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There’s No Place Like Home

I usually have a great big Oscar party every year about this time.  And by great big, I mean in the production, not the amount of people I invite over to watch the Academy Awards ceremony on television.  I happily invite the same small handful of special gal pals every year — women I’ve known for years, women who have seen good and bad times, sad and happy days.  The lives and personalities of these people wind pleasantly through each other like a cozy knitted sweater from a favorite relative.

There is one friend whose daughter attends the same elementary school as the granddaughters of another invitee.  Two of the attendees were work buddies for years, and two have known each other since high school.

Because I put so much effort into them and get so much enjoyment out of them, I like to think my Oscar parties are legendary — if only in my eyes and, hopefully, in the eyes of my attendees who walk not a red carpet but a gray cement pathway to a special night.

I plan and plan for weeks ahead of time.  I make list after list; I research recipe after recipe; I recollect and reinvent.   And I have an absolute ball decorating the small living room with the big TV.

Days ahead of the big event, I release my inner arts & crafts diva and painstakingly construct ballots and matching envelopes, and I shop store after store for just the right (inexpensive) gifts for those who choose the winners in six Oscar categories.  I poke around out-of-the-way specialty stores and a few tried-and-true neighborhood drug stores for small and sometimes silly gift items to fill my blinged-up goody bags designed exclusively for each distinctive party goer.


When it comes to the menu, I stew and fret to find just the right buffet mix, perhaps in keeping with a gala theme.  Then I change my mind again and again.  Sometimes I do a spread of appetizers and a signature cocktail, sometimes a big lasagna or spruced-up entree salad and very chilled bottles of (cheap) champagne.  Sometimes we dress up, sometimes we dress down.  But we always, always have fun.

This year, I’m not having an Oscar party.  It isn’t the only year I’ve missed, but it’s a biggie.  This year, I can’t have an Oscar party in that small but festive living room because I’ll be busy moving — for the first time in 20 years.  Yes, Fannie Mae has asked me to leave the house I no longer have a claim to (big sigh here).  Though it’s a sign of the times, which makes it only a tiny bit comforting, it is still not the way the world should turn.

But, that’s life.  And life isn’t about surviving the storm, but learning how to dance in the rain.  (I recently read that somewhere on  Facebook, but I don’t know who wrote it.)  It’s a known fact, or so the almightly Internet and Dr. Oz tell us, that a positive attitude goes a long way toward a healthier, longer life.  And, what the hell, now that I have a bigger place — with closet space that would make the Kardashians giddy — life has the potential to be rosy again.

I had many good years in that very old, very tiny house: days, weeks, months of parties and dinners and barbecues and holidays, so many happy times that if recorded on paper would make for a book so thick with memories the binding would creak in valiant effort with every turn of a page.

As Dr. Seuss once said, “Don’t cry because it’s over, smile because it happened.”

So, after I’ve unpacked the gazillion boxes in my new place that boasts an extra bedroom and an extra bathroom (big cheers here), I’ll try to get my life back on track and back to some sense of normalcy.  Which means it won’t be long before I’m googling recipes and party ideas in preparation for next year’s Oscar celebration.

Maybe I’ll feature this boxed cake mix reinvention I came up with on a day when I should have been packing up my many cookbooks.  Sure, it was blatant procrastination.  But like losing yourself in a good movie on a rainy Sunday afternoon, it was worth it.



There aren’t many homecooks out there worth their salt who don’t know how to take a boxed cake mix to a new level.  Like a ball of pizza dough or a just-baked empty pie crust, a packaged cake mix is really just a blank canvas, a shortcut to whatever you’re in the mood for.  Like a film director with a list of great actors in one hand and a prize-winning script in the other, have fun with it!

