I have never really been into the whole going out to dinner for Valentine’s Day thing, because being crammed into a table inches away from another couple while eating a hastily assembled prix fixe with overpriced wine is not romantic.  And I know from romantic, as my place of work was recently named the third most romantic spot in Southern California to spend Valentine’s Day.

As an alternative, there’s something to be said for the time-honored tradition of preparing a special meal for your loved one.  You get to pick the music, set the mood, and if dinner is a bust, you can always go out for beer and cheese fries after, which actually is romantic.

So, here’s a little menu I threw together from the Junior League of Waterloo-Cedar Falls‘s Pig Out (1986) for a Valentine’s Day dinner.  Since Iowa produces about a quarter of the nation’s pork, and the cookbook itself has a chapter called “Pork Specialties,” I decided it simply would not do to look elsewhere for my main course. Also, this recipe is noted with an epithet that reads, “Very impressive.”

I made half-batches of all of the following recipes, including the roast, which was only a 2 1/2 pounder.  Should you do the same, reduce your roasting time to about 1 1/2 to 2 hours.  And don’t forget to rest the meat before carving.

Pork Loin Roast with Orange Glaze Cups

Glazed Pork Loin Roast

1 center cut pork loin roast, about 5 1/2 pounds
1 t. salt
1/2 t. pepper

Glaze:

1 cup orange juice
2 1/2 t. cornstarch
1 t. grated orange rind
1/2 t. ground ginger
1/2 t. ground mace
fresh parsley

Orange Cups

4 oranges
1 13 1/2-ounce can pineapple chunks, drained (or use fresh pineapple)
2 T. Grand Marnier

Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Place meat, fat side up, on a rack in a roasting pan. Sprinkle with salt and pepper. Insert a meat thermometer so the bulb reaches the thickest part of the meat. Roast 3 hours or until meat thermometer reaches 170 degrees.

Glaze:

Combine orange juice, cornstarch, rind, ginger, and mace in small saucepan. Cook, stirring constantly, until thickened. Brush glaze on meat during the last 30 minutes of roasting. To serve, place roast on platter. Garnish with parsley and orange cups. Pass remaining glaze.

Orange Cups:

Cut oranges in half and scoop out pulp and dice. Drain off juice and combine pulp and pineapple. Add liquor. Chill. Spoon fruit into orange shells.

— Ruth Lutz Black (Mrs. David)

Now, as tempting as the orange cups stuffed with pineapple sounded, there was yet another orange cup recipe in Pig Out that caught my eye, and it sounded absolutely perfect.  Because nothing says “I love you” like carving a decorative edge into the hollowed out skin of an orange.

Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups

Sweet Potatoes in Orange Cups

4 medium oranges
8 medium sweet potatoes, cooked and peeled
1/3 cup butter
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup orange juice
rind of 1 orange, grated
1/2 t. salt
1/2 cup pecans, broken
1/4 cup dry sherry
1/2 cup tiny marshmallows

Cut oranges in half, extract juice and remove pulp. Scallop or cut in “w” shape the edges of orange shells. Mash potatoes until smooth and fluffy. Add butter, brown sugar, orange juice, rind and salt. Beat until well blended. Add nuts and sherry. Fill orange shells with potato mixture. Dot with marshmallows. Bake for 20 minutes at 350 degrees.

Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair. But do not ask me to cut a scallop for, lo, I cannot.

Hint:  Surround your pork roast with these.

— Kate Della Maria Weidner (Mrs. Steven)

And while I’m sure that the pineapple-stuffed oranges are a lovely accompaniment to what is a truly excellent glazed roast pork, let me tell you here and now that these sweet potatoes are better.  We adored them.

And it does make a pretty plate.

For dessert, I forged ahead with this tart recipe, despite not being able to find appropriately-sized heart-shaped molds.  Instead, I used ramekins, though I’d advise finding something with a slightly more sloped side.  Fitting pastry crust into a ramekin is really not much fun.

