What kind of jobs did you have while attending school? Did you sell graphic tees to teenagers at Hot Topic? Or don polo shirts and khakis to sell family plans at the Sprint store? Or pour endless cups of coffee at iHop?
When I was in grad school, I waited tables. I worked for a truly terrible steakhouse chain that I suspect (hope?) is now out of business. We were always running out of clean glasses, our job performance was measured by how many girly fruity drinks we sold to a clientele that just wanted beer, and according to rumor, my general manager went to prison a couple months after I left. For a different job, I donned a blue dirndl, which made me look like Snow White, to serve chicken in Frankenmuth, Michigan. One day after work, I went through a fast food drive through and the lady at the window immediately burst into giggles upon seeing my dirndl and said, “Where do you work??!!” So yes, I had the type of job that made fast food workers grateful they weren’t me.
But my favorite restaurant I worked at was called Guido’s. Sadly, it no longer exists, but they had the best pizzas and pastas in Saginaw. The owner was awesome and every business on the block was friendly and would just walk through each other’s back doors to say hi.
One of my favorite things at Guido’s (I had about half a dozen favorites) was a spaghetti that had sauteed mushrooms and goat cheese. This isn’t The Recipe, as I have no idea what was in the pasta sauce, but it’s inspired by it.
2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
1 small onion, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 pinch of red pepper flakes
salt and pepper
1 32-oz can of tomatoes
1 bay leaf
10 oz mushrooms, sliced
1 16-oz package of spaghetti
6 oz goat cheese, cut into rounds
Optional: shredded basil to top
Heat 1 tablespoon of olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add onion, garlic, celery, carrot, red pepper flakes, and salt and saute for approximately 12 minutes.
Add tomatoes, bay leaf, and additional salt. Simmer uncovered over low heat for approximately one hour.
While the marinara is simmering, preheat the oven to 375. Toss mushrooms with remaining olive oil and salt and pepper. Add mushrooms in a single layer on a sheet pan and roast for 30 minutes, stirring the mushrooms once after 15 minutes.
Bring a pot of salted water to a boil. Cook spaghetti according to package directions. Reserve a half cup of cooking water and then drain pasta.
Add the spaghetti and roasted mushrooms to the marinara sauce and stir until the pasta is evenly coated. Add reserved cooking water, if needed. Add freshly cracked black pepper.
Serve with rounds of goat cheese and (optional) shredded basil.
Beatrice Darker, known as Nana to her family, is the matriarch of the Darker clan. She is a successful children’s author and illustrator. Her family has depended on her for babysitting services and to stay financially afloat. While Nana is practical in most things, a fortune teller once told her she would die at the age of eighty and she has always believed it.
On October 30th, the eve of Nana’s 80th birthday, she gathers her entire family to celebrate at her isolated island home. The family includes: Frank Darker, Nana’s son, whose first love is music and whose first inconvenience is the family he created with his ex-wife, Nancy. Nancy Darker, a glamorous ex-housewife, who loves gardening, beautiful things, and her middle child. Rose, the oldest of Nana’s three granddaughters, who is an intelligent but isolated veterinarian who prefers animals to people. Lily, a single mother and the vain beauty of the family, is the middle granddaughter. Daisy, the youngest granddaughter and the narrator, has been sickly her entire life and is the inspiration behind Nana’s most successful book, Daisy Darker’s Little Secret. Trixie, Nana’s great-granddaughter and Lily’s daughter, is the only child in the family and a studious girl who dresses only in pink. Finally, Conor, a neighbor who grew up with the three Darker girls, makes up the final guest of the birthday party.
As the tide cuts off the island from the rest of the world, Nana serves an elaborate meal. The Darker family, who does not often choose to spend time together, makes awkward small talk until the conversation turns to murder. Each family member reveals how they would commit the perfect murder. The shared dark humor is only temporary, and the Darker family soon returns to their usual agenda of personal attacks, with new fuel from recently discovered family home videos. Just after midnight, after everyone is in bed, fifteen-year-old Trixie goes downstairs to find Nana dead on the kitchen floor and a menacing poem written on the kitchen’s blackboard wall. Soon after, the members of the Darker family begin to die, one by one.
