The Simplicity of a Weekday Party

The mah jongg girls were coming over . . . I hadn’t played mah jongg since I was twelve . . . and then I was invited to join the Wednesday mah jongg girls. I realized it had been a long time since I had actually played a game; my natural inclination was to decline, so without spending time analyzing it, I said, “yes.” The universe was getting far too serious and I was ready to play again. After all these years, I discovered mah jongg is a visionary game. It makes one use one’s mind in a way we often forget to do—to see through the surface to the vast possibilities.

So, when the girls announced they were coming to my house (a fairly long drive), I decided to prepare a really simple meal—one that I could prepare in advance since Wednesday is, after all, a work day. The recipes I choose can all be made in advance and allows for flexible preparation. I even made some banana bread, wrapped in festive wrap to give the girls something sweet to take home.

Roasted Veggie Soup
Serves six to eight
This soup was a lovely discovery. One day I had some roasted vegetables on hand and I simply added some stock and spices, and the soup came together in ten minutes. You can prepare the vegetables the day before, then make the soup quickly on the day you are going to serve it.

2 beets, peeled and chopped
2 sweet potatoes, peeled and chopped
2 zucchinis, peeled and chopped
1 large onion, sliced thin
1 red pepper, chopped
2 small garlic cloves, minced
1 portabella mushroom, chopped
2 T olive oil
1-2 t kosher salt
fresh pepper
fresh herbs (rosemary and thyme)

1 T olive oil
½ t cumin seeds
1 t curry powder
½ t ginger powder
4 C vegetable broth
1 can (2 cups) diced tomatoes
Dash of liquid smoke (just a few drops!)

1. Add vegetables to a large baking dish. Drizzle with 1 T olive oil, fresh herbs, salt and pepper.
2. Roast at 350 degrees for about an hour (cover with foil for the first half hour), until veggies are tender.
3. Heat olive oil in a heavy-duty soup pot, sauté cumin seeds until they pop. Add curry and ginger powder, roasted veggies (measure 4 cups), broth, and tomatoes.
4. Cook 15-20 minutes until well combined.
5. Adjust salt to taste and add liquid smoke.
6. Mash slightly before serving.

Savory Potato Puffs (Thirty Puffs)
This is a great party favorite to either serve as finger food while people are gathering or as an extra side treat. I often make the potato/onion mixture the day before. Then, early the next day, I roll and fill the dough and half-bake them. Just before the guests arrive I finish baking and serve.

Use 4-5 red or Yukon gold new potatoes (medium-large). Boil until quite tender; remove skins and drain well
2 T butter or margarine
1½-2 t salt
Fresh black pepper
2 T vegetable or olive oil
2 large or 3 medium onions, cut very small (these sautéed onions are the heart of the dish)
½ package frozen Pepperidge Farms puff pastry dough. Defrost thoroughly before using

1. Mash dry potatoes with butter or margarine. Add salt and set aside. The potato mixture should be quite thick. The salt seems like a lot but they need to be generously salted since it lessens when baked. Begin with 1 t and add enough so that you can really taste the salt.
2. Saute onions in oil until golden brown.
3. Add onions to mashed potatoes, mix well. I generally use my hands at this stage.

To make puffs
1. Uunroll 1 entire dough section and cut into three pieces (on the length side), about 12” by 4” each.
2. Roll each piece out on slightly floured board until it is a thin, long rectangle.
3. Fill the long center with the filling, about 1” high and 1” wide.
4. Fold the dough over the filling and pinch together until sealed at the fold, repeat with the other 2 long pieces of dough.
5. Cut the rolls into 2” pieces with a very sharp knife.
6. Bake until a lovely golden brown, 20-25 minutes in a 350 degree oven.

(If you want to pre-cook in advance, then under-bake for 10 minutes and finish baking just before serving. They also freeze really well.)

My Favorite Cornbread One Loaf
I have been making corn bread for decades. My old, batter-splashed copy of The Tassajara Bread Book provided the initial inspiration—many variations followed. This one has more protein to balance the carbohydrates. The very first set of pots and pans I received as a wedding present were cast iron. I dutifully learned all the required cleaning and maintenance methods for cast iron and was ready to begin cooking until I actually filled one of the saucepans with food, which made it impossible for me to lift it off the stove. The only pan that survived through the years is an 8-inch skillet, which has been designated my corn bread baker. I have never figured out why corn bread bakes better in cast iron. It seems to work really well, as long as there is enough oil in the pan so the corn bread can be removed in one piece. The wet and dry ingredients can be prepared the night before and mixed together just moments before you put it in the oven. You can omit the meringue to save time (just add the eggs to the wet ingredients). The smell of cornbread is a delightful welcome to guests, plus cornbread is best served warmed.