Valentine Tarts

Crust:

Valentine Tart

1/4 cup sugar
3 cups unbleached flour, sifted
1 t. salt
1/3 cup vegetable shortening, chilled
3/4 cup unsalted butter, cold
ice water

Filling:

2 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
2 3-ounce packages cream cheese, softened
1 cup powdered sugar
1/3 cup whipping cream
1 T. orange liqueur
1/2 t. vanilla
2 pints fresh strawberries, washed and hulled
1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam, melted

Crust:

Combine sugar, flour, and salt in a chilled bowl. Cut in shortening and butter until mixture resembles coarse meal. Add water until mixture can be formed into a ball. Chill 30 to 60 minutes wrapped in wax paper. Roll out dough on floured surface to 1/8″ thick and cut into six equal pieces. Grease backs of six oven-proof heart-shaped molds, and fit dough into molds. Trim excess with a sharp knife. Press bottoms gently in several places, place on baking sheet, and bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool, carefully remove shells from molds and place on platter and fill.

Filling:

Melt chocolate over very low heat and while warm, gently spread over bottoms of cooled shells, and allow to set. Beat cream cheese and powdered sugar until smooth and creamy. Add whipping cream, orange liqueur, and vanilla. Spoon over chocolate and chill 30 minutes. Combine strawberries and jam, tossing berries gently to coat. Arrange over filling, cover carefully and refrigerate. Serve within 6 to 8 hours.

— Jane Rife Field (Mrs. Hugh)

If I were doing these tarts again, I might make them with a graham cracker or a pecan-butter-brown sugar crust, and just serve them in the ramekins.  I thought that those flavors might go better with the filling and strawberry-raspberry topping, which is sublime.  Of course, maybe I’d have thought otherwise had I been able to get that buttery crust rolled out a little bit thinner without it sticking to my countertop.

That said, my sweetheart was much impressed, and didn’t even mind the clumsy tart crust, nor the fact that I’d (yet again) forgotten to garnish the entree with parsley.  It was a lovely meal, and even though it was an ordinary Monday night, the few special little touches on these recipes made it a bit less ordinary.  And Charlie Brown, that’s what Valentine’s day is all about.

Advertisements

I’ve had Women of Great Taste, published by the Junior League of Wichita, Kansas (1995), for ages now, but just didn’t quite know what to make of it.  For starters, there’s the theme, which is a good idea, but plays out sort of… strangely.  Each chapter begins with a clever illustration of a famous woman, tied loosely to the theme of the section.  Carry Nation (the only native Kansan of the bunch) for Appetizers and Beverages makes sense, as does Marie Antoinette for Desserts.  Though it’s a stretch, I’ll buy Carmen Miranda for the Soups and Salads section, but the illustration of Joan of Arc wielding a kabob for the Meats section might be considered in slightly poor taste.

However, the recipes themselves are anything but.  Forget everything you think you know about Kansan cuisine because the dishes included in this cookbook don’t seem like anything that might have come out of Auntie Em’s kitchen.  Sure, there’s some comfort food here, but for the most part, the dishes are light, elegant, seasonal, and many include international flavors and ingredients.  In the end, it was tough to pick what to make, but since I vowed to make one meal that didn’t call for massive gobs of butter, and since I felt like baking bread, things fell into place from there.

This particular bread recipe appealed to me because there are two beekeepers in my family, so we currently have a ton of wildflower and buckwheat honey (fun fact:  when bees make honey from the pollen and nectar of buckwheat, it turns out a dark purplish-red).

Liberty Loaves

Liberty Loaves

2 cups water
1 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup honey
1 T. butter
2 t. salt
1 cup roasted sunflower kernels (optional)
1 package active dry yeast
1/2 cup warm water (110 to 115 degrees)
2 1/2 cups whole-wheat flour
2 cups bread flour

Bring water to a boil and stir in oats. Set aside for 1 hour. Oil two 9 x 5 x 3-inch loaf pans and a large mixing bowl. Add honey, butter, salt and sunflower kernels to oat mixture and stir well. Dissolve yeast in warm water and allow to stand for 5 minutes. Stir softened yeast into oat mixture. Blend in flours until dough pulls cleanly away from sides of bowl. Form dough into a ball and place in prepared bowl, turning to coat entire surface. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and a kitchen towl. Let rise in a warm draft-free area for 1 hour or until double in size. Punch down dough to remove air bubbles, then knead until smooth and elastic. Divide into two loaves and place in prepared pans. Cover and let rise again until double in size.

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Bake until bread sounds hollow when tapped on bottom, 50 minutes. After baking for 35 minutes it may be necessary to shield loaves with foil to prevent over-browning. Remove bread from pans immediately and cool on a wire rack.

