Plainclothes Feast

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


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Individual Chocolate Cheesecakes

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If my individual cheesecakes post from Valentine’s Day moved you to action, then this post is designed to keep you cheesecaking.  Once you’ve gone through the trouble to acquire and, more importantly, store his-and-hers ramekins, you will certainly want to take every available opportunity to use them, won’t you?  Even if it means producing a few more little cheesecakes than are probably necessary, strictly speaking, you will need to reassure yourself that they now play an indispensable role in your culinary life.

But you would hate to be suspected of having fallen into a rut (even if it is a tartly, creamily, fluffily perfect rut), so you’ll want to try something a little different.  Remember a few years ago, when Coldstone Creamery captured all of our imaginations (and our discretionary calories) with its endless combinations of mix-ins?  I think the individual cheesecake recipe can occupy that happily mutable role, in a more grown-up way, and without costing us a few thousand dollars per ounce.

If you could use a little ramekinny romance this weekend, try this. (It is just my original recipe with a little bittersweet chocolate and coffee and/or coffee liqueur mixed in.):

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)

a pinch kosher salt

4 ounces of cream cheese

4  tablespoons white sugar

1 egg + 1 egg yolk

1/4 cup sour cream

3 ounces of semisweet or bittersweet chocolate,chopped

1/4 cup of strong brewed coffee (replace up to 1 tablespoon with coffee-flavored liqueur, if you have some lying around)

1 cup of fresh or frozen raspberries

whipped cream

Follow the original recipe except…

Melt the chocolate in the coffee (and coffee liqueur, if using).  You can use the microwave or a heavy saucepan on your stovetop over low heat. Add it to your well-beaten mixture at the end of step 4.

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Sundried Tomato Pasta

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My youngest child (I guess I can call him my “baby” since, he has only just turned three and can’t yet read, so he won’t protest) has the sweetest little enormous speech problem.  He calls this dish “mummy noonells,” and I think that says it best.  I know it doesn’t read like a kids’ dish–or like anything special at all, for that matter–but it is cheesy and salty and garlicky and noodley, and I think everyone everywhere loves those four qualities.  In fact, my big boy requested this very recipe for his seventh birthday a couple months ago.  I almost felt like I was shirking my motherly responsibilities by preparing it for him because it is so ridiculously easy.  One pot to cook the pasta, one cutting board to chop the other ingredients, 20 minutes start to finish. 

Although this recipe costs more than many vegetarian meals (I think it comes to something like $13 or $14 all together, plus anything else you want to add on the side), I have two things to say in its defense.  First, if you ordered it in a restaurant, you would pay that much for a single serving…and you would cheerfully order it again the next time.  Second, the sundried tomatoes are the costliest part, at about $5 for a little jar, and it is easy to replace this ingredient with your own homemade version.

This past summer, when our plum- and cherry-tomato plants were still going crazy in August, and I was just about exhausted by trying to keep up with them, I started oven-drying the little fellas.  I just cut them in half, tossed them in a tiny bit of olive oil, sprinkled them with a touch of salt and pepper, and then popped them into a 250-degree oven.  After a few hours, they had magically transformed themselves into sweet, chewy little things, and–what we didn’t eat straight off the pan–I then placed into freezer bags.  In six weeks’ time, I froze eight 1-quart bags of them. It didn’t require much time or effort, made my house smell wonderful, and was certainly a better use of the tomatoes than allowing them to shrivel on the vine.

I used them to make this dish about twice a month all fall and winter, just thawing out a cup or so and then soaking them in olive oil for an afternoon.  I exhausted our supply only a month ago.  So the jar of sundried tomatoes that I used in this recipe was the first one I had bought since last July.  With my own sundried tomatoes in it, this meal (even including the pile of something green alongside it) costs less than $10.  So there, budget-minded cooks.  Pop that in your warm oven and dry it.

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Ingredients:

1 lb. pasta

1 little jar of sundried tomatoes packed in oil

6 fat garlic cloves (more or less), crushed through a press

Lemon juice, from one whole lemon

One bunch of parsley, chopped fine

4 ounces crumbled feta cheese

1 1/2 cups grated Parmesan

1. Start your water for the pasta.  Salt it very liberally.  When it’s boiling hard, add the pasta and cook it to al dente.

