Buttermilk Biscuits


You know that I always try to have a little backstory to go along with a recipe, because I think that it’s much more fun to find out why someone cooks or bakes something than just read a recipe, which you can do on any cooking site. A lot of times, though, I have no good tale after I try a recipe, but I really want to share it and so I wander around trying to fit the recipe into a story, any story, so I can write about it. I mean, I’m not crazy (or committed) enough to go do something just so I can post about it and give you a recipe, but I do have a backlog of tasty treats that are hanging out just waiting for the right moment.

This is not one of those moments. The true story is that I bought a quart of buttermilk (seriously, who needs a quart of buttermilk?) in order to make sweet potato muffins for a brunch. Since the recipe only calls for 1/3 cup of buttermilk I had a full container when I was done.  I was thrilled when the lemon poppyseed cake called for a cup; I thought I could at least put a dent in the quart. But it’s obvious that buttermilk regenerates, because I swear that the carton was as full as when I started (and I made three of those cakes).  So as the expiration date approached, I started thinking about what else I could do.  Biscuits were the first thing that popped into my mind, but I dismissed them because I’m not a fan.  The ones I’ve had have always been heavy and chewy and too buttermilky–the tang of buttermilk is overpowering to me.  But I couldn’t find any recipes other than cakes and pancakes, so biscuits won by default.

Having never eaten a biscuit that I actually liked, I had every intention of just making them, taking a few pictures and pawning them off on my coworkers.  What really ended up happening is that I was late for work, because I was standing in my kitchen eating biscuits dripping with butter and honey like it was my job.  I moved from the “I’ll pass” camp to the “you’ll pass over all the biscuits now if you know what’s good for you” camp in less time than it took for them to cool.  They were light and layered and had a bit of sweetness (even without the honey) that balanced out the tartness of the buttermilk.  Even the next day they were soft and had none of that chewiness that I think plagues other biscuits.  Of course, I wouldn’t really know how they hold up for too many days, because there weren’t any left after day two.  But, you know what was still hanging around? 1/2 a quart of buttermilk. I kid you not.

Buttermilk Biscuits, courtesy of The Homesick Texan (I think I originally found the recipe on epicurious, but think it’s better to link to her actual site)

  • 2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for kneading (9 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon granulated sugar, plus more to taste (I used just 1 teaspoon)
  • 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cold (1 stick)
  • 3/4 cup half-and-half or buttermilk (I added a bit more to the dough, because it was a little dry as I was mixing)

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees and grease a baking sheet or cast-iron skillet.

Mix together the flour, baking powder, sugar and salt.  Cut the stick of butter into pieces and work it into the flour mixture with your hands or pastry blender until it resembles pea-size crumbs. Add the half-and-half or buttermilk, mixing until the dough is a bit loose and sticky.

Pour the dough out onto a floured surface and knead for a minute. Dough should be smooth and no longer wet. You can sprinkle more flour on the surface if you find it’s sticking. Make the dough into a ball and hit it with a rolling pin, turning it and folding it in half every few whacks. Do this for a couple of minutes (I actually just picked up the dough and threw it down over and over (fold over before throwing it down again).  Good tension release and upper arm workout).

Roll out the dough until it’s 1/4 of an inch thick, then fold it in half. Using a round biscuit cutter (you can use a glass or a cup if you don’t have a biscuit cutter–I used a measuring cup), cut out the biscuits from the folded dough. Place on a greased baking sheet or in a cast-iron skillet close together, about 1/8 of an inch apart (so they rise up not out), and bake for 15 minutes or until the tops are golden brown.

NOTE: If you don’t want to roll and cut them out, after kneading and beating the dough you can drop the dough onto the baking sheet with a spoon. They’re not as symmetrical (dropped biscuits are also known as cat-head biscuits), but they’re no less delicious.

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Kalua Pork


Aloha! Even though it’s hard to believe–especially considering I have to wear 12 layers of clothing in order to leave the house–last week this time I was in Hawai’i, learning to surf, sipping mai tais, flirting with pilots and generally enjoying being warm and toasty (not necessarily at the same time or in that order).  It was a glorious vacation full of snorkeling, paddle surfing, good friends, lots of sun, even more laughs and delicious fresh food.  I will spare you all of the typical vacation stories, except for the one that involves me attempting to ride down the side of a volcano in Maui.  As we’ve discussed before, I am not an adventurous person by any stretch of the imagination.  Most of my beach vacations have involved a lounge chair, magazines, naps and sidling up to the bar the minute it opens.  This time around, I travelled with people who like to do things on vacation, which is a completely novel and foreign concept to me.  I gamely went along with all of their plans, mainly because I’m a people pleaser, but there was a part of me that thought it all sounded like fun.  And! I like to believe that I’m one of those people who will try anything [within reason] once.