Yield: 2 loaves

I was really concerned about how this bread would turn out because it didn’t rise to anything close to double in size, though I was careful about temperature.  Brady theorized that between the heavy oats, whole-wheat flour, sunflower seeds, and honey, the yeast just got tired.  Whether or not this was the case, however, this is a delicious bread recipe, moist, nutty, wholesome, and just a little bit sweet.  I had some this morning for breakfast, toasted with butter and honey, and it was heavenly.  I know it says the sunflower kernels are optional, but don’t you dare leave them out.

Running butter tally:  1 tablespoon

For the main course, I chose this butternut and shallot risotto.  I don’t quite know what a shallot is, or how it’s related to or different from an onion, but I do know that the presence of shallots in a recipe improves the likelihood of its deliciousness by at least 25%.  Unless it’s dessert.

Butternut Risotto

Butternut Risotto

1 medium butternut squash
2 T. unsalted butter, divided
1 T. olive oil
4 shallots, minced
2 cups Arborio rice
1/2 cup dry white wine
5 to 6 cups chicken broth, heated
Freshly grated nutmeg, to taste
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1 T. minced fresh rosemary
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese, divided
Rosemary sprigs for garnish

Cut squash into eighths, discarding seeds. Steam until fork tender. Scoop squash from skin and lightly mash. Melt 1 tablespoon butter in saucepan, add oil and saute shallots for 2 minutes. Add rice and cook for 5 minutes, stirring often. Add wine and continue cooking until liquid is nearly absorbed. Add squash and 1 cup heated chicken broth. Simmer until liquid is nearly absorbed. Continue stirring in broth one ladle at a time until rice is creamy and firm, 15 to 20 minutes. Season with nutmeg, salt and pepper. Stir in rosemary, remaining butter and 1/4 cup cheese. Serve in shallow bowls garnished with remaining cheese and rosemary sprigs.

Yield: 4-6 servings

I’ve made adequate risotto, flavorless, mushy risotto, and one really excellent risotto, and what seems to make all the difference is (gasp) really following the directions.  This one was really tasty (though it can’t really compete with that sublime bacon and egg recipe I linked to), and the flavor combination of fresh rosemary, butternut squash and nutmeg works amazingly well.

Running butter tally:  3 tablespoons

For side dishes, I decided to go with two vegetable dishes, and chose the first because I’d never braised fennel before, or for that matter, done much of anything with fennel before. It’s a crazy-looking vegetable, kind of a cross between an onion, a bunch of celery, and dill, and it tastes a little bit like anise.

Braised Fennel

Braised Fennel

4 medium fennel bulbs
1 1/2 T. unsalted butter
1 t. granulated sugar
2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
1/4 cup fresh orange juice
1 cup water
Salt, and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 cup fresh parsley leaves

Trim tops off fennel, then cut each bulb in half lengthwise. Melt butter in a large skillet and stir in sugar until dissolved. Add garlic and saute for 2 minutes. Place fennel in skillet, cut side down, cooking until well browned, 5 to 10 minutes. Turn fennel and add orange juice, water, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil, reduce heat and cover. Simmer until fennel is fork tender, 20 to 30 minutes. (If pan becomes dry during cooking, add a little more water.) Continue to cook uncovered at medium heat until liquid evaporates. Toss with parsley and serve immediately.

Yield: 8 servings

This one got mixed reviews.  I thought it was quite nice, but there was some note in the flavor that Brady didn’t like at all, and that he swears was not anise.  Also, for something braised, it is very attractive.  Usually braising will knock the pretty right out of food.

Running butter tally:  4 1/2 tablespoons

And speaking of pretty, here’s the last Wichita dish.  It’s beyond easy, but there were heirloom cherry tomatoes at the grocery store, and I couldn’t resist. I doubt I even need to tell you how good it tastes because a) so luminously pretty, and b) shallots!

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

Herbed Cherry Tomatoes

2 shallots, minced
4 green onions, thinly sliced
2 T. minced fresh parsley
1 t. dried dill weed
1/4 cup butter
3 cups cherry tomatoes
1/2 t. salt

Saute shallots, onions, parsley and dill in butter until tender. Add tomatoes and salt. Cook, stirring gently until a few tomato skins burst, 5 to 7 minutes. Tomatoes should be well coated with butter-herb mixture.

Yield: 6 servings

Running butter tally:  8 1/2 tablespoons

Alas, it seems that I have still managed to go over one stick of butter, despite my best efforts; however, as it is only by a half tablespoon and we did get two suppers, a breakfast, and a couple of lunches out of this meal, I will not lose too much sleep over it.

