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The Joy of Cooking

My mother didn’t host many dinner parties when I was growing up. But when I was in my 20s, she began hosting the biggest dinner event of the year – Thanksgiving. Since then, the Wednesday before Thanksgiving became known as “the scariest day of the year” in our house. Hours of manic cleaning were followed by an all-night meal prep leaving us with one stressed out, cranky mom.

I’m sure it didn’t help that my brother and I 1) offered little to no help; 2) cracked jokes and teased her the entire time; and 3) forced her to pose for pictures next to the turkey to prove that she actually made a whole meal. My father probably created the most stress for my mother by disappearing for the entire preparation process, strolling into the house mere minutes before dinner was served, and mocking her panic over getting a meal on the table for 15 people. He may have run a food business for 30 years, but he could never get Thanksgiving dinner on the table for a large group of people unless we were serving hoagies and cheese steaks.

It took me years to realize that she never had a lot of joy when it came to cooking and with the three of us harassing – how could she? Until I received some encouragement from my husband, and then eventually some friends and my mother, I found very little joy in cooking too.

Today, I am lucky enough to have a husband who wholeheartedly wants to help when we invite friends over for dinner. He will purchase last-minute ingredients and take on the cleaning. The problem is he re-cleans whatever I have already cleaned and that combined with some potentially innocent questions about the meal (i.e. :”Do we need crackers instead of the baguette you bought for this cheese plate?”) instantly turns me into my mother. I know I should be appreciative, but I usually take his interest and involvement as criticism and suddenly we’ve become my parents staring each other down for the first five minutes of our meal (or in my parent’s case – for the entire night!).

With Thanksgiving  less than a week away, we wanted to invite our neighbors over for a nice fall meal. My friend’s husband mentioned Brussels sprouts the last time we met up for dinner so I decided to make the Braised Brussels Sprouts in Mustard Sauce from one of my recent posts as a special treat for him as well as the Frozen Pumpkin Mousse Pie. The sprouts were braised well and the mustard sauce turned out one of my favorite version of this vegetable thus far.

This risotto recipe turned out quite well; however, I would probably increase the liquid on the recipe below add a little more broth depending on how dense you like your risotto. It is certainly a hearty dish – something that is important to remember when you are cooking for non-vegetarians. You definitely don’t want them to go home hungry. The risotto served the four of us and made enough leftovers for Ryan and me for the rest of the weekend. I picked up some broccoli rabe and a nice bunch of kale at the farmers market this weekend. The bitter greens rounded out the flavors of the risotto quite nicely on Saturday and Sunday.

This is probably my last post until after Thanksgiving as I’ll be taking a road trip to Pittsburgh to stay with the in-laws for a long weekend. Not sure how much cooking I’ll be doing.

Happy Thanksgiving to all!

Butternut Squash Risotto (Adapted from the Ina Garten/Food Network)

Ingredients

• 1 butternut squash (2 pounds)

 • 2 tablespoons olive oil

• Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

• 6 cups chicken stock, preferably homemade (I used vegetable stock)

 • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter

• 1/2 cup minced shallots (2 large)

• 1 1/2 cups Arborio rice (10 ounces)

 • 1/2 cup dry white wine (tip: use good enough wine that you would drink)

• 1 cup freshly grated Parmesan

Directions

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Peel the butternut squash, remove the seeds, and cut it into 3/4-inch cubes. You should have about 6 cups. Place the squash on a sheet pan and toss it with the olive oil, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Roast for 25 to 30 minutes, tossing once, until very tender. Set aside. Meanwhile, heat the chicken stock in a small covered saucepan. Leave it on low heat to simmer.

In a heavy-bottomed pot or Dutch oven, melt the butter and saute the shallots on medium-low heat for 10 minutes, until the shallots are translucent but not browned. Add the rice and stir to coat the grains with butter. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes. Add 2 full ladles of stock to the rice, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1/2 teaspoon pepper. Stir, and simmer until the stock is absorbed, 5 to 10 minutes.

Continue to add the stock, 2 ladles at a time, stirring every few minutes. Each time, cook until the mixture seems a little dry, then add more stock. Continue until the rice is cooked through, but still al dente, about 30 minutes total. Off the heat, add the roasted squash cubes and Parmesan. Mix well and serve.

Cooking at Foster’s

When I was in 7th grade, my friend Danielle and I were forced by our mothers to participate in a day camp at Ridley Creek State Park. We milked cows, handled farm chores and made a peach cobbler without an oven or refrigerator. In many ways, I am my mother’s daughter. I like to shop, hate camping, and have little to no athletic ability. Neither of us are “close to nature” so I was particularly unhappy with her decision to send me to such a rustic “camp.”  In the end, I ruined the whipped cream for the peach cobbler because I stirred it too often and didn’t follow the instructions. My first cooking “lesson” was not a success.

