Plainclothes Feast

A weekly peek at one dinner table, in the heart of one home, in the center of the country


Potato and Pinto Bean Burritos with Green Sour Cream


If the very title of this post reminds you of Sam I Am, then let me begin by swearing to you that–of all the things I make–this one may be the most consistently popular with the under-eight set (who makes up our majority, both in numbers and in passion).  In fact, I never put the whole container of green sour cream on the table because, if I do, our 5-year-old daughter will slyly dump it all onto her plate and eat it with a fork, leaving far too little for the rest of us.  You can think of the rest of the recipe as a flour tortilla filled with a moderately spicy (though of course you can make it as un-spicy as you like), especially tasty pile of homefries with pinto beans added in for good measure.  (Did you know that when you pan fry them, pinto beans crackle and split open, like a plumply proteinaceous version of popcorn?  You won’t believe it.)

If, like me, you are interested in feeding your family more meatless meals, this is a great option, and it can easily be made dairy-free as well…if you’re into that sort of deprivation.  Personally, I love the bits of cheese that wind up in the bottom of the pan far too much to forego the dairy in the name of living an extra five minutes, but do what you like.

Again, this “recipe” is more a technique than a real recipe, so you can’t possibly mess it up by changing the quantities around.  Unless I’m baking, I never use a measuring spoon or cup.  I just do plenty of taste-testing along the way!

This is what I do:

Potato and Pinto Bean Burritos with Green Sour Cream

5 or 6 nice-sized Yukon Gold potatoes (or small Russets or big red potatoes), washed and cubed into 1-inch pieces.  (If you are using russet potatoes, peel them.)

1 giant can (28-oz)  of pinto beans (or two regular-sized cans), drained and rinsed

1-2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

A dozen green onions, chopped

1/4 cup oil for frying (I typically use olive oil, even though I know that is a very un-chefy choice)

Salt to taste

4 ounces of cheddar, shredded

1/4 cup sour cream

1 cup of herb leaves (cilantro and parsley, in whatever combination you possess)

1 lime, juice of

1 fat clove of garlic, minced through a press

2 tablespoons of olive oil

1/4 teaspoon honey

1 avocado, chopped

8 flour tortillas, warmed in the oven or the microwave

(I realize that is kind of a long list, but most of it comes from the pantry.)

1. Parboil your potatoes in a big pot of salty water.  (They should be barely tender, but not yet soft.  Think al dente.  They will finish cooking in the frying pan.)  Drain them well in a colander.

2. Heat up a super-big skillet and heat your oil to medium-high.  Add your dry-ish parboiled potatoes and let them cook for a few minutes until they look beautiful and brown on one side.  Then give them a flip with your spatula and add in 2/3 of your green onions.  After a few minutes, flip them again.  Then wait…then flip.  When they look so good you can’t help eating them, add your drained, rinsed, and dry-ish pinto beans to the pan on top of the potatoes, and reduce the heat to low. Stir well and add in your chili powder, cumin and a good pinch of salt.  (Be sure to taste so you don’t get it too spicy for your diners’ palates and so that you get enough salt into it to make your efforts worth the trouble.)  Stir it all up to coat the potatoes and beans with the spices and then sprinkle the cheese on top.  Put a lid on it or set a sheet pan over the top.  Leave the heat on very low.  Your filling is finished, though it will continue to get more delicious as it crisps up on the bottom over that very low heat.

3. In a small chopper or food processor, add your herbs, sour cream, olive oil, honey, lime juice, garlic clove, and remaining green onions.  Whizz it all up.  Taste it.  Add some salt and whizz again and taste again.  Adjust according to your tastes.

4.  Fill your warmed tortilla shells with the filling and top with avocado chunks and green sour cream.

Yes, I know that your skillet will be an aggravating mess to clean up, with those bits of cheese stuck to the bottom.  If you want my advice, you should scrape them off with your metal spatula and eat as many of them as you can before you fill it up with water and leave it to soak.  Clean up the rest of the dishes and wipe off the table and it will all likely be softened up enough to wipe out easily.  If not, just leave it until morning.  (If your husband is anything like mine, he will go into the kitchen to make his cup of coffee, curse the mess, and then grumble while he cleans it up himself.  Problem solved.)

