Homemade Hot Fudge Sauce, Social Lubricant Par Excellance

The ice cream is really just for show.

It’s somewhat ironic that I love to cook and entertain the way I do, because my mother has a string of embarrassing-yet-humorous stories centered around food and dining. There was the time that she was chatting with Lee Iacocca at a cocktail party and helped herself to a coconut shrimp on a toothpick from a passing waiter; en route to her mouth, the shrimp fell off the toothpick onto the floor (the upshot of this story is that Iacocca, without missing a beat or calling attention to it, kicked the slipped shrimp under a nearby table). Another time, she and my father hosted a fondue party in which the cheese fondue separated into a layer of stringy swiss covered by four inches of white wine, making for a less than stellar presentation–“although it tasted fine,” Mom is quick to add whenever she tells the story. And once, while they were having dinner with my father’s boss and his wife at a rather exclusive restaurant, my dad mortified my mom by pulling a Bounce dryer sheet out of the sleeve of his dress shirt.

My mom did have one foolproof culinary trick up her–uh, well, in her repertoire, however. Hot fudge sundaes. Whether they were hosting friends for dinner, or had been invited to another couple’s home, or were attending a potluck, my mom could always count on wowing the crowd when she brought a gallon of French vanilla ice cream, a container of Spanish peanuts, and this all-American hot fudge sauce. It’s easy, impressive, unbelievably delicious and guaranteed to absolve you of any food-related faux pas.

<insert PMS joke here>

Homemade Hot Fudge Sauce

Combine 1 cup sugar and 4 tablespoons cocoa powder in a medium saucepan over low heat. Stir until mixture is warm, but not melted.

Add 3 tablespoons butter and stir until combined. Add 7/8 cup* evaporated milk (not sweetened condensed, unless you want the diabeetus) and stir until blended. Stirring constantly and scraping bottom of pan with a heatproof spatula, bring sauce to a boil; boil hard for one minute.

Remove from heat. Serve immediately or chill–sauce will be thin at first (“although it tastes fine”) and will thicken as it stands, and especially if it is chilled.

*Yes, I know 7/8 cup is a bizarre measurement, and chances are good that if you use an entire cup, the sauce will turn out just fine. But this is the way my mother handed down the recipe to me, and how her mother handed it down to her, so I’m sticking with 7/8 for the sake of matrilineal tradition.

Unique, Delicious and A Supreme Pain in the Ass

The summer roll assembly line -- I was the Henry Ford of wrapped cylindrical foods

No, smarty pants, this isn’t an autobiographical post. The title refers to summer rolls, which I decided to make as a potluck offering for a Fourth of July party. You know, because nothing says “I’m proud to be an American” like pan-Asian food.

(To be perfectly honest, I don’t know whether I mean that last sentence sarcastically, or not.)

More to the point, summer rolls are unique, beautiful and delicious. And unlike so very many delicious foods, they are pretty much fat-free, low-calorie and generally not-too-terrible for you.

They’re also a pain in the ass to make.

Look at those shrimps, all nestled up snug.

That’s why I did as much of the prep work (cooking the chicken, chopping the vegetables and herbs) in advance, and timed it so that I could sit and listen to “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” on the radio. By the time the hour was up, I had two 9×13 covered pans full of summer rolls, all lined up in rows—much like the orphans in Madeline, only tastier. And covered with damp paper towels.

I made two varieties, because I’m an overachiever like that. The chicken rolls had mango, cellophane noodles, carrot, cilantro and chives; the shrimp rolls had cellophane noodles, carrot, cucumber, chives, lettuce and mint. Chicken cozies up to mango and cilantro.

We won’t talk about the dipping sauces that I made and forgot to take to the party, except to say that they would’ve been delicious. Hrmph.

My summer rolls and sauces were adapted from a recipe in the July/August 2010 issue of Everyday Food, but here’s another recipe from Epicurious that looks pretty good, to get you started. Half of the fun of summer rolls is making up your own combinations of fillings, improvising, using up leftovers, and imagining what will look pretty under the transparent rice-paper wrappers. After all (cue patriotic music), isn’t that the foundation on which this fine nation of ours is built? Freedom of choice, freedom of expression, and freedom to eat whatever the hell we please, on any day of the year?

Happy birthday, America.

In Which She Chooses Sides in the Great Cilantro Debate

Mmm. Look at all that cilantro.

Homemade salsa (or pico de gallo, for you stickers and purists out there) is my default potluck offering. Especially in summer, when we are overrun with amazing heirloom tomatoes from our garden and our CSA both, we always have a pint (or quart) Mason jar of this in our fridge. And if you come to visit me then, chances are I’ll send you home with a container of it.

Even in the winter, homemade salsa (humor me, OK? It’s six characters shorter than “pico de gallo” and you know what they say about brevity) that uses canned diced tomatoes is still pretty darn good. The key to salsa, though, is fresh cilantro. After all, cilantro is what makes salsa “salsa,” and not just “chopped up tomatoes and onions.”

Are you still with me? Or are you one of them–the people who hate cilantro, who thinks it tastes like dish soap or laundry soap? It’s a love-it-or-hate-it herb, that’s for sure. I mean, you never hear anyone say, “Jeez, I can’t stand basil. Ew.” Obviously, I belong to the lovers. Since I cook a lot of Tex-Mex, curries and Asian-y food, we nearly always have cilantro on hand. I’ve made peanut-cilantro pesto. I’ve even used it in bloody Marys with tomatillos. In short, I pink-puffy-heart cilantro.

Salsa yields a lot of bang for very little buck. It’s so easy–if you can chop things, you can make salsa–but it impresses the hell out of people. “Did you make this?” they’ll say, and you can nod smugly.

I’m giving you approximations, because that’s how I cook. Start with small amounts of the potent stuff (hotness, onions, cilantro) and increase as needed. Remember that it will meld and evolve in the fridge, so try to make it at least a few hours in advance, then taste and adjust before serving.

Homemade Salsa/Pico De Gallo

4-5 big heirloom tomatoes, chopped or run through the food processor, or one 28-oz can diced tomatoes

one medium onion’s worth of mixed allium–onion, red onion, green onion, garlic, shallot–minced

pickled jalepenos or chipotles in adobo, minced, to taste

handful cilantro, chopped

juice of one lime or one-half lemon

Salt and freshly ground pepper

The thing with salsa is that once you make it fresh, you’ll never be able go back to that wretched jarred stuff. Chi-Chi’s, my ass.

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