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Crab Cakes – A Summer Favorite

Memorial Day is the official kick-off to the summer season.  At least in most parts of the country.  Here, in the Pacific Northwest, it’s more of a suggestion that summer will be along soon, when it’s good and ready.  It’s like Mother Nature is sending a memo saying “Mark Your Calendars. Summer will be here in just a few short weeks.”

We’ve had a string of warm, sunny days, so we do what we do here and act like it’s summer regardless of what the calendar says.  We all know that there are many days of grey, clouds, and drizzling rain ahead of us before summer is here to stay.  Regardless, the flip flops have been dusted off, the Weber barbecue has assumed its rightful place on the patio, and the boat has been cleaned from stem to stern.  And we’ve started eating summer food.

While the start to crabbing season is still about six weeks away, we celebrated the anticipation of summer by making crab cakes.  These are always so good when we can use fresh crab, but they are really delicious with the canned stuff as well.  (Just make sure you always use lump crab meat.  That’s the difference between a good, meaty crab cake and something that resembles those godawful salmon patties my mom used to make using canned salmon, crushed Saltines and an egg.)

Lump Crab Meat

I like to make these for dinner parties because I can do all the messy stuff ahead of time (mix, shape and refrigerate the crab cakes) and then quickly fry them when it’s time for dinner.  Easy but super decadent.

Crab Cake Mixture

Shaping Crab Cakes

Crab Cakes Ready for Frying

Frying Crab Cakes

Thank you to our friend, Karen, for sharing her grandmother’s recipe with us.  It’s always a favorite with our guests.  We’ve added an easy recipe for tarter sauce, just in case you want to sauce things up a bit.

Happy Entertaining!

Crab Cake

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Pizza, Chapter 3

Sometimes, in life, it’s the simple things that can make the biggest difference.  With food, this can be especially true.  A dash of a seasoning or an addition of one ingredient can take something from good to fabulous.  And I’m here to tell you that, in this particular scenario, all it took was a basket of those little cherry tomatoes to take the yum factor up a notch me.

Tomatoes in Bowl

I’ve always been a fan of Jon’s homemade pizza.  And I’ve thoroughly enjoyed being on the eating side of the evolution of it.  We started with a simple margherita pizza and it evolved to a full-blown, multiple-toppings type of pizza.  But when we went back to a basic pizza and then added simple roasted tomatoes, I was left asking for pizza on an almost weekly basis.

We had neighbors over for dinner recently and made this pizza for them.  Pizza, along with an easy green salad, made for the perfect meal.  It was one of those evenings that, for me, is what entertaining is all about.  A no-stress preparation.  Easy, fun and lively conversation around the table during dinner.  And a meal that, while uncomplicated to pull together, is met with adulation (aka, enthusiastic praise).  Not that I go into any dinner party expecting it, but it just makes me so happy when guests leave full and asking when they can come back for more.

So, it’s time to go dust off that bread maker (you remember that thing you bought and then quit using because you got tired of making bread shaped like a bread maker pan).  Try this pizza.  You’ll be glad you did. 

Salted Tomatoes

Fresh Basil  Roasted Tomatoes

Ready for the Oven

Roasted Tomato Pizza

Happy Entertaining!

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Bartender’s hint:  If you happen to end up with leftovers, a friend showed us a terrific way to re-heat leftover pizza:  Microwave your leftover slices for about 30 seconds to take the chill off; then place in a large frying pan or skillet over medium heat.  Heat for 4-5 minutes, and serve.  The crust will be perfectly crispy, not soggy the way re-heated pizza usually ends up.

Pizza Night

I love pizza nights!  Well, more specifically, pizza nights when we make homemade pizza for dinner.  Okay, actually what I really mean is I love pizza nights when the Bartender makes homemade pizza for dinner.  In our house, Jon (aka the Bartender) is the pizza maker.

