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Saturday, April 9, 2016

Barley with Vegetables--A Basic Method

If barley isn't one of the foods you are familiar with, now is a great time to begin using it in your menus. Pearl barley is the kind most available, and I have used it in many dishes where I want to  either extend the amount of ground meat or just eliminate the meat altogether. When used in something like chili, soups, or spaghetti sauce, the "mouth feel" of pearl barley is so similar to ground beef that most people aren't aware of the difference until it is pointed out.

We now have a co-op grocery in town that has hulled barley in bulk, so I decided to give that a try. Think of its relationship to pearl barley like the relationship between brown and white rice or whole wheat and white flour. It takes a little longer to cook than pearl barley but has more nutrients and fiber, along with a little nuttier flavor and chewier texture.

Barley in any form is a nutrition powerhouse at a very reasonable price, so it is a good place to go if you are looking at ways to stretch your food budget. Cooking it is really easy, and you can make a large batch to keep in the refrigerator for a variety of meals during the week. It also freezes extremely well.

Though I have never prepared barley in a slow cooker, that seems to be a popular prep method, at least judging from all the internet references. For me, I just put the barley and water in a large pot (3 cups water for every cup of barley), cover and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat and simmer for 20 to 25 minutes for pearl barley and 40 to 45 minutes for hulled barley.

Some sites recommend pre-soaking hulled barley, but I haven't found that necessary. I did find some sites that call for cooking times at least twice as long as what I just suggested, so you may need to experiment a bit to come up with the right amount of time. To test, just take out a couple of grains, cool just enough to taste and then bite into them. When the consistency is what you want, you are done.

If there is any extra liquid, don't drain the barley right away, as it will continue to soak some of that up. On the other hand, if it starts to be quite dry and the barley is still hard, do stir in another half cup or so of water.

I don't salt the barley while cooking since I usually will be using it for several different recipes. The Far Eastern barley and vegetables, for example, gets more than enough salt from the soy sauce, and even the marinara and taco/enchilada sauces will often provide enough salt to season the entire recipe.

Basic Barley with Vegetables

Basic Vegetable Mix

2 T canola or olive oil
1 c chopped onion
1/2 c diced celery
1 1/2 to 2 c sliced carrots
1 mild chile pepper, diced (about 1/3 cup)
2 to 3 c finely shredded cabbage
2 to 3 c fresh spinach, chopped OR 10 oz frozen chopped spinach
garlic to taste--if using fresh, add it to the vegetables while sauteeing; for powder, add with the rest of the seasonings


1 to 2 c cooked hulled barley--if using as a side dish, go with a lower proportion of barley; if the main dish, increase the barley proportion

Seasonings and liquid of choice--see below

1.  Heat the oil in a large skillet and add all the vegetables except spinach and garlic. Saute over medium high heat, stirring until the carrots are just tender and the onions are beginning to turn golden.

2.  Stir in the spinach and garlic. Choose the seasonings/liquid mix as desired and add to the vegetables along with the barley. Turn the heat to medium, cover, and simmer the mixture for another 15 minutes or so, just enough to heat through and blend the flavors.

Seasoning Choices

For a Far East kind of mix:

1 c broth (or water and bouillon or broth seasoning powder)
1 to 2 c snap peas, green peas, bamboo sprouts, or water chestnuts, or any mixture of these vegetables
2 to 4 T sweet fruit juice or syrup--choices include pineapple or orange juice concentrate, raspberry or pomegranate or other fruit syrup, or molasses
1 t five spice seasoning (sometimes also sold as "far east seasoning," usually a blend of cinnamon, ginger, cloves, nutmeg, and anise) or to taste
2 to 3 T soy sauce, to taste

For a Mexican mix:

1 1/2 c taco or enchilada sauce
1 to 2 t cumin, to taste
1 t oregano
12 to 15 oz canned or frozen corn
1 c diced fresh or canned tomatoes
chopped cilantro, grated cheese and plain yogurt for topping, as desired

For an Italian mix:

1 1/2 c spaghetti sauce
1 t dried oregano
1 t dried basil (or 1 T fresh, chopped)
1/2 t dried thyme
1/2 t black pepper
12 oz broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, or green beans or any combination
 mozzarella cheese for topping, as desired

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Ham in Meatballs or Meatloaf

Many "seasonal shoppers" may have stocked up on a ham or two because of the loss leader specials many stores feature around Easter. Or you may just have some of the leftovers from your own Easter ham tucked away in the freezer, waiting for some new ideas. You made sandwiches, maybe even a casserole or two, but now you have the bone and lonly small scraps of meat left.

