“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 4 – “Who you callin’ jerk?”)

As the start of our kitchen remodel gets closer, the competition gets tougher! Well, not really, because we are technically on the same team with shared desire for making the clear-out of cabinets and freezer less painful. This is our very own “Chopped” challenge. Thanks for playing along with us!

Before we started our challenge, we established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  1. Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
  2. The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  3. Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  4. Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  5. Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though we have way too many bags of kitty treats.

We’re tackling more pantry items and pushing each other out of our culinary comfort zones. Please use the play controls to reveal what Les is about to find inside his next mystery basket!

Nilla makes a cameo appearance during the basket reveal!

The basket ingredients in this second challenge gave me pause. After my first challenge, when I made a one-pan dish, I had potential to go casserole. Meaning another one-note dish. After more thought and a web browsing for ideas to use the sliced turkey Terrie gave me, I decided to go with two separate dishes: a jerk turkey wrap and a kugel dessert. Let me tackle the main dish first.

To start with, I love sauces. So when I think about how to use basket ingredients, I’m typically thinking about how to amp up the flavor, and turkey is perfect because it can go in so many different directions. The jerk seasoning rub in my basket was a natural. I added some peanut oil, chopped up the turkey slices and marinated for an hour before browning the previously cooked turkey in a cast-iron skillet.

A website called The Wanderlust Kitchen gave me a couple of cool ideas for dressing up my wrap. Its recipe called for a green cabbage slaw and an avocado aioli. I decided not to include a third suggested sauce, a mango chutney, because, to quote one of my mom’s favorite phrases (I love working her into these blog posts despite her cooking shortcomings), “it’s too much, Leslie.” And I ditched the ciabatta the Wanderlust site favored for a spinach wrap because I believed the bread of a ciabatta (or sub roll or similar) would absorb the flavors of the accoutrements. The green cabbage slaw included scallions, another of my basket ingredients, as well as cilantro, which gave a nice bite to the jerk turkey. The avocado aioli, meanwhile, added a tang thanks to its mayo and lime juice. I kept the recipe’s idea of a slice of gouda cheese, but to be honest, the wrap would have worked fine without it.

This was a relatively easy, healthy dinner, and I was proud to serve it up.

Jamaican Jerk Turkey Wrap with Green Cabbage Scallion Slaw and Avocado Aioli

The crunchy scallion cabbage slaw is the final touch on these easy wraps.

Once I made the decision not to try to force my basket’s egg noodles into the main dish, my heart and Jewish heritage led me to an easy choice. Kugel is a noodle dish popular on Jewish holidays, and although I didn’t exactly grow up having it frequently (if at all; did I mention my mom was most definitely not an adventurer in the kitchen?) I’ve had it enough to know how tasty it is when made well.

I decided to use Terrie’s go-to chef for Jewish foods—Tori Avey. Tori’s kugel recipe is a classic, using egg noodles (my final basket ingredient), six eggs, sour cream, cottage cheese, cream cheese, butter, sugar, cinnamon and raisins. I had a couple of add-ins for this dish because in one case I messed up and in another, I decided to empty our pantry of another item.

The dessert is not actually difficult to put together; you just need patience in gathering everything together and you also need to not boil the egg noodles too long; you want them softened but not fully cooked because of the hour they’ll spend in the oven becoming kugel. While adding my wet ingredients to the mixer, I realized I only had about half the sour cream called for in the recipe. And we were out of plain Greek yogurt, my first go-to as a substitute. But what’s this I found deep in the refrigerator? Why, it’s a Siggi individual Greek yogurt, coconut flavor. What a great complement for this dish!

Judge’s note: Technically, Siggi’s is skyr, which is not the same as yogurt but definitely has a texture worthy of this substitution. I am impressed with Les’s quick thinking on this!

In it goes (after first tasting it to make sure the “use by June 6” stamp hadn’t rendered it foul). The raisins, which first get a warm water bath before being added to the final mix of noodles and wet ingredients, emptied our pantry of another item. As I went to put the casserole in the oven, I had another brainstorm. We’ve had the dregs of a bag of brownie brittle from Costco on our counter for a couple of months; the recipe suggested possible toppings, and although brownie brittle wasn’t one of them, it did suggest anything crunchy (like corn flakes, which we don’t keep in our house). So I crushed what was left of the brownie brittle and sprinkled it on top, along with another dash of sugar and cinnamon. Into the oven went the kugel.

Classic Jewish Kugel

A couple of minutes later, I was disturbed by a “ding” sound. Turns out I’d warmed the butter in the microwave and forgotten to take it out and add to the wet ingredients. But not to worry. I opened the oven, poured the butter on top and used a fork to make little trenches and allow the butter to seep through. Problem solved!

This challenge overall made me happy because I used Terrie’s frequent advice to trust my instinct and feel free to substitute (as long as you are not changing ratios in recipes, especially liquid ratios). I also solved problems on the fly during the cooking process, like when I started our KitchenAid mixer and a chunk of product flew out and onto the counter, the floor and me. It wasn’t as bad as I feared, fortunately. And, most important, it didn’t affect the final product. Kugelicious!

This smelled amazing from the oven.

And now, the moment of truth; time for Terrie to judge my effort on this Chopped challenge basket!

Judge’s note: This kugel reminds me of a bread pudding, but with egg noodles rather than bread cubes. It is so delicious, I want to eat it again for breakfast!

“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 3 – “Holy Mole”)

Things are steaming up around here, as my husband, Les, and I count down the weeks til the kickoff of our kitchen remodel. We are doing our best to trim the pantry and freezer inventory before we get there, to help ease the pain that comes naturally with home renovation. I will admit that I have been nervous, not only for turning my own mystery basket into something special, but also for preparing baskets for Les. I don’t want to stump him, but I also don’t want to hand him a victory on a silver platter. As this challenge continues, we are certain to face weirder combinations of ingredients than either of us imagined.

Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  1. Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer.
  2. The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  3. Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  4. Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  5. Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats.

It’s time for my second basket of mystery ingredients in our homegrown “Chopped” challenge, and I can hardly stand still.

