Side Dishes

Back To Basics: Really Good Mashed Potatoes

Soufflés are to the culinary world what Mt. Everest is to the mountaineering world:  The ultimate proof of skill, tenacity and a whole lotta spare time on one’s hands.  Mastering either a soufflé or Everest seems like a pretty legitimate differentiator between an amateur and a bonafide, dedicated master.  Personally, I’ve never had much desire to tackle either of them.  Call it lack of ambition or just plain laziness, but the achievement of either attempt seems a little overrated to me.

However, I’m not without my own aspirations.  And, perhaps while my efforts don’t come with the same bragging rights, I still find reasons to occasionally blast the triumphant trumpet and shout, “Ta-daaaaa!”  Maybe it’s because I’m a take-it-or-leave-it fan of the soufflé, but I’ve never had much desire to master the art of making one.  For me, my culinary mountain is not the soufflé but rather the humble mashed potato.

Growing up, we ate a lot of mashed potatoes in our house.  We were a meat-and-potatoes family, and mashed potatoes seemed to be the tater of choice.  (I don’t think Dad liked the “fuss” of a baked potato.)  There was even a span of time when our potatoes came out of a box and were “mashed” by simply adding liquid to the dehydrated potato flakes.  I think that was about the same time that Tang replaced the real orange juice in our house.  Thankfully, later on, Mom left the space program and came back around to using real potatoes.

I think I got serious about making mashed potatoes when we started hosting Thanksgiving at our house.  The first few years, I was so concerned about making good, lump-free gravy, I never even gave the potatoes a second thought.  Because, after all, making mashed potatoes is simple, right?  Even the name implies that all you do is mash them.  But, then, as people gathered around the table, I invariably found myself cheerfully saying, “Hope everyone likes a few lumps in their potatoes!”

Short of using dehydrated potato flakes, I think I’ve tried just about every possible technique to make mashed potatoes.  I’ve mashed them by hand using a potato masher, just like Mom used.  I’ve used a hand blender and a hand mixer.  But I never got the consistency that I was after.  All I wanted was creamy, flavorful mashed potatoes.

Then I read Jenny Steffens Hobick’s blog about using a potato ricer.  (You can read her blog post here.)  I had read about using ricers before (Alton Brown highly recommends them as well), but quite frankly I just imagined it being another kitchen gadget taking up space in my kitchen drawers next to the hand blender and hand mixer.  But I was intrigued enough to try a ricer.  I bought the OXO Adjustable Potato Ricer, which I find easy to use.  But there are many options out there.  This particular ricer is adjustable in that you can turn the dial to determine the size of the puree, from fine to course.  I found that the fine setting produces the best version of lump-free, creamy potatoes.  (If you like a few lumps, then use the medium or coarse setting.)

I’m here to report that I’m a convert.  I had anticipated that the ricing process would be slow and cumbersome, but it’s not.  I cook the potatoes in chunks, and after draining off the water, I just put a couple of chunks at a time through the ricer.  The whole process takes just a few minutes, no longer than mashing or mixing ever took.  I then add the warm cream and butter, and it just takes a few good stirs with a wooden spoon to cream the potatoes.

There are differing opinions about which is the best potato to use (I use Russets), or whether you should peel the potatoes before or after you cook them (I do it before).  I also find that heating the milk (I use half & half) and butter before adding it to the potatoes works well.

I’ve long said I’ve never met a potato I didn’t like.  But, let’s admit it, some are better than others.  And, now I’ve finally found a made-at-home mashed potato that is really, really good.  And, while a boiled/mashed potato may not have the same sex appeal as a soufflé, it’s hard to deny that it’s pretty darn good eating.

Here are some good how-to tips on how to boil potatoes from The Kitchn.  (You can read the full blog post here.)

How To Boil Potatoes

  • Prepare the potatoes:  Scrub the potatoes clean.  If desired, cut the potatoes into large, evenly-sized cubes.
  • Transfer the potatoes to a saucepan and cover with cold water:  Cover the potatoes with an inch or two of cold water. Starting the potatoes in cold water helps them cook more evenly.
  • Stir in a teaspoon of salt:  Stir the salt into the water so that it dissolves.
  • Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer:  Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring the water to a boil.  Once boiling, reduce the heat to a bare simmer to cook the potatoes.  Do not cover.  (Covering changes the environment in the pot and can make the potatoes turn mushy.)
  • Check the potatoes after 5 minutes:  Cubed potatoes will cook more quickly than whole potatoes; smaller potatoes will cook more quickly than larger potatoes.  Begin checking the potatoes after around 5 minutes of boiling; most potatoes will be done in 10 to 20 minutes.
  • Potatoes are done when tender:  The potatoes are done when they are tender all the way through.  You can test this by poking the potato with a fork, paring knife, or skewer.  If the utensil slides easily all the way to the center, the potatoes are done.
  • Drain the potatoes:  Drain cubed potatoes into a strainer or lift whole potatoes out with a slotted spoon.  If you’re recipe calls for cold potatoes, you can run the potatoes under cold water or dunk them in an ice water bath to cool them down more quickly.

