No Fail Zone

Have you ever talked yourself into failure? You know, psyched yourself up for it. Planned ahead for it.

It sounds crazy, right? No one actually sits down and thinks of ways to fail. Do they?

Have you ever considered that each time you excuse your way out of success--it's too hard, you're not good enough, that's not realistic, you don't have any resources--you're convincing yourself that failure is your only option.

What's that about? Not cool. Even if all of your friends are doing it. Even if your parents and teachers are doing it. [Reference point: In fifth grade my teacher asked us what we wanted to "be" when we grow up. Like we knew how loaded of a question that was. I said that I wanted to be an actress. "The world has enough of them," Teacher said. "It's not realistic. We need good teachers and doctors."]

Riggght. Not even a little cool. Shame on you, teach. And shame on us for not recognizing and embracing all that makes us us. Successful, powerful, capable, generous us. 

What does this have to do with cooking? Absolutely nothing. But sometimes we (and by we I mean I) need a little pep talk. And if pep talks don't work, cookies certainly will.

    • Snickerdoodles
    • Courtesy of Martha Stewart Living

    • 3 cups flour 
    • 2 teaspoons cream of tartar
    • 1 teaspoon baking soda 
    • 2 teaspoons ground cinnamon 
    • 1/2 teaspoon salt 
    • 2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, softened
    • 1 1/3 cup granulated sugar 
    • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract 
    • 1 large egg 

1) Preheat oven to 375F. In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, cream of tartar, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt.
2) In a large bowl, with electric mixer at medium speed, beat butter and granulated sugar until creamy, occasionally scraping bowl with rubber spatula. Beat in vanilla and egg. At low speed, gradually add flour mixture and beat just until blended, occasionally scraping bowl.
3) Working in batches, use the palms of your hands to shape rounded tablespoons of dough into 11/2-inch balls. Roll balls in coarse sugar to coat and place on a large ungreased cookie sheet about 2 inches apart.
4) Bake until lightly golden and crinkly on top, 12 to 14 minutes. Cool on cookie sheet on wire rack 1 minute, then transfer cookies to rack to cool completely.


Night of the Living Mushroom

For years, I was terrified by mushrooms. Yes, mushrooms.

Brian likes to tease me because I equate every uneasy, unpalatable situation as "my worst nightmare." Some of which include awkward conversations, tsunamis, mosquitoes, getting kidnapped (adult napped?)...you get the point.

But as a child, smelling any mushroom being cooked in any way was my worst nightmare. Forget eating them. The putrid, earthy, weird odor was enough to relegate myself to my room, door closed, until the fog cleared.

I've always kind of been open minded about trying new things. As kids, we all had pretty hearty appetites; we didn't couldn't fuss over what we wanted or didn't want to taste. But those shrooms. The  smell alone caused a gag reflex--a hideous, socially unappealing reflex--that made me a very unpleasant dinner mate when those ugly brown vegetables were on the table.

Do they even classify as vegetables? I used to think that if they smell that badly, have no sign of vibrancy, and can kill you if you choose the wrong one, they were probably mislabeled somewhere along the line by someone important that nobody questioned...like George Washington Carver. That definitely happened.

Still, after a certain point--I'm going to go with 14 years old, when you're taste buds apparently take a turn for the more mature--I stopped dry heaving in the presence of portobellos.

Then I ate a few.
Then I tasted truffles.
Then I became a shroom addict.
Then I had to eat less because no one should have that much fungus coursing through their body.

No, the moral of the story is not to form a mushroom addiction via truffles. But maybe once in a while we should all remember to do something outside of our comfort zone or "worst nightmare." Imagine if each of us tried something everyday that we deemed unlikely or even impossible?

We might be deliciously surprised with the results.