Holy Mole.

My first reaction for this whole chicken is disappointment because I was planning to make soup with it, and now that plan is shot. But this also reveals one of my own personal shortcomings—I have wanted to make soup with the chicken since last August, and I still haven’t. My procrastination is part of the reason we have so much stuff! Les did us a big favor by putting that thing in my Chopped basket.

This was my chance to do something cool with the chicken, even more special than soup, and my first step would be brining it in a mixture that would include the Wicked Whiskey honey. After 11 months in the freezer, it probably needs a flavor boost and some assurance of retained moisture. I got that started and sent it to the fridge for five hours.

Let’s talk about this jalapeno sauce for a moment. This awful, one-note, ugly-to-look-at, disgusting jalapeno sauce. I’m usually all about the novel condiments at Trader Joe’s, but this product has been letting me down since Les first brought it home a few months ago. All I taste in it is jalapeno and heat. There’s no balance of acid or sweetness or even salt. It has a weird creamy texture, and I am suspicious of any product that tastes creamy without a speck of cream on the ingredients list. And that color—ugh.  

I’m going to bury the sauce by blending it into the broth used to make brown rice, and I’ll add my own complementary flavors, in the form of fresh jalapenos, scallions and grilled fresh pineapple brushed with more of the Wicked Whiskey honey. Basically, I’m trying to play up the jalapeno flavor while simultaneously hiding the sauce. Is that gonna work? We’ll see.

That leaves the mole, and although it seems like a random ingredient, it is something I was quite proud of when I first made it. Mole is a traditional, labor-of-love sauce, signature to the Mexican region of Puebla, where they love blending chiles with fruit and onions and nuts and seeds and (wait for it) dark chocolate! My guess about the origin of this mole was on point; I looked through my iPhone and found the photos I took while making this sauce for Cinco de Mayo—in 2019! My favorite part was melting in the dark chocolate. 😊

Despite having been in the deep freezer for two years, the mole still had exquisite layers of flavor. I blended it with a bit of olive oil and a touch of Wicked Whiskey honey, and I rubbed it all over the brined chicken, which I roasted over root vegetables on the convection setting of our oven for I have no idea how long, and lo and behold, it turned out beautiful!

The mole-rubbed chicken looks great, but how does it taste, and what about that rice made with disgusting jalapeno sauce? It’s time for judging.

Les is a very generous judge. In my own opinion, the jalapeno sauce-infused rice was decidedly not a winner, and not only because the sauce is gross. I overcooked it because I miscalculated the amount of liquid when I blended in the jalapeno sauce. It was edible, but not delicious.

But that chicken!

Thank you, dear reader, for joining us on this crazy culinary journey! The next basket is for Les. I’ll spring it on him tomorrow—stay tuned! 🙂

“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 2 – “One-dish Wonder”)

So here I am, doing my first “Chopped”-like challenge for Terrie’s blog as she and I continue emptying our pantry and refrigerator in advance of kitchen remodeling and who do I wind up stealing an idea from, of all people, on my first basket? My late mom.

Now, I loved my mom dearly, but her cooking was, shall I say, ummmm, well, it fed me. Mom’s favorite dish, and she was happy to share with anyone how “good” it was, was stuffed cabbage. I endured that dish twice a year for years. Bland ground beef balls with white rice (yuck, says 10-year-old me, in recollection) inside steamed (boiled?) cabbage and mom’s secret ingredient, which I’ll share more of later because, quite frankly, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s slow down and go back to the beginning of this challenge.

Press play on the video below to see what ingredients Les had to work with.

Chef Les seems a little hesitant about his basket ingredients.

The four mandatory ingredients in my basket (thanks, love!) were: hot Italian turkey sausages, dried cranberries, two sweet potatoes and cocktail onions. Now I have to tell you all that I am a decent cook, and I like being creative. But I’m most definitely not Terrie. Creative for me is putting things together in a way that allows me leftovers for lunch during the week.

With these ingredients, my first thought was to pair the cranberries and sweet potatoes in a sweet concoction (think Thanksgiving side or dessert), and then figure out a plan for the sausage and cocktail onions. But the morning of my day to cook, I was struck by one of the signature aspects of “Chopped.” You’re supposed to create a unified dish with the ingredients. Hot Italian sausage and a sweet side or dessert didn’t speak “unified” to me. And I’m both competitive and a stickler for detail; I wanted to get my first basket right.

Judge’s note:

Les is straying from the format a bit here, given that the previously agreed-upon rules for this Comfort du Jour challenge permitted multiple dishes made from the basket ingredients. Let’s review:

  • Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer. No sought-out, wacky ingredients for the purpose of stumping each other.
  • The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  • Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  • Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  • Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (and we do).

Is Les a bit of an overachiever? Let’s find out, as he digs into his challenge.

Like Terrie, who often studies Pinterest for ideas, I turned to an outside source—Google. I plugged in sweet potatoes and Italian sausage and came up with quite a few recipes. I settled on one that, with some creativity and tweaking, just might work. Plus, it would incorporate all four basket ingredients and even clean out a couple of extra pantry ingredients. And, extra bonus, a one-pan dish! Now that’s my kind of meal: simple.

I peeled, diced and boiled the sweet potatoes (OK, technically, I guess I used a pot and one pan). I removed the sausage from the casings and browned it, setting it aside, and then using the fat left behind to sauté the cocktail onions, some leftover sweet onion (to counterbalance the sour in those cocktail onions), red and orange bell pepper, mushrooms and garlic.

Once the veggies were done, I added back the sausage and sweet potatoes, as well as the last jar of my canned homemade salsa (the recipe called for salsa, which was convenient because it rid our pantry of another item) as well as a can of diced tomatoes (not in the recipe, but that was my intuition, and it worked well). Along the way I seasoned every layer (thanks, love, for that simple cooking instruction that I follow religiously now, thanks to you)* * , also adding cumin. The meal came together in less than an hour.

