week.  But if John is any indication, there’s no way it’s going to last half that long.

blackberry upside-down cake

Special equipment & ingredients:

• A kitchen mixer is most helpful but not required—if you do try it by hand, make certain your butter is extra soft.
Parchment paper is one of the greatest inventions known to man, and well worth the $2.50 investment. Find it on the same aisle as Saran Wrap.
• If you grew up in the south like me, you are already familiar with the wonders buttermilk can do in pancakes, biscuits, waffles, & cornbread.  If you’ve never cooked with buttermilk before, I urge you to try it this time–a small bottle will run you less than $1.  If you must substitute, stir a bit of lemon juice into some regular milk & let it sit for a few minutes before using.

BLACKBERRY UPSIDE DOWN (AND RIGHT-SIDE-UP) CAKE
adapted from Gourmet Magazine’s “Everyday Meals”

pan: 8-inch round

oven: 400 degrees F

goes nicely with: a scoop of vanilla ice cream, homemade whipped cream*

ingredients:

2 cups fresh blackberries (use an extra ½ cup if you like lots of fruit) sugar-coated blackerries in pan

½  cup sugar, plus 2 Tablespoons extra for sprinkling

1 cup all-purpose flour

½  tsp. baking soda, NOT powder

¼ tsp. salt

½ stick unsalted butter, softened

1 large egg

1 tsp. vanilla

½ cup buttermilk (shake it before you pour!)

Use the bottom of your cake pan to trace two 9-inch circles on parchment paper. Cut out the circles and place them inside the pan (use a little butter if they won’t stay put). Lightly butter the sides of the pan and the top circle of parchment. Spoon in a bit of flour and shake to coat the pan.

Rinse & dry the berries.  Pour them into the cake pan; try to get them to fit in just one layer. If you’re feeling crafty, go ahead and arrange the berries into pretty concentric circles. If you’ve better things to do with your time, don’t worry, the cake’s still going to taste good! Sprinkle the blackberries with 2 Tablespoons of sugar; set pan aside.

For the batter: cream butter & sugar together until light & fluffy (if using a mixer, run on “high” for about two minutes). More gently mix in the egg & vanilla (switch speed to “low”) until the mixture just begins to come together.

Here, a classic baking technique: alternately adding the wet & dry ingredients. So in one measuring cup or bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, & salt. In another cup or bowl, measure out your buttermilk (shake it up first!). Now, you always want to start and finish with the dry ingredients. So your process will go like this:

a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture
half of the buttermilk
a third of the flour mixture

Just eyeball the amounts—it doesn’t matter if you exactly halve the buttermilk or not—the important thing is just not to dump it all in at once. Don’t over mix! Stop mixing when the batter has just come together.

Using spatula or large spoon, drop even clumps of batter over the blackberries until they are all hidden. Bake the cake for approximately 30-35 minutes—I recommend you test the cake at minute 25 using a toothpick. You want the toothpick to come out of the center of the cake with a few crumbs clinging to it.

If your cake takes longer than 35 minutes, don’t panic. If the top (which is actually the bottom!) of the cake starts to look a little too brown, just carefully cover it with foil.

Remove cake from the oven and run a butter knife around the inside of the pan. Now you get to flip it! Set a big plate or platter on top of the cake pan. Using pot holders, grab the pan with the plate on top and flip it all in one motion (it’s like ripping off a Band-Aid–you gotta do it fast!)  The cake will release from the pan—peel the parchment rounds off the top and enjoy.

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LEMON SQUARES

If I believed in super-long blog post titles, this one would be “LEMON SQUARES: HOW TO WIN FRIENDS & INFLUENCE PEOPLE.”

lemon squares
For realz.

When I was in graduate school (in the achingly gorgeous desert land of Tucson, Arizona), I had a nonfiction writing workshop once a week.  Every week.  For two years.

Of those Lord-knows-how-many workshops, I estimate that I brought baked goods to class seventy-five percent of the time.  And of those times that I brought baked good to class, lemon squares took up a disproportionately large share.

