Vietnamese Chicken Salad

Sunday I tasked myself with sitting down and actually engaging in some menu planning.  To think about the coming week, who was going to be where, when dinner would be eaten, and what to make.  So the plan looked like this:

And I made a shopping list from that, and thus went to DeCicco's determined to stick to the list, the whole list, and nothing but the list. No buying on hope or impulse or "well maybe..." The plan is the plan, the plan shall be the plan, we shall stick to the plan.

Anyway, that was the plan, and so far so good. As planned, we had skirt steak last night with roasted potatoes and asparagus.  Delicious as always, and as always a nice piece of steak left over for my lunch today.

Tonight's plan was the Vietnamese Chicken Salad recipe I'd seen in Martha Stewart Living, with a few cleverly thought-out improvements to save time—one being that I bought a rotisserie chicken to use instead of poaching my own.

Then I remembered that Redman's swimming lessons had been changed to Monday nights, and part and parcel of swim lessons is going to eat afterward at Red Rooster. Jeeps said he'd wait to eat back at home, then he suddenly remembered that tonight was camp registration night and he might as well go directly there from swimming, so he might as well eat at the Rooster.

What's that expression? "Make a plan and God smiles." So suddenly I was missing 50% of the household. Did I really want to go ahead and make this dish? Well...yes. I knew Panda would eat it. I was really looking forward to eating it. So what the hell, I'd make it. I'd just make less of it.

Here is full recipe with my modifications and smartass commentary. I just halved everything. Except the smartass commentary.

Vietnamese Chicken Salad

For the sauce:

  • 2 tbsp peanut butter
  • 1 tbsp rice-wine vinegar
  • 1 tbsp low-sodium soy sauce
  • 1 tbsp hone
  • 1 tbsp lime juice
  • 1 tsp minced ginger
  • 1 tsp minced garlic

Whisk all ingredients in small bowl until smooth and creamy, set aside.

For the salad:

  • 2 fourteen-and-a-half-ounce cans low-sodium chicken stock. (Fuck you, Martha. Stock does not come in 14 1/2 oz cans. Now I have to do math. 4 oz is 1 cup, 14 1/2 oz times 2 is 29 oz, divided by 4 is 7 cups plus 1 oz. I guess an ounce is a tablespoon? 7 cups plus 1 tablespoon of fucking chicken broth, OK?!)
  • 1 1/2 pounds boneless, skinless chicken breasts (or skip all of the above and procure thyself a rotisserie chicken, take the meat off the breast and shred into bite-sized pieces)
  • 1 pound vermicelli (or as they say in the neighborhood, voimicelli)
  • 1 cucumber, seeded and cut into 3" long matchsticks
  • 2 carrots, peeled and cut into 3" long matchsticks (or, if you are clever like me, a handful from a bag of pre-shredded carrots)
  • 1 red pepper, seeded and cut into 3" long matchsticks
  • 1/2 small red onion, peeled and cut as thinly as possible (skip this if you plan to be kissing)

1.  If using fresh chicken, then bring stock to a boil in a large saucepan. Add the chicken and simmer 12-to 15 minutes until chicken is completely cooked. Remove chicken from pan, set aside to cool. When cool, shred into bite-sized pieces.

2.  If you used stock, cook vermicelli in same, adding more water if necessary.  Otherwise start from here and cook vermicelli until al dente. Drain. Return pasta to pot and toss with 1 tbsp lime juice, 2 tbsp rice vinegar, and 1 tsp peanut oil (which I didn't have because peanut oil doesn't seem to come in small bottles and I really don't need a 1/2 gallon of it. I used canola)

3.  To assemble salad, put vegetables, chicken and pasta into a large bowl. Pour peanut sauce over all and toss to combine.

4.  If you are the brilliant Pandagirl, make the observation that this salad would be yummy rolled up in lettuce leaves.

And it was.