  • 1 French vanilla boxed cake mix — (if you can’t find French vanilla, a white cake mix will do fine)
  • 1/2 cup softened unsalted butter
  • 3 large eggs, room temperature
  • One 8 oz. (small) can pineapple tidbits or chunks (in its own juice), drain and reserve juice; if using chunks, chop them up a bit
  • 1/4 – 1/2 cup dark rum
  • 1 tablespoon Amaretto liqueur (if you don’t like this almond-flavored liqueur, try Frangelico, which is a hazelnut-flavored liqueur; if you prefer no alcohol, try 1 teaspoon of pure vanilla or almond flavoring instead)
  • 1/4 cup reserved pineapple juice
  • 2 tablespoons freshly-squeezed orange juice (about the juice of one-half orange)

Topping for the Bottom (Say what?)

  • 2 – 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
  • 3 tablespoons dark brown sugar
  • 3 – 4 tablespoons chopped, toasted almonds (if almonds aren’t your thing, pecans would do nicely here)
  • 1/3 to 1/2 of the can of drained pineapple (if using chunks, chop them up a bit)

Preheat oven according to the cake mix package directions noted for a bundt pan (usually 325 – 350 degrees).  Lightly coat sides all around the pan with non-stick cooking spray.

For the topping: Pour the melted butter into the bottom of the prepared bundt pan; sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter; then sprinkle the chopped almonds and pineapple tidbits over that.  Set aside.

For the batter:  In a large bowl combine the dry cake mix, softened butter, dark rum, reserved pineapple juice, Amaretto (or other flavoring), and orange juice.  Beat at low speed just to blend ingredients; add eggs, one at a time, beating to fully blend after each.  Beat batter at medium speed for another minute or two.  Fold in the remaining 1/2 can of drained pineapple, and pour into prepared bundt pan.

Bake for approximately 35 – 40 minutes.  Remove from oven and allow to cool in pan for about 10 minutes.  Before the cake has cooled completely and the topping has hardened to the bottom of the pan, gently ease the cake away from the sides of the pan using a butter knife. (You want to loosen the pan’s grip on the cake so that it will fall gently out of the pan when you invert it onto your serving plate.)  Holding the plate securely over the bundt pan, covering the bottom of the cake, turn it upside down so the cake falls onto the plate.  Remove the bundt pan to reveal (hopefully!) your glistening, sweet golden topping of carmelized pineapple tidbits and almonds.  Replace any bald spots with topping that may still be in the bottom of the bundt pan.  Let cool completely and serve at room temperature.  This cake is even better the next day — especially with your morning coffee or tea.  Refrigerate leftover cake — if you have any!

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Resolve this, you New Year’s eager beavers!

I really resolve to be resolute in my resolution-keeping this year.

No, that’s not true.  I shouldn’t make promises I really have no intention of keeping.  Nor should I make resolutions that will only make me (pick one or more of the following):

A.  Grumpy

B.  Bummed out

C.  Destined for failure

D. Laugh out loud

E.  Did I mention grumpy?

I know, I know, it’s January 1.  A shiny brand new year.  Lots of resolution-making going on out there, I can feel it.   Lots of possibilities.  Lots of hope.  Lots of self-aggrandizing exclamation points hitting Twitter posts like night moths to a patio bug light.

And lots of days lined up ahead of a resolute me during which I’ll either be successful . . . or not.  No thanks.

To me, the whole making-resolutions-thing is like the whole give-up-something-decadent-for-lent-thing.  What’s the purpose?  To prove that you can do almost anything for a short period of time?   I can prove I have that talent every day — without giving up something I really enjoy, such as chocolate or wine or a sedentary lifestyle.

Like, not losing my temper while typing the same freakin’ sentence over and over and over again, as the neighbor’s dog barked incessantly at absolutely nothing for what felt like a day and a half.

Or, putting aside my frustration for a little while to go outside and visit through the fence with the aforementioned activity-challenged canine who we all know is really not the one at fault here.

Yeah, I can do uncomfortable for a short period of time to prove I have the intestinal fortitude, the mettle, the annoying shove from bragging Facebook friends who try to make the rest of us look bad by starting their New Year’s resolutions on New Year’s Eve.  Way to set off a flurry of unfriending activity, you eager beavers.

