Spring tips for grilling season

The goslings are in the creek. The fish are spawning. The daffodils, hyacinths, and tulips are up. The tomato seedlings are getting ready for transplant. The radishes and lettuces are sprouting.  I’d say the sun was out, but that may be stretching the truth a bit in Erie. And the Golden Snowglobe contest is finally over.

Spring is here. Erie won.

My non-competitive nature could give a hoot about the latter. I’m ecstatic about the former.

I’m a spring kind of gal. I was born in the spring. I’m like a plant. I thrive on sun, water, and warmth. If I never wear another pair of jeans, turtleneck, or sweater again, I will be a happy camper. That’s because I’m a dress and skort kind of gal. Goes with spring, summer, and even parts of fall.

I’m also a grill kind a gal. Give me fire and I’m a happy cooker. I cook with both the Big Green Egg (charcoal) and a gas grill. Depends on my mood. And tastes.

I have lots of toys for winter cooking. Each year I add another (or two). In the fall I added the InstaPot. Makes a mean broth, mushroom risotto, beans, and more. Sous vide cooking (hot water bath) was also a hit. Makes an awesome poached chicken and salmon. Both devices require little attending (the sous vide even works off an app on my phone).

Yet nothing gives me more cooking joy than fire – whether it be for fish, steak, chicken, pork, lamb, or even vegetables. I make a really mean grilled ratatouille. And pizza. And cobblers.

Each year I’m honored Karen Duran asks me to be a judge for Duran’s Down Home Days Cast Iron Cookoff at the Waterford Fair Grounds – May 19 and 20. The teams cook over an open fire in various categories over the two days – vegetable, dessert, protein, etc – using secret ingredients they find out on cooking day. The competitors are amazingly creative in their use of the secret ingredient (some coming up with 3 variations on one plate) and their dedication. One year it snowed.

5  tips for cooking protein over an open fire:

  1. Pound your chicken breasts so they are uniformly thick, about 3/4 of an inch.
  2. Brine your chicken, turkey, or pork. The night before, fill a zip baggie with 1/3 cup kosher salt and 1/4 cup sugar in 2 quarts  water (Serious Eats). You can add seasonings like lemon, rosemary, thyme, peppercorns. Add your chicken or pork (this works for about 2 pounds) for at least 30 minutes, or overnight. Remove from brine and pat dry about a half hour before cooking. Brush with a neutral oil. You can add a rub at this point.
  3.  For steaks, I like to  dry brine/r. You can read more about it here and  here.I rub the steaks with salt and pepper (or seasoned salt and pepper).  Place on a rack on a baking sheet (or a plate) uncovered in the refrigerator the night before cooking (ideally 24 to 72 hours). Alton Brown wraps his in paper towels and does this 4 days before cooking. I rarely think that far ahead. Remove from fridge 30 to 60 minutes before grilling.
  4. For fish steaks (tuna, swordfish, salmon steaks), make sure it is well oiled. I like a semi-neutral-flavored oil like sunflower/olive oil blend. Or use canola oil. Do not use extra-virgin olive oil because that is not for grilling. I do not use “vegetable” oil because that is soy based and I’m sensitive to soy. For traditional oven-baked fish, I will also use the grill (keeps the smell outside and adds a little extra flavor.) Just cook it on a sheet of heavy-foil with the edges folded or crimped up to keep the juices from running out.
  5. Use a timer. Yes. I use a timer and I’ve been doing this for nearly 4 decades. Cooking times depend on thickness and the protein. In general, I flip after 5 minutes. I then cook another 3 to 5 more minutes. A thermometer will be your best bet for telling the doneness of chicken (technically 165 degrees), but if you take a knife point to the middle of a chicken breast and insert about 1/4 inch – see if the juices run clear. That’s a good sign.

I’m a huge fan of an espresso rubbed grilled steak – sliced – and then served on top of a salad. It’s a sure taste of spring. You can buy the rub – or make this one from Ina Garten.

You can find as many different recipes for grilled steak as there are for grilling it. I’m a big fan of direct heat, high, on both sides. You do need to be mindful because if you are cooking a ribeye or New York strip with a nice fat ratio, you might get grill flare ups. Best to stand by so your steak isn’t cooked beyond repair.