Ali's Chocolate Cake

Tonight's dessert is dedicated to Ali at the Verizon Help Desk, who saved me from utterly losing my schmidt when the VPN connection wouldn't work on the new laptop. To Ali, who went off script when he realized how upset I was, cracked a few jokes, and when all was resolved and I was gushing thanks and offered to make him a cake, he reminded me he was in India, but that I should make the cake anyway. He didn't care for Nutella, thank you, plain chocolate would be fine.

I happen to make a chocolate cake that is by no means plain. It comes from the Feb 2009 edition of Martha Stewart Living, "Cupcakes for All Occasions."

So it's a cupcake recipe but I almost always make it as a sheet cake. This is the cake the kids take into school on their birthdays. This is the cake I make when I get the sudden impulse, "Hmm, I think I'll make a cake." I've made it so many times that page 148 of the magazine is crumpled and sticky with translucent fingerprints. At this point, I can make it in my sleep. I love this cake and this cake loves me. 

You will love it too. If you don't love it, send it to me. I will love it and it will love me back.

By the way, did I mention you can make this cake in ONE bowl and ONE measuring cup. Watch. It's amazing.

Ali's One-Bowl Chocolate Cake à la Helpdesk

Preheat oven to 350 and spray a 9x13 baking dish with Pam (or prep your cupcake tin)

Get a liquid measuring cup, this will be your holding tank: measure 3/4 cup buttermilk. (If you don't have buttermilk, regular milk is fine or regular milk with a little plain yogurt or sour cream mixed in. I've made it with all these things, it's fine no matter what. I promise.)

Throw 2 tablespoons safflower oil into the measuring cup. (The original recipe does say safflower oil. I have used canola or whatever vegetable oil I had to hand and it's all fine. I make this cake so often now that I did go out and buy safflower oil especially for it.)

Crack 2 eggs into the measuring cup

Add 1 teaspoon of vanilla into the measuring cup.  Put measuring cup aside and proceed.

Get one (1) big mixing bowl out. (The white one pictured below, by the way, was my mother's, the mixing bowl of my childhood, and I will keep it forever and give it to Pandagirl or Redman. If they don't want it, please bury me with it.)

Put a strainer over a mixing bowl. Measure in:

  • 3/4 cup cocoa powder*
  • 1 1/2 cups flour
  • 1 1/2 cups sugar
  • 1 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 3/4 tsp baking powder
  • 3/4 tsp salt.

Now listen to me, I'm going to get a little evangelical. Thou shalt use Hershey Special Dark cocoa powder. It will be thy cocoa powder and thou shalt have no other cocoa powders before it.

Sift all dry ingredients down into the mixing bowl. Make a little well in the center of your dry ingredients and start whisking in the contents of the measuring cup. Take the cup over to the sink, measure 3/4 cup warm water, whisk that in too until combined. There will be lumps.

Pour into baking dish or fill cup tins 2/3 full. Bake cupcakes 20 minutes. Bake full cake for 30-35 minutes. The top should be springy and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let cool 10 minutes if you can hold back the masses.

If you use the Special Dark cocoa powder (stern look) the cake will be a dark brown that is nearly black. In fact, if you put the cake down on your black granite countertops it will practically (audience lets out collective ooh) disappear (audience lets out collective ahh).

This cake needs nothing. But if you are so inclined, a generous blob of whipped cream islovely. In fact this combination is what Hostess cakes wish they could taste like if only they weren't filled with things no one can pronounce. But they have to have those things so they can stay for 6 months on the shelf until somebody buys them whereas a child can make this cake fresh in less than an hour.

Powdered sugar sprinkled on top of the cake is a nice touch but make sure it's completely cooled otherwise the sugar will melt and turn brown. If you are craft-oriented and feeling especially creative you can do something Martha Stewartesque like punch different-size holes in a piece of paper, lay the paper on top of the cake before sifting powdered sugar thereupon, and when you remove the paper you have lovely powdered sugar circles on your cake and everyone will go "ooooohaaaaah..."

But really, I like it best plain with a glass of around 3 in the morning.

