Thursday, February 11, 2016

Casey’s Vegan Chili

It's Lent and chili is one of my favorite food.  I have been working on a vegan version to have for meatless Fridays and other reasons.  I've tried about five or six versus until I settled in on this one. In the end I wanted a chili that felt as filling as one con carne versus having the same exact texture. Chili, for me, must "stick to the ribs." That is the source of comfort for me.

In my quest for a vegan chili, I made sure that I never started it with a mirepoix. I'm not a champion for carrots in my chili; it's my personal pet peeve.  You may find it odd that that is what drives me. However, I searched for the appropriate base for this meal and centered in on a vegetable base of onion, garlic and peppers which is more of a Spanish nod. While I know kale isn't really a Mexican ingredient, the baby blue squash is. Yet if you can't find that squash, any zucchini or summer squash will do. I wanted to stick with more authentic vegetables, so I added the jalapeño to the mix since that pepper is a chili. Be warned, this recipe has some residual heat from the jalapeño.

Also I'm serious about chopping the kale as finely as possible; the smaller the pieces the more dense the chili feels.


Serving suggestion
  • 2 T olive oil
  • 1½ cps onions, chopped (one large onion)
  • 3 cps peppers, chopped (2 large peppers)
  • 1 jalapeño, chopped 
  • 8 large garlic cloves, chopped
  • 3 lbs kale, chopped as small as possible
  • 2 cps baby blue squash, cubed (one large squash)
  • 5 T chili powder 
  • 1 T ground cumin
  • 1 t dried basil
  • ½ t dried oregano
  • ½ t dried thyme
  • ½ t salt, or to taste 
  • ½ t black pepper, or to taste
  • 1 6 oz tomato paste
  • 1 28 oz crushed tomatoes with added puree
  • 1 14½ -oz vegetable broth
  • 1 12 oz beer 
  • 3 15.5 oz cans of beans, drained if desired
  1. Heat a large sauce pan, dutch oven, etc. over medium heat; add the oil and heat through. Stir in the onion, garlic, peppers and jalapeño; cook until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes.
  2. Sauté the kale, about 1/3 of the kale a time, until about 1/3 of the original volume, about 10 to 12 minutes.
  3. Add the cubed squash and continue to sauté for 5 minutes.
  4. Add chili powder, cumin, basil, oregano, thyme, salt and black pepper, and cook until the aroma is released, about 1-2 minutes more.
  5. Mix in tomato paste, crushed tomatoes, broth and beer. (Start with the paste first, mixing well into the kale – it helps to get the paste distributed into the other liquids.)
  6. Bring to a boil, then add the beans.
  7. Reduce heat and simmer until thickened to desired consistency, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, about 1 hour 15 minutes or longer.
  8. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper.
So I played around with this recipes and I like to use a variety of beans in my chili. Another helpful hint is to buy a 12 oz can of tomato paste, then use half and freeze the remaining. I tend to make chili and butter chicken in close proximity in time so the remaining paste is never in the freeze for too long.

Lastly, like the sugo alla puttanesca, this is a great braising liquid - especially for pork - which is such a Tex-Mex protein. I brown the pork on all sides and top with 1/2 cup of chili per 1/4 pound of meat - adding additional water, wine or broth to thin the sauce out if needed, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, and let simmer for at least an hour.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Butter Chicken

Butter chicken or murgh makhani is an Indian chicken dish in a mild curry sauce, whose roots lay in Punjabi cuisine.

I first remember having butter chicken when I was in Australia over ten years ago. I was visiting a boyfriend at the time and we were coming home from a night out and we were famished. There was a curry shop on Oxford Street en route between the bars and the QVB, where we would pick up our late night bus. There were about five to seven curries available. Butter chicken didn't look like what I thought butter chicken would, but I thought that it smells fantastic.  I ordered it and the server ladled a healthy portion over fresh, hot jasmine rice.  I remember it wasn't just the alcohol or the hunger talking; this dish tasted amazing. 

The final portion from my Pre-Christmas batch, see below
When I see it on Indian buffets (though it's not really a common buffet dish), I am excited and I always sample it. About a year ago, I noticed that a friend over in the UK would make off-hand comments about having butter chicken when we would catch up, because it's a very popular dish over there. Through this power of suggestion, I started to crave butter chicken. Meanwhile across the pond, one can readily get frozen entrees of butter chicken in a local supermarket. Due to the empire, Indian foods aren't exotic to the Brits. It's ubiquitous there. Here in the States, there are only two opinions: go to an Indian restaurant or learn to make.