If you haven't done so already, now is the time to use that ham bone for soup. Type "ham bone" into the search box above and you'll find a variety of soups, including this one for "stone soup" that even includes a link to the old folk tale, Stone Soup.

Those small pieces of meat, however, are a little harder to work with. The following recipe could be a great change of pace with the meatballs served in a vegetable soup or a standard marinara sauce bringing the smoky taste of ham to a standard meal. If you choose to form part of the mixture into a loaf, that will provide a second meal, served with the "usual" meatloaf sides, mashed potatoes and a steamed vegetable (broccoli, cauliflower, carrot slices) topped with a cheese or vinaigrette sauce.

This recipe is so good you don't have to wait for leftovers. Several local and regional grocers here in Minnesota's farm belt have great butcher sections where  ham is often available already ground so you can skip the first step if that is available. The ground pork at these stores is also among the leanest ground meat I can buy, and at a reasonable price, so I use it often. While you could use ground turkey or beef for part of the meat here, the pork seems to best allow the ham flavor to predominate.

These meatballs and loaf freeze well, and the recipe is large enough to make at least a couple of meals for most families, perfect for making on a weekend for a few meals through the week.

Seasoning hint:  There is a wide variation in the saltiness of hams, so you may want to test for seasoning. However, with the raw pork and eggs, just taking a bite before this is cooked is not wise. Instead, take a tablespoon or two of the mixture and flatten into a patty. Either saute it on the stove top or microwave it for about 2 to 3 minutes. Then taste and adjust seasoning as necessary.

  Ham Meatballs

1 1/2 lb ground ham and pork (see NOTE)
3 eggs
1 c rolled oats
1/3 c dry milk powder
1 large onion, finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely diced
1/2 green bell pepper, finely diced
1 T brown mustard
2 T barbecue sauce or ketchup

While all ham can be used, the result is often almost too salty. I recommend a mix of about 1 pound of ground ham and 1 /2 pound ground pork, although the ham flavor will predominate if as little as 1/2 pound is used.

1.  If using ham that has not been ground, cut the meat into about 1 inch chunks and whirl in a food processor until the texture of coarse ground beef.

2.  Combine all ingredients in a large bowl and mix until evenly blended. While it may seem messy, the very best way to do this is to mix with your hands!

3a.  To bake (the preferred, and easiest method): Press the mixture into lightly oiled mini-muffin pans. Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes until golden brown, with darker brown edges. Remove from pans to cool and then add to your favorite marinara sauce, soup, etc.
 3b. To saute:  Roll into balls about the size of a ping pong ball (or smaller if desired). Heat a small amount of olive or canola oil in a large heavy skillet over medium high heat. Saute the meatballs, turning as needed, until they are well browned on all sides. Larger meatballs may need a little more time; if in doubt, cut into one and make sure the center is cooked.

Makes about 40 to 48.

Meatloaf Variation:

Press the mixture into two 5 X 7 loaf pans and bake at 350 degrees about 25 to 30 minutes, until the center is well-browned and the edges are darker brown. If desired, spread a light layer of ketchup or barbecue sauce over the top before putting in the oven.


Make part of the mixture into meatballs and then form the remaining amount into a loaf to fit whatever size pan will work best and bake as above. 

Serving suggestions:

Use these in any meatball or meatloaf recipe. Here I added them to vegetable soup near the end of the cooking time. The picture above shows a favorite family meal, with meatballs (or meatloaf) along with steamed red potatoes (mashed potatoes are good too) and salad.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Spinach Avocado Dip

Some time ago, the New York Times published a guacamole recipe that included, horror of horrors, green peas!

The kerfuffle that arose from this deviation from the sacred guacamole text is something that I was aware of as I began working with ways to extend expensive avocados in my own version of guacamole. To avoid any similar concerns, I am calling this only "guacamole style" instead of the the "real" thing.

One of the nicest things about spinach in my experience is its willingness to stay in the background when other, stronger flavors are involved. The yogurt also refuses to fight with the avocado's flavor, even as it extends the smooth creaminess of the "alligator pear." As a result, the single avocado that would barely make enough guac to feed one or two people now becomes the basis for a party-sized bowl of dip.

Serving suggestion:  The photo above demonstrates what could be a light lunch. I have been experimenting with finding many different ways to serve beans, and this combination of refried, mixed, beans with the dip and home-baked tortillas is healthy and tasty. Give it a try for lunch or a light supper this weekend!

