Fun with Lamb Shanks


Weekends are when I plan the meals for the week.  I take a look at the specials at our local gourmet/natural foods store and often plan a couple of meals around what I find at bargain prices.  This week, lamb shanks were $2.99 per pound, which sounded like quite a bargain to me.


I’ve had lamb shanks at restaurants a couple of times and they have not disappointed me.  I made them at home one time and although I loved how tender they got, the sauce wasn’t a winner.  I went online to Epicurious to see if I could find a better recipe and I stumbled onto a soup recipe instead.  The soup had quite the greek style influence to it so I was immediately attracted to the recipe.


I don’t often fiddle with a recipe the first time out, but the comments on Epicurious said that the recipe needed some garlic and that sautéing the ingredients in the stock made a world of difference so I tried the suggestions.  The soup turned out pretty good but it wasn’t as wonderful as I imagined it to be.  Three pounds of lamb shanks were a bit excessive.  If you try this recipe, you may want to cut down on the amount of meat.  My boyfriend felt the soup was a bit “lamby”.  Normally this would be a turn off to me too but I felt like the meat was good quality and didn’t have a gamey flavor.  I just felt that the soup was a bit greasy and had more meat than necessary.  I would definitely make the soup again with 2 lbs of shanks and I might add another veggie like some zucchini or extra carrots.  However, with a multigrain baguette and a glass of 2002 Sunstone Syrah, this soup made a mighty fine meal.

Spinach, lamb and orzo soup

Adapted from July 1992 Bon Appetit magazine


3 tbs olive oil, divided


7 cups water


1 15 oz can chicken stock


2 – 3 pounds lamb shanks (go with the full amount if you love lamb more than anything you can think of)


4 cloves of garlic, chopped


1 carrot, chopped


1 onion, chopped


1 celery stalk, chopped


1 dried bay leaf or two fresh bay leaves


1 small onion, sliced


¾ cup orzo


1 large head of spinach, chopped


freshly grated parmesano reggiano


Heat 1 tbsp oil in a large saucepot.  Sauté garlic, carrot, onion, celery and bay leaf until veggies start to soften.  Add lamb shanks and brown them on all sides.  Add water and stock to the pot.  Bring to a boil and then lower to a simmer.  Simmer until the lamb is tender about 1 hour and 20 minutes.  Transfer lamb to a plate and cool slightly.  Remove the meat from the bone and cut into ½” pieces.  Strain the cooking liquid and reserve.


In the same pot, heat the remaining 2 tbsp oil over medium heat.  Add the sliced onion and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes.  Add the reserved cooking liquid, the lamb meat and the orzo.  Cook soup over medium heat for 20 minutes until the orzo is al dente.  Add the chopped spinach and cook until wilted, about 2 minutes.  Season the soup to taste with salt and pepper.  Ladle soup into bowls and garnish with Parmesan cheese.



An indulgence in autumn treats and a eulogy for an old friend

Today was a slightly emotional morning for me.  I took my car of seventeen years to be scrapped.  To be sure, the poor thing was an absolute beater.  It was dented.  It had peeling paint.  The driver’s side seat was wearing thin enough for holes to start to appear. Pieces were starting to fall off of the car both inside and out.  I had that car from the time when we were both shiny and new to when we were, both of us, used, creaky and cranky.  I loved that car.  It gave me freedom. It got pretty decent gas mileage.  My Mitsubishi Eclipse was shaped like a sports car even though it had a four-cylinder engine. It had a power button, which made me feel like James Bond.

Two years ago, the car didn’t pass the California smog test.  The mechanic tweaked some things for me and got it to pass so I drove it around for another two years.  My car did not pass the smog check a second time because it needed a new engine.  The car would have been worth $100 dollars in trade in if I fixed it.  The science of economics trumped the emotional value, society found me foolish for keeping it as long as I did.  Friends and coworkers heckled me.  The car was termed a gross polluter.  It was time for it to go.  It easily qualified for a program the state of California has for people who can’t let go of their gross polluting cars. This program bribes people like me to take these gross polluters for dismantling.  We drove the gross polluter forty miles (which seemed ironic to me) to an approved dismantler.  They inspected my once pretty car, and wrote its fate all over its body.  My boyfriend said it was as if they put a toe tag on it before wheeling it to the morgue.  I got a little misty eyed as we watched it round the corner, never to be seen again.  I bought a shiny new car last month, but it doesn’t feel like it is mine the way my Eclipse felt like a part of me.  A chapter in my life is complete.


