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Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Frittatas--and being thankful for eggs

Today I had an egg for lunch.

Nothing spectacular, just a way to balance out the mixture of carrots, onions, peppers, and grated potatoes that were a pepped up version of hash browns--with my seasoned cast iron skillet, I can "fry" this mixture with only a teaspoon of oil, so it's healthier than it sounds. Some plain yogurt on the side and lots of spicy seasoning (and, I must admit, the dash of ketchup that I put on hash browns if I don't have fresh salsa handy), and the meal was complete.

But back to the egg.

At this morning's Toastmaster's meeting, one of our members from Ghana shared a favorite part of her childhood birthday celebrations. There would be a special dish made from yams (sorry, I didn't get the Ghanian name) and then an egg would usually be served on top.

An egg. Just a plain egg. But for her, this was special, because this was a luxury. At other times, if there were eggs to be had, several children would have to share one egg, each getting just a little piece to savor. The joy of having an egg all to yourself was such a special birthday treat that it remains a favorite memory years later and half a world apart.

To prepare today's luncheon egg--and it wasn't even my birthday--I just pushed the vegetables to the side when they were quite brown and crispy, dropped the egg in, turned the burner off, and covered the pan. The heat of the cast iron was just right for cooking the egg tenderly and thoroughly in only a few minutes.

The morning discussion was a good reminder of how blessed we are to have so much available to us. It also reminded me that in this country, eggs are really good choices for frugal meals in a hurry. In fact, we need to be sure that we don't overd0--have you noticed how hard it is to get an omelet at any restaurant that is made with less than three eggs?

And omelets when eating out are almost always breakfast or brunch fare. However, all this thinking about eggs reminded me of one of my favorite fast and frugal main dishes--frittatas.

If ever there was a dish that needed a template more than a recipe, this is it. The variations are limited only by what you happen to have in your refrigerator, and this is a really good choice for those small amounts of leftovers you weren't sure you'd ever be able to use.

Basic Frittata--a Template

2 eggs per person
1 to 2 t milk for every 2 eggs
Oil for sauteeing vegetables and cooking eggs
Possible add-ins:
  • chopped onions
  • chopped bell peppers (or a tiny amount of jalapeno, poblano, or spicy banana peppers)
  • minced garlic
  • grated zucchini, small broccoli flowerets, etc.
  • diced fresh tomatoes
  • spinach or other greens, coarsely chopped
  • leftover cooked vegetables--broccoli, cauliflower, peas, carrots, beans, etc.
  • leftover diced ham, chicken, beef cubes
  • hot dog slices
  • black or green sliced olives
  • diced or grated cheese, any variety of your choosing (see NOTE below)
  • herbs of your choice, fresh or dried
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • salsa

1. If you are using onions, peppers, or other fresh vegetables, saute them in a small amount of oil until just tender. Onions should be translucent and just starting to turn golden. If you have leftover ham (or bacon--does anyone ever have leftover bacon?), stir that in with the vegetables to meld the flavors. Use a very large pan, as you will want the frittata to spread out thinly for the most even cooking.

2. While the vegetables are cooking, beat the eggs together with the milk. Stir in any herbs or garlic you will be using. Beat until the eggs are a uniform yellow color.

3. Fold in any other ingredients you will be using into the eggs. Turn the heat to medium low and pour the egg mixture over the sauteed vegetables.

Now you have a choice, the purist method and the get it done quickly approach:

3a. Purists: Allow the eggs to cook for 3 to 5 minutes. Gently lift a corner of the mixture. If it holds together, you can try to flip the entire mixture over, keeping the frittata as intact as possible. Continue cooking until the second side is completely set.


3b Get it done quickly: As the eggs cook, gently push the mixture with a spatula so that all parts are cooked evenly--like you would do when making scrambled eggs. Cook until all the frittata is set and has lost the wet shininess of uncooked eggs.

If using cheese, you can fold cubes of cheese into the eggs and cook along with the other ingredients, resulting in little melted pockets of cheese throughout the mixture. An alternative is to cook the frittata and then sprinkle with grated cheese. Run the pan under the broiler until the cheese is melted.

Serving suggestions:

If you have either corn or flour tortillas, the frittata can become a filling for a burrito. Refried beans and salsa are great accompaniments for this meal.

Just about any kind of bread goes well with a frittata, really the only accompaniment needed if you stir lots of vegetables into the eggs.

So what proportions of eggs and vegetables or other add-ins should be used? There is a tremendous amount of flexibility with a frittata. You can add just a little (perhaps a quarter cup of sauteed onions and peppers for 6 to 8 eggs) and have something very similar to scrambled eggs to serve with a tossed salad. You can also add up to 2 to 3 cups of vegetables and meat to only 6 eggs and have what will be much more like a vegetable main dish. The choice is yours, based on your family's preference--and the contents of your refrigerator!

And finally--in case you wondered:

What is the difference between an omelet and a frittata?