2. Meanwhile, drain the oil from your tomatoes into a liquid measuring cup.  To the measuring cup, add the crushed garlic and the lemon juice.

3. On your cutting board, chop up the tomatoes and parsley and grate your Parmesan. Crumble your feta, if necessary.

4.  When the pasta is al dente, drain it and quickly add it back to the pan.  Add in everything else and stir it all together using a pasta claw.

5.  Eat it. 

Mummy noonells, indeed!


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Recipe for Painted Cabinetry

Probably, it signifies some weakness in me that, when we moved into our house nearly two years ago, I looked at my new kitchen–an entirely adequate kitchen, twice as big as my old one, and relatively recently updated–and declared that it simply wasn’t “me.”  This is what it looked like…

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It looks harmless enough, I realize, but, this is my kitchen, and, furthermore, this is my kitchen.  You know?  I developed an instant, irrational disdain for the pewter cabinet hardware, shaped like leaves and twigs.  So not “me.”  And the kitchen island, which managed to take up huge amounts of floor space while offering minimal storage?  Not “me.”  The badly installed but otherwise nondescript ceramic floor?  The cabinet moldings that almost- but not-quite- met the ceiling? The erratically worn, medium toned wood finish?  Not “me,” not “me,” and not “me.”

To create a kitchen that is “me” without eroding the financial balance our entire household, I decided to keep the existing cabinets–which are, ultimately, quite traditional in their shape–and simply paint them.  Did I say simply paint them? Let me re-phrase: I decided to paint them.

Forgive me: the account that follows is maybe the most self-indulgently detailed piece of writing ever.  If you just want to know what I did, skim to the next picture.  If you want to know why I did what I did (so that you can assess the validity of my logic), keep reading.

I know how I treat cabinets–the scrubbing, the splashing, the banging, the bumping–and I knew I needed a paint job that would withstand thousands of days of maltreatment.  So, I did what I always do: I googled.

I quickly discovered that there is a relatively new product called Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations, and everyone loves it.  It’s the topic of approximately one bazillion glowing blog posts by DIY mommas.  It earns five stars on the Home Depot website and Amazon.com.  I was sold.  Unfortunately, I was also stymied because (I know, I know, go ahead and roll your eyes extravagantly) none of the Cabinet Transformation colors were quite “me.”  I tried sweet-talking the paint guys at two different Home Depots into mixing me a custom color.  At the first, the paint guy tried…and tried…and tried…until he ran out of “can room.”  (The resulting color wasn’t even close to the color swatch I had brought him.)  At the second, the paint guy flatly refused to try.

I allowed myself to despair for about five minutes, and then I set to work solving the problem.  And this was the problem, as I saw it.

  • I had a color (Valspar’s “Rolling Prairie”) to which I was completely committed.  My husband and I had selected it after buying several sample-sized cans at our local Lowe’s and painting random pieces of wood and parts of the soon-to-be demolished kitchen island.  (My husband is a man of strong opinions, especially when it comes to color.  He declared some colors “too happy,” others “too grey,” and others “too cold.”  There was only one color on which we both agreed.)  The color was non-negotiable, so I needed a product that could be customized to match the swatch we already had.
  • I had glossy kitchen cabinets and a nasty habit of getting my kitchen really, really dirty several times a day.  Therefore, I needed a process that would allow the paint to adhere in a serious way and a topcoat that would withstand almost constant splattering, banging, and scrubbing.
  • I had painting skills that were barely average, at best, so I needed a product that was easy to work with.
  • I had a houseful of people who expect to be fed and watered on a regular basis, so I needed a system that I could work through in 2-3 days, which was probably just about as long as I could expel my family from the house.
  • Finally, I have a worrywart husband who frets about any product with fumes of any kind–especially when he knows that respirators activate my claustrophobia and that the work has to be completed indoors.  So, I needed a reasonably non-toxic system.

