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, October 30, 2011

Michelle's Chicken Sausage and Pesto Lasagna

by Michelle

Prepping individual servings for the freezer.
   Earlier this month we celebrated Italian Fest Week at my house. With the assistance of my mom and niece, I prepared both my lasagna and manicotti recipes with the express intention of keeping individual portions stored in the freezer. This time of year, when life seems to hit the fast forward button from Halloween through New Year's Eve, I appreciate having homemade meals at the ready that can be heated directly from the freezer. I also really appreciate that lasagna and manicotti fall under the category of stress free entertaining. 
   The lasagna receives a two-fold flavor boost by substituting chicken sausage for ground beef, and by adding homemade basil pesto to the ricotta filling. I also like letting the meat sauce rest in the refrigerator for a day for the flavors to fully develop.

Michelle's Chicken Sausage and Pesto Lasagna

Sunday, October 23, 2011

Ooiest Gooiest Chocolatiest Fudgiest Brownies

by Michelle

   For nearly a decade, during my twenties, I worked as a sales account manager for a small business, a high-tech manufacturers' represenative owned by two men, Barry and Harry. Yes, that's right, Barry and Harry. Their names rhymed, but that's where the similarities ended. The partners could not have been more different and yet it was their disctinct differences that complemented each other, and helped them to build a very successful business. Since the business always had fewer than 10 employees, we always felt like a family, and if there were any secrets, they were well hidden. We were all interwoven into the fabric of each other's lives. Like any family we squabbled, fought, reconciled, celebrated, and leaned on each other for personal and professional support. We celebrated bar and bat mitvahs, birthdays, weddings, holidays and key milestones, and collectively mourned divorces, deaths, and tragic global events.  
   Looking back, it is easy for me to identify that each man was an instrumental father figure in my life. Harry took me under his wing and introduced me to the finer things in life: gourmet food and wine. Barry, an excellent negotiator who led by example, explained the intricacies of a deal, and helped me transition from an inside sales role to the coveted position of field sales. Barry taught me how to listen and how to be comfortable with uncomfortable silences. In theory it is "as simple" as asking a question, and not saying anything more - no matter how strenuous the silence - until the person being asked the question reponds. I continually draw upon the lessons that I learned while under the tutelage of Barry and Harry, and there was surely no better place to start my career than to work with these two fine men who were my mentors.

Harry took this photo of me in the late 1980's at a colleague's wedding.
  Barry's wife, Lolly, visited the office frequently. She was a force: a mother of four, owner of a successful  catering business and in her "spare time" assisted Barry with payroll and the accounting for the rep company. One paticular Friday morning, I was sharing with the wider audience that I planned on making brownies over the weekend, but had not settled on a recipe. Lolly, who was passing by, heard my comments and said something to the effect of, "My grandmother made the ooiest, gooiest, most chocolatiest, fudgiest brownies you will ever taste." Oh, really? I'd love to get my hands on that recipe, I thought to myself. Much to my surprise, when I politely requested the recipe, she directed me to fetch a piece of paper. My pen at the ready, she recited the recipe from memory. I was more than a little surprised that she could recall it upon request until I remembered that this is a woman who can read a book and knit simultaneously. 
   If you want to experience the ooiest, gooiest, most chocolatiest, fudgiest brownies ever, don't delay, make Lolly's Grandmother's brownies today!

Ooiest Gooiest Chocolatiest Fudgiest Brownies

   You can make the brownies earlier in the day, and the tasty delight will stay quite content in the pan until dessert is ready to be served. This is a decidedly unfussy dessert that just about everyone will surely love. I also like adding smaller cut portions of brownies to a dessert buffet that can be eaten without the aid of a plate and fork.
   For a more formal gathering, the brownies are extraordinary served with ice cream and vanilla whipped cream (bonus points if both are homemade). You may also want to consider drizzling caramel sauce that has been gently warmed. If you opt out of the walnuts in the recipe (due to someone in the crowd with an aversion or allergy to nuts), a great alternative is to serve candied walnuts or pecans on the side that can be sprinkled over the whipped cream. The brownies are also delicious served with milk, red wine or port.
   This is an easy dessert for teenagers to make. My daughter, Maddie alternates between preparing brownies and Linda's Chocolate Chip Cookies. Maddie will sometimes use salted butter, in which case, she omits the 1/2 teaspoon of sea salt.

