Saturday, August 30, 2014

Celery! Soup, Chicken Salad and Crunch!

I used to love it. The steam from the bowl as it rose up to my nostrils; the creamy warmth just a spoonful away; the green, floating slices of subtle crunchiness – Campbell’s Cream of Celery Soup, my favorite lunch after coming home from the morning session of Kindergarten at Macy Elementary School. If I was really lucky, Mom would also include a grilled cheese sandwich, but for the most part, just the soup was enough to make me one happy 5 year old. It was served in my very own Mary Alice Hadley bowl.

Mary Alice Hadley was an artist from Louisville, Kentucky and
one of my aunt's best friends. My aunt was one of the first retailers to sell
Mary Alice's wares in her shop in St. Matthews, Kentucky.

It had my name on the outside and ALL GONE on the bottom. Mom made it a game to get to the “All DONE”, making lunch not only filling but fun. I loved this soup; it was my favorite lunch, until…

…I spent a weekend with the babysitter from hell. Her name was Mrs. Marris. My parents were going away for a long overdue weekend away alone, and Mrs. Marris was to mind us. And mind us, she would. She minded me, especially.

My mother had selected Mrs. Marris from a child care registry which noted she was a church going woman, had raised a large family herself and was experienced in caring for infants – my sister was less than a year old at time. I was used to having neighborhood high school girls babysit. They would listen to rock and roll on my parents’ Hi-Fi, tell me all about their boyfriends - “You know the really cute guy who drives that cool Chevy?” -  and would put my hair up in pink sponge rollers before I went to bed so my extra-straight locks would be somewhat curly the next morning. Mrs. Marris was a different kind of babysitter. Everything with her was all peachy as my parents, waving and blowing kisses, drove out of the driveway, down the street and on to their weekend alone. (Elsie Smith, the housekeeper who was in our lives for 20 years, had not yet become that beloved family member, otherwise, Mrs. Marris would never have been a part of this story.)

The first hint of “a different kind of babysitter” came when a boy, a few years older and much taller than me, was dropped off at our house. It was one of Mrs. Marris’ grandsons and she had told his parents that she would watch him since she was already watching someone else’s kids. Once out of eye and ear shot of his grandmother, who was doting endlessly on my little sister, he called me names and teased me mercilessly, trying to illicit a dramatic response on my part that would no doubt cause his grandmother to leave the reverie of caring for the baby and get mad at me. I ignored him, which only made him all the angrier. Bullies are like that, aren’t they? 

As a last resort for my attention, Grandson from Hell grabbed a small chair, a special gift from a visit to Los Angeles’ Olvera Street  and threatened to break my chair, my chair, my chair!

A similar, more modern version
 of my  beloved chair
Grandson, seeing my pleading, anxious eyes, did whatever any self-respecting, overweight 9 year old bully would do – he sat on my chair. It broke. A flurry of frantic calls for “Grandma, come see what she has done!” brought me out of the momentary shock I experienced as I saw a favorite possession ruined . I screamed, and screamed until Mrs. Marris appeared.

Mrs. Marris was not pleased, not at all.  But it was not her devil spawn who felt her wrath. No matter how I tried to explain that it was he who sat in and broke my chair, the blame was all on me. Nope, no way, no how, would her grandson do such a thing. I was told to stay in my room, indefinitely.  I hated Mrs. Marris.

The next day, Grandson from Hell was gone and Mrs. Marris was in a far more conciliatory mood. Perhaps the little blighter confessed, but I’m sure it had more to do with Mrs. Marris wanting to receive a glowing review of her services from the eldest, and only articulate, Reilly child. I was served Campbell’s Cream of Celery soup for lunch that day. “Your mother said it is your favorite”, she said with a tone of voice bordering on fawning. 