I chased my tail for several days trying to determine what type of paint was best for cabinets.  Consumer Reports, which I typically trust as the reference that is most like a peer-reviewed source for buyers, recommends Behr’s Premium Ultra Enamel for its durability and adhesion.  Professional painters, on the other hand, seem to pan Behr paint as a cheap and less effective substitute for enamels made by Sherwin Williams and Benjamin Moore, both of which Consumer Reports says are overpriced and wimpy by comparison.  I decided to put my trust in Consumer Reports, and I held my breath and crossed my fingers.  (I still can’t tell you if that was the best choice.  Read on for more details.)

There was no way that I was going to trust it or any other paint to cling to my glossy cabinets all by itself.  So, I spent some time studying the MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet) for Rustoleum’s Cabinet Transformations to determine how they get that stuff to stick to cabinets without sanding, which is one of its primary appeals.   (Who in their right mind would choose to grate and forcefully disperse dirty wood powder throughout their kitchen?)  It relies on a deglossing agent that isn’t sold in stand-alone form by anyone.   It’s called Ethylene Glycol Monobutyl Ether; it must work (a few thousand 5-star reviews can’t be wrong), and it isn’t especially toxic, according to the federal government, anyway.  Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any way to buy it.  And all of the deglossing agents on the market are supposed to be administered in well-ventilated areas while wearing protective skin- and eye-covering.  No can do.

Maybe, I thought, I could circumvent the whole trouble by simply priming the cabinets before painting, so I chose a primer called “Gripper,” which claims to adhere to absolutely anything, including glass!  But, folks, these are my cabinets.  Have I mentioned what I do to cabinets?  So, rather than operate on faith (never my strong suit), I decided to test it out.  On an inconspicuous side of the terminally ill kitchen island, I scrubbed the wood clean, coated it with Gripper, let it dry, then went after it with a screwdriver.  Of course, it peeled right off.

Having ruled out the use of chemical deglossers and now having demonstrated the inability of the Gripper to grip, I was forced to capitulate to scuff-sanding.   I scuffed up yet another section on the kitchen island, wiped it clean, then painted it with the Gripper.  Once that was dry, I gave it the screwdriver treatment and was relieved to discover that it held. Fast.

At this point (if you are, by some chance, still reading), you are probably thanking heaven that I have finally solved the myriad problems so that you can quit hearing about all the dead ends and frustrations.  Well, hang in there for one more re-tooling.  I promise this is the last one.

Plan in place, I went to work on a short bank of cabinets, in an experimental way.  My theory was that, worst case scenario, if I ruined these few cabinets in my attempt to turn them green, we could remove and replace those cabinets with something else without having to tear out and replace the entire kitchen.  (These are not attached to the rest.) I cleaned, sanded and primed without trouble, but when I began to paint, I discovered that the viscosity of Behr Ultra Premium Enamel is approximately equivalent to that of a really good milkshake, one that is too thick to suck through the straw and leaves your cheeks so sore you can’t finish the whole thing.  At first, I thought this was a good sign, but I quickly determined that the stuff was impossible to manage.  To call the resulting pattern “brush strokes” would be to misrepresent its level of discretion.  Think: stripes or scars.  And anyplace where I touched the paint with the brush after its initial deposit, the paint became gummy and the finish uneven.  In short, it was a mess.  I wept.  Then I googled.  And, after an evening of clicking and growling and reading and re-reading,  I found a solution that proved, ultimately, effective and inexpensive: Floetrol.  It thins the paint, slows the drying time, and reduces brush strokes by improving “self-leveling.”  That’s what it says on the bottle, and I can vouch for all of those things. (In fact, the Rustoleum Cabinet Transformations paint is very thin, slow-drying, and self-leveling, and now I know why.)

Here, then, is my final “recipe”:

cabinet kit

The only supplies omitted from this picture are a good-quality paint brush (I used Purdy), a good quality foam roller and tray, some green scrub pads, a few old rags, some tack cloths, and a bottle of “Krud Kutter,” which is an unsmelly but potent cleaning agent.

