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Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad

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In college, that first spring-like day always meant one thing…skipping classes in order to sit outside and drink too many beers with friends. They may as well have just canceled classes the first time the temps went into the 50’s, because I’m pretty sure that everyone played hooky that day. (Youngens, don’t be like me. Be good and go to all of your classes like you ought to.)  Even still, those first unseasonably warm days, on the cusp between winter and spring, always trigger my craving for beer.

Now, it’s very rare that I drink anything besides water or coffee before the kids go to bed. The occasional exception is when we take the family for dinner at the Spaghetti Warehouse, where I will order myself a nice glass of chilled Lambrusco, to go along with my warm sourdough bread and eggplant parm. So, the kids rarely see me drink and when they do, it’s usually a glass of wine.

But, this past Sunday afternoon, when the temps were dancing around 60, I decided to grab myself a rare daytime beer. The boys rode their bikes in the driveway while the baby and I sat on the lawn playing with bubbles. He watched as I blew wand after wand full of bubbles, mesmerized as they floated off into the sunny blue sky and puzzled by his inability to grab the bubbles which nestled in the grass around us, still slightly damp from the recently melted snow. And as we enjoyed the beautiful day, I sipped my springy day beer. It was a blissfully peaceful moment.

And then my four-year-old wandered over and the following conversation took place:

What?!? You drink beer, Mommy??

Yes, sometimes.

I didn’t know that girls drank beer. I thought only men drank beer.

Nope…ladies can drink beer too.

I thought girls only drank wine.

Nope, buddy…girls can drink beer too, if they want. And men can drink wine as well.

He wandered off, clearly perplexed by this new information he’d acquired…as if his understanding of the world were temporarily shattered and he was left to put the pieces back together in a new order. As parents, I think we sometimes spend so much time questioning how we communicate (or purposefully don’t communicate) gender roles to our children…all the while they’re busy forming their own creative ideas about such things. You just can’t win. It’s a wild world we live in…boys can wear pink, girls can play with trucks, and ladies drink beer! At the very least, this lady does!

The weather has been unseasonably perfect this week; warm enough to open the windows for a bit of fresh air and sunny enough to spend the afternoons playing outside. We had such a mild winter this year, all things considered, and now it seems we’re poised to slip right into spring. Ahh… We’re spending as much time outside as possible, just in case this beautiful weather doesn’t last. Which means easy no-fuss dinners, preferably the sort which leaves leftovers for the next day, like this Chicken, Bacon, Ranch Salad. It’s yet another twist on chicken salad, accented with delicious chunks of bacon and a homemade ranch-style dressing. Simple, fresh, and perfect for springy days.

I dare say, it would go quite nicely with a cold beer.

Chicken Bacon Ranch Salad
Ingredients
  • 3 cups chicken, cooked and chopped
  • 1/4 cup mayonnaise
  • 1/4 cup sour cream
  • 2 tablespoons fresh chives, chopped
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon onion powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon black pepper
  • 1/8 teaspoon ground mustard
  • 1/8 teaspoon lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup red onion, finely diced
  • 6-8 slices bacon, cooked until crisp and chopped
  • Shredded cheddar cheese and additional chopped chives, for garnish (optional)

Directions

Combine mayonnaise, sour cream, chives, salt, onion powder, garlic powder, pepper, ground mustard, and lemon juice, until smooth. Mix in the chicken, bacon, and onion. Adjust seasoning with additional salt and pepper, if desired. Serve over mixed greens or on your favorite bread. If desired, garnish with a bit of shredded cheddar and chopped chives.

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Peasant Bread and Ale

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I have a bad habit of immediately dismissing things that are over-hyped or forced upon me. If you tell me a hundred times that I have to read Twilight, it’s going to end up at the end of my reading cue. Insist that I plan a trip to the South Pole and you’ll find me at the North. Try to convince me to watch your favorite tv show and I already don’t like it. I’m stubborn. I’m sure I miss out on some great stuff due to this personality flaw, but it’s just the way that I am. I don’t like people telling me what I should do.