By the way, this is what this same dish looks like if you fancy it up a little bit with a whole pile of sauteed vegetables and caramelized onions and feta cheese instead of cheddar.  My hunky husband loves it so much, this is what he requested for Valentine’s Day:


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Snowy Day Soup (Minestrone with Pesto)


The Adirondack chairs and fire pit, longing for spring…

Is it snowing at your house?  It is at mine…Actually, I feel as though it’s been snowing since early December.  That first snow day of the year took my breath away.  The kids played outside while the fat flakes fell and I baked a batch of little pies, bursting with the blueberries we had picked in early July, in Michigan, in the 90-something-degree morning haze.  And those pies were the perfect way to welcome winter and to remind us that the heat and the haze were far behind us.

But I’m no longer interested in welcoming winter: today, I just want to keep warm.  Thus, soup.

I love soup.  I make it weekly, year round.  I’ll be making this same soup in July, I’m sure, and calling it something summery like “Bright Basil Minestrone.”  But today, it is “Snowy Day Soup,” made with a simple combination of things you have in your moderately well-stocked pantry…




Things you have withering, forgotten, in your crisper drawer…


And things you can easily pick up when you run out to the store to get milk and bread before the storm…


Your shopping list: dried ravioletti, white or kidney beans, and a little jar of pesto. (You see here the half-jar I had left over from the last pot of soup I made. I put it into a freezer bag a few weeks ago and then thawed it out yesterday.)

Please use this recipe as a suggestion only.  My family loves leafy green things like kale and spinach and cabbage.  If yours doesn’t, don’t use those veggies.  Whatever you have leftover in your crisper drawer is probably exactly what your family enjoys, so throw it in there instead of kale and cabbage and green beans, or use frozen vegetables instead of fresh or do whatever sounds right to you.  Here is what I did…

Snowy Day Soup

1 or 2 tablespoons olive oil (enough to coat the bottom of your soup pot)

1 medium onion, diced

2 carrots, peeled and diced

2 slender stalks of celery, chopped

4 cloves of garlic, minced through a press

2 14.5 ounce cans of tomatoes

4 cups of vegetable or chicken broth

1/4 pound of kale

1/2 head of cabbage, sliced thinly

1/4 pound of skinny green beans, trimmed and halved

1/2 jar of pesto (from the pasta aisle) or more, if you want

1/2 package of dried tiny ravioli (You could also use some other small pasta, but the little salty raviolietti are our favorites.)

1 can white beans or red kidney beans, drained and rinsed

Salt to taste

2 or 3 cups of water

1. Saute your onion, carrots, and celery over medium heat until the onions are golden and soft.  Then add the garlic and a generous pinch of salt and stir until it smells like you really know what you’re doing.  (This is the point at which you hope your hunky husband will walk in, feel intoxicated by the homey smell of your golden vegetables, and congratulate himself on his cleverness for marrying you.)

2. Add your canned tomatoes, broth, pesto, veggies, and canned beans.   You may also need to add some water to get everything submerged.  If you are using something delicate like spinach, you might even want to save it until the end.  (That’s why I like kale instead of spinach: it doesn’t give up the ghost the second you show it the soup pot.  It puts up a fight.)  Simmer for at least 20 minutes.

3.  For heaven’s sake, please taste your soup after it’s simmered for a while.  Add more salt if it needs some–and it almost certainly will–or more pesto if you want more punch.  (If you have pesto left over, just dump it in a freezer bag and throw it into the freezer for the next batch.  I always get two pots of soup out of each little jar.)

4.  About 20 minutes before serving, add your ravioletti and allow them to get fat and soft.

You can leave this soup on the stove for a very long time, if you need to…or if you (like me) just enjoy the idea of a big pot of soup steaming up your kitchen window on a snowy day.  Just add more water as necessary, and be sure to leave your pasta until almost the end.  Image

I serve ours with some grated Parmesan on the side because, as everyone knows, kids love to sprinkle things on top.  And once they’ve sprinkled something on the bowl of soup, they feel it’s their very own creation and so they are even more likely to gobble it down.