Meat Loaf

Meat Loaf!


No, no, not you, sir. I meant...


Yeaaaaaaahhh. Now that's what I'm talkin' about! Paradise by the oven light.

Meatwoaf. That sacwed institution. That dweam wivvin a dweam....

Actually I feel ridiculous putting up a meatloaf recipe. In my mind, acquiring knowledge of meatloaf happens in one of three ways: 1) you get the recipe from your mother; or 2) you get it from some other significant person in your circle of family and friends; or 3) you buy a pound of ground beef and think "how hard can this be?" and after successive trial and error, you arrive at your own personal meatloaf that you then make by rote until someone asks you how. Then you think about it.

I made meatloaf the way my mother taught me, which was via a series of notes left on the kitchen counter when I was growing up as a latchkey kid.  "Pr--h--t ov-- to 350 a 5:00," was always at the top (my mother had terrible handwriting and she was always scribbling these notes in a hurry).

Sometimes the dry ingredients had been laid out for me, sometimes not. "Gr---d b--f in frig.  2 egs.  1/2 cup br--dcr---bs..." The last direction was always to open a can of Campbell's tomato soup and spread it over the top of the meatloaf. Why? I never thought to ask why until later years, and my mother shrugged and said that's the way her mother had done. I accepted that, and in later years I went from tomato soup to just plain ketchup as a top glaze.  Why? I don't know, maybe I didn't have the soup one night, made do with the ketchup and liked it better. This is how these things happen.

There's turkey meatloaf, and ground beef meatloaf Some will say if you're going to do it, then do it right and use a mix of ground beef, ground pork and ground veal. 

My friend Lisa swore Martha Stewart's recipe for All-American Meatloaf in the same book Favorite Comfort Food is really good. It calls for 1/2 pounds of beef, veal and pork. I've used that and other times I've used turkey and it all comes out good.

Martha Stewart's All-American Meatloaf

  • 3 slices white bread (which she has you process into crumbs but you know me, ahem, I've already done that ahead of time and I will translate this to 1/2 cup of fresh breadcrumbs)
  • 1 large carrot, peeled and cut into 1/4 inch rounds
  • 1 rib celery, cut into 1/2 inch pieces
  • 1/2 medium yellow onion, roughly chopped
  • 2 cloves garlic, smashed
  • 1/2 cup fresh flat-leaf parsley leaves, loosely packed (which I already have chopped and frozen because Mommy taught me)
  • 1/2 cup plus 3 tablespoons ketchup
  • 4 1/2 teaspoons dry mustard
  • 1/2 pound each ground beef, veal, pork (or 1 to 1 1/2 pounds turkey)
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon Tobasco
  • I1/2 teaspoon chopped rosemary, plus more needles for sprinkling

Put breadcrumbs in mixing bowl (however you procure them)

Place celery, carrot, garlic and onion in food processor, process until vegetables are minced, about 30 seconds, pausing to scrape down sides of bowl. Transfer vegetables to mixing bowl with breadcrumbs. Add 1/2 cup ketchup, 2 teaspoons of dry mustard, the ground meat, eggs, salt, pepper, rosemary and Tobasco. Knead ingredients until thoroughly combined, about 1 minute. Do not overknead, it will result in a heavy and dense loaf. The texture should be wet, but tight enough to hold a free-form shape. (Whenever you're done, Martha.)

Set a fine-mesh baking rack in an 11x17 inch baking pan (I have neither of those things, honestly, Martha, you piss me off sometimes). 

Cut a 5x11 inch piece of parchment paper, and place over center of rack to prevent meat loaf from falling through (ignore, ignore). 

Using your hands, form an elongated loaf covering the parchment... OH FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, MARTHA! Shape the damn loaf and put it in your meatloaf pan or your baking dish. Done. Honestly. This isn't rocket science.

Make a glaze of the remaining 3 tablespoons ketchup, 2 1/2 teaspoons mustard, and the brown sugar. Brush that over the top. Then saute red onions in olive oil for about ten minutes, add 3 tablespoons of water and cook until that evaporates and...

