Lightening Up (Y’All)

January 12th, 2016
My nephew Michael's burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

My nephew Michael’s burger, complete with cheese and a bun.

January is in full swing. After a couple of weeks of holiday overindulgence, I have been back on my nutritional cleansing program for a while now. I don’t know whether I’ve been brainwashed by the program (my coach is a very convincing woman!) or I just like being a little lighter, but I’m actually enjoying dieting.

Like many Americans, I have spent much of my life on diets. Experience tells me that the greatest pitfall for the dieter is a feeling of deprivation. Virginia Willis understands that problem and addresses it brilliantly in her recent book Lighten Up Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome (Ten Speed Press, 232 pages, $24.99).

Virginia is a French-trained chef who specializes in quality Southern cuisine. She lives in Georgia but spends a lot of time near my own corner of western Massachusetts. I have been following her writings for several years; she is an expert in one of my favorite styles of cuisine: elegant but simple comfort food.

Virginia confesses early in the book that she has always had a weight problem and was recently counseled by her doctors to “lighten up.” She set out to develop a series of recipes that would lose calories and gain nutrition but not sacrifice taste.

The book includes healthier versions of such perennial favorites as macaroni and cheese, fried chicken (made in sticks on the oven), biscuits, seven-layer dip, and shrimp étoufée. Virginia even offers desserts: strawberry shortcake, cream-cheese brownies, and carrot cake, among other sweets.

I have tried only one recipe from the book so far—Virginia’s chicken, apple, and cheddar burgers. My current regimen doesn’t allow me to eat any cheese, not even the small amount called for in this recipe, so I had to change the flavor profile slightly by serving the burgers without the cheese. (I did serve them with organic mustard.)

The burgers were a delight. Ground chicken has less fat than ground beef and can tend to dry out. Virginia’s recipe cleverly incorporates both grated apple and grated sweet onion into the chicken to add moisture and flavor. My family eats the recipe WITH the cheese and loves it.

I plan to make several more dishes from Lighten Up, Y’all in the near future. Virginia Willis has clearly worked hard to find formulas that retain the flavor in foods while making them healthier.

Best of all, I envision using some of Virginia’s lightening-up techniques in dishes of my own. I trust her as a chef, a writer, and a dieter. And I look forward to the debut of her forthcoming PBS TV series.

lighten up web

Virginia Willis’s Chicken Burgers

Courtesy of Virginia Willis and Ten Speed Press. Used with permission.

Note: You may prepare these on the stove in a frying pan as well as in the oven, but they stay together better for me (and presumably for Virginia since she suggests doing them this way) in the oven. The ones in the pictures above and below were actually fried by my sister-in-law!

Ingredients:

1 medium sweet-tart apple (such as Gala, Granny Smith, Cortland, or Fuji), cored and quartered
1/4 sweet onion
1 pound ground chicken or turkey
3 garlic cloves, very finely chopped
1/2 jalapeño chile, cored, seeded, and finely chopped
2 ounces (1/2 cup) sharp Cheddar cheese, grated (optional for me but yummy)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley
coarse kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silicone mat or parchment paper. Grate the apple on the large side of a box grater. (If you grate the apple skin-side out, you can grate it without having to peel it; a bit of peel is okay.)

Next, grate the onion and the cheese. In a medium bowl combine the chicken, apple, onion, garlic, chile, cheese, and parsley. Season with salt and pepper to taste.

Divide the mixture into 4 equal-size balls; each will weigh about 7 ounces. Shape each into a patty about 4 inches in diameter. Place the patties directly on the prepared baking sheet.

Transfer the sheet to the oven and roast the burgers until they are lightly browned, flipping once during cooking, and the temperature measures 165 degrees when measured with an instant-read thermometer, about 18 minutes. Serve immediately. Serves 4.

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

My own burger, sans cheese but with mustard (and lots of flavor!)

