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Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Pork Medallions in a "Special Sauce"

Way back when every housewife's Betty Crocker and Better Homes and Gardens Cookbooks had no listings for anything as "exotic" as cumin or basil, this recipe became one I could always expect to be complimented for, with the follow up question of "but what is that special flavor?"

Now, our tastes have all been much better developed, but this simple recipe still garners compliments. I am presenting it first in the form I used for many years and then with my modification of more recent years.

"Special" Pork Chops

"Traditional" version

canola oil
4 to 6 thin pork chops or pork steaks--about 2 pounds
juice of 1 orange OR 2 T frozen orange juice concentrate, undiluted
1 to 2 t grated orange rind (optional)
1 can cream of mushroom soup
1 t cinnamon
freshly ground pepper

1. Remove all excess fat from the chops. If boneless, cut into medallion sized pieces, about 3 inches around.
2. Brown the chops in a small amount of oil. When well-browned on both sides, spread with the mushroom soup and then sprinkle the remaining ingredients over the top.
3. Reduce heat to low, cover tightly, and simmer about 20 to 30 minutes, until the juices have turned rich brown and the meat is just tender.

Serve over mashed potatoes or rice. Enough for 4 to 6.

Updated version

canola oil
4 to 6 boneless, thin-sliced pork chops (I buy boneless pork loin and then slice it myself)--about 2 pounds
juice of 1 orange OR 2 T frozen orange juice concentrate, undiluted
1 to 2 t grated orange rind (optional)
1 t cinnamon
sauce (see below)

2 to 3 T finely chopped onion
3 T flour
1 to 2 chicken bouillon cubes, crushed
1/3 c dry milk powder (optional)
1 to 1 1/2 c water
4 oz can sliced mushrooms or mushroom pieces--do NOT drain
freshly ground pepper
salt to taste

1. Saute the chops as in the recipe above. When browned, remove them to a platter.
2. Add the chopped onions to the drippings from the chops and saute until light golden.
3. Combine the flour, dry milk powder and crushed bouillon cubes, stirring to blend well. Add the flour mixture to the onions, and stir until completely mixed with the drippings.
4. Gradually add the water and mushrooms, including liquid, stirring constantly. Continue cooking until the mixture boils and is thickened. Season to taste.
5. Add the orange juice, orange rind, and cinnamon to the sauce.
6. Return the chops to the pan, and turn them over so that they are completely coated with the sauce. Cover tightly and simmer on low about 20 to 30 minutes, until the sauce is a rich golden brown and the meat is tender.

With either recipe, you may choose to put the meat and sauce in a tightly covered, oven-safe casserole and finish the simmering in a 325 degree oven for about 25 to 35 minutes.

Why the "Update?"

Although condensed soups have been around for years as a quick way to build a "casserole" or "hot dish" quickly, they no longer are as economical as they once were. In addition, many of these seem to have even more fillers with every "new and improved" change, so I have stopped using them almost completely.

The replacements for these soups are really not all that difficult or time-consuming to make, and they really are just glorified "white sauces." Back in the old days--you know, before electricity and the invention of the wheel, way back in the 1960s!--learning to make a good white sauce was a basic Home Ec lesson plan, so I have the good fortune to have practiced these long ago. But even those new to the technique will find it easy to do with a little practice and attention to a few very important details. In a future post, I will be spending a little more time on these sauces, hoping to give you the confidence to try them on your own.

And the flavor differences will be well worth the effort...Really!

A Quick Cake for Early Spring

Fresh strawberries have been reasonably priced this month, and our Easter breakfast potluck at church showed the result of this, with bowls and bowls of the brilliant berries lined up, sometimes mixed with cantaloupe and grapes, but even more often unadorned and beautiful.

That is probably the very best way to enjoy strawberries, but the cake below will also help you stretch a pound or so of berries to a dessert that will cut into 16 to 24 pieces. The recipe will also work with raspberries, and either of these kinds of berries can be used in their frozen form if they are not frozen in syrup.

Though the column on which this blog is based did not include "healthy" in the title (couldn't come up with an alliterative adjective to go with frugal, etc.), I try to keep that as a baseline assumption. Is this cake "healthy?" Well no, but it does have a little more going for it than the "poke" cakes from which it gets its inspiration. Most of these use fruit-flavored gelatin poured over the cake, with whipped topping covering it. My version adds in a little fruit and reduces the sugar-y gelatin substantially. So it remains cake, with lots of preservative-laden ingredients, so it is not something to be indulged in frequently. Still, for that occasional "cake occasion," it may be a better alternative than a two layer, frosting-laden dessert.

So here is today's frugal (if you buy the cake mix and topping on sale), fast, and fun dessert, with a touch of not-as-bad-as-it-could be nutritive value thrown in for good measure.