This afternoon, I decided to indulge myself to make myself feel better.  Tonight is “Lights out Santa Barbara”.  This event is a citywide conservation event where residents are asked to turn off their lights between 8pm-9pm for global warming awareness. We plan to light a couple of candles and play a board game tonight.  I thought it would be fun to have sweets while we play our game.  Making sweets always brightens my mood so I figured it would be positive in a couple of different ways.



Baking and Books is a blog I love to go to.  Ariela is an avid reader and always has wonderful historical trivia to go with the foods she cooks.  She is a talented photographer, baker and writer, which makes it fun to stop by and see what she is up to.  Last week, she made Pumpkin currant cookies.  I was dreaming about these cookies all week!  These cookies already had all of the healthy goodie attributes that I like to have in my baked goods.  The only thing I did different was to use a full two cups of whole-wheat pastry flour instead of half white flour and since this is a no walnut household, I substituted pecans.  I will send you over to her blog for the recipe for the pumpkin currant cookies since I am lazy and they are perfect and you’ll enjoy her blog…. But wait!  Before you go…


I also made candy today.  I was ripping up old magazines the other day before recycling them and I came across a recipe I was dying to make but never got around to.  Being lazy, I did not want to go to the store even though I did not exactly have the right ingredients.  The candy turned out really good regardless.   This was a super easy recipe.  It was also a forgiving recipe.  I had evaporated cane juice but not enough for candy so I had to use brown sugar too.  I did not have mild molasses I had black strap molasses.  If you have kids, go ahead and make this for them.  Blackstrap molasses is loaded with minerals and vitamin B6 so this candy is a little better for them than commercial candy.



Molasses Sponge Candy

Adapted from a recipe which appeared in the April, 2002 edition of Gourmet magazine


1 ¼ cups evaporated cane juice or granulated sugar


¼ cup dark brown sugar


1/3 cup water


3 tbsp unsalted butter


¼ tsp cream of tartar


½ cup blackstrap molasses


2 ½ tsp baking soda


Line bottom and sides of a 13- by 9-inch baking pan with foil, then butter or oil the foil.


Bring sugar, water, butter, and cream of tartar to a boil in a deep 3-quart heavy saucepan over moderate heat, stirring until sugar is dissolved, then wash down any sugar crystals with a pastry brush dipped in cold water. Boil without stirring until syrup registers 265°F (hard-ball stage) on a candy thermometer, about 10 minutes. Add molasses (don’t stir) and continue to boil undisturbed until syrup registers 295°F (hard-crack stage), 4 to 5 minutes. Remove pan from heat and sift baking soda over syrup, then whisk to incorporate. (Use caution: mixture will bubble vigorously.)


Immediately pour syrup into lined baking pan and cool completely. Lift candy in foil from pan, then discard foil and break candy into pieces.

A once secret hot sauce


Today let’s time travel back to 1998.  I was trapped in a job that did not make me happy.  I answered phones for the cable company.  I am still at this company.  I love the company I work for, don’t get me wrong but answering phones for any company can be a trying experience.  At one point, I loved answering the phones.  When I first joined my employer we were very focused on customer service.  I loved customer service.  Back then I was a sweet and kind person, not yet coarsened by years of abuse by strangers who don’t care how they treat the disembodied voice on the phone.  After a couple of years, my company went from being a privately held company to a publicly held company.  We went from a pure customer service focus to a heavy sales focus.  I am in no ways a sales person.  I have a hard time getting into the mind set that making someone spend money on something they did not ask me for is in their best interest.  All good sales people need to believe they are doing what is right for the customer.  I couldn’t do that.  Once the focus of the job changed, I became miserable and wanted to find a way out.  A friend and coworker took computer classes and managed to escape into our Information Technology department.  She was very happy there.  I decided it was time for training.