I like to serve this soup with a batch of no-knead bread, which is the world’s easiest yeast bread.  I forgot to take a picture of mine before we devoured every last crumb of it, but I can assure you it is beautiful.  The crust crackles.  And it’s golden-brown–inexplicably so because there is not a drop of oil or butter in the dough.  I don’t ask too many questions, though.  Bread is always magic, and this one especially so.

You will be so amazed with yourself if you make it, especially because it looks so much better than it does on this website:

Even if you never make yeast bread, I promise you can follow that recipe.  Just be sure to start it in plenty of time to let it rise because it doesn’t have a whole lot of yeast in it, and it does take a while…especially in a cold, wintry kitchen.  (That’s one lovely side-effect of making it to go with your soup.  A simmering pot of soup on the stovetop will perfectly warm a bowl of bread dough on a nearby counter.)

Oh, if you have some salted butter, get it out of the fridge early in the day to soften up so you can serve it with your no-knead loaf.  This bread with a bit of salted butter will melt your whole family’s heart.

So soup it up, and keep warm.  Soup + Bread = True love


His & Hers Cheesecakes (for Valentine’s Friday or any Friday)


Nothing says “I love you” like giving him the bigger piece of cheesecake…especially when it’s the really good sort of cheesecake, so tart and creamy-dreamy that you would happily eat every bite of it by yourself.

That said, I didn’t adopt the concept of individual desserts for wholly altruistic reasons.  I did it to negotiate a peace between two perpetually conflicting interests:

Interest #1: Hunky husband, who comes home on Friday afternoons, having endured another week of dessert deprivation (self-imposed, I should say), hoping to find me, apron-clad and flush-faced, pulling something tasty—buttery, golden, and preferably burbling berry juices—from the oven.

Interest #2: The bathroom scale, who sometimes takes until Thursday of the following week to recover from its dismay at my having eaten several servings of something tasty—buttery, golden, and preferably burbling berry juices.

Operating on the infallible principle that you can’t eat something once it’s gone, I invested in a couple of ramekins and vowed to resume my weekend baking rituals on a slightly smaller scale.  Originally, I had two 7-ounce ramekins, but my husband grumbled (playfully) about how quickly his seven ounces disappeared, so I upsized him:


His “ramekin” is now a smallish casserole dish (18.7 ounces to be exact), and mine is still 7 ounces.  This recipe, though, doesn’t require that you perform any elaborate mathematical calculations to make it fit your own ramekins: Just use the ramekins you have on hand…and then surreptitiously eat the remaining cheesecake batter yourself!  (I would say, though, that anything smaller than 7 ounces will probably just leave you and your sweetie heartbroken.)

This cheesecake does not have the dense, firm texture of most full-sized cheesecakes.  It is almost a mousse—an airy, tangy, supremely creamy mousse.  It is in no way difficult to make, despite the necessity of baking it in a water bath.  (Please don’t be terrified by that idea.  When you’re dealing with ramekins, water baths are simple.)

The only aspect of this recipe that you should be careful about is this:

If you are like me, you are always tempted to skip and/or combine steps in a recipe.  For example, if a recipe says to add eggs one at a time, beating well after each addition, I scoff.  Now what is the sense in that? I will always put them all in at once and let the chips fall where they may…unless someone gives me a good reason why I shouldn’t.  Well, this is me giving you a good reason you should follow the order of operations for combining your cheesecake batter: Adding even just the littlest bit of liquid (astonishingly, even the 1/2 teaspoon of vanilla) before you beat the cheese and sugar together will lead the cream cheese to wind up in little curdly bubbles, trapped inside a skin of liquid, instead of becoming smooth and fluffy.  Trust me.  I have thrown away batches of this batter on two separate occasions.  