**Is it me, or does it seem that Les is flirting with the judge for bonus points?

Ah, but I left something out, didn’t I? And I don’t mean the cocktail onions, which I almost omitted (cause for being chopped in the real “Chopped”) except that Terrie reminded me when she saw the jar still in the fridge after I’d started prepping (thanks, love!). Yep, he is definitely flirting. No, the part I left out is the completion of the story about my mom. It turns out the “secret” ingredient in mom’s stuffed cabbage was raisins, which she added to the pot as her dish cooked for hours. I despised those raisins. For me, raisins were meant to be as they came out of the little boxes, not as bloated, warm, soft “things.”

By now, I imagine I’ve done enough foreshadowing that you know I rehydrated the dried cranberries from the basket and as the final touch in my one-pan dish, added them to the sausage, sweet potatoes and vegetables.

The bloated, warm, soft cranberry “things” gave the dish a fine, sweet complement to the spice of the sausage and salsa. I may still have unfortunate memories of her stuffed cabbage, but I’m not embarrassed to say, “thanks, mom.”

Even the cranberries worked their way into Les’s dish!

Press play on the video below to see how Chef Les finished in his Comfort du Jour “Chopped” challenge.

“Hot Italian Sausage-Sweet Potato Slop”

The one-dish slop was not a flop, and that means we are two-for-two!
As the kitchen remodel gets closer, the basket ingredients are bound to get weirder.
Stay tuned for more frolicking fun, and another “Chopped” challenge!

“Chopped” Challenge (Episode No. 1 – “Mystery Meat”)

Planning and living through a kitchen remodel can be stressful business, and my husband, Les, and I are looking for fun ways to distract ourselves from the chaos that will undoubtedly ensue when our remodel begins at the end of summer. We both want to whittle down some of the excess pantry and freezer inventory in our kitchen (and the overflow in the laundry room and the garage) so that we don’t carry it over into our redesigned space. I will admit that I am a bit of a pack rat when it comes to foodstuffs—I cannot seem to resist purchasing unusual ingredients when I see them on a market run. I mean, one never knows when it might be handy to have an extra package of raw cacao on reserve. Or three. Yes, we have a lot of stuff.

Les and I are avid fans of “Chopped” on Food Network, and we play along vicariously, suggesting (OK, sometimes shouting) to the chef competitors how they might use the ingredients in their mystery baskets. We cringe when we see them do something that never ends well, such as putting cooked potatoes in a food processor (instant glue, coming right up!) or repeatedly opening the oven door to see if their dessert still isn’t baking fast enough. We feel the anxiety of the judges in the final seconds, and we often join their chorus, urging the competitors to “just get it on the plate!”

When I casually mentioned to a friend last week that I needed to get creative about using up our own kitchen surplus, she joked that she could imagine me doing my own version of a “Chopped” challenge and scratching ingredients off the inventory list as the weeks wear on for our kitchen work to begin. It was a brilliant idea, and we are off and running with our first episode!

Les and I will not be competing against each other, because we are on the same team. Also, we don’t have multiple cooking stations, ovens and deep fryers, and we certainly do not have a blast chiller or an anti-griddle or a salamander (professional grade broiler oven), as they do on the set of “Chopped.” We do not plan to enforce a time limit on completing the challenge, as our goal is simply to use up our stuff and, of course, eat and enjoy the meals we create through this experience. We are not going to record every moment (you’re welcome), but we will let you in on the fun of the challenge with the unveiling of the mystery baskets we prepare for each other. And, of course, the outcomes.

Before we started our challenge, Les and I established and agreed upon the following rules for setting up each other’s baskets:

  • Each basket must hold four mystery ingredients, found in our cabinets, fridge or freezer. No sought-out, wacky ingredients for the purpose of stumping each other.
  • The goal of the challenge is to use up our surplus food, with as little waste as possible. We will not be using some small portion of an ingredient and throwing the rest in the trash.
  • Basket ingredients can be used in any course of the meal or broken into separate courses of a single meal, i.e.: cocktail, appetizer, salad, entrée, dessert. Cook’s choice.
  • Basket ingredients must be transformed in the meal, not merely served as is.
  • Pet foods may not be submitted as basket ingredients, even though Les says we have way too many bags of kitty treats (and we do).

The first challenge was mine. Press “play” on the video to witness the unveiling of my mystery basket. Here we go!!!

I did not expect to feel so nervous!

The mystery meat was easy to identify, once I was able to stop laughing and remove the cover. It was leftover barbacoa, which I made back in February, and five months in the freezer did not do it any favors. It still had plenty of spicy flavor, but the texture was somewhat mushy. To transform it, I would need to combine it with something else, or put it inside something else to make the unpleasant texture less noticeable.

The brownie brittle is a crispy, chocolatey dessert snack that I picked up at Costco. It’s very tasty but in true Costco fashion, there’s just too darn much of it. We have tendency to buy products like this one, and we get bored with it about halfway through. As far as I’m concerned, the brownie brittle is the red herring in this basket. There’s no obvious way to use it, so I’ll set it aside for now.

The butternut squash, as Les pointed out, genuinely has been wearing out its welcome in our kitchen. I bought it near the end of winter, but then I got excited about cooking things for spring and I just kept putting it off. For better or worse, winter squash has a long shelf life. The biggest challenge with the squash is that it’s big, and so there’s a lot of it. My plan to use it up will be to incorporate it into our meal in multiple ways, and I might also try to slip a few pieces to my kitchen assistant, Nilla, who is always on standby and happy to help.

Finally, the poor, sad little apples that have been buried in the fruit drawer for a least a month. They aren’t even the same variety—one Granny Smith and one honeycrisp, although there’s nothing crisp about either of these tired fruits. They won’t mix with the barbacoa, so I will transform them into a dessert, and I’ll use some of the squash in it, too. This is the easiest part of the basket for me. Might as well map this one out; I pulled a box of puff pastry from the freezer (heaven only knows how long it’s been buried in there), and some simple dessert spices.

Add a few spices, some butter and sugar, and this can be dessert.

