Kentucky Derby Mint Julep – Starting From Scratch

Mint Julep It has always eluded me..the Mint Julep thing. Spend all that time choosing the perfect outfit.A good deal of thought goes towards the perfect Derby hat. But the Mint Julep, which everyone respectfully carries around while laying bets on the horse, is usually not so perfect – the Mint Julep.  This year I decided to research the drink, and came up with some interesting ideas. The results? Mint Juleps are incredibly refreshing and delicious when prepared correctly.

Mint Juleps are typically done by bruising (muddling) fresh mint with sugar in the bottom of a glass, filling with ice, pouring the bourbon over that, stirring gently, then topping it with fresh mint. This recipe isn’t that.

Here’s the secret I learned from an expert that takes only a little planning. A few weeks in advance get your hands on some alright bourbon , (don’t judge my bourbon-said expert said “any” bourbon will do) and a large handful of fresh mint. Wash and dry the mint, place it in a large jar, pour the bourbon over it, and cover it tightly. Maybe it’ll snow between now and the Kentucky Derby,but that bottle of golden liquid is steeping in a cupboard, infusing the beautiful mint into it’s essence. And you’ll be busy sizing up  horses and jockeys.minted bourbon in the makingminted bourbon in jar steeping

The next secret, well it isn’t really so secret, is to make a minted simple syrup. Simple syrup is a (simple) thing to do. Take a nice bunch (large handful) of fresh mint. Add it to a cup of sugar and a cup of water. Place it all in a saucepan and bring to a boil, stirring to dissolve the sugar. When the sugar is dissolved, turn off the heat and let it sit for about an hour. Gently press the juices from the mint into the liquid, then throw away the mint.  Strain it into a jar and keep in the refrigerator (up to a month)This way you aren’t “bruising” the mint, which is said to give the Julep an off taste.

Now for the Mint Julep:

Use crushed ice. Finer is better. Fill the glass with it. A good tip, again from said expert, is to place the ice in a canvas bag and crush it with a carpenters mallet, which gives it a perfect consistency.   Pour about 2 Tablespoons of the minted simple syrup over the ice and top it with the minted bourbon. Stir it gently with a spoon. Top it with fresh mint leaves and enjoy. Sip it slowly. It’s a sturdy drink. As the ice melts, the blending of the mint, icy water and bourbon make it all the more refreshing.minted julip on fenceThe horse comes in for his sweet feed. He doesn’t like Mint Juleps. I know that I’ve published this too late to steep the bourbon, but you can make the simple syrup tomorrow, and remember this recipe for the next horse race.minted bourbon the horse

Comfort Food By Way of Kale and Sweet Brown Rice Gratin

Kale brown rice cassarole served with spinach tomato saladBrown rice, kale, sharp cheddar cheese…it has never occurred to me in all that vast kitchen space and years of raising kids, entertaining, dieting, skimping. Just plain never did.

My husband asked for seconds! I had seconds…we considered thirds..and then I would have eaten the whole top of the gratin, but I passed the control test. If you are really looking for the ultimate comfort food experience, it might be found in the topping. I mean, what about that baked cheese studded with buttery bread crumbs?  Why bother with the rice and kale…oh yeah, nutritional benefits.

A simple salad of spinach and tomatoes goes beautifully. I drizzled it with a gluten free French dressing and some blue cheese.

Kale and Sweet Brown Rice Gratin has all the elements of perfect comfort food. It’s chewy, crunchy, rich, deliciously filling, and easy to make. Can it compete with macaroni and cheese? Sure thing!  It has the requisite crunch, chew, creamy fattening (but not) elements.  Mine’s gluten free, by the way, by turning a gluten free baguette dried end piece into bread crumbs.Kale brown rice gratin biteSee? It’s all there! Chewy sweet brown rice, cheese, fresh kale (YUMMY), crunchy breadcrumbs.  I might eat this for breakfast.

If you can make risotto, you can make this. Sweet brown rice is also short grain brown rice. I can not imagine using any other rice, as the character of this grain is what makes this gratin so special. But, Hey, you do what you want. I’m only guaranteeing excellence with sweet brown rice.

The recipe comes from a gal from Seattle, named Heather. Here is her recipe for Brown Rice and Kale Gratin. I tweaked it only in that I added TONS of kale, and used some chicken stock to replace 2 cups of the milk. I also, in hind sight, would definitely add some salt to the recipe while cooking. Maybe my sharp cheddar cheese wasn’t as sharp and salty as her choice, and that would make a difference in need for salt. I’m going to check out her other recipes, now that we’ve tried this one. It is a keeper.

