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Saturday, March 22, 2014

Best. Cole Slaw. Ever

Okay, so maybe t"the best cole slaw ever" is just a little too emphatic, but this recipe is one that I have been making for decades, and it always is greeted with acclamation and requests for the recipe. Now that I have a stockpile of cabbages from the St Patrick's Day sales, I have made a huge batch for a couple of dinners for others this week.

First, the original from a Midwestern church cookbook my mother had in her large collection. Unfortunately I didn't write down the specific title when I completed the now stained and faded recipe card. Since this makes such a large batch, I am also providing an adjusted version that is the
amount I usually use. However, you may want to go ahead and make a large batch while you have the processor or cutting board out, since this keeps in the refrigerator for as long as two weeks.

This can also be frozen. Be aware that, after thawing, the frozen slaw will have a slightly softer texture, almost reminiscent of good quality sauerkraut. Still a very refreshing, and slightly crunchy, salad with fish or lots of other meats.  (The photo at the top was taken after the slaw had been frozen.)

Overnight Cabbage Salad

1 large head cabbage
1 large or two medium bell peppers
1 large Bermuda onion

Grate together and cover with 1 c sugar and set aside.

Meanwhile, mix together in pan and bring to a boil:
  • 1 c vinegar--I usually use cider vinegar
  • 2 T sugar
  • 1 t celery seed
  • 3/4 c oil
  • 1 T salt
  • 1 t dry mustard
Pour over cabbage while still hot. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, but best after being refrigerated overnight.
Serves 10 to 12.
(If you are looking for more specific amounts, use 4 to 4 1/2 pounds of cabbage, and a total of about 1 1/4 pounds of onions and peppers.)

Refrigerator Cole Slaw

6 to 7 cups finely shredded cabbage
2 c diced bell pepper--use a mixture of colors or 1 whole pepper of your choice
1 c finely chopped onion
1/3 to 1/2 c sugar, to taste
1/2 c cider or wine vinegar
1 T sugar
1/2 t celery seed
1/3 c olive or canola oil
1 1/2 t salt
1/2 t dry mustard OR 1 T prepared yellow mustard

1.  Combine the cabbage, bell pepper, and onion in a large bowl. Sprinkle the sugar over the vegetables and set aside.

2.  Combine the vinegar, tablespoon of sugar, celery seeds, oil, salt, and mustard in a small saucepan. Bring to a full rolling boil and immediately pour over the cabbage mixture.

3. Refrigerate for several hours or overnight.

  • Add in 1 to 2 cups shredded carrots and/or diced celery.
  • Substitute dill seed for celery seed. If desired, a few sprigs of fresh dill can also be added.
  • While red cabbage may add lots of color, do NOT add to this mixture, as the dressing will cause its color to bleed into the entire recipe. If you want to use red cabbage for color, finely shred a small amount and stir it in just before serving

Corn Bread

When I was growing up, I was often jealous of those around me who had "ethnic" backgrounds that gave them lots of unusual foods and celebrations. A Midwestern farm kid whose family had been in the US since as far back as the 18th century, our food seemed plain and ordinary at times. Oh,  there were lots of summer garden meals with corn on the cob, tomatoes straight from the garden and big bowls of creamy mashed potatoes served alongside the chicken or beef that came from our very own farm animals. At Christmas, we made pfefferneuse, but these spicy German cookies were from a recipe shared by a good friend of my parents. When my sister married a Norwegian, we got to sample krumkake for the first time, and an Italian exchange student shared stories of what "real" pizza was like back in his home town.

Still, what "ethnic" food did we really have? I guess it took a move to the mountains of Virginia to start to understand that our cuisine really was a little bit unique. It didn't take very long to learn that stuffing (or dressing) at Thanksgiving could be very dry, with lots of cornbread and not at all like the much more moist recipe I had eaten all my life to that point.

And beans and cornbread? Ah, that is when I realized I really did still have some New England roots.

One evening, I invited a neighbor child to stay for dinner. What are you having was her first question, so I said we'd be having beans and cornbread. "My favorite," she squealed, so she called her mom and the permission was given.

Soon enough, we were sitting down to eat, and I brought the dark brown, molasses and mustard spiced beans out of the oven and placed the hot casserole next to the basket of still steaming yellow cornbread squares. As she gazed at the dishes before her, Marla's shoulders sagged and her expectant smile turned into a sad little face.

"I thought we were having beans and cornbread," she whispered.