Next up:  either Washington state or Washington, D.C., I have not decided which, but either way, there will probably be fish.

Having dispatched with that old Christmas battle axe, the fruitcake, I decided that my next bit of holiday cooking should be an equally storied dish – the sugar plum.  However, I had absolutely no idea what a sugar plum was.  Like the children nestled snug in their beds, I, too, had certain visions of what I thought a sugar plum might be, possibly a plum version of a candied apple.  This turns out to have been completely wrong.

For the record, I also ran into this problem with Turkish Delight when reading The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe as a child.

Turns out that sugar plums are an assortment of finely chopped dried fruits, nuts, and sundry, mixed together and rolled in powdered sugar.  I was trying to figure out what made these particular sugar plums Byzantine in nature, and in my brief reading found that dates, figs, walnuts and pistachios were part of the average person’s diet during the Byzantine Empire. So, there you go.

This recipe comes from the Junior League of Chicago‘s Soupcon (1974).

Byzantine Sugar Plums

Byzantine Sugar Plums

3 pounds combined pitted dates, peeled figs, seeded raisins, currants, apricots, prunes

1/2 pound blanched walnuts or almonds

1/2 pound unsalted, shelled pistachio nuts

1/2 pound crystallized ginger

Grated rind of 2 oranges

3 T. lemon juice or brandy, or as needed

Confedtioners’ or granulated sugar

Put fruits, nuts, ginger and rind through the coarsest blade of the meat grinder. Add just enough lemon juice or brandy to enable mixture to stick together. Shape into balls, 1 to 1 1/2 inches in diameter. Roll in sugar before wrapping. Vary assortment of fruits and nuts to suit your own taste, using any one or all of those suggested.

The mixture will look a little something like this.

— Mrs. Thomas N. Boyden (Susan Dalton)

The mixture I wound up going with was dried apricots, figs, and pitted dates with walnuts, pistachios, and orange peel, crystallized ginger (though far less of this than the recipe called for), and brandy.  And instead of a meat grinder, I put everything through my shiny new Cuisinart (a Christmas present from my parents who’d apparently grown weary of hearing me complain about my shoddy kitchen appliances), and the consistency came out right.

These sugar plums are rich, sticky, dense, and yummy.  However, if you can eat more than one of them in a sitting, I’d be very much surprised.  I took a dozen and a half of them into work, and they disappeared pretty quickly. One person made the comment that they were “nice and Christmasy,” while another who despises dried fruit deemed them “better than I expected.” Also, I’d underestimated how much southern Californians like dates and figs.

Good as they are, however, I’m not sure that visions of them would necessarily dance in your head.  Then again, “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was first published in the 1820s, when an orange passed for a good Christmas present, and the average life expectancy was something like 35 (16, if you were a London pauper). So, a ball of dried fruit, nuts, and brandy was probably a really big deal.

Brady says I’m really selling the sugar plums short, though, and wants it noted that “the sugar plums are like the platonic ideal of the Fig Newton. And who doesn’t love those?”

I’m back from Thanksgiving vacation with my family, and geared up to do some serious holiday cooking and baking.  As a result, I’ll be doing something a little different for the next couple of weeks.  Instead of cooking an entire meal from one Junior League cookbook, I’ll be posting individual recipes suitable for holiday entertaining from lots of different cookbooks.

This first one comes from the Junior League of Dayton, Ohio‘s Discover Dayton (1979), which my awesome Aunt Margie gave me at Thanksgiving dinner.  We were in the kitchen, and she was unloading her bag of goodies for our feast when she reached in and handed me this book, saying, “I have been reading your blog.”  Little did she know I’d been paging through a copy of this very book at the library not two days earlier, and mentally putting it on my to-do list.

In addition to many tasty-looking cookie recipes, Discover Dayton also has a recipe that’s a twist on the much-maligned Christmas fruitcake.  The main difference being that this one comes out looking like something you’d actually want to eat, devoid of all the terrifying DayGlo cherries.  And besides, it has, like, half a bottle of booze in it.

Christmas Cake

Prepare Thanksgiving week to serve Christmas Day. Like fruit cake, but we rate it better!