And I love to make it. I do it a little more complicated than my original source recipe.  How I mostly complicate the dish is that I don’t use boneless, skinless chicken thighs like the source recipe calls for.  I love chicken meat on the bone because the flavor is that more rich.  If I had a cleaver, I would just skin the thighs and then hack them into pieces – bones and all. However what I do, is remove as much meat as possible but leave some on the bone and add all the pieces in.  I try to serve each serving with one of the thigh bones to enjoy how flavorful the on-the-bone meat is. It's a little trying, messy and slick, but it's, in the end, worth it. 

Finally, remember to warn people about the cardamom pods if you don't remove them.  I always forget that they are there at least once a batch. I bite into it and, damn, those things bit back.


  • 2 T butter
  • 2 T vegetable oil
  • 1 onion, diced
  • 3 cloves garlic, minced
  • 8 large chicken thighs, skin removed and cut into bite-sized pieces from the bone.
  • 2 t curry powder
  • 1 T curry paste (I’ve used anything from a cube of S&B GoldenCurry, to Patak’s, to some red, green and panang curries from Thailand)
  • 2 t tandoori masala (I have a local Indian and Pakistani market where I can get them for $2 each, but if you can't find them, I'd bet would have both masalas available.)
  • 1 t garam masala
  • 6 oz tomato paste
  • 1 cup low-fat plain yogurt
  • 14 oz coconut milk (1 can)
  • 15 green cardamom pods
  • salt to taste


  1. Melt the butter and vegetable oil in a large skillet over medium heat.
  2. Stir in the onion, garlic and chicken; cook and stir until the onion has softened and turned translucent, about 5-10 minutes.
  3. Stir in the curry powder, curry paste, tandoori masala, garam masala and tomato paste until the tomato paste is well incorporated.
  4. Add in coconut milk and yogurt, and mix well
  5. Stir in the cardamom pods and season to taste with salt.
  6. Bring to a boil and immediate reduce to a simmer and let cook for at least 1 hour; cook for longer to reduce the sauce to a thicker consistency.
  7. Try your best to remove the cardamom pods before serving.

This year, I added this dish to my parents' Christmas food gifts. For about a decade, I started to give the gift of chili to my parents. (I was poor and didn't have money for a lot of Christmas gifts; so I made some of my chili that would last me for a while and I scoped up and froze two big portions to give to mom and dad. Voilà, a Christmas tradition.) Before my trek to San Francisco, I made a big batch of butter chicken since I was craving it. Yet I needed to portion it out and freeze it since I wouldn't have finished it in time before my trip. I love my parents; I love my butter chicken. I figured no better way to show them I care and gift them another of my most favorite dishes.

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

So I flew Spirit Airlines

I had a blast in Chicago this weekend, but I'll save that for another entry.
Cloud Gate by Anish Kupoor
Back to Spirit, I prepared for the worst and I worked diligently not to be charged any extra fees.  I flew out on Southwest, the luxury brand of low-cost carriers. I had a lovely experience and all my Spirit prep helped me deplane in a jiffy to walk miles and miles and miles to the CTA orange line. I got my 10,000 steps in both days in Chicago, I'll have you know.

So my Spirit Airline prep, I had my Timbuk2 bag, which measures 15.0” x 13.8” x 7.9” (smaller than the 16” x 14” x 12” dimensions for the one personal item is included in the Bare Fare). I crammed it full: 6 tee shirts, 6 boxer briefs, 6 pairs of socks, a pair of sneakers, a rugby style shirt, a light cotton hoodie, gym shorts and tee, toiletries (toothpaste, eczema cream, cologne, deodorant, shaving cream, moisturizer and lotion - I keep my toothbrush and razor separate since they aren't liquid) and an iPad. Plus, I wore a sweater and my chukkas to keep more room in the bag. It was more than enough clothing, and options, for 2 nights in Chicago. I could stretch it for 3 or 4 nights. I proved to myself that I could successfully pack minimally in the winter in order not to need to pay any baggage fees.