Pizza Fresh Out of the Oven

Normally, when we’re entertaining, I have kitchen duty while Jon tends to the bar.  And the music.  And anything that might have broken that needs fixing.  But last week, even with a house full of guests, I got to take the dinner shift off because pizzas were on the menu.  (And, how clever of me to plan the menu in this way.)  So, while I sat, drinking a glass of wine and chatting with our friends, Jon feverishly worked in the kitchen making 3 batches of pizza dough (enough to feed a group of six).  It’s not that making the dough is hard.  It’s just that it takes some time to let it mix, rest and rise.  He started the first 2 batches before we left for an afternoon of snowshoeing and then got the third batch going when we got back to the house.  While I was enjoying my time of leisure with nary a care, I must admit I felt a little guilty when our friends started making noises about needing cocktails (which, as I said, is also Jon’s jurisdiction) at about the same time that he was elbow-deep in shaping the pizza dough.  But Jon impressed me when he actually delegated the bar tending responsibilities to one of our guests.  Turns out he’s accomplished at both pizza making AND delegating.

Pizza Crust with Olive Oil  Sauce with Fresh Basil

Pizza Toppings

Pepperoni PizzaIn the past, we have always just made Margherita-style pizza with its three simple toppings (tomatoes, fresh basil, and fresh mozzarella).  But this night, to appeal to the tastes of a broader audience, we provided a big selection of toppings and let everyone make half a pizza to their liking.  I have to say, I thought the pizzas were perfect.  The dough worked equally as well with simple toppings as it did piled high with a little bit of everything. All I can say is look out Papa John’s…there’s a new pizza daddy in town.

Pizza with The Works

Homemade Pizza

And it was an easy dinner to make for six people.   Oh, wait, I guess by that I mean that it was easy for me.  But, for the record, I did set the table.

Happy Entertaining!

Pizza Night

Time for Fresh Crab

Signs of summer are all around us.  We’re experiencing an early summer here in the Pacific Northwest, and by that I mean we have sunshine before July 5, which is the day the locals all refer to as the start of summer.  (In other words, it’s rare for us to see sunshine for the 4th of July holiday, much less any time before it.)  Flip flops have been dusted off, shorts have been moved from the back of the drawers to the front, and our thick fleece jackets have been replaced by thinner fleece (can’t get too carried away as it still gets cool in the evening).

Crab Pots

We live on a salt-water channel that serves as a thoroughfare from town to the more open water around some of the islands.  In the summer, we watch a constant parade of boats in all shapes and sizes as they come and go.  Even when we’re not looking, we can hear the boats go by and have gotten pretty adept at identifying the kind of boat (tug versus small skiff versus large power boat) by the sound of its engine.  Or lack thereof.  When we can hear voices, we know the boaters are probably going by in kayaks.  The channel is also used heavily by the commercial fisherman and the volume of traffic varies based on what is in season at the moment.  Currently, it’s crabbing season and we see a never-ending stream of boats, laden with crab pots, off in pursuit of their daily catch.  On many mornings, before the sun even comes up, we hear the boats passing by our house, getting an early start to the day.

Crab Close-up

Mighty Crab HunterToday was opening day of crab season for the non-commercial boats.  That means people like us who own 1 or 2 crab pots and have purchased a license.  The Bartender motored out about 20 minutes from the house and set our trap early this morning which resulted in 2 large “keeper” crabs a few hours later.  This is as close as we ever get to being hunters or gatherers.  The water was a little choppy this morning but hardly a scene from the Deadliest Catch.

The Bartender Cooking Crab   Crab on the Stove

Cooked Dungeness Crab

In these parts, the crab is Dungeness which takes a little work in order to extract all the sweet, juicy meat but is well worth the effort.  Eating this kind of crab requires an assortment of tools (crackers that can be used in the off season to crack nuts, teensie little forks, crab picks and these little zipper thingies that sliceCrab Forks the shell).  Bibs are optional.  Finger bowls are recommended.  And you’ll find that there are well established techniques by those that have been practicing the art of crab picking/eating for a while.  Some eat a bite each time they have a forkful.  Others show a great deal of patience and restraint and first pick all the meat they can, pile it into a neat little gob and then enjoy the feast unencumbered by additional stops and picks.  Either way, you can be assured that there is a large amount of butter and cocktail sauce involved.  But we have found that not everyone enjoys the picking aspect of the meal.  They just don’t seem to find the appeal in being covered from fingertip to elbow in crab juice and shell fragments.  So, for people we really like, after we cook the crabs, we’ll do all the work for them and serve it as a crab cocktail.  We actually put the cocktail sauce in the bottom of the glass, which provides a little for dipping without overwhelming the sweet, yummy goodness of the crab.