You should note those brackets in the sentence above, because in no world is riding a bike down the side of a volcano within reason. It’s crazy, stupid and mind-numbingly frightening.  In theory it sounded like fun and a story that I could tell well into my golden years, but in practice it was terrifying.  It started with a 1:30 AM wake up call so we could drive to the van that would take us to the top of the volcano to watch the sunrise (which was great, except it was about 30 degrees outside.  I will say feeling as though I could touch the Big Dipper was worth having to put on a fleece and jeans in Hawai’i).  After the sunrise, we were taken by van down to a “reasonable” spot on the volcano where the bike ride would start.  They lined us up shortest to tallest, which meant I was third in line.  Then they handed us motorcycle helmets.  It’s at this point that I should have thought, “Heather, what the $#(^&$* are you doing?” Instead, I thought that my helmet matched my nail polish nicely.  I only started to get nervous when they pulled the bikes out of the trailer.  They looked like fold up bikes, the chains were rusted and the seats were a little loose.  My hands started to shake when the guide told us to just ride the brakes down the winding, twisting curves of the volcano.  I’m sorry, what now?  But, because I am generally a follower, I got on the bike and started pedaling (or really, just keeping my feet on the pedals and hanging on for dear life).  I don’t think I had gone 50 yards before I started screaming in my head.  Another 100 yards and I was screaming out loud.  On my right was a sheer drop off.  On my left was traffic.  I couldn’t look behind me and I was riding the brakes so hard that the people in front of me were 2 curves ahead, so I couldn’t see them.  Finally, we pulled over and I jumped off the bike, handed my helmet to the guide and went to the van following us where it took me a good 10 minutes to start breathing normally.  I’d like to tell you that I wish I’d finished the bike ride, but there’s no part of me that feels that way. NONE.  Good on the people who did (including my friends)–you’ll have much more interesting stories at the nursing home.

After the ride [in the van], we stopped in the lovely Oceanside town of Pai’a where we were able to relax on the beach and thank the powers that be that we were still alive.  We found a cute storefront restaurant that served homemade kalua pork (so homemade that the woman behind the counter pulled a tupperware container of pork out of the refrigerator and mentioned that it had come out of her oven that morning). 

Over the course of the week, kalua pork had become a fave of mine (along with spam musubi–next recipe!).  Kalua means to cook in an underground oven, but lucky for those of us who live in highrises, you can do it in a crockpot.  It’s basically a slow roasted pork shoulder, which is then shredded and served over rice.  I’m all for keeping the integrity of local dishes, but I see a lot of possibilities with this one–the addition of ginger, hot peppers, other vegetables… It couldn’t be easier, especially with a crockpot, but can be done in the oven as well. The use of liquid smoke–a first for me–gives it the taste of an outdoor barbecue, which is great since it’ll be a long while before there are any outdoor activities in the Chi.  Riding down a volcano doesn’t seem so bad if it gets me outside… Right?

Kalua Pork

  • 3 lb pork shoulder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons liquid smoke
  • 2-1/4 teaspoons Hawaiian salt, or sea salt, or kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350-400 degrees F. Pierce pork all over with carving fork or score with a knife. Rub salt and liquid smoke into meat. Place pork fat side up in a roasting pan or deep casserole dish. Cover and roast in oven for 2 1/2-3 hours. Remove the pork from pan and shred with two forks. Makes six servings. (I used my crockpot on low for 5 hours.  In the last 1/2 hour, I added about a cup of shredded cabbage, which I’d had at one restaurant.  Drain off excess liquid before serving over rice).

Chicken Noodle Soup


I spent a very fun weekend in Texas and if I thought I could replicate the yummy bbq from Salt Lick, I’d do it post-haste.  Unfortunately I was too busy debating whether it would be appropriate to move to Austin just for ribs (people have moved for sillier reasons, right?) and didn’t pay enough attention to how the deliciousness was made, so you’ll have to trust me on this one or make a trip down there.

I was lucky enough to bring back some very style-y cowboy boots, but also seemed to have brought back a bit of a cold that wasn’t enough to knock me out completely, but just enough to annoy me and curse the coughing lady next to me on the plane.  Normally when I have a cold I crave tuna (don’t ask, because I really can’t explain it), but the stuffy nose and scratchy throat were crying out for chicken noodle soup.  Now, I’m a Campbell’s girl all the way when it comes to these things. 

