Question For You

What is your most coveted kitchen item? Something you really could not do without.

And, while you're at it -- what is your most quirky kitchen ritual?


The Morning After

Risotto Coi Gamberi E Asparagi

Doesn’t that sound yummy? Well, it was. Only a million little things followed the dinner hour that precluded me from sharing. Most notably, DD caught an icky case of the stomach bug and so rather than savoring the perfect combination of shrimp and asparagus, I was doing loads and loads of laundry and clutching my Lysol spray bottle like a weapon to defend my territory.

Risotto doesn’t require as much skill as it does patience. A pinch of confidence helps too. The process is slow, constantly stirring and calls for a bit of intuition to know when and how much liquid to add to the precious beads of rice. Did you know to use a wooden spoon when making risotto or polenta? Metal alters the flavor of the tender substances.

The shrimp merits mentioning. I actually had not planned the risotto dish, but when I was at the fish counter at Whole Foods the monger told me that I should consider the just brought in catch from Florida. The shrimp were the perfect color of pink and so plump I just couldn’t resist. Glad I didn’t.

Risotto with Shrimp & Asparagus

8 oz asparagus
1/3 c finely chopped onion
8 oz medium shrimp (31-40 p/lb)
1 ½ c rice (I use Carnaroli)
Freshly ground black pepper

I bought a tasty sea scallop appetizer and a halibut spread from the fish deli at WF. The kids actually loved the halibut appetizer. This is a nice idea to keep in mind for a fun breakfast with bagels. Poor DD, who accompanied me to WF to procure the weeks groceries, slept through the dinner hour. I’ll make her another risotto again very soon.


Mouton & A Bottle of White

Once upon a time, there were three little children who had very discerning tastes. On a particularly dark and rainy day the mother had grown weary of small demanding voices. Had they not been served with love whole-wheat pancakes with fresh berries and bananas for breakfast? Were they not content with their much requested pepperoni pie for lunch? And was the otherwise dreary day not spent placating the little children with basketball, doll dressings, princess pretending and storytelling?

So, when the voices of those smaller than three feet demanded to know what was for dinner the mother, in an attempt to make the dish sound more appealing to her given audience and keep $20 worth of lamb from going to waste, well…told a tiny white lie.

“Mouton! Mes enfants! Ah! Le Mouton!” Exclaimed the mother with exhuberance.

“What's that (dear mother)?” the precious little children questioned.

“Why it is a special dinner that children in France eat only when they are very, very good.” This may be true.

“You mean like when Santa Claus comes or the tooth fairy?” At least they were listening.

“Exactly. Now, run go play. I’ll ring the dinner bell when the very, very special Mouton is ready.”

And the mother busied herself for quite sometime preparing the ever special Mouton.

Only, the mother wasn’t making Mouton. She was making a leg of lamb. Mouton in French is actually sheep. Lamb is l’agneau. The mother would know this because many, many moons ago she was a French major and actually attended cooking classes while living in France. But, l’agneau doesn’t roll off the tongue very pretty and mouton is just more fun to say. Plus, don’t they both go baabaabaa??? So, the children of this fairy tale believed they were eating mouton. A technicality really.

As our story continues, the children were happily playing elsewhere in the forest when the mother realized that both recipes for the evening called for dry white wine. Zut! The mother had no cooking wine left in her cupboard. Ever resourceful she remembered the other side of the wine cellar. The dusty side that never got opened -- its contents a distant memory.

“Why the white wine side of the vestibule of course! Perhaps I have a good bottle of white to use for my leg of lamb and my brussels sprouts,” thought the sage mother. Who really wasn’t very sage as she was fresh out of the needed herb as well.

