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? 😀


Soft Pita Breads

(and a BONUS recipe!)

This recipe has become one of my go-to breads. It’s simple to make and doesn’t require use of the oven, which is great when the weather is warm. This is an adaptation of a recipe from King Arthur Flour. Theirs is great, but I always substitute a portion of whole wheat flour into the recipe, and I add milled flax seed and onion flavor to this one as well. It’s an unusual style of recipe, which begins with “cooking” some of the flour with boiling water. This unique method, and the addition of potato flakes, results in a very soft, bendable pita bread—perfect for gyros or souvlaki wraps, but you can also cut them into wedges and drag through a bowl of fresh hummus. Yum!

Ingredients

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour, divided* (see notes)

1 cup whole wheat flour* (I use KAF’s white whole wheat)

1 1/4 cups boiling water

1/2 cup dried potato flakes*

1 tsp. milled flax seed (optional)

1 1/4 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. onion powder

1 tsp. instant yeast*

2 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil

*Notes

Accurately measure the flour by fluffing it, spooning it into measuring cup, and leveling off.

Look for potato flakes without added ingredients (Whole Foods has them). Or use real cooked potato and only 3/4 cup water in the recipe, and use the potato cooking water.

Instant yeast does not behave in the same way as active dry yeast, which needs to be “proved” first. Dissolve active dry yeast for five minutes in a few tablespoons of warm water, and reduce the overall water in the recipe by the same amount. If your yeast doesn’t become foamy during this step, it’s dead (I’m so sorry for your loss). Next time, keep it in the freezer.

Instructions

Add 1 cup all-purpose flour and the whole wheat flour into a mixing bowl, and pour the boiling water over it. Mix with a heavy spoon (or use a stand mixer) until combined and smooth. This is going to feel a little bit like paste, but trust me, they will turn out great. Cover and allow mixture to rest 30 minutes.

Combine the remaining all-purpose flour with rest of the dry ingredients and add to the cooked flour paste. Mix until fully incorporated, then add olive oil to the mixing bowl and knead several minutes until dough is smooth and supple. Shape dough into a ball and allow it to rise, covered, in a lightly oiled bowl about 1 hour until it is puffy. If it doesn’t bounce back when you poke it, you’re ready to proceed. If it giggles, well…

Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface, gently deflate, and cut into eight pieces. Shape the pieces into balls, then cover with a clean towel and allow them to rest 15 minutes. This gives the gluten time to relax so the dough is easier to roll.

Heat a griddle or dry skillet over medium-low heat (about 325° F). While surface is heating, roll out one dough ball at a time (on floured surface) into a thin circle, about 8 inches across. Cook about 1 minute on the first side or until you see toasty flecks on the bottom. Carefully turn to cook the other side 1 minute. The pita breads will puff up quite a bit on the griddle while the second side is cooking. Remove them to a wire rack.

These are best enjoyed right away, but you can also cool them completely and store in a tightly sealed bag at room temperature for about 4 days. King Arthur says you can freeze them, but I’ve never tried it because we always devour them within a day or two. Leftovers (if you have them) are great as scrambled egg wraps.

But wait, there’s MORE!

Souvlaki Bonus Recipe

There’s so much flavor in these tasty little bites, you’ll be surprised at how easy it is to make them. They’re mouthwateringly lemony, packed with Mediterranean herbal flavor, and versatile. Serve them on soft pita breads with tzatziki or on top of a Greek salad. They’re also not bad eaten cold, straight from the fridge. Or, so I’ve heard. Give the marinade plenty of time to work its magic—the results are definitely worth the wait!

Ingredients

1 pound boneless, skinless chicken breast*

Juice of 1 large lemon

1 Tbsp. red wine vinegar

3 or 4 cloves fresh garlic, finely chopped

2 tsp. dried Mediterranean oregano

1 tsp. dried thyme leaves

1/2 tsp. each kosher salt and freshly cracked black pepper

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

*This marinade is also delicious on pork. Cut up 1 pound of lean pork loin and proceed as for chicken. It would be tasty on shrimp also, but reduce the marinating time to 1 hour and shorten cooking time as well.

