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Friday, December 31, 2010

End of Year Clean Up

It's a quiet day here in the kitchen, a good time to clear out a few things and be ready for a new year of cooking and hospitality.

Sometime between Halloween and Thanksgiving, I bought a lovely little pie pumpkin for $1.88 and had used it as the center of a harvest time arrangement on my new cabinets. When the Christmas decorations took over, the pumpkin was relegated to a back corner, waiting for a time to be baked. The idea had been to tuck it into the oven when baking other things but, somehow, I always managed to forget to put it in. I did bake half a dozen of the mini pumpkins from my daughter-in-law's garden last week, and that went very well, so I certainly needed to get this full sized pie pumpkin baked before it passes its prime. With the oven on all afternoon yesterday for the last of the Christmas (or, now, holiday) sweet breads, the time was right.

Baking a pie pumpkin is really so easy, I don't know why I put it off. Today, the seeds are roasting, another easy thing to do, and timely too, just in time for New Year's Eve snacking.

Pie Pumpkin Puree

When pumpkins are in the market, look for those marked specifically as pie pumpkins for best results. (Jack o lantern pumpkins are edible, but often are more watery and less flavorful overall.) They usually run about two to four pounds each.

When ready to bake, cut each pumpkin in half and remove the seeds. I have found using a fork to run through the centers is the easiest way to pull the seeds out. Cover tightly with aluminum foil and place on a baking pan or cookie sheet with sides. If desired for easier clean up of the pan, put a small amount of water in the pan.

Place the pumpkins in a 350 degree oven for about an hour or so, until they are very soft and tender. The length of time can vary depending on the thickness of the flesh and the specific variety of pumpkin. When done, remove from the oven and keep covered until cool.

Using a large metal spoon, scoop out the flesh. Don't worry if some of the edges have gotten a little roasted looking in the cooking; that will just add to depth of flavor. (If charred, however, you probably should remove the dark parts--and turn the oven down a little next time!)

While the flesh can just be mashed with a fork or potato masher, you may also want to run it through a processor or blender for extra smoothness. Measure into one or two cup portions, depending on the recipes you plan to use the pumpkin in, and freeze.

This same method works for miniature pumpkins, but the time in the oven may be only half an hour or so.

Roasted Pumpkin Seeds

As you remove the seeds from the pumpkin, put them in a bowl and cover with water. Using your fingers, pull the seeds away from the oh so slithery fiber strands surrounding them--this is a great job for kids who are into all kinds of squishy things!

Rinse the seeds and then just cover with water. Stir in about a quarter to a half cup of salt for every two or three cups of water--don't worry about really exact proportions.

Set the seeds aside overnight; there is no need to refrigerate unless your kitchen is very warm.

In the morning, drain the seeds in a colander. Spread on a baking sheet and add about a tablespoon or so of canola oil for every cup of seeds along with seasoning of your choice--garlic or onion powder, a small amount of seasoning salt, even chili powder or cayenne pepper if you like your snacks spicy. Stir the oil and seasonings into the seeds with a wood spoon or your fingers, making sure all are coated well.

Bake at 250 to 275 about 40 minutes, until crisp and golden, stirring every 10 to 15 minutes. Store tightly covered.

As the seeds were roasting, I started soaking some black-eyed peas, using the quick method of boiling for 5 minutes and then soaking for a few hours instead of overnight. This is the first time I have ever tried them, but it seemed like a good time to try for some Hoppin' John for New Year's, since I have a beautiful bunch of collards to work with too. I must say that the aroma of the peas is much, much stronger than any of the many variety of beans and lentils I have made in the past. Maybe that is why so many of recipes pair them with strong greens and smoked pork cuts, things that can stand up to what may be a very hearty flavor. We shall see if they become an acquired taste or remain a one-time-now-I've-tried-them-so-I-know-what-they-are kind of dish.

About those holiday breads. I have been experimenting with some photos to add to a blog post to illustrate my "traditional" coffee cakes but I'm not quite ready to include the full recipe. The breads I made yesterday used the same basic sweet dough I use for everything from cinnamon rolls to these coffee cakes, but I made most of the batch into loaves with an apple-raisin-walnut filling--see the recipe below. I rolled out the dough for each loaf into a rectangle and spread it with the filling, then rolled it up like a fat jelly roll and put it in the pan. Each loaf was iced with a plain powdered sugar icing and then sprinkled with red and green sugars to keep it festive-looking. These should make some excellent breads, plain or toasted, for a couple of holiday weekend breakfasts.

The filling would be good in regular cinnamon rolls or in a filled cookie recipe as well. Cooked just a little longer in the microwave, until the apples are very soft, it could also be thinned with a little water and used as a topping for pancakes or waffles too.

Apple Raisin Walnut Filling

3 firmly packed cups apples--core but do not peel and chop finely; I used 2 Honey Gold and 2 Harrelson apples of medium size
1 c raisins
3/4 c sugar
1 T cinnamon
1 c coarsely chopped walnuts

Place all but the walnuts in a very large microwave safe bowl--the mixture will boil up so be sure the bowl is large enough. Cover loosely and microwave for 5 to 6 minutes, until the apples are just tender and the mixture has become quite bubbly. Stir once or twice while cooking.

Stir in the walnuts and allow to cool before spreading on the yeast dough. Makes enough for six to seven full-sized loaves of bread or 3 to 5 coffee cake rings, depending on their size.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

A Hearty Winter Meal

Here's a good meal for a snowy winter evening, a contrast to the many rich foods so common during this season. If you have leftover turkey from a Christmas dinner or turkey in the freezer from Thanksgiving, use that instead of the turkey thighs.

Southwestern Style Turkey Stew

Canola oil
2 turkey thighs, about 2 pounds
1 large onion, diced
1 c chopped celery
Garlic powder, salt, and seasoning salt to taste
1 c chopped bell pepper (optional)
Cumin and oregano to taste—a lot!!
15 oz can “chili-ready” diced tomatoes
1 c turkey or chicken broth
1 T sugar
1 T cider vinegar
2 c black beans (or 15 oz can), including liquid
12 to 16 oz frozen corn

1. Saute the onion and celery slowly in the oil. When very tender and golden, remove from the oil and put into the slow cooker.
2. Remove the skin and any excess fat from the thighs and brown them in the oil from the onion and celery. Sprinkle liberally with garlic powder and seasoning salt on both sides. Cover and simmer until the meat is very tender. Allow to cool enough to handle. Cut the meat off the bones and dice. Add to the slow cooker, along with the beans, corn, tomatoes, peppers, and other seasonings. Cover and cook on low for two to three hours.
3. Taste for seasoning after a few hours of simmering. I added about a teaspoon or two of mixed dried herbs (I used basil, marjoram, rosemary, and thyme), about a teaspoon or so, more garlic powder, more cumin, and seasoning salt.

The rest of the meal

A tossed salad or cole slaw makes a good side dish, and corn bread or rolls are good additions as well.

Dessert? I am blessed with a root-cellar-like garage, so have apples from the local orchards well into the winter. With plenty of garden raspberries in the freezer, I often turn to a mixture of these fruits for my dessert choices.

Apple Raspberry Upside Down Cake
Fruit layer:
2 c diced apples
1/2 c brown sugar
1 t cinnamon
10 to 12 oz frozen raspberries

1 white or yellow cake mix, two layer size
1 1/4 c water
2 eggs
2 T lemon juice
1 t cinnamon

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Spread the apples in the bottom of a 9 X 13 pan and cover with the brown sugar and cinnamon. Place in the preheated oven and bake about 10 to 15 minutes until the sugar has melted and caramelized over the apples. Remove from the oven and add raspberries. Stir to spread the fruit evenly across the bottom of the pan.
3. Meanwhile, combine the cake ingredients and beat as directed on the cake mix package--usually 2 to 3 minutes at medium speed. Spread the cake batter over the fruit and bake for 35 to 40 minutes. Remove from oven and immediately turn onto a platter. May be served hot or cold.

Though I have not tried it, my guess is that strawberries could be substituted for the raspberries.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Lasaghetti--or is it Spaghagna?