"But we are," I explained, and then I stopped. I had been at another neighbor's home just a few days before and watched as she dumped pinto beans into a large pot and began cooking them for the evening meal. She stirred in some salt, but that was the extent of the seasoning she used. When I asked for the rest of the recipe, she said that was it; she hadn't had time to pick up any bacon or fatback to add to the beans, but this would be fine with the greens she was also cooking for the meal.

Then I thought back to some cornbread I had seen served at a restaurant near our home. It was flat and hard and "lily-livered" white, very different from the golden, sweet, and moist side I had enjoyed all my life.

Aha! The difference in regional cuisine couldn't have been illustrated more starkly. Marla gamely tried the dishes she was served and then, as I recall, we made some peanut butter sandwiches to make sure she didn't go home hungry. And though I have since learned to love pinto beans in their many (mostly Mexican) guises, I have not moved from my "classic" corn bread recipe--maybe the closest thing to an "ethnic food" I can summon up.

As presented below, this is virtually the same as the now stained recipe card from my high school home ec class. I now use stone-ground cornmeal exclusively, and I use either all butter, canola oil, or some combination of the two. I often substitute up to half of the flour with whole wheat flour, and I have discovered that the original four teaspoons of baking powder is really not necessary.

Following the main recipe is a variation using biscuit mix, making this an even quicker quick bread, and then, instructions for making a cast iron skillet cornbread that has a lovely crunchy crust even as the center is moist and rich with sweet corn flavor.  (Sorry, friends from the south, but I just have to call this the "real" recipe.)

The "Real" Corn Bread

1 c yellow corn meal
1 c flour
¼ c sugar
1 T baking powder
½ t salt
1 egg
1 c milk*
¼ c soft shortening

1. Sift dry ingredients together.
2 Add egg, milk, and shortening. Beat with egg beater, fork, or whisk until smooth, about 1 minute. 
3. Pour into a well oiled 8 or 9 inch square pan. 
4. Bake at 425 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. (If a glass pan is used, reduce temperature to 400 degrees.)

*May substitute 1 cup water and 1/3 c nonfat dry milk powder. Mix the powder with the other dry ingredients. 

Serve warm or cold, with butter and jam or honey, or as a wonderful side for chili.

This doubles easily--use a 9 X 13 pan.

Biscuit Mix Variation

1 ¼ c biscuit mix (Bisquick for example)
1 c cornmeal
¼ c sugar
1 c milk
1 egg

Prepare as in original recipe.

Cast Iron Skillet Cornbread

Put about a tablespoon of the butter into a 9 or 10 inch cast iron skillet and put the skillet in the oven.
Turn the oven to 425 degrees and proceed to stirring up the cornbread.
When the oven has reached its full temperature, carefully remove the hot skillet from the oven and swirl to be sure the butter covers the entire bottom of the pan.
Spread the batter into the hot pan and return it to the oven. Bake for about 15 to 20 minutes.

One more thing--while you are mixing up a batch and have all the ingredients out for measuring,  measure out the dry ingredients for another batch (or more) directly into a quart-sized freezer bag. (This is especially good using the dry milk variation, stirring in the powder with the other dry ingredients.) Use your hands to mix the ingredients in the bag and label with date and information on the liquid ingredients needed, and you will have a "mix" just as convenient at one of those little boxes you might buy in the store--without all the extra preservatives and at a lot better price! These can be kept on the shelf for a few weeks and in the refrigerator for even longer.

Note the following photo. If you get a few cracks in the top of your baked cornbread--don't worry! That is just the way this quick bread sometimes bakes. In fact, it just shows that you have baked this yourself, from scratch.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Cabbage...and Fish?

This week is a great time for those of us who love cabbage. In every state I have lived in, the grocery stores all feature these fat green balls of crunchiness at really low prices in honor of St Patrick's Day. Since this is a vegetable that keeps very well (for weeks!) in the refrigerator, I like to make room in the vegetable bin to buy as many heads as I can store adequately.

Thanks to that "traditional" St. Patrick's corned beef and cabbage dinner, corned beef and red potatoes are also on sale, but what if you want to take advantage of the cabbage specials but are not eating meat right now (or ever, for that matter)? Since we are also in the middle of the Lenten season, most stores are also continuing seafood specials, and cabbage and fish are more readily paired than we might sometimes think.