The white wine side of the chiller contained several bottles of the less appreciated sort. Digging deeper and reaching further the mother felt a familiar bottle graze the tips of her fingers. “Ahhhh,” she sighed gratefully. For amidst all the white wine forgotten remained a glistening bottle from a journey long ago. The final from a case, the other eleven long ago consumed, though not in one sitting. It was a special bottle from a vineyard visited by the mother and the father a long, long time ago. You see, before the children arrived in this tale, the mother and the father, then merely the wife and the husband, traveled far and wide usually in search of a perfect meal and wine. On one such adventure, they stumbled upon a vineyard in the Russian River Valley and talked their way into a tour. Hours later they left the castle on the hill full of spirits and seemingly nonplussed by the two cases of reserve wines they had expressed shipped back to Texas to ensure they would be waiting ready to imbibe upon their return home. The wine that bathed the lamb and flavored the brussels sprouts on this damp winter evening was the final bottle of the 1996 Reserve Chardonnay from the Schlumberger Estate.

The leg of lamb called for 1 cup of wine and the brussels sprouts yet another. The leg of lamb was tender from its hour long bath en papillote in wine, lemon and mint. The brussels sprouts were truly sensational. Simmered in a cup of wine and equal amount of chicken broth then reduced with Dijon, sour cream and tarragon they exploded with an earthy flavor enhanced by toasted slivered almonds. The simple salad of mixed field greens with gruyere, dried cranberries and raspberry vinaigrette rounded out the flavors perfectly.

And the remaining ½ bottle of white? Well, the children ate their mouton. Or perhaps they did not. The mother cleared the table and scrubbed the dishes. Or perhaps she did not. The father bathed the children, read them a story and tucked them sweetly into their beds. Or perhaps he did not. For you see the only thing that remains certain on this particular white wine infused evening is that the family lived happily ever after.

The end.


Soup du Jour

Growing up I never really liked soup. I always felt like I was getting cheated out of a real meal. Plus, who likes canned soup anyway??? To be fair, I don’t dislike all soups. The tortilla soup at the Mermaid Bar is amazing. And, I recently had a savory pumpkin soup at Russell’s Bakery that was very tasty. However, I have the habit of skimming right over soup recipes in cookbooks. In fact, I can count on two hands the number of different soups I’ve ever made. There was the vichyssoise disaster about 8 years ago in which I had to run to the store flames-still-burning to buy one of those handheld blenders to puree the leeks and potatoes. In the end it turned out ok, but it was still just soup with a fancy name and a lot of effort. I’ve made tomato basil soup, corn soup, French onion soup, and even a cold cucumber soup. My aunt gave me a tortilla soup recipe when Husband and I got married. Now that’s a good soup. But, I’ve only made it twice in eight years. You get the picture.

So, why was I inspired to try a soup recipe tonight? Why didn’t I just skim over it as I read this month’s issue of Gourmet? Who knows? Maybe it caught my eye because it’s in the magazine’s section titled Ten-Minute Mains. There was also a photo (pg. 89) and that always helps. For whatever reason, I made the Italian Meatball Soup tonight. Predicting the littles wouldn’t warm up to the idea of the soup, I made them the risotto dish I debuted a few weeks ago. DD begs me at least once a day to make risotto and she actually helped me make the dish today. With so much anticipation for a command performance I feared she wouldn’t like the risotto as much as her memory believed. Alas, after enjoying three bowls of the treat she kissed me and said I was the best mommy ever. Hum. Not a bad return on my investment.

The soup was not met with as much glee. Each of the children took a thank you bite*, but that was about it. One actually drank the broth, but the spinach just threw them for a loop. And, husband? We dissected it like this – the soup was actually really good. It was full of fresh spinach, carrots, celery, onion and the white beans made it really hearty. But, the meatballs were not so good. I followed the fix-it-quick theme of the article and used frozen meatballs as directed by the recipe. So, I got what I paid for -- a good soup with frozen meatballs plopped in. I’ve already thought of a meatball recipe I’d like to try in an effort make this soup less of a quick fix. But, then it wouldn’t qualify as a Ten-Minute Main anymore would it?

I’ve come full circle and ended up right where I started in my thoughts on soup. For me soup du jour might as well be soup de l’annee.

* A thank you bite is a concept we learned from our dear friends and neighbors The Kruft Family. Each of their children (last count there were four) must take one thank you bite of everything on their plate.