Christmas Cake

2 cups white sugar
1/2 pound butter
6 egg yolks
1 pound cake flour (NOTE FROM MARY:  This comes out to about 4 cups)
1/2 t. salt
1 t. baking powder
1/2 cup whiskey or brandy
1 pound white raisins
1 pound pecans, chopped
6 egg whites, stiffly beaten
Whiskey or brandy

In a mixing bowl, cream sugar and butter; beat in egg yolks. Sift together flour, salt, and baking powder. Add dry ingredients alternately with 1/2 cup whiskey. Stir in raisins and nuts. Fold in stiffly beaten egg whites. Turn into a well-greased and floured bundt or angel food cake pan.

The batter will be fairly thick, more like a quick bread than a cake

Bake in a preheated 300 degree oven for 2 hours; cool. Wrap cake in cheesecloth wet with additional whiskey or brandy. Wrap in foil, and store in can or cake tin with a tight-fitting lid. Store in refrigerator. The longer it ages, the better it is!

Mummified in Jameson Irish Whiskey

YIELD: 1 10-inch cake, 32 servings

— Mrs. James C. Medford (Carolyn Lowe)

So, we’ll see how this turns out.  I did not have a cake tin that would fit in my fridge (where space will be at a premium for the next few weeks), so I have the thing wrapped in a million layers of aluminum foil right now.  But even though it will be taking up valuable space in my lousy 3/4-size fridge until Christmas, it pleases me to know that it’s sitting there, aging gracefully and soaking up all that Jameson.  Kind of like Jimmy McNulty on The Wire.

always superb

Yes, that's a table made of ice.

Visit a city like Minneapolis-St. Paul in high September, and you begin to find yourself mentally packing your bags, and imagining a life for you and yours in an idyllic Midwestern wonderland.  The streets are tidy, the people are interesting and kind, and the politics are progressive, and tempered by a kind of Lutheran good sense and practicality.  Local music is good.  Beer and cheese are plentiful.

Things get a little more Darwinian in February.  That’s when you realize that not only are the people interesting and kind, they are of a hardier stock than most.  This is Little House on the Prairie country.  Here, putting food up for the winter is more than a quaint, slightly anachronistic hobby, and ice fishing is considered recreation rather than torture.

The foodways that accompany the seasons, and the pleasures they bring are at the heart of Always Superb:  Recipes for Every Occasion (2003), a collaborative effort between the Junior Leagues of Minneapolis and St. Paul.  The editors write,

Today we are far removed from life on the prairie.  We gather with our friends and families not out of a common need but a common bond formed from generations of seasonal traditions.  We may not live in a log house, but we still go to the cabin.  Food is abundant year-round, yet we welcome thick soups and hearty meals in the winter.

In that spirit, I tried to put together an autumn menu with recipes that called for root vegetables and seasonal fruits, things that were warm and hearty, without being too heavy.  And to me, that says soup, salad, homemade bread, and a fruit crisp.

This first recipe intrigued me because two of its primary ingredients, wild rice and soybeans, are two of Minnesota’s biggest crops (at the time of this cookbook’s publication, Minnesota was the nation’s second-biggest producer of wild rice and the third-biggest of soybeans), yet they’re not things I’d necessarily put together in a dish, much less a salad.

Minnesota Salad: Wild Rice and Soybeans

wildricesalad

Minnesota Salad

SALAD:

1/2 cup frozen soybeans
Salt to taste
1 cup wild rice
2 T. chopped celery
2 T. chopped apple
2 T. chopped onion
2 T. chopped carrot
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1 cup craisins

DRESSING:

1/2 cup olive oil
1/3 cup red wine vinegar
1/2 cup orange juice
2 t. honey
1 T. grated orange zest
1 t. salt

For the salad, cook the soybeans using the package directions; drain. Rinse under cold running water; drain. Bring a large pot of water to a boil. Sprinkle with a small amount of salt. Add the rice. Simmer for 30 to 35 minutes or until tender; drain. Rinse under cold running water; drain. Combine the cooked soybeans, cooked rice, celery, apple, onion, carrots, parsley and craisins in a large bowl.

For the dressing, whisk the olive oil, vinegar, orange juice, honey, orange zest and salt together in a small bowl.

Pour the dressing over the rice salad and mix well. Chill the salad, covered, for 2 hours or longer. Serve cold.

YIELD: 6 to 8 servings

While it’s likely that your local grocery store doesn’t stock frozen soybeans, they probably do stock frozen edamame, which is…. soybeans.  These are delicious little suckers, and make a fine snack on their own with a little salt.  They remind me of a much healthier, less messy version of boiled peanuts.  As for the salad itself, it’s excellent, unusual, and has an appealing crunchiness.  It also improves after a day in the fridge.

