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Hef & Me, Peas in a Pod…

Hugh Hefner and I have a lot in common these days. Granted, he has a few years and a few billion bucks on me, and he is a much pickier eater; but I know what he went through with losing his 3 main girls, seemingly all at once. It is a mixed bag full of emotions and change, both positive and negative.

We lost Renee’s talents (though we hold out hope that she will some day come back to us) when her beautiful baby girl was born prematurely in November, (the baby and family are doing great!) and Lori left the team to follow her heart in December. (Lori is happy and looking forward to starting her family!) Ivy is now moving on to greener pastures, as well. She has an opportunity to have a job with really good pay, fabulous benefits, and travel to boot, so of course we support her in her decision.

It is difficult at times to have a family-like work environment, because along with family comes a bit of dysfunction. It is inevitable: even the best families have their moments of tension! If the best of times includes celebrating each family member’s successes, they are also the hardest times because they leave our nest and spread their wings elsewhere in the world. We can be happy for them, and proud of them, and as supportive as possible, and yet their absence leaves a big hole that can never be filled in the same way it was by them. This is good, as each of these women is unique, and irreplaceable in and of themselves. It is also sad to see them go and of course means the work loads change and increase with each loss.

And just like Hef’s new harem our team is now fairly new, with Leslie being the senior member at just over a year. Rheycel has been with us nearly 5 months, and Erin just 3 weeks. This is an exciting opportunity to see what new directions we want to go with this new team and to find new strengths and creative juices within them! Sharon and Betuel have many more years under their belts, and they will be with us for as long as they can. We keep watching the possibilities arise and keep going with the flow.

It is an anxious time for me because we will need to hire someone again and we will need to shift someone (eventually two someones) into the kitchen to learn the baking. Will they like it? Will they have an aptitude? Until we find out it means that Mark is back to baking 6 days a week, just when we were getting used to him shifting his duties around and helping me more with the catering and special orders. This makes it a slightly frustrating time because it feels like we have to start over in so many ways. And yet, we always have everything we need, thanks to the love and support of our friends and family, which includes our staff and customers. See what I mean about a mixed bag? Ah well, at least Hef and I still have the work we love, and that is a great thing.

I keep hearing the phrase “In These Tough Economic Times” and I am sick of it, are you? I mean really, the fear mongering and drama labeling that the news people take such glee in gets old in a good economy (You know what I mean: the deep, faceless voice booming on your television over horrific scenes of wind and rain “Winter Storm 2009!!!”). The statistics are not backing up the drama that the economy is being presented with, so lets lighten up! It is not The End of the World so let’s get through it together.

That is not to make light of the fact that many of us are struggling harder to survive than we were, and nor is it to deny the fact that most of us are needing to tighten our belts and get thrifty. Do you know what it means to do this? I am finding that many of our younger folks do not really know what it is to stretch a dollar, and one of the easiest places to do this is in the grocery store and kitchen. I am going to start giving some cooking tips for easy meals that will stretch your food dollar, and I invite you all to share your tips with the rest of us as well!

When the farmer’s markets and CSA’s start, I will use those fresh, local ingredients as the center of our recipes. I am going to focus on ideas like slow cooking, cooking once for multiple meals, and freezing meals for eating later. I may tell you what kind of ingredients that I use; yet this is an idea and not the way you have to do it. For instance, if I do not have homemade chicken broth in the freezer, I use organic Swanson’s, as I feel it has the best flavor for ‘canned’. You can use any kind you like, or just plain water if you want to. The point is to take the recipe and make it your own, so play with things and if you don’t have an herb or spice that I mention, use another or leave it out. As my friend Melanie says, “It’s a love thang”, this cooking, so use what you love to feed those you love.

This week I am going to offer a remake of an old favorite: the chicken and noodle casserole. This dish has evolved from everything being home made, to using canned cream of mushroom soup (I have to say I think that is icky) and I am bringing it back to homemade for you. It isn’t hard, though there are a few steps to follow. See if you like it, or give me your own recipe to follow and I will see what comes up!

BAKED PENNE WITH CHICKEN, BROCCOLI AND MUSHROOMS

Topping: 4 slices of white sandwich bread, torn into quarters, and 2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly. Process them together in a food processor until coarsely ground.
OR
use store-bought crumbs, or pre-made bread crumbs from crushed croutons or crackers. You can crush the croutons or crackers by putting them in a bag and crunching them with something heavy like a soup can, a rolling pin, or wine bottle.

Filling:
Salt
1 bunch broccoli-approximately 1 1/2 lbs fresh, or 24 oz frozen-trimmed to about 1 inch pieces
3/4 lb penne pasta (any short tube or spiral pasta will work)
1 TBS olive oil (or vegetable oil)
2 TBS unsalted butter
1 1/4 lbs button or brown crimini mushrooms, wiped clean, stems trimmed, and sliced thin (you can use an egg slicer for the slicing, it goes quick!)
1 medium onion, minced
8 garlic cloves, minced (smash each clove to get the skin off, then finely chop it)
1 TBS fresh thyme (or 1 tsp dried)
1/4 C all purpose flour
1 C white wine (or water)
2+ C chicken broth (low sodium if you have it)
1 C heavy cream
1 1/2 lb boneless, skinless chicken (I use breast)cut into one inch pieces
2 oz asiago cheese (or parmesan), shredded (about 1 cup)
1/4 tsp pepper (fresh ground if you can)

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees, with the rack in the middle.

If the broccoli is fresh, steam it for about 2 minutes. If it is frozen, steam it for 4 minutes or so. (You can boil it and blanch it if you would rather; the microwave is great for steaming) then take it out and lay it on a baking sheet to cool. Meanwhile bring 4 quarts of water to boil, salt it generously, and add the pasta. Cook it 2 minutes less than what the directions say to, then drain it completely into a colander. Toss it with 1 TBS of the oil so it doesn’t stick together and leave it there.

Wipe the pot dry, put it over medium heat and throw in the butter to melt. (You could use olive oil instead). Add the mushrooms and 3/4 tsp of the salt, and if you are using dried thyme put it in now; cook around 10 minutes: they will have released their juices and be a bit brown around the edges. If you only have salted butter, leave out the salt.

Add the onion and cook until soft and beginning to brown, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and fresh thyme, if using. Stir it around for about 30 seconds; Add the flour and stir constantly until it is golden brown, about 1 minute. Whisk in the wine and cook until the liquid is nearly evaporated, about a minute. Slowly whisk in the broth and cream, and then bring to a simmer, whisking it often. Don’t let it come all the way to a boil or it will separate, and don’t let it stick to the bottom and char on the pan.

Add the chicken and cook until no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Take it off the heat and add the cheese and the pepper. Taste to see if you want to add salt: the broth was probably salted, the butter may have been, and the pasta is, so you may not need any more, but you never know.

Stir in the pasta and broccoli, then put into a shallow casserole dish (9×13 or so), then sprinkle the top with the breadcrumbs. Bake until bubbling and browned, about 15 minutes. Serve immediately.

OR IF YOU HAVE A SLOW COOKER

Omit the bread topping. Pre cook the pasta 1/2 way, according to box instructions, no need to toss with the oil. Mix all the ingredients in there together except the cheese, and cook it on high for 4+ hours, or low for 6+ hours. Check it at the low end of the time to see how the chicken is doing. When it is done, top with the cheese.

So what do you think??