When you’re sick, fancy soups can’t beat the comfort found in that red and white can.  Whenever I was home from school with a cold (or more likely strep throat which I got ALL THE TIME), my mom would tuck me under the covers on the sofa so I could watch tv, surround me with my favorite stuffed animals and heat up that condensed chicken noodle goodness.  Other soups she’d make from scratch, but for some reason every mom knows that few things can beat Campbell’s in a pinch.

Admittedly, making it for myself is not as comforting, but it did make me feel better.  As I sat on the sofa watching terrible television (where’s a good Lifetime movie when you need it??), I started thinking whether I could make my own version.  Why I feel the need to try to recreate foods that are perfectly fine already is a question I ask myself repeatedly, but what else would I write about if I didn’t? 

Also, I’m sure there are many grandmothers out there who have a tried and true chicken noodle soup recipe that would put my efforts to shame–one that involves boiling chickens and making stock and chopping vegetables–but when you’re sick and in need of food, that’s the kind of energy you just don’t have (if any of you would like to let me borrow your grandmother next time I have the sniffles, holla!). 

I basically roasted some chicken breasts, cooked up some pasta and threw it all into my Le Creuset to simmer with onions, carrots and broth.  As someone who really believes in the stirring and watching and checking, this couldn’t have been easier and–surprisingly–tastier.  No, I really didn’t think it would all come together (I rarely, if ever, cook anything without a recipe), but it did and in about 45 minutes (roasting the chicken took about 40 minutes, in which time you could put everything else together).

So while I can’t say I’ll forsake Campbell’s next time I’m sick, this is a hearty substitute when condensed versions just aren’t cutting it.  Let’s hope I make it through winter without any need for either (knock on wood)…

Chicken Noodle Soup

  • 2 large chicken breasts, roasted (or baked) and chopped into bite size pieces
  • 1 medium sized onion, diced
  • 2 cups frozen crinkle cut carrots
  • 3 14.5 ounce cans of chicken broth
  • 1 box bowtie pasta
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper to taste

While chicken is roasting (about 15 minutes before it’s done), heat olive oil in stock pan and add onion, sautéing until tender.  Add chicken broth and carrots, bring to a boil and then reduce heat so it’s simmering. 

In separate pot, cook pasta according to package directions, but undercook by about 2 minutes (I originally thought of cooking the pasta in the chicken broth, but didn’t have enough broth to cover all of the pasta.  I think it might work. Try it and let me know!). 

Add chopped chicken to broth, then drain and add pasta (it will finish cooking in the broth).  Add salt and pepper to taste.  Serve hot (and preferably with a good movie).

Guest Post: Not Your Grandmother’s Pot Roast


Kids, I’m in love with these guest posts!  Not only have I gotten a slew of new recipes to try out, I’m saved from having to fret about what to post come Tuesday night.  Today’s recipe comes from a college friend, Mikie, who is living across the pond in Manchester (remind me to tell you why Manchester will always have a special place in my heart one of these days).  Mikie has used one of my favorite kitchen appliances, the crock pot, to take pot roast from hmm…? to mmm!!! while you sleep.  The red wine, lots of veggies and a side of polenta make this Sunday dinner something you’ll be craving all week.  Who said there was no good food in England? You can find more of Mikie’s British adventures at http://wannabewayfarer.blogspot.com/.

Since being invited to guest blog on Pestle Mortar I’ve been debating about which recipe to send. I have lots of favorites, and like to experiment with new ones, but I wanted to choose one that was suitably tested and perfectly delicious. I had an “ah-ha” moment this morning when I started getting out the ingredients to prep Sunday dinner. “This is it!” I thought. Why, you ask? I use a pestle and mortar in this recipe. Perfect!

When MRN and I got engaged, one of the first gifts we got was a slow cooker (née crock pot). Even though they’re perceived to be throwbacks to the 1950s (think June Cleaver and aprons), the slow cooker was actually invented in the 60s and dubbed the crock in the early 70s. I was super excited. I’d never had one, and kitchen gadgets to me are much like power tools to my husband– my own personal version of crack. But what to cook? I started with soups and stews, and then my friend MC who works in the online division of a gigunda book conglomerate gifted me with two gourmet slow cooker cookbooks. Yes, you read that correctly– gourmet. The books have recipes from all over the world– all easy to prep, fancy enough to impress company and, cooked in a slow cooker. Score!