Happy entertaining!

Making Crab Cocktail   Crab Cocktail

For the Love of Simple

Simple food.  It seems to be what I always gravitate to, whether I’m planning a party for 6 or just making dinner for 2.  Just as the difference between a cluttered room that causes my stress level to rise and a simple thing, like a single comfortable chair that gives me that “ahhhhh” moment, so is my feeling about fussy meals versus simple meals.  To use fresh, local ingredients, prepared in a simple, flavorful way makes me relaxed.  And  a relaxed hostess is a happy hostess, at least in our house.

I was late to the “all organic meat” parade.  But once I joined, I was a convert.  It’s not a new-age, hippie-revolution, weird-science thing, regardless what some of you may think about “organic.”  It makes a difference in the quality and taste of the food.  Especially with chicken.  You take a certified organic chicken and roast it with just a few flavors and it is a good reminder that sometimes the most gratifying meal is often the simplest.

Doesn’t a roast chicken just scream Sunday night dinner?  Try it.  It’s easy and oh-so-good and juicy.  Just like mom used to make.  Minus the dried-out breast meat.

Happy entertaining!


Roasted Chicken

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A Hearty Wintertime Favorite

It’s early March.  In many parts of the country, that means there are starting to be hints that spring is in the air.  Here, in the mountains?  Not so much.  We’ve been watching it snow all morning.  We have about 10″ of new snow in the yard.  It’s beautiful, to say the least.  But it’s definitely not spring.  Regardless of what the calendar says, it is still very much winter here.

We eat differently in the winter than we do, say, in the summer.  Hearty, stick-to-your-ribs food, served with robust red wine, somehow seems appropriate when the temperatures are low and the snow accumulation is knee-deep.  This winter, beef stroganoff has become one my go-to dishes when friends are in town.  It’s super easy to make but it’s one of those dishes that tastes and presents like you went to a whole lot of trouble.

This is one of my favorites.  Which is a remarkable statement for me, given that I don’t like mushrooms. I can’t think of many situations where I’d actually eat a mushroom, except in this dish.  I’m not sure where my aversion to them started.  Maybe because they are also known as toadstools.  Okay, not very appetizing.  Or because they are fungus. Okay, absolutely not appetizing.  All I can think is that they grew everywhere where I grew up (Seattle) and I’d walk through the grass kicking them with my little saddle shoes.  I just never looked down and thought, “Gee, I’d love to eat one of those.”  Until now.  This recipe has converted me.  At least to the point where I’ll eat a mushroom if it comes to the party with top sirloin, beef broth, butter and onions as its date.

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A Comfort Food Classic

Comfort food.  Even the name conjures up a happy place.  It’s the kind of food we want to eat when we want to feel good.  Yet it seems that comfort food has to fight for its rightful place at the dinner party table.  For some reason, many of us feel the need to serve shi-shi food to guests (“Look at the fancy meal I prepared for you!”) and overlook some of the best food out there, that can nourish, comfort and impress.  I think about how much effort we put into ensuring our guests feel comfortable in our home.  It just seems like comfort food is an obvious extension of that message.  One of the “new” restaurants in town (that opened a couple of years ago) serves good, home-cooked food, like meatloaf and mashed potatoes.  If you don’t get there early, you won’t get a table. Locals love the restaurant and the food on their menu.  We love that we don’t have to get all gussied up to go there and we feel good when we leave.  That’s how I want our guests to feel about our home.

Chicken Potpie

This recipe for chicken potpie was adapted from the Marshall Field’s Cookbook.  Growing up in Seattle, I was very familiar with Frederick & Nelson, which was a division of the Marshall Field’s in Chicago.  It was the kind of department store that made shopping feel like a special experience.  Parents flocked there at Christmas to get their kids’ pictures taken with the Santa.  Brides-to-be ordered their mints from there, because they could be dyed to match the wedding colors.  They had a hat department, and the hats went home in hat boxes when you bought them.  It was the type of store where a voice in the elevators announced “4th floor, Women’s Lingerie.”  My mom loved Frederick & Nelson’s, and we were all a little sad when it went out of business in the early 90’s.  The Marshall Field’s Cookbook is no longer in print, but I was able to find a used copy on Amazon.  It’s full of great recipes that were served in their dining room.  The chicken potpie was one of their most popular dishes on the menu over the years.

