We are three sisters united in our search for the divine - in food, libation, literature, art, and nature. This blog will capture the true, sometimes decadent, at times humorous, and every so often transcendent adventures of the Salvation Sisters.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Baked Crab Cakes

by Michelle

   Over the years, my husband, daughter and I have visited our family who live in Washington DC to participate in a couple of very special celebrations. My brother-in-law Jeff is an excellent and diverse cook who creates wonderful meals for us all to enjoy. During our stays I happily take on the mantle of prep cook obliging his requests for minced garlic, shredded cheese, and prepping vegetables as needed in favor of court-bouillon and a myriad of side dishes. I can picture him now, with reading glasses resting on top of his head, his upper body slightly bent over the stove, inspecting the progress of the contents bubbling in the soup pots. 
   On one such occasion, we were preparing food for a Friday night dinner for a collection of friends and family who had gathered to celebrate on the eve of my niece's Bat Mitzvah. Jeff and his gregarious friend, Saed planned an ambitious menu. With the help of one additional couple and fueled by margaritas, our boisterous group collected a nice little crowd in the kitchen that wanted to watch us turn out marinated filet of beef, roast of salmon, couscous salad flavored with dried cranberries, fresh mint, caramelized almonds tossed with a citrus dressing, baked tomatoes with pesto and bread crumbs, scalloped potatoes, and a vegetable medley comprised of  peppers, green beans and caramelized onions.
   That was "just" the main event, the appetizers were: baked brie with a hot and sweet tomato jam, chicken skewers with tzatziki sauce, skewered and barbecued shrimp flavored in a margarita marinade and mini baked crab cakes. My lovely and talented sister-in-law, Sue purchased beautiful desserts and assembled a tray of mixed tarts and chocolates. 

On the dance floor at the post Bat Mitzvah party. Photo by Elmo Thamm.
   My ah-ha moment that night was the simple bite-size crab cakes that Jeff prepared in a jiffy. Instead of frying the crab cakes, he portioned the crab mixture on greased cookie sheets and baked until each morsel was browned and fragrant. It was one of those moments where I thought, why didn't I think of that? Afterall, I had been making "un-fried" chicken in the oven since Oprah's former chef Rosie Daley unveild the method in her debut cookbook, In the Kitchen with Rosie - Oprah's Favorite Recipes. The cookbook shot like a rocket up the best-seller list in 1994.
   A crab cake pairs well with any number of sauces such as a traditional rémoulade, mango salsa or Thai Sweet Red Chili that makes it perhaps the equivalent of the "little black dress" in the food world. By dressing it up or dressing it down and accessorizing appropriately, you can serve a tray of crab cakes at just about any occasion and fit them comfortably into just about any menu. The crab cakes are also versatile in the fact that they are just as happy being tucked into a sandwich or sitting atop a salad or eaten as a finger food.

Baked Crab Cakes

    I like to serve crab cakes as a special appetizer for parties because: #1 crab is delicious, #2 crab makes even simple gatherings feel like a special occasion, and #3 (best of all) crab cakes can be prepared ahead, shaped and stored overnight in the refrigerator on prepared baking sheets - just make sure to cover and seal well with plastic wrap or foil. From the refrigerator, remove the covering and pop the cookie trays into a preheated oven.
    As mentioned previously in the post for Tasty Hot Crab Dip, when fresh crab is not available I prefer to use Phillips Lump Crabmeat in a 16-ouce jar available for a reasonable price at Costco. In fact, since an unopened jar has an incredibly long "shelf life", if you peaked in my refrigerator, you would always see a jar sitting side by side with other staples, ready to be called to service at a moment's notice.
   This recipe is adapted from The Barefoot Contessa Cookbook by Ina Garten (Clarkson Potter, 1999). I own all of Ina's cookbooks. She is a wonderful cook with recipes that are simple to prepare and a joy to eat.