For the next course, I made a pureed carrot soup.  Unfortunately, I have the world’s smallest and worst food processor, so this is always a challenge, and I never get the soup as silky and smooth as I’d like.  Alas.

Carrot Ginger Soup

carrotsoup

Carrot Ginger Soup

1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter
2 pounds carrots, peeled and sliced
2 large onions, chopped
1 1/2 t. ground ginger
1 T. grated orange zest
1/2 t. coriander
5 cups chicken broth
1/2 cup milk
1/2 cup half-and-half
Salt to taste
Pepper to taste

GARNISH:

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup fresh parsley sprigs, or chopped parsley

Heat the butter in a large saucepan until melted. Add the carrots and onions. Cook for 15 minutes or until tender, stirring frequently. Stir in the ginger, orange zest, coriander and 2 cups of the chicken broth. Simmer for 30 minutes.

Puree the carrot mixture in a blender or food processor. Return to the saucepan. Stir in the remaining 3 cups chicken broth, milk, and half-and-half. Season with salt and pepper. Cook over medium heat until heated through.

Ladle into soup bowls. Garnish with Parmesan cheese and parsley.

YIELD: 10 to 14 servings

As everyone knows, a bowl of soup is only as good as the bread you dunk into it. I love making bread from scratch, but almost never do it. In fact, I realized as I was making this that I hadn’t even baked with yeast since I made a King Cake – and that was during Mardi Gras. So, I was a little out of practice, but things worked out pretty well all the same.

No-Knead Braided Parmesan Bread

parmesanbread2

No-Knead Braided Parmesan Bread

PARMESAN GARLIC FILLING:

1/2 cup (2 ounces) grated Parmesan cheese
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3 T. snipped parsley
1/2 t. garlic powder

BREAD:

1 envelope dry yeast
1/4 cup warm (105- to 115-degree) water
1 cup lukewarm scalded milk
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 1/2 t. salt
4 to 4 1/2 cups flour
1 egg yolk
1 T. water
Sesame seeds

For the filling, combine the Parmesan cheese, butter, parsley and garlic powder in a bowl and mix well.

For the bread, dissolve the yeast in 1/4 cup warm water in a large bowl. Stir in the milk, butter, sugar, eggs and salt. Stir in 1 cup of the flour. Stir in enough of the remaining flour to form a soft, sticky dough, scraping down the side of the bowl occasionally. Let rise, covered, in a warm place for 1 hour or until doubled in bulk.

Deflate the risen dough by stirring 25 times. Roll or pat into a 12 x 18-inch rectangle on a lightly floured surface. Spread the filling evening over the dough. Cut the dough into three 4 x 18-inch strips. Roll each strip into a rope, sealing the ends.

Place the dough ropes diagonally close together on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brain the ropes gently and loosely; do not stretch. Seal the ends and tuck under securely. Let rise for 30 minutes or until doubled in bulk.

parmesanbread1

Combine the egg yolk and 1 tablespoon water in a small bowl and mix well. Brush over the dough braid. Sprinkle with sesame seeds Place on the lower oven rack.

Bake at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until golden brown and the bread sounds hollow when tapped.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

If I had to make this over again, I’d a) remember to sprinkle the sesame seeds over it before I baked it, and b) probably use about half as much sugar as the recipe calls for.  As is, it’s a very challah-ish bread, and the sweetness kind of overpowers the butter, cheese, and garlic.  And much as I like sugar, I’ll take butter, cheese, and garlic any day.  Still, it’s quite good, moist without being heavy, and it’s excellent toasted.

For dessert, I decided to make a fruit crisp because I’ve made a fruit crisp at least once every fall for the past decade, and I’d not yet met my fruit crisp quota.  And while I’ve made plenty with apples or mixed berries, I’d never made a pear crisp before.

Autumn Pear Crisp

pearcrisp

Autumn Pear Crisp

6 Anjou pears, chopped
Juice of 1 lemon
1/2 cup sugar
1 T. cornstarch
1 t. cinnamon
2/3 cup flour
1 cup packed brown sugar
2 t. cinnamon
1 t. salt
6 T. chilled butter, cut into pieces
2/3 cup rolled oats
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Combine the pears and lemon juice in a large bowl and mix well.

Whisk the sugar, cornstarch and 1 teaspoon cinnamon together in a bowl. Add to the pears and toss gently to coat. Spoon into a 7 x 12-inch baking dish.