Saturday Night Fever

I might have a fever or maybe just a general malaise. Thank goodness it was a lazy Saturday. For the first time in months, we had nothing on our calendar. I actually read a book for most of the afternoon. Reading is usually an indulgence saved for the final moments of the day. I felt extra sinful camped out in bed with my latest read.

I contemplated not cooking tonight. Despite the fact that I had everything prepped and ready to go, I just didn’t know if I could put my book down and wander downstairs with enough enthusiasm to make it happen. I sent the girls to tell their Daddy that I didn’t want to make dinner. Our nearly three-year-old daughter came back with a clear (enough) message from her father ‘him say we not want to wapste de sammon fishes, mamma!’

OK. OK. I’ll make dinner. But, I’m not going to clean the leeks. Or cook them either. I’ll make couscous instead. So there. Glad I proved that point.

Once I got to the kitchen I was really glad to be there. I briefly related to my children as they moan and groan on certain mornings about not wanting to go to school. Remind me to ask what’s not to like about pre-school? On such mornings everything is uphill. Clothing choices. Hair accessories. Lunch options. It’s all just bad. Miraculously, once at school they dart from my sight lost in the excitement and joy of being where they dreaded going. This is exactly where I found myself tonight.

Gratefully, I made the raspberry vinaigrette this morning as well as the lemon, garlic, coriander and fish stock marinade for the salmon. After the fish bathed in the juices for 20 minutes, it required only 15 minutes more in the oven and voila, dinner was ready. I tossed some greens, toasted almond slices and gorgonzola with the vinaigrette and fluffed the couscous with peas. The children took turns ringing the dinner bell and after saying grace, we ended our day with a simple meal. Once we got there it was wonderful.

Now I’m going back to my book.


Our Pace is All Wrong

About a week ago, I pulled The Pace of Provence off my bookshelf. I bought the cookbook several years ago and remembered I hadn't used it in a while. It's a fascinating book written by a French woman who lives in Seattle. She is also a nutritionist. Her recipes are traditional, healthy and very tasty. All of her meals have been adapted to be low in fat and heart healthy.

With the South of France as my inspiration, we dined happily on Halibut with Honey & Oranges, Roasted Brussels Sprouts and Glazed Carrots. OK, so I bought the brussels sprouts at Whole Foods, but I made the rest! I could write a whole post on the new Whole Foods in Austin. It's sensational. But, I digress...

The premise of Yolande Matore Hoisington’s cookbook is the pace and leisure in which the French honor their meals. Perfectly balanced and enjoyed as a slow ritual, it is striking how opposite our eating habits are in America. Meals are on the go, super-sized and processed. Even if you don’t frequent fast-food joints (my kids still think McDonald’s is the farm with ‘eieio’ animals), processed food is the major culprit. So, I’m not going to lecture, I’ll die of hypocrisy if I do. I’m just going to try to peel back the onion (so to speak) and keep meals natural and wholesome for my family. It won’t be easy. My kids have been asking for months now why they can’t have lunchables at school. The temptations are great which is why a market such as Whole Foods is so handy. It takes the guess work out of wondering what’s good and what’s fake.

In the meantime, it was a simple pleasure to dine with my family tonight. The children ate all their halibut (DD ate part of mine too!) and the glazed carrots were the second best I’ve ever had. My dear friend Claire made some a few years ago that were better. CFT – if you read this, please post the recipe. And, Whole Foods makes the best damned roasted brussels sprouts. OK so they are the only brussels sprouts I’ve ever had.

Here’s a healthy tip….I’ve been drinking a hot apple cider vinegar concoction every night: 1 cup hot water, 1 TBS Apple Cider Vinegar (with the mother) and 1 TBS honey. Read the benefits…can’t hurt.


I’ll end tonight’s post with a case in point. My DS (almost 6) protested going to kindergarten today. He wanted to play with his toys. He was tired. He never got to spend enough time alone with me. My fingers couldn’t dial the school office fast enough. We had the best hooky day! We went for a walk, he helped me pick out the eggplant and oranges at Whole Foods and we snuggled on the couch just for fun. It was a pace that couldn’t be duplicated every day or nothing would be accomplished. Or would it?