I have always thought of myself as having a creative bent.  When I was young, I wanted to be an actress and my first attempt at college took me to drama school.  I went back to school in 1997 to take computer classes and discovered that our junior college was starting to heavily get into multi media.  Computers and art!  Sign me up!  Alas, I found out that at the time, fledgling webmasters were a dime a dozen and they were getting paid less than I could make answering phones.  I live in an expensive resort community so I had to buckle down and take the less exciting sorts of computer classes that would help me get an information technology job, which I did.  I moved to a department were the work is still stressful but much more rewarding.  I am happier now.


In 1998, before I became practical, I took a web design class.  The web was still getting off the ground at that point.  Some people were still putting together websites by hand with HTML code.  I put together a chili pepper website for the class that I was very proud of.  The site is no longer live on the web but it still lives on my hard drive.  Here is the home page.  Recognize the chili banner?  I drew that.  I still like it so much I used it on my blog. 


Here is the fancy part.  I have java script that causes the links to glow a fiery red when you mouse over them.  I was very, very proud of that. 😀




At the time, I was looking everywhere for content to put on my web page.  I was talking to my Mom one day and I told her about my project for school.  My Mom suddenly starts telling me how to make a jalapeno hot sauce.  I sit there a little stunned while I quickly try to write it down.  My Mom is from Guatemala but the whole time I am growing up she rarely cooked Hispanic food.  We ate like any other American family on our block:  Spaghetti, soup, grilled cheese sandwiches, roast chicken, steak, hamburgers, etc.  She would also make plenty of non-kid friendly food that my New Yorker dad who grew up between the 30’s and 50’s would like such as grilled liver and onions and baked trout


 Needless to say, on those days I would hover over at my best friend’s house like a homeless waif at dinnertime until someone would take pity on me and invite me to stay.  Sure we would sometimes eat beans and tortillas if money was tight and I can remember her making chili rellenos and chilaquiles.  Avocados and salsa were not strangers.  But she never made these things on a daily basis like most Hispanic moms would.  When she rattled off this hot sauce recipe, all I could think was, “she never made this for us!  How does she have this memorized?”  My Mom cooks without recipes.  Her food is good but not fancy.  I wish I could do that.  I am getting better, but I can’t dictate a recipe to you off of the top of my head.  Anyway, I was a little skeptical about how this salsa would turn out.  I went ahead and made it and it was really good!  It is especially nice on scrambled eggs nestled in a warm tortilla.  I went ahead and published my website online in order to pass my class (the teacher wanted our final projects to be live) and my Mom’s hot sauce was good enough to share with the world.


I hadn’t made it in years but every fall when the Jalapenos are red, I mean to make it.  Last week at he farmer’s market, one of my favorite farmers had red jalapenos for one dollar a pound.  I scooped up a pound of them.  He was shocked; most people buy a couple of pennies worth of jalapenos at a time.  He wondered what I would make.  I declared:  “Hot sauce!”   I amused him, I could tell.  This hot sauce is worth the work. 


If you decide to make this hot sauce there are rules.  Please do not break the rules.  They are for your own good.

  1. Make sure to run the fan above your stove and open a window or two.  Fumes from the chilies and the vinegar will make you sneeze, cough,  and may give you watery eyes.
  2. Evacuate anything or anyone you love from the area.  Significant others, children, pets, Herbert.  The fumes and smells will cause complaints
  3. Wear gloves when working with chilies.
  4. Whether you believe me or not about #3.  (#3 is the rule I always break.  I have also been known to use caustic household chemicals without gloves.  Do as I say, not as I do).  Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your gloves or your naked hands if you refuse to listen.  I repeat, do not allow jalapeno juice near any mucus membranes!
  5. This sauce will splatter, be careful not to get burned.
  6. Don’t be scared. Make this hot sauce.