I had decided on a vegetarian lasagna for dinner before realizing that I had a lot of spaghetti and no lasagna pasta. Never fear. We would just have a hybrid dish that would need some kind of new name. Whatever it would be called, it went together quickly and packed a great nutrition punch. The Lasaghetti (my choice) went well with a winter salad and then some of the ubiquitous Christmas goodies for dessert--some home-made coffee cake and cookies the boys had decorated the last time they visited. Some coffee and conversation and the evening was complete.


1 large onion--about 1 1/2 cups
2 c butternut squash puree (see NOTE)
8 oz frozen chopped spinach
28 oz can or jar spaghetti sauce with mushrooms--or your favorite sauce
1/2 bell pepper, finely chopped
1 t garlic powder (I was in a hurry so didn't use fresh garlic, but that would certainly be good instead)
1 t mixed herbs--basil, rosemary, thyme and marjoram
7 to 8 oz low fat ricotta (about half a container)
6 oz grated cheese--I used a mixture of mozzarella, parmesan, provolone, and asiago but mozzarella alone would be fine too
1 pound whole wheat spaghetti

NOTE: I would suggest that you get in the habit of baking squash (or sweet potatoes when you have extras) whenever you are using the oven for something else. When cooking squash, always cook at least twice as much as you need so that you can mash the extra and tuck into the freezer for later use.
If you don't have any squash made ahead for this dish, you can omit it OR you could grate or thinly slice a couple of carrots, microwave them until very tender and then stir into the sauce in place of the squash.

1. Cook the spaghetti as directed. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, saute the onion and stir in the spaghetti sauce and all the remaining ingredients except the ricotta and cheese.
3. In a large flat casserole--about 11 to 12 inches in diameter (or square)--spread about a third of the sauce mixture. Spread half the spaghetti over the sauce. Top with another third of the sauce and then spread the ricotta over this layer of sauce. Cover with the remaining spaghetti, spread with the remaining sauce, and then sprinkle with the grated cheese.
4. Cover and bake at 360 for about 1 hour, until bubbly in the center. If desired, remove the cover the last 15 to 20 minutes for a crustier top.
5. Remove from oven and let sit for about 15 to 20 minutes for easier serving.

Serve with grated Parmesan cheese and freshly ground pepper.
This will serve at least 6 people and could easily be stretched to 8.

Red and Green Winter Salad with Raspberry Dressing

This recipe uses the chart I included in my December 16 post. I made the dressing using some raspberry syrup prepared from the summer's prolific berries. Any purchased vinaigrette dressing could be used instead.

2 to 3 cups shredded cabbage
2 to 3 cups torn spinach leaves
1 T sliced leeks (because I had some on hand; any onions could be used in place of the leeks)
1 large or 2 medium red skinned apples, cored but not peeled and coarsely diced
1/3 c coarsely chopped walnuts
2 to 4 T crumbled feta cheese, to taste

Toss together and serve the dressing on the side. Pass the pepper grater as well.

Raspberry Vinaigrette

3 to 4 T raspberry syrup (see NOTE)
1 t dried basil, crushed
1 to 2 T olive oil
1 to 2 t balsamic vinegar
salt to taste

Combine all ingredients and taste, adjusting amounts as desired.

NOTE: I made the raspberry syrup by combining 2 cups of fresh or frozen raspberries with 2 tablespoons sugar and 1 cup of water. Bring to a boil and cook for about 2 minutes. Strain through a fine colander or sieve. If you want a sweeter, or thicker, syrup, increase the sugar to 1/4 cup. If you don't have raspberries for making this syrup, you can use frozen apple-raspberry 100% juice concentrate instead. This will be quite a bit sweeter, so you may want to substitute wine vinegar for the balsamic, and increase the amount of vinegar slightly.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Winter Salad Basics

Occasionally one of the local chains may feature tomatoes even in these winter months at a "bargain" price, and I give into the temptation to buy one to make a nice fresh salad. And almost always, I am disappointed by even the reddest, sweetest looking tomatoes because of the lack of flavor.

Over the years I am learning, thanks in large part to my daughter and daughters-in-law, that I can leave the tomatoes off my shopping list for the winter and still have some great salads--and I don't have to settle for uninspiring lettuce and little else.

The following guide is a substitute for a "recipe" for salad that should help you add variety and crunch to even the the most wintry of menus.

Winter Salad Template

1. Here is the plan. Choose one or two from
each column, depending on what is available and reasonable in cost. Don't skip any column!

Other add-ins
Iceberg lettuce
Shredded cabbage, green or red--try always to include this!
Diced apples
Walnuts, pecans, almonds
Grated carrot
Diced pears
Dried cranberries
Red or green leaf lettuce
Bell peppers, diced
Pineapple cubes, fresh or canned (and drained)
Raisins or other dried fruits you choose
Other lettuces of your choice
Jicama, turnip, or rutabaga shoestring sticks
Black, green, or red grapes, cut in half
Cheese--feta crumbles, cheddar cubes, etc.

2. Cut up your chosen ingredients and toss together.

3. Add your favorite dressing and toss again. Balsamic or other vinaigrette dressings are my favorites, and I often mix in a little honey mustard dressing for even more variety.

4. Top with grated parmesan, freshly ground pepper and/or croutons as desired.

The key is to include both some vegetable and some fruit along with the contrast of the nuts and/or dried fruits. This will give you both the color of a summer tossed salad and the variation in texture that will contrast nicely with winter menus that tend often to be "softer" in texture. Soups, chilis, and pasta dishes are all very good for the season, but the addition of one of these winter salads will give you some much needed balance.

Don't be afraid to get iceberg lettuce if that is all that is reasonably available either. We have all been so coached into thinking this is useless nutritionally that we forget it is still a lot healthier crisp side dish than chips for something like a bowl of chili. If you shred in some cabbage, add some red-skinned apple chunks, dried cranberries, and rich brown walnut chunks, you have color and plenty of nutrition even with an iceberg lettuce base. And if the prices mean that you will have iceberg or no lettuce at all, it should be an easy choice!

Another Microwave Meal

There was a time when I would often arrive home from the train well after 7:30, ready to eat without spending much time in the kitchen. Add in inviting friends over to share a late dinner, and I became adept at finding ways to make lots of foods in the microwave. The following recipe proved to be versatile enough that I called it my "starch sauce;" it could be relied on, with its various iterations, to work as well with baked potatoes as with pasta or even rice. The substantial sausage is a good flavor boost, though this could be made without any meat.

Note that many of the ingredients can be used starting in the frozen state--a great bonus if you are getting home late and don't have time for thawing anything! Even starting out frozen, the meal can come together in 20 to 25 minutes, just the right amount of time to cook some pasta or rice.

"Starch Sauce"

2 kielbasa--may be frozen (use the pre-cooked kind, not a sausage that would need to be cooked for an extended time)
2 medium or 1 large onion, finely chopped
2 to 3 cloves garlic, minced
1 large bell pepper, chopped (Trader Joe's has a nice assortment of frozen pepper strips that would work here--probably about a cup or so, cut into large chunks)
10 oz frozen chopped spinach
2 to 2 1/2 cups frozen mixed vegetables of choice AND/OR 1 15 oz can garbanzo or kidney beans, drained
2 to 3 cups prepared spaghetti sauce
Italian seasoning, cumin and freshly ground pepper to taste

1. Microwave the kielbasa for 1 to 2 minutes to thaw. Meanwhile peel, chop and mince the onions and garlic.

2. Cut the kielbasa in approximately 1 inch slices, add the onion and garlic, and microwave, covered, for 4 minutes. Meanwhile, cut the bell pepper.

3. Remove the kielbasa from the oven and thaw the spinach in the microwave for 1 to 1 1/2 minutes, until just melted through. If using frozen bell peppers or frozen mixed vegetables, thaw these with the spinach too.

4. Add the peppers and spinach to the kielbasa mixture. Stir in the beans if using, and microwave 2 to 3 minutes until the mixture is heated through and bubbly.

5. Stir in the spaghetti sauce and seasonings. Heat a few minutes more and taste for any additional seasoning.

Serve over pasta, rice, or baked potatoes. Sprinkle with Parmesan if desired.

