Time for the first BTF Cookie Recipe Exchange

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Thirty one years ago this week I was married to my college sweetheart. I was a very young woman with good culinary intentions and very little experience. I had barely made sauce once and made most of my dinners with some form of cream of something soup.

By the way, I’m not putting down cooking with cream soup. As a matter of fact, I have a few go-to recipes which call for it that are warm and fuzzy comfort food. Tuna noodle casserole is my favorite one of all.

Anyway, I come from a long line of cookie bakers having had two very accomplished grandmothers who could stare down 10 pounds of flour and see all of the possibilities.

My mother enlisted me and my sister as soon as we could belly up to the kitchen table to do the little chores which take time away from the mixing and baking. Had I known what a pastry sous chef was I would have included it on my resume.

One year, I was maybe 7 or 8 years old, my job was to crack the nuts. Mom gave me several bags of nuts along with a nutcracker and little metal pick which you use to remove the stubborn meat from the shell. The shells went onto newspaper which lined the table and the nut meat went into the designated bowl. One for me, one for the bowl until my mother had to rush me to the hospital in severe allergy anaphylactic shock. Oops…guess I am allergic to tree nuts! Bummer!

My mother’s cookie platters were beautiful, strategically set with cookies of all colors and shapes. I did not know then but realize now there was nothing haphazard about her baking as she planned with the precision of a military general. Over time I have created my own holiday traditions for my family. Baking cookies for Christmas remains my favorite and the one thing I do whether time is short or spirits low.

There is something about sharing my cookies with people I care about that makes me happy. I give away about 80 percent of the cookies I bake. I think people actually look forward to my gifts of cookies and candies. I have collected beautiful platters over the years which remind me very much of the ones my mother used.

Over the next few weeks I am going to share with you some specific strategies I use to make Christmas cookies. These have been learned over time, with trial and error. Many of you may already employ some or all of these and I hope that along with sharing recipes you can share your strategies, as well.

You may think I’m crazy to present you with this column two months before Christmas, but part of my success is using time to my advantage. This also can save you a great deal of money. You can certainly buy flour today to use later. Things like chocolate chips and coconut can be put in the freezer.

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The first thing I do is make a list on my computer of all of the cookies I intend to bake. The rows are all of the ingredients. You may want to put things like flour, sugar, butter, etc. at the top as most recipes call for them.

Don’t forget to include any icing or toppings on the cookie in the ingredient list. The columns are the cookie recipes and the yield. One column may say “Sugar Cookies” on one line and 36 on the next. Here is a quick sample: Once you have decided what to make and listed all of the ingredients on the spreadsheet you can determine your shopping list based upon the totals. There are plenty of websites which do conversions to let you know how many pounds 8.25 cups of flour is.

Click here for a helpful site.

For those of you who have a recipe file filled with old and new favorites I am proposing a recipe swap. Think of your very best recipe (just one) and share it with me. I will summarize and e-mail all of the participants.

With the recipe (ingredient list, yield and description) please include where you got it and why it is your favorite. By sending this recipe we have your permission to print it.

The deadline for submission is: Tuesday, Nov.15

Please e-mail: BTF.TheFoodie@gmail.com and put Virtual Recipe Exchange in the subject.

If you are a new cook and want some great ideas, please send an e-mail to BTF.TheFoodie@gmail.com by Nov. 20 and I will send you the first annual http://www.BelowTheFalls.com Virtual Christmas Cookie Recipe Exchange.

Coming up next week: Tools of the cookie trade

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Ransomville’s Casey’s isn’t old, but it sure feels familiar

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The Foodie:
Six degrees of separation are totally unnecessary when you live below the falls. You grew up here? Yes, I did. Did you go to Lew-Port? I sure did. When did you graduate? 1976. Oh wow, what’s your maiden name? It’s Russo. My father owned several car dealerships. Oh cool! I went to school with your brother Joe. And I think my brother went to school with your sister Carolyn. You did? That’s great.

And once that connection is made you are really not new anymore.

Casey’s is new to me, but not new to Ransomville. They opened up in 2006 in a building which was built on the site of a general store that burned down in the early 1900’s by G.E. Hubble for C.E. Cornell. A new grocery store was built on the site in 1919 by R.A. Neumann. The original plank wood floor gives this place an old world feel and the furniture is an eclectic combination of old, older and not so old. Somehow it all works.

Casey’s Malt Shoppe makes a wonderful first impression even before you walk in the door. I love the big bottle of ketchup on the window. The awning is red and white striped and 1940’s and 1950’s music greets you as you enter. It certainly adds to the ambiance.

As “regular” customers come and go, they kibitz with the folks here like they come here every day. And, to no surprise, they do. It’s a typical local gem where everybody knows your name.