Fish tacos are popular in more and more places around the country, and a very common side with these is cole slaw. Slaw is also a regular feature on fried fish dinner specials as well, so you will certainly want to consider that option. However, I have another suggestion, especially good if you end up buying more cabbage than you ever thought possible to use up. At 15 to 25 cents a pound for produce with almost no waste, how can the frugal cook not snatch up some bargains?

What follows is a recipe for braised cabbage and vegetables, a great side for fish fillets but also for pork chops or, for vegetarians, served with fried rice and a fruit tray. I made it today with butternut squash as I am trying to finish up my root cellar stash, but sliced carrots would be just as good in place of the squash.

The real key here is to cook the cabbage only until just done, with a bit of crispness still part of the overall mix. I think those of you who have only had cabbage boiled to death in way too much water (even if the liquid is flavored with corned beef spices) will be surprised at the sweet fresh flavor of this dish.






Braised Cabbage and Vegetables

1 to 2 T olive oil
2 c onion, julienned--one large
2 c cubed butternut squash (8 to 10 oz)
1/2 c coarsely diced green pepper--about half a large pepper
2 T minced garlic--about 6 to 8 cloves
4 c shredded cabbage--about 2 lb
1 c spaghetti sauce (optional)
water as needed
2 c frozen peas, not thawed
1 c coarsely chopped spinach leaves (optional)
1/2 to 1 t dried basil
1/2 t marjoram
salt and pepper to taste

1.  Heat oil in large skillet. Stir in onions and squash and saute over medium high heat until the onions begin to brown slightly and the squash is just beginning to soften a bit.
2.  Stir in the pepper, garlic, cabbage, and basil and marjoram. Stir in the spaghetti sauce and perhaps half a cup of water (or all water) and cover pan. Allow to cook about 10 minutes or so, stirring occasionally, until the cabbage is just barely softened. If the vegetables begin to stick to the pan, add a few more teaspoons of water.
3.  Taste for seasonings and stir in the peas and spinach. Continue to cook for about 3 to 4 minutes, just until the peas are thoroughly heated through and the spinach is slightly wilted.

Makes 4 to 5 servings.

Substitute thickly sliced carrots for the squash.
Substitute broth for the spaghetti sauce and water.
Add more (or less) spinach or substitute chopped kale leaves for the spinach.

Now for the fish.

I used tilapia for the photos here, sprinkling filets lightly with a Cajun seasoned salt to add a dash of spice and color.  It cooked quickly in the microwave while the vegetables were simmering, so this made for a really fast meal. Add some rolls or rice for a starch and maybe some applesauce for a fruit side. (Think again of all the fried fish specials and how often they include applesauce along with the crispy fish and cole slaw.)

For details on microwaving fish for really fast meals, you can check out my last post, at

(Thanks to the Rochester (MN) Post Bulletin for their Food section photo this week--worked perfectly for this posting!)

Saturday, March 1, 2014

Getting More Fish into Your Diet

You've seen all the healthy eating suggestions that encourage getting more fish into our diets, but you really can't face another tuna casserole or tuna salad sandwich? You look at the price of fresh seafood and are sure your budget will never be able to handle these meals regularly--even if the kids would even eat them? Or you only think of fish as something that either adds lots of fat and breading--think fish sticks, etc.--or is just way too time consuming to prepare?

Well, here's an idea that you may not have thought of: use your microwave. With this approach, you can have a healthy meal on the table in the length of time it takes to cook some rice or make a salad, since the fish main dish will require minimal preparation or cooking time.

If you are unsure what kind of fish to buy, consider the lighter, milder kinds like tilapia, cod, etc. As your family becomes more "comfortable" with fish, you can branch out to stronger flavored kinds like catfish.  Salmon and trout are always wonderful of course, but they are often pretty pricey. 

What about fresh vs. frozen? For the busy, thrifty, cook and for most of us at a distance from major fishing markets, frozen is almost always going to be the best option. Look for larger packages that have individually frozen filets so you can pull out enough for your family in the morning, tuck these in the refrigerator, and they will be thawed to just the right level for preparing a quick dinner when you get home.