Yes, I could do uncomfortable, but I won’t.  No, this year, I’ll not make any New Year’s resolutions.  Oh, I might do some things differently, maybe some things nevermore, but I’ll call them “lifestyle changes” instead of resolutions, to cast a more positive light on them.

Because let’s face it — this whole reinvention journey I’ve been on for more than two years now has about used up all the resolve I can wring out of this rapidly-aging mind, body and soul.  Negativity, I’ve had plenty.  Positive is where it’s at for me these days.

And since I tore into the chocolate-drizzled kettle corn instead of something healthier for lunch today, I’ll start with a better choice for dinner, like steamed broccoli (which, if the truth be known, I really love, so it isn’t a stretch) and some leftover chilled shrimp from last night’s New Years Eve party buffet table.

Talk about reinventions!  When my mother used to make cold shrimp cocktail for dinner parties or other get-togethers, she dropped those small, gray, slug-like characters into a big pot of rapidly boiling water — unsalted and unflavored.  (Or, even easier for the busy 1970’s homemaker, she bought them already cooked.  But that usually meant a bit tougher, less sweet, and sort of overall not-so-fresh-tasting end result.)  From the boiling water bath, they then hit the fridge for several hours or overnight, before getting the ceremonial dunk into a pool of bright red dipping sauce.

Fast forward to a new century, to the days of the Barefoot Contessa, and we have a delightfully easy way to prepare delicious chilled shrimp or prawns — sans the rubbery texture and fishy taste.  I started with the basics of her recipe, and added my own spin to it.  With some lemon zest, a sprinkling of your favorite herb concoction, and a strict adherence to the roasting time, you’ll happily up your seafood intake.

Resolve to try this recipe today.  I think you’ll find it’s a much better choice than chocolate-drizzled popcorn — and one of the easiest resolutions to keep!



Ina Garten’s (the Barefoot Contessa of Food Network fame) roasted shrimp will change your mind about a boring old shrimp cocktail.  Dust off those pretty, retro martini glasses and use them as individual serving dishes for this recipe of hers (that I’ve tweaked a bit).   Pretty enough to eat, healthy enough to be good for you.  Happy New Year!

  • About 1 pound of large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails intact (I usually buy  somewhere between 16-25 count shrimp)
  • 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 teaspoon dried herbs (I’ve used Italian blend and Herbs deProvence)
  • 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
  • 1 clove finely-chopped garlic (optional)
  • Salt and pepper

Preheat oven to 400 degrees; rinse shrimp, thoroughly dry with paper towels, and place in a large mixing bowl.  Toss with the olive oil, herbs, zest, and a sprinkling of salt and pepper, and place in a flat, even layer on a large rimmed baking sheet.

Bake for approximately 6 minutes, or until the shrimp are opaque and just firm to the touch.  But be mindful — you don’t want to overcook shrimp.  If you do, you might as well chew on the thick, white butcher paper they came wrapped in.  They will be that tough and tasteless.  A perfectly-cooked shrimp can be delectable; an overcooked one, not so much.

Serve them straight out of the oven over just-cooked pasta, or immediately chill thoroughly before serving with wedges of fresh cut lemon and your favorite ketchup-based cocktail sauce, Thousand Island dressing (my personal favorite), or a spoonful of thick, green pesto.  Garlicky but yummy!

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A Labor of Love

I had good intentions.  I really did.  I furiously worked away at this blog post with the clear intent to publish it yesterday, during the Labor Day weekend — that time of year when we all take one more stab at perfecting that thick, juicy burger, teriyaki chicken kabob, or baby back rib rack on backyard barbecues all over the land.  I wrote:

For our family, the Labor Day backyard barbecue is tradition indeed, lovingly manifested by parents who truly enjoyed the outdoors and any opportunity to entertain.  Mom, busy in the kitchen preparing our beloved standbys: potato salad, macaroni salad, and baked beans, and Dad outside at the barbecue, sunburned arms and neck peeking out from his thread-bare T-shirt, and white skinny legs poking through Bermuda shorts like worn stakes holding up a faded denim tent.