Serves 4 to 6 people. This is easily reheated or frozen too, in case you are cooking for just one or two.

Quick Vegetable Main Dish

This is a recipe I have been using for over a decade. It's great to make when time is short, using the microwave for the full preparation. The recipe makes two main dish servings, though it could be doubled easily (adding a little more time at each step in the microwave). I have liked it because it includes foods that I almost always have on hand--though the pepperoni might end up having some leftover ham or even bacon bits subbed in. You can make this without any of these meats, but the smoky flavor adds some welcome depth of flavor.

Start to finish this could be done in 15 minutes and will help pep up your daily vegetable intake if that is sometimes a problem. To complete the meal, and make things even healthier, as well as more brightly colored, put out some baby carrots or carrot sticks and serve some seasonal fresh fruit as a light dessert.

Zippy Broccoli Au Gratin

2 c frozen, chopped broccoli--don't thaw
1 small to medium onion, finely chopped
2 T to 1/4 c diced pepperoni or other smoked meat
2 oz American cheese (Velveeta), diced
1/4 to 1/2 c salsa of your choice

Place broccoli, onion, and pepperoni in microwave safe casserole, cover, and cook 4 to 5 minutes, depending on your microwave. The broccoli should be just tender and bright green.

(NOTE: If you prefer, you may cook the onion with the pepperoni and a teaspoon or so of water in the microwave for a minute or two before adding the broccoli.)

Stir the cheese into the broccoli and return to the microwave for a minute or two, just until the cheese melts.

Add the salsa and stir the mixture until the broccoli is evenly coated with the cheese sauce.

Serve over rice OR baked potato OR serve with chunks of fresh baguette for dipping.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Quick Dessert for a Winter Night

The following recipe is a great one to keep available when you need to make a better than average dessert, either for the family or for drop in guests. I have made it with raspberries frozen from my garden, but it should work as well with frozen strawberries or peaches--the plain fruit, not sweetened or in syrup. I made it several times last winter and found it to be a nice reminder of the summer and all those wonderful fresh fruits we have then.

Why half a cake mix, and how?

This is one of those recipes that is best eaten soon after baking. Even this smaller size feeds six to eight, so I haven't seen the need for a larger cake.

Since this recipe uses the cake mix as just a crumble, there is a little room for approximation. Thus, I just dump the entire bag into a large measuring bowl, check the total amount (which is usually around 4 cups) and spoon half back into a glass canister. Cover the unused half tightly, label, and put back on the shelf or in the refrigerator for a later recipe.

The half that is left in the measuring bowl is then used for this recipe.

(In case you are wondering what you would ever do with the other half of the cake mix, look back at my January 23, 2009 post,, and you'll find another recipe using half a cake mix as well.)

5 Minute Raspberry Crisp

1 1/2 to 2 cups frozen raspberries, slightly thawed, including all juices
1/2 package yellow white cake mix
1/4 cup melted butter
1/4 c slivered almonds OR chopped walnuts
1 t cinnamon

Spread raspberries in a 7 X 11 cake pan.

Mix remaining ingredients together until crumbly. Spread over berries, pressing down slightly. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until bubbly around the edges. You may want to cover for the first 15 minutes or so. Serve warm or cold, but best when still warm and topped with just a little ice cream or whipped cream.

Apple Butter

Just days before the blizzard hit, I went out to Sekapp Orchard one more time, ready for another couple of bags of "deer apples." Alas, with December's very cold weather and their limited storage space, the only bags of these mixed windfalls and smalls had frozen. Still okay for the deer, but no longer good for applesauce or apple butter, and that was what I had on my mind.

Those over-sized bags are great not just for the bargain price but also because they mix up every variety of apple available at the orchard, a perfect mix for great apple desserts. So I had to settle for my second choice, picking up three half bushel bags of three different varieties of "seconds." I chose Harrelson, Honey Gold and Regent, all varieties that are good for many uses.

So now my garage "root cellar" is well supplied again with apples. This snowy weather is perfect for cooking up a batch of apple butter that will go nicely as small gifts along with the coffee cakes that will need to start coming out of the oven this week. Christmas carols on Pandora, the tree lighted in the corner and snow outside every window--what more bucolic time to have the spicy scent of simmering apple butter drift through the house. Now, if I could only get the motivation to finish the Christmas letters!

My sister Merry has had the luxury of an orchard of apple trees right in her back yard, and she has made wonderful use of the fruits in her trademark apple slices as well as this recipe for apple butter.

I use my 8 quart wide sauce pot and fill it to the brim with apples, with the usual yield just a little larger than the amount of pulp in her original recipe, so the amounts of each ingredient are scaled up a little; other than that, I have made few changes--kind of unusual for my free-style cooking I know.

Earlier this fall, I made a smaller batch, to fit into my 3 1/2 quart slow cooker. I used the same proportion of ingredients in Merry's recipe and tried to follow the slow cooker recipe methods I found on-line. However, it became clear that this really wasn't the wisest choice for that method of cooking, since foods prepared in these earthen pots rarely cook down very much, and that's what I was aiming for to get apple butter. Maybe I was just too impatient, but I ended up taking the mixture out of the crock, putting it in a 12 inch, deep and straight-sided, frying pan and simmering it for another hour or so on the stove top until it was just the right consistency. Today's batch is cooked from start to finish on the range. Sometimes the old ways are still the best.

Merry's Apple Butter

8 quarts apples, cut in chunks but not peeled or cored; 13 cups pulp when finished
1 3/4 c sugar
1 c light brown sugar, packed
4 1/2 t cinnamon
2 1/4 t cloves
1 3/4 t allspice
3 1/2 T lemon juice (I use reconstituted juice like ReaLemon)

Put just a small amount of water in with the apples, only enough to keep them from sticking, cover, and bring to a slow boil. Cook until very, very soft, about an hour or so depending on the variety of apples used.

When the apples are cooked, press them through a food mill. You should have about 13 cups of pureed apple pulp and juice when done.

Put the pureed apples in a large, broad pan and add remaining ingredients.* Simmer on the stove top for about an hour and a half or until the mixture has thickened. Test for proper consistency by putting a small amount on a cold plate. When watery juices no longer separate from the mixture around the edges, the butter is done. The yield is about six to eight pints.

*You may want to taste the mixture at this point and add a bit more sugar if the apples you are using are quite tart. Do remember that the mixture will cook down and become sweeter, but apples vary a great deal in their sweetness, both from variety to variety and even season to season, so the taste can vary. Because sugar does provide some preservative value, you won't want to reduce the sugar very much if you are planning to can the apple butter or keep it in the refrigerator for several weeks.

This can be processed as for any jams or stored in the freezer (or refrigerator for several weeks). In a hot water bath canner, process half pint and pint jars for 15 minutes or quarts for 20 minutes.

Now, what to do with your apple butter? Probably the very best way is to spread it over warm from the oven home-baked bread or dinner rolls, but it also makes great peanut butter and apple butter sandwiches.

Waffles, pancakes, baking powder biscuits and French toast also take well to apple butter, but there is more. I like to use it when making cinnamon rolls or coffee cake where I would have otherwise spread the dough with butter before sprinkling with sugar and cinnamon and rolling up. It adds a wonderful moisture and added flavor to any such recipe.

If you have a filled or bar cookie recipe that calls for applesauce to be cooked down with raisins and/or spices, just substitute apple butter for the mixture, adding raisins, dried cranberries, or nuts as called for in the original recipe. No need to cook down that applesauce; it's already been done when you made th apple butter. Lots of ways to experiment here!

A New Christmas Cookie, Along with an Old Standby

Yesterday we started decorating Christmas cookies, even though the weather altered the plans a little. In the middle of a blizzard, only my two youngest grandsons, ages 4 1/2 and 6, along with their parents, were here to enjoy the fun. I had planned to make cookies ahead so that there would only be decorating done with the kids, but the weather changed that too, and we ended up rolling out and cutting cookies as a group. Fortunately, the recipes I had chosen were easily worked and both proved to be "kid-proof" both at the rolling and decorating stages.

