Monday, May 8, 2017

Rhubarb, Phyllis and the queen’s dessert

            Thirty-plus years ago when I moved to Colorado, my mini high-plains acreage came with three rhubarb plants.  Rhubarb fell somewhere between liver and homony in my less-than-fond childhood food memories, so the first six or seven summers I watched these plants go to seed and mowed them down when the leaves began to fade from neglect by fall.  It proved a forgiving plant, however, and returned each spring, green and lovely as ever.
             The waste of these plants, not really a fruit, but often considered one, continued until one fall when I attended a Phillips County Fair Queen lunch as part of my duties as a reporter for one of our county’s two community newspapers.  The fair queen that year happened to be Jodi Starkebaum, the granddaughter of Phyllis (Anderson) Starkebaum, a wonderful, gentle-speaking woman who went off to college, returned to the area, spent one year as a teacher then dedicated the remainder of her life to working beside her husband Loren on their farm and caring for her home and family.  While I do not know this for fact, I believe that Phyllis found bliss in her role as farm wife, mother, grandmother and friend to many.
            The dessert served with the fair queen lunch that day, a red-sauced concoction with a toasted crumb topping, sent my taste buds to subliminal paradise.  “What is this?”  I asked one of the attendants as she passed my chair re-filling glasses from a pitcher of iced tea.
            “I’m not sure,” she said, but agreed to find out, and a short time later I learned that it was called “Rhubarb Dessert,” a delicacy made by the queen’s grandmother.
            “This is rhubarb?”  I asked in astonishment, and suddenly mourned all of the rhubarb I wasted over the years.  I went directly to Phyllis, who agreed to send me the recipe, and I have been making it every since.
            My brother Phil found yet another use for my rhubarb that eventually made its mark on our county the fair.  One year Phil came to me asking for rhubarb to make wine.  Why not?  I thought and sent him out back with the cutting shears.  Phil made a five-gallon jug of this lovely clear, sweet liquid, bottled it and gave me two bottles.  I drank one, complimented him on a job well done and decided to hoard the other for a special occasion.   That special occasion never came and the second bottle remained in my cupboard when Phil died in 2001.  I could not bring myself to drink it.
            A few years later, however, I decided to enter it in our county fair’s winemaking contest in his name.  It won first place and “Best over all.”  The judges loved it.  So much so that they sent me home with the prize, a pair of gold-trimmed wine glasses, and an empty bottle.  I still imagine Phil smiling when his name in the list of winners printed in our local newspapers that year.  The wine glasses remain in my china hutch.  I may use them if I ever make rhubarb wine.
            I was reminded of Phyllis and her Rhubarb Dessert this past weekend when my friend Faye came for a visit.  Faye and I met as young girls, back when our dad’s hung out at the old North Sante Fe beer joint in Salina, Kansas.  Out of respect for her and the possibility that she does not want her age reported over the Internet, I won’t say how long ago that was, but suffice to say we have known each other many years and have been friends for nearly all of those years.
            Since the rhubarb was ready for picking, I suggested that we put up some Strawberry-Rhubarb Jam.  Faye, always open to a new adventure, agreed.  Thus, that first day of her visit found her cleaning and slicing strawberries while I diced the rhubarb stalks that we picked early that morning.  We laughed the time away, enjoying each other’s company, the canning seeming more fun than work.  We ended up with a dozen lovely jars of jam and the warm feeling that comes from a lasting friendship that, like a hardy rhubarb plant, seems to thrive no matter what life brings.
            And, yes, we picked enough rhubarb to make Phyllis Starkebaum’s dessert, which we shared at church the following morning.