U.S. tradition — and Wikipedia — tell us that Labor Day, annually observed on the first Monday in September, was created to “celebrate the economic and social contributions of workers.”  Well, no offense to laborers everywhere, but I know what it’s really all about.  Food, glorious food.  Labor Day is about work, all right — working in the kitchen, in front of the stove, or over the barbecue pit. And that suits me just fine.

This year, like many before it and hopefully many after it, I am celebrating the official laborers holiday by doing just what my mom and dad taught me.  As I prepare to host our annual family Labor Day barbecue (coupled with the annual brother-in-law birthday celebration), I chase away my unemployed doldrums with a couple of days of toiling in my kitchen.  As my mother would say, it’s not really work when it’s doing something you love for people you love.

It has been awhile since I truly played for hours in the kitchen, so I was itching to get in there and make a mess.  Any foodie worth her kosher salt knows it’s not really a successful day in the kitchen unless there’s a dusting of flour on the floor, stray raisins under the dining room table, something sticky on the cabinet knobs, no available space left on the counters, half a dozen egg shells that didn’t quite make the trash can across the room, and a sink overflowing with dirty dishes.  Oh, thank you, Labor Day, for rolling around when you did!

After I wrote those words, true to my calling, I got busy in the kitchen.  I made a quiche using up leftovers in my fridge, because I know my nephew will arrive too hungry to wait for the barbecue to fire up and do its thing.  I threw steamed broccoli, chopped onions, smoked gouda cheese, and some chopped soppressata (an Italian dry salami — so yummy!) together with eggs, milk, and a 1/2 cup of Bisquick.  It came out perfectly delicious — and with less calories and guilt than a quiche made with pie crust.  Or so I’m telling myself.

Quiche — a wonderful little project for leftovers.

Then I made a batch of brownies (for my chocolate-loving niece) using a box mix tweaked with some surprises tucked inside like tiny presents in a Christmas stocking: mini chocolate chips, pecans, and toffee bits — my fav accessories to a brownie mix.  Next came the baked beans for our barbecue (with bacon, of course), and a pineapple upside down cake for my brother-in-law.  I can’t begin to describe for you how good my house smelled!

Pineapple upside down cake — done in a bundt pan.

But I didn’t stop there.  Looking through my fridge, I wanted to do something different with a carton of fresh strawberries.  Smoothies?  Boring.  Shortcake?  So last decade.  Strawberry cream pie?  We have a winner!  Then, we quickly had a loser.

Strawberry cream pie — Looking yummy so far.  Let’s see . . . the graham cracker crust did its job nicely, and the sweet strawberries did their job nicely.   Hmmm . . . the cream filling?  Not so much . . . 

Yes, I had great intentions.  And it is so frustrating when great intentions in the kitchen are reduced to mere puddles of nothingness — much like the cream pie filling oozing itself into oblivion in the fridge.

. . . A clear disappointment. It’s creepy in a way; almost like the soupy filling wants to ooze back and fill in the vacant spot left when a piece of pie is cut and removed from the pie plate.  Creepy.  And not a bit appetizing.

The strawberry cream pie I envisioned was something I first pictured in my mind a few months ago, when the sweet fruit started to hit the farmer’s markets.  I love the fruit — but I love a cream pie filling even more, so I decided to blissfully marry the two in a graham cracker crust.  Unfortunately, the recipe for cream pie filling that my mother used so often in her day that the page from the recipe book looks like it’s been through the war, let me down — not once, not twice, but three times.