The first recipe is one that I received from my sister Alice many years ago, and it is still a handy one to keep around. This dough ends up remarkably like play dough in consistency and the cookies end up crisp and tasty. I made two batches, one with a chocolate cake mix and one with a white cake mix, the variations another advantage to the recipe.

I am not a huge fan of ginger cookies but wanted to try out something that could be the basis for "real" gingerbread men. The second recipe is an adaptation of Maida Heatter's Swedish Gingerbread Cookies that seems to be fairly common on the web. After making it, I can understand why. It met both the qualifications of ease of handling and great flavor equally well, along with being reasonable in price. This is definitely one I will plan to make again.


For either kind of cookie, or for ANY rolled cookies for that matter, here is a secret to avoid tough cookies, even with the re-rolled scraps: Spread your rolling surface with a mixture of half and half flour and powdered sugar instead of just flour. (I have also seen a recommendation to use cocoa in place of the powdered sugar for chocolate cookies, but I have never found that necessary.) If you find that you have a very flour-y surface on some of the cookies, you can lightly dampen a paper towel and brush some of the flour off before or after baking.

Frosting and Decorating!

For frosting, I make a very basic powdered sugar icing, in large quantity since I will also use this for icing the many coffee cakes that are also part of the Christmas baking here. Then I put varying amounts in resealable plastic containers and add food coloring to each. This year, we started with just red, green, and yellow--no blue for now. There is of course, lots of frosting left white, because that works best as a basis for colored sprinkles and sugars.

Ah the sprinkles.

There are all different colored sugars, chocolate and multi-colored sprinkles, mini chocolate chips, and red hot cinnamon candies for adding to the decorative creations. These are arranged on a tray in the middle of the table and each decorator also has his or her own cookie sheet or cake pan with sides to keep in stray sprinkles. The frostings are each supplied with several "Popsicle" type craft sticks, as these work far better than anything else for spreading the frosting. Toothpicks are also available for the more detailed efforts of many of our cookie designers. You will also need lots of room for the creative efforts to be spread out to dry; stacking too quickly destroys a lot of the best designs!

Never Fail Rolled Cookies

1 package cake mix, any flavor, two layer size
2 to 3 T softened butter
1 egg
1 T water

Begin mixing with a fork and then use your hands to make a ball of dough almost the consistency of Play-Dough. The dough does not need to be refrigerated. If you do chill it, remove it from the refrigerator about 15 minutes before beginning to roll. (Note that this is different from most rolled cookies.)

Using about a quarter of the dough at a time, roll it out on a mixture of flour and powdered sugar. I prefer them quite thin, but they can be anywhere from an eighth to a quarter inch thick; the key to any rolled cookie is to make sure there are no spots much thicker than others.

Cut the cookies as close to each other as possible to minimize scraps, but you can shake as much flour as possible off the scraps and press them all together into a ball before re-rolling.

Place the cookies on a greased baking sheet about a half inch apart. Bake at 375 degrees until just done. This will be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes, depending on the thickness of the cookies.

Remove immediately from the pans and cool on racks. Store in a tightly covered container until ready to decorate.

NOTE: You can also shape this dough into one inch balls and then roll in chopped nuts, sugar and cinnamon, or colored sugars before baking. Press slightly to flatten before baking.

Swedish Gingerbread Cookies

2/3 cup dark molasses
2/3 cup sugar
4 teaspoons ginger
1 tablespoon cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons baking soda
2/3 c butter OR mixture of half butter and half rendered chicken fat
1 large egg, slightly beaten
4 to 4 1/2 cups unbleached flour

Cut the butter and/or fat into chunks in a large mixing bowl and set aside.

Combine the molasses, sugar, ginger, and cinnamon in a very large saucepan and slowly bring to a boil. When it is just beginning to boil, stir in the baking soda and continue to heat until the mixture is very light and foamy. Remove from heat and pour over the butter. Stir until the butter is melted and the mixture is evenly blended.

Beat the egg just enough to mix the yolk and white well and then stir quickly into the molasses mixture. Stir in the flour a cup at a time and mix well. Toward the end you may want to use your hands to mix evenly, gently kneading the dough to develop a smooth, evenly mixed ball.

Roll out the cookies as thick or as thin as you like. I made these about 1/4 inch thick for a very crisp cookie. Place on well-oiled pans and bake at 350 degrees for 11 to 14 minutes. Store tightly covered until ready to decorate.

Rendered Chicken Fat

Using half rendered chicken fat makes these cookies especially light and crispy, with absolutely no taste of the chicken if the fat is properly prepared. To render chicken fat:

Cut all loose, outside, fat from chicken pieces and put in a saucepan with enough water to almost cover. You may also include chicken skin in this pan. Cover the pan, bring to a boil, and cook over low to medium heat for about 45 minutes to an hour. Pour the mixture into a colander or strainer and let drain without pressing the solids. Put into a wide-mouthed container and chill. The rendered fat will harden on top of the liquid which can then be discarded.

Note that the fat and skin must be removed before any seasoning of the chicken and before the chicken is cooked, to avoid mixing any flavor of the meat to enter the fat.

Chicken fat is found in some very old-fashioned recipes and can add a light texture to many baked goods. Even though it carries little or no flavor, you may want to use it only in baked goods with other strong flavors predominating--like ginger cookies and gingerbread!

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Dinner Almost as Fast as the Pasta Cooks

If you are in a hurry and looking for a vegetarian (actually, vegan) main dish, here is one that has been a family standby for years.

Garbanzos and Shells with Spinach

1 T olive or canola oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
red pepper flakes (optional)
2 to 3 t tomato paste
15 oz can garbanzo beans
10 to 16 oz frozen chopped spinach, thawed
liquid from beans plus water to make 1 cup
9 oz pasta shells, cooked and drained

1. Put water on to boil for the pasta. Cook as usual. Drain.
2. Meanwhile, saute the onion and garlic in oil until the onion is translucent.
3. Add all remaining ingredients except pasta and simmer together until just heated through.
4. Just before serving, fold in pasta shells and top with freshly ground pepper and, if desired, grated Parmesan cheese.

Serves 4 to 5.

This can also be made with fresh spinach; just chop and steam lightly in the microwave. If you use garbanzos you have cooked yourself, you may want to add a bit of salt.

Though it might add a few more minutes to the prep time, a cup of finely diced carrots sauteed with the onions adds some good color to the dish.

Keep canned garbanzos, pasta shells, and frozen spinach on hand for a last minute meal to serve to guests, as this has great taste and looks like a lot more work than it really is. Sliced tomatoes or baby carrots are simple side dishes that can also be prepared while the pasta is cooking.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Cassoulet for a Crowd

One of the things I enjoy doing on a periodic basis is providing food for a group of medical residents, medical students, and other "miscellaneous" medical staff that meets weekly through the school term for dinner and Bible study together. Earlier this fall, I had the privilege of providing a main dish for the group. I needed to come up with something easily carried to the meeting place and sufficient for about 30 people. I also wanted to try something different from prior offerings as well as take advantage of whatever the local stores had on their weekly specials.

As I considered my options, I began to think a cassoulet would be good, but then I had to do a little research to be sure what I would be serving was really cassoulet. Every time I had been served something by this name, I had enjoyed a wonderful meal, but there were tremendous variations in each instance.

Off to the internet to get some clarification. The source of my "truth" was every college professor's most dreaded source, Wikipedia, but it provided me with enough information to know I was on the right path:

Cassoulet (from Occitan caçolet [kasuˈlet], French: [kasuˈlɛ]) is a rich, slow-cooked bean stew or casserole originating in the south of France, containing meat (typically pork sausages, pork, goose, duck and sometimes mutton), pork skin (couennes) and white haricot beans.
The dish is named after its traditional cooking vessel, the cassole, a deep, round, earthenware pot with slanting sides.

I felt better after reading this, because I realized that none of the cassoulets I had ever tasted completely fit this definition, so why couldn't I be just as free-form with the dish? I definitely wouldn't be using a cassole, since my large scale recipe was going to have to fit into my nice big electric roaster. Goose, duck, mutton, and pork skin would also be out, but the rest of my planned dish would be pretty close to this description--as long as you ignored the fact that I would be using plain old navy beans instead of haricots.