3 tips for steaks

  1. Don’t poke when grilling. Or squish. Or squash.
  2. Flip once.
  3. Don’t cut until the steak has rested for 5 minutes. This allows the meat to settle, relax, and retain those lovely juices.
Print Recipe
Grilled Steak Salad with Espresso Rub
Follow this recipe to grill steak. Then slice thin over your favorite greens, along with some cherry tomatoes, sliced red onion, cucumber. Blue cheese crumbles are also an option. A drizzle with balsamic vinegar and some olive oil completes the salad. A loaf of fresh bread rounds out your meal.
  1. Sprinkle kosher salt on both sides of each steak. Not so much that is is encrusted. Think at least 1 teaspoon - remember kosher or sea salt, not table salt. Grind fresh pepper on both sides. Place on a rack over a plate or pan lined with foil. Put in refrigerator 24 to 72 hours before cooking. Do not cover.
  2. Remove steaks from refrigerator about an hour before cooking. Brush steaks with canola oil (or any neutral oil) on both sides. Rub each steak with about 1 tablespoon of the espresso rub. All to sit at room temperature while you prepare your grill.
  3. Over high heat, grill steaks on one side for about 5 minutes. Flip and cook for another 3 to 5 minutes for medium-rare (an internal temperature of 135 degrees F), 5 to 7 minutes for medium (140 degrees F) or 8 to 10 minutes for medium-well (150 degrees F).
  4. Remove from grill. Allow to rest for at least 5 minutes before slicing thin.
  5. In the meantime. Place a mound of greens in the middle of each plate. Arrange cucumber, tomato, onion slices around the outer edge of the greens. Top with sliced steak, pouring any additional juices on top.
  6. Drizzle with balsamic vinegar and olive oil. Sprinkle with blue cheese crumbles if desired.
  7. Enjoy!
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When a Life is Like a Honeydew

OK – this blog is going to sound a little self-helpy. But everyone can use a dash of it now and again – and I promise it pertains to food, too. So bear with me.

The basic premise is this – sometimes we let perceptions dictate our lives. And as a result we can lose out on things.

I’ve ended more than one relationship when I realize – often a little later than would be good for me – that I was allowing myself to be molded by significant others into an idealized perception. Typically, this shows up when I mention something that crosses my partner’s comfort threshold. It could be musing about a day hike of the Appalachian Trail, whitewater rafting, or trying a new restaurant that’s a 45 minute drive.

Friends who get me will answer, “What makes you want to do that?”

It’s over when I hear: “You wouldn’t like/do that.”

What’s the difference? One is curious response about what makes me tick. The other has put me in a box with a label.

And I do not like labels, unless they include words like kind, adventurous …

As a woman who has been on a self-reflective journey for the past dozen years – more than half of them sober – I know to pause and wonder why someone is starting a statement that starts with “You.”  For one, it puts people on the defensive, immediately.

There’s a whole psychology behind You Statements vs I Statements. The crux is don’t push your own feelings off on someone else. Own them. It’s one thing to say, “I” wouldn’t like to spend a day hiking – OK, I can empathize with that. But please don’t tell me I don’t want to. Because I do. And I spent 20 years in a relationship where someone kept telling me what I did and didn’t like – to the point where I believed it. And that didn’t work out so well for me.

My parents, who have witnessed me hauling my sorry butt up from the depths of various misadventures, might have the authority to invoke a You Statement now and again. But they’ve also witnessed me hauling that same sorry tail through recovery and up a few mountains, across a few oceans, and wading through single parenting (one of the biggest adventures in life). So they like to start with, “I would like it if you would consider …” before I go ziplining off the Eiffel Tower (which I did not do because this would not be a good example for my 14-year-old).

My parents have also been along for quite a few of my culinary calamities, including the all-garlic dinner that left us reeking for days. Literally, we were emitting garlic from our every pore for three days.

They’ve also watched my journey into to my 50s, and how it has been about managing perceptions and taking control of what I can. My parents want happy, healthy children (4) and grandchildren (8).  All of us have different criteria for happy and healthy. Mine comes with a big dog, long walks, travel, gardening, and experimenting in the kitchen. It may not come with a husband, a job with benefits and regular hours, or a size 4 wardrobe.

So what does this have to do with food? Letting perceptions limit your experiences has a lot to do with just about everything in life, including melons.

The honeydew has been among my least favorite melons. It’s green. It’s often just a filler in fruit salad – frequently the least flavorful of the ingredients.  When I was growing up, it was diet food, filled with cottage cheese. In short, it was not on my Wegmans list.