Peeled and Sliced Potatoes  Cooked and Drained Potatoes

Potato Ricer

Warmed Cream and Butter

Really Good Mashed Potatoes

Happy Entertaining!

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Our Favorite Summer Salad

Summer.  At its best, it is easy, leisurely and relaxed.  And, it seems that everyone is on an endless vacation.  At least the pictures make it look that way.  In reality, it’s just another season in this thing called life and all that comes along with it.  The good news is that even when life is hectic, it seems that summer offers occasional moments of reprieve, when we really can just dial it back a notch.  And, while summer seems to be the season of entertaining, I like the fact that it’s a simpler type of entertaining. It’s all about patios, barbecues and buckets of beer.  Pretenses and formality are left at the front door.  I’m a fan of any dinner party where flip flops are the appropriate attire.

If you’re a regular follower of this blog, you’ve heard us say more than once that summer food ranks right up there on the list of our favorite things.  Fresh, local food prepared seasonally.  For me, it just doesn’t get much better than this.

Corn on the Cob

Selecting CornThis salad is the perfect side dish for any summer meal.  It takes advantage of fresh produce, and (most importantly) it’s a breeze to make, so it fits right into the dialed-back, relaxed type of entertaining that summer is all about.  And, as I’ve discovered this summer, it’s easy to take along to a picnic or potluck.  Recently, I did all the prep in the morning, brought it along in the cooler and just added the avocado and vinaigrette right before serving it for dinner.  The recipe can easily be doubled to feed a larger group.  And, it’s pretty.  It’s like a bowl full of summer food confetti.

Corn Tomatoes and Avocado

Shaving Corn

Our Favorite Summer Salad

But, perhaps, the best part is this is a crowd favorite.  People really, really like this salad.

I originally found this summer salad recipe on this great blog (With Style and Grace), which is a wonderful source for gluten-free recipes if you’re looking for one.  My version is just slightly altered. I think on her blog, Lisa credits Martha Stewart for the recipe.  And, I’ve seen similar versions of it on Pinterest, Facebook and Foodgawker.  Whatever the source, it’s a keeper.  File it under “The Salad To Make When I Need a Simple, Delicious Solution, Oh, and When Corn and Tomatoes are in Season.”

To everyone who has asked for this recipe over the past few weeks, here it is!  Happy Entertaining!

Corn, Tomato, and Avocado Salad

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Mom’s Simple (and Simply Delicious) Potato Salad

Growing up, our family was not what you would call foodies.  My mom didn’t spend her time in the kitchen preparing anything that remotely resembled fussy foods.  That is such an understatement, I really don’t even know how to correct it.  I think one of the fussiest things Mom ever made was some salad she must have seen in a magazine.  She took a half of a pear (canned, no less), placed it on a leaf of iceberg lettuce and topped it with a dollop of Miracle Whip, some grated cheese, and a maraschino cherry.  And, long before the concept of “plating” was in our vernacular, this was actually one thing that Mom would assemble on each of our plates and then serve to us, all seated around the table.  Invariably, as she passed the plates, the pear half would go sliding around the plate like an Olympian on ice skates.  All my young mind could come up with, when served this, was “Whaaaattttt?”  Maybe because it was so long before I had learned what an appropriate response “WTF!” can be in a situation like that.

Mom on boat

But what we did eat were good, basic meals.  Well, usually good.  The not-so-good really wasn’t my Mom’s fault.  We were kids and just didn’t like all foods.  Period.  That, and you might say that my dad was a little particular about what he ate (my second understatement of the day).  I can’t imagine a situation where he would’ve eaten anything fancy with a seasoning like curry, or that had him eating something exotic like asparagus.  Heck, this is a man who wouldn’t eat at Kentucky Fried Chicken because he didn’t think they cut the chicken pieces correctly.

