The way to a friend’s heart

Today’s post comes courtesy of Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister. Her story of a dinner party gone awry might be partially my fault.  I’m the one who compiled the family cookbook. Did I get the recipe wrong? ~ Catherine

Miracles HappenBy Theresa Lower
January brings the hope of new beginnings. M and I resolve to perfect the art of entertaining this year. We vow to plan ahead, no more last minute preparations or improvisational meals. We’re going to be relaxed and ready when our guests arrive. And so, we decide to have a dinner party to practice, not our usual impromptu get-together, but a real grown-up evening of food and conversation, music and appetizers. Nothing too fancy, but a meal with a plan and recipes, real recipes followed to the letter, an evening to remember.

The milestones and holidays in our family have a signature dish that identifies the event as special, and many of these beloved recipes have been transcribed and compiled into a family cookbook by Catherine. We turn to this cookbook for the perfect winter meal. What better Winter-in-Des Moines offering to our friends than the Christmas Eve Chili I’ve eaten at my parent’s house for years? I’ve never made it, but how hard can it be?

Party day arrives. M and I move through most of the items on our to-do list when we begin to cook about 4:00; the guests will arrive at 7:00.  We tell ourselves we’ll easily be ready on time, probably spend the last hour relaxing with our feet up. After all we just have to mix everything together and stir occasionally. M, who bought the groceries the day before, asks if the ingredients will fit into the pot. “Sure,” I say and pull four pounds of stew meat and three pounds of pork tenderloin out of the refrigerator.

Undaunted, I review the recipe. Seven pounds of meat, yes! Onions and garlic sizzle on the stove. hovers over the pot. “Are you sure this is all going to fit?”  I feel a small twinge of doubt, break my resolve to follow the recipe, and decide to use only three quarters of the stew meat and half the pork. The pot is full. I eye the clock and the seven cans of beans and chopped tomato on the counter and begin to feel desperate.

We get out the crockpot and a frying pan, put half the meat in the frying pan and the beans and tomato mixture into the crockpot. valiantly stirs both kettles of meat. After the last can of beans is emptied into the crockpot, I review the ingredients again. Now, I worry in earnest. The beans and tomato form a congealed mass, even with the liquid from the chopped tomatoes. I can’t imagine how I’ll be able to mix in the meat. I search the recipe for liquid – water, broth, tomato sauce? No liquid, but I’m confident, I’m following a recipe with years of tradition behind it.

We add the meat to the beans in the crockpot and stir, hoping it will be transformed into the blend of succulent meat and savory beans I remember. Instead it begins to scorch. We dump all the ingredients back into the original pot. They barely fit, but at least we can control the heat.  “We’ll have to stir frequently,” I say.

I wish I could tell you that we defied the recipe and added liquid. No, we stubbornly clung to the belief that the recipe was right, even when faced with mounting evidence that it was not. The mixture continued to cook only on the bottom, and because of its density, as the heat rose, so did the chili, heaving itself up and forming small blow holes that hissed when we tried to stir it with a feeble wooden spoon. I began to think of it as the Monster on the Stove. And sadly, that it remained.

Instead of developing a rich broth as it simmered, the chili got thicker and thicker as the beans broke down. When it was finally served, we presented a heavy lump of meat with an occasional bean.


Our friends were gracious. They bravely chewed and enthusiastically declared the meal delicious. We laughed and shared stories and mostly finished our servings of Christmas Eve Chili. All politely refused a second portion, claiming it was so hearty they couldn’t possibly eat more.

I’m humbled, both by the generosity of friendship and my own foolishness in refusing to trust my instincts.  As for putting our feet up and relaxing before the guests arrived, at 6:15pm I was trying to re-hang a kitchen cabinet door that had somehow fallen off and was vacuuming. Next time we practice the art of entertaining, we’ll use a recipe we know and make it the day before.

I still have to ask Mom and Dad to tell me the secret to the family chili. Then maybe Catherine can edit the family cookbook.

Want to come over for dinner soon?

Play With Your Food, I Say!

I am wrapping up this month’s exploration of patterns with a play session. When young, we are admonished to not play with our food. Aside from the occasional volcano of mashed potatoes and gravy lava I mostly adhered to this rule. But now that I am grown, I have thrown that reprimand out and taken to playing with my food. My idea of “playing with food” these days is styling and taking pictures. My latest subject – citrus, was chosen for the patterns created when cut in a cross-section.

three citrus cutA grapefruit,

grapefruit cut

a mineola tangelo,

mineola cutand a mandarin tangerine

mandarin cutare my citrus of choice.

I gathered leaves and cilantro from the yard and had a great time cutting and arranging. The smell – refreshing, and a fun way to kick-off a Saturday for this backyard sister. Citrus still on my mind I had a vision of delving deeper into the pattern created in the segments. So, I rigged up a photo box using an opaque plastic storage bin turned on its side and a clip-on desk light allowing me to place the light facing up inside the box. After slicing the citrus thinner I set them on the box over the light.

tangerine sliceThe back light allows the segments making up the segments to be visible. What joy! I was made even happier by the adjustment in Photoshop of filling the background with white thus removing any distractions and allowing the fruit slice to stand alone.

grapefruit sliceThese patterns are intriguing to me as well as inspirational. I may create a backdrop based on them.

orange sliceIt reminds me of a stained glass window.