Here it is ready for the oven kale brown rice gratin ready to bakeAnd the finished product?kale brown rice gratin

Caramel Chocolate Popcorn


What happens why you make popcorn on the stove, but do not measure the amount of popcorn kernels involved? You get too much popcorn and get sick of eating it.

This happened to me. As a cure, I took the left over popcorn (already salted, mind you) and turned it into dessert. This will be happening regularly from now on.

Caramel Chocolate Popcorn

1/2 stick of butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

2 cups popcorn (I did mine on the stove and added salt to it)

1/4 cup chocolate chips

Pre-heat oven to 250 degrees. In the meantime, put tin foil on a cookie sheet and spread already popped popcorn on the sheet. In a saucepan, melt the butter over medium-high heat. As soon as it is melted, add the brown sugar. Stir until that is melted and the mixture is bubbly. Remove from heat. Spoon evenly over the popcorn, tossing with the spoon to coat evenly. Bake for about 15 minutes. When you remove it from the oven, sprinkle chocolate chips over top. The popcorn must still be bubbly and hot, otherwise the chocolate will not melt. Stir with a spoon to coat with chocolate and to help the chocolate to melt evenly. That is all.

Pasta with Tomato Cream Sauce and Venison

They say necessity is the mother of invention.

Indeed. I needed to eat a meal, and I have very little food at my house right now. Since I return to the land of northerners in less than a week, a trip to the grocery store seemed like a bad idea. Thus began tonight’s journey with a simple can of tomato paste dangerously nearing its expiration date, some ground venison in the freezer, and a box of pasta.

Then, it occurred to me that I also had cream, garlic, and olive oil. Apparently, that was enough to do the trick. I’ve never made a tomato cream sauce, so I didn’t know what would happen when I poured cream into the saute pan. It was a terrifying moment. What if I ruined the whole concoction? I had a ramen noodle packet looming at me from the back of the cabinet, but the thought of eating it gave me goose bumps.

Perhaps I am being melodramatic…

This pasta with tomato cream sauce and venison turned out to be really, really good, much better than the meals I put time and energy into. Except for cheesecake. Cheesecake is always worth the time and energy.

Unfortunately, the camera on the old Android has deteriorated to the point that my pictures stink. Trust me on this one, though, this is a delicious and comforting mid-week meal.

Pasta with Tomato Cream Sauce and Venison

1 6 oz. can tomato paste

1 garlic clove, chopped

1/2 pound ground venison

1/2 cup to 1 cup heavy cream

Salt, pepper, thyme, and sage to taste (about 1/2 tsp. each)

1 box of whole wheat penne pasta

In a saucepan, brown the defrosted ground venison. Boil water in a separate pot and cook the pasta. As the venison browns, add the garlic. Once the garlic and venison are cooked, add the tomato paste and stir. Add herbs to taste and heavy cream, and simmer for about 5 minutes. Drain the cooked pasta and add the pasta to the saute pan, stirring to coat with the sauce. If you have cheese, that would be a lovely addition. Evidently, I went cheese-less and still enjoyed the meal.

Mint Coffee Truffles

A festive gift truffles on plate close up

It’s a little late for these. Maybe this would have helped in time for the holiday season, when I first made them. Or, I could have used the excuse of Valentine’s Day to give you a chocolate recipe.

Luckily, these involve mint. Stock up on the green mints and add a green bow, and they will be a perfect St. Patrick’s Day gift. Yes.

Mint Coffee Truffles

1 lb. dark chocolate, broken into pieces the best quality you can afford
12 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1 tablespoon shortening
1 cup whipping cream
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/8 cup very strong, fresh espresso
Starbrites Peppermints, about 1/4 cup crushed


In a double boiler, melt broken pieces of the dark chocolate. If you don’t have a double boiler – I don’t – you can use a saucepan and put a mixing bowl in it, like so. In a separate sauce pan, heat the cream until it is very hot but not boiling. Pour the cream over top of the melting dark chocolate and stir with a spoon as you add it. Stir with spoon until the mixture is smooth. Now, if you want to make a batch of coffee flavored truffles and a batch of plain chocolate ones with a hint of vanilla, you can pour half of the melted chocolate mixture into another bowl at this point. Add vanilla to BOTH mixtures. To ONE mixture add the espresso. Put both bowls in the fridge to cool. Usually this takes about an hour to an hour and a half, but basically you want the chocolate to be hard enough to form small truffle balls.