Dry ingredients
1¼ C cornmeal and ¾ C whole wheat pastry flour
1/8 C brown sugar
2 t baking powder
1½ t salt

Wet ingredients
¼ C maple syrup or honey
¼ C canola oil
2 C non-fat, low-fat milk, buttermilk (If you don’t have buttermilk in the house, add 2 drops of lemon juice to milk or add ½ C yogurt to 1½ C milk.) or almond milk
1 small can mild green chilies, drained
2 egg yolks
3 egg whites, whipped into a stiff meringue
Nutmeg (freshly grated is best)

1. Combine the first four ingredients. Place in a sealed container and store in the refrigerator.
2. Whisk together the next five ingredients.
3. Beat egg whites until they become a stiff meringue.
4. Combine the dry ingredients into the wet ones. Don’t over-mix; even if there are some dry lumps.
5. Fold in meringue using gentle strokes, then pour into a well-greased 8” baking pan or cast iron skillet.
6. Top with grated nutmeg and bake in a 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes. Don’t over bake.

Fool-Proof Pie Crust — Two Double Crusts
Pie crusts were always a challenge until I created this mixture; it is a flaky, non-temperamental recipe. I like to make extra crusts at one time and store them in the freezer covered in plastic wrap (placed securely in a freezer bag), so whenever I feel inclined to bake a pie, the crust is already waiting.

2 C unbleached white flour, sifted
2 C whole wheat pastry flour, sifted
1¾ C shortening
1 T sugar, optional
1½ t salt
1 egg
1 T vinegar
1/8-¼C ice water

1. Blend flour, shortening, sugar, and salt in a food processor or bowl until the dough becomes the texture of peas.
2. Beat egg, vinegar, and 1/8 C ice water.
3. Combine wet and dry mixtures; add a few more drops of water at a time, if needed.
4. Mold into four balls; cover with wrap and flatten.
5. Chill at least 30 minutes or more before rolling out.

Chocolate or Carob Heaven Pie
This pie is so easy and quick to make, yet it looks as if you’ve taken all day to prepare it. Another benefit is that it isn’t too sweet or rich—a little goes a long way.

½ + 1/8 C unsalted margarine or butter
5½ oz. semisweet chocolate or carob chips
8 T unsweetened cocoa or carob powder, sifted
½ t salt
4 eggs
¾ C turbinado or sugar cane (non-refined brown), processed until fine
3 T maple syrup
3 T sour cream

Line the bottom of a 10” flan or tart shell with pie crust dough, fork the dough so it doesn’t puff, bake about 10 minutes in a 350 degree oven until slightly golden.

1. Place butter, chocolate, cocoa, or carob alternative and salt in a bowl over a pan of simmering water and allow to melt slowly, stirring occasionally until well-mixed.
2. Beat the eggs and sugar together until light and well-creamed, then mix in the maple syrup and sour cream.
3. Stir the chocolate mixture into the egg and sugar mixture, mix well, then pour into the baked pastry shell.
4. Bake in a 350 degree oven for 40-45 minutes.
5. Remove the tart from the oven and allow to cool on a rack for at least 45 minutes. During this time the skin will crack and the filling will shrink slightly.

Ginger Banana/Pecan Bread — One Loaf
This banana bread recipe has been with me for over three decades. The hint of ginger and lemon gives this loaf a unique flavor. My favorite way to serve this bread is to toast it and spread some butter and jam on the warm slice.

Dry ingredients
1¾ C unbleached pastry flour
2½ t baking powder
1 t salt

Wet ingredients
1/3 C margarine or butter, softened
2/3 C maple syrup
1 t lemon zest
1½ C very ripe bananas, mashed (3 bananas)
2 egg yolks
1 t vanilla

Fold-in ingredients
4 egg whites, whipped into a firm meringue
1 C pecans, chopped small
3 T crystallized ginger, chopped very small

1. Mix dry ingredients together.
2. Blend wet ingredients in a food processor until smooth.
3. Mix wet ingredients into dry ingredients in small batches.
4. Fold in meringue, pecans, and ginger.
5. Spoon into a loaf pan.
6. Bake at 350 degrees for 40-50 minutes.

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