I became famous for my lemon squares.  Their presence was often (and still is!) requested at workshops, parties, meetings, as presents, etc.  I can’t prove that it’s true, but I believe my lemon squares won me some goodwill with colleagues who might have otherwise written more scathing critiques of my manuscripts or been all-to-eager to shred my narratives to pieces.

Now, you may want to know, what is my lemon square secret?  What mystery ingredient have I conjured to take these humble little shortbread-crust-bottomed, custard-and-powdered-sugar-topped suckers to the next level of deliciousness?

Well, nothing, really.  Mine is a really basic recipe, one that my hands will practically make for me at this point.  There’s nothing particularly magical about them, but they’ve never failed me.  Perhaps it comes down to this: the gesture of baking something from scratch, of feeding others something you took time to make with your own hands, and make well, is magical.  It breeds relatedness and good feeling.  It’s just a kind thing to do.  (Especially in grad school, when everyone’s poor & hungry).

So, even though these are not red, white, & blue; even though they do not utilize the plump berries and sugar-crystalled watermelon of the season, I humbly offer you my lemon square recipe and urge you to bake some up.  Walk a plate over to your neighbors.  Take some to work on Monday (when everyone will be grumpy about having to be back at work on Monday).  Or just add them to the Fourth of July potluck pile and watch them disappear.

ARIZONA LEMON SQUARES lemon squares up close
makes 16 modest or 9 generous squares

oven: Preheat to 350.

pan: 8 inch square (double recipe to fit into larger, rectangular pan)

To make your life easier, line the pan with foil and then spray it well with cooking spray.  You can just spray the pan, but you’ll have to scrub it afterwards.

crust:    1 ½ cup flour

½ cup (1 stick) butter, softened

¼ cup powdered (confectioner’s) sugar

I always throw these ingredients straight into the pan and crumble them with my fingers—no need to mess up a bowl!  When you’ve got a pebbly-looking mixture, press down so the crust covers the bottom of the pan and a little bit up the sides.  Smooth down with the bottom of a small glass or bowl, if you like.

Bake the crust for 15-20 minutes, or until it’s just getting brown.  While the crust is baking, make the filling.

filling:    2 eggs  sliced lemons
2 lemons*
1 cup sugar
½ tsp. baking powder
¼ tsp. salt

Zest the lemons first (I like a lot of zest, so I use both), then chop the zest finely and set aside.  Juice the lemons next—you’ll may only need one lemon to reach the desired 2 T.  Add juice to zest.  Throw in the rest of the ingredients, adding the eggs last.

Beat everything together either with a whisk or a mixer (I’ve done both, and this is really one recipe where you don’t have to get your Kitchen Aid dirty).  Mix until everything’s frothy and thick, about 3 minutes.

When the hot crust comes out of the oven, pour the filling on top.  Bake another 20-25 minutes or until the top is just turning brown and is set in the middle.  Cool on a wire rack for about 5 minutes, then dust with a generous amount of powdered sugar (sometimes I do two passes with the powdered sugar to get a thick layer).

Cool completely, or as long as you can wait before cutting into squares.

* When I can find them, I use Meyer lemons, which make for exquisite lemon squares.  Just dial down the sugar to ¾ or even ½ cup, since Meyer lemons are not as tart.

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES-POTATO SALAD

le potato salad side angle

Big week coming up, right? The birth of our nation, stars, stripes, fireworks, cold beer, fired-up grills, pools full of kids, etc. We Americans celebrate in style.

My parents came to this country in the late 1960s from India. Like most immigrants, they have always been fiercely patriotic. “Only in America” was a reverential phrase, oft-repeated in the course of my growing up. Someone has done something marvelous, risen above circumstances, innovated, liberated, volunteered, changed careers in middle age, made something out of nothing.

Only in America.

Of course, it isn’t exactly true that America is the ONLY place one can do such things, but when you’ve entered this place with fresh eyes, as my parents did, the freedoms, opportunities, and equalities we celebrate every year on the Fourth of July occur like realities and not just abstractions.