6 ounces unsweetened chocolate
1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
6 extra large eggs
3 cups granulated sugar
1/2 tsp sea salt
1-1/2 cups all-purpose white flour
1-1/2 tsps vanilla extract, or vanilla bean paste
1-1/2 cups chocolate chips, divided
3/4 cup walnut halves or roughly chopped walnuts, optional
additional butter or spray oil to grease the pan

ice cream
whipping cream or dazzle the crowd with a Whip-It! (fun to say, fun to use.)
caramel sauce
Maple Sugared Candied Walnuts or pecans

1. Open the oven door and verify that the bottom rack is placed in the lower third of the oven. The top rack should rest in the upper third of the oven with enough room to easily slide in the baking dish below. Set a big cookie sheet on the top rack to act as a "shield" which will help prevent the brownies from over-browning during baking.Preheat the oven to 325°F.
2. Butter or spray a 9"x12"x2" rectangular baking dish. Set aside.
3. Combine chocolate and butter together in a double boiler set over water and heat until just melted. Stir until completely smooth. Remove the top part of the double boiler, discard water. Set chocolate and butter mixture aside to cool slightly.

4. Beat eggs and sugar really well, about 5 minutes. Mix in the rest of the ingredients and half the chocolate chips. Transfer the batter to the greased pan. Gently shake the pan to evenly distribute the batter to the edges. Cover the top with the remaining half of the chocolate chips.

5. Bake for about 45 minutes until fragrant and set. The edges will pull slightly away from the sides of the pan. Do not over bake... it is far better if the brownies are a little under done... they'll be just that much more fudgier. Cool on a rack. Yield: 12-16, or more, depending upon serving size.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

Michelle's Chicken and Spinach Manicotti

by Michelle

   To my taste, I find most manicotti quite bland. The standard offering is simply ricotta cheese mixed with parmesan, mozzarella, parsley, salt and pepper. I wanted more; to boost the flavor and add more texture. After two decades of various modifications, I have stopped tinkering and have settled on the recipe below. I hope you like it as much as I do.
   When I make this recipe, I make a big batch. If I'm lucky, and often I am, there will be a friend or a family member lending me a hand with stuffing the manicotti shells with the filling. If I find that I am on my own, squeezing the water from wilted spinach, or facing a mountain of filling and fifty shells, I pass the time letting my hands do the busy work while my head is absorbed in listening to an audiobook on my iPod. It's a multi-tasker's dream come true.
  The prepared shells freeze beautifully - no defrosting required - before popping the marinara coated manicotti in the oven. While the manicotti heat to bubbling bliss, all that is left to do is to quickly assemble a salad and slice a crusty baguette. Manicotti may just be the perfect Friday night meal when you opt to stay at home, but you don't feel like cooking. You'll be happy to know that a hearty, delicious, homemade dinner is waiting in the freezer just for you
, and yours.

Wilted Spinach

by Michelle

   Fresh spinach enjoys a high water content. To prevent spinach from diluting a cheese sauce, or flooding a Greek pizza, spinach must be "dehydrated" before using. The process for wilting spinach is easy; it is the final pressing, or squeezing, that takes most of the effort. You can save the cooking step (in the recipe below) if you choose to use frozen spinach that has been defrosted. However, you will still need to squeeze the heck out of the spinach to remove all the excess water.

Wilted Spinach

1 pound pound spinach leaves = 1 cup wilted spinach (loosely packed, about 5-ounces). I typically purchase prewashed baby spinach available in a bag. If you buy a "bouquet" of spinach, you will need to thoroughly wash the leaves and discard tough stems. There is no need to dry the spinach before cooking.

baby spinach leaves, washed, and larger stems removed and dicarded

a large, deep heavy-bottom pot with lid
cheesecloth, optional

1. In a large colander, rinse the prepackaged baby spinach leaves. The leaves need the spritz of water to reduce properly in the pan. If you are using spinach that has not been prewashed, take some care with the cleaning. Dirt likes to hide in the crevises of the leaves, so give a good rinse under running water. You may want to let the leaves soak in a bowl of water and then gently agitate. You can lift the leaves from the water, leaving the dirt and debris to sink to the bottom of the bowl. Change the water between batches of leaves.

2. Place the wet spinach leaves into a larg, deep heavy-bottom pot and fill to the brim with leaves. Cover with the lid and turn the heat to medium high. You will soon see condensation on the lid created from steam. As the spinach begins to condense, remove the lid and give the leaves a stir, every 30 seconds or so, until the leaves are completely wilted, about 2 minutes. Transfer the leaves to a colander, and let drain. Repeat as many times as needed for the amount of spinach required for your recipe.

3. When the spinach is cool enough to handle, you will need to remove as much water from the leaves as possible. I typically just squeeze handfuls with my fingers to remove the water, but using cheesecloth is better for processing larger batches, such as when I wilt 5 pounds of spinach for my Chicken and Spinach Manicotti.