Here is what I did:

1. I removed all of the hardware and took down all of the doors.

2. I cleaned with Krud Kutter and green scrub pads and then wiped well with old rags.

3. Then I scuff-sanded with 150-grit sandpaper and wiped with tack cloths and then again with old rags.  (Actually, the scuff sanding turned out to be no more difficult than the cleaning.  I had dreaded it for no good reason.)

4. Then I primed thinly with a brush and allowed the primer to dry overnight.  I worked hard to avoid puddling and dripping, but there were a few spots I had to sand down in the morning before I started in with my paint.

5. I mixed one capful of Floetrol (shaken well before dispensing) with approximately 12 ounces of paint (in an old Mason jar) and shook it like crazy.

6. Then I painted one fairly light coat of Floetrolled paint with a brush, using the bristles to force the paint down into the crevices and ridges created by my raised panels, and allowed that coat to dry before applying and a second coat with a roller.

If you undertake this crazy operation, here are my primary bits of procedural wisdom: The only tricky part, really, is the edges of the doors and drawers, where the paint wants to drip.  That’s why you need to use a very dry brush–especially on those edges.  My other tip for reducing edge dripping is to raise each door up off your work surface as you paint it.  I found that inverted loaf pans and cake pans work perfectly for that purpose, as do smallish, sturdy cardboard boxes.

You ought to have seen my mess when I was in the middle of my painting day: Every inch of table and countertop was covered with upside-down baking pans and cardboard boxes and topped with cabinet doors.  The living room was full of drawers and contents of drawers.   I kind of wanted to resign at this point:

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But, at the end of two days, it was finished.  On the third day, my husband brought the kids home and then we spent a few hours putting all the doors back in place and installing the new hardware.  This is what it looked like in the end:

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A little greener = a little “me-er”

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The bin pulls on the drawers are one of my favorite new features…

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The kitchen island is now badly maimed by my experimentation on its less conspicuous surfaces, but I don’t mind its color, now, contrasted with the “Rolling Prairie” cabinets.

If you don’t love it, please don’t tell me.  Because, although I’m glad I did it once, I will not be repeating the process anytime soon.  If the paint begins to peel off or wear badly, I promise to let you know.  It’s only a few days old right now, but I am ready to declare it, tentatively, a successful recipe!


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This week’s “menu”

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This is a weird week at my house.  It’s Spring Break Week, for the kids, but it’s more like Spring Project Week, for the adults.  And almost  none of those projects are edible.

I spent Sunday & Monday nights home alone–for reasons that I will soon reveal–and I didn’t cook a thing!

Tuesday was my hunky husband’s 11th 27th birthday. (I always exaggerate upward, myself. I prefer to say I’m “pushing 40” and have people think She’s looking fabulous, rather than have them think I’m looking pretty rough for 27. Alas, to each his own!)  I fixed him steak-and-mushroom fajitas and a cherry pie.  I may tell you about that later this week, if I’m feeling ambitious.

But the fact is that most of my kitcheny ambition of this week was spent on something bigger and more enduring–at least I hope so.  I painted my cabinets.  That will be the “recipe” I’ll tell you about in a bit.

Then I took the kids to my mom and dad’s, leaving my husband behind to rebuild a portion of our rotting-out privacy fence.  I assume he will eat something.  I just hope he doesn’t mess up my freshly painted cabinets when he does!

The original meat substitute? Eggs!

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Although I probably should clip coupons, I can’t seem to manage it.  Sometimes, if there is a peel-off coupon attached to a box of cereal at the supermarket, I will peel it off, drop it into my pocket while I finish shopping, and then forget to hand it to the cashier when I check out.  My brain is simply too busy to think about that theoretical 50 cents waiting silently in my pocket.  It’s too busy trying to remember whether I really did grab that bunch of scallions I needed in the produce section and wondering how much bread is left in the cupboard at home.  I am simply not a couponer, and I’m prepared to forgive myself for that.