Phyllis Starkebaum’s Rhubarb Dessert
4 Cups rhubarb, chopped
2 Cups sugar, divided
1 Cup unbleached flour
1 Teaspoon baking powder
½ Cup margarine (Phyllis suggests Parkay)
1 Egg
Dash of salt
Whipped topping or ice cream to garnish

1.     Spread chopped rhubarb in bottom of 9-inch square pan and sprinkle ½ of the sugar over fruit.
2.     In bowl, mix remaining cup of sugar, flour and baking powder.
3.     Cut in margarine until mixture resembles pie dough
4.     Drop in the egg and dash of salt.
5.     Mix until dough clings together then drop by spoonsful onto top of rhubarb.
6.     Bake at 350°F for 45-50 minutes until nicely browned.
7.     Serve at room temperature with a dab of whipped topping or a scoop of ice cream.

Note:  I tried making this topping with butter, but found that margarine works best.

Monday, April 24, 2017

Seasons, life and soup

           The seasons come and go and life continues even as blogging takes a three-year hiatus.  The purple blooms on the lilac bushes outside my back door signal the arrival of spring and remind me that last year at this time I was away in Texas offering support to my granddaughter as she began the battle of her life against breast cancer.  She continues to fight, showing more courage than seems possible from that remembered toddler who would climb onto the back of her highchair daring it to tip over.  She speeds toward life head on, just like that two-year-old who raced on short, chubby legs to the dog door where she poked her head out and shouted, “train, train,” each time one traveled past our back yard; even when no one else heard the “clack, clack” of its iron wheels beating against the tracks.

            Shannon continues to thrive as she battles this horrid disease, faces her fears, works in her chosen career as a nurse and cares for her and husband Femi’s two-year-old son Camden, who reminds me so much of her at that age; just as daring and personable—a miniature individual with intelligent laughing eyes and a smile that melts.
            My own life continues too as I morn lost loved ones, two long-time friends who remain ingrained in so many of my warm, happy memories and other dear-to-me people whose spirits walk through my mind at unexpected moments.
            Life pulses on as my brother Stan and I deal with the loss of our third brother, this one estranged for over 20 years, and we attempt to figure out what emotions we should feel, how to forgive, how to remember the positives and let the negatives go.  “He might have been an asshole,” Stan said when our sister-in-law suggested we leave his remains for others to care for, “but he’s our asshole.”  How true, I thought, and smiled.
            Life going on means encounters with the aging process—aches, pains and diminished energy—while exclaiming that getting old is better than the alternative though I admit to having no clue what that might be.  I suspect no one else does either, even those who swear by heaven and hell.
            My writing life goes on as well; a novel that I can’t seem to finish, short stories of unique lives lived, a church history that coincided with a 100th anniversary celebration of its building and two commissioned memoirs that actually paid.
            And, as always, life mandates food.
            I’ve gone through a number of experimental phases over the past dozen seasons: cooking large pots of soup in a slow cooker, then freezing individual servings; grilling up a bunch of hamburgers and pork chops with the thought that I could just zap one as needed in the microwave; fixing entire meals then splitting them into ready-in-a jiffy plates.  Of these ideas, the only one that satisfied my taste buds completely was soup, the flavor and texture of which stands up well to freezing and reheating.
            One soup that worked well in my freezer came about when some kind soul left two bags of onions at our local Post Office with a note that said: “Free onions.”  I started to walk off, leaving them for, someone more in need, then thought better of it.  Actually, I thought, French Onion Soup, and grabbed up one of the bags, which contained around a dozen nice yellow onions.  I used them all to make a double batch of the recipe below.  Keep in mind that French Onion Soup takes time but the result warms a winter day.

French Onion Soup
1 Stick unsalted butter
6 Yellow onions (medium)
1 Teaspoon kosher salt
½ Teaspoon granulated sugar
1 Cup dry white wine
3 Cups low sodium beef broth
3 Cups low sodium chicken broth
2 Garlic cloves, minced
10 Sprigs thyme, tied in a bundle
2 Bay leaves
1 Baguette loaf, cut into 1” slices
4-6 Ounces Gruyere Cheese