Then I discovered a recipe for a cucumber and honeydew salad on Pinterest. Cubed honeydew is tossed with peeled, seeded, cubed cucumber and sliced red onion, mint, basil, and dill. It is dressed with lemon juice, olive oil, and (optional) honey and/or mustard. Suddenly this melon has moved from breakfast filler to salad star. It’s great with just about any summer dish, but pairs well with any grilled meat. It holds up well in the fridge, making it super for a refreshing summer snack or quick lunch.

I’m in love with honeydew now. All because my perception changed.

The honeydew went from second-rate breakfast dish to a summer staple for salads. All because I could look at it differently – and be flexible. Sometimes it is super sweet – in that case I just squeeze some lemon juice on top and mix in some mint and basil. Sometimes I put in a grind of pepper and a pinch of salt. If it is more on the bland side, then it gets the onion and dill. Then dressing goes into a bowl – lemon, mustard, honey, salt, pepper – and whisked. Then it is tossed with the melon and cucumber, and finally finished with some extra-virgin olive oil.

The secret to picking the right melon?  That’s a tough one. It’s not unlike dating – you can’t always tell from the outside. Labels don’t help either. I’ve had organic duds too. Thumping is useless. You just have to hold one, look for any soft spots, and take a whiff at the end where the stem was attached. If it smells sweet, then you have a winner.

If this worked for dating, I’d be giving seminars by now. Although an occasional thunk to see if a head is soft might not be a bad idea …

Melons are good for any just about any diet out there – paleo, Whole 30, WW, etc. Can’t say the same about boyfriends.





Print Recipe
Herbed Honeydew Cucumber Salad
Course lunch, Salad, side dish
Cuisine American
Course lunch, Salad, side dish
Cuisine American
  1. Whisk together dressing ingredients until blended. If honeydew is sweet, don't use mustard.
  2. Set aside.
  3. Cut melon in half; remove seeds. Then cut into quarters. Slide a knife between the sweet fruit and the rind. Remove rind. Cut fruit into chunks, Add to bowl. Cut peeled and seeded cucumber into chunks and add to bowl. If you are preparing this ahead of time, add mint and cover and chill.
  4. Before serving, add onion, remaining herbs, and dressing. Toss to mix and serve.
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February Fun: Sunday Sauce on Wednesday

I once wrote that February, for me, felt like a month of Wednesdays. Wednesday is a day you just can’t wait to be over because it brings you that much closer to the weekend. Once February is over, I’m that much closer to spring.

I could choose to just hunker down under the covers and wait for the month to pass. Instead I strap on the cleats, rain boots, or snow shoes – depending on the day – and stomp into the rain, wind, snow, sleet, mud, and trudge on.

It’s also a month I like to mix things up a bit. Otherwise, we’re just looking at one gray day after another. Thankfully there are fewer days.

Last year,  I mixed things up a bit. After a lifetime of being a brunette, about 20 of them involving various hair dyes, I wanted to embrace the gray. I knew I was mostly gray to begin with, because my hair coloring sessions were coming alarmingly closer together. I’d wake up, and there would be the tell-tale gray line of demarcation – brown vs gray. If you were taller than my 5-foot-6-inches, it was clear to see.

This was one of those seemed like a good idea at the time moments. I spent hours in a salon having the color stripped out, bleaching, and dyeing. I was using the experience for a story in a women’s publication, talking about the trend to go gray, or “granny hair.”

There are two things at work here, though:

  1. Granny hair looks great when you aren’t a granny. The glowing complexion of youth in contrast to the gray does not make you look old. Gray on gray does.
  2. It is surprisingly difficult to dye your hair a pretty shade of gray.

I was going for a silver that some of my Irish relatives with dark hair have achieved naturally, including my father.

Alas, I could not go gray unnaturally. Or at least an attractive shade of gray. I had various mixes of browns, mud, pinks, and battleship gray. In the end, I became a platinum blonde.

It’s closer to my natural shade than brunette. It requires less maintenance.

Along those lines, I have been mixing up meals. Sometimes we have breakfast for dinner. We tried appetizers for dinner – deviled eggs topped with salmon roe, and avocado toast topped with salmon.

Today we’re having Sunday sauce on Wednesday. Why?