Much like Lucy Foley’s brilliant thriller The Guest List,Daisy Darker has serious And Then There Were None vibes, maintaining a delicate balance between clever modern twists and nods to the original inspiration. Daisy, a naive and semi-reliable narrator, is the perfect choice to tell a complicated story. While I did predict a handful of the twists, I was also surprised by many, and I loved how the story came together. Feeney’s writing is suspenseful, and it is the type of story where you get nervous every time a door opens or a noise is heard. The characters, a mix of likeable and unlikeable, are all distinct and compelling. It was my first Alice Feeney book, but it won’t be my last.
On the whole, it is a perfect read for spooky season and would make an ideal book club selection for October.
Book Club Menu
On Halloween Eve, Nana prepares an elaborate and whimsical feast for her family:
“Dinner is a feast–roast chicken, potatoes, Yorkshire puddings, and lashings of gravy. But the gravy is hot chocolate sauce, because Nana thinks everything should be a sweet treat at Halloween. The carrots are loaded in sugar; the puddings are really marshmallows; there are Smarties mixed in with the peas, and popping candy on the potatoes. What looks like melted bread sauce is actually melted vanilla ice cream. The food is both surprising and surprisingly good.” p. 34, U.S. edition
After this candied roast chicken meal, which is served with lots of white wine, Nana brings out a homemade chocolate cake and champagne.
We’re going to let Nana inspire our book club menus, if in a somewhat less sugary way. We’ll pass on the chocolate gravy and marshmallowy Yorkshire pudding for a more traditional roast chicken meal and opt for a brownie with Halloween candy baked in instead of chocolate birthday cake. (Although if you wanted to write “Happy Birthday, Nana!” on a chocolate cake instead of baking a brownie, that would be memorable.)
Roasted Lemon Thyme Chicken with Potatoes (recipe below)
Apple Kale Salad with Candied Almonds (recipe below)
Halloween Brownies (details below)
Alcoholic Beverage: Both Chardonnay and Pinot Noir are classic pairings for roast chicken
Non-Alcoholic Beverage: Warmed cider with mulling spices
Lemon Thyme Roast Chicken with Potatoes
Lemon Thyme Roast Chicken with Potatoes
Roasting a whole chicken is surprisingly easy, and your house will smell amazing while it is roasting. You just need to get past handling a raw bird. Feel free to use a smaller amount of dried thyme if you don't have fresh.
Zest of half a lemon
1 tablespoon salt, plus extra
1/2 teaspoon pepper, plus extra
Fresh thyme, 4 to 5 sprigs
Whole chicken, 4 to 5 lbs
Olive oil (approximately 2 tablespoons)
4 cloves garlic
1 lb small potatoes, cut into small pieces
Preheat the oven to 425.
In a small bowl, combine the salt, pepper, lemon zest, and leaves from 2 sprigs of thyme. (You will use the rest of the thyme later.)
Remove the giblets from the chicken. (You can reserve them for another use.) Rinse chicken and pat dry.
In a roasting pan, coat the chicken with olive oil and then rub the seasoning all over the bird and in the cavity. Fill the cavity with the lemon half, garlic cloves, and 2 to 3 sprigs of thyme.
Add the potatoes to the roasting pan around the chicken. Add salt and pepper.
Optional: tie the chicken legs together with twine.
Roast for 1.5 hours, until it is an absolute minimum of 165. Baste the chicken with its juices halfway through the process.
Allow to rest for 20 minutes before carving. This step is essential. Do not skip.
In a cold skillet, combine raw almonds, sugar, and cinnamon. Turn heat to medium. Once the sugar begins to melt, stir constantly until the sugar is fully melted and coating the almonds. Transfer the almonds to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper and sprinkle with a pinch of salt. Let cool.
In a large bowl, whisk together the lemon juice, tahini, maple syrup, and olive oil to make the salad dressing. Add salt and pepper.
Add the kale to the bowl and mix until all of the kale is coated in the dressing.
Top with apple slices, feta crumbles, and approximately half of the candied almonds.
This isn’t so much a recipe as it is a suggestion on how to make boxed brownies festive for spooky season. As written, this is baked in a pie dish and cut into 8 wedges. Therefore, you’ll want to find a box mix meant for an 8x8 dish. Both Ghiradelli and Trader Joe’s brownie mixes are for that size. If all you have is a brownie mix for an 8x13 dish, obviously skip the pie dish and use the correct size baking pan and use more peanut butter cups.