That’s a lot of ingredients to throw down the sink– when you’re unemployed.  Based on a very old Betty Crocker vanilla cream pie recipe for a 9-inch pie, it calls for all the things that make a good base pie filling: sugar, eggs, milk, cornstarch, flour, salt, butter, and pure vanilla.  The recipe served my mother very well over the years, and I remember many decadent banana cream, coconut cream, and chocolate cream pies to die for — made with love in my mother’s kitchen using this good old Betty standby recipe.   And I don’t recall any of them doing a soup impersonation on my dessert plate.

I wondered what could have gone wrong with the recipe.  Was it the weather?  Fluctuations in temperature and humidity have been known to play nasty with certain culinary tasks.  Did I boil it on the stovetop exactly 60 seconds, as the recipe instructs?  Or did I miscalculate the time, only cooking it for 53 seconds?  Was my cornstarch — the star thickener of the recipe — out of date?  Nope.  Are they manufacturing cornstarch differently than they did in Betty’s day?  Were the eggs yolks too large or not large enough?  (Betty didn’t say which size to use.)  Did I allow it to cool sufficiently before placing it in the refrigerator to chill?  Is my refrigerator not as cold as one that Betty used when she and her kitchen experts were creating this recipe?  Who knows?

I started to wonder if, like me, Betty herself needs a little reinventing.

Could this old, oft-used recipe need some tweaking after all these years?  Is it possible that with all the culinary advances and discoveries we’ve seen over the last 50 or 60 years, some of our tried and truest formulations of the past just don’t work very well in the kitchens of the 21st century?  Interesting.

Only one way to find out.  So, onward and upward I go in my quest to find a cream pie filling that is all at once fresh, creamy, delicious, versatile, and able to hold its own in the pie plate.  It’s a labor of love.  I’ll keep you posted on my findings.

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The Camera Doesn’t Lie . . . Damn it

Today I received a letter in the mail from a local funeral home.  Do you think they know something I don’t know?

It was an invitation to take part in a survey that would help them get to know the community better.  At the very top of the survey was this headline in big, bold letters: Funeral and Cremation Planning Survey

Way to ignite the negative thought process, guys.

At the bottom of the survey, after the last question, was this tiny sentence: Please accept our apologies if this community survey reached you in a time of grief or illness.  And it was in italics, as if that added sincerity and somehow softened the blow.  Salt?  Meet Open Wound.

OK, I know that my sleepless nights have me looking far from freshly pressed, and that life has me aging faster than the cosmetically-enhanced, tiara-wearing toddlers on a fashion show runway, but c’mon.  Cremation planning?  Really?

Perhaps one of their employees overheard me whimpering recently inside a dressing room littered with the remains of a day of swimsuit shopping.  I don’t know why I do that to myself every year.  I don’t even have a pool.

Or, maybe their IT people somehow hacked into my computer and have been counting the number of times I visit the AARP website.  I really only go there for the coupons, you know.

At any rate, somewhere, somebody in the funeral home’s marketing department figured me to be a) older than I am; b) sicker than I am; c) destitute and contemplating suicide, or d) all of the above.  Just what I need.  A cheery hello letter and a survey to help us all get to know each other and . . . well . . . . say goodbye.

Thanks for the morale booster, XYZ Funeral Home (name changed to protect the innocent).  As if that wasn’t enough, I had to renew my driver’s license today. And take a new photo.  And verify that my physical description info actually still describes me.  Uh oh.  The look on the DMV employee’s face told me she knows darn well that the last time I weighed 130 I was in the 7th grade.

Then, as I stood in front of the DMV’s well-worn, mold-green back drop that I can’t imagine enhances anyone’s skin tone, I noticed with some disappointment the gentleman manning the camera — and I use the term gentleman loosely, as he was neither charming nor gracious, which is what a gentleman should be.  Especially one pointing a camera at a woman over 50, as a line of 16-year-olds with tans and perky breasts formed behind her.

Camera Guy sort of paused after he told me to look at the blue dot and wait for the flash, as if he was waiting for me to somehow magically transform my haven’t-had-a-decent-night’s-rest-in-quite-some-time face into something resembling undiscovered-teen-starlet.