Confident that I wasn't going to pay any baggage fees, I vowed not to pay any other fees. I didn't choose my seat. I didn't pay for more legroom, I didn't accrue any extra cost while I was purchasing my ticket or checking in. (I even printed my boarding pass ahead of time at my hotel to avoid Spirit's $10 fee.)

Since I didn't paid for any extras - like $15 to choose a seat, I got seat 17B - a middle seat. After discovering that I would be stuck in the middle, I read up on Spirit's practices. To save money Spirit doesn't have wifi, stock in-flight magazines or even hand out free water. If Spirit pays to transport it, they charge you for it. Since there wouldn't be a magazine, I paid $9 and tax for Bossypants by Tina Fey for airplane - a superb investment.

I paid for soda and a snack. I feel that's a purchase over a fee. I rationalize. So do you. I buried my nose in the book and forgot that I was in a middle seat. It was comfortable enough - I've been less comfortable on Amtrak before. I was getting to the point about Tina's DelCo childhood and her memories at the Summer Showtime (a.k.a. the Upper Darby Summer Stage) when the pilot announced were making our final preparations to land.  The flight went by fast!

We landed a few minutes early. That, plus I only had a personal item, I had time to catch the last Septa train from the airport.

My trip worked out smoothly.

My critiques:
  • The below average legroom, 28", is completely obvious, though it wasn't a nuisance on a two-hour flight. 
  • There is only one flight from Philadelphia and one flight to: 6am-ish to ORD and 9pm-ish from ORD. What happens if that flight doesn't come in? A hidden plus to that is that you can do a full day trip to Chicago for the fare of a Spirit flight.

Not an issue:

  • No free water; everyone should know the life hack of carrying an empty bottle and filling it up after security. 

High points:
  • The flight crew was very outgoing - which is the trend on low-cost carriers. 
  • I had a minor issue with my snack and the flight attendant provide me good costumer service and got me to up-sell on a product.

Long and short of it, I will take Spirit back to Chicago with good planning; $81 is too good of a deal to pass up.

Friday, January 29, 2016

Why I'm visiting Chicago instead of New York

I was going to go to New York for a weekend – the weekend of January 29-31  – this weekend. I had gotten sick and ended up not going anywhere for New Year’s, so I thought I’d treat myself later. I found a great deal, $116.88 a night, in Midtown, a neighborhood I usually stay in. It was going to be an estimated $275.24 for the two nights with taxes and fees.

In my free time, I plan travel trips, whether or not I take them. It’s a great exercise for me to research new and old places to go as well as estimate the prices for big trips.

I was on goggle flights, playing around with dates and locations, and saw a ticket for $81 to Chicago for the weekend I was planning to go to New York. Now, the ticket was on Spirit Air, an airline I have never taken. I took a step back and thought about whether or not I should rethink my plans.

The Amtrak deal
If I had completely committed to go to New York, I could have purchased a round trip saver ticket on Amtrak for $78. With advanced planning, $78 is the lowest fare for Philadelphia to New York. (Though, just before I published this entry, Amtrak was running a Valentines Day special of $39 one way from Philadelphia to New York).

With that, I made up my mind to go to Chicago. I ended up spending a little more than $81, as to not take a day off and to eek in sometime at the weekly Happy Hour that I frequent since I will be breaking #DryJanuary tonight. I ended up paying $51.98 on Southwest for my flight to Midway and $43.09 to Spirit for my trip home. (I checked on Wednesday for pricing on Amtrak to NYC; there are no saver tickets, only value ticket and the total round trip is now $110).

Hyatt Centric: The Loop
Meanwhile, I was cleaning out my e-mails earlier in my planning process – work, personal, spam and old ones – and only just discovered an e-mail from Hyatt dated May 29, 2015, letting me know that my “account will be closed and all points forfeited if there's no activity by March 31, 2016.” I thought that I should at least keep this account open and booked a room for my arrival night at the Hyatt Centric The Loop Chicago. I paid in advance and confirmed the room for $103.59 inclusive of taxes.

Never fear, I am a Starwood boy through and through. I love the W and Luxury Collection brands and there are usually a Sheraton, Westin or a Four Points close by for work travel. I found another deal on the site, The Tremont Chicago Hotel at Magnificent Mile for the estimated total of $93.99.