I cubed the other neck piece and tossed it into the oven to roast, with oil and a little salt and pepper. I love roasted squash, so the hardest thing for me will be not snacking on it while I figure out the rest of the basket. The remaining squash went into a saucepan to simmer until tender, and that’s when the rest of the dish came into focus for me.

Some of the tender squash could be worked into a pasta dough, and it would be a nice color as well as flavor! The barbacoa could be used as a filling for ravioli, but what about my red herring, the sweet brownie brittle? And that’s when it hit me that chocolate is used in mole, and Les always puts a little cocoa powder in a pot of his chili. There it was, I would crush up the brownie brittle and add those dark, chocolaty crumbs to the meat filling! This made sense to me, and when Les took a taste of the barbacoa-brownie brittle mixture, he confirmed it was working. He could taste the chocolate, and said it was good.

The ravioli plan had taken so much attention, I had put the squash and apple tart on the back burner. I thawed a sheet of puff pastry from our freezer, rolled it out to smooth the wrinkles, sprinkled brown sugar and cinnamon over it, then alternated rows of squash and the two kinds of apple, and another sprinkle of cinnamon. Then I folded up the edges, as if making a galette, brushed them with egg white and into the oven.

I also needed a quick sauce to drizzle on the baked squash-apple tart, because it was rather dry and plain from the oven. I melted butter with maple sugar, tossed a small handful of chopped walnuts into it, then more maple sugar and a splash of maple-infused balsamic vinegar. A little bit of tartness is usually exactly what any dish needs to feel and taste “finished,” and both Les and I were sampling this sauce beyond what was necessary. I wish I had made more because it would be great over ice cream. The squash and apple tart turned out tasty, even as leftovers the next evening.

Butternut squash and apple puff pastry tart, with a maple walnut dessert glaze. Winner!

Rolling the pasta didn’t take long (I have been practicing lately and will share more about that soon), and I was thankful to have my ravioli mold to make quick work of finishing that part of the meal. I made an easy “sauce” for my ravioli, using up a half onion from the crisper drawer, the last dregs of a bag of frozen roasted corn, some veggie broth and half and half, and some kind of seasonings but I honestly can’t remember! The finished dish seemed a little boring in color, and everything had a soft texture, so I chopped a handful of toasted pumpkin seeds and scattered them on top. And this one is done.

“Chef Les, I have prepared for you a spiced butternut squash ravioli with barbacoa-brownie brittle filling.
It is topped with a simple roasted corn sauce and caramelized butternut squash, and accented with toasted pumpkin seeds for a little crunch.”

“And that means, Chef Terrie, you have conquered the basket ingredients and chopped your way to victory in the first challenge!”

Will Les have what it takes to do the same? Find out next week, when we unveil his mystery basket ingredients!

Oh, and just for fun, I combined the final 1/2 cup of cooked butternut squash with some rolled oats, brown rice flour, a touch of cinnamon and the rest of the pasta egg mixture. Processed it, scooped it out and baked it up as cookies for my kitchen helper. 🙂 ❤

Cut Like a Pro: Knife Care 101

I get very excited about Thanksgiving, which has long been my favorite holiday. And though it’s a little early to start on the favorite (and new) dishes we will enjoy this year, it definitely is not too early to plan! I can drive myself a little batty with ideas for the table, and even if I set the menu today, the odds are good that I’ll change my mind a dozen times in a dozen days. So today, rather than continuing to wrestle myself over the food, I’m turning my attention to the other things in my kitchen that need some prep. That begins with my knives.

Of all these knives, I have two favorites, but it’s great to have all of them spiffed up for the holidays!

There’s something therapeutic for me in having my favorite knives professionally sharpened. It makes me feel—how shall I say it—like a real adult. It took me a while to get serious about choosing quality knives, so treating them as an investment feels like the right thing. Today, I’m pleased to introduce you to the guy who’s been helping me (or at least my knives) stay sharp in the kitchen, and he offers a simple tip about the importance of good knife care.

Your knives are your tools. Take care of them and respect them. You wouldn’t run your car 20,000 miles without oil changes or service, so why expect your knives to keep working well without regular care?

Chef Larry McFadden,
owner of Chef Sharp Mobile Sharpening

Larry McFadden knows his stuff. He spent more than two decades in service to our country, and after he left the U.S. Air Force, he followed his heart to pursue a passion for cooking, attending culinary school on the GI bill and then working in professional kitchens by way of Marriott International.

By the time he moved his family to North Carolina, Larry had come to recognize a demand for a knife sharpening service that wasn’t aimed only toward institutions and big restaurant chains, but for independent food businesses and home cooks.

Today, he runs a mobile sharpening service and was kind to let me interview him enough to shed light on what it takes to keep your edge in the kitchen. If you have noticed your own knives are smashing or crushing food more than slicing through them, you probably want to know what Larry has to say.

My grandma taught me early on that a dull knife is the most dangerous item in the kitchen. Would you say that’s true?

I think it is, because you have to put so much more pressure on whatever you’re cutting. If the blade is dull, it’s easier to have it slip off whatever you’re cutting. That puts you at greater risk of cutting yourself, and if do, it isn’t going to be a clean cut, so you’ll do more damage and you could really get hurt.

How do our knives get so dull in the first place?

When your knife is sharp, the blade edge has a bevel that comes to a perfect apex or peak, and it’s perfectly straight. With regular use over time, that edge starts to curl over in spots. The edge may feel dull, but it may just be that it is no longer straight.  

What can we do at home to keep our knives in shape?

I don’t recommend the pull-through type of sharpener. They can do more harm than good. But you can use a “steel” to help keep the blade straight every time you use your knife. Some people are intimidated by the steel, but if you learn how to use it, you can double the time between sharpening visits and extend the life of your knives.

These have been lurking in the back of a drawer for as long as I can remember. I never understood how they were supposed to work anyway!

