Some Summer Steamer Clams for Supper

I’m not opposed to using frozen ingredients to make my life easier! Hey, I get the whole “Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee” concept. So when I saw frozen steamer clams at Trader Joe’s, I thought this could be good or really, really bad. Verdict was good! However, I thought, this was one of those cooking challenges that required the right technique for it to turn out just right. Clams are tricky. The shells can be sandy and gritty, making for a very unpleasant eating experience if the shells are used inside the actual dish. Also, the little critters can get overdone and too chewy and make you just want to spit out the whole mouthful.

So what I noticed was there were two ways listed on the package to actually heat the clams all the way through–in the microwave or using a pan. My plan was that I wanted to toss them in olive oil with a plentiful amount of basil from the monstrosity of a house plant that I’ve so carefully nurtured this summer and some cut-up tomatoes and garlic and serve it all over spaghetti. Simple. Classic. And most importantly, scrumptious! So I knew heating them in the pan before or during the sauteing process could be volatile. They could either not heat through evenly or they could get overcooked and be aesthetically terrible. So I decided on concentrating my fresh flavors of olive oil, basil and tomato in the pan, and to heat the steamer clams in the microwave–using the “steaming” method they listed on the package. Then I would toss them with the mixture in the pan at the last minute and mix the whole thing with the pasta. My only concern was: would there be enough liquid or broth to coat the pasta since I didn’t have any chicken broth? Well, I thought, I could always add some pasta water.

Basil plants kept indoors can be an endless source of inspiration for aromatic dishes. 

Here’s the ingredients I use for this dish:

-1 box of steamer clams from Trader Joe’s
-Three large roma tomatoes, seeded and cubed
-A huge hand full of basil leaves rolled up together lengthwise and cut into thin strips
-Three large cloves of garlic, smashed and minced
-2 tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil
-3/4 pound of pasta

I start by boiling the water for the pasta and cooking until al dente. After sauteing the fresh ingredients together in the olive oil until just soft, I add my drained spaghetti to the mixture and toss. Then lastly, I add the microwave-steamed clams and toss everything together. Luckily, there is some clam broth left from the steaming process, giving me enough liquid to coat the pasta along with the olive oil. You can also add more olive oil at the end. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Wow, talk about the perfect combo for summertime. Light, fresh, perfectly-cooked little clams and a classic combo of tomatoes and basil to top the pasta. My recommendation for wine is a crisp pinot grigio. Manga!

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The Great Chili Cook Off: A Quest to Feed Some Hungry College Kids When They’re In Town

I don’t want to mention my age, but I have a much-younger cousin who is 22, is finishing up college, has only been to California twice now–and wow, can he and his friends eat! To me, that’s a good thing but if he and his friends were going to stay the weekend at our house as a stop-over on a road trip from Iowa, I had to switch my thinking to what I can make for a crowd since my family would be eating too.

I knew I could drum up something for at least one of the nights that would feed these hungry college kids without us all having to spend a small fortune on going out to eat or ordering take out. So I asked the big question: Do you like Chili? The answer was a resounding “yes!” Good!

I knew what I needed to do. Get some hamburger, canned stewed tomatoes, tomato sauce, onion and garlic and make sure I had enough good chili powder and a bay leaf (it really does make a big difference). That’s it! Chili, I think, is all about the technique you use to make it. And to go with it, I thought a good brand of corn bread mix would be great to make into individual muffins.

Here’s what I do and have been doing since my mom passed on the recipe to me when I was a teenager.

Gather the ingredients (You can also divide the recipe in half for a smaller portion):

-2 pounds of 15% hamburger
-Three regular cans of stewed tomatoes
-1 large can of good tomato sauce (the cheaper brands can taste tinny or more sour)
-1 yellow onion, finely chopped
-1 can of red kidney beans or pinto beans rinsed and drained (optional)
-6 cloves of garlic finely chopped
-2 bay leaves
-3-4 tablespoons of chili powder or more to taste
-Seasoned salt and pepper

Start by heating a large stockpot on high and adding the hamburger to the hot pan. Stir to break up the meat but try not to break it up too fine. Drain off any water that accumulates in the pan by placing a lid ajar over the pot and catching any meat that might fall into the sink. Draining the liquid helps the meat to brown and obtain some flavor. Next, salt the meat with the seasoned salt and pepper to your taste. Salting the meat helps the water to evaporate and the meat to brown further.

Zachary helps mom stir up the corn bread mix.

When the meat is brown, add your chopped onion and garlic and stir on medium-high heat until the onion and garlic are soft. At that point turn down the heat and add the chili powder. You don’t want to burn the chili powder because it will taste bitter. Add more if needed. Adding the spice at this point helps to impart flavor into the meat before you start to simmer the chili. Add the bay leaf now too, for the same reason.

Then add the stewed tomatoes and stir until they are hot and coated with the seasoning. Next, add the tomato sauce and about 2 cups of water. You will need this extra water since liquid will evaporate from the chili as you simmer it. Add more if you think it looks too thick compared to the time you will be cooking it. (The longer you cook it the more intense the flavor.)

Sophie gets in on the “mix” and can’t help herself to help!

Cook on low for about an hour, stirring occasionally. I usually place a lid on top but leave if off slightly. After about an hour you should be able to feed about six people! As for the corn muffins, just mix and bake the last 15 minutes before the chili is done. I usually serve my chili with condiments such as shredded cheddar cheese, sour cream, chopped tomatoes and chopped onions or scallions. We had some happy college students. My cousin even went back for fourth’s. Lucky my husband gave up his second bowl! That’s ok, cousin. It’s your second time to California and you deserve it!