Food Friday: Loving the Leftovers


Loving the Leftovers…

Or Parmigiana to Warm Your Chilly Soul

Although the weather has been bright and beautiful it is still winter and I am feeling chilly. And though a couple of New Year’s resolutions have already slid away from me, down that slippery slope, I am doing much better than last year in using up leftovers. I had a bucket of leftover spaghetti sauce in the freezer, but the beauty of this meal is that jarred sauce works fine, too, and you can substitute almost any meat (or vegetable) for the chicken. Welcome to the forgiving, oozy world of hot cheese, and chicken Parmigiana.

I cannot claim any proprietary rights to the deliciousness of the spaghetti sauce I used. Mr. Friday concocted it a couple of weekends ago. In our new enviable thrifty fashion we ate the meat sauce with Italian sausage and lacrosse ball-sized meatballs for Sunday dinner. Then served the sauce over ziti for a cold-busting Tuesday dinner. Then we popped the sauce into the freezer for almost a week. When Monday reared its ugly head we had a lovely piping hot carb-laden meal which prepared us for the onslaught of Tuesday. And on Wednesday evening I sizzled up a couple of breaded chicken cutlets and rummaged through the cheese collection to concoct chicken parmigiana. This is the recipe I used for temperature and timing guidance.

First, pre-heat the oven. Then breading with flour, egg, and bread crumbs are the next step. There are as many variations of Parmigiana as exist in your imagination (or larder). Eggplant, whether you bread it and fry it, or not. (In Italy the eggplant is generally sautéed, not breaded.) I wouldn’t bread sausages or meatballs, either. But the crispy crunchy crust will surround and enhance shrimp, chicken or veal cutlets. And consider the cauliflower, suddenly palatable. I use unseasoned Panko bread crumbs – extra crispy is my motto. And as soon as you have fried up your main ingredient, pop it into the pan and add the sauce and the cheese. You do not want the crisp crust to get sodden or leaden during the baking process.

I used a ball of fresh mozzarella for the cheesy ooziness, and I also grated a mountain of fresh tangy Parmesan cheese. But I have also used grated, store-brand, almost-going-blue mozzarella, and cardboard container Kraft Parmesan sawdust, and none of my diners has ever complained. It’s warm and deelish.

Last night we also served up a bowl of spaghetti to be a nest for the chicken cutlet – because you can never have too much spaghetti – and salad and garlic bread and an inexpensive bottle of red wine. I also baked brownies, because if I am going to hell in a hand basket, I want to have enjoyed dessert. You can join me later this afternoon when Luke and I waddle around the cemetery, pretending to get some exercise.

And guess what’s for lunch? A leftover chicken parm sandwich! Luke is delighted! The New Year is off to a swell start!

“Everything you see I owe to spaghetti.”
― Sophia Loren

Food Friday: A Chicken in Every Pot


It has been bitterly cold, with lashings of snow and ice; winter weather combinations that cry out for a warm kitchen and warm bellies. But with all the books we got for Christmas, we are still loathe to stir ourselves from our comfy chairs and sofas to waddle into the kitchen. What can we do when dinner time rears its ugly head once again?

I always opt for easy, with the prospect of many leftovers. Working from home does not afford me many glamorous luncheons, swanning about with my stylish Spy editors at fashionable eateries and watering holes. Most of the time it is just Luke the wonder dog and me, standing at the kitchen counter, scarfing up peanut butter crackers and the latest New Yorker magazine.

I’m sure the editors are doing lots of research, testing raw water and other trendy, newsworthy items. But back at the famous Spy test kitchens this week, we are eating lots of left over chicken. One-dish chicken dishes, to be specific, that we have had earlier this week for dinner. And I have to say, that as far as comfort and taste and making me feel warm all over, Vivian Howard’s mother’s chicken rice dish is my personal fave.

Scarlett’s Chicken and Rice takes some time to prepare. But that is what Sunday afternoons are for. Go buy a chicken and make this on Sunday. Along about Wednesday or Thursday you will be thanking your lucky stars.


1 large chicken left whole (best case scenario, this would be an old tough bird/laying hen)
cool water to cover
1 yellow onion (peeled and split)
1 bay leaf
3 sprigs thyme
kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper
2 cups white rice (mom swears by Uncle Bens, I like Carolina Gold)
3 Tbsp. butter

Put your bird, the split onion, thyme, and bay leaf in a large, heavy-bottomed pot. Cover the bird, just barely with cool water. Add 2 Tbsp. salt and 2 tsp. black pepper to the pot. Cover and bring it all up to a simmer. Cook for about an hour or until the bird, in my mom’s words, is “falling to pieces.”   If this is a typical young chicken this should not take any longer than an hour and a half. If it is a laying hen, it could take up to 5 hours. I know that is crazy, but a hen will provide a much better broth.