Welcome home

Husband was on the west coast all week. I hate it when he’s out of town. If there is a flipside it’s that the children know they get pizza for dinner and I usually don’t cook. Other than that, after a night or two it’s just not much fun being out-numbered by the littles alone.

One of husband’s favorite meals is spaghetti and meat sauce. I don’t actually follow a recipe when I make the sauce because I tend to use whatever I have handy. This proves to be problematic because sometimes the sauce is really good. And sometimes it’s just ok. So, it’s a bit of a game now I play with myself to try to make the best sauce ever. And, when I get the ‘Ahhh, now that’s a good sauce’ comment from husband I swear I’m going to write down every last ingredient so I can duplicate it over and over.

Tonight I used lean ground beef, ground pork, zucchini, onion, baby bellas, red bell pepper and some herbs. And of course some whole, peeled tomatoes and some crushed ones too. I didn’t bother to write it down, so the contest to create the best damned sauce continues. We are now our own worst critics.

Also, husband's flavor may have been tainted by the news he received from his annual physical today. The dreaded cholesterol is high. Under normal circumstances I don’t think there would be cause for panic, but husband comes from a long and wide history of serious heart disease and it scares us both.

So, expect to see lots of fish recipes gracing these pages in the near future. We both will benefit tremendously by healthier cuisine. Although it will mean I need to start reading some new cookbooks!

P.S. It isn't the time to post how yummy the Ricotta Drop Cookies are I baked today. I whipped them up this morning from the Cookies Unlimited Cookbook if you feel the urge to try them for yourself.


Easy As Pie

We took advantage of the holiday weekend and made a quick get-away to the ranch. Although short and sweet, it was nice to breathe the proverbial fresh air that the wide open range provides.

Tonight feels like a Sunday rather than a Monday. And I did not have time to make my usual beginning of the week pilgrimage to the grocery store, so after a quick inventory I determined I had just the ingredients for the North End Italian Cookbook's version of Pepperoni Pie. It just doesn't get any more basic than this:

¾ c diced pepperoni
¾ c cup Muenster cheese
¾ c flour
2 eggs
1 c milk

As I was cubing the cheese I thought of all the mothers around the world, tired from a long weekend, filled with bittersweet anticipation for the week ahead, and desperate to put something hot on the family table for dinner. Ironically, during my preparations a friend called and she too was 'cleaning out the fridge to make a frittata'. While the dinner table unites families in a sacred moment of togetherness, those who prepare these meals also share a common stockpot, so to speak. My menu inspirations come from all over the world, most recently from Italy and France. As I chop leeks, blanch almonds, peel and crush tomatoes, I imagine kitchens in villages throughout Southern Europe.

Vignettes play in my mind: a woman hushes her children during the final moments of a sauce that requires concentration and perfect timing; a group of friends gather in a cozy kitchen each bringing tried-and-true recipes served in favorite cookware; a young wife woos her husband with a meal better than his momma's; and children sit politely at the table, savor every morsel put in front of them and after being excused from the table and clearing their plates, promptly say, "Thank you, Mama" sealed with a kiss. OK. That final part is a fantasy shared by women throughout the world. Tell me where that scene exists and I'm on the next plane.

Off to pack tomorrow's school lunches -- leftover pepperoni pie.


Introduction to The Schell Cafe: December 26, 2005

My husband’s grandfather, Frank M. Schell owned the Schell Café in Cooper, Texas during the early 1900's. I never knew Grandfather Schell, but he must have loved serving great meals and having folks gather ‘round his tables. His son William B. Schell, my late father-in-law, finished every meal in the same manner, “Well, I have dined sufficiently.” From this strong line of men my husband inherited an appreciation for a meal well served.

More than half a century later, The Schell Café continues in my own kitchen and on these pages. The meals I make are a labor of love. And, my journal is a love story. For me, cooking is a joy that perfectly blends my past, present and future.

I often wear my Grandmother’s pink gingham apron when I cook. She made it in a sewing class and hand-embroidered her monogram on a pocket. I also use her cookbooks, measuring cups, utensils and her great old, Dutch oven. Cooking is more than just making sure my family gets nutritionally fed. When I cook I am honoring our past and making memories for the future.