Moment of truth: I’m one of those people intimidated by the steel, which is the long pointy thing that probably came with your knife set. But I learned a cool trick during my chat with Larry. Check the base of the steel, to see if it has a flat side with a slight angle. The angle is meant to help you position your knife properly for re-aligning your blade edge. Confused? Have a look:

My apologies for the low audio. Larry and I were outside amid some parking lot noise, but his demonstration tells the real story.

Do our cutting boards make a difference in the care of our knives?

Yes, and as a general rule, if the surface is too hard to cut, it’s too hard on your knives. Glass cutting boards are a definite no-no. Very hard plastics are also not good for your knives. Natural wood cutting boards are good, but bamboo is very hard and can be a little tough on knives.

End grain cutting boards are usually in a higher price range, and they are very good.

I guess I’ll be replacing my bamboo cutting board, too. I’ve wanted an end grain cutting board for a long time. They tend to be expensive, but they last a long time, and now that I know what’s better for my knives, I have good excuse to take the plunge!

Speaking of price range, we know that knives run the gamut in terms of quality and price point, and you should invest in the best quality you can afford, then take care of them with regular use of a steel and periodic professional sharpening. As for routine care, Chef Larry says you should wash your good knives in warm soapy water, then rinse and dry immediately before storing in a knife block or drawer insert. The dishwasher is not friendly to good knives.

It won’t be easy for some of my blog followers to catch up with you personally. What advice would you offer faraway friends for choosing a knife sharpening professional?

Try to find a provider who uses a whetstone rather than a belt grinder, and be sure you’re choosing someone who is established in their service. Look at their online reviews, and ask questions to find out how they learned what they’re doing, so you feel confident that they’re well-qualified.

Larry’s whetstone is made of aluminum oxide, the same material used to make sandpaper. That’s the surface he uses to sharpen the knives. Then he straightens and smooths the blades on a hard leather wheel. It’s mesmerizing to watch him work!

Larry sharpens both sides of the blade before checking for burrs.

The hard leather wheel smooths tiny burrs or nicks, even if you can’t see them.

Any wisdom to share on the importance of getting knives sharpened before the holidays?

There’s nothing worse at the holidays than not being able to carve your turkey into nice thin slices.

‘Nuff said. I’m glad to have this part of Thanksgiving prep in the “done” column! For more info about Larry, or to check out his local sharpening schedule, visit his website, ChefSharpTriad.com. Please let me know in the comments section if you learned anything new about good knife care, and also what steps you’re taking to get ready for the holidays. Thanksgiving will be here before we know it! Next week, I’ll be cooking up a storm, so get ready for a stack of fun, new ideas. 🙂

Oh, and…

You may be wondering if I’m a paid endorser for the products I spotlight on Comfort du Jour, and the answer is “no.” I do not receive money or products for my recommendations, and what that means for you is that you can count on me to give an honest opinion. If something changes, I will update my disclosures. Either way, you can still count on me to be honest in my recommendations, as I will only stand behind services and products I believe in. Fair enough? 😀

Early Lessons on Leftovers

Like many children, I loved time spent in my grandmother’s kitchen. After school, and especially in the summer, we were always cooking up something—cookies, cakes, applesauce, rhubarb jam. She was a “hands-on” kind of grandma, willing to let slide any mess made by a young helper in the midst of learning important lessons at the stove.

One of the mysteries I regularly pondered during those formative years was the frequency of suppers she described as “leftovers.” I thought having leftovers meant you warmed up the remains of some previous meal and slopped it out again and again until it was gone. But somehow, many of her leftover meals weren’t familiar to me. One evening, I asked about that:

“Gram,” I said, “This can’t be leftovers. I’ve been here for supper every night since Tuesday. When did we have this the first time?”

 “I’m not as dumb as I look,” she casually replied.

Which was a very typical comeback for her. She went on to explain that when she served something as leftovers, she always tried to transform it from the original. The potato salad we had for Saturday lunch might have been the boiled potatoes she served at Thursday’s dinner; the dessert we had Sunday may have been built on the scraps of bread and rolls she saved from earlier in the month (seriously, she made the best bread pudding, but that will be a recipe for another day).

We lost Gram last summer at 97. One of my regrets is that I didn’t ask her more questions about her perspective on life, and how she was shaped by the events over which she had no control. But perhaps I didn’t have to. Her perspective was on display in every meal she made, every piece of clothing she mended, every garden she grew, and every jar of home-canned tomatoes, green beans and pickles stashed in her pantry. God, I wish I had that pantry today.

People who rode out the Great Depression had a special way of making masterpieces from scraps, and it makes me wonder what we will learn, and pass down, from our experience with this pandemic. Will the grandchildren of our generation one day say, “I learned this from a relative who survived COVID-19?” Or, when this is all over, will we simply return to our business-as-usual consumerism? The headlines are spattered with stories of protesters demanding that we return to the “normal” way of living. But maybe the uptick in searches for articles on “making sourdough bread” and “homesteading basics” will bring a new and lasting normal. Time will tell, I suppose, and so will our attitudes.

Last night for dinner, in the style of my grandmother, I whipped up a random Mexican-themed meal (a last-minute effort to observe Cinco de Mayo) from a leftover fried chicken breast we had on Saturday night, some fabulously spicy green salsa that accompanied a take-out taco order we had last Wednesday, and one of the many cans of black beans I stockpiled when we went into quarantine. A little frozen corn, a little cheese. It wasn’t fancy, but it was delicious—exactly the kind of meal Gram would’ve made in times like these, and she’d be proud. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to making our protective face masks. Because, of course, she also taught me to use a sewing machine.

Kentucky Derby Sips

Kentucky Love Child

Like a cross between a Moscow mule and a mojito, but made with real Kentucky bourbon.

1.5 oz. Kentucky bourbon
0.5 oz mint simple syrup (recipe below)
Juice of half a lime
Reed’s extra spicy ginger beer

Combine bourbon, syrup and lime in a cocktail shaker. Add ice and shake like crazy for 20 seconds. Strain into a “mule” mug half filled with crushed ice. Top with ginger beer and garnish with fresh lime.

Sassy Comeback

A Southern spin on NYC’s “witty comeback”—and doesn’t it sound like a champion?