The final dish, as prepared in the recipe below, was a hit. Full of flavor (even if not a low fat choice), it also was extremely economical. A local store had bone in pork roasts on sale for $1.19; because they trim their meat well, the 9.4 pound roast yielded 7 1/2 pounds of boneless meat for a total of just $11.19. The other meats were also bargains at almost the same per pound price; adding in the vegetables and the various seasonings, I was still able to prepare a main dish for 30 people for less than $20! (The bone that I cut out before cooking was the basis for another meal, a simple vegetable and bean soup, so that stretched the cost even further.)

This was so easy to make in this quantity that I think I will plan to make this again in the same quantity even if serving fewer people. It freezes well and would be great to have in the freezer for a last minute supper or meal to pull out for after church guests.

Cassoulet for a Crowd

2 cups dried navy beans, pre-cooked and drained
6 cups water OR combination of water and liquid drained from beans
3 to 4 cups chopped onions--about 3 large onions
1 pound pork/bacon sausage (the kind in a tube) sliced into 10 patties
9 to 10 pounds bone-in pork roast, cut into 1 to 2 inch cubes
7 cups sliced carrots
1 cup celery
2 T mixed dried herbs--as usual, my mix was two parts each basil, thyme, and rosemary and one part marjoram
1/2 head garlic--at least 5 to 6 cloves--minced
2 t salt
8 oz miniature chipotle sausages, sliced (Little Smokies is one brand to look for)
1 1/2 t freshly ground black pepper

Pre-cook the beans according to directions; this may be done well in advance of the main preparation, with the beans refrigerated or frozen.

Place the slices of sausage in a very large skillet and saute until golden brown. Remove, cut each in quarters, and place in a large roaster (or roasting pan if using the oven).

In the sausage drippings, slowly saute the onions, celery, carrots, and garlic until the onions are golden brown and the carrots just barely tender. Add the vegetables to the sausages in the roaster.

Turn the heat under the remaining drippings to medium high and begin browning the pork cubes in batches. Do not crowd. If necessary, add a bit of canola oil to the pan as you proceed. As the meat is browned, move it to the roaster with the vegetables and sausage.

When all the meat is browned and in the roaster, sprinkle the seasonings over all. Rinse the pan used for sauteing with the water and add to the roaster, along with the cooked beans. Cover and begin simmering at 275 to 300 for several hours. About two hours before serving, add the sliced chipotle sausages and taste for seasoning.

Serve over rice.

Large Quantity Rice

Baking rice is one of the easiest ways to prepare this side dish for any number of people, especially if you don't have a rice cooker.

8 cups rice
16 to 17 cups boiling water
2 T salt

Place the rice in a large flat pan. If using the disposable restaurant sized pans, use two together to insulate the edges and cook more evenly.
Place the salt in the water in a large pot and bring to a boil. When boiling, carefully pour over the rice and cover tightly with aluminum foil. Bake at 350 degrees for 35 minutes. Stir. If the rice is not quite done, cover and return to the oven for another 10 to 15 minutes. Fluff with a fork. Serves 25 to 30.


Even if you aren't cooking for a crowd, you can cut these amounts in half, using one 9 X 13 pan or similar-sized casserole. This will provide enough rice for a week's worth of menus (OR you can even freeze some of the extra in meal-sized packages). This is good to keep in mind if you don't want to invest in a rice cooker.

Monday, September 20, 2010

Raspberries Again--This Time in a Salad

After being quite chilly and overcast all day, this evening turned warm enough that a salad seemed enough for dinner, but I had no tomatoes in the house. (That has been the hard part of giving over my garden this year to all the other things in my life. How can it be late summer and NOT have tomatoes everywhere in the kitchen--just seems so wrong!)

What I did have, however, was a small amount of raspberry pulp left from an experiment making raspberry syrup, some cooked chicken, apples and bagged mixed greens that had been on sale over the weekend. The result was a great main dish salad that went perfectly with some toasted home-made whole wheat-flax seed bread.

The amounts given below are pretty approximate, enough for two or three as a main dish, and definitely flexible. That is one of the delights of tossed salads, the opportunity to mix together varying amounts of whatever fresh ingredients you have on hand. The key here is to have crunchy (the raw broccoli and apple), crisp (greens), and savory (freshly grated pepper and the chicken which had been roasted with an herbal seasoning rub) along with the sweet/tart dressing.

Late Summer Salad

3 to 4 c mixed salad greens of your choice
grated carrot and chopped red cabbage--about 1/2 c or so of each (if you have the iceberg type pre-packaged greens, these might be included)
1 c broccoli flowerets, cut in small pieces
1 to 2 small Macintosh apples, cored and diced--do not peel
1 to 2 c diced roast chicken (I used dark meat from chicken leg quarters)

Raspberry Honey Mustard dressing
3 T mashed raspberries (see NOTE)
2 to 4 T honey mustard dressing, your favorite brand

freshly grated black pepper to taste

1. Toss all but the raspberries, honey mustard dressing and black pepper together.
2. Mix the raspberries and honey mustard dressing. Taste and adjust proportions as desired and pour over the salad.
3. Sprinkle generously with grated black pepper.

NOTE: I started a raspberry syrup by cooking 2 cups of raspberries with 2 tablespoons of sugar and a cup of water about two minutes. This was then poured into a fine colander so that the juices could be separated from most of the seeds. (I still don't have a sieve that allows for all the raspberry seeds to be strained out.) There was a lot of pulp left behind with the seeds, so I decided to try using the leftover pulp in this salad. The flavor was excellent, and the seeds added one more level of texture to the salad.
Fresh raspberries crushed and sweetened very lightly could just as easily be substituted here; just mix with the honey mustard dressing and adjust the proportions as desired.

Oh--the syrup? With over a quart a day of berries right now, I am trying a lot of new ways to use this wonderful fruit, and it seemed like a quart of syrup would be great in the refrigerator for breakfast or for a quick dessert over ice cream or cottage pudding. I tasted my first experimental batch while it was still warm--great flavor but a little on the thin side. Seems like a little more testing and adjusting is in order before posting here.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Another Take on Beans

Sometimes, it seems you can never do enough research!

Yesterday's post on bean cookery included the kinds of information that I have found to work best when preparing all kinds of beans. I knew of course that there were some differences of opinion on this whole topic.

Yes, I knew that there are times when pre-soaking is not necessary for black beans and even for pinto beans and a few others--the first time I ever had pinto beans cooked just by themselves was when an elderly neighbor in our mountainous VA community poured some into a pot with water and then sat down for an hour's chat over coffee.

And yes, Nanna's "recipe" included putting salt in the water right from the start. However, my own experience has been that beans in salty solutions (say, with a ham bone for navy bean soup) take a lot longer to cook than when all salt is left out. I have occasionally cooked beans without pre-soaking and still find that the total cooking time is shorter if I boil them for a few minutes and then let them sit for an hour or two before the final cooking.

But no sooner had I posted the information yesterday when I was made aware of something I have not tried but that sounds like it could change some of my habits:

Brining beans.

Actually, this would involve only one small change to the basic method I have been using for years, salting the beans (heavily according to some sources) during the pre-soak and then rinsing them and cooking them without salt for the remainder of the process.

When I saw that Cook's Illustrated endorses this approach, I knew I need to try it out, and I will be doing that in the next few days. Meanwhile, an update was definitely needed, to let you know there are, valid, alternative approaches to cooking beans. (Want to see a really intense discussion of this whole matter? Check out the following URL)

Bottom line, the message here is the one I like to share with anybody who steps into my kitchen:

Cooking is far more art than science, calling for flexibility and fun more than rigidity and worry.

Bon Appetit, no matter how your beans are cooked!

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Dried Beans, Peas, and Lentils--Some Basics and Two Recipes to Try

As we move into cooler weather, beans will become more and more a basis of soups, chili, etc. Keeping a supply of canned beans of all kinds is a nice last minute/emergency kind of thing to have in the cupboard, but preparing dried beans "from scratch" can be economical, healthier (much more control over sodium) and more varied--there are many kinds of beans that are not readily available in canned form.