Once the bird is “falling to pieces” turn off the heat and let her rest in the broth for 30 minutes. Remove and reserve the bird. Discard the onion, bay leaf, and thyme. Tear the chicken meat into medium pieces and add it back to the pot. Bring the broth and the chicken up to a simmer. Add the rice. If you are a rice rinser, resist the urge here, as the starch helps make the broth homey and rich. Cook the rice for about 12 minutes, depending on the variety or brand the time could vary. The rice should be just cooked through and should absolutely hold its shape. Turn off the heat. Add your butter. Taste for seasoning and adjust with additional salt or pepper.

I particularly like to cook Miss Scarlett’s chicken and rice on Sunday, when I can enlist Mr. Friday’s help in picking the chicken off the bones. He does a much nicer job than Luke, who tends to be a little stingy when he should be sharing.

Mark Bittman, one of our household gods, has a one-dish recipe for Chicken with Vinegar.

2 tablespoons olive oil
1 3-pound chicken, cut up for sauteing
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
¼ cup minced shallots or scallions
1 cup good red-wine vinegar
1 tablespoon butter (optional)

1. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Set a large ovenproof skillet over medium-high heat. Add oil; when it is hot, place chicken in the skillet, skin side down. Cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes, or until chicken is nicely browned. Turn and cook 3 minutes on the other side. Season with salt and pepper.
2. Place skillet in the oven. Cook 15 to 20 minutes, or until almost done (juices will run clear, and there will be just a trace of pink near the bone). Remove chicken to an ovenproof platter. Place it in the oven; turn off the heat, and leave the door slightly ajar.
3. Pour all but 2 tablespoons of the cooking juices out of the skillet (discard them). Place skillet over medium-high heat, and add shallots; sprinkle them with a little salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until tender, about 2 minutes. Add vinegar, and raise the heat to high. Cook a minute or two, or until the powerful acrid smell has subsided somewhat. Add 1/2 cup water, and cook for another 2 minutes, stirring, until the mixture is slightly reduced and somewhat thickened. Stir in butter, if desired.
4. Return the chicken and any accumulated juices to the skillet, and turn the chicken in the sauce. Serve immediately. 

This is an excellent chicken dish for a week night, when you want to look as if you actually care what everyone is eating for dinner. I am always surprised when six o’clock rolls around on the guitar again, so this is a good cover for me.

And here is a recipe you can winterize – just substitute canned tomatoes for fresh and you will have a deeply satisfying winter meal. It can be stretched out to lunch or dinner leftovers by shredding the chicken and adding it to fresh hot rice or pasta a day or two later when the chicken has soaked up even more tomato-y goodness. Food52 says this was one of their most viewed recipes in 2017. Get cracking!

“Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
― Edith Sitwell.

Food Friday: Remembrance


The perfect grilled hamburger doesn’t come from Vivian Howard’s Boiler Room restaurant in Kinston, North Carolina, although I encourage you to stop by if you are ever in her neighborhood. Her burgers are awesome and delicious.

Mr. Friday flips an excellent burger on his fancy gas grill on the back porch, and in the soon-to-be-well-seasoned cast iron skillet in the kitchen. He serves them on trendy potato rolls, with perfect heirloom tomatoes and lots of gooey cheese. They are hot and delectable, and in the middle of this gelid winter, deeply satisfying.

My perfect grilled hamburger comes from my youth, from the hibachi in the back yard, on hot summer nights, with sparks spewing and bats flying overhead. The burgers were not juicy and perfectly formed. They were irregular spheroids – well-charred and carbonized briquets – flipped and squashed until all the precious juices were mangled out. Hamburgers cooked by my father were unforgettable.

My father died this week, unexpectedly, yet not unsurprisingly; he was 92, but still, we were shocked. He had suffered a fall, and survived a week of hospital care. Returning to my hometown has brought myriad memories bubbling to the surface. Friends have called and texted my brother and me, and after the effusion of sincere condolences, peoples’ real recollections come tumbling out. Some folks even remember these gritty, over-cooked hockey pucks with great fondness. Not quite the stuff of legends, because Dad did so much more in his life, but the cookouts were pleasant interludes; respites when everyone slowed down, and sat in the squeaky, webbed aluminum chairs, and watched the sun set and the stars come out. There were no deadlines, or lesson plans, or homework to worry about. The summer evenings spent cooking out were relaxed, and filled with conversations – none particularly memorable – but all were amiable and rambling.