Now that we are entering the Lenten season, many stores will be featuring seafood specials, so you might be able to find many kinds of fish at some really good prices. Start out with one of these basic recipes and then begin to branch out on your own. There are really only two critical things to keep in mind:
  • Cover the fish tightly. I like to use a casserole dish with its own cover, but you can also use plastic wrap (don't let it touch the food!) or a pretty tight microwave cover. 
  • Because every fish filet is going to be slightly different in thickness and shape and because different kinds of fish have different cooking times, you should plan to test the fish every minute after the first minute or two. How?
    • The key to fish "doneness" is when it "flakes" with a fork. If you have always wondered what this means, just insert a fork into the thickest part of the filet and twist gently. If it is well cooked, the fish will pull apart slightly, just like when you put a fork into canned tuna.
Here are two possibilities for you to try. These can easily be scaled up or down, for 1 to 4 servings, with the time in the microwave adjusted accordingly.


Microwaved Fish Florentine

2 tilapia or other white fish filets, 3 to 4 oz each
1/3 c coarsely chopped onion (for added color, red onions may be used)
8 to 10 frozen, chopped spinach or kale--do not thaw
seasoning--marjoram, thyme, and dill are often favored, but choose whatever your family likes best
a sprinkle of salt--seasoning salt can add a dash of color to the dish, as seen in the photo at the top of this post

1.  Spread the spinach or kale in the bottom of a lightly oiled baking dish. Top with the onions, and then lay the filets across the top. Try to place the thickest parts of the filets near the outer edges. Sprinkle with your choice of seasoning and cover the dish well.
2.  Microwave on high for 3 to 5 minutes, checking for doneness after 2 minutes. If the centers of the filets are cooking slower than the thinner outer edges, rearrange as necessary.
3.  Serve immediately. May be topped with a bit of Ranch or other dressing if desired. You may also wish to serve this with Fresh Tomato Salad.

Serves 2.

Variation: If your family prefers, you can first saute the onions on the stove top in a little olive oil. If these are put into the baking dish while still hot, this will shorten the cooking time a bit.

Fresh Tomato Salad

1/3 large onion--about 3/4 c
2 to 3 tomatoes--about 2 c
1/2 cucumber
1/2 bell pepper, any color
1/2 t dried basil
1/2 t dried rosemary
salt to taste
2 t cider or wine vinegar
1 t sugar (optional)

1. Chop all the vegetables coarsely--may use a processor to do this all at once.
2. Stir in the seasonings and taste. Add sugar, if needed, and vinegar.
3. Set aside for at 15 to 20 minutes to allow flavors to blend. This may also be made ahead and refrigerated, but it will taste best if allowed to come to room temperature before serving.

Fish and Vegetables Au Gratin

1 sweet onion, cut in rings
1/4 to 1/2 red bell pepper, cut in large dice
8 oz fish filets
1 to 2 T prepared zesty salad dressing of choice
10 to 12 oz frozen vegetables--French cut green beans, broccoli, cauliflower, or a mixture
1/2 t Italian seasoning or other dried herbs of choice
1 c grated cheddar cheese
OR 1/2 c grated cheddar cheese and 2 slices American cheese
1/2 c toasted bread crumbs

1. Spread the onion rings and diced pepper evenly in the bottom of an oiled casserole dish. Lay the filets over the top and drizzle with the salad dressing. Cover tightly and microwave about 2 minutes.
2.  Spread the frozen vegetables over the fish and sprinkle with the Italian seasoning. Cover and return to the microwave for about 5 minutes, until the fish flakes and the vegetables are piping hot.
3.  Top with the grated cheddar cheese. If the American cheese is being used, lay these over the top. Finish with a thin layer of the bread crumbs. Return, uncovered, to the microwave for another minute or just until the cheese has melted.

Serves two to three.

Two More Things--Sustainable Seafood and Tilapia "Warnings"

As with so many of our food choices, there are lots of articles on the internet with warnings and concerns about fish. One of these relates to the varieties of fish to choose, both for our own health and for the global fish supplies. A reputable site with lots of information is They have a set of regional downloadable guides that you might want to print and carry with you when at the store. The national guide can be found at:

About tilapia: A few years ago a study was published that raised concerns about the levels of omega 3 and omega 6 fats in tilapia. As with so many of these kinds of things, the findings have been pulled out of context, magnified, and turned into dire warnings. Seafood Watch generally gives tilapia excellent ratings, and you can find a nice summary of the best science on this currently at

Okay, One More Thing!

...about that fishy smell in the house:  If this is an issue for anyone in your household, the microwave minimizes this odors in the kitchen but can retain some of the aroma in the microwave itself. There is an easy cure however. Just put a cup of water with perhaps a tablespoon or two of lemon juice (use ReaLemon or a similar brand) into the microwave and heat to boiling.