Bon Appetit!

December 28, 2005

As luck would have it, the day I decide to keep a cooking journal (of sorts), I sliced through my left ring finger with the Wusthof knife I got for Christmas. Sadly, I cannot type….gladly, however, I did muddle through the recipes I am trying for this evening’s meal. In addition to the incredibly sharp Japanese-style knife, husband gave me two beautiful cookbooks: Every Night Italian and Barefoot in Paris.

Tonight’s menu comes from these new inspirations: Sea Bass in a Leek & Red Bell Pepper Sauce and a Vegetable Tian. Despite the unfortunate injury (ouch!), the smells of the rosemary infused veggies roasting and the raw leeks waiting for their hot bath in EVOO, a successful, if still painful, dining experience awaits.

The Daily Dish: A tian is actually a red clay pot indigenous to rural southern France. Hence, the name of the dish is the dish!

December 29, 2005

Ah…were it always like tonight. Yesterday, (before my knife injury) I made a Risotto, Ham and Cheese dish for this evening. The recipe recommended making the dish in advance for the flavors to blend. So, with the main dish already prepared, my time in the kitchen was brief consisting of only blanching green beans, roasting red and yellow peppers and heating the labor of yesterday’s love.

DS was at Mia’s for the evening so it was unusually quiet during dinner. Typically DS protests dinner. And, when one child defects they all jump ship. Tonight, however without their captain, the girls ate three bowls (each) of risotto and two heaping helpings of green beans. Husband was sufficiently stuffed and it was a delicious dish that definitely bears repeating.

And, as a complete afterthought, the morning started out with a simple culinary treat. Spying two very ripe bananas on the counter, I found a recipe for Banana Bran Muffins. These yummy and quick treats were well received by the littles. And, husband didn’t seem to mind a hot muffin to accompany his shot of espresso.

Baked Ham-and-Cheese Rice Casserole
Riso Al Forno
Courtesy of Giuliano Hazan Every Night Italian

French String Beans
Courtesy of Ina Garten Barefoot in Paris

Mixed Baby Green Salad
With toasted almond slices and SAS Sesame-Garlic Dressing

Lesson of the Day: The Proof is in the Pudding. We all know the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. After two very stressful days at work, Husband told me tonight that dinner was exceptional and that it was very appreciated to come home after a bad day to a nice meal. He continued that if he had come home to a box of Cheese Nips his mood would have been further exacerbated. For the record, Husband has had to resort to crackers on more than one occasion.

December 31, 2005

In which we begin our 9th year….

Husband & I are celebrating our 8th wedding anniversary tonight as well as the end of another year. We enjoyed a wonderful meal at La Fonda San Miguel last night. After all the hustle and bustle in my own kitchen for Christmas, I thoroughly enjoyed a night out. My knife nipped fingers and roux burned knuckles also appreciated the rest.

Tomorrow we head out for a week long trip (I intentionally refrain from calling it a vacation) to California. Our purpose is tri-fold: we are taking MIL to see her new great-grandson; we will let the kids’ imaginations run wild at Disneyland; and perhaps most importantly, we will watch our Longhorns steal the National Championship from the USC Trojans.

Happy New Year!

January 9, 2006

Re-entry is hard. We are all tired, still on an adrenaline high from the Longhorns victory at the Rose Bowl and our visit to Disneyland. Our homecoming has been a big dose of reality. A post-holiday messy house, laundry up through the chimney, and the realization that all the hustle and bustle of Christmas is no more than the usual overload of activities we pile onto our daily schedules.

Feeling the need to retreat to a simpler place and time, I decided to treat my family to a very basic, yet nourishing meal. And thus the tone is set for my debut dinner of the year. In anticipation of a hectic schedule with school, ballet, basketball, the chiropractor, a workout and all the housekeeping that comes with the first Monday of the year, I spent much of Sunday reading cook books (what a sacrifice!) and roaming the aisles of Central Market.

Planning is more than half the battle. So, with my meals for the week planned and provisions procured, there is no panic of ‘what’s for dinner?’