Instructions

Cut chicken breast into bite-size chunks and add them to a large glass (or other non-reactive) bowl. In a measuring cup with a pour spout, combine lemon juice, vinegar, garlic, herbs, salt and pepper. Drizzle the olive oil into the mixture, whisking constantly, until it’s combined. Pour marinade over the chicken pieces and toss to coat, then cover and refrigerate several hours to overnight.

Preheat gas grill to 400° F. Thread chicken pieces onto skewers or use a grilling pan. Discard remaining marinade. Cook chicken 12 to 14 minutes, turning to cook all sides, until edges are lightly charred and crispy, and juices run clear. Enjoy on a Greek salad or soft pita breads.

Want to print these recipes?


Colorful Sweet Potato Quinoa Salad

This dish practically sings “Meatless Monday!” It has lots of color and interesting texture, it works either warm or cold, it’s easy to make from simple ingredients, and it’s vegan, low-calorie, high-fiber, gluten-free and flexible on spice. Somehow, it still manages to taste delicious.

Skip straight down to the picture if you’re ready for the recipe, but if you’re new to the idea of quinoa, allow me to make a proper introduction:

What the heck is quinoa?

Quinoa has been around for thousands of years, but it only surfaced into the mainstream American diet a decade or so ago. It is native to South America—Peru and Bolivia specifically, but is now being grown in the southern part of Colorado (in an area where I once lived) and a few other regions in Washington state and Idaho. It’s pronounced “KEEN-wah,” and its nutritional value is exceptional, offering high levels of protein, B vitamins, manganese and phosphorous. It’s often lumped into the “grain” category, but quinoa is technically related to spinach and amaranth. Although the leaves are also edible, the part we usually eat is the seed, which can range in color from pale straw to red to nearly black, depending on the cultivar. On the pale end, it’s mild and almost nutty. On the dark side, expect a deeper earthy flavor.

Why does quinoa taste bitter?

It shouldn’t. If the quinoa dishes you’ve tried had a bitter or soapy taste, it may not have been rinsed well enough before cooking. Nature takes care of itself, and this tiny seed grows with its own special coating designed to keep birds and insects away. Much of that coating is removed during processing before the quinoa gets to market, but you may want to give it another thorough rinse under running water for about 1 minute before cooking it. Use a mesh strainer, because the seeds are very small and will slip right through a typical colander.

How do you cook quinoa?

You can cook quinoa either from its raw, dried state or you can lightly toast it (after rinsing) in the pan first. A basic recipe is a little less than 2 cups water (or broth) to 1 cup quinoa. Combine in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Reduce heat to a very low simmer, cover and cook about 15 minutes. When it’s done, the quinoa will have absorbed all the water and the edges of the seed will separate a bit. It kind of looks like the seeds have little tails. Properly cooked quinoa is fluffy, not soggy or mushy. This recipe will make almost 3 cups of cooked quinoa.

How do you use quinoa?

Quinoa is a very versatile ingredient, and its mild flavor makes it suitable for all kinds of application. Serve it warm as a breakfast cereal with a dollop of vanilla yogurt and fresh blueberries (talk about a power breakfast!), or season it with herbs and spices as a bed for fish, meat or vegetables. You can also toss it into a salad in place of other grains such as rice or barley, or add it to soup for texture and protein.

Now, about this recipe for Colorful Sweet Potato Quinoa Salad…

It’s colorful, has texture and flavor galore, and so satisfying. What’s not to like?

Ingredients

2 cups cooked quinoa (I used tri-color)

1 large sweet potato (mine was a little bigger than the can of beans)

Extra virgin olive oil

Kosher salt, black pepper and cumin

1 can (15 oz.) black beans, drained and rinsed

1/2 medium red onion, chopped

1 cup frozen sweet corn*

2 Tbsp. chopped pickled jalapeno (optional)

Fresh chopped parsley or cilantro for serving

*My preferred corn for this would have been the fire roasted sweet corn from Trader Joe’s, but all we had in the freezer was this southwestern corn, and it worked great! Next time, I’ll probably add chopped red pepper to this recipe.

They will never convince me that it’s safe to steam food in a plastic bag.
I used about half this bag, from frozen, and the recipe turned out great.