With an omelet, the eggs are cooked separately (as in step 3a above). When they are just set, the other ingredients are laid across the top and the egg layer is folded over the top. Often, this is then put in the oven to complete the cooking of the eggs. Frittatas just take the shortcut of mixing everything together.

Monday, August 16, 2010


Our extended family includes five young cousins all with birthdays in August, so there is usually one massive party for them all. Yesterday's bash carried the theme of "crawling things" that included mostly bugs and snakes, and the day was just right for outdoor games like searching for plastic bugs instead of eggs, etc.

Food of course included "worms" (spaghetti) in sauce and "snakesticks." The breadstick recipe on which they were based is a good introduction to yeast dough for kids, and this variation adds even more fun to the baking lesson. We doubled the recipe for the two dozen people in attendance and were glad we did.

Breadsticks, aka Snakesticks

1 T dry yeast (or 1 packet)
1 1/2 c warm water
1 t salt
1 to 2 T sugar
4 c whole wheat flour OR half and half whole wheat and unbleached enriched flour

1 egg
1 t. water
1 t garlic powder (optional)
1 t salt

(for Snakesticks: sliced or chopped black olives)

Mix all except the flour together and then add the flour gradually to make a firm dough. Knead until smooth and elastic. Let dough stand for about 10 minutes to relax.

Cut the dough into 24 pieces. (To do this most evenly, shape it into a fat log and cut in half; then cut each piece in half again. Divide once more in half so you have 8 pieces. Roll each into a small log and divide evenly in thirds.)

Spray two baking sheets with cooking spray or oil well.

Roll each piece of dough into a long rope and place on the prepared baking sheet. For regular breadsticks, keep the dough in a straight line. For "snakesticks," arrange each stick in a curving line suggesting a snake.

If making snakesticks, press two small pieces of black olive for eyes at one end. Press firmly into the dough.

Beat the egg, water, garlic powder and salt together until well mixed and brush over the sticks.

Bake at 400 degrees about 10 minutes or until golden.


Sprinkle the sticks with crushed herbs, sesame or poppy seeds or Parmesan cheese after applying the egg wash.

Omit the salt and garlic powder in the egg wash and sprinkle the sticks generously with kosher or seasoning salt.

Omit the salt and garlic powder in the egg wash and sprinkle with a mixture of sugar and cinnamon.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Summer Barley Salad

A check of the refrigerator revealed half a cucumber, half a sweet onion, half a bell pepper, and a small amount of barley all needing to be used; missing were lettuce, parsley or any other fresh herbs. My kitchen and my garden were in the midst of summer doldrums on a very hot, very un-air-conditioned day. Still, I was hungry for a salad, so here is what I developed.

Served with a plate of peaches, cherries and blueberries (all on sale that week), it made a great light supper enough for 3; add a little fruit blended yogurt for dessert, and the meal would stretch to serve 4.

Barley Salad for Summer

2 c cooked barley (about 3/4 to 1 cup uncooked)
1 c diced cucumber
1/2 c finely minced sweet onion
1/4 c or more diced bell pepper--use a mixture of colors if available
1 c frozen peas (no need to thaw; just stir in)
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 to 2 t mixed dried herbs (I used basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram, a mix I keep ready)
2 T balsamic vinegar
2 to 3 T sugar, to taste
3 T olive oil
lemon pepper and/or seasoning salt, to taste

Combine all ingredients and chill several hours or overnight to allow flavors to develop. This will keep a couple of days in the refrigerator, so it is a good one to make ahead.

Broccoli flowerets could be substituted or the peas (if fresh, I would blanch them in the microwave for about 1 minute, until barely tender and bright green). If you have garden-fresh tomatoes, they could be served on the side or diced into the salad just before serving. This is also the kind of salad that would look great for stuffing into great big tomato treasures.

Nutritional Note:
Pearl barley, the form most readily available in most stores, is significantly lower in protein and other nutrients than hulled barley, but the latter is harder to find and does take a little longer to cook. If you use pearl barley--as I did--you might want to add in a few cheese cubes, have some milk to drink or be sure to include some yogurt to up the protein and calcium a little more. Still, even pearl barley is a good food to put on the menu occasionally.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

More Summer Birthday Pies

It's been just about a year since I wrote about pies I had made for one of my grandsons. His cousin turned nine yesterday, and she also requested pie for her birthday. This time it was blueberry, a favorite of many in the family, and perfectly timed with an Aldi special of 99 cents per pint.

Peaches were also on special this week, and their sweetness brought back memories of the days when we had two peach trees in our Arizona backyard. Out came another recipe, and soon we had the two pies needed to fill up our family.

You may notice some very real similarities here, and that is no mistake. This basic format works well with all other berries and nectarines too. The apple stretches what is usually for me more expensive fruit along with reducing the sugar a bit, but it could be eliminated.

I often use frozen fruit juice concentrates in my cooking. Right now, oranges are very expensive, but I like the hint of this fruit in peach pies. Just open the can, spoon out the amount used in the recipe, and cover the container tightly before returning to the freezer.