1 box brownie mix, plus ingredients to make it as directed
3 oz Reese’s Pieces (King size bag)
Miniature peanut butter cups (about 15 PB cups)
Spray a pie dish with nonstick spray and set aside. Make the brownie mix as directed on the box and fold in the Reese’s Pieces just before adding the mix to the pie dish. Bake according to the box directions for an 8x8 baking dish. Immediately after taking the brownies out of the oven, press the peanut butter cups into the warm brownie. Let cool fully before serving. If desired, serve with vanilla ice cream.
I was in college the first time I tried crab. There are two reasons for this. The first was I didn’t come from a seafood eating family. My sister and I both believed that Red Lobster commercials were the grossest thing on TV, and we had no desire to eat crustaceans. (We have since both repented of this.) The second was I was the pickiest eater alive as a child. Today, I am excited by new foods but once upon a time, new foods gave me anxiety. I also rejected things based on smell, and seafood is nothing if not smelly. When I married into a family of picky eaters, I couldn’t help but feel that this was punishment for what I put my mother through when I was a child.
Therefore, I was 21 and a senior in college the first time I tried crab. Reader, it was instant love. Nevermind, that it was merely crab cakes I tried as an experiment while on spring break in Florida (I tried actual crab legs soon after), I immediately understood that I had denied myself something delicious for two full decades of my life.
These tostadas are a casual weeknight-friendly way to eat crab. If your grocery bills aren’t giving you as much pain as mine are, feel free to increase the amount of crab in the recipe and decrease the veggies. As written, this recipe is fairly mild. For a spicier version, add more jalapeno and use a hotter pico de gallo. Like all of the recipes to be posted in June, these tostadas will pair perfectly with Albariño.
Cheesy Crab Tostadas
Servings: 4 dinner portions or 8 appetizer portions
I don’t know much about my great-grandmother and great-grandfather in Ukraine. I knew my maternal grandparents, who lived in Ukraine in their youth, then emigrated to Paraguay and many years later to the U.S. But when I try to go back farther than my grandparents, the only thing I can say with any confidence is that I am the descendent of Eastern European farmers. Farmers from Ukraine on my mom’s side and farmers from Belarus on my dad’s.
Family names and family stories have not been passed down to me. My parents did not know their own grandparents, as they were both raised in Paraguay, while my great-grandparents remained in what would become Soviet territory after the Second World War. At the time when both sets of my grandparents emigrated, it was not yet Soviet land. All of their documentation declared them to be Polish, even though no one in the family considered themselves to be Polish.
Ukraine as a conquered land is an old story, but that never makes it less terrible. We are not Russians; we are not Poles; we are Ukrainians. We have our own language, culture, etc. Of the people taking refuge or walking to Poland or taking up arms against Russian invaders, I don’t know any of them, but some of them might be my second or third cousins. But I am comfortable in my own home, consumed by my own problems, as I was saved from this predicament due to the actions of the generations that came before me.
I don’t know much about my ancestry, but what I know is the food. My connection to my ancestors and to modern day distant relatives is in what I eat, the food I was raised on. This is my comfort food, and my mom’s, and I’m sure it was my grandmother’s and great-grandmother’s comfort food. If you try, I am sure it will become your comfort food, even if you aren’t Ukrainian.
*16 oz cottage cheese
*1 package farmer cheese (mine was 0.64 lb)
*5 cups sifted flour
*2 teaspoons salt
*1 ⅔ cups water
*¼ cup sour cream
*Melted butter to keep vareniki from sticking together
Combine all ingredients for the cheese filling in a medium bowl. Set aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together egg and sour cream until well combined, then whisk in the water.
Add in the flour and salt and knead until it is the right consistency. If it seems too sticky, add some flour. If too dry, add more water. Divide the dough into 3 parts.
Fill a large pot with water and salt and bring to a boil.
While your water is heating, roll out your dough on a well floured surface until it is 1/8" thick.
Using either a cookie cutter or an upside down coffee mug, cut the dough into circles.
Add a spoonful of filling in the center of each circle. Carefully fold in half and pinch to seal the vareniki shut. (My mom’s tip: Get your fingers damp with water if the vareniki are not sealing properly.)
Once your water is boiling, drop your first batch of vareniki (6 to 10 vareniki, depending on size) into the water.
Boil the vareniki until they float to the top, then remove from the water with a slotted spoon and brush with melted butter.