We sat around the small fire, some of us poking it with sticks hoping for conflagrations, some sipping warming Ballentine Ale. We shelled peas, snapped beans, and trimmed radishes. We churned ice cream. We ate tomatoes, warm from the afternoon sunshine. We flipped baseballs. We watched as the fireflies started to flit about. We saw twinkling airplanes on their approaches to the New York airports. We heard about childhoods in Hamden and New Haven, the Yale bookstore and the Panama Canal. We listened to stories about the South Pacific during the war. We learned about street cars, and ice men making deliveries with their horse-drawn carts, and the one-and-only time playing hooky to see Frank Sinatra sing. We talked about Maine vacations and Civil War battlefields. Sometimes we had sparklers, and wrote our names with the glowing wire tips. Sometimes the hamburgers were forgotten and the night was rich with family and starlight. We are bereft, but for the memories.

But if you prefer convention, Bon Appétit can show you the way:

• Divide meat into 4 equal portions (about 6 oz. each). Place 1 portion on a work surface. Cup your hands around the meat and begin to gently shape it into a rounded mound. (Use light pressure as you shape so you don’t pack the meat too tightly.) Lightly press down on the top of the meat with your palm to gently flatten it. Continue rotating and cupping the meat, patting the top of it occasionally, until you’ve formed a 4″-diameter, 3/4″-thick patty. Using your thumb, make a small indentation in the center to help keep the burger flat as it cooks. Transfer to a plate. Repeat with remaining portions.

• Build a medium-hot fire in a charcoal grill, or heat a gas grill to high. Season one side of patties with salt and pepper; place on grill, seasoned side down. Grill until lightly charred on bottom, about 4 minutes. Season other side, turn, and top with cheese. Grill to desired doneness, about 4 minutes longer for medium. Transfer burgers to buns and let stand for 3 minutes before serving.

•Spatulas were made for flipping, not pressing on the patty. Hear that hissing sound when you do? That’s all the flavorful juices dripping on the coals—they belong in the burger.

“Silently, one by one, in the infinite meadows of heaven,
Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels.”
― Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Food Friday: Macaroni & Cheese


(My apologies for this recipe from the Spy’s Way Back Machine. I got caught in Connecticut during the latest blizzard, and couldn’t make it back to the ranch in a timely fashion. New stuff next week! Honest.)

Melted cheese is so good on many things – pizza, cheeseburgers, Fettucine Alfredo, grilled cheese sandwiches. They are probably all heart stoppers that gladden our future cardiologists – but they are necessary comforts to get through the wintertime blues. Remember being a little kid, with melting snow in your boots, and frozen toes trapped in the vise of wet socks? You would stand in the back hall, tearing off your wet snowsuit, starving after a morning of sledding down the hill, dodging trees and rocks. Don’t you remember what a cooking whiz your mother seemed when she would boil up a tin of un-ironic Campbell’s Tomato Soup, and then flip a grilled cheese sandwich with skill and aplomb? If you were lucky, there was a handful of Fritos on the plate, too.

We take comfort in many simple pleasures: food, routines, worn out blue jeans, a patch of butterscotch sunshine on the dining room floor early in the morning for the still-sleepy cat. When our children were little we established some routines that became informal traditions. Friday nights we rolled out and baked pizza together. Mondays we ate Mac & Cheese while discussing the challenges of the upcoming school week. Gradually those little palettes grew more sophisticated, and they eschewed the simple pleasures for something more complex – like Fettucine Alfredo. I like a good plate of fettucine, when I am not overly concerned with the carbs or the oodles of butter. Mac & cheese is earthier, more redolent of simpler times. Fettucine is just snooty, continental mac & cheese.

When I was a budget-minded college student there were times that we could not overcome our inertia to traipse the 500 yards or so to the dining hall, so we would rustle up our own dinner. That was when Shirl Ann introduced me to the joys of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, in a box, with dry, orange-y powder that miraculously turned the slimy little macaronis into bright, man-made neon objets. Totally deelish. (You must keep in mind that we were kitchen neophytes, who thought we were gourmands because we really threw spaghetti at the wall, to see if it stuck, as a test of doneness. We were just a tad naïve, and our mothers would despair had they but known.) One night Shirl came up with a superbly worldly innovation – adding garlic powder to the macaroni mixture to vary the plastic-y “cheesy” taste. She shook that jar of dehydrated garlic powder over the cooked macaroni with sangfroid. She was an imperturbable kitchen marvel.