I spent many years thinking that cooking with dried beans was too labor intensive and time consuming, not worth the effort since the only beans we ate were baked beans (usually canned pork and beans with additions to make them palatable), kidney beans in chili, or beans or split peas made into soup whenever I had a leftover ham bone.

My daughter and daughters-in-law have all helped introduce me to the world of legumes, broadening our menus, saving money, and adding nutrition all at the same time. The more I cook with these wonderful ingredients, the easier it gets.

In case you are still where I was just a few years ago, a few basic hints can help get you started with your own fragrant pots of bean or lentil dishes simmering in the slow cooker or oven. The following site provides a few charts on cooking times for various kinds of beans, yields after cooking etc.

I won't repeat all of Cooking America's valuable information, but a few points to emphasize or add:

  • The older the beans, the longer they will take to cook. How old are the beans you are buying? Hard to tell, so just try to rotate your supply. Even older beans will ultimately soften, but this is one of the main reasons why cooking times may vary quite a bit. Older beans will probably benefit from a longer soaking time as well as longer cooking time.
  • While you can soak beans overnight (or during the day while at work), I have found the best way for me is to cook the beans for a few minutes and then let them sit for an hour or two before draining and cooking. Which ever way you do the soaking, be sure you use LOTS of water. Beans expand exponentially it seems; if some beans end up not covered with water, they will not soften as much as the others and could be very difficult to cook to a softened stage.
  • Draining the beans after soaking is recommended. The reason is that the "flatulence factor" beans comes from oligosaccharides, and many of these will be dissolved in the water you are discarding. Yes, there is some nutrient loss, but the beans will still be a major source of protein, minerals, and fiber; if draining makes them more "socially acceptable," the small reduction in food value is worth it.
  • After draining, cook the beans in water or broth that has not been salted or that has acid ingredients like tomato juice--both salt and acid can change the structure of the beans enough to make it difficult or impossible to soften them completely. It can often take only another 30 minutes to an hour of cooking to tenderize the beans enough to add to your favorite recipe. Try doing this precooking before adding beans to the other ingredients for a bean soup or chili, and you will be surprised at how much faster the overall dish will take.
  • Lentils and split peas never need pre-soaking and, unless you have had them in the cupboard for a long time, can take as little as 20 to 30 minutes to cook.
  • Beans freeze well, and two pounds of beans take little more time to cook than one pound, so get in the habit of cooking up a large batch and freezing those you don't use right away in recipe sized batches, dividing up some of the liquid between all of the beans.
  • Your slow cooker is a great way to cook beans. For best results, go back to the manual/recipe book for your specific cooker to find out maximum amounts you can cook and what are the recommended cooking time.

Now for two recipes to venture into the world of beans, peas and lentil cookery.

The first is an easy dish common in many Middle Eastern countries and is thought to be similar to the "pottage" that Jacob used to bargain with Esau in the Old Testament.

The second uses garbanzos or chick peas, a kind of bean we more often think of as something only from a can. However, these are as easily prepared as pinto or navy beans, though they may require a longer cooking time.

Lentils and Rice (Mjadara)

2 c lentils
1 1/2 c rice
8 c water
olive oil
3 large onions, cut in strips

1. Boil the lentils in water until tender, about 20 minutes or so. Add the rice and simmer about 20 minutes. Add salt to taste. (NOTE: If brown rice is used, begin cooking the rice and lentils together, simmering until both are tender.)
2. Meanwhile prepare the onions. Cut each onion in half from top to bottom. Lay each half on a cutting board and slice in thin strips, again from top to bottom.
3. Pour about a quarter inch of olive oil into a large pan and saute the onions very slowly in the oil until they are a deep golden brown.
4. When the rice and lentils are cooked, pour into a casserole dish and spread the onions evenly over the top. If needed, this can be kept warm in a 200 degree oven for up to an hour or so.

Garbanzos and Shells with Spinach

1 T olive oil
1 med onion, finely chopped
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 finely chopped carrot (about 3/4 to 1 cup)
red pepper flakes to taste
1 T tomato paste
2 c garbanzos (use a 15 oz can if you don't have any cooked at home)
liquid from beans plus enough water to make 1 cup
salt to taste (if using canned beans, be very careful not to over-salt)
10 to 16 oz pkg frozen chopped spinach, thawed, including liquid
8 oz pasta shells, cooked and drained
Parmesan--freshly grated if possible
Freshly grated black pepper

1. Saute onion and garlic in oil.
2. Add all remaining ingredients except pasta. Stir until just heated through and taste for seasonings.
3. Fold in pasta shells and serve topped with Parmesan and black pepper to taste.

Food Photography, Cranberry Bread and Some Notes on Pan Sizes

One of the things I have not done as often as I'd like is to add photos to my blog entries. Sometimes I just haven't remembered to take pictures of the dishes before they are eaten, but there is also the problem of taking shots that really show the food in its best light.

An interesting blog reference in the NY Times today might be of help to anybody facing the same challenge of making foods look attractive in photos as they do in real life. This particular link deals with soups, but the site has many other references that could be very helpful over time.

An example of the many ways my photos and blog don't line up came last December. I actually remembered to take a series of photos of cranberry applesauce bread I wanted to post, but, by the time the bread came out of the oven, the camera battery needed recharging. Then, when I had a charged camera, the bread had been given away or consumed, so there was no final product. Thinking I'd make another batch and capture the results, I delayed posting. Then the holidays intervened and, until now, not even the recipe ended up here. Today's post is an attempt to make up for that.

I know it is not the season for cranberries yet, but I'm going to include the recipe anyway, to go with the photos. My guess is that it will work just as well with raspberries, so I may be trying that with the next picking of berries. (Last night, I took some young friends with me to the front of the patch and we came home with over a quart of berries just for snacking.)

Cranberry Applesauce Bread

2 c fresh or frozen cranberries, chopped
1 T sugar (for cranberries)
2/3 c sugar
1/3 c oil
1 egg
1 t vanilla
2 c flour
1 t baking powder
1 t soda
1 t cinnamon
1/2 t nutmeg
1 1/2 c applesauce
1 c chopped walnuts

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. (If you are using glass loaf pans, heat to only 325 degrees.)
1. Toss the cranberries with a tablespoon of sugar and set aside.
2. Cream the oil, sugar, eggs and vanilla well.
3. Sift together the dry ingredients. Add this mixture and the applesauce alternately to the creamed mixture and beat well.
4. Fold in the cranberries and walnuts.
5. Oil or spray with non-stick coating a large loaf pan or a medium pan and three "miniature" loaf pans. (See the math below) Pour the batter into the prepared pans.
6. Bake large loaf for 50 minutes, smaller pans from 20 to 35 minutes. The bread is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
7. Turn the baked loaves on to a cooling rack and allow to cool completely before slicing.

The Mathematics of Pan Sizes

Loaf pans are probably the least uniform of all baking pans. "Large" or standard loaf pans can range from 7 1/2 inches by 3 1/2 inches all the way to 9 inches by 5 inches. "Medium" pans have an even larger range, and the "miniature' pans as shown in the photo above may be as small as 2 1/2 inches by 4 1/2 inches. In general, a recipe like this, which makes at least 4 cups of batter, will fill a "large" loaf pan to about 2/3 full, resulting in a very high loaf. You could use a "large" pan and save out enough batter for a couple of miniatures (great gifts!) and still have a nice loaf.

So how do you decide what pans to use? Sometimes you may need to do a little trial and error with your own pans. If a recipe fills your pan between half and two thirds full, you will be fine. If it approaches three quarters full, you should probably put some of the batter in some smaller pans--or even muffin pans; muffin batters and quick bread batters are often identical.

The key thing to remember is that the baking temperature will remain the same (reducing the oven heat about 25 degrees for glass pans that tend to brown more quickly) but the baking time will change.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Slow Cooker Enchiladas

This is perfect for potlucks or a large family gathering, serving 8 to 10 (or more, at a potluck). It also reheats well so is a good recipe to make for a smaller family, providing lots of leftovers to tuck into the microwave. Remember that a slow cooker can be plugged in outside the kitchen (an attached garage, covered porch, or even a deck if you are around to monitor weather and stray animals!), so this is a good summer dish.

