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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Buttermilk Buckwheat Pancakes

I think there may be the slimmest chance that obsessiveness lurks in my genes.

My oldest son’s first two-syllable word wasn’t “Momma.”  It was “backhoe” (pronounced “ba-toe!”). By the time his baby sister was born, when he was twenty-one months old, he was identifying varieties of construction equipment that neither I nor his father had ever heard of, much less learned to differentiate from other yellow-orange blade-bearing vehicles: grader, scraper, vibratory roller, ditch witch–all, I should say, without the benefit of having mastered more than a couple of consonant sounds.  Fortunately, he had a well-worn board book with images and words, and he would trot it out and point to the vehicle in question, when we couldn’t make sense of what he was saying.

A year or so later, he left behind his construction equipment obsession and switched to dinosaurs.  With a few more consonant sounds at his disposal, he would explain that the dinosaur in question couldn’t be a t-rex because it had three fingers instead of two and so was clearly an allosaurus.  And, no, that was not a meat-eater at all, silly Mommy: every three-year-old knows that’s a pachycephalosaurus, a herbivore known for its bony head.

Then he switched to an obsession with birds, then paper airplanes, then snakes, then back to birds (“raptors, you know, birds of prey”), and now to sharks.  He’s not recognizable if he isn’t talking nonstop about something.

Meanwhile, his little brother has just grown into his own dino-fascination (with the benefit of even fewer consonant sounds).  And the other day, walking home from preschool, he glanced around and said, “Mommy, did you hear an owl?  It went hoo-hoo. But owls only come out at night, don’t they?” I thought I heard in this question the sound of his intellectual automatic transmission,  hiccuping, preparing to shift gears.  I prefer raptors to dinosaurs, so I’ll welcome the shift, if it comes.

I like to pretend I’m not obsessive, that this quality in my boys comes from their daddy, that our well-rounded daughter takes her cues from me. But, in this blog, I see signs of my own single-mindedness.  Onions. Herbal purees. Citrus. And pancakes.

In my imaginary cookbook–the one I reluctantly agree to write after turning down my own Food Network series–pancakes need a whole chapter. I’ve already written about my oatmeal pancakes, toothsome, wholesome, and laden with dried fruits and nuts. And next time I make sourdough pancakes with cinnamon and fresh peaches (a recipe I recently piloted, to my own rave reviews), it will be making an appearance.  And today, I want to tell you about my buttermilk buckwheat pancakes, a recipe that reminds me simultaneously of my childhood and of robust, malty ales with hints of molasses and roasted nuts.

My mom made “buckwheats” from a box of Aunt Jemima Buckwheat Pancake Mix, but I think they’re pretty easy without the box–especially since buttermilk lives in my fridge anyway.

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Buckwheat Buttermilk Pancakes

2 cups buttermilk

1 egg

3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour

3/4 cup buckwheat flour

2 tablespoons brown sugar

2 teaspoons baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

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1. Melt your butter in a large skillet over medium/medium-high heat.  Then whisk it into your buttermilk and egg.  Return the skillet to the eye over medium heat to get ready for the pancakes.  The rest will only take a second.

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2. Whisk together your dry ingredients, sugar included.

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3. Add the wet to the dry and combine with a wooden spoon to form a lumpy batter.  Add a bit of water, if necessary, to create a batter that is almost “pourable.”

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4. Drop into the hot pan a few tablespoons at a time.  I like pancakes that are about 3 tablespoons of batter. You do what you like.  Adjust your temperature so that they begin to bubble and look dry around the edges within 90 seconds or so.

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5. Then flip ’em.  Cook for another 60-90 seconds.  Keep them warm on a cookie sheet in a warm oven while you cook the rest of the batter. Or, if you have very hungry kids, serve them right away with a little blob of salted butter (if you’ve got some lying around) and maple syrup.

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I like mine best with a side of Sunday newspaper and a hot cup of coffee.

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Date Night Salad

Before you read this recipe and think to yourself, justifiably, “What is it with this lady and onions?,” let me tell you a story.

Twenty years and a few months ago, when I was graduating from high school, I was interviewed by the even smaller cousin of the small-town daily newspaper.  I think this tiny one was called The Flatwoods Times or something like that, but I can’t be sure, and (from what I can discern through a cursory Google search) it no longer exists.  I seem to recall that it was published every two weeks on Tuesday, and, no, that’s not a joke. In any case, the now-defunct Flatwoods newspaper published short interviews with the top 10 graduates in the Russell High School class of 1994, and I was graduating fifth…I think. (Mom? Dad?)  Yes, I think it was fifth, behind the three boys tied for valedictorian and someone else.  In any case, regardless of the particulars, this grand event occasioned my interview with the Flatwoods newspaper.  I think it took place in the office of the high school counselor…I seem to remember a laminate tabletop and a rolling chair.  As you can no doubt tell, my brain power has dimmed somewhat over the last twenty years, and this particular memory carries no particular weight for me anyway.  But what I do remember–and this is the point toward which I have been winding all along–is that I told the interviewer that one of my life’s ambitions was to publish a cookbook called “101 Varieties of Rice Krispies Treats.”