1.5 oz. Bulleit rye (bourbon works, too)
0.5 oz. Aperol (see notes)
0.75 oz. lemon ginger simple syrup (recipe below)
Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)

Combine rye, Aperol and syrup in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds. Strain into a chilled “Nick and Nora” glass (or small champagne glass). Enjoy as is, or top with seltzer. Garnish with a twist of thinly stripped lemon peel.

Sparkly Britches Lemonade

Because not everyone loves bourbon (yet).

1.5 oz. Hendrick’s gin
1 oz. cucumber simple syrup (recipe below)
Juice of half a lemon
Seltzer or sparkling water (optional)

Combine gin, syrup and lemon juice in a cocktail shaker. Add ice cubes and shake vigorously for 20 seconds, then strain into a chilled champagne flute. Enjoy as is, or make it really sparkle with a splash of seltzer.

What is Aperol?

It’s an Italian-made liqueur, considered to be an aperitif (fancy speak for “pre-dinner drink”), and it has a citrusy, herbal, slightly bitter flavor and a shockingly bright orange color. If you’ve ever tasted Campari (another Italian liqueur), it’s kind of similar, but less bitter and less potent. On the nose, Aperol is kind of a cross between grapefruit, rhubarb and orange lifesavers. In a cocktail, it brings a world of complexity, and is especially refreshing in the warm weather months.

What is a Nick and Nora glass?

It’s a smallish cocktail glass, sort of a cross between a champagne flute and a coupe martini glass. I found these little 4 ounce beauties online, and created the Sassy Comeback specifically for the glass! As I mentioned the glasses to various friends, it seemed nobody knew what they were, so I did a little research to find out why the glass is so named. I like this explanation best:

“It’s named for the boozy, quick-talking couple in Dashiel Hamett’s 1934 novel The Thin Man. They’re the couple we all want to be, always dressed for a night out, always with a quip at the ready, and always—always—with a drink in hand. Their namesake glass appropriately honors their art deco–era swag.”

Adam Rapoport, Bon Appetit

The novel eventually became a series of films, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which remained popular well into the 1940s. In this clip, you’ll see the same dainty glasses used for their martinis. At the end of the scene, “Nora” embodies the sassy comeback. She’s my kinda gal!

The Simple Syrups

Simple syrups are very easy to make. A regular simple syrup is equal parts sugar and water, simmered until sugar is dissolved, then cooled and chilled. Each of the syrups below has a flavor infusion, and they offer a unique “somethin’ special” to the above mentioned cocktails. Have fun!

Mint Syrup

Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Remove from heat and add a 1 oz. package of fresh organic mint leaves (wash them first and trim the heavy stems), and allow the mint to steep in the syrup until completely cool. Strain out the mint (discard it) and pour the syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Cucumber Syrup

Simmer 1 cup sugar and 1 cup filtered water, stirring frequently, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is warm enough to steam. Peel 4 Persian cucumbers, and cut them into slices. Remove syrup from the heat, add the cucumber pieces and steep until the mixture is cooled. Discard the cucumber pieces and strain syrup through a mesh strainer to remove any bits or seeds. Pour syrup into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge for a couple of weeks.

Lemon-Ginger Syrup

Bring 1 cup water to a light boil, then turn off heat. Steep 4 lemon ginger* herbal tea bags in the hot water for about 2 minutes, then remove and squeeze the tea bags (discard them). Add 1 cup sugar to the hot tea blend, and stir until dissolved (return to heat a few minutes, if necessary). Cool completely, then pour into a covered jar. It will keep in the fridge a couple of weeks.

*For this syrup, I used Bigelow brand Lemon Ginger herbal tea. The label lists these ingredients; lemongrass, lemon peel, cinnamon, lemon verbena, rose hips, ginger and licorice root. This is a fantastic way to get a lot of complex flavor into a syrup, and these flavors play very nicely with the rye and Aperol in my Sassy Comeback!

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Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict

The most traditional food associated with the Kentucky Derby is a “hot brown sandwich,” classically prepared on toasted brioche, with roasted turkey, tomatoes, bacon and an elegant Mornay sauce. Like every recipe, there are thousands of versions out there. Mine is a little bit of a twist, in that I’ve transformed it into one of my favorite brunch options—a Benedict.

Here’s something else I want to share: last week, my aunt offered to send me some of the Depression glass and vintage dishes that my grandmother owned before she passed away last summer. The dishes arrived just in time for my Kentucky Derby preview party, and that makes this all the more special to me.

Let’s Get Cooking!

Straight up, I’ll admit this is kind of a fussy recipe, not for the faint of heart in the kitchen. But if you love the journey of delivering up a photo-worthy dish, I hope you’ll pour some champagne (or a Sparkly Britches Cucumber Lemonade) and give it a try. My egg poaching skills aren’t top-notch, but I’m going to teach you an easy way to “cheat” through it for an end result that’s every bit as pretty. And don’t let the “Mornay” scare you—honestly, it’s just a fancy way to say “cheese sauce,” and it’s very easy to make. Read through the instructions before you begin. This recipe makes two individual Benedicts.

Ingredients – The Mornay

1 Tbsp. butter
1 Tbsp. flour
½ cup milk
2 oz. grated or shredded Gruyere cheese (or substitute Swiss)
Kosher or sea salt to taste
Freshly grated nutmeg (or about 1/8 tsp. ground nutmeg)

Ingredients – The Benedict

1 English muffin, fork split*
2 slices bacon, cut in half
1 Roma tomato, cut crosswise into 6 slices (about 1/4” thick)
2 Tbsp. chopped sweet onion
2 oz. very thinly sliced deli turkey—about 1/3 cup packed, cut into shredded pieces
2 large free-range eggs
Snipped fresh chives for garnish
Mornay sauce

*not a fan of English muffins? Throw caution to the wind and serve this on a fluffy Southern biscuit!


