Sunday, January 25, 2009

More STUFF for Dessert

This week I allowed my sweet tooth to follow up on one of my earlier blogs, Cherry Pretzel Dessert. Another decadent dish that follows suit in my family's Dessert Stuff tradition is Chocolate Stuff. My cousin Sandra was the first to introduce us to this amazingly rich and chocolaty treat. It's actually a pretty common dessert that I have encountered, going by various names: Dirt Cake, Trifle and...brace yourself...Better than Sex (how do you get to judge THAT contest?!?!). But to keep with family tradition, we went with Chocolate Stuff. It's a fairly simple deep-dish dessert, alternating layers of chocolate cake, chocolate pudding, cool whip, broken pieces of Score or Heath Bar, and finishing up with crumpled up Oreo cookies. The classic version is usually served in a giant glass bowl to enhance the layer effect. The Dirt Cake version is served in a plastic flower pot and may even include a plastic floral arrangement and buried gummy worms for "ooohhh's" and "aaahhhh's" from the kids. Being that I am an equal opportunist, I decided to make a Vanilla Stuff version, using vanilla cake, vanilla pudding and crumpled Nilla wafers. Imagine the shock that I felt when I found out that this concoction already existed as the alter ego of Dirt Cake – Beach Sand (served with a beach shovel out of a beach bucket no less).

Not to be outdone by a plastic bucket, I forged ahead and have come up with a few clever deviations over the years, and all have been fan favorites. Below is a list of my Dirt/Sand/Trifle variations. If you have any other versions or suggestions, by all means, send 'em in!

Strawberry Banana Stuff: alternating layers of vanilla cake, banana pudding, slices of bananas, cool whip, topped off with fresh or frozen strawberries

Tropical Stuff: alternating layers of vanilla cake, vanilla pudding, crushed pineapple, cool whip, topped with shaved coconut

Chocolate Covered Cherry Stuff: alternating layers of chocolate cake, cherry pie filling and chocolate cool whip

Pumpkin Stuff (perfect for the fall): alternating layers of gingerbread, pumpkin pudding (vanilla pudding mixed with canned pumpkin and brown sugar and cinnamon), cool whip and topped with crumpled Ginger Snaps

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Comfort Foods Part 2: Soups

This week I thought it would be a good time to post some soups to help get us through these dog days of winter.

First up is Italian Wedding Soup. This is an abbreviated version of Escarole Soup (Scuddole to you purists!). The first time I heard it referred to as Italian Wedding Soup was at a non-Italian event. I didn't know what to expect. When it was served, I said, "oh...scuddole!" I only call my quick version Italian Wedding because I use spinach instead of escarole. No need to be misleading. While not as hearty as my mom's Thanksgiving Scuddole, this version is very tasty and makes for a great meal.

Next up is Tomato Basil Soup, suggested by my friend Jackie. If you like the taste of fresh, sweet basil, this soup is a must. Goes great with a gooey grilled cheese sandwich on a cold, dreary day.

Last up is Snert (aka Dutch Pea Soup), suggested by my friend Jay (originally posted by Holly Moore in a Philadelphia City Paper column, circa 1991). I have not personally tried this recipe yet, but Jay knows his stuff. He makes this soup every year when the weather gets wintry. I'll be trying this one out real soon!

Enjoy and stay warm.

20-25 mini meatballs, fully cooked (half as big as regular)
6 cups chicken broth
2 cups beef broth
1 package frozen crinkle cut carrots
1 10oz. package frozen chopped spinach, defrosted and drained
1 cup uncooked orzo pasta
Salt and pepper to taste
Parmesan cheese to taste

Place broths and meatballs in soup pot. Simmer 10 minutes, add spinach and carrots. Bring to boil,
add pasta and simmer 10-15 minutes. Season to taste, ladle into bowls and garnish liberally with cheese.

2 teaspoons olive oil 

3 garlic cloves, minced 

3 cups fat-free, less-sodium chicken broth 

3/4 teaspoon salt 

3 (14.5-ounce) cans no-salt-added diced tomatoes, undrained 

2 cups fresh basil leaves, thinly sliced

Basil leaves (optional)

Heat oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Add garlic; cook 30 seconds, stirring constantly. Stir in the broth, salt, and tomatoes; bring to a boil. Reduce heat; simmer 20 minutes. Stir in basil.
Place half of the soup in a blender; process until smooth. Pour pureed soup into a bowl, and repeat procedure with remaining soup. Garnish with basil leaves, if desired.

SNERT (aka Dutch Pea Soup)
Holly Moore, City Paper, circa 1991
Melt some butter in a heavy stock pot, add two diced onions, two chopped celery stalks and four minced cloves of garlic. Saute until soft, about five minutes, and toss in the split peas. Cook for another five minutes. Then add a pound of smoked ham hocks, 6 cups of water and 2 cups of chicken broth along with a few bay leaves, salt and a hearty sprinkling of coarsely ground pepper, lots of pepper.

Simmer away, covered, for a couple of hours. Then remove the ham hocks and salvage the ham from the bones.

Now comes the fun part. Shun your Cuisinart or blender in favor of a wire mesh sieve. Pour some of the soup into the sieve and using the back of a spoon and a spatula, force it through the wire mesh into a bowl. Keep going until it's all pureed. Repeat the process a second time - much quicker and easier - from the bowl back into the soup kettle. If you insist, you can use a food processor or blender - works just as well and is much easier. Too mechanically soulless for me, though.

Add the meat from the ham hocks, to the pot. Bring everything back to a simmer.

I use closer to 2 pounds of ham hocks, and add about a pound of diced kielbasa after the soup is done. Enjoy!