I went up a couple of price points for our children – we had Velveeta Macaroni & Cheese on Monday nights. Sometimes we had the shell variety, and other times the elbows. Eventually we learned to resist the siren song of Velveeta and devised our own homemade mac & cheese recipe. It was quite a step up from those nights in college. And this is a crowd pleaser, especially if you have to entertain some of the Tall One’s taller friends.

3 tablespoons melted butter
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
3 cups uncooked pasta (penne, elbow, ziti, even shells if you want to wallow in nostalgia)
3 cups scalded milk
2 cups grated cheese (Cheddar, Monterey Jack, Munster– grate your own – don’t buy bags of dried out cheese!!!)
1 cup grated Gruyère
½ teaspoon chicken bouillon
Pinch of salt
Pinch of cayenne

Melt butter in a saucepan over medium heat. Sprinkle the flour over the butter. Cook, stir constantly for about 2 minutes. In a large saucepan, cook the roux for about two minutes, add scalded milk and chicken bouillon, stir constantly bringing it to a boil – just. Add grated cheese and chicken bouillon. Lower the heat and cook until the cheese has melted and the sauce is smooth and creamy. Set aside. Boil the pasta in salted water, stirring occasionally, until done. Drain the pasta, and pour it into the saucepan with the cheese mixture. Let stand for about 5 minutes, stirring every once in a while. The cheese mixture will thicken as it blends with the pasta. We like to serve it with a little cloud of fresh shaved Parmesan cheese on top. And some black pepper, too. You can make this ahead of time, but where is the fun in that? It is better to grate the cheese together and talk about Algebra.

The Dinner Party Download is a delightful podcast. You will be so much more charming and informative if you listen to it every week. Trust me. Hear what they have to say about Fettucine Alfredo and how it got it’s name.

This sounds yummy, but I have always been a little leery of the bread crumb aspect. I think it must be a childhood thing…

“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”
-Julia Child

Food Friday: Happy New Year!


Before opening the Spy’s much lauded Test Kitchen, one of my home office Christmas parties consisted of inviting a friend over to have a sad glass of indifferent Chardonnay, and to watch Leslie Warren’s Cinderella on our new fangled VCR.

This year for New Year’s Eve I am kicking back with gin and Champagne (probably Prosecco because we are starting a New Year’s Resolution Budget). We will fire up the Acorn TV and watch a couple of episodes of the original Upstairs, Downstairs. There is nothing that makes me feel like a schlubby, indulgent, middle-aged, middle-class American faster than Upstairs, Downstairs.

Prosecco or Champagne? It’s a personal choice. I am hugely impressed by a stately bottle of Veuve Cliquot, and would probably serve it to Mr. Hudson, the butler from Upstairs, Downstairs, if he ever came to call. But I find a pretty orange label on a bottle of Mionetto Prosecco just as appealing. Lady Marjorie, also from 165 Eaton Place, would never comment on the lower price point. She would be pleased just to loosen her corset stays and have a second glass. And then Lady Marjorie will tell me to relax, and to enjoy myself a little bit. “You never know when disaster will strike,” she confides. (Lady Marjorie went down on Titanic, so she has some experience with life changing moments.)

Mr. Hudson would tell me to pull up my bootstraps. The Christmas cookies are almost gone. In the meantime, it is Friday night, and it has been a long week. It’s the last time to indulge in 2017. Instead pouring a glass of my usual cheap winter Malbec, I thought I should test some seasonal, perhaps New Year-ish cocktail recipes, to get back into the holiday spirit. These are crowd pleasers, but they require a little planning.

“The feeling of friendship is like that of being comfortably filled with roast beef; love is like being enlivened with Champagne.”
– Samuel Johnson

French 75s
“Hits with remarkable precision.”
-Harry Craddock, The Savoy Cocktail Book

2 ounces gin
1 ounce lemon juice
1 spoonful extra fine sugar
Shake the gin, lemon juice and sugar in a cocktail shaker filled with cracked ice until chilled and well-mixed and then pour into tall glass containing cracked ice and fill up the glass with Champagne. This clever cocktail was said to have been devised during WWI, the kick from the alcohol combo being described as powerful as the French 75mm howitzer gun.

“Meeting Franklin Roosevelt was like opening your first bottle of Champagne; knowing him was like drinking it.”
-Winston Churchill

Champagne Cocktail
In a Champagne glass add a teaspoon of sugar and enough Angostura bitters to melt the sugar. Add a tablespoon of Grand Marnier or cognac and mix in with the sugar, bitters mix. Add a “fine” quality Champagne and stir. Float a slice of thin orange on top. This is what Ilsa and Victor Laszlo sipped in Casablanca.