Tonight I made a tasty meatloaf. The recipe from Every Night Italian is light on ingredients and yet more flavorful than other meatloaf’s I have tried. It calls for a blend of three meats: pork, veal and beef. This flavorful mélange needed little enhancement: onions, an egg, some French bread, red wine and fresh herbs. Done. The sauce was simply sinful. Melted butter and whole, peeled tomatoes reduced with an entire onion. The recipe calls for discarding the onion prior to serving the sauce. Discard we did – as an appetizer with red wine. The onions were sweet and melted in our mouths. A nice hint of the meal to come.

From Barefoot in Paris I made another simple, yet hearty potato dish. Using my new Le Crueset casserole, I melted European butter (a first for me, I’m an HEB gal) and added a pound of fingerling potatoes (skin on) to coat. I covered the pot and let the potatoes bathe and the butter brown then finished it off by tossing the spuds with a handful of freshly chopped herbs: chives, marjoram, and oregano.

The meatloaf with the delicious tomato sauce and the herbed potatoes were met with great enthusiasm. DD liked the potatoes best. DDD preferred the meatloaf, and DS? Well…we managed to get him to eat his share before clearing his plate. Husband was completely happy and me? The house is still a mess, the laundry in piles, but my family ate well and everyone is sound asleep with full bellies. And that is the satisfaction of a meal well served.

January 10, 2006

All hail l’ail.

Looks can be deceiving. Dinner tonight did not resemble the masterpiece (ahem, airbrushed) photographed in my cookbook. But despite its more humble appearance, the Roasted Chicken with 40 Cloves of Garlic was sumptuous. I should have browned the chicken longer for a more rich color; however, it was cooked perfectly and fell off the bone into a pool of garlic and wine sauce. In a word: ‘Yum’.

Departing from the more Italian flavors of late, my palate welcomed the abundance of garlic. Here’s a juicy tidbit: Italians do not typically use garlic. I have it on a very reliable source that a true Italian, upon entering a restaurant and smelling garlic, will turn around in search of more authentic fare. Not true for their neighbors en France.

Paired with a Moroccan Couscous, the meal was more than I had hoped for. The couscous was filled with roasted zucchini, carrots, onions and butternut squash. Steeped in chicken broth infused with saffron and cumin the ordinary grains took on an earthy flavor that blended delightfully with the salty-sweet punch of the garlic. I thought about adding a handful of golden raisins and using fewer scallions than the recipe called for. In hindsight I would have followed my instinct. The onions were a bit too strong and a small burst of raisins would have been divine. Always follow instinct.

The children loved the drumsticks. The littles even helped us polish off our breasts and wings. The couscous was met with less fan-fare by the kids. Again, I think the softness of the raisins would have been more palatable for all. However, I loved the couscous and think I’ll add some crumbled goat cheese to it for a cold lunch tomorrow.

So no sleep is lost, 40 cloves is generally three heads of garlic.

January 11, 2006

Polenta: Italy’s cornbread

Who knew cornmeal could make such a tasty dish? As a native Texan, I grew up eating cornbread, so I know cornmeal has outstanding merits. But until tonight I had never attempted to make my own polenta. Although time consuming and a bid monotonous (after the roux anything seems like a breeze), once I turned the polenta out onto a pizza board and topped it with grated fontina cheese I couldn’t get it to the table fast enough for the littles.

“It looks like a fat, square pizza”.

“It’s not red”.

“Can we move to Italy and eat risotto and polenta”.

I served the polenta with an Italian Sausage Gravy. Gravy in Italy is as different to us as cornbread and polenta. This gravy was made with two varieties of tomatoes, browned Italian sausage, onion, sweet basil, mint and red pepper flakes. It was rich and perfectly matched with the polenta.

Tonight’s inspiration comes from a cookbook given to me by my dear friend Julie. Although she lives in DC now, she’s from the Boston area and for our birthdays we give each other regional cookbooks. My family thanks you, Jules, for an outstanding Italian feast!

North End Italian Cookbook
Polenta & Italian Sausage Gravy
pg 100-101