A Sinatra Centennial Cookie

December 12th, 2015

frankcupweb

Today music lovers around the country (and probably around the world) celebrate the centennial of the 20th century’s most popular singer. Frank Sinatra crossed generations in his appeal, then and now. He was born on December 12, 1915.

I actually fêted Frank and his birthday a bit early to avoid the rush. In August, with the help of my neighbor Alice Parker, I performed my own Sinatra concert in Charlemont, Massachusetts.

sinatra poster smaller copy

The concert was a delight. I didn’t actually try to BE Sinatra, of course. I don’t look like him, and I don’t sound like him. Instead, I tried to be Sinatra-esque in my approach to the music, working on my phrasing and feeling the melody and lyrics as much as I could.

The audience loved the evening—and so did I.

The concert was a fundraiser for the minister’s discretionary fund at the local church. We asked community members to bring refreshments to serve after the music. One of the offerings was particularly appropriate for the concert’s Italian-American subject.

Camille Azzalina White is a lively, attractive widow who directs the local senior center. Camille baked her grandmother’s Italian cookies for the concert. Everyone who tasted one fell in love. Naturally, I asked the baker to give me the recipe—and a little information about her grandmother.

Camille’s “Nana,” Marie Incoronata Danata Colantonio, lived from 1897 to 1988. Although her parents were immigrants from Frosolone, Italy (she was one of ten children), Marie was born in this country.

Nevertheless, because of a 1907 law that was fortunately changed during her lifetime, she actually lost her U.S. citizenship in 1916 when she married Angelo Melchionda, an immigrant who had not yet been naturalized. She was forced to take a test to regain her status.

Marie & Angelo Melchionda 1916

This and other vintage photos come courtesy of Camille White.

Camille grew up in a multigenerational house in Medford, Massachusetts, along with her parents, grandparents, siblings, and aunt and uncle. Her grandmother was a benevolent, generous matriarch.

“Although Nana worked full time outside the home [she was a stitcher in a factory in the north end of Boston],” her granddaughter remembered, “she found time to cook many delicious meals for her family, who always came first. Sunday meals especially became a family gathering with relatives visiting for dinner or dessert after dinner.

“In later years at different times, she was a caregiver for her ill mother, her husband, a widowed sister, and then for young grandchildren. She embraced her family with boundless love and gave comfort to others freely and without question.”

Nana making cookie frosting.web

Nana Melchionda makes frosting for her cookies.

One of Camille’s earliest recollections is of making these cookies with her grandmother, although the recipe has changed over the years. (It originally featured five pounds of flour and 18 eggs!)

“Each time I make and bake these cookies,” she told me, “I recall many happy childhood memories of family, anticipation for the holidays, and mostly so many loving times spent with my dear Nana.

“With this recipe, I continue to make new memories with my children and grandchildren….”

I’ll definitely make these cookies for Christmas this year. (I have a cookie swap coming up!) My baking will honor the Sinatra centennial—and also Camille’s Nana Melchionda.

Meanwhile, I wish a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all….

Nana's cookiesweb

Nana Melchionda’s Italian Cookies

Ingredients:

1-1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup (1-1/2 sticks) butter at room temperature
4 eggs
1 teaspoon anise oil
1/4 teaspoon vanilla
4 cups sifted flour
4 teaspoons baking powder
confectioner’s sugar, milk, and lemon flavoring to taste
sprinkles for topping

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Line cookie sheets with parchment paper or a silicone mat. Cream together the sugar and the butter. Add the eggs, the anise oil, and the vanilla.

In a separate bowl blend together the sifted flour and the baking powder; then add them to the butter mixture.

The dough will be sticky. Refrigerate it for 1 to 2 hours, wrapped in plastic wrap or wax paper, to make it easier to handle.

When the dough has cooled form rounds about a teaspoon wide (a little larger is acceptable) by rolling them between your palms. Place the rounds on the prepared cookie sheets, and press down on the top of each lightly.