“Too much of anything is bad, but too much Champagne is just right.”
-Mark Twain

As always, our festive friends at Food52 have some delightful ideas for nibbles to help soak up some of the bubbly we are sure to be drinking on New Year’s Eve.

On a recent trip to food-forward-thinking-Charleston, friends ordered Aperol and Prosecco cocktails, because they are oh, so trendy. I did not realize that this is the most popular cocktail in Italy. And now it can be one of yours, too!

Aperol and Prosecco
3 parts chilled, dry Prosecco
2 parts Aperol
1 splash soda
Serve with on the rocks in wine glass or rocks glass
Garnish with a slice of orange (this makes it practically health food!)
This is very pretty, and so seasonal: pomegranate mimosas. Yumsters.

“My only regret in life is that I didn’t drink enough Champagne”
-John Maynard Keynes

And the best of both worlds: a Black Velvet! Champagne and Guinness. This drink is simply equal parts stout and sparkling wine, and to be honest, there are some who will never understand its appeal. But to fans, this is a perfect special-occasion drink, particularly suited to mornings and late afternoons. I had my first on a gelid night in London, at Rules, in Covent Garden. Divine.

Black Velvet
4 ounces (1/2 cup) chilled Champagne or Prosecco
4 ounces (1/2 cup) chilled Guinness Extra Stout
Pour the Champagne into a tall glass. We first had ours served in heavy pewter tankards, but at home we eschew the delicate flutes for a sturdy rocks glass. This is not an effete drink. It is robust, and fills your hand with determination. Be sure to pour the Guinness on top. (This is important: Guinness is heavier. If you pour the sparkling wine second, it won’t combine evenly, and will need to be stirred. I shudder at the thought!)

Enjoy yourself this weekend. Happy New Year! Loosen those corset strings. And let the games begin, again, on Tuesday.

“Why do I drink Champagne for breakfast? Doesn’t everyone?”
-Noel Coward

Food Friday: ‘Tis the Season!


These are busy days in the world famous Spy Test Kitchen. We have been super busy baking and stirring and slow-cooking. If you had stopped by on Tuesday you would have been impressed by our relentless good cheer, and our frenetic demeanor. ’Tis the season to be very busy and multitask!

Our first task was preparing some slow-cooker beef short ribs that Mr. Friday was going to prepare over the weekend. His best laid plans went awry, and the dinner fell to me. The first thing I had to do was excavate for the slow-cooker, which I eventually found on the floor of the pantry, behind the dog food storage container, next to the stash of Diet Dr. Pepper.

Here is Mr. Friday’s recipe for Slow-Cooker Beef Short Ribs:

1/3 cup flour
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
2 1/2 pounds boneless beef short ribs (Mr. Friday bought bone-in, sigh)
1/4 cup butter
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup beef broth
3/4 cup red wine vinegar
3/4 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons catsup
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
2 tablespoons minced garlic
1 teaspoon chili powder

Put flour, salt and pepper in a bag. Add the ribs and shake to coat.
Brown the ribs in butter in a large frying pan.
Put the ribs in the slow cooker.
Add onions and garlic to the frying pan, stirring until fragrant and translucent. Then add the rest of the ingredients, and bring to a boil. Pour the liquid over the ribs. Cover and cook for 9 hours.

I got a little nervous about leaving the meat for 9 hours, so after 7 hours, at 4:00, in the middle of cookie frenzy, I turned the slow cooker off for a couple of hours. When Mr. Friday strolled in at 6:30 he was greeted by a large quantity of steaming, fragrant ribs. My work was done.

Our little family is a bit scattered this Christmas. So I am facing unexpected control issues, and have felt the need to send nostalgic boxes of home-baked cookies to folks. I have mentioned that we moved this year – what I haven’t confessed is that we still have boxes of books in a storage unit. And in one of those Citizen Kane boxes is my batter-splattered, grease-flecked, rolled-in-flour copy of The Joy of Cooking, stuffed with a handful of index cards scrawled with ancestral recipes. To my great relief, I did unearth a little Christmas cookie recipe book I put together for a Christmas gift many years ago. In it was the family recipe for gingersnaps. This was my grandmother’s recipe:

Grandmama’s Gingersnaps
Makes approximately 3 dozen cookies

2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon ginger
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 tablespoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon salt

Pre-heat the oven to 375°F.
Sift together the dry ingredients above. This is crucial – follow the steps here.
Add the dry ingredients to:
3/4 cup softened butter
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup molasses

Mix thoroughly. Roll mixture into small balls and then roll the balls in a bowl of granulated sugar.
Flatten the balls onto parchment paper-lined cookie sheets with a small glass.
Bake for 12-15 minutes. Cool on racks, although they are quite delicious with a nice cold glass of milk.