Creamy Polenta with Wild Mushroom Ragout
Serves 6, Courtesy of Food & Wine

For the Ragout:

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
4 shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
1/4 pound chanterelle mushrooms, cleaned and halved
1/2 pound oyster mushrooms, trimmed and halved
1/4 pound shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, caps thickly sliced
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1 cup rich chicken stock (see Note)
2 large thyme sprigs

  1.  In a large, deep skillet, melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Add half of the shallots and garlic and all of the chanterelles and oyster mushrooms and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally, until softened and golden, about 6 minutes. Scrape the mushrooms onto a plate.
  2. In the same skillet, melt the remaining 1 tablespoon of butter in the remaining 1 tablespoon of olive oil. Add the remaining shallots and garlic along with the shiitake mushrooms and cook over moderately high heat, stirring occasionally until softened and golden, about 6 minutes. Return all of the mushrooms to the skillet, season with salt and pepper and cook for 1 minute. Add the rich chicken stock and thyme sprigs to the skillet and simmer for 5 minutes. Discard the thyme sprigs.
For the Polenta:

2 cups whole milk
2 cups chicken stock or low-sodium broth
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup instant polenta (about 7 ounces)
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon mascarpone cheese
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped thyme
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped flat-leaf parsley
1/2 teaspoon finely chopped marjoram
1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmesan cheese, plus more for serving
Salt and freshly ground pepper

  1. In a large saucepan, combine the milk, stock and butter and bring to a boil. Whisk in the polenta and cook over moderate heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon until thick, about 8 minutes. Remove from the heat and stir in the heavy cream, mascarpone, herbs and Parmesan. Season with salt and pepper.
  2. Spoon the polenta onto plates, top with the mushroom ragout and serve right away, passing more grated Parmesan at the table.


The Easy "A"

I've been getting a few requests for the 'special meal'. The meal that can impress a boss, best friend or boy. This is an important one.

Sure, anyone can prepare an impressive meal when you have expensive ingredients, tons of time and endless energy to spare. But what if you're a kitchen newbie or trying to get dinner together with no time to waste? This is the meal for you and whomever you're aiming to win over.

Mustard-Crusted Salmon with Dill Rice and Tomatoes. Now we're cookin'.

It starts with a big 'ol slab of fresh, pretty salmon.

Women like salmon. Men like salmon. Fancy types like salmon.
It's the elegant and approachable fish of the sea. And it's pink.

Then we make what just might be the easiest sauce/marinade/crust ever.
Two mustards meet olive oil, herbs and lemon zest. The flavor is mind-blowingingly good.

Followed by some easy prep for the dill rice and tomato garnish.
Note the candle, flowers and probiotic drink. Kitchen-turned-zen haven.

Gawwwgeous, dahling. Let them think you slaved for hours.

Mustard-Crusted Salmon with Dill Rice and Tomatoes
Serves 4-6

4-6 portions of salmon filet (about 1.5 pounds)
2 cloves garlic, minced
2 Tbs dijon mustard
2 Tbs whole grain mustard
1 tsp. Herbes du Provence
1 Tbs white wine
1 Tbs olive oil
1 lemon, zested
salt and pepper to taste

1 1/2 cups white jasmine rice
1/4 cup chopped dill
1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, halved
Olive oil, salt and pepper

1. Preheat the broiler. Combine the garlic, mustards, herbs, wine, zest and oil in a bowl and mix until well combined. Set aside.

2. Arrange salmon fillets on the baking sheet and sprinkle them with salt and pepper. Broil for two minutes and then spoon the mustard sauce over the salmon. Continue cooking until the fish is done and the mustard sauce begins to brown, about 5 minutes longer.

3. Meanwhile, cook the rice according to the package instructions (one part rice to two parts water) and season well. Once the rice is tender, remove from the heat and stir in the chopped dill. Lightly dress the tomato halves with olive oil, salt and pepper. Everything on the plate should be tasty!

4. Serve salmon over the rice and garnish with tomatoes and extra dill.


Chili days, spicy nights.

Many of you know me as a vegan. Most of the time. For a couple of years now, I've been convinced that a plant-based diet is the healthiest way to go. Cut me open and you'll find kale bits coursing through my healthy little veins.

However. The other day I found myself out to dinner with a friend just dying, dying, for a morsel of pecorino off her cheese plate. And then I stopped being desperate and started getting bitter about it. Not fair! She's eating cheese. Why can't I eat cheese?

Yes. These are the lame, childhood logic-laced dialogues I have with myself. But then another, more exciting, kind of logic occurred to me...

I imagined God meeting me at the pearly gates after I die, and after cluing me in on the behind-the-scenes of my life's performance hearing him say, "By the way, you could've had the pecorino. Really. No big deal."

That silly moment of clarity brought me here: If I'm living this life to its fullest, I'm not leaving the occasional slice of Prosciutto behind.