I love this recipe.  And the times we’ve served it to guests, they have loved it, too.  Some variation of the recipe has been around for over 100 years in one of the most iconic dining rooms in the country, so it seems like it has the credentials to proudly attend any dinner party.  With or without the good china and silver.  Good food made from scratch.  If that doesn’t say, “Welcome to our home,” I don’t know what does.

Hostess’ notes:

If you’re afraid of making your own dough, give this recipe a try. I’ve had good luck with it and found it to be user-friendly.  Here are some tips for making it work:

I found a plastic lid that’s slightly larger than the ramekins.  I use this to cut the top crust.

When I flute the edges, I press my thumb against the edge to help seal the crust to the ramekin.

A quick brush of the egg wash and they’re ready for the oven!

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My quest for the perfect Pizza Margherita

A few years back, The Hostess and I vacationed with friends for a couple weeks on Italy’s Amalfi Coast.  We knew to expect good food as that region is well-known for its simple, rustic recipes made with the freshest regional ingredients.  But we had no idea what an understatement good food is when you apply that term to the Amalfi region.  “Where are we going to eat next?” became something we started asking as soon as we’d licked our plates clean from the previous meal.

I realized I’d fallen off the caloric deep end when, a week into the trip, some of my clothes were no longer fitting.  The temptation behind my total loss of self control was the combination of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, and basil known as “caprese” (literally, “from Capri”).  I’ve always been a sucker for a good tomato and mozzarella salad, but nothing prepared me for just how delicious that combination would taste in the region of Italy where it was born.  I didn’t need to understand Italian to hear caprese beckoning me from every restaurant doorway.  Caprese sandwiches, caprese pasta, caprese salad, I ate them all with reckless abandon.  And the most irresistible form of caprese proved to be Pizza Margherita.

Legend has it that the Margherita pizza was named for Queen Margherita who, during a visit to Naples in the late 19th century, favored it because the three toppings evoked for her the green/white/red colors of the Italian flag.  We found Pizza Margherita literally everywhere.  Even at truck stops.  (Where, on our first morning in the country, we observed two little old ladies eating it for brunch.  They each folded a huge slice in half and ate it like a sandwich.)  Possibly the best one I enjoyed was in a café just outside the entrance to the ruins of Pompeii, where they let us park in their lot for free if we agreed to eat lunch there.  My mouth still waters when I think of it.

I returned from Italy twelve pounds heavier and with a determination to learn how to make my own Margherita pizza at home.  The simplicity of the ingredients made this look to be pretty straightforward.  I’d never used fresh mozzarella on a pizza before, but it was easy enough to find in the deli section of most grocery stores.  Same with fresh basil leaves.  I expected that the biggest challenge would be finding an appropriate tomato sauce, since the authentic Italian topping is more tomato-y and less sauce-y, but I quickly found a very satisfactory brand of canned “organic crushed tomatoes.”  And I’d actually been making homemade pizza for years, using a handmade crust that was based on an old Betty Crocker recipe from my childhood.  But it was the crust that tripped me up.  The pizzas we’d enjoyed in Italy had a crust that was crispy and light while still having a hearty chewiness to it.  Suffice it to say that it took me dozens of pizzas and numerous tweaks and fiddles before I found a combination of ingredients and process that I think is close to authentic.  I must admit that I now use a bread machine rather than hand-kneeding.  And while more authentic recipes require that the dough rest in the refrigerator for at least a day or two, my recipe shortens the entire process to less than three hours so that I can have my pizza on the same day that the cravings hit.  I’ll also acknowledge Alton Brown, as it was his recipe that finally unlocked some of the secrets for me.  Finally, until the day that I have my own dedicated pizza oven (preferably wood-fired!), I’ll never again make a pizza without using a pizza stone.  That’s the only way I’ve found to get the perfect combination of crisp and chewy.

Pizza Margherita

Now I can make pizza that reminds me of that parking lot café at Pompeii whenever I get the urge.  In moderation, of course.

Also, I’m using the festive red-and-green color of this pizza as my excuse for posting the recipe right in the middle of the Christmas holiday.  Serve it as a delicious break from the traditional holiday fare, then enjoy it throughout the year!

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