These immediately transported me to Connecticut in the 1960s.

And then there was the Chex Mix, which should make the Tall One and the Pouting Princess think of the Florida kitchen in the 1990s and the aughts. We never really followed the recipe on the package, except as a guideline for the amount of butter and the oven temperature. We tended to toss in a lot of different ingredients over the years, doubling the amount of pretzels, and sometimes using Slap Yo’ Mama instead of Lawry’s Seasoning Salt. We like goldfish, and honey nut Cheerios, and adding M&Ms after the mixture has cooled. You can have fun with it, too.

The Original Chex ™ Party Mix

3 cups each Corn Chex, Rice Chex, Wheat Chex
1 cup mixed nuts
1 cup bite-size pretzels
1 cup garlic-flavor bite-size bagel chips or regular-size chip, broken into 1-inch pieces (I doubt that this is a historically accurate recipe – for surely there were no bagel chips when I was little)
6 tablespoons butter or margarine (oh, puhlease, margarine?)
2 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce
1 1/2 teaspoons seasoned salt (here is my plug for Lawry’s Seasoning Salt)
3/4 teaspoon garlic powder
1/2 teaspoon onion powder

(Don’t even think about using the microwave.)

Pre-heat oven to 250° F. Put cereal and seasoning mixture into ungreased roasting pan and bake for 1 hour stirring every 15 minutes. Spread on paper towels to cool, about 15 minutes.

(What we do, and I type with years of experience, is first melt the butter in the turkey roasting pan [so it gets used more than twice a year], and then add the Worcestershire sauce, the Lawry’s seasoning salt, and the onion and the garlic powders. Then we stir in the cereals, goldfish, pretzels, nuts, Cheerios, bacon bits, taco seasoning, marshmallows, Cheese-its, dried fruit, coconut, chocolate chips, cinnamon, sprinkles, wasabi peas, chow mein noodles, Cocoa Puffs, Cheetos, pecans, popcorn, animal crackers. You name it. (Obviously, things that melt get added last.)

Tuesday was a busy day. And today I am baking more cookies to get the boxes off the kitchen table and down to the post office. ’Tis the season indeed.

“In my South, the most treasured things passed down from generation to generation are the family recipes.”
― Robert St. John

Food Friday: Holiday Latkes


We love potatoes. I imagine most quasi-normal people do. It is my life’s goal to find the world’s best French fries. Long ago I read a Calvin Trillin book about his travels in Italy one summer with Alice, where they wandered from village to village and market to market, sampling many foods, but primarily experiencing pommes frites and gelato. What bliss. Then I spent months trying to create the perfect pommes frites, as idealized by reading an entertaining book about travel and eating. I don’t know if I choose the wrong potatoes, or lacked basic Fry-o-later skills, but nothing ever seemed to capture the delight in eating fresh, blazingly hot, crispy double-fried frites as described in the book.

I have also tried for years to re-create Buffalo Chips, the deep-fried, British-style, thick slices of potato, that we had years ago at the Spring Garden Bar and Grill in Greensboro, North Carolina. The chips were the perfect side dish with their incredibly memorable Philly Cheese Steak sandwich, which is another dish I have never been able to repeat at home. I use a mandoline now for slicing the potatoes, so they are thinner and a little more uniform, and pleasant to look at, but they are never quite crispy and plumped-up as the ones we had years ago. (I have just visited the website, and find the steak sandwich is still on the menu, but no mention of the Buffalo Chips. This could be tragic news. If any of our Gentle Readers venture to Greensboro, please stop by and do some vital research for us… Perhaps the Buffalo Chips will be my madeleines…

We prepared vats of mashed potatoes for Thanksgiving, because it is the American thing to do, and because they would be repurposed for a few more days: as a significant component of the legendary Pilgrim Sandwich, as potato pancakes for a nice, leisurely breakfast to have with the Sunday paper, and they make a nice pie crust topping for the inevitable turkey pot pie. We are actually planning ahead when we boil up a bunch of extra taters for the holidays.

With Hanukkah starting next week, we threw ourselves into exhaustive research for latkes, which are a more forgiving variation on crispy, fried potatoes. It is easy to fry up extras, and then freeze them for future use. That way, if you have company for a Hanukkah meal, you are not stuck in the kitchen, while everyone else is enjoying your light touch and handiwork. Or, you can keep a stack or two in a warm oven, if you want to prepare them ahead of time and serve them in one fell swoop. French fries would never stand for that.