Strawberry Poke Cake

1 yellow or white cake mix (I made it this week with a spring confetti cake mix that had been on a post-Easter sale for 69 cents at Aldi)
eggs, oil and water
1 pound fresh strawberries, stemmed, washed, and cut into small pieces
1 to 2 T (about a third of a package) strawberry gelatin powder
3/4 c water (only 1/4 c for frozen berries)
8 oz container frozen, low fat whipped topping

1. Prepare the cake mix according to directions BUT use only half the oil and about 1/4 cup less water than called for.
2. Pour the batter into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan--if you have a 10 inch round pan, this could be used for a more festive looking cake. You will be leaving the cake in the pan, so use your best looking one!
3. Bake the cake as directed.
4. While the cake is baking, combine the gelatin and water, stir well and microwave for about 2 minutes, until the gelatin is completely dissolved. Allow the mixture to cool slightly and then stir in the chopped strawberries.
5. As soon as the cake is removed from the oven, poke holes all across the top of the cake with a fork. Spread the berries evenly over the top, making sure that all parts of the cake are covered with berries and/or juices.
6. When the cake is well-cooled, spread evenly with the whipped topping and refrigerate until serving. If desired, save a few of the berries and top each piece of cake with a couple of berry slices.

A few added notes:

If using frozen berries: Allow to thaw only enough to chop the berries. Reserve all juices and add them with the berries to the gelatin mixture.

If substituting raspberries for strawberries, use raspberry flavored gelatin.

More strawberries can be added for an even more berry-flavored cake. There is no need to increase the gelatin or water when doing this.

Sometimes the cake will rise quite high in the middle. (Different brands seem to fill a 9 X 13 pan differently) If this occurs, you may want to take a large knife and slice off the rounded part of the cake so that the berries and juices do not all slide off the middle section. Another solution to this "problem" would be to bake the cake in two 7 X 11 pans or an 11 X 15 pan, increasing the berries and whipped topping to account for the increased area to be covered.

So what about the "leftover" ingredients, the unused part of the gelatin package and/or the part of the cake that is sliced off the top?

The gelatin:
Pour the remainder into a tightly capped jar, label and use for making this cake again.
Sprinkle over vanilla ice cream for a sparkly addition, or use as "sprinkles" on cupcake or cookie frosting.
Stir a teaspoon or so into a smoothie in which you might have otherwise used a bit of sugar.
For a little girl's birthday cake, I once added the gelatin not used for the topping to the cake mix itself. Very pink, very little-girlish.

The cake:
Crumble the pieces and dry by spreading them on a sheet. Then pop them in the oven after you've turned it off and have taken the cake out. When they are well dried, store in a tightly covered container in the freezer and use in place of graham cracker crumbs in a pie crust.
Or, easiest of all, leave the crumbs in a bowl on the counter and let everyone in the household know they are available for snacks.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Eggs for Brunch, Potluck, a Family Supper

When eggs are on special (as they often are around Easter), buy a couple of extra dozen and put them in the refrigerator for use over the next several weeks. (If you are worried about keeping eggs so long, go to for verification that eggs can be kept for an extended time if properly stored and cooked.)

The following recipe is easily halved, but the full amount makes a generous contribution to a potluck or feeds a houseful for brunch.

Vegetarian Strata

10 c cubed bread (see NOTE)
1 small onion, chopped
1/4 c diced red bell pepper--use fresh, frozen, or bottled
12 to 14 eggs
1/4 to 1/2 t cajun seasoning (OR freshly ground black pepper)
1 t mixed dried herbs (I used basil, rosemary, and thyme in equal parts)
2 t prepared yellow mustard
8 oz Colby, cheddar, or Monterrey jack cheese, divided
6 oz frozen chopped spinach

1. Oil an 11 X 13 baking dish. (If you choose to divide the recipe in half, use an 8 inch square or round container instead.)
2. Saute the onions in a small amount of canola oil until golden and translucent.
3. Beat the eggs with a fork or wisk until evenly mixed, as for scrambled eggs. Stir in the sauteed onions and all remaining ingredients except for about half the cheese.
3. Pour the egg mixture into the prepared pan. Top with the reserved cheese and cover tightly with foil.
4. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.
5. Preheat oven to 350 degrees and bake strata, covered, for 25 minutes. Remove foil and bake for another 15 to 25 minutes, until a knife inserted in the center comes out clean. Serves 10 to 12.

For this recipe, which is really just a savory rather than sweet bread pudding, you can use all kinds of leftovers. Keep a container in your freezer for those ends of bread you don't otherwise use, the odd hot dog bun, the couple of rolls that didn't get used up last time you served them with dinner, even leftover garlic bread. If you don't have enough stored up ahead, any bread will work for this recipe, though the better the bread, the better the dish! For today's strata, I had a dozen clover leaf rolls available. I diced nine of them for the strata and will dry the rest for some seasoned bread crumbs.