I have two things to say in my defense:

1. I was 18, and my appetite for all things sweet and buttery was as big as the sky …despite the fact that I weighed at least 10 pounds less in those days.

2. Rice Krispies treats are delicious.  As everyone knows.

That said, I don’t really make them anymore.  Maybe once a year, when I’m feeling nostalgic, I invite the kids to come “help” me make a batch–a process which involves nothing more than unwrapping a stick of butter and tearing open a package of Jet-Puffed Marshmallows.  (By the way, the next time I have a hankering for RKTs, I’m totally going to try Smitten Kitchen’s grown-up version, loaded with browned butter and sprinkled with sea salt.) But, basically, I’m over them.

If The Flatwoods Times resurrected itself to do a 20-year anniversary issue, following up with the 1994 graduating class of Russell High School, I’d have a new cookbook in mind: “101 Ways to Elevate the Humble Onion.”

My point is this: Yes, I do seem to be strangely fixated on onions, but, given where I started out twenty years ago, fixated on a “recipe” made up of boxed cereal and bagged marshmallows, I think I’ve come a long way.  This, my friends, is progress.

So don’t give up on me yet.  I’m going places.  Very slowly.

Last Saturday’s date night meal was one of many stops along the circuitous way, but it was a tasty one.  It’s a salad, which may not sound very manly, but it’s what my hunky hubby requested, and I try to keep him happy because I don’t want him to wander off. In any case, the medium-rare steak on top ups the testosterone factor, and the fried onions transform a dish you might see on the Applebee’s menu (boring!) into something you would definitely not see there.  They make it into something that might appear in my dream cookbook and something that will certainly appear again on my Saturday night table.

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1 lean ribeye

1-2 tablespoons of your favorite seasoning blend (I like Penzey’s Cajun spice)

1 drizzle of olive oil

1/2 fat lime’s juice

1 tablespoon of butter

3-4 medium onions (no need for fancy ones–just the regular peely yellow guys in the mesh bag will work fine), peeled and very thinly sliced

1 1/2 cups vegetable oil

a generous pinch of salt

Fancy nuts (praline pecans, caramel almonds, chipotle-honey almonds–anything you like)

1/2 cup blue cheese or feta

Cherry tomatoes if they are in season or dried fruit like cranberries or cherries

2 romaine hearts

Your favorite Caesar dressing, as much as you like, but I’d recommend dressing the salad lightly

1. An hour or so before you want to grill your steak, take it out of the fridge.  Rub it all over with your seasoning blend and a drizzle of oil, if you are using a lean piece of meat.  (I’d rather use a lean piece and then add in some extra fat in the form of oil and butter because I don’t like eating hunks of fat and I also don’t like having to trim the cooked meat until there’s nothing left.  But that’s just me.  If you’re a lifelong carnivore who likes a mouthful of animal fat, roll with that.) Let it rest at room temperature, covered.

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2. At about the same time, heat up your oil in a heavy-bottomed pan over high heat.  This will seem like too little fat for deep frying, but you don’t need a lot–just enough to cover all of your onion slices when you, very carefully, drop them into the pan.  You should put in one test ring to see whether it sizzles enthusiastically.  When it starts popping happily, add the others. Stir them now and then until they look and smell like fried onions. This will take quite a while.  At least twenty minutes, maybe more.

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Remove them from the pan with a fork and then salt them generously, tossing, and salting and tasting until you have a hard time not eating them all with your fingers. Really, you should save a few for the salads.

3. Meanwhile, heat your grill to HIGH heat.  Super hot.  Smoking hot.  And scrub the gunk clean from it.  Then drop your steak onto the grates and leave it alone, for heaven’s sake.  How long you leave it there will depend on how thick it is and how done you want it.  This steak wasn’t especially thick, so I think I only cooked it for two or three minutes before flipping it and finishing it off for another minute or two.   Try the hand test.  Aim to undercook it because it will cook a bit more after you take it off the grill.  Place it on a plate, add the tablespoon of butter to the top, and squeeze the lime juice over it.  Then tent it with foil and let it rest for at least 5 minutes.