These subjects make a great snack too!


~ Susan

The Weekend Dish – The Oscars

The 85th Academy Awards will be held in Hollywood this Sunday. hollywood sign

In honor of this occasion and sparked by a conversation with my backyard daughter, I have compiled a few recipes and ideas inspired by the best picture nominees for those of you hosting a party or simply in the mood for some culinary amusement. Most of these recipes are accessed through a link by clicking the name of the recipe and, in the interest of full disclosure, I must admit most of them I have not tried yet, but they sound good to me so I am sharing.

Argo, the Iranian hostage crisis film: as I see it there are two ways to go here, either Iranian cuisine or food from the seventies. For the Persian option Kababs and/or Persian  flatbread, and if you choose the seventies tie-in how about rumaki or break out your fondue set.

Amour, the French tale of an aging couple facing tough decisions brought on by medical circumstances: I have to go with the French themed dish here and I like the LA Times Madeleine suggestion, theirs is a pistachio madeleine  or you can stick with the traditional madeleine.

Beasts of the Southern Wild, the story of a young girl and her father in a Louisiana swamp called the Bathtub during a flood: for this one I am inspired by the Southern setting and Emeril Lagasse’s jambalaya or this cheese beignet recipe sounds good.

Django Unchained, the story of a freed slave looking for his wife with the help of a German bounty hunter: once again, using the Southern setting as inspiration, I like fried chicken tenders for this film. When I make them I dredge chicken breast tenders in a mixture of flour, salt, pepper, lots of dried sage (at least 1 Tbsp), and thyme; then add about a 1/2 inch of vegetable oil to a frying pan and heat until medium hot. Add chicken and cook on one side until browned, turn and cook until browned on the other side and meat is cooked through, about 3-4 minutes on each side.

Les Miserable, the story, set in early 19th century France, of an ex-convict, Jean Valjean, who for years has been pursued by a relentless police inspector, Javert: a loaf of French bread (since it was the theft of a loaf of bread that sent Valjean to prison in the first place) is a natural selection and this Crustless Leek and Gruyere Quiche recipe sounds delicious.

Silver Linings Playbook, the story of a man, Pat Solatano, trying to get his life back on track after being in a treatment center, for bi-polar disorder, and recently released into the care of his parents: I have to choose crabcakes here or this quick Crab and Avocado Toasts appetizer for a different take on crabby snacks and this recipe for Bacon Wrapped Dates Stuffed With Goat Cheese because it can be a date even if you only have Raisin Bran.

Life of Pi, the story of an Indian boy drifting at sea after a shipwreck on a raft with a tiger: I am going with an Indian influenced appetizer I tried recently,  Sweet Potato Lettuce Wraps, when I made these I used endive instead of the iceberg lettuce and I used ground cumin and didn’t add dried chilies to the sweet potatoes. I served it at a party and it got favorable reviews.

Lincoln, follows Lincoln’s efforts to pass the thirteenth amendment to the Constitution: according to the LA Times, it’s been said that Lincoln’s favorite dessert was apple pie so how about making some mini apple pies in his honor.

Zero Dark Thirty, the story of the hunt for and capture of Osama bin Laden: I am going to have to go with dark chocolate here and leave it at that. Choose your favorite dark chocolate.

paramount pictures melrose gate

There you have it, get busy and enjoy.

~ Susan

Food, marvelous, wonderful, glorious food

The orphans in Oliver! sing its praises, “food, glorious food,”  we need it to survive and I don’t know about you but I seem to spend a lot of time thinking about it. . . food! I devote countless hours to pondering what to make for meals then peering at produce and labels to pick the necessary ingredients, poring over menus when ordering at a restaurant and perusing cookbooks and magazines looking for inspiration. Recently I have found yet another way of expending even more energy on food by taking photos of it.

If you also like talking about and taking pictures of food there is a photography contest under way that may suit your fancy.  My Nikon Life Magazine is the sponsor, but you don’t need to use a NIKON camera to enter. They “want a mouth-watering story about a great food experience – told in both words and pictures.”   The contest has been divided into three phases and currently is in the third and final phase. The deadline for submissions is  31 August, 2012.  Just like the song in Oliver! the title is Food Glorious Food and you can click there to find out all about it.

Also, if you are in the Los Angeles area June 9th and are in the market for new, original artwork you may want to check out the pop-up gallery the Tappan Collective is sponsoring. The Tappan Collective is an online gallery selling artwork by emerging artists from around the country. The pop-up gallery is 7-10PM at the Jeffries Building, 117 Winston St, LA. To learn more and get all the details visit the Tappan Collective website.

~Ciao, Sue