Ash Wednesday, no meat.
Rice, beans, mac-n-cheese, fish sticks.
Thinking about steak.

For the past four years (not including the semester I studied abroad in London), I have cooked some great food for my Super Bowl Parties. Freshman year in college, I took it upon myself to orchestrate a spread feeding about 15 of my closest friends. I made two lasagnas, completely from scratch (no canned sauce for me, I had to make my own!) in my dormitory kitchen, along with about 5 or 6 other side dishes. We crammed all the food and people into a room only slightly bigger than my office cubicle and watched Janet Jackson’s nipple while eating.

So I really had no excuse this year not to cook. I’m in my own apartment, I have a decently well-stocked kitchen, and I should have kept with tradition. Instead, we ordered pizzas, bought chips and already-prepared dip, frozen buffalo wings, some 2 liters of soda…

…And I felt really guilty. Sometime around noon on Sunday, I realized that I was making nothing from scratch and a legitimate wave of guilt washed over me. I blame three things: Saturday’s Soulard Mardi Gras, my Catholic faith and my mom–who wouldn’t even buy pre-made french onion dip, preferring to mix her own.

But I forged ahead, the Tostitos-queso-buying rebel that I am, the party was a success, and all bellies were satisfied. At least my friend Angie made some of her amazing (from scratch!) spinach artichoke dip and chocolate cake, and Susan brought veggies, so not everyone was damned to culinary hell. But anyways, who cares? I can’t think of anything better than Ruffles and French Onion Dip on a rainy Sunday Superbowl Afternoon.

Not a bad combination, right?

I’m a fan of impromptu dinner parties. My mom was the queen of them–many a weekday night saw her “adding more water to the soup” and a few more places set at the already full table if friends stopped in on their way to somewhere. Actually, a few children who were frequent attendees announced to their mothers that our house was their “favorite fast food restaurant” in town. Ironic, considering mom’s meals were always made-from-scratch, and her menus weren’t always classic American fare (Nana’s Slovakian Halupkis, anyone?).

Last week I turned my apartment into my own “fast food restaurant” for my roommate and good friend. I ran home after a good post-work gym session, and had a great meal whipped up in about 20 minutes (or as long as it took the pasta water pot to boil). The shrimp scampi was simple and very easy, I bought a nice baguette the day before and popped that in the oven to warm it up, and roasted some asparagus.

The asparagus was very easy…easy enough to not even warrant its own recipe. Just toss together some garlic, olive oil, fresh ground black pepper, and a pinch of red pepper flakes, drizzle over the spears arranged on a cookie sheet, throw a few kalamata olives on top (a little drizzle of the olive juice is never bad, either) and roast at a high temperature.

This meal is even better accompanied with that tall glass of deliciousness, Jude Law (we watched Alfie while eating).

Shrimp Scampi with Angel Hair Past (adapted a bit from my favorite cookbook ever, The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cooks Illustrated)

2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil

shrimp (the cookbook calls for 2 pounds of uncooked shrimp, but I bought a bag of the smallish, already-cooked frozen ones, and that was OK for an inexpensive, weeknight meal)

6 tablespoons butter (the recipe calls for 3 tablespoons, but if you are serving with pasta, you need more juice)

4 medium garlic cloves, pressed

2 tablespoons lemon juice (use fresh! better!)

1 tablespoon dry vermouth

2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley

pinch cayenne pepper

Salt and fresh ground black pepper

Heat 1 tablespoon of the olive oil in a large saucepan, then throw in half the shrimp and cook quickly. If you are using raw shrimp, cook only about 2 minutes. If you are using already-cooked shrimp, defrost beforehand and keep them in the pan long enough to warm them up. You don’t want to overcook them. Transfer the cooked shrimp to a holding dish and put aside.

Return the saute pan to the heat, and melt half the butter. When the foaming subsides, add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 30 seconds (never, ever, EVER overcook or burn garlic. You’ll regret it when you have little bits of burnt bitterness). Take off of heat, stir in lemon juice and vermouth. Whisk in the remaining butter, parsley and cayenne, add salt and pepper to taste. Throw in the shrimp, toss with angel hair pasta, and serve!

Pretty, yes? Almost as delicious as Jude.

I think the day I discovered Gus’ Prezels was the day I realized that I really, really liked this city. I’m a sucker for tradition, for family-owned businesses, for local establishments, for cheap food, and for cooked dough covered with salt (see Exhibit 1, below). I know this is old hat for your seasoned St. Louisans, but indulge this transplant a bit as I pay homage to a local tradition.

(Salzburg, Austria, February 2006. Note the glazed eyes, I’m like a pig in slop)

My love affairs with soft pretzels started during visits to my grandparents home close to Philadelphia. My grandfather would take us to Philly’s games at the old Vet Stadium and we’d buy brown paper bags of the things from vendors hawking them outside. 3 for $1. Much better, I think, than buying them from the regular concession stand. Cheaper, definitely.

