We love to celebrate graduations! Marking the milestones which represent real achievement is a time-honored tradition around here. One of my favorite meals for graduation parties is pulled pork: It’s rather inexpensive, you can prepare it far in advance, it holds up well on the buffet table all afternoon, and almost everybody likes it. Further, if you misjudge and make too much for the event, it stores and re-heats well, and nobody will complain. You can make this the day of your event, but I recommend preparing it beforehand.
Several pork butts
A jug of Sweet Baby Ray’s Barbecue sauce
Place the pork butts into large baking pans and add a little water. Cover the pans with aluminum foil, and bake at 250° for 4-6 hours. (The meat should fall apart with a fork when it’s ready.)
Let the meat cool off for a few hours, then start tearing it apart. You can use a large fork, but I think it’s more fun to tear it apart with my hands. Once you’re down to shredded pork, pour on the Sweet Baby Ray’s. Mmmmmmm. Fill up zip-lock bags, and store the meat in the freezer or refrigerator.
As your party guests file through, microwave one bag of pulled pork at at time, and place the pork in a large serving bowl next to a big basket of rolls. I like to offer some varieties of barbecue sauces for guests to augment their sandwiches. And if you’ve never tried a pulled pork sandwich with some coleslaw on top, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Strong, Happy Graduation!
Some years ago, the city of Chicago adopted me.
I grew up in a place where I could see the World Trade Centers from my attic, where Puerto Rican cabbies spoke Yiddish, and where everyone thought Philadelphia was in the Midwest.
But when I moved to Chicago the day after my honeymoon, Sandburg’s “stormy, husky, brawling” city welcomed me with broad shoulders and open arms, and I fell in love with my adoptive city. Put celery salt on my Vienna Beef, make my pizza like a cheese casserole, and omit the objects of my prepositions: I’m a Chicagoan now!
Chicago has breathtaking architecture, a fabulous lakefront, ward politics that are more engaging than crime novels, and boisterous ethnic neighborhoods. Some of the Gaelic enclaves on the Southside of Chicago remind me of my mother’s Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. They feature pubs haunted by the ghost of James Joyce, cut-throat Irish dance schools, perfect strangers who would give you the shirt off their backs, terrifyingly fierce rugby teams, charming old ladies with lilting brogues who make a mean pot of tea, and a blow-out St. Patrick’s Day parade. But what they don’t have—what the entire city of Chicago is sorely missing— is GOOD IRISH SODA BREAD.
Around St. Patrick’s Day, Irish Chicagoans dutifully eat the dry crumbs of sawdust they call soda bread, as if doing penance for their excesses on the holiday that ironically falls right in the middle of Lent. If you ask them, they’ll tell you they don’t really like the taste of the bread; they just feel compelled out of ethnic pride to swallow a slice of the particleboard. “It’s tradition,” they’ll mumble, and then say something about it being better than a potato blight.
Out of fondness for my adoptive city, I must share with it the lovely secret of my birth city: Irish soda bread is delicious. It’s not penance for cheating on Lent; it is cheating on Lent!
I will now divulge the secret recipe, perfected by that wild Irish rose, my mother from Brooklyn. My sister Debby will be upset that I’ve shared this secret. But Debby, is it right that an entire city should suffer? (Next time we’re together, Deb, I’ll buy a couple of Guinnesses to go with our soda bread, and we’ll forget our differences—Dublin style.)
For 1 loaf: For 3 loaves:
(You’ll want three loaves.)
3 cups flour 9 cups flour
½ cup sugar 1 ½ cups sugar
½ teaspoon salt ½ tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons caraway seeds 2 tablespoons caraway seeds
½ cup raisins 1 ½ cups raisins
1 ½ teaspoons baking soda 1 ½ tablespoons baking soda
1 ½ cups buttermilk 1 quart buttermilk
Mix all the dry ingredients. Shake up, then add the buttermilk. Shape the dough into round loaves; they should be pretty sticky. Bake at 350° on a cookie sheet coated with cooking spray for about 45 minutes (until a knife inserted into the center comes out dry). Drizzle the top with honey if you like. Prep time: 10 minutes. Eating time: about the same!
