I don’t know about y’all but I can’t count the times I’ve been caught off-guard with last-minute guests especially during the holidays. I run to the store and pick up frozen sweet potato wedges and already cooked jumbo shrimp. Chances are I’ll throw a couple of pints of grape tomatoes in my basket. And another box of crisp bread sticks…can’t have too many of those. I’ll head to the taco aisle and grab a small can of Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce. Back home I’ll throw the sweet potatoes in the oven and head to the bathrooms with tubs of Lysol wipes in my hands. Two or three quick swipes, fresh towels, a new candle and I’m done there. I turn down the lights in the house and turn on my current favorite battery operated candles, the nice ones…the ones made of wax. I put them all over. With the lights low and candles lit no one will see any dust or gently rolling dog hair balls. I grab an empty laundry basket and run through the house filling it with everything in sight that’s supposed to be put away; stacks of papers, mail, recipes, the little box of washers I haven’t returned to Home Depot yet, stacks of books, an errant running bra, anything that falls in the clutter category and then I tuck that mountainous basket in the bedroom closet. I clean myself up as best I can then head to the kitchen to prepare the most simple dip on the planet. Spicy, smoky and creamy, Chipotle Dip is my bestie. Two ingredients. That’s all. Two. Chipotle peppers in adobo sauce and mayonnaise. It’s fantastic! I drop one cup of mayo in the blender or mini-chopper and, depending on my guests tastes, one or two peppers with a tablespoon of the adobo sauce from the can. That’s it. The sauce from the chipotle tin adds such flavor because of the roasted tomatoes, onions and spices. So blend until smooth and taste it for heat. Add more peppers if you really want to see stars. I have a hard time staying away from it. James and Jimmy are crazy about it. I put the dip in a pretty bowl, lay out a tray with all my vegetables and shrimp in bowls or glasses that show them off and I’m ready for guests. Done. Boom. You’re welcome.
Saturday was boiling hot. The “Real Feel” temperature when I left to work out was 108°. It was not a day for baking or watching over bubbling pots on the stove. No, something cool and pretty for dinner was in order and while dinner was being assembled one hand needed to be occupied with a cold summer cocktail. I didn’t want anything processed…y’all know that ain’t me, babe. I wanted something cool and easy but substantial and rich in flavor. I had almost all the ingredients on hand and most were already prepared. Lemons, shelled pistachios, fresh thyme, garlic and whole grain bread are always to be found in my kitchen. There’s about a 95% chance you’ll almost always find fig preserves in my refrigerator. The only thing I had to prepare was the ricotta. For lasagne I’ll buy store-bought but for a dish more delicate I make my own. I want the ricotta to sing with freshness AND it’s easier than getting in the car and driving to and from the store. Here’s my summer secret. It’s made in the microwave. Isn’t that great? No hot kitchen. I’m going to post the recipe for homemade ricotta below but before I do let me tell you how I served it. Lightly toast your bread and let it cool to room temperature. Run a peeled clove of fresh garlic over the top side of each piece. Sprinkle a little salt and pepper over each, slather each slice with a thick coating of ricotta and cut into serving sized hunks. This is where they became different. On some I lightly pressed in shelled, salted, roughly chopped pistachios. Over that I sprinkled fresh thyme leaves and a bit of fresh lemon zest. Oh, man. They were divine. On the others, over the ricotta, I spread a layer of caramelized onions, (I try to always have a jar in the refrigerator), a generous dollop of store-bought fig preserves and a light scattering of lemon zest. These were served on a large tray with juicy slices of peaches each wrapped with a pretty ribbon of domestic prosciutto. Oh my gosh, the sweet and salty of it all. It doesn’t get much easier. It’s a meal that’s light but satisfying and pleasing to the eye. If you make your ricotta on Thursday or Friday you’re really ahead of the game. So go ahead, pour that second drink and get back in the pool. It’s hot!
Today in Cambridge our family gained another graduate! My older sister, Cynthia’s, daughter Elizabeth received her MBA. We weren’t able to be at the receptions, parties and ceremony but I can envision her tossing her blond hair back, laughing and accepting compliments and attentions with a grace she’s always had. Through her bewitching, Audrey Hepburn eyes she sees the world differently than we mortals. She’s an achiever, strong in will and character. I think her main attribute is she never looks back. Oh, she’ll laugh at family stories we have of her but she ain’t nevuh, EVUH going to take that fateful walk down memory lane. No, ma’am. That girl looks ahead. That’s not an easy thing to do and I admire her for it. So the following recipe is for her. Dulce de Leche. One of her favorites. And soon it will be one of yours! Two ingredients if you include the optional sprinkle of sea salt. Dulce de leche is like ooey, gooey caramel or toffee. It can be spooned over ice cream, drizzled over pound cake even layered with Nutella! This recipe is easier than falling off a log. Seriously. This is what you do. Preheat your oven to 325°. Into a Pyrex brownie or square pan pour one 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk. Sprinkle with a little sea salt if you want salted caramel. Cover tightly with tin foil and place in a larger pan that has been filled halfway up the sides with water. Place gently in the center of the oven and bake for 30-45 minutes. You will see it turn from white to a gorgeous, caramel brown right before your eyes. And that’s it! Just be careful taking it out of the oven. Now, won’t that change your life completely?
Aceite de Achiote is a staple in all the islands of the Caribbean and the West Indies and also used frequently in Indian cooking. Aceite is the Spanish word for “oil” and achiote are the small seeds from the annatto tree. They are prized for their slightly bitter, earthy flavor and the brilliant gold color they impart. The seeds look like tiny, red rocks. But when they meet with cooking oil and heat up, a gorgeous orange/yellow color is produced. The oil is used when cooking beans, soups, stews and pasteles. Here in the States annatto extract is often used to color butter and certain cheeses. If you don’t have it saffron or paprika can be substituted but there are so many exotic, ethnic markets it should be easy to find. If you have a choice between whole seed and ground always go for whole. It’s much easier to strain! Here in South Florida it’s sold in just about every grocery store in the spice section. Heat in a medium-sized pot with 2 cups of canola or vegetable oil to 1/2 cup annatto seeds. Cook for 10 minutes over medium heat. Strain and cool. Discard used seeds. Achiote oil will keep in the refrigerator indefinitely under a tight lid. Be careful not to get any oil on your clothing as it does stain. That goes for wooden spoons and certain plastics as well.