Individual Cheesecakes (makes 2 or 3, depending on the size of your ramekins)

6 graham cracker squares

2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, melted

1/2 tablespoon sugar (turbinado or regular old white)

1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

4 ounces of cream cheese

3 1/2  tablespoons white sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1 cup of fresh or frozen berries of your choice + 1 tablespoon or so of sugar (I like Turbinado sugar for its texture, but use what you’ve got)

1. Preheat your oven to 350 degrees.

2. Crumble your graham crackers (using your hands or whatever method you like).  Stir in the melted butter, 1/2 tablespoon of sugar, and salt.  Combine it well, and then press it into the bottoms of your ramekins.  Pop them into your preheated oven to bake.  (That little bit of salt will give your crust a salted-caramel quality.  Heaven help me: I just ate one of these last night, and I’m wondering how soon is too soon to make them again.)  Now get busy on your batter while the crust bakes, but keep your nose on alert for the caramelly smell of crisp graham crust.  It will take between 5 and 10 minutes.  The nose knows.

3. In a stand mixer (preferably), combine your cream cheese and 3 1/2 tablespoons of white sugar. Using the whisk attachment, whip them together until they look fluffy and happy.  (In the middle of this process, you’ll need to stop the mixer and get in there with your spatula and scrape the sides and the bottom because there isn’t much of this stuff, and the cream cheese will want to sink to the bottom without properly mingling with the sugar.)

4.  Add your egg, egg yolk, and sour cream, and turn the mixer back on.  Beat the holy hallelujah out of the mixture.  (From time to time, I’ll hear the judges on Chopped tsk-tsking over the possibility that some contestant will “overbeat” something.  Overbeat?  Maybe that’s something that happens only in New York.  In my Indiana kitchen, overbeating is a myth.) It should be stiff and fluffy. Now mix in your vanilla extract.

6.  Scrape or spoon it into your ramekins.  It doesn’t matter one bit whether your crust and your dishes have cooled.  It will rise the tiniest bit, so don’t heap it past the rim of the ramekins, but you can fill them virtually to the top.  Distribute it however you like, and then just eat the rest…or put it in the fridge until morning and spoon it onto the kids’ french toast.  (I’m not worried about raw eggs.  Obviously.)

7.  Put your kettle on and almost-boil some water.  Pour an inch or so of almost-boiling water into the bottom of a baking pan, and then set your ramekins down into the water.  Carefully move your pan into the hot oven.  (The only tricky part is being sure not to splash any water into the cheesecakes.  Keeping the water level low is the key.)

8.  Bake for 10 minutes at 350 degrees.  (No, that’s not a typo.)  Then turn off the oven and leave your pan in there for about another hour.  When you take the pan out of the oven, the middles should still be very jiggly, but the outside edges should look set.

9.  Remove from the water bath and cool them on the countertop for a while.  Then put them in the fridge for at least an hour.  Serve topped with your sweetie’s favorite berries.  (If you’re making this for Valentine’s Day, think red berries.)

You, your sweetie, and your bathroom scale are welcome!


Trout: It’s the new salmon!

A couple of weeks ago, I learned something very upsetting: Salmon is now hopelessly out of fashion.  Just a few years ago, it was the world’s miracle meat.  I remember watching some doctor on Oprah who touted the benefits of eating wild-caught salmon twice a day: this program provided a makeover from within, rejuvenating the skin, disappearing the wrinkles, and blitzing the whole body with a mega-dose of anti-inflammatory magic.  No one anywhere had a cross word to say about salmon in 2007.  Fast forward a few years: wild salmon are over-fished, and farm-raised salmon are laced with chemicals (probably hopelessly intertwined with their omega-3s). Who knew?

I don’t have a fishmonger, and I don’t mingle in foodie circles, so I was slow to hear about this anti-salmon revolution, but I had noticed that trout was suddenly available at the fish counter at Kroger, and one day it was on sale, so I bought some and thought I’d give it a try.  It was my cursory online exploration of trout recipes that led me to glum discoveries about salmon’s waning popularity.  The good news is that trout tastes almost identical to salmon, and it behaves just the same in a recipe, so all my salmon know-how won’t be lost…at least until trout goes out of style.