 Carmen’s jalapeno hot sauce

1 lb ripe (red) jalapeno chilies, seeds removed and coarsely chopped


1 cup apple cider vinegar


1 cup water


5 whole garlic cloves


1 small onion, roughly chopped


2 bay leaves


4 sprigs fresh thyme or 1 tsp dried thyme


1 – 2 tbsp fresh oregano or 1 tsp dried oregano


½ tsp salt


1 tbsp olive oil


Place all of the ingredients except for the oil in a medium sized saucepan and simmer until soft, 18 to 20 minutes.  Cool slightly.  Remove the bay leaves and carefully, transfer the jalapeno mixture to a food processor.  Puree until smooth.  Wash and dry your saucepan.  Heat the oil in the saucepan over medium heat and then carefully add the puree.  The sauce may splatter when it hits the hot oil.  Stir.  Heat the sauce over medium heat to a strong simmer and then reduce to a low simmer.  Simmer for up to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally, to thicken the sauce.  During this time the sauce may splatter.  I use a splatter guard but it really doesn’t help.  Try to cook this on the lowest simmer you can while still having the liquid evaporate and the sauce thicken while minimizing the mess and chance of getting burned.  Cool the sauce at room temperature and then store the sauce in an airtight container in the fridge.


A bite of true orange flavor


We make it a practice to visit our local Farmer’s Market every weekend.  One thing we always get is a five to ten pound bag of oranges.  The oranges are wonderful as juice but we also eat them as fresh fruit and I use them in baking.  We ate up all of our leftovers for the week already so I was paging through cookbooks looking for dinner.  I ran into this recipe for mini muffins and it sounded so good that I decided to bake instead of cook.  Luckily my boyfriend volunteered to make egg salad so that we would eat some real food before skipping to dessert.


These muffins are fantastic!  They have a clear, fruity orange flavor without the use of any extracts.  I made a couple of changes to the original recipe.  I used whole-wheat pastry flour instead of white flour.  I also thought ¾ cup of sugar was excessive when the muffins included a glaze so I reduced the sugar.  I did not substitute olive oil for butter as I often do for muffin recipes because the butter sounded like it would compliment the fruit flavor and boy, did it ever!!  I let these muffins be decadent since they would be smaller in size.  It was worth it.

Orange-Poppy Seed Mini Muffins

Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Essentials of Baking


3 tbsp poppy seeds


½ cup milk


1 ¾ cups whole-wheat pastry flour


2 tsp baking powder


½ tsp baking soda


¼ tsp salt


1 tbsp grated orange zest


2 large eggs


½ cup granulated sugar or evaporated cane juice


6 tbsp unsalted butter, melted


¼ cup plus 1 tbsp fresh squeezed orange juice


½ cup confectioner’s sugar


Preheat oven to 400 degrees F.  Grease 24 mini-muffin cups.  In a small bowl, combine the poppy seeds and the milk.  Let stand for 20 minutes.  In a medium bowl, stir together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and orange zest.  In another larger bowl, beat the eggs and then mix in sugar, melted butter, ¼ cup of orange juice and the poppy seed/milk mixture.  Add the dry ingredients to the wet ingredients and stir until moistened. (Do not over mix).  Spoon the batter into the muffin cups, filling each one three fourths of the way full. Bake 12- 14 minutes until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean.  Let cool for a few minutes.  Mix confectioner’s sugar with 1 tbsp. Orange juice until smooth.  Drizzle the glaze onto the tops of the muffins. 

Chicken legs aren’t photogenic but they sure are scrumptious Italian style

Chicken Fricassee

Chickens aren’t safe with me around.  I like to eat chicken fried, roasted, stewed, and poached.  I love chicken any time and any day and just about any way.  The only chicken I won’t eat is canned chicken.  Unfortunately for you my dear reader, you may get sick of chicken once this blog begins to age.  Chicken recipes?  I’ve got a million of ‘em!


I have an old, well-worn, often used cookbook called “The Regional Italian Kitchen” by Nika Hazelton.  Almost every recipe I have tried from this book has been delicious.  Last fall, right around this time of the year when we still have basil at the Farmer’s Market and the tomatoes and peppers are at their peak, I discovered a wonderful recipe for chicken.  It is a chicken fricassee that features a sauce of red peppers and tomatoes.  The flavors are wonderful and the dish pairs well with thick slices of Polenta.


