12. D’s Triple Peanut Butter Cookies

D was a neighbor of Husband’s last year; she came over for dinner a lot and her family embodied what it really means to be good neighbors. Whenever she saw me, she would say “hey woman!” and then proceed to razz me for my lack of sports knowledge. It was very loving.

When I saw this recipe, I knew I would be excited for the real thing, but while in the grocery store, I chose butterscotch instead of peanut butter chips! Never fear: the cookies were still delicious and the crisco makes them fluffy and soft! I recommend them also for those who aren’t big into super-sweet cookies – these are super nutty and don’t overpower you with sugar.

Triple Peanut Butter Cookies

¾ cup peanut butter
½ cup crisco
1 ¼ cup brown sugar
3 tablespoon milk
1 tablespoon vanilla
1 egg
1 ¾ cup flour
¾ teaspoon salt
¾ teaspoon baking powder
1 cup peanut butter chips
1 cup reese’s pieces

Combine peanut butter, crisco, sugar, milk, and vanilla. Beat until blended. Add egg. Beat just until blended. Combine flour, salt, and baking soda. Mix until blended. Add peanut butter chips and candy – mix by hand. Drop by teaspoons onto ungreased cookie sheet. Bake at 375 for 8-10 minutes (9 minutes works in our oven). Makes approximately 4 dozen medium-sized cookies.

11. H’s Crockpot Breakfast Scramble

H knows how to welcome people into her home. The first time I visited, she greeted me like we’d known each other for years; she offered me food and drink, and showed me to where my friend was in the backyard roasting coffee beans in a popcorn popper. She left us be, but was a delight throughout the evening, chatting amiably during dinner. I recently hosted her in my home and nothing could have brought me more relief and excitement than hearing “You are being such a good hostess!” – it made me feel like our house was really a home.

H, for those who haven’t caught on, is my mother-in-law; that “friend” with the coffee beans is now known as Husband.

H has given me a variety of cooking tricks and tips over the years, but for the wedding she passed me the recipe for a Crockpot Breakfast Scramble, which my nervous self kept putting off because it seems like voodoo: put things into a crockpot before bed and have delicious breakfast perfuming the house in the morning? Too good to be true! But finally, on a Saturday night in February, I browned the sausage and dumped the rest of the ingredients into the crockpot and went to bed. Husband laughed at me when I went downstairs right before falling asleep, just to check if the kitchen was on fire. It wasn’t: instead, the sizzle and burble of the sausage and the hash browns comforted me.

The next morning, I couldn’t smell the casserole, but with every step I took downstairs, the gentle aroma of cooking potatoes, with an edge of cheddar cheese, grew stronger. When I walked into the kitchen, I saw the mound of frozen things had oozed down into a wide golden dome with brown sides; bits of cheese had fried into crispy edges as well and the whole thing smelled heavenly. I fluffed and mixed it, added salt and pepper, and served it to Husband in bed – he said it was tasty and I enjoyed it both for its convenience and the savory mix of breakfasty flavors.

It seems fitting that such a recipe would be in H’s purview, since I can see this being the perfect feast for hungry family members after a long night of playing darts, watching movies, and winning some card games (common pastimes in their house). It guarantees that no one has to get up extra-early to cook, but is still likely to generate some “ooohs” and “mmmms” when everyone does wake up. As I sink my teeth into another serving, I feel like I’m back in H’s house, looking out over the mountains, and feeling at home.

H’s Crockpot Breakfast Scramble (Love this!)

12 eggs

1 bag frozen hash browns

1 16oz. roll of sausage cooked (I like Jimmy Deans, hot)

16 oz. shredded cheddar

1 cup milk

salt and pepper to taste

then make it yours: tabasco, peppers, olives, onion, etc.

Spray crockpot. Hashbrowns on the bottom. Then sausage, then your choices, then cheese, mix altogether. Pour liquid and other ingredients well mixed on top. Cover, cook 6-8 hours on low – serve alone or on tortillas for breakfast burritos.

(I have yet to try the breakfast burrito variation, but that’s on the list! It will also make this a great option for lunches.)

10. J’s Apple Pie Babies

J and I don’t know each other very well – we know each other most through N, of lasagna cupcake fame. However! J always impressed me when we met during grad school with her work ethic, her sunny attitude, and her delight at the small things. Now that I work in higher ed, and she wants to work in higher ed, I feel a bond with her: when I saw her recently, I grabbed one of her textbooks and said “yes! This is what I’ve been wanting to read lately!” I don’t know if this makes me nerdy or makes us soul sisters, but either way, I was really excited when she said yes to my potluck.

Like N’s small, party-sized delights, the Apple Pie Minis were perfect: not just because they were smaller than any slice of pie, which meant I could fit them in my tummy with a bit of bread pudding and a peanut butter cookie.

From J:

Apple Pie Bites, Mini's, or Babies! 