Now, Chicago, on March 17, go for a walk along our gorgeous emerald green river with a hunk of this soda bread in your pocket— and a smile on your face!
I often make this recipe as a gift. For my son's wedding rehearsal dinner, I made a big batch of this granola, divided into sweet little mason jars, and gave them as party favors. Everyone had a good breakfast the day of the wedding! This is a great go-to breakfast if you have gluten-free guests.
1 drum (42 oz.) of whole oats
1 bag (14 oz.) of coconut
1 bag (8 oz.) of slivered almonds
2 cups of honey
2 cups (or maybe a little less) of canola oil
dried fruit or raisins (optional)
Mix dry ingredients. In a separate bowl mix wet ingredients. Combine thoroughly. Bake for 30-45 minutes at 350°, tossing every 10 minutes of so, even for 30 minutes after it's out of the oven. Add dried fruit if desired. Serve with milk or yogurt and fruit. It will keep for a long time in a covered container.
I once read a magazine article entitled, “How Not to Look Old.” It had lots of good advice like whiten your teeth, don’t wear a watch, and get a Brazilian. But one of the items on the list made me laugh: Don’t tell anyone you know how to make a roast. It seems knowing the dark magic of roast preparation somehow places you in the Dark Ages.
I now invite you to share in a secret of my sorcery: roast and fowl preparation is really, really easy. You can, literally, stick the hunk of meat in the oven for a few hours and you’ll please a crowd. If you add a few flourishes, all will bend the knee to her highness, the Kitchen Diva.
Perhaps the reason that roast preparation has been suppressed in our collective consciousness is that roasts can take several hours to cook. They don’t take several hours to prepare–we’re really talking minutes there. But you do have to think ahead. So availing yourself of the low cost, great taste, and immense popularity of fowl and roasts is just a matter of planning.
Here are some game plans:
Pork Loin Roast
This is probably the least expensive roast to purchase, and the easiest to prepare. You can buy pork loin with or without a bone in it; the bone-in roasts are juicer. Just smother the loin with seasoning: salt, pepper and cumin are a delicious combination, or any seasoned salt works well. Throw the roast in a pan and place it in an oven preheated to 350°– no cover, no rack, no water. Roast for 20 minutes per pound of meat. Let the roast rest for a couple of minutes before you cut it against the grain.
If you’re in the mood for beef, this is the most satisfying (and cheapest!) way to go. Cover the bottom and sides of a large crock pot with spray oil, then plop in your pot roast (you can even use a frozen one if you start early in the morning), and a cup of water mixed with an envelope of marinade mix. (My favorite is McCormick’s Brown Sugar and Bourbon.) Turn the crock pot to high, then return 4-5 hours later. The meat will fall off the bone, and you will eat too much of it.
Sooner or later, the lot falls on you, and you must make the Thanksgiving turkey. Many otherwise confident women panic at the thought of preparing “the bird,” as they conjure childhood memories of sawdust-dry turkey meat. Cooking a moist turkey is not that hard. Let’s just not let anyone in on our voodoo:
1 large turkey
2 sticks of room temperature butter
3 apples, cored and quartered
3 onions, peeled and quartered
sage leaves (optional)
salt and pepper to taste
1. Thaw your turkey out. Conscientious women thaw their turkeys for three days in the refrigerator. My mom always put hers out on the counter to thaw for 24 hours, and no one ever got sick— but you better stick with what it says on the label. Don’t forget there are probably two packets of parts tucked into the cavity of the bird. Make sure you take those out.
2. With your hands, separate the turkey’s skin from its breast meat. (Let your kids watch; it looks kind of creepy.) Spread both sticks of soft butter under the skin. This will keep the outermost meat moist, while the meat nearer the bone takes its time to cook. My son Harrison asked if we could also put bacon under the skin this year (guys think bacon belongs everywhere). I might just try it.
3. Stuff the apples, onions and sage inside the bird’s cavity.
4. Place the bird in a large baking pan, and cover it with aluminum foil.
5. Cook at 350° for twenty minutes per pound. Remove the aluminum for the last 30 minutes of cooking.
6. Place the bird on a channeled cutting board or rimmed cookie sheet, and let it stand for twenty minutes before carving. (Don’t worry about carving it the “right” way. Nobody really cares.)