Bake the cookies until they are lightly browned on the bottom, about 20 minutes–MAYBE LESS. Start looking at 13 minutes. Watch the cookies carefully as they can burn easily.

While the cookies are in the oven prepare the frosting. In a bowl whisk together the confectioner’s sugar, the milk, and the lemon flavoring until the mixture pleases you. It should be thick but not too thick.

Dip the tops of the cookies into the frosting, place them on wax paper, and add sprinkles to make them extra festive. Makes 2 to 3 dozen cookies, depending on how big you make them.

M5 Marie Melchionda

I Confess!

November 23rd, 2015

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I have a confession to make that may seem a little sacrilegious, particularly at this time of year as everyone is gearing up for Thanksgiving.

I’m not a fan of pie.

I love fruit. I just don’t really see the point of putting it into a pastry crust. I dutifully make pies in the summer, of course, because friends and family members enjoy eating them. And at this time of year, pies are de rigueur; they fairly shriek “Thanksgiving.” So I bake them—and I try to be cheerful while doing so.

Sometimes I cheat, however. This recipe is an example of that cheating.

Nantucket Cranberry Pie is something I learned to make from my late neighborhood matriarch Mary Parker, a.k.a. Gam. What I love about it is … it isn’t really a pie. It’s more a cross between a cake and a huge cookie.

It’s also remarkably easy to put together—no rolling of crust, just a bit of washing, a bit of tossing, and a bit of whisking. Try it, and the pie part of your Thanksgiving preparation will be a snap.

I love the recipe so much I put it in my Pudding Hollow Cookbook, which makes a lovely holiday (or hostess) gift, by the way. Sorry to blow my own horn, but it IS that time of year, and as most of you know selling books is how I make my living!

Ashley Kohl and I had fun making (and tasting) the pie recently on Mass Appeal. For technical reasons I am unable to embed the video, but if you visit this link you can watch it (after a brief advertisement inserted by the TV station).

I wish you all a Thanksgiving full of fun, family, and of course gratitude. And maybe a tiny piece of pie.

NCpieweb

Nantucket Cranberry Pie

Ingredients:

2 cups raw cranberries
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional but good)
3/4 cup melted sweet butter
2 eggs, beaten
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon vanilla or almond extract

Instructions:

Grease a 9- or 10-inch pie plate. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Wash and pick over the cranberries. Put them in the bottom of the pie plate. Sprinkle with 1/2 cup of the sugar and the walnuts. Make a batter of the remaining ingredients, first combining the butter and the remaining sugar and then adding the eggs, flour, and flavoring. Pour the batter over the cranberries.

Bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Top with whipped cream. (Ice cream works well, too. Or just serve it alone.) Serves 8.

turkey girlweb

Holy Pumpkin!

October 29th, 2015

witchhat copy

Readers of this blog may be under the impression that I eat rich desserts all the time. Actually, my usual dessert (if I eat one) is a piece of fresh fruit. I do post a lot of dessert recipes, however; I’m proud of my baking, and I love to see people enjoy something sinfully sweet, even when I’m dieting.

In any case, one HAS to post something sweet for Halloween! So I’m sharing the formula for the chocolate-chip pumpkin cake I made this week on Mass Appeal. My appearance came the day after co-host Seth Stutman’s 30th birthday so I felt obliged to make a cake. Seth appeared pleased—and he certainly enjoyed the cake.

(Bill Collins, who cooked on the show the day before, did light a candle on a cheesecake, but that chef didn’t sing “Happy Birthday.” And a birthday isn’t a birthday without a serenade.)

I also made a satisfying version of my Irish Stout Cheese using yellow cheddar cheese to make it seasonal and an Oktoberfest ale instead of the stout. Personally, if I had to choose between cheese and cake, I would choose cheese. I’m glad no one is forcing me to make this excruciating decision!

The videos are embedded below. The gist of the cake-making is in the first video about that (the second one below); tune into the follow-up video only if you’re a fan of sprinkles and loud singing. (I like both.)