This one is by far my favorite. One, because it’s super easy to prepare. And two, because it will blow the socks off your preconceived notion of a pot roast. Dry and tasteless no more, this baby is full of flavor, beautifully presented and perfect for a posh dinner party. Pot roast for a dinner party? Awww-yeah. And the best bit? Like butter is to French cooking, wine is to Italian (don’t worry non-wine drinkers– the alcohol cooks out and you’re left with this rich, wonderful flavor). Says author of The Gourmet Slow Cooker, Lynn Alley: “Pot roast is a big favorite throughout northern Italy, just as it is in the United States.” Who knew? The bonus? Slow cooking makes your whole house smell homey and amazing. 30 minutes of prep, 8 hours of slow cooking and voilá! Yummy goodness.

Italian Pot Roast with Polenta

  • 1 cinnamon stick, broken into pieces
  • 4 whole cloves
  • 3 allspice berries
  • 6 black peppercorns (I usually use a bit more b/c I’m a pepper fiend; and I’ll add ground pepper to the sauce once it’s ready for the slow-cooker)
  • 3 tbsp olive oil
  • 3 1/2 lbs beef pot roast, trimmed of excess fat
  • 1 yellow onion, finely chopped (I use one large or two small onions)
  • 4 cloves garlic, minced
  • 2 celery stalks, sliced (I like more veggies, so I usually use 3 of each of the celery and carrots; you also end up with more sauce, the left-overs which you can save and use on egg pasta the next day)
  • 2 carrots, peeled and sliced
  • 1 cup hearty dry red wine
  • 1 (28 oz) can crushed tomatoes
  • Salt (to taste)
  • Chopped fresh parsley for garnish

Combine the cinnamon, cloves, allspice and peppercorns in a mortar or coffee grinder and grind into a fine powder.

Heat a large sauté pan over medium-high heat and add the oil. Add the meat and sear, turning, for 10-15 minutes, until browned on all sides (let me start by saying I hate electric stove tops. You can’t control the heat and everything heats faster. But working with what I’ve got, I cook everything on medium so it doesn’t cook too fast… tip from the electronically challenged cooker). Using tongs, transfer to the slow cooker.

Add the onion to the sauté pan and sauté, stirring frequently until soft and lightly browned (about ten minutes– the seared meat cooked previously will give your onions a nice carmelized color). Add the garlic and stir until you can smell the garlic (about a minute). Add celery and carrots and sauté for 3-4 minutes, until lightly browned. Add the spice mixture and cook for 2 minutes (the smell is intoxicating!). Add the red wine and cook reduce by about one-third (about 10 minutes). Stir in the crushed tomatoes and salt to taste. Simmer for a few minutes and then pour the sauce over the meat in the slow cooker.

Cover and cook on low for about 8 hours until the meat falls away from the bone.*

*Even though the beauty of a slow cooker is that you throw everything in and don’t have to touch it, I find that with this recipe, it’s great if you can spoon the sauce over the meat 2-3 times over the course of the 8 hours. The liquid soaks in and makes it even more succulent. Don’t worry if you can’t– it will still be delicious!

For the polenta:
You can make your own, but I buy the garden variety kind that you can find in the grocery store (Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s for those in the U.S.). Just as delicious and so much easier. Follow the package instructions to cook– but I’ll usually slice and brush with a little olive oil and grill it- about 2 minutes on each side until lightly browned. You can also boil the polenta (usually in the packaging) for about 30 minutes and then mush it (that’s the technical term) with a fork until it’s a grits-like consistency.

To serve:
Once the meat is cooked and tender, remove it from the crock pot with tongs, remove the kitchen string (if it had it) and slice into 1/2-1 inch pieces (it will be tender, but don’t worry if the meat falls apart– just scoop it all back in the sauce for some savory goodness). Place the sliced roast back into the crock put and allow to simmer for 5-10 minutes. It will soak up some of the sauce and make it even more delish. Portion polenta to warmed plates and spoon pot roast and sauce over the polenta. Garnish with parsley. Serve immediately.

Lamb Burgers


How many women–with a combined 5 degrees, 4 languages and  having lived on 3 different continents–does it take to turn on a grill?  As I learned last week, it takes 4 women and 2 incredibly amused men.  I’m pretty sure that we could have figured it out on our own, but as soon as we looked the least bit confused these lovely men rushed over to impress us with their cooking over open fire prowess.  So, technically, we never really had a chance to even try to do it ourselves.  We could have! Maybe… Possibly… Moving on.