Note the instruction to use a large bowl for the glaze--it is amazing how much these boil up and over, so be sure to allow enough room in your bowl to avoid messy clean ups.

Pie Crusts:
I had enough pie crust in the freezer for one pie shell but I didn't get around to starting another batch soon enough for the old standard recipe to chill. In one of those great Google moments, my random "pat in the pan pie crust" search turned up dozens of recipes with exactly that title. So the peach pie got the experimental crust and the blueberry pie had the time-tested shell--and the votes were about even for which was preferred. The old standby is flakier, while the non-rolled version is more crumbly, but that seemed to appeal to some in the group. I probably won't abandon the old recipe (from a 1960s Farm Journal cookbook) but it is nice to know the other makes a very presentable presentation when time is short. I included that recipe back on August 20, 2009, so you can scroll down to the earlier entry for full details. Here is my adaptation of the newer recipe:

Pat in the Pan Pie Crust

1 3/4 c flour
2 t sugar
1/2 t salt
1/3 c vegetable oil
3 T milk

Stir the dry ingredients together in a 9 inch pie pan. Mix the oil and milk together and pour over the dry mixture. Using a fork and then your fingers, combine the ingredients until well mixed. As you mix, begin to pat the dough into shape, pressing up the sides of the pan and then fluting the edges. Prick the shell in several places with a fork. If used for a pie shell, bake at 425 degrees 12 to 15 minutes.

Peach Pie Deluxe

1 or 2 very finely chopped peaches (about 1 to 1 1/2 cups)
1/2 c finely chopped apple
1/2 c water
3/4 c sugar
2 T cornstarch
2 T orange juice concentrate
1 t almond extract

3 to 4 thinly sliced OR chopped peaches

9 inch baked pie shell

1. Combine peaches, apple, and water in a large glass bowl and cook in the microwave until peaches are very soft, about 3 to 4 minutes depending on ripeness of peaches. Using a fork, mash the mixture to smoothness. (You may also put in your processor or blender if a very smooth glaze is desired.)
2. Combine the cornstarch and sugar and stir into the cooked peaches. Return to microwave and cook at medium low power until the mixture is thick and clear, one to three minutes.
3. Stir in the orange juice concentrate and almond extract and set aside to cool slightly.
4. Spread the peaches over the baked crust and cover with the glaze. Chill for at least an hour.

Classic Blueberry Pie

1 c blueberries, fresh or frozen
1/2 c finely chopped apple
1 c water
3/4 c sugar
3 T cornstarch
1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
2 T lemon juice

2 to 3 c blueberries, fresh or frozen
9 inch baked pie shell

1. Prepare the glaze by combining the cup of blueberries, apple, and water in a large glass bowl. Microwave for about 3 to 4 minutes until the fruit is very soft. Mash with a fork or process in a blender to smooth out the mixture.
2. Combine the sugar and cornstarch, making sure it is well mixed before adding to the blueberry apple mixture. Return to the microwave and heat on medium low three to four minutes until the mixture is thick and glossy. Stir in the lemon juice, cinnamon and nutmeg and allow to cool slightly.
3. Spread the remaining berries evenly over the pie shell.
4. Pour the glaze over the berries and use a fork to lightly stir the glaze into the berries. Chill.

Monday, August 9, 2010

Chilled Soup--Just Right on a Steamy Day

With tomatoes, cucumbers, and peppers at their prime either in your backyard garden or at the local Farmers' Market, now is a great time to make up a batch of gazpacho for a cool lunch or light dinner.

Note that I didn't capitalize "gazpacho." According to some of the feedback at
this term has been stretched far beyond what the original ethnic recipe includes...and I will admit that what I have learned to call gazpacho is pretty far from some of these comments. So let's just call my version Chilled Garden Soup. Whatever the label, enjoy!

The recipe here will make enough for two to three generous servings, but it can easily be doubled for guests or kept in the refrigerator for a couple of days of quick and cool lunches.

As usual, this recipe should be a guide more than a rigid instruction manual. Your preference may be for different proportions of the various vegetables or you may want to go with the "traditional" gazpacho mix that includes no onion or garlic at all. Start with these proportions, taste, and then adjust as desired.

Chilled Garden Soup

2 to 3 cups tomatoes, cut in large chunks or thick slices (don't bother to peel!)
1 cup cucumber, cut in chunks
1/4 c chopped onion
1/4 c green or red bell pepper
1 clove garlic
1 T balsamic vinegar
1 t dried Italian seasoning
salt and black pepper to taste
fresh basil, if you have it

Combine all vegetables in a blender and process until slightly chunky. Add seasonings and taste, adjusting as necessary. Though you can eat this immediately (and the aroma will make it hard to resist), it is better after chilling for an hour or two.

Crusty bread is a great accompaniment and perhaps a few cheese cubes or some cottage cheese or boiled eggs to add protein to make it a nutritionally complete meal--without ever touching the stove or oven!