2 Tbsps unsalted butter
2 Tbsps olive oil
1 large red onion, diced
1 cup celery, diced (about 5 or 6 stalks)
1 cup fennel, stalks discarded, bulb diced
3/4 cup large red bell pepper, diced
3/4 cup large yellow pepper, diced
1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley, minced
2 Tbsps capers, rinsed and chopped
1 tsp Tabasco® sauce
1 tsp Worcestershire sauce
1 Tbsp Old Bay Seasoning®
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 pound crab meat, drained
1 cup plain dry bread crumbs, preferably homemade or Panko bread crumbs
1 cup good mayonnaise, such as homemade, Best Foods® or Hellman's®
1 Tbsp Dijon mustard
4 extra-large eggs, or 5 large eggs, lightly beaten
2-3 cups Panko bread crumbs
Olive oil spray, as needed

1. In a large skillet, or flat bottomed wok, heat the butter and the oil over medium heat, add the diced vegetables, parsley, capers, Tabasco, Worcestershire sauce, Old Bay Seasoning, sea salt and ground black pepper. Cook until the vegetables are soft, 15-20 minutes. Cool to room temperature.
2. In a large bowl, combine plain bread crumbs, mayonnaise, mustard, and whisked eggs. Stir until well combined, gently mix in crab meat. Add the cooked mixture and mix well. Cover and chill in the refrigerator for at least 30 minutes or up to 24 hours. Alternatively, once the mix is cold, the crab cakes can be formed and coated in panko, then stored overnight in the refrigerator on baking sheets wrapped in plastic.

3. To form the crab cakes: Prepare two cookie sheets, lined with parchment and sprayed twice with olive oil. In a medium bowl, add 2 cups panko bread crumbs. Using a 1/4 measuring cup (appetizer portion) or 1/3 measuring cup (entree portion), scoop the mixture, pack with fingers, and drop into panko bread crumbs. With fingers, gently turn the cake so that all sides are covered by the panko. Place each crab cake on the cookie sheet leaving a little room between rows.

4. Preheat oven to 400°F. When ready to bake, spray the crab cakes twice with olive oil, and bake until cooked through and golden brown, about 30-35 minutes, rotating the pans after 15 minutes. Serve with dipping sauce of choice, following are some suggestions: Thai Red Sweet Chili, Special Mustard Sauce, mango salsa, rémoulade and tartar. Makes about 50 mini crab cakes, and about 20 regular crab cakes.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Grandma's Best Macaroni Salad

by Michelle

   I have traveled many places, been to many parties, enjoyed a lot of barbecues, but I have never, ever - that's right not even once - tasted a better macaroni salad than my Grandma Elsie's. Pasta salads overall tend to be rather bland affairs coated in mediocre vinaigrettes or doused in mayonnaise. Heaven forbid if there is Miracle Whip involved. The very thought sends a chill down my spine - and not in a good way. I steer clear from any dish that features too much mayonnaise. Yes, even with my general aversion, I do spread a little mayo on my sandwiches, but the excess is always cleared off leaving a smooth base for smearing my beloved mustard.
   Grandma Elsie's macaroni salad had a secret ingredient that set it apart from other salads in its category: French dressing. The only clue to the secret is that the French dressing turns the pasta a lovely coral color. A little mayo is added at the end to act as a binder and to unify the flavors. Our family's salad has a clean taste without coating the tongue in a gooey mayonaissy residue.

    For many years Grandma Elsie and my mother relied on a commercial French Dressing made by Seven Seas to marinate the noodles while still hot. At some point in time, the company changed the recipe and the dressing lost its tartness and unique character. What's the saying, necessity breeds creativity? Linda and I tackled the problem by devising our own version of the dressing. We've made it this way ever since.
    And make it we do, especially when summer rolls around. For larger gatherings, we'll go all out and make both Macaroni Salad and Our Family's Potato Salad. We might also add a large bowl of marinated cucumbers. Throw in baked beans and garlic bread and then all you need to decide is what kind of meat will be 'cued up to complete the meal. Happily, just about anything works. You can also forgo the garlic bread and go the hamburger and hot dog route. Finish the meal with homemade Wilkins Family Lemon Ice Cream and life will be complete - well, at least for one evening.