Ingredients – the Dressing

Juice of one lime

1 clove garlic, finely minced

Pinch of sugar (I used coconut sugar)

1/2 tsp. Dijon mustard

Kosher salt, black pepper, cumin and (optional) ground chipotle

1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil

Instructions

Preheat oven to 400° F. Peel sweet potato and cut into large, bite-size chunks. Toss on parchment lined baking sheet with a generous drizzle of olive oil, season with salt, pepper and cumin to taste, and roast about 20 minutes. Sweet potato chunks should be tender enough to pierce with a fork but not soft enough to smash. Set aside to cool.

Heat a small skillet over medium heat and add a swirl of olive oil. Sauté red onions about 5 minutes, or just until lightly softened. Add frozen corn, salt and pepper to taste, and cook just until corn is heated through.

In a large bowl, combine drained beans, cooked quinoa, roasted and cooled sweet potato, corn with onions, and chopped jalapeno.

Arranging the ingredients in the bowl this way helps me gauge how much of each is correct.

In a glass measuring cup, combine lime juice with Dijon, garlic and spices (use cumin and optional chipotle to your own taste), then whisk olive oil into the mixture until emulsified and slightly thickened. Taste the dressing and adjust as desired. Pour the dressing over the bowl ingredients, toss and serve.

We enjoyed this warm as a Meatless Monday entrée, but it would also be good as a side salad to chicken, burgers or fish, and the leftovers were just as delicious cold from the fridge.

Meatless Monday, easy and done!

Want to print this recipe?


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!

Want to print these recipes?


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!

Tools

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.

Plating:

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?”

Perfect.

Want to print this recipe?


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.

Ingredients

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

Tools

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)*

Instructions

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.

Want to print this recipe?


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!

Ingredients

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

Instructions

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.

Want to print this recipe?


Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Balls

Think of these as very grown-up candies! During the mixing step, it will seem a little bit like you’re making mortar—it’s sooo thick and gooey. But once you have shaped and chilled them, they’ll be wonderful. What I like about this recipe is that it doesn’t involve making ganache, which is an extra step of melting chocolate in heavy cream in a double boiler. Using pantry ingredients keeps it simple, but make no mistake—these itty bitty bites are still impressive. Unlike the ganache-style truffles, these have some texture to them, thanks to the graham crumbs and pecans.

This recipe makes about 24 bourbon truffles. They pack a pretty boozy punch so don’t serve them to children or non-drinkers.

Ingredients

1 cup dry toasted, unsalted pecan pieces

3/4 cup Kentucky bourbon, divided

2 sleeves graham crackers

1/2 cup dark cocoa powder, divided

1/2 cup powdered sugar, divided 1/4 cup Karo corn syrup (light or dark is fine)

Instructions

In a small bowl, pour about half the bourbon over the pecan pieces and let them relax (in a drunken stupor) for about 3 hours.

Break the graham crackers into pieces, pulse in a food processor or blender until they are fine crumbs. Transfer the crumbs to a large mixing bowl.

Preheat the oven to 325° F. Use a slotted spoon to remove the pecans from the bourbon and transfer them to a single layer on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or silicone baking mat. Reserve the soaking bourbon. Bake the pecans until they’re dry and lightly toasted, about 12 minutes or up to 15 minutes (be careful not to burn). Cool, then chop finely or pulse in a food processor, but not to the point of powder. They should have a texture similar to panko crumbs.

Combine 1/4 cup each of the cocoa and powdered sugar in a small bowl or zip-top bag, and set aside for dusting the finished truffles.

Add the chopped pecans, all remaining bourbon (including the soaking portion), corn syrup, and the remaining cocoa and powdered sugar to the bowl of graham cracker crumbs. Prepare to get messy. Stir these ingredients together until no dry pockets remain. It will be sticky and gooey, but keep going. When the mixture is fully blended, rub your hands with a little dab of butter and roll a heaping tablespoon at a time into a ball. Place the bourbon balls on a parchment-lined tray, cover with plastic and chill for about 2 hours.

When balls are chilled and firm, gently roll them around in the reserved cocoa-sugar mixture until they’re well coated. Cover and chill again until ready to serve. If desired, give them another roll in the cocoa-sugar when you’re ready to present them. I think they’re cute in these little mini-muffin papers, and your guests will be able to pick them up without tongs.