Anyhoo.  Three friends and I have decided that we need time away from the masses every once in awhile to hang out with each other and catch up on life’s big and small events over copious amounts of food and wine.  It started with a delicious Greek dinner in March, followed by a traditional Spanish dinner in April and then we sort of fell off the bandwagon due to schedules and well, all of those big and small life events.  But last week, the sun was shining, we were all in the same place for once and it was the perfect chance to sit outside, drink Cava and talk while watching the sun go down. 

L (of New Orleans fame) pretends she can’t actually cook, but in the half hour she had between work and our arrival, she made it to Whole Foods where she sweet talked the butcher into grinding up some fresh lamb, put together the tastiest–and most creative–lamb patties, sliced up some challah and created a beautiful summer salad. Any woman who can do that in 30 minutes, plus have sparkling beverages chilling, should call herself a chef extraordinaire.

The surprise of the burgers was that she mixed curry and cumin in, so there was a bit of a kick to the otherwise subtle flavor of the meat.  We topped them with a bit of whole grain mustard and feta crumbles (which kind of cooled things down nicely) and truly–grill ignorance aside–they were perfect: moist, juicy and full of flavor.  Add them to your list of bbq must haves immediately.

So I am up next in the rotation of dinner.  Given our busy lives, it may be October before I get to host. Am taking suggestions… And! if you’re in the Chi, come out for this good food for a good cause event tomorrow (Thursday) night! I’ll be the one double fisting luscious drinks and delectable treats… Taste of the Nation: No Kid Hungry

Lamb Burgers

  • 1 lb ground lamb
  • 2 tablespoons (approx. to taste) curry powder
  • 2 tablespoons ground cumin
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • salt and pepper
  • whole grain mustard
  • crumbled feta
  • challah buns

Combine the first 5 ingredients in a bowl and mix well.  Form into mini burger patties.  Place on hot grill and cook for 3-5 minutes each side.  Top with cheese and mustard and place on buns.  Thank the cute guys for lighting your fire.  Ahem.

 

Guest Post: Making the Most of Farmers Markets–A Weeklong Menu


I’m excited to announce a new phase in Pestle Mortar’s life–the Guest Post.  I’ve asked a few foodie friends to send me their take on what’s going on in their culinary lives, whether it be where they’ve dined lately, what’s cooking in their kitchen or what tasty trends they’re seeing in their city.  If you’re interested in doing your own guest post, drop me a line at pestlemortar@sbcglobal.net or leave a note in the comment section. 

The first guest post comes from my best gal, Rachel, who is a high powered executive in NYC by day and loving wife and amazing mama by night.  Rachel tells us how she keeps her family well fed for a week by some creative shopping at the local farmers market followed by some stellar prep and planning (and even includes some variation for picky eaters–kids or otherwise).  Even I, Ms. Procrastination 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2010 (I had a really productive 2009!), could do this.  On the menu this week: Seared Spicy Scallops, Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad, Pork Chops with Fennel, Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon and Fish and Greens.  Don’t you wish you were at her house tonight?

The Family That Eats Together…

Growing up, all the important decisions in my family were made in the kitchen. That’s because we spent a lot of time there, seated at a table for two. After ballet class, swim practice, rehearsal, work, my mom and I sat down together for dinner every day. Those week-night dinners we assembled were never fancy – pastas, fried chicken, stir fries, fish cakes, tuna casserole. They were the working class meals of a single Mom in the 70’s and early 80s. But they were a time for us to slow down together. To talk about our days. To connect.

I think those dinners saved me from a life of bad choices. (I had to sit down, look my mother in the eye, and recount each day). They enriched me with a feeling of community and gave me routine. As an adult, they sustain me with memory. Now that I am a mom, delighting in my five-year old son’s food revelations and my 6-month old daughter’s brand new love of avocado, I insist upon a home cooked meal. Every night. Together. My commitment to putting homemade food on the table each night for my family of four, however, extends beyond my insistence upon dinner as family time. It is also driven by my obsession with cooking organic food that is grown locally. 

When I was pregnant with my son, I began buying food that was organic and local. It cost a bit more. It took more time — one trip to the farmers market and one to my local market. But five years and another child later, I have never looked back. Living on a single income here in New York City means that my husband and I are a family on a budget, but our weekly food bill is a constant, set amount that I carve out as a known quantity. It is simply too important—for my kids and for our world. 

The other challenge is that I work full time, commuting on the F Train home each night. I get home late, and set in sail a tight ship of family dinner, bath time, stories, and bed. It can be hectic around here, but every night I sit down, hear about my five-year old’s day, feed my daughter, and catch up with my husband over something we’ve put together quickly after gathering it up from local farmers the weekend before. 