Ingredients (Apple pie filling) 

2 apples
4 tbsn flour
1 tspn cinnamon
1/2 cup brown sugar
1 tbsn white sugar
1 -2 sleeve pie crust (I wish I had made these from scratch though...)

Optional crumb topping

1 tbsn flour
1 1/2 tbsn brown sugar
1-2 shakes of cinnamon
1 pat of butter 

Directions 

Preheat oven to 350F Wash, peel & dice apples In a bowl, combine diced apples with flour, sugar & cinnamon - mix well until the apples are well coated. Let this sit for a bit. In a different bowl combine the optional crumb topping mix together and allow it to be in crumbled form. This works best if the butter is chilled. Unroll pie crust & cut circles (I used a mug that would be big enough to fit inside the muffin tins) Place circle crust into the muffin tins and back in the oven for 2 minutes Take out pie crust & fill with apple filling using a large spoon. Be generous! Bake mini pies for ~12 minutes. 

This was my first time making these mini apple bites – I love all things apple but wanted to try this out. However, there are a few things that I would have done differently…. 

I probably would have put the apple pie filling on the stove to let it cook/meld together a little bit more to give it some juice before putting it in the pie crust There was quite a bit of apple filling left - I only used 1 sleeve of pie crust because I didn't feel like opening the other one and unsure how much more the filling would give - so I opened up a biscuit dough can that I had and just stuffed the apple pie filling in there. That was delicious!! (it was almost like mini apple pie empanadas) I also had extra crumb topping that I sprinkled on here. I already mentioned this, but I think the pie crust was a little bland for me - maybe sprinkling some brown sugar inside them or making a different pie crust out of graham crackers could have been cool. But I think using the pie crust gave it the traditional apple pie feel to it.

9. C’s Banana-Chocolate Bread Pudding

C and I spent the most time together last year when she drove me to the airport; I wished, both then and now, that fortune had given us more time together because she’s one of the funniest people I know. She has a realistic but optimistic view of academics as a career, which I find so refreshing; she gets involved and lends a hand, and just generally seems to pull her weight all over the department. It made me happy that she could make it to the potluck.

When I saw her bread pudding, despite my interest in all the other foods at the dinner party, I wanted to just bury my face in it: the appeal of sticky, sweet, fruity bread was irresistible. I hoped it hadn’t been too difficult to make, since bread pudding is one of many things I’ve never made.

C cited that many recipes inform her decisions, but that this one was her most inspirational: http://tastingspoons.com/archives/6004

She also pointed out that stale bread is far from necessary; she buys hers fresh and loves the way it turns out. C’s attitude, excellently breezy for this new cook, reflects a good point: “It’s got chocolate chips in it – what could go wrong?”

 

I’ll also add that it’s beautiful: shiny and textured, dappled and aromatic.  Will be introducing this recipe to my tummy again soon.breadpuddingyes

 

8. J’s Baked Ziti

(I still have many dinner party entries to go, but today’s is going to be a throwback to before the party, when I tried out my friend J’s recipe for baked ziti).

I volunteer at a very small food pantry – the pantry is open two nights a month, and serves between 50 and 60 families – 75 to 100 near the holidays. The area where I live isn’t population dense, so given the restrictions that low income puts on people’s mobility, it makes sense that small food pantries should be the norm: walking or bus distance to the places where people need them.

The two gentlemen who run the pantry are total hams; goofiest folks I’ve ever seen run a non-profit organization. They are gentle and funny, quick with a joke and a kind word. One of them, J, came up to me waving his hands yesterday. “(Husband) told me about your learning to cook thing! I mean, not that you don’t know how to cook, just you know, trying the new things! I’ve got a recipe for you.”

J’s recipe was to long, complicated recipes what someone telling you directions to the closest gas station is to a long road trip map from Mapquest. He told it to me in only a few breaths: “First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”

There were so many holes in the recipe (how much pasta? How much sauce? Things come in different sizes, you know… and what temperature for the oven?) but I realized that in the spirit of how easy he claimed his recipe was, I ought to take a chill pill. After all, I’ve developed an infamous habit of playing fast and loose with the recipes given to me – here was one that I could follow TO THE LETTER and still have considerable leeway. As I stood there listening, I ticked off the 3 ingredients – sauce, pasta, cheese – and knew that I could make it immediately.

This, I now realize, is the real thing I love about the project: when someone finds out, and raves about a recipe they’ve done, I get to go home and try it, and come back with pictures and let them tell me how I did, or what I can try to make it better. Food is ultimately about conversation. I may be a shoddy and lazy cook, but I love talking. I feel more alive having a serious chat with someone than I do doing any of the cliff diving, mud wrestling kinds of adventure that Husband finds invigorating. I see it as a bit of magic: what else can you do for a few hours and have a lifelong friend afterwards? It’s hit-or-miss, to be sure, as with many things, but I live in pursuit of that wonderful conversation.