If you’ve been following this blog, you know many of my recipes are my mom’s.  And, most are described as simple and good.  No fuss or additional make-it-fancy ingredients at all.  Not that things like radishes would necessarily be categorized as fancy.  It’s just that I don’t see them as necessary in some recipes.  And that’s true of her potato salad.  Like so many of Mom’s recipes, this simple potato salad is still how I prefer things.  When Mom made it, she would meticulously blend her mayonnaise with the mustard before adding it to the potato and eggs.  I have found that mixing it all together, in one big bowl, works just fine.  Hard to imagine being less fussy than my mom, but there it is.

Potato Salad Ingredients

Red Potatoes

Hardboiled Eggs

This is a summer staple around our house.  It has made an appearance at more barbecues and summer dinners than I can count.  And I think of Mom every single time I make it.

Happy Entertaining!

Red Potato Salad

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Oven Baked French Fries with Truffle Oil

The internet is the greatest invention.  Ever.  Not only can I find anything I’m looking for, no matter how abstract or odd my search, but I can find things I didn’t even know I was looking for.

So it was with Truffle Fries.  I didn’t even know that the Truffle Fries Circus was in town until one day, while on Pinterest.  I was just happily skipping through the rabbit hole that is Pinterest when I stumbled upon Everyday Occasions (jennysteffens.blogspot.com).  Lovely blog, BTW.  She had a recipe for Parmesan Truffle Fries that caught my eye.  Given that I’ve never met a potato that I didn’t like, my attraction was fairly immediate.  I then did a search on recipes and, lo and behold, my search returned a plethora of recipe options.

Parmesan Truffle Fries

But, here’s the thing.  I’m not really a fan of deep frying in my kitchen.  The mess and anticipated lingering smell just deflate me.  That’s the beauty of these fries.  Some of the recipes are BAKED!  So, hardly any mess, and the only smell is the luscious scent of truffle wafting in the air.   I remember my mom making homemade fries, including the step where she cut up the potatoes and soaked them in water.  It always seemed like such a sweet labor of love.  I love my friends and family but I’m also a fan of shortcuts in the kitchen where I can get away with them.  So, based on the recommendation from Jenny’s blog, I opted for frozen potatoes rather than trying to slice up a Russet.  I looked for frozen fries that were a good natural, organic type.  I used the Ore-Ida Country Style French Fries with Olive Oil and Sea Salt, and they were perfect.

I like my truffle flavor subtle, not overpowering.  Which is why I like this recipe.  You get a taste of the truffle without being hit over the head with it.  If you want a stronger taste from the truffle oil, just add a bit more.  Our local grocery store had a limited selection of truffle oils to choose from, and in the end I chose a “flavored” olive oil instead.  I was pleasantly surprised by the taste.  I’m sure no well-respecting Italian would be caught dead with a “flavored” oil in their kitchen, but it works well for this recipe.

Armed with the basics from my recipe search, I tried these Parmesan Truffle Fries out on some guinea pigs, I mean friends, that were in town for a few days.  Big, big hit.  This recipe is the kind any host or hostess hopes for:  Easy to prepare and meets with rave reviews.  Who knew that oven-baked French fries could taste just like they’d come out of a deep fryer?

Prep time is about 3 minutes, or as long as it takes to open a bag of frozen potatoes, grate a little parmesan and heat the oven.

The Basic Ingredients

The basic ingredients

Grated Parmesan Cheese

Grated parmesan cheese

Drizzle a little oil in the pan

Drizzle a little oil in the pan

Add the Frozen Potatoes

Add the frozen potatoes

Add a Little Parmesan Cheese

Add parmesan cheese

Dinner is Served!

Dinner is served!

This is going to be one of my new go-to recipes.  It’s a perfect side dish for a steak or burger.  Add a good beer or nice glass of Merlot, and dinner is served!

Happy Entertaining!

Parmesan Truffle Fries

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Homemade Cranberry Sauce

When people discuss Thanksgiving and the annual feast of turkey, stuffing, potatoes and pies, they usually seem to have pretty strong feelings about what is traditional and should be served.  And that seems particularly true when it comes to cranberry sauce.  Some of the strongest memories people seem to have about family Thanksgivings come from the roll of cranberry sauce, and the memories all seem so similar, regardless of what family you grew up in.  The fact that the can had to be opened at both ends so that the roll could be removed intact.  The etched ribs on the jellied roll made by the tin can.  The glass dish that our mothers always used to serve the cranberry sauce.  And the taste.  This is where the fan club divides.  You either loved that canned stuff (and still serve it today) or you didn’t.

