Boring donuts need not apply

I wanted something fast with punches of flavor for a spur-of-the-moment breakfast this morning. Toasted mini-bagels with a trio of homemade cream-cheese spreads — smoked salmon, fresh herb and honey with toasted walnuts — fit the bill.

Loaded with fiber, my Bottom-of-the-Cereal Box Muffins, made with dried apricots, rounded out the menu.

You can find the recipe in this week's Table Scraps newspaper column.

How's that for an early morning tryst?


Mexican wedding cakes or whatever

These hand-formed, shortbread-like, buttery cookies go by many names: Russian Tea Cakes, Sandies, Bride's Cakes, Snowdrop, Snowball, Italian Butter Nut, and Viennese Sugar Balls. Whatever you call them, I made a batch yesterday.

Traditionally made with toasted pecans, my recipe included toasted walnuts and grated orange peel. Dusted with powdered sugar, the cookies had a nutty and citrus flavor, and their festive appearance whispered the holidays.

One bite, and the delicate cakes had me rethinking my plan to make them for a luncheon today. Even though they use relatively few ingredients, these sinfully rich cookies required too much cookie-by-cookie attention, and they are very fragile.

I needed nine dozen, so I decided to make something else and take this batch to work in the morning.

How did these biscuit-like cookies ever get the name Mexican wedding cakes? For centuries, they were crumbled over the heads of bridal couples much as we now shower happy newlyweds with rice.


Peel or No Peel?

Just sit right back and you'll hear a tale, a tale of a potato.

Nine times out of 10, I leave the peels on my potatoes, especially for potato salad. But next time I may reconsider, just so I can try this technique.

Dawn Wells looks great for her age, doesn't she? I always liked her better than Ginger.


Growing pains

... are a good problem to have these days.

My Mother's Garden online market has outgrown its old produce pick-up location in the Sun City Center Plaza and has packed up its peach baskets and moved. Now you can get your straight-from-the-field produce, organic herbs or farm fresh eggs at the southwest corner of State Road 674 and U.S. 301. The table is located at the edge of the parking lot at the Copper Penny Restaurant in Sun City Center.

With the additional space, co-owner Susan Bishop now carries loose produce, like these beautiful Florida lemons, avocados and pickling cukes for purchase on site, even if you forgot or didn't place an order online.

To learn more about My Mother's Garden, visit: www.mymothersgarden.locallygrown.net/
Friday: 1 - 5 pm


Old fashioned meat market

There was a butcher's shop we used to go to as a kid in Minnesota that was called the Osseo Meat Market, an old-fashioned place to get custom-cut meats. On Saturdays, we'd come home with a brown bag filled with small parcels, all labeled and wrapped in white paper.

Long gone are the days when every neighborhood has its own version of "Osseo Meat Market" — the place that knows customers' names and how to personalize their orders. These family-run shops are harder and harder to find.

When I first learned about Apollo Meats, I decided to stop in and give it a try.

I always receive the same, top-notch service experience there and have become a huge fan. If I need chicken cut into strips, the owners do it for me; if I don't know how to cook something, they give me suggestions; and if I need rock shrimp or something else they don't carry regularly, they order them for me.

The newest menu item in the meat case is black angus pepper sausage. It's made on the premises, with no preservatives. I can't wait to fix it!

Apollo Meats
226 Apollo Beach Blvd.
Apollo Beach, FL 33572
(813) 645-2379.


My One-Pot Wonder

Monday and Tuesdays are very busy days for me, when I travel and work out of town.

By the time I get home, it's been a very l-o-n-g 48 hours. My feet ache. I'm cranky. I don't want to worry about rustling up dinner, no matter how easy the rustling might be.

But I've found the perfect solution. I discovered a recipe that calls for only five ingredients, which then are simmered slowly on Sunday to make a flavorful, comforting dinner .

It's a one-pot wonder called Easy Company Beef. Take a look.
Easy Company Beef

3 pounds stewing beef, cubed
10 3/4 ounce can cream of mushroom soup
7 ounce jar mushrooms, undrained
1/2 cup red wine
1 envelope dry onion soup mix

Combine all ingredients in a slow cooker. Cover. Cook on low for 10 hours. Serve over noodles, rice or pasta. Relax.


Happy 105th, Columbia Restaurant!

I've always been a fan of the Columbia Restaurant. Having dined at the Tampa, Sarasota and Celebration locations, I've always had excellent Spanish cuisine and superb service.