1.     Preheat oven to 400° F
2.     Peel and halve onions then thinly slice root to tip.
3.     Melt butter in five- or six-quart Dutch oven over medium-low heat.
4.     Add onion slices, salt and sugar to melted butter; cover and cook for 30 minutes over medium-low heat.
5.     Stir onions and move pot to oven for one hour, stirring every 15 minutes.
6.     Remove pot from oven and add wine.  Stir to loosen any brown bits from pan bottom.
7.     Place pot on burner and cook wine over medium heat for five minutes.
8.     Add broth, minced garlic, thyme bundle and bay leaves to pot and bring to a boil.  Reduce heat and simmer uncovered for 45 minutes.
9.     To serve immediately, divide into six bowls, top with toasted Baguette slices.  Sprinkle with shredded Gruyere and place under the broiler until cheese is hot and bubbly, 1-2 minutes.
10.  If freezing, divide into six airtight containers, cool completely and date.

            Note: I slice the Baguette into thick slices and freeze them in a separate bag.  When I feel like a bowl of French Onion Soup, I thaw out a serving of the soup in the refrigerator over night or thaw one in the microwave.  While I’m heating up the soup in a small pan, I pop a couple of the Baguette slices in the toaster, place the toasted slices on top of the hot soup, add the shredded gruyere and place the bowl under the broiler.  Yum!!

Monday, June 23, 2014

Dill and Stuff

            After my granddaughter Sierra and I spent June 14 in Kansas celebrating our joint birthday, I returned home to Colorado and began the process of reorganizing my life.  Starting on Monday and continuing each day throughout the rest of the week, I cleaned every corner, crevice, closet and cupboard in my small house although I can tell you “small” seemed an inappropriate adjective by the time Friday arrived.
            This kind of thorough cleaning caused me to question how well I perform my weekly housekeeping tasks; not good it seems as indicated by the dust, cobwebs and other unlikely debris found in the corners and crevices and the amount of clutter found in closets and cupboards.
            My housekeeping influences came from polar opposites.  My mother detested cleaning and her house showed it.  My father came from a family that held cleanliness far above godliness, which is saying a lot for his staunch German Catholic ancestors.  Growing up, I lived most of the year in my mother’s dust-covered clutter but spent summers with my father’s two matronly aunts, who never allowed a single dust particle to accumulate.  My father, a seasoned alcoholic, still managed to maintain a spotless dwelling after he and my mother divorced.  I often wonder if living with her haphazard cleaning style drove him to drink.  My own housekeeping skills fall somewhere in the center.  I can handle a bit of dust and some clutter, but find myself becoming grumpy when the dust and clutter become noticeable.
             Housekeeping aside, it amazes me how much apparently useless “stuff” one accumulates in a short span of time.
            Minutes into cleaning and sorting, I decided that people other than myself might need most of that stuff that I accumulated, so I began applying price tags (exceedingly cheap price tags) to a number of items before placing each in a box to hold for our community’s annual town-wide yard sale, which takes place in July.  Now, my home is free of dust, smells better and I have cleaner, neater closets and cupboards.  However, I also have boxes of stuff filling up half of the space in my office.
            It sort of reminds me of my asparagus bed, which I planned to replant but never quite got around to.  Instead, I allowed a few dill plants to go to seed last fall, which resulted in a bed filled with lush dill seedlings.  Now, that is what I call good clutter.
            I love the smell of Dill while it is growing, but adding it fresh to food, like in the potato salad below, is even better. 

Dilled Potato Salad
2 Large Yukon Gold or Russet potatoes (about 1 pound), peeled and cut into ½” cubes
2 Tablespoons mayonnaise
2 Tablespoons plain Greek Yogurt
¼ Teaspoon salt or to taste
1 Tablespoon chopped fresh dill weed

1.     Steam potato cubes until tender, 8-10 minutes.
2.     Place cooked potato cubes in a bowl and set aside to cool to lukewarm
3.     Whisk mayonnaise, yogurt, salt and dill weed together and pour over warm potatoes.
4.     Toss gently to coat, cover and allow to cool at least 2 hours in the refrigerator before serving.