You might also choose to save odds and ends of bread by drying them and then storing them in a tightly covered container. If you use dried bread for this recipe, you probably will want to add up to a cup of milk to the egg mixture.

About Those Hard-Boiled Eggs

Egg salad sandwiches. Hard boiled eggs with toast. More egg salad sandwiches....

Not ready with a lot of options for all those eggs you are spending today decorating and hunting tomorrow? Here are a few ideas for using them up.

(Of course, you did keep them refrigerated except for the hour or so--at most--that you were hunting them, right? If not, don't take chances; they need to be composted rather than eaten.)

But, for the safe eggs you want to incorporate into menus this week, an old-time vegetarian main dish salad and a variation on the tried and true Chef's Salad:

Kidney Bean and Egg Salad

1/3 c finely diced sweet onion
2 c (or 15 oz can) kidney beans, drained
3 hard boiled eggs, peeled and chopped coarsely
2 c diced or thinly sliced celery
Yogurt Dressing

Combine all ingredients with dressing. Taste for seasonings and adjust as needed. Chill for an hour or more to blend flavors. Garnish with parsley or serve on lettuce leaves if desired.

Yogurt Dressing

2/3 c plain yogurt
1 to 2 t prepared yellow mustard
3 to 4 t sugar (see NOTE)
salt or seasoning salt and pepper to taste (see NOTE)

Combine ingredients and mix well. This is very similar to "mayonnaise style salad dressing" that works well on old-fashioned potato salad or even as a sandwich spread instead of mayo.

NOTE: If using canned kidney beans, be aware that these almost always contain added sugar and salt, so don't add either of these ingredients to the dressing until you have tasted the salad to see how much will be needed.

One more thing--the serving suggestion in the photo above includes fresh orange slices. Keep in mind that the iron in plant foods (and kidney beans are a particularly good iron source) is far better utilized if you include foods rich in Vitamin C at the same meal.

Vegetarian Chef's Salad

Per main dish serving:
1 to 2 c baby spinach leaves, coarsely chopped
1 c iceberg or romaine lettuce, torn
2 T diced bell pepper (see NOTE)
sweet or red onion--2 t finely chopped OR thinly sliced and separated into rings
3 to 4 black olives, sliced
1 hard-boiled egg, sliced
1 oz cheese, your choice, grated or cut in fine cubes
1 T chopped parsley or fresh basil (optional)
vinaigrette dressing of your choice
freshly ground black pepper

Combine the greens, peppers and onions and toss in the black olives and cheese. If serving in individual bowls, arrange the egg slices over the top of each serving and sprinkle with the parsley or basil. Otherwise, fold the egg slices in with the olives and cheese, reserving a few for garnish on top. Serve the dressing at the table.

NOTE: This time of the year, fresh tomatoes rarely are very flavorful, and bell peppers can be quite price-y. If you are making this salad with good tomatoes available, by all means add them in. If, however, you don't have either tomatoes or red bell peppers, look for roasted sweet peppers in the pickle section of the market. These are often reasonably priced (compare the weight to the cost of fresh produce) and will keep in the refrigerator for several weeks, and they add a nice touch of color to salads and casseroles when we are really looking for some brightness in our menus.

And--if you have a Trader Joe's near you, look for their frozen pepper strips. These too are a reasonable alternative for casseroles and even salads when the price of fresh peppers might otherwise keep these wonderful vegetables off your table.

Quick and Curried--A Vegan Soup to Savor

While I usually make soups in vat-sized quantities, this one is so quick to fix that the single meal size recipe is well worth trying. As this picture suggests, it is truly a good to the last drop meal!

Curried Cauliflower Soup

2 t canola oil
3 oz chopped onion (half a medium onion)
2 1/2 oz green apple (1 small), finely chopped or grated
8 oz frozen cauliflower
1 small minced garlic clove
1 to 2 t curry powder
1 Knorr Vegetarian Vegetable bouillon cube (these are twice the size of usual bouillon cubes; if you use another brand, you will need two cubes)
2 c water

Saute the onion in the oil until translucent. Stir in the apple and continue cooking until slightly softened, about four or five minutes. Add all the remaining ingredients, bring to a boil and reduce heat to medium low. Simmer for about 20 minutes, until the cauliflower is tender.

This may be pureed or served as is. Serves 3 to 4 as a main course, 4 to 6 as a side.