Once the dough is hard, form the balls and arrange them on a plate or baking sheet. Chill each filled plate/tray as you prepare the semi-sweet chocolate for dipping. Melt the semi-sweet chocolate chips in the double boiler. Be sure that the water is hot, possibly simmering but definitely not boiling. Stir the chocolate until it is smooth and add the shortening. The shortening makes a shinier finished product that looks prettier, but it is not a required ingredient.

Roll the cooled truffles in the melted chocolate over the stove. This is the trickiest part. I use a spoon and kind of flip the truffle in the chocolate, then I carefully remove the truffle with clean hands and place it, dripping with chocolate, on the cookie sheet. They won’t look perfect, but you can try different methods to get them to look as nice as possible. Do this quickly; the longer you take the more difficult the chocolate chips become to work with.

Once you have your truffles, you can sprinkle the chopped mint over some or all of them.

Gluten Free Flour: One Cook’s Experience

rhubarb strawberry slab pie 2See that little gem up there? That’s hope for all the frustrated cooks who want to prepare gluten free meals, bake gluten free goods, and who don’t want it to be difficult. A gluten free high five to you for the determination to pursue it. Let’s work through the challenge.

When I first learned I (have) to be gluten free, I became like a cranky, hungry three year old. It happened every time we went out to eat:  scan the menu – tummy grumbling-attitude deteriorating – until someone took mercy  and  ordered for me.Thankyou.

I began to plan. Take a baggie of gf crackers to parties, gf bread to my sister’s house for sandwiches… tedious, but a good idea.

A disclaimer before you read further. I am not an expert. I haven’t tried every brand out there. I haven’t measured out all those mixes of different flours. What I know is that it shouldn’t be so difficult to make affordable, delicious products that everyone can enjoy. Even food snobs. And children.  Yep, nothing worse than watching a twenty-something-year-old-child spit a gluten free cookie in disgust! They didn’t actually do it, but it was obvious they wanted to with my first attempts.

If you have another flour you think is incredible, please share.  I’ve heard Cup4Cup is fabulous, but it isn’t readily available and it is quite expensive.

Lesson 1: Cooking gluten free should be affordable 

Perhaps you’ve come across recipes using concoctions of multiple flours. Like 1 cup sorghum, 2 cups millet, 1/2 cup potato starch (not potato flour-what’s the dif?), 1/4 tsp xanthan gum ( that stuff is $$$)….it’s expensive to have to keep so many different kinds of flour on hand. Different flours can result in more specific results, but you want to be able to use gluten free flour interchangably with regular wheat flour. You shouldn’t need to stock all that variety, nor spend all that money. While regular flour is something like .90/lb, gluten free flours seem to start at $4/lb., which means you have to have $$$  or be very choosy about what you make.  Different flours are great, and fun to learn about.  For example, sorghum flour sweetens and adds moisture. It is super added to cookie and cake recipes. But that’s for later.  Oh, and garbanzo bean flour tastes like….garbanzo beans. It’s true. If you want your pie shell to taste better filled with hummus, have at it. For me, I wanted my pie dough to taste, work and feel like the same pie dough my sister makes. My sister, who gets rave reviews for her pie crusts. I still have half a dozen gluten free  flours in my freezer, but I don’t need them. They are for experimential purposes, Mwahhh.angel food cake slice w sauce

Lesson 2: GF flour should work correctly in recipes

Not all gluten free flours are easy to work with.  I remember getting all excited about ******flour, and ordering 10lbs of it, $2.98/lb., which was quite a savings.  Brought it home and made some shortbread cookies. They were gorgeous!! 🙂 So I wrapped them up individually, and took them to my buddies who’d be thankful for a gf cookie, and watched as they opened them up and they crumbled into dust in their hands. 😦 They licked those cookies off their hands in grateful appreciation. The cookies were kind of gritty, too. You know, that feel that reminds you of sand?  It’s a popular flour, and because I’m making nice here I won’t tell you what brand. I’ll never buy it again. By the way, because I was a deer in headlights, I used that flour for nearly two years.  You see, most people come to the conclusion that there isn’t a good gluten free flour. Admittedly it was so frustrating that sometimes I wouldn’t disclose that it was gf when asked. Dear victims, I apologize.

irish soda bread buttered

Lesson 3: It isn’t rocket science, unless you’re baking yeast bread.