Not that you are 100% reassured and not at all suspicious, I will tell you why you should put hummus (and beet hummus, specifically) in your pasta. Hummus adds creaminess to pasta dishes without full-fat dairy products, and it increases the protein in vegetarian meals. Ever eat something, and think, “There is a tasty and familiar ingredient in here that I just can’t place”? Well, that’s the role of hummus in pasta, to be a delicious mystery. It sounds like it should be heavy, but it’s not, partly due to the addition of reserved pasta water transforming it to the perfect creamy consistency.
I used beet hummus here because I liked the idea of using traditional Greek salad ingredients (tomato, beets, olives, and feta) in a hot meal. If beets aren’t your thing, I get it. Not everyone is a borscht slurping Slavic like me. Just use whatever hummus flavor (original, roasted garlic, roasted red pepper) you do like.
Not convinced by hummus pasta? I have a baby step for you. The next time you make spaghetti marinara, add a scoop of original hummus into the marinara sauce. Once you taste and find it is delicious, you will be ready to make this.
16 oz box pasta
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 garlic cloves minced
2 cups cherry tomatoes, quartered
6 oz baby spinach
10 oz package beet hummus
1 cup reserved pasta water
For topping: dill, feta crumbles, and sliced kalamata olives
Cook pasta according to package directions. Don’t forget to salt your pasta water!
When your pasta has been boiling for a couple minutes, heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add garlic and tomatoes and cook until tomatoes are softened, stirring as needed.
Add baby spinach a handful at a time, stirring until wilted, then adding the next handful.
Reserve a cup of pasta water.
Drain pasta and add to skillet. Stir in hummus.
Add reserved pasta water ¼ cup at a time until you like the consistency of the pasta sauce. You may not need the full cup.
Add desired toppings and serve.
Variation: For a vegan pasta, instead of adding feta, incorporate nutritional yeast into the sauce in step 6 for a bit of cheesy flavor.
I developed my love of artichoke hearts in the usual fashion: I ate my body weight in artichoke spinach dip at chain restaurants in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s. I’m not sure if artichoke spinach dip is technically considered a retro food, but to me, it’s as retro as low rise jeans and dial up internet.
Retro or not, I would happily demolish it if you put it in front of me, but at 42, I’m probably too old to eat chips and dip for dinner. Eating artichokes in pasta for dinner, however, is perfectly respectable. Consider this a fresher, more grown up take on artichoke hearts and spinach. The artichokes really are the star here as they melt perfectly into the orzo, and the feta crumbles add just the right amount of creaminess.
It’s delicious and my terrible photos don’t do it justice. I’m currently studying food photography tutorials, so my photos will no longer look like they came out of a cookbook from the eighties, but clearly I’m not there yet. Amazon just delivered a ring light and tripod, so that’s one step closer to better pictures.
8 oz shrimp, peeled and deveined
2 tablespoons butter, divided
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 cup orzo
2 cloves garlic minced
⅓ cup white wine
2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
8 oz artichoke hearts, diced
5 oz baby spinach
Zest and juice of ½ a lemon
1 tablespoon dill
3 tablespoons parsley
Salt and pepper to taste
Heat 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet. When melted, add shrimp and salt. Cook for 3 to 4 minutes.
Transfer shrimp to a plate and clean out the skillet with a paper towel.
Heat remaining tablespoon of butter and olive oil in skillet. Add orzo and garlic and saute until just lightly browned.
Add wine to orzo. Once it is absorbed, add the broth, salt, and the artichokes, stirring occasionally.
When the broth is nearly absorbed, add in the spinach one handful at a time, adding the next handful when the previous one is wilted.
Add shrimp, lemon juice and zest, dill, parsley, and black pepper.
Taste to see if it requires more salt, lemon, or broth. Adjust, if needed.
Serve with feta crumbles.
Vegetarian variation: In place of the shrimp, use roasted chickpeas. Preheat oven to 400. Toss a drained can of chickpeas with olive oil, salt, pepper, and garlic powder. Place in a single layer on a baking sheet. Roast for 20 minutes. While the chickpeas are roasting, start making your orzo, beginning with step 3.
Winepairing: Sauvignon Blanc. I suspect that Assyrtiko (a Greek white that pairs well with seafood and feta) would also be a great match for this, but given that I that I didn’t have a bottle on hand to test, I can only confidently say it goes well with a Sauvignon Blanc. Mine was a Pouilly-Fumé.