To compare apples to apples, I will assume that all transportation costs in the respective cities would cancel each other out and should not factor in the price comparison.

Trolley: $2.25 ($1.80 for token)
Trolley and train to Airport:
$8.00 ($6.50 in advance) +
$2.25 ($1.80 for token)
Amtrak: $78.00
Southwest, PHL to MDW:
Spirit Air, ORD to PHL: 
New York hotel, 2 nights: $275.24
Hyatt Centric - Loop, 1 night:
Tremont, 1 night:
Trolley: $2.25 ($1.80 for token)
Trolley and train from Airport:
$8.00 ($6.50 in advance) +
$2.25 ($1.80 for token)
Cost for NYC: $357.74
Cost for CHI:
The Tremont
So it may take me more time to get from Center City Philadelphia to the Loop than it would to get to Midtown, I think that it's all worth it to visit another one of America's great cities. Also, the weather is comparable between the two cities from

Friday: 41°F high, 24°F low 36°F high, 36°F low
Saturday: 40°F high, 31°F low46°F high, 37°F low
Sunday: 45°F high, 35°F low46°F high, 36°F low

Actually I think that I make out with the weather, too.

All in all, this little exercise shows that it's worth checking out the possibilities. You never know when ten days in Mexico can be more affordable than a week in Texas, for example.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Sugo alla puttanesca

This is one of my favorite Italian dishes. I am a sucker for complex salty flavors: the slightly floral pickling of capers, the vinegary brine of green olives and the hidden fatty sharp and "fishy" taste of anchovies. There are times when I crave salt and this dish does it for me. 
Apocryphally described as a tomato sauce that was served in a brothel since it was based on the ingredients in their larders, this "in the style of a prostitute" sauce is a tangy, briny creation of the mid-20th century. The salty and fragrant ingredients are typical of Southern Italian cuisine: tomatoes, olive oil, anchovies, olives, capers and garlic.

Wikipedia has a less salacious origin story. More like Buffalo wings, puttanesca came about when hungry people sitting at a popular Italian night spot complained of needing to eat and the restaurant owner not having enough ingredients. "Make any kind of garbage (puttanata)," they retorted and the owner mixed his remaining tomatoes, olive and capers together and served the sauce over spaghetti. The rest, they say, is history.

Serving suggestion
I prefer the Lazian version over the Neapolitan, so my sauce has anchovies. This is traditionally served over spaghetti but any long thin string-like pasta works for this sauce. Also a variation of on this sauce is puttanesca with tuna, which, in turn I have extrapolated into chicken puttanesca, since the sauce is a great liquid for slow cooking meat since it's already delightfully seasoned. (See below.) I haven't tried it yet, but I have some pork chops in the freezer, and I'm going to do that later this week now. 

I craved this sauce this weekend since it's so hearty. Plus it really tasted good this weekend during the blizzard. I filled my plate with pasta and sauce, added freshly cracked pepper and sat on the porch to watch the snow continue to fall after one of my turns to shovel the steps and sidewalk.

  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil 
  • 1 large white or yellow onion, chopped 
  • 5-8 cloves garlic, minced 
  • ½ tsp kosher salt, or to taste 
  • 1 tsp freshly ground black pepper, or to taste 
  • ½ tsp red pepper flakes, or to taste 
  • 1 2oz tin of anchovies, mashed 
  • 4 28oz cans of tomatoes, crushed and/or diced 
  • 1 6oz can tomato paste 
  • 1 6oz can black olives, drained and coarsely chopped 
  • 1 3oz jar green olives, with brine, coarsely chopped 
  • 1 3oz jar capers, with brine
  1. Heat a large sauce pan over medium heat; add the oil and heat through. Stir in the onion and garlic, cook until tender, about 5 to 8 minutes. 
  2. Add the salt, black pepper, red pepper and anchovies, and cook until the aroma is released, about 1 minute more. 
  3. Add the tomatoes and paste and bring to a boil. Add the black olives, green olives with brine, capers with brine, then reduce heat and simmer, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
  4. Serve over pasta
Again, I adore this sauce since it is so adaptable into other meals.

For pasta alla puttanesca con tunno: add a can of tuna 5-10 minutes before serving to heat up the tuna and to incorporate the preserving liquid into the sauce.