Note:  You can add a small amount of chopped celery and/or onion if you desire, but I like the simple taste of the dill with the potato.  You may use low or no-fat mayonnaise and/or yogurt if you wish.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Blame and Deviled Eggs

          I apologize to my fans.  Every single three of you who hung in during my four-months of blog neglect.  If there is a hell for fallen bloggers, I suppose I’m headed down there, so confession might redeem my soul.  Here goes my “Act of Contrition.”  “The Devil made me do it.”  Actually, the devil was nowhere in the mix.  My excuses are other writing, yard work, gardening and maternity leave.
            The other writing involves the biography of a wonderful 90-year-young local woman commissioned by her daughter.  Lola’s story contains all of the elements of a great character-driven novel: love, tragedy, happy and sad times, thrills and spills, struggles, accomplishments, unlimited courage through the difficulties of life and appreciation for the joys around her, including her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.  It should be a best seller.
            Yard work and gardening are what old women do while wearing big funny hats.  Shirley McClain said something like that in the movie Steel Magnolias, although she may have specified elderly “southern” women.  I once agreed with that cliché.  Now I know that old is a frame of mind, hats drive me crazy and I love the feel of the sun on the top of my hatless head.  Also, the exercise involved in yard work actually keeps one young and gardening offers a chance to play in the mud without accusations about going through one’s second childhood.
            The maternity leave started earlier than expected because little Evan Dean opted to play head games with his expectant mother.  Before I get into that, however, perhaps I should explain why a woman of my age would be dealing with maternity leave in the first place.  It so happens that when I sold my weekly newspaper at the end of 2010, the two young women who purchased it negotiated maternity leaves into the contract.  In other words, I had to agree to work when and/or if they needed time off to add to the population.  They both chose this year to collect on that promise.
            Spring was due to deliver on May 3 and Candie is due on July 18.  I question whether their husbands, Jeremy and Ron, knew about this conceived plot ahead of time.
            Evan Dean came up with his own plan, however, arriving on Easter Sunday, April 20.  I started my first maternity leave on Friday, April 18 and ended it on Friday, May 30.  My next maternity leave should start on July 18, but I’ve learned to expect the unexpected and relish my patio while I can.
            Speaking of summer and being outside, one of my favorite summertime foods has always been a deviled egg even though the taste of each can vary with the cook.  At a recent potluck at my church for instance, another woman and I both showed up with deviled eggs; her’s a mustardy delight, mine with a more traditional sweet tartness.  We both went home with empty platters, proving the point that nearly everyone loves a deviled egg of any flavor.
            One answer to deviling eggs one or two at a time for singles and/or couples is to premix a sauce to add as needed to the mashed yolks.  My recipe makes the traditional sweet-tart flavor, but you can add more mustard or other flavors to suit your own taste (Although be cautious about what you add if you plan to store for a long period of time).

Deviled Egg Sauce
½ Cup mayonnaise (use low or no fat if you wish)
¼ Cup cider vinegar (or a vinegar of your choice)
¼ Cup sugar (use less if you want a tarter flavor)
1 Teaspoon mustard or to taste
½ Teaspoon salt
Freshly ground pepper (optional)
            Place all ingredients in a bowl and whisk together until well mixed.  Store indefinitely in a covered glass container in the refrigerator.

Note:  You can also use this sauce in small amounts of potato or tuna salad.

To make Deviled Eggs
            Place the number of eggs you wish in a saucepan and add cold water to ½ inch above eggs.  Bring to boil uncovered over medium-high heat.  As soon as water boils, remove saucepan from heat, cover and allow to sit for 10 minutes.  Pour off hot water and cover eggs with ice water.  Allow to sit until completely cooled before peeling.

            Peel eggs, slice in half, remove yolks to a small bowl and mash with a fork.  Add approximately ½ tablespoon of sauce for each egg yolk or more to get the consistency you want.  Season with more salt and add pepper if you wish.  Spoon the filling back into the egg white and sprinkle with paprika or garnish with slivered Basil or minced dill leaves.