You will need at least a 5 1/2 quart oval slow cooker for this recipe: if you only have a 3 1/2 quart cooker, cut the recipe in half.

A note on the cheese: yes, the use of Velveeta is a more processed product than cheddar or similar cheeses would be, but it stands up best for this kind of slow cooker preparation, with no risk of clumping or separating that could occur with "natural" cheeses.

If you want to avoid processed cheeses, make a cheese sauce by preparing a white sauce and stirring in the cheddar, Monterrey Jack or other cheese just to melt. Use the resulting sauce in place of processed cheese.

Slow Cooker Chicken Enchiladas

15 to 17 corn tortillas, crisped in 350 degree oven
2 c rich seasoned chicken broth
1/3 c flour
1 15 oz can tomatoes and chiles, including liquid (see NOTE)
1 4 oz can diced chiles, including liquid
1 t cumin
1 c finely chopped onion
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/4 c picante sauce, or to taste
6 to 8 oz American cheese, sliced thin--best to use a "block" cheese, like Velveeta in a one or two pound box, instead of pre-cut cheese slices
1 to 2 c grated mozzarella cheese
extra chicken broth as necessary
3 to 4 c diced cooked chicken

1. Toast the tortillas in single layers in a 350 degree oven for about 10 to 15 minutes, until crisp and just barely beginning to brown on the edges. Turn in the middle of toasting if needed. Remove from oven and set aside two or three of the most crisp tortillas for the topping.
2. Combine the broth and flour, blending well. Cook until thickened. Stir in tomatoes, chiles, onion, garlic, cumin and picante sauce.
3. Spread about a third of the broth and tomato mixture in the bottom of the slow cooker. Cover with a layer of tortillas, breaking up as necessary to cover. spread half the chicken over the tortillas and arrange seven of the cheese slices over the top. Cover with another third of the sauce. Repeat tortilla and chicken layers.
4. Spread about 1 cup of the grated cheese over the top and then cover with the remaining sauce.
5. Break the crisp tortillas that had been set aside into coarse chips and spread evenly over the sauce. Arrange the remaining American cheese slices over the top and sprinkle thickly with grated cheese. Spoon several tablespoons of the reserved chicken broth over the top. Cover and cook on low for 3 to 4 hours.

If desired, serve with sour cream (or plain yogurt), black olives, shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes on the side--and lots of hot sauce for those looking for even more heat.

NOTE: If you prefer less spicy enchiladas, substituted diced or crushed tomatoes for the tomatoes and chiles. Many brands of the tomatoes and chiles mixture have recently been reduced to 9 1/2 or 10 oz cans, so just using a smaller can will also reduce the heat.

Raspberry Apple Cake

My "ever-bearing" raspberries are well into their second crop, and I can barely keep up with the harvest this year. If you have access to a similar supply, this cake will make a wonderful dessert. Sorry, but those who have to buy raspberries will hardly find this a "frugal" recipe. When strawberries are next in season, I may a substitution.

We first enjoyed this dessert as a birthday cake for my six-year-old grandson. The richness of the cake eliminates the need for any frosting (though a dollop of whipped cream or a scoop of ice cream is a good addition), but no one seemed to mind not having a traditional-looking cake. Wish I could tell you how well it keeps, but it was eaten too quickly to know!

About the yield: I adapted this from several recipes on the internet. Since most of these seemed on the small side, I increased the amounts and discovered that my standard angel food cake pan seemed a little too small for the amount of batter that resulted. Six cupcakes were perfect for a six year old's cake (we put them in a circle on a plate and inserted a candle in each one), and the kids ate cupcakes while the adults had slices of the larger cake. Most bundt cake pans and perhaps larger angel food pans would hold the entire batch, but having cupcakes along with a cake provides nice leftovers--and they would freeze well for sharing with a drop in neighbor or friend!

Raspberry Apple Cake and Cupcakes

1 c butter, slightly softened
2 c sugar
2 1/2 c flour
1 T baking powder
1 c ground almonds
1 c finely chopped apples (I used McIntosh, with the peeling left on)
4 eggs
6 T milk
1 t almond extract
1/2 t pure vanilla extract
3 c raspberries +a few more for the top

1. Combine sugar, flour, baking powder, and almonds. Using a mixer at low to medium setting, mix in the softened butter until evenly crumbly.
2. Stir in the eggs, milk, flavorings, and apples and beat on low until creamy. Fold in the raspberries.
3. Grease and flour well a 10 inch tube pan and prepare six cupcake liners. (These will release better from the papers if you give each a shot of non-stick spray.) Pour the batter into the pans.
4. If desired, sprinkle the top of the cake with raspberries. Put two to three raspberries on each cupcake, lightly pressing them into the batter.
5. Bake the cupcakes for about 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees. Bake the cake for about 55 to 65 minutes. If the cake begins to brown too early, turn the oven down to 325 for the last 15 to 20 minutes.
6. Leave the cake in the pan for 10 minutes before turning onto a cake plate. This will slice best if cooled for several hours or overnight--if you can wait that long.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Refried Beans

For many years after our family developed a taste for all things Mexican, I was still buying canned refried beans, thinking this is one of those things that would be just too hard to make at home.

What a mistake. These are among the easiest of all foods to make "from scratch," especially if you cook dried beans for other dishes.

Traditionally, refried beans are made from either black or pinto beans, but other beans can be substituted. I often cook a two pound package of dried beans all at once, ready for a variety of recipes. While I often freeze part of the batch, I still find myself at times with another couple of cups of beans in the fridge needing to be used up...perfect for making into refried beans.

The nice thing about frijoles refritos is that you can make a couple of cups or a couple of quarts, depending on what you have available. They can be used as a side dish, just as Mexican restaurants serve them. Toast some corn tortillas in the microwave or oven or cut up some apple wedges or carrot sticks and the beans become a healthy after school snack. Roll them into a soft tortilla, corn or flour, with cheese, salsa and whatever add-ons you want for classic bean burritos or use them as a filling for bean enchiladas.

Today I had a supply of black, pinto, and kidney beans I had cooked for Saturday's soup. Now there were four cups left, along with everything else needed for a good batch of refried beans. Some of these became the main dish for lunch, fresh salsa stirred in and crisped tortillas and apple wedges for dippers--a well-balanced meal with little preparation. The rest of the frijoles refritos are tucked in the freezer for a quick dip whenever drop in company arrives.

Following is the method for making refried beans. Just about every ingredient listed can be varied according to your own tastes and the amount of beans you will be cooking. Just a few things to keep in mind:
  • The best pan for making these is your favorite cast iron skillet, but any heavy pan that doesn't stick easily will do.
  • Remember that the beans will thicken appreciably as they cool, so keep them a little soupier while preparing. If they do thicken too much, you can always add a little more water, bean liquid, or even some salsa.
  • Refried beans can be frozen, but some seasonings may intensify or weaken with freezing. Just taste again when you thaw and reheat them and adjust accordingly.

Refried Beans

Canola or olive oil
Cooked dried beans and liquid
For every 2 cups of beans, use approximately the following amounts:
2-3 T diced onion
2-4 cloves minced garlic
1 t cumin
1 T cider or wine vinegar
(optional) jalapeno, chile, or bell peppers--to taste
(optional) chili powder--to taste
salt to taste

1. Put enough oil in the bottom of a large heavy pan to barely cover the surface. Add the onions and cook on medium until just translucent.
2 Turn heat to medium high and stir in the beans and a tablespoon or so of the bean liquid for each cup of beans. Using a potato masher or heavy spatula, mash the beans well, stirring as you do so.
3. Add in the remaining ingredients and stir. Allow the beans to cook a few minutes and then stir. A slight crust will have begin to form and should be stirred into the beans.
4. Add more liquid as needed and continue to cook for several minutes, until flavors are well blended.