For pollo alla puttanesca: sear skinless and boneless chicken breast on both sides, cover with 1/2 cup of sauce per 1/4 pound of meat - adding additional water, wine or broth to thin the sauce out if needed, bring to a boil then reduce to a simmer, and let simmer for at least an hour.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Traveling for Christmas: Bay Area

Before I embarked on my 2014-2015 trip to the UK, my brother, who was moving the family to the West Coast for his new job, invited my parents and myself to come celebrate Christmas 2015 in California. We all agreed and I left the farewell party with my bags to fly off to London. Since the family was going to travel for next Christmas, I started to plan for it as soon as we made the decision.

I love Christmas and I love wrapping gifts. I have rolls and rolls of wrapping paper that I have collected through the years and I have ribbons, gift tags, bows and trappings to present the gifts in a decorative manner. I get excited to find wrapping paper, ribbon and bows for sale after Christmas in patterns that I think look classic. I don't always buy new paper each time since a have about four viable rolls of paper, but when I see something that screams me, I do get it.
Two different Christmases, some of the same snowflake paper

However traveling for the holiday wreaks havoc with wrapped gifts, so I thought ahead. It seems that every travel expert suggests not to travel with your gifts already wrapped. Therefore the first thing I did when I settled into London was hit an M&S to raid the clearance Christmas gift supplies. Gift bags, wrapping paper, crackers and holiday baubles were all discounted. I picked up some very stylish Christmas gift bags for 3 for £1, some matching tissue paper for £1 and a few treats as well. £6 later, I had everything I needed for presenting all my gifts next year.
Christmas in Union Square

Months passed and I had been looking for flights to San Francisco and Oakland. The rates were outrageous even early on; I was pricing round trips at $600 or more. Eventually mid-September, I found two reasonable one way tickets to the West Coast and bought my ticket out on United ($174.60) and my return on American ($203.10). I finally picked my dates, I was traveling from December 22 to 25 and I confirmed that everyone was OK with my red-eyeing home.

Now on to my hotel rooms. I needed to complete a mattress run - the act of paying for a night in a hotel to earn points or credits or to maintain status - to maintain my gold status with Starwood. When I was finalizing my Christmas trip in September, I was two individual stays shy of the ten for the year. I booked the Sheraton Fisherman’s Wharf Hotel at my corporate account rate ($133.63 with tax) and the Westin St. Francis San Francisco on Union Square at the SPG points and cash rate, which Starwood counts toward your total number of stays. Additionally, I promised my mom, primarily, that I would book Christmas Eve in the same hotel as my parents, the Hampton Inn and Suites Oakland Airport – Alameda, to help make logistics simpler and I pre-paid for the room to get the best rate ($214.48 with tax).

In the meantime, I made arrangements for a work trip with a wacky itinerary to maximum my time without blowing my work budget. Due to the 5:30 am flight on a Saturday, I spent a night at a Philadelphia airport Starwood hotel the night before to ensure I made it to the airport on time. Therefore, I earned another night, bringing down my total to one night away from gold status.

A nice touch - a chalkboard in the room
On Thanksgiving night, the Hotel Triton started appearing as a featured link on my Facebook feed with offers of a Black Friday sale with rates starting at $89.00 plus tax ($110.16 with tax). I had stayed at the Hotel before in July 2013 and enjoyed it. With the pressure off of me for two nights in Starwood hotels in San Francisco, I canceled the more expensive of the two Starwood rooms and registered at the Triton.

My flights and rooms were set, then it was time to think gifts. First, I suggested to my parents to wait until the Epiphany to exchange our gifts, since we would all be back home in Philadelphia by then and it’s also another traditional Christmastide day for presents. There is no reason to pack gifts to send or take to the West Coast only to exchange them and then pack the new gifts to return home. Now onto the children. I partially spoil my nephew and niece; for both their birthdays and for Christmas, I get them three gifts: a toy, some clothing and a book. I planned to go shopping at Target (in the Metreon) or Old Navy (at 4th and Market) for clothes and I could visit a Barnes & Noble in town for their books. The toys were the fly in the ointment. I headed to the kids’ wish list that my sister-in-law maintains for them on Amazon and remembered that I could take advantage of the Amazon Locker.