Among this morning’s breakfast specials are grilled Polish sausage with two eggs and toast for $4.25, a 6-ounce steak with two eggs and toast for $5.99 (wow – what a price!) and corned beef hash for $3.89.

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Karen Fellows has been here since day one (makes sense since she is the co-owner). She was my server (one of her wait staff was delayed) and all around Casey’s guru and was ready to announce the breakfast specials but I had my eye focused on corned beef hash and eggs. To me that is the ultimate treat. Soggy hash is awful and I am happy to say the hash was cooked crisp, I assume on a very hot flat-top grill. My eggs, over easy, were cooked perfectly. It looked and smelled so good I forgot to take a picture until I was already well into my generous portions.

Kim Lee, originally from Mississippi, the cook, has been here for three weeks. She has never been a line cook before. She loves the people and the owners. And, she made me the best hash I have had in a while.

Why did Karen get into the business? She did not have a job and did not want to drive to Buffalo. It started as an ice cream shop and when ice cream didn’t sell they turned it into a diner.

Karen tells me she thinks she has a successful business because it is simply based on good food. I asked her how many hours a week she is here and she said 30 hours at the restaurant, she does the shopping twice a week and does the books at home. There is very little glamour in this business, that’s for sure.

She told me about a great Friday fish fry and her homemade New England clam chowder. Service is fast. Meatloaf Monday is famous for a meal that reminds her of her mom’s.

They serve beer and local wine. The lunch and dinner menu is filled with burgers, chicken sandwiches and hot dogs. They have a BLT on their menu so I already know what I will order when I come by next time.

And, I’ll bet they remember my name.

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When Being Under Pressure is a Good Thing!

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The Foodie:

As a kid, I remember watching my mother make pies on Saturday or a roast on the rotisserie on Sunday. For me food has always been more than sitting at the table and eating. In our house it was also about the process of preparation, the love that went into the table, knowing that we eat with our eyes first.

When I would come home from school and walk up the driveway I would always try to guess the meal based on any smell that would make it outside. On days when I could not (and on days when I would want to take a guess) I would always ask, “Ma, what’s for dinner?”

There was weekend food and there was weekday food. You didn’t get lasagna on Tuesday nor would you get breakfast for dinner on Sunday. Sunday was for that roast or for sauce and macaroni. By the way, when did this whole “pasta” thing start? It’s not pasta and cheese, is it?

Oh yeah, and on Saturday we ate soup and sandwiches made with cold cuts (always pronounced colecuts when I was a kid … or at least that’s how it sounded to me). I loved that. My mother would make soup (always homemade) and lay the meat out on a dish. The bread was passed and we made our own sandwich (pronounced sangwich by one of my grandmothers).

She would often make soup in a pressure cooker. That thing was big; it was loud and quite frankly, it was really scary. For all of the time I would sit by and watch my mother in the kitchen, when that pot came out I would think of something else to do. If I could go outside and play, all the better.

Last month, during my canning adventure (I did “put-up” 12 quarts of San Marzano tomatoes, thank you very much) I drove to Batavia to buy a 16 quart pressure canner/cooker. Holy cow, is that thing big! I can barely wash it in my sink.

The whole concept of the pot had me curious. The first time I used it I must have read the directions 10 times before even setting it on my stove. I had flashbacks of that clanging and the thought that the kitchen might explode at any minute and I was not going to bomb my house while trying to can a tomato.

It was loud but not so that you could not have a conversation. I used it again and started to understand the purpose of each part of it. I decided I was going to try my hand at making soup and saved the task for Columbus Day.

It took longer to clean and chop the vegetables than it did to cook the soup. The recipe gave proportions but the only advice you need is to not fill the pot more than half full. That is because in order for the contents to cook properly under pressure there has to be a certain amount of head room in the pot.

So I washed and I chopped and I dumped potatoes, onions, celery, carrots, green beans (frozen) and tomatoes into the pot with about four pounds of beef short ribs. The only seasoning was coarse salt. That’s it. No pepper, no garlic, nothing except salt.

I must admit, I was skeptical. That’s it? No braising, no sautéing, no organic low sodium stock to add to the pot? Just vegetables, meat, salt and water go into the pot which is brought up to 15 pounds pressure for 20 minutes.

Seriously, that’s it.

Yes, it was kind of loud but the pot did not clang like I remember my mother’s did when I was a kid. It did take a little while to get the pot up to 15 pounds pressure but the actual pressure cooking time was not very long. The soup was finally done when the pressure goes down to zero on its own. That took a little while but what I did not count on was the smell in my kitchen.

It smelled wonderful. I wanted to leave and come back in just to smell it. And, best of all, it was the best beef vegetable soup I ever made.

Do you use a pressure cooker? What is your favorite recipe? Share with me and I will share with all of our BelowTheFalls friends.