If it’s reasonably priced and of a proper texture, there is no reason why you can’t bread the chicken in it, thicken the soup, make the roux for Mac N Cheese, even make perfect angel food cake. There should be no reason to have wheat flour on your shelf at all, unless you know you’re going to knock out dozens of cookies for someone who doesn’t care. You don’t need a gluten free cookbook either. I found that to be a waste of money. Again, if the flour is good you can use it freely to replace wheat flour.  With one exception: yeast breads. You have to enter a whole new world of chemistry to make real breads. There are poundcake like breads anyone can figure out, but not the real deal. I can’t even discuss it, my failure has been so abysmal. But advice to the reader here: let no bread failure be wasted. Seriously. Bad loaves of bread can be make into great crumbs for breading, crabcakes, meatloaf filler. Bad loaves also make great doorstops. They can also be thrown, with great success, at bears raiding your birdfeeder.

My recommendations:

Domata Living Flour: Domata is the workhorse in my kitchen. Nice enough flavor, texture, behaviour and price. The only thing I’m not excited about is that I don’t think it has enough flavor. But hey! That beats tasting like hummus or an ear of corn. Or birdseed (don’t ask). Because it isn’t readily available locally, a group of us order it in bulk. The cost of flour is so high because it weighs a lot. When we order 250lbs of it, they send it on a truck in 25lb bags to a local pick-up area. One person pays for the whole thing, and we all pay that person. Once it arrives, we all go and pick it up. 25lbs sounds like a lot of flour, but it can freeze and sometimes people share a bag. The cost ends up being just a little more than wheat flour when we do it this way. Since I like to bake and enjoy company, 25lbs lasts me about a year. Domata will also, at request, use non-gmo corn. You do have to request that and the whole order must be done that way. This one I know is good because there’s a growing following of serious cooks who want to order it with our group. Once they’ve tasted what it produces, they’re sold.

Jules Gluten Free Flour. Jules is a genious. She’s done the world a great service to create a flour that is superior in many ways to others. Her flour is what I use for special occasions, because it does cost a lot more. When baking with Jules, pastries are flakier, cakes and cookies lighter and more tender. Her flour also has a little more flavor.  You can probably find Jules locally, but if you do have to order it online the price doesn’t change. And sometimes she has a special offer. Nice!bechamel sauce add gluten free flour

Violets In My Champagne

It’s February 7th, and I’m itching for Spring to have…SPRUNG!

Boston is expecting the blizzard of the century tomorrow. The Laurel Highlands is expecting balmy 45-50 degree weather; the sun is warmer than it was a month ago; a lovely bird was absolutely belting out an early morning promise – acapella – at 7am this morning.  And I started envisioning fields of violets. Yes, a gentle breeze, air pregnant with rain, gurgling brook emptying to the pond, dandilions everywhere, and patches of violets. I come from a long line of wild violet lovers.april 19 beautiful violetLast week my favorite husband and I went to a Champagne and Tapas bar in Pittsburgh. It was a fascinating experience that certainly broadened our minds to embrace Champagne and sparkling wines as we never had before. Since I consider myself to be fairly ignorant  on the subject, Jennifer, the bar manager, treated us to quite an evening. Here’s the happy girl:

champagne and bartender Her pleasant personality, breadth of knowledge, and passion for champagne took us to another world in the land of bubbles. Although most of the Champagne “drinks” disguised the subtle perfumes of Champagne, and who’d want to do THAT, there was one that was particularly fetching.  The Kir Yvette Champagne Cocktail was fascinating to drink, to look at and, maybe most important in February, to think about. The scent of crushed violet petals, mixed with a touch of blackberries and, well read this.

Excited, yes?

Here’s a nice little line up of some of the drinks we enjoyed. The Champagne Yvette Cocktail is in the middle. The famous Bellini to the left, a lovely California Rose Sparkling Wine to the right.Champagne cocktailsWe discovered that most Champagne cocktail drinks mask the beauty of the Champagne, but not the bubbles. So, depending on the “why” of sipping bubbly, there were drinks that reminded me of a daiquiri, all the way to the Yvette, which was so subtle and delicate that it has become quite the fascination for this OCD leaning gal.  🙂  Imagine being told you’re sipping on crushed berries and violet petals – and it is the dead of winter 10 degrees and gray, and the sun will never shine again – and here you are all wrapped in your mink coat (faux, if this vision rubs you the wrong way) – soft lighting and music are making your heart merry –  and you’re with your best ever boyfriend. Ladies?

I share this with you because while most of my friends who love the out doors will be playing in the soil in April, as will I. I will also be gathering violets by the baskets, washing them, destemming them, and crushing them into a bottle of good quality vodka with just the correct amount of sugar (or honey). Then I’ll place that concoction into a clay jar, cover and let set for a month.  I shall have Creme de Violette.  And shall make bubbly cocktails from it in the dead of winter, when everything is gray, and a toasty fire is in the hearth, and Spring is calling me.

Amen.violets after a rain ready for sugar coating