I’m not here to settle the debate as to whether that roll of jellied cranberry sauce is appetizing or not.  But if you’re looking for another option, that doesn’t require a can opener and IS delicious, try this one.

I got this recipe years ago from a caterer we used for a party.  She gave it to me only after I promised that I wouldn’t share it with anyone else.  I kept that promise for as long as I could.  It’s just too good to keep secret any longer.

Berries and Grand Marnier

Spice Bundle

Berries in the Pot

Berries Cooking

Cranberry Cognac Sauce

Happy Entertaining!

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Lazy Days of Summer?

We know that we have been woefully absent from this blog the last few weeks.  Thank you to our followers that have reached out to us and inquired about our whereabouts.  Nice to think we’ve been missed.  We’ve been right here but we’ve just been busy doing this thing called summer.

Patio Happy HourUnlike previous summers, we’ve had a lot of visitors here.  Our not-so-big house has experienced visiting pooches and blow-up mattresses in the living room and kids sleeping on the floor in sleeping bags and an endless sliding of the screen door.  And, in the Pacific Northwest, where it can be gray and damp for so many months, when summer hits people come out of their houses and the place sort of comes alive.  It reminds me of when the Good Witch tells the Munchkins to “come out, come out” and and everyone starts dancing around with flower pots on their heads.  The sunshine is our Good Witch.  So, we’ve also been experiencing people on their patios and in their yards and on their boats, all welcoming us and others with food and drink.  I’ve sort of lost count of how many times we’ve been to a neighbor’s or have had friends here over the last few weeks.  Everyone here knows the good weather won’t last forever and is taking full advantage of it.

So, while it may seem like we’ve been neglecting our blog duties, I prefer to think of it more like we’ve been off getting field practice.  We’ve used many of our recipes that we’ve shared on the blog (some over and over again).  And we’ve re-learned some critical entertaining philosophies along the way.  Maybe it’s that I’m experiencing my own form of the lazy Mason Jar Candlesdays of summer.  I mean, I know there are obvious weeds in my garden, that my furniture is showing a fine layer of dust and that there is laundry piled on top of the washer, but I want to focus on what’s really important:  All of our friends and neighbors that have “come out” to enjoy the summer and chosen to spend to time with us.  The key is for us, as hosts, to enjoy the evening and everyone else seems to follow our example.  Summer is a good time to let go of some of those nagging details and just relax a little.  I felt the teensiest bit guilty when I let the local Berry Barn provide the peach pie for dessert or a week later when our guests arrived before I got home from the grocery store, but then I reminded myself that there is more to life than pretending to be Martha Stewart.

I’ve been wanting to share this recipe with you for weeks.  It’s a great way to take advantage of the good, local corn and those fabulous small tomatoes that are available right now.  I originally got the recipe from a great blog (With Style and Grace), where, contrary to my earlier comment about Martha, I believe they credit her for the original recipe.  So, I’m not exactly sure where this one started, but I’ve made just a few tweaks to it.  It’s been a big hit with everyone we’ve shared it with, so I think your guests will like it too.

Corn, Tomato, and Avocado Salad

Happy entertaining!

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Amazing Creamed Corn (Trust Me!)

Since this is the third time I’ve made this recipe in just about as many weeks, I think it’s time I shared it with you.  But first we need to establish some trust.  I need you to trust me when I say that you should make this recipe.  Please don’t just disregard it because of the name or the ingredients.  I know you do this because I do this.  I look at a recipe and barely pause long enough to read it if the ingredients sound odd or off to me.  So, this once, resist to urge to reject at first glance and give it a chance.

I like this recipe for several reasons.  One, I can make it before guests arrive, which I always like for dinner parties.  (Make and clear the mess before anyone arrives.)  And, it’s not difficult to make, which is also a plus.  Two, during corn season, I really can’t resist buying the sweet, local corn.  Like, every time I’m at the grocery store or the farmer’s markets.  I even find myself driving by the cornfields and anticipating when the corn will be ripe.  But I have found that even when guests like corn, they don’t always like eating it off the cob in front of other guests.  Serving corn this way allows everyone to enjoy the goodness of summer corn, at a dinner table, without the inevitable embarrassment of loose kernels hanging off their cheeks.  Three, the base for the sauce is a roux, and I like making roux.  Mainly because it’s French and I feel so, well, Julia Child-ish when I make one.  I am a lot of things in the kitchen but a chef is not one of them.  Making a roux makes me feel slightly more accomplished as a cook.  I just don’t usually mention how easy it is to make a roux.  And, fourth, last, but certainly not least, this is a crowd-pleaser.  I’ve had guests, as they are helping themselves to seconds (and thirds), say, “I’ve never cared for creamed corn, but this is incredibly good.”