Fast forward 25 years. It was time for another class – and this time – a real one.  I’d heard great things about the cooking classes at Foster’s in Old City. They offer a nice variety of cooking classes each month as well as free cooking demonstrations every Saturday at 2 p.m. My aunt and I chose the “Braising, Blanching and Sauteing” class; however due to time constraints they decided to just focus on meat braising and vegetable blanching and skip the fish saute. I would have enjoyed the sauteing part of this because I eat fish and not meat, but I still learned quite a bit.

In Foster’s new kitchen on the lower level of the relocated store, our instructor – Betty Kaplan (former Reading Terminal Cooking Instructor) – led us through two cooking techniques. We created a rich, flavorful chicken curry stew by braising some chicken and blanched some broccoli and snow peas. Betty taught me something that has been painfully lacking in my cooking of late – layering your flavors. Last week, I made a pumpkin chick pea curry and was underwhelmed by the level of flavor in the dish even though I exceeded the amounts of spices in the dish. I added my curry powder to my dish too late – the pumpkin puree had already combined with the chick peas, carrots and sweet potatoes. What I should have done is this: add salt, pepper and curry powder to the onions, carrots, chick peas and sweet potatoes as I sautéed them and then add the rest once the pumpkin puree was added  to the simmering dish. 

In the chicken dish, Betty floured four chicken thighs and then seasoned them with salt, pepper and curry before frying them up a little. Then she sautéed her onions, carrots and celery and seasoned them separately before starting the 30-minute braising process where she added white wine to the vegetable mixture and finally the already-seasoned chicken. And I must note: clearly all curry powder is not the same and I am going to toss the one I bought at the local market last week and head to Chinatown soon for the real thing. It made a huge difference in her dish as did the addition of some orange peel into the curry.

Between now and the end of the year, Foster’s is offering several hands-on knife skills classes and a couple of canning classes taught by Marisa McClellan, local food writer and blogger. Check out her website – www.foodinjars.com – for some great tips on jarring and canning this winter. I’d like to take both classes.

Check out these sites for cooking classes in the Philadelphia area:

“Better Than Sex” Cake

In my early 20s, I never gave cooking much thought. I certainly didn’t do a lot of cooking growing up and was never really inspired to start. Until I met my friend Mia. We worked together as editors at an insane job and she kept us well fed with delicious treats like whoopie pies and “Better Than Sex” cake. She talked about what she made for her boyfriend for dinner the night before and went shopping at lunch for ingredients she needed for her next creation. She even made soup, which meant she really knew how to cook. I envied her cooking abilities and the fact that she, unlike me, actually had someone to cook for on a regular basis. But I never had that passion for cooking that she did. After many, many missteps, I finally found my footing and my passion for cooking, food memoirs, and all things related to cooking. So Mia, thanks.

“Better Than Sex Cake” is one of the most decadent and satisfying desserts I’ve ever had the pleasure of eating. I made this cake for Ryan’s family reunion two years ago and we had to make up another name for it around his grandmother Bessie and Aunt Margaret. I think we called it “Buffay Surprise” (it was a long drive) or something like that. Anyway, it isn’t fancy or elegant nor it is an accurate representation of the complex dishes that Mia can make so well. But it is the first of her recipes I ever tried to recreate and well, toffee and chocolate together is just so damn good…

Better Than Sex Cake

  •    1 (18.25 ounce) package devil’s food cake mix
  •    1/2 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk
  •    6 ounces caramel ice cream topping
  •    3 (1.4 ounce) bars chocolate covered toffee, chopped
  •    1 (8 ounce) container frozen whipped topping, thawed 
  • toffee

Bake cake according to package directions for a 9×13 inch pan; cool on wire rack for 5 minutes. Make slits across the top of the cake, making sure not to go through to the bottom.

In a saucepan over low heat, combine sweetened condensed milk and caramel topping, stirring until smooth and blended. Slowly pour the warm topping mixture over the top of the warm cake, letting it sink into the slits; then sprinkle the crushed chocolate toffee bars liberally across the entire cake while still warm. Make sure you crush the candy bars into small chunks as opposed to crumbs. You can also add Skor bars into this as well if you like.

Let cake cool completely, then top with whipped topping. Decorate the top of the cake with some more chocolate toffee bar chunks and swirls of caramel topping. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.

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