Grandma's Best Macaroni Salad

   Although the salad will keep well in the refrigerator for a few days, it is best to make the salad the night before or the morning of the party. I love this salad so much, I've been known to eat it for breakfast.

1/2 cup ketchup
1/4 cup cider vinegar
3 Tbsps granulated sugar
3 Tbsps olive oil
1/4 cup filtered water
1 Tbsp lemon juice, freshly squeezed
1/4 cup yellow onion, peeled and diced finely
1 large garlic clove, crushed, husk removed
1/2 tsp sweet paprika
1/2 tsp Italian seasoning
1//2 tsp sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

1 pound Barilla elbow or salad macaroni noodles
1/3 cup sweet pickle relish, Del Monte® preferred
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced finely
3 stalks celery, chopped finely or more to taste
6 ounces black olives or seedless kalamata olives, drained and sliced into rounds
5 large eggs, hard boiled, peeled and diced
about 1/2 cup good quality mayonnaise, homemade or Best Foods®, to taste

1. For the dressing: In a blender, add all the ingredients, and mix on high speed until emulsified. Dressing can be made a day ahead and stored in the refrigerator.
2. For the salad: Cook the elbow noodles according to the package directions in salted water. Drain pasta well and transfer to a large bowl. Immediately toss the hot noodles with about two-thirds of the dressing. The pasta will continue to absorb the dressing as the noodles cool. If the noodles become dry, I add more dressing and stir well. Repeat again, if necessary. 
3. After the noodles have cooled for about 15 minutes, add the pickle relish and stir. Add the rest of the ingredients, except mayo and stir well. Add the mayo at the last and incorporate well. Add enough mayo to suit your taste. As you can see from the photos, the salad is dressed, but not goopy. Refrigerate for a few hours for the flavors to meld. Servings: about 12.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Niagara Falls and Mint Pesto

My Traveling Tales by Michelle

The view of the famous falls as seen from my hotel room.
Dearest Sisters,
   I’m in my hotel room, sitting on the couch, laptop in my lap, Starbucks coffee on the right. The faux fireplace, activated by a light switch, is sending wisps of fire up through what looks like, but are in fact not, hot coals that are eerily silent. If an enterprising company can create the illusion of fire, cannot they also co-create a complementary soundtrack to match?
   Niagara Falls, or the American Falls to be accurate, is directly in front and ten floors below me. Horseshoe Falls is down a little further on the right. Mist rises from its basin like a ghoulish apparition. The window is open letting the roar of the cascade reach my ears as well as the sounds of a city - cars and buses shifting and braking and voices speaking in foreign languages. What gives the sensation of being at the ocean, beyond the crashing water, is the cawing seagulls that tirelessly swoop over the water. 
The American Falls resides in Buffalo, New York.
   On the walking path below, miniature figures pause to snap photos and then walk on. Lovers stroll walking arm in arm. Teenagers (many of the girls have pink streaks in their hair) shriek like the birds above, playing 2-foot games of tag with the boys, friendly arm punching thrown in to show that they care. Nothing shows teenage affection like a good swat on the arm.
   You know that you are standing before one of the seven natural wonders of the world, when after five minutes of viewing, one’s mind wanders to the inevitable question of “what’s next?” Lunch? Dinner? Room service and an on-demand movie? 
Touristy attractions two blocks from The American Falls.
   The city planners, a crafty bunch of successive leaders, master planned “fun and excitement” on every corner, a carnival of attractions and restaurants designed to part you from your hard earned money. The problem is that these attractions are not Michelle approved. When confronted with dinner options, I eschewed the likes of Planet Hollywood, Hard Rock Café, Margaritaville (my apologies, Jimmy) and the Rain Forest Café. And, with regards to entertainment, I was not up for touring the Wax Museum or Ripley’s Believe It or Not, but when am I ever gung ho for those touristy attractions? 

