Thursday, June 3, 2010


As much as I enjoy experimenting when I cook, and love being gob-smacked to discover flavor combinations, technical tips, and food ideas I'd never dream up myself in a million years, there's much to be said for "tried-and-true" dishes. You know, the ones in your repertoire you can pretty much count on to please your tablemates, whatever their palates or proclivities. The "old reliables" that are forgiving if you need to hurry, or hold; the ones you can make ahead, or travel with. Dishes you've made so many times you could produce them even if a written copy of the recipe is not at hand, or you're in a remote location, unable to google an approximation thereof. The ones your mind goes to if you find yourself in an unfamiliar or minimally equipt kitchen, asked or offering to pitch in. Sometimes they're dishes you've already tweaked so many times you know them - and their "tweakability" - by heart. Often they're simple and straightforward.

For his birthday dinner last weekend, in addition to Mom's apple pie, Dad requested several such dishes. Although Mom did the bulk of the preparation, all are dishes I've made in the past and look forward to eating whenever the opportunity arises. Nothing culinarily revolutionary about any of them, but they're approachable, tasty, and easy to prepare. So I thought I'd share.

Our appetizers (shown at the top of this post) were not made by recipe, but by assembly: sliced French bread topped with Trader Joe's roasted-red-pepper-and-eggplant tapenade that I'd been requested to bring with me (no TJ's where my parents live) and shredded mozzarella, run under the broiler until melty. It doesn't get much simpler than this. Endlessly variable based on whatever cheese, tapenade, or other spread you have on hand or that appeals to you.

We threaded cubed beef with onions, mushrooms, and green peppers onto bamboo skewers (soak the skewers in water ahead to avoid flame-age on the grill). Then Dad loaded them into these nifty shishkabob-shaped grill baskets he got recently. This was the second outing for his new grill accessory. After their inaugural run with a recipe that called for the kabobs to be brushed with barbecue sauce, in future he said he would serve the sauce on the side after grilling. The caramelized barbecue sauce made his new toys/tools a real challenge to clean afterward. Here's the marinade for the kabobs we made.

1/2 cup salad oil
1/4 cup soy sauce
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1-2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 teaspoon curry powder
2 tablespoons catsup
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1/2 teaspoon Tabasco

1. Mix all marinade ingredients together until foamy.
2. [I think the original recipe calls for round steak cut into 1 1/2-inch cubes; feel free to substitute a more tender cut of beef, or try on game] Do not marinate meat in this mixture for longer than 3-4 hours. [So says the recipe, but I see no harm in letting it go longer. The better to infuse the flavor of the marinade into the meat, I say.]
3. Marinade can also be used on vegetables such as mushrooms, cherry tomatoes, onions, and bell peppers, although the recipe calls for parboiling onions and peppers first. [The idea behind parboiling the onions and peppers, I think, is so they will cook on the grill at closer to the same rate as the beef. But take care to avoid boiling the veg too long or it risks getting mushy and limp during grilling.]

I know practically nothing about Armenian food and have always wondered whether that ethnic/regional designation in the recipe title was simply added by some long-ago food editor who thought it would make the dish sound more exotic and appealing (this recipe has been floating around our family for a very long time, whatever its source). Nonetheless, this "Armenian" rice is a very satisfying pilaf-esque baked rice dish that makes a great side for chicken, pork, or last weekend, beef. In the photo above, it's in the big white casserole dish with a spoon sticking out.

3 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cups Uncle Ben's converted rice [I usually make it with whatever rice I have on hand]
1/4 pound butter
4 slices bacon, cooked, drained, and crumbled
3 tablespoons soy sauce
1 package slivered almonds (approximately 1/4 cup) [Sometimes I toast them ahead, in an effort to retain more crunch.]
1/2 pound mushrooms
dash garlic salt [or 1-2 garlic cloves, minced]
8 cups chicken broth [Heads-up: You'll need to add this (total amount) at two separate times.]

1. In a large casserole, brown onions and rice in butter. [A little fat from the rendered bacon never hurts, IMHO. And if you don't have a casserole dish suitable for stovetop cooking, just use a large skillet for this step.]
2. Add rest of ingredients except broth.
3. Add 4 cups broth.
4. Bake at 350 degrees F. for 2 to 2 1/2 hours, adding remaining 4 cups after first hour.

I bake it uncovered and check from time to time to see how much liquid is being absorbed, depending on the actuality of the oven I'm cooking it in. Ideally, it will remain moist but not be soupy.

My mom generally isn't as given to "winging" recipes as I am, but that's the way she describes this one, which is always tasty. Here's her "non-recipe" recipe.