“Oh, it is”, I replied with a sly smile. Once her back was turned, I took the lid off the table top salt shaker and proceeded to empty its contents into my blessed, long awaited bowl of Cream of Celery Soup. Sometimes you have to destroy the one thing you love in order to have some integrity. I took a taste. I didn’t scream, I didn’t make a sour face, I didn’t cry about the foulness of it or curse her repugnant grandson. I simply pushed the offending bowl of soup away from me with a look of indifference. Mrs. Marris became harsh now, a bit fed up with all the drama her stay at our home had created. “Why don’t you eat your soup?!” When push came to shove, I asked her to take a taste from my Margie bowl. Afraid that it might be contaminated but not wanting to lose face with a 5 year old, she gingerly took a spoon, dipped it so lightly into that murky, questionable cream of whatever, brought the spoon to her lips and immediately christened the contents “Inedible!" And then she said, with a defeated look," Margie, you may leave the table.”

Now, 50 years later, I have not had another bowl of Campbell's Cream of Celery soup. Try as she might, my mother could not get me to consume another spoonful of my once favorite luncheon item. As for Mrs. Marris? I am so over her!

So, how have I found my current celery love? 

At Camp Blogaway in May 2103, Duda Farm Fresh provided a prom dress showing of pink and green stalks. If these do not change your opinion of celery, I don’t know what will!

One of my favorite salads is Chicken Salad Veronique from the Ina Garten’s Barefoot Contessa At Home cookbook.

Chicken Salad Veronique

Adapted from The Barefoot Contessa by Margie MacKenzie, Nutmeg Kitchens

Serves 6-8, easily increased to serve any amount


4 whole chicken breasts
Olive oil
Salt and pepper
2 cups Red Flame Grapes, halved
2 cups chopped celery
1 cup mayonnaise
2 tablespoons chopped tarragon, more for garnish
½-1 cup apple cider vinegar, depending on taste
Salt and pepper to taste
½ cup toasted pecans or walnuts – optional


Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

Generously salt and pepper the chicken breasts and rub olive oil over them. Roast for 25-35 minutes, until the skin is golden and the flesh hits 160 degrees with an instant read thermometer. Allow chicken to cool. Chicken can be prepared one day in advance.

Once chicken is cooled, remove the skin and shred the meat off the bones. Dice the meat and set aside.

To assemble the salad:
Halve the grapes. Chop the celery – include some of the leaves for extra flavor.

For the dressing :
Place the mayonnaise, cider vinegar, tarragon and salt and pepper in a small bowl; whisk together and add more salt and pepper to taste (sometimes I even add a splash or two of hot sauce).

Place the cubed chicken, grapes and celery in a bowl; toss with the dressing. Refrigerate overnight, or up to 2 days. 

Allow the salad to come room temperature before serving. Garnish with chopped tarragon and optional nuts. Serve in a large serving bowl or on a platter on top of a bed of red leaf lettuce.

Note: If you don't want to go through the process of roasting and shredding chicken breasts, and you are a Costco shopper, look for vacuum-sealed packages of chicken breast meat in the deli refrigerator case, $11.99. This is meat from the plump, succulent, roasted chickens that do not sell on a given day. Costco birds have little additional seasoning so the breast meat is perfect for use in any recipe that calls for chicken breast meat. And it is REALLY tasty!! A great time-saver that provides excellent results!

Monday, June 16, 2014

Beef and Cabbage Buns and Elsie Smith

In my last blog post, I mentioned Elsie, our housekeeper, and wrote that I couldn’t remember the meals she had prepared for us while my mother was away. That was not exactly true. I wasn’t able  conjure up the dinners she prepared for us on that one occasion, but I sure can remember at least one or two things Elsie made for us, and a few other tidbits about this wonderful woman who was a part of my family for over 20 years.

The first thing about Elsie Smith: she called everyone Honey. And it wasn’t just “Hi Honey!” It was “Honey, you’re mommy just called, and Honey, she won’t be home for another hour, so Honey, I made you a sandwich for an after school snack, Honey. Now go do your homework, Honey”. It wasn’t like she didn’t know our first names or anything, she just called EVERYONE Honey, and she loved calling everyone Honey!