Monday, January 12, 2009

Comfort Foods Part 1: Macaroni and Cheese

I don't remember eating Kraft macaroni and cheese when I was little. The first time I do remember eating it, I wasn't that impressed. So when my wife said, "Hey, we gotta try my mom's macaroni and cheese recipe," I thought "Really? Well...ok, I guess." Let me tell you something...home made mac & cheese is now one of my favorite comfort dishes. It is simple to make, filling and quite tasty. Our daughter, Julianna (who I believe OD'd on the Kraft stuff about 15 months ago), insists on only home made! The kid's turned in to a connoisseur at age brings a tear to my eye. If you have little ones at home, this is a recipe that they're sure to love. If you want to get creative with it, try mixing in peas or tuna, top with some hot sauce, or serve with some stewed tomatoes.

*Note - we use American Cheese. Feel free to get creative and use your cheese(s) of choice!

1 lb. elbow macaroni
1/2 lb. American Cheese
3 cups milk
1 stick butter (slightly softened)
1 tblspn flour
salt & pepper

Boil macaroni.

Melt butter in pan. Pour 3 cups of milk in pan & stir until warm. Add flour and salt & pepper. Stir

Break up cheese in small pieces, add to sauce. Stir over low heat until melted (no lumps).

Drain macaroni and pour in flat pan. Pour cheese over macaroni, covering all.

Cover with tin foil, bake at 325˚ for 30 minutes.

Next post - Comfort Foods Part 2: Soups

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Raise a Glass!

Ah...the power of Facebook. As I've spent the past month or so reconnecting with old schoolmates and rekindling old friendships, I've also taken advantage of joining various Facebook groups. Being that my work buddies have transformed me into a bit of a beer snob, it was only appropriate that I join the Philly Beer Geeks Group. It was there that I stumbled across If you enjoy a nice brew and are in to the Philly bar scene, it's a must-go-to site! Join Rachel Riot and Kunoichi Erica on their ale-sipping adventures, filled with lots of great suggestions on local events and venues, fun pics and videos, and of course...lots of beer! So check 'em out. Now I've gotta track down a good recipe for steamed mussels to accompany my next glass of Ayinger Celebrator. Cheers!

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Sunday Gravy

Happy New Years, everyone! I decide to kick off 2009 with a real bang...Sunday Gravy. As you may have read in my blog intro, I made my first pot of gravy with my mom's old neighbor way back when I was a kid. I have made countless pots of gravy since, but only in the past few years have I really zeroed in on a specific recipe. However, I have never followed a written recipe. It was always from memory, or whatever mood I was in that day. Although I found it a bit painstaking (as I believe this should be a free-form dish), I documented every measurement while making today's gravy. You're welcome.

First, let me address the whole gravy versus sauce issue. There are countless opinions on the subject. My new friend, Lorraine Ranalli, just wrote a book on it (I suggest you all visit her fantastic web site). When I hear "sauce," I think Marinara. Quick. Delicious, nonetheless...but quick.You heat your oil and garlic, add your tomatoes, onions, seasonings, maybe even some meat or shrimp, and in 20-30 minutes you have a tasty meal. Gravy, on the other hand, is a bit more complex. My guess (and this is only a guess) is that the term comes from the flavors of the meats that are incorporated. The "other" gravies (beef, turkey, chicken, etc.) are, of course, made from meat drippings. But the main difference to me is the time, patience and love that you put in to your gravy (I was gonna go with blood, sweat and tears, but that would be gross). You treat your pot of gravy as if it were a child. You raise it and nurture it, from it's infant stage until it matures.

I always add meatballs to my gravy, usually with either sausage, boneless country spare ribs, or brasciole (thin steak stuffed with a breadcrumb mixture and rolled up). Today I went with the spare ribs. First, I marinated them in apple cider vinegar, then gave them a quick rub with kosher salt, pepper, garlic powder and rosemary, then roasted them slow and low for 75 minutes at 325ยบ. I also prefer to bake my meatballs and sausage, instead of the traditional frying. It's just as tasty, healthier for you, and frees up some quality time.

Before we get into the actual'll notice that I suggest adding two baby carrots to the gravy. This is an old trick that I learned a few years back. The carrots add a natural sweetness to the gravy, while at the same time soak up some of the acid from the tomatoes. I joke with my friends that when the gravy is done cooking, you could probably add a wick to the carrots and light them up on the 4th of July.

One last note...if you decide to try my Sunday Gravy recipe, I would be delighted. But if you decide to alter my recipe, and add your own flavors or ingredients, I would be overjoyed. Experiment, adjust the flavors to your likings, and most of all have fun. And be sure to share your version of the recipe with me.


2 28-oz cans crushed tomatoes
1 29-oz can tomato sauce (plus one can full of water)
1 6-oz can tomato paste with Italian herbs
olive oil
1/4 cup finely chopped onion
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 tblspn Italian Seasoning (marjorim, thyme, rosemary, savory, sage, oregano and basil)
1 tblspn sugar
1 beef bouillon cube
2 baby carrots
1 cup red wine(whatever you have opened)
1 loaf crusty Italian bread

Drizzle bottom of sauce pot with olive oil to coat on medium-high heat. Add chopped onion; stir for 1 minute or until onion is translucent. Add minced garlic; stir for about one minute. Add the two cans of crushed tomatoes, one can of tomato sauce plus one can of water, and one can of tomato paste; stir. Add Italian seasoning and sugar; stir. Heat and occasionally stir until slowly bubbling. Add bouillon cube, baby carrots and splash of wine; stir. Lower heat, slightly cover and simmer for one hour. Add meats; simmer partially covered for 2-3 hours, stirring occasionally. Sip and enjoy the remaining cup of wine as you dip some bread into the gravy while it's cooking.

Serve over your choice of pasta and enjoy!