You can bake this in individual ramekins (for that you’re-so-special-I-made-food-just-for-you kind of message) or family style in a casserole dish.  Either way, it’s worth giving a try.  Trust me.

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Top 10 reasons to love Risotto

1.  Rice and cheese.  Okay, technically that’s two reasons, but it’s because this dish is a combination of rice and cheese that makes it so ridiculously good.  For those of us that like dishes that combine the two perfect foods of starch and cheese, this is a nice alternative to macaroni and cheese.

2.  This risotto also has butter and peas.  Maybe not exactly fat free, but then again, it’s not supposed to be, which is another reason to love it.

3.  It’s made with wine.  Which means you need to open a bottle of wine.  Which means you stand there, making the risotto, while sipping wine.  It’s the kind of cooking one should do while drinking a glass of wine.  Or two.  What’s not to love.

4.  You can’t rush the process.  And in this world of microwaves and the internet, it’s nice to have something that forces us to slow down, just a little, and enjoy the process.  I love standing over my stove, sipping wine, and creating risotto.  And the results are so worth it.  But with that said, …

5.  You can walk in the door and be serving risotto an hour later.

6.  You can have everything on hand and make it without much planning or forethought.  A lot of the ingredients are non-perishable and others have a long shelf life, so without turning into a paranoid stockpiler, you may already have frozen peas in the freezer, a bottle of wine anywhere, and parmesan cheese in the refrigerator, which means you can make this risotto whenever the urge hits.

7.  It plays well with others.  This goes well with fish, poultry, beef, pork or lamb.  It can be the Boy Wonder side kick to any Batman main dish you serve.

8.  There are many variations and easy substitutes.  Don’t have peas?  You can use asparagus.  Like mushrooms?  Use those.  Leftover veggies?  Toss them in.  The pot of rice can become your own blank canvas if you feel the need to be creative.

9.  My copper risotto pan.  It’s the only copper pan I own, but I do love it.  You can use any large frying pan or saucepan with high edges.

10.  It seems difficult to make and it’s so not.  It seems like something a “chef” would make but it’s easy enough for someone who is just a cook, like me.  Besides the time that’s involved, it’s really very simple but with results that impress.

So, go ahead, make some risotto today and enjoy all the reasons it will make you happy.

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Fresh Summer Corn!

When summer corn is in season, I just can’t resist it.  When it’s sweet, local (which means cheap!) and good, it’s like my drug of the moment.  And I just always assume everyone else loves it as much as I do, so then I serve it every chance I get.  But, as the Bartender pointed out, corn on the cob is one thing.  Not everyone likes to eat corn off the cob, especially when they are having their picture taken (as was the case a couple of weeks ago when we had a photographer here shooting our dinner party for the blog).  As Dear Abby once wrote, “Those who are sticklers for socially acceptable table manners are not likely to serve corn on the cob.”  So, how does one take advantage of seasonal corn and not disturb the delicate balance of etiquette and decorum?  Creamed corn casserole!

When we served this, some of our guests admitted that they had never really cared for creamed corn until they tasted this recipe.  We think it’s the cheese.  But it’s ridiculously good with none of that socially awkward gnawing the kernels off the cobs.  No bits of corn hanging precariously to cheeks and lips.  No unwelcome corn juice squirting across the table.  Just sweet summer corn that can be eaten with a fork.

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Skillet Corn Bread

Many years ago, when my husband and I were first dating, we took a weekend trip to the wine country in Northern California.  This was long before we actually lived in California, and it turned out to be the first of many trips we’d take to the wine country together.  But back then, enveloped in our new love and lust, it was a magical weekend for many reasons.  We stopped for dinner in Rutherford and ordered the cornbread.  I think it’s safe to say that it was the best cornbread I had ever eaten.  A far cry from the stuff my mom made from the little blue box.  We asked for the recipe and, while they weren’t able to give us the actual recipe, they did provide the basic ingredients.  Years later, I found a recipe in a cookbook I bought from a bed and breakfast, which became my base and inspiration for this recipe.

Thanks to my mother-in-law, I have a hand-me-down, perfectly-seasoned cast iron skillet that I use for making this bread.  I have to admit, I’ve never made it in any other pan, but I’m sure any 8″ pan will do nicely.

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