Horseshoe Falls, also known as The Canadian Falls, belongs to Canada.
   Instead, predictable me rode the elevator to the 12th floor of my hotel to enjoy dinner-for-one at the Fallsview Restaurant. Without a reservation, I was able to snag a small table with a view of the American Falls. A large column hid the Horseshoe Falls from my line of site, but I was not disappointed.
   Heading my waiter’s advice, I ordered the vine ripened tomato salad with baby greens, buffalo mozzarella and agro dolce dressing (made with balsamic vinegar and maple syrup) followed by rack of lamb cooked medium-rare accompanied with mashed potatoes and baby vegetables washed down with a lovely merlot. All that was missing was a touch of mint to go with the lamb. Since mint jam is out of fashion, a little mint pesto would have been a welcome addition to the rather conservative meal.
The Falls are lit at night and the colors change throughout the evening.
   Unfortunately, whoever was responsible for designing the restaurant did not take full advantage of the view, which is a shame. If only the designers had visited Horizons Restaurant in Sausalito. Its terraced layout gives nearly every booth and table a spectacular view of San Francisco. Funny the things one considers while dining alone – contemplating a restaurant design in Sausalito while dining in Niagara Falls.
   I felt too guilty pulling out my paperback book for the wait between courses – I mean – how often will I have the opportunity to dine looking at a ginormous waterfall? Fortunately, my indispensible iPhone came to the rescue. Through the miracle of technology, I had a lovely text conversation with my daughter between courses and bites, learning about each other’s day, as we do every night over dinner.

The casino becons day and night.
   The family three tables over were dining with four boys that looked like they were all under the age of ten. The little darlings kept calling each other dirt bag and bonehead. It was funny until it became annoying. Being myself a breeder, I kept a soft spot in my heart for their Mom and Dad. Thankfully they finished desert and were gone before I took my last bite of salad. It was almost time for the little beasts to be put to bed with a spanking hug and a kiss.   
   Did I mention that my bathroom has a flat screen TV? How cool is that? All the better to get those black mail photos of famous guests. Just kidding… kind of. I suppose it depends upon your disposition on conspiracy theories. I am certain that my friend Gary would be draping a towel over the screen, but I am rest assured that no one wants a photo of me in my birthday suit. 

Sheraton Falls View was my home away from home.
   Between the falls view, the fireplace, two TVs and room service, there is really no reason to leave my room. Except that Starbucks is located in the lobby. Oh yeah, and that pesky convention I need to work later today and all day tomorrow. The reason I get to enjoy this trip in the first place!
   I didn’t mention that I almost missed my flight. I learned late last night that Southwest Airlines cancelled 70 or so flights because one of their Boeing 737s blew a hole in the roof. All I knew, when I showed up at the airport at 6:00 a.m. is that there was a line of passengers all the way out the terminal door and lining up along the curb.
   One hour later, I was talking with the ticketing agent, right as my flight was due to take off. I belly upped to the counter anticipating bad news. But surprises of surprises, my plane was still there. The plane was being held for 10 minutes and no longer. The agent’s advice was simple, as if we were playing Monopoly. Do not grab a sandwich. Do not buy a magazine. Do not go to the bathroom. Proceed directly to the gate after security. Crap! Security! I ran, as the crowd cheered me on. No kidding. After an hour, you get to know the people around you.

The Ferris Wheel and touristy attractions lend to a carnival type atmosphere.
   Clearing security in a timely manner is always a game of roulette. No telling how long that will take. I begged my way ahead of a family and mercifully cleared security in nine minutes. I literally grabbed by laptop out of the plastic bin, jammed my feet into my Dansco clogs, slung my mammoth purse over my shoulder,  heaved my heavy computer bag (no time for casually rolling it behind me) and ran as if I was being chased.
   I sprinted up to the gate in the nick of time, panting, handing my "A1" boarding pass to the agent. Yes, A1 position equals first in line. First time I’ve ever had an A1 boarding pass (the gate agent laughed heartily with me) and I’m the last one to board the plane. Well, almost, two minutes later a beleaguered family crossed the threshold. The reseating game started when the stewardess asked if a row of people would move so that the family could sit together. Nobody flinched, raised a hand, offered a word. The plane was quiet as a bone yard. Apparently everyone was quite happy where they were seated and were not in obliging moods.
   I was planted in the middle seat of an exit row. No one under 15 can sit in those seats, so we weren’t moving even if we volunteered. After what seemed like an eternity, the flight attendant extended an offer for free drink booze coupons (at 7:15 a.m. mind you) and three passengers finally decided to play nice. With redistributed cheeks in seats, the plane got on its way. We made it to Buffalo on time. Gotta love Southwest Airlines, they’ll nearly always get you to your destination on time.