Peel the asparagus. Steam. Marinate in equal parts sugar and vinegar with part of the liquid from steaming the asparagus. She usually marinates it for a day before serving and advises: It keeps well - but pour off the marinade if you're keeping it for a while.

Thanks to Dad's birthday apple-pie request, Mom had another single homemade crust available, which I was lucky enough to be able to use for our Quiche Lorraine Memorial Day brunch before I headed home.
Before I started prepping, I turned to Mom's copy of Joy of Cooking to double-check that we had all the needed ingredients, only to encounter the warning that traditional Quick Lorraine does not include cheese of any kind. Shocked, I consulted her Mastering the Art of French Cooking and found the same admonition. Then Mom showed me the recipe she uses, and the one I'm most familiar with, in Craig Claiborne's New York Times Cookbook. My edition is circa 1961, with this headnote:
It seems odd that this very special pie, traditional in France, was so long in gaining popularity in America. A rich custard with cheese and bacon, it may be served either as an appetizer or as a main luncheon dish. Swiss cheese, which the Swiss know as Ementhaler, may be used in making this dish, but Gruyere has more flavor. Gruyere is available wherever fine cheeses are sold.
Aside from my fascination with this time-capsule perspective nearly 50 years later, I'm guessing I'm not the only person under the assumption Quiche Lorraine includes Swiss cheese of some sort, especially if other esteemed cookbook authors feel the need to warn otherwise.What about you?

And what are some of your favorite "tried-and-true" dishes? I'd love to hear.



LaDivaCucina said...

First of all, I so miss Trader Joes. They sell Nieman Ranch bacon and products, excellent cheese, crackers, miss it so much!

Secondly, your dad's little doo hickey grill thingies cracked me up. Like cages for the skewers, what was their purpose? Weren't the bamboo skewers adequate? Ah... a man and his grill accessories.

Yes, I'd heard that about Quiche Lorraine too. I find that gruyere is the only way to go for full flavor. Expensive but hey, it's worth it!

I have so many tried and true dishes but I guess the fave family dish is my great Aunt's lasagna. If you follow the instructions, it will be fool proof! I have a pan in the freezer right now....Eggy I am feeling burnt out. Wanna come and cook for a Diva this weekend? Free trip to Miami if you cook for ME! haha!

Dani said...

Dang! Remind me to have you over when it's my birthday! Good stuff you cooked up. :)

Thanks too Eggy for the sweet comfort of words for The Girlz. It means the world to me having good friends that hold you up.

Sharon Rudd said...

Diva, if I weren't so dang wore out my own self, I'd take you up on that offer! I think the purpose of the kabob cages is to make it easier to turn them without the meat and veggies just twirling on the skewer. I've also seen it recommended to thread two parallel skewers through each kabob to avoid that problem.

Dani, I'd love to cook for your birthday! Hehehe. Keep us posted on The Girlz - I'm rooting for them to pull through!

Chef Dennis Littley said...

so much good little time...sigh
that quiche looks sooooooooo good!!!!!!!
and those kabobs, wow high tech..i still use little
there is comfort in familiarity, food is no exception....but its when we think outside of the box that magic happens!!


buffalodick said...

I was in a city wide cook off twice(they no longer have it!) and out of 1,000 recipes I was picked twice for main dishes (took 3rd both times)...I wanted to do appetizers! Green onion wraps, deviled eggs, pigs in a blanket, and Danish meatballs are all festivity foods at our family get togethers..I also make genuine BB-Q in my smokers..

Sharon Rudd said...

BD, congrats on your bronzes. Maybe you should revive those cook-offs. How do you make your green onion wraps? I'll bet you make some killer Q in your smokers!

Chef Dennis, well said about thinking outside the box. But one of the things I've been grappling with lately is that while the unusual may be magic to me, many people prefer the familiar. When I cook for myself, it's one thing, but when I cook for others, if I am mindful of their preferences, it's likely to result in a more positive experience for everyone sharing the table.

Big Shamu said...

Chicken and dumplings. I know it's mostly a winter stick to your ribs dish but I make this any time of the year just to make myself happy. Works like a charm.

Making Space said...

Well. I'm thinkin' that Armenian rice might become a staple soon. Lordy!

It's really simple here. Pasta (shape chosen by the children) with melted butter and a little added salt since someone always forgets to salt her pasta water and always remembers to buy unsalted butter. That plus some fruit and/or some roasted broccoli and cauliflower is the go-to simple thing no one turns down around here.

LaDivaCucina said...

Ahh... get the kebab cage thing now. S & M kebabs. Cool.