Amazon Locker is a self-service parcel delivery service offered by Customers can select a Locker location as their delivery address in lieu of their residence. Retrieval is simple, go to the Locker location and provide the unique pick-up code and voilà the Locker opens with your parcel. This service was started to combat concerns of stolen packages and for customers missing the mail delivery. I used it to combat sending gifts too early or too late to one of the three hotels that I would be stay at for the Holiday. Also my brother and sister-in-law were taking the kids to Disneyland the week before our visit; I didn't want to worry about making all those arrangements to deliver my gifts to them since they might not be home when my packages arrived. The service is available about 10 areas in the US, so it might not be a total lifesaver just yet, but for me the service is in Philadelphia and the Bay Area. Now that I was sending toys to Amazon Lockers, I was set for traveling light and without needing to check any luggage.
Oh, Amazon Locker, how I love you

Now to the morning of December 22nd, I made it to the airport without a hitch. I landed at 9:00 am and rushed into the Mission to have the Nebulous Potato Thing at the St Francis Fountain. By the time I got to restaurant, its was 10:00 am PST (1:00 pm EST). I hadn’t eaten anything after 6:00 am EST since United didn’t sell any food on the early morning flight out. I was headachy and hangry. The dish was good and I downed about three glasses of diet Coke before heading off to my hotel.

I created this trip to San Francisco like a scavenger hunt. I had three different hotel stays. I had errands on both sides of the bay. I had dates with three good friends. I had Amazon packages to pick up.

I settled in my room by noon, local time,  and I had plans to meet a good friend in Berkeley for lunch. We caught up at Platano and enjoyed some papusas. While there I would stop by Chez Panisse for a gift certificate for my brother and sister-in-law. This was their first full year in the Bay Area and I got them a Lowes gift card for last Christmas. This year, I wanted to give them an opportunity to explore the area and visit Berkeley.

That night I had dinner plans with another good friend, Karen, and before catching the bus to go to the restaurant, Stones Throw, in Russian Hall, I picked up one of my Amazon Locker packages. I retrieved the gift, hopped on the 45 and serendipitously run into her on the bus. One big kink in my plans occurred when she told me over dinner, which was excellent, that night that there were no Barnes & Nobles in the city. They all closed a few years back. I had to go back to East Bay for the closest B&N.

The Cathedral of Saint Mary of the Assumption,
Western Addition - my view from the second Amazon Locker
I got up early that morning and picked up the other package at an Amazon Locker and headed over to El Cerrito to El Cerriot Plaza. I joked that you can take the boy out of South Jersey, but I'm always going to find a mall. In 30 minutes, I finished up my shopping and stopped at Lucky for assorted snacks and nibbles. I returned to the Triton, checked out and headed to the Sheraton.

In Fisherman's Wharf by the hotel, I found a Ross: Dress for Less where I picked up the final Christmas gifts, a Safeway where I become acquainted with a delicious Russian River wine to bring on my third friend date and to Christmas dinner and Trader Joe's where I bought a treat for my friends' son.

I made it out to the Outer Sunset to see my friends before they left for there Christmas trip to Mexico. We had a wonderful time catching up and watching their son open up some of his presents from family members before the big day! I took an über back and I treated myself to a drink before calling it a night.

Christmas Eve morning, I gathered all my belongings, gifts and booze and make the trek to BART via the F Market and Wharves. There's something about the F line that resonates with me and connects me to my father. Streetcar lines and rail transportation are my father's interest and hobbies. Obviously with my love of travel, my father and I share this quirky interest. In fact, so many of my relatives have an interest in some form of transportation that we explain it away as part of the "Ryan gene." Therefore during a post-college trip to San Francisco, when I was open to the suggestion of finding a Christmas gift for my dad, I subscribed him to the Market Street Railway newsletter and he's been a member since.

The Bay Bridge from the F Market & Wharves as I Muni my way to BART

I spent the afternoon playing with my nephew and niece. I got a tour of the house from the older one. The three of us fought light saber fights and my niece stole some mad moves from Scarlett Johansson as Black Widow and sliced my feet from underneath me at the ankles. My nephew showed me his "second largest crayon" in the world. The younger one and I painted with glitter glue. "Uncle Casey, I like yours the best," she exclaimed at my opus, "You have technique." We went to the children's nativity mass and ate a creole inspired rice dish that my brother calls, "Market Rice."