I appreciated the extra hint this time around to wring the grated potatoes in a dish cloth, twice, before mixing them with the egg, onion and the flour. That step made for lighter latkes. And I do not have a food processor, which I think would have reduced the time spent preparing the potatoes – but I did have a willing assistant who manfully grated the potatoes on the box grater, and managed to do it without scraping his own knuckles. There is nothing like holiday ritual meal for bringing everyone into the kitchen. This is a good recipe for the gluten-free folks.

Happy Hanukkah!

“Still ours the dance, the feast, the glorious psalm; the mystic lights of emblem, and the word.”
– Emma Lazarus

Food Friday: It’s Fruitcake Weather!


“Cherries and citron, ginger and vanilla and canned Hawaiian pineapple, rinds and raisins and walnuts and whiskey and on, so much flour, butter, so many eggs, spices, flavorings.”
-Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

Fruitcake weather! It is an ineffable moment when the air cools, the leaves are falling and the light changes from summer golds and yellows to winter whites and grays. The slant of the light is different; more oblique. Truman Capote’s cousin Sook could tell us for sure. Sunsets speed across the back yard. Their dark flat shadows race over the fallen leaves and the sad pumpkin I have tossed out near the birdbath, hoping to lure squirrels into Luke the wonder dog’s line of sight. Dark falls abruptly.

Earlier this year we moved into a little house that has 5 towering pecan trees in the back yard. Luke and I wander around, picking up windfall pecans. We toss the ones tested and deemed unworthy by the squirrels into the yard of the vacant house next door. And now we have collected a big old bucket o’pecans. And what exactly are we going to do with them?

It is time for the great fruitcake experiment. Though we have never been a fruitcake family. When I was small my mother kept a fruitcake on the dining room sideboard with the ancestral tea set, just in case someone came calling and asked for fruitcake. She might have been ahead of her time, and it might have been the same fruitcake, wrapped up with the Christmas ornaments, and hauled up to the attic every January, and brought down again the following December. I don’t know. It is a great mystery, lost to the ages.

We were a family who glommed onto other families’ traditions. Cinematic families, that is. I feel sure we didn’t decorate our Christmas tree until Christmas Eve, because that was what the Bailey family did in It’s a Wonderful Life. Also, the Brougham family in The Bishop’s Wife. We did not have a business-suited angel who helped decorate, however. Instead, my mother employed child labor. Merrily I strung garlands and tinsel up the banisters, over the mantels and on windowsills waiting for a miraculous transformation of silvered ornaments and a Hollywood designer’s vision of domestic perfection to appear.

My introduction to Truman Capote’s family Christmas traditions came when we watched and (my mother wept through) A Christmas Memory, a filmed version of Truman Capote’s short story. And even though my mother had bravely attempted fancy cooking because of Julia Child’s benevolent television presence, she was not moved to try baking fruitcake. Instead we continued to bake sugar cookies and gingersnaps at Christmas.

This year I need to find some justification for the time that Luke and I spend out in the back yard, kicking up leaves and hunting for pecans, while we are really bird watching and taking a break from the drawing board. And maybe we will find a field for some kite flying.

Fruitcake Inspired by Truman Capote’s Cousin Sook

3 cups all purpose flour
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup chopped candied orange peel
½ cup chopped candied ginger
½ cup dark raisins
½ cup golden raisins
1 cup pecans that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1 cup walnuts that have been lightly roasted and coarsely chopped
1½ cups white sugar
½ cup light brown sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
¼ teaspoon orange extract

Preheat oven to 325° F. Butter and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
2. Combine flour, baking powder and salt in a large bowl. Add orange peel, ginger, raisins, pecans and walnuts and toss to coat.
3. In electric mixer beat sugars and butter until light and fluffy. Add eggs, one at a time, beating well after each addition. Add extracts.
4. Add dry ingredients and fold until just combined. The batter will resemble chocolate chip cookie dough.
5. Spoon batter into pan. Smooth the top. Bake until cake is golden and tester  —  I use a long, very thin wooden skewer  —  comes out clean. Start testing after 1½ hours. Cool cake on rack for 10 minutes, then turn out of pan and cool completely.