4. Once you have removed the excess water from the spinach, you will have bundles of spinach. With your fingers, gently pull the bundles apart. If needed, with a chef's knife, chop through the pile of separated spinach a couple of times. The spinach is now ready to use in recipes, such as Greek Pizza, Creamed Spinach, or sauteed in olive oil with some diced shallots, minced garlic and a little salt and pepper and maybe a few chili flakes tossed in for a little kick.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Pumpkins for Pilgrims and Pumpkin-Apple Spice Cake with Dulce de Leche Glaze

by Linda

"For pottage, and puddings, and custards and pies,
Our pumpkins and parsnips are common supplies.
We have pumpkins at morning and pumpkins at noon;
If it were not for pumpkins, we should soon be undoon."
                                   ~ Pilgrim Pumpkin Song from the 1600s

   When autumn rolls around, and colorful pumpkins start showing up in roadside pumpkin patches and markets, I always wonder how many families picking out their favorite pumpkin to carve for Halloween realize that pumpkins are survival food of the first order.

   From early accounts, it is doubtful that the pilgrims would have survived their first winter here in North America without the aid of the sturdy pumpkin.

   Pumpkin pie was born from the pilgrims' attempts to incorporate it into as many dishes as possible, since the squash was plentiful and could survive the winter months with primitive storage methods. Of course, as we all know, pumpkin pie it is now a beloved standard eaten by millions on Thanksgiving Day each year.

   We sisters think pumpkin makes a tasty soup or yellow curry, as well as a delicious pie, quick bread or cake. I also love spiced pumpkin butter on toast in the Fall and Winter.

   Today, I am baking a double-size bundt cake for my co-workers, and my little house is enveloped in the fragrance of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg marrying up with the pumpkin and apple. I plan to top it with an amber Dulce de Leche Glaze and sprinkle on toasted and salted pumpkin seeds. I took inspiration from the caramels that I love with sea salt dusted on the top.

   If you have a large garden plot, pumpkins are great fun to grow. In past years I have very much enjoyed the lengthy vines blooming and winding their way towards fall. Once the brilliant yellow flowers are pollinated, and the baby pumkins form, it is possible to watch them change on a daily basis. When fall arrives, the vine has yellowed and the giant leaves have withered in the months of summer sun. Then the pumpkins are a deep orange and ready for harvest. They will last the entire winter if stored in a cool and dry place.

   This week I stopped by my local pumpkin and apple farm in Sebastopol to enjoy a feast for the eyes and senses. Pumpkins were piled everywhere, and cases of apples rested on the bright oilcloth covered tables. I purchased apples for our favorite Pumpkin~Apple Spice Cake. I use canned pumpkin for this cake because it is less watery and the flavor is more intense, but you can use fresh pumpkin puree if you like. If you make your own, just make sure to drain it until thickened.

   Hooray for the humble pumpkin, long may she reign Queen of the Squash!

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Sugar Skull Decorating Party

by Michelle

"When the Spaniards arrived in Mexico they encountered two-month celebrations honoring death, the fall harvest and the new year. For more than 500 years, the goddess Mictecacihuatl (Lady of the Dead) presided over Aztec harvest rituals using fires and incense, costumes of animal skins, images of their dead and offerings of ceramics, personal goods, flowers and foods, drink and flowers. While the church attempted to transform the joyous celebration to a suitably tragic image of death and a serious day of prayer focusing attention and reflection on the saints and martyrs. The people of Mexico did not fully adopt the early priests' ideas, and by keeping their familiar ceremonies, All Saint's Day and All Soul's Day evolved into the celebrations that today honor the dead with color, candles, joy."
                                           ~Judy King via MexConnect
   Since moving to the Southwest ten years ago, I have become increasingly devoted to celebrating All Soul's Day that falls annually on the first day of November. In particular, I am drawn to the Mexican traditions of joyously celebrating death, brushing aside the uncertainties of the ever after that can induce feelings of fear and dread, and instead replacing those emotions with gratitude and remembrance of loved ones and ancestors that have gone before us into the great unknown. 


   My interest in El Dia de Los Muertos (The Day of the Dead), was sparked by my sister, Juliette, who made an artfully decorated shrine in honor of our sister, Maria, not long after she had passed away suddenly from a brain aneurysm in 1992. The holiday becomes much more meaningful when you have someone to commemorate, and his or her loss tugs at your soul. The process of putting the shrine together was very cathartic for Juliette, and she kept it on display in her house for many years. Beginning in the late summer, Juliette makes intricately decorated sugar skulls, and bottled spirits and sells them in shops and galleries in Tucson and Bisbee. Juliette's pieces this year are on display and available for purchase through the main gallery at Tohono Chul Park.