Boozy truffle, anyone?

Elevate your happy, Comfort du Jour style!

I decided to make these Chocolate Bourbon Pecan Truffles even more impressive by rolling them in different types of coatings. Try doing a third of them in the cocoa-powdered sugar blend, a third in super-fine (caster) sugar and a third in finely chopped pecans. One recipe, but three treatments, gives the impression of variety but with very minimal extra effort.

Want to print this recipe?


Southern Belle Lemon Bars

It was an innocent enough text, sent to me by my BFF: “Do you make lemon bars?”

And that began our annual tradition of me making lemon bars as Ruthanne’s special homemade birthday treat. The first batch was a simple Martha Stewart recipe I found online, but as I’ve already noted in another post, I cannot leave well enough alone. No disrespect to Martha, but Ruthanne is usually doing one or another version of low-carb eating, so for her, I’ve scaled back some of the flour in favor of almond flour. And I’ve cut back on the sugar as well, which really allows the fresh-squeezed lemon to take (nearly) full credit for the deliciousness these squares bring to spring.

But it isn’t the almond in the crust or the skimping on sugar that really makes these different. My secret weapon is a little known ingredient called Fiori di Sicilia.

This ingredient adds a memorable touch to baked goods. Look for it in specialty stores or online from King Arthur Flour.

You may think you’ve never heard of it, but I’ll bet you’d recognize the flavor. It’s an Italian specialty extract, and tastes like Meyer lemon, oranges and vanilla. Kind of like a creamsicle, one of my favorite ice cream treats of childhood. Fiori di Sicilia is the special flavor that makes panettone tastes like panettone. And today, it will bring a unique twist to these lemon bars for our Kentucky Derby Preview.

So there you have it. My secret lemon bar ingredient is out. I considered naming this dessert “Ruthanne’s Favorite Lemon Bars,” but this secret is pretty delicious. And if this post were to go viral—well, I’m not sure she’s ready for that kind of attention.

Ingredients

1 stick unsalted butter, room temperature

1/4 cup powdered sugar, plus more for dusting

1/4 tsp. sea salt

1/2 cup all-purpose flour (measure by fluffing, sprinkling and leveling)

1/2 cup very fine almond flour

4 large egg yolks

1 can sweetened condensed milk

3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (about 3 good size lemons)

Zest of one lemon (organic is best)

A few drops Fiori di Sicilia* (a little goes a long way)

Instructions

Preheat oven to 350° F. Butter an 8-inch square baking pan. Line bottom with parchment paper, leaving an overhang on two sides, and butter the paper for easy release when the bars are done.

Using an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, and salt until light and fluffy. Add flour and almond flour, and mix on low just until combined. Scrape down bowl a couple of times to ensure even mixing. Press dough into the bottom and 1/2 inch up sides of prepared pan. This might be tricky because the almond flour isn’t as stiff as all-purpose flour—if your fingers stick, either sprinkle a bit of flour over the mixture to act as a buffer, or put the whole pan in the fridge 20 minutes and try again. Prick all over the surface with a fork. Bake until lightly golden, 20 to 25 minutes.

In a large bowl, whisk together yolks, condensed milk and lemon juice until smooth. Whisk in Fiori di Sicilia. Allow crust to cool about 5 minutes, then gently pour lemon filling over crust in pan, return to oven and bake until filling is set, about 25 to 30 minutes. Set the pan on a cooling rack and cool completely.

Cover the pan with plastic wrap and refrigerate until filling is firm, at least 2 hours. Using paper overhang, lift cake onto a work surface; cut into 9 or 16 squares, and dust with powdered sugar just before serving.

I trimmed the slightly overdone edges. No harm, no foul!

*Catering tip:

Cutting the lemon bars neatly can be a fussy task. Do what the pros do—use a very sharp knife, run it under warm water before you begin, and wipe blade clean with a damp kitchen towel before you begin and between cuts. The filling won’t accumulate on the blade, so it won’t transfer back onto the lemon bars.

Unless you have the special sugar that baking professionals use, it’s likely that your dusting of powdered sugar will melt into the lemon bars. For prettiest presentation, dust them just before serving.

Want to print this recipe?