So, I had mixed feelings when Oprah chose Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth for her book club selection a few years ago. I panicked, worried that people would skip this book due to the hype. (I sometimes forget that not everyone is as willfully stubborn as I am.) You see, by the point that Oprah announced this book as her book club selection, I’d already read it three times. It’s one of the very few books I’ve ever read more than once. That’s how much I love Pillars of the Earth. It is the book I recommend to anybody asking for book recommendations. I lend my copy to friends and buy new copies once the old ones are too worn.

Set in 12th century England, Pillars of the Earth follows its characters and their descendants through conflicts of good versus evil, lust, love, greed and power struggles between family, church, and politics. It’s epic. It’s gripping. It’s the kind of book where as you reach the last hundred pages, you’re torn between reading faster to find out what happens or slowing down so that you can delay the end. It’s the kind of book that leaves you wondering about the characters for weeks afterward, as if they are family members you haven’t heard from in a while.

But, I don’t want to insist you read it, lest you’re like me and rebel against people telling you what you should do.

Oh, never mind. I can’t help it! You just have to read Pillars of the Earth! Trust me. You won’t be disappointed. It’s worth the hype. Do it!

Some of the best advice my dad ever gave me was to always read the book before you see the movie. Once you’ve seen the movie, your image of the book will be colored by the director’s interpretation. I have never been steered wrong by this advice. I’ve always wanted someone to make Pillars into a movie, but worried that it would be impossible to capture the grand nature of the book in just a few hours. Well, that’s exactly why you need to hurry up and read the book. This Friday, Starz is premiering their mini-series of Pillars of the Earth. My sister, who writes for an entertainment website, has previewed the mini-series. She’ll be posting her review later this week, but has been very enthusiastic so far. From a fan of the book, that’s a really good sign! You can read her preview of the series by clicking here and keep your eyes out for her review later this week.

So, now you’re probably wondering what all of this chatter has to do with food. And I promise, this does have to do with food. You see, some of the main characters in the book are exceptionally poor. They travel from village to village seeking work and begging for meals. When they’re lucky, they find charity at the castle or priory. Otherwise they’ll beg food from a passing monk, trade their limited possessions, or even steal. Each time, they are often presented with the same meager meal; a chunk of bread, cup of ale and maybe a piece of dried venison or cold bacon, if they’re lucky. Now maybe I’m crazy, but I can’t help but salivate every time I read about these impoverished people eating their simple meal. I wish someone would give me a chunk of bread and jug of ale. I’ll even skip the dried venison.

So, in honor of the upcoming premiere, today we’re having peasant bread and ale.

Bake the bread. Take a swig from a jug of ale. Then, head out to the bookstore to buy Pillars of the Earth. Start reading now, because it’s long and it’s going to take you awhile. In fact, you may need to call in sick a couple days this week. Then, subscribe to Starz, if you don’t already have it and clear your Friday evenings for the next several weeks!

Trust me. Have I ever led you astray?

Peasant Bread

Ingredients

  • 1 packet Active Dry Yeast
  • 2 cups Warm Water (about 115 degrees)
  • 1 Tbsp Sugar
  • 3 cups All-Purpose Flour
  • 1 cup Rye Flour
  • 2 tsp Salt
  • 3 Tbsp Salted Butter, melted
  • 1 Tbsp Fresh Rosemary, chopped
  • Olive Oil and Cornmeal, for the baking sheet

Directions

Combine yeast and sugar in a bowl. Pour in the warm water and stir until dissolved. Add the flour and salt. Stir to combine. Cover the bowl with a moist towel and allow it to rise for one hour.

Now would be a good time to run out to the book store to buy Pillars of the Earth.

Lightly coat a baking sheet with olive oil. Sprinkle some corn meal over the oil. Divide the dough in half and form two rounds. Place the dough rounds onto the baking sheet. Allow the dough to rise for one more hour.

Read a bit while you wait. Just wait until you meet William Hamleigh!

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Brush the melted butter over the dough rounds and sprinkle with the chopped rosemary. If desired, use a knife to cut a crosshatch in the dough. Bake the bread for about 25-30 minutes.