And food is helping me make my inroads in a new place – we’ve volunteered at the food pantry a handful of times, but other than the fact that we were 30 years younger than the next youngest volunteers, we weren’t really “befriended” by that many folks. Everyone was nice and cordial, but until they saw that we weren’t just a new batch of students trying to get our service hours in, and we didn’t have our own kids so we were pretty freed up in the evenings, they didn’t start to warm to us fully. However, in the past few open nights, it’s been a delight to have folks recognize us: my commute makes me late every time, so I’ve been dubbed “the Queen,” because I think I can just waltz in whenever I want.

This recipe, which could be made mostly with ingredients available in the shelves of the food pantry, is my chance to greet those who call me the Queen with a simple if silly story of making the dish. I will be able to have Husband vouch for how such a simple dish to make can be such a pleasure to eat.

I made this dish after we went to the gym (I know! So responsible.) and I knew we were going to like it because we were extremely hungry. While very simple in its flavoring, it feels hearty and the fact that I can indeed eat a pasta dish without any boiling of water filled me with joy.

 

J’s Baked Ziti

“First, you pick your favorite kind of spaghetti sauce – I like the Classico, the one with the sausage and peppers, and it tastes just like the one my mother made, because my people are Italian. But any of those will do. You put it in the 9×13 pan with the ziti or the penne or whatever and add one more jar’s worth of water and mix it all around. Bake it for an hour – an hour! Covered in foil. Then take it out, take the foil off, and cover it with a bag of shredded cheese – whatever kind you like. Then back in the oven till the cheese is bubbly!”

7. N’s Lasagna Cupcakes

N is one of the most organized and thought-out people I know. When she and I run into each other, it’s usually at a cool lecture or movie screening, because she has a lot of similar interests. We end up talking about how to save time and how to make good study habits, and I love that economy of thought: I leave every interaction with her aspiring to new levels of impact and usefulness.

So it is no surprise that her contribution to the potluck would be so practical: parties are best handled with finger food, and lasagna is delicious, so put them together and you get N’s lasagna cupcakes (technically, they belong to food blogger but N introduced me to them; long live the giant chain of recipe borrowers!). Using wonton wrappers to encapsulate small servings of lasagna ingredients, N made stacks of these little delights, with their slightly crispy shells and their savory sausage centers. I squirreled away two of them and found that after a couple of days in the fridge the wonton wrapper took on an even more noodle-like consistency, but still didn’t fall apart. It’s the almost-not-messy way to eat pasta! I say almost because I am an overachiever in the messiness department.

N does a lot of her own blogging and spearheads a cookbook club, so I expect to be taking cooking advice (and cooking photography advice!) from her for a long time yet.

Here is the recipe! http://www.tablespoon.com/recipes/lasagna-cupcakes/973c5603-c1e4-4790-9e6a-aef378332ef2

Eating Local, and Preparations

I’ve been reading “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and Barbara Kingsolver’s one-year challenge (I am clearly a fan of the one-year challenge…) to eat things grown close to her is so compelling. As I listened on the way to the grocery store before my dinner party last weekend, I longed for April, when our local farmer’s market would fill up again and I would start purchasing squashes and beans, bundles of green onions, piles of peppers, and anything else I could gather from people who lived close to me.

It was also a bit of a wake-up call as for my lazy shopping habits: I took care to bring my durable shopping bags into the store (from reading my flagrant substitutions in recipes, you can imagine I forget these often), but I also grabbed peppers and kale without putting them in bags, rather just setting them atop one of my own bags… I’m gonna clean them anyway. It’s hardly virtue incarnate, but as Kingsolver smartly points out, it’s everyone making small changes that can change an industry.

That day Husband was out and about, helping a relative to move to a new apartment, so I was alone with the house and the kitchen. I put on my audiobook and threw together the pork chops and the triple peanut butter cookies – the pork chops were dreamy easy and the cookies made me feel like, with sunshine and this balmy 50 degree day, I could be an actual cook. I gathered the ingredients for the farro salad I’d found (somehow, there just weren’t enough vegetables coming to my party, so I needed something to round it out) and for a quiche that I planned to whip up last minute if anyone extra showed up and it felt like there was going to be too little food.

While the pork chops slowly turned golden in the crockpot and the cookie cooled and hardened on the counter, I tidied. I’ve admitted my lack of penchant for cooking, but I’m proud to say that the house is tidy, there are enough seats for everyone (admittedly not at the table itself, but in the living room is okay, right?), two loads of laundry will soon be done and folded, and with all this food, my house is going to smell divine. Just in case, I took a turn working on the hardwood with some orange oil and beeswax conditioning oil; I do it less like a chore and more like penance, a prayer to the hardwood gods to keep the house from falling down around us. I opened a window for a time and put the sad, shrivelly amaryllis into it to hopefully soak up some light and bust out a bloom for us.

I’m learning how to love the preparation for things, I think: I rarely love those stages, but such a pretty day with so many satisfying activities and such anticipation… it made things worthwhile.