Being nearly 3,000 miles from home didn't seem really that far when you're together with family. My parents got to tuck the kids into bed. I helped my sister-in-law wrap presents from Santa. My brother served us some egg nog and we enjoyed the silence before the Christmas excitement. Before we headed back to our hotel, I asked if we could go drive through Christmas Tree Lane, 3200 block of Thompson Avenue, in Alameda. It reminded me of our drives through South Philly.

We settled in our hotel and I prepared my gifts for the next day. Then I nestled into my bed and quickly passed out. My alarm woke me up and I joined my parents for breakfast. I was surprised how full the hotel was. We arrived at my brother's and Christmas had exploded all over the living room. There was more playing, more listening to the backstories of all the toys and more gifts. We snacked  cookies in the late morning which held us over until the first of the appetizers were ready. We said grace and enjoyed a tender lamb, fresh vegetables and latkas with the nice Russian River wine. We took a break before dessert and gave the kids a moment to unwind. Again, both the kids were treated with my parents' tucking them in bed. I said good night to everyone and my parents whisked me away to SFO to make my flight back home.

Like a blink of an eye, my visit to San Francisco was over and I was shuttling across the country back home after a very dear Christmas.

Christmas gifts, ready, in gift bags from M&S
The lessons I learned for traveling for Christmas:
  • Figure out where in your itinerary you can be flexible and where you must adhere to definitive touch points. This flexibility could save you some cash. Pre-pay for lodgings, etc. for the days on which you have no flexibility.
  • Like your favorite hotels on Facebook – Keep an eye out for deals that could appear and if you are social media savvy follow them on Twitter.
  • Gift bags – either bring them with you (since they don't take up too much room in your luggage) or buy them in situ. TSA do have the authority to unwrap your presents in your bags and they will. Also you won't need to bother with tape and scissors when you use gift bags. 
  • Ship to your hotel – for those of you who want wrap your presents, you can ship them, if you plan to say in one location for a few days, your hotel will receive packages for you (some hotels may charge your a nominal fee). Better yet, stick with the gift bags and ship directly from the retailer to your hotel – then dress all your gifts in your gift bags – that eliminates the cost of shipping from your house to the hotel or host's house.
  • Buy from Amazon and ship to Amazon lockers – if you are ordering from Amazon, send the package to an Amazon locker, many of which are in 7-Elevens throughout the country. Find a locker that is en route to a tourist attraction to consolidate your errands with fun. 
  • Give restaurant gift certificates – if you are staying at a hotel, ask your front desk clerk or concierge (when there’s no line) for his or her personal recommendation for a local place and give it to your host.
  • Give home improvement and appliance store gift cards – no matter how long your host has lived in her or her a place, there will always be an immediate need or a home improvement project that needs to be funded.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Hachis Parmentier

With this cold snap this last week in Philadelphia (the low was 12F on Monday into Tuesday), I wanted some good old fashioned stick-to-your-ribs comfort food. So I started searching the web for more information about shepherd’s pie.
Hachis Parmentier
Primarily known early on as cottage pie, this dish was the vehicle for using leftover meat, encasing the meat in mashed potatoes. Now shepherd’s pie is a combination of beef or lamb and sturdy vegetables topped with a mashed potato crust.

Serving suggestion
I didn’t know there were so many different relatives to the cottage pie, like the Cumberland pie, the vegetarian and vegan friendly Shepherdess pie and the French Canadian pâté chinois. Even the French dabble in this dish with the hachis Parmentier, described as a dish made with mashed potato, combined with browned meat and sauce lyonnaise.  Well, I had overdosed on Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown on New Year’s day and I had rewatched the "Lyon" episode, so this particular version stuck out for me. I found a blog entry about it in French and based my recipe on what I read here:
 So I played around with being a little more locavore with the dish and wanted to include all available winter root vegetables.

While searching for more information about sauce lyonnaise, I found a site quoting Paul Bocuse. Again fresh off that Parts Unknown marathon, I quickly recalled who he is.