Place the flour, brown sugar, 2 teaspoons cinnamon and salt in a food processor container and pulse until mixed. Add the chilled butter pieces and pulse until mixed and chunky; do not pulse until smooth. Add the oats and pecans and pulse 2 times. Sprinkle over the pear mixture.

Bake at 375 degrees for 40 minutes or until the pears are tender and the topping is golden brown and bubbly. Cool for 20 minutes. Serve warm. You may serve this with cinnamon ice cream.

YIELD: 8 to 10 servings

I’d feared that the pears wouldn’t hold up well, and would just cook to mush.  However, between the cornstarch and the fact that I used pears that weren’t very ripe, they came out tender, and the crisp held its shape when served.  Of course, once the ice cream starts to melt over the warm crisp that’s a moot point, but also when the crisp is at its peak deliciousness.

It’s getting close to Thanksgiving, so next week, I’ll be going back to New England, to Rhode Island, where all the bad seed Pilgrims eventually settled after they got kicked out of Massachusetts.

Oh, and I should mention that the title of this post comes from the Hold Steady song “Stuck Between Stations,” an undeniably catchy tune that allows the listener to rock out while learning a thing or two about doomed American poet John Berryman in the process.

meet_us_in_the_kitchenThe Dodgers pulled off a sweep of the Cardinals yesterday, making them the first team to advance to the next round of postseason play, and making this week’s meal from the Junior League of St. Louis a victory meal.  As my father put it, “You’re eating their food, and they’re eating crow.”  Or as Brady put it, “The Dodgers ate the Cardinals’s lunch, so we’re eating St. Louis’s dinner.”

But enough with the gloating.  Not only do I like and respect the Cardinals as a team, but I’m quite the fan of their city.  Almost exactly halfway between Madison, Wisconsin and Memphis, two cities that we once spent a lot of time travelling between, St. Louis made a good stopping place.  Better yet, it was the home of one of our favorite people from college, a scholar and a gentleman who was always incredibly generous with his couch and his bourbon, and also knew all the best neighborhood cafes.

St. Louis is an interesting place.  Southerners think it’s a northern city.  Northerners think it’s part of the South.  The city’s culinary traditions are a product of its diverse population, which includes African Americans and the descendants of Irish, Italian, and German immigrants who came to the city in large numbers during the 19th century.  But the thing that strikes me most about St. Louis is that it’s one of the biggest cities in the country, but feels more like a loosely knit collection of small neighborhoods rather than an urban center.

And it was that last aspect of St. Louis that helped to decide my menu this week, a big city meal with a small town feel.  The kind of meal you’d make for company, if your company was more like family, something homey and comforting, but just a little bit elegant.

There were a couple of intriguing possibilities for entrees this week.  I was running them by Brady, and when I read off the name of this dish, he said, “Ooo!  That one!”

Layered Ziti with Asparagus and Prosciutto

A delicious make-ahead pasta dish suitable for company.

Layered Ziti with Asparagus and Prosciutto

Layered Ziti with Asparagus and Prosciutto

1 pound asparagus, cut into 1-inch pieces
1/2 medium white onion, cut into long thin strips
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 (8-ounce) package frozen green peas
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/4 teaspoon red pepper flakes
1/2 cup white wine
1 1/2 cups chicken stock
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and pepper to taste
1 pound ziti, cooked and drained
4 ounces prosciutto, minced
8 ounces mozzarella cheese, shredded
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
Bread crumbs

Saute the asparagus, onion, garlic, and green peas in the olive oil in a skillet over medium heat until tender. Add the red pepper flakes. Saute for 4 to 5 minutes. Add the wine. Saute for 3 minutes. Add the chicken stock and cream. Cook until liquid is reduced by one third. Season with salt and pepper. Add the pasta and mix well.

Layer the pasta mixture, prosciutto, mozzarella cheese and Parmesan cheese 1/2 at a time in a baking pan greased with olive oil. Sprinkle with bread crumbs. May prepare ahead and chill, covered, until serving time. Bake, uncovered, at 350 degrees for 25 to 30 minutes or until the top is brown and the cheeses are melted.

Serves 4

While I had mixed feelings about the peas, the ziti was otherwise delicious, with a crisp, cheesy crust and layers of vegetables, delicate sauce, and pasta beneath.  Nothing was too soggy or overcooked, and the prosciutto tastes absolutely heavenly with the mozzarella and asparagus.  I did deviate a tad from the recipe by lightly sauteeing the prosciutto in a skillet to crisp it up before layering it into the ziti.