Because Sunday sauce in a slow cooker is perfect for a weeknight meal. Plus, there was plenty to freeze for another night.

What is Sunday sauce? Sometimes it is called Sunday gravy. Essentially it is two or three cuts of meat cooked for a long time with tomatoes. I typically make mine with beef ribs, sausage, and pancetta. Some people use the ribs, sausage, and meatballs. You can serve it over spaghetti, penne, mashed potatoes, tortellini, or polenta.

Whatever day of the week you serve it, I trust you will enjoy it.




Print Recipe
Slow Cooker Sunday Sauce
If you are going to make this with meatballs, make your own meatballs (or buy frozen) and bake them so they are partially cooked through. Add them during the final 15 to 30 minutes of simmering.
Course Main Dish
Cuisine American, Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 8 hours
Course Main Dish
Cuisine American, Italian
Prep Time 20 minutes
Cook Time 8 hours
  1. In a large skillet, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season the beef with salt and pepper and cook over moderately high heat until browned all over. Transfer the beef to the slow cooker, cover and turn it on to high. Add the sausages to the slow cooker.
  2. Add the remaining tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet and add the pancetta. Cook until brown and the fat has mostly rendered out, about 5-7 minutes. Add the onion and garlic. Cook until soft, about 5 minutes
  3. Add the red wine and stir to release any browned bits on the bottom of the skillet. . Bring the wine to a boil and cook until reduced by half, about 4 minutes.
  4. Transfer the mixture to the slow cooker and add the thyme, rosemary and water.
  5. Add the tomatoes and their juices and the tomato puree to the slow cooker.
  6. Cover the slow cooker and cook on high for 4 hours or low on 8 hours.
  7. Transfer the beef to a bowl and remove it from the bone. Shred with 2 forks or with a knife. Return the meat to the cooker (lid off) and simmer the sauce on high for 15 to 30 minutes longer.
  8. Discard the thyme and rosemary sprigs and season the sauce with salt and pepper.
  9. Serve over pasta, mashed potatoes, or polenta with grated pecorino Romano cheese.
Recipe Notes

This recipe is adapted from Food & Wine

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Laughter helps get a rise in the kitchen

A sense of humor is helpful in the kitchen and life, especially if you are going to take risks in both. I may not have it immediately in the moment – something I should consider working on – but generally within 24 hours I can find a laugh.

Often in January I like to tackle kitchen projects that just aren’t on the menu in July, like breads. In part because I love tearing off a hunk of warm bread to accompany a big bowl of soup in the winter. Slather it in butter or dunk it in olive oil – I don’t care. It’s just very comforting.

Of course, bread isn’t one of those devil-may-care projects. It requires yeast, a living organism, water, and flour. Salt is optional for some, I prefer it in mine. I like to feed my yeast with a little honey to give it a boost. All of this seems pretty simple, and if you bake bread for years it probably is, but if the proportions, temperature, or yeast is off – well, you’ve got a lump of baked paste.

I’ve made a few of those this week.

There are a few things that can go wrong with bread. One is temperature. Bread likes places where it is warmer than 70 degrees, which it typically isn’t in my house in January. When I make bread in late spring, summer, or early fall, this isn’t a problem. But in the dead of winter, I am usually stashing the bread next to the heat registers.

I should put it along a south-facing window, which is above a heat register, so that it gets the warmth of the sun. But that would require the sun to shine. Which it hasn’t done, except for a few hours here and there, since sometime in November.

But we are a people who adapt to our weather conditions. So the bread goes into the bathroom in center of the house. I have to warn visitors and my daughter not to kick the bowl on the floor over. Most people don’t expect to find a bowl of rising bread in the guest bath, I guess.

I baby my bread. I put warm, damp cloths on top to provide heat and moisture to those little yeasty guys doing the hard work.

Unfortunately, my little yeasty guys weren’t working. Perhaps they went to Mexico for the winter.

Or, I could have read the expiration date on my bag of yeast (yes, you read correctly; “bag” of yeast). And it would have told me that it was a year past its “best by” date. So I imagined my little yeasty bakers were using walkers by now. Or had retired permanently.

I’m a big fan of King Arthur Flour for recipes and ingredients. I went there to order more yeast, and a few other essentials, parchment paper and a kit to make a coconut cake. Everyone considers ingredients for coconut cake essential, right? The parchment paper and the yeast didn’t add up to qualify for free shipping (about $8), so I bought the $25 coconut cake kit to bring my order up to qualify.