“If you please, Mr. Haha, we’d like a quart of your finest whiskey.”
His eyes tilt more. Would you believe it? Haha is smiling! Laughing, too.
“Which one of you is a drinkin’ man?”
“It’s for making fruitcakes, Mr. Haha. Cooking.”
This sobers him. He frowns. “That’s no way to waste good whiskey.”
― Truman Capote, A Christmas Memory

A Christmas Memory:

The Bishop’s Wife:

It’s a Wonderful Life:

Food Friday: Love Those Leftovers!


We have taken the Spy Test Kitchen on the road this year, so we are recycling a column that seems to run almost every Thanksgiving. NPR has Susan Stamberg’s mother-in-law’s cranberry relish, we at the Spy have The Tall One’s Pilgrim Sandwich. Gobble, gobble!

Mama Stamberg’s Cranberry Relish:

I hold Calvin Trillin in very high esteem, as my friends who have often been buttonholed with me badly re-telling his witty food and family travel tales, can tell you. But I think he is way off the mark when he posits that the national dish for Thanksgiving should be spaghetti carbonara. Really? Where is the fun in that?

Thanksgiving at our house was an exclusive affair this year, as my Gentle Readers know. There were just the four of us, and a 23.59 pound turkey. And here we are, the day after Thanksgiving. Post-parade, post-football, post-feast. Also post-washing up. Heavens to Betsy, what a lot of cleaning up there was. And the fridge is packed with mysterious little bundles of leftovers. We continue to give thanks that one of our visiting college students is an incessant omnivore. He will plow systematically through Baggies of baked goods, tin foiled-turkey bits, Saran wrapped-celery, Tupperwared tomatoes and wax papered-walnuts. The Pesky Pescatarian dispatched her piece of swordfish with efficiency and aplomb, which is mysterious, since she had a tuna sandwich for lunch and the Tall One abstained from a mid-day meal…

It was not until the Tall One was in high school that his abilities were honed and polished with ambitious zeal. His healthy personal philosophy is, “Waste not, want not.” A sentiment I hope comes from generations of hardy New Englanders as they plowed their rocky fields, dreaming of candlelit feasts and the iPhone 8s of the future.

I have watched towering constructions of food rise from the plate as he constructs interesting arrangements of sweet, sour, crunchy and umami items with the same deliberation and concentration once directed toward Lego projects. And I am thankful that few of these will fall to the floor and get walked over in the dark. Of course, there is the dog, Luke, so nothing much makes it to the floor.

I read that swan might have been the main course at the first Thanksgiving. How very sad. I have no emotional commitment to turkeys, and I firmly belief that as beautiful as swans are, swans are mean and would probably peck my eyes out if I didn’t feed them every scrap of bread in the house. Which means The Tall One would go hungry. A veritable conundrum.

The Pilgrim Sandwich is the Tall One’s magnum opus. It is his turducken without the histrionics. It is a smorgasbord without the Swedish chef. It is truly why we celebrate Thanksgiving.
This is a pretty feeble Pilgrim Sandwich recipe.

This is way too fancy and cloying with fussy elements – olive oil for a turkey sandwich? Hardly. You have to use what is on hand from the most recent Thanksgiving meal – to go out to buy extra rolls is to break the unwritten rules of the universe. There are plenty of Parker House rolls in your bread box right this minute – go use them up!

And if you are grown up and sophisticated, here is the answer for you. Fancy Thanksgiving leftovers for a grown up brunch:
Here are The Tall One’s ingredients for his signature Pilgrim Sandwich:
Toast (2 slices)
Turkey (2 slices)
Cranberry Sauce (2 teaspoons)
Gravy (2 tablespoons)
Mashed Potatoes (2 tablespoons)
Stuffing (2 tablespoons)
Barbecue Sauce (you can never have too much)
Bacon (if there is some hanging around)
Mayonnaise (if you must)
Lettuce (iceberg, for the crunch)
Celery stalk (more crunch)
Salt, pepper

And now I am taking the dog for a run before I consider making my own.

Dan Pashman, who hosts the highly amusing and informative podcast, The Sporkful, thought that the run-of-the-mill Pilgrim Sandwich was a little too bready, and he has a brilliant alternative notion: fry up some of the leftover stuffing, à la hash brown patties, to make a new vehicle for holding all the turkey, mashed potatoes, cranberry sauce and gravy together. Brilliant! I do not believe that spaghetti carbonara would taste as good today, unless perhaps, it was enclosed in some fried stuffing patties…

“The Indians were so disgusted that on the way back to their village after dinner one of them made a remark about the Pilgrims that was repeated down through the years and unfortunately caused confusion among historians about the first Thanksgiving meal. He said, ‘What a bunch of turkeys!’ ”
-Calvin Trillin