Elsie joined our family shortly after my sister was born in 1963. She worked for another woman in our neighborhood and came highly recommended when it became apparent that my mother needed some household help with 3 children under 5. Elsie came every Friday for the next 2 decades and she became a beloved fixture throughout our growing up and into young adulthood. When Mom and Dad felt they could venture away for a weekend without us kids, Elsie was there to mind us with love, affection and a steel hand resting inside a velvet glove. She loved the music of  the hunky 1960’s singer  Engelbert Humperdinck, but when she found out that was not his real name, she promptly shifted her allegiance to Trini Lopez. She had her scruples, after all. She even named a cockatoo she received as a gift "Trini". Elsie was someone you always wanted on your side. 

The Reilly kids, circa 1968

Elsie was a good, honest woman, of German heritage, and she had a clear, unvarnished view on life, which is why she was such a good housekeeper. She wanted to keep everything in order, Honey, and she did so in the Reilly household every Friday, Honey! She was also a simple cook, so when she stayed with us when my parents were gone, her repertoire was equally simple – grilled cheese, macaroni and cheese, Campbell’s Soup and the like. But I do vividly remember something she made for us once, and it must have been a special occasion: a seasoned beef and cabbage mixture, encased in slightly sweet bread, baked and served warm. Beef pies! Bierocks was what she called them. And they rocked! Bierocks were a onetime culinary taste treat for the Reilly children circa 1968. For some reason, we never got Elsie to make them again and it was pure folly to ask that my mother make them.  I still have that combination of ground beef, cabbage, cheese and dough lingering on the back of my palate.

A few years ago I purchased America’s Best Lost Recipes by the Cook’s Country magazine. (They are also the America’s Test Kitchen folks, so it’s a viable resource). I loved reading through the family favorite and time tested recipes – 7Up Cake, Cheese Crusted Olive Balls, Mile High Bologna Pie among them.  

7 Up Cake Photo by Margie MacKenzie

Cooking is not an exact science, and the outcome of what one is preparing can be effected by the humidity or dryness of the kitchen, the quality and freshness of the ingredients and the skill and patience of the cook. My experience with Runsas falls into the later category. I’ve always had issues with all things dough – pastry and bread – so perhaps I should cut myself some slack. 

What should have looked like this:
photo from Cook's Country

Looked like this:
photo by Margie MacKenzie
Though my Runsas/Bierocks were pretty darned tasty (thanks to the sweet bread dough which wasn't all that hard to make), I felt I had failed. I had failed by not creating a beautiful doughy package of savory delight, but also in not completely capturing the flavors I remember so well from that one time Elsie made them for me. It just wasn’t the same, much like my mother’s attempt at preparing Spaghetti Casserole for my brother, my sister and me years ago. I guess there is truth in the saying, “You can’t go home again”. I will have to have Elsie's Runsas as my taste memory to go along with all the other wonderful memories I have of this very loving woman.

So if you are an intrepid soul, or someone who really knows how to work with dough and fillings, give Runsas a try, and please, Honey, think kindly of Elsie Smith, honey, while doing so, Honey! She'd be so happy, Honey! And so would I!

Runsas - Beef & Cabbage Buns


 8 servings



o    3/4 cup warm water (100 degrees)
o    1/2 cup sweetened condensed milk
o    1/4 cup vegetable oil - I use Canola oil
o    2 TBS sugar
o    1 large egg
o    3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
o    2 packages rapid-ride or instant yeast
o    1 teas salt


o    1 TBS unsalted butter, with 2 TBS melted
o    1 1/2 lbs lean ground beef
o    1 large onion, finely chopped
o    1/2 small head of cabbage, finely chopped, about 3 cups
o    Salt & Pepper to taste
o    8 slices cheese - American, Cheddar or Gruyere


For the dough: Lightly grease large bowl with cooking spray. Mix water, sweetened condensed milk, oil, sugar, and egg in large measuring cup. Mix flour, yeast, and salt in bowl of standing mixer fitted with dough hook. With mixer on low, add water mixture. After dough comes together, increase speed to medium and mix until shiny and smooth, 4 to 6 minutes. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface, shape into ball, and place in greased bowl. (To make dough by hand: Combine dry ingredients in large bowl, make well in center of dry ingredients, add wet ingredients, and mix with wooden spoon until shaggy dough forms. Turn dough out onto heavily floured work surface and knead until shiny and smooth, about 10 minutes.) Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rest in warm place until doubled in size, about 1 hour.