Several weeks ago, I read Tampa Tribune writer Jeff Houck's article, "Rebuilding the perfect Cuban" at the Columbia Restaurant, and suddenly my mouth was watering. I couldn't wait to try one.

I made a date to have lunch there last weekend and ordered the pressed Cuban sandwich and a mojito.

Aside from the disappointing mojito, which was under-minted and much too sweet, the sandwich, stuffed with pork, ham, cheese, sour pickle chips and plenty of tangy yellow mustard slathered inside the golden crusted bread was pure tasty pleasure.

Add some crunch by toasting your coconut

It's such a small step, but like toasting nuts, toasting coconut brings out natural oils and creates an added dimension and fuller flavor to the fruit.

I prefer unsweetened coconut flakes, which I buy at Bulk-N-Natural Foods in Sarasota. You can't beat their prices.

I preheat my oven to 350 degrees, arrange the coconut flakes in a single layer on a cookie sheet, and then bake for eight to 10 minutes or until the flakes are light golden brown. I check and stir them every few minutes to prevent burning.

Don't these look yummy?

Once I remove the flakes from the oven, I allow to cool before using.

Toasted coconut flakes add a finishing touch to cakes, puddings or, in this instance, the coconut-avocado ice cream I made this weekend. A light sprinkling adds a bit of crunch to the dessert's silky smoothness.


Site to see

There are a lot of really wonderful cooking and food sites on the Internet. So many, in fact, that it's easy to miss some good ones.

This morning I thought I'd take a moment to tell you about one my cousin Nora told me about.

Even those with just a passing interest in cooking will want to read Cooking for Engineers (www.cookingforengineers.com).

Michael Chu is a hardware applications engineer and author of Cooking for Engineers. It's chocked full of reading lists, cooking tests, recipe files, advice on cooking tool selection, analytical conversion and much more.

And almost every final food photo is Cooking-Channel worthy.

If you haven't already taken a trip to Cooking for Engineers, check it out. It's full of goodies.


Today is refrigeration appreciation day!

I recently read an article about George Washington and ice cream. In his day, a "cream machine for ice" was very expensive and its product could only be afforded by the privileged few. Since refrigeration was not yet invented, ice from frozen lakes and rivers was chopped into large chunks, wrapped in straw and buried in the ground. Sometimes the ice would last until August.

Thank goodness for refrigeration, 'cause I wouldn't be whipping up a batch of ice cream here in Florida at any time of the year, let alone in the middle of September.

The newest member of our family is a Cuisinart frozen yogurt, ice cream & sorbet maker. I wrote about it this week in my Table Scraps newspaper column.

After first making a "custard" and letting it refrigerate overnight, the mixture is poured into a revolving cannister the next day.

Within 20 minutes, the mixture looks like this and is ready for several more hours in the freezer.

Finally, it's time to eat!

Later this week... coconut-avocado ice cream. Really. I'll keep you posted.


Avocado season: Most wonderful time of the year

Much to my surprise, a large FedEx box arrived this morning.

It was from my brother Dan and his wife, Polly, who live near West Palm Beach. "Please be what I think it is," I thought, as I opened the box. By its heft and time of arrival, I supected what was inside. Slitting the box open, I took a quick look inside.

Woohoo! I was right. My gift was a dozen or so brilliant green, rock-hard avocados from Dan and Polly's backyard. I'll ripen them on the counter top before moving them into the fridge.

Florida accounts for around nine percent of the U.S. avocado production. Harvest season in Florida runs from late-May through March. Last year, Dan and Polly's tree didn't produce much; this year, it looks like their in for a lot of guac.

At our house, we eat avocados in dozens of ways. Nothing is better than a ripe avocado cut in half, sprinkled with salt, pepper and lime juice, and then eaten with a spoon, just like butter. And a BLT sandwich without avocado slices? Boring.


The incredible sulk

The results are in and someone named Jen Senel, won. Congratulations, Jen!

Am I jealous? You're darn tootin' I am.

For those who missed it, blogger Randy Watson over at The Wine Whore recently held his first Wine Whore Online Scavenger Hunt. Participants, like me, were sent to an obstacle course of twenty-some different Web sites looking for wine- related answers.

What I know about wine couldn't fill a Dixie cup. But I thought , "How hard could it be?"

We were seeking answers to questions like, "Table Scraps author Lynn Kessel cubes, freezes, then tosses what favorite summer fruit into a glass of white wine?" Okay, so I was guaranteed to get at least the answer to that one right.

