Here at Wish Upon A Chef we talk mostly about food and recipes, but I want break from tradition for just a few minutes and talk about life. And we can't really talk about life without also talking about death.
I started this blog in 2006 during a rough patch in my life. Cooking and blogging gave me something to look forward to and be accountable for and I blogged like hell during those days. Things eventually worked out for the best and I've thanked my lucky stars for the joy and happiness I've experienced since those dark days. But I think we all know it can't be roses and rainbows every single day and blogging or cooking can't always cure what ails you.
My blog has been without words for the last 3 months. My meals have consisted mostly from the stock of frozen prepared foods in my freezer. There has been no creativity or desire. No words would come.
My mother has been battling stage III cancer since September. She is preparing for a bone marrow transplant in March at Vanderbilt hospital.
We tragically lost my 16-year-old cousin to suicide in November.
Jesse James, my furry four-legged companion of nearly 12 years, died in February.
My job has caused a great deal of anxiety and stress over the past several months.
I look at myself in the mirror and I hate what I see - the dark circles under my eyes, hair badly in need of coloring. I hate the way I feel - lethargic, unmotivated, depressed. My thoughts have been dark and brooding. I've been going through the motions and nothing more, but it's time to change all of that and the only way I know how is to dive right back into life.
It's time to breathe life back into Wish Upon A Chef and resurrect a few other projects that I've been working on. It's time to be thankful for the times we've had and make the most of the time still yet to come.
I chose a Caramel Apple Cheesecake from Pinterest as my inspiration for getting back into the kitchen. The recipe that I found was based on Mimi Hodges' Candy Apple Pie, which won the Pie of Emeril's Eye contest, but I tweaked it just a bit more and came up with the perfect blend of sweetness to celebrate a friend's birthday this past weekend.
It's life. It's death. It's all going to get in the way at times.
Caramel Apple Cheesecake
adapted from Mimi Hodges, winner of Good Morning, America’s “Pie of Emeril’s Eye” Contest, 2000
1 1/2 cups ginger snap cookie crumbs
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
5 1/3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup packed light brown sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
3-4 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored and thinly sliced
16 oz. cream cheese, at room temperature
1/3 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
2 large eggs, at room temperature
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter
1 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup heavy cream
1/2 cup chopped pecans, for garnish
To make the crust: preheat the oven to 375 F. Line the bottom of a 9-inch springform pan with a circle of parchment paper. Combine the cookie crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and melted butter in a medium bowl. Use a fork to stir until the crumbs are evenly moistened. Transfer the mixture to the prepared springform pan and press into an even layer over the bottom and about two-thirds of the way up the sides of the pan. Bake for 6-8 minutes, or until golden in color. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and let cool for about 10 minutes. Reduce oven heat to 350 F.
To make the apple filling: Melt the butter in a large skillet set over medium heat. Add the brown sugar, salt and cinnamon, stirring to combine, and cook until gently bubbling, about 1 minute. Add the apples and toss to coat. Cook until the slices are tender, and most of the liquid in the pan has been reduced, about 15-20 minutes. Add the cooked apples to the cooled crust.
Refrigerate the crust while you make the filling.
To make the cheesecake layer: In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese and sugar on medium speed until smooth. Add the vanilla, egg and lemon juice and beat until incorporated and smooth, about 1-2 minutes. Pour the cheesecake batter over the apples in the crust and spread into an even layer. Bake until the cheesecake is set, about 20-30 minutes. Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool to room temperature then refrigerate for at least 4 hours before making and adding the caramel.
To make the caramel sauce: Add the butter, brown sugar and heavy cream to a medium saucepan. Bring the mixture to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. Lower the heat to medium and continue boiling until the mixture thickens slightly, about 7-8 minutes. Turn off the heat and let cool slightly.
Remove the sides of the springform pan, then gently pour the caramel over the cheesecake. Garnish with chopped pecans, if desired. Store, covered, in the refrigerator.
When I was a kid, I overheard two woman having a conversation about how they dreaded the holidays. They were griping about having to shop and wrestle with the tree and this, that and the other and they were just going to be so glad when it was all over. As a kid, I just could not imagine the horrid thought of not wanting to celebrate the holidays! How could you not look forward to putting up a Christmas tree and baking cookies and going to parties and having loads of presents from Santa?? I vowed right then and there that I would never be a grumpy grown-up like them.
But guess what?
In those years of teen-angst when I wanted nothing more than to become an adult, I didn't realize just how much of a rip-off adulthood actually is. I didn't know that I would grow up to become a woman who did not acquire the seemingly mandatory female shopping gene and someone who hated crowds. I didn't realize it would be challenging to scrape together extra cash for buying gifts because there were so many bills that needed to be paid. And where does one find the time to totally redecorate their home and bake dozens of cookies and attend holiday parties after they work 40+ hours each week?