Small saucepan
Small whisk
Microplane (optional, for grating nutmeg)
Cheese grater (or use microplane)
Skillet for cooking bacon
Additional skillet (optional)
Spatula or turner
2 custard cups (or small teacups) for separating eggs
Small mesh strainer (optional)
Tea kettle
Small (7”) non-stick skillet with tight (preferably glass) lid
Additional small lid for keeping eggs warm

Instructions – The Mornay

In a small saucepan, heat 1 Tbsp. salted butter until melted and bubbly at edges. Add 1 Tbsp. flour and whisk to combine. Cook until mixture changes appearance and bubbles throughout. Add milk and whisk until fully blended. Keep over medium heat until bubbling and thickened. Grate fresh nutmeg into the sauce, then add grated gruyere cheese and a pinch of salt, whisking until smooth. Turn heat to warm setting while you prepare the other items.

Instructions – The Benedict

Cook the bacon strips to desired doneness and set aside on paper towels. Load your English muffin halves into the toaster so it’s ready to go at plating time.

Pour off bacon grease and wipe skillet clean to use for the next step. Or, heat a second cast-iron pan or griddle over medium heat for about 5 minutes. Add about 1 Tbsp. olive oil and add onions, tossing to caramelize. Pile the onions into the middle of the skillet, and place the tomato slices around the outside. Cook the tomatoes until both sides show signs of caramelization (those gorgeous little charred spots is what you’re going for here).

I grilled the Roma tomato slices just long enough to warm and caramelize them. My husband snapped the pictures, and caught me here in mid-flip. Nice camera work, Babe!

Move the tomatoes to a plate or cutting board to avoid burning them. Add the chopped deli turkey to the onions and toss to warm and caramelize the edges. Turn off the heat and set aside for plating. It’s about to get fussy in here.

If you already have a preferred way to cook poached eggs—well, you’re my new hero! Although I completely love poached eggs on any restaurant brunch menu, making them at home wears my patience pretty thin. I’m going to show you my “cheat” method of steam-poaching eggs, and it works great for me. Do what works for you.

First, turn on the heat under your tea kettle, or run some very hot tap water into a measuring cup with a pour spout. You’re going to need hot water for this process.

Crack one egg into a custard cup. Place a small mesh strainer over a second cup and gently roll the egg into the strainer, allowing some of the egg white to drain through to the extra cup. An egg white actually has two distinct parts—the firm white, which is the pretty part, and the loose and runny white, which leaves unappealing shaggy edges on a poached or fried egg. We’re getting rid of the runny white part so the egg steams more cleanly. If you don’t have a mesh strainer, or if you’re not a stickler for a pretty plate, you can skip this step. But this is a fancy-schmancy brunch dish we’re making, so I’m doing it. Besides, I can burn more calories later if I have a sink full of dirty dishes.

Discard the runny white, then do the same with the second egg, keeping each egg in its own cup.

Drop the English muffin to toast it. Whisk the Mornay. Sip champagne. Breathe.

Heat a small non-stick skillet over medium heat for about 1 minute. Carefully pour about 1/4 cup hot water directly into the empty skillet. It will sputter and perhaps even seem to boil, and this is good! Gently slip the first egg onto the boiling water and immediately cover with a tight fitting lid. Allow the egg to cook for about 1 minute, and watch for a light film to form over the yolk. With a rubber spatula or wide spoon, gently remove the egg to a plate lined with a paper towel. Cover with another lid to keep it warm while you prepare the second egg.


Place a small spoonful of the Mornay in the center of each serving plate, to help keep the muffins from sliding around. Next, smear about 1 Tbsp. of sauce over the top of each toasted muffin half, then top each with the turkey-onion mixture, the tomato slices, a generous drape of Mornay sauce and a poached egg. Sprinkle with snipped chives and top with the cooked bacon slices, placing them cross-wise for optimal image to impress your guest.

This Benedict looks fit for a millionaire! If you listen closely, you might be able to hear Gram say, “Well, isn’t that elegant?”


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Kentucky Hot Brown Dip

Not everyone has the time (or the patience) to make a fussy Kentucky Hot Brown Benedict, or the traditional open-faced brioche sandwich that served as inspiration for it. Here’s a super simple way to enjoy all the same flavors, but in a make-ahead dip version. You’ll notice that my recipe does not mention adding salt—this is not accidental. I’ve used deli sliced turkey to keep it simple. Between that and the bacon, the recipe doesn’t need more salt.


4 slices thin uncured bacon, cut into 1/2” pieces

About 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup sweet onion

3 oz. thinly sliced deli turkey, chopped into smaller pieces—about 1/2 cup packed

1 pkg. (8 oz.) Neufchatel cream cheese

1/4 cup light mayo

1/4 cup light sour cream

Small handful fresh Italian parsley, cleaned and chopped

1 small (10 oz.) can Rotel tomatoes (mild version), drained completely

3/4 cup Swiss-Gruyere cheese blend from Trader Joe’s

2 Tbsp. grated parmesan cheese (and extra to sprinkle on top)

Freshly ground black pepper


Cast-iron skillet
Stand mixer or electric hand mixer
Rubber spatula
Cutting board and knife
Small non-stick skillet
Oven-safe baking dish (volume about 4 cups)*


Place cast iron skillet over medium heat and cook bacon pieces until crispy. Set aside on paper towels to drain; when cool, chop the crispy pieces into smaller, basically uniform bits.

Place small skillet over medium heat and add olive oil. When it begins to shimmer, add chopped onions and sauté until caramelized. Add chopped turkey to the pan and continue to sauté until turkey pieces have browned edges. Set aside to cool.

In mixer bowl, whip cream cheese until smooth. Add mayonnaise and sour cream and whip again until blended, stopping once to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. Add Swiss-Gruyere blend, parmesan, parsley and tomatoes and mix gently until blended (don’t whip too much or tomatoes will lose their shape and turn the cream cheese pink). Season with freshly ground black pepper.

Remove the bowl from the mixer and use a silicone spatula to gently fold the turkey and onions, plus half of the crispy bacon, into the cream cheese mixture. Transfer the dip mixture to an oven-safe baking dish*, and top with remaining crispy bacon and another sprinkle of parmesan.