According to renowned Lyonnaise chef Paul Bocuse, "In Lyon we put onion in almost everything."  French onion soup originated in Lyon, as does this simple and versatile onion-scented sauce.  It's superb with mashed potatoes or roasted vegetables, grilled or roasted beef, pork, lamb, game, or poultry.
So I thought that I should work on having this sauce in addition to the hachis Parmentier. Comme on dit, « Quand on est à Rome…»

Note that a traditional sauce lyonnaise uses a brown sauce –Auguste Escoffier's mother sauce, sauce Espagnole – and strains the onion before serving.  Go ahead and do that if you’d like, but why waste the food.
Hachis Parmentier of Winter Root Vegetables with Sauce Lyonnaise, serves 8

This is what 2¼ lbs  of root vegetables looks like 
For the root vegetable mash:
  • 2¼ lbs of winter root vegetables: golden beets, rutabagas, turnips, potatoes for example
  • water
  • ½ t salt
  • 2 T heavy cream
  • 3 T butter
  • ¾ cp milk
  • ½ t salt
  • ½ t nutmeg
For the meat filling:
  • 1 T butter
  • 1 shallot, minced
  • 2 cloves of garlic, minced
  • 1 small carrot, minced
  • 2/3 of 1 large onion, minced (reserve 1/3 for the sauce, below)
  • 1 lb ground beef
  • ½ t black pepper
  • ½ t salt
  • ½ cup of grated Swiss cheese
For the sauce Lyonnaise:
  • 2 T butter
  • ½ cp dry white wine
  • ¼ cp white wine vinegar
  • ¾ cp condensed beef broth
  • salt & ground black pepper, to taste
  • 1 T chopped fresh parsley (optional since it’s not truly seasonal)

    Sautéing the vegetable for the beef 
    Peel and chop the root vegetables into cubes for easier cooking;
  2. Place the peeled and cut vegetables into a large saucepan; add cold water to the pan until the vegetables are covered by at least an inch and then add salt to the water.
  3. Turn the heat on to high and bring the water to a boil; reduce the heat to low to maintain a simmer, cover and cook for 15 - 20 minutes, or until you can easily poke through the vegetables with a fork.
  4. When the root vegetables are done, drain the water and place them into a large bowl.
  5. Pour the cream and with 3 tablespoons of butter over the vegetables and mash with a potato masher; use a wooden spoon to beat further.
  6. Add milk and mix until the mashed potatoes are as smooth as you like; finish with nutmeg and salt. Set aside.
  7. Heat a tablespoon of butter in a large skillet; sauté the shallot, garlic, carrot and onion until the onion turns translucent, about 5-10 minutes.
  8. Add the ground beef and cook until brown, breaking up meat with back of spoon, about 5 -10 minutes; then add pepper and salt; remove from the pan and set aside.
  9. In a greased 11 x 7 pan, add enough mashed vegetable to make a bottom “crust”, about half of the mixture.
  10. Layer the ground beef mixture on top of the mashed vegetables; cover the beef with the remaining mashed vegetable mixture.
  11. Sprinkle the top with cheese; bake for 45 minutes in a 350 degree preheated over on the top shelf.
  12. For the sauce, in the same skillet as used for the beef, melt butter over medium heat.  Stir in the remaining onion and sauté until onion turns golden, 10-12 minutes. 
  13. Add the wine and the vinegar, bring to a boil and cook until the liquid is reduced by ¾ to about 3 tablespoons.
  14. Stir in condensed beef broth and simmer gently for 5 minutes or so until the sauce thickens.
  15. Season the sauce to taste with salt and pepper and then add the parsley.
  16. When the dish has been baked the 45 minutes; raise the oven temperature to broil and broil until the very top is browned, about 3 minutes.
  17. Serve individual pieces over the “sauce Lyonnaise”.
Sautéing the onion for the sause
The reality is that it took me 2 hours from preparation to eating this dish.  The mincing took the most time and onions and shallots make me cry.

The take away is, this is a dish that shows love, in addition to being comfort food.  This dish lends itself to being made for a birthday or a special Sunday dinner, when comfort food is requested. I think that I would make it again, and even for a Tuesday! But that's before I know what I'm getting into.  

However if you want the taste without the meticulous effort, make yourself some shepherds pie. Then follow the recipe for the sauce lyonaisse and serve that with the shepherds pie. The sauce tastes like concentrated French onion soup and go so well with meat, chicken and potatoes!

About to go into the oven, before the cheese is added