I can totally sympathize with those women from long ago and fully understand what they were talking about. Now, don't get me wrong - I've managed to overcome these obstacles in years past what with the advent of online shopping and 0% interest credit cards and such. But on top of everything else, I have had alot of sickness in my family these past few months and a recent tragic death and I don't feel like "doing" the holidays this year. Even my favorite holiday, Halloween, passed by without much fanfare this year and Thanksgiving will be much the same. I don't care about all the hoopla and bling - I just want to spend time with my family and loved ones and be thankful for yet another year together.
With my recent switch to more real foods, I wanted to prepare a Thanksgiving feast this year with nothing but real food. No processed soups in my green bean casserole. No canned turkey gravy and no white flour in my breads and desserts. But there was no motivation to research and test recipes. No excitement to shop for ingredients. No desire to prepare food for days to impress my guests.
Boy Toy is in charge of frying the bird and I'll do the regulatory sides, but nothing fancy this year. I made my favorite Trader Joe's Copy Cat Cranberry Walnut Tart and cranked out a couple of pumpkin pies. I used my secret ingredient in the pies: Chinese Five Spice. I love this stuff! It is a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves but the addition of star anise, Sichuan pepper and fennel give it a subtle kick. I like to use it interchangeably in recipes like my cinnamon roll recipe that calls for alot of cinnamon. I know it sounds weird to use peppers and fennel in a sweet recipe, but trust me, it works. The mixture is not overpowering at all and leaves people wondering what the taste is and feeling like they can't quite put their finger on what it is exactly .
Serve this pie with freshly whipped cream and give thanks that it is so easy to make!
Easy Pumpkin Pie
1 frozen deep dish pie crust, thawed
3/4 cup sugar
1 teaspoon Chinese Five Spice
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 can (15 oz) pumpkin
1-1/4 cup evaporated milk
2 eggs, beaten
Heat oven to 425. In a large bowl, combine filling ingredients. Pour into pie crust. Carefully transfer to oven rack.
Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 and continue baking 30-40 minutes longer or until knife inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool 2 hours; refrigerate until serving time.
Serve with fresh whipped cream.
"When you work in a small office, there are very few places to hide the crazy."
This is my favorite quote of the week from one of my coworkers. She's fairly new to the office and is just now finding out what I've known for five years now - our office is a Monday through Friday psychopathic roller coaster ride. It's a running joke that my job reminds me so much of my second marriage and I partly think that fact has helped me cope with the office full of crazy for so long. After a while you learn how to spot the subtle (and not so subtle) signs of who is having a bad day, when to keep your head down and when it might be time to sign the separation papers and find the door.
For the most part, I love my job but there's only so much intimidation you can take before something you like and enjoy becomes a dread. Only so many days that praying that the boss doesn't come in actually pays off. So much disappointment when you pull into the parking lot each morning and realize the place isn't totally engulfed in flames (I've actually witnessed one of my jobs burn nearly down to the ground before.)
Wielding power through intimidation is a mighty thing - a rush of addictive adrenaline. And I only know this because I occasionally get to be the office intimadator - it's a very rare occurrence, but it happens. And it happened last week.
A few of us were discussing lunch plans - who's going where and eating what and I announced that I was going home (I have that luxury since I only live 5 minutes away) and having leftover crawfish etouffee for lunch. They looked at me in disbelief.
You're having what?
Where did you get it?
I made it.
That sounds so intimidating.
I tried to explain that my version of the bayou delicacy was one of the easiest things in the world to make but they would have no part of my trying to bully them into thinking that. They rushed off to eat their fast food and talk about who does she think she is and can you believe she actually said that?? Meanwhile this office outcast went home to enjoy the simplest, most delicious lunch and felt no remorse for lording her cooking skills over the office minions.
Seriously, folks. Don't be intimidated or feel bullied by the title of food. This is the simplest dish ever. It is by no means authentic Creole cuisine and does not have a roux base because I'm taking steps to cut processed foods from my diet (in this case white flour), but there is still plenty of flavor and the simplistic nature of this dish makes it appear regularly on my menus.
Rouxlessness Crawfish Etouffee
(Get it?? Rouxlessness = Ruthlessness. Sounds intimidating, huh?)
1 package frozen crawfish meat, thawed
1 large onion, diced
1 cup green bell peppers, diced
1 cup celery, diced
1/2 cup scallions, sliced
1/2 cup fresh parsley, chopped
1 stick butter
Tony Cacheres Seasoning
Melt butter in saute pan over medium high heat. Saute onions, celery and bell pepper until clear, about 7 minutes. Add crawfish and scallions. Heat, stirring occasionally, until crawfish is heated through and begins to curl, about 10 minutes. Season to taste with Tony Cacheres. Remove from heat and stir in green onions and parsley. Serve over rice.
*For every 1 cup of rice, boil 2 cups of water. Add rice and stir once. Cover and turn heat to lowest setting. Do not disturb for at least 15 minutes. Fluff with fork.