* We are still doing physical distancing (which is really bumming me out, but still necessary), so I’ve divided the dip mixture into separate ramekins to share with friends and neighbors for their own private Virtual Kentucky Derby gatherings (of two). These adorable dishes were handed down from my grandma, and I just love them! Each holds about 1 1/4 cups of dip mixture.

Proceed with baking, or cover and store in the fridge up to 3 days, until ready to serve.

Baking and Serving

Preheat oven to 350° F. Bake, loosely covered with foil, for about 20 minutes. Remove foil and bake 10 minutes longer, or until hot and bubbly.

Serve piping hot, spread on crackers, baguette slices or these dainty little brioche toasts I found at Trader Joe’s.

These seem appropriate, in keeping with the traditional “Hot Brown” open face sandwich on brioche.

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Hearts of Palm Citrus “Ceviche”

In case you haven’t tried them (or maybe even heard of them), hearts of palm are exactly as the name implies—the inner core of a palm plant. For whatever reason, you don’t often see them on restaurant menus, unless you’re in a swanky place with chandeliers and linen napkins and one of those servers who is compulsively whisking the crumbs off your table. I first learned of them during my tenure as a part-time catering kitchen helper, and though I didn’t mind hearts of palm, I have largely ignored them.

Until now.

There’s nothing terribly exciting about hearts of palm on their own—they’re neither strong in flavor nor impressive to look at. They’re just slender, creamy white-colored stalks which you might occasionally find playing a background role in a salad. But ever since I spotted a faux crab cake recipe on Pinterest, where hearts of palm stood in for crab, I’ve had it in my mind to give them a starring role in a vegan version of ceviche, and you know what? It works!

Ceviche is traditionally a tropical appetizer type of dish, centered on raw fish cured with citrus juices, and it is usually flavored up with some combination of onions, hot peppers, cilantro and avocado. But this is a Kentucky Derby party, so we are putting a classy twist on those ingredients, serving it up salad style, and swapping out the tropical notes for fresh spring flavors—cucumber and mint. Along the way, I’ll show you some of the easy tricks I learned from my catering mentors for making a dish prettier—which, obviously, also makes it tastier. Enjoy!


1/2 large pink or ruby red grapefruit, cut into sections, reserve juice
Juice of 1 fresh lime, divided
1 tsp. Dijon mustard
1 tsp. sugar* (see catering tips)
1/4 cup (4 Tbsp.) extra virgin olive oil (mild flavor)
2 Persian cucumbers, peeled* and cut lengthwise, then sliced into half moons
1 can (14 oz.) hearts of palm, chilled in fridge
2 Tbsp. finely chopped red onion
1/2 small, firm avocado
Mixed baby greens or leaf lettuce
Chopped parsley and mint leaves for garnish


Section your grapefruit by cutting in half crosswise, then running a knife first around the outside edge of one half, then up close to each side of the section membranes. Spoon out the sections into a medium bowl and strain the remaining grapefruit peel over a measuring cup to save all the juice. Wrap the remaining grapefruit half and save it for another use.

Juice 1/2 of the lime, and add about 1 Tbsp. of the reserved grapefruit juice. Whisk in Dijon mustard and salt and pepper to taste. Add olive oil in a stream, whisking constantly, until dressing is thick and emulsified. If your olive oil is very robust, substitute something neutral—avocado or canola oil would be good.

Cut the avocado in half, carefully split the halves apart and use a paring knife to cut a crosshatch design into the flesh, then spoon around the edges to release the avocado pieces into the bowl with the grapefruit pieces. Immediately squeeze the remaining half of lime over the avocado to prevent browning. Squeeze any remaining lime juice into the dressing.

Drain hearts of palm. Blot dry on paper towels, cut lengthwise into quarters, then slice into 1/2” pieces and empty into a medium bowl with red onions, grapefruit sections, cucumbers and avocado pieces.

Pour dressing over hearts of palm mixture and gently fold with a rubber spatula to coat the salad with the dressing. Don’t stir the mixture, lest you reduce the avocado and hearts of palm to a mushy mess. Refrigerate up to an hour before serving a generous spoonful of “ceviche” atop a mound of mixed greens, and garnish with the chopped parsley and mint. If you happen to have some of my grandmother’s beautiful Depression glass fruit bowls, use those!

On a bed of baby greens and spinach, this is so pretty.

*Catering Tips

If you’re making the cucumber or mint simple syrups for the Kentucky Derby Sips recipes, substitute a couple teaspoons of that for the sugar here. When you repeat a flavor across different elements of your meal, it’s called “echoing,” and it helps tie things together in your senses. You don’t want to go overboard, of course, or everything will taste the same. But here, it will be cool and refreshing, a contrast to the rich hot browns, and in harmony with your Sparkly Britches or Kentucky Love Child (you can’t imagine how goofy it feels to write that sentence).

This weird looking little thing is one of my favorite tools for creating a prettier presentation. You should get one of these.

A garnish zester can be used in a couple of ways—a quick scrape of a lemon with the five tiny holes produces tiny shreds of zest, and in this recipe, I’ve used the channel blade to strip away part (but not all) of the cucumber peel. It’s also fine to peel the whole thing, but I think this elevates the look of the pieces. In hindsight, I could have also prepped some of the grapefruit zest for the top of the salad. Next time!

The bed of baby greens is edible of course (everything you put on a plate should be, including flowers), but it also serves two other purposes—visually, it’s prettier than the salad in a bowl by itself, and the lettuce also allows excess dressing to run underneath, which keeps your salad from getting mushy.

If you’re serving a salad for a crowd (Have hope—one day we will meet again this way!), consider a platter rather than a bowl. Line it with greens, as suggested for single serving on this recipe, and spoon the mixture over the leaves. It’s an easy way to really show off the pretty dish you’ve made and gives the impression of a larger dish. (Don’t forget to use a clean damp towel to tidy up the platter!)

A professional would never leave drips on the plate. Be a professional.

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