Polenta is one of those foods that now have a reasonable fast food version that you can pick up at any supermarket.  Polenta now comes sealed in tubes of plastic.  I have to admit that I have bought my share of these polenta tubes in the past because they are easy to use and minimize any mess.  The chicken fricassee is a little bit of a production number so I have to admit, I only made polenta once last fall and gave up on it after I burned myself and had to soak my sauce pan for a week to get the leftover polenta off.  I wanted to make fricassee last night but I forgot that polenta was the side dish of choice.  I did not buy the convenience tube.  I did have a bag of polenta in the pantry.  I made polenta from scratch, I did not burn myself but I did trash my saucepan.  It was worth it.  Homemade polenta tastes fresh and hearty.  If you have time, I highly recommend doing the work. 


The chicken dish normally calls for a whole chicken cut into serving pieces.  This recipe is highly adaptable.  You can use chicken breasts.  I used 2 lbs of whole chicken legs last night (I should have used 3 lbs.  The chicken to sauce ratio was a bit low). There are a bunch of time intensive instructions in the fricassee recipe like skinning the peppers or peeling the tomatoes.  The recipe is fine without all of the attention to detail.  Recipes for both the chicken and the polenta follow.

 Chicken Fricassee with tomatoes, peppers, and capers (Spezzatino di Pollo Picante)

Adapted from The Regional Italian Kitchen by Nika Hazelton

6 tbsp. Olive oil

2 garlic cloves, chopped


1 medium onion, sliced


4 large red bell peppers cut into strips


3 large tomatoes, diced


¼ cup fresh basil, minced (or 1 tbs. Dried basil)


Salt to taste


Freshly ground pepper to taste


Tabasco to taste (or other vinegary hot sauce such as cholula)


2-3 lbs whole chicken legs (or 1 whole chicken cut into serving pieces)


Whole-wheat pastry flour for dredging


1 cup dry red wine


1/3 cup pitted black kalamata olives, cut into halves


4 tbsp drained capers


Heat 3 tbsp of the olive oil in a deep frying pan (big enough to hold sauce and chicken).  Add garlic.  Cook for a minute until golden.  Add onions and peppers.  Cook the onions and peppers over low heat until the peppers begin to get tender, about 5 minutes.  Add tomatoes and basil.  Season lightly with salt (the olives and capers are salty so don’t overdo it), pepper and hot sauce to taste.  (The hot sauce should add flavor and a touch of heat but not make the dish too spicy).  Mix well.  Simmer covered for 30 minutes, stirring frequently.  During this time, heat the remaining 3 tbsp olive oil in a large frying pan.  Coat the chicken lightly with flour and fry on all sides until golden.  If the sauce is still cooking, transfer the chicken to a plate.  When the sauce has cooked for 30 minutes, stir in the red wine.  Add chicken to the pan, making sure you cover the chicken in sauce.  Sprinkle olives and capers over the chicken.  Simmer the chicken covered for 30-40 minutes until the chicken is very tender.  Serve with Polenta. (see recipe below the polenta picture)




Recipe from the back of the bag of Bob’s Red Mill Polenta


6 cups water


1 tsp salt


2 cups polenta


3 tbsp unsalted butter


In a deep sauce pan, bring water to a boil.  Add salt.  Add polenta gradually, stirring and then lower the heat to a simmer.  Stir frequently to prevent sticking.  Use a long handled wooden spoon to stir, polenta tends to spatter and will burn you!  Be careful! If the polenta does start to shoot out molten polenta bombs, you can lower the heat to just below a simmer. I did so last night and the polenta cooked just fine.  Cook for 30 minutes until thick.  At the end of the cooking time, stir in the butter. Oil a deep pie pan.  Spoon the polenta into the oiled pan, smoothing the top down.  Let the polenta cool for at least 10 minutes.  Invert the polenta onto a serving plate.  Serve polenta sliced.