7. Keep all the buttery, fruity, oniony drippings to make the best gravy ever.
The Best Gravy Ever
When I first got married, my husband’s grandmother and national treasure, Esther, offered to share with me her family’s recipe for gravy:
“First pour about 4 ounces of white wine,” she instructed.
“Does this go in with the turkey drippings?” I asked.
“No. Drink it. You’ll need to fortify yourself for gravy-making.”
While Grammy’s gravy was delicious, mine doesn’t require any fortification. It’s simple and very good. (If you do pour a glass of wine, toast Grammy!
1/2 cup flour
2 cups milk
all the drippings from the turkey
1. Leaving the drippings in the baking pan, place the pan across two stove burners and turn the heat on low.
2. Mix the milk and flour together in a measuring cup and whisk with a fork.
3. Slowly add the flour and water mixture to the drippings and stir constantly.
4. If the gravy seems too thick, add more milk. If it seems too thin, make some more flour-milk mixture and add it. Salt and pepper to taste.
Your turkey will be moist enough that you won’t need gravy, but you’ll be glad you made it.
Can you say “Comfort Food?" Nothing warms the soul like a gooey bowl of homemade mac and cheese. Forget the hunter’s blaze-orange powdered cheese mix. This recipe takes a tad longer to prepare, but you will be well rewarded, my friend. This dish goes really well with the Graduation Party Pulled Pork. In fact, those two dishes together would complete a party menu. You can prepare the macaroni and cheese in advance, store in zip-locks, and reheat it for your crowd.
2 sticks of butter
1 cup of flour
2 pints of half and half
2 teaspoons of salt
32 ounces of shredded cheddar cheese (that big ol' bag)
3 pounds of elbow macaroni
Make your roux. If you haven’t mastered making roux yet, it’s time. Roux (pronounced “roo”) is the base for thickening any sauce you’ll ever want to make. It’s equal parts fat (here, butter) and flour. In a frying pan, melt your butter until it’s frothy. Then whisk in your flour. Continue stirring the mixture for a few minutes– you’re cooking out the raw taste from the flour.
Now slowly whisk in the half and half. The mixture might seem lumpy at first, but the lumps will work themselves out. Once the mixture begins to warm, add the salt and cheese. Continue stirring stirring until all the cheese is melted.
Let’s get that pasta cooking. To boil 3 pounds of pasta you need a big pot. Fill it 3/4 full of water, and add a healthy pour of salt. (You need a lot of salt in the water to penetrated the little elbows. Don’t worry, most of the salt gets poured out when you drain the water.) Bring the water to a full boil, then add the pasta. Cook for the time designated on the box, stirring every minute or so. (The al dente time should work best.) Then drain the pasta in a huge colander, and rinse it immediately with cold water.
As soon as the pasta stops dripping, put it back in the pot. Then, drench the pasta in your amazing, creamy cheese sauce. Stir and try to hold back the crowd.
Comfort levels are now at an all-time high.
Whenever I have a friend who’s blue, I bake her this cake. Then, wait for it, wait for it… within 24 hours a I receive a text begging me for the recipe. There’s something in the gooey chocolatiness of this cake that serves as a balm for the soul. It’s also incredibly easy to make, so it’s become my go-to cake for any celebration. And, not to brag, but it was voted “Best Cake Ever” by the guys in my son Davis’s college dorm.
Here’s the recipe to make two of them. (Trust me; one won’t be enough.)
2 boxes of chocolate cake mix
2 boxes of chocolate pudding mix
1 cup of oil
2 cups of water
2 cups of vanilla yogurt
2 bags of dark chocolate chips
Mix everything except the chocolate chips in the mixer– low speed at first, then beat the heck out of it at high speed for a few minutes. Then with a spatula, blend in the chocolate chips. Pour the batter into two sprayed Bundt pans and bake for about an hour at 350°. Invert onto plates and begin eating. Or better yet, refrigerate one of the cakes. When the cake is cold the chocolate chips crunch when you bite them!