4.  In the meantime, chop your romaine and assemble the rest of your salad.  Save the onions and the steak for the last minute.  You should also add to your salads the juices that gather in the plate while the steak rests.

Serve with crusty bread and an adult beverage, like so:

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Chicken Fajitas with Caramelized Onions

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My neighborhood is the greatest.  Big trees.  Old-ish houses.  Expansive, fenced back yards.  People mow their lawns instead of parking in them.  A few people even edge their lawns, but no one expects that of the households with young children.  Which is good.  Because if we lived in one of those neighborhoods where the “association” sends out sternly worded letters if you leave your garage door open for an entire day or allow birds to build a chaotic nest in your eaves or abandon your kids’ riding toys in the street or fail to weed your flower beds for three full years…well, we’d be kicked out.

No, this isn’t that place.

This is a place where, if you have a new baby or spend the evening in the ER with a sick child or have unexpected surgery, your family will be fed…enthusiastically (dessert included)…for several days…until all the neighborhood mommas have had a turn feeding them.  And then you will return everyone’s dishes with thank-you notes taped to them, as you deliver your kids to school and get back to normal over the next week or so.

I haven’t had any babies in this neighborhood, which is kind of a bummer, because I think my neighbors seem to be pretty good cooks.  But over the past year or so, I’ve fed three new moms on the street and a couple of others, as well.  (One perk of delivering dinner to women with brand new babies is that you almost always get to steal a quick snuggle and remind yourself of how tiny and toasty newborns are, like squirmy little puppies, all ribcages and tucked-in legs.)

This is the dish I’ve chosen as my feed-the-neighbors meal.  I know fajitas are probably a little out of fashion, but they are still a family favorite of ours; plus, since everyone assembles his or her own fajita, the dish is customizable by its recipients.   Also, it travels well, and the recipe easily expands and contracts to make the right number to feed as many mouths as it needs to.

This version will feed one family, though the pictures show what happens if you double the quantity of chicken breasts so you can share with your neighbors.

Chicken Fajitas with Caramelized Onions

3-4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts

1 fat lime

2 tablespoons of olive oil

2 cloves of garlic, crushed through a press

Fajita spice blend: 2 parts chili powder, 1 part cumin, 2 parts salt, 1 part oregano, 1 part sugar (I like turbinado sugar, but any kind will work)

3 pound bag of onions, caramelized (Click here for my caramelized onion recipe)

4 large bell peppers or a whole bag of little sweet peppers, which is what I used here

10 flour tortillas

shredded cheese

salsa (Click here for my daughter’s special salsa)

sour cream

guacamole

1.  Marinate your chicken breasts for an hour or so in the juice of your fat lime, your olive oil, and your crushed garlic.

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2. While it’s marinating, go ahead and start caramelizing your onions.  They will take a while.  I actually cooked this batch down so far they almost turned into pure sugar and vanished.  Caramelize your entire 3-pound bag and cook them down until you have about 1 1/2 to 2 cups.

3. Fire up the grill to medium-high and scrub the crud off of it.  Mix up your spice mix, as much as you want.  I typically use 1 part=1 tablespoon, but it can’t hurt to make more.  After all, they are dried spices, and they store well.  Just keep any leftovers in a plastic bag for next time.  (I realize it sounds weird to add sugar, but that sugar will help to create a golden crust that seals the moisture into your spicy grilled chicken.  It will not taste sweet.)

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4. Rub your chicken breasts with a generous quantity of spice rub, on both sides.  Then pop them onto your clean, hot grill.

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5.  Add your bell peppers to your caramelized onions, stir them together and put a lid or a piece of foil over the pan to help the peppers wilt a bit.  You don’t want to cook them to smithereens–just until tender crisp.  Add a generous sprinkle of salt once they are tender.

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6.  Cook your chicken breasts until they are firm to the touch.  How long this takes will depend upon your grill’s heat and your chicken’s girth.  You want to achieve a bit of char but don’t overcook them or they will be dry.  (Of course, you should check one or two representative breasts for doneness because you don’t want to mess around with undercooked poultry, but you know that already.)  Remove them from the grill, tent them with foil, and allow them to rest for at least five minutes.

7.  Heat your tortillas, wrapped in foil,  in a warm oven.  Get your toppings ready to go and your table set.  Then thinly slice your chicken breasts, on a bias to make them pretty if you’re up to it.  I always use a super-sharp serrated bread knife to avoid tearing the meat.  Collect any juices that run out and all the juices that have gathered in the plate as the meat rested.  Add those juices to your onions and peppers.  Then stir in your sliced chicken.

8.  Eat up.

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