   If you happen to be in Tucson on the first Sunday in November, be sure take part in The All Souls Procession, a unique parade inspired by the traditions of El Dia de Los Muertos, and "...ends in the finalizing action of burning a large urn filled with the hopes, offerings and wishes of the public for those who have passed." The procession is immediately followed by a grand finale pyrotechnic performance by Flam Chen. The frivolities continue well in to the evening and the wee morning hours with the official after party, Dance of the Dead, at the Rialto Theatre featuring Tucson-based bandCalexico (love me some Joey and John and the boys, as Juliette would say).


   One of the aspects that I appreciate most about El Dia de Los Muertos is that it is child-friendly. Death is discussed and represented in a way that is accessible for children. I find that more times than not, when working on a Day of the Dead project, I share stories with Maddie about her great-grandparents, or grandmother Joan, or about her cousin, Joshua, or her aunt Maria, and the reminiscing makes them spring to life once more, traveling over time and distance to sit at our table again, and to gently nudge their stories from my memory banks. I know our annual tradition is one that Maddie will reflect upon fondly later in her life, and perhaps she will feel compelled to carry the celebration forward with her children and friends. It makes me happy to think about.


    A few years ago, my friend Michelle and I hosted an El Dia De Los Muertos themed Halloween Party. I dressed as a dead Flamingo dancer, Michelle as a skull faced Frida Kahlo, and Maddie as a cute as a button dead cheerleader. Several revelers dressed as calacas (skeletons). My favorite was a petite guest who wore a skeleton shirt (white bones painted on a black background), a beautiful Mexican skirt covered with lively sequins that caught the dim light and twinkled as she moved. She had transformed her face into a skull and a wreath of dried flowers adorned her head. Graceful in her movements, my eyes were drawn to her as she examined the offerings laid on the community altar, the candle light making her shimmer under the harvest moon. Sugar skulls decorated the tables and altar, and a friend made pan muerto, which is a fougasse type bread shaped as skulls.


   In preparation for the Halloween party, Maddie and I had a marathon skull decorating session, and since that day, I have always wondered what it would be like to decorate skulls with friends. As a New Year resolution, my friend Stephanie and I both resolved to meet for artists' dates throughout the year. We finally made good on our promise last month. Our mutual friend Sara invited us to her house to make glass art, including pendants, earrings and ornaments. The skull decorating followed, and now Stephanie is waiting for the weather to cool off a bit more so we can go crazy outdoors with a spray paint project.

   The challenge to having a bunch of friends over to decorate sugar skulls is making sure you have enough materials to divide among your guests. At the bottom of the post, I have suggestions for making your party a success. We used 17 decorating tips, which require 17 rings to attach the tips to the ready-to-use Wilton tubes. If you are tinting your own icing and using pastry bags, I recommend that you have an equal amount of couplers, which makes it incredibly easy to swap decorating tips among the bags filled with colored frosting.

Rhonda and Sasha

   Last week, we had ten ladies decorating skulls, but my Mom stopped decorating after awhile and my friend Rhonda, and her daughter had to leave early. Of the ladies gathered in my living room, only two, my daughter and my niece, had decorated skulls previously. I passed on decorating this time in favor of helping as needed, fetching forgotten items (such as Q-Tips, toothpicks, and tweezers, etc.), and taking nearly 600 photos (love, love, love digital cameras). If we had all been present, and decorating throughout the entire afternoon, I would have surely needed a second set of decorating tips, and probably another half dozen or so of the ready-to-use icings.


  I especially liked that Rhonda and Sara each chose to decorate skulls in honor of a friend. The simple act really represents what the decorating is tradionally about - remembering loved ones that are no longer physically with us, being able to explain who they are, what they meant to you, and why you are featuring them in a particular way. The sugar skulls are a lovely gesture to give as gifts. I displayed three sugar skulls as inspiration pieces that Juliette had gifted to me over the years.


   Everyone continued to decorate skulls with focused concentration until just before dark. When the light began to fail in the living room, it was time to cease the activity. Everyone joined in the clean-up; many hands make light work. Afterwards, two out of three husbands joined us for cocktails and dinner. Sara and Stephanie helped me assemble enchiladas. And, Stephanie's husband, Michael, provided an assist with the coleslaw. We all sat down to dinner right about seven-thirty (by the hair on my chinny-chin-chin). Everyone left around ten, bringing to a close, a productive and very fun day.

Sugar Skull Decorating Party
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