Guacamole Style Spinach Avocado Dip

1 large avocado
1 c plain yogurt, low-fat or full fat
4 c baby spinach leaves
4 to 6 large sprigs of cilantro, including stems
1/2 medium onion, coarsely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, or to taste
1 to 2 cloves coarsely chopped garlic, to taste
1/2 t cumin (optional) 
salt to taste
1/4 to 1/3 c medium salsa (optional)

1.  Put all ingredients except salsa in processor bowl and blend until smooth. You will need to push the spinach down a few times for most even blending.

2. Stir in the salsa. Serve immediately or chill for half an hour.


If you want to more fully emphasize the avocado flavor, use two avocados.

10 to 12 oz of frozen chopped spinach, thawed and well-drained, can be substituted for fresh.

While the yogurt (and possibly the spinach too) seems to keep this dip from browning, a tablespoon or so of lime or lemon juice will add a nice brightness to the flavor.

Chocolate Apple Cupcakes

Many years ago, I found a chocolate apple cake that was moist and a favorite dessert of my kids. Unfortunately, it was one of those recipes that I managed to lose track of. As I recall, it was from a little paperback cookbook of apple recipes, and I think I gave that away in one of my purges of cookbooks--something I have been doing for a lot of years now, especially as I rely more and more on the internet for sources and ideas.

Believe it or not, I have made almost an entire bushel of apples into apple crisps this fall. I have also canned more than 30 quarts of applesauce and still have a little apple butter from last year's crop, so it was time to find something a little different. 

Something like a chocolate apple cake. 

Unfortunately, a search through my recipe cards, my few remaining cookbooks, and my computer recipe file turned up nothing.

Nothing, that is, until I came across a recipe that I had pulled from off the internet, years ago. Unfortunately I can't credit the site anymore, since the earlier URL is no longer active. Still, because I took the original and played with it a bit, I guess I can call it my own. 

A few proportions were changed, along with the overall method, trying to simplify as much as possible.  In the end, it came out pretty much as I remembered that earlier cake--moist and chocolate-y yet not too rich. And, if you have apples readily available from your own trees or a local orchard, pretty frugal as well.

A word of caution: When the recipe says the batter is thick, believe it! Every time I make this, I have to go back and remind myself that there is no liquid other than the oil and the apples in the recipe. That really is okay! If you have really crisp, really "dry" apples, you might end up adding a little milk or water, but this will hold together very well even without that.

Chocolate Apple Cupcakes

2 c flour
1 1/2 c sugar
1/3 c cocoa
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
1/4 t nutmeg
1/4 t allspice
1/4 t black pepper
3/4 c canola oil
2 eggs
3 c apples, cored but not peeled and finely diced--pack lightly into the measuring cup for measuring

1/2 c chopped walnuts

1.  Sift the dry ingredients together into a large mixing bowl.

2.  Stir in the oil, eggs, and 1 cup of the apples. Begin beating with a mixer until mostly blended.

3.  Gradually stir in the remaining apples and beat at medium speed for about 3 minutes. The batter will be very thick, so it will be best to use a mixer for this rather than trying to beat by hand.

4.  Fold in the walnuts.

5.  Line muffin pans with cupcake liners and spoon the batter evenly into each one. Fill each liner about 3/4 full.  This recipe makes about 18 to 22 cupcakes; if you don't have enough muffin pans to bake all at once, it will be all right to leave the remaining batter standing at room temperature while the first pan bakes.

6.  Bake at 350 degrees for about 15 to 20 minutes, until the center of a cupcake springs back when lightly touched. Frost as desired when cool.


Omit walnuts in batter. Mix 1/2 c brown sugar, 1/2 c chopped walnuts, and 1 c mini chocolate chips and sprinkle over each cupcake before baking.

This may be made into a cake by pouring the batter into a well-oiled 9 X 13 pan and baking for about 25 to 32 minutes.

These also work as mini-cupcakes, making at least 48 and actually, closer to 60. Don't overfill the cups--this batter has an amazing rise for only a teaspoon of soda in a recipe as large as this. Omit walnuts in the batter and then put a small walnut piece in the center of each. Bake for about 15 minutes, until a finger pressed lightly in the top does not make an impression. Allow the cupcakes to cool for about 5 minutes before removing from the pan, as they are very tender when hot. These have enough brownie-like crust on the top that they really need no further frosting.