(By using a vegan broth or bouillon cube, this goes all the way to vegan, if that is what you are looking for.)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

One a Penny, Two a Penny, Hot Cross Buns

Hot cross buns are a family tradition for us in Lent and especially during Holy Week. Thick with a basic powdered sugar icing, these are great for breakfast but go well at any other time of day as well.

As my family knows, I rarely measure my yeast breads but the following recipe was tested with carefully measured amounts--except for the flour! As with any yeast bread recipe, the amount of flour needed will vary, depending on the humidity on the day you are making the rolls (really!), the brand of flour, even the size of the eggs. So start with the amount given and gradually add more as needed.

Oh, and don't miss the NOTE at the end of the recipe if you are concerned about what temperature the water should be.

Yeast doughs may take a few trials for you to feel comfortable making them, but they are also very, very forgiving and flexible!

Hot Cross Buns

1 3/4 c water
1 1/2 t salt
1/4 c oil
1/4 to 1/2 c sugar
2/3 c dry milk powder
1/2 c quick oats (NOT instant--this is the stuff that comes in the traditional round cardboard boxes)
1 to 1 1/2 t cinnamon
1/4 t ginger
1/4 t nutmeg (optional)
2 eggs
1 c raisins
1 package instant dry yeast (or about 2 t yeast from a larger package)
4-5 c flour, to start--preferably at least half bread flour, but all purpose flour will be fine as well (up to 3 cups whole wheat flour may be used if desired--if this option is chosen, the rest of the flour should be bread flour for best resiliency in the dough)

Warm the water until just comfortable to the touch--in a much larger bowl than you probably expect to need--this stuff really grows! (Please see the NOTE below on getting the water temperature "just right.")

Stir in the salt, oil, sugar, dry milk powder, oatmeal and spices. Beat in the eggs and 2 cups of flour. Stir in the raisins and yeast along with enough additional flour (1 to 2 cups) to make a thick batter. If using whole wheat flour, add that now. Beat well with a wood spoon--the batter should start to get a rather smooth, silky consistency.

Set the batter in a warm location and allow to rise until bubbly and light--maybe an hour or so. Stir down and add more flour, a cup or so at a time, beating after each addition, until the dough is still soft but begins to "clean the bowl," that is, it clings together more than it sticks to the bowl.

At this point, you can either form the dough into rolls or you can punch it down and let it rise again. Truth be told, my dough often gets punched down many times, until I am ready to make the rolls. As I said, yeast doughs are flexible and forgiving, so you can--to a degree--make them conform to your schedule!

When you are ready to form the buns, oil two baking sheets. Then, with your well-oiled hands, pull off amounts of dough about the size of a golf ball or slightly smaller, and shape into round buns. You will probably need a little extra flour as you work, to keep the dough workable. Place on the pans with plenty of room for the dough to grow. Cover the pans lightly and let rise about an hour, until the buns have doubled in size.

Bake at 375 degrees for about 13 to 15 minutes. For a soft, glossy crust, brush buns with butter as soon as removed from the oven--note the difference in appearance:

For maximum freshness of your presentation, store the buns well-covered and decorate with the frosting crosses just before serving. Depending on the size of your buns, this will make about 2 dozen hot cross buns.


Worried about what exactly is "just comfortable to the touch?" Here's the nice thing about yeast breads in general: as long as you don't kill the yeast from too much heat, you can start with a wide range of temperature!

So how do you make sure you don't kill the yeast? Two things in this method that can keep that from being a problem. First, you are going to "touch" the water. If you feel like you're burning your fingers, that isn't "comfortable," and that is too hot, so let the water cool a bit.

The other thing is that, when you've decided the water is "comfortable," even if that is hotter than the yeast might like, you are going to be adding a lot of other ingredients before the yeast goes in. That oil, those eggs, even the dry things like sugar and dried milk powder are all going to be cooling off the mixture. By the time you stir in the yeast, you are very, very, very unlikely to kill off the yeast from too much heat.

I know that the possibility of having your rolls fail because the yeast was killed by heat is genuine, but don't worry over much about this. Indeed, what might happen is that your mixture might end up being on the cool side. No worries with that either. The only downside would be that the dough might take a little longer to raise to doubling the first time through.

Powdered Sugar Frosting

2 to 4 T softened butter
2 pounds powdered sugar
1 t pure vanilla

Stir a cup or two of the powdered sugar into the butter and add the vanilla and a tablespoon or so of milk. Beat this mixture until smooth. Then gradually add the sugar and milk alternately, beating after each. Be very careful not to add more than a teaspoon or so of milk each time, as the mixture will thin very quickly. Store covered in the refrigerator for a week or more.

Cream cheese can be substituted for all or part of the butter in this recipe. This can be used for cookies, cinnamon rolls, carrot cake, etc., with almond flavoring added to or replacing the vanilla and lemon or orange juice substituted for part of the milk.