So here is how we do it: 

1. Hunt and gather: Every Sunday, my son, daughter, and I walk to the farmers market to pick up meat, eggs, fish, and vegetables. What I find there sets our menu for the week. I am extremely lucky to live in Brooklyn, where the farmers markets are yearlong. There is something incredibly satisfying about watching my son talk to the upstate farmers who grow our greens, catch our fish, and raise our cows. 

2. Make a menu based on what you find there: This week, the meat guys had nice flank steak and the fishermen sold us lovely scallops and a healthy piece of white fish. I figure that’s three of our five meals. Stunning chard, a gorgeous bunch of red onions, ripe cherry tomatoes, and a perfect fennel bulb also caught my eye. The chard will do nicely with the fish, the tomatoes will be part of a salad for the steak, and that fennel will work with some pork chops I’ll pick up at the market. Throw in pasta and I’ve got the week covered. 

3. Forage for the rest of your week: After the farmers market, we jump in the car and go to Fairway, which is a New York market that is like dying and going to food heaven. Here we gather up pork to cook with the fennel, some pasta (with a good-looking bunch of asparagus), and other staples for the week. Fairway is right on the ocean, so we always grab a bagel at Fairway’s ocean-side bakery and take a stroll along the water, too. 

The recipes I’ve created for this week can each be put together in less than 15 minutes. They include seasonal ingredients you can find at your local farmers market right now (as well as a few from your supermarket). They don’t cost a fortune. They are healthy, local, and lend themselves to variations for your toddler or big kid. 

Like everything else in my shining, new life as a parent of two, food is novel and very fun. I aim to sustain that belief through every eating age. One farmers market and one week-night dinner at a time.

Monday:  Seared Spicy Scallops

Tuesday: Seared Flank Steak with Orzo Salad

Wednesday: Pork Chops with Fennel

Thursday: Fettuccine with Asparagus and Bacon

Friday: Fish and Greens

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Chicken Andouille Gumbo


If you ever questioned my devotion to Pestle Mortar, the fact that I stood over a stove on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day making the perfect roux for gumbo should quash all doubts.  Why I felt the need to make gumbo on a brilliantly sunny 88 degree day is another question all together.

Last year, a couple of friends and I went to New Orleans for a weekend.  It was a grand plan that came at a time when I desperately needed distraction from every day life.  L, C and I were newish friends–we had hung out a bit in Chicago, but had never spent a concentrated amount of time together.   We figured there’s nothing quite like open container laws and beignets to bring people together, so we headed down (L’s brother met us there) and prepared for shenanigans.  L and I flew together on the first flight out, where we promptly ordered bloody mary’s and plotted our course.  The last time I’d been to NOLA, I was at a conference and didn’t have a chance to do much gallivanting.  L had been a few times before and declared that we needed to hit Galatoires, Napoleon House, Jacques-Imo’s and the Old Absinthe House.  My only request was to add the Gumbo Shop to the list.  I’d been the last time I was in the city and I needed a quick fix of gumbo to start the trip off right (and I wanted someone else to cook it).

Our hotel was just off Bourbon Street and we decided we’d walk to the restaurant, stopping for frozen Hurricanes on the way.  Two sips into my drink, we ran into one of my exes.  Not that bad. With his girlfriend. Also not bad, since we hadn’t seen or spoken to each other in four or five years. The girlfriend? The WOMAN WHO INTRODUCED US. Really now?  Needless to say that I drank that first Hurricane a little faster than necessary (brain freeze be damned).

Don’t worry–it was all uphill from there.  We arrived at the Gumbo Shop after the lunch rush and had the most adorable server ever to come from the Bayou.  He was likely hired for his accent, which was enough to make me swoon and forget that I was there to eat, not flirt (although a combination of the two is never really a bad thing).  

The gumbo, which is just the right amount of spice and comfort was the perfect way to fuel ourselves for 36 hours of running wild.

Lunch was followed by drinks at Napoleon House, which was followed by dinner at Gallitoires, followed by drinks at …. and then…. and finally ending at Old Absinthe (the ellipses represent my lapse in memory.  All I know is that I was never without a tasty drink for long). 

The next day, after breakfast at Cafe du Monde and very strong cocktails at Pat O’Brien’s, we headed to Jacques-Imo’s for dinner, where I was convinced to taste alligator cheesecake.  Um… yeah. I’d skip that on your next trip, ok? Rather than taking you on a tour of our borderline debauchery, let’s just sum it up by saying that we were in a bar listening to music and noticed that there was a lovely scent of s’mores in the air.  5 minutes later, we realized THE BAR WAS ON FIRE (fear not, we made sure to get to-go cups).  The night ended when I was dared to ride a mechanical bull.  Not enough purell in the world, my friends.