Melt 1 tablespoon butter in large skillet over medium-high heat. Add beef and cook until just beginning to brown, about 6 minutes, breaking up any large clumps. Using slotted spoon, transfer beef to paper towel-lined plate.
Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from pan. Add onion and cook until softened, about 3 minutes. Add cabbage and toss until just beginning to wilt, 2 to 4 minutes. Return beef to pan and season with salt and pepper.

Assembly & Baking
Adjust oven racks to the upper-middle and lower-middle positions and heat oven to 350 degrees. Coat 2 baking sheets with cooking spray. Divide dough into 8 equal pieces. Working on lightly floured work surface, roll each piece of dough into 7-inch circle. Place one dough round in deep cereal bowl and top with one slice of cheese. Spoon 3/4 cup filling over cheese and pinch edges of dough together to form bun. Transfer bun, seam side down, to prepared baking sheet. Repeat with remaining dough, cheese, and filling, placing 4 buns on each baking sheet. Cover buns with plastic wrap and let rise until puffed, about 20 minutes.
Bake buns until golden brown, about 20 minutes, switching and rotating position of baking sheets halfway through baking time. Brush buns with melted butter and serve.

Thursday, May 29, 2014

Sriracha, Potatoes and Sandwich Failures

I don’t know where it came from – Depression-era frugality or a strange organizational compulsion – but my mother had the oddest habit of taking a certain amount of a condiment – mayo, relish, mustard, horseradish – out of its original container and placing it in a smaller jar which would fit on the shelves of the refrigerator door. The larger vessel was then placed in the back of the lowest shelf, waiting to refill its little friend. Mom would write in blue marker the name of the condiment on the side of the smaller jar in order to avoid confusion over the contents. This system worked pretty well as long as one made sure to read the side of the jar. The mayo jar was the most frequently used, but there were times when it was washed and never refilled and replaced, which accounted for a mistake or two.

As I’ve written previously, my mother was not the most avid home cook. My father was even less so, but he surprised us once.  When I was in elementary school, I remember my mother going away for a long weekend to visit her sister. Dad was in charge of dinner for one of the nights she was to be gone – our housekeeper Elsie made up the difference with several basic 1960's favorites which have faded from my memory. But Spaghetti Casserole, a vestige from his bachelor days, was Dad’s contribution to our weekend sustenance and my siblings and I devoured the concoction of ground beef cooked with onions, mixed with several cans of Franco-American Spaghetti and then baked with grated cheddar cheese on top. It was a special dinner for us, probably because it was the first one Dad had ever prepared. When Mom, upon her return and with our pleas, replicated Dad’s recipe exactly, we turned our noses up. I think the recipe came from the can of Franco-American Spaghetti, so Mom couldn’t have gotten it too wrong; nonetheless, it just wasn’t Dad’s.

Other then tossing a tri-tip on the grill, the only thing I remember my father ever preparing, beside Spaghetti Casserole, was an occasional peanut butter, lettuce and mayonnaise sandwich. If he knew that Elvis added bananas and then fried the thing, he would have been mightily offended. Frying compromised the ingredients and it made for so much more work. Though he would offer to make his favorite sandwich for us, I don’t think my siblings nor I ever accepted, and Mom would have nothing to do with Dad’s bizarre specialty after he had beaten her in the Spaghetti Casserole Bowl.

Fast forward to the late 1970’s and I am home for the summer from college. Whether it was mandated that I do so, or I volunteered, I cleaned the kitchen late one Saturday morning. I took great pride in getting it spic and span and I even reorganized some of the cupboards (yes, I probably alphabetized the spices and dried herbs, what few there were!). I’d just finished my labor of love when Dad came in from the family room. He pulled a loaf of Wonder Bread from the bread drawer, a jar of Jiff peanut butter from the pantry cupboard, iceberg lettuce from the crisper and a small jar of mayonnaise from one of the refrigerator door shelves. He proceeded to prepare his masterpiece, slathering the mayo on one slice of the bread and a thinner layer of peanut butter on the other - he preferred a higher mayo to PB ratio - and topped both with a crackling piece of iceberg. He sliced it perfectly on the diagonal, placed it lovingly on a melamine plate and returned to watch the Dodgers game, leaving the detritus of his snack strewn across the newly cleaned counter top.