NOTE: Canned beans may be substituted in this recipe, but the liquid may be very salty, so you may want to use water as the liquid rather than the bean liquid.

Serving suggestions: Salsa, grated cheese, and/or yogurt (or sour cream) may be stirred into the beans for using as a dip or as a side dish with other Mexican foods.

Toasted Tortillas

These are a very simple and very healthy crunchy snack for dipping in refried beans, salsa, etc.
They work best with a microwave that has a revolving plate, to be sure they cook evenly.

Place six corn tortillas in the microwave, directly on the microwave tray. Cook on high for about three minutes. Turn the tortillas and continue cooking for another two to three minutes, until they are crisp and just starting to brown slightly. You may want to turn once or twice more. Be sure to watch so they do not burn.

If desired, these can be seasoned with seasoning salt, garlic salt, etc. after the first turning.

Ready to eat as soon as cool.

Experiment with your microwave and you will find the right time for two to seven or eight tortillas. You can also cut the tortillas in wedges and spread across the microwave tray, for "baked" tortilla chips. If you have good corn tortillas, these will be far better tasting than any "baked" chips you can buy--and a lot cheaper as well!

Holiday Hospitality

Our Labor Day weekend weather was perfect for early autumn, with blue skies, a bit of crisp coolness in the air and breezes (that have been strengthening into full force winds this afternoon). Perfect weather both for eating out on the new deck and firing up the oven for the first home-baked bread in awhile.

The second of the "ever-bearing" raspberry crops is in full force, so I invited two friends over to help make another batch of raspberry jam. They would be staying for dinner, so I started the day cooking some beans for a soup to go with the freshly baked bread and still warm from the stove jam. The meal was a simple one but all the fresh from the garden flavors were perfect for the setting. Yes, we donned sweatshirts by the time dinner came, but it was still a delightful evening, topped off with a little more raspberry picking for my friends to take along with them.

Meanwhile, the freezer is filling up with the bumper crop of berries, so I took out a package of chicken leg quarters to thaw on Saturday night. I wasn't sure how I would use the chicken but thought that cooked, deboned chicken and broth would take up much less freezer space if all I did was cook it and return everything to the freezer.

Sunday morning, the five pounds of chicken (which had cost less than $3 on sale) was quickly trimmed of fat and skinned before putting it into the slow cooker on low, with just some poultry seasoning, some dried herbs, and seasoning salt. I rendered the fat and skin (that's a topic for another post) and then went off to church, leaving any further decisions about the chicken until later.

And there at church were some old friends from out of town visiting their daughter. After catching up a bit, we discovered they had time to come over for lunch before going on to a 3 pm appointment. They went home to change and make up a quick vegetable saute--zucchini, yellow squash and cherry tomatoes with some fresh herbs from the farmers' market--and I dashed home to do "something" with the chicken.

Rice was an easy decision for a side dish, as I could put that on to cook while I worked on the rest of the meal. There was still bread from Saturday night, along with plenty of jam, and I had cantaloupe, honeydew, and raspberries to make a fresh fruit plate for dessert. Now all I had to do was turn the chicken into something worth serving to guests.

The aroma of roasted chicken met me at the door (by adding no liquid, the chicken had developed a lovely browned, roasted, appearance, with the juices now a deep golden--and very rich--broth), and I decided to just prepare an old-fashioned gravy into which I would cut the chicken and serve over the rice. It worked beautifully, with about half the deboned chicken in the refrigerator for another meal. The best part? Lunch became a wonderful time for breaking bread and talking together with old friends, with very little fuss for any of us.

Both the soup and the chicken sauce were put together with very little measuring, but an approximation of how I made each of them follows.

Garden Vegetable Soup--Tomato Base

1 29 oz can or jar spaghetti sauce, your favorite flavor
1 15 oz can diced tomatoes and chilis
1 large onion, diced
2 medium to large carrots, sliced thinly
2 to 3 c frozen corn
3 c grated zucchini
3 c finely shredded cabbage
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 t Worcestershire sauce
1 T sugar
2 t vinegar
1 to 2 T mixed dried herbs (mine was a mixture of basil, thyme, rosemary, and marjoram)
freshly ground black pepper to taste
4 c beans, cooked with little or no salt (see NOTE)
salt and seasoning to taste
water and bean liquid

Saute the onion and carrots in a small amount of canola oil until the onions are translucent and the carrots are barely tender.

Meanwhile, put the all the tomato products and other vegetables in a large slow cooker turned to HIGH. Stir in the onions and carrots and beans and liquids to reach desired consistency. (My soups like this often end up being almost as thick as stew!) For the liquid: Rinse the spaghetti sauce and tomato and chiles containers with a little water and add this to the soup. You may use as much of the bean liquid as desired in the soup too, depending on how much you want the bean flavor to predominate.

Add the seasonings and taste. Cook on HIGH for about half an hour or so and then turn to LOW, cooking another few hours or so. Taste for seasonings again after the mixture has been cooking for awhile.

NOTE: I had cooked a mixture of pinto beans, kidney beans, and black beans earlier in the day, but any beans would work for this soup. If you are using canned beans instead of starting with dry beans, be sure to taste before adding ANY salt!

Old Time Sunday Dinner Chicken and Gravy

2 c cut up cooked chicken
1 to 2 c chicken stock
2 to 3 c water
1 c instant nonfat dry milk powder
1/3 c flour
seasoning salt, poultry seasoning, and sage
1 t Worcestershire sauce--no more, as it will quickly overpower the relatively mild flavors of the rest of the dish
black pepper to taste
1 small onion, chopped
about 1/4 c green or yellow bell pepper, finely diced

Combine the chicken stock, water, and dry milk powder in a LARGE microwave-safe bowl. Stir about 1/2 cup of water into the flour to make a paste and stir this into the stock and water, stirring to be sure all the flour is dissolved. Cook on medium power three or four minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mixture bubbles and thickens. (You will need to watch, because these mixtures can boil over even very large containers very quickly!) Stir in the seasonings to taste.

Meanwhile, saute the onion and bell pepper in a little of the chicken fat until just tender. Stir the chicken and onions and pepper into the sauce and serve over rice. (If this were really traditional Sunday chicken and gravy, it would probably be served over piping hot biscuits or mashed potatoes.)

Friday, September 3, 2010

Peach Nectarine Jam

Peaches and nectarines were on sale at Aldi for 19 cents each, averaging out to about 55 cents a pound, so it was time to try another jam without commercial pectin. Sekapps, a local orchard, had half bushel windfalls of the first of the season apples so I had a good supply of slightly underripe fruit there, so everything was ready for the experiment to begin.

The result was everything I had hoped for--honey-colored preserves jelled just right, with a flavor that will remind us of summer well into the fall, if we can keep the supply long enough for that.

This week the price has gone up to 25 cents each for these same fruits (plums too), but they are still economical enough that I may try another batch. I will be making more raspberry jam now that the second crop of those berries is yielding a couple of quarts every few days, so any future batches will have to be put into canning jars and processed in a boiling water bath--I need some refrigerator space for the other produce of fall!

Peach Nectarine Jam

2 c chopped peaches (1 pound)
3 c chopped nectarines (1 1/2 pounds)
1 c grated apple (1/2 pound)--I used Paula Red variety, a type of McIntosh
1/4 c lemon juice
4 c sugar

Combine all ingredients in a large, deep pot, stir, and let sit for a few minutes to dissolve the sugar.

Heat the mixture to boiling and then cook over medium high heat, stirring often, until a candy thermometer reaches 220 degrees or until the mixture sheets off the spoon. (You may also use the cold plate test--drop a few drops on to a chilled glass or porcelain plate and check to see if the mixture is the thickness you seek.) This batch took about 22 to 25 minutes to reach the jelling stage after it began to boil.

Remove from heat and skim off foam. Pour into jars. If this will not be kept in the refrigerator, use canning jars and process in boiling water bath--5 minutes for half pints and 10 minutes for full pints.

This made approximately 3 pints of jam. I don't have an exact measurement, because I used a variety of containers, including a couple of footed sherbet dishes from a garage sale. These were covered with plastic wrap and refrigerated until I could give them as small hostess gifts.

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.