There are many lovely things about NOLA, not least of which are the people and the sights, but the food! The food could bring you to your knees.  If you can’t make it down there for a little Bayou fun anytime soon, cozy up with a bowl of this gumbo.  You’re on your own for the Hurricanes and bull rides, though…

 Chicken Andouille Gumbo courtesy of the Gumbo Shop Cookbook

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Baked Ziti at the Ronald McDonald House


It’s been a long couple of weeks at the Pestle Mortar household.  I’ll totally tell you the story one day over a gin and tonic or 5.  But suffice it to say that there has been no cooking or baking or even grocery shopping, although lists have been written of all the things that I plan on making in the near future.  And! I welcomed Pestle Mortar into the 2nd decade of the 21st century by signing up for Twitter.  Follow us on our culinary adventures, won’t you?  So even though I haven’t been cooking, I’ve been thinking about cooking and thinking about this little blog, and well, we all learned at a young age that it’s the thought that counts, right?

Anyhoo.  Long before life came and distracted me, I had signed up to cook lunch for the families staying at the Ronald McDonald House with a friend from law school.  The idea behind the House is that families who have a child in the hospital can stay free of charge so that they can be nearby.  Some families send just one parent, others come with siblings, and they can stay for as long as it takes for the sick child to recover.  Families come from thousands of miles away from home, so one benefit they receive is getting home-cooked meals.  Usually staff will prepare breakfast, lunch and dinner, but volunteers are allowed to come and cook any meal, or just make cookies with the siblings staying at the house.  It’s a great place, but, of course, we all wish it weren’t necessary.

My friend, B–whom I hadn’t seen in 10 years, but, through the magic that is facebook, have reconnected with–organized an afternoon with a few of her friends and their young children to make lunch and generally have a lovely afternoon.  Since we weren’t sure how many people we’d be feeding–meals are set up buffet style and families can come at any point to help themselves–we decided to make 3 different kinds of baked ziti (turkey sausage, pork sausage and a completely vegetarian eggplant and spinach one) and lemon cupcakes.  What was great about the whole set up was that there were three different cooking stations, all the utensils and cookware that we needed, and the kitchen was industrial sized, so we never bumped into each other.  All we had to do was bring the ingredients, which B divided up equally, so we all spent the same amount and didn’t have to schlep huge bags of food. 

For some crazy reason (likely because none of them knew me.  Or perhaps they didn’t trust me with their kids, who were on cupcake duty), I was assigned to the vegetarian ziti station.  As we’ve learned, Italian food and I aren’t the best of friends, so it should come as no surprise that I’ve never made baked ziti.  Nor have I ever sautéed an eggplant (let alone cut one up), because I don’t really like it (it’s a texture thing.  For the same reason, I don’t like tomatoes, zucchini or meatloaf. That last one is a little random, I realize, but they all have the same squishy texture to me…).  So here I am charged with creating a vegetarian pasta dish that features one of my least favorite foods and I’m cooking for complete strangers who have a sick kid and need a wholesome meal.  Oh! And when I started, I didn’t have a recipe… Ok, then.

In the end it worked (mainly because B arrived with the recipe before I could do much damage) and it was a hearty, tasty meal that I would duplicate in a minute (I must be honest and say that I couldn’t bring myself to taste the eggplant version, but the turkey sausage one was yummy! I’m such a cheat! But people told me the veggie one was really good…).

As we were cleaning up the kitchen, the families thanked us, which was completely overwhelming, because really, we should have been thanking them for giving us a chance to do something so rewarding with a few hours on our Saturday.  B, her friends and I promised to do this every month and, as lovely as the families were, I know we’re all hoping that we won’t see the same people ever again…

Baked Ziti (via Williams Sonoma @ http://www.williams-sonoma.com/)

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Spinach Pesto


After the food debauchery of last week, I needed a total detox from all things heavy, buttery, sauce-laden and sugary.  So, basically anything that tastes good.  I had a wonderful time eating my way through this magnificent city–and would do it again in an artery clogged heartbeat–but I decided to take this week to try to incorporate some vegetables and whole grains and fruit into my meals.  Woo hoo….?

The thing about having so many tasty dishes over the course of a week is that my tastebuds and body have completely gotten used to all of the goodness, so I knew that if I wanted to eat well this week I was going to have to find big, bold flavors to trick myself into doing it. 