You know what? She lost me at "parchment paper." This recipe is a production. It's Monday night, I'm tired, people are hungry. I'm spreading Heinz ketchup over the top of my meatloaf and calling it a day.

Bake 50-55 minutes at 400. Let cool 15 minutes and serve.

Serve with what? How about Trader Joe's mashed potatoes and the last of those little baby carrots I got at DeCicco's, which failed so miserably in the crockpot? I trimmed and peeled them, tossed them and my other 1/2 onion with olive oil, salt and pepper, and added them to the 400 oven halfway through cooking.

Oh wait, I lied... I don't have the mashed potatoes. How about Alexia waffle fries? Yes? Nod your head at me. Yes. Good? Don't lie. OK. Thank you.

Best Brownies

It often seems that the world divides (evenly or unevenly) into those who are waiting for dessert and those who have to produce it.
— Laurie Colwin, More Home Cooking, "Waiting for Dessert"

I'm the latter. And I dug my own grave on this one because over the years I seem to have built one of those households where there's always a little something-something for "Afters" and my kids have completely railroaded me. They not only ask for something-something after dinner, they ask, "What's for dessert?" after lunch!

I had to put my foot down on the tracks and made it an either-or situation.  If you want cake after lunch, you're not getting cake after dinner, too. And if you want any cake at all, after any mealtime, that plate better be empty, buster. Very often, in response to the $1,000,000 question, I'll hand a child an apple or orange, accompanied by "Take it or leave it, kid."

Mostly it's cookies that appear for dessert, and usually Trader Joe-Joes. I'm not a regular cookie baker outside of the holiday season. When I get a hankering to bake, it's usually brownies or cake.

I don't like cakey brownies, I like them to be sort of undercooked and "squidgy" in the center, with that fabulous light-brown crackly surface. Frosting has no business on a brownie, in my opinion, the brownie should be able to stand alone. 

In my further opinion, the only brownie recipe I need is Martha Stewart's, which I got out of her book Favorite Comfort Food. By the way, right under the brownie recipe on page 136 is a recipe for Root Beer Float. No lie. This continually amuses me and annoys me as only Martha Stewart's cookbooks can do. A recipe for root beer float. Honestly, does someone actually need direction for pouring soda over ice cream?

But this brownie recipe is divine, the only one I need, the one I passed up to my mother, and the one I will pass down to my children and grandchildren.

Martha Stewart's Brownies

  • 1 1/2 sticks unsalted butter (Butter, say it with me. Butter. BUTTAH!!!! And yes, do bake with unsalted butter)
  • 8 oz bittersweet baker's chocolate. The original recipe says 8 oz bittersweet, however my mother experimented and found that 6 oz of bittersweet and 2 oz of unsweetened chocolate make a truly superior and mature brownie. I wholeheartedly agreed until the day I had only 4 oz of bittersweet and 4 oz of unsweetened. I plunged ahead and found this 50/50 combination made the ultimate brownie.
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup packed dark brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon vanilla
  • 1 1/3 cup flour
  • 1/2 tsp salt

Heat oven to 350. Grease 9 x 13 baking pan, or spray with Pam.

Set a heat-proof bowlover simmering water. Put the chocolate and butter into the bowl and melt until smooth, stirring occasionally. Remove from heat and allow to cool. (You must let it cool because if you stir hot chocolate into your egg mixture, you will have chocolate-scrambled-egg mixture and you will have failed.)

In a small bowl, stir flour and salt together, set aside.  In a large mixing bowl, combine eggs, sugars and vanilla, beat well with a whisk.

Add cooled chocolate to egg mixture, whisk until combined.  Slowly add the flour mixture, beat until combined.

Pour batter into pan, bake for 30 minutes.  Let cool for as long as the masses can stand it.  Cut into squares, making sure you get at least one corner piece.  Serve.  Die.