Since starting the October Unprocessed 2013 Challenge, I feel like Old Mother Hubbard. I can still give my dog a bone because he would sell my soul three times over for a Milkbone, but my cupboards are bare since I committed to removing what processed foods were left from my nearly year-long attempt to change my eating habits.
You can see what my pantry looked like back in April, and I'm pleased to admit that my shelves are no longer straining under the weight and pressure of entirely too much food for one person. Ridding my supply of processed items was a huge relief but also scared the pants off of me. What would I reach for during those moments of weakness when I want something to eat RIGHT NOW?
More than halfway through the challenge I'm pleased to report that I haven't starved to death (yet) but it will probably take me just as long to restock my pantry with the good stuff as it did to rid it of the demons. There's a lot of label reading involved, alot of products in the stores to weed through and one thing I've learned is that just because it's organic, all-natural or non-GMO doesn't mean it's going to taste good and I'm going to like it. Some of the things I've tried so far, I would rather starve to death than have it in my pantry again.
I needed to replace my crack(er) pipe addiction with an acceptable alternative quickly, before I committed really bad food-related crimes. Of course I could make my own but who the bleep has time for that? Triscuits were my first attempt at finding an acceptable crack alternative, but after doing some research on canola oil (one of the ingredients in Triscuits) and considering I could consume enough of them to kill a lab rat, I decided to steer clear of them.
Have you ever looked at the ingredients listed on the box of your favorite crackers? Check out the ingredients on this box of Kashi crackers - a brand that markets itself as a healthy, nothing artificial, whole grain good-for-you product. More than 20 items listed in something you can make at home with less than 5 ingredients. And God only know where that "natural flavor" came from. No thanks.
I started paying attention to sections of the grocery store that I normally blew past, never giving a second glance or much thought to and the Jewish section yielded some really great cracker finds! Check out the ingredients on the Streit's 100% Whole Wheat Matzo crackers and the Manischewitz brand of matzo. Pretty simple stuff, huh?
Now check out the ingredients on the Kavli Crispy Garlic crackers. While it does contain sugar, there's not even enough of it to even register on the RDA scale so I decided they were acceptable.
Finding good, clean, unprocessed convenience items takes a bit of effort and some thinking and looking outside the box. If there is a questionable ingredient, look it up online and I guarantee you'll find more than you need to know about it (and if it's questionable to begin with that should tell you something, no?)
It's time to slow down, unwind, unprocess and pay attention to what goes into your mouth. Treat your body like the temple it is meant to be instead of a make-shift pup tent. You won't regret it and I can promise there are much-better-for-you alternatives out there to the things you currently love to eat. If I can clean up my crack(er) addiction, I have faith that you can too!
Since I pledged to participate in the October Unprocessed 2013 challenge, I've been searching for recipes with lots of bang for the buck when it comes to flavor. This Rachael Ray recipe for mussels simmered in a dirty martini sauce fit the bill for me.
This may not fit the "real food" model for some people with the addition of alcohol, but it does pass the "kitchen test" and alcohol is addressed in the FAQs. It wasn't my intention to cut alcohol out of my diet anyway, because the thought of no alcohol forever (let alone for a whole month) fills me with absolute terror.
I used frozen mussels from the frozen seafood section of my grocery store because I've never had good luck with the fresh mussels actually being fresh. Plus, I barely have time to shave my own legs in the mornings, so where would I find time to scrub and de-beard a couple dozen crustaceans? I keep a couple of packs of mussels in my freezer for the occasions when I crave the mussels in spicy tomato sauce or this delicious paella.
And just like a perfectly mixed martini served in a frosty glass after a hard day's work, this recipe didn't disappoint. I loved the olive pesto so much that I skimped on adding it all to the dish and ate some with cheese and crackers during the week for a snack.
Rachael Ray may drive me to drink, but the woman has awesome mussels!
Dirty Martini Mussels
1 cup packed flat-leaf parsley
¾ cup pitted green olives
3 tablespoons olive brine
4 cloves garlic, pasted or grated
1 lemon, zested and juiced
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 small onions, chopped
Salt and Pepper
½ cup good quality gin
¼ dry vermouth
3 pounds medium mussels (about 4 dozen) scrubbed and de-bearded
3 tablespoons butter
Warm crusty bread, torn in chunks for mopping sauce
Using a food processor, finely chop the parsley, olives, garlic and lemon zest. Pour in ¼ cup EVOO and the lemon juice and process into a pesto.
In a large pot or deep skillet with a tight fitting lid, heat the remaining 2 T of EVOO, 2 turns of the pan, over medium high heat. Add the onions and cook until softened, 5 to6 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the pesto. Add the gin and vermouth and cook until reduced, about 1 minute.
Add the mussels, cover and steam until opened, 6 to 8 minutes; discard any unopened shells.
Add the butter to the mussels and shake the pan to melt it into sauce. Serve with the bread for mopping.