Cocoa, Rhubarb, and I wish everyone a Happy Halloween!

Halloween dogweb

Pumpkin Cake with Chocolate Chips

Ingredients:

1-1/2 cups non-GMO canola oil
2 cups sugar
4 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoons cloves
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
3-1/8 cups flour
2 cups pumpkin puree (or 1 15-ounce can)
2 cups chocolate chips

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour a large bundt pan. Mix the oil and sugar in a large bowl. Add the eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each egg. Beat in the vanilla, followed by the baking powder, the baking soda, and the spices. Stir in the flour, followed by the pumpkin and the chocolate chips.

Spoon the batter into the prepared pan. Bake until the cake tests done (about an hour). Ice with cream-cheese frosting and seasonal sprinkles. Serves 10 to 12.

And here are the videos:

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YouTube Preview Image

YouTube Preview Image

Pumpkin Dump Cake

October 12th, 2015
Halloween begins to weave its spell at the Casa Tinky.

Halloween begins to weave its spell at the Casa Tinky.

Pumpkin season is here, and I’m embracing it. Part of my love for pumpkin at this time of year is related to its remarkable color. I savor the way its orange reflects our New England trees (and inspires me to start decorating the house for Halloween!).

I enjoy cooking with pumpkin as well as looking at the fruit, of course; it melds beautifully with a variety of sweet and savory flavors. I am particularly happy when pumpkin preparation involves baking. I spend much of the summer avoiding turning on my oven—but when fall arrives I welcome the chance to give the house that extra measure of heat.

Fall baking doesn’t only make us feel warm. It fills the house with lovely aromas that remind us of childhood pleasures. This particular pumpkin dessert smells divine in the oven; scents of cinnamon, cloves, ginger, and butter waft through the house and tempt even the most virtuous dieter.

I adapted the recipe from one a friend sent me last year; the original came from an old community cookbook.

The cake’s name is misleading. Yes, it’s pumpkin. But it’s not made entirely by dumping, and it’s not really a cake. It’s a bit goopy coming out of the pan.

I couldn’t come up with a better term, however. It’s not a crisp or a crumble. It could be called an upside-down pumpkin pie—but that name doesn’t feel quite right either.

The recipe is worth bothering with, however, because whatever you call it, it’s delicious. I like it MORE than pumpkin pie. I baked it on Mass Appeal last week (along with my favorite meatloaf), and it made everyone there happy.

My extremely autumnal hat also made everyone happy!

Seth couldn't resist the hat!

Seth couldn’t resist the hat!

The cake mix called for in the recipe is a large one, like King Arthur Flour’s golden vanilla cake mix. If you don’t have that on hand, you may either use a regular smaller cake mix (in which case you’ll want to reduce the amount of butter required in the recipe) or make your own mix with 3-1/4 cups flour, 2 cups sugar, 2-1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1 teaspoon salt.

You won’t have any vanilla in the latter combination, but you may add some along with the melted butter—or assume (as I did) that the pumpkin and spices will give the “dump cake” sufficient flavor.

dump on tableweb

Pumpkin Kinda Sorta Dump Cake

Ingredients:

3 eggs
1 12-ounce can evaporated milk
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 29-ounce can pumpkin (or about 3-1/2 cups)
1/4 cup white sugar
1/2 cup brown sugar, packed
1 large box yellow cake mix
1 cup (2 sticks) sweet butter, melted

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and grease a 9-by-13-inch pan. In a large bowl beat the eggs; then beat in the evaporated milk, the spices, the salt, and the pumpkin. Stir in the sugars and blend. Pour the resulting mixture into the prepared pan.

Sprinkle the cake mix over the top and make sure it is fairly even; then drizzle the melted butter over all. Bake until the top is golden brown, about 50 to 60 minutes. Let the cake cool before cutting and serving. Serve with whipped cream.

Serves 12.

Here is the dump-cake video:

YouTube Preview Image

And here is the meatloaf video, in which I wax poetic about why I love to cook.