But back to Gus. What is not to love? For $2.50, you can get a delicious brat or salsiccia cooked inside the best soft pretzel you’ve ever tasted. The meat is so moist, all the juices kept inside by the perfectly chewy outer pretzel casing, and to get to it you bite through the shiny, crispy, and salty pretzel exterior. You also get a free show for this low, low price: the “factory” part of the shop is behind glass windows, and you can watch the machines roll the dough into pieces of deliciousness over and over and over and over again. Its quite mesmerizing, and it would be hard to tear myself away if I weren’t such a glutton for a good soft pretzel stuffed with sausage.

If you want a pretzel sans meat, they can be yours for $.50 each. Or, if you’re in the mood to buy 99, the price drops to an even more affordable $.35 each. Dip them in a little pot of cheese sauce ($.60), if you must (weenie), or be a purist and only use yellow mustard. I’d even suggest their take-home frozen pretzels, that come complete with cooking instructions and a little baggie of rock salt. I may or may not have had 2 or 3 for dinner one night. Or, just go ahead and get everything…even your name spelled out in pretzel letters.

If it were summer, I’d do what I did when I brought my entire family (parents plus 5 siblings) there when they visited: Get a whole sackful, and walk two blocks down to the park and have a lovely outdoor picnic in the grass, under a tree.

I’m hungry now.

Nothing says “welcome to adulthood” like purchasing your very own crock pot. Last January I was trudging through the snow, going to classes and college bars in South Bend, Indiana, and now I am wheeling carts around Target buying kitchen appliances that makes meals for families of 4-5.

I’m excited to put it to work, especially now that St. Louis has decided to get cold/snowy/icy/sleety, but I don’t have any good recipes. A college friend volunteered a french dip beef recipe (I’m glad to know I’m not the only 23-year-old-turned-seasoned-housewife) but I’d appreciate any additional ideas.

There’s this phenomenon–I can’t really explain it–by which I suddenly become seized with the desire to make cupcakes, on an otherwise ordinary day. There is no rhyme or reason to it, but dang, when my mind decides it wants cupcakes, there’s no changing it.

For the most part, I give into my urge by buying this and this (only the rainbow chip frosting will d0) and within 20 minutes I am hearkening back to the childhood I never had because my mom was one of those annoying moms who only made from-scratch baked goods.

But this past week, I decided to grab heart disease by the horns and try a new recipe from a cookbook my roommate gave me for Christmas: Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey, by Jill O’Connor.

And no, that jar of Hellman’s in the picture isn’t leftover from making turkey sandwiches. That’s the essential ingredient in these delicious chocolate cupcakes. Quite an easy recipe (below) that results in these simple, spongy little chocolate cakes, just ready to be slathered with the accompanying Caramel-Butterscotch Buttercream Frosting. You’d think a cupcake with mayonnaise in it wouldn’t be able to handle such rich icing, but on the contrary, they are so simple and un-rich that they need something wildly out of control on top.

Once my cupcakes were in the oven, I decided to tackle this obscenity. I’m glad I had nothing pressing in my evening, because I was quite unprepared for the hour-long jaunt I had with this recipe. To give you an idea of its ingredients, I’ll tell you that Monday morning my refrigerator housed:

1 cup of heavy whipping cream

6 eggs

6 sticks of butter

Monday night, the inside of my refrigerator saw:

-none of the above.

It was quite the ordeal, this Caramel-Butterscotch Buttercream. I made caramel. It seized up because I didn’t pour in the cream in one fell swoop. I double-boiled an egg and sugar mixture, while beating with a hand beater for 10 minutes. Then, I did this with the six. sticks. of. butter…

…and dropped this plastic-wrapped-rolled-out butter tablespoon by tablespoon into the sugar/egg mixture. And, unfortunately, it never really came together too well. It got grainy and in defiance of what the cookbook promised, it never de-curdled. I mean, don’t get me wrong, nothing with that much butter, sugar, eggs, and cream ever tastes bad, but I wasn’t impressed with the texture or the way the recipe was put together.

So, at the end of the night, my cupcake craving was satisfied. The rest of my dinner wasn’t very glamorous, or nutritious (Zatarain’s Red Beans and Rice is delicious, though) but the dessert was worth the two hours it took, I’d say… although next time I’m just going to Schnucks and buying the mix.

Chocolate-Mayonnaise Cupcakes

From Sticky, Chewy, Messy, Gooey by Jill O’Connor

2 cups bleached, all-purpose flour

3/4 cup natural cocoa powder (I am embarrassed to say that I only had 1/2 cup. That upset me, and then I realized I have 2 boxes of Swiss Miss packets left over from a Christmas party thrown last year in college, and I threw it in there. It worked fine)

1 tsp. baking soda 1/4 tsp. salt

2 cups sugar

2 large eggs

1 cup mayonnaise (the cookbook says NOT low-fat. I think this goes without saying. If you are putting mayo in cupcakes, hell, use the real stuff)

2 tsp. pure vanilla extract

1 1/3 cups boiling water

Preheat oven to 350, line two standard muffin tins with cupcake liners.