I did not major in math.

And the shipment arrived – in two boxes. Which was fun. Except that both boxes contained the same order – so now I had lots of yeast, parchment and two kits to make a coconut cake. Only the kits didn’t include coconut. I really need to wear my glasses when I order stuff online.

So I called King Arthur to tell them about the double order. The first question she asked was whether I was charged twice, which I hadn’t. Then she told me FDA rules prevent returns of food stuff. So I could keep it. So now I have enough yeast to start my own bakery. And I can make 2 coconut cakes – only I have to go to the store to buy the coconut, butter, and powdered sugar to frost the coconut cakes.

I should have ordered the scone pan.

Anyway. I hope King Arthur is laughing about this.

On the subject of a free second order … I order my hair color from Madison Reed. Have for about a year as a blonde. Before that, for a year as a brunette. Loved the color. Had no problems with the color. It was easy. I could even make a coconut cake while coloring my hair.

But this last order – my platinum blonde (10 NA, for those in the color biz) turned beige on a Wednesday night. Or, as my daughter noted, my hair color matched my skin color.

I called, e-mailed, and online chatted Thursday morning. Of course, the kind colorist explained it was my fault. I had done something differently. Only I hadn’t. But they nicely offered to send me, overnight, a new kit. Please send them a photo with the lot numbers of the color and developer. I did. The new box arrived Friday.

I followed the directions. And my hair turned – beiger. Only I don’t think that is a real word. It was kind of khaki. And then I looked at the lot number. It was the same as the one on Wednesday.

I did not have a sense of humor about this. I kid no one about my preferred hair color. It is not natural. I like it that way. The platinum is sort of the white/silver I would like it to be, but it is not. Hence, the hair color – a 10.

I do not want to be an 8 or a 9. I want to be a 10. Maybe 11 even, if there is such a color. But a 10. And now I was maybe an 8.

So I called Ambridge Rose, where Jamie cuts my hair, and Char fit me in. I would like to say they got my hair color back. After 2 hours, Jamie was close. Whatever was in that Madison Reed batch would not come out. She bleached. She toned. She colored. But there remains some copper where there should be ash.

My hair needs a rest before it can be adjusted again.

Like making bread, I need to be patient. I need to accept that hair, life, dinner – doesn’t turn out exactly the way I want it every time.

And I need to remember to laugh a little more about it. So I imagine, my little old yeasty guys with their walkers hanging out waiting for their wife to get out of the salon with her white/coppery pink rinse.

And then I head back into the kitchen to master my bread recipe. Because tonight is a soup night.




Print Recipe
Garlic, Kale, Tomato Soup
Course soup
Cuisine American
Cook Time 30 minutes
Course soup
Cuisine American
Cook Time 30 minutes
  1. Heat oven to 375 degrees. Remove any extra outer papery layers from the head of garlic. Take a sharp knife and cut the top off to expose all of the inner cloves. Or you can cut the head in half. Remember this is a head, not a clove (1 piece). Place on a sheet of aluminum foil that is large enough to cover the garlic. Drizzle with about 1 teaspoon of the olive oil. Cover garlic up, like a packet. Place on a baking sheet or in a small pan. Bake in oven until soft, about 1 hour. Remove from oven. Open garlic packet and allow to cool.
  2. In the meantime, in a pot large enough to hold all the ingredients (4 quart) over medium to medium-high heat, add olive oil. Then add the chopped onion and saute until translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes.
  3. Add about 1/4 teaspoon of the salt and the chopped kale. Saute over medium to medium-high heat until the kale begins to caramelize, about 7 to 10 minutes.
  4. Squeeze in the roasted garlic. Stir. Add stock and tomatoes. Bring to a low simmer for about 5 minutes. Taste. Adjust seasonings. Keep on low heat until ready to serve. This soup will benefit from about 30 minutes to an hour to allow the garlic to permeate the soup.
  5. Serve with hunks of fresh bread and a salad.
Recipe Notes

Salt: The amount of salt you add to soup is going to depend on how salty your chicken or vegetable stock is and whether your tomatoes are salted. I like to buy a low-sodium stock, or make my own, and no-salt added diced tomatoes. That gives you total control over the final soup. I suggest tasting before adding salt.


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