Last week, I waited with a deliberately pleasant (I hope) look on my face, while the woman in front of me in line produced no fewer than 50 coupons, flipping through her massively yawning file in search of a match for each of her items.  She looked to me smugly as her total dropped from $150 to $50.  “Wow,” I said.  “Well done.”   In person, it didn’t sound so insulting.  I know that because…

On her way out, with a wink, she slipped me a 25-cent coupon for my organic eggs and said, “I never buy organic.  Too rich for my blood.”

But, for me, eggs–even organic, and even without a coupon–are already a budget food, thank you very much.  Fry them and serve them bistro-style, alongside a fancy-looking potato dish and something green, and you have a dinner that costs little and offers plenty, even if your family wouldn’t normally go crazy about eggs for supper.

I know you know how to fry an egg, and your family has a favorite green veggie you can roast or steam. (Or give my “house salad” recipe a try!) So, without further ado, my fancy potatoes: potato galette, adapted from a Cooks Illustrated recipe.  (When I say “adapted,” I really mean “spiced up.”  It was good in its original form, but it needed a good dash of Penzey’s, some onion, and a handful of cheese.) A budget friendly meal for those with busy minds…

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Beautifully browned potatoes with eggs over easy and simply roasted asparagus

Potato Galette

2 1/2 pounds of Yukon Gold or red potatoes

1 large onion, sliced thinly (optional)

5 tablespoons of butter

2 tablespoons of your favorite seasoning blend (I like Penzey’s Cajun, Northwoods, or Southwest in this dish…and pretty much everything else)

1 tablespoon of cornstarch

1 cup of shredded cheddar, Parmesan, or other hard cheese

Not many ingredients, right?  This dish is all about the technique.  It’s a little fussy in the beginning, but it’s totally worth the effort–especially when you realize that this is really what you are making.  Everything else (eggs & salad or veggie) will take 5 minutes.

1. Preheat your oven to 450 degrees. Scrub your potatoes, but no need to peel.  Get out your food processor and fit it with the slicing blade.  You need to slice your potatoes as evenly and thinly as possible.  Slice them all up.  Dump the slices into a colander and rinse the slices very well, using your fingers to separate them under the running water.  The idea here is to get rid of as much of the potato starch as you can.

2.  Use a tea towel to dry them off as much as you can in the colander.  Then use the towel to lift them into a really big bowl.  Slice the onion in your food processor–why not, since you’ve already gotten it out?–and then add the onion to the bowl.

3.  In a very large, oven-safe skillet, melt your butter.  Add it and all of the other ingredients to the bowl and stir well.  I just use my hands.  It’s important to get the potatoes really coated with all the seasonings and the cornstarch.  You should probably also add a bit of salt and some pepper, if your seasoning blend doesn’t have much salt and pepper in it.

4.  Now, to the bottom of your hot skillet (over medium-high heat), add a layer of potatoes and onions.  You can do it in a pretty pattern if you like, spiraling out from the center. (When it’s done, you’ll flip it over, so your efforts, should you choose to undertake them, will show.) Whether you create a pattern or not, do try to achieve as much contact as possible between the potatoes and the bottom of the pan. Now, dump all the remaining potatoes on top.

5. Spray a piece of aluminum foil with cooking spray or rub it with butter, and lay it on top of the potatoes.  Use something heavy (I use my big-dog cast-iron pan) to press down on top of the potatoes. Cook over medium high for 5-7 minutes, to create a brown crust on the bottom.  Take a peek at mine at this point in the process:

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I used a mix of red potatoes and Yukon golds because I had a few red ones in the bottom of the bin, and they were beginning to look a little sad.  See how happy they are to be of use?

6. Now heft the pan (covered and weighted) into the hot oven.  Your job here is essentially done, so you can go ahead and start cleaning your food processor. (That is the worst part of this undertaking! When they devise a self-cleaning food processor, I will buy one…without a coupon.)  After 25 minutes, remove the foil and weight.  Cook for another 20-25 minutes until it’s golden brown and melty. Let it cool while you fry your eggs and toss your salad or steam your veggie. Then remove it from the pan onto a cutting board.  Serve in wedges, alongside some eggs over easy (with yolks soft enough for dipping), and your favorite simple green veggie.