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From Phil’s to Brennan’s, a homecoming of sorts

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The Foodie:

Last evening, my husband and I stopped in for a bite at Brennan’s in Youngstown. You cannot imagine how happy I was to be back in familiar surroundings. Annie was both our server and the bartender. It was not very busy so she was able to keep company with all. The entire room was filled with Halloween decorations which were whimsical and fun.

20120612-153226.jpgI had a creamy potato and bacon soup served in a pretty bowl with a saucer and doily. Wow – very uptown and very tasty. My chicken fingers that followed were generous and seasoned to my liking. My husband had a burger and fries and enjoyed every bite. This is not fancy food (although my soup did not know that), but pub fare.

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I mentioned to Annie that I appreciated the brevity of the menu and she explained that it was by design. They decided to do a few things well and I commend them for that decision. Brennan’s is the perfect place to go watch Bills or Sabres games because they have food and drink specials during those events.

Greg Taylor, Youngstown native and Lew-Port grad and I chat a few minutes at the bar about Youngstown. Greg is a fan of the chicken fingers and is sure to stop by often to sit at the bar and visit with friends. Greg is a diehard below the falls guy and humorously complained he had to go all the way to North Tonawanda today. He can be seen dining and sipping at other BTF locations including the Brickyard and grabbing take out at Main Street Gas and Grill.

We also talked about the iterations of Brennan’s. I cannot imagine anyone from our generation not remembering Phil’s Place. I have very happy memories of that local tavern and immediately on arriving home put a plea on my Facebook page asking my friends to share their memories, too. Where else but Facebook can you get seven interviews without lifting a pencil?

Glen remembers playing pool and shuffleboard while drinking cases of OV splits. Glen, I remember OV splits at the Park Meadow (The PM) on Thursday nights back in the day! He also remembers the great wings and recalls Phil being a great guy. Becky remembers Phil’s having “the BEST wings ever!”

Phil was the uncle of one of my dearest friends from high school. Cindi notes that Phil’s wife, her Aunt Marion, likely “made those wings and all the other great food consumed there.” She waxed poetic about the best ever Easter brunches with family.

Dee Dee not only remembers Phil’s but the cue ball on the pool table. She says “Good ‘ol PHIL’s … Jimmy’s for breakfast, the Jug for lunch and then pizza and wings at PHIL’s with a side of pool! I still think if you played the cue ball slightly off center you had the advantage as everything tilted towards the river! Maybe it was after long days of teaching junior sailing!”

Shirley and Amy, two of this Foodie’s favorite people, have fond recollections of Tuesday night sailing and learning how to play pool. Daughter Amy says “I have great memories of when my BFFs Sarah, Jason and TJ worked there. I still have Sarah’s satin Brennan’s jacket!” Mother Shirley has a slightly different although very fond memory of Phil’s and of Amy’s days at the pub.

Shirley recalled “We had our first sailboat — a Catalina 22 that Pat sailed on Tuesday nights with our daughters, about 8 and 11. I was a little upset when I found out that our girls were “regular” pool players at Phil’s when all the sailors from the marina convened at Phil’s to drink.”

My most enduring memory of Phil’s is with my Lew-Port friends Mark and Cindi and a bunch of our friends back in the 1970’s. I think we were all home from college and gathered at Phil’s to hang out, compare notes and catch up on each other’s lives. I remember a HOT chicken wing eating contest which ended with Mark and I being the last ones remaining. In an act of surrender Mark ate a napkin. Random memory but true as true can be.

I will leave you with Mark’s words. “Phil’s was really a family run neighborhood tavern in the best sense of the phrase. We didn’t go there “for a drink,” we went there to enjoy the warmth of the Zaszucha family and old friends. Laughs and conversation, Genny Cream and hot wings, new romance and old heartbreak: these were the stuff of Phil’s Place.”

A few snips from my notebook:

Join Brennan’s as they celebrate their Grand Opening on Oct. 21. There will be a ribbon cutting, a pumpkin carving contest and drink and food specials.

Hallowine Murder Mystery Weekend Oct. 28, 29 and 30 on the Niagara Wine Trail. See http://www.niagarawinetrail.org/ for more information.

Hops n Vines is having a wine tasting on Oct. 11 at 6 p.m. It is limited to 20 so check out http://www.facebook.com/#!/HOPSnVINES for more information

In memoriam:

A discussion about Youngstown would not be complete without a note on the passing of our dear mayor, Neil Riordan. Nowhere on earth was there a better embodiment of public servant and stand-up comedian. Neil, I will always remember your voice, your wisdom and your humor. You leave a hole not likely ever to be filled. My thoughts, sympathy and prayers go to his loving family, the village residents who loved him and my husband who lost his mentor. God rest you, Neil …

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