As I'm learning more and more how to balance things--priorities, emotions, relationships--I'm learning that I could use a little more edge on my good-girl dinner plate. Which is why I took a flying leap off the bandwagon and made...CHILI. Spicy, flavorful, welcome-back-to-the-club chili.

Game day, plus a cool night in NYC, plus a husband who's a meat-lover--I had all of the excuses I needed to take the plunge. And I went back for seconds.

Chili is just not photogentic. This pretty pot is courtesy of Frog and Princess.

Spicy Beef and Bean Chili
Serves 6-8

2 lbs. quality ground beef (Yes, it exists.)
2 yellow onions, diced
5 garlic cloves, sliced
2 jalapenos, sliced (including seeds)
1 red bell pepper, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
2 Tbsp. ground cumin
2 Tbsp. chili powder
1 1/2 tsp. paprika
2 cups vegetable stock
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz. can pinto beans

*Sharp cheddar, sour cream, chives and avocado to garnish

1. In a large pot or Dutch oven, brown the meat until cooked and set aside to drain on paper towels.
In the same pot (with the beef drippings), heat one tablespoon of olive oil and add the onion, garlic and peppers. Saute until soft and translucent, about 5 minutes.

2. Add the dry spices to the pot and mix until the vegetables are coated. Continue to cook almost until the point of burning the spices. You want to toast them throroughly to bring out a depth of flavor. When you're at the point, add the stock to the pot and vigorously scrape the bottom of the pot with a wooden spoon to release the brown bits of meat and veggies.

3. Add the tomatoes and beans to the pot and return the meat to the pot. Stir together and add two teaspoons of salt. Bring to boil and then lower to a simmer. Cook for at least 45 minutes--it can continute to cook for up to two hours, but keep in mind that the longer it simmers, the spicier it will be. Taste again and season as necessary.

4. Serve hot and garnish as desired. It's fun to set up a little chili bar with tons of toppings to choose from!


Sweet genes.

Throughout the years, I unknowingly took a lot of food cues from my dad. I've mentioned that I grew up in an Italian-American family, but my father and I shared preferences that far transcend the typical wedge of lasagna or tiramisu. 

I'm talking carbs, here. Simple sugars (the whiter and starchier the better) that are broken down and rebirthed into sweet bites of bread, cookies and tarts. Brian likes to tease that when he met me in high school, I would put away chocolate-covered cannolis and cinnamon rolls as though they constituted a square meal. In my mind, they did. Especially the cinnamon rolls. You know, the ones in the can. 

While we were suckers for almost any sweet that passed our way, when I think of my father's favorites I think of three in particular that share a common bond...bananas.

1. Banana Bread--classic American favorite.
2. Bananas Foster--classic dessert reserved for nice meals out when the night calls for a flaming finish.
3. Entenmann's Banana Fudge Cake-- classic American processed indulgence that never, ever expires.

Moral of the story? For starters, I like to think that good taste is passed down and I'm happy to carry the torch in the defense of bananas and more importantly, what they bring to the dessert table.

Secondly, no one should eat that much white flour and sugar. Luckily, we've learned that lesson and now only put our bodies, digestive systems and waistlines through crazy carb fests on special occasions.

Banana Bread
Makes one loaf

This recipe combines the classic elements with some new school ingredients. White sugar is toned down by organic cane sugar and coconut nectar. Eggs are replaced by flax and pureed fruit. Rest-assured: The results are still deliciously old school.

3 cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
1 1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. baking powder
1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp. groung nutmeg
pinch all spice

3 medium bananas, mashed
1/4 cup apple sauce (I prefer to use apple butter for more flavor)
3 Tbs. flaxmeal*
1 cup cane sugar
1/3 cup coconut nectar*
1 tsp. vanilla extract
1/2 cup almond milk with 1 tsp cider vinegar (to create a 'butter'milk)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
* Can be found in the health section of your supermarket

1. Prehead the oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the first seven ingredients and stir until evenly combined.

2. In a medium bowl, combine the remaining ingredients and whisk vigorously together. The flaxmeal may become slightly frothy and simulate an egg white--this is what you want!

3. Add the wet mixture to the dry ingredients and fold in gently until all of the flour is incorporated and you have a smooth batter. Grease a loaf pan and pour the batter in, smoothing out the top to create an even layer.

4. Bake for about 50-60 minutes, or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Allow to cool briefly before serving.