Take a long walk and see the Falls.
  I had a tight connection, so once again I found myself charging like a bull in Pamplona, through Chicago Midway to the next terminal. I had exactly five minutes to spare, which I devoted to filling my hungry stomach foreseeing that a tiny bag of peanuts or pretzels on the plane would not hold my appetite over until dinner.
   I dashed to the nearest quick service restaurant. After speed reading the menu and one snap decision later, I stood at a high-top table devouring a Chicago Style Hot Dog as if I were participating in (and winning) an eating contest. Sexy at any age. I tried to slow down and purposefully chew every bite to avoid reading a headline about myself in the newspaper the next day written by a witty copywriter: “Middle Aged Female Chokes on Jumbo Hot Dog in Chicago Airport.” With that thought, I better bring this note to a close!
   Bran muffin and extra hot grande non-fat vanilla latte kisses,

Mint Pesto

   Are you the type of person if you see a subpar movie, you immediately want to see another, better movie to replace the bad experience? I am. I'm also that way with food. Once mint pesto entered my mind, I had to come home and make some.
   I tried to locate my trusty mint pesto recipe to no avail. I made it quite often while living in San Jose. It was a Martha Stewart recipe to accompany rack of lamb. I couldn't find it on her website. I'm sure the clipping will turn up one of these days but until then I had to recreate the wheel. Hells bells.
   I looked at recipes that cut the mint with parsley or with basil, or with parsley and basil. For the nuts: sliced and toasted almonds, pistachios or walnuts. All recipes had fresh lemon juice, olive oil, some garlic (1-3 cloves), parmesan, salt and pepper. Some recipes included a little feta cheese or ricotta to add creaminess.
   A rebel cook included a jalapeno, which led me to think about Mint Chutney recipes which also vary, but are essentially similar: 3 parts mint leaves to one part cilantro, garlic, green chilies, pistachios, mango powder, lemon juice, salt and thinned with perhaps a little water or a little yogurt.
  This is what I did. What would you choose? Next time, I might just go with all mint because the parsley made the pesto much more mild than I had anticipated (which would be great with shrimp.) For lamb, I would recommend using all mint.

3 medium garlic cloves, husk removed
2 cups mint destemmed, packed (about 1.3 ounces)
1/3 cup flat leaf parsley, destemmed (about .5 ounces)
1/3 cup blanched almonds
the juice of one medium room temperature lemon
3 Tbsps finely grated parmesan
1/2 tsp sea salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
3 to 4 Tbsps olive oil

1. Using the steel blade in a food processor, mince garlic by dropping each clove through the feedtube while the machine is running. Scrape down sides of bowl and add freshly washed, dried and destemmed mint and parlsey leaves. Process until minced. Scrape down sides of bowl again. Add remaining ingredients and process until smooth.
2. Transfer to jar with lid and cover until ready to use, or refrigerate for up to a week, applying plastic wrap or a thin film of olive oil directly on the surface. If you plan on freezing the pesto, mix-in the grated cheese after the sauce is defrosted. Yield: About 1 cup

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Chia Pudding

Adventures in Herbalism by Linda

   "Ch-ch-ch-chia!" I never bought into the whole Chia Pet craze of the early 1980s, nor, to my knowledge, am I personally acquainted with any Chia Pet owners (quite possibly because having a Scooby-Doo Chia Pet is not something that one would readily admit to having at home in casual conversation), but recently I became aware that chia isn't just for growing pets anymore. It's for pudding. Yes, it's true, and I have become an advocate of eating the tasty snack.