In a large bowl, sift together first four ingredients.

In another bowl, combine the sugar and eggs and beat with an electric mixer for 2 minutes. Beat in mayo and vanilla until just combined. Reduce the speed tomedium and beat in half the flour mixture until just combined. Scrape the sides of the bowl. Add half the boiling water and beat at very low speed until batter is smooth, 5-10 seconds (yes. This is what the recipe says. However, I beat it for 15 seconds and the world kept turning). Add remaining flour and beat 5-10 seconds (ditto). Add remaining water. The batter will be thin, very thin actually. You might panic, like I did. But don’t, it works.

Fill the cupcake tins, bake until toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 18-22 minutes. Cool, frost, take a few aspirin.

*I am not including the recipe for the frosting. I am going to try another “true” buttercream one day (not the butter/powdered sugar/milk kind that everyone makes) and then I’ll tell you about it.

The best part about this whole story is that, despite eating many of the above, me, my roommate, and many of my friends are still alive, tickers ticking. Hallelujah.

Nothing says “I’m worldly and well-traveled” like a great dinner of Seared Ahi Tuna with a side of Spanikopita. And by well-traveled, I mean: I drive to Trader Joe’s on one side of town to get the best frozen spanikopita ever AND I’ve frequented the Soulard Farmer’s Market down in, well, Soulard. It was a good dinner, nothing too fancy, no matter what the words “ahi tuna” sound like to you. I could, however, serve it to company, although I might skip the Grecian side dish and say consistent w/ an asian-y theme.

And, for the record, I didn’t just eat those two things. If I list them, will you promise to make them sometime? Because they are oh-so-good, and pretty easy.

Seared Sesame Ahi Tuna

I’ve only been to Florida once, and that was for a week between my freshman and sophomore year of college, but that trip introduced me to the wonders of seared-on-the-outside-raw-on-the-inside delicious, tender, pink shashimi-grade ahi. I know its pretty standard fare, but it was love at first bite for me, and I haven’t ever had anything as good since. So, I decided to replicate it, with a little help from a seafood vendor in the stalls of the farmers market, selling me vacum-packed steaklets of ahi.

You need:

1 Ahi Tuna Steak. (As mentioned, Shashimi grade. No wild ahi, no white ahi. Pink.)

Sesame seeds. (White, or black, OR both!)

Canola Oil

Hot Pan, hot stove.

Defrost the fish, pat dry with paper towels. Roll in Sesame seeds, and be sure to coat the sides as well as the top and the bottom. Coat a frying pan with the oil and get hot–to the point that a bit of water flicked in dances and sizzles. Throw that tuna in, and sear–quickly–on all sides. The Sesame seeds will get nice and toasted, and the outside will turn white. Cook to your preference, but be sure to get a nice little rim of cooked fish on the outside, so that it will warm the inside. Slice thinly (you will need a sharp, sharp knife) and dip into some soy sauce before eating.

Serve with a side of spanikopita. Or, spanikopita with some roasted soy/garlic asparagus and dry steamed basmati rice. Or eat by itself. Or, serve on a bed of mixed salad greens, if you are trying to impress someone. You can do what I did, and watch reality television while the rice was steaming, scooping green olives out of a jar with a spoon.

Lay offa’ me. I was starving.

I am sorry to use an election term to start out my blog, in a time where “caucus” and “New Hampshire” have been so oversaid that it puts me on edge. But, its so appropriate! Forgive me for the clunkiness of this metaphor, but on this chilly January day, I’m swearing myself into the world of food + writing and I promise to make things happen in the years to come.

I’ve always loved to cook, always loved to eat, and always, always loved to read about anything culinary. As a kid, I’d read cookbooks. Not just flip through, no: cover to cover, noting descriptions, pictures, ingredients. When I got through my mom’s collection, I’d go to the library and check more out. You know you have it bad when you bring “Fannie Farmer’s Cookbook” to your brother’s Little League game.

Now that you know I was truly one cool cat growing up, here’s something else to know about me: If you said, “Kathleen. Forget your job. Forget your student loans, your responsibilities, and your attachment to stability. What would you do to make your heart happy?” My answer would be to drop everything, go to culinary school, then travel anywhere and everywhere eating as much as I could and writing about it. Consider this a compromise between my head and my heart, the best that I can do for the time being.

So! Hello, nice to meet you, thanks for reading. I have ideas about where this thing will go, but I’m sure plans will morph and directions will change. The one thing I can promise is that pretensions don’t exist in my food world. If it tastes good, it is good, and that applies to everything.