Is he waiting for me to smile more or less, I wondered while nervously anticipating the annoying flash that surely should have come by now.  Is he waiting for me to lick my lips and pinch my cheeks — totally useless info I learned about a hundred years ago in a Saturday morning charm school at a Sears department store in the mall?  Listen here, Camera Guy, if my fresh coat of mascara, blush, and lipstick doesn’t do it for you, that’s just your too bad.  I can live my remaining years just fine with whatever unflattering photo your big black camera spits out.  After all, a local funeral home has already initiated a relationship with me, so my shaky confidence level has tumbled with enemies far rougher than you this morning.

On the other hand, maybe I should contact the funeral home and let them know that I’m not going anywhere because I just paid $31 to renew my driver’s license — and I updated my weight to something closer to the truth.  How’s that for meeting adversity head on?

Pretty in pink — Grilled polenta with pink-pesto vinaigrette

Now we’re getting somewhere.  I’m learning how to make lemonade out of lemons, as the saying goes — and tangy, pink-pesto vinaigrette from vine-ripened tomatoes — all to soothe my bruised, untanned, sagging ego.

And, I’m turning unsolicited fan mail from the Grim Reaper’s minions into decorative trash can liners.  Yeah, yeah, I know I can’t run from them forever.  But for today, I just smiled and prayed that the flash bulb highlighted my rosy cheekbones.

Take that, Camera Guy.





This is a delicious and pretty appetizer or first course for your next dinner party — especially in the summer when tomatoes and basil are at their best.  It is also a very yummy yet light summertime supper just for you.  Enjoy this dish while you watch the Summer Olympics on the couch — I promise you won’t feel nearly as guilty as you would eating Ben & Jerry’s straight from the carton.  Been there, done that.

  • 1 tube of prepared polenta at room temperature, drained well and cut into 1/2-inch-thick round slices (one tube will yield about eight or nine 1/2-inch slices)
  • 1 large fresh mozzarella ball, drained well and sliced into 1/4-inch-thick round slices; allow to come to room temperature
  • 1 large or two small tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped (see note below)
  • 1 small shallot
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons prepared pesto sauce (homemade or your favorite jar variety)
  • 1 teaspoon Dijon mustard (I used a grainy Dijon)
  • 1 teaspoon honey
  • 2 tablespoons sherry or red wine vinegar
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (plus more for brushing on polenta rounds)
  • Fresh basil leaves
  • Salt & pepper

Prepare vinaigrette: In a small bowl, whisk together the vinegar, Dijon, honey, and pesto.  Add 1 tablespoon very finely chopped shallot, then vigorously whisk in the olive oil to blend the vinaigrette.  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Add the chopped tomato and set aside so the flavors can come together in harmony.  (The vinaigrette — minus the tomato — can be prepared well in advance; keep at room temperature and add the tomato a few minutes before serving.)  Makes about 1/2 cup.

Prepare the polenta: Preheat a grill pan.  (If you don’t have a grill pan, a nonstick skillet will also work, you just won’t have grill marks.)  Using a paper towel, pat dry the polenta rounds so the olive oil will do its thing in the grill pan.  Brush the rounds with olive oil, season lightly with salt and pepper, and grill over medium-high heat for approximately 6 to 8 minutes a side, until desired grill marks are visable and rounds are heated through.  Remove from heat and allow to cool slightly.

To serve, place one slice of mozzarella on top of one grilled polenta round; top that with one more polenta round, and finish by topping that with another mozzarella slice to create a layered tower.  Dress the tower by drizzling a small spoonful of vinaigrette over the top, allowing it to flow down the sides.  Garnish with tiny fresh basil leaves.

Note: To seed (or is it deseed?) a tomato for chopping, cut tomato in half horizontally and gently squeeze out the seeds and watery pulp.  This prevents a diluted vinaigrette, thus keeping the flavor at its best.

Posted in Brunch Favorites, Cocktails / Appetizers, Entrees, Meatless Meals | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 6 Comments