Ever since my little sister shamed me about the lack of vegetables and greens in our meals, I’ve tried to do better.  However, this tasty side dish could almost pass for dessert.

Honey Ginger Carrots Elegante

Serve this very festive-looking dish at Thanksgiving or any other holiday.

Honey Ginger Carrots Elegante

Honey Ginger Carrots Elegante

1 pound carrots, thinly sliced
1/2 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) margarine
3 tablespoons honey
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 cup sliced almonds

Cook the carrots in 1/2 inch of boiling water in a large saucepan for 8 minutes; drain.

Combine the raisins, margarine, honey, lemon juice and ginger in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave on medium for 1 minute or until the margarine is melted; mix well. Add to the carrots and toss to coat. Add the almonds and toss to mix well. Spoon into a 1-quart baking dish.

I don't have a microwave, so I made the sauce stovetop.  And I loathe margarine, so I used butter.

If I wrote the SATs: microwave is to stovetop as margarine is to butter.

Bake, uncovered, at 375 degrees for 35 minutes, stirring occasionally.

Serves 4 to 6

Besides being very very pretty, these carrots are quite tasty.  The flavor of the raisins, ginger, and honey reminded me a little bit of Moroccan food, and it occurred to me that vegetarians might throw in a couple more types of vegetables and serve this over couscous as a main course.  The carrots were tender, yet firm, and despite the sweetness, the whole thing tasted very wholesome.

Instead of a dessert, I decided to make bread to go along with our meal.  It wasn’t that I was skeptical of this recipe, I just had absolutely no idea how it was supposed to work without yeast.  Would it taste like a biscuit?  A quick bread?  Would the texture be too heavy?  The result was a pleasant surprise.

Parmesan Herb Bread

This moist bread is a wonderful accompaniment to Tortellini Soup and a fresh green salad.

Parmesan Herb Bread

Parmesan Herb Bread

1 cup sour cream
1/3 cup milk
3 tablespoons butter, melted
2 1/2 cups flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon minced onion
2 teaspoons Italian seasoning
1 egg white, lightly beaten
Grated Parmesan cheese to taste
Italian seasoning to taste

Combine the sour cream, milk and butter in a small bowl and mix well. Combine the flour, sugar, baking soda, salt, 1/3 cup of Parmesan cheese, onion, and 2 teaspoons of Italian seasoning in a large bowl and mix well. Add the sour cream mixture and stir until moistened. Knead on a lightly floured surface for 1 minute or until smooth. Divide the dough into 2 equal portions. Shape each portion into a round loaf. Place the loaves on a greased baking sheet. Brush the tops with egg white. Sprinkle with Parmesan cheese and Italian seasoning to taste. Cut an “X” 1/2 inch through the top of each loaf. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 to 35 minutes or until golden brown.

parmesan herb bread1

Makes 2 loaves

The egg wash and cheese gives each loaf a crispy crust, and the inside, is dense and chewy, but not heavy.  It’s something like a cross between a biscuit and a cornbread, and the combination of herbs in the Italian seasoning (marjoram, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano, and basil) is quite nice.  While we enjoyed it with our meal, I can imagine it would be very, very good indeed with some kind of vegetable soup.

The whole time I’ve been cooking, eating, and writing about this meal, I’ve had the radio on in the background, and have been treated to an Angels sweep of the Red Sox, a Yankees sweep of the Twins (which is too bad because a) the Yankees are a force for evil, and b) I’ve really been eager to try out the cookbook from the Junior League of Minneapolis-St. Paul), and now, a fierce arctic battle between the Rockies and Phillies.  Seeing as I’ve already done Denver, next week, it’s looking like a meal from New York City, Orange County, or Philadelphia, if they play their cards right.

This weekend, the Dodgers head to St. Louis needing only one more win against the mighty Cardinals to clinch the National League Division series.  Right now, it’s the top of the 7th, and Dodgers lead 5-0.

Which raises the question I hardly dare ask:  will tomorrow’s meal from the Junior League of St. Louis’s Meet Us in the Kitchen be a victory dinner?

Only time will tell.  Until then….

View recipes and photos from the Junior League of St. Louis’s Meet Us in the Kitchen (Layered Ziti with Asparagus and Prosciutto, Honey Ginger Carrots Elegante, Parmesan Herb Bread)