Other questions like "What's the most expensive wine that's ever been reviewed on www.wineweek.com.au"? Searching for that answer was not so easy.

It seems I miscalculated. It was a tad harder than I thought.

Jen's prize? A bottle of wine? No, it was something much better — the coveted, limited edition of, and she'll probably get compliments every time she wears it, the first-ever Whiney-award medal.

I taste sour grapes.


Casa Don Juan passes the taco test

We recently had lunch at the family-owned Casa Don Juan, which has served local folks in Ruskin for the past 13 years.

I size up a Mexican restaurant by its tacos. Are they up to snuff with harmonious amounts of diced onions and fresh cilantro? Wedge of lime? If a place passes my taco test, it's a green light to order anything and everything else off the menu. And we did!

My dining companion raved about the homemade mole sauce which included brown sugar, onion, garlic and tomato sauce.

The crispy, rolled flauta was topped with shredded cabbage and a dusting of Parmesan.

The hit for me was the chalupa on the left, a big crunchy flour tortilla topped with guacamole, sour cream and chopped tomatoes.

It's free-chip heaven at Casa Don Juan. The chips were very light, thin and crunchy, with only a hint of salt for maximum tastiness.

I ordered a side of the guacamole, which was good; but I would have liked it better if it had been spiked with a bit more lime juice and contained chunkier pieces of avocado. That's just me, though.

Bonus: The majority of the menu was under $10.

Casa Don Juan
1110 U.S. 41 S.
Ruskin, Fl
(813) 641-8502


Sandwiching in final summer reads

Between reading my normal array of cookbooks, I recently sandwiched "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society" by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows.

It was the quirky title that caught my attention.

Its story is told through a series of letters during the period of food rationing and bombed buildings of post-war London. Juliet, a writer, is contacted by a fan on the Island of Guernsey. As events unfold and she travels to Guernsey, she learns of the conditions the Channel Island locals endured while living under Nazi occupation. Despite the dark subject, I thought the book was warm, humorous and the cast of characters were as interesting as the book title.

During World War II, people had to make-do with whatever they were rationed. By way of illustration, I thought I'd share this recipe for a pie the members of the literary society "enjoyed" at their meetings. Can you imagine actually eating this? For one thing, it's pink!

Potato Peel Pie

Here's a recipe for a potato peel pie but I warn you, it tastes like paste. The more authentic it is, the nastier. These ingredients will make a very small pie. Expand at will.

1 potato
1 beet
1 tablespoon milk

Peel the potato and put the peelings in a pie pan. Don't cook the peels, because you're in the middle of an Occupation and you don't have any fuel. Boil the potato and the beet together in salty water, but not for very long, due to the fuel problem. Just until you can stick a fork in the potato.

Take them out and mash them up the the milk. Pour the glop in the pie pan. Bake at 375 for as short a time as is consonant with digestion (fuel again), say, 15 minutes.

The finished product will look quite attractive and pink. If you squint, you can almost imagine raspberries. Don't be fooled. It looks a lot better than it is. However, if you forgot that you were in the middle of WWII and added a bunch of butter and milk and salt, it could be quite tasty.

Recipe source: www.randomhouse.com


Dinner foiled again

Practically all my life it seems like I've been making foil packet dinners.

During my days as a Camp Fire girl and then leader, I'd wrap potatoes, carrots or whatever with pieces of beef and throw the foil-wrapped "hobo dinners" around the edge of the coals to cook. After a long day of setting up tents, hiking and latrine building, nothing tasted better than those hot meal-in-one packages, eaten around a toasty fire in the company of a bunch of Camp Fire girls.

Nostalgia? No, it's probably one of the easiest and satisfying dinners I can still throw together.

I had a piece of fresh grouper in the fridge I needed to use. On a piece of foil, I stacked some thinly sliced potatoes, the grouper filet, mushrooms, shards of fresh basil, chopped garlic, salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. It took a whopping five minutes to assemble.

Placing another piece of foil over the top, I crimped the edges, put the package on top of a cookie sheet, set the oven at 425 degrees, and let the oven do the rest. Dinner was ready in 25 minutes.

Voila! Dinner for two! Poured a glass of wine and set up the TV tray in the living room to watch a Netflix movie. It was a perfect, quiet Saturday night, minus the old reeking of bug spray and campfire smoke.