Luckily, I was actually craving spinach (strange, I know.  When I was a kid one of my favorite lunches was ground beef and spinach, which my mother would put in my Wonder Woman thermos.  Any wonder that I used to bribe kids with cookies to sit with me at lunch?).  I knew, though, that if I had to come home after a day of work and some [very little] time at the gym and sit down to a plate of spinach salad, I was going to reach for the phone to make a reservation at the closest place serving anything decadent.  But really, how many ways are there to make spinach fun? And quick? And easy? 

For some reason, spinach pesto popped into my head and I’m really happy it did.  Not only did I get to feel all manner of virtuous as I tore up my spinach leaves and chopped my garlic and grated my parmesan cheese, I had a delicious way of eating my veggies and not feel like I was suffering. 

In full honesty, I think you’d have to eat the equivalent of a jar of the pesto to actually get the full benefits of a serving of spinach, but let’s not burst my little healthy bubble, ok?

Making the pesto was easy, and I say this even after I had to use a blender to do it (I don’t own a food processor–something I was really annoyed about at 7 in the morning when I was making this pesto so that I would have it all ready to go when I got home).  I ended up making whole grain pasta and grilling some chicken, and voila! A completely healthy and tasty meal that didn’t leave me feeling deprived or unsatisfied, which would have also made me super crabby.  And no one needs that.

I was happy to have a week of simplicity and goodness.  Especially after I read about Chicago Chef Week.  See you there? 

Spinach Pesto

  • 4 cups washed, torn spinach leaves, stems removed, well packed
  • 3 garlic cloves, halved
  • 2-3 basil leaves, torn
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt

Place a few spinach leaves, garlic, basil and a little oil in blender or food processor container.  Cover and puree until leaves begin to look crushed.  Continue adding spinach leaves a few at a time with small amounts of oil to blender, using a rubber spatula to help combine pureed mixture.  Add cheese and salt.  Cover and process until mixture is smooth.

Shrimp Scampi and Slow Roasted Beef Tenderloin


Last week a few friends and I decided to take a cooking class at the Chopping Block, because one friend had gotten a gift certificate that she swore she was just using as a coaster and the rest of us really had nothing better to do on a random Monday night in February.  I’ve taken classes there before, but this was the first time that I’ve ever gone with friends and I’m fairly certain that we, along with our two bottles of wine, snarky comments and complete irreverence, won’t be allowed back any time soon.  Oh, we were good students and paid attention (kind of), but it’s never a good sign when the head instructor names your group the Rascals 15 minutes into class and the other students suddenly become very busy with zesting their lemons when we tried to be friendly (at least I think we tried. Maybe not…).

I blame the fact that all of us are complete Type A personalities, the class was on a Monday evening after a weekend of various ups and downs for all of us, we were having a heated—and not so subtle—debate on the hotness of the two instructors (cleverly named Mean Hot Chef and Nice Hot Chef), and the fact that the class was called “Seal the Deal,” in anticipation of Valentine’s Day, on why we probably aren’t going to be named Teacher’s Pets any time soon.  I mean, we followed instructions for the most part (except that whole adding salt before we were supposed to when it came to the red wine reduction sauce.  Luckily Mean Hot Chef caught us in time) and we didn’t set ourselves or anything on fire, and our final dish looked like everyone else’s.  But, I can kind of see how the wine drinking and the picture taking (I’m the guilty party on this one) and the endless questioning (“How long do you grill the radicchio?” “I really don’t like giving specific grilling times, since each grill is different.” “Oh. Ok, that makes sense. But if you had to give a specific time, what would it be?” [Insert sigh and eye roll here]) could turn a peaceful class into the kind of thing that makes instructors wonder what they did in a past life to deserve this fresh hell. 

Our menu, which was shrimp scampi (side note here: we learned that Scampi means shrimp, so basically the dish is called shrimp shrimp and that made us ridiculously happy.  It doesn’t take much.), grilled radicchio with balsamic glaze, slow roasted beef tenderloin with herb roasted potatoes and red wine reduction and a flourless chocolate cake with bourbon caramel sauce, was actually pretty easy but looked very impressive, and took, from start to finish 2 hours (that includes us playing around and posing for pictures with sharp knives.  Dear lord, what would our mothers say?!). 

I wish I could tell you some tricks that we learned along the way, but I fully admit that this class was more about spending time with my friends than actually learning to cook.  But in the end, isn’t that what it’s all about?  I mean, the point of learning to cook is so you’ll be able to share a meal with people you love, right?  Well, that and hanging out with hot chefs.  That last part can take you pretty far…

Shrimp Shrimp and Beef Tenderloin with Red Wine Reduction (courtesy of The Chopping Block)

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