I am fiercely proud to call myself first-generation; the first of my family to be born here. I’m fiercely grateful to my parents for the courage and sacrifice it took to come to this country (the first plane trip of my mother’s life took her to JFK International Airport: she was twenty-one years old and dressed in a sari).

To honor them, and this place, I’m going to try to remind myself that my freedom is real, as real & palpable as the slices of cool watermelon I plan to consume this weekend, and that many millions in the world thirst after the freedom I am able to take for granted every day.

As a matter of tradition, I’ll make this potato salad, which my Mom loves (her birthday is Thursday, as a matter of fact. Happy birthday, Mom! You are a badass & I love you!) We’ll drink imported beer, listen to Hindi music, & celebrate some dead-and-gone Patriots with crazy ideas and a lot of gumption, who built this thing we call democracy.

Only in America.  And thank goodness for that.

SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: POTATO SALAD
serves 4-6

There are infinite variations on this, of course, whereby you could include a couple of chopped, hard-boiled eggs or crumble in some cooked bacon, but I like to keep my potato salad nice & simple. ‘Cause I’m old school like that.*

2-3 lb. red potatoes, scrubbed

½ of a red onion, diced

2-3 stalks celery, diced

4-5 tiny or 1-2 big dill pickles, diced

¾ cup mayonnaise (not the fake stuff! puh-lease not the fake stuff!)

½ cup Dijon mustard (not the yellow stuff! puh-lease not the yellow stuff!)

a big handful of fresh dill, chopped

salt & pepper, to taste

shiny new potatoes 3

Place the potatoes in a large pot & cover with cold water. Bring the water to a boil & cook potatoes until fork-tender, between 15-20 minutes depending on potato size. Drain & cool potatoes before chopping them into fork-friendly cubes.

This really couldn’t be easier. Place all of the ingredients (except s&p) in a bowl—mix carefully until everything’s evenly distributed. I like to use a spatula for this part so as not to upset the taters too much.

Taste-teste and add salt, pepper, maybe more dill if necessary. Be sure to refrigerate if you’re not serving right away.

*Remember those little old men at the end of The Incredibles? “No school like the old school!”

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SUMMER CLASSICS SERIES: COLESLAW

You know those recipes you would beg, borrow, or steal for? Yeah, this is definitely one of them.

coleslaw

Take this coleslaw to a potluck, grill-out, or summer picnic, and I guarantee you’ll have people clambering not only to lick the bowl clean, but also to ask you for the recipe.

I actually didn’t have to beg terribly hard to get this recipe myself—lucky for me, my friend Kathy is a generous recipe-sharer. She’s also responsible for broadening my culinary horizons and know-how when I was just wee college student some half-a-dozen years ago!

This crunchy, spicy slaw goes well with just about any grilled meat or burger. Feel free to adjust the proportions in the dressing to suit your tastes. Coleslaw definitely qualifies as a summer classic, and I’ll eat it in pretty much any incarnation. How do you like yours?

COWBOY KICKOFF COLESLAW
adapted from the Mansion on Turtle Creek, Dallas (via K. Glenney)

This recipe makes a LOT of slaw, so feel free to halve it.

vegetables: yellow bell pepper

4 cups shredded cabbage
(I used both green & half red)

2 cups shredded carrots

2 bell peppers, julienned
(I used one orange & one yellow)

2 chopped jalapeños
(just 1 if you’re heat-shy)

½ bunch cilantro,
picked off the stem & rough-chopped

slaw vegetables dressing:

1 cup mayonnaise

2 T maple syrup

2 T vinegar

2 T Dijon mustard

1 T Worcestershire sauce

1 tsp. chili powder

1 tsp. cumin powder

1 tsp. coriander powder (if you don’t have it/can’t find it, not a dealbreaker)

1 clove garlic, minced

juice of ½ a lime

salt, to taste

Combine all the raw vegetables in a bowl. Whisk the rest of the ingredients together in a separate bowl, then pour over the vegetables. Toss to coat & refrigerate until time to serve. Best if made ahead! Those are four of the sweetest words in the English language: best if made ahead.  Sigh.

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