This technique, by the way, works just as well with any piece of fish–fresh or thawed–and it’s super quick.  So even if you can’t get or don’t like the pink-fleshed fishes, you can still try this “recipe.” I confess to making this dish so often that, on the rare occasions when I prepare chicken breasts, my kids call IT “salmon.”  The only caveat I should include is that once you know how to make your own restaurant-style fish, you’ll be disinclined to order the expensive fresh catch at a restaurant because you’ll be able to do it better yourself at home.

To make your own restaurant style fish….

Brush your fresh or thawed fillets with olive oil (or just use your hands to slather them up)!

Sprinkle them liberally with something tasty.  This week, I used Penzey’s Turkish Seasoning, but you can use any fish-friendly seasoning blend you like.  I’m a Penzey’s addict, and I use their Cajun, Southwest, and Northwoods on my fish regularly.  If you choose a salt-free blend, you will want to add some salt, too.

Pop them into a super-hot oven–I usually set mine to 475 degrees–and let them cook.  I can’t tell you how long to leave them in there.  It will depend on how thick they are and how hot your oven really is.  You should keep an eye on them, though, because it won’t take long.  The fillets I made this week took about 6 minutes.  Peek at them to make sure they aren’t burning (obviously), and yank them out when they start looking promising so that you can feel them.  You want them to be firm to the touch but still slightly underdone in the middle.  In other words, they shouldn’t yet “flake easily with a fork”–but almost.  If you stick a fork in them and twist, you should see a middle that is still a little bit translucent.  Getting them out at just the right time is the only tricky part.  Honestly.  But even if you overcook them a touch, they’ll still be good!

Put a little pat of butter on top of each of your slightly undercooked fillets and cover the pan with foil.  (They will finish cooking while the butter seeps down into them.) Then set to work getting the rest of your dinner put together.

Just before you serve your food, squeeze some lemon juice or lime juice over the top of your fish in the pan.  The resulting juices in the bottom of the pan will be a mixture of seasoning blend, fish juices, butter, and citrus.  Call it “sauce” and drizzle it over your fish when you put it on the plates.  (That’s the restaurant-style bit.)

By the way, there is a lot of great stuff on this plate, and I’ll tell you about it another time: herby quinoa and “winter salad” are both specialties of this house, too.  So stay tuned. 🙂Image

Cute kids, hunky husband, blah, blah, blah

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My kids are so beautiful they would break your heart–little red mouths, big eyes the color of chocolate and water–and, gosh, they say funny things.  I’m sure that you would think so, too, if I told you all about them, transcribing their little grown-up voices, their shakily emergent views of reality, their sweet speech quirks, their missing consonants, and misplaced modifiers.

And my husband–what a dreamboat.  Truly.  If he shaved his chest, he could be cast in some ridiculous cologne commercial, in black-and-white, with crashing waves and whispers in the background.  He strides around the house in tight t-shirts, talking of etymology and literature, repairing holes in the dry wall and hanging shelves, my own Renaissance version of an HGTV hunk.

Meanwhile, my snug little house grows cozier, thanks mostly to my handy husband and to my rotating obsessions with chalk paint and stencils;  outside, my garden sleeps under a thick blanket of straw and snow.

But I’m not going to tell you about any of those things.  Probably you have your own cute children who say hilarious things, your own hunky husband (maybe without the etymology talk), your own dream-house-in-progress, and your own sleeping garden…and if not, then hearing about mine would be awfully boring.

Instead of all that admittedly wonderful stuff, I’m going to tell you what I’m planning to make for dinner this week, and how you can make some of it, too (the best part of it, I hope).  I’ll show you some pictures of what’s landing on my dinner table so that you can launch some new ideas of your own.

If nothing else, this blog will be a better record of how I fed my family than the pile of rumpled paper menus I keep tucked in the back of my recipe file.

salvaged menus and grocery lists

salvaged menus and grocery lists

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