   Ever on the prowl for more ways to add fiber, antioxidants, and healthy fats into my diet, a co-worker of mine named Michele, told me recently that she makes a yummy pudding out of chia seeds. Having spent twenty years trying to avoid chia in any form (I was certain that my sons would be begging for these new pets after their pet iguana died. Yes, tragedy struck after the heat rock in its terrarium got unplugged for several days. Looking back, this unfortunate incident can be blamed entirely on their Aunt Juliette, who meaning well, brought home a reptile to take up residence in my twin sons' bedroom. At the time, she thought it would be fun and educational). But back to the topic at hand… 

   After a some cursory research on the history of chia seeds, here is what I found out. The cultivation of chia seeds can be traced back to the Aztecs in pre-Columbian times. It was such an important crop in those days that historians believe there was an annual "chia festival" that paid tribute to this life-sustaining plant. The name chia is derived from the Náhuatl word meaning oily, and the state of Chiapas in Mexico gets its name from chia, meaning the place where chia grows. Chia seeds are still consumed today in Mexico, Guatemala, and other parts of South America, as well as El Salvador. Australia is the largest commercial producer of chia seeds in the world today.
   I learned from my oft-mentioned friend Silvia, who let me know (because I was evangelically extolling the virtues of my "new" discovery), that she had eaten plenty of chia seeds growing up. She said that her mother used to make chia smoothies for the family because it was an affordable way to add nutrients to her family's meager food budget.

  Chia is a kind of salvia (sage), as it turns out, and is a flowering plant in the mint family. It is rich in omega-3 fatty acids, protein, and trace minerals. It is also high in antioxidants (supposedly more than an equivalent amount of fresh blueberries), and these antioxidants help protect the seeds from becoming rancid. When the seeds are added to liquid, they soak up the liquid and become gelatinous in texture. There is growing evidence that the addition of chia to your diet can help balance blood sugar (so it is a great choice for diabetics and dieters), and that it supports heart and joint health because of the fatty acid content. Chia is rich in soluble and insoluble fiber. The mucilaginous fiber is also beneficial for colon health, helping prevent constipation and diseases such as diverticulitis.
   A pleasant discovery for me, is that the pudding is delicious. It has a tapioca-like consistency, which was one of my favorite childhood treats. I have gotten in the habit of making Chia Pudding when I am getting ready in the morning for work. It takes only minutes, and it makes a wonderful mid-morning or afternoon snack. It can also be prepared the evening before and left in the fridge overnight.

Chia Pudding

   My favorite liquid to use is Earth Balance® Chocolate Soy Milk, because it is rich in texture and has plenty of chocolate. I have used almond milk and coconut milk (not canned, the beverage) with success. Milk, rice milk, fruit nectars, etc. can also be used.
   Fresh fruit is a great addition to the pudding. I like to add fresh blueberries to the top before eating, creating a double whammy of antioxidant power. Bananas and strawberries are tasty choices, too. Of course, dried fruits such as diced dates, apricots or cherries would also be delicious.
   Extracts are a fun way to boost flavor in the pudding. Pure vanilla extract works well with just about any liquid. You can also have fun experimenting with peppermint, almond or perhaps rum.
   Chia seeds are available at Whole Foods Market in a variety of packages and in the bulk section. I store my seeds in the refrigerator to maintain freshness.
   French Working Glasses with plastic lids stocked at kitchen stores or available on-line from Amazon work great for making and transporting the pudding.

2 Tbsps chia seeds
3/4 cup of liquid
about 1 Tbsp agave syrup or raw honey, optional
1/2 tsp vanilla extract, optional
pinch sea salt, optional

1. Combine the chia seeds and liquid together in a covered container such as a 14-ounce Working Glass with tight fitting plastic lid. Sweeten to taste with Agave syrup or raw honey, about 1 tablespoon should do it. Stir and let sit on the counter for 10 minutes. Stir again, cover and place in lunch box or refrigerator. The pudding will thicken and be ready to eat in a couple of hours.

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