I was pissed as hell and came into the family room insisting that he clear the counter  himself. He refused and a vigorous argument ensued, which I eventually lost when my mother intervened and told me to take care of Dad’s mess. I snorted loudly and sighed heavily as I began the process I had completed just minutes before. I first grabbed the jar of mayo and angrily screwed on the lid. As I was placing it in an empty slot on the refrigerator shelf, I noticed written in blue ink down the side of the jar “Horseradish”.

Just then, from the family room came a volley of expletives I didn’t hear repeated until years later in a Quentin Tarantino film. With a sardonic grin, I joined Dad in the family room with the offending material in my hand, shaking it in his face and saying, “You should have read the jar!” The remainder of my tidying brought me a vengeful satisfaction.

Dad and I didn’t speak of his PB-Lettuce-Horseradish debacle that day, but it did come up at dinner a few days later. I delighted in telling the tale to the rest of the family and I thought I had the last laugh, when Dad, without missing a beat, had the audacity to say that he actually liked it! But I don’t remember him making one of those awful sandwiches ever again, with or without horseradish. Years later, when reminded of his unique creation, he declared that I had made up the entire tale. Knowing winks from the rest of family confirmed my side of the story.

So, is there a moral to this tale? There are two, actually: 1.) Always read the labels, or in some cases, the blue ink, on the jars in your refrigerator, and  2.) Try to keep your condiments in their original containers to avoid any confusion that moral #1 may create. Oh, and a third: Do not combine peanut butter, iceberg lettuce and horseradish, no matter what!

What's the current favorite condiment in my fridge that I may or may not properly label? Sriracha mayonnaise.

Sriracha is the latest “it” hot sauce and and part of a recent lawsuit by the city of Irwindale, California, where Huy Fong Foods is headquartered. The lawsuit has been settled and Sriracha will now be flowing freely, whether you purchase the Huy Fong Foods brand, with its famous rooster logo, or a private label squeeze bottle such as one available at Trader Joe’s.
My sons have had Sriracha as their go-to hot sauce for years. I've been slow on the uptake. I'm now a true believer.

And how do I make my Sriracha mayonnaise? Read the recipe below and you’ll find out. Though served with roasted potatoes here, you can sub this spicy, colorful sauce for any plain, old white mayo on a sandwich or in a dipping sauce. Just remember to properly label the container in which you store it! And experiment with Sriracha as you would any hot sauce.

Salt & Vinegar Potato Wedges with Sriracha Mayonnaise
Serves 10 as an appetizer
Margie MacKenzie, adapted from a recipe from Epicurious

2 lbs Yukon or red potatoes, cut into wedges
1 cup white vinegar
1 TBS kosher salt, or more to taste
Olive oil
Minced Chives, optional

Sriracha Mayonnaise
1 cup Mayonnaise
4 TBS Sriracha sauce, or to taste
1.      Place the potatoes wedges and 1 cup of vinegar in a saucepan and cover with water. Bring to a boil and cook until potatoes are soft, but hold their shape. Remove potatoes from the vinegar/water mixture and allow to cool on a sheet pan.
2.      Heat oven to 450 degrees. Toss cooled potatoes lightly with olive oil and more salt. Roast for 20-25 minutes, tossing the pan occasionally, until the potatoes are crispy and golden on the outside but still creamy on the inside. Add additional salt to taste, if desired. Remove and allow to cool to room temperature. Garnish with minced chives, if desired. Serve with Sriracha Mayonnaise.

Sriracha Mayonnaise

1. Combine the mayo and the Sriracha sauce and refrigerate until the potatoes are ready. Serve with room temp potatoes. May be made 1 week ahead and kept well sealed in the refrigerator.