This would be a good time to call Starz about your subscription.

Once your bread is baked, pour yourself a cold glass of hoppy ale. Break off a piece of that warm bread and keep reading.


German Soft-Pretzel Sandwiches

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My best friends from college joke about how they’d vocalize a craving and within moments, I’d have found everything necessary and be halfway done making it. To be honest, I can’t actually think of one example of doing this. But, it sounds like something I’d do. Nowadays, my husband holds the magic lamp which makes all of his food cravings appear. Most of the time he just waits to see what I put in front of him. But every so often, he gets a hankering for something and I do what I can to bring it to fruition.

Such was the case last night, as my husband was scrolling through his iPhone and ran across a New York Times article entitled, Making Soft Pretzels the Old-Fashioned Way. You see, my husband has got a tiny, little obsession with pretzels; doughy, salty Bavarian pretzels. It all began just after our college graduation. We lived in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany for the summer and worked at an American-owned hotel.  I was a waitress and bartender in the hotel’s main restaurant.  My husband worked in housekeeping. We spent most of our evenings at German beer festivals drinking huge glasses of Bavarian Hefeweissen and eating pretzels. On days off, we’d huff and puff our way up the Kramer Mountain (with little old German ladies swiftly biking past us) to our favorite biergarten, informally known as the Halfway House, perched halfway up the mountain, overlooking all of Garmisch.  A couple of beers and a pretzel later and we’d hike back down. What a summer! It’s really no wonder that a pretzel obsession developed.

Here in the states, good German beer is readily available. There is a wide selection of imported Hefeweissen, Dunkel Bock and Pilsners right at my local grocery store. But, pretzels are a different story. Good Bavarian-style soft pretzels are not as easy to find. Over the years, my husband has been on an endless search for good pretzels.  He buys a pretzel whenever he has the opportunity, whether it be at a baseball game, the mall, or from a street vendor. So far, the closest we’ve found to an authentic Bavarian pretzel is at the Hofbrauhaus in Las Vegas. Without fail, the very best part of every Vegas trip is our evening at the Hofbrauhaus, singing along with the live German music while consuming as much German beer, pretzels, and food as we can before taking turns rolling each other back to the hotel.

But, Vegas is far away and there are no Germany trips in our near future. And so, this morning, while my husband was busy at work, I decided to try my hand at pretzel making. I poked around online for a bit looking for an authentic soft pretzel recipe. Turns out that the key to making really good soft pretzels is dipping the dough into a lye bath just prior to baking.  Lye is a highly caustic substance, the use of which necessitates safety measures, such as gloves and masks, to prevent chemical burns. Lye is used in the curing processes of numerous foods.  It is also used in drain cleaners and soap. I’m all for adventurous cooking, but something about using a product in my food, which can be found next to the Drano, just sits funny with me.  Not to mention that I’m not wild about using something which can cause chemical burns, in proximity of my ever-present children. Either way, it doesn’t appear that lye is commonly available anymore.  One online pretzel recipe linked to Amazon.com as a source for food-grade lye, but the lye I found on there was listed in the Automotive section.  Yeah, that’s not really going to work for me. So, I did a little more searching around and found a number of recipes which use a baking soda bath, prior to baking, to achieve that pretzelrific exterior browning, including a recipe from Alton Brown.  Alton Brown knows his stuff! I trust his expertise completely. That, and 234 positive reviews of the recipe convinced me that it was worth a try. I followed his recipe exactly, only substituting coarse-ground sea salt for the pretzel salt. I made a few pretzels and several rolls to use for sandwiches.

Waiting for the dough to rise

Expert pretzel roller

Egg wash

Basket o' pretzels

Pretzel Roll with Smoked Gouda, Black Forest Ham, Thinly Sliced Pear, and German Mustard

Pretzel sandwiches would be outstanding with any number of fillings.  I chose to use Black Forest Ham, Smoked Gouda, thinly sliced pear, and German-style mustard. My husband is in for a real treat when he gets home for lunch!

Enjoy with your favorite German brew.

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